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WHITE TIGER: Grab It This Week on Amazon!

February 25, 2013 Leave a comment

WhiteTigerFor 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.

EARTHFALL Released!

February 22, 2013 9 comments

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!

EARTHFALL: Chapter 10 (And a Revised Cover!)

February 18, 2013 11 comments

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?

Title

CHAPTER TEN

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.”

“Roger that.”

“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.

Sorry, Charlie.

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.”

“You’re kidding.”

“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, SITREP.”

No answer.

“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.

Outstanding.

“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.

Boo-scary, right?

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.

Earthfall v4

EARTHFALL: Chapter 5

February 14, 2013 3 comments

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.

Title

CHAPTER FIVE

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.”

“You sure?”

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.

“Mike!”

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.

Oh, Sally…

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.”

Interview: A Pair of Characters

February 10, 2013 7 comments

interview2

Today, I present you with a little something different: an interview with two crusty, surly Sergeants Major. One you know, from his role in The Gathering Dead series of books. The other makes his debut in the upcoming post-apocalyptic science fiction advenure, Earthfall.

In the left corner: Sergeant Major David Gartrell, still bloody and stinky from taking down untold numbers of stenches with everything from his AA-12 to an acetylene bomb. For those who might be interested, Gartrell is on the blond side, about five foot nine to five foot ten, and hardly an iron pumper…unless the heavy iron happens to be an M2 .50 caliber, in which case, he’s all over it. He’s a lifetime member of the NRA, and he subscribes to Guns & Ammo magazine under three different names, just in case he misses an issue.

In the right corner: Command Sergeant Major Scott Mulligan, also still bloody and stinky from his struggles against a pack of demented, cannibalistic survivalists in the shattered remains of San Jose, California. It should be noted that Mulligan is sporting the additional dimension of “battered.” Where Gartrell exudes a quiet sense of confidence and ability, Mulligan exudes a “I’m going to twist your head off and play some basketball with it” vibe that is made even more compelling due to his six-foot-six-inch height.

Stephen Knight: Hey, guys. Thanks for dropping by my mind.

Gartrell: It wasn’t voluntary.

Mulligan: Yeah, you really get off pulling the God strings, don’t you?

SK: Let’s, uh, let’s not make it too combative, okay?

Mulligan: Is “fuck you” being too combative? I got things to do.

Gartrell: What, another toenail painting session in your calendar?

Mulligan: Look, kid—you made it into print before I did, but I was thought up in 1983. Show your elders some respect.

Gartrell: Dude, we’re both in our early fifties.

Mulligan: Knight, can you make him sixty?

SK: I’ll make that a takeaway. All right, let’s get to it. Gartrell, what’s the worst thing about being in The Gathering Dead universe?

Gartrell: Gee, let’s think about that. [Pauses] Yeah, I’d have to say it’s the whole my-family-turned-into-zombie-things-after-I-wrestle-with-my-innermost-feelings-for-shooting-an-autistic-kid story arc you put me through. Thanks for that, by the way. You’re a sweetheart. If I were real, I’d pin you to a wooden chair by driving a sixteen penny nail through that tiny little bag that passes for your scrotum and light you on fire.

SK: Ah…ah, Mulligan? What’s the worst thing about the post-apocalypse world of Earthfall?

Mulligan: A distinct lack of tiki bars.

SK: Come again?

Mulligan: [Points to Gartrell] Listen, pal, you didn’t like it when he told you the truth, what makes you think my response is going to be happily received?

SK: Come on, Mulligan—

Mulligan: All right. Okay. Let’s see, I think I can work with this. You saddled me with a past that I have nightmares about. I’m trapped in an underground base with around three hundred and seventy five pinheads who are afraid of me, and the only person who really talks to me is a two-star general. Other than the expected lack of witty repartee such a relationship usually engenders—I mean, I’m sure all my off-camera scenes with Benchley consist of me smiling and saying such things like, “Oh, you really loved In-N-Out Burger? That’s great, sir,” and “You preferred the golf course at Fort Bliss as opposed to the one at Fort Knox, and gosh damn, you’re upset that the nukes came between you and your improving handicap?”—it’s a pretty morose existence you gave me. +1 for you being a dick, but -10 for blowing me up.

SK: Hey, you lived! And you didn’t even lose any limbs!

Mulligan: Yeah, but I was fucking unconscious when the girls in the SCEV were giving me sponge baths! What the hell is wrong with you? I mean, you give Mike Andrews a hot wife, and then you make her hate me for killing her parents, and then you force us serve on the same mission together. Thanks for that. You’re as much fun as a limp pecker at an orgy.

SK: All right, point taken. Sorry, guys, but making you suffer is what draws in the audience. Gartrell, would you agree with that?

Gartrell: What? Sorry, I fell asleep–is Mulligan done talking? For someone who’s supposed to be tall, dark, and silent, he sure does bitch and moan a lot, doesn’t he?

Mulligan: What’s the matter, Gartrell? Are you still upset that I was patterned after Charlton Heston, and you were inspired by a landscaper Knight worked for in 1981?

Gartrell: [To SK] Is this true?

SK: Well…physically, yes. You do look a lot like a guy I worked for back when I—

Gartrell: Wow. I guess any chance this interview might be therapeutic just went out the window. Really, Knight, how far under the water are you going to push me?

Mulligan: You want some advice? Put on some swim trunks.

Gartrell: Charlton Heston wore a hair piece. Do you?

Mulligan: You can try and pull my hair, but it’s gonna cost you.

Gartrell: What, you’re going to keep talking? I killed like eleventy-million carnivorous corpses, butt-wipe. You think you can intimidate me?

SK: Guys—

Mulligan: Gartrell, you couldn’t even figure out what to do if you suddenly found yourself trapped under a sleeping Armenian. Of course, I hear that kind of thing happens to you often. My tactical assessment: You need to stay out the Turkish bath houses.

Gartrell: Oh, yeah. Says the guy who took a multimillion dollar rig outside and drove it right into a freaking nuclear explosion. You’re a fucking rocket scientist, Mulligan. And you probably kept on talking as the shock wave rolled over you.

SK: Guys, guys! Time out! Look, let’s try this. Gartrell, are you ready for a sequel to The Rising Horde?

Gartrell: Screw that. Put me in a prequel to The Gathering Dead, where I’m still something like a human being. Give me some righteous snappy dialog with McDaniels, and explain just how the hell he and I got mixed up together again. I mean, I hated the guy. And you teamed us up? To repeat my esteemed colleague’s question, what in the hell is wrong with you?

SK: So, uh…a prequel, huh?

Gartrell: It would make some sense there, Copernicus. Call it something like The Day Before the Dead. Or even better, just make me the headline act: Dave Gartrell: Porn Star.

Muligan: There we go. Let him do the horizontal bop with a bunch of zombies. That’ll sell real well. We can give you a new nickname: “franchise killer.”

Gartrell: Y’know, I’m beginning to think you weren’t modeled after Heston, after all. I’m thinking you’re more like Piers Morgan, only in this instance, that left-wing douche bag lobsterback is eminently more entertaining to listen to.

Mulligan: Now, you listen to me, you sack of—

SK: Mulligan! Interested in appearing in a sequel to Earthfall?

Mulligan: Huh…you have me poised to get it on with a girl who’s half my age, and whose IQ is about four times higher than Gartrell’s. And she’s smoking hot. So unless I took a couple of rounds to my nuts in San Jose, what the hell do you think? Hell yes, I’m ready for a sequel!

Gartrell: Whoa, whoa…wait a second, here. This idiot’s going to get romantically involved…with something other than a blow-up doll? Are you kidding me, Knight? I mean, he practically has to pour alcoholic drinks into his right hand for two hours before he can get lucky solo, and now he’s going to get to have a relationship? Please tell me you modeled his future romantic partner after someone in keeping with his decade…Bea Arthur?

SK: I was thinking more along the lines of Jessica Alba, actually—

Mulligan: [Laughs] Yes! Hear that? Read it and weep, Smelly Gartrelly—the book comes out around February 15th. Though I’m sure reading isn’t high on your list of skills, so in your case, maybe you should wait for the audio book. I’ll try and get Knight to crack open the coffers so he can hire Jessica Alba to say my name all breathy and hot and stuff during the recording sessions. You’ll love it, trust me.

Gartrell: Knight…this ain’t right.

Mulligan: Oh, now he’s a poet. Here’s one you might like, tiny. It’s called “Fleas,” and it goes like this: “Adam had ‘em.” Impressed?

Gartrell: [Points at Mulligan] This guy is gonna get laid in the next book he’s in?

SK: Well…I haven’t decided it yet, I really only have a thumbnail of a plotline—

Mulligan: If I don’t get laid, I’m going to kill you. And everyone else inside of Harmony Base.

SK: But…but you’re not real, Mulligan.

Mulligan: I’ve haunted your dreams since 1983, pal. Think again.

Gartrell: Two can play that game, Knight. All I’ve gotten out of this duty is a quip to give a Ranger O-6 a lap-dance, and that ain’t cuttin’ it.

Mulligan: A lap-dance? Are you sure you’re not a Marine?

Gartrell: I don’t get laid in the next book, we’re done, pal. I’ll give you a case of writer’s block you wouldn’t believe. You won’t be able to write a fucking email by the time I’m done. [To Mulligan] And just to set the record straight, “Chuck Heston,” the books I’m in have sold over fifty thousand editions, print and ebook. Beat that.

Mulligan: Fight’s on, sweet cheeks.

Gartrell: Bring it, but it looks like I’ll have the tactical advantage: three novels and one novella. You’re just cutting your teeth on the first book, and there aren’t even any zombies in it. Well, except for yourself—I hear your emotional range is somewhere between “dead” and “comatose.”

Mulligan: I have a twenty-three year old who wants to jump me—all you have is an Atchisson AA-12. And as impressive a weapon as that is, I get to go out on missions with this girl…in a high-tech rig that has beds in the back. Beat that.

Gartrell: I fucking hate you.

Mulligan: Back atcha, champ.

SK: Oh, look at the time! Thanks for stopping by, guys. This’ll teach me to drink Suntory outside of Japan…

Gartrell: Oh, we’re done? Good. My pleasure to drop by. Kill yourself.

Mulligan: For the first time since this interview started, he actually said something I agree with. I’d only like to add the word, “soon.”

SK: You know, maybe I’ll do a Gathering Dead/Earthfall crossover. I’ll make you guys lovers. You can spend chapter after chapter taking steamy showers together. What do you say?

[Gartrell and Mulligan exchange disgusted looks.]

Gartrell: I get to be the top.

EARTHFALL: Chapter 4

February 7, 2013 1 comment

And in the great tradition of 1980s action/science fiction movies–DISASTER STRIKES!

(Though hopefully, you won’t think it’s just the prose.)

Title

CHAPTER FOUR

After having breakfast in the commons area, Andrews rode one of the elevators to the SCEV Maintenance Area. Virtually as wide as the entire base below it, “the bay,” as it was called, was the single largest room in the installation, housing Harmony’s remaining nine Self-Contained Exploration Vehicles. The tenth rig had been lost in the immediate aftermath of the Sixty Minute War under circumstances that remained unclear, though Andrews had of course heard the rumors that placed the blame squarely on Scott Mulligan’s shoulders. The fact that Rachel’s parents had perished in the same incident was not lost upon him, but Andrews wasn’t about the past. He let Mulligan and Benchley and even his own father dance with that. Andrews was all about the future.

One portion of the bay was dedicated to assembly and repair, and SCEV Four and Five were already there. Andrews made a beeline for his vehicle just as a ceiling-mounted crane lifted the bulky Mission Equipment Pack from the vehicle’s back. The MEP was what made the SCEVs tick; loaded with all manner of sensors, a low-slung radome that housed a millimeter-wave radar, and a retractable pod that held six AGM-114R Hellfire missiles, the MEP had been designed to be modular. That way, a pack could be taken from one vehicle and attached to another should the rig’s original pack have a systems failure. Removal of the pack after decontamination was also the first step in performing rig maintenance, and Andrews was not surprised to see Todd Spencer overseeing the operation. Standing with his feet spread and hands on his hips, Spencer struck a pose that was almost dictatorial. He shouted at the crane operator and the technicians who mounted the MEP to the crane, reminding them that they were handling millions of dollars of equipment—which would probably be worth billions now, if currency still had any value.

“Sergeant Spencer! Don’t you crew chiefs ever sleep?” Andrews asked as he stopped beside the engineer and looked up at the MEP dangling from its truss.

Spencer only glanced at him. “Buenos dias, Capitan. Yeah, I caught a straight eight after we rolled in. I wanted to get cracking on that engine you guys blew. ’Scuse me for a second…” Spencer hurried over to where another maintenance technician was prying open an access panel on the SCEV’s fuselage. “Hey, McCready! What’re you doing? Since when do you just pry open an access point like that? You’re going to bend the plate!”

Andrews watched as Spencer harangued the tech about the proper procedure required to open access plates, pointing out that said procedure was even written on the surface of the plate itself. Andrews shook his head. Spencer could be a little too much at times.

“Hey, Mike! Welcome back!”

Andrews took a slap to the back that was hard enough to make him take a step forward. He whirled around, startled. Jim Laird, the commander of SCEV Five, clapped his hands together as he snickered.

“Man, you should see the look on your face!”

“Kiss my ass, Jimmy. You scared the shit out of me.”

“Sorry, sorry. How’s it going?” Laird stuck out his hand, and Andrews shook it. Laird was about an inch taller than Andrews, and while Andrews could be described as broad-shouldered, Jim Laird was built like an old-time linebacker. And where Andrews was definitely Caucasian, Laird was anything but. “Philly black,” he’d said about his ethnicity when they were kids.

“Tried to catch up to you yesterday, but you’d already made it back to quarters,” Laird continued. “I figured I’d wait. Didn’t want to interrupt anything important and have Rachel boot me in the nuts.”

“Probably a good choice,” Andrews agreed. “How’re you doing, man?”

“Fair to middlin’. Getting ready to head up to Minnesota and see what we can see.” Laird nodded to SCEV Five. The rig Laird commanded was an identical twin to Andrews’s, the only difference being a black number 5 painted on its white fuselage. “Should be a couple of weeks of wall-to-wall excitement.”

“There’s lots of storm activity all across the Midwest,” Andrews said. “Get ready for it. How far up do you think you’ll go?”

“All the way to the Canadian border, if we can make it.”

“Damn, guy. You go!”

Laird smiled. “As far and as fast as I can, pal.” He paused. “So, scuttlebutt is you guys rolled snake eyes.”

“Why, Captain Laird, I’m surprised at that statement. You know the command group will release the findings of my last mission in due time,” Andrews said, tongue firmly in cheek.

“Come on, guy, throw me a bone here.”

Andrews chuckled. It was true, he was technically not allowed to discuss his mission’s findings with other personnel, but that regulation was regularly ignored every time an SCEV crew returned to the fold. That Laird already knew the mission was a wash less than a day after SCEV Four’s return certainly indicated someone was chattering. Andrews took Laird by the elbow and led him several yards away from the two rigs.

“We found jack shit,” Andrews said, turning back to watch the two SCEVs, one being torn down after a mission, the other being readied to jump into the field. “We found a couple of strongholds, but they’d been abandoned years ago. Even the best prepared survivalist couldn’t hold out for a decade.”

“You find bodies at those sites?”

Andrews nodded. “At some, yeah.”

“But not at all of them?”

“We only found three, Jim. Two were full of bodies, the last one was empty… but it had been occupied. Plenty of signs of habitation. They must’ve taken off for greener pastures, but no idea where they went. Or if they survived.”

Laird was silent for a moment. “Well, maybe they made it. Maybe they headed northwest.”

Andrews shrugged. “No evidence to show that, but yeah, maybe they did. The only way to crack that nut is to actually go there. I brought it up to Benchley again yesterday, but it doesn’t seem like he’s going to go for it. At least, not yet.”

“Keep at it, man. You’re the guy with the inside—”

The floor lurched beneath their feet, and Andrews staggered slightly. Laird reached out and grabbed his arm, but whether to steady Andrews or himself, he didn’t know. Overhead, the chamber’s ceiling creaked ominously, and SCEV Four’s MEP swung from the crane like a pendulum. Andrews stumbled again as another jolt ran through the bay; the emergency lights flickered on and off, even though the main lights remained steady. Spencer started yelling at the crane operator, shouting for him to drop the MEP back on the SCEV. The technicians holding the MEP’s guidelines looked amongst themselves as the base seemed to sway beneath their feet, the movements growing more forceful by the second.

What the fuck is going on?

“It’s an earthquake,” Laird said, as if reading his mind. “Oh, man, we’re going through an earthquake in Kansas!

Andrews looked around the prep area, listening to the creaks and groans of stressed superstructure that only grew louder. The vehicle elevator doors warped and flexed in their frame; a moment later, the frame itself seemed to undulate, twisting right to left amid the cacophonous rending of metal.

Oh, man…

***

The Core exploded into chaos. Alarms blared as the base rocked on its shock-absorbing system, a series of gigantic fluid-filled cylinders designed to aid the base in surviving a near-miss from a nuclear ground strike. The absorption system was very much on Jeremy Andrews’s mind as he slogged to his workstation. Could they survive an actual earthquake, one that continued on for more than just a handful of seconds? He suspected he was about to find out.

He slipped on his headset and immediately starting barking orders. “Let’s get all the stations secure! Spool down turbine three, relegate it to standby status! Davies, Kadaka, get me the numbers on the well!”

All around the Core, technicians staggered to their stations or fought to maintain their footing. He heard metal tear, followed by an explosion of steam. Above the creaking and rumbling, someone screamed, and Jeremy looked up in time to see a figure flying through the air amidst a rapidly expanding cloud of steam. A steam pipe had exploded, the force of the explosion blowing one of his engineers right off the third level. As he watched, Benny Okabe fell to the bottom floor, arms pin-wheeling. Jeremy could see his face plainly, and his expression was blank. Okabe landed on the other side of the turbines, and Jeremy was thankful the turbine housing was tall enough that he couldn’t see the impact.

A klaxon wailed, loud and strident above the din of the earthquake rattling the base like a child’s toy. Either someone had hit the emergency cutoff on the turbine platform, or the Core’s AI had initiated an automatic shutdown of the three systems independently. He looked down and was surprised to see he had done it himself—he didn’t remember lifting the plastic shield and throwing the red switch beneath it. It was too late. One of the turbine housings tore loose from its mounts and rocked back and forth; from inside it, several crashing explosions could be heard above the racket as the turbine array destroyed itself, its rotating components disintegrating as they contacted the housing’s interior.

Then the main lights went out. Several people cried out in shock and fear as sudden darkness descended upon the great chamber—he was one of them. The emergency systems snapped on, bathing the area in pale, tepid illumination. There was another series of concussive blasts, and he could feel them this time. Jeremy clung to his console as the floor beneath his feet continued to undulate. He looked around, peering into the shadows where the illumination from the emergency lights couldn’t penetrate. Was there smoke coming from the battery room?

The flames that erupted from the room confirmed Jeremy’s suspicions. Another alarm sounded as the fire suppression system activated, blasting the room with heavy, dust-like fire retardant. But it wasn’t working.

Then, just as suddenly as it had started, the violent, side-to-side jerking subsided. If it wasn’t for the alarms, the emergency lights, and the acrid, deadly smoke filling the air from the battery room, it might have seemed that the earthquake had never happened.

“Secure the battery room door!” Jeremy shouted as another of the battery units suddenly exploded, causing more people to cry out in terror.

***

The command center was a pit of confusion illuminated by red emergency lights. Major General Martin Benchley clung to his workstation even after the earthquake had subsided, shaking in fear. The base creaked and groaned in the void left by the earthquake, and Benchley looked around the room. Several operators and technicians had taken cover beneath their workstations, cowering in their foot wells. Alarms rang. Displays flashed a series of situational alerts, and Benchley looked at the screens on his own workstation. The turbines were offline, and the base was operating on emergency power only.

Snap out of it! Get in the game!

“Operations!”

“Go for Ops, sir,” said Cheadle, the officer manning the ops console.

“Let’s get standard light restored, then tell me how badly we’re hurt. Damage control teams need to get out and start making their assessments. Reports go to Colonel Baxter, ASAP.”

“Roger that, sir.”

“Is anyone in the center injured?” Benchley rose to his feet, pushing aside his fear. He had to show everyone the Old Man was still playing his A-game, and no one was going to listen to anything he had to say while he was clutching his workstation like it was his mother’s apron strings. He looked around the command center as the lights suddenly brightened. Several bulbs flickered for a moment, then shone bright and strong. Benchley sighed in relief that no one seemed hurt.

“Cory, are you all right?” he asked Baxter. She had fallen to the floor on the other side of his workstation. A small cut on her dark cheek oozed blood, and he reached for her. Baxter shrugged off his hand and smiled tightly.

“Still operational, sir,” she said.

“Sir, I have a preliminary report,” the operations technician said.

“Let’s hear it.”

“The base is running on auxiliary power only. We’ve got enough juice for lights and air, but that’s about it.”

That wasn’t what Benchley wanted to hear. “What’s the word from the Core? When will primary power be restored?”

“I’m trying to get a hold of someone down in the Core, but there are several fire alerts down there. I think they’re pretty busy, sir.”

Benchley looked at the situation display on his workstation. Sure enough, several fire sensors had been tripped in the Core, and several more throughout the base. There were fire indicators illuminated on each of the installation’s seven floors.

“All right, let’s wait for the damage control teams to report in. Any word from medical?” he asked Baxter.

“Nothing yet, sir.”

Benchley grunted. He feared what news the coming hours might bring.

And there you have it.

Second edits are in…as soon as I eyeball ’em and do some minor tweaks here and there (for instance, in the above I notice Laird says “Oh, man!” which Andrews silently echoes that a few sentences later), we should be good to go. I’m sitting tight waiting for a final review from another writer, but it shouldn’t include any vast changes. So–almost there!

EARTHFALL: Chapter 3

February 4, 2013 Leave a comment

A little ditty from Chapter Three of EARTHFALL. Here, we catch up with Mike Andrews’s wife and father, deep in the bowels of Harmony Base…when in comes CSM Scott Mulligan, the senior NCO everyone loves to hate.

Title

The Core was a huge, three-story chamber in the bottom of the base. The center of the floor was dominated by a wide platform, atop of which sat three wailing turbines contained inside soundproofed compartments that only served to dull the roar. If the personnel inside the base formed its soul, then the turbines were absolutely Harmony’s heart. Without the life-giving power they generated, the base’s inhabitants would have perished long, long ago. As such, the turbines and their associated systems were supported by dozens of technicians, and more were trained on their operations and maintenance every year. It was essential that the turbines remain operational twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year. Without them, Harmony Base would cease to exist.

At noontime, Rachel walked across the floor to where Jeremy Andrews stood, talking to another engineer. She stood off to one side and waited to catch her father-in-law’s eye, not wanting to interrupt the conversation. Jeremy looked and scanned the floor, his brow furrowing when he saw Rachel.

Jeremy finished his conversation, then headed toward Rachel. He looked at her with concern written all over his face. “You look like you’ve been put through the wringer. You all right?” Jeremy asked. “All of these shifts are doing you in. Don’t think I haven’t noticed.”

“I’m fine,” Rachel said. Jeremy Andrews was the base’s engineering officer, and he held the rank of major. While on the floor, she had no choice but to acknowledge his rank, despite the fact he was her husband’s father. “Do you have a second?”

Jeremy smiled, the skin around his eyes crinkling. “Sure—anything to avoid work. You’re on your break, right? Your station’s manned?”

“Full up,” Rachel said.

“Cool. Let’s hit the lounge.”

Jeremy led Rachel to a gangway, and she followed him up its narrow length to the next level. While he was about the same height as his son, Jeremy Andrews was about thirty pounds heavier, and the metal steps creaked slightly beneath his weight as he vaulted up the gangway. Despite his age and the expanding paunch that encircled his belly, he still moved fast, and Rachel had to hurry to keep up with him.

The lounge was located on the Core’s second level. It was a bright room, and the tables and chairs were positioned before the thick windows that overlooked the Core. Rachel was happy to see the room was unoccupied. Jeremy immediately headed for the small refreshment area in one corner and grabbed a mug from a rack on the wall.

“Want a cuppa?” he asked, pointing at the coffee station.

“Sure, that’d be great.” She really was tired from working so many double shifts, and the coffee would help her get through the rest of the day.

“Are you scheduled tomorrow?” Jeremy filled two mugs with dark coffee as he spoke.

“No, I’m off. Why?”

“Good. I was going to insist you take the day off. Listen, getting those beers for Mike was great and all, but they’re just not worth two weeks of double shifts. Don’t do that again. I’ll talk to Dominick about it as well—he’s a jerk for pushing you into that sort of an agreement. It’s great that he can trade for a couple of days off so he can brew more beer, but when he starts pushing people into corners and performance suffers, I’m calling him on it.”

“I’m fine, Jeremy. Really.”

Jeremy handed her a mug of coffee, and she accepted it gratefully. He raised his own mug to his lips and looked at her for a moment as he sipped it. “You’re fine? That’s horse crap. You’re dead on your feet.” Before she could respond, he waved the matter away with one hand. “Anyhow. Most young married people would be doing handstands after their dear mates returned to the fold. Why aren’t you?”

“Am I that transparent?”

Jeremy laughed and walked toward the windows. “Not at all, but I’ve been there. Before Meg died, that is.”

He put his hands in his uniform’s pockets, and Rachel could see his reflection in the glass. At the mention of his wife—her mother-in-law—who had died from cancer almost three years ago, a vaguely haunted expression flashed across his face. He hadn’t wanted her to see it, she knew, but he had been foiled by the glass before him. He turned back to her and smiled easily, all traces of loss and loneliness gone from his face. “And I have an inkling as to what makes my son tick. So…?”

Rachel sighed and shrugged. “I guess I’m acting like the little wife, as disgusting as it sounds.”

“I don’t know what that means. I know you probably go through a little or a lot of hell every time Mike takes off in that rig of his. Hell, I get queasy myself. But you know that his work is vital, right? That it’s part of the core reasons for this base’s existence?”

“Yeah, I’m up on all that. It’s still a tough thing for me to deal with, and it screws up every homecoming. I just can’t stop myself from trying to convince him to try his hand at something else. Even I realize what a nag I’ve turned into, so it must be ten times worse on the receiving end.”

“The answer’s easy—stop.”

“I can’t.”

He sipped more coffee as she joined him at the window. “Then you’re going to have a hell of a fight on your hands. I know Mike. He acts loose and easy all the time, but the fact of the matter is, he has one stiff neck. You try and bend it, he’s going to stand up and give it back to you one day, and that won’t be pretty.” He paused. “But your position is absolutely understandable, given what you’ve gone through.”

“Thanks. He thinks so, too. But he’s convinced himself the rigs are the safest things around—”

“They are,” a deep, rough voice said. Rachel’s heart seemed to freeze in her chest, and if she hadn’t been caught by surprise, she would have kept her gaze rooted on the turbine platform below. Unfortunately, she turned.

A tall, imposing man stood in the break room’s corridor doorway, his pale eyes fixed on hers like he was tracking a target. He had a hard-edged, handsome face, bordering on old movie-star looks, but it seemed lived-in, a facade covering up decades of Rachel didn’t know what. Command Sergeant Major Scott Mulligan was the base’s senior enlisted man and a contemporary of the Old Guard—a relic.

Jeremy jumped in quickly. “Mulligan! What brings you to our cherished inner sanctum?”

Mulligan turned his inscrutable gaze toward the burly engineer. “My feet, of course.” He raised the notepad he held in one hand. “It’s time to go through the quarterly physical security review, which is on your calendar, Major.”

“I thought that was tomorrow,” Jeremy said.

“I guarantee you it’s today, sir. And it’ll be as routine as always—I’ll ask you the same boring questions, you give me the same boring answers, we’ll review the same boring data, and finally, we’ll both sign the same boring attestation forms.”

“Doesn’t get any more exciting than that, does it?” Jeremy ran a hand over his face, then nodded to the tall sergeant major. “All right, then. Let’s get to it.” He put a hand on Rachel’s shoulder. “Can we continue this later?”

“Sure,” Rachel said, and she put her coffee mug in the sink. She couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

“If it makes you feel any easier, Andrews, I can confirm for you that what Captain Andrews says is completely true—the SCEVs are about as bulletproof as any mobile system can be,” Mulligan said to her as she turned for the door.

Rachel broke stride. It was rare for Mulligan to address her; the big enlisted man was usually too aloof to interact in a meaningful way with the New Guard, the people like herself and her husband who’d been brought to the base as children before the war. Now he had done so twice in rapid succession, and it provided Rachel with a sudden opportunity.

“Is that so, Sergeant Major? What’s it like to kill people in them?” The sudden snarl in her voice surprised her. Like so many others, on some level she feared Mulligan. He was too different, he embodied too much legacy. He was an example of what had gone wrong in the world before the Sixty Minute War, a complete anachronism whose uniform still sported the patches of Army Special Forces. Everyone was on their toes around Mulligan, even members of the command staff, so when Rachel suddenly faced him down like this, she was perhaps the most shocked of all.

There was no backing down now. She stared at Mulligan, who stared back at her without any display of emotion. The moment dragged on, and Mulligan kept quiet until Jeremy opened his mouth to speak.

“It’s not as easy as you might think,” Mulligan said finally.

The bland response unnerved her and, for a moment, Rachel was afraid she might burst into tears. Instead, she managed to hold them back long enough to fix the tall soldier with a withering glare. If he recognized the hatred she felt for him, Mulligan gave no indication. His only response was to look back at her with his usual flat, disinterested gaze.

Finally, he turned back to Jeremy. “We should get to work, Major.”

Rachel stormed out of the break room and back into the never-ending din of the Core. She bolted down the narrow gangway, shoving past a burly electrician plodding up the metal stairs. The man had to flatten himself against the bulkhead so she could get past, and Rachel jostled him mightily. She would apologize to the electrician later. Right now, she needed to get to the restroom on the main floor and hide in a stall, so no one could see her tears.

More to come, if you can stand it!