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Freedom's Price

Part XIV


"Would someone please have the kindness to tell me just what the hell is going on?" Conn Derrek cursed angrily. The second level of Shadowedge had been ripped up by gunfire, tables sprawled everywhere, decor blasted apart, and corpses scattered all over the place. A rough count had turned up seven hunters and nine of the club's security staff dead. Amazingly enough, none of the DLE agents had been killed in the bloodbath, though the robots were no more than scrap.

Slowly, Abren got to his feet. The Demi's Spark attack had disrupted its electrical systems, but its self-repair capacity had managed to restore the military Siren to operational condition. A surge of green light pulsed through the android's body as its Recover unit hyped its diagnostic and repair systems to maximum, restoring Abren to full working order in a matter of seconds.

"These guys were pros," Conn said, nudging the body of one of the hunters. "Someone nasty wanted Tyler out of the way and didn't mind laying out some heavy meseta for it. Hunters like this...maybe one K a head for a single ambush job. More than that if they were a regular team instead of independent talent, plus extra for doing it in such a high-profile location."

Abren pointed to a security camera mounted on the wall.

"Perhaps a review of the video record will tell us more."

"Yeah, that's a break. One thing we do know; Jorran's not alone. That girl was definitely with him, and so was the Demi."

"Unless the Demi wanted Tyler for her own reasons," Abren suggested.

Conn shook his head.

"No, the girl went with her when she took Tyler. That says ally to me."

"I agree; that would be the more logical interpretation."

"I'd better put in a call to Captain Nile. Maybe trying to explain this mess to the Steel Hawk will help me somehow make sense of it. Besides which, we need a forensics team out here and she's still got a freeze on the locals." He glanced at his android partner. "Why don't you get to the security office and make sure the vid chip with tonight's fun and games doesn't mysteriously vanish?"

He started towards the elevator, then stopped.

"Hey, Abren, you remember how our tip was that the meeting would go down at midnight?"

"Yes."

"You don't suppose," Conn said, his voice dripping sarcasm, "someone wanted us to show up after the crap had gone down to pick up the pieces, do you?"

* * * * *

Tyler groaned, eyelids slowly opening to reveal the brilliance of artificial light. Pain still filled him, but there was also energy; strength seemed to flow into him rather than drain out.

"He's coming to," he heard Risa's voice call.

"Thank goodness! Here, give him this."

"Another one?"

"No, that was just to keep him with us. This is a Dimate."

Tyler opened his eyes all the way. He seemed to be lying on a bed. The Demi who had carried him out of the club was flicking the cap off of a tube-shaped pressure injector. Risa took it, set the tip against his flesh, and pressed the trigger. Heat seemed to flow outward from the point, filling his bloodstream and flowing to every part of his body. Dimate, he knew from experience, was a powerful wound curative, similar to the "healing potions" of sword-and-sorcery legend. It stimulated the body's natural healing functions at a radical rate, so that weeks of healing took place in moments. In addition, unlike its weaker cousin, Monomate, Dimate also caused cell division and growth that ordinarily took place only once in a lifetime, so that injuries that would be permanently crippling were wiped away. The heat swelled in Tyler's knee, and he could feel his shattered kneecap all but regrow. Less than two minutes later, he smiled.

"Are you all right?" Risa asked.

"My head's a little sore, but I'm all right otherwise."

The android inspected Tyler's side and knee clinically, then nodded agreement.

"Yes, your wounds seem to be healed nicely. I'd take it easy for a while, though. I know that the Dimate contains the concentrated nutrients that your body needs to heal, but the effects of being injured, then rapidly healing, can be a shock to your system."

Tyler nodded, feeling his head throb as he moved it.

"I know; I've used Dimate before. The effects will pass in a few minutes." He glanced down at himself, then blushed as he saw that he was clad only in his undergarments, the shirt pushed up to bare his abdomen. Risa grinned at his embarrassment.

"Well, we had to check your wounds somehow, didn't we?" she said, unapologetic.

"Would you like to shower and change clothes?" the android asked. "I've noticed that the process has a mentally rejuvenating effect on most people, and we have lots to discuss."

"Yeah, starting with who you are and why you pulled us out of there. Not that I'm complaining; I deeply appreciate the fact that you saved my life and possibly Risa's."

"You're welcome."

"I just want to know why you did it."

"Well," she said brightly, "my name is Anje, and this is my apartment. Well, it actually belongs to Catherine Maycross, but she only exists in the computers I make believe in her, so it's really mine. The rest can wait until later."

Tyler nodded and swung his legs off the bed. He needed time to digest what had already happened, and a shower was always good for a few minutes of quiet thought, besides the fact it would get the dried blood off his skin. His bare feet landed on soft, plush carpet, and Tyler realized from the furnishings that the fictitious Ms. Maycross was very well-off indeed. The apartment was nothing more or less than a luxury suite.

Anje's bathroom gleamed like new--being an android, it was largely superfluous for her--and outfitted with a massive whirlpool tub as well as a separate shower stall. Tyler locked the door, stripped off his remaining clothes, and selected his water temperature. The cascading sluice of water felt good, helping him to wash away the tension of the past day and two nights. It gave him a warm, clean, centered feeling that was purer, more natural than the leftover buzz from the Dimate that had worn off right before he hit the water. When his brain and body had come to terms with the present, he reached for the gel-soap dispenser mounted on the shower wall. While Tyler washed, he began to think.

Beginning with the immediate, his thoughts started with his hostess. The generic face of a Demi was designed to be cute, rather than pretty, and the appearance was only emphasized by her diminutive size. Her voice was high-pitched, almost chirpy, and there was a kind of perpetual enthusiasm about her mannerisms that completed the resemblance to a ten-year-old child who happened to possess genius intelligence and adult maturity. The one nonstandard thing about her was her color scheme. Production-line Demis came with light green hair, roughly Risa's shade, and a green-and-gold color scheme. Tyler had always figured the colors were meant to be a subtle dig at LIM's corporate logo, a reminder by Scion-Colesburg that they, not Luveno, had created the first AI with a functioning emotional personality. LIM had tried to match their success with the Mieu-types, but the Mieus were combat androids first and foremost, and their personalities weren't as well-rounded as the Demis, though they were also less quirky. Luveno had turned back to pure-logic personalities with their Wren-types, and Scion-Colesburg had kept on churning out green-and-gold Demis. So why Anje's color change?

The bloodstains came off easily, scarlet vanishing down the drain. The last remnants of the firefight gone forever into Camineet's sewer system. Half an hour ago, Tyler had been wounded, maybe dying, and now the situation was completely different. He was alive, fully healthy, and ready to take action. Yet, what was his first order of business?

Jac Norbridge was one point. The lying bastard had sold them out. Maybe it was just to the hunters, and maybe to the cops too, but either way he'd collected a nice fee for handing over Tyler and Risa. Handed them over to whom, though? Who was willing to lay out the meseta for a team of hunters and Jac's "finder's fee" all to get hold of Tyler or leave him dead? He didn't have any old enemies lingering around Camineet in that kind of position, so it had to be someone involved in the current biz. Unless it was Risa and not him they were after?

Possible, Tyler decided, but unlikely.

Part of it was who she was; a street girl from Ossale Court wasn't likely to fall into two major operations simultaneously. Most of the reason, though, Tyler realized, was that he trusted her now to have told him if she had something that nasty hanging over her. Taking that assumption as a given, then the attack had to be connected with Melora's disappearance.

The obvious suspect was, of course, Stephens' boss, the potential blackmail victim, who was also probably responsible for the kidnapping. A well-off LIM executive with a secret to hide wouldn't balk at hiring outside talent to plug a possible chink in his armor. For that matter, it made more sense that way then the way the kidnapping had gone down. Professional, independent talent to take out a professional, not the weird mix of muscleboys, bodyguards, and doctors.

That was why Tyler distrusted the obvious explanation. The attack at Shadowedge and the kidnapping had played out so differently that they seemed like the products of two different minds. Corp execs and strategists, like criminals, had their own modus operandi, their way of doing things. They didn't change styles in midgame. Dis that mean that someone else was calling the shots now, or had an entirely new player taken the field?

Too many questions, Tyler decided, toweling off. Jac would have some answers, that was for sure, but what Tyler really wanted was to know what was on the chip he had taken from Melora's apartment.

A sharp knock at the door cut short his foreboding chain of thought.

"Hey, Tyler, you done in there?" Risa called.

Tyler wound the towel around his waist.

"Yeah, why?"

The door swung open and she set a stack of folded clothes on the edge of the sink.

"Anje figured you could use some fresh clothes--unless, of course, you happen to go for the dirty, bloodstained, full-of-bullet-holes look." She grinned at Tyler to let him know that she had meant it as a joke, not sarcasm. Risa then eyed him up and down, taking in his muscular chest and arms and his hard, flat stomach. "I picked out the sizes; hope they're close," she added, then was gone, pulling the door shut behind her.

Wondering why an android would keep clothing on hand--at least it couldn't belong to an ex-lover!--Tyler investigated the stock. The undergarments fit perfectly, as did the matte-black carbonsuit. The two-piece military-styled suit felt odd to Tyler, though, as he straightened the sleeves. Taking a closer look at the material, he realized that it wasn't really a carbonsuit after all; the fabric was a fine weave of special graphite strands. He'd read about these; graphitesuits were supposed to be roughly equal to titanium armor in protective ability. Redfield had been touting them as being "as good as ceramics, without the weight!" but more seasoned arguments dismissed that as advertising puffery. They were expensive, and the material didn't lend itself to armored fashion as carbon did, but certain execs and politicos liked them. The boots matched the color and style.

Tyler took a glance in the mirror. He liked the look, and the protective qualities definitely appealed. This was biz wear, in every sense. He opened the door and walked out.

"Not bad," Risa said with a smile.

"That does suit you," Anje agreed.

"I'm not bleeding all over the furniture," Tyler replied, "which is the part that suits me best. Now, though, I think it's time for some of those explanations we discussed earlier."

"Anje rose to her feet and held up the amber sliver that so much of this seemed to revolve around.

"We'll start with this. I found it in your coat; I presume you got it from Melora's home?"

Tyler nodded.

"Oh, good. I've been worried that LIM would have found it by now! Do you know what's on it?"

"No."

"Well, I do, because I put it there," Anje smiled brightly.

"You're Melora's gridrider?" Now that would be a titanic piece of luck, to meet by coincidence with the person they had intended to find at Shadowedge in the first place. "Can you prove it? Risa, do you know her?"

Risa shook her head, and the android sighed.

"I suppose a little suspicion is only natural," she admitted, then brightened. "Did you try to have Ham read the chip?"

"How do you know about Hamdak?"

"Later! I just want to know if you know what the security on this chip is like."

"Yeah, I know," said Tyler, figuring out where Anje was going with this. "He said it was beta-level, about as sealed off as chip files could be."

"So would you agree--"

"That if you could open it up with a half-dozen keystrokes, it would be proof enough that you really did set it up? Yeah, I'd agree to that."

Anje tipped her head to one side and regarded Tyler with curiosity. It was amazing, he thought, how her artificial face could so easily convey emotion.

"You know, you're being awfully rude, considering that I just saved your life. Twice, if you count getting you out of Shadowedge separately from healing your wounds."

Tyler ran a hand through his cropped blond hair.

"I guess I am at that. I'm just getting so damned tired of being jerked around on this thing. My friends are being hurt or killed, I've been betrayed, attacked, and nearly gravestoned, and I still don't have any idea what it's all about."

Anje nodded.

"Well, watch and learn!"

She sat down at the desk, on top of which sat an IMVE Aurora workstation. The model wasn't top-of-the-line, but then again, the base unit had probably been modified. Anje didn't use the keyboard, though; instead she plugged the same cable she had used to access the skimmer into the computer.

Of course, Tyler realized. She doesn't need a VR interface to translate thought into computer commands. She's an AI; her thoughts are computer commands! He wondered for a moment why LIM hadn't set an army of Wrens to work as gridriders, them realized that gridriding was as much an art as a science. A Wren had the basic tools it took to be a superhuman neon angel but only the Demis could step beyond mere "computer operation" to "gridriding" because of their feelings.

The data from the chip was scrolling across the screen in a matter of seconds. Tyler's jaw was sagging in shock several seconds as he stared at the crimson-armored android.

"You're her, aren't you?" he said, genuinely amazed. "Anje...you're Angel Red, aren't you?"

"Who?" Risa exclaimed, just as stunned.

"Some people call me that," Anje said modestly.

"Jac! That skag knew!" Tyler exclaimed. "That's why he was grinning so much back at Syclone.

"Angel Red is an android?" Risa boggled. "Though," she added with a grin, "I'm glad she's a female android, at least."

"It's really not that big a deal."

"Yeah, right," Tyler said, grinning. "Your street name is the reason they call gridriders 'neon angels,' heck, how all that angel slang for computer work came into being, and it's not a big deal."

"I've got hacker wannabe pals who'd give their right arm to meet you," Risa added.

Anje didn't exactly blush--her synthetic skin couldn't--but she did a good job of looking embarrassed all the same.

"I just want to help Melora," she said. "She's a good friend as well as a client, and since it was my hacking that got her into this, I want to help save her. I know she'd sent the letter to you, Tyler, but after you checked into your hotel last night you haven't been leaving traces in the datanet. I didn't catch up with you until the lurker I'd slipped into LIM's systems picked up a message about tonight's meeting. Then I almost didn't make it because of a silly traffic jam on the highway."

There were so many questions raised by that disclaimer that Tyler didn't know which one to ask first.

"Why don't you start at the beginning and run through the whole story?" he suggested. "I came to the show late and got bad seats, besides, so I'm going to need some background before any of this makes sense."

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