EARTHFALL: Chapter 2
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.
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.