Trial By Fire – Snippet 03
Off-base sector, Barnard’s Star 2 C
The doors of the private maglev car closed abruptly, terminating the outraged cries of the reporters. Once Caine and Ensign Brahen had found seats as far from their rescuer as politeness allowed, Heather Kirkwood tapped her outsized palmcomp. A gentle hum arose, as did the car, floating up an inch or so before they felt the smooth acceleration that would carry them toward the end of the civilian sector’s rail spur.
Brahen eyed Heather again, and then Caine. “She’s your ex-wife?”
“No, no. Ex-girlfriend.” Caine managed to suppress a shudder at the notion that he might ever have married Heather Kirkwood.
Who had turned toward Caine. “So, it seems there was a nice reception waiting for you, now that you’ve decided to stop playing soldier. Surprised?”
Caine leaned back. “Not really. It was just a matter of time before the local stringers and hack-journalists found me.” Which was only a partial truth. That they knew Caine was on Barney Deucy was only mildly surprising. Knowing when and where he would emerge from the naval base was somewhat disturbing. What was alarmingly suspicious, however, was the sheer number of reporters on the platform: way too many. Barney Deucy was an infamously dull news post. The entire system typically had one-fifth the number of correspondents that had accosted the two of them.
“Okay. But that doesn’t explain why she“–Ensign Brahen gestured at Heather without looking at her–“came all the way from her high-profile job on Earth. Just following a deductive hunch?”
“Oh, it wasn’t guesswork for Heather. She knew she’d find me here.”
Heather twirled a golden lock with a desultory middle finger. “Yes, how did I know to find you here, darling?”
“You picked up my trail on Mars just a day or two after I left. Easily done, since I was seen by quite a few people at Nolan Corcoran’s memorial. And I’ll bet you learned that I’d been attacked in my room by a pair of Russian servicemen–despite attempts by both the Commonwealth and Confederation officials to hush it up.”
“So far, so good.”
“But all your leads came to a dead end: you found I’d been shipped off planet. No word where, no reason why. So you checked to see if any other persons of interest had been on Mars at the same time as me, and then left the same time as I did.”
Heather smiled. “And what a crowd of luminaries I turned up. Two World Confederation consuls, two Nobel prize-nominated scientists, India’s top computer whiz, the late Admiral Corcoran’s kids–commando son Trevor and brainy daughter Elena–and, last but not least, Richard Downing, affiliate of America’s two recently deceased heroes, Corcoran and Senator Tarasenko. Who were old Annapolis chums. Who both employed Downing at different times to do–what, exactly?” Heather’s smile was wide and bright. Her eyes were every bit as predatory as the ambulance-chasers they’d just eluded.
Caine ignored the all-too-accurate intimation that Downing was up to his neck in clandestine activities. “Now here’s the tricky part,” he resumed, picking up the explanation to the wide-eyed Brahen. “Having traced all these people to Mars, Heather knows she’s on the trail of something interesting. She finds indications that all of us have shifted out-system, but the transit logs indicate that there were no shift carriers outbound from Earth at the right time. But at some point, she makes–or is helped to make–the incredible intuitive leap which tells her I have left the system by other means.”
“I didn’t need any help coming to that conclusion, thank you very much,” Heather retorted, chin elevating slightly. “Ever since you announced the existence of exosapients at the Parthenon Dialogs, some of us in the press have speculated that maybe not all of the exosapients are primitive. That maybe the focus on the aborigines of Dee Pee Three is just a stalking horse to take our attention away from contact with much more advanced exos.”
Her concluding sentence did not end on as firm a note as it had begun. She doesn’t have any facts, just hunches. She hasn’t been told about our group’s travel to the Convocation. Caine continued narrating Heather’s journalistic adventures to Brahen. “Of course, Heather’s right. A special shift carrier was, in fact, waiting to take us out-system,” A half-lie, since the shift carrier had been “special” because it belonged to an alien species. “But where had we gone, and why? Alpha Centauri is the most developed system, and would be a logical first stop for all the missing VIPs, no matter their ultimate destination. But instead, Heather somehow deduced that we would wind up at the most closely controlled piece of real estate in human space: The Pearl, here on Barney Deucy.” Seeing the slightly theatrical nature of Heather’s smug answering smile, Caine knew she was trying to act knowing, confident, but had not reasoned it out this way at all. “Or,” he added, “a helpful informant aimed her inexplicably but confidently at the base here. She never learned how the informant knew, but that didn’t stop Ms. Kirkwood from booking herself on the first out-bound shift-carrier.” Heather’s smiled faltered as Caine asked her, “Is that about right?”
Heather recovered quickly, though. She shook her head; long gold tresses swept from side to side. Her extraordinary–and, Caine knew, artificially–lavender eyes engaged him for a full second before she spoke. “I heard rumors that the coldsleep had damaged your memories, Caine. But evidently it didn’t affect your intellect, or your ability to be aggravating, to push my buttons. Occasionally.” She leaned back; on the surface, it was simply a shift to a more relaxed posture. Somehow, Heather made it the inviting recline of a courtesan. “So–have you missed me?”
“Haven’t had the time to miss much of anything, Heather.”
“My, my, you never used to wake up this testy. But I suppose sleeping through fourteen years could make one a little more arch than usual.”
“Or maybe I just woke up with a decreased tolerance for reporters.”
Heather remained quiet for a second. “Such a semicivilized insult. But I suppose we’ve both grown old and boring. Which reminds me, are you in touch with any of your friends from the Independent Interplanetary News Network?”
Caine managed not to roll his eyes. “Oh, yeah, all my IINN ‘colleagues’ who loved me so much.”
He felt Brahen’s eyes move sideways to study him. “Actually, sir, ward-room scuttlebutt says you were a pretty successful–“
Heather tossed a bang aside. “Oh, he was very successful, Ensign. A bit too successful, actually. You see, he didn’t go to the news networks: they went to him. On bended knee.”
Caine made himself laugh. “You still don’t mind a bit of exaggeration if it makes for a more evocative story, do you, Heather?”
“And I never will. You see, Ensign Brahen”–her sudden inward lean and facetiously intimate tone were Heather’s most antagonistic provocations yet–“when I was at IINN, the senior editors were big fans of Caine’s first book, and his way with words. And then they discovered he was good on camera, even though he was shy about being in front of one.”
“That wasn’t shyness. That was aversion.”
“See? He is good with words. So there he was, on an open-ended contract, free to come and go as he pleased, allowed to snatch up the choicest research projects involving the Pentagon or the cloak-and-dagger types a few miles away in Langley.
“But of course, not all of us girls and boys who had worked and sweated and lied and slept our way up the ladder were happy when Caine became the darling of the aging news chiefs who rediscovered, in their near-senility, that journalism was still about informing the public. As if it ever had been. But Caine Riordan was the perfect salve for their pangs of career-end guilt: a bona fide public intellectual who was self-effacing, honest, energetic, eloquent, even charming. And the rest of us could only look on in envy.”
“Or hatred,” added Brahen, fixing Heather with her own assessing gaze. “Sounds like you still haven’t figured out exactly how you feel about your old boyfriend, Ms. Kirkwood.”
Heather leaned back with a clap of her hands. “Bravo! Rising to the bait at last, are you, Ensign?”
Judging from Marilyn Brahen’s lowering brows, Caine suspected he’d better steer the conversation back to the original topic. “Heather, you already know I’m not in touch with anyone in the media. That’s the first place you’d try to pick up my trail.”
“One of the first. I tried tracking down your family, but no contact there, either.”
“Never had much to be in contact with. Less now.” As in “zero.”
“What about your college friends? You had a pretty close circle of them from your undergrad years. If I remember correctly.”
“You do–and you’ll leave them out of this. As I have. I keep a low profile so that people who knew me can’t contact me. It might not be–healthy–for them.”
Heather leaned back with a frown. “So the rumors are true.”
“That what you know is worth killing for.”