Silence Of The Heart
There was sometimes a distressing sameness about the buildings that made up the city. Yes, they were different heights and the signs that festooned them in neon blaze or brilliant holoscreen color differed widely, but ultimately they all came from the same hand: black towers studded along their sides by ranks of windows that glowed with a bluish-white light in the eternal night of outer space.
119 Valsus was just such a building, an office complex divided into suites of multiple rooms for companies to rent. Suite 19 had been the home of Ryuon Enterprises, but for the last two weeks it had remained untenanted, as the company had not renewed their lease.
I was beginning to wonder, as I reviewed this information and the suite's 3-D floorplan, just what kind of priority the military was putting on this Ragol mission. My access code was apparently high enough to get me into all manner of government files that seemed to have no connection to the army. The job was really just a vehicle for me to go and search for Vel, but I couldn't help but wonder who I was really serving and what their agenda might be.
Arriving on time, I docked my aerocar and took the elevator to Suite 19's floor. Instead of entering, though, I paused and focused my mind inward. Concentrating, I built up my inner force, then with a sharp gesture, released it. Power surged through me as my Deband technique surrounded me with a barrier of force that sapped the energy of physical attacks. This meeting might not be a trap, but I wasn't going to bet my life on that hope. Although I left my gun in its holster, I activated the photon charge, and in my left hand I palmed a pressure injector of Monomate. I wished I could have slipped into the suite by another means, but the only way I could come up with was to smash through the windows or cut a hole in the wall, ceiling, or floor, none of which were viable options.
So, I tried the front door. It was unlocked.
"You came. Good."
The man was waiting in the reception room, almost in the center. Smoked-glass windows and doors led to offices on three sides, while the room itself was completely bare of furniture, so that he and I were the only things in the emptiness. The lights were dim, filling the place with shadows.
He was short and slender, with the pointed ears that marked him as one of the race of Newmen.
"I don't know you," I said. "How did you find out that I was interested in the missing hunters?"
"The word spreads quickly in certain quarters," he said obliquely. "I find myself in a position to assist you."
"So who are you?"
"I'm afraid I cannot reveal that at this time. Perhaps later it will be possible, perhaps not. What is important is what I can tell you about Black Paper." He turned towards the door directly opposite the suite's entrance and beckoned, "Come with me."
He stepped quickly towards the smoked-glass door. Shadows moved in it eerily, but I realized just in time that the low lights were actually reducing the reflective qualities of the glass. The Newman tried to pivot his body, step out of the way as he opened the door, but I pushed him hard from behind and he stumbled. Two gunshots tore into him as the assassin in the next room fired the instant the door opened, expecting me to be following the Newman directly into his gunsights. Instead I spun aside, snatching my autogun from its holster. At the sound of the shots, the two side doors flung open and two more killers charged into the room. One I recognized as the burly human street fighter from downtown, while the other was a green-haired woman unknown to me. The man still had on his leather-and-steel fighting gauntlets, while the woman carried two chisel-pointed knives--no Photon weapons for either of them.
I ignored the two newcomers for the moment and instead sent a three-shot burst at the gunman. The assassin soon learned that while smoked glass is acceptable concealment it makes for lousy cover. My shots punched through the window next to the door and struck home; I heard the squeal of pain and the thump of a falling body.
Two of my four adversaries were now down, but I wasn't out of the trap yet. I dropped low as the woman charged me and swept one leg out in an arc which crashed against the side of her knee, knocking her legs out from under her. The last one had the barrel of my autogun leveled at the bridge of his nose before he could reach me and, having more smarts than I'd have given him credit for, he stopped cold.
I rose upright again, the gun not varying more than a few millimeters from its target point while I moved.
"Stay down," I advised the female killer. "You'll be less tempted to try something stupid."
* * * * *
It was well after midnight by the time I got back to my apartment. The military police had questioned me closely, no surprise in an incident involving two deaths, but eventually the investigating officer, Inspector Laleham, pronounced himself satisfied with my story.
I had to consider my provocation of Takamura an initial success. The police now had two dead men and two live witnesses, the latter who would no doubt be eager to testify to keep from escaping felony murder charges, that little tweak in the justice system that characterized any death in the course of a felony as a murder attributable to the felons. Added to Martz's testimony and whatever could be squeezed out of Racton, it gave Laleham a lever to use against Takamura.
It was also a lever I could use. Lacking official status, I could move faster, stay out ahead of things, and provoke events the way I already had. The hunters might have disappeared on Ragol, but the secrets to their disappearance were here on Pioneer 2.
Maybe that, I realized, was why I cared so much about this, because it was a way to open up some of Ragol's hidden mysteries--and, in some way, move closer to finding Vel. I unlocked the apartment door and went inside.
There was a man waiting.
If he had been an assassin, waiting there with lethal intent, I might or might not have been able to do something about him. Would I have been able to react to one of Takamura's killers? I didn't know. Nor was it necessary. The man was not pointing a weapon in my direction.
"Sejanus," he said in a deep bass voice. "You're later than I expected."
He wore a military uniform, the green tunic over leggings and a red beret. His insignia identified him as a lieutenant in the 32nd WORKS division, but his mannerisms and confidence suggested someone more used to command than a mere lieutenant. There was a glass in his hand, and the violet-colored liquid that glinted like amethyst was from a bottle of rare esqar liquor I'd brought from our homeworld.
"Considering that I didn't know when I'd be home, I'm not surprised."
"You wouldn't be. The truth is, though, we've got a better idea of what you're doing than even you do."
I closed the door behind me and dropped, bone-weary, into a chair.
"Who is 'we'?"
"My employers--and yours," the soldier said. He rose from the chair. "You've been putting pressure on Hideki Takamura, pressure which has quite obviously begun to get under his skin." He smiled wryly. "To tell the truth, I'm impressed. I wouldn't have thought he'd lose his cool quite so quickly. You must have figured out exactly what buttons to push to make him jump."
"Intuition, mostly," I said. "Is that why you broke into my apartment? To give me compliments?"
The smile disappeared.
"No, Sejanus, it isn't. As a matter of fact, we've got ourselves a problem."
I kept quiet, knowing that sooner or later he'd give up waiting for me to respond dutifully and get to the point. Eventually, he did, frowning.
"It's like this. In a few days, a team of hunters is going down to the surface to check out the situation and get some answers to the Pioneer 1 problem. Now, we understand that since you haven't formally started yet, the hunters who make up the team are going to take on other Guild quests to pay the bills between now and then." He leaned back against the free-standing kitchen counter. "What we don't want to hear is that our team leader is going around enticing a major underworld figure into a vendetta."
His voice had built in intensity throughout the little speech until, by the end, it was snapping like a whip, each word a lash at me.
"There's inherent danger in any hunter's job."
"You aren't on a job, Sejanus. You've been paid your commission. This is strictly a private matter you've taken up."
He had a point--actually, a couple of them--but I wasn't pleased with the fact that the army was keeping tabs on me. Probably every time I used that access code of theirs, it logged the time, the system being accessed, and the computer I was working from--and that was just for starters. So, I wasn't at all in the mood to give in to further high-handedness, no matter how reasonable.
"And being a private matter, before the work begins on the army's job, it shouldn't be of any interest to you."
The soldier gave me a dark look, which was about par for the course.
"Don't push back too hard on this, Sejanus. You've got no idea whose toes you're stepping on here."
My head snapped up.
"Let's just say that there were some people who were pushing for your immediate termination. Mr. Takamura is quite eager to see you dead, and there are individuals who see this as a significant liability. He's more than just a black marketeer, you see. His file is clean for a reason. Takamura is wired into a network of people whose influence goes all the way into the highest corridors of power."
"Lieutenant, what are you saying?"
"I'm saying that the one behind the missing hunters was caught. He's been arrested and brought up on charges. Are there some loose ends? Probably there are. This isn't some Net-broadcast detective story where the case gets tied up in a neat little package at the end of an hour. The point is, no one needs you stirring up more trouble than it's worth just to dot the Is and cross the Ts."
I rose from my seat and stood eye-to-eye with the soldier.
"What about Oliver Martz and those like him? People who have lost loved ones?"
"We've all lost something, thanks to Ragol. I believe that you yourself had a sister on Pioneer 1." He tapped his gloved fingers idly on the countertop. "Maybe you need to consider your own family instead of other people's, hm?"
His gaze met mine squarely as he said it, and I got the message loud and clear: Play ball, Sejanus, or we'll take away your chance to go look for your sister.
Was it a bluff? I doubted it. The "lieutenant" had been clear without coming out and saying it: Takamura wanted me dead, but others had a use for me alive, others that the trader was obligated to listen to. I wondered if Laleham was getting the same message from his superiors.
So what was it to be? Did I go on searching for the missing hunters, or did I keep the military job instead and with it the chance to look for Vel?
They say that everyone has a price. The threat of death might not have been effective, but my sister...that was something else.
The soldier could read my decision in my eyes. He tossed back his drink and set the empty glass down.
"It'll be a pleasure to work with you, Sejanus," he said, grinning. "I enjoy the company of a man who knows good liquor--and good sense."
With that, he turned and left, not bothering with goodbyes. I stared at the closed door for a long time, feeling hollow inside. Part of my brain was trying to puzzle out if the soldier had actually been part of the network that was connected to Black Paper, or if the ones running me simply didn't want to get tangled up with their schemes, but it didn't matter. I'd made my choice. Family came first.
I only hoped that Vel would forgive me if I found her.