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Authors: Jr. L. E. Modesitt

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BOOK: Haze and the Hammer of Darkness
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A long silence followed as the colonel scrutinized Roget.

“Your last assignment left you in some physical difficulty,” observed the colonel.

Two weeks in the medunit hadn't been easy, but there was no point in saying so. Roget waited.

“The other members of your team were successful in apprehending the terrvert group. All but two. One was killed in the operation. Because the weapon used on you was tracked to Huilam, they all will face capital assault charges.”

Capital assault meant intelligence reduction and locality restriction—usually to an isolated marginal community. It also suggested that there wasn't enough evidence to prove more than conspiracy to commit cyberterr.

“And the other?” asked Roget.

“The other is still at large, but not for long.”

“Sulynn?” asked Roget.

The slightest hint of a frown appeared above the colonel's black eyebrows. “You have something not in your report that would shed light on that?”

Roget wasn't about to comment on the most obvious point—that Sulynn had left the weapon solely in order to implicate Huilam. “No, sir. She was the smartest and most wary. That's all. If anyone might have escaped, she would have been the one. There was a caution in my reports about her.” For all the colonel's assurances, Roget doubted that security would soon locate her … or that her identity had ever been Sulynn. He had his doubts that she'd ever even been a cyberterrorist.

What he didn't understand was how they'd managed to miss her, when she'd been the one who'd nerved him—unless she'd disabled Kuang or Kapeli. Even with his internal backups and contingent blocks against neural cascades, Roget almost hadn't made it. That was what the Security doctor had told him. But … if she'd been a plant, why had she almost killed him? Or had she either used too much power or too little? He withheld a wry smile. That was something else he doubted he'd ever know.

“Just so.” A pause signified that the comments on Roget's previous assignment were at an end. “You are being given a single-agent assignment in St. George in Noram District 32. The local community is primarily Saint.…”

Saint? It took a moment for Roget to place the locality and the culture. The Saints were a religious community that had been founded by an old American prophet and, against all logic, had survived the Wars of Confederation. He should have known that. His sister lived only a district away, but then, they'd been raised in the American southeast, and she'd moved there after the southern climatic disasters had forced her and Wallace to relocate.

“… Your cover will be that of an E&W Monitor. No additional technical training will be necessary. The previous agent died of heat exposure after a fall. While it is unlikely his death was natural, he was merely a data-agent. You're aware of the possible dangers, and you should be able to handle the situation. It should be far less stressful than the assignment you just completed, and it should allow the additional time for your nerves to heal before you return to more … strenuous duty.”

Another not-so-subtle reminder of his failure to exercise adequate caution in dealing with Sulynn, Roget thought. Yet … if she had been a plant … He pushed the thought away. He couldn't do anything about the past. He'd just have to be even more careful in the future.

“Your briefings will begin at eight hundred tomorrow morning. Kuyrien has the details, including your cover and travel schedule.”

“Yes, sir.” In short, he was supposed to conclude that he'd been a good boy, and he was getting an easy and relatively straightforward investigation as a reward. He didn't believe it. Officer-agents never got easy assignments, especially non-Sinese officer-agents who were neither junior nor senior.

“That is all, Agent-Captain.”

Roget rose. He'd never understood the reason for the short and summary assignment process, since what the colonel had conveyed didn't require any personal contact, unless it was to remind him that he had flesh-and-blood superiors—even if their names were never disclosed. Or to remind him that all agents lived on sufferance of one sort or another. He inclined his head politely, then turned and left the office.



16 MARIS 1811
P. D.

On the first day, Roget walked a good fifteen klicks before the daylight died away into a deep twilight that was not quite night. With the higher humidity, he'd had to put the all-weather jacket in his pack. Even so, he'd sweated a lot, and he'd had to stop and refill his water bottle several times. His treatment tabs would likely run out far sooner than he'd anticipated. With only the silver gray haze overhead, he had been able to make out only in a general fashion where the sun was. For some time before twilight, the western half of the sky appeared slightly brighter, but that might have been his imagination. The twilight had lasted longer, and that hadn't been just what he believed.

He'd seen tracks of animals that might have been deer or elk, or something similar, and paw prints of what could have been any type of large canine or nonhoofed mammal. All were quadrupeds. The leaves and needles of the trees were similar enough to those on earth, if a far darker green that verged on black, that the trees had to be Terran-derived, or some form of parallel evolution too alike to be coincidental. Those facts alone tended to confirm the colonel's suggestion of a Thomist world, but the ecology looked far too settled to have been established in a mere thousand years. There was also the fact that, while the colonel had paid lip service to the possibility of a hostile environment, the entire mission had been set up on the tacit assumption that Haze wasn't environmentally hostile.

He'd keep that in mind, but he just didn't know enough, not yet.

In setting up his camp, he decided on the hammock, although it took him some time to find a tree with branches high enough to be well above ground predators, low enough for him to be able to reach the branches, and strong enough to bear his weight. Although the not-quite-perfumed air was pleasant, there was something about it, the slightest of subscents, that nagged at him, and he didn't sleep that well. He also thought he heard movements, but whenever he woke, he saw nothing in the dimness that was as bright as a starlit night.

After Roget woke under a gradually brightening light, he surveyed the area around him from within the hammock. He could hear various sounds, from insects to bird calls, but he did not see any larger creatures. Again, his implants revealed no broadcast signals or power.

He struggled out of his hammock and then climbed along the stronger and wider branch closest to his head until he could swing down to the ground. Underneath where he had swung in his hammock were large paw prints. While he was carrying a sidearm, and a limited shot stunner, he was just as glad not to have had to use either.

Breakfast was not immediate because he needed water for the small self-heating ration-pak, and he did not find a stream for several klicks. After treating the water in the bottle he carried, he started the ration-pak, then refilled the bottle before he ate. Once finished with his mostly tasteless meal, he began to walk northward at a quick but comfortable pace.

He'd traveled less than an hour before the first butterfly fluttered down from the overhanging branches, swooping by his face so closely that its wings actually brushed his cheek. Its wings were a brilliant blue with swirls of gold. Then, there were two, and three, and then a handful, all swirling around his face and neck, and all with similar wing markings.

He half jumped at a needlelike jab on the back of his neck, then swatted at the swarm, which retreated. He spent the next klick waving off the butterflies, until they finally lost interest. He hadn't expected biting butterflies, but they were definitely a reminder that Haze was not just another exact earth-type world.

Sometime before midmorning he finally found a trail. He'd actually been paralleling it for more than a standard hour without knowing it, but it was higher on the slope by almost a klick. He caught sight of it from a large clearing stretching both uphill and down—a burned out area that had likely been the target of a lightning strike several years back, judging from the regrowth. Hiking uphill wasn't that bad, although his legs ached some by the time he reached the trail, not much more than packed earth stretching north and south under the predominantly evergreen canopy. The trail was of an even width, though, with a covering of wood mulch, and that suggested both continual use and maintenance.

As he hiked north, he studied the trail. In several places, he could make out relatively recent boot prints. They seemed no different from those left by any other human. In one place, the entire print was clear in the dried mud. Regular studded tread, the kind that was most likely produced by at least a midtech culture. So … where were the people? Could they have all been evacuated? How? There had been no sign of any broadcast comm. Or was he walking the trail at a time equivalent to midweek, when few were out and about?

As he kept walking and watching, he tried to review what he'd learned about the Thomists. Initially, they had been a loose movement scattered throughout the Federation in its early years. Their slogan or watchwords were simply, “Doubt it.” Their initial political activities had revolved around providing factual information that cast doubt on the statements and policies of politicians, administrators, multilaterals, and others in positions of authority and trust. Later statements and papers suggested scientific skepticism as well. A number had been detained or sequestered in the second War of Confederation, but a larger number had obtained an early jumpship and had begun to ferry followers and equipment out of the Sol system. After a cat-and-mouse game lasting several objective centuries, the jumpship had been intercepted by a Federation flotilla and destroyed when it refused to surrender. The High Command had never been fully convinced that there was but a single renegade ship, but the ships of the Federation Interstellar Service, which patrolled all of the systems that held Federation worlds—not that there were any other kind, to date—had never found any trace of any other worlds that had ever been inhabited by intelligent life—until Haze.

So why were the colonel and the High Command convinced that Haze held Thomists, as opposed to some other unknown splinter group that might have fled during the disruptions that had surrounded the establishment and consolidation of the Federation? Roget didn't know, but the boot print, the empty trail, and the lack of power and broadcast emissions all left him with a most uneasy feeling.

He kept walking and watching … and shooing away the carnivorous, or at least biting, butterflies.

By what he felt was late afternoon, he had the definite sense that the planet had a quicker rotation than T-norm. From his implants and senses, he had a general sense that the local “day” was around twenty-one or twenty-two stans, but without a sun directly in the sky, it might be several days before he could pin it down exactly. The other matter was that of clouds. He'd seen a few, although they were thin, almost stratuslike. Was that because the planet didn't have spots of more localized heat created by the direct rays of the sun?

Another standard hour passed, according to his own internal clock, which was clearly out of synch with the rotational pattern of Haze. Ahead of him, on the downhill side of the trail, he saw something. Something unnatural.

He froze, then stepped sideways and into the widely spaced trees.

Step by step, Roget moved over the carpet of pine needles, a sign that there were no earthworms in all likelihood, passing from tree to tree, taking time and care. After he had covered the first fifty meters, he could make out the stone building set into the hillside so artfully that it was almost invisible. Even the slates of the roof had been cut irregularly and were of differing shades of gray and black.

When he finally got within twenty meters of the building, he was largely convinced that no one was there. The brown shutters on the two windows flanking the east-facing door were fastened shut. The gray brown door was closed.

Roget sensed no one, heard no one. He moved closer, edging along the side of the small building. In the clay in front of the door, there was one set of boot prints that seemed to match the one he had seen earlier, and they showed someone leaving. A paw print over part of the boot imprint suggested that it wasn't that recent.

With the stunner in one hand, Roget pressed down on the smooth, dull gray metal door lever. To his surprise, it depressed under the pressure of his hand, and the door opened inward.

There was no one inside. A wooden table that might have been oak stood in front of the shuttered window on the south side of the single room. Four armless wooden chairs were set around the table. In the middle of the west wall was a stone hearth. Behind it was a stone wall. A radiant heat pipe ran up one side of the wall, across the top, and down the other. In the middle of the hearth was a small iron stove with two heating elements. Roget suspected all were light powered, with some sort of concentrator. On each side of the hearth were built-in double bunks, one over the other, simple wooden shelflike spaces.

The roof slates were clearly more than they appeared to be. That, or the heating elements were geothermal in nature. He eased into the building, leaving the door open. Was he under observation? If he happened to be, that observation was all passive, because he could sense no energy flows.

There was a small metal plate set at eye level in the stone wall on the right side. The plate was of the same pewterlike gray metal as the door lever. Protruding from the plate were two studs and a dial, also metal. Roget stepped forward and pressed the left stud, then the right one. Within moments he could feel warmth flowing from the dark gray heat pipe—made out of some sort of composite, he judged. He turned the dial to the left, and the heat flow increased. Immediately, he turned it all the way to the right, and the heat flow died away. The building was warm enough. Then he stepped back and in front of what he had taken to be the stove. On the thin angled surface between the stove top and the front were three inset dials but only two elements. He looked down at the front and shook his head. A sliding panel provided the entry to an oven of some sort.

BOOK: Haze and the Hammer of Darkness
6.82Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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