Chapter 19:

Hunter-Killer

Challengers


Our truck sat idling in the street, its wipers thrashing back and forth at maximum speed as the typhoon continued to build.

Aiko had the magnification on her goggles turned to full. She stared through the windshield at the horde of spider-like robots pouring down the hillside behind the community center. “What are those creatures?”

“The enemy,” I said. “Those are spider drones. Hunter-killers.”

I found it hard to believe. How did such a destructive menace find its way to 22nd-century Japan? So far, rips over the island of Kimura Jima had produced variants of two of the Soviet Army’s premiere military units of the Third World War: the Cyclad raiders and now, spider drones.

There had to be some connection between them and the anomalies. And how was Yamanaki Future Technologies involved?

Aiko interrupted my thoughts. “You’ve seen these things before?”

“I’ve fought these things before. Or at least, robots that look almost exactly like them. They’re not very smart, but they’re dangerous. The heads contain sensors, communications, and an automatic gun or flamethrower. The front two legs are sharpened on the edges and serve as melee weapons. Think of them as twin swords.”

I put the truck in gear and stomped on the accelerator pedal. “We’ve got to hurry! Those things will be here in minutes, and when they arrive…”

The specter of the German town of Alsfeld leaped into my mind.

I saw again the flames from the centuries-old, timber-framed houses as they burned to the ground, heard the secondary explosions from burning vehicles when the fires reached their ammunition. And the mutilated bodies …

“What happens when they arrive?” Aiko prompted. I wrenched my focus back to the present.

“They’ll kill anything warm-blooded. People, animals -- it doesn’t matter. If it wasn’t for the typhoon, they’d turn Kimura into ashes. Spider drones were part of a scorched-earth policy, and the Soviet military unleashed them on population centers known to harbor guerilla forces.”

I swerved around a storefront sign that the storm had torn loose and dropped in the road. “It was a really effective strategy. Cold-blooded and ruthless, but effective.”

“So why are they here?”

“I wish I knew, but it doesn’t matter right now. Switch your goggles to infrared. If you see any human-sized heat sources, let me know.”

It seemed like ages before we reached the community center. As I crossed the T-intersection to enter the center’s parking area, I saw the truck I’d left for Doc and Rio was still there.

“Aiko, we should be in range of headset transmissions now, even with the interference from the storm and the anomaly. Have you picked up any signals from Doc or --”

My headset practically exploded with sound. “This is Halliday to Alpha-Six. Do you copy?” Apparently, Doc had turned his own headset to maximum output.

I cranked the volume down, as did Aiko. “Alpha-Six to Halliday, it’s good to hear you. Status?”

“Not good. I have the mayor of Kimura here with a head injury from a car accident. Her six-year old child got separated from her and she’s gone missing. Ensign Akayama is out looking for her now.”

I interrupted his transmission. “Halliday, I’ve brought our best search specialists along with me. We’ll find her. But be advised, dozens of spider drones, I say again, spider drones, are approaching your location from the north.”

I gave Doc a few seconds to finish swearing before speaking again. He knew what the drones were capable of as well as I did. “Query, can you bring your patient to the Mistral? It’s at the bottom of the main street.”

He got back online in a hurry. “Copy, Alpha-Six, but I’ll wait for you here in the truck with Mrs. Takahashi. She won’t leave without her daughter.”

“Roger, Halliday. Can you give us the last known position of the child?”

She was last seen at Takahashi's home. It’s the house immediately west of the park where you tried to shoot Lev.”

“Copy. We’re starting our search now. Six, out.”

Twisting the steering wheel sharply to the left, I gunned the engine and we headed down the street.

I could feel Aiko’s eyes on me. “Just exactly who were you trying to shoot, Lieutenant?”

“A Dreadnought. They’re the ones I was telling you about that look almost identical to Cyclad raiders, but they’re 20th century cyborgs, not androids. This one is supposed to be friendly, but he gave me this huge bruise on my side so I’m not sure. Oh, his name is Lev, by the way.”

She slowly shook her head. “I am not even sure where to start asking questions.”

“Don’t worry about it. We won’t be seeing him anytime soon.” I braked to a stop in front of the mayor’s house. “Be ready for anything, some of those spider drones may already be in the area. Let’s hurry.”

***

Aiko and I pulled our rain hoods over our heads and stepped out into the howling wind. Tama leaped out of the back of the truck, then jumped up and over the metal frame fence separating the house’s front yard from the street. Us humans had to use the gate.

“Tama has found signs of a child’s recent movement outside the house, Lieutenant.” Aiko said a moment later. “We will follow him for now.” The panther moved forward without hesitation in a direction due north of the house. I marveled again at the telepathic bond between Aiko and Tama, and trailed behind her.

Illuminated by flashes of lightning, we walked through the backyard, then across a bridge over a drainage ditch that was already half-full of rapidly flowing water. Almost immediately, we found ourselves in the heavily wooded hillside. Pine trees covered most of the ground around the base of the hill, cutting off our view of any incoming threats.

“Can you locate these drones using optical sensors, Lieutenant?” Aiko asked.

“Motion detection works, but not very well in this storm. If they start shooting, you can spot them on infra-red. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”

I wiped rain out of my face and spoke into my microphone. “Challenger Alpha-Six to Mistral Sierra-Four, do you copy?”

Our transceivers came to life. “Alpha-Three, this is Sierra-Four. I’m so glad to hear your voice! I think Aiko-chan is somewhere nearby!”

Aiko, standing next to me, blinked in surprise. “The child is named Aiko?”

“Yes,” I said with a grin. “There are two Aiko’s here! Terrifying, isn’t it?”

She noted the expression on my face with disapproval. “I fail to understand the humor, Lieutenant Peterson.”

“I just think it’s funny that there are two of you. Who knows, maybe Aiko-chan is telepathically linked to her house cat.” I sent another transmission. “Sierra-Four, it’s great to hear you too. Activate your homing beacon. We’ll come to you.”

Why did little Aiko and her mother leave the safety of the YFT base? I wondered. It made no sense at all that the mayor’s daughter would be out in the woods in the middle of a typhoon.

A moment later, my heads-up display placed a blip on my goggles indicating Rio’s position. Aiko saw it on her HUD as well. “Lieutenant, Tama and I can be there quickly.”

The two of them were much faster than I was, and the thought of Rio alone in woods swarming with hunter-killer drones made me shiver.

“Yes, go as fast as you can. I’ve got a steady signal on Rio’s location. I’ll follow up.”

Tama was off in a flash. Aiko took a step, then hesitated. She looked back at me. “Remember our agreement, Lieutenant. Do not bite the farm while I am gone.”

“The expression is ‘buy the farm,’ Ensign. And that goes for you too.”

She smiled, then turned and vanished into the woods.

I followed her heat signature on thermal IR for a while before it disappeared. Even the heat of her footsteps, which would normally appear on my goggles, vanished as the rain continued to pour down.

As I followed Aiko’s trail, a faint heat source appeared far to my right. It was too deep in the foliage to get a visual confirmation, but it looked like it might be a dog. Or, possibly…

The scream of a frightened six-year old girl pierced the noise of the storm.

It was followed by a metallic whine that I knew too well: the leg servos of a spider drone.

“Aiko-chan!” I shouted. I charged toward the heat signature. As I ran, I keyed my microphone and gave the code indicating I was moving into weapon range of a known enemy: “Alpha-Six, advancing!”

I burst into a small clearing. Huddled at the base of a large tree was Aiko-chan, shrieking at the top of her lungs at the apparition standing over her.

The flat gray wedge of the drone’s gun-head, perched atop the bulbous body that hung suspended on eight metal legs, twisted to aim downward at the child cowering in front of it.

Its simple-minded AI determined that the girl was not an immediate threat, so it stopped its firing sequence and reared back, its two front legs raised, poised to deliver a deathstroke with the sharpened tips and edges.

I shot it.

The first penetrating slug from my auto-shotgun caught it squarely in the middle of its hideous metal body, damaging it but not putting it out of action. Servos whirring, the robot turned to meet the new threat, abandoning its attempt on the life of the girl.

My next shot also hit it in the torso, as did the next. And the next. I put eight rounds total into the thing before my gun ran dry. It had been destroyed by the first two hits, but there was a lot of fear and rage behind the following six.

Of course, now my gun was empty. I drew in a shaky breath as my hands reloaded without conscious thought on my part. Poor little Aiko was curled up and crying, her hands clamped tightly over her eyes. But I was relieved to see she was unhurt.

I heard voices on my headset and realized that Rio had been trying to contact me. No doubt she’d heard the gunshots.

“Alpha-six, come in! Alpha-six, what is your status?”

“This is Alpha-Six. Rally on my beacon. I’ve located the child and she’s unhurt. Heading back to the community center.I slung my shotgun and gently scooped Aiko-chan’s tiny form up in my arms. She was still sobbing but not hysterical. Just like the other Aiko I knew, she was made of tough stuff.

She drew a small arm across her eyes and sniffled. “I want my mommy.”

“I’ll take you to her right now. Some friends of mine are coming to join us. Hey, they’ll even bring a big black cat that you can pet!”

“Don’t wanna cat,” she mumbled. “I want my momma!”

I knew she wasn’t really interested in anything besides her mother at that point, but I was desperately trying to distract her. I could hear servo motors all around me, and they were getting closer.

I spared a look behind me and saw four spider drones near the edge of the clearing. A glance to my left and right confirmed that more of the monstrosities were moving past me down the hill.

We were surrounded, with no way out.

I keyed my microphone. “Alpha-Six to Alpha-Three. My position has been overrun. Unable to proceed.” I peeked around the bole of the tree at the nearest drone, then ducked back when it swung its head in my direction.

Alpha-six, this is Alpha-Three. We’re only a couple of minutes away.”

That’s the history of my life, I thought. When seconds count, backup is just minutes away.

The sounds of the drones drew closer.

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