Monday, April 21st, 2679
"Private Wyeth, it's time to wake up. HEY! Get up!"
"Yeah, yeah. I'm up," I moaned and turned over. Susie mumbled something in her sleep I didn't catch.
"Oh, no, you don't, Abby! Wake up! It's 0330, and Sergeant Thawell is expecting you at 0430. Rise and shine!"
You're not supposed to shoot the messenger, but at 3:30 AM, Miss Manners was fast asleep and wouldn't hear the gunshot.
"Computer, deactivate internal voice mechanism."
He chuckled. "Not that easy, kid. You did that once, and once is all you get. The only way to get me quiet is to get out of bed and trudge out that door."
"Mike? Shut up."
I must have drifted off again, because suddenly I heard Thawell's gravelly voice chewing rocks right next to my left ear.
"Where ARE you, Wyeth? We're waiting! It's 0445 and I'm sending Hernandez up to your quarters now with the override codes. You better be decent!"
He no sooner finished speaking than there was a pounding on the door and I heard it open. I leapt out of bed, grabbing a pillow to cover my front. I did wear clothes to bed, sort of. They were cloth, and they hung on me after a fashion. But strong argument could be made about their purpose, or lack of.
"You just stay out there, Drew! I'll be ready in--"
"HA! Gotcha!" Mike laughed triumphantly. "Now get moving! It's 0335. Oh, by the way: Good Morning, Abigail!" He laughed again and shut off.
"Abby? Are you up?" Susie was propped up on her elbows in the half light, looking toward me. Because of my skills in the puterverse and our close friendship, Susie and I had been roommates for two years now.
"Yeah, I'm up. Sorry about the noise."
"You stayed up too late again, didn't you?" She yawned. "You've got to cut down your time in the puterverse when you pull early duty. Sooner or later, Mike will run out of ideas, and you'll oversleep. Again."
I harumphed and pulled out clean clothes. Snatching up my sidearm and holster, I headed down to the showers, thinking back to the first -- and only -- time I'd been late to duty. Thawell gave me such a splendid five-minute cussing out on the uselessness of a soldier who reported late that I couldn't help but admire him. The man had a true gift. He never once repeated himself. I should have taken notes, he was that good. After I finished an additional ten-hour shift cleaning the hanger, I had to look up at least a half-dozen of his words. Three weren't even listed. One was illegal.
I made it to the hov carrier with plenty of time. I'd met up with Sarah, Kate and Lena in the showers as usual, so we were in a group when we showed up at the armory to get issue. Dusty passed out short-range laser rifles to each of them and a nullifier and quiver of holoknives to Sarah. Since this was a combination rescue and quick strike raid, Sarah had left her heavier armor stowed away, and had on only four layers of micro armor. I didn't get any extra ordinance. My skills lay elsewhere on this trip.
Thawell was waiting for us at the hover carrier and nodded as we entered. We went in and settled in for departure. They took seats along the starboard side; mine was the one at the terminal, port side, just behind the cockpit.
The hover was capable of holding twelve personnel and three crew. It was the size and roughly the shape of a small bus, though of course it used an inverted gravity ion drive. It was completely enclosed and sagged slightly in the front, where it was plated. Entrance was through a ramp in the rear. With us on board, there were still four more to go, not counting Thawell. It was normally pretty crowded, but since this was a raid using light equipment, there was extra room in case we could pull out some ripes. While we waited, I fired up the terminal and began reviewing the mission. Following protocol, I kept the field tight, forcing me to keep my head still as I viewed.
By the time I had finished, the last of the team was on board and buckled in. Thawell locked up and the hov moved off. The craft moaned and creaked as it passed through the pressure shield. The terminal flicked off for several moments as all access was cut off, then resumed normal operation once we cleared the negating field. The hov leveled out as it reached the top of the shielded ramp and moved out onto the desert floor. Through the front portal we could see the darkness of the arid wilderness. There were no lights of any kind, not even navigational. We were kind of stuck up about our privacy. I looked up through the top portal and saw the pitch black of the desert night sky, dotted with thousands of stars. The total elimination of pollution made for spectacularly clear air. The vehicle started ambling off to the north. Too much speed would leave a heat trail. It would be at least five minutes until we cleared the minefield and could begin phased travel. As I said, we were pretty touchy about our privacy.
"All right, listen up." Thawell's grating voice called for all our attention. I looked at tonight's squad. Besides my three friends and me, there was one other woman, six men and Thawell. Pretty even split. I knew them all quite well, and could probably give the mission briefing as well as Thawell. Of course, if I tried, Thawell would dump me off while we were phasing and let me swim home through solid rock.
"Wyeth." I pulled up a solid hologram in the middle of the group. Thawell continued. "Okay, here's the target. It's a riping facility located inside a legitimate parts factory. Ninety percent of the personnel and equipment manufacture solar shielding for the ball chasers. They are NOT the target and must be treated as innocents. No weapons except when necessary, and only disabling charges can be used. Marks!" A big man in the back with a swarthy face and slow smile looked up. Cradled in his right arm was a heavy caliber slug gun. "You use that cannon tonight anywhere outside of a real fire fight, and I'll issue you a popgun like Wyeth's. Permanently." Marks smiled his slow smile and looked over at me. I smiled back. Aaron was my wing man on nearly every mission -- Sarah was my other wingman -- and a better one I couldn't ask for. Unless it was for someone whose eyes, smile, and voice didn't set my heart to thumping. Thawell continued.
"As I said, ninety percent of the area is legit. It's the other ten percent we want to take out. That section is located here." I magnified the display and let it flow in the direction most of us would be taking to break in. Their gazes followed it carefully, as though their lives depended on it, which they did. Our target was buried deep inside the complex, an intentional ploy to use innocents as shields. NATech Supreme didn't miss much. Including cover-up, I thought. It had taken me nearly two weeks to pin this facility down, and even then it was because I got lucky. That made this pretty hot property.
"We're looking for a total clean-out. It's unlikely we'll find any rescuable ripes, but if we do, it's SOP. The rest will need to be sacrificed. May God have mercy on their souls." A few crossed themselves. "The location is cross-planet, higher latitude. Total allowed mission time is twenty-two minutes." Several surprised looks at the longer than normal time. Thawell jerked a thumb at me. "Our resident girl genius has a couple of new tricks, so we get an extra six minutes. Use 'em right."
"Sergeant?" the pilot called back softly. The hov's drive was completely silent, and even a vehicle equipped with a MacDonald phaser could travel almost without sound.
"We'll be slipping in three minutes. Phasing travel time is twenty-seven minutes."
Thawell looked back around at us. "Okay. We'll use tri-team plan beta. Wyeth, you're non-activate tonight, so Hacker, your tri-team is number one. Marks, you and Grominski gotta ghost. No ripe pickups for you." I was normally the anchor member of Company A's top tri-team, making me second in command during the actual mission, but would stay behind tonight. It wasn't wise to let a sharded Cue view unrescued ripes in riping facilities since it could cause a pretty wicked episode. It had been nearly eight months since my last shard, but that wasn't long enough for me. Never again wouldn't be long enough for me.
Thawell seated himself and buckled up. I had maybe two minutes left of full interface, so I did a final check of the night's mission logic, running just under one million scenarios in ninety seconds. Simulation result gave us a ninety-seven point nine percent chance of success with no casualties. Not bad, but it could be better. Maybe if I tried adjusting the...
"Shut 'er down, Wyeth," Thawell barked.
I shifted over to flat display, set voice interface to most sensitive, then settled back to await the phase. The atmosphere grew warm and dry and brittle as the unit charged. I looked through the front portal. The pilot, guided by unseen markers, reached over to a box. He lifted the box to reveal a switch, which he rotated, then left his hand on. He waited a moment longer. Ahead, the desert flowed smoothly by.
"Phasing...five... four... three... two... one." He pressed the switch.
Everything became very hazy and translucent. I looked up at the top portal, not really wishing to see the insides of the pilot and co-pilot. The night sky shimmered through the metal, an unnaturally breathtaking sight. Then the pilot depressed the controls and we dipped into the desert sand, my stomach only slightly behind the rest of me.
Like a submarine diving into the sea, we sank into the earth. But where in a submarine you are only surrounded by the elements, during phasing, you become part of the elements. Perfected about a century ago, phasing shifted the molecular makeup of the phased object and allowed it to pass through solid matter. The idea was not new -- it had been the stuff of science fiction stories even in my old life. But now it was science fact. What had not been anticipated was the difficulty in navigation. Nor was the visible effect ever seen clearly, pun intended.
When phasing, everything became ephemeral and took on a translucent effect. The result was that you could see everything in a limited visual range at all levels. When I was first oriented on the effects, I became very self-conscious that the guys sitting behind me could see all of me. No worry, because it turns out they could see all of me: each layer of clothing I had on, my skin, internal organs, flesh, bones, even through to the clothing on the other side of my body. Not exactly the stuff of fantasies. Disquieting seemed hardly a strong enough word. I had looked only once, and it was more than enough. I now passed the time with my terminal display, which was hard enough to focus on, with its multi-holophasic guts visible as well.
Breathing or movement was difficult: imagine being caught in a large sandstorm. But the advantages far outweighed the discomfort. Properly shielded, a phasing vehicle could travel at high speeds completely undetected. There were only three known dangers. First was phase unit failure, with pretty abrupt and final consequences. Second was the inner core of the earth, which while not fatal in and of itself -- heat had no effect on a phased object -- did cause problems as the massive density slowed passage down to a crawl. It might take years to penetrate. And with the glow of the superheated iron core, it could be blinding for both man and sensors, making navigation impossible.
The third, and most possible danger, was phased mines, such as we used. It had been disastrously proven that two objects can reside in the "same" place at the same time, but three could not. When two objects, one actively phased and one not, came into contact with each other, nothing occurred. But if two actively phased objects meet in a third stable object -- unless the phasing frequencies were within one ten-millionth of a hertz -- there would be an incredible explosion. So to prevent unauthorized entry, some facilities were now using phase mines. These small, phased objects were located in a half-sphere pattern close enough to prevent intrusion but far enough out to not damage the facility they were guarding if they were set off. And because a military force would obviously lose all surprise appearing outside the field, a phase-mined facility was safe from secret infiltration. Fortunately, phased mine fields were difficult, dangerous and expensive to maintain, so there were relatively few of them. We had one only because of successful raiding.
The target we were advancing on was not mined, but it had a huge advantage defensively: innocent workers. For as much as we had NATech Supreme's measure, they had ours. We had never wantonly used force against anybody except armed NATech soldiers. We directed our energies against machinery, facilities, and data; never flesh and blood, and NATech knew it. So they buried their riping factories and bio-physical manufacturing facilities and other targets deep inside cities and legitimate work areas. Ruthless but effective. What made it worse was that most of NATech military forces had no qualms about opening fire in these populated areas. As a consequence, our mission time was severely limited to minimize conflict. We constantly needed to come up with new ways to complete our missions. I had a couple of ideas for this one. I focused my attention to the fuzzy display, continually blurred by rock.
"Okay, Mike, let's play for a while." Having the speed of a sleepy tree sloth, I relied on voice interface. This was only a small problem: voice interface wasn't the preferred method of access -- direct mental connection was -- but it would work. Mike was my virtual partner in the puterverse. I had created him way back when I was John Wyeth, but only as a high-speed assistant with very rudimentary and artificial judgment. He didn't even have a form then. He was quite different now, much more real.
"Hiya, Abby! Playtime, huh? Are we finally hitting the Denver ripe facility?"
"Uh-huh. Are the weather patterns over the northern Rockies still following?"
"Course they are! It's what you asked for, isn't it?"
"Don't get uppity, with me, Mike! I think Dusty's still looking for a new puter for his armory. You want to finish out existence as Agnes?"
"Perish the thought! One screwed up girl around here is enough!" For some reason, Mike was fascinated by my circumstances, and when he wasn't asking me questions about the experience, he was making comments about it. Before I could say anything, he chuckled. "Just kidding! This is what we've got so far: I downed the Anchorage and Idatana nets six hours and forty-one minutes ago. They thought they repaired the damage and brought them up three hours and six minutes ago. That was the signal to bring them back down again, taking the Seattle net with them. Now they don't know what to do. We're on perfect schedule, with some wicked storms spread out across the northwestern section of North America. The pot's on to boil, Abby! Shall I take out the Denver weather net?"
"Yes, please. How long until we can generate lightning over the target, and what are the three most likely scenarios?"
"The lightning is easy: three minutes for the weather net breakdown, five minutes until storm conditions, then five more until lightning can be triggered, using the suddenly malfunctioning shield regenerator as a lightning rod. So, thirteen minutes. Shall I bring the regenerator down, now?"
"Um...no. Let's give them time to evacuate, but not enough time to effect a repair crew. I don't want to fry anyone. Bring it down in fifteen minutes."
"You got it. Now as for the three most possible scenarios, the first two are pretty much unchanged. One has us succeeding with target elimination and rescuing a few Ripes. The other has mission success but no rescue. Between the two, they have ninety-five percent probability of being most likely. The third one is the tough one, Abby. I've looked it over, and I think the major battle scenario is not possible. The more likely scenario, with a three point six percent probability is a major intervention, with mission success but possible loss of life."
"I'd guess three to four on our side. Their side? Unknown but substantially higher, with seventy-eight percent being military personnel, twenty percent ripe, and less than two percent innocent."
"Very well. Notify Sergeant Thawell of our latest projections." He wandered off to let Thawell know. The sergeant could call off the mission for any reason, but probably wouldn't for this. From a cold, military point of view, this was very acceptable risk. If I told myself that enough, I might even believe it.
"He said it's a go, Abby!" Mike reported cheerfully. He still hadn't quite gotten over the excitement of missions. Which made sense, because I hadn't either, despite my concerns about loss of life.
"All right. We should be breaking through in about twenty minutes. Have the commandant phone in from his lunar vacation home and ask for an important conference with... with... what's his name?"
"Right. With Captain Garber and the two lieutenants. Put the call through in, say, twenty-five minutes. That'll give us time to disembark. Make him really ticked off."
"Check! He'll be chewing nails! Anything else?"
"Not right now. I'll talk to you in twenty."
"Twenty it is! And may I say," he dropped his voice down to a smooth, silky octave, "you look ravishing tonight, my dear. I just love what you've done with your spleen." He shut off quickly, laughing his brash laugh.
I giggled and would have shaken my head, if I could. I had purposely made Mike my age to help me keep perspective. He could be pretty gross sometimes. But he could be a darling, too.