Lone Star – Chapter 25

Morgan turned his head to look to his left, at Sergey, and the SAMAS turned its head with him.  Sergey’s power armor unit was looking right back at him.  CC was on his right.  The others in the squad were in the air, flying a loose circle about 20 meters up.  The roar of their motors was loud enough to make normal conversations require shouting, but his own sensory systems were filtering out most of the noise.  What he couldn’t filter out was the feeling brought out by what he was seeing.

I’m kinda glad we don’t see too much of this, he thought.

Claval and 6 mutant canines, members of his regular team, were in a rough semi-circle around an aging dog-girl and her pup.  The little one was whimpering, sensing his mother’s fear.  The mutant feline on the MCR team was kneeling down beside the body of another dog-boy, 5 meters away.  Claval had blasted the dog-boy a few seconds earlier, with a single high-powered shot from his sidearm.  He hadn’t holstered his weapon, but let it hang beside his hip as he looked down at the dog-girl.  He paced back and forth, tense as a coiled spring.  Morgan and his two LTs on the ground stayed well out of his way.

The feline stood, then glided toward the mother and her puppy.  She knelt down beside them, putting a hand on the back of her head.  The canine was a Retriever breed, clutching her puppy and shaking her head.  The Sergeant whispered something to the mother, and she howled.

“No, no, no, no!  I’ve given them dozens of children, and I never see them again- I don’t even know if they’re still alive!” she sobbed.  “I only want one, one child to raise like a mother is supposed to, one child I can watch grow up!  Is that too much to ask?”

It is in this army, Morgan grumbled to himself.  From the look on the mother’s face, the feline Sergeant must have said something similar.

“Sergeant,” Claval said impatiently.  She stood, moving away from the mother, and through the semi-circle of soldiers.  Morgan could see the faces of about half of the team, and he could read the body language of each of them.  Their rifles were at the ready, but pointed down.  Many of them were looking into the distance, pretending to keep an eye out for approaching danger, but Morgan knew better- they had 3 SAMAS in the air to warn them.  These canines knew what was coming, and didn’t really want to be here for it.  Even for trained soldiers, some things were just too much.

It was too much for Morgan, too, but he couldn’t intervene.  Claval had either gotten disgusted enough or bored enough with the runaway mother.  His pistol came up again, and fired a single shot into the mother’s head.  She fell onto her side, then her back, and her puppy rolled out of her grasp.  It cried louder, but then Claval’s pistol fired again.  The crying stopped.

Claval turned away, barked an order at his team, and started moving toward his hoverbike.  The canines followed him, mounting their cycles and starting the engines.  The feline Sergeant was the last to mount up, and Morgan’s eyes met hers for just a moment.  He wasn’t sure he was reading her emotions right, but if he was, she was having a tough time coping with what she’d just seen.

“Alright, guys, I guess we’re done here,” Morgan said to his team.  “Let’s get back in the air.”

“Roger, Lead,” Sergey said.  He and CC leaped into the air, propelled by their re-igniting engines, and rejoined the formation.  Morgan was beside them a few moments later.  The squad was arrayed side-by-side, with about 20 meters between wingtips, and the hoverbikes moved in a straight line.

“So we decided we’re not bringing them back this time, either, huh?” James asked.  Morgan made the observation that Connor’s habit of asking rhetorical questions was rubbing off.

“I guess not,” Sergey replied.  “They were runaways, and they usually have a 50-50 chance of coming back when they get spotted and caught, whether by the MCR team or regular army.”

“This is true,” James replied.

“That was a mother, though,” Connor said.  “I heard what she said, and I can’t say I blame her.”

Claval’s voice appeared on their communications channel.  “Shadow team,” he called, testily, “I don’t care whether you agree with her or not.  When they run off, they’re sealing their own fates.”

“Apologies, Major,” Connor said, “Since they’re fighting and risking their lives for us, I thought-”

“I don’t care what you thought!” Claval cut him off.  “If you’re going to sympathize with a runaway canine, perhaps you’re in the wrong line of work.  Now can we have some radio silence?”

*****

Morgan sat across from the Major, looking down at the desk between them. He couldn’t quite meet his superior’s eyes- not yet, anyway.  He stole an upward glance here and there, trying to gauge his officer’s eyes, but it was several minutes before he could handle looking directly into them.  They had forgone the regular after-action report for their last mission, but somehow Morgan knew it would come up eventually.  Claval was giving him some more details on the mutant rat situation.

“So it seems they’ve had several break ins lately, into much higher clearance areas of the lower levels.  For a long time, it was confined to stealing weapons and gear, presumably for resale.  But over the last month or so they’ve been getting into the laboratories down on Level 7, and that has more or less been the last straw for the folks in administration.  I don’t know what they’re doing from the security end of things, but they have instructed us to arrest any mutant rat we find.”

Morgan cocked an eyebrow.  “I thought we were supposed to pick up any runaway mutants we find, regardless of type.”

“Well, yes, but there’s been an unwritten exemption in the case of the rats, at least until now.  They’ve been a great source of intelligence, both inside and outside the base, and not much happens around here without them finding out about it.”

Morgan opened his mouth, but paused before speaking.  He re-thought his question, and re-worded it before letting it out.  “Sir, if I may ask, were they one of your intel sources?”

Claval smirked.  “Yes, some of them are, and they continue to be, Captain.  Without information I purchase from them, my unit’s effectiveness would be noticeably reduced.  That is why I want you to ignore the directives about capturing or killing the rats.  If you get a written order regarding them, bring it to me and I’ll arrange your exemption.”

Morgan nodded.  “Yes, sir.”

“I’m going to continue to work with them, because I have to.  Any attempt to exterminate them will only make them into a hardened opponent, whereas now they are a neutral source of intel that we need.  They don’t like working with MCR, because we catch runaway mutants, and every mutant rat is a runaway- so getting intel from them is tricky enough.  But in this part of the world, there’s no one else that comes close to trading information the way they do.”  He paused for a moment before continuing.  “It’ll take time to convince the higher-ups at Admin of this, but I’m confident this whole thing will pass.  In the meantime, I don’t want to generate any more bad blood than necessary.”  Claval leaned back in his chair.  “What’d you think about our incident this afternoon, Captain?”

The question caught Morgan off-guard.  He didn’t know how to answer, and took his time coming up with what he thought was an acceptable response.  “I’m not thinking much of anything about it, sir.  What we have here, both you and I, seems to me like the proverbial dirty job that someone has to do.  It won’t always be pleasant.”  He hoped that would mollify his immediate officer.

“I fucking hate jobs like that one,” Claval said.  “When some dog-boy or -gir gets it in their head that running off is the ‘right thing to do’, I hate it.  It’s not up to me, or you, or that dog-girl I gunned down.  If they break the rules and run off, we have to reign them in.  If we were to get soft on them, the other mutants would start deserting in packs.”  Claval shook his head.  “That particular canine had put in a request to be retired from birthing, and to have one child she could just raise as a normal child- whatever the hell that means.  I saw the paperwork before we went out after her.  And of course, the request was denied.  There’s no protocol for that sort of thing- every mutant canine on this base is a soldier.  Sure, that girl had probably earned retirement.  And sure, they could find a place for the pup, even if he didn’t willingly enter the military training.  It wouldn’t be too hard.  But since they don’t have such a program already in place, the folks in admin just flatly said no.  The best part,” Claval leaned forward, pointing at the ceiling, “is that that bureaucrat didn’t have to face the effect of his decision.  That’s my job.”  Claval put his elbows the desk in front of him, and folded his hands.  “I’m not completely inhuman, Captain, but I need to act that way, especially in front of my team.  Those troops who saw that event will be telling everyone they know about it, and it’ll reinforce discipline.  And hopefully it’ll keep me from having to kill a mother and her baby in the future.”

“Yes, sir,” Morgan said, automatically.  Inside, he was wondering how hard it would have been to have the mutant rats arrange something for that mother and her pup.  But since he knew next to nothing about how the rats operated, he kept it to himself.  He was also wondering just how hard Claval really found it to deal with a situation like that.  The Major’s words sounded sensible, but there was something behind his eyes that was evasive.  Not evading Morgan’s eyes, but putting up a solid block, daring Morgan to try to penetrate it.  It almost came across as a challenge.  And Morgan couldn’t forget the look in the Major’s eyes when he’d pulled the trigger.  This man was given this job for a reason, Morgan’s subconscious whispered to him.  He isn’t here by accident.

“As far as your man speaking up about it, I’m willing to let it go,” the Major continued.  “But I expect you to discuss the event with him, and the rest of your squad.  As I said before, this job requires a lot of trust.  Earn it by keeping your squad in line.”

Morgan nodded.  His opinion of his commanding officer continued to drop at a rapid pace.

“Well, that’s all, Captain.  Enjoy the rest of the day off- but keep your ears open, and your hands steady, please,” the Major said.  “I’ll call if I need you, but from what I know of the outside world, it should be quiet for a little while.”

Morgan nodded, rose from his chair, and exited the office.  He headed for the elevator, wanting nothing more than to get back to his quarters and lay down for a little while.  He barely made a down-going elevator before the door closed- and found himself sharing it with Claval’s Sergeant, the mutant feline.  She smiled at him, in the way a cat would smile, nodded and adressed him by rank.  It was his first good look at her- almost every other encounter had been fleeting, or in bad light.  She was a little taller than him, and would be considered thin if she were human.  She wore field fatigue trousers and a black t-shirt, almost like a drill instructor.  He couldn’t help but notice that her mammary glands were located and proportioned for a human more than a cat.  Her fur was tawny, and the backs of her arms and head had small, leopard-ish spots.  He guessed that her genetics favored the leopard, but didn’t ask.

“Hello, Sarge.”  He paused for a moment.  “I apologize, but I don’t believe I’ve been told your name.”

She smiled again.  “My name is Lady Ann, Captain,” she purred.  He offered his hand, and after a moment of mild surprise, she shook it.

“Tell me, Sergeant, that incident today- well, I’m not sure what to think of it, and I can’t imagine you deal with it easily… it’s your job to hunt down mutants who run off.  Lots of them don’t get brought back.”

She nodded, and her eyes closed for a long moment.  “I guess every army has deserters, sir, and they deal with deserters in the same ways.  If we allow our soldiers to run off when they feel like it, we won’t be able to maintain an army.”

“But as far as the mutants are concerned, it’s not like humans,” Morgan said.  “We volunteer, but you are born into this, and don’t have that choice.”

She nodded again.  “Yes, sir, but there have been all-human conscript armies before, and soldiers most often were killed just for attempting to run away.”  She shrugged.  “This is the life we’re made for, to help protect humanity’s place on earth.  And while we’ll never be allowed the same rights, you are our creators.”  She paused, then gave him a side-long smile.  “You don’t demand a seat at your creator’s table, do you?”  The challenge was delivered gently and respectfully.

Morgan smiled, and shook his head.  “No, I guess most of us don’t.”  He sighed.  “I don’t think today would have been any easier if she’d been of a different race.”

“No, sir, probably not.  We deal with it differently.  The Major tends to take it out on the subjects of our pursuits- he more or less blames them for putting him in the position of executioner.”

“I’m beginning to see that.  But I can’t help but feel sympathy for them… I can’t imagine being born into this, if I didn’t have the stomach for it.  I mean, I’m happy in my work- I was born to fly things, to be a fighter.  But not everyone is.  How can we expect every mutant canine we bring to life- to be a warrior?”

She shrugged.  “That’s a question for the brains downstairs in the labs, sir.  It’s above my pay grade.”

He chuckled.  “It’s above mine, too.”

She paused, then turned toward him.  “I hope you don’t feel uncertain about our loyalties, sir,” she said, again being as respectful as the statement allowed.  “Mutant soldiers, I mean.  The great majority of us do our jobs every time.”

“And every one of you I’ve met before has done the same,” he said.  “I haven’t ever seen any that hadn’t until I transferred to this unit.”  He shrugged.  “Now, I see lots of them.  It’s taking me some getting used to, is all.  I guess the only ones that made it as far North as my old posting were the loyal ones.”

She nodded.  “You’ve been good for us to have around, Captain.  We appreciate your attitude toward us, and your work with us.  And we’ll have your back, just the same as you’ve got ours.”

“I know it, Sarge.”

The elevator door opened.  It was his floor, and he stepped out, nodding a farewell that she gracefully returned.  He walked down the hallway toward his quarters, opening the door with his ID-pass, and sitting down at his desk before the door had shut all the way.  His PC unit had buzzed once while he was meeting with the Major, and it had buzzed again just before he’d entered his quarters, so he knew he had at least a couple messages waiting for him.  He set the unit down on the desktop, connected it to the monitor/keyboard/mouse unit, and then sat back as the devices recognized each other.  It took a few seconds, then the monitor lit up.  He could read his message much easier on a full-size monitor.  And typing a reply on the tiny touch-screen built into his PC was an aggrivation he would only tolerate if it was necessary.  After a few mouse clicks and a pair of password-challenges, he had his list of messages in front of him.

Only two new ones- one each from the two scientists he’d ‘rescued from the rats’.  Apparently that cover story was still holding.  We’ll see how long that lasts, he thought silently, and hoped he could arrange a permanent vacation for the scientists before their story failed.

Dr. Nadlia wrote her messages like she was having a conversation.  It was a bit of a relief to an officer who had read ice-cold reports and evaluations for most of his professional life.  This message was more to the point than her last one, and quickly gave her reasons for attempting escape.  There had been a number of experiments she was ordered to take part in, she wrote, that were contrary to the rules they’d been trained to follow, and in some cases were against the general laws of the CS.  When she had mentioned this to her superiors, she was asked, politely at first, to keep her mouth shut unless she had something constructive to add to the process.  As time went on, she had felt more and more bullied by the senior staff, and lately afraid for her own safety.  She didn’t detail any particular events, and didn’t name any names- most likely to cover herself if the email got out.  Morgan thought that was a bit futile, since he doubted the senior staff downstairs would care if she’d spilled it all to him.

Dr. Winters wrote more along the lines that Morgan had expected to see.  It was as if he was writing notes as an experiment was in progress.  It had probably driven the spelling-correction software nuts, he thought with a smirk.  He saw many places where a word or two just didn’t make sense in context, but were spelled close enough to another word that would be a much better fit.  He got better at deciphering it as he went along.  Dr Winters didn’t name names, either, but he did at least mention specific experiments that he believed broke the spirit of the law, if not the letter.  Again, Morgan got the impression that in the lower labs, the law meant what the Administrator wanted it to mean.  Apparently, Dr. Winters had recieved an oblique threat within the past week or two, and already suspected that the senior scientists thought of his kidnapping to be a ruse.  He bluntly asked Morgan to get him out of Lone Star as quickly as possible.

Morgan didn’t take long drafting a message to ISS.  Contacts in lower labs have sent messages, detailed experiments that violate CS law, request extraction ASAP. Even with the encryption, he didn’t put any direct quotes of their messages in this note.  If it were intercepted, it would burn all three of them- this way, he snickered to himself, it would only be him for certain that would get caught.  He sent off the message, then lay down in his bed, trying to banish the mental image of a mother being killed with a baby in her arms.

It took less than five minutes for his response to arrive.  He sat up, crossing the room slowly, and sat down heavily on the chair.  Opening the message took longer than it did with normal messages- his PC had to sort through the encryption.  The reply was short, as he was expecting, but for once it actually had a directive.  Sort of.

Document everything you recieve from your contacts, but store on a device that is non-networked. That much made sense- they didn’t want it out in the open any more than it had to be.  Begin examining possible extract plans to transport the contacts to Chi-Town- we can arrange security easily once you have left LS territory.  So all he had to do was get them out from downstairs, and onto a plane of some kind, and get off the base and out of LS-controlled airspace.  Oh, and without clearance and before anyone else noticed, because there were a few hundred SAMAS and several thousand anti-air tanks, fighter jets, attack helicopters and power-armor units around, he chuckled to himself.

The next part of the message was interesting… there is an ISS contact in the hangar who can assist with transport.  We will arrange contact. So there were other pieces in place, and he was only one of them.  Most likely not the biggest or most important, either.  Well, he was used to that part.  But having assistance in the hangar didn’t mean much to him at face value.

He looked around his desk for a moment, his eyes falling on the data unit Lt. Col. Murphy had slipped him.  That presented an interesting thought- the tiny unit wasn’t networked, and had to be physically connected to a computer for its contents to be read.  He plugged it into his PC unit, deleted the audio file that he’d listened to before- then after a moment’s thought, he moved the messages from both scientists onto it.  Then he moved the reply-message from ISS onto it.  Then he drafted another message, this one to the Lt. Colonel;

Lt. Colonel Murphy- it was an honor to meet you.  Forgive me for speaking to you like a rock star of some kind, but one of my Lieutenants was very disappointed that I didn’t introduce you to him- even though he wasn’t there.  He’s looked up to you for a long time, and if you don’t mind I’d like to introduce you two.  Please let me know if there’s a convenient time for you.

If Morgan was worried about the data unit being found by the wrong person while it was in his own quarters, then giving it back to Murphy was the cleanest solution.

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