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Freedom's Price

Part I

The wild roar of the aerojet's engines was reduced to a low hum by the nearly soundproof fuselage, so that the voice of the robotic pilot could be heard clearly over the intercom.

"We are now descending towards Camineet aeroport. Those of you on the right-hand side of the jet will be able to see the Camineet-Parolit archopolis beneath us. All passengers should return to their seats and fasten belts for landing; we should be arriving at the gate in twenty minutes."

Twenty minutes, thought Tyler Jorran. Twenty minutes and he would be in Camineet again. How long had it been? Three years? No, it was AW 1278 now, so it had been four. Sometimes it felt like yesterday, and other times as if it were an eternity ago, but never any kind of concrete, identifiable period of time like four years. Memories were like that, fresh or stale with the turns of the mind but never an orderly progression from one to the next.

Through the viewport, Tyler could see the twilight vista of the capital of both the planet Palm and its colonies throughout the Algo solar system. Brilliant lights in a myriad of colors glittered from the cityscape as the teeming millions, unsatisfied with the day nature had provided, created their own artificial noon. Camineet had swelled over the past millennium until the city, its industrial parks, residential suburbs, corporate districts, and slums filled the old residential area that had insulated the towns of Camineet and Parolit from marauding creatures in olden times. Parolit, once a city-state with a long history of its own, had been utterly absorbed into the growing capital, swelling the body of the archopolis.

In the air below, Tyler could make out the form of another, much smaller aerojet, its half-moon-shaped wing and trailing fuselage much the same as the transcontinental he rode in.

"Hey, that's one of those new Wrens, isn't it?" the man sitting behind Tyler said to his traveling companion.

"Wrens?" a woman's voice replied. "I thought that Wrens were androids."

"They are. The newest version of Wren-type, the Shiren, can change itself into an aerojet, an aquaskimmer...something else too, I forget what."

"Really? They must be huge."

"No, just Palman-sized. Of course, their vehicle forms can only carry, say, four or five people, but it's still amazing. They're incredibly expensive, of course. Only big government honchos and corporate execs can afford them."

Which, Tyler reflected, wasn't surprising. Wren-type androids were all equipped for combat in addition to their individual specialties. With their logical and analytical but quick-reacting personalities they made first-rate bodyguards. Add to that the ability to become various forms of transportation, which negated the possibility of, say, dynamite charges being planted in an executive areojet, and the rich and powerful would be lined up, begging to own a Shiren. Luveno Industrial Mechanisms was probably making meseta hand over fist--which, of course, they had been from the entire Wren series.

Thinking about LIM, inevitably, brought Tyler's thoughts nearly full circle to Melora. The past was never truly gone, he had found, and that homily was never more true than when dealing with an old love. He hadn't seen her for four years, either, but the feelings were still there, still strong. Strong enough that when he had received her letter transmission he had chosen to fly back from Abion to Camineet, back to a life he thought he had left behind.

Tyler, I know we parted on bad terms, but I'm in real trouble and there's no one else I can trust to help me. I've gotten into something bad, something I can't handle alone. I can't explain any more than that in a letter; if our past still means anything to you, please come to Camineet. I live at #17, 893 Fenton Avenue, in Neroton. Melora.

No, they hadn't parted on good terms. It hadn't really been a fight, more of an exasperated surrender after having the same argument for the hundredth time and getting nowhere with it. Neither one of them had liked the corruption and venality of Camineet, but Tyler had lost the ambition to stop fighting it. He had dropped everything and run away from the archopolis, from Luveno, and from his love.

They had been the best, once, captains in LIM Corporate Security, Special Enforcement Division. Tyler Jorran and Melora Nain had fought against industrial espionage, battled saboteurs and anti-corporate terrorists, and gathered information for nearly a decade. He had started as an idealistic nineteen-year-old, defending the honor of his job, but had steadily come to see LIM as no better or worse than any of their rivals. Too often, there was no difference between one side and the other--both were immoral, deceptive, ruthless, manipulative, and even brutal. Idealism was replaced as a motivation by professionalism, and at last, for Tyler, it hadn't been enough. Melora had quit too, but she had decided to freelance. She was sick of being beholden to Luveno, wanted the freedom to make her own decisions, but the job itself had never bothered her the way it had him.

"What's the point of quitting, Tyler?"her voice echoed in his mind.

"I'm not going to do this any more. I'm not one of LIM's androids, programmed to do whatever they say."

Her green eyes had flashed at him.

"If you think that way, then stay and fight. We can work together, take on jobs that work against Luveno and the other corps."

It had been an appeal to stay together, he understood now. Melora had never shared his ideals, but she had been willing to adopt them for his sake. Only he hadn't seen it then. All he had seen was that he was too damned sick of his way of life to keep on any longer.

"Fine, Tyler. Go and run away. Just remember, so long as you're sticking your head in the sand, everything you've said is nothing but hot air. If you won't stand up for what you believe, you're not an idealist, you're just a coward." She had spun on her heel and stalked away, then. Perhaps she had wanted him to stop her, call her back, but Tyler hadn't moved, and so the words became Melora's parting shot.

He remembered the way her eyes had glimmered wetly as she said them.

The sharp jolt of the aerojet touching down, followed by the scream of brakes bringing it to a stop, broke Tyler out of his reverie. He waited for the jet to park, then unbuckled himself, collected his fibercoat from the overhead compartment, and shrugged into it. The longcoat not only provided protection from attack with its armored fiber lining, but also helped to conceal possibly illegal weapons that could be stored underneath, weapons that had been the tools of the trade for a corporate agent. A blue-haired attendant with a bright smile wished Tyler a good evening, then stepped aside to let him enter the transit tube that led to the aeroport. Tyler let the moving walkway carry him along as he watched the lights of the aeroport, the shapes of the large, sleek jets through the clear walls.

He stepped off the walkway at the far end and headed for the regional government's customs center, passing as he did so the tunnels leading to and from the teleport stations. Instantaneous transport was still hideously expensive, far too much so for the common traveler, but corporate officials used them more and more, especially for return trips. Supposedly they were in full use on the planet Mota, where the government subsidized their operation at reduced rates to encourage acceptance of the technology. Tyler didn't like the idea of being transmitted from one side of the planet to the other via electronic signal, but he supposed the time was coming when it would seem as normal as flying.

The customs agents proved to be typical of their sort: a young woman in a black and gold carbonsuit uniform with a sonic gun holstered at her hip and a Polezi robot in the same colors. Additional robots, the conical, waist-high Whistles, sat about almost unobtrusively in case any of the teams of agents required backup. The archopolis was nearly a nation in and of itself, and just like other regional governments, Camineet's tried its mostly futile best to keep out undesirable people and cargoes.

"Your identification, please," the woman asked. Tyler handed her his identity card; she inserted it into her computer, which read the information coded electronically into it. "Tyler Jorran, age thirty-two, resident of Abion."

She looked him over, comparing him to the image her computer screen was displaying. Tyler was a fairly striking individual, an inch over six feet tall with a lean but broad-shouldered build. He was handsome, and the slim, attractive planes of his face were given character by a square jaw that didn't quite fit with the rest of his features. His blond hair was cut close and there was a scar running diagonally over his left eye from an old wound he'd never bothered to have biosculpted away.

"Visual examination complete; appearance verified within acceptable limits," droned the tinny, mechanical voice of the Polezi. Despite its manlike appearance, the Polezi could by no means pass for human, having only a rudimentary intelligence, which was why it could not be classified as an android.

"Yes, appearance verified," agreed the human official. She tapped a few keys and her eyes widened. "Your checked baggage contains dangerous weapons, Mr. Jorran!"

"For which I have a license. My ticket was logged with the proper permits for one sonic gun and two ceramic knives."

"Oh, yes, I see," she noted with a relieved sigh. "You can collect your baggage at the red counter. Welcome to Camineet!"

By the time Tyler passed through customs, collected his suitcase and haversack, and made it outside, velvet darkness had fallen over the city. He hailed a cab, then told the driver to take him to the Red Circle Inn in Lordan, the district north of Neroton. The landskimmer, a small, light version of the massive landrovers designed for urban terrain rather than the wilderness, melded easily with the traffic on the multileveled highway that passed above and through the city. Brilliantly lit billboards displayed repeating cycles of holographic advertisements as they moved past. In the distance, the mile-high towers of the business and financial district downtown rose up through the nest of roadways. The cab slowed for a toll gate, where the cab's electronic roadpass automatically reacted with a signal informing the gate that it had been paid up for this month.

"Stinking road taxes," the driver cursed. "The government knows it's next to bloody impossible to get across the city by the groundways"--that was the local term for Camineet's surface-level streets--"so they hike the roadpass cost every year. Bet it wouldn't be this way on Mota. Mother Brain wouldn't put up with that crap."

Mother Brain was the supercomputer that acted at Palm's chief executive. On the second planet, though, it was much more. Mota was naturally a desert world, but Mother Brain's ability to monitor the myriad of environmental systems that controlled its weather had enabled Palmaforming efforts that had transformed it into a paradise of green. The civilian government of Palm worked with the support and advice of the artifical intelligence, but on Mota, technically a military colony, it was Mother Brain who controlled planetary life. The network of robot-run farms, combined with biogenetically engineered animal species, regulated food distribution, and managed health care all but made it possible for Mota's citizens to live without working. Some people considered that to be a heaven incarnate; others, with whom Tyler was inclined to agree, figured it was more like hell.

"Yeah, but as far as I know, they don't have taxi-skimmers on Mota, either."


"No cabs, so you'd need a different job."

The driver laughed.

"Good point. 'Least this way I've only gotta pay part of my income instead of not having one."

The city lights began to blend together as Tyler stared out the cab window. Abion was a peaceful, quiet resort town, barely more than a village. The buildings were sprawled out, not packed tightly together; few were more than two stories tall. Camineet was a different world by comparison. There was beauty here, like the sea of glittering points of light against the dark sky Tyler could see through the window, and a good deal of ugliness as well, but all of it was manmade, the work of Palman hands instead of nature.

He wasn't sure he belonged in this world anymore. He had worked--some--on dangerous assignments in Abion, but they had strictly been small-stakes, favor-for-a-friend deals which matched the small town's size. His reflexes, both physical and mental, couldn't help but have slowed in the four years he had been away from the game. If Melora was in over her head, then what could he do to even the odds? She was as good as he was, and had stayed in practice besides.

Stop that, Tyler told himself firmly. There was no point in getting ahead of himself. First he needed to see what was going on, and then he could worry.

"Yeah, it's really something, isn't it?" the cabdriver said, mistaking Tyler's fixed gaze for a tourist's amazement at the cityscape. "First time in Camineet?"

"No; I used to live here."

"Really? Couldn't get me to move away," the driver replied, his complaints of a few minutes before apparently forgotten. "Screwed-up place sometimes, but there's nowhere like the arch' on Palm or anywhere else."

"That's the truth," Tyler agreed wholeheartedly.

Lordan, like Neroton, was a lower-class district. It wasn't quite a slum, but was only a step above at best. The stone and brick tenements were dirty with pollution, but the streets were clean and law enforcement reliable, if not enthusiastic. The Red Circle was just like the dozens of other inns in the chain across Palm, simple and generic. The graying clerk registered Tyler without the slightest interest in his business for forty meseta up front. Inns like this were useful because they encouraged anonymity, merging their patrons into the mass that were the thousands of Red Circle guests each night. The small room had a double bed, a nightstand, a sink, and a toilet, all of which were at least clean.

Tossing his gear onto the bed, Tyler unpacked, removing his weapons from their cases. Buying weapons in Camineet was easy, smuggling them in by land almost as simple, but getting them in by air was almost impossible. The shock and atavistic horror created by an aerojet disaster created extraordinary paranoia about air travel: someone who tried to slip dangerous weapons, especially restricted ones, onto an aerojet was considered more than an ordinary criminal, he became somehow a monster. That was why Tyler had chosen to travel under his own name, and use the weapons-transit permit he had been issued when he worked for LIM and which he had kept active since then. He might have been out of the business, but giving up an asset had always seemed foolhardy. It was almost as if he had known that eventually this day would come--or subconsciously hoped that it would.

Tyler slipped on the sonic gun's shoulder holster. The fall of his long fibercoat would conceal it from view but could be swept aside with the same motion he used to draw the pistol. Sonic guns, probably the most common long-range weapon in Algo, fired small, concentrated pulsed of sound waves that inflicted damage to physical objects, including living flesh, by setting up vibrations in the target's structure. On paper that sounded curious and esoteric, but the fist-sized hole Tyler's Redfield Marksman could put in a Palman body was neither.

One of the two ceramic knives went on his left hip, at a slight angle to make a cross-draw easier, while the other went into the top of Tyler's right boot. The advanced ceramic alloys invented generations ago on Palm were both harder and more flexible than steel and titanium. Ceramic armor and weapons were usually very expensive, but also worth it. The only better blades were those with built-in laser or plasma emitters, or those made of laconia.

Tyler checked his reflection in the small mirror over the sink, verifying that he wasn't obviously armed, then left the hotel room. He left nothing behind of particular importance; his travel gear was all replaceable and unincriminating in case it became unsafe to return to the inn. In ways like this the ex-agent could feel his old instincts functioning, but it was a laborious process. Tyler was a machine left idle for too long; each move he made knocked some of the rust off but until it was all gone he wouldn't be working at full efficiency. Things that ought to have been reflexive still needed to be thought through.

When he took another cab into Neroton, he almost gave the driver Melora's address before he realized the mistake--rust at work again.

"Nero Park, please."

"Yessir." This driver was a rare member of his breed, silent and uncommunicative unless spoken to. That suited Tyler just fine; it gave him time to pull his thoughts together and stop berating himself for almost leaving a direct chain of witnesses from the aeroport to Melora's door. That was amateur stuff, but he had to get through it, find the even groove again that once let Tyler slide through trouble with his wits about him.

Nero Park and the Neroton district were both named after some historical figure whose legend had been forgotten. Even his likeness had been lost; there had been a twenty-foot statue of Nero in the center of the park but all that was left was the pedestal and Nero's feet. Tyler assumed Nero had been a king, a hero, or a martyr, because those were the three classes of people who were honored by later generations, but he knew nothing else. He pushed these irrelevant details aside as the cab left and concentrated on business.

The major difference between Neroton and its neighbor district to the north was the attitude of the people. Lordan was a poor sector of the archopolis, yes, but it was a sector of the working poor. Lordanites worked long hours for low pay, and when bad times came their solution was to work harder. The people of Neroton, on the other had, sought easy answers. Petty crime and organized gangs were both rife in Neroton, and there was a thriving black market. Dozens of under-the-table deals were negotiated at bars and restaurants in the district; it was a perfect site for a hunter like Melora to make her base of operations at, with its easy access to underworld contacts but a higher safety level than out-and-out slums like Rendak.

893 Fenton Avenue was within easy walking distance of the park, and Tyler moved swiftly through the dingy streets, refamiliarizing himself with the environment. More than once, hard-eyed passerby sized him up, asking themselves if this was a potential victim, but wisely stayed away. The building was typical of its type, a solid, plain, six-story block, a stone facade over a steel framework. There didn't appear to be any watchers, so if it was under surveillance those doing it were competent. Tyler really hadn't expected any, though; if Melora feared danger at this address she wouldn't have told Tyler to meet here there. Nonetheless, the back of his neck tingled as he walked up to the door.

The security wasn't elaborate, just a simple buzzer plus visiphone system for getting past the building's front door. Tyler thumbed the button for apartment 17 and waited for Melora's face to appear on the visiphone screen, her voice over the intercom. His heart was in his throat; old feelings damped down for years threatened to overwhelm him.

The visiphone remained dark and silent. Was it broken, or was something wrong? Tyler's instincts hinted at the latter. He reached up and covered the vid pickup with his hand, and ran his finger down the row of buttons.

"Palm Couriers. Gotta package here," he mumbled into the intercom. Predictably, someone--or several someones--buzzed him in without further thought. Some people were like that, the kind who would rely on electronics without wanting a lift a finger to help themselves.

Number 17 was on the third floor; Tyler took the stairs, looking around cautiously. He didn't see anyone, though, which was curious. There were plenty of ways to watch a building without being seen, but relatively few to go unnoticed within one. If something was wrong, why weren't there signs of it?

Tyler was starting to think that rather than being in trouble Melora had just stepped out for a minute. She wasn't expecting him at any particular time, or on any particular day for that matter. She could be attending to business, or for that matter getting dinner. Tyler wished he had more details, some idea of what the trouble was so he'd know what to expect.

A knock on the door got no answer, so he tried the knob. It turned, far enough to withdraw the latch. Now Tyler was sure something was wrong; no one left their door unlocked in Neroton if they were away from home--and usually not even if they were. He drew the Marksman and opened the door cautiously. A pale light filled the living suite, cast by the city lights outside the window. Tyler saw a sofa, table, chairs, entertainment suite, but nothing out of place. He kept his back to the wall as he inched around to the kitchen, but saw nothing there either. He turned back to the living room, and shock exploded through him as he saw steel claws gleam in the eerie light as they slashed at his chest.

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