Lone Star – Chapter 28

Jonas rode the elevator down to the 7th floor, alone from the 3rd level down. He was trying hard not to grumble, but it wasn’t easy.  He’d been called down to one of the containment-habitat units before his shift started, and it was the sort of duty that could be looked upon as a favor.  If the staff trusted him to the point of calling him down before a shift, it must mean he was doing something right.

But this particular call wasn’t an over-watch duty; there was no experiment going on.  And while it had been one of the senior researchers on the staff, it wasn’t one of the experiment team leads.  Those where who he usually got the calls from.  The morning was starting out on an odd note, and he had a strange feeling about it.

The elevator doors opened, and he stepped up to the lobby security desk.  Oddly, the guard behind the desk was already on her feet, and waving him through.  He had his helmet off still, so he presumed they had recognized him, but it was still against procedure.  He shrugged, then turned and jogged down the corridor toward Beta lab block.  He passed by his own checkpoint, waving at the guards with the hand that held his helmet.  He couldn’t see their confused expressions through their face-plates, but he knew they weren’t expecting him.  It was 20 minutes before his shift change.

“Please get down here quickly” was the bulk of the call he’d gotten.  And while it hadn’t been an order, not even implied, and hadn’t come from a staffer who would normally place a security-presence request, it was still a big name in the labs.  It was worth his time to honor the request, because the research staff didn’t forget favors.  He turned a corner, and Beta lab block was in sight.  He could see the doors open, and several of the staff at their workstations.  Apparently the situation wasn’t enough of an emergency to evacuate the lab.  He slowed his pace for a few steps, but then saw one of the staffers look his direction, and wave him forward.  He arrived, not out of breath but exerted.  The staffer waved toward the left corridor, where the containment habitats were located.

She was shaken, but under control.  “Dr. Winters is in Habitat 5, sargeant.”  He nodded to her, continuing his jog between workstations and toward the corridor.  He had just about reached it when he heard an impossibly loud roar.  Instead of halting his approach, it spurred him into a sprint that ended at Habitat 5, fifteen seconds later.

Much of the Level 7 laboratory complex is devoted to mutation research and experimentation facilities.  However, many of the things created in that part of the base would not- could not- be allowed to mix with humans or other creatures in the normal housing and barracks upstairs.  Many would not successfully mingle with any other creature, and were kept alive only to be the subject of further tests and experiments.  The containment habitats were really the only places to put many of these creatures.  Some of the habitats were huge, hundreds of square meters, and had simulated forest or jungle conditions inside.  These were where the researchers could release a large mutated predator, and observe its interaction with the environment.  The one Jonas stood before was not that large, but was still big enough to serve as a barracks for his entire squad.  It was mostly empty now, just bare metal and cement-block walls.  Its simulated environment had been moved out before its current occupant had been placed here.  Between the 3-meter-square entry room and the habitat itself was a large wall of reinforced plexiglass, one section of which could swing open to act as a locking door.

Dr. Winters stood in the entry room, barely a meter in front of Jonas.  He was an older man, a bit overweight and showing a few grey hairs in his long black pony-tail.  His hands were in the pockets of his lab coat, and while Jonas didn’t have a full view of his face, the slump of the shoulders told him plenty about the doctor’s mood.

The main door of the habitat was open.  Three of Dr. Winters’ staff  were inside the habitat itself, arrayed around a mutant feline that was holding onto a fourth staffer.  He had her by one arm, not roughly, but obviously not ready to let her go.  He wore loose, grey pants, but was bare-footed and bare-chested.  His tawny fur was now evenly mixed with grey, and the spots on his back were almost black.  The eyes were still a bright violet color.  He was breathing heavily, half-growling and half-moaning in a way that made Jonas wish he’d checked out a rifle before arriving.

Dr. Winters apparently had the same thought.  “Sergeant, I had thought you’d come with a rifle.”  That statement caused the feline’s head to whip around, the eyes boring into Dr. Winters with a murderous fire.

“I wasn’t made aware of the situation, doc, but I do have my sidearm.  You think I’m going to need it?”

The doctor didn’t turn around to look at Jonas.  “He’s getting more and more unstable, mentally and physically.  His new mutation is starting to break down his cellular structure, and I can’t contain it any longer.  He’s started to blame me and my staff for his condition.  He thinks we should be able to fix him.”

Jonas shook his head, then remembered he was bare-headed.   The motion of donning his helmet attracted the cat’s attention, and it growled again.

Nicodemus, Jonas remembered.  This one was intelligent enough and rational enough to talk last time…  He took a step toward the cat, then spread his hands out to the sides.

“I remember you, Nicodemus,” he said.  “I was there when you were worked on last time, and I remember you waking up.”

The cat grinned at him, and seeing the huge, powerful teeth gave Jonas a chill.  “Yesss… you were the one that shot me.”  Nicodemus twisted his free arm around to show the back of his tricep.  A long gash ran from the bottom of his shoulder-muscle almost all the way to his elbow.  It had nearly scabbed, but was still leaking blood from a few places.  “It should reassure you to know that I’m not as indestructible now.”  Jonas was taken aback by the creature’s eloquence.

Dr. Winters sighed.  “I’m not sure how much longer he’ll last.  The last full-body scan he allowed us to perform showed massive cell breakdown in almost all his internal organs, and much of his muscle tissue.  He’s bleeding internally now.  Even his fur has changed colors.”  He shrugged.  “I can’t explain what is happening…”

“Well, he healed from that shot awfully fast when the experiment was over,” Jonas said.  “How’s that saying go?  The candle that burns twice as bright…”

The doctor nodded, but it was Nicodemus who finished the saying.  “Burns half as long.  The doctor was telling me that before you arrived, Sergeant.”  The great cat took a deep breath, and Jonas could see it put him in pain.  “But they can fix me, and they won’t do it!”

“No, Nicodemus, we can’t.  I’m not saying that because I don’t think we should do it.  Dr. Culler told you that the procedure was something we couldn’t reverse.  We don’t know how to save you.”  Dr. Winters spoke the last sentence slowly, emphasizing each word.  “So either we can watch you die, slowly and painfully…” the doctor let his words trail off.

“Or you could kill me?” the cat roared, then gasped in pain from the exertion.  “Put me out of my misery?  Is that why you called in the man with the gun?”

“Nicodemus, I called the Sergeant here because you threatened me and my staff.  You know the rules.”  Dr. Winters stepped across the threshold and into the habitat itself.  “I’ve known you since you were born, and I don’t want to watch you die like this.”

“Yes, you’ve been most concerned with my welfare,” Nicodemus growled, sarcasm dripping from his voice.  “I recall you advising Dr. Culler against every one of the procedures that I went through.”

“That’s right, I did,” Dr Winters replied, his voice rising slightly, “because I knew that sooner or later, we’d be having this very discussion.  Science and Nature can only produce so much power, Nicodemus, and pushing too far carries a great price.  Dr. Culler may have forgotten that, but I haven’t.”

Just as Jonas was wondering whether he really needed to be present, the cat growled again, and pushed the staffer he’d been holding toward the door.  The others backed away, and Dr. Winters stopped in his tracks.  Jonas was impressed with the doctor’s courage, but his hand instictively went to his sidearm.  With the doctor between him and the hunting cat, he believed the motion of his fingers would go un-noticed.  He switched the energy pistol to its highest setting, wanting it ready to fire if he felt the need to draw it.

Dr. Culler appeared behind him.  “What is going on here?” she half-shouted, drawing the attention of everyone in the room.

“Doctor,” Nicodemus said, his mouth forming a weak smile.  “I think the experiment took a while to fail.”

She shook her head, stepping into the habitat beside Dr. Winters.  “I saw the bloodwork, and with some time, I think we can-”

Nicodemus cut her off with an angry, painful roar.  Dr Winters finally backed away, and the other staffers moved toward the door.  Dr. Culler, who was a little more than half as tall as the great cat, took another step toward him, reaching for his paw.

“Sergeant,” Dr. Winters said, softly.

Dr. Culler heard it, and gave her colleague an icy glare.  Then she turned back toward Nicodemus.  “Give us some time, and maybe we can find a way to heal you.”

“TIME?!” the cat roared.  Then it sank to its knees, putting its face almost level with Dr. Culler’s.  “My entire body is burning, just staying on my feet makes my legs go numb.  I can’t eat, I can’t hold down food.  How much time do I have?  How much do you need?”

She stepped forward again, putting a hand on the side of his head.  “I don’t know.  There is so much about this that we don’t know.  But we’ll never find these things out if we don’t try them.  If we knew precisely how all these things worked, Nicodemus, we’d be making dozens of cats just like you.  You know this.  We just need some more-”

Nicodemus roared again, this time striking the doctor in the chest hard enough to knock her across the room and into the wall.  She fell hard, conscious but out of breath.  Dr. Winters took another step back, this time behind Jonas.

For Jonas’s part, that was the point when things changed.  The rules were cloudy before, but now one of the experimental creatures had struck one of the senior research staff.  His sidearm was out, and the safety had clicked off.  He levelled it on Nicodemus’s torso, shifting one foot back and settling squarely into his well-drilled firing stance.  The movement attracted the cat’s attention, and he rose up into a crouch, ready to spring.

“Not aiming for the leg this time, are you, Sergeant?” the cat hissed.  He was 7 meters away, and Jonas estimated that he would get two shots before the cat was on him.

“Do it, Sergeant!” Dr. Winters ordered.  Inside the habitat, Dr. Culler looked up, her eyes wide with fright.  Nicodemus pounced, Dr. Culler screamed, Jonas fired- the three things happened simultaneously.  The energy blast from the pistol hit Nicodemus in the chest, just missing his heart but burning a 4-centimeter hole through one lung and the ribs in front of it.  The hole penetrated him completely, and while the shot didn’t carry an impact to push him backward, he did fall forward and roll onto his back.  He came to a stop just before the threshold of the entry room.

Dr. Culler screamed again, jumping to her feet and crossing the room almost as quickly as Nicodemus had a moment earlier.  She knelt beside the great cat, petting his head with one hand and putting her other hand into the giant paw.  His breathing slowed, and after a few moments, stopped.

Jonas holstered his weapon, standing still.  He heard the sound of fingertips tapping on a PC unit, and turned to see Dr. Winters entering a series of commands.  When he finished, he placed a hand on Jonas’s shoulder.

“Nicodemus wasn’t going to last long,” he said.  Then his voice dropped to little more than a whisper.  “And there are some branches of research that we would be better off avoiding, anyway.  In my opinion, this was one of them.”

Apparently he hadn’t spoken quietly enough.  “Dr. Winters, is this the outcome you had expected?” she said, icily.  She still hadn’t looked up from Nicodemus’s corpse.

He turned to face her, caught off guard.  He looked as if he was hastily searching for a reply, his mouth open to speak, but not forming the words just yet.  Dr. Culler didn’t give him the time.

“I have had a number of my scientists corrupting experiments lately,” she said.  “I thought this one had been free of that sort of negative influence.  Perhaps I was wrong.”  She paused, then stood and turned toward him.  “You and your friend, Dr. Nadlia, and your recent excursion, have made me wonder if I should separate you from this line of experimentation.  I had decided to give you the benefit of the doubt… Did I make a mistake, Doctor?”

Dr. Winters still didn’t speak, but his face paled quickly.

Dr. Culler stepped out of the habitat, coming close enough to her colleague to punch him.  She stared up at him, her face still ice-cold.  She spoke to Jonas without looking at him.

“Sergeant, place Dr. Winters under arrest.  Lock him in Habitat 4, next door, and put a guard on him at all times.  And before you start your shift, you will also arrest Dr. Nadlia, who I believe you will find at her workstation outside.”

“Yes, Doctor.  What charge should I put down in the log?” Jonas asked.

She sighed, impatiently.  “You can put down in the log that you arrested him on my authority.”  That was apparently enough.  Her demeanor suggested that any more delays would get him locked up with the scientists.

Jonas nodded, then put his hand on Dr. Winters’ shoulder, leading him outside and into the next habitat.  He was silent the entire time, and Jonas didn’t think of anything to say either.

*****

After placing Dr. Belinda Nadlia under arrest, and locking her in Habitat 4 with Dr. Winters, Jonas returned to the security checkpoint.  He set his helmet down on the counter.  That was the second time a senior researcher had openly stated their opposition to the work being done in the lower labs and been arrested for it.  Dr. Nadlia hadn’t said anything when he’d arrested her, but she hadn’t acted all that surprised, either.  She hadn’t even asked what she was being arrested for.

Jonas didn’t know much about CS laws.  He knew the codes and regulations that applied to his specific job as a soldier and security officer- he could recite them in his sleep.  He knew a little bit about the common law, the rules that civilians had to live by, but it had been a long time since he’d been a civilian.  As far as what was legal for the scientists to be working on, and what was the right thing for them to do, well, it was above his pay grade.

He remembered Dr. Weather’s words; Doing the right thing is never above your pay grade.  He shook his head, slowly, then looked up and behind the counter.  Baker was sitting there, looking concerned.

“You alright, Sarge?”

Jonas nodded.  “Yeah.  Time to clock in.”  He’d tell his Corporal about it later on, perhaps over a drink.

Baker smirked, then stood.  The rest of the squad was in line, waiting for them.  Each had been issued a CP-40, just in case they encountered more rats in the ductwork.  Sgt. Bengal was waiting to see them off, as well.  Jonas donned his helmet, walking slowly down the line of his soldiers.  They were ready for an inspection, but his mind was elsewhere.  He said nothing as we walked past them, turning back to face the other shift sargeant.  Sgt.Bengal would be on-shift for another 15 minutes, then would be relieved by Sgt. Kestrel.  Jonas and his team would be exploring, trying to sneak around the entire laboratory level, and trying to learn how to move around the way the rats would.  There would be a mock battle later on, just after Sgt Kestrel came on duty.  Jonas and his team wore sensor units that would register a ‘hit’ from the weapons carried by the regular security troops- they’d have their rifles set to exercise mode.  He’d made clear the consequences of anyone on his team getting tagged at the end of their last shift.  The corporal behind the desk passed a CP-40 across, and Jonas took it with a nod.

“Alright, kids, we’re going back into the ductwork, but in teams this time.  It’s our job to become experts on getting around this floor without being detected.  Markins, head for Epsilon block.  Vellis, take Delta.  Baker, you’re in Sigma.  Durellin, your squad is with me in Gamma Block.  We’ll go in through the Big Hole.”  The security teams on Level 7 hadn’t thought of a better name for it yet.  Since everyone knew about it, Jonas figured it would be the toughest place to vanish into- and took that area himself.  ” At change of the shift, we’re going to play a little game with Sgt. Kestrel’s team.  For now, let’s learn how to get around without being spotted.  Move out.”

He watched as three of the teams split up, heading to their starting points.  He was about to move Durellin’s team out, but stopped when he saw a trio of security officers come around the corner toward the checkpoint.  Each wore standard dead-boy armor, but none of them were wearing helmets.  If they hadn’t been officers, Jonas would have scolded them for it.  He thought about mentioning it, even despite their rank.  They were escorting a prisoner, an older man wearing the bright orange jumpsuit that marked him as a ‘guest’ of the regular prison blocks on the upper floors.

He looked back toward Sgt. Bengal, who shrugged.  The trio approached Jonas, and he saluted smartly.  The leading officer, a Lieutenant that his helmet display identified as Grummond, returned the salute.

“Are you the Shift Sergeant?”

“No, Ma’am,” Jonas replied.  “I’m assigned to opposing-force duty at this time.  Sgt. Bengal is officially in charge down here.”  He nodded to his fellow Sergeant.  Bengal had approached, and now stood beside Jonas.  Lt. Grummond turned to him.

“We’re moving a prisoner from our cell-bay upstairs to your floor,” she said.  “The orders should be in the network, but they do not specify where on the floor he should be held.  Do you have a cell-block down here?”

“No, ma’am,” Bengal said.  “I’m not sure why they’d move a regular prisoner down here in the first place.”

“Neither am I,” she said.  “We can sort that out later.  All I know is my Captain was hot under his collar to get this man off my floor and down to yours.”

Jonas shrugged.  “Well, we’ve got two of the research team under arrest in Beta block,” Jonas said, shrugging.  “They’re in Containment Habitat 4, and they’ve got a soldier watching them.”  He turned to his fellow Sergeant.  “Might as well put this guy in there with them, Tom- won’t have to spare any additional hands.”

Bengal nodded.  “Sounds fine to me- that acceptable, LT?”  She nodded.  “I’ll contact our Lieutenant, see if he knows what’s going on.”

Jonas chuckled.  “I had hoped that getting Lieutenant rank would mean that orders from above made a little more sense,” he joked.

Lt. Grummond snickered.  “Not around here, sarge.  Seems like you gotta reach Colonel before that happens.”  The two sergeants smiled.  Jonas found himself already getting to like this officer.

“I’ll walk you down there, sirs,” Bengal said, turning to lead the procession toward Beta block.  Jonas turned, and let his soldiers toward the big hole in Gamma block.

They were almost there when the display inside his helmet started blinking messages at him.  Apparently a number of alarms were going off in the upper levels of the complex.  It wasn’t affecting him or his level, but if security alarms were triggered on three different floors, alerts were sent out to the security Sergeants on all floors.  Since he was on duty, even not on a regular shift, he got the same messages.  He made sure they weren’t showing any alarms on Level 7, then watched his team climb up into the Big Hole.

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