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EARTHFALL 2: Tylenol Isn’t Enough

January 10, 2019 Leave a comment

Sage words from Mulligan when setting up on an enemy.

“They’re a diversion, an irritant. We’ll be the real pain.”

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EARTHFALL 2: Knife Fight

December 21, 2018 Leave a comment

Andrews gets into the zone.

The grenade went off with a deafening roar, and Trumbull disappeared in a flash. Andrews missed most of it as the din of combat was suddenly supplanted by a constant ringing that filled his ears, as if he had been dropped into a field of echoing chimes. Distantly, he was aware of something warm and wet splashing across him as the world went suddenly topsy-turvy. His last coherent thought was that his rifle was slipping from his grasp, and then time stopped for a moment. His only awareness was of the spectral ringing in his ears despite the headset he wore. There was something lyrical about it, something hypnotizing. It drowned out everything else, including cohesive thought. Andrews listened to it for a time, unable to do anything else.

Get up, he told himself, but his body wouldn’t listen. Get up, get back into the fight.

Instead, he lay where he had fallen. In small, infinitesimally tiny increments, the outer world began to intrude into his lassitude. The rain was still falling, cold and sharp. He tasted something coppery on his tongue. Two points of pain began to make themselves known, in his right arm and right leg, where the body armor he wore offered no protection. The aches seemed faraway and unimportant, as inconsequential as the rainfall that pelted him. Andrews sighed, and basked in the tranquility of the moment even as a small part of his mind screamed at him to shake it off and get back on his weapon.

As his consciousness returned, he realized he was lying face down in the brush. A severed finger lay right before his eyes, and in response he wiggled all of his—all present and accounted for. Just the same, he was content to remain where he was. He heard a series of distant pops, slicing through the buzzing in his ears like a knife cutting into a chunk of hard butter three hundred yards away. The sense of detachment he felt was supreme. Even his body seemed distant, along with the battle that still raged around him, and beyond that, the rest of the world.

—Get up—

A series of loud reports cut through the hum in his ears. Andrews grunted and instinctively cast about for his rifle, but it was gone. He blinked, squeezing rainwater out of his eyes. Trumbull was in pieces, his head separated from his body, eyes staring sightlessly into the gray sky. Andrews was covered with strands of intestine and shredded flesh, courtesy of the grenade that had gone off only ten feet away. He blinked again, looking at the decapitated head, watching as raindrops rolled off the bridge of Trumbull’s nose and pooled in his eyes. The man’s left arm leaned against a bush six feet away. The middle finger on the hand was lifted just slightly, a dying testament to the man’s sour persona immortalized forever in Andrews’s mind.

—Fucking get up—

He rolled onto his right side and felt the pressure of his sidearm. He eased off it and ripped the weapon from its holster as the brush parted and a figure loomed over him. It was the little man with the blond beard carrying a battered AR in his hands. His head was wrapped in a green bandana stained dark by the rain, and his eyes rolled in about in his head in a queer combination of fear and bloodlust. He looked down and saw Andrews, and he grinned, exposing his missing tooth.

“Aw, shit!” he cried as he raised his rifle while stepping back.

Andrews raised his pistol and fired three times before the slide locked and the weapon fell silent. The man shrieked as each nine millimeter round slammed into his pelvis, driving him back. He squeezed off a wild round as he fell into the brush, tripping over Trumbull’s ravaged torso. Time dilated again, and Andrews’s next memory was of him on top of the runty little man, screaming as he plunged his knife into the man’s belly. He struck so deep that he felt the rub of the man’s ribs on his left wrist as he stabbed again and again, the blade sinking well into his opponent’s body cavity. The little man made a small squeaking noise as he tried to breathe. It was all for naught. Andrews had shredded his diaphragm, making respiration impossible. His eyes locked onto Andrews’s as he silently pleaded for mercy.

Andrews reared back and slashed his throat open with the blade. Blood splattered all across him, but the falling rain diluted it immediately. The light faded from the small man’s eyes.

A heavy hand descended on Andrews’s shoulder. “Captain, you hurt?”

Andrews turned toward the figure towering over him, knife in hand. Mulligan looked down at him, rainwater running off his helmet and visor, the pistol grip of his big AR in his right hand. He gave Andrews a little push with his left hand as he stepped back.

“Are you with me, Andrews?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Andrews replied, more out of habit than anything else.

Mulligan nodded toward the man Andrews crouched over. “Okay, so we didn’t kill him first, but he still had a happy ending from where I sit. You hurt?”

Andrews considered mentioning the pain in his right arm and leg, then shook his head. “Good to go, Sarmajor.”

“Great. Then if you don’t mind, stop fucking around with your knife and find your rifle.”

 

EARTHFALL 2: When SCEVs Roll Into the Fight

December 17, 2018 Leave a comment

Some tunes for what I’m finishing up here…rigs thundering across the landscape tearing the shit out of hostile forces with miniguns and Hellfires.

EARTHFALL 2: Skill Set

November 12, 2018 Leave a comment

 

Mulligan inspected his 7.62-millimeter man-killer of a rifle and smiled grimly without making eye contact with Andrews. “Heroics are for the young, sir. Treachery is what I’m best at.”

EARTHFALL 2: Congratulations, You Stupid Jerk

November 5, 2018 Leave a comment


CSM Mulligan has enough whining.

“Now any rational, sensible human being would see that neither I nor the people I work for had anything to do with your community getting sacked,” Mulligan continued. “But the truth of the matter is, if a loud, jet-powered, eight-wheeled vehicle which is about as stealthy as a burning building managed to get that close to you guys, then your people might have just won the first Darwin Award to be handed out in a decade. Congratulations, you’ve managed to demonstrate that stupidity is the enduring legacy of mankind.”

EARTHFALL 2: Show and Tell

October 23, 2018 Leave a comment

So not everyone who has survived the Sixty Minute War is inclined to trust the government, especially since it’s been more than a decade since things went to hell in a nuclear flash. Here we have Stan Buchek, the nominal leader of Sherwood, Oregon, trying to find the downside to trusting Andrews, Mulligan, and Eklund. It’s been a decade, and now people emerge from the ruins promising the gifts of technology and medicine and food? To say he’s skeptical might be an understatement.

As always, first draft stuff offered unproofed and unedited. No guarantee it will be in the finished product, yadda, yadda, yadda.

The cloud cover parted and for several hours, the sun shone brightly. Everyone covered up, wearing hats or long-sleeved shirts and pants. Due to the reduction in the ozone layer, the sun’s rays were substantially more powerful than they had been. For the crew from Harmony, the effect was almost dazzling, and Andrews found that even his sunglasses didn’t help all that much. Damp pavement quickly dried, and the sunlight in combination with the light breeze caused the droplets of water clinging to the foliage to evaporate rapidly.

“You all right?” Buchek asked him. He had slipped on his own sunglasses.

“Yeah, fine. Just a little bright out all of a sudden.”

“Well, you’ve been underground for a long time,” Buchek said. “I know how you feel.”

There were several dozen structures organized inside the tall walls that had been erected to deter intruders. There was a two-lane main drag that had at most two blocks of businesses, nothing more than two stories tall. The buildings were weathered and had zero curb appeal, as no one had the time or wherewithal to maintain them, but they weren’t ramshackle structures that were falling apart. Organized around the center of Sherwood’s downtown area were a collection of houses or small warehouses that had been converted into living quarters. Buchek explained that for the first two years after the war, most of the citizens in the community had lived underground in an abandoned copper mine near Black Butte that they had steadily renovated in the years leading up to the war. Buchek was unapologetic when he admitted that he and most of his fellows were committed preppers, folks who had spent years if not an entire lifetime preparing for a long-term emergency that might render them cut off from the rest of society. While global thermonuclear war hadn’t been their main worry, the process of preparations had included a multitude of steps that were also applicable to that particular emergency.

“So what were you most afraid of?” Leona asked.

“Myself? Electromagnetic pulse or a pandemic,” Buchek said. “I really thought that a CMD event might take down the entire power grid and leave everyone trapped in the bronze age, or that global warming would release some old bug like the Black Death that was frozen in the ice sheets. It’s one of the reasons I spent almost a million dollars of my retirement money cleaning up the mine. I knew we’d need a place that could provide shelter and concealment for a while. Other people felt more the more immediate threats were things like societal unrest or a severe and long-lasting economic depression—they thought those were the big gotchas lurking in the background. Can’t say I disagree, I thought of those things too. But we’d always gotten past those things before.” He snorted. “I hope I don’t sound crazy.”

“You’re talking to people who have been living underground for over a decade,” Mulligan said. Like Andrews and Leona, he was fully kitted out for combat even though it didn’t seem necessary. His gear and weapons made him look even bigger than he already was, and several of the citizens of the Sherwood community stopped to stare when he walked past.

“Hey, big man! Were you a basketball player?” one twenty-something shouted from a nearby wood shed.

“Nah,” Mulligan replied. “I threw grenades for a living, not basketballs. So Stan, you weren’t thinking Ranier or Washington were going to blow their tops?”

“What, you mean with them erupting into volcanoes or something?” Buchek waved a hand dismissively. “Never even thought about it. I probably thought more about nukes than volcanic eruptions. There were some people in the community who worried about those things, but most of us were more concerned with civil unrest.”

“You thought the country was headed for civil war?” Andrews asked. Even though he’d been young during the days before the Sixty Minute War, he could well recall the acrimonious political and societal climate of the time. It seemed that everyone was at each other’s throat for one transgression or another.

“It wouldn’t have surprised me,” Buchek said. “Especially with the roller derby that was the US economy back then…giant booms, fantastic busts, mounting unemployment…things were becoming messy.”

“So how did you folks come together to create this place?” Andrews asked.

“My family owned a lot of the land, including where the mine was dug,” Buchek said. “Another couple of families owned the remainder. We made Sherwood into a hunting and camping retreat. In fact, it was my father’s only real source of income during the last fifty years of his life. He wanted me to pursue something different, so I did banking first, then aerospace. The family made some good money off the mineral rights from the copper mine, but that came to an end when the mine was tapped out.”

“So all the buildings here were part of your family business?” Leona asked.

“Yes, ma’am. There are six houses, fourteen cottages, and the hunting lodge. That big warehouse over there is where we stored our equipment–you know, trucks, some tractors, a backhoe, things like that. Most everything was gone or picked over by the time we came up from the mine, though. Even parts of the buildings were gone, where people had stripped off the wood and the like for fuel. Had some squatters in some, but we allowed most of them to stay. Those folks who had been aboveground for those first few years, well…they were all gone by year five. Even the kids.”

“Disease? Cancer?” Andrews asked.

“Both, and in two instances, suicide by firearm,” Buchek said. “Some people just lost hope. It’s a semi-recurrent theme, I’m sorry to say. Everyone’s been damaged by what they went through, by memories of who they lost, by the general hardship of trying to survive where so many others are dying.”

“I hear that,” Mulligan muttered. Leona turned toward him and touched his arm. Mulligan smiled and patted her hand. If Buchek noticed the exchange, he did so without comment.

“One of the things I never foresaw was the mental health issue,” he continued. “I was smart enough to recruit a doctor and engineers and guys with military experience, but I never thought to get a psychologist. Maybe if I had, some folks would still be alive.”

“We can provide that support as well,” Andrews said.

Buchek stopped and looked at Andrews squarely. “Son, what exactly can you not provide? I ask this because it seems like you’re on a mission to sell me a shit-ton of services.”

“We can’t bring back the dead, and we can’t turn back the clock,” Andrews said. “And it’s going to take some time for us to be able to pull things together. We’re still a good distance away from the majority of our stock, but we really can make a difference for your folks.”

Buchek tilted his head. “I’ve been sold a lot of Shinola in my day. Sold more than a little bit of it myself. I appreciate what you’ve given us so far, but you probably don’t want to overpromise anything.”

“He’s not,” Mulligan said. “We’ll be able to do what we say we can, just give us some time.”

“Sure,” Buchek said. “Time’s probably the only commodity left, right?”

“Why don’t you give us the rest of the nickel tour, so we can get a full picture of what we’re dealing with,” Mulligan suggested.

Buchek did just that. The community was in good condition overall, though there were many rough edges. Sanitation was an ongoing concern, as was clean drinking water. Sherwood had access to two reservoirs, but both had a fair amount of toxins present that charcoal filtering and boiling could reduce but not eliminate. Food was another issue. There was enough to go around, but only just. Wild game was consumed, and the people avoided eating any of the major organs like the liver for fear of contamination. A small amount of crops were grown, mostly tomatoes, potatoes, and beans, but the environment wasn’t suitable for large-scale farming despite fertilizer being available. The rainfall was substantial, and when it shone, the sunlight was too bright. Most of the crops were grown inside greenhouses, but those weren’t large enough to provide enough food to get through the year. The only reason Sherwood had lasted as long as it had was from the flu that had killed almost everyone in Bend. It had hit Sherwood as well, and had taken over a hundred people before it had finally run its course.

“It seems heartless to say it, but the flu was probably a blessing in disguise,” Buchek said. “I’d never admit to that publically, but we’re straddling the red line between being able to feed people or eating them ourselves.”

Andrews thought back to San Jose. “Cannibalism isn’t unknown in the rest of the world,” he said.

Buchek nodded. “I don’t doubt that. Desperate times lead to desperate people. You aren’t about to tell me you folks are eating each other in Harmony Base, are you?”

Andrews laughed. “No, no. Not us. But the folks we’re helping in San Jose.” He took a few minutes to retell the tale of how they had happened upon Law’s group of survivors while looking for replacement parts for the base’s generation system, which had been destroyed during a surprise earthquake. Buchek looked highly skeptical when Andrews relayed the account of Law’s bioengineered mental powers, courtesy of the nanotech he’d been exposed to, and how he’d used those against various members of the SCEV team.

“You gotta be pulling my hog over that,” Buchek said.

“It’s true,” Mulligan said. “As crazy as it sounds, it’s fucking true.”

“Well, what was that like?”

“It was like being raped,” Leona said. “It’s the only thing I can match it up with.”

“Leona had it worse than the rest of us,” Andrews said. “Law interrogated her pretty closely. Having another mind inside your head when you never gave permission? Seems about right.”

“That so.” Buchek looked at Leona then, as if seeing her for the first time. He stopped and reached out to put his hand on her shoulder. “You, young lady, are apparently made of some pretty strong stuff.”

Leona smiled at him thinly. “Fucker almost broke me,” she said.

Buchek raised a brow. “Almost, or actually did?”

Leona thought about it for a moment. “Almost,” she said.

“Then like I said…you’re made of some pretty strong stuff.” Buchek resumed walking then. “So Captain, why are you helping these people?”

“They’re the only ones we’ve found, Stan. And once Law was out of the picture, they wanted our involvement. Their new leader was named Xavier. He was sensible enough to realize that when another team returned and contacted them without shooting them up, that he was looking a gift horse in the mouth. They acted the way they did out of fear of what Law could do to them. Without him being around, they were a hundred percent willing to do whatever they needed to do to return to normalcy.”

“That Xavier sounds like a pretty smart guy,” Buchek said.

“Was. Died from lung cancer a month or so ago. Doesn’t matter—the die’s been cast. We’ll eventually need to relocate them, as they’re starting to have kids. They can’t be on our dole for the rest of their lives,” Andrews said.

“Is that another reason for you coming up here?” Buchek asked. “Looking for a place to relocate those folks?”

“It is,” Andrews admitted.

Buchek grunted. “Well. I’m not keen on having former cannibals in my community. But there are other places where they could set up and start over. But I have to tell you, Mike, from what you’ve told me so far? I’m not loving that.”

“It’s not a near term situation,” Leona said. “They’ve been stabilized and can exist in place for a while longer, but the sievert count is really too high for them to reliably procreate. They have children, but there’s a high incidence of mortality along with genetic failure. Eventually, they’ll die out. They’ve picked San Jose clean, so we have them living out of boxes and whatever tech we can transfer to them. Don’t get me wrong—they can survive, but they’ll never break out of the cycle of dependence.”

“So you’ve reintroduced the welfare state,” Buchek said.

Mulligan laughed. “Oh man, there’s something I haven’t heard in a while,” he said.

Buchek glared at him. “You think it’s funny? Me and my people have been getting by just fine without sucking up to the government like it’s some sugar daddy.”

“Hey, asshole? You’ve been existing, that’s it,” Mulligan shot back. “Want to move into something more satisfying? We can help with that, and you won’t owe us a fucking dime…aside from the fact that you’ll need to take what we offer and run with it to turn it into something better.”

“Easy there, Big Ugly,” Buchek said. “I’m not going to take your shit and give nothing in return. Trust me on that.”

“You don’t seem like the type,” Mulligan said, “but these are ground rules we need to establish early in the game.”

“Actually, that’s more an inferred result than not,” Andrews said. He looked at Mulligan and shot him a look. Dude, what the fuck are you doing here?

Mulligan replied with a withering glare. “Inferred my ass. Don’t pay attention to the captain at the moment, Stan, he’s gone on a mental vacation. The truth of the matter is, we’re here to prop you up long enough to become self-sustaining. We’re not here to let you leech off us out of some sense of entitlement. Yeah, you folks survived, but that’s not reason enough to keep your heads above water forever.”

Buchek stopped and turned to Mulligan directly. “You know what I like about you, Scott?”

“What’s that?”

“You sound like me. You know what I don’t like about you?”

“Ah, that I sound like you?”

Buchek snapped forward then, slamming his chest into Mulligan and actually driving him back a step. “What I don’t like is this sanctimonious bullshit you’re throwing around like you’re my personal savior, you stupid fuck,” he said, and his voice was a snarl. “You think you’re the only tough son of a bitch in this conversation? You don’t think I can’t slit your throat open and shit down the hole?”

“That would be an expensive decision,” Mulligan said. “And we’d give you a lifetime of hurt in return.”

“Oh yeah, that fat rig of yours,” Buchek said. “I have four men in defilade with fifty caliber weapons ready to take out the radar, and then the FLIR turrets. That’s where the laser designators are, I noticed—I’d imagine you guys carry missiles in that second pod, right? Hellfires? Maybe guided seventy millimeter? I’ll bet they use the millimeter wave radar as primary guidance, and laser designation as a secondary. I’ll have you defanged quicker than you can fart. I also noticed the anti-missile defenses on your vehicle, and that there are only three on the rig’s ass. Tough break, I have twelve anti-armor rounds for my Carl Gustavs. I’m willing to sacrifice three rounds, since number four will tear right through that things tailgate.”

Mulligan didn’t bat an eye. “I didn’t think you you’d allow us in without having a way of getting rid of us. Not really telling me anything I didn’t already know, Stan.”

“Guys, we really don’t need to go down this path,” Andrews said. Just the same, he tucked in his rifle. Leona did the same, moving off a few steps.

“Fantastic,” Buchek said. “So we understand each other. Can you please stop treating us like children who need to be saved? Because we’ve absolutely paid our dues here.”

“Dude—”

Andrews jumped in, cutting off Mulligan’s reply. “Stan, that’s totally not what we’re doing here. We fully understand that you and your people have managed a freaking miracle out here. We only want to sustain that, and give you a leg up. Take a bunch of crap off the table so you don’t have to worry about it anymore. Right now, KC is pulling out the survival package we have onboard and getting it ready for delivery. It’s not charity, but it is a gift, and we hope it’ll be useful. Like I’ve been telling you all along, you don’t have to worry. You’re not alone any longer. This is the only thing we’re about, man. Getting this nation back on its feet again, and if that starts here with you, then I’m happy about it.”

Buchek glared up at Mulligan for a moment longer, then at Andrews. He took in a breath and released it in a long sigh. “Okay, I lied. I really can’t shit down a hole in your neck, Big Ugly. I’m perpetually constipated.”

Mulligan chuckled at that. “I actually did think you were full of shit when you said that.”

“Don’t test me, boy,” Buchek said.

“Boy?”

“Stan.” Andrews was certain that Mulligan was going to start pushing Buchek’s buttons again, so he interjected himself into the conversation. “What is it you want from us? What can we do to show you we’re not an enemy here?”

“I know you’re not,” Buchek said. “It’s just going to take a while for all of this to sink in. And there’s the fact that we’ve done some pretty horrendous things in the name of survival. We’ve turned people away, we’ve turned people out, even though it meant their deaths. Hardly been acting like decent folk, you know? I thought it was just us out here, and now I have to worry about civilization again. I think about the things I’ve directed quite a bit lately.”

“We’re not here to judge you,” Andrews said.

“Case in point: we’re actively assisting people who tried to kill us,” Leona said. “The people in San Jose had it a hundred times worse than you did. They don’t bury their dead to fertilize crops…they eat them.”

“I’m sure you’re right, but aside from the sergeant major here, you guys look like you’ve stepped right out of a magazine,” Buchek said. “You’re well-fed, unscarred, and don’t look like you’ve had to handle anything that was outright terrible.”

“Oh, fuck this!” Leona snapped. She unslung her rifle and dropped it onto the moist grass. Glaring at Buchek, she began unfastening her trousers. The three men looked at her, then at each other as she pulled them down to her knees, exposing her dusky thighs. She turned toward Buchek and fingered the long, angry-looking scar on her leg.

“See this?” she said. “Caused by a spear or an arrow or something. How about these?” She hiked up her armor and blouse, exposing her flat midriff. It was speckled with smaller scars, white against the darkness of her skin. “Fragmentation injuries. All courtesy of our friends in San Jose, friends we’re still helping.”

“Well…damn, Lieutenant,” Buchek said, caught between shock and embarrassment.

Leona dropped her blouse and yanked up her trousers. “Making a point here, Stan. We’ve seen shit too, and we’ve paid the price. We’ve lost people, and we’ve been injured.” She jerked her chin toward Mulligan. “Ask him. He had ringside seats to the war, while everyone else either died right away or stood around wondering why the lights went out.”

“Ringside seats?” Buchek looked to Mulligan, a confused expression on his face.

“I was outside the base when the nukes went off,” Mulligan said. “Saw some pretty lights and all, and we can leave it at that.”

Buchek studied him for a long moment. “Okay,” he said, finally.

“So we good here, guys?” Andrews asked. “I mean, I’m willing to strip naked to show off my scars and all, but I’d really rather not.”

“Yeah, I think we’re good,” Buchek said.

“Please, dear God, make us good,” Mulligan dramatically added.

EARTHFALL 2: Contact

October 12, 2018 Leave a comment

After making their way into Oregon, the field team aboard SCEV 4 finally finds some goodness after weeks on the road.

More from Earthfall 2. As always, first draft stuff, unedited, no guarantee what you read here will be in the final release.

The route was fairly straightforward to plan, since they already had a good idea of the lay of the land between their points of departure and arrival. By the time they had recovered the drone, the cloud ceiling had dropped even further and the wind was picking up. If they hadn’t recalled the unit when they had, it would have automatically landed somewhere along its flight path and the crew would have had to drive over to retrieve it manually. As it happened, the drone had just lowered itself into its cradle and shut down before the first gust of powerful wind came rolling out of the mountains.

“Losing that could have sucked,” Leona said as the drone automatically folded its rotor booms against its body after landing in the cradle. It began recharging as soon as it shut down via the charging pad that lined the landing bay’s floor. The door to the small bay closed with a distant clunk that was audible inside the rig.

“Yeah, I’m thinking we’re definitely going to be needing it later, once the wind dies down.” Andrews looked around at Mulligan, Leona, and KC. “Okay guys, here’s the mission brief. We leave here, drive there, and look around. That’s about it, aside from the possibility we might not be able to get through that barricade. If we can’t, or find a reasonable way around it, we’ll shut down nearby and wait for the weather to improve enough the launch the drone again. Questions?”

“We’ll need to post lookouts if we’re going to be hanging out near potential hostiles,” Mulligan said. “Sure, we have enough warning systems to wake the dead if someone approaches the rig, but we’d be well served having someone up and ready at all times. Also, I’d like the minis put in autodefense mode. Safeties off and ready to fire.”

“Good God, why?” Leona asked.

“Again, potential hostiles,” Mulligan said. “We don’t get too many chances out here, and for all we know, they might have anti-armor weapons. An SCEV is plenty tough, but anything that can destroy a tank or an APC can destroy the rig as well.”

“I’m not sure we need to worry about shooting people in the face, Mulligan,” Leona said.

Mulligan frowned. “Jordello, is that you? What have you done with Lieutenant Eklund, the nice sensible girl who understands how things work?”

Leona smiled and shook her head. “Ha-ha.”

“I get where you’re going, Sarmajor,” Andrews said. “I agree a hundred percent. If we shut down before we know who we’re dealing with, we continue as if we’re in bandit country and do what we have to do in order to protect ourselves. Lee, KC, issues?”

“Not really, no,” Leona said.

“It makes sense to me, sir,” KC said. “I mean, the sarmajor’s been drilling that stuff into our heads for months now, right?”

Mulligan turned to her. “Did you just try to give the teacher an apple?”

KC looked at him oddly. “I…I don’t know what that means…?”

Mulligan sighed and waved it away. “Before your time, kid. Never mind.” To Andrews: “What else, sir?”

“Brief complete. I’ve got left seat. Mulligan, you’re co,” Andrews said as he pushed past the hulking sergeant major and headed for the cockpit. “Let’s roll, boys and girls.”

***

The SCEV drove through the gray day for almost two hours, climbing higher and higher into the hills surrounding the decayed city of Bend, Oregon. Its big tires rolled without a care across weathered, cracked pavement and loose soil alike. Twice they had to backtrack to avoid obstacles—in one case, it was a fallen building, in the other a gigantic deadfall of rotting trees—but aside from those incidents the vehicle made good time. As they traveled, Leona reviewed the drone footage captured during its overflight of the town of Sisters. She determined the town would likely be safe enough to travel through, which meant they could stick to the more-or-less flat roadways and spare the crew a lot of bouncing around. That was a bit of a boon, since even the unmaintained roads were absolutely superior to picking their way through unfamiliar rising terrain.

Not to mention a whole lot faster, Andrews thought.

The trip through Sisters was uneventful, if not a touch eerie. Andrews maneuvered the rig carefully, choosing to hand-drive the vehicle instead of allowing the autopilot to see it through the course. He divided his attention between looking out the viewports and glancing at the radar returns on the MFD before him as he used the millimeter wave radar system as a backup nav aid while threading the hulking SCEV through the detritus that filled the town’s main street. From the corner of his eye though, he observed Mulligan in quick snatches. The big man was quiet as he sat in the co-pilot’s seat, ostensibly doing his job. Andrews wondered if it was an act. The town of Sisters was quite similar in many respects to Scott City, that dusty Kansas town where Mulligan’s family had met their end.

“Things cool over there, Big Sarge?” he asked finally.

Mulligan didn’t turn to him. “Yes. Why?”

“Just asking.”

“You’re always just asking. Trust me here, Captain. If I was going to snap my cap and go off the deep end, it would’ve happened years ago.”

Andrews snorted. “I know. Just checking in.”

“Thank you sir, but please…stop that shit. It bothers the hell out of me.”

“As much as Lee calling you Sam?”

Mulligan let out a heavy sigh. “That crowning indignity would be hard to top.”

Andrews laughed, then sobered a bit when he caught sight of several corpses lying in the lee of a building. Their clothes were tattered, but still recognizable. Jeans, coats, boots, a flannel shirt here, a camo jacket there. They were clustered together, and as the rig passed, Andrews saw two were adults, the other two were much smaller. Children. A family, and they’d died holding onto each other.

Holy fuck.

“Eyes forward, sir,” Mulligan said.

“Hooah.” Andrews returned to his job, which was driving the SCEV. After a moment, he said, “Listen, what are your thoughts on this? When we meet these folks, what’s your preferred plan of attack?”

“You mean procedurally, or personally?”

“Personally.”

“Been thinking about that. I say don’t rush it. Might be best to just observe for a while and see if we can figure out who it is we might wind up dealing with. In fact, we might want to even drop back after making our initial recon without actually contacting them.”

Andrews frowned. “Seriously?”

Mulligan stirred in his seat slightly. “Seriously. I mean to say, it’s a consideration. We could verify their existence, then leave them be. Wait to rendezvous with Five when they get up here, then go in as a team. Personally, I’d like the backup. And if there’s any shooting, I’d prefer Slattery takes the heat, not me.”

Andrews snorted again. “Come on, Mulligan.”

“All right, just kidding about Slattery, though he is a slacker. But I’m definitely serious about hanging out and watching for a bit before we establish contact. However…if it comes to that, you and I should be the ones who handle the encounter. Eklund’s too smart to risk right now, and Winters is too young. Not enough experience.”

“We can hear you, you know,” Leona said from the second compartment.

“I’m not giving out state secrets here,” Mulligan said. “The captain asked a cogent question. We’re undermanned, and the usual plan is the rig commander and an SME, usually the team medic, initiate contact. Since we don’t have a medic assigned and you’re fulfilling that role as well, Lieutenant, I’m the logical choice to accompany the captain on account both commander and XO can’t disembark at the same time.”

“We probably have some time to discuss this further,” Leona said, but from her cool tone Andrews could tell she didn’t like what the incubating contact plan was.

“We will,” Andrews said. “First things first. Let’s verify we’ve found them, then we’ll decide on what to do.”

“Sir, I have a question,” KC said.

“What’s that, Kace?”

“What if they come to us?” she asked. “I mean, it is possible they might actually be happy to see us, right?”

“Fair point,” Andrews said, “and it sure is possible. After a decade or so scrounging off whatever they can find in the area, they might be looking forward to a touch of advanced civilization again. Without resorting to violence,” he threw in, glancing over at Mulligan.

Mulligan raised his hands in mock surrender. “Hey, cease fire. I’m hoping that’s exactly how they behave. It would be a bit of a refreshing change of pace.”

Andrews shot Mulligan a thumbs up. “So KC, to answer your question. If they approach us in a non-hostile fashion, we’ll receive them the same way. No one will be allowed on the rig, but the sergeant major and I will go out to them and see what they have to say.”

“I thought we were going to discuss that part a bit further,” Leona said.

“We will, but that doesn’t mean the decision hasn’t already been made,” Andrews said, keeping his tone as light as possible. “Procedurally, the commander is supposed to lead the engagement, and I can’t have both you and I out of the rig at the same time. Mulligan’s right about that.”

“Mulligan has more experience than both of us put together,” Leona said. “Let him stay behind. He can operate the rig single-pilot forever and a day.”

“Subtext: ‘Yeah, don’t let the old fucker have any fun’ is what she’s getting at,” Mulligan said.

Andrews held up his right hand. “Okay, guys. Baby steps, all right?”

The decrepit town of Sisters fell behind them as the SCEV bore to the right and followed the two-lane highway to the north and west. It pushed through the remains of a barrier that had been erected on the settlement’s northwestern side. If it had been designed to hold back anything substantial, it had certainly failed. More likely, whomever had attacked the town had destroyed it on the way out. It did not appear the attackers had stayed, but had simply raided and rolled out. The road beyond was fairly clear, save for where old, dead pine trees had fallen across it. Many of those rotted husks had already been crushed beneath vehicular traffic, and those which hadn’t didn’t cause the SCEV to slow even one iota. Andrews felt the pressure of excitement beginning to build in his chest, and he pushed the control column forward a bit more. The rig accelerated up to forty miles per hour. Mulligan glanced over at him, but said nothing.

He feels it too.

As the rig roared down the desolate highway, droplets of water spattered against the diamond-matrix view ports. First it was just a few, then a dozen. Then it was full-on rain, hammering the rig with a vengeance. It came down in heavy sheets that were blown by the wind. An actual storm had coalesced seemingly right overhead. Andrews heard the rain pouring across the top of the vehicle. The tires were already splashing through quickly-forming puddles.

Mulligan switched on the wipers, and they went to work immediately, slapping back and forth. “Well, at least they work!”

“Leona, can you run an analysis on the rainwater?” Andrews asked.

“Already on it. Getting some good volume here through the vacuum pump. Just need a few minutes for the initial pass.”

“Awesome,” Andrews said.

“Hey, Captain. Slow down a bit, huh? You’re up to almost fifty,” Mulligan said. “We’re excited about the mission and all, but the last thing we want to do is hydroplane off the road. Hooah?”

“Heh, you got it, Sarmajor.” Andrews eased back on the control column, bringing the SCEV back to a sedate thirty miles per hour. He checked the radar display, then pressed a button on the MFD. The imagery was transferred to the heads-up display before him, overlaying what he saw outside the view ports. It was getting suddenly dark. As if anticipating the command, Mulligan reached to the overhead panel and switched on the rig’s LED lights. They cut a brilliant swath through the gathering gloom.

“Turn off in one mile,” Mulligan reported.

“Roger, got it.”

The rig continued plowing through the stormy day. Light flared suddenly as a lance of brilliant lightning cut across the sky, momentarily drowning out even the glare of the SCEV’s LED arrays. A moment later, there came a basso boom they could hear through the rig’s thick hull. Thunder.

“God damn!” Andrews said. “This is sure some shit, Sarmajor!”

“Not like the dust storms we get down south, eh?” Mulligan replied. More lightning arced, stabbing from cloud to cloud, illuminating the heavens for them. “See how bright that lightning is? That’s not just some paltry static discharge caused by a turbinado, that’s true Mother Nature at work, boy.”

“Never seen anything like this before,” Andrews said. “It is pretty awe-inspiring.”

“Well, get ready for some more awesome news,” Leona said from the command intel station. “This rainwater? It’s remarkably pure. Like almost ninety-nine percent pure.”

“Ain’t nothing ninety-nine percent pure,” Mulligan said.

“Well, not after you had your way with me, no.”

Mulligan looked suddenly stricken, and Andrews and KC both cackled with laughter at the big man’s discomfiture. After a moment, Mulligan laughed along with them. Even though they were in unknown territory and cruising through a potentially dangerous thunderstorm, the crew’s spirits were higher than they’d ever been in that moment.

They approached the turn-off onto the road that would lead them into the higher elevations. A bent, battered metal sign declared there was a camping ground ahead. Sure enough, more tattered, weathered tents were clustered at the site. Also present were demolished trailers and even a vintage motor home. The motor home’s wheels were gone, and its door was torn halfway from its hinges. Whether that was from weather or something more malevolent, Andrews could not tell.

Mulligan peered at the old vehicle through the rain-streaked windows. “Wow, an early 1970s Winnebago Brave. That thing probably has more living space than we do.”

“Having fun walking down memory lane, Sam?” Leona asked.

“Stop calling me that!” Mulligan snapped.

“That’s the price you pay for confining me to the vehicle,” Leona snapped back. She was actually getting a little pissy that it appeared Andrews would be taking Mulligan with him when it came time to contact the survivors. Andrews couldn’t think of a way to smooth that over, other than allow her to accompany Mulligan instead of him…and that just wasn’t going to happen.

The privileges of command, he thought.

He slowed the vehicle to a crawl as it approached the next waypoint, then slowly guided it into a right turn. Water was already starting to cascade down the highway in waves. It seemed that at least an inch of rain had already fallen over the past several minutes, and the skies were darkening even more. As a counterpoint, another bolt of lightning pierced the cloud cover and rippled past overhead. The ensuing explosion was loud.

“Ground strike!” Andrews said, responding to the visual alert that flashed across the MFDs. “Good thing we’re shielded.”

“Let’s not take that for granted,” Mulligan said. “Remember, these things were built to specifications by the lowest bidder.”

“Good point. KC?”

“Go ahead,” KC responded.

“Isolate the buses and put the secondary generator on standby. Also isolate the APU for the time being, all right?”

“Roger, underway.”

“I can’t believe we don’t have a checklist for lightning strikes,” Leona said. “Maybe we need to create one.”

“Already done,” Mulligan said. “The checklist is something like this. Item one: What was that? Two: Was…was that lightning? Three: Does everything still seem to work? Four: Did anything catch on fire or fall off? Five: Sip coffee. Checklist complete.”

“Sounds very professional.”

“Hey. Ask and ye shall receive.” Mulligan regarded the radar return on the display. “There’s a level off ahead, looks like the entrance to a parking lot. Getting some flutter on the returns—looks like it’s flooded.”

“I see it. Must be where this waterfall is coming from. How deep can it be?” Andrews accelerated up the hill, and the SCEV practically rocketed upward in response. Mulligan held up a hand.

“Take it easy, kid,” he said.

“Calm down, you geezer!” Andrews said as the rig crested the rise. Still accelerating, it plowed through the standing water ahead, sending a tremendous, frothy explosion into the air. The SCEV actually began to deviate from its course as its eight tires fought for purchase through water that was actually deeper than anticipated. The vehicle began to spin out, heeling radically to the right. For an instant, the rig was uncontrolled, reacting to the dual forces of its momentum and the dampening effect of the water. Andrews whooped it up, feeling like a kid doing doughnuts in the snow for the very first time. In the second compartment, KC and Leona did the same. In direct counterpoint, Mulligan grabbed the instrument panel’s glare shield with his left hand, his right going for the co-pilot’s control column. Andrews eased the control column to the left and turned the wheels into the spin. Mulligan followed him through, his hand firmly grasping the co-pilot’s column in what Andrews likened to a death grip.

Old guy can’t take it, he thought with a mental guffaw.

The tires finally caught with a jerk and powered the big rig through the pool. On the other side, it resumed its upward climb without difficulty.

“Yeah, baby!” Andrews said.

“That was awesome!” KC cried.

“Congratulations, sir. You just managed to drift an SCEV,” Mulligan said, a sour tone in his voice. “I thought maybe you were a little too old for that kind of stuff, but stupidity is apparently a bottomless well.”

“Don’t be such a puss, Sarmajor,” Andrews said.

“Seriously,” Leona threw in.

Mulligan shook his head and sighed. “You people would do well to remember this moment when Andrews drives us off into a ravine and we all wake up dead.” He paused. “It was kind of fun, though.”
Andrews chuckled as he guided the rig up the incline. The rain was continuing to come down and showed no sign of letting up, and the water rolled down the road in response. The SCEV remained sure-footed, powering them up the road without any slippage or loss of traction. The vehicle was a true champ, despite Mulligan’s quip about it being built by the lowest-bidding contractor. He swept his eyes across the displays, taking in the vehicle information that wasn’t being relayed to the heads-up display. Everything was nominal. The SCEV was doing exactly what it had been designed to do.

“Straight on till morning,” he muttered.

Mulligan glanced at him. “Where’d you hear that expression?”

Andrews shrugged. “My dad? My mom, before she died, maybe. Why?”

Mulligan shook his head. “Just an echo from the past,” he said quietly.

“Sarmajor, I’m sorry for going gonzo back there and almost spinning us out. I just…I don’t know, it felt right.”

Mulligan laughed heartily. “Son, that was hardly going gonzo. Tossing a flash-bang grenade into an up-armored Humvee right as the crew closed the doors? Now that’s gonzo.”

“Who did that?” KC asked. “Sarmajor, was that you?”

“Perish the thought, Winters. I’m the child of policy and regulation, and the Uniform Code of Military Justice was my disciplinarian. Never have I strayed from the side of right.”

Andrews laughed. “Mulligan, we gotta talk, one of these days.”

“We have a month ahead of us, sir. I suspect we’ll get to it.”

“I’d like to listen in when that happens, Sarmajor,” KC said.

“Well, well, well. Sergeant Winters is finally coming out of her little shell,” Mulligan said. “Don’t worry, madam. I’ll be sure to bend your ear, too.”

“She’ll learn to regret it,” Leona said.

Andrews shook his head at Leona’s audacity. A year ago, she wouldn’t have gotten within a mile of Mulligan. Now, she was practically pulling his chain in public. He discarded that track of thought and went back to piloting the SCEV. According to the course information, the next—and final—waypoint was directly ahead. They were within three minutes of intercepting the barricade the drone had detected. A quick glance at the status display told him there was no chance of launching the UAV under these circumstances. Though the rain wasn’t a major factor, the wind most certainly was. The small aircraft would remain in its enclosure until the wind dropped below twenty miles per hour, which meant the SCEV crew would be reduced to divining the circumstances around them through the rig’s external sensors as well as their own Mark I Eyeballs.

“Closing in on the phase line,” Mulligan said.

“Roger that.”

“Let’s back off on the power a bit, sir. We don’t want to roll into anything nasty.”

Andrews eased back on the control column. “I’ll make the approach at twenty miles per hour indicated, then come to a halt around two hundred yards away from the barricade. That cool by you?”

“That should do fine, sir.”

Andrews peered through the view ports into the stormy afternoon. The rain wasn’t letting up, but it wasn’t impeding the vehicle in any way. The SCEV went over a gentle rise, and he brought it into a sweeping turn to the right, following the curvature of the road. Halfway through the curve, he brought the control column back, standing it just ahead of idle speed. The SCEV responded and slowed, its big tires slicing through the water coursing down the roadway. Lightning flashed, illuminating the barricade ahead in a stroboscopic flash.

“There it is,” he said. He brought the control column back to the neutral position and toed the brakes. The rig came to a gentle halt, idling in the gloom. Ahead, revealed to them courtesy of both high-intensity LEDs and the millimeter wave radar, was the barricade.

Andrews and Mulligan looked at it for a long moment. The square panels lying on the pavement were actually chunks of plywood with nails driven through it, a decidedly low-tech but still efficient method to cripple vehicular traffic. The SCEV wasn’t imperiled; even if Andrews had driven over them, the rig’s tires were sufficiently robust to survive such an encounter. The rest of the barricade was less impressive. It was mostly concertina wire stretched across several wooden members in three layers. The barriers extended well off the road, disappearing into the trees that stood off to either side.

“The barricade’s designed to keep people out,” Mulligan said. “Won’t do much to stop vehicles that get past the first layer. Which makes sense—no one’s going to be driving around here, anyway.”

“So how do they?” Andrews asked. “I mean, fuel supplies have to be inert by now. Especially diesel.”

“Biodiesel,” Mulligan said. “It’s the only answer.” He reached down to the center console and fiddled with the output controls for the millimeter wave radar dome on the SCEV’s back. The radar returns revealed more metal extending outward from the barricade, indicating that the barrier ran a good hundred yards or more through the trees and light brush that dotted the hillside.

It also revealed human silhouettes on either side of the idling SCEV, hunkering down in hide sites that might have been invisible to the human eye, but were transparent to millimeter wave radar.

“Well. Look at that,” Mulligan said.

“Jesus.” Andrews’s mouth suddenly went dry. “They’re here. On overwatch.”

“Yep. Looks like.” Mulligan examined the display silently for a moment, then turned and looked at Andrews. “Orders?”

Andrews considered it for a full minute, turning things over in his mind. This is what they’d come to discover—survivors of the Sixty Minute War. But memories of contact with Law’s group in San Jose were the first thing he thought of. If the people lying outside the rig were hostile, what was the best way to approach them?

“They watched us roll up, Mike,” Leona said from the second compartment. She and KC were looking at the same data as the two men in the cockpit. “They haven’t taken any action against us yet.”

“It’s probably not every day an armored all-terrain vehicle rolls up to their front door,” Mulligan said. “But they aren’t moving very much. With all the lights and the engine noise, they have to know we’re here, even through the storm. So they’re doing what we’re doing. Watching and waiting.”

“So let’s give them a bone,” Andrews said slowly. “I think it’s probably on us to make the first move.”

“Agree,” Mulligan said, and Andrews was surprised by that. Mulligan activated the forward-looking infrared turrets located at the front and rear of the SCEV and panned them in opposite directions. The front slewed to the right, while the rear turret slewed to the left. The supercooled planar arrays in both units picked up the radiant heat of the bodies lying out in the woods, though it could not display them completely. “They’re lying behind earthen berms. Actual fighting positions, like revetments,” Mulligan said.

“Makes sense. I’m going to contact them over the loudspeakers. I’ll ask them to approach.”

“Roger that. in the meantime, I’d like to take the minis off standby and put them in manual mode. Just in case things blow up, I’d like you to reverse a hundred meters or so. That way, I’ll be able to engage both groups while we retreat. They’re well inside the minimum range of the Hellfires, so it’ll have to be guns if we need to defend ourselves.”

“Understood. Lee, KC, we’re going to try and contact those folks outside. Keep an eye out and keep your harness straps pulled tight. If we have to move, I’ll reverse us at max power down the hill. Could be rough.”

“Roger that, Mike,” Leona said.

“Got it,” KC affirmed.

“Okay. Going onto the loudspeaker.” Andrews flipped a switch on the radio panel on the center console, then pressed the red transmit button on the control column. “People to the left and right of this vehicle. We’re not hostile. Please send a delegate to the right side of the rig. We’re here to help you, not fight you.”

Andrews watched the displays, both the radar and infrared. The people started moving, but not in a meaningful way. More likely, they were looking at each other, trying to figure out what to do. That they’d been detected under cover was likely unsettling to them.

“I see rifles,” he said, examining the infrared imagery.

“Yep,” Mulligan replied.

“Mike, have some electromagnetic activity,” Leona said. “Looks like they have radio comms with each other.”

“Frequency?”

“GMRS format, broadcasting on four-six-two point five-six-two-five. Ah, we can catch that, it’s on the UHF spectrum. I’m rolling onto that freq on the set back here.” There was a pause. “Okay, the signal’s encrypted. Getting good directional slices though, they’re definitely talking back and forth.”

“Interesting,” Mulligan said. “They have radios, and more importantly, they have a way to charge the batteries. Let’s give them a frequency, Captain. They can talk to us over the radio.”

Andrews looked over at Mulligan and grinned. “Damn, Sarmajor. Great idea. Let’s roll them over to, uh, point five-eight-seven-five?” He flipped the SCEV’s primary radio set from HF to UHF and dialed in the frequency. “Huh, they’re using interstitial channels as opposed to primary.”

“Probably less of a chance of anyone listening in…which makes me wonder if there is someone else out there listening in,” Mulligan said. “And if so, what does that mean?

“We won’t know until we talk to them,” Andrews said. “Right?”

“Roger that, sir. Anyway, if they can broadcast unencrypted, that frequency should do. Unless they want to give us the private key for their commo, but I’m going to presume that’s not happening,” Mulligan said.

“All right. Let me pass that on to them.” He paused for a moment. “That should freak them out even more, when we tell them what freq to tune their radios to.”

Mulligan snorted. “Looking forward to that.”

Andrews pressed the transmit button on the control column. “People on either side of the vehicle. Roll your handsets over to four-six-two point five-eight-seven-five unencrypted. If you don’t want to approach the vehicle, we can communicate over the radio. Again, that’s five-eight-seven-five. We’ll be waiting to hear from you.” As he spoke, he watched the figures through the IR and MMR returns. Those to the left were picking up and moving out. As were some on the right, but not all. They’d rightly reasoned that the rig had enough tech on it to see through conceal-only cover, and they were moving for denser protection.
“Again, that’s four-six-two point five-eight-seven-five,” Andrews said over the loudspeaker. He heard his own voice echoing off the terrain, even above the rain that continued to pour across the SCEV’s armored hide. That didn’t cause any of the people outside to pause. They quickly filed off into the dark forest, moving quickly and surely. They knew the local geography, and they were actually heading downrange, in the direction of Sisters.

“They couldn’t still be using the town?” Andrews mused.

“Nah. It’s a diversion. They’re not going to want us to know which direction their base is. Curious that they’re out here in such numbers watching the barricade. Makes me wonder if there’s something up that we don’t know about.” Mulligan fell silent for a moment, watching the displays. “That’s a fair amount of manpower out there…I see about eight folks total. I’m thinking that means there’s a pretty sizeable establishment around here somewhere.”

Andrews pointed at the infrared imagery. “Got two hanging back on the right. Nothing else on radar, so no one’s trying to sneak up on us. The others are definitely bugging out.”

“I doubt they’re bugging out, just relocating to another engagement site. They don’t want us wiping them out all at once if things go badly,” Mulligan said. “They’ll want to keep us under surveillance for as long as they can.”

Andrews sat and waited for another minute, then switched off the external speaker and rolled his headset over to the selected GMRS frequency. “This is Mike Andrews, commander of Self-Contained Exploration Vehicle Four. If you’re listening, please respond. Over.”

He and Mulligan watched the pair of silhouettes lying on the ground to the right of the SCEV. They were about two hundred feet from the road. One of them had what looked like an AR-style rifle pointed at the rig, which was going to be about as useful as a can opener in an attack. The other person simply watched the idling vehicle, sitting motionless in the rain. Andrews wondered if they were at least somewhat dry, as they were shielded by the branches of two pine trees. Their heads moved. They were talking amongst themselves. The fidelity of the infrared was better than the radar, and Andrews was able to get a general idea of their dress: pants, coats, hoods. Each carried a rifle and a small rucksack. He watched the smaller of the pair raise something to his face.

“Who are you?” Not a him—a her. The voice that came over the radio was female. Her voice was a flat monotone.

“Captain Mike Andrews, United States Army. Who are you? Over.”

“What do you want?”

“We’re here to assist. We’re from a federal reservation in the south. It’s a complicated story, but our mission is to restore the United States. We have access to supplies, medicine, weapons, technology…anything you guys might need.” Andrews paused for a moment. “This might go better if we can meet face to face. I’m willing to meet you with one of my crew outside the vehicle.”

“Where in the south?”

Andrews looked at Mulligan, who shrugged. “Tell ’em. It’s not like they’ll ever be able to drop by for a visit.”

“We’re from an installation called Harmony Base, located in western Kansas. Over.”

“Kansas was wiped off the map.”

“The surface of Kansas was, that’s for sure. But we’re a couple of hundred feet beneath the surface. Harmony is a subterranean base. Like I said, it’s complicated. There’s a lot to discuss. We should meet. Over.”

There was a few minutes of silence as the two people out in the forest discussed it. Andrews saw their heads moving.

“More radio chatter on the first freq,” Leona said. “Now more on another. Point seven-one-two-five. Got returns coming from almost due north of our position.”

“That’s gotta be where their base is,” Andrews said. He began scrolling through a map on the multifunction display in front of him. “Not a lot out there. Small town called Sherwood…” He tapped the icon for the town, and another window opened displaying what little data there was in the computer regarding the community. “Hmm, maybe ‘town’ is a bit of a stretch. Says here it’s an ‘unincorporated census-designated community’, whatever that means.”

“Means there was never any formal government,” Mulligan said. “Could be anything. A camping ground, a resort, even a retirement community.”

“If it’s a retirement community, does that mean we get to drop you off?” Leona asked.

“Where did you get all of this sarcasm from?” Mulligan said.

“Gee, I wonder,” she replied.

Mulligan groaned. “Typical.” To Andrews: “It makes a little bit of sense if these folks set up shop there. I mean, no prying eyes, no real oversight, but close enough to Bend in case someone needed something drastic, like emergency medical care. Otherwise, it’s just a speck on a map out here in the boonies.”

The radio crackled again. “What if we don’t want any help from you?” the woman asked. As she transmitted, lightning arced across the sky, blurring the transmission with a burst of static.

“Come talk to us, at least,” Andrews responded. “You send two, we’ll send two. We have to stay near the vehicle for security purposes, but you won’t be harmed. Over.”

“Wait,” came the response.

“Roger that,” Andrews replied. He and Mulligan watched the displays, waiting for their correspondents to come back to them. It took a while, but in the meantime, Leona reported that the radio traffic was continuing on the other bands. The radio direction finder didn’t indicate any transmissions were coming from the pair of shapes lying to the right of the rig, it was all coming from the west and north. The two people in the forest were in listen-only mode, but Andrews was certain they were getting directions from a higher authority.

“Well, at least the rain is starting to taper off,” Mulligan said.

“Kace, how’s everything with the rig?” Andrews asked, even though he had all the data available to him. He just wanted something to do, and discussing the weather with Mulligan wasn’t particularly inviting.

“We’re totally good to go,” KC said. “If there was a problem, I’d let you know.”

“Okay. Thanks.” Andrews fidgeted in his seat. “I wonder if we can break their encryption,” he said.

“In a while we might be able to,” Leona said. “I’m running it through the OpenSky and triple-DES decryption programs, but I’m not coming up with anything. These folks might have come up with their own encryption scheme, though. If that’s the case, then we’re out of luck. I’m letting the computers take a swing at it, but it’s going to soak up a lot of bandwidth.”

“Well, keep at it,” Andrews said. “Maybe we’ll get lucky.”

“And it’s not like we have anything else to do right now,” Mulligan said.

“What, you bored now, Big Sarge?”

“Vacillating between boredom and stark terror, actually.”

Andrews frowned. “Terror?”

“Yeah.” Mulligan jerked a thumb toward the pair in the dark forest to the right of the vehicle. “For all we know, these guys could be coordinating an attack with anti-armor weapons. Or, they could just be lying out there getting soaking wet.”

“You’re thinking too much, man,” Andrews said.

Mulligan looked at him with a furrowed brow. “Do not get complacent, Andrews. Anything can happen out here, and we’re far from help.”

Andrews was about to respond when the woman’s voice came over the radio again. “We’re coming. We’ll listen to what you have to say, but that’s it. And we won’t stay for long. You agree?”

“Roger, we agree. Myself and one of my crew will meet you on the right side of the vehicle. We’ll be out in just a few minutes. And thank you.”
There was no reply, but the two people in the forest gathered their gear and slowly, cautiously rose to their feet. Tentatively, they threaded their way through the pine trees, heading toward the idling SCEV.