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Freedom's Price

Part XVI


Tyler slept late the next morning. His room felt cold, though he knew it couldn't be; the luxury apartment's climate control systems were too well-balanced to allow that. The view from the window showed dull gray clouds overhanging the city like a steel factory ceiling. The ex-agent dressed and began the process of getting ready for the day, eventually wandering out to the kitchen. There were plenty of free-standing houses in Abion with less floor space than this apartment. Gage Worthmann, he reflected, probably lived somewhere very similar to this.

"Well, well," Risa called from the kitchen table, "the sleepyhead moves at last."

Anje rose from her seat.

"I'm glad you're awake; I need to use the computer to print out a number of specifications and plans I found last night on the datanet." She grinned eagerly, and said, "The clinic definitely wasn't a tough nut to crack. A four-year-old with a toy could fly through its system."

"Anything interesting?"

"Somebody's been doctoring their patient records." She paused, receiving the expected groans, then continued. "People go in, but they don't come out--and then a day or so later, they didn't go in, either."

"I don't suppose you have names and dates?"

She shook her head.

"Sorry; that information is essentially irretrievable. It's been erased, then overwritten."

Tyler shrugged.

"Oh, well, I thought maybe there could be someone who had a family, a lover, even a gang to ask the same kind of questions we want to, but it was more of a side thought than any kind of plan."

"All right."

The Demi slipped out of the kitchen and Tyler sat down. Someone had fixed coffee, juice, fruit, bacon, eggs, and muffins, and Tyler dug into the food eagerly. Risa's plate indicated that she already had.

"Weird; an android who keeps a fully-stocked fridge," she commented.

"She's been looking for me, at least, for a day," Tyler said between bites. "Anje probably figured that since we were being hunted by LIM, we'd need somewhere to crash and hide out. This is as good a place as any, probably better than most since the building has its own security staff to help keep out any more hunter packs, and because LIM probably would assume we'd be hiding out in some hole in the wall, like last night. They wouldn't think of looking in Skyhaven for a group of fugitives, especially if Jac passed on how close to being out of money we are."

Risa scowled darkly at the double-crossing fixer's name.

"Sooner or later, Tyler, I'm going to take a piece out of that bastard for setting us up. I don't mind that he's a greedy skag, but once you've met his price, he should stay bought, damn it!"

She tossed her head angrily, iridescent green hair flowing down her back.

"It's surprisingly unprofessional," Tyler agreed, smiling wryly at the girl's outburst even though he, too, wanted to have a few harsh words with Jac. Or a few minutes of target practice. "He stays in business by being reliable. LIM must have laid out a lot of meseta to suck him in." He scowled too, then. "Four years ago I'd have known how much it was and whom else it had been offered to. Now I'm almost completely out of touch with the buzz on the street."

"Four years ago," Risa pointed out, "you'd have been working for Luveno, helping them with their cover-up."

"Take a look at this!" Anje exclaimed, bursting into the kitchen. The crimson-armored Demi laid out several long strips of paper side by side, making a complete map.

"The clinic?" Tyler asked. "Where's this from?"

"I dug this out of the architectural records of Leonelli Construction. They put this place up nine years ago on the order of the Jaeger Foundation, leveled the old, condemned building that had been there before, and built the clinic from the ground up. The foundation's archives show a security contract with Argus Protective Services which was terminated eight months ago and replaced by one with the Emerald Legion. This matches with the first known payments coming from Project Nuada."

Tyler popped a half-strip of bacon into his mouth and ate it before speaking.

"Emerald Legion Security is a Luveno subsidiary. Gage must figure that if anything goes wrong, he'll want his own people in place, people he can keep from spilling the beans about what's happening at the clinic. If he's really smart, the on-site Legion staff are really LIM sec-agents planted in the company."

"I have the old Argus security specs, but I assume there have been a few upgrades since then."

"Not bad, Anje," Risa said. "About all you haven't found is a key to the back door."

"Oh, they keep that under the flower pot."

"What?"

"Just kidding."

"An android with a sense of humor," Tyler marveled. "We live in strange times, Risa."

Anje stuck her tongue out at him.

"I also," she added, "broke into the clinic's personnel database and got the file on Dr. Margolis."

She handed Tyler and Risa each a copy of the doctor's record, topped by a color picture of a broad-faced man with tiny spectacles. His dark brown hair was cut short on top and brushed his shoulders in back.

"Camineet University, 1258, graduated from medical school in 1262 and went to work for Parolit MedTek under one of those corporate work-for-education contracts. He spent the standard five years with them, then moved up to a surgery position at Camineet MedCenter Hospital." Tyler's eyes flicked down the page. "Ah, now it gets interesting. In 1275, Dr. Margolis was caught up in a misappropriation scandal. Apparently, there was a nasty little bit of moonlighting going on at CMCH."

"A drug ring?"

"Probably. It doesn't say, though. All it says is, 'Suspected in involvement with 1275 black marketeering ring at CMCH; no criminal charges pressed. Resigned at conclusion of investigation.' Forced out, more than likely, and blacklisted so that he was finished as far as top medical jobs go. Free clinic, that's one step up from a street doc in somebody's back room unless you're in it because of the morality."

"I'm thinking that the urge to do good isn't something Dr. Margolis is known for," Risa said sarcastically.

"Right. On the other hand, he's an almost perfect candidate from Luveno's point of view. He's in a position to get them test subjects from the Rendak streets. Unlike many doctors at his level, he's not there either because he's a moral crusader or because he's fried his brain with metachems or alcohol. He's been known to take shortcuts around the law in the past for money. Plus, he's probably eaten alive with frustration because he knows his skills are better than where he's at and because he's had a taste of the good life and can't get it back. If I was looking to recruit someone, the only reason I'd hesitate is because he sounds too good to be true." He glanced up at Anje. "By the way, is Margolis the head administrator there?"

"No, only the highest-ranking doctor. The clinic's director is Mara Lathom."

"So she's either being bribed or blackmailed into going along. Dr. Margolis wouldn't be able to do things like change the security contract without her. I'd bet on blackmail; she isn't getting paid out of Project Nuada."

"Everyone has their little secrets," Risa commented.

Tyler polished off the last of a slice of melon and washed it down with coffee.

"Is the food all right?" Anje asked with an undertone of worry in her voice. "I don't have any kind of cooking utility in my core matrix, so I had to download the information from the datanet."

"You cooked this?" Tyler exclaimed. "I thought Risa had."

Risa leaned back, propping her feet up on the edge of the table."

"Me? Get real, Tyler. I can barely make a glass of tap water."

"Well, it's very good, Anje. Obviously you picked the right site to access."

The little Demi sighed with relief. She'd clearly been very worried about the impression she'd make as a hostess for her nonmechanical guests.

"Getting back to biz," Risa said, "What's our approach going to be? I presume we're going to bust into the clinic and search everything we can lay our hands on?"

Tyler shook his head.

"I don't think so. If I know LIM, they've beefed up the security considerably. There'll be a certain number of armed guards, but also alarms, cameras, and motion sensors, every one of which will be wired to summon more Emerald Legion troops, not the DLE. If Anje will oblige me by taking another jaunt into the clinic's systems, I think I have a better plan.

* * * * *

"So, the girl's image was in the criminal records," Conn mused, looking over the shoulder of the data technician at her terminal.

"Yep. Risa Terrian, age twenty. Convictions for assault and petty larceny; she served eight months in the South Camineet Correctional Facility in 1275."

"Hm," Conn murmured, looking over the file notes. The girl was from Ossale Court. That place bred gangers and gutterpunks by the hundreds, a group from which the best and brightest were culled to become the new blood among the crime syndicates, hunters, and even black-operations teams for more respectable groups like military intelligence or the corps. No surprise, then, that she should be working for Tyler Jorran. Regardless of whether he was a terrorist, a mercenary, or something else entirely, someone like Risa could provide muscle. "What about the Demi?"

"I'm sorry; the images from the security cameras aren't specific enough to find any kind of a match for her."

"Not specific enough? That was a pretty nonstandard color scheme," he told the datatek, Kara Mitchell. She was an attractive girl whom he'd dated a couple of times; their friendship had come close to becoming something more but neither had quite gotten there. "All Demis may have the same face and sized, but there aren't a lot of red ones."

"Not as a standard model, no," Kara said. "They're easily customizable privately, though, and this one doesn't appear to have been reported when it was done. I also crosschecked the current appearance against criminal files and android registration, but nothing came up."

"Damn."

Registration, he thought, should be more often than only when an android was sold or bought. For all Conn knew, the Demi had last been sold ten years ago, or twenty. Hadn't Scion-Colesburg made the first one way back in AW 1255, anyway? Not to mention the fact that under-the-table purchases of robots and androids could and did happen, though it was less common with androids because their personality programs were often such that they would refuse to go along with such a suggestion."

There were ethical issues, too, with that. Androids were in one sense a manufactured item, in essence a highly complex wrench or saw, but as their personalities became more and more advanced they were more and more like people, entitled to legal rights. Conn shoved that thought to the back of his mind. It wasn't productive, insofar as his investigation went.

"That Demi is so distinctive, I'd like to put out an all-points bulletin for her. Maybe even a mediawatch over the holovid besides the APB. Someone, somewhere must have seen her, whether it's a beat cop, a janitor, a waitress, a passing motorist, someone." He brought himself up short. Complaining about the restrictions put on him due to the sensitive nature of the case wouldn't do any good, either. "What about the landskimmer that was reported stolen from Shadowedge?"

"It was found abandoned in Lordan. Someone had hacked the autodrive and instructed it to drive itself in random patterns around town, then shut down after three hours, not recording where it had gone."

"Another dead end."

He sighed heavily. Conn didn't like trying to hunt down an adversary who was experienced in the ways of the city streets without access to all his usual resources. Especially when he was sure that there was much more going on then there was supposed to be. If Gage Worthmann and LIM were running the DLE in circles to cover up their own misdeeds, were they also manipulating the military?

"Be funny if this whole show was just a fancy way to hide the fact that Project Nuada was a total bust," he murmured under his breath. "Pretend it's stolen and no need to lose face with Mother Brain and the commanders."

"What was that, Conn?"

"Ah...nothing. Thanks for your help, Kara, and make sure that girl's file gets downloaded for my access. Abren may be in later to get a copy of it for his internal memory, too."

Conn was almost to the door when Kara turned around and called to him.

"Conn?"

"Yes?"

"What's it like, working with an android?"

Conn rubbed the back of his neck. He could feel the tension there.

"Different," he decided. "Definitely different."

Kara frowned, her full lower lip turning into something of a pout.

"Different how, silly? We don't have any androids working for the DLE and I want to know what they're like."

"Well, Abren's no robot, that's for sure. It isn't just that he looks like a Palman or that his voice doesn't have that metallic, synthesized ring to it. He's clearly someone, an individual, even without emotional capacity. I mean a robot can only do limited things. Outside of its programmed range of tasks and orders, it can't function. Abren, though, can react to any new data and process it, then choose a course of action appropriate to both his general goals and immediate circumstances."

Kara chuckled.

"Conn, that sounds like my old comp-sci professor trying to define what an AI is."

"Cut me some slack; I'm trying to work this through in my own mind."

She made a big show of checking the wall clock, then teased, "I don't have another three hours, Conn." Showing the dignity and maturity of a high-ranking DLE agent, he stuck his tongue out at her.

"Nice taste buds," Kara remarked.

"Seriously, though, the emotions are the weird thing. At first, I expected Abren to be just like a robot, and he took me off-guard because he's got his own ideas and draws his own conclusions. Heck, he even makes guesses when he doesn't have enough data--though he'd probably call it speculation. The thing is, though, he'll never get mad at you. He doesn't like or dislike stuff--approve or disapprove on its logical merits, sure, but never on any kind of emotional level." He grinned at her. "Or, when he thinks I've screwed up he'll say so and not mince words, but he never gets angry about it!"

"Well, he doesn't laugh at you, either," Kara offered.

"Keep pushing it and I'm never taking you to Chaipietro's again."

"You've never taken me to Chaipietro's as it is!" she laughed. "The last time we went out, we ate fast-food perolymates and cola!"

"Oh? And who spent three hours getting dressed so we barely even had time for that before the concert?"

"That's not the point," she stated archly. Conn chuckled.

"Catch you around, Kara. I've got to get back to trailing the bad guys or the Steel Hawk will have me for birdseed."

His lighthearted mood evaporated after leaving the archive room. With some legwork, he might be able to get a line on Risa Terrian, hangouts, current associates, that kind of thing, and that might in turn lead him towards Tyler. It was too indirect, though, and there were too many "mights" in it.

Abren joined Conn in front of the elevator.

"Any luck with the hunters?"

"Each was wearing a cortical detonator, so cloning will be impossible, at least from an interrogation standpoint."

"Damn. We can't catch a break."

Since growing an active-memory clone was standard practice when there was a dead suspect whom the DLE wanted to interrogate, professionals like hunters and corp agents often wore cortical detonators when on a risky operation. The detonator was a broad collar, designed to fit neatly into the neck of most armor or cape designs. Sensors in the collar measured the flow of blood in the jugular vein and carotid artery, as well as the electrical activity of neurons in the brain stem and spinal cord. When the wearer's vital statistics flatlined, a shaped charge of explosive was triggered, blasting up into the wearer's brain. In other words, once you were dead, you stayed dead.

"Testing of fingerprints and DNA samples did, however, lead to the discovery of their identities."

Conn looked over at his partner.

"You know, Abren, if I didn't know that you don't have a sense of humor, I'd swear that you just did that on purpose."

"What are you referring to?"

"Saving the good news for last."

The Siren nodded.

"I see. You mean the tactic of psychological manipulation by which an individual presents a series of statements calculated to induce a certain emotional response, then provides an additional statement producing the opposite effect. The broad swing from one emotional extreme to the other is, I believe, the humorous part of such a sequence."

Conn gave him a dark look.

"You seem awfully knowledgeable on the subject."

"In seeking to increase my own efficiency, it is necessary to understand the behavior of the biological sentients with whom I work. This includes an analysis of the various ways in which Palmans satisfy their psychological needs, such as humor. In this way I can determine what behavior is inefficient but necessary, and what is merely a waste of time."

"Are you sure that you don't have a sense of humor."

"Quite. Such a thing was considered unnecessary and potentially dangerous in a military android."

Friendly fire did seem a likely fate for those who made too many bad jokes.

"Did the identities of the hunters lead anywhere?"

"Yes. They were not a unified team, but apparently came from two separate groups."

"The sec-cam footage suggests they were working together, though."

"Yes. I would speculate that one group, a team of four known to work together, were hired to fill the personnel needs for a mission that the others had contracted for."

"Who were the others?"

"Mark Daystrom, a former captain for Emerald Legion Security, Elaina Garrik, and Norton Paul. The latter two are believed to have done undercover jobs for several corporations in the past, including Luveno, the Emerald Legion, and Grafenvolk Systems."

"Two LIM subsidiaries plus the main corp. Sounds like LIM called out the guns on Tyler themselves."

"We may be jumping to unwarranted conclusions," Abren cautioned. "Daystrom, Garrik, and Paul are independent contractors and their continued allegiance to Luveno is strictly a matter of speculation."

Conn stabbed the elevator call button with an angry thrust of his finger.

"What you mean is, we know damn well what just happened but there's no proof. LIM tried to use us to cover up their 'troubleshooting' efforts, only their good squad couldn't do the job and we showed up early."

"Did the security cameras yield any useful information?"

"We IDed one of Tyler's people. Here's something interesting, though. The entire firefight was caught on holovid. You can't always tell who's doing what to whom, but it's all there. The part before the battle, though, is mysteriously blanked out. Either there was a mechanical malfunction--not likely--or whomever Tyler was meeting with took steps to keep his or her face off the tape."

"Do you suspect the security network was compromised by a gridrider?"

"Either that or by a bribe to the guy running the camera."

"The steel doors swished open and the two stepped inside while a uniformed agent and a Whistle left the elevator cubicle.

"So where does this leave us?" Conn asked rhetorically as the elevator whisked upstairs. Abren missed the subtleties of Palman conversation, though, and answered him.

"We investigate," he said, "and we wait."

Unfortunately, Conn couldn't think of a better idea.

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