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EARTHFALL: Chapter 3

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!

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