Silence Of The Heart
Author's Note: I have my wife Lynne to thank for this story. The character of "Sejanus," his military-sponsored investigation of Ragol paralleling that of the game's player characters, and the "Hatless Dezorian" bar, are her creations for her PSO fanfic project, Face of a Stranger. She graciously allowed me to use him for this stand-alone story after I came up with a plot idea based on the background she'd created. In return, of course, she gets to see the character "fleshed out" and can import my ideas back into her own story, so it's a win-win situation all around. Thank you very much, sweetie! ^_^
"Thank God! You've got to protect me!" Racton said desperately. "I'm a nervous wreck!"
I could see that. When he'd taken his whiskey and soda from the android bartender, his hand had been shaking badly enough to spill about a third of it onto the table.
"Is that why you wanted to meet me here?" I asked. I didn't often come to the Hatless Dezorian. The smooth black bar and tables and the heavy crystal glasses were all right, but the retro music pumping through the speakers wasn't to my taste, nor was the atmosphere of drunken conviviality. I wasn't inclined towards parties in any case, and ever since the Pioneer 2 had arrived at the planet Ragol I hadn't exactly been in a joyful mood.
"Of course! I don't dare go to the Hunter's Guild; it's far too obvious--the first place he'd look." He squinted at me. "Are you sure you're a hunter from the Guild?"
"You haven't told me who 'he' is," I pointed out. "I don't have any idea what would or would not be obvious for him to do."
Racton, I decided, reminded me most of a pig. It wasn't just his soft, plump build or the small, beady eyes in his fleshy face. His scalp, bare except for a dark Mohawk, gleamed with perspiration, and his small mouth looked like a snout. He was a trader with a bad reputation. I'd even heard rumors that just as soon as the transporter to the planet Ragol had opened, he'd gone down to stake out a land claim. A hunter had had to rescue him from the monsters on the planet's surface and drag his greedy backside back to the Pioneer 2. Talking to him now, I could believe that story.
So why was I working for this man? Money, pure and simple. He'd put a value on his life of two thousand meseta, and for me, that was enough for me to try and save him.
Bad judgment on my part, a lot of people would say.
"Now, why don't you start from the beginning and tell the whole story? Who wants to harm you and why?"
Racton emptied his tumbler down his gullet and beckoned for a second drink.
"His name is Oliver Martz," he said. "He runs a weapons store in the shopping district near the Hunter's Guild."
I nodded; I knew the man, had even shopped there on occasion.
"And his reasons?"
"I don't know!" Racton exclaimed. He took the lead crystal glass from the android and downed half of his second drink before the server had so much as turned to go back to the bar.
My eyes narrowed.
"You don't know," I replied dryly. "There's no deal that went sour? No merchandise that had to be returned? No contract snitched out from under his nose?"
"Are you saying I would engage in shady business practices?" He was trying for a tone of offended dignity but failed miserably. He knew all too well what I was driving at.
"Let's not play games, Racton."
"Okay, okay, but I swear, Sejanus, there was nothing like that."
I kept my stare on him. Sooner or later, I figured, he'd get to the point.
"Look, here's how it went. I had a load of weapons to wholesale, so I figured, who buys weapons? Answer, you hunters. The army's all got government-issue equipment, but hunters are always on the lookout for better gear. Martz sells mostly to hunters, so I went to him, showed him what I had. At first, it's business; he examines some of the pieces, we discuss price. Then he's looking over a rifle, and suddenly, boom! He goes nuts!"
Racton tossed back the rest of the drink, as if needing to find the courage to go on.
"He grabbed me by the shirt," he said, tugging on his collar to illustrate the point, "and screamed in my face, 'Where did you get this?' I tried to talk sense to him, but he wouldn't have any of it--just kept screaming, shoved me around, even swung the rifle at me! I got out of there fast before he decided to start shooting!"
I nodded. It certainly seemed out of character for Oliver, who'd always seemed fairly levelheaded.
"Is that it? The one incident?"
"No, no," Racton said, shaking his head. "That was yesterday afternoon. In the evening, when I was going back to my home, I had just gotten out of my aerocab when I saw him in an alley across the street! I jumped back in the cab and got away fast. I spent the night with my son, but when I went to work this morning, Martz was waiting for me again! He actually chased me half a block down the street!"
"With a weapon?"
Racton shook his head.
"No, no; if he'd done that the police would have grabbed him then and there."
Which brought up an interesting point.
"Raton, why didn't you go to the police? Martz is obviously looking for you. That at least gives the authorities probable cause to haul him in and ask questions. Why call on a hunter to handle the situation privately?"
I figured that I already knew the answer, but I wanted to hear what he had to say.
"Well..." He glanced around, as if looking for his next drink. "It's this way..."
That was enough.
I favored Racton with a thin, supercilious smile, the kind of look that projected arrogant confidence. It was the expression of a man who believed himself to be in complete and total control of the situation. I'd worked on that smile; it fit well with my clean-shaven, handsome face, my shoulder-length white hair, and the lean, muscular body revealed by my close-fitting red jumpsuit. I'd been told that the overall effect was like a panther deciding whether or not to play with its prey before striking. That description was a bit florid for my taste, but the look did have a decided effect on a certain type of person.
Racton was definitely one of this type.
"You didn't go to the military police," I stated, "because you knew they would ask you the same question I'm about to ask. The difference is, they're the legal authorities, while I work for you."
I paused for a moment to let that sink in, then continued.
"That question is the same as Oliver's: where did you get the weapons?"
"What does that have to do with anything, Sejanus?" the trader blustered. "I'm hiring you to protect me!"
"Exactly. A key facet of guarding your life is to know your enemy's mind so that I can predict his next move. Knowing why he's after you is a key part of that. Obviously it has to do with the weapons." I added a hint of steel to my voice. "Now, where did the weapons come from? The black market, I presume?"
Racton gulped, but I had read him right. Under the pressure of my stare, he gave way.
"I got them from a trader named Takamura," he admitted. "It wasn't a black market deal, though! Look, I admit that the price was right, so I didn't ask questions, but I had no knowledge or information that there was anything wrong."
Eyes blinded by greed rarely saw clearly. I wanted to belt Racton in the mouth for his selfishness, but that wasn't the right solution--especially if I wanted his money. Besides which, all he'd done was to buy weapons from one dealer and try to sell them to another; I believed him to that extent. It was hardly a crime that could justify Oliver Martz's sudden obsession. I'd have to look behind the scenes for that explanation.
Maybe this job would turn out to be interesting after all.
I slid out of the booth.
"Sejanus! Where are you going?"
"You wanted me to keep you safe, didn't you?"
"The easiest way to do that is to remove the threat."
* * * * *
I left Racton in the Hatless Dezorian trying to puzzle out what I meant. He'd be safe enough there, even if Martz really did have murderous intent. The bar was a hangout for hunters, which made it a very bad place to start a firefight. I climbed into my aerocar and soared into the lanes of traffic that flowed in and around the buildings.
It was an amazing feat, I couldn't help but think, this huge city in the heart of a spaceship. It had been the home of thousands of refugees during their two-year journey from a dying homeworld to their new home on the planet Ragol. Only now, it looked as if Ragol wasn't going to be the paradise-like new settlement they had hoped for. The mysterious explosion that seemed to have destroyed all traces of the initial colonists from the Pioneer 1, the monsters that roamed on and beneath the surface--for now, this city was going to continue as the people's home for an indefinite future.
I shook my head. That was enough reminiscing. I had plenty to deal with at the moment, of which Racton's job was only part. From the car's computer I accessed the citizen databanks, feeding in my military access code. The unit beeped twice, then sent data scrolling across the screen.
In a way, Racton was lucky. Most hunters wouldn't have this kind of access to protected files. They'd have to make calls and ask questions to find out what had taken me less than two minutes to confirm.
I had the code because, less than a week ago, I'd been hired by the army for a long-term job. Principal Tyrell of the governing council had commissioned a team to investigate Ragol and discover the cause of Pioneer 1's disappearance, but the military wasn't satisfied with their performance. So, they'd put together a team of their own, which I'd been tapped to lead.
It didn't take a genius to figure out that the army wanted something more than they were saying. Probably, Pioneer 1 had included people working on classified military projects, and the top brass didn't want that data falling into the hands of people not in their employ. I couldn't be certain, but I did know that they were handing me my heart's desire and I wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth.
My heart's desire, I mused. Yeah, when you got down to it, Oliver Martz and I weren't all that different. If I'd seen what, at this point, I was fairly certain he'd seen, I'd have probably suffered much like he did. I only hoped that I would be able to cope in a better way.
Martz had already tried catching up to Racton at the trader's home and place of business. I needed to figure out where he would go next. Hopefully I could get to him away from Racton, before Martz had the chance to do something he couldn't take back.
The answer came to me in a flash, and when it did it was so blindingly obvious that I should have realized it five minutes ago, the instant I'd seen Martz's file. Racton had a son, a decent, honorable businessman best known for these qualities because his father possessed none of them. This was where Racton had, in fact, spent last night, with his son. When you were in trouble, you turned to family; they stood by you.
Unfortunately, that could also put them in the line of fire.
I didn't have to use my access code to get the address of Racton's son. I called it up from the public directory, then sent the aerocar spinning through a ninety-degree turn, taking the most direct route I could afford. I had a bad feeling about what I'd find.