Fire With Fire – Snippet 07

Fire With Fire – Snippet 07

Oblivious, Brinkley was pouting. “Well, I guess it’s more important to investigate CoDevCo than a bunch of fool rumors about xeno-chimps. Hell, it’s about time the Commonwealth did something about the Euros’ high-handed corporate partners. You out here from the States?”

Again, Caine couldn’t utter the easy lie, the easy “yes.” Instead, he muttered, “Not directly.”

“Have a good trip?”

“Sure. A bit long, though.” Yeah, thanks to being stuck in cold sleep, about thirteen years too long. But who’s counting?

Brinkley nodded. “Yeah, a six-month trip from Earth is a long haul. Seems a shame, too. You look up in the sky at night and you think, ‘that should be a fast, straight run.’”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Look at the night sky while you’re here. Locate Alpha Centauri — you’ll find it crowding Omicron Ursa Major, like a bright new eye in the head of the bear. Sol is there, too — right behind Alpha Centauri. So, as seen from this system, all the major green worlds are pretty much on a straight line: here, Alpha Centauri, Earth. It could be two hops — ten weeks — to Earth, if the Wasserman drive only had a little more shift range.”

Yeah, and if pigs could fly– But Caine only nodded: “A damned shame.”

Brinkley nodded back, then jerked his head toward the hydrogen-burning Rover now only ten meters away. “C’mon; let’s get out of the heat.”

And off of this shooting range. But Caine only said: “Fine by me.”

*   *   *

Downport had the look of a well-established paramilitary compound: a lot of high-quality prefab; about a dozen permanent buildings; twice that number in various phases of construction. Neatly stacked rows of modular containers radiated out from several cruciform warehouses. Vehicles were plentiful, worn but well maintained, a smattering of new ones mixed in. The people had the same look: a bit worn, but fit and active, always on the move, dressed in practical, loose-fitting tan and khaki trail clothes, all wearing hats — sombreros, ten-gallons, panamas, outbacks — according to taste or cultural origin. Always in pairs or larger groups, always talking, always immersed in their purpose. Rapid expansion, American style. But it still wasn’t a city, or even a town: certainly nothing which could swallow you up and conceal you. So this was not a place in which Caine could elude an assassin for more than a few hours.

Brinkley resumed his stream-of-conscious narration, nodding proudly around him as he drove. “We’ve got about eighty-nine thousand settlers on Dee Pee Three, now. Mostly from Earth. A lot of Amexicans. Good workers. Hey: I don’t mean anything by that. They’re just good workers, y’know? Lot of new buildings going up, lot of new settlers coming in. A lot heading into the frontier, though. Some pretty feisty animals out there. Some of them are good eating. I mean, that’s what they say. But you never heard that from me. I’ll tell you, though, it can get pretty tiresome, eating the same old prepackaged meals.”

Caine glanced at the outré foliage that was peeking over the surrounding roofs. “So the wildlife here is edible?”

“Some, but it’s hard to know which animals are safe to eat, or rather, which parts of them. Easy to make a mistake. Some of the bigger animals make the same mistake with us. But they’ll try just about anything once.”

Just great. The jungle didn’t sound like a very good hiding place either.

Brinkley hadn’t paused for breath. “So it’s pretty dangerous in the brush. Hey: if you’re going in there, you’ll want a gun. Nothing too fancy, mind you. But I can lend you something better than the museum pieces the Neo-Luddites use.”

“Thanks: I’d appreciate that.” But Caine didn’t hear his own words; he was busy confronting a grim deduction. So: no way to run, no place to hide. And, if the last update on CoDevCo was right, any further delay puts lives — exosapient or otherwise — at risk. Meaning I’ve got to stick with an already busted mission. Great

.

And, paradoxically, that meant his only remaining option was to head directly towards his enemies. Downing had provided him with the means of exerting considerable political leverage over the Colonial Development Combine, more commonly referred to as CoDevCo. So if they had sent this morning’s sniper, Caine could probably compel them to back off — but only if he could get close enough to talk privately with CoDevCo’s local leadership, to strike an unspoken bargain that would give him the safety of an equally unspoken cease-fire.

Caine felt himself sink into — and then past — the odd calm that arises after accepting a course of action that might end in one’s own death. “Mr. Brinkley, have any of your personnel catalogued the wildlife, examined their physiology, anatomy?”

The silence that ensued was not promising.

“You have a staff xenozoologist, right?”

“Uh — we have a xenobiologist: same thing?”

“Not exactly. Listen: didn’t you have a zoologist by the name of” — Caine scanned down his palmtop — “by the name of Janel Bisacquino on your staff?”

“Oh, yeah, sure — but she shipped out four months ago. Science guys from further down the Big Green Main pulled rank and got her transferred to Zeta Tucanae.”

Great. And since Bisacquino’s transfer wasn’t mentioned in Caine’s mission packet, it meant that his briefing materials were so outdated as to be almost useless. But Brinkley — garrulous and incautious — showed every sign of being precisely the sort of unwitting intelligence asset who would fill in all the relevant blanks — if given the chance to talk. So Caine urged him to continue: “Do you know if they have any zoologists where I’m going?”

“Up there? Don’t know. Doubt it. The Euros have left most of the science and infrastructure to us, I’m afraid.”

“I thought you had a good relationship with the European Union settlement.”

“We did. Well, I guess we still do. But they grabbed a second site that the international survey posted as off-limits. Prime real estate, too: big island, nice sheltered valley with a deep river opening out into a long ocean inlet. Great weather up there in the northern archipelago: more moderate than down here. That island was our first choice, you know, but the Colonial Authority put us here, instead.”

“And then the European Union just grabbed the island?”

“Yeah — well, no, not exactly. Their first settlement is just a few dozen klicks south of us here. Nice facility they were building there.”

“Were building?”

“Yeah. I mean, it’s still there, but then CoDevCo got involved. When they arrived, they were already partnered with a new EU administrator, and ran their own survey. After that, it was like the EU forgot those poor folks down in Little Leyden even existed. All the Euro supplies are earmarked for Shangri-La, now.”

“Where?”

“That’s the name — well, the nickname — they gave to the island that they claim-jumped. Our pilot should have you up there by nightfall — and you can depend on him: he’s had ‘special passengers’ like you before.” Brinkley actually winked. “Hey: you’ll also be the first person from here to see their new airstrip, expanded for spaceplanes. I tell you, CoDevCo’s going to out-build us one day, despite our –”

“Mr. Brinkley.”

“– uh, yes?”

“Why have we stopped?”

“Oh. Right. We’re here. Let me show you around. Hey, you’re going to need a hat. Do you have a hat? I’ve got an extra. You can even borrow it for your trip.”

“Thanks, but –”

“Don’t mention it. My pleasure. Now, before you go, let me show you around Downport. It’s not your average colony town — and do you know why?”

Caine did not know why. But he was quite sure he was about to find out.

In agonizing detail.

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