Julia watched the Marines stream into the building and fan out, taking defensive positions against the bot headed their way.
She breathed a little easier after her close call with their drone, the one the sergeant called a “puppy.” She had been moving when its sensors scanned her, and it evidently caught a whiff of her bio signs. She froze, letting her camouflage unit go to work. Fortunately, the Marines regarded the initial reading as a fluke.
She retreated now, out of the line of fire between the bot and the Marines, fighting off her personal disappointment that Fenner was nowhere to be seen.
Deep down, Julia desperately hoped for an opportunity to kill the missing SSI director. Instead, it looked as if she would simply get a front row seat of a shootout between Space Marines and a late model guard bot.
She backed up carefully to put plenty of distance between herself and the others in the large open area.
Thoop! Thoop! Thoop! Thoop! Thoopah!
The bot opened fire, and the Marines immediately lobbed egg grenades at it. They did not even need to be ordered to do so by the sergeant. They were obviously well-versed in dealing with this model.
The bot’s blaster blew up and it lost part of a leg, going down to the floor. But it was still alive, eyes glowing out of its rectangular, explosive-resistant head.
Julia heard a whirring noise start up behind her. She turned and gasped as two more bots stepped out of their own electronic camouflage field. The sergeant and her people were still focused on the downed bot, and still recovering their senses from the grenades going off.
Julia turned to the Marines and shouted, “Look out! It’s a trap!”
She dived and rolled out of the way just as the bots began firing on the Marines, knocking several off their feet with the blasts.
The Marines returned fire, and lobbed a couple more grenades.
Julia hunkered down in a ball on the floor, covering her eyes and ears.
I need to get out of here, she thought.
She jumped up and ran in a wide circle around the field of fire between the new bots and the Marines, then headed for the door. She rushed out, running past the Marines outside, and headed back up the hill.
Near the top she paused and looked back the way she had come.
“That was a disaster,” she muttered to herself out loud.
Grenades, followed by multiple blasts to the head. That was the standard operating procedure when dealing with these new bots.
The problem was . . . they were low on grenades.
We shouldn’t have thrown them all at the first one, Wilcox thought.
But they had. Somehow the drone had missed these two. And who shouted that warning?
No time to think about it now, she thought, firing carefully at the rectangular head of one of the bots. Their last two grenades had damaged one, but both were still in commission. One of them had an operable weapon and returned fire, knocking down marines as it shot.
Their armor absorbed the blasts, but it would only be a matter of time before the infernal machine got lucky and seriously injured somebody.
Thoop! Thoop! Thoop!
“You need some help, Sarge?”
Lt. Meyers’s voice came over her com on the neural net. He was outside, watching their visual feeds.
“You might send some more grenades in,” Wilcox said. “I dunno where these two were hiding, but the puppy missed them. Hope there’s not any more.”
“Roger that. More XO coming your way.”
Two additional Marines ran into the building, carrying webbed bags full of egg grenades, dodging blast bolts from the enemy bots.
The additional ordnance was well received. A couple of the Marines paused to load their grenade launchers. The rest just grabbed and threw them.
Everybody coughed at the smoke the multiple explosions left behind in the enclosed space.
No one noticed the first bot crawling to the energy storage units in the back of the room.
Wilcox turned her head and saw the crippled bot reaching for a lever. On pure instinct she yelled an order, as if a sixth sense told her what was about to happen.
“Everybody out! This place is gonna blow!”
Trained to follow orders immediately in the heat of combat, all the Marines turned and ran for the door.
But Wilcox raced for the bot, going full speed. At the last minute she leaped and tackled it just as the lever came down.
A blinding flash of light filled her face before she lost consciousness.
Wilcox opened her eyes again and squinted, letting her irises constrict, adjusting to the light.
A droid doc’s face came into her field of vision, glancing down at her with warm and empathetic eyes.
He said, “How are you feeling?”
“Where am I?”
“You are onboard the Clara Barton, Sergeant. Rest easy, the lead physician and your CO have been notified of your return to consciousness. They should be here soon.”
She sighed and said, “Great.”
It was toneless, without inflection, and the droid could not discern any meaning from it. Was she being sarcastic or did she truly think it would be great to see the officers? The droid doc could not tell, so he left her alone and returned to a corner of the room, standing by if he should be needed.
Wilcox patted herself, to see if she was all there. She experimented, wiggling her fingers and toes. Everything seemed to be working . . .
The door swished open and a human doctor walked in followed by Lt. Col. Peng. Wilcox struggled to sit up so she could face them properly.
The doctor put a hand on her shoulder and said, “Don’t bother, Sergeant. You can just stay put, for now. I’m Rear Admiral Jon Custen, in charge of the Medical Corps for the fleet. I’ve said it to Marines before, but I really, really mean it in your case. You are lucky to be alive.”
Peng said, “It was a bold thing, trying to stop the explosion, Sergeant. Above and beyond. I’ve put you in for a medal.”
Wilcox grunted noncommittally. She said, “How . . . Why am I still here?”
Custen and Peng exchanged glances.
Peng nodded and Custen cleared his throat.
He said, “It appears the facility your platoon was investigating served as an experimental warehouse for SSI. They were testing human subjects there before they had to shut down and move their operations to a more remote location.”
Wilcox’s blood ran cold, and a lump formed in her throat.
She said, “What . . . what were the experiments?”
Both men looked down at her with sympathetic expressions.
Custen said, “Have you ever heard of the Gemini Project?”