Lone Star – Chapter 24

Jonas was near the end of his shift, walking a short, random patrol. He was accompanied by Sgt. Kestrel, and the two were discussing the layout of the complex.  This was Jonas’ last regular guard shift- he and his team were about to become the Opposing Force, not just for Level 7 but for levels 5 and 6 as well.  It was more or less the area of Captain Jurgen’s command responsibility.  Jonas and his team would spend two weeks or so getting familiar with the layout of the upper two floors in their ‘play zone’, and then the games would begin.  While the majority of their time would be spent in the air ducts, they would come down to ‘assault’ the guards on duty on occasion.

Sgt. Kestrel was looking forward to these contests as much as Jonas was.  She had a sharp mind for patrol setups, and would be fun to play against.  Jonas had suggested randomizing her patrols, at least from one day to the next, and she’d pointed out some of the blind spots she’d noticed.

“We can do eyes-on drills all we want,” she was saying, “but it’s not a good example of what the rats are really doing.  What we need to do,” she said, giving a sideward thumb-up toward nothing in particular, “is set up some kind of Capture-the-Flag game.  Designate a half-dozen targets for your team to steal, and see if you can get to ’em.”

“Nice,” Jonas said, nodding appreciatively.  “That sort of thing will keep people from thinking of this as a drill.  We just have to figure out how we’re going to have all this playing going on without bothering the science staff.”

“That’s you’re deal, buddy,” she said, smirking sidelong at him.  “The rats figured out how to do it, so now it’s your job.”

He laughed.  “Very true, Janice.”

Their conversation was cut short by Baker, back at the checkpoint.  “Sarge, one of the skelebots has returned from scouting the tunnels, and is ready to report.”

“Be right there, Baker,” Jonas replied.  He looked over at Sgt. Kestrel.  “You should come see this, too.”

She nodded, and the two jogged back to the checkpoint.  Sure enough, one of the skelebots was standing at inhumanly-rigid attention before the checkpoint.  Its head turned at the approach of the two Sergeants.

“Sergeant Dickinson, I have the report you requested,” it began.  “The other two skelebots are continuing their scouting mission.  We’ve exchanged information 17 times, and estimate that we had mapped 39% of the tunnel system when I returned here to make my report.  This area equals 74.7 linear kilometers of tunnel and 172 intersections.  During this time we encountered scattered resistance from mutant rats, and had wounded or killed 27 of them.”

“Did you retrieve the weapons from them?” he asked.

“No, Sergeant, our orders did not include that directive.”

Fair enough- they’d be loaded down with guns if they had, Jonas thought.  “Go on.”

“I can download the map image we generated to a computer system or personal computer unit.”

Baker nodded his head.  “Should we have him put it on one of the computer in there?” he pointed toward a lab that was currently empty.

“No, they won’t let us touch the research machines,” Sgt. Kestrel replied.

“Download it to my own personal computer,” Jonas said, pulling the unit out of his breast pocket.

“Yes, Sergeant,” the skelebot replied.  The hand-held device beeped a moment later, signalling the skelebot’s wireless connection.  After a few seconds, the skelebot reported, “Download complete.”

Jonas looked at the display on his PC, but couldn’t see it clearly enough to understand what he was looking at.  “This is a 3-dimensional image, right?”

“Yes, Sergeant,” the skelebot said.

“So if we get an image projector, it’ll show us all a big version of it,” he thought out loud.

The skelebot thought he was asking a question, and answered, “Yes, Sergeant.  There is a 3-meter projection device in conference room B, Gamma Block.”  That block was still empty, the hole in the ceiling of its storage room still guarded at all times.

Jonas looked at Sgt Kestrel, and nodded his head down the hall toward that lab block.  “Baker, come along with me.”  Sgt Kestrel asked two of her corporals to accompany them as well.  The five of them filed into Gamma Block a few minutes later, and gathered around the projector.  It was a medium-sized unit, able to form an image that would fit into a 3-meter sphere just above the unit.  It was plenty big enough for their purpose.  Jonas synchronized it with his PC unit, then called up the image from the skelebot’s map.  It took two seconds, and then it projected a 3-d holograph into the air above the conference table.

Everyone in the room gasped.  The image showed clearly where the foundation wall was- meter-thick concrete in most places- and showed every one of the lower levels of the Lone Star laboratory complex.  Outside that wall was a bee-hive of tunnels, completely surrounding the complex.  On the projector image, it looked like a tangle of ropes, twisting back on each other in an impossible knot.  The image showed a handful of entry points into the complex on each separate floor.  The tunnel system easily took up as much space as the lab complex.  But the worst part was that there were a handful of tunnels that led toward the surface, most of them more than 10 kilometers away from the outer perimeter.  Some looked like they went farther.

“This is less than half of the tunnel system?” Sgt. Kestrel said.

“That’s what the ‘bot said,” Jonas replied, nodding grimly.  He switched off the projector, and put his PC unit back into his breast pocket.  “So now comes the next big question… do we turn this in to command?”

“What do you mean, sir?” Baker asked.

“Well, we’ve been told for years that the mutant rats outside the complex were few and scattered, and couldn’t cause us trouble.  We’ve also been told that while there were a few rat tunnels out there…” he waved toward the projector.  “I have a feeling that the data would be made to disappear, and if we’re going to seriously deal with this sort of security threat, we need it.”  Sgt Kestrel was nodding, slowly.  Jonas headed toward the door, and the others followed him.  They walked slowly back toward the checkpoint, and the two sergeants fell into step beside each other.

“Want me to load this onto your own PC unit?” Jonas asked.  She handed her unit over, and Jonas entered the command to share the data across.  It took three seconds, and then he handed the unit back.

“You think command will come down on us for keeping this from them?”

Jonas shrugged.  “Will they come down on us for being unable to stop the rats?”  She didn’t answer.  “Well, its time for the shift-change, anyways.”  Then he had a thought.  As they passed by an intersection guarded by a Skelebot, Jonas stopped.  He looked right at the Skelebot, and spoke aloud.  “Can you relay orders to the skelebot that reported to me earlier?”

“Yes, Sergeant,” the robot replied.

Jonas smirked for a moment, remembering that he hadn’t given new orders to that robot after it had reported.  It was probably standing right where the Sergeants had left it.  “It is to report to Lieutenant West, and give the same brief it gave to me.  Have it download the image to whatever device the Lieutenant decides.”

“Yes, Sergeant,” the digital voice said again.  Jonas found himself getting a little too used to having the robots around.  He turned, and rejoined Kestrel.  He shrugged.

“Now we’re not keeping anything hidden, and the LT can figure out how to handle Command.”

The skelebot he had been speaking called down the corridor after him.  “Sgt Dickinson, skelebot E5-RS5 has signalled our network.  Critical damage, assailant unknown.”

Jonas stopped, and turned back toward the skelebot.  “What does that mean?”

“It means E5-RS5 has been attacked and destroyed, Sergeant.  It was unable to identify its attacker, and possibly sent its signal just before detonating its self-destruct device.”

“Did the signal include its location?”

“Yes, Sergeant.  Its location is now known to the network, and can be cross-referenced with the map image on your personal computer unit.”

“Very well.  Is the other robot down in the tunnels still connected to the network?”

The skelebot was silent for a long moment.  Jonas cocked his head, a little surprised.  The robots had never taken more than a second or two to answer him.

“Answer me, skelebot,” he said, getting a little perturbed.

“No, Sergeant, the network reports no recent transmission from… skelebot Ex-Ex-Ex-Ex-Ex,” the robot said, haltingly spelling out the identifier letters.

“X-X-X-X-X?” Jonas repeated.  “That’s its ID?”

“No, Sergeant, it appears something has gone wrong with the third skelebot you had sent into the tunnel system.  The data that it sent to the network appears to be corrupted.  The real identifier number was forged or changed.”

“Forged or changed?”

“Yes, Sergeant.  The network does not have an explanation.  The third skelebot must have some critical error in its computer system.”

Jonas shook his head.  “I did send one of the older models into the tunnels, but I didn’t think they’d have this sort of problem.”

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