Fire With Fire – Snippet 14

Chapter Seven


Consuela didn’t meet him at the pool. Didn’t join him for drinks. Was not in sight when he entered the executive refectory — which appeared comparable to a three-star restaurant — and asked for dinner.

“Very well — oh, you are Mr. Riordan, are you not?”

“I am.”

“I have a private alcove reserved for you. Courtesy of Mr. Helger. Would you please follow me?”

The alcove was paneled in the same faux-ebony as Helger’s office. It felt like wood — but with a faint hint of increased surface flexibility. The maître-d’ smiled efficiently. “Your waiter will be with you momentarily. Is there anything I can do in the meantime?”

Cheerful subservience accompanies all entrees. The house special both within and beyond the refectory. “Nothing, thank you.” He reached for a chair himself, forestalling the maître-d’s incipient lunge to help. He had his palmtop out before he sat, reopening the survey files that he was now ready to reassess.

He ran the real-time aerial surveys collected by the USSF. The best of the thermal imaging scans — from a recon VTOL’s FLIR — was partially degraded by the foliage, but the results were still clear: a dozen, maybe fifteen vertically oblong signatures, holding together in pack movement. They had the long, rolling gait of bipeds, not the reach-and-pull movement of quadrupeds at high speed. Mass was indeterminate, but the sensors estimated maximum height to be just under two meters: the right size.

The Navy had landed, looked around, found nothing definitive. In the hollow of a dense thicket of helical tubers, a rating — apparently seeking privacy for a moment of personal relief — discovered some spoor which suggested possible tool use: sharpened sticks, unusually smooth rocks that seemed about hand-sized. There were no anthropologists among that shore party, so they could only guess. The Navy marked the area for subsequent detailed study, posted it as off-limits to the first wave of Commonwealth colonists, and kept an eye out for similar signs in the other regions of Dee Pee Three.

The results of that haphazard monitoring effort were not encouraging. There were one or two possible contacts, but they were recorded by automated sensors: by the time anyone saw the results and dispatched a manned survey unit, the site was cold. Had there been hundreds, even thousands, of the creatures, Dee Pee Three was a big enough world that they could remain unencountered for years, maybe decades.

Dee Pee Three’s size wasn’t the only variable that complicated the search. Despite being further from its star than Earth was from the Sun — 1.14 AU — Dee Pee Three was a hotter world. Although fractionally smaller than Earth, greater density gave it greater gravity, which in turn had led to a more dense atmosphere. Along with a slightly greater greenhouse effect, it also had less liquid water: sixty percent surface coverage, and those oceans were not very deep. Only a tiny spot on each pole failed to reach summertime highs above zero degrees Celsius, meaning that the ice-caps “migrated” with the seasons, just as they did on Mars. The net result was a planetary mean of about twenty-four degrees Celsius, almost ten degrees higher than Earth. And much of the deviation from an Earthlike baseline was relatively recent: spectral analysis and other indicators suggested that Delta Pavonis had undergone a small but steady increase in stellar luminosity over the last five to ten thousand years. With the sun lamp set a bit higher, Dee Pee Three’s thermic equilibrium had teetered a bit: there was plentiful evidence of a recent past in which the weather patterns had been milder, the poles had been small but permanent features, and the heat of the tropic zones had been merely punishing, not lethal. Erosion patterns indicated that in the relatively recent geological past there had been a far greater profusion of ground plants in the equatorial plains, which had held the soils in place: now there were deserts of superheated dust, often carried aloft by the cyclones that followed the changes of the seasons.

Caine read this story of a planet wobbling at the edge of meteorological stability and wondered: is this why the local civilization collapsed, why they almost (or completely) died out? Dee Pee Three had achieved a new equilibrium now, but had there been a period of cataclysmic weather effects? Had an epoch of floods, tornadoes, hurricanes driven a fragile young civilization back over the edge of progress, propelled the survivors back into preintelligent primitivism?

The Navy had expressed similar uncertainty about the climate, but not from the standpoint of forensic anthropology: they were concerned with long-term habitability. Therefore, after the early days of the survey — when the first tantalizing hints of unseen bipeds were trickling in — the official emphasis was shifted to meteorological data gathering. The combination of higher average temperature and lower hydrographics still created some ferocious — but fairly localized — weather anomalies. So, in order to avoid colonizing such areas, the assessment and measurement of regional weather and environment got first priority.

Later travelers’ tales had been appended to the official Navy reports. Ruins (but it failed to say which) were first reported by a mixed group of Canadians and Irish who decided to go on a lark and see the off-limits Shangri-La valley for themselves. The apocryphal tale — retold in the clipped, unimaginative diction of Navy reportage — was that the group had started gathering rocks to build a windbreak for a campfire when they realized they were picking up chunks of dressed stone. Caine smiled: what a moment that must have been…

“Did you find your independent excursion illuminating, Mr. Riordan? I’m sure you would have found it more informative — and enjoyable — had you remained with your guide.”

Caine looked up: Helger and a companion. “The guide left the final, very illuminating site off my itinerary.”

“An unfortunate oversight.” Helger sat, signaled for wine, looked to Caine, who shook his head. Helger did not extend the offer to his companion: an immense, square-shouldered man with pale blond hair and pale blue eyes, who sat immobile in trail clothes. He was the only male in the refectory wearing shorts, and who was not recently shaven. He either did not notice, or did not mind, Helger’s failure to offer him wine.

Helger continued his unapologetic apology. “Had you so wanted to see that site, you could have simply requested it.”

“So Ms. Rakir could call ahead and confabulate a closure, or flood the dig site, or report a quarantine? Thanks, no: I felt I was more likely to get a good look if I went on my own.”

“Your suspicions are hardly flattering to me, Mr. Riordan — or consistent with the agreement we made yesterday. Cooperation is a two-way proposition, and one that can only work if we are being open with each other.”

“Oh — you must mean the kind of openness that Ms. Rakir exhibited when she assured me that a couple of half-buried wall remains at the oil field were the only evidence of intelligent habitation.”

“Prior habitation,” Helger corrected. “And I think you must have misunderstood Ms. Rakir — or she was unclear. We would never have claimed such a thing.”