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By L. E. Modesitt Jr.
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2009 L. E. Modesitt, Jr.
All rights reserved.
3 MARIS 1811 P. D. [6749 F. E.]
The man in the drab pale blue Federation shipsuit sat inside the oblong cubicle just large enough for the chair and hood that provided direct sensory-reinforced information — useful for everything from maintenance data to in-depth intelligence briefings. After thirty standard minutes, he removed the hood, rose to his feet, pushed back the screen as he stepped out onto the dark blue of the third deck. The bulkheads were an eye-resting blue, close to the shade of his shipsuit, and devoid of any decoration or projections. That was true of all bulkheads on the WuDing, and of all Federation deep-space vessels. He eyed the three datastations for a moment, now all empty, then shook his head.
He stood 193 centimeters and massed 104.4 kilograms, and under the ship's single grav, mass and weight matched. His hair was nondescript brown. His eyes were silver gray.
He frowned for a moment, still trying to ignore the residual odor of burning hair that remained trapped in his nostrils. The odor was a side effect of the suspension cradles in which he and much of the WuDing's crew had spent the transit out from Fronera, and it would pass. It certainly had on his missions to Khriastos and Marduk. He just wished the odor had already departed. He remained motionless, trying to organize the mass of information he had been mentally force-fed.
ITEM: The planet was too close to the K7 orange-tinted sun to be habitable under normal conditions, although the system was older by at least a billion years than the Sol system.
ITEM: The planet had a mass of 1.07 T-norm, with an upper atmosphere that suggested optimal habitability.
ITEM: The planet itself was impenetrable to all forms of Federation scanning and detection technology.
ITEM: The planet presented an image of featureless silver gray haze to normal human vision and remained equally featureless to all forms of observation technology.
ITEM: It had no moons or objects of significant individual mass in orbit.
ITEM: Identical objects massing approximately .11 kilograms orbited the planet in at least three differing levels. The number of such objects in each orbital sphere could not be quantified, but estimates suggested more than two million per sphere.
ITEM: The planet radiated nothing along any known spectrum. No electromagnetic radiation, no gravitonic waves, no nothing ... except a certain amount of evenly dispersed heat and radiation consisting of energy reflected from the planet's sun.
ITEM: He had to find out what lay below that silver gray haze.
He nodded slowly, then stretched. He disliked info-feed briefings. He always had. He turned and began to walk toward the WuDing's Operations Control. His shipboots were silent on the plastiform deck.
Major Roget, to OpCon.
Stet. On my way.
There was no response. The colonel disliked unnecessary communications, particularly on the shipnet, and particularly when he had to deal with an FSA agent transferred into his command at the rank of major. The other four FSA agents accompanying Roget were lieutenants and captains, though he'd known none of them before boarding the WuDing.
An Ops monitor tech, also in a pale blue shipsuit, hurried in Roget's direction. As she neared him, her eyes took in his collar insignia, and she averted her eyes, just enough to display the proper respect.
Roget inclined his head fractionally in response and continued to the first ladder, which he ascended. Two levels up, he headed aft.
The hatch to Colonel Tian's office irised open at Roget's approach and closed behind him. Roget took two steps into a space four times the size of the briefing cubicle and halted. The office held two chairs. The colonel sat in one.
"Sir," offered Roget.
"Please be seated, Major." The colonel gestured for Roget to take the other chair. The thin operations console was folded flush against the aft bulkhead. Hard-connected systems worked far better in battle than broadband links, although no Federation warship had been in a pitched space battle in centuries.
Roget sat down and waited.
The colonel steepled his fingers, his eyes looking not at Roget, but through the major. He was a good half a head shorter than Roget, but slender, almost willowy despite his age, and his black eyes were youthfully ancient. Finally, he spoke. "According to the report forwarded by FSA, you are most capable, Major, especially when acting alone. Your accomplishments on Marduk and on system station Khriastos appear particularly noteworthy." Tian paused. "In de pen dent action, in particular, may be needed on this assignment, and that is why the FIS requested assistance from FSA."
"What do you think lies behind that haze-shield, Major?"
"An alien culture. Probably Thomist, but that would be speculation, sir."
"You consider the Thomists as aliens?" The colonel's tone suggested raised eyebrows, but his face remained serene.
"Alien to the goals and aims of the Federation, certainly."
"How would you define alien?"
"Not aligned and unfathomable," replied Roget easily. He'd reported to more than enough hard-eyed and unnamed FSA colonels over the years that an FIS colonel was hardly anything to worry about.
"Theoretically intellectually understandable, but not emotionally comprehensible."
The colonel offered the slightest nod. "Analytics calculate the probability at 73 percent for the likelihood of a Thomist world."
Again, Roget waited. Even for a Federation Interstellar Service security officer, the colonel was being casual, if not blasé, about the discovery of a human splinter culture or an alien world. Unlike Roget, he had to have known of the world long before Roget's briefing.
"Do you have any questions?"
"How long have we known about this world?" Roget asked the question because it was expected, not because he anticipated a meaningful answer.
"If it's Thomist, we've known about the possibility for quite a time."
"How long might that be, sir?"
"Long enough. We're not absolutely certain it is a Thomist world. That's your task. You will, of course, wear a pressure suit until you confirm that the world is not environmentally hostile, and your dropboat is configured with some additional survival features to deal with that eventuality, although the scientists believe such is unlikely."
The colonel's response confirmed Roget's feelings. The senior officer wasn't about to answer the questions Roget would have liked to ask, and the ones he would answer had already been addressed by the console briefing. The issue of a hostile environment had also been touched upon and dismissed, as if the colonel knew far more than he was revealing.
"Any other questions?"
"Your outward complacency exemplifies your inner arrogance, Major."
"Inscrutability behind an emotional facade. The heritage of failed Noram supremacy." Tian's short laugh was humorless.
"As opposed to inscrutability behind inscrutability, sir?"
"There is a difference between inscrutability and deception, Major. It's called honesty, I believe."
"If you're successful, Major, you'll doubtless end up in a position similar to mine, if within the Federation Security Agency."
That was a large "if," Roget knew. So did the colonel.
The senior officer looked at Roget. "You won't like the entry."
"You don't expect most of us to survive it." Roget's silver gray eyes never left the colonel's face.
"We do hope you will. We'd rather not lose the investment, and we'd like some confirmation of what lies beneath that haze. The dropboat and your suit are designed to handle everything engineering could anticipate."
That didn't reassure Roget. The Thomists had left the Federation with enough high tech that they'd only been rediscovered — if the planet called Haze was indeed theirs — by accident more than a millennium later. But if what lay beneath that silvery shifting shield happened to be nonhuman alien, then matters would either be far better ... or far, far, worse.
He wasn't certain whether he would rather face the Thomists or nonhuman aliens.
"That is all, Major." The colonel's smile was cool. He did not stand.
"Yes, sir." Roget stood, smiled politely, turned, and walked from the small office.
He couldn't help but wonder what surprises this mission held. In one way or another, every mission had provided something he hadn't anticipated, and often had revealed matters that even the FSA had not expected. Not that he had ever revealed all of those.CHAPTER 2
27 GUANYU 6744 F. E.
Roget and Kuang sat on the balcony. The only hint of the snoopblock was the slightest wavering in the night air, an almost invisible curtain that extended upward from the pewter-like circular railing. The multi-colored towers of Taiyuan rose around them, glittering and gleaming with lines of day-stored and night-released light. The air was warm, but not uncomfortably so, and held a fragrance Roget could not identify, doubtless one specified by Kuang and released from the railing and dispersed as a side effect by the snoopblock.
"Beautiful, is it not?" asked Kuang, setting down his near-empty glass on the table between them.
"It should be. It's the heart of world culture and the capital of the Federation." Roget offered a polite smile.
"It's been a capital before. Capitals come and go. They've done so here for more than sixty-five centuries." Kuang's voice was matter-of-fact above the whine of some form of ground transport, muted by the snoopblock, that rose from the street some eleven levels below. A mock lightning bolt flashed across the top of a tower bordering the river.
"Taiyuan has lasted longer than any other ... and in greater glory."
"So has its intrigue."
"If there are people, there's intrigue," Roget said, taking a last sip of the amber brew. He would have preferred a true lager, but Kuang had once mentioned that a preference for western lager was a sign of less than discriminating taste, and Kuang was the senior officer-agent in the team. He'd also report on Roget's performance, and that would determine whether Roget would remain a team member ... or head his own team or be given an in de pen dent assignment. Either of the latter options was preferable to reporting to Kuang ... or anyone else, Roget felt.
"True, and, like most people, the intriguers never learn."
"I wonder," mused Roget, setting his beaker on the table. "Is it that the intriguers never learn, or is it that the ones we catch are the ones that never learn?"
"You're suggesting something." Kuang offered a thin smile. "You often do."
"We never catch anyone involved in the Federation government, but we all know that there's intrigue there. We seldom catch anyone in the upper levels of the multilateral corporations, and we all know that they're not always pure."
"Purity doesn't have much to do with legality," said Kuang. "We aren't given a choice. Our job is to uphold the law, not to monitor personal ethics."
"That's right. How could it be otherwise?" asked Roget. "But the most skillful intriguers know how to operate within the law, and they do. Then there are the misguided idealists like the ones we're pursuing. They believe the laws are corrupt. Because of that, they never learned how the laws operate. They couldn't use them if they tried."
"They're not idealists. For all their rhetoric about the lack of freedom in commerce, and their protestations that they're only trying to restore full freedoms, they're antisocial thugs. Full freedom is another word for chaos and mob rule. You should remember that." Kuang's voice was calm.
Roget managed another polite smile at the veiled reference to the fall of old America, a reference that Kuang managed to make more than infrequently.
"It's time to go." Kuang stood. "You have the datacard?"
Roget rose as well, nodding.
"Make sure you get them to say that you'll be paid."
"I can do that." Roget followed the senior agent from the balcony through the living area to the front door, then out into the corridor. The dull polished metallic composite of the corridor wall reflected but vague image of his dark blue singlesuit and light gray vest — the standard garb for a midlevel datager or multilateral proffie.
The two FSA agents walked without speaking to the center of the tower, waiting for a descending lift car. Two passed, presumably full of residents, before a third, half-filled, stopped. No one in the car spoke as the lift continued downward. Once they stepped out of the lift at the concourse level of the residence tower, Kuang headed north. Roget continued straight ahead, toward the Chiacun Tube station. At close to ten, the evening was still young, and people streamed to and from the underground transport. Most were couples, but some of the groups were either of young men or, more frequently, of young women.
Roget held an open-link, but neither Kuang nor Kapeli pulsed him. As the most junior member of the team, Kapeli was tasked with the routine tailing of the targets, but he'd have contacted Roget if anything looked out of the ordinary, and that meant that Sulynn's group had headed to the rendezvous.
When Roget reached the Chiacun station, he swiped a dayproxy CredID past the scanner at the entrance, then headed down the moving ramp. Once he was on the concourse level, he joined the queue for the southbound riverside express. According to his internal monitors, the wait was nine minutes and twentyone seconds.
Once the tube train doors opened, Roget moved with the crowd into the nearest car. He took a position with his back to the silvered train wall, just to one side of the doors, his hands apparently loosely folded over each other as he surveyed the others nearby, taking in the pretty dark-haired schoolgirl with her parents, the three female clericals chatting amiably, the off-duty space-forcer with the eyes that seemed veiled, and the groups of datagers who had clearly just left work.
Twelve minutes — and roughly seventeen klicks later — Roget stepped from the train at the Shengli station, brushing through others, his internal monitors registering so many energy sources that they might as well have been useless. Amid the crowds, energy weapons were unlikely, knives or muffled projectiles far more probable. Keeping with the fast-moving crowds, he walked swiftly up the moving ramp and then out into the chill evening air. He strode across the Plaza that opened onto the River Fen.
Not more than fifteen meters into the crowded Plaza, from his right, he sensed the quick movement. He turned, his hand stiffened, and struck, hardly moving his upper body, as his movement fractured a lower arm. Then he slammed his boot heel down on the top of the would-be lifter's foot. "So very sorry." His Mandarin was impeccably polite as the youth half-crumpled, half-cringed away. While Stenglish was the official Federation language, Roget had found that in some circumstances Mandarin was preferable.
The others in the crowd parted just slightly, hardly altering their paths or changing their verbal or commnet conversations. Another youth turned and hurried away from his wounded partner.
Stupid, thought Roget. The vidcams would note it, and the patrollers would have both members of the lifter team in custody in moments. While the patrollers could stop him, legally, that was highly unlikely. They had more than enough to do than to detain someone who'd acted to prevent being assaulted or robbed.
On the far side of the Plaza, Roget turned north on the promenade that overlooked the River Fen. His destination was the LeClub Henois, some three tower-blocks from the Plaza. Strains of plaintive and perfectly repitched kaluriolk — perfectly boring, thought Roget — drifted through a night lit with piped sunlight split into monobeams that played across the walkways as if at random.
Once he passed the first tower, the crowds thinned. Even so, he had to step aside to avoid a commlinked-couple, their eyes blank, who walked automatically southward toward the Plaza.
Two youths ran down the walkway, dodging pedestrians as they exchanged long passes of virtie dirigibles that morphed into miniature spacecraft far sleeker than the real vessels.
Excerpted from Haze by L. E. Modesitt Jr.. Copyright © 2009 L. E. Modesitt, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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