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EARTHFALL: Chapter 2

January 27, 2013 4 comments

Hey crew,

Here’s a sneak peek of part of Chapter 2 from the upcoming novel, Earthfall. Usual disclaimers apply: this is rough stuff, may be substantially changed prior to publication, might even be killed entirely…though I kind of doubt that last one.

Publication news: My editor bailed because he had enlisted in the Army (he became an MI guy), and his long-awaited MOS slot opened up. As such, Earthfall is being picked up by another editor, but she won’t be able to spool up on it for a week or so. After that, there will be some back-and-forth, as there usually is in these things, so it won’t be released in ebook format until at least the second week in February. But it’s close! I just have to make sure the release doesn’t coincide with the premiere of the new season of The Walking Dead, otherwise no one will notice.

Out here!

Title

Major General Martin Benchley sat behind his desk and paged through the series of consumption reports on his tablet, reading them without even really seeing them. After years of doing so, he knew what the base’s usual rhythms were, what readings were wrong, and what consumables were being wasted. It was not unusual for him to operate on autopilot. But when he realized he’d scrolled through to the end of the document without retaining anything, he knew he would be revisiting the data once again. Benchley sighed and rubbed his eyes. Other senior officers might have been content to review the executive summary and sign off but, as the commanding general of Harmony Base, he didn’t have that luxury. If something went wrong or if some vital resource was being squandered, he was the last line of defense. His position mandated that he always remain vigilant—no matter what.

He regarded the array of flat screen displays that adorned the wall opposite his desk. He could view any common area inside the base from his office, everything from the engineering spaces to the dining facilities to the corridor outside. He had watched the arrival of SCEV Four on one of those very monitors. The dusty rig had made a gutsy run for the elevator despite a last-second mechanical glitch, even though procedure mandated they shut down and wait out the deadly tempest before trying to gain entry to the base. He’d already heard from Colonel Walters, the eternally dissatisfied head of the vehicle maintenance area, who’d ranted for some time about the fact that Andrews was obviously disregarding procedure and putting his crew and their precious, thirty-seven million dollar Self-Contained Exploration Vehicle at extreme risk. Benchley shut Walters down as gently as he could. While he was essentially correct—Benchley himself had mandated that procedures be followed to the letter, as they might be the only thing standing between life and certain death—the fact of the matter was, the general was eager to get his hands on the SCEV team’s report. They had concluded the first long-range reconnaissance survey of the central United States since the Sixty Minute War, and Benchley was not alone in wanting to discover what they had learned.

The base was the last remaining holdover from the old Cold War. Originally initiated during the Reagan Administration, Harmony had been designed to restore the United States after a possible thermonuclear conflict with the Soviet Union. Full of seed stocks, cryogenically-suspended animal embryos, staffed with brilliant scientists, engineers, and competent military tradesmen, tacticians, and troops, the subterranean outpost had been designed to be self-sufficient for fifty years. And it was big, one of the very largest hardened sites ever created. There was enough room for almost a thousand people, and its warehouses were stuffed full of everything that might be needed: freeze-dried and vacuum-sealed foods, petroleum products that had been treated with long-term stabilizers to ensure their combustibility, thousands of books, in both paper and electronic formats, tools, building materials, even precious stones and gems and gold, should those become necessary items to whatever post-apocalypse society might spread after the bombs dropped. No stone had been left unturned.

Harmony had fared well, even during the tightest budget periods, where political administrations had been tempted to suspend money for the long-running budget. But the base had always had a surfeit of hardcore proponents to ensure its survival, inside the halls of Congress, in the military, in the private sector. But the base’s most surprising benefactors turned out to be the terrorists behind September 11, 2001. They had helped renew interest in the multi-billion dollar installation during a time when America was more interested in the peace dividend caused by the dissolution of the old Soviet Union. The attacks on American soil had galvanized those holding the black project’s purse strings into action, and the money had started to flow once again. Harmony was retrofitted and restocked with the latest technologies, a trend that continued and even accelerated once the diseased Russian Federation finally died, and the progeny of the old authoritarian Communists rose again. The cycle began anew, and once again, the United States of America faced a monolithic threat.

And the war finally came, the one that punished not just America, but the entire globe. It happened without warning, as far as Benchley could tell; one moment, he was contemplating his upcoming retirement, the next he was ordered the base sealed as the missiles tracked across the sky. As the mushroom clouds bloomed across the planet, Harmony was finally good to go on its mission.

For the past six months, the SCEVs had been setting off into the field, conducting their surveys. After a decade of isolation, it was time for Harmony Base to enact the second part of its charter: quando mundum finit opus nos incipiet.

When the world ends, our mission begins.

Benchley considered the motto once again, as he had done for years. Are we alone? Are we all that’s left?

That’s what Benchley and everyone in Harmony Base wanted to know.

It was all they cared about now, after almost a decade of isolation, biding their time beneath the Earth’s surface and—

A chime sounded, and Benchley looked up at the bank of monitors again. Four hours after SCEV Four’s arrival, Captain Mike Andrews stood in the corridor outside, flanked by two enlisted MPs. As he watched, a crowd of passersby tried to extend their congratulations to Andrews, so many that the big MPs stood no chance of holding them back. Andrews appeared to accept the attention as stoically as he could. Benchley noted the slump to the younger man’s shoulders and the drawn, almost pained expression on his face when he acknowledged the presumably good tidings extended by the others. Benchley wondered if Andrews’s expression held all the answers he would ever need.

He feared exactly that.

Benchley rose and walked to the office door, his powerful stride belying his sixty-six years. He had been ready for retirement before the Sixty Minute War, with only two weeks left on post before rotating out and ending his service with the United States Army. Of course, the launch of several nuclear weapons against the U.S. had put his retirement plans on hold—forever. He opened the metal door and it slid inward on well-oiled hinges. Benchley had no secretary. She’d been on leave before the war struck, and he hadn’t seen any reason to replace her. He crossed the small outer office, opened the door to the corridor, and waved inside the three men waiting in the hall.

“Come in, Andrews. You men mind waiting in the outer office while I debrief the captain?” The two MPs shook their heads in unison.

“No, sir,” the senior man said.

“Thank you. Go ahead and make yourselves comfortable.” Benchley ran a hand over his close-cropped silver hair and motioned to his office. “In there if you will, Captain.”

“Yes, sir,” Andrews said. He carried a small nylon bag with him as he stepped into the office. Benchley followed him in and shut the door.

“Have a seat, son. Good to see you home safe and sound. Looks like Mother Nature threw you a last-minute monkey wrench, eh?”

“Yes, sir.” Andrews settled into one of the visitor’s chairs facing Benchley’s desk only after the general had set himself. “But that’s what happens when you try to keep a schedule.”

“Indeed. All right, we’ll keep this short. I know you’ve been away for quite some time, and you’re probably eager to get back to life.”

Andrews opened the nylon bag and pulled out a binder and two thumb drives. He handed the items over to Benchley, who placed the electronic devices on his desk. He opened the binder, which was Andrews’s written log of SCEV Four’s sojourn through the wasteland. The logs kept by every SCEV commander constituted the sole remaining paper in Harmony Base. Benchley flipped through it quickly, scanning the neat print.

“It’s all collated, sir. Lieutenant Eklund’s analyses are complete, and Engineer Spencer will have the—”

“Let’s cut to the chase, Andrews. What did you find?”

Andrews hesitated for a long moment, then released a heavy sigh. “I’m sorry, sir. The mission was a wash.”

Even though he had been ready to hear it—or thought he had—the news hit Benchley like a physical blow. He sagged back into his chair and looked across the desk at Andrews. For his part, the young captain returned his gaze with forlorn eyes.

“That’s… damned disappointing, Andrews. I’d hoped a long range recon would turn something up. We can’t be the only survivors of the war…”

“And we probably aren’t, sir. We’ve just been looking in the wrong places.” Andrews appeared more animated now, shrugging off the depressing reality of his report in a way that only the young could. “The Pacific Northwest is our best bet. Everywhere from Los Angeles to New York was hit with at least one nuclear device during the war, and anything that wasn’t was covered by the fallout. The winds are still hot outside, even ten years later—the only place anyone could possibly survive outside of hardened bunkers would be in the northwest. You give the word, sir, and I’ll have my rig ready to roll in three days.”

Benchley smiled despite himself. Andrews was a true go-getter, perhaps the one SCEV commander he trusted above all others. He was thorough, meticulous, and smart enough to know when to flex the rules a little bit to get something done. Best of all, he was a keen motivator, a trait that years of being trapped underground, slaves to repetition and outright boredom, had almost been eliminated in the Harmony Base culture. Andrews still had it, however, carrying his enthusiasm like a badge. Even though he had little but bad news to report, the young officer was rallying himself to charge out into the field and try again. In the process, Benchley noticed his own sagging spirits being lifted by Andrews.

Thank God for this boy, and all the others like him.

“I appreciate your can-do attitude, Andrews. Really. I’ll give your request full consideration, but my instinct is to stick to the schedule for now. In the meantime, myself and the rest of the command staff will go over your findings. Expect to be fully debriefed on Friday, which should give you enough time to get your personal affairs in order.”

Andrews looked disappointed. “Your call, sir. But we’re ready to jump out on this one. I mean, we’re really ready and—”

Benchley held up a hand. “I get it, Mike. I get it. I have to consult with the rest of the command staff before I make any sweeping changes to the recce schedule, and you know that. I really will consider making the change, but I need to discuss it with the rest of the team. Trust me on this one, okay?”

Andrews smiled wryly. “Trust has never been a problem here, sir. But if you don’t mind me saying so, you might be acting a little too… conservatively about this.”

“Me? Conservative? Bite your tongue, Captain—I’m practically a flaming liberal regarding issues like this.” Benchley rose to his feet and smoothed out the blouse of his Army Combat Uniform, the standard duty dress in Harmony Base. Andrews practically rocketed upright, instantly standing at attention.

“Anyway, congratulations, Captain. After thirty-three days in the field, I can absolutely and without reservation confirm that you and your crew have done well. Now go home. You look like hell.”

Andrews saluted. Benchley returned the gesture, then held out his hand. Andrews took it, his grip firm. The grip of an adventurer, Benchley thought. If there was a post-apocalyptic Lewis and Clark, Cook, Perry, or even James T. Kirk, Mike Andrews was that man.

“Thanks, sir. Let me know if there’s anything in the log that needs clarification,” Andrews said.

“Of course. Now get out of here,” Benchley said. “You have a young wife to see.” He hoped his smile didn’t reflect the heaviness he felt in his heart. If Andrews noticed, it didn’t show. In fact, the reference to his wife seemed to rejuvenate him. To Benchley, it appeared Andrews couldn’t get out of his office quickly enough. The captain stepped out of the office and allowed the heavy door to clang shut behind him, and Benchley slowly sank back into his chair. He put a hand on the logbook before him, palm down, as if he could somehow distill all the disappointment and thrashed dreams without having to actually wade through the reports.

He shook his head slowly. There was nothing to be gained by putting off the bad news.

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What I Watched: REPLAY

January 22, 2013 4 comments

I can’t say I didn’t know where this was headed, but a story well told is worth watching no matter what. I was surprised at how I was able to establish such a strong emotional connection with the characters, especially little Theo…who just like any other boy, wanted some friends to play with.

Very moving, I thought.

EARTHFALL: Chapter One

January 20, 2013 13 comments

Well, here’s a bit of my upcoming release Earthfall, for those who might be interested. No zombies in this one, but there are hard-bitten survivalists and one psionic freak that leads them–does this count?

As I wrote much earlier, this is a resurrection of a screenplay I’d written back in 1983, while obsessively listening to the scores for First Blood and Blue Thunder, so if you need to place any blame, Jerry Goldsmith and Arthur Rubenstein would be great starting points. Also trapped in my mind was the gritty, hard-hitting desperation of The Road Warrior, which I’d seen at a sneak preview in 1981 and thought to be far too violent (imagine that?) and the awesome Landmaster from the film Damnation Alley. So there’s more than a nod to both in this book, though I hope you won’t find it to be too heavy-handed.

As always, this is draft stuff, changes are not only possible, but probably advisable. And to quote Captain Mike Andrews in this chapter: “Embrace the suck.”

Hopefully, he’s not talking about the entire book.

Title

The wasteland was as dry and barren as the surface of the Moon. Over the course of decades, the topsoil had been bleached by the sun’s searing rays, the soil converted to chalky dust. No vegetation remained, for no life could exist in a land where the earth and air had been poisoned by nuclear weapons. Sandy ridges and wind-carved rock stood mute sentinel to the passage of time. Despite the fact the land was completely lifeless, the casual observer—had there been one—might still have considered the wasteland austerely beautiful.

Hidden beneath a pulsating brown-black mass, a vast cloud stalked across the forbidding wasteland like some hungry beast stirring after a long hibernation, the horizon but a memory. Tens of miles across, the ferocious sand storm grew larger by the second, illuminated by sporadic flashes of lightning. Riding the stiff breeze, the storm’s top rose almost seventy thousand feet into the dry air, which no longer enjoyed the benefit of an ozone layer to strip away harmful radioactive particles emitted by the distant sun. The storm surged forward at more than sixty miles per hour, devouring the land before it, ravaging the wasteland even further with cyclonic winds full of debris that could strip a man’s flesh from his bones in minutes.

Despite the hostile environment, the powerful storm, and the radiation—both man-made and heaven-sent—there was life.

A gigantic, eight-wheeled, all-terrain vehicle bolted across the gently rolling landscape, trailing a rooster-tail of dust. While the vehicle raced away from the storm, it became briefly airborne as it crested a small ridge before it slammed back to the parched earth, rocking on its heavy-duty suspension. The rig’s turbine engines roared as they propelled Self-Contained Exploration Vehicle 4 along at almost sixty miles an hour. It wasn’t fast enough. The monstrous storm continued to close, and the gap between its amorphous leading edge and the dirty vehicle slowly narrowed.

Strapped into the driver’s seat, Captain Mike Andrews kept his eyes rooted on the desert landscape outside the thick viewports. His left hand kept the rig’s control column pushed fully forward, and the system’s drive-by-wire technology translated the action into full power to the rig’s large, knobbed tires. The ride was far from comfortable, of course. Even though the SCEV had been designed to withstand harsh punishment in the field for months at a time, there was a limit to what suspension technology could dampen. Hurtling along at old highway speeds across broken terrain was one of the things it couldn’t handle.

“Hey, listen, the temperature’s going through the roof on number one,” Choi said, squirming slightly in the co-pilot’s seat beside Andrews. He was a few years younger than the vehicle commander, but his even temper and genuine likeability made him an asset in the field during the long reconnaissance runs they made four times a year. Now, though, Choi was obviously agitated, and not just from the SCEV’s violent progress over the landscape that had once been western Kansas. It wasn’t the close proximity of the storm causing him discomfort, either. Andrews knew the chance the vehicle might be forced to spend days waiting out the storm within only a few miles of Harmony Base was getting to Choi. Hell, it was getting to him as well. After thirty-three days in the field, all Andrews wanted was to get back to Harmony and soak in the small bathtub in his quarters. The SCEV’s accommodations were fairly excellent, but confining eight people inside a vehicle that had less than four hundred square feet of living space for a month was enough to make anyone long for privacy.

Choi pointed out the temperature tape on the multifunction display set in the instrument panel between the two men. Andrews only glanced at it, but he could see the number one engine’s temperature had spiked dramatically over the past few minutes.

“Listen, if you don’t back off soon, you’re going to blow number one,” Choi said.

“Like hell, Tony. The computer’ll shut it down first. But so what? That’s why we have two engines in these things.” Andrews patted the lip of the SCEV’s gray instrument panel. “Hang in there, babe. Almost home, just hang in there.”

“Yeah, that’s gonna work.”

Andrews looked at the weather radar display. “It’d better, man. That storm’s a hot one, and if it catches us, we’ll lose the base’s homing beacon. No way I’m backing off now—this is our only shot.”

“So what are we going to do if number one shuts down? The storm’ll catch us for sure.”

“Spencer!” Andrews shouted.

“What up?” A small, squat man appeared in the door that separated the SCEV’s cramped cockpit from the not-so-cramped work area in the center of the vehicle. By regulations, the pressure doors separating the three compartments were supposed to be closed, but with the vehicle lurching and bucking across the terrain, Andrews just didn’t have it in him to make what already felt like a coffin even smaller. If he was in the back, he’d have a tough time not blowing chow all over the place.

“One’s getting close to thermal shutdown, but I need it,” Andrews told the crew chief. “What can I do about it?”

Spencer looked at the multifunction display, then tabbed through the couple of screens. He grunted and returned the display to the main situation page. “Particle separator’s shitting the bed, which means the engine’s taking in dirty air. I can suppress the alert and raise the shutdown threshold, but the engine’s gonna fry. Walleyes won’t be happy about that,” Spencer added, referring to the commanding officer of the base’s vehicle section by his informal—and completely impolite—nickname.

Andrews considered his options. So far in his career, he’d been able to steer clear of Colonel Larry Walters’s wrath, which he had visited upon every other SCEV commander over the past decade since the Sixty Minute War. Walters was a ticket-punching chump, one of the Old Guard, and Andrews didn’t much care for him. But he was a superior officer, even if he was far too old to be a full-bird colonel. But there was no retiring to Tampa or Sun Valley or Bangkok anymore, which meant Andrews and every other SCEV skipper would have to deal with Walters’s shit until he dropped dead from old age or was relieved of command.

In the end, Andrews figured that if he was going to have a run-in with Walters, it might as well be over something fairly major, like burning up the core of a precious SCEV powerplant.

“Do it,” he told Spencer. “A direct order, and if you want me to use my code to access the vehicle engineering module, I’ll be happy to do it.”

“Nah, I got it. Just back me up when someone tries to nail my ass to the wall. Gimme a sec, I’ll use the station back here.” With that, the swarthy crew chief returned to the multipurpose workstation located only a few feet away. Choi looked back at him, then at Andrews.

“You’re putting him on the line, Mike,” he said softly.

“He’s not doing shit, I’m the one who doesn’t want to be out here in this storm,” Spencer said. “You see the size of it? That thing’ll last for a week before it blows out, and frankly, this thing smells like a can of farts. And I want out.”

“The fart smell would be mostly your fault, Spencer,” Leona Eklund said, her voice carrying to the cockpit over the roar of the rig’s engines and the various creaks, groans, and scrapes caused by the vehicle’s transit over the rough terrain. Andrews had to grin. It was true; one of the biggest drawbacks to crewing with Todd Spencer was the fact he emitted an exceptionally vile amount of swamp gas, no matter what he ate, and no matter what medication had been prescribed to prevent it. Whatever foulness lurked inside him, Spencer’s body tried valiantly to eject it through his sphincter.

“Yeah, yeah, too bad all of us can’t fart potpourri like you do, princess,” Spencer said. “Captain, I’ve raised the threshold on number one, but listen, you’ve got maybe three, four minutes until it fails. Keep that in mind.”

“Roger that, Spence. Thanks.”

An alarm went off then, sharp and strident—the lightning strike indicator flashed in the corner of one primary display as the storm behind them fired off great discharges of electrostatic energy, one of the things that made the great sandstorms that plagued the former Midwestern United States such a terror for the SCEV teams to deal with. Not only did they pack hurricane-force winds, they also cast off powerful cyclones and great bolts of lightning that homed in on virtually anything metallic. Despite the vast amount of advanced technology that went into insulating the SCEVs, they were still comprised of a good deal of metal.

Brilliant light flared outside, and for an instant Andrews saw the SCEV’s shadow grow remarkably long before the pulsing illumination. The lightning strike indicator blared again, and then the lights inside the rig dimmed momentarily. Andrews thought he saw whiplashes of the electrical discharge roll across the SCEV’s blunted nose like St. Elmo’s fire, spectral and wraithlike. The cockpit displays fluttered for a moment as they reset themselves from the pulsing effects of the charge, but it was the sudden BANG! and the sound of the number one engine winding down that held Andrews’s undivided attention.

“Talk to me, somebody,” he said. “I’ve got power falling off up here. Spencer, did that particle separator finally fail and take the engine with it?”

“Negative, it’s better than that. Looks like that lightning bolt invoked a compressor stall in the same engine,” the crew chief reported. “I’m looking into it. Choi, reset the ignition switches and secure the generator. I’ll run the restart from back here.”

Choi reached up to the overhead panel and did what Spencer asked. He missed a switch combination because the vehicle was rocking hard over uneven ground, but he managed to get it right on the second shot. Outside the viewports, thick dust began to swirl. The rig’s speed was dropping past fifty miles per hour, and the storm was catching up to them. Andrews kept the sidearm controller fully forward, but the SCEV was delivering only as much speed as her remaining engine could generate.

“Spencer, talk to me,” he said.

“Working on it.”

“We’re in max commo range,” Choi said. “Maybe we ought to let the base know we’re coming?”

“Spencer?”

“Still working on it,” Spencer said. “Call Harmony, Captain. Spend some time chatting up someone else—I’m busy.”

Andrews pressed the red transmit button. “Harmony Base, this is SCEV Four. We’re inbound on a course of three-three-five magnetic. We’re on a storm run, and we’ll require immediate entry by north lift. Over.”

Over static broken only by cracks and the whistling, sporadic pops that synchronized perfectly with the flashes of lightning outside, Andrews heard a tinny voice in his headset.

“SCEV Four, this is Harmony Base. Roger your SITREP. You’re cleared for north lift. Over.”

“Roger that, Harmony. Make sure it’s lit up like a Christmas tree. Visibility’s going to suck substantially by the time we get there. Over.”

“SCEV Four, Harmony. Lift is on its way, and it will be fully illuminated. Over.”

“Harmony, roger.”

Andrews turned to Spencer. “I’m not seeing any torque increase on number one up here, Spence. No pressure, but that storm’s right on our ass and we’ll be losing the beacon pretty soon. After that, it’s up to my Mark One Eyeballs and a compass to get us to the lift.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Spencer said. “Keep your shirt on,”

“Come on, man! Get that damn engine started!” Tilly Rodgers called from the back.

“Yeah, get it squared away!” Leona added.

“Blow me, both of you! I’m working on it!”

Choi paged through the system’s status pages on the multifunctional display. “Engine’s too hot, man. The computer’s sitting on it like an eight hundred pound gorilla.”

“Spence, what’s the problem?” Andrews asked.

“It’s too hot! The computer won’t let it torque up enough to turn over,” Spencer said, frustration evident in his voice.

“Point for me,” Choi said.

“Spence, you said you could raise the thermal threshold so that it would keep on running.”

“And I did, but the engine’s got its own onboard computer, and it’s getting in the way. The only way that’s going to change is if I rip up the floor and yank the module from the side of the engine, but that means we’ll have to stop.” The SCEVs had been designed to allow even major repair work to be conducted from the inside, so that its crew wouldn’t have to step outside into extremely hazardous conditions to replace a transaxle or computer chip. But that meant pulling up the deck, and doing so would invoke safety overrides that prevented the machine from moving. Either way, the storm would overtake them.

“Just do whatever you can do,” Andrews said. “Including getting out and pushing. Choi, give me the numbers?”

“Electromag interferometer’s pegged at two thousand volts. Distance from leading edge is one thousand meters, rate of closure one hundred thirty-four klicks per hour. It’ll take us down in less than three minutes.”

“All right, you guys, hang on back there. It’s not going to get any smoother.” Andrews patted the SCEV’s instrument panel once again. “Come on, baby, come on…”

“Four, this is Harmony. Lift is up and illuminated. Over.”

“Much obliged, Harmony. We’ll be coming in hot. Over.”

“Roger that, Four.”

Daylight ebbed outside the viewports. Swirling dust blew across the thick glass, and Andrews glanced down at the infrared picture in the upper left corner of the functional display. The dust was thick enough to mute infrared images, which meant they would soon be blind.

So I guess this means all we’ll have left is a compass.

An alarm chirped, and engine one suddenly came to life, its growling whine slowly building up to a crescendo. As soon as it began delivering power to the rig’s transmissions, the SCEV suddenly felt more nimble—or as nimble as a forty-ton vehicle could.

“Spencer, you’re the man!” Andrews said. “How’d you manage to get it started?”

“Busted into the engine’s integrated computer and shut down the thermal module,” Spencer said. “I did that because I’m brilliant and all, in case anyone was wondering.”

From the back came a chorus of jeers. Andrews toned them out as he raised his voice.

“Listen, folks, sorry, but I’m segmenting the vehicle,” he said. “Embrace the suck.” As he spoke, the two pressure doors that separated the rig’s three compartments slid closed. Andrews and Choi were sealed off in the cockpit.

“So how’re we doing this?” Choi asked as the big SCEV swayed from side to side. The leading edge of the storm had caught up to it, and the winds were battering the slab-sided vehicle.

“We run like hell and hope we can make it to the lift before the storm shuts us out,” Andrews said. “But if we screw it up and drive right into the side of the lift, then at least we won’t be around to listen to Walleyes.”

“If ‘we’ screw it up? Who is this ‘we’ you’re talking about, white man?”

“Attaboy, Choi, back me up all the way.”

The SCEV had lost too much ground to the storm.

Even as it accelerated forward, bumping and crashing over the dry landscape, the storm’s leading edge enveloped the vehicle, shrouding it beneath a shifting, inky darkness that made Andrews think the rig had just been swallowed whole by some sort of land-borne leviathan. Choi activated the rig’s infrared systems, but it was of little help; the swirling dust reduced the amount of heat that could be read by the high-tech device’s super-chilled planar array, rendering it as effective as Andrews’s eyeballs.

“The suck has arrived,” Choi said.

“We’re still on course, and the GPS says we should be at the lift in a minute or so,” Andrews told him. “Keep your eyes open.”

As he drove, Andrews flipped on the SCEV’s array of high-intensity floodlights. They gave him an additional twenty or thirty feet visibility now that the sunlight was being pared down by the storm, but he still couldn’t see comfortably. All he had to go by were the instruments, and even the military-grade GPS satellites that had been launched prior to the war were accurate only to within ten feet. If visibility was reduced much more, they could drive right past the lift without anyone noticing it.

“There!” Choi said a moment later, pointing out the diamond-matrix viewport. “Right there, I see the strobe! You got it?”

Andrews leaned forward. The straps of his four-point harness dug into his shoulders as he looked at the heads-up display. Sure enough, there was a very faint winking in the darkness ahead. Bands of dust would obscure it entirely, then lessen for just an instant to allow him to perceive more light. He compared the flashing with the GPS location on the multifunction display. If it was right, then he was nearly on top of the box-shaped lift.

He yanked back on the sidearm controller and stomped on the brakes. The SCEV slewed crazily as its wheels locked up, sending it skidding across the dry, sandy ground.

It came to a rest only feet away from the lift’s open entrance. The lights inside the large cubicle gleamed dully, their tepid illumination no challenge to the storm’s all-encompassing darkness.

“Yeah, I got it,” Andrews said.

“Could you have stopped a little more, you know, artfully?” Choi asked.

Andrews released a long sigh. “Probably, but why make it easy?”

He coaxed the SCEV into the waiting lift. The vehicle bumped slightly as it crossed the threshold, its array of high-intensity fog lights illuminating the big cubicle’s interior. A layer of dust already coated the floor, masking the yellow positioning circle painted on the elevator’s flat floor. Andrews pulled the SCEV into position by memory and triple-clicked the TRANSMIT button on the sidearm controller. The pulses from the rig’s radio were read by the receiver inside the lift, and the elevator’s thick, double-pocket pressure doors slid closed, shutting out the dark, seething fury of the storm as it reached full force. Yellow strobes flashed outside the rig’s viewports as the atmospheric scrubbers came on, venting radioactive dust and other airborne particulates from the air inside the elevator. After a few moments, an alarm sounded over the radio, three strident tones. At the same time, the strobes outside turned from yellow to red. The SCEV bounced on its stiff suspension for a moment as the elevator commenced its descent.

“Bay Control, this is SCEV Four. We’re secure and on our way down for an in-and-out. Over,” Andrews said over the radio.

“Roger that, SCEV Four. Welcome back to Harmony Base. Over.”

“Roger that, Harmony,” Andrew replied. “It’s good to be back.” With that, he and Choi finally relaxed, sinking back into the padding of their seats. Through the pressure door behind them, they could hear the rest of the crew applauding. It was good to be home—even if home was a windowless, subterranean fortress buried over a hundred feet below the Earth’s surface.

What I Read: THE CONVERT

January 11, 2013 2 comments

The Convert by Fred Anderson

You know, there are a hell of lot of books out there, and some of them are real gems. Fred Anderson writes some great stuff that I’ve admired over the years, and his latest, The Convert, is a continuation of his great style of storytelling. What really gets me is his ability to blend fantastic, dead-on characters with some pretty creepy horror–it’s been my experience that the two are usually exclusive. Not so here; Fred is at the top of his game with this book, and I entreat you folks to check it out if you’re interested in some real high-brow entertainment. No zombies here, or vampires, or werewolves, but when you factor in gods and demons…well, there’s enough meat here to feed your brain for the next couple of nights, let me tell you!

Here’s the first chapter:

I wasn’t born a cripple. That’s something I did to myself two days shy of my sixteenth birthday. Drunk diving, I tell people when they ask, although technically speaking there was no real diving involved. Just a lot of drunk. I remember the day like it happened last week, even though it’s been twenty-one years.

July in Mississippi is a godawful thing. The day starts heating up before seven in the morning, and by early afternoon the temperature is kissing-close to a hundred degrees. Humidity stays above eighty percent more often than not, and the still, hot air feels like a damp blanket draped over you. The pale blue sky is empty save the almost-white sun, glaring down like the eye of an angry god. The day I broke my back was one of those days.

Just a couple of miles outside of Starkville, where I grew up, the Old South Quarry cuts into the red clay cotton fields like an old battle scar. During the Great Depression the quarry did a booming business, harvesting limestone out of the bedrock to be crushed into gravel and powder for the concrete used by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the construction of structures all across the south. My grandfather was a down-on-his-luck welder and part-time farmer in those days, and spent two years building bridges for the Corps. It seemed like every time I went to church with them on a summer Sunday morning as a child, riding high in the front seat between them in their old green and white farm truck but still barely able to see over the dash, he had a new story to share about someone losing a finger or toe, hand or foot, during the construction of whatever bridge we happened to be crossing. Once he told me about a man buried alive in cement who, as far as he knew, was still encased down there at the base of the pylon holding up the bridge. He would’ve told me more, I think, but my grandmother shushed him up.

When the Depression ended and most people—my grandfather included—found permanent work, business fell off for the Old South Quarry. Limestone was cheaper coming out of Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee, and even though demand was up because of all the post-war construction, the supply from the more mountainous states far exceeded need. By the time I was tugged from my mother’s womb, red-faced and screaming from the gross insult of birth, the quarry had been closed for nearly eighteen years and Starkville teenagers had been swimming there for ten.

On that sunny July day there were four of us piled into Kenny Wilcott’s piece of shit Chevy Nova, roaring down the dirt road that circled around to the back of the quarry where the hole in the security fence was. Trigger Foster—his given name was Jonathan but he’d been Trigger to us ever since he shot himself in the foot on a duck hunt with his older brother when he was twelve—had filched a case of Milwaukee’s Best from the stash his old man kept in the garage, and we were ready for a party. As much of a party four guys can have with twenty-four piss-warm beers and no girls, anyway.

Russ Howard pulled the first beer out of the plastic ring and handed it over to me. It felt like a mug of the Russian tea my mom made for me whenever I was sick. Even with the windows down, the car was an oven, but that didn’t matter. We’d be cool soon enough.

The car hit a pothole and the four of us bounced as one.

“Goddammit, man, watch the road!” Trigger cried. He was sitting up front with Kenny, gripping the dash with both hands. Not long after the duck hunting incident, his older brother had been killed when he thought he could pass an eighteen-wheeler on a two-lane road and lost control of his Trans-Am. The car rolled six times, throwing Trigger’s brother some thirty feet headfirst into a sweet gum tree. Trigger told us later that his head had been split in half right down the middle and most of his brain ended up in the crook of two branches, almost fifteen feet off the ground. He’d been jumpy in cars ever since, not that anyone could blame him.

“Relax, princess,” Kenny said, but he eased up on the gas a little. He rubbed at the top of his head, which had banged into the roof when the car dipped. Kenny was on the junior varsity basketball team with me, and played center because he was so tall. Being several inches shorter—but not short, mind you—I played shooting guard. Between the two of us, we helped the team make it to the quarter-finals the previous year.

Ahead, I could see the rusted chain-link fence surrounding the quarry, and beyond it, the emerald lake sparkling in the summer sun, its color undiluted by the heat haze clinging to the ground. Limestone dust in the water gave it the unique color, reminiscent of exotic Caribbean locations. As we drew closer, I saw schools of bream and sunfish swimming lazily around the shallow edge. The quarry had been carved into the side of a small hillock, and toward the far end where the deep water darkened to near-black, a white stone cliff towered almost fifty feet above the surface. All that was visible of the old office at the top was a glint of glass through the kudzu overgrowth.

Kenny brought the car to a stop just outside the fence and shut it down. Drifts of red dust swirled around us, stirred up by our jostling drive. The air smelled of honeysuckle and the pesticide farmers soaked their cotton plants in to keep the boll weevils down to manageable levels. Out in the open green field, a symphony of grasshoppers crackled and rattled. Trigger relaxed visibly and held his hand over the seat for a beer.

I popped the tab on my own and got it to my mouth before it foamed all over the car, then gulped it down as fast as possible. We didn’t bring it to sit around and sip it like the people in beer ads, after all. Pitching the can through the window into the tall grass, I opened the door to get out, but before I could, I let loose a massive belch. The sound rolled across the water like the crack of gunfire.

“Danny Mac sounds off!” Russ cawed, and pitched me another beer.

Danny Mac. It’s been years since anyone called me that, except for my old buddy Jake Conrad—more on him in a bit—who did it occasionally when he was worked up about something. Usually the government. Maybe the nickname was kind of lame, no pun intended, but hell, who isn’t lame at that age? No matter how pitiful it sounds now, it was far better than my given name of Daniel Edward Mackenzie. Doesn’t that sound stuffy and pretentious? Even now, as forty looms not too far around the corner, I’ll take being called Danny over Daniel any day, though I prefer Dan. Nice, short, and simple.

But then? Then I was Danny Mac.

I drained the second beer almost as quickly as the first, and by the time we scrambled through the hole in the fence and down to the water’s edge, my third was half empty. I was already starting to feel light-headed. We’d been down at the mall all morning, feeding quarters into games in the arcade and hanging out at Camelot Music, and hadn’t bothered with lunch.

The dirt road we drove in on ended at a chained and padlocked gate, and turned to gravel inside the fence. It was the same one the loaded trucks used back when the quarry was in business, and it led right down into the water. Standing at the lake’s edge, you could see the road continuing under the surface as it descended into the depths. To be honest, it always creeped me out a little to float over it and look down through my mask. It seemed so out of place down there, stretching into the murky darkness. A path to nowhere.

The pulverized gravel at the edge of the lake formed something of a beach, and that’s where we spread out our towels. Trigger tied the remaining six-packs together with a piece of old clothesline from the trunk of the Nova and lowered them into the cool green water. We waded out four abreast, hissing reflexively first when the water touched our balls, then our armpits.

An hour later, snorkeling in the middle of the lake, I was as far from sober as I was from the shore. Through my mask I watched the fish and turtles glide far below me, dim dark shapes against the midnight green. From time to time I drifted over underwater meadows of some tall grass, gently swaying in the convection created by the sun’s rays. Pale lime-colored tendrils reached for me out of the darkness like questing fingers, and I thought of dead things slowly rotting down there, just out of sight.

A scream yanked me from my quiet and morbid reflection, and I looked up in time to see Trigger twisting through the air halfway down the cliff. Though he grinned like a fool, his eyes were wide with terror. At the last second, he pulled his legs up and wrapped his arms around them, hitting the water butt-first in a perfect cannonball. The plume must have shot thirty feet.

Even as the displaced water rained back to the lake Kenny sailed over the edge. He jackknifed and greased in with barely any disturbance at all. Behind me, Russ hooted, and I turned to see him swimming back toward the beach in an awkward stroke somewhere between a dog paddle and a butterfly.
“Wait up!” I called, and started after him.

Trigger surfaced in the distance, sputtering and flailing and bellowing, “My ass! I broke my ass!”

Kenny’s peal of laughter bounced off the vertical walls and doubled, then tripled, until it sounded like a mocking crowd. At the shore, Russ veered over and pulled two beers from the last six-pack, and we drank them as we picked and stumbled our way around the lake to the upper end. From the top of the hill we could see for miles, nothing but verdant green cotton plants against the carmine soil stretching out in every direction. I set my snorkel and mask on a chunk of limestone the size of a suitcase near the precipice. M.C. Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” thundered from the boombox sitting with our towels, the sound surprisingly clear outside the enclosing rock sides. A gentle breeze blew in our faces, cooled by the water below. It carried a slightly metallic, clean smell. I gave Russ a dopey smile that was part indescribable happiness, part cheap beer.

“Last one in is queer,” he shouted, and ran for the edge with me hot on his heels.

He sprung away from the drop, twisting around to look at me as he fell, a look of triumph on his face, an image frozen in my memory as the pure essence of summer and youth. I jumped after him, but just as I pushed off, my foot slid in the loose gravel, kicking out behind me like some kind of satirical ballet move, and I tumbled gracelessly over the edge.

The fall is imprinted in the archives of my mind as a series of snapshots taken as I somersaulted toward the water. White rock, speckled with black, far too close. The sky, impossibly blue. The lake, stretching off in the distance. Russ looking up at me, his mouth opening in a scream, Kenny and Trigger blurry smudges in the water beyond him. White rock. Blue sky.

When the workers carved away the hillside to harvest all that stone, they cut it away into a giant series of steps so that each one made a simple path across the face of the rock for them to use. One of those steps jutted out of the face of the cliff two feet below the waterline, forming a shelf six or seven feet wide. It’s pure luck I didn’t plunge headfirst into it and chum up the water with my fool brain. Instead, I hit the water on my back, part of me over the shelf and part over the abyss. Even through the roar in my ears I heard the brittle crack! of my spine as I impacted the edge just below my shoulder blades.
My eyes were open. I could see the disc of the sun through churning water turned cloudy by the lime silt, white and brilliant and uncaring. Even though I must have been going into shock, my mind was preternaturally alert and screamed for me to get to the surface before I drowned. It felt like someone had cinched a nail-studded belt around my midsection and was pulling it ever tighter, but compared to the pain that came later, it was nothing. I had a dim awareness that I no longer felt anything below that fiery circle.

I teetered there on the edge of the shelf for a second, then slipped over, pulled down by the weight of my dead legs. I sank in a dreamy kind of slow motion, desperately trying to use my arms to swim upward, but they didn’t want to obey and merely flapped ineffectually. I grabbed at the rocky wall as it slid by, searching for purchase, but my fingers were twisted into claws and wouldn’t open. I succeeded only in pulling loose a thick rubbery sheet of the pinkish fungal growth we called quarry skin. That stuff seemed to coat everything under the water, soft and slick like the sodden flesh of a bloated corpse.

Pressure built in my ears and lungs as I descended. I fell through a deepening green haze, no longer able to see the sun. No longer able to see much of anything but that single color, slowly bleeding away and leaving only blackness behind. I knew I was dying, but despite it all I felt a calming sense of peace build within me. I don’t know if it was the beer, or God, or just my body starting to give up and shut down, but I found that I wasn’t so concerned about making the transition. Even though I was technically still a virgin.

I saw something gliding toward me through the gloom, one of God’s angels coming with open arms to lead me home to heaven. Hot joy rose in my heart. They told me later it was just Russ, swimming down to catch me by the hair and drag me back up to the shelf.

My recollection of what happened next is hazy. I remember bits and pieces, little snippets of memory spliced together like a movie trailer made with only the worst parts. Lying in the cold water on the shelf, cradled in Russ’s arms, shivering and telling him to stop crying like a little girl, then crying myself when the belt of pain twisted a little tighter. The sun as it slipped out of sight over the cliffs. The flat whupwhupwhup of the LifeFlight helicopter sent all the way from Jackson to get me after a pell-mell drive back to Starkville by Kenny and Trigger to find help. Dizziness from the rotation of the basket as they winched me up, and the feel of the warm rotor wash on my face, upper chest, and arms. Wonderment over why I couldn’t feel it anywhere else.

The next solid memory is of waking up in a recovery room in Jackson General Hospital with my parents on one side of the bed and a strange man dressed in white on the other. Mom’s eyes were red and watery, and Dad kept clearing his throat. That was the first time they ever looked old to me.

“Welcome back, Danny,” the stranger said. “My name is Dr. Feinbaum. Do you know where you are?”

My throat hurt like hell, dry and scratchy like someone took a steel wool pad to it, so I whispered, “Hospital.”

“That’s right, you’re down in Jackson, in the intensive care unit. Do you remember what happened?”

I nodded.

“Good,” he told me, and looked up at my parents. “Very good. Short term memory loss is always a concern in cases like this.”

Reaching into the breast pocket of his jacket, he plucked out a pen and held it in front of my face. “Follow this with your eyes, please.”

I tracked the movement of the pen and wondered why I wasn’t in more pain.

Especially below that spot near my shoulder blades, where I landed.

Good stuff here, folks. I hope you’ll check it out!

EARTHFALL (Near) Final Cover

January 9, 2013 11 comments

Hey crew,

Attached is what I feel will be the final cover for my upcoming release, Earthfall. How do you like it?

EARTHFALL Version 3

THE GATHERING DEAD Film Update #8

January 8, 2013 16 comments

Things continue to percolate with this project, and here I’ll share with you some of the latest clips from the trailer. First off, a draft of the second scene, which shows the MH-60 McDaniels, Gartrell, and the others hope to use to escape New York City as it falls to the horde…

The Gathering Dead shot 02 v 003 from Stephen Knight on Vimeo.

This is pretty good stuff, but it’s missing many elements: smoke, fire, general haze in the air from all the obscurants, important ground-level detail, and some necessary corrections (watch the guy at the bottom right run right through a car). Aviators, yes, I know–the rotors are spinning the wrong way. I’ve asked for corrections and enhancements, but I think all of you will agree, things are progressing a bit.

Here’s a low-resolution draft where some more dramatic elements are added:

Draft Scene 2 from THE GATHERING DEAD trailer from Stephen Knight on Vimeo.

For some reason, the color temperature is off when I upload it to Vimeo–it doesn’t pop as much as I’d hoped it would, but again, this is a very low res pass at a scene which has over fifty elements in it, so I’m willing to wait until I see a longer render.

All I have time for now, but do know that Earthfall is going through editorial now. Looking forward to a late January release, and I have a final cover to show soon.

Oh, one last thing…how would you guys feel about a prequel to The Gathering Dead? A book that captures the beginning of the zombie outbreak that culminates in McDaniels and Gartrell heading to NYC on their ill-fated rescue mission?