Ghosts of the Past
"You could," dryly observed the 32nd WORKS officer, "consider thanking me."
He untied my hands while the other soldier kept his eye on the room's two doors. By the rifleman's practiced movements, I could tell that he'd had Ranger training.
"I would, but I'm too busy considering what it's going to cost me, Lieutenant."
"Captain now, Sejanus." He tapped the rank insignia on his shoulder. "Thanks to some of the classic blunders committed by my former superiors, and to the success of my own operations—some of which I have you to thank for, by the way—Leo Grahart has seen fit to reward me."
"Well, bully for you." There was nothing like a good shot of Star Atomizer to make a man feel sassy. "What are you doing here, anyway?"
He gave me a look of complete innocence.
"Why, investigating an illegal intrusion into a WORKS-controlled area on Ragol, of course. Earlier today, your access code was used to bypass security for a WORKS terminal, and the criminal apparently also assaulted a WORKS android and used an illegal disabler."
"I'm afraid that I sold that access code when the army decided they could do without my services."
The captain clucked his tongue.
"Selling a classified computer access code, Sejanus?"
"A terminated code," I pointed out. "Valuable only as a curiosity. I had no idea an officially canceled code could still be used to access classified data. That sounds like a serious security breach in your technical maintenance." I gave his look of mock innocence right back at him.
"Well, that's what our questioning indicated, but you understand that we did have to verify it with you personally."
"Oh, of course, Captain."
We both knew that the other was lying through his teeth, of course, but I certainly wasn't going to point that out and the officer seemed to have no interest in doing so, either. I thought I had a good idea why.
"Still, the fact that you were an important suspect in this case did give us jurisdiction to step in when you were apparently kidnapped. That was lucky for you; the milipol would have had to establish probable cause to take steps, something I believe they would have a great deal of trouble in doing."
"I can't say that I don't appreciate the rescue."
"In which case, I would like to offer you further employment on behalf of 32nd WORKS."
"Clearly these criminals need to be brought to justice. Pioneer 2 cannot afford to have this element running loose. If we left now, they would only go to ground and escape justice. However, my aide and I can hardly take on an entire army of underworld thugs. Therefore, I wish you, a trained Ranger, to assist in bringing Hideki Takamura and his employees to justice. For this we would be prepared to offer the sum of ten thousand meseta."
"I'm not exactly equipped for battle, here."
"Actually, Sejanus, as a coincidence I believe I can address that. Since I was searching for you anyway, I'm also running a second errand—efficiency, you know. Based on logs retrieved recently from Ragol, it appears that your late sister Velaria had earned a commendation and reward while in service under Deputy Commander Flowen. As her next of kin, you would be entitled to that reward."
From somewhere he produced a case made of sleek, crimson reflective hex-panels. I snapped it open. A gun rested inside, a handgun-sized piece with a barrel extension that boosted it up to rifle status, together with four clips of ammunition. The latter was necessary because this was not a Photon weapon but an archaic slug-thrower, the top of the line before Photon technology revolutionized weapons design. I'd seen these before but had never actually held one; many experts swore that for pure stopping power and accuracy they were as good or better as the best Photon guns.
It was a Yasminkov 3000R. I knew a couple of fellow Rangers who had the kind of dreams about these things most of us reserve for girls.
"You're offering cash, a rarer-than-rare gun, and the chance to close the books on Takamura. Why?"
"There's no why to it, Sejanus. I'm in a position to help you, and you're in a position to help me. Simple logic."
He snapped his gloved fingers theatrically.
"Oh, there is one more thing. I've received information that Takamura has obtained certain data retrieved from the Seabed facility on Gal De Val Island. It would be a key mission parameter that this stolen data be recovered and turned over to me."
Of course. I get money, revenge, closure for eight months ago, the security of knowing Takamura won't be around the next corner ready to take my head off, and the Yasminkov—he just had to use Vel as his excuse, didn't he?—all for the slight service of selling out my client and giving WORKS the data. Only Takamura didn't have the data, and neither did I.
Or did I?
"All right," I said, and slipped a clip into the Yasminkov. "It's probably a moot point. Takamura's long gone from here."
"Oh, no. We're blocking his only exit."
"Captain, there's a dozen aerocar docks on the upper levels of this building that he could leave by."
"That's true. It's a regrettable tragedy, though, that this building's elevator system has acquired a serious glitch which prevents the doors from opening on this floor."
I was starting to understand why this guy had been promoted. In most of the WORKS operations I'd come into contact with, concepts like "planning" and "forethought" had been notorious by their absence.
"Captain, we've got incoming," the aide announced. A moment later the far door opened and Metal Fist and his flail-swinging friend charged in, only armed with handguns now. The rifle-bearing soldier and I fired simultaneously and the cannon fodder dropped.
Then the explosive detonation of Rafoie dropped us.
That was the whole point of cannon fodder. It was how they'd gotten the name. The general sends them out first to tie up the opponent's troops, letting his own elite operatives act freely. In this case, while we'd shot at the thugs, Astwell had dropped a technique on us.
I was getting really sick of pain.
The Force stepped through the door and tossed the telltale purple cloud of Megid at the captain, who dodged aside and returned the fire with his own rifle, two clean misses.
Unlike me, the aide had the advantage of a military-grade frame under his uniform, so he wasn't half so stunned by the technique as I'd been. He popped back to his feet and fired a quick three-round burst into Astwell's chest. Either Astwell was armored too, or had a Deband technique in effect, or both, because the shots did little more than rock him in place. They did, however, keep him from taking any further action while the captain lined up a few more shots of his own. Higher rank apparently meant a better gun; the laser sent Parlo Astwell to join the goons in death and wreaked a little vengeance for Mome.
I got to my feet, shaking my head to clear it of the last bits of fog.
"We'll split up," the captain decided, when no more troops made their appearance. "No telling who else Takamura's got around here."
"Yeah. If you happen to see a HUcaseal with a katana, don't waste your time on warnings. Just shoot her."
"We're aware of her—and you can rest assured that we'll do exactly as you suggest."
The door at the far end of the room opened into the middle of a corridor, so we went in opposite directions. I opened a couple of doors but found nothing. From time to time I heard scattered gunfire, so I assumed the WORKS soldiers had found someone. I hoped it wasn't Takamura; it was selfish, I knew, but I wanted to bring him down myself.
I kicked open another door and hit the jackpot. Takamura was there, leaning over the shoulder of another man who was working frantically at a computer terminal—trying desperately, I supposed, to undo whatever the captain's e-runners had done to the building's systems.
A shot from the Yasminkov nicely reformatted the computer's memory-ware. The e-worker vaulted out of the chair as if I'd been shooting at him and scuttled out the room's far door.
"Sejanus. You have more lives than a cat," Takamura observed.
"No. It just seems that way. Just like how your bosses have decided that I don't need to be protected, so has the military decided that their alliance with you isn't worth giving up Mome's data."
"Very well," Takamura said. "So it comes down to you and me." He took a katana down from the wall, then lifted down a second one and extended it to me hilt-first. "Let us settle this, for once and for all."
"Oh, please," I sneered. "Do you really think I'm going to go in for that duel of honor crap? This isn't 1975, and you're not some feudal lord. You surround yourself with the trappings of ancient times, you practice swordsmanship, and you prose on about honor and respect, but it's all an act. It's a skin-deep veneer over the core of a cheap thug. You're not an oyabun, Takamura; you're a wannabe poser who gives himself away every time you open your mouth."
"You insolent dog!" he raged. He dropped one katana and lunged with the second. I knew he'd try something; the man had no ability to take an insult. He did manage to surprise me, though, with the speed of his attack. Shooting him wouldn't stop the strike, I knew reflexively, though he'd be dead when he finished the stroke. I shifted my aim and fired. I'm a Ranger, after all; fast, accurate shooting is what I do.
The Yasminkov's slug hit his katana just above the handguard at the base of the blade. A Legendary Katana like Sange would have deflected it effortlessly. A first-class normal katana, too, would probably have withstood the impact.
Takamura's katana snapped, the blade spinning away harmlessly.
"Fitting," I said. "A cheap, modern imitation. Just like the man holding it."
He backed slowly towards the door, staring at the broken stub of his sword still clenched in his trembling grip. I leveled my gun at his chest.
"Don't try it, Takamura. You're under arrest."
His eyes met mine; there was something unfathomable in them. Hatred? Fear? Or just the shocked realization of what he'd done with his life? Then, with a spray of blood, his head separated from his shoulders.
"Master Hideki often expressed his wish that he die rather than being subjected to the indignity and shame of capture," Muramasa-shi said with faint overtones of sadness. I didn't wait for what came next; I just shot. She was so damned fast, though, that she read my intention before I pulled the trigger and my slug tore a gouge from her shoulder instead of piercing her torso. The tip of her bloodied katana flicked out and tore the Yasminkov from my hand, the second time she'd managed to disarm me. She reversed her stroke, and I knew my head was about to join Takamura's.
"Shi! Stop it!"
In a more theatrical storyteller's hands, the blade would have stopped just as it touched my neck, perhaps after severing a few wisps of my long hair to go fluttering to the floor. Actually, the android checked her swing with a good three inches to spare.
"Why should I spare this enemy, Master Dual?"
The scar-faced hunter had entered the room from behind me. It was interesting that with Takamura dead, Muramasa-shi had defaulted to Dual as her new master.
"Because he's a hunter, a businessman, and because we can strike a deal to our benefit. Right, Sejanus?"
"It's your android with the sword at my neck."
"Too true. I'll keep it simple. She and I walk. No charges pressed, no revenge, no military hit squads, nothing further on either side. I did my job, you did yours, no hard feelings."
"What about the data?"
"What do I care about that? It was Takamura's business, not mine. My interest was in the money."
"I can't speak for WORKS." Why do I have to tell the truth at these inopportune moments?
"Sure you can—because you have what they want. They don't care about me or Muramasa-shi, if it gets them that data."
Did I trust Dual? Yeah, I did. I knew his type: mercenary to the core and a pro about it. He'd keep his word because it was good business. If Shi left me a corpse WORKS would pursue the two of them under the assumption they'd taken the data from me. And "no revenge" was good business for him, too, because he had no emotional stake in taking me out and no reason to start a feud with my friends, people like Talissa who'd come gunning for him.
"You'll have to sweeten the deal," I told him.
"Sweeter than your life?" he asked dryly.
"Hey, I'm offering you both your lives in return. That's two to one." I managed a grin, and Dual actually laughed.
"Why not? Ask away."
"I didn't get a chance to ask Takamura. I want to know how to cure the D-cellular poison Astwell slipped to Dr. Mome."
"There's no antidote."
I said something unprintable about Astwell's mother and what she'd done with how many Vulmers to conceive him.
"Creative," Dual commented. "What I meant, though, was that there's no antidote because there's no D-cellular poison. It's just a generic nerve toxin, which Dr. Elessa at the medical center is being bribed to make sure doesn't get cured."
"You would betray an associate, Master Dual?" the HUcaseal said warningly.
"Not an associate," Dual replied. "A paid servant who accepted Takamura's bribe to betray her medical oath."
Muramasa-shi inclined her head, conceding the point. The thought struck me that the insane android actually had a better grasp of the ideals Takamura had attempted to emulate than the man himself had. I wondered what would happen if some day she decided that Dual did not live up to those ethics.
"So, Sejanus, do we have a deal?"
"Then farewell. The way to the front door should be clear, at least until your soldier friends finish with the rest of that street muscle." He gave a jaunty little wave, beckoned to Muramasa-shi, and left. She flicked her katana once to remove Takamura's blood, sheathed it, then followed, leaving me alone. I recovered the Yasminkov and verified that it was undamaged, then glanced down at Takamura's corpse.
Dual was right. The past was the past. I couldn't change it, so why should I waste my future worrying about it? Ragol was a whole new world, and I had my own life to live here.
I turned my back on the dead and went to go find the soldiers. I wanted to get this done. There were better places to be.