Trial By Fire – Snippet 06

Chapter Four

Off-base sector, Barnard’s Star 2 C

The last station’s collision klaxon began hooting as Trevor reached the outer gate area. The emergency access portal dilated and spat out a torrent of panicked humanity. Fighting against the outflow of bodies, the stink of panicked sweat and the choking fumes of smoldering plastic, he pushed his way toward the station’s long, narrow platform–

–and entered a tableau of chaos. He smelled smoking metal and saw the rapidly thinning crowd clustered around the main exit, with a few of the rearmost changing direction toward the portal Trevor had just used. No sign of the Shore Patrol–the wireless comm channels had not reactivated yet–and only a handful of people were still on the platform itself, most of those wounded or just rising from where they had taken cover–

Caine swayed up into Trevor’s field of view at the far end of the station, just a few meters away from the mauled remains of the two maglev cars. As he reached down to help a young woman back to her feet, Trevor saw movement a few meters farther down the platform.

From the shadows near a bank of ticket dispensers lining station’s far wall, a tall, lean, knot-muscled man emerged with a knife in his right hand, drawn back for an overhand slash. Trevor took a long leap down to the platform level, yelling “Caine, behind you!”

But Caine was already changing his direction of movement. In the same instant that he released the arm of the young woman he had helped up, his turn accelerated into a fast pivot, spinning him fully around. His right arm cocked back even as his left arm rose swiftly–

–and caught his attacker’s descending forearm. Caine’s imperfect but serviceable rising block pushed the down-slashing knife-hand up and out of the way. Without any break in motion, Riordan closed the distance with a quick step and his already-cocked right hand came forward like a pile driver. The heel of his palm rammed into his assailant’s face, just beneath the nose. Blood spurted, the knife wobbled, the man staggered back a step–

Caine’s momentum carried him through a sideways stance and into a fast, left-foot forward-shuffle. As he did so, he drew his right knee up high and, in a blur, shot that leg out straight as his torso leaned back.

Caine’s step-through side kick caught the reeling attacker in the sternum. The man crashed backward into the ticket machines and then down to the ground, groaning faintly. By the time Trevor reached Riordan two seconds later, the platform was empty except for the two of them and the corpse of one protester whose chest had been transfixed by two lengths of blackened metal.

Trevor put out an arm to steady the suddenly swaying Caine, looked down at his would-be murderer. “I guess Opal was a pretty good karate teacher.”

Caine rose, glanced at Trevor. “Oh. You knew about her giving me lessons back on Mars, then?”

“Damn it, Caine.” Corcoran sighed. “Everyone knew.” He gestured toward the prone attacker. “What the hell is going on here?”

“Based on prior experience,” muttered Caine, straightening up, “I’d say that was an assassination attempt. Two of them, actually.”

“Yeah, but how–?”

“Trevor, ‘how’ doesn’t much apply to the attacks we’ve been dealing with since Alexandria. Nor do the words ‘impossible’ or ‘unimaginable.’ Because whoever is behind them has trump cards that we didn’t even know were in the deck.”

Trevor heard movement behind them. The first members of the Shore Patrol trotted through the emergency portal, weapons out. Trevor waved them over, pointed down at the feebly moving attacker, then leaned closer to Caine. “Guess you’ve got eyes in the back of your head, seeing him coming at you.”

“The reporter I helped up saved me, I think. She saw him over my shoulder, and I saw her eyes move. But also, I had this feeling–” Caine stopped.

Trevor waited while the Shore Patrol hauled the attacker to his feet and dragged him toward the exit. “What do you mean, ‘I had a feeling’?” he muttered.

Riordan shook his head. “I don’t know how to say it. Just before he got to me, it felt as though the whole universe was no longer fluid; like I was a small cog in the middle of a very fast, but very stiff and very big machine.”

“And that–feeling–warned you that some guy was about to carve you up from behind?”

“No, just that something nearby was–was, well, wrong somehow. So I defended the place I was most vulnerable: behind me, where I couldn’t see.”

Trevor grabbed Caine’s arm and started moving him toward the exit. “Man, I know twenty-year veterans who don’t have reflexes like that. Didn’t think you had them, either.”

“That’s because I don’t have them. I wasn’t following a fighting instinct, Trevor. It was more like a–a premonition.”

“Well, whatever it is, it sure as hell saved your bacon. And we sure as hell have to get back to the Pearl.”

Caine nodded. “Absolutely. Because there’s one additional thing that needs to be reported, and quickly.”

“What’s that?”

“The guy who attacked me was on the first platform, too. He threw a bottle at me, then ran like hell.”

“What? But how could he know you were going to stop here or–?”

“I don’t know, Trevor. And I don’t know how he managed to sprint through four kilometers of tight tunnels to get here before my maglev. Or how he went from religious zealot to…” Caine’s voice trailed off.

Trevor watched the S.P.s shackling the attacker to a restraint bar. “How he went from being a zealot to–what?”

Caine swallowed. “A madman. No, that’s not right: a killing machine. He was a wild-eyed screamer when I saw him at the first station. But here–” Caine turned to look over his shoulder. Trevor followed his gaze.

The hollow eyes of Caine’s would-be assassin had been following them steadily, calmly, empty of reason but full of a lethal, insatiable hunger.

Off-base sector, Barnard’s Star 2 C

The CoDevCo special services liaison who oversaw corporate operations on Barnard’s Star Two C stared at the last, frozen image that had been pirated from the maglev security system: Riordan and Corcoran hurrying away from the crash site. The liaison’s jaw worked unevenly; his face grew steadily more red.

His mounting fury was defused by a slow, steady voice from behind, which ordered as much as intoned, “Calm yourself.”

The liaison turned toward the man whom he served, at the behest of his superior CoDevCo Vice President R. J. Astor-Smath. Although having worked under this tall, sunglass-wearing man for almost three months, he still knew almost nothing about him, other than that he had a profound penchant for olives. “I do not know how you can be so calm. Two failed attempts in the course of a single minute? This is preposterous.”

“Riordan is not as easy to kill as he might seem to an unprofessional observer. He may lack training, but he reasons quickly and has almost infallible instincts in a crisis.”

“So you consider today’s outcome less than disastrous?”

The tall, sun-glassed man leaned back in his seat with a sigh. “I find it interesting how many of you, when watching a plan go awry, are so blinded by your frustration that you are unable to learn from what you have witnessed.”

The liaison mastered his annoyance at the man’s customary, languid arrogance, in part because it was his job to do so, and in part because the man was usually–and infuriatingly–accurate in his observations. “And what was to be learned from what we witnessed today?”

“Why, that it was good fortune that today’s attempts were failures. Your superior’s ill-advised machinations to encumber Riordan by focusing the interest of the press upon him has produced troublesome results–precisely as I warned. Riordan is now an item of journalistic attention and scrutiny. Kill him, and inquiry will follow. And that inquiry would result in closer investigation of a variety of phenomena which you–and I–wish to remain merely puzzling anomalies in the minds of our adversaries.”

“Such as Tarasenko’s and Corcoran’s heart attacks?”

“Those too, yes, but the failed attempt to assassinate Riordan in Alexandria is of greater concern to me. There, we left them with too many unsolvable puzzles. If your news services, or intelligence communities, are repeatedly agitated by such mysteries and ‘baffling coincidences,’ they will eventually begin to consider explanations that they now dismiss as not merely improbable, but impossible. This would be a grave development for us. We wish our opponents to remain complacent, content to follow the forensic pathways to which they are accustomed, which their science deems ‘rational.'”

“If Riordan were to die because of a very conventional knife in his chest, that would not raise any such suspicions.”

The tall man shook his head, took a green olive from a small bowl located at arm’s length. “All of you think too linearly. To you, the universe is comprised of infinite rows of dominoes, each ready to be tapped and set in motion. Yet you assume that each row is almost entirely independent from the others.” He chewed into the olive as if he had never tasted one before, and sighed. “But a few of you do see the truth of it: that the dominoes are arranged in sweeping curves that intersect, spread, double back, terminate each other, or engender new vectors, new events. So, if you eliminate Riordan in a place where the press is present or has ready access, there is an excellent chance that you may set other, deleterious events in motion.”

The tall man evidently noticed the uncertainty creasing his liaison’s brow. He deigned to explicate. “A society’s entrenched attitudes and predilections are balanced upon a broad cultural fulcrum: they are robust and stable, but if pushed and stressed far enough, they tip and change–often becoming the opposite of what they just were. If you kill Riordan in an inexplicable accident–the kind you persistently pressure me to create through my Reifications of quantum entanglement and uncertainty–our adversaries are likely to detect that pattern. Their present tolerance for unconnected coincidences could convert into a fierce resolve to get answers, no matter the cost, and no matter how strange those answers might be.

“And they just might succeed. Not all of our opponents see the universe in the simplistic one-cause, one-effect paradigm that most of you are trapped within.” The man nodded at the frozen image of Caine, fleeing the platform, looking over his shoulder. “He is one who sees more expansively, more completely. Nolan Corcoran, his companion’s father, was another.”

The liaison folded his arms. “Let us presume all you have said is true. It is also true that you yourself have asserted that Riordan may now be able detect the onset of your Reifications–which must be why he detected today’s attacker. He felt you ‘push’ our man. Add all this to your observations that Riordan is particularly hard to predict, and that now, he is likely to depart for Earth before we do. Taken together, these things put us on the brink of failure. Riordan might soon slip beyond our collective grasp.”

The tall man stopped chewing an olive and smiled–an expression which reminded his assistant of a tiger baring its teeth. “Riordan might slip beyond your grasp. But not mine.”