Fire With Fire – Snippet 03

Downing smiled. “Yes.”

“And did it work?”

Downing leaned back, considered the windowless walls. “Rather. We are currently in the Junction system. Technically, it’s still listed as Lacaille 8760. But only astrographers use that label, now.”

Caine had to focus — hard — in order to stay on track: “Okay: so on whose authority did you coldcell me?”

Downing seemed to retract into himself for a moment: whatever was about to come out was apparently kept deep within. “I am — call it the executive officer — for the Institute of Reconnaissance, Intelligence, and Security. IRIS, for short. Officially, it is a civilian think tank housed at the Naval War College.”

“And unofficially?”

Downing resisted the same retractile reflex he’d combated a moment earlier. “The Institute coordinates the actions of, and analyzes data gathered by, the world’s various intelligence services.”

Caine stared, then shook his head. “No, I don’t buy that: intelligence organizations would never cooperate that closely.”

“Not knowingly. Which is why IRIS exists: to provide an invisible intelligence locus that is aware of, and able to coordinate responses to, our new global crisis.”

“How can something be a ‘global’ crisis if only your handful of analysts are even aware of it?”

“If something endangers the whole world, then it’s a global crisis — regardless of whether one or one million persons are aware of the danger.”

“Okay, so what the hell can cause a secret global crisis?”

“When we realized that Project Prometheus was going to succeed, we started considering the possibility that, if there was another intelligent species, they might have an FTL drive, too. At first it was just a worrisome hypothesis. But now –”

“Now you’ve found something. Out here.”

“Yes — on Delta Pavonis Three. But we can’t investigate it with any of our contacts in the military or intelligence services, not without drawing attention to both the site and the Institute. So we need you to go there — on your own — and report back on what you find.”

Caine considered this rather surreal scheme and quickly arrived at three possible alternatives. Firstly, he might be hallucinating — in which case he had nothing to lose if he agreed to go looking for exosapients.

If, on the other hand, he was not hallucinating, Downing could be either lying or telling the truth — but whichever it was, he and whoever he worked for were serious enough to abduct and coldcell Caine for a very long time. Which meant if Downing and Company were lying, and Caine refused to cooperate, then their newly defrosted American was of no further use and had to be disposed of. So Caine had to appear to cooperate, if only to buy enough time to escape.

Or, lastly, it was possible that Downing was telling the truth — in which case there was so much at stake that Caine could not, in good conscience, refuse. So all logical roads seemed to lead to cooperation, albeit by very different paths.

But damn it, Caine didn’t like being impressed labor, and he didn’t have to make Downing’s job easy. So his answer took the form of a grudging mutter: “I’ll think about it.”

However, that attempt at gruff defiance came out pathetically slurred: “Althinka bowt.”

Caine started, stared at Downing — and discovered the tall Englishman was becoming a dark gray silhouette, shrinking against the burgeoning, burning lights. “Whu — wuzhapn me?” Caine mumbled.

And then the world contracted, sank, and he plummeted down into the black hole that it became.


Downing checked the monitors attached to Caine’s chair as two orderlies eased the tall, unconscious American into a gurney.

“How is he?” asked Nolan’s voice from speakers hidden behind baffles in the debriefing chamber’s matte black walls.

Downing nodded toward the concealed observation booth. “Passed out. Again. But he’s doing better than yesterday. Pupil dilation and contraction rates are back to normal. So are his EEG and the levels of his acetylcholine, serotonin, potassium, and endorphins. I daresay he’ll remember most of today’s conversation.”

“Did he recall any of yesterday’s session?”

“No, nor of the two days before that. Riordan’s brain chemistries were too imbalanced to form true memories. Until now, that is. Huzzah and hooray.”

“All good news, so why the bitter tone, Richard?”

Downing dismissed the orderlies with a wave. “I’m bitter because he’s here, Nolan. What happened to him on Luna was a mistake.” Downing checked his dataslate. “This is the third time our conversation got as far as his intentions when he came to Perry City. Three times we’ve monitored his vitals, and watched his behavior, as he talks about it. Not once has there been the faintest hint of duplicity.”

Downing tapped the slate: it added the day’s results to the cumulative data. “And he bloody well didn’t hatch a scheme to steal plans from us on the spot: he’s too clever for that kind of amateurish idiocy. But most importantly, it is utterly out of character for him: he had access to some very sensitive materials, over time. He never once spilled those beans — not even when he stood to make quite a tidy profit.” Downing stalked back into the spartan observation room as he finished. “Whatever Riordan was doing outside your suite thirteen years ago, Nolan, it wasn’t to break in and steal secrets.”

“No,” Nolan said quietly, “probably not.”

“Very well. Now let’s leave aside the trifling moral quandary of sending a perfectly innocent man on a covert mission to the far reaches of interstellar space. Let’s stay on practical considerations.” Downing sat and crossed his arms. “Riordan’s not suited for covert operations. And I do not mean his skills: I mean his character.”

Corcoran, avoiding Downing’s eyes, scanned the day’s bio data. “What’s wrong with Caine’s character?”

“There’s nothing wrong with it — and that’s the problem. He made a career out of speaking truth to power — and getting fired for doing so. In short, he’s too straight an arrow for this line of work. He’s a bloody Boy Scout, not a covert operative. And we can’t change that.” And damn it, we shouldn’t even try. It’s bad enough that we have to lie for a living; we’ve no right to corrupt Riordan, too.

But Nolan was shaking his head. “You’re wrong, Rich; he’ll get the job done.”

“Nolan, getting the job done means putting the mission first — even if bystanders and innocents have to die. I don’t believe Riordan can do that.”

“He can, if he must. Caine sees the big picture. He’ll remember what’s at stake and do the right thing.”

Downing shook his head. “It has to be a reflex, which can’t be trained overnight. And I don’t have enough time with him.”

Corcoran faced Downing squarely. “Hell, Rich; you’ve got two shifts left: a little over two months. That is plenty of training time.”

“With all due respect, Admiral, that is hogwash. That might be a lot of training time for an operative who already has the right background: military, counterintelligence, even police work. But an author and analyst?”

Nolan nodded. “Yes, he’s an author — and a big part of his success was that when he analyzed military or space policy, he got his hands dirty. He went and learned the ropes himself. He’s gone through Basic and part of ROTC, and was on site in some pretty dangerous situations, like the Pretoria Quarantine. And as for dealing with shady characters — well, he’s had an arm’s-length relationship with the press for ten years, so we know he can think on his feet and smell hidden agendas a mile off.” Nolan glanced out the observation panel at the limp body lying on the gurney; Riordan’s auburn hair was lank with sweat, his half-lidded green eyes as inert as those of a corpse. “Caine will do just fine.”

Downing grunted, picked up his dataslate from the booth’s control panel. “Nolan, there’s one last thing you might want to consider: a straight arrow like Riordan usually has a strong conscience. So he might veer from his initial trajectory if he begins to doubt the integrity of the bowmen who launched him.”

“Then we’ll just have to make sure that he never doubts our integrity, won’t we — Richard?”

Downing, hearing his full name used, didn’t need to hear the emphasis as well: Nolan had indicated that it was “Richard’s job” to ensure Caine’s continued faith in his handlers and mission. Brilliant, just brilliant. “I’ll be heading off to dinner, then. Coming, Nolan?”

The retired admiral did not look away from Riordan when he replied. “Thanks, Rich. I’m not hungry yet. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Downing nodded. “Bright and early.” He entered the security code for the debriefing chamber’s exit. It hissed open.

But as Downing stepped into the corridor beyond, he heard a faint sound behind him: Corcoran had left the observer’s booth, was already next to Riordan’s gurney. And, just as the security door closed, Downing noticed that Nolan had abandoned his customary military bearing. He looked more like a troubled father standing beside the bed of a desperately ill child.