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Freedom's Price


Entering the station wasn't half as tough as Tyler expected it to be. The external airlock fell to additional shaped dynamite charges, though only reluctantly, with the seal between the Freewind and Lianora keeping the three living members of the group from suffocating in the vacuum of space. Anje wasted no time wiring herself into the door's control panel and taking command of the docking bay systems. She didn't have the time to fight through the systems and do any more, but she was able to put the docking clamps and the airlock under their control instead of the station's.

"Wow!" she exclaimed as she disconnected. "The security in there is crazy!"

"How bad is it?"

"The entire system is protected by layered alpha-level defenses. Alarms, probes, tracers, shutdowns--make one wrong move anywhere and it pops a killshot at you! I've never been so scared in all my life!" The little android shivered--and why not, Tyler thought. "Killshot" security programs sent feedback through the computer link that attacked a hacker's computer itself, and Anje's computer was her own android brain!

"Someone really doesn't want their secrets penetrated," Tyler surmised. "Of course, on board a space station, someone hacking the maintenance systems could kill everyone in a number of different ways. I'm not surprised that they're a little paranoid about infiltrators."

"I took a couple of looks to see if I could find any mention of Melora, but I couldn't get anywhere near any datafiles. I'm sorry, Tyler," she said, downcast.

"Hey, it's okay," Risa encouraged the Demi. "Your computer skills have saved our butts half a dozen times by now. This is our turn to carry the ball."

The four of them looked at the door, sure that security forces were massing just beyond it. The station probably knew the entire sequence of events by now and would be taking no chances.

"All right. Conn, get ready to use your GRA technique. I'll sweep the front lines with a burst when you use it, the instant the door opens. Then Anje and Risa should attack. Keep them off-balance and take out anything like a Poleziax first so we don't wind up losing someone on one shot. If you get hurt, grab a Monomate"--they had taken several of the basic healing medicines from the Freewind's infirmary--"because we've got to stay at full strength or we're gone." Tyler looked over the three of them. There was tension in the Palmans' faces, but also determination, while Anje's smile was as bright and eager as ever. "Anything anyone else has to say?"

"Can we stop talking and do this?" Risa asked. Tyler flashed her a quick grin.

"All right, open the doors."

Anje pressed the bright green button on the panels and the sealed hatch slid open. Tyler's finger was already on the Kestrel's trigger, his hands guiding the weapon in an arc. He saw the crackling blue surges in the air as Conn's GRA technique bent and distorted light itself within its area of effect. Beyond the portal, though, was not the horde of security forces he had been expecting. All that was waiting for them were four Informers, two Polezi, and one Attmech, the latter an advanced version of the Mechoman they had encountered in the spaceport basement. The initial barrage took out four of the enemies outright, and a moment later Anje and Risa destroyed out the two Informers that had survived.

The only enemy remaining was the Attmech, which had been shielded by the bodies of the weaker robots in front of it. Now it rose up, its short legs extending to reveal the micromissile launch ports inside. The design was quaint, and probably highly inefficient, but the four explosive-tipped weapons it launched were nothing to laugh at.

Conn raised the ceramic shield he had found in the ship's armory, taking a hit dead center on its surface. The missile detonated, but the heat and force of the explosion were largely turned away by the protective device. Tyler tried to dive aside, but the micromissile struck him in the back. Luckily, his fibercoat and the armored plates beneath absorbed most of the effect, but he was pitched off-balance and slammed facefirst into the airlock floor.

Anje was the worst hit of them all. The missile intended for the little android ripped through her shoulder, leaving a sparking hole in its wake. Unable to feel pain, she replied calmly by using her Recover skill. Just as it had during the fight with Abren, her overcharged self-repair system literally rebuilt the damaged circuitry and electronics. Unfortunately, she was unable to do anything else while the repairs were taking place; the Recover utility required too much of her attention--too many different functions in too little time--to allow her to take any action, even so minor a one as movement. It took only seconds, though, and when she was done, she was in completely functional condition, with even her armor repaired, and ready to continue the battle.

By that time, though, the fight was over. With astonishing speed and reflexes, Risa had spun herself out of the way of the missile and catapulted her body at the Attmech. Her claws savaged its "face"--the area just underneath its mushroom-cap "hat"--and then she stepped back and thrust the four bars on her left hand home in a lethal punch that thanks to the claw's laser unit drove right through the robot's armor. The security mech teetered, then fell over in a crash, sparks spitting from the holes in its damaged body.

Tyler got to his feet gingerly, then ripped off the smoldering fibercoat before it made up its mind to catch flame. There was a hole in the back a foot in diameter.

"How did my armor hold up?" he asked Conn, turning his back to the lieutenant.

"A few scorch marks, that's all. Ceramics are good enough to take two or three hits like that before they start complaining."

"Unlike that coat," Risa said, chuckling. "That's the third one you've lost during this biz, Tyler. You think maybe somebody's trying to tell you something?"

Tyler sighed.

"Yeah, I suppose it is a little passe. Every other hunter or corp agent is wearing one these days if you believe the holovid." He gave the coat a regretful look, then shrugged. Since he was wearing armor, the coat's major purpose was to conceal weapons, and anyone he'd meet on Lianora would know darn well that he was armed. "Let's get going. Research station or not, they've got to have more security than just these robots."

"Where do we go?" Conn asked. "Just wander around and hope we either get lucky or find someone we can force to tell us what we want to know?"

"Well, offhand," Tyler said, unable to keep a bit of smugness out of his voice, "I'd say we follow the green line." He pointed to the floor, then to a sign on the wall.

"Blue--Command Center, Red--Recreation Area and Crew Quarters, Green--Research Section, Yellow--Infirmary and Maintenance Section," Risa read. "It can't be that easy."

They moved out down the corridor. Conn took point, with Risa just behind and to one side to engage hand-to-hand if needed, while Tyler was a bit farther back and to Conn's right to provide covering fire. The lieutenant was in the lead because his shield and heavy armor made him the best-protected of the group. Anje brought up the rear, watching their backs.

A narrow corridor was a bad place to be caught in a crossfire, and all four of them were aware of the risk. Their nerves were on edge, and their senses keyed up, alert for any hint that an ambush had been set for them, yet none came. Once a pair of Warren androids had attacked them, and another time two Palman soldiers and an Informer had attempted to stop their progress, but that was all, no mass attack, no ambush from multiple directions. Despite Risa's pronouncement, it really was that easy.

"Tyler," Anje asked, "being an android, my understanding of morality is sometimes deficient--"

"Sounds like everyone else I know," Conn remarked dryly.

"--but I don't quite understand why you wanted us to be careful of the lives of the soldiers at the spaceport but are willing to kill with impunity here?"

"The ones at the spaceport were only doing ordinary security work at a neutral location. These know what's going on here and are willing to be a part of it. In my book, 'just following orders' doesn't count as an excuse for that. Military discipline's one thing, but that doesn't mean you flush your damn conscience when you sign up."

Conn caught his gaze and nodded slightly. The two understood each other perfectly; both had turned their backs on their superiors when they had felt a moral need to do so.

"Oh," Anje said, "then I do understand. These are bad guys; those weren't."

Risa cracked up, and even the two men chuckled. It would have been a very good time for the enemy to arrive, but once again, they did not. In fact, no more soldiers, living or mech, showed their faces before the green line ended at an elevator door.

"'Elevator A2 to the Research Section.' I don't like this," Tyler decided, reading the sign. "It feels too much like the night at the clinic. All their security was mysteriously off-duty, and it wasn't long after we left that the building was destroyed."

"There has been security here," Anje pointed out. "Including the space battle, we've had four encounters with hostile forces thus far."

"Yeah, but not enough security."

"We have no actual data on the standard level of security at this facility or at any similar military station," the android stated. "You are drawing conclusions, but I don't see how."

Conn answered before Tyler could.

"It's the level of organization, too. All right, they might be skimping on personnel and trusting to their location in space to protect them. From my experience the military doesn't think like that, but it's possible. The problem is, the attacks on us have shown about zero tactical competence, and that's not right. Either the officer in charge is an idiot--not likely--or one of the scientists is directing security--again, not likely--or there's some tactical significance to what's going on that we can't see."

Anje considered that, then nodded agreement.

"Yes, I see your point. It's weird that someplace so well-protected against computer attack would lack physical defenses on the same level."

"It's a trap," Tyler concluded.

"The question is," Conn added, "is it a trap for us or for someone else?"

Thoughts of traps were definitely uppermost in Tyler's mind as the elevator descended through the bowels of the space station, so he was ready when the doors opened onto a short corridor leading to a checkpoint. Heavy, interlocking steel doors blocked off the end of the hall; across them was written in bright red letters, "RESEARCH SECTION. AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY." Two Warren androids in military blue were on guard duty before the door, weapons pointed upward in a formal ready pose. Tyler, Conn, and Anje fired before they had time to lower the guns, then fired again before the androids had time to shoot. Knowing how the androids' self-repair systems could have them put back together in a short period of time even without the benefit of Recover, Tyler and Conn continued to blast the downed mechs until they were sure the two Warrens were permanently disabled. Then they turned to the problem of the door.

"This is almost as bad as the airlock," Tyler commented. "It takes a key tube and a retinal scan to pass."

"You wouldn't happen to have any more dynamite, would you?" Conn asked.

"Sorry. We had enough to blast through the floor in the spaceport, plus a backup set of charges in case we miscalculated the first time. We used the backup on the airlock."

"And our guns could take hours to blast through, especially if that's not just steel but some sort of armored composite."

"Looks like you need me again!" Anje said proudly.

"Looks like it." Tyler grinned back at her.

Before the Demi could take a step towards the lock, though, the doors slid apart with a loud hissing and a rush of escaping steam. The interlocking serrations made Tyler think of massive jaws opening to consume the four of them. Which, he reflected, probably wasn't too far from the truth.

"Step into my parlor," he murmured, accepting the wordless invitation.

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