Ghosts of the Past
"Where is it?"
A blow crashed into my stomach. I was forced to admit that even with the Photon driver disabled, an Angry Fist was still quite capable of living up to its name.
"What did you do with it?"
This time the fist exploded into my jaw, knocking me clean out of my chair onto the floor.
"Come on, Sejanus, you're not making this any easier on yourself."
"This is a waste of time. Just let the bot snuff him and be done with it."
Of course the bloodthirsty voice was female, which on this job always seemed to be the case. In my experience, women were the kinder, gentler, nurturing sex only in the delusions of idealistic but patronizing men.
"Have some patience. I have no intention of going home empty-handed. Besides, I think our friend here—" He took advantage of my prone position to ram the toe of his boot into my belly. "—is going to wise up and start talking."
"It's your party. Just wake me if you decide to put him down, okay? I don't want to miss the entertainment."
A hand fisted in my hair and jerked my head up to meet my interrogator's eyes.
"Do you hear that? You haven't got a friend in the world here. She knows how to take orders, though, so I'm going to bet she can keep from making a big stink about it until you're praying for me to finish you. Which I won't, because you know what's coming up next, after we're through here. If I were you, I'd talk right now. It's the only chance you've got, believe me."
I didn't even bother to groan in response.
"Your call, Sejanus. It looks like we're in for a long, ugly night."
He all but threw my head down so that it bounced off the floor, hot sparks of pain shooting through my skull, and only one thought kept repeating itself in my mind:
Damn you, Mome.
It had started on a bad note. I suppose life is going to keep throwing these little omens at me until I wise up and take notice of it. I was in the Hatless Dezorian bar downing my third glass of owner Tendall Grant's best brandy—the real thing from Coral, not the synthetic junk cooked up by Pioneer 2's food systems—when a scowling face interrupted my self-pity.
"Sejanus, you look like hell."
"The woman is observant. Somebody give her a medal."
Her name is Talissa. She's a fellow hunter, and one of the genetically-enhanced race of Newmen. I think there must have been some kind of mutation in her development, though, because she's the only female Newman I've ever met who actually prefers a wardrobe that leaves anything to the imagination. It reflects her whole attitude—she's a no-nonsense woman with a zero-tolerance policy for crap.
"I'm serious. You look scary enough as it is—"
"Thanks so much."
"—but this is ridiculous."
For the record, I'm tall, cadaverously thin, and prefer a bright red bodysuit. My hair is white and worn in the ragged shoulder-length cut of a man who can't be bothered to actually take care of it. Lately that same apathy has put a scraggly layer of stubble on my cheeks. Add in the dark circles under my eyes and the bloodshot look of steady drinking and I looked like death warmed over. Twice.
"Look it up, Liss. It's called depression. You know, the thing you feel when you read over your black-market copy of Heathcliff Flowen's last mission report and realize that the best you can hope for your sister is that she died a clean death at the hands of demonic fiends?"
"Right. Sucks to be you. Sucks to be Matha Grave or Nol Rinale or anybody trying to catch fish in the underground channels, too." She plucked the brandy glass out of my hand; the fact that she could do it so easily was a good indication of how miserable my condition was.
"Who died and made you my wife?"
"Nobody has to die for that, Sejanus; you've never been married. Now sober up."
Her hand came up fast, spraying a fine mist into my face from a small atomizer. A Sol Atomizer, obviously, because a jolt shot through my brain like a thunderbolt and left me with a clear (though still depressed) head.
"Liss, what the—" I was going to add hell do you think you're doing to that, but in typical fashion she cut me off.
"Oh, quit whining. I know that the military cut you from the string they had you on—one more reason why you're curled up with a bottle, I'm guessing—so you need a job. I've got one, but I want some long-range firepower to cover my butt."
"And you don't know any nice RAcasts?"
"That I'd trust with my life in that twisted nightmare under the sea?"
"I can think of a good four people better suited to the job than me."
"Yes, but how many of them have a military access code, Clearance Level Beta?"
When I'd been on retainer, the military had given me limited access to their resources, which made sense—how was I supposed to keep them abreast of the latest Ragol situations if I didn't have clearance to do it? Especially given that Principal Tyrell, being a former hunter, had given the Hunter's Guild rather than the army the go-ahead to investigate the situation and so they needed people like me.
"Liss, I know you don't have a lot of respect for the military mind, but they aren't complete morons. When they canned me, they deleted my access as well."
"When did they cut your strings, Sejanus?"
"Two days ago."
"And, I'm sure, they nulled your access in their computers through the online net. But I doubt they've yet sent a tech-grunt around to all the independent systems just to say that your code is cancelled. It'd be done as part of regular maintenance."
She was starting to make sense, I reflected.
"In the upper section of No Man's Mines, the 32nd WORKS division has set up a long-range teleporter pad. They use it to sneak into areas they aren't supposed to have access to. As you may know, Gal De Val Island is under Lab jurisdiction for the present time, but the military wants a piece of the action. They stole, spied, or bribed away the Seabed facility's coordinates and have been accessing it from their hidden teleporter. That way, there's no log of any WORKS personnel using Pioneer 2's teleporters to go somewhere they're not supposed to be."
"Sneaky," I agreed. "Which for those people is par for the course. For a special forces unit, WORKS certainly spends more time on general backstabbing and treachery than they do on actual fighting. How does the teleporter tie in with my access code, though?"
"It's kept offline. Given the extent of the D-Factor viral infection down there, they don't want it compromising the military subnet if it happens to get infected. They actually learned something from that fiasco about eight months back, even if they did have to lose an entire research team to do it."
"Not to mention all but one of the hunters sent out as a cleanup crew," I noted dryly. The rumor mill had been going for weeks over that operation.
"Yeah, well, we are talking about the most thick-skulled people in the world, right? It takes an awfully big lesson to get their attention." Then, she grinned at me. "You're getting interested, aren't you, Sejanus? You never have that sarcastic wit going when you aren't."
She was right, of course, damn her. I wanted to find out more about her mysterious job much more than I wanted to grab another brandy and crawl back into my hole. It wasn't a nice, comfortably snug hole, after all; it was cold and dark and scary in there.
Besides which, it was about time I worked my way up to the "anger" stage of grief, and the concept of emptying a few Photon packs into D-cellular sub lifeforms not entirely unlike the ones that had killed my sister seemed just about right.
"All right, Liss, you win. Sit down and tell me more."
She grinned and slid into the seat opposite me, then ordered two of something pink, fizzy, and nonalcoholic from the autoprogram menu. Instead of the usual android bartender, Tendall brought the drinks over himself, setting the heavy crystal glasses down on the table's sleek black surface with a fluid efficiency that reminded me the ex-Hunter was more used to handling daggers than a bottle. He looked me up and down, then glanced back at Talissa.
"So, you managed to yank him out of his rut? Good for you."
The drink tasted about like you'd expect—fruity, sweet, and generally like something a five-year-old would grab at a candy shop. I made a face."
"Why don't you get on to the quest, Liss; maybe it'll go down better."
"Cultured palate my rump. You're just a snob when it comes to drinks."
Talissa rolled her eyes.
"Right. It goes sort of like this. The Council wanted the Lab to report on the Gal De Val investigation. It's still under Lab jurisdiction but the bigwigs wanted some formal feedback on the topic. Chief Milarose put Dr. Mome in charge of compiling the report."
I looked at her in disbelief.
"For heaven's sake, why?"
She shrugged again.
"Probably because he was the one who commissioned the retrieval of the Beta772 overrun data. Remember?"
I nodded. I'd never met the man personally but our jobs had crossed paths in the past.
"Well," Talissa continued, "the way I see it, Mome already had access to some of the details of Dr. Osto's research, so rather than open up all the dirty details to more people, Natasha put it all in the hands of someone who already knew more than just the rumors."
"Besides, you and I both know anything really sensitive would be over his head. Montague he's not."
"So you figure some of the important details, or at least the conclusions to be drawn from them, would slip by Mome and therefore stay out of Administration hands?"
"That's how I figured it. Only, it didn't work out quite that way. Dr. Mome isn't a genius scientist but he does take his work seriously, and he's got a knack of putting himself exactly where he needs to be. Only now he's in the med-center and the medical staff isn't sure whether he'll wake up."
I sat up straight, shocked.
"Was it foul play?"
Talissa raised an eyebrow.
"Do you know, Sejanus, that you're the only person I know who could get away with using a line like 'foul play'?"
"Sorry. Anyway, yes. It's no accident. Someone deliberately put him in a coma. The doctors suspect poison, but standard treatment methods aren't having any effect."
Well, that was about par for the course.
"Between antidotes, Sol Atomizers, and the Anti technique, there's basically no poison that can't be negated in seconds," I pointed out, "to say nothing of what's available in any medical center. I presume that this is something new?" I paused for dramatic effect, then hazarded some speculation. "Maybe something based on the abnormal Photons found on Ragol?"
"Sejanus, you're coming off a three-day drunk. How could you possibly know that?"
I had to chuckle at her bewilderment. First laugh in three days.
"It's obvious, Liss. Everything new and unknown that's come our way in the past nine months has something to do with Ragol, the abnormal Photons, and/or the D-Factor."
Now Talissa had to chuckle as well.
"All right, I'll give you that one. And yes, for the record, whatever's been given to Mome supposedly duplicates some effects of the D-Factor, if you read between the lines."
"That's a nasty thing to do to someone," I said, a bit lamely. "Nasty" just didn't cover it. Horrific was more like it. Being eaten from the inside out, your body cells captured and slaved to some alien, demonic entity's DNA.
God, Vel, I hope your death was easy, not something like that.
"Someone must have been really desperate to keep Mome from talking," I finished up. If I kept talking, I didn't have to think.
"Uh huh. So, do I have your attention?"
"Let's go meet our client, then."