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 The Only Thing That Counts

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PostSubject: The Only Thing That Counts   Sun Oct 08, 2017 6:26 pm

Chapter six – Malcolm                     

            Double wooden doors with dark circular windows opened up to a small theatre at the end of the passageway. This contained a number of casualties caught unawares, trapped midway in contorted convulsions. A hesitant look at one victim’s face mirrored the intense agony experienced at the point of death. His stomach churned. Why? What? The questions could hardly form; his mind was in turmoil.

            After a quick survey, Steve retraced his steps. A dull thud in the kitchen caused Steve to check his movement. Straining to hear through the restrictive suit he edged to the doorway. Inside he heard a scuffling and muffled sounds. Heart thumping, he cracked the door open, slowly pushing it back to get a better view. Inside he saw a slight, uniformed soldier in fatigues and cap who turned, instantly alerted to Steve’s presence. Grabbing a large pot, the soldier launched an attack on Steve. As the pot arced dangerously toward his head, Steve dived low, partly as self-preservation but mostly because it was the only direction he could strike to thwart his opponent. His body crunched into the lower torso of his assailant. The pot glanced harmlessly off his back as the impact of his shoulder resulted in high pitched exhalation from the soldier’s lungs. His lunge drove them, welded together, toward the ovens. Enmeshed, the two bodies collided on the floor with their combined weight totally winding the hapless antagonist.

            Sitting atop, Steve pinned the arms of the soldier down. He gazed through the face plate of the suit and realised the soldier was barely more than a boy. His cap had dislodged to reveal close cropped blond hair. The boy’s body beneath Steve was limp from the blow he received when his head hit the floor. He was unusually cold to the touch and his uniform was damp. Steve wondered how he had survived the murderous virus. Or perhaps he had been involved in its dissemination. It was possible that it was now safe to breathe the air but Steve still hesitated at removing the suit.

            The rasping, gasping, struggling form began to squirm as he slowly came to. The soldier was gaining consciousness and fearfully started flailing as he recognised his predicament. Steve restrained him as much as he could and yelled.

“Stop! I just want to talk. I’m not going to hurt you.” His voice reverberated inside the suit. The youth settled down and Steve spoke again.

“Who are you? What’s your name?”

At first he looked at Steve suspiciously, but when Steve repeated the questions, he seemed to calm down as if he understood for the first time.

“Corporal Malcolm Stewart, sir,” he replied groggily.

“Look Malcolm, I want to help. I just want to talk.” Steve got off him and he struggled up. He looked apprehensively at him with piercing green eyes and had a quizzical expression on his boyish face. He stood shakily trying to assess his options. His eyes were darting suspiciously to and fro from Steve to the doorways, around the kitchen and back to Steve.

“You’re with them aren’t you? You’re wearing protective gear.” Malcolm viewed him warily. It occurred to Steve then that maybe Malcolm was probably an innocent survivor and the fact that he was still alive again suggested that the risk of infection had passed. Nevertheless he was still loath to expose himself to the possibility just yet.

“I’m not with anyone. I’m here to help. My name’s Steve.” He again spoke loudly.

“Do I look like I mean you any harm?”

Malcolm nodded in reply.

“Okay, silly question.”

            He gasped a little thinking himself still short of breath from the tussle they had, he tried to breathe deeply. “How did you escape?” he rasped finding his breathing even more laboured. Sensing his distress Malcolm lurched shakily toward the door. Steve immediately tackled him again, taking him waist high and riding him into the floor. There was a pained grunt as they both thudded onto the hard tiles. His battered victim moaned as he positioned himself on the young man’s chest.

“I don’t want to hurt you,” he croaked, “just talk...” he squeaked. Still sitting astride the hapless serviceman Steve shook his head panting at the thick stuffy air in the suit. It was then he realised that his air supply had run out. Quickly he removed the headpiece and gulped the air. He gave a sheepish grin to Malcolm.

“...Ran out of air,” he said pointing to the suit before raising himself up and stepping out of the airtight clothing.

            He had no choice now but to hope it was okay to expose himself to the suspect air. Malcolm relaxed visibly when he determined that Steve wasn’t military.

“How did you escape?” he repeated in a more subdued voice, still wheezing to regain some respiratory rhythm.

“Why do you want to know?” he asked still wary.

Steve lowered his voice, “Because...” he faltered, “Because everyone else is dead. You’re the only survivor.”

Malcolm began uncertainly. His examination of Steve seemed to dispel any doubts. “I... I was outside the Laboratory when Tom, one of the technicians rushed out and told me to seal myself away somewhere because someone was releasing the virus. I didn’t know what to do so I thought of the cool-room. I decided to stay inside as long as possible. I wrapped myself in some cook’s clothing but I was still so cold.” Malcolm shivered involuntarily as he related this last detail.

“After a few hours I took a look and saw Harry.” He pointed to the dead cook near the cool-room door. “So I went back in. I kept doing that for as long as I could take it.”

            His eyes were drawn to the prostrate forms of the kitchen staff and one body collapsed over a freezer in the corner. He looked up at Steve his green eyes filling with dismay.

“Are… are they all… are they all dead?”

Steve nodded, “As far as I can tell you’re the only survivor,” he repeated, his voice quavered as he finally put into words the enormity of the massacre.

“No … no, it can’t be,” Malcolm pleaded plaintively. He crumbled onto his knees and shook uncontrollably, his whole body heaving inconsolably as the shock of it set in.

Steve’s eye’s moistened with tears as he started to identify with the horror that Malcolm was experiencing. His friends and acquaintances lay dead. How would he feel if family members or Angela or Jeff, or Jimmy or Jodie were struck down? He tore his mind away from such devastating thoughts, acutely aware that he took his friends for granted.

 The realisation and desolation had immobilised Malcolm, but Steve knew they mustn’t waste any time.

“Are you with me Malcolm?” he tried to get his attention. The corporal nodded numbly. Steve was glad to have an ally but they needed to keep moving. He leant over and pulled him up by the shoulders and gave him a short firm shake.

            “Malcolm we have to get moving. We have to get on top of this.” Steve tried, barely successfully, to be terse. Malcolm responded to his firmness with a slight shaking and shivering spasm. He shuddered with sobs as he buried his face in his arm to dry his eyes and compose himself. Steve knew, if he looked at it objectively, that he didn’t have the time for being sympathetic. It was totally clear, yet he couldn’t restrain himself from pitying him. He also knew that Malcolm had been traumatised by the isolation and cold of the cool room, and the shock of the heinous crime committed against his colleagues and fellow soldiers. Steve thought the atrocity could scar the young man for life and some measure of emotional distress now may lessen the damage done to him. So he allowed him a little time to collect himself. He waited for a few precious minutes while Malcolm battled to gain his composure.

            With a small clearing of his throat Malcolm straightened himself up, leaving a small wet patch on his shirt. He glanced around, distracted, before picking up his cap and putting it on in an effort to assert some self-control. “I’m sorry. I’m supposed to be trained to handle crises.”

“I don’t think anybody could cope with this,” Steve took a quick look around, “but we have to move. I don’t know how much time we have.” He gathered and rolled up the polymer suit, grasped Malcolm’s shoulder to get him moving and then led him to the open door. Steve loped swiftly back the way he had come with the distraught marine in tow. Every now and then Malcolm turned his gaze, irresistibly drawn, as they passed some of the dead. Sometimes he groaned when he recognised someone.

            Steve was now aware of the taint of death in the air. Perhaps it was his imagination as it was not yet forty eight hours since the fatal, invisible miasma had overtaken them.

            “I’ve been down these two,” said Steve indicating the two corridors, “Where does this one lead?” he continued as they started off down the remaining pathway.

“Well, offices and administration first then plant—energy and services—and then the harbour.”

“The harbour?” Steve repeated doubtfully, wondering whether he should be taken literally or if it was a figure of speech or jargon for something else.

“You’ll see,” he replied a little more confidently as he hardened his resolve to deal with the situation.

            As they came to the first of the doorways, Steve halted and turned to Malcolm. “Do you know where Paul’s office is?”

He seemed unsure with his reply, “There was a scientist or engineer along here. Dr Hardin, I think his name was Paul Hardin.”

“Okay, let’s try him. I only know his first name,” Steve explained, and as they climbed stairs to the next level the clunk of each footstep heralded their conspicuous ascent.

“He sent me an email while the virus was being released,” he continued, referring to Paul’s warning and recalling how it had brought him to this point. “That’s why I came. I had to find out for myself.”

Malcolm nodded as he started to piece together what had happened and understand how Steve could be there at all.

            The offices were semi-glassed in cubicles. The second office on that level had the words: ‘Paul Hardin—Environmental Science’ neatly printed on a nameplate. A bullet had shattered a hole in one of the windows surrounding his office Inside a body was slumped on the desk. The air conditioning vent had been jammed with seat cushions and attempts had been made to seal the door with duct tape. The man had a bullet hole through his forehead.  Congealed blood was pooled on the desk.

“Poor guy,” Malcolm uttered lamely, “Is he the one that warned you?”

“Yes, it’s Paul. He’s the one.” Steve had an empty feeling in his stomach and a vacant stare as he recognised the quiet Texan. It wasn’t that long ago that they had quickly established a rapport. Paul and he had quickly built a rapport and now he was gone.

‘I’m in His hands.’ Paul’s words echoed in his head. He tried to recall some of the things they spoke about and, strangely, the most vivid recollection was that aside remark:  ‘The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.’

            His contemplation was interrupted, “Are you alright?” Malcolm, becoming more the corporal, inquired. He placed a hand on Steve’s back and he was jolted back to reality.

 

The computer was still on but locked, waiting for a user password. ‘l…u…n…a…t…i…c’ he entered the password and after some searching he found the files. When the file for the layout of the complex requested a password, he typed in the letters: ‘s…w…o…r…d’ and immediately the file opened.

“Cryptographer extraordinaire,” murmured Steve.

“What?” asked Malcolm.

“Oh, nothing...”  He thrust his data pin into the specialised port and copied it. Steve did the same with any file that looked remotely useful. Once satisfied that he had what he needed he couldn’t resist examining them further.

“Steve we need to go. I don’t think we’re safe here,” this time Malcolm urged, moving to the door and surveying the corridor. He was getting jumpy.

“It seems pretty quiet, just give me a minute.” He located the specifications and details of the whole complex. There unfolding in computer graphics was each of the various layers and sections and many new ones, power centre, engineering, ‘Lunar Transport Bay’ and ‘Harbour’.  He checked the emails and found no record of those to him. Steve assumed that they had been erased.

“Come on Steve, if someone comes we’re stuck up here.”

            He removed his memory device knowing that he could read the files later when there was more time. He was becoming disturbed by Malcolm’s restlessness. The increasing weight of the risk of being in there, the associated worries—the anxiety of not knowing if they were alone, of what to do next—was stressing to the young man.

 “Come on, come on...” Malcolm’s frequent predictions of impending doom with every minute Steve spent there, finally had the desired effect.

            They explored further and found two other victims who had survived the initial threat only to be eliminated by some cold blooded expert, or experts, who had been sent to clear out the centre. Turning at the Power Plant, Steve agreed with his companion’s concern and constant urgings.

“You’re right, we should go. I wish I had time to really explore this place.”

“Let’s just go. We’ve got no idea when they’re coming back.”

Steve conceded the point.  A lot of time had elapsed. They headed out. Pausing at the offices, Steve handed his suit to Malcolm and went back up stairs. He struggled to put Paul’s lifeless body on his shoulder thinking that virology tests may still be possible on the dead virus extant in the body. The thought of giving Paul a decent burial also seemed a good thing. Straining with the effort, he carried the body down the metal staircase.

 

            As they headed toward the capsule there was a loud hissing sound caused by the rushing of air. Someone was arriving. A wave of fear swept over Steve as the mayhem of the past day confronted him again. Had those responsible come back? He couldn’t decide where to go and so stood motionless.

            “Quick! This way…” Malcolm dragged the burdened rescuer back down the corridor. Steve was soon gasping for air and unsuccessfully looked for some concealment. Desperately, he toiled with the weight of Paul’s body on his shoulder. Aching legs became painful with cramps. His gasps were now desperate gulps which he tried unsuccessfully to mute. Proceeding farther than they had come before, they passed through some swinging double doors into a huge rocky cavern. Through the entry Steve could smell the unmistakable tang of sea water. He was now groggy with the strain. Staggering, his muscles agonising and his legs unstable from the effort, he urged himself on.

            Frantically they searched for a hiding place. Malcolm led him as fast as he could along the wharf. Pulling him behind some pallets with stacks of drums and boxes, they crouched, and there they hid. Steve was panting harshly as he dumped Paul’s body on the wooden decking. His body, still overdressed in the overalls, was sweat soaked. His heart was thumping, legs quivering, jelly like and numb from the exertion and the tension of the moment.

            Just when Steve had begun to gain control of his breathing and thought that, maybe, the coast was clear, the doors swung open. Through a narrow gap between the pallets they watched two menacing figures enter. Behind the transparent facemask of the taller of the two a cold, steely glare swept the area. The second interloper held a revolver. He was big and bulky, his size evident, even exaggerated, in the protective clothing. They wore isolation suits similar to Steve’s. Their approach gave Steve reason to believe that they may have been detected. His heart thumped. Malcolm stared anxiously around the confined space and picked up a slat from a broken pallet. Steve looked furiously for a way out. The water, they would have to risk a plunge and swim and hope somehow to avoid those bullets. He gritted his teeth. Maybe a full frontal charge, taking them by surprise if they get close enough. Steve trembled with tension. The creaking of the wharf timbers warned of the nearness of the sinister pair. A long, quiet pause magnified the gentle lapping of the waves against the wharf and for the first time Steve noticed the chatter of a stream splashing into the enclosed cove. Heart palpitating, the extreme pressure of the silent ‘waiting for something to give’ was almost intolerable. Malcolm was crouched low, ready to pounce. Steve breathed a prayer for deliverance.

            Anxious seconds passed as they remained motionless and out of sight. Steve’s heart beat like a drum in his ears. Just on the other side of the storage stack a muffled conversation began. 

“I thought I heard something but it looks quiet. Do you want me to check out the far end?” said the gunman. There was a pause. Steve eased nearer the decking wishing he could squeeze between the planking. The other nodded in answer to the gunman’s query. The two trying to evade detection readied themselves, tense as the footsteps neared the pile on the wharf where they hid. Steve couldn’t look, but he imagined the steely gaze fix on their hiding place. There was a low pitched grinding sound near the end of the wharf.

“It’s just the sub,” said a harsh voice, very close, “Tide must be moving it. Probably what I heard.”

“Yeah, there’s no-one here. We need to check the computers to see if we can find out who else may have been contacted.”

            Steve peered through the pallets thinking they were leaving, but they were still there! The taller one, and apparent leader, went on.

“We have to stem this breach and make a clean start. This place won’t be safe for another few days.” They almost seemed to stare directly at them.

“Shall we see if the sub is still in order?” asked the henchman.

“No, everything looks fine. We’ll have time to clear out this mess when we come back.” The more senior of the two halted temporarily, and then turning he slapped the other lightly on the shoulder and exulted, “Milt, it’s going to happen!” They withdrew back toward the office area. Steve was conscious of his chill, sweat soaked clothing and wobbly knees, and he was still trying to steady his breathing.

            After recovering some of his poise and courage Steve spoke.

“Are you okay?”

Malcolm replied, “I don’t mind admitting I was scared. What about you?”

“I was praying pretty hard just then.”

“Well it worked,” commented Malcolm, then realising that maybe there was something to what he had said, paused.

Steve breathed a word of thanks, and speculated why he didn’t make petitions more often given his upbringing.

“You know, I’m not religious, but I think it did work,” Malcolm observed thoughtfully. He smiled for the first time and his appearance revealed a youthful vigour.

“You don’t have to be religious to pray…” Steve responded but tailed off suddenly feeling unqualified to provide counsel. “We won’t risk going back that way yet,” he said clumsily lifting Paul’s body back over his shoulder. “Let’s check out the dock.”

 

            Steve and Malcolm made their way along the docking area away from the offices. The roof of the huge chamber was a dark volcanic rock. Storage buildings lined the rock wall; bright blue/white light flooded the buildings and the dock area, fading to grey and black at the furthest extent of the void. Near the end of the wharf they found the transport sitting in the inky water. It was a large, sleek finned submersible vessel, bristling with arrays of high tech equipment.

            Walking along a short metallic walkway they boarded the craft. It was unlike any submarine Steve had seen. It was shaped like a snub nosed fighter aircraft, much larger of course, with stunted wings. The shape allowed for a rapid intake of water through twin fluted gills on either side of the glass fronted cockpit into engines that used a water-jet propulsion system. Making their way along a metal grid on the top they passed two water tight access doors and came to a much bigger rounded, oblong pressure door set at about forty five degrees. This was obviously the main entry point. Malcolm turned the locking mechanism and opened it with (what seemed to Steve) unexpected ease. “It’s power assisted,” Malcolm responded, noticing his surprised expression. Steve followed him down a set of stairs, staggering under the load, his legs feeling rubbery from the continuous effort demanded from his muscles. He cast off the body as gently as he could into one of four leather chairs facing the front viewing panels.

            Breathless, he peeled off his overalls, flopped down in another seat and exhaled noisily. “Tell me about this sub Mal, what’s it for?” He looked around struck by the newness and sophistication of the instrumentation.

            Lowering himself into another chair Malcolm replied in a measured tone, “Well it’s one of the transports that supply the bases and transport people to the shuttle launch site.”

“So there’s more than one base?”

The young sailor looked hesitant for a moment before smiling uncomfortably, “I wouldn’t have breathed a word of this a few days ago. It was all top secret. But, then, it was military and I thought it was all about helping the world. That’s all changed now thanks to General Roberts.” He almost hissed the name.

“The tall thin guy we just saw?” Steve looked inquisitively.

He shook his head, “Nah. That was Colonel Ernie, ah ... Ernest Klein. He’s second in command to General Guy Roberts. The General’s in charge of the whole lunar program… was…” he looked a little bewildered, “Looks like he’s hijacked the whole program for his own purposes now.”

“Do you think he’s responsible for all this?”

“He’d have to be. He was in charge. He was the driving force for the whole program. Nobody could do this without him knowing.”

“If he’s still alive...” Steve raised his eyes questioningly. “I mean we don’t know for sure.”

“You think they got to him?”

Steve shrugged, “Who knows who’s responsible. It doesn’t matter. We’ll have to contact the authorities,” Steve said with growing conviction.

            Malcolm looked at him dubiously, “But who? Who’s going to believe us? Who can we trust? It was a very secret program and it looks like Roberts ... or whoever, has eliminated all those not under his control.”

“Regardless of that, I think the local authorities would be interested in any mass murders, secret base or not.” Steve started rummaging through some spring lock draws and, amazingly, located a series of manuals on CDs clearly labelled ‘Program training’, along with informational CDs on the Lunar program, environmental control, water reticulation, artificial Atmosphere systems and Organic systems. He put in as many as he could carry in a small backpack but held the last two aloft.

“Look at these. They’ll believe us when they see these. How lucky are we?”

“Yeah, they show some of those as part of the orientation program when they bring each unit in.”

            Steve walked around the craft contemplating his next move. Malcolm remained in the front and sat in the helmsman’s seat handling some of the steering mechanisms. Unlike any images of submarines that Steve had seen, this vessel had a number of flat computer screens along each side of the lengthy control room. Each screen was coupled with a swivel chair fixed to the floor. There were charts, communications gear, navigation equipment and a series of gauges and controls in a compartment labelled ‘Manual Operation’.  There was a ladder down to the next level which he bypassed and stepped through an open airlock door into a hallway that was flanked by some officers’ cabins. The largest of these was probably the captain’s. It was well fitted with a tiny office, a bedroom and a small bathroom. Next, after stepping through another pressure hatch he came across a common room for the crew, and then the mess and scullery. Each of these had hatches that provided movement between levels.

            The last horizontal pressure hatch was secured. Steve undid it and it opened to a large cargo bay. At the far end there were entry ways leading to another two-level stern section. This storage area accounted for the considerable size of the submarine transport. Going down a vertical ladder he saw an engine room at the rear, but Steve faced away from that, entering the lower level through a hatch and headed back. He went past a power plant with numerous radiation warning symbols, past a room with scuba gear and a pressure compartment used for underwater access, and then into the crew quarters and amenities. Three quarter way along, he climbed back into the control room.

            Malcolm heard his steps and excitedly exclaimed, “We could escape in this sub. Then we wouldn’t have to worry about whether they’re still here or not.” Steve looked at Malcolm trying to work out how serious he was. His own cavalier approach earlier on had almost back-fired a couple of times, and now his thinking was sobered by the threat of discovery. He determined to try and take more measured steps from now on, even though it went against his natural random inclinations. Steve stared vacantly, deep in thought. Escape was essential. And even if Malcolm and he got away, they could still possibly trace him through Paul’s computer and then his life would still be in danger. He shivered. They were in danger now and he was wandering around sightseeing! The evidence of the death and carnage in the complex should convince him that these were very serious people, dangerous, malevolent people—people who didn’t baulk at mass murder.

            Malcolm was watching him. “Are you all right?” he asked, not for the first time.

Steve refocused. “Do you really think you could pilot this thing? Because if you can I don’t think you’ll get any arguments from me. I want to get out of here.” In answer Malcolm turned on the computer and was immediately confronted with a series of options. He checked ‘current location’ and the screen displayed a map with a digital marker which the legend described as ‘computed position’. Steve saw that they were near a fairly well known coastal region. The GPS display recorded ‘NO SIGNAL’ and the ‘digital log’ recorded graphically, and with data tables, numerous previous journeys out to sea!

            He selected ‘Automatic Pilot Departure—cavern base’ from a number of alternatives which also included journeys to various bases including the launch site. Upon pressing the option an alarm sounded. Then a female voice sounded:

There are three pressure hatches open. Inform all personnel of dive procedure. Ensure that all personnel are below deck. When all personnel are accounted for press enter and the pressure hatches will be shut automatically. You cannot proceed until external pressure hatches are closed.

 Steve and Malcolm glanced at one another and Steve raised his eyebrows with a half-smile in appreciation of the artificial intelligence.

            With an exaggerated flourish Malcolm pressed ‘enter’. After a brief interval and the distant sound of pneumatics, a message appeared, ‘Hatches are closed, Press ENTER to proceed with Automatic Pilot Departure program.’ “Here we go!” he exalted, momentarily diverted from the evil of all that had gone before by the sheer adventure of what was happening. The vessel vibrated a little, and then slid silently through the water. A very slight thrum of compressors indicated to Steve that air was being displaced by water in different compartments reducing the buoyancy, so that soon he was experiencing his first submarine journey in a remarkably computerised craft.
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