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Freedom's Price

Part XXIX


There was a loud hissing noise as the airtight seals were released and the shuttle's hatch swung open. A Warren android, its silver body accented by LIM's green-and-gold colors, descended the stairs, alert for danger even in the quiet docking bay, followed closely by Gage Worthmann. Another Warren, this one in military colors with sergeant's insignia and flanked by two Poleziss, was there to greet him.

"Welcome to Lianora, Mr. Worthmann."

"Thank you, Sergeant."

"Quarters have been prepared for your stay. Do you wish to freshen up after your trip?"

Gage shook his head.

"No, better to relax after business."

"Very well; I will inform Commander Rane and Dr. Hurlston of your wishes." The android sergeant smoothly instructed one robot to attend to Gage's luggage and the other to show the guest to the Commander's office.

The space station's design was utilitarian, like most of Algo's military installations. The walls were bare metal, ornamented only by intercoms, terminals, gauges, and the occasional pipe or conduit, but not by anything designed to beautify or put someone at ease. The floor was similarly designed, bare green tile broken only by glowing dashed lines that ran down the center of the corridors, no doubt to help guide visitors to important locations. It was not a style that Gage appreciated; it felt cold and inhuman, like the robots that made up three-quarters of the satellite's staff.

It was amazing, really, he thought. Originally designed as a secure government research facility, the role it still fulfilled now, Lianora was as big as the LIM headquarters complex in Camineet. With its artificial gravity and climate modulation, it felt just the same as walking down the hall to his office. Yet, as shown by the occasional viewport in external corridors, outside the walls was nothing but the vast, unfathomable emptiness of space, a lifeless vacuum. The thought was positively disquieting, and thankfully Gage was shown into the Commander's office before his mind had too much time to dwell on it.

Commander Darla Rane was a career military officer. Her pale blue hair was cut short, her gaze cool and steady, her expression pleasant but also reserved and all business. The only incongruous note that disturbed her consummately professional appearance was her snub nose, a feature which could only be called cute.

"Welcome to Lianora," she greeted him in an unconscious echo of the android. "Dr. Hurlston's on his way; he was just finishing up some work in the lab."

"I see. Business matters can wait, then."

"I agree. Besides which, I did want to thank you for your help in keeping this station alive."

"Oh?"

"You didn't know? Lianora was due to be shut down."

Gage settled into a soft, comfortable chair. Unlike the rest of the station, the commander's private office was well outfitted with creature comforts.

"Ah, that. Yes, I was aware Lianora was slated for abandonment, but I didn't realize that you had a personal attachment to it." In fact, he'd only spoken with Commander Rane once or twice during the course of the project.

"I've spent my entire career, ever since the academy, in the space section of the service. When private space travel was banned, the military's space operations were scaled back as well. Most of the patrol duties against smugglers and their ilk are handled by robots. Military operations are limited to overseeing Gaila and very little else. I was staring a transfer in the face when the word came down I was to take over command of Lianora."

"I see."

Since there was no money in the military budget to maintain, operate, or crew Lianora, the funding by Luveno was vital to keeping Project Nuada moving forward. Under-the-table financing made it possible for the research station, which would otherwise have been shut down completely, to be the project's main scientific center.

"Why thank me, though?" Gage asked curiously. "My personal contributions could have been done by almost anyone."

"Modesty doesn't really suit you. It's well-known that you were the chief designer for Nuada."

Gage shook his head.

"Not really. Yes, some of the technical specifications were mine, but the real work, the basic idea that made Project Nuada possible, originated on your side of the team, with Dr. Hurlston."

The doors swished open while Gage was finishing the sentence.

"Someone taking my name in vain?"

Dr. Lowell Hurlston was a big man. He was as tall as Gage and broad across the shoulders; in addition his build was heavyset, running to fat. The scientist had reached that state some men do where his age was some indeterminate number between forty and sixty-five. His short, neat beard and the fringe of hair around his bald pate were a light gray color, but his apple-red cheeks were unlined by time.

"Merely giving credit where credit was due," Gage replied with a smile.

Hurlston swung himself into a chair. One of the military's best scientific minds, he was a medical doctor as well as an expert biologist and even a competent technician. Gage hadn't merely been passing the buck or feigning modesty to the commander. While he and LIM's Robotics Division had been responsible for much of the technology associated with Project Nuada, none of it would have been relevant without Hurlston's original concepts. He had conceived of an entirely new way of looking at the problem, then generated a solution that entered the realm of genius. By comparison, Gage was responsible for delivering parts, even if he had invented some of the parts himself.

"Well, I'm not fool enough to turn down a pat on the back!" Hurlston exclaimed. His voice didn't suit his appearance; it was thin and reedy. "So how are things going on Palm? Did you take care of that little matter with the tracking device?"

"Tracking device!" Rane exclaimed.

"Someone bugged our last test subject," Hurlston replied offhandedly, as if it was of no importance. Maybe it wasn't, to him. Scientists could be like that.

As for Rane, she made it quite clear that the matter was of very great importance to her.

"Why wasn't I told about this?" she demanded.

"It was a surface problem, nothing to do with the station. That's Mr. Worthmann's job."

"You didn't think that a possible breach of satellite security was my business?"

Hurlston shrugged, apparently not seeing what the fuss was all about.

"The transmitter's range was only five miles or so. Contact would have been lost within seconds of the shuttle's takeoff."

"Lianora is in stealth mode!" Rane exclaimed. "What good is it to hide from radar when there's a transmitter on board revealing our position to anyone with a receiver?"

"That's why we immediately disabled it when it was discovered. Lianora's security is still completely intact."

Rane gave up on the scientist and spun to face Gage.

"I suppose you agree with him?"

Worthmann shrugged.

"Perhaps not as a point of policy. As Luveno's own Security Division Chief often says, two-thirds of security work is knowing what to guard against. Still, Dr. Hurlston is correct about the actual threat level prevented by the discovery."

"So I wasn't to be told at all?"

"Quite the contrary," Gage said mollifyingly. "There is a reason why I'm here, and included in it is to brief you on recent events taking place on Palm."

This seemed to do some good; Rane was still frowning, but she leaned back in her chair instead of looking like she was on the verge of vaulting over the desk and strangling the two men.

"All right, I'm listening."

"You are aware that we have had something of a security breach inside LIM?"

"Yes. That's why you had that hunter, Melora, sent here for interrogation, to learn what she knew and whom she'd told."

"Correct."

"I was surprised at how well she held out."

"She used to be with Luveno's Security Division, Special Operations Section. She received her training there."

Rane smiled thinly.

"Something of a case of creating your own problem, then?"

"If you like, though of course at this point she's hardly a problem of any kind." Gage paused, then continued with his recitation. "Our prime threat came from Melora's former partner, also an ex-Luveno agent, and from the gridrider whom she'd hired to penetrate the LIM systems. As a result of finding the transmitter, I was able to lay a trap for our opponents, and they walked into it. A group of four centered around these two individuals were taken into military custody at the spaceport."

Rane relaxed visibly.

"So you've managed to clean things up discreetly?"

"With one proviso."

Hurlston rested his big hands on his knees.

"That sounds disturbingly like an attempt to soften the blow."

Gage chuckled softly.

"Well, if you think that there's some additional detail I've failed to provide, then you're right. The prisoners were being taken to Gaila where I believe an interrogation, a military tribunal, and a swift execution were to follow. No loose ends, with everything covered by a gloss of legality due to the presence of the DLE in the investigation."

The Commander looked stunned.

"You brought the DLE into this?"

"Oh, yes," Gage replied breezily. "In fact, the search for Melora's friend, Tyler Jorran, was carried out as a joint investigation between the DLE, the military, and LIM security."

Hurlston laughed heartily at that.

"You do have gall, Worthmann, I'll give you that!"

Gage shrugged and replied, "The military doesn't need a scandal, what with high-handed arrests and secret trials. A DLE presence provides a veneer of legality, of regularity, that keeps any newshawks who catch wind of this from stirring up a firestorm of criticism and possible government inquiries. Of course, we kept the progress of the DLE investigation under tight control, much to the chagrin of the agent in charge."

The doctor tapped his fingers together rhythmically as he digested this information. Political manipulation would largely be outside his experience, though Gage was not surprised that Hurlston did not find it shocking. The man was, after all, willing to perform potentially lethal experiments on unwilling Palman subjects to carry out his scientific dreams.

"There is, however, one problem," Gage noted. The problem was why he was here; in Director Macklin's words, he was to "get up there and make damn sure everything got taken care of." He was nominally in charge of the project, which meant that it would be his head on the chopping block if it failed.

"What's that?" Rane said darkly.

"Spaceport control and Gaila have both lost contact with the Freewind, the ship carrying the prisoners."

"Some sort of accident?" Hurlston inquired. "Or do you suspect a less coincidental cause?"

Gage smiled wryly.

"I'd like it to be an accident. If I'd thought of it, I might even have arranged it as a tidy ending to the business. Do I believe it? No. I think Tyler's in command of that ship now and that he's coming here to finish this."

"Let him try," Rane snarled. "This may just be a research station, but I've got the troops, mech and bio alike, to make him regret it."

Dr. Hurlston raised a hand, interrupting.

"If I may," he said, "I believe that a more effective solution than a highly destructive tactical engagement might be to simply give Tyler what he's coming for."

He then sat back in his chair, hands folded across his belly like a grinning oracle. Hurlston looked so smugly self-satisfied that it took Gage almost half a minute to realize what he was driving at.

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