Project contact, chapter 7

Howard made a final call to Svoboda. He told him not to leave the building, not even through the back doors even if that seemed like a safe route. He reassured him and told him that everything would be all right. He warned him and admitted that they would soon hear shoots, but he lied to him about everything else: about their odds, about the bleakness of their situation, and everything else. And the old man believed Howard, probably because he was desperate to believe him.

The moaning coming from the enfolding shutters grew into a shrill rattle. With a sudden yank, the security shutters were ripped off from their foundations by the truck, which peeled away a good distance, followed by a rain of plaster and chunks of stone. The double doors stood there upright, comically detached from their surrounding torn-off wall.

Howard pulled out the tablet and checked what the enemy was doing. They had stood out of the camera’s sight before, but there was no hiding anymore. He saw them get into position, forming two lines, one by each side of the door along the walls. He had seen twelve, at the very least, all of them armed with assault rifles, many seemingly wearing some manner of body armor. Red and black, tall boots, even balaclavas. He would have found their appearance charmingly quaint if they hadn’t been trying to murder them all. It was even worse, however, because he saw them put on night vision goggles. Then some soldiers aimed up their weapons and blew off the cameras.

“There goes my ambush…” Howard muttered.

There was no escape now. There had never been one but some irrational part of his mind had until a few seconds ago believed all this was a misunderstanding, that the terrorist outside would just leave. They would charge in soon, and even killing a few before going down seemed pointless to him now. But even that slight possibility vanished when he saw that thing enter the building.

He recognized it, naturally. It moved on four legs and were commonly referred to as ‘dogs’, but they were nothing of the sort. In fact, real dogs, even the largest and most ferocious, fled the moment they saw one. Used as rescue robots, scouts, guardians, and, for the ingenious bent on causing as much mayhem as possible, tireless hunters or even bullet-proof running bombs, those machines were one of the most successful and feared products of the robotic revolution. And those bastards had got their hands on an expensive one, probably a commercial version they had upgraded and adapted for their needs. Howards was at least somewhat relieved that it didn’t seem to be carrying any weapon systems.

The headless robot walked inside the building. Its legs tapped on the floor in an almost dancing manner, like it was trying to dance ballet. It crouched near the entrance and then swayed in a motion somewhat reminiscent of sniffing. Howard swore in silence; he now realized the thing probably had all sort of scanners and sonars and was relaying their positions to its masters outside. For the first time, the thought of surrendering crossed his mind. He knew they wanted them dead, but right now he saw little point in trying to mount a fruitless defense against such a superior enemy.

On his hand, the tablet vibrated, drawing him away from his bleak thoughts for a moment. The code on the screen and the beep on his hear told him it was Palas, the security AI, but the voice that talked to him was not hers but that of a man.

Can any hide in secret places so that I shall not find them?” The voice said.

“What… Who is this?”

Who can hide in secret places so that I shall not find them?” It said once more. “Am I not the Lord? Do I not fill heaven and earth?

“What is this nonsense,” Howard swore between gritted teeth. “Palas, have you been hacked?”

Be strong and of good courage, fear not, nor be afraid of them, for the Lord goes with you. He will not leave you nor forsake you. Submit then to the Lord, but be a doer of his word, not a mere listener who deceives himself.”

The voice went silent and Howard peeked out. The robot dog was looking at him. Not towards his position, but straight at him. It knew he was there. It lowered itself on its forelegs as if submitting to him.

For if any be a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man beholding his face in a glass,” the voice said. “For he sees himself and then goes his way, and soon forgets what manner of man he is. Step forward, for I have chosen you to pronounce blessings in the name of the Lord.

Howard didn’t say anything for a few seconds that felt like minutes. He was unable to voice all the questions that now were rushing through his mind. Finally, he managed to mutter one word.

“Why?”

The answer came immediately.

When you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.

Howard looked down at his weapon. The pistol seemed so weak and impotent now; a mere toy against the massing evil outside.

At first, without even being aware of it, Howard stepped outside his ambush post, his dumbstruck gaze set on the robot dog. Was this a trick? A bizarre trap, perhaps, he wondered. If so, what was the point? Where they trying to flush them out with religious verses? The thought almost made him laugh. It had indeed worked with him.

He approached the dog, now lying still on the ground, apparently as harmless as a real puppy. Thanks to the light coming from the outside, he now saw explosives strapped to the chassis of the robot. For some reason, that didn’t bother him too much. He put his hand on the hunter of chrome as if it were a real dog.

A frenzied chatter made him look up. From the door, two of the terrorist were aiming their weapons at him, but judging by their distressed glances around the place and the looks they exchanged, they were too confused to actually shoot.

“You! Drop down! What the hell is going on?” He asked in English. An American accent, from Texas.

The other was less diplomatic and immediately fired a burst from his rifle. One bullet hit Howard on the right breast and another went through his left eye.

In the split of a second, the robot dog wheeled around and rushed off to the exit, straight into the two armed men. He rammed into the one who had spoken and toppled him over onto the ground. Then it kept running and, when it was five or so meters away, it exploded and engulfed all the men outside in shrapnel, fire, and death.

 

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