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Sebastian woke to the unsettling awareness that today formed the midpoint of his fiftieth Earthyear. The vanished decades arrayed themselves in ranked order squarely upon his chest, mocking him. Grimly, he confronted the spectral entities. Raising an imperious eyebrow, he curled his thin upper lip back over his perfect white teeth, and stared the enemy down. Eyes black as polished obsidian annihilated the apparition, sending the ghostly ranks into oblivion. Rising with lithe grace, the Chief of Internal Security of the Columbian Military Complex stretched his lean, hard-muscled body, donned a freshly adjusted, exquisitely tailored black uniform, and resolutely shook his mind free of unwontedly gloomy fancies.
Those five decades sat lightly on Sebastian. Tall, hawk-profiled, piercing of eye and expressive of countenance, he radiated an unshakable, serene assurance lightly tinged with arrogance. A combination of striking features and aristocratic bearing, coupled with an ability to project an electric aura of masculine allure, rendered him irresistible to the mature, unattached socialites from whose ranks he selected the mistresses he charmed, seduced, enjoyed, and expertly converted from lover to friend before making a new conquest.
Head of a small, elite, autonomous military police force-an organization gratifyingly independent of the authority of the commanders of the five Columbian military corps-the Chief found the excitement provided by his professional duties to be in inverse proportion to the magnitude of the responsibility resting on his ample breadth of shoulders.
Sebastian had long ago managed to come to terms with thatcircumstance. Scion of a prominent aristocratic family, independently wealthy, the Chief enjoyed the prestige and associations afforded by a military career. His rather onerous duties seldom interfered with his pursuit of pleasure in a culture well able to provide any sort of stimulation he craved, even in wartime. Now that the war in space had dwindled to a frustrating stalemate costly to both sides in terms of human and material resources, life in the capital of Columbia went on much as it had for the past Earthcentury.
Striding at exactly 0800 into the crowded operations area where he perceived his four subordinates on the 0400 to 1200 shift to be busily occupied, Sebastian checked with the officer on duty, and exchanged a few crisp words with Teno, his deputy, as was his custom before vanishing into his relatively spacious private office.
Still troubled on some subconscious level by the earlier reminder of the inexorable advance of age, the Chief most uncharacteristically acted on a sudden impulse. He determined on making an unannounced and unscheduled inspection both of the Complex, and the men of his force presently carrying out the duty of patrolling the premises.
Those patrols provided a strong deterrent against clashes between enlistees of any two of the five Corps. Corpsmen, no less than their commanders, tended to see their counterparts in the other four organizations as rivals. That well-known propensity formed the main factor necessitating a police force operating under an authority separate from both the Commanders of the five corps, and the officials of the civil Ministry of Internal Security. The officers of Sebastian's force also guarded against the unauthorized entry of civilians into the Military Complex: a huge, sprawling area comprised of the headquarters of all five corps, the military locks assigned to each corps, and the corridors giving access to those facilities.
Two hours and forty minutes later, having walked at a smart pace through the corridor bisecting the headquarters of Fifth Corps and that of Fourth, and having also traversed the main corridor below the docking facilities of those two corps and those of Third and Second, Sebastian strode through Third Corps' Headquarters, passed through that of First, emerged from the corridor below First Corps' locks, and considered whether to opt for absolute thoroughness by inspecting the guard within the area housing the life-support equipment serving the Complex. Tempted to skip a large area seldom entered by personnel other than those from Feigenbaum's crew of life support engineers, the officer pondered his options.
A shrug accompanied his decision in favor of thoroughness. The Chief determined not only upon traversing those premises, but also upon entering the Arsenal. That move, he well knew, would arouse the ire of Milhauss, the dour Chief of Weapons Production and Distribution, who commanded a company of engineers, technicians and military workers: a force smaller than Sebastian's. The Chief of Weapons Production and Distribution nonetheless enjoyed independence equal to that of the Chief of Internal Security of the Columbian Military Complex. Both Sebastian and Milhauss owed allegiance to only one superior: Arlen, Commander-in-Chief of the Columbian Military Forces, who at present exercised dictatorial power over an aggressively militant world bogged down in a stalemated space-war with Gaea, the only other political entity in the star-system.
Instinctively muting the echoing tread of his gleaming black boots, Sebastian advanced through a maze of support equipment providing lighting, electrical supply, temperature regulation, the venting of excess heat, communications, and in-house, highly shielded data-storage. From there, he passed into a separate, adjoining facility solely devoted to life-support: part of an integral parallel universe interweaving with, and inseparable from, the web of habitats girdling a globe of barren, airless rock.
Threading his way through an interconnected array of huge photosynthetic exchangers, the Chief snapped a salute to one of the two guards engaged in patrolling this area, noting the flash of astonishment his subordinate failed to conceal. Observing with satisfaction that both men marched with military precision at exactly the locations where he expected to find them, Sebastian strode on. A smile of sardonic amusement fleetingly animated his lean face as he contemplated the anger his visit to the Arsenal would arouse in a colleague Sebastian enjoyed needling.
The soft sound that impinged on the inspecting officer's ear ought to have gone unnoticed amid the whirr of fans, the hum of transformers, and the deeper, more strident noise of pumps. It did not. Attuned to the normal, his every sense on the alert, Sebastian caught the aberrant sound he could not identify. Stopping in mid-stride, he listened. No repeat of the stimulus impinged on his straining ear.
Familiar with the layout of the major facilities, he narrowed the possibilities during a swift scan of the area, and chose that most likely. Stepping soundlessly to the sliding door of a cramped cubicle housing both a terminal and gear for automatic monitoring of the life-support system, the Chief observed the panel to be standing open a crack. Drawing his sword, he flattened his shoulders against the wall, reached out an arm, and drew the door aside without exposing his person either to the view or the blade of whoever lurked within. Having determined that the illicit occupant aimed no tracer-ray of an electronic weapon through the now unobstructed portal, he entered, sword in hand, to behold that person in the act of sliding open an inner door-panel that ought to have been impossible to unlock.
"Freeze!" Sebastian barked.
A slim, dark-eyed woman whirled to face him, and froze.
"Raise your hands."
The tip of the Chief's sword came to rest at a point just below the intruder's breastbone, and pricked the skin beneath her suit. His eyes narrowed, his face mirroring his readiness to kill if she moved, Sebastian studied the slim figure standing utterly motionless. He saw that she wore the uniform overgarment issued to female custodial workers employed in Ministry Main Habitat: familiar garb that concealed the woman's tunic and reached to a point just above her knees. Short, dark hair framed a still, wary, delicately lovely face gone pale as frost. Meeting her captor's raking glance unflinchingly, the unlikely transgressor waited.
"State your name."
When that peremptory query evoked no response whatsoever, Sebastian increased the pressure of the sharp tip of his blade. A faint wisp of pink fog curled up from the garment repelling a few drops of blood, but the threatening gesture produced not a quiver, much less a reply.
"Keep your arms raised, and your palms towards me," the Chief ordered, stepping closer. Satisfied that no telltale, blue-black spot denoting an implanted weapon marred the tips of the intruder's fingers, Sebastian sheathed the sword. Grasping the arms the woman kept raised, he twisted them behind her, and secured them with a pair of metal wrist-restraints produced from a pocket.
Forcing his captive to keep his swift pace, the Chief propelled her to the nearest exit onto O-Corridor, a main thoroughfare restricted in this locality to military use. Mouth tight, he stalked past the facade of the Arsenal, and thrust her through the door of his headquarters, which adjoined the Arsenal and faced Fifth Corps' Headquarters across Third Corridor.
Striding into his operations area, Sebastian marched his charge past five men whose expressions denoted shock-even Teno's, as carefully as that canny subordinate cultivated an habitual impassivity. Ignoring the questioning faces, the Chief snapped an order to his deputy. "Palm-imprinter," he grated, prompting his subordinate swiftly to produce a device for recording a palm-print electronically. Having pressed the woman's right palm against the sensor and touched the activator, Sebastian issued an order in a low tone. "Find out who she is, Teno. Fast. Don't barge in. I'll ask you for that information shortly."
Copyright © 2007 Mary Ann Steele.