Lyon broke from cover a half-second after Ryland launched his Gibarta technique. Glittering ice crystals sang through the air, spraying outwards in a cone-shaped pattern from the Force's hand. The two guards grunted in pain as the ice-aspected Photon washed over them. Better yet, one of them found himself suddenly sheathed in a field of blue crystal, temporarily cryo-paralyzed. Unfortunately it was the one on Lyon's side, but one out of two still wasn't bad.

The unfrozen guard was a little slow in his reactions; probably he'd expected to be able to see attackers coming and that, plus the actual injury from the technique, kept him off-balance. By the time he swung up his mechgun to target Ryland, Lyon had covered the twenty-five feet between them. She popped a freeze trap into the air even as she crashed her shoulder into the guard's midsection. The impact swung his body around, and when his finger tightened reflexively on the trigger the gun was pointing off to the side. The three-round burst sparked harmlessly off the wall.

It would have been easier to just shoot the guards or cut them down with the Durandal, but these were people, not robots. Self-defense was one thing, but the hunters weren't going to start racking up a body count if they could help it.

To be fair, Lyon reflected, they probably didn't need lethal force anyway. The guard she'd closed with didn't even have a Photon frame on, just ordinary clothes, which was not the best way to fight someone made out of metal. She chopped the gun out of his hand and used her forearm to smack his head backwards to clunk off the wall. When the timer on popped on her freeze trap, he was already out. It was a waste of a trap, but she could deal with that kind of waste.

She turned to the second guard just as his frozen state wore off. This one was a little brighter or more duty-minded than his partner, because instead of trying to fight he spun towards a wall panel and slapped it. Nothing happened, so the alarm-blocker still hadn't been purged by the system's security. He cursed, slapping the button again, and then went flying away as Lyon wheel-kicked him in the head.

That was when the door opened, revealing a short, stocky man of the same general type as the first two.

"Holy--!" he gasped, then shouted, "Boss, we got intruders!" even as he was bringing his charged autogun up to fire. He never got to use it, because Ryland's Foie technique hit him dead-center and knocked him off his feet.

"That's torn it," Lyon muttered as she drew her railgun and charged through the door, swinging hard to the left as shots rang out. Three shooters, she recognized as she took cover behind a cylindrical mass of machinery. The terminal at its base took a hit, exploding into a shower of sparks. Lyon tried to analyze the tactical picture, checking her visual memory for images of what she'd seen as she darted past. One man with a mechgun. Hunters tended to use the burst-fire weapons in pairs since each individual shot was fairly weak; only thugs used to unarmored targets typically used single mechguns. Minimal threat there.

The other two were a different story. They were clearly equipped with Photon frames; Lyon recognized the telltale shimmer as the mechgunner's shots passed near enough to trigger their proximity activation. Their guns were better, too, enough to pose a serious threat. The slim, elegant one with dark blue hair cradled a blaster, a decent grade of Photon rifle, in his hands, while the big fellow with the buzzcut and goatee had a handgun with an elongate barrel design. He had to be some kind of boss; Varistas were relatively uncommon even among hunters.

"Who are these effing bastards?" somebody shouted. Lyon leaned out and let off a couple of quick shots, not really expecting to hit anything. She pulled back behind cover as the return shots struck nearby.

"Who do you think? Lab goons."

Lyon heard the electric crackle of a Zonde technique and a grunt as it struck home. It was a good choice by Ryland, since it didn't require precise targeting. The Force's indirect-fire techniques changed the complexion of the fight; the syndicate operatives could not play a waiting game or else risk being cut down by an enemy who didn't even need to see them. They would have to close the distance to survive, particularly if Ryland decided to break out the big guns and start throwing around Grants instead of Zonde.

They'd make their move quickly if they were even vaguely professional, using their knowledge of the ground to choose their angle of approach, to catch at least one of the hunters in a dangerous crossfire. This was when the navigational system that was part of any hunter's gear became so effective. It tracked the gunmen through the room, so Lyon knew exactly when to roll out from behind cover and come up firing. A three-round burst hit dead center on the unarmored thug's torso and he went over dead before he could line up a single shot from his mechgun.

Lyon rounded the machinery she'd been hiding behind to try and take a second goon from behind, but instead the buzzcut man had reacted to the sound of her shots, anticipating her attack, and had turned to face where she came from. She barely jerked her head to the side before he could pull the trigger and the blast from his gun barely missed singeing her hair.

She swung her own gun up to try and deflect his as he dropped his aim to try and fire at her body, a much less mobile target. The barrels crashed against each other and both fired reflexively. Lyon's shot went almost straight up while Buzzcut's went low and wide, just clipping her "skirt." The damage was only cosmetic, since that part of her contained nothing important to her functions, but it was a harsh lesson in how much of the Varista's Photon energy could penetrate her armor.

They both realized it simultaneously and acted on it at once. Buzzcut tried to turn the Varista in towards her, but she bent her elbow and crashed her forearm against his wrist, jolting it completely off-line. Simultaneously she tipped her own wrist back and fired, but Buzzcut had anticipated her move and leaned back to escape her line of fire. With his balance compromised he brought his left hand into play, but Lyon countered. Buzzcut surprised her, though, by grabbing her arm and rather than trying to use his gun again instead corrected his balance by using her as a support and swept his right foot up in a kick to the side of her knee. She kept from losing her stance because her Photon armor deflected most of the shock of the blow, but a full-fledged melee was on, a vicious hand-to-hand fight made all the more desperate by the fact that both fighters had guns and a moment's hesitation or error could lead to a lethal point-blank shot.

Lyon knew it couldn't last long one way or the other, and it was as likely to be "other" as not. Fortunately, the practical goals of rescuing a (hopefully) innocent AI and catching a murderer overrode the emotional considerations in her decision-making algorithm. Much as she'd have liked to settle the duel with Buzzcut in one-to-one combat, the pleasure of testing her skills wasn't important enough to risk the job.

So she cheated.

In the middle of a feint-and-kick combination she popped a confusion trap. Buzzcut's worry about her gun was to keep it from pointing at him, so he was late in reacting when she set off the trap with a shot. At once the fight changed; his senses and balance scrambled by the trap's effects he could barely stay on his feet, let alone fight a duel. Lyon disarmed him almost effortlessly, then hooked his leg and brought him down to the metal floor with a side throw that cracked his forehead off the plating.

"Was that quite fair?" Ryland asked. He was breathing hard, which was better than his blue-haired opponent was doing. The rifleman appeared to be enjoying a refreshing nap. Burnt patches on his clothing from quick-fired Foie techniques explained how he'd gotten there.

"Don't you start." She glanced back along the room. "Not now, at least."

They advanced to the end of the chamber, keeping enough space between them as they did so that someone with a gun would have to take time to switch targets. Ryland probably didn't even do it consciously, having turned a professional's caution into habit.

An android lay on an angled metal table at the rear of the room, clamps holding it in place. The pieces were mismatched, although they'd been chosen for compatible proportions, so it was possible the android's carapace sheath was just done up in a crazy-quilt color scheme: red torso, yellow arms, olive-green left leg, bright blue right leg, and violet head. The table was hooked up to several computer units, with cables snaking to the input plug at the back of the android's neck as well as wrists and hips.

"Are you through yet?" A white-haired lady in a buttoned-up lab coat had swivelled her chair around from the front of the console and now faced the hunters, hands on hips. "Do you know how hard it is to concentrate on my work when people insist on having a gunfight in the room?"

"Your 'work' being to install a software-based AI into this android?" Ryland asked.

"Why do you waste my time on questions you obviously know the answers to?" the Photon engineer snapped. "You didn't come in shooting up the place for the fun of it. I should have known something like this would happen when I took this job. That girl wasn't your ordinary construct, that's for sure. I've been compressing data like nobody's business and she's still going to be losing about 87-percent of her processing capacity. But, it's what she wanted, so who am I to complain?"

"You've been doing a fair job of it so far," Lyon said dryly.

The engineer looked at her for a second, startled, then broke into a smile, the pattern of lines around her mouth crinkling up.

"Hah! I like that one. So what's the scoop? Do I finish up here or not?"

"We could always shoot you to get rid of a potential witness."

"If you were going to do that you'd have shot Krieg and Vincent now that they're down. Most of the goons I deal with would have done that on general principles. So let's stop wasting time already; the older I get the less of it I have to waste on mindless yak. If you're going to let me finish installing her, then shut up and let me do it. If you're working for some Lab or military or corporate whatnot who wants her as-is, say so and let me go home. It's Valentine's Day, I guess, since it's after midnight...and I've got a hot date."

Lyon glanced at Ryland. He looked back at her and shrugged.

"You're better at these artificial-intelligence ethical concerns," he said. "We were hired to help her out of trouble, after all. Whatever else the consequences may be, that's what we ought to do."

Lyon nodded.

"All right, then."

She turned to the engineer.

"Give her what she wants. Finish the job."

-X X X-

"The stars look so different," Rina said, staring wide-eyed up at the city's dome. "They shouldn't, should they? Visual light converted to data, perceived in the same basic way, whether through artificial 'eyes' or remote cameras. And yet...they're not the same."

"It's not the view," Lyon said. "It's you. Your mind. Your perceptions."

The androids were leaning together against the rail of an open-air park set at one of the city's highest levels. The park was circular in shape, and rotated at a constant, sedate speed to provide an ever-changing view. It had been very popular in the early days of the voyage, when the city was fresh and new to its citizens, and even now it was still a routine spot for dating couples who preferred real-life encounters to virtual ones.

"It's amazing!" Rina said. "I'm so much more limited now in what I can accomplish, and yet I feel like I can do anything!" She straightened up and did a quick pirouette, her face wreathed in pure joy.

"Well, maybe you can. At least you won't have Dr. Severin and the Lab chasing after you anymore." As an android, there was nothing more special or valuable about Rina then there was about any other of her type such as Lyon. Hardware limitations had destroyed the unique features and capabilities of the RINA system beyond repair. Ironically, this suited Severin fine. Covering his team's tracks was far, far easier without an experimental AI darting through the Net, being fought over by Pioneer 2's assorted shadow conspiracies and gray eminences. He might even be able to pass off his gathered data as the result of theoretical model-based experiments and get a leg up on starting anew with authorization. So for him, this outcome was the second best available.

Besides, Lyon thought the doctor was secretly relieved. He had a conscience, and Rina's successful bid for freedom was a kind of reparation for how he'd unwittingly treated her. Lyon wanted to think so, anyway.

"Well, ladies, it seems we've made Inspector Laleham a happy man," Ryland announced as he walked up to them. "It seems that Mr. Vincent--that would be my dance partner--has pointed the finger of blame for murdering Amber Carteret directly at his friend and associate Gerhart Krieg. That was the fellow you fought with, Lyon. The Inspector's inclined to believe him; Krieg is apparently a Nevers syndicate assassin who's suspected of being quite the busy boy in recent underworld dust-ups."

"If he's such an important assassin, why blame him?" Lyon asked. Syndicate types weren't known for ratting their fellows out to the milipol.

"Laleham guesses, for what it's worth, that Krieg was getting too bloody-minded in his decision making, not to mention shaky in his mental stability. Let's see...oh, yes, Nevers Corp. has issued a statement saying that they are shocked, truly shocked that one of their security officers was involved in murder and that they certainly won't be pressing charges against the 'heroic hunters who expunged such a blot from their corporate family.' I thought that had kind of a ring to it."

"Well, since we won't talk about Rina and therefore can't implicate the syndicate as a whole, they can let Krieg take the fall. I presume the man I killed in the fight was identified as a criminal used by Krieg in his murderous schemes?"

"Something like that."

"I'm so sorry for all of this," Rina said, her voice small and tight. "I didn't think anything through; I let my emotions override the possible consequences of my actions. I...I mean, I trusted criminals to do what I asked and to not seek any financial advantage, and that they wouldn't hurt innocent people."

"It's lucky they didn't realize that engineering you into an android would destroy your value as a unique AI, or else they wouldn't have even hired the engineer to do it," Lyon told her.

"Lucky for me...but not for Amber. I didn't even know her. She just happened to fit the profile I wanted to project."

"It's not your fault," Ryland said. "Yes, you made bad decisions, and yes, they were part of the chain, but you didn't make the choice to kill. You didn't suggest it, order it, or carry it out."

"You'll carry it with you, and you'll learn," Lyon said. "Experience is always a better teacher than theoretical data." She pointed up at the starry sky. "As I think you're beginning to understand."

"Why, Lyon," Ryland said dryly, "did I just hear you admit that real-life experiences might be better than virtual ones?"

"Pay attention, Ryland; it's not the same distinction at all. In this case, though, I'll concede that there's a virtual experience that Rina needs to take into the real world."

"You go see Terence?"

The hesitation in her voice was almost cute.

"You came this far," Lyon told her. "You fought your way out of the Lab and into the physical world. Why stop now?"

"But...but I've lied to him. I've lied about so many things. How could he possibly love me now?"

Lyon shrugged.

"I don't know. Every person's different. We shrug off things that ought to matter and are deeply affected by things that shouldn't. I do know that you owe him the truth...and you owe yourself a chance."

"Bring chocolate," Ryland suggested. "After all, it's still Valentine's Day."