Tell Me A Secret
Whomever was at the door, it wasn't Alicia; the heaviness of the footsteps said it was a man. He had used a key code to enter, but unlike me someone hadn't let him in; the maintenance woman was chatty and I'd have heard her say something. The man's entrance was stealthy and therefore trouble.
Fortunately my brain took about a half-second to run through that analysis on a subconscious level; my autogun was in my fist and its Photon driver powered up by the time the man came into Alicia's bedroom/office. I'd pressed my back flat against the wall next to the door, so that I could only be seen by someone inside the room. By the time he got that far, my gun barrel was pressing a cold metal kiss against the back of his neck.
Paranoid? Maybe, but I had a right to be in that apartment. The other man was presumably breaking and entering, which gave him a fairly good chance of being the first of the "bad guys" I could put a face to.
Maybe it could even help me figure out just who the sides were supposed to be.
"If you so much as twitch without permission, I'm going to redecorate the inside of your skull with this gun. Got that?"
"Now, very slowly, take two steps forward and make a quarter-turn to your right."
He obeyed, which put him squarely facing the mirror. I looked over his shoulder and got my first glimpse of his face. He was a broad-shouldered man with a square jaw and a visage that looked as if it had been hewn from granite. His hair was cut very short in an army buzz and was a light green, nearly chartreuse in shade. There was a Photon saber clipped to his belt, so I reached around and disarmed him.
"Who are you?"
"Jophar. I'm a Hunter, with the Hunter's Guild."
"How did you get in here?"
There was no answer this time.
"Why?" I repeated harshly.
What he'd have said or not said I didn't know. Just then the door slid open and two hulking androids stormed in. Each was equipped with a handgun and saber.
"Building security!" one barked. "Photon detectors reveal the presence of an active weapon!"
Stupid, I thought. I should have figured there would be Photon-dets.
Since they could see me just as easily as I could see them, now that I'd moved in front of the open door, I lowered my weapon.
"Explain your presence here."
"I was admitted by Ms. Maril, of building maintenance. This trespasser entered using an illegal key code, but I caught him before he could do any damage."
"Don't believe him!" Jophar exclaimed. "He's the trespasser. If you hadn't come, he was going to kill me!"
"Call maintenance and verify my story," I suggested.
"We will do that."
The android who'd spoken made a quick connection to Maril over their security net. I'd been hoping he would; Jophar's desperate bluff couldn't help him unless he could generate confusion by it. So far, by contrast, I hadn't had to lie. True stories are so much more likely to be provable.
Unfortunately, it was just about then that I got stupid, smug over the success of my explanation. I stopped paying attention to what I was doing, specifically the fact that I had a charged autogun in my right hand.
Jophar did not forget this fact.
I wasn't even looking at him at the time; my attention was mostly on the androids. He, on the other hand, had been paying plenty of attention to me. He spun and dove, grabbing at my hand with both of his and wrenching the gun away. Jophar hit the floor prone and rolled away from me, coming up into his crouch inside the bedroom, away from the door so he was out of the line of fire of the security androids. That gave him only one target of opportunity.
My brain checked back in after its momentary vacation about then, and I flung myself aside. Two sizzling blue Photon pulses crashed into the wall inches from me, but an inch is as good as a mile when talking about handgun misses. My shoulder struck Alicia's desk, hard, and the shock sent disks clattering out. I snatched one and threw it at Jophar as he shifted his aim; reflexively he fired at it instead of me, blasting the harmless missile to dust. My follow-up attack wasn't quite so harmless, though; even as I'd thrown the disk my other hand had seized the leg of Alicia's desk chair.
The flying chair caught Jophar just below the knees, cutting the legs out from under him. By the time he got his balance back and his gun up, the androids were there. The hunter fired anyway, blasting a smoking hole in one's lower right abdomen, but they returned the fire with their own guns. This time, when Jophar hit the floor he didn't get up.
Nor would he.
"Thank you for your assistance in apprehending this burglar, Hunter Sejanus," said the injured android. The damage looked bad, but I knew it could be easily repaired. Not unlike my shoulder, I thought as I got to my feet. One dose of Monomate and the growing bruise I knew I had would vanish instantly. Until then, a dull ache was an extremely minor price to pay for a mistake that could and perhaps should have cost me my life.
"You're welcome," I said.
"Do you have any idea as to his purpose?"
I shook my head.
"He claimed to be a hunter, but didn't explain what he was doing here. Maybe he was looking for Alicia Baz, or maybe it was just a case of simple theft."
"Tenant Baz has not been present in the building for six days," the android provided helpfully.
"Well, if this guy was looking for her, it's a good thing she wasn't here. He was carrying this." I handed him the saber. "Do you mind if I retrieve my autogun?"
This time he was the one to shake his head.
"I am sorry, but the weapon will need to be kept as evidence until a formal report is issued by the military police. If you will provide us with your identification and Section ID, however, we will see that it is returned to you at that time."
I nodded. It was annoying, but there was no point in complaining to the android; he was only a functionary. Besides, the law was the law, and a properly filed police report would clear me of any responsibility for having a gun pointed at Jophar's head when security walked in.
On top of which, where I was going, I didn't need the autogun. I had a much different weapon for that sort of situation. I gave the information to the android and left Alicia's home.
As my aerocar skimmed its way through the city back to the Hunter's Guild deck, it struck me that hunting Alicia down could get much easier if I had some background information. With that in mind, I called a friend on my PDL.
"Hey, Sejanus, good to see you!"
"You too, Jeromy. How's the project going?"
"Same old, same old. Had some military goons sniffing around, asking to buy my data and get me to stop."
"Seriously? You didn't take them up on it, did you?"
"You're kidding, right? I told those uniformed scumbags what orifice they could stick their ideas up."
I probably shouldn't have thought it, given my own connection to the army, but I couldn't help but like what he said. Like Hopkins, Jeromy was no fan of the military, but his dislike was a bit more active...or at least his language was.
All hunters, when down on Ragol, carried radar units that tracked and mapped the terrain around them as an aid to their missions. These maps, though, were only sketches, with the details needing to be filled in by eyewitnesses. These were the basis of Jeromy's work. He was compiling a complete map of the Pioneer 1 settlements on Ragol for the use of the Hunter's Guild. This included not only the forests and residential area around the Central Dome, but also the caves underneath the settlement, which showed indisputable signs of technological excavation, to the subterranean industrial complex known as No Man's Mines, both of which could only be mapped by exploration and which had not been mentioned in any known message from Pioneer 1. Known being the operative word there, of course.
I'd been in the mines once myself, and from the reports of other hunters as well I knew that some of the things that had happened there were secret research projects. Underground projects, if one will excuse the pun. So it was no surprise that the military would be interested in Jeromy's map, either to root out misdeeds or to cover up what the army on Pioneer 1 had been up to.
Possibly, without knowing it, I was after the same thing.
"In that case, I need some help."
"It's yours, pal."
"I'm looking for a woman, Jeromy. I think she may have gone down to Ragol, to the mines. I need a map, and something more."
"A location. I need to find out where there's an intact computer laboratory, probably connected to biotechnology."
He disappeared off-screen when he set the PDL down, and I heard the beeping of a computer screen. A couple of minutes later, he came back.
"Okay, Sejanus, I've got something for you on the second sub-level. I'll shoot you the data by BEE, 'kay?"
There were a couple of other beeps, and Jeromy said, "There you go."
"Thanks, I appreciate it."
"The whole point of the project is to help hunters, right? It's no good if it can't be of use."
"Guess you've got a point. Thanks, anyway."
"Good luck." He disconnected. I immediately called up my simple-mail access and, sure enough, there was the file. Before I had a chance to look at it, though, the PDL beeped. I switched the unit's function and answered.
I probably should have guessed who was calling.
"You're making quick progress, Sejanus," the voice informed me. "Faster than I'd anticipated."
"I'm sorry to disappoint," I said sarcastically. "Exactly how is it you know how much progress I'm making? Do you have your little spies out?"
There was a soft chuckle by way of response.
"You're refreshingly blunt. Circumlocution is more the order of the day."
"Yeah, well, you never get anywhere, in talk or in life, by just going sideways, so in the words a friend of mine might use, why don't we cut the crap and start moving forward?"
"You're quite right, but what you overlook is that while you can't advance by lateral movement, it is also an effective way to block others from advancing."
"So no one gets anywhere. How productive."
"Most of the time, that's exactly what people want. That's what makes Alicia Baz so important. She might get things moving."
I gave the screen a wry smile.
"Not that I'm privileged to know how, or in what direction, or whether I want her to."
"Find her and find out, Sejanus. If you let your rivals get there first, no one will learn. Or did you think the attempt to kill you was just a mistake?"
"You're saying that it was deliberate? That Jophar intended to murder me from the moment he entered the apartment?"
I caught sight of the Hunter's Guild deck and let the autopilot take the car down before docking.
"I'm saying that your death is a useful step in the plans of those who seek to hide the truth. As long as you keep looking, they'll want to stop you. Their methods may be direct or indirect; regardless, they will make further attempts. Be on your guard, Sejanus. You cannot afford to lose."
"Why? What makes it so important? What has she found out that people are willing to kill over?"
There was a long pause, during which the aerocar came to rest and I powered it down.
"Sejanus," the voice finally said.
"I don't know."
"I don't know what she's found out. What I do know is that others are fully aware, others who are quite willing to use lethal force to act on that knowledge. Watch yourself, Sejanus. You can be certain that they will."