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Freedom's Price

Part VI


Tyler came to with the morning sun beating down on his head. The boards nailed into place over the tenement's windows hadn't been lined up right, probably because the amateur carpenter had been crazed out on booze, metachems, or both when he nailed them up. Either that or someone had been bright enough to realize that the narrow slits made decent gunports and the boards soft cover if things ever came down to a siege. Those weren't all that uncommon in Ossale Court. The big, sprawling slum had once been a suburb of Camineet, built right up against the two-hundred-high wall of the residential area that had once enclosed Camineet and Parolit both in addition to many acres of greensward and a fair-sized forest, and which now was filled to bursting by the archopolis. It had started out as an industrial park with convenient living space for its workers, but when Rydell Engineering had been bought out by IMVE and both Global Envirotech and Eppi Products decided it was cheaper to build new plants elsewhere, the economic bottom had fallen out of the district. That had been in 1012; the arch' had just swelled south around it, leaving Ossale Court to be little more than a garbage dump for the rest of Camineet for over two hundred and fifty years.

Tyler had dragged the battered foam chair pad off the beat-up recliner someone had scavenged, wrapped himself in his coat, and slept on the floor with the pad as a pillow. Risa had slept in her clothes, too, unwilling to let her skin touch the stained and dirty bedding spread over the room's single, narrow cot. It was a toss-up as to which had spent the more uncomfortable night, but on the other hand, they had been able to wake up in the morning.

That counted for something.

The ex-agent stood and stretched, working the kinks out of cramped muscles with a few simple exercises. When he was feeling more like himself he went over to the room's only amenity, an InstaCaf coffee maker that someone, somehow had seen fit to stock with packets of crystals. Tyler rinsed out the pot and set the machine to work. One might have expected the water to be as dirty as the air in the district was, but the city's water systems, like its electricity, were maintained by Mother Brain and her robots, and imperfection wasn't a word one associated with her. Tyler figured the computer would probably blow a circuit just from the suggestion.

Tyler ducked into the tiny bathroom alcove, and by the time he came back the smell of strong, hot coffee was starting to rouse Risa from sleep. He poured the coffee into the only cups in the room, their own leftovers from the fast food meal they had grabbed after leaving Ham's the night before. The polyfoam cups had originally held cola, but they worked just as well for hot drinks.

"What time is it?" Risa moaned.

"Nine," Tyler told her after checking his chronograph.

"Six hours. Not too bad under the circumstances."

"Coffee?"

She took the cup from his outstretched hand, then managed to sit up without spilling it and took a long drink. Risa's scowl reminded Tyler of the expression she had sported while trying to kill him.

"Gothic Regal this isn't."

"Expensive tastes for Ossale Court."

"Hey, I don't take metachems, so I've got to do something with all my meseta." She ran her hand through her sleep-tangled green hair. "Don't you have any vices?" Tyler shrugged.

"The occasional ale, once in a while something harder."

"Try again," Risa said, sipping her coffee. Tyler let his cool, watching the thin plumes of steam rise through the irregular sunlight. "That's not what I mean and you know it."

Tyler shrugged again.

"Nothing I can think of."

Risa looked at him oddly, as if she'd just been taken by a strange thought and wasn't sure where to go with it.

"What?"

She shook her head.

"Nothing important."

"Really?"

"Yeah, it's nothing." She got up and walked over to the window, peering out through the slit. "Do you have any ideas about what to do next?"

"Find Melora's gridrider."

"To read the chip?"

"Partly." The polished rings and buckles on Risa's jacket glittered in the strong sun, sparkling as she shifted posture. "We'd need either a first-rater or a middle-class one plus time to crack the security, and we're not flush with time. The person who set up that security can crack it faster than anyone else possibly could. There's more, though. I want to know more about what's going on than just what's on the chip, and the gridrider may be able to fill in the blanks, depending on how much Melora told him or her about the job. Besides that, we know that we'll need a top-notch neon angel if we need to hunt around inside LIM's system again and we already know the quality of the one Melora used. It's not our only option, but this is the one with the biggest potential payoff."

Risa tapped her fingertips idly on the planks.

"All right, I buy it." She turned back to him. "Let's get going."

"Just like that?"

"You've got something better to do with your time? Let me freshen up and we can ditch this hole."

"Okay, I'm going to step outside and wait for you."

"Prude," she teased.

Tyler descended the narrow flight of stairs and went outside the building. The street in front of the run-down tenement was dark for midmorning; the district's proximity to the old wall made Ossale Court one of the most dismal parts of the city. The wall was cracked and run-down in places, such as the twenty-foot-wide hole that let in the shaft of morning sun spotlighting the front of the building. In another half-hour, Tyler estimated, the sun wound have moved and the block plunged back into near-night. There weren't many people about, a squatter sleeping in an alley across the way, a tired-looking thrill calling it a night--or a day, as the case may be. As much of the Court's life went on at night as it did in the daytime, probably more.

The four of them seemed to come out of nowhere, flowing out of the alleys flanking the tenement. Three boys, one girl, none older than seventeen, all wearing sleeveless vests, tight pants, and crude capes. Thorn-vine tattoos gave their faces some ornamentation in place of the usual piercing. Surprisingly, all of them carried stout wooden canes, three in hand while the fourth's was tied at his belt so he could free up both hands for using his loaded bow gun.

Tech-gang, Tyler assumed. Their weapons and appearance suggested these four belonged to a gang which pretended to be wizards of centuries ago. No one used true magic any more, but the power of techniques, scientifically defined as the manipulation of mystic energy by an act of will, was close enough for Tyler and most everyone else besides. Almost every Palman had the potential to use at least a few techniques, though most never bothered to develop that potential.

"This is Curse Kings turf, big shot," the one with the bow gun challenged. "You got a reason for being here?"

"Watch it, Robin; he looks like he can handle himself," the female ganger cautioned. The boy next to her cackled.

"Tough guy or weak, they all burn just the same."

Tyler didn't feel tough. In fact, he felt stupid. He should never have allowed the four punks to sneak up on him, without even drawing his gun in return. He was reacting like a tourist, not a professional, and the fact was starting to really bother him.

"So," he said coldly, his displeasure with himself carrying over into his words, "we've established that this is your turf and I'm on it. Where do we go from here?"

"You get a lot of pain, man," sneered the one who had talked about burning."

"Maybe," Risa cut in, "but you're not going to be the one dealing it out." She had apparently seen what was up and exited the building by a side door so she could slip up on the tech-heads from behind. The points of her claws were pressed against the back of the hothead's neck. "Just when the hell did you skags start claiming neutral territory as your own, anyway? You think you can take on the Red Wheels, the Slicers, and the Bladelords all at once?" She grinned derisively. "Or does Warner ever know you're here? That's it, isn't it; you four got a little too high and decided you were going to carve out a big chunk of rep for yourselves."

Tyler smiled icily. He didn't know the dynamics between the local street gangs the way Risa seemed to, but he could follow along with the story she told easily enough. From the nervous looks on the faces of the four Curse Kings, she was right on the money or close to it.

"So how about you pack it in and nobody gets hurt, nobody has to know that you were throwing your weight around."

"Up yours!" the loudmouthed one snapped, throwing his body forward, away from her claws, as he spoke.

A half-second faster than everyone else in reacting to the lunge, Tyler dodged to his left to get his chest out of line with the bow gun. His left fist lashed out, connecting with the previously silent ganger's jaw while his other hand reached for the Marksman. His move came just in time; Robin reflexively pulled the trigger and sent the arrow whistling through the space Tyler had just vacated.

The female Curse King extended her hand towards Tyler and cried out, "FOI!" The burst of fire summoned by her technique exploded against the ex-agent's back. Fortunately, she was strictly an amateur at tech-use, so while the impact staggered Tyler, knocking him off-stride and scorching his fibercoat, it did little real harm. She tensed herself for a second try, but the point became moot as Risa's claws slashed into her, the steel bars inflicting a fatal wound.

The hothead who had started the brawl only then managed to roll to his feet. Desperately, he summoned up whatever will he had, thrust both hands forward, and screamed, "ZAN!" Whirlwind columns of air burst up around Tyler and Risa, slashing at their bodies while sucking the oxygen from their lungs. The punk's powers of mental concentration were greater than his late companion, or perhaps panic gave him strength, but for whatever reason his technique had a much stronger effect that the girl's. Tyler felt the wind razors cut through his coat in several places, lightly scoring his arms and things, while the general buffeting effect left him battered and dazed.

Not wanting to endure another such assault, Tyler forced himself to bring up the Marksman and fire three times. His aim was shaky, but he managed to stay on target with two of the concentrated soundbursts, which punched through the ganger's meager chest protection, sprawling him out across the tenement steps.

The Curse King Tyler had punched was slowly regaining his senses, meanwhile; it had been a good, hard blow that had taken him completely off-guard, but hadn't been quite enough to take him completely out of the fight. The one called Robin jacked a second bolt into the bow gun. Risa was still dazed and reeling from the ZAN technique, leaving Tyler at a disadvantage.

On the other hand, the odds had gone from two to one to dead even in the space of a few seconds. The gangers were pack animals, and when the pack was thinned out, its members reacted invariably with fear and shock. They were on their heels, off-balance and desperate, as stunned by their losses as Tyler and Risa were from their injuries. Perhaps more so; by the time Robin got his bow up and in firing position, Tyler was on him, crashing the butt of his sonic gun against his head.

The last ganger dropped his cane and threw up his hands.

"Please, man, lemme go!" he pleaded.

Tyler raised the gun, sighting it in on the punk's forehead. He's just a kid, part of him thought. Another part countered with, A kid who was willing to kill me a second ago, for whatever money I'm carrying or maybe just to feel the rush. It was so easy for greed and hate to burn the humanity out of a person, especially on the streets of Ossale Court.

"Go away," he told the Curse King. "If you so much as think about a threatening move, you're dead."

The kid believed him; he bolted.

"It would have been better to kill him," Tyler mused. "For all I know, he's gone to get a pack of his friends and come looking for payback."

"Why didn't you?" Risa asked in a flat monotone.

"I'm willing to kill. In self-defense, or to stop greater violence, but I'm not going to kill people because it's damned well expedient."

He thrust the gun under his coat savagely and turned back towards Risa. The green-haired girl was standing stiffly, her muscles unnaturally tensed. Blood dripped from the tips of her claws.

"Was this...the first time you've killed someone, Risa?"

She shook her head slowly.

"Not the first."

She cleaned off the steel bars and retracted them into place, then took a deep breath.

"It only hurts when it's all over," she said with a sigh. "Then I feel sick. No, more like...detached. Like I'm not real anymore."

She sighed, wrenching herself back from the realization of what she'd done with considerable mental effort. Her feelings reminded Tyler of his own, the first few times he had been forced to take a life in the line of duty.

Melora, he remembered, had never been like that. Or, more accurately, by the time he'd known her, she had already gone past that point, experienced the process of coming to terms with the act of killing during her years on the Rendak streets. She'd already learned that while it was never a good thing to take a life, there were times it was the best choice offered by this imperfect world.

"What was all that about this place being or not being neutral turf, anyway?" Tyler changed the subject.

"This part of Ossale Court is called the Down Zone. It's about a dozen blocks that the four big gangs bordering the area agreed to leave as neutral terrain. It's a buffer zone, and a meeting place where biz gets set up." She jerked a thumb at the run-down tenement they had spent the night in. "That firetrap, for example, is owned by the Red Wheels. They use it as a kind of hotel and crash pad, but the rooms go for five meseta a head to anyone who wants to hole up, no questions asked. I grew up here in Down Zone; it's why I'm not wearing colors now. 'No forced recruiting' is one of the rules."

"These rules being enforced by the threat of the other three gangs getting together to kick the crap out of the one that steps out of line, I assume?"

She flashed him a grin.

"Hey, it's not a really complex system, but at least there aren't any lawyers to screw it up."

Tyler chuckled at that.

"C'mon, let's get going," he said. "I've got to put the word out that I'm in the market for a gridrider."

"You really think you can hook up with the one Melora hired?"

"I think so. Presuming, of course, that the people I intend to ask haven't gotten themselves killed while I was out of town."

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