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Freedom's Price

Part XVIII


"So this is Nuada," Gage Worthmann said, unable to take his eyes off the six-foot-square monitor screen. It wasn't just a theoretical idea, not just a plan on a computer screen or an experimental sample. This was a fully complete, working prototype. It was the culmination of over a year of theorizing, planning and design, computer modeling, and finally live experimentation. Gage had not only supervised the project's funding, but at its earlier stages had been responsible for many of the technical design specifications. This was more than the success of a corporate project for him; it was a validation of his own time, effort, and cutting-edge research. It was a dream come alive. "It's perfect."

"Well, we still have tests to run," cautioned Dr. Lovell Hurlston, the graybearded chief scientist for Project Nuada at Lianora. Nuada was Hurlston's brainchild, the source of the original idea, and he was unwilling to commit himself completely to the corporate officers without proof. Inside, no doubt, he was bursting with pleasure. Gage was certain of it.

Hurlston was right, of course--Nuada had to be tested before LIM could declare it a success. Yet the feeling was there in Worthmann's gut, that this was what he had worked for, that this was the victory he had awaited.

"Nonetheless," Director Macklin stated, "it is highly impressive. You and your team are to be commended for your fine work."

"Thank you, Director."

Macklin broke the connection and the screen withdrew into the ceiling. "Finally," she said, "some good news." She looked from Gage to Nash Garrett and back again. "Unlike, I may add, your attempts to bring Tyler Jorran to heel. Last night was nothing more or less than a fiasco."

"I lost good agents," Nash said. "You don't need to tell me what happened."

"It appears that perhaps I do," the Director informed him. "The expenditure of Palman assets does not concern me. What is a concern is that those assets were spent without any return. Lives are not to be wasted, just as money isn't." She drummed her fingers on the Laerma-wood desk. "Project Nuada is entering the final phase before implementation, and we still find ourselves cleaning up after Eric Stephens."

Garrett's face tightened. The security chief, Gage had noticed, was utterly ruthless in dealing with those who opposed the corporation but oddly protective of his own people. He would cause the death of a thousand innocents without batting an eye, but the death of even one of his own agents filled him with rage. Of course, loyalty in a commander tended to inspire loyalty in the troops, so from a personnel-management standpoint Garrett's qualities were positive ones.

"Lieutenant Derrek will be more suspicious of us now than ever," Macklin continued. "Unless he is a bigger fool than we have any right to hope for, he'll realize that he was deliberately set up to arrive late and clean up the bodies. Instead of being a useful cat's-paw, he's rapidly developing into a liability. Thankfully, at least his superiors are still acting in accord with our original scenario."

"Probably due to the military connection."

Tara nodded.

"Yes, and at least we have no worries on that score. What I am worried about is what Tyler Jorran may discover."

"Yes," Gage agreed. "Apparently he's managed to recruit competent assistance. The girl, Risa, was apparently a pupil of Melora Nain's, at least to judge from what our informants have learned." He glanced in Garrett's direction, acknowledging that the security chief had been responsible for most of those contacts. Garrett in turn verified what Worthmann had said with a nod. "As for the Demi, we have no information on her. I'd assume she's either a free agent or working for some unknown ally."

"A free agent?" Garrett asked in surprise. "I thought an android always had to serve something, even if it's something relatively abstract like a code of laws or military duty?"

Gage shook his head. When he answered it was as a robotics engineer rather than a corporate executive.

"Not for a Demi. While Demis are assigned to various tasks by their owners, it is possible for one to draw moral conclusions about the world around it and determine to act on its own agenda. This has occurred a number of times in the past, including one occasion on which the independent personality developed along sociopathic lines."

Garrett's jaw dropped.

"An insane android? Could ours do that? Our Mieu-types?"

Gage couldn't help but chuckle at his peer's discomfort.

"No, there's no danger of that, at least not without catastrophic physical damage. Unlike the creators of the Demi, our Robotics Division does not allow its android AIs to override their own core programming. In fact, I believe that Scion-Colesburg removed that capacity from their later-model Demis as well. The idea of androids who are able to function as full citizens of Palman society is romantic, but it makes for bad business."

Not to mention bad morality. A free-willed android with an owner wasn't a possession, it was a slave. Better to stick to androids that were programmed for obedience.

"The point," Macklin stated, bringing the discussion to heel, "is that the scenario we presented to the DLE as a ruse has come to pass. Tyler has either assembled or joined a dangerous group with resources capable of doing serious harm to our plans. If he continues to pry into our affairs, he's sure to learn something damaging. He cannot be allowed to gather enough evidence for a court case, or worse yet cause a public outcry. I have no desire to see LIM become another Eppi Products."

Not to mention, Gage thought, the personal consequences.

"Since we've created a successful prototype," Macklin continued, "I think the next step should be to close down our operations in Camineet."

"You mean, just abandon Project Nuada?"

"The local aspects of it, yes, Gage. As long as our operations are up and running, there's the chance that Tyler can ferret them out. For him to gain clues to what happened in the past will be a lot harder. Especially, I may add, if he can't find any witnesses."

"You're talking about the clinic."

Macklin smiled darkly.

"In the main, yes. Cut off our connection with them, and see that anyone who has knowledge of the operation is no longer in a position to take action."

Gage mentally reviewed his knowledge of the clinic's personnel.

"That would be Dr. Margolis, and the hospital administrator, Mara Lathom. Also the security staff, including the drivers, who are our people."

"You can count on them to keep their mouths shut," Nash quickly said. He wasn't about to stand by while an execution order was put out on his men. "I'll have them reassigned to other duties, out of the archopolis, just in case Tyler decides to play rough with them, though that never was his style."

"If I may make a suggestion?" Gage asked.

Macklin gestured airily.

"Feel free."

"Tonight, another subject is being delivered to us from the clinic through our usual channels. When that subject leaves the building, Garrett can pull the contingent of Emerald Legion guards off-duty, leaving the building unsecured."

"And then?"

"Well, we do have a prototype in need of field testing."

Macklin's smile was positively diabolic.

"Open a communication circuit with Lianora," she purred.

* * * * *

"Are you sure about this?" Risa asked.

"Four years ago, Morbile was the best weapons dealer in Rendak or anywhere else in the city," Tyler replied with a shrug. "I'd say the fact that she's endured in the biz since then is an adequate recommendation."

"It's just that your track record with old friends isn't so hot."

Tyler was now equipped with untraceable electronic funds, thanks to Anje. The little android had rerouted a credit transfer from Tyler's bank account through a number of shell accounts and transfers and finally onto an access card which registered the presence of meseta but no encoding information. Such "credit blanks" were even more untraceable than certified credit, because not even the originating bank could be quite sure of where their money had come from. Blank credit was illegal, but also common for large-scale transactions which were also illegal in nature where carrying cash would be prohibitive or unwieldy or the very act of obtaining cash from a bank would itself be incriminating.

It was kind of ironic, Tyler thought. An individual like himself, with the assistance of a skilled gridrider, could lose a small sum of money in a maze of confusing and sealed transactions, while a powerful megaconglomerate like LIM, due to the amounts involved and the complex recordkeeping systems set up by their need to be accountable to the shareholders, couldn't fund Project Nuada without leaving a data trail. Of course, the extraordinary qualities of the gridrider in both cases was a significant factor; Anje's skills were, after all, quite literally inhuman.

The Demi had declined to accompany Tyler and Risa to Morbile's. She liked to maintain a low public profile, due to her distinctive nature, instead conducting most of her business electronically or through cut-outs. There had never been a rumor on the street that Angel Red was an android, and Anje liked it that way. Besides which, unlike her Palman allies, she was already fully equipped, with composite armor and headgear already installed in addition to her plasma cannon.

Tyler reached for the door, but doubts suddenly plagued him. What if Morbile would sell them out? He didn't think it would happen, but then again, he hadn't expected treachery from Jac, either.

"Damn, Tyler, don't take stuff so personally!" Risa groaned. "We need the right tools for this job. I'm not going to try breaking into this Lianora place, wherever it is, with only one claw. Do you expect this guy to sell you out?"

"No," he admitted.

"Is there anyone you know who's less likely to stab us in the back?"

"Not really." Especially not after four years out of the archopolis, he thought, but he didn't say that.

"Then this one's as good as any," Risa said, and pulled open the door.

In most parts of Camineet, an illegal business required some kind of front. Messages would be left at online drops, there would be face-to-face meetings at restaurants and bars, and black market merchandise would be hidden in back rooms and secret compartments. Not so in Rendak. Morbile's wares were right out on display in ballistic-armor cases like the stuff Ham's windows had been made from. Morbile was also more than capable of filling special requests, including bulk orders, through her connections to several criminal syndicates. The cases were locked, to keep customers from taking spontaneous test shots inside the premises, especially in the owner's direction.

The woman herself was sitting behind her counter, lovingly cleaning a disassembled vulcan. Her eyes flicked up as the door opened.

"Hey, is that Tyler Jorran I see?"

"The same."

"Tyler, ace, you are red hot, did you know?"

She hopped down out of her chair and came around the counter. Morbile was a tall, skinny woman with long, spiky red hair and a tiger-stripe mask tattooed on her face. She wore leather--black boots, black pants, and dark blue jacket. In her late thirties, Morbile knew more about guns and armor than most of the engineers at Redfield and Inverness.

"Yeah, unfortunately. Can you tell me what's being said, Mina?" he asked, using her real name.

"Not much; it's all really hush-hush. LIM's got a three-hundred-K meseta bounty on your head, but it's not out in general circulation. Strictly notice to the top-flight fixers, with special instructions not to pass the word around or to hire outside muscle. I mean, there's maybe twenty people who've heard about in the whole arch', and none of them are going to let it get into general circulation. You figure it's the street they're scared of, or the cops?"

Tyler shrugged.

"Maybe all of the above."

He was glad of it, too. For three hundred thousand meseta the entire population of Rendak would be prowling the streets after him.

"I kinda figured they wanted you dead 'cause you knew something you shouldn't, so telling the world would kind of defeat the purpose. Gotta say this; when you unretire, you do it with a bang."

"Which brings me to the reason I'm here. We've got a job and need the right equipment."

"Say no more; you have come to the right woman. By the way," she added, holding up the gun parts she was working on, "guess what this is."

"Early-model vulcan, light frame, but I don't recognize it."

"I wouldn't expect you to," Morbile said smugly. "This baby is an Inverness AGV dual-barrel dating from AW 1033 and from what I can tell, is in pristine working order."

Tyler was really in no mood for small talk but his eyebrows rose in spite of himself.

"I thought there were only about a hundred of those made."

"There were--the stutterstep magazine feed jammed too often--and now I have got one."

Tyler chuckled.

"So it's a valuable collector's item because it doesn't work like it's supposed to?"

"There's irony everywhere, ace."

"Just so the merchandise you sell us isn't destined to be a collectible, too."

"Hell, I wouldn't do that." She flashed Tyler a grin full of white teeth. "I'd keep it myself until it got valuable." Morbile clapped her hands together, fingerless black gloves making a snapping sound in the air. "So, what are you in the market for? Is it just you and the girl?"

"Right. We'll need armor, a set of claws for her, headgear, and some kind of gun for me. High power, high concealability." He paused, then added. "I could also use a new coat. This one is basically salvage and it doesn't fit quite right. Plus the fact that someone pumped a vulcan round through the side."

"You and those fibercoats don't really get along, do you, Tyler?" Risa noted. "That's the second one you've gone through in three days."

Morbile surveyed the two of them.

"Hey, Tyler, that's a graphitesuit, isn't it? Or were you just looking for plates?"

Tyler nodded.

"Yeah, if possible. They can be fitted that way like a carbonsuit, right?"

Morbile flashed him a quick smile.

"Be pretty useless if not." She glanced over at Risa. "Are you attached to that jacket?"

"I like it, and it's a little extra protection when someone wants to take a boot to my ribs."

"What do you think of this one?" Morbile tugged on the hem of her own coat.

"The color sucks. Otherwise it's okay."

The red-haired weapons merchant grinned.

"Lined with ceramic mesh, just like a ceram-cape. Not half bad, eh?"

Risa grinned.

"You're talking my language, Morbile. Do you have one in black, though? That blue shade doesn't go with my hair. Of course, I'd rather be unfashionable than dead, but..."

"I'm with you. Is stealth an issue? If not, I've got a red carbonsuit with titan weave that would be just about your size."

Risa folded her arms across her chest, leaning back against the wall.

"You know, Morbile, I am definitely starting to like you. Where can I try it on?"

While Risa was seeing if her new armor fit, Morbile brought out a steel case from the back room.

"This is for you, Tyler."

She flipped back the catches and lifted the lid. Inside on a bed of molded plastic foam rested a short-barreled gun. Morbile lifted it out, cradling it lightly in her hands.

"Redfield Arms Kestrel. It's called a pulse laser. Operates either in single-shot mode, or in repeated bursts." She touched a selector switch on the side. "The rate of fire isn't as heavy as a vulcan, but the individual laser bursts are comparable to a laser shot's, so I'd estimate its overall power as being somewhere between a standard vulcan and a pulse vulcan. Plus, the Kestrel's small size is designed for close work and urban conflict. The battery packs are easy to manipulate, specifically designed to operate similarly to a vulcan or poisonshot clip."

Tyler smiled eagerly, taking the weapon as she offered it. The Kestrel nestled nicely into his palm, a bit heavy for one hand but manageable, and effortless to control with two for directing rapid fire into a group of enemies. He gave it a quick once-over, making certain that it was in good working order. The weapon was illegal, of course; a special permit was required beyond the usual weapons license any citizen without a criminal record could obtain for personal protection for laser weapons. Weapons regulations were not a law that Tyler was particularly concerned with obeying, though.

"How much?" Tyler asked simply.

"Fifteen thousand meseta," Morbile told him. That price wasn't out of line; in fact, it was almost retail, without the usual black market markup. It would take a nasty bite out of Tyler's savings, but he had come prepared to pay and pay heavily.

"Done," he decided.

"No haggling?"

"Why bother? Your first offer was as low as I'd have tried to drive you anyway." It would have been insulting to scorn a contact's good-faith offer, besides. Morbile wasn't in the habit of screwing over her clientele, but she wasn't adverse to making a sizable profit, either. Keeping up a first-class gun collection wasn't cheap.

"Besides, Mina, you didn't try to grab three hundred K at my expense, so why should I take a shot at one or two K at yours?"

Morbile looked at him oddly.

"Hell, ace, how many of my customers know what an AGV is? If I decide to sell someone out, it'll be a guy like that weasel Lake Hyberson. He actually tried to stiff me on the back end of the payment for the weapons his crew used to take out the whole Murrain family eight months ago."

Tyler raised an eyebrow.

"Hyberson is running the Seven Circles syndicate?"

"Straight into the ground. He forgot that Jeni Murrain was Jeni Dougan before she got married. Parolit's been a syndicate strike zone ever since. The Black Wings are still Esme Dougan's toy, and she was not happy about her favorite granddaughter getting offed."

The chainmail curtain separating the fitting cubicle from the main room swung open.

"So how do I look?" Risa purred, striking a pose in the doorframe.

This time, Tyler raised both eyebrows. The carbonsuit fit her like a second skin, the titan-laced weave flowing over her sleek form. She was pretty and knew it, and still young enough to enjoy the fact. Tyler hoped she kept that enthusiasm. Presuming that he didn't get her killed trying to seek their mutual revenge.

Risa pranced forward, then spun to give them a three-hundred-sixty-degree view.

"I like the boots," she said, flexing her ankle. Glittering silver blades sprang from the tiny gap between the sole and the upper part of the knifeboots.

"Someone's going to get a kick out of those."

Risa's head snapped up.

"What? Did the always-cool, always-frosty Tyler Jorran actually just crack a joke? And a bad pun at that? Damn, what's next? Flying androids?"

"They've already got those."

The green-haired girl raised her hand and snapped it into a clenched fist. Four thin bars of steel extended from her gauntlet, then suddenly began to glow with a brilliant green light.

"Laser claws," she said. "Top of the line; perfect for slashing up corp skags--or smart-mouthed ones, either way." She winked at Tyler. "Tyler, I'm not going to make a stink about you footing the bill for this, but sooner or later I will find a way to pay you back."

Tyler nodded. He could have gone through the entire routine about payback not being required, but he knew it would be. Melora would have demanded a chance to even things up in Risa's place; she always had scorned charity as being condescending. Risa, Tyler was sure, would be the same. Throwing twenty thousand meseta's worth of combat gear at her with nothing in return wouldn't be a gift but an insult.

"I'm glad it fits well," Morbile said, then added to Tyler, "Y'know, ace, I may be giving up a three hundred K bounty, but at this rate we'll have done at least a sixth of that in biz before the day's done."

"I know," Tyler groaned, thinking of his life savings. "Believe me, I know."

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