Lone Star – Chapter 36

Jonas dashed down another corridor, hoping to arrive at his destination before any of the research staff did.  He’d gotten the report from Baker only 3 minutes earlier – almost every scientist, surgeon, researcher and aide on the staff was being called down to the lower levels to assess damage to the laboratories.  He wasn’t entirely sure the level was safe, and he had to make sure it was.   He was in enough trouble as it was-  If there were any lingering intruders, and managed to take a shot at a high-level researcher, his head would be on a plate by the end of the shift.

That might be the outcome, anyway, he thought grimly.  It was Sgt. Kestrel who was acting shift sergeant when the serious shit had happened, but it had been his job to find out how the intruders were getting inside, and he’d failed.  He also knew that he’d come to the attention of Dr. Culler, and she’d trusted him personally with the safety and security of Level 7.  She might take out her frustration on him, just because she knew him.  He shivered at the thought of what form that frustration could take.

Jonas had sent Vellis and his team to Beta block to check on the guard posted by the habitat their prisoners had been held in, and they’d reported back what Jonas had presumed.  Sgt. Kestrel had people checking on most of the laboratory blocks, but there were a handful that Jonas had asked to check on himself.  Markins had visited Gamma Block, and had been surprised to report that there was no sign of any intrusions – no more intrusions, anyway.  The Big Hole was no different than it had been at the beginning of the incident.  Jonas had thought there was at least some hope of a positive report, but that hope was quickly squashed.  One after another, reports came in from the squads sent to investigate.  Almost every lab block had seen some damage or vandalism.

Tau block was the one he was headed toward now.  Durellin and his squad were right behind him, trying hard to keep up with their sergeant.  Tau block was where Dr. Culler did the bulk of her own work, and somehow he knew she would take it as a personal affront if there were damage in her own office.  He rounded another corner, then stopped in his tracks when he saw Tau block’s entrance.
The frosted plexiglass doors were shattered.  The lights inside were on – every light fixture in the entire lab complex had been turned on – and Jonas could see that the destruction inside was severe, even from a distance of 15 meters.  He could see at least two computers smashed.  Fragments of several varieties covered the floor.  Jonas sighed, deeply, then jogged to the entrance.  His team followed.

Dr. Culler came around another corner just as Jonas arrived at the entrance.    She was flanked by over a dozen aides and researchers.  She didn’t slow down at all upon seeing the soldiers or the destruction of her lab.

“Doctor, let us secure the lab block before you go in.  If anyone is still in there, they might be waiting to take a shot at you,” Jonas called.

“You have until I reach that door,” she called back icily.  She didn’t slow down.  She and her troupe were 20 meters away.

Jonas turned to his squad, the panic taking another step upward. “Go in.  Secure the entry first.”  Jonas led the way in, subconsciously dialing his CP-40 up to maximum power.

The lab was empty of life.  The soldiers fanned out from the entry, checking the few blind places where an intruder could have been hiding, and announced them clear.

“Durellin, take the middle corridor.  Longshore, go right.  Peters, left.  Mirellis, stay here.”  Jonas turned around in time to see Dr. Culler step over the broken glass at the bottom of the doors, and finally stop in the middle of the wrecked room.  Her team spread around the room, apparently already given their orders.  They wasted little time going over the computers and other machines, inspecting each like they were examining a patient or an experiment.  Jonas grimaced as they began giving their reports.  He didn’t catch the names of many of the machines, but he did hear the words “unuseable”, “destroyed”, and “unsalvageable” a lot.

“Center corridor is clear,” Durellin reported over the com-link.  Jonas relayed the report to Dr. Culler, who didn’t seem like she had been waiting for his clearance to send someone that direction.  A moment later, Longshore and Peters reported their corridors clear.  A few of the researchers broke off from the group and moved off down the corridors to survey damage to the rest of the block.

Dr. Culler stood still, her eyes slowly sweeping the room.  She still looked ice-cold, but the fury in her eyes looked like it could set fire to whatever it touched upon.  After a half-dozen more reports of destroyed machines, she finally spoke.

“What about the data storage units?  It would have taken an hour for someone to destroy all of them.”

Which was true, Jonas knew.  Those data units could survive at least one full power blast from his own rifle.  They were meant to take a beating.  And there were many of them, to compartmentalize the data, and keep one unit’s failure from crippling the lab’s knowledge base.

“No sign of them here, Dr. Culler,” came the first report.  Four more of her team reported the same.

“There has to be some sign of them,” she said, her voice rising.  “Fragments, melted slag, something!” she nearly shouted.

“Dr. Culler,” one of the staff said, standing up and moving across the room toward her.  “The data safe has been cracked and opened – and emptied.  They wouldn’t have done that to destroy the data inside, they’d have done that…” his voice trailed off as he saw her expression change.

The fire in her eyes seemed to have spread to the rest of her face.  For all the malevolence in her expression, her voice was eerily quiet.  “They’d have done that if they wanted to steal it.”

After a long pause, the researcher nodded.  “Yes, doctor.”

The howled roar that came from her next chilled the spine of every person in the room.  It sounded more like one of her experiments than something a human could create.  As the sound subsided, she turned, slowly, and her gaze fell upon Jonas.

Instantly, he knew.  Her blame was going to focus upon him.  Others would be punished, but nothing like what he was going to endure.  There was no doubt in his mind.  Her personal anger was going to descend upon him.

So when he saw her begin to smile at him, it made him all the more afraid.  When she stepped toward him, he had to fight to keep his body from backing away.  The instinct to run for his life had never been stronger.  And when he heard her voice, it seemed to flow down his spine and gather into a solid ball of ice in his stomach.

“Sergeant,” she said, almost sweetly, “how would you like the opportunity to make amends for your failure to protect our laboratory?”  She took another step closer, eyes locked on his faceplate – on his eyes, as if she could see right through the visor.  “There might even be a promotion involved.”

Jonas was amazed that he could breathe.

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