“Fire in the hole!” he bellowed.
Kowalski dove back into the elevator, ducking with the others to the side. The explosion rocked the cage, deafened their covered ears.
Gray rolled out into the smoke, inspecting the damage. The remains of the door glowed a fiery red through the pall. Spatters of molten steel splashed the walls and floor. The air stung with a chemical signature.
That wasn’t just C-4.
He glanced at Kowalski, who shrugged.
“My own recipe. Added polymer-coated thermate-TH4 to the C-4.”
Gray inwardly cringed. Thermate was the primary ingredient in incendiary grenades, used for cutting through tank armor. But overkill or not, Kowalski had gotten the job done—and Gray hadn’t asked for subtlety.
Nothing moved beyond the doorway. He spotted bodies back there, but to be certain the way was clear, Gray tossed two flash-bang grenades into the outer hall. Everyone looked away and covered their ears. The flash-bangs erupted—then Gray gave Tucker his signal.
Dog and handler burst across the room, avoiding the molten pools of steel on the floor. Gray and the others followed, weapons ready.
Then the sky began to fall.
Hexagonal pieces of the roof rained down from above, clattering to the floor. Gray thought they were just ceiling tiles shaken loose by the blast.
Then those tiles sprouted legs—steel, articulated, razor-sharp appendages—and came swarming at them like a horde of metal spiders.
“Doctor …?” Petra stood frozen by the tray of instruments. She had been prepping the neuro-endoscope when the first thunderous blast sounded.
Then an even louder detonation rocked through the facility, rattling everything in the room, including Edward’s nerves. His first thought was that the concrete walls of the pillar had given way. That worry always lurked in the back of his mind.
Immobilized by terror, Edward remained at his workstation, fully gowned and masked. He had been manipulating and aligning the micro-robotic arm and its fine cranial drill, getting ready to start.
Additional smaller explosions continued.
“We’re under attack,” Petra said, looking to him for guidance.
Her words finally shattered through his shock. They had to get out of here—but not empty-handed, not without their hard-earned prize. If they survived without the newborn in their possession, the backlash would be deadly.
“The child,” he said, locking eyes with Petra. “We still need him alive for now. Grab him. We’ll make for an evacuation station.”
She dropped the endoscope, turned toward the door, then back again. “What about the patient?” Her eyes flicked in the direction of Amanda.
“Not important.” The voice on the phone had all but admitted it. The young woman could be replaced—but not the child. “We have all of her tissue and blood samples. That should be enough. I’ll grab those. You see to the child.”
Still, Edward hated to leave matters unsettled. He picked up a scalpel, stared at his hand, then placed the instrument gently back down. He couldn’t muster the strength to do it himself, not by his own hand.
He turned back to the workstation and activated the laser-aligned trajectory preset into the machine. The robotic arm began its slow descent, the drill whining into a fierce whirr. The burr’s path into the cerebral cortex was already plotted—only now no one would be here to stop it as it penetrated deeper and deeper.
Like a slow bullet through the skull.
This is better, he consoled himself. She won’t feel a thing.
With everything in order, Edward abandoned his workstation and rushed for the door. A final glance behind him showed the tip of the drill burr piercing the small blue X marked on Amanda’s skull. A drop of blood welled and rolled down her scalp, like a crimson tear.
Gray fled through a hellish landscape of black smoke and fiery molten metal, made even worse by the horde of metallic hunters, scrabbling toward him, racing atop legs as sharp as daggers.
Kowalski crushed one of the hunters under his boot. The legs splayed out like a squashed spider—then reversed themselves, swinging up and latching onto Kowalski’s boot. The legs began sawing through the leather.
Seichan went to his aid, cutting free his bootlaces in a single thrust of her throwing dagger. She pointed to the wall.
Kowalski kicked his leg, sending his footwear and the clinging spider flying.
Gray held others off with his pistol, knocking them back with each shot. Together, they retreated through the molten remains of the door, creating a fiery choke point against the hunters.
Kowalski tried to bring his rifle to bear, hopping on one bloody foot, but Gray pointed down the hall. “Go after Tucker. We’ll hold them off here.”
Kowalski didn’t have to be told twice, mumbling, “Hate friggin’ spiders …”
Seichan popped off a couple of shots with her SIG Sauer. “Must be some sort of automated defense system.”
He agreed. He had expected the base to have built-in countermeasures—but never this. He knew DARPA was working on research projects along these lines, an experimental program to develop robotic swarms, for coordinated attack, surveillance, and defensive systems. He’d seen footage from a university in England where they’d successfully developed such a swarm. And it wasn’t just small robots. He’d witnessed the completion of a cheetah-size robot in a DARPA lab that could run faster than a human.
Likely the countermeasures here at the base were meant to hunt, distract, and stall the enemy until a security team could mobilize. Still, the automatons by themselves were deadly enough, and bullets hardly slowed them down.
“Here they come,” Seichan warned.
A wave of razor-edged steel came crashing toward them.
Tucker tore down the hallway, chasing after Kane’s tail. He strained for the sound of any threat, eyes unblinking, breath shallow. But he didn’t have to rely on his senses alone.
A growl reached his ears, a warning.
A man in a white lab coat stepped into the hallway ahead, raising an arm.
Tucker shot him in the face.
As he rushed past the man, he saw his hands were empty. A twinge of guilt flickered—but it quickly died. The two other people he’d already shot had been holding weapons. He couldn’t take the chance.
Besides, after all he’d seen in the past minute, no one down here deserved to take another breath. He’d passed lab after lab, saw things he wished he could un-see. A chill remained at the base of his spine, picturing the disembodied head hanging from a rack above a beating heart.