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Freedom's Price


Conn Derrek's sleep was shattered by the insistent beeping of the visiphone. One of the problems with working night shifts was that everyone else insisted on doing business during the day, then bothering him with it. The uninterrupted bliss of eight hours of sleep wasn't something DLE agents were too familiar with anyway, but it was an even more endangered animal on the night shift.

"Wake up, Derrek," the voice of Captain Nile snapped when Conn's groping fingers found the Receive button. There was a theory going around the office that Nile never slept at all.

"Wha--?" he mumbled dully.

"There's been a breakthrough on the LIM datatheft."

Sleep retreated instantaneously from his brain as he sat bolt upright in bed.

"What's up?"

"I'll download the details to you."

"All right, hold on." Conn pushed a datapak into the slot in his visiphone terminal. "I'm set."


The information transfer took mere seconds, most of that being the hardware telling itself and the datanet what it was supposed to be doing. A soft ping indicated that the transfer was complete.

"Got it, Captain."

"Good. Here's the upshot: Luveno's computer security has managed to trace last night's intrusion."

"Uh huh," Conn remarked, losing enthusiasm. "They did, did they?"

"That's correct. The gridrider apparently used a powerful shielding program to escape the LIM system once an alert was raised, which blocked their initial attempts to trace him. They went back into the system, though, and found that before the alarm went off he'd left electronic 'footprints' which they were fortunate enough to find and trace back to their source."

"And they just decided to give us this information out of the goodness of their hearts, I assume?" Conn snorted derisively. "Since when does a major corp like Luveno share its internal security findings with the DLE?" The usual corporate reaction to an official investigation was stonewalling and obfuscation. It was understandable; on the one hand, there were millions, even billions of meseta worth of sensitive information that they didn't want leaked, and on the other most corps played fast and loose with the law when it suited them. A cop looking into corporate affairs might stumble across evidence of some gray or even black operation. Going to the DLE and Telling All was no more Luveno's style than for them to give to charity without getting a tax break.

"Since they started working on a major military contract. Remember what issues are at stake here," Nile told him flatly.

"Yeah, all right, that makes some sense." Conn ran a hand through his sleep-tousled purple hair. "Did our own cyber-teams come up with anything to verify their information?"

Nile shook her head.

"Nothing specific, though we do have record showing that the suspect, Rhys Hamdak, was under suspicion of being a minor hacker and dealer in black market data." The Steel Hawk fixed Conn with one of her frozen stares. "Go out, bring Hamdak in, and question him. If we're being fed a line, find out. If not, learn everything you can. We've got an apparent murder and a major datatheft to solve, and you're not going to do that lying in bed."

The visiphone screen blanked out as Captain Nile disconnected. Conn hauled himself out of bed, reflecting that his cold-hearted and iron-willed superior might well have been an android herself.

He regretted that though little more than an hour later as he pulled his unmarked DLE landskimmer some distance up the block from Ham's Circuit Stop.

"That's the place, then?"

"According to the data your captain provided to us, yes," Abren stated in his flat, emotionless voice. Where Nile's directness and lack of emotion exuded iron-hard willpower and emotional control, the Siren's was so pure, so completely unchanging that it seemed utterly alien to the cop. Conn vowed to himself that he'd never compare Nile or anyone else to a machine ever again; the metaphor was simply inadequate. No one could match the icy demeanor of the android next to him.

Derrek didn't contact his backup by radio. This Rhys Hamdak was a gridrider and technical expert; he might have some kind of scanner in place that could pick up cop frequencies nearby. The communications channels the DLE used were fairly secure, but it wasn't like the cops used military-grade encoding.

That thought touched off another question in Conn's mind. Why had the military and LIM turned to the DLE at all? Corporate security divisions always had a black-ops, intelligence section of invariably high quality. The government, for its part, had the original espionage and counterintelligence bureaus the corp ones were based on. They didn't need to risk exposing knowledge of this top-secret Project Nuada by putting it into the hands of yet another agency. The DLE's huge size meant that there were invariably information leaks from time-to-time, dirty cops, nosy reporters, datatrades with informers, and so on. It was good at its job, but keeping secrets wasn't one of its missions.

"Shall we proceed?" inquired Abren, cutting into Conn's chain of thought.

"Yeah, we'd better."

Conn wasn't dressed like a cop, though his black carbonsuit was augmented with the military-styled chest, back, and shoulder plates that both the DLE and private security forces. Conn's armor was ceramic, the top of the line in protection unless one could afford the very rare, very expensive plates made of laconia. Laconia was found only on the third planet in the Algo system, Dezo, where it was mined and refined. The refining process itself was extraordinarily expensive, resulting in a finished product that while harder than any known substance yet light and flexible, bore a price tag even more astonishing than its qualities.

The schematics of the city block Conn had found included with Nile's download showed that Ham's Circuit Stop had a back door that let onto an alley behind the building, so he had taken steps to close it. His backup, two cops assisted by two Whistle robots, was waiting in the alley. As for Conn and Abren, they went right in the front door.

"Good afternoon, Hamdak," he said as he walked into the shop. Conn could see the man's eyes go wide even behind the tinted glasses--the armed man and the Siren were clearly bad news even if Hamdak couldn't identify precisely what type yet. Two customers were in the small electronics shop, apparently ordinary citizens. Neither looked anything like the pictures of Tyler Jorran given to con.

"What do you want?" Ham challenged him. The customers edged towards the door.

Conn pulled out his badge and laser shot simultaneously.

"DLE, Hamdak."

"You are impeding an official investigation," Abren told the customers. "Leave, or you will be arrested on charges of obstructing justice." They left. Armed Sirens could be exceptionally convincing.

"Rhys Hamdak, you are under arrest for unauthorized computer system intrusion and datatheft," Conn told the gridrider. "Those charges are just for openers, though. We've got all kinds of interesting alternatives waiting in the wings for their chance. Treasonous conspiracy, grand theft, industrial espionage, possibly even a friendly dose of murder. So, are we going to do this the long way or the short way?"

"Go to hell, cop."

"The long way, I see. Abren, take a look in back."

"Hey, you can't do that!"

"On the contrary," Abren stated. "In accordance with Palman Law 874-C, proposed by Mother Brain and ratified by the civilian legislature in AW 1164, when arresting a suspect with probable cause, law enforcement officers are permitted to conduct a search of said suspect's residence and/or place of business without the need for additional authorization or a warrant."

Conn glanced curiously at the android.

"I didn't know you were familiar with civilian law."

"In anticipation of this assignment, I added the Palman Laws, both substantive and procedural, to my database."

He went into the back, then returned a moment later.

"There is a moderately elaborate computer system installed here. The majority of the base components are themselves legal, but they have been customized in a number of ways. The setup includes a full-immersion virtual-reality interface, and superficially corresponds with that to be expected from a low-level gridrider."

Conn grinned without humor.

"Looks like we're in the right place, then. Now, Mr. Hamdak, while my partner is assessing the evidence, would you like to change your mind about talking to us? Trying to slip into the LIM mainframe was just a little out of your league, wasn't it?"

In spite of himself, Hamdak's jaw dropped.

"LIM? Damn it, why would LIM call the cops on me? Not saying I did anything, just thinking it sounds off."

"Get in line. Here's the situation: yesterday, you snatched the personnel file of a man who may have been murdered in connection with the theft of military data. We've got the proof we need to send you up for that. I just thought that maybe you'd like a chance to explain now how you were set up, how you never knew that Tyler Jorran was using you to check up on how well he'd covered up the murder he committed."

The scruffy-looking gridrider continued to look at Conn as if the DLE lieutenant had somehow morphed into a manticore in front of his eyes.

"Tyler? He didn't even know the skag's name until last night!" Ham blurted out. Presumably, the shock had surprised him into talking--although, Conn knew, it was also possible that the outburst had been carefully staged to lead the cops down the garden path.

"So you admit working for Jorran?"

"Yeah, but it had nothing to do with any murder. He just wanted me to help dig up some dirt on this Stephens suit."

Conn was halfway surprised that Hamdak hadn't assumed Conn was the one leading him on, making wild threats in the hope of luring out an admission. It was a trick he'd actually used in the past with varying results, but not this time. Who needed to bluff when he had a real club to use?"

"You realize it could have been a put-up job for your benefit, right? A guy like you isn't dumb enough to get involved in something this big, so Jorran spins you a story to sucker you in."

Ham shook his head.

"No, man, I'm serious. Look, come on back and I'll show you. You've got it all wrong!"

He turned to head into the back room, but Conn stopped him, quickly spinning the big man to face the wall and efficiently patting him down. The DLE agent removed a broad-bladed dagger from one of Ham's copious pockets and tucked it away.

"All right, now we can go."

"It's like I said, he had no idea who Stephens was when he came in here," Ham repeated as he led the way towards the back room. He went over to his computer and tapped a few keys.

Suddenly, an electric grid blazed up, filling the doorframe, cutting the two rooms off from one another. As Ham bolted for the other door, Conn and Abren reacted instantly.

"Garrick! Payne! He's coming your way!" Conn ordered over his radio. "Stop him." At the same time, his gun ripped into the doorframe with blue-white beams of energy. Abren's Flare Shot unit did the same, the energy weapons quickly reducing the security system to a smoking but inert mass of circuitry. The two of them ran after Hamdak, who had gone through the back door into a short hall which, Conn knew from the schematics, led to the back alley. Ham's move had gained him only a few seconds' advantage, so Conn actually saw Garrick draw his silentshot while Payne moved in with plasmarings ready to lock into place. The Whistles were about fifteen feet away, one blocking each end of the alley. Ham's shoulders sagged as he realized he was trapped.

The stutter of vulcan fire cut like a knife-blade into Conn's senses, taking everyone off guard. Ham's body shook as the rounds from the two Whistles' mini-vulcans slammed into him. The boom of Abren's shotgun came next, cutting off the lethal fire from one conical robot by the simple expedient of blowing it to bits. Only a moment later, the scream of Conn's laser shot signaled the destruction of the second robot.

"What on Palm just happened?" Conn cursed. "We've got to get a med-team here now."

"Don't bother, sir," Payne said, kneeling by the body. "He's gone."

Conn looked down and winced. The robots had aimed high, scoring with several head shots.

"It is likely that brain damage will be too extensive to successfully generate an active-memory clone," Abren deduced. "Whatever Hamdak had to tell us, it is lost now."

"What's going on?" Garrick said, wide-eyed. He was a young cop, not yet used to the violence of Camineet's streets. Not that the lieutenant was handling himself any better; DLE robots were supposed to use lethal force only if given specific orders to do so. They even had a second internal magazine equipped with non-lethal gel rounds for self-defense and other situations where some force was needed but killing was not.

"Did someone switch the ammo?" Payne asked, her thoughts going in the same direction as Conn's but not quite so far.

"No," he told her, "At least, that's not all that was done."


"The Whistle-type robot, excepting the Tracer, which featured a laser cannon rather than a vulcan, are capable of assessing the type of ammunition present in their magazines," Abren informed her. "Therefore, even if these Whistles were loaded with improper ammunition, they should have detected the same and refrained from firing. In addition, the prevalence of head shots indicates an attempt to avoid ballistic armor such as this fibercoat. A Whistle does not do so when employing non-lethal ammunition. These robots intentionally fired in lethal mode."

"Either someone gave these Whistles instructions to shoot to kill, or someone tampered with their programming," Conn concluded.

"In their present condition it will be difficult to ascertain precisely what was responsible."

"Let's have the lab look over what's left, anyway; maybe they can salvage something that'll give us a clue." What Conn couldn't get out of his head, though, was that Whistles were manufactured by Luveno, and that it was also LIM which had provided the information that had brought them here in the first place. He pulled out his palm-comp and scanned the data Captain Nile had downloaded to him less than an hour and a half ago, looking for the name of the contact person at Luveno who had reported Hamdak's name to the DLE.

"Garrick, Payne," he instructed the junior agents, "you two take care of things here. Abren and I need to have a talk with Mr. Gage Worthmann."

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