And the stakes just took another jump at the Andrews Ranch….
Diana shuddered as the oval shape of one of the Landreth Technologies war machines formed in the hologlobe. Will reached in the globe and tapped on the machine. The side opened, revealing varied small devices within the machine.
“The LT 9572,” Will said, a sardonic, angry tone to his voice. “LT’s smallest and finest instrument of destruction. Capable of dispersing sedatives, poisons, toxins, infectious agents in this configuration. Limited range. Additional comblock abilities available for a price. Most commonly used in the Petroleum Autonomous Zone. I played with these daily when I was in the PAZ. Capable of converting into twenty netspiders.”
“Are you detecting one of those?” Diana asked softly.
Will glowered at her. “When I left LT, the process of countering detection by the type of tools I now have available to me was just getting started.” He rose, beginning to pace. “I get echoes that suggest yes, one is in the area. But.” He stopped sharply, spinning to stare at the device in the globe, his face tightening into an even grimmer visage. “Our data bots also use similar frequencies, because of the work I’ve done with them.”
“I think I’ve seen something like that before,” Jan said, easing out from behind Dan, swinging her legs around to put her feet on the floor. She leaned closer to the hologlobe, studying the war machine. “Over by the Martin place.”
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” Dan said.
The door opened, admitting Rita, Red, and Ginger.
“I saw a shiny thing like that,” Rita said, plopping down on the floor next to the coffee table. “Spooky shied, and Ginger wouldn’t go near it. But Toby ran at it. He barked. Then he whined and ran away.”
Shocked silence filled the room. Will and Diana stared at each other.
Diana finally found her voice. “When and where did you see it, Ree?”
Rita shot a cautious glance at her mother.
“It’s all right,” Jan said. “We need to know, Ree.”
Rita frowned, looking unconvinced.
“Was that the day that you thought you’d lost Toby?” Dan asked. “Last week?”
Rita nodded. “He whined, and took off running. Faster than I’d ever seen him. Ginger stayed with me. But she and Spooky are okay! Daddy, they’re okay! I didn’t think–I didn’t see it before!”
“Honey, come here,” Dan said. He slid sideways and patted the couch next to him, where Jan had been sitting. “Tell us what happened. It’s okay. No one’s blaming you for anything.”
Rita slowly rose and went to Dan. She settled in next to her father. He put an arm around her.
“Tell us what happened, Ree,” Diana said in her softest voice, doing her best to screen out the dull dead fear in her gut.
“Wanted to get pretty pictures for Daddy to make him happy because he’s so sick,” Rita said. “I saw elk on Mud Point.”
“The Martin place?” Diana asked.
Dan shook his head. “Tribal land now.”
“I–I thought I saw baby elk. So I rode a long, long way around. And when I got there, I saw–that.” Rita pointed at the war machine’s image.
“Did you get a picture of it?” Diana asked.
“Can you show us?”
“I’ll go get it.” Rita hopped off of the couch and ran up the stairs. Diana met Will’s eyes again.
“If there’s a Landreth war machine on tribal land, things may not be what they seem,” Will said to her.
Rita returned. She handed a chip to Will. He popped it in his tablet, and handed the tablet to Rita.
“Can you show me the picture?” he asked Rita.
Rita nodded slowly. She ran her finger along the tablet, then stopped. “That one.”
Will looked at the picture. He blanched. Then he carefully took the tablet from Rita, tapping on it.
A second image popped up next to the Landreth war machine.
Except for the fact that this one was lying on its side at the foot of a Ponderosa pine tree with Toby barking at it, they could be the same thing.
“So that answers that question,” Will said. He straightened up. “We’re going to have to disarm and retrieve it.”
“How?” Diana asked, a sickening feeling washing through her even as she knew what Will would say.
A wry expression flitted across Will’s face.
“Used to be my job in the PAZ, every day. Diana, I think we’ve got some hard questions for your friend Joaquin, as well as for the CER and my father.” He drew a deep, ragged breath. “And I have to report this to the Third Force. Needless to say, this isn’t supposed to happen.”
“Does it have to be you?”
“Yes.” Will’s tone brooked no argument. “I won’t take the risk of it going rogue on us. Di, this is what my father meant by a Lakely situation. I’m sure of that. Even the Third Force won’t know how to disarm that war machine without triggering it.”
He nodded slowly. “Di, I’ll need your help. You and Red are the most skilled bot wranglers on site. My father knows about this. That’s–” his voice quavered but he quickly corrected it. “That’s the version that–went rogue on me. With Lakely. My father knows I know how to disarm it. It’s a message to us.”
Diana shivered. “What do we do?”
Will’s face hardened. “We disarm it, and hope to hell there’s no traps.”
“We leave in five minutes,” Will said.
“So is this the cause of all of our problems?” her father asked.
“Not all of them,” Will said. “I’ll know more when I get my hands on it.” He looked down at his tablet. “Rita, do I have your permission to save this to my files? I need it.”
“Can I delete this picture from your chip? This is–” his voice faltered again. “This is not the sort of picture you should have on anything of yours. It’s not safe.”
“Am I in trouble?” Rita whimpered.
Will knelt in front of her. “No, honey. You are very much not in trouble.” He swallowed hard, his face tightening even more. “But it is a very dangerous thing. Spooky and Ginger were right to be afraid of it. If you ever, ever see anything like this again, do not go near it. Okay?”
Rita nodded again. “What do I do?” Her voice was very small.
“What you did was very brave,” Will said. “But. If you ever see one of these things again when you’re out riding, use this to take a picture.” He brought a small camera pen out of his pocket and handed it to her. “You were lucky. That thing could have killed you just for taking a picture of it with your camera. Use this.”
Rita nodded solemnly as she took the pen from Will, even as Jan gasped. Rita studied the pen, then looked up at Will. “I push this button?” she asked.
“Point this end and push the button,” Will said. “It will automatically send the picture to me. And then you ride as hard as you can to get as far away from it as possible, and call me. When you get to the house. And don’t leave the house. Okay?”
“O-kay,” Rita said slowly.
“What do you do?” Will asked.
“Take its picture with this pen,” Rita whispered, her eyes fixed hard on Will’s face. “Ride hard to get away. Call you.”
“When you get to the house,” Will prompted. “That’s important.”
“When I get to the house. But do I have to stay in the house?”
“Yes,” Will said softly. “Until I tell you it is safe. So what do you do after you ride away from the device?”
“Go to the house,” Rita breathed. “Stay in the house. Call you. Wait until you say it is safe.”
“Good girl,” Will said.
Diana watched as Will slowly, carefully, saved the file to his tablet and handed Rita’s chip back to her.
“I’ll put this back,” Rita said. She ran up the stairs to her room.
Will sank back on his haunches, rubbing his face and shaking his head, his body trembling. “Jesus God,” he moaned through his fingers. “Dear sweet Mother of God. I saw kids killed by those machines for doing less than that in the PAZ. Oh my God.”
Diana knelt by him. “You okay?”
Will dropped his hands from his face. The barely controlled rage in his tight face rocked her back. “My father is going to pay for this,” he said through tightly gritted teeth. “I don’t care what my parole says. He will pay.“
“Don’t do something stupid, son,” Dan said quietly. “We’ll not let Rita out alone any more.” He sighed. “I thought she was safe enough with the dogs.”
Will heaved a heavy sigh and rose. “Luckily it was a slow trigger. Your poor dog probably got the full force of its defensive response. Saved Rita. Di, I need to spend time with our Security training them on safe response for these–these monsters.” His voice grew firmer as he spoke. “But I will break my parole and design the remote killers that pen can trigger. I’m not supposed to play with that tech any more but damn it, she’s your little sister, Di!“