Tell Me A Secret
I suppose some part of me must have expected it all along. The intense government interest in what had happened, the very construction of these mines, all implied a connection between Pioneer 1 and the conditions on Ragol. Yet, Alicia's declaration still took me aback for the most part.
"You mean, they deliberately turned dozens of animals aggressive? Why?"
Alicia shook her head.
"No, not necessarily. I'm not sure they knew what it would do. There isn't any direct indication that the emotional stimuli triggered would be violent."
"They'd have had to know, wouldn't they, after so many animals were treated," I countered. "I mean, after the first few dozen started killing everyone in sight even the most obtuse scientist would have to conclude that something was wrong."
"That's true so far as it goes, but we can't be sure that every animal was deliberately infected. There may be some other vector which distributes our own original alterations. Or perhaps the results as we see them now were not apparent at first, but only developed over time."
"So we can't be sure of anything, other than that what happened to Pioneer 1 was partly their own fault."
"I can be sure that someone knows why! After I came back from my trip to Ragol I was spied on! I found surveillance devices in my quarters!"
"Your old bosses?"
"Yes...no...I don't know! That's why I couldn't work on the data there. I knew my computer use would be monitored."
"So you snuck down to Ragol. Fersen's information said that was five days ago. Three days ago he and your other friends started bothering his superiors, your former bosses, about finding you. This morning, they finally acted, hiring hunters to find you. At least one of these hunters, who is dead now, shot by your building's security androids, had an ulterior motive for finding you."
Alicia gave me a strange look, but whether it was due to intelligence or growing paranoia she picked up on the thread of what I was saying.
"Do you see a pattern?"
"Yes, I do. Three days ago, your superiors were not sufficiently worried about you to send out hunters. Now, they are. Something happened during that time. I don't know what it was, but at least three separate people or groups do know and are aware that what you're doing ties in somehow."
"Three groups? What do you mean?"
I shook my head. It was time to make a play.
"No. I've told you everything I know and most of my conclusions. If you want the rest of it, you're going to have to trust me."
My eyes fixed on hers, hopefully communicating honesty and trustworthiness, but who knew what Alicia was getting? She was a scientist, caught up in something she wasn't prepared for, and under terrific mental strain because of it.
"Please, Alicia. Right now I'm the only one looking for you that doesn't want something from you. You trusted me enough to tell me your story. Can't you take the next step?"
She looked at me silently for the longest time, with a blank gaze that could have meant anything. Then, she rose to her feet.
"All right," she said. "I don't seem to have much of a choice. I guess I have to trust you."
I'd have appreciated a bit more confidence, but at that point I'd take what I could get. Alicia untied me and I stood up, stretching and rubbing my cramped limbs.
"You said...three groups?" she prompted me at once. I didn't blame her for not wanting to wait. It was her life and freedom at stake, after all.
"Yes, three. Group one is your bosses--sorry, ex-bosses--whom all of a sudden want you back."
"That's clear enough. Whom else?"
"Group two is the hunter Jophar and whomever was backing him. Jophar was the hunter who was shot."
Alicia looked puzzled.
"Why do you think he doesn't work for the lab?"
"If he did, there'd be no need for a shootout. If all he wanted was to put you in the hands of the lab, he'd want you taken to Fersen, who would innocently hand you over. It wouldn't matter to him if he did it or I did, so why try to kill me? Why shoot first if he didn't have a separate agenda which is different from the one he expected me to have? The only answer that makes sense is that he had another client who either wants you dead or whom he was supposed to deliver you or your data to."
She nodded slowly, digesting and accepting the information. I was glad she did; it made me more confident that I wasn't seeing conspiracies and treachery where there were none.
"The third person or group, then, is your mysterious informant."
"Right. He can't be from the lab or else he'd have used military authority to hire me; the army has me on retainer because they believe the Council's hunters will botch the job of solving the Ragol situation. He also can't be Jophar's client because if he was he'd have told Jophar and I not to waste his time competing with each other. That makes three."
"But why so many?"
"Because you have a piece of the truth. Maybe it means more than you think. What you know and what they know might fit together to form an answer. If so, then the motive might be to reveal the truth, to use it for their own profit and advancement, or to conceal it." I shrugged. "There's really too many possibilities, and we don't even know what the answers are that they're after."
"So many questions. Whom can I trust?"
"Start with me," I offered, extending a hand. "My name's Sejanus."
She took my hand and clasped it warmly.
"I think I shall, Sejanus."
* * * * *
My alliance with Alicia Baz began with a problem. She couldn't stay indefinitely in No Man's Mines, and if she returned to Pioneer 2 she would be putting herself in the hands of her enemies. The only thing I could think of that made any sense at all was to find someone who could protect her and turn her over to them.
The question was, who? I certainly had no idea whom I could trust, in a game of hidden motives and dark secrets. Jophar's bosses were to be avoided, but I didn't know who they were or if the other hunters were working for them. Alicia didn't trust her ex-employers, and while they weren't sending killers after her that might be because once she was brought back to them they could execute her safely under controlled conditions. As for the man who'd sent me on this quest, I didn't know anything against him but I didn't know anything for him either. Maybe what he had in mind for the missing scientist was much worse than a quick death.
There was one person that I'd spoken to thus far whose motives I thought I could trust. I called up my BEE simple-mail access, since data-link connections couldn't be made between Ragol and Pioneer 2, and sent Hopkins a message: "Hopkins, did anything happen within the last three days concerning Ragol and biological and/or genetic data? Sejanus." Maybe he could turn up something that would clear these muddied waters. Until then, though...
"We've got to get you back to Pioneer 2."
"What are you talking about?" Alicia squealed. "You can't hand me back over to the lab."
"I know," I agreed, forgiving her sudden fright. I'd have been in a considerably less forgiving mood had she not used a healing technique to cure my throbbing skull once we'd made our peace, but as it was I was willing to cut her some slack due to the ungodly stress she'd been under. "That's not what I meant."
She looked at me expectantly, awaiting a further explanation which she apparently figured would come without her even having to ask for it.
I suppose I did have a habit of pontificating, at that. Maybe I should have been an Academy lecturer instead of a hunter.
"Down here you're a target. There's at least two more hunters looking for you, and here on Ragol you could be murdered or kidnapped with impunity. That's leaving out the robots. No one else has reported an end to those things. They'll keep coming back, and sooner or later..."
I shrugged expressively. She got the point.
"On Pioneer 2 you'll at least have the protection of law and order. It might not be much, but the ones after you would have to come at you indirectly, with planning and stealth, rather than a direct frontal assault."
"I'd almost prefer that," Alicia sighed. "I'm so tired of these games."
"I'm not really fond of them myself, but as long as we're playing them, we're still free and alive. I'm not ready to trade that in just yet." Alicia grinned, which had been the point.
"You're right. Let's go back."
I used a telepipe to open a temporary transport portal back to the ship and after the usual moment of transition we were there, on the Hunter's Guild deck.
"I'd begun to wonder if I'd ever make it back here," Alicia murmured.
I glanced over her appearance.
"I must look it, too," she added, a bit sheepishly.
"That's not what I was thinking," I told her. She had a point but it wasn't one I concerned myself with. "Since two hunters are looking for you, it might be better if you changed your look."
"And different styles than you would usually wear. Change your hairstyle and color too. It wouldn't fool a computer image analysis, but a casual glance could be taken in."
She nodded at once, understanding.
"That could buy us a few seconds in which to act, at least," she said.
We took a public transport to one of the city's shopping arcades rather than using my aerocar. My client's superiors certainly would know I was on the job and the other hunters might, and surveillance devices were not unheard of. Alicia first got a complete salon treatment--hot bath, sonic massage, facial, skin treatment, manicure, pedicure, and hair styling--then purchased an outfit as different as possible from her fancy Force robes, a bare-midriff blue halter top and tight blue pants that tucked into flat-heeled boots with broad cuffs. Bracelets jangled around both wrists and her newly magenta hair fanned out to the side in two tufts. Her entire transformation took about an hour and a half, by which time I had heard back from Hopkins and set up a meeting with the Force. I did not mention that I'd found Alicia in my simple-mail message, nor did I intent to have her meet Hopkins. The fewer people who knew she was on Pioneer 2 and with me, the better.
"Well?" she asked with a grin. "How do I look?" She pirouetted in place, and I grinned back.
"Lots better," I told her. "Blue suits you."
"I just hope whomever is looking for me doesn't get the bright idea that any woman with you is likely to be me. After all, you tend to stick out in a crowd."
"Much as I don't like to admit it, you've got a point there."
"Of course I do."
I had to admit, at that point I started to stare at her in surprise. Her attitude seemed completely different that it had been. There wasn't a hint of the lurking fear and borderline paranoid hysteria from when she'd been in the mines.
"Okay, Sejanus, what's wrong? You always look a bit snarly, but now it seems like you've been hit with a paralysis bolt."
"Well, let's just say it seems like you had a complete personality change as well as your hair and clothes. Or did you just have one too many complimentary glasses of champagne in the salon?"
The smile vanished from her face at once, and my first thought was, Sejanus, you ass, why did you go and say that? Thankfully, she soon disabused me of the notion that I'd shot my mouth off once too often.
"Actually," she said in a thoughtful tone, "I think it's mostly relief."
"Do you have any idea what it's been like for me, lately? I quit my job because I can't deal with their motives, then discover mysterious information, then learn I'm under surveillance, then fight through those robots in the mine somehow despite my weakness as a Force, and then I find out that Pioneer 1 was involved in underhanded dealings. It's been a steady spiral into more and more fear and horror. When you came through that computer room door, I thought I was a dead woman, that I'd finally reached the end of that whirlpool."
Alicia laid her hand lightly on my arm.
"Instead of which, I find that I have an ally in finding the truth, perhaps even more than one, and now I'm taking steps to try and do something. You've given me...hope."
"Not much," I said warningly. "We know far too little and your circumstances are still dangerous. I'd completely missed the point about the ones after you looking for me."
Alicia smiled at me again.
"Even so, Sejanus, I'm now doing something. There's a chance of success." She shrugged. "When all your hope is gone, when you've resigned yourself to the inevitability of failure and death, and then to be brought back from that place...It doesn't matter how slim the chance; there's a world of difference between a million to one odds and absolute zero."
"I think I see your point..." It made sense. Alicia sounded giddy for the simple reason that she was. "What's more, that million-to-one might be down to a few hundred thousand."
"Remember that BEE message I sent? I heard back, and the guy I mailed knows something that might help us. We're--or rather, I'm--meeting him in half an hour."
"Why only you?"
"Because the fewer people who know you're with me, the better. This guy's not a bad person, but he's got loose lips sometimes. That's why he's talking to me, after all."
Alicia nodded, then said, "Let's just hope he's got something to say."