A man wearing a black wool cap and an overcoat slips through the narrow opening at the gate of a chain-link fence. He ducks into the shadow of a building. The dumpster beside him — labeled Geneticorp Laboratories, BIOHAZARD — exudes a rancid chemical odor that stings his nose. He looks up at the sky full of stars, but sees no moon. The sound of approaching footsteps from around the corner startles him. He crouches still and watches a security guard shuffle along the gate, whistling a tune from a Spectravision commercial. The thief’s heart pounds with fear and agitation as the patrolman casts an idle glance into the shadows. He waits silently until the guard disappears into the night.
The nervous intruder quietly stands up and sneaks over to a small basement window close to the ground. He bends down and looks inside. On the wall of the dark, tiny room, a yellow light blinks on a control panel. A rush of noise fills his ears as a monorail approaches. As it squeals to a stop high on its tracks in the distance, he pulls a maul-hammer out of his coat, and shatters the glass. The light on the panel is now flashing red, but he knows that he has several seconds before the alarm sounds and security is notified. He drops inside and pulls out a knife to pry open the panel. He reaches into his coat for a thermos of freezing liquid and pours it onto the circuitry. Cold, white vapor flows onto the floor, and a cracking sound follows as the temperature of the wiring nears absolute zero. The light stops blinking. Next, he cuts the power cord and rips out the emergency battery. The nerve center of the security system is deactivated.
He cracks open the door and peers into the empty basement hallway. The floor is still damp from when he mopped it before the end of his shift. This observation triggers feelings of depression and then a flow of soiled memories. Of course he is resentful of the long hours, low pay, and undesirable duties of a janitor. He loathes being exposed to toxic chemicals while picking up broken test tubes and wiping up spills left by clumsy scientists. The waves of nausea are compounded by the smells emanating from experimental animals like the unicorns in the engineering lab. He is always scheduled to clean up after the University Ag-fraternity kids have their fun and continually fail to remedy the miserable beasts’ drippy, drooping eyes, glaringly unsymmetrical. He had overheard that they spliced genes in horned goats then bred them to pure-bred horses, but never got the calculations right for fusing the horns together in the middle. Tolerance of such cruelty had been a temperance of hopelessness and excruciating frustration, but this was his only opportunity to get inside and cure society’s disease.
He remembers his sister. They were one year apart in age and inseparable, until her sixteenth birthday, when she was kidnapped and sold to a dealer. He recalls the last time he saw her walking out onto the street with a shopping list in her hand. When he returned from his service in the Marines, Captain Lud was told by his neighbor that she had been seen outside a mansion in the hills. He rushed to see her. He broke into the house and found her, but she didn’t remember him. Reconditioning the minds of the remaining females was notoriously an electro-surgical annihilation. When he saw her owner asleep in bed, he lost control and strangled the old man. For this crime, he was incarcerated for twenty years. In prison, he had lots of time to think over what was wrong with the world and how he could change it.
He also remembers a conversation he overheard between two scientists earlier that week. Growth media extracted from agricultural materials genetically engineered to produce SterileX was used to test for ameiotic sterile females in monoclonal variation studies. One of the researchers found a mutation in the 75th generation cross W, a fertile female embryo resistant to SterileX. Finally, all the years of toiling as a janitor could be redeemed.
He ties a cloth over his face, and steps into the hallway toward the stairs. He ascends past the main level to the second floor and the optic observation lab. Halfway down the hall, he stops at a red fire cabinet on the wall labeled with OPEN ONLY IN CASE OF EMERGENCY, ALARM WILL SOUND.
“Little chance of that,” he remarks as he removes a heavy axe and proceeds down the hall. He stops at a solid wooden door and swings the axe with all his strength at the doorknob. After several loud and powerful blows, the wood cracks and caves in. He is inside the lab. Large microscopes and video monitors clutter the room. A large freezer makes a low humming noise in the back corner. The man takes the empty thermos out of his pocket and unscrews the cap. He places it in a sink under running water. The water crystallizes, and then begins to thaw. He opens the freezer door and searches for the mutant embryo. On the bottom shelf he finds a canister labeled 75-W XX R. His eyes open wide as he drops a vial from the canister into the cool water in the thermos and seals the cap. In a flash, he’s running for the stairs.
As he reaches the end of the hall, a door slams downstairs. Shock takes hold of his reflexes, and he cannot move. In a desperate moment, he recalls his first girlfriend, a wild and sneaky girl nicknamed “Critter”, who frequently stayed overnight with his sister. She slipped into his bedroom to tease him, while his parents were sleeping. She was always in trouble for skipping school and running away from her parents. In tight situations, he always found comfort in memories of her quick, lithe movements, and her silly tie-died ponytail colored like raccoon fur. He often fantasized about her surviving on the streets and on her own, free from the horrors of civilized modern society. She had been expelled from school, and left town soon before his sister was kidnapped. It wasn’t much of a surprise, anyway. His heart starts beating again, as he recalls the intense warmth and electric touches they shared through cold nights. Two sets of footsteps are tapping towards the stairs on the hard tile floor below. He hears a voice.
“You check upstairs, and I’ll look down here,” one of the guards commands. Outside the window, he sees another patrolman on the ground is crawling into the alarm control room. A motorcycle is parked at the gate with the headlights left on and the motor running. He tucks the thermos bottle into the inside pocket of his trench coat. As one of the guards turns up the stairway, the thief crashes through the window and leaps into the dumpster. Luckily, he lands on a bag of disposed paper, but a shard of broken glassware slices deep into his calf as he tries to stand. A paper towel covered with orange, viscous liquid soaks into his wound while he climbs over the metal frame. His leg burns so intensely that he momentarily convulses and falls to the pavement. Shots fired from the window above and shouts from the basement immediately revive him. He grasps for the thermos bottle, finds it secure in his pocket, and bolts for the motorbike.
Lud shifts into gear and speeds away toward the city lights. He pulls his black wool cap down over his ears as he races through the cold night. He switches off the bike’s lights and looks in the side mirror. Two sets of headlights are approaching in the distance. He turns through a maze of factories and warehouses that rise like monoliths against the twinkling stars. Except for the roar of his motor, the night is still and silent. He sees an inbound train nearing the station not far ahead, so he turns down an alley parallel to the tracks. As he begins to accelerate, a yellow cargo truck pulls out of a garage door in front of him to block his path. He skids to the side and jumps off his seat onto the pavement. The bike hits the curb and flips. The bolt on the front fork sheers. A spinning wheel tumbles towards the truck, and the fork snaps upon impact with a brick wall.
The man stumbles to a halt and looks around. A shrill voice is cackling from a window above, and two silhouettes are running at him. They are tall and slender and carrying sticks or metal pipes, and both have long, spiked hair. The thief isn’t large or strong, but after 20 years in prison and training in the Marines, he isn’t really worried about the two gutter punks approaching. As he pulls out his hammer, a bottle thrown from above shatters hard against his cranium. The stars fade as he slips into unconsciousness.
* * *
Captain Lud feels warm, trickling blood running down both cheeks and out of his ears from the shock of a blast. He grabs the iron rail beside him as a giant wave crashes over the deck. Another vessel is blasted and brilliantly illuminates the night. Cannons fire from the shoreline of the bay in three directions. Captain Lud wipes his face with his wool cap. He grabs a seaman by the arms and turns him around. The sunken eyes of the corpse stare back at him through a face embedded with shrapnel. He pushes the bulky mass aside as he climbs into the antiaircraft controls. A satellite image appears on the monitor. Defending aircraft are approaching from the north at 2000 meters. The captain aims and fires on the enemy, destroying one of two recon planes. As the water rises above his ankles, he is aware of his impending doom. He recalls the sudden explosion that penetrated the underbelly of his destroyer just as he climbed on deck to help man the guns after heavy shelling. The rest of the crew was drowning as the water rushed in. The weary survivor shoots off a flare and leaps into the murky, warm bay. His head bobs up and down in the waves. Salt water stings his eyes and ears.
* * *
He awakens soaking wet. Lud sees a scrawny juvenile standing over him, holding a dripping, empty pail.
“What’s in the thermos, bucco?” snarls the youth.
“Nothing but the future of the human race,” Lud murmurs. “Please, what time is it?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know,” whines the derelict. “What future?”
“What do you know about history? Get much of that in school?” Lud rhetorically questions. The vacant, pathetic, inquisitive faces of the punks now encroaching on him cause him to chuckle. “Don’t let that bother you. I don’t think anyone your age knows the truth about the past. I need your help, so listen carefully.
“Long ago, this was a peaceful planet. The two continents were rich with resources, and sailors spanned the oceans in trade vessels. As the populations grew, the differences between the races intensified. The geography that forced the continents to cooperate began driving them apart. Our industrialized landmass depended more heavily on the agricultural lands overseas. Forces of nationalism overcame the love of peace, and alliances were broken. It started with a ban on immigration. Hatred and war soon followed. Until a few years ago, the war continued with brutal raids on enemy ports and piracy. The planet was in a stalemate. The agricultural lands were highly contested. Our weapons and technology faced off against their masses. Starvation-anxiety led my generation to mandate chemical sterilization of women. We entrusted our leaders to control reproduction. The tide turned when our scientists engineered methods of cloning. Geneticorp started with a research grant from the government to clone a race of soldiers. Now, we rule the globe with a new race of factory-grown sterile males, and control them with a scarcity of women. Our food is genetically engineered to produce SterileX, blocking female fertility. Natural children aren’t born in occupied lands.”
“So, what’s in the thermos, bucco?” whines a thin, shadowy figure with a painted pony-tail. “We don’t eat market food. They could pinch any of us for passing an entry scanner in the public sector. We live off rats from the sewer and whatever we trawl up at the old harbor on moonless nights, anyway.”
“See for yourself, Critter,” growls a greasy-haired juvenile emerging from a dark corner.
Lud squints at the narrow face of the one named Critter, and stares as the crow’s feet at the corners of her eyes seem to melt away, her eyebrows lift up, and a goofy, wide grin shows off a set of fiendish, pointed teeth that he has seen a hundred times before. Although he is battered and wet, he suddenly feels like he is back in his bed, warm and cuddling with this silly girl. She tucks the thermos into her vest pocket.
“I know you, rascal,” she squeals as she grabs his coat by the collar and lifts him off the smudged floor. “I haven’t seen him since I left school and came out to the coast, but he won’t be any trouble now. Courtney Lud is your sister’s name. Come upstairs and we’ll get you fixed up.”
She starts leading him, slowly and in a daze, towards a ramp along the wall that snakes around a corner to a platform littered with metal drums and crates stacked up with assorted labels from shipping distributors. They freeze as a blast of lights illuminates shrouded window grates, and a loud humming increases to a deafening roar. The air cracks as an ion cannon blasts a hole in the sheet-metal wall. A great convection of wind blows debris up in their faces. Two figures are knocked down, scorched and steaming in the corner where Lud had been. A hovering harrier jet’s blinding array of lights silhouette descending soldiers in thick body armor carrying tube launchers and flashing scanners on their helmets that beam colored, grid patterns through the dusty streets outside the gaping hole in the wall. A man with spiked hair stands up from the rubble in the middle of the room and is blinded by a flash from a helmet as a team of soldiers forms to enter the building.
Critter pulls Lud behind some crates and through a thick, rolling door under the ramp. Two more denizens follow them, then they slam it shut. They jump into a cargo van with no doors, and Critter shoves Lud between the bucket seats into the rear. A bony, long-haired man wipes his bloody brow, takes the wheel, and starts the engine. The other survivor, now wearing a steel hard-hat and mirrored flash goggles, takes the passenger seat and pops open a panel in the dashboard. They crash through a chain linking two corrugated metal bay doors. As they jostle their way through a parking lot filling with patrol cruisers, the passenger flips open a circuit switch inside the panel. A rocket ignites in a tube running through the back of the van. Lud and Critter find themselves once more in an embrace as they kick their bodies away from the hot engine into the armored side-wall. The rocket burns out after about 5 seconds, but they are already a dozen blocks away from the site of the explosions.
They turn into another alley and race towards the monorail support structure. The harrier is roaring behind them as they turn under the tracks. Critter reaches across the rocket engine tube and disconnects the fuel coupler. The passenger jumps into the cargo area on the other side of the tube and grabs another fuel line from under a panel in the floor. As soon as it is connected, he signals the driver to flip the ignition switch again. The van rockets toward the harbor. The driver dodges the columns and ramps along the narrow strip under the tracks. As the fuel burns out, the van passes an overhead monorail approaching the populated outskirts of the city. Critter tilts her head toward Lud and yells into his ear.
“Below where the monorail tracks descend into the underground, there is an entrance to a fallout shelter. We’ll be on foot. Can you run?” she demands and screws her face up sarcastically. She reaches forward and howls as she burns herself disconnecting the fuel line again. They reconnect another one and grab a tank of fuel stowed against the side panel. The rear cargo doors fly open into the refreshing cool night. The harrier can’t be seen above the dense apartment buildings abutting the monorail here, but sirens and scanners are flashing all around the base of the structure. People are crowding at the monorail entrance ramp where guards are closing off access. Critter snatches Lud’s cap and stuffs it into the spout of the fuel tank. She drops it flaming out the back door as they crash through the entrance to the underground shelter. The front of the van is in flames too. They drop out onto the floor in the dark as the driver ignites the rocket for the last time and the van smashes through the far wall of the great storeroom and blasts down a shaft, where it explodes. The flames at the entrance illuminate the four strangely dressed, sprawled-out figures on the floor. The blood-soaked man who was driving rushes over to the far wall and motions for the others to follow.
As the exploding van dies down to a pulsing glow in the chasm below, fiery reflections reveal a storm drainage canal. They drop down to sloping walls, and slide through rubble toward the flashing ripples on the water. Echoing sirens and shafts of colored light are penetrating through the gaping wall above. Flames burning off spilled fuel and thick black smoke are filling the chasm with a hazy glow that outlines a side tunnel downstream where they can swim across.
Critter jumps in the water, then the others follow. The current is strong, and the water is cold, but they climb safely out on the other side. Flares penetrate the gloom far behind them, and shouting voices follow. Dripping wet and freezing, the four fugitives run down a side tunnel towards a light on the wall ahead. Below the light, there is a manhole cover. Lud pops it open and descends first. Critter waits and pats the bloody matted heads of her friends as they shiver, climbing down into the cold rush of air. She checks the pocket in her vest for the contents. As she tilts the shaft access cover overhead, she waits and listens to the faraway din. She sees a blinking indicator light flashing below the lamp on the tunnel wall. The rim makes a muffled clinking sound as the cover comes to rest above. Heavy breaths and scuffing boot sounds reverberate in the ladder shaft. Dim lights glow at intervals along the side of the shaft.
Critter wonders what is so important about the contents of this thermos, and why she feels so familiar in the midst of this living chaos. She always feels safer at the desperate edge of her existence, away from authorities and surviving, while so many other girls are taken and done away with.
“Have you ever considered in-vitro fertilization, Critter?” echoes upwards through the shaft. Without waiting for a response, Lud awkwardly explains: “I’m not much of a father figure, but the SterileX resistant, cryogenically preserved embryo you’re carrying needs to be injected immediately. I stole the vial from Geneticorp Laboratories, where I’ve been working. That’s why they’re chasing us. It’s too late to bring it to a fertility clinic where we could clone the embryo. The genetic damage that has been done to agriculture will disrupt human breeding no matter what we do.”
“It sounds like a wiener,” chuckles Critter.
* * *
A thin, square-shouldered man in a shiny, brown padded chair and wearing a black suit with red insignia spelling out GLOBAL MILITARY POLICE reaches for his mug of coffee and hears the telephone bleeping loudly on the corner of the synthetic wood desktop. Across from him sits a tall officer with a broad chest and wearing a navy blue uniform covered with medals, cords, and badges. Irritated by the noise, he stretches across piles of reports and rattles the receiver off its rest, strongly tempted to push the speaker button, but worried about the nature of the disturbance.
A nasal young voice worms into his ear from the other end: “Colonel Klinkenhorn, this is Captain Hetzer, Municipal Police. We’ve detected four intruders in tunnel 42 approaching an abandoned aircraft assembly facility. The scans resemble Lud. They seem to be dropping out of a ventilation shaft leading out into a sewer in the harbor sector.”
“I know he’ll be looking for some transportation,” the Colonel remarks. “Send in the robots you’ve been bragging about. Call the techs… and I want a projection for the Commander! Evacuate the facilities down there,” blasts the Colonel. He rams the receiver back into its rest. Looking up at the commander, he adds “Leave some nutri-sol paks… and thermal suits for the high-pressure shafts. Incognito! Let ‘em have some fun with the toys. Our boy has been through quite a ruckus already in the clink and all.”
After giving the last orders, He slurps down a healthy dose of the murky brown liquid. An anesthetic tingling spreads through his chest and rises up into his ears, as he settles into a delighted haze of warm excitement. His eyebrows lift in the middle, revealing a boyish and almost dopey expression of relief. The fuzzy feeling grows and his forehead wrinkles as he hopes for a satisfying end to a tired and miserable state of affairs. The Naval Commander squints and tightens his jaw, still considering the danger of defying the politicians and their cronies at Geneticorp. He was summoned by the Police Colonel soon after Lud was identified as the burglar. He recalls cadets Klinkenhorn and Lud were roommates while he was at the Naval Training Facility during the war. Now, he is in charge of the Naval Command Station at the harbor. Anxiety is washed away by a rush of confusion.
There never was an authority in government that didn’t demand secrecy and repression. Naval officers were not to speak for fear of surprise attack from any direction. The Commander was drilled in meteorology and astronomy before the war, when there was still a formal education system. The old professors were so grave about espionage that the unknown was not pursued. One of the Commander’s classmates was once reprimanded for trying to replicate an experiment that he found during an independent study report. The old Admiral leading the seminar seemed unduly upset at the student’s research proposal, involving methods to calculate the radius of the earth using micro-effects of gravity on circuitry based on a similar report using giant pendula at variable latitudes. The earth’s radius was known. The student was dismissed immediately and never seen again. According to rumors, another officer was previously dismissed from the Academy for speculating why large areas of the map were blanked out of the radar where there was low, rumbling thunder but no lightning. His theory, described in the Academy locker room, involved UFOs and a global moratorium on their discovery. Supposedly, his idea came to him while under 10 atmospheres of pressure during a diving exercise. What nonsense! He was found floating face-down in the ice of a frozen drainage ditch months later.
A thought recurs to the Commander. The belief that there is more to the world than what’s published in books is unheard of. Populated lands not found on maps could be ruled by overlords of creation that set us in motion like clockwork. But, there is no room for such intelligent fantasy in cultural media, especially for military officers. Their lives are as pure and forbidding as the SterileX broth in the often-advertised test tubes from Geneticorp Laboratories. *
About the author: Edward R. Heard, M.S., has been published often by the Mississippi Academy of Sciences and in elementary, junior high, and high school journals.
Story copyright 2011 Edward R. Heard
About the artist: Romeo Esparrago dabbles in the fine electronic arts, when he’s not busy terraforming Nibiru.