Fire With Fire – Snippet 16

Helger’s hand stopped short of his glass. “Again, you are bluffing.”

“Again, you are wrong. I have no naval rank, but I have access to classified codes which can activate a variety of local contingency orders. I submitted one such code to the admiral the moment I arrived in-system.”

“Odd: the Commonwealth naval routine seems unaltered.”

“And it will remain so — until and unless a certain activating condition is met.”

“And what is the activating condition?”

Caine smiled. “My disappearance or demise.”

“I see.” Helger waved the waiter away restively. “So, if I shut down the dig site, I can keep my oil operation running.”

“For now, yes.” Of course, once I’m no longer in your crosshairs, I’ll recommend the Navy shuts that down, too. But if you lose the oil now, then you’ve got nothing left to lose — and you might once again decide that there’s no reason not to get rid of me — permanently.

“What guarantee do I have that I will be allowed to keep my wells in operation after you leave?”

“Mr. Helger, I do not have the power to make such guarantees. I will assure you of this: if I find no further violations, I will not make any negative recommendations regarding your oil operations.” Not that the Navy’s going to listen to my recommendations, anyway: I already know how Eli Silverstein is going to react. When I leave, and I give him the code authorizing his use of full discretionary powers, Silverstein is going to demand that site control is restored to the legitimate European Union administrators, or he’ll impose a full shutdown.

Helger’s lower lip protruded a bit; he pulled at it. “Very well: it seems I have little choice. Does this mean you are done here?”

“I’m afraid not. I have something else that I need to investigate, although it’s nothing that should concern you directly.”

Helger relaxed a bit; he curved a finger in the direction of the waiter, gestured toward the wine. The waiter dutifully disappeared to fetch and do as he was bid. “And this final investigation is…what?”

“Reports of possibly intelligent creatures in this valley. Would you happen to know anything about that?”

Helger maintained the same nerveless pose, but his face was less relaxed. “I hear the same wild stories that everyone else hears. Local apes, forest men, spirits of the wood: relatives of sasquatch and the yeti, I will wager.”

“You have no evidence of local wildlife that travels in groups, shows any tendency toward tool use?”

“Me? No — but you could consult Mr. Bendixen, here. I brought him along because he is our best field expert and woodsman, and I suspected that you were planning on conducting a search for these fabled creatures. Why else would you have arrived with a backpack instead of luggage, and a rifle instead of golf clubs?”

“Thanks. I might indeed ask Mr. Bendixen a few questions.”

“I suggest you make better use of him than that. He is an excellent guide.”

“Again, thanks — but I had planned on working alone.”

“You might wish to reconsider that plan, Mr. Riordan. You may not be aware of it, but we have our share of dangerous animals here in the valley. One in particular — we call it Pavonosaurus rex — is quite aggressive. More akin to an undersized allosaurus, I am told, but then again, paleontology has never been my strong suit. So do take Mr. Bendixen along: he has had experience with them. Personally.”

Caine looked over at Bendixen: square-banged, square-jawed, square-headed, and sleepy-eyed — but very watchful. Throughout the conversation with Helger, Caine could not recall having seen Bendixen blink or smile or even move. Prominently featured in the front-strap bandoleers that were part of Bendixen’s web-gear were two different kinds of old-fashioned brass cartridges: one kind for shotguns, the other an immense round with a sharply-tapering — or spitzen — bullet. He had a magazine bag that Caine recognized as being for an H&K G-81 assault rifle: caseless ammo, bullpup configuration, extremely high rate of fire. The more primitive tools of his apparently less-than-pacifistic trade included a machete, and a knife: no, two — no, three knives. One of the knives was a very old — almost antique — Spetsnaz all-tool utility blade, another was balanced for throwing, and the third was a kukri: the combat blade made famous by the Gurkhas, who swore that its design made it the optimal weapon for close-quarters combat.

Helger’s second glass of wine had arrived. “Mr. Bendixen is ready to go tomorrow.”

Caine looked at Bendixen again — who looked back without blinking. “No thanks.” Caine was relatively certain that Pavonosaurus rex represented far less threat to his continued existence than did Mr. Bendixen.

“A pity. He is so routinely in the bush — surveying — that I’m sure he would have been of immense help as a guide, as well.”

“I’m sure.” Of course, not bringing Bendixen didn’t neutralize the threat: “accidents” were always possible. “Mr. Helger, actually I would like to make a request of Mr. Bendixen.”

“Which is?”

“Which is that he suspend his field activities for a few days — at least until I’m done with mine.”

Helger feigned perplexity: Bendixen just stared.

“Well, if we were both out in the bush at the same time, we could be a risk to each other. As strange as it sounds, I am particularly worried about being a risk to him.”

Helger laughed. “Really?”

“Well, yes. If our paths were to cross — by accident — I might only see the movement and shoot preemptively, thinking to kill a predator.” Which is what I’d be doing in either case. “So, please follow this directive, Mr. Helger: until I return, I’m requesting — politely — that you suspend sending any personnel into my search area. Which is here.” Caine picked up his palmtop, pulled up the Navy Survey map again, drew a box on it with his stylus: the red rectangle began at the north edge of the main ruins and extended all the way up the floor of the valley. “I’ll be relaying those grid coordinates — and the fact that I should be the only human in that area — to Admiral Silverstein’s ops officer in five minutes. That way, if I go missing for any reason, they’ll know where to look for me. And they’ll know that there couldn’t be any chance of Mr. Bendixen having mistaken me for a Pavonosaurus.”

Helger had not laughed again; he was no longer even smiling. “I see. You seem to fear the errors of humans more than the appetites of large animals.”

“Perhaps I fear the many dangerous appetites of humans more than anything else, Mr. Helger. At any rate, I thank you for seeing to it that I will be working in isolation.”

Now Helger smiled. “Be assured: you will be working in complete isolation. Do be sure to bring enough batteries for your radio.”

Caine nodded: in addition to testing his conventional radio, the time had come to unpack his special equipment from the Navy and give it a trial run. The uplink beacon/communicator — currently folded down into the yellow-stenciled olive-drab canister at the bottom of his A-frame — had been a gift from one Lieutenant Mike Brill, communications officer for the high port naval detachment. Caine had protested the weight and the awkwardness. Brill had insisted that Caine take the system planetside: “You can save your life with a direct link to orbit; remember that every time you’re tempted to bitch about the extra weight.” At that time, Caine had thought Brill’s precautionary insistence to be absurdly melodramatic.

It did not seem so anymore.