In the Alaskan wilderness, an Army captain struggles to defeat an alien virus that compels her to destroy intelligent life.
It’s called When All Is Lost, and it’s my first novel. I’m sharing the first few pages here in hopes that you might find it fun.
On South Georgia Island in Antarctica’s Weddell Sea, ornithologist Druscilla Huggins awoke to silence. In the moment it took for that to register, she luxuriated inside her sleeping bag. Her Quonset hut left little room for other comforts. She shared it with her bird lab, recording equipment, radio, heater, provisions and assistant Lawrence Biggs, who snored. A screensaver of arctic terns ambled across her computer screen; slim white birds slightly larger than robins with neat black caps and orange beaks. Tinsel hung from the ceiling in anticipation of Christmas.
Her eyes flew open. She struggled to sit up. Larry’s cot was empty. She fumbled for her glasses and watch. 6:03 a.m. The terns should have been raucous. Dru escaped her bag, pulled on her boots and ran outside in long johns, her gray hair flying. She jogged around the hut and over a small rise, where she nearly skidded into Biggs. He stood agape a hundred meters from what had been Antarctica’s largest arctic tern boreal wintering grounds.
“Where did they go?”
On January 11, 2023, a soldier was dropped into the unforgiving wilderness due east of the U.S. Army’s Northern Warfare Training Center in Black Rapids, Alaska. Being mid-January, it was -10F˚ and getting colder as the sun slid toward the trees. Two feet of new snow covered the Galkana Glacier, igneous rock and hibernating fauna. If you’d been an arctic fox or a caribou, you may have witnessed her plummeting through the branches of a black spruce and hitting the ground in an explosion of snow.
She lay quietly and marveled at the view overhead, of snowy boughs and hard blue sky. She turned her head and saw that the snow for three feet around her had melted, revealing warm, familiar granite.
She pulled up a pant leg and studied her calf, long and carved with muscle. She pulled off a glove and brought a hand to her face. She made a fist then opened it to watch tendons strain against flesh. She tested the strength of her nails and the sharpness of her teeth. She ran her hands over her face, chest and belly. She pulled her short blonde hair.
A name drifted into her mind. As soon as it formed in her brain, her mouth itched to try it. Her first effort was a monstrous hiss. She flinched and repeated, “Jane.” The sound ached in her chest. She tested the rock with her tongue. Other words filled her head and spilled out her mouth: thirsty, snow, pine, knuckle.
She rose carefully to her feet, tested the rock with her boots and started walking.
Captain Jane G. Barclay knelt on the leeward flank of a forested ridge and motioned her Blue Team unit to do the same. They’d been snowshoeing through 20 mph winds and blowing snow since dawn, but the weather had finally calmed. After the five-hour arctic day, the sun was hovering just above the horizon. She slung her M4 over a shoulder and snapped on a virtual map of the most godforsaken wilderness the U.S. Army could muster. It threw a red topographic grid across her visual field.
“Let’s dig in, First Sergeant,” she said. “Red Team’s got to be at least two klicks ahead. With luck we’ll catch them by 1500 tomorrow.”
The ahkio sled team released their tow harnesses and chocked the runners. The rest of the unit dropped their rucksacks and groaned in relief.
Jane propped her rifle and pack against a tree and pulled out her shovel. Pointing with it, she indicated a flat section of snow. “Tent there, latrine here. Steiner, you’re on snow collection. Let’s get cozy, folks.” She started clearing snow as the unit began unloading their ten-man arctic tent. Once up, it resembled a small, six-sided circus tent supported by an eight-foot center pole.
At a glance, Jane looked like typical cornfed Kansas; blue-eyed, blonde, athletic. You could see her growing up on horseback (which she did) and skipping school (she didn’t). It took a closer look to see her wars: the desert scouring, the shrapnel scars, the hair cut short enough to ignore. One good friend was all she needed. Since her first command, that had been Joe.
Sgt. Joe Gunderman slid a perimeter sensor from his pack and tossed it to PFC Tom Wrigley. Frost clotted his black cheeks like powdered sugar. A war-hardened NCO, Joe towered a head above everyone but gunner Owen Steiner. The chink in his armor: a six-year old daughter and a wife in base housing at Bragg. Before packing for Alaska, he had promised it would be his last deployment. They’d already picked out a bungalow in Cleveland near her parents.
“You’re up, Wrigley,” he said. “Give us 30 meters and take first watch with Quesado.”
“Yes! Eat snow, grunts.” Wrigley thrust the sensor into the snow, creating a 30-meter diameter alert around their patrol base. He was bald and wiry and always pulled his weight, but nobody appreciated light duty more.
“The Army serves it, we eat it,” grinned Steiner. He loped outside the perimeter to pack snow for drinking, high-fiving Quesado as she began her patrol. Steiner favored all things white, but Quesado’s dark beauty rearranged him.
“Just douse it in syrup,” she said.
“Fuck, we forgot the sprinkles.”
Jane glanced at Joe and smiled.
Seven soldiers were assigned to the captain’s Blue Team arctic warfare training unit: Sergeant First Class Joe Gunderman, machine gunner Owen “Ox” Steiner, radioman Tom “Tom-Tom” Wrigley, PFCs Mia Quesado and Warren Osterly, specialist Micah Baines and corporal Višeslav Radanović. Viz had turned down a surgical fellowship in Zagreb to become an Army medic and fast-track his U.S. citizenship. Given how rapidly the cold could incapacitate even the fittest soldier, Jane was grateful for his expertise. She worried about their Red Team cohorts who were training without a medic.
Night fell quickly. Under a half moon, trees and rocks stood out crisply against the new snow. Inside the tent, Jane unrolled her sleeping bag, pulled off her boots and shoved them inside. Even at -25˚F, her gear and the tent’s heater kept her warm. She scanned the cocoons of her snoring team, checked the fire guard for signs of fatigue, and fell asleep in less than a minute.
The soldier was pleased with her body. It proved to be tireless and agile, allowing her to move with speed and stealth. Her only complaint was the heat. Her helmet trapped it and burned her scalp. Her pack spread it like napalm over her back and her boots were an agony. Heedless of the weather, she left a trail of gear in her wake as she stripped to long underwear and trousers.
Every new sight and smell lit up a word in her brain, amassing an arsenal of language. She lifted her nose and scented the night. Not far now. A growl rumbled low in her throat. Her skin prickled with anticipation; the need of it settled low in her belly. “Jane,” she hummed.
A ridge appeared through the trees. She melted behind a boulder and peered around it with her cheek to the ground. A soldier lay on his belly scanning the trees. She sensed others in the tent behind him. She searched for a familiar form.
The prone soldier suddenly swiveled his head in her direction. She understood man, gun, helmet, clothes. His eyes skimmed past her position, but he remained alert as he gripped his weapon. He touched his helmet and a second soldier slithered out of the tent. They communicated briefly with hand signals, then the second one touched his helmet and a third soldier emerged. The visitor saw this soldier and silently keened. It was Jane Barclay with a weapon in her hands.
Gunderman’s alert had jolted Jane awake. It was 0300. He signaled eyes outside the perimeter, and she trained her M4 on the trees. Wolves? A Red Team scout? Wrigley roused the others as Jane signaled Joe. He shook his head; unknown. She switched to night vision and scanned the surrounding woods. Wolves wouldn’t hide so well. It had to be human. Jane grinned.
An anomaly in the landscape snagged her peripheral vision. Her head snapped back to a large boulder. The night vision painted everything in shades of green. She strained to detect movement or something out of place. It took her a moment to register what she saw: a circle of bare earth that should have been covered in shin-deep snow. She flipped to infrared and frowned. The spot beside the boulder was nearly black with warmth, as if someone had lit a camp stove and let it burn for hours.
Not in the manual, she thought. USARAK had prepared her for many things: surviving in cold, mountainous terrain; teaching others to thrive and fight there; outmaneuvering an equally well-trained enemy force; earning the trust of her company. She couldn’t recall a single hour of training that would explain a circle of persistent radiant heat in a sub-zero night.
“Sergeant, we’ve got something odd about 60 meters at my ten o’clock. Looks like a hot spot. It’s lighting up infrared like fireworks.”
“I see it, ma’am. You want eyes?”
“Osterly, take a look,” said Gunderman. “Heads up, people. Could be Red Team’s getting creative.”
19-year old PFC Warren Osterly rolled outside the perimeter and advanced in short spurts from tree to tree, closing in on the boulder as he scanned the ridge right and left. This being maneuvers and not actual combat, he was having the time of his freckled, gamer life. He squatted behind a snow drift fifteen feet from the boulder. He flipped his screen to infrared and saw what the fuss was about. The circle of earth was dark with heat. He scanned its perimeter and stopped. His brain struggled to process what he saw: a line of bare footprints leading away from the boulder and curving gently to his right.
“Sarge, this is weird…” He followed the footprints as they circled wide toward his position. For no conscious reason, he thought of his mother in Jersey and the kiss she’d given him when he shipped out for the Alaskan interior.
“Say again, private,” said Gunderman in his ear. “What do you see?”
Osterly was just about to tell him. The hair on his neck stood a fraction of a second before he turned and blinked at a thigh just inches from his shoulder.
Jane heard a stifled scream. She saw an infrared blur behind a snowdrift but couldn’t make out what it meant. She flipped back to night vision in time to see Osterly slump to the ground. With brisk hand signals, she directed her team and stepped outside the perimeter. Radanović headed for Osterly while the rest fanned out and descended the ridge. All relinquished the comparative languor of training and snapped into combat mode.
By the time Radanović reached Osterly, the private was limp and unresponsive. His helmet lay useless at his feet. The medic performed a quick field exam. The captain’s whisper came through his headset. “What’s his status?”
“Out like a light, ma’am,” said Radanović. “I feel a contusion on the back of his head.”
“No helmet? Is it bad?”
“Enough to knock him out. Abrasion on the tree suggests… Wait one…”
“You’re not gonna believe this, ma’am, but I’ve got footprints leading in and out.”
“Uh, no ma’am. I mean, they’re naked footprints.”
Silence. Jane replayed the line in her head, trying to find a way it might make sense.
“Check your infrared.”
Radanović snapped on his sensor. “Jesus, Captain, they’re hot.” He leaned closer. “They’ve melted the snow right down to the ground.”
Jane knew two things. It wasn’t a Red Team ambush, and it didn’t fit any version of reality she’d been trained to recognize. She opened her mic and tried to keep her voice flat.
“Blue Team, we are dealing with an intruder of unknown origin. Weapons live. Go to infrared and rendezvous with Corporal Radanović. This is no longer a training exercise. Sergeant, a word.” She felt a surge of pride as her team briskly turned toward the medic, night vision on and safeties off. Gunderman intercepted her on her way to Radanović.
“What do we have, Captain?”
“I wish I knew. Osterly’s unconscious, possibly attacked by a barefoot assailant.”
Gunderman’s eyebrows rose comically, then dropped into a frown. “Ma’am, that’s not feasible.”
“Let’s go find out.”
The team met within seconds of each other and stared first at Osterly, then at the footprints leading into the night like a blood trail. Gunderman was too surprised to swear.
Jane gathered them close and met each pair of eyes: seven men and one woman in various states of anticipation, perplexity and bravado.
“Not what we signed up for this week, folks. Whoever attacked Osterly is at large and a possible danger to the rest of us as well as our Red Team brethren.” She watched them harden with esprit de corps. “It’s a weird one, no mistake. But mysteries usually have ordinary explanations. I expect this one to be no different. I’m requesting permission to track and detain. However, due to Osterly’s condition and our limited rack time, we face a high risk of hypothermia. Therefore, we will remain bivouacked until 0900. I want double guards. Everyone sleeps on top of their mat. Baines and Steiner, you’re on first watch. Everyone hydrated and down in ten.”
She turned to Radanović, who cradled Osterly’s head. “Let’s get him inside. Wrigley, notify NWTC of our situation and request a SUSV for extraction at first light.”
For the second time that night Jane watched her unit fall asleep, this time fully clothed. Fire guard Mia Quesado met her eyes over the graphene battery heater. Quesado barely met the Army’s height requirement, but she made up for it in muscle. It was her job to mind the heater while Wrigley patrolled outside. When he came in, she would take his place and he’d awaken the next fire guard before heading for his mat. The well-rehearsed roster ensured that her exhausted unit was protected inside and out. Jane nodded to Mia, who gave her a thumb’s up.
The glitch in the roster was Osterly. He was still out but moaning. Radanović lay beside him, taking vitals. He caught Jane’s eyes and shook his head. Viz was losing his battle with fatigue, and Jane knew neither soldier would be fit for sub-zero travel.
She closed her eyes and listened to a distant wolf pack. Jane took comfort in the familiarity of the howls. After nine years in the Army, Jane thought more like a soldier than a woman. ‘Intelligence is more valuable than armor. Know your enemy to defeat him.’ She knew next to nothing about this one, and what she did know didn’t make sense. No one could walk barefoot here and survive. She was a specialist in arctic warfare; she knew precisely how and how fast skin submitted to freezing. Up here, you couldn’t let your gun touch your cheek without losing skin. If someone had gone bootless long enough to stalk her unit and attack Osterly, they would be stumbling on useless, frozen flesh, not leaving a trail as hot as a beachcomber’s. And was it even an attack? She needed intel she could only get through capture and interrogation. The arctic required your full strength and attention, two things easily compromised by lack of water, food and sleep. So she drank, she ate and, cocooned in protocol, she slept.
The intruder rested, too. Realizing Jane and her soldiers were not in pursuit, she climbed a large spruce and lay spread-eagle on a wide limb. She fell asleep with her face to the stars.
Unlike their progeny, the stars did not sleep. Astronomers had mapped and named them; sailors had sighted them to plot safe passage; astrophysicists had plumbed their composition; preachers had ignored them. They took no notice. They were the engines of life; all thought was irrelevant to the mandate of their chemistry.
At 64˚N, dawn arrived at a sluggish 1034. An hour earlier, a Small Unit Support Vehicle had left the NWTC and caterpillared to Jane’s patrol base. Her orders had arrived by SATCOM uplink even faster. Major Jeff Hartz, XO of Stryker Brigade headquarters at Ft. Wainwright, advised her to medevac Osterly and Radanović in the SUSV, then equip the rest of her unit to track and detain the intruder. In their haste to outpace Blue Team, three Red Team members had suffered second-degree frostbite. The rest were exhausted. Their unit was already within sight of the NWTC and unfit to join Jane’s team.
By 1100, her unit was hydrated, fed, packed, rearmed and inspected. Osterly and Radanović had left for the NWTC with no change in the private’s condition. Before leaving, the SUSV crew unloaded 1200 M4 rounds, grenades, MREs and fresh graphene batteries for the heater and lantern. Because they’d be traversing wooded, snow-covered terrain, each soldier wore a GORE-TEX® camouflage parka and white trousers over long polypro underwear, quilted rip-stop nylon coat and trousers, wool socks, white vapor-barrier boots, wool balaclava, and trigger-finger mittens with wool inserts. Each also wore dog tags, a lighter and chap stick on an arctic necklace against their skin. Wearing snowshoes and rucksacks, they looked laughably out of place on their own home world.
“Baines, take point,” ordered Gunderman. “The rest of you spread out.” They moved into the trees, following their improbable quarry. Micah Baines took care not to disturb the intruder’s footprints, watching for wider depressions that could indicate the man had doubled back in his own footsteps.
Despite being commanded by a woman, the team thought of the intruder as male. The Army had allowed women in combat since 2013, but Jane was still an anomaly: a war veteran and cold warfare trainer, two positions better suited to a 240-pound male than a 5’6″woman half that weight. Jane had earned her command not because she was smarter or tougher or better connected. She’d won it because of a nearly limitless capacity to focus clearly and dispassionately amidst mortars, bullets, blizzards, injuries, defections, deprivation and fear. She was, quite simply, relentless.
They trekked southeast through sparse pine forest, steadily rising toward 6,000-foot peaks shrouded in low clouds. At 1345, Baines halted at the forest’s edge. An ice-packed stream snaked fifty feet from the trees. Beyond that lay nothing but open snow to the mountain flanks, nearly a kilometer away.
Jane shoed past Baines and scanned the landscape. She pointed at the clouds above the mountain, which cupped the peak like a contact lens. “Lenticular clouds mean high winds. We’re probably facing a storm.” She pulled 10×50 rangefinder binoculars from her parka and trained them on the landscape and the footprints leading toward the hills.
“Looks like he’s heading for higher ground.” When she lost the footprints, she scanned the scree slope ahead of them. The rock field ascended to the low arctic timberline of Hill 56, beyond which lay the glacier and 50 miles of mountain.
She turned to Gunderman and her team. “Listen up. The weather is not our friend. We probably have an hour or two at most before it starts blowing, right about dark. Let’s dig in just inside the tree line.”
PFC Warren Osterly awoke with a sore throat. He struggled to sit up, but a firm hand pushed him down.
“Easy, soldier. Welcome back. I’m Corporal Timmons.” An Army nurse gave him a crisp smile, then turned and signaled to someone behind her.
“Where am I?” he croaked. He tried to rub his throat but his wrist flopped against a leather restraint.
“You’re in Bassett,” said Radanović. He looked exhausted as he approached Osterly’s bed. Basset Army Community Hospital, Ft. Wainwright, Fairbanks was the only military hospital in the state and an hour chopper flight from Black Rapids. “How are you feeling?”
“Not great, man. My head’s killing me.”
“Looks like you caught a cold, although I’m not sure how it got past our vaccine.” As they talked, Radanović studied Osterly’s face and took his pulse. Since 2011, every recruit in every branch of military service had been routinely vaccinated in boot camp for adenovirus, the microbe responsible for the common cold.
“What’s with the cuffs?”
“You were fighting us pretty good on the way in.”
Osterly stared at his restraints.
Radanović lowered his voice. “Can you tell me what happened out there?”
Osterly shook his head. His right eye was red and swollen; when he jerked, a pus-white tear flew onto his nose. Radanović daubed it with a tissue. “Got a little conjunctivitis, too…”
“She…she..” the private tried.
Osterly squeezed his eyes shut, forcing a second tear down his cheek. “No,” he rasped.
“She wasn’t right, man.”
Osterly suddenly heaved against the restraints. He arched his back in terror. “She licked my eye!” he screamed. Radanović leaned in to calm him. Suddenly, Osterly retched. The medic reared back just as the private convulsed, spewing hot vomit onto Radanović’s shirt. Viz eased Osterly’s head to one side. His hands were slick with Osterly’s vomit, mucus and pus. The private emptied his stomach onto the pillow then coughed, spraying blood on the sheets, bed rail, night stand and floor.