It was a bit of disappointment for Franklin when the chief later told him the mission was off.
After some back-and-forth over the communications channel with the local military commander, the chief was ordered to send the crawlers directly out to their assigned patrol. The cave would be handled with a couple of the heavier armed drones. This way there was no chance the boy might have anything useful he could tell the rebels about an attack. Even if the rebels managed to escape, that cave would be hard to use again. The chief did manage to get forgiveness on the boots.
It all brought Franklin back to the cold reality of why he was there in the first place: that petroleum pipeline snaking across several Middle Eastern countries. While the details varied in each case, the Coalition had brought down the governments that had been unwilling to deal on the pipeline route. All of the countries ended up partitioned with borders redrawn to suit the politics of the pipeline companies. The Middle East was once again safe for democracy — uh, safe for predatory petroleum commerce again.
It was a dirty job but Franklin wasn’t tormented over that, just highly cynical. While his contract was at this point rather uncertain, he served as combination guard and sniper protecting a team of yet more contractors who kept the crawlers patrolling the pipeline at night. The pipeline construction crews had their own security during daylight hours, backed up by uniformed Coalition troops in the area helping to keep this country’s president in power.
The construction crews were using a new technology that made the pipelines very hard to mess with once they were connected and buried deep in the ground. There was longer any need for valve stations exposed along the course. Thus, the long portion of finished pipe behind them required far less effort to protect. Only the current section under construction was vulnerable. Meanwhile, the path ahead was cleared as needed. Again, it was mostly a matter of making the whole thing too much trouble for the rebels to attack. So far it had worked — mostly.
What made things so difficult for Franklin and his team was the instability of their home country governments. The various economies weren’t that healthy when this whole mess got started. Indeed, for Franklin, the government back home came very near to coming apart at about the same time the local government here fell. The huge international corporations involved in directing the work and funding the contracts were also in turmoil, so that in just three months, Franklin found his contract bought and transferred four times. Nothing much about the job itself changed, but the currency behind his paycheck was different every month so far. Even the equipment was shuffled around right along with the contracts.
Not once did anyone suggest the contract would end soon. On the contrary, Franklin had been warned not to even think about it. Given what he had managed to read from time to time in news reports, he had a tendency to believe he was safer here dodging rebels and living under Spartan conditions. Some of his friends back home had died or lost everything they owned.
In Franklin’s mind, he really didn’t have a lot of choice. But it was more than mere survival; he was committed to the welfare of the team of technicians who maintained and directed the crawlers. It was good when he could save an innocent life like that boy, but he had been forced to kill women and children before. It seemed already like ages in the past, but back during the summer when he first arrived, the pipeline was crossing an area with far more villages and roads. The rebels had more convenient places to hide within shooting distance of the construction. Franklin’s team had lost a truck, three crawlers and two technicians. It was a baptism of fire for him.
Franklin knew he wasn’t to blame for those losses, but it made him sad just the same. He had just gotten placed with his team and still had to learn all those hundreds of little things a man gained in surviving in a particular tactical environment. He had soldiered before, but it was nothing like this. And other crawler teams had even higher losses, so the corporate bosses and commanders were both pretty happy with him. It was seen as a kind of reward to send him forward with a team that stayed with the pipeline. Some of the other teams were forced to stay in that hostile area to bolster the government and protect other parts of the larger project. Equipment and warm bodies were replaced routinely, but there never seemed enough to make security easy.
Through it all, Franklin kept his sanity, which was more than some of the other contract sniper/guards were able to do. Three months on the job and he had already gained seniority because too many people in similar jobs were dead or had quit, even at the cost of having to find their own way out of the country.