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Ghosts Of The Past

Chapter VII


Astwell!

That someone like Takamura was involved in this came as no surprise, though his specific involvement was an attention-grabber. That Parlo Astwell, one of Mome's escorts who'd brought him to the medical center, was also one of the hunters who'd attacked us in the Seabed, was the first genuine bombshell. Had Black Paper hired him to learn as much as possible about Mome's mission? Or, more likely, had he been Takamura's plant all along, and the likely suspect as the poisoner?

The implications were such that I barely remembered to ask Paganini the last thing I wanted from him: to place my military access code on the black market for sale--and if possible, to doctor what records there might be to indicate it had been available for at least a full day. It was an alibi for when WORKS queried their computers to see who'd used their pet teleporter in the mines. He agreed, and I left. My exit was barely polite, but I had to talk to the other members of Mome's escort if I was to pin down Parlo's guilt.

I'd never met Gene or Feric, but I did have a passing acquaintance with Kestrel. I wouldn't have called him a friend, but we'd worked together on a couple of quests and he was a reliable teammate. I'd start with him, then, and branch out to the others. A quick PDL call verified that he was at home, and I programmed the aerocar to fly to his residence block. The computer beeped and displayed the revised destination map.

Then the aerocar failed to take a turn when it was supposed to.

A block later, it did turn, but right instead of left and dropped two traffic channels while doing so.

Aerocar transit was strictly regulated on Pioneer 2; it had to be. The impact of flying missiles into tall buildings in under artificial-gravity conditions was bad enough, but if one somehow managed to get out of control to the extent that it would strike the dome, things could get messy. Of course there were safeguards against a dome breach, automatic repair systems, the fact that the buildings would seal shut airlock-tight to preserve atmosphere, but some things weren't to be played around with. Travel was largely automatic, guided by the traffic channels, and even manual control was subject to many automated overrides. There were no breakneck-speed aerocar chases on Pioneer 2 the way there were in Coral's cities. The pure need for survival outweighed personal freedom.

Knowing all this, I didn't panic. It would be next to impossible for any hacker to make my aerocar crash, and raise far too many questions. No, a more likely scenario was that someone had hijacked my autodrive to being me to a specific location. Perhaps it was for a meeting, but more likely it meant an ambush. Elimination.

If that was the case, panic would just do their job for them.

There weren't many convenient spots for disposing of a person in the city. It was only three years old, after all, and every industrial facility vital to the population's survival, so there were no abandoned factories, no stretches of urban wasteland. There was the Downtown slum, of course, and a few empty offices...

Then again, I'd once had an attempt made on my life in a crowded shopping arcade. Sometimes the bad guys just didn't care about the collateral damage.

The aerocar made two more turns along the way before it slowly settled in towards a floating park, on a level with some of the upper decks but not attached to any building. Trees, shrubs, footpaths, and even an ornamental lake made for a little slice of the natural in the colony ship's wholly artificial world. Yet despite its beauty and its civilized surroundings the park was as much the killing ground as that cold metal and plastic nightmare factory under the sea.

Human evil knew no geographical boundaries.

As the car slid into a docking slot, I used the opportunity to prepare. Although not a Force I did have some limited proficiency with technique use, and I employed Deband to boost the effectiveness of my damaged armor in repelling physical attacks. I then drew my autogun, verified that the Photon pack was nearly full, and activated the driver. As the sighting bar faded into existence I powered down the aerocar, then opened the door.

I took it as a good sign that a rifle shot didn't strike me the moment I got out.

The entrance to the park was a sweeping arch ornamented with the kind of designs more common to ancient temples than Pioneer 2. It was as if the architect had realized that the usual multicolored beams and shifting patterns of light would look horrid next to the natural beauty of green growing things, as out of place as a flower-box in the Lab control center. I knew that the arch was equipped with Photon-detectors to scan for weapons such as the one I carried.

I was all but given a heart attack by the squeal of the alarm. I leaped back in shock and powered down my autogun's Photon driver at once, causing the alert signal to lapse into silence. Since no security personnel appeared to ask me why I was attempting to carry a charged weapon into the detection field, I assumed that...arrangements...had been made to delay any official response time. I did, however, put away the gun.

The good news was that so far as I knew Photon-dets were either on or off. They applied to everyone. Whomever was waiting for me did not have armed Photon weapons either, and I'd know instantly if one was charged up. Either this was supposed to be a peaceful meeting or else I wasn't up against hunters. Common thugs rarely had powerful Photon weapons, instead wielding purely physical implements, the kind of thing that works fine in a back-alley brawl but not when a Booma is trying to claw your head off.

The park was eerily deserted as I started off down the path, the soles of my boots echoing quietly off the faux-rock flagstones. The spot between my shoulder blades itched as if it was in someone's gunsights. No one else was in sight, not even a tiny maintenance robot flitting by on some errand. Above, an aerocar drifted past in the traffic channel, and between the trees I could see peeking through the lights of the surrounding skyscrapers but for all that I felt just as if I was alone in the Ragol wilderness, expecting danger at any moment.

It was that mindset that saved me.

I'd heard that ping! noise many a time before, the noise of a Photon-camouflaged trap arming for detonation. I didn't think, just reacted by flinging myself aside. My shoulder hit the soft lawn and I rolled, feeling a wave of chilly air wash over me. Freeze trap, I realized, and knew that I'd been just out of range.

Two figures had broken from the cover of the treeline when I'd triggered the trap and were pounding towards me now. Street fighters, I guessed from their synthetic-leather pants and tattooed torsos. Both were lean and rangy, well-muscled but not big like Rouge. One had metal plates fitted over his knuckles and solid bars gripped in his fists, adding mass to his punches and unyielding steel to the impact. The other wielded a small flail consisting of two bars linked by a short chain.

They were on me in an instant, but I managed to block the first punch of the metal-fisted one with my wrist to his forearm and swiftly responded with a counterpunch to the belly. The flail man was trying to flank me, since he needed a little more space to operate than his partner, so I kicked out and scored on the side of his knee, making him stumble.

Fist-man came at me again; he was tougher than I'd guessed, the stomach-blow having only slowed him momentarily. I bunched my shoulder to absorb a punch, then jerked my head back to avoid an uppercut and ended up taking a flail hit across the spine. I dropped at once, feigning weakness, then as soon as I hit the ground I scissored the flailer's legs and twisted, propelling him face-first onto the grass. I chopped at the side of his partner's knee and sprang up, only to take a punch to the breastbone that sent me staggering back. Without Deband, I'd have probably been in a lot of pain.

As it was, I still retained enough of my equilibrium that when Metal Fist followed up with a long, looping right hand I forestalled it with a quick jab to the face, then a second that bloodied his nose. I might have been able to press my own attack then, but was cut off by the flailer. The nunchucklehead had gotten up and was taking a swing at my skull, so I mule-kicked in desperation. I'd been going for the low blow (you do what you can when outnumbered) but missed, instead catching him just at the waistline.

Talissa would have put them both down by now, I thought as the puncher recovered himself and made his next attack. I was fending them off but not really able to make any follow-up moves because they were fairly competent.

That was when I realized that in the stress of the fight I'd lost sight of my overall strategy. What I needed was to escape, not waste my time slugging it out with these punks.

With that in mind I made a feint to lure Metal Fist into an attack, an easy thing to do, and when he punched I sidestepped and grabbed his upper arm for leverage, then used that grip and a hand to the small of his back to send him stumbling into his partner. They both went down and I pivoted and ran.

My flight carried me into the park, but then again my aerocar probably wouldn't work anyway, since its flight computer had been hacked. If I could get to the other end of the basically rectangular park, I might find the transport my ambushers had used. It wasn't likely they would have disabled their own vehicle.

Ping!

My vision swam and my head spun dizzily. My next steps were random staggers. I couldn't see straight, couldn't balance right.

Confusion trap! I hadn't been able to dodge it because my reflexes were dulled by thinking--planning my escape had divided my attention and cost me the half-step I'd needed. Now I wasn't stepping anywhere; with my vision and balance disrupted by the trap's sonic attack I could barely keep from falling down, let alone move in a straight line.

The only good news was that the effect would clear when my body stabilized itself. Since I was neither carrying a Sol Atomizer nor knew a high-level Anti technique I couldn't dispel the effect, so it was good that it would wear off.

Footsteps.

I couldn't even turn around to see who was coming, couldn't focus my vision well enough to make it out anyway. I was sure, though, that it was an enemy; this was the killing ground and I was without friends.

Only one option made any sense to me. I used my Zonde technique. The confusion had left me unable to effectively aim, but I could still use techniques and Zonde didn't need to be aimed, merely homing in on the nearest viable target. I heard the crackle of lightning and a short grunt of pain in a woman's voice. A woman--so now there were at least three against me. I tried to call up a second Zonde but there was no time. The sword-strike hit me like a thunderbolt, the attacker's open hand as rigid and unyielding as the blade the handfighting blow was named after. It was Deband, again, that kept me from being incapacitated, that perhaps saved my life, but my already weakened torso armor shattered into pieces and I was catapulted off my feet, hitting the grass hard.

Sometime between the blow and my impact with the ground the confusion faded and I could see my enemy. She was an android, with a perfect, beautiful face and jet black hair, clothed mostly in red. She stood in an open-hand combat stance; unlike Muramasa-ichi this one had a Hunter template and clearly her neural net had progressed well beyond the basic combat program.

It took no thought, no reaction time at all for my hand to close around my autogun's grip while my finger reached for the arming switch. If I tried to go hand to hand with this HUcaseal I was a dead man. Legal penalties for using a Photon weapon in a prohibited area or for engaging in an unauthorized investigation on board Pioneer 2 be damned!

I didn't have to worry about the Photon-dets going off, though, as a sharp kick swept the gun out of my hand before I could even get the Photon driver active. She yanked me to my feet and used an immobilization on my right arm, sending pain searing through me.

"Worthless Ranger. You know nothing of honorable battle, using guns because you fear death. A true warrior does not need to cower at range from enemies."

I could have responded by pointing out that she was nothing but a machine, a weapon built by someone even if she was an intelligent and self-aware one and that her employer was so cowardly he hadn't even bothered to show up for the battle at all. That would have been stupid, though. Instead, I used the time her speech took to call up another Zonde. Her body spasmed wildly and she staggered back--and she let go of me.

I didn't waste breath jeering or to try to save pride with a counterattack; I ran. Hard and fast I lit out, to get away from the deadly android and try to reach the park exit. Only, when I rounded a bend in the path I saw Parlo Astwell standing there in his Force's robes. He was well back from the turn--far enough that I couldn't bowl him over with my charge--so I veered hard to the left as his hands came up, just in time that the explosive fireball from his Foie barely missed me. I plunged into a small copse of trees, which offered cover from many kinds of technique, hoping to get out of Zonde range (or that Astwell just wasn't good with it).

There were footsteps behind me, obviously the android's. I couldn't stop moving or she'd be on me. My lungs burned with the exertion of sprinting, and I burst from the trees--

--only to careen into the four-foot wall that marked the edge of the park. My momentum nearly carried me over, but I caught the edge just in time. It was a long way down, at least eight traffic channels. In the uppermost a long, purple omnibus was slowly moving by.

With a crash the android tore free of the trees. I was trapped, finished.

When the idea hit me I acted on it at once. Had I stopped to think I'd have been out of time. I grabbed the edge, vaulted up, my boot getting a slight foothold, and then I was plunging through the air. My aim was good, though--judging range, distance, and predicting motion of targets is what I do as a Ranger, after all--and I landed with a jolt on the roof of the omnibus.

The HUcaseal was not daunted by my Net-broadcast dramatics. She mounted the edge, ready to follow, but before she could leap a spotlight stabbed down from one of the upper channels, accompanied by the squeal of a siren from a military police cruiser. For some reason the cruiser was completely ignoring me, the guy who'd gone leaping through open space, and instead focusing wholly on her. She turned at once and vanished back into the park, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I'd been extremely lucky to escape that trap, or else I had a guardian angel looking out for me.

I crawled to the forward right corner of the omnibus and managed to get myself down onto the auxiliary ladder. My arms trembled so badly from exhaustion and the aftereffects of the adrenaline rush that I was afraid I would fall, but I managed to hold on, open the door, and swing myself inside. The driver looked at me, dumbfounded; I doubt he got too many mid-air passengers.

"Which bus is this?" I asked, digging out the fare.

"Um...it's the Purple Line Number 4," he managed to say despite his slack jaw.

I dropped my ten meseta into the slot.

"Well, that's just typical."

"What is?"

"Wouldn't you know it? I go through all that trouble to catch the bus and it's not even going the right way."

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