Lone Star – Chapter 26

Trindle and Evelyn sat at a table in the far corner of the hotel’s bar, across from each other.  On the table between them was a large energy weapon, almost too big for Trindle to handle without a tripod.  The metal and composite had no coloring, only gun-metal grey and matte black.  The oversize energy clip sat beside it, upright.  Trindle was examining the top, the electronic interface that would transfer energy into the weapon.

“The CP-50 Assault Pulse Rifle.  They made these different,” he said, pointing at the clip interface.  “There’s three magnetic power transfers, and each one is bigger than the pairs you’d find on the CP-40.”

Evelyn nodded, running a hand through her hair.  It was just beginning to show signs of grey, which had recently compelled her to cut it shoulder-length, instead of waist-length it had been for years.  She was still adjusting to it being loose all the time.  “They built it for power, and it’ll drain an energy clip real fast on full strength.”

“I bet it’ll burn holes in pretty much anything, though,” Trindle said.  He’d hefted the thing earlier, and remembered how awkward the thing had been.  “They must be planning on fielding a lot more cyborgs if they’re putting something like this into mass production.  The grips and trigger-guards aren’t big enough for a SAMAS, or any other power-armor unit, really.”

“Nope.  The little sky-hopper we have here in town could use it, but anything with bigger hands than that… ”  She sighed.  “But I don’t think they’re building cyborgs any faster or slower than they were before.  Cyborgs are expensive.  Juicers, on the other hand…” she tilted her head, then tapped the weapon’s stock.  “Juicers would love these.  And by the sound of it, the CS is enlisting a lot more of them these days.”

Trindle nodded, grimacing slightly.  “Yeah, when they build cyborgs, it’s harder to shift the cost of the unit to the ‘wearer’.  When the tour of duty is over, they can take the combat cyborg body back, and give them a normal shell.  Can’t take the Juicer conversion back, so they make the subject pay that off.  And there’s a lot of ’em willing to work for whoever pays.”  He looked back down at the gun.  “This thing is just scary.”

Evelyn’s eyes narrowed, and her lips cracked into a grin.  “Scary fun.  I set this thing up against a two-inch armor test plate, and one burst made a bigger hole in it than the old C-14 Heavy would, even after expending the entire energy clip.”

Trindles eyebrows went up.  “I used to carry one of those- the Firebreather?  They called it that for a reason.  They pack a punch.”

“Well, this thing is a good step upward.”

*****

Yaran, Gordon, and Billie were at another table, not far away. They had overheard much of the two gun-specialists’ conversation, smiling and exchanging knowing looks. Yaran had guessed that Trindle was almost infatuated with Evelyn, but Billie and Gordon thought it was more like hero worship than anything else.  Trindle had been trained by the CS to be a heavy weapons expert, and it was rare that he met someone who knew guns even as well as he did.  Evelyn was a walking textbook.

Yaran cleared his throat, restarting their own conversation.  “So, our two latest guests have made their way North?”

Gordon nodded.  “I rode with them for a few miles.  They were excited to get moving… always a good sign.”  Many runaways would be so bewildered by their freedom that they didn’t know what to do with it.  These would want to stay in the nearby area, afraid to go anywhere else because Lone Star was all they knew.  This would often lead to getting caught.  It was always encouraging to Yaran to see a new runaway who was eager to get out.  Those were always the ones who adjusted the best.  And while he could eventually convince the more timid ones to strike out on their own, it was safer for everyone to get them out quickly.

Mageera and Damien entered the bar a moment later, waving at Trindle as they joined the other table.  Sven Haeglund came out from behind his bar.  Damien was apparently famished, but Mageera didn’t order any food.

“What’s the biggest cut of meat you can bring me, Sven?”  Damien held his hands out in front of him, as if holding the steak he was wishing for.  “I’ve been hoisting broken machines for Silicon all morning.”

Sven laughed, and patted the canine on the shoulder.  “I’ve got just the thing.”  He returned to the bar, and called into the kitchen.

Damien pulled his cap off, setting it on the table with one hand and wiping his head with the other.  “I tell you what, guys, that woman is a certifiable genius.  The things she can get those machines to do is just incredible.”

Gordon looked sideward at him.  “You’d think she’d be able to build herself a machine that would pick up the heavy stuff.  Then you wouldn’t have to do it.”

Damien met his gaze, smirking.  “She can… but that’s the one that was broken.”  The canines all chuckled.

Billie’s eyes went to the door, and her expression turned to confusion.  Yaran followed her look, but didn’t see anything outside.

“You ok, Billie?” Gordon asked, seeing the same nothing Yaran had.

The next moment, they all felt what Billie had apparently felt first.  Not a voice they could hear, but something calling them outside, asking them to come meet them.  Trindle had felt it, too, and his quick turn of the head startled Evelyn.  As one, the canines moved toward the doors, looking out into the streets.  The presence of a strong magic-user or psychic was something they would be able to ‘feel’ as long as they lived, and this one was very strong.

The main street of the little village was no more than 400 meters long, and more or less spilled out into the plains on both ends.  Looking West, they didn’t see anything in the plains, but to the East, just outside of town, a trio of humanoid silouettes stood there, looking back at them.  Yaran couldn’t see them clearly enough to identify them, but they weren’t holding weapons- at least none visible at this range, and Yaran’s eyes were pretty good.

Gordon’s were better.  “Well, the one in the middle looks familiar- two of them we ran into the night we picked up Mitchell, I’d bet.  Don’t recognize the third one from here.”

Sven had noticed their exit, and came out behind them.  “Something we should be worried about, folks?”

Yaran looked over at Billie.  She looked back.  “Si-shon, if I have to tell you that one of them’s a psychic, I’ll swat you.”  He smiled, then began moving down the street toward their visitors.  The others followed.

“But who’s the third?” Yaran wondered aloud as they walked.  Sven held his ground, figuring he’d find out what was happening sooner or later.  As the canines passed the small electronics shop, Silicon came out to join them, looking down the street in the same direction the canines were.  She joined them a moment later.

“I picked up some odd radio traffic, but my machines couldn’t decrypt it,” she said, falling into step beside Mageera.  “Couldn’t get a fix on it, but I see you guys have spotted something, too.  I’ve warned Silas, he’ll be here in a hot minute.”

Mageera nodded.  “We’ve run into two of them before, so I don’t think they want trouble.  One’s a cyborg.”

Silicon looked down the road, and nodded.  “Makes sense.  They’d be able to sent radio signals that would translate as machine code, and my decryption would look like nonsense.  But you said you’ve met them before?”

Yaran nodded.  “Yeah.  They probably don’t want to make you folks nervous, that’s why they’re staying out there.”

Silicon froze in her next step.  “So why is there a Skelebot with them?”

The canines all stopped mid-stride.  Yaran looked at her, confused, then back down the road.  The heat coming off the ground was making the air difficult to see through clearly, but the figure on the left did look impossibly thin.  He looked over at Gordon.

“She’s right, that’s a Skelebot.  Not armed, but it’ll still give away our location.”  Then he cocked his head.  “Why would they let it that close to them?”

Yaran shrugged.  “Well, it’s seen us all by this point, and Deliah’s team would be in more trouble than we would.  Might as well hear what they have to say.”  He continued walking, and the canines kept pace with him.  Silicon was right behind them, but looked reluctant.

They stopped just after passing the last of the buildings on the street, a livery stable with a handful of beautiful horses looking over their stalls at them.  The trio facing them didn’t move, but the cyborg did speak.

“Hello again, Yaran.  We didn’t want to disturb the whole village by marching in with Arcturus by our side.”  She looked at Silicon, whose discomfort at being so close to a CS-built robot was evident.

Next, it was the Skelebot’s turn.  “I apologize if I have startled you.  I assure you I am free of the control of the Coalition military.  My name is Arcturus.”

Yaran had only limited experience with Skelebots, but he doubted they could speak like that without direct control of an officer.

“Did you reprogram it?” Silicon asked.

“We didn’t,” Deliah replied.  “I don’t know who did.”

“I am not certain they ever had a name for themselves,” Arcturus said.  “They did not share it with me.”

“But the self-destruct systems…” Silicon stuttered.  “I worked on Skelebots, and I wouldn’t have been able to disarm them without the right codes.  And those change every day.”

The skelebot nodded, an even stranger thing to see.  “Yes.  Fortunately, when I was reborn, those were the first systems to be removed.”

She took a step closer, eyes wide.  The cyborg’s other companion- the only full-flesh person in the group- smiled, and approached Silicon slowly.  She was tall, willowy, and the wind toyed with her blond hair as she walked.  “Our own mechanic acted the same way when she met Arcturus the first time.  Our first instinct upon seeing this shape is to run or get ready to fight.”

Silicon looked into the air, possibly for an aircraft, but didn’t see any.  Then she looked back down at Arcturus.  “Who is controlling you, if not the CS?”

The Skelebot’s voice buzzed and crackled for a moment, making Yaran wonder if it was short circuiting.  The cyborg and psychic both smiled.  The skelebot put its hands behind its back, uncharacteristic for a robot, and replied, “I control myself now.  I make my own decisions.”

“How can we be sure of that?” Mageera asked.  “It’s easy enough to say all this, but how can you prove it?”

Deliah took a step forward.  “The only way to truly prove it is to take the time to get to know him.  I trust him, and I will vouch for him.  I don’t know if you’ll come to believe him before this meeting is over, but that’s beside the point.”  She paused, looking over the canines.  “Is this your entire team?”

“No,” Yaran replied, still not trusting enough to give away any more.  “You came to find us- do you have news?”

“I do.  We’re starting our operation tomorrow, and I believe you can slip inside and rescue your friend, Westerly.”  The canines all failed to hide their shock.  Deliah gave them a moment to absorb the thought, then continued.  “Arcturus, being what he is, was able to infiltrate the complex.  He brought back some valuable intelligence, some of it specifically helpful to you.”

The skelebot stepped up beside her.  “Dorian Westerly is being held in cell block 551-South, unit 0151,” it said.  “He has been held for questioning on a charge of inciting mutiny among the human population of the Coalition State of Lone Star.  So far, with 19 interviews by various military intelligence officers, there has not been sufficient evidence gained to convict him.  He is being denied release by written order of LS laboratory administration.  No reasons given.”

The psychic sighed, and smiled.  “Can we find someplace better to talk?  These two don’t need to sit, but I do.”

*****

Almost every one of the village’s population went inside their homes or businesses after catching a glimpse of Arcturus. He kept his hands clasped behind his back, looking as non-threatening as possible.  Unfortunately, the capabilities of the Coalition Skelebots were too well-known to people to keep them from being nervous.  Evelyn was standing beside Sven when the canines approached the hotel again, and the two looked ready to deny the group entry.  Trindle was behind them, looking over their shoulders and wondering why Yaran and the others would let themselves so close to the robot.

Deliah spoke first.  “What can we do to convince you we’ll be peaceful?”

“We’ve had plenty of cyborgs here,” Evelyn said.  “This is the first skelebot, so you can understand our concern.”

Silas was approaching the group from behind them.  All three of the visitors turned to look at him.  Then Arcturus turned back to the two in the hotel’s door, and spoke.  “Your sherrif, here, is armed.  You, madam, are armed, and have what looks like a new CP-50 on one of the tables inside.”  He spread his arms out, holding his empty hands up.  “I have no weapons, and the CP-50 will breach my reactor core with two full-power blasts.”  Then the robot cocked his head to the side, and looked back towards Silicon.  “Standard programming in a Coalition Skelebot prevents it from revealing military intelligence to anyone who is not part of CS military.  Perhaps I have an opportunity to gain your trust- or at least ease your distrust.”

“How’s that?” Silicon asked.

The skelebot turned back towards the door.  “Have you had time to test the CP-50?”

“Yes,” Evelyn replied evenly.

“Then you know that the high power settings are not frequency-adjustable.”

“No, because the energy is at multiple frequencies.  It defeats frequency-specific reflective armor.”

Arcturus nodded.  “Specifially designed for use against the Quebec Glitter Boy power armors.  But the CP-50 does have a weakness.  An armor system tuned to a particular set of low-frequency vibrations, or intervals of them, will refract more than 90% of the CP-50s energy.”  He paused.  “That frequency is 79Hz, or any multiple of it.”

Evelyn’s eyes narrowed.  “That’s an audible tone.  You’re telling me that if I tune a plate of armor to resonate at a B-flat, the CP-50 won’t hurt it?”

The skelebot shrugged, which looked strange enough all on its own.  “10% of the energy will still be absorbed by the target.  At higher multiples, the effect is lessened, but within the human hearing range, that has proven to be the case.”

Trindle looked skeptical.  “What would that matter?  How would you tune armor plates to that frequency, anyway?  The entire unit would have to resonate with them.”

Evelyn looked over her shoulder at him.  “No, you can isolate them, let them vibrate on their own, and get them to have their own tones.  Northern Gun corporation played with it on some of their armored vehicles, but they didn’t work out.  Unless they could re-tune them in battle, which was impossible.”

“So it’s useless information.”  Trindle grimaced.  “Try again, buddy.”

“There is a reason the CP-50 has that frequency,” the skelebot said.  “It is the same frequency as the shut-down signal programmed into the NPD-14 units- the new nano-bot destruct charge.”

Evelyn’s eyebrows rose.  “Now, that is interesting.  Is there a command code, or is it the sound?”

“Only the sound.  The military engineers tested it with several instruments, including a human voice.  If you can produce that tone, you can de-activate an NPD-14.  Or, if you shoot it with the CP-50.”

Evelyn chuckled, shaking her head.  “That alone is worth a lot,” she said.

“May we sit down?” Arcturus asked.

They took the same table the canines had been at earlier, with Evelyn and Silicon keeping an eye on the visitors.  Sven tried to keep his attention on cleaning his bar, and preparing for the evening’s customers, but was looking over at the group continuously.  Silas went outside, promising to look in every few minutes. Damien sat a table away, and one of the servers brought his plate to him.  He tucked into the huge steak immediately, but his eyes were on their visitors the entire time.

Deliah, the cyborg, spoke first.  “You know, me, Yaran, but your team doesn’t.  My name is Deliah, this is Arcturus and Jasmine,” she motioned to her two companions.  Then she returned her attention to Yaran.  “We’ll be starting tomorrow morning.  Arcturus has placed a number of locator-stones around the complex, and those in our team that can teleport ourselves will be able to get inside nearly instantly.  He has also mapped out a large system of tunnels around the outside of the complex, and these tunnels will take someone anywhere they wish to go.”

Arcturus turned his head to stare at the center of the table, and his eyes lit from inside.  A hologram was projected over the table’s center, showing what was apparently the Lone Star complex with blue lines.  The canines leaned back, partly from surprise and partly to get a better view of the overall holograph.  Surrounding the rectilinear complex was a tangle of smaller tunnels that looked like tree roots, shown in red.  “There are four entrances into Level 5, but the one that will take you closest to Westerly’s cell is this one,” Arcturus pointed.  A route through the tangle changed colors to green.  “The above-ground exit, here, is South of the complex, approximately 15 kilometers.”

“Who made these tunnels?” Gordon asked.  He was looking skeptical.

“Mutant rats,” Deliah answered.  “And to get through the tunnels without being attacked by them, you’ll have to hire a guide.”

“We can do that,” Yaran said.  “We’ll have to work fast to find them, but we can do it.”

“We will have people on Level 5, as well,” Arcturus continued.  “There are some smaller research laboratories on that floor that we will be taking data from, and of course there are the mutant creation facilities.  One of our primary goals is to cripple or destroy that machinery.”

“Destroy it?” Yaran asked, looking over at the robot quickly.

“Yes,” Deliah said.  “When the CS attacks Tolkeen , we expect mutant canine soldiers to be in the front lines.  The fewer of them there are, the weaker their force will be.”

“But the birthing machines are in use.  They almost always are,” Yaran said.  “They’re constantly growing new canines, as well as other… breeds.”

“Yes,” Arcturus said.  “There were seven chambers, and six of them were in use during my visit.  One was only partially active, growing different ‘breeds’, as you say, in each of its crucibles.  One was being cleaned, from the last group I presume.”

“And you plan to destroy those machines?” Yaran said.

“Or cripple them.” Arcturus said.

“You realize that destroying those machines will kill all the unborn canines they are currently growing.  You’ll be aborting hundreds of them.”  Even if most of them would become soldiers, and many would be trained to kill him and his friends, Yaran couldn’t accept killing them in the mechanical womb.

The Skelebot looked over to him, and for a long moment, it didn’t respond.  When it did, the voice sounded different.  “I am terribly sorry.  That thought had not occurred to me at all.”  He looked at his companions, then back to Yaran.  “We will find a way to cripple the machines in a way that does not affect the current growing cycle.  Perhaps with the controlling computers- I could insert commands into the growth cycle that will not activate until the canines are fully born, but then cripples the machines.”  He looked again to Deliah, who nodded back to him.  He turned back to face Yaran, and the canine was sure he saw something change in the skelebot’s face, as well as his tone.  “I assure you, we will find a way to accomplish our goal without interrupting the unborn lives.”

Yaran wasn’t entirely convinced, but he didn’t press the point.  The strike team Deliah had brought from Tolkeen didn’t make the long journey merely to halt their attack on his own concerns for unborn mutants.  “How is it you’ll be able to teleport into the labs?  I thought that wasn’t possible.”

The human woman answered him.  “Not impossible, but highly unlikely.  Magical energy isn’t as strong or abundant in this part of the world- not nearly so much as where we come from.  It’s why most magic-users live there.  You know this.  A shifter or ley-line walker wouldn’t be able to draw energy from the Earth, or the Air, the way they usually do.  And that’s why most of them stay away from this area- they go where they are strongest.  But because of this, the CS hasn’t guarded themselves well against a magical intrusion.  The other problem with teleporting is that you need to know where you’re going- almost impossible in the CS lab system.  But with locator-stones scattered throughout the base, we’ll be able to find our way inside easily enough.”

“Don’t the mutant canines notice those?” Gordon asked.  “We didn’t have any trouble noticing you.”

“The stones are passive until we home in on them,” Deliah said.  She shrugged.  “I don’t practice magic, so I don’t understand it.  But we’ve tested it, and it works.”  Gordon shrugged, accepting the point.

“So, we’re going to try to get inside during the confusion and spring Dorian?”  Trindle asked.  Yaran nodded.  “That’s pretty crazy, even with these guys running around.”

“I agree,” Yaran said.  “But its our only chance to get him out alive, and I’m going to take it.”

“We’ll have to go in fast, as early in the strike as possible,” Damien said, between bites.  “The longer you’re down there, the more they’ll clamp down security, and call in reinforcements.”

Deliah nodded.  “Yes.  We want you to get into position, as close to Westerly’s holding cell as you can, before we even start.  It will be easier to cover your escape than to cover your entry.”

Trindle looked between them.  “I can’t believe we’re going into the base itself.”

“We shouldn’t all go in,” Gordon said.  “Too many of us will get picked up faster.  Most of us should wait out in the tunnels, ready to go in and get the others if they get in trouble.  Maybe in pairs.”  Deliah nodded again.

“Is there anything we can do to aid the distraction?” Billie asked.  “You’ve got at least a few spell-casters, and they’ll get sniffed out pretty fast.”

Arcturus spoke next.  “They don’t have mutant canines on every floor we’ll be visiting- they’re not trusted enough for the lower three floors.  And it seems the structure is thick enough to block their ability to ‘smell’ magic in use.  If they keep moving, it should keep the security forces off-balance.”

“They?” Yaran asked.  “You aren’t going in with them?”

“I am afraid not,” the skelebot replied.  “My body won’t respond to a teleport spell, at least not one we’ve found.  I will be in the tunnels, but that is not reliable either- the security teams sent a number of skelebots into those tunnels, and the rats fought them.  I may get fired upon by the rats, and while it does not endanger me, I have no wish to fight them.”

At this point, it was clear Silicon was convinced.  She shook her head, slowly, watching the robot’s every move.  Evelyn was watching him, too, but she was far from won over.  She kept the CP-50 on the table in front of her, and her eyes only drifted when she scanned the door.  She seemed to be waiting for a platoon of CS Dead-boy soldiers to enter the room at any minute.

Deliah passed a square of paper across the table.  “This will show you where to get into the tunnels.  If you know how to contact the rats, you should do so this evening.”

“We do, and we will,” Yaran said, nodding. “What time will it start?”

“We’re not setting a specific time to start.  Be here,” she pointed to the map, “by 0800 tomorrow morning.  We’ll co-ordinate once we’re in position.  Two of our team will be going through the tunnels in about the same directions you are, but you’ll want your own guide to get you close to Westerly’s cell, and to lead you out.”  Deliah rose, and her companions did as well.  Evelyn started just a little at the Skelebot’s movement, but didn’t pick up the weapon in front of her.  The visitors moved toward the door, with the canines and their human hosts behind them.

Silicon shook her head.  “I wish I had more time to talk to you,” she said to Arcturus.  “I’d like to find out what changes were made to your system.”

Arcturus made the static-buzzing sound again, startling all of them.  Jasmine, the human guest, was smiling, and Yaran finally realized that the sound the skelebot was making was his equivalent of laughter.

“I have been told that a few times before.  But how would you react to someone telling you they want to find out what makes you tick?”

Silicon smiled, embarrased.  “I suppose you’re right,” she said, looking at the floor.

“But at the same time, I have prepared myself for that question.  Do you have a data-unit with you?”

“Always,” she said, looking back up.  She pulled a small unit out of her jacket pocket, setting it on the table in front of the Skelebot.  He opened a small data-port in his left forearm, and connected the unit.  A moment later, he disconnected it and slid it back to her.

“Before they let me into the city of Tolkeen, the governing council insisted I submit to a full system scan.  Partly to learn what they could about unmodified skelebots, I believe.”  Arcturus paused.  “They did not understand everything they found.  Perhaps you will, but…”

She nodded.  “If I could, I’d be building robots that act like you do.”  She smiled.  “Thank you.”

With that, the visitors took their leave, followed out of town by Silas and Evelyn, who did bring her new rifle with her.  The canines watched until the trio of visitors was out of sight over a small hill.  Mageera sighed, then turned to Silicon.

“You’re not convinced about that Skelebot, are you?”

“I don’t know,” Silicon replied.  “If it was under remote control, they’d need line-of-sight communications.  He wouldn’t have been able to follow us inside the hotel- I picked that table for them to get them away from the door.”  She held up the data-unit.  “We’ll see what he gave us- want to come along?”

“Always,” Mageera said.  While her training and experience leaned more toward mechanical repair than computers, she was always interested in how things worked.  The two headed off toward Silicon’s shop.

“Thanks again for your help, Damien,” the engineer called back over her shoulder.

Damien smiled and waved.  Then he sighed, then turned back toward his table.  “I’m gonna finish my meal before it gets cold.”

Gordon looked towards the sun.  “Si-shon, if we’re going to find the rats yet today, we’ll have to go pretty quick.  I’ll go get the hoverbikes warmed up.  Three of us again?”

Yaran nodded.  “Billie, you want to go along?”

“Sure thing,” she said.  “I’ll get some gear packed.  What are we taking to trade with this time?”

“They mentioned techno-wizard energy clips last time,” Gordon said.  “We’ve got a couple of those, right?”

“If we don’t, Evelyn does,” Trindle said.  “I’ll ask her.  Just don’t trade away any more communication gear, ok?” He said, with a mock scowl.

Gordon smiled.  Billie pointed to Yaran, saying, “It was his idea.”  The two headed off toward the small garage where the team kept their bikes.

Yaran took a deep breath, looking away to the East.  He wasn’t looking toward where their guests had gone… his gaze had drifted slightly North, toward where he knew the Lone Star complex was waiting for them.

“We’re really going back in there,” Trindle said.

“To get Dorian back, I’d dive through an open Rift,” Yaran said.

Trindle nodded.  “Sure as hell, si-shon.  I don’t know if I want to be beside you, or backing you up.”

“I’ll take Damien inside with me.  I want you backing us up- you can think on your feet better than anyone else on the team, and if we’re out of contact, we’ll need your brain on the outside.”

“You say so,” Trindle said.  He took a deep breath, and let it out sharply.  “This is the real reason we’re down here, isn’t it?”

“Yeah… we came down here half-presuming Dorian had been killed.”  He looked at the sun.  “Let’s roll out.  You want to come along and meet the local rats?”

Trindle shook his head.  “They creep me out, si-shon.  Never figured out why.  I’ll be ok tomorrow, but I’ll skip it tonight.”

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