Astral Chapter 10: Butterflies and Hurricanes

The next morning, Jamie woke up surprised. The giant bed she had been given was comfortable enough that she apparently hadn’t moved at all the night before, yet was not stiff or uncomfortable at all. And Garrison’s wine suggestion had been dead on; she had to have polished off more than half a bottle, but she felt no ill effects, no hangover at all. She was shocked to find it was only seven in the morning and felt completely rested.

She lay in bed for a few minutes, flipping through the channels on her wall. Plenty of it was fascinating, but it was also overwhelming. She would have to make some time to just sit and watch some TV, but she knew there were plans for her today. This morning, she would get to see how her new friends trained in their respective skills, and the afternoon was blocked out so she could sit in her apartment to watch a movie that would bring her up to speed with two thousand years of human history; knowledge that was repressed in McLeod’s worlds.

She managed to crawl out of bed for a long, hot shower, followed by a surprisingly fresh bagel and strong coffee. She felt surprisingly ready when her doorbell rang and Erin stood excitedly outside her room. “Are you ready? You’re going to love this!”

The two friends stopped by a small kiosk that was set up in the entrance to the tree shaped building they lived in and helped themselves to another hot cup of coffee. Outside the building, Erin directed Jamie to a small vehicle reminiscent of a golf cart, except it had no wheels and hovered a few feet off the ground. The ride was, no unsurprisingly, smooth, although it was a bit of a shock that it accelerated quickly but somehow managed to not dump Jamie’s coffee in her lap.

“Inertial dampeners.” Erin explained. “They keep the relative speed inside and outside the same, so you don’t feel the acceleration. It keeps people who travel through space from getting pancaked when the ship speeds up. And keeps coffee in your cup, too.” They travelled through the cherry grove and beyond. They passed a hilly region filled with fields of grain, and ended up in a depression filled with odd structures; obstacle courses, workout equipment, and even gun ranges.

They pulled up to a strange structure; it was easily seventy feet tall, made up of walls and platforms, all open air. The ground surrounding it was the size of half a football field and covered in concrete. Standing near the entrance to the area was a familiar figure in black armor. The entire practice area was surrounded in eight foot tall clear walls. “Transparent alumina.” Erin explained. “It lets us watch him without worry about getting hit by a stray bullet.”

As they walked up to the wall, Garrison turned to face them. “Hello, ladies. Beautiful morning. Perfect to test drive Worm’s latest plugin for Claire.” The faceplate of the armor was up, showing that he did indeed occasionally shave. Jamie glanced over at Erin. “Claire is his armor. She is the artificial intelligence that runs a bulk of the systems so that he can focus on shooting things.” Garrison shrugged at Jamie. “Pretty much.”

Suddenly, Garrison’s attention went to his suit. “They’re coming.” he said excitedly and he shot the women a small salute and ran to a red circle painted on the ground. His face plate slid quickly and quietly shut, and Garrison did a few quick warm ups, hopping up and down in place stretching his arms as if he was wearing loose clothing rather than a head to toe suit of armor. A second later, his pistols were in his hands.to his left, an elevator suddenly erupted from the ground and as the door opened, three skinny robots carrying weapons charged out. Surprisingly, Garrison pointed up at the uppermost platform’s underside. A bright aqua-colored bolt shot from his fist, and upon hitting the bottom of the platform, it turned into an oval of bright blue-green.

Next he pointed toward the ground right in front of the charging robots and fired another bolt. Suddenly, there was a hole in front of the robots. One fell in, and the others dove to the side.To the complete surprise of both women, the robot that fell into the hole fell out of the bottom of the platform, sixty feet in the air. It rolled off a platform below it and then plummeted fifty feet to the concrete. As the other two rolled to their feet, Garrison took a bead on each and simultaneously fired two shots. The gunshots were not as loud as Jamie expected, but both robots jerked and fell down dead, a hole in each of their heads.

Three more elevators rose from the ground, and each ejected four additional robots. Instead of shooting at them, Garrison fired another bolt at the wall behind a platform three stories off the ground, then the other at his feet. He dropped into a roll onto the landing up above and then closed each of the portals. He took aim from above, for just a heartbeat, then began shooting. Jamie had trouble finding her breath; for every muffled pop of Garrison’s pistols, part of a robot, usually something vital, exploded and they fell to the ground, destroyed. Of the dozen that had just entered play, only half remained.

He leaped off the platform, free-falling thirty feet before suddenly shooting a bolt at a ground level wall and another right where he was about to land. Before impacting on the tarmac, he disappeared into the ground and shot straight out of the wall into a roll that bowled over two robots. Without missing a beat, he was on his feet and fired two more shots into each ‘bot, stopping them before they could rise.

He mowed down four more with four more perfectly placed shots. Jamie noticed as the bullets hit the air just above the glass wall, they sizzled. Erin noticed her surprise and explained “When he’s practicing, Garrison uses bullets that are normal in every way, except when they hit a specific frequency, they shatter and burn up harmlessly. It allows him more freedom when he trains and saves us from getting shot or cleaning up after him.” Jamie was still watching him and shaking her head in wonder. Garrison’s movements were fluid, every shot lead to a roll, every roll ended in him firing a bullet, with surgical precision, into a “vital” part of the robots.

Another voice came from behind Jamie, startling her, so wrapped up in Garrison’s display was she. “We recycle the robots. Don’t feel bad for them, they know how to fight, but they aren’t built with any personality or anything.” Gerrod had the same gentle, happy smile he’d worn the night before, only instead of the comfortable clothes he had worn the night before, he was covered in armor made of the same shiny reflective metal his arms and legs were made of. While made of interlocking plates, it moved fluidly with him like some sort of oversized crustacean. His eyes were obscured by a shaded visor that fit over his nose like a pair of embedded sunglasses.

When she jumped, he put his hand to his mouth, and though he was still smiling, he said “Oh, goodness, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to startle you. I forget that he isn’t old hat to everyone here!” Gerrod shouted the last half of the sentence, and Garrison paused and turned to face them. He waved and the front of his helmet opened. He cupped his hand near his mouth and shouted “I love you too, buddy!”

In that second of distraction, the last of the robots came down hard on the top of his helmet with a metal pole that ended in a spiked ball. Gerrod let out a great belly laugh. “That’s gonna leave a mark!” Jamie looked at him, concerned. “Is he okay?” Gerrod guffawed at the question. When he composed himself, eventually, he pointed at Garrison. “Sorry, yes, see for yourself.”

Garrison fired another bolt up to the top of the structure again, and spun just as the robot swung at his head again. His faceplate slid shut and Garrison spun and blocked the swipe with an upraised arm, then brought his elbow into the robot’s face. A split second later, he fired the second aqua bolt at their feet, and the two of them were free-falling seven stories. He expertly fired the second bolt again, repositioning the portal right about where they were going to land, and then simply disappeared. The robot, however, caught a foot on the tarmac as it fell into the hole, and once again emerged from the top of the structure, this time spinning wildly and flying at a much more gradual angle, to land, rolling, outside the practice area wall, sailing a full four feet over the top of it.

Without a second’s hesitation, the robot crawled to its feet, grabbed its weapon and ran straight for the entrance of the practice arena. Garrison materialized in the center of it, and just stood as it barreled toward him. The entrance snapped open as the mechanical humanoid passed the motion sensor, and it ran with all speed directly at the unarmed man. Up came the weapon, the robot leaped, bending almost in half backwards as it prepared to snap down on Garrison’s head. At the last moment, Garrison’s hand snapped up and one of his pistols was in it. As the door closed behind the ‘bot, garrison fired his gun. The weapon swung over him, carried by its head’s momentum, but the robot stopped in midair, the bullet’s blast through the face stealing its forward momentum. The bullet stopped dead at the now closed door.


 

Dr. Gustav, that’s what the others called him. A brilliant scientist, a doctor of medicine, biology and genetics, and as ruthless as his namesake ancestor, Doctor Paul Joseph Goebbels. Dr. Gustav was waiting for the first reports of Phase Two to come trickling in.

Phase One was the assault; Mcleod and Prosek’s overwhelming attack on over two hundred world. Phase two was Goebbels ‘ baby, his bread and butter. He had been delighted when the Copeland woman’s revision of their strategy had included the addition of one of his pet projects; he preferred the technical name for it, The Necrotic Reanimation Protist, NRP. Everyone else called it the “Zombie Parasite”, or worse, “Zombie Virus.” He sneered at the thought of the last one. Sure, he’d engineered several viruses, including the one that ate the Stryker’s and one that he had tested on a freelance spec-ops team years before, but the NRP was his masterpiece.

He had decided on a protist because of their resilience. Bacteria could be defeated by anti-biotics, and viruses could be immunized against, but protozoans were another thing entirely. Diseases like Malaria and Chagas were caused by protists are were effectively incurable death sentences. They were not affected by traditional cures since they were less an infection and more an infestation, living in the blood like they would a pond.

Dr. Gustav had selected to modify an amoeba called Naegleria fowleri, previously known as the “brain eating amoeba.” It was a relatively rare protozoan that could attack the central nervous system of a human being, and had a 98% fatality rate, even with modern medicine. Gustav’s version was much much worse.

NRP still attacked the host’s nervous system, causing a vicious fever that lasted several hours before killing the host, usually a result of heart failure or encephalitis. This was a result of the protists rapidly multiplying in the skull, largely in the medulla oblongata and limbic system, but also in the salivary glands. In a matter of minutes, or in some rare cases hours, the corpse of the victim would reanimate. Since he was able to target precisely what behaviors he wanted, Gustav had designed the protist to turn the victim into a ravening ghoul that would stalk any living thing and eat it.

The amoeba was also designed to be hearty; exposure to light, air and heat had to be prolonged in order to kill it, meaning that shooting a “zombie” exposed those near it to infection; any contamination of bodily fluids was enough to spread it. He had been called “The maker of Monsters” and “Dr Frankenstein”, and not without good reason. Much of his inspiration for his creations came from Gothic horror like Mary Shelley’s opus; and George A Romero and Max Brooks had provided him with the inspiration for the NRP.

When any infected, or “zombie”, bit another person, they spread the infestation to them, dooming them to the same fate. True to form, the zombies could only be killed with a shot to the head, since the brain was effectively hotwired like a stalled car, but still necessary to drive the corpse. The zombies were not eternal, they would eventually rot away, but the psychological effect they had on McLeod’s opponents would be devastating.

Dr. Gustav rubbed a hand on his bald head then removed his round-lensed glasses and cleaned them. As he put them back on, he hunched over his monitors, waiting for the first message, and the first live feed of his engineered Armageddon. Dr Gustav was a tall, slender man. Wiry and thin, he ate little because it distracted him from his work. He rarely bothered with things like shaving or bathing, having reengineered his DNA to stunt his facial hair and preparation. He was never without his lab coat, its many pockets stuffed with the equipment and instruments of his dark work. Large canisters of a solution containing the amoeba were loaded into the ships that escorted several of the Crown Of Thorns assault frigates that were the spearhead of the attack that started the war. These canisters would spray the aerosolized solution over crowds of POWs that had been rounded up after the initial strikes, who would then be loaded onto cargo ships to be used to attack other planets.

One of his assistants knocked softly on his doorway. “Dr., the others were wondering if we had received word yet.” He tensed; he preferred to be alone, but he understood the importance of keeping up his crew’s morale. The less likely they thought it was that they would wind up as experiment fodder, the more efficient they were. “Not yet, but hurry.” The assistant turned to run and tell the others, but Gustav halted him with a quick shout “Vasily!”

The assistant’s spectacled head popped around the door jamb. “Have Kirkland open the bar and bring us champagne and vodka. Tonight, we celebrate our victory and greatest achievement!” He punctuated the last statement with a raised fist. Vasily nodded with a grin and ran off.

No sooner had he looked back at his monitor than he saw an alert that he had a message from none other than Prosek himself. The subject line read “As requested; live feeds from ground zero.”

Dr Gustav Goebbels tapped his touch screen and directed the incoming feeds to a single large monitor that covered the wall in front of him. His smile was genuine this time as he anticipated the return of his crew. Maybe some strong drink and company was just what he needed to properly enjoy this event.


 

Shortly after the last robot fell, Garrison dismissed his guns. He held his hands up, and shouted “Clear!” to indicate he was no longer armed and there was no danger for anyone else. A different type of robot emerged from the elevators, this kind squat with six wheels, and acted like brooms/bulldozers as they policed up the remains of the destroyed ‘bots to ready the practice facility for the next person.

Garrison walked toward the armored glass wall, eschewing the doors, and for a fraction of a second, he disappeared, only to reappear on the other side of the wall, exactly where he would have been expected had there been no wall. Gerrod was walking toward the entrance and shouted over “Show off!” Garrison paused and shouted back “You’re just jealous because you can’t!”

Gerrod laughed. “Oh, right, that’s exactly what it is, ghost man.” Jamie was enjoying their back and forth quite a bit, so she was a little surprised when Gerrod stopped by the entrance to the arena, folded his hands together in front of himself and bowed at the entrance. Garrison saw her expression and explained. “Gerrod is a Buddhist. He takes the taking of any life very seriously, and sees this as a temple to be respected because he is practicing the art of killing in it. He fights only out of necessity when there is no other choice.”

Jamie nodded, appreciating the sentiment. “What about you? He was joking when you were in there.” Garrison smiled, although she could not see it through the featureless black of the front of his helmet. “He does not impose his beliefs on others.”

Jamie nodded and smiled. She could not have wound up around a better group of people. Gerrod sat down on the same spot that Garrison had been standing on when he started. He tucked his legs into the lotus position and sat and meditated for a few minutes. Two elevators rose up and opened, and six robots armed with swords approached the man from either side, three apiece. The lead robots in each group charged him as he sat, serenely on the red circle.

Jamie’s breath caught as they got closer and still he did not move. She tried to calm down; Erin and Garrison seemed at ease, eager even. The first one reached him and swung at his face with a vicious swipe, only to hit nothing but air.

Jamie let out a little yelp, certain she was about to watch the top of Gerrod’s head fall to the ground, but he had unfolded and flattened out onto the ground at the last second. A hidden blade snapped out of his leg past his foot and he swiped the attacking robot’s legs, severing them midway between the foot and knee. As the second robot chopped down at him, he rolled out of the way onto his back, then snapped his feet into the air, throwing himself up and onto even footing. The leg blade was gone, and a second later, compartment in each of his forearms opened and ejected a long blade into each hand.

It was hard to say whether they were long knives or short swords, but each was just over a foot and a half long, with a double edged blade that tapered to a sharp point. As the robot corrected its stance and swung at him again, he blocked it with one blade, then hooked his other arm over the sword and spun quickly around its body, wrenching it from its hand. As Gerrod completed his circuit, he brought his left hand up, flipped the knife so that it was pointing back, and stabbed hard into the robot’s head. It twitched a little before sliding off the blade and falling face first onto the ground.

The other four advanced. Jamie found she was holding her breath, and Erin was squeezing her arm. Every stab or slash that was thrown at Gerrod was either defeated by one of his own blades, or he simply nimbly dodged them delivering a devastating kick or punch that would drop the robot. Any human being fighting Gerrod would likely have several broken bones and no desire to continue on against him. Alas, the robots had no sense of self and merely fought to win. They kept rising, keeping Gerrod in constant motion to avoid being stabbed or cut.

He had managed to throw one into another, but no sooner had they fallen than he was attacked from the front and behind by the other two. He ducked the slash from behind, and brought up both blades to stop an overhead chop from the one in front. The one behind swung again, and this time Gerrod shoved the other’s blade up high, and then with breathtaking speed threw a kick into its midsection, and immediately reversing it and connected solidly with the one behind. Rather than bring his weapons to bear on either opponent, he bent his wrists back, revealing yet another pair of hidden blades, these ones easily two feet long and erupting from where his palm met the inside of his wrist. his left arm punched out and through the head of the robot whose sword he had entangled, and without even looking back, the other swiped across neck level with the other. Both toppled to the ground, one with its head bearing a blade-sized hole straight through it, the other’s head landing next to the rest of its body.

One of the two remaining robots was up and charging, its sword held in both hands building momentum for a powerful strike. Gerrod spun to face it, but released one of his knives as he stopped. The blade spun twice before striking the robot right between the “eyes.” Its head snapped back as it tripped over its own feet and fell on its face.

The last one rose, somehow having gotten a second sword, and it twirled and spun them in front of itself as it advanced. Gerrod stood in a fighting stance, his wrist blades retracted into his arms and his remaining knife folded back against his forearm. He watched the spin of the swords as they got closer. Once the robot was close enough to strike, he burst into action. he stepped inside its swings, closing the space and stealing the advantage of the long blades. He punched it hard in the midsection, the adjusted his angle and brought the same fist up into its “chin.”

He followed the punch with a headbutt that knocked it back, its arms windmilling trying to keep its balance, but also providing it with a small measure of defense. Too small against the likes of Gerrod. He ran up to the machine and delivered a series of kicks, two to the chest and the last to the side. The robot, severely overbalanced, clumsily swung at Gerrod, who stepped outside of, then grabbed its wrist in his right hand and its elbow in the left, turning the swing onto itself and causing it to sever its own left arm at the elbow.

Still holding the wrist in his right hand, he lifted it and spun under it. He used his momentum to drive his left elbow into its chest, buckling the metal. Around it again he spun, this time lining up perfectly right behind it. In a move that showed the sheer power in his silvery limbs, Gerrod wrapped his right arm around the robot’s head, placed left forearm across its back and wrenched its head right off of its neck. The severed head sparked a little just before he dropped it to the ground.


 

Dr Gustav was having a marvelous time. He and his colleagues drank the finest spirits available, several even enjoying a clove cigarette or pipe as they watched nothing less than utter carnage. In some views, hoards of people were standing in long, wrapping lines at internment camps when ships hovered over and sprayed them down, tens of thousands at a time, with the insidious amoebas.

On many others, they were dropped in bombs that exploded a hundred feet or so over street level, releasing a deadly cloud of biological weapons over populations of millions. In still more, Prosek had been kind enough to provide ground level automated cameras to follow those that had been infected as part of the first wave assault. He had stated in the message that he assumed the doctor would like to see the end result of his handiwork sooner rather than later.

These were the screens Gunther focused on. The others seemed to avoid it. They may have had the cold calculative minds necessary to do the type of fundamentally evil work they performed, but seeing its effects on such a massive scale was difficult for them to face. Not for Gustav, though. No, he enjoyed the spectacle. He smiled, a tall shot glass of chilled potato vodka in one hand, a flute of champagne in the other. He deeply inhaled the slowly mixing pipe tobacco and clove smoke. Something about them reminded him of destruction; you could not have smoke without fire, and fire, no matter how small, brought destruction.

Gustav saw himself as a creator of life, but specifically destructive life. Entropy, the death of things, the breaking and ruining… That was his art, and biological warfare was his palette and brushes. He had long ago modified his own body to not feel ill effects from alcohol. He could get inebriated, but he did not get hangovers, so he allowed himself to overindulge. Laughed quietly as an image showed him a woman clutching a small bundle, screaming, trip over a cinder block from a damaged building. He drank in the fear in her eyes as no less than five shambling dead people fell over her and began feasting.

Other screens showed similar carnage, while others showed throngs of people falling down, vomiting uncontrollably, or simply curling up into the fetal position. They had no idea what was going to happen to them, what horror they were going to spread. They just knew something was sprayed on them and made them sick. The protist worked quickly. He could already see some of the people that had fallen down and stop moving start to twitch. A man sat down, crying over what Gustav assumed was his wife. She had been violently ill for a while, then stopped moving. Gustav stood up, leaning forward in anticipation.

“Watch this!” he hissed loudly, and the others joined him, watching the unfolding spectacle. The man held his wife close, cradling her still form over his lap, his arms wrapped around her head. He was rocking back and forth, his shoulders bobbing up and down. Gustav wished they had a sound feed, he would have loved to hear the unfolding drama. His rocking slowed, and they could see a look of confusion crawl over his face. He started to lift his head, to look down at his wife, but suddenly realized he couldn’t.

Within seconds, they could see he was no longer simply trying to sit up, he was screaming and trying to pull away, to shove his wife away with all of his might. He was suddenly released, and his head shot up, his panicked, terrified eyes looked directly at the camera, although he likely was far beyond being aware that it was there. Blood gushed from a ragged hole in his neck, and they could see his wife’s face, stained red as she chewed the piece of his throat and rose to finish him off.

Dr. Gustav was ecstatic, and his excitement was as infectious as the disease he was raining down on half a dozen civilized worlds. He downed the rest of his vodka in one swallow and stalked over to the chilled bottle for a refill. He would remember this night until he died.

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