Trial By Fire – Snippet 05

Trial By Fire – Snippet 05

Off-base sector, Barnard’s Star 2 C

Heather reclined again. “So, Caine, about these secrets of yours–“

Riordan looked out the windows, saw three amber lights pass in quick sequence. “Stop the car. Now.”

“I don’t take orders from you, Caine, and I–“

“Stop the car now or you won’t hear another word from me.”

Heather frowned, modulated a control on her palmcomp’s screen. The car began to slow. “And I won’t hear another word if I let you out, either.”

“I’m not getting out. Ensign Brahen is. Those yellow lights we just passed mean we’re within a few hundred meters of a maintenance siding. She’s getting out there.”

“Not exactly the safest place to leave an innocent child, Caine.”

“Any place is safer than here with you,” Riordan snapped back, waving down the ensign’s inarticulate sputtering.

“Sir!” Brahen finally shouted, “I’m not going to leave you with this–“

“Ensign, there’s only one thing you’re going to do, and that is to follow my orders.”

“But, sir–“

“Don’t argue with him, little princess,” cooed Heather, who smiled broadly when Ensign Brahen’s fists balled up. “The grown-ups are going to talk about secrets, now. Secrets that would complicate your poor little life if they entered your poor little ears at this early stage of your poor little career.”

Some combination of the taunting tone and probable truths coming out of Heather’s mouth caused Marilyn Brahen to turn very red. “Ma’am, when I get back to the Pearl, I am going to make it my personal quest to find anything–anything–irregular or illegal in your actions while on Barnard’s Star Two C. And if I find something, heaven help me, I’ll–“

Heather brought the car to an abrupt stop. The ensign almost fell face down on the floor of the car. “Oops! So sorry! You were saying? Oh, but wait–you have to leave!” She pushed another control on her palmcomp; the maglev’s door hissed open. A grimy, half-meter-wide access shelf, lit by a single blue-white LED lamp, was revealed. “Out you go, sweetie!” Brahen did so, fists still clenched, eyes hard. Heather pushed the control. The door shut and the car began moving again. She tossed her bangs, surveyed Caine for a long moment. “Well, well, alone at last. Time to spill your secrets.”

Caine shook his head. “I promised to keep talking, Heather. Nothing more.”

“Oh! A challenge! But not a very hard one. Because if you don’t give me the leads I want, I will locate your old friends, ask them what they know.”

“Which is less than nothing.”

“Oh, I’m aware of that. But I also know that you’d probably do just about anything to protect them. And according to what you’ve said, a well-publicized research visit from me could be almost as unhealthy for them as if you had contacted them yourself.”

Caine made himself remain calm. “I always knew you were a hard-nosed investigator, Heather. But when did you add extortion to your bag of tricks?”

“One has to be ready to use any leverage available. Particularly when it comes to you, Caine. You don’t leave many loose ends.” She paused, became sly, but no less serious. “And I’m sure that’s why you were recruited to begin with.”

“‘Recruited’?”

“Don’t play innocent with me, Caine. It’s more than just an aversion to publicity that still had you sitting on the full story of what happened at Dee Pee Three and dishing out ‘no comments’ like they were party favors. After which you and a bunch of world-class movers and shakers disappeared into thin interstellar air for about a month. And now here you are on Barney Deucy, but not a hint of your high-profile pals. So I’ve got to wonder, what were you all doing, light-years away from where you belong?”

Caine didn’t change his expression, couldn’t afford to. She may not have been told about the Convocation, but she’s on the scent. Careful, now.

Heather leaned forward. “I know you’re not alone in this, Caine, that you’re not an independent actor. You’re covering for someone. But I’ll disappear–right now, forever–if you just tell me who they are.”

Damn, she was a manipulative monster, but she was good. Caine raised one eyebrow, “‘They’?” he echoed. “There is no ‘they.’ I’m just a researcher doing my job.”

“And I’m the Tsarina of all the Russias. Look, even if you can’t tell me what’s really going on, don’t insult me with that ‘I’m just a researcher’ bullshit.” Heather seemed genuinely frustrated, now. Her Northern New Jersey accent and diction was starting to bleed through. “Honey, they yanked you out of an icebox that you never agreed to enter, sent you on a top-secret research assignment almost twenty light-years from Earth, and then put you up as the main attraction at the Parthenon Dialogues–all achieved despite numerous attempts to kill you. And you want me to believe that you’re still just a ‘researcher,’ no permanent strings attached? Horseshit.”

Caine smiled. “You were ever the charmer, Heather.”

“And you, Caine, still don’t know who your real friends are.”

His smiled widened. “You mean, ‘friends’ like you?”

“You could at least show me a little gratitude. I did rescue you from those underemployed hacks back at the maglev station.”

“Rescue me? From those ambulance chasers who you fed an ‘anonymous tip’ so that they’d accost me as soon as I emerged from The Pearl? So that I’d feel some subconscious gratitude, and be more pliable, when you serendipitously ‘came to my rescue’? Nice try. Better luck next time.”

“Knowing you, probably not.” Heather leaned forward. “But I’m not depending on luck. I have facts. For instance, fact: you had twenty-four/seven access to both Nolan Corcoran and Arvid Tarasenko.”

“So, having a close professional association with those two men automatically makes me–what? Their devoted servitor?”

“I’m not sure what it makes you, Caine. But you’re more than just a researcher when your employers start hiding your work behind some pretty dark curtains of secrecy.”

“Well, that’s hardly surprising, Heather. After what I discovered on Delta Pavonis, they had to give me pretty high security clearances. At least until Parthenon was over.”

Heather smiled. “No, that’s what you’d like me to believe. But you’re telling the tale a little bit backward, aren’t you, Caine?” She leaned forward. “They had to give you those clearances and bring you into their shadowy world before sending you to Dee Pee Three. You needed access to classified files, rank equivalents, and actual authority to get the job done there. All of which indicates that you were some kind of operative for them. And you’re still working for whoever is in charge now.” Heather frowned, thinking. “I’d bet a week’s salary that Tarasenko’s primary successor is Richard Downing. Some say he was the one who summoned that group of VIPs to Mars, where he just happened to be attending Nolan Corcoran’s memorial service. Coincidence?”

“Why don’t you ask Downing?”

“I would have, except, by the time I arrived, he’d been on a preaccelerating Earth-bound shift-carrier for two weeks, the one that finally shifted out a few days ago. But here’s what I don’t understand, Caine. Why should you be so loyal to them–to Downing, Corcoran, Tarasenko, whoever–given what they’ve done to you? And taken from you?”

A faint vibration started ascending through Caine’s feet, buttocks, abdomen as a gentle down-spinning hum arose and the arrival tone chimed. Saved by the bell. He smiled at Heather. “Our stop? So soon?”

Heather was frowning down at her palmcomp’s control screen. “Faster than I intended, actually.”

Caine’s smile did not change. “Thanks for the ride, Heather.” He rose, noticed a sudden bloom of red light beyond the window at the rear of the car. The track warning light had flashed for a moment, then died suddenly. The green light–signaling a clear track–did not replace it.

“If you leave now, Caine, you leave me no choice but to contact your friends.”

“Heather,” said Caine, watching for the green–or red–light to reappear, “the track signals are malfunctioning and we’re at the dead-end of this spur. You need to get out of this car. Now.”

“I think you’ve got the situation reversed, Caine. I don’t have to leave, you have to stay. Assuming you want your friends to remain safe.”

Neither track status light had reilluminated, and Caine felt a faint, growing tremor rising up through the center of the floor, where the car had settled on the rail.

One quick look at Heather’s stubbornly rigid jaw told him she wouldn’t listen to reason in time. He turned toward the door, spotted the emergency exit panel. He smashed it with his elbow and hit the red panic-release button.

As the door was rammed back into its recess by the sudden discharge of a compressed-air cell, Heather reared up. “What the hell are you doing, Caine?”

“We have to go, Heather,” he shouted, grabbing toward her. “Right now!”

Heather’s reflexes were extremely swift but perfectly wrong. As Caine closed with her, she swung back, bringing up her legs and kicking, hard.

With his focus entirely upon getting her out of the car, Caine didn’t realize what Heather was doing until her spiked heels jabbed sharply into his abdomen like a double-barreled nail-gun. With a grunt, he found himself stumbling backward, falling as his heel caught on the rim of the exit. He landed half in the car, half out the open door–

–and discovered a palmcom shoved into his face, red recording light on, a bizarre tableau around him. He had fallen out at the feet of yet another crowd of shouting protestors. Each brandished a placard emblazoned with a crucifix being menaced by “little-green-man” aliens, who had also sprouted satanic red horns and black tails.

The girlish reporter who was leaning over him stuck her palmcom down so energetically that it bumped his lips. As she began her oblivious mantra–“Mr. Riordan, Mr. Riordan. Janel Bisacquino, Reuters Interstellar”–Caine scrambled to get his legs back under him, to get back into the car, to get Heather out–

But the reporter grabbed his shoulder as he rose, causing him to stumble farther away from the maglev car as she chattered into his ear, “Is it true that you were abducted by aliens on Delta Pavonis Three?”

“Heretic!” one of the protesters yowled over her shoulder from the lee of a long kiosk that paralleled the platform.

Caine shook off the reporter’s hand, spun toward the open doorway of the car–beyond which Heather stood, her features softening into uncertainty–

With an up-dopplering screech, another maglev car shot out of the transport tube and rammed into Heather’s half-size rental–just as Caine grabbed the reporter and dove for the ground.

The metallic shriek of the impact seemed to propel debris savagely outward, heat-hissing shards of metal and plastic corkscrewing over the two of them even as they fell. Screams arose from the protesters. One had gone down, hands clutched to a face shredded by a wave of shattered glass from the kiosk. Others, panicked, fled wildly. One journalist who had evidently been hidden behind the placards was fleeing with the mob. Another was already getting footage of the crash, as well as the blood gushing from the face of the wounded protester. Ms. Bisacquino looked at the smoking ruin of the two cars–a pair of crushed tin cans forever fused and frozen in some savage mating frenzy–her mouth open, mute, and motionless.

“Come on,” said Caine, as the flash-heated synthetics in the cars began to smolder. “We’ve got to get off this platform.”

 

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