Chapter 1 - The Experiment
“I have a new assignment for you.”
The voice came from the top of a high dais. The lights in the room were positioned to create darkness at the top of the platform to hide the identity of the speaker.
Koritt Diviak had stood before the dais on so many prior occasions, he didn’t bother trying to see who hid in the darkness. No use wasting time and effort on a fruitless endeavor.
“I hope it’s more challenging than the last one. Examining worms is not my idea of fun.”
“Your job is not to have fun. It is to do as I command.”
Koritt scowled but remained at attention. He was impatient by nature, but the downside of failing to show proper respect to a Bureaucrat was not good for a career.
“The development of this particular strain required our most advanced research,” the voice continued.
“I’ve heard the refrain before, and I’m tired of the song. Worms are worms,” Koritt reflected in silence.
“How long do I have to complete the tests?” Koritt sighed. There were times when he regretted his degree in Genetic Engineering.
“One week, Diviak. Even you can’t get bored.”
“Don’t be so sure,” Koritt thought.
Responding out loud, he said, “Monitoring failed experiments leaves a bad taste in my mouths.”
“Change the word ‘failed’ to promising. You were chosen for this mission because of your experience, not your appetite. Find a decent specimen and return with samples of their technology. I recommend you take a U-10. It may prove to be useful.”
“A U-10? You’re kidding.”
“They’re reliable - don’t complain. I expect a report in triplicate by the end of the day following your return.”
Nodding, Koritt turned on his heel and marched from the room. As the door closed behind him, a new voice from the shadows said, “Koritt Diviak is a hothead. Why did you choose him for this mission?”
“His age and reputation have earned him the status of expendable. If he fails, there will be no funds wasted on a rescue mission,” the Bureaucrat replied in an ominous tone.
Koritt grabbed a U-10 from Supplies and selected a box of standard activators. Shaking his head in disgust hard enough to make his ear tentacles sway, he headed to the Embark Field.
As he neared his transport, a maintenance technician stepped from behind a lift nacelle. He was wiping some kind of goo off his hands with a rag.
“Is she ready to go?” Koritt asked.
“Yes,” the tech mumbled, “but the starboard gravity actuator is nearing the end of its life expectancy. I can’t guarantee a sharp jolt won’t cause it to fail. I wish you would let me install a new one - or at least a refurbished unit.”
“My annual bonus is based on all my operational expenses. Installing a new unit could push me into the no bonus territory and that’s not going to happen. This mission is routine. Another couple of landings won’t strain it. You can go ahead and schedule a replacement on my return. Say ten days.”
“If it’s so routine, then why was a Bureaucrat sneaking around in the cockpit an hour ago? Acted funny when I showed up – like he was caught stealing or something,” the tech replied.
“It’s a Company transport. They can do whatever they want,” Koritt said.
“I think it’s weird whether you do or not. You won’t let me do anything about the actuator, but here, memorize these words,” the tech said.
Pulling a data pad from his back pocket, the tech studied its screen for a moment and showed it to Koritt.
“What is it?” Koritt asked.
“That’s a computer reset code. It forces the computer to perform a complete memory wipe and reinstall its programming to initial factory settings.”
“What good is that?” Koritt asked.
“If the computer develops a glitch and you’re more than 50,000 kilometers away from here, reset implies critical damage to the ship, crew or both. Automatic safety protocols will bring you home for repairs.”
“Okay, okay, got it. Thanks, I guess.” Koritt said.
Grunting a response, the tech walked away.
Koritt called after him, “Remember, a refurbished unit, not a new one.”
All the tech did was wave to him.
Climbing aboard and hanging the U-10 on a convenient hook, Koritt placed the box of activators on a nearby shelf. Sitting down in the pilot’s couch, he set the guidance system to the correct Galactic Coordinates.
As the onboard computer entered its calculations based upon the coordinates, it flashed a picture of the Earth and various information summaries on the view screen. The planet was located in a remote part of the galaxy far away from normal shipping lanes.
“Computer, select a landing spot away from densely inhabited areas. With a population as large as indicated by the data, it will not be difficult to retrieve a specimen. I want the chance of being discovered as negligible as possible.”
“I have indicated two areas on the globe meeting your requirements. Area 1 is located in a forested region, and Area 2 is in a desert.”
Two pulsing glows popped up on the view screen. One of the glows was centered in a land mass labeled South America. The other glow was in an area labeled Middle East.
“Area 1 would provide too many hiding places for the natives. Let’s not make this mission more difficult than necessary. Go with Area 2. Sparse vegetation and an arid climate will work in my favor by clustering the natives around water sources.”
“Destination set. We are a GO,” the Computer said.
As Koritt watched his home planet fall away and disappear as his transport reached supralight speed, he thought, “One week to a well-deserved vacation.”
Bullets thunked into the stone alcove where Ty Lavender was hiding. Stone shards cut his cheek before he ducked, and sand dust puffed into his eyes. Blinking to clear away the grit, Ty pulled the pin on a grenade and heaved it toward the shooters. Seconds later, he heard a satisfying explosion followed by silence.
Looking at his teammate, Big Papa, Ty nodded and scampered toward the nearest pile of rubble. Scrambling footfalls behind him told Ty his squad was following his lead.
The Afghanistan hills were dotted with small villages. The dusty settlements were prime staging areas for guerrilla warriors, and it was the duty of Lavender’s squad to remove the so-called Insurgents from the battlefield. Sometimes the residents helped; mostly they didn’t.
Eight soldiers made Ty’s squad the envy of the 10th Mountain Division. Their military skills were extraordinary, but their edgy personalities were what kept them alive.
Matt Herley was a 32 year old bomb expert nicknamed Roadkill. His job was to recognize and defuse any IED the squad encountered. Roadkill was high strung, but his steady hands and intimate knowledge of homemade explosive devices had saved the life of almost everyone in the squad.
Francisco Aba, known as Fisheye, was an Expert Marksman with both a SIG Sauer P229R and M16A4. Some people described him as OCD but not to his face. His ability to focus on small detail was both extraordinary and tiresome. Extraordinary on the battlefield where he could hit a moving target at 300 meters faster than the time it took most Marksmen to aim. Tiresome when he amused himself by lining up rocks or clicking his canteen seven times to determine how much water he had.
Jolanda Seyfried was a capable hand-to-hand combat artist. Showing promising skill in martial arts at the age of five, her parents had enrolled her in the Minibu Dojo. She mastered multiple combat techniques by the time she joined the Army, and her drill instructor had labeled her a dire weapon. Her rest periods involved breaking 2x4′s with her hands and feet in order to keep them hard and calloused. She was christened with the combat name, Wendigo.
Big Papa was a little guy with a mean streak. His birth certificate listed his name as Nicholas Bireley, but if anyone called him a name other than Big Papa, they woke up 30 minutes later with missing teeth. Big Papa earned his nickname by always badgering other soldiers to do the right thing for the family. The right thing was whatever Big Papa decided was moral. It was moral to kill bad guys. It was immoral to hit a dog, among other things. He preferred to work with knives, but a bullet would suffice in a pinch.
Fritz ‘Sasquatch’ Obermann was just as big as his nickname implied. Strong beyond belief, the local MP’s refused to cuff him because he snapped the handcuff chains like they were thin necklaces. Since no zip restraints had been invented that could withstand his arm and wrist strength, the MP’s took to careful scolding whenever they stopped bar fights involving Fritz. Sasquatch liked to pick up Insurgents by grabbing handfuls of their skin and tossing them sideways into walls.
Cody Jordan was called Psycho for a reason. He was psycho. Cody believed he could not die because three, hooded wise men, who came to him in his dreams, protected him from evil. At 33, he was the oldest person in Lavender’s squad despite the fact that many times he exposed himself to open gunfire with his arms spread wide as if taunting Death to take him. Lavender had witnessed machine gun fire veer around Psycho as if he had a force field protecting him.
Melinda Hammer, better known as Wraith to her teammates, was the soldier designated to scout ahead for enemy threats. She wore a black outfit more akin to being a ninja than a soldier. A blade was her preferred weapon, but she was also a pistol expert. Outfitted with night vision and a Molar-mounted comlink, she could slip into a group of Insurgents without their notice. An expert linguist, she would listen to the enemy plans and report back to Lavender with the Intel. She was nimble and silent. On more than one occasion her startling, and unexpected, appearance in Lavender’s tent had unnerved him.
Oleander Pluckett was the computer hacker. His nickname was Hashtag, and he loved to infiltrate enemy computer networks and leave his # calling card. He studied at the MIT Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Lab until boredom and a sense of adventure led him to a crafty Armed Services recruiter. Now he was computing for Uncle Sam. His infiltrations into enemy computer networks were so troubling that a Taliban Leader once called Oleander the Hashtag Ghost.
No one gave Ty Lavender a nickname. They all thought Lavender was too perfect to spoil with another label. Lavender was a sweet smell that lulled enemies into a sense of safety just before they died. Ty commanded his unit because he had earned everyone’s respect, confidence and loyalty. From bar fights to disciplinary disputes with superior officers, to saving each of their lives on countless occasions, Lavender was their trusted leader.
The oldest of six, one brother and four sisters, Ty learned early in life how to lead a group of people with differing life goals and interests. Born under the sign of Aries, he was impatient by nature and quick to decide on a course of action. Bureaucracy infuriated him. Being imprisoned in a Devil’s Lair of writing, cross-checking facts and filing things in alphabetical order was his worst nightmare.
Ty nodded toward a pile of wrecked vehicles and signaled. Based upon their current locations and viewpoints, his team converged on the rubble. A skinny dog, frightened by the squad’s advance, scrambled from its hiding place under some broken wood and stones. Ty’s gut tightened as the dog scampered past him.
As he paused to strain his hearing for the slightest indication of danger, he thought he heard a whirring that grew louder by the second.
“Hear that?” Psycho whispered.
“Quiet!” Wendigo admonished. “Must be airborne. Doesn’t sound like it’s on the ground.”
“Go for cover and hold for further orders,” Ty said over his Molar comm.
Ty heard no sounds as his people slipped into the nearest defendable niche. Satisfied his squad was protected for the moment, Ty peered up at the starry darkness. The whirring sound increased in volume until it became a profound electronic howl. A large, dark shadow swept across his field of view. A thundering crash followed by a tremendous explosion shook the ground like an earthquake. Bright orange flames leaped into the sky from the crash site. Everything became darker as dirt and dust from the explosion filled the air.
The guidance computer beeped for attention as a blue-green planet swung into the center of the view screen. Data scrolled down the monitor giving up-to-the-minute reports on current location, distance and time to the landing coordinates. A clear view of the landing site and surrounding topography appeared.
Koritt felt a momentary jolt when the ship dropped out of supralight drive. The unusual sensation prompted him to request a damage control report, and his gut tightened as he heard the nature of the malfunctions listed.
“I should have let him install the refurbished gravity unit before . . .”
His transport began wobbling. A gravity actuator nacelle doesn’t gradually fail; it is an all-or-nothing component. With just the port gravity nacelle functioning, Koritt’s transport was out of control.
The computer didn’t help the situation. “The starboard gravity actuator has malfunctioned. A controlled landing is not possible. Your instructions?”
Koritt remained speechless and panicky. Tightening his couch restraints by muscle memory, he watched as the planet grew larger.
“The starboard gravity actuator has malfunctioned. A controlled landing is not possible. Your instructions?”
Somehow the repeated question knifed into Koritt’s consciousness.
Without taking his eyes off the view screen, he mumbled, “Send out a distress beacon at once. Deactivate and destroy all power and gravitational equipment. One second before impact, wipe your memory core.”
Knowing the computer would follow his instructions to the letter, Koritt braced for impact.
“I just wanted a vacation,” he muttered.