Kick the Bucket

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Chapter Fourteen

Almost two hundred miles away, a second red control panel lamp begins to blink. Pulling back on the throttle until his plane is traveling just above the air speed necessary to remain aloft, the craft’s pilot gently tilts the joystick to one side, and slightly forward, until his plane is pointed at an invisible target far in the distance. The return and descending course locked in, he continues his interrupted prayers.

Unless ordered to disengage by a coded radio message, his mission and life will end tonight.

Only one unlit lamp is left.

During normal flight or combat operations, watching the night sky for any other aircraft unable to perceive his near-invisible presence is a basic safety necessity.

But not tonight.

That unlit lamp never leaves his sight.

At a volume below anything Patterson can overhear, hopefully, Colonel Forrest whispers, ‘Who’s a cute little mouse? You are!’ and repeatedly pokes the rodent in center of its swollen stomach. With each gentle touch, four tiny limbs curl protectively around a swollen furry belly as it slips deeper into a gluttony-induced slumber.

Fully aware how the over-stuffed mouse will inevitably reward the provider of the feast, he carefully returns it to the same shirt pocket as before; the cleaning of which holds little importance considering present circumstances, and awaits Lieutenant Lopez’s return.

He immediately begins to fidget.

Under Doctor Kelly’s obey-me-or-else medical orders, he’d been forced to give up a two pack a day smoking habit cold turkey less than a week prior. Now, at the very apex of the worst stress-inducing situation imaginable, combined with a DEFCON 1 level of nicotine withdrawal, he desperately needs something to occupy his mind and twitching fingers.

Fortunately, for the peacefully sleeping mouse, it’s a short wait.

Lieutenant Lopez suddenly races back into the vault room unwinding a coiled extension cord behind him. Made from a score or more electrical cords joined and tied together, it’s just long enough to reach the cart with a few inches to spare.

The power issue resolved, he spends several minutes on his knees frantically unraveling a spider web of tangled electrical cords; followed by several failed attempts to jack each piece of audio visual equipment into the correct input before the television finally lights up, “We’re ready to go, sir!”

Colonel Forrest closely examines the cart, and removes a heavy black cardboard box filled with seven VHS tapes, “We’ll be dust in the stratosphere before you finish playing Carl Sagan’s Cosmos!”

“I know that, sir. I borrowed it from Donnell and forgot it was on the cart. But we should have enough time to show, whatever that thing is, at least the intro. to this film. If that doesn’t make an impression, nothing will!”

After closely examining the DVD case Lieutenant Lopez has given him, Colonel Forrest sighs deeply and hands it back, “You’re section eight material. You know that, right?”

“We can always let Sergeant Patterson and his team shot it some more, sir.”

“No, play the damned movie. I don’t want to die with a migraine from all that noise.”

Lieutenant Lopez drops the DVD into the player and presses a button. The machine retracts the loading tray. Trumpeting brass horns and explosion-level drum-beats immediately blast forth from two small rattling speakers. Just before the screen and speakers return to blackness and silence seconds later, the identities of the movie studio, and the production company responsible for this film’s creation, are proudly displayed.

Satisfied everything is likely to remain in working order, Lopez uses the short pause to spin the cart around until the empty screen is facing the immobile DE directly. And after putting Donnell’s harebrained idea into motion, he steps back until Sergeant Patterson has a clear uninterrupted line of sight to his spine and head.

The film proper begins to play.

As brutally intense as anything the viewers of this classic film have ever witnessed on the silver screen, majestic orchestral music instantly recognizable to much of the world’s population, starts at full volume. There is no gently introduction, no respite to ease the audience’s passage into this fantasy universe.

It’s just there.

A thundering unforgettable military march.

Composed of dueling drums in mortal combat against the blare of brass horns, their struggle reverberates around the vault room. The musical battle, only seconds long, fades away moments later beneath the gradually dying shrill of violins, and other stringed instruments.

Silence returns for but a moment.

Setting the stage for the first act, brilliant yellow words, formed into short paragraphs, crawl upwards across the blackness of space accompanied by the twinkle of distant stars; their mission to inform the audience of the backstory to this tale.

They are unneeded.


Redundant in the extreme.

The story the viewer is about to experience, both in mind and heart, is as old as humanity itself: War.

A spaceship, flying out of the nothingness at the top of the screen, appears. Firing glowing bolts of destructive energy at an unseen enemy, it fights for the life of everyone within it. A triangular-shaped ship soon enters into view taking up most of the screen. Many times larger than its comparatively minuscule target, it suffers no damage by the ship-born weaponry trying to harm it.

And fires back with far greater effect.

Crippled and defenseless, the first ship is easy prey for the battle to come.

As the creators of his space drama intended from the very start; special effects supersede the laws of physics and military logic. Personal combat between defender and attacker, once the smaller ship is helpless and boarded, is little more than a choreographed dance; each sides wielding weaponry both ludicrously inaccurate and generally ineffective.

Yet, this unrealistic conflict serves a purpose.

It’s a distraction.

A trap first time viewers of this film will inevitably fall into.

Generations of movie goers have spent their lives enjoying similar cinematic fare; a harmless source of mindless entertainment filled with carefully scripted dialogue, and stylized unbelievable mayhem. Each wrapped in the laughingly unlikely trappings of some far flung improbable future.

They are totally unprepared when a historically accurate, and an often documented present-day horror, replays before their shocked eyes: When, without need of any weapon, real or contrived, a man meets a grisly death at the hand of merciless faceless other ... just because he can.

A far different hand reaches out and passes over the cart.

The film stops.

The screen goes black.

All electrical devices turn off and go silent.

This audience. This unknown critic from somewhere else. Does not approve.

Final preparations take less than a minute.

Buttons are pushed, switches clicked, dials and confirmation indicators checked, and rechecked. The payload is armed and primed for deployment. All computerized weapon subsystems and safeties are operational. The plane is undamaged and operating within acceptable performance margins.

There’s nothing left to do.

The pilot is alert, ready, and waiting.

A third blinking red lamp joins two others. Each blinks and burns brightly on the console before him.

It’s time.

He quickly finishes prayers for those he will harm this night. Not one is for himself.

As his mind focuses solely on scanning instrumentation for the slightest fault, sophisticated and complex reflexes, the products of thousands of hours of intensive training assume control. A steady gloved hand reaches out, grabs the throttle firmly, and pushes it full forward once more without hesitation.

Estimated time arrival: fifteen minutes.

< [Evidence of marginal-competency space-faring mono-species]>

< [First contact precondition meet. Local database available]>

< [Translating. Errors detected. Play message / engage]>

Intelligence comes with a curse: mortality.

Of all the creatures that came before them, only one recent lineage has evolved on Earth to possess the capacity to realize that life, all life, comes to an end. And, as human civilization rose from the humblest of beginnings, so too, inevitably, came the imperative to leave an enduring mark.

From drawings scrawled upon ancient cave walls, to a signature-covered metal plaque proudly displayed on a spacecraft abandoned for eternity upon the airless near-planet circling their world, the means matters little. Something, anything, must survive to scream a simple message: WE WHERE HERE!!

Apparently, aliens from outer space aren’t any different.

Loud speakers lining the vault room walls click on again.

A voice begins to speak in an instantly recognizable Pennsylvanian Scotch-Irish-Dutch drawl. The accent belongs to the image of the long-dead human standing rock-still before them. The words come from the eons-departed mind of something ... not-human.

“I [static] of the [ static] sent this vessel as a gesture of good [static] and a warning. My species, just one of many sentient races, came into [static] on a planet like any other; a place of promise, peril, strife and camaraderie. We survived many dangers together, each species linked by history and custom into a [static] enduring whole.

In time we traveled, always together, to nearby empty worlds [static] and made them our own. A joyous time of ever-growing exploration and [static] that brought forth many new forms and minds able to inhabit empty worlds we altered for their use; our happiness only diminished by the failure to discover others like [static] us circling foreign stars.

And then, at long last, after we’d given up all hope, came a voice not-ours calling for help out of the darkness. An unexpected side-effect of our [static] brought this far away signal, the first of several others, to our attention.

As our [static] grew in potency, and ships finally able to make [static] long-leap, we, my species, haughtily volunteered for a [static] near-impossible task. We, the [static], an equal among equals, with longer lives than most, would follow the first signal to its far distant source.

To meet whatever new races we could find, and repair the [static] damage they’ve done to themselves. Or, at the very least, offer survivors a place of refugee amongst us, and, with time, a [static] joining.

Behind us, other ships, many species, working together [static] as one, raced outwards [static] from all our worlds seeking to help others much closer to home. Each filled with a myriad of different voices raised in [static] laughter at our misplaced boasting and pride.

We were wrong. So [static] very wrong.

The voices we sought to contact were only a voice; a single species suffering in self-inflicted torment. Inconceivable! We [static] eventually tracked [static] the long-vanished signal to a distant world. A place of dust, bones, and silence; those [static] we’d come to aid had long ago destroyed themselves, and every living thing [static] around them.

In unbearable agony and despair, we [static] the long-leap back home to find even [static] more pain.

We had been the last to [static] discover the truth tearing our peoples apart. Our hopes, every arduous voyage, had [static] been equally in vain. World after world, nothing but graveyards; every tomb filled by a single [static] species that’d turned [static] and hatred of self, into weapons of genocide.

We all agreed to curtail any future [static] long-leaps, to disable and render impotent the greatest [static] we have ever constructed. And to turn aside from any singular species [static] we might overhear calling outside the protected borders around our worlds. The danger, the madness and death hiding within their [static] nature, [static] unmistakably clear.

Feeling pity and [static] seeking to heal my broken kind, we were allowed to send our last working long [static] vessel on a one-way voyage. Made from all [static] we’d gathered beyond the realms of visible light that also [static] made the long-leap possible, emissaries were endowed [static] with copies of our essence for the purpose of [static] crafting a myriad of different sentient species upon [static] distant barren worlds. And to welcome them, if they so desire, into [static] a glorious union with us.

This message will only [static] be transmitted if this spaceship [static] encounters another. Your singular species and rudimentary technology has [static] been classified a potential hazard. We wish you no harm, but don’t interfere with this ship, our emissaries, or their mission. And never attempt to find us.

You will not [static] be welcomed.

Four minutes out, and almost exactly ten thousand feet beneath the plane, the target zone is clearly visible in the center of a small infra-red monitor.

To insure maximum accuracy, the pilot doubles his arrival time by dropping to half the recommended safe airspeed, and lifts a small panel cover. Just beneath are two closed shielded-switches. It takes but a few seconds in consultation with a computerized targeting systems, both inertial and GPS, to confirm target identification.

Seven green code numbers begin to pulse gently in the center of his windshield’s head up display. They only vanish after he inputs seven different memorized digits into a nearby keypad.

A loud electronic alert-tone announces a computer’s approval.

The final automated pre-drop weapon-safety is disengaged.

Estimated time of arrival: fifty seconds.

One of the shielded switches turns green.

With the flick of a thumb, the lighted plastic shield falls away and the compartment fills with a blinking blue-violet light. When that uncovered switch is activated, only straying outside of the designated target area will halt the weapon’s deployment; a final human act before a computerized fail-safe navigation and targeting system takes over.

Another switch on the joystick causes the plane to shiver as bomb bay doors slide open, and air, traveling at three hundred miles an hour, roars into the fuselage slowing his craft’s speed even more.

A different series of warning tones immediately begin to demand his attention, as the stern-sounding recorded words of a young woman play repetitively in his headset, and cockpit, “ALTITUDE!! LOW!! SPEED!! LOW!! STALL!! SPEED!!

The pilot ignores them.

His wallet, filled with family photos, was left in a hangar many miles behind. Desperately he tries to see, for one final time, their smiling faces in his mind’s eye. He can’t. They’ve turned their backs to him.

Estimated time of arrival: ten seconds.

Reaching into the blinking glowing compartment, he flicks the lighted switch and leans back.

The plane shudders twice.

Once, as the bomb falls away. The second, a fraction of a second later, when he cuts off the engines, slams the joystick full forward, drops both arms to his sides, grabs a pair of large bright yellow levers, and pulls with all his strength.

Twin explosions rip the canopy away, and rocket his ejection seat violently into a cold dark sky.

< [Atmospheric vehicle approaching / origin: mono-species / scanning]>

< [Accessing long-leap exploratory mission files / archaic weaponry identified]>

Standing besides the cart with an unreadable expression on his face, Captain Forrest turns his attention from whatever is calling itself John Becker towards Lieutenant Lopez, “How about that?! A robocall to stay off someone’s freakin’ lawn!”

“Sure sounds that way. Should I try another movie, sir?”

“I’m going back to my office. If I can get that computer working, maybe I can convince those pencil-pushers this is a bad dream. If you want, try that Alien movie Donnell is always raving about, the one with Sigourney Weaver. Maybe one of its relatives had a starring ...”

Colonel Forrest’s irrelevant commentary is interrupted by Sergeant Patterson’s shout, “Back up! It’s moving!”

Patterson is technically correct.

As if seeing the three humans for the first time, unblinking eyes observe their every motion with robotically smooth neck and head movements; the need to project the illusion of a living biological being having, evidently, ended. Looking remarkably like something that could’ve been built by Disney Audio-Animatronics engineers for the entertainment of tourists, it continues this robotic examination until all movement suddenly ceases.

A familiar voice begins to speak via the same vault room PA loud speakers as before. The tone and accent is human, the mind speaking them is not, “Are you so lonely you love death more than life?”

Colonel Forrest and Lieutenant Lopez exchange stunned glances. They are soldiers. Highly educated individuals who swore an oath to defend their government, and the people who created it, from any threat foreign or domestic; and, by extension, the entire human race. Responding to a question pertaining to interstellar inter-species existentialism never came up before or after they entered the Army.

As if distressed by their inability to answer, both eyes close tightly and the volume of the voice coming from the loudspeakers drops to a near-whisper, “Of course, you do. It’s always the same.”

< [Archaic weapon approaching]>

< [Danger to functional emissary: nil / risk to local biota: extreme]>

< [Emissary limits withdrawn / prime database activated / engage]>

Another warning from Sergeant Patterson isn’t needed this time.

The vault room’s catwalk begins to creak and buckle. Designed to safely support many times the total number of people working in Building Three, steel decking fails beneath the silent DE’s growing mass and destructive touch. And, just a few heartbeats after the vault room’s three occupants bolt and stop to watch from an open doorway, it falls away; leaving only empty vaults and a formless gelatinous-looking transparent glob hanging motionless in midair.

The gravity-defying growth continues; outwards to create a glowing circular shape that engulfs and destroys two of the nearest vaults, and down to form an even brighter cylindrical shape several times the height of the central mass. If this rate of growth continues unabated, it wouldn’t be long before the occupied doorway, and much of Building Three, is consumed.

As an explosion somewhere outside the building rattles the floor beneath them, Sergeant Patterson steps back, tears off his mask, and raises his weapon, “COLONEL!!”

There is no doubt about what’s coming next, or the significance of the sergeant’s unspoken question.

Colonel Forrest and Lieutenant Flores shut their eyes. Neither wishes to see their lives end melting inside an alien monster, “DO ...

All three are knocked off their feet before Colonel Forrest can shout, ’IT!!” What could only be a gigantic Chaotic DE in the making has vanished; having reduced a two-story tall section of the vault room’s western steel-reinforced poured-concrete outer wall to talcum-grade dust in total silence... and rocked Building Three to its foundation on its way out.

Unencumbered by a heavy cold suit, helmet, and weaponry, or simply greater age, Lieutenant Lopez is the first to climb back to his feet. Sneezing and wiping white dust off his face, he yells, “THEY CAN FUCKING FLY!?”

After checking to see if his shirt-pocket passenger survived intact, Colonel Forrest replies in a more composed manner, “Apparently so.”

“WHAT ... err what now, Colonel!?”

“There’s no talking our way out of this. I can’t even imagine how many alarms went off when that wall was breached. It was nice knowing you, Patterson!”

“Same here, sir!”

Sounding slightly confused, and more than a little offended, Lieutenant Lopez asks, “What about me?”

In a deadpan tone that’s incontrovertible proof that Colonel Forrest’s acerbic sense of humor is back in full force, “Oh ... and you too, Lopez. Well, some of the time.”

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