Ghosts of the Past
The medical center was the point of convergence for everything else that had to be done. Sometimes it just worked out that way.
The WORKS captain and his aide accompanied me directly while Inspector Laleham met us there. My testimony alone (which was hearsay anyway) was by no means enough to charge Dr. Elessa on, but it was enough to have Dr. Karuta come in and take over. His skilled medical testimony, on the other hand, would be more than enough to convict.
As far as the deal I'd struck with Dual went, the captain had no difficulty. The attack on Takamura had been done under color of law, and Dual had never had his hands on the Seabed data. Ergo, he was no threat to WORKS.
"Jumping at shadows is what got a number of my predecessors in hot water," he told me. "I have enough on my plate without creating new problems."
All this official authority, my unofficial status as Talissa's friend, and the general goodwill I'd worked up with the medical staff by helping to save Mome was more than enough for Karuta to let me into Liss's possessions, the things she'd had on her when she'd come back from Ragol. The datadisk, of course, was there. It basically had to be. Rouge had taken it from her, but Dual and Astwell definitely weren't stupid enough to have left it on the body, or lying on the floor of the room if Rouge had dropped it in the fight.
I made a mental note to compliment Talissa on her fast hands. I hadn't even seen her pilfer the disk back while she was grappling with the big thug. Fast thinking, too, to take the step once the melee had broken out and people were paying more attention to survival than anything else. I'd have never thought of it, but then again she was a Hunter. Her primary concerns in combat were the things one could accomplish when close to an opponent.
"What's your partner going to think about this?" the captain asked when I handed over the disk. He checked it to verify that it did in fact contain the target data as opposed to, say, Talissa's grocery lists, then secured it in an inner pocket.
"She'll understand," I said. "At least, she will once I finish explaining it to her. I'll tell her while she's still weak from recovery, so she doesn't put me through a wall before I do finish, though."
The captain chuckled.
"I thought so, yes."
"It's been a pleasure working with you again, Sejanus." He extended a hand. After a moment, I took it.
"Better than last time," I agreed.
I hoped it wasn't too petty of me that I gave the captain's hand a bit of an extra squeeze...for old times' sake. I certainly didn't have a HUcast's bone-crushing grip, but I managed to get the captain to wince.
Like I said, petty.
Laleham and the WORKS soldiers received top marks for efficiency, though. They were done and gone by the time Natasha Milarose made her appearance. I met her in the same observation room as before. Same chairs, same table, same computer panel, even the same holoscreen display of Mome's room. About the only thing missing was the sense of despair.
"I'm told," she said, not bothering with introductions, "that you found the cure." A nod towards the screen indicated Mome.
"Well, not a cure per se. Basically, Black Paper had bribed a doctor to keep Mome ill."
"Why not just kill him?" she wondered. "I've never heard of Black Paper to be squeamish about such things."
"Psychological warfare. This is a lot scarier, particularly for Lab researchers and hunters who are familiar with the effect D-cellular infection can have. And it divides resources. If Mome is dead, there's only one problem—the data. Alive, there's a second problem—the cure. That makes the Lab less able to keep Black Paper from getting its hands on what they want."
"Did you learn this from them as well?"
I shook my head.
"It's mostly deduction. It does hang together, though. Covert operations are like any other battlefield. The tactics are different, but the ultimate strategies are the same. Anyway, Dr. Karuta thinks Mome will be fine in another day or so, once he's had a chance to recover from the shock to his system."
Natasha turned away from the screen to look at me.
"You seem different, Sejanus."
"I think this mission's been good for me," I told her. "I doubt Dr. Karuta would recommend getting twisted up in a web of deceit, three life-or-death fights, and a beating by a guy wearing metal gloves as a cure for grief and depression, but it seems to have worked. By the way, I presume the Guild has our meseta as usual?"
The Lab chief frowned.
"Sejanus, while I do appreciate that you have been through a great deal, and I am extremely happy for your efforts on Dr. Mome's behalf, you and Talissa were hired to retrieve specific data, and you have not done so—unless you are counting on Dr. Mome being able to provide it to us once he recovers."
I shook my head again.
"No, not that. Actually, the Seabed terminal where Mome had been doing his work was pretty well trashed by a Sinow...Zoa, I think it's called. The computer was physically destroyed, so there's no chance of data recovery by anyone."
"I see. That is extremely unfortunate."
"However, before that happened, I was able to make a copy of everything in Mome's research subdirectory."
"Ah! So you have that to give to me?"
"No, I gave it to the 32nd WORKS division."
Natasha's eyes narrowed dangerously.
"Sejanus, if this is a game..."
"No game. They have the only copy in existence of what we found in Mome's research files."
"I'd heard that you had connections to the military, but was assured that these connections had been severed. Trust me, Sejanus, the Hunter's Guild will be informed of your actions."
I waved my hand dismissively.
"Spare me. You got exactly what you wanted, and if you go running to the Guild, Chief Milarose, then rest assured that my defense will center around the fact that the Lab hired two hunters through the Guild and hung them out to dry on a tailchaser. You have everything you hoped to gain, so don't spoil it for yourself."
"You are making serious accusations."
"It's a serious situation, and your hands are filthy with it. Some things I understand, but I don't know how you can justify that." I pointed to Mome. "Did he know what he was getting into?"
"Dr. Mome knew and accepted that field research in the Seabed facility was a dangerous prospect."
"Being trampled by a Delbiter, yes. Being poisoned and abandoned by his own superiors..." I shook my head in disgust.
"I don't know where you're getting—"
"Please," I interrupted, "like I said, spare me the usual crap. I'll lay the whole affair out for you, just so you know that I'm not wasting your time with random paranoia. Fair enough?"
There was a long pause, during which the tension was so thick I could have used it for armor. Then, at last, Natasha nodded.
"Very well. Tell me what you think."
I took a deep breath, exhaled, and began.
"I have to assume that you were telling me the truth about what Mome was doing in the first place. Since the monsters haven't yet been purged from the facility, you hired a hunter escort for him. Black Paper, in the person of Hideki Takamura, managed to get one of their own on that team, a Force named Parlo Astwell. You, however, had an ace in the hole: Feric Loramis. Feric somehow got wind of Astwell's plan to poison Mome and steal the data in the confusion. I don't know how he did it, by luck or by skilled investigation, but he did, and reported it back to you, which is when things started to get interesting.
"The expected course of action would be to apprehend Astwell and stop him in his tracks, but you didn't do that. You were playing for bigger stakes and you weren't going to lose."
"I don't know if you had one of your staff cook up some artificial data or if Feric was responsible for making the alterations. I suspect the former, because of the timeframe. In any case, when Astwell made his move, Feric was ready. He immediately sent Astwell off to the medical center so the spy couldn't retrieve any data then—there was no way Astwell could refuse without all but blowing his cover—and then, under the guise of closing out the files, substituted the falsified data for the real data. Unfortunately, the date stamp on the files gives away what you've done—they were altered so near to the time Mome was admitted to the medical center that only Feric could have done so. Feric delivered the real data to you, leaving the false data as a nice, shiny lure for your political rivals. Oh, and then you let Black Paper keep Mome incapacitated to make the false data vulnerable, and you murdered Feric so he couldn't tell anyone what he'd done, which is not really a very nice thing to do to a loyal agent but he really should have expected it from someone like you. Since your own people are in charge of testing for poison, the tox screen cover-up was effortless."
Natasha's mouth thinned and tightened, but she said nothing.
"Now we come to the part that concerns me personally. You had to take action, because if you didn't it would look suspicious to the other interested factions. So, you hired Talissa to retrieve the data. I doubt you had to actually leak that information, given the number of spies infesting this area, but I'm certain that you didn't treat the mission as top secret. The whole point, after all, was to provoke your enemies and make them think the false data was legitimate.
"From that point," I went on, "you couldn't lose. Your worst-case scenario was that Talissa and I would complete the mission you assigned us, but even in that case you'd learn a fair amount about what resources your enemies had, and probably we hunters would have taken a nice bite out of those resources on the way to our success. A more likely outcome was that we'd get killed and your enemies would get the data."
I was very proud of myself for not losing my temper with her. I probably would have, had I not known I was on a stage of sorts, putting on a performance.
"As it turns out, though, you've come out smelling like a rose. Black Paper has lost an underboss and several talented people; a whole operation of theirs has been smashed. 32nd WORKS will be wasting their time for weeks, maybe even months trying to extract something useful from the altered data you left for them. You have the original data, if it's actually worth anything to you. And now no one can blame you for not passing on that data to the Administration because it's supposedly been destroyed with the computer Mome was using. Game, set, and match in your favor. So, to get back to my original point, Natasha, yes, I damned well think you should pay us our fee."
"You have a point, Sejanus," she replied tersely. "The Lab will pay your commission in full—although, of course, it will be on a 'best efforts' basis."
"Preserve your cover story however you like," I said with another shrug.
"You have one part of it completely wrong, however. Neither I nor anyone from the Lab had anything to do with Feric's murder. I had originally intended that he would carry out this...tailchaser, as you call it. After all, with my agent in place I could make certain the false data was passed on as intended and so avoid your worst-case scenario. He was killed by Parlo Astwell, whom I presume had learned Feric was a Lab agent, or believed Feric suspected him of being a Black Paper plant responsible for the poisoning, or both. We had no need to falsify any reports because Astwell used Megid to kill Feric. The effect is the same as a heart attack; the body just...stops."
Was she telling the truth? Astwell certainly was proficient with the Megid technique, and she was right about the symptoms.
"I'd like to believe that," I said. "It would make me feel much better about keeping faith with my client and letting WORKS have the false data. But just in case it's not true, I'd like you to know that Talissa, although still a little shaky on her feet, is down in the med-center's security room, getting full audio and video of this conversation, copies to be sent to the Hunter's Guild, the Administration, 32nd WORKS, and as many of our personal friends as conveniently possible in the event of either of our deaths by 'natural' or suspicious causes."
"The Lab does not murder its own field agents!"
"Forgive me for doubting you, but having been tossed out in front of squid-monsters, Sinows, enemy hunters, street punks, and a very nasty insane android just so you could prove a point to your enemies, I'm having some trust issues."
"You aren't a Lab field agent, Sejanus. You're a hired hunter. I do, however, see your point. And you're quite right about one thing." She managed an actual smile. "I am very pleased with how this turned out. Until next time."
I didn't answer, just nodded my head back at her. There was nothing more to say, and besides, it's bad form to try and top a good exit line.
When she was gone I went over to the data screen and tapped a couple of keys on the panel. Talissa's face appeared.
"Did it work?"
"Clear as a bell. I already sent out a few copies by simple-mail to the locked nodes your pal Jeromy set up. Can't wait too long on buying life insurance." Her voice was faintly slurred, and much less tart than usual. "I still," she added, tapping her lower lip with her forefinger, "want to hit her."
"Thereby proving that red hair of yours is natural. We'd better get you back to bed before Dr. Karuta hits me."
"Yeah. 'Sides, th'painkillers are starting t'make me a little loopy."
"I can see that."
"But you know what? I was right!"
"You were jus' what I needed to cover my butt on this job." She winked saucily (definitely the painkillers talking) and cut the link. I stretched and yawned. It was about time I got some sleep.
Tomorrow, I had a feeling, would be my first good day in a long while.