The B-Team, Parts One and Two
Ambassador Sara Bair knew that when the captain of the Polk had invited her to the bridge to view the skip to the Danavar system, protocol strongly suggested that she turn down the invitation. The captain would be busy, she would be in the way and in any event there was not that much to see. When the Polk skipped dozens of light-years across the local arm of the galaxy, the only way a human would register the fact would be that their view of the stars would change slightly. On the bridge, that view would be through display screens, not windows. Captain Basta had offered the invitation merely as a formality and was sure enough of its rejection that she had already made arrangements for the ambassador and her staff to have a small reception marking the skip in the Polk’s tiny and normally unused observation desk, wedged above the cargo hold.
Ambassador Bair knew protocol suggested she turn down the invitation, but she didn’t care. In her twenty-five years in the Colonial Union diplomatic corps she’d never once been on a starship bridge, didn’t know when she’d be invited to one again, and regardless of protocol, she was of the opinion that if one was going to issue an invitation, one should be prepared to have it accepted. If her negotiations with the Utche went well, and at this point in the game there was no reason to suspect they would not, no one anywhere would care about this single breach of convention.
So screw it, she was going to the bridge.
If Captain Basta was annoyed by Bair accepting her invitation, she didn’t show it. Lieutenant Evans produced the ambassador and her assistant, Brad Roberts, on the bridge five minutes prior to skip; the captain disengaged from her duties and quickly but politely welcomed the pair to the bridge. Formalities fulfilled, she turned her attention back to her pre-skip duties. Lieutenant Evans, knowing his cue, nudged Bair and Roberts into a corner where they could observe without interfering.
“Do you know how a skip works, Ambassador?” Evans asked. For the duration of the mission, Lieutenant Evans was the Polk’s protocol officer, acting as a liaison between the diplomatic mission and the ship’s crew.
“My understanding of it is that we are in one place in space, and then the skip drive turns on, and we are magically someplace else,” Bair said.
Evans smiled. “It’s not magic, it’s physics, ma’am,” he said. “Although the high-end sort of physics that looks like magic from the outside. It’s to relativistic physics what relativistic physics is to Newtonian physics. So that’s two steps beyond everyday human experience.”
“So we’re not really breaking the laws of physics here,” Roberts said. “Because every time I think of starships skipping across the galaxy, I imagine Albert Einstein in a policeman’s uniform, writing up a ticket.”
“We’re not breaking any laws. What we’re doing is literally exploiting a loophole,” Evans said, and then launched into a longer explanation of the physics behind skipping. Roberts nodded and never took his eyes off of Evans, but he had a small smile on his face that Bair knew was meant for her. It meant that Roberts was aware he was doing one of his primary tasks, which was to draw away from Bair people who wanted to make pointless small talk with her, so she could focus on what she was good at: paying attention to her surroundings.
Her surroundings were not in fact all that impressive. The Polk was a frigate—Bair was sure Evans would know what type specifically, but she didn’t want to train his attention back on her at the moment—and its bridge was modest. Two rows of desks with monitors, with a slightly raised platform for the captain or officer of the watch to oversee operations, and two large monitors forward to display information and, when desired, an outside view. At the moment neither display was on; the bridge crew were instead focused on their individual monitors, with Captain Basta and her executive officer walking among them, murmuring.
It was about as exciting as watching paint dry. Or more accurately, as exciting as watching a crew of highly trained individuals do an action they have done hundreds of times before without drama or incident. Bair, who by dint of years in the diplomatic corps was aware that trained professionals doing their thing was not usually a gripping spectator sport, was nevertheless vaguely disappointed. Years of dramatic entertainments had prepared her for something more action oriented. She sighed without realizing it.
“Not what you were expecting, ma’am?” Evans asked, turning his attention back to the ambassador.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Bair said, annoyed with herself at having sighed loudly enough to be heard, but hiding it. “The bridge is more quiet than I would have assumed.”
“The bridge crew has worked together for a long time,” Evans said. “And you have to remember that they pass a lot of information internally.” Bair looked over to Evans with an arched eyebrow at this; Evans smiled and pointed a finger to his temple.
Oh, right, Bair thought. Captain Basta and the rest of the bridge crew were all members of the Colonial Defense Forces. This meant that aside from the obvious distinguishing genetically-engineered characteristics of green skin and a youthful appearance, each of them had a computer called a BrainPal nestled up inside their brains. CDF members could use their BrainPals to talk or share data with one another; they didn’t have to use their mouths to do it. The murmuring indicated that they still did, however, at least part of the time. CDF members used to be normal people without green skin or computers in their heads. Old habits died hard.
Bair, who had been born on the planet Erie and had spent the last twenty years stationed out of the Colonial Union home planet of Phoenix, had neither green skin nor a computer in her head. But she had spent enough time around CDF members during her diplomatic travels that they no longer seemed particularly notable among the variety of humans she worked with. She sometimes forgot that they were, in fact, a genetically-engineered breed apart.
“One minute to skip,” said the Polk’s executive officer. Bair’s brain popped up a name: Everett Roman. Aside from Commander Roman’s notation of the time, nothing else on the bridge had changed; Bair suspected the announcement was for her and Roberts’s benefit. Bair’s eyes flicked over to the large monitors to the fore of the room. They were still dark.
“Commander Roman,” Evans said, and then motioned his head toward the monitors when he had gotten the executive officer’s attention. The XO nodded. The monitors sprang to life, one with an image of a star field, the other with a simple schematic of the Polk.
“Thank you, Lieutenant Evans,” Bair said, quietly. Evans smiled.
Commander Roman counted off the last ten seconds of the skip. Bair trained her eyes on the monitor showing the star field. When Roman counted zero, the stars in the field seemed to shift at random. Bair knew that the stars hadn’t actually shifted. These were entirely new stars. The Polk had, without fuss or noise, instantly traveled light-years.
Bair blinked, unsatisfied. If you thought about what just happened in terms of what was physically accomplished, it was a staggering event. As a personal human experience, however …
“So that’s it?” Roberts asked, to no one in particular.
“That’s it,” Evans said.
“Not very exciting,” Roberts said.
“Not exciting means we did it right,” Evans said.
“Well, where’s the fun in that?” Roberts joked.
“Other people can do fun,” Evans said. “We do precise. We get you where you need to go, on time. Or ahead of time, in this case. We were asked to get you here three days ahead of the Utche arrival. We delivered you three days, six hours early. Here you are, ahead of time twice.”
“About that,” Bair said. Evans turned his head to the ambassador to give her his full attention.
The deck of the bridge leaped up at the trio, with violence.
Voices on the bridge suddenly became very loud, detailing damage to the ship. Hull breaches, loss of power, casualties. Something had gone very wrong with the skip.
Bair looked up from the deck and saw that the images on the monitors had changed. The schematic of the ship now featured sections blinking in red. The star field had been replaced with a representation of the Polk in three-dimensional space. It was at the center of the representation. At the periphery of the representation was an object, heading toward the Polk.
“What is that?” Bair asked Evans, who was picking himself up off the deck.
Evans looked at the screen and was quiet for a second. Bair knew he was accessing his BrainPal for more information. “A ship,” he said.
“Is it the Utche?” Roberts asked. “We can signal them for help.”
Evans shook his head. “They’re not the Utche.”
“Who are they?” Bair asked.
“We don’t know,” Evans said.
The monitors chirped, and then there were multiple additional objects on the screen, heading quickly toward the Polk.
“Oh, God,” Bair said, and stood as the bridge crew reported missiles en route.
Captain Basta ordered the missiles lanced out of the sky and then turned toward Bair—or, more directly, to Evans. “Those two,” she said. “Escape pod. Now.”
“Wait—,” Bair began.
“No time, Ambassador,” Basta said, cutting her off. “Too many missiles. My next two minutes are about getting you off the ship alive. Don’t waste them.” She turned back to her bridge crew, telling them to prep the black box.
Evans grabbed Bair. “Come on, Ambassador,” he said, and pulled her off the bridge, Roberts following.
Forty seconds later, Bair and Roberts were shoved by Evans into a cramped box with two small seats. “Strap in,” Evan said, yelling to make himself heard. He pointed below one of the seats. “Emergency rations and hydration there.” He pointed below the other. “Waste recycler there. You have a week of air. You’ll be fine.”
“The rest of my team—,” Bair said again.
“Is being shoved into escape pods right now,” Evans said. “The captain will launch a skip drone to let the CDF know what happened. They keep rescue ships at skip distance for things just like this. Don’t worry. Now strap in. These things launch rough.” He backed out of the pod.
“Good luck, Evans,” Roberts said. Evans grimaced as the pod sealed itself. Five seconds later, the pod punched itself off the Polk. Bair felt as if she had been kicked in the spine and then felt weightless. The pod was too small and basic for artificial gravity.
“What the hell just happened back there?” Roberts said, after a minute. “The Polk was hit the instant it skipped.”
“Someone knew we were on our way,” Bair said.
“This mission was confidential,” Roberts said.
“Use your head, Brad,” Bair said, testily. “The mission was confidential on our end. It could have leaked. It could have leaked on the Utche side.”
“You think the Utche set us up?” Roberts asked.
“I don’t know,” Bair said. “They’re in the same situation as we are. They need this alliance as much as we do. It doesn’t make any sense for them to string the Colonial Union along just to pull a stupid stunt like this. Attacking the Polk doesn’t gain them anything. Destroying a CDF ship is a flat-out enemy action.”
“The Polk might be able to fight it out,” Roberts said.
“You heard Captain Basta as well as I did,” Bair said. “Too many missiles. And the Polk is already damaged.”
“Let’s hope the rest of our people made it to their escape pods, then,” Roberts said.
“I don’t think they were sent to the other escape pods,” Bair said.
“But Evans said—”
“Evans said what he needed to shut us up and get us off the Polk,” Bair said.
Roberts was quiet at this.
Several minutes later, he said, “If the Polk sent a skip drone, it will need, what, a day to reach skip distance?”
“Something like that,” Bair said.
“A day for the news to arrive, a few hours to gear up, a few hours after that to find us,” Roberts said. “So two days in this tin can. Best-case scenario.”
“Sure,” Bair said.
“And then we’ll be debriefed,” Roberts said. “Not that we can tell them anything about who attacked us or why.”
“When they look for us, they’ll also be looking for the Polk’s black box,” Bair said. “That will have all the data from the ship right up until the moment it was destroyed. If they were able to identify the attacking ships at any point, it’ll be in there.”
“If it survived the destruction of the Polk,” Roberts said.
“I heard Captain Basta tell her bridge crew to prep the box,” Bair said. “I’m guessing that means that they had time to do whatever they needed to to make sure it survived the ship.”
“So you, me and a black box are all that survived the Polk,” Roberts said.
“I think so. Yes,” Bair said.
“Jesus,” Roberts said. “Has anything like this ever happened to you before?”
“I’ve had missions go badly before,” Bair said, and looked around the confines of the escape pod. “But, no. This is a first.”
“Let’s hope the best-case scenario is what we get here,” Roberts said. “If it’s not, then in about a week things are going to get bad.”
“After the fourth day we’ll take turns breathing,” Bair said.
Roberts laughed weakly and then stopped himself. “Don’t want to do that,” he said. “Waste of oxygen.”
Bair began to laugh herself and then was surprised as the air from her lungs rushed the other way, pulled out by the vacuum of space invading the escape pod as it tore apart. Bair had an instant to register the look on her assistant’s face before the shrapnel from the explosion that was shredding the escape pod tore into them as well, killing them. She had no final thoughts, other than registering the feel of the air sliding past her lips and the brief, painless pushing feeling the shrapnel made as it went through and then out of her. There was a final, distant sensation of cold, then heat, and then nothing at all.
Sixty-two light-years away from the Polk, Lieutenant Harry Wilson stood stiffly near the edge of a seaside cliff on the planet Farnut, along with several other members of the Colonial Union diplomatic courier ship Clarke. It was a gorgeous, sunny day, warm without being so hot that the humans would sweat in their formal attire. The Colonial diplomats formed a line; parallel to that line was a line of Farnutian diplomats, their limbs resplendent in formal jewelry. Each human diplomat held a baroquely decorated flagon, filled with water brought specially from the Clarke. At the head of each line was the chief diplomat for each race at the negotiation: Ckar Cnutdin for the Farnutians and Ode Abumwe for the Colonials. Cnutdin was currently at a podium, speaking in the glottal Farnutian language. Ambassador Abumwe, to the side, appeared to listen intently, nodding from time to time.
“What is he saying?” Hart Schmidt, standing next to Wilson, asked, as quietly as possible.
“Standard boilerplate about friendship between nations and species,” Wilson said. As the sole member of the Colonial Defense Forces in the diplomatic mission, he was the only one in the line able to translate Farnutian on the fly, via his BrainPal; the rest of them had relied on translators provided by the Farnutians. The only one of those present at the ceremony was now standing behind Ambassador Abumwe, whispering discreetly into her ear.
“Does it sound like he’s wrapping up?” Schmidt asked.
“Why, Hart?” Wilson glanced over to his friend. “You in a rush to get to the next part?”
Schmidt flicked his eyes toward his opposite number on the Farnutian line and said nothing.
As it turned out, Cnutdin was indeed just finishing. He did a thing with his limbs that was the Farnutian equivalent of bowing and stepped back from the podium. Ambassador Abumwe bowed and stepped toward the podium for her speech. Behind her, the translator shifted over to stand behind Cnutdin.
“I want to thank Trade Delegate Cnutdin for his stirring words about the growing friendship between our two great nations,” Abumwe began, and then launched into boilerplate of her own, her words delivered with an accent that betrayed her status as a first-generation Colonial. Her parents had emigrated from Nigeria to the Colonial planet of New Albion when Abumwe was an infant; traces of that country’s speech overlaid the New Albion rasp that reminded Wilson of the American Midwest that he had grown up in.
Not too long ago, in an attempt to start a rapport with the ambassador, Wilson had noted to Abumwe that the two of them were the only members of the Clarke crew who had been born on Earth, the rest of the crew having been Colonials all their life. Abumwe had narrowed her eyes at him, asked him what he was implying and stalked off angrily. Wilson had turned to his friend Schmidt, who was looking on with horror, and asked what he had done wrong. Schmidt told him to access a news feed.
That was how Wilson learned that the Earth and the Colonial Union appeared to be undergoing a trial separation and were probably headed for a divorce. And learned about who was splitting them apart.
Ah, well, Wilson thought, watching Abumwe wrap up her speech. Abumwe had never warmed to him; he was pretty sure she vaguely resented having any CDF presence on her ship, even in the relatively innocuous form of a technology advisor, which was Wilson’s role. But as Schmidt liked to point out, it wasn’t personal. By all indications, Abumwe had never really warmed up to anyone, ever. Some people just didn’t like people.
Not the best temperament for a diplomat, Wilson thought, not for the first time.
Abumwe stepped away from the podium, bowed deeply to Ckar Cnutdin, and at the end of her bow took her flagon and nodded to her line of diplomats. Cnutdin likewise signaled to his line.
“This is it,” Schmidt said to Wilson, and then they both stepped forward, toward the Farnutians, just as the Farnutians slid forward to them. Each line stopped roughly half a meter from the other, still parallel.
As a unit and as they had practiced, every human diplomat, Ambassador Abumwe included, thrust forward their flagon. “We exchange water,” they all said, and with ceremonial pomp upended their flagons, spilling the water at what passed for the Farnutians’ feet.
The Farnutians replied with a hurking sound that Wilson’s BrainPal translated as We exchange water, and then spewed from their mouths seawater they had stored in their bodies’ ballast bladders, directly into the faces of the human diplomats. Every human diplomat was drenched with salty, Farnutian body-temperature water.
“Thanks for that,” Wilson said to his opposite number on the Farnutian line. But the Farnutian had already turned away, making a hiccuping sound at another of its kind as it broke ranks. Wilson’s BrainPal translated the words.
Thank God that’s over, it had said. When do we get lunch?
* * *
“You’re unusually quiet,” Schmidt said to Wilson, on the shuttle ride back to the Clarke.
“I’m ruminating on my life, and karma,” Wilson said. “And what I must have done in a previous life to deserve being spit on by an alien species as part of a diplomatic ceremony.”
“It’s because the Farnutian culture is so tied to the sea,” Schmidt said. “Exchanging the waters of their homeland is a symbolic way to say our fates are now tied together.”
“It’s also an excellent way to spread the Farnutian equivalent of smallpox,” Wilson said.
“That’s why we got shots,” Schmidt said.
“I would at least like to have poured the flagon on someone’s head,” Wilson said.
“That wouldn’t have been very diplomatic,” Schmidt said.
“And spitting in our faces is?” Wilson’s voice rose slightly.
“Yes, because that’s how they cement their deals,” Schmidt said. “And they also know that when humans spit in someone’s face, or pour water on someone’s head, it doesn’t mean the same thing. So we devised something that everyone agreed was symbolically acceptable. It took our advance team three weeks to hammer that out.”
“They could have hammered out a deal where the Farnutians learn to shake hands,” Wilson pointed out.
“We could have,” Schmidt agreed. “Except for the little fact that we need this trade alliance a lot more than they do, so we have to play by their rules. It’s why the negotiations are on Farnut. It’s why Ambassador Abumwe accepted a deal that’s a short-term loser. It’s why we stood there and got spit on and said thank you.”
Wilson looked toward the forward part of the shuttle, where the ambassador sat with her top aides. Schmidt didn’t rate inclusion; Wilson certainly didn’t. They sat in the back, in the cheap seats. “She got a bad deal?” he asked.
“She was told to get a bad deal,” Schmidt said, looking toward the ambassador as well. “That defense shielding you trained their people on? We traded it for agricultural products. We traded it for fruit. We don’t need their fruit. We can’t eat their fruit. We’re probably going to end up taking everything they give us and stewing it down to ethanol or something pointless like that.”
“Then why did we make the deal?” Wilson asked.
“We were told to think of it as a ‘loss leader,’” Schmidt said. “Something that gets the Farnutians through the door so we can make better deals later.”
“Fantastic,” Wilson said. “I can look forward to getting spit on again.”
“No,” Schmidt said, and settled back into his chair. “It’s not us that will be coming back.”
“Oh, right,” Wilson said. “You get all the crappy diplomatic missions, and once you’ve done the scut work, someone else comes in for the glory.”
“You say it like you’re skeptical,” Schmidt said to Wilson. “Come on, Harry. You’ve been with us long enough now. You’ve seen what happens to us. The missions we get are either low-level or ones where if they fail, it’ll be easy enough to blame it on us, rather than our orders.”
“Which kind was this one?” Wilson asked.
“Both,” Schmidt said. “And so is the next one.”
“This brings me back to my question about my karma,” Wilson said.
“You probably set kittens on fire,” Schmidt said. “And the rest of us were probably there with you, with skewers.”
“When I joined the CDF we probably would have just shot the hell out of the Farnutians until they gave us what we wanted,” Wilson said.
“Ah, the good old days,” Schmidt said sarcastically, and then shrugged. “That was then. This is now. We’ve lost the Earth, Harry. Now we have to learn to deal with it.”
“There’s going to be a hell of a learning curve on that one,” Wilson said, after a minute.
“You are correct,” Schmidt said. “Be glad you don’t have to be the teacher.”
I need to see you, Colonel Abel Rigney sent to Colonel Liz Egan, CDF liaison to the secretary of state. He was heading toward her suite of offices in the Phoenix Station.
I’m a little busy at the moment, Egan sent back.
It’s important, Rigney sent.
What I’m doing right now is also important, Egan returned.
This is more importanter, Rigney sent.
Well, when you put it that way, Egan replied.
Rigney smiled. I’ll be at your office in two minutes, he sent.
I’m not there, Egan returned. Go to the State Department conference complex. I’m in Theater Seven.
What are you doing there? Rigney sent.
Scaring the children, Egan replied.
Three minutes later, Rigney slipped into the back of Theater Seven. The room was darkened and filled with midlevel members of the Colonial Union diplomatic corps. Rigney took a seat at one of the higher rows in the room and looked across at the faces of the people there. They appeared rather grim. Down on the floor of the theater stood Colonel Egan, a three-dimensional display, currently unlit, behind her.
I’m here, Rigney sent to Egan.
Then you can see I’m working, she replied. Shut up and give me a minute.
What Egan was doing was listening to one of the midlevel diplomats drone on in the vaguely condescending way that midlevel diplomats will do when presented with someone they assume is below their station. Rigney, who knew that in her past life Egan had been the CEO of a rather substantial media empire, settled in to enjoy the show.
“I’m not disagreeing that the new reality of our situation is challenging,” the diplomat was saying. “But I’m not entirely convinced that the situation is as insoluble as your assessment suggests.”
“Is that so, Mr. DiNovo,” Egan said.
“I think so, yes,” the diplomat named DiNovo said. “The human race has always been outnumbered out here. But we’ve managed to keep our place in the scheme of things. Small, albeit important details have changed here, but the fundamental issues are largely the same.”
“Are they,” Egan said. The display behind her flashed on, picturing a slowly rotating star field that Rigney recognized as the local interstellar neighborhood. A series of stars flashed blue. “To recap, here we are. All the star systems which have human planets in them. The Colonial Union. And here are all the star systems with other intelligent, star-faring races in them.” The star field turned red as a couple thousand stars switched colors to show their allegiance.
“This is no different than what we’ve always had to work with,” the diplomat named DiNovo said.
“Wrong,” Egan said. “This star chart is misleading, and you, Mr. DiNovo, appear not to realize that. All that red up there used to represent hundreds of individual races, all of whom, like the human race, had to battle or negotiate with any other race they encountered. Some races were stronger than others, but none of them had any substantial strength or tactical advantage over most of the others. There were too many civilizations too close to parity for any one of them to gain a long-term lead in the power struggle.
“That worked for us because we had one advantage other races didn’t,” Egan said. Behind her, one blue star system, somewhat isolated from the main arc of human systems, glowed more brightly. “We had Earth, which supplied the Colonial Union with two critical things: colonists, with which we could rapidly populate the planets we claimed, and soldiers, which we could use to defend those planets and secure additional worlds. Earth supplied the Colonial Union more of each than it would have been politically feasible to provide itself from its own worlds. This allowed the Colonial Union both a strategic and tactical advantage and allowed humanity to come close to upending the existing political order in our region of space.”
“Advantages we can still exploit,” DiNovo began.
“Wrong again,” Egan said. “Because now two critical things have changed. First, there’s the Conclave.” Two-thirds of the formerly red stars turned yellow. “The Conclave, formed out of four hundred alien races which formerly fought among themselves, but now acting as a single political entity, able to enforce its policies by sheer mass. The Conclave will not allow unaffiliated races to engage in further colonization, but it does not stop those races from raiding each other for resources or for security purposes or to settle old scores. So the Colonial Union still has to contend with two hundred alien races targeting its worlds and ships.
“Second, there’s Earth. Thanks to the actions of former Roanoke Colony leaders John Perry and Jane Sagan, the Earth has at least temporarily suspended its relationship with the Colonial Union. Its people now believe that we’ve been holding back the planet’s political and technological development for decades to farm it for colonists and soldiers. The reality is more complicated, but as with most humans, the people on Earth prefer the simple answer. The simplest answer is the Colonial Union’s been screwing them. They don’t trust us. They don’t want anything to do with us. It may be years before they do.”
“My point is that even without the Earth we still have advantages,” DiNovo said. “The Colonial Union has a population of billions on dozens of planets rich with resources.”
“And you believe that the colony worlds can replace the colonists and soldiers the Colonial Union until very recently received from Earth,” Egan said.
“I’m not saying there won’t be grumbling,” DiNovo said. “But yes, they could.”
“Colonel Rigney,” said Egan, speaking her compatriot’s name but keeping her eyes on DiNovo.
“Yes,” Rigney said, surprised at being called on. An entire room of heads swiveled to look at him.
“You and I were in the same recruiting class,” Egan said.
“That’s right,” Rigney said. “We met on the Amerigo Vespucci. That was the ship that took us from Earth to Phoenix Station. It was fourteen years ago.”
“Do you remember how many recruits were on the Vespucci?” Egan asked.
“I remember the CDF representative telling us there were one thousand fifteen of us,” Rigney said.
“How many of us are still alive?” Egan asked.
“There are eighty-nine,” Rigney said. “I know that because one of us died last week and I got a notification. Major Darren Reith.”
“So a ninety-one percent fatality rate over fourteen years,” Egan said.
“That’s about right,” Rigney said. “The official statistic that the CDF tells recruits is that in ten years of service the fatality rate is seventy-five percent. In my experience, that official statistic is low. After ten years recruits are allowed to leave the service, but many of us stay in.” Because who wants to start getting old again, Rigney thought, but did not say.
“Mr. DiNovo,” Egan said, returning her full attention to her diplomat, “I believe you are originally from the colony of Rus, is that correct?”
“That’s correct,” DiNovo said.
“In its entire history of more than one hundred and twenty years, Rus has never been asked to supply the Colonial Union with soldiers,” Egan said. “I want you to tell me how you believe the colony will respond when it is informed by the Colonial Union that it will require—require, not ask—one hundred thousand of its citizens annually to join the Colonial Defense Forces, and that at the end of those ten years seventy-five percent of them will be dead. I want you to tell me how the Rus citizens will respond when they learn that part of their job is to quell rebellions on colonies, which happens more often than the Colonial Union prefers to admit. How will recruits from Rus feel about firing on their own people? Will they do it? Will you, Mr. DiNovo? You are in your early fifties now, sir. You’re not that far off from the CDF recruitment age. Are you ready to fight and very likely die for the Colonial Union? Because you are, in yourself, the advantage you say we have.”
DiNovo had nothing to say to this.
“I’ve been giving these presentations to the diplomatic corps for a month now,” Egan said, turning her eyes away from the silenced DiNovo and scanning the room. “In every presentation I have someone like Mr. DiNovo here making the argument that the situation we are in is not that bad. They, like he, are wrong. The Colonial Defense Forces lose a staggering number of soldiers on an annual basis and have for more than two hundred years. Our developing colonies cannot quickly grow themselves to a size sufficiently large to avoid extinction by breeding alone. The existence of the Conclave has changed the math of human survival in ways we cannot yet imagine. The Colonial Union has survived and thrived because it has exploited an unearned surplus of humans from Earth. We don’t have that surplus anymore. And we don’t have the time to develop a new surplus from within the Colonial Union system and population.”
“How bad is it, then?” Rigney heard himself ask. He was as surprised as anyone to hear his own voice.
Egan glanced at him, then drew her attention back to the crowd. “If things continue as they are, based on historical CDF fatality rates, in three years we’ll no longer have sufficient forces to defend our colonies from predation and genocidal aggression by other races,” she said. “From there, our best estimate is that the Colonial Union as a political entity collapses within five to eight years. Without the overarching protective structure of the Colonial Union, all remaining human planets are attacked and wiped out within twenty years. Which is to say, ladies and gentlemen, that from this very moment, the human race is thirty years from extinction.”
The room was dead silent.
“The reason I’m telling you this is not so you can run home and hug your children,” Egan said. “The reason I’m telling you this is that for more than two hundred years, the Department of State has been the vermiform appendix of the Colonial Union. An afterthought to the CU’s strategy of aggressive defense and expansion.” She stared at DiNovo. “A nice sinecure for mediocrities to be shoved into, where they can do no real harm. Well, all that changes now. The Colonial Union can no longer afford to live the way we’ve lived. We don’t have the resources and we don’t have the people. So from this moment forward the State Department has two missions. One: Bring Earth back into the fold, for the advantage of us both. Two: Whenever possible, avoid conflict with the Conclave and unaffiliated alien races. Diplomacy is the best way to make that happen.
“What that means, ladies and gentlemen, is that from now on, the Colonial Union State Department actually matters. And you, my friends, now all have to work for a living.”
* * *
“Do you always squash someone as hard as you squashed DiNovo?” Rigney asked. Theater Seven was now empty; the midlevel diplomats had shuffled out, grumbling to one another. He and Egan were now both standing near the display, which had again shut down.
“Usually,” Egan said. “DiNovo was doing me a favor, actually. For every one like him who is stupid enough to open his mouth, there’s about fifty of these people who keep their traps shut and plan to ignore what I have to say. This way I get to drive the message home to all of them. Marginally more of them will listen to me this way.”
“You think they really are all mediocrities, then,” Rigney said.
“Not all of them,” Egan said. “Most of them. And certainly the ones I have to deal with.” She waved at the empty theater. “These people are cogs. They’re stationed here, pushing the proverbial paper. If they were any good at what they did, they’d be out there in the universe. The ones out there are the A-teams. Hell, they’re the B-teams, too. The ones here are teams C through K.”
“Then you’re not going to like this,” Rigney said. “One of your A-teams has gone missing.”
Egan frowned. “Which one?” she asked.
“Ambassador Bair’s team,” Rigney said. “Along with, I should add, one of our frigates, the Polk.”
Egan was silent for a moment, processing the news. “When did this happen?” she finally asked.
“It’s been two days since there’s been a skip drone sent back from the Polk,” Rigney said.
“And you’re only telling me this now?” Egan said.
“I would have told you sooner, but you wanted me to see you scare the children,” Rigney said. “And two days without drone contact is our standard alarm raiser. Particularly with missions like this one, which are supposed to be secret. I came to find you as soon as we confirmed two days of dead air.”
“What did your recovery mission find?” Egan asked.
“No recovery mission,” Rigney said, and caught Egan’s look. “We had a hard enough time negotiating a military frigate for the mission. If the Utche show up and see several military ships in the area, none of them with diplomats on them, everything blows up.”
“Recon drones, then,” Egan said.
“Of course,” Rigney said. “Everything’s preliminary because the drones have just arrived, but they’re not finding anything.”
“You sent the drones to the correct system,” Egan said.
“Come on, Liz,” Rigney said.
“Doesn’t hurt to ask,” Egan said.
“We sent the drones to the right system,” Rigney said. “We sent the Polk to the right system. The Danavar system is where the Utche wanted to meet.”
Egan nodded. “A system with nothing but gas giants and airless moons. No one will think to look for you there. Perfect for secret negotiations.”
“Apparently not so secret after all,” Rigney said.
“You’re presuming the Polk met with a bad end,” Egan said.
“Our frigates don’t have a history of randomly vaporizing,” Rigney said. “But whatever or whoever did this isn’t in the Danavar system now. There’s nothing there but planets and moons and a big yellow star.”
“Have we told the Utche about this?” Egan asked.
“We haven’t told anyone about it,” Rigney said. “Outside of command, you’re the first person to know. We haven’t even told your boss that her team is missing. We figured we’d let you do that yourself.”
“Thanks,” Egan said, wryly. “But surely the Utche have noticed there is no one negotiating a treaty with them.”
“The Polk arrived three days early,” Rigney said.
“Why?” Egan said.
“Ostensibly to give Bair’s team time to prep away from the distractions of Phoenix Station,” Rigney said.
“And in reality?” Egan asked.
“In reality to make sure we were militarily prepared for an immediate withdrawal if necessary,” Rigney said.
“Seems drastic,” Egan said.
“You’ll recall the Utche have handed our ass to us in three out of the last five military engagements we’ve had with them,” Rigney said. “Just because they came to us for this alliance doesn’t mean we trust them entirely.”
“And you don’t think the Utche might have figured out the CU’s trust issues,” Egan said.
“We’re pretty sure they have,” Rigney said. “In part because we let them know we were arriving early. Your boss signed off on the cover story, but we don’t assume the Utche are stupid. It was a sign to us of how much they want the alliance that they were willing to give us a tactical advantage.”
“You’ve entertained the possibility the Utche blasted the Polk out of the sky,” Egan said.
“Obviously,” Rigney said. “But they’ve been as transparent with us as we’ve been with them, and where they’re not transparent, we have spies. This is something we would have known about. And nothing they’re doing indicates that they think anything is out of the ordinary. Their diplomatic mission is on a ship called the Kaligm, and it’s a day out from skip distance.”
Egan said nothing to this but instead fired up the display, turning to it. Phoenix Station floated in the display, the limb of the planet Phoenix below it. At a distance from Phoenix Station, CDF and trade ships floated; their names appeared in labels hovering aside them in the display. The image pulled out and both Phoenix Station and Phoenix shrank to a single dot, taking with them thousands of starships arriving at or departing from the Colonial Union’s capital. The image pulled farther out and displayed, as dots, dozens of ships, each working its way toward a sufficiently flat spot of space-time to make a skip. Egan began pulling information from a few, crew manifests spilling onto the display.
“Okay, I give up,” Rigney said, after several minutes of this. “Tell me what you’re doing.”
“Ambassador Bair isn’t on our A-list,” Egan said, still scanning crew manifests. “She’s on our A Plus–list. If she was pipped to negotiate, then this mission is an actual priority, not just a top secret diplomatic circle jerk.”
“Okay,” Rigney said. “So?”
“So, you don’t know Secretary Galeano like I do,” Egan said, naming the secretary of state. “If I walk into her office, tell her one of her best diplomats and her entire team is probably dead and their mission therefore a complete failure, without a backup plan already in place and ready to implement, things will be very grim indeed. I will be without a job, you will probably be without a job simply for being the messenger, and the secretary will go out of her way to make sure that the next posting for both of us will be someplace where our life expectancy will be measured with an egg timer.”
“She sounds nice,” Rigney said.
“She’s perfectly lovely,” Egan said. “Until you piss her off.” The display, which had been scrolling through ships and crew manifests, suddenly stopped on a single ship. “Here.”
Rigney peered up at the image. “What is this?”
“This is the B-team,” Egan said.
“The Clarke?” Rigney said. “I don’t know this ship.”
“It handles various low-level diplomatic missions,” Egan said. “Its chief diplomat is a woman named Abumwe.” The image of a dark and severe-looking woman hovered on the screen. “Her most significant negotiation was with the Korba a few months back. She impressed them by having a CDF officer stationed on the ship fight with one of their soldiers, and lose in a diplomatically meaningful way.”
“That’s interesting,” Rigney said.
“Yes, but not entirely her doing,” Egan said, and popped up the images of two men, one of whom was green. “The fight was set up by a deputy, Hart Schmidt. Lieutenant Harry Wilson was the one who fought.”
“So why these people?” Rigney asked. “What makes them the right people to take over this mission?”
“Two reasons,” Egan said. “One, Abumwe was part of an embassy to the Utche three years ago. Nothing came of it at the time, but she has experience dealing with them. That means she can get brought up to speed quickly. Two”—she pulled out the view to show the Clarke in space—“the Clarke is eighteen hours away from skip distance. Abumwe and her people can still get to the Danavar system ahead of the Utche and participate in the negotiations, or at the very least allow us to set up a new round of talks. There’s no other diplomatic mission that can make it on time.”
“We send in the B-team because it’s marginally better than nothing,” Rigney said.
“Abumwe and her people aren’t incompetent,” Egan said. “They just wouldn’t be your first choice. But right now we’re short on choices.”
“Right,” Rigney said. “You’re really going to sell this to your boss, then.”
“Unless you have a better idea,” Egan said.
“Not really,” Rigney said, then furrowed his brow for a moment. “Although…”
“Although what?” Egan said.
“Bring up that CDF guy again,” Rigney said.
Egan popped the image of Lieutenant Harry Wilson back onto the display. “What about him?” she said.
“He still on the Clarke?” Rigney asked.
“Yes,” Egan said. “He’s a technical advisor. Some of the Clarke’s recent missions have had military tech and weapons as part of the negotiations. They have him on hand to train people on the machines we’re offering. Why?”
“I think I may have found a way to sweeten your B-team plan to Secretary Galeano,” Rigney said. “And to my bosses, too.”
Wilson noted the expression Schmidt had when he looked up and saw him standing by the door of Ambassador Abumwe’s conference room.
“You don’t have to look that shocked,” Wilson said, dryly.
“Sorry,” Schmidt said. He moved to let other members of the Clarke’s diplomatic contingent into the room.
Wilson waved it away. “I’m not usually included this early in the discussion. It’s fine.”
“Do you know what this is about?” Schmidt said.
“Allow me to repeat: I’m not usually included this early in the discussion,” Wilson said.
“Got it,” Schmidt said. “Well, shall we, then?” The two of them entered the room.
The conference room was cramped, as was everything on the Clarke. The table, with eight seats, was already filled, with Ambassador Abumwe looking owlishly at Schmidt and Wilson as they entered. The two of them took positions against the wall opposite her.
“Now that we’re all here,” she said, with a pointed glance at Wilson and Schmidt, “let’s get started. The Department of State, in its wisdom, has decided that our presence is no longer needed at Vinnedorg.”
A groan went up from around the table. “Who are they giving our work to this time?” asked Rae Sarles.
“No one,” Abumwe said. “Our superiors are apparently under the impression that these negotiations will somehow magically take care of themselves without a Colonial presence.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” said Hugh Fucci.
“I appreciate you telling me that, Hugh,” Abumwe said. “I don’t believe I would have figured that out on my own.”
“Sorry, Ambassador,” Fucci said, backtracking. “What I mean to say is that they’ve been having us working on these negotiations with the Vinnies for more than a year now. I don’t understand why they want to threaten our momentum by interrupting what we’re doing.”
“Which is why we’re having our little meeting today,” Abumwe said, and then nodded to Hillary Drolet, her assistant, who pressed the screen of her PDA. “If you’ll access your queues, you’ll find the information on our new assignment.”
Everyone at the table, and Schmidt, accessed their PDAs; Wilson accessed his BrainPal, found the document in his queue, and streamed the data in the bottom quarter of his field of vision.
“The Utche?” asked Nelson Kwok, after a minute. “Have the CU ever actually negotiated with them before?”
“I was part of a mission to them three years ago, before I took this posting,” Abumwe said. “At the time, nothing seemed to come of it. But apparently we’ve been quietly negotiating with them for the last year or so.”
“Who’s been the lead?” Kwok asked.
“Sara Bair,” Abumwe said.
Wilson noted that everyone looked up at the ambassador when she said this. Whoever this Sara Bair was, she was clearly a star.
“Why is she off the negotiations?” Sarles asked.
“I couldn’t tell you,” Abumwe said. “But she and her people are, and now we’re on it.”
“Too bad for her,” Fucci said, and Wilson saw there were smiles around the table. Getting this Bair’s sloppy seconds were preferable to the Clarke’s original mission, it seemed. Once again, Wilson wondered at what fate it was that brought him onto the Clarke to join its band of not-that-lovable losers. Wilson also couldn’t help but notice that the only person at the table not smiling at the prospect of taking up the Utche negotiations was Abumwe herself.
“There’s a lot of information in this package,” Schmidt said. He was flicking his PDA screen and scrolling through the text. “How many days before we begin negotiating?”
And it was then that Abumwe smiled, notably thin and humorless though it was. “Twenty hours.”
There was dead silence.
“You’re joking,” Fucci said. Abumwe gave him a look that clearly indicated she had reached the end of her patience with him for the day. Fucci wisely did not speak again.
“Why the rush?” Wilson asked. He knew Abumwe didn’t like him; it wouldn’t hurt for him to ask the question everyone else wanted to know but was too scared to ask.
“I couldn’t say,” Abumwe said evenly, looking at him briefly and then turning her attention to her staff. “And even if I could, the reason wouldn’t matter for what we have to do now. We have sixteen hours before our jump and then four hours after that before the Utche are scheduled to arrive. After that we’re on their schedule. They might want to meet immediately; they might want to meet in a day. We are going to go under the assumption they will want to begin negotiations immediately. That means you have the next twelve hours to get up to speed. After that, we’ll have planning sessions before and after the jump. I hope you’ve gotten enough sleep in the last two days, because you’re not getting any more for a while. Any questions?”
There were none. “Good,” Abumwe said. “I don’t believe I have to tell any of you that if these negotiations go well, then it is good for us. For all of us. If they go poorly, then it will go badly for all of us as well. But it will go especially poorly for whichever ones of you were not completely up to speed and dragged the rest of your team down with you. I need you to be crystal clear on that.”
“Lieutenant Wilson, a word with you,” Abumwe said, as the room began to clear. “You too, Schmidt.” The room cleared except for the ambassador, Hillary Drolet, Schmidt and Wilson.
“Why did you ask about why there was a rush?” Abumwe asked.
Wilson made a conscious effort not to let the thought I’m being called on the carpet for that? show up on his face. “Because everyone wanted to know, but no one else wanted to ask, ma’am.”
“Because they knew better,” Abumwe said.
“Except possibly for Fucci, yes, ma’am,” Wilson said.
“But you don’t,” Abumwe said.
“No, I know better, too,” Wilson said. “But I still thought someone should ask.”
“Hmmm,” Abumwe said. “Lieutenant, what did it say to you that we have twenty hours to prepare for this negotiation?”
“Are you asking me to speculate, ma’am?” Wilson asked.
“It’s rather obvious that’s what I’m asking,” Abumwe said. “You’re Colonial Defense Forces. You no doubt have a military perspective on this.”
“It’s been years since I’ve been anywhere near actual combat, ma’am,” Wilson said. “I’ve been with CDF Research and Development for years, even before they lent me to you and the Clarke as your tech consultant.”
“But you are still CDF, yes?” Abumwe said. “You still have the green skin and the computer in your head. I imagine if you dig deeply, you might still have the ability to look at things from a military point of view.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Wilson said.
“Then give me your analysis,” Abumwe said.
“Someone’s humped the bunk,” Wilson said.
“Excuse me?” Abumwe said. Wilson noted Schmidt suddenly looked paler than usual.
“Humped the bunk,” Wilson repeated. “Screwed the pooch. Gone FUBAR. Insert your own metaphor for things going sideways here. You don’t have to have military experience to see that; everyone in this room had that thought. Whatever this Sara Bair and her team were supposed to do, they blew it, and for whatever reason the Colonial Union needs to attempt a salvage, so you and your team are the last-minute, last-chance substitute.”
“And why us?” Abumwe said.
“Because you are good at what you do,” Wilson said.
Abumwe’s thin smile returned. “If I want smoke blown up my ass, Lieutenant, I could have your friend here,” she said, nodding toward Schmidt.
“Yes, ma’am,” Wilson said. “In that case, I’d guess because we’re close to jump, which makes us easy to reroute, that you’ve had at least some experience with the Utche, and that if you fail, and you probably will because you’re the last-minute replacement, you’re low enough on the diplomatic totem pole that it can be chalked up to your incompetence.” Wilson looked over to Schmidt, who looked as if he were about to implode. “Stop that, Hart,” he said. “She asked.”
“I did indeed,” Abumwe said. “And you are right, Lieutenant. But only half-right. The other reason that they picked us is because of you.”
“I beg your pardon?” Wilson said, now thoroughly confused.
“Sara Bair didn’t fail at her task, she disappeared,” Abumwe said. “Along with the whole of her diplomatic mission and a CDF frigate called the Polk. It and them, gone. No trace.”
“That’s not good,” Wilson said.
“You are once again stating the obvious,” Abumwe said.
“How do I matter here, ma’am?” Wilson said.
“They don’t think the Polk just vanished, they think it was destroyed,” Abumwe said. “And they need you to look for the black box.”
“Black box?” Schmidt asked.
“A data recorder,” Wilson said. “If the Polk was destroyed and the black box survived, then it could tell us what happened to the ship, and who killed it.”
“And we couldn’t find it without you?” Schmidt asked.
Wilson shook his head. “They’re small and they don’t send out a locator beacon unless they’re pinged with an encrypted signal, specific to that ship. It’s a military-grade cipher. You need a very tall security clearance for that. They don’t just hand those out to anyone, and not to anyone outside the CDF.” He turned his attention to Abumwe. “But they don’t just hand them out to random lieutenants, either.”
“Then we are lucky you are not just a random lieutenant,” Abumwe said. “I am told that in your history it seems that you once had a very high security clearance.”
“I was part of a team doing research on BrainPal security,” Wilson said. “Again, it’s been years. I don’t have that clearance level anymore.”
“You didn’t,” Abumwe said. She nodded to her assistant, who once again pressed on her PDA. Wilson immediately saw a ping light for his queue in his peripheral vision. “Now you do.”
“Okay,” Wilson said slowly, and scanned the details of the security clearance. After a moment he spoke again. “Ambassador, I think you should know this security clearance comes with a level of executive authority that technically means I can give orders to the Clarke’s crew in the furtherance of my mission,” he said.
“I would suggest you not try to exercise that privilege with Captain Coloma,” Abumwe said. “She hasn’t put anyone on the wrong side of an airlock, but if you gave her an order, she might make an exception for you.”
“I will keep that in mind,” Wilson said.
“Do,” Abumwe said. “In the meantime, as you’ve no doubt read by now, your orders are to find the black box, decode it and find out what happened to the Polk.”
“Got it, ma’am,” Wilson said.
“It’s been implied to me by my own superiors that your finding the black box is of equal or greater importance to me actually successfully concluding these negotiations with the Utche,” Abumwe said. “To that end I have detailed you an aide for the duration.” She nodded to Schmidt. “I don’t need him. He’s yours.”
“Thank you,” Wilson said, and noted that he’d never seen Hart look more pained than just now, when he had been deemed inessential by his boss. “He’ll be useful.”
“He’d better be,” Abumwe said. “Because, Lieutenant Wilson, the warning I gave to my staff goes double for you. If you fail, this mission fails, even if my half goes well. Which means I will have failed because of you. I may be low on the diplomatic totem pole, but I am sufficiently high enough on it that when I push you, you will die from the fall.” She looked over to Schmidt. “And he’ll kill you when he lands.”
“Understood, ma’am,” Wilson said.
“Good,” Abumwe said. “One more thing, Lieutenant. Try to find that black box before the Utche arrive. If someone’s trying to kill us all, I want to know about it before our negotiating partners show up.”
“I’ll do my best,” Wilson said.
“Your best got you stationed on the Clarke,” Abumwe said. “Do better than that.”
“Please stop that,” Wilson said to Schmidt, as they sat in the Clarke lounge, reviewing their project data.
Schmidt looked up from his PDA. “I’m not doing anything,” he said.
“You’re hyperventilating,” Wilson said. He had his eyes closed, the better to focus on the data his BrainPal was streaming at him.
“I’m breathing completely normally,” Schmidt said.
“You’ve been breathing like a labored elephant for the last several minutes,” Wilson said, still not opening his eyes. “Keep it up and you’re going to need a paper bag to breathe into.”
“Yes, well,” Schmidt said. “You get told you’re inessential by your boss and see how you feel.”
“Her people skills aren’t the best,” Wilson agreed. “But you knew that. And as my assistant, I actually do need you to be helpful to me. So stop thinking about your boss and think more about our predicament.”
“Sorry,” Schmidt said. “I’m also not entirely comfortable with this assistant thing.”
“I promise not to ask you to get me coffee,” Wilson said. “Much.”
“Thanks,” Schmidt said, wryly. Wilson grunted and went back to his data.
“This black box,” Schmidt said a few minutes later.
“What about it?” Wilson asked.
“Are you going to be able to find it?” Schmidt asked.
Wilson opened his eyes for this. “The answer to that depends on whether you want me to be optimistic or truthful,” he said.
“Truthful, please,” Schmidt said.
“Probably not,” Wilson said.
“I lied,” Schmidt said. “I want the optimistic version.”
“Too late,” Wilson said, and held out his hand as if he were cupping an imaginary ball. “Look, Hart. The ‘black box’ in question is a small, black sphere about the size of a grapefruit. The memory portion of the thing is about the size of a fingernail. The rest of it consists of the tracking beacon, an inertial field generator to keep the thing from floating down a gravity well, and a battery powering both of those two things.”
“Okay,” Schmidt said. “So?”
“So, one, the thing is intentionally small and black, so it will be difficult to find by anyone but the CDF,” Wilson said.
“Right, but you’re not looking for it,” Schmidt said. “You’re going to be pinging it. When it gets the correct signal, it will respond.”
“It will, if it has power,” Wilson said. “But it might not. We’re working on the assumption the Polk was attacked. If it was attacked, then there was probably a battle. If there was a battle, then the Polk probably got torn apart, with the pieces of it flying everywhere from the added energy of the explosions. It’s likely the black box probably spent all its energy trying to stay mostly in one place. In which case when we signal it, we’re not going to get a response.”
“In which case you’ll have to look for it visually,” Schmidt said.
“Right,” Wilson said. “So, again: small black grapefruit in a search area that at this point is a cube tens of thousands of kilometers on a side. And your boss wants me to find it and examine it before the Utche arrive. So if we don’t locate it within the first half hour after the skip, we’re probably screwed.” He leaned back and closed his eyes again.
“You seem untroubled by our imminent failure,” Schmidt said.
“No point hyperventilating,” Wilson said. “And anyway, I didn’t say we will fail. It’s just more likely than not. My job is to increase the odds of us succeeding, which is what I was doing before your labored breathing started to distract me.”
“So what’s my job?” Schmidt asked.
“Your job is to go to Captain Coloma and tell her what things I need, the list of which I just sent to your PDA,” Wilson said. “And do it charmingly, so that our captain feels like a valued part of the process and not like she’s being ordered around by a CDF field tech.”
“Oh, I see,” Schmidt said. “I get the hard part.”
“No, you get the diplomatic part,” Wilson said, cracking open an eye. “Rumor has it diplomacy is a thing you’ve been trained to do. Unless you’d like me to go talk to her while you figure out a protocol for searching a few million cubic kilometers of space for an object the size of a child’s plaything.”
“I’ll just go ahead and go talk to the captain, then,” Schmidt said, picking up his PDA.
“What a marvelous idea,” Wilson said. “I fully endorse it.” Schmidt smiled and left the lounge.
Wilson closed his eyes again and focused once more on his own problem.
Wilson was more calm about the situation than Schmidt was, but that was in part to keep his friend on the right side of useful. Hart could be twitchy when stressed.
In fact, the problem was troubling Wilson more than he let on. One scenario he didn’t tell Hart about at all was the one where the black box didn’t exist. The classified information that Wilson had included preliminary scans of the chunk of space that the Polk was supposed to have been in; the debris field was almost nonexistent, meaning that either the ship was attacked with such violence that it had vaporized, or whoever attacked the Polk took the extra time to atomize any chunk of debris larger than half a meter on a side. Either way it didn’t look good.
If it had survived, Wilson had to work on the assumption that its battery was thoroughly drained and that it was floating, quiet and black, out in the vacuum. If the Polk had been nearer to one of the Danavar system planets, he might have a tiny chance of picking up the box visually against the planet’s sphere, but its skip position into the Danavar system was sufficiently distant from any of that system’s gas giants that even that “Hail Mary” approach was out of the question.
So: Wilson’s task was to find a dark, silent object that might not exist in a debris field that mostly didn’t exist, in a cube of space larger than most terrestrial planets.
It was a pretty problem.
Wilson didn’t want to admit how much he was enjoying it. He’d had any number of jobs over his two lifetimes—from corporate lab drone to high school physics teacher to soldier to military scientist to his current position as field tech trainer—but in every one of them, one of his favorite things to do was to whack away at a near insoluble problem for hours on end. With the exception that this time he had rather fewer hours to whack away on this problem than he’d like, he was in his element.
The real problem here is the black box itself, Wilson thought, calling up what information he had on the objects. The idea of a travel data recorder had been around for centuries, and the phrase “black box” got its cachet with terrestrial air travel. Ironically, almost none of the “black boxes” of those bygone days were actually black; they were typically brightly colored to be made easy to find. The CDF wanted their black boxes found, but only by the right people. They made them as black as they could.
“Black box, black hole, black body,” Wilson said to himself.
Wilson opened his eyes and sat up.
His BrainPal pinged him; it was Schmidt. Wilson opened the connection. “How’s diplomacy?” he asked.
“Uh,” Schmidt said.
“Be right there,” Wilson said.
* * *
Captain Sophia Coloma looked every inch of what she was, which was the sort of person who was not here to put up with your shit. She stood on her bridge, imposing, eyes fixed at the portal through which Wilson stepped. Neva Balla, her executive officer, stood next to her, looking equally displeased. On the other side of the captain was Schmidt, whose studiously neutral facial expression was a testament to his diplomatic training.
“Captain,” Wilson said, saluting.
“You want a shuttle,” Coloma said, ignoring the salute. “You want a shuttle and a pilot and access to our sensor equipment.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Wilson said.
“You understand you want these as we are about to skip into what is almost certainly a hostile situation, and directly before sensitive negotiations with an alien race,” Coloma said.
“I do,” Wilson said.
“Then you can explain to me why I should prioritize your needs over the needs of every other person on this ship,” Coloma said. “As soon as we skip, I need to scan the area for any hostiles. I need to scan the area comprehensively. I’m not going to let the Clarke’s sole shuttle out of its bay before I’m absolutely certain it and we are not going to be shot out the sky.”
“Mr. Schmidt explained to you my current level of clearance, I imagine,” Wilson said.
“He did,” Coloma said. “I’ve also been informed that Ambassador Abumwe has given your needs a high priority. But this is still my ship.”
“Ma’am, are you saying that you will go against the orders of your superiors?” Wilson asked, and noticed Coloma thin her lips at this. “I’m not speaking of myself here. The orders come from far above both of us.”
“I have every intention of following orders,” Coloma said. “I also intend to follow them when it makes sense to do so. Which is after I’ve made sure we’re safe, and the ambassador and her team are squared away.”
“As far as the scanning goes, what you need to do and what I need to do dovetail,” Wilson said. “Share the data with me and run a couple of scans that I need and I’ll be fine. The scans I need to run will add another layer of security to your own scans.”
“I’ll run them after I’ve run our standard scans,” Coloma said.
“That’s fine,” Wilson said. “Now, about the shuttle—”
“No shuttle, no pilot,” Coloma said. “Not until after I’ve sent Abumwe to the Utche.”
Wilson shook his head. “I need the shuttle before then,” he said. “The ambassador told me to find and access the black box before she met with the Utche. She wanted to know whether there is a danger to them, not only us.”
“She doesn’t have authority on this,” Coloma said.
“But I do, ma’am, and I agree with her,” Wilson said. “We need to know everything we can before the Utche arrive. It’s going to put a damper on negotiations if one of us explodes. Especially if we could have avoided it. Ma’am.”
Coloma was silent.
“I’d like to make a suggestion,” Schmidt said, after a minute.
Coloma looked at Schmidt as if she’d forgotten that he was there. “What is it?” she asked.
“The reason we need the shuttle is to get the black box,” Schmidt said. “We don’t know if we can find the black box. If we don’t find it, we don’t need it. If we don’t find it within the first hour or so, then even if we found it we couldn’t retrieve it before the Utche show up and you would need the shuttle for Ambassador Abumwe’s team. So let’s say that we have the shuttle on standby for that first hour. If we find it by then, once you’re confident the area is secure, we’ll go out and get it. If we find it after, we wait until after you’ve delivered the ambassador’s team to the Utche.”
“I can live with that,” Wilson said. “If you’ll bump up my scans in your queue.”
“And if I don’t believe the area is secure?” Coloma said.
“I’ll still need to go get it,” Wilson said. “But if I know where it is, between autopilot and my BrainPal, I can go get it myself. You won’t have to risk your pilot.”
“Just the shuttle,” Coloma said. “Because that’s not in any way significant.”
“Sorry, ma’am,” Wilson said, and waited.
Coloma glanced at her executive officer. “Have Mr. Schmidt here get Neva your information. We have four hours to jump. Sometime in the next half hour will be fine.”
“Yes, Captain,” Wilson said. “Thank you, ma’am.” He saluted again. Coloma returned the salute this time. Wilson turned to go, Schmidt hustling by the captain to catch up with him.
“Lieutenant, one more thing,” Coloma said.
Wilson turned back to her. “Ma’am?”
“Just so you know, if you take the shuttle out, any damage you put on it, I’m taking out on you,” she said.
“I’ll treat it like it was my own car,” Wilson said.
“See that you do,” Coloma said. She turned away. Wilson took the hint.
“That was a nice touch about the car,” Schmidt said, once the two of them were off the bridge.
“As long as you don’t know about what happened to my last car, yes,” Wilson said.
“Relax, Hart,” Wilson said. “It was a joke. Come on. Lots to do.” He kept walking.
After a minute, Schmidt followed.
“That was XO Balla,” Schmidt said. He and Wilson were in an unused storage room, where Wilson had set up a three-dimensional monitor. They had waited out the skip into the Danavar system in its confines. “The Clarke sent out a ping using the Polk’s encrypted signal. Got nothing back.”
“Of course we didn’t,” Wilson said. “Why would the universe make it easy for us?”
“What do we do now?” Schmidt asked.
“Let me answer that question with a question,” Wilson said. “How does one look for a black box?”
“Are you serious?” Schmidt said, after a second. “We’re running out of time here and you want to have a Socratic dialogue with me?”
“I wouldn’t put this on the level of Socrates, but yeah, I do,” Wilson said. “It’s the former high school physics teacher in me. And call me crazy, but I think you’ll actually be more helpful to me if I don’t treat you like a completely useless monkey. I’m going to go on the assumption that you might have a brain.”
“Thanks,” Schmidt said.
“So, how does one look for a black box?” Wilson asked. “In particular, a black box that doesn’t want to be found?”
“Fervent prayer,” Schmidt said.
“You’re not even trying,” Wilson said, reprovingly.
“I’m new at this,” Schmidt said. “Give me a hint.”
“Fine,” Wilson said. “You start by looking for what the black box was originally attached to.”
“The Polk,” Schmidt said. “Or what’s left of it.”
“Very good, my young apprentice,” Wilson said.
Schmidt shot him a look, then continued. “But you told me that the previous scans of the area from the automated drones didn’t turn up anything.”
“True,” Wilson said. “But those were preliminary scans, done quickly. The Clarke has better sensors.” He dimmed the light in the storage room and fired up the monitor, which appeared to show nothing but a small, single dot at the center of its display.
“That’s not the Polk, is it?” Schmidt asked.
“It’s the Clarke,” Wilson said. A series of concentric circles appeared, arrayed on three axes. “And this is the area the Clarke is intensively scanning, with distance displayed logarithmically. It’s about a light-minute to the outer edge.”
“If you say so,” Schmidt said.
Wilson didn’t take the bait and instead called up another dot, close to the Clarke’s dot. “This is where the Polk was supposed to have appeared after its skip,” he said. “Let’s assume it blew up when it arrived. What would we expect to see?”
“The remains of the ship, somewhere close to where the ship was supposed to be,” Schmidt said. “But to repeat myself, the drone scans didn’t turn up anything.”
“Right,” Wilson said. “So now let’s use the Clarke’s sensor scans, and see what we get. This is using the Clarke’s standard array of LIDAR, radio and radar active scanning.”
Several yellow spheres appeared, including one near the Polk’s entry point.
“Debris,” Schmidt said, and pointed to the sphere closest to the Polk.
“It’s not conclusive,” Wilson said.
“Come on,” Schmidt said. “The correlation is pretty strong, wouldn’t you say?”
Wilson pointed to the other spheres. “What the Clarke is picking up is agglomerations of matter dense enough to reflect back its signals. These can’t all be ship debris. Maybe this one isn’t, either. Maybe it’s just what got pulled off a comet as it came through.”
“Can we get any closer?” Schmidt asked. “To the one near where the Polk was, I mean.”
“Sure,” Wilson said, and swooped the view in closer. The yellow debris sphere expanded and then disappeared, replaced by tiny points of light. “Those represent individual reflective objects,” Wilson said.
“There are a lot of them,” Schmidt said. “Which suggests to me they were part of a ship.”
“Okay,” Wilson said. “But here’s the thing. The data suggests that none of these bits of matter are much larger than your head. Most of it is the size of gravel. Even if you add them all up, they don’t come close to equaling an entire CDF frigate in mass.”
“Maybe whoever did this to the Polk didn’t want to leave evidence,” Schmidt said.
“Now you’re being paranoid,” Wilson said.
“Hey,” Schmidt said.
“No—” Wilson held up a hand. “I mean that as a compliment. And I think you’re exactly right. Whoever did in the Polk wanted to make it difficult for us to find out what happened to it.”
“If we could get to that debris field, we could take samples,” Schmidt said.
“No time,” Wilson said. “And right now finding what happened to the Polk is the means to an end. We still have to be reasonably sure this is what’s left of the Polk, though. So how do we do that?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” Schmidt said.
“Think, Hart,” Wilson said. He waved at the monitor image. “What happened to the rest of the Polk?”
“It probably got vaporized,” Schmidt said.
“Right,” Wilson said, and waited.
“Okay,” Schmidt said. “So?”
Wilson sighed. “You were raised by a tribe of chimps, weren’t you, Hart?” he asked.
“I didn’t know I’d be taking a science test today, Harry,” Schmidt said, annoyed.
“You said it already,” Wilson said. “The ship was probably vaporized. Whoever did this to the Polk took the time to cut, slice and blast into molecules most of it. But they probably didn’t cart all the atoms off with them.”
Schmidt’s eyes widened. “A big cloud of vaporized Polk,” he said.
“You got it,” Wilson said, and the display changed to show a large, amorphous blob, tentacles stretching out from the main body.
“That’s the ship?” Schmidt asked, looking at the blob.
“I’d say yes,” Wilson said. “One of the extra scans I had Captain Coloma run was a spectrographic analysis of the local neighborhood. It’s not a scan we’d usually do.”
“Why not?” Schmidt asked.
“Why would we?” Wilson said. “Searching your immediate environment for molecule-sized bits of frigate isn’t a standard protocol. Spectrographic analysis is usually reserved for science missions where someone’s sampling atmospheric gases. Spaceships themselves typically don’t have to be concerned with gases unless we’re near a planet and we have to figure out how far out the atmosphere extends. And with systems we’ve already surveyed, all that information is already in the database. I’m guessing whoever did this probably knew all of that. They weren’t concerned that an invisible cloud of metallic atoms would give them away.”
“They didn’t think we’d see it,” Schmidt said.
“And normally they’d be right,” Wilson said, and pulled out the view to capture all the other debris fields. “None of the other debris fields show the same density of molecular particles, and what particles there are aren’t the same sorts of metals we use to make our ships.” He pulled the view in again. “So this is almost certainly what’s left of the Polk, and it was almost certainly intentionally attacked and methodically destroyed.”
“Which means that someone leaked the information,” Schmidt said. “This mission was meant to be secret.”
Wilson nodded. “Yes, but that’s not anything you and I have to worry about at the moment. We’re still looking for the black box. The good news, if you want to call it that, is that this narrows down considerably the volume of space we need to search.”
“So we go back to the first scan and start picking through those remaining bits of the Polk,” Schmidt said.
“We could do that,” Wilson said. “If we had a month.”
“This is where you make me look stupid again, isn’t it,” Schmidt said.
“No, I’m going to spare you this time because the answer isn’t obvious,” Wilson said.
“That’s a relief,” Schmidt said.
“To go back to your suggestion, even if we did go through the earlier scans, we’d be unlikely to come up with anything,” Wilson said. “Remember that the CDF wants the black box to be found only by its own people.”
“That’s why the black box is black,” Schmidt said.
“Not just black, but aggressively nonreflective,” Wilson said. “Covered with a fractal coating that absorbs most radiation that hits it and scatters the rest of it. Sweep it with a sensor scan and nothing comes back directly. From the point of view of a sensor array, it doesn’t exist.”
“All right, Harry Wilson, supergenius,” Schmidt said. “If you can’t see it and can’t sweep for it, then how do you find it?”
“I’m glad you asked,” Wilson said. “When I was thinking about the black box, my brain wandered to the phrase ‘black body.’ It’s an idealized physical object that absorbs every bit of radiation thrown at it.”
“Like you said this thing does,” Schmidt said.
“Sort of,” Wilson said. “The black box is not a perfect black body; nothing is. But it reminded me that any object in the real world that absorbed all the radiation thrown at it would heat up. And then I remembered that the black box came equipped with a battery to power its processor and inertial dampener. And that the battery is not one hundred percent efficient.”
Schmidt looked at Wilson blankly.
“It’s warm, Hart,” Wilson said. “The black box had a power source. That power source leaked heat. That heat kept it relatively warm long after everything else around it entropied itself into equilibrium.”
“The battery is dead,” Schmidt said. “Even if it was warm, it wouldn’t be anymore.”
“That depends on your definition of ‘warm,’” Wilson said. “The design of the black box means that it has some areas inside of it acting like insulators. Even if the battery’s dead, it’ll take longer for the black box to reach a temperature equilibrium with space than it would if it were a solid shard of metal. I don’t need it to be warm like the inside of this room, Hart. I just need it to be a fraction of a degree warmer than everything else around it.”
The display screen flickered and the ghostly blob of attenuated Polk molecules was replaced by a thermal map that was a deep blue-black. Wilson gave the thermal map his attention.
“So you’re looking for something that’s ever so slightly above absolute zero,” Schmidt said.
“Space is actually a couple of degrees above absolute zero,” Wilson said. “Particularly inside a planetary system.”
“Seems like an irrelevant detail,” Schmidt said.
“And you call yourself a scientist,” Wilson said.
“No, I don’t,” Schmidt said.
“Good thing, then,” Wilson said.
“So what happens if it has entropied out?” Schmidt said. “If it’s the same temperature as everything else around it?”
“Well, then, we’re screwed,” Wilson said.
“I don’t love your bracing honesty,” Schmidt said.
“Ha!” Wilson said, and suddenly the image in the display pitched inward, falling vertiginously toward something that was invisible until almost the last second, and was an only slightly lighter blue-black than everything around it even then.
“Is that it?” Schmidt asked.
“Let me change the false color temperature scale,” Wilson said. The object, spherical, suddenly blossomed green.
“That’s the black box,” Schmidt said.
“It’s the right size and shape,” Wilson said. “If it’s not the black box, the universe is messing with us. There are some other warmer objects out there, but they’re not the right size profile.”
“What are they?” Schmidt asked.
Wilson shrugged. “Possibly chunks of the Polk with sealed pockets of air in them. Right now, don’t know, don’t care.” He pointed at the sphere. “This is what we came for.”
Schmidt peered closely at the image. “How much warmer is it than everything around it?” he asked.
“Point zero zero three degrees Kelvin,” Wilson said. “Another hour or two and we would never have found it.”
“Don’t tell me that,” Schmidt said. “It makes me retroactively nervous.”
“Science is built on tiny variances, my friend,” Wilson said.
“So now what?” Schmidt asked.
“Now I get to tell Captain Coloma to warm up the shuttle, and you get to tell your boss that if this mission fails, it will be because of her, not us,” Wilson said.
“I think I’ll avoid putting it that way,” Schmidt said.
“That’s why you’re the diplomat,” Wilson said.
The discussion with Captain Coloma was not entirely pleasant. She demanded a rundown of the protocol used to locate the black box, which Wilson provided, quickly, his eye on the clock. Wilson suspected the captain hadn’t expected him to locate the black box within the time allotted to him and was nonplussed when he had, and was now trying to manufacture a reason not to let him at the shuttle. In the end she couldn’t manufacture one, although for security reasons, she said, she didn’t release the shuttle pilot. Wilson wondered, if something bad happened to the shuttle while it was in his possession, what good it would do to have a shuttle pilot on board the Clarke. But in this as in many things, he let it go, smiled, saluted, and then thanked the captain for her cooperation.
The shuttle was designed for transport rather than for retrieval, which meant that Wilson would have to do some improvisation. One of the improvisations would include opening the interior of the shuttle to the hard vacuum of space, which was a prospect that did not excite Wilson, for several reasons. He pored over the shuttle specifications to see whether the thing could handle such an event; the Clarke was a diplomatic rather than a military ship, which meant it and everything in it had been constructed in civilian shipyards and possibly on different plans from those of the military ships and shuttles Wilson had become used to. Fortunately, Wilson discovered, the diplomatic shuttle, while its interior was designed with civilian needs in mind, shared the same chassis and construction as its military counterparts. A little hard vacuum wouldn’t kill it.
The same could not be said for Wilson. Vacuum would kill him, although more slowly than it would anyone else on the Clarke. Wilson had been out of combat for years, but he was still a member of the Colonial Defense Forces and still had the genetic and other improvements given to soldiers, including SmartBlood, artificial blood that carried more oxygen and allowed his body to survive significantly longer without breathing than that of an unmodified human. When Wilson first arrived on the Clarke, one of his icebreaker tricks with the diplomatic staff had been holding his breath while they clocked him with a timer; they usually got bored when he hit the five-minute mark.
Be that as it may, there was a manifest difference between holding one’s breath in the Clarke’s lounge and staying conscious while airless, cold vacuum surrounded you and the air in your body was trying to burst out of your lungs and into space. A little protection was in order.
Which is how, for the first time in more than a dozen years, Wilson found himself in his standard-issue Colonial Defense Forces combat unitard.
“That’s a new look,” Schmidt said, smiling, as Wilson walked toward the shuttle.
“That’s enough out of you,” Wilson said.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in one of those things,” Schmidt said. “I didn’t even know you had one.”
“Regulations require active-duty CDF to travel with a combat unitard even on noncombat postings,” Wilson said. “On the theory it’s a hostile universe and we should be prepared at all times to kill anyone we meet.”
“It’s an interesting philosophy,” Schmidt said. “Where’s your gun?”
“It’s not a gun,” Wilson said. “It’s an MP-35. And I left it in my storage locker. I don’t really anticipate having to shoot the black box.”
“A dicey risk,” Schmidt said.
“When I want a military assessment from you, Hart, I’ll be sure to let you know,” Wilson said.
Schmidt smiled again and then held up what he was carrying. “Maybe this will be to your liking, then,” he said. “CDF-issue hard connector with battery.”
“Thanks,” Wilson said. The black box was dead; he’d need to put a little power into it in order to wake up the transmitter.
“Are you ready to fly this thing?” Schmidt asked, nodding toward the shuttle.
“I’ve already plotted a path to the black box, and put it into the router,” Wilson said. “There’s also a standard departure routine. I’ve chained the departure routine to the predetermined path. Reverse everything on the way home. As long as I’m not required to actually try to pilot, I’ll be fine.”
* * *
What the hell? Wilson thought. On his shuttle’s forward monitor, on which he had pumped up light-source collection to see star patterns over the glare of his instrument panel, another star had become occluded. That was two in the last thirty seconds. There was some object in the path between him and the black box.
He frowned, powered the shuttle into motionlessness, and pulled up the data from the surveys he’d run on the Clarke.
He saw the object on the survey; another one of the debris chunks that had been ever so slightly warmer than the surrounding space. It was large enough that if the shuttle collided with it, there would be damage.
Looks like I have to pilot after all, Wilson thought. He was annoyed with himself that he hadn’t applied his survey data to his shuttle plot; he now had to waste time replotting his course.
“Is there a problem?” Schmidt asked, voice coming through the instrument panel.
“Everything’s fine,” Wilson said. “Something in my way. Routing around it.” The survey heat data noted the object’s size as approximately three to four meters on a side, which made it considerably larger than anything that the standard scans had picked up, but not so large that it required a major change in pathing. Wilson created a new path that dropped the shuttle 250 meters below the object and resumed travel to the black box from there, and he inserted it into the navigational router, which accepted the change without complaint. Wilson resumed his journey, watching the monitors to see the object in his way occlude a few other stars as the shuttle moved relative to it.
The shuttle arrived at the black box a few moments later. Wilson couldn’t see it with his own eyes, but after he had first located it he’d run supplementary scans that fixed its location to within about ten centimeters, which was precise enough for what he was about to do. He fired up the final navigational sequence, which made a series of minute maneuvers. This took another minute.
“Here we go,” Wilson said, and commanded his unitard to wrap around his face, which it did with a snap. Wilson hated the feeling of the unitard’s face mask; it felt as if someone had tightly duct-taped his entire head. It was simply better than the alternative in this case. Wilson’s vision was totally blocked by his face mask; his BrainPal compensated by feeding him a visual stream.
That accomplished, Wilson commanded the shuttle to air out the interior. The shuttle’s compressors sprang to life, sucking the shuttle’s air back into its tanks. Three minutes later, the interior of the shuttle had almost as little open air in it as the space surrounding it.
Wilson cut off the shuttle’s artificial gravity, unstrapped himself from the shuttle pilot chair and very gingerly pushed off toward the shuttle door, stopping himself directly in front of it and gripping the guide handle on its side to keep himself from drifting. He pressed the door release, and the door slid into the wall of the shuttle. There was an almost imperceptible whisper as the few remaining free molecules of human-friendly atmosphere rushed out the open portal.
Still holding the guide handle, Wilson reached out into space—gently!—and after a second wrapped his fingers around an object. He pulled it in.
It was the black box.
Excellent, Wilson thought, and released the guide handle to press the door button and seal the interior of the shuttle once more. He commanded the shuttle to start pumping air back into the cabin and to turn the artificial gravity back on—and nearly dropped the black box when he did. It was heavier than it looked.
After a minute, Wilson retracted his face mask and took a physically unnecessary but psychologically satisfying huge gulp of air. He walked back to the pilot’s chair, retrieved the hard connector and then spent several minutes looking at the box’s inscrutable surface, searching for the tiny hole he could plunge the connector into. He finally located it, lanced the box with the connector, felt it click into position, and waited the thirty required seconds for enough energy to transfer over and power up the black box’s receiver and transmitter.
With his BrainPal, he transmitted the encrypted signal to the black box. There was a pause, followed by a stream of information pushed into Wilson’s BrainPal fast enough that he almost felt it physically.
The last moments of the Polk.
Wilson started scanning the information with his BrainPal as quickly as he could begin opening the data.
In less than a minute, he confirmed what they already strongly suspected: that the Polk had been attacked and destroyed in the battle.
A minute after that, he learned that one escape pod had been launched from the Polk but that it appeared to have been destroyed less than ten seconds before the black box itself had been launched, cutting out its own data feed. Wilson guessed that the occupant of the escape pod would have been the mission ambassador or someone on her staff.
Three minutes after that, he learned something else.
“Oh shit,” Wilson said, out loud.
“I just heard an ‘Oh shit,’” Schmidt said, from the instrument panel.
“Hart, you need to get Abumwe and Coloma on the line, right now,” Wilson said.
“The ambassador’s in her preparatory briefings right now,” Schmidt said. “She’s not going to want to be interrupted.”
“She’s going to be a lot more upset with you if you don’t interrupt her,” Wilson said. “Trust me on this.”
* * *
“The Polk was attacked by what?” Abumwe said. She and Coloma were tied into a conference video, Coloma from her ready room and Abumwe from a spare conference room Schmidt had almost had to drag her into.
“By at least fifteen Melierax Series Seven ship-to-ship missiles,” Wilson said, talking into the pilot instrument panel and the small camera there. “It could have been more, because data started getting sketchy after enough systems failed. But it was at least fifteen.”
“Why does it matter what type of missiles destroyed the Polk?” Abumwe asked, irritated.
Wilson glanced over to the image of Captain Coloma, who looked ashen. She got it, at least. “Because, Ambassador, Melierax Series Seven ship-to-ship missiles are made by the Colonial Union,” Wilson said. “The Polk was attacked with our own missiles.”
“That’s not possible,” Abumwe said, after a moment.
“The data says otherwise,” Wilson said, choosing not to go on a rant about the stupidity of the phrase “that’s not possible,” because it would likely be counterproductive at this point.
“The data could be incorrect,” Abumwe said.
“With respect, Ambassador, the CDF has gotten very good at figuring out what things are being shot at them,” Wilson said. “If the Polk confirmed the missiles as being Melierax type, it’s because it was able to identify them across several confirming points, including shape, size, scan profile, thrust signature and so on. The likelihood of them not being Melierax Series Seven is small.”
“What do we know about the ship?” Coloma said. “The one that fired on the Polk.”
“Not a lot,” Wilson said. “It didn’t identify itself, and other than a basic scan the Polk didn’t spend any time on it. It was roughly the same size as the Polk itself, we can see that from its survey signature. Other than that, there’s not much to go on.”
“Did the Polk fire back on the ship?” Coloma asked.
“It got off at least four missiles,” Wilson said. “Also Melierax Series Seven. There’s no data on whether they hit their target.”
“I don’t understand,” Abumwe said. “Why would we attack and destroy one of our own ships?”
“We don’t know if it was one of our own ships,” Coloma said. “Just that it was our own missiles.”
“That’s right,” Wilson said, and raised his finger to rebut.
“It’s possible that we sold the missiles to another race,” Coloma said. “Who then attacked us.”
“It possible, but there are two things to consider here,” Wilson said. “The first is that most of our weapon trades are for higher-end technology. Any one race who can make a spaceship can make a missile. The Melierax Series are bread-and-butter missiles. Every other race has missiles just like it. The second is that these are ostensibly secret negotiations. In order to hit us, someone had to know we were here.” Coloma opened her mouth. “And to anticipate the next question, we haven’t sold any Melierax missiles to the Utche,” Wilson said. Coloma closed her mouth and stared stonily.
“So we have a mystery ship targeting the Colonial Union with our own missiles,” Abumwe said.
“Yes,” Wilson said.
“Then where are they now?” Abumwe said. “Why aren’t we under attack?”
“They didn’t know we were coming,” Wilson said. “We were diverted to this mission at the last minute. It would usually take the Colonial Union several days at least to have a new mission in place. By which time these particular negotiations would have failed, because we weren’t there for them.”
“Someone destroyed an entire ship just to foul up diplomatic negotiations?” Coloma said. “This is your theory?”
“It’s a guess,” Wilson said. “I don’t pretend that I know enough about this situation to be correct. But I think regardless we have to make the Colonial Union aware of what happened here as soon as possible. Captain, I’ve already transferred the data to the Clarke’s computers. I strongly suggest we send a skip drone with it and my preliminary analysis back to Phoenix immediately.”
“Agreed,” Abumwe said.
“I’ll have it done as soon as I’m off this call,” Coloma said. “Now, Lieutenant, I want you and the shuttle back on the Clarke immediately. With all due respect to Ambassador Abumwe, I’m not entirely convinced there’s not still a threat out there. Get back here. We’ll be under way as soon as you are.”
“What?” Abumwe said. “We still have a mission. I still have a mission. We’re here to negotiate with the Utche.”
“Ambassador, the Clarke is a diplomatic vessel,” Coloma said. “We have no offensive weapons and only a bare minimum of defensive capability. We’ve confirmed the Polk was attacked. It’s possible whoever attacked the Polk is still out there. We’re sending this data to Phoenix. They will alert the Utche of the situation, which means they will almost certainly call off their ship. There is no negotiation to be had.”
“You don’t know that,” Abumwe said. “It might take them hours to process the information. We are less than three hours from when the Utche are meant to arrive. Even if we were to leave, we will still be in system when they arrive, which means the first thing they would see is us running away.”
“It’s not running away,” Coloma said, sharply. “And this is not your decision to make, Ambassador. I am captain of the ship.”
“A diplomatic ship,” Abumwe said. “On which I am the chief diplomat.”
“Ambassador, Captain,” Wilson said, “do I need to be here for this part of the conversation?”
Wilson saw the two simultaneously reach toward their screens. Both of their images shut off.
“That would be ‘no,’” Wilson said, to himself.
Something was nagging at Wilson as he punched in the return route to the Clarke. The Polk had been hit at least fifteen times by ship-to-ship missiles, but before any of them had hit, there had been an earlier explosion that had shaken the ship. But the data had not recorded any event leading up to the explosion; the ship had skipped, made an initial scan of the immediate area and then everything was perfectly normal until the initial explosion. Once it happened everything went to hell, quickly. But beforehand, nothing. There had been nothing to indicate anything out of the ordinary.
The shuttle’s navigational router accepted the path back and started to move. Wilson strapped himself into his seat and relaxed. He would be back on the Clarke shortly, by which time he assumed that either Coloma or Abumwe would have emerged victorious from their power struggle. Wilson had no personal preference in who won; he could see the merit in both arguments, and both of them appeared to dislike him equally, so neither had an advantage there.
I did what I was supposed to do, Wilson thought, and glanced over to the black box on the passenger seat, looking like a dark, matte, light-absorbing hole in the chair.
Something clicked in his head.
“Holy shit,” Wilson said, and slapped the shuttle into immobility.
“You said ‘shit’ again,” Wilson heard Schmidt say. “And now you’re not moving.”
“I just had a very interesting thought,” Wilson said.
“You can’t have this thought while you are bringing the shuttle back?” Schmidt said. “Captain Coloma was very specific about returning it.”
“Hart, I’m going to talk to you in a bit,” Wilson said.
“What are you going to do?” Schmidt asked.
“You probably don’t want to know,” Wilson said. “It’s best you don’t know. I want to make sure you have plausible deniability.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Schmidt said.
“Exactly,” Wilson said, and cut his connection to his friend.
A few minutes later, Wilson floated weightless inside the airless cabin of the shuttle, face masked, holding the guide handle next to the shuttle door. He slapped the door release button.
And saw nothing outside.
Which is not as it should have been; Wilson’s BrainPal should have picked up and enhanced starlight within visible wavelengths. He was getting nothing.
Wilson reached out with the hand not gripping the guide handle. Nothing. He repositioned himself, bringing his body mostly outside of the door, and reached again. This time there was something there.
Something big and black and invisible.
Hello, Wilson thought. What the hell are you?
The big, black, invisible thing did not respond.
Wilson pinged his BrainPal for two things. The first was to see how long it had been since his face mask had gone on; it was roughly two minutes. He’d have just about five minutes before his body started screaming at him for air. The second was to adjust the properties of the nanobotic cloth of his combat unitard to run a slight electric current through his unitard’s hands, soles and knees, the current powered by his own body heat and friction generated through movement. That achieved, he reached out again toward the the big, black, invisible object.
His hand clung to it, lightly. Hooray for magnetism, Wilson thought.
Moving slowly so as not to accidentally and fatally launch himself into space, Wilson left the shuttle to go exploring.
* * *
“We have a problem,” Wilson said. He was back on the conference call with Coloma and Abumwe. Schmidt hovered behind Abumwe, silent.
“You have a problem,” Coloma said. “You were ordered to return that shuttle forty minutes ago.”
“We have a different problem,” Wilson said. “I’ve found a missile out here. It’s armed. It’s waiting for the Utche. And it’s one of ours.”
“Excuse me?” Coloma said, after a moment.
“It’s another Melierax Series Seven,” Wilson said, and held up the black box. “It’s housed in a small silo that’s covered in the same wavelength-absorbing material this thing is. When you run the standard scans, you won’t see it. Hart and I only saw it because we ran a highly-sensitive thermal scan when we were looking for the black box, and even then we didn’t give it any thought because it wasn’t what we were looking for. When I was looking through the Polk data, there was an explosion that seemed to come out of nowhere, before the Polk was attacked by the ship and missiles we could see. My brain put two and two together. I passed by this thing on the way to black box. I stopped this time to get a closer look.”
“You said it’s waiting for the Utche,” Abumwe said.
“Yes,” Wilson said.
“How do you know that?” Abumwe asked.
“I hacked into the missile,” Wilson said. “I got inside the silo, pried open the missile control panel and then used this.” He held up the CDF standard connector.
“You went on a spacewalk?” Schmidt said, over Abumwe’s shoulder. “Are you completely insane?”
“I went on three,” Wilson said as Abumwe turned to glare at Schmidt. “I was limited by how long I could hold my breath.”
“You hacked into the missile,” Coloma said, returning to the subject.
“Right,” Wilson said. “The missile is armed and it’s waiting for a signal from the Utche ship.”
“What signal?” Coloma asked.
“I think it’s when the Utche ship hails us,” Wilson said. “The Utche send their ship-to-ship communications on certain frequencies, different from the ones we typically use. This missile is programmed to home in on ships using those frequencies. Ergo, it’s waiting for the Utche.”
“To what end?” Abumwe asked.
“Isn’t it obvious?” Wilson said. “The Utche are attacked by a Colonial Defense Forces missile, and are damaged or destroyed. The original Colonial Union diplomatic mission was traveling by CDF frigate. It would look like we attacked the Utche. Negotiations broken off, diplomacy over, the Colonial Union and the Utche back at each other’s throats.”
“But the Polk was destroyed,” Coloma said.
“I’ve been thinking about that,” Wilson said. “The information I was sent by the CDF about the Polk’s mission said it was slated to arrive seventy-four hours prior to the scheduled Utche arrival. The black box data stream has the Polk arriving eighty hours prior to the scheduled Utche arrival.”
“You think they arrived early and caught someone setting the trap,” Coloma said.
“I don’t know about ‘caught,’” Wilson said. “I think whoever it was was in the process of setting the trap and then was surprised by the Polk’s arrival.”
“You just said these things were looking for the Utche,” Abumwe said. “But it sounds like one of them hit the Polk, too.”
“If the people setting the trap were nearby, it would be trivial to change the programming of the missile,” Wilson said. “It’s set to receive. And once the thing hit the Polk, it would be too busy focusing on that to pay much attention when a strange ship popped up on its sensors. Until it was too late.”
“The early arrival of the Polk ruined their plans,” Coloma said. “Why is this thing still out there?”
“I think it changed their plans,” Wilson said. “They had to kill the Polk when it arrived early, and they had to get rid of as much of it as possible to leave in doubt what happened to it. But as long as there’s enough CDF missile debris among the wreckage of the Utche ship, then mission accomplished. Having the Polk go missing works just fine with that, since it looks like the CDF is hiding the ship, rather than presenting it to prove the missiles didn’t come from it.”
“But we know what happened to the Polk,” Abumwe said.
“They don’t know that,” Wilson pointed out. “Whoever they are. We’re the wild card in the deck. And it doesn’t change the fact that the Utche are still a target.”
“Have you disabled the missile?” Coloma asked.
“No,” Wilson said. “I was able to read the missile’s instruction set, but I can’t do anything to change it. I’m locked out of that. And I don’t have any tools with me that can disable it. But even if I disabled this one, there are others out there. Hart’s and my heat map shows four more of these things out there beside this one. We have less than an hour before the Utche are scheduled to arrive. There’s no way to physically disable them in time.”
“So we’re helpless to stop the attack,” Abumwe said.
“No, wait,” Coloma said. “You said there’s no way to physically disable them. Do you have another way to disable them?”
“I think I might have a way to destroy them,” Wilson said.
“Tell us,” Coloma said.
“You’re not going to like it,” Wilson said.
“Will I like it better than us standing by while the Utche are attacked and then we are framed for it?” Coloma said.
“I’d like to think so,” Wilson said.
“Then tell us,” Coloma said.
“It involves the shuttle,” Wilson said.
Coloma threw up her hands. “Of course it does,” she said.
“Here—” Schmidt thrust a small container and a mask into Wilson’s hands. “Supplementary oxygen. For a normal person that’s about twenty minutes’ worth. I don’t know what that would be for you.”
“About two hours,” Wilson said. “More than enough time. And the other thing?”
“I got it,” Schmidt said, and held up another object, not much larger than the oxygen container. “High-density, quick-discharge battery. Straight from the engine room. It required the direct intervention of Captain Coloma, by the way. Chief Engineer Basquez was not pleased to be relieved of it.”
“If everything goes well, he’ll have it back soon,” Wilson said.
“And if everything doesn’t go well?” Schmidt asked.
“Then we’ll all have bigger problems, won’t we,” Wilson said.
They both looked at the shuttle, which Wilson was about to reenter after a brief pit stop in the Clarke’s bay.
“You really are insane, you know that,” Schmidt said, after a moment.
“I always think it’s funny when people get told what they are by other people,” Wilson said. “As if they didn’t already know.”
“We could just set the autopilot on the shuttle,” Schmidt said. “Send it out that way.”
“We could,” Wilson said. “If a shuttle was like a mechanical vehicle you could send on its way by tying a brick to its accelerator pedal. But it’s not. It’s designed to have a human at the controls. Even on autopilot.”
“You could alter the programming on the shuttle,” Schmidt said.
“We have roughly fifteen minutes before the Utche arrive,” Wilson said. “I appreciate the vote of confidence in my skills, but no. There’s no time. And we need to do more than just send it out, anyway.”
“Insane,” Schmidt reiterated.
“Relax, Hart,” Wilson said. “For my sake. You’re making me twitchy.”
“Sorry,” Schmidt said.
“It’s all right,” Wilson said. “Now, tell me what you’re going to do after I leave.”
“I’m going to the bridge,” Schmidt said. “If you’re not successful for any reason, I will have the Clarke send out a message on our frequencies warning the Utche of the trap, to not confirm the message or to broadcast anything on their native communication bands, and request that they get the hell out of Danavar space as quickly as possible. I’m to invoke your security clearance to the captain if there are any problems.”
“That’s very good,” Wilson said.
“Thank you for the virtual pat on the head, there,” Schmidt said.
“I do it out of love,” Wilson assured him.
“Right,” Schmidt said dryly, and then looked over at the shuttle again. “Do you think this is actually going to work?” he asked.
“I look at it this way,” Wilson said. “Even if it doesn’t work, we have proof we did everything we could to stop the attack on the Utche. That’s going to count for something.”
* * *
Wilson entered the shuttle, fired up the launch sequence and while it was running took the high-density battery and connected it to the Polk’s black box. The battery immediately started draining into the black box’s own power storage.
“Here we go,” Wilson said for the second time that day. The shuttle eased out of the Clarke’s bay.
Schmidt had been right: This all would have been a lot easier if the shuttle could have been piloted remotely. There was no physical bar to it; humans had been remote-piloting vehicles for centuries. But the Colonial Union insisted on a human pilot for transport shuttles for roughly the same reason the Colonial Defense Forces required a BrainPal signal to fire an Empee rifle: to make sure only the right people were using them, for the right purposes. Modifying the shuttle flight software to take the human presence out of the equation would not only require a substantial amount of time, but would also technically be classified as treason.
Wilson preferred not to engage in treason if he could avoid it. And so here he was, on the shuttle, about to do something stupid.
On the shuttle display, Wilson called up the heat map he’d created, and a timer. The heat map registered each of the suspect missile silos; the timer counted down until the scheduled arrival of the Utche, now less than ten minutes away. From the mission data given to Ambassador Abumwe, Wilson had a rough idea of where the Utche planned to skip into Danavar space. He plotted the shuttle in another direction entirely and opened up the throttle to put sufficient distance between himself and the Clarke, counting the kilometers until he reached what he estimated to be a good, safe distance.
Now for the tricky part, Wilson thought, and tapped his instrument panel to start broadcasting a signal on the Utche’s communication bands.
“Come out, come out, wherever you are,” Wilson said to the missiles.
The missiles did not hear Wilson. They heard the shuttle’s signal instead and erupted from their silos, one, two, three, four, five. Wilson saw them twice, first on the shuttle’s monitor and second through the Clarke’s sensor data, ported into his BrainPal.
“Five missiles on you, locked and tracking,” Wilson heard Schmidt say, through the instrument panel.
“Come on, let’s play,” Wilson said, and pushed the shuttle as fast as it would go. It was not as fast as the missiles could go, but that wasn’t the point. The point was twofold. First, to get the missiles as far away from where the Utche would be as possible. Second, to get the missiles spaced so that the explosion from the first missile on the shuttle would destroy all the other missiles, moving too quickly to avoid being damaged.
To manage that, Wilson had broadcast his signal from a point as close to equidistant to all five silos as could be managed and still be a safe distance from the Clarke. If everything worked out correctly, the missile impacts would be within a second of each other.
Wilson looked at the missile tracks. So far, so good. He had roughly a minute before the first impact. More than enough time.
Wilson unstrapped himself from the pilot seat, picked up the oxygen container, secured it on his unitard combat belt and fastened the mask over his mouth and nose. He ordered his combat unitard to close over his face, sealing the mask in. He picked up the black box and pinged its charge status; it was at 80 percent, which Wilson guessed would have to be good enough. He disconnected it from the external battery and then walked to the shuttle door, carrying the black box in one hand and the battery in the other. He positioned himself at what he hoped was the right spot, took a very deep breath and chucked the battery at the door release button. It hit square on and the door slid open.
Explosive decompression sucked Wilson out the door a fraction of a second earlier than he expected. He missed braining himself on the still-opening door by about a millimeter.
Wilson tumbled away from the shuttle on the vector the decompressing air had placed him but kept pace with the shuttle in terms of its forward motion, a testament to fundamental Newtonian physics. This was going to be bad news in roughly forty seconds, when the first missile hit the shuttle; even without an atmosphere to create a shock wave that would turn his innards to jelly, Wilson could still be fried and punctured by shrapnel.
He looked down at the Polk’s black box, tightly gripped close to his abdomen, and sent it a signal that informed it that it had been ejected from a spaceship. Then, despite the fact that his visual feed was now being handled by his BrainPal, he closed his eyes to fight the vertigo of the stars wheeling haphazardly around him. The BrainPal, interpreting this correctly, cut off the outside feed and provided Wilson with a tactical display instead. Wilson waited.
Do your thing, baby, he thought to the black box.
The black box got the signal. Wilson felt a snap as the black box’s inertial field factored his mass into its calculus and tightened around him. On the tactical display coming from his BrainPal, Wilson saw the representation of the shuttle pull away from him with increasing speed, and saw the missiles flash by his position, their velocity increasing toward the shuttle even as his was decreasing. Within a few seconds, he had slowed sufficiently that he was no longer in immediate danger of the shuttle impact.
In all, his little plan had worked out reasonably well so far.
Let’s still not ever do this again, Wilson said to himself.
Agreed, himself said back.
“First impact in ten seconds,” Wilson heard Schmidt say, via his BrainPal. Wilson had his BrainPal present him with a stabilized, enhanced visual of outside space and watched as the now invisible missiles bore down on the hapless, also invisible shuttle.
There was a series of short, sharp light bursts, like tiny firecrackers going off two streets away.
“Impact,” Schmidt said. Wilson smiled.
“Shit,” Schmidt said. Wilson stopped smiling and snapped up his BrainPal tactical display.
The shuttle and four of the missiles had been destroyed. One missile had survived and was casting about for a target.
On the periphery of the tactical display, a new object appeared. It was the Kaligm. The Utche had arrived.
Send that message to the Utche NOW, Wilson subvocalized to Schmidt, and the BrainPal transmuted it to a reasonable facsimile of Wilson’s own voice.
“Captain Coloma refuses,” Schmidt said a second later.
What? Wilson sent. Tell her it’s an order. Invoke my security clearance. Do it now.
“She says to shut up, you’re distracting her,” Schmidt said.
Distracting her from what? Wilson sent.
The Clarke started broadcasting a warning to the Utche, warning them of the missile attack, telling them to be silent and to leave Danavar space.
On the Utche’s broadcast bands.
The last missile locked on and thrust itself toward the Clarke.
Oh, God, Wilson thought, and his BrainPal sent the thought to Schmidt.
“Thirty seconds to impact,” Schmidt said.
“Twenty seconds …
“This is it, Harry.”
Wilson estimated he had fifteen minutes of air left when the Utche shuttle sidled up to his position and opened an outside airlock for him. On the inside, a space-suited Utche guided him in, closed the airlock and, when the air cycle had finished, opened the inner seal to the shuttle. Wilson unsealed his head, took off the oxygen mask, inhaled and then suppressed his gag reflex. Utche did not smell particularly wonderful to humans. He looked up and saw several Utche looking at him curiously.
“Hi,” he said, to no one of them in particular.
“Are you well?” one of them asked, in a voice that sounded as if it were being spoken while inhaling.
“I’m fine,” Wilson said. “How is the Clarke?”
“You are asking of your ship,” said another, in a similar inward-breathing voice.
“Yes,” Wilson said.
“It is most damaged,” said the first one.
“Are there dead?” Wilson asked. “Are there injured?”
“You are a soldier,” the second one said. “May you understand our language? It would be easier to say there.”
Wilson nodded and booted up the Utche translation routine he’d received with the Clarke’s new orders. “Speak your own language,” he said. “I will respond in mine.”
“I am Ambassador Suel,” the second one said. As the ambassador spoke, a second voice superimposed and spoke in English. “We don’t yet know the extent of the damage to your ship or the casualties because we only just now reestablished communication, and that through an emergency transmitter on the Clarke. When we reestablished contact we intended to offer assistance and to bring your crew onto our ship. But Ambassador Abumwe insisted that we must first retrieve you before we came to the Clarke. She was most insistent.”
“As I was about to run out of oxygen, I appreciate her insistence,” Wilson said.
“I am Sub-Ambassador Dorb,” said the first Utche. “Would you tell us how you came to be floating out here in space without a ship around you?”
“I had a ship,” Wilson said. “It was eaten by a school of missiles.”
“I am afraid I don’t understand what you mean by that,” Dorb said, after a glance to his (her? its?) boss.
“I will be happy to explain,” Wilson said. “I would be even happier to explain on the way to the Clarke.”
* * *
Abumwe, Coloma and Schmidt, as well as the majority of the Clarke’s diplomatic mission, were on hand when the Utche shuttle door irised open and Ambassadors Suel and Dorb exited, with Wilson directly behind.
“Ambassador Suel,” Abumwe said, and a device attached to a lanyard translated for her. She bowed. “I am Ambassador Ode Abumwe. I apologize for the lack of live translator.”
“Ambassador Abumwe,” Suel said in his own language, and returned the bow. “No apology is needed. Your Lieutenant Wilson has very quickly briefed us on how it is you have come to be here in place of Ambassador Bair, and what you and the crew of the Clarke have done on our behalf. We will of course have to confirm the data for ourselves, but in the meantime I wish to convey our gratitude.”
“Your gratitude is appreciated but not required,” Abumwe said. “We have done only what was necessary. As to the data”—Abumwe nodded to Schmidt, who came forward and presented a data card to Dorb—“on that data card you will find both the black box recordings of the Polk and all the data recorded by us since we arrived in Danavar space. We wish to be open and direct with you and leave no doubt of our intentions or deeds during these negotiations.”
Wilson blinked at this; black box data and the Clarke data records were almost certainly classified materials. Abumwe was taking a hell of a risk offering them up to the Utche prior to a signed treaty. He glanced at Abumwe, whose expression was unreadable; whatever else she was, she was in full diplomatic mode now.
“Thank you, Ambassador,” Suel said. “But I wonder if we should not suspend these negotiations for the time being. Your ship is damaged and you undoubtedly have casualties among your crew. Your focus should be on your own people. We would of course stand ready to assist.”
Captain Coloma stepped forward and saluted Suel. “Captain Sophia Coloma,” she said. “Welcome to the Clarke, Ambassador.”
“Thank you, Captain,” the ambassador said.
“Ambassador, the Clarke is damaged and will require repair, but her life support and energy systems are stable,” Coloma said. “We had a brief time to model and prepare for the missile strike and because of it were able to sustain the strike with minimal casualties and no deaths. While we will welcome your assistance, particularly with our communications systems, at this point we are in no immediate danger. Please do not let us be a hindrance to your negotiations.”
“That is good to hear,” Suel said. “Even so—”
“Ambassador, if I may,” Abumwe said. “The crew of the Clarke risked everything, including their own lives, so that you and your crew might be safe and that we might secure this treaty. This man on my staff”—Abumwe nodded toward Wilson—“let four missiles chase him down and escaped death by throwing himself out of a shuttle and into the cold vacuum of space. It would be disrespectful of us to allow their efforts to be repaid with a postponement of our work.”
Suel and Dorb looked over to Wilson, as if to get his thought on the matter. Wilson glanced over to Abumwe, who was expressionless.
“Well, I sure as hell don’t want to have to come back here again,” he said, to Suel and Dorb.
Suel and Dorb stared at him for a moment, and then made a sound that Wilson’s BrainPal translated as [laughter].
* * *
Twenty minutes later, the Utche shuttle left the Clarke with Abumwe and her diplomatic team aboard. From the shuttle bay control room, Coloma, Wilson and Schmidt watched it depart.
“Thank Christ that’s over,” Coloma said, as it cleared the bay. She pivoted to return to the bridge, without looking at Wilson or Schmidt.
“The ship’s not really secure, is it,” Wilson said, to her back.
“Of course it’s not,” she said, turning back. “The only true thing I said was that we had no deaths, although it’s probably more accurate to say that we don’t have any deaths yet. As for the rest of it, our life support and energy systems are hanging by a thread, most of the other systems are dead or failing, and it will be a miracle if the Clarke ever moves from this spot under her own power. And to top it all off, some idiot destroyed our shuttle.”
“Sorry about that,” Wilson said.
“Hmmm,” Coloma said. She started to turn again.
“It was a very great thing, to risk your ship for the Utche,” Wilson said. “I didn’t ask you to do that. That came from you, Captain Coloma. It’s a victory, if you ask me. Ma’am.”
Coloma paused for a second and then walked off, with no response.
“I don’t think she likes me much,” Wilson said, to Schmidt.
“Your charm is best described as idiosyncratic,” Schmidt said.
“So why do you like me?” Wilson said.
“I don’t think I’ve actually ever admitted to liking you,” Schmidt said.
“Now that you mention it, I think you may be right,” Wilson said.
“You’re not boring,” Schmidt said.
“Which is what you like most about me,” Wilson said.
“No, boring is good,” Schmidt said, and waved his hand around the shuttle bay. “This is the shit that’s going to kill me.”
Colonel Abel Rigney and Colonel Liz Egan sat in a hole-in-the-wall commissary at Phoenix Station, eating cheeseburgers.
“These are fantastic cheeseburgers,” Rigney said.
“They’re even better when you have a genetically-engineered body that never gets fat,” Egan said. She took another bite of her burger.
“True,” Rigney said. “Maybe I’ll have another.”
“Do,” Egan said. “Test your metabolism.”
“So, you read the report,” Rigney said to Egan between his own bites.
“All I do is read reports,” Egan said. “Read reports and scare midlevel bureaucrats. Which report are we talking about?”
“The one on the final round of negotiations with the Utche,” Rigney said. “With the Clarke, and Ambassador Abumwe and Lieutenant Wilson.”
“I did,” Egan said.
“What’s the final disposition of the Clarke?” Rigney asked.
“What did you find out about those missile fragments?” Egan asked.
“I asked you first,” Rigney said.
“And I’m not in the second grade, so that tactic doesn’t work with me,” Egan said, and took another bite.
“We took a chunk of missile your dockworkers fished out of the Clarke and found a part number on it. The missile tracks back to a frigate called the Brainerd. This particular missile was reported launched and destroyed in a live-fire training exercise eighteen months ago. All the data I’ve seen confirms the official story,” Rigney said.
“So we have ghost missiles being used by mystery ships to undermine secret diplomatic negotiations,” Egan said.
“That’s about the size of it,” Rigney said. He set down his burger.
“Secretary Galeano isn’t going to be very pleased that one of our own missiles was used to severely damage one of her department’s ships,” Egan said.
“That’s all right,” Rigney said. “My bosses aren’t very pleased that a mole in the Department of State told whoever was using our own missiles against your ship where that ship was going to be and with whom it was negotiating.”
“You have evidence of that?” Egan asked.
“No,” Rigney said. “But we have pretty good evidence that the Utche sprung no leaks. The process of elimination applies from there.”
“I’d like to see that evidence about the Utche,” Egan said.
“I’d like to show it to you,” Rigney said. “But you have a mole problem.”
Egan looked at Rigney narrowly. “You better smile when you say that, Abel,” she said.
“To be clear,” Rigney said, “I would—and have, you’ll recall from our combat days—trust you with my life. It’s not you I’m worried about. It’s everyone else in your department. Someone with a high enough security clearance to know about the Utche talks is engaging in treason, Liz. Selling us out to our enemies. Which enemies, we don’t know. But our friends don’t blow up one of our ships and try to go after a second.”
Egan said nothing to this, choosing to stab a fry into ketchup instead.
“Which brings us back to the Clarke,” Rigney said. “How is the ship?”
“We’re trying to decide which will cost less, a complete rehaul or scrapping it and building a new ship,” Egan said. “If we scrap it, at the very least we recoup the salvage value.”
“That bad,” Rigney said.
“The CDF makes excellent ship-to-ship missiles,” Egan said. “Why do you ask?”
“For a B-team, Abumwe and her team were pretty impressive, don’t you think?” Rigney said.
“They did all right,” Egan said.
“Really,” Rigney said, and held up a hand to start ticking off points on his fingers. “Wilson and Schmidt develop a new protocol for locating powerless CDF black boxes and retrieve data revealing what happened to the Polk. Then Wilson takes multiple spacewalks clad only in a CDF combat unitard and discovers a plan to destroy the Utche diplomatic mission with our missiles. He destroys four of those missiles and then Captain Coloma sacrifices her own ship to make sure the last missile doesn’t hit the Utche. Coloma then flat-out lies to the Utche about the state of her ship to make sure Abumwe has a shot at the negotiations, and Abumwe basically strong-arms the Utche—the Utche—into completing their negotiations. Which they do, with only a day’s preparation.”
“They did all right,” Egan said again.
“What more would you like them to do?” Rigney asked. “Walk on water?”
“Where is this going, Abel?” Egan asked.
“You said the most notable negotiation these folks did before this was another situation where they were forced to think on their feet and improvise,” Rigney said. “Has it occurred to you that the reason Abumwe and her people are on your B-list is not because they’re not good at what they do, but because you’re not putting them in the right situations?”
“We didn’t know these negotiations were going to be the ‘right’ situation,” Egan said.
“No, but now you know what are the right situations for them,” Rigney said. “High-risk, high-reward situations where the path to success isn’t laid out but has to be cut by machete through a jungle filled with poison toads.”
“The poison toads are a nice touch,” Egan said, reaching for another french fry.
“You see what I’m getting at,” Rigney said.
“I do,” Egan said. “But I’m not entirely sure I’m going to be able to convince the secretary that a bunch of B-listers is who she wants for high-risk, high-reward missions.”
“Not all of them,” Rigney said. “Just the ones where the usual diplomatic bullshit won’t work.”
“Why do you care?” Egan said. “You seem awfully passionate about a bunch of people you had no idea existed just a week ago.”
“You say it yourself every time you scare your State Department middle managers,” Rigney said. “We’re running out of time. We don’t have the Earth anymore, and we need more friends than we’ve got if we’re going to survive. Part of that can be something like the Clarke crew already is—a fire team we parachute in when nothing else is working.”
“And when they fail?” Egan said.
“Then they fail in a situation where failure is an expected outcome,” Rigney said. “But if they succeed, then we’re much better off.”
“If we appoint them to be this ‘fire team,’ as you say, then we’re already raising expectations for whatever they do,” Egan said.
“There’s a simple solution for that,” Rigney said. “Don’t tell them they’re a fire team.”
“How awfully cruel,” Egan said.
Rigney shrugged. “Abumwe and her people are already aware that they’re not at the grown-ups’ table,” he said. “Why do you think she browbeat the Utche into negotiations? She knows an opportunity when she sees it. She wants those opportunities, and she and her team are going to beat their brains in to get them.”
“And destroy their ships to get them, apparently,” Egan said. “This fire team idea of yours could get expensive, fast.”
“What’s the plan for the Clarke’s crew?” Rigney asked.
“It hasn’t been decided,” Egan said. “We might put Abumwe and her diplomatic team on a different ship. Coloma’s going to have to face an inquiry about intentionally putting her ship in the path of a missile. She’s going to get cleared, but it’s still a process. Wilson’s on loan from CDF Research and Development. Presumably at some point they’re going to want him back.”
“Do you think you could put any decisions on the Clarke’s crew on hold for a few weeks?” Rigney asked.
“You seem awfully excited about these people,” Egan said. “But even if I did put them in career limbo for your own amusement, there’s no guarantee the secretary would sign off on your ‘fire team’ concept.”
“Would it help if the CDF had a list of fires it would prefer to be put out through diplomacy than gunfire?” Rigney asked.
“Ah,” Egan said. “Now we’re getting to it. And I can already tell you how that idea’s going to go over. When I first joined the secretary’s team as CDF liaison, it took her six weeks to have a conversation with me longer than three words, all monosyllables. If I come to her with a list of requests from the CDF and a handpicked team, she’ll communicate to me with grunts.”
“All the more reason to use this team,” Rigney said. “It’s full of nobodies. She’ll think she’s screwing us. Tell her about the request and then suggest these people. It’ll work brilliantly.”
“Would you like me to ask her not to throw you in the briar patch while I’m at it?” Egan asked.
“Just this one request for now,” Rigney said.
Egan was quiet for a few moments as she picked at her fries. Rigney finished his burger and waited.
“I’ll take her temperature on it,” Egan said, finally. “But if I were you, I wouldn’t get my hopes up.”
“I never get my hopes up,” Rigney said. “It’s how I’ve lived this long.”
“And in the meantime I’ll keep the Clarke crew from being reassigned elsewhere,” Egan said.
“Thank you,” Rigney said.
“You owe me,” Egan said.
“Of course I do,” Rigney said.
“Now I have to go,” Egan said, pushing up from the table. “More children to scare.”
“You have fun with that,” Rigney said.
“You know I do,” Egan said. She turned to go.
“Hey, Liz,” Rigney said. “That estimate you give the kids, the one about humans having thirty years before we’re extinct. How much exaggeration is in that?”
“Do you want the truth?” Egan asked.
“Yes,” Rigney said.
“Almost none at all,” Egan said. “If anything, it’s optimistic.”
She left. Rigney stared at the remains of their meal.
“Well, hell,” he said. “If we’re doomed, maybe I will have that second cheeseburger after all.”
Copyright © 2013 by John Scalzi