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Terran Date: February, 2259
"Pretty, huh?" The private lifted his hand out toward the sun. Their open air observation tower was twenty meters above the surrounding buildings and gave them an unobstructed view of the Gulf of Mexico and the sunset. As it had for the past two months, the sun painted the canvas of dark blue sky with pinks, reds, and yellows. Mendez, his fellow guard, glanced at the vast panorama and shrugged her shoulders. The action caused her diamond cross necklace to glitter briefly in the fading light.
"Yeah, if you get off on that kind of stuff."
"Hey," Hansen countered, "it sure beats the other insertion point." They both laughed.
"I won't argue that," she conceded. "I've been on six of these in the last twelve years, and I don't ever want to see the Himalayas again." She glanced at the vanishing sun, now dropping below the horizon, pulling its celestial artwork with it. "You're right, Hansen. It is a pretty sunset."
They watched it quietly for a few minutes, then Hansen shook himself out of his reverie and lifted a hand to his ear. Mendez saw a small light flickering behind his lobe, meaning he'd been contacted by Sergeant Karumoto, undoubtedly to notify them of the arriving workers. Mendez turned her attention to the viewer at her right display, and sure enough, there were three hovs approaching from the northeast.
"Command gives fourth level clearance for transponder units 43-H784J, 43-H711R, and 44-D292R," Hansen said in a monotone, clearly relaying the message word for word.
"Acknowledged," Mendez responded. "Three bogies just passing the Hammer Point tower, 65 kilometers distant,approaching at 120 kph. Transponder identities.." she paused while the decoder received the multi-tone signal, then flashed white, "are verified. All three hovs are registered to Harting Enterprises."
"We have them, Sergeant," Hansen spoke aloud to his invisible superior. "Arrival in just over twenty minutes."
"Make that ten," Mendez interrupted. "They just accelerated to 250."
"Make that ten, Sergeant." He listened a moment longer, nodding absently, then signed off. He took his hand away and turned toward Mendez.
"Time to move to the launch point. Karumoto wants us down there in five."
"Got it." With skilled hands, Mendez shut down the display while Hansen armed the autosentry. They descended eighty meters by eledisc, then, since there was just enough light to see the ground, they slid the final twenty meters down the ladder railing, using their gloved hands for braking. Hansen hit first, then leaped back as Mendez plummeted toward him, nearly landing on top of him. She laughed at him as he stumbled out of the way. He brushed himself off.
"Geez, Mendez! Can't wait an extra five seconds?"
"Sure I can," she laughed again. "I just don't want to."
Hansen shook his head in disgust and annoyance. He'd worked with Connie for six years now, and she was always pushing. Pushing the rules, pushing the risks, pushing him. It irked him because he usually got into the same hot water she did. On the other hand, her risks often paid off, and he reaped the benefits as well. And she was one of the best looking partners he'd ever had.
He punched in the ladder lock down codes, then ran after Mendez, who was already walking toward Boot Key Harbor, where the hovs were due to dock. Marathon was one of the larger towns on one of the larger pieces of islands that made up Cuba's Florida Keys. Several kilometers long, the island was less than 200 meters wide from west shore to east shore. They were on the upper arm of the key, heading south. On their left, to the southeast, was Vaca Key Bight, but because of the huge factories and narrow, twisting alleys, it was impossible to see from ground level.
They wove their way quickly toward a massive, dark building and approached the only lit doorway. Outside stood a guard, dressed in the trappings of a Harting Enterprises shock goon. Hansen didn't particularly like working with Harting goons - they tended to be rude and unprofessional - but this was who the Colonel had contracted out to, so he followed orders and got his paycreds. It was a large enough sum to hold his tongue. Mendez felt no such inhibition.
"Check it out, Hansen," she pointed at the goon. "They look almost like people when they're dressed." The guard flushed and stood, towering over them. Mendez laughed at the bravado. "He can stand, too!" she exclaimed with mock surprise.
"Lousy rental creeps." He shoved a tabinal at them. "Sign in and go in. I can't stand your the smell any longer."
Hansen said nothing but took off his glove and pressed his thumb against the tabinal silver face. It flashed green. Mendez did the same and they both entered, Mendez giving a parting insult.
Inside was a fully operational freighter facility. Massive hovships, capable of carrying thousands of metric tons, were lying in dry dock, waiting for repairs. Others were in the midst of construction. There were even a few upper atmosphere jobs, able to dock with the orbital stations.
Making their way to the southern end of the building, the two arrived as the first of the three hovs entered the large indoor bay. Mendez led Hansen to the front of the small crowd, their red-splashed gray uniforms alone in a sea of Harting dark purple. Mendez tolerated several crude remarks - Harting employed only men in their private army - then abruptly drew her pistol. Everyone pulled back, surprised. A faint smile on her lips, Mendez held the pistol straight up in a ready position, as was her and Hansen's duty while the hovs unloaded personnel. Hansen was unable to contain a smirk as he drew his slug gun as well. Although outnumbered and despised as contract warriors, the Colonel's army had the grudging respect of nearly everyone who employed them. Even in jobs like this one, where the only three were he, Mendez and Sergeant Karumoto, there was an element of fear. Fear of their individual abilities and fear because it was a well known fact that the Colonel was a very loyal and very vengeful man. The price of harming one of his people was far beyond what any sane person was willing to pay.
The last of the hovs pulled up onto the platform and opened its rear hatch. From each of the three hovs came nine people; a single Harting officer in purple followed by eight people dressed in plain gray, loose uniforms. All were in a festive and buoyant mood. Flanking the loose column of twenty-four, Mendez and Hansen escorted them to the insertion launch point, guarding against the impossible event that any of them might try to escape. Apart from the friction he had to put up with from the Harting muscle, this was the easiest of all details.
"Are we going to be starting soon?" A bearded man walking near him asked. Hansen glanced at him and nodded with a smile, marvelling at the enthusiasm.
"Yeah. I think the insertion is in about an hour. I don't know exactly."
The man nodded in return. "I understand. I hear it's very difficult to calculate the exact moment to initiate the temporal field."
"Really?" Hansen was a little surprised at both the man's calm and his seeming knowledge.
"Yes. As I gather, they can only perform the final computations within a six minute window. The relay station on Mercury is able to send the Sun's gravitational variance data to us using a faster than light subspace carrier signal, but since it takes only eight minutes for variances from the Sun to affect Earth, that's the maximum time. The other two minutes are lost in both compiling and sending the data, and from the time used for the variances to reach Mercury."
A woman walking beside the man joined in the conversation.
"That's what I heard, too. I wish they could increase that time, though. I'd hate to look forward to spending a wonderful life trapped in a cavern digging stone and designing machinery and circuits, then get a one-way trip into solid rock." She made a face.
"But you're willing to take the risk?" Hansen asked, surprised at their placid demeanor.
"Of course," the man answered, giving Hansen an odd look. "This is a once in a lifetime chance to get buried under two hundred kilometers of rock and work myself to death digging out the cavern. Who wouldn't jump at an opportunity like that?"
"Are you coming along?" the woman asked.
"Me?" Hansen shook his head. Being used to hearing the question, he was able to make his voice sound gloomy. "Not this time. I have to stay up here and make sure you all get off okay." At their disappointed look, he added, "Maybe next time."
That seemed to satisfy them, for their attention drifted off to others in the group. Hansen looked at them in amazement. These people were soon going to be buried forever deep inside a cavern that had no entrance and no exit. They would spend the rest of their lives scrabbling the hard bedrock with inefficient tools, working, slaving and building something they would never see completed. After several years of being worked to exhaustion daily, they would be summarily executed and replaced by new workers.
And they couldn't wait to get there.
The launch point was located in an open area of the warehouse nearly two hundred meters from the hovs. As the riped worker had alluded to, hundreds of variables affecting Earth's absolute movement through space made selection of the optimum launch time more difficult, and while the general time was known to happen twice each year, it could be pinpointed only three to four hours in advance. Since both the insertions and the method used were extremely secret, the insertion area was always in a Harting facility, either here on the Keys or in the Himalayas. The equipment was fairly portable and simple to setup, but needed to be done quickly, so Harting kept a sizable crew on standby. As the general launch point approached, the supplies were gathered for transport. Every two years, the latest group of riped workers was shipped down. When the optimum time and location was determined, the Harting crews set up the insertion equipment and Mendez and Hansen were called down.
They approached the insertion area and he pulled open the loose canvas flap to let the ripes in. Mendez did the same for the other flap. A wall of simple canvas cordoned the area to keep it out of sight. The entire Harting Enterprises complex had a vague idea of what was going on, but no one had the details. Although ripes were very common in society, seeing a group of people go into an area and not come out would raise more than a few eyebrows. So the warehouse personnel were given an unexpected three day paid vacation and the massive building was empty save for those who were going to use the equipment and those it was going to be used on.
Copyright © 2004 Peter W. Prellwitz