Trial By Fire – Snippet 08

Chapter Five

Outbound from Barnard’s Star 2 C

Fifty minutes later, while settling into the accommodations on the modular cutter that was set to sternchase and catch the Prometheus before her shift, Caine finished folding the dress uniform he had worn precisely one time: yesterday, when he had been commissioned in the Space Force. He stared at the silver oak leaf on the jacket’s shoulder. God damn, how the hell did I get through four weeks of combined basic and OCS? And zero-gee ops and logistics? And combat simulators and live-fire range time whenever I wasn’t up to my eyeballs in refresher calculus and space physics? Between the trip-hammer pace and never more than five hours of sleep a night, it had become an absurdist comedy by week three. And then, with a salute and a step back, it was all over. Mustered out into the Reserves. As if it had never happened at all.

From the other side of the cramped cabin, Trevor’s voice was wry. “Thinking great thoughts?”

“Hell, just thinking. I forgot what that feels like.”

Trevor emitted a short laugh. “Yeah, they kept you busy. Kept shifting gears between brain-work and body-work, too. Although that can help.”


Trevor didn’t look up, kept entering security codes into their shared commplex. He was determined to finish changing the habmod’s registry from military to civilian/diplomatic before the cutter got underway. “When I went into the Teams, the hardest thing about hell-week was that it was almost all physical. They just kept hammering at you, at the same strengths or weaknesses. Half the battle for me was finding a way to cope with the monotony.” Trevor turned away from the commplex. Now when the module arrived at Earth, it would not indicate its passengers were military personnel. “Fortunately, I had a very colorful instructor.”


“Stosh Witkowski. Never cusses, but he has a rare talent for inventing the most elegant insults that I have ever heard. And of course, I got a particularly rich share of his attention.”


“Why?” Trevor looked at Caine as if he was yet another new species of exosapient. “I was an officer, an Annapolis legacy, and the child of a celebrity father.” The last word threatened to catch in his throat; Trevor rose and exited their stateroom briskly, waved for Caine to follow. “Let’s get something to eat before they make us strap in.”

Caine followed Trevor into the small galley that was opposite the module’s combination entry hatch/docking ring. The small observation port–still unsealed–offered a memorable view: framed by the top-and-bottom gridwork of the cutter’s module-laden trusses, the system’s second gas giant loomed as a great black arc, backlit by the dim red glow of the occulted Barnard’s Star. A blood-washed white dot winked near the shoulder of the dark planetary curve.

Trevor nodded at the speck. “Say goodbye to The Pearl. They’ll be shutting the viewport any minute now.”


“Meteorology detected a flare, just as we came on board. Nothing too rough, but in addition to the rads kicked off by the gas giant, you’ll want more than a layer of sunscreen between you and the Great Out There.”

“Has The Pearl changed much since the last time you were here?”

“Does a ‘Force base ever change?”

Caine snagged a cube of water, unfolded the integral straw. “You tell me. It seemed–well, almost deserted.”

Trevor nodded, perching on the countertop across from Caine in the excessively cozy space. “Yeah, and I had expected the opposite. Given all the traffic that’s been through here, and all the carriers and combat craft that the rosters say are in-system, I was sure the place would be overflowing, not a ghost town.”

Caine looked at him directly. “Galley scuttlebutt says that it’s because almost all the combat hulls are already deployed and double-crewed. Waiting.”

Trevor sipped his water, waved a dismissive hand. “Yeah, yeah, the Defcon Three that no one mentions and everyone knows about. Great cover-up, too: lots of threadbare bullshit about ‘routine maneuvers.’ Meanwhile, it’s common knowledge that assets are being dispersed to undisclosed groupment points or are shifting out-system to the ‘training reserve’ at Ross 154. Some secret.”

“And all that precautionary activity wouldn’t clear the bleachers?”

“Not like this, no. It wasn’t just the lack of shipside ratings cycling through the base. It was the constant reduction of dirtside techs. Do you know that there were fifteen hundred cryocelled maintenance and construction personnel sent back on the last carrier that went out?”

“Are replacements on the way?”

Trevor shook his head. “I went down to the slips, asked around. Nada.”

“So what do you think the brass is up to, and why aren’t they telling us?”

“They’re not telling us because we’re not in the need-to-know loop.” Trevor grinned ruefully. “And since no one here is aware that we’re IRIS operatives, no one is aware that we have the clearance to hear the secrets they’re not going to tell us, anyway. On the up side, we also never had to use those goofy, Odyssey-based code names my father hung on us.”

“Admiral Perduro knows about our clearance levels.”

“Yeah, but I’m not so sure she’s fully in the loop herself. Look how she reacted to your commissioning orders: an official posting to Naval Intelligence but with a track for unrestricted line promotions. I don’t think she saw that coming, judging from the way she frowned when she read it out to you.”

Caine nodded. “I think you’re right. Downing cut the orders; she just cut the ribbon.”

“Thereby authorizing you to wreak havoc amongst genuine military personnel.”

“Smile when you say that, Captain.”

“I was.”

“Didn’t look like it.”

“I was smiling inside.”

“Uh huh.”

Trevor did smile now. “Look, nothing against you, Caine, but Uncle Richard seems to be making this stuff up as he goes along. My promotion, your commission and ‘training,’ our immediate conversion to reserve status: this is so nonregulation, that I’m past being surprised. For all I know, he might try to appoint someone as Grand Fez-Wearing Poo-Bah of the God-Emperor’s Armada. What he’s been doing with ranks and titles and clearances–hell, it’s just not done.”

“Well, maybe not, but Downing had sign-offs from the president and the Joint Chiefs.”

“Yeah, but just because it comes from so high up the chain of command that no one dares question it doesn’t mean that it’s in trim with the regs. And I’m telling you, based on eighteen years of first-hand experience, that it is all non-reg. Sooner or later, someone’s going to insist upon an explanation.”

Caine nodded, watched as the incandescent crimson edge of the planet’s terminator rotated into view. “Yeah, there are a whole lot of explanations that would be pretty welcome right now.”

Trevor glanced at Caine. “You mean, explanations for all the attacks on you?”

“Yeah, and on your dad and Tarasenko. And Elena’s abduction on Mars. Every time I try to make sense of the incidents, the unanswered questions come hammering down like I’m hatless in a hailstorm.”

Trevor smiled ruefully. “Judging from your tone of voice, you’re getting pelted by those questions right now.”

“Not all of them, but there’s one incident that has started to trouble me more than the others,” Caine admitted.

“Which one?”

“Remember those two Russians who broke into my room on Mars and tried to kill me? That attack just doesn’t make any sense at all.”

Trevor’s voice was mildly incredulous. “You mean, it makes less sense than the others?”

Caine nodded. “Yeah. Actually, almost all the others were conducted by faceless assassins, people who–like the guy today–don’t officially exist. But the Russian I killed on Mars not only had an identity, he was part of their consulate’s security force. And Russians, Trevor? Russians? That makes almost as little sense as my living through the attack.”

“You mean because the second guy left you alive when you were out cold?”

“Damned right. What the hell was that about? He had at least three minutes to kill me while I was senseless on the floor, before the police showed up. But all he does is cut my left arm?” Caine stared at the now almost-invisible four-inch scar, and shook his head. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

“Yeah, well, at least you’ll be able to get some updates on the investigation, now that we’re heading back to Earth–“

Their habitation module’s main access portal rammed shut with a metallic slap. Blood-red emergency flashers strobed in syncopation with the alarm klaxon.

“–Or maybe not,” Trevor finished. “We’ve gotta move. That’s an automated call to general quarters.”

Caine rose to follow Trevor–and crashed into the right side of doorjamb face-first. The cutter had ceased acceleration, and without the thrust to hold Caine in place, the world had tilted out from under him in mid step. Drifting backward, Riordan struggled to remember his zero-gee training, flailed his arms, caught the left side of the jamb, steadied himself. From the hatchway coaming, Trevor’s voice was sharp. “Goddamnit, Caine: move! We’ve got to get out of this can.”


“Just shut up and follow me to the module access tube.”

“And then?”

“Just follow me for now.”

Small drops of his own blood swimming up past his eyes, Caine grabbed a handhold, propelled himself through the combination hatchway and docking ring–and stopped himself just before crashing into Trevor’s extremely broad back. “What gives?”

Trevor was squinting up the cutter’s spinal access corridor, to which all its modules were attached like ribs to a sternum. He shook his head and started pulling himself hand over hand in the opposite direction. “Follow me. Fast as you can go.”

Caine trailed Trevor inexpertly, but noticed that it became rapidly easier to use the handholds. Sort of like crossing monkey-bars underwater. But the arm-over-arm half-swim, half-climb rhythm was broken when Trevor turned ninety degrees “down,” plunging through a hole in what Caine was still thinking of as the “deck.” Caine followed awkwardly, looked around as he came through the docking-ring coaming and then the hatchway: the Auxiliary Command module. “Why are we here?” Caine asked.