Fire With Fire – Snippet 22

Chapter Ten


Caine, alone on the observation deck of the interface liner Tyne, had to admit that there wasn’t any concrete evidence that the new second engineer was actually an assassin.

Indeed, the image on Caine’s bug-linked palmtop showed the bridge crewman merely carrying out the same routine duties he had been performing for five days now. If anything, he sat his post more easily than ever, pitched back in a casual slouch, checking monitors, occasionally glancing toward the starboard viewport.

Caine stole a starboard glance of his own: the Tyne’s gallery window framed a craft shaped like a cubist kraken of deep space. She was the shift carrier Commonwealth, her mile-long keel capped by a boxy sleeve that resembled the mantle of a giant squid. However, this mantle was rotating and comprised of four long panels: habitat nacelles. Less than fifty meters aft of the slowly spinning mantle, hundreds of cold-sleep modules — or “cryopods” — were clustered as tightly as the facets of an insect’s compound eye, staring at him with bone-white pupils: the pod doors.

He forced himself to return their stare, and thought: there’s no way I’m going to use a cryopod again. Not now; not ever. Common sense countered: You may have to. If there is an assassin on this ship, a cryopod may be your only chance. So, you choose: pseudo-death — or the real thing?

The rotation of the Commonwealth’s habitation nacelles was slowing: that meant the end of spin-gravity and the start of docking preparations. Soon Caine’s hab module would be transferred to the shift carrier and he’d be another step closer to Earth. Which is probably why I’m so nervous: because I’m almost home. So not only am I starting to see danger everywhere, but beginner’s paranoia is adding to the problem, spawning false threats. So calm down: the second engineer is just a second engineer. You can go back to your module, strap in, relax —

The negation was swift: no, you can’t — not until you’re sure. And if Caine couldn’t be sure, then he might have to initiate an escape plan that bordered on lunacy, and depended entirely upon the contents of his shoulder-bag.

He zipped open the bag: a big-handled aluminum Thermos, a multi-tool, a bottle of antidiarrheic tablets, and his shipboard transponder. He dug out the transponder: the silver-gray face of the metal card flashed at him, and he thought: If you bail out, you have to leave the transponder behind. If he didn’t, the second engineer would certainly use its signal to locate him, track him down. So don’t take any chances; drop it here, now.

But Caine held the silver card tight. Dropping the transponder was the final step. It meant he was committed — at least symbolically — to executing an escape plan that had to — had to — conclude with him reentering a cryopod. Except this time will be even worse. Because — unlike thirteen-and-a-half years ago — you won’t be cold-celled by someone else. This time, you’ll have to do it to yourself.

The speakers toned twice. “All passengers: please return immediately to your staterooms. Counterthrust will end in fifteen minutes.” On his palmtop, Caine saw the XO snap off the shipwide, nod to the junior flight officer: “Prepare to rig for zero-gee operations.”

Caine watched the second engineer closely: the end of thrust meant the end of pseudo-gravity on the Tyne. If the new second engineer was an assassin, he would have to start after Caine soon: movement about the ship was “at need only” during weightlessness.

But the second engineer’s only movement was a hand raised to cover a yawn.

Caine checked his watch. He doesn’t have enough time to get to me anymore — not before my hab module and I are transferred to the Commonwealth. Whether he’s an assassin or not, I’m safe now — but Caine felt his stomach rise up: no; something’s still wrong.

As he left the observation lounge, a quick double-tone signaled another general announcement. “Attention. Counterthrust will terminate in thirteen minutes. All personnel and passengers must be secured in acceleration couches.” A brief pause, then: “Passenger Riordan, please proceed immediately to hab module DPV 6, or summon a steward if you are in need of assistance.” Caine swallowed, checked his palmtop yet again. If the second engineer was an assassin, that had to get him moving: in addition to killing Caine, he’d now have to find him first.

Smiling slightly, the second engineer snapped a toggle with his left forefinger. Clearly, the only possible reason that the engineer did not move to pursue him was because he had no intention, and therefore no reason, to do so.

Caine felt himself lean toward that comforting thought, but fought back. No: the answer you like the most is the one you should trust the least. Go over the evidence one more time: be sure you haven’t missed something.

Downing had warned Caine to be watchful when he started back to Earth, and had provided special tools to help him watch: six near-microscopic AV bugs and the palmtop that also served as a receiver for the bugs’ signals. However, as on Dee Pee Three, what Caine found the most useful was his official security classification — the highest level of clearance among the nations of the New World Commonwealth bloc. Perhaps because Caine had never been conditioned to obey the unwritten rules of the intelligence community, he discovered a novel use for his access: locating and tapping dozens of covert operating funds. On every ship, the ample cash quickly made him a favorite with the bartenders, waiters, and restaurateurs in each hull’s ubiquitous core concourse, which was the only place where passengers from different hab mods were permitted to mingle. It also made the concourse the most logical site for an assassin to access a target — and therefore, a site that Caine had to watch closely.

So, furnished with all the friends that government monies could buy, Caine had made daily circuits around each ship’s concourse. After surreptitiously planting a micro-bug at each compass point of the main promenade, he slowed his pace, checking the palmtop’s screen for a figure that moved with him. Caine acquired no such shadow during the first shift to CD-49, nor at Epsilon Indi. Even upon arrival in Junction, Caine saw no suspicious repetition in the churn of new eyes, faces, profiles. He had begun to dismiss Downing’s warning — that Junction was the most likely point of intercept — when he sensed the first shadows of a threat stretch toward him.

A week before they were scheduled to transfer to the Commonwealth, the Tyne’s captain — an amiable Scot named Burnham — got on the shipwide at 0400 hours, apologized for waking everyone up, and then ordered everyone to strap in. Minutes later, acceleration cut out; the ship did a 180-degree tumble and initiated a day of unscheduled counterthrust in order to rendezvous with the Euro clipper Schnellwind, which was already stern-chasing the Tyne, sometimes at a punishing five gees. But the clipper’s passengers turned out to be a meager group of very shaken and very junior executives — whose jobs clearly did not warrant such high-speed transport — and a second engineer whose dossier was still “in transit” from his last posting. That last bit of information sent a cool fingernail of warning down Caine’s spine.