Fire With Fire – Snippet 26
“That’s one hypothesis. Problem is, there simply aren’t any precedent cases: no one has spent thirteen years in suspension after starting with the pre-toxification method.”
“I’d have been happy to skip the honor of being the first. And while we’re on the topic of oversleeping, why the hell didn’t you revive me as soon as you retrieved my lifepod from Junction last December?”
“An unacceptable risk. You had to remain ‘lost, presumed dead’ until we conducted a full debriefing and arranged for a summit at Parthenon. And until that meeting is over, we can’t let you go out on your own. But after that, you’re a free man. And you will have your career back. Better than ever.”
“Yes, but you’ll still have me under your thumb. Because when I agreed to carry out your mission, I became complicit in your schemes. So I can’t indict IRIS without also indicting myself.”
“Well — yes.”
Caine resisted an urge to retch: whether at the returning fish-and-glycol taste or at IRIS’s partial ownership of him, he wasn’t sure. “So my job is to stay alive long enough to speak at the summit.”
“Well, if I can’t be allowed out into the world, then I want a little of the world piped in here. You’ve got me cooped up in a room without a window, without a phone, without net access, without hard-copy newspapers.”
Downing nodded back. “Fair enough. I’ll need until morning to arrange your net access. Acceptable?”
But things were not acceptable. Someone was in the room with them. The figure hadn’t suddenly materialized; it was just standing patiently, as though it had been there all along, waiting to be noticed. Caine pushed away from it, back into his chair. His brow was suddenly wet, cold. The figure remained in the shadows, unmoving.
Downing looked up, one eyebrow raised. “Something wrong?”
Caine swallowed to make sure that his voice did not crack when he spoke. “Who’s that behind you?”
Downing turned, gestured into the shadows. “That? Why, that’s Digger Mack.”
Caine felt his damp hairline tug backwards. “What?”
“Not what; who. It’s Digger Mack. You remember him.”
The indistinct silhouette edged forward. “S’right. You remember me, mate — don’t you?” It wasn’t a question: it was an accusation.
It was indeed Digger Mack — security officer Douglas Mackenzie, late of the transfer liner Tyne — his clothes scorched and tattered, his torso seared and blackened, three fingers gone from the left hand, slowly dripping half-clear plasma. His face — where Caine had pressed the stun baton — was half gone, an open gash splitting his cheekbone in two like a glacial crevasse, ending in the oozing hole that was his ruined left eye-socket. The remaining eye — a bright and cheerful cornflower blue — winked at him.
Two other figures emerged from the darkness. The first was Captain Burnham, whose face was incongruously intact while the rest of his body was charred to an almost skeletal parody of human form. And lastly, the tippler from Zeta Tucanae, both arms missing at the shoulder, splintered shards of clavicle protruding out of his upper chest like bloody horn gibbets. Capering unsteadily, eyes no longer focusing on the same place, he stooped and searched in time with a giggling whine: “Want a drink? Need a drink. Want a drink? Need a drink. Want –“
Caine’s lungs would not work. Could not breathe. He tried to jump up. Away from the haunts. Couldn’t. Could only jerk upright. But that must have chased them off: they were gone. Everyone was gone. Only darkness. Where –?
He heard himself panting, felt the soaked pajama top clinging across the breadth of his forward-hunched back.
Or was it? He held his breath, waiting to find out. It had seemed real, largely because of the part with Downing, which was a genuine memory from earlier today. Or was that “genuine memory,” and even this moment, just part of a bigger dream –?
Or was this — finally — what it seemed to be; the mundane reality of a small, dark room, reminiscent of shipboard staterooms? Low bunk with built-in drawers overhead, full bathroom just to the left of the entrance, the room opening up to a kitchenette on the right, a commplex against the far wall. From the control panel of the stove, a dim blue nightlight stared at him like Digger Mack’s one remaining eye.
This, this was reality.
Caine shook off a shiver, swung his feet to the floor: time to put reality to the test. He crossed the room to the commplex, snapped it on, slid into the chair in front of the workstation. Rubbing his biceps against the chill, he glanced up to see if the system was ready — and saw a dim, spectral face staring out at him from the screen.
He lurched backward reflexively — and then noticed that the spectre had reacted similarly. Distant and small in the still inert screen, the ghostly visage was now just a vague silhouette, without any discernible features. A closer look and he recognized it: it was his own reflection.
The computer toned once. “Ready,” it said, as the same word scrolled into existence on the screen. Caine stared at it: so, he decided, was he. Ready to start searching for any thread of information about what had occurred during his one hundred lost lunar hours.
Nolan pushed back from the mahogany tabletop, started rummaging around in the lower drawers of the small credenza behind him.
Downing cleared his throat. “If Riordan is to be a long-term asset, he will need long-term security. And not an entourage: it has to be a single person, one who isn’t associated with the Institute. Tricky.”
Nolan lifted a decanter and two glasses out of the credenza, poured a finger of Delamain into one of the snifters. “Actually, I think I’ve found an excellent guardian angel for our Odysseus.”
“I wasn’t aware you had started reviewing dossiers.”
“Only did it yesterday. It was a pretty short list.”
Downing let the first sip of the long-legged cognac burn away the sting of being left out of the process: after twenty-three years, there were still times when he absolutely hated this business.
Like right now.
Caine leaned away from the glowing computer screen: if, fourteen years ago, he had entertained secret hopes of leaving a discernible, enduring mark on the legacy of humankind, he was now fully disabused of them. After his disappearance at Perry City, there was no further mention of Caine Riordan. And certainly nothing that helped detail the events of the lost one hundred hours that preceded his first, fateful cryosuspension.
But that didn’t mean that Caine had to sit on his hands. He knew there would have been at least two independent attempts to reconstruct his time and activities on the Moon. Firstly, Caine’s father would have continued to search for him long after he was declared missing, and those inquiries would necessarily have focused on retroactively establishing Caine’s movements while at Perry City. Also, once they hit a dead end, IINN would have made inquiries of its own, and would probably have run an article that was half-obituary, half exposÃ©. Logically, those two leads formed the nexus from which Caine could expand his own investigation.
Caine entered the necessary search parameters —
— And the touchscreen went dark, followed by a shrill klaxon — two strident hootings — which stopped abruptly. Just as all the lights went out.
Shit: did I cause that? Caine dismissed the thought as quickly as it came. That klaxon wasn’t in his room; it was down the hall. And it wasn’t just the lights that had gone off: he could hear the data-access heads spinning down, heard the hum of the refrigerator fading. It was a power outage — but in a secure intelligence facility? Then the two wall lights came back on, but were dim red: emergency lights.
Not good. A government facility wouldn’t usually be part of the local power grid, and if it was, it would certainly have its own generator, running low as a constant ready backup. Which meant —
The reflexes he had learned from his hypervigilant months aboard hab module DPV-6 came back along with the cool spine-and-outward rush of an adrenal surge. Time seemed to move more slowly as he snatched the biggest knife in the kitchen. Then he grabbed a towel and ran it under the tap for a second, in the event he’d have to move through smoke or gas. Next, he’d want —
Quick steps, just outside the door. Not the drumlike pounding of charging rescue personnel: a fast, gliding patter. He looked around: no time to find anything better than the knife. He flipped it over on the move, flapped the towel out like a flag to cover one of the wall lights. He brought the flat of the knife handle down firmly against the towel; the light within made a sound like a Christmas ornament dropped on a flagstone floor: a thin tinkling. The footsteps had stopped by the time he eliminated the second light. Without stopping, Caine swung around into the kitchenette, his back flat against the cabinets. Knife hand back, he crouched down, and heard the door’s lock snap over: opened.