Ghosts of the Past by DezoPenguin

Chapter 9

"The last time we spoke with one another, Sejanus, you were extremely disrespectful and rude. I treated you with the courtesy due a Ranger of your skill, and in turn you behaved like an animal, an unrefined brute without the slightest concept of civilization."

Hideki Takamura looked exactly as I remembered him. In his mid-fifties, he utterly scorned personal ornamentation, wearing dark, close-fitting clothing and keeping his iron-gray hair short and square-cut. An inch taller than me, he was also more muscular. I had a feeling he'd be nearly as deadly as his pet android in combat. His face was lined with deep grooves, but there were no laugh lines around his eyes and mouth, probably because he never laughed.

The HUcaseal had let her hair down and had donned an elaborate white kimono decorated with a plum-blossom motif. She knelt by Takamura's side, a sheathed katana across her lap; I didn't know if it was one of the famous Legendary Katanas or only a sharpened piece of steel, not that it mattered since I had been stuck into a chair, my hands tied behind me. Seeing the blade pointed out something that hadn't hit me at the time: the ambush at the park hadn't been meant to kill me, but only to capture me. Now, if I attempted escape, she was prepared to do something more permanent. Nor was she Takamura's only available minion. I could see the two thugs from the park, a rail-thin female version of their type with tightly curled pink hair, and completing the list, the scar-faced hunter from the Seabed that Paganini had said was called Dual.

"I had intended to offer you proper chastisement at that time. However, certain associates of mine informed me that this course would be injurious to their future plans, and so out of consideration for their well-being I withheld my hand."

A fancy way of saying that his bosses in Black Paper had choked up on his leash.

"Now that consideration is no longer relevant, as you have forced yourself back into my arena. I am quite pleased by this turn of events."

"Well, that makes one of us."

I don't know why I say things like that, sometimes.

The android lifted her head.

"Master, may I be permitted to reprimand him?"

I came as near as I ever have to losing bladder control in that moment. There was something in that sweet, jewel-bright voice that spoke without words of needles slipped into the skin, of wire-jackets, of tiny cuts with a razor's edge, of flesh delicately peeled layer by layer. I'd never known an android's artificial eyes could be so expressive.

Takamura saw my reaction and defied my expectations by chuckling softly. He slid his hand over the android's hair and gently cupped the side of her face in his palm.

"Not just yet, Muramasa-shi. I need him for a bit longer, and then you may amuse yourself with him."

"Thank you, Master Hideki."

"It is my pleasure, my dear. A gift to console you in your grief over your sister's passing."

I really had to wonder what kind of man collected non-independent female androids with sadistic tendencies.

Takamura turned back to me. Actually, he'd never really turned away; he'd been all but smirking at me the entire time, and it refined the impression of his character I'd gotten in our first meeting.

"Now, Sejanus, you understand your position. You are going to die in pain, an animal begging for a merciful end to its life. However, I am a man of practical needs as well as one of honor. You have something that I want. My associates will obtain this from you. The longer you refuse them, the longer I will permit Muramasa-shi to withhold the killing stroke when you have been given over to her."

He bowed from the waist, then turned and left the room. Muramasa-shi rose and followed with an elegant grace few androids were able to emulate.

That left me alone in the room with four thugs. Apart from the chair there was no furniture; the floor was faux wood and the ceiling high, the walls appearing to be wood frame and paper (although this was just an artificial layer over ordinary walls). The effect seemed to be a formal training hall for handfighting or bladecraft. As torture chambers went, it was a fairly unusual one. I doubted that would make it hurt less.

"You two, get out of here," Dual ordered my friends from the park.

"Hey, you got no call to be doing that! We got a score to settle with this buttmunch."

"I know. That's why you're going to leave. This isn't about settling old scores."

"Don't worry, boys," the pink-haired girl said. "Maybe Mr. Takamura'll let you watch M-shi do him when we're done. That ought to be plenty of revenge."

Both street fighters shuddered rather than looking happy. I appreciated the point. That HUcaseal was too creepy by half for macho bravado and bad jokes. They left, and Dual came to stand in front of me, looking down with his arms folded across his chest. I could see the armored gauntlets he wore, a martial-arts weapon called an Angry Fist. It was a nasty weapon, quite capable of taking down creatures as powerful as the Sinow Beat in one stroke, if you could get close enough to use it. The Photon drivers weren't charged, though, which made sense—Dual didn't want to reduce my skull to a fine red mist with one punch, after all.

"Okay," he said, "fun and games are over. You know the score and you know what we want. So let's have it."

"Have what?"

He slapped me, backhanded, across the face.

"I'll give that to you, once, just to make sure this doesn't turn into a stupid farce. We want the disk with Dr. Mome's research data on it."

"The last time I saw that, you had it."

He slapped me again, this time giving me a split lip.

"I said once and I meant it, Sejanus. Playtime is over."

"Do I look like I'm playing, here?" I protested. I wasn't, either. The last I'd seen of the disk was when Talissa had given it to Rouge. Surely Dual and Astwell hadn't been so stupid as to leave it in the Seabed?

"Where is it?"

A blow crashed into my stomach. I was forced to admit that even with the Photon driver disabled, an Angry Fist was still quite capable of living up to its name.

"What did you do with it?"

This time the fist exploded into my jaw, knocking me clean out of my chair onto the floor.

"Come on, Sejanus, you're not making this any easier on yourself."

"This is a waste of time. Just let the bot snuff him and be done with it."

Of course the bloodthirsty voice was female, which on this job always seemed to be the case. In my experience, women were the kinder, gentler, nurturing sex only in the delusions of idealistic but patronizing men.

"Have some patience. I have no intention of going home empty-handed. Besides, I think our friend here—" He took advantage of my prone position to ram the toe of his boot into my belly. "—is going to wise up and start talking."

"It's your party. Just wake me if you decide to put him down, okay? I don't want to miss the entertainment."

A hand fisted in my hair and jerked my head up to meet my interrogator's eyes.

"Do you hear that? You haven't got a friend in the world here. She knows how to take orders, though, so I'm going to bet she can keep from making a big stink about it until you're praying for me to finish you. Which I won't, because you know what's coming up next, after we're through here. If I were you, I'd talk right now. It's the only chance you've got, believe me."

I didn't even bother to groan in response.

"Your call, Sejanus. It looks like we're in for a long, ugly night."

He all but threw my head down so that it bounced off the floor, hot sparks of pain shooting through my skull, and only one thought kept repeating itself in my mind:

Damn you, Mome.

Damn you for playing around where no one should go. Damn you for letting your guard down so Astwell could get to you. Damn you for pulling me back into this crazy mess.

I saw him again, as he lay there in his medical center bed, a helpless, pathetic, and vulnerable figure. Childlike, even.

I saw Talissa, the strongest spirit I knew, lying just as fragile, just as helpless.

Damn you for making me care.

I saw myself as I'd been less than twenty-four hours ago, sitting in the Hatless Dezorian, a piece of human wreckage.

And thank you.

"Hell, Dual, you hit him too hard. He's out."

"Just dazed. I figure it gives him a chance to think things through."

Yeah, it did that, all right. Takamura and his people were never getting that data, so long as I had any power to prevent it. Besides, they were going to torture me to death, anyway. I wasn't at all eager to move on from the mere beating to the systematic infliction of pain by a sadistic artist.

Me lying there taking a rest break wasn't in Dual's plans, though. He hauled me up, dumped me back in the chair, and gave me another shot to the gut for good measure.

"I lost a teammate chasing after you, Sejanus."

My head snapped back from the blow to the eye.

"Muramasa-shi lost a sister. That android's none too sane when it comes to torture anyway, but just think what she'll be capable of doing to you for revenge's sake."

Dual wasn't systematic. The beating he administered wasn't fun, but it wasn't what it could have been, either. It wasn't the utter nightmare that was waiting for me.

"Takamura hates you, Sejanus. You know that, right? You disrespected him to his face and he had to let you get away with it. Every minute it takes me to get the data could be fifteen minutes, thirty minutes, even an hour with her. You've got to talk."

I tried not to think about that.

"There are other alternatives."

That wasn't Dual's voice.

"Both of you, step away from that man."

I couldn't see who was talking; he was standing behind me and I couldn't turn my head far enough to see him. Whomever he was, the pink-haired girl did not look impressed. Her lip curled, and her hand dropped to the hilt of her knife.

"Like hell I will, arm—"

The Photon blast hit her unarmored chest dead-center, making a nice little burn hole the size of my fist. She toppled at once. Dual wasn't waiting; he dove to one side and rolled, minimizing his target profile enough that two more rifle shots—I recognized them by the sound—missed him. He then sprang up and was through the door in an instant.

I felt a fine mist spray over me, cool against the side of my face. Immediately my injuries were healed, even the lingering pain gone. My leg was the only exception—but all the damage Dual had inflicted might as well never have happened, thanks to the Star Atomizer. I stood up and saw two soldiers had come into the room from behind me, one in a red beret and one in green. Both wore the insignia of 32nd WORKS.

I recognized the one in the red beret. He'd been the one who warned me off investigating Takamura eight months ago. He'd all but threatened to have my Hunter's License pulled if I hadn't dropped the matter.

It looked like I was out of the frying pan, and into the fire.