Tell Me A Secret
I believed that "Bernie" was our mystery rescuer's real name like I believed Ragol was a prime vacation spot, but it wasn't good form to quibble. At least he was showing us his face, unlike his friend on the PDL. Said face was square-jawed and rugged, his blond hair close-cropped so that the headband around his brow was a fashion statement rather than to keep it out of his eyes. He didn't say much of anything else until we were in the back seat of his aerocar, flying away from the shopping arcade.
"So, this is the famous Alicia Baz," he finally said, engaging the autodrive and turning to face us. "You don't look much like your picture; that's a good idea."
"It was Sejanus's, actually."
"For all the good it did us," I said ruefully. "How did they get a line on us?"
"Probably by tapping your PDL call with Hopkins setting up the meeting," Bernie answered. I didn't bother asking how he and his friend had known about it because he'd more than likely just told me. "There's a tip for you; stick to BEE communications. Simple-mail is a lot more difficult to track."
"I'll remember that."
"So who were they?" Alicia exclaimed. "They wanted me so badly they started a fight in a public place. A bystander was killed!"
"Black Paper," Bernie replied.
"The criminal syndicate?" I asked.
"The same. The boy with the partisan, Tonzlar, is a hunter who works for them, and so is his pal from the other end of the arcade."
"Tonzlar used his name while talking to his thugs. Were they more of Black Paper?"
"They could be. Likely, though, they were Downtown street fighters, hired for cash, instead of actual syndicate members."
I nodded. The point wasn't important anyway.
"And how about you?" I asked. "Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but where do you fit into all this? Are you military? A Council spy?"
Bernie shook his head.
"Nah, nothing so fancy. I'm just working with a guy to crack this case. Black Paper, Ragol--too much bad news and not enough being done about it, or so my friend says. The syndicate's wired into the military, the Council, the very people behind the Pioneer Project in the first place."
Alicia and I looked at him, flabbergasted. I'd known something about Black Paper and their connections, but the idea that they'd been tied into the colonization project right from the start, that made my head spin.
It also explained a lot.
"If they control that much," she said, "then what can we do? What can anyone do?"
Bernie shook his head.
"They don't control, not yet, though they certainly want to. They have to work from the shadows, using people's greed and fear to manipulate them into giving Black Paper what they want. We can't be sure, but we think they had much greater influence over Pioneer 1. They're definitely just as interested as we are in learning what happened, but as you've seen, they're equally interested in preventing anyone else from finding out the truth. This whole Missing Scientist quest was just a front hiding Black Paper's desire to find Alicia, learn what she'd discovered, and make her disappearance permanent."
My gaze narrowed.
"I don't like the sound of this, Bernie. Something tells me it ends up with me being a patsy."
All but simultaneously, Alicia said, "You can't seriously expect me to think that Fersen is part of this Black Paper?"
"No, Fersen isn't, as far as we can tell. Like I said, it was a front. Your friends were worried, so Black Paper used them as an excuse to fund a Guild quest. Then, their hunters would take the quest and find you on behalf of their real masters. It gives them a perfect excuse to have their people looking for you without raising suspicion."
"Only, thanks to your friend waking me up in the middle of the night, I took the quest before one of Black Paper's people could." I thought about it for a second, then added, "I presume I had the chance because they didn't want to all sign up at once, giving the impression that they had some common bond?"
"That's exactly right. Looks like you have the knack for this kind of intrigue."
"Your friend said he didn't know who was after Alicia."
Bernie shook his head sharply.
"No," he said flatly, "he said he didn't know why. We still don't know what Alicia's data is. We haven't told you all we know, but you haven't been lied to, Sejanus."
I scowled darkly.
"Merely used and thrown to the wolves."
"You had your own reasons for going along," Bernie replied, "and I put myself at personal risk to rescue the two of you, which hardly qualifies as 'throwing you to the wolves.' Besides which, you have ties to the military. You didn't really expect that we would tell you everything we know while there was still a question as to your loyalties?"
"If there was a question about my loyalties, why use me at all?" I was nettled, more so by the fact that most of what he said seemed justified. There was nothing like feeling resentful and finding out that there wasn't really a good reason for it to get the temper going. Funny thing, human feelings.
"I said there was a question, not a certainty. We believed you were trustworthy, but we are also careful. That's all there is to it. We picked you because your sister gives you a reason to want to learn the truth and because your military work implies competence in this sort of business--a belief which was borne out by your success."
My subconscious mind used the compliment to tell my temper to shut up for a while.
"Okay, so all the players are on the field. Can you clue me in as to the reason for the sudden urgency?"
"What do you know about Dr. Osto Hyle?"
"Lead biotechnology researcher on Pioneer 1," I replied. "His data was recovered by a hunter for the Council lab."
"Black Paper was all over that mission. They tried to stop the hunter, and when that didn't work had one of their people join up and recover a copy of the data. Something in that data made it vital to retrieve Alicia's information."
Bernie gave me a sheepish grin.
"You've got me. This biotech stuff goes right over my head. All we know is what Black Paper is up to. We don't even have access to Dr. Osto's data."
The aerocar made a sudden turn, and I realized that Bernie had programmed it to continue flying so we could talk with relative privacy.
"But Black Paper does, and they think that my work could shed some light on it?" Alicia asked.
"Or the other way around. Either way, I can't be sure."
"Judging by the effort they're willing to spend and the blood they're willing to spill, they're convinced that what you have is vitally important."
I had to agree with Black Paper. Alicia had turned up evidence of the Pioneer Project's involvement in genetic manipulation. That tied in directly with the discovery of Dr. Osto's research. Together, the two sets of information might reveal everything, all the answers.
Might being the key word there.
Somehow, I had a feeling that solving this riddle would take more than just glancing at the data. It would take work, hard work, by expert scientists.
"All right, I'll ask the question," I said. "What are we supposed to do now that won't get Alicia killed?"
She flinched at my bluntness.
"You can't hide forever," I said, speaking directly to her. "Black Paper will obviously spend a great deal of effort to get hold of you. As long as that data is out there, you're at risk. We also now know that someone at the military lab is one of Black Paper. If these people have the kind of influence it seems they do, we have little chance of bringing them to justice before they reach you."
Alicia smiled nervously.
"That's a grim picture you paint, Sejanus."
"I know, but it's no use hiding from the truth."
"They key is the data," Bernie contributed. "They don't care about you personally, only about what you know. The wider the circle gets, the less important any one person becomes."
"So we need to put the data into the right hands, as it were."
"If we can identify the right hands."
"Dr. Mome," I said. "Mome, from the Council laboratory."
"Why him?" Bernie asked.
"Because he headed up the quest for Dr. Osto's research. According to you, Black Paper went to a lot of trouble to secure that data during the mission. That tells me that not only is Mome not one of them, but that they don't have a reliable pipeline into his research team. Else, why go to all the trouble and tip their hand?"
Alicia and Bernie chewed that over mentally, then decided I was right.
"So, you're proposing that we deliver Alicia's findings to Dr. Mome?"
"Right. He'll have both it and Dr. Osto's research and, with any kind of luck, will be able to make sense of the combination. That leaves the second part of the problem, though--convincing Black Paper not to interfere. The only way to do that is if they get what Alicia has. Then, they won't try to kill her if enough other people have her data, too."
"Well, I'd appreciate staying alive," Alicia said, showing a good deal of spirit, "but I'm not going to buy my life by giving Black Paper the information they want."
"Nobody but you knows what it is you've learned, correct?"
"Except for what I've told you in general terms."
I nodded, the grin broadening into a smile."
"Then no one would know if you happened to change something along the way, would they? A little judicious editing, and Black Paper will end up with information that leads nowhere. They can hardly blame you if it turns out that you knew less than they thought."
"You're rather impressed with your idea, aren't you?" she teased.
"You should be. It's a good one."
"With one exception," Bernie said. "How are we going to get the information to Black Paper and to enough other people that they don't kill Alicia just to keep it from spreading, flawed or not?"
I leaned back in my seat.
"I have an idea about that, but I'm not sure Alicia will like it." I turned to the scientist and said, "It will mean going back to your old job."
"You mean, returning to the lab with Fersen? But that won't work; the one who gave Fersen the go-ahead to offer the quest must be one of Black Paper, or else things would never have happened the way they did. He or she can just take the data and have me..."
I shook my head.
"Not if you give the altered data to Fersen and tell him to upload it to the lab mainframe and flag whatever superiors you think you can trust. Then, of course, you need to tell the one running the quest about what you've done, probably with a smile on your face and a line about how happy you are to come back to the lab and help out the mission."
"The prodigal scientist returns, as it were?"
"Exactly. The Black Paper spy can get a copy from the mainframe, and so many people will know by then that there'd be no percentage in having you killed."
Alicia smiled sourly.
"I suppose I'd have to stay at the lab because they could then keep tabs on me."
"Instead of suspecting that you were going off to do more independent research," I agreed.
"Give up my freedom in exchange for safety," Alicia mused with a sigh. "But you're right, Sejanus. I'm a scientist, not a hunter, soldier, or spy. Fighting criminals, running for my life, these aren't what I know how to do, or what I'm good at. Yes," she concluded, "I think I'll have to go along with that idea."
"In that case," Bernie said, "then we need to get you to a computer so you can adjust the data and have Sejanus take you to Fersen before they send the Black Hound after us!"
* * * * *
I was surprised at how quickly it went. Bernie's mysterious ally--if the voice on the PDL hadn't just been Bernie himself using voice alteration gear--had been able to guide us to someone else with a good computer system that Alicia could use. We'd entrusted Bernie, more out of necessity than conscious choice, with the complete and unaltered data to be delivered to Mome. Alicia and I had then gone to the Hunter's Guild, where Fersen was happy to see her safe and overjoyed to hear she was going back to work at the lab. She dropped me a line two days later to let me know she was all right, so it seemed my idea had done the trick at least as far as keeping her alive. I picked it up while I was contemplating my life in a glass of wine at the Hatless Dezorian.
As for me, I had collected a nice fee from the lab for finding the missing scientist, and I even got the proverbial gold star on my record for it--my occasional military employers were happy to see me retrieve an army researcher and, like Fersen, even more so to see her back at work for them instead of being a loose cannon out on her own.
The military's involvement had extended to whitewashing the bloodbath at the shopping arcade, which was blamed on a pack of criminals--the android and Tonzlar's thugs, though not Tonzlar himself. It turned out the android had been the second of the three Black Paper hunters sent after Alicia, so the soldiers even got the chance to have InfoNet slip in a few digs about the lack of professional standards prevailing at the Guild and how better screening might weed out the criminal element.
Black Paper hadn't come knocking on my door yet, and I never did get around to asking Bernie what a Black Hound was. I figured I'd probably recognize it if I ever saw it. Nonetheless, I was sure that the criminal organization had me marked down on their "do not invite to birthday parties" list, which wasn't a particularly comfortable feeling.
So, by not rolling over and getting some badly needed sleep, I'd wound up with a few meseta in my pocket, a couple of new friends, and confirmed a powerful criminal group in the "enemies" column of my resume. And what about the answers I'd been promised?
Well, it was the way the man once said: there are no answers, only more interesting questions. There was a philosophy that applied perfectly to Ragol.
I lifted my glass in a silent toast to anyone who ever kicked a philosopher down a flight of stairs.