Fire With Fire – Snippet 08

Chapter Four


Rocking in unison with the wind-shear chop, Caine’s borrowed slouch hat flopped up and down against his upper back, the rawhide chinstrap tugging at his throat in time with the drumming downdrafts.

“Sorry about this, Mr. Riordan,” the pilot called over his shoulder into the payload bay. “We’re over the coast and hitting some thermals. We should be out of it soon.”

“Not a problem. How long to Shangri-La?”

“Instruments are telling me five minutes, maybe a few more.”

“What does human experience tell you?”

“Nothing, sir: only made this run once before, about a year ago. Then, no more.”

“What happened a year ago?”

The vertibird shuddered, pitched down and sideways, righted. “CoDevCo came in, took over all the runs to and from the downport. Not real friendly about it, either. This is the first time they’ve let one of our planes into their airspace in six months.”

“That’s a violation of the colonial ‘equal-use’ policy, isn’t it?”

“I’m no lawyer, but it sure seems that way to me. If you’re done checking your gear, I’d recommend you strap in. We’ve got a few more –”

The deck dove away from Caine’s feet at the same instant that the ceiling struck a quick downward blow: the impact against the top of his head made a sound like an iron hammer hitting an anvil. Felt like it, too.

“Shit. Sir, are you –?”

“I’m fine,” Caine lied, staying on hands and knees as he moved forward into the cockpit, letting the pulsing spots — and the dull hum between his ears — subside. He half-slid, half-crawled, into the copilot’s chair.

The pilot stole a sideways look at him. “You sure you’re –?”

“I’m fine.”

“I really am sorry, sir. I should have warned you that –”

“Listen: it’s my fault. Wasn’t like I needed to check the lashings on my gear a fourth time.”

“What is all that stuff, anyway?”

“Research materials.”

Another sideways look from the pilot, skeptical this time. “Really? What kind of research do you do with a trail kit and a rifle?”

Caine smiled. “Field research.” Caine wondered if the pilot had noticed any of the other unusual items. Besides the predictable collection of rations, salt pills, water purification tabs, and personal medkit, there were the less standard items: thermal imaging goggles, a multi-spectrum sensor kit, high-end photographic gear, a binary-propellant NeoCoBro machine pistol with heterogeneous clips that alternated between discarding sabot and expanding rounds, and a sealed gray-green canister covered with indecipherable abbreviations and acronyms — all stenciled in the dusty yellow block letters favored by the USSF. Well, if the pilot had seen the last two, it meant he had X-ray vision: they were buried under the mundane gear in the A-frame backpack.

The pilot was still considering Caine’s explanation. “Field research, huh? Well, I hope you find what you’re looking for — before it finds you.” He looked away with a small, tight smile.

Me, too. Hell, I just wish I really knew what I was looking for. “Is that the valley?”

The pilot craned his neck to look further. “Yup. It’s pretty wide here; gets narrower, the further up you go.”

The chop had subsided and the pilot banked to angle onto the valley’s southwest-to-northeast centerline, following a glittering blue ribbon that preceded them. Thick swaths of green hemmed it in its course, worked away from the river and up the sheltering slopes. Which grew steeper as they flew. Caine checked his watch; they were right on time. “Nice country.”

The pilot nodded. “Seems so — but I’ve never had a chance to get out and see for myself.” He glanced at the dense jungle canopy scudding beneath them. “Not too safe on your own, even if you’re well armed. We can digest the flora and fauna here, so it only makes sense that they can return the favor. And from what I hear, some critters are pretty enthusiastic about doing so. The ones here in Shangri-La haven’t learned to fear guns yet, so shoot to kill: they won’t run away.”

“Thanks. That’s good to know.”

“You shoot much?”

Caine shook his head, thought he saw a hint of right angles distressing the landscape up ahead. “Some. Not too often.”

“Well, you might want to get in a little time at the range before you go into the bush. Adjust the sights, get a feel for the –”

“Already did it, before we took off from Downport.”

“Oh. I thought you said you don’t shoot much.”

“I didn’t — until this afternoon.”

The pilot smiled. “Yeah, I heard about your welcoming committee this morning. So now you’re ready to return the sentiments?”

“Something like that.” Caine pointed at the horizon, now clearly sprouting low rectangular silhouettes in the middle of wide, squared clearings. “Is that — what do they call their base anyway?”

“Site One: how’s that for an imaginative name? Typical bureaucrats. Yeah, that’s it up ahead.”

“Looks like they’ve cleared a lot of the forest at that wide point.”

The pilot was stretching to get a better look. “A whole hell of a lot more than I’ve seen — or heard about.”

Well off to the north, nestled up against the skirts of the low hills on that side, were what appeared to be a cluster of towers. “Know anything about those?”

The pilot shook his head. “Not a clue.”

“How long until we land?”

“They’ll be talking me toward a vertipad any second now.”

Caine thought for a moment. Then: “You’ve made a mistake; you need to come around for another pass.”

“Sir, we’re right on –”

“I know what the instruments say. But I’m telling you: we’ve made a mistake; you need to circle around for another landing approach.”

The pilot’s frown became a study in strained patience. “Sir, even if I knew what the hell you’re talking about, please remember that this is a vertibird: we don’t make ‘approach runs,’ so I would never need to circle around for another landing attempt.”

“Today you need to.”

The beginning of the comchatter from Site One’s ground control was on general speaker. “Commonwealth Zero-Tango-Niner; you are correctly vectored for transition to vertical landing at Pad Two, coming to a range of ten kilometers at my mark. And…mark.”

“Site One ATC, this is Commonwealth flight 0T9. I roger your telemetry, and am requesting confirmation for –”

Caine made a throat-cutting gesture with his right hand. The pilot sighed, snapped off the transmitter. “Sir, what now?”

“Tell him you don’t trust the gimballing servos on your thrusters; you want to make a runway landing, not vertical.”

“Look, sir –”

Caine pulled out the magic ID card that Downing had given him: this might be the one chance he’d get for close aerial reconnaissance of the site.

The pilot looked over at the card — bored and a little annoyed — and had started to look away when his eyes grew wide, and he looked back. Quickly. As his eyes went through a high-speed back-and-forth scan of the ID and clearance card, his lips slowly dilated and contracted through the cycle of a soundless “Wow.”

“Charlie Whiskey Zero-Tango-Niner: please say again. Your last transmission broke up.”

The pilot turned the transmitter back on. “Site One ATC, I’m having problems reading you. Am also showing orange lights on the thrust vectoring panel: I’ll need to skip transition to vertical. Requesting emergency access to runway one.”

“Negative, CW 0T9 — you do not have authorization for –”

“Site One ATC, your commo is breaking up. Please say again.” He let the increasingly anxious ground controller get about half way through his denial for the runway landing request before speaking right over the top: “Site One ATC, I am no longer reading you. Please be advised: I am coming about bearing 235 true for approach to Runway One. Please signal ‘all clear’ by setting runway approach lights to strobe mode. CW 0T9 out.” The pilot snapped off the transmitter, banked the plane into a long, left-sweeping curve toward the towers, which now showed themselves as a cluster of girder frameworks. “Do you think they’ll buy it?”

Caine leaned forward to get a better look at what appeared to be a quarry at Site One’s extreme northern perimeter. “Can’t say that I care.”

*   *   *

Within five minutes of landing, Caine was being ushered into a room of uncompromising opulence. As he set his A-frame down next to the auto-closing door, he was careful not to scratch the wood-paneling. Is it ebony? No, apparently not. High overhead, descending from a vaulted ceiling reminiscent of Louis 14th enameled and gold-leafed grandeur, were two immense chandeliers. At the far end of the room was a dark wood desk large enough to pass as a small mesa. The man behind it — spare, trimly mustachioed, adjusting a data-link viewing monocle — waited: no motion suggested that he was prepared to close the distance to Caine, nor that he was even going to come around the end of his desk. So that’s the way it’s going to be —