Chapter 28

Overunit Wilkes was neither early nor a second late. She was precisely and perfectly on time when she strode into the interrogation hub.

Jennifer stood at attention behind the desk when her superior entered the room.

Wilkes stopped in front of the gunmetal grey table and casually removed her black leather gloves, habitually slipping them off one finger at a time. She looked down toward the hub expectantly, craning her head to cast an eye into one of the sectionals. Her attention then turned to Jennifer.

"All went as planned, I presume?" she queried.

Jennifer involuntarily straightened. "No complications, Overunit."

"Good," Wilkes said. "I should think a youth leader of your caliber could handle a simple task."

Wilkes sat down in the chair across from the desk. Jennifer remained standing, having seen the tactic dozens of time end in disaster for junior officers who sat with their superiors.

The overunit watched Jennifer for a moment. The corners of the older woman's mouth turned upward almost imperceptibly at the cadet's wisdom and experience.

"Be seated," Wilkes said finally.

Jennifer sat, posture in perfect alignment as had been drilled into her since her earliest memory. Wilkes was deliberately silent, making the air in the room feel thicker with each passing second as she studied the cadet.

The overunit set a data pad on the desk. She steepled her fingers, touching them to her chin in contemplation. "Would it surprise you to know your loyalties to our lord are being questioned, even at this very moment?"

A chill thrilled through Jennifer's arms, settling in her forearms. The feeling was becoming all too familiar – one shock after another. No one had ever accused her of such a thing, and it stung at her core. She had no choice but to try to mount a defense.

"If you're questioning my time with Doctor Tobias…"

"Doctor Tobias is dead."

Another wave of cold blood coursed through Jennifer's veins. There was no stopping her lips as they parted in shock. The reaction was not lost on Wilkes.

"You seem taken aback, Cadet," Wilkes said. She stood and walked around the table, her polished boots clacking against the immaculate floor. The overunit stopped behind Jennifer.

"I didn't expect our lord to carry out the punishment so quickly," Jennifer answered, commanding her voice to remain steady.

Wilkes leaned down, so close that Jennifer could feel the overunit's breath against her ear. She said in a quiet voice, "I think you're shocked she's been executed at all." She leaned in even closer, even quieter. "I think you were growing fond of the good doctor. I think," she said, barely above a whisper, "your mind has been poisoned by her propaganda."

Jennifer's heart thudded in her chest at the accusation. Her loyalty to Lord Dread had been so unwavering all her life, but now everything she had worked for was in question – her very life was in question.

"I think," Wilkes continued in that whisper, "your thinking may have become tainted after spending so much time with that garbage."

Wilkes hunched down at Jennifer's side, as if talking to a child. "Do you know what our lord did to Doctor Tobias? He cut off her leg so she couldn't run. He made an example of her, and we put it on all the vid feeds in every town we could. We sent it through her precious rebel network. Anyone who knew her knows she's dead, and now they know they can't run from our lord."

The questioning was effective and frightening. Jennifer could have dealt better with corporal techniques than what Wilkes was doing. Every word the cadet might utter as a reply would be scrutinized. There was no doubt the exchange was being recorded for later review. That was standard procedure, but that was not so bothersome.

What floored Jennifer was her memory racing back through a thousand snapshots of her time at Alaceda with Tobias.

"What do you like to do?"

"I like to fly."

And now, Tobias was dead. The only person who had ever asked Jennifer that kind of question was no longer in existence.

There was no time for lingering over - even mourning? - that fact, though. The pressing matter at hand was that she was being interrogated by someone whose military career had been molded to be the best at extracting information from a subject.

She steeled herself against Wilkes' brilliant interrogation, keeping her eyes focused straight ahead, not daring to look at the overunit. "Then our lord carried out swift justice."

Wilkes smiled at the perfect answer. "Yes, he did, didn't he?" She stood and leaned against the edge of the desk, folding her arms.

"It won't take long to break the prisoners," she continued. "They're weak. Once I have the information I want, we'll rid our lord of one more dangerous rebel cell. You will assist me in that endeavor."

"As you wish."

"As I command," Wilkes said sharply. "I will not have the top cadet in our ranks poisoned by filth like Tobias. You will get yourself back in order, Cadet, and you will fall in line. Is that understood?"

Jennifer kept her eyes straight ahead, stoic and perfect. "Understood."

"As soon as we get what we need from the prisoners, we'll strike."

"If I may," Jennifer ventured, wanting desperately to get the conversation into tactical mode, "what information do the prisoners have?"

Wilkes seemed pleased to talk strategy. "The rebels have a radio network they use communicate between their cells. Each one of the prisoners is from a different village we suspect harbors the network. The first to break will be the first we bring to our lord's justice."

Radios. Jennifer thought back to Ian again, to the safe houses where the radios were hidden. While it was possible to get a general location based on a signal, pinpointing the exact location was impossible. Even if a strike unit managed to get close, the rebels would shut the radio down and move it, effectively cutting off the ability to track its location. Despite that, no one relished a mech unit bearing down on their settlement for any reason. That was why the network was reluctant to continuously broadcast when Tobias was moving the refugees out of the mountain.

The overunit examined a monitor to see how the interrogations were progressing. "The beauty of it all is that Tobias has given us the very tool we need to extract that information. I assume you're familiar with the device."

Jennifer was, but in a much more benign way. Ian's goggles were made for fixing his broken speech patterns. Wilkes used them as a weapon.

"I am," Jennifer said. She had read the operational brief about their use.

"It's quite ingenious," Wilkes said, ignoring the fact that Jennifer had followed orders and had read all the material. "The irony is in the inventor and that we use it for far better purposes than she had intended. We carefully craft an artificial reality with them. The subject's mind has no way of discerning that it isn't real. The possibilities are endless, really. We can present whatever image necessary to obtain the information we want."

Wilkes let the description hang there, allowing Jennifer to mentally supply the more gory details of what that reality could be. The wearer could be exposed to the most heinous images and would not be able to break the grasp of the cyber universe on the brain.

"It shouldn't be long now," Wilkes continued. "These prisoners are old and weak."

"Yes, they are," Jennifer agreed. It was standard practice to extract information from the weakest segments of the rebel network. That tended to be the very young and the aging. The six pods held three men and three women, further playing the odds that men tended to crack first when presented with the prospect of those they were supposed to protect getting killed. The only difference between old practices and this new technique was that the prisoners were real in the old, and so was the killing. The new technique was just as convincing and required far less work. It was no longer necessary to round up the supposed loved ones of the interrogation subject.

Wilkes scanned through the surveillance feeds one more time and straightened. "I'll be in my quarters. Continue to monitor the prisoners for information. Wake me the moment you have something."

Jennifer stood at attention as the signal was given that the officer was about to leave the room. "Understood."

Sleep, Jennifer knew, was not coming any time soon. The day was just beginning.

The overunit headed for the door. She turned and looked back at Jennifer. She gave an icy stare that was accompanied by that disconcerting half-smile of hers. It was a silent indication that there was more to be said about the cadet's time at Alaceda.

"We'll get you straightened out yet, Cadet." Then she was gone.

Jennifer sat down heavily in the chair, feeling an odd relief that the overunit had left. Never had she feared overunits like she did lately. They had always been a source of knowledge and aspiration for her. Now, they were turning on her in ways she had never imagined. Their trust in her was waning, and hers in them. She was seeing them in a new light – one that was not always favorable in these last few weeks.

Despite her distress about Wilkes and the overall situation in Lord Dread's service, curiosity was getting the better of Jennifer. While the documentation to the NP14A system had been detailed, it gave no indication as to what the subject was actually seeing. There was no reference to what imagery was being projected that would be cause enough to make a subject give up the deepest of secrets. The documentation did, however, note that the subject was semi-sedated when introduced to the system. Neural connections through the eyes transmitted an environment the brain could only discern as real, including smells and sounds. This interface was manipulated by the subject's own vulnerabilities – fear, care of another person, or any other weakness that could be exploited. In short, the subject supplied the system's fuel to extract information.

Two hours had passed since Wilkes left. Jennifer's curiosity was growing. She stood and headed for the pod to do a routine check of the interface systems. Mechs had been assigned to guard the area on patrol, though she hardly saw the purpose. Even if the prisoners managed to awaken, they were secured in the pods and had no chance of escape. Still, it was not her place to interfere with the interrogation process, much less to have any contact at all with the prisoners other than what she had already had. So, when she heard one man mumbling in his pod, crying for mercy, she wanted and needed to see what was happening to him. It was one thing to read about the results of the interrogation. It was another to see.

She waited until the mech patrol passed, although she hardly knew why she was nervous around them. She had every right to be in the pod section. Despite that inward assurance, she feigned walking to the other side of the pod until the mech was out of sight. There was no doubt in her mind that the mechs were reporting in some fashion to Wilkes about the cadet's movements. Once the mech was clear, she ducked back to look into the pod to see what was happening to the prisoner.

The viewing port on the pod was not large, but it was big enough so she could see the man inside struggling and crying. His eyes were covered by the interrogation unit, and his face was contorted with conflict.

"Stop! I'll tell you! The radio is in Sandtown! Please… stop!"

And just like that, there it was. There was the intelligence they had been seeking, and she had been there for the moment it was revealed.

Jennifer returned to her work station almost immediately and was about to notify Overunit Wilkes when she stopped, her hand freezing on the console. She had an overwhelming urge to see what it was that the man had been seeing – what it was that made him reveal such crucial information. She knew that Tobias had designed intricate neural interfaces that appeared as reality in the brain. What was it that had this man convinced he needed to betray an entire rebel population?

She pulled up his feed on the monitor. It was a surreal world. Blowing sand in the middle of the desert whipped around a mech and an older woman. The woman had been injured and was crying from burn marks on her legs and arms. They looked as though they had been inflicted slowly, methodically. The mech held her securely, blaster in hand and aimed at the woman's throat.

Jennifer realized the man had probably been seeing those wounds inflicted the entire time he had been in the chamber. His distress was understandable. Human beings, it had been drilled into the cadets, were weak in that way. Rebels were inordinately fond of their kin – even ones not of their own blood line. They mourned injury and loss of those in their clans to the point of vulnerability. The overunits capitalized on this time and again to obtain information.

She looked closer at the woman who was probably the subject's wife or mate. The woman cried out with pain. Suddenly, a squad of mechs appeared from the ethereal cyber library of interrogation tools. They ordered up in a formation Jennifer had seen at Alaceda – a firing line.

Jennifer's mind lost all touch with reality as she was thrust back to the mountain. She saw the carnage all over, with dead bodies piling up as the mechs destroyed one being after another. There was no prejudice in their action. They were equal opportunity killers, dropping their targets with mechanized precision. She heard the gasps and the screams as each fell to the ground. She saw their eyes, frozen in a death stare that cut through her very being and could have sworn she felt the heat of the blasters as they fired on the civilian rebels.

She returned to reality with a start. Jennifer reached for the desk to steady herself on shaking legs. Her heart pounded, though she could not fathom why the memory affected her so. They were rebels, and they were rightfully dispatched.

There was that word again! Even she had been using it, if only in her mind. Her fists slammed down on the table at the conflict of it all. She could hear the man in the pod pleading and begging the imaginary mech units to not execute the woman. There was not much Jennifer could do to spare him the inevitable moment, short of ending the program, which would have been outside her jurisdiction. So, she did the only thing she could, which was to wake up Wilkes.

The few minutes it took for the overunit to arrive in the hub seemed interminable. When she finally strode into the control center, she looked pleased with the news that one of the prisoners had finally given up some good information. In fact, she had gotten the exact intelligence she desired from him.

That left the question as to the fate of the rest of the prisoners. Jennifer inquired what would be done.

"Let him go and dispatch the rest," Wilkes said concisely.

"Let him go?" Jennifer asked, not following the reason for the strategy. "Won't he return and warn the village?"

"He'll try," Wilkes said, "but he won't make it on foot in time to make any difference. By the time he gets back to the rat-infested hellhole he calls a home, we'll be back at base eating breakfast. Besides," Wilkes added, "it's fun to watch them when they realize their hardest just wasn't good enough."

Wilkes looked at the monitor and saw the cyber mechs lined up in dispatching formation. She reached for the control panel, her fingers hovering over the command board. She gave a slight chuckle and tapped it, ordering the cyber mechs to open fire.