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Grave Consequences

Part I

Grief was eternal.

The mind-doctors could talk about the healing process, about letting go, about acceptance, but none of that could overcome one simple, essential truth.

A loved one was gone forever.

For so long as love remained, there would always be that sense of loss. It might dim, fading from blinding-bright agony to a poignant ache that surfaced only when something called it to mind, but it would be there.

For Matha Grave, though, that stage of nostalgia had not yet been reached. Her grief was too new, too raw, a wound not yet scarred over.

First it had been her parents. They'd been a famous biologist and physicist on board Pioneer 1, a spaceship sent to begin colonizing the planet Ragol as the new home for the people of a dying world. Seven years later, Matha had come aboard the follow-up spacecraft, Pioneer 2, only to see a huge explosion cut off all communication with the thirty thousand men and women of Pioneer 1.

She'd feared that her parents were dead, and from the sketchy reports--rumors and gossip, really--it seemed likely that they were. The government, however, hadn't issued any formal report, either privately or publicly, so the truth was left up in the air.

Concerned about his employers, the Graves' butler, Blant, had slipped down to Ragol to investigate. This was not quite so foolhardy as it may have seemed. Blant was no common servant, but a retired Ranger, an experienced fighter with a sterling reputation. Evading government security and reaching the transporter to Ragol had been easy for him.

Only, he hadn't come back.

In truth, Blant's disappearance had worried Matha more than her parents'. For most of her life, he'd been father and mother to her, taking care of her when her parents were too busy with their work. She'd waited, more and more anxious with every passing moment, until finally she stopped waiting and took action.

Matha had gone to the Hunter's Guild and hired the services of a hunter. Together they'd ventured into the caves underneath Ragol, creeping through monster-filled passageways. They hadn't found Blant, but they did discover message capsules that he'd left behind. His last message had been that he was too weak to go on and monsters were closing in.

She hadn't had the courage to go any further. Not that it was likely there would be anything else to find, but Matha hadn't been able to face the possibility. She'd had the hunter return her to Pioneer 2.

Now she was alone.

It had been a week now since her return from Ragol. A week of pain, and of many tears. Her parents' eminence as scientists and their personal wealth had rated a luxury suite in one of Pioneer 2's more upscale apartments, but for all its comforts it was no more than a cold, empty shell to the girl.

She was fourteen years old, she had her whole life ahead of her, and she felt like she was dying.

It had taken that week for her mind to pull itself together, to work its way back, at least somewhat. Matha had played Blant's final messages over and over, listening to his voice and to the genuine love in it. What she hadn't done was actually listen to the words, the content of those messages. She'd heard the affection and the concern for her, but not the other things he was saying.

On the seventh day, that changed.

"Is the 'Pioneer Project' really just an immigration plan?"

That didn't make any sense to her. Their homeworld was dying. Everyone knew that. Without a new place to settle, they all would die with it. The Pioneer Project had been born out of that desperation. Unmanned probes had been sent out, and upon discovery of a potentially habitable planet, Pioneer 1 had followed.

But...Matha trusted Blant. She knew him too well to believe he was a victim of fancies and gossip.

"What I saw frightened me."

He'd been speaking of her father's research, of experimental notes he'd seen before the Graves had left on Pioneer 1. Matha's parents had told Blant not to let her get on board Pioneer 2, but Blant had defied that order because of how much Matha had missed them.

It's my fault, she thought, not for the first time. If it wasn't for me, we wouldn't have come to Ragol, and Blant wouldn't have been killed.

There was another side to that, though. She hadn't asked Blant to go down to the surface. She'd never have asked him to risk his life that way, not after the first rumors had spread that there were monsters on the surface. He'd done that entirely by his own will, out of loyalty to the Graves as well as his concern for Matha.

So, maybe he'd come to Ragol not only for Matha, but also for himself, for his own worries.

And maybe it isn't entirely my fault.

That particular thought she was having for the first time.

She lay down on the bed, thinking it over. Blant had been scared by something, something that had made enough of an impression on him that he'd spoken of it in his message pods years later. With the fate of Pioneer 1 still an unknown, that combination might have been what convinced him to go down, illegally, to Ragol.

Yes, Matha thought. That worked. It fit together.

So what was it? What had prompted Blant to risk his life? Her parents had worked for the government; their research had been top secret. Still, she was determined to find out, and the more she considered it, the more the idea consumed her. Learn the truth. Find out what those I loved died for.

Grief demanded blame, someone to hold responsible for one's suffering. Unconsciously, Matha was searching for that someone. She'd managed to resist the first, brutal impulse, that she herself was somehow the one, though it was still lurking at the corners of her mind. She was unwilling to blame her parents or Blant for their own deaths. Her father's research, though, a secret government project that could terrify even a man like Blant, yes, that made a perfect scapegoat for her subconscious to fasten upon.

Of course, Matha's conscious mind knew none of this. All she was aware of was her desire to explain Blant's mysterious comments.

The Grave suite had been prepared not just for Blant and Matha, but for her parents as well, in anticipation of them joining their daughter once Pioneer 2 reached Ragol. Because of this, it possessed a highly advanced computer system, one that the two scientists could use for research. It was entirely possible that it had been prepared with her father's genetic research data.

"Computer," Matha said, initiating the unit's voice-operation procedures, "display file directories."

"Displayed," replied the monotone male voice as a screen came to life.

Could it be that easy? she thought.

"Open subdirectory Grave.res."

"Subdirectory opened."

Matha's eyes flicked across the list of files. Some of them appeared to be text files, others multimedia-based, perhaps for ease of presentation.

"Computer, please open file Gen/DA6," she asked, picking one at random.

"File access is secured. Passcode and retinal scan are required."

Matha tried every file in the subdirectory, and each time came up with the same answer. Without her parents' passcode and their retinal scan, she couldn't get in. Apparently the government was taking no chances; though they had provided the files for her parents' ease of use, they had kept them secured to keep even Matha and Blant from seeing them.

With that kind of security in place, Matha was sure that there was something the government want hidden. Unlike a company, the government didn't have a profit motive in keeping data out of the hands of the public. "Top Secret" was a designation used if they felt the citizens were better off not knowing. Something that could cause a panic, for example, or which might be of use to criminals. Things that threatened the peace and safety of the population.

Or, Matha thought cynically, things that threatened the power base of some politician or army officer.

In this case, the secret might be of either type. Which one it was didn't matter to Matha, though. She wanted to know--needed to know--one way or the other.

She tried for a couple of minutes to finesse the computer's security, but had no luck. The files were well-sealed, and she had only a casual knowledge of computers.

"Close directories and enter sleep mode," she instructed the machine. These commands it obeyed; to her frustrated mind it was almost like the unit was mocking her.

What she needed was a computer expert who could bypass security. She knew a few people who were capable of doing just that. The problem was that they were all friends or colleagues of her parents, assigned to the government laboratories. They were hardly likely to help Matha break a government security seal!

No, she needed outside help. The Hunter's Guild was the most obvious source of support, but somehow hacking into computers did not seem part of the usual skill package of a Ranger, Hunter, or Force. This wasn't work for a mercenary, but a tech-criminal, a net-dancer.

Unfortunately, that sort didn't have a Guild she could contact to place a job order, and the teenaged daughter of high-ranking scientists hardly had the experience to find one.

Or did she?

Matha went over to her collection of entertainment disks and moved aside a row of popular music recordings. Behind it was hidden her secret collection of pirate broadcasts, ones that she hadn't told Blant about. He'd disapproved of the underground journalists, not because of their search for the truth but because of the anarchic social theories many of them seemed to promote. Watching and recording these broadcasts had been Matha's little rebellion.

Now, it might even come in handy.

She inserted a disk into the computer and called up a file for replay. The grainy images, shot from a palm-cam, and the indifferent sound quality all were typical of pirate broadcasts. In a way, they even added to the experience, giving it that "urban jungle" feeling missing from the polished InfoNet news reports.

The show was a slice of life from downtown, the worst part of the city inside Pioneer 2. Here there was dirt and grime, violence, depraved habits and desperate people. Illegal chemicals cooked up in home labs traded for meseta on street corners and across tables in seedy bars. Black markets operated in restricted food, weapons, android parts, even, it was hinted, people. Then she got to the part she wanted.

"In Downtown, one of the most basic truths is recognized," the announcer was saying. The journalist was a copper-skinned man with six rings through his left ear and a diamond stud piercing the right side of his nose. "Here, they know that the most valuable thing isn't something you can put into a bag or box, but information, food for the mind. The masters of the information trade are the net-dancers, the neon angels who fly the skies of the datanet, hacking into sealed files and getting the truth out for the people."

He grinned broadly, showing off bright white teeth. Another small diamond had been inset into one canine.

"It's thanks to these angels that I can come on the air and beam that truth out to you, truth that the government does not want you to hear."

He didn't identify his location, which looked like a bar or strip club. That would have been an invitation for the military police to move in and clear out the hackers. In truth, they probably wouldn't bother; the net-dancers would just find another hangout and you couldn't charge someone with a crime just for hanging at a hacker bar. Matha knew, though, that if she could find that bar she could make contact with someone who could get her into the sealed files.

Carefully, she replayed that segment of the broadcast in slow motion, until she saw what she needed, a sign seen dimly through the reflections in the front windows.

"Computer, access city gazetteer and locate all commercial establishments with 'Falconi's' in their name."

"One such location found: Falconi's Bar, Downtown Sector, Block Six, Location 0107."

"Display map."

When the image appeared on the screen, Matha highlighted the area directly across the street from Falconi's and asked the computer to identify it.

"Selected location identified as Crosseyes, nightclub license 057-N."

She'd found her first step.

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