Tell Me A Secret
I had to give Hopkins this: he didn't keep me waiting. Sensibly, we were meeting in a fairly public place; in fact, the very shopping arcade where Alicia and I were currently waiting. I'd picked the place for two reasons: it gave us the best chance to examine the terrain, make sure it was clear of enemies, and set Alicia up to cover me if need be, while secondly it gave Alicia the chance to get some food in her.
I was really starting to miss my autogun by now. The longer I stayed on Pioneer 2 unarmed was the longer I thought about a guy like Jophar coming at me with a weapon. A Force like Alicia or Hopkins could defend themselves with techniques, but I wasn't so lucky. My mastery of combat techniques was to theirs as a kid's peashooter was to my (missing) autogun.
So, if it came down to a fight, the odds were that instead of me protecting Alicia, she would be protecting me. The gods of fate were absolutely fond of irony.
Alicia tore into her noodles and the meat-flavored nutribars--ah, the pleasures of living on a spaceship where food had to be efficiently rationed--as if she were a starving woman, which wasn't too far off from the truth; she hadn't eaten since going down to Ragol. Her corner seat in the restaurant actually offered her a good vantage point for covering the meeting, so I left her there with one of my favorite surveillance gadgets, a short-range directional mike that clipped over the left ear like a portable music player. Trust cut both ways, and I wanted her to know what we were saying.
Back on the homeworld, arcades like this might have a fountain in the center of the walking path to spruce up the decor. Here, instead, was a hole, lined by guardrails of course, looking down at the levels of the city below and the columns of the buildings that ran through them.
The view was partially obstructed by a column of projected light bearing ever-scrolling advertising, but you couldn't have everything.
"Sejanus," Hopkins greeted me. "You're keeping me hopping around today."
"Price of the job."
"And you've gone all poker-faced on me. I know that look. You never get like that unless you stepped into something big and ugly. I was right, wasn't I? Alicia's got the answers, and everyone wants her for them."
The crowd of shoppers was thin now; we'd just missed the lunchtime rush and so there weren't as many people milling around us.
"Maybe," I told him. "I'm pretty certain that someone thinks so. You ever hear of a hunter named Jophar?"
Hopkins frowned, his expression making his plump face look dark and dour, like a portent of doom.
"He's an unpleasant character, little more than a jumped-up thug. Jophar usually takes strong-arm jobs, and I've even heard that he has ties to a suspicious trader's group."
"Well, he's dead now. He tried to kill me when I caught him sneaking around Alicia Baz's quarters, and was shot by the security androids in turn."
"Good riddance to bad rubbish," he replied succinctly.
"What I need to know is why he was after my life, so I can hopefully prevent it from happening again with some other triggerman."
"So that's why you asked about the last three days?"
An ad for Weapons Centre (Oliver Martz, proprietor) scrolled by on the column and I got that itchy feeling between my shoulder blades again.
"Right. Something's off on the timing here."
"Well, I'm not sure if what I have to offer explains it, but at least it's something. Did you ever hear of Dr. Osto Hyle?"
I shook my head.
"Dr. Osto was a brilliant scientist in the areas of genetics and electricity, a genius on the order of our own Dr. Montague."
I wondered why Hopkins used Hyle's title with his first name, then shrugged it off. Some people preferred it that way.
"He was the lead biotechnology researcher on board Pioneer 1, apparently with a lab in No Man's Mines. In the late evening two days ago, Dr. Mome and two of his associates from the Council lab commissioned a hunter to go down to Ragol and retrieve Dr. Osto's research data."
Biotechnology research, I thought. It was suggestive, at least. I was still digesting the information when my PDL beeped.
"This is getting a little old," I growled at the blank screen.
"You won't be if you don't do exactly as I say. You're in a trap. If you can make it to the north end of the arcade, I have a friend waiting there who can help you, but you have to move, or you'll be dead in eight seconds."
He disconnected and I said, "I hope you heard that, Alicia." Four more seconds passed before I saw her emerge from the restaurant. I took two steps towards her before an ad for Lightwave Screen Products scrolled up, an ad that was mostly blank space, and I found out what the time limit was about.
A blast of Photon energy seared through the hologram and smashed into the deck less than a foot away. Those two steps had saved my neck from a sniper in position on the far side of the display.
I didn't waste time. I broke and ran. More shots sang out, but they were wild. Then the screams began as the crowd realized that someone was opening fire. Alicia and I arrowed together as we dodged through the milling, panicked shoppers. It was lucky we weren't at peak hours, or we wouldn't have been able to move through the press of bodies.
Hopkins wasn't with us; he'd bolted the other way, no doubt not wanting to be caught as a part of whatever my trouble was. I didn't worry about him; he wasn't a great fighter, but he was a survivor.
Me, I was worried about. Those shots had come from a high-powered rifle, not a handgun, and that meant range, lots of it. The shooter was probably moving, reacquiring his or her target, even as we were moving to escape.
And then, of course, there was that little kick in the back of my head asking if the sniper worked for my faceless caller and the whole thing was just a ploy to get us, especially Alicia, to walk voluntarily into a trap.
The next piece of bad news came when a tall, lean, golden android shoved three people aside and came for us with a pair of glowing yellow Photon daggers in his hands. The curved blades required advanced training to use successfully, so I figured the android was programmed as a Hunter, one of those death-on-two-legs military models some bright scientist had built way too many of. I knew that, barring blind luck, the android could butcher me where I stood without breaking the robotic equivalent of a sweat.
In absolute desperation, I summoned up the Zonde technique and let fly. It wouldn't hurt him much, but the lightning techniques could sometimes temporarily short out mechanical targets, paralyzing them.
I should have guessed I couldn't get so lucky. The electrical burst didn't even slow him down, and he spun into a backhanded dagger strike which would inevitably end with the spike point of the Photon blade punching into my chest.
Only, he was interrupted by a wave of ice crystals washing over him, crystals spraying from Alicia's hands in response to her Gibarta technique. I was treated to a valuable demonstration of the effect of a Force's training in technique use, because not only was the attack far, far more damaging than anything I could do, it also froze the android in place in a rime-frosted shell.
"Nice work!" I told Alicia. She flashed me a grin and we kept on running, both knowing the effect would be temporary.
I had to wonder where the milipol was. A public disturbance like this should have brought the screaming sirens of a rapid-response aerocar all too quickly. Though, of course, there was still the question of whose side they'd be on.
More rifle shots rang out and we started to zigzag, throwing off the attacker's aim. It worked for us, but my gut clenched in anger when a screaming passerby blundered into a shot and went down like a puppet with her strings cut. More innocent blood shed, and for what? Some big, crap-sucking secret that she hadn't known, I didn't know, Alicia didn't know, and more likely than not even the worm-bait with the rifle didn't know?
Someone else screamed in pain behind us, and I assumed that the android was free of the ice and was making his way through the crowd in pursuit using whatever force was necessary. My palms itched for a firearm.
We were almost to the aerocar dock at the north end of the arcade, though, and my contact's promised help, but my spirits fell even as they'd started to rise. Blocking the dock entrance, a couple of security androids in parts at their feet, were five men. The one in the center was the leader, an overweight redhead carrying a partisan, while the others looked to be street thugs with a variety of crude non-Photon weapons, knives, steel bars, and the like.
"Looks like I win my bet with Tobokke," the redhead said. "They came right to us."
Then, predictably, they rushed us, two thugs apiece with the leader hanging back to "supervise." Since I didn't have a supervision job, I kicked the first guy who neared me squarely in the crotch. While he lay on the deck, moaning (soprano) about the kids he wasn't going to be able to father, I squared off against the second man.
This one looked to be a more experienced fighter than his ally; he moved more cautiously, not giving me any obvious openings, and kept the point of his ten-inch piece of sharpened steel low.
Off to my right I heard the singing of Alicia's techniques as ice crystals whirred through the air. Could she hold them off? I didn't know. Nor could I worry about it for too long, because the thug with the pigsticker had decided I was next in line to be stuck.
When facing a weapon-user unarmed, the key was to get inside his reach without getting sliced up. My opponent was bright enough not to let me dodge and step in, which would happen if he overextended himself, and he didn't offer the opportunity to dive under the spike for a flying tackle or a foot-sweep. He made a couple of feints, but waited for me to make the first move. Since time was against me, I took a risk by feinting a charge (the risk being that either I overdo it or I don't react fast enough and get gutted for my pains). He bit on the fake and struck out, trying to stab hard to my belly, but I wasn't there to be stabbed. Instead, I'd pivoted aside, grabbed his wrist, and disarmed him.
Alicia, meanwhile, had taken out one of her foes and was grappling with the second, who was using his greater size and strength to good advantage against her. The redhead was moving in, meanwhile, trying to get a clean shot at someone's back.
Just then, the android caught up to us.
What, if anything, I'd have been able to do about our rapidly sinking chances was destined to remain a mystery. I'd made one of the most common mistakes in a melee, paying too much attention to the fight around me and not enough to the guy I was actually locked up with. He reminded me of my error by ramming a fist, steel knuckles and all, into my kidney, leaving me doubled up in pain.
"Time to take you down!"
I'd assumed at first it was the voice of one of the thugs attacking Alicia, but the shock of three fireballs hammering into the android, the partisan-swinger, and the one wrestling with her told me it wasn't a crow of victory by the enemy.
The thug who'd punched me was just as shocked by the Gifoie technique as I was--moreso, since it was all of his allies that it had just knocked down. I decided to make a complete set, so I grabbed one of his legs and yanked it out from under him. His head hit the deck hard and he caught up on his much-needed beauty sleep.
The android, though, was proving aggravatingly stubborn. It rose to its feet, the lights in its "face" glaring balefully like fiery eyes. I glanced the other way, and I saw a blue-clad man raising a huge rifle of very unusual design. He leveled it at the android, and pulled the trigger. There was a soft whirring noise, and then a gout of fire spat out of the gun and slammed into the android's torso. Arms, legs, and a head with nothing to hold them together clunked metallically as they fell.
"Come on," the man told us. "The problem with rats is, you take one down and there are always another four or five to take their place."
"Well," I said weakly, "one pack was enough for me today."
"Good. My aerocar's waiting. By the way, nice work, Sejanus. We didn't know that you'd found her."
"Life's just full of these little surprises. Since you've got us at a disadvantage, would you mind telling us your name?"
"Oh, sure. You can call me Bernie."