Authors: Bob Mayer
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Text copyright © 2014 by Bob Mayer
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by 47North, Seattle
Cover design by Brian Zimmerman
Library of Congress Control Number: 2013953508
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
ALSO BY BOB MAYER
On August 21, 1945, Harry K. Daghlian was stacking blocks just fifteen days after the bomb they’d put together at Los Alamos blew the dragon’s breath onto Hiroshima and twelve days after Nagasaki received the same fate.
Enrico Fermi called what Daghlian was doing “tickling the dragon’s tail.”
He had no idea how right he was.
On this day, Daghlian dropped a block.
Everyone has dropped something. Sometimes one hits the big toe and hops about and curses. Sometimes the thing dropped breaks. Unfortunately, the blocks Daghlian was stacking and what he was stacking them around were both rather unusual.
Rarely does the thing dropped kill, but when connected to the dragon, nothing good can happen. Daghlian was part of the Critical Assembly Group and was attempting to build a neutron reflector by arranging bricks of tungsten carbide around a plutonium core, trying to achieve criticality.
He was moving the last brick into place—sort of like how one should never do the last run on the ski slope, except a lot more dangerous—when the neutron counters in the room went off, alerting him that the last brick would be a mistake. What physicists call going supercritical and laymen call a “big oops.”
As Daghlian withdrew his hand, he dropped the brick.
This caused the core to go into what’s technically called “prompt critical region of supercritical behavior resulting in a power excursion” and what laymen would call “oh shit.”
Give him credit. Daghlian didn’t run away. He didn’t spin in circles and scream and shout. He attempted to knock the dropped brick off the pile.
He then stuck to the job and began disassembling the pile to halt the reaction. He managed to do so and in the process received an estimated dosage of 510 rem.
He was dead twenty-five days later.
Exactly nine months later to the day, as if Daghlian’s death had conceived and was giving birth, another scientist working on the exact same core, in the exact same room, poked the dragon’s tail with a screwdriver.
He’d been warned. After they buried Daghlian, everyone muttering proud words at the funeral service and remembering the good times building the atomic bombs, Fermi looked Louis Slotin in the eye and told him, “Keep doing that experiment, tickling the dragon’s tail that way, and you’ll be dead within a year.”
For a betting person, anyone who took the under of three months from the year made a lot.
In front of seven of his fellow scientists, Slotin was maneuvering two half-spheres of beryllium around the same plutonium core. He had his left hand on one of the half-spheres, with his thumb in a hole drilled into the top and a screwdriver in his right, which he was using to keep the two half-spheres apart.
He’d removed the safety shims that usually did that.
for a reason.
He didn’t drop the half-sphere in his left hand. He missed with the screwdriver in his right, the blade slipping and allowing the two halves to touch, ever so briefly. Slotin flung the half in his left hand to the ground, but the damage had been done.
Everyone in the room saw a blue glow, an indication of the air in the room being ionized. They were all washed by the dragon’s breath, a blast of warm air, also known as
. Slotin’s hand was burned and he had a strange taste in his mouth, as if he’d swallowed something sour. In fact, his entire body had absorbed something deadly. As his colleagues hustled him from the lab, he began vomiting.
That was just the beginning of the bad. While Daghlian had died in a coma, Slotin wasn’t so fortunate. Over the next nine days, his body disintegrated until death brought a merciful end.
Two days after Slotin died, a convoy of heavily armed army vehicles pulled up to the front gate of Los Alamos. The base had the highest security clearance possible, given it headquartered the Manhattan Project, so it was rather amazing that the leader of the convoy could produce paperwork that cleared that high hurdle and the vehicles were allowed access.
The men inside the convoy were dressed in army fatigues but had no rank, no names stenciled above their breast pockets, no unit insignias. They just carried weapons in a way that indicated everyone was a hardened combat veteran looking for an excuse to use those weapons. They seemed to have a particular dislike for scientists.
The convoy drove straight to the lab.
Fermi was waiting outside, having been alerted by the gate guards.
“Might I help you?” he inquired of the hard-looking, gray-haired man who led the phalanx of soldiers to the door of the lab. A scar crossed the man’s face from above his left eye to the right of his chin. It made his smile look terrible, but since he didn’t smile, it didn’t matter. He wore aviator sunglasses, hiding his eyes from not only the sun but also everyone else. A set of pilot’s wings adorned his chest.
“My name is Thorn. Colonel Thorn.”
“And what can I do for you, Colonel Thorn?” Fermi asked. “The guards said you had authorization directly from the White House to access the base. I called Washington and that order was verified.”
“I want the plutonium core that killed Daghlian and Slotin.”
Fermi didn’t budge. “Why?”
“Because you idiots play with things you don’t understand.”
Fermi raised an eyebrow. “And you do?”
Thorn removed his sunglasses, revealing dead eyes. “We like to keep people alive.”
“We understand what we’re doing here,” Fermi said. “We developed the bombs that ended the war. You do remember that they worked.” It was not a question. The entire world knew that Little Boy and Fat Man worked.
“And two of your people killed themselves playing around with that core.”
Thorn reached into his breast pocket and pulled out the same sheet of paper
shown the gate guards. “I have the authorization to take the core.”
Fermi reached out to take the paper, and for a moment Thorn didn’t let go. Then he released and Fermi put on a pair of reading glasses and scanned the document.
“What is this Majestic-12 organization?” Fermi asked.
“You don’t need to know.”
“Where is Area 51?”
“You don’t need to know.”
“Who exactly are you and your men?”
“You don’t need to know.”
Fermi took off the reading glasses and handed the paper back. “Do you have the proper facilities to store the core?”
“Do you have scientists who understand what they’re dealing with?”
A grimace flickered for the slightest of moments on Thorn’s rough visage. “We do.”
Fermi frowned. “We have the best physicists in the country here. Who do
“You ask too many questions,” Thorn said. “I’m taking that core. We can do it easy or we can do it hard, Professor. My men would prefer hard. Personally, I like it easy.” That was such a blatant lie that even Fermi—a scientist, not someone skilled in the subject of psychology—could read it. Thorn was itching for the hard way.
Fermi stepped aside. “It is all yours, then, Colonel.”
Thorn waved and his men went into the lab, rolling a large lead box they’d taken off a specially built truck. A cluster of guards, weapons at the ready, surrounded them.
“A bit overly dramatic, don’t you think?” Fermi observed.
“The guards, not the box,” Fermi said.
“Protocol is important,” Thorn said. “Didn’t Slotin violate protocol by removing the shims?”
Fermi had no response to that.
After several minutes the men reappeared, rolling the box down the short ramp to the truck, muscles straining to control the weight.
“By the way, Colonel Thorn. Do you know what we call what you’ve just taken?” He indicated the large lead box the men were now maneuvering onto the truck.
Thorn had put his sunglasses back on, hiding his eyes. “I figure you’re going to tell me, so go ahead.”
“The demon core. Beware of tickling it.”
Roland stood on the open back ramp of the Snake, fifteen thousand feet above St. Louis, as calm as if he were waiting in line at Pottery Barn. Of course, Roland had no clue what a Pottery Barn was, but if one mentioned the term to him, he would deduce that it had something to do with a recurring fantasy about fine china and a bull, which was pretty much the definition of Roland—the bull part. Roland was six-four and two hundred forty pounds of muscle, bone, and pure killer. He had a scar running along the right side of his head, starting from his temple and curling behind his ear. On his last trip to Vegas, he’d had it tattooed with barbed wire, which earned him a big-time ass-chewing from Moms, because Nightstalkers weren’t supposed to have tattoos (the body could be identified), but in this case Ms. Jones intervened because the tattoo actually sort of hid the scar, which had been more noticeable than the black ink covering it and raised more questions.
And Roland was noticeable no matter what was on his skin.
The Snake was at fifteen thousand above ground level (AGL), because any higher and everyone inside would have to be on oxygen. As it was, the breathing was hard for normal people, but the people inside were anything but normal.
They were the Nightstalkers.
The best of the best, the cream of the crop, the tip of the spear, et cetera, et cetera, so secret they even wondered if they existed, in their more existential moments, of which there weren’t many, except when Eagle, the pilot, got to thinking.
“There’s a lot of lights,” Roland observed, looking down.
“It’s a city,” Mac said, as if talking to a three-year-old, which is the way Mac talked to Roland pretty much all the time, except in combat, when Roland was everyone’s best friend. “A big city.”
“I know it’s a city,” Roland muttered. “But it’s three in the fraking morning.”
The team had recently done a
marathon in the Den, buried underneath the Ranch outside of Area 51, and
was now the buzzword, as Moms frowned on cussing. They had adopted it as adjective, adverb, verb, noun, and simple exclamation. It had caught on with some, but not all.
“Two minutes,” Eagle announced from the cockpit.
Roland took a short step closer to the ramp. Moms came up and ran her hands lightly over his rig, doing a last-minute jumpmaster parachute inspection (JMPI), redundant, not needed and not Protocol, but Moms always checked Roland before a jump. Tradition trumped Protocol sometimes. She slapped him lightly on the shoulder and gave him a thumbs-up.
Roland blushed, because he always blushed when Moms paid him special attention. It wasn’t a sexual thing but a deep and abiding affection, much like a Doberman for its owner, because Moms had once saved his life in combat and for Roland there was no deeper love than that of combat.
Roland had concocted a unique rig for this jump and he was overly excited about trying it out, even though there was a good chance he was jumping into a real-world equivalent of the Hellmouth. (They’d tried a
marathon, but only Roland had wanted to see it through; that was ’cause he had immediately identified Buffy with Moms. The Nightstalkers dealt with things that made vampires look tame, so the rest of them felt the show was kind of lame.) Roland had done thousands of jumps in many different configurations and situations, but this one was unique even for him. The prospect of a combination of an aircraft free-fall jump directly to a landing, where he would then do a BASE jump tickled his tiny, tiny imagination—or so Mac had said as Roland had prepped.
Roland, as usual, had ignored his poking.
“It is a city,” Nada said, his voice, more a growl, coming into each team member’s earpiece. “Even at three in the morning there’s likely to be civilians. We’ve got Support en route, but as always, we’re on our own for a bit. Remember—containment, concealment, and control. And the local law is as dangerous as anyone else because they give those people guns, even though most of them shouldn’t have one.”
A couple of the Nightstalkers exchanged glances, because those three C words were their mantra and deeply imprinted in each of their brains. For Nada to feel he needed to repeat them reminded them not only of the mantra, but also that things had been a bit frayed in the past year on various missions.
“One minute,” Eagle said.
“Doc?” Moms asked.
Doc was staring at his laptop screen, his forehead furrowed above his thick glasses. “A Rift is indeed forming. But different.”
“Not much help,” Nada said. “Different how?”
“Bigger.” Doc looked up. “Someone’s using the Gateway Arch to make a Rift.”
“Frak,” Mac said, vocalizing what every Nightstalker thought at the moment.
“You know,” Eagle said over the net, “the guy who designed the Arch said it symbolized, and I quote, ‘the gateway to the west, the national expansion, and whatnot.
“Looks like we’re heading for the whatnot,” Kirk, the team’s commo man, observed.
Moms began chanting Warren Zevon’s “Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner,” and the team picked it up.
“Go!” Eagle ordered from the cockpit.
Roland stepped off into the glowing darkness above St. Louis. In his earpiece he could hear the team finish the second line of the song.
He wished he had a Thompson gun, with its big .45-caliber slugs. He spread his arms and legs, got stable, then pulled the rip cord. The opening shock jerked him upright, and he looked up to make sure he had good canopy while he grabbed the control toggles for the chute.
Then he looked down.
“Oh, yes, yes, yes!” It could have been the soundtrack for a porn movie, except the young woman exclaiming the words was fully clothed, sitting cross-legged in the grass, had a laptop on her knees, and was watching six different data boxes on it.
We all get our kicks different ways.
She was so focused on the data that she was missing the real show. The Gateway Arch towered 50 feet in front of her, 630 feet high and 630 feet wide, making it the tallest memorial in the United States and the tallest stainless steel structure in the world. It had been dedicated in ’65 and opened to the public in ’67, not the greatest decade to celebrate the westward expansion of the United States, as the country was embroiled in an unpopular war abroad and unrest at home.
At three in the morning, the woman had the park to herself, which is why she’d picked three in the morning to run her test. The numbers and indicators on her laptop screen showed that the program she’d started two hours ago was reaching culmination. She was completely unaware that the initiation had also set off flashing lights and a loud clicking alert deep underneath Area 51 in the Can, and that was why the Nightstalkers were descending from above like avenging angels or, as Mac said in his grumpier moments, flying turds, especially with regard to Roland, the largest turd of them all according to Mac.
He never said it within earshot of Roland, though, because Mac had an innate survival instinct.
A single thin cable ran from the USB port of her laptop across the grass and was attached to the left leg of the Arch with a magnet.
As with most of the scientists the Nightstalkers ended up dealing with, she thought she knew what she was doing.
As with most of the scientists the Nightstalkers ended up putting in body bags or more likely listing as MIA, she re
A crackling noise caused her to finally look up. Her mouth dropped open and she couldn’t even moan her excitement anymore. The entire interior of the Arch was flickering, a slightly golden sheen illuminating the space framed by what Eagle could have told her was a weighted catenary form of stainless steel. Eagle could have even gone into the math involved, something to do with
and cosines and fractions and whatnot, but that wasn’t what Melissa Eden was interested in, even though she was very good at math, having earned a PhD in physics from Stanford, which required more than a few math courses along the way.
Just as quickly as
seen it, the gold coalesced inward from the metal arch to a single tiny, golden, glowing arch, about ten feet wide and high, in the exact center on the ground.
It wasn’t a sign for McDonald’s.
Eden felt the hairs on her arms tingle and there was another crackling sound. She had a sour taste in her mouth. She squinted, because through that small arch, there was something, like there was another side, which was the whole point of this experiment, except even in her most excited dream, she’d never really imagined it would work. Because no one had ever published on it, saying they had succeeded.
That should have been a hint.
She didn’t realize she’d gotten to her feet, the laptop forgotten on the grass. Through the golden arch, she saw rows of…something. Even though she couldn’t make out what the somethings were, she had the distinct sense the somethings were facing this arch and if it stayed open much longer, they were going to come through.
In the way ancient man used to stare out the mouth of the cave into the darkness, knowing danger lurked out there, Eden felt a primeval fear of those somethings.
Here there be monsters
used to be written on ancient maps to fill in the blank spaces. In this case, it should be written in capital letters. With one or two exclamation points.
As quickly as she thought that, though, instead of a bunch of somethings, a single someone stepped through and the golden arch snapped out of existence.
Roland was focused on the Arch and the area around it. There was a golden glow underneath the stainless steel structure, which was never a good sign.
As he passed through eight thousand feet, he checked in, because it was Protocol that he check in at eight thousand feet.
“Eagle, thermals?” Roland asked as he adjusted his descent.
“I’ve got one hot spot near the Arch. On the landward side. Probably our genius scientist.”
“That’s the side on the other side from the river,” Mac added, in this case probably a smart add, because Roland had been a bit puzzled by the landward part, although Mac’s explanation didn’t help much with its redundancy.
Roland was using a clockwise spiral to descend, checking all directions.
“Beyond that, looks like a couple of homeless on the riverfront,” Eagle continued. “And then there’s the city. You’ve got I-70 cutting the park off from it.”
Doc’s voice cut in. “The Rift is closed. I’m getting nothing. That was different. Like it snapped shut.”
“Roland, see any Fireflies?” Moms asked.
“Too high up,” Roland replied.
Roland started to dump air, increasing his downward speed.
The someone was a man. He was walking straight toward Eden. He wore a long tan bush coat, inappropriate for the warm night, and a fedora, pulled low over his eyes.
“What—” Eden began, but then she saw his face under the fedora and the next words were clenched in her throat. His skin looked like he’d been through a shredder. He paused about five feet from her and cocked his head, revealing more of his disfigurement.
“Does my face disturb you?” he asked. As he spoke, his skin rippled and smoothed out. “Better?”
Eden still couldn’t find words.
“I guess not.” He looked down at the laptop and tsked. “One should not interfere with things beyond one’s comprehension. My associates on the other side are getting rather irritated with the whole thing and believe it’s getting near to time that this be brought to a conclusion.”
He leaned over to pick up the laptop, and that move finally stirred Eden to action. “That’s mine!” She stepped toward him and grabbed his arm, her other hand going for the computer.
Her second mistake of the evening.
And her last.
With his free hand, the man grabbed the top of her hand, seizing it in a grip that froze her muscles, and he lifted her off the ground. She dangled from his hand as he peered into her eyes. They remained like that for several seconds; then the man dropped her.
Eden lay stunned for a second; then her spirit came back and she jumped to her feet. “That’s—”
She never finished as the man drew a silenced pistol from inside his coat, pressed it against the side of her head, and pulled the trigger. The round went into her skull with a soft chugging sound, then fragmented, shredding her brain. She was dead before she hit the ground, but the man fired again, this round into her forehead.
“Nada Yada,” the man said with a grin, the scars returning to his face. “Always double-tap and make sure they’re dead.” He stared down at her. “I saved you considerable pain.”
He holstered the pistol, snatched up the laptop, and tucked it under his arm. He began walking toward the nearest road.
As he was about to pass through four thousand feet, Roland took a moment to get oriented. It was easy, given the size of the Arch. The M240 machine gun was rigged tight against his body on one side, a flamer on the other, the fuel for it underneath the parachute case on his back. Protocol said he was to reverse directions after passing through four thousand feet, so Roland regained the toggles and reversed. Roland was a big believer in Protocol.
“Wind?” Roland asked.
“Negligible,” Eagle reported. “You’re still clear. We’re holding at three thousand to the west.” There was a pause. “We’ve got a second person with the first.”
“Where did that one come from?” Roland asked, peering down.
“I think out of the Arch,” Doc said. “No indication of Fireflies, though.”
Roland couldn’t make out the people on the grass, but he did see a church across the road from the Arch. It stirred memories of a wedding, a buddy in the army, and holding a sword forming an arc, but not much more of the wedding itself since he’d been drunk and there’d been a bunch of singing and girls crying and crap. The reception, on the other hand, he could remember clearly. He’d gotten into a fight with the best man, and the bride had been pissed, but his army buddy, the groom, had laughed, because what was an army wedding without some blood being spilled?
It had been a great reception, but as Roland went through three thousand feet, he had a feeling this reception wasn’t going to be as good.
Keith was drunk, it was 3:00 a.m., and he could have sworn the Arch had been shimmering just a minute ago. Maybe some special promo, like when they’d shone pink lights on it in support of breast cancer research. He was stopped at a red light, left turn signal on, nervously drumming his fingers on the steering wheel, constantly glancing in his rearview mirror, dreading that a cop car would pull up behind him.
He couldn’t afford another DUI. He’d lose not only his job, but also his license. And how could he get another job if—
Just as the light turned green, the engine stalled out, which was almost impossible to tell since he was driving a Prius and the battery had been powering the car, but a warning light flashed on the dash and nothing happened when he pressed the accelerator. Keith cursed and punched the start button to no avail.
The rap on his window startled him. A man wearing a raincoat and a fedora stood there. The man signaled for Keith to roll down his window. Keith panicked, thinking the man was a cop and knowing he couldn’t roll the power window down without power and that the cop would think—
The man placed his hand on the window and slid it down, the glass going with the hand. Which was weird.
“What? Who the—” Keith began, but the man reached in and grabbed him by the throat. With a distant part of his mind, Keith heard and felt his seat belt unbuckle, but that was impossible because the man was holding him by the throat. As he was lifted out of the open window, gasping for breath, Keith saw the terrible scars on the man’s face. The man held him in the air, peering into his eyes as if evaluating him like a side of beef he was deciding whether to devour.
“Don’t drink and drive,” the man said, and then Keith was flying through the air, landing in a drunken tumble.
Being drunk actually saved him from serious injury as his body simply absorbed the contact without the resistance sobriety brings to impacts. He lifted his head, watching the man get in his Prius. The turn signal changed from left to right and then the car drove off, heading for the bridge over the Mississippi.
Roland landed on the very top of the Gateway Arch. Eagle had told him on the flight from the Ranch to St. Louis that someone had tried doing a double jump in 1980: landing on the Arch using a main and then jumping again and deploying his reserve. That person had died, because he’d gotten no purchase on the slick stainless steel. Instead of being able to launch again off the top, he’d slid along the north leg to his death, the reserve never deploying.
Roland had solved that problem by duct taping large magnets to the outside of both his boots. When he clanged down on the top and his main deflated, his feet were locked in place. Roland cut away the main, letting the wind blow it toward the Mississippi.
The riverward side, Roland thought, but that hurt his head so he focused on his mission.
He leaned over and looked below. There was a body on the grass.
Roland sighed, a true believer in Heinlein’s principle that the only capital crime is stupidity, a Nada Yada before Nada even thought of his Yadas. M240 now readied in one hand, he reached for his knife to cut the magnets loose from his boots.
“Sitrep?” Moms’s voice echoed out of the earpiece.
“We’ve got a body,” Roland said.
“Eagle?” Moms asked.
“The body is going cold. Someone walked out of the Arch to the body, grabbed the laptop, went to a car, tossed the driver, and is now driving away. The driver is still alive.”
“Roland, secure the Arch. I’m sending Nada and Mac down to assist. We’re going after the car.”
Moms finished giving orders as Nada and Mac jumped off the ramp in tandem. The second they were clear, Eagle banked the Snake and took chase after the car. The Snake was a prototype of cutting-edge flight technology: similar in design to the tilt-wing Osprey, except instead of rotors, the Snake had powerful jet engines, whose noise was muted by running them through baffles. The outside of the aircraft was also coated with radar-reducing material. It was all angles and flat surfaces, everything designed to lower the radar signature of the entire craft to that of a duck in flight, a comparison that Mac constantly goaded Eagle about.
Not a Snake but a flying duck.
Moms moved forward in the cargo bay until she could lean into the cockpit, looking over Eagle’s shoulder. Moms was a tall woman, almost six feet. She had broad shoulders with narrow hips, making her appear a bit awkward, although she was anything but. Her hair was growing grayer by the year and by the mission. She had a vague Midwestern accent that indicated a childhood anywhere from eastern Kansas to western Kansas, which is actually a long spread, but for a kid, not much different.
“Where’s the target?”
Eagle nodded to the right front. “Going onto the bridge. Red Prius. Someone’s driving it.”
“We’ve got to get containment,” Moms said.
Eagle flipped a switch. “Chain gun deployed.” Underneath the nose of the Snake, a door slid open and a thirty-millimeter chain gun poked its ugly snout out. It was a gun designed to destroy tanks, so the Prius shouldn’t be a problem. Whoever, and whatever, was in it might be more of an issue.
“If it’s not a Firefly, who’s the person?” Moms wondered. “Kirk, get me Ms. Jones.”
“You’re live with the Ranch,” Kirk announced.
“Ms. Jones, we’re losing containment,” Moms said. “At least one human in a car, escaping on the I-70 bridge over the Mississippi. I need to go wet.”
“Authorized,” a voice with a Russian accent replied. “I am mobilizing more support for containment and concealment.”
Eagle hit the throttle and they raced over the dark Mississippi to the Illinois side, beating the Prius across the river. Eagle spun the Snake to face west and descended until they were less than twenty feet above the roadway, the thirty-millimeter pointing directly ahead.
“Pretty desolate here for about two klicks,” Eagle said. “If we want to fire, this is the place.”
There were several sets of headlights on the bridge, but containment took priority. The Nightstalkers and their support had binders full of cover stories for civilians who might get caught up in the action.
“Acquiring target,” Eagle said as he centered the chain gun’s sights right between the headlights of the oncoming car.
Moms was just about to order him to fire when there was a flash of gold. It leapt from the car and hit the Snake at light speed, faster than they could dream to react.
Everything electric on the aircraft shut down.
Eagle jerked the controls with all his strength, using what little altitude he had to manually force the hydraulics to move the Snake to the side of the freeway where it crashed, then rolled.
Nada and Mac hit hard, their bodies instinctively doing what had been drilled into them years ago at Fort Benning in jump school, using the five points of contact: balls of feet, calf, thigh, buttocks, and the pull-up muscle along the side. Then they were on their feet, cutting away their chutes, readying their weapons.
Nada was the longest serving member of the Nightstalkers, which meant he was both good and lucky. His parents were Colombian and his face was pockmarked and scarred. During the
marathon, Mac had started calling him Adama, but he’d only done it twice before Nada cut that crap off at the mouth. He had short gray hair, racing Moms to see who could go totally gray first.
“Status, Roland,” Nada demanded over the net.
“One KIA, one wounded,” Roland reported.
They could see Roland standing near a body, his machine gun tight to his shoulder, scanning the area through the scope on top. They could also hear sirens approaching. Sometimes the locals were almost as dangerous as the threats the Nightstalkers had to contain.
“Fireflies?” Nada asked, leading Mac over to Roland.
“I didn’t see any,” Roland said. “But someone shot this woman. Double-tap.”
Nada stared down at the body. One round on the side of the head (some blood, so the first shot), one in the forehead (no blood, so she’d already been dead from the first bullet). His skin went cold, because that meant a well-trained professional. The first bullet had done the job, but the second was insurance.
Nada shook the premonition off. “If she’s the scientist who opened the Rift, where’s her computer?”
“Shooter must have taken it,” Roland said. He pointed. “Got a wire running to the Arch.”
“Moms will get ’em,” Nada said with more confidence than he felt. “Let’s—” he began, but an urgent transmission cut him off.
“Snake down, Snake down.” Eagle’s voice was faint, but the words were clear.
“Moms?” Nada asked.
“I’m trapped in the cockpit,” Eagle said. “I can’t see the cargo bay. Transponder is on. We’re on the other side of the river. We’ve lost containment.”
The first police car roared up, cops leaping out, screaming for the three Nightstalkers to drop their weapons.
“Fuck me to tears,” Nada muttered as he lowered his automatic rifle.
“I’d like some French toast,” Scout said, and her mother shot her a look as if she’d asked for a shot of pure heroin.
Scout’s mother was terrified of calories. She was making an egg-white omelet and some asparagus. And not much of either.
Mother also didn’t like that her daughter insisted that her name was now Scout. This change had occurred the previous summer when all sorts of strange things had happened in the gated community in North Carolina they’d lived in while Scout’s dad worked in the Research Triangle. Gas explosions, mysterious fires, strange people out and about; it had all been quite unnerving for Mother and she’d been happy to see North Carolina in the rearview mirror. Unfortunately, Tennessee in the windshield didn’t seem much different, with just the Smoky Mountains in front or behind.
At first she’d ignored Scout’s name request, an irresistible force against an immovable object.
The object won, because Scout simply refused to acknowledge her given name, Greer.
It only took her twenty-six days and forcing her mother to watch
To Kill a Mockingbird
and then leaving it on, playing off the DVR on a constant loop. Every time her mother turned it off, Scout turned it back on. It also didn’t hurt her cause that she had an aunt, a cousin, and a grandmother who were also named Greer and the whole mess got quite confusing at times.
Scout was easier all around was the way her mother finally rationalized it. A phase the seventeen-year-old would grow out of.
But Scout was who she was.
Of course, Scout also knew giving up Greer meant she was the outsider, not of the clan, but she’d never really been inside, so it shouldn’t have bothered her that her mother now called her Scout. She’d wanted it and her mother had given in. Victory.
But the still-child part of Scout kind of wished her mother hadn’t given in. She was wise enough to realize that sometimes people gave in when the fight wasn’t worth it because they simply didn’t care that much.
Awareness was a bitch.
Scout’s hair was now red with blue streaks, since Scout believed change was good. Short and spiked. A lot of kids laughed at it in the new school that first day in January, but Scout had noted the ones who didn’t laugh. Who watched. She knew Nada would have approved. Eggs and ham, or ham and eggs. There was a lot of difference.
She missed Nada. She missed the team. She didn’t even resent that they’d knocked her out to go do whatever they’d gone to go do, although the online newspaper had reported a lab explosion on campus at UNC.
, Scout had thought upon reading that. Had Nightstalkers written all over it. The team really needed better cover stories. They’d left without a good-bye or fare-thee-well. Still, she’d understood on a base level that Nightstalkers never said good-bye.
It was too permanent a thing in a business where there were more serious permanent things.
“I’m going riding today,” Scout said, settling in on the bar stool at the perfectly clean granite kitchen bar. “I need the carbs.”
The sun had come up over the Smokies to the southeast an hour and a half ago and Scout was raring to go, way too early for most seventeen-year-old girls, but Scout was anything but normal.
The house was new, but unlike cars, it didn’t have a new house smell. Actually, it smelled pretty much of nothing. No character, no essence. It sat alone at the end of a cul-de-sac in a new, isolated subdivision outside of Knoxville, Tennessee, on the wrong side of the river but the right side of the railroad tracks. Scout often said the latter to irritate her parents, who’d sacrificed distance from Dad’s work for price per square footage. She had no idea which side of the railroad tracks they were on, although she could hear the train coming through, hooting and tooting every so often.
The nearest house was still under construction and it depressed Scout to count the five electrical boxes lined up along the street between their house and that one, because that meant while the houses were large, the lots were small and if this place got fully developed, she’d be able to jump from rooftop to rooftop. Big houses, tiny lots.
And the closest tree was a quarter mile away, as the developer had bought out a dairy farmer’s field and was trying to squeeze every possible nickel out of the real estate. Beyond that tree, huge power lines crossed the river, metal towers on each shoreline holding them up. This was TVA country, Tennessee Valley Authority, and the whole place thrived on power. The Smoky Mountains were to the southeast, but not visible from the front of the house, because rolling hills blocked the view. They could be seen from the roof if one stood on one
s toes; Scout knew this because she’d gone up on the roof one day when no one was home and stood up on her toes.
On the plus side, unlike Senator’s Club in North Carolina, there was no gate. Of course, as far out in the middle of nowhere as they were, it didn’t seem like there was going to be much traffic. No one came to this neighborhood by accident; it was on a bend of the Tennessee River, a thumb of land four miles long by two wide. To get to the other side of the river, where Knoxville was, one had to wind through miles of mostly single-lane roads to a larger road, to Interstate 140 (which ran all of twenty miles from I-40 to Maryville) and cross on the I-140 bridge, or take Alcoa Highway into downtown Knoxville. Traffic on that road (locals called it “I’ll Kill You”) was so bad, one literally took their lives into their hands just trying to merge into the speeding flow of people anxious to get to wherever was so important they were willing to risk their lives for it.
On the upside, the sloping backyard ended at the Tennessee River. And even better, beyond the cul-de-sac, on the other side of the wooden fence, was a huge spread with an old house and a barn and a bunch of cows, and most importantly a stable where Scout’s horse Comanche was housed.
Scout could tell her mother was wavering, glancing at the pantry.
“Please? Comanche gets carbs. I won’t get any lunch and I’m starving.” Scout wasn’t sure if oats were carbs, but Comanche definitely ate better than she did.
“A moment on the lips—” her mother began, but Scout cut that one off at the fridge.
“If you say a lifetime on the hips, I’m gonna scream.” Scout opened the door to the fridge and pulled out the real eggs. Then she opened the bread bin. “Face it, Mother. The food thing is your deal and I don’t float my boat by keeping my lips sealed to real food. That’s yours.”
“It’s everyone’s deal,” her mother said. “This country is in bad shape.”
“Yeah,” Scout muttered, putting the eggs on the bar. “Everyone’s worried a size two is twice as fat as a size zero.”
“What was that, dear?”
“Nothing,” Scout said as she headed for the stairs.
She glanced over her shoulder before she turned the corner on the landing and saw her mother staring into the bread bin as if it contained a snarling possum. Scout sighed and continued the trek to the upper level, thinking of her grandmother, Nana, who couldn’t feed her enough and her mother who wanted her to subsist on air and egg whites. Why the disconnect in subsequent generations? As if a parent had to do opposite their own, and everything skipped one generation, causing never-ending turmoil and misunderstanding.
Scout paused as she wondered what kind of mother she’d be, and decided that Nana-mode wasn’t so bad, but it had produced her mother.
Seemed like a lose-lose all around. Was there a third option?
She bet the Nightstalkers could figure out a third option.
Scout flipped the sign on her door to
, and walked into her new room. Sometimes she missed her old room in North Carolina with its nice window to the roof where she could climb out and sit in the dark and smoke and watch Nightstalkers parachute out of the sky.
Once at least for the latter.
But this room had its upsides. There was a lovely window seat looking out onto the river and all her books were on built-in shelves. She liked snuggling up on the cushions on the window seat and reading and watching the action on the river. The locals called it Fort Loudoun Lake because there was a dam about twenty miles to the west. But Scout called it the Tennessee River, because the river was here before the dam and it had river barges, and barges didn’t go in circles on a lake. They ended up somewhere on a river. Point A to Point B. On one tug she’d seen
painted on the stern, and she knew that was a long way past the dam, downriver, traveling through a lock in that dam and the others. A bunch of dams on the river, each one dropping the level seventy feet. She’d researched it, and on some base, explorer level, it excited her to think one could get on the river in her own backyard and travel over six hundred miles, meandering southwest through Tennessee into Alabama, turning back north, crossing back into Tennessee, past the Shiloh battlefield, and then into Kentucky where the river links up with the Ohio at Paducah. And from there, of course, the Ohio went to the Mississippi and the Mississippi went all the way down to New Orleans and beyond there to the Gulf of Mexico, and from the Gulf, the Atlantic, and from there the world.
Sometimes Scout wondered if she ought to consider a career in the merchant marine. Or if the lure of the Mississippi was from all the Twain she’d read.
She’d read all the Twain there was to read.
On the far side of the river, the original rocky side (her house was on the drowned farmland side created when the dam was put up during the early 1940s by the TVA), a barge was anchored, putting in a dock for a house on the cliff. The barge was old and battered and every piece of metal on it was covered with rust, but it had a crane and a pile driver to pound the long wooden poles down into the river bottom, and lately she liked to just sit on her window seat and watch that power in action, listening to the rhythmic thud during the day.
Her mother complained every time it was working and had already called the TVA to complain about the noise.
Scout likened that to people who bought a house in the flight path of an airport and then complained about the noise of the planes taking off and landing. Speaking of which, while they weren’t on the civilian flight path to Knoxville Airport, only a few miles away as the crow flies, for some reason big military planes flew overhead every day, taking off and landing. She figured the air force just had to take a different runway from the civilians, just like the Nightstalkers hadn’t been able to fit in her old gated community. The military was just different.
Scout liked the river and overall she rated this place better than Senator’s Club, although she missed her window egress and the ability to sit on the roof and smoke. For that, she now climbed under the wood fence and then went down to the riverbank and hid behind a wooden seawall the owner of the barn had put in. It was okay, but she had a feeling once summer really hit, the mosquitoes were going to be a bitch to deal with.
She could smell the French toast, but it was a thin smell because her mother had held back on the sugar and cinnamon, which her nana would have piled on to make the heady aroma of a real, vibrant dish. One that would draw you downstairs, just to be in the presence of its creation.
Scout also liked the new bathroom because a bunch of the plugs were built into the cabinets and drawers so her mother didn’t complain about tangled wires or scummy electric toothbrushes out in the open. If it was hidden in a drawer, her mother was of the “out of sight, out of mind” persuasion, at least when it came to her daughter.
Scout hit the face of her iPad and music came out of the speakers built into the ceilings, which was also a cool feature. The whole house could be controlled by iPad, and not just the music: lights, locks, garage doors…pretty much everything. It was a smart house, according to the real estate brochure. Scout thought it was probably getting smarter than her three-person family and would one day turn on them.
She’d seen a house do that back in North Carolina.
The Nightstalkers had blown it up and then burned it down to ashes.
She didn’t think her mother would be happy if that happened.
Sometimes, though, when she saw her dad at his computer and the Quicken program was open, she had a feeling he wouldn’t be too upset to collect on the insurance.
Scout turned on her toothbrush and stuck it in her mouth, keeping her lips shut so the drool didn’t run down her face. She wanted to be out of here as soon as she wolfed down the skimpy breakfast her mother was preparing. She wandered back to the big window and watched the barge across the river. The crew had just arrived and tied off their skiff and were getting ready for a day’s work. A speedboat roared by, some guy water-skiing behind it in a wet suit, because May was too early, even in Tennessee, plus it was slightly chilly at 7:15 in the a.m. There was a cluster of ducks near their dock and Scout tried to remember what that was called—a gaggle? Or was that geese?—which got her trying to remember the difference between ducks and geese.
Her family had two Sea-Doos on lifts on one side of their dock, but the boatlift was empty. Her dad sat every evening after work with his catalogues and laptop and looked at boats the way her mother went through her yoga attire catalogues and
magazines. Weird the way everyone wanted different stuff and spent so much time looking—