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Freedom's Price

Part XXI


The little group had returned to the Maycross apartment for another night; it was as good a safehouse as any and more pleasant than most. As a class, safehouses were chosen for security, not because they afforded a wide variety of amenities.

Anje had already linked herself into the datanet, trying to search out any and all details of the spaceport's internal layout, security measures, or anything else which could improve their chances from absurd to merely foolhardy. At the same time, she was also looking for something else, an inescapably vital part of the plan.

Tyler, meanwhile, was lying on the large double bed in the room allotted to him, but not sleeping. The bedside light glowed softly, creating a globe of illumination suitable for reading but which left most of the room in darkness, so that someone sharing the bed could sleep peacefully. Tyler was on his back, staring up at the ceiling but not really seeing anything.

The night had been a bad one. The clinic in Rendak, the bleak despair of the slum, the venal, grasping nature of the doctor who would kidnap people and turn them over to LIM to be lab rats, it all made him nauseated. It was why he had been forced to leave Camineet, his job, and Melora in the first place; he just couldn't take seeing only the worst side of people over and over again. Palmans were better than that, he knew, but the job of a corporate agent never brought him into contact with what was good and right.

Some things just didn't change.

The door opened a crack, and Risa put her head in.

"Tyler?" she said, softly enough so that she'd get no response from a sleeping man.

"Come in; I'm awake."

She slipped inside the room and shut the door behind her.

"Am I bugging you?" she asked. "I can go if you're trying to sleep." Her voice was low and oddly deferential, not at all like the way she usually sounded.

"No, you can stay. I was thinking too much to sleep, and I'd rather not be alone with my thoughts right now."

Risa sat down on the edge of the bed, near the foot.

"Tyler, I--" she began, broke off, then said, "well, I'd like to apologize. For earlier, I mean."

"You don't have to," he answered quietly, still looking up at the ceiling.

"Yes, I do. I said some things that were unforgivable. I lumped you in with scum like Margolis and Worthmann, when in reality I was the one who was out of line, acting unprofessionally."

"You're not a professional. No one can hold you to that standard."

"I want to be." She leaned forward, bracing her palms on her knees. "I don't have the skills or the education to make it out of Ossale Court in an ordinary job. That pretty much limits me to corp agent, hunter, or organized crime if I want to be anything more than street trash. No way in hell could I be some syndicate's muscle, and after this it's pretty obvious that the corps are just as bad or worse." Risa sighed heavily. "Not that I'll make much of a hunter if I can't keep my mind on the job."

Tyler raised his head to look at her.

"You're not the only one with those kind of feelings, Risa. Frankly, I've wanted to gun down Margolis from the moment I heard his name. The man's a mass murderer, even if he never gravestoned anyone personally. He's a sickening worm with no right to live."

"You felt that way, but you didn't shoot him. That would have drawn attention to us and cut off a source of information. The same thing for that kid. You kept the bigger goal in mind. I would have yanked that punk out of there, lost my chance of getting to help Melora, and probably gotten knifed in the back for my trouble."

She stood up, then faced him, her brown eyes staring directly into his blue ones.

"I'm afraid, Tyler," she admitted. "We're going to have to be both good and lucky if we're going to pull this off. I'm scared that I'll lose my head again and screw up. Even I know that on a job like this one, one mistake is enough to finish us."

Tyler looked at her intently for a long moment, then, slowly, began to chuckle. Risa scowled at him.

"You think it's funny?"

"Yeah, considering I've been thinking the same thing ever since I got here. How many times have I been a step too slow, not seen a problem developing when I should have, or misjudged someone's reactions? My mental reflexes aren't up to speed, my judgment is shot, and my knowledge is four years out of date. That's an eternity here in the arch. So yeah, I'm just as scared as you are. Scared that I'll get us all killed because I couldn't carry out my part of my own plan."

He dropped his head back to the pillow.

"Presuming, of course, that Anje can find us a pilot for the spaceship we haven't stolen yet." Tyler groaned. "Can you imagine anyone crazy enough to do this without a personal stake?"

Risa nodded.

"Still, if we pull this off somehow, the government will probably clear us for exposing corruption in the military, right?"

"If we can keep it quiet," Tyler agreed. That, of course, was the key. Governments didn't like whistle-blowers any more than corps did, but if a traitor in the ranks could be excised quietly so as not to shake the public's confidence they'd play fair.

"I figure there's got to be a bunch of out-of-work space cowboys who'd love to give a corp like LIM one in the eye, especially if it meant getting back into space. Every pilot I've ever met is as bad as a nethead; they live for their jobs."

"You hung with pilots?"

"Okay, four total. But every damn one of them wasn't really alive when they weren't in the air. I figure it's got to be even worse when you're used to flying in space."

"Probably. Just hope one of them's got a death wish."

Risa shook her head.

"Geez, Tyler, you're worse than me." She rammed a finger into his bare chest. "Ever since I've met you, all I've heard from you is 'I'm not this' and 'I'm not that,' 'I'm not good enough anymore' and 'I should have known.' Even your good points, you talk about them in terms of what you aren't. Maybe you ought to try figuring out what you are for once. You know, as in you are a guy who'd come save his old love even though it meant returning to a life you hated? Or, you are a guy who'd take on a corp with thousands of goons and billions of meseta to throw at you, just because it's right. Or, you are a man who can get others to follow you even when the cause seems hopeless because you can make them believe they have a real chance. Try that for a change and see where you end up."

Tyler looked at her silently, knowing that his shock and surprise were showing on his face. Risa backed up, looking a bit nervous, as if afraid she'd gone too far. Maybe she had; Tyler felt like he'd been slapped in the face. Hard truths were like that, direct, up front, and antagonistic by their very nature. Like bitter medicine, they were tough to take but did a lot of good if one could swallow them.

Was she right? It was nice to get his ego stroked and told he was one of the good guys, but that didn't make what she was saying true. Had he been selling himself short? His old mentor at LIM, Nevin Dall, had once said that underestimating oneself was as bad as overconfidence. Instead of foolhardy, reckless behavior, it bred overcaution and hesitation, and as one of Nevin's infinite store of Dezolian proverbs went, 'Hesitation is a gateway which leads to inaction. One who hesitates before choosing soon finds his decisions made for him.'

"Maybe I did need a mental wake-up call," he said thoughtfully. "It's hard to do a job right when I'm busy kicking myself over the last thing that went wrong."

"Especially since you're the leader. You lose it and we're all screwed, so you've got to keep your head on straight."

Tyler got up off the bed, the dim light from the lamp emphasizing the paleness of his skin against his black graphitesuit pants.

"Funny, huh? You come in here with worries on your mind and instead you wind up helping me clear the air."

Risa shook her head.

"That's not why I came in."

"It isn't?"

"No."

She laid her hand on his arm softly, then, as if finding her courage, she thrust herself against him. Risa's armored jacket rubbed against Tyler's bare skin as she wound her arms around his neck, pulling his mouth down to hers. Her lips were warm and soft, and for a long, pleasant moment they moved hungrily on his own. Then, Tyler reached up, put his hands on Risa's shoulders, and gently but firmly pushed her away.

"I can't do this," he said.

"I'm twenty," Risa protested, "so if you're worried about me being a kid..."

"That's not it," he replied softly.

"Then what?" She looked up at Tyler searchingly, then dropped her gaze to the floor. "It's Melora, isn't it? You're still in love with her."

Tyler let go of Risa's shoulders and backed away. His instinct was to turn away, face the window or anything else neutral so he could think without distraction, but he didn't. Risa deserved better than that, deserved an answer given straight up, face-to-face.

"Maybe," he said.

"But you were the one who left her," Risa said. "You must have been over her."

He shook his head.

"Two, three years ago, heck, even a month ago I'd have agreed with that. Now, though..." He shrugged. "I'm here, aren't I? You said it yourself; I hated the agent's life, got worn down and burned out by Camineet, but Melora asked, and I came back."

He sighed heavily, his eyes on Risa's.

"She asked four years ago, too." Tyler could still remember her tear-stained face, crying with both sadness and frustration, at the security checkpoint at the aeroport. Melora had urged him to stay, to take up the life of a freelance hunter with her. She had wept when he had refused, but she had never begged. Melora couldn't keep from showing the hurt, but she had too much pride to try and use that pain as a weapon.

At his last refusal, she had turned and walked away, shoulders set. Tyler had made his choice to leave her, and he had to live with the consequences.

"Sometimes I wonder if I should have said yes, then. I had been under a lot of stress with no relief. Maybe I hadn't been as burned out as I thought. Maybe combined with the clear conscience gained by dumping LIM, all I needed was a damn vacation."

"Maybe," Risa said shrewdly, "you could have kept Melora safe if you hadn't left?"

Tyler nodded.

"I know intellectually that it's a wrongheaded feeling, but it's still there now and again. So maybe I still do love Melora, or maybe it's just bits and pieces of my past waiting, unresolved. Until I can sort out where I stand, though, it won't be time to open myself up to any new relationships." He gave Risa a smile, a genuine one without bitterness or irony. "I hope you know that you'd never be anything less than that for me."

She returned the smile, a bit wanly.

"Right now I wouldn't insist on it--but I would in the morning." She turned away and walked to the door, then looked back over her shoulder and said, "Thanks for being honest with me at least, Tyler. Too many guys wouldn't." Then she was gone, leaving Tyler alone again.

This time, he was able to sleep.

* * * * *

In a very real way, there was no such place as the Wire Club, in spite of the fact that it had dozens of regulars and thousands of occasional visitors. It existed only as a construct on the datanet, the descendant of the chat rooms that had been created in the early years. To those accessing from a standard computer, the visual images appeared on the screen, and the speakers nearby sent text scrolling across the display. For the true gridriders, though, the Wire Club was a place where the decor changed from moment to moment, where they and the other patrons talked, drank, and watched the floor shows.

Anje, meanwhile, perceived the Wire Club as a simple node in the datanet, a subsystem created by a collection of software uploaded from a remote location that changed from day to day. The exotic decor, the computer-generated entertainment, the wild music, even the patrons were no more than lines of code to her. To the android, though, the code had more meaning than it gave to the best VR interface. She perceived all the nuances that escaped those relying on simple sight, sound, and touch.

A gridrider could tell those in virtual reality from those at a keyboard by how they looked. The keyboarders all appeared alike, featureless Palman figures made of liquid silver metal, but each gridrider using a VR interface was an individual. They could be anything, from people to animals to mythical creatures. A massive winged Musk Cat sat at the bar talking to a cloaked lich, while a bare-chested warrior bristling with weapons joined a giant serpent and a blue-robed Motavian in cheering on an overdeveloped dancer clad only in wisps of pure darkness who performed on their table to the fiery tunes of a thrash-metal song audible only to the three of them. The place was jammed with professionals, wannabes, and tourists alike. Anje, though, was there to find a specific person.

In virtual reality, her quarry was easy to spot. It looked quite unique, appearing as a floating ball of jet black fire with three silver lights gleaming inside it. Anje approached the fireball's table just as a badly withered deadtree slipped aside. She maintained an innocent facade, appearing to the fireball and other VR gridriders as if she were only one of the keyboard users.

"Hello, Ebon," she said, instructing the datanet to transmit her voice in the blank monotone of someone who lacked an audio hookup.

"Do you have business for me?" The flame's voice echoed in a radius around it rather than appearing to emanate from a fixed point.

"I do. Can we speak privately?"

"If you wish." The silver eyes dimmed momentarily, and a glowing golden cube shimmered into place around the table and the two gridriders. Anje triggered a program from her internal suite of datanet software, letting the sensor utility confirm her initial analysis of the cube as a beta-level data shield securing communications between Anje and Ebon from outside eavesdropping. Ebon was a fixer, much like Jac Norbridge, but the black flame conducted business exclusively online. While Ebon held meetings at numerous locations on the datanet, the Wire Club was the most common.

"Now, time is money," the fixer stated. "You're paying for my time starting right now, so let's see the color of your meseta."

Instead of opening a link to a secure line of credit or blank-encoded funds, Anje instructed the datanet to alter her appearance. The featureless chrome figure rose off the virtual "ground," deepened in hue until it was a liquid scarlet color and took on features that though indistinct were definitely feminine. Two pair of glorious golden-feathered wings sprouted from her back, each separate pinion an individual work of art down to a level of detail which the vast majority of computer systems could not perceive, let alone create. It was Anje's signature when she chose to be herself, proof to separate Angel Red from any imitator who tried to batten on her reputation.

"You should be more careful, Ebon," Anje said. No newbie, the fixer understood what she meant. Had she been feeling hostile, she could have used any number of attacking virus programs to disrupt the flame's systems, infect software, and even send lethal feedback through the gridrider's VR interface without any functional defense.

"Yes...yes, I should," Ebon admitted, somewhat taken aback. Anje got that reaction quite often; her reputation was towering and she did not bother to show herself openly often enough for anyone to get used to her. Unlike the vast majority of gridriders, Anje had very little ego and no reason to strut and parade herself to pad it.

Ebon was immensely professional, though, and quickly became composed once more.

"I don't see you very often, Angel, and even less so when it is on a business matter. What can I do for you?"

"I need to hire someone, a specialist."

"Well, I know it certainly isn't a gridrider you're looking for, unless you're subcontracting now."

"I'm looking for a pilot."

The black flame flickered up and down in the closest it could approximate to a shrug.

"There are many of those."

Anje dropped the other shoe.

"A spaceship pilot."

"Now, that will be a different story. There isn't a lot of call for that, given that all space travel is supposed to be supervised by Mother Brain."

"I have a client who intends to do without supervision."

"Let's see...there's Sergeant Morlin; he's reliable."

Anje shook her head.

"No, he won't do. His piloting skills are fine, but the wheelchair would get in the way. There'll be a need for mobility on this job."

"So the pilot isn't just transport?"

"Spacecraft, unfortunately, don't grow on trees."

"Oho! This is interesting. It sounds like you're playing for high stakes." The silver orbs dimmed again as Ebon consulted various datafiles. "How about Eagan Grange? He has his own shuttle which he keeps based in a secret location somewhere--I haven't asked where, and I doubt he'd tell me. The only problem is that he's on a smuggling run. What sort of timeframe is involved here?"

"Immediate."

"Well, so much for that idea." The fire flared up momentarily, releasing a puff of smoke. "I think I may have a candidate for you. He's not my first choice--too independent-minded to just hand him a job and have it left at that--but he's got the skills you need."

"Define 'independent-minded' for me. There's a lot of possible interpretations."

The flame bobbed quietly for a moment.

"Insubordinate. He'll substitute his own judgment in place of a set plan. He'll also bail on the whole job midway through if his moral dander gets up. The last time he was hired, he ditched a whole cargo of Motavian neuro-stims because he doesn't agree with metachem dealing. He hasn't worked since."

Anje dipped her wings in acknowledgment.

"Curiously enough, he sounds like exactly the type that this mission requires!"

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