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Book Excerpt: Fire With Fire

Charles E. Gannon


An excerpt from Charles Gannon's military sci-fi novel Fire with Fire for your weekend reading enjoyment


And then, the memory of Downing’s measured voice and somber face intruded: “You must not, under any circumstances, reveal your mission. You may have to make decisions which cause others—many others—to die, so that you can get the information back to us and keep it secret.” Downing would tell him that he should leave the transponder. That the Tyne, the Commonwealth, even seven thousand lives were all “acceptable losses.” That Caine must not risk himself or the data. That he must choose the safe, the smart option: to drop the transponder. Right now. Yes, that’s what Downing would want.

Fuck that. Caine jammed the transponder back down into his bag, clenched his teeth so they wouldn’t chatter, and reactivated the insane escape plan he had just abandoned.

He retrieved the bottle of pills from the carry-all, popped the cap, tumbled a few into his palm. Ten meters to go, and Digger Mack was shifting impatiently from foot to foot. Caine smiled what he hoped was a sickly grin, ground his molars behind it: poor, trusting Digger. Raising one weak hand in greeting, Caine began his carefully orchestrated performance with a cool self-detachment: what a son of a bitch I am.

fireDigger was frowning. “Here, mate, where’ve you been? Look worse for wear, you do.”

Caine inhaled: point of no return. He held up the tablets, swayed a little. “Got some bad food. Or somethin’. Went to the dispensary.”

Digger’s sympathetic tone contrasted sharply with his hurried movements. “’Kay then, Caine. Let’s get through the check and then into the couches. You know the drill; bag on the scanner.”

Caine laid the bag down, fumbled to put the pills back in the bottle, failed, juggling unsuccessfully as they fell and skittered in every direction.

“Ah—” began Digger, and then, apparently suppressing a string of expletives, he bent over to help scoop up the pills.

Caine straightened, reached into the carry-all, got the Thermos by the handle. He brought it out and up in a single arc, and then swung down. Hard.

Caine felt the shock of the blow from his wrist to his pectoral, restrained a sudden urge to retch as he heard the dull impact of the lead-lined Thermos against the base of Digger’s skull. Digger went down with a choking groan. Caine dropped the Thermos, yanked the stun baton from Digger’s belt, brought it down against Digger’s left jaw hinge and thumbed the activation button.

Digger made a shuddering hnnnhhhh sound, back arching—but he was not unconscious. Caine felt for the selector switch, snapped it to max, laid the baton across Digger’s twitching cheek, closed his eyes and held down the button.

Digger made two quick gagging sounds and then was silent, his body quaking spasmodically. Caine cast the baton aside, stowed the Thermos, and pulled out the multitool, peripherally noting that Digger was still alive. And will hopefully live to hate my guts.

Caine backtracked down the corridor, stopped at a ceiling-to-floor panel outlined in yellow-and-black caution striping, located the release bolts.

“Five minutes to zero-gee. Mr. Riordan is to report his whereabouts immediately by any means possible.” The intercom went silent, but Caine heard Captain Burnham’s follow-on orders over the palmtop: “Damn it, where is he? Harris, I say three times, breach the privacy protocol and locate Mr. Riordan’s transponder. This has gone far enough.”

“Breaching privacy protocol on your order, sir.”

Caine undid the last bolt: the panel swung down.

And revealed a white door. Caine swallowed, so loud he could hear it. A cryopod—or, more accurately, a lifepod: the newest means of abandoning ship in a hurry, and in deep space. Once inside, you surrendered control. The machine’s expert system would make all the decisions. Would do away with his clothes, his consciousness, and maybe his life, with cool impersonal efficiency.

He knelt down before the white door and began—inexpertly, and with the aid of a “how-to” program—to override the control protocols. And if I’m really lucky, I won’t cut the wrong wire and pre-launch the pod—and myself—into hard vacuum. As Caine started clipping wires—and dripping sweat—he heard the predictable exchange begin on the bridge:


“Yes, Trilling?”

“Sir, I have a red light on portside escape pod aught-five. Systems indicate that the pod is no longer in the command loop.”

“Damn; as if we didn’t have enough problems. Run a diagnostic.”

“Sir, we can’t. The pod is entirely nonresponsive.”

“Bloody hell. Have security check it, then. Have them pull the damn thing’s plug if they must.”

Caine stared at the recessed handle in the center of the white door. You have to do it. You have to do it to yourself. And you have to do it now.

“Sir, no response from security in that sector.”

“What the—? What sector, man?”

“Section B3: portside module pylon, just near hab mod DPV 6.”

A long pause, then Burnham’s voice—firm, decided—rapping out orders: the chance events—Caine’s truancy from his suite in DPV 6, the pod’s malfunction, security’s failure to respond in that same area—were all coming together. “Security, all available personnel to section B3, portside pylon. Detain Mr. Riordan on sight. Engineering, prepare for new orders—”

Caine saw the second engineer glance up sharply at that command, then look uncertainly toward his control panel.

Time to leave. Caine pulled the handle in the center of the white door. The oval hatch opened with a pop and a sigh; the emergency klaxon shrilled at him. He made sure the transponder was in his bag, then jumped into the closet-like interior of the life pod.

From there on, everything happened with unnatural speed. The door slammed shut behind him with a breathy squeal: hermetically sealed. Straps closed down around him and pulled him tight into an acceleration harness. There was a deafening yet hoarse blast and a sudden full-body sledgehammer of five gee acceleration: the jettisoning charge was kicking the lifepod free of the Tyne.

The sound and image on the palmtop were starting to break up. One of the bridge officers—Sensor Ops, probably—called out: “Sir, secondary array indicates we have a pod away.”

“Engineering, confirm.”

“Unable to confirm, sir. It’s either away or no longer drawing power.”

That was when the pod’s real rockets kicked in: a less intense, but steady pressure on his chest pinned him down. Using the armrest controls, Caine snapped on the pod’s small external viewscreen while watching the last seconds of clear transmission from his bug aboard the Tyne’s bridge.

“Sir,”—the sensor officer, again—“we’ve located Mr. Riordan’s transponder signal—but we’re losing it.”

“Losing it?”

“Yes sir; best guess is that he’s—”

“Aboard the pod. Yes, of course. Engineering, clear your board for an emergency counterboost. Communications, hail the Commonwealth and—”

But Caine didn’t hear the rest: over the captain’s shoulder, he saw the second engineer frown and pull a microdisk out of his breast-pocket. He slipped it into his station’s dataport and grazed his index finger across the control panel before anyone even noticed.

Still visible in the pod’s viewscreen, the Tyne’s massive engine decks flickered unevenly, flashed, then erupted into a burgeoning sphere of blue-white plasma that whited out the screen.

The buffeting hit as the image of space came back; Caine tried to resist a sudden wave of nausea, most of which was not due to the rough ride. He hadn’t saved the Tyne or its eight hundred passengers and crew. He himself wasn’t going to be in much better shape: even now there were enough rads sleeting through him to cost some hair, and the pod was tumbling out of the Junction system’s ecliptic. But Caine’s burgeoning pangs of guilt and misgiving froze, paralyzed by the ominous hum of cryogenic suspension machinery coming to life all around him: the gurgling of the blood exchange system, the slow hum of the unfolding catheters and colonic cleansing waldos, the snipping of the disrobing shears, the sigh of the approaching hypodermic. His body would be subjected to a gruesome variety of IV violations, but only after an initial dose of synthetic morphine had drifted him off into a dreamless sleep.

The needle slid efficiently but sharply into his left forearm. As Caine felt the opiating warmth leap along his veins, he let himself look outward and flow into the stars, carried along by a sudden, drugged impulse toward the poetic: From our small green island in the heavens, we steer our ships into black depths. And as we veer and tack from one star to the next, we have chased a question as old, as fundamental, as our fascination with the night skies: “Are we alone?”

And he, Caine, homeward bound to his island in the archipelago of systems now navigated by humans, was returning with the answer to that question.

Unfortunately, Downing and IRIS might never have the opportunity to extract that answer from Caine, or from the data crystals in his shielded Thermos. It was, after all, entirely possible that the assassin’s allies would be the first to reach his tumbling lifepod. If anyone ever did.

Which was, Caine conceded as he slipped deeper into the unnatural calm of a morphine haze, a most unsettling prospect.


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