Fire With Fire – Snippet 28
Downing wasn’t sure whether he was mostly indignant or stunned. “Nolan, just how are we going to get a woman to furnish long-term, twenty-four/seven undercover security coverage for Riordan? Have her become his personal valet?”
Nolan twirled the compupad stylus slowly between his fingers. “No, his partner.”
For a long moment, Downing did not comprehend. Then: “You’re not serious.”
“I am — dead serious.”
“Nolan, this is immoral — compelling people to become intimate.”
Nolan put down his glass. “Rich, you and I have given orders that got other people — innocents as well as enemies — killed. Quite frankly, I have far greater moral qualms over those decisions than this one.”
“We had no choice in those cases; it was — either overtly or covertly — war.”
“We don’t have any choice in this case, either. No one else fits the bill — or do you think Riordan will tolerate us assigning him an overt, round-the-clock bodyguard?”
Downing didn’t bother to answer with the obvious “no.” “So we protect him by procuring a romantic involvement with a woman who also happens to be — unbeknownst to him — his guardian angel. But what if they fail to find each other — ermâ€¦’compelling’?”
“Then we’ll invent a love potion. Hell, Rich; I don’t know. But here’s what I think will happen: we take two healthy, attractive, intelligent people who have — according to the Psych folks — compatible personality profiles. We put them together, and they share a commonality that almost no one else in the entire world can boast: they are time travelers. They have made a one-way trip into the future and are now orphans here: no family, no children, no circle of friends, nothing. All they’ve got is each other.”
Downing nodded, thinking. “If we could add an intense, shared crisis of some kind, that intimacy might easily become romantic, sexual. But once they get over — well, ‘needing’ — each other, what then?”
Nolan sighed. “Then nature will take whatever course it’s determined to take. But by then, with any luck, Riordan won’t need round-the-clock protection anymore.”
“And what of the woman? What becomes of her?”
“She will have had a relatively gentle — and well-funded — reintroduction into the world.”
Downing sighed. “So should we be optimistic when we assign her a code name?”
Nolan frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Well, if we were being optimistic, and if we stick with your pattern of Homeric sobriquets, we should assign her the code name ‘Penelope.'”
“And if we’re not so optimistic?”
“‘Calypso,’ of course.”
Nolan’s eyes seemed very tired, then he turned away. “We name her Calypso. Of course.”
She tore out the tubes and the catheter, tried vaulting the side of the cell: she half fell, half collapsed onto the floor. Damn: legs wobbly as a boiled chicken neck, everything else stiff and too cold to move or even feel things reliably. Her fingers were particularly bad: almost no strength or sensation.
More shouting, again abruptly terminated by the weapons fire: closer now. Tactical training kicked in: since the hallway beyond the open door was as dark as this room, how were the gunmen moving, aiming? Had to be equipped with night-vision gear. That and suppressed weapons added up to covert ops or special forces. Yes, time to leave.
But how? Frozen, weak, apparently still wounded, and lost in the dark of an unfamiliar facility, she was as good as already dead.
But not if they couldn’t see her: that was the key tactical variable. Night vision — how could she defeat that? And then she knew.
Using the rim of the cell to hoist herself up, she hastily inspected its exterior. Yes, as expected: hard-copy status reports clipped to its side. Would have been interesting to read them, but she had far more important plans for the paper.
She tore off the sheets, rolled them into a long, composite taper, scanned the room for heating vents. She found one, scuttled feebly over to it, fumbled for the cover-release as the sounds came closer — which now included curt, muted exchanges she could not make out, occasionally broken by a few seconds of silence. But she knew what those exchanges were, just by the cadence of them: commo chatter on a tactical command net. Staccato-paced sitreps as the search-and-destroy team went room to room, objective to objective.
She bloodied her fingers getting the cover off the vent, discovered the dim reddish glow she had expected to find: battery-driven electric backup heaters that would take over for a few hours in the event of general power loss. She shoved one end of the crumpled rod of papers against the heating elements, waited for several interminable seconds.
A wisp of smoke, a glowing ember, and then a sudden yellow flare: they were burning. She crawled back to her tanning cell, holding the paper upright to extend the burn time, looked overhead: there was a smoke and heat sensor, just a foot behind her unit. She pushed the leg of the gurney: it resisted, then rolled half a meter. She locked the wheels, grabbed the edge of the cell with her free hand, took a deep breath, and pulled with her arm as she pushed with her legs.
Her muscles were obviously reawakening, because hoisting herself into the cell was not as difficult a task as she anticipated. But evidently her nervous system was becoming more responsive as well: the ache in her back became a knot of searing pain — so sharp and sudden that her lungs froze in mid-inhale.
Can’t yell, can’t even gasp: they’re too close. And it’s going to get worse — right now. She doubled her legs under her so that she was crouched and then stood slowly.
She might have blacked out for an instant — from the persistent dizziness or the crushing pain, she wasn’t sure. But there was no time to wonder. As she lifted the half-burned taper up to the smoke sensor, she heard distant footfalls — the sliding, sibilant gait of trained killers advancing in a double-time leapfrog pattern along the corridor. She looked up: the taper was burning directly under the sensor. Damnit, why don’t you work? Why don’t you —
The sudden downpour of water blinded her, soaked her, re-froze her — but it meant a fighting chance. Neither infrared nor light-amplification goggles liked precipitation much — and she had just called up a nonstop monsoon. She looked down, hesitated, daunted by the probable pain, but had no time to waste: she jumped down to the floor. She fell awkwardly, too nauseous and agonized to breathe, but she kept moving, hobbling to the door. She heard a break in the commo chatter and a muttered curse off to the left. Staying low, she tucked around the corner into the hallway, heading to the right. A 12-and-6-o’clock snap check: the corridor — what little she could see of it through the deluge of spraying water — was all clear. Clutching the sodden, flapping hospital smock close to her with one arm, she continued to the right at the fastest lope that she could sustain.