EARTHFALL: Chapter 5
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”