Yes, we’ve done it! FINALLY!
We finally made it out of the first book in Volume 1 and into the second!
Did Adam tell you how he came by these stories?
See, he and I started talking, and I told him about how our wedding was disrupted. He thought it would be a good story to tell so he kept asking me questions and questions. Eventually he got most of the tale out of me and there was enough there to make four novellas.
We came up with cool titles like Run Like Hell, A Deadly Quest, and A Desperate Gambit. So he started writing this stuff down, and I kept bugging him with new details and corrections and obfuscations – yeah, not everything you read is entirely accurate. (Cass insists I can’t corrupt the timeline, whatever that means.) Eventually we had the first two books written and he’d started on the third when he suddenly dropped out of sight. Like, totally. No contact with him for almost 7 years of your time.
For me, of course, it was no time at all. Being asynchronous helps!
But then he decided to scrap the ‘four novella’ idea and lump them all into a single book, which turned into The Cassidy Chronicles.
Anyways, this is a roundabout way of explaining we’re done with the first part of the story and moving to the second. Walking into the ruins of New Orleans. Not my idea of a good time!
As always, the audio for the chapter is at the end, and you can buy the book in any format just by clicking any image (or the button right below).
‘You never said anything about walking!’
‘No?’ said Kendra, all innocence. ‘Wimp. We‘re almost there.’
Aiyana Cassidy Foster-Briggs, physicist, optical engineer, and known universally to her friends and family as ‘Cass’, grimaced. ‘No. Not one word about walking, let alone a fifteen-kilometer hike!’
Kendra Cassidy, her childhood friend, wife, and current protector, just smiled. ‘I thought for sure I said something. Hurricane destroying what was left of the road after the Border War? You’re sure?’
‘Positive. How much longer?’
‘A few more klicks. Maybe, two? You can see the skyline – well, what’s left of it.’ Kendra pointed down the cracked asphalt surface. ‘A walk in the park.’
‘For you, maybe. For me, it’s been a little bit tougher.’
‘No, no, I mean literally, a walk in the park. We have to cross the old City Park and then we follow Esplanade right down to HQ.’ Kendra worked for OutLook, a private corporation specializing in speculation and personal protection. After fleeing Los Alamos when an assassin had opened fire at their wedding, Kendra had finally managed to contact her superiors and convinced them to bring them both in for consultation. They were now finishing the last leg of a journey which had taken them from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, through the Empire of New York and the shrunken remains of the United States, and now into the Border States, a neutral ground between the Confederacy, the U.S., and the Republic of Texas. The trip had been eventful, but quick. Having a century-old-but-improved Bugatti Veyron would do that for you. Alas, they’d had to leave it behind, between the remains of Laplace and Kenner, when the road had finally become impassable.
‘Is that safe?’ said Cass, looking into what had once been a carefully-tended park. Now, it was a mangrove-filled marsh.
‘Not completely,’ admitted Kendra. ‘But it’s only the alligators you have to worry about. Oh, and cottonmouths. There aren’t any two-footed predators, like there are to the south along old Canal Street. Well. Not as many.’
‘That’s not reassuring.’
‘That’s why we brought the guns.’ They had reached the edge of the road. ‘Ready?’ said Kendra, looking back.
Chapter 2: Please Don’t Feed the Animals
It wasn’t as bad as Cass thought it would be.
It was still pretty awful. After Hurricane Alondra in ‘98 and the final catastrophic breach of the city levees, City Park had flooded. Only by keeping to the remains of roadways were they able to keep their footing, though each were soaked to the waist before long. Kendra kept them on course by heading for the wreckage of what looked to be a Greek temple.
‘It was called NOMA, I’m told,’ she said in response to Cass’s question after they passed the remains of a football stadium. ‘Some sort of museum. We should steer clear of it, though.’
‘Should I ask why?’
‘Of course you should! Always be aware of your environment, especially anything that might constitute a threat.’
‘Okay. So why should we steer clear of it?’
‘A little. The locals, the ones that are left, believe that it’s haunted by the people killed inside when the roof collapsed. It was one of the ‘approved hurricane shelters’ during Alondra, but the roof wasn‘t up to the wind and the rain. It’s said that two thousand people died when it all fell in.’
‘That’s awful!’ exclaimed Cass.
‘It is,’ agreed Ken. ‘The other reason is it’s a perfect breeding ground now for water snakes – the cottonmouth is the one we have to look out for. Deadly.’
‘Water snakes?’ Cass looked around her. She was knee-deep in murky water at the time.
‘They’ll mostly stay away if we keep moving. Hint, hint.’
As they made their way down the watery path, Cass tried to recall the stories she’d heard about Alondra and the death of New Orleans. During the twenty-first century, the effects of global warming became more pronounced. Ocean levels rose and the seas continued to warm, leading to more and more powerful hurricanes and the creation of a sixth category of such storms. Still, none had been documented – until Alondra.
With sustained winds topping two hundred miles per hour, and gusts recorded up to two hundred and fifty five, the hurricane tore a swath of destruction through the Caribbean. Brushing the northern coast of South America, Alondra flattened Barbados, Grenada, St. Lucia and the Netherlands Antilles before turning northwest. Passing over and demolishing most of both Jamaica and the Caymans, she passed through the Yucatan Channel, targeting New Orleans.
Evacuation was mandatory. In the three days before landfall, more than ninety percent of the population of New Orleans and the surrounding parishes, totaling nearly three million people, were removed. From the tip of the Mississippi Delta north to Baton Rouge people fled the oncoming storm. Still, roughly three hundred thousand remained, too stubborn or too ignorant to heed the warnings.
On the night of October 4th, Alondra made landfall. The storm surge had topped thirty feet, overpowering the newly-raised levees and inundating the city. Over the next twelve hours the storm reshaped the land. When it finally pushed north, dying as it left the friendly waters behind, a shattered countryside was all that remained. Lake Pontchartrain became Pontchartrain Bay, as the narrow strip of land which had separated it from the sea had disappeared. The Mississippi’s course had been altered, emptying now into Atchafalaya Bay.
New Orleans was dead. The damage was so total, so all-encompassing that only a perfunctory rescue mission was sent to search for survivors.
Three hundred and fifty-two thousand people lost their lives.
It was with these thoughts that Cass asked, ‘So what made them pick New Orleans?’
‘Huh?’ grunted Ken, concentrating on thrown by the apparent non sequitur.
‘Your company. Why here? Why not Chicago? The Imperium’s laws are pretty lax, but at least you don’t have to worry about hurricanes, haunted museums and water snakes!’
‘I don’t actually know. It’s not anything that was covered in my training. This is only the second time I’ve ever been here, anyways. I don’t usually report in person.’
‘I can’t possibly think why you aren’t down here every weekend,’ groused Cass, rolling her eyes. ‘It’s such the garden spot.’
‘I know,’ laughed Kendra. ‘There’s just so much to -’ She broke off and froze in place.
‘Shh!’ hissed Kendra. ‘Hold still!’ Cass stopped.
Kendra drew her gun. Pivoting silently, she scanned the surrounding vegetation, then stepped back so she was inches from Cass.
‘Ten o’clock. Someone’s out there, about a hundred meters. I don’t know if they know we’re here, so we’re going to take this slow and easy. Down, into the water.’
Gulping, Cass complied, settling into the evil-smelling liquid.
‘Lower. Just keep your head above the surface.’
‘It’s not that deep!’ whispered back Cass.
‘As far as you can get, then.’ Kendra crouched down as well, still peering off into the trees. A few moments’ observation later, she turned back to Cass.
‘Good news, bad news. Good news is, they’re not very good at moving quietly; I can hear them pretty well. Bad news, there’s at least three of ‘em.’
‘Three?’ squeaked Cass before controlling herself.
Kendra ignored the outburst. ‘At least. No worries.’ She patted her gun. ‘Come on. We’ve got to move, otherwise the snakes’ll start approaching.’
Cass levitated out of the water.
‘Quietly!’ insisted Kendra. She moved off down the watery pathway.
‘Ken, shouldn’t we get off into the woods? Give us more shelter, conceal us?’ asked Cass after they’d covered about fifty meters.
‘Normally, yeah, but unless you know the territory really well – and I don’t, not here – it’s best to stick with what you know. I know there’s a steep drop-off somewhere along here, and we really don’t want to get into that. It’s a pretty good-sized pond, and swimming targets are easy targets.’
The sunken roadway continued on, overhanging mangrove branches blocking most of the light from the setting sun. In the distance, Cass could dimly see the remains of a stone archway.
‘Exit?’ she asked hopefully.
‘Yes. A few hundred meters. Then -’
The sharp crack of breaking wood close by their left stopped her speaking. Unintelligible, angry words followed. Gesturing for Cass to follow, Ken dashed ahead, heedless of the noise of the splashes and the muck flying around her.
‘I thought… we were… trying… to be… stealthy!’ panted Cass as she struggled to catch up.
‘Shut up and run!’
The sound of pursuit behind them grew louder as the hunters realized their quarry had heard them. Crashing and cursing came clearly now through the tangled woods.
The road was rising from the muck, allowing them to move faster. It wasn’t quite fast enough, though. A figure burst from the woods onto the path ahead of them and leveled an old-fashioned shotgun at them. They stumbled to a halt. He was winded, but the barrel of the gun never wavered.
‘What do you want?’ demanded Kendra, trying to control the situation.
‘Not your place, asking questions. Answering questions, is.’ The rest of the band stumbled out of the mangroves.
‘Friends of yours?’ asked Kendra, edging towards Cass.
‘Stop moving, you. Stop talking.’ Kendra stopped.
The half-light didn’t reveal much about him, or his four companions. Their clothes were dirty and torn, but whether from passage through the mangroves or earlier was impossible to determine. All Kendra could tell for certain was the shotgun was definitely pointed at them.
Rough hands ran over their bodies, searching for weapons. Both guns were taken, as were their packs. Two pairs of hands held Cass’s arms by her sides, but only one held Kendra, perhaps because she was shorter.
‘Not from here, you aren’t. Where?’ asked the shotgun holder.
‘Sonoran Republic,’ answered Kendra, omitting virtually everything important. ‘Visiting. Business.’
This drew snickers. ‘Business in Nawlins, there isn’t.’ The shotgun’s barrel wavered as his attention slipped.
‘Business in Nawlins, we have,’ insisted Kendra, adapting to his speech. ‘Letting us go, you are.’
‘They’s too stupid to live,’ said one holding Cass. ‘They’s too pretty to waste. I says we keep ‘em.’
Kendra looked at Cass, mouthed, Ready? Then she sprang at the man with the gun.
The blast from the shotgun went wide, splashing one of his companions over the mangroves, then Kendra was on him. A straight-arm blow to the gut bent him over, then a knee to his chin put him on the ground and Kendra was turning.
Cass had reached back, grabbed hold of the men holding her, and swung them forward. Their foreheads weren’t quite the right height for a cartoon crack, but one was down, clutching a shattered nose, while the other staggered, holding his head and out of the fight.
The final ruffian, realizing how badly he was outclassed, turned to run back into the swamp. Cass stretched, whipped his feet from under him, then jumped on his back. She grasped his head and bounced it once off the cracked pavement.
Kendra, seeing how swiftly Cass had handled her end, retrieved her favorite gun and turned back to the apparent leader. He was on his back, still gasping and not going anywhere fast. She knelt down by him and waited for his eyes to track on her.
‘Don’t try it,’ she advised, holding her gun so he could see it. She heard a thump behind her; without turning, she asked, ‘Any problems, Cass?’
‘One got a little frisky, so he had to take a nap. No problem.’
‘You never mentioned your hand-to-hand skills to me!’
‘I’m not Ms. Super-Agent-Assassin, but living in Los Alamos, a girl’s got be able to protect herself. I’d just gotten away from the mindset, you know?’
‘Yep. Been there. So, any of them going to make it?’
‘Except the one that got splashed, they all should survive. Uglier, but they’ll live.’
‘You hear that, mon frere?’ said Ken to her prisoner, staring at her with stunned eyes. ‘We left four of you alive to crawl back into your swamp. First, a few questions.’
‘Not gonna talk, you,’ he muttered, then spit.
‘I think you will,’ said Kendra, sweetly. ‘Cass? Can you bring me my pack?’
‘Just a sec.’ Thud. Thud. Thud. ‘Here you go.’
‘Should I ask?’
‘Just kicking a habit. Didn’t want any nasty surprises while you were busy. Can I borrow your gun?’
‘One of the brothers dumb fell on it and crushed the barrel.’
‘Clumsy. Inconsiderate. You owe her for a new gun, understand me?’
‘Not a hope, you haven’t.’
‘Tsk, tsk. Going to have to teach you some manners.’ She handed her gun to Cass. ‘Watch him. I need to find something.’ She stood up and stepped back, opened her pack and began rummaging. ‘I know it’s in here somewhere…’
‘Mmm?’ mumbled Kendra, her mouth holding a smaller bag.
‘Your needler. What rounds did you have in the magazine?’
She took the bag in a hand to answer. ‘Still explosive. Any particular reason?’
‘You may want to step back. He’s getting a little squirmy, and I don’t want you splattered if I have to put him down.’
‘Aww, how sweet.’ Kendra took a couple more steps back. ‘Good call. He still squirmy?’
‘You know, he’s just froze right up.’
‘Crazy bitches, couple of you are.’
‘And don’t you forget it,’ added Cass. She moved so she could keep an eye on the one still conscious and the other three at the same time.
‘Found it!’ exclaimed Kendra, putting the pack down and holding up an injector and a bottle of a blue liquid.
‘What is it?’ said Cass, curious.
‘Let’s just say he won’t be able to resist our charms. Or our questions. Stop him!’ Their erstwhile prisoner had leapt to his feet and darted for the safety of the trees. Cass shouted ‘STOP!’ while tracking him, then pulled the trigger. A burst of needle-like projectiles tore across the gap. Most missed him, blasting chunks out of the greenery, but three hit him squarely across the back. His legs continued for a couple steps before falling, while his shoulders and head were tossed sideways.
‘Sorry, Kendra, I didn’t mean to -’
‘Don’t worry about it,’ she answered, putting her arms around Cass for a quick hug. ‘I should’ve swapped out the mag.’ Releasing her, she stepped back.
Cass looked down. ‘We still have the sleeping uglies.’
‘The Three Stooges, maybe.’
‘Let me tell you…’ Over the next five minutes, as they trussed up the three survivors, Kendra explained.
‘Nyuk, nyuk?’ croaked Cass, incredulous.
‘Something like that,’ laughed Kendra. ‘Deeper in the throat, though.’ Before she could demonstrate again, they were interrupted by a shout from the entrance.
Cass still had Kendra’s gun. She whirled to face the caller, bringing the gun up level.
‘Hold on a minute!’ The man stopped dead in his tracks. ‘Kendra? Tell your friend who I am?’ He was about Cass’s height, with a shock of unruly brown hair, highly arched eyebrows, a patrician nose and eyes which seemed to promise mischief.
Kendra gently pushed Cass’s arms down so the gun was pointed away from the target. ‘Cass, meet Joe Buckley, one of the agents at OutLook, and one of my oldest friends here. Joe, this is Aiyana Cassidy, my wife.’
‘Aiyana Cassidy Foster-Briggs, you mean,’ corrected Cass.
‘Really? Hey, congratulations! Guess that means no more late night study sessions, eh?’
To Cass’s amazement, Kendra actually blushed. ‘Not that kind, no.’
‘Something you want to tell me?’ purred Cass.
‘Not right now,’ evaded Kendra. ‘What brings you out here, Joe?’ she continued, desperate to change the subject.
‘Talbott the butthead. She knows you’re on the way, so one of us is on every reasonable route down to the office, all the time. It’s been getting old,’ he complained.
‘How many shifts have you pulled?’
‘Typical. We’re here now. Let’s go.’
‘What about those three?’ Joe pointed at the still-unconscious trio. ‘You want to bring them in?’
‘Are you kidding? I wouldn’t spoil the office with their filth. Don’t think they meant anything by it; just a random jump.’ She slung her pack over her shoulder.
‘Aren’t you going to let them go?’
‘Aren’t you worried about the alligators getting them?’
Kendra looked at Cass, who simply shrugged. ‘Nope. Come on, we’re wasting time.’ Without another word, she walked off, Cass trailing her, and Joe hurrying to bring up the rear.
‘Is what he said about alligators true?’ whispered Cass.
‘Maybe. I’d bet they have a knife about them; the cord we used is strong, but a sharp knife’ll go right through it. Two minutes after the first one comes to, they’ll be gone. Or not. They played rough; we played rougher.’
Joe caught up to them. ‘Married. Damn, damn, damn. Never would’ve guessed you’d be the marrying kind, Kenny.’
‘Don’t ask. And don’t repeat that, Joe, or I’m gonna tell everyone why I called you Triple-B for a month.’
‘Call me Kenny again. Find out.’
‘How long have you been married?’
Kendra accepted the change. ‘Let’s see. Los Alamos to Vegas -’
‘We weren’t married yet.’
‘That’s right. It was still the same day, though.’
‘Barely counts. One. Then, Vegas again, to our little hideaway. How many days there?’
‘Not enough. Call it three days.’
‘Then two more, getting here. Six days.’
‘Is that all?’ said Cass.
‘Yep. Six days.’
‘Wait a minute. You’ve been married for six days? That’s it? Shouldn’t you be on your honeymoon?’ Joe was incredulous.
‘We should be -’ began Cass, but Kendra cut her off.
‘But Talbott wanted me to come in. Something urgent.’ She squeezed Cass’s hand; Cass took the hint and didn’t say anything.
‘That sucks for you. I oughta call this in, let the office know you’re on the way.’
‘How much further is it?’ asked Cass with just a bit of a whine in her voice.
‘About ten minutes. A pretty easy w- Aaaugh!’
An alligator had lunged out of the swampy water and clamped down on Joe’s left leg and was dragging him back to the water. Kendra leapt for Joe, grabbing his arms and digging in her feet. That slowed the gator’s progress enough for Cass to rush to the other side and kick at the jaws. The gator was determined, though, and tossed its head from side to side.
‘Get it off! Get it off!’ screamed Joe.
‘Cass! Gun!’ shouted Kendra.
‘Crap! Gun, right – where?’
‘My pack – I can’t reach it!’
Meanwhile, Joe was still screaming, and the gator continued to thrash around, biting down harder. Cass tore into the pack, finding the weapon as Joe’s screams reached a crescendo. There was a horrifying crunch, and a crack, and then the sound of ripping cloth. Before Cass could level the gun, the gator scuttled back into the water, tired of fighting, tired of being kicked, and satisfied with its prize – Joe’s left foot and calf.
Cass stood for a moment, frozen, before Kendra’s voice cut through her paralysis. ‘Put down the gun and help me!’
‘What can I do?’ said Cass, dropping to the ground. Ken was ripping away the tattered cloth around the amputation site.
‘Give me your belt,’ she demanded. ‘I have to make a tourniquet, stop the blood loss or we’ll lose him right here.’
Cass undid the buckle and whipped it off. ‘Here you go. What else?’
‘I need cloth, and clean water to wash it. I know we have water in our packs; do you have anything tough enough to use for a bandage?’ While she spoke, Kendra wrapped the belt twice around the leg, just below the knee, and pulled it tight.
‘Water first.’ Cass handed Ken the bottle from her pack, then started searching her own.
‘Stay with me Joe,’ said Kendra, now pouring the water over the stump. The bleeding had slowed to a trickle.
Teeth clenched, Joe said, ‘Not going to get rid of me that easily. Pretty close, though.’ He managed a faint grin between taut lips.
‘Joe has absolutely the worst luck ever,’ explained Kendra, still dribbling water. ‘Thanks,’ she added when Cass handed her a blouse.
‘Remember the time in training?’ she said to Joe. ‘We were in a live-fire exercise and Joe was in full battle rattle,’ she explained, tearing the blouse into strips. ‘Rounds are flying, and the instructors had told us very firmly that, as long as we stayed within a meter of the ground, we’d be fine, because they wouldn’t fire lower than that. Safety first, right?’
‘I guess,’ agreed Cass.
‘Remember what happened next, Joe?’
‘Yeah. You goosed me.’
‘I did not! I was reaching for a handhold – did I mention we were on a rocky slope? – and I just happened to, ah, find something softer.’
Cass laughed. ‘What happened?’
‘He jumps up, spins around with the most outraged look on his face, and is just about to say – what were you going to say, Joe?’
‘It was five years ago, Ken!’ He winced as she found another sensitive spot. She dug around in the pack again, found a single-use injection and popped it into his leg. ‘Morphine,’ she explained, before continuing the story.
‘Whatever it was, you never said it, ‘cause you got hit by, what, three rounds?’
‘Four. Two hit in one spot.’
‘How did he live?’ asked a shocked Cass.
‘Full body armor,’ answered Kendra. ‘Standard equipment for that kind of exercise. Anyways, that’s not the good part.’
‘No. Whistles blow, the guns go silent, and there’s all this shouting, right? The instructors come streaming out, all heading right for us. They get there and the lead instructor, this real salty ex-Marine named Neely, he starts ripping Joe a new one.’
‘Oh yes,’ contradicted Joe, feeling the drug now. ‘I try to explain to him what happened, and he just looks at me like I’m nuts. Finally, in this real quiet voice – his ‘You’re not worth yelling at anymore’ voice – he says, ‘Son, you sure you got enough balls for her to notice?’ He had me on extra training sessions for a week after that.’
Kendra was giggling, and so was Cass.
‘It wasn’t funny!’ insisted Joe. ‘You wanna know the worst part?’ he asked Cass.
‘She didn’t even get gigged! Not a word, okay? Finally I get time off and I go see her, and we’re, you know, having a little fun, right? Things are getting pretty hot and heavy when Ken stops, gets out of bed, and says, ‘Sorry, Joe, gotta go.’ And out she walks!’
‘I did,’ admitted Kendra. ‘And I got in trouble, just not as publicly. Okay, Joe, it looks like we’ve got the bleeding stopped. Give me your commlink.’
He reached into a pocket and retrieved the device. ‘Emergency code still Hotel Echo?’
‘Yeah, though you could just tell ‘em that the Joe Buckley curse has struck again.’ He sniggered.
‘How much morphine did you give him?’ whispered Cass.