- by Hayden Waller
THE SLUDGY guitar and charging doublekick blared out over the lofi soundsystem as The Exterminator’s ship began its final approach to the planet Altamere. He leaned back in the torn leather pilot’s chair with his space suit unzipped to the chest, propping his bare feet up on the control panel, and cracking open the tab on a cold can of beer. “Full volume!” he hollered, bobbing his head in time with the drums.
The ship’s onboard intelligence, ARNOLD, replied in paternalistic tones. “Sir, I’m afraid I must advise against it. At this amplitude hearing loss is a very serious possibility.”
“Oh, shut up, will ya? I said full volume! Blast that shit!”
ARNOLD sighed and begrudgingly obliged.
The Exterminator hooted with excitement, chugged his beer, and whipped his hair around as the song thumped throughout the cockpit. Outside the porthole window to his right, Altamere’s largest moon was cresting over the top of the ochre planet. The Exterminator closed his eyes and howled as the band’s singer growled out the chorus:
Like wolves, we strike at the bastards’ hearts
And claw at their throats ‘til they bleed
We cherish the moment their souls depart
For they are nothing but weeds
DEVON cut in just as the guitar player launched into a blazing solo, turning the volume down for a moment to make an announcement.
“Arriving at the Altamere Corporate Mining facility in t-minus ten minutes fifty seven seconds.”
The Exterminator groaned and flung the empty can back over his shoulder where it clattered onto the floor with the others. Just then the holoscreen on the control panel chimed, alerting him of a new story on the newsfeed. He opened it up with a lazy wave of his hand and saw that it was a press release from the Cygni B Provincial Government that showed an image of a man with red hair and a glass eye over the words:
WANTED: Considered Armed and Dangerous.
He chuckled to himself and reached down near his feet, pulling out the large wooden chest that he kept tucked under the control panel. Inside were a dozen hyper-realistic silicone masks. He thumbed through them like a stack of records until he found the one with red hair and glass eye.
“Well ol’ buddy, it was quite the run, wasn’t it?”
He held the mask out in front of his face and revelled in a moment of nostalgia before kissing it on the forehead and tossing it onto the overflowing waste bin in the corner of the cockpit. It landed on the old pizza boxes and empty packets of antacids with a wet thud and slid slowly off the mountain of rubbish onto the floor.
“Atmospheric reentry commencing in thirty-five seconds. Sir, please fasten your harness.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” The Exterminator grumbled as he pulled on his boots, zipped up the space suit’s zipper, and buckled the restraints across his round gut. Soon after, the ship plunged into the upper layers of the of the atmosphere and everything started to rattle. Warning messages popped up all over the control panel and a klaxon alarm cried out as flames licked up over the viewport.
“God damnit DEVON can you turn that shit off?” he shouted over the din. The ship was old, but it would hold up. She always did.
When they finally punched through into the troposphere and the ride smoothed out again, he undid the restraints and reached down to select a new mask.
“Hm,” he grumbled as he considered his options, ultimately settling on the pockmarked one with the caterpillar mustache. When he placed it over his face, the delicate circuitry inside guided the material as it molded to the contours of his chin and cheeks. There was a jolt of electricity that made him curse, but the shock was brief, and he could no longer feel the mask at all.
“You have arrived at your destination,” DEVON said as the ship touched down on the surface of Altamere, spouting puffs of coolant into the air and shifting around on its shock absorbers as it settled onto the concrete landing pad.
The Exterminator’s knees creaked as he pushed himself up out of the chair and wandered over to the weapons rack mounted on the wall. At first, he was unsure what to select. His hands danced between a couple different options, but eventually settled a sonic shotgun (which he clipped to his back) and a pair of silver reconnaissance orbs (which he clipped to his belt).
The bay doors opened with a hiss of compressed air and The Exterminator stepped out onto the landing pad. A black-haired woman wearing an air filtration mask and an expensive navy-blue suit with gold trim on the lapels strode towards him, flanked by an armed security detail that appeared to be struggling to match her pace. She extended a hand for him to shake, but somewhere between noticing the mustard stains on his space suit, or his long, unwashed hair, or the grimy disaster of a cockpit behind him, she reconsidered, retracting her outstretched hand and coughing into it before running her hands over the wrinkles in her suit jacket instead.
“Hi. My name is Eldra Smyly. I’m the CFO of the Altamere Mining Corporation,” she said with a forced smile. “You must be the exterminator we hired. If I may ask, where is the rest of your team?”
“Team?” The Exterminator replied, leaning over and spitting on the ground. “Ain’t no team. Just me.”
Eldry Smyly frowned. “Well, hired an extermination service to deal with a Cave Drask infestation. Our mining operation is very extensive, and there are hundreds of kilometers of tunnels. Additionally, Cave Drask are quite dangerous, see we’ve had nine workers disappear over the last month and—”
“Ma’am?” he cut her off, one hand on his belt, the other in the air. “With all due respect, I’m pest control expert here, not you. Believe me when I tell you, I been doing this a mighty long time. Dealt with plenty of Cave Drask, too. Now, I don’t know how far along the infestation is, but if you step aside and let me do my job, I can find out real quick and have the whole thing cleaned up by the end of the day.”
Eldra Smyly folded her arms across her chest and raised her eyebrows. “That seems... impossible, for lack of a better word.”
“I’m damn good at what I do.”
“And quite rude, too. Do you make a habit of speaking to all of your clients this way?”
“No ma’am, I can assure you that most of the time it ain’t necessary.”
As the corporate shuttle carried him over the seemingly endless sea of pit mines, he noted that almost none of the work below seemed to be automated. Swarms of workers in red jumpsuits dotted the landscape below him, pumping acid runoff into open air lakes by hand or operating manual boring machines.
“Utilizing humans for hazardous labor is still legal in the outer rim,” DEVON said to The Exterminator through the earpiece in his mask, as if reading his thoughts.
They passed over a mesa that was covered in what looked like colossal manhole covers, each one about a hundred meters in diameter according to the software in his eyes.
“What are those?” The Exterminator said, tapping on the window glass. “Never seen nothing like them.”
“Uncertain. There is nothing in my files that matches such structures. Would you like me to make a note of them?”
“Yeah, I would.”
Before long the shuttle began its descent. It touched down in front of the cavernous entrance to the underground mine’s primary shaft. The Exterminator stepped out and the shuttle killed its engines. Confused, he leaned his head back in through the doors and said to the empty cockpit, “You don’t have to wait. This could take a while.”
“Orders,” came the synthetic reply and the bay doors slammed shut, nearly shaving the skin off the tip of his nose. The Exterminator cursed and stepped away from the shuttle, grumbling.
Everything was blanketed in a thick orange haze that—even with the mask’s sensory settings significantly dampened—still stung his nose with the smell of sulfur and burnt metal. He was surrounded now by thousands of workers in red jumpsuits and black neck collars filing in and out of the enormous tunnel, all of them hauling crates of hand-boring machines in or straining against thick cables as they pulled carts of black ore out. He noticed that none of them wore respirators to block the noxious pollution, and many of them were coughing up wads of red phlegm.
“DEVON, make a note of that shit too,” he said under his breath.
It was as if he were a ghost as he ventured into the mine shaft; the workers acted as if he were not even there. He attempted to make eye contact with even a single one of them, but they all just stared straight ahead with slack jaws and glassy-eyed expressions. When he was a kilometer into the tunnel, he stopped and took the silver reconnaissance orbs from his hip and pressed the bottom of each of them with his thumb. They buzzed to life, hovering above the palm of his hand.
“Map this place out,” he said aloud. “See what you can find and return back to my location when you’re done. And hey, see if you can’t find out what’s underneath them giant manhole covers.”
“Affirmative,” DEVON replied, and the two drones emitted a soft musical tone and whizzed off at incredible speed.
DEVON would cover more area in an hour than he could hope to cover in a year, so he was now officially just killing time until the drones returned. The Exterminator figured it wouldn’t hurt to do some reconnaissance of his own in the meantime. Maybe he would find something the drones missed. Unlikely, but you never knew.
He scanned around, trying to decide where to start. The mask highlighted a series of small elevator shafts cut into the walls at regular intervals that the drones seemingly sped right on by. Most of them seemed well-used and had a constant flow of worker traffic up and down, but one in particular captured his attention. It appeared neglected and infrequently used, the yellow metal cage showing signs of rust. He stepped onto the grate and wiped a layer of grime off the thick red button on the wall before pressing it. The cart descended then, rattling and rumbling, into the darkness below.
There were no working lights down here. He engaged the mask’s low light setting and stepped out from the elevator car into the middle of a much smaller tunnel that ran in parallel to the main shaft above. Immediately, he understood why the workers had stopped attempting to access this area as the putrid stench of Cave Drask guano punched him in the nose. Coming from somewhere off in the distance were a series of soft, grating shrieks. He cursed as he took the sonic shotgun from his hip and flipped off the safety.
“My analysis of the audio I just received confirms Cave Drask. Source of sound two hundred meters south of current location,” DEVON said in his ear. “Please proceed with extreme caution.”
“Yeah, yeah, you don’t have to tell me twice,” The Exterminator grumbled in reply.
After tapping his temple, his vision became a swirling morass of heat signatures. On the ceiling, two hundred meters to his left as DEVON had said, were two adult Cave Drask slithering around the perimeter of a clutch of eggs. Their thick leathery wings lay tucked against the side of their sturdy torsos as they maneuvered across the ceiling with the help of the natural suction pads on their shins and forearms. They were cooing to each other the way expectant Cave Drask parents do, their long scaly necks shivering and vibrating as they intertwined. Luckily, it appeared they had not sensed his presence yet because these creatures were dangerous. Doubly so when protecting a clutch of eggs.
“I ain’t getting paid enough for this job to actually deal with Cave Drask,” he said. “DEVON, what’s my best move here?”
“There is a high probability you will agitate them if you attempt to travel towards them. However, there is a section of unexplored tunnel in the opposite direction that likely to be safe.”
“Roger,” he said, and started backing away. If he kept his footsteps delicate and his mouth shut, he could avoid an interaction with the beasts. Unfortunately, his heel set down on the inclined surface of a smooth volcanic rock and he lost his balance, tumbling backwards and falling to the ground. The palms of his hands bore the brunt of the impact and a jagged rock sent a bolt of pain up his arm to his brain and, without thinking, he let out of a howl of pain.
Immediately, he realized what he’d done. “Shittt,” he groaned.
The Cave Drask whipped their heads in his direction and produced a series of horrible gurgling shrieks like sounded as if someone were dragging a rock against a pane of glass. One of them stayed behind to protect the eggs, but the other immediately began to slither along the ceiling towards him using its thick, leathery wings to propel itself forward in bursts. The Exterminator scrambled to his feet and began to run. His footsteps echoed through the tunnel as he sprinted with everything he had which admittedly, given his current age and lack of conditioning, was quite underwhelming.
He pulled the sonic shotgun from his back and turned to fire a quick pulse of sonic energy at his pursuer. It missed wide left, hitting the tunnel ceiling and causing a shower of rock to rain down. Already, his lungs were pleading with him to stop, and to make matters far worse, the tunnel appeared to dead-ended up ahead. He risked a glance back over his shoulder and realized the Cave Drask had nearly closed the gap. Any moment now it would drop down from the ceiling and drive a retractable bone spur through his torso.
“Uh, DEVON, you gotta give me something!” he shouted as the end of the tunnel drew closer and closer.
“There’s a hole in the wall up ahead, near the ground. Highlighting it for you now.”
And then, he saw it, outlined in yellow in his visual overlay. A cry of desperation escaped his lips as he tapped into the last of his reserves and slid feet first into the hole. There was a loud crash and an angry shriek just behind him as the Cave Drask landed on the ground and tried unsuccessfully to spear him.
The Exterminator’s chest heaved up and down as he lay there, his head tilted backward, watching the the creature cry out in frustration, snapping its toothed mouth just outside the hole. It was far too large to pursue him into such a tight space.
“Well, shit... now that you got me trapped in a damn hole, you got any ideas on how to get me out?”
“It appears to continue on for some distance. Perhaps there is an exit up ahead.”
Things were cramped and hot, and progress was slow. Two hundred meters in, his joints were already shouting their protest; he was not the young man he once was. He crawled through the slowly meandering hole for what felt like an hour until his nose was suddenly filled with a particularly foul odor.
“Good god, what is that?” he said, tapping his temple to fully mute his mask’s olfactory input.
“My sensors indicate it is organic decay. Judging from the molecule gradient, the source should be just up ahead. I’m afraid I cannot recommend you continue further.
“Nah, screw that. I got a bad feeling it ain’t no dead animal and I need to see for myself.” A few twists and turns later he came face to face with the source of the smell. This tunnel within a tunnel also came to a dead end, and on the ground, tucked up against the wall, was a human body in the early stages of rot. It was clad in a red jumpsuit, a handheld boring machine still clutched in its decaying fingers. The Exterminator noticed that the body had been decapitated and in the space between the head and torso lay a gore-encrusted black collar.
He shifted his weight back onto his knees with a grunt and took a moment to ponder the scene in front of him.
“Alright. What the hell am I looking at here.”
“With one hundred percent certainty I can confirm it is a human corpse.”
The Exterminator scoffed. “I know that, damnit. What I mean is, why was this fella digging this hole and why’s his head not on his neck no more? Something to do with that black collar, you reckon?”
“Interesting. Running simulations... ... ... more data required. Please, change visual settings to ultraviolet.”
The Exterminator did, and everything went dark.
“Okay. Gamma radiation, please.”
“And now radio waves.”
“DEVON I don’t know about—”
“Change it, please,” the AI cut him off.
The Exterminator grumbled, but obliged. And when he engaged radio wave visualization mode, a thin red barrier suddenly appeared in front of him. It bisected the tunnel; on one side of it lay the headless body, on the other the head.
“Well I’ll be damned,” he mumbled.
“Evidence supporting alternative hypothesis found. More data collection required. Please, toss something inorganic through the barrier.”
He removed a screwdriver from his belt and tossed it through. It clattered harmlessly onto the rocky ground on the other side.
“Something organic now. Your fingers, perhaps. Proceed with caution.”
“Now toss the collar through.”
He picked up the black collar from the ground and carefully underhanded it through the radio wave barrier. The instant it crossed there was a loud snap, and in the span of a microsecond it shrank to the diameter of a coin and then expanded again to its normal size.
“Holy shit!” he yelped, recoiling. “Guess we know what them collars are for.”
“Yes. Hypothesis confirmed. Altamere Mining Corporation is surrounded by a Purkenzi Dome. If anyone wearing one of those collars passes through, they are decapitated.”
“So what was this poor bastard up to then you reckon?”
“High probability of attempted escape. The structure of this tunnel does not match any of the tunnel structures the drones have mapped so far. This is unsanctioned. Likely this worker did not understand the mechanism of the dome.”
“Welp,” The Exterminator said, laying down on his back and bringing up the docket for the Altamere extermination job in his visual overlays. “I’d say we got enough now, wouldn’t you? Dangerous working conditions, refusal to provide safety equipment, chattel slavery...”
“Proceed with pest control protocol?”
“Weaponizing reconnaissance drones and returning to your location. Tunnel will be clear shortly.
The Exterminator crawled out of the cramped hole back out into the larger tunnel, dusted himself off, and smiled at the scene. The body of his Cave Drask pursuer lay in a heap on the ground, riddled with burning holes.
“Thanks a million, buddy,” he chuckled at the two drones, bobbing up and down in the air above the slain creature. He powered them down and secured them back onto his and then made his way back to the elevator shaft.
“Sorry about your husband,” he whispered to the other Cave Drask, placing his hand on his heart. “I was never here for ya’ll, sorry it had to be this way.”
While the elevator car ascended DEVON showed him some of the footage the drones had gathered. There was a lot of information about the layout of the mine, but what really interested him was what the AI had discovered about the manhole covers from before.
“They are housing silos, extending several hundred meters below ground. The video content is somewhat disturbing, I must warn you.”
“Somehow I ain’t surprised. Show me anyway.”
The drones cast light projections on the wall of the elevator car and suddenly he was looking at thousands of tiny hammocks dangling from the walls of an enormous cylindrical cavern like insect cocoons. A third of them were occupied by workers that—now that he could see them without their red jumpsuits on—appeared horrifically emaciated. The space was rife with the sound of pained groans as clear white tubes pumped nutrient slurry into ports in their abdomens.
Without wasting a second, The Exterminator called the number the CFO, Eldra Smyly, had given him. “Altamere Mining Corporation, how may I direct your call?” the front desk person said when they picked up.
“Hey there, this is The Exterminator. If it ain’t too much trouble, would you mind passing on a message to Miss Smyly? It’s urgent. Tell her I need to meet with the whole of management and that it is an emergency.”
“Sure thing, I will call her now.”
“I’m on my way back to the offices now, should be there in about twenty five, thirty.”
“Understood. We’ll be seeing you soon.”
“Thank you very much.”
When the shuttle arrived at the corporate offices, The Exterminator was greeted once again by Eldra Smyly and her coterie of armed escorts.
“This better be worth it!” she shouted over the roar of the shuttle’s engines.
“Oh, it will be!” he shouted back.
She led him wordlessly across the landing pad and into the facility. The inside of the building was unsurprisingly gaudy. He followed her past the reception desk, where he winked at the man behind the counter, and down a series of hallways, all of them lined with expensive wall sconces and plastered with ornate wallpaper. They walked by an air-conditioned gymnasium and what appeared to be some sort of indoor garden where people in suits were eating imported fruit on shaded benches. The Exterminator thought of the miners laying in their cocoons, being force-fed through tubes, and his stomach churned.
At the end of a long hallway Eldra stopped in front of a set of thick oak doors, her back to him. She said, without turning around, “You have five minutes.”
The doors opened from the inside by a pair of collared young men in white jumpsuits. They bowed as the CFO entered and took her seat amongst the nine other executives positioned evenly along a long, matte-black conference table in the center of the room. The Exterminator followed her in. The doors closed behind him.
“Well, we don’t have all day, son,” wheezed an old man with jowls that hung down to his collarbone.
An overweight woman in floral dress took a cloth from her breast pocket and dabbed the sweat on her forehead before plucking out a candied plum from the bowl in the center of the table. “Is the Cave Drask problem really so bad?” she asked, a real look of concern on her face.
The Exterminator took a moment to gather his thoughts and then cleared his throat. He straightened his back and put his hands on his hips. “Is this the entirety of management?”
“Yes, it is,” Eldra Smyly replied cooly, crossing her legs and steepling her fingers. “So, let’s not waste anymore time. You called us all in here so tell us, how bad is it?”
“Well,” The Exterminator began, exhaling slowly, “it’s pretty bad. If I’m being honest, my parent organization and I had our suspicions going in, but the situation here is admittedly far worse than we originally thought.”
A gaunt looking man with a thin mustache made a strange, phlegmy noise and then croaked out, “Oh, do be specific, will you?”
The Exterminator relaxed his posture and he began to pace back and forth. “Sure thing. See, I’ve seen me some nasty infestations in my day. Real nasty. All manner of horrific pests and parasites. Never met a job I couldn’t handle. Though, I must admit, I owe most of my success to my pal DEVON.”
The executives around the table began to mutter, shrugging and flashing each other looks of consternation. “What exactly are you on about?” the gaunt man asked.
“I’m getting there, just bear with me. See, one of the first things any Apprentice Exterminator learns is that if you truly want to root out a bad infestation, you gotta kill every last sorry bugger in the place. If you leave even one alive, it’ll multiply and the infestation will come roaring right back.”
In a flash, The Exterminator lunged forward and pulled the nearest executive from her seat. In the same motion, he took the sonic shotgun from his back and pressed the barrel to the side of her head.
“Nobody moves or I kill her.”
Everyone around the table gasped in horror, shouting for the guards to intervene. But they were unarmed, and the look in their eyes said they were as terrified as the others.
“Shut up and don’t move!”
The executives obeyed.
“Alright, now I’m going to ask this one time and one time only. I ain’t playing, one time. Who controls the collars?”
The Exterminator shrugged and pulled the trigger. Before the woman’s brains had finished plastering conference room wall, The Exterminator had already leveled the gun at Eldra Smyly’s. “Who controls the collars? I will sit here and execute everyone one of you one by one until someone gives me the answer.”
“I do, I do, I do!” Eldra answered frantically, removing a remote control from the inside of her suit jacket and tossing it onto the table. He reached down and picked it up, pointed it in the direction of the two doormen, and pressed the blue button. There was a soft click and a thud as the collars dropped to the ground. The Exterminator smiled.
Then, he activated the drones.
They whirred to life, rising into the air and directing high energy beam after high energy beam at the people in the room. One by one, sizzling holes the size of apples appeared in the center of the executives’ foreheads and they slumped forward onto the table or fell limply back into their leather chairs. There were heavy footsteps approaching from outside, but when two armed guards came bursting through the doors, the drones were ready, firing one beam each over The Exterminator’s shoulders and dropping them instantly.
The thing lasted was over in under ten seconds, and then an eerie silence hung over the room as The Exterminator took a rag from his breast pocket and calmly wiped the blood away from the barrel of his shotgun. He turned slowly around, looking into the eyes of the two quivering doormen.
“Well,” The Exterminator said, “sorry about all that. Wish you two hadn’t had to watch. But on the bright side, we’re now most of the way there when it comes to getting the Altamere Mining Corporation’s pest problem under control. Say, would you fellas like to help me with the next part?”
One of them reached down and picked up one of the fallen guard’s rifles. The other followed suit. He tossed them the collar remote, slapped them on the back, and led them out of the conference room.
Hayden Waller is an emerging author. His publication list is still developing, but his stories have appeared - or are slated to appear - in Trembling With Fear, 365 tomorrows, the Dark Nature Anthology from Macabre Ladies Press, the Love Bites Anthology from Mischief Publishing, and the Bonemilk anthology from GutSlut Press.
Follow Hayden here: https://twitter.com/tbh_i_dont_know