Final Countdown

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Trena Taylor


“This is it, Private!” Doos shouted, barely audible above the shrill wail that assured them that Shrikes were descending for another attack. It was the almost nasal shriek of atmosphere being sliced wide in the darkening sky by a razor-skinned enemy.

“Three!” Ein called back, slamming her left hand down over his, her right arm useless and secured closely to her body, forearm blackened, having been infected by contact with of a victim of the creatures. She had learned to deal with the pain just as she had so recently learned to accept her commanding officer’s final decision; quickly and of necessity.

This wasn’t her life flashing, just the last 24-hours that had meant the end of it.

*

“Three!… Two!… One!… Happy—”

A happy new year was never wished, as at that moment red lights began to flash and claxons wailed across Fort Devon. And, above the bleating of the alarm, another sound, as if hell had opened its maw and howled its arrival on Earth.

Ein was the greenest Private on the base and immediately threw her back to the wall, eyes wide and bright with fear, as Drill Sergeant called out commands, almost intelligible over the rising din.

“…suited and OUT!” He saw her crouched low against the wall, and she watched as he shouted in her direction. “…your ass up… I’ll put a bullet in it!”

But she couldn’t move, couldn’t stand, certainly couldn’t launch herself into action. His scowl and her own fear and the madness all around had weakened her legs so that their only use was to push her further along the wall and into a dark corner. A moment later, the wall she had leaned against erupted into the room.

Ein hadn’t blinked since sinking to the floor. She watched silently as a sudden rush of charcoal-black shadow sliced past, no through, Drill Sergeant. His severed body fell and she watched his face blacken before it dropped from sight. Another hole had blown out of the wall opposite, the dark apparition having exited as swiftly as it had appeared, air shrieking behind it.

And more walls were blowing in, more officers falling, more walls blowing out. Heads flew, one sailing towards Ein, whose upraised arms protected her from being hit in the face by it. Limbs and bodies fell, all blackening before they hit the floor.

Then sudden silence. Not even cries or whimpers from the wounded. There were none. Every man and woman who had been attacked had been killed instantly.

Ein didn’t move, but dug her nails into her palms, focusing and centering her attention on that pain to keep from calling out, to avoid drawing attention to herself.

“What’s happening?!” she thought. “What IS this?!”

*

Daybreak found Ein huddled in the same position, knees drawn up, making a bony pillow beneath her cheeks. She struggled to her feet, taking in what was left of the hall. No sign of the previous night’s revelry remained. Instead, the room resembled an ashen block of Swiss cheese. Walls, ceiling, even the floor riddled with almost symmetrical holes, as if they had been cut through by massive diamonds. Daylight shone through, she made it to be early afternoon, and Ein made her way over the corpses and limbs, using peripheral vision alone to navigate her way, not wanting to catch sight of another blackened corpse.

Stumbling out into the light of day, she shielded her eyes and shivered in the winter air. Her arm dropped to her side, sore and leaden, as if it had been slept on wrong. All before her were the bodies of the slain. They looked charred, petrified from the inside out. She leaned closer to an unrecognisable victim and reached down.

“Don’t touch it!” a voice called out to her and Ein looked up, head snapping towards the sound. A hulk of a man stood across the courtyard, holding his arms out warningly to her. “Do NOT touch the bodies!”

She looked down again and backed slowly away, almost expecting the cadaver to spring to life, to make a grab for her, to emit that shrill cry that still echoed in her mind, because if the previous night had been real, Ein thought briefly, then damn near anything was possible.

She stood and waited as the man approached her. He loomed over her; must have been seven feet tall.

“Is this real?” she asked, voice rough, sounding foreign to her own ears. “Are you real?”

“Very,” he answered. “I’m Major Gen—. Call me Doos.”

“Major?” Ein was still wary of this perceived reality. “In a tux?” She reached out and forced a hand towards his chest, half expecting it to pass through, half still hoping it was all some horrible dream.

When her hand met solid silk-clad muscle she immediately snapped to attention, even though her arm still felt lame.

“Private Lissa Ein,” she saluted.

Doos frowned at the clumsy salute and knew she was fresh. Had to snap her into shape and quickly. “At ease!” he barked, and, arm falling listlessly to her side, Ein struggled to keep from blinking beneath the sudden hurricane of spittle from her superior officer. “You’re soft, Private! You’re soup sandwich! The one thing you need to know is this! You will do what I tell you! When I tell you! The one thing you need to do is this! What I tell you! When I tell you! Do you understand me, Private?!”

“Yes, sir, Major, sir!” Ein shouted back.

“Doos, Private!” he reminded her.

“Yes, sir, Doos, sir!” was her prompt response.

“First thing you need to do is put on some clothes! You’re out of uniform, Private!”

Ein looked down and caught her breath in surprise. She was still wearing the silver dress from the New Year’s Eve party. Light flashed into her eyes from the sequins, holding her entranced for a moment and taking her back. New Year’s Eve. Party. Shrieking apparitions. Black death. And pain. Pain in her arm now that felt like a white-hot skewer pressing through the bone. She instinctively reached for the arm.

“Don’t touch that!” Doos caught her left wrist. “Unless you want this hand to go the same way.”

“What do you mean?” Ein asked. She looked at the arm, at the source of the pain, a small darkly bruised patch of skin. “It’s a bruise.”

“You’ve touched a body. Can’t touch what a Shrike kills. It’ll rot you down to the bone and keep on eating away until there’s nothing left of you. Until you’re dead. Come on,” Doos said, his voice softening even if his face didn’t. He realised he had just informed the young woman that she was going to die and that it wouldn’t be pretty. “We’ll put something on that arm. At least keep you from infecting any other part of your body. Or me.”

Doos ushered Ein across the base, to the medical unit, where he deftly dressed her arm, binding it tightly against her torso, and found ill-fitting army greens and a pair of socks to protect her feet, as the strappy high heels were inappropriate and inadequate for the current situation. Since no boots were available, the thick socks would safeguard against contact with contaminated bodies.

Ein began changing clothes as soon as Doos handed them to her, as if on autopilot. She was acting rather than thinking, knowing that thinking would only lead to the thought of her own impending death. And how it would feel as, steadily and increasingly, her body withered and became useless. Would it have been better simply to have been butchered during the attack? What if she had never joined the Army? Would she have been safe off the base? A thought made her heart flutter.

“How many of those things are there?” Ein had reckoned that Doos’s complete self-assurance was caused by more than his rank alone. She felt he knew something about what had happened the previous night.

“How many are there?” she asked again, more forcefully. Doos raised a brow. “Did this happen anywhere else? The rest of the world?”

“I don’t know exactly how many there are.” He answered her, a more relaxed drawl entering his voice. “I only know what I needed to know and that ain’t too much, but I’ll tell you this. There is no rest of the world.”

Ein swallowed hard, not knowing if this was military bravado she was hearing in his voice or if he truly meant it.

“Those things slashed through us here and they kept going,” he explained. And they’ll keep going. Until they come back through us, again.”

“Why?” It was the only question she could think to ask and Ein steeled herself to concentrate on every word of his answer, hoping to still her mind and calm her heart, both racing now.

“That information I didn’t need to know,” was his brief reply.

“Well what the hell did you need to know?! You called them something; you do know what they are! What the hell is going on here?” Ein asked him.

“Remember your rank, Private!” Doos reproved her.

“No world, no rank, Doos!” she shouted back. “Tell me!”

He considered her words and her anger. She was soft. If she’d had any decent amount of military background she would have followed his orders, no questions asked. Of course, if Doos himself had had any life outside the military, he might not have so readily accepted what he knew now to be his fate. He would tell her. What was done was obviously already done and what had to be done would be. “I’ll tell you what I know, that’s the best I can do. Come on.” He directed Ein to the door and they made their way to Fourteen-Seven, an off-limits area of the base.

Doos explained, along the way. “You have to consider the very real possibility that everyone you know…everyone…is now dead or dying.”

He looked at Ein to gauge her reaction. She looked so undaunted that Doos knew she hadn’t fully accepted that the situation was global. He continued, pacing his long strides alongside Ein’s shorter ones.

“I don’t know where they came from, if they came from anywhere. I don’t know who made them, if they were actually created. I just know that they’re called Shrikes and no, I don’t know why. I just know that… Look, this is it.” He directed her into a small stark white room. “I need you to help me set this up.”

Doos sat before a small laptop and began to type.

“Good,” he said with a smile, when the machine began to feed him information. “We’ve still got our links up. We can do this.”

“Do what? What are we doing, Doos?” Ein asked.

Doos stood and sat Ein in his chair, saying, “You’ll see some numbers and letters come up on the screen, here,” he pointed. “When you do, you’re going to type them in, here. Just that. Type what you see. But no mistakes. There’s no margin for error. You mess up one code, once, and it’s over for us, you understand, Private? No mistakes.”

“I understand,” she said, and sat waiting for the codes to appear.

Doos settled before a larger console, typing his commands.

“There’s a contingency plan and right now you and I are executing it,” he explained.

Ein continued typing and asked, “What contingency plan?”

“Don’t you talk. Just type. Can’t have you hitting an L when it should have been a 1 on account of you’re talking. Can I assume you can type and listen at the same time?” Moment by moment, his voice was becoming more countrified. Ein knew he couldn’t actually be relaxing under their current conditions, so she assumed his verbal lapse was due to nerves, worry, possibly even fear. If Doos started to crack, what hope had she?

Ein paused and turned to face him. “If that’s levity you’re trying on, don’t. It’s not your size. And if you’re insulting me? Don’t. Maybe my fingers twitch when I’m insulted.” She smiled and resumed her input.

“I have been duly told,” Doos accepted, never once breaking the rhythm of his fingers on the keys, voice steadying out to the nondescript tones she had first heard from him. “What we are doing is programming a succession of satellites around the world. When all are aligned, we initiate their weaponry. That is the contingency plan.”

Ein opened her mouth to ask a question, but was stopped in her tracks.

“Not a word, Private. Type. You got only one arm to use so make the most of it. Before the Shrikes come back and it’s too late.”

His point was well taken and the only sound in the room for the next five hours was the rhythmic tapping of fingers on keys.

*

Codes entered, Doos and Ein sat back, fingers throbbing, eyes raw and itching.

“So, I can talk now?” Ein asked.

“If you have to,” Doos said, swiveling his chair to face her.

“How long before this,” Ein began to ask, gesturing to her pinioned arm, but then struggled to find her words.

“How long before it kills you?” Doos offered.

She nodded her head.

“It won’t,” he said.

Ein stared at him, incredulously, as if he had said, “You’re just dreaming, child.”

“But you said that it eats away until—”

“Yes, I said that and yes, that’s exactly what it does,” Doos said, calmly. “But, that’s not what’s going to kill you.”

“You mean the Shrikes? You don’t think this plan will work, do you?” Ein shuddered at the thought of being torn apart by the creatures.

Doos heard it first. The caterwaul. Time to tell her.

“Shrikes share a similar genetic code to humans. The armaments on the satellites will saturate this planet with a radiation purposely developed to target DNA. Shrike DNA. It will eliminate them all, almost instantaneously.”

Ein nodded her head, trying to ignore the wailing that was growing louder. She had the feeling she wasn’t going to like what Doos was about to say.

“Unfortunately, that particular genetic code is in human DNA, too. They go. We go. That’s the plan,” he finished.

Ein’s eyes had grown wide. “That’s a stupid plan!” She was now shouting above the roar. “Who the hell’s plan was that? We can’t do that!!”

“It’s my orders, Ein, and it’s the only way. The Shrikes will decimate life on Earth. All animal life. At least this way life on Earth will stand a chance! A new start! There’s no time! This is it, Private!”

Doos grabbed the lever, preparing to pull it down.

In that instant, with the wail of the Shrikes pounding in her ear, Ein made her final mark on a world that would not remember her.

“Three!” Ein shouted, hand over his.

“Two!!!” Doos counted, beginning the slow decent of the lever.

They called out together, as the lever hit bottom…

“One!!!!” …

pencil

E-mail: tntaylor101[at]hotmail.com

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