Lone Star – Chapter 4

The arming clothes were pressed nicer, he noticed. They only felt slightly different, and once he had been wearing them for 5 minutes, he didn’t notice it anymore.  But he could still tell.  There were a lot of little ways in which being a Sergeant made a difference.  One was the folks at the barracks laundry service- they did a decent job for the privates and corporals on the base, but when you made Sargeant rank, they stepped up the quality just a little.

Jonas took his time putting on the armor, looking with pride at the shine he’d put on it three days before.  Thanks to basic training, he couldn’t walk any straighter or taller than he had upon his first posting, but there’d be a difference this time.  The squad was his now- 16 men and women were his responsibility.  He left the dormitory alone, heading directly across the empty, windswept base and toward the surface level entrance to the main complex.  He carried his helmet under his arm, his rifle strapped over his shoulder.

His posting in the lower levels was as much pure luck and coincidence as anything else.  He’d started off as a surface guard, walking the patrols and standing guard at the giant above-ground hangar doors, his days only punctuated by the base SAMAS teams lifting off for exercises.  Then some wild experiment in the secret laboratories had gotten loose, evaded capture, and made it to the surface.  Upon hitting the sunlight, it was disoriented and confused, and was promptly shot down by the nearest soldier on duty at the time.  It could have been anyone, but it had happened to be Jonas.

He’d been visited before the end of his shift by three high-ranking officers who wore more brass on their uniforms than a marching band.  They had asked a battery of questions about what he’d seen, and more importantly what he’d thought about what he’d seen.  Apparently they liked his answer- “I haven’t thought much about it at all, sir.  I’m a guard stationed at Lone Star, so I know there’s a lot of questions I shouldn’t be asking”- and transferred him into the high-security section of the experiment laboratories.  It was a cushy assignment, everyone knew.  Out of the wind and dust, a few extra credits of pay for the higher-clearance posting and hazard pay.  And his uniform would be just as shiny when he got done with his shift- on the surface that would be a statistical impossibility.

And he’d done well in this post.  He’d conducted himself well, being promoted to corporal in good time and given a small taste of being in charge of his fellow soldiers.  When his squad sergeant had earned a ticket back to Chi-town for the officer training program, Jonas had been picked to take over the squad.

Inside the building, he checked in at the security desk, crossed the hall to the main bank of elevators.  A small crowd was waiting already, and Jonas stood among them for a minute or so before a soft chime sounded and the middle door opened.

As the elevator descended, it stopped at almost each floor, with one or two of the occupants stepping out.  No one was boarding, and when he left the 5th floor stop, Jonas was alone in the elevator car.  Finally the door opened to Level 7.  Without his helmet on, he couldn’t tell who was at the security checkpoint.  He stepped up to the wide counter, nodding to the female soldier who stood post on the other side.  Her digitized voice spoke as she gestured to the fingerprint scanner.

“Good morning, Sergeant.  Please check in.”

He set his helmet on the countertop, then removed his right gauntlet and pressed his fingers onto the surface of the scanning unit.  When he removed his hand a moment later, a ghostly image of his palm-print remained as the computer compared it to the image in its database.  He then aligned his left eye with the retinal scanner.  The computer beeped happily, and the soldier behind the counter nodded, waving him through.

He was seven steps down the corridor when the alarms sounded, and the light level rose as the red warning lights turned on.  He didn’t wait for the loudspeakers to detail the problem.  He broke into a run, crossing the distance to his own security checkpoint in 15 seconds.  When he arrived, five members of his squad were coming around the side of the desk, with 11 from the previous shift looking nervously up and down the corridor.  It was ten minutes before the watch change.

Jonas began to don his helmet as the digitized voice called out the alarm status.  “Code 3 alert – Epsilon Laboratory block,” it repeated.

As his helmet’s computer system came up, he looked over to the soldiers of the previous (current) watch.  “Where’s your Sergeant, soldier?”  Jonas’s helmet display  identified him as Pvt Samuelson.

The voice that replied betrayed him as being very new to the level.  “Sergeant Kestrel was asked to provide overwatch on a laboratory process in the Gamma block.”  This meant the scientists had asked someone to come over and keep an eye on one of their experiments just in case it got loose.

“Sounds like they called him to the wrong lab block,” Jonas replied.  He looked down the line of soldiers, then back at the one he’d addressed earlier.  “Where’s your weapons, people?”

They looked behind them, over the desk of the checkpoint.  Jonas shook his head, taking a bit of pride in knowing that those in his squad had grabbed their rifles the moment they’d heard the alarms.

“Saddle up, boys and girls, right now,” he said, evenly, not letting his disapproval show a moment longer than it had to.  They got the message quickly.  He rounded the checkpoint’s countertop.  The corporal in the arms locker was already handing the CP-40 Pulse Rifles out, one hand on the weapon’s barrel and the other handing over a fully-charge energy magazine. Jonas grabbed the first set.  Then he moved to give the others room to grab weapons, locking the magazine in place and making his rifle ready to fire.

“You three, come with us,” he ordered, pointing to the three nearest him.  “You two, remain here and keep the corridor secure.  When your sarge gets back, fill him in.  The rest of you from the last watch, get to the elevator lobby and provide support.  Take your orders from the desk sergeant there, and keep that lobby secure until you hear from me.”  He turned to one of the corporals of his own squad.  “Baker, you know the drill.”

“Ready, Sarge,” the newly-promoted Corporal replied.  He, too, was on his first shift after a promotion, and had as much to prove as the new Sergeant.  The squad followed Jonas as he sprinted down another corridor toward the Epsilon laboratory block.  90 seconds after the alarm had sounded, he was outside the doors.

Each laboratory block was sectioned off from the rest of the facility by a pair of large, sliding doors.  They didn’t have a guard station at each of these blocks- Alpha through Gamma laboratories were the medium-security areas- but the doors would only open after being shown the ID of someone cleared for that area.  Jonas’ on-board computer transmitted his ID, and the door beeped its acknowledgement.  The speakers in the ceiling repeated the alarm code twice, and the doors slid open.

The outer lobby of the laboratory was silent.  The desks and countertops where the resident scientists handled their paperwork looked just like they always did- cluttered with papers, computer displays, and family photos.  They heard shouting and screaming from a handful of voices from down one corridor to the right.  Jonas crossed the threshold into the outer lobby first, then waved the other soldiers inside.  They secured the room quickly, falling into the patterns they’d trained for.  Even in a mixed unit, like this one, the troops knew their jobs.

“Code 3 Alert, people.  That means protect the staff whenever possible, and eliminate anything else.  Remember, the walls inside the labs will absorb our fire, but the corridors will not, so when you’re outside of a lab, check your path of fire.  Baker, Wallace, stay here and secure the room.  Don’t let anything sneak up on us.  Everyone else with me.”  The rest of the soldiers confirmed his commands.

Jonas moved into the corridor that led to the source of the noise, covering all angles with his weapon.  The other 5 soldiers with him moved into position around him.

“Private Samuelson, how long you been posted down here?” Jonas asked, slowly making his way along the corridor.  The laboratory doors along either side were clear, armored plexiglass, and the labs inside looked pristine.  The trouble was further down, and around a corner.

“I finished basic three weeks ago, sir,” the young soldier replied over the radio.  “This is my second shift, my first below-ground.  I requested a high-clearance post- I’m hoping to get into ISS after my first year.”

“Well, here’s your first taste, kid,” Jonas said, smirking.  He reached the corner just as three of the resident scientists came dashing down the corridor, out of breath and ashen-faced.  The two women were crying; the man had thrown up a few moments earlier.  Jonas stopped the older of the two women, then waved her back toward the lobby.  “Three residents on their way out, Baker.  Sit them down and get a report, let me know if you get anything useful.”

“Roger that, sir.  I see them coming.”

Jonas rounded the corner, energy rifle first.  The corridor was only 20 meters long before ending at the doors of a larger laboratory.  Two more scientists were running toward him, and a third behind them was stumbling, bleeding badly from a wound in his chest.  Jonas could see the movement of something through the open doors to the laboratory- another scientist’s body had prevented them from shutting.

“Three more coming out.  We’ve got at least one wounded, Baker- call for medical backup if they’re not on the way.”

“Roger, they’re coming, sir.”

Jonas kept his rifle ahead of him, moving down the corridor quickly but cautiously, scanning the labs on either side of him as he passed, but seeing no danger.  The other doors had all successfully locked down.  The soldiers around him kept pace.

“Sir,” Baker’s digitized voice called over the comm-link, “one of the residents is calmed down enough to talk.  She says they were working on a full-size mutant hunting-cat, and it woke up and went berserk.  She says there were 12 of her people in the room, and she saw three of them get killed.”

“Ok, there’s 6 that made it out, one is coming your way with a nasty chest wound,” Jonas replied, making sure the others around him heard the report.  “I see one on the ground, pinning the doors open, not moving.  He’s torn up pretty bad.  Get that medical team down here.”

“They’re on the way from 5th level, sir, they’ll be with us in the Epsilon lobby in 45 seconds.”

“Very well,” Jonas said, taking a deep breath.  They were three meters from the large doors, and could still hear shouting and screaming from the other side.  “Secure the door first, fire in self defense only.  I don’t want random weapon fire tearing up the machinery in here.  Let the scientists out if they make it to us.”

His concern for the lab equipment turned out to be unfounded.  Whatever had gotten loose, it had already smashed most of the machinery.  The body at the door was hardly drawing breath, but Jonas’s helmet display showed him some vital signs remaining.  They had a chance, if the medics could get there in time.  But that depended on Jonas and his team.

The monster roared when Jonas stepped into the room.  It looked like it had once been a tiger, or had gotten some of its genetic structure from one, but it was no longer a natural creature.  Mutations were common here- this is where most of the mutant canines in the CS Military were born and raised- but this one was certainly a monster.  It stood upright, on two legs, was nearly 3 meters tall, and its arms had five-fingered hands almost like a humans’.  At the end of each finger was a long claw, a gift from its feline genetics.  It had used these to great effect, apparently, since the fur was matted with blood almost up to the elbows.  It had just knocked down one of the scientists with a powerful swing of a metal bar- probably the stand from one of the destroyed machines.  It now held the limp woman by her hair, and was about to sink its teeth into her neck.  Her eyes were wide with terror, and her breath rapid, but she made no sound.

Jonas triggered his helmet to emit a loud warning sound, like a bullhorn.  The sound made his soldiers jump, he noticed, but it also got the monster’s attention.  It dropped the woman, recognizing a greater threat when it spotted one, and hurled the metal bar at the soldiers.  They moved aside in time, and the bar embedded itself in the wall behind them.

The soldiers fanned out, covering the doorway as Jonas moved inside farther.  The monster-cat leaped over another smashed machine, heading not toward the sergeant, but toward the door.  Jonas fired two shots, but both missed high, hitting the wall and absorbing into the fire-suppression system harmlessly.  Pvt Samuelson tried to get in the monster’s path, and was about to fire a shot when it dropped to all fours, then sprung at him, knocking him onto his back and clawing fiercly at his chest.

The armor was far tougher than the claws, thankfully.  Jonas took a moment longer than usual to line up his shot, letting the other soldiers clear his line of fire before pulling the trigger.  The monster landed three hard swipes with its massive paws before a bolt of energy hit it in the side.

The energy rifles issued to CS soldiers have a handful of power settings, allowing the weapon to deliver a range of destructive energy.  The lowest would fire a shot with the punch of a standard ballistic rifle bullet; the highest would put a hole in a foot thick steel plate.  Jonas hadn’t taken the time to query the laboratory data center through his helmet’s communication link, so he didn’t know how tough this creature was.  And with other lives at risk, he wasn’t taking chances.  He’d set his weapon to the middle of its range, and the blast nearly tore the monster in half.

One of the other soldiers, from the earlier shift, stepped forward to pull the dead cat off her squad-mate.  Samuelson stood up a moment later, none the worse for wear, his armor splattered but not even scratched from the monster’s claws.  He looked down over his own armor, then down at what was left of the cat.

“You ok, kid?” Jonas said, relaxing his grip on his weapon.

“Yes, sir- just glad its claws didn’t get thru the plating.”  The voice was shaken, but not quite cracked.

“Well, there are some things they cook up down here that can claw through the armor, so don’t assume it’ll save you.  Baker,” he turned his head toward the hallway, even though his corporal was out of sight around the corner, “Subject is terminated.  Get the medics down here, and send the clean-up crew.  Samuelson, secure the door.  Everyone else, sweep the room for the residents.  There should be four people in here.”  He strode over to the woman in the corner, who was sitting with her legs pulled up in front of her, her face in her hands.  Her lab coat was more red than white, and her casual clothes underneath were stained in a few places as well.

“You hurt, doc?” he asked, kneeling in front of her.

She lifted her head to look into his faceplate, and shook her head.  “He hit me in the stomach.  I’ll be ok.”  She took his gauntlet-covered hand in both of hers, and kissed the back of it.  He helped her to her feet, then walked her to the door.  As they crossed the room, he looked around to the other soldiers.  Each stood or knelt over one of the residents, and as he looked to each of them, they shook their heads, slowly.  There was no need for a voice report- they were all dead.

The medical team had arrived, and the first of them were moving the man who pinned the doors open.  Just behind them was the red-suited clean up crew- ten specialists wheeling a large composite box around the corner and toward the lab doors.  Jonas handed the woman off to the medics, then returned to watch the soldiers turn control of the area over to the clean-up team.  The lieutenant, her gloved hands already red from handling the fallen monster, approached him.  She was a head shorter than he was, but looked into his face-plate with authority.

“Good work, Sergeant.  We’ll send someone to get a report from you after the shift is over.  We’ll take over from here.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he replied, looking to his squad and signaling them to leave with a tilt of his head.  As they returned to the security checkpoint they’d come from, Jonas kept stride alongside Pvt Samuelson.

“Take of your helmet for a minute, Private.  Get a breath.”

“Thank you, sir.”  The young soldier detached the helmet, then lifted it slowly off his head as he continued walking.  Regulations prohibited being on duty without the helmet, at least in this part of the complex- so getting out of the helmet to draw in a few breaths of slightly-fresher air was a bit of a luxury.  It also served as a useful, low-level reward.  Samuelsen was still shaking slightly, but was coping with the encounter very well, Jonas thought.  If he could do this well after having a hunting-cat pounce on his chest, three weeks out of basic training, well, he’d have the makings of a good soldier.

“Nothin’ like a little excitement at the end of a shift, huh?”

“Yes, sir,” Samuelson replied, carrying his helmet under his arm.  “Seems like this post is either quiet enough to lull you to sleep, or all-go-no-quit.  Not much in between.”

“You got that right.  Grates on your nerves until you get used to it.”  Jonas sighed.  “At least it was just a Code 3.”

“I still haven’t been briefed on the emergency codes, sir.”

Jonas looked over at the younger soldier.  “Well, a -3 means bad news, but mostly bad for the scientists and whatever they’re working on.  It means something’s gotten loose, and is killing people.  The bottom line for a code-3 is protect the staff if possible, and eliminate any and all experiments, mutants, or test subjects we find threatening.  Code 4 means a potentially dangerous “thing” is loose, and our job is to get it back into the lab- using force if required, but not unless we have to defend ourselves.  Non-lethal force only.  -5 means force won’t be required- they just need security to talk some sense into their “thing”.  Those two you usually get upstairs, with a young dog-boy that’s acting out or something.”

“Now, you get to code 2, and we begin to get nervous.  Those don’t happen often, but it’s down here in the genetics labs when they do.  You hear a Code-2, and your sarge confirms it, that means you cordon off the lab and you kill everything inside- including the doctors and staff.”

The young soldier’s mouth went slack.  Jonas merely shrugged.  “If they get a virus or some kind of disease-carrier that infects the staff, they need to be put down before they can infect anyone else- like us, for example.  And when that alarm code gets triggered, they’re usually better off dead anyways.  Never forget, kid, they’re playing with some really dangerous things down here.”

“Code 1 means all security on the entire floor moves to the elevator lobby and sets up there.  Anything comes down the corridors without showing ID, we put it down.  Any of the staff come down there looking like they could possibly be infected, we put them down.  But our job is to hold the lobby until the Special Forces team gets down here.  For Code-1, they have a separate unit that will come through here to asses and neutralize the threat.”

“But it’s Code 0 we worry about.  There’s only been one time they’ve sounded that alarm code, and it was before my time.”

Samuelson didn’t speak for a long moment, but curiosity eventually got the better of him.  “What’s that code mean, Sarge?”

Jonas sighed.  “That means we wait for the SF team to come down and kill off everything on the floor.”

“They just kill off the staff, too?  No questions?”

“No.  It means they kill off everything, Private, including us.”

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