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Authors: Henry V. O'Neil

Dire Steps

BOOK: Dire Steps
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DEDICATION

This book is dedicated to the members of the West Point Class of 1985

For Excellence We Strive

 

EPIGRAPH

Discover the force of the heavens, O Men; once recognized, it can be put to use.

—­
J
OHANNES
K
EPLER

 

CHAPTER ONE

T
he man sat at a metal table in a small room with pale walls. Lights directly overhead beat down on blond hair cut military-­close and the travel uniform of a captain in the Human Defense Force. The man's hands were folded in front of him, and he was concentrating on keeping them still.

The room's one door opened with a ripping noise that the captain recognized as soundproofing. A uniformed guard held the door's handle, allowing a tall man to enter before pulling the hatch shut again. The captain raised his eyes to study the figure before him, noting a frame that was lean and strong despite the signs that he was no longer young. The captain recognized his visitor's gray uniform, but tried to hide his fear as the newcomer sat across from him.

“What's your name?” the tall man asked.

The captain frowned, but quickly smoothed his features. “I would hope you'd already know that, given that you're detaining me against my will.”

“You're an officer in the Human Defense Force during time of war. Legally, you have no will. What is your name?”

“Antonine Nabulit. I'm assigned to the staff of the Twelfth Corps, on leave from the war zone, and if you will just allow me to contact—­”

“Your boss? The commanding general of the Twelfth Corps? We already communicated with him, and he was unable to explain your absence from his command.”

Nabulit's face lost some of its color.

“Do you know who
I
am?” The tall man placed his fingertips on the table. His hands were large, and the overhead lights made the scar tissue shine.

“No.”

“But you do recognize my uniform.”

“Yes. You're with the security detachment for the Chairman of the Emergency Senate.”

“Close. I'm not
with
Chairman Mortas's security. I'm in charge of it.”

“You're Hugh Leeger.”

“Very good. This will go much more smoothly if you don't pretend you're anything but the chief interrogator for Twelfth Corps.”

“Listen, I know what this is about now, and I was only doing my job. I was ordered—­”

“To interrogate Chairman Mortas's son when he was injured and starving? To threaten to kill him if he didn't answer your questions, and say you'd never tell his father that Lieutenant Mortas had been found alive?”

“Yes. Exactly that. I was ordered to do all that. And you would have understood, if you'd been there. The transport carrying the Chairman's son went missing, the whole corps was looking for him, and he turned up at Glory Main—­excuse me, the top secret corps headquarters—­with a Force psychoanalyst who turned out to be an alien impersonating a human. We needed answers, and we needed them right away.”

“I see. But the abuse didn't stop once you got those answers, did it? Jander told you everything he could, and you took him along when you abandoned Glory Main, but he remained a prisoner.”

“Again, I was acting under orders. This is my job, my training.” The captain appeared to warm to the subject. Straightening in his chair, he waved a hand at the cramped space. “You keep the subject guessing about everything, especially his whereabouts, which is exactly what you're doing to me. The last thing I remember, I was being sealed in my Transit Tube, and when I woke up from the voyage I was in a detention cell. I have no idea where I am right now.”

“You're in Unity Plaza.”

Nabulit swallowed. The Unity Plaza complex was the personal headquarters of Olech Mortas. His eyes roved over the walls, as if trying to imagine the towering buildings all around him. Or above him.

“I'm not your enemy, and certainly not the Chairman's. My interrogation actually helped Lieutenant Mortas. I proved that he didn't realize he was bringing an enemy alien to a corps headquarters. And how could he? It was almost impossible to guess that thing wasn't human, until we got them both into the scanning tubes.”

“The tubes you said were for decontamination.”

“We had no idea who—­or what—­they were. They showed up at Glory Main in a commandeered enemy ship, no advance warning, so we reacted accordingly. And the scanners proved we were right to do that. Once the alarms went off, the alien burst into a million flying particles, and we burned it up while it was still confined in that tube. It was the right thing to do.”

“Oh, but you are actually wrong.”

“How can I be wrong? Were you there? Lieutenant Mortas was returned to duty, and because we detected and destroyed that
thing
he brought with him, we were able to alert the rest of the Force that a shape-­shifting entity had entered the war. There's been no reported sighting of anything like that creature since the first one, so how could that be wrong?”

“I wasn't talking about the alien, or your mistreatment of the young man whom I practically raised.” Leeger's eyes slipped toward a blackened observation window on the side wall, and then back. “I meant you were wrong when you said you know why you're here.”

“Why am I here, then? What's the point of this?”

“You should be able to figure that out on your own. You can start by dropping that lie about being on leave. Your boss certainly has.”

“I have travel orders stating I'm in a leave status. I'm a returned war veteran, and you're preventing me from traveling to my home planet.”

“I wouldn't call an interrogator from the worst corps in the war zone a veteran of anything, but that's beside the point. You see, Nabulit, once we learned of the alien's existence, we put all of our networks on lookout for any indication of our new opponent. Most of what we've found was just a rehashing of our own disinformation campaign, but every now and then there's a tidbit that catches my attention. And when that morsel contains details about the alien that only a few ­people should know, you can bet I look into it closely.

“You visited a number of alliance planets before we scooped you up. You've been briefing some very important officials about that creature, and you've also made some side trips to meet with ­people we haven't identified yet. That's why your general has disowned you. We told him about the nice commissions you've made by selling what you know to ­people who weren't on his list.

“You've violated a whole host of wartime security regulations, any one of which carries the death penalty.” Leeger stood. “I'm going to give you a little time to think about that.”

The tall man slapped the door twice with the palm of his hand. It opened immediately, but he didn't leave. “And Nabulit? Don't think this is one of those silly head games they taught you in Interrogator 101. No one is going to come in here and offer you a deal. You're going to give us the names of everyone you've met, and everything you told them. Then we're going to decide if you get shipped off to a war-­zone penal unit—­or if we kill you right here.”

“H
e'll talk. He knows that his protector's abandoned him.”

Leeger spoke in a darkened room next to the interrogation cell. Three large wall screens provided a dull illumination, one showing Captain Nabulit nervously seated at the table while the other two held blurred images of video footage paused in midplay. Leeger's boss, whose son had been tormented by their prisoner only months before, stood facing the screens. As tall as his security chief and only two years his senior in age, Olech Mortas nodded judiciously.

“Look at this here.”

Mortas activated one of the tapes, revealing a setting that both he and Leeger had seen before. The recording showed a sterile white room at Glory Main, containing two transparent cylinders that ran from floor to ceiling. A figure in an armored fighting suit entered the space, followed by Jander and the alien that had been impersonating a Force psychoanalyst named Captain Amelia Trent. They were the only survivors of a group of four who'd been marooned on a hostile planet, and their tattered uniforms were covered in dirt and blood. Jander was the taller of the two, but they shared similar features in that their hair was dark, both of them were in their twenties, and they looked like they could use a meal. They were directed to remove all their clothing before entering the cylinders, which were referred to as decontamination tubes.

Trent was visibly shaken by the command, and fixed frightened eyes on the tubes while slowly peeling off her ragged flight suit. Seeing her discomfort, Jander reached out and touched the bare flesh of her left side. “Hey. Thanks for not dying on me.”

Olech paused the tape. “That mark on her ribs was where the alien was impaled by flying debris when they were stealing the shuttle. The thing had healed itself, but Jan didn't know that.”

The tape started again. Naked and filthy, Jander and Trent began walking toward the now-­open cylinders. In a childlike gesture, they took each other's hand. Looking at Trent with concern, Jander spoke again. “It's all right. They're just gonna wash us off, and then we'll get nice clean clothes and some hot food, and then they'll have the docs check us out.”

Apparently those soothing words were not enough, as Olech's son continued to speak. “Listen. You just look at me while this is going on. All right? Look right in my eyes, until they hit us with the suds of course, but you just look right at me and everything will be fine. Heck, we got this far, what's a little shower?”

Trent responded with a weak smile. “Thank you, Jan. Get me through this, okay?”

Olech stopped the footage, turning toward Leeger in the gloom.

“They never showed us that part.” Leeger murmured. They'd both seen footage of what had followed, the flashing lights and mechanical alarms, and the creature transforming into a swirling cloud of mothlike specks before fire had blown through the tube and incinerated it.

“Exactly. Doesn't seem too important, until you hear this.”

Olech activated the third screen, where a graph jumped into life with the oscillations of audiotape. Jander's voice, shouting in anger and fear, a scene with which Olech and Leeger were familiar. When Jander's hijacked Sim shuttle had approached the barren space rock that held Glory Main, the headquarters defense systems had seized control of the vessel and set it on a collision course with the surface. Yelling over the radio, Jander had revealed that he was the son of the feared Chairman of the Emergency Senate.

“Answer me, damn you! Whoever you are, you will
not
survive the
shitstorm
when my father finds out what happened to me!
And he
will!

The words were accompanied by the whine of the shuttle's straining engines, but then Trent's voice was heard. Soft. Resigned. Calm.

“Jander.” A brief pause. “Thanks for getting me here, Jan.”

Olech stopped the playback, already knowing that the invocation of his name had saved his son and his duplicitous companion.

“Something else they held back on us. Never heard her say that on the other tape,” Leeger mused, trying to imagine why the senior officers at Glory Main had edited the recordings they had forwarded with the original report.

“But they included them in the package our friend”—­Olech waved a hand at the screen showing their prisoner—­“was showing around. Which means they considered them significant.”

“Think they figured out something more happened in the tubes?” Despite weeks of interrogation, Jander had managed to keep his captors from learning that the alien had communicated with him telepathically while they were both trapped in the cylinders. When Jander had been released, he'd told his father how the shape-­shifting creature had explained the entire ordeal in a sort of deathbed confession. That Jander and the others had been taken prisoner while being transported unconscious in the faster-­than-­light travel known as the Step. That the alien had already taken the place of the murdered Captain Trent by then, and how the quartet's marooning on the planet now known as Roanum had been a setup right from the start.

“I doubt it. If that were the case, Command could have scooped Jan up for further questioning at any time after he returned to the war zone.”

“Maybe they're just trying to learn everything they can about the thing. For their own ends.” Despite its shocking capabilities and near success at infiltrating a major headquarters, the alien's advent had not been repeated. The entire Force in the distant war zone had gone on high alert, but nothing like the creature had been seen in the seven months since the incident.

“That's quite possible. The thing has an astounding potential. Did you detect anything in the scuttlebutt suggesting the alien could act as a translator between us and the Sims? So far Ayliss has been the only one to think of that.” The war had been in progress for forty years, and the possibility of finally being able to communicate with their humanoid enemy was something Olech found enticing.

“No, nothing we intercepted has suggested the thing could act as a go-­between. Perhaps our alliance partners are curious because they don't believe the alien picked your son at random. Reena thinks they are.” Leeger spoke of Olech's lover.

“After all this time, and all the goodies I've handed them, you'd think they would have learned to at least trust my judgment. Even if they don't trust me personally.”

“Your little land grab didn't increase their confidence.” Six months before, having learned that alliance members were staking claims to captured planets in the war zone, Olech had turned the tables on them by claiming the prizes for the Veterans Auxiliary. A popular agency, the Auxiliary had been tasked with setting up colonies for discharged soldiers on the captured planets.

“Those bandits want the natural resources, not the planets themselves. I made it abundantly clear that they'd all continue to share in the exploitation of those worlds. Their operations haven't skipped a beat, so there's no reason for them to resent my decision.”

BOOK: Dire Steps
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