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Freedom's Price

Part XXIII


Appearances, Tyler knew, were sometimes more important than reality. The security at the spaceport was designed with that principle firmly in mind. To any outsider, it looked impossible to pass the fortresslike barriers that separated the installation from the world, and that was part of its protection. The illusion of impregnability not only discouraged any number of intruders outright, but also inspired fear in those who did press on. That fear then led to mistakes, to either overcaution or recklessness, and then the security that was actually there did its job.

Tyler knew all this, but he felt the fear anyway. Risa felt it too, as did Hale. Perhaps Anje did as well; it all depended on the sophistication of her emotional program.

"Can we really do this?" Risa asked.

"We have to," Tyler stated. His face was a mask. Afraid or not, there was no turning back now. This was more than just a catchphrase, but the literal truth. One of the things they had learned came not from some hidden computer databank but from the public news networks. A certain Jaeger Foundation clinic in Rendak had been ripped by an explosion at around midnight last night, likely (according to the news) due to a gas leak. Everyone inside--security, patients, doctors, and staff--were said to be lost. It was obvious now why the majority of the Emerald Legion guards had been caught off-duty. Luveno hadn't wanted to waste Palman assets pointlessly.

They had spent six hours discussing strategies, poring over every scrap of information Anje could dredge up about the spaceport's layout, design, and security, as well as Hale's memories from when he had worked for the Algo Space Administration. Going over the wall was out. Beyond the mere problem of height, the top was also barricaded by a mesh of electrified razorwire and studded at irregular intervals with pressure sensors. When the patrolling Informer robots, an upgraded version of the Whistle, were added to the mix, the odds of success fell to effectively zero.

Creating a diversion was out, too. If the only concern was getting inside, then setting off explosions, for example, might do the job--generating a commotion at one point to attract people's attention while they entered somewhere else with the robotic guards and alarms negated. The problem with that classic trick was that the group had too much to do inside the spaceport to risk putting the compound on full alert. That was especially true with regard to the computer system; with security on alert, the spaceport's system would be too, becoming twice as hard for Anje to crack.

Subterfuge had been the next idea. The problem there was that they didn't have anyone or anything who could create that deception. With some information about procedures and security protocol, false identification and a cover story might be created to get the four of them through the gate, but they didn't have that information. The best they'd be able to muster was a wild bluff, and the success chance of that was flatly nil.

The only option left was stealth, and since they couldn't sneak over the wall, they'd have to sneak under it. Specifically, they had decided to slip through the access tunnels designed for the maintenance of water mains, power cables, datalines, underground phone connections, and the like. Unfortunately, these passages didn't link directly into the spaceport; the access tunnels were part of Camineet's public utility system and did not contain a passageway into the spaceport, but what they did have were walls that adjoined the subbasement levels of the compound's main buildings. All it took was the ability to get through a barricade much thinner than the one surrounding the compound and without facing so much electronic security.

Shaped dynamite charges had been among the items Tyler had bought from Morbile and now they would come in handy. As Hale unloaded one from his satchel, Risa looked up at the solid ceiling dubiously.

"I hope you know what you're doing," she muttered. "That looks awfully solid."

"According to the public works plans I retrieved from the datanet, the basement of the main control center is directly above us," Anje said. The Demi, thanks to her computerized brain, was able to accurately judge distance and direction of travel with a remarkable precision. "That does presume that the plans are correct, of course."

"If they're not," Tyler said, affixing the charge to the tunnel ceiling, "then we're going to have a lot of rock coming down on our heads." He hooked up a timed detonator to the explosives and activated it. "Thirty seconds, people; let's move it."

The four of them ran back down the access tunnel. Twenty-nine seconds later came the roar of the dynamite going off. Thankfully, the shaped charge reduced the amount of explosive that would be needed to get the job done by directing the majority of its force in one direction. That, in turn, reduced the sound to bearable levels in the enclosed tunnel.

Watching the utility lights struggle to keep the tunnel lit through the dust cloud, Tyler pulled out the Kestrel.

"All right, everyone, this is it."

They advanced cautiously, half-expecting to hear the squeal of alarms and the clatter of running feet, but all there was was silence. The hole was roughly circular, its jagged edges four feet across, and the pale greenish-white glow from above was similar to the tunnel lighting.

"You first, Risa," Tyler said. He took her by the waist, lifting her up so she could catch the edge of the hole and pull herself through. Anje was next; the android's body was much heavier than any of the Palmans and her short height didn't help. It took Tyler and Hale lifting from below and Risa pulling from above to get Anje high enough for her to help pull her weight through. Then it was Hale's turn, and finally Tyler, leaping high enough for the others to grab his wrists and help him scramble up.

The subbasement level of the command center was mostly devoted to maintaining utilities. In essence, it fulfilled the same purpose within the building as the utility tunnel they had just come from did for the external systems. It consisted of a network of corridors separating storage rooms, closets, and access chambers. The explosion had opened up an entrance into one of these small rooms, one which looked like it had been set up to maintain the water systems. Gauges and valves were affixed to a series of pipes that ran along the ceiling and one wall. Luckily the blast had been small enough to expend its force on the floor without doing too much damage to the room or bursting any pipes. The basement's design also helped to muffle the sound of the explosion; closed metal doors and interlocking walls had reduced it to no more than a dull thump.

"We need a computer," Anje said, "or at least a dataline that I can connect to, but a computer would be better."

"The mainframe will be up in Mission Control," Hale said. "There'll still be staff there, though."

"Are there any auxiliary computers?"

"Oh, of course, all over the place. The laboratories, the executive offices, they all have computers linked into the system."

"Good; we'll try for one of them. Where's the stairs?"

Hale shrugged.

"Beats hell out of me."

"Oh, great," Tyler said. "Well, we're not getting any closer standing around here. Let's get moving."

The basement corridors were dark and quiet, the eerie glow of artificial illumination filling them with a soft light that somehow didn't actually provide enough to dispel the shadows. Tyler had done this sort of thing before, many times, crept through silent buildings and empty offices looking for data, for research samples, or to plant something where it would be inopportune for someone else to find it. That had all been on behalf of LIM, though, and now he was working against it with the training the corporation had provided him. A cold knot of tension was in his stomach, his reflexes keyed to react in an instant.

Those reflexes were forced to react a moment later when a robot came around the corner ahead of them. It was called a Mechoman, an odd machine that looked like nothing more than a five-foot-tall mushroom with stubby legs and equally stubby arms that ended in two-pronged pincers. It was an outdated design, used for maintenance work but augmented with weapons to aid in security functions.

"Halt," it declared in a droning monotone voice. "Your identification badges are not visible. Present identification immediately."

Knowing that the robot's next act would be to raise an alarm, possibly by internal radio, Tyler brought up the Kestrel and unleashed a burst of fire from the pulse laser. Searing blue-white bolts ripped into its steel shell, which provided an excellent defense from impact weapons but very little ballistic or energy armor. The lasers, accompanied by shots from Hale's sonic gun, wrecked the Mechoman, leaving it a pile of scrap metal. There was no point in Anje's adding a cannon round, so she held back from doing so.

"Great," Hale groused. "Three minutes inside the building and we've already had our first fight." He tugged at the neck of his carbonsuit; borrowed from Tyler it didn't fit the taller, slimmer pilot as well as he'd have liked. He also was a little nervous that, unlike Tyler's graphitesuit, it also hadn't been outfitted with armor plates. "If anyone sees this junk, we'll be up to our eyeballs in security."

"We don't have time to hide it," Risa stated. "Anywhere we tried to put it might turn out to be full of people or robots."

"She's right," Tyler said. "No side trips."

Hale nodded, seeing their point, just not liking it much.

As they approached a T-intersection, they heard the sound of shuffling feet. Instantly, they pressed themselves against the wall behind a bank of utility lockers, ready for action. Instead, two technicians walked by, debating the Parolit Scorpions' chances in the upcoming metroball championship. They didn't so much as glance to their right, for which Tyler was thankful.

"Funny," he murmured softly, knowing that a whisper actually would carry farther than a quiet but normal voice through the halls.

"What?"

"Until now, I'd completely forgotten that I've got a hundred meseta on Scion in the pool back home in Abion."

Risa suppressed a chuckle but rolled her eyes.

They found an elevator around the corner the technicians had come from. Conveniently enough, just below the row of buttons was a floor directory.

"Third floor; Administration," Tyler said. "That's good." He glanced at Hale. "I presume that the bureaucrats here are like the ones everywhere else."

"As in, do they go home every evening while the scientists and technicians work round-the-clock shifts? Damn right."

Anje, meanwhile, was busy prying up the elevator's control panel. She wired herself into the electrical innards, her eyes losing focus as she concentrated on linking into the building's systems through the elevator controls. Four minutes later, the connector cables withdrew into her forearm and she looked up at her companions.

"I think we're clean!" she chirped. "I opened all the locks on the third floor, disabled the alarms, and put the security cameras into loop mode, so they'll just show the same thing over and over again. Basically, the entire floor is going to be our own little playground, so long as we don't run into any actual people or robots!"

Hale shook his head in surprise.

"Y'know, I was a little worried, what with the gridrider being a mech, but you're one kick-butt neon angel, Anje."

"Thank you," she replied while she reinstalled the panel.

"She ought to be," Risa said. "After all, Anje's not just a gridrider, she's the gridrider."

"What's that?"

"Ever hear of Angel Red?"

Hale's jaw dropped with the same speed as the elevator rose.

* * * * *

The night air was much too still for Conn Derrek's taste. It had the feel of expired tension, of events that should have happened but had not--and weren't going to.

"No sign of them," he murmured. There had been no mention of any intruders either from the DLE agents and their robots or from their military counterparts. Yet the regular reports continued to come in over his headset radio and Abren's internal communications link, which ruled out the possibility that a posted group or patrol had been surprised and eliminated before they could raise an alarm. No vehicles at all had come through the gate, so there wasn't any chance that a search of one had been too cursory to spot a clever hiding place.

"I'm getting a very ugly feeling about this," he growled. The long-barreled cannon he cradled in his hands wasn't to his taste, but he liked the milspec weapon much more than he liked the idea of being used yet again by the corporation. He'd have liked to tell Gage Worthmann to shove his information where the sun didn't shine, but Conn didn't even want to think about what Captain Nile's reaction to that would be.

Worthmann probably knew that already, the smug sworm-kisser. He knew that after LIM and the brass got together after Conn's last little talk with him, Conn wouldn't be able to go against Gage's "suggestion." Especially not after Abren received orders from his bosses in the military, who had also been contacted by the Luveno division chief.

"Does this Project Nuada really have an outer-space connection?" he asked the Siren softly.

"I do not know of my own knowledge," the android replied, "but I would assume that it does. Certainly, when the information that Tyler intended to break into the spaceport tonight was presented to them, my superiors did not dismiss it out of hand. That at least suggests that there is a viable connection."

Conn nodded. Much as he disliked thinking that Gage was being straight, it made sense that at the very least he had used some of the truth to spice up his manipulations.

"I'm curious how he knew Tyler would try the spaceport tonight, though. Sure, LIM's got good sources of information, but I don't buy the story about Tyler letting something slip to a fixer that let Gage figure out what he was up to."

"It could be true. If Jorran is not a member of a terrorist cadre, he might approach a fixer to hire hunters. Whether he is or not, he could also do so to obtain equipment."

Conn shook his head. The radio earpiece built into his ceramic headgear crackled.

"Position Three reporting, Lieutenant Derrek," Agent Payne's voice said. "No activity here."

"Understood. Keep your eyes open."

"Yes, sir. I've got to admit, though, these Whistles are making me nervous. You know, after the thing in the alley the other day."

"I know what you mean, but we've got to work with what we've got."

"I understand, sir. I just wish it wasn't so creepy."

Conn turned to Abren, who was waiting impassively for him to finish with the remote check-in.

"What was I going to say? Oh, yeah, that was it. It's not that Tyler would deal with a fixer that bugs me. That part of it makes sense the way you explained it. My problem is that I can't see this guy, apparently some kind of a criminal mastermind if I believe Luveno's story, or at least a corp pro to go by his dossier, flapping his gums in front of some middleman. It doesn't mesh with his profile."

"I considered that," Abren stated. "Given your continued distrust of the information we have been provided in this case, I have attempted to analyze our latest assignment."

"Thanks, I appreciate the confidence." Conn surprised himself by finding that he had meant his remark literally, and not as a sarcastic crack.

"It was justified at the very least by the incident at Shadowedge. I do believe that Mr. Worthmann's story does appear plausible."

"Would you explain it to me?"

This time it was Abren's turn to be interrupted by one of the sentry posts making its regular report. Unlike Conn, he didn't need to speak or even subvocalize to send his message. As all a radio did was to send electronic signals to be converted into sound by the receiving unit, Abren's internal commlink simply generated the proper signals based on internally generated computer commands.

"In order to obtain what he needed from the fixer," the Siren said once he was done, "whether it was a person's services, weapons, or equipment, he very well might have had to provide some details of what he wanted it for so that the fixer could determine what he needed."

Conn mulled that one over in his head for a while.

"All right, so it's possible Gage is giving us the straight goods for once," he admitted, "but if Tyler really is going to break into the spaceport tonight, then where is he?"

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