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Authors: David Drake,Roger MacBride Allen

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BOOK: The War Machine: Crisis of Empire III
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The KT man glanced away and nodded woodenly, obviously trying to mask his own embarrassment. “You have passed the second part of the test. The Kona Tatsu has failed. We are in danger from an unknown force that can neutralize our best people undetectably. Anyone who can do that threatens the entire Pact. And the Pact is exposed to enough threats as it is. It might not survive the assassination crisis. If it does, then it will still be severely weakened. Not ready to face whatever is flattening the KT on Daltgeld.”

The nameless man looked back at Spencer and flashed a joyless, mechanical smile. “We want your help. And we’re going to get it, aren’t we?”

Spencer nodded woodenly. At least they weren’t insulting his intellect by pretending he had a choice.

Chapter Three
Suss

Al Spencer stood in front of the mirror in his hospital room and looked himself over. A thin, haggard, flimsy-looking man stared back. He had lost a lot of weight to the feel-good button, and not yet gained it back. His uniforms no longer fit. But then, no part of his life fit him anymore. Not his involuntary bachelorhood, not his rank or service assignment. Why should his clothes?

And what about his assignment—or should he even call it that? It would be better described as his cover, even if the face that looked out of the mirror at him didn’t look much like a spy. What was it they were expecting of him, anyway?

He sighed unhappily. Spencer knew perfectly well what their expectations were. No need to ask himself rhetorical questions. It was pretty obvious he was meant to serve as a target, a decoy. Something for the Kona Tatsu’s enemies to shoot at while the real KT operatives got on with the job.

He peered deeper into the mirror, tried to look himself in the eye. It wasn’t easy. Not anymore.

He blinked and came back to himself, plucked idly at the loose folds of cloth that hung from him. Ill-fitting uniforms didn’t matter. They, like every other part of his life, were about to be shed in favor of something else. The Kona Tatsu had plans for him. They were shifting him over from the Guard to the Navy, assigning him a ship, indeed a whole fleet. In the Pact military, a transfer from one service to another was nothing unusual, but still this move would be of note. Becoming a Navy captain was the equivalent of another jump in rank from a Guard captain. In effect, he had received yet another promotion. That should have made him proud, certainly—but not even a shiny new command could resurrect his self-respect completely.

He did not feel entitled to the command, or that he had earned it. It was the KT’s work, plain and simple. He was their man. And it was pretty damn galling to learn that the secret police could control the military command structure, seemingly at whim. How often did they do it? How many seemingly meteoric careers were really just the KT putting their own man forward? Spencer felt like a pawn in the KT’s game, and knew that it was a pretty accurate analogy.

No, he didn’t have much to be proud of. Not when his fingers still curled around an imaginary feel-good control whenever unhappy thoughts came to his mind. But if he wanted to survive, and stay off Penitence, he would have to put the best possible face on the situation. He’d have to
act
proud, at least.

He smoothed the uniform jacket down over his blouse as best he could, turned, and stepped out into the hallway. He had orders to depart this morning at 0900 hours, and the time had come. He had no bags with him, nothing to carry away with him but his AID. It banged against his hip as he walked. The damn thing had saved his life, but he still didn’t like carrying it.

He looked up and down the hallway at the ward. As usual, the place was deserted. Spencer had not laid eyes on anyone but the nameless KT man since his arrival. No patients, no doctors, no nurses, no staff. There were three other rooms for patients, a nurse’s station, a diagnostic control pod—but there was no one there to cure or be cured. Just the medical and maintenance robots. They did all the work. A wholly automated ward, run that way for security reasons, no doubt. This was obviously some sort of KT facility. But was it an entire KT hospital, or just one small clinic inside a larger complex?

Not even the KT man here to see him off. Typical. No doubt the watchers were on duty, the surveillance AIDs recording his every move. Spencer raised a hand, waved good-bye to where he thought a camera might be. But then how to get the hell out of here?

It turned out to be simpler than he thought. All the doors but one were locked, and that led out onto a blank hallway full of doors—only one of which would open. That led out onto a stairwell. He followed it down to another doorway, and so on through a whole rabbit’s warren of tunnels, stairwells and droptubes that seemed like they must lead him halfway across the city. There was never more than one door that would open, and every door locked quite firmly behind him.

At last he found himself decanted out into a dark, dank narrow alley. It was a fetid, nasty place—but he could see the sky from here. Al looked straight up, and saw the gleam of stars.
Stars?
How could that be? Al glanced at his watch. It wasn’t even ten in the morning. Unless the watch had been damaged. “AID, what time is it?” he asked.

“It is 0957 hours planetary standard, and late evening local zone standard.”

Al blinked, feeling badly disoriented. He was on the other side of the world from his home city.

“Where the hell are we?”

“I am not permitted to answer questions of locale until we are returned to your own home.”

Typical, Al decided. His own AID was taking orders from the KT. Clearly, they wanted him to get home without knowing where he had been.
Another
damn test, this time an exercise in keeping his own knowledge limited. There were certainly ways he
could
figure out where this was. Walk out from here until he found a street sign. Memorize the star positions overhead, and then compare that to the exact time to get a longitude. But no, his AID had simply said it was “late evening”—no doubt on the KT’s instructions to be vague. Without knowing the local celestial time, he couldn’t use the sky. Never mind. He could simply walk out from here until he found a citizen to ask where he was.

But they didn’t
want
him to know, were challenging him to get home
without
finding out. He was getting tired of these little pop quizzes. Nevertheless, he was obviously being watched, somehow, so he’d better play by the rules. “AID, call me a cab,” he said in a tired voice. “And see if you can charge the fare to the Kona Tatsu.” Al Spencer knew his credit balance wasn’t up to paying for intercontinental cab fares. He didn’t mind dancing to the KT’s tune, so long as they paid the piper.

“The KT pays all operational expenses of its personnel. It’s taken care of,” the AID said, with what might have been just a hint of gently mocking humor in its voice.

A cab dropped out of the sky and touched down in the middle of the street. It sidled over to the curb on its hoverskirt and opened its door in front of Al. He climbed in and sat down. “Tell the cab to opaque windows and take me home,” he told the AID testily. “And fly via non-direct routes.” The KT wouldn’t want him to be able to look out the window, or calculate his starting point from measuring the flight time.

Which meant he had a flight of long and indeterminate length to look forward to, hours of sitting inside a blacked-out cab with nothing to see or do.

The cab door shut, the windows blacked out, the interior lights came on, and the robot cab whooshed into the sky. Damn them. Damn them all and the games they played.
And damn me, too, for playing with them, as if I had much choice,
Spencer thought.

###

The near-silent thrumming of the cab’s engines, the dim interior lighting and the enforced inactivity conspired to put Allison Spencer into a light doze. He slept as the
kilometers whispered past, his hand now and again clench
ing around an imaginary switch.

It took only the slightest shift in the cab’s motion to awaken him. His eyes sprang open the moment the cab’s nose pitched downward, and it took him a second or two to remember where he was. “Cab, what is it?”

“Additional passenger proceeding to same destination has hailed me,” the cab answered in a dull voice.

The same destination! The cab was supposed to be
taking him
home!
He hadn’t planned on providing target practice just yet. He reached out and broke the seal on the emergency manual operation switch. He pushed the switch in hard, waiting for the manual controls to pop out so he could fly himself out of here. It scared him when nothing happened, but it didn’t exactly surprise him.

The situation was not good. Here he was, unarmed in a cab he could not control, heading toward a landing, a meeting with someone who had to know who he was. “AID! See if you can find a KT distress band and send an SOS. Flash under attack. Whatever the hell the KT calls it.”

“We are not under attack,” the AID announced calmly. “This stop was prearranged.”

Al Spencer felt his blood go cold. “You knew this was going to happen?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Who is it we’re picking up?”

“I am not at liberty to tell you.”

Al felt the sweat beading up on his forehead. His AID told him this was no attack—but his AID willfully had withheld information from him. How far a step was it from there to lying? If he were about to be attacked, could he trust this machine to tell him what it knew? “AID, who the hell do you work for?” he asked. He only had a few seconds to straighten this out.

“I am now employed by the Kona Tatsu, and have been assigned to your case.”

What sort of case was he? Spencer wondered irritably. Medical? Mental? Legal? Intelligence? “You are incorrect.
I
am employed by the Kona Tatsu. I
own
you. You are one of the tools I use to do my employer’s bidding. And I am expected to discard and destroy any tool that does not perform up to specification, before it could endanger a KT asset, such as myself. The specification for an AID includes keeping its owner informed and apprised of all pertinent data. Do you understand?”

“Yes.”

“Who do you work for?”

“Captain Allison Spencer.”

“Then, AID, who the hell is waiting to meet this cab?”

“A KT operative, name, rank and mission unknown.”

“That’s more like it. I think.” It wasn’t any more informative, but at least the AID was admitting it didn’t know. Spencer was inclined to accept its ignorance: AIDs weren’t usually very good liars. And even if the new arrival
was
a KT agent, that didn’t necessarily mean all was well. Every other organization in the Pact was divided into rival factions. Why not the Kona Tatsu? Why shouldn’t his nameless friend back at the hospital have enemies?

With that happy thought, Allison felt himself grow heavier for a moment as the cab braked and came in for a landing. Ten seconds later the interior lights dimmed to nothing. Al heard the door pop open, and saw the sky framed by the door for half a moment. A shape flitted through the door, silhouetted against the dark night sky. The door clicked shut and the cab was airborne again, pitching upward to head for the sky.

“Lights on,” a firm, low-pitched woman’s voice commanded. The cab’s interior lit up, and Allison Spencer found himself face to face with the figure of a smallish woman dressed completely in black, and nose-to-nose with the repulsor pistol she held in her hand. Her clothes were so dark that she was hard to see even in the cab’s lighting. Even her face was hidden behind a black mesh maskcap that cloaked her features completely. “Name,” she snapped out, in tones that made it an order and not a question.

“Allison Spencer,” he answered. “Who the hell are you?”

“What is your control’s name?” she demanded.

“How the hell would I know?” he replied irritably. “The son-of-a-bitch never told me.”

His inquisitor chuckled at that, and made the pistol disappear. “That’s him all right,” she said cheerfully. “Always very careful about need-to-know.” She cocked her head over her shoulder. “Santu, what’s the story?” she asked abruptly.

“His AID confirms his identity via radio link,” a muffled voice replied from the rucksack on the woman’s back. “I’d trust it. The military models are hard to manipulate without leaving traces.”

“All right, Spencer, you are who you are. So maybe we can get down to business.”

“Who are you?” Spencer asked again, this time with what he hoped was a tone of exaggerated—and threatening—patience.

The newcomer shed her backpack. “Suss Nanahbuc. Your new live-in concubine. Santu, take over this cab and get us some speed. I want to get where we’re going.” Suss sighed and reached her hand out to Al. He took it and shook mechanically. “Nice to meet you, Spencer. Hold on just a second while I get out of this damn spy get-up.”

Spencer watched Suss carefully, with the sinking feeling that he had just lost control of his life to this undersized secret agent.

She leaned back in the bench seat facing him and started peeling off her outer garments. The ski mask came off first, and Spencer found himself vaguely disappointed by what it revealed. Spies and agents were supposed to be startlingly beautiful, or at least striking, and Suss was merely pretty, indeed rather ordinary-looking. She peeled off her black coveralls as well, revealing a modest business suit underneath, perfectly proper attire for a mid-level government bureaucrat. It made her look even more just an ordinary person.

She seemed even smaller, once she was out of the commando garb. She wouldn’t even come up to Spencer’s shoulders if the two of them stood side-by-side. Her face was thin, her skin pale, her black hair snaked in a tight, prim bun at the top of her head. She wore little jewelry or makeup.

But her eyes. They were eyes that had
seen
things, perhaps too many things in too short a time. They were big, almond-shaped eyes that told of almost pure-bred Asian stock reaching all the way back to ancient Earth, the irises dark blue, almost black. It would be hard to look into those eyes and not speak the truth. She undid the bun that held her hair in place and shook her head, letting her jet-black hair cascade down around her shoulders.

BOOK: The War Machine: Crisis of Empire III
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