Dying to Kill
by O. J. Anderson
X-9 Fast Mover
175,000 miles from Earth
Jack Creed sat alone in the galley. Contemplating. Rubbing his stubbled chin over a nearly weightless polymetallic mug half-filled with coffee — black, like the River of Dreams flowing through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. He had a few qualms about the mission. Questions on several fronts. Nagging uncertainties. And the one thing Jack Creed can’t stand — besides sit-coms, reptilians, brassy women, tea, and 2% skim milk, and poodles — is a nagging uncertainty on a mission.
Rivers burst through the small galley door. “Boss, there’s a message you need to see.”
Jack quickly finished his coffee and stood. “Right.”
The two men shuffled up the narrow walkway up to the cockpit. Captain Hawser was doing something on the vast control panel, a dizzying bank of buttons, switches, and who knows what else. The co-captain, Lurmier, manipulated a track-ball with a ferocious intensity, as though their lives depended on it.
The cockpit was cramped, not an inch of wasted space. And dark; tiny bluelights scattered throughout the cabin. Hawser pointed out two fold-down seats behind the pilot seats, then told them, “Received a transmission uplink from a Senator McCracken a few minutes ago. Says it’s urgent.” He then nodded to Lurmier, who nodded back and switched the monitor channel over to show the senator’s face.
Jack and Rivers sat and watched the monitor.
Hawser: “Go ahead, sir.”
McCracken: “Hello? Can you hear me?”
Hawser: “We can hear and see you, sir. And Jack Creed is here now. So you may begin.”
“Okay, good. Uh... well, I’ve just received some terrible news. General Gill is dead. He’s been murdered. His body was discovered after midnight. After I’d been notified, I discovered that the general had left me a rather unusual voice mail message. Here it is.”
The voice of General Gill came over the speaker. It sounded strange, like the voice of a dying man played through a cellphone held up to a microphone and shot through 175,000 miles of space. “No laser... supposed to fail... everyone’s dead... no laserrrrrrrrrr...” End of message.
McCracken: “What do you think it means?”
Jack Creed knew exactly what it meant. He had the whole thing figured out from the start, almost. He began, “No laser. Obviously, the general was under the impression there was some kind of laser that would be able to stop the ship. It would have to be a high platform, meaning a satellite, or possibly on the Moon. The general was tricked into thinking that Project Berserker could be stopped should my crew fail.”
Captain Hawser asked, “What? Why?”
“It’s the only way they could get him to intercept the failsafe code. Guys like General Gill, though corrupt, still have a line they won’t cross for money. He found out about the Cabal’s true intent and tried to stop it.”
“General Gill was corrupt?” the senator said.
“Then why send you guys to stop it if they wanted the ship to hit its target? That makes no sense.” Captain Hawser was a pilot, and probably a very good one, but the inner workings of combat craft, sabotage, and back-handed plays were better left to the pros. Like Jack Creed.
“It makes perfect sense,” Jack said. This confused everyone, including Rivers. But Rivers knew better than anyone that Jack Creed was a tactical genius. Fifty, sixty, sometimes seventy moves ahead of the opponent.
He paused for a moment while he reached for a fresh toothpick, leaving everyone on the edge of their seats — he was still wondering about other things. Then he broke it down thus: “General Gill was under the impression that someone wanted us dead. And he had no problems with that, of course. Our presence would also support the ruse, in his mind, of there being a covert attempt to stop the ship from reaching its target. They could claim the attempt failed; then the owners of the laser — the Russians, most likely — would be forced to use it, thereby showing their hand.”
Hawser and Lurmier looked at each other. It was a chilly realization for them, being sent to die.
Everyone was silent now. Jack was right, it did make sense. Up until the part where Jack said, “But that’s not at all what’s going on here.”
Senator McCracken: “Huh?”
“There is no laser,” Jack said. “Project Berserker was initiated because someone wants to kill a lot of people. We weren’t sent here to fail. We were sent here to succeed.”
Captain Hawser was clearly having trouble with this, as is often the case when one is first indoctrinated into this world, where nothing is as it seems, everything is hidden. He shook his head and said, “I don’t know what you mean.”
“If you want an operation such as this one to fail, you send some Mickey Mouse outfit filled with hardheads. You don’t send a crew with a one-hundred percent success rate; you don’t send the one group of men guaranteed to succeed.”
Rivers asked him, “Someone within the Cabal?”
“Right,” Jack said. “There are three possibilities: one, there is an agent who has successfully infiltrated their ranks. This person would be in a high position that exerts some influence, of course, one where he would be downwind of this kind of information. That’s why the cover story.
“Two, a rogue element within the Cabal suddenly came down with a case of conscience. Happens every now and then.
“And three, I think there could be a split inside the Cabal. Warring factions within. This would not be unusual at the high stakes table. Two opposing methodologies; one wants to kick in your front door and rob you at gunpoint, the other wants to sneak through the window while you’re sleeping. ”
Everyone was quiet for a moment.
Then the senator asked, “Well, which do you think it is? Do we have a friend in there somewhere? Can we exploit this?”
“I’m not sure,” Jack said. “I’ve been thinking about this since we left Washington. More often than not, things are much more complicated then they appear.
“We can’t assume we have any friends anywhere. The worst case scenario must be our operational platform, which means we have to think that someone, somewhere, knows exactly what is going on. A higher echelon of the Cabal has pitted two lower echelons against each other for some unknown reason. Things like this don’t happen by chance; nothing does. This situation is being managed.”
“So, what do we do now?” Captain Hawser asked.
“That’s an easy one,” Jack told him. “We destroy the Starship Beinhoffer.”
* * *
Rivers’ task is a simple one: patch in to the ship’s cortex. Blast a virtual hole through the ship’s protection parameters, then send in the squad worm to reprogram the Beinhoffer’s course. The ship will be turned around 180 degrees, away from Earth, where it will be destroyed when the Moon passes between it and Earth, concealing the explosion.
He splices in. Then begins the tedious process of one-finger typing on his forearm keypad.
Behind Rivers, along the spine of the starship, the demo teams are getting to it. Each team carries a folding tripod, about three feet in length, as well as a bag of Hi-X space-grade P-10. Reed and Decker are the next team back, working on module number two. Their tripod has been set up and positioned roughly center-mass of the module.
Decker reaches down to one of the three pull rings at the feet of the tripod. A quick tug. Then he does the other two. There are brief flashes under the metallic feet as the magnesium pads ignite and instantly spot-weld the tripod to the Beinhoffer’s hull.
Reed removes the two-foot black cylinder attached to his side. He then proceeds to screw one end of the cylinder to the top of the tripod. On one leg of the tripod is a small box with a wire floating out from the top of it. Reed takes the wire, plugs it into the cylinder, then thumbs the tiny switch to the ON position.
Within ten minutes, all the penetrators are set.
On command, the penetrators will fire beryllium rods through the Beinhoffer’s nine modules. The vacuum created by the extreme heat of the projectile will crush the modules like so many beer cans; the berserkers and their deadly smegma will be sucked out the holes like Cabbage Patch dolls through a pasta maker. The Hi-X P-10 will bring about the second act, destroying any possible living organisms escaping through the holes.
When all the demo teams have reported their status to Richards, the Demo Team Leader for this mission, he tells them to assemble at the rally point where they then redeploy back onto the X-9 Fast Mover.
Only Rivers and Jack Creed are left on the Starship Beinhoffer. Rivers’ instructions are to stand by outside the hatch after he completes his task. He is not to enter the ship for any reason, unless Jack fails to return within thirty minutes after a loss of communications. Then he is to drop his thermite bag into the module, burn it, then go in and complete the translator upload himself.
Inside the module, Jack drops his demo bag and arms it. Because they cut the hatch directly above the ship’s cerebellum, Jack is already at his objective. He is surrounded by computer banks with blinking lights. They are no doubt nursing the berserkers to fruition at this very moment, feeding them with the aggression drugs that General Gill mentioned back in Washington
Somewhere within all this hardware is the new set of instructions, unreadable at the moment. Lying in wait, useless until Jack finds the master core. Recalling in his mind the control room schematics he studied for two hours, Jack sweeps his flashlight beam across the consoles to get his bearings.
There are eight slave units controlling the Beinhoffer’s flight, security, and internal functions systems. These three units are then covered in triplicate by three master units to ensure that the starship doesn’t end up an orbiting piece of spacejunk. The three master units are tied together at the master core, which is where Jack needs to inject the translator.
It’s a beefy system, Jack thinks as he moves forward via a narrow walkway to the central collective; there are redundancies on top of redundancies. Whoever built this thing wanted to be sure that it would get back to Earth. Dead sure.
The central collective is a refrigerator-sized block of hardware at the head of the module. It has three vertical keyboards on its face. A blank screen. Two numerical keypads, each accompanied by a key hole and a card slot. Below the screen is a small glass shield covering a red button.
Jack kneels. What he needs is behind the kick panel at the base. He removes the screwdriver from his sleeve pouch and begins loosening the twelve screws holding the panel in place. It’s a laborious process with the gloves; after he gets half of the screws out, Jack bends the thin metal the rest of the way. Exposes the goods.
Inside, there are neat bundles of wires and circuit boards. Although at this angle, looking down, it’s hard to see inside. Jack gets down into the prone and rolls onto his side before pulling out the host board — of which there are ten.
Jack takes the pliers from his tool pouch and gently finagles loose the third board from the bottom. Careful not to jerk any wires free. He then takes a moment to notice that the board doesn’t look that dated. Not as old as he thought it would look, anyway. It’s far more advanced than what was known to have existed thirty years ago.
With the host board now freed from its slot, Jack removes the black minicomputer from his chest pocket. Unwraps the cable from around it. At the end of the cable are a bundle of alligator clips that will connect with the circuits. Again, with the fat-fingered gloves, a tedious process, but one that allows for no mistakes, so Jack exerts a laser-like focus onto the task.
Takes about seven minutes.
He flips open the minicomputer. All commands have already been entered prior to leaving the Fast Mover. So all Jack has to do is press ENTER. Then wait.
The screen reads: 2% UPLOADED. A green progress bar shows one block.
Jack gets up. He returns to the hatch, looks up and sees Rivers standing by. Tells him, “Uploading.”
The upload will take about ten minutes, so he’s got some time to kill. He says to Rivers, “Gonna have a look around.” He then sweeps the beam of light to the left and heads back to the central walkway. This time going toward the rear of the module.
His attention is immediately drawn to a glass door some fifteen feet away. As he approaches it, he realizes that this is the end of the shorter command module, and everything behind this door is berserker territory. To the right of the glass is a keypad, but he won’t be fooling with that. Just a looksee, that’s all he’s after.
The glass is at least five inches thick. And due to the glare of the flashlight, he can barely see through it. He steps closer and puts the light right up against the glass, realizing that this is how people usually die in horror movies.
Beyond this door is some kind of chamber, the area between the modules. Break points. Not much else to see. Jack backs away from the door, ready to head back to the master core when he notices the button to his left. Just one button under the symbol of a lightbulb. A light switch. He presses it.
The entire command module flickers for a moment and blinks to life. As does the chamber behind the door.
Jack can see clearly now into the next module. And he is taken aback.
A berserker is standing there. Looking back at him. It is a ghastly sight. A hideous monster. Deformed; it either hasn’t finished mutating, or it blew the sequence. No arms. One eye. Either teeth or small horns protruding from various parts of its head. Its skin seems to be some kind of mucous-covered hide; bumpy and gooey, with splotches of black and red all over. Chest heaving as though it can’t breathe.
It is a disgusting sight, to be sure. But more than fear or revulsion, Jack feels a strong sense of sadness. This thing doesn’t know what it is. Doesn’t know why it feels as it does. And has no choice in controlling its own urges. It was born to kill, that’s all. Jack feels no animosity toward it. Only toward whoever created it.
What kind of sicko would do this? What kind of mind could even come up with this?
The more pressing question though is who pulled the trigger on this project, and why? Why now? Do they want to take out a third of the world’s population, or is someone on the inside trying to send a message? Who knows? No time to chew that one over right now.
Jack will find him though, whoever and wherever he is. Jack will find him and cut him down at the knees.
The berserker is suddenly slammed up against the glass door. Another berserker, this one with arms, begins ripping it open with its claws. Several other berserkers join it at the door. Pile on top of each other, leaving an oily slime on the glass. Looks like the Module 2 hatchery has erupted into a gruesome mosh pit.
Jack has seen all he needs to see. He’s about to do these creatures a huge favor; gonna put them out of their misery. He turns and walks away. Upload should be about finished by now. As Jack passes through the command module this time he sees something he missed before in the darkness. There is a symbol on the wall: a red triangle with an A inside. After staring at it for a moment, he continues to the computer.
The screen now reads: 87% COMPLETE.
Jack watches the screen and wonders about the symbol. Can’t recall seeing that one before. He’ll have to run a check through his files when they get back to Earth. Although, this ship being as old as it is, the organization using that symbol could be now defunct. Could also have been absorbed into another organization. There should be something somewhere though; a trail of breadcrumbs.
Jack presses ENTER three times following the prompts and completes the process. Doesn’t bother to disconnect the minicomputer, just drops it on the deck. Heads back to the hole.
* * *
X-9 Fast Mover
87,000 miles from Earth
On the return flight, sleep comes easily for Jack Creed; it comes decisively and without preamble, like a runaway logging truck slamming into a clapboard shack off Highway 90. For he has saved the world so many times that he no longer gets the post-op adrenaline rush he used to, so he can do that — fall asleep easily, that is. And deep inside that tactical bucket seat of the Fast Mover, he dreams. The dreams of champions and heroes.
Copyright © 2008 by O. J. Anderson