Fire With Fire – Snippet 12

“Well, the stakes certainly are high. However, our operations here haven’t involved any environmental abuse — but you won’t believe me until you’ve seen the evidence with your own eyes.” She crooked a finger. “Follow me.”

And watching her from behind, Caine locked his teeth gently, acknowledging that, despite whom and what she was, a large and libidinal part of him was quite willing to follow her anywhere.

She stopped where the valley floor began its transition into a steep-sided mountain. As Caine approached, she pointed along the leeward base of a granite outcropping. A five-meter line of regular stones — almost invisible in the mossy ground — paralleled the stony tendril of the mountain at a distance of one meter. She smiled. “There’s what we were hiding.”

He looked. “That?”

She smiled more widely. “That, and about three or four others we’ve found like it. Is it an artifact of intelligent life? Unquestionably. But that’s all we’ve got. We haven’t seen any current evidence of a sapient species that could build this. In fact, these are the only such signs we’ve found whatsoever.”

“Have you dated the stones?”

“Not exactly the kind of equipment we carry, and if we had asked for it, there was always the chance that someone would ask why we wanted it. I understand it’s a find of some significance –”

Some significance? Could balance sheets really blind her — or anyone — to the immense implications of it?

“– but we’re being careful not to disturb the sites, and it’s not as though they’re going to disappear. I realize the research they will stimulate is important, but how urgent can it be?” She smiled. “Judging from ruins I saw when I was growing up, I’d say we’re at least ten thousand years too late for the matter to be ‘urgent’ in any practical sense.”

He knew she was watching him carefully behind her vaguely coquettish stare. So Caine made sure that he appeared to be trying to keep his face expressionless — as if he were attempting to suppress disappointment. After a moment, she looked away, evidently satisfied with what she thought she had seen. “Ready to go?”

He nodded, turned without a word, heard her fall in behind him.

As they got near the Rover, he swayed forward slightly, stretched out an arm, caught and steadied himself against the hood.

She was at his side — surprisingly swift — and did not miss the opportunity to put a solicitous hand on his left bicep. “Are you quite well?”

“Yeah. I just feel — a bit faint. The heat — I think.”

“Well, we can always do this another time.”

“No — no, I’ll be okay.”

She looked at him closely. “Very well, but I think we should end early today. Finish up with a visit to the executive pool. It’s wonderfully cool. Soothing.”

Caine looked at her. “That sounds — appealing.”

She nodded slowly, her eyes constantly on his. “It’s a great way to relax, to release the stress.”

“I suppose it is.” He straightened up. “But that’s for later: what’s next on our agenda?”

“Our own downport — and thanks for reminding me.” She reached into the Rover for the radio, sharply informed whoever answered that she’d be there with the V.I.P. in about twenty minutes, and signed off without a goodbye. She turned a sweeter-than-candy smile on Caine and resumed her review of their schedule: “After the downport, we’ll see the workers’ compound, including the fee-free clinic; our survey command center; and one of our weather-monitoring stations. And then, a quick dip. Before drinks and dinner.”

Caine smiled, nodded, thought: that agenda is one item short of what Helger promised — and one item short of what I really want to see. “Great, but what happened to my visit with the EU’s Deputy Administrator, Ms. Fireau?” Who might not be very happy with the current state of affairs here. Fireau had been in charge before Helger — and the consequent deluge of CoDevCo money, personnel, and influence.

Consuela leaned her arms on the Rover’s hood, adopting a posture that provided a half-obstructed view of her cleavage. She pouted and smiled at the same time: “I’m sorry, I thought Louis sent you word: Ms. Fireau had to fly back to Little Leyden today. Business emergency, I’m afraid.”

Naturally. “When did she leave?”

“Just a few minutes ago. That must have been her vertibird that went over us earlier: we don’t send out a lot of VTOL traffic.”

Okay, so there it was: Helger’s ploy of using Consuela as a subtly salacious species of flypaper had already impeded him and his investigation. It was a shame to miss Fireau, but Caine hadn’t expected Helger to permit a meeting with her. He elected to look surprised, then sound annoyed: “When will Ms. Fireau return?”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Riordan. I don’t know.”

Shall I tell you? Just as soon as I’m airborne back for Downport, Ms. Fireau will be on a plane back here. That way, I can’t interview her back in Little Leyden, either.

“And that’s it? That’s our day-trip?”

“That’s it. Why? Was there something else you wanted to see?”

He didn’t hear a probe, but he was sure it was there. She called ahead right before we came here, and she just called ahead to our next stop. She’s calling ahead with a warning everyplace we go. I’ll never get an honest look at anything, particularly what I want to see the most: that big dig to the north. That doesn’t look like oil wells to me. But I can’t let her take me there, can’t even let her know I’m interested in it, or that I noticed. So here’s a bone for you to chase later on, Consuela: “I was hoping to see the river, further downstream: I hear you’ve got some aquaculture experiments going on there?”

“Why, yes, we do. Sure: we can fit that in.”

Caine smiled — then staggered during his attempt to get into the Rover. He half sat down, half fell down, into the front passenger seat.

She came around quickly. “Mr. Riordan, are you quite sure you’re –?”

“I’m okay. But I think — I think I need some water. Do we have some?”

“No –”

I know that.

“– but I can go to the break shed and get you a bottle. Will you be all right here?”

“Sure. Thanks. Sorry about — this.”

She smiled, turned to assume her newest role as his loyal Gunga Dinette — and, from the corner of his eye, he saw that, as she turned, her reassuring smile became tight and contemptuous.

He watched her stride away: this was a woman who didn’t like weakness. Except, of course, when she stood to benefit by it. Right now, she was probably thinking: Outstanding. I get to control him without having to get laid by him.

Caine smiled as she disappeared around the corner: So you don’t like weakness. I hope you like surprises. He swung his legs up into the Rover, scooted over to the driver’s seat, turned the key, and upshifted, turning the vehicle in a slow, dustless arc back onto the road that plunged into the shadows of the not-trees.