Book two of the series - (Draft for book) prolouge. This is the part I am leaving up - the book World of the Chernyi:Going Home can be found *here*
This book is written as a stand-alone story, but you if you enjoyed this story, be sure to check out Book One of the series - "World of Chërnyi: First Strike", also available on Amazon. My sig line has the links.
Standard disclamer, fiction, characters/places/names/etc are imaginary and Copyright 2010-2011 D. K. Richardson, blah, blah, blah.
The bleeping telephone broke his concentration. William shook his head then, back in the real world, he picked up the instrument. "IceCube, station 5, Bouncing Bad Badger Bill from the Bronx speaking". His boss didn't appreciate his sense of humor, but then he wasn't freezing his ass off squatting in a pit out on the South Pole ice sheet either.
"What the f? Who is this? This is Jameson, IAEA, here at FermiLab!"
"Holy crap" thought William, "the boss's boss!" Clearing his throat, William tried again - "IceCube station maintenance, William Badger speaking."
"What the hell are you doing, running a simulation? The detector board has gone crazy - it s showing a massive flood of anti-neuterinos!"
Jameson sounded plenty pissed! "I don't know what you are talking about sir; I'm only working on the trouble ticket the AMANDA folks called in on sting 16. They were thinking it was funky, because they were getting indications of oddball bursts of mu-meson anti-neutrinos. The folks at ANTARES couldn't collaborate the bursts. The IceCube board was pretty quiet when I left a couple of hours ago. String 16 is the closest to the AMANDA array, if it was out of spec..."
Before William could finish his sentence, Jameson exploded. "Damn it Badger, I know full well about those facilities - I asked what the hell YOU were doing!"
William lost his patience - Jameson was a royal pain at best, this was just too much. "I'll tell what I am doing you old fart - I'm fifteen feet deep in the string 16 access pit checking the connections, freezing my damn ass off! Sting 16 is off line, it can't be doing anything!" He slammed the phone down - as much as you could slam a field telephone.
"Son of a bitch," he muttered, "everyone thinks they're a friggin expert." He was fuming now. "Just what the hell did he think I was doing?" That did give Bill pause ' "Detector board going crazy?"
William kept his job, likely only because of the uproar that ran rampart for the following week. Every one of the anti-neutrino detectors on the planet was going crazy. Only the IceCube array could pinpoint a source - if you could call a general direction of Galactic North - pinpoint.
* * * * * * *
"Lieutenant, I don't care of you have to drive down there and pick him up at gunpoint. Damnit - just get his ass up here! Do you understand? This isn't a drill or a conference, so adapt, improvise and overcome and get Ing here - the sooner, the better for you." General Bruce slammed the telephone down. Gathering the 'boffins' and science fiction writers on his list had become a nightmare. "Not like the days of High Frontier," he thought, "then you had to use security to keep them away." How in the hell a bunch of writers and oddball physics types would help anything wasn't his call - he had been told to get them to the E ring 'as fast as humanly possible', Presidential Directive fast. It would have helped if they had given him a why.
* * * * * * *
"Baker, Delta, Four, Whiskey, Whisky, Whisky, this is Kilowatt London Zero..." he called again and again - Chang had cut out mid-sentence. Joe hoped that Chang's radio hadn't crapped out again, he needed a QSL card from that sector to get his Worked All China award. He needn't have worried about the award, Chang's radio was gone - as was Chang. And China.
* * * * * * *
Bouncing around in the cockpit of the Osprey was not a fun ride, but the rest of the crew in the back of Pedro Six Two had it a lot worse. Major Bill Anderson had plenty of hours in bad weather, just not a lot in this kind of shitty weather. Looking for a farmhouse just added to the tension. The last hour had been hell and the weather was getting close to where it would force Bill into calling off the mission for aircrew safety.
Keying the intercom, he said "Gopher, this is Scooter - you guys OK back there?"
The voice that came back sounded strained, "Ya, we'll live through it - both Ace and the Ell Tee are strapped in good, whether or not they can actually see anything..." Before he could finish, Jimmy 'Wildman" Williams, the co-pilot cut in - "Got it!
How Wildman spotted the light on the ground didn't matter. He called vectors to Bill and even as they pitched wildly, he kept the light right on the nose. "Gopher, Scooter - call me a landing spot, anything clear is good, the closer the better."
"Got the light Scooter, turn starboard, then start your flare, looks like a big ass pasture just below. I'll call it at twenty meters, then it's yours to land or go" The roaring noise behind Gophers voice made it plain he had dropped the rear cargo hatch on the massive V/STOL aircraft and was looking under the aircraft, no doubt hanging halfway outside, held only by his harness and the monkey strap.
Keeping the nose into the wind, Bill managed to use the rotor wash generated by the massive turbine engines to clear away the snow, down to the ground. "Thank god, "he thought, "it's cold enough that secondary ingestion of the turbine exhaust gases isn't an issue." Flicking on the powerful wing-mounted IR floodlights, he could see though his NODs that the ground was flat on his side, and Wildman quickly confirmed the same for his.
On the all-station push Bill called out "Someone drag Gopher's ass back inside, I'm setting it down." The only reply was some grunting - then seconds later "Clear." The flight engineer, Robert Teaman must have standing next to Gopher to have pulled him in so quickly.
Seconds after the wheels were grounded, the Pararescue crew flew past the far side of the starboard nacelle. Clearly, they had seen the farmhouse - hopefully it was the one that the police dispatcher had told them held their patient. Bill cut the engines back to idle and called the police dispatcher on the Victor Civil Defense net.
"Sheriff dispatch, this is Pedro Six Two - we are on the ground and I'll let you know if we have the correct farmhouse. Over."
"Pedro Six Two, Dispatch Alpha - copy on the ground. The weather here looks like sh.. looks very bad from here. Will you be going to Central? Over"
Bill laughed, the dispatcher was a solid professional, but had a good sense of when she could do something to ease the tension. Before he could answer, Jimmy chimed in on the circuit.
"Dispatch Alpha, Pedro Six Two. No. The base Metro folks tell me we are fully boxed by the storm. Would you please call, eeer, Bleakerville? That looks like our alternate divert hospital. Ah, do they even have a helipad? Over"
"Pedro Six Two, Dispatch Alpha. You guys are going to have to buy a new set of tourist maps, Bleakerville hospital has the newest small Trauma Center in the State - and its state of the art. Hang on." A few seconds passed, and then the radio crackled back to life. "Yes, they have both a visual and IR marked helipad - shows that they can take up to a Chinook, so you guys should fit. Over."
"Dispatch Alpha, Pedro Six Two - thanks! Do they monitor any frequency? Or just Unicom? Over."
"Pedro Six Two, Dispatch Alpha - I show them on Unicom one two two decimal eight hundred. I'll call and give them a heads up, they have been on divert since yesterday due to the predicted severity of the storm. Place should be damn near empty, so if you can land, they can easily handle the patient. Over"
The mednet radio crackled just then - "Scooter, Gopher. We have the patient - we started treatment with O2, a Lidocaine drip, and have him secured him in the Stokes, we'll start a second drip on board while you guys do all that fun pilot shit they pay you for. Over"
"Gotcha Gopher. Let me update dispatch while you move the guy out - you want the white ground lights on?"
"Please and thank you. I'll lock up here as we leave. Anything else? Over"
"Dispatch Alpha, Pedro Six Two - we have the patient secured and will lift shortly. Anything else? Over"
"Pedro Six Two, Dispatch Alpha - are you not taking the granddaughter with you? She's a little too young to leave out there by herself. Over"
"Granddaughter? This is the first I heard of someone else?!?"
"Pedro Six Two, Dispatch Alpha - Sorry. She went outside with a flashlight to, as she put it 'find the airplane for Gramps' - where do you think the light came from? Over"
Before the dispatcher was finished, Jimmy was on the Mednet circuit "You guys see a little girl anywhere? Dispatch said a granddaughter was out with a flashlight to act as a guide for us."
"The old man was the only one inside - that means.... Holy flying fu - Ace and I will bring the old man to the A/C, the Ell Tee will start a ground grid search"
It only took a few minutes before the old man was inside and hooked up to the heart monitor and auto-defibrillation unit. Jimmy, Robert, Ace and Wildman started quartering the pasture, it was hard, because the snow was deep in places.
Twenty minutes later Lieutenant Drake shouted over the Mednet - "Got her! She is unresponsive, stiff and cold. Light it up Scooter, she going to need the best and quick."
After updating the dispatcher, all Bill could do was push the airframe as hard as he dared to get to the hospital. With the engines sitting on top of the redline, burning up the sky, they made it to the Bleakerville facility in record time. The landing was little more than a controlled crash due to the wind, but they had both patients inside the hospital before Bill could finish his shutdown checklist.
Before he shut down everything, Bill made one last call. "Dispatch Alpha, Pedro Six Two we are on the ground and the patients are in the facility. Thank you for the help tonight. As one last favor, would you please call flight ops and let them know we are C L A G for the next few hours anyway. Thanks."
" Pedro Six Two, Dispatch Alpha - Thank god - the entire staff was praying for you - glad to hear you made it OK. I'll call flight ops and tell you are CLAG. We'll also say some prayers for the little girl. Pedro Six Two, Dispatch Alpha. Out"
Dispatch Alpha, Pedro Six Two. Thanks, we appreciate the prayers. I'll try and call tomorrow and give you an update. Pedro Six Two, Out." It was only then that Bill realized he was soaking wet with sweat. With the help of Robert, they secured the aircraft, nobody was going anywhere else tonight, - the wind was so bad it took both of them to secure the small crew hatch.
Hours later, sitting in the ambulance bay for privacy, the crew was trying to decompress. It wasn't going to be a simple matter to forget the days events - they tried everything they and the local staff knew to resuscitate the little girl. Bill even called a couple of Coast Guard doctors that he knew were experts in hypothermia. Nothing they tried had worked. They were finally forced to give up and called her at 01:23. Her grandpa lived, a small consolation.
To the surprise of everyone, the fire door for the bay slid open and a stunning blonde woman walked in. The crew looked up, who was this?
"Hello," she said walking confidently up to the group, "I am Nora Richmond, the night shift ED Charge Nurse. I don’t think we’ve had a chance to meet."
Bill introduced himself as Major Bill Anderson. "And let me introduce the rest of the Pedro Six Two crew dogs - this character is my co-pilot, Captain Jimmy 'Wild man' Williams." Pointing to the others in turn, Bill went on, "Crew chief and flight engineer extraordinaire for us is Robert Teaman. Our lead Pararesecueman is Master Sergeant Mike "Gopher" Mulroney."
Bill now pointed to a pair of young, heavily tanned men. "This is Staff Sergeant Gary "Ace" McCloud," one of the young men nodded. "And this is Flight Lieutenant Albert Drake, on loan from Her Majesties Royal Air Force Search and Rescue Service."
"I'm pleased to meet you Ms Richmond," he said, holding out his hand. "Please, call me Al, there’s too much formality now."
The woman, Nora, stared at Al as if she hadn't seen a man in years. "What's up this, "Al thought, "does she know who I really am?" The thought of being discovered was always a worry.
"Forgive me for staring Al, I’m quite tired, and I’m afraid that has made me less than polite." A thin smile went with the explanation, but he could see clearly that her pulse was still pounding.
Al decided to be polite. "No problem Ma’am. We were just trying to sort out where we could all sleep as well getting some food. It will likely be late tomorrow before we can begin to dig out our bird and get back to the base." The smile he gave her at the same time caused Nora to flush so badly, everyone could her cheeks turn two shades of red!
The men’s laughter certainly brought her back to her senses. "Well, I’m sorry nobody talked with you about that. We have a small set of dormitory rooms here for off shift staff residents, I’m sure we can find you all a room." She went on, "I talked briefly with Dr Walker, that’s how I found out you were here. He did say I should ask about your mission."
The smiles abruptly disappeared. Bill asked, "What specifically were you interested in Nora?"
"Well, Major Anderson. Bill. The small girl you seem to have brought in with an older gentleman. Dr Walker said something about a heart attack?"
The men all glanced at one another, suddenly looking grief stricken. After a minute of strained silence, Al spoke. "Well, that's a bit of a story then, isn’t it? Is there somewhere we can get a bite to eat and talk? We have had a rather long day ourselves."
"My apologies again, of course, I'm sure you would all like a hot meal and a cot. Come along now and we’ll have this sorted out in a jiff." Pulling out a small site radio, Nora called for housekeeping to meet them in the cafeteria. "Let’s go gentlemen, dinner is on me!" With that, she whirled about and took off, seemly trusting they could keep up. By the time she had reached the fire door, she found herself surrounded by a wall of solid muscle.
They were soon sitting down for dinner. Nora had chosen a small salad and a fruit drink, the crewmen had opted for a larger dinner of meatloaf, potatoes with a rich gravy and the vegetables. They all carried large mugs of milk, this seemed to be a surprise to Nora.. Rather than say anything, thankfully, she let them eat; it must have been obvious to her they were very hungry. In short order, the food disappeared. The silence gave her the opportunity to take a long looks at Lieutenant Drake, something that he didn't miss.
"Why the looks?" wondered Al silently. She had proven to be competent, and caring - offering to buy their dinner. Al had to admit to himself she was certainly very easy on the eyes. but what intrigued him was how she carried herself, like a real Princess. Not a spoiled bitch that Daddy called Princess, but like authentic royalty - something he knew of first-hand.
"Ah, Ms Richmond - may I call you Nora?" Al's question was quiet, almost unheard in the low chatter of the other diners.
"Certainly Al, that would be fine," she was clearly curious now. Rather than continue, Al turned to the others.
"Major, everyone's pretty tired. Why don't you and the others hit the rack? I'll back brief Nora and join you after a bit. Will that be OK?" The crew glanced at each other and shrugged.
"OK by me Al, we'll see you at the room. Maybe by the time you get there, the hot water will be running again." said Bill. The group laughed lightly, but was quickly gone, as though whisked away by a genie - who was really just the night shift housekeeper.
As the housekeeper showed them where to bed down, Bill asked if there was a telephone he could use in private. He needed to sort out with the Commander how they could get help out to the hospital, he was certain the Osprey would be snowed in solid by tomorrow.
Bill got far more than he bargained for. After ensuring he was alone, the Commander told him to sit tight with the crew. Something from space- something unknown - had smacked into China, tearing up everything from the border of Mongolia , through China, Burma and parts of India, then gone on to damage parts of South Africa. Nobody knew what the "it" was. Not knowing where it's origin and, worse yet - if it would strike again, added to the tension.
"Look Major Anderson, things are changing by the second. Just try get a good nights sleep, and in the morning I'll have something a bit more solid to give you. The press is out of the loop for now, thank god, but that won't last forever. Plan on getting to a local store first thing in the AM and pick up anything you might next for - say - two weeks. You have my permission to use your charge card for whatever is needed. Now I have to go. Good night."
It wasn't a good night. Bill decided to tell the crew his news in the morning, they needed the sleep, and the reality of it was there was squat they could do about things anyway. Not that anyone was sleeping all that well after the loss of the little girl. Even more troubling, they still didn't a name for her - she was still just "the little girl".
Bill got everyone up early, then broke the news to the group - such as he had. He was finally able to get everyone to go out to eat breakfast, but Bill had to send Teaman out to watch the aircraft. The storm had blown out and as they could see from the little window in the hallway, it was buried deep - but not deep enough to cover the crew hatch. So - a watch was required.
Bill grabbed a plate of food to go from the cafeteria and walked back to the little conference room to call for an update, knowing the others would follow as soon as they finished eating. He would send someone out later to spell Teaman, so he could eat.
The crew showed up less than thirty minutes later, finding Bill immersed in a conference call. Later, Nora showed up.
She opened the door as she knocked. "Hello all, what are you up to toda...." They never saw her enter, the men were all were focused on the telephone, as though it were a live snake.
Bill was talking to someone on the speakerphone, "Damnit Colonel, you've left us out to dry! We don't even have any ammunition for our..." Bill stopped when he saw Nora. Before he could say anything the voice on the telephone said, "I'm sorry Major, but I have my orders as well. As bad as it may get, it's better that you are out there. I'll personally see to your family - you have no worries there. So soldier, soldier on. Out."
Their expressions stopped Nora cold. Grim faced and dark, they all seemed to have gotten word of a close friend's death. "Oh my! I'm so sorry. Have I interrupted something?"
Bill was the first to speak, "No, Nora. I just finished a long call back to the base." He wrinkled his nose, as if a distinctly rotten odor had wafted by, "We won't be given any help. So we are here till we can get the bird cleared and can take off."
Nora raised an eyebrow, "Is it so very bad here? I'm sure we can find a place for you to stay until the snow is cleared, and the outside staff might just be persuaded to lend a hand."
Again, and oddly to Nora's eye, Al checked his watch. "Well, true, that - we were all worried about being able to get to town and do that shopping we discussed earlier. Are there any taxis or rental outfits nearby?"
That seemed reasonable, they must be upset for the trouble they were causing, and no doubt, the hard work ahead. Nora smiled. "Then we best be off, I'm sure the road crews have cleared the way to town and I'll ask if we can borrow one of the facilities larger trucks for the morning."
True to her word, they were all soon on their way to Bleakerville. Nora had sweet-talked one of the security guards into staying past his shift to watch the ungainly aircraft left squatting on the helipad while they did some shopping. Everyone fit into the borrowed truck as Al had asked if he could ride with her as she led the group into town.
"Well that depends" Nora said before they started, "Will you all be taking those carbines with you?" Not that it mattered, but she was curious abut why they carried them.
"Well, Nora," Gary said, "yes we will, we have to." At her puzzled look, he went on. "We signed for these when we left the base - we are personally responsible for them until we can return them to the armory, you see? And trust me on this; since these are fully automatic weapons, regulations require us to retain possession at all times."
The trip into town was short enough, a simple matter, less than ten miles all told, but with the recent weather, it was necessarily a slow trip. Al took the time to ask Nora a few questions.
"Nora, do you trek or camp at all? I mean you look so," she could tell he was struggling for a word, "well, so fit. I was wondering, you don't look like a runner to me."
While she was flattered that Al had noticed that she stayed in shape, it was Nora's turn to stall, looking for a good answer. "You have me there Al, I hate to run, always have. But the area around here is so beautiful, very much so in the spring and summer, that I pretty much live outdoors." At his puzzled look, she went on. "I spend a lot of time indoors, working in a pressure cooker - this may be a small hospital, but it is the only real medical care for two or three hours drive. We are swamped in the ED most days. People have no choice but to treat us as a primary care facility, and we do get some funding for that. But busy wouldn't begin to describe my regular shift. Keep in mind, I have the night shift."
She pointed out the window, "I work a three and two, two and three shift and if I work it right, I can get five days in a row off. For those five days I am out walkabout - sleeping under a small tarp in a hammock, or a tent if the weather looks really off. It is the only thing that lets me work off the pressure."
She laughed, "I'm no pioneer woman, I use all the latest gear and have permission from most of the landowners around here to camp, use their water, and if I can find anything to eat, they are happy I can enjoy it. That's the biggest reason I love working here." Turning to look at him, she went on, "Sorry to be so long winded, just happy to be out and about. And helping you fine gentlemen is just a bonus!"
Al's face turned red. "I cannot express just how much this means to us. I find it fascinating you spend so much time outdoors. Have you ever had any...ummm, problems? With wildlife, I mean."
Nora shook her head. "No. There are a couple of packs of feral dogs running around in this County, but I don't worry too much about that." At his puzzled expression, she elaborated. "My grandfather was a Marine, a Grunt with five combat tours. He made damn sure his little sweet pea, as he put it, could take care of herself - and business. I carry a 357 Magnum, loaded with Corbon +P 38 Special hollow-points. So, you can see I don't worry about much. I rarely see anyone when out and about, maybe the odd farmer if I am on their property."
"I'm impressed - really. So few women spend any real time outdoors these days." Al looked at watch again. "So, do you trek with your friends at the hospital?"
Nora smiled at that question. Al was not as devious as he thought. "Yes, I do. Jenny - the cook? - and I trek together quite often, as does one of the surgical nurses. If the weather is really nice, even old doctor Walker will go walkabout with me for part of an afternoon - he is quite the avid picnicker, and very dear to all of us."
She glanced in the mirror, and then hit the blinker lever. "We are almost there. This store is fantastic. It is run by, of all people, an old Marine buddy of my grandfather. In fact, he was one of the local folks to convince me to take the job here."
Turning, they followed a short driveway, finally pulling into a parking lot that was all but empty. The store stood alone but was considerable in size. To anyone standing outside, it could have been a hardware store, a general store or a military surplus store, if one were to judge from the different goods displayed in the windows facing them.
Nora bounced out of the little coupe and as she hit the door, called over her shoulder for the group to "Wait just a bit". She disappeared inside leaving the others to themselves.
* * * * * * *
The day started well enough. Hot oatmeal for his breakfast, dry food for Roscoe, hygiene break, clothing both warm enough for the weather and that fit over his new pegs. The storm last night had been a gold-plated bitch - howling winds and heavy snow, a classic Plains blizzard. Little had accumulated in or around town, the wind scouring it away almost as fast as it had fallen. The road crew had been out early, passing through Bleakerville at just past day light. The roar of the diesels had wakened Jake just a bit before his alarm clock/radio had the chance to wake him. Normally he caught the weather for the day from KSL, the only radio station he could get, despite its distance. "Not today," he thought as shut off the radio, "I'll use the extra time to extend my workout a bit."
He fired up the rusted out beater he used to get to and from The Bunker while Roscoe did his morning business. Then, heater howling he, and Roscoe hit the road for the days work. While the drive was short, the road was still icy in spots, so slow and careful was the rule for the day. Less than twenty minutes later, they were at the turnoff for the store.
The parking lot was clear. Jake shook his head; Junior must have been up with the road crews to get the lot this clean. The main door was already open. Steve, his boss and long time bud, would have been in earlier to fire up the coffee pot. Jake enjoyed a good cuppa as well as anyone, but Steve damn near had to have an IV drip going all day or he would as grouchy as a - well, as grouchy as Sergeant Majors always seemed to be day to day. That caused Jake to laugh, Steve was as nice a guy as anyone could hope to find.
As the door opened, Roscoe was out in a flash - making his morning swing around the store. Jake laughed again; he knew that Roscoe would find nothing in the late Spring cold. In the summer Roscoe would chase off anything that had invaded his territory - that was weeks away unless the warm Spring winds came early.
Once inside, he went through his normal routine. Open the steel shuttered windows then unblock the rear fire door and check the water tanks. That done, he entered the small storage room next to the utilities, and begin his exercise regimen. Steve had been more than understanding on Jake's return from the VA hospital and helped him set up the simple exercise bar set. The little cottage was just too tiny for the equipment, Jake knew once he finished, Junior would be in to work out. A couple of the others used it at lunch, Steve worked out three or fours days a week before he left for the day.
Jake might not have all of his legs, but his arms and upper torso were rock solid, and the new high-tech prosthetics the VA had recently fitted were amazing - he was going to be running this summer! The docs had also fitted a set of custom 'feet' to allow him to ride his motorcycle, just now back, retrofitted by a vendor in Oregon. All in all, things were looking up for the summer.
Once he had cleaned up, Jake went to the front counter to set up the register, see if there was news or changes that he needed to know about and grab his one cup of coffee for the day. After flipping the switch to light up the OPEN sign, he leaned on the stool next to the main counter.
As Steve walked up, Jake waved his coffee mug and said "Sup? Anything new? Changes?"
"Por nada mi amigo. It's all good today."
Steve seemed chipper enough, but Jake noted that he had for some reason left Buddy and the girls home today. Before he could ask anything about the dogs, the floor moved - a small shake, really. He looked to Steve - "Was that me or something else?"
Steve shrugged, "Maybe a snowblade?" A second rumble caused the bell on the door to tinkle, just a bit. Steve walked to the door, looked outside, and came back. "Got me Snake," he said with a shrug, "nothing going on out there that I can see." He headed to the back office.
Before Jake could say anything else, the rest of the crew began streaming in, heading for the coffee pot. With the same addiction as Steve, coffee was their first order of business. Jake smiled, the crew was a good group, all Vets, they had been working together for years. Jake and Steve had worked the store from nearly the beginning, Junior for the last three years.
As was customary, they all drifted back to the counter to see if Steve had anything special for the day. Junior was there, towel around his neck, he must have been hitting it pretty hard.
"OK guys. No changes, all inventory lists are due in next week, looks like this morning will be slow, so now is a good time to get finished. Anything for me?" After their negative headshakes, they left to finish the inventory of their sections. Jake started sorting the last week's cargo manifests, Steve would crosscheck them against current intake inventory, and then cut checks to the suppliers.
As he noted shortages from the Fill Sheets, Jake tapped orders into the computer. He fully expected this to be a slow morning where he could get his monthly reports completely finished for a change. He'd work the mail-order stuff this afternoon with Junior, that always took an extra couple of hours - but training his replacement was vital to keep the operation running smoothly.
Just as he entered his last fill order, the door chimed. Looking up he was surprised to see Nora Richmond come through the door. Blonde, petite and in her late twenties, Nora worked at the local hospital. To the causal observer, she might appear to be a frilly woman, maybe all of 120 pounds on a thin frame, blue eyes and all.
Jake knew better. She was Steve's 'adopted' daughter and her mild exterior masked a woman who knew how to take of her self. He had been to the range with her and Steve too many times to think otherwise.
"Hey Nora! Good to see you, what brings you out this way?" he said with a smile. Sweet and outgoing, Jake was fond of her, as was the rest of the crew.
"Jake, just the man I want to see!" she exclaimed. "I have a truckload of stranded para-rescue types outside. They need some gear to hold them over while they try and dig out their airplane, or at least that's the story they are selling. I need to talk to Steve..."
Jake used his thumb to point over his shoulder - Nora headed for the office. Taking her comment as a heads-up, he whistled up the crew. By the time Nora and Steve came out of the office, they were waiting for them by the front counter.
"Don't know all what's up, but we have an aircrew that got stuck at the hospital by the storm. I want one of you with each crewman to help them find whatever they are looking for. Should be things like clothes - pants, drawers, socks, jacket, outdoor stuff. It looks like they will be digging out an airplane stuck on the helipad over at the hospital. Nora says they are in a hurry for some reason, so please keep that in mind. Also, they will be carrying their weapons, so don't let other customers give them any crap about that - OK?"
At their nods, Steve went on - "Snake, you're on checkout - let these lunks earn their pay today - OK?" Without waiting for a reply, Nora and Steve went outside.
Jake looked at the rest of the crew - "Something's up. Something big, Steve has that look. So, get these guys in and out as fast as you can - I don't think they will bitch about it." Before he could say anything further, Steve and Nora returned, followed by six men, all wearing baggy greenish-brown overalls.
Steve was short and to the point. Pointing to the assembled crew, he said "These folks will help you, one on one. No sense in wasting time you don't have." At the started glances from the Airmen, he continued. "I understand you have a shitpotload of snow to move and not too much time. So get what you need. Ah, who can I talk with about your carbines?
One of the Airmen stepped forward, "I'll take this, you guys get going." At that, the group broke up heading for different parts of the building, each talking with their 'guide' as they went. Steve and the unknown man quickly sorted out what questions Steve posed, and after allowing him to examine his weapon - the Airman was off with Junior, his guide.
What happened next shocked Jake. When the aircrew was out of earshot, Steve exploded - "Goddamn Nora, you're right. Those boys have a cloud of bad karma sitting on their asses like I haven't seen in years and years. What the hell is going on? Being dumped by their higher is just...unfair."
"I don't know Steve. On the way over, Al asked if I could camp and shoot. He thought he was subtle, but I could read through it - this goes past concerned. I can only guess bad. Maybe bad moon bad?" she whispered. It was both mysterious and scary at the same time. "What are you going to do?"
Steve scrunched his face. "I am going to make some calls and get some intel. In the meantime, go find your man and stick to him. I've got work to do. And remember, no matter how bad it gets, we can always go out to Martha's place."
The reference to Steve's long deceased wife caused Nora to flinch. He pulled Nora's arm away from his own, turned her around, "Go get your man. And don't roll those pretty blue eyes at me. I saw how you two were looking at each other. Go!" He slapped her butt to enforce the command, and then turned to his office.
Jake didn't know what was going on, but there was a hell of a lot more going on than a simple shopping trip for a stranded aircrew. A shout from Steve's office confirmed his worry.
"Snake, get your ragged old ass over here!"
"S'up Sergeant Major?" Jake was no fool, Steve only used that voice when something was cracking. And it must cracking bad. The last time he heard him this gruff was just before they had left for Phu Cat - a very, very long time ago.
"Snake, I want you to pull and set up six sets of field gear. Full up. Recon. Cat 4, cold weather. Each gets nine mags, the full med kit, stove, chow and a basha. Throw in any gear you would want in a shitstorm. I'll be filling the mags. Put the gear in a cart and bring it up here. In this case, time matters. So, haul ass!"
Jake took off, heading back to the surplus area of the store, pushing a large cart. He snagged Billy as he went past the gun counter. Between the two of them they soon had the cart full of web gear, pouches, rucksacks, sleeping systems, stoves and what Jake figured to be at least four days of food for each Airman. It helped that Steve had specified something on their pre-pack list - that didn't stop Jake from adding items he would want if the shit was in the wind. Billy caught on quickly, adding extra water treatment tabs and filters, canisters of stove fuel, nomex gloves and weapons cleaning kits.
Less than forty minuets later, they met Steve back at the gun counter. Steve had just finished filling stacks of magazines. They all stuffed the magazines into pouches on the field gear, then set it all in a cardboard box. Jake offered a small observation - "Looks like you are getting someone ready for a serious old-school world of hurt Boss."
Steve was short and to the point. "Dunno Snake. Maybe and maybe not. We'll talk about that later. You just get the crew checked out, this gear is a 'loan'. I don't want it on the books, just in case tomorrow comes in all bright and shiny, eh?"
"Got it." Jake was off, as Steve placed the rest of the gear in another box. At the check out Jake found the crew busy stuffing Carhart gear and all sorts of socks and drawers into to smaller, easy to move boxes. Everything was all but done and in record time, all finished in less than 90 minutes. The total was considerable.
"How do you folks want to pay for this?" Jake was curious on how they would pay, this was a lot of gear.
A Major, Jake assumed this to be the CO of the small group, silently offered up his blue and white Government credit card. Jake had to shake his head. "Sorry Major, we've had those before. Our bank won't take them. Anything else?"
A Lieutenant, a Brit Jake guessed, stepped up and handed Jake a black, gold-trimmed AMEX credit card. Jake looked up sharply, you just didn't see these cards this far out in the sticks. '"I'm really sorry, but can I see some ID? Sadly, I must ask for these, you understand?" Jake was embarrassed to have to ask, but the company rules were firm on the matter.
"Not a problem, if you didn't ask, I would be worried. Here." The name on his military ID, Albert Drake, matched the name on the card and so Jake swiped it. He stared intently at the electronic readout, then pushed a couple of buttons. He couldn't believe what he had seen, the readout indicated a so-called "royal flag". The flag indicated a member of a royal family, just not whose family. Jake could only guess.
The transaction took just seconds. Jake looked up - "All good. May I ask a question?"
Al shrugged, "Certainly, but I get to choose to answer."
Jake smiled as he handed back the card, "I thought Royals didn't do their own shopping. May we have permission to at least say you shopped here?" The expression on everyone's face was a symphony of surprise, shock, wonderment and in Nora's case, astonishment.
The smile offered by Al was small but genuine. "Yes, you may - but please, nothing in print, you do understand?"
"More than the others might, I fought with some your Marines in the Ashau Valley - back in the day. It will be more for bragging rights, Your Highness..."
Al cut off the rest of what might have been said - "Well, then, that's all good - shall we get this gear loaded now?" He was out the door with two boxes, with the rest of the crew following seconds later.
Nora wandered off after Steve, both heading for the back office. Jake's head was whirling, what the hell was going on? Within a few minutes, Al had gone back toward the office as well. Shortly after that, they all walked out the front door, with Nora carrying a small rifle - something Steve had shown him, but that was for Nora's birthday - at least that what he understood Steve to have said.
As Steve walked back into the store, he flipped the door sign over to "Closed". Letting the door sigh shut, he bellowed, "We is a going fishing early this year boys! Wrap it up so we can get gone!"
Without a backward look, Steve went into his office. Pushing aside a large filing cabinet, he opened the wall safe sitting behind the cabinet. Extracting a large box of cash, he made nine neat stacks. One stack was for each employee, each secured with a stout rubber band. He took a moment to reach back in the safe and set out an old, mostly empty bottle and two rather large bags, which he sat on the floor. Standing, he slammed the safe closed and pushed the cabinet back into position, mostly from habit. Gathering up the cash, he walked out the door.
At the front counter stood the full crew, silent and with expressions ranging from resigned to actively frightened. Jake had been with Steve and Martha from day one, the youngest, just three years - and that only after Steve persuaded the VA he could work safely at The Bunker.
He laid out the cash in neat stacks. "We're going fishing early this year friends, here is an advance your next paycheck or so - I expect you might need some real cash soon. Is everything locked up?"
They all nodded - the heavy steel shutters were in place, all the doors blocked and locked, water off, just the electric service had to be cut and the building would be secure while they were out fishing, a annual group vacation usually lasting a month or more. This time, nobody knew.
"OK - here's the deal. We take a month, things get all shiny with unicorns, we come back, we're in business. But for now, the shit is in the fan. I gotta tell ya, I just checked with the G2 - I got no answer - no answering machine - zip. I called the G4. I got 'bad moon rising'. Looks like a real old-school, epic shitstorm is brewing and there's jack we can do about it. We've talked on this at length. I would strongly suggest you pull the pin on whatever you have planned and beat feet for your hidey-hole. I hope this cash will help. If you need anything, speak up now."
The group looked at each other. Now the scene just played out with the aircrew made a bit more sense, Jake stepped up. Pushing one of the stacks back to Steve he said, "I'm good, split this with the rest."
Two others did the same, Billy took a stack and put it on top of another - then handed it to Junior, the youngest man there.
"OK, I get it - you don't want cash. What?" A pause, then Steve jerked his thumb over his shoulder - "The ammo vault is open, please keep it to a case of rifle and a case of pistol. Go!" Twenty minutes later, Steve was alone with Jake, just as he knew it would be.
Jake followed Steve back to his office. Sitting, Steve pulled two battered mugs out of a drawer. Setting them on his desk, he splashed the last of the contents of the bottle into the mugs - handing one to Jake.
"Jake, I watched the moon come up out there. What's left of it. I didn't want to say anything out there." Rubbing his face, he went on, "We are well and truly screwed. Worse than Hill 151. This time we ain't got the dogs."
"Bullshit!" Jake leaned out and gave a short whistle. Seconds later, a large Shepard mix bounded into the office. "Steve, I'm going up to the kid's place. All my stuff has been moved up there, most of it while I was at the VA," he said, slapping his leg, "but I gotta have Roscoe here. In case I have to stop - or something. You know."
Steve nodded. He leaned back, slapping the side of his desk. A panel popped out, and he pulled a squat, deadly looking weapon from the space. "I wish I could give you a Swedish K, but this M2 will have to do." He pushed one of the bags over to Jake, "five mags and 500 rounds, should get you home.' He lifted his glass.
"To friends, here and gone, but not forgotten." Jake echoed the thought, then they drained their mugs.
"OK, time I get going. Steve - it's been a hell of run, thanks for everything." He stood, picked up the gear and walked out. They never said goodbye - ever. That would bring bad luck. What the future would bring remained to be seen.
Roscoe in tow, he was soon headed back to his cottage - time to pull the pin, time to beat feet. Steve was right, seeing for himself that a big chunk of the moon was missing had scared the crap out of him - he could only wonder how the rest of the world would take the news.