Station Keres, Badlands
May 30, 2055
Security Station Keres stood skirted by wind-farms on a jagged thrust of granite fifty miles northwest of the Sprawl. Tucked into the elbow of the mountain, the station looked west over a barren landscape of tundra and ruin stretching into the Badlands. Keres was a lonely outpost, barely accessible by road, isolated in the Freeze when icestorms threshed the peaks. The turbines studding the face of the mountain were its only companions. Their collective roar, like a horde of demons, swept up over the walls of the station and was carried east with the flow of electric power to the sea.
The staff at Station Keres fell into two groups. Most of the soldiers were new recruits, counting the days until they got away. Others in the station had forgotten the day that they’d arrived. For many soldiers, the rugged wind and roar of the turbines became increasingly harrowing as time wore on, until the nightmares set in and things began to slide. Others found equanimity in the experience and a kind of release. Many of the senior staff of the Keres station fell into this category. They were somber individuals, who kept secret histories hidden from the world, and sometimes even from themselves.
Half Nelson was in a class of his own. Nelson’s fate was to have been born between the Change and the resumption of p-godding programs in the forties. Before the Change, he would have been ‘intellectually disabled’. Nelson’s current title depended on who was dispensing the honors. In the armory and ablution blocks, he was Captain Shit-for-Brains. The boys in the storerooms called him Curdled Milk, in reference to the games they’d have him play on lonely nights. Privates Hamilton and Beers, who manned the security post at the eastern gate, had a different game for Nelson, in which he’d earned the esteemed titles Venturer and Poet. Nothing much moved through the eastern gate except for the wind and Nelson on his ventures. Hamilton and Beers spent their days smoking blunts and playing ball in the courtyard behind the gates, using the security system to monitor the movements of officers. Not infrequently, the ball would fly between the top of the gates and the wall in which they were set.
‘Go get the Poet’, Beers would snigger, and Nelson would be summoned for a venture.
Nelson knew that Hamilton and Beers were fooling with him, but he didn’t mind the gaming. They were a funny couple, these two – always grinning, joshing. Nelson appreciated the chance to demonstrate his hardiness and skill. He would plough out the gates into the wind, down the slope in search of the ball. By the time he’d come back, his hands would be frozen and his breathing coming fast and shallow. He’d stand in the courtyard hopping and shivering as Hamilton and Beers fell laughing about him.
‘Say Nelson’, Beers would inquire. ‘How cold’s it out there?’
‘Yeah Poet’, Hamilton’d say. ‘Give it to us in verse’.
‘Numbly. Numbly Jumbly’, Nelson mumbled. For the soldiers, this was the payoff.
‘Numbly Jumbly! Word ‘o the poet!’
Nelson didn’t mind their laughing. He was grateful for the morsel of respect.
The wind was hard and cruel on the morning of the thirtieth and when Nelson came back from his venture, his lips were blue and he fudged his lines. Beers threw a blanket over his shoulders and kicked his ass in the direction of the stove. When he turned around, a stranger was standing inside the gates. He did not carry a weapon. He wore black thermals without an insignia on the shoulder and breast. There was something unsettling about the absence of rank, an unfinished quality that pervaded the whole person.
‘Damn, where’d you come from, dude?’ Beers said.
‘I came from outside’, the stranger said. He looked at them with a neutral expression. It was like he was waiting for something.
Hamilton tugged his pistol from its holster and leveled it at the stranger’s chest.
‘Genscan’s malfunctioning’, he muttered. It wasn’t right. ‘ID, unit, hey? You deaf? Motherfucker. Beers, check the system.’
Beers shoved past the stranger into the control room. The stranger continued looking at Hamilton. His eyes dropped from the gun to the knife on Hamilton’s belt.
‘I like your knife’, he said. ‘May I have it?’
It was a golden moment, like the first toke of the day. Time slowed, the wind died, and a ray of sunlight pierced the titanium mesh of the gates. Hamilton knew that he’d never met the man before. He’d never met anyone like this man; yet he had always known this man, as if the stranger was a reflection of his deeper possibility made visceral and true. Fact was he wanted nothing more than to give the stranger his knife. He holstered the pistol and stepped forward, passing the weapon to the man, handle first.
The stranger took the knife, examined it briefly, spun it in the air and caught it again, so it pointed downwards in his fist. Placing his left hand on Hamilton’s shoulder, he rammed the blade into Hamilton’s stomach and gutted him like a pig.
Joy Squad Fourteen were kitting up in the tool room when the alarm sounded through the station. Private Walker pulled his holocrom into place and stammered out a report to Corporal Smith.
‘Sir! Security violation on the ground floor, sir! East gate – shit, I mean sir! We got action, sir, coming up the stairs at East three, sir!’
Smith sprang into action.
‘OK you cluster-fucks, into formation. Bennet – get those boots on! This is not a drill! Alpha unit! I want a defensive formation at East three-zero in ten, nine, eight… Beta unit! I want backups at locations twenty-oh-two and twenty-oh-seven, on the double!’
Hoisting cannons, slamming in clips, fumbling with straps, belts and boots, Alpha unit charged down the corridor and threw themselves into position about door E three-zero at the mouth of the stairs leading up from the gate. Sounds of a ruckus echoed up from below: Beer’s bellowing voice, staccato bursts of machine-gun fire, the piercing chime of rounds on metal.
With a mad clap of boots on stairs something burst from the door.
‘Friendly!’, Walker cried.
Private Beers fell into the arms of the awaiting troopers, rifle clattering to the floor. He was bleeding from cuts to the head and chest. Beta unit dragged him about the corner as the others resumed their formation.
Corporal Smith dropped down beside him. ‘Report Private. What’s the situation?’
Beers struggled with the arms that held him down, hands slipping in blood.
‘It changes shape’, he spat. ‘Don’t you see it? It could be any one of them!’
Smith’s jaw started working left and right. He blinked and bugged his eyes.
‘Corporal?’, Private Walker demanded.
Smith’s eyes rolled back in head.
‘Corporal’, Walker repeated, coming at him. It was all he got out. Smith hoisted his rifle and blasted Walker in the chest. Spinning about, he unloaded his weapon into the soldiers, hollering like an animal. Private Bremner took him down. A mesh of bloody explosions embroidered the Corporal chest to thigh. A handful of bullets threaded through to Webern and Anders at the forward post, knocking them to the floor, and Jones, assuming they were under attack from behind, threw himself about and squeezed off a series of rounds, forming a fatal cross-stitch in the closed space. Suddenly a voice was screaming: ‘Fire in the hole!’, and Spalding, in the forward group, was kicking at the grenade that was rolling in his direction. With a boom that punctured time, the corridor was strewn with soldier-parts and the conflagration was on.
Anders shot Bremner and Walker shot Jones. Shelly, who had to that point not fired a round, was shot in the stomach as Jones went down, and did the same to Marshall as she collapsed. Marshall, to the end the most cautious member of Joy Squad 14, folded to the floor without shooting anyone at all. Overwhelmed, the remaining members of Joy Squad disengaged, flapping and writhing in retreat from the scene.
Private Marshall sat slumped against the wall in a widening pool of blood. The undulating wail of the siren merged with the pain into a feverish experience of motion and speed. When Marshall closed his eyes, he was on a rollercoaster going down, down, about and around, crushed by the g-force, shot into the air… He forced his eyelids apart. Across the hallway, Beers had shifted into a sitting position. Marshall watched as his flesh began to shiver and change; blood seeping into his skin like rivulets of mercury draining into cracks. When he turned to look at Marshall, he had no face at all. Marshall opened his mouth to scream. But the faceless creature shimmered and smiled and soon Marshall was smiling as well.
In the command and control room on level two, Captain Jean Dalton watched in horror as one by one, the squadrons on the floor below collapsed into chaos. Moments earlier, she had been orchestrating the tactical retreat of Anger Management Nine. Now the line was dead and, if the evidence of the security-cam was to be believed, so were the members of the squad. Dalton had yet to see any sign of an invading force. It was like a collective psychosis were infiltrating the units on the floor, throwing them into violent disarray.
Composing herself, she patched through a call to First Lieutenant Stenson, who was escorting the station Commander, Brigadier General Hicks, to the Operations Centre at the top of the building.
‘Stenson – Dalton. Gimme the General’.
Muffled voices, then: ‘Hicks’.
‘General, we have a situation here. Three units on ground floor down already and it’s unclear where the damage is coming from. Request permission to pull back the remaining forces on level one and regroup on level two’.
‘Request denied, Captain. We have reached the Operations Centre and we are reviewing the situation. Hold your men in position until my command. Repeat: do not withdraw; hold your positions’.
Dalton acknowledged the order and stared numbly at the bank of screens before her. Now Heaven Seventeen was getting it in the neck. Private Tommy Thompson was screaming something at the security-cam as he was cut down from behind. The corridor filled with smoke and the bodies faded from view.
‘Shit! Shit! Motherfucker!’
A deep, resounding boom sent a shudder through the room. A second explosion followed hard on the first. Dalton seized the edge of the table.
‘What in hell… Wilson?’
Private Wilson stood at the security console, legs spread like a champion slugger preparing to take a swing. His fingers flew across the keypad as images of fire, smoke and destruction filled the screens.
‘We’ve lost contact with ground floor seven to thirteen. Could have been the armory…’
A third explosion, this time from behind them.
‘Scratch that’, he said. ‘That ain’t the armory’.
‘It’s mortar or artillery fire’.
‘Mines’, Wilson corrected her, stooping over the console. ‘No damage to exterior walls. Hoo-wee! Those babies just decimated everything from the front gates to the central stairs. Uh, including Squadron Fifteen, who were on the stairs at the time…’.
‘So the stairs were booby trapped?’
‘Looks like it, ma’am. But that don’t make sense if the assailants came in from the east gate…’
‘Unless they’ve been in here before’.
‘That’s a hypothetical, ma’am’.
‘Or were inside already. How bout that for a hypothetical, Private?’
‘Can’t deny it’s possible, ma’am. But right now, it’s pretty much everyone getting fucked down there. Ain’t clear who’s doing the fuckin. Your terrorist singles himself out, just before he goes apeshit. This is more like some crazyness getting into people…’
‘That’s what I’m thinking. Some kind of virus, perhaps. It makes sense. Individuals moving between groups, sparking the conflagrations’.
‘Which means that we need to separate out the squads, ma’am’.
‘Damn straight, Private’. Dalton grabbed the mike. ‘Attention all units. This is a general order. All remaining units on level one to fall back to defensive positions. No physical contact between units. Repeat: no physical contact. Spread out and go to ground’.
The call came back immediately. ‘This is Taylor, God Squad Seven. We’re already behind our position, coming up the east stairs to level two. We have casualties, in need of medical assistance’.
‘Taylor, hold your position. That is an order’.
‘Sorry Captain. Already behind the line. We hold, my men are gonna bleed to death. Coming up’.
‘Goddammit!’ Dalton swung about for her helmet and gun.
‘Once more into the fucking fray. Wilson, you’re in charge here. Toddy, Ambers, Raoul – come with me. Raoul, bring the first aid kit. No one else is to move, you got it? I want this place like ice’.
They sprinted for the east stair and reached the door just as God Squad stumbled through. Only five of the twelve troopers remained. Only three remained standing once they’d made it through the door. Corporal Taylor tossed off a salute.
Dalton stuck her head in Taylor’s face. ‘You disobeyed a direct order, Corporal’.
‘So sue my ass, Captain. Might get me the hell out of this station’.
‘Did you see what hit you?’.
‘No idea, ma’am. Could’ve been an accident. Brady’s gun went off, then everyone started up’.
‘No accident. The same thing’s been happening across the station’.
Dalton called Wilson. ‘OK, God Squad is up. How’s the situation below?’
‘Like ice ice baby, ma’am. Reports coming in. Nothing much left to move down there. Heavy casualties, ma’am’.
‘OK, send two squads of medics down the north stair. They stay down there until I say so, got it? What’s the word from the General?’
‘General’s sitting tight, ma’am. No word whatsoever’.
Dalton shook her head. She’d known Hicks to be taciturn, monosyllabic. But she’d never thought he’d freeze up under fire. It seemed that the situation, for better or worse, was in her hands.
‘Cap’n?’, came a voice. Dalton looked about to see Private Gooding propped against the wall with an adhesive balloon clutched to his gut. She immediately realized what was missing from the scene.
‘Shelby. Where’d she go?’
‘Don’t know, Cap’n. Her knee was fair blown apart. Heh. But she just up and left’.
Dalton glanced about the corner. A trail of blood ran five years up the corridor and ended. Nothing else to be seen.
‘OK, Toddy, Ambers – Taylor you fuck – get over here. Wilson, do you read? I think Private Shelby has the virus. Lock everything down and gimme a report. Where is she and where’s she headed? We’re gonna flush her out and take her down’.
Shelby was walking into a trap. From the command and control room, Wilson watched as she advanced through Central four-oh-three to five, taking out the Genscan and security-cam units as she went. Her expressions ranged from serenity to elation. Sometimes she didn’t look like Shelby at all. Wilson didn’t mention it to the Captain. He was too busy relaying commands, helping coordinate the weave of the operation, and admiring the elegance with which Dalton prepared the coup de grâce.
Shelby disappeared on West six-oh-two. Dalton surmised she’d either broken into the lift shaft on six-oh-three or holed up in the armory. Either way, they had her cornered. Bunched together, Dalton’s team crept towards the armory. They ran into Heavy Duty coming the other way at the corner of six-oh-three. The unit was kitted up with enough rad-hoods for the whole team. Dalton passed them around. She instructed Wilson to lock the lift doors on levels one and two. The Double Happys, on the level above, were to sweep the shaft on her command. First, though, they’d flush out the armory. If Shelby was planning a last stand, this is where it would be.
The armory doors stood slightly apart, as if the room were drawing breath. The soldiers flattened themselves to either side of the entranceway.
‘Shelby! This is Captain Dalton. Are you coming out or are we coming in?’
No answer. Dalton nodded at Toddy and Clarke. From either side, she and Toddy pulled the doors apart so that Clarke could pump a gas grenade through the middle. There was a crack and hiss. Dalton and Toddy hauled the doors wide and Heavy Duty went charging into the room, a team of gargoyles behind ferro-plastic shields. The others followed suit.
They made it to the foremost row of shelves without incident. The soldiers took up position behind pillars, crates, and boxes but nothing came at them. Dalton waved for the advance. Through the infra-red lenses of her rad-mask, she watched her team fan out down the rows.
‘Stick together, nutt to butt’, she hissed into the mike. ‘You see Shelby, take her down but do not approach. Stay clear’.
The troopers reached the end of the shelves. Before them, a row of upright lockers loomed above tables and pallets stacked with inventory. Most of the battle-rattle was locked away. The only weapons that Dalton could see were knives and bayonets, plus some picks and drills against the wall.
Dalton gestured towards the lockers, signaling for troopers to close in from either side. The others took up firing positions from behind the shelves.
‘Shelby, this is your last chance’, Dalton called. ‘Surrender now or, so help me, I’ll bring all hell down on your head. I’m giving you three. Three … two…’
A voice came from the central locker. A cracked falsetto.
‘Circle, circle, dot, dot, now you got a cootie shot. Circle, circle, square, square, I don’t…’
‘Half Nelson? Is that you?’
‘I’m okay. I’m okay here. You jus go bout cha business. Don’t cha worry bout me’.
‘Je-sus!’ Dalton signaled for the troopers to close in. They charged the locker and threw open the door. Half Nelson tumbled out onto the floor. He writhed like a worm, keening in the gas, burying his face in his hands.
There was nothing for it now: ‘The other lockers – go go go!’
The soldiers charged from left and right. Within seconds, the locker doors hung open, but Shelby was not inside. Dalton’s hunch had been wrong. She glared at Half Nelson, sobbing on the biocrete floor, snatched a mask from a shelf and shoved it in Corporal Taylor’s face.
‘Goddammit Taylor, can’t you see Shit-for-Brains is in a state? Here on, you are playing nurse’.
The lift shaft became the focus of operations. Dalton conferred with Wilson as the soldiers split into groups, standing in the dark or wandering through the shelves as if searching for something they’d missed. No one minded Nelson as he wobbled to his feet and shuffled in the direction of the door. Took off his mask and bent down to pick up a steelsaw hidden under some sacking by the wall. Shut and locked the door with a click. Smiled and vanished in a milky haze, impervious to infrared light.
The soldiers looked about. The steelsaw sneered into life.
‘Numbly jumbly’, said Nelson, coming down the aisle. He was into them before anyone knew what was happening.
The troopers outside heard the gunning snarl of the saw, accompanied by a volatile chorus of shrieks, howls, screams and machine-gun fire. They threw themselves against the locked doors. In the command and control room, Wilson struggled to override the manual locking system. Within a space of moments, the doors snapped open, and the soldiers heaved themselves across the threshold. Not one made it into the room. As the doors flew apart, something shot out between them, bowling over the soldiers like kingpins. It bounced off one wall and then the other, all the while showering them in a hail of bullets. Those who survived described it as a translucent bubble or sphere the size of a beach ball, motley-hued in the chromaticity of blood, flesh and semen. There was something folded-up inside the sphere like a pupae or fetus. It cackled as it cut them down. What was truly horrific were the objects protruding from the surface of the sphere. Blossoming forth in all directions was a gory thicket of disembodied hands and limbs clutching automatic weapons that chattered and roared and released their payload until all were spent. By this point, most of the soldiers were either dead or in flight. The sphereoid whirled and spun down the corridor after them, the insane laughter echoing through the station long after the shooting had ceased.
‘General, I think we should go inside’.
Brigadier General Adam Hicks stood on the edge of Station Keres, staring into the Badlands. The sound of the wind turbines ground the air like a squadron of bombers. Plumes of smoke belched from the buildings below. Hicks stared into the middle-distance, eyes empty and unfocused.
From the Operations Center, Hicks had retrieved his military dress blues, adorned with medals from years of service. He hadn’t worn the uniform in fifteen years. It still fit OK, but the wind cut right through it.
The concrete shuddered beneath their feet as the giant hanger doors built into the roof of the station started to edge apart. The service elevator was coming up.
Hicks turned to First Lieutenant Stenson. His peaked cap caught on the wind and sailed over the far edge of the station.
‘Go back to the Operations Center, Stenson. That’s an order’.
‘I’m not sure I’m willing to obey that order, sir. With all respect, I’m not sure you’re in your right mind, sir’.
Hicks looked levelly at his subordinate. ‘Do it for me, Billy. Do it as a friend’.
Stenson hesitated and glanced at the hanger doors. A CA-190 Vampire was emerging from below, its long metal blades singing in the wind. Stenson saluted the General, turned on his heel and departed.
Hicks continued his vigil at the edge of the building. He didn’t acknowledge the footsteps behind him. He did not flinch as the creature moved to his shoulder, leaning close, breathing in his ear.
‘I wanted to kill you last’, it said. ‘The others I enjoyed killing. For you, I feel some tenderness … and respect’.
‘I’ve been waiting for you’, said Hicks.
‘Do not think of me as a friend. I am a creature of judgment now. The others, they played their part and they reaped their reward. The measure of retribution was easy to divine. But you – you refused our gifts. You came here to squander your life in this place. You wallowed in misery and regret’.
‘I have never believed that I deserved a reward for what I did. I’m not sure it was worth the cost’.
The creature stood before him. Hicks looked away.
‘Don’t', he said.
It gestured out into the Badlands. ‘Then look at the world that we have created. Do you see the order, the orchestration, the beauty?
Five hundred miles of plains, rotting urbscapes, empty freeways.
‘Come’, it said. ‘It is time to fly’.
Hicks took its hand and they stepped to the edge of the building. For a moment they stood together, balanced, cradled by the wind. Then they stepped out over the drop.
Only Hicks fell. The creature hovered, riding the wind, looking down at his body with a bitter smile on its lips.