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Freedom's Price

Part XX

"This is a quality piece of equipment, although limited," Anje commented as Tyler steered the android's landskimmer onto the highway. The flow of traffic at nearly midnight was almost as dense as it was at noon, fluorescent light bars illuminating the road nearly as brightly, only with the bluish-tinted glow of technology instead of the pure brilliance of the sun Algo. Camineet never slept.

The Demi had interfaced with the tracking sensor Tyler had purchased along with the subdermal bug; Tyler drove because apparently Anje couldn't talk, drive, and maintain contact with the bug all at the same time.

"What does it do?" Risa asked from the back seat.

"It can pinpoint the precise distance and direction between the transmitter and our present position, correct to within a two or three-foot radius! That's much more precise than my internal scanner could manage. I can then plot our position and its on the 3-D map of Camineet I carry in my memory core."

"The perfect tracking system," Tyler agreed, "a Demi and a sensor unit working in concert."

"What if he goes inside a building?"

"It will not intercept the signal, if that is what you mean, Risa."

"No, I meant, could you trace him from room to room?"

"Not without possessing some kind of schematic of the building's interior. I can continue to locate the source of the signal, but without knowing the internal layout I could not pinpoint it as being in a particular room or know the quickest way through the building to it."

Tyler smoothly guided the compact skimmer down the highway, heading in a general northwesterly direction. It felt good to be out of the clinic, and for that matter out of Rendak. The maze of lights and darkened buildings he moved through was beautiful, reminiscent of Tyler's first night back in Camineet. Like a piece of bad fruit, the archopolis' rotten spots only showed when one was close to it.

He was still tense and nervous, though. Maintaining his composure had taken its toll, and the eventual emotional blowup even more. Now there was a knot of anticipation building up in his stomach as he envisioned the beginning of the last part of his quest to help Melora. He didn't know precisely what kind of facility this Lianora was, but any installation could be penetrated. That was the experience of a former corporate agent talking. It took an effort to keep himself from making preliminary plans, thinking through various ways of getting past Lianora's security. That could wait until he knew what he would be facing, to keep himself from getting locked into preconceived ideas.

He wondered what Risa was thinking, but didn't ask. That could wait until they were alone, and not in the middle of a mission.

The signal kept on going northwesterly. The aeroport was out in that direction, and Tyler started to feel like he really was retracing his steps from the first night. Were they going to transfer the punk to a plane or copter?

"Do you realize that I've lived all my life in Camineet and I've never been out to the aeroport?" Risa remarked as an aerojet soared into the night sky, its red and green running lights like new stars in the sky.

"Come to think of it," Anje said, "neither have I. I have traveled, but always by land or teleport to and from Camineet."

"I've seen it on holovid, of course, but there's something different about really being there. Of course, I guess that's true no matter what you're talking about, so I'm probably not being as profound as I think I am."

"That's really weird!" Anje said.

"I didn't think it was that strange," Risa protested.

"No, I mean that the signal has bypassed the exit to the corporate terminal."

Tyler frowned.

"Well, if their cover story is good enough, they might be taking a commercial flight. Since flight plans have to be filed for air traffic safety, an unusual corporate flight to a remote destination might attract attention to Lianora's location." Since Lianora didn't appear openly in LIM's computer system, it was a safe bet that they wanted to keep their connection to it under the table.

"That could be it." A few minutes later, though, Anje spoke again, even more surprised. "Tyler, they've gone past the exits for the commercial terminal too, both continental and overseas flights! Where could they be going? The connection to the Ward Tunnel under the river to Gothic is about three miles south of here, and the only thing out in this direction is the spaceport!"

"They can't be going there," Risa exclaimed. "Mother Brain banned space travel after that awful collision near Dezo."

"Yeah, that was in 1274," Tyler said. "I remember seeing it on the holovid just two weeks after I moved to Abion. The astrogation vessel Ranger collided with the colony ship Wanderer set to leave and explore beyond the Algo system. Hundreds of people died. Space travel was judged too risky given current technology, so it was restricted to use by androids and robots, except for specially authorized military flights. About the only thing the corps use the spaceport for is cargo shipments, and not many of those." The corporate presence as well as their ability to get away with their usual highly profitable but highly unethical business practices was sharply restricted by Mother Brain on Mota, and the Dezolians weren't particularly fond of Palman culture so the Palman colony of Skure was the only viable market on the icy third planet.

"They're approaching the spaceport gate!" Anje exclaimed.

Tyler accelerated through the thinning lanes of traffic and took the spaceport exit. He was in time to see the ambulance vanish through the gate in the twenty-foot-high wall that ringed the complex. The massive panels slid shut behind it, interlocking teeth in the gate sliding together to form a seemingly unbreakable seal. Tyler continued on, not wanting to attract attention by parking near the gate, and turned down the lane that circled the spaceport. There was more here than he'd thought; while to his right there was only the bleak, forbidding wall of the complex, on the left side of the road there were houses, shops, and other signs of a thriving little neighborhood. Idly he wondered if the end of commercial space travel had raised or lowered property values in the area

"Tyler, what's going on?" Anje asked.

"I don't know." He glanced up at the wall again as he drove on. "I'll admit it's a great choice if you wanted to conduct an operation out of the way of prying eyes."

"Yeah, but that's a military-controlled outpost," Risa protested.

"It might work," Tyler said, thinking his way through the scenario. "The big worldwide conglomerates like LIM and Nakagaki still maintain shipping warehouses in the spaceport area to handle their interplanetary business. That would give them a spot to themselves even within the military's sphere of control. They can even save on security costs because the army will do the perimeter security for them in the course of protecting the base."

"Wouldn't they be taking an awfully big risk?" the Demi wondered.

"Maybe," Tyler replied, "and maybe not." He rubbed his fingertips along the scar above his left eye. "It depends on how diligent the government is in patrolling. They might not even bother to inspect the warehouses. Equipment and raw materials could be moved in and out by shipping trucks disguised as ordinary commercial deliveries, just like the ambulance is used to bring in living subjects."

"Perhaps," Anje suggested, "LIM bribed the customs officials responsible for checking their warehouse for contraband. The robots would follow the orders of their human officers, and their operations could remain concealed. I do not understand, however, why such a facility would be named 'Lianora.'"

"They've got to call it something," Risa said. "A quick code name like Lianora is easier to talk about, especially around prying ears. I mean, which would you rather hear around the coffee machine, 'I just got back from Lianora,' or 'I just got back from our secret illegal lab located right under the military's nose at the spaceport'?"

Tyler laughed.

"You've got a point there."

"Well, of course," Anje said, "but that is not what I was referring to. I meant to say that most such names either refer to an oblique way to their subject--"

"A stupid practice," Tyler interjected.

"--or are chosen from any number of quick, catchy phrases. The name 'Lianora' appears to merely be an attractive mix from a phonetic standpoint, as one might name a city, or a yacht."

Tyler frowned as he rounded a corner. The android had something there. It was possible Luveno had given the place a code name for internal use instead of just calling it 'the lab' or 'the warehouse.' Doing so probably would have been intelligent. They almost certainly wouldn't have just made up a pretty name for it, though; it was completely out of character for the people involved and for the nature of what they were doing.

He looked over at the bleak wall, which was even bare of graffiti. The nighttime illumination made it show an eerie gray-green hue, emphasizing that it was a construct instead of a natural part of Palm.

"We're going to have to get inside and take a look," he declared. "We could sit out here all night and speculate, but that won't get us anywhere. Whatever's happening is going on in there, on the other side of that wall, and until we get inside we're just chasing the wind."

"You want us to break into a major military base? Tyler, that's crazy!"

He shook his head.

"No, that's just it--the spaceport isn't a military base, and it's not designed to be one. It was designed to support commercial and private travel, like the aeroport is. That puts limits on how tight the security can be. The wall looks bad, but I'm sure it's deceptive."

Risa groaned.

"You're crazy, but what the hell, count me in."

Anje nodded firmly; the little android's face was an grim and intense as its design could manage.

"I'm coming too. I won't let Melora down!"

The roaring noise that washed through the landskimmer could have only one source. A shuttlecraft rose majestically on pillars of light, the engines mounted in its wings tearing it away from the surface of Palm and lifting it majestically into the night sky.

"Tyler!" Anje exclaimed. "The tracking device--it's on that ship!"

* * * * *

Stunned silence followed Anje's announcement. Only reflex kept Tyler guiding the landskimmer down the road. He and Risa were both completely taken aback by it, and even the little android, who despite her emotions was programmed to accept data and assess it logically, seemed at a loss.

"You're sure there's no mistake?" Tyler finally asked.

"None," Anje stated. "The transmission point followed an ascending course until it was beyond the range of its signal. Moreover, the biochemical data remained consistent, indicating that the device hadn't been removed and, say, tossed into the shuttle's cargo bay before takeoff. There's no other reasonable explanation for it; the man we trailed was taken into space."

"So Lianora is some kind of artificial satellite," Tyler mused. "Certainly, it's the perfect place for privacy and secrecy. No one is allowed up in space, so how could someone stumble on the truth?"

"Hey, hold it. Sure, there's no problem with nosy reporters or the cops, but what about the military?" Risa protested. "Don't they keep track of who's coming and going?"

Tyler nodded grimly,

"Every space ship has to file a flight plan and stick to it. Radar tracking outposts are used to mark the spacelanes, and ships venturing outside their range are considered criminals. The only ways Luveno could be doing something like this would be if they're working with the military and have concealed their true activities from them, or if they've suborned one or more high-ranking officers in the chain of command."

"Damn, bad enough the corps make everyone dance to their tune without the army getting in on it. Maybe they've got the right idea on Mota after all, turn it all over to Mother Brain and let her run things. She sure can't do a worse job than us Palmans."

"I don't know about that. It's attractive, but I can't see giving up our right to govern ourselves, especially in favor of something that might last for millennia. Mother Brain's already advanced from being the main operating system of Mota's weather control system to the chief executive of the whole Algo system over four hundred and fifty years. The nice thing about living tyrants is that they die."

"Yeah, but you can program a computer not to be a tyrant...oh, hell, why are we talking about this anyway? Melora's out there in space somewhere, and we don't have any way to get there. We've failed--for that matter, we never had a chance to help her! She was already on Lianora when we started looking!"

Tyler slammed on the brakes and killed the power to the skimmer's engine.

"Tyler?" Anje asked. The ex-agent didn't answer, instead popping his door and getting out of the vehicle. The night air was cool, and Tyler could hear the roar of the aircraft arriving at and departing from the nearby aeroport on the breeze. He walked over to the side of the road, not seeing his companions get out of the skimmer and start towards him. Tyler's gaze remained fixed on the massive wall, on the towering structures inside, on the ghostly green-hued spotlights stabbing up into the dark. He jammed his hands into his pockets, looking upwards. The scar above his eye throbbed.

Melora had saved his life while he had gotten that scar.

"Tyler?" Risa asked, touching his arm. "Hey, snap out of it, Tyler!"

"We're going after her," Tyler said softly, not really hearing the girl.

"We're what?"

He turned to the two of them.

"We were intending to break into the spaceport anyway, weren't we? We'll just be taking that to the next step. Once we're inside, we steal a ship and pursue the trail to Lianora."

He looked from Risa to Anje and back.

"You don't need to come with me," he said. "If you think I'm crazy, well, you're probably right."

"I said that I was in before," Risa stated. "Don't make me repeat myself."

"You'll need my technical skills to help you get past the security systems!" Anje said. "Please don't try to leave me behind now!"

"Thank you both," Tyler said. "We'll do it tomorrow night. This is going to take a lot of planning."

Risa shook her head disbelievingly.

"I've got to be crazier than you, but I actually think we have a chance to pull this off."

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