BSI: Starside: The Cause of Death Mass Market Paperback – Feb 28 2006
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About the Author
Roger MacBride Allen is the author of several SF novels, including a number in the Star Wars universe, as well as his own Chronicles of Solace space opera trilogy. He currently resides in Leipzig with his wife and two sons.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
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...
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Unfortunately, the book is 470 pages long.
Fortunately, the good part is the last half--not the first. The book ends up being an enjoyable read in spite of its serious editing problems.
The setup, in Chapter 1, is good. We're introduced to the fleeing George, given a hint at the bind he's in, and thrown into a good action scene. It ends on a nice little cliffhanger.
But then ...
We get a chapter or two of BSI internal politics, organization, and budget, which is totally irrelevant to the story, and delivered by a character who never shows up again.
We get a chapter that's mostly about the mechanics of starflight, which is totally irrelevant to the story.
There's a chapter about a message sent to our heroes, which is of no use to them and is totally irrelevant to the story.
We get a big lump of exposition about the Pax Humana organization. This *is* relevant, but we don't need to know this much this quickly. It would have been better to release this information in the course of the narrative.
There are a couple chapters in which secondary characters talk vaguely about their plots.
There's a crashing-spaceship scene. It's not bad in and of itself, but it doesn't develop into anything. There are no consequences, nor does it provide any real exposition.
Then our heroes hole up in a hotel for a chapter in which nothing happens. The nothing is described at some length.
And then ... on page 260... our heroes meet the aliens ...
And the story takes off! We find out why George is in trouble, and it's a doozy. We find out some cool stuff about alien culture and biology. We get a sketchy but interesting third character, an alien operative with his own agenda. We get a nifty intellectual puzzle.
There's a lot of talking in this section, but that's inevitable in this kind of tale. Allen keeps the conversation moving nicely. The clues are fairly planted. The ending is sufficiently foreshadowed, but a lovely twist for all that.
I don't know why Allen chose to pad out the book with non-story elements. Perhaps his manuscript came in way under its contracted length; this is evidently meant to be the first of a series. He would have been better served by fleshing out his main story, though. Add in a red herring or two, another crime, maybe an action scene involving the protagonists ...
Part of the trouble is the setup. The message that summons the BSI is garbled, and the detectives start out not knowing exactly what their mission is. I suppose this is an attempt to create tension in the first half of the book.
But this gimmick doesn't really have any effect on the plot. It could easily have been omitted. To make it work, we'd have to see the mission strictly through the agents' eyes--sharing their confusion--and they'd have to actually work at finding out what's going on. The reader would then share in the excitement.
Instead, we get the aliens' viewpoint. They know what's going on, but never mention it. They spend a couple of chapters talking their way rather stiltedly around the issue. This is the worst of both worlds! We readers get neither the thrill of discovery nor the tension of knowing something the main characters don't.
Allen has produced some excellent work in the past (_Farside Cannon_, _The Ring of Charon_). _The Cause of Death_ is not up to that level. But once the story finally starts up, it's quite a good read, particularly for readers who deman intellectual stimulation in addition to mere action. I have hopes that subsequent installments in the series will show more editorial discipline.
This is not a bad thing, by the way, but it did cause me as a reader to change my understanding of the novel. It also disappointed me that the actual murderer was a bit too easy to deduce, although the method of the crime was quite clever. I look forward to reading other novels in this "series". This may be one of the few times that writing a series may actually be worth the effort, unlike most of the neverending novels that appear on the bookshelves these days.
And something only barely explained: BSI operatives are specifically explained as having the bare minimum of spaceship piloting training due to cost cutbacks. So how is it that their juvenile antics manage to successfully avoid the targeting skills of professional military technicians firing state-of-the-art ordinance at them?
Why Allen took the time to carefully mention that BSI Operatives are lousy pilots and then had them outfly anti-aircraft fire (which is designed to shoot down military craft) while flying a civilian ship (which would have about one fifth the maneuverability and acceleration of a military ship-- the craft that the anti-aircraft guns are DESIGNED TO SHOOT DOWN!) defies comprehension. It was an attempt to heighten the suspense that got old after the first twenty pages-- and then dragged on for another twenty-EIGHT pages before the anti-climactic ending of the scene.
Hemingway is rolling over in his grave right now. ("The spaceship crashed. In the mud.")
I purchased this book for the same reason you probably grabbed it: the idea of "CSI in Space." I thought it would be interesting to see today's TV-enhanced forensics through the eyes of science fiction. It's an aspect of Sci-Fi that has largely been ignored: the technological murder/mystery case. Unfortunately, the padding makes me want to literally rip about two hundred pages out of the book. (It sort of reminded me of "Men's Health" magazine; once you tear out all the advertisements you end up with about 1/3 the pages.) Add into the extra padding the sort of bad guy incompetence that Imperial Stormtroopers would be proud of, and we end up taking a good plot line and setting and turning it into a dull treatise on how NOT to tell a story.
I was extremely disappointed in this book, which looks like it is going to lead into a series. I think I'm going to give the rest a wide berth.