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Freedom's Price

Part V

"Died?" Risa exclaimed. "What happened to him?"

"Fatal landskimmer crash, according to this. Funny thing, though; I popped off a couple of automatic search utilities to scan the public net on that kind of stuff, and they aren't showing anything yet."

"Sloppy," Tyler decided. "He, she, or they should have gotten the cover story in place externally first, then updated the internal files instead of taking the easy way out. If it is an official job, Dougan will burst a vein when he finds out."

"Dougan?" Risa asked.

"Kyle Dougan," explained Hamdak. "Formerly Computer Section Manager for Luveno's Security Division. In other words, the head of CompSec."

"Formerly?" Tyler asked.

Ham cackled.

"The late, unlamented Kyle got himself caught on the wrong side of a takeover bid two years back. Luveno went after a chunk of Scion-Colesburg Technologies and Scion-Colesburg replied by allegedly sending an outlaw team of hitters after key members of LIM Security. All the hunters got gravestoned, of course, but they managed to take down Dougan, Rafe Frederichs, Laila Newcomb, and a few miscellaneous underlings."

Tyler wondered how many of the "miscellaneous underlings" had once been friends. Dougan and Newcomb hadn't been--in fact, they were part of the reason he had quit--but Rafe had been a decent guy, a man he, Melora, and a couple of others had tossed back a few drinks with after missions. The other agents had teased Rafe about his management aspirations; apparently he had made it up the ladder at least far enough to be mentioned in the same breath as the two section managers.

Just another reminder of how far out of it I am.

He shook his head and got his thoughts back to the here and now.

"All right, so Stephens gets killed two days ago. Presumably, he gave up Melora before he died, either on his personal computer or something like that, or just through interrogation. Yesterday, Melora gets grabbed, but the kidnappers can't find this chip." He held up the encrypted datachip. "Whoever's behind this knows that this data is still out there, so he, she, or they won't quit until they've cleaned up all traces."

Risa flexed her hand, causing her claws to snap out and lock into place.

"Good. I wouldn't want them to get bored and go home before we're through playing."

The two men grinned. There was something to be said for youthful enthusiasm.

"Actually, you've got a good point. So long as the opposition is still taking action, they're leaving traces that might make them vulnerable. Presuming, of course, that we don't get ourselves caught while tracking them."

"That's why we've got a former corporate ace like you on our side."

"Speaking of which, we need to find a place to hole up and crash. If they've got Melora, they might learn she sent for me. Heck, a half-decent gridrider could hack into the letter transmission records and find out that she sent me a message. I can't run around Camineet leaving a datatrail. For all I know, there's a pack of thugs trashing my room at the Red Circle right now."

Risa nodded.

"Don't worry. I can take care of that. I know a place where we can catch a few zees--presuming that you're not too picky about sharing your room with assorted six-legged pals."

"Better than two-legged insects." He dug another packet of meseta out of his wallet and slapped it into Hamdak's palm. "Thanks for the work, Ham."

"Nothing to it. Stop by sometime; we'll have a beer and talk over old times."

"Nice meeting you, Ham," Risa said. The big man winked back at her.

"My pleasure, cutie."

She tossed her head, sending her green hair tumbling down around her shoulders, and winked back at him. Tyler, though, didn't share her mirth; he was still thinking about Ham's invitation, which cut too close to his own thoughts of a few minutes ago.

* * * * *

The coffee was warmed over and tasted like sour android lubricant, but it was hot and that was all Conn Derrek cared about. He hated night shifts; they threw his body clock all out of rhythm. Mentally cursing Leo Cardwell for getting sick and sticking him with this cover assignment, Conn went back to his desk and sipped coffee while looking over the day's incident reports. He was just starting to get into the mental groove that made drudgework click by at a steady pace when the comm unit built into his desk buzzed, jolting him off-track. Irritated, he stabbed the flashing red button with the tip of his pen and watched as the face of his superior appeared on the visiphone/intercom screen.

"What is it?" Conn growled.

"I've got an assignment for you," Captain Alana Nile said, "unless, of course, you've really got a fetish for data memory."

"Captain, I could kiss you."

"No, you couldn't. Just get in here."

Conn didn't quite run across the squad room, but only barely. The main problem with being on the fast track for promotion was that each step up took him farther away from the action. Going from street cop to detective had been fine; the work had only gotten more interesting. Moving up to sergeant had brought autonomy, a degree of freedom to work his cases the way he wanted to. Lieutenant, though, had been one step too far up the ladder.

He figured Captain Nile knew what he was feeling. The "Steel Hawk" of the Camineet DLE had worked her way up through the ranks out of the Rendak sector, the worst section of the arch' except possibly Ossale Court. The silver-gray hair pulled back into a severe bun, the harsh, aquiline lines of her face, the stone-colored eyes all suggested she would be happier back there instead of here at DLE Central Headquarters in the midst of Downtown Camineet's corporate towers.

Unlike Nile, Conn had been recruited into the DLE from college with the specific goal of, someday, making him an executive. His tall, broad-shouldered frame might have looked better-fitted to a tactical team's ceramic armor than a corp-styled carbonsuit, but Conn had turned down six-figure offers from Scion-Colesburg and Nakagaki to become a cop.

He paused at the threshold, ran his hand over his dark purple hair to make sure it wasn't too badly mussed, and opened the door to Nile's office.

"You said something about an assignment, Captain?"

Nile sat behind her desk, stone-faced as usual. Surprisingly, she wasn't alone. A Wren-type android with the red hair and silver complexion of a Siren386 model stood next to her, its blue-tinted body glowing in the artificial light. The Sirens weren't as advanced as the multi-purpose Browrens and Shirens LIM had introduced, but as tasked combat machines they were perhaps the most lethal of the Wrens. Conn was even more surprised to see that the android was armed, a heavy combat shotgun slung at its hip, though on second thought he realized that disarming the Siren was probably moot. Its internal Flare Shot unit was more deadly than the gun anyway, if it decided to go rogue.

"What's going on?" Conn asked.

"A case of data intrusion," Nile stated, handing across a palm-sized chipreader which undoubtedly had all the records programmed into it already.

"Isn't that a job for Cybercrimes, not Special Investigations?"

"Not according to the brass. This assignment was delivered to me personally with instructions to put our top people on it. Clearly, it isn't a simple matter of hacking. According to military sources, it ties in to a larger operation, the theft of extremely sensitive data from Luveno Industrial Mechanisms, as well as the possible homicide of an LIM section manager."

"What type of data was stolen?"

"That's classified," Nile answered sourly.

"Classified?" Conn boggled. "You mean, if I find the data, I won't even know it?"

"I don't make these idiotic decisions," Nile stated coldly. "It was a condition forced on us by the military."

"Which it means it could have come all the way from Mother Brain. No chance of getting out of it, then." He tapped a few buttons on the chipreader. "At least I get to know the name: Project Nuada."

Nile waved that aside.

"The military's cyber-teams are working the computer angle, along with Luveno's in-house gridriders. Your job is to pursue the criminals in the real world, not on the datanet. This," she added, indicating the android, "will be your partner on this assignment."

Conn looked at it dubiously.

"I am a Siren386 series Wren-type android belonging to the military," the Siren said, speaking for the first time. "I am officially ranked as a lieutenant; you may address me by my individual designation, Abren."

"Charmed," Conn muttered. He could deal well enough with robots, which when it came down to brass tacks were just fancy tools, but a mechanical being with fully Palman sentience was something else again. Especially, he thought, the Wren-types, which although they possessed intellect and reasoning, plus the ability to learn and adjust their behavior accordingly, were completely emotionless. Conn couldn't treat Abren like a thing because it--he--really wasn't a mere object, but he couldn't treat him like another person, either, because he didn't react like one. Abren would never get angry, or frustrated, or happy; he lacked that capacity.

Not to mention the fact that as a military android, Abren probably had access to a fair amount of classified data. No one liked working with a partner, Palman or android, who was keeping back secrets.

"All right, Captain, where do I start?"

It was the android who answered him rather than his superior.

"An hour and a half ago, an intruder was detected in the LIM network attempting to access the personnel file on Eric Stephens."

"Stephens. That's the possibly murdered man?" Conn distrusted coincidence.

"It is. That information is contained in your datachip briefing, Lieutenant Derrek."

Abren, old pal, I think I could come to hate you with very little trouble whatsoever.

"When the cyber-teams have traced the intrusion, you will arrest the perpetrator and learn what he or she knows about this business," Nile told him.

"It's not the same person that stole the Project Nuada data?" Conn asked.

"No, though I'm interested in learning how you deduced that."

"You wouldn't have said we were to 'learn what he or she knows' if this hacker was the perp. What makes you so sure?"

"Style," the captain declared. "According to LIM's people and the military investigation, the initial datatheft was done by a top-flight gridrider. The second one clearly was not. Thus it could be a rival, a member of a group doing cleanup, or even an unrelated occurrence.

Conn skimmed over some of the information on his chipreader.

"The datatheft is assumed to be an operation carried out by a small, elite team," he read. "Where did that come from?"

"It's the profile on our only suspect," Nile explained. "He's not a gridrider, so he didn't carry out the actual computer operation, but he is a professional with experience in covert operations. His profile indicates leadership ability, especially as it concerns small, multirole units or strike teams."

Conn called up the background on the suspect.

"Tyler Jorran. Formerly an agent for Luveno security, special operations section. Well, we all know what that means. Impressive dossier. What's he been doing since he left LIM?"

"Our information suggests that he has served as a freelance mercenary, working for one corp or another," Abren stated. "His skills would be in high demand as a hunter, while his knowledge of LIM's security protocols, though outdated, would make him an ideal choice to lead a team operating against that corporation."

"Good point," Conn admitted. "All right, then, so if tonight's hacker slips the net..."

"You go after Jorran," Nile stated flatly. "Bring him in, and you'll have your answers."

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