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It’s the most dangerous assignment of their careers—a mission so top-secret, not even their commanding officer has been permitted to know the details. Within minutes, BSI agents Jamie Mendez and Hannah Wolfson are whisked aboard an Elder Race ship as massive as a small moon, hurtling across the galaxy at unheard-of speed toward the scene of a crime no one dares to put into words. They’ve been partnered on the case with Brox 234—an agent of the Kendari, humanity’s chief rival in the endless game of interstellar ...
It’s the most dangerous assignment of their careers—a mission so top-secret, not even their commanding officer has been permitted to know the details. Within minutes, BSI agents Jamie Mendez and Hannah Wolfson are whisked aboard an Elder Race ship as massive as a small moon, hurtling across the galaxy at unheard-of speed toward the scene of a crime no one dares to put into words. They’ve been partnered on the case with Brox 234—an agent of the Kendari, humanity’s chief rival in the endless game of interstellar diplomatic threat and bluster. Mendez and Wolfson quickly learn one thing for certain: they’re about to face a threat so deadly that only an alliance between the human race and its fiercest foes will give any of them even the slimmest chance of survival. And even that chance is about to slip away.…
NEED TO KNOW
Agents Jamie Mendez and Hannah Wolfson hurried across the BSI Bullpen toward the Commandant's office–and reached it just in time to see the door slammed shut in their faces.
Special Agent Boris Kosolov looked up from his cubicle just across the aisle from the office and laughed unpleasantly. "It's all backwards and forwards in there."
He watched as Hannah raised her hand to knock on the door. "I wouldn't do that," Kosolov said.
Hannah looked at him and frowned. "Why not, Boris?"
"Not such a good time to be disturb her, I think."
"She just called us on our pocket comms," Jamie said. "Told us to get here on the double."
"Yeah, but that was what, thirty second, forty second, ago?" Kosolov asked. "Something else come up since. More than on the double. On the triple, maybe. Double plus triple." He grinned. "She got a visitor. Is an outsider. They been talking. Friend of yours, I thinking."
For half a heartbeat, Hannah wondered if Kosolov was pulling their legs. He was an odd fish. Supposedly his Russian was as mangled as his English. She gave him a good hard look. He knows who the visitor is, she thought. And knowing scares him, a little. But he also knows there's a pie in the face coming straight at Jamie and me–and he gets to watch.
She was about to say something to him when the door to the Commandant's office swung open, and Kelly stuck her head out into the Bullpen. She spotted Jamie and Hannah in the waiting area, and gestured for them to come in. "Sorry about the hurry-up-and-wait," she said, "but I don't think I've ever had one pop this big or this fast. I'm juggling about three angles to this all at once." She looked at Kosolov and pointed a finger right at his heart. "And you didn't see anything."
The two agents followed her into her office as she shut the door behind them. Kelly didn't move to sit behind her own desk or gesture for Hannah and Jamie to sit. There was no one else in the room. "Agent Kosolov said you had a visitor," said Jamie.
"I do," said Kelly. "Two, in fact. They came in the back way, and they're in my inner conference room." She gestured toward a door in the side wall. Kelly used the inner room so rarely that Hannah had forgotten it was even there. "Kosolov only saw one of them," she went on. "Fortunately."
"Who are they?" Jamie asked.
"That's more of a what question than a who question," Kelly replied. "At least for one of them. But I can't risk keeping them waiting for more than a couple of minutes." She nodded toward the comm panel on her desk. "I've been on the horn with all kinds of brass and UniGov types and diplomatic liaison offices. The short form is that we do whatever our guests ask us to do and give them full, eager, absolute cooperation. I have been specifically instructed to quote, 'relay and emphasize the need for such cooperation to the assigned agents, and further emphasize the utter and grave seriousness of the situation,' unquote. Is that clear?"
"Would this be a bad time for me to use some of that back leave I've been accumulating?" Jamie asked.
"This is no time for jokes, Jamie," Hannah said sharply.
"If he's got any sense, he's not joking," said Kelly, "and I wouldn't mind tagging along with you on that leave. It might be a good time to get out of town. Or even out of the target area."
"Target area?" Hannah echoed.
"If you thought things were tense with the Kendari up to now, get ready to see what real tension is. And don't think the Elder Races would interfere if things got out of control. If the human race and the Kendari go to war, even the most sympathetic of them isn't going to wade in and stop us from wiping ourselves out. And a lot of races would be happy to hold our coats–or even egg us on."
"Commander–we just came off an assignment that came very close to blowing up in our faces," said Hannah. "We've barely gotten over that one–and we're both probably still a little twitchier than we should be. Can't you hand this to someone else?"
"I know. You two need to stand down for a while. I wish I could hand this off. I can't. You were specifically requested. The brass worked really hard to make sure that I understood I was to comply with that request at all costs. So let's get moving." Kelly made a move to open the inner door, but then stopped herself. "No. Wait a second. I've got a couple of details to cover first."
Kelly pulled out her own pocket comm and spoke into it. "Kosolov. Orders for you." Hannah heard Kosolov's muffled reply through the door and through the comm unit at the same time, though she couldn't make out the words. Kelly preferred yelling through open doorways. She had to be feeling extra security-conscious, and very eager to keep the door shut, if she chose to use a commlink to talk to a man ten feet away.
"Kosolov–don't worry about why," Kelly said into the comm. "Just do the following jobs yourself, personally, and do not delegate or discuss them. Grab Wolfson's and Mendez's Ready-To-Go duffels from their cubicles. Bring them to"– she paused to double-check a note on her desk–"Docking Bay 27. There should be an interorbit jeep-tug docked there by now. Put the duffels on board and leave. But before you do that, contact the quartermaster and have two full field-forensics kits, two field-ops kits, and thirty days of field rations for two delivered to Bay 27 and loaded aboard the jeep-tug."
Kelly thought for a second and looked at the two agents. "What else are you going to need?" she asked as she looked at them, plainly talking to herself. "And have the QM throw in a pair of sleeping bags and ground cushions as well. My authorization, and on the double-plus. That jeep needs to boost ten minutes ago. Confirm via text to my pocket comm when you're done, and have the quartermaster text-confirm to my comm–and only mine–when the items are loaded. And keep this quiet. If I hear about it at the watercooler tomorrow, I'll establish a BSI office on Penitence just so I can assign you to it." Hannah heard Kosolov again on comm and through the door, and Kelly put away the comm unit. "Now we have to go in there. I don't dare keep them waiting any longer–or alone with each other, for that matter. Come on."
Hannah and Jamie exchanged looks with each other. Hannah knew Jamie was trying to figure out the same thing she was. What kind of job would require the things on that list–but not the things that weren't on it? They weren't going to have much of a chance to figure it out. Things were moving too fast.
Kelly slid open the door to her private conference room and stepped through first instead of gesturing them to lead the way. That all by itself signaled a lot to Hannah: It was the action of a commander leading her forces against the opposition rather than that of a host showing deference to her visitors.
Hannah followed her in, with Jamie right behind.
The inner room was small, windowless, and spartan. There was a bland beige carpet on the floor, and four government-issue armchairs that sat, one in each corner, facing the center of the room. There were two doors–the one that led into Kelly's office and one on the opposite wall. Kelly immediately crossed the small room and stood by the closed door, folding her arms in front of her, making no move at all to sit down, making no signal that Hannah or Jamie should do so either. Another clear message: There was no time to get comfortable. They were going to be leaving very soon.
The passage behind that second door allowed visitors to come and go from Kelly's office discreetly, without being paraded through the Bullpen. And these visitors were definitely the sort that needed discreet handling.
Just seeing the first one made it hard for Hannah to keep from showing surprise. He was a being with a roughly centaurlike body plan; four legs and a muscular tail on the rear or horizontal torso, and a forward vertical torso that supported two arms and a vaguely wolflike head on a flexible neck. He was a Kendari–and not just any Kendari.
"Hello, Brox," Jamie said, speaking in Lesser Trade Speech. "It's been a while. It is pleasant to see you again."
"I can only wish it was under better circumstances, Special Agent Mendez," said Brox. "I greet you–and you as well, Senior Special Agent Wolfson."
"I greet you as well," said Hannah. Brox 231. What in space could have brought him to Kelly's private office? Brox. Senior Inquirist of the Kendari Inquiries Service–the rival counterpart of UniGov's Bureau of Special Investigations. In short, an enemy agent representing humanity's deadliest rival. But Brox had also been their partner on the Reqwar investigation. Wry, irascible, irritating–but also courageous, honorable, and honest, willing and able to act for the long-term benefit of all, rather than scoring short-term points for himself. Reqwar could easily have ended in disaster, in death for all of them, if not for Brox 231.
But Brox was not the only visitor in the room. At least maybe he wasn't. There was something else in the room, but it was hard to tell whether it was an object or a living being. It stood by the door. It was greyish pink, and consisted of an egg-shaped torso that had five projections sprouting from it, which roughly corresponded in size and position to the legs, arms, and head of a human being. It stood about one hundred eighty centimeters tall.
The five limbs or tentacles or growths or whatever they might be called were slightly flattened front to back, and the featureless "head" gently tapered to a point. On closer inspection, the head almost looked as if it was formed out of two limbs that had been fused together. The arms were little more than elongated flipperlike things, with no distinct fingers, hands, or joints. The legs ended in rounded-off, flat-bottomed stumps, with no distinct feet. The thing stood on its two leglike supports, swaying back and forth almost imperceptibly, its arms limp at its sides. It looked slightly potbellied somehow.
Its skin was very slightly translucent, and Hannah could just make out what looked like, not bones, _exactly–more like a mechanical armature–in the hands. And there was something solid, roughly egg-shaped and skull-sized inside the head. If it was a head.
"Uh, what is that?" Jamie asked.
Hannah signaled for him to be quiet. It might well be a who, rather than a what, and there was no sense in giving needless offense to the–the whatever or whoever it was. A glance at Commander Kelly told Hannah that her boss wasn't going to be much help. Possibly Kelly wasn't much more certain of the situation herself. "Hello?" Hannah said in a tone of voice halfway to making it a question.
"This unit acknowledges you," said a flat, mechanical voice that didn't seem to come from any particular spot on the "unit's" body. The thing did not look toward Hannah, or shift its position or posture in any way. It simply continued to stand there, swaying back and forth ever so slightly.
"And we acknowledge you," said Hannah. "Please forgive us if we are uncertain how to behave. We have no experience of any beings similar to yourself." That was putting it mildly. But whatever it was, it would do no good to cause it offense.
"You are incorrect," the mechanical voice replied. "Humans have interacted many times with the Vixa."
"Then we must apologize again," said Hannah, speaking carefully. "We were unaware that you were a Vixan. You do not resemble the ones we have seen."
"This unit is not a Vixan," it replied, but made no other remark.
"The, ah, unit, has been provided by the Vixa to facilitate communication," Brox put in.
"Oh," said Hannah, resisting the temptation to say anything else.
Jamie was less tactful. "That's ah, not working out too well so far," he said.
"Ah, but give it time," said Brox. "At least that is what I am told. This is a Simulant Interlocutor between Vixa and Alien Humans, but it has only just been initiated, just started adapting itself to human behaviors and appearance. I was assigned a similar 'unit' some days ago–built so as to resemble a Kendari, of course–and already it has achieved a high degree of function." Brox paused and looked again at the simulant. "That is to say, higher than this," he added drily.
"You make it sound like we need it for an interpreter or something," said Jamie. "Humans communicate okay with Vixa. Heck, even I've talked to Vixa without any big problems. What do we need an, ah, Interlocutor for?"
"You don't, mostly," said Kelly. "And you likely won't on this mission. I'm not all the way clear on this, but as I understand it, the Vixa we'll be dealing with will need it. Very high-ranking fellows, and all that."
"Wait a second," Hannah protested. "You mean like, Sixes?"
"Not only Sixes," said the Kendari. "Quite possibly Threes as well."
"Okay, I'm lost," said Jamie. "Could someone just back up a little and explain this a bit more?"
"I can," said Kelly, "but we don't have time for more than the ten-second version. The Vixa that humans usually deal with are Nines–nine-limbed Vixa, or maybe even Twelves–middle-rankers and low-status types. The six-limbed Vixa are the elite–and the three-limbers are more or less their royalty. And the elite and the royals can't be seen dealing with grubby little Younger Race beings like us. So they use Simulant Interlocutors like this one as go-betweens."
"I've never heard of any such thing," Hannah objected.
"It is a new policy," Brox said. "A new Preeminent Director has taken over, and has set about making changes. It is claimed that he is merely reinstituting the right and just laws that were in place the last time Younger Races erupted out into the starlanes." Brox hesitated, and then spoke further. "I do not wish to contradict you, Commander Kelly, but the ranks of the Vixa biocastes are far more complex than what you have suggested. There are subcastes and subrankings of all sorts, such that it is possible–though rare–for, example, a Nine to outrank a Six."
"Umm, I don't want to seem rude," said Jamie as he looked at the gently swaying simulant. "But I don't quite see how we're going to get a lot of talking done if we're working through our new friend."
"The situation is complicated and somewhat unclear, but suffice it to say you will do your own talking. The simulant's role is largely ceremonial. Furthermore, the simulant will adapt to you," said Brox. "It's already started reshaping itself to resemble human form. It will learn social cues from you, and it will integrate the various data stores that have been pumped into it. It will get better and better at its job." Brox glanced over at the simulant. "And the sooner the better, so far as I'm concerned. I might add that accepting the simulant is an absolute requirement. Refuse it, or exclude it from observing your work, and the arrangements will be terminated."
Kelly nodded. "I'm not going to refuse, and I'm ordering you two to cooperate with the simulant. They might do you some good. After all, dealing with Vixan Sixes and Threes can be somewhat–challenging."
"Challenging enough that there's a standing order that BSI agents not do it," said Jamie. "Not unless they've done a six-month course on Vixan protocol and another course on resisting torture."
Posted December 9, 2008
Bureau of Special Investigation Agents Hannah Wolfson and Jamie Mendez are sent to their Commandant to learn of a mission so Top Secret even she has no idea what it entails. To their surprise they are to work with Kendori Agent Brox, who they have teamed up with before. The Kendori and Humanity are Younger Races looked down on with scorn by the Elder Races who were in space long before man left the swamps. The Kendori and Humanity are not at war, but hostilities can happen at anytime as they are in close competition with each other.--------- They compete for the inhabitable worlds in the Perton System while an Elder Species the Vixa will decide who gets them. Brox takes the two BSI Agents to Vana to find out who killed a Kendori woman working in their embassy which is connected to that of the Human Embassy sharing a common work place. Circumstantial evidence points to a human as the killer, but neither Hannah nor Jamie allow surface appearances to taint their investigation. The more the pair digs, the more they believe that there is a larger conspiracy to put the Younger Races in their place, which is not in space to do that without losing Elder blood means manipulating the rivalry so that the two lesser species are at war with each other.----------- This fascinating military science fiction thriller makes man in space competing with other races seem real due to the vivid social, economic, and cultural details of the Vaxa society. FINAL INQUIRIES takes place far into the future with humanity struggling to find its niche in a hierarchy in which those at the top of the pyramid want those underneath to stay there as the superior races see mankind and the Kendori as recalcitrant children who need to be taught respect for their Elders. The BSI Agents and Brox try to understand one another as they work together on the homicide investigation, but it is difficult as the differences between their species have been emphasized though interestingly the two groups have so much more in common. Roger MacBride Allen provides an exciting space opera.------------- Harriet Klausner
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Posted December 5, 2010
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