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A small smile lifted her lips. "Not going to hide from you, I'm very interested. And flattered. Why me?"

"Reputation," I lied. "You're the best."


"Seriously. We have to keep this small; the three other people coming with us represent some serious political interests. So I wanted someone with a genuine track record."

"You're worried that rivals will find out about where we're headed? What sort of artifact have you found?"

"Can't tell you that until we're en route."

"Are you retro engineering its tech? Is that why you're worried about rivals?"

"This isn't about new technology and market impact. We have a bigger problem than that."

"Oh?" She lifted her eyebrow in query.

"You'll get a full briefing when we're underway. Everybody does."

"Okay, that's a reasonable containment strategy. But I do need to know: Is it hostile?"

"No. Or at least, not yet. Which is where you come in. We need to pack a large punch in a small place. Just in case."

"Even more flattered."

"One last thing, which is why you and I are having this meeting before I introduce you to the rest of the team."

"This doesn't sound good."

"There are some first-contact protocols involved, severe ones. Alpha Defense insisted. We're going to be very isolated for the duration of this mission—something none of us are familiar with. Today, no matter what disaster hits you, everybody can shout for help wherever they are. Everyone functions under the assumption an emergency team is two minutes away. It's all we know. I consider that to be a weakness, especially in this situation. If things go wrong—badly wrong—that's when the Alpha Defense first-contact protocol applies."

She caught on fast. I could see the slight change in body posture, humor retreating, muscles tightening.

"If they're hostile, they can't know about us," she said.

"No prisoners. No data downloads."

"Really?" Her humor swept back in. "You're worried about an alien invasion? That's very quaint. What does Ainsley Zangari think they're going to plunder, our gold and our women?"

"We don't know what they are, so until we do..."

"The Olyix turned out okay. And they had a shitload of antimatter on board the Salvation of Life. There isn't another conventional power source powerful enough to accelerate a vessel that size up to a decent fraction of light speed."

"We were fortunate with them," I said carefully. "Their religion gives them a whole different set of priorities to us. All they want to do is travel across space in their arkship to the end of time, where they believe their God will be waiting for them. They don't want to expand into new star systems and bioform planets to live on; it's a whole different imperative to ours. I guess we didn't really understand what 'alien' meant until they arrived in the Sol system. But, Kandara, do you really want to gamble our species' survival on every race being as benign as the Olyix? It's been sixty years since they arrived, and we've both benefited from trade. Great, but we have a duty to consider that at some time we're going to encounter a species that isn't so benign." "Interstellar war is a fantasy. It makes no sense. Economically, for resources, for's all crap. Hong Kong doesn't even make drama games about it anymore."

"Nonetheless, we must respect the possibility, however remote. My department has developed scenarios we don't ever reveal to the public," I confided. "Some of them are...disturbing."

"I bet they are. But at the end, it's all human paranoia."

"Maybe. However, the non-exposure protocol must be enacted if the contact species turns out to be hostile. Will you accept that responsibility? I need to know I can rely on you if I'm incapacitated."

"Incapacitated!" She took a moment, breathing in deeply as she finally realized what I was asking.

Getting her assigned to the mission on that basis—that thanks to her quirks she was genuinely dedicated and fearless enough to initiate the self-destruct sequence—had been an easy sell to Yuri. He had never questioned my choice.

"All right," she said. "If it comes to that, I'm prepared to press the big red button."

"Thank you. Oh, and the other three, they might not appreciate—"

"Yeah. We'll keep that part to ourselves."

"Good. Let's go meet them, then."

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