Trial By Fire – Snippet 04

“The Pearl,” Barnard’s Star 2 C

Martina Perduro turned away from her commplex with a sigh. “Damn it. I didn’t even know we had half that many reporters in the civilian sector. And of course we just happened to send Riordan right out into the midst of them.”

Trevor watched the monitors, tracking the progress of the blip that denoted the private maglev car which had whisked Caine away from the journalists and protesters. “Don’t worry, Admiral. Riordan can handle the press.”

“Handle them? He was one of them, wasn’t he?”

“No, ma’am, not really.” Trevor tapped the monitor as the interactive maglev-system diagram flickered uncertainly, then reasserted. “He just took some freelance reporting gigs to make ends meet in lean times.”

“What did he do for a living?”

“Different things. Worked for Jane’s Defense Weekly as an analyst for a while, then wrote books. Consulted, too. Defense and intelligence: all the major three-letter agencies. A few others, besides.”

Perduro made a huffing noise. “I know those consultancies and their fees. How ‘lean’ could the times have been?”

“Pretty lean, because Caine has a serious flaw when it comes to working for the government.”

“Which is?”

“Well, he has this real bad habit of telling the truth.”


“Yeah. So he had an irregular career because he was always willing to wonder out loud about the so-called experts’–and his own–methods of analysis, and about the conclusions derived from them.”

“So he got in trouble for doing his job properly?”

“Yep, particularly when his observations ran afoul of Ancient Agency Traditions. One time, he pointed out that age stratification in the intelligence organizations was crippling their counterintelligence analysis. Specifically, the generation gap had senior experts unaware that contemporary ciphers were incorporating pop-culture memes and semiology–which the under-thirty junior analysts could have recognized and decoded in their sleep. Caine wound up getting two supreme recognitions for that discovery.”

“Which were?”

“Well, first he got a huge consultancy bonus.”

“And the second?”

“They let him go. Never hired him back. Buried the files and findings.”

“So he was the proverbial prophet, unwelcome in his own land.”

“Well, there’s that–but frankly, he’s also not your typical beltway type.”

“How so?”

“Admiral, have you ever worked with a polymath? A real polymath?”

Perduro smiled. “I served under Nolan Corcoran–remember?”

“Touché. But Dad–well, he liked managing people. Not Caine.”

“Strange. He doesn’t seem antisocial.”

“He’s not, Admiral, but, well, you know how artists don’t work best in groups?”


“Yeah, well, that’s kind of how Caine works, too. He’s a team player, but he often does his best work independently. Probably because he doesn’t think like most of the team.”

Perduro picked up a hardcopy report printed on the light blue letterhead of the Med-Psych section. “‘Subject Riordan evinces unusual balance between right and left lobe thought; demonstrates real-time syncretic problem-solving. Does not alternate between data intake and revision of situational contexts, but engages in both processes simultaneously.'”

Trevor raised an eyebrow. “Ma’am, if you had all that psych-eval data on Caine already, why ask me for my extremely inexpert assessment?”

“For the reason I indicated before, Captain: to get a human perspective that isn’t all numbers and graphs and psychobabble. Thankfully, what you just shared confirms most of what the so-called experts have observed.”

Trevor shrugged, turned to check the real-time rail system diagram for the progress of the private maglev car that was carrying Caine–and jerked forward to scrutinize the screen. “Admiral–” he started.

“I see it, Captain. Where the hell did that other car come from? Where’s its transponder code? And what in blazes is it doing on the same track?”

And then the screen went dead. A moment later the security monitor feed blacked out also–followed by every light in the room.

Perduro punched the button to call the Duty Officer just as he came through the door and the red emergency lighting began to glow. “Admiral, we’ve got a widespread blackout on all–“

The power came back up, the lights flickering sharply before their luminance stabilized.

Perduro rounded on the hapless D.O. “Mr. Canetti, what the hell is happening on my base?”

“Ma’am, I don’t know.”

“Admiral,” murmured Trevor. As Perduro turned toward him, he pointed to the security monitors and the maglev tracking screen. They, alone of all the electronic devices, were still dark.

“Son of a bitch,” Perduro breathed.

“Came in to tell you about those systems in particular,” Ensign Canetti blurted into the silence after her profanity. “Those systems went down first. And they went down hard.”

“Okay, so get the techs on it. What went wrong, and where?”

“That’s just it, Admiral. We don’t know. The whole maglev tracking system–and the station and platform monitors–just seem to have, well, disconnected.”

Trevor looked up sharply at the young ensign. The system had just “disconnected?” Where had he heard that before? Trevor jumped out of his chair, made for the doorway in the long, gliding leaps made possible by Barney Deucy’s low-gee environment.

“Trevor, where the hell are you going?”

“Admiral, we don’t have a lot of time. That kind of ‘disconnection’ is exactly what happened when the airlock on Convocation Station failed and almost sent Caine and one of the friendlier exosapients into hard vacuum. Similar electronic failures enabled a number of the other assassination attempts made against Caine, like the one at Alexandria.”

“So where are you going?”

“To the last station stop on the maglev line.” He looked at the D.O. “Do you have the main comms back yet?”

“Only the hard-wired system, sir.”

“As soon as you can, get a message to the Shore Patrol to meet me at the last station on the civilian branch of the maglev line.”

Perduro stood, frowning. “Why there?”

“Admiral Perduro, correct me if I’m wrong, but the track into the civilian section only extends a dozen meters or so beyond the final station. And they use that extension as a kind of shunting track: they leave cars there, or send them back the other way.”

Perduro’s frown deepened. “That’s true.”

“Then it’s also like a dead-end canyon. Once there, the only way out is to come back along the stretch of track that the rogue car has already entered.”

Perduro swallowed. “Putting Riordan between a speeding rock–“

“–and the very hard place at the end of the tunnel, Admiral. So with your leave–“

“Get the hell out of here, Captain. I’ll have the SPs meet you at the last station if I have to find them and drag them there myself.”