Fire With Fire – Snippet 04

Chapter Two


Caine frayed another wire end, cursed, and glanced up at the training area’s control booth. “Do you have to keep distracting me while I try to memorize this circuitry?”

Downing nodded down at him. “It’s part of the training. If you ever need to jury-rig a command override, or cut a control circuit, you will probably be in a loud, chaotic, and very dangerous environment.”

Caine looked around as buzzers shrieked and lights flashed erratically. “At least you left out the dangerous parts.”

“In this scenario, the hatch just to your left — the one you’re trying to bypass now — opens directly to space. And you are not wearing a spacesuit.”

“Well, that’s not a big deal, since the vacuum is just make-believe.”

“That’s a dangerous assumption, Caine.”

“But this is just training. You wouldn’t –”

“I suggest you work while we talk. A tight schedule such as ours means we have to train you using the fastest form of operant conditioning: negative reinforcement. So failures will result in unpleasant consequences.”

Caine found that the hatchway seemed slightly ominous, now. He started stripping the next wire more vigorously. “Yeah, but this is a training exercise –”

“And, as I said, part of it is to train you to perform tasks while being distracted. So, as you work, I will continue answering the questions you asked about IRIS. To continue, the Institute’s primary mandate is to reduce our home system’s vulnerability to hypothetically hostile exosapients.”

Caine twisted the exposed wires. “If the exosapients have a technological edge, you’d be winning a victory just to get them to land on Earth itself.”

Downing paused. “And how would that be a victory?”

“Hell, it’s better than having them exterminate us from orbit.” Caine looked for the green lead, found it snuggled behind the red one: good thing I’m not color blind. “Look: if alien invaders beat us in space, they could stay in Earth orbit and play ‘drop the rock’ until they’ve battered us back into the Stone Age. Of course, if they’re genocidal, they’ll do that anyway — and none of this matters.”

“Wouldn’t mass landings be as bad as bombardment?”

“You won’t be facing mass landings unless their technology is way, way beyond ours.” Caine fumbled the multitool: it grazed across two leads, imparted a mild shock. “From what you told me earlier, the projected development of FTL craft predicts that they’ll remain big, expensive, and therefore, rare. That means our adversary can only bring limited forces. Unless they’re godlike.”

“Very well — but I still don’t see how having them establish a beachhead is a victory for us.”

Caine looked up at the control booth. “Are you familiar with the Vietnam War?”

Downing stared down: there was a split second of uncertainty in his responding nod.

Caine shrugged. “The Vietnamese were utter underdogs: inferior tech, lack of air supremacy, unable to strike at their opponent’s homeland. But they won the war, despite losing every major battle.” Caine twisted two wires together, realized he had only half the job done but had used almost three-quarters of his available time. “They understood that when your enemy is large and technologically superior, you want him in your territory, because — if you are still the true master of your own countryside — his invasion force will become your hostage.”

“Perhaps — but in our scenario, an invader’s orbital fire could reduce our cities to rubble first.”

Caine shook his head. “Not if they intend to rule us rather than exterminate us. So, if they want to avoid a ‘final solution,’ you dangle the prospect of capitulation — or even collaboration — under their noses while preparing to strike at them.”

“And with their superior technology, how do you propose to get close enough to strike at them?”

Caine glanced up. “By getting — or prepositioning — forces inside their beachhead. And don’t give me that doubting-Thomas look: there are always methods of infiltrating forces through ‘secure perimeters’ or ‘impassable’ borders.”

“Such as?”

“Well, if we don’t take the story too literally, the tactic of the Trojan Horse still has merit.” Caine quickly stripped the insulation off the last two wires. “Look: if people — exosapients or otherwise — want something from you, sooner or later, they’re going to want to meet with you — on what they believe to be their turf.”

Downing nodded. “And that’s how you get inside, get close enough to deliver the first, crippling blow.”

Caine nodded back. “That’s the way you get inside. Hey, I’m almost done here.”

“Yes. But unfortunately, you have just run out of time.”

Red lights flashed and spun; a klaxon howled next to Caine’s ear. The hatchway beside him wrenched open with a high-speed hiss. But instead of finding himself sucked out into space, Caine was slammed backwards by a lateral geyser of water.

And, as the roaring flume bounced him off the mock-up bulkheads — which Caine discovered were just as hard as real ones — he thought: Well, shit.


Nolan edged into the control room as the orderlies were helping a bruised and waterlogged Caine limp out of the test chamber. “How’d it go?”

Downing snatched up his dataslate. “A brilliant success and a dismal failure. Riordan effortlessly spewed out a number of completely novel — and potentially game-changing — strategic insights, but botched the main task: a simple circuitry bypass job that many of our average trainees learn in half the time.” Downing shook his head. “I’m afraid Caine’s genius must be of a very narrow sort.”

“Oh, Riordan isn’t a genius. I mean, he is, but that’s not what makes him useful to us. And that’s not why he excelled at one task while botching another.”

Downing looked up. “Then what was the cause?”

“Interest versus boredom.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Caine was interested in your strategic brainstorming but bored by the circuitry test.”

Downing reared back in his seat. “Well, isn’t that simply awful for him. I will try to create an amusing vignette involving the circuitry next time.”

Nolan smiled. “It can be challenging working with a true polymath. We don’t see many in our line of work, mostly because they lack either the depth of interest to become world-class experts at any one thing, or the ability to maintain a brutally narrow field of focus. Or both.”

“Hmm. That doesn’t sound like a polymath; that sounds like a dilettante. Or a spoiled brat.”

Nolan shrugged. “In some cases, they are both. But for most polymaths, that’s just how they’re wired. The intensive detail work that intrigues most field-specific geniuses is usually suffocating for them.”

“So that’s why Riordan can’t memorize the circuitry?”

“Maybe. Or maybe he’s just bad at it. Or maybe he’s subconsciously responding to the inconsistency between what we’ve been telling him about the mission versus what we’ve been training him for. We assure him that he’s being sent to Delta Pavonis Three just to look around, ask some questions, gather some evidence: nothing dangerous at all. But then we spend most of our time teaching him how to hotwire bulkheads, crack security codes, recognize counterintelligence agents, and a dozen other field craft skills that you only need when the work gets risky.”

Downing folded his arms. “Well, he should understand that even though we believe the job will be easy, we are preparing him to survive and succeed in the event the job becomes hard.”

“Look, Rich, you don’t have to convince me. And I suspect that after today, it won’t be so difficult to convince Caine, either. But if you don’t engage his interest, or his self-preservation instincts, you’d better prepare for more frustration: polymaths do not tend to be good rote learners.

“So why in bloody hell is a polymath any good for us?”

Nolan smiled. “Because, if sufficiently interested or motivated, a true polymath can learn almost anything. They don’t see the world as a big pile of discrete facts and figures. They see it as a matrix of paradigms and interrelated data. Hell, sometimes they find a solution to a problem in one field of knowledge by applying the established principles of another field.”

“Ah,” exhaled Downing with mock reverence, “a Renaissance man.”

Nolan shrugged. “That term may be increasingly accurate.”


“Because in the Renaissance, broadly integrative thought was at a premium; empirical method was in its infancy. Now, with the tools of measurement so highly refined, we produce lots of narrow specialists but fewer expansive thinkers.”

“Well, I doubt expansive thought is going to help Mr. Riordan when he gets into the field.” Downing rose. “And that time is approaching all too quickly. With our luck, Caine’s op could come apart before it’s started, probably before he even debarks from the shuttle down to Dee Pee Three…”


Caine squinted through the gloom of the generic shuttle’s cargo bay. On its far side, he could see the partial silhouettes of the two terrorists who would surely resume their attack soon.

Why the terrorists had been on the shuttle, and what they were after, was not clear and probably never would be. Their attempt to hold the bridge crew hostage had apparently devolved into a firefight which ended up blasting out the flight deck windows and exposing friend and foe alike to hard vacuum.

Caine had heard that much over the comm system before the carnage had spiraled out into the small ship’s passageways. As one of the last persons out of the portside passenger compartment, he moved away from the general rush toward the escape pods, since that was also the route to the bridge. Shortly afterward, a sudden increase in gunfire and screams from the bow confirmed his instincts against heading forward. Continuing aft toward the cargo bay, he hoped to find something there that might serve as a weapon.

Finding the bay access doors closed, he had presumed he was the first to enter, but as he stepped inside and hit the reseal button, he caught sight of hurried movement to his left. He dove to the right, behind a cargo-heaped plat, just before a flurry of handgun shots spattered it and the bulkhead behind him.

And so here he was, pinned down by the very terrorists he had been hoping to elude. He had no time to wonder what the terrorists were doing in the cargo bay, or why the overhead lume panels suddenly failed, leaving only the red glow of the emergency lights. Whether or not the battle for control of the shuttle continued was equally unknown. But, at the moment, it was also wholly extraneous: he was in a cavernous hold, alone and unarmed, facing two very armed and dangerous enemies.

Scanning, he saw nothing but the freight and tools common to a cargo bay. Wait: common tools. Caine scuttled over to a power tool bench-box, found a pneumatic wrench. It was typically used for unbolting containers, or affixing modular cargoes to plats like the one he was sheltering behind. But with a slightly undersized bolt snuggled into its socket —

Caine inserted an undersized bolt, adjusted the wrench’s torque and pressure settings to maximum, and popped up. Before the two terrorists could react, he snapped the trigger of the wrench sharply: it emitted a curt blast and sent the puny bolt caroming off boxes well to the left of the terrorists. However, the bolt made a sound passably akin to a ricochet.

Caine ducked down a moment before his enemies’ return fire sent two rounds thumping into his cover. Well, since they’re not charging at me yet, they at least think it possible that I have a real gun. And until they decide to test that possibility, I can look around.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to see, and almost none of it was useful. There were numerous spools of reinforced cargo netting on the floor and affixed to the bulkheads, most of it made of variable-elastic polymers: tough as nails yet lots of give. There was also a liberal scattering of containers, boxes, packing materials, lashings, c-clamps, carabineer clips, spare parts, and just plain rubbish. But Caine detected one notable detail: a circuitry-access panel was hanging askew at the near side of the door. The terrorists had obviously cracked it open to bypass the lock-outs that restricted access to the doors into and out of the cargo bay — including the bay doors themselves. That was probably why they had come down here: their job was to secure key cargos and get local control over the bay doors for off-loading.