Captain James Sweeney was sitting on the roof of his command
tank, taking in the rocky scenery as the columns vehicles negotiated a
series of rough switchbacks and steep ascents far to the east of the Volcanoes.
He was fascinated by an old concrete highway bridge that stood near the section
of ravine his engineer had spanned. The old bridge was still standing, but it
was a crumbling ruin that would probably collapse under its own weight in
another few centuries. Printed faintly on one of the old support columns was a
stenciled code. Sweeney had seen them before; each included a maintenance
number and the construction date. He was quietly impressed by the massive
organization that must have existed in order to maintain these structures over
such large areas. The huge population that must have existed in order to
warrant so much construction was also not lost on him. Since leaving Banning
the task force had passed hundreds of various structures like this one, and he
knew they spanned the countryside far and wide. It was a sobering thought to
Sweeneys command had driven through Red Butte Pass, a narrow zone between
the great canyon and the volcanoes which was free of snow during the summer.
Southward, the line of volcanic peaks which gave the area its name poked their
shoulders above the permanent ice. They showed little sign of recent activity,
but were an impressive local landmark.
column was 600 kilometers east of Needa, having skirted the southern edge of
Diné territory. The Diné were an ancient people who had lived
east of the great canyon since pre-glacial times. Even then it was a remote
place and few outsiders lived there. Now their land was virtually a world unto
itself and the Diné rarely spoke with anyone from the outside world.
They even viewed Californians as foreigners even though hundreds of years
previous they had belonged to the same nation.
no intention of intruding on their self-imposed isolation. If they wanted to be
left alone he was going to do just that. Aside from any altruistic
inclinations, there were cynical reasons for his actions; he correctly believed
that they would keep undesirable elements at bay over a broad swath of land.
Destabilizing that delicate balance would be stupidity in the extreme. Still,
even though he steered well south of Diné towns and villages, Sweeney
knew they were watching his column pass by. As a precaution he ordered no low
flyovers near Diné territory and most especially not anywhere near their
For over 100
kilometers east there was nothing but desolation, desert and plentiful ruins.
There was even a surprisingly tall old building surviving in the open of a
pre-glacial town site. Amongst the chilly ruins of five or six largish
structures, the tall building stood like a finger defying the tornadoes and ice
storms that assaulted the area regularly. The expedition even stopped briefly
to look at it everyone dismounted and walked around for a short while.
However, nobody went inside the old building. There was no telling when the
whole flimsy looking structure would just fall over.
turned south, down a broad river valley. The rolling scenery was flanked far to
the west by snow and ice covered mountains that glinted and shimmered in the
distance. Lower lines of peaks stood to the east, marching southward toward a
feeble sun. With the approach to relatively unfamiliar populated areas,
reconnaissance units and light air support came into their own. The unmanned
routers travelled nimbly ahead, preceded by the tiny, nearly invisible tactical
aviation controlled by Lieutenant Talae. He was proficient at keeping civilians
from noticing the hummingbird sized aircraft, which was good because Sweeney
did not want to give locals the creeps. This far out in the middle of nowhere,
people would be apprehensive enough about the expeditions intent.
Some of the
settlements they encountered were for mining, some were for general resource
development and some were simply convenient black market outposts. Mining in
particular seemed to become more common as The California Column
traveled southeast. That's what Sweeney discovered his task force was being
called by the locals; The California Column. Word had spread fast.
For the most
part they were well received, maybe not as enthusiastically as Needa had
received them, but still not bad. Outposts or settlements with economies based
on black market trading were more ambivalent, not quite hostile. Sweeney could
tell they were worried about what the presence of his column meant for their
business, but they were also too intimidated to lift a finger against it. No
major questions were asked, the captain knew that folks living in the outlying
areas were not up to that sort of talk. Still, he kept his ears open just in
Californians could see their next main stop long before they reached it. Flat
topped Alamo Mountain stood high and imposing over the surrounding plain,
clustered along with a few other volcanic remnants to the east. Their hard rock
and domineering positions over the countryside made them natural strong points
and ideal locations for tunneling. The mountain held one of the largest
communities east of Needa and predictably had a complicated mix of commercial and black market operations living
uneasily alongside each other.
reviewed his records as the column cruised south in advance of rapidly
deteriorating weather. Like many settlements, Alamo Mountain existed in the
general vicinity of much larger pre-glacial cities which now lay in ruins.
over the communitys long history, some of it less than wholesome, Sweeney
concentrated on the current major personalities. The local black market was run
by Edward Morgan, not much happened in the region that he did not know about.
Commercial development was managed by a man named Jorgensen Gustavson, who ran
a substantially legal operation that held its nose off and on
over the tawdry activities of Morgan and others like him. Morgan generally left
Gustavson and his operation alone not because he was nice or liked them, but
because they brought extra money into the area. Antagonizing the commercial
operators was always counterproductive.
The area was
also a modest tourist attraction, and there was some small amount of scientific
research being overseen in the area. Most of those scientists used the mountain
as their base, so all told there were thousands of people living there full
time. Sweeney knew that the strength of his armored column had been calculated
to overpower anything Morgan could possibly put together, just in case.
began its final approach to the mountain across a heavy layer of snow, backed
by a cold wind blowing from the north. Several tornadoes were on the ground far
to the northeast. Sweeney swept through a few contact options and decided to
simultaneously notify the mountains general security and air traffic
control system. It was a convenient set of parties to officially inform; they
were both fairly powerless and would serve better than arriving unannounced.
By the time
the Californians powered up the unimproved local road to the base of the
mountain, there were numerous people standing on some of the walks and landings
protruding from Alamo's rocky flanks. Others were walking out of a large open
hangar embedded in the mountains base. Inside the hangar could be seen
groups of late model security routers, obviously California built. Sweeney
ordered most of the column to stop and park well clear of the roadway. Climbing
down he joined up with Stanton, and the two men walked up the steep grade to
evening, the storm was roaring outside and all but three of the expedition
members were attending an informal gathering. Lieutenant Talae and the two
mechanics stayed with the column, not that the vehicles really needed them
Talae could run his entire command from orbit. The locals were
technologically savvy enough to know this, but it set a security example for
those who might get strange ideas.
gathering was high in the outer wall of the mountain, with a night time view
onto the nothingness of the surrounding plains. Hail was tapping against all of
the long windows that lined the combination hallway, restaurant and bar. Large
passageways connecting sections of the mountain tended to widen into public
meeting areas before plunging off into some other part of the deeply developed
complex. And deeply developed it was; the occupation of Alamo Mountain went all
the way back to the Great Evacuation. When comet Evers-Patel struck Earth and
triggered The Glacial, people ended up at the mountain to escape starvation and
upheaval in the major cities. The location had been designated a rallying point
in case of disaster and was developed well before impact. An Alamo Mountain
elevator was the first underground unit in the old United States installed as
part of the pre-impact emergency preparation. As the surrounding cities died or
scattered, the mountain settlement was left standing alone on the plains. The
early population was small, select and technologically reliant on subsistence
level living. They were forgotten by everyone but the Californians.
as California and Brasil recovered and began to function like real countries
again, Alamo Mountain became a remote hub for development. But it was always a
bit too far away and a bit too close to uninhabitable areas for anyone to try
claiming it. In any case, it did not want to be claimed. Like the descendants
of Fletcher Christian who long ago clung to their distant island, Alamo
Mountains population was not going anywhere. It had a reputation for
toughness and an almost proud aversion to the easy life they claimed that
people living in countries craved. Sweeney was not going to lecture
them that Californians also lived underground. It was easier to let the locals
cherish their opinions at least to a certain point.
and his officers mingled with the various residents and local leaders who had
stopped by out of politeness, curiosity or pure astonishment. The fact that
Cal-Army was extending itself into the area was technically historic and there
was a feeling that something big was happening, although nobody was quite sure
Gustavson was one of the first to greet Sweeney. As director of commercial
operations for the largest mineral extractor at the mountain, he was part
mayor, part manager and part banker. He was an earnest man who had spent his
life walking the fine lines between the local black market operators, the less
dangerous business interests trying to exert their long distance authority and
the general population preferring to mind their own business. To the black
marketers he was both important and unimportant; it was important that they not
be so obvious that investment was halted, but beyond that the commercial
operators were powerless to stop black market activity. As Sweeney had noted
earlier, it was an uneasy but functional arrangement that was probably
unspoken. Sweeney reminded himself not to worry about how unspoken it was, he
had larger concerns.
arrived with a small entourage of mining managers and local well-to-do
personalities, several of whom looked formidable in their own right.
must be Captain Sweeney. said Gustavson as he introduced several of the
more important men accompanying him. Once the introductions had died down,
Gustavson continued; Were pleased to have you visit us out here
Captain, with the wars raging overseas, its good to know that California
is willing to put out a steadying hand. he looked across the room at
Edward Morgan, who had just entered from the other end of the hall. Looking
back at Sweeney with a steady gaze he went on; We look forward to meeting
again while you are here, feel free to let my offices know if you need anything
that the regular supply centers cant offer you. He paused and
looked again at Morgan, who was now looking in their direction. Gustavson gave
a vague nod in Morgans direction, turned back to Sweeney and clipped out
a brief Evening Captain. before stalking back up the hallway. Most
but not all of his men went with him.
Interesting. thought Sweeney to himself. He looked at Stanton who
returned the glance knowingly.
Morgan was exactly what Sweeney expected. Not the usual bully or thug, he was
quite good looking for his 120 years and dressed in simple but stylish attire.
Charismatic, intelligent and observant, he had a firm, concise way of speaking
that revealed previous military service, although he had no California service
record. He did not suffer fools and expected things to be done right. As a
result, his import-export operation was unlike most other related
enterprises in the world. He personally knew every member loyal to him and only
accepted the best and brightest. Nobody discussed what happened to the dumb
ones and not surprisingly nobody seemed to care. The lingering effects of
harder times continued to play themselves out in the many unsettled areas of
walked up to Sweeney and introduced himself; Captain Sweeney, Edward
Morgan, I have heard about you, Im pleased to finally meet you in
doubt that Captain. replied Morgan in a matter of fact way. But
each of us must deal with the other, so here we are. Morgan eyed Sweeney
tilted a slight nod at Morgan and said; True enough. So you will not mind
me telling you that we are going to be in the area for several days, discuss a
few things with the local security, let my task force doctor tour some of the
local science projects and then be on our way.
quick to reply. I am local security Captain, which you already know. And
I would like to know why your doctor feels the need to be poking around. You
dont have to tell me of course, but the more I know up front, the less
you will notice me shadowing your every move not, that I can keep you
from noticing. he added with a broad gesture toward the outside of the
unphased; Can we speak in private?
No. replied Morgan, as he cracked his neck and lifted his chin ever
so slightly. An awkward pause settled over the conversation.
Alright, replied Sweeney, since you trust everyone around you
so much; we are here because the Selangor are moving into the area, we have
already spotted their reconnaissance flights and ground units poking
around as you would say, and they have more than enough ability to stake
out here in the middle of nowhere. He downed his tequila in one jolt,
swiped his mouth and set the glass down. Any questions?
Sweeney was not being entirely forthright. There was no evidence that the
Selangor had long term ambitions in the vicinity, but Morgan had probably seen
or heard of the Selangor aviation that passed near the area in previous weeks.
He could not know what California knew, so dumping on Morgan like this would
serve just fine.
Morgans eyes narrowed and he cracked a tight, murderous smile. I
see you are more interesting than I thought you would be Captain.
turned his back on the Californian and walked slowly over to one of his
assistants, with a slight word the room began to clear and Morgan turned back
to face Sweeney. Walking over to the bar, Morgan poured another glass of
tequila. Without looking up he spoke to Sweeney again, his voice sounding
louder in the increasingly empty room.
suppose you trust your people to hear all this Captain? he asked
rhetorically, waving his freshly filled glass at the Cal-Army officers who had
then Captain, proceed, you have my undivided attention.
continued. You probably recall that during the recent Selangor offensive,
Australia lost a couple of people out in the desert.
Californians picked them up from what I understand. replied Morgan.
Barely. Sweeney countered. The Selangor nearly intercepted
them from a base out east of here. He shot a cold, accusing look at
remained unmoved. Lots of people snoop around out east Captain. None of
them stay, what makes you think this time is different? he asked.
makes you think it isnt? retorted Sweeney. If you were
California, would you ignore it?
dont want to know what I would do Captain Sweeney.
Dont confuse what Im authorized to do with what Im
willing to do Mr. Morgan. Sweeneys mood changed, and he gave Morgan
a look as if he could snap his neck and walk right out of Alamo Mountain
without so much as a break in stride.
pulled up the bottle of tequila and poured some more into a glass. He sloshed
it around, brought the glass up and sniffed it lightly, closing his eyes for a
few seconds as he took his time replying; You know Captain, now that I
think about it, I really dont care if the Selangor move in out east,
customers are customers you know. And from what Ive heard, they like
making money just like everyone else.
True, replied Sweeney, but if they move in, it may not be you
making the money, it might be some of their friends they bring with them.
dont scare easily Captain.
doesnt matter whether you are scared or not, we are out here as a signal
to them, not you.
yours the only column or task force, or whatever you want to call it? Or are
Thats a lie.
The two men
stood looking at each other. Morgan took another drink from his glass and
sloshed it around some more. Is that all then Captain Sweeney? You came
all the way out here as a sign to the Selangor, who may or may not be far to
the east? Are you sure there arent any other reasons? He looked at
Californias reasons for being out here are its own. If at some
point you become trustworthy enough to know, youll find yourself better
Ah, Morgan replied, so there are other reasons.
good time; remember, we are watching you just as much as you are watching
the two men seemed to come to an unspoken term. The discussion would not go any
further for now, time would have to resolve their differences, or leave them to
fester. For now, each side would leave the other to its devices.
smiled and nodded his head thoughtfully. As Sweeney noted early, he was not a
night Captain. he said as he tapped his glass firmly onto the counter and
walked out of the room.
turned and gave a Lets go. look to his subordinates. Through
his network he sent another set of messages instructing them all to deploy MGV
modules and sweep their rooms before turning in for the night. Nobody in Alamo
Mountain had anything that could get at the Californians through their
uniforms, they could sleep peacefully.
later Joseph Stanton was reclined at ease in a router that was speeding west
toward the river more ground travel between storms. He was going out to
visit Yila Zimle, a Brasilian biologist who was studying riverine ecosystems
down near the vague ruins of an old city. Much of it had been destroyed
centuries before, there wasnt much remaining but hummocky flatlands and
the shells of a few concrete buildings.
accustomed to travelling underground or by air, so driving long distances over
flat, open terrain was an eerie experience. He was not sure he liked it, some
primal instinct objected. He found himself speculating that earlier researchers
may have been correct, that the reason humanity found the move underground so
relatively easy was their ancient ascent from deep forests. It was being in the
open that naturally gave humans the creeps. Being in a snug, enclosed space was
much easier on the nerves so long as there was room to move around and
no rude surprises around the corner.
router came over a shallow grade, Stanton saw part of Lieutenant Talaes
reconnaissance group far ahead. The doctor may have been alone, but he was not
unattended. A distant escort of recon routers and tactical aviation scouted the
area. At any sign of trouble they would call in air support which was being
held on station far to the west distant enough for locals not to notice.
After all, one of the reasons for all of this ground travel was to see what
things were like on the surface out here, first hand.
knew the area and was at the top of Stantons list. He had a slight
nagging sensation, a bit of regret that he had not been able to tell her when
or why he was coming. His meeting with her needed to blend seamlessly with the
rest of the visit and so he had only contacted her last night, along with
several other researchers currently in the field. The people at Alamo Mountain
could not be tipped off to the fact that getting Captain Stanton out to the
region was pretty much the entire purpose for the mission. Worries about the
Selangor were tangible but secondary.
glided smoothly along a bumpy, potholed old street and slowed, making a sharp
left turn toward the river. A low modern building came into view on the right.
Out on the empty roadway stood the figure of a lone Batur that would
probably be Doctor Zimle. Standing farther off to one side were two full sized
humans, both carrying modern side arms. Those would not be any good against
black marketers, so it must have been for wild animals.
router rolled gracefully to a stop, the side opened and Stanton stepped easily
out onto the light snow cover. The router obediently sealed itself up and
hunkered noiselessly into a parking profile.
Stanton, welcome to Grande River. said Doctor Zimle as she walked up with
her palm held outward in greeting.
Zimle, I am pleased to meet with you
finally. replied Stanton.
I am currently on assignment with Cal-Army with the rank of Captain,
which explains the uniform and router. However you can still call me
well Doctor. she replied, looking curiously at the Cal-Army military
router. It was far more sophisticated than the typical ground transport seen
out this way. People who travelled on the ground were usually poor or only
going short distances. This was a combat vehicle and it showed. Looking back at
the doctor she continued. I understand you are on a general science
mission, but I did not receive any details in advance. Some of the locals seem
rather flustered at your arrival. she added as a purely clinical aside.
they also local security? asked Stanton as he tipped his head over in the
direction of Doctor Zimles guides.
they are actually Californian biologists, but being much bigger than me and
very protective, they insisted on standing guard while we waited. The
doctor smiled and gave a light staccato laugh typical of the Batur;
Weve noticed a few of your scout flights hovering around the river
area though Doctor, most people probably would not know of their presence. I
think they are yours anyway small and fast, about hummingbird size with
Yes, replied Stanton, those are ours, you dont need to
worry about Alamo Mountain being able to spy on people like that not yet
laughed again, I hope this does not mean you are spying on us
embarrassed. Im sorry, no Doctor, to be honest the aviation is
Captain Sweeneys way of making sure nothing happens to me, as you noted
some people may be flustered by our arrival.
Ahhh, the batur doctor noted with a smile, they are for
your protection, so we are not very
different from each other after all eh Doctor? she added as she looked
back at her own two escorts still standing at a distance. Please come in,
I would be happy to show you what we are doing out this way.
hour was spent on a tour of the clean and modern labs and sample storage
facility. Their current research was a study of sea birds and how they utilized
inland food and nesting resources. Doctor Zimle was working closely with other
researchers far downriver, almost to the ocean.
while they returned to the surface and walked out through the stoutly built
arrival center. Since the weather remained a calm and dirty overcast, they
strolled outside and down to the river. Leading along the high bank was an
ancient walkway, its paving stones heavily overgrown with bright green mosses
and weeds that sported tiny purple flowers, even in the cold. The muddy river
bank was interrupted here and there with short concrete retaining walls
all that remained of the foundations for bridges that used to cross the river
every kilometer or so. In one place, the old bridge span was still down in the
river bed, damming nearly the entire breadth of the stream. Seabirds hunted for
fish in the artificial lake and rested on the convenient platform provided by
the grey concrete ruin.
river used to run darker than it does now. commented Doctor Zimle.
Now is it heavy with glacial runoff and it has that cold, frosty look.
The wildlife in the area changed radically over the past several hundred years.
There are fewer species than before.
havent discovered any new species lately? asked Stanton lightly.
Actually we have. replied Zimle almost matter-of-factly. We
discovered a new cold water species of piranha that somehow got in here from
Brasil I did not bring it here I assure you, but I know what regular
piranha are like, these are different.
suddenly woke up from his waterside meanderings. Are they natural or
engineered. He asked, trying not to sound too worried.
Natural. she replied, They dont have any of the typical
has their impact been? he asked.
Substantial I would say, they have been displacing other species in the
area since they showed up, so we have tagged it as an invasive species for more
his heart beat faster. How different are they?
very, for one thing they are a different color, imagine a
Pygocentrus nattereri with grey
markings instead of red. They are average size, but far more aggressive than
the usual piranha which as you know are more passive than most people realize.
These ones are more like how people imagine them. But to be honest they have
not been studied much because they were not on our original research
Hmmm. blurted out Stanton, as he privately wondered how these fit
in with the other incidents.
there any possibility I could get samples of them? he asked, I
would be curious at the very least.
Certainly, we will have them sent back to the mountain with the next
would prefer to pick them up now. There are a lot of prying eyes back at the
mountain. And to be honest Doctor, I would prefer you not discuss my interest,
not yet at least.
doctor darted a quick look up at Stanton. Is there something I should
know about Doctor?
Maybe, he replied, this may fit in with some other invasive
species issues weve noticed further west. Part of the reason Im
here is to assess the breadth of the problem.
Problem? recited the batur doctor. She was smart and instantly
grasped Stantons emotional investment, he was worried. Do
we have a problem Doctor
thought for a moment and gave the most honest answer he could consider;