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Freedom's Price

Part XIX


Ten-thirty found Anje back in the depths of Rendak along with Tyler and Risa. The deadman's switch Tyler had threatened Dr. Margolis with hadn't been a bluff; Anje had set up the program which was now awaiting its chance to blow the whistle on LIM's games at the clinic. They walked around behind the building, noting the closed steel shutters that kept thieves out of the ambulance bay, and approached the service entrance.

Tyler checked his chron. Ten-thirty-two. He knocked twice, and the door swung open.

Dr. Margolis was nervous, which was how he should have been, given the situation. The question was, what was the cause of his case of nerves? Was it the fear of getting caught by the Emerald Legion guards, who were probably planted LIM sec-agents? Or was he afraid that Tyler and the others would find out about a planned ambush and take him down before the trap could be sprung?

"Hurry up!" he hissed. "I can't be seen talking to you like this!"

Loitering at the side exit was definitely suspicious behavior, so Tyler pulled open the side of his coat to show Dr. Margolis the Kestrel in its shoulder rig--just as a friendly reminder--and the three of them let the doctor usher them inside.

"Something very strange is going on," Margolis whispered, "but it's good news for us. Most of the guard team has gone off-duty. The only ones left are in the ambulance bay and the one manning the security office."

"I'm surprised there isn't a camera covering that door," Tyler mused. Exits were always the most obvious place for vid systems to be installed.

"Only the most sensitive areas are covered--the lab where we work on Nuada, the ambulance bay, and the records room. There are cameras in the ER, the main lobby, and the drug locker too, but those are mostly for show, decoys to justify the sec-system's existence."

"We will have to do something about the cameras," Anje said. "Otherwise we won't be able to do any sneaking around at all!"

Suppressing a grin at the little android's excitement, Tyler nodded his agreement.

"Where's the security office?"

"I'll show you," Margolis said.

From the schematics that Anje had found, Tyler, Risa, and the Demi already knew the office's location. Letting the doctor show them was, as much as anything, a test of the man's good faith. Would he give in to their threats, or did he think he was smart enough to get out of the situation unscathed?

Apparently, he intended to play along, at least for now, because he took the three intruders directly to the sec-office. Tyler drew his gun while Risa extended her claws, and then he opened the door.

Like Margolis had said, there was only one green-and-gold-uniformed Legion guard manning the security office. She looked up when the door opened, and despite the guns made a dive for the control panel and an alarm button, but two scintillating green beams speared from Anje's eyes and struck the guard. The Demi's stasis beam inflicted instantaneous neural paralysis, causing the guard to slump back into her chair. Tyler and Risa efficiently disarmed the woman, then bound and gagged her with her own belt and weapons harness.

"Anje, can you get the pressure sensors, motion detectors, and any other automatic alarms off-line and make it tough for them to get them fixed?" Tyler asked.

"No problem!" the android replied and stepped up to the terminal. Quickly interfacing with the security computer, she disengaged in less than three minutes.

"Done!" she chirped happily. "Those sec-systems will be virtually useless for at least two or three hours." As she spoke, the bank of holovid screens switched to a test pattern. "I didn't kill them entirely, just in case they've got a trigger that calls back to Emerald Legion headquarters if the system is shut down."

"Yeah, otherwise I might have just shot the thing up and left it at that," Tyler agreed. Very little technology worked well after directly interfacing with repeated laser fire.

"So what's the next step?" Risa asked. "Do we roust the ambulance drivers and convince them to give us the what, why, and how of their deliveries?"

"No, too risky. If they decide to shoot it out or they hang tough under interrogation, we could completely screw ourselves over. No, we're going to follow them and let them show us their secrets of their own free will."

It wasn't anything obvious that made the thought pop into Tyler's head, not the doctor's white lab coat or the repeated mention of ambulances or something like that. It was almost as if his dulled subconscious had been putting the connection together since the night before and had finally, in spite of himself, drawn an inference that was almost blindingly obvious now that he had thought of it. The Kestrel was about two inches from Dr. Margolis' forehead, the barrel pointed right between his eyebrows, when Tyler voiced his thoughts.

"Four days ago, Gage Worthmann had you take delivery of a subject," he stated flatly. "Not one of your ordinary patients off the street, but someone you had to go out and get. A woman, about thirty, medium height, red hair. You brought her back here in one of your ambulances. Where is she?"

"Melora's here?" Risa exclaimed.

Dr. Margolis had gone stark white. The two humans were glaring at him with death in their eyes.

"She was here," he quickly claimed. "Just like you said, Worthmann had me pick her up and bring her here. She's gone now, though!"

"Gone?" Tyler ground out between clenched teeth.

"Not dead!" Margolis exclaimed. "That's not what I meant!"

"Then I advise you to be more specific. Gone where?"

"Lianora. Worthmann wanted her taken there for private interrogation. We were just to hold her until the next day delivery was scheduled, then put her on it regardless of how the tests turned out."

"How long was she here?"

"Just a day."

"One day. An abduction, followed by transport to a remote, secret location for an urgent interrogation as Gage Worthmann desperately attempts to cover his tracks, and in the middle of all this rushing about by Luveno, an accountable twenty-four-hour delay.

"Do the ambulances always leave for Lianora at a set date and time?"

"Yes, twice a week, always the same days."

"Curious," Anje said, echoing Tyler's thoughts. "That implies that there is some reason why the delivery to Lianora can only occur at specific times. Gage Worthmann isn't an idiot--if he wanted to get Melora safely away to Lianora, he wouldn't leave her sitting in a low-security building like this without a good reason."

"This just gets stranger and stranger," Risa growled, disgusted that they'd come that close only to still be behind.

Tyler lowered the Kestrel; Dr. Margolis exhaled with a loud sigh.

"Take us to the lab," the former agent told him.

With weapons put away, the group attracted little attention as they moved through the crowded corridors of the clinic's medical facilities. Doctors, nurses, and technicians all had their own business to attend to as they tried to deal with the never-ending stream of patience brought in by the promise of free, reliable medical care. Tyler, Risa, and Anje were with Dr. Margolis, so therefore Tyler, Risa, and Anje weren't worth noticing.

The people who should have been questioning their presence were the sec-agents, only there weren't any. Margolis had said that the guards had suddenly gone off duty that night. There had to be some logical reason--pros like the Emerald Legion didn't just up and leave their assigned jobs without orders or unless it was in response to some security protocol. Most likely the former; "bail out" just wasn't one of the reactions trained into a good security team. Why clear out, then? There was a delivery that night, so there was still evidence to protect, sensitive data to keep out of the hands of the public, plus the normal security functions one would expect to find in a Rendak clinic (such as keeping the locals out of the pharmaceutical stocks).

The whole thing made Tyler's neck itch, like there was a sighting laser spotting the base of his brain.

"This is the lab," Margolis said, stopping in front of a blue door stenciled with the word "Examination." He slotted a key tube in the lock, resulting in a loud click as the mechanism released itself.

The laboratory wasn't big, but then it wouldn't be; space was at a premium in the clinic. Two testing beds were the obvious centerpiece of the lab; their steel wrist and ankle cuffs and the broad chest strap used to secure unwilling subjects in place made Tyler cringe inwardly. Had Melora been strapped into one of the beds, left at the mercy of the banks of modern, expensive-looking analysis machines that ringed each bed.

"This is the testing area," Margolis said nervously. He began to explain what the various machines were for, more as a way to let off stress than because anyone cared, but Tyler tuned him out as he let his mind try to work things through.

"Where's the prisoner?" he asked, cutting off the doctor in mid-spiel.

"Who?"

"You said there was a subject awaiting delivery tonight. Why isn't he here?"

"Oh, that. Our research subjects are placed in isolation chambers when no tests are being performed."

In other words, Tyler thought, the latest prisoner was in his cell awaiting transport to Lianora.

"Guarded?" he asked.

"Only by a magnetic locking system, for which the Emerald Legion officers have the only two keys."

"Tyler glanced at Anje. She nodded; getting in would be no problem.

"Ordinarily there would be guards at the door to the isolation section, but they've left with all the others."

Not bothering to acknowledge Dr. Margolis' words, Tyler checked his chronograph again. Still time, he estimated.

"All right, then, let's go to the isolation ward."

Whatever name they called it by, the isolation ward was, first and foremost, a prison. The heavy doors with their "Authorized Personnel Only" lettering in bright red were cold and forbidding, the short corridor beyond them black and lifeless. There were six cells, each sealed by its own antiseptic-white door with a little pane of clear, armored plastic in the center so those in the hall could look in. Each chamber contained a cot and a toilet, and that was all.

"Here he is," Risa said, peering through the window of the second door down on the left. Tyler went over and took a look.

The prisoner appeared to be a gang member; the red stripes on his short synthetic-denim fiberjacket were obviously gang colors. He lay on the bed, unconscious, probably drugged. His jacket gaped open at the front to reveal a bloodstained shirt cut away over his bandaged abdomen. Apparently he'd been treated with Monomate, Dimate's cousin, but had taken wounds too severe for the medicine to fully heal. As for what had started the street fight that had brought him to the clinic, who could say?

"Get it open," Tyler told Anje. Risa glanced up in surprise at his brusque tone, but the android did not take offense. She stepped forward and turned the door handle, pulling it open.

"The locking mechanisms for these doors are controlled by the security computers," she said happily. "I disengaged them when I shut down the system."

Risa chuckled. "One step ahead of us again, aren't you?"

The ganger didn't stir as they approached the cot, but Tyler remained cautious, weary of any sudden moves. He reached into his pocket and withdrew a slender, short tube with a tapering point, one of the items he had bought from Morbile. In one smooth motion he pressed the tip of the tube against the side of the ganger's neck just inside his jacket collar and pressed the activation switch.

"All right, let's get out of here. Anje, can you get the door locked again? I don't want the guards getting too suspicious when they come for him."

"We're just going to leave him here?" Risa exclaimed incredulously.

"Yes," Tyler said flatly.

"You want to just walk out of here and let LIM do whatever they please to him?"

Tyler nodded sharply, then turned to leave the cell. Risa grabbed his arm.

"Hey! Don't just walk away from me? What kind of inhuman skag are you?"

He shrugged off her arm, wincing internally as logic and conscience warred inside himself.

"Do you want to lug an unconscious body through the halls with us? I think that might attract a bit of attention, don't you? Not to mention the hue and cry the guards would kick up when they got here and found their prisoner missing."

"I've overridden the lock again," Anje called. "When we shut the door, it will latch into place and engage."

"Besides," Tyler continued as if he hadn't noticed the interruption, "we're trying to find out what happened to Melora, remember?"

"What does that have to do with leaving a person here to be a lab rat for a corp's twisted research? What did you do to him, anyway?"

Tyler's voice was level, almost monotone as he replied.

"I injected a bioscan transmitter underneath his skin. It's a homing device which will allow us to follow wherever LIM takes him."

"So you're using some poor kid you don't even know as bait? You're a real piece of work, Tyler. Just what the hell did you bail out of LIM for, anyway? Four years out of Camineet may have dulled your brain, but it hasn't made you anything but the same cold, ruthless bastard you always were!"

"You think this is easy for me?" Tyler roared back at her, his control snapping under the stress of too many emotions. "I wouldn't leave anyone, not even this punk, in Luveno's hands if I had a choice, but I don't! The important thing is to find Melora and to shut down whatever LIM's got planned that needs all of this. To do that we have to find out where Lianora is. We can't bug the ambulance because we don't know if it's going all the way there. We can't just tail it because we might lose them, and then where would we be? We damn well can't rescue the kid because if we did get him out of here there wouldn't be any reason for them to go to Lianora at all! Sure, once we get there, we'll do what we can to help this guy and anyone else still held there, but if we do anything now we'll blow our whole plan up in our faces. That'll be it for Melora and probably us, too."

The sudden emotional force of his response seemed to take Risa off guard.

"Bad enough to leave this guy," she muttered sullenly, "but did you have to make him part of your plot?"

"If you've got a better idea, tell me."

"Excuse me," Anje interrupted again," but we need to get going, now!"

"You're right," Tyler admitted, his body still trembling from the emotional outburst. It was too hard to remain cool and controlled when his every instinct was screaming out to destroy this mockery of a hospital, to cut down Margolis and his Emerald Legion allies, to free the unconscious ganger and all the other potential victims of Gage Worthmann's greed and ambition.

Yet, like he had told Risa, he couldn't afford to do any of that. Not if he wanted there to be any chance at all of saving Melora and stopping this Project Nuada before it could get started.

They got out of the isolation unit at ten minutes to eleven, retreating to the relative peace and security of the lab.

"Anje, can you trace the transmitter I planted by yourself, or will you need the sensor unit I left in the skimmer?"

"I'm not certain," she said. "What configuration is it?"

"A standard stealth communicator. It constantly transmits genetic, pulse, and nerve activity information from its subject, so the one tracking it will know if the homing device has been found and removed."

"Hmm. I wasn't designed for communications originally, but I did have a Frequency Scanner installed in place of a Phononmezer." In a human being, the eyes would have become unresponsive, even unfocused, but the Demi's face did not change at all as she tapped into her internal comm unit, trying to find the transmission. "All right, I've got it. Encrypted signal, probably to keep scanners from pulling it out of the rest of the noise--but I'm very good at decryption!" She turned and pointed at one of the back walls. "The signal's coming from there. I can't provide coordinate grid locations, though, without uplinking to some kind of computer system." She paused, then said, "The signal's moving. Do you know its range?"

"About two miles," Tyler replied. "That's standard for this model. Ironically enough, it's made by LIM."

"You've used them in the past?" Anje asked, mostly as a rhetorical question, so Tyler answered it only with a sharp nod.

"They're probably taking him to the ambulance now," she added.

"Yeah, all right; let's be ready to follow." He turned to Margolis, "Doctor, if you wouldn't mind showing us to the door?"

"Again?"

"I don't want you to get any bright ideas about calling for security. It bothers me that the guards have mysteriously vanished and I have a sneaking suspicion that they're all outside, waiting for us."

The doctor's eyes widened behind his spectacles.

"You're insane! What kind of idiot do you think I am?"

"The kind," Tyler replied, "that can't tell when someone isn't bluffing."

* * * * *

Finally, they were gone. Dr. Margolis could relax again. His nervousness remained, though, not the cold terror of imminent physical danger but the creeping, gnawing assurance that sooner or later the bubble would burst and leave him facing disaster. He didn't believe that the blond man, Tyler, was bluffing, but he did believe that the crazy quest he and his companions were on was doomed. Luveno Industrial Mechanisms chewed up and spat out agents and hunters like these three every day of the week, and when they did, Tyler's datatrap would spring on Dr. Margolis.

As the doctor saw it, there was only one way out of his trouble. He needed LIM's protection, because they could keep him out of the way of the law and give him work--under the table, of course, but that didn't bother him--when his medical license was pulled. To get the corp to do that, though, he'd have to convince it that helping him was in its best interests. He'd have to prove his loyalty, so that they didn't believe that trusting him would bite them in the back.

He'd also have to somehow convince a man like Gage Worthmann that one Dr. Ewan Margolis could bring more profit than the dangerous information he possessed would likely cause loss. Otherwise, Luveno would squash him like the bug Tyler clearly thought he was.

Not, Margolis admitted, very good odds. It was still a better chance than betting on Tyler's little band somehow going up against the corporation and making it out alive, though. The first step was easy. He hurried through the clinic's corridors to the security office, where the Emerald Legion guard was still tied. Anger flared in her eyes, the kind of helpless rage that trapped people felt--that Margolis felt whenever the fear slacked off. Margolis took the gag out and went to work on her bonds.

"What, your friends ran off and left you?" she sneered.

"They were hardly my friends. Or do your friends shove guns in your face and hold knives at your throat?"

The belt fell away from the guard's wrists, freeing her from the chair.

"So that's your story?" she mocked him, rubbing her wrists to restore circulation. "The old 'It wasn't my fault; they forced me to do it!' routine? Couldn't you think of something better than that?"

"You're talking to a doctor," Margolis said. "The Demi's Stasis Beam paralyzed your muscles, but you could still see and hear the whole time. You saw how they treated me. That crazy blond one--Tyler, they called him--nearly shot me right here in front of you!"

"Maybe, maybe not. What I saw and heard might just have been a little act put on for my benefit. The way he 'suddenly' realized that you'd had their missing friend, for example. That's just oh, so convenient. I think that security control is going to want to have a long talk with you, Dr. Margolis."

Suddenly, the room lights died, leaving the security office a mass of twisted shadows cast by the unchanging test patterns on the monitor bank.

"That won't be necessary."

The voice was strange and unnatural, low-pitched and electronic, but not quite like an android's. There was a depth of emotion, malevolence even, that an artificial voice could not fully convey.

Where was it coming from? Margolis' mind gibbered, as he desperately clawed in his pockets for his scalpel. The guard reflexively went for her sonic gun, then clenched her fist angrily as her hand found only empty air in her holster. Her weapons were in the experiment laboratory, where Tyler had left them, and she was forced to assume a handfighting stance.

"The decision has already been made."

The office door was not opened, it was literally detonated, leaving the ragged edges of the doorframe smoldering redly. Smoke from outside poured into the room, and fire alarms, individual sensors not hooked into the sec-system, began to ring.

The biggest surprise was that the form silhouetted in the door was normal-sized. Its presence seemed far, far larger, though, to the doctor; there was a menace about it that made vicious punks like the Violators or professional soldiers like Tyler seem meek by comparison.

The Legionnaire might or might not have been in danger. The thing in the door seemed, from its words, to have been sent by LIM, and as such might not have harmed the sec-agent. Her own reflexes sealed her fate, though. Seeing a potentially lethal threat and being unarmed, she chose to attack at once, hoping to catch her target off-guard and possibly win the fight by surprise. She thrust her fist outwards and chanted, "GIFOI!"

Three spheres of flame took shape from the empty air and launched themselves from around her arm towards the door. The intruder flung itself aside and the technique's fire burst harmlessly against the corridor wall. With a precision of movement that matched its speed, it sprang off one foot, changing its direction by ninety degrees. A blade gleamed in the multi-hued light, then sheared deeply into the guard's body. Blood spurted as titan armor offered no more resistance than paper.

Margolis' hand trembled around his scalpel. He knew what his chances in battle would be against this killer, and his brain tried to fasten desperately on one of the techniques he had learned during medical school, one which might save him, but he couldn't overcome the shock of sudden violence and summon the concentration that technique use demanded.

"Now I shall fulfill my primary task."

It raised its right hand, dull black in hue. Blue-white lightning sprayed from several spikelike points that circled its wrist, arcing into the doctor's body. Margolis' back arched, his muscled contorting painfully, and his brain went into a fugue state.

Nuada, was the last coherent thought that filled his mind. This was my work.

Whatever gods there were in the universe, Ewan Margolis' soul reached out to them in search of forgiveness at the moment of his death.

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