Chapter 18 - Infiltration
‘Hey guys, you read me?’ Tony asked.
“Loud and clear,” Darren said. “Where are you?”
‘Right beneath you, active stealth on. I have a heads up for you——you’re the last dropship in line . . . but my AMDS is barely detecting a tiny mass signature far ahead of the pack . . . I’m eyeballing it with the telescope . . . it’s a black flying saucer! No shit. Must have radar-absorbing skin. It’s over three hundred feet in diameter, but it only has a weight of around a hundred tons. Doesn’t look like Vorvon tech. What do you make of that?’
Darren recalled a point of conversation with Lieutenant Colonel LaShaun Carruthers yesterday. Something about toys straight out of Star Wars. “Reverse engineering,” Darren replied. “Contact Colonel Towsley for a comm request. Use call sign Space Cowboy.”
Carruthers had his eyes close, reciting a Hindu mantra in his head and performing an Om meditation. Other members of Altair Company strapped in their acceleration recliners around him were also lost in their own quiet contemplations, whether it was prayer or just mindless staring at the far wall, Carruthers couldn’t tell. The men of SAWDOG, like operatives in other Tier One groups, always adhered to the unwritten decree emphasizing “shut-the-hell-up time” during infiltration. Pre-op high-fiving jocularity and macho dick-waving were left to the Marines and regular Army.
After finishing his meditation, Carruthers opened his eyes and looked around the SC-138A Andromeda’s spacious hold. Captain Trevor Middleton, leader of Vega Platoon and former British 22nd SAS trooper, appeared to be enjoying the last two inches of his Cuban cigar with a grin and an agreeable conversation with Captain Jimmy Parker, CO of Sirius Platoon and former member of SEAL Team Six. Probably swapping the foulest of dirty jokes.
There were forty-seven men total in Altair Company. The men of the battalion-size Space Warfare Development Operations Group were culled only from the best: SEAL Team Six, Delta Force, CIA Special Operations Group and British 22nd Special Air Service. Altair Company, classified by those higher up the JSOC ladder as SAWDOG’s Special Assault Mission of “scientist soldiers,” consisted of the highest paid operatives of the battalion: nuclear engineers with space-operable .50-cal CAR15 carbines, quantum physicists using M112 C4 demolition charges, mathematicians who found just as much confidence tackling Fermat’s Last Theorem in a Cambridge study over tea as they did severing a bad guy’s brain from his body with a stealthy combat knife.
“Killer Nerds” was the preferred nickname being used from those working the secure offices of the CIA and MI6 who knew of their existence. The men of Altair Company, and the rest of SAWDOG for that matter, simply shrugged off such attempts at barbing humor from those outsiders who harbored dubious opinions of the battalion’s fortitude. Their strutting aplomb and fondness for a life of calculators and grenade launchers were proudly encapsulated in their emblem of a skull in an astronaut’s helmet superimposed over the Milky Way, slide rule clutched in teeth, and the motto emblazoned above: Ad Stellarum Superamus—— “To The Stars We Overcome.”
“Colonel Carruthers,” the Andromeda’s comm officer radioed. “We have inbound traffic clearing NESSTC COMSEC, call sign Space Cowboy, making an Achilles One inquiry. I believe it’s one of Colonel Towsley’s commando fighter pilots.”
“They have a legit COMSEC register now?” Carruthers asked.
“Yes, sir. Looks like Colonel Towsley just filed it.”
Carruthers let out a sharp huff of air and opened his AIEAS suit’s terminal pad on his left forearm. He thumbed the comm. “This is Achilles One, go ahead Space Cowboy.”
’Hello, Lieutenant Colonel Carruthers. This is Tony Simmons. Remember me? I’m the one who told you to go fuck yourself after you told me ‘only dopes smoke dope.’’
“How can I forget? What do you want?”
‘Darren, Jorge and Nate have commandeered a Vorvon dropship, and I’m right behind them. We’re about to board the bad guys’ moonship, and I just happened to spot your transport heading in the same direction. The boys and I are just wondering what you’re up to?’
’So is our mission, colonel. Maybe we can unclassify ourselves and join forces for the cause.’
“My suggestion is for you boys to turn around and scram the hell out.”
“Sorry, Carruthers,” Darren said. “Can’t do that. My bro asked you a legitimate question.”
“I’m going to answer your question with a question,” Carruthers responded. “What are you boys up to?”
Darren stared out the cabin windshield at the other dropships ahead of them and the moonship growing ever bigger in the window. “There’s . . . someone . . . someone I know for a fact is on board that ship . . . a girl I know. We’re going after her.”
“GM Chrysler,” Carruthers growled. “You got to be kidding?”
“Oh . . . sorry for my lack of military parlance, colonel. We’re here to extract an HVI for immediate exfil out of the AO.”
“High Value Individual, huh?”
“My group’s mission is going to conflict with yours in a big way, so I suggest you forget the damsel in distress rescue mission and go find yourself another girlfriend.”
“I love the callous machismo you guys ooze. Do they teach that in Tough Guy 101.”
“When the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or one, you’re fucking A.”
“Well, we’re flying a Trojan horse, and Tony’s Dragonstar has active stealth and invisibility, so the odds of a successful and stealthy infiltration into the enemy’s stronghold are high on our end. This can’t be said for you guys. How are you expecting to get your three hundred foot flying saucer past their early-warning defenses and board their ship? Knock on the front door and hope for hospitality?”
“We have an effective mode of entry, Mr. Seymour.”
“Look, if we team up, we can help you guys get your ship inside. Our VI battle drone is working on our infil right now with its cyberwarfare suite. Let’s team up and support each other. You help us, we help you . . . so . . . do we have an accord?”
Carruthers turned his eyes to the ten foot electric Heavy Load Jack secured near the loading ramp and the 2,900 lbs object welded to its frame——an eight-megaton neutron bomb.
“Sure, Darren. You got it.”
“Brutus found us a backdoor, and it’s a cherry,” Jorge said. “There’s dozens of secondary landing ports all over the moonship, and Brutus tagged one in the southern hemisphere near that long impact canyon. Apparently the port was damaged by the blast and hasn’t been used since, but it still has access to power and some remote computer control. Brutus is setting up over a hundred firewall nodes to hide his computer hacks from the Vorvon’s VI security protocols, so hopefully he’ll get us in undetected.”
“What about early-warning surveillance sensors?” Darren asked.
“He’s got three radar nets around the port already shut down, but Brutus has the bad guys’ central security VI’s thinking they’re still up.”
Their dropship began to separate from the rest of the line. Brutus had them on a heading toward the three hundred mile long impact canyon.
Darren shook his head. “This is too easy.”
Jorge detected his concern. “Relax, ese. Brutus could put us down in the middle of Central Park on a summer afternoon undetected.”
“If you say so . . . Achilles One? You copy?”
“Go ahead,” Carruthers responded.
“Head for the large impact cannon on the southern hemisphere. Hold position about fifty thousand clicks above it, and wait for us to link up. Our VI drone just made a radar hole for us to ingress an abandoned landing port there.”
Tony went in first to recon the area. The vertical tunnel leading to the underground port was sealed off by a circular 720 foot shield at the bottom of a large crater that lay less than two miles from a deep fjord poking out from the main impact canyon. Other than a deactivated radar site on a mountaintop ten miles to the southeast, Tony’s passive sensor sweeps spied no enemy mobiles, SA sites or security trip-wire stations on the surface.
Brutus opened the shield a crack for Tony to enter, and he descended into the shaft, his electronic ears tuned for danger, his mental trigger finger ready. The shield above him closed, closing off the sunlight and plunging him into total darkness. Vertical rows of lights kicked on, revealing a cylindrical airlock about a thousand feet deep. At the bottom, a second shield opened, and Tony dropped through into a cavernous spherical hangar about two miles in diameter. Poking out from the walls were dozens of enormous pad towers thousands of feet long pointing toward the center of the port. Each tower had several pads of various sizes mounted along their lengths.
Damage from the mysterious kinetic weapon which created the impact scar was evident. Several pad towers lay in twisted heaps at the bottom of the hangar and only a smattering of lights here and there provide some adequate lighting. One of four gigantic mushroom-shaped structures had partially separated from the wall, cracked in several pieces and tore a gash in the hangar’s metallic shell, exposing the basaltic rock underneath.
Tony also saw that he wasn’t alone in the hangar. In fact there appeared to be some light reconstruction going on by hundreds of five foot cybernetic organisms resembling squid walking on their tentacles. The half-robot, half-organic creatures were scurrying around like worker ants, spot welding here and there, operating multi-arm hover mechs and conducting small demolitions.
‘Fellas, I think I just got made. There’s a swarm of robot octopus thingies all over down here rebuilding the hangar.’
‘Brutus says to relax,’ Jorge replied. ‘They’re artificial non-sentient drones. They’re no more aware of their presence than they are of yours. Just don’t kill any or interfere with them or they just might sound an alarm.’
‘Brutus told me to relax, huh?’
‘I imagine if he was an AI and not a VI, that’s what he would say. Scope out a pad big enough for us all to set down next to one another.’
“Sir, this is Sergeant Collins down in the Containment Area. Caliban just used the request button on his chair. Looks like he wants something.”
“Ignore it, sergeant. I’m busy.”
“I have, sir, but this is the fifth time he’s signaled.”
“All right, I’ll see what he wants.” Towsley took off his headset and stepped over to the COC’s closed-circuit security station, and accessed the corner-camera in Caliban’s cell.
The alien stood in front of his recliner, shifting his gaze between the camera in one corner of his cell and the TV monitor in the other, waiting patiently for Towsley to appear. The colonel switched on the tiny camera mounted on the console in front of him and signaled, What is it Caliban?
Caliban request magazine to fight boredom.
You cannot read.
Caliban like pictures. Request magazine.
What kind of magazine? The colonel noticed something odd about Caliban’s face. He didn’t know what exactly until he realized a moment later that the alien had somehow arranged what little facial muscles he possessed to form a moderate attempt at human expression. Caliban was smiling at him.
Request National Geographic, the alien replied. Enjoy pictures of volcanoes.
Finding himself quickly annoyed, Towsley shut the console-camera off with a snap and returned to Taggart’s chair, placing the headset back over his ears. “Sergeant Collins? Grab a National Geographic magazine out of the head and put it in Caliban’s food dispenser.”
“Sergeant Randel pinched all of the National Geographic’s a week ago and stashed them in his quarters.”
“For crying out loud, just give him a People or something.”
The human entered the observation room and gave Caliban a look which the alien had learned over the long years of human interaction meant suspicion. He placed three magazines on the food dispenser tray and closed the hatch. The conveyor in the wall brought the magazines to his cell, and Caliban quickly snatched them out of the cubical. Two Newsweek’s and a National Geographic.
Before the human left the observation room, he turned with a smirk and fired an imaginary gun through the glass. Caliban understood the gesture and added another assignment to his growing list.
When the human finally sealed the door shut, the alien sat down on the floor behind his recliner and carefully wedged the thick National Geographic behind the chair’s electrical access panel. He pulled the magazine toward him, giving him enough space to slip his fingers in and bend one corner of the panel down. After doing the same with the bottom corner, he used both hands to rend the panel door off, tearing the lock out in the process.
When he recognized the recliner’s power supply box with the lightning bolts, Caliban opened the Newsweek to the center page and carefully picked at the top staple with his claws. He pulled it out of the magazine’s spine and clamped it between his teeth as he worked on the second staple. When he had both of them removed, he gingerly linked them together into a frail, little chain about an inch and a half long. He began on the other Newsweek, and soon extended his chain to just over four inches.
Caliban snapped the metal jacket off the power supply box and examined the insides quickly. After making some guesses, he tore a tiny piece of paper from the magazine to hold the staple-chain and warily plugged one end into an uncapped positive lead. He inserted the metal fastener into the negative socket and successfully produced a spark.
Caliban tore a page out of the magazine and held one corner close to the contacts and touched the fastener once again. It took about ten strikes to finally ignite the paper. Caliban aroused the flames with slow puffs of air and stuffed the entire magazine into the panel.
Smoke triggered the detector, and water exploded from the sprinklers. A satisfying alarm tore through the base.
The soldiers would be coming soon.
“Fire in the Containment Area,” Forrester said, reading a status box on a computer terminal. “CU Three.”
The magazines. “Caliban’s cell,” Towsley said. “That’s a deliberate fire, major. Take two Response Team squads down there and exterminate with extreme prejudice.”
“It’s about time, sir,” Forrester replied with revelry.
Towsley looked over at the far wall, ignorance working overtime. Sure, Cal, what kind of magazine would you prefer?
Wearing CBRN suits, Forrester and five of his men rushed into the circular corridor surrounding the containment units and clicked off the safeties to their M16s.
“Squad Eight is at the door,” Forrester said into his mouthpiece. “Squad Seven, stand by.” Squad Seven stood guard back in the laboratory, the only access into the individual containment units.
“Major Forrester? This is Sergeant Collins in the observation room. The alien took out the lights in his cell, but I can see him with my flashlight. He’s squatting behind his chair. He has the VT canister in his left hand, but I can’t see his right. Looks like he’s waiting for you, sir.”
“We copy that, sergeant. Keep your flashlight on him.” Forrester slid his access card into CU Three’s panel. “Get ready, gentlemen. A steady burst in the chest, now.” The major typed his PI number. The pneumatic seals decompressed, and the door slid into its recess.
Forrester and his squad couldn’t see what was about to happen.
Sergeant Collins suddenly did. “No!”
With the VT canister in his jaws, Caliban leaped for the security camera mount up in the corner just as he dropped the recliner’s severed electric cable to the floor where the sprinklers had rained a half inch of water. Forrester and his men were safe in their polyurethane suits, but electrocution had never been Caliban’s intention. As soon as the door whooshed open, the electrified water rolled into the corridor and delivered an angry 220-volt surge into the stainless steel floor. A cloud of sparks exploded from Caliban’s recliner. Breaker switches from somewhere inside the base immediately cut the power in the Containment Area.
Caliban understood the dynamics of electrical conduction well, and his hasty, long-shot planning had paid off. He also knew humans could not see in the dark unlike him.
The alien pushed off the wall and landed on his recliner just as Forrester and his squad blindly fired into the cell. He felt hot bullets zip through his left arm and howled in agony. Caliban leaped again, this time for the door, and slammed one of the confused guards to the floor in the process. Snatching the M16 by the barrel, he jerked the weapon out of the soldier’s hands before the man could fire and turned the simplistic human toy on its owner with a short burst. The alien spun on his heels and cut down his remaining opponents groping and firing blindly in the darkness.
“I can’t see!”
“Back out! Back out!”
“Where’s the fucking lights!”
“The fucking door won’t open!”
The voices of Squad Seven continued to scream over Sergeant Collins’s head-set as he dashed out of the CU Three observation room with his flashlight. He tried to open the laboratory door with his access card, but both squads inside were trapped——the electrical surge had juiced every circuit.
A burst of M16 fire in his headset drowned out the panicked voices of Squad Seven. Collins backed away from the door, gripping his 9mm tighter. The automatic fire fell silent as did the terrified cries in his headset.
“Captain Grant?” Collins called out. The leader of Squad Seven did not reply.
“Sergeant Collins, this is Colonel Towsley. Get your ass out of there, now!”
A short rifle burst crackled, and he heard glass shatter. Collins froze, expecting more gunfire from the lab. He kept his eyes on the lab door in front of him, expecting the alien to smash it down, but slowly realized that the rifle fire and breaking glass had come not from the laboratory but from the CU Three observation room behind him. Stomach knotting, he turned and pointed both his flashlight and Beretta into the darkness, but the yellow eyes were already on him.
So far so good.
Other than the weird cybernetic “zombie” squids diligently repairing the Vorvons’ ruined hangar, the port was relatively quiet . . . no blaring klaxons warning the inhabitants that humans had boarded their vessel or Vorvon troops firing on the human invaders from the adjacent pad towers.
The SAWDOG’s wore what they called the Advanced Infantry Ensemble Armor System, a bulky, boron-carbide ceramic plated suit that was capable of zero-g ops in space and able to defeat high-ballistic tungsten shot. They had a simple HUD on the inner visor of their helmets and a communications-network information system processor. However, their weapons were not exotic laser weapons cooked up in a DARPA lab somewhere but simple 7.62mm SCAR-L assault rifles with FN40GL 40mm grenade launchers, and a few monstrous CAR-15 carbines that shot a .50-caliber, 400-grain soft-point round that Darren was told had a devastating effect on body armor. Some also had heavy sniper rifle systems and a few anti-armor weapons. All in all, the SAWDOG’s looked like primitive versions of themselves, Darren mused.
The .09 gravity was a bit clumsy and laborious to get used to at first, but the men of SAWDOG had several iridium weights secured to their legs to simulate exactly 0.2 g of effective “fighting grav.” Darren, Tony, Nate and Jorge simply used the singularity-driven mass focal generators in their boots to keep them weighted down to about 0.1 g.
The infiltration into the enemy’s moonship had been thankfully uneventful. The gathering at the bottom of the Andromeda’s main gangway, however, threatened to become very eventful after a SAWDOG operative rode an electric, six-wheel tractor down the ramp with what appeared to Darren to be a bomb mounted on top.
“‘Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy,’” Darren read from a small plate on the side of the weapon next to a radioactive hazard trefoil symbol.
Someone with a clouded sense of humor had painted a cowboy Yoda riding an atomic bomb like a bull rider and waving a light saber. The Jedi Master’s dialogue balloon said, “Make you glow I can . . . luminous beings are we!”
“You brought a goddamn nuke?” Darren spat.
“I told you to forget about your girlfriend and scram the hell out, didn’t I?” Carruthers shot back. “Now you’re committed. Welcome to the show.”
“I don’t want to crash your party, lieutenant colonel, but we’re going to coordinate our plans, or I’ll have Brutus spay and neuter your firecracker with one snap of my fingers. Okay, tough guy? I’m not going to let you monkey wrench my ‘damsel in distress rescue mission.’”
“Brutus says you aren’t going to do much damage if you set it off here,” Jorge said.
Darren turned to Jorge. “What kind of bomb is it anyway?”
“That’s classified,” Carruthers growled.
“I wasn’t talking to you.”
“Chromium x-ray mirrors, nickel radiation shell, thirty-grams of tritium in the core,” Jorge replied, reading Brutus’s data stream. “It’s a neutron bomb. Explosive yield, only twenty kilotons, but it has the radiological output of an 8 megaton thermonuke. Nice weapon of mass alien destruction, colonel, but if you want to fry every Vorvon on this ship, you’re going to have to find another spot for it. We can help you with that.”
The concerned look on Carruthers’ face that his secret weapon had just been thoroughly scanned and its software downloaded by a giant alien robot pleased Darren very much. But now was not the time to play smart-aleck.
An unexpected voice broke the volatile tension.
“Can I make a suggestion?” Nate said.
“Please,” Darren said.
“I want very much for this bomb to go boom, too. I also want to help find Vanessa. But both ops have no point of destination, so let’s get Brutus to hack into the enemy’s computers and scan the layout of this ship and go from there. He can do that, can’t he Mexico?”
Jorge nodded. “He would have to set up a shitload of firewall nodes to hide his inquiries, but yeah, he can do it.”
Towsley scanned the closed-circuit security console, but seven static-filled screens told him half the cameras on Level One which housed the Containment Area/Lab and Infirmary were inoperative. Two of the remaining three Response Team squads had taken up position at both elevators and stairwells on Level Two, the floor comprising the hangar, COC, and generator rooms, while the third team cautiously made their way to the CBRN suit storage next to the lab. Caliban was nowhere to be seen.
“What happened to the power down there?”
“We had a major surge across nine circuit lines,” Breuer said, reading a computer monitor. “All on Level One.”
“Well, then reset the breaker switches!”
Breuer gave him a defeated look. “We have to fix whatever’s causing the surge or the breaker’s will keep snapping the power off. And from what I can guess, the problem is on Level One, colonel.”
Towsley said into his mouthpiece, “Squad Five, you see any sign of Seven and Eight?”
“Negative, sir. But we just checked the lab storage . . . Caliban got in there and ripped every anti-chem suit to shreds. We have no nerve gas protection.”
Towsley spotted Caliban on one of the closed-circuit monitors. “There he is! We got him, Squad Five! He just stepped out of the infirmary!”
Caliban had used white gauze tape to wrap the nerve gas canister to the end of a cocked 9mm Beretta which he had no doubt pried out of the still-warm hands of a security guard. The alien had taped the pistol itself to his left hand. One pull of the trigger would set off the canister’s internal detonator and swing the reaper’s scythe through the entire base with one angry swath.
“Squad Five, back out! He’s got the VT taped to the end of a pistol. Back out!”
On the monitor, Caliban looked up at the camera and held up his makeshift gas bomb and a pastel line drawing of his trilobite fighter taken from his cell.
“What is this all about?” Admiral Breuer asked.
“He wants safe passage to the hangar,” Towsley replied, “or he’ll set off the nerve gas.” Caliban wasn’t aware that his fighter had been stripped clean years ago. “When he finds out we’ve taken away his only means of escape, we’re going to have one pissed off alien on our hands. We have to evacuate, admiral. He’s going to set that gas off when he gets to the hangar and realizes he’s not going anywhere.”
“One good shot to the head will turn him off like a switch. We’ll keep the Response Teams here.”
“I’m not going to chance that. It would take a well-aimed shot to the head, and that might not even kill him.” Towsley shook his head. “We evacuate——now.”
Towsley was reminded of that old maxim pertaining to someone shouting “Fire” in a crowded theater when he looked around at 178 base personnel running up the NESSTC’s tunnel. The Secret Service agents were practically parting the crowd like Pamplona bulls to clear a path for the president and the First Lady. Towsley had a queer feeling that Caliban might have already set-off the nerve gas canister and that lethal VT molecules were floating up the tunnel after them.
Admiral Breuer looked like he was about to pass out. “I haven’t done any running like this . . . in a long time.”
“It’s good for you, sir. A little terror-inspired exercise never hurt anyone.”
“I can do without . . . the terror.”
After joining the growing crowd already gathered at the tunnel entrance, Breuer bent over and put his hands on his knees. “Now what?”
Towsley watched the remaining personnel and Response Team Strykers bring up the rear. “I don’t know.”
“We can call in an air strike.”
“To incinerate the base. Colonel, it’s the only way we’re going to get rid of that gas and take out Caliban at the same time. We can have a Strike Eagle slide a fuel-air explosive or tactical nuke right down the tunnel. The base is useless now anyway.”
Towsley had stopped listening to Breuer when a distant, forgotten face suddenly popped into his head. He looked around at the throng of confused base personnel who seemed to be wondering what to do next.
“Something wrong?” Breuer asked.
“Who was in charge of stockade duty on Level One?” Towsley began to walk briskly through the crowd, looking frantically for the face.
Breuer followed him. “I’m not sure. Why? If you’re inquiring about General Taggart, he’s being detained in one of the Strykers. We got everyone out.”
“I don’t see him.”
Towsley looked back at the tunnel opening. “Oh god, no.”
Geils poked his head out the door. “Hello?”
One half-hour had passed since the roar of distant rifle fire jarred him awake. No sounds of battle since. Had Darren and those guys come back for him?
The guard was nowhere to be seen. Not a sound roused the corridors. He stepped out of the cleaning room in the Infirmary that had served as his makeshift cell.
“Sergeant Collins, or private, or whatever——I gotta use the bathroom! Hell-ooo?”
Geils stepped down the hall, looking for any guard in a blue beret. Most of the hallways were mysteriously blacked out, and only a couple of corridors had working lights. Geils’s inquisitive nature sensed a dire situation brewing. First, gunfire, now missing guards and blacked out hallways?
Geils stopped looking for Sergeant Collins and began searching for an elevator or stairwell. In an underground base, the exit had to be on the top floor. A quick stroll through the lit corridors, however, revealed not a single passage to the next floor up. He had to brave the darkened hallways.
The fading light from the corridor behind him guided him to a corner. Geils entered the quiet darkness and ran his hands along the wall. He reached a door and worked the knob. Locked. He continued on and became acutely aware of a sharp metallic odor in the air. It grew thicker the further he went.
A light. Up ahead.
Geils sped faster and rounded the corner to another corridor. A flashlight lay on the floor against the wall, illuminating his tennis shoes. The pungent odor now reached overwhelming intensity strong enough to taste.
His stomach stirred. He knew what the smell was even before he picked up the sticky flashlight and aimed it ahead of him. He had prepared himself to see blood but hadn’t anticipated so much of it——nor did he expect to behold the knotted, human pretzel that used to be Sergeant Collins, U.S. Air Force.
“You know what?” Nate said. “They’ve got an alien locked up next to us. I overheard one of the guards.”
“Yeah, right,” Geils replied.
“I’m serious . . . bet you it’s reading our minds right now. . . .”
He shook his head, trying to reject what occurred here to preserve his sanity. The reasons for the automatic gunfire were so painfully clear now. He was alone on this floor with some sinister, slimy, outer space mutant-monster with poisonous tentacles and buggy green eyes——or something. Dozens of other possible physical features went through his head when he turned to search for escape.
After a fifteen minute recon of their immediate area, no one could find anything which remotely looked like a computer terminal or any kind of electronic access point. They found several small corridors and air ducts leading to and from unknown machinery under the decks but nothing more. Finally, Jorge decided to have Brutus——carefully——perform a sort of robotic “mind meld” with one of the cybernetic maintenance drones.
The squid-like creature had appeared from a pyramidal structure a hundred feet from the parked Andromeda transport and began to insouciantly walk pass the group of humans toward some unknown task before Brutus stopped it. Darren and Nate held the creature in place while the robot inserted its Omni-Interface Tool under the drone’s skin.
“You sure these things don’t know we’re here?” he asked.
“Positive,” Jorge replied. “These things have the cognitive power of a sea urchin. Relax, will you?” He stopped to read Brutus’s incoming data stream. “These things are weird. They’re artificial life forms with cybernetic implants . . . and like I figured, they don’t have an organic brain, just a small circuit processor and random access memory.”
“Nice. Are they plugged in?”
“Yeah. Here’s our computer terminal to the ship’s central processor . . . whoa.”
“What’s the matter?”
“I think Brutus just killed our host.”
The drone suddenly went limp in Darren and Nate’s arms and coiled to the metal floor in an undignified heap. None of its tentacles moved, and a barely audible beeping could be heard coming from one of its implant devices.
“Aw, crap . . . what did your killer pet robot just do?” Darren demanded. “What if the enemy’s security VI’s see they got a dead squidy and send some nasties out to investigate?” Jorge didn’t answer, so Darren looked up and shouted, “Hey!”
Jorge was scanning Brutus’s data on his visor. “Shut up and let me read, will ya?”
Darren looked down and saw small wisps of smoke rising out of the drone’s cybernetic implants.
“Red Lobster special,” Tony said. “Anybody got butter?”
“What did he do?” Darren asked. “Shock the shit out of it?”
“Yes, that’s exactly what he did,” Jorge replied. “He had to so that he could take over its VI protocols . . . Brutus is now mimicking its bio-patterns . . . and so far the Vorvons’ central control computers think the squidie is still alive and performing normally . . . we’re in, boys. Brutus just crammed his memory with 684 petabytes of data. So . . . what do you want?”
Darren and Carruthers spoke simultaneously:
——“Where’s Vanessa and how do we get to her?”——
——“Where’s the best placement for our bomb?”——
Both of them gave one another dark looks.
Jorge broke the tie. “Love, first . . . nuclear terror, second.” He paused to access Brutus’s new memory nodes. A few seconds later, “As big as this moonship is, the internal livable structure is only about 230 cubic miles in volume.”
“Wow, is that all,” Carruthers murmured. Sarcasm noted.
“They have a rapid transit system of vacuum tri-rail tunnels . . . that should help cut down the enormity of it all. And there just happens to be a platform station at the end of this pad tower. There’s our entry.” Jorge paused again to read the maps scrolling across his visor. “Darren, Brutus just tagged an area at the very center of the moonship . . . it looks like some kind of . . . processing chamber.”
“That don’t sound good,” Carruthers said.
Darren didn’t have the heart to shoot him a resentful look this time. His heart just dropped into his stomach.
“The chamber is huge,” Jorge continued. “Brutus is detecting multiple human bio-signals there along with . . . non-Vorvon bio-signals.”
“You mean other alien species?” Nate asked.
“Yeah . . . don’t know what that could mean.” Jorge focused on Darren, and Darren could see a hint of despair in his brown eyes. “That’s probably where Vanessa is.”
“Can Brutus elaborate on the meaning of ‘processing’?” Darren asked.
Jorge sent Brutus a thought-inquiry, scanned the answer, then, “Some kind of laboratory . . . he doesn’t have any more info other than that.”
“Darren,” Carruthers said softly. “I know you don’t want to hear this, but you really——”
“I’m not going to listen to your consoling words of reconsideration. I don’t care if they dissected her or turned her into a cyborg squid janitor. I’m going to get her off this ship . . . and if that happens to be in a Hefty bag or on a leash, then so be it. Okay?” He turned to Jorge. “Where’s the best place for these ass hats to lay their egg?”
Darren heard the click of a rifle and knew it came from the direction of Carruthers to his left and now aimed directly at his head. Before he could turn and tell the CO to go fuck himself, Brutus spun around with frightening speed, a huge black blur of motion, and fired a low-energy shot from one of his laser pulse guns.
Carruthers .50-cal CAR-15 shattered into a hundred pieces with a bright flash and a loud crack. He stumbled back. The air around all of them got hot.
The other forty-six troopers were about to raise their weapons, and Darren screamed, “Stop!”
His demand froze them all.
“Don’t fire, or Brutus will drop you where you stand!”
And he wasn’t exaggerating. The battle drone had his laser-targeted, tungsten shotgun humming and his two heavy disrupter cannons in “room broom” position. There would be nothing left of Altair Company but tiny bits of flesh and boron-carbide ceramic plating.
Carruthers’s eyes shot daggers, his lips parted to show gritted teeth. Darren wasn’t impressed with his war face.
“Remember what I told you in Taggart’s office, lieutenant colonel?” Darren asked. “You’re fighting with spears and rocks, so as far as I’m concerned, you SAWDOG’s are just cannon fodder here to serve as our personal meat shields. Let us know if you need rescuing, and the boys and I will come running.”
Tony slapped his armored gloves together and barked out a quick laugh. Nate followed suit.
“I’m growing weary of your unbroken disrespect, asshole!” Carruthers growled.
A few SAWDOGs nodded in agreement. Someone said, “No shit.”
“Darren,” Jorge said.
Darren turned to look at him, his eyebrows coming together. “Excuse me?”
“He’s right. You’ve been pretty disrespectful to these guys. They’ve got balls, man. A hard pair of rocks to be doing what they’re doing. They brought the best they had . . . fifty-cal and a neutron bomb. They more than likely knew they wouldn’t be coming back. One way trip, am I right?”
Carruthers didn’t respond at first. Or couldn’t. His eyes suddenly went soft, distant. Loved ones in mind perhaps. The other SAWDOGs standing around held similar expressions.
“Something like that,” he said finally, so low Darren barely heard him.
“That’s hard core, man,” Jorge continued. “Fifty tough bastards willing to lay it all out for everlasting martyrdom and seven billion people. They’re not ass hats or meat shields. Could you write a love letter to a relative before suiting up for a suicide mission, Darren?”
“Jesus, Jorge, you had me at ‘apologize,’” Darren said.
Fifty-one humans aboard an alien warship began to laugh softly. The anxiety boiling in everyone’s blood began to slake . . . some smiles appeared.
Darren looked at the helmeted faces around him, his nut sack just a little smaller than it was a minute ago. “He’s right . . . I apologize . . . to all of you guys. I’m sorry.” He looked to Carruthers. “When I get my wise ass mode in high gear, it’s sometimes hard to let off the pedal. Sorry, dude.” And he truly was. All it took was just one reasonable person to give you a hard slap across the face to reconnect the faulty wires in your brain. Darren looked around and suddenly saw these guys for the first time. “To hell with martyrdom. We’re all going to finish the mission and get the frick off this rock together. Random heroes.”
Carruthers face had softened. “Thank you . . . and I apologize, too, for not understanding your motive here . . . I get it now, Darren. When everything’s crumbling around you and everything’s FUBAR . . . maybe that one person is all that matters . . . I get it.”
“Jesus, why don’t you guys just kiss and get it over with,” Tony said, exasperated.
“If he puts some lipstick on, I might consider it,” Darren answered.
A deep, barrel-chested laugh exploded from Carruthers’s gut, and everyone standing within earshot responded with their own snorts.
“Jorge, put Brutus on a leash before he kills all of us.”
Brutus went into STAND DOWN, and Darren heard his humming innards wind down. The robot lowered his disrupter cannons.
“Sorry about your weapon,” Darren said.
Carruthers shrugged. “We have backups onboard. So, Jorge, you found a good spot for our nuke?”
“Yes, sir,” Jorge responded.
Darren noted Carruthers’s reaction to being called ‘sir.’ The CO let a small grin cross his face that did not look at all supercilious. Nice one, Lopez.
“Brutus tagged another large chamber . . . this one above that processing center . . . it’s about forty miles in diameter, the biggest chamber aboard the moonship.”
Someone let out a slow whistle.
“It’s jammed with Vorvon bio’s . . . looks like a city. Brutus says over ninety-nine percent of all enemy signals are located there. So there’s your ground zero, sir.”
“So we’ll be all heading to the same place,” Carruthers replied. “Sounds like a plan is coming together.”
“I’ll have Brutus convert these files to binary language and upload these schematics to you guys. What’s your suit computers’ available flash memory?”
“Most of us have just over a single terabyte.”
“That’s plenty. Here it comes. You should see a file icon show up on your operating screen.”
“Should we drop our firewalls?”
Jorge shook his head. “No need. Brutus can hack through anything.”
“There it is guys. Click on that, and it will open up several schematic maps of this sector of the moon all the way down to the core ship and the surrounding structures.”
“Nice,” Carruthers said. “Every damn corridor, air duct, room and tri-rail tunnel route through Spookville. Thank you, Mr. Lopez, you just made our job easier.”
Darren looked and saw a green flashing icon of a circle on his bottom info box. He opened it, and a rotating pie wedge section of the moonship appeared on his visor. A red arrow marked their current position just below the ship’s surface. A long double-line snaked down from the hangar to the core ship seven hundred miles below them——the tri-rail tunnel.
“Looks like we can take this tunnel all the way to this point here,” Jorge said. He had everyone’s schematic operations locked into his. “We’ll have to demo charge into this air duct, here, just off the platform station and walk the rest of the way to this chamber——wow, twenty miles wide whatever it is——Brutus doesn’t have info. There’s some kind of lift tube that goes vertical from there up to that processing chamber.”
A man with a British accent asked, “Why are we taking air ducts?”
Darren could see through the trooper’s helmet visor and saw that he had a scruffy black beard and piercing blue eyes under equally shabby brows. He looked like a seventeenth-century pirate time-warped to the present, a .50-caliber automatic rifle in place of a blunderbuss. The only thing that disagreed with the man’s tough-as-nails facade was his short stature, about five and a half feet. But Darren knew it was always the little guys that never took shit from anyone foolish enough to bring their balls within punching distance.
“Because the bad guys are using the corridors around that station. See all of those cylindrical objects?” Jorge was referring to the thirty or so ten-mile-long machines imbedded into the moon’s basaltic mantel, all pointing toward the core ship. “Those are mass focal generators that are generating about point-eight gravity into the core ship . . . there’s one right next to that platform station, so you can bet those corridors will be full of Vorvon workers. We have no choice but to use the air ducts.”
“Are they big enough for the Heavy Load Jack?” the Brit asked. “There’re no dimensions to these schematics.”
“Just over ten feet wide, according to Brutus,” Jorge responded.
“That’s big enough,” Carruthers said. The lieutenant colonel then stared at the deck for a few seconds, biting his bottom lip, apparently in deep thought. “Captain Middleton, I’m taking command of Vega Platoon. I didn’t come all the way to Spookville just so I could sit on my ass.”
“Yes, sir,” the Brit replied.
“Captain Parker, you’re to remain here with Vega Platoon and keep our exit open. Too many cooks will spoil the broth.”
Darren caught just the slightest look of ire cross Parker’s face.
“Roger that,” Parker responded.
Jorge opened Brutus’s storage compartment and withdrew what looked like gray hockey pucks. He handed them to Darren, Tony and Nate. “Stash these invisi-mines in your bandoliers, and don’t let their size fool you. They have an ultrasonic re-phasic generator that uses sound waves to shred the flesh of any organic body within a thirty-foot lethality radius . . . think exploding jar of grape jelly . . . or . . . you can just program them to explode, which will produce a thermobaric overpressure of about three hundred psi and a fifty millisecond flash of around four thousand degrees. Depends on what kind of message you want to send.”
“Nice,” Darren said.
Jorge’s hands disappeared into Brutus’s innards and came back with more Christmas goodies. “These are seeker grenades. They fly just like our recon scouts, and when they explode, they can do one of two things depending on pre-set programming . . . either produce a two thousand amp field of electricity that’ll cook flesh and electronics within thirty feet . . . or detonate self-replicating, nano-modulated acid that will fester on contact to any surface and splatter the next bad guy, and the one next to him and so on. When it eats through personal armor and contacts flesh, it’ll liquify an entire body in about ten seconds. Nice little terror weapon.”
“Alright, Vega, let’s kick this off,” Carruthers said.
Towsley’s first reaction was not to order the Response Teams back inside and rescue the kid, but to do it himself. Without pause, he turned away from Admiral Breuer and broke into a run back into the tunnel. Several frantic voices called out to him, pleading for him to stop, but their cries fell away as he put more and more distance from them. He wasn’t surprised at all when he managed a quick glance over his shoulder to see no one had followed him. They, too, had all carefully read the service manuals concerning the ghastly effects of VT nerve gas.
When he reached the opposite end of the hangar, he stopped and leaned up against the wall to catch his breath. He had covered the distance of almost four football fields. Still, no one had appeared at the tunnel to back him up. Figures.
Straight ahead, among the ruins and lingering smoke of Darren’s attack on the hangar sat Caliban’s gutted fighter. Towsley noticed the cockpit portal in the rear of the fuselage had been forced open.
He cocked a round into the Beretta and walked across the wide expanse toward the alien vehicle. Peering into the portal from about thirty feet, his weapon up, he saw that the craft was unoccupied. Towsley could hear the capacitors that kick started the duel electrostatic wave drives humming slightly which meant Caliban had tried to start them. Most of the primary switches and power couplings had been removed and dismantled for analysis years ago. This fighter wasn’t going anywhere.
Towsley guessed what Caliban’s reaction had been——he knew he was now facing one pissed off extraterrestrial with a nothing to lose game plan.
Towsley stepped into the main entrance, and for some stupid reason he wanted to call out to Geils but checked himself. Get a grip, old man. The Beretta shook in his sweaty hand. He had no saliva. The stairwell was right in front of him. Yet he could not move. The darkness beyond the window in the heavy steel door immobilized him.
An angry alien. Odorless nerve gas. A helpless kid. All three waited for him on the other side of the stairwell door. The first bullet in his gun would either find Caliban’s heart, or if he detected the first muscular twitch of VT nerve gas exposure, Towsley’s brain.
What about the kid?
Towsley tried to squeeze that ominous thought from his mind and proceeded toward the stairwell door leading to Level One. Did he have the grace to put a bullet in the kid’s head as well, saving him from a slow, excruciating death? Would there be time to do them both before his muscles seized?
The colonel stopped at the head of the stairwell and took a long breath. Slowly, with ears tuned, he descended the stairs.