Trial By Fire – Snippet 13

Chapter Seven

Washington D.C., Earth

Richard Downing entered the office he had shared with Nolan Corcoran for more than a decade, and stared wistfully at the couch in the waiting room. Sleep would be very welcome and would come all too easily. He had been planetside less than six hours and had already briefed the POTUS, the Joint Chiefs, and the intelligence agencies. And only now could his real work begin.

Once in the conference room, he activated the commplex, told it to place a call, dropped into a chair, and rubbed his face so he would appear alert and fresh. Well, alert. Mostly.

The commplex checked Downing’s identity and then indicated that the requested individual was on the line. “Mr. Rulaine,” he said, stifling a yawn, “I trust you’ve found your early retirement from the Special Forces relaxing?”

“Yes, sir. A little too relaxing.”

“Well, we’ll remedy that soon enough. Now, about your team: their medical discharges went through without a problem?”

“Yes sir, although the clerk did eyeball the five of us pretty strangely.”

Downing imagined the scene: the five men–a Green Beret (Rulaine himself), three SEALs (Jacob Winfield, Stanislaus Witkowski, and Carlos Cruz) and a bear of a Secret Service agent (Matthew Barr)–clustered around a desk to “medical out” of their respective services. “Medical cause, sir?” the clerk would have asked. “Unspecified,” Bannor Rulaine would have answered in the flat baritone that was his all-business voice. And that first question would have been the last that the clerk asked the five of them.

“And you are satisfied with the authenticity of the fictional security firm that is now retaining your services?”

Bannor nodded. “Yes sir. Incorporation papers, contact data, client lists, transactions, all perfectly legit, even if scrutinized by a Congressional subcommittee. And by the way, I would like to convey the group’s collective thanks for the very generous employment terms.”

Which you will earn many times over, you poor sods. “You are all very welcome. I’m short on time, Captain, so let’s review the OpOrds. My system will require a real-time biometric security check, so please activate your video pickup.”

“Will do, sir.” The screen on Downing’s commplex faded up from black, revealing Bannor Rulaine’s thinning sandy hair and calm hazel eyes. Downing nodded a greeting, watched the OpOrd file upload begin, and reviewed Rulaine’s hardcopy record, located out of the commplex’s visual field.

According to his atypical dossier, Bannor Rulaine had gone to Dartmouth–gone, but never graduated. He found information imparted by drill instructors vastly preferable to that offered by professors. Instead of flunking out of the Fort Benning School for Wayward Boys, he had exceeded its expectations. His first posting had been to OCS, with more than a few of his trainers grumbling that the brass always ruined the best soldiers they produced by adorning their shoulders with shiny metal bars instead of honest fabric stripes.

Rulaine was already scanning the ops file. “So all five of us are to drop out of sight as soon as we’ve picked up the equipment here in Baltimore.”

“Yes, all of which is ‘defective’ Army issue. It is fully functional, of course.”

“Of course. What are you giving us, sir?”

“The lot. Everything you could want, except EVA gear; that’s as scarce as hen’s teeth right now. The cache–enough to support two fire teams for a month of extensive operations–has been sealed in a secure commercial container, waiting for you on the docks.”

Bannor nodded, then frowned. “Sir, I know I shouldn’t ask, but I have to anyway. Why all the cloak-and-dagger maneuvering?”

“A fair question. Here’s the frank answer: if there is a war scare, every official asset—material or human–could get commandeered. So I am precautionarily setting aside some cells of independent operatives–prepositioned and presupplied–that cannot be usurped by higher authorities later on.”

“I read you five by five, sir. Logically, you’ll want us to drop out of sight until you need us, so I presume you’ve set aside a specific location?”

“Yes. Caribbean. Lesser Antilles. Nevis, just south of St. Kitts. Friends of mine have a house there, and I think your men will enjoy a little time in a tropical paradise.”

“Well, sure. Sir.”

“They are to stay current on their dive ops and zero-gee equivalency qualifications. They are also to get to know the local rental agencies for VTOLs. And they will need to become friendly with the crew of the open-water vehicle ferry attached to the Season’s Classic resort property–and must prepare an ops plan for the possible seizure of that vessel.”

“Why, sir?”

“Because it may also become necessary for you to commandeer some VTOLs. In that event, you’ll need the ferry’s deck space to carry them if you have to move to your area of operations by sea.”

“So if the balloon goes up, we close to target by surface craft, and then VTOL off the deck?”

“Best if you beach the ferry first, but yes, that’s the plan.”

“And what’s our target?”

“That’s the great unknown. That’s why we’re keeping your men in ready reserve on an island.”

Rulaine’s grin was lopsided. “That’s the typical life of a soldier, Mr. Downing: hurry up and wait.”

“‘Fraid so. The Nevis address is at the end of Appendix B. It is a summer home, and the owners–friends of mine who have Langley connections–have agreed to let your group ‘look after it’ in their absence. No close contact with the locals, though.”

“Right. We’re there because we’re a bunch of dive junkies. And if someone asks us if we know the owner, or his friend Richard Downing, we just answer ‘who?’ And we send you a picture of whoever did the asking.”

“Good lad. Enjoy your stay in the Caribbean. Good speaking to you.”

“And you, sir. We’ll be awaiting your signal.”

“Or Captain Corcoran’s. He will be your direct CO, so you may get your final activation orders from him.”

“Roger that, sir, and good luck.”

“You, too, Captain.” The link dissolved.

Before the light had fully faded from the screen, there was a knock on the door. Downing sighed. Chatting with Rulaine had been easy, even relaxing. But the rest of the day’s agenda was devoted to an official briefing with other members of the delegation that had accompanied Downing to the Accord’s Convocation, and who, for different reasons, now brought headache-generating issues with them. Young genius physicist Lemuel Wasserman was significantly more abrasive than sandpaper. Biologist Ben Hwang and cyber whiz Sanjay Thandla were usually even-tempered, but Lemuel was completely capable of setting either one of them off. Major Opal Patrone had been compelled to leave behind her security charge–and paramour–Caine Riordan and clearly loathed Downing as the architect of that separation. Elena Corcoran–Nolan’s daughter and Richard’s god-child–still believed herself the only person in the room who knew that, fourteen years ago, Caine had fallen in love with her and fathered her son Connor–all in the one hundred hours that Nolan had erased from Riordan’s memory. Erased, that is, until those memories had been restored a month ago on Barney Deucy. But Elena didn’t know that, and didn’t know that Downing and her brother Trevor had learned that ticklish secret, too.

All of which was sure to be complicated by the intellectual posturings and airs of the most insufferable French diplomat Richard had ever met: an old-school, Sorbonne-style wanker named–

“It is Etienne Gaspard, Monsieur Downing,” announced a voice beyond the door, “along with, er, others.”

“Please come in, Mr. Gaspard. And do bring the ‘others’ in with you.”

Gaspard was the first through the door. Lemuel Wasserman was right behind him, his eyes already boring ferociously into the Frenchman’s back. To Downing’s knowledge, the two had never met each other, but it was entirely possible that Gaspard’s suave, aloof superiority could have run afoul of Wasserman’s blunt and vitriolic arrogance in the few moments they had been waiting together.

Opal Patrone, Ben Hwang, and Sanjay Thandla filed in, and lastly, at a slightly greater distance, Elena. And now that Downing knew what to look for, he realized that Elena had always put a little extra space between herself and Opal, but had been friendly and gracious, even while doing so. Her ethics allowed her no other course. Since Opal was thoroughly unaware of Elena’s prior connection to Caine, animus was both patently unfair and utterly illogical. And so far as Elena knew, Caine still had no recollection of their own whirlwind lunar romance. But, eventually, Caine would return, and then the matter would have to be addressed and settled, one way or the other. Richard devoutly hoped he would be in another city–preferably another state–when it was.

“It seems you have been quite busy since the Parthenon Dialogs, Mr. Downing.”

Gaspard’s almost truculent comment startled Downing out of the contemplative haze into which he had fallen. “You are referring to our visit to the Convocation last month, I take it?”

“I am referring to everything, Mr. Downing. There are your trips to Mars, to the Convocation, then Barnard’s Star. You have had your hands very full from the moment Admiral Corcoran died. Or so it seems to me.”

Downing nodded diffidently, schooled his features to calm agreement as he watched Gaspard’s face for any sign that the diplomat was probing after the possibility that Nolan’s death had put some burden–some unseen and unnamed mantel of responsibility–upon Richard’s neck. Specifically, had Gaspard heard whispers of a secret organization named IRIS, and was he snooping around to get confirmation that Downing was now its director?

But Downing saw no hint of incisive purpose in Gaspard’s face, and so, felt safe enough to indulge in a genuine smile. “Yes, Mr. Gaspard. It has been a busy time. For everyone in this room. Yourself, not least of all, as I understand it.”

Gaspard’s eyes rolled in exasperation. “Oui, vraiment. But my seventy- and eighty-hour weeks have not come with the exciting novelties that arise from unprecedented contact with exosapients. Mine has been the same dull routine of politics; only the names have changed.”

“The names of the politicians?” asked Opal.

“Unfortunately, no. The same collection of cut-throats, crooks, and incompetents are still steering our planet’s various ships of state. But the names of everything else–agencies, treaty organizations, even the blocs themselves–are in flux. I spend half my time just trying to discern which new names go with which old institutions. It is utter madness.”

And you spend the other half of your time exercising your considerable gift for hyperbole, Downing added silently. Aloud: “Nevertheless, you and the rest of the Confederation Consuls are to be congratulated. From what I hear, the transition to global coordination–at least on military and industrial matters–seems to be progressing nicely.”

Gaspard snorted. “Simple lies for simpletons. The ‘transition’ is a maelstrom of endless, petty bickering. Do not believe the optimistic analysts or headlines, Mr. Downing.”

“Well, it’s a good thing you know the global state of play better than the rest of the world’s experts,” drawled Wasserman.

Gaspard looked down his lengthy nose at Wasserman. “You may discover, Doctor, that my cynicism, which you presently elect to insult, shall later prove to be an asset for which you are grateful. To be more specific: I do not ‘know better.’ I am merely unwilling to be swayed by what I wish to be true. And since the issue at hand is nothing less than the fate of our planet, I contend it is ludicrous to assess the actual state of our readiness with the same rosy optimism that children adopt when anticipating the arrival of Father Christmas.”

Downing raised a hand. “For now, let’s ignore the political merits of morale-building PR versus pitiless rationalism. We are here for one reason only: to brief you, Mr. Gaspard.”

“Just so. I require your detailed impressions of what occurred at the Convocation, with particular attention to what you learned about the other species of the Accord, and why you believe the meeting ended so disastrously.” Gaspard’s eyes narrowed as he indulged in a thin, unpleasant smile. “I would hear from Dr. Wasserman, first.”

Downing intervened, seeing that Gaspard was spoiling for a fight. “I think a round-robin debrief will not only be faster, but develop a better pool of knowledge for you, Mr. Gaspard, particularly if you’d start by telling us what information you already have.”