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Freedom's Price

Part XV

It all started with a straightforward corp-politics job," Anje began. "If you've looked at any of Melora's records you probably already know this, but she was hired by a man named Eric Stephens, LIM section manager for finance in the Robotics Division, to dig up the dirt on his boss. From the way Melora gave it to me, Stephens had been snooping around in the company system and caught a whiff of something underhanded called Project Nuada. Stephens thought it was some kind of embezzlement scam, a way to divert corporate funds to his boss' accounts."

"We found out about Stephens and what he wanted," Tyler said, "but not who he wanted it on or anything about this Nuada."

The Demi nodded.

"The target was the division chief, Gage Worthmann."

Tyler didn't recognize the name; he must have reached his current position after Tyler's departure.

"So, Melora hired you to go into the Luveno system and check up on Worthmann and Project Nuada?" Risa asked. She was sitting on the bed, hugging her knees to her chest.

"That's right. Stephens had given her a gamma-level passcode, so getting into the Nuada files was a breeze. Well, relatively; they were under beta-level security, but it's a lot easier to stage up from a lower level then crack it from scratch, especially in a system as powerful as LIM's."

The android frowned, though on her it looked more like a pout.

"Project Nuada, though, didn't pan out the way I expected it to. There were no files on what it was doing, which I didexpect. Who keeps files on a shell project, after all? The weird thing, though, was that when I started to follow up on meseta transfers, resource diversions, and all the cover activity, it started to look more and more like there really was a Project Nuada. The money didn't go anywhere near Gage's private accounts!"

"Wait a minute," Tyler interrupted. "If Nuada is a real project, even an under-the-table one, there have to be records somewhere. LIM doesn't do anything that one person can just carry around in their head."

"I know, so I went looking for it, but there just isn't one unified project file. It's all in bits and pieces hidden throughout the system; collecting it all could take weeks. Especially given how much of that data is hidden away behind some of Luveno's nastiest datanet security! I admit, I'd love to take apart LIM's mainframe from top to bottom--what gridrider wouldn't?--but you'd have to be Mother Brain to actually do it." She pointed at the computer screen. "This is what I got. I gave the chip to Melora four days ago."

"That's the same day she wrote to me," Tyler said.

"I'm not surprised. It must have freaked her out badly to learn that she'd stumbled into a heavy black operation run by your old employers."

Tyler shook his head.

"Not Melora. She must have seen something in that data that meant something to her--something very big and very nasty. She wouldn't have gone running to me over just having a job turn out to be more than it appeared."

"That's right," Risa agreed. "Melora always told me that almost every job turns out to be more than you know up front. Sometimes the clients lie, sometimes they hold something back, and even when they tell the truth whatever they want has complications."

Anje looked over the two of them, assessing their opinions.

"Probably you're right; you know Melora better than I do." And, of course, there was the human factor. No matter how Palman-like a Demi's personality was, it was still artificial and therefore not always able to "read" the responses of living people.

"So what happened next?" Risa urged.

"Well, from my point of view, the next thing was that I checked in with Melora yesterday, or at least tried to. She'd told me that she might want to follow up later after I gave her the first report, so...well, okay, I admit it, I was trying to drum up some extra business."

Her smile vanished as she considered what had happened.

"When I couldn't find her, I started a datanet search. I found the record of her letter transmission to you, Tyler, so I sent out a few feelers looking for you, also. Then I went back into LIM's systems and found that Eric Stephens was dead, but also that someone had laced his personnel records with all kinds of alarm and tracing programs, and not bad ones either--one almost tripped me up! I planted a couple of lurkers--"

"What's a lurker?" Risa interrupted. Gridriding jargon tended to go over her head, but she was determined to follow Anje's story all the way through.

"A lurker is a kind of virus," the Demi explained. "It's a bit of code planted in a system that does nothing until it encounters some specific stimulus such as a particular name. It lurks in the shadows of the system for its prey, get it? Then it strikes, carrying out its instructions. The ones I left were to scan for fresh data mentioning Melora or Tyler, then copy that data to a drop point on the datanet where I could retrieve them. I also put another on overwatch to see if anyone tripped all the surprises waiting on Stephens' file.

"After that, I went back to looking for Tyler. I finally found him in the airline records, including his arrival time in the Camineet customs log. Then, a bit later, his name popped again when he used a credit transfer to pay for his hotel room."

Anje crossed her legs. One of the most alien thing about most androids was their unnatural stillness when talking. There were ordinarily none of the little gestures that living people punctuated their conversations with. Apparently the Demis were different; they had been programmed to make otherwise pointless movements to help put people at ease.

"Last night, my lurker in the personnel files was triggered. I saw the intrusion by Rhys Hamdak, his triggering of the alarms, and his escape. That was a nice shielding program, by the way. It completely shut down all of the traces that were thrown at him. Unfortunately, he'd been a little sloppy on the way in and registered on a couple of passive security gates, so I was able to tap LIM's internal systems to learn who he was."

"Wait a sec," Risa broke in again. "I thought that fog thing was supposed to keep security from seeing him."

"The code that caught him is a different kind of security. It's like...well, if you're breaking into a building and you shut off the security cameras, but then you step on a pressure plate."

"He paid the price for his sloppiness," Tyler said dully. If he hadn't asked Ham to crack Stephens' file...Don't go there! There's no time for misplaced guilt!

"I know," Anje said. "I'm sorry."

Risa looked knowingly at Tyler, then pressed the conversation in order to get him past that point.

"What happened after that?"

"There were a number of communications between LIM and the DLE which mentioned Tyler's name. They were sent over encrypted channels, so my lurkers couldn't do any more than register their existence."

"Wait a minute," Tyler said. "It was Luveno who called the cops? That's crazy! If this Project Nuada really is some kind of black op, and they kidnapped Melora and killed Stephens in order to cover it up, why would they go to the DLE? The cops aren't idiots; they'll put two and two together fast enough."

Anje sighed.

"I was hoping you'd be able to explain that," she told Tyler. "It isn't logical or rational, and the major corporations always act rationally in pursuit of their goals. Immorally or unethically, certainly, but always rationally."

"Which means," Tyler said, "that we're missing some important pieces of the puzzle. First it looked like an ordinary job gone wrong, then it looked like some kind of under-the-table corporate business, and now..."

Risa flopped back on the bed.

"This is so damned confusing; if people weren't getting killed over it I'd laugh."

"How did you find out about us?"

"It was one of my lurkers; it caught the tail end of a visiphone call from Gage Worthmann about you. LIM keeps a record of incoming calls, so I hacked into the monitor databank and downloaded the information. That's how I knew that you were going to be ambushed at Shadowedge."

Tyler held up a hand.

"Wait a second. You said LIM monitors all incoming calls, but that it was Worthmann who placed the call."

"Right. They monitor outgoing calls, too, but Worthmann wasn't dumb enough to make a call on an open line. But, he made the call to an unsecured phone, though he didn't mean to. He dialed a secure number, but it was busy and bounced the call to the message-record system, which isn't secured."

"Couldn't you just have hacked the message databank?"

The android gridrider shook her head.

"Unfortunately not. It's in a completely different part of the system and walled up with alpha-level security to protect the executives' privacy. In fact, if Gage had just left a message outright, that wouldn't have been monitored and I'd never have known about it; it was the act of transferring from the busy number to the recorder that triggered the internal tap. Otherwise, if you leave a message from a secure or external phone--and by the way, employees' home and company-issued portable phones are considered internal--and it's retrieved the same way, the system won't snoop it. Basically, I took advantage of a system glitch!" She grinned broadly. Well, Tyler supposed, if anyone could fulfill the fantasy of the top-notch gridrider dancing nimbly around the gigantic evil corporation it was Angel Red.

"Nice work," he said. "Which just leaves the million-meseta question: who did Gage call?"

Anje's grin grew even wider.

"The one and only Nash Garrett, Luveno Industrial Mechanisms' Security Division Chief."

"The hunters were Luveno sec-agents?" Risa exclaimed.

"More likely freelancers hired by Garrett," Tyler told her. "He wouldn't shoot up someplace like Shadowedge with people who could be immediately traced back to LIM. It's too public."

Anje drummed her fingers on her knee, a natural-seeming action made unnatural by the sound of clinking metal.

"Or, given the apparent connection between Luveno and the DLE, it's possible that the hunters were sent by a third party and the DLE called by Garrett."

"A third party?" Risa groaned. "Isn't this confusing enough?"

"Maybe they both were sent by LIM," Tyler suggested. "One team, the hunters, is sent in to take us out, then a second team, the DLE agents, 'secure' the situation and puts a nice coat of whitewash over the whole affair. What I'm not sure of is why they want us dead; they can't know what we may have told anyone else."

"Well, maybe they figure you're more dangerous alive than anyone you might have told is."

"Or," Risa said dryly, "they figure it's easier to shoot first and question the clones."

"Except that ever since 1275 cloning facilities operate under government license," Tyler reminded her. "Then again, if the DLE is involved..."

Risa shook her head.

"One problem with that. The hunters and DLE were shooting at each other. That doesn't sound to me like they're on the same side."

"Would LIM necessarily have told them about each other?" Anje wondered. "The hunters might not have known that the cops weren't after them and so opened fire in what they believed to be self-defense. Or, if Garrett was feeling really nasty, part of the DLE's job might actually have been to remove the hunters and get rid of any links back to Luveno."

"Or," Tyler pointed out, "maybe the DLE agents were just doing their jobs. I mean, we were in the middle of a three-way battle, and Shadowedge is the kind of place the government likes to keep intact. Too many important people go there to party or do biz."

Risa punched a pillow.

"What's that--four theories we've come up with now? Do we really know anything?"

"Risa has a point," Anje agreed. "If we can generate this many hypothetical scenarios, we lack the information we need to judge the truth."

Tyler got up, stalked over to the far side of the room, and looked out the window, bracing his hands on the sill.

"When you get right down to it," he said, "does it really matter how it plays out? We know that LIM and specifically Worthmann and Garrett are after us because of Melora. We know that there's a connection between the DLE and Luveno, though whether the cops are crooked or being fed a line is uncertain." He looked back over his shoulder. "Hey, do either of you know if that Siren is standard with the Camineet DLE now?"

"Never seen one before," Risa said.

"It surprised me as well," Anje agreed. "No, they aren't used by the DLE as far as I know."

"Okay. It wasn't four years ago when I left town, but things do change." Tyler looked out the window again. The apartment was on or near the top floor of a high-rise, maybe six stories above the elevated highway that ran past then branched off into three spiraling ramps that descended another ten stories to the groundways below. Off in the distance Tyler could see the green fire of the three LIM towers, the triskelion shining in teal-blue radiance atop the Scion-Colesburg headquarters, and the crimson diamond logo that capped each face of the octagonal Redfield Arms building. If he remembered the layout of the three landmarks correctly, that put this apartment building somewhere near the south edge of Skyhaven, the highest-rent district of the city. Angel Red was doing very well for herself indeed.

Idly, Tyler wondered if androids could appreciate luxury, if Anje could enjoy one chair over another, or the beauty of a good view, or if soft carpet under her feet felt better than a bare floor. The kitchen was useless to her and the bathroom nearly so; how much of the rest of this apartment was solely for the benefit of living guests?

He turned around again, thoughts more or less in order.

"Let's have a look at that data. I want to know just what it is about Project Nuada that makes murder and abduction the flavor of the day."

* * * * *

Two hours later, Tyler looked away from the screen. He drank off the last of his third cup of coffee--the kitchen was at least well-stocked, despite being irrelevant to its owner--and got up from his chair. Risa had given up in disgust after a quarter-hour; she lacked the education and training it took to negotiate the twists of corporate finance. Anje did possess that, but not the familiarity with the way the corps operated--the Palman angle, as it were--so she was waiting to see what Tyler deduced from the file she had collected.

Risa yawned and took off the headphones connecting her to the audivid system.

"So what's the verdict?" she asked.

"Anything interesting?" he countered, indicating the holovid screen.

"'Terrorists attack Old Camineet club. Unverified reports indicate DLE agents broke up a skirmish between at least two factions of criminals at Shadowedge late this evening. An unknown number of gangsters were killed or taken into custody.'" She snickered wryly. "It looks like I'm finally earning a name for myself. Too bad I'll never get a chance to use this particular rep with both Luveno and the cops after us for it."

Tyler smiled in spite of himself.

"So," Risa asked again, "anything worth talking about there?"

"Yeah, Anje managed to track down what Worthmann was doing with the money. It looks like he's been diverting funds out of the Robotics Division budget for about a year now. The tricky thing is tracing where it's going. There are a set of shell accounts under the Project Nuada label--R&D, marketing, administration, all the usual. The problem is, the recorded transfers of meseta out of them aren't going where they're supposed to. They're being routed through channels that don't match up with their supposed destinations."

Risa yawned and stretched, catlike.

"Maybe I'm just too damn tired, but that one went way over my head."

"Okay, here's an example. This transfer record says that five thousand meseta are being paid out of Nuada's R&D budget monthly for laboratory costs. That's rent, power, datanet access, that kind of thing."

"I follow that."

"However, the money was sent through wire transfer channels that don't go to the same kind of account."

"That I don't follow."

"Money was sent to a personal account at a bank, not a corporation's billing/accounts receivable account."

Risa sighed heavily.

"All right, I think I see what you mean. That kind of thing looks different when you inspect the files?"

It does. In fact, that's probably how Stephens got wind that something was wrong. These transfer codes aren't protected by the same level of computer security as the project records or even the specific destinations for the transfers."

Anje nodded.

"They're gamma-level at best, and Melora gave me a gamma-level passcode to use, which she'd gotten from Stephens. I had those transfers gutted in minutes; the hardest part was keeping security from noticing while I did it. That's probably what tipped Stephens off in the first place."

"Anyway, beyond that, Anje was able to crack open the destinations as well. What I can see here are two major groups of payments. One involves what's apparently some kind of transportation company called Lianora. Lianora Shipping, Lianora Facilities Management, Lianora Personnel...did you get a line on who these people are, Anje?"

The Demi shook her head.

"It's not a wholly or partly owned subsidiary of LIM's, of that I'm certain. When I couldn't find them in Luveno's systems I tried the public financial network, but there was no mention of them at all."

"You think it's another layer of lies?"

Anje paused, then shook her head.

"I don't see why there would be yet another layer of shell projects underneath, especially one which hasn't been set up to provide adequate cover."

"Luveno wouldn't be that sloppy," Tyler agreed. "There would be a real company called Lianora if it was just a shell corporation."

"It almost sounds like a place," Risa contributed. "I mean, you've got shipping to and from it, facilities management to keep it running, and personnel to work there."

Tyler and Anje's faces froze for a second, they looked at each other in surprise, then both smiled broadly.

"So much for us being the experts," Tyler said.

"It's not a place belonging to LIM, though," Anje cautioned. "I sent a few programs out to look for it and they couldn't find the name anywhere else in the mainframe. I'm less worried about that, though, then in not finding them on the business net. After all, we know they're diverting meseta out of their systems to Lianora, so it probably shouldn't be under the Luveno aegis if it is a place."

"I'd say Risa's got it right, then," Tyler agreed.

Risa yawned, interrupting her grin.

"So what's the other group? Anything more useful?" she said, sleepiness wearing away at her interest but not enough to completely exhaust her. Three in the morning was hard enough two nights in a row without the emotional crash that comes after a life-or-death battle.

"The other one is more obvious. Apparently, LIM is funding a hospital in Rendak through Project Nuada. There are funds going to the Hartling Memorial Free Clinic, to a Dr. Ewan Margolis, and to Rendak Collective Services. That last one is the landlord, by the way, including utilities."

There was a sour look on his face as he told them about it. Risa got the implication at once, but Anje didn't.

"Why would LIM support a free clinic with secret financing?"

"Medical experimentation," Tyler said grimly. "No corporation is big on anonymous philanthropy, particularly a planetwide conglomerate like LIM. If they were really trying to give out health care to the poor of Rendak, they'd do it with trumpet fanfares, buying tax breaks and good publicity with every meseta spent on charity."

"So it looks like they're hunting research subjects," Risa agreed.

"It happens every so often," Tyler stated. "The people of Rendak and Ossale Court are...expendable."

Risa got off the bed, folding her arms across her chest.

"The system barely even realizes we exist, so there's no justice for us," she said. "The only time the cops take notice is when one of us inconveniences someone important--mugs some guy who's on a slumming trip, busts up a corp landrover or industrial plant, squats in a building some developer wants to tear down. Then its all 'clear out the street scum!'"

"When there's a new drug that the corps want to test, for example, they're as likely as not to run those tests in the slums. Plenty of people are willing to accept a few meseta for getting pumped full of some new concoction, and since there's no one to stick up for their rights, the company researchers don't have to go through the expensive and time-consuming ethical protocols mandated by the laws on Palman testing."

"Is that what you think Project Nuada is?"

Tyler shook his head.

"Nah, this is too fancy. Besides, Luveno doesn't have a medical research section. A couple of their subsidiaries do, but the core company's too far removed. This looks more like they're recruiting test subjects."

"What?" Anje exclaimed.

"Some skag walks into the clinic, asks for a flu shot or something, and instead they're snatched and good old Dr. Margolis works them over with whatever crap he's doing. Then they get marked in the patient records as dead. Who's to know? Who's gonna question why someone bites it in Rendak?" Risa's voice was bitter, rising in pitch as she fought with her emotions.

"And whatever it is, this is important. Luveno is pumping millions of meseta through these Nuada accounts. No wonder Melora panicked," Tyler concluded. "She'd know at once how important it would be for LIM to keep this quiet." He paused to think, then said, "Stephens' death was listed as two days, three days now. Figure another day for interrogation and it tallies nicely with the timetable you've given us, Anje. If I was a gambler, I'd lay odds that Melora passed on a preliminary report and Stephens went to Worthmann and tried his hand at blackmail."

"Which would, of course, fail," the Demi stated. "Gage would have LIM security, at least those of highly classified levels, take Stephens into custody and extract everything Stephens knew about Project Nuada and whom else he'd told."

"That's why they were after Melora," Tyler reasoned. "Worthmann hired the rat pack to grab her when Stephens confessed whom he'd hired. He wanted her alive to find out whom she'd told in turn. LIM probably got on to me by having their pet gridriders in CompSec run a trace on Melora and finding the letter she'd sent, just like you did, Anje."

"Wait a sec," Risa cut in. "If Melora knew that people were after her, why did she pick letter transmission to use to call you? Why not some more secure method?"

Tyler shrugged.

"She had to. I was off in Abion, and she didn't even know if I could be reached by visiphone, which isn't secure either. And, to be honest...she might not have been sure I'd have let her have her say."

What would he have done if she'd called? Would Tyler have heard her out, or slammed the disconnect button and cut her off without a word? The feelings left between them were too close to the surface and always had been. Love, desire, anger, and fear all tied up in one unpredictable mess. It had taken him three days to chew over her letter and come to Camineet; he had no idea how he'd have reacted to a call.

"Norbridge," he said, turning the subject away from dangerous topics, "must have heard that LIM was after us. There must be some kind of buzz on the streets, in the circles he moves in. Not too loud, or it would make a public enough stir to destroy whatever it is they're doing with the DLE, but loud enough that the top fixers and rumormongers would hear. There's a price on my head, and probably yours now too, Risa. I'm sorry."

"Don't be. I'm doing this to help a friend, not because of anything you said or did. Sooner or later I'd have either stumbled into a trap or had that same bounty put on me even if you'd have stayed in Abion."

Tyler sighed. He was tired too, which made it hard to think clearly about more than one thing at once.

"I think we need to get some sleep," he said. "Tomorrow we're paying a visit to that clinic, and we Palmans at least need rest. Anje, can you check the public records database, maybe try to dig up some schematics of the place? We've got to find some answers if we're going to get ourselves or Melora out of this fix."

"That'll be a plan," Anje agreed. "This can be your bedroom, Tyler, and Risa can have the one across the hall."

"Won't you need to use the computer here?" Tyler asked.

"No; I can access the datanet directly with my internal systems. I only used this workstation to show you the datachip. Interfacing through a computer would only slow my reaction time." Yet another reason, Tyler supposed, why she had such an edge on even the best of Palman gridriders. It was kind of ironic, really; Camineet's gridriders looked on Angel Red as a legend, almost some kind of a god, and in reality Anje was like a goddess to them because her abilities to enter and manipulate the datanet worked on an entirely different level. It was a level they had no hope of reaching, no matter how hot their systems were or how high their ability. They would always be one step behind the android, simply because they were Palmans and she was not.

Risa shrugged off her jacket and flipped it over one shoulder, showing off her bare arms and the snug fit of her clothing beneath. It was surprising how much the bulky leather coat concealed; Risa's body was slim and lithe, the well-defined muscles in her arms and back melding with her sleek curves. Tyler also noticed for the first time the head and tail of an ornate dragon tattoo whose coils reached from shoulder to shoulder in brilliant reds and greens. The eye seemed to wink at him.

"I don't know about you people," Risa said, "but I'm going to take you up on that sleep thing. I'm dead tired and have no desire to turn that into just plain dead."

Once the women had gone, Tyler stripped off the graphitesuit and turned out the lights. The bed was soft and comfortable, but he lay awake for a long time. Everything he learned about this business just made it worse. He'd left Camineet to escape the constant round of cross and double-cross, the sensation of being used as a pawn in a game he could never quite learn the rules of. He'd been back for less than forty-eight hours and was enmeshed in something worse than he'd ever had to deal with before. He'd run away from that, so how could Tyler know that he'd be able to stay the course?

He'd have to be at his best. All three of them would, if they were going to have any chance of surviving the mess they'd landed in. Maybe even that wouldn't make any difference. How many guns did Luveno have to send against them? How many did the DLE?

When sleep finally came, Tyler's dreams were filled with pain and fire and the pleading face of Melora.

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