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The Cause of Death

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The Cause of Death

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Author: Roger MacBride Allen
Publisher: Bantam Spectra, 2006
Series: Bureau of Special Investigations: Book 1

1. The Cause of Death
2. Death Sentence
3. Final Inquiries

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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They are the elite agents of interstellar investigation. Their mission: solve off-Earth crimes and protect humanity's starside interests. They are the men and women of the Bureau of Special Investigations-BSI-and their cases are literally out of this world.

The message was garbled, but it appeared to be a simple enough request: escort a human prisoner convicted of murder back to Earth for punishment. But when BSI agents Jamie Mendez and Hannah Wolfson arrive on a planet settled by the enigmatic Pavlat, it seems that everyone is determined to kill them before they can complete their mission-or even find out what it is. And on a planet where murder is a time-honored tradition, Death is a cause everyone believes in. Mendez and Wolfson must find a way to untangle the web of Pavlavian intrigue obscuring the case and sort out what's really going on. But there's far more than just one man's life at stake-and soon they'll have a fresh murder to solve....


ONE *Flight

The shot struck the ground about twenty meters downhill from Georg, throwing up a flash of lurid yellow light against the night sky. Georg Hertzmann threw himself to the ground. Rock shrapnel and clumps of dust and dirt dropped out of the sky all around him for an unreasonably long time after the explosion. Georg remained motionless where he was until the last of the debris had fallen back.

"You can get up and start moving now, if you wish," said a small voice in his headphones. "Their shots are becoming increasingly inaccurate. I believe they have lost their lock on your position and are firing blind, by guesswork."

Georg replied in a low whisper, trusting his throat mike to feed an audible signal to his breast pocket, where the voice was coming from. "Then they're awfully good guessers. Those shots are close."

"But they didn't hit you with any of them--even when they had a tracking lock on you. I believe they are not trying to kill you--merely frighten you."

"And they're doing a good job of it." After a moment's silence, he spoke again. "Just how confident are you about all this?"

After a pause for consideration, the voice spoke again. "About seventy-five percent that they have lost lock, eighty percent that they are just trying to scare you."

"Which gives me twenty percent odds that they are really trying to kill me. If I show myself and they get a new lock, I could find out the hard way."

"Granted," said the little voice. "But you cannot stay where you are indefinitely. If you do so, and they are not merely trying for capture, you will likely be killed, to the great inconvenience of our mutual endeavor."

Georg sighed. "I know things are different for Stannlar, but do bear in mind: if I get killed, it will be more than inconvenient. It will be permanent failure--not just for our work, but for me." Killing Cinnabex, or any Stannlar Consortium, and doing the job thoroughly, permanently, destroying all the backups, beyond hope of reassembly or revival, would represent something like a major industrial research effort.

"Your point is taken. My apologies. But the point remains that you cannot stay here."

"I know, I know. Let me think." He decided to risk rolling over on his side, in hopes of seeing more than the clump of dirt into which his nose was wedged. He moved as slowly as he could, cursing silently with every little spill of dirt and gravel that tumbled off him. The object in his breast pocket had been cutting into his chest a bit, and it felt good to get up off it. Besides, quite irrationally, he felt guilty about dropping his full weight on it, as if so doing might inconvenience the passenger inside.

The object was a silvery alloy disc with rounded edges, widening toward the center, looking for all the worlds like a miniature flying saucer out of the old-time pre-space paranoid urban folklore stories. In a sense, that was exactly what it was--except there was no little green man inside. Just a purple starfish.

Georg patted the disc affectionately. That purple starfish--and all the rest of Cinnabex--had been a good and loyal friend. Georg considered himself massively lucky that Cinnabex and her split-clone Allabex believed it a worthy use of their time to deal with anything as insignificant as human beings. Though, of course, right at the moment, "lucky" didn't seem a good description of his situation.

What were the Pavlat security officers trying to do, exactly? Kill him? Catch him? Chase him off? Whichever it was, how good were they at this sort of work? This was, in a sense, their home ground, and that might count for a lot--or not. They were city folk, and likely to be even more reliant on technology to help track him than he was in attempting to escape.

"Cinn," he whispered, "have you gotten anything yet on who these guys are?"

"I have managed a certain amount of signal intelligence. No decrypts, but I can see who is suddenly generating message traffic: the Thelm's Guard, and no one else."

"So it's all of Daddy's good little boys," Georg growled.

"More to the point, they are not the Thelek's good little boys, to use your informal and sarcastic mode of reference," Cinnabex replied. "The High Thelek's operatives would be far more likely to approach you with maximum aggression."

"These guys are plenty aggressive." George tried to think. If it was the Thelm's forces, coming from Thelm's Keep, they were probably no more familiar with the surrounding country than he was. He might actually have a slight advantage. They'd be relying on their fair-to-middling tech gear to track him. If he was careful, his camo suit was probably good enough to counter most of what their detection hardware could do.

Just then, another shot went off, and struck a good two hundred meters away.

Without a moment's thought, he rolled in the opposite direction, got up on his feet, crouched as low as he could, and started moving away from the blast, hoping that it would blind their instruments and distract their attention for a few vital seconds. He resisted the temptation to run, concentrating instead on slow and steady movement, both to avoid setting off motion detectors--and to avoid the dangers of tripping over something in the darkness.

Georg was using night-vision goggles--but night-vision gear was an unsteady crutch, good enough to make you trust the ghostly, blurry imagery too far. The Pax Humana trainers had beaten that much into his head. You could walk at a steady pace using night-gogs--but don't try to run. Besides, his gear was meant for observing nocturnal animal life--not evading a military force.

Georg spotted a sparse little clump of scrubby vegetation ten or twenty meters ahead. He moved in among the plants and knelt, still trying to stay low. It was a nice bit of natural cover--enough to screen him from all but the very best detection gear, but with enough bare spots and openings for him to get a good look around.

He had been moving north, and steadily uphill, toward a high pass between the peaks of two tired old mountains. If he could reach the pass, he would be over the northern border, and out of the Thelm's personal domain, out into the wider world where the Thelm's direct Will was not the final word and Thelm's Law did not apply. Georg did not know if merely crossing the border would be enough to save him, but there had been precious few other options open to him.

But was the pass itself still open? The approaches to the pass were wide at the valley floor, but contracted rapidly as it rose toward the pass itself. He was moving toward the narrow end of a funnel. He cranked his goggles up to max power and highest magnification and strained his eyes as he studied the top of the pass. There seemed to be some sorts of moving heat sources there, and the glints of what might be polished surfaces reflecting in starlight.

"Cinn--does your component have better night-sensing gear than I do? I think there's some action at the top of the pass, but I can't tell for sure."

"It likely does," Cinnabex replied. "Please remove the container from your pocket and hold it in your hand."

Georg opened his pocket, pulled the heavy disc out, and placed it flat in the palm of his hand. "All right," he said.

The container popped open, and the top half swung open, hinging on the side away from Georg. There lay the purple starfish--or, more accurately, the Stannlar component that, to human eyes, resembled a six-legged purple starfish. Georg had known it was in there, of course, but this was the first time he had actually laid eyes on it since Cinnabex had handed him the component transport container.

This small part of Cinnabex was most decidedly an it, the way a bit of trimmed-off fingernail or an extracted tooth would be an it. But this purple starfish was still part of the whole, connected remotely to Cinnabex's main body. Slender wires, attached to tiny electrodes on the creature, were connected to the transport container and its built-in transmitter and receiver. The main portion of Cinnabex was linked to this small part in such a way that the starfish sent and received the same pseudosynaptic signals that it would have experienced when snuggled up with the thousands of other components that made up Cinnabex's main body.

"Aim the inside of the container's upper half at the area you wish to have scanned," said Cinnabex through the headphones. "Remain concealed as much as possible while you are doing so."

Georg did as he was told. The inside of the container's lid must have served as a sort of parabolic antenna, with Pax alone knew what sort of detectors tucked away inside it. "Getting anything?" he asked.

"Far too much," Cinnabex replied. "There are all manner of Pavlat up there. They have more weapons and detectors than I could list in any reasonable amount of time."

"Right," said Georg, hunkering down a bit lower. The container closed itself, and he absently stuffed it back in his breast pocket. So. He wasn't being chased, or hunted, or tracked. He was being herded, being driven toward the Thelm's servants, waiting to gather him in. The Pavlat behind and below him were like the beaters at a shooting party, flushing out the prey, urging it toward where the men with the guns waited.

"Change of plans," he announced. "We move sideways, then look for a chance to double back into the valley. We lie low in daylight and make another try by some other route tomorrow night." He knew how long the odds were against his plan--but what choice did he have? Moving forward, up toward the pass, could at best be no better than surrender--and might be no better than suicide.

But suicide--no, not suicide, the acceptance of inevitable death at the hands of another--would be better than some other possibilities. Suppose--suppose they did catch him, and, somehow, forced him to do their will?

Later. Worry about it later. If he had a later.

Georg studied the terrain immediately around him. The patch of scrubby growth that hid him was in a slightly bowl-shaped depression, not more than twenty centimeters deep. When the rains came, it would serve as a catchment that held water in place long enough for the plants to make use of it and grow.

But if water flowed into this catchment, where did it flow out? There! It was nothing more than a notch in the eastern side of the depression, leading to a shallow sort of trench. But it led east, and down, and it would provide some small measure of cover. Keeping himself hunched over and his profile low, Georg got moving. To his delight, he discovered that the trench rapidly deepened and widened as he moved along, with other dry runoffs joining it.

Soon it was nearly waist high, and the scrubby brush on either side of the wash grew thicker and lusher, providing almost solid cover on both banks. Georg recognized two or three species he had been studying. It was good to see them growing and healthy, out in the wild, even if he knew it couldn't last.

The genetic time bomb that would kill all the living things around him was not merely ticking--in fact, it had already gone off. The whole reason that he and Cinnabex and Allabex were on-planet was to undo the damage that had already been done, or, failing that, at least to try to keep things from getting worse.

He risked straightening up a bit as he moved along what had grown into a full-blown dry creekbed. Plainly, there was running water there in the rainy season. Even now the dirt and gravel underfoot was damp, or even puddled-over in places. He couldn't have asked for a better piece of cover, or a better avenue to lead him right where he wanted to go.

He was starting to think there might even be some hope in his future. Get out of the Thelm's Valley, find some way off this planet and back to Pax Humana HQ, then wangle a way off-planet for Marta and Moira--though Marta would probably have managed that by herself by then.

"We might actually get out of this, Cinnabex," he said.

"The odds are strongly against that, friend Georg," Cinnabex replied. "The odds of your escaping are growing worse by the minute. Your odds of surviving--and of our venture succeeding--will be far greater if you turn yourself in and agree to abide by local law and custom."

" 'Local law and custom,' " Georg echoed. "That's an amazingly prettied-up way to describe it."

"Very well. Call it a duty incumbent on you as a result of the honor bestowed upon you. Call it what is expected of you. Call it what law and tradition demand."

"Tradition. That's always the reason people use when they want to act without thinking."

"Tradition is the voice of experience," Cinnabex said, rather stiffly. Georg felt vaguely and unfairly disappointed to hear Cinn make such a typical Elder Race remark.

There was an outcrop of rock that half blocked the wash. Georg had to pick his way over it slowly and cautiously, and did not reply at first. His back was tired from running half-hunched over, and the last thing he needed was to cramp up. He decided to take a short break. He found a place to sit down and lean against a rock for a moment, and said, "Just because something is a long-standing tradition does not make it right. And traditions can change, even if it sometimes takes very heavy pressure to make them change."

"I grant those points," said Cinnabex. "But they will not have much bearing if you are dead. You must be alive in order to change things."

"Not necessarily. Dying in a good cause can often do a cause good."

"A clever phrase, and it might even be true. However, the death can only do good if others hear about it," Cinnabex replied.

"That will be your job if I don't make it," Georg responded. "Get word back to Pax Humana, to Center, to Earth, of what happens to me."

Cinnabex was silent for a moment. "Forgive me, friend Georg, but one would almost think that you want to die."

Georg laughed bitterly. "No," he said. "Far from it. But if I do die, I see no reason for my death to be wasted."

"But even if I do send word to Earth, what good would that do? How could it change things?"

"I know, I know," George said, nodding absently. "Humanity is very weak, and very unimportant, and has little influence. But things change. Humanity will grow stronger in the councils of the sentient races. The other races will find themselves obliged to care about what we care about."

Copyright © 2006 by Roger MacBride Allen


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