Tell Me A Secret
I studied the picture of Alicia Baz as I left the Hunter's Guild. She was an attractive woman, tall and slender with a pale face, long blue hair, and a thin diamond tattooed or painted in the center of her forehead. The latter, and the elaborateness of the dress she wore, marked her as a Force, one trained in the use of mystic techniques, in the same way that I as a Ranger had been trained in the use of various types of guns. A fair number of Forces could be found in research positions, I knew. The training demanded intelligence, and not everyone who received it found that they wanted the mercenary life of a hunter. In the picture, Alicia appeared to be laughing at something; her head was thrown back, her smile broad, and her eyes sparkling with merriment.
A faint wisp of sadness brushed me; wherever Alicia Baz was now, I doubted that she was smiling.
Thinking about Forces had reminded me of the man I wanted to talk to, so I scanned the crowd, hoping he hadn't left. Luckily, he was still around, and I approached him at once.
"Hopkins, can I have a word?"
Like Alicia, Hopkins was a Force. Unlike her, he wasn't human. He was identifiable as one of the genetically engineered race of Newmen by his elongated and pointed ears. An aptitude for technique use was one of a Newman's altered qualities, which was why many of them turned to Force training, including Hopkins. He also possessed the male Newman's apparent cultural bias towards overdone style, with a silk shirt, loose-fitting pants tucked into shoes with turned-up toes, and a tall, puffy, almost cylindrical hat, all in emerald green with gold embroidery.
As a hunter, Hopkins was a minor talent at best. He had other skills, though, and one of the things he was talented at was keeping his ear to the ground. Especially when it concerned the plots, cabals, and political interests that wound their way into Guild quests far too often.
"Oh, Sejanus. Yes, of course. What's up?"
"I'm not sure. That's my problem."
"That's everyone's problem," the short, stocky Force replied. "There's a lot more going on here than anyone can keep track of. Every time a hunter learns something about Ragol, it just leads to more questions."
"All too true," I agreed.
He looked at me assessingly.
"You're asking about something specific, though, aren't you?"
I nodded. Hopkins might not be the best hunter in the field, but his brain was sharp enough to read me like the proverbial book.
"Yeah, I am. There's a new quest at the Guild, about a missing scientist." I handed him the picture. "What's so important about her? Do you have any idea?"
"She's hot," Hopkins decided. "Nice taste in hats, too."
"That wasn't quite what I meant."
"Too bad. The face looks familiar, though..." He snapped his fingers loudly, which caused two hunters to turn and look at him curiously. "Come on, Sejanus. We'll talk, but not here. It's too public."
* * * * *
Of all the places I'd have called "private," the Hatless Dezorian wasn't one of them. Run by retired Hunter Tendall Grant, the bar featured decor in basic black, heavy crystal glasses, and the retro music style Grant had grown up with. It was popular among hunters, who gave it a good three-quarters of its business. The fact that it was open at five-thirty in the morning was a concession to the irregular schedules kept by its patrons and, in fact, it was about half-full.
Then again, maybe he had a point. Two people standing around in the open talking for a long time excited attention, possibly from the wrong people. Two friends talking over drinks in a bar was a different story.
"Alicia Baz, you say her name is," Hopkins said, swirling his brandy in its glass. "I didn't know that."
My own drink was coffee, hot and without sweeteners. Then again, Hopkins wasn't just starting a job, so he could indulge in the luxury of alcohol. I, on the other hand, needed something to tell that portion of my hindbrain which wanted me to go back to bed to shut up for the rest of the day.
"But you do know something."
"A while ago, not long after Ragol first opened up to hunters, she was a client."
"You worked for her?"
The Force shook his head, making his hat wiggle.
"No, I wouldn't take the job. I didn't trust her. She had an escort of soldiers who gave us the fish-eye every time we came near. I heard what kind of job it was, though. Native research. They rigged up the hunter who took it with some kind of bio-data device that would gather information about Ragol's animals during battle with them."
"So someone wanted to gather data about the creatures on the surface?"
"That's right. This was before the caves had been opened up so all we knew about were the animals in the forests and around Central Dome."
"That wasn't long after the first hunters went down to the planet at all," I mused. It was also roughly around the time when, according to the datasheet I'd been given, Alicia had become disenchanted and quit the lab.
"I don't trust a client who holds back important information," he said. "I actually applied for the quest, but when she wouldn't disclose whom she worked for or the purpose of their research, I walked. Hunters aren't just mercenaries, to do whatever the paymaster tells them without question."
I barely suppressed a wince. My current quest, after all, was being carried out on behalf of a man who wouldn't give the name of his affiliation. Too, while I believed Fersen's story as far as it went, I didn't trust that his superiors' motives for funding the quest were as altruistic as his own. Add in the fact that my real client was the voice on the link, who wasn't paying me a single meseta and whose identity was a complete mystery, and my situation on this quest was almost the perfect opposite to Hopkins's principle.
Which, I supposed, was why I was talking to him.
"Well, I see what you mean, although lately clinging to that principle means missing out on a lot of work, especially where the military is involved."
"I don't trust soldiers," Hopkins said. I already knew that; the military was his favorite candidate for the identity of the secret manipulators within the government he believed were tied in with the Ragol mystery--a theory that was sounding less like paranoia and more like the truth as the days passed. "Even the ones who aren't up to something would rather do nothing than risk making a mistake their superiors could call them on."
"Is Alicia's connection to the military all you know about her?" I brought the conversation back on point. Time, apparently, was not my friend.
Hopkins shook his head again, then took a sip of brandy to wet his throat.
"No. You see, that wasn't the only Guild quest she sponsored."
This was getting interesting.
"Oh? What else?" I asked, letting my curiosity show. There was no point in playing the cold fish with Hopkins; I wanted him to know that I valued what he had to say and was interested in his opinion.
"Well, the rumors weren't quite so frequent as they were about the initial job, and I didn't bother applying for it myself because I still didn't trust her, but I can tell you one thing. She didn't have her soldiers in tow that time."
My attention level shot through the ceiling when I heard that. The military always insisted on escorting their key people when they were involved in a quest--not unlike my current client's uniformed shadow.
"Hopkins, this is very important. Can you remember the exact date of this second mission?"
He frowned with displeasure.
"I don't know, Sejanus. I didn't take the job, so I didn't make a note of it--wait a moment." He fiddled with the wrist-computer all hunters carried and manipulated its log functions. "It was the day after the big to-do over the Gran Squall. I remember because Dacci was complaining that a flock of Rag Rappies chased him up a tree and kept him there for over three hours before he escaped. Aha! There we are."
He told me the date, and I checked it against the information given to me by my client. It fell right before the day Fersen had said Alicia had become withdrawn and moody. It also fell after she quit the lab, meaning that she actually had commissioned the second quest on her own initiative.
Just maybe, this second quest had led Alicia Baz to discover something. Something so terrible that it had driven her underground, hiding perhaps or just retreating from the situation.
Or maybe not. Maybe it was something more proactive than that. Alicia wasn't a shrinking violet, according to her past. When, presumably, there had been something she didn't like about the first quest, the one she'd run for the lab, she hadn't run away or stuck her head in the sand. She had quit her job and hired hunters on her own. Whatever answers she'd gotten from that second quest, she must have meant to do something with them, not just cower in fear.
So maybe that was why she was missing, I thought, taking a drink and letting the hot stimulant jolt my brain back towards full awakeness. Maybe she was taking the logical next step with whatever she'd learned.
Given the presence of soldiers, the chances were basically a dead certainty that Alicia's lab was military in nature, though it might be under the aegis of one of any number of divisions or subsidiary groups. The root cause of it all was probably the original native research she'd commissioned from the Guild, so whatever happened was based on a military research project.
All of a sudden it seemed obvious that any number of people would be after Alicia Baz. The military would definitely not want a private citizen running experiments with their data and possibly interfering with their classified projects, and that was without even factoring in the political considerations. Then, one had to consider the other parties who might want to get their hands on Alicia and her research--the Council, black market data-traders, anti-military groups, rival factions inside the army, maybe even the shadowy criminal organization called Black Paper.
My mysterious caller was right. I was already late.
"Where are you going, Sejanus?" Hopkins asked. "You're thinking so hard there's going to be smoke coming out of your ears in a second."
"Alicia Baz is missing," I told him. "As you can see from the quest listings in the Guild, someone wants very badly to find her."
"Wait a minute. You think..."
"She may be the key, Hopkins. Whomever finds Alicia Baz may learn all the answers to what's happening with Ragol."
Hopkins tossed off the last of his drink.
"Then you'd better watch your back, because there'll be plenty of people who don't want you to get there first."
* * * * *
I had to start somewhere, so I settled on Alicia's home. As a laboratory researcher, she had a decent-sized apartment, a bit better than my own, which I found the address for in the city directory. The door was, unfortunately, locked, but I got in by the simple tactic of calling building maintenance and telling them the truth. It would no doubt disappoint those who were addicted to adventure stories that I did not use some master passcode or electronically disable the door security, but often a bit of diplomacy was more effective than a bag of tricks. Besides which, I was a Ranger, not a burglar.
Alicia Baz had lived simply. She had done little to add any personal touches to the furnishings, which were sleek and modern. At first, I'd almost suspected that someone had been here before me and cleaned the place out, removing all evidence, which would have been an operation on a fairly impressive scale.
It wasn't true, though, I realized after a bit more searching. There were clothes in the closet, mostly long, flowing things in satin and lace. There was a small hologram on top of her computer screen, a mix of shapes and colors that shifted and twisted, designed to relax the onlooker. A library of music and literary disks was stored in her work desk. The key was that Alicia's apartment had not been cleaned for her; she simply preferred a Spartan existence that was at odds with the elaborate personal wardrobe.
After a couple of seconds, things fell together for me. The fanciest of her dresses weren't elaborate by choice; they were a Force's formal robes. While Newmen trained as Forces tended to set their own fashions, human Forces still tended to follow the traditions of the pre-technological wizards their role was descended from, and wore elaborate formal robes and mantles. Alicia herself clearly did not favor anything more than the simplest designs in her life, but had enough respect for the training that she followed its traditions. I should have realized that just from her picture, which showed her in a formal white-and-yellow dress.
I checked the wardrobe again. There was no dress in that color, and only one empty hanger.
"So that's what she's wearing," I thought aloud, "unless she's in some kind of disguise."
I didn't have much hope of finding anything on her computer, but I powered it up anyway. Since I had no idea what, specifically, she was working on, and it would probably be over my head, I searched by date instead, seeing what Alicia had done most recently. The search turned up nothing.
I stared at the screen, not understanding what I was seeing. For several days prior to her disappearance, Alicia Baz had used her computer only for its entertainment functions.
It was possible, I knew, for a skilled hacker to make a computer "forget" that it had performed certain operations. If that had been done here, though, it had been done very thoroughly. No copying, no analysis, no mathematical operations, no file access, not even the insertion of a computer-file datadisk was shown. Either Alicia or an ally was a skilled net-dancer with an attention to detail, or else she simply hadn't used the computer. Which couldn't be true, unless my idea about her working on the Ragol data was inaccurate, or...
I had it, or at least thought I did. Like all the home units on the ship, this computer was linked into Pioneer 2's online net. If, and I had to concede it was a pretty big if, she was afraid that someone from her old job might be suspicious of her motives in quitting the lab or had learned that she'd hired a hunter for an additional mission to Ragol, she might be afraid of surveillance. If so, she would hardly want to carry out her data analysis on a computer that might not be secure.
The question was, where would Alicia find a secure computer, one not linked to a network where military specialists might be able to track her down and compromise her work? The army and the Council, of course, had secure computers for their data work. The most sensitive operations were done on unlinked computers not part of the net, with which data transfers had to be done physically by disk. Those would fit the bill perfectly, but there was no way Alicia could get access to one. I didn't know what her clearance level had been, but after quitting her job it would have dropped to that of an ordinary citizen.
Then a brainstorm hit me. The possible explanation was outrageous, but it fit with all the known facts as well as my suppositions. I know where she could find a computer that no hacker could touch. It even explained why she'd gone missing, seemingly disappeared, and I wondered if someone else had come to the same conclusion, resulting in the Guild quest.
I needed more data before I could be certain, but that would be easy to obtain. The only thing that worried me was, had I made a breakthrough, or had everyone else already figured it out?
My concerns along these lines were swept aside by more immediate worries, though, when I heard the soft beeping from the front door of someone inputting a lock code. The door obviously liked what it had been fed, because the next thing I heard was the soft swish of it sliding open, and the footsteps of someone entering the outer room.