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Freedom's Price

Part XXXIV


"Put the guns down and surrender," the woman in the commander's uniform barked.

"Don't try to be funny; I'm not in the mood for it," Tyler replied.

"You can't get away with treason."

"Interesting," Conn replied; "I was just about to advise you of the same thing. Your activities have encompassed more violations of the Palman Laws than I can handily add up, but at least for those of you associated with the military, your use of the government's resources to cover up your crimes could be seen as usurping executive authority, a treasonous offense. If anyone's going to be taken into custody, it would be you."

The burly doctor burst into great guffaws of laughter at that statement, Worthmann chuckled, and even the sour-faced commander smiled.

"Now this," Worthmann replied with a smile, "is really just too funny. Do you really mean that you had hopes of breaking in here, smashing a conspiracy, gathering damning evidence, capturing the malefactors, and seeing your records wiped clean by a grateful government just like in some novel?"

Conn glared at the executive. Tyler still hadn't heard most of how Conn had gotten involved in this affair, only that he was the investigating officer. Apparently, he and Gage had some kind of history, and it wasn't friendly.

"Yes," Gage continued. "That fits nicely with your psychological profile, doesn't it, Lieutenant Derrek? Honest, dedicated to lawful rule, distrustful--even resentful--of corporate types who use the law to facilitate their crimes. You'd be off fighting corruption as soon as you were convinced you were just being used. Which, of course, you were."

"Considering," Tyler said tersely, "that we've done a good job wrecking your little plot so far, I'm surprised you're laughing."

"But that's just it," the white-coated scientist cackled. "You've done all this, against remarkable odds, and it was all for nothing. No one will thank you for stopping us, because this project has been carried out under the direct orders of Mother Brain all along!"

Liar! Tyler's mind screamed, as he fought to conceal his stunned reaction. The announcement wasn't personal, though, not like finding Melora, so he was able to maintain his cool even while his brain reeled from the implications. Palmans could be corrupted by power, let greed lead them into moral bankruptcy, but Mother Brain?

"You lying skag," cursed Risa. "You think you'll keep from getting gravestoned by passing the buck?" She brandished her claws angrily.

"How...colloquial," Gage remarked archly. "Nonetheless, he's telling the truth."

Could he be? Tyler didn't know. It might be a lie, but would the three of them have prepared to tell that story in advanced? All three had laughed at Conn's bold assertions, which definitely implied that they were telling the truth. Yet if Mother Brain was the ultimate force behind Project Nuada, why the elaborate cover-up? She had nothing to fear from the law; she was the law. Tyler knew the answer to that question, though. It was public opinion, the ultimate weapon against any tyrant, that had to be concealed. Mother Brain could be removed from power if the people of Palm lost faith in her, and she would naturally want to preserve the illusion that she was omnipotent and all-beneficent.

It explained so much, too. Free access to the spaceport and Lianora...it was Mother Brain who held absolute control over space travel since the ban of four years ago. Mother Brain could easily be the force bringing pressure to bear on the military investigators and the DLE top brass.

I am an agent of Mother Brain! Nuada had said. What if that was the literal truth?

My core directive is to obey the orders of Mother Brain, Abren had said during the fight in the engine room. What if those orders weren't based on deception, but were specific and to the point?

One of the basic principles of logical reasoning was that when faced with two equally plausible explanations, the simplest one was most likely correct.

They're telling the truth.

"Why?" Tyler asked. "What did Mother Brain have to gain by creating Project Nuada?"

"The perfect weapon, the perfect agent for destruction!" Hurlston crowed. "Android brains are too limited, Palmans too inclined to independence. A cyborg would possess the imagination and creativity of a living brain, but more rebellious elements of its personality could be restrained, suppressed. A Palman's skills and abilities, enhanced by technology rather than replaced by it. One Nuada would be a more fit vessel for Mother Brain's will than an army of robots or a corps of Palman agents."

Tyler's eyes flicked to Gage.

"So, for Luveno Industrial Mechanisms, Project Nuada was just another defense contract. Under the table, but just another job?"

"Essentially," the suit replied. "As Dr. Hurlston told you, Melora Nain's involvement was strictly accidental. Margolis chose to run the standard tests on her while he had her in custody, and she happened to fit Hurlston's desirability profile all but perfectly. Incidentally, she was the one who killed the late, unlamented Margolis; the destruction of the clinic was the first field test for Nuada. I thought you'd want to know that."

"It does have a pleasant irony to it."

Then, Tyler pulled the trigger. The commander's body shuddered spastically as the pulse-vulcan slugs punched through her carbonsuit. A half-second later, Risa sprang at the Warren, claws outstretched. Hurlston reached into his coat pocket as Conn let Anje drop and reached for his laser shot. Moving faster than a man of his bulk should have, and with better reflexes and precision of movement than most scientists displayed in battle, Hurlston pulled a compact, lethal acidshot from his pocket. He never got a chance to use it, though; Worthmann burned a laser beam into Hurlston's brain.

"Drop it!" Tyler snapped, covering Gage with the now-empty vulcan. Obediently, the executive let the gun fall and raised his hands. The Warren, only a technician android, proved to be no match for Risa. The fight was over.

"What kind of trick is this?" Conn challenged Worthmann. "Why kill Hurlston?"

"I said this was a matter of business." The technicians cowered in the corner, hoping that the intruders wouldn't think to kill them, too. "Why fight on in a doomed cause?"

"What makes you think that we'll let you live?" Risa snarled. "You're the one who had Melora kidnapped! You're the one responsible for all this, more than anyone!"

Gage shrugged.

"If you're bent on revenge, I can't stop you. I can, however, offer you a deal."

Tyler raised an eyebrow.

"You don't have the influence to clear our records," he stated, "and we can handle our escape from here without you. What have you got to offer?"

"And don't suggest money," Conn warned, "or things will get ugly."

"I wouldn't dream of it. What I can offer is the life of your android friend, there."

"Keep talking," Tyler said cautiously. Men like Gage always had an angle. Maybe offering a way to save Anje was that angle, a way to keep Tyler and Risa's revenge from catching up with him. Maybe it wasn't, though. It could have been a distraction designed to set up a desperate move. Tyler wondered what techniques Gage knew, if any; at this point one NAZAN or NAGRA could finish things in a hurry.

"I'm a robotics engineer by trade. That's how I worked my way up through the division. My major contribution to Project Nuada, other than supervising the funding, was to design many of the cybernetic systems. Hurlston was responsible for the neural interface, but the rest was largely my own work. I believe you're familiar with the Positron Bolt unit, which I would have to consider a complete success."

"So you're saying that you could restore Anje?"

Gage nodded.

"I have a repair kit here with me. I had anticipated using it on my escort android if necessary, but the basic mechanisms of Wren-types and Demi-types are similar enough for the kit to be compatible. The process isn't complex, merely a matter of bringing her own self-repair systems on-line again and letting them finish the job."

Tyler's initial reaction was to accept the offer. Melora was gone, and ripping Worthmann limb from limb as some feral, vengeful part of his brain wanted wouldn't bring her back. If, on the other hand, not killing him could bring Anje back...

"What do you guys think?" he asked the others.

"We can't arrest him. You might as well do it," Conn said. Risa didn't reply at all. No doubt she was stuck between her need for revenge, maybe even justice, and the life of someone who'd been an ally, but whom she'd known for only a few days. Beyond that, Anje was an android, an AI. Was her existence really the same as being "alive"?

"Yeah," she finally whispered. "I wanted to pull that kid out at the clinic. I ought to be willing to do as much for a friend. Hell, she saved our lives."

Tyler nodded.

"Looks like it's your lucky day, Worthmann."

"Excellent. A point, though. As you can appreciate, now that you've turned this project into a debacle, LIM is going to consider me persona non grata. I have no desire to be made an example of. Therefore, as part of our bargain, I do not want merely to be left here."

"Don't worry. We weren't going to leave you. That wouldn't be keeping our end of the bargain, given that we're going to destroy Lianora from our ship. Hurlston probably kept backup data on Nuada that eliminating the mainframe didn't take out, but I doubt he'll have extra copies off-station. As for you, Worthmann, get to work, but move slowly. If you so much as make us think that you're going to pull a weapon or try a technique, you're dead."

Risa pressed the tips of her claws against Worthmann's back to emphasize Tyler's threat. It was melodramatic, but Tyler wasn't complaining; it also meant that she was now in range to finish the LIM exec if he tried anything funny. He picked up Gage's laser shot and trained it on Worthmann rather than the now-useless pulse vulcan.

"You two get out of here," Conn ordered the panic-stricken technicians. "I'd suggest taking an escape pod, if the designers were bright enough to include any." They wasted no time in running, afraid to stop in case someone reached a belated decision to shoot them after all.

"All right, Worthmann, let's see you work this miracle."

Gage knelt, opened his case, and removed a small kit about six inches by four by two. He went over to Anje's inert form and turned her over onto her face.

"Now, if I recall correctly, the access panel should be around the back of the neck, here," he murmured, opening the repair kit and withdrawing a probe. He detached her cape, then released the armor around her neck and shoulders. "Good; here it is. I was hoping Scion-Colesburg hadn't moved things just to be different from our design." He opened up a small panel with the probe, then put the tool away and got out a plastic cylinder that seemed filled with some kind of neon-electric blue liquid. He inserted it into the back of the Demi's neck, screwed it into place with a half-turn, and pushed the tab on the end. A low hum was heard, then Anje's body began to shudder uncontrollably. Green lightning started to play over her body, just as it did when her Recover system was initiated.

"There may be some permanent memory loss," Gage warned. "Her systems will rebuild damaged circuitry, but if the physical structures where that memory is stored were destroyed, they'll take the data with them. Reconstruction happens based on initial status, not last-existing condition."

"Don't worry," Anje's muffled voice said, "there doesn't appear to be anything wrong." Gage withdrew the cylinder, the liquid in which was now translucent, its energy used up, then sealed Anje's access port and armor back up. The little android stood up, shuddered once, then began to look around. "Um, who are all of you?"

Jaws dropped as everyone groped for words. They were spared the effect of finding something to say, though, when Anje laughed.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I just couldn't resist. I would like to know what happened during the fight, though."

"We won," Tyler said curtly.

"Melora--?"

Tyler shook his head. Anje dropped her gaze, understanding.

"I believe I've fulfilled my side of this bargain," Gage stated. "Can we get out of here before everyone remaining decides to rush us?"

"Stuff it, skag, before we decide to kill you anyway," Risa snarled. Tyler shot her a look. Killing Gage would be a just punishment for his crimes, but it would require a cost in honor and self-image that the ex-agent wasn't ready to pay.

"Let's just get him aboard. I'll feel better when we can get him into the brig."

Conn and Tyler made sure that Gage was stripped of equipment and locked into plasma rings before they were willing to leave him alone in a cell. When they reached the Freewind's bridge, the two women were already telling Hale about what had happened on board Lianora. Risa had just gotten to the ultimate punchline when the men arrived.

"Wait a minute," Hale said, holding up his hands. "You're saying that Mother Brain commissioned all this. Kidnapping? Experiments on people? Illegal space travel? Mass murder?"

"That's what they claimed," Risa said darkly. She, at least, didn't sound convinced.

"Time for that later," Tyler said. "Now, let's get out of here. Sooner or later, Mother Brain, LIM, the military, or someone is going to have ships out here. Let's get going now and worry later."

"You've got it," Hale said. "Glad the station's docking clamps popped when the computer went or we'd be in real trouble. As it is, though, take your seats!"

The Freewind pulled smoothly away from the satellite, moving out into space. Lianora looked silent and dead on the screens, its emergency power not being wasted on external lights. It wasn't dead, though. On board that station were the machines that had turned Melora into a monstrosity enslaved to a malicious intelligence outside herself. There were the datafiles detailing every step of the process. There was even the body of the man who had created the process, whose mind might possibly be recreated in an active-memory clone. Tyler gazed at it with hatred.

"Hale, destroy that thing."

"You're the boss."

The Freewind's laser cannons fired again, again, and again, brilliant beams of light cutting into the station. Lianora was a defenseless target and the outcome was inevitable. Detonations rocked the artificial satellite, tearing it apart from the inside as Hale's guns slashed the outside. In space, the final, titanic explosion was silent, but the Freewind shook from the force of it.

Melora deserved a fitting funeral pyre, Tyler thought.

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