Dying to Kill
by O. J. Anderson
|part 1 of 3|
X-9 Fast Mover
250,000 miles from Earth
Less than twenty feet above the transport, the X-9 creeps along toward the command module. The starship is enormous. Nearly half a kilometer long. Octagonal hull. Windowless. Featureless. Nearly smooth the entire length.
Jack Creed watches the ship pass below him from the viewing hatch. Almost there now. He turns to his crew and gives them the thumbs up. “One minute out. Let’s do it.”
The men stand. Sling their demo kits over their shoulders. Commo check. Each buddy team then checks his partner’s gauges, tether lines, gas feed lines. Thumbs up. The team leaders report to Jack. Good to go.
Over the objective: Captain Hawser taps the reverse thrusters. A quick puff. And the X-9 comes to a halt over the Beinhoffer’s command module.
Red light turns green. The drop doors open. A ladder descends.
Jack is the first one out. He clips in, then climbs down, Rivers close behind. It’s cold, presumably, and dark, until the X-9’s bellyside halons click on, casting spheres of illumination down onto the wide spine of the Beinhoffer. The calmness of the descent belies the undetectable and massive speed of the two ships hurtling toward Earth.
Once on the deck they move forward and await the thick cable being lowered from the nose of the fast mover. Rivers secures it. And together they move to the predetermined entry point directly above the ship’s navcom unit.
Behind them, the bulky white spacesuits of his crew drip down from the X-9 onto the Beinhoffer. The demo teams assemble. Move out toward their targets. Their magnetic boots keep them planted firmly onto the hull.
Approximately 40 meters off the nose, Jack kneels. This is the spot. Unstraps a tube-like device from his leg and studies the area beneath him for a moment. He then lays a thick bead of explosive gelatin in a twelve-inch circle. Rivers jabs a tiny black box with two probes into the clear gel. Then, moving back to the center of the module, Jack lays another bead. This one large enough for a man to enter. Rivers pokes in another detonator.
They step back a safe distance. Kneel facing away from the blast sites. “Fire in the hole,” Jack says. He taps a button on his forearm keypad.
No boom. Just a slight vibration.
The pair stand and move ahead on the module. The two sites now marked with a chalky white blast residue. They kick in the panels. Rivers sets to work patching in the X-9’s feed cable to the Beinhoffer’s brainstem. Jack lowers himself through the hatch. Clicks on his helmet light and says: “I’m in.”
* * *
Senator Gerald McCracken’s office
General Gill cleared his throat. “About two weeks.” Nodded. “That’s correct.”
“What do you mean ‘about’?” Senator McCracken asked. Swivelled his chair slowly away from his giant desk sensing there was more to the story than the general had let on. He stood.
The general, all green polyester, colored ribbons and stars, said, “It’s actually closer to eleven days.”
“Closer to eleven days?”
“Between ten and eleven days.” General Gill looked to the ceiling. His lips moved silently. He then said, “Two hundred fifty-six hours until impact.”
Two hundred fifty-six hours.
The number impressed itself onto the senator’s mind. His hand went to his forehead, slid down to his eyes, then over his mouth. Stopped on his chin. He exhaled loudly and stared at the maroon carpet. Saw the number 256 there in the weave. He tried briefly to imagine the ramifications of this, but couldn’t; the ramifications were, indeed, quite unimaginable. He willed himself to the liquor hutch. Poured a drink.
The general was quiet. Waiting out the storm. Been in a lot of tight spots before. Tight spots were nothing new. For General Gill, tight spots were like odd relatives who visit during the holidays: they could be dealt with. Handled.
Senator McCracken, now by the window, turned to him sharply and said, “I’ve got to hand it to you, General. You sure seem to be taking this well!”
“I’m working on it, sir.”
Cocking his head slightly: “Working on it? Working on what?”
“Solution?” The senator now looked at him sideways.”What solution?” Pause, then: “Are you telling me this is solvable? Is that what you’re telling me?”
“Yes, sir. It’s solvable.”
“I’m bringing in an outfit that specializes in situations like these. They’re set to arrive within the next three hours. We’ll be funding this with the black budget. Deep black personnel only. Once the team arrives they’ll be briefed, then immediately brought to Andrews Air Force Base and deployed. We’ll have this cleaned up within the next seventy-two hours.”
McCracken’s head reared back at the simplicity. Brief. Deploy. Clean up. “That’s it? Clean it up? Seventy-two hours?”
“Yes, sir.” A reassuring nod. Because that’s what generals do. He checked his watch quickly with a precise snap of the wrist. Up, down. That was it. Then a grunt of approval, as though everything were going according to plan. Right on schedule.
What General Gill failed to tell the senator was what was really going through his mind. Words like: catastrophe, doom, world war, plague, ruin, global destruction. Armageddon. Things like that. But instead of those words, he said, “We’ll be meeting with the team at the clandestine conference room on Virginia Avenue. I’ll notify you before they arrive.” He turned and left the senator’s office.
* * *
The three black vans arrived early. Jack Creed and his crew were hurried inside by a team of plainclothes agents with wires coming from their ears and small machine guns. They were taken to a windowless briefing room where General Gill and Senator McCracken awaited. The men were seated.
The agents left, locked the door, took up positions outside the briefing room.
The general loosened his tie. “Well,” he said, looking at McCracken, “where to begin?”
“Twenty-five years ago,” the senator said, “a rather misguided plan was put in place to ensure that we, the United States, would be the eventual winner of the next world war. I say eventual because some people were concerned that the much ballyhooed mutual and assured destruction might not be so mutual.”
“One always has to suspect that the enemy knows something you don’t,” the general said.
“Right.” Jack Creed could appreciate that.
“They called it Project Berserker. It was funded by a shadow budget. Pork-barrel spending. Buried deep within a sub-committee of a sub-committee somewhere inside Urban Development.” The senator began massaging his forehead. Didn’t say anything more.
General Gill took it from there. “A highly secretive and at the time non-existent transport ship packed with embryos was sent up into space. The ship settled into a dormant orbit nearly three hundred thousand miles from Earth. That’s where it’s been all this time. Waiting. Almost twenty-five years now.”
Jack asked, “Human embryos?”
The general squinted. “Mm... I wouldn’t say that either.”
“Well what are they then?”
Senator McCracken looked at the general, also interested in hearing his description.
“Mutants,” General Gill said. “Killing machines. Berserkers. We have created the ultimate warriors: fierce, deadly, and completely expendable. They’re an army, a plague, and a nightmare all rolled into one. An unstoppable force.
“The embryos were sent up in cryogenic pods. Hundreds of thousands of them.” He leaned back in his chair. Stared distantly at the floor. Continued in a flat drone, like a computer narrating a documentary on sub-continental tree monkeys.
“Approximately five days ago the embryos thawed, hatched, and began growing rapidly. Aggression drugs were administered via automated medical units and air circulation. The ship broke its orbit and set a flightpath for its target.”
He stopped. Took a deep breath. Looked at Jack Creed and said, “If these things make it to Earth there’s going to be hell to pay. And that’s putting it mildly. The ship is designed to crash land and break open upon impact, spilling the units scattershot across the target.
“There’s no way to stop it. No way to contain them. They’ll kill everything in sight. Then they’ll go hunting and kill everything else. Once they kill everything they’ll begin killing each other until there’s finally nothing left to kill.”
Jack: “And the target?”
General Gill: “Moscow.”
“Their blood — if that’s what you want to call it — is a Black Death smegma. If you don’t somehow kill a berserker instantly it will kill you with gusto and glee. If you do manage to kill a berserker, their toxic blood will be released into the environment and the Black Death will getcha shortly thereafter.
“Touch one and you’re dead. If one gets into the water supply, you’re dead. Near any food source, you’re dead. There’s no stopping these things. Even if we kill them all we’re all going to die of the Black Death anyway. It’s a no-win situation. We absolutely cannot let that ship get to Earth.”
The senator wiped sweat from his forehead.
Jack asked, “I take it you’ve already ruled out shooting it down?”
The general nodded. “Gamma shield. The ship was designed not to get shot down. It sucks energy off the sun and automatically throws up a deflector fairing if anything hostile shows up on radar. But there’s another problem: the ship is composed of ten segmented units, like a train. This is to prevent a rogue berserker from destroying the entire force before it crash lands.
“Even if we could hit it one time the ship would break into ten pieces. Nine of them headed for Moscow.” The general threw up his arms. “And if we’re going to launch ten ICBMs into space we might as well put our heads between our knees and kiss our butts goodbye anyway. After World War Three, the berserkers will land and kill whatever’s left.”
“Mm,” Jack said. “So how did this happen? Why now?”
The senator now spoke up. “There’s a built-in failsafe mechanism: as long as the United States continues to exist, everyone else does too. Every year on June 10th someone at the State Department must enter a code. The code is transmitted to the ship’s computers, thus keeping it in sleep mode. If the code is not sent, the system goes into effect. The ship departs from it orbit and sets its course for Moscow. Takes approximately sixteen days. By the time it reaches Earth the berserkers will be drooling at the mouth. Dying to kill something.”
Jack: “Quite a gaffe, then.”
“I know what you must be thinking, Mr. Creed,” the general said. “I would like to be able to give you some fancy excuse for all this. Like, we were hacked. Or, some rogue State Department employees got picked on in the lunch room one too many times.” He sighed. “But the truth is... it was human error. What with today’s political climate, budget cuts and all. People coming, people leaving. No one knows what’s going on anymore these days. This project should have been deactivated a long, long time ago. And this ridiculous code... Well, someone forgot.”
Rivers scratched his forehead to hide a glance at Jack. The old saw “government is far more incompetent than it is nefarious” had become a haggard old cliché on life support. Jack didn’t buy it.
All Jack said was: “Right.”
* * *
Copyright © 2008 by O. J. Anderson