The hot line was crowded, so Bookbinder headed for the cold food section, piling his tray with fruit amid the relative quiet. This is stupid. You want bacon and eggs. Go get on the damned hot line!
I can’t bear to look at anyone right now. Besides, this will help me lose weight.
You don’t need to lose weight, you fucking coward! Go get the breakfast you want!
But while Bookbinder’s mind raged, his body moved with the same wooden rote that it had when he’d gone to his office after Taylor threatened him. He took a foam bowl off the stack, filled it with bran flakes that he didn’t even like, then opened the mini fridge to get a container of milk. But the mini fridge door didn’t budge.
The unexpected resistance brought Bookbinder out of his reverie. He looked up to note that the fridge was locked and unplugged. A paper sign was taped to the front. NO MILK UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE.
Bookbinder had eaten in military DFACs his entire career. In all that time, none of them had ever run out of milk. He looked at the juice case. It was powered at least, but three quarters empty.
Bookbinder turned to one of the goblin contractors wrestling a stack of cardboard boxes from behind the refrigerated cases. ‘What’s up here?’ he pointed at the fridge.
The creature gave him a blank look, then turned to a navy non–rate, who stuffed his clipboard into his armpit as he approached the colonel. ‘Can I help you with something, sir?’
‘Yes, what’s up with the milk and the juice? I’m the J1 here, and I didn’t see any reduction in the standard food order.’
‘I know who you are, sir. There’s been a rationing order put out for all perishables, effective immediately. Came down last night at eighteen hundred.’
‘A rationing order? Why?’
‘I don’t know, sir,’ he gestured to the fruit and salad bar. ‘That’s starting to run low too.’
The comms blackout. Fitzsimmons’ sudden vacation and now this.
‘Who runs food services here?’ Bookbinder asked. ‘It’s Major Holland, right? I didn’t tell him to ration anything.’
‘No, sir. He got it straight from Colonel Taylor himself.’
Taylor. That meant if he was going to get any answers, it would mean yet another confrontation, and Taylor had made it clear what he could expect from another one of those.
Something is very wrong. Supply issues are your problem. You have to find out what’s going on. Even if it meant facing Taylor? He was terrified of the man’s threats and rage. But he was angry that he had to worry about either one.
Bookbinder threw his tray down on top of the mini fridge in disgust and stormed out.
As he moved through the entryway, he noted the corkboard clustered with slips of paper thumbtacked over one another, advertising the various events on the FOB. Announcements for the perimeter 5K run and the Sunday morning prayer breakfast were crowded out by the official notices, warning FOB residents of the dangers of Source flora and fauna (IF YOU DON’T RECOGNIZE IT, DON’T TOUCH IT! REPORT TO YOUR FIRST SERGEANT IMMEDIATELY), reminding them to report suspected Latency or negligent magical discharges.
But one sign dominated the board’s center, stopping him dead in his tracks.
BY ORDER OF THE CAMP COMMANDANT: ALL NON–ESSENTIAL RANGE USE IS CANCELLED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE. WAIVERS WILL BE EXTENDED ONLY FOR WEAPONS REQUALIFICATIONS. UNIT ARMORERS ARE TO REPORT TO SFC SCOTT FOR INSTRUCTIONS ON AMMUNITION CONSERVATION AND DISPENSING.
It was dated that day.
Perishable food. Ammunition. I don’t care if he does kick my teeth in. We’ve got a severe supply problem here.
Bookbinder marched out onto the plaza, looking for Taylor. With each step he took, his legs grew heavier as the cloud of fear around him coalesced into molasses. And then I will keep kicking you, until you piss blood for the rest of your natural life.
Of course, Taylor was trying to scare him. But fear robbed Bookbinder of all perspective. All he could smell was the sour taint of Taylor’s breath, all he could feel was the pulse pound of the man’s tangible anger.
He was almost glad when the indirect hit.
A deafening bang rocked the plaza, as a pillar of flame shot up over one of the blast barricades not fifty feet distant. A loud succession of booms sounded off in the distance. Bookbinder could see a cloud of circling rocs in the distance. The giant eagle–like birds looked small from here, but he knew up close they were bigger than a tank.
The SASS perimeter again. The goblins were launching another attack, maybe hoping to break through before the defenses were fully repaired.
The siren began to wail, calling all personnel to action stations. Men and women raced past him, pulling weapons off their shoulders and checking magazine wells. The low growl of helicopters spinning up echoed in the distance.
Well, you were going to get in a fight anyway. Might as well get in one where you actually stand a chance.
Since the last attack on the SASS, Bookbinder carried three loaded magazines as he was supposed to do at all times. He drew his pistol. It looked unfamiliar in his hand; heavy, thick. He took the weapon off safety, kept his finger off the trigger and raced in the general direction of the chaos. En route, he spotted an electric cart heaped with helmets and body armor, two goblin contractors jogging behind, keeping
the heap from tumbling off.
‘You! Stop! I need gear!’ he shouted. The driver stopped the cart, hopping out and saluting. The soldier sized him up, pressed him a vest and helmet, saluted again, then jumped
back on the cart. ‘Good luck, sir!’
Bookbinder donned the gear, still amazed at what a little yelling had done, and followed behind. The crowd jostled as he moved closer, pushing through a wall of dark smoke, blanketed by noise; screams, gunfire, explosions, the sizzle and crackle of magic. In the midst of the press, choking on the brimstone stink of powdered concrete and cordite, all the people blended together. In this darkness and confusion, there was no branch, no rank, not even faces. There were just people, lots of them, all moving towards a common goal. Here, Bookbinder wasn’t an administrative colonel, he was just another grunt, doing his part.
The peace it gave him would have been shocking if it weren’t so soothing. He was smiling as he stepped out of the cloud of smoke.
And into hell.
He’d thought the indirect fire had hardened him. He’d shuddered through loud explosions, smelled the ozone stink of impacting magic, heard the screams and even seen the charred corpses of the dead.
It was nothing.
The SASS perimeter was a broken jumble of cracked concrete barricades and burning heaps of razor wire topped fencing. The newly erected guard tower had collapsed, igniting the magazine of the Mark 19 grenade launcher. The crew’s remains were strewn about the wreckage, hands, half a torso, smoldering boots.
Two SOC Terramancers crouched in the wreckage, calling up a shelf of earth that provided much needed cover from the sea of goblins surging beyond. Bookbinder hadn’t known that so many of the creatures existed in the entire Source. They trooped forward, many mounted on enormous, snarling wolves. Their sorcerers came with them, skin painted chalk white, hands crackling with magical energy. The horde hummed with rage, a drone so loud that it competed with the steady stream of gunfire mounting from the defense. Clouds of arrows, javelins and bullets erupted from the goblin throng, undisciplined bursts of fire that were effective through sheer volume. A woman beside Bookbinder coughed blood and collapsed.
A SOC Aeromancer streaked overhead, lightning arcing from his fingers and plowing into the goblin mass, setting scores of them alight before a roc crashed into him, sending him spinning, catching him in its beak, cracking his spine.
The rocks in the earth barricade glowed red–hot as a goblin Pyromancer arced a pillar of flame across it, sending one of the Terramancers and three other defenders screaming, beating at the flames.
A Stryker crested the rubble behind Bookbinder, the gunner letting off a brief stream of rounds from the fifty cal, then pausing as Colonel Taylor appeared, climbing the Stryker’s standoff armor and yelling at him, waving frantically.
And then Taylor’s eyes widened. He dove off the turret just as the gunner tried to duck below. A massive chunk of a barricade wall, rebar jutting from its jagged edges, knocked the turret clean off, sending it tumbling through the defenders, eliciting a chorus of screams. The dull thudding of approaching helicopters was momentarily drowned out by a roar of rage.
Taylor scrambled to his feet as Bookbinder turned.
Two huge creatures advanced through the goblins, each taller than any of the FOB’s low buildings. They looked much like the goblins that barely reached above their shins; the same brown, gnarled skin. The same pointed ears and hooked noses. But there the similarity ended. Where the goblins were lean, these things were as thick as iron girders.
One of them roared again, swinging an oddly–shaped club. Bookbinder realized it was the shorn turret of an Abrams tank.
One of the helicopters swooped low, miniguns opening on the creature, then began to spin as a summoned wind knocked it in a tight circle, a goblin Aeromancer rising over the creature’s head. The giant snatched the helo’s tailboom, stopping it in mid–air, leaning dramatically to avoid the spinning rotors. The pilots and crew tumbled out the side, screaming, disappearing in the horde of goblins beneath them. The giant roared and cast the helicopter into what remained of the Terramancer’s barricade, flipping it over and
tumbling into the defenders, who fell back.
‘Come on!’ Bookbinder shouted, striding forward. He leveled his pistol and squeezed off a few rounds, certain he wasn’t hitting even the massive targets presented by the giants. ‘You scared of a couple of big goblins?’ You sound like an idiot. A scared idiot.
But a small company of soldiers looked up at him, shamefaced, then took their knees, finding cover in the broken rubble, firing into the approaching mass. An arrow whizzed close enough that he felt the fletching cut across his cheek. Get down! His mind screamed, but he forced himself to walk among the defenders, shouting encouragement. What would Patton say at a time like this? Oh Christ, he had no damned idea. ‘Pour it on, people!’ He tried. He was terrified, but the wooden feeling in his limbs was gone. Well, at least if the goblins kill me, I don’t have to face Taylor.
Pillars of flame erupted in the goblin ranks as SOC Pyromancers secured positions in the wreckage. A figure rose out of the ground and wrestled with one of the giants, some Terramancer’s automaton, taking the drubbing from the swinging tank turret, but reforming just as quickly, its rock fists giving as good as it got.
Bookbinder tried to keep his shoulders back, his chin up. He fired more shots in the enemy’s direction. ‘You’re going to let a bunch of pointy–eared rats overrun your position? Show ’em what you’ve got!’ Could they hear the quaver in his voice? Around him, knots of defenders were coalescing. Here was a group of Suppressed marines setting up a belt–fed grenade launcher. There was an army sniper team, picking targets quickly, the need to aim obviated by the enemy’s clustered formation. Were they actually taking heart from his theatrics?
He heard Taylor shouting at some unfortunate soldier. ‘Conserve your ammunition, damn it!’
Conserve ammunition? In the middle of this?
Suddenly the world spun around him. Something slammed into his head, rattling his teeth. A moment later he realized it was the ground. The stink of ozone and blood filled his nostrils. Sound vanished, replaced by a ringing–whine. He scrambled in the mud, his vision gone. Was he blind? No, he could see light, make out shapes. Get up! Get up! But his limbs moved as if through thick water, and he was hot . . . so very hot. The brimstone smell gave way to the acrid stench of burning plastic and hair.
His vision returned and he rose to his knees, bringing one arm into view.
It burned brightly. He was on fire.
Bookbinder screamed, rolling on the ground, beating at the flames.
‘I’ve got you, sir,’ someone said. He saw a navy sailor running towards him, shouldering his rifle and pulling a water bladder off his back. There was a whoosh and a blazing ball of fire caught him in the chest, sending him tumbling in a heap.
The heat subsided as Bookbinder rolled in the mud, until he bumped against the shins of a goblin. It was painted entirely chalk white, its wizened features contorted with hate. It bent over and gripped the front of his smoldering body armor, hauling him to his knees. The goblin’s magical current eddied out from it, so strong that it nearly overwhelmed him.
Well done, he thought. You were the only one walking around while everyone else was taking cover. You were so brave, you managed to attract one of their Sorcerers.
The creature’s fist ignited in a ball of flame. It spat something in its own language, raising its hand.
Bookbinder’s current surged forward, borne on his panic. It interlaced with the goblin’s. Where it tugged at other magical currents during testing, now it wrenched, and Bookbinder felt the creature’s magic break free, funneled away from it. The goblin’s brows knit in terror and it dropped him, jumping backward, its fire fizzling out. There was an odd silence. The goblin stared at him, its expression horrified, as if to say how could you?
Bookbinder raised his pistol and shot it.
For all his lack of practice, he caught the creature in the middle of its forehead. Its look of horrified violation turned to surprise, then emptiness, then it fell over on its side, shuddered and was still.
And then Bookbinder noticed that the tide of battle had turned.
An avenue of gore opened through the goblins, wide as two–lane road. The ground churned to mud beneath a carpet of lead, chunks of earth the size of a man’s fist bouncing skyward to mix with the shredded flesh of goblin, wolf and giant alike. The sky was dark with summoned clouds and drifting smoke, but Bookbinder knew that an A–10 Warthog had gotten airborne and begun its strafing run.
The withering fire added to the mounting defense, raining bullets on the attacking horde. At last they began to buckle. First in ones and twos, the goblins sprinted back into the fields, falling under carpets of Aeromantic lightning. Bookbinder could practically feel the fear sweeping over the attackers. In moments, the trickle became a flood as the enemy fell back to the cheers of the defenders, fleeing.
Bookbinder watched them run. He lightly patted his hands over his body. His gear and clothing were melted and smoldering, but apart from what felt like a bad sunburn, he didn’t feel too badly hurt.
The scuff of boots in the dirt in front of him brought him back into focus. He looked up at a battered marine staff sergeant, his gear streaked with dust and blood.
‘You all right, sir?’ The man asked.
‘Um, I think so. How do I look?’
The man smiled. ‘Like a steely eyed dealer of death, sir. Oorah.’ He saluted, then headed off.
Bookbinder stared at his back. A real marine, the kind that ate nails for breakfast, had just complimented him. After a battle. Bookbinder’s mind swirled, the smoke, the terror, the goblin standing over him, all threatened to overwhelm him. Later.
But a notion was leaping in his gut. Colonel Alan Bookbinder, fit only for processing spreadsheets and pay statements, just fought in a battle and held his own.
Taylor’s voice cut through his thoughts. The colonel held an army private by the collar and shook him vigorously. ‘Full auto!’ Taylor screamed. ‘You’re firing on full fucking auto! Did I not expressly order you to conserve rounds? Is that how you treat government property?! Is that what you do with the tax–payer funded ammunition entrusted to you?’
The scream was not the low growl of rage Taylor confronted Bookbinder with before. It was high, bordering on hysteria.
Bookbinder was amazed at Taylor’s lack of control, amazed he had survived a real battle. Another amazement overshadowed them all.
Bookbinder was amazed that he no longer feared this man who was big, but thick around the middle. Who was angry, but screaming with the whining hysteria of a man succumbing to panic.
Before he knew it, Bookbinder had crossed the intervening distance. ‘Colonel Taylor, I think this young man has had quite enough.’
Taylor turned to face Bookbinder, hysteria yielding to surprise. His eyes widened as he let go of the private, who immediately saluted, grabbed his weapon and jogged away.
It took a moment for Taylor to put on an authoritative expression. ‘Just what in the hell are you doing here?’
‘Same as you, rallying to the defense of this base.’
‘I thought I told you . . .’
‘You told me a lot of things. And now I need you to tell me something else. What the hell is going on here? There’s some kind of supply issue and all I know is that it’s sudden and severe. We’ve got sundries issues at the DFAC, and you’re shaking down a private, a fucking private, instead of leaving it to his first sergeant. And for firing on the enemy? Now quit fucking around and tell me what’s up.’
‘I fucking warned you . . .’
‘Then do it!’ Bookbinder screamed, mashing his forehead against Taylor’s, driving the bigger man back a step. ‘Go ahead and kick me in the blood piss, or whatever stupid shit you were going on about before. But you better fucking killme, because if you don’t I will keep coming back until you won’t be able to get a lick of work done because you’ll spend every hour of every day fighting me.’
Taylor gaped. Some predatory instinct deep within Bookbinder surged, carrying the magic with it. He struggled as he fought it down. Taylor stood in shocked silence.
‘Now, there’s two ways we can do this,’ Bookbinder began again, anger yielding to fatigue. ‘You can bring me into your confidence and we can try to solve this problem together. Or, I can order a complete inventory of all ammunition reserves, which is well within my authority as the J1 here. This will tie up all ammunition distribution. Nobody will get a single round without my say so. That won’t be a problem if new stores are inbound, but they’re not, are they Colonel Taylor?’
Taylor’s shoulders sagged, the fight totally gone out of him. I can’t believe it. I was so certain he would crush me. Is this all he is?
‘Are they?!’ Bookbinder asked again through gritted teeth.
Taylor looked at the ground. When he spoke, his voice barely above a whisper. ‘No, Alan. They’re not.’
The predatory sense of victory melted away at the sound of that voice. Bookbinder the alpha male was gone, replaced by Bookbinder the father and husband. He put his hand on Taylor’s shoulder.
‘Why?’ Bookbinder asked. ‘What’s going on?’
‘We lost contact three days ago,’ Taylor said. ‘I’m not sure if it has to do with Oscar Britton’s escape or not. All I know is that Billy’s not opening the portals any more. We’ve got no comms with the Home Plane. Nothing is coming through; no food, no ammo.
‘We’re cut off.’