EARTHFALL: Chapter 10 (And a Revised Cover!)
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?
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.”
“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.
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.”
“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, 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.
“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.
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.