Ghosts of the Past by DezoPenguin

Chapter 6

Hopkins was on time for our meeting; in fact, I was two minutes early and I found him waiting outside the bar for me. When his father was involved, Hopkins definitely didn't keep people waiting.

Of the people I knew on Pioneer 2, Hopkins was one of the more interesting characters. He was a fellow hunter, specifically a Force, and like Talissa a Newman. Fashion was definitely not his strong suit; he himself was short and heavyset and the yellow outfit did nothing for his build. His hat was tall and wide, actually larger than his head. Then again, I've never actually met a male Newman whose clothes sense was anything but outlandish. I think that whatever twist of brain chemistry programs most females of the race to wear as little as possible goes a little haywire in a man's body.

As far as fieldwork went, Hopkins was strictly a second-rater. What he could be relied on for was information. He kept track of all the rumors that buzzed around the Guild, and when anything significant went down he was sure to know about it. I'd only learned recently the reason for his interest, namely his father, Paganini.

Paganini had once been a key member of Pioneer 2's Lab until a quarrel with Natasha had forced him out of his official position. He continued his work, however, which ran into areas that many of the factions on board considered their exclusive purview. He therefore kept tabs on all of them through his network of informants and underworld contacts. Although Hopkins wasn't part of Paganini's project, the scientist did use his son now and again to liase with the Hunter's Guild.

There was, I supposed, an outside chance that it had been Paganini who had sent out Scarface and the others, since Mome's data would probably be of interest to him. I doubted it, though, not because Paganini was incapable of it but because neither the hunters nor their methods fit his usual pattern. Paganini used first-tier hunters, not thugs, and preferred to act by stealth instead of using brute force that would give Natasha and the Administration an excuse to crush him.

As always, Hopkins brought me to his father by using a series of warp pads, no doubt with their standard destinations recoded for this purpose. The miniteleporters were the easiest way to make sure I didn't know Paganini's exact location on Pioneer 2. Not surprisingly, he guarded his privacy jealously.

"Father!" Hopkins called as we emerged from the last teleport. "I've brought Sejanus to see you."

"Excellent. I won't detain you any further; I know that you have an important Guild Quest to attend to. Just remember to take along a partner—a Force of your talents can always use a Hunter to engage the enemy at close range while you use your techniques from a distance."

"Oh, don't worry, Father. You know I always go on jobs with a team big enough to handle them."

"Hm," Paganini murmured noncommittally. Hopkins apparently took this for approval, because he smiled and ducked out of the room.

"He's a good boy," Paganini remarked, "but he tries too hard, I think, and I'm afraid it's all to please me. You're his friend, Sejanus; try to keep an eye out for his welfare, will you?"

"Of course."

His fingers rhythmically caressed the head of his cane.

"Now, all we need to do is to look out for yours. By the way, you'll be glad to know that I have no particular interest in Mome's data. It has little bearing on my work."

"How did you—?" I shook my head. "Never mind. I ought to expect it by now."

"Probably you should. Certainly, I'm not the only one with eyes inside the Lab. The Administration, the military, organized crime, they all are involved in spy activities there. Unfortunately, it means that I don't know who's necessarily responsible for what actions."

"Maybe I can narrow it down for you. I've got two names, four faces, and a job to ask about; I need whatever details you can give me."

"Of course," he repeated, and smiled broadly at me. "Still and all, you're now entering into the realm of business decisions, Sejanus. Information is power, and the more I tell you, the less power I retain."

I'd known it would come to this, and I'd come prepared. I took out a small pouch and spilled five glittering green-blue drops of crystallized Photon into my palm.

"I think that's fair payment for information received," I offered.

"Sejanus, you're out to break an old Newman's heart, aren't you? Not even a pretense of haggling, just an opening offer high enough that to turn it down would be an insult. Where's the fun in any of that?"

"I'm afraid I'm a bit too pressed for time for fun," I said regretfully.

"I suppose you are at that." He extended a hand, and I pressed the Photon drops into it. "So, what is it that you want to know?"

"Recently, Dr. Mome's been working on a research project for the Lab—but I guess you know that already," I added, recalling Paganini's initial comments. "I'm certain that he had an escort of hunters; as I found out for myself there's no way he could have done the job without it."

"Quite," Paganini agreed with a glance at my braced leg.

"I want to know who those hunters were. I need to talk to them."

"I see. Well, as it happens, I do know whom the Lab hired for that job, because I thought I might need to approach one or more of them for information. There were four: Gene Dyson, Feric Loramis, Parlo Astwell, and Kestrel."

"The last one's the android? Or someone else by the same name?"

"Falcon-Type #7, Hunter matrix programming," Paganini verified.

The rest I could access through the city directory. Since two of the names were the ones Dr. Karuta had identified as the people who'd brought Mome to the medical center, I was sure that Paganini had his information straight.

"Now, Sejanus, I hope that's not all you want to know, or else I'll have to give you change, which would truly depress me."

"It's not. I had a run-in with a team of four hunters, the kind who aren't too picky about the kind of jobs they take on. I have a bad feeling they're working for one of the underworld groups; they were definitely that type. I'm hoping you can put names to a few faces, and more importantly fill in who's pulling their strings."

"I can but try. Go on."

"It's another team of four, two HUmars, a RAcaseal, and a FOmar. I've got one name, Rouge. He's one of the HUmars, with a pink Mohawk and a thing for daggers. He is—was—huge, too; he could give most RAcasts a run for their money in the size department."

Paganini shook his head.

"I'm afraid that particular combination doesn't ring any bells. That's not surprising, though. He sounds more like a Downtown street-fighter than a hunter. Those types are commonly used as thugs by underworld bosses, so he probably got his Hunter's License only so he could provide backup, muscle, for the others."

"Probably. Rouge was taking orders, not giving them, and he didn't say or do anything that would suggest he'd be anything but another example of the classic stereotype of 'big and dumb.' It was the other Hunter who was clearly in charge of the group." I described Scarface with as much detail as I could.

"Hm, that could be one of a number of people...wait, now—the RAcaseal. Was she tiny, with an organic look and an aggressively sadistic personality?"

"That's her—or, more accurately, was her. The monsters were quite thorough in their treatment."

"I would not complain. She was a thoroughly nasty character, first of a set invented by Seiji Muramasa at Coratec Industries fifty years ago."

"Fifty years?"

"Yes, she was an old-model android, not an independent one. She often works as support for a scarred hunter called Dual, which is obviously not his real name. Most people think he's her master, but that isn't the case. Dual works as a field agent for Muramasa-ichi's real master, who happens to be one of the underworld bosses who make up the syndicate called Black Paper."

"Them again. I thought we'd heard the last of them for a while." I'd crossed paths with Black Paper before; they were wired into various government, military, and Lab power centers and interested in anything having to do with Pioneer 1 and especially Dr. Osto Hyle. Their actual underworld activities were in smuggling, black-market operations, dealing in weapons and android components, and even slavery. "What's the boss's name?"

"Hideki Takamura."

My reply was anatomically unlikely.

"Apparently you know the gentleman?" Paganini said wryly.

"We've met." I'd crossed paths with him in an attempt to close a missing-hunters case several months ago. I'd traced weapons stolen from the missing hunters to Takamura, and in response to my provocation he'd sent a goon squad to kill me. Things had just been getting interesting when someone stepped in. My military employers made it plain to me that any further activity by me in that area would cost me any chance of searching for Vel, while at the same time Black Paper's leadership had obviously weighed in to keep Takamura from pursuing personal grievances against me.

I should have guessed it wasn't finished between the two of us. He'd be certain, now that I was again in his way, to try and reduce me to crematorium dust. Yet on some level I welcomed it. I'd felt worse about myself than I ever had before when I'd allowed that lieutenant from WORKS to make me back down. Now, life had conspired to give me that rarest of rare gems.

A second chance.

"Are they known to freelance?" I asked, just to cover all the bases. "To take on jobs that don't come from Takamura?"

"Dual does, sometimes. Like most of Black Paper's pet hunters, he tries to maintain enough of a cover that the Guild can't eject them and thereby see them banned from Ragol. Muramasa-ichi, She wasn't trustworthy enough to be let off her leash. Unfit for service as a hunter or any job involving controlled violence."

"That clinches it, then. They were working for Takamura, in pursuit of Mome's data." I rubbed my chin thoughtfully. "Now, I just need a plan to try and expose them."

"It will not be an easy trick."

"No, I don't think it will, but it's worth doing—and not just because it'll keep me alive. Thanks for the information, Paganini."

"You paid for it, Sejanus. A deal is a deal. Which reminds me that you have not yet obtained all that you paid for."

"What? Oh, yes, the Force." I'd almost forgotten him, once it had been established that Takamura had commissioned the enemy hunters. Still and all, Paganini had a point—I'd paid for it. And why not be thorough?

"He was tall, only an inch or so shorter than I am, with spiked white hair and wearing a white robe. He was young, though; the hair was either his natural color or an affectation but it hadn't gone gray. Oh, and he didn't appear to have any weapons equipped, not even one of those little technique-enhancing wands, which is kind of odd. He must have been going for speedy technique use."

"Hm. A human male Force with white hair, white robes, and a disdain for weapons use. Do you know, Sejanus, that while I'm unaware of any connection between he and Takamura, you've just given me a respectable thumbnail sketch of Parlo Astwell."