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Freedom's Price


Dr. Ewan Margolis despised the slums of Rendak. The district was dank and filthy, its population little better than the garbage lining the streets. The densely packed, crumbling tenements were more often than not home to vicious packs of squatters, winos, metachem addicts, and prostitutes. Gang violence was a fact of everyday life in Rendak, as were the activities of organized crime syndicates. The place was a festering wasteland of urban decay where mercy, kindness, and basic human decency were mere weaknesses to be exploited. Just as Margolis and Luveno Industrial Mechanisms were exploiting the kindness of the Jaeger Foundation by using its clinic as a source of research specimens, Margolis supposed.

Certainly, when he had been a prominent surgeon at one of Camineet's best hospitals, Dr. Margolis hadn't had to think of his medical scalpel as a weapon, nor been forced to carry a "hot button" transmitter that would summon security guards to its location when activated. He hadn't felt the tickling feeling at the back of his neck whenever he left the building for a smoke or when walking to and from the locked parking enclave where he kept his skimmer.

He loathed the life he was forced to lead, barely able to keep himself in a middle-class apartment, working for wages he wouldn't have taken as an intern. Maybe, he thought, when LIM was done with their project he could approach them for a job, perhaps with one of their subsidiaries or in an out-of-the-way research facility. Even Gothic or Bortavo would be better than this.

The wall surrounding the parking area was thick although crumbling stone capped by twists of barbed, serrated wire. The enclave was run by one of the local gangs, the Violators, who fancied themselves a cut above the other gutterpunks. They ran the protection rackets in their territory, sold metachems for one of the syndicates, and hired themselves out as muscle. The parking lot was, for them, part practice (keeping out and roughing up the skags who thought they could slip in and swipe something) and part publicity statement (no one but them got to do major crimes on their turf). The leering punks with their purple-and-black facepaint and studded leather who worked the gate always scared Dr. Margolis. The sense of barely restrained violence they projected was undeniable, as if any wrong move or a misplaced word would bring on a sudden end to his life. Their smiles seemed particularly vicious as he left the lot, handing over his key tube and an advance payment.

Dr. Margolis crossed the cracked and pitted street, veering away from an unconscious form sprawled on the sidewalk. His lip curled as he observed the blond man's condition. Was he drunk, stoned, or the victim of some attack? It was all one and the same in Camineet's slums. The doctor turned and walked on. He was only a block and a half from the clinic, where the fight for survival in Rendak's streets would bring a constant stream of patients--and prey--to his door.

The grip on the back of the doctor's coat took him completely by surprise, as did the cold of a ceramic knife-edge against his throat. Where? How? He's been in Rendak long enough to be aware of threats like this. No one could have approached him on the streets without him being aware of their presence. So how--?

Inexorable force and the threat of the blade at his neck forced Dr. Margolis into a nearby alley. He cast a desperate look at the two gangers, but they did nothing but smile tauntingly. Apparently they had been paid off--or, since no one was bothering the cars, they just didn't care. Margolis was spun around and pushed back against the alley wall. His shoulder blades pressed against bricks still wet from the afternoon's drizzle, probably staining his coat.

For the first time, Margolis got a look at the one who'd attacked him. It was the "unconscious" man, his hard, deadly eyes showing no hint of alcohol or metachem use. That was it--he had feigned being in a stupor to let the doctor get close and within range of a surprise attack. Dr. Margolis' hand crept towards his pocket, but a cold voice cut him off.

"Don't try it."

The speaker was an android, a Demi, who was carrying the biggest monster of a gun Margolis had ever seen. There was a third person there, too, a girl dressed in streetwear who could have fit in nicely with the Violators. This wasn't a gang, though, or a band of ordinary muggers; the group was too diverse. They could have been from one of the syndicates, or possibly hired hunters.

"Dr. Margolis, I presume," the blond man said. "We've got some questions for you, which I suggest you answer truthfully. We don't have time to waste with stupid and facile lies."

Margolis nodded slowly. He was bright enough to know to keep his mouth shut. The wrong word, phrase, or tone of voice could trigger the three into an attack.

"Two words," the man continued. "Project Nuada. Ring any bells for you?"

Margolis blanched. No one was supposed to know that name. Worse, if they knew that, then how much else did they know? Reflexively, he tried to argue.

"I don't know what you're talking about. Look, if you want my wallet..."

His hand dropped towards his pocket again, but the girl's foot swept up off the pavement and pinned his wrist to the wall.

"No sudden moves, Doctor. That's a plasma cannon pointed at you, and if she fires it it's likely to take you out as well as the wall you're leaning on."

The girl flexed her left wrist, and four clawlike blades snapped out and locked into place. The clicking sound from the vicious little weapon sent chills down Margolis' spine. It was a crude intimidation technique, but that was why it was working. The infighting of hospital politics, the lies, the insinuations, the character assassinations, these he was experienced with. He understood subtle methods of intimidation, had used them, and knew how to counter them. Having a weapon thrust into his face by someone who seemed quite prepared to use it was another matter altogether. Lying and blackmail were no defense against a knife thrust or gunfire.

The girl released him and stepped back. Dr. Margolis rubbed his sore wrist while the man resumed the questioning.

"We're not thieves, Doctor," he said, "though I'm sure you know that already. We want information from you. Now, before you're tempted to try and lie again, let me spell some things out for you. You're on the take from Luveno. They're using your clinic in their Project Nuada. Not only are you getting paid personally, but money is being fed into the clinic's budget. Do I need to say more, or are you willing to take it from here?

Nervously, Margolis flexed his hands and rubbed them together as if he was washing them.

"Medical malfeasance is a serious crime," the man added, "and we have plenty of evidence to send you up for trial. You'd do time in prison, and when you got out you'd have nothing left of your assets because of the fines. You might end up here on these very streets." He glanced at the ceramic knife thoughtfully. "Do you know, I shouldn't be threatening to kill you; I should be threatening to let you live."

The knife blade came up sharply, its point resting lightly against the doctor's nose.

"We want to know everything, Dr. Margolis. Why don't you just tell us and save us all the trouble of convincing you?"

The doctor looked from one face to another. All were cold and hard, unforgiving of his conduct and unwilling to show compassion.

This was Rendak. Compassion was a weakness.

He talked.

* * * * *

Tyler stared coldly at the doctor. He felt no regrets over this interrogation, none at all. This man was supposed to be a healer, dedicated to saving people's lives, and instead he was using that position to injure and destroy them. It was a savage betrayal, both of the doctor's creed and of the Jaeger Foundation's good intentions in founding the clinic. He knew that Anje and Risa both felt the same way.

They had considered a direct assault on the clinic, breaking in, having Anje disarm the sec-systems, then searching for records and physical evidence. That idea had been dismissed, though, as being both too dangerous and not as likely to be productive. The doctor wasn't protected by the Emerald Legion and he had all the answers, without having to hunt for them or trying to interpret scientific and medical data that none of them had the training to understand.

Margolis, meanwhile, was spilling his guts to them. The woman who'd originally approached him had been a usual faceless middle-manager type, but once her overtures had been accepted, the man who had sat down with him to provide specific details had been none other than Gage Worthmann.

"He gets around, doesn't he?" Tyler murmured.

"You know him?" the doctor asked.

"By reputation. Go on with the story."

"He said that the corporation needed test subjects for a series of biotech experiments that they were running. The proposition was that I would perform certain tests on our patients. If the results proved to be within certain acceptable ranges, the subject was to be given over to them."

"What sort of tests?" Anje inquired.

"Blood typing, DNA, as well as a few others. A full Manxham screening, for one. Do you know what that is?" He asked it in a smug tone of voice, as if he was sure his audience would have no idea. If that was the case, he was doomed to be disappointed.

"It gauges magical power," the android stated. "The procedure was an outgrowth of the Esper wars on Mota, and includes a genetic testing for Esper lineage as well as examining technique potential including both the types of techniques which might be developed as well as the strength of those techniques if mastered. The equipment required for these tests is quite expensive and unusual, however, and certainly would not be part of a small clinic's laboratory facilities."

The doctor's smile, which had vanished during Anje's explanation, crept back on his face.

"The clinic didn't have it. LIM arranged for untraceable funds transfers to the clinic's accounts to purchase what was needed."

"Not that untraceable," Tyler replied. "Go on, though. That was why it was necessary to suborn the admin, Lathom, because only she could approve the payment and installation."

In spite of his position, Margolis' smug, self-satisfied look grew.

"It was a pleasure to see that holier-than-thou bitch get cut down to size. Always looking down her nose at me because of my past while all the time she'd been running around on her husband. A husband who, I might add, sits on the Jaeger Foundation board and was responsible for giving her the cushy job she holds now." He smiled wolfishly. You should have seen her, begging Worthmann not to betray her, gladly selling out all the ideals she'd been such a big shot about trumpeting just to keep from losing her meal ticket."

Tyler had an overwhelming urge to kick Dr. Margolis' teeth down his throat which he controlled only with difficulty.

"I guess she arranged your new security contract too, so Luveno would have someone on hand to clean up any problems that arose."

"How much do you know? What do you need me for?"

Tyler stepped forward, careful not to cut off Anje's line of fire, and grabbed Margolis by the front of his white coat. He slammed the doctor up against the wall, hard, and pressed the point of his knife against Margolis' skin just below the left eye.

"What I want, you lousy vampire, is for you tell me what happened to those people!"

"I don't know!" the doctor pleaded, white-faced. "I told you, if the results came back negative we didn't do anything. If they matched any three of six parameters, I gave them to LIM."


"We've got a couple of landrovers outfitted as ambulances."

"For a little back-corner clinic in Rendak?" Risa sneered. "I doubt it."

"LIM provided the money. The whole idea was to have a mode of transport that wouldn't excite attention."

That part, Tyler figured, actually made sense. Ambulances were about as innocuous as a vehicle could be. One could go literally anywhere and not look suspicious or out of place. Who would know that it was taking people away from the clinic instead of to it? For that matter, if stopped, there was a perfectly good reason why an ambulance would be carrying a sedated patient.

"Where do the ambulances go?" Tyler asked.

"I don't know."

Tyler twisted his fist in the man's coat front.

"Might I suggest," he ground out between clenched teeth, "that you try that answer again, and this time make it responsive to the question?"

"Damn it, I don't know!" Dr. Margolis howled in protest. "It's the truth. Those ambulances are driven by LIM's people. They don't tell me what they do with the patients and I don't want to know. You can get killed for learning too much."

"Or for learning too little," Risa said. She turned to Tyler and said, "He's useless to us now; why don't we go ahead and kill him?"

Tyler thought it was probably the nonchalant way she said it, but for whatever reason, the doctor cracked completely. The mix of fear, arrogance, and resignation that he had been displaying crumbled into pure, gibbering terror.

"Wait! Wait! I know how you can find out!" he said.

"He's lying," Risa said, playing the bad cop.

"No, no, it's true! Look, there's going to be one leaving tonight with a fresh subject. You could follow it, sneak aboard--something. I can make sure you get the chance!"

Then again, Tyler thought, Margolis might not be as scared as he acted. What he was saying sounded like an excellent opportunity, but it also sounded like a classic trap, the kind that ended with Risa, Anje, and himself arriving that night to meet a dozen or so Emerald Legion troopers.

"Let me see if I understand this. You want the three of us to return tonight, and you'll let us into the clinic without attracting suspicion so that we can learn what LIM is doing with the people you're helping them kidnap."

"Yes, that's it exactly!"

Tyler arched an eyebrow at him.

"That's a very generous offer, even considering that you'd be getting your life in return."

"You're not leaving me any choice."

"Oh, I think you have a choice. You could sell us a bill of goods and have Emerald Legion thugs ready to kill us when we showed up. You're just the type to rat us out as soon as you were out of immediate danger."

Tyler released the doctor and stepped back.

"Would you tell Dr. Margolis what a deadman's switch is?" he asked Anje, being careful not to use her name.

"Oh, sure. It's a bomb detonator that, instead of going off when you push the button, goes off when you let the button go. It's called a deadman's switch because it's used by bombers who expect to face personal danger. If they get killed, the muscles of their hand relax, and the explosion occurs. In terms of computer code, it refers to a program that executes a command unless it receives instructions not to at regular intervals."

"Thank you; that's very succinct and accurate. Since our doctor friend is an intelligent man, he probably understands the point of all this, but just so that there are no misunderstandings, I think I'll explain it to him."

Tyler's eyes were hard as they lanced into Margolis'.

"What this means, Doctor, is that when we come back tonight, we'll have used that time to set up an insurance policy. Everything we've learned about your nasty little sideline, including recordings of what you've said here will be placed in a datafile. If we aren't able to transmit a passcode to it--say, because you've had us killed--that information will be automatically sent to the press, the Jaeger Foundation board, the DLE, and to Gage Worthmann at LIM. You might end up discredited or jailed, but probably you'll just be killed to keep you from testifying against the corp. Any questions?"

Not surprisingly, there were none.

"What time do we meet?" Tyler asked.

"The ambulances always leave at eleven, so how about ten-thirty? Come to the service entrance and I'll let you in. You can avoid most of the posted guards and the security cameras that way."

"Good. Now get going; you're late for work."

"Do you think he'll play it straight?" Risa asked as the doctor scuttled away.

Tyler nodded.

"Yeah, I think so. There's always a chance he'll do something crazy, but he's bright enough to realize that he doesn't have a choice, and he doesn't have what it would take to wriggle his way off our hook."

"He's a rat," Risa said. "You can't tell which way he'll squirm."

"That's why we keep our eyes open. We're going to need better equipment, too, both in case things turn sour and to deal with whomever we find at the end of the ambulance ride."

"Do you know where we can find what we need?"

"This is Rendak. Everything is for sale--at the right price."

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