THE MISSING YEAR – The Charger Chronicles Book #4
This science fiction novella is not a prequel nor a sequel to The Charger Chronicles. It is an “inquel,” or a story in the middle of a story, not affecting the main plot.
Linda, an electrician in the 37th century, suffers severe electric shock on the job. When she comes to, the sky is black, every human on New Eden is unconscious, and she is alone.
She doesn’t know the planet is surrounded by black spheres, bent on avenging their brother, who they believe was destroyed by humans a thousand years before.
Linda struggles against the mass of ruthless spheres, fighting impossible odds, yet always finding new ways to combat the aliens. Desperate for someone to talk to, she keeps an online diary, and adopts a broken robot.
Exhausted and battered, Linda’s situation is critical by the time Charger R/T happens to turns up. Will Linda be able to use this unpredictable warrior to save New Eden and humanity from the invading spheres?
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Chapter 1 ~ Shockwave
Day 1 (March 14, 3630)
Bert’s voice boomed out yet again from the room on her right, “Damn it, Linda, pull harder! This effing cable ain’t gonna move by itself.”
Linda hated working with Bert. He was the worst kind of male chauvinist. She couldn’t figure out how it would work genetically, but he had to be a throwback to a time in human history at least a thousand years in the past. Maybe longer. Any more comments about “the weaker sex” and she’d stuff the cable down his throat. What kind of tech college had he graduated from? Or maybe he had a weird family that didn’t know the basic facts about human beings. Or maybe he belonged to some crazy religious sect.
Yeah, that was probably it. Nobody mentioned it much, but everybody knew about MOTU. The religious bit was just a cover for the real purpose, but if Bert thought he was a Master of the Universe, he had an ego the size of a large blimp. So large, in fact, that if somebody stuck a knife in it and all the hot air rushed out, the resulting blast would be big enough to level a small city.
Then again, maybe the sick bastard just thought he could get away with hassling her because he was physically bigger. And maybe he seemed worse than he was because she didn’t know any other guys like him. Linda grimaced and shook her head. No, the asshole was just as bad as he seemed.
She tightened her grip on the cable puller until the sweat from her palms made the insides of her gloves slippery. With every ounce of her strength, she yanked on the heavy cable protruding from a metal pipe at the top of the wall in front of her. The cable should have slid out easily; she’d greased it herself. But it wouldn’t budge.
After another couple of hard pulls, Linda knew there was something was wrong. Power cables had been installed, with far less effort, on other floors in this new building. She soft-footed across the subfloor to the doorway leading into the room where Bert and his workmate were supposed to be feeding the cable into the pipe.
Yes, something was definitely wrong. Bert stood on the cable with both feet, pinning it to the floor just before it fed into the metal pipe that ran up the wall and across the ceiling into the room next door. “Pull woman, pull!” Bert shouted, as Jack held his sides and laughed. Bert snickered and said to Jack, “Let’s see if we can make her pass out.” He threw his head back and shouted, “Pull, Linda, pull!”
For a few seconds, Linda listened to the two men giggle like school girls at recess. Then she slipped out into the hall. Downstairs in the food court, she got a fresh cup of coffee, sat at a table, and read the news on the table top’s computer interface for a good five minutes before slowly wandering back upstairs to the room where she’d been working.
Bert was still shouting between pauses for laughter. Linda shrugged and walked over to the cable. So far, the crew hadn’t used the powered cable tugger machine on this job, but now seemed like a good time to see if it worked. She hooked the cable puller’s handles to the tugger machine, flicked the “on” switch and the cable tugger instantly started yanking the cable through the metal tube. The sudden force of the pull caught Bert off guard, for she heard the thud as he hit the floor. Then a spate of shouted curses.
Fifteen seconds later, Bert, red-faced and rubbing his ass, stormed into the room where Linda stood. He yelled, “What the hell was that? You damn near killed me, woman! I never gave you permission to use the power tugger. What were you thinking? I could have been hurt.”
Face serene, voice calm, Linda replied, “My coffee was cold, and I decided to speed things up a bit so that I could go get a fresh cup.”
Bert continued yelling at Linda, while she sipped coffee. After a couple of minutes, she broke into his rant. “Look, asshole, we both get paid the same wage because we’re equals here, so I don’t need your permission for anything. And don’t, for one second, ever think I’m your bitch and that you can push me around!”
Jack, hovering in the doorway, safely outside the war zone, listened to Linda shut Bert down and decided maybe she was right about his buddy being an asshole. After all, it was true that she was their equal in training and experience. And she’d always been reasonable to work with. Besides, under the hard hat, the overalls, and the tool belt, she was one gorgeous little hunk of woman. Long, shiny black hair in a braid, brown eyes, light brown skin. Of course, most people had black hair and brown eyes, but on her they just looked better.
They’d been stupid to keep pissing her off, Jack thought. Oh, sure, it had sounded kinda cool when Bert talked about MOTU, and how great it would be when men had taken over running planet New Eden, but shit, did he want that kind of responsibility? Nah, there were better things to do than run around telling other people what to do. Anyway, he’d always figured the planet belonged to everybody.
To Linda’s surprise, Bert quit yelling. He said, “Okay, let’s take a break and all of us go have coffee.” The look on his face said he was hoping to make up for his foolishness without being forced to admit he owned it. Or maybe she was being too kind. He probably just wanted a breather while he thought up some new way of hassling her.
The day wore on with the usual routines, broken occasionally by different trades talking about how they could get the job done faster, or bitching about the management. Near the end of the day, Linda was faced with the job she hated most.
It meant crawling into the cramped space under the floor, where she had to connect the power cable terminals to activate them. It was a rotten job, but she was the only one slim and agile enough to crawl through the tunnels to get it done. Most of the men were just too round in the belly to fit. The few who could have done it somehow always managed to disappear when the time came.
Linda geared up for the dangerous tunnel crawl, which required specialized equipment. She had to wear insulated clothing covered with armor that looked like chain mail. This was grounded to particular points in the crawl space to prevent her being electrocuted. The body suit added a good seventy pounds of weight to Linda’s small frame, but she refused to complain.
The other electricians warned her of the hazards, as they always did, and told her to be safe. Even Bert and Jack seemed serious about the warnings. With her head camera active and her ground points established, Linda began the fifteen-minute slow crawl to the power couplers. Twenty feet in, her knee hit something so sharp she could feel it through all the layers of clothing, and she swore at the careless dumb bastard who had dropped what could have been a nail or a screw, or even a piece of bent metal. She crawled another three feet and hit something else with her hand.
A shock blazed through her body and turned the world to silent blackness.
Linda slowly regained consciousness. At first, she was aware only of pain. Her head pounded. Her skin hurt. Her body felt like it was half-naked, as though her clothing had been blown away. There were no sounds to tell her what might be happening. Where was the rest of the crew? Then she realized she was in the tunnel. For a moment, panic swamped her. Why weren’t the guys helping her get out of here?
The pain grew sharper, spurring her brain into the realization that she had to do something. Get out of the tunnel, for a start.
She began inching backward, sweat pouring off her face onto her arms, a salty stinging that had her cursing between gasps for breath. She had no doubt now that she was half-naked. Her clothes were in tatters and shreds were being torn off every time she heaved her body backward.
It seemed to take an eternity before she was close enough to the entrance to catch a faint glimmer of natural light. Yet, when she eased out onto the subfloor and looked at her wrist computer, it showed that only half an hour had passed since she started into the tunnel.
Incredibly, she was met by silence. Where were Bert and Jack? Where were the others?
Linda tried to pull her clothing and overalls around her but that made her skin hurt even worse. To hell with it! The guys had surely all seen naked women before and, if not, they were in for a treat. She stood up, the pain flooding her eyes with tears, and the tattered remains of her overalls dropped to the floor.
After she blinked the tears out of her eyes, what she saw left her stunned.
They were all dead. Or unconscious. Bert and Jack and the rest of the crew were sprawled on the floor, lying as though they’d been flung there. An explosion? There was no sign of blood, though, and the building interior looked intact.
She hadn’t heard an explosion. Could they have been electrocuted? No, that was impossible. But she knew that’s what had happened to her.
There was only one thing she could do. Call for help. She managed to activate the phone function on her wrist computer, wincing when burned skin met cold, smooth metal. The signal went on and on and on, but no one answered.
Linda shut it off. She’d have to go out on the street and flag somebody down. The city must have suffered a major disaster if the emergency services were too busy to respond to her. She limped down the stairs and into the food court, on the way to the street entrance. A wave of dizziness hit and she passed out again.
When she came to, the lights in the food court were on and it was dark outside. She must have been unconscious for hours. She staggered through the door to the street and noted that, while the street lights were working okay, nothing was moving. No traffic. All the people on the street lay motionless.
Linda blinked, rubbed her eyes, and winced with pain. But the scene didn’t change. There was simply no movement anywhere. All around her were tall buildings with every floor lit up. But no movement.
Was she dreaming? What kind of disaster could have happened to do all this? She took a step or two and touched the corner of the building she’d just left. The concrete felt rough and real under her fingers. And she was breathing; she knew that because every breath pushed her skin painfully against the tatters of clothing still hanging from her shoulders. She could move. So it wasn’t a dream; the pain was too real.
But why was no one else moving?
The nearest hospital was only three blocks away. She’d go there, get patched up, find out what was going on. And then go home, where Barky would be waiting for her. The springer spaniel might get anxious and start barking if she didn’t get there soon. When she’d gotten him, a tiny golden puppy with ears nearly as long as his body, she’d intended to call him Barney. But he’d barked so much those first few months that Barney had morphed into Barky. Too late to change his name now.
It took half an hour to walk those three blocks, the breeze cold on her bare legs and arms. Her underwear was in tatters, too, but at least the elastic was holding. Not that it mattered a hell of a lot, with nobody awake to see her.
The double glass doors of Emergency swung open as she approached and greeted her with a blast of warm disinfectant-scented air.
The odor instantly swept her back four years to the day she’d been in this hospital giving birth to Jimmy. Her baby, her little boy. Except he’d only lived a few hours. Tears welled in her eyes and slid over her burning skin. She angrily blinked them away. Nothing would bring Jimmy back, not tears, not regret, not anger at fate.
Questions about it still nagged at times. She wouldn’t have been in the hospital if her midwife hadn’t gotten into an accident on the way to her apartment. There’d been no time to get another, and she’d rushed to this hospital. Maybe she’d rushed too fast and hurt the baby somehow? But she’d been told by every medic she talked to that Jimmy had suffered SIDS, or crib death, and that there was nothing she could have done.
The father hadn’t been there to comfort her, either; he’d bailed as soon as he found out she was pregnant.
“Why’d you let that happen?” he demanded. “I don’t want kids.”
“I could ask you the same question,” she retorted. “This baby is part of you, your flesh and blood. Doesn’t that mean anything to you?”
“I don’t give a good goddamn. You’re on your own with this problem.”
He’d finished throwing his stuff into a bag and stalked out, six months after they’d started seeing each other, just when she was beginning to think they cared enough for each other to consider a permanent relationship. Just when she thought she was going to finally get the family she’d always wanted. She had no siblings, just a few distant cousins she didn’t like and rarely saw. Both her parents had died in a fire when she was ten.
Linda forced the memory back into her subconscious and stared around her in dismay. The receptionist lay sprawled across her desk. The people who’d been sitting, waiting for attention, had all slid out of their chairs and were slumped in awkward heaps on the floor. Linda walked through into the medical area, dreading the scene she was positive would meet her gaze.
And sure enough, she was right. Nobody moved. Silence. A nurse sprawled on the floor, her tray of needles and medicines scattered around her. Beyond her was another white-coated woman, a clipboard resting only inches from her limp fingers. Still figures huddled under sheets in almost every bed.
Linda swayed, waves of nausea sweeping through her. She staggered to the nearest empty bed, crawled under the sheet, and passed out.
Linda opened her eyes, squinting against the glare of bright overhead lights. Shutting her eyes again, she decided she must have forgotten to switch the lights off when she came home. She reached out to touch Barky where he usually slept beside her, but he wasn’t there. Then the smell made her realize where she was, bringing back memories of holding Jimmy in her arms as he drew his last breath. She shoved that thought away and pressed the attention button for a nurse. No response. And again, and again, but no response.
Linda came fully awake and remembered the electrical shock hitting her, blasting her clothes away, how she’d come to be here. She slowly hoisted her body off the bed, wincing in pain, her legs wobbly. She glanced down at her tattered bra and panties, then wrapped the bed sheet around her. She needed to go look for answers. And she absolutely had to get home before Barky peed all over the apartment. Surely she’d find somebody, somewhere, in a hospital. Especially a hospital.
What she saw as she walked the corridors of the medical facility was unbelievable. People in every room, on every floor, but they all appeared to be asleep, or unconscious. Or dead. It was as if the world around her had, suddenly and without warning, stopped, and people everywhere had simply dropped where they were. What kind of catastrophe could have caused that? And what was happening to their animals? They must have animals. Almost everybody did.
Linda glanced at a mirror in the cafeteria. She almost didn’t recognize herself. While her burned skin was being quickly repaired by the medical advancements now installed in every human body, the contrast between the burned and unburned areas was clearly visible. Most shocking were the random bald patches on her head. Well, her hair would grow back, but it would take time. A lot of time.
Linda turned away from the mirror in disgust. She looked like a scarecrow, even wrapped in a pristine white sheet. Which wouldn’t pass as acceptable clothing anywhere else in the city.
After a long search, she found a laundry room with stacks of sheets piled up, and nurses’ uniforms hanging on a rack. She eased into pale pink slacks and a short-sleeved top, abandoning the sheet on the floor.
Finally, giving up on the hospital, she made her way outside. There, she saw exactly the same sights as had greeted her inside the hospital; people in unconscious states littered the walkways everywhere. Beside one of them lay an unconscious dog. Biting her bottom lip to distract herself from the pain, she stumbled back and forth, trying to get responses from people. Their bodies were warm and once or twice she thought she detected a pulse, but maybe not.
No one moved. No one responded. After a while, she realized that all the people she’d looked at had greenish blobs on the backs of their necks. The dog did, too. What the hell was that all about?
Did that mean Barky was asleep, too? With a green blob on his neck? But why?
Shaken, Linda found a computer terminal. Searching for information, any information, she queried the automated network. Though the system was active and obviously working, only the base server’s artificial operator answered. No humans anywhere responded.
With growing frustration and now fear setting in, Linda began to feel panic. She stared around again, hoping against hope that she was not the only human awake. Then she noticed the sky. It was pitch black. Blacker than any sky she’d ever seen, for there were no stars, and no moon. Linda looked at a digital sign high on the side of a building.
Temperature: 76 F. Humidity: 62.
And it was eight o’clock in the morning.