Call for Alpha Readers and Excerpt

I need a few brave volunteers to read the draft of A Cat at Bay and poke holes in it. I know there’s some rough spots, but I also suspect I’m not seeing a few others. Please e-mail me at AlmaTCBoykin at AOL dot com  if you are interested. here’s a bit of a teaser

Chapter 1: Home from the Hill (Autumn 2004)

 

Major Rahoul Khan winced as bright light flashed across his eyes his eyes, blinding him, then leaving him seeing spots as the beam swept around and down. He heard metal slide on metal, and a voice muttering curses in a language he’d not heard for three years.

“If you are telling off Lucius, Prince of Darkness, or Corporal La Grange, ma’am, I agree. Can we shift it without starting it?”

“Yes, Sergeant St. John. Lower the bonnet and I’ll disengage the brake. We’ll need someone to push as I steer.”

Rahoul hitched his bag over his shoulder and wound between the troop transports, scout vehicles, and other military equipment to reach the spot of light. A hunter green antique sports coup hid between the larger vehicles. Two women glared at the little car. “Need a hand?”

“Yes, we— Yes, sir, we do, sir.” Sergeant St. John, or so Rahoul guessed, blinked and stepped back out of the spill of light.

“Two hands and a strong back would be even better,” the other woman said. He heard a hand brake disengaging, a faint creaking sound, and another curse word. “Right, Sergeant, which way, left or right?”

“Right, ma’am, towards the door. If we can get it up to where the Havoc was parked, we can—“

A tearing crash, followed by alarms and shouts shattered the quiet. Rahoul dove for cover, St. John joining him as he tried to become one with the concrete floor of the motorpool building. Red lights flashed on and a smoke alarm blatted off to the left, farther into the complex of buildings.

“Oh bugger it all. The universe hates me. St. John, let’s just leave this for the moment, shall we?” The speaker sounded unnaturally calm, almost bored, and Rahoul ventured to raise his head. He saw two feet in black leather boots, a walking stick, the tip of a furry black tail, and the hem of a split skirt. “I think we’re about to get summonsed.”

“Cat One, report to the firing range. Repeat, Cat One, report to the firing range,” came from overhead.

“Go on, ma’am. I’ll secure everything,” St. John said.

“Thanks.” Rahoul heard a familiar step-tap-step as Commander Rachel Na Gael limped off to deal with whatever emergency had just struck the 58th Regiment of Foot.

St. John got to her knees, peered around, then stood up. Rahoul followed her as she reset the Marlowe’s brakes. “I see that hasn’t changed.” He pointed to the faded name stenciled on the floor.

“No sir. It’s still his car, on loan to us.” She unhooked the light from the jerry-rigged pole and began rolling up the cord. “Can I help you, sir?”

Rahoul smiled, shaking his head. “No thank you, Sergeant. Is the outside door unlocked? I don’t believe this is a good time to cut past the firing range to get to the main building.”

“No, sir, and no. I’ll pass you through, if I could see your ID?” He gave it to her. “Thank you, sir. Welcome back.”

“Thank you.” I think. I’m not certain if this is a good or bad omen. What blew up?

Rahoul cut through the garden and St. John let him into the back door. “Officer of the day’s office is two doors right of the general’s, sir.”

“Thank you. I’ll go from here.”

“Very good, sir.” She returned to the motorpool and he went to check in.

“ . . . is there already? Good. No, not until Tuesday, and Col. Wood left this morning, family emergency.” The black officer glanced at the door, saw Rahoul, and stood. “Standby.” He covered the mouthpiece of the phone. “Can I help you sir?”

“Major Rahoul Khan checking in.” As soon as he said it, the captain’s eyes lit up.

Ngobo uncovered the phone. “Yes, Major Khan just arrived. Ask the RSM.” He held out his hand and Rahoul passed over his paperwork. “Yes, I’ll tell him. Nogbo out.” He hung up the phone. “RSM Chan sends his respects, sir, and asks if you had a moment to come down to the firing range.”

“Why?” I think I know and this is not a good sign.

“Because you are the highest ranking person here at present, not counting Commander Na Gael, sir. He wants a witness, not an official presence.”

So much for it being quieter than Kandahar. Rahoul set his bags down, brushed off the front of his tunic, and squared his shoulders. “Very well. Will I need protective gear?”

“No, sir, the fire’s out. I’ll take care of these. I’m the adjutant.” He patted the folder of documents, pay transfer forms, and other minutia of military transfers.

The fire’s out. Lovely. Something blew up in or near the firing range and there was a fire. What ne— No, please don’t answer that, Lord. Rahoul strode down the long corridor, around a corner, pushed open a door and trotted down two flights of steps to the underground firing range. He opened the heavy door and found a bunch of people milling around. “If the fire’s out, don’t you have something else to be doing?”

Apparently they did, and the hall cleared of junior officers and junior enlisted as if by magic. Rahoul pushed open the door to the firing range and beheld a corporal standing at aggravated brace, facing a stocky, bald senior NCO and a grey-clad civilian woman with a fancy walking cane. “And then what, Parsons?” the woman asked.

“And then I flipped the red switch on the top.”

“You flipped the red switch. Did you know what it was for?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Did you ask anyone?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Did you look for an instruction pamphlet or manual?”

The corporal gulped, his Adam’s apple running up and down like a startled mouse. “No, ma’am.”

The woman rubbed her face below the patch covering her right eye. “I see. Congratulations, Parsons, I do believe that you have won the 2004 Stupid Stunt of the Year award. Sgt. Ramirez will be pleased to know that he is now out of contention for that honor. You are amazingly fortunate, I hope you realize. That red switch turned on the single-use thermal release system. When used in a confined area, the tool can generate enough heat to melt through this floor in an area, oh, ten by ten meters.” She turned to the watching Regimental Sergeant Major. “All yours, rangemaster.” She saw Rahoul standing a meter beyond the RSM. “Unless you need him for anything, sir?”

“No, I’ll just observe, thank you Commander. Carry on, RSM.”

“Thank you, sir,” RSM Chan said. As the NCO reduced the corporal to a small heap of ashes without raising his voice, Rahoul studied the damage to the range. Two of the position dividers had burned completely and two more had scorch marks on them. A shallow black divot in the middle of the wreckage marked where the thing with the red switch must have been, he decided.

“Do you have anything to add, sir?” RSM Chan inquired of Rahoul.

“No, RSM. That sounds reasonable. I trust there will be no repetitions of this little incident, Corporal?”

“Sir, no sir!”

“Good. Because you are keeping me from my beauty sleep,” the woman said, her tail swishing back and forth, the black feline ears twitching where they rose out of the top of her crown of braids.

“Get out of here, Parsons,” Chan ordered. “Dismissed.” Corporal Parsons disappeared so fast he might as well have teleported. As soon as the door closed behind him, the woman and RSM both sighed and rubbed their foreheads. Rahoul walked up to them. Chan nodded, acknowledging Rahoul’s presence. “Welcome back, sir.”

“Thank you. What happened?”

“According to Sergeant Taylor, Parsons went poking around the untested devices locker and found what looked like a weapon. He brought it in here and tried to fire it, sir. It went exothermic, injured two and caught my range on fire.” Chan sounded annoyed.

If he sounds annoyed, he must be absolutely furious. “I see. And I take it weapons testing is not in the corporal’s job description.”

“No, sir.”

“What was the thing?”

Commander Na Gael spoke up. “It’s an excavation tool, sir, with multiple settings. The red switch triggers the single-use function, for burning a hole in rock or very hard, compacted ground. Should only be used out-of-doors.”

Rahoul massaged his temple. “I see. There’s nothing more dangerous than a corporal who says ‘I wonder what this does,’ is there?”

“Only a lieutenant who says ‘based on my experience,’ sir,” she said, the corner of her mouth crooking up into a warped grin. She winked her good eye.

He’d been that lieutenant once, and glared at her, then relaxed. “Very well. Carry on, Sergeant, unless you need me for anything more?”

“No, sir, thank you. The presence of an officer was necessary to, hmm, reinforce the seriousness of the incident.” Na Gael nodded her agreement as the sergeant spoke.

“Very well. Good night, RSM.”

“Good night, sir.”

 

The next morning Rahoul found Cdr. Na Gael sitting by herself in the officers’ mess, devouring a protein heavy breakfast. “May I join you?” She struggled to her feet and he shook his head. “Be seated, Rachel.”

“Thank you, sir.”

He blinked. I do outrank her now, by position if not actual rank. Rahoul set his tray down and looked at her plate, noting the remaining rasher of bacon, two sausages, a pile of eggs, and other evidences of carnivory. “Still a light eater, I see.”

“I am a near obligate carnivore, sir. If the mess sergeants insist on serving vegetables at dinner and supper, I must make up the deficit elsewhere.”

Rahoul sat and looked at her face for the first time in daylight. “Sweet Jesus, what happened to you?” A heavy scar ran from the tip of her widow’s peak across her blind eye and down across her cheek almost to the jawline.

“I failed to obey a legal order. That was my punishment. Any other questions, sir?”

He ducked. “Sorry, Rachel. I didn’t think. I apologize. And call me Rahoul, since we’re not on duty yet.”

“That’s what I thought yesterday, until the boom. I swear, what part of ‘Do not try to start this vehicle’ do people not understand?”

“Someone let the smoke out of the wiring?”

She nodded, mouth full. He rolled his eyes and tucked into his own breakfast. After a moment he felt her tapping on his shields. <<Glad to see you back in as many pieces as you left with.>>

<<Thank you. Will we ever stop fighting ourselves?>>

<<Yes.>>

That’s a relief, he thought to himself. After a few more bites and a refill from the corporal on tea duty, he inquired, “Is there anything new I need to know about before I officially report for duty?”

Her ears twitched back and forth as she thought. “Not really. The RSM’s office has moved. He’s now where the storage room used to be, before the motorpool area expanded. The glasshouse sits on top of the heat exhaust for the firing range and motorpool secondary areas, and the CO’s office has better soundproofing. Oh, yes, and the laboratory windows are now blaster resistant.” She took a bite, chewed and added, “We tested them. I don’t know why General Yates ducked, since the shot bounced up and not straight back. That’s why the glass is angled slightly, after all.”

Rahoul winced. That hadn’t changed either. Actually, as he studied Commander Rada Ni Drako, better known as Rachel Na Gael, she had not changed at all, aside from the additional scar.

“Oh, and Joschka Graf von Hohen-Drachenburg is now Major General and commanding the Austrian Branch.” Her look suggested that Rahoul should remember the name and know why he needed that bit of information. He shook his head, eyebrows raised. “He will likely succeed Gen. McPherson as overall military head of the Global Defense Force.”

“Ah.” That explained it. He filed the information away. “Are my books still intact?”

She smiled, a real smile. “Yes, and in their cubby above my desk.” She started to add something but two lieutenants bounced up, reminding Rahoul of puppies, all bright eyes and eager. <<Youth is wasted on the young.>> came a silent sigh, and a wink.

The following day Major General Andrew Whitehead leaned back in his chair, smiling. He studied his newly assigned executive officer and decided that he liked what he saw. Major Khan returned the gaze steadily and respectfully. There was a touch of humor in the major’s dark eyes and the South Asian officer had an air of calm competence about him. That he had started his service with the Regiment helped matters immensely, in Whitehead’s opinion, and would ease the transition. Khan’s last posting had been field command in Afghanistan with the Irish Guards and he had done very well. The general nodded, trying to recall if anything more needed to be discussed for the moment. “Do you have any further questions before assuming your duties?” he asked.

“Ah, yes, sir. Is the Sangre Protocol still in effect?”

Whitehead rocked forward. “Yes, it is. How do you know about that?”

“I was one of the three witnesses when the documents were drawn up, sir.”

Whitehead relaxed. “I’d forgotten that, Khan. Good to know. Any difficulties with your quarters?”

After the excitement had died down, Rahoul had stowed his kit in his new quarters, triple checked the condition of everything down to the water stains in the sink before initialing the papers, and let himself relax for the fist time in months. He’d come straight to Lincolnshire, turning down an additional week of home leave. His relatives might live in Hendon, but the 58th Regiment of Foot was home. “No, sir. All the windows are a surprise, though.”

“Yes. Apparently the builders assumed that if the enemy got close enough to shoot through our windows, we had other problems to worry about. Like London having vanished in a kinetic strike.” Whitehead paused. “Not that I’d miss Horseguards, some days, but still.”

“Indeed, sir.”

“Well, if you have no more questions, you are officially on duty, Major Khan. Col. Wood’s situation has gotten a bit complicated, it appears. He’ll be back when he can.”

At least I’m not getting shot at yet. “Very good, sir.”

At the far end of the building, Rachel Na Gael tapped her stylus against the side of her portable super computer, frowning at the symbols on the display. Her ears tipped back, almost flat, and her tail fur stood out, the only signs of her growing agitation. How many? No wonder the Dark Hart has been giving me headaches. But not here. Two on the Continent, another in central Russia, one in North America, and a half dozen pas-bys is far too many people sticking their noses into affairs on Ter Tri, especially since there’s no major activity pending. She searched her memory for any looming disasters, cultural events, wars, plagues, or other unusual goings on, and couldn’t think of any. So what were all those timeships doing in the area?

Two visitors a month seemed to be the average, and she knew one of those had been hired by the Dukorlig scholars. They thought that the current area was a critical formative interlude between major developmental phases in Human history, and had set aside a goodly amount of funds for ongoing spot studies. But they don’t do anything, they just watch. So what is going on? I don’t know, but I’d better warn Joschka. After all, the Austrian branch served as the primary back-up force for both northern and southern Europe’s other regiments and Branches.

An incoming message chime sounded and Rachel switched over to the computer’s “public” side. “Official personnel message,” she read aloud. “Lovely.” She logged in and opened the e-mail. “Already? But Andrew’s not due to retire until . . .” Rachel looked over at the calendar, frowned, got up and changed it to September from July. “Oops.” She knew better than that. “I get to break in a new commanding officer as well as getting used to calling Rahoul ‘sir.’ Charming. The universe hates me.” At least the rest of the staff wouldn’t be changing.

(C) 2015 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved.

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