Eater

Part 1

By Reinaldo E. Grandal

It sensed the vermin's presence. Hunger returned, and cunning.

The vermin's brain was damaged and weak. It could hear the vermin's thoughts, and the vermin could hear its own. It would try to sway the vermin, trick it. It had done so with other vermin before. It would do so again.

It needed no persuasion. Its makers had built into it a single-minded and unbounded resolve. It would perform its duties and grant no quarter.

It would eat.

***

The UH-1 winked into existence above the taiga, shook and quickly rose as displaced air caught the spinning rotors and momentarily lifted the aircraft toward the gray cloud ceiling.

Robert Kramer felt ill. He looked about as he and the others shook off the combined effects of the SupLuc jump and the sudden ascent.

Fisektsis stabilized the transport. "Everybody alright?"

There were several affirmative mumbles.

"All right," Wittenberg barked to Fisektsis from the co-pilot's seat. He pointed to a circle on the exposed quarter of a folded map. "We're here." He pointed to a second circle. "DDI says the Russians'll set up here." He then pointed to a third circle, tapping it twice. "LZ," he said simply.

"Five-by-five," Fisektsis responded. He shifted the joystick and the Huey bolted toward the hidden dawn sun.

Kramer looked at Wittenberg, studied the back of his beefy neck and blond crew cut. Wittenberg always barked. In fact, Kramer thought, "Wittenberg" should be the name of a dog, like "Rottweiler." When Wittenberg didn't bark, he growled, preferably in words of one syllable, unless he was "engendered with an overwhelming desire" to hear himself talk.

Kramer shifted the weight of his M-16 in his arms, looked out at the forest beneath them, closed his eyes and turned away. He wanted a drink.

When he opened his eyes again, he turned to Harbin. His friend was taut, powerful; even the muscles in Harbin's chiseled brown face were well defined. Kramer looked from his short flattop crew cut to his perpetually pessimistic eyes. The look in them told him: Rat fuck. From the word GO.

Kramer smiled weakly, and then his smile faded as he looked back at the landscape below. He thought of Peg ("I'll leave, Bobby, I swear . . . ") and Vinnie ("You're a no-good, lousy, stinkin' drunk!") and swallowed hard. "Hell," he shouted to Harbin, "it's better than the District."

"At least back home you know what you're dealing with." Harbin's voice was deeper and less nasal than Kramer's and resonated more easily over the chop of the rotors. "There are rules to the game. No rules here. Anything goes."

Kramer turned again to look at Wittenberg. Kramer had seven years in the Agency, and had signed up for several missions over which Wittenberg had happily accepted authority. Kramer liked him. Wittenberg was old-school Agency, an idealist who was convinced that with the right combination of prudence and action he and others in the Agency like him (who very often thought that they were the only ones who knew what was good for everyone else) could change the world. He was expedient, ambitious. Nothing stopped him. If necessary, he worked alone. Some thought him cold, ruthless and calculating, but Kramer knew that Wittenberg had a strong sense of purpose and integrity.

Kramer turned again to Harbin. "Fuck it," he said. "You heard what Wittenberg told us. 'No engagement.' A piece of cake."

"You hope," Harbin retorted. His smirk was vague, elusive. "Nothing's ever that clear-cut. If we're spotted, the Russians'll react, and so will we." He nodded toward Wittenberg, certain he could not be heard. "I don't have any more faith in him than I do in 'Ivan'," he said, "or anyone else, for that matter."

Kramer knew that he could not reason with Harbin when he was in this state of mind. Harbin was at the mercy of his moods, psychically absorbing any atmosphere around him without realizing it. Right now the atmosphere was tense, and Harbin was feeling reactionary.

Williams' fair complexion grew slightly flushed with quiet irritation as he studied the terrain. He brushed his red hair away from his forehead. "Crude, very crude." His voice was thin, reedy. "Most uncivilized."

Harbin turned to Williams and smiled. "God's green earth. The beauty and grandeur of nature."

Williams smirked, nodding in enthusiastic pessimism.

Kramer looked down again at the trees.

***

Even with its crippled brain, dissected and reshaped by its masters to function as they had seen fit, it remembered how its makers had thought that the planet was inhabited only by the vermin and other dumb beasts and had happily begun to settle here, planting the first crops.

It alone had sensed their host, the master of this world.

It felt a kinship with its host. Both had been created by other beings. Both were grotesque perversions of their makers' images, one by design, the other by choice.

Though it had done so out of mindless hunger and a relentless sense of duty, whereas its host had done so out of fearful pride and ambition, both had rebelled.

And both were cunning.