Several miles north of Pretoria, South Africa
June 2nd, 2013
The open savannah was eerily quiet, broken only by the sound of the cool breeze rustling through the long grass or the occasional call of a nocturnal animal. A mostly dirt highway winded across the landscape and provided a scenic route across the country of South Africa, one that many tourists had taken over the many years of its existence as a direct result of this. Savannah and hills spread out on either side of the highway, with plenty of dry long grass and many trees taking up most of the surrounding landscape. If one was lucky they may have been able to sight some local animals, something that would have excited tourists but was of no concern to the people travelling along the highway now.
The darkness was illuminated above by the vast array of stars and the half moon that hung up high. The stars became more scattered and less frequent as one neared a population centre like Pretoria, the many city lights there only dimming the light of the stars above.
Nights would out in the countryside would often by dark and quite atmospheric, tranquil even. This quiet ambient mood was spoiled when several pairs of headlights broke into the gloom and the faint rumble of engines began to fill the vicinity. Some nesting birds were frightened out of trees and some surprised animals either roared, growled, ran away or carried out a combination of the three.
The convoy of vehicles consisted of two trucks and four armoured personnel carriers. Each of the vehicles wore the insignia of MNU (Multinational United) while the four armoured personnel carriers were painted in the favourite bright authoritative white that the MNU Corporation put on all of their vehicles. In the darkness the vehicles stood out against the darkened backdrop, the headlight beams simply making the presence of the vehicles even more noticeable.
One of the trucks was a flatbed yet on its back something large and almost cylindrical in size was laid out on its rear. The object was secured underneath a black tarpaulin while a pair of armed MNU mercenaries sat near it, one of whom was calmly smoking a cigarette whilst resting his rifle in his lap. The object would have been cylindrical in shape if it wasn't for the many smooth curves and bumps that implied that it was a rather complicated item in its design. It was perhaps two and a half metres in length and a metre wide, yet none of the mercenaries could be sure since the item was covered with the black tarp. The black tarp seemed the type that would be used to hide sensitive things from view, a presumption that was amplified by the fact that all of the mercenaries had been ordered to not touch the tarp and the object being kept underneath. All of them knew that MNU had its secrets yet all of them knew that it wasn't their business to find out what.
Within each of the armoured personnel carriers were about half a dozen mercenaries that had since sold their services to MNU's large hired force. MNU had a large amount of mercenaries and equipment at its disposal and had since managed to make an army that would have rivalled any of the armies of the most powerful nations on the planet. Of course, with an army that consisted of mostly hired mercenaries and rent-a-cops there would be discipline problems. In past years the MNU heads had started training their own personal armies much to the chagrin of the world's nations but being a large global-spanning corporation they could more or less get away with it. The days of the MNU mercenary were numbered it seemed, but even Patrick McDougall was confident that there would always be a need for mercenaries.
Patrick was about thirty-seven with close-cut brown hair, eyes with a matching colour to that hair and somewhat well-chiselled features. He was from Ireland and had spent some years in his home nation's military before a brawl with an officer had cost him his career. Now he had decided to sell out his services as a mercenary and as a result had ended up working with MNU. He had been expecting to more or less play the role of a security guard, protecting the corporation's investments wherever he had been sent.
Things had started off like that until recently. After MNU had weaselled its way out of the trials in court it had been forced to do to answer for its crimes of illegal genetics research (Patrick didn't care much about the details) it seemed that the corporation had become increasingly paranoid. Not only had there been an influx of their hired mercenaries into South Africa over the last couple of years but Patrick had been among them, dragged from his rather comfortable position guarding an MNU warehouse in London in order to be flown all the way down to South Africa.
Patrick knew just as well as anybody else who hadn't been living under a rock for the past few years that there had been trouble in South Africa and that it had been growing at an alarming rate. Patrick had always figured that MNU's treatment of the aliens (or "prawns" as most people referred to them) would have eventually gotten them into trouble and this assumption had been proven correct back in 2010: This had been when that whole illegal genetics research business came up. Not only that but Patrick was pretty sure there had been numerous deaths involved and that some prawn had managed to escape Earth in the ship that had spent since the early 1980s suspended over Johannesburg. Ever since that fiasco MNU had been ravaged by both the public and the governments of some of the world's most powerful nations, being deemed as an "irresponsible" and "inhuman" organization that only cared for its own interests. Still MNU stayed in operation despite its public image receiving a severe blow. And still MNU kept most of the alien "prawns" locked up in District 10 like second-class citizens and thus received plenty of bad press about it. Where were the equal rights for the prawns and the equal treatment?
Patrick cared little for corporation politics. He was a mercenary and was the type of apparent no-good "in it for the money" sort of mercenary who only looked forward to his next pay-check and little else. Being sent to South Africa in order to help repress the growing prawn insurgency was only a slight inconvenience to him.
He had seen it coming ever since MNU was put in charge of the welfare of the prawns in the 1980s. Sure, he had only been young back then and had watched in awe as did everyone else on the planet when first contact was made with the alien "prawns". However, as soon as the prawns were forced into District 9's slums he had seen coming what was happening now: discontent. MNU had made sure to make the prawns out to be stupid and reckless and definitely not deserving of freedom on Earth in the propaganda campaigns but Patrick knew better. He also knew that if one group oppressed another there was going to be some sort of rebellion. He was from Ireland, he would know.
His grandfather had always rambled on about the British and how they were oppressing the Irish people (his grandfather had been "old school" to say the least). Patrick's father had been a terrrorist of sorts man, participating in more than one street shootout with the "oppressive" British forces. There was going to be discontent in any circumstance where one group greatly oppressed another. Wasn't there discontent everywhere?
The influx of hired mercenary forces into South Africa was an apparent security precaution. The prawns were getting organized, especially in recent months when attacks had escalated and the whole country had been put in a state of emergency. There were many theories being thrown around (just tune into any talk show on television) and many awkward questions being tossed to and fro as well. How were they getting organized? Who was organizing them? And if they were so stupid how come the prawns knew how to blow up a power station or oil refinery or some other important part of society's infrastructure? And how could they be operating out of District 10 (which was more or less the equivalent of a concentration camp)?
There were plenty of theories, some completely outlandish and some not. Some had suggested that the prawns were increasing the frequency of their strikes against the humans in preparation for an all-out attack, one that many seemed to think was on its way since the ship left Johannesburg. Or maybe there were human sympathisers organizing the prawns, a theory that was supported by the fact that most of the attacks had been carried out against MNU assets and not general public ones (although some of those still occurred).
Patrick sat in the passenger section of one of the armoured personnel carriers, his mind brimming with thoughts about the current state of South Africa and why he was here. He was outfitted in the standard grey and black MNU mercenary gear including a Kevlar vest and combat fatigues. A Vektor CR21 rifle was resting on his lap while a personal radio was strapped to a spot on his vest close to his left shoulder. Currently the airwaves were silent since radio silence had been ordered for this particular operation.
The operation was apparently a movement operation; one that Patrick had had no choice in whether to go on or not. The orders had come through at about midnight and he and plenty of his mercenary friends had been woken up and told to prepare. The escalating insurgent actions had been enough of an excuse for the squad to go out in full combat gear, rifles and Kevlar vests and all.
According to what they had all been told there was an important item that needed to be moved from MNU headquarters and into Zimbabwe. The reasons why had not been disclosed nor had information concerning the nature of the item they were escorting. Patrick could only wonder why they had been woken up in the dead of the night to do it. Surely this sort of straightforward operation could have been done a lot more easily in the morning?
Patrick knew better than to ask a lot of questions. His job here was to escort the cargo and ensure that it arrived at its destination south of Bulawayo (in Zimbabwe) safely. The obvious implication was that there would be trouble, hence why so many mercenaries including Patrick had been put as the escort for the truck carrying the cargo. There was the slightly less obvious but still plausible implication that the prawn insurgents would try something and possibly either take or destroy the special cargo. Patrick doubted anything would happen, especially since they were miles from District 10 and any prawns.
Seated inside the armoured personnel carrier were five other mercenaries, each of them outfitted in standard MNU combat gear. Most were tired from having been woken up in the dead of the night and made to escort the special cargo and as a result none of the five were really talkative. The self-styled leader of the group, Major Heckler, sat across from Patrick and was casually puffing on a cigar while occasionally glancing at the others with his usual serious gaze.
Major Heckler was your standard ex-military man, someone who had had a successful military career in South Africa's armed forces before he had grown somewhat discontented over the obvious control MNU had over the nation's military. So, rather than have his career restricted by MNU advisors he had decided to resign and had then sold his services to the very organization that had been keeping him down all of these years. Someone like Heckler would have been a Colonel by now if it hadn't been for MNU's interference.
Heckler had close-cut greying hair and carefully trimmed sideburns. His dull blue eyes brought with them a serious "no nonsense" look as they carefully regarded each of the six mercenaries seated within the armoured personnel carrier before returning to the empty patch of wall in between Patrick and Kelley (Kelley being the slightly chubby thirty-two year old with dark hair seated on Patrick's right). The Major continued to stare at that patch of metal wall with great interest but the look in his eyes made it clear that his mind was far from here. Major Heckler was perhaps the only member of the group that did not look tired and annoyed for having been woken up in the dead of the night. Instead, he seemed to be taking the opportunity to think long and hard about…well, it was impossible to tell what he was thinking. None of them could read minds, unfortunately.
Kelley had a pair of headphones on and an MP3 player in a pocket on his vest. From the faint noises Patrick could hear coming from the headphones it sounded like Kelley was listening to some fairly standard hip hop song, full of fast talking and near incomprehensible lyrics.
"It's quiet," Heckler said suddenly. The others looked at him but soon lost interest, returning to dwelling in their own thoughts. Heckler frowned and shook his head.
"If there's one thing I hate it's complete silence," Heckler said, his voice edged with a tone of sheer annoyance, "where's the life in you people anyway? I feel as if I'm sitting with a bunch of fucking zombies."
One of the mercenaries laughed.
"The only zombie here is you, boss," the mercenary said.
Heckler raised an eyebrow, raising one inquisitive eyebrow in the process.
The mercenary (Turgidson his name was, at least Patrick thought this was the mercenary's name) seemed a little nervous all of a sudden, managing a weak smile as Heckler's cruel examining gaze found its way onto him.
"Well, uh…you've been staring at that wall for a while now," Turgidson replied, sounding keen to end the conversation as quickly as possible, "you looked like you were in some sort of a trance, as if that wall got you hypnotized or somethin'…"
Heckler shook his head, keeping his expression neutral yet his dull blue eyes still carried that cruel examining gaze.
"I've been thinking," Heckler replied, "and thinking is something you morons don't seem to do a hell of a lot…"
There was some laughter from a few members of the group, Patrick included. Sure, the Major was insulting their intelligence but he did it in a light-hearted and somewhat amusing fashion.
"I've been thinking about what's on that truck," Major Heckler said, "sure, I'm not in a position to ask questions and neither are any of you. Hell, we're just here to look good and get paid by those idiots who run the corporation…"
Some more slight and subdued laughter followed. They all knew of the sheer inaction that their jobs in MNU brought and how they seemed to get paid for sitting around while making it look like they were protecting MNU's assets. None of them could care much for MNU's assets and were only in it for the healthy pay-check. They were mercenaries after all.
"Still, there's something that doesn't quite add up," Heckler continued, pausing in order to puff on his cigar again. He pulled it out of his mouth with one hand, puffing a few small wispy clouds of smoke that wafted towards the ceiling of the armoured personnel carrier's ceiling. It faded from view as it dissipated within the air of the passenger cabin yet it left the smell of smoke on all six men's nostrils.
"Think about it for a second…that is, if any of your pint-sized brains can handle the strain," Heckler said, "We're a bunch of no-good mercenaries, hired by the corporation to do its dirty work. They screw up and we're the ones who have to clean up the mess they leave. We're not paid to ask questions, we're paid to follow orders. What I don't get is why they dragged us out of our beds in the dead of the night to escort some truck out into the desert. Does anybody else see a problem or two with this? I wouldn't be surprised if I was the only one who saw the problem since I'm the only one in this group who has any sort of intelligence…"
Patrick was the only one to respond. His voice carried that slight twang of an Irish accent but during the time he had spent outside of his home country it had since diminished into a mere background quality to his voice. It might have been the last tie he had to Ireland and if so he would have preferred it to go as well.
"There's a problem," Patrick replied bluntly. The armoured personnel carrier bounced over a pothole in the dirt road and the whole frame of the vehicle jumped suddenly, shaking everyone inside the passenger cabin and sending a resounding clunk! throughout the interior.
"Fuck Pat, you're damn good at stating the obvious," Heckler replied, lacking any sort of humour even when it was obvious he was making a crack at Patrick's intelligence. The Major was always like this, making it hard for someone to determine whether he was joking or not.
Patrick continued nonplussed.
"I see the point you're making, boss," he continued, "What could be so important that we have to get off our asses in the middle of the night to escort? We're in for a hell of a long drive if we're headed for Zimbabwe, of all places…"
"Damn right Pat," Heckler said, nodding in agreement, "I'm thinking that maybe this 'special cargo' is something those corporation morons only thought of moving at the last minute. It's probably the sort of item that merely fell on their laps and it's hot enough for them to want to get rid of it as soon as possible. Either that or there's the risk of someone pulling a stunt in order to get it…"
"What do you mean?" Turgidson asked this question and the worry was clear in his voice.
Heckler rolled his eyes, unimpressed with Turgidson's sheer thick headedness.
"I mean with all the shit those prawns have been stirring up lately it seems safe to think that MNU wants to get rid of some more 'sensitive' items," Heckler replied, "items that may be of some interest to the dumbass aliens, especially since it's pretty damn clear that somebody's getting the fuckers organized. Who? I don't know. Nor do I give a shit. It's probably some humans, or 'prawn sympathisers' or alien rights activists who are doing it. Those aliens have been getting all sorts of guns and equipment from whoever's organizing them, whether it be aforementioned prawn sympathisers or someone else, whoever it is. As I believe, 'give a man a gun and he'll think he's invincible'. Obviously the prawns are stupid enough to believe this, judging from what's been happening lately. When a shootout starts they're like fucking fodder."
The mercenaries nodded. The prawns were often reckless in their attacks and almost stupidly confident, even when faced with insurmountable odds. They never surrendered regardless of the odds they were up against. Most people thought they were too stupid to surrender but there were some who had theorized that maybe the prawns believed in what they were fighting for. This all went back to whoever was getting them organized, something that seemed to have gotten MNU worried enough for the corporation to order operations like this. Moving a special cargo out of the country in the dead of the night? Definitely something secretive going on there.
"From what I've heard of this insurgency bullshit it seems the prawns are getting hold of all sorts of stuff, including some of those excellent alien guns that the corporation was so interested in a few years back," Heckler continued, "sure, maybe they confiscated most of them but now they're flowing back onto the market and into the hands of prawns themselves. I'm afraid boys that Kevlar vests do little against a lancing beam of energy…"
"You've seen them fired?" Turgidson asked, his eyes widening.
Heckler nodded slowly, taking a moment to think back on the memories that went with these past experiences. Very few people had seen the alien weapons in action since most were in MNU's possession or in the possession of the Nigerian cartel that had once had a strong foothold in District 9. The alien weapons were only able to be used by someone with the DNA of a prawn, hence why they were absolutely useless in the hands of a human. MNU's genetic research had been meaning to find a way to counteract this little flaw but after the court cases in late 2010 they had been forced to abandon this research.
"Seen them fired?" Heckler laughed. "Sure I have. I was even shot at once. Damned lucky it missed me…" He noticed that all eyes inside the armoured personnel carrier were trained on him. He had caught everyone's attention by the look of it.
"This beam of like…well, it was like energy or something…It just zipped its way through the air and blew a hole in the wall near me. Damned lucky that it didn't hit me since it would have blown me to pieces." Heckler frowned, noticing the few disbelieving gazes the other mercenaries were displaying toward shim.
"I'm not bullshitting," Heckler added in his usual serious tone, "I'll have you know that I was actually part of a large scale firefight a few years back. And it was a damned exciting one. Shit, it's the only action I've seen in my years working for this corporation."
"Firefight?" Patrick frowned. "The only one I can remember hearing about from a few years back was…"
"Was the one in District 9," Heckler finished, keeping his expression level and tone serious, "yeah, that's the one. I was there. You could say I was the only survivor…"
"As if," Kelley interjected, taking the headphones off of his ears, "you weren't there. All the MNU guys involved in that particular shootout got killed. As I recall, there was some sort of alien mech unit going on the rampage."
Heckler frowned, annoyed. Patrick didn't know what to believe and so simply remained silent, letting Major Heckler continue with whatever story he had to tell without interrupting.
"I'm not bullshitting," Heckler replied in a blunt manner, "I was there. I managed to get myself out of the shootout before I ended up dead like the others…"
"In other words, you ran away?" Turgidson was the one to ask this question and he immediately received a mean-spirited look from Major Heckler. Patrick could tell that the Major was now pissed off.
"You calling me a coward, fuck-face?" Heckler asked, delivering it as more of a rhetorical question than anything else.
Turgidson recoiled, a look of anxiety crossing his face. He simply smiled sheepishly.
"No, I wasn't calling you a coward, boss…"
"And make sure you don't," Heckler added, prodding Turgidson with one finger in the gut. Turgidson almost jumped from his seat in fright while Heckler regarded him with some noticeable dislike. "Because I don't like taking shit from dumbasses like you, you got that?"
Turgidson nodded, shifting further and further into the corner of the passenger cabin as Heckler grabbed him and held him forcefully at the sides. Patrick and the others watched on with only slight amusement as Heckler gave a mean and unnerving glare towards Turgidson who in turn looked like he was bordering on shitting himself. Major Heckler could be an intimidating man, a fact that was not lost on any of the mercenaries within the passenger cabin with him.
Heckler let the ever tensing Turgidson go and shifted himself back into his original spot, taking a puff on his cigar as if nothing had ever happened.
"As I was saying," Heckler continued whilst looking around at Patrick and the other mercenaries, "I was the only survivor of the battle in District 9 and I'm proud of that title. And I was no coward either. I was far from it, in fact." He showed a slight hint of pride for only a brief instant but it was soon gone again. Patrick didn't know whether to believe him or not but Heckler certainly wasn't one to lie. Then again it was near impossible to work out whether Heckler was being serious about something or not.
The armoured personnel carrier continued to trundle along the uneven dirt road as it wounds its way across the countryside as part of a six vehicle convoy. There were only two windows in the vehicle and they were small, positioned in the rear of the vehicle and provided only limited views of what was outside. Currently they were filled with darkness and the faint illumination of the stars from outside. The interior was cooped and confined to say the least, although there was a periscope that could be used to provide a three-hundred and sixty degree view of the vehicle's surroundings.
"I faced down the alien mech unit with rifle in hand and a badass frown on my face," Heckler continued, his voice taking on a much prouder tone as he continued. Now Patrick could tell he was making it up but he seemed to have all the others believing him so Patrick decided to listen and play along as well.
"And shot the fucker I did," Heckler said, "not that bullets had much of an effect. Still, I was so damn courageous I emptied a whole magazine into it. And then I turned around and started running as beams of energy blasted into the ground near my feet…It was a wild rush and certainly beat anything I had faced before…Did I ever tell you about that time that I killed a dozen prawns single-handedly using a knife?"
Patrick lost interest in Heckler's increasingly bullshit anecdotes. Instead he returned to pondering his own thoughts, taking in the obvious suspicious circumstances that came with this operation. What sort of special cargo needed to be moved out of the country in the dead of the night anyway?
Heckler continued with his story, taking on a rambling tone as he did. He seemed to be enjoying himself, making motioning gestures with his hands as he imitated swinging a combat knife.
"They all came at me at once they did," Heckler said, swinging his right hand in a knife-like slicing motion, "but I cut the first few up before they could get close to me. And by that time the rest had me surrounded so not only did I slice and dice my way through the bastards but I had to kick and bunch and elbow and bite…" He paused, noticing that everyone but Patrick seemed rather interested in his story.
"Any of you morons ever tasted prawn?" Heckler asked, frowning, "I hear it's a delicacy among those Nigerian gangsters. And hell, as I was saying I even had to bite a few of the fuckers to get out of a tight spot…"
"I've tasted prawn boss," Turgidson suddenly said. Everyone looked at him and he immediately shrank back into his seat. "You know…on seafood platters…"
Heckler rolled his eyes whilst shaking his head. To him Turgidson was nothing more than a halfwit.
"No you dumbass…'prawn' prawn, as in alien prawn," Heckler said, the annoyance clear in his voice, "I'm talking about the aliens, not the little red things that you get on platters at Christmas lunches. Those things are a mess to eat anyway, what with you having to peel away the outer shell and toss it away…and then, if they're not cooked properly they're all gooey and shit…" He paused again, thinking about this before looking towards Patrick.
"Hey, Pat, you ever tasted prawn?" Heckler asked, raising an eyebrow.
Patrick hadn't been quite paying attention and so looked up, caught off-guard by the sudden question that had been sent his way. Heckler was looking at him expectantly, awaiting an answer.
"Earth to Pat," Heckler said mockingly, waving at Patrick yet keeping a straight face, "I'm talking to you and I asked you a question and so I'll repeat it: You ever tasted prawn?"
"I can't say that I have…" Before Patrick could finish his answer Heckler had interrupted him, merely brushing aside Patrick's response as if it didn't matter.
"Good, because it's fucking terrible," Heckler replied before he regarded the group as a whole again. Once more the armoured personnel carrier bounced over an uneven section of the road, shaking the whole frame of the vehicle while bouncing the occupants somewhat violently in their seats.
"I don't know how the Nigerians stomach the stuff," Heckler continued, "it tastes worse than seafood and I hate seafood. That's why you never see me having fish and chips…" He paused for a moment, considering the subject carefully. "No, I prefer fried chicken or burgers or something other than seafood…Something other than seafood or Chinese food. You see, I also don't like Chinese food. It makes me feel kind of sick every time I have it…"
Patrick simply nodded along with what Major Heckler was saying yet at the same time didn't pay much attention to the man's words. Patrick sat back in his seat, able to feel the cold metal of his rifle through his pants from where it was resting on his lap. It seemed like an unnecessary weight to him since he could see no reason for it. They were out in the countryside, far from any prawn activity…
And that's when the armoured personnel carrier slowed down before coming to a halt with the rest of the convoy. Immediately Heckler was sitting up, suddenly alert and only slightly confused. The other mercenaries were sitting up and looking around as well, exchanging confused and worried glances as they pondered over why they had come to a sudden halt.
A/N: And so it begins. This chapter is the first part of the "prologue", hence the sort of abrupt ending. The main character, Lukas Farber, is introduced after a few more chapters. And if you're curious, Wikus does show up...just not for a long while.