Fire With Fire – Snippet 15

“No? Then why did you leave the main ruins off my itinerary? You presumed that I’d be uninterested? Strange presumption, considering that this is just the kind of violation I was sent to investigate — and which only makes your dismissal of the USSF survey that much more suspect. I think ‘suspect’ is a very charitable term, don’t you?”

Helger was silent as his wine arrived. He sampled it and then dabbed his lips. “We discovered the ruins after our independent survey. But we were quite aware of how it would look. We saw no reason to attract the inevitable accusations and condemnation any earlier than necessary.”

“That’s another strange statement, since the group that inadvertently found the first sign of ruins did so five months before CoDevCo conducted its survey. And, according to their report” — okay, just one lie to see if I’ve guessed correctly — “they didn’t stumble across the rocks near the oilfields first; my report indicates the group was ‘relatively near the river’ when they came across the ‘remains.’ That means that they discovered the main site first.”

Helger sipped his wine. “I fail to see the relevance of these rather insignificant details.”

So the main ruins were the first ones discovered. Hell, the others might just be decoys — for dupes like me. “These insignificant details will interest the Hague, the EU Investigatory Commission, and the Commonwealth, Mr. Helger. They indicate that you knew — before your surveyors arrived — what you really wanted to extract from Dee Pee Three. The survey was a sham to cover up your attempt to prospect for alien artifacts.”

“So you are reneging on your offer of cooperation so soon? My, it didn’t even last one day.”

“Mr. Helger, it didn’t even last one morning, because while Ms. Rakir made sure I was discovering your supposed company secret — the oil wells — you were hustling Ms. Fireau into a VTOL for Downport. So much for my meeting with her — which you yourself scheduled for me.”

“Mr. Riordan, you flatter me with your presumption that I am God, for you seem to assume that I can foresee and prevent any event which would intrude upon the plans we made in good faith. In the case of Ms. Fireau, there was a business emergency in Little Leyden that was best attended to by the manager who had the longest tenure there. So what you are characterizing as conspiracy is merely an unfortunate coincidence.”

“Unfortunate for me — suspiciously convenient for you. I wonder if she will return before I depart, just as I wonder if I will find her in Little Leyden once I’ve returned to Downport.”

Helger’s mouth didn’t smile, but his eyes were crinkled and smug. “Who can say?”

“Who indeed. Besides, when I get back to Downport, I expect to be too busy to look her up.”

“Oh? And why is that?”

“I’ll be too busy filing reports that will retroactively justify the instructions I am going to relay immediately after dinner tonight.”

Helger seemed amused. “Instructions? What instructions? And to whom?”

“To the Navy — which, if CoDevCo doesn’t immediately cease archeological excavation, will compel the Port Authority to suspend all inbound and outbound movement of cargos, personnel, and communiqués.”

Helger got pale, but then his color returned along with an unpleasant smile. “Mr. Riordan, this bluff is beneath your dignity. No messages get in or out of Shangri-La without my express permission: all external contact is routed through our Office of Communications. And I am not about to authorize any such transmissions.”

“Actually, I think you are.”

Helger’s smile widened and he studied his blood-red wine. “Mr. Riordan, in a place such as this, it is not wise to presume that you know what will happen next. This is a frontier world: anything can happen. And often, the most unusual events go unobserved or unreported. For instance, were you to fail to stroll out the front door of the refectory this evening, who would notice — or miss you?”

There it was: the thinly veiled threat — and with it, the opportunity to riposte. “Actually, some people would miss me — and would be asking you where I was, shortly after I failed to walk out that door.”

Helger was evidently disappointed that his threat had not jarred Caine’s composure. His tone was more brusque: “I don’t think you realize how very alone you are, Mr. Riordan. No one here is obsessed with your whereabouts, or your moment-to-moment safety.”

Caine sipped his water. “I have friends in high places.”

“I know all about your clearance –”

“No, I don’t mean ‘high places’ figuratively; I mean it literally. ‘High’ as in ‘orbital.'” Caine checked his watch. “In fourteen minutes, I’m due to contact Admiral Eli Silverstein on the USS Roosevelt: my daily call-in. He last heard from me when I landed here yesterday, just over sixteen-and-a-half hours ago — and Dee Pee Three’s seventeen-hour day rolls around mighty fast. So if he doesn’t hear from me very soon, twenty Marines are going to be landing, thrusters and rifles hot, in your courtyard. All told, that would be about twenty-nine minutes from now. And the Marines will be — pointedly — interested in whether or not I ever emerged from this refectory.”

Helger had become pale, was no longer smiling. “You are bluffing. You — the Commonwealth — would not dare –”

“Let’s not waste time and words on hypotheticals, Mr. Helger. Why don’t we just sit here for twenty-nine minutes and see what happens next? I’m sure you can wait that long to put a bullet in me.”

Helger’s eyes wavered; had they been equipped with nictating lids, Caine was sure they would have slowly shut at that moment. “Mr. Riordan, you are becoming overly dramatic. I never said anything so overtly threatening.”

Caine forced himself to smile. “Of course not.”

Helger’s smile was no less manufactured. “Perhaps I might be present when you make your call to the admiral, so that I might extend my compliments?”

And to make sure I’m not bluffing. “I would welcome that, Mr. Helger. That way, if you have any questions about my status here — and his prerogatives — you may ask him yourself.”

“Very well. Now, surely you were exaggerating when you threatened to have even our routine landings and launches suspended.”

“Surely, I was not.”

“Preposterous: you haven’t the authority to initiate such an action.”

“Be assured, Mr. Helger: I have the authority, and I will use it. Today, if I must.”