Fire With Fire – Snippet 02

Part One

Approaching heliopause, Junction system (Lacaille 8760)

March–April, 2118

Chapter One


Caine Riordan felt himself floating back up to awareness through fragments of many dreams. It seemed as though, in the midst of this waking, he had eaten, gone back to sleep, had conversations, other dreams, more meals, then finally…

Awake. But why was he already sitting, and why was he ringed by spotlights? Where –?

A voice — speaking in an English accent — asked: “Are the lights too bright? I can dim them, if you wish.”

Caine nodded, squinted, seeking the source of the voice.

“What is the last thing you remember?”

Odd question. Caine thought back: he was on the lunar suborbital ferry to Perry City — and then nothing. As though someone had snipped a filmstrip in the middle of a scene. First he was there, and then he was here. And between the two — nothing.

Abruptly, Caine no longer saw the still-blinding lights: finding no memories to fill that blank space, his awareness exploded inward, like a multitude of rushing hands, scrabbling in a dark closet. But instead of touching something tangible, they only encountered more yawning darkness, into which he was falling, falling, falling…

Caine felt a cool hand on his shoulder and suddenly he was seeing again, looking into dark brown eyes in a thin face, skin the color of seared wheat. Male, early middle-aged but lean, and seamed enough to look older, brown hair receding from either side of a widow’s peak. The eyes were patient, concerned. “Steady now. Tell me: what do you remember?”

“I remember heading to Perry City. But after that –” Caine felt a snap-frost of panic coat his body. “What the hell has happened to me? Have I been in an accident?”

Downing retrieved a folder from a black, wire-frame table that Caine only now distinguished against the darkness. “You were taken into — let’s call it protective custody.”

“Protective custody? Why? And what kind of protective custody would cause me to black out, or –” Or lose my muscle tone, Caine suddenly realized, seeing his wrists and arms for the first time: my God, I must have lost five kilos. More. How long have I –?

Long-face-brown-eyes nodded at Caine’s sudden fixation with his limbs. “In your case, Mr. Riordan, protective custody meant being placed in cryogenic suspension.”

Terror pulsed from the rear of Caine’s skull, across his back, and out into his arms and legs. “How long have I been in cold sleep?”

The crow’s feet bracketing the dark brown eyes bunched in a wince. “Thirteen years: it is now 2118.”

Caine felt a trembling in his limbs, was unsure whether it was a muscular spasm, or a fear reaction. Thirteen years slept away. It felt like a surreal reversal of learning that you had only a dozen years or so left to live. This way, it was not he who was going to die sooner than expected, it was everyone else. There was also a sharp, sudden fear of personal obsolescence: will I even have a place in this world?

Caine shook off that doubt, willed himself not to shudder again, wasn’t entirely successful. “Why was I cryogenically suspended? That’s a risky process — or it was thirteen years ago.”

“By comparison to today, yes. But the risk to you was a great deal less serious than the threat you posed to us.”

“I posed a threat to you?”

“Your investigations for the Independent Interplanetary News Network jeopardized crucial national interests.”

That’s right: I was on my way to Luna to conduct research. Aloud: “And so you decided to ‘sedate’ me before I could step off the shuttle?”

“Oh, no. You debarked safely on Luna and were quite active for just under one hundred hours.”

“Then why don’t I remember any of those one hundred hours?”

Mr. Long-face-brown-eyes tilted his head apologetically. “Side effect of the cold sleep, I’m afraid.”

“Hold on. Cold sleep only disrupts memories that haven’t been fixed in the brain by a natural sleep cycle. So at most, I should have lost twenty-four hours. But I’ve lost more than four days. What caused the extra memory loss? And what happened during that time?”

“I wish I knew, but my superiors didn’t share that information with me. I’ll look into it when I get access to the full records, back on Earth.”

But for now, how utterly convenient for you. With no memories of those one hundred crucial hours, Caine had no way of knowing if Long-face-brown-eyes was telling the truth or not. So did I give them grounds to put me on ice? Or is that just a shrewd lie, an attempt to make me feel responsible for my own condition? A hot wave of resentment shriveled Caine’s uncertainties: either way, he was the one who had lost thirteen years, not his captors. “And you are?”

Caine was gratified to see the other man blink, but Long-face-brown-eyes recovered quickly: “I am Richard Downing.”

“And who do you work for? Why are you here?”

“I handle special projects for the government.”

“Which government? That accent doesn’t come from Mobile, Maine, or the Midwest.”

“Quite right, but I do work for the American government, and I’m here to help you get reoriented. And to prepare you.”

Caine didn’t like the sound of that. “Prepare me for what?”

“Let’s just say I’m here to prepare you to investigate the biggest story of your life.”

“Then you’ve got the wrong guy. I’m a writer, not a reporter.”

Downing shrugged. “That’s not how it appeared to us when you came to Perry with your IINN credentials.”

“Look: that was a one-time deal so I could get to the Moon and finish my research on lunar budget cover-ups. IINN read about my suspicions in Time, asked me to write an exclusive feature on whatever I found — and I could hardly say ‘no’ to top rates and all expenses paid. Hell, I just wish I could remember what I found.”

Downing smiled. “You found that the visible Commonwealth development on Luna barely accounted for half of the new expenditures.”

“I already knew that. My guess was that a lot of government craft weren’t actually completing their listed Luna-Earth runs –”

“But, instead, were going from Tycho up to Perry City at the north pole, and then to the Far Side.” Downing nodded. “And when we tried to fob you off with the ‘ice-teroid’ mining story, you wouldn’t have any of it. You did a little walk-about on your own — broke a few access and safety laws doing so — and found that there was no Far Side water supply courtesy of an eons-old comet impact.”

“So it was a cover-up for some other operation.”

“Yes. As you also guessed, we were manufacturing and storing antimatter, using the twenty-four/seven solar power available at Perry.”

“So once I got some solid evidence, you cryoed me: surest way of keeping me silent.”

“Logical, but no; we approached you and explained the situation. And you agreed to sit on the story.”

“Then why the hell did you coldcell me?”

“You were not put in suspension by us, but by security operatives that were — well, ‘loaned’ to us. They saw you preparing to enter my superior’s suite, surmised that you had lied when you agreed not to file your story with IINN, and were instead trying to steal evidentiary documents. They stunned you, tried to contact us directly, couldn’t.”


Downing sighed. “Security blackout; we were on the Far Side. Only communiqués of national urgency.”

“So they didn’t know what to do with me.”

“Well, we learned later that some wanted to kill you.”

“Kill me?”


“Christ sakes — kill me over an antimatter plant?”

“No. Over what it was built to enable, which you had started hypothesizing shortly after your arrival.”

Which put those hypotheses in Caine’s one-hundred-hour dead zone, along with the other lost memories of his time on the Moon. But a vague recollection — perhaps a wild guess from his prelunar investigations — teased a conjecture into existence. Antimatter: gram for gram the most potent energy source known. Not good for weapons, since its containment requirements make it much harder to work with than radioactives. So why would anyone need all that antimatter in one place, at one time –?

Caine blurted it out before he confirmed his thinking. “Interstellar travel: you were creating the power supply for a starship.”

Downing nodded. “The antimatter plant was merely the handmaiden to Project Prometheus: the first attempt to achieve supraluminal travel.”

“But — unless physics have changed in the last thirteen years — it’s not possible to exceed the speed of light.”

Downing wagged a finger. “I didn’t say supraluminal velocity; I said supraluminal travel.”

Caine understood. “Quantum entanglement, wormholes, electron tunneling: you needed the energy to generate a field effect that could get around the relativistic limits.”