Since the book should be available now, this is the final snippet.
Fire With Fire – Snippet 31
The perfect blue of it, Caine thought, watching the flawless surface of the Mediterranean dapple beneath the approaching security delta. It banked hard right until it came about, then its jets burned bright cobalt. The delta powered back out over deeper water, its small weapons blister rotating away from the Doric columns, which partitioned Caine’s view into a succession of eight tall, sequential seascapes.
In the center of the fourth seascape, framed between two columns, was a silver-haired man facing away from him. He was still in good shape, but there was a telltale thickening of the body, loss of muscle mass in the shoulders and neck. His posture — straight-backed and vital — almost concealed the physical changes, inviting an observer’s eye to remain fixed upon the distinctive military bearing. In all probability, he was older than he looked.
Well, that cinches it, Caine decided as he passed through the shadow of the temple’s still-intact entablature. According to five weeks of research while he was confined to a stateroom on the attack sub Nevada, only one man over sixty could both be the head of IRIS and boast that trim a physique.
Caine emerged back into the beating glare of the Aegean sun, drew abreast of the man, and stole a sideways glance: patient blue eyes were tracking the delta’s speedy disappearance into the horizon.
Nolan Corcoran, unmistakable from the many photographs and film clips Caine had seen — first as a teen and then over the past five weeks — turned and smiled. “Hello, Mr. Riordan. I’d thank you for joining me, but under the circumstances that wouldn’t be a courtesy: it would be an insult to your intelligence.”
“I do wonder if you might call me Nolan, however — and if I might call you Caine.”
Nolan looked back out to sea. “I don’t blame you for being angry — not one damned bit. If I was in your shoes, I wouldn’t trust anyone right now. I’d hate a few, though. Above all, I’d hate the person who’d been responsible for playing god with my life. Which means, in your case, hating me.”
Well, at least Corcoran wasn’t a bullshitter — and he seemed far more direct than Downing. Of course, maybe that was just a polished act. “Hate might be too strong a word. But I’m not a happy guy.”
Nolan’s response was a wry bend at the right side of his mouth. “A sense of humor — bitter or otherwise — is the hallmark of a survivor.” He turned, looked at Caine frankly — a casual, head-to-toe inspection. Checking the condition of the merchandise? But as Caine thought it, he also noted an oddly paternal nuance in Corcoran’s demeanor. “I’m glad to see that you are no worse for the wear.”
“How could I be? Not much was going to happen to me once you stuck me down at the bottom of the sea. And without so much as briefing: straight from the vertibird to a ship to a sub.”
Nolan nodded, made a motion to start walking; Caine angled to trail alongside. “Sorry about that, but after the attack in Alexandria — well, we were in a bind. We couldn’t figure out how the opposing team found you there in the first place. So we had to get you off the playing field right away. No time for explanations which, truth be told, would only have undermined our efforts to compartmentalize information as much as possible.”
“Well, you could have at least provided me with more entertaining company. The SEAL team that brought me on board and babysat me — they were a pretty taciturn bunch.”
“They had to be. Orders. Not all of them are always so quiet.”
“Oh? Their dossiers indicate if they’re sparkling conversationalists?”
“No: their CO was my son. And he’s never been shy or retiring.”
“Why? Because you were a little snide? We’ve earned your spite — and more — and it’s bound to bubble up now and again.” They walked on a few steps. “You didn’t seem very surprised to see me, just now,” Nolan observed dryly.
“Well, Admiral –“
“Okay — Nolan. I simply built a timeline of who Downing was associated with when he showed up in the news. The pivotal clue was Senator Tarasenko’s Near Earth-approaching Asteroid Response subcommittee, which tasked you to intercept the Doomsday Rock in 2083.”
“And how was that so pivotal?”
Caine looked at Nolan out of the corner of his eye. “Sir, don’t be coy: it’s incongruous in an eighty-five-year-old man.”
Nolan exhaled a small laugh. “Touché.”
“The NEAR subcommittee was where all three of IRIS’s major players — and my prime suspects — overlapped. Tarasenko was an old crony from your midshipman days at Annapolis. Shortly after he sent you to deflect the Doomsday Rock with a nuke, he hired a strategic space analyst named Richard Downing — an Oxbridge import who was also, incongruously, ex-SAS. I couldn’t find any more details on that connection, but I’m betting it was actually you who did the reach-out to Downing.”
“You and Downing were often ‘coincidentally’ on the same blue-ribbon committees and think tanks until you began cutting back in 2101. Rumors of fragile coronary health provided the context — or should I say pretext? — for your retirement. At the same time, Downing took a low-profile job running a fusty little think tank in Newport. Which was the embryo of IRIS.”
“For a couple of supposed spymasters, Richard and I sound a bit far from the center of things.”
“Well, sure. That’s what you’d want: perfect misdirection and plausible deniability, all in one. Nosy journalists or counterintelligence analysts would presume that Tarasenko would be giving orders, not taking them. So if they watch him, they find nothing. They might look at Downing, but they’ll conclude — rightly — that he’s too junior to be controlling a major intelligence operation.
“But you’ve got the perfect credentials and cover-story for the job. Having retired from all official posts, you’re now just a private citizen. You also happen to be a war hero who travels a lot, consulting for defense and aerospace contractors. But instead of becoming a typical spymaster, you have Downing construct a black-box organization: the Institute. Which you control from afar.”
Nolan raised one eyebrow. “To run the kind of operation you’re envisioning, you need plenty of contacts in the military, government, industry. Downing doesn’t have those contacts, Tarasenko does but is always being watched, and I’m still living too public a life.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Caine objected. “When you consider it with a properly jaded eye, your public life is not so public after all. You’ve always been a closed-door consultant, so I can’t help but wonder: during your visits, were you advising on policy — or were you dictating it? And if so, you’d also be able to use their secure channels to confer with Downing, Tarasenko, and the various section heads of IRIS’s widely distributed net of covert overseers.”
“Of course. Practically speaking, IRIS is an invisible organization because it exists — in small, completely firewalled packages — within other organizations.”
“A very impressive hypothesis, but why all the charades, the false fronts, and — quite frankly — the subversion of public institutions?”
“Downing gave me that answer when he reanimated me last year. The raison d’être for IRIS is exosapient threats. Right after you intercepted the Doomsday Rock, we started creating the kind of space technology that would protect us from subsequent planet-killer asteroids. But what if the threat was so big that there was nothing we could do to stop it? We had to be able to get out of the way, maybe leave the Solar System — which was why you started Project Prometheus. And as you did, you thought: ‘If humans can learn to travel faster than light, other species can too.’ That’s why you created IRIS: to ensure that humanity can survive both inanimate and animate threats from space.”
Nolan reversed direction, chin raising into the direction of their stroll. “You don’t miss much.”
“I had two unfair advantages: knowing about IRIS and Downing, and then five weeks in which I had nothing to do but gather the facts and think. But I couldn’t get answers to the really important questions.”
“Which questions are those?”
“Nolan, if you had no memory of the most pivotal four days of your life, wouldn’t it be your top priority to ask questions about them, to get them back? Hell, Downing told me your agents grabbed me outside the door of your suite, and that I was behaving in a ‘suspicious manner.’ Accepting for the moment that this was true, what was I doing there? Why did I go to a place — a place I can’t even remember — that was so sensitive that it got me stuck into cold sleep for thirteen years?”
Nolan nodded. “Those are important questions, I agree. I just hope I’ll be able to provide the information you need. Our conversation a day and a half before you were cold-celled was the first, last, and only contact Richard or I had with you.”
“Then you shouldn’t have any problem sharing the records of that conversation. Or a list of my financial transactions while on the Moon. Or any of the several other dozen data trails that any visitor to Perry City can’t help leaving.”
Nolan stopped walking, faced him with a small smile that was unlike any of those Caine had seen in the media: it was gentle, maybe a bit sad. “I’m sorry, Caine, I really am — but I have to ask you to wait one more day. We can’t risk having you dig around for those records now: there’s no way of knowing where they might lead you, or how pursuing any given line of inquiry might somehow compromise all the work we’ve done to bring together the Parthenon Dialogs. But tomorrow, when the Dialogs are over — well, then it will be safe for you to seek your answers.”
“C’mon, Admiral: if I wait another day, am I really going to be that much safer?”
“Because Parthenon has already started: we met in Athens for Day One this morning.” Corcoran started strolling back to where they had begun. “Tomorrow — Day Two — is the wrap-up, here at the Temple of Poseidon.”
Caine looked sideways. “I expected that I’d be at the first day’s proceedings, since the main item on the agenda was what I found on Delta Pavonis.”
“Most of which has already been presented. But the details you’ll share tomorrow are the capstones of the Dialogs. And will change everyone’s perspective yet again.”
“You know, that’s something I’ve never understood: after you had thoroughly debriefed me, what the hell did anyone have to gain by killing me? Would it have really have made such a difference?”
Corcoran shrugged. “You know how it is: it’s not just what is said; there’s the matter of how it’s said, and by whom. You are not just an eyewitness; you are an investigator whose writing makes the facts seem real. You breathe the life of human experience into lifeless data — and some people are scared of that.”
“So if I’m still at risk, why the hell did you bring me out here? Like the real Odysseus, I’m not a risk-taker if I don’t have to be.”
Nolan laughed. “Relax: all the Circes, sirens, and other monsters are far away from here. First, the tip of this headland is well beyond sniper range. Secondly, the slopes and crags around you are bristling with active intercept and denial systems: together, they can knock down anything from an incoming bullet to a missile salvo. But most importantly, no one could know that you’re in Greece — yet.” Nolan waved back toward the mainland. “So go use your freedom now, because you’ll be losing it again tomorrow. The world will want to know — and will find out quickly enough — who first brought them news of exosapients.”
Caine looked over at the serried ranks of low, white buildings that started four kilometers back from the base of the headland. His glance must have imparted his dubious opinion of an excursion there. Nolan urged, “Look, don’t waste this day: go do a little sightseeing. The view from the bluffs” — he waved in a vague northwesterly direction — “is spectacular.”
“And how am I supposed to get around?”
“The car you came in is still down at the bottom of the slope.”
“I think my driver’s license expired about fourteen years ago.”
“We’ve already taken care of that. Besides, cars are automated now — well, in most places. Should be here, although I think they may still be expanding the road sensor nets.”
“Not needed — and they’d only draw attention.”
Caine looked up at the craggy, arid highlands Nolan had indicated. Well, maybe a quick drive would be fun —
“Oh, and on the way up, drop in on Richard and tell him his collarcom has apparently died.”
“Sure. Where is he?”
“At the Herakles Olympic training stadium, just a few kilometers out on the western coast road, near Legonia. The car will have it in memory.”
“In the car. Tell Richard I’ll meet him at the villa, and will brief him at 1900. It’s where you’re staying also, so the car knows the way back home.”
Caine nodded, put up a hand in farewell.
Nolan returned the wave, smiled, and went back to inspecting the sea and the sky, framed between the same two columns.