A child’s wish for her father comes true. The end of the world has never been so much fun. Conquering personal demons becomes all too real. It’s not always about winning; sometimes it’s about showing up for the fight. It’s about loving your life’s work, and jobs that make you question everything.
In this anthology, seventeen authors have woven together brand-new stories that speak to the darkness and despair that life brings while reminding us that good deeds, humor, love, sacrifice, dedication, and following our joy can ignite a light that burns so bright the darkness cannot last.
Laurell K. Hamilton and William McCaskey are joined by Kevin J. Anderson, Griffin Barber, Patricia Briggs, Larry Correia, Kacey Ezell, Monalisa Foster, Robert E. Hampson, John G. Hartness, Jonathan Maberry, L. E. Modesitt, Jr., Jessica Schlenker, Sharon Shinn, M. C. Sumner, Patrick M. Tracy, and Michael Z. Williamson in this collection.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Sold by:||Penguin Group|
|File size:||3 MB|
About the Author
Hometown:St. Louis, Missouri
Date of Birth:February 19, 1963
Place of Birth:Heber Springs, Arkansas
Education:B.A., Marion College
Read an Excerpt
A Joe Ledger Rogue Team International Adventure
Omfori Island, Greece
"They're not chem-trails," I said with the last fragment of patience. "They're contrails."
We were in the briefing room and I was pretty close to throwing my cup of coffee at the smug little bastard who hosted the conspiracy theory radio show. Jim Peabody. He had a lean, oddly angular birdlike body and looked like an affronted egret. He had the kind of face you wanted to throw a coffee cup at. Even if you like coffee as much as I do. It was very hot coffee and it would hurt. So, the struggle was real because I wanted him to shut the fuck up.
"Just listen to him, sugar," said Joan Holliday, the head of our integrated sciences division. She looks like a six-foot-plus version of Dolly Parton. All the glam, glitter, curves, and sass of the singer, but thirty years younger and a shelf full of MDs and PhDs. She called everyone sugar. Or honey bunny. Or sweet cheeks.
"Why bother?" I demanded. "We've got some freaks threatening to release bioweapons in fifty countries. Fifty. Five-zero. We're standing on the brink of the actual apocalypse. We are a couple of very bad days away from living in either a disease-infested wasteland or a dystopia in which only those entitled assholes who can afford it are going to survive. That isn't the plot of a summer blockbuster, it's happening right now. So excuse the living fuck out of me if I'm not all that concerned about some crackpot belief trending with the tinfoil hat crowd."
Peabody actually recoiled from me, then took a half step forward. "Colonel Ledger, if you'd just listen to-"
"I've been listening," I said. "And all I'm hearing is bullshit."
"No, sir," said Peabody officiously, "you're hearing but not listening. You're not paying attention."
"'Paying attention'?" I had to smile. "Do you want to know what I was doing when I got the call to come in for this briefing? I was hunting for a group of terrorists suspected of smuggling a bioweapon delivery system into Athens. Do you know how many people live in Athens? Do you know how many people we're trying to keep alive in Athens? And Rome, and London, and Paris, and New York, and-?"
"Colonel . . ."
It was Mr. Church who'd spoken. A single word. Quiet, without emphasis.
I stopped my rant. We all looked at him. Church is a big man, black and strong. Somewhere in his sixties, but that isn't what made him the adult in the room. He was the adult in any room. You look at him and immediately want to check your fingernails to see if they're clean. I've seen generals and heads of state react that way, too.
"Every JSOC and private SpecOps team in the world is on the hunt for the bioterrorists. Our people, MHI, SEAL Team 666, Chess Team, Sigma Force . . . It's doubtful there's ever been a more concentrated hunt than what is currently ongoing. And, as valuable a field asset as you are, Colonel, cutting you out of that pack to deal with this is not likely to be the deciding factor in keeping the world on its hinges."
Doc Holliday pretended to whisper, but said, "You got spanked." And she said it in a little musical singsong. I glared nuclear death at her.
"Okay, okay," I said with bad grace and turned back to Peabody-who, for the record, looks like a Peabody. A classic example of the type. "Chem-trails. Sure. Fine. Explain to me how that's not a conspiracy theory."
Peabody pushed his glasses up his nose and said, "Well, Colonel Ledger, understand that I would normally agree with you. In all circumstances. Contrails are actually condensation trails. Line-shaped cloud formations created by changes in air pressure as aircraft cruise at certain altitudes and under certain atmospheric conditions. Water vapor in the engine exhaust interacts with low ambient temperatures, leaving lines of ice crystals. And some contrails are formed by changes in air pressure in wingtip vortices. Some disappear quickly and others can last for hours."
"Thank you, Bill Nye," I muttered. "Get to how that equals some kind of conspiracy."
"Regular contrails are harmless," said Peabody. "As you say, there are plenty of conspiracy theories about chem-trails. That nonsense got started after a 1996 air force report was published in which induced weather modification theories were discussed. Alarmists like William Thomas, Richard Finke, and Art Bell stoked the fires of the belief that some contrails were actually the release of ether chemicals or biological agents intended to accomplish a variety of goals. Mind control, pacification of the population for easier rule by the Illuminati, human population control, chemical warfare, and . . . well, the list goes on and on past into genetic seeding by reptilian aliens. Any notable outbreaks of disease, higher statistics of genetic disorders, cancers, and so on in given areas are then linked to these chem-trails."
I twirled my finger to indicate Doc Holliday, Church, and myself. "Choir," I said. And then pointed to him. "Preacher."
He flushed a little. "I had to establish certain things in order to tell you something that is actually happening."
Very quietly I heard Mr. Church say, "Ah."
Peabody had visual aids and sent images from his laptop to the big flat-screen in the conference room. The first image was a Google Maps satellite view of a stretch of nearly featureless desert. Endless sand dunes.
"This is Tnr, a desert region in the south-central Sahara that stretches from northeastern Chad to western Sudan. One hundred fifty thousand square miles of nothing. It is ostensibly owned by Niger and Chad, but sparsely populated and of little value to anyone. You can't farm it and there is very little water. It is, for all intents and purposes, a dead land."
He clicked and a picture appeared of a pair of dark-skinned men dressed in white robes leading a string of starved-looking camels.
"There's a scattering of ethnic groups, but the area in question for us is used mostly by Toubou people, who are descended from the original Neolithic inhabitants of the Sahara region. They are genetically Ethiopians, and are regarded as a tough, nomadic, and noble people. Most of the Toubou are salt miners. They live at the very edge of poverty and starvation."
"This is one of the Toubou salt camps," he said. The image was that of several tents clustered in the lee of a vertical pillar of natural rock that stood up from the sand. A few pine trees leaned away from the sun's fists, and there were some handfuls of grass. "The oasis is called the Finger of God for obvious reasons. This photo was taken eleven days ago by a National Geographic photographer doing a story on nomad peoples."
We waited, and I found myself becoming invested now. There were people in the mix and I had a bad feeling this was not going to be a story with a happy ending. In my job we don't get to read a lot of those kinds of stories.
The next shot was of the same camp. Clearly days later. Had to be days, because even in the brutal heat of the Sahara, bodies don't bloat that much. They don't warp and expand into grotesque parodies of the human form. Doc Holliday made a soft gagging sound. I walked over to the screen and stood looking at it for a long time.
Men and women. Children. Even the camels.
All of them dead.
Sprawled in the sand. Covered in blowflies. Mouths thrown wide, but if with screams or prayers to an unheeding god there was no way to tell. Fingers knotted into fists on stilled breasts, or clutching handfuls of sand, or entwined with those of children. Reaching to each other for help, for support, or to make sure that when the darkness took them, they fell together.
None of us spoke.
The next image was of a plane flying high above, leaving a double trail of silver-white vapor.
"That was taken by the Nat Geo reporter the same day the first oasis picture was taken," said Peabody. "The other picture . . . well, that was forty-eight hours later."
"It doesn't prove a connection," I said.
"No, no . . . but . . ."
It was an aerial view of another oasis. A substantially bigger one, with many healthy palms, a big pen of goats, and a sophisticated building whose pitched roof was lined with solar panels. Several pickups and Jeeps were parked in the shade of an angled canopy, and beyond the house were several acres of land covered with sand-colored cloth tarps. But what caught my eye was what was behind the building. There, at the end of a short, flat stretch of hard-packed sand, was an aircraft. A small, tidy jet.
Sticking out from beneath its wings were large chemical tanks.
"That's not proof," I said.
"Show him the rest," said Church.
Peabody nodded. "There are three other oases in the same area."
The same jet, flying at a height of maybe four thousand feet, dragging white lines behind it.
Another camp. More tents. More trees. More bodies.
That jet again.
The third oasis. The third horror show.
Into the silence I said, "Tell me about the people who own that jet."
Undisclosed Landing Zone
We had no idea what kind of tech our potential bad guys had. The days when a radar unit was some big obvious thing were long gone. Now that stuff was small, easily mounted on a Jeep or pickup.
So we did a HALO jump to get in.
High altitude, low open. That's three of us-Top Sims, Bunny, and me-throwing ourselves out of a perfectly good airplane at thirty thousand feet. Wearing goggles and breathing bottled air, and falling six fucking miles before we deployed our chutes. Yes, I was an Airborne Ranger in the army. Yes, I've done scores of combat jumps. No, I have never liked a single one of them. I have a good game face, especially in front of my men, but inside, my nuts crawl up into my chest cavity before I'm out the door, and they do not descend until about half an hour after I'm on the ground.
We didn't die, though, so . . . there's that.
We gathered up our chutes and kicked sand over them. Bradley "Top" Sims is the oldest member of Havoc Team. Pushing fifty, but clearly made out of boiler plates and scrap iron. Dark brown skin, eyes that missed nothing, and a patchwork of earned scars all over his tough hide. Beside him was Harvey Rabbit-sadly, that's his actual name. Everyone calls him Bunny. He's six and a half feet of Orange County white boy with a surfer tan and more muscles than anyone reasonably needs. They were my right and left hands. We'd joined Church's little gang of science geeks and shooters together. I trusted them more than anyone else I knew.
The equipment had landed a few hundred yards away, and we jogged over and uncrated three sound-suppressed dirt bikes. Very high-end stuff. Not as fast as regular motorcycles, their speed topping out at forty, but the engines purred like kittens. The cases were sand-colored and with the easterly wind blowing they'd be covered and invisible in a few hours. There were no markings of any kind on any of the gear we brought. No badges or rank insignias on our clothing. We were ghosts.
Top glanced at me, then up at the sky in the direction from which we'd come, and then down at the blowing sand. "World's going to shit and we're a long damn way from the fight," he said.
It was true enough. The bioterrorists had already begun limited releases on towns in Europe, Asia, and North America. A weaponized version of the Shanghai flu in Duoyishu, a village in southwest China's Yunnan Province. A superstrain of tuberculosis in Otranto, Puglia. And a dreadfully hardy strain of Yersinia pestis in a Navajo village in New Mexico. Right now the death toll was low. Comparatively low, anyway. Seven hundred infected, with seventeen deaths. No one was actually encouraged by those numbers. None of us believed that the death toll was going to stay low.
The threats about these attacks had been coming in via anonymous snail mail, social media posts from dummy accounts, and emails sent from internet cafs and fake profiles. The first one we knew about was nine months ago, and it wasn't taken seriously-except in retrospect. It was directed at the government of India and was filled with political and quasi-religious histrionics. All about how the current world is corrupt and that overpopulation is proof of a deliberate desire to pollute and destroy the world. The viewpoint of the group amounts to the belief that humanity has become a kind of thinking virus on the skin of the living earth. What was once a symbiotic relationship, back when humanity could be counted in the tens of thousands, has been thrown out of balance by industrialism and overpopulation. The group consider themselves to be the voice of reason.
Their "reasonable" suggestion, sent via email to the heads of state of the fifty most populous countries, was for the leaders to initiate a lottery to pick ninety percent of their populations and systematically euthanize them. Failure to do so would result in the group launching a program of bioweapon releases. How they planned to do that, and where they would get these bioweapons, was something we were working on figuring out.
The limited releases were incentives. Kicks in the ass.
That's why everyone with a gun was out hunting these freaks.
All we had for the group was a name-Silentium. Latin for "silence," which didn't tell us much. However, from the rhetoric in their messages it was pretty clear they were some kind of millenarian cult. Their rants were all about how mankind was corrupt and how a new age was going to dawn after the manufactured cleansing program. There were going to be seven years of violence, struggle, and death before the population was whittled down to a number in harmony with the earth.
Funny how these groups present a model of a societal golden ideal that is any rational person's concept of a dystopia.
And the three of us seemed to be in the wrong damn place for the fight. Church said this was worth doing, and I had to take him at his word. But it felt like we were throwing punches at the wrong chins out here. Top and Bunny and I shared a long look, each of us knowing what was in the others' hearts.