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Freedom's Price

Part II


Tyler hurled himself back into the kitchen, barely dodging the razor-sharp claws. They cut through the edge of his coat; he felt a slight tug as the material held for a moment before the sharpness was too much for the fibercoat. His hip struck the kitchen table and he stumbled, but he remained on his feet.. Tyler should have whipped up the sonic gun and shot his assailant, but something held him back. It was a good reaction, he realized. Melora wasn't here, and the person who had been waiting probably knew why. There were questions that had to be answered, and that couldn't happen if the man with the claws was dead.

No, Tyler corrected himself, the woman with claws. No surprise there; the claw was generally a feminine weapon, much like the slasher. The light wasn't good enough for Tyler to really see her, but he could make out that she was short and wiry with long hair. He blocked another slash of his claws with his forearm against hers, then whipped his foot up into her gut, kicking her back up into the main room. He holstered his gun and went after her, slipping easily into a handfighting stance as he went.

They began to fight seriously, then. The woman's claws were actually heavy gloves that fit around the hand and forearm to brace the four bladed bars that extended from the back of the gauntlet. It was a rare choice of weapon, more effective than a knife but only in the hands of a skilled, agile user. Unlike a sword or axe, claws did not reward brute strength. They did have a certain prestige among street muscle, though, for their fearsome appearance, so they wound up on the hands of a lot of clueless morons.

The woman fighting Tyler wasn't one of those, but she wasn't an expert, either. She had the right mix of speed and agility, plus some training, but she didn't have enough experience to really be a match for the ex-agent. Tyler had been used to sparring with Melora, who had been an artist with the claws, so he'd learned a lot about how to fight them. Ordinarily, the problem would have been trying to take her alive, without using a weapon.

Ordinarily.

The problem was, Tyler's combat skills were rusty from disuse. In the past four years he'd let his training slide, and only very rarely had the chance to fight seriously. A slash came in too fast for him to block, he jerked his head away at the last second, almost acquiring a new scar right next to the old one over his left eye.

He counterattacked, trying to use size and strength against his opponent, but she sidestepped a rush, ducked a kick, deflected a second, and came back with a kick-and-slash combination that nearly took him down. A heavy boot slammed into his side over his ribs, though Tyler's fibercoat and carbonsuit absorbed much of the impact.

"You bastard!" she cursed him. Her voice was high-pitched and clear, a girl's voice instead of a woman's. "I'll kill you!"

They fought on, Tyler's enemy using the shadowy, unfamiliar terrain against him. The close quarters of Melora's apartment weren't the ideal place for a fight in any event, and the girl's agility gave her a definite advantage. Tyler stumbled over a floor lamp beside the sofa and nearly lost his neck, but it gave him an idea and he turned the tables on her, hooking a foot around the lamp's base and launching it at her. It caught the girl on the shins, and as she lost her balance, Tyler crashed his fist into her jaw. He followed it up with a punch to the belly, then connected with an uppercut that laid her out. He unbuckled her claws and removed them, tossed her into a chair, and after a quick glance into the bedroom and bathroom for other nasty surprises sat down across from her on the couch, gun drawn.

While he waited for her to regain her senses, Tyler looked the girl over. He put her age at about twenty, though he could have been off by three years either way. Her hair was mid-back length, a very light green that might have been natural with silver highlights that definitely weren't. Her clothes were pure street, ripped black fiberjeans, a chartreuse half-shirt that left her midriff bare, a bulky jacket that might have been real Mota sand worm leather under all the unnecessary straps, buckles, and zippers, and heavy work boots that had probably added a bruise to Tyler's side. A glimpse of a knife hilt was visible above the top of one boot; Tyler bent and took it, too. The blade was common steel, of marginal quality, but the wooden hilt had been carved with swirling arabesques that must have taken hours. They made the weapon look prettier and provided a rough surface for a better grip; shared form and function. Tyler's eyes narrowed thoughtfully as he looked at the weapon.

The girl groaned as she regained consciousness. She woke up slowly, the reaction of pain affecting her first, then an awareness of self, and only lastly any real idea of where she was and how she'd gotten there. Long-lashed eyes flickered open, revealing irises that, atypically, did not match her hair the way those of most people with blue, green, purple, or pink hair did. Instead, hers were dark, nearly black, and looked very large in her petite face. She looked up at him sullenly, matter-of-factly.

"Welcome back to the living," Tyler said, resting his gun hand lightly on one leg but still keeping the weapon pointed directly at her. "Is there any chance we can skip the usual crap where you try to prove how tough you are and I have to prove it doesn't matter?"

She spat at him.

"Don't make me laugh, you corporate bastard."

"Apparently not."

The growth of Camineet's society had not managed to eliminate poverty. There were still plenty of people who were barely able to scrounge by, who had to eke out what they could from the leavings and charity of those who were better off, even some who died on the street from cold, exposure, malnutrition, or easily curable disease. It was one of the strongest arguments put forward by those who wanted to put Palm under Mother Brain's direct control the way Mota was. People who begged or stole for food weren't likely to consider getting all one's needs taken care of to be some kind of loss. So what if they lost the ability to be productive because work was not needed in Mota's society? They had already lost that ability now! The grinding pressures of surviving under such conditions exerted a heavy toll. Some turned to alcohol or metachems. Others fought back against their world, but too often they slipped over the edge, becoming little more than brute animals.

Was the green-haired young woman one of those, Tyler wondered, just a thief or a killer? Or was she something else? His eyes flicked down at her knife again.

"You swipe this from Melora?" he asked. Woodcarving had been one of his partner's hobbies, a way to relax the mind and let out some of the creative impulses their work tended to stifle. One of her pieces, a stylized Aerotank, sat on the end table on the other side of the sofa.

"I don't steal from my friends," she snapped defiantly. "They know they can trust me to watch their backs. Not like yours, who have to keep one eye out for knives. Presuming a sworm-kisser like you has any friends."

She tensed involuntarily for the expected blow and looked surprised when none came.

"You're Melora's friend?"

"What do you think I am? Competition? Yeah, I'm her friend."

Did he believe her? If something had happened to Melora, and the girl had been left behind to wait for Tyler specifically or anyone in general, pretending to be a friend, on her side, would be a good way for her to get out of the tight spot she was in.

Tyler did believe her, though. The knife wasn't stolen; it was low-quality equipment that Melora would never have used for herself unless she was completely at the end of her rope--and a professional like Tyler's ex-lover would never have traded in the tools of her trade while she still had the meseta to pay for her rent and power. The knife did look like it could have been the girl's blade, which Melora might have offered to decorate for her. The story fit.

"Join the club."

He took the hardcopy of Melora's message from his back pocket and flipped it into the girl's lap. She looked down at it blankly, as if not understanding what she was seeing.

"Go on, read it."

With numbed fingers she unfolded the smooth, shiny paper produced by the letter transmission printer.

"You're Tyler?"

He nodded.

"She mentioned you a couple of times," the girl said warily, not yet quite accepting Tyler as an ally.

"We used to be close."

"Melora said once that letting you get away was the biggest mistake of her life, only that if she hadn't, that would have been, instead."

"We were too damn different," Tyler said curtly, hoping to cut off the subject. His personal life wasn't a topic for discussion with people he knew well, let alone those he didn't know at all.

"I figured it was something like that." Apparently she hadn't picked up his hint, or just didn't care, so he took a more direct approach.

"So now that you know me, how about introducing yourself?" Tyler said.

"I'm Risa."

"Risa what?"

She glared at him.

"Just Risa, okay. I'm an orphan; I never knew my father and I doubt my mother did either. As far as I'm concerned, my family name is something for the cops to use when they book me."

Tyler shrugged.

"They say that Motavians and Dezolians don't use family names and it doesn't seem to have hurt them any."

"You've actually seen people from Dezo?" Risa exclaimed, forgetting to be tough and sarcastic. "What are they like?"

Tyler shrugged.

"Well, physically their skin is green, they're taller than we are and skinny, and they have no hair. The ones I met were a high-ranking priest and his honor guard who came to Palm to protest the expansion of the Skure mines on his home planet. They seemed very serious and dedicated, but that might have been a reflection of their jobs and mission rather than the Dezolisian culture as a whole."

"It's too bad Mother Brain banned space travel nearly four years ago," Risa sighed. "I know it's dangerous, but wouldn't you like to see other planets?"

"One of the Dezolian guards," Tyler mused, "told me about the tower where their priesthood is based. Apparently it's a combination of temple and palace, because the government is run by the church. They call it Corona, and in its highest, holiest reaches there is an eternal flame that has burned for over thousands of years called the Eclipse Torch. Its light is said to nurture the living, even encouraging plants to grow, but it will also burn away all that is unclean."

"That would be a big fire, here," she said dourly, then added in a lighter voice, "Do you think that's true?"

"I don't know. She certainly seemed to believe it."

"It would be wonderful if it were."

Risa got up, clearly aware that she wasn't a prisoner any more, and walked over to the room's one window. A touch at the control turned the blinds flat so she could see out of them. Not, Tyler noticed, that there was much to see, just an alley with a few lights burning here and there and the back wall of another building.

"You can't win against this city," she said quietly.

Risa closed the blinds again.

"Do you know, I've never been out of Camineet?" she asked, turning back to Tyler. "I have dreams about leaving, about grassy plains, towering snow-capped mountains, about the sea. Especially the sea." She chuckled self-consciously. "I probably wouldn't know what to do with myself if I did leave. I might not know how to live in a place that doesn't have walls everywhere."

Tyler put the Marksman away. He wouldn't need it.

"Did you ever talk like this with Melora?" he wondered.

Risa shrugged.

"Sometimes. Not too often. She never really got what I meant. She likes Camineet."

Tyler nodded slowly.

"Yeah, she always did. She always got off on the rush, not just on the job but from the edge, the speed of life. It's like the city was some kind of drug for her. No wonder she never drank; she was already wired just being alive."

And, of course, that had been their problem. That feeling was something Tyler didn't have, something missing inside him. Or maybe the ability to feel it meant that something was missing inside Melora; he couldn't be sure. The reasons didn't really matter, though. Not in the end.

Risa looked up at Tyler and their eyes met. She wasn't any more given to revealing herself to strangers than he was, Tyler thought. Yet almost as soon as they had met one another, they had begun to talk openly, showing part of themselves in their thoughts about Melora. Looking at her, he could tell that she was thinking the same things he was: how, why, what does it mean?

"Do you know where Melora is, and what she's gotten herself into?"

She dropped onto the couch; Tyler perched on one of its arms, bracing himself on one leg.

"Rumors," Risa said, "just the local buzz."

"But what you've heard is bad." It wasn't a question.

"A job went sour on her. At least, that's what they say."

Risa's face tightened.

"Last night, a pack of guys--four, five, something like that--came here and grabbed Melora. They started robbing the place, but someone called the DLE." That was the Division of Law Enforcement, the archopolis' police department.

Tyler cocked an eyebrow at her.

"In Neroton? You're trying to tell me someone called the cops over someone else's troubles in a place like this?" If Neroton had a commandment to live by, it was Thou shalt mind thine own business.

Risa grinned back at him, fully understanding his disbelief.

"It was an eight-year-old kid, his head full of all that law-and-order and good-citizen crap he sees on the holovid. He saw men who look like crooks in his neighbor's apartment, so he ducked into his own home and hit the building alarms. The muscleboys ran before they wound up fighting it out with tac-teams and Polezi."

"I can buy that."

"I talked to the kid; it didn't feel like he made up the story."

Tyler frowned, mentally adding things up. People that an eight-year-old thought "looked like crooks" were street muscle, one of Camineet's most common products. Their level of skill, intelligence, and professionalism could be anywhere from cheap thug to near-elite. It wasn't corporate or government, at least not directly. So, either Melora had gotten into trouble with an individual who had to go out and hire private resources because he didn't have access to or couldn't risk using official security agents, or it was a case of deniable assets. More than once while working for Luveno, Tyler had hired outside talent for a job not because he couldn't do it but because his bosses wanted their official resources well away from the biz.

"They grabbed her, you said?"

"She was still alive when they left the building," Risa confirmed.

"Some of them remained behind, then, to search the apartment...those two things together almost have to mean they were after information."

"That's how I figured it."

Tyler smiled wolfishly as he realized what Risa had been doing in the apartment.

"You were waiting for them to come back, weren't you? This place hasn't been tossed, so they hadn't had a chance to search it before the kid yelled cop. You figured they'd be back, so you waited here to see if you could make them tell you what they did with Melora, or at least get a little payback for her soul."

"Yeah, I didn't exactly expect one of her old friends to come walking in."

"Good reasoning; bad plan," he told her bluntly.

She glared at him.

"Just what the hell do you mean by that?"

"You said there were supposed to be four or five guys total, guys good enough or well-equipped enough to take Melora without setting off a brawl. You and I did more damage to the furniture than they did last night and believe me, you're not in Melora's class. Even with surprise, odds are you'd just have gotten a bad case of dead."

Risa's hands clenched into angry fists, but she didn't argue the point. It surprised Tyler; he hadn't expected the girl to accept unpleasant criticism, even though it was true. He raised his opinion of Risa another notch.

"Tyler, how did they take her so easily? Did she go with them on purpose?"

"Maybe. It could be the feigned surrender bit. I might even believe that Melora wasn't a prisoner at all and we read the situation wrong, except for the guys who hung around to search the apartment after."

He shook his head.

"My best guess, though, is that they used something that paralyzed her--some kind of knockout gas, a silentshot, or if they wanted to get really exotic, the RIMIT technique. With four-to-one odds, even a couple of seconds would have been enough to get a plasmaring slapped onto her or some old-fashioned rope."

Risa sighed heavily.

"I always figured that Melora was invincible or something, that no one could take her."

"The funny thing being, the truth is that anybody can take anybody, if their luck's in. But yeah, I know what you mean."

The girl looked up at him, her strange, dark eyes like hard black diamonds.

"What are you going to do now, Tyler?"

There was a part of him that wanted to answer, "Go back home to Abion; it's too late to do anything now." Tyler had been listening to that part for four years now, and it would have been easy to go on that way. He didn't want to, though. The rush of feelings that had started when he received Melora's letter was still there, still seething in him just under the surface. It wasn't just that she was a former lover; she represented all the choices he'd made in his life. Tyler had a chance, now, to reexamine those choices, including his feelings for his ex-partner, which was something not a lot of people got.

Four years ago, he had run out on Melora when she had needed him, maybe not in the sense of physical danger but otherwise just as much as she needed him now. He had put his own needs first, then; Tyler wasn't going to do it for a second time.

"I'm going to find out who took Melora, and then I'm going to do my best to bring her back." He looked back at Risa. "What I need to know is, are you willing to work with me?"

"Team up with you?"

"Right, and not go off on your own private jaunts for vengeance. Instead, we'll work together."

She gazed at him for a long time, as if weighing Tyler's dedication on some internal balance, then came to a decision.

"All right, count me in."

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