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Authors: Jr. L. E. Modesitt

Haze and the Hammer of Darkness

BOOK: Haze and the Hammer of Darkness
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HAZE

 

For Hildegarde and her mistress

 

Some call the planet Haze

for its gray shield of sky;

But Doubt of other ways

Is what refutes the lie.

 

1

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. “Independent action, in particular, may be needed on this assignment, and that is why the FIS requested assistance from FSA.”

“Yes, sir.”

“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.

“Unfathomable?”

“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?”

“No, sir.”

“Your outward complacency exemplifies your inner arrogance, Major.”

“Yes, sir.”

“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.”

“Yes, sir.”

“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.

 

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 multicolored 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.

BOOK: Haze and the Hammer of Darkness
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