Die Already, II
Die Already, I|
appeared in issue 231.
part 1 of 2
There was an anonymous phone call by a very frightened person. Very vague. Said only that something was going on in Copper Springs. A ghost town.
Probably a poltergeist, Jack figures. Something that crawled out of an abandoned mine shaft. Easy job. They’re on their way up to the Rockies anyway, so it’s en route. They’ll drop in, kill it, then keep moving.
The three black vans stop at a four-way intersection. Nothing but hot desert and tumbleweeds in all directions. Jack checks the map. Points left. They move out. About thirty miles to go.
Over the comm unit Jack tells his crew: “The town is deserted. Has been for years.” On the laptop mounted to the van’s dashboard, he pulls up a map of Copper Springs and prints it out. “I’ve called in the squad bomber to do the job. We’ll go in and do a quick sweep. Make sure there isn’t a commune of hippies squatting in the bath house.
“Then we charlie mike to the north. Jones, you and your van will remain in the vicinity to seal off all access roads until after the airstrike.”
The map shows about a dozen buildings. Split down the middle by a main street. “Two recon teams,” he tells them. “Doc and Lucky will clear the south side of town with me. Rivers, Simms and Ski take the north. Check everything and everywhere. If you come across any personnel drag them out to the collection point at the eastern edge by van 3.”
“Got it, boss.”
Into the computer Jack enters the target location and bombing specs. He types in an extra-heavy load to be dropped onto the small town of Copper Springs. Two BSU-50 2000-pound “Baloot’s.” Two MK-82 500 pound Snake-eyes. And — What the heck, Jack thinks — a couple MK-20 Rockeyes, just for fun. That’s over 5,000 pounds of munitions to be dropped on some clapboard shacks and hitching posts.
This load is not only going to destroy the town (this load would actually destroy a hundred towns like Copper Springs), but any trace of there ever having been a town. It will destroy all future plans for any new towns. It will wipe out the idea for future plans for new towns in the area. This load is so huge, if fact, it will annihilate any memory of the town of Copper Springs.
The town is a soft target with probably nothing more than a disgruntled ghost with nothing better to do than kick around a tin cup. However, it could also be the entrance to a vast underground tunnel system teeming with hordes of paraphysical, subterranian, hominoid-ogre cross-species preparing a surface attack. You just never know with old mines.
Either way, it/they will be dead soon. Jack wants not only to destroy the town but also the ground one kilometer below the town and the area surrounding the town for one square mile.
He presses ENTER and shoots the drop request up to the B-1A. Glancing back at the map, Jack recalls being in this area not so long ago. Dyer Air Base. Approximately fifteen miles to the east. A little cooler this time of year, though.
Copper Springs comes into view as a dark speck on the horizon under an amber sunset.
Traveling at over 100 mph, Jack watches the town grow into a boarded-up, desolate ghost town. Straight out of a western shoot-’em-up. Thin-walled, small buildings. Temporary structures, thrown up to take quick advantage of a natural resource. Nothing fancy out here, just the essential structures designed to fulfill a short-term purpose — a couple of bunk houses, a saloon, barber shop, general store, et cetera — then left to the birds.
The vans slow as they approach. Two vans cut off the road to either side of the lead vehicle. They stop one hundred meters from the near edge. Jack steps out, takes off his sunglasses. Pulls the charging handle back on his assault shotgun, chambering the first slug. He isn’t going in with much, just a few frags and the shotgun.
As he walks toward the left side of the road, Doc and Lucky link up with Jack. The team shuffles up to the first building. Sidles up to the front door. Kicks it in. Does a quick sweep. A dusty, dark room; a couple of old chairs. Cloudy mirror hanging on the wall. A few bottles on the floor. A section of yellowed newspaper. About all they’d expected.
After clearing the first building thoroughly, they continue down the south side of the town. In each of the buildings there are no signs of life. Nothing fresh or new. No funky smells. No footprints in the dust save for their own. Everything has that dried, faded patina of age and neglect. They move quickly.
It isn’t until the two teams reach the west end of the town that they find something unusual. Rivers comes over the comms:
“Might have something here, boss.”
“Roger,” Jack tells him. “Hold what you got. We’re on our way.” He points across the road. His men nod and the three of them jog over to Rivers’ team.
Rivers is kneeling on the porch of a feed store. Aiming his weapon at the front door of the next building. Jack takes a position near Rivers, then directs Doc and Lucky to spread out.
The building under scrutiny is a large two-level structure, boarded up tightly. A faded sign over the clapboard awning reads: The Golden Pickaxe. Hotel and Casino. It’s the largest building in Copper Springs. Doesn’t have the abandoned look to it like all the others. Looks and feels lived in. Smells like someone has an herb garden growing out back.
Simms motions that he hears movement coming from the second floor.
The sun has completely set now. The town is slowly turning brownish-gray. Less than ninety minutes left until full dark. Good for maneuvering, but the load will be here in — Jack checks his watch — one hour and fifty-three minutes. All they need to do is make sure the noise isn’t coming from civilians. They’ll get a positive confirmation, then exfil.
Rivers looks at Jack. Says, “North side is clear up to here...” Then his jaw drops slightly. Staring across the road. Has a confused look on his face like his girlfriend just told him she needed some space.
“What?” Jack turns. There are a dozen cowboys standing in the road. Checkered shirts. Dungarees. Sweat-rimmed hats. Handkerchiefs tied across their faces. Sunglasses too. Can’t see a bit of their skin, not one of them.
They all appear to be unarmed.
Jack stands. Wonders how they got that close without his knowing about it. He hops off the porch and walks into the road to confront the cowboys. When he gets within twenty feet of them, Jack stops. Doesn’t say anything. Just stares at them. Waits for one of them to make the first move. Doc and Lucky join him on either side.
A staredown in Copper Springs ensues. And Jack Creed has never lost a staredown. Not once. Not even close. And never will. Not even if his eyeballs dry up like raisins.
No one speaks. No one moves. But neither does the tension escalate. Two to one odds are child’s play for Jack and his men. It’s rather anticlimactic... until the front door of The Golden Pickaxe creaks open.
Bootheels clunk across the wooden floor. Stop.
Jack and his men turn for a look.
Another cowboy. Dressed exactly like the others. This one has his hands on his hips and an air of authority. “Well well well...” It says. “Look who it is.”
Jack knows the voice.
The thirteen cowboys say in unison, “Jack Creed and his band of merry mercenaries.”
“Doctor von Brink,” Jack replies. “I thought I’d buried you.”
The fungal cowboy laughs and struts down the hotel steps. “Oh, you did. You certainly did.” He claps his gloved hands together. “But it’s hard to keep a good super-fungus down, y’know.”
Von Brink stops in the road and puts his arms out to the side, like a former fat person who just lost two hundred pounds and wants to show off his new body. “Huh? How do I look?”
Jack doesn’t respond.
“I’m back, baby! New and improved, with a whole new outlook on life. I also re-engineered my aroma. Now it’s sage with a hint of rosemary. More fitting of the environment I think. Like it?”
Again, no response. Only a cold glare from Jack; he doesn’t like seeing old jobs come back to life.
Von Brink nods. “I’ll take that as a yes.”
Although he won’t say it, Jack is impressed. Anything that can survive the Circle of Doom is worthy of at least a little respect. This is one tough fungus. Seems to have a newfound zest for life too: that post-near-death experience joie de vivre. It’s too bad that a B-1 is on its way to knock that joie right out of his vivre once and for all.
“Those were some dark days, Creed. I thought I was finished.” The fungus looks up at the sky, thoughtfully, like now he appreciates the simple things. Thought he would never see it again. “Being buried is not a pleasant experience.”
Speaking of unpleasant experiences, Jack glances down at his watch. Can’t get tied up here for too long.
“Luckily, I found an air pocket created by the superstructure of the blast cellar. And, this being the desert, the airbase had an adequate water reservoir. That, along with the ruptured sewage tanks, gave me the wet, dark environment I needed to nurse myself back to health.
“It took a while, and I almost gave up a few times. Called it quits. Rolled over and died. But I couldn’t. Something inside me wouldn’t let me give up. So I started digging. And digging. And digging some more. I dug my way out of that hole, Creed.”
“Oh, but getting out was only half of it. Where was I gonna go when I got out? Huh? I had no idea. I just knew I had to keep going. So I did. I kept right on digging. And then one day... I resurfaced. It was night. Crystal clear sky. Stars so bright you could taste them. And it was then, as I lay there looking up at the night sky, that I knew that someday I would rule this world. That was my epiphany. That’s what had been driving me out of the ground. Destiny, Creed. It’s my destiny!”
“But it wasn’t over yet. I was still stuck in the middle of the desert. I had no idea which way to go, so I just ran. Ran as fast and as far as I could. Only destiny as my guide. I ran for as long as I could... until the sun came up.
“But I was still nowhere. It got hot, Creed. Real hot. So I began to crawl. Dragging myself. Clawing my way across the landscape. Losing mass to the sun. I don’t know how much, but I left a lot of myself out there.
“Where was destiny now, I wondered. Where was my guide? I cried out, ‘Oh, destiny! Why hast thou deserted me?’ And that’s when I saw it.” The fungus extends an arm toward the row of buildings to his left. “This place.”
The hotel looks boarded up tight. Airtight. Sealed off from the desert. Thinking back to their previous encounter at Dyer Air Base, Jack can imagine what it’s like inside. A slimy green cave. The walls, floor, ceiling, everything, coated heavily with the nasty green goo. A sage-scented fungus factory.
The fungus gropes at the air, as though digging up a box of treasure at the beach. “I dragged myself, what was left of myself, through the dirt, across rocks. It was tough out there, Creed. It was tough, I tell you! But I made it.” A momentary pause. Nodding. The fungus is pleased with itself.
It hurries through the ending: “Then, after finding my way to The Pickaxe Hotel and Casino, I pieced together a rudimentary laboratory, and once again reconstituted myself. Yada yada yada...”
“Mm.” Jack spits out his toothpick. “So this is your destiny? To rule over a ramshackle ghost town in the desert. You scared off the only visitor you’re likely to ever get, and he called me. Looks like destiny left you high and dry, von Brink.”
“Ha! Hardly.” The fungoid cowboy pulls off his hat and the handkerchief from his face. “I learned a lot about myself out there, Creed.”
Copyright © 2008 by O. J. Anderson