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Freedom's Price


Commander Rane's face appeared tight and angry on the intercom screen.

"Are you through yet?" she asked Gage and Hurlston.

"Almost," the doctor replied jovially. "This test has little more to offer us."

"That's good, because I've gotten two-thirds of my security units chewed up in these little games of yours while we tried to pretend that we were trying to stop Tyler. Not to mention the only shuttle on the station. You'd better call the company to give you a lift home, Gage, because until someone comes for us, we're stuck here." The screen went dark before either man had time to respond.

"She's not happy with us," the doctor remarked. "By the way, Gage, I must hand it to you. Your Positron Bolt design is every bit as impressive in actual practice as the tests indicated it would be."

"Have Nuada finish them off," Gage replied tersely. "Stopping in the middle of a job for attaboys is bad business."

"Gage, my friend, you really should take the time to savor the little victories of life."

Worthmann smiled thinly.

"I prefer to save my celebrations for after the entire game is done. Tyler has proven entirely too elusive in avoiding the other traps set for him to take for granted. This time, I want him dead."

Hurlston regarded him calmly.

"Ever the executive. You've left your scientific training behind, Gage. Remember the days when you exulted in creation? Crushing your enemies brings nothing like that satisfaction."

"Losing to my enemies brings no satisfaction at all."

"Oh, very well. I can see you're going to be completely dreary until this is over." He tabbed a button that allowed him to speak directly to Nuada over the radio implant in her skull. "Nuada, Mr. Worthmann is growing impatient. Please dispose of our enemies."

"It's about time. Leaving them alive this long was tactically foolish."

Gage smiled thinly.

"You're right, Doctor. It is satisfying to see one's creation perform well."

* * * * *

Tyler groaned fitfully, trying to recover his senses. Melora hadn't followed up her devastating attack for nearly a full minute. He didn't know why, but he did know that if he didn't get up, he was finished. Not that his odds were good anyway, but if he couldn't keep fighting, it was over.

Where was his gun? His right hand flexed, but couldn't find the Kestrel; it had been blown out of his grasp when Melora's terrible weapon had been unleashed. He couldn't move his left hand at all; his arm was badly broken, probably in three or four places. Tyler's head swam as he jerked his body upright. He was fortunate not to be paralyzed by shock, he supposed as his right hand groped for a knife.

Melora was in motion now. The Nuada cyborg had picked Anje as her first target, since the Demi was capable of restoring herself to full health even when damaged to such an extent that her conscious control was shut down. With the strength of her cybernetic arm, she jerked the android upright. The steel spikes jutting from her wrist glowed, and blue-white lightning exploded through Anje's body. Smoke rose from shattered circuitry in her joints, leaking out through chinks in her armor. A flick of Nuada's wrist sent the crimson-armored Demi crashing to the floor.

Risa's scream of rage echoed through the lab complex. She wavered on her feet, barely able to stand, but the crackling flame of her laser claws still glowed brightly. Melora turned to face her, smoothly raising her pulse-vulcan to finish the girl, but she was caught off-guard. Drawing on all her inner strength, Risa launched herself directly at the cyborg. Just like in the battle at Shadowedge, Risa's body was no more than a blur as her claw thrust slammed into Melora.

"You taught me that, remember?" she half-whispered, half-snarled, ripping her claws out of the cyborg's torso.

"I am aware of that--including the limited damage it can inflict upon me." Nuada's laconia hand locked around Risa's throat. "It was as easy a way to bring you into range as any."

No chance, Tyler realized. There was no time to close the range and attack before Melora could snap Risa's neck like a dry twig. Nor was there any hope that some part of Melora would refuse to destroy her former protege. The doctor had done his work too well; Tyler had just seen Nuada murder one friend and there was no reason she'd cavil at killing a second. That was for the holovids.

The ex-agent's eyes filled with tears as he raised his aching right hand. The pain in his body was nothing, an irrelevancy, a gnat buzzing in his ear. He'd come to save Melora, and all his efforts had done was to give her the chance to personally slaughter three friends.

Tyler couldn't save Melora, but more than anything, he wanted to save Risa. Determination, pain, frustration, and sorrow sang out within him, and power answered. He could feel it, gathering to his will at a level he'd never felt before.


The force screamed outwards, guided by his pointing hand in a shining golden beam surrounded by crackling green lightning. The surge of energy slammed into Nuada's back, punching through her laconian armor, through subdermal fibers woven beneath her skin that he didn't even know were there, severing the cyborg's spine and blasting through her abdomen. Risa fell from a suddenly useless hand and rubbed at the red marks etched into her throat as she coughed for air.

Melora half-turned, staggered back a step, then kept on going right onto her back. Tyler managed to walk over to her, knife ready if he had to use it. The cyborg, though, smiled wryly up at him.

"Thank you...Tyler," she whispered, her voice too soft to carry the unnatural distortion it had before. The crimson light was fading from her eyes as her damaged body futilely attempted to reroute power and preserve her life. "This way is...better..."

"I'm sorry, Melora."

He held out his hand to her; she weakly lifted her fleshly fingers to meet him. Suddenly, strong hands seized Tyler's shoulders, hauling him forcibly to one side, the weight of another body pulling him to the ground. A high-pitched scream of rage escaped Nuada's throat, though it trailed off weakly; she didn't have the energy to scream. All her power was channeled into the pale green beam of her deadly weapon that had erupted from her arm, the center of its arc slashing right through where Tyler had been standing, the beam passing only a foot above his prone body. It then swept by again in the opposite direction, the last-minute attack program burning whatever energy happened to be left in the weapon's battery reserves.

Unfortunately for her, since Tyler wasn't in the way, the beam swept across the central pillar not once, but twice. The ensuing explosions tore through the mainframe, neatly severing it like a felled tree. The destroyed circuits might not have actually finished it off--only about five feet or so was actually blown to dust, and that was the section with the attached terminals--but without the support of the base, the supercomputer's weight ripped it free from its moorings in the ceiling and it tumbled over, utterly annihilating itself as it crashed through all three upper levels on the far side of the room. Shattered electronics spat sparks and flammable materials quickly turned into a blaze. Alert klaxons and red emergency lighting filled Tyler's senses.

"Blast it, Tyler," Conn snarled, rising, "I can't believe you almost fell for that one."

"Me either," Tyler answered quietly. "Thanks for the save."

"Thanks yourself. That couldn't have been easy."

"No, it wasn't. But after Anje..."

Conn nodded.

"I get you."

He slapped something into Tyler's hand.

"Trimate," Conn told him. "Part of the standard DLE officer's combat kit. You need it more than I do."

Tyler nodded. He didn't like using such powerful healing drugs--every so often they had unnatural side effects--but he didn't have much choice. He pressed the injector tip against his skin and triggered it, then gasped as pain wracked his body. The bones in his shattered left arm were literally rebuilt, his cellular structure repaired all over his battered body. Conn and Risa were both forced to resort to Monomate to repair some of their worst injuries, but it was Tyler who had been most badly damaged. Except, of course, for Anje.

"There's nothing," Risa said, looking over the android's body. "There's no sign of life at all."

Conn shook his head.

"She's finished. Even her self-repair circuits are down."

"We're all going to be if we don't get out of here," Tyler said. "I don't know how extensive the backup systems are, but they're probably designed to handle a virus or shutdown in the main system, not the physical destruction of the unit. Plus, any security left is going to be all over us."

"I want that doctor," Risa said. "This is all his fault. His and that guy from LIM."

"Don't forget their military contact," Conn added. "She's right, though," he said to Tyler. "We can't just leave without capturing the doctor and whatever evidence may have survived."

"That won't be a problem. He'll be going exactly where we're going, to the hangar and docking ports."

* * * * *

"Status report!" Rane snapped.

"The main computer is completely off-line," replied the Warren286 at the damage control console. "Probable cause: physical sabotage. Reactor control is stabilized at 42% efficiency. Life support is at 63%. Emergency systems including lights and elevators functioning normally."

"What about security?"

"Internal sensors are off-line. Automated defenses in computer room and bridge areas are off-line. Automated defenses in reactor chamber are at 57%. External sensors, including radar, as well as communications and weapons, are all off-line."

"Any estimates on repair time?"

"It may be possible to jury-rig something to reroute emergency power to specified areas in half an hour to three hours, depending upon what systems are to be affected. An estimate on repairs to the mainframe is impossible to generate without further data as to the nature and extent of the problem."

"And meanwhile, we're marooned," the commander muttered under her breath. At this point, the only ship at the station was the corvette the intruders had come on. Seizing control of it was now even more vital. "Order all robots to seal off the research section. Prevent the intruders from leaving. Send all available Palman and android security personnel to the docking section. Make sure at least two maintenance-rated Warrens go, plus a couple of technical specialists." Rane knew that at least part of the docking bay was out of the station's control, though how the computer failure would affect that was anyone's guess, and she'd take it back by force, trickery, or skill as need be.

* * * * *

The armor-piercing shells from Melora's pulse-vulcan hammered through the last few security robots, rendering them down into inert junk. Tyler hadn't been able to find the Kestrel in the debris, so he had taken Nuada's gun instead. Fueled by anger at Melora's fate and carrying a better gun than he'd had on the way in, Tyler was more lethal than ever, and the robots sent to block their escape had been no match for him and an equally fury-driven Risa. Conn, meanwhile, didn't fight, because he was burdened with the weight of the Demi's deactivated body, which they had brought along on the outside chance that some part of her mind and memory could be salvaged.

The crimson emergency that filled the corridors drove home just how desperate the situation was. They'd failed to rescue Melora, but there still might be a chance to stop LIM from making more Nuadas. That was in addition to saving their own skins, of course.

"Elevators are still working," Conn grunted as the three of them were whisked upwards. "Backup systems must be better than you thought."

Tyler nodded, seeing Conn's face covered with a sheen of sweat. Anje wasn't light, and the DLE agent hadn't had to lug a pack for quite a while. Basic training in the academy hadn't been recent enough.

"You want to switch off?" Tyler offered. "I could carry her for a while."

Conn shook his head.

"I can manage. You're a lot better with big guns than I am, and we need every edge we can get."

He was right; they all but ran into what Tyler hoped was the last of Lianora's security troops, four soldiers and two Warrens. Luckily, the troops were looking the other way, through the airlock door. Conn summoned up the mental energy for a GIGRA technique as Tyler swept the tightly-packed group with his weapon. Only one trooper was left standing after the barrage, and Risa took him down with her claws.

They strode through the door into the airlock chamber. Obviously, either Anje's security lockdown had failed with the computers or the satellite's staff had been able to engineer their way past the electronics. Two Palmans and a Warren android were working on the Freewind's docking hatch through the shattered external door of the station airlock. Four others were there as well: a second Warren in green-and-gold Luveno colors, a blue-haired woman in an officer's uniform carbonsuit, the doctor from the lab computer screen, and Gage Worthmann, the LIM exec who had started it all. Tyler ripped a long steady burst into the bodyguard android, utterly wrecking it. The woman drew her own laser shot, as did Gage, setting his gold-embossed leather case down as he did so. Ordinarily, Tyler would have trusted to his armor to stand up in a shootout, but it had taken too much damage and was utterly compromised. His weapon was better, but the other side had more ranged firepower, and besides, the pulse-vulcan was low on ammunition.

In other words, standoff.

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