Ghosts of the Past
Never go to a HUcast for sympathy. Even the ones who aren't programmed to be cold-blooded killing machines are rarely warm and fuzzy.
"People were trying to kill me. I'd have been very happy to let them know I had an appointment somewhere else, but they simply weren't interested in my schedule."
"Pity. Villainous louts are so rarely considerate."
"Actually, one of the louts was a former teammate of yours, a Force named Parlo Astwell."
Kestrel tipped his head to one side. Actually, for a HUcast he had quite an advanced emotional program and a number of mannerisms that displayed those feelings. The Falcon-types, I recalled, had been specifically designed to operate as special forces units integrated into a team of humans and Newmen. Therefore, they were supposed to be as "normal" as possible in order to help build unit cohesion.
"You surprise me, Sejanus."
"You didn't think that he would do that sort of thing?"
"No, it is your knowledge that I worked with him that surprises me. I have only done so on one occasion, and that was a government mission subject to a high security classification."
"You know how it works around here. No secrets—except the ones that really matter."
Kestrel turned from me and went to the windows. His quarters were spartan in the extreme: his regeneration capsule, a computer/broadcast system, and three chairs were the only furnishings. He did, however, have a very nice view, and seemed fond of watching the world go by.
"I think that Astwell might be responsible for what happened to Dr. Mome."
Kestrel nodded slowly.
"It is not inconceivable. I found him to be a cold and unpleasant figure, although a skilled professional. Perhaps ironically, on a number of occasions his command of techniques was required to save our lives against the denizens of the Seabed laboratories."
"But you still think he was capable of poisoning Mome."
"Indeed. My assessment of him would be that he was loyal to money, a true mercenary with otherwise limited ethical standards."
That was as good a description as any of a man who voluntarily worked for Takamura.
"Can you tell me what happened that day, when Mome was attacked?"
"I see no harm in doing so," Kestrel remarked with a shrug. "Dr. Mome was working at the computer while the four of us patrolled the surrounding area. You see, our purpose was to intercept any creatures or robots and engage them well away from the doctor."
"Yeah, nothing like letting a stray shot hit the guy you're trying to protect."
"That, and the Zoa and Zele-type Sinow units found in the Seabed are equipped with short-range warp devices. This makes it impossible to act as a shield in the immediate presence of the one you are trying to protect."
I hadn't known that. Fun toys Pioneer 1 had come up with, weren't they?
"It was Feric who gave the alarm. He'd found Dr. Mome sprawled at the base of the computer. I was the last to arrive; Feric had already ordered Parlo and Gene to get Dr. Mome to the medical center."
"So Feric was your team leader?"
"Nominally. We had no formal leader but his was the quickest mind in a crisis situation. Since our mission was supposed to be a secret," he continued, the stress obviously for my benefit, "we couldn't leave anything lying around. I packed up the chemical analysis supplies, while Feric closed out the computer program Dr. Mome had running and then shouldered the lighter load. We took the teleporter back to the Lab so as not to appear in the middle of the Guild deck with all that equipment."
"No reason to let the military know what you'd had with you—and therefore what you'd been doing."
"Which, I may point out, raises the question of why I am talking about this with you."
I scowled at him.
"Maybe you missed the news, Kestrel. The military decided that they could do without my services. I'm not reporting to them."
Ironically, I now knew something that they'd probably be interested in knowing. If all Mome had been doing was assembling Dr. Osto's data from the Seabed computers, there'd be no need for additional equipment. Clearly he'd been doing experiments of his own, although nothing too elaborate if the equipment was portable. Probably testing or verifying some of the results he'd found.
Well, Mome is the head of a Lab research team. He's not a moron, for all that we hunters make fun of him.
"I see. I am sorry to hear that."
"I don't know. I'll miss the steady work, but given some of the stuff WORKS had been getting up to...No, they aren't people I really want to be associated with."
And, surprisingly, it was the truth. I was sick of 32nd WORKS and their twisted games. They were, at times, no better than Black Paper. Maybe worse; at least Black Paper, being an underworld syndicate, wasn't supposed to be protecting the colonists on Pioneer 2. WORKS, though, was betraying their duty as military officers. Vel would have been ashamed of them.
In a strange way, I was almost glad she wasn't alive now, to see the stains being put on the uniform she'd loved so much.
"Without Heathcliff Flowen," Kestrel agreed, "the military is no longer what it once was."
"Amen to that. Do you know how to get in touch with Feric? I'd just call him up but he'd probably be more likely to talk with me if the request came from someone he knows and has worked with."
Kestrel's head dipped, and his eye-lights dimmed momentarily.
"I am afraid that will be impossible, Sejanus."
I got that old sinking feeling in my stomach again.
"Feric died yesterday, of an apparent heart attack."
"Feric Loramis? Oh, yeah, I know the name. Died yesterday—heart attack, though, so not my problem. Just popped on the list."
Inspector Laleham was Pioneer 2's Chief of Homicide Investigation. Murder was his business, and it was a bitch of a job for an honest cop. With the three arms of government constantly working behind each other's back, the jurisdictional question of who could enforce what on Ragol's surface, and the fact that even the underworld gangs had ties to political muscle he ran into more cover-ups than he knew what to do with. Added to his problems was that there was no civilian police on Pioneer 2, so he and his staff were military, subject to the military chain of command. It wasn't hard to see why his job was immensely frustrating.
"Heart attack," I said dubiously. "You're the second person that's told me that."
"Well, damn, Sejanus, I'm not going to make up a new cause of death just so you can have some variety. Good old myocardial infarction's what killed your fellow Ranger."
"You've got a suspicious mind, Sejanus."
"And you don't?"
"You're a hunter, so you've got a little more freedom of action to poke around on fishing expeditions. Me, if the medical report says natural causes I've got no jurisdiction to look into things unless I've got hard evidence there's trout in that particular pond. What I've got is a diagnosis saying heart and a tox screen countersigned by Dan Whatshisname—you know, Chief Milarose's aide—saying nobody helped that along with poison." He drummed his thick, spatulate fingers on his console. "You're giving me the fish-eye on this, Sejanus. Do you have any reason for suspecting otherwise? Something I can use to open an official inquiry?"
I opened my mouth. Then I closed it again.
Laleham was honest, but he was also military. Mome's mission was a joint one between the Lab and the Administration. If Laleham opened an official file, it would put the details of the job right into military hands. There was no way on Coral my client would want that. I didn't have the authority to make that call—and I didn't yet have good reason to go against Natasha's wishes.
He could see my answer in my face before I gave it.
"Didn't think so."
"I say that a lot, too, Sejanus. But I'll tell you this—I've got nothing at all that even suggests foul play except that Feric was a hunter and thirty-two years old. Death by natural causes could happen to even hunters, though. Just look at Donoph Baz."
He had a point. Donoph had been a legend, but he'd eventually succumbed to Nature. I'd actually been to the funeral, since Donoph's adopted daughter Alicia was a friend of mine.
"Yeah, maybe so. Besides, if the body's been cremated by now there'll be no way to prove murder anyway."
"Sucks to be an honest cop in this town. Or an honest hunter, I suppose."
"I wonder sometimes why it is we bother."
"Don't know about you, but I like being able to sleep nights."
"There's that, I suppose. Thanks for the information, Inspector."
"Not a problem. And hey, if you get to the point where you can actually talk about the reasons why you're so suspicious, come back and see me."
I stopped on the way out of milipol headquarters and entered a report on my aerocar, how its computer had been hacked and I'd been steered to the park. I left out the follow-up details, making it sound like a generic irritant. They promised to retrieve the vehicle, sweep the autodrive system clean, and do a repair-and-upgrade job on its security, which was about the best I could hope for. I doubted their sweep would pick up any traces back to the original hackers, but you did what you could and it wasn't like the milipol had Lab-quality computer equipment or programmers.
Feric had turned out to be a dead end in more ways than one, so I figured I would talk to Gene Dyson. He probably didn't know anything more than I'd already learned, but I didn't want to confront Takamura without knowing absolutely everything I could. Bad enough he was sending people after me; I didn't need to be starting any countermoves without a coherent strategy. I might as well just draw a couple of nice white circles on my torso and say "come and get me."
Which he probably would, anyway.
I flagged down a taxi and gave it my home address. I needed a decent meal and to make a few calls and that would probably be the best way to handle both at once. I might even manage a bit of online research.
"Sorry, bud. We ain't going there," the driver remarked. The divider between front and back hissed open and I saw not the usual android operator but my old friend Metal Fist from the park, his nose puffy and swollen from where I'd apparently broken it for him.
His passenger was the HUcaseal.
"My master wishes your presence," she stated in a delicate voice that did not go with her metallic-engine-of-death combat routine. "Do not resist or you will be forcibly restrained."
The locks shut with an audible snap. I was alone and unarmed in the vehicle.
"How can I refuse such a polite invitation?" I said sourly, and sank back into the seat. I tried to enjoy the ride. More than likely, it was going to be the most comfort I felt in a while.