Archive for September, 2018

EARTHFALL 2: Life, Finally

September 20, 2018 1 comment

Usual disclaimers apply. Andrews, Mulligan, Leona, and Winters are on their way to Oregon. We also find out that Mulligan’s old nickname was Sam, short for Scott Alexander Mulligan. He hates it. Come to think of it, so do I.

The next four days saw SCEV Four finally cross the California/Oregon border. They had to make a wide deviation to avoid the Interstate 5 bridge over Shasta Lake, which despite the apparent rupture of the tall dam to the west was still a massive body of water. It took two days just to navigate around the lake and ford the rivers that fed it. Despite the rough terrain and the fast-running water, the rig performed like a champ. Even when pushing through water that came up almost to the forward viewports, the Self-Contained Exploration Vehicle did exactly what it had been designed to do.

Almost as importantly, Leona was able to harvest samples of the water thanks to the spray the SCEV kicked up. While the sample probe was located atop the SCEV’s mission equipment pod, it was still able to vacuum up enough material to analyze. While the water was clearly contaminated by fallout and other pollutants, she reported that it wasn’t as lethal as bodies of water in the center of the nation around Harmony. In fact, the further north they went, the overall effect of the nuclear war seemed to diminish. While a vast number of trees had died and their rotting husks lay about in great deadfalls, there was substantial new growth. Some of the new trees already stood dozens of feet tall, and while many were stunted or misshapen, more were mostly straight and vertical. But after almost five years of nuclear winter and the continual reduction of the ozone layer, the biosphere was slowly recovering.

“So the habitat can support plant life,” Mulligan said. “I wonder about animal life? We should keep our eyes open. Might see some birds, at least.”

“If we had time, we could take samples of the water itself,” Leona said.

“You mean like fish? With what, my trusty spinning rod? Which I don’t actually have?” Mulligan asked from the right seat.

Andrews could practically hear Leona rolling her eyes as she spoke. “I mean water samples, as in from the body itself. We’re just capturing vapor right now, which is good, but a more substantive collection would give us insights into the chemical and biological balance of the lake itself. And yeah, we could probably tell if there are fish living in it, depending on the phosphate level.”

“Shoot, we should just stop here for the night and watch. If there’s any fish out here, they’re probably still glowing. We might be able to see them jumping out of the water.”

At this rate, we might have to. Andrews checked the course on the digital map. They were making worse time than before.

“Nothing actually glows after it’s been irradiated, and especially vertebrate life,” Leona said. “Bioluminescence is pretty much a chemical reaction reserved for lower life forms, like jellyfish and some insects. Though some fish do have bioluminescent ability, I think they’re all deep sea animals. Saltwater, not freshwater.”

Andrews and Mulligan exchanged a wry look. The things Leona knew.

“If you say so, professor,” Mulligan said. He glanced at the display before him. One quadrant displayed the local meteorological information, including the Sievert level. “Air quality isn’t bad, either. Radiation count is low enough to support at least some animal life, I’d bet.”

“Maybe some animals, but for long term human habitation? It would still reduce your lifespan and give rise to a substantially higher cancer rate,” Leona told him. “You go outside unprotected, you’ll be getting the equivalent of a chest x-ray every ten seconds. Yeah, it’s a lot better than what’s around Harmony, or even San Jose. But there’s still substantial potential to corrupt chromosomes and inhibit or degrade cellular reproduction. You see some of the newer trees are obviously deformed. Right?”

“Damn Lee, you’re really bringing us down up here,” Andrews said as he maneuvered the rig over a rocky ridgeline. The rig swayed from side to side as old, fallen trees were crushed into dust beneath its tires. Overhead, the sky was starting to fill with clouds. Mulligan leaned forward in his seat and examined the cloud cover as it rolled in.

“Huh. Might get some rain.” He leaned back and looked at Andrews. “With our luck, the wiper motors will fail. Should I have Winters suit and get a squeegee ready?”

Andrews ignored the levity. “Yeah, we’re not exactly making up a ton of time here. I sure hope Jim doesn’t try and take that bridge.”

“He’s a dope sometimes, but he’s not stupid.” Mulligan paused. “Wait, did I say that out loud? And if so, was I convincing?”

“You’re becoming quite the card, Sarmajor.” The SCEV approached a clearing, and Andrews accelerated a bit. The big machine bumped along as it fairly raced through the clearing at twenty-five miles an hour.

They spent the next two nights in the remnants of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, and the days were sullen and gray. By the time they managed to parallel Interstate 5 again, they found the highway was almost completely empty. There were stranded cars and trucks of course, but it wasn’t a river of decaying metal and fiberglass as it had been to the south. Up here, there was no real traffic to begin with so the electromagnetic pulses that had savaged the nation’s power grid and every other sensitive piece of equipment, such as computer-controlled vehicles and like pretty much ensured the highways would remain empty for the foreseeable future. The pavement was chipped and cracked, and in some areas great seams had formed from both water runoff and tectonic activity. None of these mattered to the SCEV, and it simply rolled over all of them without any trouble. To the rig’s right, the gigantic edifice known as Mount Shasta loomed, its crown covered with snow that looked filthy. It was still a lovely sight, and Andrews found he was awed by its stark beauty as it towered above the pine forests that struggled to survive.

In the early afternoon of the fourth day, they made it to the interchange with US-97. CJ was piloting the rig with Leona in the copilot’s seat, and Andrews left the engineering station to peer out the viewports.

“Sarmajor, you mind watching things for a moment?” Mulligan sat at the command intelligence station without much to do other than ensure the timed measurement tasks Leona had configured ran as scheduled.

“Sure,” Mulligan said. He was obviously happy to do it; he was more at home watching things like N1 and T5 readouts and performance graphs than counting millibars of pressure and worrying over external humidity. Andrews unbuckled his harness and knelt down in the cockpit doorway, grabbing onto a handhold as he watched CJ slowly maneuver the rig onto the new route. She moved the rig slowly and deliberately, sitting up straight in her seat and craning her neck trying to see everything at once. Leona did the same and helped guide her around a dead fuel tanker. As the rig rolled past it, Andrews saw the truck’s cab was wide open. Everything had been removed from inside, even the seats and the floor mats.

“Thing was looted,” he said. “Means people weren’t killed immediately. They still had time to scrounge.” He looked at the millimeter wave radar returns framed on the multifunction display in front of CJ. Even though it was mostly designed for ground navigation and avoidance, it also tracked moving objects. It was sensitive enough to pick up a person walking for instance, and it would automatically bracket the information on the display and track it as long as the object was in range. There was nothing. The rig was passing through the remains of Weed, California as it rolled onto its new course, and there wasn’t much to see. The town had died a slow, miserable death. It was aptly named, for now great clumps of yellow-green weeds had sprung up everywhere, standing from four to six feet tall. The houses looked filthy and desolate, with missing roof shingles and broken windows. Andrews looked at the environmental window on Leona’s MFD. The radiation count was lower here than it had been in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, but not remarkably so. If the rig departed the highway and descended into the city proper, the radiation count would doubtless increase. Structures tended to hold onto radioactive particles longer than plant forms did, though the rains might have diluted the residue substantially. For a crazy moment, Andrews thought of ordering the rig to halt and leaning on the air horn for a few minutes. But the rig made enough racket all by itself. Gas turbine engines were hardly quiet, so if there had been anyone who was interested in inspecting the strange noise they heard, they’d already be doing so. Another check of the MMR display told him no one was out there.

Ah, well.

“Okay, what am I doing here?” CJ asked suddenly. “Am I going around, or what?”

Andrews looked through the viewports. Ahead, several cars lay in a tangled heap on the ramp. Someone was probably speeding down its length when the EMP hit and fried its systems, and the driver had lost control. Three other cars had been caught up in the incident as well. Again, doors were open, and as the rig drew nearer, Andrews could see the vehicles had been pillaged.

“No room to go around,” Leona said. The off-ramp was buttressed by cement jersey barriers that conspired to make the exit more like a chute.

“Push through them, girlfriend,” Andrews said. “Nice and easy. If they won’t move, go ahead and roll right over them. We’ve done this before.”

You’ve done this before, I haven’t,” CJ said.

“Don’t worry about it, you’ll be fine. The rig’s suspension will adjust automatically, so if you want to turn off the stabilization system so you can feel if we might roll over, go right ahead.”

CJ did that, reaching down and flipping a protected switch on the center console as she slowed the SCEV to a crawl. The first car she rolled up on was small, and the rig’s slanted nose went right over it. A moment later, the heavy vehicle shuddered slightly as it moved forward. From beneath them, the distant squeal of crushing metal was heard above the whine of the engines. CJ added a bit of power, and the rig swayed slightly as it pressed on, flattening the cars beneath its tall, knobby tires.

“How’s it feel to crush your enemies?” Andrews asked.

“Not so bad, but it would suck if we were really moving when we hit these things,” CJ replied. The vehicle shuddered again, and a crashing cacophony rose up beneath it. “Oh, are we dragging one?”

“It’s okay, it’ll fall away. Keep going,” Leona said. “Add a little more power. The wreckage’ll drift backward and the rear tire set will yank it free.”

CJ did as instructed, and sure enough there was a bumping bounce as the SCEV threw the remains of the mangled car out from beneath it. Free of any encumbrance, the vehicle began to slowly accelerate. CJ guided it down the ramp and onto US-97, a two-lane rural highway. There were dead vehicles scattered about so occasionally she had to wend her way around them, but it wasn’t terribly difficult. The disabled traffic began to thin out as the rig left the town of Weed behind.

“Okay, good job, CJ,” Andrews said. “According to the maps, we’ll be passing through what used to be agricultural land for the next couple of hours. Everything should be mostly flat and stable, so open it up a bit when you have stretches of clear road.”

“Roger that,” the crew chief replied. “I know how you guys like to drive fast and all.”

Andrews snorted and returned to the second compartment. Mulligan looked up at him forlornly from the engineering station and started unbuckling his harness, but Andrews waved him down.

“I know you’re a gear head at heart, Sarmajor. You can stay on the engineering station.”

Mulligan inclined his head. “Every day is Christmas when you’re around, sir.”

Ten minutes later, the two men looked toward the cockpit when they heard a tone sound. Through the open door, Andrews could see the MMR had bracketed a moving target. Before he or Mulligan could inquire, Leona said, “Slow down, slow down—it’s a bird!”

“It’s a plane!” Mulligan said as the rig immediately slowed. It had been moving at a good forty miles per hour, tires whirring across the pavement. Andrews was puzzled. What the hell was Mulligan talking about?

“No Sarmajor, it’s definitely a bird,” CJ said from the left seat.

Mulligan threw his hands in the air. “Jesus, what a waste. Damned kids don’t even know who Superman was.”

Andrews unbuckled his harness and raced toward the cockpit as CJ brought the rig to a crawl. He dropped down to his knees and squatted between the seats, mindful of the center console. “Where?”

Leona pointed to the right, and Andrews leaned forward, peering through the side port. Sure enough, a black winged shape descended into a large field of swaying weeds and disappeared from view. He only caught a glimpse of it, but there was no mistaking it for what it was. A fair-sized black bird.

“God damn,” he said. “Where did it come from, do you know?”

Leona pointed at the radar display. “According to the track, it took off in this field and flew about five hundred yards. Made a max altitude of two hundred and seven feet, at a speed of thirty-seven miles per hour. Fast sucker.”

“How big?”

“Not big. Seven, eight inches long maybe. But still a surprise!” Leona was excited by the discovery.

Mulligan cleared his throat from the second compartment. “I won’t say I told you so.”

“You were right, old man. At least one bird survived,” Leona said, “but just to set expectations, it’s not glowing.”

“Well, damn. Now that would have been a discovery,” Mulligan said.

“Do we need to go EVA and check it out?” Andrews asked.

Leona chuckled. “No, no. We just need to mark the site and time. We didn’t get a great look at it, so we can’t be sure of the species. It looked black, but it could be brown or dark gray, so it could be anything. But it didn’t seem to be a bird of prey, more like a lark or a starling.”

“Are you sure it couldn’t have been a parrot?” Mulligan asked. “Or maybe, the rare Northwestern toucan?”

Leona laughed. “It wasn’t anything exotic, Sam.”

“Stop calling me that. And how do you know? Thing’s been exposed to severe radiation at some point in its lifecycle. It could have two heads, twelve beaks, and seven wings at this point. It could not only be exotic, it could be a verifiable freak. I say we all suit and go chasing it through the field,” Mulligan said. “Actually, you guys go. I’ll stay with the rig. And the burritos.”

“Dear God, no more burritos. Please,” Andrews said. He continued looking out into the field, but the bird was apparently lying low. “All right. Let’s make the appropriate hacks in the log, and get underway. Let’s roll, CJ.”

CJ advanced the control column and the SCEV’s engines picked up. As the sound increased, the field to their right suddenly exploded. Hundreds, perhaps more than a thousand birds erupted from the tall weeds and took flight. Everyone in the cockpit gasped in surprise, and CJ braked the rig to a gentle halt.

“Wow, look at that!” she exclaimed. Her voice was pitched high with excitement. Andrews leaned forward and watched as the birds came together in a large trailing flock, whipping first left, then toward the right as if of one mind. Together, the flock looked to him like some amorphous beast, rippling and rustling across the gray sky.

“God, we need to capture this!” Leona said.

“I already am,” Mulligan said from the back. “I have the FLIR tracking the flock. Recording in both video and infrared. Congratulations, you’ve all found a flock of starlings. Your discovery will doubtless lead to many a distinguished commendation, not to mention the formation of a local car wash…since starlings generally shit all over any vehicle they can find.”

EARTHFALL 2: The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday

September 17, 2018 1 comment

In the sequel to Earthfall, the recon of the Pacific Northwest is finally underway. SCEV 4 has been rebuilt and returned to Captain Mike Andrews’s command. The first leg of the mission is to transport the crew of the destroyed SCEV 5 to a replenishment site outside of Sacramento, California. There, Captain Jim Laird and three members of his crew are transferred to the site where they’ll activate one of four Self-Contained Exploration Vehicles contained inside. As they do that, Andrews, CSM Scott Mulligan, 1LT Leona Eklund, and SGT Winters, the new crew chief, will conduct a circuit of the terrain surrounding Bend, Oregon. They’ll link up with SCEV 5 at a predesignated rally point for the return trip to Harmony Base.

In this excerpt, SCEV 4 is parked outside the replenishment site. Laird and the others have already transferred across and have begun their weeks-long work of removing a rig from storage and certifying it for duty. As Four is shut down for the night, Andrews and crew take a break for the first face-to-face dinner they’ve had since leaving Harmony almost nine days ago. Everything’s going well, and everyone is eager and anxious to finally commence the first recon of the northwest–it’s all roses and champagne at this point.

Except for Mulligan, anyway.

In the end, he had the spaghetti and meatballs, and it wasn’t bad. CJ ate her casserole at the command intelligence station, which had more desk space than her engineering console afforded and she didn’t seem at all put out by it. Andrews sat across from Mulligan and Leona and tried not to watch them as they ate, but he found himself regarding them anyway. If Mulligan noticed, he gave no indication. Leona wasn’t as subtle about being examined, however. She looked at him directly, catching him in the act.

“Mike, you want to ask something, go right ahead,” she said.

“What? Oh no, I’m cool,” Andrews said as a bolt of embarrassment coursed through him.

“My intentions are entirely dishonorable, if it means anything to you,” Mulligan said as he twirled up some spaghetti on his fork.

Leona turned to him. “I’d thought as much.”

CJ burst out laughing, then looked embarrassed when they turned toward her. “Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said.

“About what, Winters?” Mulligan asked. “Everyone plays grab-ass on an SCEV. Figuratively speaking, of course. Anyway, don’t worry about it. If you can’t laugh at the people you’re crewing with, it’s going to be a dark and bitter life. Trust me, I know all about that.”

“Heavy, Sarmajor,” CJ said.

“You get a philosopher’s stone with all those chevrons and rockers, Mulligan?” Andrews asked.

Mulligan blinked. “Son, you even know what the philosopher’s stone was?”

Andrews considered it for a moment. “Ah…something to do with philosophy?”

“Alchemy,” Leona said.


“Alchemy,” Mulligan repeated. “The philosopher’s stone was supposed to be able to turn base metals into gold. It was the holy grail of alchemists through the middle ages. Of course, just like pay equality and free health care, it never existed. And unless greed is the cornerstone of philosophy, it has nothing to do with what it’s named after.”

“Well, shit. Do me a favor and stop teaching lessons, Sarmajor?”

Mulligan shook his head. “No can do. That’s what the chevrons and rockers are for, my boy.”

“Wow, the stuff you can learn over chow in an SCEV,” CJ said.

Mulligan inclined his head toward the young crew chief. “Happy to continue educating the masses whenever and wherever I can. Just remember: Do as I say, not as I do.”

“All right, all right.” Andrews speared a meatball. “Sorry if I was staring, guys. But the two of you do make an oddball couple.”

Mulligan stirred a bit in the dinette. “She doesn’t like burritos. It’s hell.”

“I love burritos, but I hate your farts,” Leona said. “Can’t have one without the other when you’re around.”

Mulligan shook his head. “I repeat: It’s hell. Anyway, Captain. We all squared away for departure tomorrow?”

“Unless this thing doesn’t start, we’re good to go. Short shifts for everyone—we’ll only travel twelve hours a day, and spend the remainder resting and doing maintenance. Be the easiest run I’ve ever been on.”

“Easy?” Mulligan looked at Andrews with a stern expression, then peered at Leona and CJ. “Easy? You guys think this is going to be an easy run, no problems, no issues? A Sunday drive? Didn’t San Jose teach anyone anything? If we happen to find survivors, they might be like Law and his group—it’s been more than a decade since things came to a halt, and anyone who’s alive today has been through hell and back. They’re probably predators themselves now, because it’s the only way to survive. Don’t think that anyone we come across is going to greet us with open arms. And the things those people had to do and the things they had to learn to stay alive aren’t going to go away—they’ll definitely want what we can give them, and if that means killing us for it, they’ll do it. But even if they don’t try and take everything from us, will they deserve what we can do for them? Just because they were vicious enough to survive in the aftermath of a nuclear war? These are questions we’ve occasionally asked at the command level after making contact with Law’s people, but those questions have never really answered. So what are we doing now in San Jose? We’re essentially sponsoring a band of thugs, criminals, murderers and cannibals. They had to do things that way, with or without Law’s leadership. And as bat-shit crazy as that fucker was, he probably saved all of them by taking things straight to ground level and living like a predator. Sustaining people who adapted that way probably wasn’t what folks had in mind when they came up with the charter for Harmony Base.” His gaze returned to Andrews once again, and he could see the old Mulligan he once knew still lurked in the depths of that hard, brown-eyed stare. The command sergeant major might have experienced an emotional reawakening as of late, but that didn’t mean he’d abandoned decades of training and practical experience just to stop and smell the roses every now and then.

Mulligan’s voice was a low, ominous rumble when he continued. “The only easy day was yesterday. And tomorrow’s going to be a hundred times harder than today. You troops would do well to remember that.”

Usual disclaimers apply–work in progress, text is unedited and poor first-draft quality, and no guarantee that what you read here will be in the final product. (One change that’s going to happen: CJ Winters will be changed to DD Winters or something similar, as CJ was Rachel Andrews’s mother’s name. Oops!)