“What the fuck was that?” Spears’ voice was close to panic.

“I don’t know, rockets?” Horn said. “Look out your side, Raleigh. I think they got our right wing.”

Spears craned his head around. “Shit, there’s a big chunk out of the aft wing. It looks like something chewed on it.” He turned back toward Horn. “How’s it flying?”

“It seems to be okay,” the pilot answered. “Where the fuck are we?”

“I don’t know,” Spears answered. “Wait, okay, here we go. There’s the goddamn Speeder.” The copilot pointed ahead to the right of their aircraft. The hulking form of the big war machine was winding its way into the Knuckles, heading back in the direction of the Barlow Swedge.

“Treadlow, what’s your sitrep?” Miller asked. He felt his heart skipping beats as he waited for the answer.

“I’m losing blood,” the tracker finally said. “But I think I’m alive.”

Sitrep, the military term, means situation report, and I thought it was time to give one.

Summer is my least favorite season and usually my least productive time for writing, but I built momentum coming out of last winter and have three MUTANT HUNTER works in the pipeline:

THE SKIN BAGS — The fourth book in the series is ready to be published as soon as Michael Whelan finishes the cover painting. For the first time, Leon Miller will not be on the cover. The honor goes to Treadlow. I don’t have a clue what it looks like, but I’m excited to finally see what Michael sees when he reads my descriptions and accounts of the tracker.

Michael reports the painting will be ready for Mike Jackson’s cover treatment soon. My only anxiety in all of this is that the book measures up to the cover, i.e., that my writing is worthy of his art. You’ll be the judge of that.

THE SKIN BAGS picks up where SPLINTERLAND left off. In it, I introduce some new characters and bad actors. One, Cassius Frakes, a young upstart mutant hunter from Los Angeles, is wired tight and out of control. He makes Miller’s quest to find the woman even more complicated and dangerous than it is already. The nuclear weapon is still in play, Treadlow continues to wrestle with his moral and ethical demons, and Magnus, the leader of the mutants called Skin Bags, makes his move to destroy the New States government.

The book should be on Amazon in a couple of weeks. I’ll post a notice when it’s released.

In the SKIN BAGS, Miller agrees to tell the story of his escape from Changabang prison. After finishing the book, I wrote a first person novella in which Miller tells this tale. Even though I wrote the non-fiction novel COPAN and several short stories in first person, CHANGABANG was a challenge. I don’t know why, but it took me as long to write this novella as it has any of the other MUTANT HUNTER full-length novels. At one point I came close to scrapping the thing. But finally, it came together.

Excerpt from CHANGABANG

After in-processing, I was escorted to my cell and heard the door slam and lock behind me. My cellmate, a heavy, almost obese, dark-faced man called Lothar — the PC had told me his name — was sitting on the stainless steel commode taking a shit. It stunk. Badly. Lothar stared at me without saying a word — no greeting, no make yourself at home, no go to hell, nothing. He just stared at me, looked me up and down, disgust plastered on his unshaven, fat face like a rash. He wore a dirty purple sweatshirt and grey sweatpants that were dropped around his ankles. His hairy, corpulent thighs were fish belly white.

It was obvious the top bunk was mine, and I tossed my few belongings onto it. I turned and stared through the bars at the concrete wall on the other side of the walkway while Lothar grunted and wiped his ass, at least that’s what it sounded like he was doing.

“What’s yo name, new boy?” he asked.

“Miller,” I answered without turning my head. Lothar didn’t wash his hands. I heard his bed springs creak.

“Here’s da rules in dis cell.” Lothar spoke with a heavy Euro-Russian accent. “And der’s just one rule. I makes the fucking rules.” He started laughing loudly, like a swine snorting in a barnyard.

It prompted someone in the next cell to yell, “Shut the fuck up, you goddamned sweat hog.”

“Fuck you,” Lothar countered.

I remember feeling pretty low right about then. It was like I was trapped in a bad dream. Lothar’s voice, the diseased smell, everything was like a parody of my vision of prison. It was a hopeless feeling exacerbated by the stench of human feces and rancid sweat. But one good thing about my Special Forces training was they taught us to focus on surviving. To concentrate on getting through the moments while planning for the minutes, building on what you could control.

One thing I did know, was that I could probably control Lothar. Besides being overweight, he looked out of shape, and didn’t come across like he was that smart. I was thinking about how to tell him to stay out of my face, when my head was suddenly jerked back and the point of something pressed painfully into the side of my neck.

“Now, youse listen to me and listen to me good, boy,” Lothar said, his mouth centimeters from my right ear. He grasped my hair in his right hand and held a blade of some sort against my throat. His stinking hot breath washed over my cheek. It smelled like sardines and stale tobacco. I thought I was going to gag, and cursed myself for not having my guard up.

“They’s going to call us for chow in a couple of minutes, and when we’s get back to the cell you and me’s going to get acquainted real good, youse understand, Mildred?”

I almost laughed. Mildred? But the knife pressing into my windpipe made the ridiculous prison lingo and sexual innuendo suddenly ugly and serious, weird and scary, real and mortal. It was like a joke that had gotten out of hand. One second you’re fooling around with a loaded weapon, the next second the muzzle is pressed against your temple with some psychopath telling you it’s time to play Russian roulette.

“Take it easy, Lothar,” I said. “You make the rules, I understand.”

“Dat’s good, boy,” Lothar said. “Real good. When we gets back, I’ll show you more.”

I felt the pressure of the blade ease and forced myself not to react. I knew I needed to wait until we were with some of the other prisoners so I could at least claim I wasn’t the one who had taken the man down, which at that moment is what I wanted to do, badly. They say prison turns men into animals, and I can attest to that. It was just happening to me a lot sooner than I expected.

A loud buzzer went off in the cellblock and the door immediately rolled and clanked open. I could hear the other doors up and down the line sliding on their steel rails. A bored voice came over the intercom, “Prisoners, take your positions outside your cells.”

Men were already lining up along the narrow walkway for the march to the chow hall. Lothar and I took our places. The same voice I had heard earlier telling Lothar to shut up was behind us. “Is that your new cellie, Lothar?” the man asked. “Too bad for him, huh, fat boy?”

“Shuddupp, Latimore, you piece of shit,” Lothar responded.

It was crowded on the walkway. I could hear men on the floors above and below us coming out of their cells, lining up, joking, laughing, and swearing. It was as good a time as any, I figured. Lothar was behind me. I could feel his belly pressing against my buttocks.

“Tighten it up,” the man behind Lothar said, laughing. “Dick to asshole. This’ll be a first. Lothar screwing his new cellie on the way to the slop chute.”

Lothar jostled behind me and I swung my elbow up and around, aiming for where I thought his face would be. I caught a glimpse of his eyes just before my strike hit him in the cheek. Spit flew out of his mouth, his jowls flapped and his oily hair swung away from his forehead. His saliva stuck the man behind him, whom I assumed was Latimore. There was cursing, and Latimore shoved Lothar toward me. Without hesitating, I struck him again with my elbow. This time I aimed for his throat, and put my weight behind it. He went down to his knees, choking and grasping at his neck. I knew I didn’t have much time before the guards descended on us with their stun guns and riot clubs. Lothar’s head was twenty or thirty centimeters from the bars of the cell. I pushed Latimore back a step to get some room. Grabbing the walkway railing with one hand, I cocked my right leg and kicked the side of Lothar’s head as hard as I could. Something had triggered inside me, and I wanted to drive my boot straight through the man’s skull. It was a weird spike in my rage. There was a smack and loud thunk as Lothar’s head bounced off the steel bars. His eyes rolled up in his head and he fell on his face. His big head was still fifteen centimeters or so from the bars and I kicked him again, aiming the toe of my boot for his temple. Again his head bounced off the bars. Blood poured out of his nose. He wasn’t moving.

I felt a hand slap my shoulder and a low voice say: “Line up, goddammit. Act like nothing happened.”

My heart slammed against the walls of my chest as I stepped over Lothar’s unconscious body and started marching down the walkway with the other prisoners. I glanced around. None of the men looked down at the body. They stared ahead as if nothing out of the ordinary had just happened. As we started down the stairs I heard another voice behind me say, “Welcome to the jungle, new boy.”

There are some surprises in CHANGABANG and some interesting connections to circumstances and events in the other books. We’ll publish it after THE SKIN BAGS, hopefully late this fall.

The third piece in the pipeline is the fifth book in the series: GREY CITY PART I. The second draft is done and the manuscript is currently being edited. Originally, GREY CITY was going to be one book, but when I got into it, it grew. The chase returns to the Slicks with two renegade Skin Bags as Miller’s target. The mutants have struck a deal, involving the bomb and a metric ton of gold, with the Inliers, the same Oil Eaters with whom Number Six had aligned himself with in THE SLICKS. The Inliers now occupy what is left of the South American city of Asuncion, and have established their new headquarters in the only Mega Tower — a massive, 800 meter-tall building — still standing on the planet. In the meantime, David Starling, High Counsel to the New States Board of Governors, carries on his own private war against retired general Charlie Brooker, the power-hungry governor of the Green States. Miller continues pushing his luck to the ragged edge and beyond. But in Grey City, even his bad luck finally runs out.

I’ve got GREY CITY PART II storyboarded and will start writing when summer finally burns itself out.

So, that’s the sitrep.