Lone Star – Chapter 19

Arcturus knelt over the last of the skelebots, pinning it to the ground and driving the borrowed vibro-blade into the machine’s lower back.  He registered the small electro-static discharge through the blade and into his own frame as he cut through his victim’s power connection.  He waited for a moment, watching as the downed robot seemed to relax, not quite going limp.  Its ‘muscle’ systmes would try to return to their neutral positions, then lock.  Arcturus then looked around to see how the rest of the fight had turned out.

There had been four Skelebots in this team- a wide patrol operating on its own, without what Deliah had jokingly called ‘adult supervision’.  Father Martiniros had disassembled one of them, Torealis was finishing the same task on another, and Jacob had his victim pinned down.  None of the robots had gotten a distress signal out, and none had gotten a look at what had hit them.  With Deliah interrupting their communications, these four robots would have seemed to their handlers to have dropped off the face of the planet.  Arcturus ignored the snapping sounds from Jacob’s work, and began opening the data access panels on his own victim.  His own laser-communications system directed a series of codes into the fallen robot, instructing its self-destruct unit to disarm.  Within 30 seconds, he had connected his own data ports to the side of his fallen cousin.

He queried the system, scanning the memory units to see how much useful data he could get from it.  He had been hoping for a map or directory of the Lone Star complex, but apparently the new Skelebots computer-brains were smart enough to find their own way around.  He did acquire a full set of access protocols for accessing the wireless network at the Lone Star complex, which would be useful enough.

“If you want, Deliah, I can transmit an updated weapons database to you.”  The Skelebots were programmed to recognize every weapon system the Coalition States put in the field, so they could recognize their allies. Skelebots were also programmed to attack anyone with a CS weapon that didn’t have authorization- it was an attempt to keep the illegal weapon sales under control.  But this database now gave Arcturus a complete list of CS weapons, from their biggest combat robots down to the sidearms that the officers would carry.  The list was comprehensive- right down to serial number patterns.

“Please,” Deliah said.  Neither of them moved, but the data flowed between them nearly instantly.  A moment later, Arcturus was back to work.

He also took an electronic glance at the ‘target profile’ lists; the Skelebot units were regularly updated by the computer networks with descriptions of hostile life-forms and potential enemy targets.  If the controllers back at Lone Star had detected Deliah’s team, even one of them, it would show up in this Skelebot’s memory.  While he couldn’t find anything that resembled the team itself, he did find one interesting entry.

“Torealis, have a look,” he said, turning his head.  His holographic projector wasn’t very strong, and couldn’t produce a clear image.  Despite this, the figure he displayed in the center of the group was unmistakeable;  A muscular, green-skinned female humanoid figure with tentacles protruding from her back.  Jacob began to laugh.

“She is classified as a level-3 threat,” Arcturus continued.  “Any CS unit confirming detection of this creature is pre-authorized to use deadly force.  Patrolling units are authorized to pursue and destroy if they cannot make a capture.”

“Which begs the next question,” Torealis said with a smirk  “Shall I make use of that shape again?”

Deliah shrugged as much as her cyborg-shoulders would allow.  “Not at present.  Let’s hold that one, perhaps make use of it once we’re inside the complex itself.  It will certainly be useful.”  She turned back to Arcturus.  “Got what you need?”

“Almost,” he replied, climbing off his victim and relieving it of the energy rifle it had been carrying.  “The patrols and guards would be suspicious of a Skelebot coming back unarmed.”

Jacob stayed on his victim, keeping it pinned.  “You said last time that they could get a thermal and magnetic reading on us, even without being able to turn their heads.  If these guys get recovered, will they give over information on us, and how they got hit?”

“Good question, Jacob.  The answer is no.”  Arcturus re-activated his laser-comm, pointing it at Jacob’s victim and sending a small patch of code that would activate the self-destruct system.  There was a dull THUMP, and the unit shuddered under Jacob’s hands, but then went completely limp.  While the primary self-destruct would obliterate anything within 10 meters, the secondary system would only destroy the internal workings of the robot.  It was designed to keep a captured robot from revealing technology to its captors.  Arcturus turned his attention to each of the defeated robots, and each one THUMPed in its turn.  When it was over, each of the victims was a hollow shell of armored metal.

Jacob stood.  “So the next step is getting you inside the complex, correct?”

Arcturus nodded.  “That should not be too hard, now that I have the access codes to the network.  When their systems try to query me for orders and destination, I will be able to reply properly.  The soldiers who stop me will double-check with their network, and my orders and permissions will show up.  I will get stopped a lot.  But the amusing part will be getting downstairs.”  He and Deliah had discussed this, with lightning-fast communication, but silently from the others.  “That will be easier than I had previously thought, with data I pulled from this one.  Their robotic maintenance services are on level 5, past much of the heavy security.”

“So all you have to do is play sick,” Martiniros completed the thought.

Arcturus nodded.  “Imagine the sorts of error codes I can feed the network once I get back into range.”

*****

The two guards outside of the checkpoint gate were visibly nervous. They didn’t point their weapons at Arcturus anymore, but they were ready to at any moment.  The sergeant had challenged him at 10 meters, instructing him to stop and identify himself aloud.  His answer had confused them completely.

“Skel-20315A returning to base as instructed for retrofit of vocal analysis destruct code delivery.”  His robotic voice was perfectly monotone.

What?” The sergeant exclaimed.  Arcturus had repeated himself, as any skelebot would.  “Skelebot, safety your weapon and lay it on the ground,” the sergeant instructed.  Arcturus obeyed immediately.

“Is it a threat, Sarge?” a voice called from behind the gate.  Arcturus identified her as Lieutenant rank, most likely the officer in charge of the shift.  The Sergeant approached, slinging his rifle onto his shoulder and drawing his computer from a pocket.  He tapped a few commands, then looked up to Arcturus again.

“Not sure, Lieutenant.  Skelebot, identify yourself to the network and transmit your orders.”  Again, Arcturus obeyed, sending a legitimate identification, but with a long series of order codes and error messages that would be sure to get some attention.  The reaction from the Sergeant was immediate.

“LT, this one is seriously messed up.  It’s sending error messages that I’ve never heard of.  One of the orders codes indicates that he’s returning to the lower laboratory with a sample of Wooly Mammoth DNA.  He’s not a threat, but the network has ordered him to return to maintenance immediately.”  He pocketed his computer.  “Winters, get the weapon and return it to the armory.  Skelebot, proceed to maintenance as ordered by the network.”  One of the soldiers in front shouldered his weapon, then strode forward to recover Arcturus’s weapon from the ground.  The soldiers all visibly relaxed; if the network said Arcturus was harmless, then he was.  He stepped forward, waited for the LT to order the gate opened, then proceeded through and toward the main complex.  He moved normally, all the while soaking up as much information as he could about his surroundings.

For this purpose, he was an excellent spy.  His mechanical senses were locating every above-ground structure in the complex, with ranges and distances that were not estimations.  His eyes tracked patrol movements, guard positions, aerial units coming and going, and ground vehicles as they rolled across or hovered over the dust and sand.  His radio and laser communications gear was picking up every signal they could, processing and storing every spoken message and every computerized transmission.  And his computer brain would retain everything with perfect clarity.  This was the sort of perimeter breach that gave security specialists nightmares.  By the time he had passed the main hangar building and reached the front door of the main complex, he already had a great deal of the information he required.

*****

Deliah’s cyborg eyes watched Arcturus every step of the way. Kierla was next to her, peering through a pair of binoculars.  The two lay prone, more than a kilometer from the outer checkpoint that their friend had passed through.

Kierla shook her head.  “The things you can get away with when people think you’re just a robot.”

“Yeah, it does make our job easier.  Now, if we can just get out of here without being spotted.”  Deliah looked to the sky, seeing four squads of SAMAS on their patrols.

“Think they’ll come looking for us?  The sensors on those SAMAS can pick us up from here.”

“Good chance of it,” the cyborg replied.  “Even chance, I’d guess.  But that’s why its us out here.  Anyone else from the team would be picked up as a marked enemy of the Coalition.  A cyborg and a human won’t attract any undue attention.  That’s also why we’re not bringing any serious firepower out here.  If they stop us, we just lay down the guns and act like everything is cool.”  Deliah turned her head.  “The hardest part will be pretending we’re happy to meet them.”

Kierla snickered, then put away her binoculars.  “Well, they won’t let us go if they catch us overlooking the complex.”

Deliah nodded, and the pair made their way back to the hovercycles.

*****

Arcturus approached the mutant canine nursery carefully. The patrolling guard patterns were easy to pick up, and being wired into the network allowed him access to the locator beacons each guard carried in their helmets.  Avoiding them would be relatively easy.  But it would be important- he could only be spotted once by the guards on this floor, and then he would have to leave.  This part of the facility was one of the strike team’s primary goals.  They would want to get as much information about this area as they could.

He stared through the transparent wall panels and into the first of the growing chambers.  The chamber was huge- 40 meters square with a 10-meter ceiling.  Like the trunks of trees in an alien forest, the cylinder-shaped crucibles reached from the floor to the ceiling.  Each was made of glass or plexiglass, filled with fluid and lit from the inside.  And each one held a single mutant canine, all approximately the same size, breed, and presumably at the same point in their growth cycle.  Arcturus had little information in his own memory banks regarding the life and growth of any of the mutant species that the Lone Star complex could produce, and while his curiosity was piqued, he did not want to query the network for the information.  That sort of information request would be seen as a serious breach of network security, and he would most likely be disassembled when he finally arrived in the maintenance department.  As it was, he had changed his identifier code to the network three times.  The maintenance teams would be expecting a lot of malfunctioning skelebots by the end of the day.

He made a mental note of the position of two of the patrolling guard elements, then moved on.  There were seven more growing chambers, each one able to grow 400 mutants in a single batch.  Each of these was in a different stage of growing mutants, and all but two of them were growing mutant canines.  One had recently finished its growing cycle, and was in the process of being cleaned and prepped for the next batch.  Men and women in full environment suits walked from one to another, spraying each crucible with decontaminants.  The other had only about half of its crucibles active, the others all empty and cleaned, ready for use.  The ones that were operating held many different forms; mutant felines of several breeds, two mutant bears who looked nearly complete, and several that were not far enough along in the growth cycle to be identifiable yet.

He had four minutes before his current location was passed by a patrol.  He turned away from the growth chambers, and entered into a research laboratory that was currently empty.  After querying the local security system to make sure he was alone, he entered the front office area.  The computers that the scientists used here were dedicated to their research, and while everyone in the complex had their own personal computer, they would never be allowed to work on classified material on their own devices.  The memory storage systems were easy to locate.  After a moment to analyze the room, he opened a storage compartment in his abdomen and removed a small stone from inside.  It was no bigger than the end of his thumb.  He had brought 3 dozen of them, but only 12 were left.  While he wasn’t entirely certain how they operated, he trusted Darien’s skills.

*****

Martiniros peered into the darkness, his face distrustful. “I’m not sure, Jacob.  It doesn’t look like its completely abandoned.”

“I know it.  But to my eyes, it looks like two things to me.”  Jacob turned and scanned the room again.  “It looks like someone passes through here regularly, but not often, and hasn’t been here in a while.  It also looks like someone who is hiding out from the CS, or at least is trying to avoid their direct attention.  Whoever they are, they might be convinced to keep quiet about us.  They may see us here, and avoid us.”

“They may also point us out to the CS patrols.”  Martiniros sighed.  “But of everything we’ve scouted out, this has the most potential.”

Jacob nodded.  He touched his fingers to his communications link- Jasmine was keeping her abilities contained, rather than risk detection by the psychic-sensitive mutant canine patrols.  So the team was forced to rely on technology.  “This is Jacob.  Our location is deserted, and looks like as good a spot as any to hole up for the day.”  He looked over his shoulder, towards the east.  The sky was beginning to brighten.  They had perhaps an hour before Martiniros would need to be undercover, and they’d all feel safer being out of sight when dawn came.

“Sounds good.  We’ll be there shortly.” Deliah’s voice sounded exactly the same through the comm links- it was digitized when she spoke, so hearing it digitized for transmission made no difference.

Jacob turned around, re-entering the building to survey the room again.  20 meters wide, and nearly 100 long.  It was a typical metal frame building, the kind that almost any industrial city produced by the dozen.  This one was most likely made of common steel, judging by the rust on the main-frames.  The metal struts that spanned between the frames to hold up the metal roof panels were rusted more, and the roof panels themselves were in worse shape still.  There weren’t any breaches, though, and Martiniros had his box.  The wall panels were in far better shape than the rest of the building- which made Jacob wonder if they’d been replaced.  The space was plenty big enough for the team to sleep- even considering that Torealis had to take her natural shape to truly sleep.  A near-circular hole had been cut into the roof panels near the peak, and the neglected fire-pit sat directly beneath it.  In several places along the walls, flimsy metal shelves stood empty, their contents taken by previous visitors.

But not taken too long ago, Jacob reminded himself.  That had been the thing Father Martiniros had picked up on- there was a thin layer of dust and fine sand on the shelves, but there were also spaces where the dust had not settled- where boxes or tools had been left there for a while, then taken elsewhere.  It wasn’t being used for storage so much as just transferring, Martiniros had guessed- the building was used as a meeting place for exchanges.

The sound of grinding, complaining metal got Jacob’s attention, and he turned toward the far end of the building.

“Jacob, look at this,” Martiniros called from that direction.  Jacob jogged down the length of the building, slowing to a walk as he got close.  The far end-wall had a series of smaller rooms built inside the main space of the building.  Two were toilet rooms that looked non-functional, one was an office, and one was empty- except that it hid a hole in the concrete floor covered with a steel trap-door.  Martiniros had pulled it open, which had caused the noise.  Now, he was grimacing at the dark hole and the ladder that descended into it.

Both their eyes could penetrate the darkness with no problem, but there wasn’t much to see.  The hole was not just cut through the concrete, but was a circular tube of cement set into the ground below it.  The steel ladder was set into the side, and both the tube and the ladder went down 12 meters before ending on a dirt floor.

“We should have checked this before calling the others,” Martiniros said.  “Quite literally anything could come out of that hole.”

Jacob shrugged, then looked around the room.  “This room is big enough- we could just park Tori right on top of the trap door.”

The vampire laughed, then turned to look down the length of the main building.  The rest of the team was pulling their vehicles inside, and beginning to look around.  Then he looked back at the hole.  “I’ll go down for a look, and see what I can find down there.  Mind setting up my box for me, if I take too long?”

“Sure thing,” Jacob said, watching as Martiniros began to descend the stairs.

Deliah came up beside Jacob a few minutes later.  “Hrm…” she said, staring into the dark.  Her sensors could see to the bottom just as easily as Jacob’s eyes.  “Miss something?”

“Didn’t spot it until after we’d called you.  He’s down there, having a look.”

“Well,” Deliah said, looking around, “Aside from the hole, its more comfortable than our other recent accomodations.  I suppose we could just have Torealis lay down on the trap door.”

Jacob snickered, then reached down to offer a helping hand as Martiniros climbed back up the ladder.  Jacob was caught off-guard, again, by how cold his companion’s hand was.  No amount of getting used to it would keep him from shuddering inwardly at the vampire’s touch.

“There’s a tunnel at the bottom, headed more or less East, sloping downward,” Martiniros reported.  Goes about 100 meters, I’d guess, before hitting an intersection.  I didn’t explore past that.  Its all dirt, and looks well-travelled but not recently used.  You said the same thing about Torealis that Jacob did.”

The young dragon had just joined them, and smirked at hearing her name.  “You want me to hold the door shut, huh?”

*****

Now THAT is interesting, Arcturus thought to himself as he scoped through the low-clearance areas of the network memory.  He was riding in a service elevator, looking for a way to get clearance to the lower levels that would not gather attention.  And in the robot corps order history was an entry regarding a small team of skelebots that had been assigned to level 7.  A request for additional robots had been submitted, but not yet acted upon.  One of the robots down there could easily come up for scheduled maintenance…

The classified sections of the network were very secure, and while he could breach them, he couldn’t do it quietly.  The low-security sections, however, were more or less Arcturus’ playground.  He sent a few streams of code along to the maintenance scheduler system, and a moment later the orders went out for R8-21R to return to Level 5 for a checkup.  Arcturus then inserted his own fake ID as the replacement, sent his location along to the network, and a moment later the elevator began to carry him down to his next posting.  Arcturus would have laughed if he dared.

At some point during all this, I will have to laugh, he thought.   The effect of a laughing skelebot on the human guards should be interesting.  And turning the human security officers against the skelebots would create more confusion.

The elevator doors opened to a lobby, and just beyond was a security checkpoint.  The human guard behind the desk looked up as Arcturus exited the elevator, then cocked her head as he approached her.  He stood silently, staring down the corridor ahead, waiting for the robot he was replacing to approach.  The protocol required the replacement to acquire a command history from the unit that was leaving- the replacement then wouldn’t need the human officer to repeat everything when a robot when back for maintenance.

The guard looked down at her computer for a moment, querying the network for the new Skelebot’s orders instead of asking.  The answer was just as quick- she shrugged, apparently entering a note of his arrival, then went back to her paperwork.

It was only a minute before the other Skelebot appeared.  As the two passed, their comm-links met without the robots even looking at each other.  In less than a second, the command history of the Skelebot team on Level 7 and all the events that the team had observed appeared in Arcturus’ memory.

And within those orders were some more interesting finds.  There had been an event recently where three of the other robots had used their rifles to cut a hole in the ceiling ductwork, believing that someone or something had infiltrated the lab complex through the vent system.  The entire heating and cooling system of the complex was under suspicion now, but no specific search or exploration orders had been handed down yet.

Wouldn’t it be amusing if he could insert himself into that sort of a mission?

*****

Deliah restricted herself to a few less hours of rest, relieving Tristan of his watch at noon.  The fire-starter was asleep now, as was most of the rest of the team.  The two psi-stalkers were off on their own, talking in whispers and hand-signals that Deliah chose not to listen in on.  Perridan had many lessons to teach, and his apprentice was apparently doing very well.  Not that Deliah could tell precisely what was being taught most of the time- what they did seemed to be so skillful that she often couldn’t pick out the difference between the master’s work and the apprentice’s first attempts.  They would disappear whenever they wanted to, re-appearing at the perfect moment, and when the use of force had been necessary, they’d been brutally efficient.  The only time Deliah had seen them at a loss was when the team had been ambushed by vampires.  She chuckled to herself with the memory of how that had turned out.

She was standing inside, but not far from the door, and the door was opened wide.  She looked across the landscape, at the scattered trees and brush, at the dry dirt that had replaced the grass.  She had her electronic ‘ears’ open wide, looking for any sort of communication signal in their area.  The metal building didn’t seem to slow her transmission reception at all- in fact, it may have acted as a bit of an antenna.  She was picking up signals from beyond her normal range.

So it surprised her when Perridan appeared beside her, suddenly and silently.  Even her proximity sensors had failed to detect his movement.  Instead of jumping, as a human would, the only sign of her surprise was the speed with which her head turned.

If he took any pride or amusement at startling her, he didn’t show it.  His eyes looked out into the distance, looking for something in particular.  “We’re not alone here,” he said, quietly, “or we won’t be for long.  Perhaps you should awaken a few of the others.”  He stepped out of the door, followed by Finjiarn, and the two jogged off toward a clump of trees before separating, then disappearing.  Deliah shook her head, then withdrew farther inside.

It took about 10 minutes for the two psi-stalkers to return.  They moved quickly, but relaxed, and Deliah could tell from their expressions that whatever they’d found, the risk to the team was minimal.  Perridan approached her directly, while his apprentice stayed a few meters back, looking around behind them to make sure they hadn’t been followed.  Deliah couldn’t imagine that they would be spotted unless they’d wanted to be.

“There’s a small pack of mutant rats- four of them- about half a kilometer from here, to the south.  They’ve got a couple energy weapons and a few large weapon cases.  They’ve got a cook-fire going, so they were easy to spot.  Couldn’t tell if they planned on passing the night there or not.  My guess is they’re smugglers, and the cases are their payload.”  Perridan paused to look over his shoulder.  “Not a threat to us unless we come across them later on tonight.”

“Good to know they’re out there.  Are you two going to be awake?”

Perridan looked at her sideward.  He smirked, just a little, and replied, “Yes.”

“Sorry, I forgot.  I think I’ll pay them a visit.”  She went inside, trading her oversize pulse rifle for a smaller, less-threatening Northern Gun rifle that had been torn apart and re-built by the Techno-wizards in Tolkeen.

Finjiarn looked frustrated, but did not speak.  Perridan followed her, speaking evenly but firmly.  “Deliah, we went to a lot of trouble to make sure we weren’t spotted.  I had presumed we didn’t want them to know we were around.”

“The mutant rats around here might be willing to trade for information.”  She looked around, wondering if anything they’d brought with them would serve as bartering goods.  She settled on one of the vibro-blades they’d brought along.  It was an extra, and they could do without it.  However, it was a techno-wizard rebuild, which would be rare this far south.  She picked up a pair of energy clips for her weapon, pocketing them in her long coat.

“They’ll be willing to trade information with others, as well.  And information about our presence here would carry a good price.”

Deliah nodded.  “This is why I would rather go alone.  I’m less threatening than the whole group, and a cyborg wandering around the wild isn’t much to talk about.”

Perridan’s lips became a thin line, but he didn’t speak.  He merely nodded, then went back outside.  Deliah shouldered her rifle, then went outside and headed in the direction the psi-stalkers had indicated.  She could see the smoke from their fire from the door.  She crested 3 hills before looking down at their camp.  She stopped at the top of the hill, looking down at the group and waiting for them to notice her.  Her optical sensors zoomed in, and she could see them as clearly as if she was sitting around their fire.

She hadn’t seen mutant rats before.  These four didn’t quite fit her expectations.  They were seated on the ground in a half-circle, upwind of the fire and more or less facing her.  They looked to be about a meter and a half tall, shorter than most humans, but not by too much.  They were furry, dark brown, and wore patchwork armor that had been cobbled together to fit them.  Their eyes were almost entirely black, and when they spoke to each other, their yellow, sharp teeth showed.  Whatever they’d cooked had been eaten.  Off to one side of their little camp were four hover-bikes that had seen better days.  One of them was badly overheated, its engine still hot after being turned off for a while.  Beside the bikes were a trio of large cases, just as Perridan had reported.  They were each a meter long, bulky, and had their weapon serial numbers painted on the side.  Her new database identified their contents easily.

After about two minutes, one of the rats finally spotted her standing atop the hill.  The four of them jumped to their feet and grabbed their weapons, but didn’t quite point them at Deliah as she descended the hill.  She held her arms out to the sides, hands open, but her cyborg body looked anything but defenseless.  She approached slowly, then stopped when she was 20 meters away.  She let her hands drop back to her sides, then looked over the group.

“You sure made yourselves easy to find,” she called.

“We got nothing you want, cyborg,” one of them called back, his voice a raspy growl.  “We ate all food.”

She pointed to the weapons cases.  “The serial numbers on those cases identifies says they’re CS made.  Heavy pulse cannons.  You get caught by a patrol, they’ll shoot you on sight.”

“Patrols don’t out this way on foot- and fliers won’t out until after dark.  Safer by day.”  The speaker stepped closer to her.  “You here alone, come into our camp like this.  What you looking for?”

“You.  I was hoping you would be willing to trade information.”

The rat cocked his head.  “What kind information?  And what you trading?”

“Information about the Coalition.  About the base.”  She paused for a moment.  “You know the patrols?  You know where the fliers go?  I’d pay for that kind of information.”

“We know patrols.  We give you todays patrols free- they be different tomorrow.  If you pay, we give patrols for week.”  The rat sort-of winked at her.  “We have friends inside base- give us patrol orders from bosses.”

She nodded.  “I’d trade for that.  I can get weapons like those,” she pointed at the crates again, “if you can find buyers.”

The rat made a coughing/laughing sound, shaking its head.  “We get these easy.  We sell these easy.  Coalition tech everywhere, we get easy.”

“How about techno-wizard gear?  That kind of thing worth trading?” she asked.  She was running through a mental list of gear her team had brought with them, looking for something that these rats would value but that she and her team could live without.  The vibro-knife came to mind, but she decided to save it for later.

“Techno-wizard gear ok- hard to keep working.  Not many techno-wizards around.”  The rat stepped forward again.  “If you got techno-wizard rechargers, like for weapons, that worth more.”

Deliah smiled at her good fortune and foresight.  She reached into the pocket of her long-coat, and pulled out the pair of energy clips for her rifle.  Northern Gun put the same interface on almost all of its energy clip designs, so these would fit almost the entire product line.  And while they would only really work with a weapon rebuilt by a Techno-wizard, the Northern Gun weapons were the most popular weapons for conversion.  She tossed one to the rat, who caught it easy.  He looked at it for a moment, then smiled.  He turned to look over his shoulder, barking out a quick order to his companions.  One stood, and produced a small data-pack, then gently tossed it to Deliah.  It was about half the size of her own fist, with a standard data port and a small display screen.  She’d be able to access it directly with her own data connections, once she could sit still for a few moments.  She looked back up to the rats, then tossed the other energy pack to the speaker.  He pocketed the first one quickly enough to catch the second without dropping his own rifle.  He looked at it, confused, then looked at her.

“What this one for?”

“You trade all kinds of information, right?” she asked.  The rat nodded.  “You trade information with the Coalition sometimes, too, right?”

The rat nodded again, slower this time.  He held up the second pack.  “Payment for not trading information about you.”

“That’s right,” she said.  “I’m more valuable to you as a client than I would be if you turned me in.  I can bring more of these, and other good stuff, if you keep trading information.  I can get techno-wizard machines recharged, too, if you need it.  Bring me empty energy clips if you have them.”  She looked around at the terrain for a moment, then turned her eyes back to the speaker.  “Set up a camp around here, build a fire like this, somewhere the Coalition patrols won’t spot you, and I’ll find you.  Come back tomorrow, maybe the day after that?”  The rat nodded.  She backed away a few steps, keeping her eyes on the rats until she was 20 meters from the speaker.  Then she turned and crested the hill, deliberately heading the wrong direction.  She didn’t think the rats were stupid, and they might deduce that she was staying at the metal building the team had found, but she didn’t want to be obvious about it.

*****

She wound her way back to the building, taking almost twice as long as a direct trip would have, and found Perridan waiting outside for her.  His expression hadn’t gotten any happier since she’d left.  She walked straight up to him, facing him from less than a meter.

“Go ahead and say it, Perridan.  I know you’re not pleased.”

He shook his head.  “No, I’m not.  You wanted us to come with you to keep your team hidden.  You’re making our job harder.  Everything that sees us out here makes our job harder.”

She nodded.  “I know it.  Look, I’ve listened to your advice every step of the way down here.  But I had always figured on making contact with someone down here, and the rats aren’t any better or worse than anyone else.  The Coalition doesn’t trust them, and tall tales about a cyborg out in the wild won’t get any attention from the intelligence officers at the base.  Besides, if this really does have CS patrol orders on it,” she held up the data pack, “that alone would be worth the risk.”

Perridan’s face did the equivalent of raising an eyebrow, except that he didn’t really have eyebrows.  “They probably gave you last week’s patrols.”

She smirked.  “We’ll know in a few minutes.”  She looked over at the setting sun, then back to her scout.  “Is anyone else awake?”

“The dragon and her pet juicer are awake,” he replied.  “The vampire is stirring, but he won’t get out of his box for a while.  The psychics are both hard asleep.  Our guests, the scientists, are starting to awaken, as well.”

Deliah nodded.  “How are you and Finjiarn doing?  How is the hunting around here?”

He looked at her, askance.  “You said you didn’t want to hear much about that.”

“I don’t, but since our team has several members that you two might find pleasure in hunting, I feel I should make sure you two have other things to hunt.”  She paused, searching for the right words.  “You gave your word, and I trust you, but I don’t want you two to… starve… either.  You’re part of the team, and I like to know how everyone is doing.”

He smiled, looking disarming for the first time since Deliah had met him.  “Don’t worry.  There are still some creatures around here that provide what we need.  The Coalition tries to drive them out, but they can’t chase away all of them.”
Deliah nodded again, then went inside.

*****

Jacob had been up for a while, and was talking quietly with Helen again. She had taken a sample of his blood, fed it to the machinery and let them sift through all the information it could get out of a few milli-liters of blood.  She was still amused by the color of his blood- it had taken on some of the glow that Torealis’s blood had.

“It should be ready soon.  Without more power-supplies, the system works slower than it should.”  Helen sighed.  She had her small, personal computer connected wirelessly with the diagnostics machine- which gave her another thing to complain about.  Without a docking station for her computer, she had to use the tiny touch-screen to enter data and read the results.  “And this thing is going to need recharging soon,” she shook the hand-held computer, “but I don’t know where we’ll be able to plug it in.”

Jacob shrugged.  “This building had power at some point- there’s outlets all over- but I doubt they have power now.”

She nodded.  “Caleb and Martin tried before going to sleep.  No luck.  But some of the basic data has come back.  Give me a few minutes to read it, and I’ll sum it up for you while we eat.”

He nodded, then stood and walked over to re-join Torealis.  She had been helping Tristan with cooking the night’s meat.  He sat beside her, and she handed him the first plate.

“Thanks,” he said, then cut off a large bite and stuffed it in his mouth.  The smell of the meat cooking had been making his mouth water for 10 minutes.  “I guess Helen will have some answers for me in a little bit.”

Torealis nodded, slowly.  She was half-concentrating on her small bit of magic, levitating four good-sized elk steaks above the fire Tristan caused.  “I hope she has good news for you.”

Jasmine sat down beside them, putting a hand on Jacob’s shoulder.  She answered Jacob’s unspoken thought.  “There’s always hope, Jacob.”

He smiled at her, then took another bite.  Torealis handed a plate across to her, smiling.  “I still wonder how it is you are able to eat as much as you do, with as thin as you are,” she said, looking the master psychic up and down.

Jasmine shrugged.  “My brain uses up a lot of energy to do what it does, I guess.  I’ve always eaten like this.  I’m just glad we’ve got a good hunter with us.”

Jacob shrugged.  “Well, I wouldn’t have a chance of finding anything to hunt out here if it wasn’t for the psi-stalkers.  They’ve been telling me right where to look.  It’s incredible.”

Helen tapped him on the shoulder, then sat down behind him.  The three women formed more or less of a semi-circle around the huge Juicer now, who turned his back to the fire.  “Ok, good news and bad news.  Which do you want first?”

Jacob smiled.  “Bad news first- the good news will cheer me up.”

“Ok,” she sighed, and took a deep breath.  “Bad news is that, while my diagnostics can’t make complete sense of your blood sample, its clear that the conversion has had some serious, permanent effects on your system.  It hasn’t been destroying any of your organs in particular, like I’d expected, but it has changed their chemistry and their function greatly.  Remember what I told you about other juicer conversions hurting the liver, or the bone marrow?  There’s nothing I can find that’s like that.  But your organs- especially your endocrine system, your glands- are making very different chemicals than an unmodified human.”  She paused.  “Most of that was over your head, I know.  Here’s the short version- from what I’ve got here, I can’t see any way we could successfully reverse the conversion.  Without continuously feeding it dragon blood, your body won’t be able to survive.  And your body requires the other chemicals in your mix to help you survive the presence of the dragon blood.  If we remove either of them from your system, you won’t survive.  We’d have to chemically change you back, and it doesn’t look possible.”

Jacob lowered his head, sighing.  Then he nodded, and lifted his head to meet her eyes again.  “Ok.  Good news?”

That was when he noticed how excited she looked.  “Your body’s cells seem to be part-way through a continuing conversion process of some kind.  Some of your blood cells were almost unchanged, some were almost unrecognizeable.  The conversion didn’t just change you into a Juicer, like what I’m used to seeing.  It started some kind of chain reaction in your body, and it’s still going on.  Your muscle strength is supposed to be off the chart for humans, but there’s more.  Many juicers complain about aches in their joints, and in some of the connecting tissue around the muscles- the normal conversions don’t affect the bones, so when the muscles suddenly get twice as strong, the bones and joints start to deteriorate twice as fast.”

“The Titan-juicers have something done to their bones, though, don’t they?” he asked.

“Yes- when they started experimenting with that series, and taking muscle growth to a ridiculous level, they found the bone strength just couldn’t keep up when the muscles grew past a certain point.  They started reinforcing the bones with metal, which is why it takes so long to recover from that process.  They have to grow almost all their muscles back.”  She shrugged.  “I personally think it was excessive, but there are a lot of men out there who think More is always Better.”

“Not just men.  I have met a female Titan.”  He grimaced.  “She wasn’t pretty.”

Helen shuddered.  “I bet. Anyway, the point I’m coming to is this; from the scan I did on your arm, I got some interesting pictures.”  She handed him her hand-held computer.  The display showed a black-and-white image of an arm, centered on the elbow joint.  “This is my arm, just so I can show you what a normal person’s arm looks like.”  She tapped one of the command-button images on the display, and the image shifted.  “This is your arm.”

At first, Jacob couldn’t tell the difference.  The arm was in almost the same position, and while his arm had more muscle and less fat than hers, they were mostly the same.  She slid her finger along one edge of the display, and the image zoomed in closer.  “Look here,” she said, pointing.  “The tendons and connective tissue around the joint is far more dense than mine, and the tie-ins to the bones go deeper than normal.  And here, on the bone itself, do you see these patches?”  She pointed again, and along the bones he noticed small clusters of… crystals.  They looked almost like snowflakes, but they were each identical, and interlocked perfectly.

“What is that?”

She slid her finger along the display again, and the image zoomed closer still, focusing on one patch of the crystals.  “I’m not sure.  The only way to find out would be to cut you open, get a sample, and analyze it- and obviously, we can’t do that here.”  She waved her hand around, indicating both the building they were in and the lack of a complete laboratory.  “They don’t react magnetically, but they’re more dense than the rest of your bone.  Here, and here,” she said, zooming the image out, then back in at a different place, “these two patches look like they’re trying to grow together.  Along the edges of these patches are what look like partially-formed crystals.  I would guess that this is an on-going process.”  She shrugged.  “We’d need a lot of tests to see precisely what’s happening, and to see how rapidly it is changing, but that’s a matter of scanning your arm again every night for a while.  But it doesn’t appear to be harmful.”

“Strengthening the bones?”

She shrugged.  “I don’t know.  It’s not eating away at the bones- I don’t see any weak points, or anything else that suggests damage.”  She took a deep breath before continuing.  “Another thing I’ve done was to access your chem-pack data, and I found something very interesting…  the mix your system has required to maintain your general health has been needing less and less of the secondary chemicals over time.  Have you noticed that you don’t have to re-charge your chem-packs as often as you used to?”

He had to think for a moment.  Getting the chem-packs was pretty easy, as long as he had a ready supply of what he jokingly called the ‘primary ingredient’.  Because of that, he hadn’t paid too much attention to how long his packs had lasted.  Now that he thought about it, they hadn’t needed changing as much lately.  He’d expected to be half-way through the supply he’d brought with him by this point in the trip, and he’d used up only a little over a third of it.  He nodded, slowly.

“Your system has been requiring a slightly greater amount of dragon blood to maintain your balance, but you probably haven’t noticed.  The bigger difference is that your body’s own chemistry hasn’t been requiring as much support from your rig.”  She took the computer back, and pocketed it.  “There’s something going on in your system, and I don’t know…”  She sighed again.  “I don’t want to give you false hope, Jacob, but I don’t know if this conversion is going to be fatal.”  She paused again.  “Two years isn’t nearly enough time to really tell, and I would need to run tests on you night and day.  But… while we may not be able to de-commission you, it might not kill you.”

Jacob didn’t notice Torealis sitting behind him- not until she put her hand on his shoulder.  He put his own hand over hers- it was twice as big- and squeezed.

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