The most notable thing about the Freewind's path through space was how uneventful it was. Tyler had been expecting patrol craft, fighters, or perhaps some spacegoing variation on the Aerotank flying robot. Instead, the sum total of what they encountered was nothing. It bothered Conn too, so much that he asked about it.
"Nah," Hale replied easily. "Outer space ain't exactly small, and there ain't a whole lot out here by way of patrols. See, there's barely any legit space travel since the ban, so it's a big waste of cash for the government to maintain a fleet."
"So how do they stop smugglers?" Tyler asked curiously.
"Well, the whole point of smuggling is to get something from point A to point B, and in space smuggling you don't have too many points: Palm, Mota, Dezo, and a few of the artificial satellites. Palm and Mota are both surrounded by a web of tracking satellites combined with regular patrols, and there's at least a nominal presence around Dezo, mostly concentrated to cover the Skure area."
"So you can fly around all you want; the only trouble comes if you want to take off or land."
"Which is fine for us, since we aren't going to any of the planets anyway," Hale concluded. He tapped a few buttons, making minor adjustments to their course and speed.
"Unless the engines blow up," Risa grumbled. The girl from the streets was having a difficult time adapting to space travel, especially after the life-or-death struggles had stopped and she had time to think about it. Trouble in the engine room wasn't a thought that sat easily on a mind already nervous about the whole idea.
"Don't worry about that," Hale assured her. "I've run through the damage-control diagnostics twice, and Anje's made a physical inspection on top of that. The automated defenses kept anything more than cosmetic damage from being done. I tell you, they ought to install those on all ships, even emergency shuttles. It would be a major jump in terms of safety."
"I'm in favor of anything that keeps the ship from exploding around me," Risa agreed.
"Lianora will have its own radar," Tyler noted, ignoring the momentary tangent. "We may not get hit by patrols on the way there, but they'll be sure to spot our approach as we get near."
"Not if we're lucky. This is a top-of-the-line multirole military ship, designed to carry out all kinds of tasks, including stealthy raids on enemy targets."
"And, in order to do that, it's been equipped with stealth capability. In stealth mode, the Freewind is completely invisible to radar."
"Ni-ice," Anje admired.
Hale nodded, still grinning.
"That's the truth. The only way they'll see us is if someone looks out a window. Or if they've got a canceller."
"A module that can be hooked into a radar array. Essentially, it enables the radar to detect the cloaking field, which pretty much negates the point of stealth mode."
Conn hooked his thumbs into his belt.
"Okay, I'll bite. What are the odds that Lianora's got one of those cancellers?"
"If they've got standard equipment for an artificial satellite, none. Cancellers were equipped on interceptors, ships designed to hunt smugglers, space pirates, and enemy raiders. At least when I was with the ASA, the military mind was fixated on the canceller as a tool for attack, not as a defense."
"That's not particularly bright."
"Tyler," Conn interjected in response, "if you're expecting brilliance from the top brass, you're giving rise to some hard questions about the state of your own brain."
Hale raised his hands, drawing everyone's attention back to the pilot.
"There's another consideration. Even if they do have a canceller, it's not going to do them any good if they're not using it. Those things eat power, so they're not left on full-time. If we use ours, for example, then we can't use our weapons at the same time."
"This ship has a canceller?" Risa asked. "Would you tell me why the hell anything with all these features was being used to transport prisoners? It's as if the DLE used a bloody landrover--the armored kind with guns and cluster bombs and all that--to run crooks to the local lockup!"
She had a point, or at least it seemed that way to Tyler, but after a bit of thought he found the holes in it.
"I think you may be underestimating our importance to them. This Project Nuada is obviously the pet operation of someone very high up, and we've stepped on the toes of the single biggest corp on Palm, besides. The DLE just might use that landrover to haul the head of a crime syndicate, to make damn sure they didn't lose him after they finally caught him." He turned to the pilot as another thought struck him. "Hale," he asked, "are the prison facilities on this ship common?"
"Good guess. No, they're not. Only the larger ships were designed with brig facilities because they're the ones with crews."
A full crew wasn't necessary to operate the Freewind, Tyler knew. Hale could fly it by himself, perhaps with the assistance of another to operate the navigational computer. That wasn't the way the ship was designed, though. For the Freewind's original conception, Tyler could easily envision a pilot, a navigator, perhaps a weapons officer as well as a captain in overall command on the bridge. Then there would be a chief engineer on full-time engine room duty with at least one or two subordinates, another handful of crew members for general maintenance work, a detachment of marines if a boarding action or commando raid was planned, and a doctor plus a nurse or two to keep the crew healthy. The ship was over three hundred feet long and three decks high; it was meant for a full complement of human, android, and robot crew.
"So, we have both stealth capacity and a canceller?" Conn asked. "What about those weapons you mentioned?"
"Laser cannon, a couple of small-scale rail guns, nothing much. She's made for speed and stealth, not a stand-up slugfest."
"All right, Hale," he said, resting his hand on the pilot's shoulder. "We're trusting you to get us aboard Lianora. It's your show, so go to it."
Hale's jaw tightened.
"You've got it." He pressed several more controls, and the Freewind shot forward. "If you guys aren't ready yet, I'd get that way if I were you. We've got one hour to contact, at most."
One hour to Melora.
* * * * *
"Nothing!" Hale exclaimed. "There's nothing here!" He turned to Anje. "You're sure you gave me the correct heading?"
The Demi nodded emphatically.
"Absolutely! Based on the data we took from the spaceport computers, Lianora has to be within five miles of our present location!"
"Not according to our radar, it isn't. There's nothing but empty space out there. Long-range sensors can't find it either."
Risa gave the pilot a curious look.
"What about using that canceller?"
Hale looked up from the display screen.
"Well, if I was carrying out super-secret research, I'd try to hide it from anyone who happened by."
The pilot shook his head, amazed at himself.
"Damn, I bet she's right. There's no reason you couldn't install stealth field generators on an artificial satellite. Let's give it a try." He tapped four keys, and a bright blip appeared on the radar display, with X-Y-Z position coordinates noted next to it in tiny green numerals. "Risa, you ever want to suggest strategy, just sing out. That's our baby."
* * * * *
"Commander!" The blond, bearded head of Lianora's radar officer snapped upright. "A contact has just appeared three-point-seven-two miles distant, bearing one-thirteen, minus twelve degrees!"
"'Appeared,' you say?" Rane asked.
"That's right. One second there was nothing at all, and now this."
The commander nodded slowly, drawing the obvious conclusion. "It looks like our guests have arrived," she said. "Initiate Response Alpha."
* * * * *
On the Freewind's radar, a second blip had appeared alongside the first.
"Blast it!" Hale cursed. "They've spotted us."
"I thought we were cloaked," Tyler protested.
"Remember how I told you that using the canceller takes out the weapons?"
"It kills stealth mode, too. They know we're here and what we are by now."
The communications system came to life.
"Unidentified corvette! You are entering a restricted area. Provide your authorization immediately."
"That's a shuttle out there," Hale said, launching the Freewind ahead on an evasive pattern. He waved his hand at the third seat on the bridge. "Someone take the weapons console! I can operate the forward-firing cannons myself but we may need the turrets."
Tyler slipped into the chair. He was amazed at how radically the starfield outside was shifting as the Freewind dipped and turned. Since the artificial gravity was oriented towards the floor, the ship could radically pitch and turn without altering the crew's perspective of "up" or "down," though Tyler could still feel the sharp course changed just from his body's inertia.
"Cease evasion immediately or be destroyed!" the shuttle demanded over the com system.
"Not a chance," Hale muttered under his breath.
Tyler managed to get the weapons system up and running. The enemy ship showed on his screen; Lianora did not. Hale had turned off the canceller so the Freewind would have the power to fight.
Energy beams lanced out from the shuttle, barely missing the corvette. The battle was underway.
* * * * *
On Lianora's command center, Commander Rane watched the duel begin with her heart in her throat. She knew the defense shuttle wasn't a "real" fighter, only a transport equipped with weapons and slightly upgraded engines. It shouldn't be any match for the corvette, which was a true military ship. That didn't prevent her from hoping for its success, though.
At least the crew is only robots and androids, she told herself. It's not the same as if there were people on board.
No, Palman soldiers weren't at risk. Not yet. That wouldn't come until later.
Damn you, Hurlston! And damn you, too, Gage, for backing him up!
* * * * *
The first few shots Tyler took with the laser cannons missed badly, as he tried to master the targeting system while adapting himself to the rapid changes in course and speed Hale put their own craft through to evade the enemy's attacks. Steadily, though, he began to get the hang of what he was doing, and managed to lock on target. From that point the computer tracked the shuttle, making it much easier to aim. Evasive maneuvers shook him off for a few moments, making the computer constantly have to alter the guns' angle to catch up, but eventually Tyler zeroed in on target and slashed two laser hits into the enemy craft.
"Nice shooting, T-man," Hale encouraged. "Now, it's my turn."
* * * * *
Rane didn't need the radar officer to tell her that the attackers had scored the first hits of the battle. She had seen the pulses of light flash across the screen, seen the shuttle waver off-course.
"How bad is it?"
"I can't tell for sure," answered the Warren manning the long-range sensor units. "I can verify two hits, a hull breach, and a drop in speed."
She could see the drop in speed, too, from the way the corvette swept in behind the smaller ship, lashing out with more weapons fire. The barrage was mercifully short before the shuttle vanished from the screen.
"Shuttle has been destroyed," echoed the radar officer. "No damage to the enemy ship."
"Let's fix that," the commander said through clenched teeth. "Station cannons, track and fire."
* * * * *
The Freewind shuddered, shaking everyone on the bridge, nearly knocking Conn to the floor.
"What was that!?" Risa exclaimed.
"Near miss," Hale answered tersely. "Lianora's shooting at us."
"Now what? We can't see them to shoot back," Tyler asked, hoping the pilot could come up with a solution. Thankfully, he could.
"Anje!" Hale ordered. "Get me the expected position of that satellite."
She did so at once; it was easy for the computer to extrapolate where Lianora should be based on its previous position and velocity.
"Can you tell how much firepower they have?"
"Judging by the volume and pattern of fire, they have two laser cannons and two heavy rail guns."
"All right; we're going in! Tyler, switch your screen to the external cameras. Since we can't scan and shoot at the same time, we're going to get close enough that you can fire by sight."
They swept in towards the station, the Freewind zigzagging to throw off the satellite's targeting computer. Soon enough, Tyler was afforded his first look at Lianora. The space station was roughly barrel-shaped, the silver-gray of steel in color, with a boxlike superstructure jutting off from one side. Lights, evidently meant as guides for space traffic when the light from Algo might be obstructed, glittered here and there, and more light was visible behind heavy plasteel windows. The enemy's rail guns appeared to be mounted on the ends of the satellite while the lasers were fixed to the superstructure.
"The dock is on that box on the side. Aim for the lasers," Hale instructed, "or we'll be sitting ducks."
Obligingly, Tyler began firing. This was actually easier for him than dogfighting with radar-targeted guns. That exercise was for children experienced in the latest VR computer games, but aiming and shooting a gun at something he could see was something Tyler was quite good at. He zeroed in on one laser and obliterated it with a direct hit, then walked his fire into the second. Hale moved the Freewind in close to the station to reach the docking bay; in that position the rail guns couldn't be brought to bear on it.
"Firing boarding clamps," Hale announced. A moment later, the ship rocked as the clamps began to draw it in towards Lianora's external docking bay. A second jolt shook them as it locked into place. "All right; we're holding ourselves on right now. It's not too precarious, but if you can get into their computer system and get their docking clamps to help us, it would be nice."
"All right," Tyler affirmed, and got up. "Okay, Hale, from here on in your job is to make sure we've got a ride home. Keep the engines hot, because when we come back we may not have time for niceties."
"Just like the getaway driver in a movie," he said with a grin. "Hurry up, Tyler; you don't want to keep the lady waiting."