Fire With Fire – Snippet 06
Delta Pavonis and Junction systems
A humid wind snapped at Caine’s pants as he started down the mobile airway-stairs toward the tarmac. But even the tinted plexiglass roof-tube was unable to defeat the thick yellow heat of Delta Pavonis: it almost smote him back into the spaceplane — which was where he wanted to go, anyway.
His shirt started to stick as the humidity rose to meet him, and Caine suddenly realized that covert operatives — even those as new and unprepared as he — didn’t stop, dumbstruck, as they debarked on a new planet. Which meant that at this particular moment, he certainly didn’t look like a covert operative — and that was good. But, if he stood there any longer, he’d start to attract undue attention — and that was bad. So Caine breathed in the thick, musky air, and began a loose-jointed descent of the stairs: first rule of tropical weather — don’t fight against it; go with it.
A stubby, sunburned man with a flattop of bristly hair was waiting for him on the tarmac, hand extended. “You Riordan, Caine Riordan?”
“That’s me,” replied Caine. “Pleased to meet you.”
A full head shorter than Caine, the other man smiled and pumped his hand with the excessive vigor of a membership officer for a failing Shriner’s lodge. “I’m Brinkley. Downport Ops Manager.”
Caine nodded. “Thanks for coming to pick me up.”
Brinkley snorted. “I should be thanking you: anything to get me away from my damned desk.” Brinkley extracted his hand from Caine’s, swept it at the buildings in the distance, then around at the tropical foliage hemming them in on all sides. “Welcome to Downport, Mr. Riordan.”
At first, Caine couldn’t tell if the grandiose gesture was ironic or genuine. But then Brinkley began gathering himself for another grand pronouncement —
There was a splintering blast behind Caine’s right ear. A spatter of microscopic lances cut into that side of his neck: needle-fragments from the plexiglass roofing, which had been holed by a single bullet.
Caine dove into a prone position, his sternum thumping against the sun-softened tarmac, his heart thumping behind it. Goddamnit: a sniper? Here? Already? For a moment Caine couldn’t think — and then he heard Downing reciting one of the mantras of his recent training: “If you’re too scared to think, get to cover. Then think.”
So — cover. Find cover. Caine scanned his surroundings: two klicks of cleared ground in all directions. No cover except the spaceplane. That meant there was only one option: a double-fast low crawl behind the air-stairs and then —
But Brinkley was laughing, rising from his casual crouch. “Don’t let the yokels spook you: it’s nothing personal.”
Caine remained prone, looked up at him, and then at the bullet hole in the plexiglass. “Seems pretty personal to me.” Caine’s teeth chattered once; he gritted them into immobility and regained enough control to speak. “Who are these ‘yokels’?”
“Outbackers. Neo-Luddites, mostly. Want to discourage further colonization. Every week or so, one of ’em wanders down here, takes a potshot at a spaceplane or a new colonist. Then they fade back into the hills to hunt whatever critters they’re hunting up there.” Brinkley’s smile was a little less amused as he nodded toward the blood Caine could feel trickling down toward his collar. “Gotta say that they put this round a little closer than usual. They must really like you.”
Caine tried to smile back, thought: you have no idea how much they like me — since you have no idea who just shot at me. That was not a hunter’s rifle. There was no report. And at more than a mile’s range, it put a perfect four-millimeter hole in the plexiglass. Meaning that this was the work of an assassin with a silenced high-velocity weapon, not some backwoods renegade with an antique bolt-action rifle.
As Caine rose up, so did a tiltrotor from the small, squat skyline to the north of the spaceport. The tiltrotor’s lazy movements matched Brinkley’s bored drawl. “They won’t find the shooter. Never do. Stupid game, if you ask me.”
Except this time it’s not a game. But you’re right about the tiltrotor not finding anything. By now, a professional will have moved well away from the firing position. And will then go to ground for hours, maybe days. That’s the SOP. Or so Downing told me.
Brinkley gestured toward the edge of the tarmac: through the heat-shimmer, Caine could make out a boxy, dull-green silhouette. “It ain’t a limo, but it’ll do. Say, are you going to be all right? Do you need anything?”
Yes. I need to know whether that shot was meant to drop me or warn me. But either way, a little more cross-wind and that bullet would have gone straight through my right eye.
Brinkley droned on. “Listen, I’ve got a medkit in the car. We’ll put a compress on those nicks. They’re not too deep. Day or two and you won’t even feel ’em –”
True — because I might be dead by then, without ever knowing who pulled the trigger. Probably somebody working for the Colonial Development Combine’s planet-rapers, but Downing said there could be other players in this game. But they — whoever “they” are — shouldn’t know I’m on Delta Pavonis, or even who I am. But instead, I step straight off the spaceplane and into someone’s waiting crosshairs
And Brinkley still droned on. “Yep; we’ll have you fixed up good as new. And we’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again. To the extent that’s possible, of course. Sure don’t want folks like yourself taking home bad reports. Hey, who’d you say you work for?”
Brinkley had walked a step ahead, was trying to catch Caine’s eye. “Of course, I understand if you can’t say who you work for. We get that all the time. A lot of covert ops passing through. Every once in a while, our pilots have to ferry super spooks into or out of the bush. Incognito commandos, I call ’em.” Brinkley smiled wider, seemed to be expecting a sign that Caine appreciated his clever nomenclature.
Caine just kept walking, kept his eyes on the low skyline of the settlement, and kept hoping it was big enough to get lost in for a while. Long enough, at least, to decide his next move. From all appearances, the mission had been compromised — so what should he do? Call it busted and catch a shuttle to the next outbound shift-carrier?
No: not acceptable. Even if there hadn’t been any lives depending on the success of his mission, retreat was simply not an option. The next shift-carrier wasn’t due to leave for at least three weeks. And even if he could hop on one this very second, what would stop an assassin from following him? So retreating only made him an easier target.
Meaning, by process of elimination, that he had to drop out of sight until he could come up with a better strategy. And if he couldn’t “get lost” in the colony itself, then in the jungle — which, ironically was the source of the reports he’d been sent to investigate.
Brinkley nudged his elbow. “C’mon, you can tell me. They sent you here to find them, right?”
Caine forced his face to remain unsurprised as he echoed, “What do you mean, ‘find them’?”
Brinkley looked over his shoulder furtively — even though the closest person was still over a hundred meters away. He lowered his voice to a stage whisper. “You know; them. The xeno-chimps. The ‘locals.'”
Caine smiled, but thought: this just gets better and better. I step off the shuttle and — after a quick little welcome bullet — the first guy I meet asks me if I’m here to conduct a secret investigation into reports of xenointelligence. Aren’t secret missions supposed to remain — well, secret?
Brinkley was still looking expectantly at Caine. Who stumbled over the requisite lie he should have told readily: “I’m — I’m here to investigate reports that the Colonial Development Combine has been breaking the local resource exploitation laws.” It wasn’t a complete lie, but it had sounded — and felt — awful.