Read At Empire's Edge Online

Authors: William C. Dietz

At Empire's Edge

Table of Contents
 
Ace Books by William C. Dietz
GALACTIC BOUNTY
FREEHOLD
PRISON PLANET
IMPERIAL BOUNTY
ALIEN BOUNTY
McCADE’S BOUNTY
DRIFTER
DRIFTER’S RUN
DRIFTER’S WAR
LEGION OF THE DAMNED
BODYGUARD
THE FINAL BATTLE
WHERE THE SHIPS DIE
STEELHEART
BY BLOOD ALONE
BY FORCE OF ARMS
DEATHDAY
EARTHRISE
FOR MORE THAN GLORY
FOR THOSE WHO FELL
RUNNER
LOGOS RUN
WHEN ALL SEEMS LOST
WHEN DUTY CALLS
AT EMPIRE’S EDGE
THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP
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This is an original publication of The Berkley Publishing Group.
 
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
 
Copyright © 2009 by William C. Dietz.
 
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
 
Dietz, William C.
eISBN : 978-1-101-14859-4
PS3554.I388A’.54—dc22 2009026786
 
 
 

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For Marjorie, with all my love
ONE
Aboard the Imperial prison ship
Pax Umana
, in hyperspace
IN ORDER FOR SECTION LEADER JAK CATO TO REACH
the cabin assigned to Xeno Corps Centurion Ben Sivio, it was necessary to walk half the length of the prison ship’s quarter-mile-long hull. The air was cool, verging on cold, because that was the way the
Pax Umana
’s computer system liked it. The overhead lighting fixtures were exactly twelve feet apart, the decals that identified first-aid kits, weapons lockers, and fire extinguishers appeared with monotonous regularity, and Cato’s boots clanged as they hit the metal gratings that kept him up out of the sheet of half-inch-deep water that glistened below. For unlike most ships, which had solid decks, the
Umana
had metal gratings so the crew could hose down the cells when necessary. The wastewater was continually pumped out of the sluiceways, purified by onboard systems, and used for everything other than drinking.
That didn’t represent much of a problem at the moment, however, since the ship was carrying only
one
prisoner, and he had ways to get back at his jailers other than pissing on the deck. Cato was the person he hated the most, especially after an incident eight hours earlier, during which Cato’s shock baton sent a hundred thousand volts of electricity coursing through the Sagathan shape shifter’s body. So, as Cato approached his cell, Verafti put on a display for him.
The Sagathi were a race of sentient shape-shifting empaths who had the ability to assume the form of any living creature having roughly the same mass as they did. This not only explained why they were so dangerous, but why the Uman Empire had been forced to create the Xeno Corps, a police force made up of bioengineered variants bred to hunt, capture, and imprison aliens of every description, the Sagathies being the most dangerous of the bunch.
As Cato drew level with Verafti’s barred cell, he was treated to a first-class display of what the Sagathi could do as the naked alien morphed into a startling likeness of Officer Kath Larsy. She was arguably the most beautiful woman on the ship, and as the fake Larsy brought both hands up to cup a pair of large, pink-nippled breasts, she smiled suggestively. “Come on, Cato,” Larsy said huskily. “Feel them! You know you want to.”
And Cato
did
want to, but knew that all of the men who had succumbed to such invitations in the past were dead and buried in the Xeno Corps graveyard adjacent to the high-security prison compound on Sagatha. “Go fuck yourself,” Cato replied contemptuously, as he stalked by. “Which you are uniquely qualified to do!”
Verafti responded by morphing into a replica of Cato, which he immediately turned inside out, but Cato was gone by then. “You’re scared, Cato. I can
feel
it,” the shape shifter yelled through what looked like raw hamburger. “Sivio’s going to break you down to F-1. When we get to Sagatha, you’ll be shoveling shit out of my cell!”
Cato made no reply, but as he cleared the cellblock and entered officer country, he knew the claim was probably true. Cato had served under Sivio long enough to know that the Centurion wasn’t one to waste time on idle chatter. So having used what many would consider to be excessive force on Verafti, Cato was about to get his ass reamed, a process both he and it had been through many times before.
The Xeno Corps was not only organized along military lines, it was part of the Army, which generally wanted nothing to do with it. In fact, most Imperial legionnaires looked down on the variants, were afraid of the police officers, and jealous of their elite status all at the same time. Now, as Cato approached Sivio’s cabin, he paused to check his uniform. It consisted of a helmet, held in the crook of his left arm, sculpted body armor, a kilt with a subtle plaid intended to remind people that the Xeno Corps was technically part of the 3rd Legion, and a pair of black, high-gloss combat boots.
The
real
Kath Larsy walked past at that point, winked at Cato, and said, “Good luck!” The Xeno Corps was a small organization, the detachment on the
Umana
was even smaller, and everyone knew what everyone else was doing. And that included the fact that Sivio was about to take Cato’s head off.
Cato forced a smile, wasted a full second wondering if Larsy’s nipples really were pink, and rapped on the knock block mounted beside the durasteel hatch. Sivio had a parade-ground voice that could be heard through three inches of solid metal, and there was no mistaking the gruff, one-word invitation: “Come!”
Cato palmed the access plate, waited for the hatch to slide out of the way, and took the standard three steps forward. Then, with a degree of panache befitting a member of the Emperor’s Praetorian Guard, he crashed to attention. “Section Leader Jak Cato reporting as ordered,
sir
!”
At that point, had the purpose of the meeting been something other than what it was, Sivio would have said, “At ease.” And depending on circumstances, as well as the Centurion’s mood that day, might have invited his second-in-command to sit down. But Sivio was angry, and forcing Cato to stand at attention was a good way to communicate that fact. If that bothered Cato, the hard, angular planes of his face gave no sign of it, although Sivio was an empath and could “feel” at least some of his subordinate’s emotions. And that was indicative of Cato’s major flaw, because in spite of the fact that he had been created to deal with Sagathi empaths, he couldn’t shield his emotions the way most of his peers could. A dead, with the emphasis on the word “dead,” giveaway for a creature like Verafti.
And Cato had other faults as well, including his rebelliousness, contempt for authority, and occasional drunkenness. Were such shortcomings the result of a DNA-related glitch that had left him unable to shield his emotions? Or would he have been a pain in the ass regardless of his disability? There was no way to know. One thing was certain, however, and that was the fact that Cato was a born leader and, as such, could have a detrimental effect on morale. Especially where the younger members of the team were concerned. Which was why Sivio planned to land on Cato with both feet. “At ease.”
Cato, his eyes on a spot exactly six inches over Sivio’s head, slid his right foot away from his left, and moved his right fist to the small of his back. Even though he wasn’t looking straight at the Centurion, he could still
see
the bastard, and he wasn’t encouraged by what he saw. Sivio had black hair, the same olive skin that
all
the members of the Xeno Corps had, and a pair of beady brown eyes. They glowed with latent hostility, and were set too close to the officer’s nose, which was undeniably crooked. A none-too-subtle reminder that Sivio had been a champion kickboxer in his younger days. His lips were so thin they looked more like a well-healed incision rather than a mouth—and his massive jaw had a pugnacious quality. “So,” Sivio began ominously. “Prisoner Verafti claims that you zapped him. And for no apparent reason. Is that true?”
“It’s partly true, sir,” Cato temporized, his eyes still focused on a spot over Sivio’s head. “I shocked him all right—but I was provoked.”
Sivio worked his jaw as if preparing it for action. “You were provoked. In what way?”
“The prisoner called the Emperor a bad name,” Cato answered self-righteously. “Which left me with no choice but to respond.”
Sivio shook his head sadly. “That has to be the most pathetic lie anyone has ever had the balls to tell me! The truth is that you were playing cards with Verafti through the bars, when for reasons unknown, you drew your shock baton and hit him with a hundred thousand volts of electricity! The security camera mounted in front of Verafti’s cell captured the whole thing. So don’t bother to deny it.”
“The bastard was cheating!” Cato responded defensively. “So what was I supposed to do? Let him get away with it?”
The conversation was interrupted by a tone—followed by the flat, emotion-free sound of the NAVCOMP’s synthesized voice. “Be advised that the ship will exit hyperspace in ninety seconds. Primary, secondary, and tertiary weapons systems have been activated, and all members of the
Umana
’s crew will remain at battle stations until ordered to stand down.”
It was a routine announcement, and since neither one of the variants qualified as a member of the ship’s crew, their conversation continued. “Shooting the shit with prisoners, playing games with prisoners, and all other interactions not specifically authorized by a superior officer are specifically prohibited,” Sivio said sternly. “And you know that. Even worse is the fact that having flouted regulations, you chose to administer corporal punishment to a prisoner, who is presumed to be innocent until proven otherwise.”

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