AUW 3084: December

A/N: Just for reference, if anyone has read "Heartwired," this story is chronologically the first in the Lyon & Ryland Holiday Stories series and so comes before that one.

~X X X~

The first thing he could think of--indeed, for some time, the only thing he could think of--was the throbbing ache in his head. It pulsed, like an automated sign, swelling to white-hot agony and then fading to be merely painful in regular patterns as with the flow of blood to his skull.

That must have been some party, he thought dimly. Or did I just fall down and hit my head?

He thought he could remember drinking, talking, the clink of glasses. Some kind of social event. But he'd left, hadn't he? He'd gone to his aerocar and headed...where? Home? It should be home, shouldn't it?

As the pain in his skull slowly ebbed, or perhaps as he simply became more accustomed to it, he became aware of other pains, not serious ones, minor aches that had gotten lost in the greater hurt. His shoulders, his hip...he was laying on his side, not on a comfortable mattress but on some kind of hard surface. Something was jabbing into his back, too.

I didn't even make it back to bed?

There was nothing for it but to try--try--to get up. Eyes first, now: let's see what I've gotten myself into.

Slowly, slowly now, he pried his eyes open. At first he didn't understand what he was looking at, pools of darkness and unexpected color. Then his brain began to function, make associations that bubbled up from still-cloudy memory. Darkness because the lights were out. Amber because of the emergency lighting that glowed from the seams between walls and ceiling. Red because what screens were still working--many were inert--were glowing brightly in alarm mode. Interior furnishings had been blown apart by some tremendous force, but he still recognized the room as a laboratory chamber.

Laboratory? What happened?

Then he recognized something else, a blob of white near the corner of his vision. He turned his head slightly to get a better look, then had to fight off a fresh wave of pain and nausea caused by the motion. He breathed deeply, tasting dust and smoke.

Somewhere he heard the hiss of a sliding door opening, the tramp of booted feet on the floor.

"What the heck?"

"Good grief, what happened?"

"There's people in here! Get a medical team!"

The babble of voices barely made an impression on him, because his vision had cleared enough for him to see what the white had been. A lab coat, badly stained by whatever had happened, and by splashes of red not caused by the glow from the screens. The body of a man lay on his back, propped up by the remains of a bench, and his slack jaw and wide, staring eyes were mute evidence that a medical team would be far, far too late.

~X X X~

"This should be an extremely simple job for a hunter of your capabilities."

If it's so simple, then why did I have to come all the way down to the Lab for the details? wondered an annoyed Android Weinstine Co. Type L/Y-906 (Lyon to her friends). She was aware from previous experience as well as scuttlebutt among her fellow hunters, though, that it was simply Lab policy. They posted a quest listing with the Hunter's Guild, and if a hunter took the job then they reported to the Lab for the assignment. This wasn't the case for individual scientists, but Lab chief Natasha Milarose apparently had too many important things to do for her to report to the Guild for a briefing.

In fact, she apparently had so many important things to do that she wasn't even available to brief a hunter in the Lab, having left the job to her assistant, Dan.

"I'm glad that you have such confidence in me," Lyon remarked.

"Yes, um..." Dan muttered, caught off-guard at having to deviate from his prepared script. Clearly he had no idea what Lyon's qualifications were or weren't, beyond the fact that she met the minimum prerequisites the Lab had posted with the job listing.

Dan tugged at the brim of his cap, the motion almost making it seem like he was hitting some reset toggle for his brain.

"Are you familiar with Dr. Evo Carstairs?" he asked.

"I didn't know him personally, but I saw the news that he'd been killed last week. InfoNet reported that he was murdered by a rival scientist."

Lyon estimated that her reference to one Lab employee murdering another would have a 77% chance of flustering Dan, and the bureaucrat did not hit the short odds.

"That's as may be--an unfortunate, purely personal matter. But yes, that is the man I mean. We need you to do a job in connection with his research."

Lyon wasn't entirely sure she liked that.

"Does this relate to his murder?"

"Of course not!" Dan snapped. "This will be a simple retrieval job, nothing more. Equipment salvage from Dr. Carstairs's fieldwork."

Lyon nodded, which made the ponytail-like structure of her "hair" bob up and down.

"Dr. Carstairs was involved in researching the behavior of certain of Ragol's native creatures when he died. To do this, he had a number of monitor beacons set up throughout the creatures' range. His death has derailed the project, and we would like for you to retrieve the beacons from the surface."

"How big are the beacons?"

"Here are the details."

Dan pressed several keys on his console and one of the holographic screens behind him shifted to display a roughly cylindrical object while a stream of text along the side gave the specifications. The beacons were about two feet long and six inches broad, easily manageable and, Lyon noted, fairly resistant to shocks, water, and other hazards. Dan was right; it did seem routine.

"Dr. Carstairs had eleven of them in total. We need you to bring back whatever you can from Residential Section 03. Beacons aren't cheap."

"I like scavenger hunts," Lyon remarked. "I'm surprised, though, that given that the project is already underway you haven't appointed someone else to just take over."

Dan pursed his lips primly.

"The decision is an internal Lab matter based upon the allocation of resources." Then, as if realizing how absurdly ridiculous he sounded, he smiled without humor and admitted, "The truth is, no one else cared. There was only one other scientist in the Lab who shared Dr. Carstairs's field of interest."

"Was that one busy with another, more important project?"

"In a manner of speaking. He was under arrest for the murder of Dr. Carstairs."

Irony. There appeared to be more to Dan than was visible at first. Lyon supposed there almost had to be, but it was a lesson nonetheless. She flagged the observation in her memory as a reminder of the risks of jumping to conclusions.

It didn't take much longer to conclude the briefing, just her formal acceptance of the job and verification of the bounty: two hundred meseta per beacon, which was good pay for a job confined to the former residential perimeter of Ragol. Within ten minutes Lyon was seated in an omnibus, soaring through the city's air traffic channels along with another seventeen of her fellow residents. She glanced out the window, noting the prevalence of the red-and-gold color scheme of New Year's decorations.

"Gonna be a big bash," said the man next to her. "A party all through the city. Gotta see the year in right!"

Lyon wasn't sure there was that much to celebrate. The dawn of AUW 3085 was supposed to have been the first New Year's on the planet Ragol for the residents of Pioneer 2. Instead, when they'd arrived they'd found that the thirty thousand initial colonists of Pioneer 1 had vanished without a trace, the native animals turned hyper-aggressive, mutated monsters prowling the underground, secret excavations carried out whose robots had been turned into killing machines, and a buried ruin inhabited by creatures that seemed almost literally demonic. The different government factions on Pioneer 2 spent more of their time fighting each other than solving problems, and the only thing they could seem to agree on was that it was not time for colonization. 3084 was about to end with Pioneer 2 still in orbit, tens of thousands of citizens still stuck in the city in a bottle that had been their home during the two-year journey.

Maybe that's why we do need a party, Lyon thought. It wasn't to celebrate happiness, but to create some.

"The Year of the Rooster," the man went on. "Hey, do you know what that means?"

Lyon shook her head; her database did not include the origins of the New Year's naming customs. She flagged the absence to look up later, the equivalent of what organics called making a mental note, only her mental notes were actual ones and much more reliable than an organic's. Her mind was set up to mimic the kind of decision-making architecture that drove a human or Newman's brain, including a healthy respect for her emotions as well as the biological and sociocultural differences that defined her brain as female, but it was still a computer AI built from Photon technology.

"Me either. Of course, it's not like anybody's seen a rooster since we left Coral and the things are endangered even there. Neomeat synthetics take a heck of a lot less resources to produce than real animal meat, that's for certain."

"Look at it this way: you've gone your whole life eating neomeat, so real chicken would probably taste strange and unpleasant to you," Lyon suggested. The man grinned in reply.

"Hey, not bad. Think I'll keep that in mind next time I get envious of some rich guy."

With that, the man folded his hands behind his head and leaned back in his seat to rest. The encounter had lifted Lyon's spirits, though. Not everyone would just chat freely with an android. A fair number of people were uncomfortable with the idea of treating them as people. It was an attitude she even sometimes found in Newmen, who although organic were still lab-grown from engineered DNA. It was nice to get the reverse of that. Who knew? Maybe there were new attitudes to go with the new year.

~X X X~

The woman was tall and dressed with an elegant but exaggerated formality, as if she was attending a state banquet or in a box at the opera. Her bright red hair, which would have been long and luxuriant, was pulled back and up in a heavy knot on the back of her head. Her lips and nails were painted the same brilliant magenta. She could have been many things--a businesswoman, a socialite, a celebrity, an artist, a politician. No one, however, would have guessed "scientist" just by looking at her, and in truth she was not one, not directly.

Yet Natasha Milarose was in direct command of the greatest collection of scientific expertise on Pioneer 2. She was the chief of the Lab. Technically the Lab was under the jurisdiction of the civilian government, the Administration, and was supposed to serve as the balance against the military and corporate laboratories. Natasha, though, had turned it into a nearly independent player, a third corner in the power struggle over control of the colony ship and the Pioneer Project.

Dan didn't know her ultimate objectives, her relationship with notables such as Principal Tyrell, Leo Grahart of 32nd WORKS, Dr. Osto Hyle on Pioneer 1, or the governments back on their homeworld, Coral. He didn't consider that he needed to know. It wasn't his place.

"It's done," he reported. "The hunter took the job."


He did want to know the point of his own actions.

"Ma'am...why are we doing this?"

Chief Milarose smiled.

"Dan, have you seen our equipment budget? Data monitors aren't cheap, you know. The cost of retrieval is considerably less than the cost of replacement."

"That's not what I mean, ma'am. Surely there's more to it than just that."

Natasha smiled enigmatically.

"Well, perhaps that isn't quite all."

"Then what else is there?"

"Watch and see, Dan. Watch and see."