Σάββατο, 1 Ιουνίου 2019

Abigail in the Marshes

Published in Issue 22, Volume 10 of Schlock! Magazine
Reprinted in 
Volume 2, Issue 9 of Schlock! Quarterly magazine 



We’re three days into trudging through the jungles of New Guinea at a snail’s pace when Doctor Wilkiss says:
“She was supposed to be my baby, you know.”
Lieutenant Perez nods, halfway through hacking into a wall of monster ferns. Edington bites, as usual. The Corporal has always been a sucker for a good story.
“Couldn’t find a proper woman to take you on Wilkiss?”
“I’ve had more women than you’ve bedded whores, Edington. But none of them mattered more than Yumie.” Doctor Wilkiss hisses at Edington. “Now there was a woman: pretty as a picture and sharper than a razor blade. The kind of woman that could make a man worthy of her king of the world or bring him crashing down into the dirt, smashing him into a billion pieces along the way.”
“Looking at you right now, I’d say it was the latter.” I say. Doctor Wilkiss’ head snaps toward me, transfixing me with a dirty look. Edington gets a chuckle out of it.
“I’d say Liang’s got a point. You’re not looking too hot, from where I’m standing!”
“Yumie took me in, when she realized my quiet contempt for the world. She pulled me out of the black pit of despair the scientific community had thrown me into. Did you know they made me a Nobel nominee, just to spite me? Dragged me all the way to that pompous, cold hall in Stockholm just to make me watch that dolt Sancar get the prize! Yumie held my hand all the way through, kept me from spitting in their faces.”
“So you retreated in your lair in the boondocks and plotted how to show them all?” I say. Edington cackles like an evil genius straight out of a Z-list horror movie.
“I shall creeate a race ov atomic zupermen, vich vill conquer the vorld!”
“Corproral Edington!” Perez snaps. “Quit quoting Lugosi and get the hell up here! I need you!”
Edington mutters something under his breath and jumps through the foliage, machete in hand. Doctor Wilkiss turns toward me, teeth bared in a wolflike grin. “He’s a good dog, Edington. Are you putting him up for adoption yet?”
“Not until we get him spayed.” I say, barely holding back a smile. From the corner of my eye, I catch the look Wilkiss gives me, the way his eyes dart from my breasts to my face and back again. Perez was right, when he suggested I’d make for a great deterrent. For all his genius, the good doctor can’t help himself when it comes to women with attitude.
***
“What is your name, soldier?” he asks me, while we’re wading through a small clearing, rushing to escape the midday mosquito rush.
“Liang, Private First Class.”
“You’re a little old to be a Private. I’m guessing you were demoted, yes?”
I lean my head down and pop my collar. Even through the layers of Kevlar, the infernal buzz of mosquitoes comes through my helmet. “Pretty much.”
“Where was that, Kabul? No way you’re old enough. Punjab perhaps? There was a lot of belly aching over all those children that the Army doused with white phosphorus. Then again, you could have been in Kaepung. I hear that the South Koreans made all those concentration camps go away, after the war was over.”
“Amguema. The Big Rattle and Roll.” I say, just to get him off my back. I can almost hear Doctor Wilkiss scowling at the mere mention of the name.
“The greatest land battle in history and they name it after a children’s toy. A hundred thousand men and women scorching the earth, soaking the snow with their own blood for an inch of land at a time and we make it into a footnote in our histories. Is that fair?”
“Well, I didn’t get that raw a deal.” I tell the good doctor, flexing my prosthetic arm. I watch with glee as the mosquitoes struggle to break through the flexi-skin sheathe only to find a solid casing of plasteel and wires underneath. “Edington got himself a new spine, too. The Lieutenant’s the only one that didn’t get any cool toys to play with. That’s why we nicknamed him ‘Meatman’, I guess.”
“He’s an ape like all the rest, thrashing in the night against the technological boon. Yumie and I knew that the future lay in intelligent augmentation. She believed that, if we were to manipulate the world into generating bigger, better, stronger adversities, we could fuel a new stage in the evolution of the human race. Of course, I believed her too.”
“You could have just let history run its course.” I say.
“Is that so? Then I believe you could have kept yourself from killing two hundred prisoners of war with nerve gas, too.”
***
“GPS is shot to shit.” Perez informs us, on the sixth day into the green inferno. Looking at the frozen screen, he points southwest toward the distant trail leading back to Tori. “By my account, we’re about a klik off course. Team Wagner is at least twenty kilometers north of here and even if we haul ass, we ain’t gonna make the rendezvous in time.”
“So that’s it? We just missed the big secret lair shootout?” Edington says, kicking at wet dirt.
“What’s important is that we got our target with as little fuss as possible.” Perez says “All we have to do is get him to the extraction point, then piss off back to Manila. This setback’s been a blessing in disguise, if you ask me. I think I speak for all of us when I say that we’ve had our fair share of getting shot at in new and exotic locales.”
“I think Edington’s just salty he won’t get to piss in Doctor Wilkiss’ gene-warping cauldron.” I say. That gets a laugh out of both of them.
“None of them is going to make it that far. The Pair Dadeni wasn’t supposed to be a super-lab.” Doctor Wilkiss says. “It was always intended to serve as a simulated habitat, to ease our new breeds into the wild. We always made sure to keep our projects and notes in our personal laboratories, just to work around the eventuality of knuckle-dragging grunts wrecking our collective efforts.”
“Couldn’t you have bothered with that bit of info when we pulled your ass out of the fire in Tori?” Perez snarls. Doctor Wilkiss waves him away.
“I couldn’t risk having a bunch of Delta drop-outs getting in way of my revenge, Lieutenant. It was never my intention to let my esteemed back-stabbing colleagues go. Not after what they did to Yumie and me. Trust me: not a single one of them has made it back to their respective hide-outs.”
“This isn’t a goddamn comic book, Wilkiss! You can’t just compromise our mission to bunch of hired guns and hope for the best!” Edington snarls.
“Hired guns? Why would I bother with a bunch of thugs, when I have Abigail? She’s far more thorough than any man could ever hope to be.”
Something howls like a woman from the deepest, darkest recesses of the jungle. A flock of striated herons shoots up from the trees and disperses. There’s a moment of stunned silence in the boondocks.
“Sounds like she’s gotten to Doctor Thoreau already. Atta girl.”
***
“What the hell is Abigail?” I ask Doctor Wilkiss at two in the morning, with my gun pressed against his skull. He blinks the sleep out of his eyes and smiles.
“I told you, Private Liang: she is our baby. Mine and Yumie’s proudest achievement.”
“No more of this mad scientist bullshit, Wilkiss.” my prosthetic hand grasps his receding hairs and tugs, with enough force to snap his neck back. “You give me the answers I want or I’ll snap your neck like a twig, swear to God.”
“Abigail is an Utahraptor baseline template, enhanced with certain…traits that we added with Yumie, to make up for the missing links in its damaged DNA. Naturally, we chose the ones we considered would make her the apex predator in an ecosystem where she could be introduced. Please, let me go.”
“What the hell did you put in her, Doctor?”
“Cone snail DNA, just enough to give her the capacity to generate a potent venom. Stonefish synapses, to allow for faster-than-life reflexes. A dash of hyena, to allow her to develop the necessary jaw musculature to chew through anything. It complimented the extra row of teeth she got from the Great White perfectly. Leopards were low on the list, but it allowed Abigail to move in hunting sprints. We added just a smidge of octopus, to account for a capacity to camouflage and limited regeneration. Finally, to make sure she would be smart enough to use these gifts to their fullest extent…” Doctor Wilkiss says, pointing at the hexagonal scar on the side of his head. “We gave her the necessary brain power. Mine and Yumie’s. The capacity for intelligence, coupled with certain antisocial traits. We believed it would make for a great deterrent in controlling her future offspring populations.”
I let go of his head and press my knee against the small of his back. Leaning into him, I whisper: “I told you not to mess with me, Doctor.”
“Believe me, Private Liang, I am not. We made Abigail to last. It’s a shame she killed all of her suitors.” he says, panting. I realize that my manhandling is arousing him, so I let go. Doctor Wilkiss looks up at me, disappointed. “Yumie was the last one to try and beat her into submission. I tried to advise her against it, but you know how that turned out.”
***
“We can’t afford to backtrack, Private.” Perez says, without pausing in his dry-shave. Even in the sweltering heat, he keeps his face nice and neat. Edington pauses in the middle of putting his Daewoo K11 back together.
“You can’t be serious.” Edington says. “For all we know, the mad bastard’s telling the truth! I mean, you saw the shit he had back in his lab, right?”
“All we saw were a bunch of writhing, snapping blobs of nothing that mewled in their cages, Corporal. Not a single one of them was capable of tearing apart a cat, never mind an able-bodied black ops team.”
“What about Yumie, then? What reduced her to a bunch of mince-meat, huh? You said it yourself: whatever tore her apart had to be as big as a Great White, at least!” I say. Perez cleans his razor and sticks it back into his survival kit, before turning to face me.
“We’re at least three days off schedule, Private. By the time we get there, the clean-up team would have gone in and wiped their asses with every single monster in the enclosure. All we need to do is drop off Wilkiss and then get to Bulldog so we can cool our heels in relative peace and quiet. Hell, we probably won’t even get to fire our guns once.”
“Goddamn it Perez, when was the last time you heard from the clean-up team, huh? How do we know that Abigail hasn’t gotten to them? How do we even know we’re going to make it?” I say, my voice tinged with the slightest hint of hysteria. Perez tutts with disgust, before reaching for his radio.
“Team Wagner, this is Valkyrie. What’s your status?”
A gentle hiss of static pours out from the speaker. Perez scowls before trying again.
“Team Wagner, this is Valkyrie, what is your status, over?”
Static again, broken by soft, whistling noises. A soft purr comes from the other end.
“Must be the foliage blocking our signal. We’ll try again once we’re past the ridge.” Perez says, by way of explanation. Edington shoots me a worried glance. “Hands off cocks and on with socks, we’re moving out.”
Somewhere in the distance, something yaps evilly at the sun. The metallic scent of blood and the chemical smell of reptile dung reach us, borne on the eastern wind.
“Sir, yes sir.” I say as I go to fetch Doctor Wilkiss.
***
The sounds of mating tree kangaroos keep me up during my watch. We’re barely a day’s walk away from the rendezvous point and still no response from the cleanup team. Out in the darkness, hunched furry forms are locked in mortal combat over a dying heron. By the time I’ve heard the gentle rustling noise of Doctor Wilkiss’ footsteps, he’s already got the KA-BAR knife pressed against my throat.
“Don’t try to fight back, Liang. I’d hate to have to kill you. There are things that you must know.” his whisper sounds like a viper slithering off its discarded layer of skin. “Abigail is close now, on her way to new pastures. I gather that she’s already had your clean-up team and has developed a taste for warm-blooded omnivores with too much protein in their bloodstream. Chances are she will soon attempt to move to more populated areas. I am about to let go of your mouth. Do not try to scream, or I will slit your throat. Understood?”
I nod, as he lets go. His grip on my shoulders weakens. I can feel him sniffing at my hair, taking in the scent of sweat and the barest whiff of lavender from my last proper shower six days ago.
“What are you going to do? Run off into the jungle? You know we could track you down.”
“I’m not running, Private. I’m off to meet Abigail. All you and your commanding officer have to do is run like hell for two days eastwards. You should reach a small research facility, one that belonged to good old Doctor Ulyanov. He had the entire thing stocked with enough food to survive a nuclear winter. Stay there and make sure you don’t come out until the screaming stops.” he says, as he lets go of me, his knife slowly retreating from my neck, gently caressing the outline of my carotid as it goes.
“What are you going to do? When you find her?”
“What a proper father should do for his unruly children: I am going to give her a long-overdue lesson in humility.”
I’m reaching for my gun, when Doctor Wilkiss strikes me at the side of the head with a rock.
***
“Fucking hell, Liang!” Perez says, kicking at the embers of the extinguished fire pit. Edington is hard at work pretending to fold his knapsack. “How the hell did he get past you?”
“He brained me with a rock, damn it! What’s your excuse?” I hiss. Perez grits his teeth like an angry pit-bull, before turning to Edington.
“Get your shit together. We’re going after the bastard!”
“I think it would be best if we just headed for the Russkie’s hideout.” Edington mutters.
“Please tell me you’re kidding.” Perez snarls.
“Lieutenant, look: we haven’t had any contact with the clean-up team, we’ve lost our target and we’re stuck in the middle of the bloody jungle with a thing that’s straight out of science fiction. I say we cut our losses…” I begin, just as Lieutenant Perez’s boot connects with Edington’s ass.
“Get. Your gear. We’re going after the mad asshole. And if I hear a single thing about that Abigail again I swear to God I’ll…”
In the distance, fire mushrooms out from the tree-tops. The chemical stink of napalm fills the air. Something howls evilly, yapping like a hyena bitch at the peak of her estrus. The boondocks shudder, hammered by monstrous feet. Perez clutches his M27 IAR to his chest, as if looking to it for comfort.
“What was that?” Edington whimpers.
“I think it’s Wilkiss’ idea of a spanking.”
***
We’re heading east toward the bunker, when the next battery of explosions rocks the jungle. An entire hill is enveloped in flames, sending shrapnel flying. In the overwhelming cacophony, I catch a dissonant human shriek. Against my better judgement, I find myself praying that this wasn’t Doctor Wilkiss’ final stand. That Abigail went down in the explosion and that her scaly corpse is sizzling in the hellish heat of an impromptu rainforest fire.
“I think that’s taken care of…” Edington says, just as an ear-splitting roar rebounds all around us.
“It’s getting closer.” I say, barely holding back a whimper.
“Must be around half a kilometer away. It can’t have noticed us, not from this distance. Not with all this smoke.” Perez says, even as his jog is slowly turning into a run.
“Wilkiss said Abigail was part octopus! Maybe it’s got feelers. Maybe it can find us, if it just finds his tracks. We need to burn them.” I say.
“Burn what? The entire goddamn rainforest?” Edington says.
“If we have to.” I say, as I remove my XM25 CDTE from its holster and launch its 25mm incendiary grenade. They were supposed to have been last-resort weapons, intended to eliminate any identifiable traces of our target in the event of a FUBAR. All things considered, this situation wasn’t too far off.
We watch the M14 grenade as it arcs into the sky, falters and finally impacts with the thick carpet of dead leaves underneath, unleashing its thermite payload on detonation. Its flame burns white-hot, enveloping the surrounding trees. Plant matter is reduced to ashes in seconds.
“For fuck’s sake, Liang!” Perez says, but doesn’t stop me. Two more M14s come down, creating a wall of hungry flame.
“Move goddamn it, move!” I howl at them. Thankfully, they begin to haul ass without the slightest signs of protest. Edington jumps like a mountain goat, skipping over tree branches like stepping stones, his rifle held high. Perez grits his teeth as he descends. I count each step, checking my remaining M14 grenades. Just three left. I should make them count.
“I can see a clearing! We just need to reach the clearing…” Edington says, before his voice gets choked out by Perez’s awful howling. I turn around, just in time to see a pair of long-snouted jaws with two rows of pearly white teeth, clamped down around Edington’s waist. The Corporal struggles to free his assault rifle, but the jaws move to and fro, making him flail around like a ragdoll. Stray rounds clip at tree trunks all around us. Perez falls to the ground, struck on the thigh by a stray 5.56mm round. By the time Abigail steps into the mid-morning sunlight, he’s screamed himself hoarse.
Even in her charred and burned state, she is awesome to behold. Six meters of pure muscle, wrapped in a Cretaceous scaled frame with a skin mottled in places. Unnaturally long arms with five fingered, taloned hands clutch at the empty air. Her long snout is crooked, fit to bursting with glistening arrowhead teeth. Her claws, as long as combat knives, clatter as they graze against the bare earth beneath her. Her tail whips viciously in the air as she snaps her head, sending Edington’s upper half soaring through the air in a madcap whirl. Abigail’s eyes turn madly in their sockets, focus as they take in her new prey and I notice the compact black tint of her irises, the all-too-human way in which they squint and bring us into focus.
Abigail opens her mouth and lets out a deep, rumbling purr. Bits of Edington’s legs fall to the ground, ground meat and crushed servos wrapped in torn camo fabric and I can barely keep myself from laughing.
Looks like she chewed into a burrito without taking off the wrapping…
Perez brings his machine-gun to the front and pulls the trigger before I can stop him. High-caliber rounds punch into Abigail’s skin, leaving gushing pockmarks behind. She screeches in outrage before leaping onto the Lieutenant. In the blink of an eye, she has sunk her vicious teeth into his shoulder, tearing at the meat and crunching the bone. By the time I’ve brought up my own rifle, Perez’s arm is dangling from Abigail’s teeth.
“Oh God, oh God, oh God…” Perez is moaning, blood spurting from the ravaged gash where his arm used to be. He reaches out with his remaining hand, tugging at his still-flexing severed fingers, trying to pry his limb away from her teeth as if it were a stolen toy.
I turn and run, bolting for the denser greenery. Perez’s screams die down after a while. There’s a soft, crunching noise as Abigail stuff her face with prime US-Marine-bred meat. When she is finally done, the jungle is quiet, save for the rumbling sound of the thermite-induced wall of flame, spreading ever outward. I pull my rifle tightly against my chest and bite my lip, struggling to still my thumping heart. When that fails, I check my rounds: 3 magazines of AP bullets, three grenades left. I load one into the rifle, praying that I’ll somehow figure out how to make them count.
“Psst. Liang.” the voice coming from the undergrowth makes me jump. Edington’s arm flails around, trying to grasp at my leg. “Help me up, will you?”
I reach down and grasp his arm, pulling him out. A length of optic fibre and hydraulic cable viscera is sprawled out where his legs should be. Edington is spilling blood and coolant from the gash where his legs should be.
“She got a nibble and then spat me out. I think Wilkiss put more Great White in that scaly bitch than he ought to…” Edington says. I try to hold back a giggle, but fail. “Perez is dead, isn’t he?”
“The Meatman has left the building…” I nod. Edington attempts to smile. Blood and Freon dribble out of his lips.
“You’re going to need bait…”
“Corporal, no…”
“You need to draw out that beast, so you can get the drop on it.”
“Please don’t say it…”
“Give me those M14s. if it gets near me again, I could detonate them in her face. Give that bitch a proper suntan.”
“You’re not in a goddamn Rambo movie, you idiot! We don’t even know if that’s going to kill her!”
“It might not, but it sure as hell will give you plenty of time to get away.”
“You’re a dumbass, Edington.” I say, as I grab him by what’s left of his bandolier and prepare to hoist him up. Edington pushes against me, his hand darting for my grenades. His hands tear them out from their holsters. “You dirty little…”
Edington pulls his service revolver from his shoulder holster and fires three shots into the air. Abigail lets out a long, vicious hiss and then comes charging toward us. “Make it count, Private!” Edington grins at me, just as I push him away.
Abigail bursts out from the trees, showering us with stray leaves and splinters. Edington pulls on the trigger once, twice, three times, the small-caliber bullets barely making mosquito-bite wounds on her skin. Abigail opens her mouth wide, snaps her teeth. Edington’s shooting arm is gone in the blink of an eye. By the time Edington has released the M14s’ safety pins, Abigail has jumped ten feet into the air and straight into my path. The Corporal disappears in a blinding flash of hungry light, reduced to ashes.
I pull the trigger, watching the first rounds poke holes across Abigail’s skin. She begins to bob and weave around me, dancing around my pointed gun. From the corner of my eye, I see her crouch, ready to make her final pounce. My flesh-hand is numb from the kick-back. I gently press the trigger just as she jumps into the air, leaving herself open. My rifle lets out the awful, tiny klik-klik-klik noise, letting me know that my chamber is empty just as her crooked leg talon rips into my body armor and rakes itself across one of my breasts. The pain is excruciating. Abigail leans into me, her mouth opening wide to reveal a long, milky-white tongue, dripping with venom. I let out a tiny, useless whimper and wonder, for a moment, if perhaps she had coated her claws with venom beforehand.
Dead before I hit the ground. Now that would be nice.
Abigail takes me in with her eyes, divides me into bite-sized portions with lightning-quick calculations. Her taloned hands rip and tear at my armor. Her leg pins down my flesh arm and then twists so it breaks my arm in three places. Pain blossoms in my field of vision, as I bring my augmented arm up her snout, clenching it into a fist. Gritting my teeth, I rev the prosthetic’s engines into overdrive and unleash an accelerated one-inch punch into Abigail’s eye before blacking out.
Something warm and wet splashes against my face. I spit it out, when I come to. Blinking away the pain, I take in the scene:
Abigail, screaming as she clutches at the ruined socket where her eye used to be.
The smell of burnt plastic and the gentle fizzle of useless machinery, coming from my augmented hand.
The familiar weight of the XM25, resting against my leg.
I reach out for it with my flesh arm, but the thing is bent like a crazy straw, all but useless. Rolling out of Abigail’s stomping path, I grasp the rifle with my prosthetic arm and pull it in. The fingers twitch spasmodically to the motley rhythm of Abigail’s shifting skin color. She yelps and howls, letting out tiny noises that could be words. I wonder if Yumie and Wilkiss ever tried teaching her how to speak. I wouldn’t have put it past the bastards.
Abigail turns to me, stomping on the ground, head bent low. She’s mad enough not to care about the rifle. She doesn’t bother with the complexities of dodging anything I throw at her. Her monstrous tongue whips out and lashes at my chest, smacking against the armor underneath. Poison hisses against layers of Kevlar. Her mouth opens wide, revealing the fleshy grotto of her mouth layered with the neat formation of blood-streaked teeth. Abigail’s breath smells of rotten meat and poppies.    
I pull the trigger, releasing the final M14 grenade into her gullet. The explosion launches me off my feet, makes me roll down into a bed of thick ferns. In front of me, Abigail is breathing out a steady stream of white-hot fire. I watch the flames race up her gums, creating the ridge of her lips before setting her eyes ablaze.
“How do you like that iron oxide burn, you murderous slag?” I scream at her. Abigail coughs and shrieks, as she rolls down on the ground. She’s still kicking, even after the flames have reduced half her head into a mass of burnt skull and charred bone.
***
The extraction team shows up two days’ later, drawn by the looping message broadcast from Doctor Ulyanov’s bunker. By the sounds the combat medic makes when he examines me, I can tell I don’t make for a pretty sight.
“Where the hell is Team Wagner? Where’s Wilkiss?” a man in a Balaklava asks me. He still wears his full combat gear, even in the sweltering July heat.
“The Meatman’s gone. Edington’s up in flames. The good doctor’s all smoke and cauldrons.” I mutter. The man in combat gear doesn’t seem to like it, but it’s all I’ve got.
“Get her out of here. And get me General Cho on the phone. I need a burn notice on this place.” he barks at his subordinates. They scatter like blind-sided raccoons. “Goddamn it, what happened here?”
“Abigail…ask Abigail…” I whimper, as the morphine shot pulls me into the dark, dreamless place beyond pain.


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