Captain James Sweeney stood on the glacis of the
main landing ports at Fort Banning, California. To his left the towering
bastion of Jacinto Mountain loomed out of the clouds, the faces of its glaciers
were an iridescent pale blue-grey wall above the sheer northern face. Another
calm day, Sweeney wondered how long such good weather could hold. Looking
around, his eyes settled on the expedition preparations. His men were quietly
talking, enjoying the brief period of breezy sunshine. They were doing the
final walk-arounds of the unmanned equipment. This expedition was large by
modern standards, over fifty ground vehicles of different types. Half were main
battle tanks unmanned of course and their manned command
equivalents. There was also a large reconnaissance detachment of manned and
unmanned routers, light aviation carriers and several engineering and
maintenance vehicles. Ahead of the column travelled a separate formation of
scout engineers who would clear and prepare basic routes to allow the main
column to travel at maximum possible speed for the first half of the trip east.
East. thought Sweeney. He turned to his right and looked out
through Banning pass and into the desert. It had been hundreds of years since
the deep interior of the continent had seen anything other than settlements and
local resource developments. The weather was too difficult, the food and
supplies too remote, and there just weren't enough people, never enough people.
So. he thought to himself. This is another step, getting back
out to where we were before. He mentally reviewed the meetings that led
to this, the decision to send a ground column east. Its tasks were many; show
the flag, remind people living out there that California is real and lastly to
make sure the settlements know to report unusual events. There were also some
other things Sweeney was tasked with, it would remain to be seen whether those
would pan out.
would proceed with scant air cover. Only from afar would they be watched by
friendly eyes, but low level patrols were being stepped up by Northern Command
in areas across the continent. From now on, even if word of Sweeney's column
did not reach some remote settlement, people as far as Old Texas Coast and
beyond would be hearing the distant roar of Californian aviation a lot more
walked down the long shallow slope and around toward the plaza in front of the
low blast doors. General Johns was there and strode forward to talk.
Captain Sweeney. said the general.
General. replied Sweeney with a smart salute.
returned Sweeney's salute and looked out over the scene in front of them.
Without looking back he spoke again. We'll keep an eye out from here
Captain. You know what to do. He looked back at Sweeney, nodded slightly
and turned away.
looked back in the direction of his men. Six of them were directly under his
command, only Captain Joseph Stanton a biologist was not directly
under orders to Sweeney. But it was still Sweeney's expedition and that was
fine with Stanton, who had bigger things to worry about. The biologist was
along for the ride in order to help investigate rumors of illegally engineered
wildlife. Nobody knew what the real problem was, they surely needed to start
armor commander was Lieutenant Hyli Ortega, a great ES user and brilliant
tactician in her own right. Reconnaissance command devolved on Lieutenant
Talae, a highly intelligent batur officer with a keen intuition and like
Ortega, a master of his ES interface. Ortega and Talae shared a physical
assistant (as opposed to their virtual ES assistants) in the form of Corporal
Jaonar, who was also a batur; hard working, brave and highly organized. Ortega
and Talae spent so much time immersed with their formations that it was often
Jaonar who spoke with Captain Sweeney.
expedition's engineering support came in the form of Sergeant Enio Covarrubias.
There were also two mechanics; Sergeant Eugene Willis and Corporal Palka. Palka
was a batur, and while he didnt enjoy the stereotypic brilliance often
associated with them, he wasnt stupid either, and he was well endowed
with outstanding dexterity, a genuine batur trademark.
Sweeneys group formed a tight-knit team who knew how to work in difficult
conditions. Several of them had deployed on short notice to rescue those two
Australians a few weeks back, and most of them knew the area beyond Fort
Banning at least as far as the volcanoes and great canyon.
later they were deep in the desert near the river, parked in clusters as they
weathered the latest storm. The expedition did not really need to stop, but the
missions goal was contact with locals and that required at least
tolerable weather. Anyway. Sweeney thought to himself. I
don't want the column getting strung out during the storm; it doesn't look good
to the locals. He knew they were being watched, that was the whole idea.
It was going
to be a long trip.
his command tank, Captain Sweeney listened to the heavy battering sound of
large hail and the explosions of lightning strikes around the parked vehicles.
The expedition's routers were hunkered down with their armor extended, the only
thing that stood between them and the junkyard. All of the vehicles were built
to take combat damage, but typical heavy weather could still damage parts of
the lighter units if they tried to move around in it.
relaxed, picked through some music and browsed the latest news; fighting on
Java had died down, orbital control remained at an impasse. The California
State Department had lodged orbital debris complaints against Selangor. He took
time to search through more settlement and territory information. Some of the
settlements out here were in close touch with the rest of the world, others
partially so, and others not at all. He would need the help of the former to
get a handle on the latter. In his experience, most of them were friendly
enough when approached the right way. Walking up and knocking on their door in
the middle of the night was not the right way.
tenth time Sweeney compared notes with his ES assistant and reviewed what he
could about Needa; the first large settlement on their itinerary. Needa was a
hub it did not really do anything itself, it was a supply center for
regional development operations. Every 10 years or so the settlement completed
another underground hall, expansion had been proceeding steadily for a good 60
years. Pretty soon. Sweeney thought, The California border
will go all the way to the River. Whether that was good or bad he didn't
know. After a while he leaned back and fell asleep to the rising and falling
roar of the wind.
morning guard opened the heavily armored door and stood outside for the first
time in days. A deep chill was in the air, last night's storm had given way to
a few precious hours of calm. The ground was heavily strewn with ball-sized
hail stones that needed to be kicked and pushed out of the way. One guard
a relatively young man named Colin stood looking out at the
strange column of vehicles parked along the old highway; he had been watching
them since they pulled up during the middle of the night. It was imposing, he
had never seen many vehicles of any type in one place and now here were dozens
of armored tanks, routers, aviation carriers and others. Standing next to them
were several men talking to a batur perched on a tank. They were all military,
obviously from California and doubtlessly knew exactly where they were. They
were probably waiting for someone from town to come to the surface and walk out
to meet them. That was a good sign, at least they didn't appear to be trouble
makers not that anyone could stop them if they were.
the elevators inside the main entry humming, footsteps and someone coming up
the short stairs into the guard room. Crunching softly on the icy ground, two
more people walked out into the frigid air; a man, Jaymond Browning and a
woman, Charine Warner. Browning was town manager and Warner was mining supply
supervisor for the area. They were the two people that anyone from Cal-Army
would probably want to meet.
Warner looked out at the long line of military vehicles, both of them sighed.
Ambling slowly down the steps from the small landing, Browning started his walk
out to the highway. He was a heavyset man, rather more than average and at
slightly under 150 years old he was near what many people would call retirement
age. He was still wearing his regular work clothes, a grimy combination of old
farmer and contemporary robotics technician. Warner followed close behind.
Scrawny, cheaply dressed and 110-ish looking, her bourbon voice gave away a
coarse person with the temperament of a miner. However she was very
knowledgeable and friendly in her own foul mouthed way.
continued out to the highway he occasionally kicked a hailstone out of his
path; last nights storm had been typical and beat down a number of shrubs
and dwarf trees that managed to grow in the area. He was always a bit surprised
that anything at all grew outside. He could not help but notice the pair of
unmanned military routers that were stopped at the crossroads, but as he
approached them, the two vehicles moved away with great agility to leave an
open and unintimidating route to the main column. More soldiers who had been
standing on top of a tank hopped down and joined the line of troops now arrayed
next to the front of the column; one of them walked forward, he looked like an
officer, 80 years old or so, stern, keen eyed with an intelligent glance.
Browning felt a flash of embarrassment, these people were really sharp.
morning. said the officer, Would you be Jaymond Browning?
sir that is me . said Browning. And this is
Charine Warner, Mining Supply Supervisor. prompted the stranger,
with a friendly grin. I am Captain James Sweeney, Cal-Army as you
probably guessed already. He followed this last comment with a sweeping
gesture in the direction of the vehicles and turned back to them. I hope
we are not bothering you folks, you certainly have nothing to worry about, we
are just passing through on the way East. As these last words came out of
his mouth, far off beyond the northern horizon they heard the distant rumble of
Californian aviation flying low and fast. Sweeney smiled at them as if the
whole thing had happened on cue.
Cal-Army found Needa worth visiting, Browning crinkled his nose and grinned a
little, Looks like you boys have been busy lately.
we certainly have Mister Browning. replied Sweeney. The captain looked at
the ground and smiled again, We certainly have. He looked back up
sharply at Browning.
is not because of the fighting out in the Pacific is it, I mean were not
in any danger are we? asked Browning.
certainly not. replied Sweeney. Knowing that this would be a concern as
soon as the locals saw soldiers, the captain was ready with an answer.
The fighting has concerned us however, and we thought it would be good to
make sure that everyone out this way knows that well, we do care about
them. Sweeney gave his broad smile again.
settlements further east, people living in Needa were fond of thinking of
themselves as part of California. Browning knew they would be thrilled to see
these men here.
you and your men like to come in for something to eat Captain? Browning
asked , it was his turn to offer an expansive smile.
evening Sweeney and Stanton sat talking with Browning in a large but simply
furnished eating hall deep underground. They were joined by a man named Kai,
who had arrived only an hour before at Browning's invitation. Kai ran an
operation out past the river, and he knew more than anyone what was going on
for several hundred miles to the east. Simply dressed and dirty, Kai presented
the image of an earthy person with great technical proficiency. He knew a lot
about a great many things and despite his careworn appearance, he was actually
older than he looked. Because of Kai and Jaymond Browning, a wide swath of land
on both sides of the river retained a calm and orderly existence.
intruding visitor, Sweeney voluntarily opened the conversation.
gentlemen I am sure you have questions, but to help save you some time I should
probably let you know exactly why we are here. I would like to request however,
that the nature of our conversation remain between us at least for now, you
will understand once I explain a little more. His two hosts looked at
themselves, wondering what exactly this meant.
be honest with you, one reason we are here is to simply show the flag and
remind people who California is. As you may or may not be aware, Selangor
forces used some of the more remote areas of the world as jumping off points
during their offensive against the Australians. Sweeney paused and looked
at the two men partly to let that small piece of information sink in,
and partly to gauge their reaction. They appeared thoughtful, but no more than
would be usual for people in a mining settlement hearing of faraway events.
from the moment, Sweeney glided past the opening and continued. But that
is not the only reason we are extending ourselves out a bit.
paused, thought for a moment and continued; You get tourists out here
occasionally dont you?
The two men
Yes. said Browning, During good weather we occasionally get
hunting teams, though as you say they are mostly tourists. The two men
looked slightly confused. This was not the line of questioning they expected.
Do you think some of them are spies Captain? asked Browning.
to dampen that line of thinking but not worried about it for the moment,
Sweeney redirected the discussion. Have you heard about that hunting
accident out in central California up in the Sierra foothills?
his head. I hear there was a hunting incident with a brown bear.
anything like that happened out here?
Close. replied Browning. About two months ago one of the tour
groups had a run-in with a mountain lion.
Sweeneys eyes narrowed but that was the only outward sign of shock.
And? he inquired.
they killed it, nearly got two of the men in the hunting party, it took on the
whole group those things can be real buzz saws when they are in a bad
things? Are you sure it was a mountain lion? asked Sweeney.
sure, they brought it back with them and we took samples before letting them
leave the area.
streams on it?
can show you that now. Brownings eyes darted downward and his index
finger punched a few times in the air before him as he retrieved the threads,
within a few seconds he spoke up again. Ah, here it is, Im sending
them to you now. Soon both Sweeney and Stanton were able to bring up the
hunting partys media streams of the attack. Within moments Sweeney was
disappointed to see the startling and very exciting visual feed of a real North
American mountain lion attacking three armed hunters. It actually managed to
get on one of them before the others killed it. Sweeney looked over at Stanton
who shook his head oh well.
looked back at the two miners. I agree, thats definitely a mountain
lion. Disappointed for a moment by the coincidence, Sweeney paused to
turned to stare at the man next to him, Kai returned his glance and looked back
at Sweeney; Nothing around here, but an operation far to the northeast
lost an entire prospecting team, they disappeared.
know whether they were killed, or just quit and left? asked Sweeney.
never did find out, we do not have the resources to investigate things like
that. Kai knew well that in the transient culture of the outer
settlements, people did move around a lot; who could really know indeed.
up. Captain, if you dont mind my asking, this seems like a rather
serious line of inquiry for something that would not normally be a concern for
the Army. Kai looked at him searchingly.
with me gentlemen. Do you recall any other incidents?
The two men
shook their headed erratically they were losing interest.
about any other incidents with wild animals, no matter how odd, anything, even
a passing second hand observation. It doesnt even have to be life
eyes darted back to Sweeney, Yes.
three men refocused on Kai.
looked at him with the polite visual equivalent of Go on.
continued. I didnt see it myself, but one of our operators was out
East and in one of the small settlements he passed through, the mine owner had
just lost one of his guard dogs. That is nothing unusual around here, although
you gentlemen may be surprised to hear we still use real dogs out this
way. He paused, obviously neither of them
was surprised. They knew local
habits. Kai continued. There are real wild animals you know, like that
mountain lion. The odd thing here, was that this dog was killed by a pack of
straightened up in his chair ever so slightly.
continued in a slow, methodical manner. Im serious, this guy
claimed that a pack of crows descended on his dog when it was out in the field
and they literally ganged up on it and executed it. It was the damnedest thing
he ever saw, and my man says this guy is as no nonsense as they come. He said
it was almost as if the crows knew what they were doing and they knew exactly
how to kill the dog even though it was much stronger than them. He also claimed
the crows called out to each other, gave signals and knew how to sweep down on
the dog and attack its eyes. The dog was blinded early in the attack and they
ended up herding it right off a cliff, killed it for sheer entertainment. Like
he said it was the damnedest thing he ever saw. Before he got close enough to
shoot at them, the crows flew away in a formation, like seagulls you know.
Crows dont normally fly like that. Kai sat looking at the two
visitors, after a few moments of silence, Stanton asked. Why didnt
this guy shoot at the crows earlier, or use pest retardants?
dont know, but he did say that he saw most of the attack on this remote
system, he wasnt immediately on the scene until it was too late. As for
pest retardants, most people out that way dont tend to invest in such
looked back at him and then over at Sweeney. Puckering out his lower lip
slightly, the normally silent doctor nodded and said; I think this
Next: 14. Spying