Tell Me A Secret
My stomach lurched, and then the moment of transition passed. When my vision cleared, I found myself in a world of circuitry and electric green light. The Mines were not truly a mine in the traditional sense; they'd been equipped to excavate tons of ore but this had been done not to retrieve valuable minerals but simply to dig deeply into the planet's surface. Why this had been done, I had no idea, nor did anyone else admit to knowing. The very existence of the place, though, was clear evidence that there was far more to Pioneer 1 than a simple colonization mission.
No Man's Mines themselves weren't just a road to whatever lay beneath, either. They contained laboratories and industrial factories, advanced computer resources for projects that were as mysterious as the mines themselves.
What they also contained was trouble.
Just as the surface and the caves had been infested by monsters, so too did the mines have theirs. Somehow, industrial robots had been customized--some very effectively--for battle. These roamed the mine, seeking out and attacking any intruders. My second mission on behalf of the military had been to clear an area of these robots so that army scientists could check things out. As usual, my employers didn't trust the Council's hunter team to do the job right--or to offer a full report.
Paranoia was such an entertaining diversion.
There were robots in this area of the mine, too. In fact, four attacked in the room just past the transporter from the Pioneer 2. Luckily, I was ready for them.
As I'd indicated, the loss of my autogun was no barrier to my performance in the field. I'd switched over to a high-powered military blaster, a combat rifle used by soldiers. It was good to have army contacts, who could tap military supply channels. This particular weapon had had its Photon output adjusted so that it would be even more effective against mechanical enemies, precisely what I needed under the circumstances.
The robots were basically humanoid, a bit shorter than I was, nightmares of glistening steel and tangled cable. Their crude design and ill-defined faces hinted at how much less advanced they were than the androids of Pioneer 2, or even most computer systems. They could only process and carry out simple tasks, their current orders apparently being to seek out and kill all intruders.
I wondered if the scientists who'd used these corridors had given the orders, or if instead it was someone else, someone more recent, who was using these machines to keep us from fully investigating No Man's Mines.
My blaster spat Photon energy at the nearest robot, the bursts of violet destruction hammering into its midsection. The thing was thrown back, top half separated from its legs by my attack. It self-destructed, detonating in a small, contained explosion that blew its shell to scrap and slagged down its microcircuitry. I was already turning to the next robot, sighting along the barrel and sending three shots into its "head." Bereft of its main sensor array, it spun in a circle and went down as well.
Fighting multiple enemies in an enclosed space was never an easy thing, and although the robots were slow-moving, they were still able to get around the small chamber quickly enough to cause trouble. One's clanking footsteps alerted me to its proximity, and I ducked low under a swipe of its hand. I knew from unpleasant experience the power of those clubbing blows; it was like getting hit by a very heavy steel bar in the hands of a very strong person.
Since I was already ducking, I dropped and rolled forward to open up some distance between myself and the robot. As I did, a searing energy bolt passed just behind me, reminding me of their second method of attack. Whomever had customized the machines for combat had gone the extra mile and equipped them with long-range weaponry for dealing with people like myself who preferred to fight enemies at a distance.
I spun on my side and fired low at the shooter, my repeated attacks scything it off at the knees. I pivoted back to the last robot just in time; its right arm was extended and the muzzle of its beam weapon was pointing directly at me. I fired first, catapulting the robot off the wall with repeated direct hits to its torso.
Four up, four down.
An irksome feature of the mechanical killers was their habit of self-destructing upon taking serious damage. While the blast was not powerful enough to cause damage to enemies (or nearby robots) or to send shrapnel flying lethally through the room, it did a very good job of destroying the robot's internal electronics. That meant there was no way to analyze their programming in search of answers as to who had created the robotic army and why.
Thinking over my experience, the notion came to me that even if I was right and Alicia had come down to the mines to work on her data, I might not find her. A single individual, especially one who wasn't an experienced hunter, might well not survive the exploration of the area. Alicia Baz's corpse, together with the answers she promised, could well be lying in some unknown corner of this technological pit.
With that grim thought in mind, I called up Jeromy's map and synched it with the one in my radar unit. They meshed neatly, and I headed out to the next room. The trip wasn't an easy one, owing to the variety of robots I encountered along the way, but the map allowed me to take the most direct route possible. That and my skill with weapons got me through unscathed to what Jeromy had designated as Bio-Technology Lab C, a large, square-shaped room with cylindrical tubes mounted along the walls. They were empty now, but each was easily large enough to accommodate a person, or perhaps a large creature. Bio-engineered animals, perhaps, to be added to Ragol's ecosystem?
Somehow, I didn't think it was anything that benign. My eyes scanned the room, taking in the details, looking for any sign that someone was here. There were none, only the faint greenish glow of the lights that were present in every room.
At the other end of the lab was a second door, which according to Jeromy's map led to the computer room. Each lab like this would have its own sub-computer for faster processing of data than if they had to fight for mainframe time with all of the other labs. If Alicia was working here, that's where she'd be.
Luckily, the door was not locked; it slid open at my approach. I could see that the small chamber was dominated by a multi-screened computer bank about eight feet wide. The computer was active, its screens displaying a variety of charts and graphs, and stuck in one corner next to it was a bedroll.
"Alicia, are you here?" I called, stepping through the door. I didn't have time to see any more, though, because the side of my skull seemed to explode in pain. I swayed, toppled, and the floor came up to meet me but I never saw the end result because darkness swallowed me before I hit.
* * * * *
Consciousness returned slowly and dimly to my brain, pulling me back from a world of phantasmoragic dreams. I was sorry to make the return at first; my head throbbed like it had been through a week-long drunk, albeit only on one side, and that pain was added to because my hands had been lashed to my ankles behind my back, not only drastically inhibiting my movement but also being an annoyingly cramped position. As for my gun, there was no sign of it.
"Who sent you?"
Dizzily, I looked around, moving my head slowly.
"I know you can hear me. Who sent you?"
"Fersen," I said. It's probably a bad habit, but when I'm not quite sure what's going on I tend to respond to questions with the truth. Or in this case, part of the truth. I figured "Some guy who won't give me his name or even show his face on the link" probably wasn't quite what the questioner wanted to hear.
Then again, the response to my actual answer turned out to be a high-pitched, barking laugh.
"What do you take me for, an idiot?" The voice was feminine and sounded strained, even brittle. Then my vision decided to stop showing me two of everything and I realized that "brittle" was no more than would be expected.
It was Alicia Baz, all right, but she definitely wasn't the composed, elegant scientist I knew from her picture. On the contrary, she looked like a woman who was about twelve seconds from a mental breakdown of epic proportions. The white and yellow Force's robes were dirty and stained with blood and a variety of mechanical fluids. Her elaborate hat was gone, and her long blue hair hung bedraggled around her shoulders. The dark circles around her eyes were nearly purple; she'd obviously pushed herself near exhaustion, and little tremors ran through her body.
The physical strain I could understand. She had obviously had to hunt room by room through the mines until she found a lab with suitable computer facilities. Alicia, while a Force, was neither a trained hunter nor a soldier and as such was not used to combat. The struggle to get this far must have been brutal.
As for the mental strain, I could only guess.
"Your friends are worried about you, and from what I can see, they've got good reason."
Her hands clenched and unclenched spastically.
"You're saying that they, Fersen and Alex and Delilah and all the rest, actually got together and hired a hunter to find me? They hardly have two meseta to jingle in their pocket."
"The way Fersen tells it, they nagged your ex-employers into posting the reward. If I bring you back successfully, I get the nice ripe sum of five thousand meseta."
A shiver ran through her, and she grabbed up her cane, a Force's weapon with a clubbing head. No doubt the Photon charge in its head was responsible for the throbbing pain in my head.
"My...ex-employers? They sent you?"
"No, Fersen sent me. They, as you call them, just put up the money. There's a difference. As a hunter, I work for my client, not the person paying the freight."
"That doesn't matter," she spat angrily. "Fersen is a boy. He may be worried, but he'll turn me over to the senior officials and the soldiers when they come to interrogate me."
They would come, too; I knew that much to be so if even half the suppositions I'd come up with were correct.
Of course, that was a big "if."
"So what is it?" I groaned. "What's the big secret that makes you so valuable?"
"You think I'll tell you?" she exclaimed with a hysterical laugh that felt like a spike being driven into my aching head. I sighed heavily.
"Look, Alicia," I told her, using her own name. "There are two possible options here. Either I'm lying to you or I'm telling the truth. If it's a lie and I really have been sent by the bad guys, whomever they are, then I already know what you're up to, or at least my bosses do or I'd never have been sent here in the first place. So it wouldn't matter if you told me or not. On the other hand, if I'm telling you the truth then I'm here to help you, and I can't do that if I don't know what kind of game we're playing. I swear, trying to keep score in this mess is giving me more of a headache then your cane!"
It was a slight exaggeration, but only a slight one. She didn't respond at once this time, so I tried a little more truth.
"My sister Vel was on Pioneer 1, Alicia. I want to know what happened to her and you may have the answers. That's why I took this job in the first place. I couldn't pass up the chance to learn the truth."
She looked at me with wide, lost eyes.
"The truth?" she said incredulously. "You want to know the truth?"
Something inside Alicia seemed to snap, and she collapsed, crumpling to a seated position with her back to the wall, and began to weep into her hands. The sobs wracked her body for several long minutes, and I inexplicably wanted to go across to her and hold her reassuringly like I would a frightened child. Of course, trussed up as I was like a fowl ready for roasting that wasn't an option for me.
After at least ten minutes, the crying began to die away, replaced by the deep, heavy breathing of one who was exhausted, worn down beyond bearing. I looked at her and listened, and then I realized something important.
"This has been going on for some time, hasn't it?" I asked. "Not just the few days you've been down here, but long before that. Probably from the day you quit working for the military lab, whichever one it might happen to be."
She raised her head slowly from her hands.
"Do you know why I left that laboratory?" she asked.
"No, I don't."
"It was because I didn't think it was right to kill animals to collect data from them. It was pure sentiment. Isn't that crazy?"
"Well, I'll admit that I'm not all that squeamish about kllling the animals of Ragol, but that's because about everything on this planet seems to want to kill me on sight. As for the general principle, though, you might have a point."
"I hated it," she said. The whole attitude of the lab was, 'how can we use Ragol?' and 'how can we change Ragol to better suit us?' It was all one-sided; there was no respect for the environment here at all. That's why I quit; it had nothing to do with secrets or mysteries or Pioneer 1."
Another deep sign, almost a moan, escaped her lips.
"So how did you get tangled up in this?"
"Curiosity," she said bitterly. "Pure scientific curiosity. I've studied large mammals all my life, and was looking forward to research on Ragol's indigenous species. The data brought back by the hunter on that last mission, though..." She shook her head. "It was strange, so strange that I couldn't believe it. So, after a couple of days away from the lab, I couldn't resist trying to verify that data with my own eyes."
"What did you find out?"
Alicia smiled sadly.
"The results were absolutely correct."
"Well, that's informative," I said sarcastically. It probably wasn't my best course of action, but no one has ever accused me of having a temperate personality. I just hoped my lack of diplomatic skill didn't get an ice blast shoved somewhere unpleasant.
It didn't, though. Instead, it won me an apologetic smile, which was not precisely what I'd expected from the woman. Apparently the fit of crying had helped her to release some of her emotional tension and relax.
"I'm sorry. I'd made up my mind to talk to you, but it's still hard. The truth is, it's very hard to explain to a layman what had taken place as it is a genetic issue."
"Genetic?" I asked. There are some words which grab at the imagination, catching people's attention, and that's one of them. At least for me. "You're saying that the animals on Ragol went crazy and started attacking people because of their genes?"
"It's not that simple." Her voice was much calmer now, even pedantic, and I started to get a glimpse of the skilled researcher she had been before the trouble had taken over. "Something has been done to them...well, except for the Rappies."
"Yes, but the question is, what?"
"Well, the biology of the animals on Ragol, while obviously different in certain ways, is essentially similar to that of our homeworld. Because of that, there are distinct parallels in our basic makeup. One of those is that their genes follow certain patterns. Their DNA is constructed of basic building blocks. However, these animals show a completely foreign material inserted into their genetic makeup."
"You mean, someone did some kind of genetic experimentation on them?"
"Yes, but it's more than that. Gene therapy alters the DNA in certain targeted cells, but in other cells, the previous genetic structure remains the same. Like, if someone has a disease of the pancreas, doctors can correct the defect in pancreatic cells, but they won't change every skin cell, every bone, and so on to match. These animals have had every cell in their bodies, so far as we can tell, altered to include the foreign matter."
"So how do you know it's foreign, then? Maybe it's supposed to be there--part of Ragol's ecosystem?" I suggested. "It's not like you have a lot of samples."
She shook her head.
"No, and there's two reasons. One is that this foreign matter appears exclusively in the part of the genetic code affecting the brain, even though the DNA makeup of each species is different. Each 'monster' type, if my understanding is correct, would have extraordinary sensitivity to emotions and empathic impressions."
She looked at me as if to make sure I'd understood what she had said. I did, perhaps a third of it.
"So every single cell in each animal carries the genetic information for the changes in the brain, even though most of those cells have nothing to do with it and aren't altered in function by the foreign genetic matter?"
"That's exactly right. What's more, during the quest when I went to the surface personally, the hunter and I encountered a young Hildebear. The baby was injured and had been neglected by its parents at a stage in its life when it could not fend for itself. This would not be unusual for insects, fish, reptiles, or amphibians, but is completely out of character for large mammals. It also wasn't aggressive."
She paused, and I could tell what was coming next, but I let her have her dramatic moment.
"I scanned the young Hildebear. While the scan was preliminary, as we did not kill the animal, I found no signs of genetic alteration."
"So something changed these animals, making them violent and aggressive in ways which they were not before, and which they wouldn't be naturally?"
Alicia nodded, then smiled at me.
"And that's what you came down here to study," I concluded, "because you needed a computer no one on Pioneer 2 could hack into or spy on."
The look of fear flickered back into her eyes.
"How did you know that?"
"It's why I'm here in the first place. I looked at your computer--it was too clean. I am halfway good at my job, you know, and I was hired to find you."
"By Fersen, you said, who doesn't know anything about secret data or genetic research!"
The tremor was starting to come back into her voice, and that worried me.
"No, he doesn't, but he's not my only source of information. I wasn't dumb enough to think that's all there is to this job, and I checked around. I already told you as much. I just didn't know the why of it until you explained things."
She shook her head.
"No, you still don't know the why of it."
"I haven't told you what I learned here"--she waved a hand at the computer--"by analyzing the data."
"What did you find?"
"At first I thought it might be some kind of plague, an unusual disease organism attacking its prey on the subcellular level, and there do seem to be some distinct similarities in the way this foreign material proceeds from cell to cell until the entire organism is altered. That wasn't the root cause, the reason the foreign matter was present in the animal originally."
I knew it was silly, maybe even juvenile, but my emotions were strung to a fever pitch. Under her emotional strain, Alicia Baz was doing as good a job as any professional storyteller in building suspense in her captive audience.
Melodrama, I thought, but the cynicism couldn't quite touch me--not really. I truly was interested, even excited, about learning what Alicia had discovered.
"Did you find that root cause?"
She licked her lips.
"Upon further analysis of the data taken from the native animals, I found faint but distinct traces of standard genetic engineering methodology. There's no question but that these animals were altered by the scientists of Pioneer 1."