EARTHFALL: Chapter 4
And in the great tradition of 1980s action/science fiction movies–DISASTER STRIKES!
(Though hopefully, you won’t think it’s just the prose.)
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.
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!
“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!