Trial By Fire – Snippet 07
“The Pearl,” Barnard’s Star 2 C
The first thing Caine saw when the door to the secure debrief room opened was Admiral Martina Perduro sitting at the other end, her body as still as a graven idol’s, her face as pale and immobile as a slab of sun-weathered oak. Caine snapped his best salute a second after Trevor did.
Perduro waved them to chairs. As soon as they crossed the threshold, she touched her dataslate. The doors sealed and the breathy whirr of a white-noise generator rose up from the peripheries of the room. Then she indicated the screens around her. “I’ve got all the technical reports on today’s nonsense with the maglev cars. None of which can explain the failures in the system. But I’m guessing you two have heard similarly “impossible’ reports on prior occasions. You particularly, Commander Riordan.”
“The assessments are very reminiscent of those Mr. Downing shared with me regarding the after-action reports from the assassination attempts you dodged at Alexandria and the Convocation Station: circuits uncoupling, polarities reversing, breakers tripping, computer controls being overridden without any evidence of hacking.” She tossed down her dataslate and passed a hand across her brow. “It doesn’t make a damn bit of sense.”
Caine shrugged. “It never does, ma’am. And we never even have leads as to who’s behind these incidents.”
Perduro arched forward. “Well, at least we’ve got a lead this time.”
“You mean, the attacker?”
The admiral scoffed, surprised. “No, Heather Kirkwood–who, if rumors hold any truth, may have had both personal and professional motives to set you up, Caine.”
Caine made sure that his differing opinion did not come out as a contradiction. “Admiral, I know it might seem that way, but I think Heather may have been a patsy as well.”
“Why? Because whoever she was working for was willing to kill her, too? Commander Riordan, after a mission, covert operators frequently prevent security leaks by eliminating any free-lancer they hired to carry it out. ‘Burning assets,’ it’s called.”
“Yes, ma’am, I am familiar with that concept.”
“And according to your report, Kirkwood was attempting to extort highly classified information.”
“So how does that not add up to the following scenario: she tries to extort information from you, she fails, and her handlers kills both of you to cover up their identity and interest in those particular secrets?”
Caine nodded. “I agree it looks that way, Admiral, but I’ve got information that problematizes the hypothesis.”
“Personal knowledge of Heather Kirkwood. Would she take a tip from a shady source in order to get what she wants? She wouldn’t bat a lash, doing that. Would she actually, or at least threaten to, endanger old friends of mine if she thought it might get me to cooperate? Sadly, yes. And would she selectively reveal the time and place I was going to emerge from the Pearl to ensure that the local press and activist groups would be there to generate a more provocative scenario and story? Unquestionably. But here’s where the hypothesis breaks down: Heather wasn’t a killer.”
Perduro shrugged. “So you say. I’m not convinced. And from what Ensign Brahen told me, you might have been at the top of Kirkwood’s death list, if she had one.”
Caine shook his head. “Heather Kirkwood was ambitious, vain, selfish, and couldn’t stop trying to outdo everyone at everything–particularly the people she was closest to. But she hadn’t the stomach for murder and frankly, had every reason not to be involved, directly or indirectly, in any attempt to kill me.”
Trevor glanced at him, frowning. “Why?”
“Because she did not stand to gain anything by my death. Quite the opposite. If she was in any way connected to an event in which I was killed, she’d come under investigation simply because of our prior contact. And here’s a cardinal rule in the journalism business: you can report news only so long as you don’t become news. So if she was ever implicated, even tangentially, in the murder of a politically significant former lover, that could have ended her career. Even if she was ultimately exonerated.”
“So again, we’ve got no leads,” sighed Trevor, “just another closed room mystery. Just like Alexandria.”
Perduro’s gestures became sharp, testy. “Yes, and it’s rife with the same kind of logical gaps. How did they know that either of you had gone to the still-secret Convocation? And, beyond that, how did they know that you had returned to human space? How did the assassin’s handlers know which maglev car Caine was in? How did they have Kirkwood’s private car ready to follow it into the first station? And how did they manage–on that short notice–to override our supposedly unhackable maglev traffic-control software to get another car to follow, and then ram Caine’s car?”
Trevor frowned. “Well, this time, at least you’ve got one survivor you can interrogate: the religious fanatic.”
“Except it turns out he’s not a religious fanatic,” Perduro snapped.
Caine stared. “What–ma’am?”
“The man who attacked you had no known affiliations with the local extremist sects. None of them know him. In fact, the ‘fanatic’ has no identity that we can determine.”
Now it was Trevor’s turn. “What?”
“He is a nonperson, as far as the ID system is concerned. And here at the Pearl, we maintain a very up-to-date registry.”
Trevor was frowning now. “Have you interrogated him, Admiral?”
“We wanted to.”
Caine heard the frustrated tone. “Admiral, what do you mean ‘we wanted to’?”
“I mean he was found dead in his cell fifteen minutes before you walked in here.”
“And let me guess. The probable cause of death was a heart attack?”
“No, Commander. This time, it was a stroke. Massive. He was dead within a minute. There was no response to either immediate CPR or more heroic methods.”
Trevor leaned back. “Ma’am, as you say, these are just the kinds of mysteries that seem to accumulate around the attempts on Commander Riordan’s life.”
Riordan shook his head. “Except that there’s an even larger mystery that hasn’t been mentioned yet.”
Perduro turned toward Caine. “And what mystery is that?”
Caine looked at Perduro uncertainly. Even though she was asking about a piece of data she’d overlooked, she still might resent having it “explained” to her. Riordan considered how best to ease into the topic–
However, Trevor’s patience was exhausted after two seconds. “Well, what are you waiting for, Caine? A drum roll?”
“I don’t need a drum, but it would sure be handy to have a crystal ball like the one the opposition is using. Because there’s no other way to explain how they got all the press here in time to meet me coming out of the Pearl.”
Perduro made a face. “The presence of the press can be explained by a simple intel leak. No one needed a crystal ball to predict your movements.”
Caine spread his hands. “Admiral, Trevor, I know enough about the journalism field to be familiar with its basic workings. And here are some facts about field reporters. They are not lurking everywhere, just waiting to pop up with a palmcom set to record. They are assigned to, or string as freelancers in, high-activity news zones. Which Barney Deucy is not. However, they can also be found in locales where an editor has sent them, on the hunch that a newsworthy situation is brewing there.”
“Like a special task force,” supplied Trevor.
“Exactly. Now here’s the hitch. I did some checking while we were waiting to outbrief you, Admiral, and it seems the journalists who mobbed me at the first monorail station only arrived here eight days ago. Now, doing the reverse math of how long it took them to travel to Barney Deucy after they shifted in, that means they left Earth about four days before that. Of course, before they could shift out from Earth, they had to preaccelerate for at least thirty-three days–“
Perduro’s face became even more pale than it had been when they entered: her eyes opened wide as the calendar implications drove in upon her. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, that means most of the surplus reporters here today got their marching orders to come to Barney Deucy at least forty-five days ago. At a minimum.”
“But–” started Trevor. And then he stopped, his own eyes widening.
Caine nodded. “We hadn’t even shifted out to get to the Convocation yet. In fact, their travel had to start just a few days after Nolan’s memorial, about fifty days ago, to be here for today’s freelancer feeding-frenzy. And fifty days ago, we had no idea how the Convocation would turn out, or that we’d only be there for a few days, or that Downing, Trevor, and I would detour here, instead of returning directly to Earth, as the rest of the delegates did.”
“So someone knew what we were planning before it was planned?” Trevor’s voice climbed to a surprisingly high pitch on the last word.
Caine shrugged. “That’s why I’m half-convinced they have a crystal ball, Trevor.”
“Either that,” muttered Perduro, “or whoever is behind all these closed room mysteries can send information faster than the speed of light.”
Caine nodded. “Or can shift between the stars much faster and much farther than we can, and slip that information to human collaborators.”
“What a reassuring set of alternatives,” grumbled Trevor.
“Isn’t it, though?” Perduro’s voice was almost as rough and deep as the ex-SEAL’s. “I’ll code this into a report and send it out to the Prometheus ahead of you. She–and your cutter–are due to get to her Earth-optimized shift point in about three weeks, but you never know what might happen between now and then.” She stood. “And I think I’d better run a general defense drill.”
“A drill, ma’am?” asked Caine.
“Yes, Commander. I believe Mr. Downing told you he put us on Defcon Three. We’ve kept it from the civilian sector, as per orders, but I wish we didn’t have to. People don’t react well to news of an unexpected threat if you spring it on them at the last second.”
Trevor’s grin was wry. “Must be darn hard to prepare people to deal with exosapient invaders you don’t have permission to talk about yet, Admiral.”
“Trevor, get out of here before you make my brain hurt any worse than it already does. Now, have both of you filled out your resignations from active duty?”
Caine and Trevor produced the carefully folded papers, handed them to Perduro.
Who scanned them with a scowl. “Damn idiotic charade, this. I hope Downing knows what he’s doing. I promote you yesterday, and pack you off into the Reserves today? Insane.”
Caine shrugged. “As I understand it, his primary reason is so that, coming back as civilians, we can slip in under the press’s radar. At least they won’t have any immediate knowledge that I’m part of the Navy, now.”
Perduro shook her head, put out her hand. “Commander, Captain. I hereby accept and duly record your departures from active service. It’s been a pleasure having you here, gentlemen.” Releasing Trevor’s hand, she suddenly looked her full age. “After today’s events, and what it implies about our undisclosed adversary’s ability to run rings around us on the calendar, I’m seriously considering moving this facility to Defcon Two on my own initiative. And I think you gentlemen should move up your departure time to catch the Prometheus, just in case she has to fuse a little extra deuterium to get out of town ahead of schedule.”
Caine nodded at the ominous implications of that precaution. “And when do you recommend we depart, Admiral?”
“Five minutes ago, Commander. Get the hell out of my sight, grab your gear, and god speed to you both.”