EARTHFALL: Chapter One
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.
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?”
“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.”
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.