CHALLENGE: PART 4

It's the final week of the Chuck Wendig's terribleminds collaborative challenge, and I've written part IV of an interesting dystopian short story... The Virus. I've included all the parts written by others, everything is [sic] although I made some spelling corrections. My part marks the ending of Lieutenant Weir's mission to the planet. Links to the authors' sites are included at the start of each new part.

THE VIRUS

PART 1 (by Addy)

The battleship jumped out of slip space like a bullet and slowed to a stop in seconds. Before it was the old blue. One of the first planets to be colonised after the 21st century. But this wasn’t a day for history.

Inside the battle ships alarms screamed and red lights flashed. Its crew running to battle stations. The cannons and guns all swivelled and aimed into the planet. On the bottom floor a squad of six were armouring up.

“LISTEN UP LADIES” shouted Lieutenant Weir. A tall woman with short blond hair stood on a steel disk. As she spoke the disk opened up around her. Armour plates lifted by metal arms attached it to her.

“We are dropping into the capitol as briefed. I remind you that this is a level one contamination zone. Do not, I repeat DO NOT remove your helmets, if a civilian can’t be trusted or acts radically put them down. ARE WE CLEAR?”

“YES SIR!” her squad shouted back. Five all wearing the same large bulky armour. Their helmets opened showing their faces. Each one showed confidence and discipline but also fear.

“Good. To drop zones.”

They all did what they were told without hesitation. Lining up at the bulkheads on squares.

“Commander, alpha squad is ready for deployment.”

“Roger that, ship is in position deploy when ready. And good luck” her radio answered.

“Thank you sir. HELMETS DOWN”

In unison the squad members grabbed their helmets and pushed the face plates over their faces. A steel mask with breathing apparatus now in place.

“Count it down gunny”

“Dropping in five!” Gunny’s breathing was heavy on the radio

“4…3…2…1”

The steel squared below them gave way and dropped them out of the ship.

Diving through the atmosphere they spread out. Displays in their headsets showed the trajectory and direction. As well as the distance to the ground.

45,000 meters

40,000

30,000

25,000

Below the city was on fire. As if staring into the pits of hell. Mortar shells and napalm hit the buildings and streets.

“Holy shit!”

“Keep it together Felix.”

“Sorry sir” his voice was filled with panic and static.

15,000 feet

“DEPLOY!”

Out of each member an X detached from their backs, attached by a cord to themselves. The X fired thrusters and acted as a sky crane to lower their descent.

10,000 feet

“DETACH!”

The sky cranes detached and they resumed the drop.

“Prepare to land ladies.”

A large glass building rushed past them as they neared the surface.

“SHIT!”

A giant worm smashed out of the building face, tendrils searching it found its prey. Gunny.

As quick as it arrived it swallowed the marine whole and smashed into the neighbouring building.

“LANDING THRUST NOW!”

They rolled feet first and their boots exploded with flame. Slowing their descent one last time before they smashed onto the ground.

“REPORT”

“Gunny’s got got. I’m good” Sally stated.

“I am good to” Felix said, clearly shaken up.

“I think I’m good lieutenant, but I doubt we will be for long” Danny straightening up.

The fifth raised his hand before taking a coughing fit.

He was choking on his own breath.

“Shit, get a hold of yourself.”

He reached up to take his mask off.

“Do that I kill you now!” The Lieutenant drew her side arm. The Marine froze. Coughed some more and took a deep breath.

“I’m good” he wheezed.

“Thank the gods.” She lowered her weapon. “Sorry guys we are in deep shit, no mourning time. Sally what’s your analysis?”

“That was a mutation, not a final product. Probably local wildlife prior infection. However it means it’s in the ground. Containment zone is shot.”

“OK, I’ll radio in.” she tilted her head and switched channels. “Commander, we lost one marine, the rest landed.”

“Good to hear now what’s the bad news?”

“The infection is worse than previously briefed. The containment field is in jeopardy. Please advise.”

“Carry on to the central tower double time, local government has placed defences there. Download all Intel as previously ordered and then get out, only now you have less time. We are nuking this city in 24 hours.”

“All due respect sir the download needs more time.”

“I will inform the tower about that, but when we were called this infection was two blocks wide, now it’s the city. If we don’t cleanse this city by then the Galactic parliament will destroy the planet. Are we clear?”

“Crystal clear sir. Any idea how it got here?”

“Negative. But it isn’t local. Now do your mission and get out, I’m not losing my best people to this.”

“Yes sir, Lieutenant Weir out” she turned to her squad “you heard, we are on the clock. We will sprint for the objective, we have full authorisation for running gear. Don’t fall behi-“

Ungodly shreiks filled the air as a man, or what used to be one, leaped off a sky scraper and with clawed hands dropped towards them followed by many, many more.

PART TWO (by Eva)

Weir didn’t have time to fire, but her training kicked in. She swung her rifle and it smashed into the husk’s face with a wet crunch and enough force to send it flying back and make her hands go numb for a second.

“Run!” she yelled as the husks closed in on them. She started down the street, jumping over rubble and when a screeching husk jumped in front of her, she blew a hole though its chest.

A few hundred meters away, the central tower loomed. As they neared it, one of the mounted turrets turned towards them and the husks.

Weir’s sensed something wrong. “Duck!” she yelled and threw herself behind the fallen remains of a buildings facade, the rest of the team at her heels.

A shot blasted through the space she had occupied not a moment ago, but at least, she noted with grim satisfaction, it hit one of the husks coming after her. It would seem nobody was controlling the turrets, so they were just shooting at everything that moved.

The husks were behind them and they were unable to get closer to the tower. The bullets sprouting from the turrets were keeping the husks back, but it wouldn’t be long before they would find a way to their hiding spot.

Weir dared a look out and almost had her head blasted off. The central tower was so close, but might as well have been on another planet. There was no way past those turrets. But maybe they could go beneath them.

With a few punches on her wrist, Weir brought up a 3D map of this part of the city. They were in luck; the street they were on had a subway line running under it.

“Get ready to move,” said Weir and grabbed a shell from her belt, a small explosive charge designed to clear inaccessible areas. She looped it over her head, down the street and a moment later there was a sharp crack, more like the sound of thunder than an explosion and small pieces of debris rained down over them.

The blast had punched a neat hole in the ground leading down to the subway tunnel.

“Move!” she shouted and began running, the turrets firing, bullets spraying up concrete all around her.

She jumped into the hole and took a roll as she landed, her squad following. She heard a sharp yell from Danny, looked up and saw Sara grabbing his arm, dragging him the last few feet, before she dumped him unceremoniously into the hole and jumping in after him. They both landed heavily on the ground. Danny giving a grunt of pain.

Weir bent over him to asses the damage. The shot had gone straight into his upper arm, tearing his suit.

“You’ve been exposed,” said Weir quietly. “I’m sorry.” She aimed her rifle at him.

“Wait! I … Just wait,” he said.

She hesitated, but didn’t lower her weapon.

“Just let me … Not like this. Let me die fighting. The husks are going to follow us any moment. I can delay them.”

Weir thought, but only for a moment, before nodding. “Good man,” she said.

She turned to look at the rest of the squad. “Keep moving!” she ordered and they all started running.

A few moments later they heard the first shots behind them. It went on, getting dimmer as they moved away. Then there was the sound of a scream, cut mercifully short.

They reached the subway station right underneath the tower, so far still free of husks. The doors to the building were sealed, but this was why Weir had brought the explosives and it took only a few moments to blast a hole in the door big enough to push through.

Weir went in first, then the rest with Sally last. The large hall they were in was untouched by the destruction raging in the rest of the city. Neither were there any sign of husks.

“Should we seal the doors?” asked Felix.

“Leave them,” answered Weir. “We’ll never get it done properly before the husks get here. We’ll have to get to the control room and secure that, then we can …”

She turned at the sound of a noise, her rifle up and ready to fire, but it was not a husk coming through the door, only a woman wearing the clothes of an office worker. Weir studied the figure carefully but saw no signs of the virus. Maybe she had gotten lucky and the tower had sealed itself before the contamination had gotten inside. But if that was the case, her luck had just run out. Weir shot a glance at the doors they had blasted open and felt a pang of regret. Still, with the city about to be wiped put, it didn’t really make a difference.

“Are you here to save us?” The woman was young, as far as Weir could see. She was trembling slightly, but her voice was steady.

“No,” said Weir, “we’re here to collect data. Where’s the control room?”

“It’s two floors up. You’ll have to take the stairs; there’s no power. Anyway, you can’t get in.”

“Leave that to us. Can you take us there?”

The woman nodded.

“Let's go,” said Weir, with a final look at the opening behind them.

“I’m Lyra,” said the young woman as they started up the stairs.

“Weir. Are there other survivors?”

“About twenty of us. We’re holed up in the room next to the control room. It’s the safest part of the building.”

She wasn’t lying. As they reached the floor the control room was on, Weir saw a glass wall and behind it a group of frightened civilians huddled, among them two small children.

“Blast the staircase,” she told Felix. “We won’t be coming that way again and it will slow down the husks.”

PART THREE (by Toni)

Felix dropped three charges down the stairwell, pausing between each so the damage would reach far down the tower. Weir and the others followed Lyra to the control room. It was locked behind three feet of steel and glass. Their guide sighed as she touched the door.

“We tried to call for help when it happened. Days ago. The lockdown protocols left us powerless.”

Weir readied her plasma arc beam. Emergency doors like this were bulletproof, but the locking mechanism was easy to fry if you knew where to hit.

“Somebody should have been manning this post! If we knew then, we wouldn’t have to…”

She couldn’t say it. Instead, she focused on unlocking the door. The plasma slowly burned a hole two inches from the top right corner. There was a muted clunk as the internal mechanism was disabled. Weir called Sally and Diego forward. They powered up the exoskeleton of their armor, and pried the doors apart.

That was when Weird saw it. The control room had a wide window; ships nearing the city could be sight guided for landing if all else failed. But, the window was shattered.

Weir shouted for them to stop, but the damage was done. The whole level was now contaminated. She whipped her rifle out and pointed it at the girl.

“I’m sorry. Better now than waking up tomorrow with-”

Lyra jumped back with her hands up.

“What are you doing?!”

“You’re contaminated. The husk mutation-”

“We’ve already been exposed. All of us!”

Weir lowered her weapon.

“How is that possible?”

“I don’t… I don’t think it affects younger people. None of us is older than seventeen.”

There’d been far more than twenty kids in the city prior to the event. Even after the husks went on their rampage, there would have been other survivors. There had to be something else. Something about living or working in the tower had inoculated them. Their blood would be even more valuable than the data stored in the tower.

Weir holstered her weapon as her team pried the door open enough to squeeze through. She rested a thickly gloved hand onto Lyra’s shoulder.

“It seems this may have turned into a rescue after all.”

But first, they had to gather as much data as they could from the control room. With only four of them left, and twenty-two hours remaining, they wouldn’t get everything. Weir took the main console.

“Alright, ladies. PLUG IN.”

The armor they wore had a kinetic generator built in. When they walked, it powered up, ready to release on command. All that running from husks had their batteries brimming. Weir attached the generator cable first, then moved on to the data leech. She yanked a winding cord out of her pack and plugged its jagged prongs into the port. A screen popped up in her helmet’s visuals as the download started.

Minutes turned into hours. The armor made standing as easy as lying down – and Weir was pretty sure Felix was asleep in his suit – but she would never get used to being trapped in one place for so long. She’d rather have a good fight any day.

To pass the time, she tried to think of a way to bring at least one of those kids to the battleship. Maybe the scientists could craft a vaccine against the contamination. Nobody knew where it came from; every colony panicked that they would be next.

Lyra sat in a swivel chair next to the broken window. She gaped at the destruction below.

“Do the computers say what caused it? How it made the husks?”

“It might. We don’t analyze. We only collect. The call us in when nobody else can make it.”

She refrained from using the term ‘hopeless cases,’ though that was closest to the truth.

The girl frowned as she slumped sideways. Her voice was a low murmur.

“Why now?”

“Excuse me?”

She turned to Weir and shrugged.

“The virus. It seems odd it would happen now.”

“You’ll have to explain. We don’t get news of the old blue back at base.”

“There was going to be a vote in a couple weeks. It would have been my first time getting to participate. This one was about whether or not we should become and independent planet.”

“That again? The vote never passes.”

“It would have this time! Everybody I know was talking about it. Even our parents. There was a big rally. That night is when people started seeing the husks.”

Weir guessed Lyra and the other survivors were in the tower. But, something didn’t sit well. She decided to press the girl. She set her helmet to record the conversation.

“What can you tell me about that night?”

Lyra explained that she was watching her younger brothers while her parents were at the rally. It was a few blocks away. Close to midnight, there was a feeling like an earthquake throughout the tower. When she turned on the news, everything was in chaos. There was a huge fire, and she caught a glimpse of a husk in the video. She ran to the control room with her brothers, but the lockdown was already in place.

“Since then, we’ve been fighting off those monsters and searching for other survivors. The whole tower’s empty now except for us.”

Weir locked onto the feeling of an earthquake. From the briefing, there’d been no mention of natural disasters. She pulled up a map of the planet’s fault lines. None of them were under the capital. She didn’t know earthquakes, but she did know explosives. Whatever released the virus must have dropped on or very near the tower. With any luck, it had come from a ship in orbit; the data should have a list of all incoming craft.

It wasn’t precisely against orders to check the data they were leeching. Discouraged, and never done by her or any of her squadron, but not forbidden. Weir furrowed her brow. She couldn’t believe she was even contemplating this. But, the story wasn’t right. Not that the kid was lying, but there was something she was missing. Something she hoped the data would clear up.

Her breath stopped short as she opened the files.

PART 4 (by me)

Lieutenant Weir stared at the screen. Her dry eyes burned with tiredness. She had spent hours reading through the data, grilling Lyra about the city and the conditions before and after the virus hit. They were still uploading intel but even what they had so far was enough to draw a disturbing conclusion. The virus wasn’t local, but it was-

“Is there a problem with the transfer?” Her radio crackled. Weir pulled her hands away from the console and looked around. The rest of her team were as they were, still asleep in their suits. “Lieutenant? Is everything alright? Is the data transfer compromised?”

A solid pit massed in Weir’s stomach. Shit. She hadn’t considered they might be monitoring security protocols. They would see a breach in the data flow. “Lieutenant, please respond.” It crackled. Weir flipped back and forth between channels.

“Commander? Commander are you there? Comms are a bit funny. Come in.”

“Weir, is everything alright?”

“Yes sir, data transfer is continuing. There’s been a few glitches but we are on track. Status on the incoming bogie?”

“Deadline’s the same. You have less than five hours to evac.”

“We’ll get as much data as we can. There’s an added complication.” She looked at Lyra and the other survivors. “We have survivors, sir.”

“Repeat that, marine.”

“I said, we have survivors.” Her radio went silent. She pushed on.“Approximately twenty people within control, commander. Two small children. We need a different exit strategy.”

She got no response.

“Sir? Please advise. Sir!” Weir had been a marine long enough to trust her instincts.

She turned to Lyra. “We need to get moving. Gather everyone up.”

A screech of metal mixed with the cry of something not-quite human echoed up the stairwell. “Time to rise and shine, ladies! We need to MOVE, MOVE, MOVE!” Each word accompanied a smack to a marine’s armour. Her three team members roused themselves.

“Data’s still uploading?” Felix noted.

“We’ve done what we can. The drop is happening in less than five hours. We need to figure a way clear with civilian rescue.” They nodded, understanding.

Taking out the staircase had compromised their original escape route. The backup was a zipline to a nearby roof and then a mile-long sprint to the evac location. It was difficult for marines. It would be damn near impossible to do with twenty kids in tow.

Weir left her team to figure out a new plan. She waved Lyra over. “They ready?” She nodded at the huddled group.

“Yes, yes we’re ready.” The girl looked as brave as she could but her eyes betrayed her fear.

“Good. Go help my team. They need to know the routes to our exit coordinates.” Lyra scurried off and Weir turned all her attention to her radio.

“Commander? Commander, come in?” She flipped channels, smacked her palm against the radio, but still nothing. An unsettling idea entered her head and she fought against it. She couldn’t risk losing her nerve now.

“Lieutenant?” Her radio crackled. Weir let out a long breath she hadn’t realised she’d been holding.

“Sir? Sir? Yes, did you receive previous communication?”

“We did, Lieutenant. Just checked, and ah, timeline hasn’t changed. The risk of contamination for civilian bodies is too high. Get the data and get out.”

“Sir,” she looked at the scared faces and out at the destruction of the city. “Confirm orders are to abandon civilian life?”

“No!” Lyra screamed. One of the kids started crying. “You can’t leave us here!” Lyra ran over, beating her fists against Weir’s armoured suit. Felix came over and picked her up. He dragged the screaming girl away.

“Lieutenant, are we leaving them behind?” Diego’s voice gave away what she couldn’t see through his mask.

“Sir, confirm?” Her radio crackled.

“I can confirm Lieutenant. Our top priorities are you and that data.” But not in that order, Weir wanted to add.

“We can’t leave them behind. We can get them out if we go now.” Sally pleaded. Weir stared at the blank masks looking back at her from her team. If she told them it was an order, she knew they would listen.

But this whole thing was wrong. And she was down two good men because of it. She studied the scared and tired faces of the kids. Weir tapped the radio. “Sir, I’m not losing another life today. These civilians were exposed before. We have a route.” Felix nodded. “And we’re headed to the evac site now.” She nodded and her team unplugged from the consoles.

“Repeat that.”

“I said we’re a go, sir.”

“I got that, Weir. About the civilians.”

“They’re fine, sir. Seem to be immune.”

“Alright, Lieutenant,” he replied after a pause. “You get your wish. Get those civilians to safety on a low roof near the tower. We’re coming to get you.” Weir gave a thumbs-up to everyone in the room.

Felix and Diego cheered. Sally hugged Lyra and started getting the other kids ready to go through the open window. Weir motioned for Diego to fire his zipline gun at a building opposite. She pointed at the flat roof under the cable that dangled between the two sites. Diego hooked the gun to the window frame.

“Land there. Take one of them with you.” They didn’t have time to go one by one. Felix went next, carrying the two smallest boys. It took a hell of an effort, but finally only Sally, Lyra and Weir remained.

A scream sounded behind them. Weir’s blood chilled. She looked to see a husk grappling its way onto their level. Its fingers were bloody stumps from the climb up the walls.

“Go!” She shoved Lyra out the window on the makeshift harness.

“Go, sir!” Sally ordered, facing the husk. Weir dove from the window. She heard a scream and glanced back to see Sally and the husk tumbling from the open window.

Weir landed on the flat roof and tumbled forwards, unhooking her harness. In one swift movement, she spun and took a knee. The plasma beam arched through the sky and disintegrated the metal cord. No one else would be coming this way.

A ship flew low over the city towards them. Weir studied the vessel. It didn’t look like an evac. As it got closer, it pulled higher and higher. A bomb dropped.

Time froze. Her team members dove to cover the kids, pulling them away from the roof's edge. Weir stood, staring at the falling nuke and the husks on the streets below. The saying was right, your enemies are always closer to home.