“I ran the hexapod through this maze once already today. Now watch.”
Fielding inserted the crab-like machine through a lower slot, sealed the door, and used a Bluetooth device to activate it.
Tiny green lights flared along a groove that ran around the periphery of the hexapod’s carapace. Titanium legs stretched and tapped.
Robert leaned closer, unimpressed. “Why isn’t it—?”
The creature shot away, dancing on its six legs, gaining speed until it was a silvery blur. It sped through the maze with unerring accuracy, no doubling back to correct a wrong turn. It had remembered the complex path through the maze perfectly.
“I’m estimating the new brain’s neural intelligence is about that of your average canine,” Fielding said proudly.
A half-minute later, the hexapod reached the exit platform near the top, skidding to a stop.
Robert grinned. “Impressive.”
Fielding matched that expression, thrilled at the rare praise. He reached to the door and unlatched it. Before he could swing it open, the hexapod rammed forward. It burst out and latched its legs onto the researcher’s forearm. The sharp-pointed legs dug into his flesh. Blood seeped through his white coveralls.
“Motherf—” Fielding yelled and hit the Bluetooth controller, powering down the hexapod.
Still, he had to return to the table and manually pry each leg out of his arm to get it to release.
“The aggression of this newest generation is also through the roof,” Fielding said, wincing and nursing his bloody arm as proof. “I’d say we’ve engineered the equivalent of a limbic region of the mammalian brain, the lizard intelligence buried beneath the cortex, driven by base needs for survival.”
“For a battlefield weapon, that’s not an undesirable trait.”
“And speaking of battlefields, you promised a field trial of the latest hexapods. That’s why I came all the way down here in person.”
“Of course. I have a monitor set up over here with live feed from the Lodge. Everything’s ready. They’ve been waiting for the green light.”
Robert followed Fielding to a fifty-two-inch HD monitor. The screen was subdivided into sections, each offering a different bird’s-eye view of a remote and isolated patch of woodland hills hundreds of miles away.
The centermost square showed a small concrete bunker sticking out of a meadow, like a giant anthill. A metal door sealed it shut.
“If you’re ready?” Fielding said.
“Get on with it,” Robert snapped.
Fielding spoke into a cell phone. Moments later, the metal door burst open and a woman was shoved outside. She wore a hospital gown and nothing else. She stumbled to her knees, shielding her eyes against the midday sun. Robert absently wondered how long it had been since the young woman had seen actual sunlight.
From the way she jumped and glanced back to the door, someone must have barked at her.
“They’re telling her to run if she wants to live.”
Robert frowned, not appreciating the sadism. This was an experiment, not a bloody sport, and should be conducted as such.
The subject took off for the forest at a dead run.
“There!” Fielding pointed to movement through the grasses, a dozen arrows, aiming for the fleeing woman. A pair split off, zipping away faster, intending to flank her. “Look how they’re pattern-swarming. I employed a new wireless communications system and linked the individual hexapods to one another, allowing them to function as a group or pack. Look how quickly they’re learning.”
Robert watched—half-aghast, half-excited.
The woman made it to the edge of the woods, but she must have heard the hunters. She looked over a shoulder, and the horror of what she saw tripped her feet. She fell to her knees, her mouth open in a silent scream.
Then the hunters reached her.
It did not take long.
Fielding held his chin in one hand, appraising the trial. “The new battlefield modifications of the pods seem to be working as engineered. The circular blades, the razored leg flanges … all performed flawlessly. I may want to tinker with the digging spades, see if I can get them to burrow better.”
“I’ve seen enough,” Robert said, straightening and stepping away.
Fielding followed him. “With your approval, I’d like to move the testing forward into the larger quadruped line.”
“That would be fine.”
Fielding pressed him. “But I’d need a few more test subjects. Something more challenging.”
Robert pictured the macerated remains of the woman on the screen. “I’m sure we can find them somewhere.”
HEAVEN AND HELL
July 2, 11:56 A.M. EST
Charleston, South Carolina
Captain Kathryn Bryant had come to sell her body.
She stepped off the crosstown bus into the steamy swelter of a Charleston summer. Her worn sneakers crunched in the gravel at the shoulder of the road. She pulled on a pair of cheap sunglasses purchased at the airport against the glare of the sun, but they did nothing for the heat.
Ninety degrees with ninety percent humidity.
I thought Washington’s summers were bad.
In a feeble attempt to compensate, she’d gathered her long auburn hair into a ponytail and wore a ball cap to shade her face. She also wore a pair of light shorts and a nondescript loose blouse, no bra, finishing her appearance as a down-on-her-luck woman looking for a little extra money.
The bus pulled away with a choking cough of diesel fumes. She followed in its wake.
The North Charleston Fertility Clinic rose two blocks ahead, the complex covered a full city block, set amid a small park of towering oaks and palmettos. The rest of the neighborhood was a mix of commercial businesses and trailer parks. She was not unfamiliar with the area, having spent a few months while in service at the Naval Weapons Station, which hugged the Cooper River three miles away.
As she headed toward the clinic, she slipped out her cell phone to keep a promise. The phone was a disposable, tied to her alias. She connected her call through Sigma to ensure it couldn’t be traced. If anyone tried to pull the LUDs, the phone records would only discover a call placed to a local pawnshop.
The line clicked and a gruff voice answered, “So you’re still alive?”
Her husband, Monk, did his best to make it sound like a joke, but she heard the undercurrent of tension in his voice. He hadn’t been thrilled she’d taken this assignment, but he understood the necessity.
“For the moment,” she replied with a smile. “I’m just heading toward the clinic.”