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Exterminator, First-Class

by Thomas P. Wagner

 

Private Emilio Ortiz staggered through the curtains that served as a door to the recreation room, half a month's pay worth of black market hooch still burning in his throat. The glassy walls of the tunnel gleamed at him from the floodlights strung along their length. "This place sucks!" he yelled to the emptiness. More than half his tour to go and he was already stir crazy. A large cockroach scurried by his boot. He kicked at it and missed. The roach ran, bouncing back and forth across the tunnel floor until it found a small crevice to hide in. Too big, most of its body was left sticking out and vulnerable. Ortiz stumbled toward it. "Nowhere to hide on the moon cucaracha!" He stomped, flattening the roach's thorax and spraying ink all over his boot.

Ortiz snickered. He hated roaches. He'd like to kill some more, but the booze was hitting him hard now and he wanted to get to his bunk. He started walking. He made it a few steps before everything started spinning, forcing him to stop and lean on the wall. It was an evil brew they made on the moon.

Something brushed against his face. He opened his eyes. It couldn't be... He shook his head and looked again. It was still there, eyeing him like a bit of refried beans on his mother's counter-top. He swore to god that he'd never drink again. God ignored him, and the creature stepped forward. Ortiz jumped sideways, his feet slipping out from under him as they hit the base of the curved wall. He slid to the floor, watching in horror as the pincer-like jaws snipped off his leg at the thigh. Blood jetted from the neat stump. He screamed. Another creature appeared near his face.

*   *   *

The spray tank strained at the straps as Tony hoisted it on his back and headed up the crumbling steps. He wasn't looking forward to this job. Old building, bad part of town, he didn't take work like this anymore, didn't have to. But Haji had asked him to do it personally. He planned to live in this brownstone when it was finished, and he wanted the extermination done right. Tony thought he was crazy. Who'd give up a Park Avenue condo to live in Brooklyn? But he didn't get paid to give advice, and with what Haji paid him to exterminate his twenty-three tandoori chicken joints Tony would keep his opinions to himself.

"Pops," he said to the homeless man curled up on the stoop's corner, "you gotta move on. This stuff I'm spraying is bad news."

The old man got up slowly and straightened himself, unfolding a cardboard sign that read "No lies, need money to buy licker." Tony laughed, pulling a ten from his shirt pocket. "Humor I'll pay for. But no booze, buy some food."

The old man said, "You're a good man, sir. I put my blessing on you."

Tony laughed. He dug the old-fashioned metal key out his pocket and slipped it in the lock.

The old man tottered down the steps behind him saying, "Mark my words, you'll soon be going places."

Tony looked at the old wooden door. "Pops," he said, "the only place I'm going is another stinking nest full of roaches."

The old man didn't reply. Surprised, Tony glanced over his shoulder. He was gone.

Tony pushed on the key and the door creaked open before he turned it. That was a bad sign. Nobody left doors unlocked in Brooklyn, certainly not Haji. He pulled on his gloves and filter-mask and stepped inside.

"Hello?" he called out, his voice a buzz through the mask. Nobody answered. He walked into the living room, hearing something crunch under his boot. He looked down. Fractured glass ampoules were scattered all over the floor. Some dopers must have broken in and had a blue-ice party.

"Give me your wallet fat boy."

He looked up. A skinny kid with a stun stick was standing about two meters away. The kid looked like hell, shaking and scratching himself all over. Definitely an icer. Pathetic, but the stun stick was no joke. But why did he have to call him fat? Sure, he liked the extra helping of lasagna from time to time--who didn't?--but he wasn't fat. Tony said, "Look kid, just get out of here. I've got work to do."

"Give me your wallet!"

Tony shook off his glove. He felt bad for the kid, but what could he do? He pulled the wallet from his back pocket and pointed it at the kid's face. He reached for it, and Tony's thumb pressed the indentation below the designer logo, sending a thick stream of green liquid right into the kid's face. The kid screamed and dropped his stun stick, frantically wiping at the goo as it burned his eyes. Two seconds later it froze rock solid, freezing one hand to his face and the other to his pants. Tony turned the wallet over and fired the second cell at the kid's knees. He fell over on the floor as they locked up, muffled cries leaking from his mostly sealed mouth and nose.

Tony called the police from his cell phone and went to the kitchen to get started.

It didn't look so bad, a few hundred dead roaches on the floor, not many live ones. The wallpaper was funny though, blistered and swollen in places. Roaches could live behind paper for years surviving on nothing but glue. He picked a big swollen area and tried the razor knife. No luck, it was that Teflon stuff, a cheap way to make your walls look good, but a hassle to work with. He grabbed the Cutzall saw off his belt. It was overkill, but it was what he had. He pressed it against the wall and the little diamond tipped reciprocating blade ripped open a jagged fissure instantly. Big mistake.

A flow of roaches erupted through the hole. Living, dead, running, flying, they coated his head and torso. He dropped the saw and swiped at them. A bunch slipped down his shirt, their barbed feet hooking into the soft skin of his belly as they crawled into his underpants. He danced around the room slapping and squeezing himself.

The flow stopped as quickly as it started, and within a few minutes he'd crushed everything moving under his clothes. Now it was time for revenge.

He strutted back to the hole, assuming the gunfighter pose as Mexican guitar music from his favorite spaghetti western played in his head. The roaches sensed his approach and ran for cover with the exception of a big brown German that hung halfway out of the bottom of the fissure. It stared at Tony with its evil black eyes, its jaw pincers pulsing open and closed like it was laughing at him.

This roach obviously didn't know it was up against Anthony Lorenzo Renallo, New York's number one exterminator and the Flatbush Lions Club's young businessman of the year. Tony loosened the strap on the spray gun holster. The roach flicked its antennae. Tony drew. The roach jumped, opening its wings and flying straight between his eyes. Tony smashed it with a gloved fist, feeling the roach ink squish into his eyebrows and hair.

The guitar music ended as his mother's shrill but lyrical voice said, "I told you Anthony, you should've been a dentist like your brother. It's much cleaner work than your father's."

Tony wiped the ink off his forehead with the back of his glove. Then he laughed out loud. You had to keep a sense of humor in this job.

"Lights out boys." He sprayed instant death across the hole, watching with grim satisfaction as roaches dropped to the floor and kicked their death rattle.

The kitchen was the worst of it and he was done before lunch time. With a little luck he'd get to the wedding planner's office right on time.

The Midtown tunnel was bumper to bumper traffic, so he flipped on autodrive and had the windshield bring up his mail. The first piece was the new issue of Exterminator Monthly, March 2007. The blurb for the lead article said, "Sonic pest controls--will they put us out of work?" It was about using ultrasonic waves to drive away roaches and other pests. He finished it just as he pulled up to the wedding planner's office, only about fifteen minutes late. Rita's car was already there, and so, unfortunately, was his mother-in-law's gold Lexus.

He didn't start out disliking his mother-in-law. That she wasn't nice to him was something he figured just came with the territory, that is snob hill, Brooklyn Heights. But when he and Rita got engaged and he overheard her on the phone saying, "How can I let my princess marry that low-class slob exterminator from Flatbush?" after that, he let himself dislike her.

They were in the wedding simulator, which turned out to be a two-car garage set up to look like a giant banquet hall, complete with miniature tables and miniature place settings. Rita's mother was moving tables around like an audition for "Attack of the Fifty Foot Mother-in-law". Rita was right next to the door tasting delicious smelling trays of appetizers. She didn't look up when he walked over.

Tony said, "Honey, I'm sorry, there was traffic."

Rita didn't respond. He stood on his toes and kissed her on the cheek. She shook her head. She just didn't understand, he didn't want to be late to these things, he was just working hard, trying to stay number one. But rather than go through all that again he said, "I'm sorry honey-bunch-a-rooni, it won't happen ag..."

She cut him off. "Forget it, just try this." She stuffed something spicy into his mouth. It was good.

His mother-in-law walked over. "Hello Anthony, nice of you to join us. I guess we should have told you there'd be food?" Before he could retort she scrunched up her face and said, "And just what is that on your head?"

He looked in the mirror next to the door. Dried roach guts were smeared across his forehead.

The wedding planner started to say something about one of the trays, but was interrupted by a knock at the door.

Three men in dark suits entered. The short one looked at Tony and said, "Are you Mr. Anthony L. Renallo the exterminator?"

Tony said, "Yea, that's me."

The man reached into his breast pocket and flipped out a badge and ID card.

Tony looked at Rita, whose exasperated expression said, "And what have you done now to ruin my wedding?"

*   *   *

The moon was just coming into view through the shuttle window. He smiled. He still couldn't believe it, him, Tony Renallo of Flatbush, an astronaut. He'd finally gotten out of the neighborhood!

The landing was smooth. They floated straight down onto a platform that lowered into a big room surrounded by cranes and carts. Then his ears popped and the door opened.

They'd warned him about the effects of returning to gravity, even moon gravity, after spending time in zero-g. He felt fine, so he got up with the rest of the crew and headed for the ramp. One step out the shuttle door and the dizzy feeling swept over him. Unfortunately he was at the beginning of the ramp, the one place without a safety rail. He stumbled to his right and tumbled into the open space

The first thing he saw was the floor, and it was a long ways down. His stomach lurched at the sight, disgorging its filling of Tang and freeze dried ice-cream. The world revolved and he was looking at the side of the shuttle and the ceiling. Then there was a soft thud and he was staring up at the bottom of the ramp's metal grill a good five meters overhead. Orange Tang drops rained down on him, splashing on his face.

He felt much better lying down. He picked up his head and looked himself over. All his limbs looked all right and nothing hurt. At least you didn't fall hard on the moon.

Everybody rushed over. He said he was fine, stood up and promptly fell down again. They sat him on a plastic crate. He breathed in deep through his nose. The air was okay, not musty like he expected.

A few minutes later a woman in green fatigues walked up and introduced herself as Captain Anderson, head of base security. He tried to stand, but had to sit back down. His heart was pounding, his legs felt like they were made of lead. Anderson was about his age but looked ultra-fit, the muscles in her cheeks apparent when she talked. She was polite, but it seemed forced.

A crane lowered the palette with his van on it. He felt better by then and got up to check it out. No dents, no scratches. That was good. Anderson said, "Mr. Renallo, Corporal Epstein here will drive your truck to the admin area." She motioned to the man next to her.

Tony said, "Sorry Major, I'm the only one who can drive it."

She said, "It's Captain. And Mr. Renallo the only people authorized to operate motorized vehicles here are required to complete a three week safety course. Driving a vehicle designed in moon-g is not easy."

Her tone made it sound it like she thought he was an idiot. Fine, he could be a jerk too if she wanted to play that way.

Tony said, "Well Lord Vader, the only person on this base who has the right palm-prints to operate this truck is me, but I bet you don't have much car-jacking up here so you wouldn't know about such things?"

The muscle in her cheek got so tight he thought it was going to snap and pop through her skin. She waved Epstein off and walked over to the passenger door and got in. Tony got in and grabbed the wheel. She said, "Just take it real slow, like crawling slow. Understand?"

He said, "No problem, Colonel." She gritted her teeth. He said, "Come on Captain, I'm just kidding. You guys are too tense around here." She didn't laugh. He looked in the rearview mirror. Little bits of cracker from his freeze dried ice-cream were stuck to his face.

Yellow lines on the floor led to the exit, a huge circular door, easily two or three times as high as the van. Captain Anderson rolled down her window and spoke to the guard. He said the tunnel ahead had just been checked and was all clear.

He looked at Anderson's uniform. It didn't have much on it except for a big shoulder patch with a guy in a space suit and the words "1st Space Marines". His own uniform was much classier, black coveralls with "Renallo Extermination" in ten centimeter high gold letters on the back, and the obligatory "Tony" stitched over the breast pocket. A hissing sound made him look ahead. The door was opening, exactly like a moon door should, the small hole in the center getting bigger and bigger. Tony said, "Now that's lunar." If Anderson heard him, she ignored it.

As they drove through she said, "Take it real slow." Then she put some kind of dark glasses on and focused her attention down the tunnel like she was looking for something. Tony alternated between staring ahead and checking out the truck's reflection on the tunnel walls. The gold lettering he'd had stenciled on the side looked great. His last ditch at being friendly, he said, "Hey, what are the walls made of? Why are they so shiny?"

Without looking at him she explained that the moon-base was just tunnels through the bits of broken rock that covered the moon. The tunnel walls were made by melting the rock into a glass.

When she finished, he said, "So how's the food around here?"

She looked at him for the first time since they'd gotten into the truck, making a point of tilting the glasses down so he could see her eyes. "I should think food was the least of your worries." She smiled.

What the hell did she mean by that? Tony turned back to the tunnel, they went around a curve. There was a big brown thing far ahead of them, standing out like a sore thumb in the black surroundings. It took him a second and then he realized what it was. He laughed and said, "You know you almost had me. An exterminator's nightmare, huh? What is it, inflatable?" He turned to look at Anderson. She had her pistol out and was unfolding some sort of stock. She said, "Reverse, now, very slow." Then she leaned out the window.

Tony said, "Come on General, I'm new to the moon, but I've been around Flatbush Avenue a few times." Then the big brown thing moved. Fast. And it was coming right at them.

Anderson opened fire, purple laser bolts streaking toward the creature. Tony didn't look to see what happened, he slammed the gear shift into reverse and punched the accelerator to the floor. The propane engine wasn't a powerhouse, but it had enough to squeal the tires. Anderson screamed, "No!"

Tony stared out the back window watching the lights on the tunnel walls race by. He had no idea where he was going, anywhere, just away from that thing. He saw a turn to the left and swung the wheel. The tires squealed, not having much traction on a glassy floor in low gravity. They skidded around, barely missing the wall. Anderson was back in the seat now. She yelled, "You can stop now, I killed it!" The words penetrated his fog of fear. He jammed on the brakes. Wrong move.

The seat pushed up against his legs. Next thing he knew he had a close up view of the ceiling, which quickly gave way to an upside down view down the hallway. Then the hood crunched against the floor and the van rocked back and forth a few times before settling on its roof like a turtle having a very bad day.

Anderson started laughing. He turned and looked at her, hanging upside down in her seat belt, hat lying on the ceiling, hair dangling from her head. His hands suddenly hurt. He looked down at them; they were white where he gripped the wheel.

Anderson stopped laughing when he turned away. She said, "Renallo you all right?"

All he could think of was hot dogs, specifically a steaming, mustard and sauerkraut covered New York dirty water dog straight out of a street corner cart.

*   *   *

Two men waited for them in the meeting room. Like Anderson, they wore green fatigues, which now struck Tony as funny considering that green didn't blend in at all with their gray and black surroundings. Tony actually blended in pretty well, if you ignored the gold lettering.

"Mr. Renallo," said the older man who stood and extended a hand. "Welcome to Tranquillity Base. I'm General Powell, the base commander. That friendly face over there is Colonel Flagg my XO." Flagg nodded at Tony without standing. No smile. He looked like a real hard-ass, even worse than Anderson.

Powell motioned to the wall screen, "And I believe you know Dr. Martin."

Tony said, "Doctor Charlie? Is that you?"

The face said, "Yes it is. And how is New York's best exterminator?"

So that was how he got this job, it's not what you know, it's who you know, even in space. Charlie Martin was an entomologist at the Museum of Natural History in New York. Tony was always calling him with questions about weird bugs he came across.

General Powell said, "Dr. Martin was just filling us in on his latest theory. Charlie why don't you start from the beginning for Tony?" They all sat down.

Charlie explained that roaches had been at the base since the experimental labs started up in 2004. They'd likely come in as eggs in a load of monkey food. Initially they posed no problem, and were kept under control with traps. But last year they'd spread to the new herbarium and that was when the deformed ones turned up--roaches with double heads, grasping claws, gigantism. The botanist running the herbarium sent samples to Charlie. They all turned out to be mutant varieties of the German cockroach, a common species in North America and Europe.

The cause of mutation remained a mystery until last week, when Charlie discovered that the mutant roaches were all deficient in AM-90 or Anti-Mutagen 90. He explained how all organisms' DNA possesses the information to produce a wide range of physical characteristics. Not all of these characteristics are useful, like double heads, and AM-90 destroys the proteins that produce them.

In the case of the roaches, Charlie thought the AM-90 was destroyed by cosmic rays--the atomic particles generated by stars and supernovas that continually bombard everything in the universe. The earth is shielded from much of these rays by its atmosphere, which the moon lacks. The herbarium, in fact, was designed to study the long term effect of cosmic ray exposure on plant growth. These same cosmic rays, and most likely alpha-particles, damaged the roach's AM-90 and allowed mutations to occur.

When he finished. Tony said, "Doc, I'm no expert, but I thought it was impossible for roaches to get that big. Something about their nervous systems being to slow, so they couldn't move?"

Charlie smiled and said, "You see General, this is why I recommended him." Then he looked at Tony and said, "You're absolutely right. But this is the marvelous thing that's happened--the roaches have actually developed more sophisticated nervous systems. They now have myelin, which makes them almost as fast as our own. And look at this." The image switched to a close-up of a jar with something that looked like a Swedish meatball floating in it. "I think this is their brain."

This did not sound good at all. Earth roaches didn't even have brains, just a few nerves jumbled together near their heads and other places in their bodies.

The General said, "Well, Mr. Renallo, now you know everything we know. Now tell us, how do we get rid of them?"

Tony said, "The basic rules of roach extermination are simple. First, you kill the living ones any way you can. Second, you find and destroy any egg sacks. Third, you keep your place clean so roaches don't come back. One and two I can help you with, for three you gotta call my cousin Velma's cleaning company."

Charlie and General Powell laughed. Flagg and Anderson didn't.

Tony said, "Have you tried any pesticides?"

"Just the Space Marines," the General said.

"Did it work?"

Colonel Flagg said, "In a tactical sense, yes. Captain Anderson's team can easily kill roaches when they find them. And General, sir, if you would just allow us some more time and manpower I'm sure we could handle this situation in a military fashion."

General Powell said, "Dick, we've gone over this. I know your people can kill roaches. Problem is for every one you kill we see two more. But we need to get this problem solved ASAP so we can get construction back on line. NASA is on my ass because we're holding up the Mars program. And Congress in on NASA's ass."

He turned back to Tony. "Tony, we've got twenty kilometers of tunnels, each with a whole lot of rooms. On top of that we've got ventilation and power shafts, loads of places for these critters to hide."

Tony said, "Back on earth they said that the air supply was limited so we couldn't use any volatile chemicals, so I brought a load of boric acid. It's solid, it won't get in the air and it kills them pretty fast, earth roaches that is."

Charlie said, "The metabolic processes of these roaches must be similar to earth roaches since they seem to eat the same foods and are made of the same things. The same toxins should also affect them."

Tony said, "Speaking, of which, what do they eat?"

Anderson said, "The largest concentration is in the Science Wing, where there are all kinds of plants and animals. They could be eating anything in there. The infestation has gotten so bad we actually had to close it off. Outside of Science, there aren't nearly as many and they seem to be surviving on our food stocks and odd things like electrical insulation and some building materials."

Tony said, "Well, I guess the first thing we do is run a test."

*   *   *

Tony laced some bread with boric acid, then he, Anderson and her space marines placed it in front of the mess hall, a frequent roach haunt. After that they barricaded off a small observation post not far down the tunnel.

Working with the marines was easy, they all did exactly as they were told. But outside of that, they made it clear that they resented working with him. He tried cracking a few jokes, asking them some questions about the base. No dice, they either ignored him or gave him stupid answers.

It didn't matter, the roaches showed soon after they finished. They were huge! The tunnels were big, big enough for two way car traffic and high enough for him to flip his van in. Still the roaches could only walk three or four abreast. And were they weird looking. Some had ridges on their backs, others had double mouths and antennae, one even had a stretched out torso like a centipede. But there was one mutation that really bothered Tony--claws. Only a few roaches had them, but it was frightening, like a giant lobster.

The roaches ignored them and went straight for the bread, gulping it down. Within moments one of them fell on its back, its legs kicking in the air. Then two more fell down. The other roaches stopped eating and gathered around the fallen ones, their antennas twitching rapidly, their horrible chirping sounds echoing down the hall. Seconds later one of smaller ones dashed down the tunnel to their right, disappearing.

"What's going on exterminator-man?" whispered the marine standing next to Tony. He had no idea, he'd never seen roaches act like this.

The roaches stood there for a while, nothing happening, looking almost like they were waiting. A light scraping sound made Tony look up. A man-sized roach crawled on the ceiling above them. He touched the leg of the marine, who yelled, and opened fire. Broken roach rained down on them. Tony looked down the tunnel. It was only the beginning.

Roaches were coming at them from both sides, trapping them in the middle. Anderson ordered everyone to open fire, half up and half down the tunnel. Pulses of purple laser light streaked away. Roaches exploded as the laser bolts penetrated their shells and boiled their insides. Their thin limbs piled up like giant French fries covered with a ketchup of stewed roach innards, the stink of this horrific meal wafting down the hall toward them. The smell brought Tony out of his shock. He looked around. It was all happening so fast, and the marines were so calm, firing away and reloading the battery packs on their laser guns. Maybe there was something to being a jerk and wearing green clothes?

Though they killed the lead roaches easily, the front of the wave drew closer by the minute. Tony wished there was something he could do. Then the flying ones came. The marines didn't have time to shoot them, so Tony grabbed a vid-cam tripod and swung it like a stickball bat. Thankfully it was only small ones that could fly..

One of the marines yelled, "Captain, I'm out of fun in three minutes." A few more chimed in with the same complaint. Anderson ignored them, screaming into her comm-link for back-up. Tony continued to swing away at the flying roaches, littering the area with their corpses. It wasn't much, but he was helping.

A marine near him screamed, dropping her weapon. The head from the big roach they killed on the ceiling was still alive. Its pincers had closed on her leg, blood spurting from the wound. Tony grabbed the head and tried to pull. It didn't come. He saw a screw driver and stabbed it into the joint. That stopped it. She took the handle and said, "Now grab my rifle and shoot!"

Tony picked up the rifle. It looked like any other one he'd seen in that it had a trigger and long barrel. He pointed it down the tunnel and pulled the trigger. It didn't kick-back. Then he noticed the knob on top. It had markings he guessed corresponded to width of field. He switched it to wide, hoping to nail all the flying roaches at once. The tunnel lit up with his burst. Someone yelled, "What the F are you doing?" A few of the roaches near them began to spin wildly, unable to charge. The burst must have been just enough to fry their eyes or burn their antennas. He switched to the middle setting and fired a barrage across the whole hallway, stopping the wave for few seconds. The other marines got the idea and within minutes the hall was littered with kicking roaches unable to see where to go. They'd stopped them.

*   *   *

Colonel Flagg was furious. "What does this fat slob know about military equipment? He should be thrown in the brig for firing a weapon. He could have gotten everyone killed. General I insist that I be allowed to take command of this operation."

Tony shook his head. More fat jokes. Why were people who didn't like him always calling him fat? Okay, he was carrying a little more around the middle than he'd like to, but he wasn't fat.

Anderson had been quiet for the entire meeting, sitting sullenly in her chair in the corner. When Flagg finished, she stood up and said, "Sirs, with all due respect, Mr. Renallo kept us from becoming roach food." She sat back down. Flagg glared at her.

Flagg started to say something, but General Powell interrupted him. "Dick, just calm down. Tony, what's our plan?"

Tony said, "Send teams of men patrolling the base, killing everything they find and leaving trails of boric acid behind them. Even though the roaches won't eat it, it will get stuck to their leg hairs and kill them anyway. Second, we've gotta get into the Science Wing and find and destroy the eggs. The longer we wait, the worse this problem is going to get."

The base blueprints appeared on the screen. Tony said, "Basically cockroaches look for warm, moist places to reproduce."

Anderson pointed to a big square on the blueprints that was labeled "Herbarium". She said, "The plant area is up on catwalks, underneath are the irrigation and nutrition systems. We haven't been in there since we sent the scientists off base last week."

Tony said, "Don't you have video?"

General Powell said, "Phase two of construction."

Powell's comm-link rang, he pointed it at the screen and a man in a medal covered uniform appeared. General Powell jumped to attention, saluted and said, "General DeMay, Sir."

*   *   *

The figure on the screen said, "At ease General." Powell relaxed, but not much. "I hear through the grapevine that you've got a bug problem."

"Yes sir, General, but we're working on it right now and will soon have it under control."

"I'm sure you do General. But I have some new orders for you. I want you to stop whatever you are doing and sit tight. We're sending a team up there to capture some of these things."

"Capture sir?"

"Yes, you heard me. These sound like very interesting creatures you've got there. Loads of potential military and civilian applications. We here at the lab plan to..."

General Powell interrupted him, "Sir, these creatures have already killed a man and they reproduce by the thousands. You can't seriously be thinking of bringing a live one to earth?"

"Yes, General, I am. Who is that next to you?" Colonel Flagg stepped forward, smiling.

"Greetings Sir."

"Well, Flagg you old war-horse. I haven't seen you since the Gulf. What's a killing machine like you doing on the moon?"

"Just serving my country sir."

"I'm sure you are Colonel. The service could use more men like you."

"Thank you Sir."

DeMay turned back to General Powell and said, "Have I made myself clear General? Do nothing regarding these creatures. My men will be there soon."

"Sir, I think maybe we should discuss this with the joint chiefs before we..."

"There will be no discussion General. DeMay out."

The screen went dark.

Tony said, "You can't seriously be considering letting him take these things to earth?" He could just imagine giant cockroaches with claws taking over the Brooklyn subway.

General Powell said, "No, I'm not. I can just imagine what would happen if someone found out about it, let alone the consequences of one getting loose. I'll put in a call to the joint chiefs in a little while. They'll listen to reason, DeMay's known to be a bit over the top. You continue your work as planned."

Flagg said, "But General, you've just received a direct order."

"Dick," General Powell said, "I'm not in the mood. You have your orders Colonel."

"Yes, sir I do," he said as he left the room.

*   *   *

Progress was slow. The tunnel in the Science Wing was over a kilometer long, with numerous rooms off it, each of which had to be cleared before they could move on to the herbarium at the end of the tunnel. And they found lots of roaches. Big ones, small ones, they were everywhere.

With five rooms and about a half a kilometer to the herbarium, they started finding egg sacks. Anderson's marines had cleared the room of roaches, and they called Tony in to look at some big black pillows. At first Tony wasn't sure what they were, they were just so much bigger than the egg sacks he'd seen on earth, some almost as big as a beer keg. He tried jumping on one, but didn't even dent it. Then they found one that had just hatched, complete with thumb-sized baby giant roaches scattered about. He could only imagine what would happen if one of these hatched on earth.

How to destroy the eggs had taken some thought. Tony had dreams of an egg-frying flame-thrower. General Powell hadn't liked that idea, too much damage to the equipment, and they didn't have a flame-thrower anyway. Tony thought that was odd. Didn't the military take a flame-thrower everywhere they went? Wasn't the ability to "throw flame" essential to military operations?

What they did have were large tanks of liquid nitrogen they normally used to cool equipment. Tony worked one into a "cold-thrower" with some flexible steel hose and a valve. Not as exciting as flame, but just as effective.

Tony pulled the goggles over his eyes, and said, "Okay boys, get back and let Mr. Freeze do his cold-thing." He pointed the sprayer at the eggs and fired. It sounded like a giant fire extinguisher and immediately enveloped him in thick fog. He waddled around the room in his insulated suit looking like the Michelin man, dragging the nitrogen cart behind him. After he finished freezing the eggs he kicked them over and watched them shatter on the floor.

He finished in about fifteen minutes, then shut off the nitrogen and pulled off his goggles. He yelled, "Well guys this place is frosted!" He didn't hear any laughter except his own. Jeez, he said, to himself, that was kind of funny wasn't it? He turned around, and realized why no one laughed. They were gone.

"Hello?" He yelled. His voice echoed through the room. Nobody answered. "This isn't funny guys. Guys?! Anderson?"

It wasn't just that the marines were gone, but their golf-cart was gone, and all their weapons were gone too.

This is definitely not right, thought Tony. He started walking toward the door to the tunnel, dragging the nitrogen cart behind him. Then the lights went out.

In his early days as an exterminator, back when his father sent him on the worst jobs, he'd learned a trick for coping with bad situations. Crawling through the basements of welfare housing projects in Williamsburg, surrounded by mountains of roach, mouse and rat poop, worried about imminent robbery or murder, he'd always say to his partner, "Could be worse, New York could have king cobras."

But no matter how he tried, being alone on a dark moon-base surrounded by giant, man-eating cockroaches was worse than anything he could think of. Come to think of it, he'd rather be at the wedding planner's choosing table arrangements with his mother-in-law. That gave him pause, surely nothing could be that bad, could it?

Then the emergency lights came on, little battery powered boxes mounted on the walls throughout the room. Things were getting much better. He started again for the door. Were those footsteps he heard? "Hello?," he called. Maybe they hadn't heard him. "Hello!" He yelled as loud as he could. Now he could clearly hear footsteps and the sound of his truck door slamming closed. And if he could hear all that, why couldn't the person making the noise hear him. A deaf man on the moon? He said, "Hey goof-ball, what are you, deaf?" He stepped out into the hallway.

Two marines were lying on the floor with huge burn marks on their chests. Either the roaches had learned to use laser cannons, or there was something very wrong here. He fingered the valve on the nitrogen. Someone cleared their throat. Tony looked up.

Flagg was standing there, and he was smiling. It was the first time Tony had seen the man smile. There was definitely something wrong. "Flagg, what's going on? Where is everybody? Where's Anderson?"

Flagg raised his pistol and fired. Tony saw the purple bolt, then his left shoulder was hit by a white-hot freight train. The force knocked him off his feet and into the nitrogen tank behind him. He flipped over it, landing on his back and staring up at his reflection in the ceiling.

He looked under the tank and saw Flagg's black boots moving toward him. He needed to do something. Now. But what could he do? If he got up, Flagg would just shoot him again. If only he could get to his truck. He looked over at it, only a few meters away. The nitrogen sprayer was still in his hand. He slipped his fingers around the valve and loosened it until it just started to leak. Then Flagg leaned over the tank and pointed the pistol straight into his face. He smiled and said, "The roaches are going to like eating a fat little slob like you Renallo."

Tony flipped the valve the final quarter turn with his thumb, blasting a jet of nitrogen at Flagg's grinning face. The shot went wide of a direct hit, but icy vapor enveloped Flagg's head. He screamed, firing wildly, the shots ricocheting off the floor around Tony as he rolled away.

He ran to his truck, and jumped in the driver's seat. Flagg stepped out of the nitrogen fog, rubbing his eyes and firing. The passenger side of the windshield shattered, but held, spraying small bits of glass all over Tony. Forward obviously wasn't an option. He threw the truck into reverse and floored it, turning to look out the rear windows. He spotted Anderson out of the corner of his eye, lying between two barrels of boric acid. "Anderson!" he yelled. She didn't answer. The truck scraped the wall producing a shower of sparks as the rear view mirror tore off and bounced away. He looked out the rear windows. A set of doors was coming up fast. Glass burst from the windshield again as another bolt struck it. One door was open, the other was closed. The open side was too small, so he aimed for the closed door, not wanting to catch it sideways and get spun into the frame. The sign above the doors came into view. Herbarium. Out of the frying pan and straight into the fire.

*   *   *

He closed his eyes as they collided with the door, hearing and feeling the rear windows explode. Then the van hit something big, and Tony felt it go up and turn over on its side.

He was walking in the Bronx Zoo, holding his father's hand. Both of them were wearing the old white Renallo Extermination uniforms, which Tony thought was great because he was only eight years old and he was getting to dress just like dad. They went into the insect house and stared at a tank of cockroaches. There were so many of them, crawling all over each other. His father kneeled down and said, "See son? Look at them, millions of them. Somebody's got to stop them before they take over. That's what I do."

Then his father's hand slipped from his grasp. Tony looked at his own empty hand wondering what happened. The hand looked different all of a sudden. It was big now, with dark hair on the back and thick calluses on the palm. And now his uniform was black, like he'd designed it after his father died and he'd taken over the company. He'd grown up. And the roaches had grown too, but more than he had. He stared at them, watching their huge jaws snapping at him behind the glass. Then he realized that something was wrong, dreadfully wrong. Somehow they'd switched places, and it wasn't the roaches behind the glass, it was him. And he was all alone.

Tony shuddered awake. He hurt everywhere and there was a loud chattering that wouldn't stop. He opened his eyes, it wasn't a dream.

Roaches were clawing against the shattered windshield trying to get to him. It buckled inward with their onslaught, the plastic safety lining the only thing holding them at bay. He pushed out of the seat and stepped to the back of the van, which was on its side. Anderson was wedged between the drums of boric acid. He shook her. She didn't respond, but she was breathing. There was a tearing sound from the windshield, a big roach pushed a claw through. He needed to get them out of there now.

He grabbed a flashlight off the wall rack and looked around the interior of the van. The rear windows were gone, but the surface behind them looked dull, not glassy like the walls of the tunnels and rooms. He touched the surface, it was metal and sounded hollow. A door? He needed to make a hole fast.

Anderson's laser cannon was lying near her. He grabbed it and fired. A faint purple bolt hit the door and was absorbed without leaving a mark. He looked at the charge light. Red, empty. Flagg obviously wanted to make their deaths look good, but wasn't going to leave anything to chance.

He look around, there had to be something else in here he could use. Something bumped against his head, his work-belt, hanging from the high side of the van. A little green light glowed from one of the pouches. The Cutzall. He grabbed it and cut a rough square in metal. The edges were sharp, but there was no time to do anything about it. He grabbed Anderson and shoved her through. She got stuck halfway. If she was stuck how the hell was he going to get through? He felt around her waist. It was something on her web belt. He unclipped the buckle and pulled it off, then shoved her the rest of the way through. The belt had a big metal cylinder on it. It was a concussion grenade, she'd showed him earlier. Only to be used for dire emergencies she'd said. He threw it through after her.

There was a sound of grating glass. Tony turned to see a meter-sized roach coming at him from between the front seats. He grabbed the Cutzall from the floor, turned it to high and stuffed it into the roach's jaws. The big roach jumped backed, kicking wildly. Tony dove through the hole, feeling the suit's insulation tear away on the hole's jagged edges as he slid through.

He rolled away, roaches pouring out after him. He needed to stop them or they'd be overrun. He looked at Anderson, she was already covered in roaches. He dragged her away from the hole, spotting the concussion grenade. He pulled the pin, and lobbed it and the belt back through the hole.

The explosion was a lot bigger than he expected. He heard the doors blow open and felt the pressure wave push him across the floor.

He jumped up as soon as it was over, ready to fight the roaches hand to hand. To his surprise the black world that was the moonbase was now white, covered with a fine snow that still hung in the air. He eyes stung. He closed them and rubbed. Then the smell came to him, boric acid! The concussion grenade must have blown open the drums. He looked around, the dust was settling fast. And the only roaches around were dead.

He knelt down next to Anderson. She was pale and not breathing well. He looked her over, she had a stun stick mark on her neck, but otherwise she looked okay. Then he noticed some white and red dust pooled around her hand. He picked up her wrist and turned it, watching blood pour from a big, deep gash, probably from when he'd pushed her through the hole. He needed a tourniquet. He looked around. They were in a workshop, lots of pipe fitting and electrical equipment around. He ran over to the electrical bench, spilled the toolbox on top and found what he was looking for.

She groaned as he snugged the zip-tie closed above her elbow. The bleeding stopped, but her pulse was weak. He needed to get her help, now.

He stood up, feeling dizzy. Then he realized that one of his ears was ringing, but the other one just hurt. He touched it. Blood was dripping from his earlobe. The explosion must have burst the drum. He checked his shoulder, where Flagg had shot him, expecting to see his fingers come away bloody again. They didn't. He looked. The suit insulation had been burned away, but must have absorbed most of Flagg's shot in the process. Good thing he didn't get shot in the face.

But now it was time to get them out of there. The room had one doorway, the one they'd come through. The doors were off now, blown clear across the room along with the back doors of his van.

He peeked out into the herbarium. His van was blown open like an empty sardine can with boric acid and the scattered remains of an untold number of roaches covering everything in about a fifteen meter radius. Outside of that was the maze of catwalks and pipes that supplied the herbarium above. And in that maze he could see them, the roaches. It was just like his dream, there were thousands of them crawling all over each other. Only now they were dying. The boric acid had gotten into the air and onto them. And as they groomed themselves the boric acid got into their systems and killed them. In a few hours they'd all be dead.

But he didn't have a few hours, he needed to get Anderson to a doctor now. He knew these roaches were smart, and they would avoid the boric acid now that they knew it was poison. All of them in this room must know that by now. He stepped through the door. A big roach moved out of the maze toward him. It stopped when it reached the circle of boric acid. It just might work.

He sat down and started giving his suit a good coating of powder. He was going to get them out of here, they were going to be okay. Then the corpse of a big roach in front of him exploded with a sizzle. Flagg.

Tony dove back into the room, hearing another bolt sizzle into the door frame. He peeked around the corner, seeing the vile bastard standing in the doorway to the main hall.

Flagg would figure out how to get through any second. Tony needed a weapon. He looked around. Plenty of pipe, maybe he could use a piece like a bat? Yea right, Tony, a lot of good that would do against a laser pistol. If only he could find a nail gun or a welding rig. A bench near the back had a pile of valves on it. It looked like a cleaning station, with wire brushes, miniature grinding wheels, and a cleaning bath the size of a large shoe box. He read the name plate on the cleaning bath. The words rang out in his head like a bell. It might work, it just might work. He grabbed it and headed for the door. For his plan to work he'd have to get to the back of the room, behind all of the roaches. He was not looking forward to it.

To the right of the doorway were some big water tanks. He dove behind them for cover, landing face first in roaches and their by-products. A flurry of laser bolts pummeled the wall above his head. Flagg yelled, "I'm going to get you Renallo. I'm going to exterminate your fat useless ass." Fat jokes, again with the fat jokes. He was suddenly starving, realizing he hadn't eaten anything for hours. He rubbed his gut. Good thing he had a spare tank of fuel.

He skirted behind the tanks toward the back wall of the herbarium. Most of the roaches here were still alive, but immediately cleared away as he approached. The boric acid was working.

He reached the back wall, directly opposite the main door. It was covered with baby roaches. He rubbed his hand through them, finding an electrical line that led to an outlet. He plugged in the cleaner and hit the switch. Nothing happened.

Then he remembered that the main power was off. The lighting in the room was coming from emergency lights, which probably had batteries. He reached up and yanked the light box off the shelf above him, roaches raining down on his face in the process.

Flagg saw him and fired a volley at the wall above his head. "You might as well give up Renallo. Give up and I'll kill you fast."

The back of the cleaner said 220V-A/C, which must be the station's normal power. The light box said 12V-DC on the back. He gently smashed the cover of the cleaner against the floor, cracking it. He'd taken electrical shop in high school where he learned that most devices had a power supply that converted AC to DC. The cleaner's board said it converted A/C to 14V-DC. Two volts different than the emergency light, but it still might work. He pulled the bulb out of the emergency light, then yanked two leads off the cleaner's power supply and touched them to the contacts inside the light socket.

Nothing happened. He looked at the display on the cleaner. It was on, but the setting was on one. His hands were stuck holding the wires in place, so he pressed the up arrow key with his nose. He couldn't hear anything from the cleaner, but the roaches around him started to get agitated, the chattering sounds of their legs getting louder. The display reached ten, and there was a roar as the roaches raced away from him and the device. Apparently roaches really didn't like the sound of an ultrasonic cleaner. Score one for a subscription to Exterminator Monthly.

He thought he heard Flagg scream from not too far away. It didn't matter, the Gulf War killing machine never stood a chance. The only thing left of him were pieces of green fatigues Tony found scattered up and down the hall as he carried Anderson back to base.

*   *   *

DeMay claimed that he never authorized Flagg to take over the base, but General Powell knew better. Flagg wouldn't use the latrine without an order, let alone tie up a General and lock him in an office. Plus, trying to kill Tony, the only civilian on base, had the word cover-up written all over it. The communications logs disappeared from the computers somehow so they could never prove it anyway. Such is life in the military.

Within a few days they'd finished clearing the base and Tony was on his way home. General Powell came to the shuttle bay to see him off. Anderson wasn't here, still healing up in the base hospital.

As they made their final good-byes, one of the big marines from Anderson's security detail walked up. Tony stuck out his hand and said, "See ya' Benny, stop by if you're ever in Brooklyn." Benny grabbed Tony's hand, spun him around and picked him up in a bear hug, pinning Tony's arms to his sides.

Tony said, "Benny, I like you too, but I'm already engaged."

Benny turned and faced Tony toward the shuttle bay's entrance. The big door opened and in marched Anderson, her arm in a sling, followed by her unit of space marines. They all had dress uniforms on, including white gloves and swords. It looked impressive. Anderson said, "General Powell and Mr. Renallo, I present to you the First Space Marines of Moonbase Tranquillity." The troops clicked their heels together and snapped their swords up to attention.

General Powell, "At ease men." Then he said, "Captain Anderson, you have the command."

Anderson said, "Sergeant-at-arms, front and center."

Another big marine named Art walked up and stood next to Tony. Maybe they were going to give him a medal? Anderson said, "Present arms." Art balled his hand into a fist and pulled back as though he was about to punch somebody. The military was definitely weird. Anderson said, "Fire." Art slugged Tony on the top of the arm. Tony yelled. "Owwww! What the hell did you do that for?"

Then Art took out a glue stick and rubbed it all over Tony's shoulder. Anderson said, "Mr. Anthony Renallo, for your ability to adapt and overcome under adverse circumstances, for your loyalty to fallen comrades and for your courage in the face of the enemy you are hereby inducted as the first honorary member of the United States Space Marines with the rank of Exterminator, First-Class." She smashed one of the space-man patches against his shoulder with her good hand. "Congratulations." The rest of the marines cheered. Benny let him down and they rushed him. Somebody pulled off his Renallo Extermination hat and slapped a green marine hat in its place.

Tony smiled. He couldn't wait to see the look on his mother-in-law's face when these guys showed up at the wedding.*

 

Story copyright ©1999 by Thomas P. Wagner <thomas_p_wagner@hotmail.com>

Artwork "Laser Fire!" copyright ©1999 by Steve Munsinger <smunsin@trib.com>

 

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