Fire With Fire – Snippet 05

Studying the locations of the nearby containers and boxes more carefully, Caine also realized that he had a mostly covered route back to that panel. There was a single, exposed gap, but it was only half a meter wide. The two terrorists wouldn’t be able to react fast enough to hit him if he rolled, low and fast, across that open space. And once at the door’s control keypad, Caine could open the main entry back into the shuttle, open the bay doors on his way out, and reseal the entry behind him. Heh. Let’s see how those two bastards like getting sucked out into hard vacuum…

Caine flinched as the main entry opened. A young boy — no more than nine — ran in, shouting as he did, “Hello? Anyone? We need help! We’ve almost taken back the bridge but we –”

“Get down!” shouted Caine at the same moment that one of the pirates’ guns spat.

The boy fell forward sharply, as if someone had swung a bat into his kneecaps. He shouted in pain, then terror as dark blood began leaking out of a through-and-through wound in his left thigh. “Help me!” he screamed in Caine’s general direction. A moment later, the two terrorists rose up slightly, training their guns carefully on the approaches to the boy.

Caine felt his molars grind together: he could sneak over to the controls using the boxes as cover, trigger the bay doors, and then help retake the shuttle. But that would kill the boy, too. Or he could run to help the boy and get shot to pieces.

Or maybe there was a third option —

Caine quickly scanned the lashings on the plat in front of him and snatched off the biggest carabineer clip he could find. “I’m coming!” he shouted at the boy, tossed up a piece of trash — and was then moving across the open gap toward the control panel even as two shots barked at the fluttering piece of paper he had lofted.

More shots whined off the containers that covered his route to the hanging access panel. Once there, he reached out for a spool of cargo netting affixed to the bulkhead. He uncoiled it, opened the carabineer clip, snagged a section of netting with it, and snapped the clip closed around his own belt. As the two thugs started to move and the boy started to whimper, Caine sucked in a deep breath and jumped over to the control pad: he punched the button that opened the cargo bay doors and sprinted toward the child.

At the other end of the hold, a small wedge of stars and a sliver of blue — Delta Pavonis Three — appeared, widening rapidly. Shots were already barking after Caine’s heels: startled by his unexpected charge, the terrorists didn’t have him in their sights — yet. But Riordan’s attention remained fixed on the boy, whose round, terrified eyes had turned away from the yawning spacescape and outrushing debris and were now fixed upon his own. Pleading.

Caine finished his short sprint to the boy just as the outbound hurricane intensified into the full, ferocious suction of hard vacuum. He dove, caught the boy by the arm as they were swept off the deck and pulled out toward space.

The two terrorists, screaming, shot past them, arms flailing to grab something — anything — to arrest their fatal tumble outward. Caine closed his nostrils tightly, slapped his hand over the boy’s face, pinching his nose shut. They too were almost through the bay doors and into the void —

— when the cargo netting snapped straight out to its limit, humming like an immense, just-fired bowstring. Caine jackknifed at the waist, but held on to the child. He felt as though his own belt might cut him in two —

But then the netting’s inevitable return flex began, pulling them away from the widening panorama of airless death even as the cyclone diminished, the bay’s air almost fully spent. Caine looked over his shoulder: when they had retracted all the way to the bulkhead, he would have to quickly close the bay and cycle the interior access doors so that —

— the world faded to gray. Its sounds ended more sharply, as if someone had turned them off. The temperature and pressure extremes faded back to norm within seconds as Caine reoriented himself, wondering what had caused the simulation to terminate so abruptly.

Around him, the sensory suit sagged with uncommon suddenness: the sensa-gel in which it was immersed was being speed-purged from the simchamber. What the hell is goi –?

The hatch behind Caine opened with a breathy hiss and Downing’s voice — sharp, unpleasant — was audible even through the full-enclosure headphones. “Riordan, get out here. Now.”

Caine complied, but without any particular rush: you may be my trainer and handler, Downing, but you don’t own me.

But before Caine had his second leg all the way out of the simulation pod, Downing was acting very much like he did own his impressed recruit. “Mr. Riordan, would you care to tell me what the hell you were doing at the end of the simulation?”

“Uh — completing the mission.”

“‘Completing the mission’? Do you even know what your mission was?”

“To retake the shuttle and get down to Delta Pavonis Three.”

“Yes. And you jeopardized that by stopping to rescue the boy.”

“Look, I’m not going to ignore an opportunity to save a kid, even if it means adding a little more risk.”

“‘A little more risk’? Is that what you call that harebrained stunt in the cargo bay? The objective here was to retake the shuttle so you could continue the mission. Period. Saving the boy was an unnecessary risk. Even saving the other passengers would simply have been a happy byproduct. You have failed, Mr. Riordan — failed to learn that the mission always comes first. That was the test.”

“Huh. I thought the test was to do the best job possible.”

“‘Doing the best job’ means minimizing risk. This time, it meant sacrificing innocents.”

“But I didn’t have to: I found a way to save both the boy and the mission.”

“That’s a sim. In the field, those instincts will get you killed.”

Caine yanked off his virtual reality helmet. “Fine. So I flunk. Go get some other student. Please.”


Downing pushed down his annoyance. “Caine,” he said calmly, “you know you can’t just walk away from this job. You’re too much of a security risk, given everything we’ve told you.”

Caine folded his arms. “So how will you ensure my continued cooperation? Threaten to withhold information about my one hundred missing hours?”

Downing shook his head. “That would not be effective enough.”

Caine’s eyes widened, then became very narrow. “Oh. I get it. If I don’t shape up, then you stick me back into the freezer?”

Downing shrugged. “Let’s not let it get to that point, shall we?”

Caine stared at him, yanked the leads off the sensory suit and stalked out of the sim chamber.

A moment later, Nolan entered from the sim operator’s booth. “Well, that went well.”

Downing pulled off the virtual gloves with which he had controlled the actions of one of the two terrorists in the cargo bay. “Caine won’t be a safe operative, Nolan. He refuses to learn.”

“Is that what’s bothering you — or that he not only won, but pretty much broke your sim while he was at it?”

Downing thought about it. “Both, probably. He certainly made me feel a right dolt: I designed a sim to force him to choose between his mission and his conscience. Instead, he turns it around so that the outcome winds up reinforcing his belief that he can always stop to save orphans and stray kittens. Mark my words, Nolan: that attitude is going to get him killed. Besides, he’s too damned smart for his own good.”

Nolan smiled. “Don’t let it bother you, Rich.”

“Easy for you to say; he didn’t just outsmart you at your own game.”

“Look, Caine’s clever and he’s got a lot of breadth, but he lacks expertise and real field experience. And he’s not a genius at everything, you know. Hell, taken separately, no one of his abilities is really that jaw-dropping.”

Downing looked at Nolan, having heard the hanging tone. “Except for what?”

Nolan shrugged. “Except that he can constantly integrate almost everything he knows to solve problems. That’s what polymaths really excel at, because when they look at the world, they see more variables than fixed values. You and I see a screwdriver; Caine not only sees a screwdriver, but a weapon, and a lever, and a straight-edge, and a counterweight, and ad infinitum. They don’t try to do that; it’s just how their brains work.”

Downing returned his virtual reality goggles to their protective case. “So when we included the netting in the sim, we gave him a tool we weren’t aware of.”

“Right. And that couldn’t have happened with the old sims, where there was a lot of restriction regarding how many items in the environment were manipulable. But now, everything in the environment is available. So Caine didn’t break your sim: he just saw a solution none of the programmers — including you — anticipated.”

Downing grabbed his dataslate, started making notes. “I still say he’s not right for the mission.”

“You mean, you’re still pissed he got the better of your sim.”

Downing rounded on Nolan. “No, I’m pissed that he’s got a better soul than he should. He’s too decent a bloke for this shite, and you know it.”

“‘Too decent’?”

“Of course. You saw the end of the sim: sooner or later, Caine’s fine moral sensibilities are going to get him killed.”

Corcoran leaned back, his eyes assessing. “Rich, I can’t tell if you resent him or admire him.”

Downing stared at his superior. “Nolan, I not only admire Riordan; I envy him. He isn’t up to his neck in the lies that we peddle, that we live. And that’s why he can’t be trusted: because he won’t jump into the cesspool with the rest of us.”

Nolan smiled. “Well, he can be trusted to do the right thing, can’t he?”


“Then he’s predictable. You can work with that.”

Nolan smiled and left Downing sitting speechless, mouth open — partly at his superior’s easy sagacity, and partly at his ruthless pragmatism.

*   *   *

When they arrived at Epsilon Indi five days later, Downing accompanied Nolan to the pinnace that would ferry him to the Earth-bound shift-carrier Commonwealth. The retired admiral put out his hand. “So long, Rich. Have you settled on a code name for Riordan, yet?”

Downing shook Corcoran’s wide, strong hand. “Yes. He’s ‘Odysseus’ — who wound up getting lost and not coming home, you might recall. Not exactly an auspicious code name. Although it could well be prophetic.”

Nolan smiled. “Odysseus was a proto-polymath, though. How does The Odyssey begin? ‘This is the story of a man who was never at a lack.’ We could do worse, I think.”

Downing frowned. “It would still be better if we sent a professional operative.”

“I would if I could, Rich. But that won’t work on Delta Pavonis Three. If, as we suspect, the megacorporations are trying to conceal the evidence of sentients there, they’ll be alert for interference. They probably have dossiers on all our professional operatives, or could sniff out a new one. Either way, they’d clean up their act before our agent gets to see what’s really going on. But they won’t know that Caine is a covert operator, or foresee his intents, for quite a while.”

“So we hope.”

Nolan’s smile widened as he waved. “I’ll miss your sunny optimism, Rich. Don’t waste any time getting back to Earth.”

Downing returned the wave and wondered when Caine Riordan might be able to make such a return trip himself.

If ever.