Barry had troubled dreams of earth turned into a gray, smoking landscape of craters, devoid of life.
While it filled him with a resolve to act, he couldn’t find anything he might do that satisfied that inner demand. Maybe it would show itself when the time came. But this morning he faced the unpleasant prospect of the VIPs returning for an early breakfast in the company executive dining room while the chopper was being readied for flight over on the airfield. They were dressed for the rugged outdoors and carried coats. Something very evil was going to happen today.
It left him feeling almost helpless when they boarded the bus and rode off to their chopper. He watched from across the way as the blades began spinning up. The bus pulled up on the taxi apron near where the big helicopter was running. The VIPs emerged clinging to their loose clothing and boarded the luxurious craft. A few minutes later it rose and headed out toward the pipeline.
Franklin had his own concerns. He, too, had a sense of foreboding, despite the currently relaxed atmosphere. For reasons no one bothered to explain, the troops had been extra busy the past two days with intensely aggressive patrols, ranging out more than twenty kilometers on either side of the pipeline. Bess had suggested it was to improve security before the VIPs arrived. It really bothered him that everyone in uniform seemed so subservient and compliant about it. Bess had given him a digest of the radio traffic between the commanders, and you would think it was the Coalition supreme headquarters that was coming to visit. Had this evil man bought them, too?
Between Bess and his tactical scanner, there was precious little moving out there where his crawler team had been working. They were just going through the motions. Franklin could have taken a holiday and it would have made no difference. It occurred to him it felt like some kind of seduction, but more complicated than that. He let his feelings rise where he could see them clearly. It was an odd mixture of frustration and embarrassment with a creeping laziness. While he seldom let such feelings get in the way of taking his job seriously, it helped to be aware of this toxic stew. It made him feel like someone was trying to set him up, preparing him for playing as a sucker.
Bess broke into his reverie to alert him to the presence of the VIP chopper over the pipeline route. It was approaching for the simple reason that Franklin’s team was currently out on the far end just beyond the preparatory digging crews and their massive earth-moving machinery. Their ostensible assignment had been to prevent rebels from setting mines in the area or otherwise hindering the work. The contractors had just brought out the first few components of a boring machine that would cut a tunnel under the mountains within sight of where Franklin’s team was camping.
Of course, the VIP chopper was escorted by several gunbirds. Looking around again, Franklin suddenly realized that about the only place they could set such a bird down was practically in his lap. His nest wasn’t that far from the camp, up on a rise that gave him a grand view of the area. Up here in the mountains, the clouds were a little thick and it was cooler than the areas his team had covered in recent weeks. But Bess told him that VIP chopper had all kinds of navigational aids that made a lot of noise across the radio spectrum. In that sense, Bess could “see” the chopper with great precision.
Then Franklin’s tactical sensor sounded an alarm and the display indicated the chopper was going to land. That’s why they had sent Barry out with the disks, to add the VIP chopper’s signature to his “don’t-shoot” registry. The flight plans were not published as distinct plans, but on an as-needed basis, and the chopper was following one of them today. So whatever it was these VIPs were doing, it involved seeing this camp and the terrain during the early process of laying the pipeline. Franklin normally took it in stride when anyone important came into his zone of fire, but this whole thing put him on edge. That man was aboard the chopper and he was up to no good.
Was this the enemy that his internal alarm system had been buzzing about in his sleep, making him tense since before he awoke this morning?
The big, noisy bird buzzed right over his head before it spun around and settled quickly and gracefully on the only landing spot around. The gunbirds rose back up into the sky and took up overwatch in the vicinity. The artificial wind disturbed his camouflage cover, but it didn’t blow off. It was designed to withstand truly terrifying storm winds.
To his surprise, the engines were actually shut down. It was audible in the way the turbine engines dropped in pitch below the roar and into a descending whine. A large male figure hopped onto the ground, followed by two older women and a smaller, older man. The rest apparently decided to stay on the bird; Franklin could see their heads through the windows on the side as they looked out. Franklin ran through a mental estimate and realized that it was wholly unlikely they had lighted anywhere else on the way out this far. It was still mid-morning.
Those who got out were welcomed by the tech crew. They had gotten the warning, too, and moved out one of the crawlers for a demonstration. There was a couple of easy fake targets well away from anything that was important, so Franklin settled himself to watch the show. He seldom got to see the crawlers fire their pulse cannons, since the machines did all their work at night. Even during that battle that had gotten so much attention, he didn’t have time to watch them fire.
The frumpy man spoke to Joe and, to Franklin’s dismay, he pointed toward the sniper’s nest. The man left the group and began picking his way up the slope toward him.