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Freedom's Price

Part XXV

"What a sight," Conn sighed blissfully, looking down at the blue-and-green orb that was his homeworld. He had traveled in space before, as a child when his well-to-do parents had vacationed on Mota, but the experience was no less breathtaking now. The sheer wonder of it was almost enough to make the lieutenant forget the unease in his stomach over the Nuada affair.

"I must say, it does make me wish that I possessed the ability of biological entities to appreciate aesthetics," Abren remarked.

"Just wondering, here; if you can't appreciate aesthetics, how you know when you're looking at something that you'd enjoy more if you could?"

"In this case, from your reactions," the android replied eloquently. Conn had to smile at his partner.

"Yeah, I hadn't thought of it like that."

He turned away from the viewport and leaned back against the bulkhead, folding his hands behind his head.

"You seem troubled," Abren observed.

"Yeah, I suppose so."

"What is bothering you? Your fears that we were sent on a 'wild goose chase,' as I believe the idiom is, by LIM did not materialize. Instead, you successfully deduced Tyler's tactics and captured him along with his associated. The operation was brought to a satisfactory conclusion."

Conn sighed heavily.

"I don't know. Maybe it's just that this whole thing has been giving me trouble from the first. Or maybe it's because the ending was way too pat. No detective work, no clues, we're just told to go somewhere and wait for Tyler to show up. The end."

"This operation was supposed to be an efficient combination of resources from the Division of Law Enforcement, the Palman military, and Luveno Industrial Mechanisms. I would hope that our combined efforts would minimize any of the usual difficulties of criminal investigation."

Conn grinned slightly.

"Do you expect committees to be productive, too?" His smile faded somewhat, then. "No, what I really mean is, we were supposed to be the lead investigators--you and I. Supported by the resources of our organizations, yes, but still the lead investigators. Instead we've functioned more like beat cops, going where our superiors say, questioning whom they say to question, arresting whom they say to arrest. The only time I've made an independent decision, I got called on the carpet for it--yeah, I know it was something of a numbwit move, but it's an odd coincidence. As for actual, honest-to-goodness investigation, we haven't done jack." He angrily slammed his fist against the bulkhead.

Abren remained silent for a moment before speaking.

"Admittedly, you are much more familiar with the investigative dynamic than I am. Still, I begin to understand your point."

"Yeah, well, here's another one for you. Remember those Whistles that decided to go crazy and gun down Rhys Hamdak? We haven't heard a thing about that from tek-forensics yet. Either someone's holding those reports and not passing them on to us, or the reports haven't been made yet. Either way it tells me that someone high up the food chain is interfering."

"Gage Worthmann again?"

Conn shook his head.

"He's involved, I'd bet, but I'm talking about someone placed inside the DLE or the military who can issue directives to the forensics unit. There must be someone working with Worthmann on whatever cover-up is being arranged."

A thought struck him, one that he'd had before.

"I'll tell you, Abren, you know what this feels like to me?"

"No," the android answered, missing the rhetorical nature of the question.

"I think that Project Nuada, whatever the heck it is, turned out to be a complete bust. Given the frenzy that's been whipped up over it, I'd deduce that major meseta and big promises were laid out, and that the corp's rep is on the line together with that of whomever in the top brass convinced Mother Brain to approve the design."

Warming to his theory, Conn continued, "LIM's got a bunch of juicy defense contracts that must bring in billions of meseta each year. Scion-Colesburg, Redfield, a whole bunch of guys would love to snap those up and a big enough debacle could make the government let them. Plus, there's the personal angle to it. The careers of whomever was behind Nuada on both sided wouldn't be worth a snowfall's chance in the Bortavo volcanoes."

"Then your hypothesis is that the plans for Nuada were not stolen?"

"Right. I think Gage and whatever cronies on our side of the fence he's got cooked up this whole thing as a scheme to cover their hind ends. I don't know how Tyler got into this mess, but he's clearly been slated for the role of patsy."

"Do you believe that the evidence against him has been fabricated?"

"What evidence? All the proof we have that he's involved at all is the word of our superiors in the mission briefing. I haven't seen any evidence at all of his involvement with the theft of Nuada or the murder of Eric Stephens."

"He was at Shadowedge, and again at the spaceport," Abren pointed out.

"So what? All that shows is that we were given good information about the whereabouts and activities of Tyler Jorran. It doesn't show that he has any connection to Project Nuada."

"That is logical," the Siren conceded. "I believe you have overlooked one thing, however. Rhys Hamdak's words did indicate a conjunction between Jorran and Stephens."

Conn frowned.

"Yeah, I forgot about that." Suddenly, he snapped his fingers. "Wait a minute. Hamdak said that Tyler hadn't known Stephens until whatever happened at his shop. That wasn't until after the death. So you're right, there is a tie, but it actually tends to exonerate Jorran of the crime. That's not saying he's not a criminal; ex-corp agent usually means hunter and most of them walk outside the lines three-quarters of the time. We've got him cold on breaking and entering a military installation, destruction of government property, assault on a government official, and possession of an unlicensed Class III weapon. What I don't see is any connection to the crimes he's actually accused of."

The Siren stood impassively, showing no reaction. Unlike the Demis, Wren-type androids were not programmed to give humanlike gestures such as shrugs, headshakes, and nods to make people feel more comfortable around them and indicate what they were thinking. Still, Conn had the feeling that Abren was carefully considering Conn's theory, examining it against whatever he had seen and observed. If there was a hole in Conn's logic, his partner would find it. The DLE agent didn't think there was, though. It all felt too balanced, too well out-together. Maybe he hadn't figured everything out, but he had to be on to something.

At last, Abren spoke.

"I can see no evidence to justify your suppositions about the worthiness of Project Nuada. Conversely, your observations about the course of our investigation are quite accurate. Something is undeniably amiss." He paused, then said, "Jorran and his companions will be interrogated on Gaila to determine their precise role in this affair as well as to attempt to discover the whereabouts of the Project Nuada datafiles. This could yield valuable information. However, if your hypothesis is correct, Conn, then there is corruption within the military, presumably at a position and/or rank sufficient to prevent any testimony from entering the official record."

"'Committed suicide while in custody,' perhaps. Or, there's always the old standby, 'shot while trying to escape," Conn agreed grimly.

That was especially true, he realized, if Hamdak had been telling the truth. Even odds of that; lying to the cops was a fairly generic routine for guys like that when quizzed about their illegal activities. Still, if he'd been honest, then there was a link between Tyler and Stephens, and moreover Tyler was coming at this business from the outside. That would make it absolutely vital that he be silenced before he could relay any damaging information that could be used against the ones behind the cover-up. They'd do their best to learn everything Tyler knew, including the names of his associates and anyone else Tyler'd told about what he knew. Then they'd kill him, to keep the truth from getting out.

The view could wait, Conn decided. He had something else to do that couldn't.

* * * * *

Well, Tyler, you really screwed up this time, the ex-agent told himself, sitting on the cot in the transport's brig. The bare titan-armored walls were bleak and gray, reminding him of how badly it had all turned out. The security personnel had quickly and efficiently strip-searched him, removing everything he wore or carried and replacing it with dull green prison clothes. Plasma rings were secured around him, pinning his arms to his body--standard procedure for dangerous prisoners.

What Tyler did have left to him was time, so he used it. Risa had been right about him, after all. He had been wasting time gnawing over his shortcomings, when instead he should have been confronting them. Instead of castigating himself for going wrong, he tried to figure out why it had happened. When he turned his thoughts in that direction, what he couldn't get out of his mind were the charges the DLE lieutenant had accused Tyler of: murder, treason, and espionage.

Espionage, all right, that made some kind of sense. They had broken into what was technically a military installation and hacked its computer systems. So there were valid grounds for at least assuming that.

Murder, on the other hand, didn't make sense at all. Yes, Tyler had killed, both in the fight with the tech-gangers in Ossale Court and in the brawl at Shadowedge, but both times it had been in self-defense. The first instance had taken place away from witnesses in a part of Camineet where the authorities rarely if ever heard what was going on, and during the second time Tyler's strictly reactive role would have been recorded on the club's security cameras, which no DLE investigation would have failed to check.

There was the possibility of a frame. Perhaps LIM had laid the blame for the death of Dr. Margolis at Tyler's feet--destroy one leak and use the act to remove a second. Two for the price of one was an attitude that played well among the corporate set. Frames like that weren't easy to manufacture, though, especially when such an effective job had been done of destroying the real evidence that discovery of planted clues would have seemed suspicious.

It was the last charge, though, that really had an effect on Tyler. Treason. Until the spaceport break-in, Tyler hadn't done a thing that even impacted on the government's interest. The accusation of treason told him that one of his earlier suppositions had been correct: there was a definite link between Project Nuada and the military, and that there was corruption in the ranks, individuals who had decided that Tyler Jorran would make an ideal fall guy. The treason charge had to have been generated by that person or persons.

If it had been Tyler who was the military link to the Nuada experiments, he would have the prisoners interrogated to discover how much, if anything, they knew. Then, before they got the chance to tell anyone else about it, he'd have them killed, their bodies set adrift in space. Tyler, Risa, Anje, and Hale looked to be slated for just such a fate, or some variation thereof.

Tyler tried to pull his arms away from his sides, trying to see what kind of movement the plasmarings allowed, and soon learned that they gave up nothing at all. Escape wouldn't come that way; the rings would have to be turned off by someone not stuck in them at the time. He certainly couldn't do it while he was a prisoner.

He wondered what was happening to his companions. Whatever happened to Tyler, Hale and Risa would share the same fate. He felt badly about that, especially over Hale. Risa had chosen this path; it was her quest too and the consequences were hers to share by right, good or bad. The pilot, though, was only a hired assistant. He knew the job as Tyler had explained it, but not the background behind it, not everything that had happened so far. He didn't deserve to be caught up in this conspiracy.

Then there was Anje. Possibly she'd just be reduced to scrap metal. Even more likely, though, was an even worse alternative. The government could do a complete dump of her core programming, everything that made her Anje, and replace it with a newly-programmed personality designed to be law-abiding and subservient. She wouldn't just be dead, she'd be someone else entirely with beliefs completely opposed to her original ones.

The realization left Tyler all the more determined to somehow escape captivity. It wasn't just Melora any more, not even the greater moral duty to the people of Palm. The friends and allies he'd met for the first time on his return to Camineet needed him. Unfortunately, from where he sat, there didn't seem to be anything he could do to help.

A face appeared at the armored glass window of Tyler's cell door. The intercom system that allowed communication in and out of the nearly soundproof room beeped.

"Tyler, we need to talk."

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