Ghosts Of The Past
Slowly and grimly we trooped through the twisting corridors of the Seabed research facility, traversing rust-brown metal halls, skirting the edges of half-flooded, arena-like pens where, no doubt, tests had been run, and crossing through wrecked laboratory facilities where computers, electronics, and diagnostic instruments had been ripped apart as if in a frenzy of manic hatred. The thick air seemed to be sodden with threat, and both Talissa and I found ourselves jerking around, weapons at the ready, at every creak of metal or drip of water into the standing pools. Our lower legs were soon drenched from sloshing through the flooded rooms, which just increased our discomfort.
We'd been looking for an elevator or short-range teleporter that would lead to the Seabed's upper section, but didn't find either. What we did at last stumble across was a service conduit, a narrow column which let maintenance workers access certain utility connections. Along one side, steel rungs were fixed to the wall; a thin layer of rust already caked them due to the extreme humidity. We glanced at the rungs, then at each other, then up the conduit, which looked like it ran a good eighty feet up at the least.
"We take what we can get," Talissa said with a shrug, put away her blades, and began to climb. I followed her example, our feet on the rungs echoing up and down the conduit as we ascended. The whole trip up, I couldn't help but think of how frightfully exposed we were, faces to the wall, backs to the open air, and hands engaged in climbing. My paranoia came to nothing, though, and we emerged through a hatchway into another area of the facility.
The area we found ourselves in was basically intact, much more the kind of place where Mome could have done actual work. Not only were the floors dry and the walls undamaged, but the decor was attractive, designed to put people at east. Plastiglass panels in the corridors turned the seas outside into an aquarium for the Seabed staff to enjoy (if they could get past the fact that there were millions of tons of water outside waiting to rush in if the panels cracked). Most of all, it was the fact that lights and power were fully engaged on this level, so that things looked the way they were supposed to instead of being shadows of themselves in the emergency lighting. The air, too, was clear and clean and the temperature at a cool, comfortable level, so it was plain that the environmental systems were also intact and functioning normally.
The best news for us, though, was that the conduit's exit adjoined a maintenance office. The office's computer was working, and it contained a full schematic of the Seabed.
"Here it is: Section A9, Block 4. We're in A7, Block 2 right now. We'll need to take this corridor here--" I indicated the course on the screen with my finger. "--then follow it around to the right, cross this overpass in this square room, and turn left at the security gate here. That should get us where we need to go."
I didn't know the full extent of the experiments Pioneer 1's Lab had carried out here under the sea, and I tried not to think about it while we crossed through a research laboratory on a sort of catwalk. If it wasn't for the fact that people like 32nd WORKS were after the data Mome had gathered, I would have been perfectly content to leave it down here, where it wouldn't inspire people to recreate the mistakes that had been made.
When I mentioned this to Talissa, she gave me one of her classic looks.
"How do you walk, carrying the weight of all those ideals on your back?"
"No, I'm serious. We've got a deeply screwed-up situation here on Ragol. All we can do is the best we can, not run around second-guessing and third-guessing our clients and everybody else. It's the lack of cooperation and the political games that are stranding us in orbit."
"You expect the Council, the Lab, and the army to actually get along without stabbing each other in the back early and often?"
"Expect? Not bloody likely," she snorted. "I'm just saying that if they did we wouldn't be in this mess. At least as Hunters we can be part of the solution, not part of the problem. We can choose to do things the right way."
I gave her a sort of half-smile, the corner of my mouth quirking upwards.
"And you accuse me of having ideals?"
"It's not about idealism, it's about professionalism, people doing their jobs instead of promoting their selfish interests or their ideology."
Talissa shook her head, almost ruefully.
"Check the atmosphere down here, will you? I think the oxygen must be getting a little low, or else I wouldn't be rambling on about my blasted philosophy of life, especially not to you."
I couldn't help but wonder what she meant by that.
The discussion served a purpose, though; it brought us through the remaining corridors to our destination in Section A9, Block 4.
"That's got to be it," I decided, looking at the unusual computer terminal stuck in a corner of the room. The chamber itself was strange, basically square but separated into two levels, about a third of it six feet higher with a ramp connecting the parts. The decor was faux natural, with the "slope" between levels ornamented by rocks and growing plants. Corporations did stuff like that in order to make their worker drones more comfortable and relaxed, tricking the subconscious into thinking they weren't a faceless cog in the machine of commerce. I guess the same thinking applied to Lab drones, especially ones working at the bottom of the sea.
The computer was almost a mini-mainframe of its own, but instead of the bulky block shape I was used to this was a cylinder at least ten feet tall, tapering to a point. Reds and whites replaced the ubiquitous black-and-green color scheme, and keypanels ringed the lower part of the terminal so that six workers could use it simultaneously.
"It looks entirely different than the computer terminals down in No Man's Mines, or the ones on Pioneer 2."
"They seem to all use the same interface, though," I said as I attempted to call up a directory. "Lucky for us."
"How will you identify the target data?" Talissa asked, reading the file names scrolling by.
"Well, since Mome wasn't nice enough to call his file 'Mome's Secret Data' or something equally silly, I'll go by date. This one, coded Gamma 040, was the last file inspected, two days ago at 14:42. Nothing else outside this subdirectory shows anything recent, but the other files have time stamps from the last few days. This has to be it."
"You'll take the whole subdirectory, then."
Talissa handed me a data-storage disk she'd picked up while we equipped and I inserted it into the computer. Copying the data took only a few moments.
"That's that," I said, withdrawing the disk.
Talissa and I spun to the right, shifting our gazes upward. There, on the elevated platform, stood two people. One was a tall human Hunter with a scarred face and blue outfit pointing a charged autogun in our direction. Next to him was a female android Ranger, also in blue but with a synth-skin face and limbs. The launcher she carried was bigger than she was, and was capable of spraying a wave of five lethal projectiles with one pull of the trigger. Neither wore insignia other than their Section ID badges; like ourselves they were hunters from the Guild.
"I wouldn't suggest trying anything stupid," Scarface advised. "You don't have a gun out, and the girl's blades ain't gonna reach this far."
He was right and we knew it. Two more men came forward to join Scarface and the android, presumably entering the room by some other door or passageway. One wore long robes, immediately marking him as a Force, trained in the use of mystic techniques rather than in combat. His spiky white hair matched his robes, the latter almost looking more like a wedding dress than a hunter's uniform. The other was a huge man with a bright pink Mohawk--when you're that big, you don't have masculinity issues--carrying paired Photon knives. I wondered what it was that made he and the RAcaseal both choose weapons that looked ridiculous for their respective sizes.
"Go get the data, Rouge," Scarface told the big one. The Force followed the giant Hunter down the ramp and around towards us. "Put away those stickers, now," the enemy leader ordered Talissa. "I don't want you getting any bright ideas when my boys get close."
"Whyever would you think I'd do something like that?" she muttered, but powered down the Musashi, put the weapon away, and slapped the datadisk into Rouge's hand.
"Better frisk her, to make sure she's not hiding anything," suggested the android in the voice of a six-year-old girl. There was a twisted, leering sense of anticipation in her speech that was immediately echoed in Rouge's face, but while the big man's look was merely offensive hearing that tone in the android's child-voice made me shudder in horror.
Talissa didn't waste time on horror, but just acted. When Rouge, having emptied his hands of disk and daggers both, reached for her she took a quick step into him and elbowed the Hunter in his lower belly, below his armored chestplate. She then pivoted into and around his body, using him as a human shield, and let loose a Zonde technique. The blast spiked into the android, but without the shorting effect it had had on the military bot earlier. Sometimes your luck just wasn't in.
Meanwhile, I'd reacted to Talissa's plan by trying to simultaneously dive for cover behind the computer terminal and draw my gun. I wasn't fast enough, though (dulled reflexes from my physical and emotional state, hopefully, rather than being my natural plodding slowness), and I felt a burning pain in my lower leg snap that leg sideways and change the momentum of my dive. I went from a controlled leap to a clumsy belly-flop on the hard floor.
I did manage to draw the autogun, though, and trying my best to ignore the pain I rolled onto my back, half sat up while pulling my legs back up to my chest to get them out of the open (try that a couple hundred times for a good abdominal workout), and shot at the Force, who was my only real target of opportunity.
The Force had been trying something and had his concentration interrupted when my shot hit his shoulder. Obviously, though, whatever protective frame was equipped under those robes was a good one, because while his shoulder was snapped back no wound blossomed and he whipped up his other hand, conjuring a technique which took little time or effort.
Rouge chopped down with a massive hand onto the left side of Talissa's neck.
The RAcaseal laughed, a shrill keening, then squealed in pain as she fired the launcher. Berserk, I realized, a technique-like weapon augmentation unit that drained life from the firer to power up the Photon shots. Blasts scored the floor, smashed the walls--and two of them punched right through her ally, Rouge. One of those pierced Rouge's hip and went straight on through into Talissa's abdomen.
Fire burst from the Force's hand, streaking towards me. It impacted dead-center on my chest, and I felt my armor crackle further as the blow snapped me over backwards, slamming me onto my back on the floor.
I was down, and Liss was worse-off than I was, I feared. We were finished.
Then Hell decided to remind all of us where we were.
The android went flying down off the platform for no reason I could initially see--flying down, crashing into the far wall. I could see the huge caved-in spot in her upper back where a blow of titanic force had been struck. Almost as soon as she hit the ground, long rubbery tentacles snaked out, barbed tips whipping the metal body, striking sparks as they carved it open. The door was suddenly full of squid-like bodies, sea creatures somehow translated to land, balanced upright on several tentacles and striking out with the two long ones in front. I'd heard of them, Dolmolms and Dolmdarls, though I didn't know which were the blue ones and which the violet.
Even wounded, Rouge leapt into the fray, the blue Photon blades of his knives carving unnatural flesh. The Force conjured again, Gizonde lashing out with a bolt of lightning leaping from monstrous squid to another.
On the platform, Scarface was firing at...something. I couldn't see anything there, but the smack of Photon against metal was clearly audible. I raised my own gun and fired as well, trying to get to my feet. The something hit Scarface and he went down, rolling away.
Rouge went down, too, swarmed by the squid-things.
I fired twice more, and caught a glimpse of something huge and light blue in color. It was pivoting towards me, legs flexing...then it was gone again.
I flung myself down once more, just in time. I felt the rush of air left by the invisible machine as it hurtled through the space I had just vacated. It crashed into the computer terminal, utterly wrecking the conical workstation.
Dols swarmed towards myself and the Force.
A spray of frozen shards passed over my head from behind; the invisible robot had some sort of ice weapon.
I grabbed Talissa's ankle.
The Force raised his hands, clouds of purple swirling around them, an expression of pure fury twisting his face. I knew what was coming. Megid. Instant destruction.
A Dolmolm (darl?) whipped his chest.
The sound of gunfire. Scarface, up again?
My free hand slammed down a telepipe.
I heard the concussive boom of the vortex opening, the gateway back to Pioneer 2.
The Seabed faded to black as we ascended from one Hell into another.