Lone Star – Chapter 30

Yaran growled as he ducked through the next opening. Most of the tunnels had been more than big enough for him and Damien to fit through, but many openings and connectors were meant only for the mutant rats that had dug them.  Damien had reasoned that the rats had most likely built the tunnel system for smuggling big things out, but still wanted to be able to slip away from larger intruders.  It made as much sense as any other reason.

It certainly made more sense than the layout of the tunnels did.  Yaran had been completely lost after being in the tunnels for 10 minutes.  For someone trained to keep their sense of direction, it was a little embarrassing.  He took comfort knowing Damien had gotten just as disoriented.  They were at the mercy of their two guides- as they had expected to be.

The two rats had led them through the maze and to a fairly large chamber.  On one side of the roughly-dug room was a flat concrete wall with an ancient-looking hatch built into it.  A minute after they’d arrived, a third mutant rat had arrived from another tunnel, whispering to their guides.  Yaran had tried to be patient as the three spoke, putting a hand on Damien’s shoulder.  The younger canine was having trouble standing still.

The two guides then turned back toward the canines.  The third had scampered off, down another tunnel.  There were six openings into the chamber, and Yaran had counted himself lucky that he could remember which one they’d entered through.  Not that he’d be able to find his way out through any of the tunnels, whichever he chose.

“Apologies, dog-boys,” one of the guides had hissed.  “Westerly moved.  This wrong place.  Must hurry.  This way.”

And at that point, Yaran’s patience had been more or less expended.  They’d then traveled downward, even more so than before, in a hunched-over run to keep up with their guides.  Every dozen meters or so, one of the two mutant rats would pause, waiting for the canines to catch up.  The other would forge ahead.

“So why did they move him?” Damien asked.

“Don’t know.  Better for us this way, though.  Longer trip, lower level, deeper into labs,” the rat croaked, turning his head to speak over his shoulder.

“How is it better for us if he’s on a lower floor?”

“Different soldiers, different security.”

Different security? Yaran repeated the words in his head.  Where in the complex would the security be all that different from the normal?  They use Dog-Boys for 90% of their security, except in the hangars and…

“Which floor is he on?” Yaran asked aloud, dreading the answer.

“Seven,” came the one-word reply.

Damien looked over at him, the concern evident on the young canine’s face.  The group reached a turn, their route joining a tunnel with a slightly higher ceiling.  The canines straightened up, and picked up their pace.

“If he’s been moved down to level 7, does that mean they know who he is?” Damien asked.

Yaran shrugged.  “If he’s been moved down there today, then hopefully we’ll get to him before they start something irreversible.”

Both canines knew what went on down on Level 7, at least in a general sense.  Throughout the Lone Star complex, and indeed the entire state, the second-lowest floor of the laboratory had a mysterious reputation.  Everyone knew there were cutting-edge experiments happening down there, but without any hard answers, the rumors had run wild.  The Dog-Boys had a darker view of the place, because when a runaway was brought back, level 7 was often where they were taken.  And not one of them came out.  It was part of the punishment, part of the warning to the rest of the mutant canine soldiers.  Stories were whispered of what was done down there, but rarely confirmed.

They arrived at another chamber, which looked to both canines just like the one they’d visited earlier.  There were only 5 tunnels leading to this one, and they’d been moving downhill the entire time- otherwise Yaran would have wondered if it wasn’t the same room.  Even the metal hatch looked identical.

“No more surprises?” Damien asked.

The guides frowned, almost looking embarrassed.  “More apology.  Information what rats do.  Bad business, when information wrong.”  The speaker brightened.  “But here, works better for you.  More options.”

“Options?”

“Escape options.  You get cut off, second escape.  Take elevators.”

Elevators?” Damien hissed.  “Are you insane?  There’ll be guards at every single stop!”

“Take elevators- down,” the rat said, smirking.  “Second escape that way.”

Yaran and Damien looked at each other.  While there were rumors about what was on level 7, and sketchy information that would leak out occasionally, there was nothing widely known about the 8th floor.  Everyone knew that one bank of elevators went that far, but required an electronic pass-key to get there.  People would guess at what was down there all they wanted, because everyone knew that nobody went down there.

“Will the elevators take us down there?” Damien asked.

“Yes.  From 7, elevators go to 8.”  The rat winked, which was a particularly strange thing for his face to do, and did nothing to reassure the canines.  “We fix it, long time ago.”

The other of the rats opened up the iron hatch.  The door was badly rusted, but the hinges slid open smoothly, not squeaking in the slightest.  On the other side was what looked like a huge heating vent.  The polished sheet metal was a sharp contrast to the dirt floor they were standing on.  Beside the hatch was what looked like a small light switch, and the rat nearest the flipped it before turning to speak to them again.

“Dog boys – rats not go with you.  You caught, we caught.  We watch, can’t help.”  The rat looked through the hatch, then back to the canines.  “Remember directions?”

Damien nodded, rattling off the route the rats had made them memorize.  It wasn’t too hard. They’d been reciting it all the way down, forward and backwards- since they’d have to find their way out again, they literally had to.  The guide nodded, then waved them through.

“Step on edges, step on brackets, stay quiet.  Step on middle, metal make noise.  Guards hear easy.”

Yaran nodded, slipping his rifle off his back and checking the settings.  Damien did the same.  Both canines took a deep breath, then stepped through the hatch.

*****

The directions led them through the maze of ductwork easy, and they found the toilet room vent precisely where the rats had said it would be.

“Fortunately, this is the supply air duct,” Damien whispered.  “I’m glad they didn’t try to send us into the exhaust vent.”

Yaran chuckled, nodding.  The supply vent was two meters off the floor, but built into the wall, so it was no trouble getting down.  The bathroom was deserted.  The floors and counters were surgery-room clean, and Yaran wondered if anyone actually made use of the room.

Damien apparently had the same thought.  “Then again, the exhaust only stinks when someone makes use of the room.”

“Right.  We should be right down the hall from the Containment Habitats.”  Yaran thought it was an odd way to build a laboratory, but scientists needed to visit the bathroom just as much as anyone else did.  The two canines opened the door slowly, checking the hallway before moving into it.  The hallway had the same antiseptic smell to it.  The walls and ceiling were light brown panels, about a meter square, most of which was the specialized protective stuff that would absorb weapon fire.  The floor was bare concrete, with painted lettering here and there that gave directions.  And sure enough, the Containment Habitats were close by.  The two canines moved slowly, past a half-dozen metal doors to storage rooms and smaller procedure rooms.  Damien moved ahead, to a corner that was 20 meters down the hall from their entry-bathroom.  He peered around the corner, then moved back sharply.  Yaran moved up close to him.

Damien used hand-signals.  One guard, 4 meters. Then he smirked, and winked.  Yaran raised an eyebrow, then shook his head.  Damien responded by putting a single finger up to his lips.  Then he handed over his rifle.  Yaran almost stopped him, but Damien was already around the corner.

The guard responded pretty graciously, all things considered.  “What are you doing here, Dog-boy?  You’re not allowed down here.”  But while the tone of voice was aggressive, the barrel of his rifle was still pointed down.  Yaran thought time slowed down as he watched his young friend approach the guard, looking outwardly as if he was reporting for duty at a new post.  The guard didn’t put the pieces together in time- the non-uniform clothes, the mutant canine so far out of place.  Damien walked the walk perfectly, as if he’d never left his post all those years ago.  What the guard thought he saw was a Dog-Boy following orders.  When he figured it out, and brought up the barrel of his rifle, it was far too late.  He’d also made a big mistake in leaving off the helmet of his Dead-Boy infantry armor.

With one hand, Damien pushed the rifle aside, and with the other he punched the guard in the side of the face, far harder than a normal human could.  The guard hit the floor like a dropped stone.  Damien didn’t even let the rifle hit the ground- he had it checked out and ready for his own use before Yaran made it all the way around the corner.

“Good work.”  Yaran slung one rifle over his shoulder, holding the second at the ready.  “A little risky, though.”

Damien smiled.  “If he’d had his helmet on, I’d never have tried it, si-shon.  He’d have tripped the alarm by voice.”

“Right.”

As if on cue, an alarm began to sound.  The canines looked at each other, then at the unconscious guard, then back to each other.

Yaran shrugged.  “They probably spotted us on camera,” he said, pointing down the hall to a black half-sphere protruding from the ceiling.

A digitized, female voice came over the speakers.  “Security breach, security breach, Research Block Sigma and Research Block Epsilon.”  The voice repeated the warning two more times.

“I thought we were in Beta block,” Damien said.

Yaran nodded.  “Sounds like the strike team is down here somewhere, too.”  They were answered by the sound of distant weapon-fire.  “Lets move.”

The door closest to their unconscious guard was marked with a metal plate.  A large number ‘4’, etched into the metal, was the only identifier.  Yaran opened the door slowly, looking around the edge.  Then he opened the door, wide, creeping inside and holding the door for Damien.

The entry room was mostly empty, meant as more of an observation area than anything else.  It was decorated with the same weapon-fire absorption panel they saw in the corridor, but the ceiling was almost entirely lighting panels.  The far wall was entirely plexiglass, giving the two canines an excellent view of the habitat.

Inside, it was almost all bare concrete.  The ceiling was 10 meters high, also bare concrete but spotted with hanging lights.  The lights were turned up to maximum, almost painful to their eyes.  The three humans inside didn’t seem to notice the entry of the two canines until Yaran moved toward the control panel mounted on the wall.

Two were obviously researchers at the facility; Yaran had seen their type a few times.  White lab-coats, usually softer and less muscular than the soldiers were.  No physical training requirements for the brains in the basement.  And not much sun, either, it seemed- their skin was pale enough to make Yaran wonder if they were a little ill.  Partly due to being imprisoned in this habitat, he reminded himself.

The third looked like the preserved remains of Dorian Westerly.  It had been 10 years since Yaran had seen the man who had helped him escape, but Dorian seemed to have aged at least 50.  Being a ‘guest’ of the Coalition, especially in this place, was hard on a person.  He was seated against the far wall, looking up as he noticed movement in the entry room, but not speaking.

Fortunately, the door hadn’t been code-keyed yet.  Yaran pushed the ‘activate’ button, and a large section of the plexiglass wall slid aside.  The scientists looked out, worried about what was in store for them.  Seeing Yaran enter the habitat was not what they expected, and did little to relieve them.

Dorian, however, brightened immediately.  When he stood, he looked like he had lost 10 kilograms, but when he recognized Yaran, he seemed to gain 10 years back.  He was in the bright-orange jumpsuit issued to prisoners, but he hadn’t been allowed to shave or even comb his hair in weeks- perhaps months.  The green eyes were the same, though, and the sparkle had returned.

“Yaran?” he croaked, shuffling forward.  “How did you get here?”

“You told me once that I would never stop being one of your ‘kids’, Dorian.  Well, it goes both ways.”

The old man nearly fell, and Yaran caught him just in time.

“I was sure I was going to die down here,” the old man breathed, barely louder than a whisper.

“Well, lets get you out before we celebrate.  Something’s going on down here, and we’re only part of it.  They’ll send someone to check on you before long.”  Yaran looked over at the two scientists, who were watching with a mixture of fear and intrigue.  “Whatever you did to get yourselves locked in here, you can come with us if you want.”

“Decide quickly, though, because I hear people coming,” Damien said from the entry room.  He was keeping his distance, making sure that both canines didn’t get trapped in the habitat by a sneaky guard.

“But…” one of the scientists stammered, helping the other get to her feet.  “Where are you going?”

Damien smirked.  “Out,” he replied.

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