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Freedom's Price

Part IX


Camineet's subway system wove a network beneath the city that closely mirrored the spiderweb of highways that rose above it. Tyler and Risa had been using the trains for much of the day, as they were cheaper than cabs, and they returned to Neroton the same way. The sleek electric engine braked to a stop with a squeal of metal wheels, and the car doors opened.

The Neroton station was a subterranean block of concrete, the walls painted with a variety of graffiti. Most prominent were the colors of the Thrill Riders, a gang whose "turf" was the subway routes through the less savory sections of Camineet. No gang members were evident, though, and Tyler led Risa up the steel steps to street level.

"So why are we going back to Ham's?" Risa asked.

"To trace those two muscleboys you saw."

"I know; you said that already. I just don't understand how. I mean, I don't have names or fingerprints or genetic data or even the plate number off the landskimmer. There's nothing a datanet search could turn up."

"There's faces," Tyler said, orienting himself on the street. The Circuit Stop was a few blocks away and Tyler wasn't as sure of his knowledge of the district's layout as he once had been. It took him a few seconds to make sure in his own mind where he was going. "You gave me a pretty good description, one I'm sure is good enough to use to identify them."

Risa shot him a look.

"Okay, I admit it; I don't know what the hell you're talking about. It's not like Ham's got a file of faces to sift through...does he?"

"Not unless he hacks into DLE records. That's not what I meant, though."

"Oh?"

"Computer imaging. If he can't do it--and I doubt that, the procedure is pretty standard--he'll know someone who can. Using your description, the computer creates a basic template that you can then modify until it matches what you can remember of the two goons. Then, it compares the images to whatever public and not-so-public records it can get to. We'll be able to put names and backgrounds to those faces."

"Then, if Ham can't find anything, we can give the images to Melora's gridrider once that pompous stuffed shirt finds him for us?" Risa asked, thinking ahead.

Tyler nodded. The girl was definitely getting with the pace.

As they neared Ham's Circuit Stop, it became apparent that something was very, very wrong. A large crowd was milling around in the street, and the strobing red and blue lights of an ambulance and DLE skimmers stood out nearly as brilliantly as they would have at night.

Tyler and Risa glanced worriedly at one another. It might be coincidence--in fact, it might not even be about Ham, they couldn't tell from this distance--but neither one of them believed that. They wormed their way through the crowd to get a closer look, and soon realized that their fears had been justified. The alleyway that wound behind the row of buildings was sealed off and both uniformed DLE agents and white-coated technicians went in and out of Ham's store. The back of the ambulance, but the form on the stretcher inside had its face covered.

"What happened here?" Tyler asked the person nearest him.

"It was the cops, man. They came in to bust Ham, but he tried to shoot it out."

"Don't apologize for those uniformed bastards!" exclaimed a tight-faced woman. "They went in to kill him! Why else would they have had that combat android along?"

"Oooh, I saw him," murmured a man with the left half of his head shaved. He shuddered delicately and added, "All that red hair and chromed steel...and that huge gun he was carrying must have been a plasma cannon."

The sky had grown dark and overcast since midday, belying the promise of sun the bright morning had offered. The ozone tang of a coming storm was in the air, and the crowd seemed to have absorbed some of the electricity into themselves. Why else was a simple death of interest in Neroton?

"Why did the cops want Ham?" Risa asked, drawing out the next spate of rumors.

"He must have been involved in something big," commented a teenager. "Cops wouldn't kill him just for the fun of it."

"I heard he was dealing hot data--real heavy-duty stuff."

"Ham? Come on, everyone knows he was just a small-timer, both as a gridrider and as a data fence."

"No way, man, that was only an act. Holy truth, he was like the next Angel Red or something. Had everyone fooled, until he made that one last slip."

"I heard that he got on the wrong side of some corp and they framed him so the DLE'd do their dirty work."

"Oh yeah? My brother's on a med-team and he said that Ham scragged a couple of robots before he bit it. Why'd he know to come out shooting if it was a frame job?"

Another man chirped up with, "Nah, the cops took out those 'bots themselves. Looks a lot more dramatic than just dropping a gun by the guy's hand and claiming he was shooting at them."

Tyler shook his head sadly, commiserating with the crowd, then started to ease back. He didn't know why the DLE might be after him, but one never could be sure. Caution had kept him out of trouble in the past and his instincts, largely dormant thus far, were telling him not to take any risks. He and Risa eased away from the front of the crowd, then slipped out the back and headed away from the store.

"That was because of us, wasn't it?" Risa whispered, wide-eyed.

"Possibly not," Tyler said. "Ham was involved with other biz, too. Some of that might have gone sour. I doubt it, though. My gut tells me that you're right, that it was something to do with us."

"How? We barely even talked to him. How would anyone even know that he was involved?"

Tyler thought the question over.

"I assume he made a mistake in Luveno's system last night, something that wasn't obvious but which was picked up after some work. There were a lot of alerts going off for him to duck them all perfectly. All I can really do is guess, though. There's no sure thing."

He paused, drumming his fingers thoughtfully against the side of a visiphone booth.

"What bothers me is why the DLE would be involved, if that was the case."

"Hacking's a crime; they're the cops. What's off with that?"

"Yeah, but this isn't some punk with an attitude taking a joyride on the datanet. This is LIM corporate politics that ended with that Stephens guy getting himself gravestoned. Luveno would never report a crime like this to the DLE for fear that some zealous cop would dig too deeply and start revealing everyone's nasty little secrets. Murder is just as illegal for corps as it is for anyone else, and for that matter, so are breaking and entering, datatheft, illegal phone taps, and all the other nastiness that's part and parcel of industrial espionage and office power games. There was a major scandal not too far ago when Eppi Products let too much get public and the resulting prosecutions and civil suits gutted the company. Scion-Colesburg snapped up everything that was left for a song because the stock had fallen so badly." Tyler shook his head. "No, it doesn't add up. There's something not right, some piece of the puzzle we don't have."

"Could be all coincidence."

"Maybe, but like I said before, I doubt it. Coincidences do happen, yeah, but they're not a safe bet."

He walked around to the phone booth's door. It was as good a time as any to check the message board.

"I'm going to see if Jac's left us anything yet. We really need to find that gridrider now."

Tyler stepped inside the booth and fed meseta into the visiphone. He then punched in the code for the Intra-Metro message board. The idea was simple; accessible by phone or over the datanet, the board was nothing more than a series of text and voice messages. Anyone could post or read what had been posted. Some messages were personal, but many were part of long chains of debate, especially on political topics. The raw anonymity of it was what made it so good for Tyler; so long as specifics were avoided, no one could tell what message was for whom.

Thankfully, he didn't have to read through the thousands of messages like he would in a newspaper personals column. Nor did Tyler have have to read through the index of those messages. A couple of basic search engines were built into the board, and Tyler used them to search for the words "Alis" and "Odin." In addition to an eighteen-message chain debating the literary merits of the Alis Landale legend, there was a single private posting.

Alis--Would love to see you again if you're still in town. How about Shadowedge tonight, at 11:00? I'm sure you'll find it's exactly what you need. Odin."

Finally, Tyler thought, something was going right. He swiftly posted a reply: I'll be there; my treat. Alis. He was smiling as he stepped out of the booth.

"I guess Jac had some luck, judging by your face," Risa said irreverently. She was grinning at the thought, though, too.

"The best; the meet's on tonight at an hour to midnight."

"Where?"

"Shadowedge."

Risa whistled.

"That is one majorly hot club. Too bad it's going to be on business; that really kills the party mood."

"I suppose that's one way of looking at it," Tyler snapped back more sharply than he meant. The girl didn't take offense; she just looked at him with understanding.

"Ham's death is getting to you, grin or no grin, isn't it?"

He smiled sardonically, this time with no pleasure in it.

"First Melora, then I hear that Rafe's dead, now Ham. It's like everyone from my past is being torn away, until all that's left is the city itself. Everything else is just memories."

"Don't talk like that! We're going to find Melora!" Risa insisted.

"It's been two days already. She might be dead."

Risa shook her head angrily.

"I won't believe that, not so long as there's hope." Tyler wished he had her optimism.

Mercurial as ever, Risa swiftly changed her mood and the topic.

"What about back in Abion? Don't you have friends or family there?"

Tyler shook his head glumly.

"No, not really. Abion...I don't think Abion was ever really a home. It was just a hole I could crawl into and hide for a while."

"Hide from what?"

"Life, maybe. I knew I couldn't be a corporate agent any more, but as for what I could be..." He shrugged helplessly.

They walked along slowly as the sky began to rumble.

"I don't get it," Risa decided.

"Well, Melora didn't either, so you're not alone."

A breeze was starting up; it blew wisps of green hair across the girl's face.

"Is that why the two of you split up? Because you felt you had to do something and she didn't understand why?"

"That's getting a little personal for someone who's known me for less than a full day, don't you think?" he snapped.

"Well, pardon me for caring. Melora's my best friend, not to mention that she was helping me to make something of myself besides a second-rate punk who'd burn out and be dead before twenty-five. It's gotten pretty damn obvious I can't do it alone; I need your contacts, I need your skills, hell, I even need your bankroll." She shook he head, exasperated. "Sometimes you're so competent it's scary, more of a pro than even Melora was. Then, you just let your head go sailing off someplace. You've got to pull it together, Tyler!"

He turned to face the girl, smoldering inside. His feelings must have shown through in his expression because a jolt seemed to pass through Risa. She rocked backwards, involuntarily going on the defensive before she could gain control of herself.

"Don't worry," Tyler said quietly, tension in his voice. "I'm not angry at you."

"I wasn't--" she began lamely, but he cut her off.

"You're right. I've been off, way off ever since I came back to Camineet. I'm not what I used to be. I don't have the instincts, the reactions any more. It comes and goes in flashes, like trying to remember a dream when you wake up. Only sometimes I'm afraid that the edge isn't just forgotten, it's gone for good, and I won't be able to get it back. So where would that leave Melora?"

And would it all be my fault, he added silently, because I walked out on her four years ago? Maybe she needed me more than I needed an escape.

Another time, his mind might have dismissed that as foolish and pointless thinking, the kind that shortchanged both his own needs and his ex-lover's capacity to live her own life. Now, though, having just seen another ally, a near-friend, carried away dead, Tyler was all too receptive to the doubts, blame, and self-pity.

Risa, on the other hand, was not. She snapped back at him, punctuating each word with a sharp poke in the chest.

"Then you'd better figure out just where the hell you are in a hurry, because the world's not going to wait around for you."

Tyler snatched her hand, holding it in a stone-hard grip. Rain began to fall, streaking their faced and beating on their shoulders and backs. They took no notice of it, frozen as still as statues, Tyler's blue eyes locked on Risa's dark ones.

At last, he let her hand go.

"Come on, let's get going," he told her, spinning on his heel and striding off purposefully,

"Where are we going?" Risa asked.

"Melora's building. We've got eight hours to kill, and there are two of us now, so I thought we might give your idea from last night a try. Whatever's on that chip, I don't think anyone is going to be willing to leave it behind."

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