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The Price of Ransom
The Highroad Trilogy Volume 3
By Kate Elliott
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1992 Kate Elliott
All rights reserved.
In Another Part of the Forest
The poisoned atmosphere swirled past Korey's clear face mask. As he topped the rise, stumbling on loose rocks, he saw through a gap in the mist the writhing form of the alien.
No way to sneak up on it. The bastard had chosen this terrain for its lack of cover—if it could even think tactically. And without Fred and Stanford—but he couldn't bear thinking about what had happened to them. Just kill it, before it killed him and consummated its horrible rite, and be done. Revenge could come later.
The woman, tied to a stake well within reach of the aliens lashing tentacles, had lost most of her clothing, and the tatters left revealed the rich curves of her pale flesh. Seeing him emerge out of the fog, she began to fight frantically against the cord binding her to the stake, trying to free herself. Her struggling caused the last remnants of her clothes to rip and, shredding, be torn off of her in the rough wind, leaving her naked. The alien slithered closer.
He drew his knife and charged.
The first tentacle he dodged, but the second whipped across his chest, throwing him down. He stabbed at it, gouging a rent across the putrid skin. Gouts of acidic fluid spattered his face. It burned, eating into his skin, slowing him. A second tentacle wrapped around his leg. He slashed at it, but another grabbed him, and another, until at last even his knife arm was pinned to his side. All he could hear were the woman's cries as the alien's maw, rimmed with red, gaping suckers, lowered toward him and attached itself with viscous strength to his blistering face.
"I lost again!" Korey screamed, but the shudder that ran through him as he woke from the dream was not part of his nightmare.
A blow cracked the door to his hostel unit. Before he could even swing his legs off of the liquor-stained couch, the plasboard splintered and separated and two constables broke through the opening. Both had their power-spiked batons out and at the ready.
"Korrigan Tel Windsor?" An electronic shield masked the man's real voice.
Still muzzy from the aftereffects of the dream, Korey could only press the heel of one palm to his forehead and grunt an affirmative. His other hand reached to grope under the pillows of the couch.
"Both hands where we can see them," snapped the second constable, a woman.
Both constables tensed and crouched as Korey pulled out a cylindrical vessel, but he merely flipped off the top and took a deep draught of whiskey from a grimy glass bottle.
"That's disgusting," muttered the woman.
"Korrigan Tel Windsor," began the man again, ignoring his colleague's comment, "you are under arrest for illegal possession of the drug Asperia chronofoam. Dream crystal. You have the right to remain silent—"
"I would suggest," broke in a low, gravelly—and distinctly nonhuman—voice from the third door, "that you switch off those enhanced batons of yours and we discuss this like civilized beings."
"Oh, piss it, Berto," swore the woman, turning to see a squat, simianlike creature appear in the doorway. "Xiao swore top to bottom that the Pongos were gone. I'll have his ass for this."
Berto swung slowly around.
"Drop the rods." This was a second voice, lower and rougher than the first.
Faced with a primitive, but clearly operative, doublebarreled shotgun held in the powerful hands of the second simian, both constables carefully set down their batons, the only weapons they were armed with.
Hands shaking, Korey took another slug of whiskey. "Fred," he said after a moment to the one holding the shotgun. His voice was still hoarse from dream crystal. "Let's not have any trouble. I can't afford to lose my license."
Fred hesitated, regarding the constables with deep suspicion.
"Really, Frederick," said the first simian. He was as alike in build as a twin, but leaner in his hairy face. "I cannot understand why you continue to prefer that outmoded piece of hardware when we have sufficiently modern weapons available."
"Yeah, Stan," agreed Fred, "but they ain't got the kick this one's got." He set down the shotgun and shoved it away with a hairy three-toed, one-thumbed foot.
The constables retrieved their batons.
"According to our warrant," said Berto, unclipping a thin computer slate from his vest, "your bounty license is suspended until such time as you appear before the tribunal at League headquarters on Concord."
"Son of a bitch." Korey took another drink from the bottle.
"Frederick," interposed Stanford as Fred reached for the shotgun. "Korrigan, I will call your advocate."
"Sure, sure," mumbled Korey, but Stanford had already disappeared into the back room. He glanced up at the masks that disguised the features of the two constables. "So what's the real charge, or are you chumps just the errand kids?"
At a nod from Berto, the woman picked up the shotgun and followed Stanford into the back room. Fred lingered, undecided and a little confused, on the threshold.
Berto peeled aside the mask to reveal dark features and unexpectedly cheerful eyes. "Buddy," he said, his voice abruptly normal now that it was removed from the electronic overlay, "some people hold it against you for what you did in the war, but I say we couldn't have won without your kind."
"Anyway," Berto continued, evidently missing Korey's sarcasm, "I just bring in the warrants, and I've got six constables outside in case you give us any trouble. But I will tell you this. There's a one-way ticket for you and the Pongos down at precinct, and it's for Concord, so I guess that's where you're going, whether you want to or not."
"Don't call them 'Pongos,'" said Korey wearily. He ran a hand through his brown hair. It looked like it needed to be washed.
"Yeah," agreed Fred belligerently. "It ain't nice, calling us names."
"Which reminds me," added Berto, unfazed by this rejoinder, "their visas are up to date, aren't they?"
Korey lifted the whiskey to his lips, hesitated, and with a sigh lowered the bottle and capped it. He rose. He was not a particularly tall man, but he was compact with a strength that the seediness of his surroundings and the general air of dissipation and odor of alcohol and drugs could not completely mask. The constable kept his baton raised.
"Just going to pack a carry," said Korey, mocking the man's caution. Fred pulled back his lips in a parody of a human grin. "Get on, Fred. Get your stuff together."
Berto pulled his mask back over his face, hiding his features.
Stanford emerged from the back room, followed by the other constable. "Unfortunately, Korrigan, your advocate has already been contacted by Concord Intelligence about the matter. She says her hands are tied."
"Am I surprised," murmured Korey cynically, without making it a question. "Hustle up. Let's get it over with."
It was the matter of a few minutes to pack three carrys, and then the two constables ushered them outside. With the other six officers added on, they made a procession that enlivened the interest of all the residents of the rundown hostel. When the party paused in the lobby for Berto to clear Korey's bill with the manager, a small crowd of disreputable-looking folk gathered to stare and comment.
"Izzat the bountyman?"
"Yeh. Pretty brave of them connies to bring him in."
"Who do ya s'pose he were hunting?"
"Clean's the place up, though, don't it? Getting rid of him, and those Pongos. I don't like bounty men."
"What, you afraid one's looking for you, Ferni?"
A general swell of raucous laughter greeted this sally, made bolder by Korey's lack of response.
"Nah. Ferni ain't dangerous enough to be passed over to the bounty list by the connies."
"Shut up," snapped Berto as he stepped back from the desk. "Or we'll do a proper raid here one of these days. I can smell dream crystal on every one of you. Now piss off."
The crowd dissipated abruptly. "Thanks," murmured Korey laconically. Looking disgusted, Berto motioned, and the constables led their charges down the entry stairs.
"I dislike this," said Stanford, subvocalizing to Fred as they marched down and then were settled in the back compartment of the secure wagon that would ferry them to the precinct office. Korey sat at the opposite end of the compartment, eyes shut, face pale under several days' growth of beard.
"Yeah," agreed Fred, tapping his stubby foot claws against the floor. "It sucks."
"No, Frederick. I mean that I am deeply disturbed by Korrigan's meekness. It is simply too much at odds with his character. I fear that this current binge of drug taking masks some severe form of depression that has overtaken him recently. I advised him before that bounty work was not suited to his talents."
They both turned to gaze at their companion, concern clear on their apelike features. Fred wrinkled up his nose, taking in the unpleasant antiseptic stench of the compartment, their own pleasant and familiar scent, and the stronger smell—to him, at least—of Korey's unwashed clothing and skin.
"Yeah." Fred shrugged his powerful shoulders, his equivalent of a nod.
Korey opened his eyes, looking directly at them, and with the barest grin, he winked.
It took a ship's week to reach Concord, the web of interlinked stations in orbit around a nondescript star whose only claim to importance was its position in the approximate center of League space.
Stanford and Fred hogged the bubble viewport in the transport bringing them into docking with Intelligence's hub. Behind them Korey slept, snoring softly. If he looked better than the day he was arrested it was probably because the drugs and whiskey he had tried to smuggle along in his carry had been confiscated at the precinct office.
Fred simply gaped at the view: a complex net of stations and connecting tubes and solar arrays and ships in various stages of repair, manufacture, or loading that, in the reflected light of its sun, presented an astonishingly intricate and beautiful pattern against the deep night of space.
Stanford had his computer slate out and was busy calculating stresses, area to volume, and mass while on a second window he sketched out as complete a diagram of the web as possible, labeling it as he went.
The light chime warned them just as the door to their cell slipped aside. Fred whirled into an aggressive stance: hind legs bent, he leaned heavily on his thick, long arms, ready to propel himself forward. Because he was just about as thick as he was tall, the effect was intimidating.
Korey opened his eyes, although he did not move from his pallet, and glanced at the two guards who had just taken three steps back from the threshold.
"Fred," he said quietly. "Lighten up."
Fred rocked back onto his haunches, grinning again; Stanford had already taken the opportunity to surreptitiously tuck his slate back into the sling on his chest in which he usually carried his weapons.
"Get up, Windsor," snapped the foremost guard. "We're taking you off the ship in a flyer. The two Pongos stay on board."
Korey laughed, short, and settled his hands behind his head, looking comfortable. "Someone afraid we'll go on a rampage if we set foot in the happy zones?"
"You must be aware," replied the guard stiffly, "that your record of the past fifty years does not give the common run of humanity any reason to trust you."
Korey rolled smoothly up to his feet. "Listen, I didn't come here for a morality lecture. I'm ready to go." As he spoke he made a few quick gestures with one hand, sign language to his two companions. Fred rubbed vigorously at one shoulder, cursed abruptly, and with surprising delicacy removed a tiny insect from his long, dark hair and popped it in his mouth, smacking his lips.
"Move it," said the guard, unable to hide his disgust.
Korey grinned and followed him.
The ride to the station was uneventful.
Several elevators took him, escorted by a shifting company of eight to ten guards, to some undetermined level of the Intelligence complex. He was shown into a small, square room and left alone.
He paced it quickly, measuring, and then sprawled himself untidily in its single uncomfortable chair and waited. As he had expected, the lights dimmed around him, leaving him isolated in a spotlight of brightness, and the closest wall took on a translucent sheen to reveal three persons sitting at a console behind it.
"Korrigan Tel Windsor?" A man's voice, even and very deep.
He did not bother to answer.
"Are you aware that you have been arrested under League provision—"
"Let's dispense with the formalities," broke in a second voice, a woman. "I scarcely think we need bother to waste time on such as him."
"If we do not 'waste' time on such as him, my dear," replied the first man calmly, "then we cannot claim to be a free and equal society." He paused.
Her lack of reply was eloquence enough.
"You know I'm Windsor," said Korey, getting impatient with this. "I know what the charges are and if you can even make them stick the most they'll pull me is a fine. I want to know what monkey has suspended my bounty license and how the hell you expect to uphold that suspension in a court of law. That is," he added with a sardonic smile, "if people like me and what's left of 'my kind' are allowed access to the courts of law anymore."
"You see what I mean," muttered the woman. The second man, beside her, murmured something Korey could not make out, although its tone sounded like assent.
"I see no reason to continue fencing in this manner," said the first man, maintaining his calm. "The fact is that you possess that license on sufferance, not from any intrinsic right to hold it. You know as well as I that it can be revoked at any time."
Korey straightened in the chair, focusing his gaze on the man's shadowy form. "Maybe I didn't think it would come to this. I've been good. As good as I can be, I guess you'd say," he added, directing the comment to the woman, who sat in the center. "So maybe this isn't about me personally. Maybe the old man has been dead just long enough now that you figure his memory can't protect us anymore."
"Surely," interposed the second man—an impatient and slightly nervous voice, "surely you can't expect us to condone the life you and the other saboteurs that Soerensen—bless his memory—established, the life you led, the actions you took. Even Soerensen had to disavow some of the things you did."
"That's a lie," growled Korey. "He knew the stakes we were running. I don't claim we were angels, or even civilized like you folks—"
"And none of you," interrupted the woman sharply, "None of you ever did anything excessive?"
Korey was silent.
"My dear," said the first man reprovingly.
"We saved your asses from the Kapellans, and now all you intellectual types have gotten squeamish about the methods we had to use to do it. Why am I not surprised?"
No one answered him.
"So what do you want me for?" he asked finally, resigned.
"A simple trade," said the first man, still temperate. "You bring us in a few people, and we restore your license—without the revocation clause."
"What?" Korey retorted, disbelieving. "You want me to bring in the queen of the highroad, or something? It can't be done."
The first man chuckled. "We do not interfere with the privateers. No. Here is a display—some likenesses."
To the right of the three shadowed forms a console lit up, and eight faces appeared on a screen.
Korey stood up. "No!" He strode straight forward to the wall and slammed it with a closed fist. "I won't hunt my own down, you bastards."
"On the record," said the woman smugly, "it states that when you were first granted your license you agreed that if any saboteurs had broken codified law they would be an acceptable bounty. And you did bring in one ex-saboteur named Trueblood. Seventeen years ago."
"Trueblood deserved what he got. He went sour after the war ended, and no matter what you think, there weren't any of 'us' who condoned rape. We killed a guy once—a nice, respectable stationmaster—who we caught trying to do some poor underage Kapellan female who was a refugee from Betaos. Actually," he grinned, a predator's look, "we didn't kill him. We just got him drunk and convinced him to sleep with a sweet je'jiri girl, and let her clan do the rest."
So close to the glass, he could see their bodies react, if not their faces. The second man shuddered, obvious. The woman stiffened, tense and disapproving.
Excerpted from The Price of Ransom by Kate Elliott. Copyright © 1992 Kate Elliott. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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