Lone Star – Chapter 5

Morgan set his SAMAS unit down gently on the concrete deck. He hadn’t needed the computer to guide him in on a landing in a long time, but from more than 50 meters in the air, he could barely make out the markers.  There was just too much sand in the air.  Fortunately, he had noticed, all the above-ground buildings were close to each other, and connected by walkways.  Once he was inside, he wouldn’t have to worry about getting dusted.

Lieutenants Larson and Dreserick landed moments later.  The three powered armor suits strode toward the large hangar building, where two guards in dead-boy armor waved them inside.  The inside was just like any other hangar at any other major installation; deck hands in their grey-black uniforms and gold-mirror helmet visors moved from one station to another, pilots inspected their mechanical steeds, loading vehicles moved boxes of spare parts across the open floor, and robotic carts carried ordinance.  The computer built into Morgan’s SAMAS directed him to their stations, off to the right and into a small “forest” of free-standing maintenance stations.  Square columns rose out of the floor, and each face was wide enough for a single suit of power armor or small RCV (robot combat vehicle) to stand, connected by dozens of hoses and cables to the computers.  The three new-comers had their own “tree”, and they stepped backward into position as the deck-crew began to connect them.

Once all the connections were made, the on-board computer’s soft, female voice spoke for the last time that day.  “Sir, all diagnostic connections are in place.  Have a pleasant evening.”

“I’ll do that, Regis.  Say hi to the database for me,” Morgan replied.  He felt the release bolts being let off of his helmet, and a moment later it was lifted off his head.

Within two minutes, the three of them were out of their power armor, wearing only their grey-blue arming clothes and carrying their bags across the hangar to the connecting walkway that led to the surface barracks and offices.  The security checkpoint was staffed by a young woman in field fatigues, but without armor or weapon.  Two soldiers in full armor, and with heavy rifles in hand, stood at ease only 5 meters away.  Morgan looked around the open hangar one last time, and noticed that at each of the doors, at least two soldiers were posted.  He always liked knowing his mount was under a watchful eye.  The two lieutenants took turns placing their palms on the print-scanner, confirming their ID for the security computers.  Morgan stepped up to take his turn, giving the woman behind the counter a wink as he withdrew his hand.  She noticed it, but did not react to it.

“Thank you gentlemen, and welcome to Lone Star,” she said evenly.  The trio turned and made their way toward the barracks building.

*****

Fifteen minutes and a shower later, Morgan emerged from his quarters in his un-dress uniform and made his way back to the bank of elevators.  Another soldier was posted there, rifle worn over the shoulder but still at the ready.  Morgan returned the soldier’s quick salute, then entered the stairwell, descending back to ground level.  He preferred to let the ground troops have the elevators to themselves; they were on their feet all day, while he was up in the air or sitting at a desk doing paperwork.  And as a pilot, he had to do a little extra to keep in shape.  He’d have to find a running route somewhere in this desert.  He hated running on treadmills.

On the ground floor, he checked in with the desk sergeant running the front checkpoint, asking directions to the office of his new immediate officer.  The grizzled man rattled off the route, which seemed easy enough, then pointed toward the connecting walkway.

“Thanks, sar-major,” Morgan said, turning toward the connector.  At the far end, he could see the guards posted- instead of human soldiers, these two were both dog-boys.  Morgan had only worked with them a few times directly, but they had always been good troopers.  These two wore no armor, and carried older-style weapons slung over their shoulders, but they were still enough to instill confidence.  They were both pit-bull breed, not overly tall, but stocky and muscular even in their grey and black field fatigues.  He smiled at them as he passed between them, then turned the corner to another bank of elevators.  Again, he took the stairs.

On the fourth floor, he passed through another security checkpoint and got directions again.  His route wound around a number of offices and cubicle work-stations, ending at a row of outside-wall private offices.  The door opened as he approached, and a tall mutant feline strode out.  She was a gold-yellow mountain lion breed, but walked upright and wore the same field fatigues as the other mutant soldiers in the CS military.  Their eyes met for a moment before she passed him, heading around a corner toward another bank of offices.  He knocked on the door-frame before entering.

Major Claval sat at his desk, wearing the standard arming clothes for the dead-boy armor worn by ground troops.  His hair was cut so short that it appeared shaven at first, and his eyes held little more than contempt for the paperwork in his hands.  He looked up at Morgan’s entrance, giving him a slight nod.

“Captain Morgan,” he said.  “Shut the door and have a seat.”

“Sir,” Morgan replied, following the orders.  Major Claval just looked across the desk at him for a long moment.

“I’ve read the official report on the incident that landed you here.  Most officers would be wondering why they got saddled with you after an event like that.  But I’ve also read the unofficial reports, as well as the rest of your file, and that’s why I didn’t object to your posting here.  I started off in SF myself, and I know what it’s like to be the only one who knows that you were the one standing between the shit and the fan.”  The Major leaned back in his chair.  “So, when they briefed you on the MCR unit, and what you’d be doing down here, what did they say?”

Morgan cleared his throat.  “Sir, no one briefed me, so I looked it up myself.  From what the database said, it’s your responsibility to track down escaped mutants and bring them back to the training areas or the laboratories.”

Major Claval nodded.  “That’s the outline, but to be honest, the wide patrols do most of it.  Most runaways just stumble upon a patrol, or get overflown by the aerial units.  No, they call us when something clever, lucky, or really dangerous gets loose.  You see, Captain, the man running this facility, Dr Bradford- he’s a very intelligent man, and he’s been blessed- or cursed- with a powerful mind and a feeling of responsibility to his fellow humans.  He’s the one who has given us so many breeds of mutant canines, felines, and a dozen other types that you’ve most likely never come across.  He is continually pushing the limits of science down there, because someone has got to.  With the kinds of alien monsters we’re facing in this world, and the kinds of magical powers that are unleashed on men and women every day, we need more than just human strength and technology.  Any one of his upcoming breakthroughs may be the one that turns the tide, and gives us the strength we need to reclaim this planet.  Unfortunately, science and experimentation being what they are, not everything he tries turns out the way he expects.  And sometimes, those experiments get loose.”

The Major leaned forward in his chair.  “As I said, for the normal runaways, the dog-boys or felines that decide they don’t want to follow orders, the regular patrols pretty much clean up after them in the normal course of their duty.  And for some of the bigger beasts, we have bigger hunters. You’ll see the kill-cats in action soon enough- imagine a 3-meter tall feline with the training of a Special Forces soldier and armed with a rail gun.  These are what they send out most of the time.  But there is still a need for a specialized unit to retrieve, sometimes pacify- and sometimes eliminate- escaped mutants.  You’ve no doubt heard of the Xiticix plague to the north.  A literal hive of insects, larger than people, that wipes out everything within a hundred miles of them.  What if we could engineer a mutant that could fight toe-to-toe with a pack of those things?  Imagine how powerful that creature would have to be.  Imagine if one decided to attack humans when it awoke.”

He paused again, looking directly into Morgan’s eyes.  He could tell the Major was trying to rattle him, but after facing the foes he’d seen in the territory around his old post, Morgan knew he was ready for just about anything.

“You, and your team, will not be going on patrols, at least not very often.  Most of the time, you’ll either be on alert status, or aerial backup when my team goes out.  For the next two weeks, you and the two LTs you brought down with you will go out with the aerial patrol routes to get to know the area.  The others in your squad will accompany you on those patrols, and we’ll find a way to conduct some training to get you used to working with your new team, and with mine.  For now, your squadron is off-duty, so they’re most likely in the pilot’s lounge.”

Morgan nodded.  “By now, my boys have most likely hoisted a few drinks with the locals.”

Major Claval nodded, smirking just a little.  “Well, one more thing before you join them, Captain.  Dr Bradford and I work alongside people we trust.  It always takes time to find that trust in a new officer, and a new team, so don’t be put off by our demeanor.  SF soldiers are used to that kind of situation, to looking for that sort of trust in their team-mates, so it’s nothing new to you.  We need to find that sort of trust in you, too, Captain, even if you turn out to be the sort we can’t trust.  That’s an uncomfortable situation, and it leads to some extreme measures.  The kind that you don’t want to see first-hand.  That’s all, Captain.”

Morgan paused for a moment, almost asked for clarification, but then thought better of it.  He stood, snapped a salute that Claval quickly returned before going back to the paperwork.  Morgan left the room, unable to get Claval’s last statement out of his mind- especially the tone with which it had been spoken.

*****

When he arrived in the pilot’s lounge, sure enough, his two LTs were at a table with three other pilots in various states of uniform.  The woman and two men looked up expectantly as Morgan approached the table, then drew up a chair next to Sergey Dreserick.

“Hello, Captain,” Sergey said with a smile.  He turned his head toward the bar, waved a signal at the three serving drinks, then began introductions.  “This is the rest of our squad- LTs Gavin Klein, Christine Charles- CC, she says, once you get to know her- and James McInsley.  All SF from other postings, ending up here one way or another.”  One of the servers set an open bottle of beer in front of Morgan.  He thanked her, then lifted the bottle in one hand.

“You had this lined up for me, huh?” Morgan smiled.  “My meeting with the Major wasn’t that bad.”

Sergey smiled back.  “Just being prepared, is all.”

“Glad to meet you all,” Morgan said.  “So, shall I assume that these two clowns have been telling you tall tales about our previous posting?”

Christine took a sip of her own beer, then set it down.  “Connor here was telling us that you were sent into Xiticix turf a few times.”  The swarms of human-sized insects were a bit of a legend, especially at CS bases and posts that weren’t close to the hives the Xiticix had built.  The soldiers and pilots that faced them and lived had earned their own flavor of respect from the rest of the CS army.

“Its true.  Connor here got himself sprayed by a hunter once.  A swarm of 20 of ‘em came back a half hour later and tried to carry him off.”  Morgan took a sip of his beer.  He counted it a good sign that they carried his favorite brand of beer out here- for most of his career, it was a good luck indicator that had never been disproven.  The three times his posting had changed to somewhere that did not carry it, he had been nearly killed within his first month.

Sergey caught his silent thought, and smiled.  “I figured you’d be glad to see that label, sir.”

“Indeed I am.”  Morgan set the bottle down, and explained its meaning to the others.  They all laughed.

“I must say I’m glad that you guys are able to laugh with me.  Nothin’s worse than a SF squad with no sense of humor.  Those are the guys who go nuts on you,” Morgan said.

Gavin took a long drink, emptying his bottle.  “Nope, around here, the saying goes; Laugh, Drink, or Die- pick any two.”  The three newcomers had a good laugh over that.

Morgan took a deep breath, and let it out sharply.  “Well, I’m not that formal, as you have noticed.  In the field I’ve got as much chance of calling you by your first names as by your flight designations.  In my experience, in SF we don’t have much time for anything but doing our jobs.”  He looked from one face to another, making eye contact with each and sizing them all up the way a field officer does with his new troops.  He then turned to the two he’d brought with him.  “It sounds like our job out here is going to be taking care of a long series of minor emergencies, with an occasional episode of ‘holy shit’ thrown in for good measure.”

“Got that right, sir,” James said, taking a long drink.  “We go from silence to panic and back again as a matter of course.”

Sergey nodded, setting his bottle down.  “So how’s the Major for a new boss?”

“We’ve had a lot worse,” Morgan said with a smirk.  “He’s tough, but he’s SF too, and he doesn’t sound like a desk jockey.  He goes out with the boys and girls, doesn’t he?” he asked the rest of the squad.

“All the time,” Christine answered with a nod.  “We sometimes back up his team without him present, but it’s rare, and it usually means he’s off doing something else.”

“That’s what I thought.  But that means he’s still a shooter, so he’ll take care of his shooters when they do their jobs.”  More nods from the others.  “That’s the biggest threat to an SF officer; having an immediate officer who drives a desk.  Personally, it sounds like he’s a hard man in a hard job.  One of the things he said to me, and I think all three of us should pick up on this fairly quickly, is that we are going to see some strange stuff down here, and we need to keep it to ourselves.  He all but confirmed my suspicions about the Xiticix Hunters we’ve seen.”

The three resident LTs looked at each other, their expressions changing quickly.  Gavin took a deep breath, then said what they were all apparently thinking.  “Sir, I think you should know…  Around here, people get disappeared for talking about the stuff they see.”

“Disappeared?” Connor asked.  “What do you mean, transferred?”

“Sometimes.  Sometimes they’re just not heard from again, like ISS came and took them back to Chi-Town.”

Morgan shrugged.  “They’ve got a lot of secrets downstairs, that shouldn’t surprise any of us.  The point the Major was trying to make, I believe, is that if we’re going to stick around here, we just need to keep our minds on our own jobs.”

“That sounds about right, sir,” Christine said, as the server set another beer in front of her.  “Laugh and drink.”  She proceeded to drink.  “So do we start off by giving you a tour tomorrow?”

“That’s the idea.  My PC showed us with a patrol tasking tomorrow, accompanying a wide flight off to the west.  Flight time is 10:00 hours.”

Gavin rolled his eyes.  “Pecos territory.  Well, it makes sense they’d want you to see that first.”

*****

Morgan entered his quarters slowly, his mind still slightly buzzed from the beer.  He’d have it slept off by the morning.  Of course, the SAMAS computer would never let him fly while intoxicated.  He sat at the plush chair before his desk, unlaced his boots and pulled them off.  He lifted his PC out of his breast pocket, setting it down on the desk.  The dock for it was all set up, and it chimed happily almost as soon as he connected the cable.  He could use the touch-screen for almost everything the tiny computer could do, but it was cumbersome to type out anything more than a few shorthand sentences.  The dock connected it to a larger screen, a full-size keyboard, and a hard-wire connection to the CS network.

The news reports were bland.  Morgan scanned them for interesting content within 10 minutes, found nothing worth reading in detail, and then checked his electronic messages.  Only one new entry was waiting for him- an address he didn’t recognize, but from a mechanical science magazine he sometimes subscribed to.  It looked very much like an offer to renew his subscription, but he knew better.  He set up a reply, typing in a simple message;

“Now that I’m in a more stable posting, I’ll have more time to read your magazine.  Please renew my subscription order.  I’d prefer the electronic version, sent to this address.”

The system auto-encrypted the message without being told, taking longer than Morgan had expected, then sent it away to wherever it was going.  He powered down the PC, leaving it plugged in to charge, then went to the bathroom to brush his teeth.  He couldn’t stand the feel of beer on his teeth when he was trying to sleep.

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