Fire With Fire – Snippet 23

As if to confirm Caine’s worst fears, the second engineer appeared in the Tyne’s concourse soon after. Using the pre-positioned bugs, Caine watched the new bridge crewman trail him through two complete circuits of the crowded promenade, never closer than fifteen meters, never further than thirty.

Caine countered with a few calls to his fellow passengers on DPV 6. Ten minutes later, a convivial group had gathered at Le Café Viennese. The endless stream of champagne overcame (as Caine knew it would) one of his more susceptible neighbors: a jovial, undersized accountant returning to Earth from Zeta Tucanae. A ship’s steward was called to escort the revelers back to their hab mod, along with one member of the security watch, a Gold Coast Aussie by the name of Digger Mack. Caine remained at the center of this knot of unknowing rescuers until he was safely back in his suite. The next day, he bought a tour of Captain Burnham’s bridge with carefully underplayed flattery and complimentary bottles of Bollinger, and left behind another of his spy-eyes/ears, wedged in a crevice between two access panels. Then he holed up in DPV 6 and watched the second engineer cycle through his daily duties. And saw nothing even vaguely suspicious for five dull days.

Nothing even vaguely suspicious, Caine recited to himself as he entered the module access tube. Forty meters away, the watch officer manning the security checkpoint into hab mod DPV 6 waved for Caine to hurry. A closer look revealed the officer to be none other than the ever-affable Digger Mack. Caine took a final look at his palmtop. The second engineer continued in the casual execution of his tedious duties. The only unusual feature was his faint, unnervingly persistent smile. But what did that prove? Nothing. And besides, he can’t reach me anymore. So just accept that you are not going to see any danger signs — because there are none to be seen. Caine fished the transponder out of his shoulder bag. He slipped it back into his pocket, slightly horrified as he reflected upon the plot he had been prepared to carry out: how utterly bizarre, to save yourself by being ready to virtually kill yourself —

He froze. Kill himself? Kill himself? What if the second engineer is on a suicide mission? Logic rebutted quickly: Another human being ready to die just to kill me? Me? Besides, how can he do it? He’s bridge crew; he doesn’t have access to the fuel tanks or the power plants or the drives —

The drives. During docking. That was it. As they prepared to dock with the Commonwealth, Burnham would give a shut-down order, requiring the engineer to access the Tyne’s drive-control programming. And what if there is an “error” when the engineer shuts down the pulse fusion engines? What if, say, the magnetic containment cuts out a split second before the fusion ignition system does? If the interlock safeguards are rigged for simultaneous deactivation, orchestrating that mishap is simplicity itself: a brief stutter in one of the ultraconductor coils and…The explosion would vaporize the Tyne — and anything else nearby.

But the Tyne would not shut down her engines until she had come right alongside the Commonwealth. And at that range —

Caine discovered that he had stopped breathing: the two ships, including crew, were carrying almost seven thousand people. Caine glanced at the bridge feed on the palmtop, then at his transponder, trying to think the way Downing had taught him. If the second engineer is on a suicide mission, then the only way I can be certain of surviving is to drop the transponder here. As long as my transponder is aboard this hull, he’ll think I am, too — so he’ll just wait for the Tyne to come alongside the Commonwealth, sabotage the engine shut-down, destroy both ships. And miss me, because I’ll be long gone.

Caine shuddered. Yes, he’ll miss me — but no one else on the Tyne or the Commonwealth will survive. Unless, that is, Caine took the transponder with him when he bailed out. The second engineer would hear Security report that Caine — his transponder fading — was clearly abandoning ship. That would compel the assassin to act immediately, prematurely. With luck, Burnham would notice and intervene, but regardless, the second engineer would have to attempt to blow the engines early — meaning that the Tyne would not be close enough to the Commonwealth to catch her in the explosion. But the Tyne itself —

The other options were scant and unpromising. Caine could attempt to convince Burnham to relieve the Second Engineer — but how, with only a few minutes left and no evidence? And if Burnham didn’t listen, or didn’t believe…

And then, the memory of Downing’s measured voice and somber face intruded: “You must not, under any circumstances, reveal your mission. You may have to make decisions which cause others — many others — to die, so that you can get the information back to us and keep it secret.” Downing would tell him that he should leave the transponder. That the Tyne, the Commonwealth, even seven thousand lives were all “acceptable losses.” That Caine must not risk himself or the data. That he must choose the safe, the smart option: to drop the transponder. Right now. Yes, that’s what Downing would want.

Fuck that. Caine jammed the transponder back down into his bag, clenched his teeth so they wouldn’t chatter, and reactivated the insane escape plan he had just abandoned.

He retrieved the bottle of pills from the carry-all, popped the cap, tumbled a few into his palm. Ten meters to go, and Digger Mack was shifting impatiently from foot to foot. Caine smiled what he hoped was a sickly grin, ground his molars behind it: poor, trusting Digger. Raising one weak hand in greeting, Caine began his carefully orchestrated performance with a cool self-detachment: what a son of a bitch I am.

Digger was frowning. “Here, mate, where’ve you been? Look worse for wear, you do.”

Caine inhaled: point of no return. He held up the tablets, swayed a little. “Got some bad food. Or somethin’. Went to the dispensary.”

Digger’s sympathetic tone contrasted sharply with his hurried movements. “‘Kay then, Caine. Let’s get through the check and then into the couches. You know the drill; bag on the scanner.”

Caine laid the bag down, fumbled to put the pills back in the bottle, failed, juggling unsuccessfully as they fell and skittered in every direction.

“Ah –” began Digger, and then, apparently suppressing a string of expletives, he bent over to help scoop up the pills.

Caine straightened, reached into the carry-all, got the Thermos by the handle. He brought it out and up in a single arc, and then swung down. Hard.

Caine felt the shock of the blow from his wrist to his pectoral, restrained a sudden urge to retch as he heard the dull impact of the lead-lined Thermos against the base of Digger’s skull. Digger went down with a choking groan. Caine dropped the Thermos, yanked the stun baton from Digger’s belt, brought it down against Digger’s left jaw hinge and thumbed the activation button.