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The Guardian Way
by Darrell Whitney

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This story is a novelization (well, not literally, but have you ever heard of a "short storyzation"?) of the Phantasy Star can game "Amia's Adventure," which thanks to Naflign and the translator who wished to remain nameless (both of whom deserve loud applause, huzzahs, and claps on the back) I was recently able to play in translation. I've taken some liberties with the game's plot, of course. In addition to bringing it into the English continuity (Amia becoming Anna and so on), I've altered a number of plot points of the "find item A and use it to get past obstacle B" variety, basically because while fine in an adventure game of this type it would really screw up dramatic chase scenes to have Anna stop, go back a couple of rooms, and look for a key or something similar. I also need to thank Joel Fagin, whose vision of pre-PSII Mota in his "Haunted Wind" stories is the best I've ever seen, for allowing me to adapt some superficial elements of his setting to this story even though it doesn't actually take place in his fanfiction narrative universe. Or maybe it does; if he likes it enough, who knows?


It was late autumn in the year AW 1282. Of course, on the planet Mota, calling it "autumn" was more of a habit than any real reference to the seasons. It its natural state, Mota was a desert planet, where even in temperate zones the foliage was adapted to the arid conditions and there was certainly nothing like the pre-winter riot of reds and oranges, blues and violets that graced the season on Palm. The extensive efforts of the Palmans and their Mother Brain arch-computer had terraformed Mota into a green paradise, but again one where there were no true "seasons," only a uniform, lush beauty of leaf and flower that generally resembled a Palman spring.

Although, thought Anna Zirski, wiping sweat from her forehead, out here it seems more like summer. It was hot and humid, the air rich with that heavy feeling that speaks of a coming storm. The Climatrol engineers would have called the environment around Beerock Village a "Stress Zone"--an area whose divergent climate was needed to balance a scale somewhere. Beerock and the dome farm it existed to maintain were sheltered to the north and east by a rocky ridge, but beyond them, running to the sea's edge, were mountains, sands, and swamps, the castoffs of the sculpted perfection that was most of Mota.

"Welcome to the end of the world," she said quietly, then keyed the lock on her jet buggy and set off for the village. The path--it was hardly a road, even by the standards of a society that had largely done away with vehicles--led past a shelf of bare rock on Anna's left and the glistening curve of the farm dome on her right. She found neither the natural wall nor the artificial one comforting; on the contrary, it was as if the road to Beerock led between the cold and forbidding faces of nature and technology alike, neither offering reassurance.

Beerock Village itself was tiny, considerably smaller in area than the giant dome farm it served. Basically, it existed as living quarters for the workers and little else; Anna saw a single general store and the red cross of a doctor's office but no other commercial establishments. There wasn't even a sign of an eatery or resthouse--and why would there be? Everyone in Beerock had his or her own home to eat and sleep in, alone or with family. As for strangers, they didn't get those.

Anna hoped she could get the job over with in a hurry, or else she'd wind up sleeping in the jet buggy's fold-down seat. She'd done it before and would no doubt do it again, but too much of that was hard on the back.

The Agent who'd hired her had told her that her local contact lived in a house at the south end of the village. The light was on and the door open, so she walked right in. Anna shut the door behind her, indicating to anyone who came by that they should knock first.

The householder was seated at his kitchen table, whittling at a piece of wood with a sharp knife. It didn't seem to be turning into anything recognizable, being more something to occupy his restless hands than an actual craft. Then again, maybe it was supposed to be abstract art. A short glass of something green and florescent sat on the table at the man's left elbow.

"John Teras?"

"You the hunter?" His eyes flicked up, passed over Anna's blonde hair tied back with a headband and her white-piped red dress, then returned to his whittling. The rhythmic passes of the knife hadn't even slowed.

"Anna Zirski, of the Guardians clan," she verified.

"Never heard of it, or you, but who cares? You're here. Agent said he couldn't investigate himself, but that he'd send someone. You understand we ain't paying you?"

"The DLE is taking care of my fee," Anna said, a trifle coldly. The reputation hunters had rapidly accumulated as money-hungry mercenaries never failed to annoy her. Half the reason the Guardians existed was to help rein in the excesses of other hunters who spent as much time as criminal thugs as they did keeping biohazards in check.

"Well, then, the Agent was a man of his word."

"He stays that way by giving out few of them, I assume." Anna set on the table a hardcopy print of a mid-sized man muffled up in a Native Motavian's robes and hood, so that not even a hint of the native's blue fur has visible. It was quite possibly the least useful ID image she'd ever seen; it was impossible even to tell if the Motavian was male or female. The only significant detail it revealed was the subject's height and leanness of build; he was almost as tall as Anna, making him a giant among Mota's native race, which was quite short compared to Palmans. "They say this guy's been causing trouble around here?"

Teras's gaze glanced towards the image.

"Looks like him. We got some holo off a security eye. The 'Motavian Hack,' they call him, seeing as how he's a furball screwing with the dome farm computers."

"Imaginative," Anna said dryly.

A smile further creased Teras's leathery complexion.

"Well, we could have called him Pudge Elbert Dinglehoffer IV, but we figured we'd rather be descriptive than creative."

"Right; the Hack it is." She paused. "What would someone possibly want with the dome farm's computers?"

"Got me, but he's made two tries at it so far. First time the alarm system got to him and set up a squeal; that's how we got the holovid. He came back a couple of days later, and came prepared. He and his bunch of Motavians, about a dozen or so, jammed the security and got into the central control room. Jeffers and Drake were down there doing some repair work on one of the soil-breakers, though, and caught them in the act. The Motavians swarmed Jeffers, left him tied up and gagged, but Drake cleared out and ran back to town." Teras grinned once more. "Kid's got good legs."

"So the Hack's been stopped twice."

"Yeah, but we're pretty certain he'll try again. Folks are scared to go back to work. Been a couple incidents of Natives robbing lone travelers, too, which doesn't help."

That, Anna reflected, was a distinct change from Paseo, where people didn't need excuses to keep from working.

"City girl like you probably doesn't get that," Teras said, as if reading her mind. "Nowadays, Mother Brain'll take care of you--food, housing, water, medcare, luxury stipend, right? Except, to do that we'd have to move to the city, and around here pretty much anyone as wants to do that has done it already."

"So why stay?" Anna asked, curious.

"Some of it's roots. Y'know, born here, lived here all our lives, you get the idea. And we like it here, too--the mountains, the desert. Real wilderness, not the picture-perfect Climatrol lawn most of this planet's been turned into. It's special out here, in a way." He sniffed once, then threw in, "Must sound like a crazy old coot to you, right?"

Anna shrugged.

"I work for a living, too."

Teras looked at her again, this time raising his head instead of just moving his eyes. For the first time, the whittling stopped.

"Yeah, I guess you do, at that," he said slowly.

He set the woodblock and knife aside. Apparently, he'd decided that she was worth his full attention.

"What I don't understand," she said, "is what the Hack wants with the dome farm's computers. I think we can rule out reprogramming them to plant more redleaf tea."

Teras nodded.

"We didn't think so, either. Way I see it, he needs computer access."

"Admittedly, Beerock isn't the center of the technological universe, but this is still Mota. I'm sure I could arrange to order a personal unit from the store here. Or if the Hack can't afford it or is just a thief at heart, he could steal one from somebody."

Teras nodded again.

"A man's gotta have some way to get the metroball scores, at least."

"So again, why break into the dome farm, the only building in the area with even a pretense of security, when a house would be an easier target? Too, a portable computer could be removed and used at their leisure while the dome farm's mainframe can't be, which just extends the time spent on the break-in."

Some people think better when writing things down. Others need to see information in a visual design to best process it. Anna, for whatever psychological or physiological reason, was an auditory learner, and likewise reasoned better when saying things out loud. Something about putting voice to the words clarified matters for her, stimulated her reasoning powers to functioning. It worked this time as well.

"Mainframe," she said. "That's got to be it."

"What?"

"The dome farms are all part of Mother Brain's planetary control network. If the Hack stole a personal unit, he'd have to log on to the datanet, evade casual security, then crack the sec-codes to get into government systems. The farm's computer has full access to MotaNet and skips several layers of security by being one of the internal nodes. That's why the Agent who hired me got my vehicle pass run through so quickly!" Vehicular travel over Mota's surface was sharply restricted. Teleport stations linked all the major settlements, so there was little need for the population to risk their lives in more conventional travel modes. "Almost by default this would be among the most serious of computer crimes, compromising a system that's part of Mother Brain's control network."

The possibilities were staggering. A hacker with enough knowledge might access Climatrol, Biosystems, the food production and distribution networks, power, water, or law enforcement. For all Anna knew, it was the work of someone like this Motavian Hack who was responsible for the creation of the biohazards--"monsters" to most people--that had in turn birthed hunters like herself. Or not like herself; the Guardians clan spent most of its time dealing not with monsters but criminals, renegade hunters who'd turned to thievery, extortion, or worse. Mota's Division of Law Enforcement, both the locally-based City Officers and the Agents of planet-wide jurisdiction, was simply stretched too thin to cope with the problems of a society with a steadily increasing class of armed mercenaries with little to occupy their non-working hours.

Hence, the Guardians, and the reason the Agent had hired Anna to go to Beerock for him. It was a bit surprising that investigation of such a possibly serious crime would be contracted out, but the Guardians' patron had plenty of political clout and getting the clan access to this kind of work just went to show how much of it there was.

Teras was, meanwhile, continuing his slow nod of agreement.

"Yeah," he said. "Yeah, I follow. Dome farm out here's near as good as a Control Tower for access quality, and has a whole lot less in the way of security."

"Plus, the Hack's made two separate attempts. Whatever he wants to do, it's serious to him. The question is, do I go hunt him down or let him come to me?"

The old man chortled.

"Go after him? Into the wilderness? You think you can find where a tribe of Motavians hangs out there, you can be my guest."

"Yeah. Good point."

She'd wait. The Hack hadn't gotten what he wanted. Ergo, either he'd give up and go away, no longer a threat to Beerock (yeah, right), or he'd be back. In which case, she'd be ready.

"Looks like I'd better get used to some long nights."

If the dome farm by day had looked cold and forbidding, by night Anna found it positively creepy. Long beds of fruit trees and lush crop plants stretched off for hundreds of yards in every direction, their leaves shadowy forms in the ghostly glow of emergency lights. The illuminated orbs resembled will-o-wisps among the foliage, pale pinpricks of light that seemed to hang in mid-air without support. They were supported, of course, but were not bright enough to show, except in Anna's immediate area, the overhead network of gantries and catwalks on which they were mounted. Pipes, irrigation nozzles, fertilizer feeds, and light-level adjustment screens hung from the gantries, the silent tools of modern farming.

Many such farms, those in the districts near the cities, had been completely automated. Their only human workers were robot-maintenance specialists; even production oversight would be handled remotely from a government office. The Beerock dome was one of the few exceptions, and that solely because in the Stress Zone automation was at best inefficient due to the lack of a Control Tower to link the town into Mother Brain's network. Perhaps it had been built before the decision to turn the area into such a Zone had been made, then left open, or else it dated to before the automation surge.

The air inside the dome was humid, implying that the crops were tropical in nature and probably not native to Mota. A clammy sheen of perspiration began to form on Anna's face and made her dress stick to her back. Since there was no point in lingering, she followed the line of red illumi-bars set along the edge of the path to the control room. Surprisingly, it proved to be at ground level; in the hunter's experience designers tended to place facility control centers high up, in symbolic vantage points as if reigning over the area below from on high. Perhaps it was Mother Brain and not a human who had designed the architecture of the dome farms?

"Why not?" Anna asked. "She made them possible, after all. If I was her, I'd design major facilities myself instead of leaving it up to other people who'd probably do it less efficiently."

She brushed her fingers over the rungs of a ladder leading up to the catwalks, then slotted an access card given to her by Teras to unlock the control room door. The Guardian went inside, finding a windowless room lined with screens and terminals. This room never slept; monitoring of temperature, humidity, soil condition, crop growth, and the like was a constant effort. Finding a security terminal, Anna called up a schematic and began to familiarize herself with the building layout and what security devices would be at her disposal. There were painfully few, and worse yet, a number of them seemed to be inactive.

"I guess Teras wasn't kidding when he said people were too scared to come back to work," she murmured. "No one's even fixed the damage the Hack did last time."

Her fingers flew over the keypanel, finding which devices had only been electronically jammed and needed their activation sequences rebooted (something a decent security system should have done automatically, she observed with irritation) and which had been physically compromised and so were a total loss so far as she was concerned. She reengaged the seal on the farm's main door.

Almost immediately, a bank of sensors went out.

It was positively comical, like a scene from some broadcast where a person runs around fixing things while each repair causes another shutdown. This was equally senseless. There was no reason why locking the door should cause the proximity detectors on the service ducts to shut down. It might have been some tailored virus designed to irritate and confound a security operator, but if the Hack had had the time to insert that he'd certainly have had the time to do whatever he needed to use the computer for, and--

Oh.

Damn!

She hadn't been expecting a raid that first night. The Hack didn't stick to a pattern; it could have come at any time. To have him save her the mind-numbing boredom of a stakeout was the kind of coincidence generally reserved for narrative universes. There was no reason in the world for the Hack to have picked that very night--in the early evening, too--to make his play.

Which was probably why he'd done it. The universe worked like that. If she had been expecting the Hack, he'd have never come. Since it was against all probabilities that he'd drop into her lap without several days of waiting, here he was.

Anna tried to call up whatever security eyes were in the area, to try and get a handle on what she was facing, but came up empty. They hadn't even been jammed like the sensors; there just weren't any. Who needed to install a security watch over crops, for Mother's sake?

"At least I know where they're headed," she murmured. If technology wasn't going to do the trick, then she'd have to handle things the old-fashioned way. She liked old-fashioned, anyhow. Knives, whips, boomerangs, and slashers were her weapons of choice--nothing mechanical or technological to separate herself from the target. She was barely even competent at the use of mystic techniques, and most of what she did know--Ner and Shift--were to enhance her own physical capacities rather than directly affecting the environment.

A ladder leading to the catwalks was mounted right outside the control room door, so Anna climbed up to get a better vantage point. Besides, it was a basic point of psychology that people thought in two dimensions, front and back, left and right. Nobody looked up. She hoped that also held true for Motavians.

It did, which was a good thing because as Teras had said, the Hack did not make his attempts alone. Fully a dozen, no, fourteen Motavians swarmed into view beneath the catwalk. All wore the typical robes and close-fitting hoods of their race, some with slits for their tufted ears, but Anna quickly distinguished the Hack by his height.

The Motavians quickly began to speak to themselves in their own language, which took Anna off-guard. These must have been an especially traditionalist band; very few Natives even knew their own language these days, let alone employed it as their primary tongue. The hunter found it immensely frustrating, as she was in a perfect spot from which to overhear their plans, but had no knowledge herself of the clicks, squawks, and chirps which made up the Native speech.

They soon reached some sort of decision, for the Hack's escorts all went scuttling off to the south while the Motavian leader turned to the door. He took something from beneath his robes with a gloved forepaw, likely something to bypass the lock's security, but found it unnecessary as Anna had been unable to relock the door. He went inside, and Anna slipped down after him. It was as good a chance as she was likely to get, one-on-one against the Hack. With her left hand, she readied a plasmacuff, part of a wireless-linked pair. If it was locked into place, the cuff would trigger an alarm if its wearer ventured more than fifteen feet away from the matching cuff Anna wore, sending out a homing signal that made it basically effortless to trace the escapee. Like other plasma restraints, it also set up a resonating frequency through the wearer's body that prevented technique use. There were official versions that could fire electric shocks or even detonate explosively if tampered with, but as a hunter, even a Guardian on an Agent's job, Anna wasn't licensed to use such methods of imprisonment.

In her right hand, she readied a ceramic-bladed combat knife. That she was perfectly within her rights to use if the Hack decided to use a weapon of his own. As silently as she could, she slipped through the door, cursing mentally as it hissed open with a whisper-soft but still audible escape of air.

It seemed, however, that luck was with the Guardian and the Hack had not heard her. He stood at the far end of the room, back to the door, fingers flying over the controls of the main panel. There were few VR interfaces on Motavian computers; there was simply no point in installing them for the benefit of casual users. That left on-site hackers using manual controls, possibly with the assistance of disks or chips of codebreaking software.

Not being wired in, he might turn at any moment, might see her.

She had to act--now.

Anna reached her decision instantaneously. She sheathed the knife to free up a hand for grappling and made her move, springing towards the Hack.

At the precise instant when it was too late for her to correct her angle of attack, he ducked aside. Her arms and torso passed through the space he'd vacated, her vision suddenly filled with the display screen. The phrase "Biomedical Systems Scan" flittered through her perception, as did the explanation of the "lucky" dodge--a faint reflected image in the screen. The Motavian Hack had heard the door, but instead of reacting had kept an eye on her by watching her reflection.

"Don't make this any harder on yourself than you have to," she said. "Just because you're a Native doesn't mean that you're outside the law."

The Hack made a sharp clicking sound from the depths of his hood. Anna wished she could see his face--but then again, facial expressions weren't the emotional tells for Motavians as they were for Palmans. Their rigid beaks and fur-covered features made them seem almost expressionless.

"Oh, we all know that," he told her. Clearly he could speak Palman as easily as he could traditional Motavian. "Your Palman law always applies to us--when you take our homes, our culture, even turn our deserts into lakes and meadows!"

Typical Mota-trad justification for anything they did. They found it so convenient to ignore their own actions, that it was their own extremist crimes that brought Mother Brain's wrath down on them.

"Are you going to surrender now?" Anna asked, not in any serious belief that he'd accept but almost as a formality, a challenge between them--not to mention the fact that a question like that almost invariably prompted its object to waste time with some kind of smart-aleck comeback while Anna was planning out her next move.

The Hack didn't disappoint her.

"Please, is that all you have to offer? Wishful thinking? You Palmans are pitiable without your machines. Next time, why don't--"

Her lunge took him completely off-guard; her shoulder crashed into his chest, knocking him against a bank of flatscreen displays. Anna was glad that the Hack was so tall; most Natives had a distinct edge in hand-to-hand from their low center of gravity and powerful builds, but Anna was able to bring the Hack off the display, find a grip on his arm, and spin him through a hip toss that sprawled him onto his back. He grunted with the impact, momentarily stunned, and a moment would be all she'd need to put the cuff on him.

She didn't get that moment, though, because the door opened, and a group of Motavians swarmed in. There was nowhere to run, no conceivable way to fight lacking weapons or techniques that could attack a group of enemies simultaneously, and no time to come up with something clever. They surged into and over her like a furry wave and she felt the dull, thudding impact of a blackjack or something similar against her head.

Then nothing.

* * * * *

Anna woke in a foul temper. The throbbing pain in her skull from the knockout blow was part of it, but the bitter sting of letting her target get away drowned out any purely physical pain. She was supposed to be good at this, wasn't she? Instead, she'd blundered around like an amateur, not even checking if some of the Motavians had been assigned to watch the door.

"Too much work on Counter-Hunter jobs," she said to the empty room. "I'm getting too used to opponents who are all swagger and greed. This isn't some rogue hunter you're dealing with now, Anna."

Groaning, she pulled herself to her feet and checked the chrono display on the nearest screen. It looked like she'd been out for less than fifteen minutes. Since there was no sign of the Motavians, she'd been afraid that quite a bit more time had passed. Such a short delay made it more likely that the Hack hadn't stayed to finish his work, but had instead been scared off by her presence, possibly expecting more.

"After all, anyone doing their job right would have arranged for backup, particularly while working security," Anna groused, allowing herself a bit more self-pity.

The fact that she hadn't been tied up while unconscious also suggested that the Hack and his cohorts had left almost at once. Since how long she'd be out would be an unknown, they wouldn't want her to wake up unexpectedly and interrupt all over again. Tying her up, locking her in some closet or container, these would insure that she wouldn't be an ongoing nuisance.

So would have killing her. That was one thing in the Hack's favor, at least. Neither he nor his followers had used a lethal weapon, nor had they taken advantage of an unexpected enemy to kill her. They weren't murderers.

"Just guilty of breaking and entering, resisting arrest, assault and battery, and serious computer crimes."

The screen, she recalled, had said something about biomedical data while the Hack had been looking at it. It was back to its normal pattern now; possibly a computer tech could backtrace what the Hack had been trying to do, but that was well outside Anna's skill profile. She might have to call in more help. The idea of hacking into medical and scientific data seemed ominous, particularly when the hacker was a Mota-trad, but the fears raised by that line of thought--bioweapons, gene-modified plagues, new species of biohazard--didn't go along with the Natives' behavior in personal combat.

Puzzling.

In spite of her embarrassment and her aching head, Anna grinned. She liked puzzles. Counter-Hunter jobs didn't offer many.

There wasn't much point in sticking around the farm any longer; there was almost no chance the Motavian Hack would return. Anna restored what security she could, for all the good it would do, and left the dome, wondering what strings her Agent client, or perhaps her own connections in the Guardians clan, could pull to get her the technical help she needed, not to mention some manpower if they were going to set a proper trap for the Hack.

Then she got her first break in the case.

Footprints never lasted long in sandy ground, being quickly buried by wind, but that many people simply couldn't travel without leaving some kind of marks. In no more than a day they'd probably be all gone, but for right then there was a very plain track leading off to the north, towards the cliff.

Anna didn't stop to think, but just followed. She remembered what Teras had said about the Motavians hiding in nooks and crannies only they could find a way through, at least without bringing in satellite flyovers and geoscans and generally overwhelming the problem with technology. By following now, Anna could let the Motavians guide her, and even if she didn't find an opportunity to arrest the Hack once she'd followed the route she'd be able to bring others back later to finish the job.

At close range the cliff face appeared every bit as forbidding as it had from the road, but it was not a blank, seamless wall. There were cracks and fissures, crevices in the stones, and it was to one of these that the tracks led. Even by moonlight Anna could tell that the fissure narrowed quickly, then apparently pinched shut within only a few feet--one of many dead ends. Yet of course that couldn't be true, not if more than a dozen Motavians had gone in and not come out. There had to be a way through.

Squeezing inside, Anna soon found it. It was a tight fit, but once past the narrowest part she found that just before the end there was a tiny gap, nearly at right angles to her line of sight, that would be impossible to see from outside the fissure. She had a couple of harrowing moments of complete darkness, but she pushed on, carefully feeling her way along until she found herself beneath the night sky again, at the base of a steep but manageable path upwards. Soon, she emerged onto the top of the rise, on a narrow track that wound through the rocks.

Anna followed the path west, where it came to another cliffside, then north and back east. The rocks didn't take footprints, but thankfully there were few side turnings to present any trouble for her. More than once she saw a fairly large animal--a native creature rather than a biohazard, as the Stress Zones preserved the only remaining habitats for the majority of native animals--but she avoided them easily enough. So long as she didn't disturb their nests, even larger creatures like the Motavian Crows were rarely belligerent.

Not much later, she found her way to a cave mouth, not a fissure, but a genuine passageway into the rock, one that was too regular in shape to be completely natural. It was pitch-black, though, and that worried her. Logic and intuition told her that this was what she was searching for, but she'd have thought it would be guarded.

Of course, there was more than one way to guard a passageway.

Fishing in her hip pack, Anna got out a pair of infrared goggles and slipped them on. Active IR wasn't always the best way to proceed in a dark area, but this time it paid off. About a hundred feet down the passage, at a point where it narrowed, she spotted a simple snap-jawed metal trap lightly buried beneath the dirt floor.

Nasty, Anna thought. Someone groping their way in blindly, or who was just careless or inexperienced with such devices, could have easily found themselves with a crushed leg, anchored to the floor by steel jaws.

The safest way to get past the trap would be to set it off; a stick from one of the scrubby trees that grew along the ridge would do well enough. Anna dismissed that idea, though. The trap's closing would be loud and no doubt echo along the cave passage. The Motavians might be listening for it.

Anna took the quieter but more dangerous route. She jumped over the trap, landing lightly on the far side, and continued along the passage. Although she stayed alert for other nasty surprises, she found none; apparently the Natives were not particularly paranoid about security. It was kind of ironic, actually. Government installations supposedly run for the good of all were protected by gates and locks, sec-systems and armed robots, while actual criminals had one trap and that was it.

Her musings stopped instantly when she reached a bend in the tunnel and realized that lights were flickering from around the corner. Anna removed the infrared viewer and stopped to allow her eyes to adjust to the scene in visible light. She advanced cautiously, expecting guards to be on duty, but there weren't any. Instead, she found herself in a warrenlike den, with doors set in the walls and lanterns hung in the passage. The lamps, Anna noted, were neither electric nor relied on flame, but appeared to use some kind of glowing lichen or fungus that gave off light without heat. It wasn't a bad idea; oxygen couldn't be wasted in the depths of a cave like--

No, she realized, that isn't right. The air in the corridor was fresh and clean, even less stale that that in the dark passage. There had to be ventilation shafts somewhere, or other outside access. Quite a snug little home, in fact.

Anna stopped outside the first door she came to; the chittering of Native voices could be heard from behind it. Wondering if the Hack was inside, she looked for a way to see into the room and found a knothole about two feet off the ground. Hoping that no one would come along the corridor, she bent down and peered through. Seated around a long dining table were around two dozen Motavians, but the distinctive figure of the Hack was absent. These Natives appeared to prefer late suppers after a raid.

Glad I didn't just barge in there!

Hopefully, the Motavians would be at their meal for a while, allowing Anna free reign to search for the Hack so long as she stayed quiet. She continued along the passage and found herself between a couple of other doors. Listening revealed nothing, so she decided to try one.

Jackpot.

Not the Hack, no, but the Hack's room. "No way it could be anything else," she murmured. There was one single bed, a couple of trunks for clothes, a table and two chairs. Electronics equipment, tools, parts, and components lay scattered around in the fashion of every circuit-jockey Anna had known--some things clearly transcended superficial considerations like race and culture. Some of her deductions about the Hack's need to use the dome farm computer were confirmed when she saw the portable unit, the IMVE Intrepid turned on with its screen displaying a neutral pattern. If she couldn't get the Hack himself, Anna decided, it would be a good idea to confiscate the computer. More than likely it would have information about his plans on it, not to mention his various codebreaking and decryption tools. She herself wouldn't be able to get past the inevitable security code, but there were plenty of people at the DLE who could get the job done.

She'd rather have the man himself, though. Perfect records were like that. Anna really, really didn't want to acquire that first failure, that first blotch.

The one thing that seemed out of place in the room was a curved piece of wood lying on the table. It was, she realized, a boomerang, an aerodynamic throwing club that could deliver a blow to one or more targets and return to the thrower's hand. This one was an antique; except for the leading edge which formed the striking surface and the ridged handgrip the entire surface of the weapon was covered with ornate, true-to-life carvings in traditional Motavian styles. Boomerangs were a Motavian invention, traditionally used by their women in hunting and to defend their encampments. Was it a family heirloom? A memento of the Hack's mother?

The door creaked as it opened.

"You!" the Hack exclaimed. "What are you doing here?"

"What did you think, that I'd just give up? Cyberterrorism and racial violence aren't pretty concepts."

"You don't know a thing, you stupid hunter." Well, she wasn't wearing a uniform. "You blunder in here, paw through what's mine, and you still have no idea what this is about."

"I'm not interested in your justifications. I'm just going to stop you."

Since the boomerang was in her hand anyway, Anna snapped off a quick throw, aiming to stun the Hack or knock him cold. Unfortunately, while she was skilled with the type of weapon, each one--particularly handcarved boomerangs--had individual characteristics that it would take a couple of throws to work out. It put her aim slightly off, allowing the Hack to dodge back out into the hall.

The good news was, his momentum had taken him away from the dining hall instead of towards it, and he continued in that direction when he bolted, shouting for help. Anna grabbed the boomerang on its return flight and took off in pursuit. The Hack was fast, but like most people who spent the time necessary to develop and practice purely mental skills he was not up to Anna's standard.

Then again, he might not have to be, she thought as two Motavians burst out from a side door. They didn't even need the Hack's command to put themselves between their leader and Anna.

"Oh, no," she muttered. "You are not stopping me." She rammed the blunt tip of the boomerang into one's abdomen before he had a chance to act, doubling him up in pain. The second Motavian grabbed for her but she sidestepped, hooked his ankle with her foot, and used the shoulder of his robe to unbalance him even more, sending him crashing into his friend.

Unfortunately, the quick encounter had allowed the Hack to refresh his lead, but Anna kept on after him. Her quarry led her through the den to a large anteroom which opened onto the outside air. Evidently Anna had entered by the settlement's "back door," which apparently offered easier access to Beerock. On his way out, the Hack snagged a six-foot-long packet of poles, cloth, and leather straps from a rack of them; Anna didn't know what it was but she grabbed one as well, recognizing a cue when she saw one. Following the Hack out into the night air, she had to watch her footing on the unfamiliar rocky path and so was unable to gain ground, but didn't lose any, either.

"Give it up, hunter!" the Hack suddenly turned and taunted her. "This isn't one of your pretty blue and gray cities. You're out in the real Motavia now, not the 'Mota' your machines have made of it." Then, he kicked a stone into a fairly big hole in the rocks and fled again. Anna, who hadn't waited around to listen to him talk, had shaved his lead in half during the speech. This meant that when a very angry insect buzzed up out of the hole, she was almost right on top of it. The Hack had let her close in so the creature would attack her instead of him. She almost had to admire the sneaky little e-weasel for it.

Seeing the glistening stinger at the end of the three-foot-long creature's abdomen, Anna recognized the monster as a Rock Bee.

"Rock Bee. Beerock Village. Cute."

Wondering what kind of flower could possibly require a three-foot bee to pollinate it, Anna darted out of the way as with a twist of its lower body the creature's stinger spat at her like a bow-gun bolt. Another missile slid into place from the monster's "ammunition" sac, but Anna had already thrown the boomerang. This time, she hit her target, breaking one of the Rock Bee's wings. The injured insect spun crazily to one side and crashed into a rock face. Out of the air it was nearly harmless, and Anna easily finished the doomed monster.

Unfortunately, the Hack's ploy had achieved its apparent end, buying enough time so that he was completely out of sight. Unwilling to give up, though, Anna kept on along the path, and soon came to the edge of another cliff wall. It appeared to be an extension of the cliff opposite the farm, but this was well to the east of Beerock and overlooked a stretch of moonlit desert. Regarding the cactus-speckled dunes, it struck Anna that once, all Mota had been like that excepting only a few oases. Then the Palmans had come, and under the guidance of Mother Brain had remade the entire planet in their homeworld's image. The Natives had been pushed aside, their scattered tribes no match for concentrated military efforts. Of course, those that chose to live within Palman society could share in Mother Brain's munificence, but what was that when history, culture, and the very physical nature of their world had been ripped from them?

These things explained some of the trads' actions against the people of Beerock. They did not, however, justify.

Then she spotted it, down below. In the middle of that moonlit vista was a humanoid figure. It was the Hack--though at that distance in the dim light she couldn't logically be certain, she nonetheless was.

"How did he get down there?" she exclaimed aloud.

Anna looked left and right along the cliffs, the hot wind blowing her hair around her face, but saw nothing, no way for him to have gotten down the eighty-foot drop without killing himself.

Then she realized that he was no longer carrying the cylindrical bundle. Anna unbuckled the straps holding hers together and began to unfold it. When she realized what she had, a grin broke out over her face.

It was a collapsible hang glider. The Hack had flown down from the clifftop on the wind!

The only question was, did she have the guts to follow him? Anna had certainly never flown a glider before, and while it felt like the strong winds surging up from the desert sands could almost hold her aloft without the glider, she could also easily imagine herself getting tossed to and fro by them.

Yet, she had the Motavian Hack on the run, alone and away from his band of followers. Who knew if she'd ever have a chance like that again?

Find the right subject, and pride would outweigh fear every time.

Anna used the Ner technique, enhancing her speed and reflexes. Reaction time could be crucial, because it would give her extra moments to think about what she needed to do before it was too late to go and do it.

Unlike recreational or military Palman hang gliders, which used a U-bar to hold on to, sometimes with a footrest as well, the Motavian model had two separate handgrips set wide apart, letting the flyer guide the two sides of the craft independently, like wings.

"Come on, Anna; he's getting away. It has to be possible. He did it, didn't he?"

She took the first step.

Then she plummeted downward.

* * * * *

Fear was like lightning in Anna's veins as she fell like a stone instead of soaring like a bird. Her head stayed clear, though, in the face of danger, and she soon realized that when she'd left the cliff she'd had the glider angled too close to the vertical to support herself--the right trick would have been to fall forward off the edge instead of stepping off.

Only her Ner-enhanced reflexes gave Anna the time she needed to make the necessary corrections. She twisted her arms and body, forcing the hang glider perpendicular to the ground. Her descent slowed almost at once as the fabric caught the thermals. She'd corrected too late to actually fly, but she landed with a bone-jarring thump instead of the considerably messier impact Anna had initially been heading for.

She hurt, but she was alive.

And she was down on the desert floor.

The chase was still on.

It didn't take long, though, before she realized that as a description "chase" was really a misnomer. The soft sand made walking difficult, as did the rolling dunes, but it was the quicksand that proved the real problem--places where depressions in the underlying bedrock created loosely packed pools of sand that one could easily plunge into. Anna was lucky the first time she discovered one; her right foot sank in to just below the knee, but her left was still solidly braced and she was able to pull free.

After that, Anna was forced to pay careful attention to the ground to notice the slight but telltale differences in how the sand lay. Between the slow going and the dunes that often blocked her line of sight, it was more a matter of hope as she plodded on for over an hour than any true pursuit.

She could barely believe it when she crested a dune and realized that she had nonetheless somehow caught the Hack. He was standing at the edge of a large pit, the kind whose sloping sides descended to a central hole where some noxious creature probably lurked. It reminded her of an ant-lion pit from before Mota's terraforming that she'd seen in a biology class holovid as a schoolchild. The Hack appeared to be trying to navigate it without luck.

"Thrice tried, once blessed," Anna quoted the old cliche in a voice softer than a whisper. She advanced on the Hack as quickly and quietly as she could, wishing that she had some kind of cover instead of trusting that the Hack wouldn't hear her or wouldn't just turn around for some reason of his own.

He did turn, but only after Anna was within ten feet of him.

"You're tenacious, hunter," he said.

"You don't sound surprised."

"You followed me all the way back to my home. I didn't think minor obstacles like a Rock Bee, a cliff, or quicksand would make you give up the chase."

She smiled thinly at his bravado.

"It didn't stop you from throwing them in my way."

"One has to try."

"Well, you're done trying now. This is the end of the line." Anna barely suppressed a wince as she said it, the line sounded so trite, but her legs ached badly from the rock-climbing, the drop, and the slog through the desert, so she wasn't at the top of her form.

"Is it?" he said smugly, then whistled sharply, twice.

From all around, from behind dunes and the shadows between them, forms rose up in response to the Hack's signal. It was at least thirty Motavians, some of them armed. At first, Anna couldn't understand how they could possibly have beaten her to the Hack's position. Then she saw what some of them still had strapped to their feet: sand-skis. These long, broad devices spread the wearer's weight out over a large area, reducing the pressure that would push quicksand out of the way and make a normally-shod person sink. While Anna had had to carefully pick her way through the shifting sands, they'd skied easily over it to the left and right of her, using their knowledge of the dunes and her concentration on where she was stepping to stay unseen.

"I'd say you're the one at the end of the line, Palman," the Hack taunted. "But that's no real surprise. You came all the way out here by yourself. Typical arrogance."

There was no chance if she fought, and nowhere to run. There seemed to be nothing to do but surrender and hope for mercy.

Unless...

She acted as the idea hit her, spinning towards the Hack and reaching for her knife. With their leader as a hostage, she might just be able to get out of this mess, and besides which, capturing the Hack was the whole point of this job. Anna hoped that he'd be too busy being smug about having tricked her to keep his guard up, so that her sudden attack would have him at her mercy at once, before his followers could come to his aid.

That was how it was supposed to work. What actually happened, though, was that the sudden pressure as she planted her foot to leap was too much for the loose sand. Anna's foot shot out from under her, and she sprawled on her belly on the sandy slope. Humiliated, she tried to rise, but when she moved, she slipped a couple of inches, and she suddenly found herself reaching, scrabbling, fighting to keep from falling into the pit.

Then, the Hack was there, lying prone on the edge, reaching down towards her.

"Take my hand!"

"What?"

"Don't argue, just grab on!"

What did she have to lose? Anna's fingers closed tightly around his gloved hand. The Hack's grip was surprisingly strong; even as an electronics specialist his life in the Stress Zone had toughened his body considerably. He might well have had the strength to pull her up, except that his own perch wasn't as secure as it could have been. Rather than pulling her up, he went sliding forward into the pit. His body crashed into Anna's, ruining what little she purchase she had on the slope, and the two of them went tumbling down together. They reached the center of the inverted cone and Anna found herself plunging through, not sliding but falling in a cloud of choking sand. Then came the impact, and for the second time that night the Guardian's senses were swallowed up in darkness.

* * * * *

W-where am I?

Anna's whole body throbbed in agony, her head pounding the worst of all. The light seemed to sear her eyes.

Light?

Something wasn't right about that.

It shouldn't be light out.

Slowly, she pulled her scattered thoughts together. She remembered slipping into the sand pit, the Motavian Hack's attempt to save her, and their tumbling fall. She'd obviously been knocked out--again, damn it!--by the impact. But where was she?

It hurt to move, but it hurt more not to know what was going on. Groaning with every motion, Anna managed to get to her feet and take a look around.

She was in a cave, she saw, its ceiling at least twenty feet above her head. The walls and floor were carpeted with some kind of luminescent moss that bathed the area in pale light. A mountain of sand filled one end of the cave; she'd been lying at its base. The pit apparently opened into the cave, but the hole was small and mostly blocked by the sand that had already come down. The weight of her body and the Hack's, though, had easily forced their way through. A straight fall to the cave floor might well have killed them, but the bouncing ride down the pit above and the sand pile below had been something they could live through.

The Hack, for his part, was still unconscious, stretched out on the sand-strewn moss. The idea of lying for a rest herself was entirely too attractive to Anna, so she opened her pack and took out a Monomate. The medicine was a wound-healer common among hunters, originally developed for military use, that hyper-stimulated the body's natural healing processes so that days of healing occurred in moments. Within seconds of using the pressure injector, most of Anna's aches and pains, and their associated bruises, were gone. She'd need to be checked out at a hospital after she returned to civilization to erase any aftereffects of concussion or other trauma from being knocked cold for the second time that night, but for the most part she felt better than she had before the fall. She retrieved her knife and the plasma-cuff from the sand pile where she'd dropped them on the way down, then locked the cuff onto the Hack's wrist.

It didn't take the Motavian much longer to come around, and almost no time for him to realize that he'd been cuffed.

"So," he remarked bitterly, "no good deed goes unpunished, is that it?"

"Is that supposed to be a bad joke, or are you serious?"

"Palman kindness is a bad joke," the Hack sneered. He put much more contempt into his voice than Anna was used to hearing from Motavians--the emotional cues in the Palman language were based on Palman biology and culture--but there was nothing original in the sentiments.

"Do you mean, because you risked your neck to save me from the pit, that I should have let you go?"

"Well, this," he said, and held up his cuffed arm, "hardly seems like a fair exchange."

Some hunters would have agreed. They'd have followed some unwritten code of frontier honor and mutual respect. Other hunters wouldn't have even thought about it because money was money and if the Hack was stupid enough to try being nice to an enemy he deserved what he got. Anna's reasoning was different. Then again, she was a Guardian. It was supposed to be different for her.

"I appreciate the attempt. It was a brave thing to do, and I hope I'd have done the same for you. That doesn't change the fact that you're still a criminal. There's breaking and entering, property damage, assault, and most seriously of all computer crimes. If all you'd done was to have your flunkies knock me out, then yes, I'd say what you did would put us square. Helping me, though, doesn't balance the scales with the people of Beerock or with the government. That's why I'm still bringing you back."

The word "biomedical" flittered through Anna's mind again. Combined with the idea of a Mota-trad, it spoke to her of lethal viruses, biological terrorism. She couldn't square that idea, though, with a man whose followers hadn't killed the workers on their earlier attempt and hadn't killed Anna at the dome farm, a man who'd risked his own life to save her at the pit. The Hack and his group didn't have the sheer callousness towards human life that true terrorists possessed. They were clearly not willing to freely slaughter for The Cause, even when it would be more efficient and productive to do so.

So what was he up to? Anna supposed she could just ask, but doubted the hooded Motavian would answer. If she was fully honest with herself, she'd have admitted that the mystery was more fun than the solution anyway, but few people were that unflinching at seeing their own faults. Besides which, her job was to bring him back. The DLE agents could worry about interrogation.

The Hack, meanwhile, was just shaking his head in disbelief.

"Well, if this is a sample of your work, it'll be a miracle if either one of us makes it anywhere."

"Why is it that every criminal thinks being captured is a license to turn comedian?" Anna muttered under her breath. "Come on, Hack, let's get going. Nap time is over."

"Hack?"

"That's what they're calling you, the Motavian Hack. I don't have anything else to call you, since we don't know your name. Would you care to share it?"

"My...name? You want to know my name?"

There was something in the way he said it that took Anna off-guard. She'd been expecting defensiveness about his identity; that would be typical in a criminal and no surprise in a guy who kept himself as wrapped up in concealing clothes as the Hack. He didn't sound defensive, though. He sounded more...questioning. Curious? No, the Hack sounded puzzled, confused, like the question wasn't a simple "who are you?" but touched somehow on deeper issues, philosophical ponderings. Maybe the Hack had been hit on the head too hard in the fall. More likely, it was just that he was a speaker of native Motavian and his tone of voice meant something completely different in his own tongue.

"Never mind," she said. "I just have to bring you in, not fill out the arrest report. Let's go."

Since the sand mountain was far too unstable to offer any decent footing, their only option was to head in the opposite direction, which luckily led to an exit from the cave of luminescent moss. Unluckily it led straight into a bog, yet another pleasant feature of the Stress Zone. The fetid stench of decaying vegetation rose from the black sludge, and moss dangled from the tree branches that overhung the path.

"That's odd. Why is there a path here? Do your people use this route?" Anna asked the Hack, who had been following along sullenly.

"No; why would we? There's nothing for us here."

"Then what made this path? Vegetation has been broken down into a clear route." It was hard to see, because the overhanging tree limbs blocked out much of the starlight, but Anna didn't think she saw tracks.

The Hack didn't answer, not that she expected him to.

"Well, since we don't have a jet scooter or even a raft handy, I guess we'll follow the path."

They slogged along the muddy track for some time, until Anna began to be aware of another scent, the ozone smell of approaching rain. Not long after, it began to fall, a steady drizzle peppering them both and making the Guardian envy her prisoner's hooded outfit.

About ten minutes later, she saw it. Anna was familiar with the creature, although she'd never fought one herself. It was a nocturnal predator called a Kalgon, a huge, reptilian carnivore that despite being a native creature of Mota deserved the term "monster" more than most of the biohazards. This, it seemed likely, was what had cleared the path Anna and the Hack had been following for the past hour. Anna had no illusions about her ability to fight the Kalgon; that called for a troop of soldier types with lasers to pierce its tough hide. Even if she gave the Hack one of her weapons, the monster would still make short work of the two of them.

Luckily, she wouldn't have to.

The creature, a fearsome predator a kaite dragon would think twice before taking on, was curled up, eyes closed, nostrils flaring rhythmically as it slept. After a good meal, a Kalgon's system would all but shut down while it digested, restoring some of the energy it consumed in its relentless pursuit of its meals. It took no notice even of the raindrops that rattled with increasing frequency off its tough skin.

It went without saying that Anna and the Hack moved as quietly as they had in their lives. While the Guardian would not put it past her prisoner to try something sneaky to escape--it was almost obligatory--she didn't think rousing a creature as likely to attack as her would be his plan. The point was to escape, not to end up inside the Kalgon's belly, after all.

Passing the slumbering monster, the two of them continued westerly, getting wetter and wetter as the rain went on. At last they came to another rocky area which formed a sort of natural boundary for the swamp. Unfortunately, it also formed a barrier to further progress.

Anna wished for a moment that she had brought a telepipe on the job, then dismissed the thought. Not only was wishful thinking pointless, but a telepipe wouldn't even work; like the Ryuka technique it brought only willing companions, which most definitely did not describe the Motavian Hack.

What she really needed was shelter, somewhere to dry off while the rain passed. Morning would be coming soon, and she could do a better job of finding her way through the unfamiliar wilderness in the light. Anna started looking for some kind of cover as much as for a way onward, but it still took her a good twenty minutes before she found something likely. She hadn't noticed it at first; the sand-hued stone tinted silver-gray in the night blended into the identical rock around and behind it, but after a moment she realized that she was looking at some kind of artificial structure.

"Come on," she told the Hack. "Let's get out of the rain for a while.

The interior of the stone building was dark and shadowy; what little light there was streamed through holes in the walls and ceiling where chunks of stone had given way to the ravages of time or the environmental and geological pressures of the Stress Zone. Still, for the most part the building appeared intact, a testament to the skill of the builders. Palman work, probably; when Anna's culture created something they built it to last, often far beyond any reasonable expectation of its utility. Motavians were more...not careless, but fluid, moving with their environment instead of forcibly taming and overpowering it. Where a Palman would build a home that would stand for a thousand years through fire, storm, and earthquake, a Motavian would put up a tent that could be taken down and moved when appropriate. Neither approach was inherently better, Anna thought, just different.

It was a reflection of how tired and cold she was, how worn-down, that she'd allowed her mind to drift so far off her immediate situation. With a start, she came back to herself, only to find that she was shivering, leaning up against a stone wall for support. The Hack was facing her, his concealing hood making him seem an enigmatic judge, or some kind of malevolent ghost like the masked and hooded Spirits of Chaos in the fairy tales she'd heard as a little girl.

Then, he unfastened his outer cloak, slipped it off, and put it around Anna's shoulders. The inside was warm and dry, though it might not stay that way long against Anna's wet skin and dress.

She wanted to ask him why he'd done it, offered comfort to his enemy and captor, but that wasn't the biggest mystery. With his face-swathing hood removed, she could see that the Hack was a young man, still in his teens, his nose dusted with freckles and a shock of unruly pale blond hair atop his head.

"You...you're a Palman!"

"Not in any way that counts," he snapped quickly, defensively.

"I don't understand. How did you--"

"How did a Palman end up as the 'Motavian Hack,' the leader of a group of traditional Native Motavians?" he cut her off. "It's all too simple, really. My parents abandoned me as a toddler, here in the Stress Zone. The Motavians found me, took me in. It didn't matter to them that I was a Palman; I was a helpless baby. They raised me, taught me, made me one of them."

"And in return they taught you to hate Palmans, to rob and attack them?"

The Hack's face twisted in scorn.

"That shows you what you know. Grandmother Lujine thinks we should do nothing, leave you alone. Palmans stole everything from the Motavians, so I think it's high time we got a little of our own back. I'm the one who convinced the others to go along, the young ones who still have the will to act instead of just suffer."

Anna shook her head sadly. Converts to a cause were always more passionate than those born to it. Although the Hack virtually had been raised Motavian, the rule still applied. He'd be trying to prove himself more Native than the Natives, to overcome what he felt was the stigma of his Palman birth. No, it didn't take a Mother Brain to analyze this young man's personality profile--bitter, angry, and wanting to belong. His restraint in the use of violence, though, and gestures like trying to save Anna and offering her his cloak spoke of a basic decency. Obviously the Natives hadn't botched this young man's upbringing.

But why the computer crimes? It doesn't fit, not at all. Tampering with MotaNet is far beyond the other local trouble he caused.

"You look like you're studying me," he said. "The great hunter, analyzing her prey. Have you got me figured out, yet? Do you know which way I'll jump, or how I intend to get this thing off without it blowing my head off?" Typical he'd assume that. "If you stare at me long enough, will you pierce right down to my soul?" He made a derisive sound, then spun and stalked a few feet away, though without testing the limit of the cuff's range. The motion dislodged something from his tunic pocket; it fluttered to the ground. Anna picked it up and saw that it was a picture, badly creased as if it had been repeatedly crumpled up and then smoothed out. She saw a young couple in their mid-twenties, a blond man with long sideburns and a woman with her violet hair in a pageboy cut. They were both smiling down at the baby held in the woman's arms, who was waving his hands as if trying to snatch something out of the air.

She had her answer.

Anna slipped the picture into one of the cloak's inner pockets. It wasn't hers, and she felt almost ashamed to have seen it. Then again, the Motavian Hack was not the kind of person who kept his feelings secret. He all but forced them on those around him. Maybe that just made it worse, though, to have seen into the one area he kept to himself.

An odd thought, surely, to be having on the job.

It was then she saw the pale gray light streaming through the walls and the roof, the silver-steel gleam of dawn revealing what their shelter was: a church, or perhaps a shrine dedicated to some saint. Anna didn't recognize the specifics, but the holy iconography was unmistakable. She'd found an ironically appropriate place for meditative reflection.

Tired as she was, she found no reason to move or disturb the silence as the gray light brightened to golden, until she realized something unusual. There was light coming from the back of the little shrine, at a low elevation where she'd have expected the rock wall behind it to block the way.

Curious, Anna went into the back. There was a "back door" to the shrine, an open archway leading outside. It was mostly blocked by a large boulder, but just past it she could see open sky, and the edge of a ridge that led down to the west. There was even a clear enough vantage point to see down over the ridge to a couple of huts Anna recognized as part of Beerock Village. Her night's excursions had brought her in one giant circle through the Stress Zone, and now it would be a quick walk to civilization if she could get the boulder out of the way.

It looked too big for Anna to move alone, and an experimental push verified that, but the temptation to make a quick exit after the long night was too strong to give up on out of hand.

"Hey," she called to the Hack, "come over here for a second."

"What for?" he said sullenly.

"There's a back door here, only it's blocked. I think that working together we could clear it."

"In case you haven't noticed, Hunter, I'm a prisoner here. Bad enough I have to follow you around; what makes you think I'm going to help you take me to the Agents?"

"Well, there's the fact that no one is looking for either one of us, so we're more likely to starve than be found, unless you know another way through that bog." She was blunt but not sarcastic; Anna knew her point was good enough to stand on its own.

The Hack knew it too. He came over to look at the problem with her, and by combining their strength were able to roll the boulder away and a bit to the right, opening up a gap wide enough for the Guardian and her prisoner to slip through.

The night's rain clouds had already been broken up and whisked away by the will of Mother Brain as expressed through the Climatrol system, so Anna and the Hack descended the slope into Beerock beneath clear blue skies. There was no reason to stop in the village, no law enforcement to put the Hack into custody with, so they continued out through the village by the road on which it had all started for Anna. In what seemed like no time at all, they reached the turnoff to the dome farm, and Anna had no more time in which to ponder, to let ideas drift lazily through her mind. She needed to make a decision.

She stopped, so suddenly that the Hack nearly bumped into her.

"Hey! Watch what you're doing, will you?"

"What did you want from the dome farm computers?"

"Um?"

"What did you want?" she repeated. "You and your group broke into the farm three times. Why?"

"We wanted agricultural tools. It isn't easy, farming in the Stress Zone."

"I'm sure that's completely true," she replied calmly. "It also has nothing to do with my question. For once, why don't you spare me the games and the anger and the pride and just tell me the truth?"

He looked, she thought, like he'd just been hit over the head. Anna was reminded of just how young he was, how deeply that meant he felt things. Too, his night had been little better than hers, and he hadn't even had a Monomate to cure the physical damage from his tumble down the sand pit.

"You weren't trying to plant some home-cooked virus into MotaNet, were you?" she prompted.

"I--"

She could tell that the next thing out of his mouth was going to be some piece of youthful bravado, maybe a lie or maybe just creative anatomical suggestions as to what she could do with her questions. Anna cut the response off with a gimlet stare truly hardened criminals had found chilling. The Hack's shoulders sagged.

"I was looking for my parents," he said lamely. "I wanted to know what kind of people could abandon a child out here in the middle of nowhere."

"So you needed MotaNet access for the government's citizen database?"

"Yes, but it's more than that. I don't know their names or anything about them, so I was going to use a DNA sample to find my own file. The farm has the equipment to do that, for working with bioengineered plants."

"Then let's go do it."

"What?"

"Let's go finish this."

A suspicious look came into his eyes.

"What's this about, Hunter? What kind of trick are you playing?"

"No tricks. Everyone's assumed you were some kind of electronic terrorist, a Motavian gridrider with an axe to grind. Well, you may have issues with other Palmans, but that's the only part that's true."

"Why do you believe me?"

Anna favored her prisoner with a quirky half-smile.

"Please. Some things are just obvious."

His expression told the Guardian that he wasn't sure that was necessarily such a good thing. No doubt he had an image of himself as the heroic, dangerous rebel, and Anna's easy dismissal of possible malevolent motives for him probably cut at his ego.

He wasn't stupid, though.

"All right. If you're for real, let's get going. The people from Beerock might decide to come back to work, now that you're on the job." He put a sarcastic twist on the end of the sentence, but a pointed glance from Anna at the plasmacuff on the Hack's wrist made his attitude temporarily wilt.

Despite the Hack's misgivings, the dome farm was as deserted as Anna had left it. Bypassing security, of course, was effortless, and in almost no time they were in the control room. The Hack took a sample of skin cells and quickly converted it to a datafile, then went online with the computer, performing a couple of deft tricks to skate past security into the Mota citizen database.

"I'm impressed with your computer skills," Anna told him.

"Well, out here in the Stress Zone it's a little hard to get a datanet access account. To get almost anything done online, I've had to learn to hack, even for basic stuff like online entertainment broadcasts or getting the metroball scores."

"Go Seatigers," Anna murmured. "It sounds rough."

"It is, in a way. You can't live without working, the way you Palmans do. But we're free, too. We don't have Mother Brain controlling every aspect of our lives."

"You and Teras would get along, I think."

The Hack ignored the remark, which meant nothing to him anyway.

"Here it is. Apparently, my name was Carl Hayek," he said with the forced ease of someone trying to but not succeeding in controlling an emotional reaction. "My parents were Aidan and Sonia Hayek. I have no siblings, which doesn't surprise me given what they did to me. Now, let's just see about..."

His voice trailed off.

"What is it?"

Anna didn't receive an answer; the Hack just stood staring at the screen, so she came up and looked over his shoulder.

Aidan and Sonia Hayek were both dead. Moreover, they had died on the same day in the spring of 1265. The cause of death boiled down to severe physical trauma sustained in a vehicle crash a mile and a half from Beerock Village.

Carl Hayek was listed as missing, presumed deceased, in the same crash. No positive evidence of his death had been found, but the vehicle had burned badly following the crash.

"They...didn't abandon me," the Hack murmured. "Grandmother always said that there must be another explanation, but..."

"You must have been thrown clear in the crash, then wandered off. At that age, you wouldn't have remembered the details."

"It's all been a lie!" the Hack screamed, smashing his fist on the console. "Everything I thought, everything I believed about the Palmans. I stirred up the other young Motavians, led them in raids, by being a living example of what the Palmans were like, what they were capable of doing not generations ago but right now. It's been nothing but a load of zubiste." He pounded the console again.

"What?"

"Worm dung."

"Appropriate," agreed Anna. "You should have listened to Grandmother Lujine, who sounds like a sensible woman."

She entered a coded command sequence into the cuff on her wrist and was answered by the sharp snapping sound of the Hack's cuff releasing. The Hack looked down at the now-loose plasmacuff, then back over his shoulder at Anna.

"What kind of stunt is this?"

"No stunt." Anna took back the cuff.

"You're letting me go? Why?"

"Several different reasons, actually. Firstly, the major charge you're wanted on is for the computer crimes. As you've just demonstrated, your guilt is a technical issue of what system you tapped than what you tapped it for. I don't feel a man looking for his past should be filed in the same category as one who tries to upset the environmental systems or crash the automated farms or other major crimes. As for the rest of it, you've gone and stirred up the Natives against the people of Beerock. Mostly you did it out of the assumption that those Palmans were responsible for the mistreatment of you and yours. If I arrest you, you become a kind of Martyr To The Cause for your friends. They might escalate their activities until things get nasty and people on both sides start to get killed. On the other hand, by letting you go, perhaps you can defuse some of the tensions, if you're man enough to face up to your mistakes. I'd suggest apologies and compensation would be in order, but I'm no one's idea of a diplomat, so you and the Beerock villagers can probably work things out among yourselves."

"I thought your job was to enforce the law."

"I'm not an Agent or C.O. That's their job. I'm a Guardian. We're here to solve problems and prevent trouble, not just take mercenary cases and hunt monsters. It's what the name means. From where I stand, letting you go solves more problems than bringing you in."

"And what about the next hunter they send? Will he or she agree?"

"They won't send anyone else." The Guardians' patron would see to that. Of course, Anna couldn't explain that to the Hack, but he seemed to believe her. Sometimes, confidence alone could sell even an unreasonable idea, and she had complete confidence in what she said.

They parted ways outside the farm, the Hack heading north towards the cliff passage while Anna headed back towards Beerock. She needed to report in that there wouldn't be any more raids on the computer so the people could return to work. After about twenty feet, she let out a huge yawn.

"Well, since I've lost my perfect record by letting the Hack go, maybe I can at least go hunt down some sleep."

From off to the north drifted the faint sound of laughter.

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