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Freedom's Price

Part XXVII


Gaila. The name sent chills through the hearts of hardened criminals and turned their guts to water. Common lawbreakers were not sent to the prison satellite; its confines were reserved for those whose crimes were political in nature: spies, traitors, terrorists, traitors, and members of the armed forces who had committed sufficiently serious breaches of the Service Code. Mother Brain called these people "enemies of Algo" when she had announced the construction of Gaila, declaring that as enemies of the state had rejected the beneficence of the Algo System, they would pay for their crimes in a place that was no part of any of the system's three planets. Their crimes were viewed as so repugnant that they had forfeited their right to live on the worlds that had given them life.

There were other stories about the horrors of Gaila, too, but they were mostly the same as inevitably grew up around any maximum-security military prison. The real difference was that when you were sentenced to Gaila, you were sent out there. Not only was escape as difficult as possible, but if you got away, what then? What was there to escape to except the cold blackness of empty space?

The artificial satellite was a huge complex. Not only did it have to house and contain the prisoners, but also be self-supporting, generating food, oxygen, water, and power. To reduce the strain on the hydroponic farms, most of the guards were robots, elite Tracer and Poleziss models. This measure also sharply reduced the corruption and brutality that Palman psychology seemed to breed in prison environments.

Conn remembered something a repeat offender had told him once. While he had never been sent to Gaila, the man had done time in several prisons on Palm. His experience had been that while the occasional sadistic guard certainly hadn't been good, the almost antiseptic, icily efficient routine of a robot-run jail had been much worse. The process was completely dehumanizing--wake up, eat, exercise, sleep, over and over again like the prisoner, too, was nothing more than a machine being run by robot operators. How much worse would that be in the utterly artificial environment of a space fortress?

Sympathy for lawbreakers wasn't something Conn felt very often, but he pitied those sentenced to Gaila. Death, he thought, might have been a kinder fate.

Of course, death probably was the ultimate destiny planned for Tyler, Risa, Anje, and Hale. Those four were presumed to be terrorists and traitors, and death was the punishment prescribed for treason. From what Conn had encountered so far, it didn't look like any of his superiors had a vested interest in proving the four innocent, either.

Were they innocent? Tyler's story was outlandish, the kind of thing cooked up by conspiracy theorists who blamed the "Evil Government" for the spaceship collision disaster four years ago, the theft of the Sword of Ango from the Palman History Museum, or the revolt of the Espers on Mota several centuries ago. The problem was, it also held together, both in internal logic and when compared to outside evidence. It held together much better, Conn added mentally, than what he had been told by his own superiors.

In fact, Tyler's story reminded Conn of his own hypothesis. True, if Tyler was right those behind Project Nuada were trying to cover up public knowledge of the criminal acts behind the project rather than a waste of time and money, but the motivation was the same: prevent a public scandal! Save face! Protect careers! The conclusions as to who was doing what to whom were still preserved.

The real difference between the two theories was the moral imperative. If the government and Luveno were wasting money and framing a group of hunters over it, that was bad but it was also business as usual. If, on the other hand, the Palman military was involved in kidnapping people and turning them into test subjects for who knew what reason, that was something else, something that had to be rooted out and stopped regardless of the cost.

The down side, Conn realized grimly, was that the cost was likely to be his own career. Whistle-blowers in the ranks weren't well-regarded by anyone at the DLE, and the fact was, besides, that he didn't even know who to blow the whistle on. It would have to be blown, though; Tyler had almost convinced Conn by himself but Conn's interviews with the others had cemented it. Risa hadn't been too helpful; her only suggestion had been anatomically impossible. Hale didn't know much of his own knowledge, though he could verify both the computer search for Lianora and the fact--which Tyler hadn't mentioned--that Tyler had instructed the group not to kill the soldiers on guard. The finishing touch had been Anje, though, who had backed up Tyler on every point and with the precision to be expected from an android.

Conn shook his head, still a bit amazed. After several days as Abren's partner, the scarlet Demi's eerie combination of Palman emotions and mannerisms with her AI's thought processes had left him almost shaken. To clear his head, he glanced at his chronograph. Barring anything sudden happening, they were about an hour and a half from Gaila. That didn't leave a lot of time for him to act.

There were three possible choices. The easy way, the safe way, was to do nothing, keep quiet, and accept his orders, but that was out. If he had been the kind of person who could just ignore injustice in front of him and accept corruption, he's have gone into politics or taken up one of the corps on their offer when he'd graduated. Choice two was to begin his own investigation into Tyler's allegations. Unfortunately, the likelihood of ever bringing LIM or their military allies to court was just about nil, given their power. The politicians might stand for a private, in-house cleansing, but they would never tolerate a public scandal. That would destroy people's confidence in the public institutions, they would say. Better to let a few go unpunished than undermine the entire system. The logic was faulty, wrong conclusions based upon spurious premises, but it was nonetheless the reasoning dredged up every time an injustice within the system was raised.

That left the third option. Conn wasn't sure precisely when it had opened itself up as a possibility, when he had been able to see it as a viable alternative, but he did know the moment he had chosen to accept it. The elevator was carrying him from the lower deck to the ship's bridge when he reached his decision. As the door slid open, his laser shot was already drawn.

There was no hesitation in Conn's actions. Hesitation would mean disaster, second-guessing spell his end. He had made the choice, and he had to go forward with it. He zeroed his gun in, he red dot of the targeting laser pinpointing the back of the Twig Man robot's head as it sat at the communications board. Slight pressure on the trigger unleashed the lethal blue-white beam, which reduced the robot's main processor to slag. The Twig Man's body crashed from its chair, the stump of its neck spitting sparks. Conn was already changing targets, aiming at the bridge's only other occupant, the Warren android who acted as pilot.

The Warren was unarmed, but that didn't make it defenseless. Not only was it equipped with a powerful Flare Shot unit similar to Abren's, but it was also programmed with at least a basic knowledge of hand-to-hand combat, and probably more, being a military model. Conn put three shots into it, blasting sparking holes through its armor, sending the android staggering back into the control array. He then flung himself aside, barely in time to avoid the beam of the Flare Shot the Warren fired in desperation.

A large hole was gouged in the main door to the bridge right behind where Conn had been standing, but the agent took no notice of the damage. Instead, he was rolling, already hearing the pulsing hum of the android initiating its Recover utility, ordering its self-repair systems to operate at full capacity while diverting power from other areas. Conn popped up from his roll in a shooter's crouch, arms extended, actually seeing the holes in the android's structure growing smaller.

Recovering, however, left the android at a disadvantage in battle. Its reflexes were sluggish, the attention of its circuitry given over almost entirely to curing old damage rather than preventing--or inflicting--new. Conn took advantage of the distraction to fire at its unprotected torso. He was an excellent marksman, and the Warren was a much less challenging target in the close confines of the bridge than the goals on the practice range had been. The bolts from the laser shot not only struck home but found the vital spots they had been aimed at. The constant flow of serious damage was too much for its overstressed Recover capacity to handle. The android went down, no more than a tangle of sparking, ruined electronics. Conn stood over it and obliterated the main processor in its torso, to make sure it wouldn't, somehow, regain functionality.

Afterwards, he glanced around the bridge, the realization of what he'd done catching up to him. Conn had rebelled against his job, against his ethical beliefs, turned his whole life on its head with one violent act. He had done it because he believed Tyler and saw an absolute need to stop what Luveno was doing, but he had done it all the same.

The next step, he knew, was to free the prisoners. In accordance with standard protocol, two guards had accompanied each prisoner to the spaceship, apart from Conn and Abren and the one-android, four-robot crew. Thankfully, the guards were all robots; only Conn had the rank and position to be permitted to fly in space. Nonetheless, he would need the help of Tyler and the others to defeat them.

He'd also need Hale to fly the ship, now that its only pilot was gone.

Smiling wryly, Conn thought that it was all part and parcel of the same pattern. By deciding to free the prisoners and fight LIM and Project Nuada with guns and techniques instead of words, he'd bet all the material things in his life on his success, so why not his life itself?

Now, if the ship just doesn't get hit by a meteoroid while there's no pilot...

Conveniently, Tyler's group's equipment had been brought along on board as evidence, so Conn headed for that first. The fight on the bridge might as well not have happened, for all the Poleziax on guard in the cargo bay knew.

"This is a secure area," the robot stated. "Please show your identification."

Conn showed his badge.

"Lieutenant Derrek, DLE. I need to review some of the physical evidence taken from the prisoners. Where is it?"

"The third locker on the left."

"Thank you."

The cargo lockers were actually large bins, sealed by flip-up doors that could be secured by keypad-controlled locks. The display bar showed red, indicating that the door was locked.

"What's the lock code?"

"3634."

Conn typed it in, then turned the handle. A hiss of air sounded as the airtight seal was broken. Inside, the prisoners' weapons, armor, and equipment were kept in sealed, labeled plastic bags. Conn was surprised at the care the military was taking with the evidence while running the coverup. Then again, they did want to find out everything Tyler and his companions knew, and good investigative procedure was valid regardless of what was being investigated.

After a few moments' consideration, Conn picked up a hard-sided transport case, a bit larger than a briefcase, and loaded it with the items he felt most important: Tyler's pulse laser, Risa's claws, and Hale's sonic gun. He wanted to take the Demi's pulse cannon too, but it was simply too obvious to carry through the ship's corridors or into the brig. He'd have to fight the robots sooner or later, but he wanted to do it on his own terms, preferably with backup. Conn shut the case and snapped the latches shut.

"Thank you. Is there a log to record that I've taken these items?"

"There is no register or cargo manifest."

"That's stupid, but it's useful." Conn walked past the robot to the doorway, then stopped and turned around. "Oh, by the way, there's one more thing."

"What is that, sir?"

"This."

He shot the robot, gun snapping into his hand and firing from the him. The Poleziax staggered back, raising its arm to fire its internally mounted mini-vulcan as its artificial brain switched to combat mode, but Conn's laser shot did its work again, finishing off the robot. Conn closed the door as he left the cargo bay, keeping the evidence of his activities from being seen by any passing robot.

The trip to the brig took only a few minutes, but each took a lifetime for the lieutenant. With every step he expected to hear alarm klaxons signaling a red alert, and when he passed a Poleziss in the corridor he expected the goldtone robot to see his betrayal in his heart and attack. Nothing happened, though, and he reached the brig without incident.

The same robots were on guard from when he had visited the prisoners: a Wirehead and two Informers. The Wirehead was an oddity, a nearly immobile security robot that looked like nothing more than an upside-down egg, the "head," mounted on a pile of cables and circuitry. While it could not move from place to place with any speed, it could move its "head" rapidly to zero in on new targets. Essentially it was a mobile gun target with a fairly developed tracking and threat assessment system; it could take verbal orders but was unable to communicate.

Conn went to the front of Tyler's cell, set down the case on its side, popped the latches, and opened it facing the cell door. Tyler raised an eyebrow, seeing the weapons, but didn't comment, which was good. Conn didn't want any wrong or sudden moves or words to alert the robots that a jailbreak was going on. He pulled open the bag around Tyler's gun, then stood.

"I hope you know what's good for you," he told the ex-agent, a description which he supposed applied as much to himself now.

"I think so," Tyler replied, "though I don't have all the reasons straight in my head yet."

"In your position, you don't need to."

"That's just what I was thinking."

The two men looked at one another and nodded, a silent bond of understanding forming between them. Conn concentrated, focusing his mind into the proper frame for technique use. This would take split-second timing between the two of them, and a lot of luck. Conn took a deep breath, and as he exhaled, launched into action.

The lieutenant's hand flicked up, switching off the lock for Tyler's cell door and the plasma ring controls in one motion, then he continued to pivot, thrusting both hands out in front of him. Conn could feel the surge of energy as he unleashed the technique.

"GRA!"

A wave of gravitational energy swept across the brig. It knocked away a table and chairs meant for the convenience of human jailers, and found the three robots. The technique assaulted their structure, drawing it in on itself, ignoring their armor plating to snap and bend the fragile circuitry within.

Tyler used the opportunity provided by Conn's attack to pull free of the now uncharged plasma rings and thrust the cell door open. Rather than grabbing up the Kestrel, he instead leveled his hand at the Wirehead and unleashed the TSU technique. The searing beam flashed by Conn's head, blasting the already-damaged robot apart.

Meanwhile, the Informers were already responding, their weapons tracking Conn. No doubt the robots were already trying to contact the bridge to raise an alarm, but there was no one there to respond. A door in one's side popped open, and an electric beam lashed out, missing Conn by inches. The other's aim was better, but its mini-vulcan rounds were turned by Conn's ceramic-armor breastplate.

Tyler had recovered his gun by then, and he swept the two stubby robots with a burst of laser fire as Conn drew his own laser shot and put several blasts into them for good measure.

"So," Tyler remarked when it was over, "why the change of heart?"

"Because what you told me, what Anje told me, and what I'd learned and discovered on my own all fit together. I'm stuck in the middle of a cover-up and I won't be a part of that. It's like you figured, someone way up the food chain is behind this and they have to be rooted out forcibly."

"You do realize that at this point, the only way any of us will be able to return to our lives will be to expose the scam, with proof, and get a pardon from Mother Brain for it?"

Conn shot him a grin.

"Heck, Tyler, I can do you one better. The only way any of us are getting out alive is if we get that pilot of yours up to the bridge before this ship runs into something. I already took out the pilot."

Tyler shook his head in amazement.

"Conn, when you decide to rebel, you don't do it halfway."

They quickly freed the others and gave back Risa and Hale's weapons.

"So the cop's now on our side?" Risa boggled.

"Yes; unfortunately the military robots are not," Tyler told her, then turned to the pilot. "Hale, Conn's already disabled the bridge crew, so we need your services."

Hale nodded.

"I'm with you. What is this thing, anyway? An LX-type corvette, I know from the look I got from the outside, but I couldn't tell whether it's a Fiblira, Parolit, or Starwalker class."

"Hey, I don't know a thing about spaceships. Does it matter?"

"If it's a Starwalker. That class is completely automated for its flight systems. It doesn't need a pilot and wouldn't know what to do with one."

"Then, if it is, we'll wind up docking at Gaila even if we do take over the ship?" Conn asked.

"Basically."

"Let's hope it isn't, then."

"Enough chatter," Tyler said. "Hale, you get up to the bridge and get the ship under our control. Anje, why don't you go with him? There may be security lockouts on the navigational computers to deal with situations like this, so you should probably be there if trouble arises." He looked over the two of them. "You're a bit under-armed if you run into security robots. Risa, why don't you go with them?"

The green-haired girl nodded.

"All right, I'm on it."

Tyler then turned back to Conn.

Since you had our weapons, I figure the rest of our equipment is on board as well?"

"That's right; it was just too obvious to carry."

"Why don't you and I get it now. We can reequip on the bridge, secure the ship, and head for Lianora."

Conn nodded. Tyler was quickly and efficiently assuming command, which rubbed him the wrong way, but he wasn't going to make a fuss over it, at least not while time was of the essence and Tyler's plans made sense.

"All right, let's go, then."

Conn and Tyler got to the cargo bay without incident, but their luck didn't hold on the way from there to the bridge. Their skill was still with them, however; they destroyed the Poleziss with little trouble.

The three on the bridge had also handled their jobs efficiently. When Conn and Tyler got there, Hale was seated at the controls and Anje had linked to the navigational computer.

"I guess this is the right kind of ship," Conn concluded.

"Welcome to the Parolit-class corvette Freewind, ship serial number LXP-1270. This baby's one of the newest multipurpose craft around, less than a decade old," Hale enthused, patting the console. "It's almost going to be worth getting gunned down by the military just to fly her."

"She's also got one less of those stubby little bots than she did an hour ago," Risa added smugly. Apparently she'd taken care of another Informer on the way to the bridge.

"That should leave five more robots to deal with," Conn tallied the destruction mentally. "One Informer, two Poleziax, another Wirehead stationed near the docking hatch, and just for fun, a Firgamma."

"Any chance of ordering them to leave us alone?" Tyler asked him.

"Uh-uh. I'm DLE and they're military robots. I can give them certain commands, but I don't have the rank or position I'd need to override basic programming like 'shoot escaping prisoners on sight.' They've pretty much got dog-brains, nothing better, so they can't adapt to changing conditions the way an android could."

Mentioning androids made him think of the one other person on board the Freewind, his partner. With his logical mind, Abren would easily see that the case against Tyler was at best superficial even if he wasn't convinced that it was an outright lie. The problem was, would he go along with Conn's rejection of the orderly, legal way of doing things?

"The data obtained from the spaceport flight records has been assimilated into the navigation computers," their own android interjected. "The course data for our position relative to Lianora's is laid in, Hale."

"I've got it," the pilot said. "Any objections to changing course now, before we show up at Gaila?"

"None at all," Tyler replied. "We can settle up with the robots on the way."

"Consider it done." Hale tapped a few keys and the ship lurched. Since its artificial gravity remained constantly oriented with the floor, the feeling of turning was different than in an aerojet, but the sensation of motion as the body's inertia reacted to the change in velocity was unmistakable. The view of the starfield outside shifted as well. "Flight One to Lianora is now on course."

The scream of an alert klaxon combined with the lambent red glow from a light on the control array shattered the mood.

"What the hell was that?" exclaimed Risa.

"Trouble in the engine room!" Hale reported. "Someone's tampering with the main drive!"

The girl looked at him wryly. "Looks like Flight One is going to be one-way unless we do something fast."

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