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Author: L. E. Modesitt, Jr.
Publisher: Tor, 2009

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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What lies beneath the millions of orbiting nanotech satellites that shroud the world called Haze? Major Keir Roget's mission is to make planetfall in secret, find out, and report back to his superiors in the Federation, the Chinese-dominated government that rules Earth and the colonized planets.

For all his effectiveness as a security agent, Roget is troubled by memories of an earlier mission. When he was assigned to covert duty in the Noram backcountry town of St. George, he not only discovered that the long-standing Saint culture was neither as backward nor as harmless as his superiors believed, but he barely emerged with his life and sanity whole. Now, scouting Haze, he finds a culture seemingly familiar, yet frighteningly alien, with hints of a technology far superior to that of the Federation. Yet he is not certain how much of what he sees is real--or how to convey a danger he cannot even prove to his superiors, if he can escape Haze.


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.

"It should be. It's the heart of world culture and the capital of the Federation." Roget offered a polite smile.

"It's been a capital before. Capitals come and go. They have here for more than sixty-five centuries." Kuang's voice was matter-of-fact above the whine of some form of ground transport, muted by the snoopblock, that rose from the street some eleven levels below. A mock lightning bolt flashed across the top of a tower bordering the river.

"Taiyuan has lasted longer than any other... and in greater glory."

"So has its intrigue."

"If there are people, there's intrigue," Roget said, taking a last sip of the amber brew. He would have preferred a true lager, but Kuang had once mentioned that a preference for western lager was a sign of less than discriminating taste, and Kuang was the senior officer-agent in the team. He'd also report on Roget's performance, and that would determine whether Roget would remain a team member... or head his own team or be given an independent assignment. Either of the latter options was preferable to reporting to Kuang... or anyone else, Roget felt.

"True, and, like most people, the intriguers never learn."

"I wonder," mused Roget, setting his beaker on the table. "Is it that the intriguers never learn, or is it that the ones that we catch are the ones that never learn?"

"You're suggesting something." Kuang offered a thin smile. "You often do."

"We never catch anyone involved in the Federation government, but we all know that there's intrigue there. We seldom catch anyone in the upper levels of the multilateral corporations, and we all know that they're not always pure."

"Purity doesn't have much to do with legality," said Kuang. "We aren't given a choice. Our job is to uphold the law, not to monitor personal ethics."

"That's right. How could it be otherwise?" asked Roget. "But the most skillful intriguers know how to operate within the law, and they do. Then, there are the misguided idealists like the ones we're pursing. They believe the laws are corrupt. Because of that, they never learned how the laws operate. They couldn't use them if they tried."

"They're not idealists. For all their rhetoric about the lack of freedom in commerce, and their protestations that they're only trying to restore full freedoms, they're anti-social thugs. Full freedom is another word for chaos and mob rule. You should remember that." Kuang's voice was calm.

Roget managed another polite smile at the veiled reference to the fall of old America, a reference that Kuang managed to make more than infrequently.

"It's time to go." Kuang stood. "You have the datacard?"

Roget rose as well, nodding.

"Make sure you get them to say that you'll be paid."

"I can do that." Roget followed the senior agent from the balcony through the living area to the front door, then out into the corridor. The dull polished metallic composite of the corridor wall reflected but vague image of his dark blue singlesuit and light gray vest - the standard garb for a mid-level datager or multilateral proffie.

The two FSA agents walked without speaking to the center of the tower, waiting for a descending lift car. Two passed, presumably full of residents, before a third, half-filled, stopped. No one in the car spoke as the lift continued downward. Once they stepped out of the lift at the concourse level of the residence tower, Kuang headed north. Roget continued straight ahead, toward the Chiacun Tube station. At close to ten, the evening was still young, and people streamed to and from the underground transport. Most were couples, often in pairs, but some of the groups were either of young men or, more frequently, of young women.

Roget held an open-link, but neither Kuang nor Kapeli pulsed him. As the most junior member of the team, Kapeli was tasked with the routine tailing of the targets, but he'd have contacted Roget if anything looked out of the ordinary, and that meant that Sulynn's group had headed to the rendezvous.

When Roget reached the Chiacun station, he swiped a dayproxy CredID past the scanner at the entrance, then headed down the moving ramp. Once he was on the concourse level, he joined the queue for the southbound riverside express. According to his internal monitors, the wait was nine minutes and twenty-one seconds.

Once the tube train doors opened, Roget moved with the crowd into the nearest car. He took a position with his back to the silvered train wall, just to one side of the doors, his hands apparently loosely folded over each other as he surveyed the others nearby, taking in the pretty dark-haired schoolgirl with her parents, the three female clericals chatting amiably, the off-duty space-forcer with the eyes that seemed veiled, and the groups of datagers who had clearly just left work.

Twelve minutes - and roughly seventeen klicks later - Roget stepped from the train at the Shengli station, brushing through others, his internal monitors registering so many energy sources that they might as well have been useless. Amid the crowds, energy weapons were unlikely, knives or muffled projectiles far more probable. Keeping with the fast-moving crowds, he walked swiftly up the moving ramp, and then out into the chill evening air. He strode across the Plaza that opened onto the River Fen.

Not more than fifteen meters into the crowded Plaza, from his right, he sensed the quick movement. He turned, his hand stiffened, and struck, hardly moving his upper body, as his movement fractured a lower arm. Then he slammed his boot heel down on the top of the would-be lifter's foot. "So very sorry." His Mandarin was impeccably polite as the youth half-crumpled, half-cringed away. While Stenglish was the official Federation language, Roget had found that in some circumstances Mandarin was preferable.

The others in the crowd parted just slightly, hardly altering their paths or changing their verbal or commnet conversations. Another youth turned and hurried away from his wounded partner.

Stupid, thought Roget. The vidcams would note it, and the patrollers would have both members of the lifter team in custody in moments. While the patrollers could stop him, legally, that was highly unlikely. They had more than enough to do than to detain someone who'd acted to prevent being assaulted or robbed.

On the far side of the Plaza, Roget turned north on the promenade that overlooked the River Fen. His destination was the LeClub Henois, some three tower-blocks from the Plaza. Strains of plaintive and perfectly re-pitched kaluriolk - perfectly boring, thought Roget - drifted through a night lit with piped sunlight split into monobeams that played across the walkways as if at random.

Once he passed, the first tower, the crowds thinned. Even so, he had to step aside to avoid a commlinked-couple, their eyes blank, who walked automatically southward toward the Plaza.
Two youths ran down the walkway, dodging pedestrians as they exchanged long passes of virtie dirigibles that morphed into miniature spacecraft far sleeker than the real vessels.

At the door to LeClub Henois, Roget again flashed the proxy, triggering the reservation code. The broad-shouldered Sinese doorman barely nodded in acknowledging his presence, despite the fact that a good third of the proffies in the capital were Euro. A whisper projected in Stenglish to Roget's ears announced, "The corner table to the northwest."

Roget turned to his right and continued. LeClub Henois was furnished in fifty-first Century - or twenty-fifth century by the western Gregorian calendar - Vietnamese decor, which was, in turn, an offshoot of earlier French colonial. Roget doubted that many knew or cared that, not after more than a millennium of Federation one-worldism. Those who might care, in the still radioactive and glassy ruins of TransIslamia or in the scattered eco-isolates of Afrique, were in no position either to object or to do anything about it.

Few people looked directly at him as he wound his way through the tables toward the northwest corner. From below the low stage, under the shifting multi-images, some of which were real, and most of which were not, a small combo played, and scents and sounds wafted across the club. Roget winced as bitter lime clashed with pepper cinnamon and oversweet bergamot, amplified by three wavering and atonal chord lines playing through each other.

As he neared the corner table with the two couples - and the two vacant chairs - he glanced around casually. He didn't see Sulynn, and that wasn't good. Yet he hadn't heard anything from Kapeli.

Roget slipped into the chair across from Huilam. "Very lively place."

"It will do," replied Huilam. "It's not authentic in the slightest, but any orbit in a flux. It is amusing, in a degrading sort of way."

"Degrading?" Roget raised his eyebrows. "Isn't imitation the sincerest and noblest form of flattery?"

"Good imitation is, but that is infrequent. The Sinese merely absorb, without true regard for the subtleties of other cultures, while demanding full respect for all the meaningless subtleties in their own."

"That's been true of all dominant cultures in history," Roget replied.

"Except for your own. When the old Americans had power, there was no subtlety at all. That was refreshing at first, until the world realized that the lack of fine distinctions reflected a corresponding lack of depth and a innate contempt for true culture."

"That's what history says, but it's always written by the winner. Look at Ramses the Great."

"Ah, yes. Part of the longest-lived imperial culture in history, the most stable, and the one with almost no technical and scientific advancement from beginning to end. Your American ancestors redeemed themselves for a time by their scientific advances, many of which they stole, but made available to the world. Then, conformity and that contempt for true education stifled even their science. That always happens in empires."

"Even the ancient Sinese fell prey to that," Roget pointed out.

"But of course. One expects that of empires, without exception. That is why they should not last forever." Huilam's lips twisted into a momentary sardonic smile. "You have the entertainment card?"

The "entertainment card" meant the specs and keys to certain proprietary economic accounts in the Federation Bank of Taiyuan. Theoretically, use of that information, as planned by Huilam and Sulynn, would cripple banking functions, if not disable them permanently, until the entire system architecture was restructured and reformulated. It would also allow them short-term access to billions of yuan to fund their "revolution."

Roget slipped the thin leather folder onto the table, making certain it was in plain sight of whatever monitors Kuang had arranged. "Both hard-copy and molecular-key. You should be able to enjoy yourselves immensely and most profitably with the subjects appearing there. They're absolutely without cover. Quite amazing." Roget smiled, not quite lewdly. "I expected to see Sulynn here."

"You just missed her," said Pryncia, from beside Huilam. "I'm most certain she'll catch up with you."

"She had something to tell you," added Moriena from across the table.

Huilam nodded, half-smiling.

"Payment?" asked Roget.

"You'll be paid, just as agreed. We have the proxy-drop." Huilam lifted his goblet and sipped, as if to dismiss Roget.

"Within the day," Roget emphasized.

"Of course."

Roget stood. "If you need any more special entertainment, you know how to reach me." He did not move, letting his greater height emphasize the point.

"That we do," Huilam nodded. "We will be in touch."

"Until then." Roget inclined his head, then turned and began to wind his way back through the tables. Once he left the LeClub, he'd have to be most careful. Leaving a drop was one of the most dangerous parts of any operation, and especially of this one, he feared. But what choice did he really have? What real choices had he ever had?

The doorman didn't even look in his direction as Roget stepped back out into the moderate warmth of the late summer evening... and under the shifting lights of the promenade. He'd taken less than ten steps, deftly avoiding close contact with anyone, still mulling over Huilam's point about how empires stifled scientific advances, when he heard a voice.


Roget recognized Sulynn's voice. Should he ignore her? He'd completed his immediate part of the operation. That would be the safest, but it would also make her more suspicious, and the rest of the team could use more time to round up all the terrvert group.

He turned slowly to his right, as if trying to locate the caller.

Sulynn stood alone, a good ten meters away, between one group of young women and another of two couples, her black hair up in a stylish twist.

As a young man hurried past leaving the space between them open, Sulynn offered an embarrassed smile, then shrugged.

Roget saw the glint in her left hand too late.

Blackness slammed into him.

Copyright © 2009 by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.


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