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Freedom's Price

Part XXXV


There was one question on everyone's mind. The ex-corp agent, the soon-to-be-ex-lieutenant, the girl from the streets of Ossale Court, the Demi-type, and the pilot, every one of them was asking one thing: What do we do now? The revelation that Mother Brain was responsible for Project Nuada left all of them with the bitter realization that they were outlaws, beyond all hope of pardon.

"I still can't believe it," Risa repeated. "Mother Brain may not be perfect...but the whole reason she's in charge of Algo is to keep out Palman tyrants!"

"I know," Conn said, shaking his head. "I've never liked the idea of an AI ruling the system, but at least I'd always figured she was incorruptible. I mean, you can't expect a computer to have empathy for living people, but this goes way beyond any reasonable interpretation of that."

"Clearly," Anje reasoned, "either Mother Brain has suffered some kind of system corruption, or her programming was flawed to begin with. It is possible that Mother Brain has been tampered with, but her original programmers might have taught her to seek power."

"Who were Mother Brain's creators?" Risa asked.

"She was given to the Palman government in AW 845 by IMVE Microtech."

"No, I mean, who first built her? The names of the people."

"My system does not contain that data."

"I don't know either," Tyler said. "Conn? Hale?"

"Not me."

"Me, either."

"That settles it, then," Tyler concluded. "That name or names ought to ring down through history, but none of us remembers them, probably because we were never taught. That knowledge has been kept from us. Whomever it was must have been up to something, probably planning for Mother Brain to seize as much power as it could, then turn that power over to him, her, or them."

"That's one hell of a long-term plan," Hale said.

"They must have been planning for the future," Tyler agreed. "Not for themselves, but for their descendants, or future members of an organization or company." He shook his head, not really believing that anyone could conceive of a plot that could extend for over four hundred years. Was anyone alive today aware of Mother Brain's search for power? Or had her creator's heirs long ago lost sight of the truth, possibly even died out?

"Whatever the truth," Conn said, "the plan's working. Mother Brain controls the climate control network, has wide access to the datanet and its information flow, she's chief executive of Palm, controls the military and law enforcement. Heck, she controls almost every aspect of life on Mota--she owns one-third of the Algo System outright and has a pretty darn good start on the rest of it."

Hale snapped his fingers.

"Space travel," he said. "She banned free space travel on the pretext that it was too dangerous. Hell, I bet she engineered that disaster four years ago just to give herself the chance. That way, her little empire on Mota stays completely cut off from anyone who might try to change it."

There was a curious look on his face as he said it, part wrenching pain and part, oddly enough, relief. There was a story there, Tyler thought, that he'd have to go into with the pilot someday.

"Plus, keeping the Palmans and Dezolians isolated from one another," the ex-agent added. "She certainly doesn't want them giving us any ideas about doing without her."

Anje sighed heavily, an unusual sound from an android.

"She's really not going to be pleased with us, then," she concluded. "Anyone who knows that Mother Brain is as much a tyrant as the leaders she replaced is definitely a threat to her. Then, there's the simple fact that we've just smashed an important and expensive plan. Her ultimate agent of destruction must have been key to some plot of hers."

"I thought LIM was paying for Nuada? Wasn't that how that Stephens guy fell into it in the first place?" Risa asked.

"Money was probably provided through standard defense contracts, then combined with LIM's share of the investment and slipped back into Lianora's operating budget in order to keep the government's financial records from showing any funding of a supposedly closed research satellite," Tyler explained, having some knowledge of creative financing from his Luveno days.

"It all just sort of falls into place once you know Mother Brain's involved, doesn't it?" Hale marveled sarcastically. "Those wild conspiracy theories aren't supposed to be true, y'know."

Conn leaned back against the edge of a display terminal, his arms folded across his chest.

"Anje's right, though. Every one of us has got to face the fact that we're wanted outlaws now. We don't have a lot of choices left."

"So what's the big deal?" Risa asked. "Hale was an underground pilot, Anje's broken so many computer security laws that her name is a legend, and I've been on the wrong side of the law all my life."

"Not like this," Conn said. "They've got names, faces, genetic profiles, all that in their records now. Informers will be looking for big rewards, patrol robots will look for us, wanted bulletins will be released to the DLE and military police, probably even government agents sent specifically to catch us. All of us are facing notoriety as our worst enemy now."

"He's quite right," Anje agreed. "I've gone to great lengths to shield my identity, so that while people might be looking for Angel Red, the gridrider, they weren't looking for Anje, the Demi-type."

"Oh," Risa said, dejected.

"Then there's the question of what to do with our friend in the brig," Conn added.

"Why not dump him off on Dezo?" Hale suggested.

"Why Dezo?" asked Tyler.

"Well, there's not a lot of security in Dezo-space, so there's a good chance we can get to the surface without trouble. Plus, if we're really lucky, he'll freeze to death--though we'll probably have to leave him near a town or our consciences will have us for brunch."

"Not mine," Risa growled. "I say we boot him out the airlock and to hell with honoring any deals. He wouldn't play it straight with us if our positions were reversed."

Tyler drummed his fingers on his leg.

"Come to think of it," he said, slipping past Risa's outburst, "Dezo isn't a bad place for all of us. Mother Brain doesn't have much power on Dezo, only a few outposts, because the Dezolians have their own government. It's about the safest place we could go now."

He sighed heavily. The others quickly picked up on his discontentment, but it was Risa who came out and asked the question.

"If it's such a good idea, Tyler, then why are you down on it?"

"You really want to know?"

"No, I asked because I like the sound of my own voice. Damn straight I want to know."

Tyler chuckled momentarily, then his face became set with determination.

"I don't want to run away," he declared. "I ran away once when I was in a situation I thought I couldn't face, and it turned out to be the worst mistake of my life. These last four years, I might as well have been dead, for all the living I've done. I don't want to do that again."

"So what do you want?" Anje asked, reminding Tyler of how Risa had told him to define himself in terms of what he was rather than what he wasn't.

"I want to fight."

"That's it," Hale said, throwing up his hands. "The man's gone crazy."

"Do you mean, fight Mother Brain?" Conn asked. Tyler nodded in response. "All right, how?"

"Well, look at what we have," Tyler said, encompassing all of them with a sweep of his hand. "Two trained agents, a hunter, the best gridrider in Algo, and an excellent pilot. We've got a first-class ship and all the equipment on board."

"Meanwhile, Mother Brain's got the army, the cops, about a million robots..."

Tyler shot Hale a sharp glance.

"I'm not talking about a military campaign. Mother Brain would squash us like bugs if we tried that. She's not all-powerful, though. Look at Palm. There's criminals, hunters, smugglers, syndicates, and corps, all slipping through the shadows, under her radar."

"We can't go back to Palm, though--can we?" Risa asked.

Tyler shook his head.

"No, the odds are too great there. Out here, though, in space--here we can fight. Her robot ships transport laconia from the Skure mines on Dezo, deliver technology for her 'perfect world' on Mota--we'll attack them. Her patrols can be destroyed, which will help others flout her laws in turn and help undermine her plans more. We can steal her cargos, deliver them to those who need them. We can raid places like Lianora to keep them from being used for more schemes like Project Nuada."

He looked from one face to the next.

"As long as there's been trade, there have been bandits and pirates. We'll be that too, space pirates answering only to our own honor, not to a tyrannical government. Unlike most pirates, though, we won't raid and steal for plunder, but to battle Mother Brain, harrying and harassing her plans and generally throwing a wrench into her gears whenever we can."

Tyler's heart was in his throat as he laid it on the line for them.

"So what do you think? Are you with me?"

Not only Tyler but everyone else was surprised when Hale spoke up first.

"Well, you're gonna need a pilot, so I'd better sign on." The gangly pilot stuck out his hand and Tyler clasped it firmly.

"Thank you, Hale."

"Not a problem, Captain. Ebon said I'd like this job, and I guess he was right. Either that or I'm just as crazy as you are. If we ever do manage to overthrow Mother Brain, though, I'm gonna want my back-end meseta for this job."

"Ebon's not a he, by the way," Anje said.

"Huh?"

"Ebon is a female, fifty-seven-year-old systems tech for IMVE. She's got the cutest grandkids!" the android explained. Hale's face turned scorpion red.

"A grandmother? Holy, I've left the vid pickup on talking to her while I've been getting out of bed!"

Tyler chuckled.

"Don't worry, Hale, you haven't got anything she doesn't know about."

"Yeah, but a grandmother?"

Anje rolled her eyes.

"Really, you two are hopeless! I'm going to have to come along just to keep you out of trouble. Besides, you gave up your revenge on Melora's kidnapper to save me. I owe you for that."

Tyler smiled warmly at her.

"Glad to have you aboard, Anje."

He turned to the green-haired girl. Risa had shed her battered and torn ceramic-laced jacket, and her sleeveless top revealed something Tyler hadn't noticed before, a tattoo of a sinuous crimson dragon whose head and forelegs snaked across one shoulder and whose tail and one hindclaw could be seen on the other.

"Hell, Tyler, you should know my answer already," she said, grinning wolfishly. "Taking a round out of Mother Brain at every chance sounds like my idea of a great career. Angry young punks like me are supposed to be anti-establishment. Besides, if we ever need to go back to Camineet, Ossale Court is the best place I can think of to stay out of Mother Brain's eyesight and I know the area better than any of you."

That just left Conn. He was the one Tyler was least sure of, the career law officer. It was surprising enough the now-former lieutenant had come this far. Would he keep on?

As it turned out, the choice wasn't half as difficult as Tyler had thought.

"It's about justice," Conn said. "If the government has become a tool of an oppressor, then it has to be fought. If we can't fight inside the system, then we fight outside it. You can count me in on this little crusade, Tyler--if we're going to try our best to teach the people of Algo the truth."

Tyler grinned at the idealistic ex-cop.

"You've got yourself a deal."

"Okay," Hale cut in, "if all the touchy-feely stuff is over with, does anyone want to tell me where I'm supposed to pilot the Freewind?" He was looking at Tyler when he said it, and Tyler was surprised to see that everyone else did the same. He'd been the leader, yes, but this was a validation of that, the others looking to him to make the choice.

"Like Hale says, you're the captain," Conn made it official.

"Not," Risa added with a smirk, "that we won't tell you if you're being an idiot, but what are friends for?"

"All right, Dezo then. We still need to ditch Worthmann, and get a chance to rest and recover, both physically and mentally. We've got plans to make that ought to be made with clear heads. Plus, I want to go over every inch of this ship, inventory every bit of equipment on board, make sure there aren't any nasty little traps lurking in the computer system for Mother Brain to exploit, and that kind of thing. Which brings me to something else I've been thinking about."

"What's that?"

"The name of this spaceship."

"What's wrong with Freewind?" Hale asked. "That kinda has the pirate spirit to it."

"Yeah, it does," Tyler agreed. "That's my point. We may be space pirates now, but we're not doing this for money or escape. We're fighting against an evil that's keeping the entire system in thrall, and I thought it would be a nice idea to reflect that purpose in our ship's name."

The suggestion drew smiles and nods of agreement from the others.

"I presume you've got a name in mind?" Conn asked.

"I admit, I've always liked the legend of Alis Landale," Tyler said. "There's a direct parallel to our situation: one small group of companions taking up arms against an impossible foe."

"Oh yeah," Risa said. "That's the name you used for the contact with Jac Norbridge at Shadowedge. Sometime, you're going to have to tell me the entire story."

He would, one of these days. Just the way Melora had told it to him.

Hale was shaking his head.

"I don't know, Tyler. 'Alis' just doesn't have the right ring to it, not for a spaceship."

"'Landale' has possibilities, though," Conn remarked. Anje nodded in agreement.

"All right then, Landale it is. Now, let's lay in a course to Dezo. We've got a long fight ahead of us, and the first step is out there." Tyler didn't know what the future held for him, or if it would be long or short, but whatever came, he was done with running from it. Instead, Tyler smiled in anticipation as he felt the surge of the Landale's acceleration, carrying him towards a destiny they would face on their own terms...and, though he didn't know it, into a legend of his own.

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