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Freedom's Price

Part XIII


A throbbing, pulsing music surged through the club, the techno-pop melodies filling the mind and lending their own unmistakable tint to every sight and sound, while the underlying industrial beat hammered out a rhythm that pulsed through the bones and drew the heart into synchronicity with its patterns. Shadowedge had its own pace, a self-generated atmosphere that drew everyone inside the club within its sphere. Whether a person was dancing, talking, courting, drinking, or conducting business did not matter. The music swept them all up in its embrace, consuming their spirits.

Standing just outside the doors, Tyler could sense that atmosphere's presence. He knew its name, it was loss of control, it was excess, but also joy and even pride. It was exhilaration, something the former agent was not used to feeling. Yet, he was just like the patrons in some ways, too. After all, he was there for a major breakthrough that would, he hoped, be a turning point in the search for Melora.

Shadowedge had been constructed in a building of positively antique design. It was a large domed warehouse on the outskirts of Old Camineet, the part of the city that had been Camineet before the capital swelled into the modern Camineet-Parolit archopolis. The building could have been a thousand years old, or at least the outer walls could have. The interior, Tyler knew, had been gutted to make room for the new design. Trendy retro style was one thing, but it was modern tastes that had to be satisfied inside.

At that moment, though, the ones who had to be satisfied were the bouncers. Like most club bouncers, these two were large and massively muscled, wearing sleeveless shirts and tight-fitting pants that showed off their build. Unlike most bouncers, Shadowedge's were armed. The club was a major moneymaker, and its owner kept anything that would disturb that profit to a minimum with a security team that while not up to the caliber of elite professionals were definitely a cut above common thugs.

Their eyes surveyed Tyler and the girl beside him assessingly. Of the two, Risa definitely looked more like the kind of person who ought to be admitted. She had raided Melora's closets before leaving the apartment and now wore flat-heeled longboots that came to mid-thigh, green tights and a sleeveless red leotard-style top under her own leather jacket. Tyler, on the other hand, had worn his carbonsuit for two days now and it showed, while the dark coat he had taken from the muscleboy fit a bit snugly across the shoulders.

"We've got biz to discuss with someone inside," he said, cutting short the assessment process.

"You got a name to go with that?" the bouncer said, pulling out a palmcomp that no doubt contained his list of who was expected.

"The girl's name is Alis. We've got business with Odin."

The big man's eyes flicked down the list and stopped when they found the arrangements Jac Norbridge had made.

"Awright. The cover charge is fifty meseta."

Risa's jaw dropped.

"You've got to be kidding!"

"Unfortunately," Tyler told her, "he's not." He paid the fifty meseta, uncomfortably aware that his supply of cash was running low. He had quite a bit more, carefully saved from his years at LIM, in his bank accounts, but accessing that money would leave a data trail obvious to any competent gridrider or the DLE. After paying Jac's fee, he would be all but tapped out, and if the gridrider wanted an up-front payment too, he would be completely screwed. There was time enough for that worry, though, if it actually came to pass. He had enough on his slate at the present without taking on future problems as well.

The heavy steel warehouse door swung open, and the music reached out to surround them. As Tyler and Risa stepped inside, it was as if they had been swallowed by a great beast.

The club was built on three levels, the entrance on the lowest and widest floor. The ceiling above was a metal grillwork sealed inside transparent plastic, as was the one higher up. Ghostly pale lights in a dozen different hues swept through the club, piercing through all the levels. The decor was a kind of pseudo-industrial look with metal tables, support columns made to look like pipes, clouds of steam, and a raw, unpolished appearance generally. Men and women moved on the dance floors, stood at one of the several different bars, or sat at the tables and booths. Some watched each other, some were interested only in themselves, and others talked in low voices. They wore the latest fashions, from military-styled carbonsuits to close-fitting garb that revealed more than it hid to expensive designer imitations of street styles.

A red-haired girl in skintight crimson leather strutted up to Tyler, her posture and expressing making it obvious she was interested in him. Risa fixed her with a glare before Tyler could chase the stranger away, and the two young women stared frostily at each other. Not surprisingly, the redhead backed down and slunk away.

"Poser," Risa dismissed her with a snort, then asked Tyler, "Where's Jac?"

"Probably on the second level."

They stepped forward and were swallowed by the chaos of light, noise, and moving bodies. A trickle of sweat ran down Tyler's back; the itch he felt there, though, was because he felt vulnerable and off-balance. He wished he had brought the Inverness, but while weapons weren't forbidden at Shadowedge--too many of the club's patrons didn't feel comfortable going unarmed for the management to ban them--there was an unwritten code of Thy Armaments Shalt Be Subtle. Even under his coat in a shoulder sling the shotgun was far too obvious, especially if Tyler had to sit down.

A pair of black-clad teenagers sporting tiger-stripe facepaint stepped into the elevator, which was a massive steel shaft in the center of the club. Tyler and Risa walked past it to the nearest spiral staircase and climbed up to the middle level. The ex-agent caught sight of another bouncer, who like the two at the door wore a headset radio, had a sonic gun in a low-slung holster on his right hip, and carried a two-foot mace, a steel baton with rows of studs along the business end, on his left. A robot waiter, apparently a noncombat version of a Whistle, brought a tray of drinks to a table where a rowdy celebration was going on. The music changed to the latest hit by the Evildead, and the lights turned scarlet in response.

"There he is," Risa said.

"Where?"

"Third booth along the wall there, on your left."

Sure enough, Jac Norbridge was there in the black-cushioned, steel-frame seat, a tall, narrow glass in front of him. His seat was against the wall; he had put his female companion between himself and the dance floor. The woman wasn't the same one he had been with before; though she was just as beautiful her close-cropped blue hair, serious expression, military-styled yellow carbonsuit with mesh titancape, and what Tyler recognized as spring-loaded forearm sheaths for knives all said "bodyguard" rather than "ornament."

A broad smile formed itself on Jac's fleshy face as Tyler and Risa approached. His bodyguard assessed them coolly, keeping herself ready for trouble.

"Ahh, Tyler, my friend. Do come and sit down," the fixer said expansively, once again playing the genial host. "Would you or your lovely companion care for something to drink?"

Tyler took the wall seat on his side, so that he was facing Jac.

"Let's just get down to business."

Jac spread his hands, indicating that whatever the customer wanted was all right with him.

"Fair enough. I've located the individual in question and she's willing to speak with you."

"It's nice to have some good news for a change. So, when, where, and who is she?"

Norbridge picked up his glass and took a long swallow of the brilliant indigo liquid.

"First things first, Tyler. There is the matter of my payment."

"So far I haven't gotten anything to pay for, yet."

A muscle in the fixer's cheek twitched sharply just below his right eye, and his hand tightened on the glass for a fraction of a second. That was enough for Tyler to see the anger Jac was forced to control. Then, the veneer was in place again.

"Very well. The meeting with her is set to take place right here, tonight. You surely didn't think I would waste my time having you come to this excessively chaotic den if all I wanted was to collect a finder's fee? I could have done that at Syclone."

Damn, Tyler cursed mentally. That had been pretty obvious, and he had missed it. That kind of thing he shouldn't have even had to think about, let alone make mistakes over.

"The day I figure out what you are or aren't going to do, Jac, is way far off," he covered coolly. "For all I know, you like to dance."

"I prefer other forms of entertainment," he replied. The glance he directed at Risa wasn't a leer, but the intention was equally obvious. She glared back at him, but he took the rebuff with a smile. No doubt Jac had been trying to provoke her and was pleased with the result. His good humor restored, he told Tyler, "If you'll be so kind as to provide the remaining balance of my fee, we can avoid any further waste of time."

The music changed again, appropriately enough slipping into a remix of Ustvestia's "Secret Ways." The lights became a mix of azure shades, fluctuating slightly to give the impression that the area within the beams was under water, with ripples causing the light to shift. Tyler counted out the meseta due Jac, wincing inwardly as he was forced to finish up with ten-meseta, then five-meseta coins. He didn't enjoy letting Norbridge learn how close he was to being out of money.

Jac scooped up the meseta and tucked it away.

"It's been a pleasure doing business with you, Tyler. Wait here and I'll send her over." He paused, then added slyly, "Good luck."

The bodyguard slid lithely out of the booth, followed by Jac, and the two of them stepped into the sea of light and sound.

* * * * *

The roaring drumbeat of the aerocopter's rotors was muffled somewhat by the main cabin's soundproofing, but it was still a loud, brash noise that roared through the DLE airship.

"It's about five more minutes, Lieutenant," the pilot's voice crackled over the intercom.

"Thanks, Ryan," Conn replied. He checked the action on his vulcan one more time, then reholstered it.

"Perhaps now," Abren stated, "you could inform us of why you've determined on this course of action?"

Conn shrugged, looking at the expectant faces of his android partner and the four members of the DLE tactical squad. Only the two Poleziax robots were impassive and uncaring.

"Captain Nile passed on the tip that our fugitive would be at the club, Shadowedge, for a meeting at midnight. I want to be there and ready well before that."

The copter flew between the towering skyscrapers as if the steel and glass spires were the walls of a canyon. Lighted windows showed corporate wage slaves hard at work; the business day of AW 1278 often extended well into the night.

"If we can get there first, scope out the ground, and establish position," Conn added, "we'll have a better chance of getting to Jorran and taking him into custody without a firefight erupting. We've already had one shooting in what was supposed to be a sensitive investigation. I'm not looking for another one." He couldn't help but glance at the two robots. At least the fact that they were Scion-Colesburg models gave him some level of comfort. "Especially not in the middle of one of Camineet's most popular dance clubs."

His gaze lashed over the four tac-squad agents.

"In other words, nobody, but nobody fires on Tyler unless he fires first. If you do shoot, then make some effort to shoot to wound. As for weaponry, anyone who so much as takes a vulcan out of its holster without a direct order from Abren or me is going to be back writing parking tickets!"

"Yeah, we know, Lieutenant," drawled Sergeant Dean Wrayburn, a twenty-year veteran of tactical operations. "It's standard protocol--no automatic weapons fire when there's a chance of hitting bystanders."

"I'm just making sure that we don't have any more creative misunderstandings, get me?" Conn said frostily. The four tac-squad members nodded in unison. Conn glanced at his chronograph. It wouldn't be long now.

* * * * *

Tyler was not a happy man. The taunting way in which Jac had wished him good luck echoed in his mind. A dig for being out of money? No, more than that. Probably the gridrider was one of those mercenary types who wouldn't give you the time of day without a ten-meseta advance--and Jac now knew that Tyler couldn't pay for her services. Norbridge would undoubtedly think that was a great joke.

Or...

"Down!" he cried, throwing his body into Risa's. She was knocked out of the booth and onto the floor by the impact, and Tyler sprawled prone on the seat cushions. It was just in time; a small pellet fired from a poisonshot zipped through the air where Tyler had been. It struck the wall instead, the small gelatin capsule breaking open and releasing its caustic liquid over the curved steel panel, eating into the metal.

"Hey, what are you---" Risa began to complain, but was cut off by the roar of a vulcan and the metallic squeal of its shells tearing into the table. Screams rang out as the crowd became aware of the violence in its midst. The girl cursed, rolling while snapping her claws into their extended position.

Tyler crabbed his way out of the booth, which though it gave decent cover against the poisonshot would be no protection against a vulcan and restricted his movements and visibility far too much. The panicked crowd was trying to escape, people racing for the stairs, the elevator, and the exits. More than one had pulled a weapon of their own. The music continued to roar out of the sound system, the latest song loud and angry, surreally like the background music of a holovid action show. More vulcan fire stitched the floor after Tyler and Risa, the shells ricocheting away.

Managing to get his sonic gun out, Tyler regained his feet, keeping his body low to minimize the target he presented until he could figure out exactly what kind of opposition he faced. Correctly gauging where the vulcan fire had come from, he saw two men and a woman coming towards him. Someone had clearly laid down a few bribes to get them inside, probably through the service entrance--Stop analyzing and act, Tyler!--because they were dressed strictly for business in sleek carbonsuits augmented by titanium armor on the men and a titanium cape on the woman. One man carried a small-frame vulcan, the other a poisonshot and knife, and the woman a long, braided-steel whip with an emel buckled to her left forearm for additional protection.

The high-pitched whine of the Marksman screamed out, and the pulse from it jarred the vulcan from the first man's hands. Tyler's second and third shots hammered into his armored chest, causing the plates to crack and buckle at the point of impact but not even bruising the man underneath.

By now, Shadowedge's security was taking a definite interest in the proceedings. Black-clad bouncers with their guns out were converging on the fight scene. The second male attacker spun and fired his poisonshot at the lead security man, hitting him directly in the face. The bouncer dropped screaming as the toxic chemicals ate into his skin.

Next to Tyler, Risa grunted as a burly man crashed a shoulder into her back, then tried to finish her off with an upward sweep of his ceramic knife. Reacting quickly to the unexpected attack, she managed to parry the knife blade with her claws, then lashed out with a low kick that caught him behind the ankle and knocked his footing off balance. She slashed at his arm, tearing rents in his carbonsuit and the flesh beneath, then drew back her hand, her fist cocked just behind her ear. Risa's jaw tightened, and a violet light seemed to shimmer around the claws on that hand. With a loud cry, she sprang directly at her assailant, thrusting her arm out, rigid, before her. The violet gleam left a trail through the air as Risa's claws, augmented by the same kind of power that provided for techniques, plunged their way through the burly man's armor and deep into his heart.

"Damn it, Tyler, who are these guys?"

"Hunters," Tyler replied tersely as he took down the second man with a shot that found the chinks between his headgear and the built-up neck of his armor. "Mercs like Melora."

The female hunter's whip lashed out, tearing the gun from Tyler's hand. Her second strike came in low, trying to entangle his feet, but he managed to jump in time to make the whip snake harmlessly beneath him.

At least two more hunters were closing in from behind Tyler and Risa, the companions of the one Risa had felled. Tyler wished for a fleeting moment that he knew any of the multiple-target attack techniques like ZAN or GRA, but there was no use wishing in the middle of a firefight. The blue-white beam of a laser shot ripped by him, answered by a volley of sonic gun fire from the club guards. Tyler tried to use a tech, but the whip slashed across his chest, disrupting his concentration. The futile wish had cost him the half-second opportunity he had had while the hunter readied her weapon between strikes.

The bouncers, meanwhile, were charging into the fight. Unable to know who had started the battle and probably not caring, they indiscriminately assaulted both sides. Fortunately, while they were tough and strong, they were unarmored. Tyler sidestepped a heavy mace and kicked the attacking guard in the groin before leveling him with three quick punches to the face. These men were only doing their jobs; Tyler had no desire to kill them. The hunters had no compunction about that, though; they lashed out with lethal force at the black-clad men.

Taking advantage of the distraction provided by the guards' hand-to-hand attack, Tyler called to Risa and they bolted out across the dance floor. Shots followed them; thankfully, most missed. The only one that didn't was a sonic gun hit to the back of Tyler's left shoulder which thankfully the fibercoat and the carbonsuit beneath stopped. He'd have a bruise there, but that was a lot better than a hole.

Their retreat towards the nearest stairway was suddenly blocked as a huge man seized two frightened customers and hurled them bodily to one side.

"Let's dance," the hunter growled, and drew a long-bladed sword which he held in the two-handed grip standard to Palman swordfighting styles. He was dressed like the others, except that his headgear was titanium rather than steel. The edge of his blade shone with the sun-bright beam of the laser emitters mounted on it.

Tyler drew his ceram-knives, barely parrying the first cut of the laser sword. Chips flew from the ceramic blade as the laser beam bit into the parrying knife. Risa cut at the attacker, making him turn away, then the sword flicked out again, making her dive aside. A second cut sliced off two of the claw bars on her right hand.

Tyler came in low, trying to thrust his knives under the hunter's titan armor, but the big man managed to sweep his hands back and crack the hilt of his sword against Tyler's forearm, numbing it. The hunter's strength and the reach provided by his long arms and three-and-a-half-foot blade was effectively neutralizing Tyler and Risa's two-to-one advantage. Combined with speed and reflexes that were unusual in a man of his size and his superior equipment, the battle was actually turning in his favor.

The roaring drumbeat of vulcan fire told Tyler that someone had grabbed up the dropped gun and reminded him of the urgency of his position.

* * * * *

"Lieutenant," Ryan's voice came over the intercom again, "we may have a problem. Take a look out the window."

Conn did, then cursed loudly and long. People were pouring out of the dome-shaped club, milling about in terror. The cabin's secure-line visiphone beeped, and Conn snatched it up.

"Are you at Shadowedge yet?" Captain Nile asked.

"We're over it right now," he replied. The aerocopter hovered in place, its whirling rotors keeping it poised above the scene. "What the heck is going on in there?"

"I was hoping you'd know. The local DLE branch station is getting calls about a battle in there. From the sound of it," she added sourly, "it's a minor land war."

"Is Tyler Jorran involved?"

"Unknown. I've put a hold on local agents responding in case he is. Get your team in there and sort that mess out."

"I'm on it."

The phone went dead.

"Well, ladies, gentlemen, and machines, you heard the Captain," Conn announced. "Our mission parameters have just changed. You're authorized to use force where appropriate, except on Tyler, if he's there. Anyone else either stops fighting or gets shot." He thumbed the intercom button. "Ryan, take us in. We've got a party to crash."

* * * * *

The constantly moving lights that swirled through the club lent a weird and surreal atmosphere to the battle going on inside. Most of the ordinary customers had managed to get off the second level, where the fighting was taking place, but they still milled about above and below in a near-riot, their panicked forms clearly visible through the sheathed grillwork of floor and ceiling.

Tyler stumbled as the blade of one of his knives shattered while trying to parry a stroke from the laser sword. The big man reared back for an overhand swing, but Tyler was just able to regain his balance and leap aside. The sword crashed into the floor, shattering the transparent plastic and sending chunks of it flying. Risa lashed out, trying to take advantage of the opportunity provided by the missed stroke, but her claws only glanced off the hunter's titanium armor.

The exchange did give Tyler some breathing room, though. Leaping backwards, he leveled his hand at the massive hunter and unleashed his TSU technique. The bolt of energy snapped the man's head back, and Risa's claws found his throat.

The two of them stepped over the fallen body and headed for the stairs, only to have things go from bad to worse. Two DLE tactical troops and a Poleziax robot were pounding up the steps towards them.

"Hey, that's Jorran!" one exclaimed. The Poleziax acted at once, firing its neural-paralysis inducer. The shot was blocked by the higher stairs on the spiral staircase, but it was enough to illustrate the trouble that was brewing.

"What the hell do the cops want you for?" Risa exclaimed as they dodged around support pillars.

"Damned if I know. Do you still have that gun you grabbed at Melora's?"

"Yeah."

"Give it to me."

He flung himself behind a row of tables, pushing one over on its side for cover. It wouldn't do much good against lethal fire, but it was adequate protection from paralyzers.

The vulcan roared again as the female hunter directed a steady stream of fire at the DLE agents. She and a wiry confederate with two laser shots were the last ones standing after the fight with the club's security. More cops came darting up another staircase, and then the elevator pinged softly and the door slid open to reveal yet another agent as well as a lethal-looking Siren android.

The second group of agents had a Poleziax with them just like the first. Recognizing it as the most immediate threat, Tyler fired the sonic gun again and again at it. Two paralysis bolts struck his makeshift defenses before the sonic charged punched enough holes in the robot to reduce it to sparking, smoking wreckage. The first Poleziax wasn't so lucky; the wiry hunter's laser shots struck something vital and the robot exploded.

The concussive blast had leveled the Poleziax's two Palman companions, leaving the way clear for an escape. Tyler and Risa bolted for the stairs again, even as a searing beam from the Siren's Flare Shot cut down the laser-armed hunter.

Rolling away from her exposed position, the female hunter emptied the vulcan's clip in Tyler's direction. Despite the intermittent light and the smoke billowing from the destroyed shards of the Poleziax, she scored a lucky hit. One slug slammed into Tyler's side, and another found his knee. His leg buckled at once, and he dropped to the floor, pain burning through him. Additional shots struck just ahead of him, barely missing his head, while the DLE agents tracked Risa with laser shots; their near-misses cut into the railing that kept people from falling into the staircase pit.

Salvation came in the form of a glowing green shield of energy that sprang out of nothingness between Tyler and Risa and their foes. The ex-agent recognized it at once as an android's Barrier utility. The Siren would be equipped with that as part of its basic combat package, but the DLE Siren would hardly be protecting its targets, would it?

And just when, Tyler thought through a haze of pain, did the DLE start using Sirens anyway?

While the Barrier was effective in stopping energy weapons and techniques with similar attributes, it wasn't particularly useful against slug-throwing vulcans. That was probably why the last hunter became the first target of a brilliant white sphere burning with green flame that blew her armor and body apart. Two more of the flaming orbs struck just short of the remaining groups of DLE agents, detonating at their feet with stunning effect.

"All right! I found you in time!"

A small figure, no more than four and a half feet tall, placed herself between Tyler and Risa and their adversaries. Its face was female and cute, with inverted triangles apparently tattooed beneath her eyes. Her body was basically asexual; golden-hued armor plating, heavily built up, protected her shoulders, neck, and upper torso, while the rest of her body was plated in scarlet, close-fitting armor. A white cape fell down her back from the shoulder guards, and her hair was midnight blue, almost black. She was all but dwarfed by the massive plasma cannon she carried in both hands braced against her shoulder.

The two agents who had come up the other flight of stairs were content to merely lie down and remain quiet; the Siren was not. It rose to its feet, bringing its shotgun to bear. The small female released her gun and raised one fist, which glowed with a green aura. Emerald lightning played over the Siren's form, and it collapsed, inert.

"That ought to keep him out of trouble for a while. Come on, let's go! Who knows what they'll have for us next?"

The tiny woman grabbed Tyler and slung him inelegantly over her shoulder. Belatedly, he recognized her as a Demi-type android, the competition's answer to LIM's Wrens and Mieus. The Demis were largely technicians and computer androids; their combat proficiency was a shade beneath that of the current Wrens, about equivalent to a baseline Siren but unable to handle the wide variety of weapons units and combat upgrades that could be installed in a Wren-type. Inevitably, though, a Demi's most noticeable feature was the fact that it had a fully-developed personality with emotions, moreover one that could change and grow over time.

She started down the stairs, then glanced at Risa.

"Well, come on. Don't just stand there, we've got to get going!"

Mutely, Risa followed. She didn't know if the Demi was friend or foe, but she did know that everyone else there was definitely not on their side.

The Demi's progress down the spiraling metal steps was not smooth. The little android was strong, but its strength was designed for lifting small, dense items, not bodies that were bigger than she was. She lurched down the stairs, her balance thrown off, into the milling throng at the bottom.

Though people had been fleeing the club ever since the first shots of the fight, they hadn't all been able to get out in the surprisingly short time that had elapsed. The rush to get away had left many of Shadowedge's patrons bruised and battered by the crush, and most of those remaining were in a state of absolute panic. The Demi eyed the mass at the front door and shook her head.

"We'll never get through that," Risa said.

"Right; we'll have to try the kitchens," agreed the android.

Tyler groaned as his injured body crashed into several people while they fought their way through the crowd. He could feel the blood seeping from his wounds, along his side and down his leg, and it was getting harder and harder to remain conscious. His thoughts were becoming blurry and fragmented.

There were, he thought dreamily, three entrances to Shadowedge: the front door, the side door from the administrative offices, and the service entrance to the kitchens where deliveries of food and spirits were made. The service entrance had once been a loading bay when the building had been used as a warehouse.

The kitchen were deserted. No fools, the staff had gotten out as soon as the trouble had began; they wanted no part of it. If the hunters and the cops had been thinking, they'd have left people outside all of the exits in case of an escape, but apparently they had both taken their entire force inside on the theory that if you can't catch someone with eight people you certainly aren't going to do it with six first and two later. For whatever reason, though, the alley was deserted.

"No time to get picky," the Demi said, and headed for a compact landskimmer parked halfway down the side street.

"Is this your car?" Risa asked.

"Like I said, this is no time to get picky! We've got to get out of here before the whole DLE comes down on our heads."

A panel in the android's forearm popped open and a cable snaked out. She plugged herself into the door lock for a moment, then withdrew the cable and opened the door. Risa crawled into the back while the Demi loaded Tyler into the front seat and shoved the plasma cannon in with Risa. The technician android found it as easy to override the ignition computer as she had the lock; the engine hummed to life and she pulled away from the curb. As the vehicle slipped out into the streets of Camineet, Tyler let himself sink down into quiet, comforting darkness.

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