Ghosts of the Past by DezoPenguin

Chapter 2

Talissa had dropped a lot of information on me in piecemeal fashion, the point being to tease and tantalize me into taking her up on her job offer. That meant being interesting, rather than coherent. At this stage, I didn't actually know whom we'd be working for or what our job would be. Since I wasn't drunk anymore, I figured it had to be the depression slowing up my brain.

Still and all, since we were on our way to fill in those blanks, I didn't raise a stink as Talissa took us in her aerocar to the section of Pioneer 2 under Lab control. Hunter's Guild facilities had been opened in this area, and slowly but surely the support network of shops, storage facilities, and entertainment venues was taking shape. The area lacked the retro-industrial sheet metal decor I was used to, and parts of it felt quite claustrophobic, but the piped-in muzak in the Guild facilities was the same as I was used to, for that touch of home.

I'd expected to meet our client in the Guild as usual, so I was surprised when Talissa took me from the aerocar dock to the Medical Center admissions desk.

"Good morning; do you need assistance?" asked the nurse on duty.

"Visitors for Dr. Mome," Talissa said.

"Oh, yes. He's in Room 338. I'm afraid that the room has been sealed except for medical personnel due to the nature of the case," she added with a commiserating pout, "but Observation 3-4 can be used for viewing by friends and family."

"Thank you."

We stepped through the door and took a lift cell to the third level, then followed the blue line to Observation 3-4. The holoscreen image that filled one whole wall showed Mome lying unconscious in a life-support cylinder, his body at the center of a nest of tubes and scanning devices while doctors, nurses, and support androids bustled around him and tiny robots flitted through the air on who-knew-what vital tasks. I couldn't make head or tail of the medical significance of what I was seeing, but the despair and frustration on more than one face told me more than any med-report could. They were losing him. Maybe it was fast and ugly, or maybe it was slow and by inches, but either way they weren't winning the battle.

It just wasn't fair. Mome...well, let's be honest. Mome had always been one of life's comic relief characters, earnest and enthusiastic but bumbling and a little clumsy all at once. It seemed the height of cosmic injustice to inflict on him a fate reserved for tragic heroes or for villainous types reaping the rewards of their misdeeds. It was just another reminder that life didn't fall into the neat, convenient patterns of fable and genre fiction. Which was, I supposed, why I liked genre fiction. In it good won, evil was defeated, and love conquered all. Heroes (and let's be honest again, aren't we all the heroes of our own life stories—in our own minds, at least?) were inspired by their siblings' tragic deaths to transcend their limitations and accomplish the impossible, not to be buried under a sea of misery.

I hadn't realized that I'd even clenched my fist until I noticed that I was flexing my hand so strongly my fingers had started to hurt. The realization of pain shocked my brain loose and made me see that there was someone else in the observation room besides ourselves, a tall, red-haired woman in a long, formal dress with a delicate monocle over her right eye.

"This is quite a tragedy," she said in a voice that was exactly what you'd expect from her appearance: elegant, aristocratic, and precise. Emotion was there, but it was secondary; for this woman practicality would always win out over personal concerns.

"It's a senseless waste," Talissa said flatly.

The red-haired woman shook her head.

"Oh, no, not senseless. There is distinct purpose in this, whatever else can be said." She looked at Talissa expectantly, as if waiting for some cue.

"Oh, yeah. This is Sejanus Lyon. I've hired him for backup purposes on this job. Sejanus, this is our client. I'm not sure if you've ever met, but her name is Natasha Milarose."

"Chief of Pioneer 2's Lab," I finished up for her. After Principal Tyrell, Natasha was probably the most influential person in the government, although some bigwigs in the military and on the Council might have debated that. "Which, of course, brings up the question of, why are we here and not in your office in the Lab? From what I've heard, you're not shy about bringing in Hunters when you need their services on Ragol."

Natasha nodded once, inclining her head slightly in my direction as if to acknowledge my existence.

"As you have no doubt already realized, this is a private request. I do not wish it to be generally known that I have contacted you."

Now I understood. It explained why we were here—we were all just visiting a sick friend. We'd come separately, would leave separately, and wouldn't go anywhere in the hospital but here. Coincidence we'd come at the same time.

"Are you prepared, Talissa?"

"Yeah. Thanks to Sejanus, I think I've arranged access to the Seabed without you having to authorize access to the Lab transporter."

"Have you, indeed? I will be most interested in hearing that portion of your report."

I just bet she would.

"Now, on to the details of your actual mission. As you are already aware, Dr. Mome was preparing a report for the Council's benefit on our discoveries on and under Gal De Val Island. His poisoning has completely short-circuited this project."

"Why is that? Can't you just assign someone to take up where he left off?"

"Unfortunately not, Talissa. You see, all traces of Dr. Mome's work are missing. The Lab AI, Calus, indicates that no data on the matter was ever uploaded to him, although Dr. Mome did access Calus's records before beginning with his on-site research. Nor has any data been discovered on Dr. Mome's personal unit or workstation."

"Stolen?" Talissa asked.

"Possibly, especially if it had been stored on a disk, but I think not. I've had our computer specialists run analyses of the various machines, and they found no traces that significant data was recently wiped. Now, such an analysis isn't foolproof, especially given the caliber of e-runner found in association with certain underworld elements, but it is certainly more likely than not that no data was taken. Hence, your hiring."

Talissa tapped her foot impatiently. I, on the other hand, took Natasha's hint and asked the question she was apparently seeking.

"Are you saying that you think Mome's data is still down in the Seabed?"

"It seems the likeliest possibility."

"Why the heck would it be there?"

"Since compiling the report involved a certain amount of field research, I suspect that Dr. Mome employed an on-site terminal to handle data searches and other information-gathering processes and found it easier to do the complete project there."

It sounded absurd to me, but then again I had no idea how much "field research" Mome needed to do or how inconvenient it would be to upload the data to Calus.

"It's an aspect of the investigation I cannot afford to overlook," Natasha continued. "Enemies capable of doing this—" She waved a hand at the screen of Mome's sickroom. "—certainly would not overlook the Seabed for long."

"Maybe they never overlooked it at all. Maybe that's why Mome's here," Talissa said.

"Then that is all the more reason for you not to delay. I am sure that experienced Hunters such as yourselves are aware that Pioneer 2 is a house divided. The Administration, the military, and the Lab all compete against one another to get what they want. Beyond that, there are criminal elements that have taken root." Her eyes focused on me for a long moment, and I got the distinct impression that Natasha knew all about me, not just as a random face but as a person who'd crossed paths with the crime syndicate called Black Paper on two occasions.

I glanced, in turn, at Talissa. Was it a coincidence that Natasha knew of me? Or had my fellow hunter brought me aboard at the Lab chief's request? Was this whole scene an elaborate charade being played out for my benefit? If so, why?

Paranoia was the most pervasive of emotions.

"You're saying that you expect trouble," Talissa said.

"My dear hunters, the only inescapable truth I have learned so far about the planet Ragol is that trouble is inevitable. Be careful, both of you." She favored us with a wry smile and added, "I think we can agree that your deaths would serve neither of us."

"I so love," I murmured, "an enthusiastic client."

It reminded me of a line about the laws of probability. An optimist, my trainer had once said, was another name for someone who was bad at math.

After leaving the hospital, Talissa and I stopped off for our field gear, making sure to arm weapons whose Photon attributes were tuned for effectiveness against mechanical and/or D-cellular enemies. We left from the field teleporter near the Guild's main offices as planned; the...oblique method of accessing the Seabed made even more sense now given that the other side clearly had an information pipeline into the Lab. A couple of hunters strolling through to use the teleporter there would be just a trifle obvious for even a halfway competent spy to overlook.

Of course, I thought as we arrived in the eerily green-lit corridors of No Man's Mines, there was also a down side to the idea. My first clue was when I stepped through the security door outside our arrival point and a Sinow Beat tried to take my head off. The violet-red Photon blade that sprouted from the back of the robot's wrist lashed out, and if I hadn't been diving forward from the moment I heard it drop to the floor behind me (that much metal dropping from the ceiling to a ceramic-tile floor simply cannot be stealthy about it) I would be testing just how close to clinical death one can get before Moon Atomizers stop working.

I tried to roll and bring a weapon to bear, but rifles are not designed to be spun around into firing position in the middle of impromptu acrobatics. Fortunately the Sinow had landed with its back to Talissa, and before it could take further action the pale-green tip of one Photon sword burst from its chest while a second detached the sensor array of its "head" with a sweeping cut.

"I'm beginning to understand why you like that Musashi," I remarked.

"You're welcome. Just remember, Sejanus, that I'm the Hunter here. I'm trained to be two inches away from the hostiles while I fight them. From now on—"

"You go through the doors first. I've got it."

"Good. Teamwork, and all that." She reached down and gave me a hand up, then kicked the Sinow's head skittering across the floor.

"Between all the hunters and the military crawling around this place over the past year, I'm surprised there are any of these things left."

"The automated factory keeps churning them out," I told her. "It mines raw materials, assembles components, and builds robots. No one can shut it down because we don't have the labor force. The military won't risk sending down a robotic force of their own, yet, because of the risk of infection with the virus, and of course it can't be a citizen labor force."

"So why not just detonate the place?"

"What? And pass up a chance to exploit it for their own ends?" I said in mock surprise. "Surely you aren't speaking of our governing bodies, are you, Liss?"

"I always forget what a joy your sense of humor is."

"The mind, no doubt, protecting itself from the horror via amnesia. Let's get going, shall we? I don't want any of those WORKS goons catching us near their precious teleporter."

I should really know better than to toss lines like that at the forces of fate. Right on cue, the far door hissed open, and another humanoid mechanism entered the room. Unlike the Sinow Beat, this wasn't a crazed robot, but an android bearing the WORKS blazon. Other aesthetic details escaped me, though; the repeaters in his metal grip commanded most of my attention.

Guns tend to do that when they're pointed at my breastbone.