Hi, we’re Evan Trevane and Shawn M. Casey, the writing team of T. C. Archer. We’re starting off with a short story Evan wrote.
Â As youâ€™ll see, Santa really gets around.
My First Christmas on Mars
I found myself wandering along Mars Station Alphaâ€™s outer interconnects on Christmas Eve, 2062. It was my first Christmas away from home, and I missed my family, my friends. I stopped, leaned against the railing, and gazed at the main complex, the rim of my helmet resting on the transparent arc of the tube. Outside, a bleak Martian courtyard separated the tube I patrolled and the officerâ€™s quarters. Nearly all the officers had decorated their cube with miniature plastic Christmas Trees, twinkling lights, or welcome candles. And me, a PFC bachelor consigned to the dormitory, didnâ€™t have enough room for a spittoon, let alone lights or a tree. â€œJoin the Rangers, see the System,â€ I recited. Yeah, four walls, 25 cubic feet of oxygen, and three squares a day.
Part of me was glad I volunteered to take Christmas duty, but the other part was disappointed I hadnâ€™t planned anything enjoyable to take my mind off being away from home during the holidays. And so I strolled, making my rounds through the outermost connecting tubes that spanned the colony like the threads of a spider web.
The overhead lights flickered for a heartbeat then snapped to dim Martian red. Klaxons sounded. â€œGeneral Quarters. General Quarters. DefCon Yoke,â€ blared over my radio.
Christmas lights, all lights, extinguished around the colony â€” Blackout Conditions. Hell, they wouldnâ€™t have a drill on Christmas Eve. Not tonight. That would be cruel.
â€œBattle stations Gamma. This is not a drill.â€
A knot gripped my gut as I flipped on my heads-up display.
A ghostly tactical map, scrolling ops-printout, and battle stats floated before my eyes. Thumbing the integrate control on my weapon, I cycled through battle plans on the display until I came to Gamma, and swore. My battle station was almost a kilometer away, through a maze of interconnects, junction modules, and cubes. To make matters worse, the gamma plan meant a space-borne threat and I was in a Plexiglas tube on the outskirts. All airtight doors designated X and Y would be closed and sealed by now.
Glancing left, then right at the junctions, I had no clear plan. One direction looked just as good as the other. I transmitted a command to plot the fastest route to my battle station. A warning light flashed. The connection to central command was down. Damnit, blackout meant no wireless too. Fear gelled in my gut. I didnâ€™t have time for this.
I selected DefCon Yokeâ€“Gamma on my portable, which gave me a canned route assuming the X-Ray and Yoke doors sealed in a gamma battle-plan scenario. A map flashed on the screen in front of my eyes. A green line traced my route and I broke out in a cold sweat. I had a serpentine path along the outside of the colony, almost entirely through interconnectsâ€“-exposed and vulnerable.
Shit. I un-slung my M-41 and ran, crouching, toward the east junction. Once there, I spun to survey the status lights on each doorâ€”three reds, one green. As the computer had predicted, the paths leading deeper into the colony were already locked down. Their status lights glowed red.
I hit the next two hundred meter long interconnect at a full run, no crouching this time. Since the threat was from space and the upper half of the tube was transparent, I was observable anyway.
The next junction was a sixer: six doors. I spun around. All but two were sealed, the one I had just come through and one leading further around the outside of the colony. Alarm Klaxons sounded again. Second alarm meant all doors would close. I lunged for the east tube, just clearing the hatch as it slammed shut. The clang of locks engaged. The status on both ends of the connecting tube switched to red. Trapped, my heart leapt into my throat. They only locked all the doors when the threat was immanent. I energized my M-41 and waited.
I searched the night sky. A point of light moved against the field of stars. Moving at great speed, the intruder brightened and blazed red. The ass end of a ship, rockets firing, breaking in a hard decent, seemed to point directly at me. No wonder the threat had developed so fast.
Hands slippery on my weapon, my heart hammered hard as I watched the craft make an arc across the sky, growing brighter by the second. I checked my armament load: 20 explosive rounds and 200 .30 cals.
My weaponry would do nothing against the Naugâ€™s smallest shuttle. But if they exit their vehicles, I could take a few of those slugs with me.
I switched the M-41 over to grenade launcher and waited, praying they wouldnâ€™t notice me there all alone. As the red glow brightened, the rest of the object shimmered burgundy in the reflected light. The object was a complex, articulating thing and didnâ€™t match any Naug ship I had ever seen. I flipped down my binocular lenses and my heart stopped. All I could think about was the story by Clement Clarke Moore and how I was the one who threw up the sash.
Out in the sky flew a sleigh and eight tiny reindeer, with a ninth in front, his nose brilliant red. And to my astonishment, there was a tiny man riding in the open sleigh, dressed in a red spacesuit with bags of gifts piled high behind him. At that moment, my prayers changed. I wanted him to see me there, waving and grinning. I wanted to be the first one to welcome Old St. Nick to Mars Station 12.
We’re giving away a digital copy of Chain Reaction, the first book in our Phenom League Series.
For love of country and a woman, Jordan Pierce must sacrifice his humanity.
Former Chicago Detective Jordan Pierce put his life on hold in order to protect America’s secret weapon against the Nazis; The Manhattan Project. But he can’t protect himself against the disease eating away at his humanity. Jordan discovers how much of his soul this infection has devoured when he falls in love with the woman who could destroy America. Choosing her, means choosing the monster he’s becoming, making him the most powerful man he’s ever known.
A moment later, I halted in front of the closed door where Dr Nichols waited. The name painted on the glass read: Dr Enrico Roma, the alias of the great scientist and Nobel Prize laureate Enrico Fermi. The alias didn’t fool anybody but the ignorant. Light shone through the milky glass window. I blew out a breath. The last thing I wanted to do was interrogate a hysterical woman.
I opened the door and stopped dead at the sight of a shapely blonde leaning against Fermi’s mahogany desk. I stared as realization sunk in that the Veronica Lake look-alike standing there was the same egghead pictured in her personnel file. The glasses she’d worn were absent and, despite the red-rimmed eyes and drawn expression, the single overhead light warmed the creamy complexion that had looked bland and colorless in the photo.
Thick blond hair slid across her face in a broad wave and flowed down slim shoulders. Suddenly, I understood the reasoning behind the functional bun in the picture. Despite the legs that mesmerized a man all the way down to the high heel straps, the tweed skirt and blazer she wore emphatically stated the bombshell figure was off limits. But the moment a man laid eyes on her luxurious hair all bets were off. My breath caught with bloodlust as I drew in her scent from across the room.
Gray-blue eyes stared from behind the drape of blond hair. Her gaze flicked to my waistband and I realized she’d glimpsed the colt holstered beneath my suit jacket.
“You wear your gun like a gangster,” she said.
I startled. Her voice, low and sultry, held a shaky note, but I knew the remark was payment for my staring.
“This incident requires I carry a weapon.” My drill sergeant used to berate any reference to the word gun. “Your gun is between your legs, son. Your pistol or rifle is called a weapon.”
She continued to stare and guilt stabbed at me. She’d discovered a colleague who’d been brutally murdered, and I stood in the doorway gawking at her. I swallowed, feeling like a school kid.
“Dr Nichols, I’m Agent Pierce, head of nightshift security.” Her fingers tightened around a lace handkerchief gripped in her right palm. I didn’t want to step closer, but had to. Her pheromones were making my blood, or what was left of it, crave an infusion from her veins. “What happened?”
Her gaze dropped to the hankie and she began working the fabric with both hands. “I was working late and needed Leon to come to the lab. I couldn’t get the Geiger counter to calibrate. I knocked. When no one answered, I opened the door andâ€¦” Her eyes swung up to meet mine. “So much blood.” Her gaze remained locked with my eyes as if demanding a response.
“I’m sorry,” I offered. “I thought you were assigned to dayshift.”
She swiped at the corners of her eyes with the handkerchief. “I switched shifts yesterday so Leon and I could calibrate the new equipment.”
I nodded. The scientists worked a twelve hours on, twelve off schedule seven days a week. We were in a race against Nazi scientists while men died in Europe, North Africa, and the Pacific. “Did you notice anything unusual tonight?” I asked.
“Hear anything strange on the way to Dr Heinrick’s office, pass anyone in the hall?”
She shook her head. “Maybe he’s still here.”
Something in the way she stared atâ€”throughâ€”me, searching for answers and fearing what she might find, threatened to tip me off balance. “The murderer is gone,” I replied in a level voice.
“How do you know?”
“A hunch,” I said, and meant it.
“Why kill Heinrick?” she said. “Why not Compton or Fermi? But Heinrickâ€¦” Her voice trailed off.
“Are you saying Heinrick didn’t know anything worth killing for?”
“I suppose we all know something worth killing for. Each scientist on this project is top in his or her field. But the project will go on without Heinrick. If we lost Oppenheimer, or Fermi, the project would be delayed, if not brought to a standstill.”
“Did you enter Heinrick’s office?”
“No, I took one look and ran.”
The response, given without hesitation, or guile, made me wonder if this woman ran from anything.
“This was the first office I came to,” she said.
Her story made sense, and my instincts said she was telling the truth. I had learned to trust my sixth sense, especially the last eight months. This ability was another one of those things I couldn’t explain, like being conscious of the way her pheromones where working on me double-time.
“Are you staying in the dorm?” I asked.
“I’ll have someone escort you there.”
Desire to go with her shot to the surface with the heat of a volcano. I pictured white skin, full breasts, and blond hair between perfect thighs. I forced my breathing to remain even, and the swelling in my shorts abated. I’d never experienced such sudden, intense lust. If I escorted her back to her room I would drink her bloodâ€”and God only knew what I would do to her afterward. My pulse jumped with the thought of her warm blood flowing past my tongue down my throatâ€¦ and her tight walls closing around me as I entered her.
“I have to complete my measurements before the day shift,” she said. I jarred from the erotic thought. “There’s not enough equipment to go around,” she added.
I nodded. “Of course.”
Clipped footsteps sounded almost noiselessly on the linoleum floor of the hallway and I recognized McHenry’s walk two seconds before Dr Nichols’s eyes shifted over my shoulder.
I glanced back to see him standing in the open doorway.
“The general wants to talk to you.”
A measure of sanity reasserted itself. I had to get away from her, now. “Could you escort Dr Nichols back to the lab?”
His expression lightened. “No problem.” He stepped aside and motioned toward the door with an open hand. “Dr Nichols.”
She cast me a farewell glance and headed toward the door. I tried tearing my eyes from the gentle sway of hips as she walked past, but couldn’t, and felt the heat swell to the surface again. I had to find one of the small rodents whose blood I drank to keep my thirst for human blood at bay, or go back to Heinrick and hope the congealed blood in his decaying body would make me forget the craving. Rising desire twisted my insides and I feared even Heinrick’s dead blood wouldn’t work against the warm, pulsing blood of Dr Nichols.
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