Trial By Fire – Snippet 37

“Dad’s? How?”

“He was the one who first saw the value of Caine’s plan, not me. And he seemed to know it might require just this kind of trickery, even duplicity, to retake our planet. No matter the personal costs.”

Downing saw Trevor’s eyes waver and his face pinch in what looked like some agony of entrapment. Richard glanced quickly toward Elena and Opal. “This might be a good moment to leave, ladies. The topics are going to move into the ‘need to know’ realm quite soon.”

“Sure,” Opal sneered. “It’s not like you’re trying to clear the room before exerting more emotional thumbscrews.” She looked away in disgust.

“Not true,” Downing lied. “And we’ll soon need to plan your part of the mission as well, Major Patrone.”

Opal snorted. “Yeah, I can hardly wait.”

“Actually, Major Patrone, your phase of the operation must commence before Trevor’s.”

“Oh? Will I also be using my diplomatic credentials to sucker punch someone?”

“No, Major. Your mission does not involve infiltration, but extraction.”

“Extraction? Of whom?” And then her eyes opened wide. “Caine! But he’s not planetside, as far as we know.”

“Not yet, but given his role at Convocation, I suspect it’s only a matter of time before the Arat Kur bring him to Jakarta. It would be almost inevitable, if we agreed to send our ‘negotiators’ there.”

She frowned. “Okay–but why extract him? No matter what happens, he’s protected by his diplomatic credentials, isn’t–?” And then the realization hit her. “Oh. So, before your killer-emissaries violate the basic principles of diplomatic privilege with a mass assassination, I have to get our real diplomat out. Because our enemies will probably not feel disposed to make targeting distinctions between genuine and fake diplomats after Trevor and his pals start pulling their triggers.”

“Yes, that pretty much sums it up, Major.”

“Which means, if I don’t find and extract Caine in time, there’s an excellent chance that some exosapient invader, or megacorporate quisling, or killer clone is going to put a bullet in his brain. Just on general principles.”

Downing put down his stylus. “It is a distinct possibility.”

Opal became very red, stood, pointed a quivering finger at Downing, opened her mouth–but then abruptly turned and was out the door in five angry strides.

Elena watched Opal go, waited until the outer door banged closed, and then rose. She looked at her brother as if she were hugging him with her eyes, and then turned a blank gaze upon Downing. “‘And on Earth, peace and good will to all men,’ That is the customary greeting of the season, isn’t it, Uncle Richard?” She gathered up her things and left without a word or backward glance.

Trevor’s voice pulled Downing’s attention away from the twice-closed office door. “I can’t be your lead operative on Case Timber Pony, Richard. I’m a soldier–not a liar.”

“Trevor, this is war, and its first casualty is personal choice. And right now, we have to do anything that helps us survive. See here, I’ve done–and continue to do–terrible things. I won’t evade or deny that. But who else is going to do them? Oh, I’m sure there were a thousand people who had the skills to do just as well as–or a damned sight better than–me, but when your father reached into the hat of fate, it was me that he pulled up by the ears. Just as fate pulled him up when he found that the doomsday rock was a weapon aimed at Earth. And now fate has tapped you on the shoulder.” When Trevor didn’t respond, Downing felt himself growing genuinely desperate. “Do you think we wanted this for you? Do you think we wanted this for us?”

Trevor still did not look at him. “I think you made a choice to keep on doing this job when you could have walked away.”

“How could we walk away from what we knew about the threat to our families, our planet? How could we walk away from responding to that threat, from a job that had–had–to be done? Who were we supposed to give it to? We couldn’t even tell anyone else what we knew. Would’ve made job interviews a tad difficult, don’t you think? And, even if we could have passed the poison cup to someone else, just what poor sod should we have saddled with this lifelong nightmare? By what right would we have chosen some other human being to sacrifice their happiness and freedom of mind so that we could have some of our own back?

“Not that we would have rested any easier, mind you. I can see it now: Richard and Nolan at the joint family barbecue, grilling shrimp, looking up at the stars, and hoping that the shop in DC was in good hands and that Earth itself wasn’t on someone’s interstellar dinner menu.”

Trevor’s eyes came back up; they were narrow, bitter. “Yeah, paint me some more scenes of your personal sacrifices, Uncle Richard. They sure make me feel better. They sure do bring my father back to life. And bring back all the hours, days, weeks he could have been with me instead of off saving the world with you, halfway around the globe.”

Downing felt his fingers and feet grow very cold, his stomach sink. In the mirroring glass door that separated the conference room from the inner office, his pallor was unnatural, as if he had aged a decade in the last ten minutes. He sat heavily. “I’ve tried to shield you from what I could. God knows I had little enough success at it, but I tried. But this time, it’s out of my hands. By Executive Order, Case Timber Pony is now in its final phase of preparation and we are committed to executing it. We might lose the war if we do not. So, I’m sorry, Trevor, but this time–this one time–you will receive orders that will require you to lie.”

Trevor pushed back from the table; his tone of voice had gone much further. “And when shall I expect those orders, sir?”

Downing waved a weak hand. “That’s not clear. There’s a bit of diplomatic dancing to be done with the Arat Kur first, obviously. We’ll begin assembling the mission force while that’s going on, and we’ll send the primary operation orders–as well as contingency plans–down to Nevis.”

Trevor nodded. “Is that where you’ve stashed Stosh, Rulaine, and the rest of the security team you had me leading on Mars?”


“And I’m to use them on this op?”

“Yes, but not officially. The official force rosters are being compiled by Commonwealth JSOC and the intel chiefs. They’re not up to me. Not except your group. Which will not show up on the standard table of organization. We’ll reserve your team as our own ace in the hole, so to speak. In case the main plan is called off and you have to use one of the contingencies that involve breaching the enemy compound from the outside.”

“I see, sir.” Trevor rose. “Then, if we’ve no further business to discuss–”

“Trevor, I’m sorry. I’m sorry for this mission, for letting the Dornaani bury your father in space, for everything that our work has cost you. But if I had to do it all over again, I don’t know what I would–what I could–afford to do differently. Not with all that’s at stake.”

Trevor nodded. “I understand. I’ll wait to hear from you.” He turned and walked briskly out the door.

Downing leaned his head forward into his hands and expelled a long sigh. He closed his eyes, drank in the darkness.…

After several moments, he heard the glass door to the inner office open. He did not look up, even when asked a question:

“I perceive that this meeting was–difficult?”

“Not really,” Richard lied.

“The operation you have designated Case Timber Pony has received final approval, has it not?”

“It has. When should we start tracking the system delivery assets?”

“I am already doing so. I have also passed word that our relocation is to commence in two days. Do you believe that is sufficient?”

“Yes,” sighed Downing. “The sooner we can get out of DC, the better, I think.”

“I expected you to say otherwise. The approaching holidays are customarily spent with family members and close friends, are they not?”

“Yes, they are. That’s why I want to leave.”

*   *   *

Opal discovered that she had arrived on the street. Which was fortunate, because she hadn’t been able to think since leaving Downing’s office and hustling into the elevator. Instead, she had been myopically preoccupied with the irrational fear that Downing would appear, chasing her, demanding that she return the hardcopy folder she had scooped up while he was in the bathroom prior to the meeting. It was labeled “Riordan, Caine/code-name ‘Odysseus’: Bio data,” and it might hold the secrets of the one hundred hours Caine had lost on the moon just before being coldslept, fourteen years ago.

Walking–still without really thinking about what she was doing–she produced the folder from her backpack, grazed a finger along its outer edge. The cover turned back slightly. By mistake, of course. Not that she was snooping. Well, not for herself, anyway. This was for Caine, so he could finally have some answers about what happened on the moon, about why Nolan and Downing had cryocelled him and impressed him into IRIS. Her own burning curiosity was not propelling her actions, of course. She had never stolen anything in her life–not even from the snotty rich girls that always pegged her as a tomboy army brat in each of the myriad of grade schools she attended while her family followed Dad on his endless restationings.

She realized she had inadvertently started glancing at the contents, had a quick impression of old photographs and news clippings. She shut the manila folder swiftly, heart racing. She had faced death on a battlefield frequently, and yet nothing had ever induced this particular species of terror–because this one was laced with guilt, as well. Which was foolish. Because after all, she hadn’t stolen Caine’s file; she had only borrowed it. And she hadn’t done so to satisfy her own curiosity. She had done it to help him. Only to help him.

She looked around her, discovered that she had somehow navigated herself to the correct street corner, and raised a hand. A driverless cab smoothly swerved across two lanes of traffic and came to a stop beside her.

The taxi was requesting the address and she was giving it, but that was happening someplace else, as if it was in a side closet of her mind. Because as soon as she had stepped inside the vehicle, was beyond Downing’s reach, she knew the truth of what she was doing. You’re a liar, Opal. This isn’t about Caine. This is about you, worrying that there’s something in those one hundred hours that could come between the two of you. Maybe he hooked up with some old girlfriend, there, or maybe–

She felt suddenly nauseated. At herself. So now you’re jealous of ghosts that might not even exist, Opal? How pathetic is that?

The question remained unanswered. She was too busy getting the encircling rubber band off the manila folder so she could devour its hated and feared contents.

Letters he sent to friends. High school records. A picture with a girl–but only a skinny, coltish girl–before a prom. It was a funny picture, too; he was kind of gangly as a kid. Pictures of his house on the Chesapeake Bay. Another, much earlier one with several teeth missing from his warm and easy smile, his silver-maned father with an arm around his shoulder, and some kind of sports field behind them. She studied his faintly freckled face and tousled hair. It was impossible to reconcile that boyish image with the mental portrait she had of the man whom fate had turned into an operative code-named Odysseus.

There were printouts of the first articles he published as a kid in the local paper, then later in Time, then reviews of his books, letters to publishers and editors that lauded him, castigated him, and finally eulogized him.

She came to the end of the folder. And had discovered absolutely nothing useful. Somewhere far away, the taxi announced that their arrival was imminent.

She looked down at the ravaged pieces of Caine’s life, scattered in her lap. What have I done? Or, more importantly, why did I need to do this? Because I’m afraid I’ll never see him again? Or that I will–only to find he has someone to go back to, a life in which I can have no part?

She closed the folder slowly. And now I can’t undo what I’ve done. Even if Downing never notices this file is missing, even if I return it first, I still stole it. Stole it to quiet my fears–but at the expense of what little privacy Caine has left. She looked up without seeing the dusk-darkening streets, tried to will away the two tears–one from each eye–that struggled free of her lower eyelids and streaked swiftly down each cheek. Damn me. Damn me.

This time, when the taxi’s robot voice announced her arrival, she heard it. “Now at Bethesda Hospital, Maternity Annex. Eleven dollars, please.”