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Freedom's Price

Part III


If Melora's apartment had looked neat and well-kept before, it certainly didn't now. Tyler and Risa had reduced at least two-thirds of it to disaster status in the course of searching it from top to bottom.

"Tyler," Risa asked as she carefully examined a kitchen cabinet, "why did you ask me to help you? You don't know a thing about me."

"I know you're a good fighter, and that you care about Melora. That's enough." The cupboard under the sink, he found, contained only ordinary cleaning products. No false backs, no packages taped out of sight above the door or among the pipes.

"Yes, but why would you want help at all?"

"It's always good to have backup," Tyler told her. "There's a few jobs--most undercover stuff, for example--that work out better for one person alone, but for anything else, you want a team, preferably one with complimentary skills. A good team, one that works well together, is better than just the sum total of its parts."

"Sounds like a marriage."

Tyler stood up, shrugging as he did.

"I haven't got any experience in that field, so I can't really say."

The street girl got a glass tumbler down from the cupboard she was checking.

"I figured a guy like you would be a real lone wolf type."

"Live and learn." He decided that a little more explanation might be in order. "One lone hero taking on a horde of bad guys makes for a good story, especially if you can sign someone like Nick DeHaviland to play the lead in the holovid version, but it's bad policy in real life. At the very least you should have a partner, so you can watch each other's backs. From that point you bring in more people as the job demands them, filling out what skills are needed: soldier, tech-user, gridrider, driver, pilot, mechanic--take your pick. In the business Melora and I used to be in, going it alone was something you did only when you had to."

He was thinking of Melora's apparent capture, and how different it might have been if he had come a day earlier. It had taken him too long to wrestle with his feelings, to convince himself to come back, and it opened up a whole string of what-might-have-beens.

"You want one?" Risa asked.

"One what?"

She held up the glass.

"A drink," she told him. "You look like you could use one; I know I could."

She opened up a tall, square-based bottle of whiskey.

"Yeah, sure--" Tyler suddenly broke off in mid-sentence as he realized something. "Risa, where did you get that?"

"In the cabinet here, over the sink."

"Give it to me."

Confused, she handed it over. He held the bottle up to the overhead light, but the label covered too much.

"Get me a strainer, a narrow one."

Risa handed one over, starting to get the idea.

"Of course! Who'd suspect a whiskey bottle, unless they knew she didn't drink!"

"I might be jumping to conclusions," Tyler cautioned. "Maybe she keeps it on hand for guests."

He set a large mixing bowl in the sink just in case the liquid itself was important--a sample of some new chemical instead of whiskey, for example--then began to pour out the bottle through the strainer into the bowl. It looked and smelled like whiskey.

"Or, you might just be right," Risa observed. Two slender, honey-colored datachips glistened in the strainer's mesh. Each was about the same length and twice the thickness of a toothpick, and was capable of containing large amounts of data. "Wouldn't being soaked like that damage them, though?"

Tyler shook his head.

"Extreme temperature, strong magnetic fields, or just smashing them, sure, but a little water is harmless, so long as you dry the chips off before you put them into a dataport. Now, the computer itself, dumping that into Scion Bay might be a bad idea, but the datachips would be fine until an ammonite ate them." He frowned unhappily. "What I haven't seen so far is a computer."

"Melora had one," Risa provided. "A little IMVE Paradigm."

"The guys who grabbed her must have taken it. One of those notebook-sized computers is easy enough to snatch up, and if they were looking for data its internal memory would be a good place to start.

Finding the datachips told Tyler that, more that likely, it was information the kidnappers were after. Almost by definition that meant they'd be keeping Melora for interrogation. Since LIM's training had taught her to resist most methods of questioning, it would take time to break her down. It provided a superficial timeframe for estimating how long they would keep her alive.

"All right, now that you've found what we're looking for, what's next?"

"First, we finish the search, just in case there's something else to find."

"And then?"

"Then we go figure out what's on these chips."

* * * * *

Predictably, the search of the apartment turned up nothing else of note, though Risa did take the opportunity to appropriate a sonic gun from the cache of combat equipment they found behind a loose panel in the bedroom closet. "After all," she had said, "it's not doing Melora any good in there, is it?" Tyler had to admit that it wasn't, though he also didn't know if it would help Risa. From the way she handled the weapon, he suspected she'd had a lot more experience with close-quarters combat than with guns.

Reading the datachips, then, was the pair's only lead. Accessing them, Tyler assumed, would be a two-step process. First of all, they'd need the equipment to read them. That wasn't tough; any computer would do, including a palm-sized pocket secretary if need be. The problem was, neither of the two had one. Risa of course didn't; she wasn't a gridrider and anyone from the streets who wasn't would have sold any computer they laid hands on for ready cash. Why keep something that wouldn't do her any good? Tyler, meanwhile, did own a computer, but it was back at his home in Abion.

The second step, once they had the equipment, would be beating the encryption. If the information on the chips was as important as it seemed like it was, then there would be at least some security protecting it. If Melora had done it herself, that security would be basic at best, but if the chips merely stored downloaded files or had been stolen as is, they could be heavily encrypted. Of the two of them, Melora had always been handier around a computer than Tyler, so whatever the situation turned out to be, Tyler and Risa would need help getting past the security.

That realization lead to an answer to the first problem, because any gridrider or even a run-of-the-mill data crusher would have plenty of computing power on hand. The next move was therefore obvious.

"So who do we ask?" was Risa's question. A light, steady rain had begun to fall, and both Tyler and the young woman beside him pulled their coats tightly around themselves as they stepped out of the building.

"That's the question, isn't it? My contacts are all four years out of date."

"I know a few people, but I'm not sure I'd trust any of them. Most are just wannabes anyway. You know the type; pull off one dataswipe and they're sure they're the next Angel Red."

Tyler knew the type all too well. He had narrowly avoided becoming one himself in his own youth, a hotshot kid whose illusion of invincibility was much tougher than any skill he happened to possess. It happened a lot on the streets, where the punks who ran with the gangs mistook survival for competence. That was why so many of them wound up gravestoned in the trash bays.

Angrily, the ex-agent shoved the depressing thought out of his head, or at least out of his conscious. Too damn much introspection--and most of it a heavy downer--when he should have been thinking about biz was likely to get him killed if he didn't quit it. Schooling his thoughts into a more productive format, he ran through his mental list of old contacts who handled data work, checking to see if there were any who were likely to be both alive and accessible (as in, could they be reached without using a complex series of relays and passwords that got changed a hell of a lot more often than once every four years). Tyler surprised himself by coming up with a name.

"Hamdak," he said aloud.

"Who?"

"Rhys Hamdak, Ham for short. He ran an electronics store and did a little hacking on the side. He's not even that far away, about ten blocks, unless he moved." Since he had a permanent place of business, he was as likely to still be there as anyone else Tyler remembered from the old days.

"Sounds about right. Let's get going."

The street predators had given Tyler a wide berth before, and now that he had backup they stayed even farther out of his way. Muggers and footpads were a lot like carnivores in the wild; they plucked the sickly and weak from the edges of the herd. Gangs could be different, more like a dog pack that would try to drive off any rival hunters that entered their territory, but Neroton's gangs were limited to its worst sections and the main streets were considered strictly neutral turf. Coincidentally, this almost exactly matched the pattern of DLE patrols in the area--a tacit agreement that kept cops and gangers from getting into a shooting war that wouldn't be good for anybody. "High profile" was about the worst label you could stick on someone in Neroton. All in all, therefore, Tyler and Risa had a pleasant evening stroll to Emmison Drive, the major street in the district. After four years in Abion, Tyler could taste the faint tang of the polluted city air.

"This the place?" Risa asked, looking at a storefront with a red neon sigh in the window reading Ham's Circuit Stop.

"Uh huh. Same sign. Same cracked window, for that matter."

Risa rapped her knuckles on the pane and heard the dull thud of manmade materials.

"Some kind of armored panel?"

"Yeah, like the stuff they use in landrover windows."

"I wondered why the displays didn't get swiped."

Tyler nodded in agreement. Even on the main drag, the window display of portable visiphones, chipreaders, and audivis systems was an open invitation to a snatch-and-grab.

"Guess the armored glass cuts down on the 'spontaneous inventory reductions,' as the corp types would put it. How'd it crack?" the girl asked him.

"Some guy went crazy six or seven years back and shot up the street with a pulse vulcan. The DLE had to call in military help to take him down--a couple of Army Eyes flew in and snared him with plasmarings but not before a stray round cracked the window."

Tyler glanced at his chronograph. It was 23:39, almost midnight. He was surprised Ham's was still open. As if reading his thoughts Risa said, "We'd better go in before he goes to bed," and pulled open the door.

The shop's interior wasn't well-lit; dim florescent tubes ringed the room at the juncture of wall and ceiling, producing a greenish haze not entirely unlike being underwater. It was hard to imagine anyone logically considering the merits of this or that visiphone in here, but maybe that was the point, Tyler thought. Give the shop a little of that cutting-edge, neo-anarchist feel that let the customer imagine she was a red-hot neon angel picking out the latest mod for their gridlink instead of a tired wage slave bring home a new holovision to her husband and two kids.

"Hey, Ham!" Tyler called out to the man behind the counter. "Don't you ever sleep?"

Rhys Hamdak looked at him oddly, trying to place the face, then memories clicked into place and his jaw sagged.

"Tyler?" he exclaimed. "Damn my eyes, it is you. Hell, man, I thought you were long gone from this scrap heap. It's been years since you dropped off the map."

"I thought so too, but it turned out to be just a long vacation."

"Well, you still haven't lost your taste in company," Ham said, sizing up Risa. She tossed him an idle "look but don't touch" expression as he got down off his stool and came out around the counter.

Four years hadn't changed Hamdak much. His dirty blond hair was still worn long, his shirt and pants were still ragged, and he still wore his beat-up tan fibercoat with its symbols of colored braid woven onto each of its dozen or so pockets. The small, round tinted glasses he affected were still in place, although they were blue now instead of green. The only noticeable effects of the transition from early to late forties were that his hair was a little thinner on top and his broad frame was starting to lose the battle against his appetite, developing a bit of a gut. Rhys stuck out a hand and Tyler shook it, tensing his fingers against the strong grip.

"So what brings you to me? I figure it's not just to yak about old times, so lay it out for me, man."

"These." Tyler took out the two datachips. "We want to know what's on them."

"Locked down?"

"Couldn't tell you; I haven't had a chance to look them over at all. I figured if there was a problem, it's better to have them in the hands of someone who can deal with it."

Ham grinned.

"Sounds fine by me; let's get to work."

"Uh uh. First we talk price. As you recall, my knowledge of your working rates is four years out of date."

The big man hooked his thumbs through his belt loops.

"Inflation's a bitch, ain't it? Fifty meseta if all I've got to do is slot the chips and open 'em up. Three hundred if I've got to crack one of 'em open, and five hundred if I have to do both. And...let's call it an even thou if there's any really nasty surprises, firetraps or that kind of thing."

"Let's say fifty, two-fifty, four hundred, and seven-fifty," Tyler haggled. "Inflation isn't that bad."

"Nine hundred on the major stuff, and I'll let you have the rest at your numbers for old times' sake."

Tyler chuckled.

"You drove a hard bargain back then, too."

"Well, a man's gotta have some kind of rep, and if I'm gonna be a bastard, at least I'm not a cheap bastard. Let me lock up and we'll go on back."

Ham not only locked the door but slid two heavy bolts into place as well, then turned off the window sign and display lights. Tyler gave him the datachips and the storeowner led them into a back room that served as a combination office and workspace. He flipped open a notebook-sized computer which was plugged into a collection of other modules and peripherals. Ham was one of those hackers who preferred to tinker with his system and customize it rather than simply buy the newest, sleekest machine on the market, so his base unit wasn't fancy--a Nakagaki Wolf, only a couple of steps up from Melora's stolen Paradigm. If it was a Wolf, though, then it was more like one of those genetically engineered Burnwolves used by the military for security with all the mods Ham had built into it. He cued the machine up and slotted one of the chips.

[UNKNOWN #1 PRESENT]

"Hope you can pay cash, Tyler, because this baby's locked tight."

"Is it bad?" Risa asked. She sat in a battered wooden chair, facing the wrong way and folding her arms on top of its back.

"No way to know, yet."

Ham popped the chip out and inserted it into one of the small, boxy devices connected to the computer.

"Now, let's see how tough you really are." Sensing his audience's curiosity, he explained. "I keep most of my codebreaking software on this unit. Its processing speed is way over the Wolf's so it's got more power."

"Why not use it from the first, then?"

"The thing's set up for anti-security work, not data transfer. The interface is kind of slow if all you want to do is read an open chip."

He typed in a few commands and watched as the scanning programs went to work.

Around a century ago, there had been a big craze over virtual-reality computer interfaces that let the user actually "step inside" the programs, becoming one with the flow of data. All the major computer corporations, the futurists, the technology elite had sword up and down that this was the next thing. Only the military and government resisted the rush to change over to the new interface, on the advice of Mother Brain. As was almost always the case, Mother Brain knew what she was talking about. Ordinary people, from word processors to database managers to shopowners to homemakers preferred a computer they could get up and walk away from, to maintain their distance from while using it. The incredible reaction time made possible by VR, almost speed-of-thought, wasn't useful or practical for most comp users. That was why Hamdak was sitting in front of a screen rather than wiring himself into the network.

The one notable exception to the rule, Tyler knew, were the gridriders, high-end hackers who could and did use the extreme responsiveness of partial or full-immersion virtual reality to navigate the datanet and defeat online security measures. For most people, though, even some hackers, VR was a cumbersome if intriguing toy.

"Hmm, not too tough," Ham mused. "Delta-level encoding, I'd say."

"Delta-level?" Risa asked. "What does that mean?"

"Computer security is rated based on its complexity and difficulty to break," Tyler explained. "Alpha is top-flight, serious business, the kind that gives even the neon angels fits. Beta is close to it but not as good, then down through gamma, delta, and epsilon-level. Anything below that is just an open file, unsecured. Accessibility is rated the same way--alpha-level passcodes, for example, would be held by CEOs, generals, security chiefs, those kind of people." He glanced down at Ham. "Did I leave anything out?"

The big man shook his head.

"Nope, that basically covers it. Like, if to access this chip I needed to enter a six-letter password, that would be epsilon level. This is a little nastier--dual passwords, ten characters each, alphanumeric and case-sensitive. Sixty-two to the twentieth power combinations. What makes it delta is the lockout, though. Enter five wrong combinations and it stops taking input and spits out a virus code to try and crash the system. That keeps me from simply grinding through all the possible combinations."

"Can you get around that?" Risa looked impressed.

"'Course I can, girlie. See, I don't screw around with passwords." He typed in a few commands. "I've got some hot programs here that'll go right after the chip's encoding itself--reprogram it to lower its own security, basically. No sweat."

"He began to type faster, issuing commands as status reports showed themselves on the screen. In less than five minutes he stopped and looked up with a broad grin.

"Hell, Tyler, you'd think that after four years you'd at least have brought me a challenge."

"You're in?"

"Look for yourself."

Ham pointed at the display, which showed [CONTRACT FILES] as the chip's name and beneath that, [DIRECTORY AVAILABLE].

"I knew I could count on you."

"Just remember that warm, fuzzy feeling of gratitude when you're reaching for your money." Ham ejected the chip and handed it to Tyler. "I took the security out permanently, so you can read it any time, now. You can use that machine over there if you don't want me reading over your shoulder." He jerked his thumb in the direction of a chipreader sitting on a side shelf.

"Thanks; we'll take it out front."

"All right; I'll go after the other chip while you're reading. I'm hoping it's no harder than the first one."

"Me too; it's not much good to us if we can't see what's on it."

A chipreader could access and copy text, audio, or video files on an open chip, but not one that had even the slightest security. Its basic use was for reading books, listening to music, or watching holovid shows and movies, making it a key component of most audivis systems. The one Ham offered had a small fold-out screen and speaker system, and retailed for two hundred and twenty meseta.

"Nice of him to give us some privacy," Risa said. "Then again, I ought to expect professionalism from your contacts, not like the skags I know."

"He's being paid to break the security, not pry into our business," Tyler agreed, turning the machine on and inserting the chip.

"So what's on it?" Risa asked as Tyler looked through the directory.

"I think these are Melora's job records."

"Records?" the girl exclaimed incredulously.

Tyler nodded.

"Yeah; it helps her keep things straight, especially if there's fallout that doesn't show up until a year later, or if she needed to arrange a data 'insurance policy' against being set up."

"Isn't it dangerous, though, to leave information like that out where people can get at it?"

With a shrug, Tyler said, "Honestly, if Melora ever got to the point where her own chips could be used as evidence against her, she'd already be in way too much trouble to worry about it."

Risa didn't look like she bought it fully, but then again, neither did Tyler himself. He turned his attention back to the files.

"Let's see; Melora's done bounty hunter jobs, surveillance, item recovery, a couple of courier runs, package protection, and industrial espionage. No bodyguard assignments, though, which isn't surprising. Melora always hated that when she and I were partners."

"You worked for Luveno, didn't you?"

"That's right. I'm surprised Melora told you."

"We talked a lot," Risa said, a bit wistfully. "I think she saw me as a kind of kid sister, or a younger version of herself. She used to run with the Steel Wind, you know, when she was a teenager."

Tyler nodded.

"Yeah, one of LIM's people hired some of the gangers for muscle work and was impressed with Melora's talent. Nevin Dall of LIM Security agreed. The same guy who trained me." He plucked a file from the menu and called it up. "Now, here's something."

"What?"

"Records of Melora's last job. He pointed at the screen. "Here's her client."

Risa chuckled softly. "Adam Smith? That's so damn generic it's funny." Tyler opened up a note Melora had flagged the name with and the girl read, "Aha! They met at the Gray Lion; Melora let Smith pick up the tab with a credit transfer, then she tipped the waiter twenty meseta for a look at the record. The mysterious Mr. Smith is actually Eric Stephens, finance section manager in the Robotics Division, Luveno Industrial Mechanisms."

"Old home week," Tyler said, though in truth he'd never heard of the man. The name of his employer was quite enough. First Melora, now LIM; was everything he thought he had left behind going to come back to haunt him?

"I guess this Stephens guy went to Melora because he needed reliable talent for some under-the-table job? The kind of thing that official corporate agents couldn't touch?"

Tyler skimmed the rest of the file; it was written diary-style instead of being some kind of standard form, but he quickly got the gist of it.

"Good guess, but no. It seems that Mr. Stephens caught a hint of some dirt on his boss and wanted a pro to back his play. Office politics as usual, I guess. If you can't earn a promotion, blackmail your way to one."

"Typical corp games." There was a world of meaning in the street girl's sneer.

"Apparently, Stephens gave Melora a passcode to LIM's system to help her through the security." Tyler frowned, looking at the screen. "The first meeting was a week ago. Melora's message was three days ago, so during those four days, she learned something she hadn't expected. At least, that's the most likely scenario. For all we know, the trouble she told me about is something completely different."

"For that matter, the goons that grabbed her might be a whole different bunch, but thinking like that doesn't give us anything to do."

Tyler nodded.

"I know; we've got to work with what we've got. I just like to remind myself every so often that I shouldn't get locked into my first idea that I miss things."

"So what did she find out for Stephens?" Risa looked over his shoulder, trying to see for herself. Her breath tickled his cheek.

"No clue. It isn't here."

"Probably on that other chip, then," she concluded. "When's Ham gonna get done with it anyway?"

"It ain't gonna be anytime soon," Rhys' voice came from the open door. Risa and Tyler turned as the burly hacker came in. Ham tossed Tyler the chip. "That baby's locked up so damn tight it could take me a year to get inside."

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