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Freedom's Price

Part X


The corporate headquarters of Luveno Industrial Mechanisms stood out even from the other towering spires of glass and steel that loomed over the heart of Camineet. It wasn't one mile-high building, but three triangular towers, themselves set in a large equilateral triangle. The towers were linked together by three levels of skyways that offered a spectacular view both of the surrounding city and the gardenlike park in the center of the three skyrakers. It was a complex designed to impress passerby, visitors, and those who worked there alike with the wealth and power of the corporation. The clouded skies and the driving rain made the afternoon bright enough so that light shone from behind the green-tinted windows, turning the skyscrapers into a triad of lambent green pillars.

To Conn, the emerald hue seemed like the glow of corruption. There was power here, all right, but it was a misused, twisted power, the power of a greed so strong it was no longer one person's or a few people's but had become an entity unto itself. LIM and its competitors flaunted the laws of Palm and Mother Brain shamelessly, becoming almost a law unto themselves. Freedom, property, and life meant nothing to them.

"I am uncertain as to the wisdom of this visit," Abren stated as Conn guided the skimmer towards the parking garage reserved for the use of LIM employees and visitors to the complex.

"We have the authority to question suspects."

"Undeniably. However, I contend that you have yet to supply an adequate rationale for considering Mr. Worthmann a suspect. In fact, the limited conversation we had with Rhys Hamdak suggests that he provided truthful information about Hamdak's intrusion into the Luveno personnel database."

"But not about why."

"Hamdak may have been lying. More likely, he was lied to by Jorran. Jorran's file indicates a high level of professionalism; he would undoubtedly attempt to conceal his true intentions."

The rain drummed a staccato beat on the roof of the skimmer, flowing down across the windscreen in waves.

"Someone's manipulating us somehow. Those Whistles were deliberately programmed to shoot and kill Hamdak on sight. The only explanation is that someone's covering up."

Abren nodded.

"That is logical. One Whistle reacting improperly might be attributable to accident or computer error, but not both simultaneously."

"So who would have a motive? Jorran, maybe, but how would he get access to DLE Whistles? That implies that there's someone else involved, someone with something to hide who's on the inside of this investigation or near it."

"I follow your logic to that point, but I do not perceive what evidence suggests Luveno Industrial Mechanisms generally or Gage Worthmann specifically are to be considered your chief suspects."

"Haven't you ever heard of a cop's intuition?"

Abren's unblinking stare regarded his partner coolly.

"Intuition. The name given to conclusions drawn by the subconscious mind through a variety of processes. Potentially valuable, yet, because the analysis cannot be examined for flaws, inherently unreliable. Lacking a subconscious mind, I do not possess this attribute of living persons."

Conn winced.

"If you don't like it, then you can be the good cop and I'll be the bad cop. For now, let's just go in. Maybe we'll find that your programmers slipped up when they left up your subconscious."

Dodging traffic as he dashed across the street, Conn sprinted through the pouring rain up to the main doors of the nearest tower. Abren's speed in following was not much slower than his partner's, but the android's precise, controlled way of moving made it seem like he was very much less rushed. The glass-paneled doors swept open automatically for them, and they walked in.

The lobby ceiling was about forty feet high, rising above not only the main floor but also a mezzanine level that ran around the edge of the massive room like a balcony. Corporate security was relatively unobtrusive but still impossible to miss, with two guards in emerald and gold uniforms flanking the doors and Poleziax robots painted in the same colors standing in the background. Conn's boots echoed off the Luveno corporate logo inlaid as a mosaic in the floor as he walked towards the U-shaped reception desk.

Other corporations might have featured an attractive young man or woman behind the desk. LIM instead chose the opportunity to show off their most widely known product line; the receptionist was a Warren286, the most common of the Wren-series androids. Conn supposed it made a kind of sense. After all, an android would never lose his cool with a visitor or become flustered in a crisis.

"Can I help you?" the Warren inquired.

Conn displayed his badge.

"Lieutenant Derrek, DLE. My partner and I need to see Mr. Gage Worthmann."

"Do you have an appointment?"

"We thought we'd surprise him."

"Mr. Worthmann is an extremely busy man with many responsibilities. The proper procedure is to make an appointment." Another good thing about an android receptionist was that he didn't get that sour face Palmans invariably did when confronted with unscheduled callers.

"We are on official business concerning an investigation of great personal relevance to Worthmann." Conn deliberately omitted the 'Mister' this time. "I'm not overly concerned with how busy he is. We're going up and--"

Abren stepped forward, raising his hand to cut off Conn's spiel.

"Perhaps you should contact Mr. Worthmann directly and obtain authorization for allowing us to pass."

The Warren reached for the visiphone and keyed in Gage's extension.

"Mr. Worthmann, there is a Lieutenant Derrek from the DLE here to see you. He asserts that his business is urgent." He paused a moment, then said, "Very well" and hung up.

"Mr. Worthmann will see you," he told Conn and Abren. "His office is on the 234th floor in this tower. You may take the exterior elevator directly to that level."

The Warren pointed towards a bank of three elevators set into the wall ahead. Conn thanked the android and went that way. He pressed the "up" button and the right-hand pair of steel doors slid open a moment later. He and Abren stepped into a cylindrical capsule. The elevator shaft was a clear tube that ran up the flat side of the skyscraper, and the outer wall of the elevator was itself made of transparent material, so that the ride up featured a panoramic view of the park within the complex. It was not a view designed for the comfort of people who didn't like heights.

Rain sheeted against the outer shaft as Conn told the elevator his floor number. The indicator on the panel reading "Express" lit up; apparently Gage Worthmann did not intend to wait around while other employees got on and off on floors two through two-thirty-three. The elevator began to rise rapidly with only a soft humming noise to indicate how fast it was going. Conn looked out the window through the rain and watched the ground recede beneath him.

"I wonder why the security sensors in here haven't kicked up a fuss about all the weapons we're carrying," he wondered.

"That's because they've been overridden," stated a voice from behind him. Conn turned and saw that the visiphone screen set in the control panel had come to life. A handsome, brown-haired man in his late thirties sat behind a desk, regarding the two visitors. "Since we have no legal authority to forbid agents of either the DLE or the military to carry weapons on the premises, I didn't see much point in bothering you with all those tedious alert lights, sirens, and so on."

"I see. Gage Worthmann, I presume?"

"That's correct. Welcome to Luveno Industrial Mechanisms, Lieutenant. What can I do for you?"

"If you don't mind, I'd prefer to discuss it in person."

Gage thought the request over, then nodded.

"Very well. Go left when you leave the elevator, then take the second right. My door will be the fourth on the left."

The image on the screen blinked out. A few moments later, the elevator smoothly drew to a stop, and the doors slid open. The corridors were quiet, carpeted in hunter green and lit with bright but diffuse light, an occasional piece of modern art accenting the walls. The impression conveyed was one of calm efficiency, of a place where things were done in a businesslike way--coolly, rationally, and under control.

Conn knew that thousands of meseta were spent each year on psych evaluations to determine what kind of environment best encouraged productivity in corporate employees. This level of the LIM headquarters looked like it had been designed in accordance with the results of one of those studies.

These people are trying way too hard.

The office marked "Gage Worthmann, Division Chief, Robotics" was right where it was supposed to be. Gage had a personal secretary in an outer office, an attractive blue-haired woman in a scarlet dress with white piping who waved Conn and Abren directly in.

Worthmann's office was a testament to the benefits of power. The entire back wall was a window looking out over the city, a beautiful view even in the rain. The lean, handsome executive reclined in a high-backed leather chair that cradled his body. Conn was relieved to notice that the man's dark gray carbonsuit was not a top-of-the-line Tajian or Oldoran model, but something off the rack. It was the first trace of humanity the DLE agent had seen since arriving at LIM.

"Good afternoon, Lieutenant Derrek," Gage greeted him, not bothering to rise. "My sources inform me that you and Lieutenant Abren have been assigned to pursue the datathief who infiltrated our systems and made away with the details of Project Nuada."

"My sources inform me that you're the one who provided the info to us about last night's little jaunt into your mainframe."

Worthmann nodded.

"Very true. I've been assigned the job of corporate liaison and overall director of our phase of the investigation."

"Why you? Do you have some security training?"

Gage grinned then, the expression making him seem almost human.

"Hardly. I'm a robotics engineer by trade. Every time I made some kind of breakthrough they promoted me, until now the closest I get to a robot is when one drives me home."

"Those are intriguing qualifications," Abren noted.

"Oh, we have our trained CompSec agents carrying out the internal investigation. My job is to coordinate our activities with the official inquiry, to ease jurisdictional tension, and to handle sensitive information. I'm really more of a facilitator than someone who actually gives orders."

A good answer, Conn thought. It might even have been the truth.

"Tell me about Eric Stephens," he said, changing topics in an attempt to keep Gage off-balance. The trick didn't work this time, maybe because the exec was expecting it or maybe just because he was a typical smooth operator.

"You have his file--ironically, the one which Hamdak was attempting to access."

"I want to hear the personal side. You were his boss, if I've managed to figure out your corporate org chart right, so you must have known what he was like. For example, why would anyone want to kill him?"

Worthmann frowned, tapping his fingers on the desktop idly as he thought over his answer.

"Eric Stephens," he declared, "was the closest I've ever come to seeing a live version of a holovid corporate man here at Luveno. He was competent enough at his job but not destined for high rank. He was greedy, fond of status symbols like fancy clothes and expensive women, but not quite greedy enough to resort to embezzlement."

"Sounds like a real prize."

Conn folded his arms over his chest.

"If I had to guess," Gage said, "I would assume that the thieves who stole Project Nuada used Stephens to help them infiltrate LIM. They used either bribery or blackmail to get him to give them his personal passcode and any other help he could provide. Once they were done with him, they killed him to silence him." He paused, then added thoughtfully, "I may be doing him an injustice. Eric might have realized the enormity of what he was being drawn into, protested, and been summarily removed. Spy rings and terrorists, I hear, are not fond of dissenting points of view within their ranks."

"What about Tyler Jorran? What's his motivation?"

This time the sharp change of subject drew a half-second pause from Gage.

"My speculation would be that he has some kind of grudge against the company and wants to hurt us as much as possible."

"You do something to him?"

"He left us, as you should already know."

"The relevant question is, why did he leave?"

A slight frown had crept onto the division chief's face.

"I never knew the man personally. I can only assume that years as an agent have pushed him over the edge into paranoia, and that he harbors some insane grudge against us."

Conn repressed a smile. He was starting to get to Worthmann, to play on the man's emotions. He wasn't so naive as to think this would allow the truth to suddenly pop out, but anger might make Gage more careless in covering up what he knew. A bad lie was often more informative than the straight truth.

"So you think this is about revenge, not money?"

"I can't say that for certain. Maybe Tyler's just a money-hungry mercenary who picked LIM as a target because he had the most inside information about what our security protocols were. Or maybe someone else is ultimately responsible and hired Tyler because his background here made him an attractive choice."

"So why suspect him at all?"

"Ask your partner; it was the military who identified him as being involved, not us!"

Conn simply looked at the man, frowning slightly, an expression calculated to imply that he felt Gage was lying. He wasn't sure if he actually did feel that, but he wanted to keep the LIM executive off-balance, which nodding and accepting things at face value wouldn't accomplish.

"Then, of course, there's the question of why Hamdak was killed."

"Dead? Didn't you just say--no, I suppose you never did tell me what happened with him. Did he resist arrest?"

"Yes and no. He tried to run away, but two DLE Whistles shot him down before he could get anywhere."

Conn had suspected after he dropped the news that Hamdak was dead, but it was the method that convinced him. A self-controlled personality could hide the evidence of emotional shock, but feigning emotion was something else. Surprise was one of the hardest emotions to fake, too. Most people who pretended to be surprised tried too hard, made it cartoonish. Worthmann was a better actor than that, but he still couldn't make it ring true for Conn. Gage was trying to present the image of a rational, self-possessed man taken aback by unexpected bad news, but it was a veneer. Worthmann already knew what had happened.

"Your robots fired to kill? Wasn't that somewhat extreme?"

Conn glared at him, but let Abren speak up.

"It was not an authorized use of lethal force," the Siren stated. "The DLE is investigating the particular circumstances, but the most likely conclusion appears to be deliberate sabotage."

"Meaning that Hamdak knew something, and someone wanted to make sure he didn't tell anyone," Conn concluded.

"Jorran?"

"Not unless he's got someone inside the investigation. I myself can't keep from thinking, though, about just who builds the Whistles."

"If you're implying that our products were defective--"

Conn shook his head.

"No, not at all. I'm implying that the easiest way for someone to hack a robot's programming would be if they had the design specs on hand to work from. Your people are in charge of maintaining DLE's Whistles for anything beyond the basic upkeep we do ourselves. That presents a perfect opportunity for tampering."

Worthmann steepled his fingers, thinking things over.

"Then, if I understand correctly, you believe that there is a traitor inside LIM."

"Exactly. We'll be checking the physical evidence, maintenance logs, sec-cam video, and so on to try and narrow down what happened, but it seems clear that deliberate sabotage was involved."

Gage once again frowned slightly, appearing to think over what he'd been told.

"Even so, I still do not understand how it implicates us. One of Jorran's terrorists, armed with forged credentials and even perhaps, as you say, the technical specifications of a Whistle copied from our databanks during the original theft--"

Conn shook his head sharply, cutting off Worthmann in the middle of what he was sure was a deliberate lie.

"No chance."

"Why?"

"It's too complex. If Tyler wanted Hamdak dead he could have blown him away last night. Quick, easy, and effective. Why would he walk out, then risk capture by slipping into DLE maintenance with forged credentials? It doesn't make any sense."

"The probabilities are strongly against such a solution," Abren agreed. "It is neither logical nor easily attributable to some emotional influence."

"Well, I assure you," Gage said, "that none of this has ever occurred to me."

"You'd better let it," Conn told him. "I suggest you take a long, hard look at your personnel before anything else happens."

The facade was back in place securely now; Conn knew that without real proof he'd never get Worthmann to admit to anything. It didn't matter, though, since he hadn't expected anything like a confession from the corporate man. He'd confirmed his suspicions, that something was wrong at LIM and that Gage knew about it. He'd as good as laid a challenge out, which he hoped would prompt the division chief to do something precipitate, something to give himself away.

With luck, it wouldn't get Conn killed in the process.

* * * * *

The Executive Director of Luveno Industrial Mechanisms, the woman above the sub-director and the division chiefs, was named Tara Macklin. She was answerable only to the shareholders, and in truth even they possessed little authority over her because Tara herself owned thirty-two percent of LIM's stock. Ironically, that percentage also happened to be her age; the Macklin family had taken control of LIM four generations ago, and Tara had inherited her father's stock. What she lacked in years she more than made up for with vicious determination and a lust for power and wealth that was every bit the equal of the three men and one woman of her family who had controlled Luveno before her.

Rumor had it that she had blackmailed her older brother into renouncing his inheritance to her, then had him killed when he had shown signs of contesting her father's will. Gage believed those rumors implicitly.

The Director was a beautiful woman. Clouds of honey-blond hair framed her heart-shaped face, and the figure shown off by her stylish blue skirt-suit and cream-colored blouse was curved and feminine. Tara knew how to use that beauty as a weapon. She could play the role of the corporate princess to perfection to manipulate those naive enough to equate beauty with goodness, or assume the role of seductress to cripple rivals unable to control their desires. Gage knew her too well to think there was any real softness in her, though. The real Tara Macklin was the one he was seeing now, her light blue eyes as cold and hard as twin diamonds.

"This Conn Derrek knows, then."

"Suspects, I'd say," he corrected her softly. "He's deduced that Tyler Jorran was not responsible for Hamdak's death, and he has suspicions as to why the man was killed, but no real knowledge or evidence as to who was responsible."

"He's got good instincts," Nash Garrett said. "I've been going over his file, and he's clearly intelligent, honest, and tough."

The three of them were gathered in the Director's luxurious office. It was less than an hour since Conn's interview with Gage, and the Robotics Division chief was still a bit disquieted.

"I'm not sure," he suggested, "that we want a man like that on the case. He won't be an easy cat's paw to manipulate, and if he digs deeply enough, he may become a second Nain. We might be able to remove him, too, but he's smart enough to leave a datatrap behind."

Garrett nodded.

"Exactly. Publicity would be a death knell to us on this thing, and--"

Macklin shook her head.

"The two of you are missing the point. He's exactly the kind of person we need to run the investigation. A cop of solid reputation needs to sign off at the end of this or the media will start screaming 'coverup' and 'corruption' as soon as they even catch the whiff of a rumor. That's why the DLE is involved in the first place, to put a nice thick coat of whitewash over Nuada."

"That's probably what got him started in the first place. The entire idea of corporate cooperation with the DLE is strange and outrageous, secret project or no secret project."

"I did get the idea he suspected me personally," Gage noted, "since I passed on the tip about Hamdak--or at least that's what he believes. The DLE files won't show where that information really came from, either, so at least that worked."

Tara looked back and forth between the two men, not liking what she was hearing.

"What are the odds, realistically, that Derrek will learn any real part of the truth, or have evidence to back it up?"

"Probably he won't. He's too far behind the pace, and we have enough control over him that he won't get too near anything sensitive," the security chief assessed the situation. "He could do some damage, but so long as we're not careless I don't believe he's a serious threat to our plans."

"Good."

Thunder rumbled outside in response to a quick flash of lightning.

"Now, on to other problems. What about Tyler Jorran?"

Gage scowled.

"We know very little. There's a record of him arriving by aerojet from Abion yesterday evening, and of him taking a hotel room in Lordan, but nothing since then, no datatrail to follow--and Hamdak's dead, of course, so he can't tell us anything."

"We checked the hotel room," Garrett added. "He hasn't been back; all we found was a suitcase with clothes, toothbrush, the usual. There was nothing incriminating or suggestive."

"Tyler quit before I took over," the XD mused. "You dealt with him on a person-to-person basis, Nash, so tell me about him. What kind of a man is he, and what kind of agent?"

"He was a good agent: smart, cool, and resourceful. A bit more ethical than we liked, though."

"Oh?"

"He didn't mind using underhanded methods against criminals, the competition, or that sort, but he had a lot of regard for innocent bystanders. He wouldn't put them in a position to be hurt or use them for his own convenience."

"A weakness, then," Tara decided.

"Not necessarily," Garrett said. "It limited his usefulness to us sometimes, yes, but the attitude also helped him on occasion. Contacts knew they could trust him, so they often would extend trust in return. It balanced out over the long run."

"I see..."

A frown crossed her beautiful face.

"He's a wild card. I don't like that. He may have sensitive information, and we don't have any control over what he's doing. The fact that he contacted Hamdak and arranged the raid on our personnel files means that he's already got a basic idea of what's happening. He may be one man, but he's still dangerous. I want him found."

"Should we enlist the DLE?"

Tara winced.

"Of course not. Sure, we might find him if every beat cop in Camineet has his holopic, but what if he tells his story? What if he's got hard evidence to back up at least part of it, and that evidence gets into the hands of Conn Derrek or someone like him? We're trying to contain the circle of knowledge, not give it a chance to include everyone watching Palm Tonight."

She looked icily at the two men.

"This is an in-house matter; let's keep it that way as much as we can. One DLE investigator we can contain on, but not thousands."

Focusing her attention on Gage, she then said, "What news do we have from Lianora?"

Worthmann relaxed. Good news was much easier to report.

"Everything is going according to plan. Dr. Hurlston says that all the assessments were right and that so far the experiment is actually having more success than originally anticipated. We should have the first functional test model operational by tomorrow at the latest."

Tara's lips curled upwards in a feline smile.

"Now, isn't that ironic? Our client will be extremely pleased that Project Nuada is proceeding so quickly. We had expected to still be in the prototype stage for another month or two."

"Apparently our latest version proved exceptional."

The high-pitched tone of Gage's pocket visiphone cut through the quiet office like a knife blade. Tara nodded at him, indicating that he should take the call. Gage spoke softly into the receiver, a smile growing on his face the entire time.

"More good news, I presume?" Macklin asked.

"The best. We have a solid lead to Tyler Jorran."

"Excellent. Arrange matters appropriately--oh, and perhaps you should contact Lieutenant Derrek as well. He might like to see the body."

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