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Freedom's Price


At that particular moment, Tyler was leading his little group away from the elevators on the third floor of the command building. There was no one in the hallway, and he was grateful for it. He was still surprised, a bit, that no one had heard the explosion, but apparently it had gone unnoticed. Why not? The shaped charges minimized the amount of explosive needed and hence the noise, the building was designed with sound-absorbent walls to keep workers from disturbing one another, the people who were still working were likely involved in their own tasks, and most robots didn't take notice of anything that didn't directly interfere with their assigned tasks. That had, after all, been the plan.

Perhaps it was just that things were going so smoothly that made Tyler uneasy. Yes, there had been the incident with the Mechoman, but that had been resolved swiftly and efficiently without negative consequences. Tyler had been mentally geared up for complications, not to have everything fall into place.

He picked a likely office, one with a bare metal door and a nameplate on the wall reading, "Room 309, Lysander Karl, Logistics Associate." Just as Anje had promised, the lock was disengaged and the door opened into a small office. The four slipped inside, turned on the light, and closed the door so the android gridrider could work unobserved.

The room was a standard interior office, a windowless chamber not much larger than a cubicle outfitted with a desk, two chairs, and assorted office equipment. A holocube of a plump man in his forties, a matronly woman with her dark green hair pulled back in a ponytail, and a boy holding a puppy, all smiling at the camera, added the only personal touch to the tidy workspace. More important, of course, was the IMVE System II terminal set to the right of the desk blotter.

"That terminal's hardly computer enough for serious work," Tyler commented as Anje wired herself in. "Why are you going through it instead of hacking the dataline directly?"

"It does slow my reaction time somewhat, having to go through another processor, but I can deal with it. What I get in return, though, is worth it." She smiled with relish. "This terminal offers a direct link to the system mainframe, getting me past at least two levels of security, and all it needs is a passcode which I can tease out of the system easily enough."

Tyler picked up the holocube and turned it over.

"Save some teasing. Try DX3*91AS."


"D-X-three-asterisk-nine-one-A-5." He showed her the cube. "The average wageslave keeps his or her passwords written somewhere. It's way too embarrassing to admit to the computer staff that you've forgotten it."

The passcode worked, and soon Anje was dancing through the spaceport mainframe. A side effect of using the terminal was that the S-II insisted on putting up a visual representation of what the Demi was doing, so that everyone else could follow along, mostly. Windows and displays appeared and disappeared on the screen, sometimes subdividing, other times being replaced. Text maps and visual images were shown.

Suddenly, the main display, showing a directory of subsystems, began to flash red.

"Probes!" Anje exclaimed. "They're trying to signal an alarm, but--" The red flashes suddenly stopped. "There! Froze them solid! They won't be able to do anything, and they'll get in the way of other security programs too. That should be all I need to--aha! Silly mainframe, it doesn't have enough active memory designated for security to run most of its core defenses with those three frozen probes eating it all up. Presto! Last night's flight to Lianora, the complete mission reports."

She sounded smug, and Tyler had to admit she deserved it. Hale leaned in, intently studying the times, distances, velocities, thrust levels, and other details of the flight with a pilot's expert eye.

"Can you get this on paper?" he asked.

"Of course!" The printer hummed to life, spitting out page after page until Hale had a complete copy of both the ship's flight plan and the in-flight data.

"Perfect," Hale said. He slapped the pages with the back of his hand. "With these, I could get you to Lianora blindfolded. It's a space station in orbit around Algo. In fact, it's trailing directly in Palm's orbit, about a day behind the planet."

"Now we just need to get you a ship," Tyler said. "Anje, can you check on the status of the ships based here?"

"I can; just give me a second." She wasn't exaggerating by much; she spoke less than a minute later. "Four ships are fueled and ready for travel. Let's see, one is one of those automated ones, set for travel only between Palm and Mota. Then, there's a cargo freighter, but that's rated for a crew of four actual operators, not just a pilot and passengers. The other two...Thunderbird-class shuttles, both of them."

Tyler turned to Hale.

"Will those work for you?"

The pilot's head bobbed up and down.

"Yeah; they're utility shuttles. ASA always kept one or two of them up and ready for takeoff in case there was some kind of emergency, so they made sure that all of their pilots were rated on T-birds. Which one's closer?"

"I'm not sure," Anje said. "One's in Hangar III, the other on Pad II."

"The pad, then. That'll save us having to taxi through the spaceport, which would make it kind of obvious that something out of the ordinary is going on. I don't know about you guys, but I'd just as soon see the spaceport staff think nothing unusual is happening until we're out of range of their guns and missiles. Not that they don't have other fun surprises to throw at us, but I really don't want them ripping up the ship with plasma cannons before we can even get off the ground."

"Works for me," Risa said.

"It also means we don't have to bypass the security measures protecting the hangar," Tyler added. "We'll only be able to push our luck so far before it snaps."

"Don't remind me," Hale sighed.

They left the unknown Lysander Karl's office and again slipped back to the elevator. Once more they were lucky; they encountered no one in the halls. That the elevator was back waiting for them was not luck, though, as Anje had wired it to do just that. They got inside and the android reconnected herself to the building's maintenance and security systems. Her first move was to make the doors slide shut, hiding the group from view.

"So how do we get out of here?" she asked.

"The only doors are on the first floor," Tyler said, remembering the schematics.

"The side door's nearest," Hale said.

"Isn't that right past the staircase that runs up to that second-level lab?" Risa pointed out.

Hale scowled angrily.

"Damn, I forgot. That's the astronomy lab; those skags work in shifts and most of the time they use the stairs because of the way the place is laid out."

"Then it's the front door," Tyler said. "Can you handle the alarms for that route, too?" he asked Anje.

"Of course!" She slipped through the computer circuits once again, accomplishing her work even faster than before due to her familiarity with the system. "I reactivated the security on this floor, and opened a path for us directly to the main exit--basically, the door alarm and the cameras in the lobby and the elevator bank." She frowned, then added, "There's a guard post in the lobby. I've jammed their communications, but we'll have to take the guards out ourselves."

"How many?"

"I don't know. The security roster must not be kept on this computer; I'm pretty sure it only controls the building's machinery and physical systems."

Tyler sighed and raided the Kestrel.

"I guess there's no other choice. Remember, though, any humans or androids you see are just soldiers doing their jobs, so take them down alive if you can."

Anje set the elevator in motion; Hale looked in surprise at the ex-agent.

"You serious, Tyler? About trying not to gravestone the soldiers?"

"Yes, I am," he replied icily.

The black-haired pilot regarded him appraisingly, then bit at the first knuckle of his left hand through his fingerless gloves, a gesture that was obviously a longtime habit when he was thinking.

He was all business, though, when the elevator doors opened on the first floor, just like the other three. Their good luck continued to hold as they moved through the silent, empty halls with their gray faux-marble floor tiles and ultramodern walls, but broke when they reached the lobby. The guard post consisted of two square counters missing the backs on either side of a gray-tone metal arch, which was presumably a weapons detector. Behind each desk sat a soldier, wearing the dark blue uniform of a Palman soldier beneath titanium armor and headgear. Both were identically armed: a cannon strapped across the back for heavy work, a holstered laser shot for when the big rifle was inappropriate, and a laser knife for close combat. The bad news was that they were supported by a quartet of robots, two short, stubby Informers and two golden humanoid Poleziss.

Silently, Tyler indicated by gestures which member of the party should attack which targets. The robots were security models, and would definitely be equipped with internal communication systems, so if they were given the chance they could raise an alarm in spite of Anje's hacking.

Tyler raised his left hand as the four prepared themselves, the snapped it down as the signal to attack. The Kestrel's shrill scream slashed laser fire into one Informer while Anje's pulse cannon detonated the other one. For the second time, Tyler got to see Risa's special fighting skill, as her inner power drove her forward in a plunging claw thrust that inflicted severe damage to a Poleziss. She kept right on attacking with ferocious slashes, the laser claws ripping apart the robot's titanium exoframe and shredding the circuitry beneath.

The last Poleziss, though, was a problem. Not because Hale was a bad shot, which he wasn't, but simply due to the lack of power his weapon possessed. The soundburst from his sonic gun struck the robot in the back, cracking its armor but not penetrating. A second shot gouged its left shoulder, but now it was turning, and probably preparing to alert security control.

Hale thrust his palm out and cried, "FOI!" The searing arrow of flame launched itself from his hand, crashing into the robot's face as it turned around. Simultaneously, Tyler walked the spray of laser fire from his gun into the golden robot. Their combined attack put it down.

Meanwhile, the Palman soldiers were reacting in a disciplined fashion. Both immediately slapped the red alarm button on their consoles--an act which accomplished nothing due to Anje's tampering--and spun to face the threat while drawing their laser shots. The one on the left had just gotten his gun clear of its holster when the android's stasis beam struck him with verdant light and he slumped to the floor.

"Drop it!" Tyler commanded the second guard. As a loyal soldier, though, he only used the chance to pull the trigger. The laser hit Tyler's ceramic chestplate, which thankfully did its job and turned aside the attack. Tyler feinted right, then lunged forward and to the left, throwing off the soldier's aim. Planting his left foot, he changed direction by ninety degrees and launched himself at the guard as two hastily-fired shots missed him. Tyler slammed into the man, his armored shoulder crashing into the soldier's midriff just below the armor. A gasp filled Tyler's ears as the breath was driven out of the guard's body.

The two men crashed against the security console, then began to slip down. Tyler managed to catch his footing, pull his groggy opponent to his feet, and clip the point of the man's jaw with the butt of his pulse laser.

Risa took the opportunity to knock out the paralyzed guard.

"Not bad," Tyler said, surveying the results of the surprise attack. "All right, let's get moving. If anyone heard the fight--or if someone just happens to walk through here, which'll happen eventually--we're going to be knee-deep in troops."

They left the main control center, stepping from the sterile brilliance of artificial light to the nighttime darkness. Powerful lights illuminated this area too, but it was impossible to conceal the fact that it was night, and that the sky above was jet black. The group had intended to rush to Pad II as fast as they could, but it wasn't to be. Waiting for them outside the door was an arc made up of over twenty guards, including soldiers, Whistles, Poleziaxes, and surprisingly, DLE agents. There were even a pair of Firgammas, odd-looking military robots with four legs and shell-shaped heads dubbed "lightning bots" both for their speed and the electric projector mounted where their "face" would be.

A DLE agent with purple hair stepped forward, keeping the cannon in his hands leveled directly at Tyler.

"It seems that your hunch was correct," stated the Siren standing next to him.

"Yeah. It finally came to me that, since we'd waited so long already for them to break in and nothing happened, then maybe they were already here and we should be watching for them to break out."

"So what's it going to be?" Tyler challenged.

"What do you think? You're under arrest for murder, treason, and espionage. Or if you prefer to give up your right to a trial, you can try and shoot it out. Now, drop your weapons!"

The agent was right. They had no chance if they tried to fight; there were just too many of them, and no doubt many more ready to come to their support. Tyler dropped his gun, and the others followed his lead.

"Look at it this way," the agent said. "You'll get to enjoy something that not many people do anymore: a space the prison satellite, Gaila."

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