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One death in life
The last of the alien boarding party struggled up the ladder, through the nose hatch into the air lock, and departed the Irene Adler. The hatch boomed shut, there was the whir and thud of the air lock, and a faint shudder went through the tiny vehicle as the far larger xeno ship undocked from the Adler. Trip Wilcox leaned back against an equipment locker and breathed a weary sigh of relief. The xenos hadn't found what they were looking for. He had wonthis round, at least. But he had no desire to celebrate. He was too close to the end for that. The end of the mission, the end of the voyageand the end of his life.Better, though, to go out with a winperhaps a very big win indeed. Bad as things were, facing his own end would be a thousand times more bitter if he had to die knowing that he had lost, knowing that his own personal end was a mere drop in the ocean of defeat, one death among countless billions, perhaps even the death of all humans everywhere.He felt ridiculous, thinking of things in those terms, but Special Agent Trevor Wilcox III had been trained to focus on facts, not feelings. And as a matter of cold hard fact, he knew that threat was real. If his own death was some part of the cost of preventing that disaster, then he could have no regrets at all about the exchange.He was going to die alone, on this ship. There could be no doubt of it. But that was of little consequence compared to the threat of universal death.
BSI Special Agent Trevor Wilcox III cut the ship's interior gravity field to seventy-five percent, waited for the artificial grav to fade, and moved slowly upward, hand over hand, to the Adler's cramped and tiny flight deck. He eased himself down in the pilot's chair, strapped himself in, and watched as the alien craft backed away from the Adler. He stared at the other ship, marveling at her sheer size. It was a miracle that she had bothered to dock at all. That ship was a whale to the Adler's guppy. It could have swallowed him whole.He reminded himself of the good news: They had not found what they were looking for. Keeping this pack of xenos from finding the decrypt key was only part of the job.He had to keep them from finding it if they came back for another try. He had to keep the key safe from any other xenos who might come looking for it. He had to make sure his ship got home, that the key was delivered, and that his fellow humanspreferably his fellow BSI agentswould be able to find the key after it had remained hidden from all other eyes.He had to find a way to do all that, and to make all the arrangements, in the briefest possible amount of time. And he had to make it all work, reliably, after he was dead.As best he could figure, he had about a week left.Think, Trip told himself. Think while your mind is still clear and you still have the strength left to carry out a plan. There's no hope left for you, but the only hope left for everyone else is that you can sit down, right now, and do the very best thinking of your life.He stared out the viewport at the gleaming expanse of cold and distant starsand at the giant alien spacecraft that was already turningeither for home, or to bring her weapons to bear on the Irene Adler.It was with a distinct sense of relief that he saw the big ship not merely turn, but depart, making no further attempt to interfere with him. It was likely only a temporary respite.You've got a chance to come up with a plan, he told himself. Now is the time to do it.Because it was the only time he had left.
Two facts in rumor
Rumors weren't supposed to circulate in a place like BSI Orbital HQ, but they did. Even though the agents, technicians, and support personnel of the Bureau of Special Investigations were endlessly trained and indoctrinated to seek the cold, hard, verifiable facts and nothing but the facts, human nature was what it was.Senior Special Agent Hannah Wolfson heard three different versions of the latest bit of instant folklore before she was even cleared through security. Another story was urged upon her before she could cross the Bullpen or check in with her partner, Jamie Mendez.
"Morning, Jamie," she said, ducking her head into his cubicle. "Heard the latest?"Jamie swiveled around in his chair to face her and grinned.
"Which latest?" He raised his hand and started counting on his fingers. "That they've pulled in a derelict ship, that they're about to, that there were three dead aboard, that it was mysteriously completely empty, that it's one of ours, that it's a Trojan Horse ship, a trap set by the Kendari, or that they spotted a ship and tracked it with every kind of scanner and detection system we've gotbut that it vanished before a recovery ship could be launched?
"She was not surprised to learn that Jamie had already heard all four of her versions, plus two other variants.
"Well, there's all that, of coursebut I can shoot down about half of those already, unless I'm really off course. It was a real ship, it wasn't empty, and it didn't vanishand it probably wasn't a Trojan."
"How do you get all that?"
"Because on my way in I saw Doc Vogel coming into the Bullpen from the direction of the medical labs, looking more annoyed than usualand he just breezed straight into the Commandant's office."
Jamie nodded. "Gotcha. Commander Kelly wouldn't call in the chief medical officer to report on a ship that wasn't there or had no one on board. And if anyone thought the ship was a Kendari plant, it would be counterintell taking the lead, and not the med department."
"Which begs the questionexactly what sort of case is it where med does take the lead?"Both of their commlinks went off simultaneously. Hannah managed to pull hers out and read the message a half heartbeat ahead of Jamie.
"You just get called to Secure Conference Room Two?"Jamie nodded. "I think we're about to get past the rumors."***Logically speaking, there should have been no need for secure conference rooms at all. BSI Orbital HQ was a secure location, isolated from all the other facilities aboard the massive Center Transit Station. Center Transit Station was in free orbit, and thus effectively isolated from the planet Center and the governmental offices there. And, of course, the whole point of the planet Center serving as UniGov's de facto capital was that it was out on the edge, so to speak, well away from Earth and the Solar System.But that was the same sort of logic that dictated there should have been no rumors floating around BSI HQ. There were times when there was no sense in taking chances. So BSI had secure conference rooms, even if no one much liked them.SCR-2 was cramped and stuffy. It was in essence a room inside a bank vault, barely large enough for a table with six chairs around it. It had to be kept fully isolated and shielded from the rest of BSI Orbital HQ and its ventilation and electrical systems were prone to misbehaving.Jamie and Hannah went through the security scanners and into the room. At least the lights seemed to be working properly at the moment, though the ventilators were making their usual intermittent low grinding noises. They sat down at the back of the room. Jamie was not particularly surprised to see Commander Kelly and Dr. Vogel enter a moment or two later.
"Good morning to both of you," Commander Kelly said as she sat down.
"Doctor, have a seat and let's get started."Dr. Vogel set his datapad on the table as he sat down, peering distractedly at the screen. He frowned and reached for the power button. When the screen went dark, he looked around, as if he were only then fully aware of his surroundings.
"Hmmph. This place. Do we have to be doing our talking in this damned tomb?"Kelly looked at him with a half-amused, half-annoyed smile. "Yes," she said, and left it at that. She turned to the door controls, punched in a series of commands and clearance codes, then watched as the conference room's door swung inward and boomed shut.Jamie swallowed as his ears popped. The ventilation system was up to its old tricks, forcing the air pressure in the conference room to rise the moment the door was sealed.Kelly took her own seat with her back to the door and nodded to the two agents.
"We've got an intriguing one for you," she said. "One you might take a personal interest in, Agent Mendez."
"How so, ma'am?"
"We finally found your predecessor. Trevor Wilcox. Or, more accurately, he found us.""Too late to do him any good, unfortunately," Vogel added. "We've changed his status from 'missing and presumed dead' to plain ordinary 'dead.' "
Jamie felt his stomach do a backflip or two. It was one of the things that everybody thought about, but no one discussed, not if they could help it. An agent quit or retired ormore often than notdied. A new agent would be assigned, come into the Bullpen, and literally sit down at his or her predecessor's desk. Sometimes, as in Jamie's case, the new agent was assigned the dead agent's caseload, and even his living quarters and duty schedule.Jamie had never met Trip Wilcox or known anything about himbut even so, he found himself, in effect, living Wilcox's lifesleeping in his bed, cooking in his kitchen, working in his cubicle, closing out the cases Wilcox had left unfinished. Sometimes it had been hard to tell if Wilcox were the ghost haunting himor if he were the ghost haunting Wilcox, moving in the places he had been, doing the things he had done.It had taken months before some people had stopped thinking of him as the kid in Wilcox's cubicle, before the work he did and the places he lived and worked had truly become his. Even so, it still happened that some busy, distracted agent would come bustling up to Jamie's cubicle, expecting to find Wilcoxand be plainly disconcerted to see Special Agent James Mendez there instead.Would knowing Wilcox was well and truly dead put an end to all thator merely remind everyone once again that Jamie was living in Wilcox's life?
"He was on this ship the rumor mill's been talking about?" Hannah asked.Commander Kelly glanced at Vogel, grunted, and shook her head. "Word moves around fast, considering how security-conscious we're all supposed to bebut yes, Wilcox was aboard the BSI ship recovered in the outer reaches of Center's star system about a week ago. He'd plainly been dead for some time."Kelly stared at her hands for a moment.
"Wilcox was doing what we thought was a simple courier job. He was supposed to collect a document from the Metrannans that was to be handed directly over to the BSI Diplomatic Liaison Office. We have recovered the document from his ship's computerat least we think we have. It's in the form of a highly encrypted data fileso encrypted we can't tell for sure if it's the file we want. The document is useless without the accompanying decryption keyand it might still be useless even so, without some sort of additional explanation that could provide a context."
"What is the document?" Jamie asked."We think it's some sort of complex technical report," said Kelly, "or else maybe some sort of political information pertaining to Metrannan relations with another speciesand it is known that the Metrannans have been in talks with the Kendari on a few matters. BSI-DLO claims to know nothing more about the document, but they gave it the priority designation War-Starterand, of course, we have to bear in mind that BSI-DLO doesn't always tell us everything."
"War-Starter?" Jamie asked. "I don't think I know that designation."
"Trust meyou don't want to know it," Kelly said bluntly. "It means what it sounds like. If the matter in question is handled badly, if things go the wrong waythe end result is on the scale of an interstellar, interspecies war. Not necessarily a war that directly involves humans, and maybe not a war at allbut something that could be just as violent and destabilizing. An uprising. A plague. Something that could do the same amount of damage as a major war."
"I read xeno-history a lot," Vogel said thoughtfully. "Oftennot always, but oftenin an interspecies war like that, at least one species is rendered extinct. Gone. Even if humanity wasn't directly involved in such a war, lots of humans could get hurt or killed, you bet."
"You're making us feel better and better," Hannah said."We're not planning to stop until you feel as good as we do," Kelly replied. "Let me back up and start over a little closer to the beginning. Plan A had been for Wilcox to be double-blind."
"Sounds like a sensible precaution for something designated War-Starter," said Jamie. Double-blind was BSI slang, the term borrowed from the scientific community, but with an entirely different meaning. A double-blind courier didn't know what he or she was carrying before or after the pickup.
"Very sensible," Kelly agreed. "But the BSI-DLO people didn't see it that way. They insisted on a single-blind pickup. They wanted Wilcox to get briefed at the other end so he'd know what he was carrying on the way backand be able to tell them about it when he got home.""Do you think he was killed because of that?" Hannah asked. "The man who knew too much?"
"We haven't even said that he was killed," Kelly said. "Just that he died."
"All right, thenwas he killed?"
"It is a strange case," Vogel said sadly. "I believe so. No. That is not strong enough. I know so. It is a question of proving he was killed, demonstrating it. The cause of death is so, well, peculiar, that I cannot believe it was an accident or some strange 'natural' cause. It was murderbut we don't know how. Or why. But we will come to that, as well."
"In any event," Kelly went on, "we know for certain that Wilcox reached Metran, received the document and the decryption key, got his briefing, reboarded his ship, and headed for home. Judging from what we've learned so far of what was found aboard ship, he realized sometime after he was headed for home that he was slowly dying. He probably realized he wouldn't live long enough to get home. It also seems that his ship rendezvoused with another vessel while he was still alive and that outsiders came aboard his ship. Whether they were hostile or friendly, or why they came aboard, we don't know."