Trial By Fire – Snippet 02

Chapter Two

“The Pearl,” Barnard’s Star 2 C

It was typical of Admiral Martina Perduro that she started talking as soon as Trevor Corcoran opened the door. “Well, Captain, ready to ship out?”

The admiral’s tone was jocular, so Trevor replied in kind. “Not at all, ma’am.” He attempted to conceal his slight limp with a bouncing stride. “Heck, I was just getting used to the luxury billets here at The Pearl.”

Perduro’s answering grin was crooked. “Glad you’ve liked the accommodations.”

“I’ve always been partial to the narrow bunks and dull steel fixtures, but it’s the weather and the scenery I like best. Poisonous atmosphere, lethally low atmospheric pressure, hard rads due to the lack of a magnetosphere, and not a living cell except for the ones we brought with us into this gray-walled rat warren.”

Perduro leaned back. “Okay, but smile when you say all that, Captain.”

“I was smiling, ma’am–wasn’t I?” Trevor glanced at a chair.

“Sit, sit already,” Perduro waved at it. Then, not looking at him: “How’s the leg?”

“I beg your pardon, ma’am?”

“Captain Corcoran, do you really think I don’t get training updates on command grade personnel? Or that I don’t read them?”

Trevor felt a little less jocular, now. “My leg is fine, ma’am. Never better.”

“Hmph. Not what the base CMO said a few days ago. Fractured left tibia, if I recall.”

“Hairline stress fracture,” emended Trevor. “A small one.”

“Yes, but enough to warrant them going in and poking around, evidently.”

Trevor shrugged. “Which is, I suspect, the source of my discomfort, ma’am. I don’t know why the CMO felt the need to get busy with a knife. I talked to the medtech who took the scans. Hardly anything to see.”

“Hm. Is it the leg that’s dented–or that SEAL ego, Captain?”

“Technically, I’m no longer in the Teams, ma’am.” It annoyed Trevor that a chief petty officer had tagged him that hard during hand-to-hand drill.

Perduro was smiling at him with one raised eyebrow. “I’ll be sad to see you go, Trev. Your visit brought a bit of color to the navy-gray of Barney Deucy.”

Trevor stared at the files on her desk, at the screens that surrounded her. Caine Riordan’s name or image was on at least half of them. “Well, Admiral, to be frank, it wasn’t really me who brought the color, was it?”

Perduro’s smile was small but genuine. “Don’t sell yourself short, Trev. Besides, being with you is a bit like old times for me. Your father–God rest him–was the BELTCINC when I was a shave-tail HQ staffer during the Belt Wars.”

Trevor nodded, did the math, was surprised that Perduro was that old, considered her very well preserved indeed. “But still, ma’am, I’m not the novelty around here.” Trevor pointed at Caine’s face on one of the screens. “He is. Understandably.”

“You both met five species of exosapients at the Accord’s Convocation last month. That makes both of you celebrities in my eyes.”

“You’re very kind, ma’am. But I just went along to carry the figurative shotgun. Caine was the liaison, the communicator. And the guy who found the first exos on Dee Pee Three.”

“Yes, and who I’ve now had to make a naval officer to boot. As per Richard Downing’s orders.” She frowned. “About Downing: what intelligence agency is he with? And how the hell did he get the clearance and command-equivalency rating that he waved in front of my nose when he dropped you two off here a month ago?”

“Admiral Perduro,” Trevor sat up very straight and cleared his throat. “I regret to say I have no information pertinent to the assignment or disposition of Mr. Richard Downing, nor would I be officially disposed to share it if I did. Ma’am.”

Perduro’s other eyebrow rose to join the first. “Ah. The Holy Creed of Plausible Deniability.”

“Sorry, ma’am.”

“I’m sure you are.” She fiddled with a palmcomp stylus for a moment. “Downing is your godfather, isn’t he?”

“That is correct, ma’am.” And he’s the new chief of IRIS. And a direct advisor to President Liu. And the sonofabitch who turned my father’s body over to the same aliens who sneaked some kind of organism into his chest. Yes, that’s my friend-buggering, skull-duggering Uncle Richard.

Perduro nodded, might have detected the overly crisp tone in Trevor’s reply since she changed topics. “And what’s your take on our thirty-day wonder, Mr. Riordan? Will he cut it as an officer?”

“Ma’am, I’m sure you must have all of Caine’s scores.” I can see them right there, in front of you. “His lowest performance index is still a three sigma-shift above the center of the bell curve. Can’t ask for better than that.”

“Trevor, don’t be obtuse. You know what I’m asking. He looks fine on paper. I need a human perspective from someone who knows him but can be objective.”

Trevor frowned as if he was mulling over his response while his brain raced in a different direction. You think I can be objective about Caine Riordan? Gee, that might be a little hard, seeing as how he’s the guy who fell in love with my sister fourteen years ago, the guy my dad then mind-wiped, who is the father of my fatherless nephew, and who is now romantically involved–well, entangled–with one hell of a wonderful coldsleeper from the past, Opal Patrone. Who my late father all but stuck in Caine’s bed. Yeah, sure, I can be impartial about Caine Riordan, aka “Odysseus.” Not a problem.

“Captain Corcoran, are you uncomfortable giving your assessment of Riordan?” Perduro’s tone had grown slightly more formal. “Is there some failing not indicated on his OCS results?”

“Oh, no, ma’am, just trying to find the right words.”

“The right words for what? Either he’s going to be a good officer or he isn’t.”

“With all due respect, ma’am, I don’t think it’s that simple in his case.”

Perduro steepled her fingers, breathed out a slow sigh. “I’m probably going to regret asking this, but I am duty-bound to do so: please explain why the assessment of Riordan is not ‘simple.'”

“Ma’am, to start with, he was an impressed civilian. A draftee in an all-volunteer force. So he’s not wearing the blue because it’s the fulfillment of lifelong dream.”

“So he resents it?”

“No. In fact, he was preparing to volunteer. But only because he thinks it’s necessary.” Trevor wondered, despite Perduro having been briefed on the disastrous outcome of the Convocation, just how much he should reveal. “Riordan thinks that we could be at war pretty soon, and he wants to ‘do his part,’ as he put it.”

Perduro’s eyes grew harder behind the now-rigid pinnacle of her fingers. “So Riordan and Downing are on the same page about the disputes at the Convocation, that they could be precursors to war?”

“Ma’am, I think that’s how all of us who were at the Convocation felt. The superficial purpose for that all-species meet-and-greet was to talk, but some of the members came to pick a fight. And I’m pretty sure they’re going to get what they came for.”

Perduro folded her hands. “A sobering assessment, Captain. But back to Riordan: will he freeze in a fight?”

“No, ma’am. He’s already handled some pretty tough situations since being pulled out of cyrosleep. You’ve probably seen that in the reports of the assassination attempts he foiled on board the Tyne, then at Alexandria, then at Sounion, and then on Mars.”

“Hmmm. Yes. Although it looks like he had considerable help at Sounion. His fellow sleeper, Major Opal Patrone, seemed to be quite the one-woman reaping machine, there.”

Trevor made sure that neither his voice or his eyes changed. “Major Patrone was assigned as his close security, although he didn’t know it at the time. She’s a top-notch soldier. She has also been teaching him karate. Shotokan tradition.” But Martina Perduro had no need to know that poor, future-stranded Opal Patrone had also been assigned to become Caine’s paramour. Which will make for an interesting reunion, if Elena and Opal are both in the room when Caine reveals that he has remembered the one-hundred-hour romance he and Sis had on Luna. And that Connor is his child. I’m not quite sure how Opal will take that–

“So who’s trying to kill Riordan, do you think?”

“I beg your pardon, ma’am?” But with any luck, Caine will pick up where he left off with Elena fourteen years ago, and my sister will want to do the same. Which even makes sense on the chronological level, since his time in cold sleep has allowed her to catch up to his greater age. And then, once Opal has gotten over Caine, and started to move on, maybe then I’ll–

“Captain Corcoran, are you paying attention?” Perduro’s voice startled him. Trevor almost blinked as his awareness returned to the gray-walled office.

“Sorry, Admiral. I was thinking about your question.”

“Of course you were. But how about it, Captain? Who do you think is trying to kill Riordan? The megacorporations, maybe? He certainly ruined their attempt to dig up alien artifacts on Delta Pavonis Three.”

Trevor drummed his fingers slowly on the arm of his chair. “Admiral, the various assassination attempts on Riordan might not all originate from the same source. And not all of the sources might be–familiar–to us.”

“You don’t have to tiptoe around the topic, Trevor. Downing highlighted the possibility that exosapients have suborned our own people to carry out covert actions on Earth. I suppose it’s also implicit that some of the efforts could have involved both megacorporate and exosapient assets. But there’s been no clear motive for such collusion, and absolutely no hard evidence of it.”

“That is correct, Admiral, although–” And then, motion on one of Perduro’s monitors caught Trevor’s attention. He pointed. “Admiral, is that Caine, next to that maglev?”

Perduro waved a desultory hand behind her. “Yes. Part of the charade of his being an officer. A four-minute command. To conduct a security check in the civilian sector, with our youngest shavetail, Ensign Brahen, as his ‘unit.'”

“Well, Admiral, that little bit of theater might be veering towards hard-edged reality.” He pointed more forcefully.

Perduro turned–and her eyes widened. Riordan was ringed by a posse of reporters, backed by a mob waving placards and trying to decide just how ugly it wanted to become.

“Damn it! I should have been watching–“

“No one else is on real-time oversight?”

“For a joyride to the civilian sector?” snapped the admiral, but she turned red as she said it. Coming from the same service ethos, Trevor could read her mind: “My watch, my fault.” At that moment, a small maglev car–a private rental–pulled up, and after a moment’s time, Riordan and Ensign Brahen entered it.

“Was their escape in that little car part of the plan?” asked Trevor.

“No. Not part of my plan, at any rate.” Perduro punched a virtual stud on her desktop-screen. “Duty Officer, get me the Shore Patrol.”