THE INTERROGATION TEAM

The man the patrol brought in was about forty, bearded, and dressed in loose garments—sandals, trousers, and a vest that left his chest and thick arms bare. Even before he was handed from the back of the combat car, trussed to immobility in sheets of water-clear hydorclasp, Griffiths could hear him screaming about his rights under the York Constitution of ’03.

Didn’t the fellow realize he’d been picked up by Hammer’s Slammers?

“Yours or mine, Chief?” asked Major Smokey Soames, Griffiths’ superior and partner on the interrogation team—a slim man of Afro-Asian ancestry, about as suited for wringing out a mountaineer here on York as he was for swimming through magma. Well, Smokey’d earned his pay on Kanarese. . . .

“Is a bear Catholic?” Griffiths asked wearily. “Go set the hardware up, Major.”

“And haven’t I already?” said Smokey, but it had been nice of him to make the offer. It wasn’t that mechanical interrogation required close genetic correspondences between subject and operator, but the job went faster and smoother in direct relation to those correspondences. Worst of all was to work on a woman, but you did what you had to do. . . .

Four dusty troopers from A Company manhandled the subject, still shouting, to the command car housing the interrogation gear. The work of the firebase went on. Crews were pulling maintenance on the fans of some of the cars facing outward against attack, and one of the rocket howitzers rotated squealingly as new gunners were trained. For the most part, though, there was little to do at midday so troopers turned from the jungle beyond the berm to the freshly snatched prisoner and the possibility of action that he offered.

“Don’t damage the goods!” Griffiths said sharply when the men carrying the subject seemed ready to toss him onto the left-hand couch like a log into a blazing fireplace. One of the troopers, a noncom, grunted assent; they settled the subject in adequate comfort. Major Soames was at the console between the paired couches, checking the capture location and relevant intelligence information from Central’s data base.

“Want us to unwrap ‘im for you?” asked the noncom, ducking instinctively though the roof of the command car, cleared his helmet. The interior lighting was low, however, especially to eyes adapted to the sun hammering the bulldozed area of the firebase.

“Listen, me ‘n my family never, I swear it, dealt with interloping traders!” the York native pleaded.

“No, we’ll take care of it,” said Griffiths to the A Company trooper, reaching into the drawer for a disposable-blade scalpel to slit the hydorclasp sheeting over the man’s wrist. Some interrogators liked to keep a big fighting knife around, combining practical requirements with a chance to soften up the subject through fear. Griffiths thought the technique was misplaced: for effective mechanical interrogation, he wanted his subjects as relaxed as possible. Panic-jumbled images were better than no images at all; but only just better.

“We’re not the Customs Police, old son,” Smokey murmured as he adjusted the couch headrest to an angle which looked more comfortable for the subject. “We’re a lot more interested in the government convoy ambushed last week.”

Griffiths’ scalpel drew a line above the subject’s left hand and wrist. The sheeting drew back in a narrow gape, briefly iridescent as stresses within the hydorclasp readjusted themselves. As if the sheeting were skin, however, the rip stopped of its own accord at the end of the scored line. “What’re you doing to me?”

“Nothing I’m not doing to myself, friend,” said Griffiths, grasping the subject’s bared forearm with his own left hand so that their inner wrists were together. Between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand he held a standard-looking stim cone up where the subject could see it clearly, despite the cocoon of sheeting still holding his legs and torso rigid. “I’m George, by the way. What do your friends call you?”

“You’re drugging me!” the subject screamed, his fingers digging into Griffiths’ forearm fiercely. The mountaineers living under triple-canopy jungle looked pasty and unhealthy, but there was nothing wrong with this one’s muscle tone.

“It’s a random pickup,” said Smokey in Dutch to his partner. “Found him on a trail in the target area, nothing suspicious—probably just out sap-cutting—but they could snatch him without going into a village and starting something.”

“Right in one,” Griffiths agreed in soothing English as he squeezed the cone at the juncture of his and the subject’s wrist veins. The dose in its skin-absorbed carrier—developed from the solvent used with formic acid by Terran solifugids for defense—spurted out under pressure and disappeared into the bloodstreams of both men: thrillingly cool to Griffiths, and a shock that threw the subject into mewling, abject terror.

“Man,” the interrogator murmured as he detached the subject’s grip from his forearm, using the pressure point in the man’s wrist to do so, “if there was anything wrong with it, I wouldn’t have split it with you, now would I?”

He sat down on the other couch, swinging his legs up and lying back before the drug-induced lassitude crumpled him on the floor. He was barely aware of movement as Smokey fitted a helmet on the subject and ran a finger up and down columns of touch-sensitive controls on his console to reach a balance. All Griffiths would need was the matching helmet, since the parameters of his brain were already loaded into the database. By the time Smokey got around to him, he wouldn’t even feel the touch of the helmet.

Though the dose was harmless, as he’d assured the subject, unless the fellow had an adverse reaction because of the recreational drugs he’d been taking on his own. You could never really tell with the sap-cutters, but it was generally okay. The high jungles of York produced at least a dozen drugs of varying effect, and the producers were of course among the heaviest users of their haul.

By itself, that would have been a personal problem; but the mountaineers also took the position that trade off-planet was their own business, and that there was no need to sell their drugs through the Central Marketing Board in the capital for half the price that traders slipping into the jungle in small star-ships would cheerfully pay. Increasingly violent attempts to enforce customs laws on men with guns and the willingness to use them had led to what was effectively civil war—which the York government had hired the Slammers to help suppress.

It’s a bitch to fight when you don’t know who the enemy is; and that was where Griffiths and his partner came in.

“Now I want you to imagine that you’re walking home from where you were picked up,” came Smokey’s voice, but Griffiths was hearing the words only through the subject’s mind. His own helmet had no direct connection to the hushed microphone into which the major was speaking. The words formed themselves into letters of dull orange which expanded to fill Griffiths’ senses with a blank background.

The monochrome sheet coalesced abruptly, and he was trotting along a trail which was a narrow mark beaten by feet into the open expanse of the jungle floor. By cutting off the light, the triple canopies of foliage ensured that the real undergrowth would be stunted—as passable to the air-cushion armor of Hammer’s Slammers as it was to the locals on foot.

Judging distance during an interrogation sequence was a matter of art and craft, not science, because the “trip”—though usually linear—was affected by ellipses and the subject’s attitude during the real journey. For the most part, memory was a blur in which the trail itself was the major feature and the remaining landscape only occasionally obtruded in the form of an unusually large or colorful hillock of fungus devouring a fallen tree. Twice the subject’s mind—not necessarily the man himself—paused to throw up a dazzlingly sharp image of a particular plant, once a tree and the other time a knotted, woody vine which stood out in memory against the misty visualization of the trunk that the real vine must wrap.

Presumably the clearly defined objects had something to do with the subject’s business—which was none of Griffiths’ at this time. As he “walked” the Slammer through the jungle, the mountaineer would be mumbling broken and only partly intelligible words, but Griffiths no longer heard them or Smokey’s prompting questions.

The trail forked repeatedly, sharply visualized each time although the bypassed forks disappeared into mental fog within a meter of the route taken. It was surprisingly easy to determine the general direction of travel: though the sky was rarely visible through the foliage, the subject habitually made sunsightings wherever possible in order to orient himself.

The settlement of timber-built houses was of the same tones—browns, sometimes overlaid by a gray-green—as the trees which interspersed the habitations. The village glowed brightly by contrast with the forest, however, both because the canopy above was significantly thinner and because the place was home and a goal to the subject’s mind.

Sunlight, blocked only by the foliage of very large trees which the settlers had not cleared, dappled streets which had been trampled to the consistency of coarse concrete. Children played there, and animals—dogs and pigs, probably, but they were undistinguished shadows to the subject, factors of no particular interest to either him or his interrogator.

Griffiths did not need to have heard the next question to understand it, when a shadow at the edge of the trail sprang into mental relief as a forty-tube swarmjet launcher with a hard-eyed woman slouched behind it watching the trail. The weapon needn’t have been loot from the government supply convoy massacred the week before, but its swivelling base was jury-rigged from a truck mounting.

At present, the subject’s tongue could not have formed words more complex than a slurred syllable or two, but the Slammers had no need for cooperation from his motor nerves or intellect. All they needed were memory and the hard-wired processes of brain function which were common to all life forms with spinal cords. The subject’s brain retrieved and correlated the information which the higher centers of his mind would have needed to answer Major Soames’ question about defenses—and Griffiths collected the data there at the source.

Clarity of focus marked as the subject’s one of the houses reaching back against a bole of colossal proportions. Its roof was of shakes framed so steeply that they were scarcely distinguishable from the vertical timbers of the siding. Streaks of the moss common both to tree and to dwelling faired together cut timber and the russet bark. On the covered stoop in front, an adult woman and seven children waited in memory.

At this stage of the interrogation Griffiths had almost as little conscious volition as the subject did, but a deep level of his own mind recorded the woman as unattractive. Her cheeks were hollow, her expression sullen, and the appearance of her skin was no cleaner than that of the subject himself. The woman’s back was straight, however, and her clear eyes held, at least in the imagination of the subject, a look of affection.

The children ranged in height from a boy already as tall as his mother to the infant girl looking up from the woman’s arms with a face so similar to the subject’s that it could, with hair and a bushy beard added, pass for his in a photograph. Affection cloaked the vision of the whole family, limning the faces clearly despite a tendency for the bodies of the children to mist away rather like the generality of trees along the trail; but the infant was almost deified in the subject’s mind.

Smokey’s unheard question dragged the subject off abruptly, his household dissolving unneeded to the answer as a section of the stoop hinged upward on the end of his own hand and arm. The tunnel beneath the board flooring dropped straight down through the layer of yellowish soil and the friable rock beneath. There was a wooden ladder along which the wavering oval of a flashlight beam traced as the viewpoint descended.

The shaft was seventeen rungs deep, with a further gooseneck dip in the gallery at the ladder’s end to trap gas and fragmentation grenades. Where the tunnel straightened to horizontal, the flashlight gleamed on the powergun in a niche ready to hand but beneath the level to which a metal detector could be tuned to work reliably.

Just beyond the gun was a black-cased directional mine with either a light beam or ultrasonic detonator—the subject didn’t know the difference and his mind hadn’t logged any of the subtle discrimination points between the two types of fuzing. Either way, someone ducking down the tunnel could, by touching the pressure-sensitive cap of the detonator, assure that the next person across the invisible tripwire would take a charge of shrapnel at velocities which would crumble the sturdiest body armor.

“Follow all the tunnels,” Smokey must have directed, because Griffiths had the unusual experience of merger with a psyche which split at every fork in the underground system. Patches of light wavered and fluctuated across as many as a score of simultaneous images, linking them together in the unity in which the subject’s mind held them.

It would have made the task of mapping the tunnels impossible, but the Slammers did not need anything so precise in a field as rich as this one. The tunnels themselves had been cut at the height of a stooping runner, but there was more headroom in the pillared bays excavated for storage and shelter. Flashes—temporal alternatives, hard to sort from the multiplicity of similar physical locations—showed shelters both empty and filled with villagers crouching against the threat of bombs which did not come. On one image the lighting was uncertain and could almost have proceeded as a mental artifact from the expression of the subject’s infant daughter, looking calmly from beneath her mother’s worried face.

Griffiths could not identify the contents of most of the stored crates across which the subject’s mind skipped, but Central’s data bank could spit out a list of probables when the interrogator called in the dimensions and colors after the session. Griffiths would do that, for the record. As a matter of practical use, all that was important was that the villagers had thought it necessary to stash the material here—below the reach of ordinary reconnaissance and even high explosives.

There were faces in the superimposed panorama, villagers climbing down their own access ladders or passed in the close quarters of the tunnels. Griffiths could not possibly differentiate the similar, bearded physiognomies during the overlaid glimpses he got of them. It was likely enough that everyone, every male at least, in the village was represented somewhere in the subject’s memory of the underground complex.

There was one more sight offered before Griffiths became aware of his own body again in a chill wave spreading from the wrist where Smokey had sprayed the antidote. The subject had seen a nine-barreled powergun, a calliope whose ripples of high-intensity fire could eat the armor of a combat car like paper spattered by molten steel. It was deep in an underground bay from which four broad “windows”—firing slits—were angled upward to the surface. Preparing the weapon in this fashion to cover the major approaches to the village must have taken enormous effort, but there was a worthy payoff: at these slants, the bolts would rip into the flooring, not the armored sides, of a vehicle driving over the camouflaged opening of a firing slit. Not even Hammer’s heavy tanks could survive having their bellies carved that way. . . .

The first awareness Griffiths had of his physical surroundings was the thrashing of his limbs against the sides of the couch while Major Soames lay across his body to keep him from real injury. Motor control returned with a hot rush, permitting Griffiths to be still for a moment and pant.

“Need to go under again?” asked Smokey as he rose, fishing in his pocket for another cone of antidote for the subject if the answer was “no.”

“Got all we need,” Griffiths muttered, closing his eyes before he took charge of his arms to lift him upright. “It’s a bloody fortress, it is, all underground and cursed well laid out.”

“Location?” said his partner, whose fingernails clicked on the console as he touched keys.

“South by southeast,” said Griffiths. He opened his eyes, then shut them again as he swung his legs over the side of the couch. His muscles felt as if they had been under stress for hours, with no opportunity to flush fatigue poisons. The subject was coming around with comparative ease in his cocoon, because his system had not been charged already with the drug residues of the hundreds of interrogations which Griffiths had conducted from the right-hand couch. “Maybe three kays—you know, plus or minus.”

The village might be anywhere from two kilometers to five from the site at which the subject had been picked up, though Griffiths usually guessed closer than that. This session had been a good one, too, the linkage close enough that he and the subject were a single psyche throughout most of it. That wasn’t always the case: many interrogations were viewed as if through a bad mirror, the images foggy and distorted.

“Right,” said Smokey to himself or the hologram map tank in which a named point was glowing in response to the information he had just keyed. “Right, Thomasville they call it.” He swung to pat the awakening subject on the shoulder. “You live in Thomasville, don’t you, old son?”

“Wha . . .?” murmured the subject.

“You’re sure he couldn’t come from another village?” Griffiths queried, watching his partner’s quick motions with a touch of envy stemming from the drug-induced slackness in his own muscles.

“Not a chance,” the major said with assurance. “There were two other possibles, but they were both north in the valley.”

“Am I—” the subject said in a voice that gained strength as he used it. “Am I all right?”

Why ask us? thought Griffiths, but his partner was saying, “Of course you’re all right, m’boy, we said you would be, didn’t we?”

While the subject digested that jovial affirmation, Smokey turned to Griffiths and said, “You don’t think we need an armed recce then, Chief?”

“They’d chew up anything short of a company of panzers,” Griffiths said flatly, “and even that wouldn’t be a lotta fun. It’s a bloody underground fort, it is.”

“What did I say?” the subject demanded as he regained intellectual control and remembered where he was—and why. “Please, please, what’d I say?”

“Curst little, old son,” Smokey remarked. “Just mumbles—nothing to reproach yourself about, not at all.”

“You’re a gentle bastard,” Griffiths said.

“Ain’t it true, Chief, ain’t it true?” his partner agreed. “Gas, d’ye think, then?”

“Not the way they’re set up,” said Griffiths, trying to stand and relaxing again to gain strength for a moment more. He thought back over the goosenecked tunnels; the filter curtains ready to be drawn across the mouths of shelters; the atmosphere suits hanging beside the calliope. “Maybe saturation with a lethal skin absorptive like K3, but what’s the use of that?”

“Right you are,” said Major Soames, tapping the consoles preset for Fire Control Central.

“You’re going to let me go, then?” asked the subject, wriggling within his wrappings in an unsuccessful attempt to rise.

Griffiths made a moue as he watched the subject, wishing that his own limbs felt capable of such sustained motion. “Those other two villages may be just as bad as this one,” he said to his partner.

“The mountaineers don’t agree with each other much better’n they do with the government,” demurred Smokey with his head cocked toward the console, waiting for its reply. “They’ll bring us in samples, and we’ll see then.”

“Go ahead,” said Fire Central in a voice bitten flat by the two-kilohertz aperture through which it was transmitted.

“Got a red-pill target for you,” Smokey said, putting one ivory-colored fingertip on the holotank over Thomasville to transmit the coordinates to the artillery computers. “Soonest.”

“Listen,” the subject said, speaking to Griffiths because the major was out of the line of sight permitted by the hydorclasp wrappings, “let me go and there’s a full three kilos of Misty Hills Special for you. Pure, I swear it, so pure it’ll float on water!”

“No damper fields?” Central asked in doubt.

“They aren’t going to put up a nuclear damper and warn everybody they’re expecting attack, old son,” said Major Soames tartly. “Of course, the least warning and they’ll turn it on.”

“Hold one,” said the trooper in Fire Control.

“Just lie back and relax, fella,” Griffiths said, rising to his feet at last. “We’ll turn you in to an internment camp near the capital. They keep everything nice there so they can hold media tours. You’ll do fine.”

There was a loud squealing from outside the interrogators’ vehicle. One of the twenty-centimeter rocket howitzers was rotating and elevating its stubby barrel. Ordinarily the six tubes of the battery would work in unison, but there was no need for that on the present fire mission.

“We have clearance for a nuke,” said the console with an undertone of vague surprise which survived sideband compression. Usually the only targets worth a red pill were protected by damper fields which inhibited fission bombs and the fission triggers of thermonuclear weapons.

“Lord blast you for sinners!” shouted the trussed local. “What is it you’re doing, you blackhearted devils?”

Griffiths looked down at him, and just at that moment the hog fired. The base charge blew the round clear of the barrel and the sustainer motor roared the shell up in a ballistic path for computer-determined seconds of burn. The command vehicle rocked. Despite their filters, the vents drew in air burned by exhaust gases.

It shouldn’t have happened after the helmets were removed and both interrogator and subject had been dosed with antidote. Flashback contacts did sometimes occur, though. This time it was the result of the very solid interrogation earlier; that, and meeting the subject’s eyes as the howitzer fired.

The subject looked so much like his infant daughter that Griffiths had no control at all over the image that sprang to his mind: the baby’s face lifted to the sky which blazed with the thermonuclear fireball detonating just above the canopy—

—and her melted eyeballs dripping down her cheeks.

The hydorclasp held the subject, but he did not stop screaming until they had dosed him with enough suppressants to turn a horse toes-up.

M9A4 AMBULANCE

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