Fire With Fire – Snippet 17
Two weeks later, the treetop chittering of what Caine had dubbed squirrel-spiders was almost drowning out the bored commo operator back at Site One: “We have CINCPAV COMCENT on the line for another check-in, Mr. Riordan; your signals are being relayed directly through our transceiver. You may proceed.”
“Negative: this is Eli Silverstein. How was day one of your extended walkabout, Caine?”
“Admiral Silverstein. I’m, uh, honored — and surprised.”
The answering laugh was gruff, honest. “You’re not Navy, so I’m not ‘Admiral.’ Just Eli — unless you’ve taken a dislike to me.”
“No, no — Eli.” And thanks for answering yourself today: it will help keep Helger’s head down, keep him from hatching any bright new schemes about “accidents” I might have. He won’t risk pissing off the USSF’s system CO. “Good to hear from you. The new walkabout is going just fine.”
“No more trouble with your equipment?”
“No more troubles.” A week ago, just before his second day-trip further north into the valley, Caine had decided to inspect his ammunition. The rifle rounds — dependable, old-fashioned 7.62 x 51 mm — were fine, but he had discovered a potentially fatal flaw in the propellant receptacle of his NeoCoBro machine pistol. The receptacle seal had a deep and recent nick in its gasket: had Caine even test-fired the weapon before checking it, excessive amounts of the exothermic liquid in the propellant canister would have been injected into the catalytic ignition chamber. The resulting explosion would have been dangerous, even deadly. It was a suspicious flaw — particularly since Caine had checked the gasket himself after Brinkley had issued him the weapon as a close-range defense against Pavonosaurs and their ilk. He had not bothered to mention — for everyone implicitly understood the significance — that the only time the weapon had been out of his immediate possession was when he had gone for his drive with Consuela. Helger’s symbolic fingerprints were manifest upon the gasket.
“Caine, I chose to be here when you checked in today because I want you to reconsider your change in plans. Frankly, I’m not sure how good an idea it is for you to start camping out in the bush at night, rather than always returning to Site One. You’ve got no backup.”
Caine looked up at the rapidly setting yellow disk of Delta Pavonis, sliced into segments by the palmate leaves adorning the tops of the giant ferns. Silverstein’s worried about both the human and indigenous predators. So am I. “I copy that, Eli. But it can’t be helped. There’s no road access to the northern reaches of the valley, and there’s no place to put down a vertibird: we conducted a close aerial recon for landing sites all of yesterday. No luck. Do you have maps that show otherwise?”
The pause gave him the answer before Silverstein spoke. “Negative. The few areas that are flat enough are all covered by jungle canopy.”
“That’s what we saw from the air. But I’ve got to get further in, Eli: round trip in and out doesn’t allow me to push more than about twenty klicks beyond the ruins. And that doesn’t give me any time to look around. I’m just humping my ruck blind through the bush. No recon value.”
“I copy that, Caine. Listen, do you have enough batteries?”
“I’m fine, and will check in frequently with Site One.”
“Who will patch me through every time.”
A command given for the benefit of Helger, who had not indicated that he was listening to their communiqué. But again, everyone knew better.
“Okay, Eli. I should be fine. As it is, I’m now about thirty klicks in. First new ground I’ve seen in nine days.”
“Well, good luck. Keep us in the loop and don’t be shy about calling in. Brill’s giving me all sorts of hell for not sending you out with more equipment.” That was a backhanded reference to the equipment he did have: specifically, the uplink beacon/communicator. It was also a reference that Helger wouldn’t understand: Caine had hidden the uplink/communicator before leaving his room that first morning: its tamper-proof case had never been disturbed.
“It was good chatting with you, Eli. I’ll keep you posted. Out.”
Caine folded in the antenna on his smaller, conventional radio and watched Delta Pavonis wink out behind the sheltering peaks: fronds waved in front of it, their silhouettes coyly assisting the setting star with its farewell fan-dance. The largest of the weed-bushes resisted the dying of that light: the mauve spines of their great, spatulate leaves began to glow faintly. Floral bioluminescence.
Caine unwrapped a condensed protein chew-stick, gnawed at the exposed end while he unpacked the perimeter motion sensors he had borrowed from Helger’s equipment cache. He hopped down from the broad rocky shelf upon which he planned to sleep: according to most accounts, the Pavonosaurs and their smaller relatives did not like moving across rock. Their heavily taloned, four-toed feet were evolved for maximum traction and turning speed in the thick loams and dense underbrush of heavily vegetated areas. Upon unyielding rocks, their talons were like iron spikes, always at risk of skittering out of control.
Caine moved fifteen meters away from his little sleeping-mesa, starting walking its perimeter at that range, placing the sensors as he went. It was already deep dusk when he finished his protein stick, placed the last sensor — and heard a noise in the brush behind him.
Recent practice paid off: he had the shoulder-slung Valmet semiautomatic down and in his hands in a single motion, snapping the safety off as he brought it against his hip. Nothing — yet. Use the seconds you have. Holding the venerable assault rifle steady — his right hand tucking the pistol grip into his body — he reached up with his left and pulled the night vision goggles down sharply from their perch on his forehead. His left hand never stopped moving: leaving the goggles, he brought it down to the rifle’s forestock, then brought the weapon up to his shoulder as he scanned the brush.
The bioluminescent leaves stuck out like the skeletons of burning green-white trees, courtesy of the light-amplification lenses. The integrated thermal-imaging system showed the body heat of a fading contact — either very small or very distant — receding up the slope, directly away from Caine’s camp. Intriguing, but first things first: he turned slowly, weapon up, scanning the entire perimeter. Nothing else. He swung back to the first contact: gone. As though it had never been there. Very small — or very fast — indeed. Here, as on Earth, and probably on every world where predators had ears, the night sounds reasserted once the rapid motions and urgent activity had passed.
Caine tilted the goggles back up on his head, felt the darkness wash in around him like a tidal surge of enigma. He hopped back up on the irregular rock platform that was his campsite, stared at his sleeping roll. Before, at the end of a day’s hiking, it had always been a mute promise of sleep.
Tonight, it looked like a body bag.
* * *
Caine looked up at the sun: almost midday. He finished rolling up the sleeping bag, felt himself smile. Three days ago — his first alone in the bush — he had hardly been able to sleep. This morning, he had slept until noon. Part of that was exhaustion: he had pushed hard the last two days, crisscrossing the land from the western bank of the river to the foot of the mountains as he pressed further north. But mostly, he owed his sound sleep to acclimatization. The nights were quiet here — or had been so far. Dawn and dusk were periods of frenetic activity for the smaller animals, the most plentiful of which were small burrowing lizard-toads (or so they appeared) and arboreal opossum-koalas that were ugly enough to make him wince. He had heard some large animals during the day, but had never seen them. Because he was stalking immobile objects — spoor, further ruins, anything that might signify the past or current presence of an intelligent creature — he made no special attempt to remain silent or unseen. Consequently, the larger animals — whatever they were — obviously saw and/or heard him coming from far away, and elected to maintain their distance. Having slept late, he wondered if any of the larger creatures might have strayed a little closer to him: maybe he would get a glimpse –
A shuddering crash in the underbrush — not more than one hundred meters further up the valley — triggered an immediate repentance of his curiosity. He snatched the Valmet, snapped the large safety lever down, dropped to one knee, sighted in the direction of the sound.
Which reprised itself, coming closer. Something was pounding through the bush: a dense thump, thump, thump was punctuating the other intermittent sounds — ferns being smashed aside, tuber-trees squealing out sharp bursts of the air that they held within their hollow trunks, bladderlike. He saw movement — a rustle in the ferntops — at two o’clock, swung about slowly to face in that direction, iron sights raised to his right eye.
A blackish-brown shape burst out of the brush, well in advance of the approaching thumps. Caine almost fired, then flinched his finger off the trigger — just before he realized it was going too fast for him to hit, anyhow: the creature had already swerved to one side, evidently either avoiding Caine or taking evasive action. Probably evasive action — because the heavy pounding sound was now right behind it.