Authors: Jeffrey Burger
Steele exhaled heavily; this is not what he'd hoped to see. It was however, what he expected... and it saddened him that he was right. A glance to his left and he saw the look of pain on Alité's face... a mixture of despair, anger and frustration. He keyed his mic, “Mount up, we're moving out.” She walked numbly as he guided her to the truck.
The column of vehicles moved sedately up the road to the city, one of the hover tanks occasionally heading to the closest hilltop to get a better view as the city disappeared below the hills and trees.
Steele grabbed the door handle,
The driver jammed the brakes, making the truck shudder and the wheels hop, the truck behind them doing the same to keep from ramming them. Jack flung the door open and climbed to the roof of the truck.
Alité climbed out after him, “Jack, what is it...?!”
“Can't you smell it?” he yelled, pointing to the crops on the hill to the right of the road. “The crops are fresh-cut... There
people out here.
But why?” she asked.
the sixty-four-thousand dollar question...”
Never mind,” he chuckled, climbing down and back into the cab of the truck. “Let's roll.”
■ ■ ■
The roadblock consisting of abandoned cars, a truck, some wooden posts and wire, offered little resistance to the hover tanks who pushed it aside and off the road. Alité read Jack the hand scrawled signs that equated to,
do not enter
. The city loomed large ahead, sprouting up suddenly from the surrounding hills and fields, looking out of place, with its drab grayness and desolation. It was a world of black and white surrounded by a world of color. At one time the tall buildings were probably shiny and beautiful, their architecture neither familiar nor remarkable. There were no suburbs, no malls, no sprawling neighborhoods like major cities on Earth. The industrial and commercial buildings seemed to be all there was, except for the highway that had been on their left from the beginning, sweeping through the city and exiting on the right, extending to the northern horizon. The road they were on widened as it entered the city, becoming one of its main thoroughfares, leading them into the grayness between the vertical rubble that reached upward. It looked like it had been abandoned, left to decay for more than a century.
Stopping on the last rise before the road to the city flattened out, about three miles from the edge of where the urban sprawl sprang from the ground, spreading out in all directions, the troops piled out of the trucks for a better look.
“My God,” breathed Alité,
it's a wasteland...”
Dayle Alaroot stood atop Hover One, examining the rubble and the darkening, growing curtain of dust hanging over the city with ERVs,
electronic ranging viewers
. “Not sure if that's a storm out there or the cloud of death...” he joked dryly. In reply, the sky split with a retina-searing flash, a massive, multi-fingered bolt of lightning touching the rubble and walking about before disappearing.
shouted Dayle, stepping back, almost dropping the viewers, his eyes smarting. He dropped to one knee and laid the viewers on the hull of the tank, rubbing his eyes, attempting to blink away the tears and the image burned into his brain.
Jack grabbed Alité by the elbow. “Where's the palace from here?”
“Far side of the city...”
How wide is the city?”
Eight or nine miles, why?” The thunder crashed hard enough to vibrate the ground and move the air as another flash split the sky.
shouted Jack. He keyed his mic as he pushed Alité into the cab of the truck and climbed in next to her. “Let's backtrack to the first farm we find, we'll wait this thing out...”
■ ■ ■
Lieutenant Zorvano stood in the tower of the Air and Space Port, looking northwest through the building's angled glass, his arms folded across his chest. “Have you been able to decipher it?”
The Marine at the console shook his head. “No sir. We've been forwarding the digitals up to the Freedom; I'm hoping they can make heads or tails of it.”
“How much chatter...”
Several hours' worth,” interrupted the Corporal. “They're using a coded shortwave signal. It was fast bits and pieces at first, but it got relatively steady a few minutes ago. Then cut off abruptly...”
The Lieutenant picked up a pair of ERVs off the console to watch the electrical storm in the distance. He dialed up the zoom to bring the image closer. “That storm out there might have something to do with the signal loss... Can you reach the convoy?”
“No, sir. Think we should send a couple birds out to check on them?”
Zorvano laid the ERVs back on the console, “Hellion, no. I'm not risking birds in that mess. Steele's on his own until that scud clears. Hopefully they can find some low ground to hunker down in.”
■ ■ ■
Facing the gusting winds, approaching rain, and staggering amount of lightning, the man standing on the hill above the road, was taking his life in his hands, waving his arms and swinging a gas lantern.
“Tango left...” The static in Jack's earpiece almost washed out the message as he searched the terrain to see the moving light in the distance. “It looks like he's calling us, sir...” The crackling in his ear was on the brink of overwhelming.
Wow, a real, living, breathing person,
thought Jack. “Follow him...” he ordered.
I would urge caution, Skipper...”
Damn this static...
“He's risking his life just standing out there, Dayle...
The man with the lantern guided the column off the main road and up the dirt road, running alongside the lead hover tank, pointing at a hangar-sized building nestled back into the trees. “Turn everything off!” he shouted. “No electronics! Everyone inside the barn..!” Reaching the structure, he leaned in with his shoulder and rolled one of the building's big front doors to the side, reflexively ducking as a crack of lightning split through the sky.
The Truck slid to a stop in the dirt, rocking in the wind and Jack flung the door open, dropping to the ground. “Everybody out!
Let's go! Let's go!”
Alité jumped down beside him and he steered her toward the barn. “C'mon people! Let's
The sky opened up and the downpour fell sideways, driven by the wind, whipping them as they ran. Steele snatched the squealing earpiece from his ear and stuffed it into a pouch on his assault pack as they ran between the parked hover tanks and into the open barn, the Marines pouring through the door in a steady stream.
The Velorian cattle shuffled uneasily in their stalls on either side of the barn, grunting softly as the farmer ran about, manually lighting gas lamps. The air was damp and musty, smelling like only wet farm animals could. “Can't use any electricity in these storms,” he called. “Turn off your gadgets, they attract the lightning.” The barn went from darkened, to warmly lit and he walked back toward the group just standing about. “Sit, relax, it may be awhile,” he waved. “These things can last a few minutes or a few hours... By the look of this one, it may be the latter.”
Jack moved through the group as they removed their helmets, packs and weapons, making themselves comfortable, relaxed, but at the same time, cautious. “I'd like to thank you for your hospitality...” he slung his carbine over his shoulder and extended his hand. “We were beginning to think there was no one left,” he lied, hoping to open a dialog.
They shook hands. “Nitram Marconus...” He was a gray-eyed, broad-chested man, his face tanned and lined from working in the sun. Sixtyish, with wavy, salt and pepper hair, matching mustache, an easy smile and big working hands. There was no ego in the handshake, just a warm, friendly exchange.
“Nitram, good to meet you. Captain Jack Steele...”
UFW...” it was more a statement than a question.
Yes, sir,” replied Jack.
What took you boys so long...”
Alité suddenly appeared at Jack's elbow.
The man's eyes narrowed as he stared at her face, mentally attempting to subtract years and make her younger. She realized she still had her helmet on and wrestled it off, dropping it to the dirt floor.
His eyes grew wide with recognition and astonishment.
She jumped on him like a child on a parent, arms encircling his neck and legs around his waist. “Oh my God, it's so good to see you!”
He staggered momentarily but stabilized, hugging her tight, laughing. “My Little Princess... I never would have guessed in a million years we'd ever see you again.” She dropped to the floor, standing in front of him and he held her at arm's length. “Let me get a good look at you... My, my,” he sighed, “More
than ever.” He gestured to the Marines, “How did you wind up with these gentlemen?”
Alité reached back and grabbed Jack's hand. “Boney, this is my
” Nitram's eyes widened. “He rescued me from the pirates,” she continued. “And we have a son.”
Well I can see we have a lot of catching up to do... Hopefully this storm will last long enough for us to do that,” he grinned.
Boney..?” asked Jack.
A nickname she gave me as a child,” replied Nitram, touching the tip of her nose, “when I was her doctor. Actually, I was the family's doctor.”
Alité smiled crookedly, “Still making your own wine, Boney?”
“How did you know about that..?”
Yanno.” She turned to Jack, “His son. We spent a lot of time together when we were teens.” She turned back to the doctor. “So how is Yanno?”
In trouble, now that I know he was stealing my wine and corrupting our Princess,” he joked. He looked up at the ceiling for a moment, listening to the pounding rain and the rolling thunder. “Come, let me show you the wine cellar...” he turned toward the far end of the barn and motioned them along.
A quick glance over his shoulder told Jack the Marines were absorbed in a little R&R, several standing near the windows, keeping an eye on the weather and their vehicles. He shrugged it off, following his wife and Boney. In the last stall at the back of the barn, void of animals, the doctor moved aside a little hay with his boot, bent down and grabbed a metal ring, lifting open a sizable hatch in the floor and leaning it against the back wall.
The opening was dark, and he disappeared down a ladder invisible in the blackness of the yawning hole. Within a few seconds a light winked on, its glow lighting the entire area below. Boney's face reappeared below, looking up. “C'mon down.”
Jack checked in with his little voice, but it was quiet. The cellar was impressive to say the least, considerably larger than your average household basement or cellar. He peered into the darkness at the far end. “Wow,” was all he could think of to say. The stone and earthen walls were lined with wooden casks, and toward the center, rows of racks standing between rough-hewn wooden pillars held hundreds of bottles of wine. The doctor disappeared into the darkness again, and shortly, more lights winked on to show the area was more than twice the size that it appeared to be, smaller rooms breaking off to the left and right.
“I'm guessing wine isn't just your hobby?” asked Steele.
Well, drinking it is actually the hobby,” chortled Boney, “making it is the means to justify the end.”
There's enough booze down here for an army...”
Well, I do sell or trade
grinned the doctor.
Alité pulled a bottle out of the rack, wiped the dust off and looked at the label then put it back. “I remember the wine cellar in the basement of the house... I don't remember all this...” her hand gestured across the room in a sweep.
“Times have changed, my dear, the way we live has changed.” He pointed towards the far end of the room. “Actually that is the house cellar over that way. When we added the barn, I decided to add a tunnel to the barn for inclement weather so the boys could check on the animals... It all kind of grew on its own after that,” he smiled. “We keep all types of supplies down here, off in other rooms.”
Speaking of changing times, just what happened here?” asked Jack. “We heard rumors of civil unrest, of a revolution. Then the planet disappeared off the UFW communications grid. When we came in, the space station that was supposed to be up there,” he pointed upwards, “is down here, crushed against the bottom of the ocean...”