My “Gathering Dead” short story, The Farm, is now available on Amazon, for a mere 99₵. It’ll appear on other platforms over the coming days, and please, forgive the abbreviated description–that was just a placeholder I dropped in, but neglected to correct before it was published. I’ll get that squared away as soon as I can.
Will be MIA in Texas all of next week, so y’all have yourself some fun while I’m away!
For myself, my little boy was diagnosed with autism when he was about three. He doesn’t speak, has some emotional distress conditions, but he’s beautiful and happy. Poppa Knight and Momma Knight ship him off to the best schools in the area, and we keep him growing and learning as best as we can. Despite everything we do, though, his road will be a hard one. So give a kid a hand and tell folks there’s this little book out there that might add some pennies to the war effort, eh?
I don’t normally post personal pictures and the like here, but I’ll bust open the piggy bank this time. Say hello to my son, Brian.
Sidebar, Yer Honor: Earthfall has been doing some great business. Thanks for all of you who helped make it such a success. I’m very happy that I’m able to move into a new genre and pick up a passel of readers who have never seen my stuff before, but without you guys piling on for the initial buys, it wouldn’t have climbed so far up the charts in such a short time. You’re all good folks, even if you are a bit deranged to think I write good stuff. (And if you’ve read it, please leave a review!)
Still looking to push The Farm out next week, but with tax season upon me, it might be delayed until the following week. Not to worry, though. It’ll be along quite soon!
Here’s some of what Craig has to say about Earthfall:
[Knight] raises the technical and military detail in his books completely off the Michael Crichton scale and to the point of fetish, which is good for me as a reader, because I love a tense, action-packed apocalyptic story told with extreme realism. On every page, you know you are being told a story by a guy who knows his business. The all-terrain fighting machines the Harmony explorers use to cross the wastelands are virtually characters in the book, and I loved every minute of screen time they had. They’re fantastic–the ultimate ROAD WARRIOR vehicles. Knight’s attention to detail and realism also means his characters don’t do anything that has you slapping your head in disbelief. From the steady Captain Andrews to the haunted veteran Mulligan, they’re stark, likable, tough.
Thanks a million, bro!
Link to the product in Amazon’s Create Space book area: https://www.createspace.com/4174997
Should be available in other markets fairly shortly, and I expect it to be listed on Amazon with the Kindle title shortly.
And now…back to writing!
For the next five days, the book I co-authored with Derek Paterson is available for free on Amazon. Here’s the product description:
Even Predators Can Be Prey.
International security consultant Jerry Manning has a lucrative sideline: he kills people for the Chinese Mob, so quickly and so effectively using his martial art skills that the Chinese call him the White Tiger, a nickname born out of respect–and fear.
When wealthy Chinese businessman James Lin’s son is brutally murdered in a San Francisco penthouse where he was engaged in an illicit affair with a beautiful actress, Manning is hired to fly back to the States to help track down the killer. But closely guarded family secrets are reluctantly dragged into the light. Lin’s older son was also recently murdered in Shanghai, with the same M.O., suggesting that the real target was always James Lin, and that the killer is an assassin with skills every bit as deadly as Manning’s.
S.F.P.D. detectives determined to uncover the truth behind the murder are on a crash course with Manning, blocking his view as the elusive assassin slashes her way through Lin’s defenses, intent upon exacting old-fashioned blood vengeance upon her hated victim, whose past crimes have finally caught up with him.
This one’s not for kiddies, folks–it’s a sexy, balls-to-the-wall thriller full of all the good stuff, for which I scored a custom acronym: MV/ASP (Massive Violence/Actual Sexual Penetration). So if anything over PG-13 offends you, prepare to curl your toes in shock! You have been warned.
Well, at least on Amazon. EARTHFALL has managed to make its appearance, starting with Amazon in the US, and I expect it to make it to Amazon’s foreign markets within the day. It hasn’t yet appeared in Barnes & Noble, but I’m hopeful that will occur soon.
Paperback to follow within two weeks or so, and I’ll let you fine folks know when it’s rolling off the presses. And as soon as the book is available on the other usual sites, I’ll be sure to share the links.
Hope you guys like this one!
Going a bit deeper into the book now, since release day is rolling up. In this chapter, SCEVs Four and Five have completed the overland trek from the stricken Harmony Base, which lies in western Kansas, to San Jose. Andrews has SCEV Five hold back while he, Mulligan, Spencer, and Eklund go forward in SCEV Four to locate the warehouse where the needed core supports are supposed to be. After navigating through the shattered wreck of the city, they come upon the delapidated warehouse.
Unfortunately for our heroes, things don’t go well.
What, you thought it’d be all puppies and unicorns?
The clamshell doors on the SCEV’s starboard side opened. The lower half formed a brief ramp to the ground while the upper half tried valiantly to shade the occupants of the cramped airlock from the blazing sun, which hung high overhead. Andrews walked down the three steps to the bone-dry asphalt and felt the day’s heat immediately, even though his protective suit and respirator. Mulligan was right behind him, holding his assault rifle at low ready. Andrews thought it was kind of dumb bringing weapons with them, since the chances of anyone surviving out here were simply astronomical, but the gargantuan NCO had insisted. Because security was his territory, Andrews had relented. He’d had to argue with Leona for a minute, since she was convinced it was plain nuts to carry an assault rifle around under the circumstances, but even she had to give in when Mulligan planted himself in front of the inner airlock door and declared no one would leave the vehicle unarmed.
That had ended the discussion.
Behind them, the airlock doors closed. For the next two minutes or so, Andrews and Mulligan were on their own while the airlock was sterilized; only after it had been scrubbed of possible contaminants would Eklund and Spencer be allowed to progress through it to join them. Andrews looked around, the visor of his full-face respirator polarizing against the brightness of the day.
“Well, California’s still sunny,” he said via his voice-activated transceiver. Everyone had transceivers in their suits. It certainly beat shouting to be heard beneath all the gear they carried.
“Some things, even nuclear wars can’t change,” Mulligan said. “You sure we shouldn’t leave Spencer with the rig? He’s the crew chief, after all.”
“I want to be operational, Sarmajor,” Spencer said. “Besides, I want to stretch my legs a bit.” He slapped the SCEV’s heavy flank with one gloved hand. “I’ve got tons of hours sitting inside these things.”
Mulligan looked over at Andrews. “Sir?”
Andrews sighed. Doctrinally, leaving the rig unattended wasn’t wise, even though entry could only be gained by entering the access code on the keypad next to the airlock door. But Spencer might be useful; he was the closest thing they had to an engineer. “No one’s alive to mess with the rig, Sarmajor,” he said.
“Roger that, sir.” Mulligan slowly turned in a circle, taking in the entire area in one long scan.
Andrews felt like he was loafing, so he did the same, then wondered why he cared what Mulligan might think of him. At any rate, the two men found nothing even vaguely threatening beyond the day’s dry heat.
Andrews took it upon himself to do a quick walk-around of the SCEV, checking for any damage. The rig was filthy, covered entirely with a thick coating of dust, save for the electronic probes and viewports, which had been treated with an anti-static compound that prevented the dust from accumulating. Except for the grime, the hardy vehicle seemed to be in perfect condition. He even checked the tires for any sign of tearing from the concertina wire they’d driven over, but he found nothing worthy of anxiety. No leaks, no gouges, no indications of anything burning away, seizing up, or falling off.
When he moved back to the right side of the rig, the airlock doors opened again. Spencer and Leona emerged from the rig’s cool interior, wearing their white environmental suits, air tanks, full-face respirators, and carrying Heckler and Koch M416A3 assault rifles. Knapsacks slung over their shoulders contained whatever they might need to crack open a crate or shipping container: hammers, screwdrivers, crowbars.
It didn’t take long for Spencer to start bitching. “Damn, think it’s hot enough?”
“Yeah man, but it’s a dry heat,” Mulligan said.
“That’s a line from that old movie Aliens, right, Sarmajor?”
“I guess nothing slips past you, Copernicus.”
“Yeah, well, we won’t be having this funny repartee if one of us passes out from dehydration, Sarmajor.”
Mulligan sighed wistfully. “Please, God, let it be me.”
Leona made a disgusted sound as she pushed past the two men and tried a nearby door. It was apparently locked, and even though she shoved herself against it, she couldn’t get it to budge. Andrews hurried over and tried it as well, but the door was definitely locked. It was a metal fire door, too. He sighed and looked down at the loading dock doors, but they were closed and quite likely locked as well.
“Well, I guess we’ll have to do this the old fashioned way.” He reached into his knapsack and pulled out a crowbar.
“Tell you what, Captain. Let’s go total old school, instead.” Mulligan steered Andrews off to one side and handed him his assault rifle. He motioned Leona to stand clear, and she moved back a few steps. She looked at Andrews, who merely shrugged at her.
“How old school are we talking about, Sarmajor?”
Without answering, Mulligan walked to the door and kicked it down, almost tearing it from its hinges. He stepped to one side and peered into the darkness, minimizing his profile and being careful not to silhouette himself against the bright day. Again, Andrews thought the big man was overdoing things a bit, but after that display of strength, he didn’t want to bitch too loudly.
Finally satisfied all was well, Mulligan returned to Andrews and reclaimed his assault rifle. He jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the severely dented door.
“I learned that in Special Forces,” he said proudly.
“You must’ve been the toast of the dinner party circuit,” Leona said, her voice dripping with sarcasm.
“Indeed, I was.”
“All right, all right, let’s get going.” Andrews slung his rifle over his shoulder by its patrol strap and stepped toward the door. He leaned into the darkness beyond and found it to be quite gloomy even after his visor brightened. He pulled a flashlight from his belt and snapped it on, panning the bright LED beam across the area as he stepped inside the warehouse and moved to his left. Mulligan was the next one in, and he held his assault rifle at the ready, the stock pressed against his right shoulder, the barrel pointed at the dusty concrete floor. The interior of the warehouse was dark and gloomy, the only light coming from several holes that had been ripped through the roof. Crates were everywhere, mostly stacked atop one another. Some had fallen to the floor and burst open, spilling their contents. Andrews walked up to one and examined the spillage. He couldn’t tell what the objects were, only that they weren’t what they were looking for.
“Okay, we’ve only got two hours of air on hand, so let’s make the most of it. Mulligan, head for that office down there and look for a stock manifest that might tell us what’s where.”
“Lee, you and Spence split up and poke around. Don’t rip your suits. It’s still hot enough around here that you’ll wind up shaving some years off your life if you’re exposed for more than a day or so, so take it seriously.”
“Oh, hell yeah,” Spencer said.
Leona played her flashlight around. “Let’s just get going, all right? This place gives me the creeps.”
“You’re not going to get all girly on us now, are you, LT?” Spencer asked.
“What, afraid someone’s going to compete with you for the Miss Universe crown, Spencer?” Mulligan asked. Leona laughed at the unexpected support, and Spencer shook his head sourly.
“And from a fellow enlisted man, no less,” Spencer said.
“Everyone clear on their orders?” Andrews asked, smiling.
Everyone reported their assent.
“Okay, then. Like the lieutenant said, let’s get to it.”
With empty eye sockets, the nearly mummified corpse in the office’s single chair grinned at Mulligan as he slowly pushed open the door and stepped inside. The sight of the skeletal remains chilled him and, for a moment, he stood paralyzed in the office doorway. He had automatically raised his rifle into an attack posture and pointed it at the human remnants, which sat half-slumped over in the chair. Most of the skin was gone, giving the sergeant major a good opportunity to inspect the corpse’s many dental implants. Mulligan slowly lowered his rifle and released a quiet sigh, then stepped into the office and looked down at the skeleton. On the dust-covered desk stood an equally dusty drinking glass and a small pill bottle. Both were empty. Mulligan picked up the pill bottle and squinted, trying to make out the label, but the ink was another casualty of war. He placed the bottle back on the desk, then glanced at the computer sitting nearby. For sure, the entire warehouse’s contents were there, written to a hard drive system that had probably been wiped clean by the electromagnetic pulse that shut down the entire city’s power grid when the first nuke detonated. That meant the electronic search was over before it had even started. With no other recourse available, Mulligan pawed through the desk drawers, ignoring the leering skeleton. He found nothing of any great interest.
Hell, not even some pornography. Who ran this place, Jesuit priests?
He turned to the file cabinet behind him and found it was locked. He tried all the drawers, but with the same result. He considered his options: go through the keys in the desk, trying each one, or blast away the lock with his rifle. He elected to conserve ammunition and went for the keys instead. The lock was old and desiccated, but he found the proper key and forced it to turn in the cylinder. The cabinet drawers squeaked loudly as he pulled them open, and he searched through the green folders inside. Eventually, he grew weary of thumbing through them one by one, so he pulled an armful out of one drawer and dropped them on the desk. He shoved the office chair out of the way and it spun into a wall, unceremoniously dumping the rag-clad skeleton to the filthy floor. Bone rattled against concrete in a macabre, atonal symphony.
Mulligan studied the pile folders. He knew the series number of the parts he was looking for, but it took him a few minutes to figure out the files were organized by customer, not product.
So who was the customer? U.S. Government? U.S. Army? Harmony Base? Just plain old Uncle Sugar?
Mulligan returned to the filing cabinet and went through the last one. Sure enough, there were several folders marked USG.
Close enough for government work.
It took another five minutes, but he finally found what he was looking for. Shining his flashlight on the yellowed paper, he nodded to himself.
“All right, listen up! Whomever’s nearest to aisle fourteen, section C, gets a free ride home,” he announced over his transceiver.
“Say again?” Andrews responded. Mulligan snorted soundlessly and shook his head. Jesus, but these kids needed everything spelled out for them.
“Core supports, Captain. According to the manifest I’ve found, there are twenty-four of ‘em in here. Aisle one-four, section charlie.”
Outside in the warehouse itself, Spencer found himself, somewhat auspiciously, in aisle fourteen. Shining his flashlight around the cavernous warehouse, he walked hurriedly down the aisle. He was in section B, which if the alphabet still worked, meant the next section would be C.
And then there they were, right on a pallet on the ground. Several large metal shipping containers and, stenciled on their sides in faded yellow paint, was the legend that made him feel coup de coeur for the first time:
CORE SUPPORTS MIL-STD-344 PROPERTY U.S. GOVERNMENT
“Roger, Sarmajor—I got ‘em!” he said jubilantly, practically flying toward the first crate. He pulled a crowbar from his knapsack and went to work on the latches that held the lid in place. They weren’t locked, but exposure to the elements had left them somewhat corroded, and he didn’t want to risk ripping open his suit and exposing himself to the radiation content inside the warehouse—even though the instruments back in the SCEV had rated it was enough to cause harm after only a day of continuous exposure, the last thing Spencer wanted was to dose himself and wake up the next morning with nine heads, three arms, and no dick. Caution was the order of the day.
He was so focused on the task that he didn’t notice the figures step out of the gloom from behind him until they were literally right on top of him. By then, it was too late.
A bolt of light exploded behind his eyes. He heard the crowbar sing as it fell to the concrete floor, and a curious buzzing noise flitted through his ears—he recognized it an instant later as Andrews’s voice over the radio. Then the light faded from his eyes, and Spencer was left in darkness so absolute that he couldn’t even scream.
“You all right, Spence?” Andrews asked when he heard the sound of metal on concrete. He was at the far side of the warehouse, but he had already started toward the crew chief’s position when Mulligan relayed the location of the core supports. He heard a sharp intake of breath over his radio earpiece but, other than that, there was no response.
“Spencer? What’s going on?” Andrews started moving faster, shining his own flashlight around the area. He stepped into aisle fourteen; to his left was the office and way the team had entered, to his right a patchwork of darkness broken by sunlight streaming through structural damage.
On the concrete floor, the sterile glare of an LED flashlight illuminated the bottom of several shipping crates. Andrews hurried toward the light, still holding his own flashlight in his right hand and his crowbar in his left. A small voice in the back of his mind suggested that he might be better off with his rifle in hand, but he ignored it. Spencer might have fallen and gotten hurt, but there was no need to go to guns on him. Spencer’s flashlight and crowbar lay on the dusty concrete, practically right next to each other.
What the fuck?
He looked around, but there was no sign of Spencer. The dust around the pile of shipping containers was disturbed, and Andrews had no problem seeing the tread from Spencer’s boots ingrained in the light coating of earth, but there were other prints there as well, prints that extended toward the rear of the warehouse…
“Eklund, what’s your position?” He slipped his crowbar back into his knapsack and grabbed his rifle. There was a rail system on the weapon’s forestock, where he was able to mount the flashlight so he could handle the weapon with both hands. But the LED beam seemed suddenly insufficient. Despite the occasional hole in the roof high overhead that admitted shafts of bright sunlight, there were far too many shadows throughout the warehouse.
“Far end of the warehouse, near the loading doors,” Leona reported. “What’s happened? Is Spencer hurt?”
“I don’t know. I’ve found his flashlight and crowbar, but no sign of him. Looks like there might have been a struggle over here…lots of prints in the dust, and they’re headed your way, Lee.” Andrews kept the buttstock of his M416 pressed against his right shoulder, panning the barrel across his path. “Mulligan, what’s your twenty?”
Mulligan’s response was terse and flat. “Far end of the warehouse from Eklund. Closing on her position. Over.”
“Roger that. Lee, stay put. We’re heading for you,” Andrews said, “but lock and load and get your back against something. I don’t think we’re alone here.”
“I’m not kidding, Lieutenant. Get into a defensive posture and wait for us.”
The undercurrent of reluctance was all too plain in Leona’s voice when she replied. “All right, all right. But this had better not be some sort of stupid test or—oh my God!”
A single gunshot tore through the darkened warehouse, startling Andrews even though he thought he was on the alert. Over the radio, he heard the sounds of Leona struggling with something; she made a small mewling sound, then the link went silent on her end. Andrews picked up the pace, running now, the adrenaline coursing through his system. His lungs burned as if he couldn’t get enough air, even though the respirator continued to deliver what he needed on demand, the soft hiss of its operation barely audible. Despite his weapon and his training, Andrews felt suddenly vulnerable.
“Leona! Leona, report!”
There was no answer.
He bore down on what he believed to be her last position, but there was no evidence that Leona Eklund had even existed. She must have moved to a different spot, obeying his order to find a more defensible position until he and Mulligan could get to her. Andrews looked at the dusty floor, searching for any sign of where she might have been. He saw a single pair of footprints one aisle over, and he hurried over to them. They were definitely boot prints, and the tread matched his own.
“Mulligan, where are you?” he asked as he followed the trail. Ahead, he could see signs of a scuffle, and what looked like drag marks. Andrews passed through a shaft of bright sunlight, and the glare dazzled him. Gleaming in the light at his feet was a single brass cartridge from a 5.56-millimeter round. He saw no evidence of blood, so he had no idea if Leona had hit her target or not.
“Heading your way, Captain. I take it Eklund’s missing as well? Over.” If the big sergeant major was feeling any stress, it didn’t come through in his voice. To Andrews, Mulligan sounded all business, as if he was doing something trivial, like taking out the garbage or giving a weather report.
“Looks that way. I’ve found signs of a struggle and some drag marks. I’m following them now. I’m about seventy-five meters from our point of entry.” As he spoke, Andrews continued following the trail through the dust. Sweat ran down his back, making him feel like ants were marching between his shoulder blades. He fought off the urge to shudder.
“Negative. Halt where you are and take a fighting position. I’m on the other side of the warehouse from you—I’ll be there in two minutes. Take cover and wait. We’ll track Spencer and Eklund together.”
Movement to Andrews’s right caused him to stop and spin around. The flashlight’s bright beam revealed a pair of glittering eyes peering out at him from beneath a shaggy pile of filthy dark hair. There was so much grime on the pockmarked face that Andrews couldn’t tell if it was male or female, but the eyes burned with a curious combination of intelligence, fear, and disgust.
“Don’t move! Remain where you are!” Andrews shouted, pointing the weapon directly at the shadowy figure. As soon as he was oriented into the fighting posture, the figure ducked and leaped behind a pile of crates, moving with the speed and dexterity of a cat. The figure was small and lithe—a child or a small woman? He moved his finger from the trigger guard to the trigger itself—he had kept the weapon indexed since the safety was off, and he didn’t want to accidentally shoot anyone friendly.
“Andrews, give me a SITREP. Over.” There was a hint of emotion in Mulligan’s voice now.
Andrews stepped toward where the figure had stood, crouching slightly, rifle tight against his shoulder. “We’re not alone here, Sarmajor—”
As he spoke, more shapes swam through the gloom on either side of him. Andrews reacted, spinning to go to guns on the threat to his right, but something slammed into him from behind. Andrews cried out as he was flung face-first into a metal shelving unit. The durable plastic visor on his facemask cracked, and the impact was hard enough to allow some air to leak out through the seal around his face. Ignoring the possible contamination, he threw himself away from the metal obstruction and tried to spin around. At the same time, more figures piled onto him, laying him out on his chest and trapping his assault rifle beneath his body. Hands tore at him; in an instant, the mask was ripped from his face. Andrews yelled Mulligan’s name, then something struck him in the side of his head with so much force that he saw stars.
Then the world went black.
Mulligan had moved to the far side of the warehouse upon leaving the office, moving as quickly and furtively as he could. His situational awareness was low—all he had to go on was what the others had reported. As their numbers diminished and he failed to generate any actionable intelligence from Andrews’s reports, the big Special Forces soldier could reach only one conclusion: he was utterly fucked.
“Andrews, give me a click of your microphone if you can’t speak.”
His radio earpiece remained silent, not even a vague hiss of background static. Everyone was off the air, which meant he was the last man standing. The others were armed and had been taken down with silent rapidity, which likely meant that Mulligan was not only fucked, he was quite possibly severely outnumbered, as well as having the dubious honor of being the next target the opposing force was looking to service.
He kept the warehouse wall to his back. He realized he had made a tactical error by moving deeper into the structure to maneuver himself closer to the action and perhaps outflank the attackers. But he hadn’t expected the others to be taken so quickly, and practically without a fight. That could only mean overwhelming numbers and substantial coordination. To get back to the entrance—and to the SCEV—he would either have to backtrack or cut through the center of the warehouse.
Where the others had been taken.
That’s a non-starter.
He turned and slowly began to pick his way back the way he had come, taking great care to move as silently as possible. In this situation, stealth was superior to speed. The gloomy interior of the warehouse worked to his adversaries’ advantage. No doubt they knew its layout quite well, otherwise their ambushes wouldn’t have been so flawless. With that thought in mind, Mulligan switched off his flashlight. The return path was relatively free of obstructions, so he wouldn’t need the light to help him skirt around anything in his path. Even though there were areas in the warehouse where shadows grew dark and deep, he would stick to the near-twilight areas, where he stood a chance of seeing an attacker closing on him.
As he walked, he became hyper-aware of the sounds inside the warehouse. Wind whispering through the holes in the structure. Sporadic creaks as the warehouse settled. The soft scuffling of things moving somewhere in the gloom.
And those scuffling noises seemed to be drawing closer.
“SCEV Five, this is Mulligan. We need immediate evac. Over.” Even though the other rig was miles away and the suit transceivers didn’t have the power to reach it through the covering structure of the warehouse, Mulligan hoped that Laird or the others would at least catch something. Even a fragmented sentence or a series of clicks might cause them to come in. Jim Laird was extremely conservative, the kind of small unit commander who could be counted on to follow orders and never do anything that too risky, but this mission was far different from anything he had been given before—would he be able to break the mold and rise to the challenge? Mulligan wasn’t counting on it, but Kelly Jordello, SCEV Five’s XO, was a real firecracker and had an intuitive grasp of tactical situations her commander lacked. Then there was Tony Choi, the Korean kid who was all goofy on the outside but who had a core of hard steel he kept tucked away where no one could see. Even though she wasn’t considered military, Rachel Andrews had a lot riding on this, too. After all, her husband was out here with the man who had murdered her parents, so a fragmented transmission might get her dander up…
There was no reply. Mulligan repeated his call as he kept falling back, his head on a swivel, alert and vigilant. He repeated the call, but the result was the same—unbroken silence.
A sudden sound from above made him whirl. A vaguely humanoid shape leapfrogged across the stacked crates, passing from shadow to shadow like some kind of demented gymnast. It moved with an almost simian grace, deeply unnerving Mulligan. Was it even human?
He didn’t pause to consider that he might be surrounded by monsters. He simply raised his rifle and squeezed off two rounds—crack-crack!—with a practiced ease that was still second nature to him, even though he hadn’t fired a weapon in anger in over a decade. His skills were still up to par, for he watched the figure jerk and spin as the steel-jacketed NATO rounds found their target. It howled as it tumbled off a stack of crates and crashed to the floor, where Mulligan couldn’t see it. As he moved to his right, his foot hit something—a large chunk of concrete. He glanced down at it, then quickly stepped back to his left.
He stood on the edge of a large hole in the concrete floor. Its presence puzzled him for a moment, until he saw something moving in the opening’s black depths. He was surprised to find a filthy human face peering up at him. It wasn’t just a hole. It was a tunnel.
Mulligan brought his rifle to bear, but the man in the tunnel shrieked and darted back into the darkness.
Stealth was no longer going to cut it. As the sounds of movement grew louder throughout the warehouse, drawing nearer, the big Green Beret broke into a run.
No? Well, fine. What do you think of the newest cover revision? Will be tightening this one up, and getting Jeroen to generate a full-size print cover as well, which I hope to have by Friday or Saturday.
Chapter Five from the upcoming book Earthfall, which is currently with the lovely Diana Cox of novelproofreading.com. I’m not expecting any major changes, and believe this’ll be released either over the weekend or very early next week. In this peek, we find out just how badly Harmony has been hurt, and what they’ll have to do in order to survive.
Usual disclaimers apply; this is draft material, not finalized, changes may occur, etc., etc.
Even though the main elevator wasn’t working, Andrews and the others managed to escape the SCEV prep area through a stairway that led to the next level of Harmony Base. Emergency lights glared in the gloom, and intercom announcements were strident but informative: There had been an earthquake; engineering was working on restoring essential power; seriously injured personnel were to be transported directly to the base’s medical section on level three; all non-essential personnel were to return to their quarters or the Commons Area, also on level three, and await further taskings.
“Guess that’s us,” Laird said. “Unless someone needs an SCEV at the moment.”
“Sounds like,” Andrews said. They were on level two, the first floor beneath the SCEV bay. Despite the fact it was an admin level, it was buzzing with activity. Several injured personnel were being carried down the corridor on stretchers. The elevators were under inspection, so they were out of commission. That meant the injured had to be transported down the four stairways located in each corner of the floor.
“I’m headed for the Commons. What about you?” Laird said.
“The Core. Rachel was on shift.”
Laird made a sound of commiseration. “Damn. I’ll go with you.”
Andrews waved the notion away. “Nah, don’t worry about it. I’m sure she’s fine, but I’m going to head down there and check things out. Gives me the opportunity to heckle the old man, too.”
Andrews nodded and slapped Laird on the shoulder. “I’m cool, man. Really.”
Laird looked at him levelly for a long moment, then returned his nod. “Okay. If you need me, I’ll be in either the Commons or my quarters.”
“Hooah,” Andrews said. They hurried back into the stairwell. Laird peeled off on level three, heading for the huge Commons Area, Harmony Base’s main social and dining hub. Andrews pressed on, pushing past people coming up from the base’s lower floors. Several were injured, many were near panic, and all of them had drawn-out expressions of grim foreboding etched into their faces. No one had been prepared for an event like this, and Andrews felt exactly the same way.
It took almost an hour to get down to level five, which was where the uppermost level of the Core could be accessed. Security guards turned him away, informing him the area was currently off-limits to anyone without an engineering specialty. They knew who he was, of course, and that his father was the base’s engineering officer, but still they refused him admittance.
“I just want to know if my family’s safe,” Andrews told the senior trooper guarding the fifth floor entrance to the Core.
“I know your father is all right,” the soldier said. “I saw him myself. I don’t know about your wife though, Captain. Sorry. All section commands are supposed to be posting casualty lists, so…” The soldier shrugged and looked over at the second guard for verification.
“That’s probably the best thing you can do right now, sir,” the other soldier agreed.
Andrews looked past their shoulders, but there was little to see. People were coming and going from the Core; those leaving were injured or heading to other parts of the base with toolkits and spares in hand, while those entering were apparently hurrying in to supplement the remaining workforce. There was the acrid hint of smoke in the air, a particularly foul-smelling, chemical sort.
“Do me a favor, guys… You see Rachel Andrews, tell her I’m fine and I’ll be in the Commons. You know who she is, right?”
“Oh, yeah,” the first guard said. “We’ll tell her if we see her, sir. Don’t worry. Same message to your father?”
“Roger that. I’d appreciate it.”
“Consider it done, sir.”
Andrews nodded and reluctantly turned away from the doorway. He briefly considered going down to the sixth floor and trying his luck there, but it probably wouldn’t work. The guards had their hands full already; they didn’t need some junior officer trying to bull his way past them when they had orders.
So Andrews joined the procession of people moving up the stairs, pressing himself against the wall when damage control or medical teams came past, granting them priority access. It usually only took a minute or two to get to the Commons level, but due to the crush of bodies and their slow gait, it took ten minutes. It was perhaps the longest ten minutes of his life, and Andrews felt a particularly furious sort of irritation blossom in his chest. While he was no stranger to impatience, he was used to being in control of himself, being capable of reigning in his emotions before they got the best of him. It was something all of the New Guard had to become familiar with. Being raised underground and told they were humanity’s last hope and the seeds for a new United States of America, patience was something that had been inculcated in them from their earliest years. While the Old Guard wrestled with claustrophobia, boredom, and even outright hostility, the New Guard was able to look past those things and face the future with a calm, even gaze. The Old Guard couldn’t do that, at least not as reliably as the younger people. The Old Guard had grown up in wide open spaces with lovely blue skies. The only clouds that came their way sprinkled rain or snow, not radioactive particles that could damage cellular reproduction and cause uncontrollable cancers.
Andrews sensed a strong undercurrent of frustration running through the crowd. Only a few hours ago, everyone had been carrying on with their subterranean lives, hoping and praying the SCEV teams would find other pockets of life that Harmony Base could work with to rebuild the nation. Now, that mission seemed to be a very distant goal. Survival was once again at the fore.
When he finally stepped into the Commons Area, he wasn’t surprised to find it packed tight with people. Even though it had been designed to accommodate virtually the entire base, it was rare for so many people to be in the cavernous room at one time. As he walked through the crowd, occasionally acknowledging someone he knew, he decided it wasn’t as packed as he’d initially thought. There was still enough room to move about, so long as he was careful and took care not to stomp on someone’s foot get hit with a chair as someone stood up from a table.
Andrews turned. Leona Eklund pushed toward him through the crowd, her lean, athletic frame giving her more than enough dexterity to wend her way through the occasional mass of bodies and, when required, the power to shove her way past. Like himself, she’d been brought to the base at a very young age—four years old, to be exact. Now nineteen, she served as his executive officer and was commissioned as a first lieutenant in the United States Army. Her curly dark hair hung free around her shoulders, and her narrow-featured face turned his way, her deep brown eyes locked on him. Someone—one of the Old Guard, he remembered—had mentioned to him once that Leona was built like a saluki, lean and all angles. Andrews had had to look it up, but he found that a saluki was a breed of dog built for racing. He agreed with the description. Leona did seem to possess the same poise as the dogs he had seen in the videos.
“Lee, you okay?” he asked.
“Yeah, I’m good. What about you?”
Andrews shrugged. “Tried to get down to the Core, but it’s under lockdown. I heard my dad’s all right, but don’t know anything about Rachel yet.”
She looked at him for a long moment. “I’m sorry about that. It must be terrible.”
Andrews shrugged, wondering if the worry was as visible on his face as he feared it might be. “I’ll make do,” he said lamely. “You see anyone else from the team?”
She nodded. “Everyone’s accounted for, except for you and Spencer.”
“He’s fine. We were in the SCEV prep area when the quake hit. They’d just started pulling our rig apart. I’m glad it wasn’t on the elevator—it looks like it got whacked big time. The doors practically collapsed inward.”
“Sounds bad. Did Five leave?”
“No, not yet. Both rigs are still in the prep area.”
Leona nodded and started to say something else, but the screens surrounding the Commons came to life. A shiver ran through the assembled people, and everyone turned to the nearest screen. Andrews was no different; his heart started to race, and he and Leona both turned to stare at the closest screen. The casualty reports were in alphabetical order, so Andrews didn’t have long to wait. There was no listing for ‘Rachel Andrews.’ He didn’t allow himself to fully relax until the listing progressed through the Ls and there was no ‘Rachel Lopez,’ either. When he saw that, he released his breath in a trembling sigh.
The list is going to be continually updated, he told himself. Just because she’s not on it now, doesn’t mean she won’t be on it later.
Adding a small cast of desperation to his thought was that there were almost thirty names on the list. Thirty names, and he knew them all. Thirty people who had been killed during the earthquake. He had grown up with four of them, and one of them, a woman named Sally Kesserman, had been one of his dearest friends when they were younger. But over the decade that had passed since the Sixty Minute War, Andrews had watched Sally grow up. She had become a serious-minded woman, a quartermaster’s assistant, her brow always furrowed by the rate at which the base’s consumables disappeared. While Andrews was in charge of connecting the base with any outside settlements that might exist, her job was to remain below ground and count beans. She was in charge of worrying, something she’d never had a penchant for when she was younger.
Other than meaningless chitchat, Andrews hadn’t kept up with her for the past several years. That he would never have the opportunity to talk to his old friend again left him feeling hollow and guilty.
“So many,” Leona said, her voice soft. Sobs broke out around the Commons. In such a small community, the loss of thirty people meant that everyone had lost someone. The bottom had just dropped out of several people’s lives. Andrews looked around numbly. He felt it, too.
He looked at Leona, her face tightly drawn. She had always been a super-confident sort, the type of person who never let her true feelings show. He remembered when she was maybe twelve years old, when she and her family had arrived at the base. The rest of the kids would sometimes make fun of her gawky figure, thin features, and lank hair. If the teasing had ever bothered her, she’d never given any of them the satisfaction of seeing it. As he grew older, Andrews found he admired her for that trait, which he himself had never been able to master. But even Leona had her limits, and the sudden notice that thirty people had checked out for the long dirt nap had pushed her past them. Tears glittered in her eyes as she continued to stare at the displays. Andrews put his arm around her shoulders and gave her a squeeze. She stiffened at the sudden contact, but Andrews kept his arm around her to let her know she wasn’t alone in her grief.
“You all right?” he asked.
Leona relaxed suddenly. She bowed her head, as if embarrassed by her tears, and tried to hide them by wiping the back of her hand across her eyes. “Yeah, I’m okay. I just wasn’t expecting there to be so many.”
Andrews looked at the scrolling fatality list and wondered idly at its power. Millions had died well in advance of these thirty, but it was these thirty that he knew. In the grand scale of things, the passing of thirty souls could perhaps be considered inconsequential. But in the small community of Harmony Base, it was as if an entire nation had just been ripped asunder.
“Hang in there, Lieutenant,” he said. “Just hang in there.”
Leona raised her head and looked at him, a bit of the old fire back in her eyes. “Because it’s probably going to get worse, right?”
“It might,” he agreed softly. “It just might.”
Leona nodded and looked back at the displays. She reached up and touched his hand, the one that was still wrapped around her shoulder. “Thanks for this, but you don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea.”
Andrews smiled lamely and released her. “I don’t think anyone even noticed.”
“I know. Thanks for helping.” She flashed him a sudden smile. “Really.”
“Free of charge.”
“Andrews,” a voice called from behind him. “You need to come with me right now.”
Andrews turned as Colonel Larry Walters stepped up beside him. He was shorter than Andrews by quite a bit and, true to his nickname, the colonel was in fact somewhat wall-eyed; his left eye wandered a bit off-center, enough so that it was difficult for people to know which eye to look at while they were speaking to him. He was a small-boned sort, and his steel gray hair was cropped so close to his skull that Andrews wondered why Walters never went for broke and just shaved it bare.
“Sir?” Andrews said automatically, even though he had heard Walters perfectly. The truth was, his heart had skipped a beat. Why was Walters here? Had something happened to Rachel? Had he come to find Andrews before her name was released on the casualty list?
“I need you to come with me,” Walters said again, impatiently. He looked past Andrews. “You too, Eklund. Follow me.”
“Where to, Colonel?” Leona asked.
He fixed with his imprecise stare. “Follow. Me.” He turned and pushed through the crowd without saying anything else. Andrews nodded at Leona, and he headed after the bantam officer as quickly as he could.
Andrews was surprised to find Walters had led them to the commander’s conference room. That the room was full was no shock—the base had just been hit by what appeared to be a major catastrophe, and he expected all the senior department heads to be present. What he didn’t expect was for Jim Laird and his exec, Kelly Jordello, to be in attendance, any more than he would expect Leona and himself to be summoned. What did SCEV teams have to do with the earthquake?
“Andrews and Eklund, sir,” Walter said as he stepped into the room. General Benchley sat at the head of the long table opposite the entrance, and he made eye contact with Andrews and Leona as they entered. It was standing room only. From the corner of his eye, Andrews saw Rachel sitting at the far end of the table.
“Very well,” Benchley said. “There’s not a lot of room left, so you folks come in as best as you can.”
“You heard him, get yourselves squared away,” Walters said. He folded his arms and leaned against the wall beside the door. Andrews and Leona pushed themselves inside and grabbed a patch of wall to lean against.
“Jeremy, if you could get started, please,” Benchley said.
Beside him sat Sergeant Major Mulligan, and Andrews thought the big Green Beret didn’t look happy. He was practically crushed against the edge of the conference table, and the look of utter disdain on his face was priceless. Andrews might have smiled at the sight if Mulligan hadn’t looked in his direction. He turned and looked over toward Rachel. She smiled at him vaguely.
The far wall illuminated suddenly; it was actually a huge LED monitor. A vector graphic schematic of Harmony Base appeared on the display. Overall, the representation was in green, but several areas of the base were red. Andrews saw one of those areas was the SCEV bay, where the rigs were stored when not in use. The prep area above the bay was still mostly green.
“All right, folks. As most of you know, several areas of the base have been badly damaged. Most notably, the geothermal exchange system and the auxiliary power cells, here and here.” Andrews watched as his father walked up to the display and tapped the indicated areas. “We’re operating under emergency conservation procedures, which gives us essential systems power for eight days, max. After that, we’re on lifeline support, but without the batteries, we’re not looking at much more than another five days or so before the CO2 levels reach critical. In short, we’ll all suffocate down here unless we can get the main systems back online.
“The supports that hold the heat exchanger pumps in place were damaged by the earthquake, leaving them without any reliable stabilization. When those units are operational they vibrate quite a bit, and without the supports, the conversion pumps would be smashed to pieces against the sides of the shaft.”
Jeremy manipulated a control on the remote, and the display changed to show a graphic of the heat exchange system located almost a mile beneath the base. A long shaft had been bored into the Earth’s crust to where the planet’s molten core provided enough heat to turn water into steam. That steam was then pumped under pressure to the turbines in the Core, providing them with the necessary fuel to power Harmony Base. The steam would condense back into water, which was then replaced in the ground, ensuring the cycle of availability was more or less continuous. Even though he wasn’t one of the base’s powerheads, Andrews knew all about it. After all, his father was in charge of maintaining the system and had architected improvements in the few years before the Sixty Minute War shut the door on everything topside.
“These supports were designed to meet exacting tolerances, and their operational lifespan is supposed to be a century or more. They’re very dense, and due to their metallurgical properties, they’re not something we can manufacture in one of our machine shops. We don’t have the foundry skills to do it.”
“So what’s the big reveal?” Mulligan asked. Benchley cast a glance at him, but the sergeant major gave no indication he noticed. Jeremy sighed and clasped his hands behind his back.
“The big reveal is this, Sergeant Major: if we don’t get replacements, we can’t turn on the geothermal exchange pumps. And without those pumps operational, there’s precious little power to scrub the air, run the water, or operate the lights. In short, we’re kind of fucked.”
Colonel Baxter rubbed her forehead. “Major Andrews, that sounds kind of extreme.”
“It’s an extreme set of circumstances, ma’am.”
“But this base was designed to withstand a near ground-strike from a nuclear weapon,” Baxter said. “How could an earthquake result in this much critical damage?”
“A nuclear strike is pretty much a short-lived event, Colonel,” Jeremy said. “The earthquake discharged even more energy than a nuclear weapon over a greater period of time, albeit over a much larger area. As such, the base was going to take one in the snot locker. We just didn’t expect it to take out our teeth with one punch, as it were.”
“These supports… we don’t have replacements? It seems like something of this nature, a component that’s critical to the survival of the base, should be in our supply chain somewhere.”
“That made sense in the 1980s, ma’am. But after the fall of the Soviet Union, this installation wasn’t exactly considered a primary project any longer. Interest in it was renewed after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and the base went through some substantial refurbishing to bring it up to date. But the general architecture of the geothermal exchange system was left untouched. We’ve done some modifications to make things more efficient here and there, but overall, the system is still using technology from the 1980s. And since the supports were designed with such a long lifespan, the replacements were never shipped.”
“Are there replacements, sir?” Mulligan asked.
Jeremy hesitated for a long moment. He looked down the length of the table at Benchley. The general sighed loudly and ran a hand over his steel gray hair.
“Tell them, Major,” he said.
“There were,” Jeremy answered after a long moment. “I mean, as far as I know, there still are. In California.”
The assemblage took in its collective breath and released it in one long sigh.
“California,” Mulligan said, his voice flat over the din of the restive group. “As in, the Beach Boys’ California?”
“That’s the only one I know of,” Jeremy said.
Mulligan snorted and leaned back in his seat, crossing his arms over his barrel chest.
“And this is why we’re here,” Benchley said, looking around the room. He made eye contact with everyone. “This installation has just gone through an extremely powerful event, one that rivals the lethality of the Sixty Minute War. Actually, it casts even that circumstance in deep shadow. As you’ve just heard from Major Andrews, Harmony Base is now faced with the possibility that the earthquake might very well be a terminal event.” He paused to let that sink in for a moment. “We’ve already lost people. We may lose more in the coming hours. And if we don’t act quickly, we might lose everything inside of two weeks.”
“You need us to go out and secure replacements,” Andrews said suddenly.
Benchley turned to him and nodded. “Correct, Captain. As it stands, SCEVs Four and Five are the only rigs in the SCEV prep area. The lift to the SCEV bay is currently out of commission, and best estimates are that it will take more than a day to repair. So those two vehicles are going out into the field to secure replacement supports.” He pressed a button on a desktop controller, and the wall display changed to show a route from Harmony’s position in western Kansas to San Jose, California. “I realize that Four has just come back in from the field and was in the beginning stages of post-mission teardown. Obviously, the rig will be reassembled after the more pressing maintenance items are tended to. Once completed, both vehicles will depart as soon as possible for California. Andrews, you’ll serve as mission commander. Captain Laird will serve as mission deputy commander. Eklund and Jordello will remain rig XOs. You will be accompanied by Engineer Spencer, Mission Specialist Chu, and Missus Andrews here, who is familiar with the supports.” Benchley nodded toward Rachel, sitting at the far end of the table next to Jeremy.
Andrews blinked. “Uh, sir, she isn’t qualified for field work, and we won’t have time to train her up—”
Benchley held up one hand, cutting him off. “I understand your dilemma, Captain, but I want someone on hand who can not only identify the supports, but also identify which ones are good and which ones are bad. Bringing back defective parts isn’t an option. We won’t have another chance at a do-over.” The general paused. “I’m also adding Command Sergeant Major Mulligan to the mission roster.”
Mulligan’s eyes widened. “General, I’m an instructor—”
“—who is fully current in SCEV operations, and in light of your Special Forces background, I feel it’s prudent you go.” Benchley faced Mulligan directly. “Any questions on that, Sergeant Major?”
Mulligan glared at Benchley for a long moment, then slowly shook his head. “Good to go here, General.”
“Excuse me, sir?” Kelly Jordello, Laird’s executive officer, spoke up. She was short and curvy, with long blond hair she kept tied back from her face. A vivacious sort, she was full of energy and had been something of a tomboy in her youth, a quality that had attracted Andrews to her in their teen years. He’d tried to woo her, but it had all been for naught. Kelly’s preference was for other women, and while such a revelation was hardly enough to raise even an eyebrow in the base’s small society, Andrews had been heartbroken for a month when she finally rebuffed him. But as they grew older, they developed a casual, low-maintenance friendship that made up for their embarrassing past.
“Go ahead, Lieutenant.”
“You’ve named only eight crewmembers. You are assigning more faces for the spaces, right?”
“Negative on that. Should one vehicle become disabled, then the second can take on the full crew without overloading its life support systems. I know half-crews will increase everyone’s workload, but it’s unavoidable. Colonel Walters will provide the required electronic navigation updates for both rigs, and he has already ordered every available vehicle engineer and crew chief to the prep area to assist with rig stand-up and certification. Andrews, you and Laird will be responsible for ensuring all tier one safety checks are completed, but I encourage you to skip the nonessentials in order to take to the field as quickly as possible. Understood?”
Andrews looked at Laird, and the other commander nodded his assent. “Roger that, sir. We’ll try and streamline things as much as we can.”
Benchley nodded. “I appreciate that. I understand this is a sudden thing to drop on you. Normally we spend months planning each jump into the field, but I’m sure you understand we have no choice here. I wish I could provide you with more information, but we have nothing further. Get your affairs in order—you’ll be leaving as soon as possible. Colonel Walters will be your conduit to the command group for any last minute issues. I know everyone has a great deal of work to do, so if there’s nothing else, you’re all dismissed to tend to your tasks.”
The assemblage stirred to life. Andrews stepped out of the conference room and waited in the corridor. Leona followed him, and he turned to her.
“You mind heading up to the prep bay and checking in with Spencer? Make sure he knows what’s going on, and that he has everything he needs. Remember, we had a twitchy differential. Let’s get that replaced and tested. As soon as the rig is put back together, start a full component test. I want even the line replaceable units bench-tested. All right?”
“Got it,” Leona said. “Anything else?”
Andrews looked past her shoulder as Rachel emerged from the conference room. Her uniform was covered in grime; clearly, she’d been busy on some sort of repair before she’d been pulled into the conference. Leona followed his gaze, then looked back at him.
“I’ll see you later,” she said, and headed down the corridor.
Andrews looked at Rachel and, from her expression, he could see she knew he wasn’t happy that she’d been assigned to the mission.
“So… now I get to see you at work, huh?” She smiled sheepishly.
“Don’t be so damn sure,” he said. “There’s got to be someone else who can be assigned to this. You can’t be the only person who can tell us not to bring back a rusty support.”
“There’s more to it than that, and Jeremy is the one who selected me. Listen, I’m not exactly thrilled to leave right now. There’s a lot that has to be done, and going on a road trip through post-apocalyptic America was always pretty low on my to-do list.”
Jeremy stepped out of the conference room, staring at his data tablet with a frown. He looked up when Andrews grabbed his arm and pulled him away from the exit. His frown deepened.
“Save it, Mike. I know what you’re going to say. Rachel’s the best asset to validate—”
“Dad, she doesn’t know jack about SCEV ops, and she’s terrified of them. You know that. Asking her to saddle up with the rest of us is majorly away from goodness.”
Jeremy sighed, and he glared at Andrews angrily. “Stop bitching about it. This is how it’s going to be played, Mike. I’m sorry if you find this personally inconvenient, but we don’t exactly have a lot of choices here. Benchley asked for the best person available to ensure that good replacements are brought back, and that person just happens to be Rachel.” He looked at her. “You’re good with this?”
“Mostly,” she said. “I’ll do whatever you need me to do, Jeremy.”
Jeremy looked back at Andrews. “Any further questions, Captain?”
Andrews sighed. “No, sir.”
Jeremy relaxed a little bit, and he squeezed his son’s shoulder. “I know it’s asking a lot of you, and I know that adding Rachel to the mix is going to make it tough for both of you personally. But there’s no choice in the matter, so you might want to try and make it as easy as possible by making sure she gets spooled up on the broad strokes of SCEV operations. All right?”
“Yes, sir,” Andrews said. There was no use fighting it. Jeremy was right, and the stakes were high. Better to just soldier on and get it done.
“Good,” Jeremy said. His tablet pinged, and he had another report to tend to.
In the conference room, Benchley took a moment to compose himself before the next session started. He still had a slew of damage reports to go through, and the road ahead looked bleak and desultory. He noticed Mulligan beside him at the table, staring at him with his dark gaze. “Is there something I can do for you, Sergeant Major?” Benchley asked.
“Field duty, sir? Me?”
“You’ll be needed, Mulligan.”
“How so? I haven’t been in the field for over ten years, sir. I’m an old geezer. And Rachel Andrews happens to hate my guts for—”
“And whose fault is that?” Benchley asked, irritation plain in his voice. He took a moment to dial it back a bit before continuing. “Scott, I’m sorry. I understand the deployment will be rough, but I want your experience on tap. We don’t know what these people might run into out there. Your background and your skill set might be a very welcome addition, should things go even further into the shitter.”
Mulligan snorted derisively, and Benchley found he couldn’t contain his irritation any longer. He fixed Mulligan with an icy stare.
“As you still wear the uniform of the United States Army, you should be able to recognize an order when you hear one, Sergeant Major. Am I clear on that?”
“Hooah,” Mulligan said. “With your permission, sir, I guess I ought to get to it.”
“An excellent idea.”