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Freedom's Price

Prologue


As usual, Gage Worthmann was late getting to his office. He was a night person, no question; waking up in the morning was something akin to hell for him. That had been the hardest thing, though, about his work. His cybernetic engineering skills had been top-notch when he was first hired, and he had soon discovered a talent within himself for playing the corporate game. The bargains, the dealmaking, the betrayals, and the ruthlessness of office politics came easily to Gage. His rise through the ranks had been swift, until he could no longer be troubled by early mornings. Gage was important enough now to set his own work schedule; he stayed until late into the night and came in no earlier than ten or eleven.

Generally, Gage found his office empty when he arrived. This morning he did not. When he entered, his high-backed chair swiveled around to face him. A man sat there, behind Gage's own desk, not a superior in the company but one of the managers in his own division. The man's name was Eric Stephens, and he just sat there, fingertips pressed together, smiling like a Musk Cat that had cornered a mouse.

"There had better be a good explanation for this."

"Oh, but there is," Eric replied slyly. "I was just trying it out to see if I like the feel."

"Don't get any overblown ideas. You're not that far up the line for promotion yet."

"Well, actually...I am."

Gage looked coldly at his underling.

"You appear to have acquired new confidence, Stephens. Would you care to enlighten me as to its source?"

Eric turned the chair slightly. Silver-hued threads woven into the fabric of his dark gray carbonsuit glittered with the motion. His clothing was an expensive Tajian design that must have cost a month's salary. Clearly he was serious about the supposed change in his fortunes.

"I'm acquiring a new patron as of today. Someone, Gage, who will look after my interests and assist me in obtaining the status I deserve."

"Who?" Gage replied bluntly.

"Why...you," Eric said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

Gage regarded him calmly. It was a crazy thing to say; Eric was a petty man with far more ambition than skill. He had the necessary ruthlessness and cutthroat attitude by lacked the most important part of what made a top executive: talent. He could plot and scheme but did not have the capacity to do the work at the level he aspired to. Obviously, then, he had something up his sleeve. The question was, did he have something real or only a delusion? Blackmail was not a game for the amateurish or the unskilled.

Eric smiled, and ran a hand over his close-cropped black hair.

"I can tell you're curious," he said. "I'm sure you thought your secrets were buried so deeply no one could find them."

"Not true," Gage countered. "Any action strong enough to change the world, even just a small part of it, will leave traces. Those traces can be hidden, but never completely."

"Then you must have expected this to happen sooner or later."

Gage shrugged. He wished Stephens would get to the point; all this verbal dancing was amusing enough but not very productive.

"You did surprise me, though, Gage. I knew that you'd have some kind of secret worth my while to find out, but this isn't at all what I thought I'd find."

"Oh?" He went over to a well-stocked sidebar he kept for entertaining clients and fellow execs and took out a bottle. He poured a small glass of wine, making sure to set the bottle back exactly where he wanted it.

"Quite. I expected a personal weakness that could be exploited. A mistress, a gambling habit, metachem addiction--anything a man might turn to in order to keep up the facade of the perfect corporate warrior. Never in a thousand years did I expect to find that you were siphoning corporate funds."

Folding his arms across his chest, Gage stood and waited calmly, denying Stephens the shocked reaction he'd no doubt hoped to elicit.

"You should be more careful, Gage. You may run this division of the company, but that doesn't mean you can turn it into your own private bank. There's a lot of competition among section managers like myself for funds; I routinely check to see what more might be available out of the division budget. You've done a good job of covering your tracks, but I always keep an eye on my rivals. I know what they're doing and how much it costs. I found out how you've been slipping money through ordinary channels under false project assignments, fees paid to consultants who were never hired, and so on."

Gage's lips were set in a thin, flat line.

"You're a thief, nothing more."

"And you're a blackmailer."

Eric shrugged, spreading his hands.

"Personally I consider it more along the lines of a leveraged buyout. The strategic use of influence."

"How droll. Not unlike the spontaneous privatization of financial resources."

Stephens chuckled.

"That's very good. Then again, when you consider the millions of meseta you've been draining off into your fictitious Project Nuada, perhaps it's the best possible description.

Gage sipped his wine.

"So, you've managed to trace the flow of meseta to Project Nuada."

"It took some doing to arrange it, but yes."

"Apparently my traces weren't as well-covered as I thought."

Eric shrugged magnanimously.

"Well, I must admit that having a gamma-level passcode did make things easier. Your own files may be beta-level, but you couldn't help but send the funds through lower priority channels."

Stephens was only supposed to be a delta-level employee. Apparently, his in-house blackmail had pried someone else's secrets loose in the past, and the payoff was a higher level access code. Regular snooping with that would have let Eric catch glimpses of what Gage had been doing, and by using that code as an entry point a quality gridrider could have wormed his or her way into beta-level files. There were plenty of those available for hire, so Eric couldn't have had too much trouble finding one to do his computer work if he couldn't do it himself.

Come to think of it, he had almost certainly used outside help, because he had said that he had "arranged" to find Project Nuada. So, at least one other person knew about it, even if that person might be no more than a hired hacker without any idea of its significance. Trouble, Gage thought.

"I suppose it couldn't be helped, but I still regret it," he remarked. Sullenly, he added, "Let's get down to business, then. I assume you have certain demands that you want met?"

Stephens flashed perfectly polished teeth as he smiled, leaning back in Gage's chair.

"I'm glad you're not resisting the inevitable. That would be so tiresome."

"Get to the point."

"Very well. What I want from you is a promotion. Section manager is nice, I suppose, but I believe that division sub-chief is a position better suited to my talents. As division chief, you could arrange for that. Needless to say, as I'm clearly being groomed for the higher ranks, my promotion will carry a substantial increase in salary as well as benefits and stock options."

"I suspected you might see it that way. I'm surprised that you aren't asking for part of the Project Nuada funding, though."

"No, no." Stephens waved his hand dismissively. "That would be all too shortsighted of me. On the one hand, if I'm taking your profits, you lose your incentive to cooperate with me. Let the company pay my price for you. On the other hand, I don't want to be connected to your activities by any kind of recognizable data trail. I'm not going to expose myself to the risk that a third person might come along and do what I've already done. If you do go down for this, I have no intention of accompanying you. No, I'll tie my fortunes to yours only while they're on the rise."

"You can be happy then, because they are."

"Well, I'm glad to see that my little proposition hasn't dampened your spirits. That's the way it should be."

"My success has nothing to do with you," Gage stated flatly.

"I wouldn't quite say that. Not when--"

Gage raised his hand, cutting off his ambitious underling, and told the empty air, "You can come in now."

The door swung open and Nash Garrett, Security Division Chief, entered the room, accompanied by one of his lieutenants. Both of them wore military-style carbonsuit uniforms augumented by titanium armor plates protecting the shoulders and torso. Each carried a heavy, studded steel mace and a sonic gun. The Poleziax robot that followed them, in contrast, carried no weapons. Its mini-vulcan and neural paralysis inducer were built into its blue-sheen, Palman-shaped body.

"You heard everything?" Gage asked.

Garrett tapped his earpiece.

"Avery linked me into the audio feed."

"What is this?" Stephens protested, suddenly unsure of where he stood.

"I turned on the room's security monitors when I poured the wine," Gage told him. "Your blackmail threats have been observed and recorded."

"But that's insane! You've hung yourself as well!"

Gage smiled at his overambitious underling.

"Try to follow along, Eric. There is a Project Nuada. The only catch is that people like you aren't supposed to know about it, so we don't just put it out in the open budget where anyone can see the details. You blundered in without taking the time to examine the situation fully, which is the kind of mistake that's kept you a section manager all these years."

Stephens jumped from his seat, wild-eyed. The Poleziax's response was immediate; its arm raised and the humming bolt of its paralyzer surged into Eric's body. The would-be blackmailer lost control of his voluntary muscle functions, and he slumped to the carpet.

"Take him to Holding, on seventy-four, not thirty-two," Nash ordered. Obediently, the robot hefted the stunned man and left, accompanied by the Palman subordinate.

"What do you want done with him?" the security chief asked.

"Ordinarily, I'd order him fired for disloyalty and that would be that. He found his way to Nuada, though, and worse yet he's involved outsiders. It's absolutely necessary that we learn what he knows and how far that information has spread. Then we'll take steps to contain the situation. I'd suggest you employ third-party contractors, but use your best judgment. Mine has apparently been shaky of late."

"I wouldn't say that, Gage," Nash told his longtime friend.

"I would. If someone like Eric Stephens could learn about Nuada, then my security protocols were sadly lacking. Words like inept and superficial come to mind. For all I know, the whole project has been compromised."

"Leave it to me. I'll finish the job."

"No, I have to be part of it," Gage stated with a sharp shake of his head. "Funding Nuada was my responsibility, so cleaning up the mess will be mine, too."

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