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Whom Do You Serve?

Part I


There were people that claimed there were no ghosts in Camineet. Wights, liches, and unquiet spirits of the dead, if they had ever existed at all, were things of the past. The industrialized, scientific age of AW 1272 had driven them out. The capital of the planet Palm, the Camineet-Parolit archopolis, was a sprawling cityscape that entirely filled the walled residential enclave of a thousand years ago. Even the unknown energies once called "magic" had been scientifically analyzed so that they could be efficiently channeled by a person's will through "techniques." No, these people would say, there was no room for ghosts in Camineet.

These people were wrong.

It was just, Tyler Jorran knew, a matter of knowing where to look.

The refinery was a ghost. Its giant tanks and the twisting maze of pipelines and conduits stood empty, no one walked along its catwalks, and its lights, displays, and gauges remained inert, just as they had for six years. Six years since Scion-Colesburg Technologies had bought out Eppi Products, Inc. and decided that the more advanced Scion-Colesburg facilities were sufficient to meet their needs. It was still, silent, and abandoned, and yet now and again, the refinery stirred, given an afterlife by an automated security system designed to keep squatters out of what was, after all, a Scion-Colesburg asset.

Most of that system was basic: magnetic locks, motion detectors, razorwire-topped fences, door and window alarms. The security control room, though, like the main office, was protected by something not quite so simple, an automated shotgun-style "smart" gun in a turret mount. One burst from its broad muzzle could easily hit both Tyler and his partner, Melora, with a spray of hundreds of microflechette barbs in the close confines of the corridor.

"You can stop playing games, Ranier," Melora snarled. She wasn't a romantic; she was thinking of the man behind the door and the reason she and Tyler were there, not of ghosts.

The lens of a holovid camera mounted under the gun barrel studied the two of them. Tyler knew what Ranier was seeing. He was a tall man, handsome and broad-shouldered, with square-cut blond hair and a distinctive scar running diagonally over his left eye. Melora Nain was only a few inches shorter at five-feet-ten, attractive and striking but not truly beautiful, her electric red hair worn in a chin-length pageboy. They both wore sleek, military-styled carbonsuits, clothing armored with protective padding that was becoming more and more popular among even ordinary people; Tyler's was black and Melora's dark green. Tyler also wore a fibercoat, a full-length duster which provided not only additional protection due to its armored lining, but served to conceal weapons from casual sight.

They could have been hunters, he reflected, mercenaries who did the dirty jobs of the urban jungle, from industrial espionage and datatheft to corporate extractions and wetwork. The name was as accurate as it had been in the days when hunters pursued dangerous monsters; sometimes it was information they stalked and sometimes people, but they were always after prey. And, in a way, Tyler and Melora were hunters, only not mercenaries. They were agents, working for Luveno Industrial Mechanisms, the largest conglomerate on Palm. They did the same things hunters did, but always on behalf of one single master.

"The code word is 'Aukba,'" Tyler said. Juvenile, really; anyone who could find out the date, time, and place of the meeting could have learned the password, but he supposed it was an additional layer of security, however frail.

The gun barrel swiveled up into its "rest" position and a loud clunk signaled that the door had unlocked, inviting the agents to enter. They accepted the invitation.

Ranier sat in the only chair in the cramped security office, in front of the console. He was average in height but looked shorter because he was slim and wiry. His dark violet hair was receding, emphasizing the point of his widow's peak. His face was narrow, sharp, and angular; only a snub nose kept him from looking ratlike. That comparison was too obvious anyway for Tyler's tastes. It was almost a cliche to compare informants to creeping, crawling vermin of some type or another.

Before Tyler could react, Melora strode angrily across the room. Small as the office was, it took her only two steps, and then she was jerking Ranier out of his chair by his baggy vest. She flexed her left hand, causing the four bladed steel bars mounted in their wrist sheath to snap out and lock into position. The tips of her claws pressed against his throat.

"Exactly what was that stunt supposed to be?" she growled.

Wide-eyed, Ranier looked over her shoulder at Tyler in mute appeal.

"Our friend," Tyler told the woman who'd been his partner for six years and lover for four, "enjoys his games." This was his fourth meet with Ranier but Melora's first.

"Slaving the sec-systems is one thing. He needs to cover his backside somehow, and informants don't usually have a lot of friends ready to take the job. The next time this skag points a gun at me, though, he'd damn well better be ready to fire it."

She let Ranier go and stepped back a pace, her point made. Unlike Tyler, Melora had grown up on the streets, run with the Steel Wind gang in Camineet's slums until an LIM "talent scout" had spotted her potential for bigger and better things. It gave her a slightly different outlook on things, one aspect of which was threats. Melora hated the helpless feeling of being held at weaponpoint, the loss of control, and she wouldn't let people get away unscathed from putting her there.

"Light, Tyler, what's with this lady?"

"Some people don't appreciate your paranoia," Tyler replied flatly. He knew what side he was on in any conflict between the two. The crack about paranoia wasn't a joke, though. Ranier's method for these meets was always the same. He'd pick some out-of-the-way spot where he could wire into the sec-system's electronics and take it over. Cameras, motion sensors, autoguns, and lockdowns were his protection, just like Tyler and Melora were each other's. It wasn't hard for him; breaking into security circuitry and defusing it was his major talent. It made Ranier an invaluable member of the terrorist group Neo Green, helping their attack teams get into target installations.

"Look, let's just get down to business," Melora said. "I don't like you, you don't like me, but who cares when information and meseta are being exchanged?"

Ranier nodded sharply.

"I'm with it. You got the money?"

Tyler held up a small, flat bank access card.

"Five thousand in blank credit, as agreed."

The thin, sharp-faced man nodded.

"Lemme see it."

"Information first, pay later."

He scowled, then decided that after playing it straight three times before Tyler wasn't going to start cheating him now.

"Yeah, all right. It's like this. You guys got yourselves a new robotics plant opening near Iala in the Scion district."

"Yeah," Tyler echoed.

"It ain't gonna open," Ranier said flatly. "Neo Green's gonna make sure of that, unless you people can stop them."

"Why?"

Ranier shrugged.

"Why d'you think? Only reason they do anything. The place is an ecological nightmare, just one more example of how you corp types can screw up the planet with enough money and enough machines." He spat with distaste, reminding Tyler that Ranier actually believed in Neo Green's cause...just not enough to keep him from picking up a few meseta on the side by selling his friends out to LIM.

Neo Green's credo was simple; they were pro-environmental and anti-technology. Their leadership, who were as yet unknown to the law and the corps alike, would have liked to take Palm back to a time from thousands of years ago, to an agrarian society where the technology expert was the blacksmith, not the engineer. Their prime targets, though, were the corporations and their manufacturing and power plants that spat pollution into the air and water. More than one of Camineet's industrial parks had been the site of major terrorist assaults.

The Scion district, on the other hand, was outside Neo Green's usual territory. They didn't often go outside the archopolis, and when they did it was because it was important. Tyler was certain that there had to be something unusual, something that caught the terrorists' attention, that would make Neo Green pick a target so far outside Camineet.

"Do you know anything else?" he asked.

"The date planned for the attack. It'll be four days from now, at night."

"Useful," Tyler acknowledged, "but not what I meant." He gave the credit blank to Ranier.

"I know that look," Melora said. "You're thinking again, Tyler."

He nodded.

"Let's get the date and anything else Ranier's got to offer, then--"

"Damn!" the red-haired agent interrupted. Her claws snapped into position on both hands, and she snatched out her poisonshot. Melora preferred hand-to-hand work, but she was too professional to leave herself at a disadvantage against enemies armed with guns and long-range techniques.

"What the hell?" sputtered Ranier, obviously expecting to be her first target.

"The sec-system's out," Tyler snapped, pointing at the camera screens. Building power was still on, but the console was completely dead. "It looks like your friends have caught up with you."

Taking over a security system was delicate work, whether done by an electronics expert or a computer hacker. Jury-rigging a circuit to crash the system outright, though, wouldn't be half as hard, not with a low-grade system like the out-of-use refinery had. It wasn't a tactic used by hunters, agents, or terrorists very often, though, because it was very obvious. Sure, it was an easy way to turn off the sec-cams, but what good did that do when the fact that they were shut off was a big, flashing neon sign saying "intruders here"? In this case, though, it wasn't a half-bad plan, when Ranier, Tyler, and Melora were the only "guards" there and they were the targets of the attack.

Tyler glanced at his lover. "It'll be a team," he told her, and got a quick nod in response. A lone assassin wouldn't have run the risk of alerting the target but tried stealth instead. This was the strategy of multiple attackers.

"What's your bet on when the guards show up? Fifteen minutes?"

"yeah, Parolit Industrial Sector's pretty low priority and nobody'd pay for rapid air response for this place." It was their business as agents to know these details, and they both did.

"What guards?" Ranier asked. "What're you talking about?"

"Look, if somebody could crash the sec-system here with nothing else happening, we'd be hip-deep in squatters and street people in need of shelter now. There's probably room for hundreds in this place, and there'll be plenty of them with the electronics smarts to rig a crash.

"There's no one here, though, and security was working before," Tyler continued. "Odds are, when the system went down, it set off a deadman's switch that summoned help. Maybe the cops, maybe Scion-Colesburg, but the most likely option is some security firm like Argus Protective Services. In about fifteen minutes, there'll be a unit of sec-agents here and things will get really crazy."

Ranier's violet eyes were full of fear.

"What do we do?" he pleaded.

"We get out of here before then, preferably with all our hides in one piece. What've you got for weapons?"

"Just this and a knife." Ranier produced a one-hit wonder, a cheaply-made, palm-sized sonic gun with a burnout firing tuner good for about five shots if the user was lucky before it slagged itself down.

"Light preserve us," Melora groaned.

"I wasn't expecting a firefight! Besides, guns were the first step that set Palm on the path to its slavery to machines!"

Neo Green didn't like firearms; they preferred more archaic weapons like bows and bow guns. Technique use was also common; it was like enough to ancient "magic" that they felt comfortable with it morally. The combination made them an unusual foe to confront tactically.

Tyler drew his own sonic gun, a first-class model made for professional use, and beckoned the others.

"Let's get moving. If we stay here too long they'll get us boxed in."

They left the security office and moved out into the refinery. It was eerie darting through the abandoned structure; unlike most corporate facilities, which were laid out as simply and straightforwardly as possible, the refinery was a tangled maze extending via ladders and stairways through multiple levels. Catwalks provided fields of fire at odd angles while the forest of pipes gave rise to unexpected obstructions.

It was Melora who spotted the first shadow. Her right shoulder rammed into Tyler, knocking him aside while she simultaneously raised and fired her poisonshot. The short-shafted arrow from a bow gun plucked at Tyler's fibercoat but no more, while from above there came the sizzle of toxic chemicals eating into metal.

Three more terrorists jumped out from behind pipes, launching arrows at Ranier and the two agents. Tyler reacted at once, the high-pitched whine of his sonic gun heralding the focused pulse of sound that punched through flesh and bone, felling an archer.

Unlike Tyler, Ranier was firing wildly, his gun squealing as it ripped off shot after shot until the cheap pistol burned itself out. He turned and bolted down a path to his left. Tyler cursed, scrambled for cover, and took a bead on another one of the Neo Green killers who was herself lining up a shot on Ranier's back. The other terrorist reacted first, though, raising his hand and calling out "FOI!" The burst of fire called up by his focused will through his technique slammed into Tyler's shoulder. Most of the heat was absorbed by the agent's coat and carbonsuit, but the force of the blast jarred Tyler's aim, making his shot go wide. The terrorist's arrow, though, was dead on target, burying itself deep in Ranier's back and stopping the informant's retreat cold in its tracks.

Melora snarled and left off her sniping match with the assassin on the catwalk, pivoting to face the tech-user. She didn't know any techniques herself, but like many expert fighters her training allowed her to draw upon her own inner energy to perform special skills. With a loud shout, she launched herself at the terrorist, her claw outstretched. Melora's skill covered the distance between them in an instant, claws slamming with tremendous force into her enemy's chest.

As she turned to the terrorist who'd shot Ranier, the one on the catwalk decided hand-to-hand was the way for him to go as well. Vaulting over the rail, he took the drop lightly, flexing his legs to help absorb the shock.

The terrorist was big; he had a toothy grin, cornrowed hair dyed in black and green stripes, and wore the same kind of baggy vest, trousers, and heavy work boots as Ranier. Apparently it was some kind of uniform for the members of Neo Green. In each hand he held a gleaming steel knife with a broad, jagged blade eight inches long.

"Sworm-kissing corporate skag! Now you're gonna pay for raping the planet!"

Tyler didn't want to see if he could match up against the burly killer in knife-work. Before his foe could regain his balance from the jump and launch an attack, Tyler's foot snapped up and crashed into the terrorist's chin. The man staggered drunkenly, hurt but not out, so the agent buried a fist in his solar plexus and cracked the butt of his sonic gun down across the back of his foe's head when the punch doubled the terrorist up.

He looked back just in time to see Melora snap a kick into the side of the girl's head just in time to drop the last terrorist.

"This one's still alive," she said. "I figured we'd want someone to interrogate."

"Yeah, that's what I was thinking, only I blew it. This guy," Tyler explained, nudging the fallen form of the man he'd just beaten, "had the bad luck to fall on his knife. What about Ranier?"

The informant, though, proved to be dead as well. The arrow had pierced his heart from behind. Ironically, it was the one who'd killed him who had herself been taken alive. Tyler sighed heavily.

"Why the long face? He was a weasel, a guy who'd backstab his own cause to line his pockets."

"He was a useful contact and he was, in a way, under my protection. He put his life on the line to deal with me, even though it was for money."

Melora looked at him sharply, recognizing his tone of voice.

"Tyler, you can't feel responsible for everyone who crosses your path, especially those whose own choices put themselves in danger. You start wasting your emotions on a guy like Ranier and you'll never be able to stand the pace as an agent."

"yeah, I guess so."

"I know so." She flashed him a grin. "Come on, let's get our prisoner and get out of this place before security shows up. If you're going to search your soul, better to do it while no one's shooting at your body."

He grinned back. That was part of the dynamic of their relationship; Melora's down-to-earth practicality helped to ground and center the increasingly introspective Tyler. Sometimes he figured she thought it was her life's mission to keep his head screwed on straight, and he appreciated it.

Taking her advice, he disarmed the unconscious girl and slung her limp body over his shoulder. Hopefully, they could get her back to their landskimmer and get her into plasmarings before she woke up; the technique-inhibiting restraints were a great comfort when trying to keep hold of a prisoner who was probably capable of calling up firebolts or windstorms or gravity waves with a moment's concentration and a word. If she had awakened at that very moment, for example, she could have ripped a FOI or TSU into Tyler's back from two inches away.

Melora, meanwhile, covered their retreat in case Neo Green had additional people in the area, as lookouts or even a second team of assassins. They were lucky, though; they escaped the tangled pipes and shadowy walkways of the refinery without a second encounter and without their prisoner waking up. They got her out to their landskimmer and secured her in plasmarings which pinner her arms to her sides as well as disrupting the flow of energies that manifested themselves through techniques. Her legs were bound with more conventional plastic tape. She wouldn't be making trouble anytime soon. Hopefully, when she woke, she'd have some answers as to why Neo Green cared so much about a facility so far outside their usual stomping grounds.

The flashing lights of the Argus Protective Services landrover that arrived in response to the failsafe alarm cast a faint glow into the mouth of the alley where Tyler had parked. He saw armored troopers get out and head towards the gate, ready for trouble. They wouldn't find any, though. All they'd find was a ghost.

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