Normally the techs would take the utility truck out to examine the wreckage and remains, take pictures and fill out a few survey forms. They never got to it. By the time the choppers had turned to rise back up into the sky, a small convey of military vehicles were headed their way from across the main valley.
Franklin disabled the sensor’s shooter and shut down the generator. His duty on the nest wasn’t officially over for some hours yet, and the techs had busied themselves with daily maintenance checks on the crawlers, along with the after-action analysis on the software update. But the presence of troops suspended his mission. He was watching the soldiers get out and inspect the battle damage when he heard yet another chopper approaching. It didn’t sound like the gunbirds the military used; then his sensor told him it was a company bird. Whatever happened during this attack, it sure got a lot of attention.
Franklin was turning it over in his mind when his local radio buzzed. Plopping the headset on, he responded, “What’s up?”
It was the chief. “Come on down; the troops are covering security right now. We’ve got VIPs coming and they want to talk to you.”
By the time the chopper found a flat spot near the camp and touched down, Franklin was all packed up and had begun the tiresome trudge back toward the pocket. His aging joints told him that a big advantage to his choice of nest site today was that it meant less climbing, but then they complained that it was a longer walk. He was still a few hundred meters out when a figure strode purposely toward him.
The stride told him all he needed to know — it was the Chief of Security. This was the man who hired him and could fire him. Franklin wasn’t too worried about the latter right now, because that man was also a friend. They became friends back when that man was his sniper instructor in the military, Carl. It was Carl who had personally called and begged him to come and test for the sniper job. Back in the military, with projectile weapons, Franklin had turned out to be marginal as a sniper. But Carl knew exactly how Franklin worked, and what kept him from being more expert. It was Carl who explained how he had lobbied so hard for the contract snipers to be permitted use of the new pulse rifles, and offered his confidence that Franklin’s shooting could only be a lot better with them.
Franklin managed to free his right hand from the load and reached out as he met Carl on a small flat rocky ledge. Carl’s left hand grabbed Franklin’s shoulder firmly, but his big grin didn’t hide the look of concern on his face. As was typical of Carl, he didn’t waste time on niceties.
“Franklin, had you been using that big rock over there for your nest previously?” The man let go of Franklin’s shoulder and pointed up the slope off to his left.
“Yeah, but something told me I needed a different perspective today,” Franklin replied and set down the gear in his other hand, because Carl hadn’t released his iron grip on the right hand.
“The top of that rock has powder burns and shrapnel all over it.” The smile was gone from Carl’s face as he let go of Franklin’s hand.
Franklin cocked his head to one side. “Mortar shells? Somebody was trying to destroy this whole team, so why shouldn’t they target me, too? What happened, Carl? With all of this weird evidence, you would think someone got sloppy and overplayed it.” Using their shared military jargon, Franklin gave a brief oral report, including his premonition, but not the dream.
“Yeah, this was a contract hit writ large. Somebody knew where this team was, where you normally kept watch, and knew when the crawlers should have been unavailable. They brought enough people and equipment to shut down the pipeline for a whole day, all just for one crawler team. None of you were supposed to survive.” Carl let that hang in the air for just a moment.
Franklin shook his head. “I’m not that dangerous by myself. There has to be something else going on here.”
Carl nodded in agreement. “Do you think I could get a look at that software upgrade disk?”
Franklin laughed, grabbed his gear. “You don’t miss a thing, Carl!” They headed down to the camp.
Carl asked for Franklin’s netbook; he knew what kind of software was on it. Joe handed them the disk with a sly grin on his face. With the netbook tapping into the team’s satellite feed for broadband, Carl searched quickly and pulled up the crawler manufacturer’s site. He switched to the page for customer login. His fingers were too quick to follow, and when he was in, he clicked a few more links to find a list of hashes for the software in release number order. Matching the number on the disk, he pulled down the hash file. Then he ran a comparison between the hash and image on the disk. It took a bit of time; Franklin’s netbook was smart but not very powerful.
“They don’t match.” All three men said it at the same time.
Carl turned to Joe. “How much do you wanna bet this disk would have disabled the crawlers?”
“You win,” Joe said, raising his hands in mock surrender.
By this time the team chief had joined them, along with the theater corporate operations manager. He wasn’t exactly Carl’s boss, but he was definitely the big cheese over the crawler program.
This latter man said, “This is damned spooky. It makes me paranoid; who the hell can I trust at this point?” His question was clearly rhetorical. “On top of that, the commander over these troops just told me that he’s not sharing his report with me. It’ll have to come down from another source after it makes its way through their system. Meanwhile, they are scouring the ground and taking everything with them, and they have a crane and flatbed on the way to pick up what’s left of the vehicles. I would almost bet they’re going to bury this whole thing.”
Franklin put his right index finger over his lips, then turned back to his netbook. He found a clean disk and inserted it into the drive. He opened the case containing his sensor and pulled out a cable he wasn’t supposed to have to link the sensor to his netbook. “You’ll get my report right now, sir. I had the sensor on record during the fight. It also occurred to me to include a query of the satellite history to see if we can figure out when this attack was set up and maybe how they did it without anyone noticing.”
“Make two copies,” Carl said.
Franklin nodded at Carl as the big boss breathed a sigh of relief. “Am I the only one paranoid about this?” Everyone shook their heads back and forth.