by O. J. Anderson
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
About ten feet away from Jack, one of the Cambodians pops up with a machete in one hand and a rusty revolver in the other. Jack dumps a burst into his chest and gets a good look at what happens to data when hit by a six-to-nine-round burst of virtual 5.56 traveling at 3,000 virtual feet per second: the data-thug explodes into black binary debris. Like shooting tinted windows out of a Cadillac.
A second later he hears B Team pick up fire from the flank. They’re moving across. More bazooka rounds cut through the air. Jack keeps his eye on the lookout for Smith’s signal to shift fire to the left. They’re moving rapidly so it doesn’t take long. Just a flash.
“Shift left, Alpha,” Jack tells them. Out front he sees Bravo bobbing across the killzone. Then, about ten seconds later, he tells them to cease fire. They pick up and sprint up to the objective.
It gets quiet. Everyone’s dead. Jack puts his crew into a 360 perimeter. Brings in his team leaders and gets a status report.
Jones: “I’ve got one guy missing an arm.”
Smith: “Simms was cut in half. They’re bringing him in now.”
“Okay,” Jack says to the tech guys. “What’s the drill here?”
The NDS tech guys begin rapidly tapping away on their keyboards and mouses. Dr. Wilkes says, “It’ll take a few moments to reprogram the repairs. Just hold tight for a second. It shouldn’t take long.”
“Got it,” Jack says. “Any idea how they knew where to set an ambush?”
“Not really,” Mullins replies. “Could be they got lucky. Could also be that they have all routes covered. You should expect heavy resistance all the way through the parietal lobe. They’re going to want to stay as far away from the hard port as possible.”
Wilkes says, “Also remember, Mr. Creed, that we’re not only up against the files themselves, but the brain too. The human body has an amazing capacity for self-defense.”
At this point Jack would normally unleash a hard-core pithy remark about superior firepower punctuated by a reload and the slamming of a fresh round into the chamber. But the effect is lost in the virtual world, so he settles for a “Mm-hm.” Waits for Lucky’s arm to regenerate and the two halves of Stone’s body to reconnect.
Rivers feeds in a couple more contenders for ringleader, but Bianco remains at the top of the list.
* * *
For security and speed, the teams move in a traveling overwatch formation through the remainder of the cerebellum. They move quickly and stealthily, encountering small pockets of resistance. Poorly trained data-goons, easily overcome.
It also doesn’t take long for Jack and his crew to overcome their real-world fire discipline (conserve ammo, keep the barrel cool). Not here. Now, the entire squad is spread out, running full tilt, holding down the triggers. Stomping through a field of freshly killed binary debris — crunching the numbers, so to speak.
Jack fires the bazooka with one arm and his M-4 with the other. Dropping more useless info than a year’s worth of North Korean propaganda balloons. They move through. Secure the objective. Do a quick sweep before moving out.
“Hey, boss,” Ramirez says. “Got a live one over here.”
Jack and the team leaders hurry over to Ramirez’s position and see some old guy ducking down behind a square. A noncombatant. Jack yanks him up by the collar. The guy’s about fifty pounds overweight. Hasn’t shaved in a while. Wearing a dirty raincoat. Probably a drunk and a gambler.
“Where’s Bianco?” Jack asks him.
The old guy mumbles and tries to wiggle away. Got the shakes and the fear of something strong in him. Looks like he’s seen a meningioma.
“Where’s Bianco?” Jack cuffs him lightly across the top of the head. Not to hurt him, just to get his attention. “Start talkin’.”
Dropping to his knees, the old man fixes his jaundiced eyes on Jack’s. “Kroog!” he groans. “Kroog!”
“All right, what’s a Kroog? Who is he?”
Jack asks Dr. Wilkes, “Any idea what this guy’s talking about?”
Rivers: “We’re running a search now, boss.”
“Never heard of it,” Wilkes tells him. “Could be our guy. Or maybe he’s crazy.”
Jacks lets the old guy go and watches him crawl away mumbling about the Kroog. When he gets about ten feet away he stops and picks up a 1. Holds it out in front of him in both hands, like a sword. The man stares at it for a moment before Jack realizes what’s about to go down. Jack lunges towards the man, shouts, “Stop him!”
Too late. The old guy stabs himself in the chest with the 1 before Jack makes it. He turns black. Shatters into ones and zeros. Falls to the floor.
“What?” Wilkes asks. “What happened? What’s going on in there?”
Jack kicks the numbers away with his boot, like sand on the beach. “Datacide,” he says.
Then, from behind a large datamite, comes the sound of a lighter being flicked. A stream of exhaled smoke. A second later comes some clown with his collar up like James Dean. He leans up against the cone and rolls his cigarette between his fingers. Real cool like. Cocks an eyebrow at Jack and his crew and says: “If you’re looking for the Kroog, I might be able to help.” He says this as though his arm is being twisted into doing this huge favor. Doesn’t realize that he’s less then a nanometer away from being written off as collateral damage. Made sport of.
“Oh yeah?” Jack says. “And who are you?”
He shrugs. “I’m the guy who can take you to the Kroog.”
“What’s the Kroog?”
A smirk, then: “It’s everyone’s worst nightmare.” He pushes off the cone of data and takes a few steps closer. “You can forget about Bianco. He’s a chump. Thought he was somebody... turned out he was a nobody. He tried to organize. Was gonna take on the Kroog’s men. But now he’s probably out in the western hemisphere looking for a clean pair of shorts. Too bad though, after Bianco turned into a sissy everyone else just gave up. Then the Kroog took over for real.”
“What the hell’s a Kroog?”
He throws his cigarette down and rubs it out angrily with his foot. “It’s the biggest, ugliest, most disgusting, rottenest, filthiest pile of scum you ever will see. A sick, twisted, fat sack of pus. It’s a demon I tell you. A demon! The Kroog’s a —”
“All right, slick. All right,” Jack says. “We get the picture... sort of.” He moves one of the axon cables to the side and reaches into his pocket for a toothpick; it doesn’t appear in the virtual world. “What’s your name?”
“Who me? Name’s Freddy Bolean. But everyone calls me Dinky.”
“Dinky? Why d’they call you that?”
Dinky shrugs. “It’s a long story.”
“Okay, Dinky... What’s your angle? You want something, so spill it already.”
“What do I want?” Dinky turns away and kind of laughs, like the question was an insult. He looks at Jack. “Let me ask you one thing first... You really think you can take on the Kroog?”
“Do chipmunks store nuts?”
“No, I mean really. You really think you can kill the Kroog?”
Ignorant data avatar. Jack takes a step closer, gives him the crazy eye and growls, “If it’s alive, I can kill it.”
“Glad to hear it,” Dinky growls back. “Then I only want one thing.”
“Yeah? What’s that?”
“I wanna watch.”
* * *
Dr. Mullins gives Jack an updated status report on the Mellow kid. It isn’t good. He’s getting progressively worse by the minute. They need to get the data and that thing out of his head ASAP and get him to a hospital. Time is critical now.
Luckily, Dinky seems to know a few things about a brain and how to move through it quickly and efficiently. They duck through a hidden doorway. He knows of a passage that will bypass all the Kroog’s layers of defense and deliver them right to the main event. He stumbled across it while running from a Kroog death squad looking for fresh meat to feed the monster. “It gets stronger,” he tells Jack, “the more it feeds.
“It’s turned this place into a prison just so it can feed its fat face. That’s all it cares about. Eating. Sucking down meat. Bloating. Getting more disgusting. That’s its sole purpose in life. To corral the masses and feed.”
The area they move through now isn’t color-coded by the NDS team. It’s just dark.
“The more it eats, the stronger it gets. The more it eats, the weaker we get. That’s the way it goes in here. And the stronger it gets, the harder it is to kill. A lot of us thought it was hopeless. A lot of us had given up already. Seemed there was no way we were ever going to defeat the Kroog. But then you guys showed up. None of us had ever seen you guys before.”
“Most people haven’t seen us before,” Jack says.
“Yeah, well, most people had never seen Dinky Bolean before either. But that don’t mean I need to be takin’ on the Kroog. That’s why we had you checked out. Seen what you were made of.”
Jack almost laughs. There isn’t anyone who needs to be checking out his crew to see what they can do. It’s an insult. Got half a mind to shut this chump up. Shut him up real good. But Bolean’s just some dumb data. All he says is, “And?”
Dinky stops. “Oh, you’ll do nicely,” he says. “Nicely.”
Then they continue deeper into the darkest parts of the brain.
* * *
“We’re almost there,” Dinky whispers.
The corridor is tight. Like a sewer. Dark. But it’s been smooth sailing the entire way. No resistance. They’ve mainlined the brain, like a skewer through a beef kabob. And now, according to Dinky, they’re sitting right below the frontal lobe. Only a short walk away from the Kroog’s place.
Up ahead is a bluish tint.
“You got us?” Jack asks.
“Roger that, Black Ace. You should be hitting the frontal eminence in five mikes. Then head north.”
Dinky, Jack and his crew soon hit bone. Head north to the Kroog’s hideout. Their passageway turning blue. The frontal lobe. Weapons at the ready now. The hard line data port, as well as the Kroog’s location, lie directly north of the metopic suture. Not too hard to find.
Dinky ducks down and puts his finger to his lips. “Shhhh.”
Jack nods. The team spreads out and gets into the prone. Jack and his TL’s creep up behind some datamites. Get eyes on the objective. “Gimme a pair of binos,” he whispers.
A pair of binoculars appears around Jack’s neck a second later. He puts them to his eyes and has a looksee. The Kroog isn’t hard to find. It’s the big nasty slug in the middle of the open area, right in front of the hard port. Like a mother protecting its cub — except this one is no mother, and the hard port is no cub. Not even close.
It’s huge. Like a giant, fat, disgusting inchworm cut in half. One half shoved inside the other. The face consisting of one big eye blinking over some sort of mouth with three long tentacles flicking out of it. Couple of teeth here and there. A row of stubby horns down its backside. Not so much in the way of legs. Mostly a body, eye and mouth. Greasy. Nasty. Boils and sores. If anything ever needed to die with a quickness, this is it.
“Prepare the rocket launchers,” Jack tells his men.
The frontal lobe is soon pinstriped with rocket trails. The Kroog disappears behind an orange wall of fire. It roils up into a black cloud. Like a curtain being slowly lifted. But the Kroog is still around for a second act. Doesn’t look damaged much. Maybe a little uglier.
“Give it another dose,” Jack commands.
More rockets. (Shoosh... Bang) Followed by small arms fire. Same result. Jack smells a challenge. He asks Dr. Wilkes, “What else you got?”
“Just a second.” A bigger rocket launcher appears in his hands. A HAW-18, to be specific. Jack lines up the sights with the Kroog’s one eye. Gonna poke it out. Then go in for the kill.
He touches it off. The big round sails away. Hits the eye. Blows. Nothing happens.
“I’m gonna need something a little stronger,” Jack says.
Wilkes looks at Dr. Mullins like he’s asking for permission. Mullins knows what he’s asking for. He’s the boss, it’s his decision to make. And he knows what the consequences will be. Could be the end of NDS. Maybe more. Can’t let the kid die though. After a moment Mullins nods.
Wilkes turns to the tech team and says, “Do it.”
“Do what?” Jack asks.
A large laser pointer appears in his hands. He knows exactly what’s about to go down. Air strike. He tells his team, “Pull back. Thousand meters.”
Reluctantly, they go. Then Jack says, “Actually, you might as well pull them from the brain. I’ll handle it from here.”
After a short deliberation in the tech room: “Okay.”
His crew disappears. Jack hoists the laser aiming device up onto his shoulder. Lines up the sights. Pulls the trigger. He sees a white circle paint the Kroog’s face. And watches. It’s looking right at him now. Its tentacles flicking violently. Skin oozing. The fattest part of its body heaving. Probably wants to eat.
It’s about to.
The FB-22 fighter bomber glides quietly overhead. Very low. Too low. But this isn’t real anyway so it hardly matters much. Two black oblong shapes disconnect from the aircraft’s underbelly. GBU-39/Bs. They slowly drift down toward the painted monster.
Once the bombs are well on their way to their target, Jack drops the LAD and stands. There’s no point in taking cover. Nothing is going to escape this one. Total annihilation. The Mellow kid will be lucky to add one plus one when this is over. The only satisfaction will be watching the Kroog disintegrate.
“That gonna do it?” Dinky asks. Now standing next to Jack.
Jack nods. He forgot about him. “Yeah,” he tells him. “That oughta do it all right.”
“That’s good. That’s real good.”
The bombs impact.
They stand there, side by side, motionless and watch the red and orange brume expand like a brilliant sunrise. Turning yellow at the edges. At the center is a giant black mass of data. The fringes of which sprinkled with tiny ones and zeros. Drifting off like dandelion spores. It’s beautiful. It’s a beautiful slow death. Hot and constant. Hopefully painful for the Kroog. Very much so.
The power of the GBU-39/Bs soon canvasses the entire frontal lobe. And Jack and Dinky are swept away. Their binary debris flying off like Ruby-throated Hummingbirds sprinting across the Gulf of Mexico.
Copyright © 2007 by O. J. Anderson