Less than half an hour later, Henry and Jaspers reported that we had everything assembled and awaiting my order.
Down the hill from us, the huge mushroom-like object that we’d tracked here from the Blue Diamond facility still hadn’t moved. We’d done our best to avoid announcing our presence, but it didn’t appear to even be monitoring for us. It just sat there, pulsing roughly once every two or three seconds, as we assembled the weaponry we’d brought.
I did have to admit that, although it had sounded like overkill when Jaspers listed it all out, I preferred having it all here. Along with the Stinger missiles, aimed down at the huge mushroom from all three trucks, we also had several rolling mines, ranging in strength from antipersonnel to antitank. Jaspers had the big Bushmaster set up on a tripod and loaded with several thousand rounds of ammunition, and Feng had disappeared off somewhere with her rifle, ready to drop the Hammer of God on any target that presented itself.
All that weaponry ought to have comforted me.
Instead, I couldn’t shake the concern that it wouldn’t be enough. Hell, it might not be nearly enough. We’d never faced anything like this.
“So, what’s the plan, boss?” Jaspers finally asked, as we looked down at the mushroom. “Personally, I’m in favor of not giving it any bloody advance warning. Might not be the most sporting, but then again, it’s not exactly known for bloody playing fair, is it?”
“As much as I hate to agree with the Englishman, I’m afraid that I do in this one circumstance,” Henry jumped in, on Jaspers’ heels. “We’ve got the explosives set up to catch it in a crossfire, best as we can, but if it moves, we’ll lose that element.”
They both looked over at Sergei, the last member of the team standing beside us. The tall, lanky Russian just shrugged a shoulder. “No problem with ambush in Russia,” he said. “Is a fair tactic.”
Feng could hear us over the communications system, but she didn’t speak. I didn’t know whether that was reluctance to reveal her position or if she just didn’t have an opinion. Corinne also didn’t speak up, but I knew that she was probably focusing on keeping Sara happy and distracted.
We’d left her and Sara back a ways, just in case the action went south. She’d objected, of course, but I didn’t want her seeing anything that happened here. No matter which way the dice fell, she shouldn’t be observing this.
But I still felt her presence in my head, knew that I had to uphold my promise to her.
“No,” I said, eliciting groans from the other three. “I’m going down to confront this thing. If it reacts to me in any way that seems threatening, you pull the triggers. Understand?”
Of course, they all objected. Jaspers spoke up angrily, Henry tried to use reason, and Sergei pulled his lip back in a sneer as he told me that I didn’t need to demonstrate my foolish bravery to the team. I let them all shout at me for a minute, their voices washing over me like babble, and then held up a hand.
“I promised her that I’d try and talk to it, first,” I said simply.
One by one, they all fell reluctantly silent. Sergei and Henry nodded, although they didn’t look happy about accepting my decision. Jaspers, however, kept on talking.
“Come on, Brian, you can’t be bloody serious about this,” he roared, little flecks of spittle flying from between mustache and beard. “That thing could be responsible for killing billions, and we need to put it out of commission – and you bloody want to go touch the damn thing, first? Just for some little girl? It’s bloody stupid madness-”
I could have shouted back at him. Hell, Jaspers probably wanted that. But instead, I just looked steadily back at him, waiting. Inside my head, I slowly counted down from thirty.
When I hit zero, I picked up my rifle, checked it, and started walking down the hill.
For one second, Jaspers stared after me, his mouth hanging open and face twisted in agonized frustration. “Oh, God bloody fucking damn you,” he growled, looking like he wanted to rip out his own beard.
Instead, however, he picked up his own rifle and set off down the hill, after me. I hesitated, wondering if he’d truly break protocol and try to drag me back.
He didn’t. “Well, let’s get this stupid idea over with,” he sighed as he drew alongside me, glaring down at the mushroom ahead of us like his eyes could set it afire. “You utter bloody stupid idiot.”
I couldn’t keep the smile off my face. “I knew you’d support me, buddy,” I told him, picking up my pace once again.
He shot me a scornful glare. “Of course. Someone’s gotta be there beside you in the firefight, drag your sorry ass out after you do something stupid. Why do you think I’m on your ragtag little team?”
I didn’t have a response to that; I just smiled as we picked our way down the hill, down towards the mushroom.
Up close, it was even bigger than it looked from above. I guessed that it was somewhere between the size of an Abrams and a small house. Maybe twenty-five feet tall, and one and a half times as wide? It squatted there in the gully between the two hills, descending all the way down to the ground.
No, I realized as we drew closer. That wasn’t quite true. The cap of the mushroom dropped almost all the way to the ground, but there were a few inches, maybe three or four, of clearance. When I squatted down, I could see thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of tiny little white strands dropping from the underside of the cap to burrow into the soil. Roots?
“Doesn’t look like it’s going to be moving,” I remarked, keying my microphone so the rest of the team could hear. “Lots of tiny little roots underneath, digging into the ground.”
“That’s not such a good thing, Captain,” Henry answered after a moment, sounding rather worried. “You know how mushrooms spread, don’t you?”
“I do.” They spread through root systems, often very extensive ones, that could reach for miles underground. I didn’t want to think much about that. If this thing burrowed into the ground, could regenerate from an underground root bulb, it would be next to impossible to fully kill.
We’d reached the edge of the mushroom; its pulsing side was close enough now for me to reach out and touch it. It still didn’t seem to be showing any change or acknowledgment of our presence. It was acting, I admitted to myself, like a giant mushroom. If there was anything of Nathaniel Hobbson in this, he was buried pretty deeply.
“Now what?” Jaspers asked me as we came to a stop beside it. “You want to lick the thing, just to be bloody sure you’ve done every stupid thing in your arsenal?”
I had no intention of licking the mushroom – but I did reach out, very gingerly, and touch one finger against its edge.
To be honest, I didn’t really know what I expected. Maybe there would be a rush of memory, I’d be swept up in another vision like I’d experienced in the Blue Diamond facility. Maybe I thought that Nathaniel Hobbson himself would speak to me, like the disembodied Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars. Perhaps there’d even be the appearance of a giant caterpillar, something straight out of a Wonderland fairy tale.
Nothing happened. The mushroom felt curiously warm, with a rubbery texture that reminded me disgustingly of flesh. It pulsed beneath my hand, but there didn’t seem to be any change in its speed or rhythm. I might as well be a fly, landing on its surface.
That tore it, I decided. If there had once been a mind in there, some sort of residual spark of humanity, it was gone now.
“Let’s blow it up,” I said.
To be continued…