Every book is an adventure in writing, but there is one tool I have consistently used from my very first book and with every single one of the next 60 some odd that followed: The Story Grid.
After a couple of decades together, my wife has learned my few and far between foibles. One of them is a lack of attention to detail. I’m a big picture guy. If my wife wants to hide something from me in the fridge all she has to do is put it behind something. If she needs me to get something for her, she knows to give me very detailed instructions down to exactly what drawer, where in the drawer it is, and exactly what it is. Or I’m like Cool Gus: I’ll come back with the first ball I find.
I have the same problem writing. I can “see” the big picture of the book in my brain. But once I start writing, I tend to forget what I’ve written. So I use a physical, external device, to help me: the Story Grid.
It goes to the left of my keyboard (I’m left-handed) for every book as I’m writing. I fill it in as I’m writing. I use a red ink pen. Then I update the Excel sheet and print it out every day.
Every row is a scene in the book.
The columns depend on the type of story (do I need a countdown? Greenwich Mean Time?) but generally go thusly:
Chapter #; start page; end page; time/date; location; a brief summary of the action.
Here is an example from a work in progress, Nightstalkers: The Time Patrol which will be published on 25 Nov this year. In this case, instead of time/date, I use a 48 hour countdown because a clock is started leading to the end of the world as we know it in 48 hours. Most of it makes no sense to you, but since I’ve written the scenes, it reminds me immediately of what’s been done. It’s also a good way to see the flow of the book.
Note that what has been written ends at the beginning of Chapter 8. Everything below that is notes and future scenes that I put there as they occur to me. At the bottom are some notes from previous books in the series with terms I need, but can’t remember. Some of the terms near the bottom in bold are story loops I need to close out for various characters. I also can add in a word count each day, to keep me on task.
Being able to put everything on one page makes it much easier for me to keep track. So if you’re not a good detail person, consider something like this. If you are a good detail person, but not a good big picture person, consider something like Jennifer Crusie’s collages, where she puts together a diorama that physically represents the entire story and can have it in her office where she can see it all the time.
On entirely different matter, we’d like feedback on these covers. We’re putting together a library sampler of all my books, consisting of one downloadable book that has every cover, author note on every book, brief description and opening chapter. We think this is a way readers can ‘browse’ my books for free. We’ll announce the launch of the sampler with links for download in a week or so here at Write It Forward. If you sign up for my newsletter (only sent out a couple times a year) you’ll have access to exclusive content from works in project I’ll be posting on-line soon, looking for reader feedback. Parts of the book from the story grid above will be the first to be posted. Sign up is to the left.
Just number them 1 thru 5, left to write, for your comments.
By Jen Talty
The way in which we buy books is changing. We have fewer bookstores and the major retailers are cutting back on their space of books and racking only the top names. I was at an airport recently where the only books I saw were Divergent and a bunch of books by Tom Clancy. At another airport, just the top 20 from the NY Times and a display case of Tom Clancy books. The sad part for me was that I because of this I got no new ideas for new authors or new books to load onto my Kindle. The last recommendation I got for a book (that wasn’t from Bob or his wife) came from a stranger on an airplane who was reading on his Kindle and asked me what I was reading on mine and proceeded to talk books for about an hour.
Back in the day, before the internet, when we actually had to leave our house to shop for things, books were found in end caps, coop space, recommendations by our local bookstore and perhaps some paid advertising. Browsing was done by walking through the shelves and feeling and touching. Now we browse the digital shelves and it is harder and harder to find books. Actually, that’s not true. It’s easy to find books, but are we finding the books we want? Right now, at a conference is going on across the pond Jon Fine of Amazon was quoted as saying, “ We’ve created this tsunami of content. It’s a high class problem to have too many stories. We, as tech companies, publishers, authors, service providers, have to find ways to help stories find the right audience. This discoverability problem is the next big challenge.” We always love listening to Jon Fine. Smart man and very pragmatic.
One book recommendation I will make to anyone who does business with Amazon or is in internet marketing, internet sales, or the book business is to read The Everything Store. It’s fascinating and really gives the reader a good look into the world of Amazon. One thing the book does talk about is customers and their role. Amazon is very customer-centric.
For authors, our customers are our readers. Readers play a very important role in authors’ lives; besides paying the bills, they have the power to spread the word. They do that in a variety of ways. Telling a stranger on an airplane, gifting or lending a book (ebook or physical book), discussing it in a book club, talking about it on-line at places like Goodreads and of course, writing reviews.
The idea Jon touches on, this discoverability challenge, is one both the author and the reader face. The author needs to be able to get their books in the right “algorithm” so to speak, and the customer needs to know how to search for exactly what they are looking for (especially when they are looking for something new, not necessarily the named author). Sometimes I think I’m the only one who notices small tweaks on the Amazon site or on my Kindle, that are helping me find books I didn’t know exist based on my own unique shopping history on the site (which probably makes those algorithms go, ‘her again? Please not here, she’s not normal’).” Actually, I’ve seen how this works in a tighter, smaller environment with my new Amazon Fire TV. I’m already getting very unique suggestions just based on what I’ve been watching on Prime and frankly, they are right on. I just watched a show this weekend called Orphan Black that I had never heard of and probably wouldn’t have found if Amazon hadn’t given me that recommendation. But, that has nothing to do with Reviews. Back to Reviews.
The first thing to note about reviews is you can’t look at reviews, or anything as author, based on what YOU do. You are not the normal average customer. You are skewed because you have inside information about the business. What is important is that there are different types of customers who look at various things differently, so the moment you think or say, ‘but this is how I find things, or I do things’, let it go. Doesn’t count. There are people who will buy anything that is free or under a dollar or on sale. There are people who will only pay full price. There are people that only buy from the top 10 on any given list. There are a wide variety of customers who make their decision based on something we might have not even thought about.
Reviews are important because they now represent a recommendation during the browsing process, especially when a potential customer stumbles onto your book page while looking for a certain topic. Not necessarily each review is a recommendation, but the overall average star rating along with how many reviews and whether or not you have both good and bad reviews. Yes, they both count in both positive and negative ways. I’m not going to get into the Amazon Algorithms and how reviews may or may not affect them. There are so many things that go into the Algorithms, and yes, reviews are one of them, but only one of many considerations.
Another thing to consider is that not every reader is going to leave a review. Some only do so if they hate it. Or if they love it. And some leave them for everything they buy. Here is something to consider. You don’t exist unless you have pagans (haters). This comes from the book Primal Branding, which I also recommend authors read since “branding” is such a buzz word, but it will help you build your author identity, which essentially is your brand.
The more we shop on-line, the more important reviews become. So how do we get them? That’s an excellent question. Discoverability is the key. Finding the right audience. Bob said something to me early on in our partnership and that was as we go broader on the internet, we need to narrow it down to niche.
From Bob: Sometimes I feel like kryptonite. While we have almost 100,000 subscribers to this blog, we get very few comments. And while I’ve had #1 bestsellers in various categories (science fiction, men’s adventure, thriller) on Kindle, considering the volume of books I sell, I get relatively few reviews. I’m not sure why that is. But I have definitely picked up from my contacts at 47North and Amazon that reviews are very, very important. In fact, the reality is that some decision making on marketing has been taken out of human hands and relies solely on algorithms, which rely heavily on both number and quality of reviews. And I do read them in order to get feedback from my readers. So I invite you—if you’ve read some of my books, stop by on Amazon and leave a few sentences or more. In a very important way, readers are shaping the future of publishing and authors’ careers more than ever before. I think that’s a good thing. We’ve removed a lot of the gatekeepers in between, and it’s ultimately the author-reader relationship that rules!
Nothing but good times ahead.
Yes, my 60th book is published today. So I’m interupting previously scheduled programming to bring you the opening of my latest opus: Nightstalkers: The Rift
On 21 August, 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 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 layman 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 a layman 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, 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.
They’re called safety shims 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, the air in the room being ionized. They were all washed by the dragon’s breath, a blast of warm air, also known as radioactivity. 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. Given that the base had the highest security clearance possible given it headquartered the Manhattan Project, it was rather amazing that the leader of the convoy could produce paperwork that cleared that high hurdle and the convoy was allowed access.
The men inside the vehicles were dressed in army fatigues but had no rank, no names stenciled on above their breast pockets, no unit insignias. They just carried weapons in a way that indicated every one 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 cross the man’s face from above his left eye to his right 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 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 he’d 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 have?”
“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 even Fermi, a scientist and not 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 overally 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.
Several minutes the men re-appeared, 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.”
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 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, two hundred and forty pounds of muscle, bone and pure killer. He had a scar running along the right side of his head from temple to 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 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, etcetera, etcetera, 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 Battlestar Gallactica marathon in the Den, buried underneath the Ranch, outside of Area 51, and frak was now the buzzword as Moms frowned on cussing. They had adopted it as adjective, adverb, verb and 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 jump master 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 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 Hell Mouth (they’d tried a Buffy 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 it was kind of lame). Roland had thousands and thousands of jumps in many different configurations and situations, but this one was unique even for him. The combination of aircraft freefall jump, directly to a landing and then 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 members’ 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 they really shouldn’t to most of them.”
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 see he needed to repeat them reminded them not only of the mantra, but that things had been a bit frayed in the past year on various missions.
Eagle: “One minute.”
“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.
“Ten seconds,” Eagle announced.
“Roland was a warrior,” Moms began and the team picked it up. “From the land of the midnight sun.”
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. “With a Thompson gun for hire, fighting to be done.”
He wished he had a Thompson gun, with its big 45. caliber slugs. He spread his arms and legs, got stable, then pulled the ripcord. 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, she was missing the real show. The Gateway Arch towered fifty 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 3 in the morning, the woman had the park to herself, which is why she’d picked 3 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 really didn’t.
A crackling noise caused her to finally look up. Her mouth dropped open and she couldn’t even moan her excitement any more. 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 x and y 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 she’d 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 McDonalds.
Eden felt the hairs on her arm tingle and there was a 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. Because 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 coming 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, ancient maps used to write 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 felt that, though, instead of a bunch of somethings, a single someone stepped through and the golden rift 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 own 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 and cocked his head, revealing more of his disfigurement.
“Does my face disturb you?” he asked. As he spoke, the skin rippled, and smoothed out. “Better?”
Eden still couldn’t find words.
“I guess not.” He looked down at the laptop and tsk-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.
With his free hand, the man grabbed the top of her head, 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 Ivar 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 suppressed 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 M-240 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’s 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 three am, 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 rear view mirror, dreading that a cop car would pull up behind him.
He couldn’t afford another DUI. He’d not only lose 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 seatbelt 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 mission.
He leaned over and looked below. There was a body on the grass.
Roland sighed, a true believer in Heinlen’s principle that the only capital crime is stupidity, a Nada Yada before Nada even thought of his Yada’s. M-240 now readied in one hand, he reached for his knife to cut the magnets loose from his boots.
“Sitrep?” Moms voice echoed out of the earplug.
“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. Also, the outside of the aircraft was 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, the pilot, 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, over 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 mid-western accent which 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 kill 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, 30mm 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 covers stories for civilians who might get caught up in the action.
“Acquiring target,” Eagle said as he centered the sight for the chain gun 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. 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 and during the Battlestar Gallactica 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 machinegun 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 one), one in the forehead (no blood so she’d already been dead). 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.
*****Admin Note from Jen*****
Bob will be giving away a set of autographed Nightstalker books to one lucky winner who signs up for our mailing list for our infrequent newsletter (sent out 6 times a year). All you have to do is sign up! You can do that by following this link. Those already there and those who sign up by the end of the week are eligible for the random drawing done by Cool Gus. As the year goes on there will be more giveaways and also exclusive material and first reads done through the newsletter.