Lone Star – Chapter 20

Jonas approached the checkpoint, barely aware of his team watching him. He was usually 15 minutes early for his team’s shift, but this time he’d been nearly late.  He stopped in his tracks, looking down the line of soldiers waiting for his inspection, then cleared his head and returned to the task at hand.

“Orwell, glad to see you back on station,” he said, patting her shoulder as he passed.

“Gotta make up for getting blindsided last time, sarge,” she said.  “I won’t let you down again.”

He shook his head.  “Forget it, soldier.  You found out where we should be looking for the bastards; that’s why they hit you.  Now we know where to go.”  He looked down the line one more time, his cursory glance telling him everyone was ready for the shift.  But today the orders were different.  Sgt Bengal came out from behind the desk, and strode up to Jonas, ready to hand over shift responsibility.  Jonas still had his helmet off, shaking his head at the other seargent.

“Not this morning, Tommy,” he said with a smirk.  Then he turned to look back to the elevators.

Another squad was approaching from the elevator lobby.  LT West was leading them.  Jonas turned to look at his own team, and addressed them all loudly.

“Listen up, team.  LT West is here, with a replacement security team to do our normal jobs for us.  We’re on special assignment for this shift.  No orders are on the network, because we’re not sure how much of the network is compromised, and we don’t want to let them know we’re coming.  We’re going up into the ductwork to find the bastards who hit Orwell.  We won’t even be using the regular comm system- we’ll be taking the skelebots with us.  Baker, issue everyone a pulse rifle and energy clips for them.  Everyone else, move down the hall to get out of the way so Sgt Bengal and his team can hand over their shift.”  He pointed down the hall.  His team fell out of formation, then re-organized near the armory.  Baker and Vellis went inside, then began handing out weapons.

The doors outside of Gamma Block were open, but two skelebots were posted outside, with one more roaming around the interior.  A few of the scientists who worked in Gamma were still there, clearing out their workstations and data storage in accordance with their new orders to clear the lab block.  It was clear that none of them were happy about the arrangement.  A few of them cast suspicious glances at the soldiers as they passed.  Jonas couldn’t help but feel aggrivated by them.  They seemed to have forgotten that while their work was important, their security was just as important, perhaps more so.  Storage 43a was occupied only by R6-65C when they arrived.  The hole in the ceiling, and the duct above it, were untouched, but the debris had been cleared from the floor.  Everything that had been stored here last time Jonas had entered was gone.  The only item in the room now was a tall stepladder, lying along one wall and awaiting the team’s use.

Most of the team remained outside, along one wall and standing easy.  Jonas had his sub-unit leaders in the room with him.  They all looked up at the hole in the ceiling.  Then Jonas looked over at the skelebot.

“We’ll need three more skelebots in here.  Pull one each off Alpha, Delta, and Epsilon blocks.  You will stay right here.”

“Affirmitive,” R6-65C answered for the network of skelebots.

Jonas looked back at his corporals.  “Markins, get the ladder.  We’re all going to be going up there, but not all at once.  We’ll have to stay spread out.  The skelebots will take point, and every time we hit an intersection we’ll leave someone to watch it.  Last one in the line will stop.  The rats we’ve seen haven’t been too keen on shooting at us, but they did hit Orwell, so we gotta be on our guard.”  He looked at Durellin, whose eyes had turned down to the floor.  “Something wrong, Corporal?”

“No, sarge, just… not too keen on being that close to the skelebots.  I’ve been able to keep my distance up to this point.”  His eyes came back up, meeting Jonas’s.  “I’ll do my job.”

Jonas nodded.  “Ok, Baker’s team will go up with me, followed by Vellis, then Markins, then Durellin.  That’ll put a little distance between you and the bots, anyway.”  They could hear the three skelebots approaching now, marching down the hallway.  “The bots estimate that we’ll need a 5 meter spread from one to the next, so we’re not all going up at once anyway.”  The three skelebots entered the room, each carrying a CP-40 at the ready.  Jonas looked askance at the last of them- it was an older model.

The communications link came to life.  “Sgt Dickinson, this is Lieutenant West.”

“I read you, LT.”

“Sgt, I have a request for you to conduct overwatch in Tau lab block, Procedure room 2.”

Jonas sighed.  “You gotta be kidding.  LT, we’re about to go in.”

“Sorry, sarge, the request came from Dr Culler.  She knows you’re around, and requested you by name.”  Jonas could hear the empathy in his officer’s voice.  “Your kids know what to do, and they’ve got the bots with them.  The doctors just want you to do overwatch; you can co-ordinate your team from there.”

“Affirmative, LT,” Jonas said.  He was thankful his officer had opened the channel privately- he didn’t want his troops to hear him question his orders, even for a moment.  “Well, boys and girls, I’ve been called down for a procedure overwatch in Tau block.”  All the corporals sighed or muttered.  “Baker, you’ve got the lead, but I’ll co-ordinate from the lab.  I’ll be back here as quick as I can.”

“Roger, sarge,” Baker said.

Jonas sighed once more, than turned and left the room.  “LT, did they say whether I should bring the rifle?”

“No, they didn’t, but it’s a long walk to check it in, and she sounded like she wanted you down there quick.  Take it with you.”

“Yes, sir.”

*****

Dr Culler met him outside Tau block. He expected her to look impatient with him taking so long to arrive, but she surprised him with an almost-warm smile.  “Thank you for coming, Sergeant.  I know you have a security operation going on.  But your sharp eyes at our last procedure proved to be valuable.”

He merely nodded.  This was not the sort of popularity he had hoped for, but getting positive attention from the higher-ups was never a bad thing, was it?  She turned to lead him down the center corridor, and into one of the smaller procedure rooms.  Inside was the same team he had seen at his last overwatch assignment, huddled around the same sort of equipment.  Even the subject looked the same.  Jonas desperately hoped this procedure wouldn’t last two hours, like the other one had.

Unfortunately, the setup seemed to suggest that.  This time, while she was co-ordinating the entire procedure, it seemed that Dr Culler was taking the chemical stuff into her own hands.  The surgeons began their work, slowly and carefully, and Jonas settled himself in.

Baker’s voice came over the comm-link.  “Sarge, we’ve got three bots and two teams into the vents now.  Most of these vents lead back down into the labs, so we’re sticking to the main lines.  We’re at our first major intersection now, but it looks like one path just leads to another lab block- might be the one you’re in.”

“Roger.  Have one of the ‘bots guard that intersection, but I don’t want you following it into another lab.  Especially not this one- the sound of the ducts will throw off the concentration here.  We do not want to aggrivate the staff.”

The next hour was a boring deja-vu, the only difference being regular reports on his team.  He didn’t really need to give out many orders once the teams got used to the ductwork.  Listening in helped relieve some of the aggrivation of not being with them.

The procedure didn’t take as long this time.  It didn’t really make much difference to Jonas, since he didn’t understand anything that was happening.  But many of the reports and orders he heard crossing the room sounded familiar.

“Starting Radiation,” Dr Culler announced.  The surgeons were closing up their work, stitching up the hole they’d needed to make.  The specialists monitoring anaesthesia reported their status as being normal.  Everyone not concentrating on the subject itself had turned toward one of the two large monitors over the head of the table.  It was displaying vital signs and body chemistry readings.  If something were to go wrong again, these numbers would be the first indication.

“Starting bacterial,” another researcher announced from across the table.  He pressed a pair of buttons on the mix controller beside the table, allowing another fluid to enter the subject’s blood.  Jonas sighed, wondering whether he hoped they’d succeed this time or not.  On the vitals monitor, a countdown timer appeared starting at 75 seconds, apparently to let the team know when to take the next step.

As the timer approached zero, Dr Culler unlocked another dose of fluid from her own IV stand.  “Starting retrovirus,” she said.

“Almost done closing up,” the lead surgeon announced.  “Two minutes and we’ll be done.”

“Very well,” Dr Culler replied.  This was the point at which the other experiment had failed, and her attention was focused upon the vital signs monitor.  The other monitor beside it, a larger display reserved for internal microscope systems, was showing something Jonas had no clue how to interpret.  To him, it looked like the surface of an alien moon.  Dr Culler addressed the other team members without looking at them.  “Anaesthesia?”

“Well within normal range,” the specialist answered.

The subject twitched, almost imperceptibly.  Dr Culler looked down, her eyes wide, then looked back at the microscope display.  “The retrovirus is into the cardiac tissue… and bonding has begun.”

The subject’s breathing increased rapidly.  Jonas didn’t know how to read everything on the vital signs monitor, but he’d figured out which was the pulse and body temperature, and both were changing rapidly.  The pulse had gone from 50 to 162 beats per minute, and the temperature had increased by 27 degrees celsius.  It looked to the soldier like a repeat of the last failure, but with one major difference… instead of defeat and frustration, Dr Culler’s face was a mask of anticipation and triumph.

“Brain patterns are changing.  He’s coming out of anaesthesia, doctor.”  The specialist held up her hands, helplessly.  “I can’t give him any more without possibly corrupting the experiment.”

Dr Culler shook her head.  “Don’t.  Stop your systems for now.”

The surgeon looked up.  “We’re not finished here, Dr Culler.  One more min-” His sentence was cut off by his own gasp.  He backed a step away from the subject, and nearly dropped his tools.

Jonas could just barely see the incision from where he stood.  He’d seen lots of these procedures, and while the inside of the subjects was invariably a messy sight, he was more or less used to it.  But the half-closed incision on this thing’s chest was slowly- but noticeably- closing itself.  The tiny stitches that the surgeon had been using were being forced outward by the skin, almost spat out by the subject’s body.

It was healing more rapidly than naturally possible.

“He’s fully awake, doctor,” the specialist said.  She’d backed away from her anaesthesia console, but could read the monitors easily enough.  Dr. Culler pulled the sheet away from the subject’s head, revealing a large mutant hunting-cat with an oxygen mask over its mouth and nose.  She gently lifted the mask away, then put her hand inside the subject’s immense paw.  It was still strapped down to the table, but it’s ‘fingers’ enclosed her hand completely.

“Nicodemus,” she said, gingerly.

The subject’s eyes opened, slowly.  The head turned to the lead researcher, and the eyes fixed on her.  “Doctor…” it said, quietly.  They were feline eyes, but there was an intelligence behind them that seemed at odds with the creature’s size and obvious strength.  Jonas found himself subconsciously readying his weapon.

At the click the weapon made, the huge cat growled.  The low, menacing sound made the hair on Jonas’s neck stand on end, and every other scientist in the room backed off even further.  Dr Culler was the only one that didn’t flinch.  “It’s all right, Nicodemus.  The soldier is on overwatch.  You know the procedure.  You need to stay down for another minute or two.  How do you feel?”

The cat relaxed.  By this point, the incision in its chest was completely healed, and almost invisible. Its breathing had slowed to a regular pace, and its pulse had dropped back down to 60 beats per minute.  It took a deep breath, then let it out slowly.  Then it turned to look up at Dr Culler again.

“You said it was going to hurt,” it said, its voice a deep rumble.  The researcher smiled, and carressed the overlarge head.  Jonas was distracted by his comm-link.  It was Baker, and his voice was full of excitement.

“Sergeant, we’ve found something here.  Looks like a section of duct was cut away, right next to the concrete along the perimeter of the complex.  From what our systems tell us, we’re right along the south-west edge of the labs.  Anyway, the cut-away section faces right into the concrete, but an opening has been cut through that concrete wall, and there’s a heavy-looking iron hatch set into it.  We just found it, and we’re getting a few more troops around us before we open it.”

“How many bots you have in front of that door with you, Corporal?”

“Two of them.  One is farther along the ducts, making sure we don’t get company from up ahead.”

“Allright.  I’m just about done here.  Hold your position until I arrive.”

“Roger, sarge.”  Jonas could hear a bit of relief in his Corporal’s voice.  Playing at being seargent was fun, but only going so far- and Baker had gone far enough.  Jonas turned his attention back to the room.  Several of the researchers were looking at him, including Dr. Culler herself.  She had her personal computer out, and was finishing entering a series of commands into it.

“Sergeant, I believe Nicodemus has come through the procedure well.  I see your team needs you.  I’ve asked Lieutenant West send along someone from his detail to replace you.”  She looked back over at the huge mutant cat, then began loosening the restraints.  “They should be here in just a moment.”  The cat sat up, then slowly got to his feet.  Jonas’s earlier estimate of 3 meters height was just about right.  His fur was a tawny brown color, with slightly darker spots scattered on his back.  He had on loose, white, pajama-like pants on, but his powerful chest was uncovered.  The short hair that had been shaved off for the procedure was already beginning to grow back.  His eyes had vertical pupils, like a cat, but instead of the yellow color Jonas had expected, they were a bright violet.  Dr. Cullen was beaming at him.

“Did everything work?” the cat asked, his voice a deep, throaty purr.  He was looking down at his hand, and flexing his fingers.

“We think so.  The incisions healed themselves.”  She touched his sternum where the opening in his chest had been, only a few minutes earlier.  He looked down at where she touched him, then over at the soldier.

“Shall we test it?” he asked.  “There’s no reason to wait.  If it didn’t work, you’ll all be here to patch me up.  Sergeant, would you test our experiment with a shot?  I’d prefer it in the leg, please.”

The other scientists in the room looked shocked.  Dr. Culler looked up at the cat, concerned, but then her lips cracked in a smile.  “Yes, why wait?  We might as well see right away.  Seargent?”

Jonas didn’t move for a moment.  The he shrugged, and lifted his rifle.  He spoke over the comm-link, evenly and quicky, “Be advised, Level 7 security, I am about to discharge my weapon in Tau lab, procedure room 2.  No threat, no response required.”  He sighted in on the cat’s thigh muscle, intending the shot to pass through without hitting the bone.  When he pulled the trigger, the rifle spat a low-power bolt that impacted the cat mid-thigh.  Nicodemus twisted sideward, slamming his hand down on the surgery table to catch his balance.  Several of the surgical tools bounced, and a few hit the floor.  No one moved to collect them- all eyes were locked on Nicodemus.  He growled, making Jonas’s neck-hairs stand up again.  Jonas returned his rifle to it’s earlier position, ready but relaxed.

“Sgt. Dickinson, we read your weapons discharge.”  LT West sounded concerned, but didn’t press for details.

The cat righted himself, keeping weight off his injured leg.  He tore the pajamas, removing the fabric from around the wound.  The hole was two centimeters across, and hadn’t penetrated the leg muscle completely.  Since it was an energy weapon, there was no bullet to remove.  Everyone in the room watched, silently, and after a few seconds, they could see the hole filling in from below.  Jonas couldn’t see clearly what was happening, and didn’t know enough about medicine or healing to know precisely what he was seeing, but he could still tell it was closing up as he watched.  The cat looked down at Dr. Culler, whose eyes were bright with excitement.

Another soldier entered the room, carrying a rifle.  She was someone Jonas didn’t recognize, probably from Sgt Kestrel’s unit.  She was taller than Jonas was, and he was sure he’d have noticed her if they’d crossed paths before.  She saluted smartly, and he returned the salute.  “I’ll take over here, Sergeant,” she said.  He nodded, then turned and left the room.

“Thank you again, Seargent,” Dr. Culler called after him.  He nodded over his shoulder as he left the room.  He walked casually through the lab block, then broke into a jog once he reached the main corridor.  “Baker, I’m on my way.”

“Roger, sarge.  Nothing new here.  From looking at the door, I’d guess we’ll need a cutting torch.”

Jonas changed directions at the next intersection, heading toward his checkpoint.  “Do the skelebots have anything like that built into their system?”

“No, sergeant,” Baker replied, “I asked them.  They estimated that the rifles could put holes in the metal, but would waste a lot of shots doing it.  I figured we’d save the ammunition.”

“I agree,” Jonas replied, arriving at the checkpoint.  LT West had been listening in, and had a mini-torch kit waiting for him.  Jonas didn’t slow down as he passed, snatching the kit up and nodding to the corporal behind the desk. He broke back into his jogging pace as he rounded the corner, heading toward Gamma Block.

*****

Corporal Durellin and his team were still on the floor when Jonas arrived in the storage room. He nodded to them as he passed, scaling the ladder and entering the tattered ductwork.  The line of soldiers extended down the duct and around the corner.  The rest of the team was up the ladder and in the ductwork.  He walked in a crouch, the space not quite big enough for him to stand comfortably.  After a few minutes of passing by his soldiers, patting shoulders as he went, he caught up with the front of the line.  Two skelebots were in front, Baker and his sub-unit just behind them.

The door was just like Jonas had imagined it.  A circular hatch, made of rusting steel and without any obvious bolts or hinges on their side.  Jonas guessed that it was meant to open away from them.  It was set right into the concrete foundation that surrounded the entire lab complex.

“Nice little party,” Jonas remarked, taking a look at the door.  He set the torch kit down.  “You know how to use this thing?”

Baker looked down at it.  “No, I don’t,” he replied.

“Me, neither,” Jonas sighed.  The Coalition had a wonderful education system for those who could afford it.  But it didn’t do much for everyone else, and operating a cutting torch wasn’t a skill they taught in boot camp.  Most of the soldiers the CS recruited had to be taught how to read while they were learning to shoot.  “Anyone here know how to operate a cutting torch?”

Silence.  Jonas shook his head.  “LT, got anyone on the shift that can operate a cutting torch?”

“I’ve got a better solution,” West replied.  “Standby.”

After a minute’s wait, one of the skelebots turned to face Jonas, and set down its weapon.  “Sergeant,” it said, in a much more human voice than usual, “This is Lt Atley from Robotics.  We met when I delivered the robots.  I’m taking direct control of this one to assist you.”

He nodded.  “Thank you, LT.  I apologize, but using a torch isn’t something we normally do.”

“Not a problem, sergeant.  That’s why we’re here.  Stand back and shield your eyes.”  The skelebot picked up the torch kit, opened the box and began to fiddle with the components inside.  Within 30 seconds, the torch was lit, and the bot was burning a hole in the hatch.  Jonas hadn’t seen this sort of work done before, and was surprised by how much light it created.  His helmet filtered out a lot of it, but it was still uncomforable to look at.  Just like looking at the sun, even the helmets couldn’t filter out light of that intensity.

The cutting only took five minutes.  LT Atley had started the cut at the top of the hatch, and left a few millimeters of uncut metal when she shut off the torch.  She doused the fire, then set the kit aside.  Hoisting the rifle again, the skelebot turned sideward and kicked out at the hatch.  The remaining metal gave way, and the center of the door fell inward, leaving a nearly meter-wide circular hole that still smouldered.  Jonas flinched at the sound, wishing they could have been quieter, but then remembered that there was little chance they had surprise on their side either way.

“The metal is going to be hot for a few more minutes, so be careful.  The torch heats it to 1600 degrees, and it won’t cool off right away.  You’ll feel it through your gloves.”  Her voice didn’t quite sound human through the skelebot’s vocal system.  “I’ll stay with you for a bit longer if you want.”  The skelebot began climbing through the opening, disappearing into the dark on the other side.

“Glad to have you, LT,” Jonas said.  He followed the skelebot through, feeling the metal ductwork pop as his weight left it.  Through the hatch was darkness that would be impossible to see in for naked eyes, but his helmet was able to shift its display to compensate.  His feet met hard-packed dirt.  The space he entered was about 5 meters circular, with a ceiling supported by rough wood beams.  He had just enough headroom to stand up straight.  Two tunnels stretched off ahead of him, each turning away from the other and sloping upward gently.

“Baker, move your team in here.” Jonas said.  The moment he finished speaking, he noticed movement in the dark of both the tunnels.  He had another half-second to react before something started shooting at him.

He rolled sideward, coming up on one knee and levelling his rifle.  He fired two bursts at his assailant, and the shape dropped to the ground.  A moment later, the skelebot fired two bursts from its own weapon, down the other tunnel.  Both tunnels were just big enough for a single human-sized being to walk, and whatever was coming at them had to come one at a time.

There just happened to be lots of them.  Two rushed into the chamber, firing at Jonas and missing, while a third directed its fire at the hatch.  Baker had slipped through, but his team couldn’t follow without getting hit.

The skelebot sparked beside him, as their attackers hit it.  “Sergeant, their weapons aren’t powerful enough to penetrate this ‘bot’s armor, but they will damage yours.”

He continued firing, and between his own shots and Baker’s, they put down the three that had entered the room.  He could hear guttural shouts coming from down both corridors, but couldn’t tell what was shouting.  “LT, can you call a few more skelebots up here?  We’re going to need to post a couple of them right here.”

“Already done, sarge.  They’re on their way.  Need them to bring you lights, or anything else?”

“No, sir, our helmets are doing fine, and I’d rather not give our positions away if we start moving.  We could use some barricade material, we’re exposed here.”  He looked over at the skelebot.  “Lieutenant Atley, mind getting a closer look at one of those things?”

“Certainly,” the robot replied, setting down its rifle and moving forward quickly.  There was more gunfire from further up one of the tunnels, but the bullets bounced off the robot’s skin and embedded themselves in the dirt walls.  It reached down, grabbing the nearest of the fallen attackers by the ankles, and dragged it back to the soldiers.  Baker’s team was inside, and Vellis and his team were clustered around the other side of the hatch.

“Baker, Mendez- cover the right tunnel.  Reglin, Charleston, cover the left.”  Jordan pulled the assailant back toward the hatch further.

It was a mutant rat, all right.  It had taken his fire-burst directly in its chest, and had died quickly.  It was still bleeding all over the floor, the dirt turning to red-brown mud.  The skelebot was pulling a second of the attackers toward him.

“Sergeant, this one is alive.”  It pulled the rat all the way to the hatch, settling it beside its dead companion.  “Two hits to the left shoulder, one in the left leg.  She’s in shock, but she’ll make it if we can get her medical attention.”  At that moment, another pair of red-glowing eyes appeared in the hatch. The newly-arrived skelebot stopped when it saw its path blocked by Jonas and the two mutant rats.

“Stand fast for a moment, skelebot.” Jonas began looking through the patchwork arming clothes on the living mutant.  He found an old, rusty, powder-cartridge pistol, but nothing else.  Satisfied that she didn’t have a suicide device, he looked up at the robot again.  “I want you to take her to Medical Incarceration on level 5.  Report her as a suicide/escape risk.  Then come back down here.”

“Affirmitive,” the robot replied, gently lifting the rat off the floor and turning to duck-walk back down the ductwork.  The second skelebot in the reinforcements stepped inside, carrying a portable defense barricade.  It was basically an armored steel plate with folding legs, and it could be stood on one edge.  It would provide enough space for two soldiers to take cover behind it.  A third entered the dirt chamber a moment later, carrying another barricade.  Jonas noted that this one was the old-model skelebot he’d seen earlier.  Two more skelebots entered the chamber a moment later.  The two ‘bots with barricades set them up, one facing each of the tunnels, taking occasional fire from down the tunnels.  The attackers had learned that their weapons weren’t stopping the skelebots, and were more or less saving their ammunition.

After a moment, Jonas began to get worried.  “Baker, their weapons aren’t stopping the ‘bots, but they might get thru our armor.  But I just had another thought… if they’ve learned they can’t hurt the ‘bots with these guns…”

Baker nodded.  “Right, they might be getting bigger guns out.”

The skelebot controlled by LT Atley turned to face them.  “Good point, seargent.”

“Let’s not wait here to find out,” Jonas said, grimly.  He turned back toward the hatch. “Vellis, your team will follow two of the skelebots down the right tunnel.  LT Atley, mind running point for them?”

“My pleasure.”  The skelebot moved to the entrance of the right tunnel, took a few peppering bullets, and waited for the soldiers to fall in behind it.

“Take another of the ‘bots with you.  You,” he pointed at the nearest skelebot, “go with them.  Baker, your team is coming with me.  You two,” he pointed to two more skelebots, “walk point for us.  You,” he pointed to the last of the bots,” stay here.  Markins, your team will hold this position with the skelebot.  Two inside, two in the ducts- let’s not presume that this is the only hatch through the outer foundation wall.”  He took a deep breath, and let it out sharply.  “Durellin, have your team string out along the duct.  Everyone keep your eyes open.  If I was on the other side, I’d be trying to think up some kind of flanking manouver, and in these ducts, we can’t guess which direction they’d come from.  Consider this area a free-fire zone, but try to take prisoners.  We need as much intel as we can from these things.”

Vellis and his team followed the skelebots down their tunnel.  The skelebots continued to take occasional weapon fire, but it didn’t faze them.  Jonas motioned for his own pair of skelebots to move into the left tunnel.  He could hear more voices ahead, almost like barking, and then more weapons fire.  It seemed to him that all they had was powder-cartridge guns, which were no threat to him and his team, but they couldn’t afford to be careless.  The tunnel was two meters high and less than one meter wide.  It turned gently left, and began to climb, until it had turned almost 90 degrees left.  There, it straightened and levelled out.  The tunnel ran straight for 30 meters or so, as far as Jonas could see.

“Sergeant, we’re meeting heavier resistance up here,” Vellis called out.  “They’ve brought out the energy weapons, so watch out.”

Jonas turned to look at Baker, who nodded back at him.  Their guess had been right.  Then, as if waiting for their cue, a pair of energy weapons began firing at them from down the tunnel.  Their bursts were uncontrolled, and not many shots hit their marks, but a few did hit the skelebots.  While their armor smouldered, neither robot looked injured.  They returned fire with their own rifles, generating squawks of pain from up ahead.  The older of the two skelebots moved ahead quickly, checking on the fallen attackers while the other ‘bot covered the advance.  Soon, Jonas and the other soldiers had reached the bodies.  Both were obviously dead- the skelebots had hit them hard, burning large holes in their chests.

More disturbing to Jonas was the sight of what they carried.  The weapons were obviously CS manufacture, but they weren’t the kind of things that he and his team often saw.  They had the same handles, triggers, and stocks as their new CP-40, but were heavier, and had been mounted on tripods.  He looked at Baker, then at one of the skelebots.

“Robot, identify these weapons.”

The skelebot replied in its chilling monotone, without turning to look at him.  “CSM issue CP-50 heavy pulse rifles.”

Jonas looked up the hallway, double-checking for more attackers.  “Lieutenant Atley, you hear that?”

“I did, sarge.”  Atley’s voice over the regular comm-links sounded human, since she didn’t need the skelebot voice-systems to speak for her.  “These are issued to special-forces teams when they expect to hit heavy combat, and most of the time they choose not to take them into the field just because they’re so heavy.  They’re also very, very new.  We’ve been manufacturing them here for just over a month- before that, they were only being built at the primary factories in Iron Heart.”  She paused.  “These rats must have hatches, like the one we came through, into level 3, where our manufacturing systems are.”

Jonas grimaced.  “LT, I have a feeling that they have hatches into every level of the complex.”

“There’ve been rumors about the rat-tunnels outside, but I never believed them,” Baker chimed in.

“Sarge, this is Vellis.  We’ve hit another intersection.  It’s another chamber, maybe 10 meters across, and it has 5 tunnels in addition to the one we came in through.  There’s no way we can move through here without serious risk of ambush from the rear.  This room looks like the perfect kill-zone.  I’m not even going in unless we have a whole squad to back us up, even with the ‘bots here.”

“It’s allright, Corporal,” Jonas said, moving ahead with his team.  “Looks like we’ve reached something similar.” The two skelebots with him had entered another chamber, matching Vellis’s description.  It was a round room, ceiling supported by more rough wood beams, and had 5 more tunnels branching off into the darkness.  Some of the tunnels angled up, a few angled downward.  “This place is a maze.  Makes sense, though- it’s another level of defense.  Kinda tough to mount an assault on the place when you keep getting lost.”

Baker agreed.  “But the rats live here.  They can ambush us whenever they want.”

Jonas nodded.  “If we pass this point, it turns into a suicide mission.  I’ve got a better idea.”  He turned to the skelebots.

“Robots, I want you to split up and explore these tunnels as best you can.  Keep a record of your pathings, share data with each other when you cross paths again, and map out everything you can.  Have one of you return to me at the security checkpoint in 24 hours and report to me personally with what you have.”

“Affirmitive,” the robots replied, separating from the group and heading down two separate tunnels.  “Lt. Atley, mind relaying that to your partner over there?”

“Already done.  This robot will do the same.  I’m releasing it to internal control.  Take care, Seargent,” she said, then signed off.

“Vellis, move back to the entrance hatch.  Baker, let’s get out of here.”  The team began to move back down the tunnel, falling back as they’d been trained and covering each other as they moved.  Soon, they were back in the entrance chamber.  Vellis’s team had just beaten them.  “Back to the checkpoint, everyone.  Skelebot, you stand fast here.”

Jonas felt a lot of tension lift off his shoulder when he climbed down the ladder.  The moment they were out of Gamma labs, he said, “Helmets off, everyone.”  The entire squad relaxed, grateful for the breather.  With his own helmet off, he had to push a button to activate his communications.  “Lieutenant West?”

“I read you, Sergeant,” came the reply.

“Well, there’s not much to report that you haven’t already heard.  It’s a labyrinth out there, and we could easily deploy a regiment trying to secure it.  I’ve left a skelebot behind up there, but I’d like a second with him.”

“I agree.  And Sergeant, I have a little bit of news for you.  Captain Jurgens just passed along orders from above- you and your squad are being designated for Opposing Force duty.  Hope you’ve had some time to think up drills for your team.”

“Yes, sir, I sure have.”

“Good.  Apparently Command thought it would be a good idea to have more people running around down there.  Meet me at the checkpoint and I’ll fill you in.”

“Yes, sir,” He replied.  Then he adressed his team.  “Hope you boys and girls liked crawling around with the rats, because it sounds like we’ll be doing a lot more of it.”

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