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Freedom's Price


The man at the door was the purple-haired DLE agent who had made the arrest back at the spaceport. He was similar to Tyler in physique, the same six-foot-one height, his face more rounded, his body slightly slimmer but with the same broad-shouldered look to him. The insignia on his collar marked him as a lieutenant.

"What did you say?"

"We need to talk," the agent repeated.

"If you're looking for a confession, you can save your breath. Your bosses at LIM haven't told me what I'm supposed to be guilty of yet."

The agent's jaw tightened momentarily at Tyler's wisecrack. Interesting.

"That isn't why I'm here. I want to talk over this case with you."

"Don't I get an advocate at some point?"

The lieutenant snorted derisively.

"You were arrested on military property for crimes against the state. Under the counterespionage laws, your civil rights are reduced to approximately jack, Tyler. You're in a whole load of trouble now."

"Tell me something I don't know."

"All right, I will. Gage Worthmann of LIM set you up. He told us where you'd be tonight."

That explained some of why the agent apparently wasn't too fond of Luveno's mention. The question was, did he just resent being the corp's errand boy, or was there something else behind it?

"You're right; I didn't know that, but I should have," Tyler replied. They'd found the transmitter, of course. Any decent medical examination, such as would be performed by any scientist indulging in cutting-edge illegal experimentation, would have turned it up, and the next conclusion would have been obvious. "Got anything else I should know?"

The agent slammed his fist angrily against the window.

"Are you out of your mind? In a few more hours we'll be at Gaila and you'll be in the hands of an interrogation team, and you're playing word games with me?"

Tyler shrugged, though it didn't work very well in the plasmarings.

"I guess that makes you the 'good cop' and the military guys the 'bad cop'?"

"This isn't a game, Tyler. If you think anyone's going to waste their time on standard interrogation methods then you're a whole lot dumber than you're supposed to be."

"So why are you here, Lieutenant?"

"Because--" the agent snapped, then dropped his voice to a more conversational tone. "Because there are some things about this case that don't add up. Because things feel wrong, out of place, like somebody's pushing us around on the board. We're the pawns, Tyler, and I thought it was just about time that we woke up and recognized it."

"It sounds nice. Why should I believe you? The friendly cop who's supposed to be on your side routine is older than your grandmother. How do I know I can trust you?"

The lieutenant glared at him.

"Do you see any other options? According to the government and LIM, you ran off with some very valuable property. You also killed a guy named Eric Stephens in the process."

"Stephens? I was still in Abion when he died," Tyler protested.

"No, you flew into Camineet after he died. Nothing to say you didn't gravestone the guy, leave the archopolis under a false name, then come back under your own name to lay a false trail, give yourself an alibi."

"You actually believe that?"

"Who cares? I'm not the one deciding what happens to you. I'm just the one pointing out that your alibi isn't going to get you off the hook. Come on, Tyler, just lay your story on me."

"If you really are suspicious that things aren't what they seem, then why not tell me about it and ask specific questions?"

Violet eyes fixed on Tyler.

"I'm not sure if I can believe anything you tell me, especially if I'm nice enough to tell you in advance what you need to make up for me. You give me your side of it, and I'll judge whether or not it explains away the questions that the case has raised for me."

Well, that made sense, Tyler had to admit. The flip side was, it also made sense if what the lieutenant really wanted was a confession. There were any number of illegal acts in Tyler's story and he'd be convicted out of his own mouth.

Tyler sighed heavily. They'd caught him red-handed, after all. He and the others had been on spaceport property. The two guards from the main lobby could act as eyewitnesses on a charge of assaulting a government official (i.e., themselves). That was all without considering what a team of forensic examiners could turn up to link them to the breaking and entering, the destruction of the robot in the basement, hacking two separate computer systems, and so on. Realistically, the only chance he had was to convince someone that his story was the truth, and that the good he was doing in rooting out corruption was sufficient for the government to excuse his activities.

It was also the only chance he'd get to help Melora.

"All right, Lieutenant; where do you want me to start? At the beginning of the story or the point at which I came in?"

"Start with yourself. If you've learned something more, tell me about it when you get to where you found it out."

"If that's how you want it. By the way, as long as I'm baring my soul to you, have you got a name, or at least something I can call you besides 'Lieutenant'?"

"Conn Derrek." The lieutenant made a sour face. "You can save the jokes about a cop being named Conn, by the way. I've heard them all before and you aren't likely to make them sound any funnier."

Tyler snorted.

"I'm not exactly in a joking mood, here."

"That makes you the exception. Most people in your position seem to come down with an irresistible desire to turn comedian."

Tyler glared at Conn.

"Do you want to hear this, or would you rather swap wisecracks?"

"All right, give it to me."

So he did. He began with Melora's letter transmission, then moved on to his arrival in Camineet, encountering Risa at Melora's apartment, finding the datachips, and going to see Ham. The last part was the hardest; Tyler still couldn't shake the idea that it was the business Tyler had brought to him that had gotten him killed.

"Wait a minute," Conn said, not letting Tyler continue past that point. "You're telling me that Eric Stephens hired this hunter, Melora, to try and dig up something on his boss? That's it?"

"That's how it started," Tyler affirmed.

Conn pursed his lips.

"So who's the one he wanted to get the dirt on?"

"I didn't know that, then."

"Enlighten me anyway," the lieutenant pushed. Tyler gritted his teeth. For a man who said he wanted to give Tyler a chance, the cop insisted on pushing all of the ex-agent's buttons he could lay his hands on. It made a funny kind of sense, though. Conn Derrek didn't like how things were playing out from his side, so he was asking Tyler about it--but he was still a DLE agent, with a cop's contempt for the hunters and corp agents who did their work in Camineet's shadows, outside the law. So he was torn, stuck between his desire to solve the case and tie up loose ends on the one hand and his dislike of those he had to ask for answers on the other.

Now that he thought about it, Tyler realized that if Conn had approached him in friendly fashion, he would never have opened up to him. It would have been just too suspicious.

"Gage Worthmann," Tyler told the agent. "Division Chief--"

"Robotics Division, Luveno Industrial Mechanisms. Damn!" Conn slammed his fist against the door furiously. "All right, go on," he said after collecting himself.

Tyler led Conn through the high points of the second day--the meeting with Jac Norbridge, whom he couldn't discuss without letting his anger creep into his voice, the encounter with the muscleboys at the apartment, and the trap at Shadowedge. As he got to the point where Anje appeared, he stopped and snapped his fingers.

"You!" Tyler exclaimed. "You were there, with the Siren."

"My partner on this case," Conn confirmed. "Lieutenant Abren of the military."

"I didn't think that the DLE used Wren-types, but I'd figured things might have changed since I was last in town."

"We don't. There's been a push for it, since androids have been able to function in positions requiring authority and responsibility, but some people just don't believe a machine can be programmed to react properly to the vast number of situations a DLE agent can face. Now, if we can leave off discussion of the Department's hiring policy and get back on track--?"

"Fine. It turned out that Anje had been the gridrider who investigated Worthmann for Melora, and she'd been looking for me ever since I'd arrived."

"Anje is the Demi?"


Conn shook his head.

"An android gridrider. I guess it's more efficient, getting the hacker and the computer together in one body. Cuts out the middleman, or something like that.

Tyler nodded in agreement. "She does a good job," he said, not wanting to give away Anje's identity as Palm's most famous gridrider without her approval.

"I presume that you found out what was on the second chip?"

"Yeah; since Anje'd set it up in the first place, she was able to access it without trouble. It turned out that Stephens, through some snooping of his own in the system with a stolen passcode, had found traces of financial manipulations in Worthmann's budget. He assumed that Gage was an embezzler, but he was wrong. The money wasn't going into dummy accounts where Gage could collect it later; it was really being spent, under the table. Worthmann was, and is, apparently overseeing the funding of an LIM black operation called Project Nuada."

That got a reaction out of Conn. The DLE agent tried to hide it, but he couldn't suppress the look of shock that crept into his eyes. Nor could he prevent Tyler from seeing the surprise and disgust that overcame him when the ex-agent described what the data had revealed about Dr. Margolis and the Rendak clinic, and about what had been learned the following day.

"Medical experimentation," Conn said. "I suppose you can prove all this?"

Tyler shook his head.

"Someone destroyed the clinic last night, within hours after we left. I'm assuming it was LIM covering their tracks, and that was why the Emerald Legion was pulled off the job. The news said your department was claiming it was a gang attack, provoked because several members of a rival gang were patients there." The scorn in Tyler's voice made it obvious what he thought of that story.

"So you don't have any actual evidence."

"Other than the computer records."

"Which could be doctored, if you'll forgive the pun. For all I know, you saw the news story on the clinic and decided to work it into this little alibi of yours."

"If you think I'm making this up as I go along, then why am I wasting my breath?" Just because Tyler understood Conn's antagonism didn't mean he had to like it.

"I'm just saying that it's convenient for you that the evidence has gone up in smoke. Now no one could prove you were lying."

"I'd say it's pretty damned inconvenient," Tyler snapped, "considering that I can't prove that I'm telling the truth, either! Given that I'm the one wearing the plasmarings, I think that I need to prove myself right more than you need to prove me wrong."

Conn shrugged.

"Point taken. Now, according to your story, you injected the latest test subject with a microtransmitter and tracked him to the spaceport, where you lost contact when a spaceship took off, presumably because your bug was on the ship and got dragged out of range."

"Yeah, that's the way it was."

"So you decided to break into the spaceport?"

"It's not as crazy as it sounds. Firstly, we knew that Lianora was in space, so we had to find out where. Hacking the military net, according to Anje, is next to impossible when linking from the public datanet, so we needed access to a computer with direct access to the military system. Secondly, we also needed a spaceship to get to Lianora once we had learned where it is. Breaking into the spaceport combined these jobs, saving time and reducing our overall chance of being caught. Except, of course, that we were walking into an ambush. I completely overlooked the fact that when they ran any kind of in-depth medical analysis they'd find the transmitter and someone would be bound to draw the right conclusions."

Conn folded his arms across his chest.

"So that's your story?"

"Yeah, that's it."

"And you have no idea what Project Nuada actually is?"

Tyler shook his head.

"Only that it involves kidnapping, illegal medical experiments, and murder. Plus the fact that someone in the military must be involved, someone high up enough to let LIM have access to the spaceport and presumably Lianora. I thought it was something going on under the table, at first, maybe the spaceport commander or a colonel in a key position taking Luveno's meseta, but now, with this joint DLE/military operation assigned to catch us, I'm starting to think the rot goes all the way to the top brass. This Nuada thing needed an official stamp of approval from somebody with a lot more power than just a base commander."

Conn nodded again, though whether it was in agreement or just in acknowledgment Tyler couldn't say.

"So now that you've heard my life story, what are you going to do?" the prisoner asked.

"Think," Conn replied succinctly, "and talk with your friends. I want to know how similar your stories are. As for you, just be ready to do your part when the time comes."

"You mean, smile and be executed like a good boy."

"I've heard that one before, too," Conn told him sourly. The DLE agent turned on his heel and walked away, leaving Tyler to think his way through what had just happened.

Some of the conclusions he reached were extremely interesting.

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