Time for another update, a few days later than originally intended. First up, it’s now been a full week since the last pledge, which is the source of my gradually swelling panic. My efforts to garner attention seem to be running into brick walls, and occasionally the steel girders behind those brick walls.
Bad luck can’t last, though, and I’m bound to start finding friendly venues soon.
Of course, I’m just one man, and I’d very much appreciate any help you wonderful souls can provide. Every friend you tell, link you send, and blog comment you post could be the difference between this project’s success and failure. You also have a significant advantage over me when telling people about the project: you’re not the guy running it.
I know many of you have already pledged your hard-earned dollars, but if you could please take a few minutes to spread the word today, I would appreciate it more than words can express.
Next up is this week’s excerpt from Stars Rain Down. This is one of the shorter chapters, about a tenth of the way into the story, and occurs right as the invasion is starting. The character is Jack Hernandez, who’s a member of the Emergency Response Corps. They’re a humanitarian aid group sort of like the Red Cross, but turned up to eleven.
Hope you enjoy today’s reading!
Chapter 6: The Earth Stands Still
The sky was dull grey, and rain was trying to fall in fits and starts. It wasn’t a storm yet, but the promise of something dreadful hid within the water fat clouds. Jack Hernandez wasn’t pleased. The last thing he wanted to see on returning from hurricane-ravaged Jacksonville was more rain. He’d been hip-deep in flood waters for so long he could scarcely remember what dry underwear felt like, and he spent the entire flight home dreaming about the warm San Jose sun. His plan was to do nothing but dry out for two straight days.
The sun, that cowardly bastard, was nowhere to be found.
Jack’s train ride was quiet and fast, followed by an energetic if mechanical march back from the station and a quick trot up to the door. The apartment unlocked itself as he approached, and he was already half-stripped when the door closed behind him. He tossed his backpack aside, unzipped his jumpsuit and let it hang limply from his waist, drew his tank-top over his head and threw it to the floor. Hopping, he yanked off one boot and then the other, stepped out of the jumpsuit and left it in a damp heap. In another moment, his sponge-like boxers and socks were gone, and he collapsed on the living room carpet naked.
The air in his apartment was cool and—to Jack’s great satisfaction—bone dry. Without the television on, the room was silent save for the sound of his breathing and the intermittent patter of rain on the patio. It didn’t quite measure up to his sun-soaked dreams, but it would do. He lost track of time lying there on the floor, staring at the ceiling and listening to a world momentarily at peace.
When his phone began to ring, he was adamant about not answering it. Just let it go, he told himself. It can’t be anything important. The answering machine will get it. The second ring came and went, the third followed close behind. By the fourth, he was starting to reconsider. Before the fifth ring came, he was on his feet and moving.
He plucked the handset from its cradle. “Hello?”
“Hey Jack,” a sultry sweet voice came back. “You were supposed to call when you landed, dopefish.”
“Sorry, Jess. I was so tired, I came straight home and passed out.” That was close enough to the truth.
“Good news, then. I’m on my way over with an armload of groceries. I’m cooking you dinner tonight.”
“What’s the occasion?”
“How about because I miss you, silly?”
Jack smiled, and for a second his thoughts wandered to the ring nestled in its delicate little box at the bottom of his sock drawer. “Good reason. How far away are you?”
“Five minutes,” she guessed.
“That doesn’t give me much time to get dressed.”
“Whatever you’re wearing is fine,” Jess said. “See you in a bit.” Then dial-tone.
Jack dropped the phone back into its cradle and saw the message light blinking. It couldn’t be good news. It was never good news, but he hit play anyway.
“Don’t suppose you recognize my voice, do you? It’s your mother. Maybe I should adopt the answering machine; at least it picks up the phone when I call. Anyway, just letting you know Charlie got promoted to Staff Sergeant. Isn’t that great? I know you don’t like what he does, but you should talk to him. He worked so hard, and… He’d never say it, but he still looks up to you. He only joined up with Carbon Corp because he wanted to help people like you do. He’s starting his third tour, Egypt this time, and I’d really appreciate if you at least gave him a call before he ships out. I guess that’s it. Hope you and Jess can join us for Thanksgiving. Love you, and call me sometime.”
It never ceased to amaze Jack how much guilt that woman could cram into a one minute recording. He also realized, with heavy heart, that she’d never understand the rift between her sons. When Jack joined the ERC, he dedicated himself to helping people any way he could, regardless of race, religion or politics. He risked life and limb for strangers every day, and it just wasn’t the kind of work a person could do without believing in the cause. He was a true believer, through and through.
Then Charlie made the most Charlie-like decision possible: he became a damned mercenary with Carbon Corporation. He wasn’t helping people; he was putting bleeding holes in them and blowing them to bits.
This was nothing new. Charlie always made messes that Jack had to clean up, and now their childhood was repeating itself, but inflated to a global scale. This was the culmination of a pattern, the last step in making sure everything Jack did was ultimately meaningless.
After a moment of reflection, Jack suspected that was a tad melodramatic.
They didn’t see one another much anymore, and whenever they did, Jack conveniently forgot he was a pacifist. There were black eyes, split lips and cracked ribs on both sides, and they finally decided that avoidance was the only sensible answer. It turned out to be a great policy, and they hadn’t spoken in two years. Two wondrous, blissful years.
As Jack stood by the phone, mulling over his little brother killing dissidents in Egypt, he heard the door open and all of the anger and frustration melted away.
In a few long strides, he crossed the floor and intercepted Jess in the open doorway. His arms encircled her, his hands pressed into the small of her back, his head craned down and he gently pressed his mouth to her soft lips. The bag of groceries between them dropped to the floor.
After a moment, he pulled away and looked into her brilliant blue eyes, but stayed so close he could feel her warm breath breaking against his upper lip. “I missed you, too,” he whispered.
“I noticed,” she said with a grin. “You’re naked.”
“You said whatever I’m wearing is fine. You, on the other hand, are way over-dressed.” He stole another kiss. “And so beautiful.”
Before Jess could reply, Jack’s arms cinched around her waist and lifted her up, then he spun her around. She filled the room with laughter, and he attacked her open mouth, hungrily kissing and nibbling at her lower lip.
He lowered her back to the floor with one arm and closed the door with the other.
“Dinner?” She asked.
He ducked his head under her chin and laid one kiss and another on the tender skin of her throat, all the while inhaling her sweet honeysuckle scent. “Dessert,” he suggested.
Then the moment was ruined. The datapad in his backpack blared out an alert, but Jack was adamant about not answering it. Just let it go, he told himself. It can’t be anything important. He froze in place, savoring the feeling of her warm body against his. The second alert came and went, the third followed close behind. The fourth began, but he wouldn’t let himself reconsider. Before the fifth alert came, Jess made up his mind for him.
“You have to answer it,” she said.
He reached into the pack, retrieved his pad and looked grimly at the screen. “It’s Priority One,” he said.
“Well, I’ve been with the Corps for nine years, and I’ve never seen anything worse than Priority Two.”
He flashed back to orientation and heard his instructor’s voice listing Priority One scenarios. “Nuclear strike, nerve or chemical agent, epidemic, asteroid impact.”
Jack gestured at the TV and it came on, but the black screen said, “No Signal.”
“You should go,” Jess said with two tons of regret in her voice.
“Nuclear strike, nerve or chemical agent, epidemic, asteroid impact,” his instructor droned on.
“I’m so sorry,” Jack said. “I have to go.”
“I know. It’s why I love you, Corpsman Hernandez. You’re out to save the world, and someday, you’re going to.”
“Nuclear strike, nerve or chemical agent, epidemic, asteroid impact,” the old voice was now chanting.
“There’s something I need to ask you when I get back. You’ll be here?”
She smiled and kissed him, and there was a tension that hadn’t been there a moment before. “Yes,” she whispered in his ear, “I’ll always be here waiting for you, until the stars rain down from the sky.”
And he knew she would.
On autopilot, Jack dressed in fresh clothes, checked his gear and flew out the door. He ran to the train station and caught the mag-lev down to Vandenberg, totally oblivious to everything around him. He didn’t notice everyone in the station fiddling with their malfunctioning phones, or gossiping about blank televisions. He missed the announcement that the train was being guided manually in the absence of the traffic network, and he didn’t even notice that his GPS was blank.
Jack didn’t notice because he was thinking about that question he would ask when he got back. During the trip, he didn’t once hear his instructor’s voice and the list of possible calamities. All he heard, over and over again, was Jess’ promise to wait for him, in that voice that was too sweet for words.
And that’s the chapter. Thanks for reading, and thanks for helping me make this project a reality!