Buck Masterson is training his latest batch of recruits when a bizarre storm transports them and part of their base into the Unformed, a reality of mist, magic, and monsters. Help arrives in the form of Autumn, a young Champion who promises to help them find their way home. But before she can, a dragon attacks the recruits’ base and captures Autumn and several recruits for his master, Geth.
Now Autumn must resist a powerful mage determined to mold her in his tyrannical image, while Buck rushes to rescue his students and their young ally.
Sergeant Bradley “Buck” Masterson rested his hands on his hips and called his recruits to attention in a sharp, clear voice. It was time for drill practice, bright and early in the morning before they were all the way awake.
His recruits snapped to, drawing themselves to attention and focusing forward with sharp precision. He didn’t have to repeat the order this time. Good. He didn’t allow himself to smile. Not yet; they had only managed to stand in formation. That didn’t earn them a smile. He did let himself enjoy a brief moment of pride, though. These young men and women were a good group. He was pretty sure at least a quarter of them would be career military, and probably only one or two would wash out.
Buck barked out another command, and they obeyed with neat precision. They were improving rapidly. They were hardly parade-ready, but that would come with time. Drill wasn’t about perfection at this stage. It was about building muscle memory and instinctive responses–being able to march in pretty lines wasn’t important; immediately following orders that could save their lives on a battlefield was.
Buck barked out a third command, a simple “left face.” For some reason, one or two recruits always turned right instead. Probably stress and jittery nerves. By this point in their lives, they knew their right from their left, but if they expected another command, well, they followed the one they expected, not the one they heard. That was fine. He had three weeks to knock that out of them.
“Your other left, cadet!” he called out.
One of the cadets spun a frantic one-eighty. The other stared upwards and pointed.
“Sergeant, the sky!”
Buck frowned. “What, did it turn orange or something?”
“No, Sergeant. Purple! And, uh, green?”
Buck turned around and looked up, honestly expecting the recruit was pulling his leg–though greenish clouds could herald a tornado. There hadn’t been anything in the morning weather report, but out in the plains that wasn’t any kind of guarantee.
He scanned the horizon and blinked in shock. The sky, which moments ago had been pale blue and ornamented with a few fleecy white clouds, was now a mottled, bruise purple laced through with vivid, neon green. The sky directly overhead was still blue, but as Buck watched, more purple bled into the blue. Soon the whole sky would be darkened.
“Inside!” Buck barked. He’d never seen storm clouds like that before, but what else could it be? The wind was picking up fast. “Recruits to the nearest shelter! That’s the men’s barracks, double-time, go, go, go, now!”
He hardly needed to add the word “now,” they were already running all out for the shelter of the building. Buck followed, keeping his eyes on the slowest recruits to make sure everyone made it inside. The storm or whatever was approaching fast. Buck barely stumbled into the barracks as the dark, technicolor clouds washed out the sky overhead, until all that could be seen in any direction was the bizarre purple and green clouds.
“Sergeant, what was that?” asked Matthews. Her brown eyes were wide with fear but her voice was steady.
“Some kind of storm front,” Buck answered with a casual disregard he didn’t quite feel. He wasn’t about to let his recruits see him shaken. They needed him to be steady.
So he would be. Even if the wind outside suddenly howled loudly enough to be heard through the metal door of the barracks. The building was sturdy. They’d be fine. Still, there was no reason to take unnecessary chances.
“Recruits!” he barked over the howling wind and startled shouts from the recruits. “Double time down to the basement! Don’t stop to grab your gear, just go!”
With a direct order to follow, the recruits stopped milling around uncertainly and scurried for the door to the basement, which was usually reserved for laundry and storage. One recruit, Nguyen, tucked a first aid kit under his arm. That was a very good idea, so Buck just nodded at him and herded the rest through the door. Following orders was good. Remembering to grab a first aid kit because there wasn’t one in the basement was better. Recruits who thought on their feet were more likely to have long, healthy careers.
Buck waited until they were all through the door. The storm was already raging outside. Something heavy slammed into the barracks door, hard enough to rattle the frame. Buck didn’t hear rain, only the deafening howl of the wind. How had a storm this severe blown up so quickly, with no warning at all?
And why hadn’t the base tornado siren gone off?
Once everyone was crammed into the basement storage room, Buck set about organizing them to sit on the spare footlockers and did a quick headcount. He came up with twenty—good, everyone made it.
“Sound off,” Buck ordered. “If you’re injured, report that.”
Twenty voices chimed in, one by one. No one was hurt, beyond a slightly twisted ankle for Matthews. She insisted it was nothing, but Nguyen insisted on checking it. Buck left them to it and took a deep breath, listening to the roaring wind overhead.
That was no normal storm. Tornado? Could be; would explain the green clouds. There should have been some warning, though. Tornadoes could whip up fast, sure, but there should have at least been a siren!
“All right, campers,” Buck called, raising his voice above the wind with some effort. “Everyone sit tight. I’m gonna get on the phone, find out why the storm sirens didn’t sound.”
“Yes, Sergeant,” his recruits chorused.
He stepped just outside the room and fished his phone out of his pocket. He could hear the recruits talking among themselves, trying to figure out the sudden storm and the lack of any warning. So long as they didn’t work themselves into a panic it was fine. He hoped the storm would blow over as quickly as it had formed. He activated his phone and called the base office.
Or he tried to. The thing wouldn’t connect. He checked, saw no bars, and grumbled. Right. The storm would scramble the cell signal if being in a basement wasn’t enough. That was fine, there was a radio in the basement just in case. He went to the tiny closet that housed it and was stunned to hear only silence. Not a disconnect sound. Not a busy signal. Not static. Only silence. The radio lines were buried under the base; a storm shouldn’t affect them at all.
What in the Hell?
Buck sighed and tried his cell again. No radio, no phone. Well, that was fine. He and his recruits were safe in the basement of the men’s barracks. He’d just wait until the storm ended, then he’d march out to the base headquarters and find out who in the Hell had failed so miserably to do basic maintenance. One malfunction, the siren, was bad enough. But the siren and the radio? That was inexcusable.
Just as Buck thought that, the lights blinked out.
Buck cursed and felt his way along the wall to the room where he’d left his recruits. They weren’t panicking, good.
“Sound off,” Buck ordered and listened as twenty names were called out.
He doubted they’d gone anywhere in the two minutes he was away, but the order was what they expected.
“There are flashlights in here somewhere,” Buck announced. “I need two volunteers to feel around those shelves on the left wall. Everyone else, stay put.”
Matthews and Reynolds volunteered. Buck warned them to be careful and left them to it.
“Did the storm knock out the power or did a breaker blow, Sergeant?” Pratt asked.
Pratt, Buck recalled, was an electrician’s kid. Pretty shy, it was a bit of a shock he’d spoken up to ask.
“Can’t tell until I check the breaker box,” Buck replied. “Which I’ll do just as soon as Reynolds and Matthews find those flashlights.”
“We’re trying, Sergeant,” Reynolds replied. “There are a lot of boxes.”
“Don’t rush,” Buck replied. “Don’t want to get hurt on something in there.” No telling what was in those boxes. Next time a recruit got in trouble, Buck was going to order them to take an inventory.
“Why don’t you give them your phone?” Nguyen suggested. “It has a light, right Sergeant?”
“Good thinking, recruit,” Buck said, only moderately embarrassed he hadn’t thought of that himself. He usually kept the phone out of sight. The recruits, of course, were not allowed to have phones at all. Buck’s was solely for emergencies. This qualified. He passed the device down to Pratt. “Hand this thing over to Reynolds.”
The search went faster with some light to work with. After about two minutes, Matthews announced her find triumphantly, flicking on a flashlight to make sure it worked.
“Pass those around so everyone has one,” Buck said, “but don’t waste the batteries. Only use them if you need them. I’m going to check the breaker box.”
“Yes, Sergeant,” Reynolds said, handing over a flashlight.
“Sergeant,” this time it was Pratt who spoke, “I can help. It’ll go faster.”
“Didn’t anyone ever tell you ‘never volunteer,’ recruit?” Buck shook his head ruefully. “Never mind. You’re right, four eyes are better than two. Come on. Everyone else, stay put.”
“What should we do while we wait, though?” Albertson asked. “Just sit here?”
“What, you don’t appreciate a chance to get some rest? You should be doing drill practice now,” Buck reminded them, then added. “I don’t know. Someone must remember some ghost stories. Jones, I bet you know some good ones.”
“I did live in a haunted house once, Sergeant,” the young woman replied in such a smooth deadpan Buck wasn’t sure if she was serious or trying to joke. Hard to tell with that one.
“Perfect. Creep out your buddies while Pratt and I get the lights going.”
Buck was secretly very happy. Not about having his training regimen interrupted by a blasted storm or about having everything from the radio to the bloody lights refusing to work. But his recruits were facing their first unscheduled critical event, also known as an emergency, and they were doing just fine. No one had panicked or defied his orders. The few alternative suggestions that had been offered were useful. They helped each other and supported him, just like a real unit of soldiers. They would be fine, he was proud. Only halfway through basic training, too!