Lianora's research facilities were nothing like Tyler had expected. Another short corridor, a continuation of the one outside, led from the massive doors to an open archway. A shiver ran down Tyler's spine as the doors closed behind his group, even though he had already verified that opening them from this side required nothing more than the push of a button. It still echoed in his subconscious like a high-tech tomb sealing him inside.
With nowhere to go but forward, they walked through the archway and were immediately awestruck. The main room of the section was huge, at least eighty feet high, dominated by a massive octagonal pillar that stretched from floor to ceiling in the center. The design was reminiscent of the reactor in the Freewind's engine room, but this was clearly something else entirely. It was covered with screens, some displaying charts and graphs, others holovid images and computer renderings. Studded around its base were keyboard workstations, two of which were also connected to VR rigs. It had to be Luveno's mainframe, and Tyler boggled at the computing power it had to possess.
There were four levels throughout the chamber, the upper three consisting of transparent plastic floors that extended only halfway from the walls toward the middle of the room. Cubicle-like rooms, also transparent, were placed throughout, while free-standing tables were here and there. Spiral staircases and ramps connecting the levels were the only opaque portions of the architecture; they were the dull gray of corrugated steel.
Disconcertingly, the room was dark. The only light came from the screens on the mainframe and from smaller workstations throughout the complex, which cloaked most of the chamber in varying levels of shadow. Nor, as far as any of them could see, was anyone there, neither human nor robot. All was still, the only noise the faint hum of the various machines. It was eerie; more than that, with the effect of the transparent floor tiles it was positively disconcerting. When Tyler took his first step forward he all but had to take it on faith that something was there until he felt the welcome pressure of a surface beneath his boots.
"Creepy," he remarked dryly.
"Lousy design," Conn stated. "Too much open space; no way to keep any kind of containment leak from getting out of hand. Same for a hull breach."
"It's so beautiful, though!" Anje whispered with feeling.
"The question, whatever we think of the place, is where can we find Melora? There must be some kind of holding facility in here somewhere."
"Presuming she's not in the security offices," Conn said. "Blast it, I knew something felt wrong. Your friend's not going to be here; she'll be in the brig or some interrogation room somewhere. We should have followed the blue line."
Tyler shook his head.
"I'm betting not. This is a research facility, so the best security protocols are going to be in the lab areas. Especially since they've been doing research on Palmans. Plus, we're not just here for Melora. We're here to shut down Project Nuada and get the goods on whomever in the military hierarchy is pulling its strings. That's our only chance to get back anything resembling a normal life." He paused, then added, "What we need is to get our hands on someone who can guide us where we have to go."
An unpleasant thought struck him then. The low level of security, the dark and silent lab complex...what if Project Nuada was already done, whatever it was? What if the researchers had already closed up shop here at Lianora and left?
That's impossible, he told himself, remembering how they had found the satellite in the first place. Why would they bring that kid here if they were done? Answer: they wouldn't. Project Nuada had to be active on some level.
"I don't see anyone here," Anje said, "not even using low-light vision."
"Then we'll have to search the whole complex. How many exits are there from this place?"
"At least eight that I can see."
"Okay; we'll start on the bottom and work our way up."
They descended through the shadowy levels, making their way from one staircase to another, the steps the only thing they walked on with any apparent solidity. Only when they reached the bottom level did the floor have any substance, and that because the station's inner hull was visible beneath the clear tiles. When they reached the center of the room, Tyler looked up at the towering mainframe.
"I'm tempted to just blow this thing to the far side of Dezo--take the whole system off-line in one move."
"Sounds good to me," Risa said.
"The problem is, I don't know how much this computer controls. Is it just the research mainframe, or does it control the entire station? With our luck, the main reactor would run out of control and Lianora would go up in flames. Then LIM would just pop open the backup copies of their files and start Nuada up again."
"A wise decision."
All four of them jerked their heads upward. The voice had come from the mainframe pillar, from speakers halfway up the column.
Now the trap springs, Tyler thought.
A face appeared on the mainframe displays, one huge face using the entire column to unite bits and pieces into one image. It was a man, middle-aged, with a plump, bearded face and a friendly smile that was belied by eyes that were two cold slivers of dark glass.
"Oh, we have backups in place, both of our research files and the station's control systems, but you'd cost us a small fortune in time and meseta. Furthermore, you'd set off the automated defenses, and cost yourself the opportunity to see Project Nuada. You've come a long way, Tyler, and I really would like to show off my work."
"Yeah? Where is it?"
"Come and see."
One of the exit doors on their level slid open, another invitation from the nameless man.
Later, Tyler might have been able to piece together his exact chain of thought. His subconscious clearly was following a logical progression--the expectation of a trap, the almost absurd theatricality of the man's speech, the frozen evil in his eyes. Those pieces slotted into place together in Tyler's mind almost by themselves, presenting only a single conclusion to his conscious brain. It was the agent's instincts, his determination to win finally falling into place as he'd hoped they would since he'd passed through Camineet customs what seemed like months ago.
The Kestrel was rising even as he turned around; he squeezed the trigger and sprayed a burst of laser fire not horizontally but vertically, facing exactly opposite from the open door. This was the trap, he knew it! Laser blasts scorched into walls, floors, the grillwork that served as a guardrail around the edge of the upper levels.
A shadowed figure with red eyes flung itself away from the edge of the third level as a lucky or inspired shot nearly hit it dead center.
"Nuada! Destroy them!" the speakers boomed.
The soft whoosh of missiles firing, accompanied by the streaks of light arising from the figure's shoulders caused Tyler and his companions to scatter. Fiery blasts struck the floor, detonations of flame and heat Tyler could feel even at a distance.
"It's an android, probably a variation or upgrade of the Mieu-type," Anje said calmly, striding through the flames. With nothing but their own fuel to feed on, the shells of the Burst Roc unit would quickly fade, but the Demi, largely fireproof, didn't bother waiting for that. Her plasma cannon fired, the energy blast wrecking a section of the grill, again narrowly missing its target. With frightening speed, the enemy grabbed the top of the rail next to the shattered spot and vaulted over the edge.
"Doctor, now," Nuada stated as it descended, its voice neither the synthesized drone of many robots or the virtually Palman tones of an android. It was a twisted sound, a distortion of a Palman voice calculated to intimidate and terrify. Laser fire tracked it as it fell, but it made the forty-foot drop too fast for either Conn or Tyler to adjust their aim. Nuada landed easily, flexing its knees to absorb the shock, and stood, apparently unaffected. As it did, the lights came on, obviously in response to its request.
It was not an android. Or perhaps it was. Its shoulders, right arm, and legs from mid-thigh down were clearly mechanical, cybernetic parts with a matte-black finish that just looked evil. The right side of its upper face--forehead, eye socket, and cheekbone--were of similar construction, and the blank red eyes had to be artificial. The rest of the face, though, was organic, alive-seeming skin that did not have the same not-quite-real quality of Anje's, Abren's, or any other android Tyler had known. Its hair, held in place by the ornate laconia crown that protected Nuada's head, was burgundy-red and worn to just above shoulder length. Its form was, as Anje had surmised, female. The hair, the body shape, the face--all were familiar.
"Melora," Tyler whispered involuntarily, his pulse-laser almost slipping from nerveless fingers. How could this have happened? Was it really her, or some stunt of the Lianoran scientists?
No doubt as she and the "doctor" had planned, Melora's sudden appearance had thrown Risa and Anje completely off-balance as well. Conn Derrek, however, was not.
"Crap; I had a feeling it would turn out like this." He raised a hand, then snapped it into a fist while crying out, "DEBAN!"
In response to Conn's technique, brilliant blue shields of energy filled the air before the four team members, then faded into transparence. It came just in time, for Nuada snatched a pulse-vulcan from a hip holster with her flesh-and-blood left hand--Melora was left-handed, too! Tyler thought--and fired high-velocity slugs at the four intruders. While the DEBAN technique offered little or no protection from energy attacks, it stole fully half the force from the pulse-vulcan's purely physical attack. The team's armor did the rest, deflecting the rounds without injury.
"Anje," Conn snapped, "we need a Barrier, quick!" He squeezed off a beam from his laser shot, but Nuada dodged aside. She was incredibly fast, faster than Risa, faster even than Tyler had seen from Melora. Blue-white lightning ripped from her right arm, slashing into Anje, disrupting the android's systems. Though resistant to temperature extremes, the very nature of robots and androids made them vulnerable to electrical attack. Anje collapsed to her knees, but she did manage to get the Barrier up to protect against further energy attacks.
"Brilliant!" the Doctor crowed over the loudspeakers. "So ironic, too; your Melora was never meant to be a test subject. Margolis only scanned her as a matter of routine. Only, she turned out to have an almost perfect subject profile!"
Risa, knowing her only use in the fight would be at close range, charged the thing that once was Melora, claws outstretched. Nuada blocked her first cut easily, then drove a metal knee into the girl's midsection. The artificial hand seized the collar of Risa's armored jacked, and Nuada flung her former student through a table and three stools, leaving her half-buried in a tangle of lab furniture.
"Look at that! Speed! Power! No android or human could perform up to such a level, but my creation can!"
"Will someone shut that guy up" Conn muttered under his breath while he fired. One of his shots hit high off Nuada's arm, cutting through the black finish to reveal bright silver laconia beneath. "Tyler, get a grip and fight, man! I don't know what that lunatic did to her, but she isn't your girlfriend any more."
"Incorrect. I am all that was Melora Nain, and much more besides."
Launch ports in her shoulders popped open, and once again the head blasts of a Burst Roc unit blasted out. Conn raised his shield and blocked two of the four shells, a third detonated harmlessly against the floor, but the fourth caught the side of his leg. The lieutenant was knocked down, his leg burned and bloody.
"Your scientists and doctors have tried for years to achieve cybernetic replacement of body parts. Why clone new organs and limbs for transplant when you can make mechanical ones? Or, before cloning technology was developed, why face rejection of potentially incompatible tissue? Palmans should have been able to do it a thousand years ago, but every attempt failed. The body would inevitably reject the mechanical part, even more virulently than biological tissue."
The doctor's face beamed.
"Then, I solved the problem. Why were mechanical parts rejects? Because of the energy, the power that gave rise to magic in the ancient days, that allows you to use techniques now. Those flows of power are everywhere, in everything, but they're different in a person than in an object. A cybernetic implant couldn't mesh with the flow of natural enemy, so it was always an alien presence to be rejected."
Tyler had to fight not to listen. The story was compelling, both on its own merits and as an explanation of how this thing could be Melora. That was probably why the doctor was telling, to stroke his own ego, yes, but also as a calculated distraction.
Seeing the wreckage of his friends, Tyler knew that he had to stop thinking of Nuada as Melora. Whatever had been done to her, it clearly involved some form of mind control or brainwashing. Maybe she could still be saved, but it wouldn't happen if he just stood there and let her kill all four of them.
Tyler cradled the Kestrel in both hands, guiding a stream of laser fire at Nuada. In addition to the armored metal body and lacon-crown, she was also wearing protective armor to guard her flesh, a form-fitting mesh augmented by plates to keep safe the parts of her body that lacked cyber implants, and like them it revealed the silvery, reflective gleam of laconia beneath. That was bad; laconia was the hardest substance known in the Algo solar system and beyond that was flexible rather than brittle and no heavier than steel. Among other uses, it made armor of superb quality.
The two sniped at each other with their guns, diving behind lab tables, workstations, and whatever other cover they could find, snapping off streams of rapid fire at each other. Even Melora's human arm had been enhanced, Tyler realized; she handled her pulse-vulcan easily in one hand despite the recoil of rapid fire that threatened to kick her aim off-line.
"The components had to be laconia, of course. It's the only substance in the Algo system capable of synchronizing with the energy in a living body, due to its sensitivity to these so-called 'mystical forces.' An astonishing metal, truly; I could spend years studying its properties," the doctor's spiel continued. "Even so, the process still requires an individual with certain characteristics."
"Damn it, Melora, why are you doing this?" Tyler shouted as a spray of vulcan rounds nearly hit him, two actually ricocheting off his ceramic armor. Another caught him high on the hip where there were no plates; his graphitesuit kept the shot from piercing him, but the impact would leave a bruise. Presuming he lived that long.
"My duty is to serve. I am an agent of Mother Brain."
The doctor laughed.
"Do you see now? The circuitry wetwired into the brain allowing it to control the cybernetic parts as if they were ordinary limbs and organs also allows us to add basic 'programming' imperatives just as we do to an android. All the technological power of an android, yet combined with the creativity of thought and, dare I say it, the sheer processing power that the Palman brain possessed. Nuada is the perfect agent of destruction, far superior to any Palman or android."
So that was it. When the scientific rhetoric was boiled away, the point of Project Nuada was to engineer a better soldier. No doubt the originators of the plan were zealots who saw any sacrifice of law or morality to be acceptable if it strengthened their army. Of course, the whole point of having a strong military was to defend the Palman way of life, and there was little value in building it up at the cost of destroying the values of that way of life, but zealots never thought that way. Tyler wondered what they wanted with such power. Did they intend a full-scale invasion of Dezo?
Conn and Anje were back on their feet, and even Risa was conscious, groaning as she strove to free herself from the tangle of broken wood. It looked like the odds were starting to swing back away from Nuada.
Anje attempted her Spark attack, but it had no effect. Apparently Melora still wasn't mechanism enough to be vulnerable to the circuit-scrambling effects. Conn, seeing his gunfire miss, tried a GRA technique for its wider area of effect. Nuada braced herself, gritting her teeth as the gravity wave rocked her, then responded. Her arm popped open, vanes extending from the forearm while the hand recessed back towards her elbow, turning the mechanical limb into a nasty-looking weapons array of some kind. A lambent green beam slashed out from it in a one-hundred-and-twenty-degree arc in front of her, covering the full curve in no more than half a second. The beam tingled, but there was no apparent effect.
For about another half-second.
Then the world went crazy. Everywhere the beam had touched, explosive detonations burst--small, compact, and very powerful discharges of energy not unlike the blasts from Anje's cannon, only there were dozens of them going off at once. Air, floor, walls, furniture, and people alike were ripped and blasted by the powerful weapon. Tyler, Conn, Anje, and Risa were all slammed bodily into the floor. The breath was driven out of Tyler's body, even inside his headgear his skull pounded, vision clouded with a red mist. He couldn't move; even the thought of motion was too much to bear.
Melora's cybernetic arm resumed its original shape. The cold fire in her scarlet eyes burned brightly as she surveyed her work.