Tell Me A Secret
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This story features the character of "Sejanus," who, like the Hatless Dezorian bar, was created by my wife (*hug*) for the supporting cast of a fanfic she has been working on. While this story is the second I've written featuring him, it should not be necessary to read "Silence of the Heart" to understand what is happening here (unlike most of my sequels). I do wish to point out that Sejanus is not filling the shoes of PSO's main character; that story is yours to create, not mine.
The shrill cry of an electronic summons brought me awake. At first I thought it was the alarm chron, summoning me to a new day, but after a couple of sleep-fuzzed gropings towards its off switch I realized that the sound was different, a less piercing squeal than the one specifically meant to rouse me from blissful slumber.
"Computer, answer link," I said, instructing my apartment's information processor-slash-entertainment center-slash-Data Link to connect me with whomever was trying to call. The blank screen across the room was replaced by bracketed words in light green reading "No Video Signal." Whomever was on the other end of the call either had a broken video pickup or didn't want their face known.
"Sejanus?" The voice was male, but that didn't have to mean anything. Communication was over a digital network, and computers could do remarkable things to the electronic code that made up a voice on the link.
"Who else would it be at this time of night?" Actually, since the colony ship Pioneer 2 had been in space for two years, it was always night, but it was also that time of the twenty-four-hour cycle which I used as my sleep shift.
"You're angry," the voice said. "Under the circumstances, that isn't unreasonable."
"I'm glad you realize that."
"What I have to tell you, however, is of vital importance to you. I'm sure that you will agree."
I scowled at the blank screen. There was a strong element of melodrama in all this, and melodrama wasn't something I liked at any time, let alone at four-seventeen.
"Cut to the chase," I said simply. Surprisingly, my caller did.
"There's a new quest being offered at the Hunter's Guild," he said. "It was received one hour ago, which means you're already late and getting further behind by the minute."
"If there's that much of a rush, I'm surprised you waited this long to tell me about it."
"I'm not omniscient, Sejanus, and I'm not in a position to act as freely as you might think. I'm risking my life just by talking to you."
"I can see by your expression that you don't think highly of my methods." Perceptive slag. I should have cut my video feed too. "I'm not much fond of them either, but this is the way it has to be, at least until...but that's not important. What is important is that you have to be the one to find her."
"'The Missing Scientist.' That's the name of the quest."
"That's handy to know. Otherwise I might end up looking for someone's dog."
"It won't be a dog you're looking for this time, Sejanus."
There was a pause, and I thought for a second that he'd disconnected, but the "Call Terminated" message hadn't flashed on-screen.
"You'll be looking for answers. Don't be late, if you want to find any." With that, my caller did disconnect.
With a lead-in like that, I could hardly fail to have my curiosity aroused. The question was, did I want to give in to that curiosity or instead roll over and go back to sleep?
The voice had said I'd find answers, which was sufficiently vague to cover almost anything. Like almost everyone else on this spaceship, the burning issue at hand for me was, what happened to the thirty thousand men and women of Pioneer 1? They had been the initial colonization mission to the planet Ragol, and all had seemed well until Pioneer 2 had reached Ragol with the main wave of refugees and attempted to open communications with the surface.
No one quite knew what had taken place, but the upshot of it was that every last one of the colonists of Pioneer 1 had vanished and that the planet had become infested with hostile monsters not previously reported during the seven years Pioneer 1 had been on Ragol. Official government statements were few and far between, largely because they were as much in the dark as anyone.
I myself had a more personal reason to find out the truth of what had happened. Like a number of people, I'd had family on Pioneer 1, my sister Velaria. Vel had been a soldier, sent to protect the colonists in case they encountered trouble. The irony of that was the kind that made people reach for their liquor bottles.
Recently, I had been one of a group of hunters hired by the military to investigate the Ragol situation. The governing Council had already hired a team, but even in the face of a fearful mystery politics reigned supreme. The military didn't trust that the Council would keep them adequately briefed, and no doubt there were some officers who had their own agendas. A condition of our employment, though, was that when we were not working on a military-assigned mission, we had the right to accept other quests at the Hunter's Guild. In fact, it was encouraged, since we might learn something the army needed to know in the course of a quest.
So, were the "answers" offered by the mystery voice personal, professional, or both?
Awareness of the situation soon displaced my annoyance at being contacted in the middle of the night. Finding Vel was why I'd taken the military job in the first place. The quests I'd done so far on their behalf had been inconclusive at best. Strange link call or not, I'd be a fool to pass up any chance at solving part of the Ragol mystery and finding Vel. I didn't know what my faceless informant was up to, but for now, I'd play his game.
* * * * *
It took less than half an hour for me to dress, collect my weapons, and fly to the Hunter's Guild deck, where I docked my aerocar. The usual crowd was around, hunters looking for work; shopping for new equipment or selling off gear scavenged from Pioneer 1 storage caches on the planet; or just shooting the breeze about the way things had gone on their recent quests. On my way to the Guild, I caught sight of several familiar faces, one of whom I made a mental note to speak with after I took the quest.
The Guild's desk was staffed by the usual short-haired blonde wearing a blouse obviously designed by a teenaged male who spent too little time in the company of real females.
"Welcome to the Hunter's Guild, where we enrich the lives of hunters."
"Bad pun," I murmured, then asked to see the quest listings. Sure enough, "The Missing Scientist" was there.
"Another one?" I said as I reviewed the specifications. "Can't these researchers keep from misplacing their people? That's what, the third time a hunter has had to fetch one back?"
"Maybe it's the same one and he gets lost easily?" the secretary joked.
"Maybe so. Well, for five thousand meseta I'd fetch this one no matter how many times it's been. Sign me up."
"Very good. You'll want to meet with the client right away, I assume?"
Given the urgency I should have expected the client to be there waiting instead of following the usual procedure of setting up a later meeting, but it still caught me off-guard. I suppose that at least part of me didn't yet fully believe the mysterious caller. It all seemed too much like part of an online broadcast of an espionage thriller to be real. Every step along the way thus far, though, had borne out what was said.
"Why not? No time like the present."
The mission overview had only identified the client as a laboratory assistant, and the man's youth bore that statement out. He wore a sleeveless blue tunic, baggy yellow pants, and his bangs were cut in a straight slash a half-inch above his eyebrows. I put his age in his early twenties, but with that delayed-adolescence look that a life in laboratories and academic facilities gives to researchers. A soldier was with him, but staying uninvolved, some distance away.
"Hello, I'm Sejanus," I said, extending my hand. He shook it, looking up at me with some consternation.
In his defense, my appearance can be fairly striking, especially if you're used to seeing white lab coats all day. I'm tall, as much as some male androids, and a bit on the thin side. My standard field wear is a red bodysuit with armor plating around the chest and neck, and my hair is stark white, worn nearly to shoulder length. One of my fellow hunters had described the overall effect as being "scary," which although not quite how I wanted to be perceived at least made an impression.
From the way he looked, the young lab assistant definitely found me something not too far off from "scary." I made a mental note; maybe I could use that if I had to.
"Um, I'm Fersen," he managed to say after swallowing heavily. "I'm an assistant at...a laboratory."
That was less than useful. There were any number of labs on Pioneer 2; the ship was after all there to settle a new planet. In addition to the various Council labs, the military also had laboratory facilities of their own, and there were even private labs associated with various traders' groups.
"Um...I'm sorry; I can't tell you what laboratory I work for," he murmured.
Great, I thought. It's one of those jobs. The ones where you were expected to be a good little hunter and do just what you were told without knowing why or for whom. Why was I not surprised?
The client seemed to recognize my frustration, because he quickly hurried on.
"One of our researchers is missing," he told me. "She quit her job at the laboratory some time ago, which made some of us--her friends, her boyfriend--concerned."
"Are you the boyfriend?" I cut in.
"No!" Fersen protested hotly. His cheeks flushed, suggesting that while he was undoubtedly telling the truth he wouldn't mind taking that position if she was willing to open it.
"Just checking; it matters how I hear what you have to say."
The corner of his mouth quirked upwards.
"I think I see what you mean."
"Good; you're already one ahead. Sorry for interrupting."
"As I was saying, some of us kept in contact with her after she left the lab. She seemed withdrawn and moody, though, and wasn't her usual self. We were worried. Then, one day, she vanished entirely. She wasn't at home or any of the usual spots, hadn't been seen in her favorite restaurants, didn't answer her PDL or even simple-mail. We contacted the military police, called the Medical Center, everything we could think of, but nothing turned up."
"It sounds like you took all the steps you could," I told him approvingly, then added something that I genuinely meant. "If anything ever happened to me, I'd which I had friends who cared as much for me."
"Eventually, we gave up the search, though. There was nothing we could do. The only chance was to hire a professional, a hunter, who might do what we couldn't, think of something that we had missed." He grinned sheepishly and said, "Basically, we badgered our superiors into sponsoring this Guild commission."
"I'm not completely surprised that they agreed. After all, whatever caused her to disappear might also have made her quit work, and talented personnel are worth protecting. Find her, solve her problems, and they may get her back."
"I never thought of it like that, but I hope you're right. She was a first-rate scientist, educated, responsible, thorough. A lot better than me, for example."
In truth, I was more suspicious of the lab's motives than I let on, but unless the man was a first-rate actor Fersen was telling the truth so far as he knew it. Then again, whatever was strange about this job might not be coming from the lab.
"I noticed that this was an open quest. You've hired other hunters?"
"Yes; since there will only be this one chance to find her, we thought we should allow several hunters to take on the job. The one who succeeds will collect the commission fee."
"Kind of like that three sisters job a while back," I said, more for my own benefit than for his.
"You're the fourth," Fersen commented. "Since we have to pay the Guild stipend on a per-hunter basis, succeed or fail, that was all we could afford on the budget we were assigned."
I nodded, wondering if that would make the job harder or easier. It was lucky, though, that I'd gotten there when I did. Another hour later and all four spots might have been taken.
"That's the background, then; how about the details--description, address, friends to talk to, that kind of thing?"
He produced two pages.
"This is a printed digital image of her," he said, passing them over, "and this is all the information we could collect, including a timetable of the significant events I've told you about. I'm afraid it's not much."
I had to agree with that, skimming over the list, but at least it was a place to start.
"What about her name?" I asked. "It's not on here, and you didn't mention it."
"I didn't? Oh, blast, I knew that I didn't know how to go about hiring a hunter. It's Alicia, Alicia Baz."