Lone Star – Chapter 34

Yaran shook his head as he watched the second SAMAS unit climb up through the ceiling, and close the access hatch.  A few moments later, he could hear their manouvering jets fire.  He looked over to Damien, who had been looking the same direction.  The two canines eyes met, and for a long moment, they were silent.

“Did all that really just happen, or are we dreaming?” Damien asked.

Yaran shrugged.  “I have no idea.”

Dorian Westerly was a mess, but his eyes had their sparkle back, now that escape was becoming a greater possibility.  Damien handed him a meal-replacement candy bar, and Dorian ate it far faster than he should have. Then he looked up at the two canines.

“They didn’t put a trash can in here,” he said, looking around.  Yaran looked at him, then laughed, shaking his head.

“So the exit is on the 8th floor, huh?” Damien asked.  “We might be the only two dog-boys in history that get to see whats down there.”

Yaran shrugged again.  “We’re probably the only two that have seen the 7th floor, too- at least, the only two that weren’t on an operating table.”

Damien snickered his agreement.  For a few moments, they rode in silence.

“I thought I was going to die in there,” Dorian finally said.  “Thank you for coming for me.”

Yaran smiled.  “I thought I was going to die here, too- maybe not in the lower labs, but I’m sure I wouldn’t have lived as long as I have.”  He paused for a moment.  “There’s a handful of old friends who came with me, and you’ll see them on the road out.  Trindle, Gordon, Mageera.”
Dorian looked over to Damien.  “Have I met you, young friend?”

Damien almost teared up.  “Yes, but only briefly.  I was stationed in Skel-Ray, four years ago.  My human officer had stolen a few pieces of army gear, and framed me for it.  So when I presented the proof of his theft, the response I got was to be shipped back down here.”  He paused for a moment, getting his emotions back under control.  Even thinking about his escape from the CS Military was enough to make the gratitude well up inside him, not to mention the pride of being able to come and rescue his rescuer.  “You had some of the other runaways stage a series of distractions that covered my escape, the day before I was supposed to get sent back.”

“Well, thank you as well,” Dorian said, after a long pause.  “So many of your stories, so many years…”

“You’ve helped a lot of people.  I must say, it was easy finding enough runaway canines to come down here and get you out,” Yaran said.
The elevator car came to a jarring halt.  All three passengers looked to the ceiling.

“Not out of the rough just yet, it seems,” Damien said.  He checked his rifle, turning the power setting back up, but kept it pointed at the floor.

Someone landed on the roof.  The impact of two feet resounded through the car’s interior.  A moment later, the ceiling hatch opened again, and Trindle was smiling down at them.  He let down a rough ladder, made from rope and steel pipes.

“Not much time, people,” he said, standing back to give them room to climb.  Yaran came up first, then Dorian.  The old human was almost too weak to climb, but seemed to gain more strength as they got farther from his holding cell.  Damien came up quickly, and Trindle ushered them toward another large steel hatch- this one built into the concrete shaft-wall.  It stood open, and a dirt tunnel was on the other side.

“I thought the escape route was on the 8th floor,” Damien said, confused.

“Well, their words were, ‘to get to the backup escape route, take the elevators down to the 8th floor’,” Yaran said, smirking.  He watched as Trindle stepped off the elevator roof first, and moved through the hatch.  Then Yaran turned back to Damien.  “They didn’t say we’d actually get to the 8th floor.”

“True enough.  I have a tough enough time understanding the rats.”  Damien helped Dorian step off the elevator, and into Trindle’s hands.

“It’s good to see you alive, Dorian,” Trindle said, moving farther into the tunnel to make room for the others.  All three canines turned on the small flashlights that were attached to their rifles.  Yaran brought up the tail, with Damien helping their human friend.  The old man nodded a silent thanks to Trindle, then looked around.

Yaran was looking around, too.  “So, do you know where to go?”  There were three tunnels that branched away from the one they started in.

“Nope,” Trindle replied, looking from one tunnel to another with a chuckle.  He let the statement hang for a moment, then he pointed down the left tunnel.  “That’s her job.”

The light from their flashlights fell on a mutant rat, dressed in cotton clothes that were so dirty their original color was undistinguishable.  Her fur was lighter than most of the rats they’d met so far, but stained and matted with mud from crawling around the tunnels.  She looked at them impatiently.

“Come, dog boys!  No time!” she hissed.  “Skelebots loose in tunnels!”

The canines looked at each other for a long moment, then began moving.  “Do you think we’ll run into one of them?” Damien asked.

“Dog boys take chance, maybe.  Not rats,” she hissed over her shoulder, leading them down the tunnel.  She kept her pace slow, knowing they couldn’t move too fast while supporting Dorian, but it was clear she was nervous.  “These skelebots different.  Remote controlled.  Humans driving them.”

Damien nodded, glad the rat had mentioned that.  It might seem like a minor difference to someone without much experience fighting skelebots, but Damien knew different.  The CS post Skel-ray, built on the ruins of an ancient city called Sunray, got its name from the large contingent of skelebots stationed there.  The dog-boy units regularly trained alongside the skelebots, and sometimes against them in exercises.  Damien could tell after a few moments whether a skelebot was acting under its own logic systems, or was being remotely ‘driven’ by a human operator – but that moment could mean life or death.  Knowing before-hand was always better.  The logic systems were predictable, and he could deal with them.  A human operator meant that he couldn’t second-guess them as easily, and made them much more dangerous.

They moved through the tunnels for what seemed like hours.  Damien kept checking his watch, not believing how slowly time seemed to be passing.  All the tunnels looked the same to him, just as they had on the way down.  He felt ashamed that his sense of direction had failed him so badly, but the rats had built these tunnels for the purpose of confusing people.  And a damn good job of it they’ve done, he thought with a grimace.  They passed dozens of intersections, forks, and mergers.  And while they seemed to go steadily upward, their turns seemed completely random.  Their guide looked carefully down each tunnel they passed, making sure there were no surprises.  She picked their route carefully, it seemed, but for all the world Damien couldn’t tell where they were, how far they’d come, or how much farther they had to go.

As if reading his mind, Trindle asked her.  “How much farther?”

“Can’t go straight through, dog boys,” she said.  “Sorry.  Deal was get you to level 7, get you back out.”  She glanced around another corner.  “Can’t let you see too much, see way back.  Rats don’t take chances.”

“So you’re leading us in circles, to keep us from figuring out your tunnels?” Trindle said, trying not to sound too frustrated.  “What makes you think we want to come back down here?”

“Don’t know.  Don’t care.  Orders.  Rats take chances, rats get killed.”  She stopped in her tracks, throwing Trindle a sidelong smirk.  “You can go alone rest of way, if want.”

Trindle sighed, shook his head, and held his tongue.

Damien moved past a T-intersection, looking down the empty tunnel.  It went straight for 30 meters, then turned.  He couldn’t even tell which way it turned from that distance, with the little light from his rifle.  But something reflected the light back at him, and he paused.  Whatever it was down there, it was moving, only slightly.

“Si-shon,” he said, quietly.  Yaran came beside him, looking down the tunnel.  A moment later, a pair of tiny, red lights were visible just around the bend in the tunnel.  “Take Dorian,” Damien hissed, handing the older man over and holding the rifle in both hands.  A moment later, his fears were confirmed- the flashlight illuminated the head and neck of a CS skelebot.  It paused for a moment, then began to jog down the corridor towards them.  It didn’t have a weapon, but it was still plenty dangerous if it could get close.

“Go!” Damien barked, firing three bursts from his rifle at the machine’s legs.  Immediately, he could tell it was being remote-piloted.  A skelebot would try to avoid incoming fire, but not like this.  The machine turned sideward for a moment, then jumped over the second burst before being hit by the third.  It took the shots in the right thigh, and while the armor was mostly burned away, no crippling damage had been done.

Even without Dorian slowing them down, they had no chance of outrunning a skelebot.  The rat could, perhaps, by ducking around corners and getting the operator lost.  But the skelebot could out-sprint and out-last the canines easily.  Damien’s one hope was to cripple the robot’s legs.  He fired four more bursts, only hitting with one of them, but this one hit the robot’s left knee.  The armor took most of the damage, but the robot lost its balance, leaning against the wall with one arm and pausing for a moment.  Then it continued toward him, at a brisk walk instead of a run.  Now we’ve got a chance, he thought.  He followed the others away and into another upward-sloping tunnel.  After 20 meters, the tunnel began to curve to the left.

“I’ve got it slowed down,” he called, catching up to Yaran and Dorian.  The rat was way ahead of them, and Trindle waved them upward.  They were gaining space on the skelebot, but not enough to completely lose it.

As they moved up the corridor, Damien maintained a steady distance with the robot.  He’d move up the corridor a few meters, then stop, turn around, and wait until the skelebot came into view around the curve.  He’d fire a few shots, then turn and dash forward again.  It was working- having slowed the thing down, it wasn’t able to avoid his fire.  And while it would take him a while to get through the thing’s armor at this rate, they were keeping ahead of it.  And it slowed a little more every time Damien hit its legs.

“Almost there,” the rat hissed.  At one point in the tunnel, Damien saw an exposed tree root, albeit a small one.  They had to be close to the surface.  He turned and jogged back up to Yaran and Dorian.  They turned another sharp corner, and they could see the light from the trap-door.  A metal ladder stood against the side of their tunnel, leading up to the light.  Damien had almost felt relieved when he head their guide squeal.

“Aaiiee! Trapped!”

At the base of the ladder stood another skelebot.  This one was an old model, the kind he had trained with years before.  But it wasn’t empty-handed, either.  This one was holding the largest plasma cannon Damien had ever seen- it even seemed ungainly for the robot to hold.

The group froze.  The new skelebot was only 15 meters from them, and the old one would come around the corner behind them in a few seconds.  Damien thought for a moment about going head-to-head with the one behind them, since it was wounded.  But then the one by the ladder spoke to them.

“Canines, get behind me.  The flash from this weapon may stun you in this darkness.”

Yaran and Damien exchanged a confused glance.  Then Yaran looked back at the robot.  The mutant rat didn’t know what to do- she pressed against the tunnel wall, as if she was trying to melt into it and disappear.

“Arcturus?” Yaran asked.

The skelebot nodded.  “You had better get moving.”

Damien could hardly believe their luck- he’d thought they’d expended their allowance of good fortune for the entire year by this point.  He was just passing the muzzle of the monstrous plasma cannon when it fired.  It was one of the strangest sounding weapons Damien had ever heard- it sounded more like a whoosh than anything else.  It was recoil-less, as most energy weapons were, but the end was still wobbly.  The skelebot was just strong enough to hold the thing level.

The skelebot had been right about the flash.  Damien had closed his eyes just in time, but was still a little dazzled by the blast as it traveled away down the tunnel.  He didn’t see it hit the other robot, but when his vision cleared, he could see its effect.  Their pursuer had lost its right leg completely, and was leaning against the wall.  The plasma cannon whooshed again, this time hitting the far skelebot in the face.  The head melted away completely.  A third shot took the other leg, leaving the machine chest-down on the dirt floor of the tunnel.  A fourth destroyed one shoulder and detached the arm.

“That should give you enough time to get up the ladder and away,” the old skelebot said.  “But others will be coming.”

Damien was still in shock, but wasn’t about to waste time finding out what had happened.  Their guide was gone- Damien had no idea where she’d run off to.  Trindle was halfway up the ladder, and Dorian was starting his climb.  Within a few minutes, they were all above-ground.  The access point was built into the floor of an ancient metal building, just like the one they’d entered earlier in the day.  The walls were mostly rusted away, and they could see outside easily.  The plains looked the same as they did almost everywhere else around Lone Star, and Damien couldn’t tell where they were.  On the ground beside the huge opening was another oversize weapon- this one a rocket launcher built for the larger power-armor units.  Damien didn’t know if the skelebot would be strong enough to use that one.

The skelebot stayed below-ground, waving up at them before moving down the tunnel.  Damien almost waved back, but was too stunned by the encounter.

“This is a different exit,” Trindle said, looking around.  He touched his ear, activating the tiny communication device he wore.  “Gordon, we’re topside, but I don’t know where.  Our guide ran off on us.”  The others couldn’t hear the response, but the relief was obvious.  “Copy that, we’ll wait.”  He looked to Yaran, smiling.  “Gordon and Billie are on their way.  You and Dorian can ride with them back to where we parked our own rides.  Damien,” he sighed, meeting the eyes of the young pit-bull, “I’m afraid we’re gonna have to run it.”

Damien smiled, and nodded.  “Whatever it takes to get us the hell out of here, is fine with me.”

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