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John Ringo

Under a Graveyard Sky

BOOK ONE

LIGHT A CANDLE

At the end of the river the sundown beams

All the relics of a life long lived

Here, weary traveler rest your wand

Sleep the journey from your eyes

from “Turn Loose the Mermaids” Nightwish

CHAPTER 1

“AlasBabylon Q4E9,” the text read.

“Bloody hell.” And it really hadn’t started out as a bad day. Weather was crappy but at least it was Friday.

Steven John “Professor” Smith was six foot one, with sandy blond hair and a thin, wiry, frame. Most people who hadn’t seen him in combat, and very few living had, considered him almost intensely laid back. Which in general was the case. It came with the background. Once you’d been dropped in the dunny, few things not of equal difficulty were worth getting upset about. Until, possibly, now.

He regarded the text from his brother and wondered if this was how morning walkers on 9/11 felt. He knew the basic code. Alas Babylon was a book about a nuclear war in the 1950s and survivors in the aftermath. The novel by Pat Frank was still one of the best looks at post-apocalyptic life ever written. And he and Tom had agreed that it was the best choice for a code indicating a real, this is no shit, general emergency. Not “I’ve got cancer” but “grab the bug-out bag and activate your Zombie Plan.” Which was why he wondered if this was the same feeling those morning New Yorkers had felt looking up at the gush of fire from the side of the Twin Towers. Disbelief, sadness, even anger. His mouth was dry, palms clammy, his sphincter was doing the bit where it was simultaneously trying to press neutronium and let go all over his seat. He felt all the cycles of grief go through him in one brief and nasty blast. Tom was not a guy to joke about the end of the world. Something had hit something or another.

Despite knowing it’d gone tits up, he hit reply.

Confirm.”

The return message was immediate.

Confirm, confirm, CONFIRM. Q4E9. CONFIRM!!”

Shit.

The rest of the codes were the problem. Stacey and Tom were the crypto geeks. Of course, calling Tom a geek was a stretch. Nearly two meters tall and a former Australian SAS commando, the “General Manager for Security and Emergency Response” for the Bank of the Americas might have a background in crypto and enjoy the occasional alternative clubbing night. Geek was still a stretch.

Tom’s penchant for code, however, was part of that geeky side. While the games growing up had been a pain in the ass, Steve recognized them as a necessity in this case. Tom had come into possession of information that was still closely held. His text was a violation of not only his employment contracts but, probably, federal law. He wasn’t going to send “Asteroid INBOUND” over an open network.

Stacey would know what the code meant in a second. Despite his para nickname of “Professor,” Steve was unfazed by both his wife and his brother being smarter than he. He was laid back and preferred to be surrounded by people who were smarter, more effective and more dangerous. Made his life a whole lot simpler.

He looked up at the class full of teenagers working on their Friday afternoon history test. Byzantine emperors were about the last of his problems at the moment. He still wasn’t sure about the codes but he knew that he’d never see most of them again. Dead or alive, his life and theirs was about to change.

He was going to miss some of them but the protocols were clear. It was much the same as being a spy, really. If you’d been burned you didn’t hesitate. When the world was ending you didn’t worry about anything but the most basic issues. Notably, Stacey, Sophia and Faith. In no particular order that he desperately hoped whatever this was might test. Okay, even Stacey would agree Sophia and Faith first. Just in no particular order.

He therefore calmly bent over, picked up his backpack and stood up to leave.

“Mr. Smith?” Chad Walker said, looking at him quizzically.

“Just going out for a bit,” Steve said. Chad was one of the good ones. Most of the kids were good for values of good. As good as American kids got, anyway. Coddled, yes, but bright by and large. Most didn’t apply themselves and the parents were mostly a pain in the ass. But it had been a good job. Past tense.

He walked down the mostly silent halls in a bit of a daze. At one level it was senseless. Nobody walked out of a job they’d done for ten years without a wrench and on the basis of two text messages. But it was what you did if you’d prepared. You just walked away.

He stopped outside the school’s office and tried to assume an expression suitable for a distraught husband.

“Janice,” he said, stepping into the office and brushing at his eyes. “Stacey’s been in an accident at the plant. They’re taking her to the office. I need to pull Sophia out of class.”

“Oh my God!” the heavy-set brunette said, her eyes wide. “What happened?”

“Unclear,” Steve said. “I’ll call you from the hospital. Just please page for her to be brought up here while I talk to Mr. Navas.”

“Okay…” Janice said, fumbling at the intercom.

The woman really was someone Steve was looking forward to leaving behind.

He knocked on the principal’s door and opened it without waiting for a reply.

“Steve?” Mr. Navas said, cocking a quizzical eyebrow. Alvaro Navas was a decent assistant principal all things considered. Another person, among many, Steve figured he’d never see again. However it worked out.

“Stacey’s being taken to the hospital,” he said somewhat shakenly. “Injured at work. They…it sounded quite serious. That guarded ‘we’re sure it’s going to be fine’ from HR which means it’s not. I’m pulling Sophia out to go with me to the hospital and I’d appreciate it if you’d call Angleton Middle and have them bring up Faith so I can pick her up on the way by.”

“Of course, Steve,” Alvaro said. “Anything we can do.”

“I’ll call you as soon as I know what’s going on,” Steve said. “I think Janice is bringing up Sophia.”

“So no idea what happened?” Navas asked.

“They wouldn’t say,” Steve said, shrugging his shoulders helplessly. “I…I need to go check on Sophia…”

“Of course, of course, Steve,” Navas said, getting out of his chair. “Whatever you need…If you need some time.”

“Well, it’s the weekend, fortunately,” Steve said. “I’ll know more when I get to the hospital.”

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