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Freedom's Price

Part XXVIII


"Conn, Anje, come on," Tyler said. He had assumed a leadership role of the little group right after being released; it was easy enough to do because Risa, Hale, and Anje already looked to him for direction. Conn was the wild card. He had official rank, and from his point of view he was going way out on a limb because he believed in them. Surprisingly, he hadn't objected to Tyler giving commands. At least, not until then.

"Wait a minute," he said, holding his hand up. "Why us?"

"Yeah," Risa added, "why are you leaving me behind?"

"You've been wearing your armor the whole time," Tyler told Conn. "Anje's is installed directly into her body. I put mine on just now when we fished it out of storage. Risa, you're still in prison clothes, and so is Hale. Besides, Hale's got to stay here to keep the ship under control, and someone's got to protect him. I don't want all four of us to go running off to the engine room only to have a pack of robots break into the bridge while we're gone."

The Freewind gave a sudden lurch.

"Look, will you people move it?" Hale exclaimed. "I don't now how much longer it's going to take before the damage can't be fixed!"

Anje disconnected herself from the computer and picked up her plasma cannon. When it came time to be efficient, the little Demi was the best of them all. Tyler and Conn were on her heels leaving the bridge. The three of them moved rapidly through the ship, setting up fields of covering fire as they advanced and being on the alert for robotic ambushes. Nothing happened, though, until they reached the engine room.

The Freewind's engine room was at the extreme rear of the corvette. It spanned the ship's three decks vertically, ringed by catwalks so any part of the machinery could be reached for easy maintenance. Here were not only the engines themselves, but also the micro-fusion powerplant that provided energy for the spacedrive as well as the entire ship. Red emergency lights illuminated the entire area in a bloody haze, cut by the brilliant bolts of light from energy weapons.

The engine room's automated defenses were in place, which was a bad sign. Heavy, retractable steel and titan shields had slid into place over the most vulnerable parts of the machinery, and the eerie green glow surrounding them revealed the presence of energy barriers.

Attacking the engines were an array of robots: an Informer and a Poleziax cut at the shields with vulcan rounds, while the Firgamma Conn had mentioned--a fast-moving, four-legged robot with a flat, circular head--launched bolts of electricity from the lightning projector mounted on its face. In front of the pillar-shaped reactor were the shattered remains of another Poleziax, probably the Freewind's engine maintenance robot. Its primary duty would have been to protect the engines, so the others had been forced to destroy it.

"Cease fire!" a voice commanded loudly. The room's last occupant was a Siren, cannon in its hands, Flare Shot unit extended for firing. It had not been shooting, however, but instead the android was simply waiting, watching the doors.

The robots obeyed orders and stopped trying to wreck the engines and reactor. They turned, aiming their weapons at the three intruders but not attacking. In that, they matched Tyler, Conn, and Anje, who had their guns leveled and ready but did not fire.

"Abren, what are you doing?" Conn exclaimed.

"I deduced from your behavior earlier that you were tending towards precipitous action. When I discovered that you had freed the prisoners, it seemed logical that you would attempt to destroy the security robots one by one, most likely by ambush, in order to minimize the risk to yourselves. Therefore, once my conclusions had been verified by our change in course, I generated a situation in which you would be forced to react and drawn into a battle on our terms rather than yours."

Psychological assessment and small unit tactics. Tyler was highly impressed by the sophistication of the emotionless android's AI. Being pragmatic about such things, though, he preferred foes who were stupid and careless. He cared about results, not "the joy of the fight"--especially since Melora's life was depending on his success.

"You could have destroyed the ship!" Conn protested.

"That was a possible outcome. It would have been unfortunate if that had occurred, but it would have been an effective method of preventing the escape of the prisoners."

"Abren, you know as well as I do that this assignment is a farce. We're nothing more than the cleanup crew for bigwigs who don't want to get their hands dirty!"

"While melodramatic, your description appears to be essentially accurate."

"Then why are you trying to stop me?"

"It is the course mandated by my own programming. Where you are driven by moral imperatives, I obey my programming directives in accordance with their allotted hierarchy. Above all, I must obey orders as an officer of the Palman military."

Conn stared at the preternaturally calm Siren in amazement.

"But...but you know that those orders were given due to corruption on the ranks and work contrary to the goals of the government."

"My orders come from Mother Brain."

"Only because she was deceived!"

"The orders of Mother Brain are not to be questioned. If you surrender now and the prisoners return to their cells, I will assist you in proving the guilt of Gage Worthmann and the others you suspect, but my duty to capture Tyler and his confederates remains paramount."

This was turning unpleasant quickly, Tyler thought. Conn was an unknown quantity, and like any honest cop he would have a strong dedication to law and order--the legal way of doing things. Once past the point of no return Conn would press on without complaint, but now the Siren was holding out hope that, just maybe, he hadn't hit that point after all. That there was still a chance to turn back. Tyler could see the indecision on the agent's face.

It would have been so easy to make the decision for Conn by simply opening fire. That would have gained the advantage of surprise in the fight as well as forcing Conn to stay on Tyler's side out of self-defense. Only, he couldn't make himself do it. He could only stand mutely, waiting for Conn to reach a decision.

The DLE lieutenant's jaw clenched. A bead of sweat trickled down the side of his face.

Wait a minute, Tyler thought. He's not thinking it over, he's--

"GRA!"

It came as a surprise and a relief when the surge of gravitational energy called up by Conn's technique enveloped the robots and Abren rather than Tyler and Anje. For once, though, Tyler's reflexes were working at full capacity. Almost as soon as Conn launched the technique, the ex-agent was sending a stream of laser fire from the Kestrel into the odd-shaped Firgamma. Meanwhile, Anje was activating her Barrier unit to protect against the enemy's return attacks.

Tyler was already in motion, darting to his right by the time their mechanical enemies were ready to respond. The Firgamma, damaged but not destroyed, lashed out with a brilliant bolt of electricity that slammed into Anje. The Barrier, thankfully, saved her from what would have been a crippling attack, but it still hurt her. Tyler ducked behind a pillar supporting the catwalk just in time; the energy pulse from the Poleziax's neural paralyzer struck it harmlessly. He leaned out around the column and swept the robots with laser fire.

Unfortunately, Abren had chosen to raise a Barrier of his own rather than counterattack and the lambent shields absorbed much of the violence of Tyler's assault. The Barrier was much more effective than Anje's was, not because it was of superior quality but because of how each side was armed: Tyler, Conn, and Anje's guns were all energy weapons, while Abren, the Informer, and the Poleziax had projectile weapons available.

Protected or not, the detonation from Anje's plasma cannon was still powerful enough to decimate the already-damaged Firgamma, keeping it from tracking her with its deadly lightning. Tyler holstered his gun and drew his knives. Conn, meanwhile, was locked up with the Informer in a running battle that drew both of them away from the reactor.

Tyler spun, rolled, and zigzagged away from the stanchion, trying to close the range with the enemy while avoiding the spray of fire from the Poleziax's mini-vulcan. He could hear the slugs ring off the metal floor and walls as he charged, rushing the robot in much the same way he had attacked the guard in the spaceport lobby. The end of the charge was different, though. Rather than trying to take the enemy alive, the attack finished with two savage knife thrusts into the machine's body. Nonconductive handles kept the electrical current flowing through the Poleziax from making a surprise counterattack. Relentless, Tyler hacked again and again until the robot was defeated.

The battle between the androids, Tyler noted, appeared to be evenly matched. Anje had the more powerful weapon, but Abren's was unaffected by their mutual Barriers. The Siren was specifically designed for war, but the Demi was a more advanced machine. Each had been damaged before engaging each other, Anje by the Firgamma's electric attack and Abren by Conn's GRA. As Tyler prepared to intervene, Anje tried to overload the Siren's systems with her Spark attack in the same way she had at the club. The Siren seemed to shudder, but this time nothing happened.

"That won't work on me again," Abren told her flatly. "I know the pattern of your unit's attack and can compensate for it."

He leveled his cannon to fire, and Tyler launched himself at the android's side. Abren released the gun with his left hand and swung his metallic fist in an arc faster than the ex-agent would have believed possible, crashing it against the side of Tyler's head. Tyler was slammed back against the reactor, his vision clouded by a red haze different from the one that lit the engine room. Only his headgear had kept him conscious, possibly even alive.

Anje took advantage of the diversion Tyler's attack had generated by leveling her plasma cannon at Abren and methodically blasting a sphere of green energy into his midsection. He took a step back, jolted by the impact, then steadied himself and blew a huge chunk out of Anje's right side in return.

Damn, is he going to take us all out by himself? Tyler thought, trying to collect his senses.

Suddenly the bright beam of Conn's laser shot slashed across the room, slicing into the android's weapon. Abren responded at once, launching a Flare Shot at his former partner. Neither could draw a bead on the other; the best they managed were a couple of glancing hits that armor and their Barrier protection reduced to virtually nothing.

Knees shaking, Tyler managed to stagger forward towards Abren's unguarded back. He raised the two knives high, then slammed them down into the Siren with all his strength. The one in his left hand was turned aside by the android's armor plating, but the second knife's keen edge sank in to the hilt, severing wiring and circuitry. Abren's entire body jerked, not as a reflexive reaction to pain but due to the damage Tyler had inflicted. He lurched forward, ripping the weapon out of Tyler's weakened grip, then turned back to confront the other threats. He never got the chance.

The detonation of the plasma charge was thunderous in Tyler's ears. Partially stunned as he was, the impact knocked him flat on his backside. It did a lot more to Abren, though. Barrier or no Barrier, the direct hit to the side of the android's torso was too much for its battle-damaged structure. Its chest, the site of its central processor and memory core, basically vanished, while Abren's head bounced once, then came to rest at the base of the reactor.

"Recover from that," Anje snapped angrily. Apparently she's put her own Recover utility to good use; the damage to her side was completely repaired.

Tyler couldn't help but chuckle at the image, the cute little android standing bold and defiant over her fallen foe, spouting victory quips straight from a holovid cop show.

The actual cop, though, wasn't laughing.

* * * * *

"Were the two of you close?" Tyler asked Conn quietly some time later. Hale was still at the controls, and Anje and Risa had gone to remove the last hostile robot on board the Freewind. That left the two men with time on their hands.

"I've been working with you for less than two hours and you're already asking personal questions? You don't waste time, do you?"

"I just wanted to know where you stood, that's all. My old partner is the reason I'm involved in this, though of course she wasn't an android."

Conn shrugged.

"True, I can't see falling in love with a mech, even one like Anje who's probably capable of the emotion."

He ran his hand through his hair.

"Though I know what you're getting at. No, it wasn't easy for me to start shooting it out with my partner." He didn't mention the chance to redeem his position Abren had held out to him, and Tyler didn't try to go there. "We weren't really close, though. Heck, we only started working together the night you flew in to Camineet. If I've got the timing right, I got my marching orders right after you and the girl left Hamdak's. Somebody'd probably been watching the passenger lists, and when you showed up, they started the wheels of conspiracy turning."

"No doubt knowing to look for me by interrogating Melora."

"Probably," Conn agreed. He sighed. "You know, Tyler, what gets me is that I'm sure Abren was never actually part of the coverup. He was an honest officer investigating a crime just like I was. He didn't need to be corrupt, because they knew he'd follow orders right or wrong. He wasn't a threat to them, not so long as they couldn't be brought down within the system."

"Makes me wonder if we can do any better outside the system," Tyler said.

"Have to try it."

"We wouldn't be us, otherwise."

"Nope, we wouldn't. Do you have a plan?" Conn asked.

"Go to Lianora, rescue Melora and anyone else we can, blow away the bad guys, get our hands on as much physical evidence and computer data and as many witnesses as possible to prove we're not crazy traitors, then dump the whole thing in Mother Brain's lap and let her clean the dirt out of her government."

"In other words, you don't have a plan."

Tyler grinned.

"Well, if you want to put it that way...Besides, none of us knows anything about Lianora, so we can't make any useful preparations anyway." It was basic military science; you couldn't plan for the unknown, only ready yourself as best you could physically, mentally, and with equipment, then hoe for the best. He said as much to Conn.

"Then we'd better hope our preparations are enough."

"If they aren't, we'll find out."

"That," the lieutenant observed dryly, "is what worries me."

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