Trial By Fire – Snippet 01
Trial By Fire
Volume Two of the Tales of the Terran Republic
Charles E. Gannon
Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. . . . The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.
–Abraham Lincoln, December 1, 1862, message to Congress
All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.
Off-base sector, Barnard’s Star 2 C (“Barney Deucy”)
The maglev began decelerating. As it did, the light seeping in through the overhead plexiglass panel increased sharply: they were now beyond the safety of the base’s tightly patrolled subterranean perimeter. Caine Riordan, newly minted commander in the United States Space Force, glanced at the young ensign beside him. “Are you ready?”
Ensign Marilyn Brahen looked out the even narrower plexiglass panel beside the door, checked the area into which they were about to deploy. There was blurred, frenetic movement out there. “Were we expecting a lot of–company?” she asked.
“No, Ensign, but it was a possibility.” Caine rose. “So we improvise and overcome.” She stood beside him as the doors opened–
–and they were hit by torrent of loud, unruly shouts from a crowd beyond the maglev platform. The group swiftly became a tight-packed wall of charging humanity, their outcries building before them like a cacophonic bow-wave.
Ensign Brahen eyed the approaching mob, news people already elbowing their way into the front rank, and swallowed. “Sir, you think those crazies will stay outside the car?”
“Not a chance.” And given the automated two-minute station stop, they’ll have us pinned in here before we can leave.
“I gotta confess, sir,” she continued, “this wasn’t what I was expecting when they told me I was going on a field assignment with you.”
“Well,” mused Caine as the reporters closed the last ten meters, “we are off-base. And technically, the civilian sector is ‘the field.'” Caine smiled at her, at the charade which was to be his one and only “command,” and stepped out the door.
The moment his foot touched the maglev platform, an improbably shrill male shriek–“Blasphemer!”–erupted from the center of the approaching crowd, followed by a glass bottle, spinning lazily at Caine.
Behind him, he heard Ensign Brahen inhale sharply, no doubt preparatory to a warning shout–
But recent dojo-acquired reflexes now served Caine better than a warning. Without thinking, he sent the bottle angling off to smash loudly against the side of the passenger car behind him.
As Caine sensed Ensign Brahen moving up to cover his flank, he scanned the rear of the crowd for the presumably fleeing attacker. Instead, he discovered the assailant was standing his ground, right fist raised, left arm and index finger rigidly extended in accusation–
–and which disappeared behind the surge of newspersons that surrounded Caine as a wall of eager faces and outstretched comcorders. Somewhere, behind that palisade of journalists, the attacker shrieked again. “Blasphemer!” But his voice was receding, and then was finally drowned out by the mass of jostling reporters and protestors that threatened to shove Caine and Ensign Brahen back against the maglev car. Their inquiries were shrill, aggressive, and rapid.
“Mr. Riordan, is it true you’re the one who found the remains of an alien civilization on Delta Pavonis Three?”
“Caine! Caine, over here! Why wait two years to announce your discoveries?”
“Who decided that you’d announce your findings behind closed doors: the World Confederation, or you, Caine?”
A young man with a bad case of acne and a worse haircut–evidently the boldest jackal in the pack–stuck a palmcom right under Riordan’s nose. “Caine, have there been any other attacks like the one we just witnessed, by people who believe that your reports about exosapients are just lies intended to undermine the Bible?” Ironically, that was the moment when one of the protestors waved a placard showing a supposed alien: a long-armed gibbon with an ostrich neck, polygonal head, tendrils instead of fingers. Actually, it was a distressingly good likeness of the beings Caine had encountered on Dee Pee Three, prompting him to wonder, so who the hell is leaking that information?
The young reporter evidently did not like having to wait two seconds for an answer. “So Caine, exactly when did you decide to start undermining the Bible?”
Caine smiled. “I’ve never taken part in theological debates, and I have no plans to start doing so.”
A very short and immaculately groomed woman extended her palmcom like a rapier; Caine resisted the impulse to parry. “Mr. Riordan, the World Confederation Consuls have declined to confirm rumors that you personally reported the existence of the exosapients of Delta Pavonis Three at this April’s Parthenon Dialogues. However, CoDevCo Vice President R. J. Astor-Smath claims to have evidence that you were the key presenter on the last day of that meeting.”
Caine labored to keep the smile on his face. It would be just like Astor-Smath, or some other megacorporate factotum, to put the press back on my scent. But how the hell did they find me out here at Barnard’s Star? Caine prefaced his reply with a shrug. “I’m sorry. I’m not familiar with Mr. Astor-Smath’s comments, so–“
Another reporter pushed forward. “He made these remarks two months ago.” The reporter’s palmcom crackled as it projected Astor-Smath’s voice: composed, suave, faintly contemptuous. “I wish I could share more with you about the Parthenon Dialogues, but the late Admiral Nolan Corcoran prevented any megacorporation–including my own, the Colonial Development Combine–from attending. However, we do have reliable sources who place Mr. Riordan at the second day of the Parthenon Dialogues.”
Behind him, Caine heard a warning tone announce the imminent departure of the maglev passenger car. It would be ten minutes before the next would arrive, ten more minutes surrounded by harrying jackals. No thanks. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but you’ll have to excuse me.” So much for my “first command.” He started to turn back to the maglev car.
“One last question, Caine. Who’s your new girlfriend?”
Ensign Brahen started as if stuck by a pin. Caine turned back around, foregoing the escape via maglev. Instead, he searched for the source of the question, asking, “Besides being grossly unprofessional and misinformed, just why is that a relevant inquiry?”
“Well,” explained Mr. Bad-Skin Worse-Hair as he reemerged from the mass of faces and limbs, “we were expecting to see you with Captain Opal Patrone, your personal guard. And, some say, your personal geisha.”
Enough is enough. Caine planted his feet, kept his voice level, his diction clipped. “I feel compelled to point out that, in addition to raising a thoroughly inappropriate topic, you didn’t even manage to frame it as a question.” Caine looked out over the faces ringing him. “If there are any competent journalists here, I’m ready for their inquiries.”
The group quieted; the mood had changed. Their quarry had turned and bared teeth. Now, the hunt would be in earnest. The next jackal that jumped in tried to attack a different flank. “Mr. Riordan, is it true that you were present when Admiral Corcoran died after the Parthenon Dialogues?”
Caine pushed away the mixed emotions that Nolan’s name summoned. The ex-admiral-turned-clandestine-mastermind had arguably ruined Riordan’s life, but had also striven to make amends and forge an almost paternal bond. Caine heard himself reply, “No comment,” just as the maglev car rose, sighed away from the platform, and headed off with a down-dopplering hum.
“Mr. Riordan, do you have any insights into how Admiral Corcoran’s alleged ‘heart attack’ occurred?”
“Why do you call it an ‘alleged’ heart attack?”
“Well, it’s a rather strange coincidence, don’t you think? First, you were reportedly present for Admiral Corcoran’s heart attack in Greece, and then for the similarly fatal heart attack suffered by his Annapolis classmate and crony, Senator Arvid Tarasenko, less than forty-eight hours later in DC. Comment?”
“Firstly, I don’t recall any prior assertions that I was near Senator Tarasenko at the time of his death–“
“Well, an anonymous source puts you in his office just before–“
An anonymous source like Astor-Smath, I’ll bet. “Madam, until you have verifiable information from verifiable sources, I’m not disposed to comment on my whereabouts at that time. In the more general matter of the heart attacks of Misters Corcoran and Tarasenko, I cannot see any reasonable explanation except coincidence.” Which was superficially true; Caine had no other explanation for the heart attacks that had, within the span of two days, removed the two leaders of the shadowy organization which had sent him to Delta Pavonis Three: the Institute of Reconnaissance, Intelligence, and Security, or IRIS. On the other hand, Caine remained convinced that the two deaths had been orchestrated. Somehow. “Timing aside, there’s not much surprising in either of these sad events. Admiral Corcoran never fully recovered from the coronary damage he suffered during the mission to intercept the doomsday rock twenty-six years ago. And Senator Tarasenko was not a thin man. His doctors’ warnings to watch his weight and cholesterol are a matter of public record.”
Tasting no blood, the jackals tried nipping at a different topic. “Mr. Riordan, our research shows that you spent most of the last fourteen years in cold sleep. And that your ‘friend’ Captain Opal Patrone was cryogenically suspended over fifty years ago. What prompted each of you to abandon the times in which you lived?”
As if choice had anything to do with it. “In the matter of the recently promoted Major Patrone, she’s the one you should ask her about her reasons.” Hard to do, since Opal’s on Earth by now. “But I can assure you that she did not ‘abandon’ her time period. She was severely wounded serving her country. In that era, her choice was between cryogenic suspension and death.”
“And your reason for sleeping into the future?”
“Is none of your business.” And is a non sequitur, since it wasn’t my choice. Caine had simply stumbled across IRIS’s secret activities, which had earned him an extended nap in a cold-cell. “Next question.”
“A follow-up on your long absence from society, sir. Some analysts have speculated that, as a person from another time, you were just the kind of untraceable operative needed for a covert survey and research mission to Dee Pee Three. What would you say in response to that speculation?”
Caine smiled, hoped it didn’t look as brittle as it felt. I’d say it’s too damned perceptive. Aloud: “I’d say they have excellent imaginations, and could probably have wonderful careers writing political thrillers.”
Bad-Skin Worse-Hair jumped back into the melee. “Stop evading the questions, Riordan. And stop playing the innocent. You knew that the Parthenon Dialogues were going to be biggest news-splash of the century. So did you also advise the World Confederation on how to shroud the Dialogues in enough secrecy to pump up the media-hype? Which in turn pumped up your consultancy fees?”
Caine stepped toward the young reporter, who hastily stepped back, apparently noticing for the first time that Caine’s rangy six-foot frame was two inches taller than his own and decidedly more fit. Riordan kept his voice low, calm. “It’s bad enough that you’re plying a trade for which you haven’t the aptitude or integrity, but you could at least check your conclusions against the facts. Without commenting one way or the other about my alleged involvement with the Parthenon Dialogues, it must be clear to anyone–even you–that the world leaders who attended were grappling with global issues of the utmost importance, and that the secrecy surrounding them was a policy decision, not a PR stunt. In short, whoever brought information to the Parthenon Dialogues may have delivered a sensational story, but not for sensational purposes.”
But if that admonishment curbed the jackals momentarily, Caine could already see signs that they would soon regroup and resume their hunt for an inconsistency into which they could sink their collective investigatory teeth. And there were still at least five minutes before the next passenger car arrived. Five minutes in which even these bumbling pseudo-sleuths might begin to realize that the real story was not to be found in the storm and fury of Parthenon itself, but rather, in the surreptitious actions that had been its silent and unnoticed prelude. They might begin asking how the mission to Delta Pavonis had come to be, and–in the necessary nebulousness of Caine’s responses–discern the concealed workings, and therefore existence, of some unseen agency. An agency that was unknown even to the world’s most extensive intelligence organizations–because its select membership dwelt amongst their very ranks. An agency, in short, like IRIS–
From behind Caine, the maglev rails hummed into life, braking and hushing the approach of a passenger car. Surprised by the early arrival of the train, Caine turned–and saw that this passenger car was a half-sized private model, furnished with tinted one-way windows. The pack of reporters fell silent as the doors hissed open–
–to reveal a shapely blonde woman, sitting at the precise center of the brushed chrome and black vinyl interior. She smiled. It was a familiar smile.
Ensign Brahen looked from the woman to Caine. “Isn’t that Heather Kirkwood? Isn’t she a reporter? A real reporter? On Earth?”
Caine resisted the urge to close his eyes. “She is that. And worse.”
“She’s my ex.”
Heather cocked her head, showed a set of perfect teeth that were definitely more appealing–and far more ominous–than those possessed by the half-ring of jackals surrounding them. She crooked an index finger at Caine. “You coming? Or are you enjoying your impromptu press conference too much to leave?”
If possible, Ensign Brahen’s incredulous eyes opened even wider. “Do we go with her?”
Caine sighed. “Do we have a choice?” He led the way into the car.