Authors: Stephen Knight
Tags: #Science Fiction, #General, #Fiction, #Adventure, #Military, #Action & Adventure
Copyright © 2013 by Stephen Knight
For Russ Knight, The Weird Beard
“The Savior of Dallas Radio”
May 3, 1932 – October 12, 2012
I miss you, Dad.
The woman’s face is still mostly smooth. The only signs of her true age are an array of laugh lines that crinkle whenever she smiles, which she does quite a bit, finding something humorous in almost every situation. Her hair is a tawny blond, its rich color diminished somewhat by the encroaching grays, the ones she’s just not vain enough to try to hide behind the quick fixes of bottled hair products. The woman—and more importantly, the man who adores her—knows that youth and vitality are more about what’s on the inside than what’s on the outside. The interior is what’s important, and only a precious few intimates get to see that. The exterior? Hell, everyone else on the planet can see that, free of charge.
The girls look like both of them, a mix of her fair skin and honey-colored hair, but with his eyes and nose. He thinks the nose looks much better on them than on him. It confers an impression of quiet, regal strength that makes him wonder how they’ll fare in the coming years when boys begin to circle around them. Would they take the males on head-to-head as he would, or would they instead use the mother’s good nature and occasional guile? He finds he almost can’t wait to find out, but he knows these things will happen sooner than he’ll want. It’s not going to be easy watching them winnow away the list of suitors until they find the right ones. And when that happens, they won’t be his little girls any longer.
He pulls open the screen door on the small house they leased on the plains of Kansas, where the land is flat and seems to go on forever, broken only occasionally by trees or telephone poles that stand a silent vigil in the heat of the midday sun. From somewhere in the humid, sticky distance, a crow caws, and he feels a momentary portent of dread flutter across his heart. But why? The day is perfect, the weather calm, and his family waits for him only a few steps away in the small kitchen. He enters the room, and the girls shriek with delight as they leap toward him with no hesitation, even though he’s been gone for so many years of their lives that he sometimes feels he barely knows them. His wife’s smile is broad and welcoming, and her dark eyes twinkle as she turns from the kitchen counter, forgetting about the lunch she had been about to serve.
“Well, it’s about time, stranger!” she says, laughing, her voice bright and clear.
Behind him, the crow caws again.
He awoke to the total darkness that could be found only beneath the surface of the earth. He lay in his rack and listened to the sounds of the base: the gentle whisper of climate-controlled air moving through the ductwork, the muted sounds of equipment operating, the occasional footfalls in the corridor outside his quarters as someone walked past. The clock on the nightstand read 0246. He wasn’t officially on duty for over five hours, but he knew he wouldn’t be sleeping much more.
The dream. Always the dream.
Sometimes when he awoke, he was filled with an overwhelming despair that made him contemplate suicide. So easy, so amazingly easy, to end it. The varieties of method to his self-inflicted demise were endless. Gunshot. Overdose. Hanging. Slashing his wrists and bleeding out in the shower. Or simply accessing one of the emergency exits, where he could climb up to the surface and let God do His work as he walked back to the house.
Other times, he awoke clear-headed and mostly free of the numbing despair. But the sad loneliness was always there, followed by the shame that he had failed to execute the one mission that mattered most. That failure left him an empty shell most days, making him into little more than a ghost that haunted the base. The vitality, the zest for life, the need to serve and carry out his sworn duties … all fell by the wayside, washed out of him like the rays of the sun could diminish the colors of an old photograph.
he always asked himself as he lay alone in the darkness in small, cramped quarters.
Why them? Why not me?
The base had no answer.
he wasteland was
as dry and barren as the surface of the moon. Over the course of decades, the topsoil had been bleached by the sun’s searing rays, the soil converted to chalky dust. No vegetation remained, for no life could exist in a land where the earth and air had been poisoned by nuclear weapons. Sandy ridges and wind-carved rock stood mute sentinel to the passage of time. Despite the fact the land was completely lifeless, the casual observer—had there been one—might still have considered the wasteland austerely beautiful.
Hidden beneath a pulsating brown-black mass, a vast cloud stalked across the forbidding wasteland like some hungry beast stirring after a long hibernation, the horizon but a memory. Tens of miles across, the ferocious sandstorm grew larger by the second, illuminated by sporadic flashes of lightning. Riding the stiff breeze, the storm’s top rose almost seventy thousand feet into the dry air, which no longer enjoyed the benefit of an ozone layer to strip away harmful radioactive particles emitted by the distant sun. The storm surged forward at more than sixty miles per hour, devouring the land before it, ravaging the wasteland even further with cyclonic winds full of debris that could strip a man’s flesh from his bones in minutes.
Despite the hostile environment, the powerful storm, and the radiation—both man-made and heaven-sent—there was life.
A gigantic, eight-wheeled, all-terrain vehicle bolted across the gently rolling landscape, trailing a rooster-tail of dust. While the vehicle raced away from the storm, it became briefly airborne as it crested a small ridge before it slammed back to the parched earth, rocking on its heavy-duty suspension. The rig’s turbine engines roared as they propelled Self-Contained Exploration Vehicle 4 along at almost sixty miles an hour. It wasn’t fast enough. The monstrous storm continued to close, and the gap between its amorphous leading edge and the dirty vehicle slowly narrowed.
Strapped into the driver’s seat, Captain Mike Andrews kept his eyes rooted on the desert landscape outside the thick viewports. His left hand kept the rig’s control column pushed fully forward, and the system’s drive-by-wire technology translated the action into full power to the rig’s large, knobbed tires. The ride was far from comfortable, of course. Even though the SCEV had been designed to withstand harsh punishment in the field for months at a time, there was a limit to what suspension technology could dampen. Hurtling along at old highway speeds across broken terrain was one of the things it couldn’t handle.
“Hey, listen, the temperature’s going through the roof on number one,” Choi said, squirming slightly in the copilot’s seat beside Andrews. He was a few years younger than the vehicle commander, but his even temper and genuine likeability made him an asset in the field during the long reconnaissance runs they made four times a year. Now, though, Choi was obviously agitated, and not just from the SCEV’s violent progress over the landscape that had once been western Kansas. It wasn’t the close proximity of the storm causing him discomfort, either. Andrews knew the chance the vehicle might be forced to spend days waiting out the storm within only a few miles of Harmony Base was getting to Choi. Hell, it was getting to him as well. After thirty-three days in the field, all Andrews wanted was to get back to Harmony and soak in the small bathtub in his quarters. The SCEV’s accommodations were fairly excellent, but confining eight people inside a vehicle that had less than four hundred square feet of living space for a month was enough to make anyone long for privacy.
Choi pointed out the temperature tape on the multifunction display set in the instrument panel between the two men. Andrews only glanced at it, but he could see the number one engine’s temperature had spiked dramatically over the past few minutes.
“Listen, if you don’t back off soon, you’re going to blow number one,” Choi said.
“Like hell, Tony. The computer’ll shut it down first. But so what? That’s why we have two engines in these things.” Andrews patted the lip of the SCEV’s gray instrument panel. “Hang in there, babe. Almost home, just hang in there.”
“Yeah, that’s gonna work.”
Andrews looked at the weather radar display. “It’d better, man. That storm’s a hot one, and if it catches us, we’ll lose the base’s homing beacon. No way I’m backing off now—this is our only shot.”
“So what are we going to do if number one shuts down? The storm’ll catch us for sure.”
“Spencer!” Andrews shouted.
“What up?” A small, squat man appeared in the door that separated the SCEV’s cramped cockpit from the not-so-cramped work area in the center of the vehicle. By regulations, the pressure doors separating the three compartments were supposed to be closed, but with the vehicle lurching and bucking across the terrain, Andrews just didn’t have it in him to make what already felt like a coffin even smaller. If he was in the back, he’d have a tough time not blowing chow all over the place.
“One’s getting close to thermal shutdown, but I need it,” Andrews told the crew chief. “What can I do about it?”
Spencer looked at the multifunction display, then tabbed through the couple of screens. He grunted and returned the display to the main situation page. “Particle separator’s shitting the bed, which means the engine’s taking in dirty air. I can suppress the alert and raise the shutdown threshold, but the engine’s gonna fry. Walleyes won’t be happy about that,” Spencer added, referring to the commanding officer of the base’s vehicle section by his informal—and completely impolite—nickname.
Andrews considered his options. So far in his career, he’d been able to steer clear of Colonel Larry Walters’s wrath, which he had visited upon every other SCEV commander over the past decade since the Sixty Minute War. Walters was a ticket-punching chump, one of the Old Guard, and Andrews didn’t much care for him. But he was a superior officer, even if he was far too old to be a full-bird colonel. But there was no retiring to Tampa or Sun Valley or Bangkok anymore, which meant Andrews and every other SCEV skipper would have to deal with Walters’s shit until he dropped dead from old age or was relieved of command.
In the end, Andrews figured that if he was going to have a run-in with Walters, it might as well be over something fairly major, like burning up the core of a precious SCEV powerplant.
“Do it,” he told Spencer. “A direct order, and if you want me to use my code to access the vehicle engineering module, I’ll be happy to do it.”
“Nah, I got it. Just back me up when someone tries to nail my ass to the wall. Gimme a sec, I’ll use the station back here.” With that, the swarthy crew chief returned to the multipurpose workstation located only a few feet away. Choi looked back at him, then at Andrews.
“You’re putting him on the line, Mike,” he said softly.