22nd September 2014
People think of deserts as hot, dry, and sandy. I know I certainly did. My perceptions were changed by the four weeks I spent in Fort Irwin, California. The middle of the Mojave was my first experience in an actual, honest-to-god desert, and for the first week, everything lined up with my expectations. The sky was wide open and a deep blue. There was literally no cloud in the sky. The fort was surrounded by distant mountains the shade of creamed coffee. There was also the heat that burned your lungs with every breath. That first week we were torn between sleeping nude to escape the pervading heat, or wrapping ourselves up to defend against the giant scorpions. The next two weeks’ weather made the decision much easier.
Sunday of our second week, my platoon was air-lifted via helicopter to Mount Matterhorn, a large hill that over looked a wide basin. Just as we stepped out onto the rocks, clouds moved in and started a downpour like a tropical storm. The winds kicked up to eighty miles per hour. We couldn’t set up tents. Any kind of tarp we erected was blown clear off Matterhorn never to be seen again. The ground was too hard to dig in so we couldn’t escape the blinding, sand-specked wind that burned with its passing. Finally there was the cold brought on by both wind and water. No one packed any kind of cold-weather gear. I remember crying, my tears lost against the unending torrent, and praying to God to make it all stop after the third day. The storm was such that we could only tell a day had passed because of our watches. All thirty-three of us, military-trained, professional hard-asses, were reduced to shivering, whimpering children before this hurricane-force onslaught of misery.
It ended after two week, but no idea of a desert survived. I was told that “Mojave” means “Great Wind,” in Comanche. Those wise natives were half-right. Not once on that mountain was I too hot, too dry, or too sandy, unless you count the graininess of my eyeballs at the start.
12th August 2014
“You think we can live there?” the Director asked.
“I don’t see why not,” Dr. Manning replied, “Spectrometers are all coming back green. Atmosphere is definitely Earth-like. As far as the instruments on the probe can tell us, it’s a perfect blue and green marble.”
“And 47c? The primary – it won’t tear the moon apart?”
“No, orbit is stable. Tides will be a little higher than here, but nothing too devastating. I’d love to see the night sky at this place.”
“And eclipses won’t be a problem?
“No. Wouldn’t last long enough to pose a threat and should only shade the southern hemisphere.”
The Director looked up at the captured video of the as yet unnamed world and folded his hands under his chin. He squinted for a few moments. He locked his gaze back to Dr. Manning.
“Alright, can we get there? If so, how many can we send?” the Director asked.
Dr. Manning cleared his throat and replied, “It would depend on how much power we can funnel into the device. A few people would take a lot of power. If we wanted to send a viable colony, more power than east coast of the US uses in six months. Once the power requirements are met, its as easy as telling the machine where to send them and flipping the switch. If you can get me the power, I can get you to the moon.
“Very well, Doctor,” the Director said leaning back in his chair, “I’ll see who I can bring in to get help get you your power. Thank you for the briefing.”
The Director stood up with his guest and reached across the desk to shake hands. He watched Dr. Manning leave his office before clicking the button on his phone paging his secretary.
“Yes, Director Battery? What do you need?” the secretary outside chimed in over the direct line.
“Diane, schedule me meetings with the CEOs of all of our employment agencies, but keep things quiet. We need to find colonist candidates,” The Director said, sitting back down
“Yes, sir,” Diane said, “Anything else.”
“No, that will be all.”
Jack Battery reached over to his console and closed the line. He let his eyes wonder back to the video projected on his wall of the green and blue orb rotating slowly on a field of sparkly black. On the edge of the image you could just see Kepler 47c moving into the frame, the milky blue sphere slowly filling the black.
“Circe,” he whispered to himself, deciding then to name his future home. “Circe and Colossus.”
8th August 2014
Every year on September 9th, I perform a solemn ritual to consider the meaning of friendship and honor a good friend of mine I lost on that day in 2008: Private First Class Winston. I pour four shots of Bacardi 151, his favorite drink, and dump two of them. He was a 22-year-old kid from St. Louis who always had a smile on his face. Through hours of push-ups and road marches long enough to make your legs fall off, Winston had a smile. He wouldn’t hesitate to try and cheer anyone up around him.
“Why did the sergeant cross the road?” Winston said. This was his favorite joke.
“I don’t know,” I lied, knowing what was coming but not wanting to ruin the joke.
“Because the L.T. lost his map again,” Winston said, and we laughed. Everyone in the unit had heard this joke countless times, but Winston always timed it perfectly with the goings on around base.
Winston was in Third Platoon, led by Lieutenant Brown. Lieutenant Brown was tall and wiry. The commander and even the squad leaders who fell under him gave him grief for his haircut. US Army Field Manual 6.70-4, Uniform and Grooming Standards told us all that no male soldier, without medical reason, shall have hair longer that three quarters of an inch long. Lieutenant Brown kept his right at an inch and half for style reasons. Officers can get away with things enlisted men can’t. I have to say the look worked for him. The lowest man on the totem pole in Third Platoon was Private Dupree. He pissed hot for cocaine a week after he got to the unit. Even for a new guy he was treated like shit. The only person who talked to him like a human being was Winston, who said, “Before I joined up, I’d probably done worse.”
I was in Second Platoon of Charlie Company, the Comanches. Our company. We were led by Captain Voegle, a skinny man with a high pitched voice who nonetheless radiated confidence and capability. Unlike any other officer I have ever met or served with since, he encouraged his men to think and bring solutions to him. Captain Voegle’s right hand was First Sergeant Kane, or Big Daddy Kane as all one hundred and sixteen of us would call him when he wasn’t around. Captain Voegle may have been in charge of Charlie Company, but First Sergeant Kane led us.
“Thae ae only two people in the entiea woald who love you weados,” First Sergeant Kane told us all at the end of every weekend safety brief in a thick Bostonian accent that accentuated “Es” and completely dropped “Rs,” “Ya momma and your Fust Seagent!”
For over two years before we deployed to Afghanistan, every member of our company lived together. We ran together, we carried each other, at times we even hated one another, but like a family the hate was short lived and dissipated with a joke or what First Sergeant Kane would call a “dance.” A dance was a boxing match where rank didn’t matter. We would hold them about once a month when tensions were running too high for jokes to sooth them.
“If you have a problem with someone men, you fight ‘em. You punch ‘em in the face ‘til you see blood.” This was First Sergeant Kane’s idea of conflict resolution. As much as I hate to say it, it worked. After a dance, we worked even better together than we did before. Drill times got faster and there were fewer and fewer arguments.
By the time we deployed, everyone knew their job and everyone else’s. We followed our superiors because we respected them, not because of the number of chevrons on their uniforms.
The Saturday morning before we deployed, I was nineteen and hung-over. I was roused from my sleep by a pounding at my barracks door. I put on some pants and shuffled to see who had dared to disturb my slumber. It was Winston, the brightness of his smile useless against my pounding head.
“What do you want, man?” I said, bleary eyed in moose pattern pajama pants.
“Hey, Harriman!” Winston energetically replied, “You mind helpin’ a black man out and…”
I made a cross with my hand and said, “I set you free,” and shut the door. It sounded like a hyena exploded outside, Winston was laughing so hard. It turns out he wanted a cigarette and I’d made his day with the best racist joke he’d ever heard. We drove to the Post Exchange and I bought him a pack of smokes.
Our first patrol in Afghanistan was supposed to last a week. As is the case with every battleplan, it was the first casualty of our war. We packed enough gear for one week and ended up being out in the field for the better part of a month. Fortunately, our mission was a resupply for we didn’t starve. We were only bored to death. War, is not like the movies. War is ninety percent boredom, eight percent mild disappointment, and two percent pants-shitting terror. I was going mad with driving around a barren landscape. I started to wake up every morning praying for something to shoot at. If only I’d kept my mouth shut.
On September 9th, my platoon was waiting for Third to roll back into our Forward Operating Base, so we could regroup and drive back to Kandahar Airfield, where the food was good and there were plenty of foreign female service members to ogle. I was telling my friend Barlow about the Dutch compound and how the women there love to sunbathe topless when Barlow’s eyes popped out of his head. He was listening to the company radio net, and had heard that Third platoon got ambushed.
I don’t remember, putting my gear on. The training kicked in with a vengeance. I do remember charging my M4 carbine, loading a round in the chamber. My cramped Humvee blasted over the desert landscape. My knees and back felt every bumb and rock amplified with sledgehammer force by the poor suspension, while dust and sand poured in through the open gunner’s hatch in the roof.
When my platoon finally pulled up on scene, what had become a vicious but brief firefight was over, but the funeral pyre that was Comanche 3-6, Winston’s truck, was still ablaze. The next day, we counted two hundred and forty eight enemy dead, but couldn’t bring ourselves to care. It was only when I got back to Kandahar Airfield that I was told what happened during Winston’s funeral service.
Their truck had hit an IED as the opening part of an ambush. The truck’s driver Dupree was thrown free of the blast and the rest of the cabin filled with flaming diesel. Dupree ran back to the humvee, his gear aflame. With a strength born of desperation and a nearly lethal amount of adrenaline, he ripped off a seven hundred pound armored door and threw Sergeant Miller, Third platoons Forward Artillery Observer out and dragged him to a sheltered ditch. Depree went back again and pulled out the gunner, Specialist Tate, whose legs were burned too bad to move himself. On a third trip back he ripped another seven hundred pound door away from the truck and pulled out Lieutenant Brown. Brown was saved by both Dupree’s actions and his non-regulation haircut which kept his scalp from evaporating by melting into a protective sheath. Dupree tried to go back for Winston, but the rest of his platoon held him back
“We have to go back for Winston!” He screamed at his fellow soldiers who were holding him back to save his life. Winston was sitting in what each of us called “the death seat.” It was the seat that sat directly over the fuel tank of the Humvee. When the IED went off, Winston was already dead in the amount of time it took to take a breath. The air was hot enough that it instantly cooked his heart and lungs.
“Winston’s gone, man!” Specialist Sanderson said to Dupree with tears streaming down his face. “Winston’s gone.”
I think about that night a lot. I remember my friend who was always happy. What I most remember was Dupree charging through fire to save his friends, but too late to save his best. Dupree received the Silver Star with Valor device, the third highest award in the military for what he did. He tore every muscle in his arms and to this day can barely lift a glass of orange juice to his lips. We all were awarded the Combat Infantry Badge. The greatest gift the military ever gave me was seeing how far a true friend would go for the people he loved. My truest friend I lost.
30th July 2014
Ireland is not Afghanistan. That goes without saying, but it is good to keep in mind. Ireland is, however, green. The green in Ireland is greener than green has any business being. The weather was quintessentially Irish, meaning rain, as I was flying into Shannon International Airport. Through the airplane’s window I was assaulted with an expanse of uncomfortably, painfully green fields and rolling hills. The vista was crosshatched with narrow, winding roads and punctuated with the dirty off-white of sheep herds. The tarmac must have been the first paved surface built into the gentle slopes of County Shannon since the rule of Emperor Charlemagne.
I had spent the last nine hours in a cramped, pressurized aluminum can inhaling the same stale, recycled air as everyone else. It is hard to believe that burning through the sky at thirty-six thousand feet and close to the speed of sound could be so mind numbing. The instant my plane touched down, I made it my business to get some fresh air and engage in another time-honored tradition of the unhealthy living crowd: grab a smoke. My hands and eyes were twitching in anticipation for my next nicotine fix.
I walked past a myriad of overpriced shops and restaurants that were purpose-built to separate as quickly and painlessly the bored from their paychecks. I paid them no mind. I was a man with a singular and paradoxical goal of inhaling fresh air and smoke. A set of double doors with large, friendly letters over it proclaimed “Passenger Smoking Area.” My pace picked up as I strode toward the sunlight streaming through what might as well have been the pearl-laden gates to nirvana. I placed my hand on the push bar and burst forth into the outside world once more, my hand already opening a pack of my beloved Marlboros.
I walked over to and leaned up against a pillar supporting an overhang that shielded me from the Irish sprinkle. I lit my cigarette, closed my eyes, and breathed the sweet, stimulant laden smoke deep into my eager lungs. I exhaled and once again looked upon the mist-veiled Island of Ireland, its violently verdant fields pounding themselves into my eyes. Between drags, I could taste the old world history in the earthy, humid air. It was a welcome break from the choking, dusty atmosphere of arid Afghanistan.
“Does the entire American army smoke?” said a voice in a gruff Irish brogue. It came from an older man only a few feet away from me who was dressed in a beige-colored sweater, blue jeans, and a cabbie hat that matched his shirt. He was likewise smoking and leaning against a pillar. Fortunately, I’d seen enough soap commercials for there to be little language barrier.
“Pretty much. If we have nothing else to do, smoking is our default ‘wait’ setting,” I replied. For a moment I wondered how he knew I was in the service, until I remembered that I was still in my combat fatigues. There were still dirt stains on my knees from the patrol I finished four days earlier. I was enjoying the break from the brutally simplistic routine that was combat operations in the Kandahar Province: wake up, eat, go on patrol, come back, clean weapons, eat, work out, sleep, and repeat ad infinium.
The man, whose name I can’t remember, asked me where I was headed. I told him I was headed home on leave from Afghanistan. We talked about all sorts of things as we stood together under the pavilion smoking and exchanging cigarettes. I found out that he hunted rabbit while I hunted squirrel. We both liked to fish. He liked blondes and I liked whatever woman would look at me. I liked Guinness and he preferred Coors. He had nothing good to say about Jack Daniels while I raved about Jameson. We finally talked about our homes. He told me about a small cottage only a few kilometers from the airport, but he seemed particularly interested in Indiana. Before I told him about Indiana’s preposterous weather patterns, neatly arranged and blocky fields of corn and soybeans, and the terminal boredom of suburban life on the west side of Indianapolis, a bell rang in my head. I remembered that my commanding officer, in his well-meaning, xenophobic paranoia, had told each of us to never, under any circumstance, tell foreign nationals about our homes. If we did, our families were without a doubt going to get bombed by the Taliban. I respectfully ignored Capt. Voegle’s advice.
“It was always a dream I had to visit Ireland.” I told my new found friend, once I had finished regaling him with stories of teenage suburbia.
“Really? Lad, you need to get a better dream,” he said, taking another pull from his cigarette, a Silk Cut brand that has a smooth draw and robust, though mild flavor. I chuckled at his response and asked him why. He went on to tell me of how bad the economy had gotten and that his house was about to be foreclosed on. He told me about his son who would have been my age had he not been killed by an IRA bombing and it seemed that they were about to be back up to their old tricks. Finally, he said that he was taking one final vacation to visit a cousin in New Zealand while he still had the means to do so. He said he might not come back from his vacation. Just leave everything he had in Ireland and build anew down under.
I didn’t know what to say. The pressure to leave a whole life behind and the courage to go headlong into the unknown toward potential ruin were beyond my contemplation. I thought I had an idea of why he was so interested in where I lived. He wanted a glimpse of what it was like to live somewhere else, not just stay there for a while, soak up the sights, then go home. I was a window to a possible future.
Another hour of chit-chat went by until our time together was up. I had to board the jet on its final leg back to the states. I settled in to my cramped seat. The stale, recycled air blew onto my head from the ceiling, and I reclined the seat back as far as it would go. The plane started on its ascent and I looked back over the fields and hills, which were the exact green that red was not. I thought about my new friend. I hoped that he would find contentment wherever he decided to call home. As Ireland fell out of sight, I decided I preferred the simple life of a combat soldier over the low-stakes of civilian life, where my greatest concern was not dying. I sometimes feel this way, still.
9th June 2014
Secretary Director of Planetary Development Diane Meter leveled her eyes at the one person she had hoped to never have sitting at her desk. After a second she cleared her throat and turned on the recording device she had laid on her desk.
“Flight Lieutenant Persephone Meter, this is a hearing to determine your culpability and participation in and regarding the recent solar black out. This hearing is not an indictment or a trial, only a fact finding exercise. If sufficient evidence is found, you will be brought to trial and face conviction. It is important that you do not lie, omit, or mislead during these proceedings. If you do any of these things during this hearing you will face charges of purgery. Do you understand everything I have said to you at this time?”
The Flight Lieutenant had been spacing out a little bit during this whole thing. Her eyes had wondered all over her mother’s office. Being planetside it wasn’t constrained by the brutal space limits imposed on orbital stations where Persephone had spent most of her life. The high vaulted ceilings and marble drove home point that the person who inhabited this office had a god like reach and influence. She took note of the crossed torch and sheaf of wheat, the symbol of the Directory of Planetary Development, that was etched on a gold, circular plaque on the wall behind where her mother sat. Finally, her eyes settled on the sign that indicated who worked at the desk that was Spartan in it’s lettering. “D. Meter.” No honorifics, simply the name. Somehow it seemed even more imposing.
“Flight Lieutenant Meter! Did you hear me? Or do I have to waste my time reading this again?” While Persepone’s eyes had been wondering, so had her mind, and her mother, “D. Meter” had just called her on it.
“Yes Secretary Director. I did hear you. I understand what you have just said to me.” This wasn’t the first time Persephone had been in trouble, but it was the biggest amount of trouble she had ever been in. From now on she would try to pay more attention. Diane’s narrowed eyes served to reinforce this decision.
“Very well. Let us start from the beginning. First, tell me, how you stole the PDS Prosperity.”
Persephone started to say, “I prefer the term ‘liberated,’ or ‘borrowed indefi-,’”
“Do not make a mockery of this!” Diane roared. The pressure she’d been feeling at first having her only daughter disappear just as the sun for all intents and purposes went out, then the media fallout after someone leaked that Persephone could be responsible, finally burst out. Diane smashed the stop button on the recorder and said, “It is not only your ass on the line, but mine too! We could both be lynched for mass murder, right now and you want to make jokes. Typical, just typical. Why did I waste my time on you? On raising you? On giving you the best education in the Terran Domininion? If this is what we all get in return.”
“Ok. I’ll take this more seriously.” Persephone relented. “Just try to remember that whatever you’ve been going through, it seems like a cake-walk to me.”
“This had better be worth it,” The Secretary Director said and turned the recorder back on.
* * *
Persephone delighted in the controls of the PDS Prosperity. One of the newest scout vessels in the fleet and the smallest ship to date with a translation drive, the Prosperity hadn’t even had her shakedown cruise. It was designed to, if necessary, be crewed by one. It was a little cramped, but maneuvered like a humming bird. And the power to weight ratio! While it had never been tested, there was no reason the ship couldn’t operate in atmosphere. The ship was to be fated to be a high speed courier vessel. Persephone thought her current endeavor was far more dignified for such a beautiful piece of engineering.
The Flight Lieutenant had just graduated from the Dominion Advanced Astrogation Course and wanted to do something special for her leave before reporting to her first assignment. So she seduced the actual test pilot, got the codes to the ships computer core, then knocked him out before having to “seal the deal.” Once she got the codes, it was child’s play to actually get through the security check point, and onto the ship. She may have broken the docking ring as she blasted away from the Hephaestus shipyards, but she was long gone before anyone could catch up. Persephone was sure her mom could get her out of any serious trouble and probably even keep her in space.
Her first stop was to the moons of Saturn, after a computer aided tour of the planetary system, Persephone spent a few days testing herself by pulling evasive maneuvers on some of Saturn’s orbiting asteroids. It was fun, but she decided to get on with the main event of this little excursion.
Since she was a little kid, Persephone had heard of how no one comes back from Pluto. Some said the whole system was haunted. Pluto and its moons being off limits only served to reinforce any kind of wildly entertaining speculation that came out of the rumor mill and conspiracy theorists. Most ships wouldn’t even let you enter the coordinates for a jump. That was another reason Persephone had chosen the Prosperity has her chariot. It hadn’t had its navigation equipment doctored by the Directorate of Planetary Develpoment yet.
After serving herself a bountiful feast of a nutrient bar and recycled water, Persephone headed back to the navigation console and punched in the Lagrange point between Pluto and it’s eternal dance partner Charon. She was so excited to finally hit the jump button. The thoughts of what she might find there raced through her head as the stars blurred and the Prosperity translated to the forbidden world.
* * *
“Pluto! You went to Pluto!” Diane Meter said after switching the recorder off again. “Why would you steal a state of the art ship to take a joy ride to Pluto? Of all places?”
Persephone leveled her gaze at her mother and said, “I wanted to be famous for finding what was going on there. Or spending a month lounging on a beach in New Zealand sounded too tame and wasteful of my talents. Or you might say I did it because I chose to do it instead of you choosing it for me. Whatever sounds best in your report.”
The last part changed Diane’s gaze from anger to pain. At that moment she was simply a mother recalling her terror at hearing her only daughter had vanished, not the nigh all-powerful head of an interstellar bureaucracy. Quietly, and with hurt quivering in her voice, “I looked for you. I had the whole Directorate try to find you. You and any sign you were still alive or dead. It was the not knowing I couldn’t handle. We had no idea where you were until the Prosperity translated back into translunar space.” She cupped her face in her hands so Persephone at least couldn’t see she was choking back tears.
After a moment Diane regained herself, and was all business again. Persephone had always wondered how her mother had been able to change back and forth from her two personalities so quickly and seemingly effortlessly. Sometimes she wondered if her mother were mortal. That thought brought a smirk to her lips.
Diane, seeing levity on her daughter’s face again, decided to press on with the interview once more. She flipped on the recorder once more and said, “After you translated to Pluto, what happened next?”
* * *
As always, the beauty of post-translation static mesmerized Persephone as it danced and eventually dissipated across the surface of Prosperity’s hull. After it was gone she focused her attention on her destination. Pluto and Charon loomed around her. As if each second she stayed there was another second they decided not to crush Persephone and her prize of a vessel between them. It was dark and cold. The Sun was just the brightest of all the stars in the sky. Not the blazing life giver she’d grown up with. Persephone had to check the life support systems just to reassure herself that the chill running down her spine wasn’t a micro-meteor strike venting atmosphere.
Persephone shook herself at the sight of it all and got down to brass tacks. She touched the helm controls and attempted to steer the Prosperity toward the planet, but there was something off. The controls seemed a hair sluggish, but Persephone chalked it up to being shakedown cruise hiccups. She eventually overcame and settled the Prosperity into a low orbit around Pluto, started scanning the surface with radar pings and thermal imagers, then flipped the switch to auto-pilot so she could look out at the foreboding world. Even a planet as “small” as Pluto can take time to take a good scan of. Persephone used the time to admire the view. Once she got past the initial shock of how barren the place was, the beauty of Pluto and started to bleed through. It was a delicate and subdued glamour like soft moonlight on a crystalline lake. Once you got used to it, Earth and the terraformed belt of green around Mars looked like garish show offs.
Without warning, a small alarm went off, and Persephone pulled her eyes away from the view to the sensor console. Unbelievable! Persephone thought to herself as the thermal imager reported something that by all rights, should not exist on Pluto. It was a tiny flare of heat, no more than 10 meters across and 20 degrees Celsius, but when compared with the absolute crushing cold of even a Plutonian summer, it might as well have been a hydrogen bomb.
She’d found it! She couldn’t believe what her instruments were telling her. There was something on Pluto that no one else had ever seen, and lived to tell the tale of. Her fingers flew excitedly over the sensor controls to access the high zoom visual spectrum cameras to look at her new discovery. Was it an ancient alien ruin? Or a secret superweapon the Dominion had long ago abandoned? Persephone’s heart was about to explode out of her chest. Her excitement turned immediately to confusion as the cameras settled their gaze onto the target.
“Grass?” Persephone said under her breath. “Green grass. On Pluto. I must have gone insane. Computer, am I insane?” she asked only half sarcastic.
“Pilot, there is no reason to lead to that conclusion,” the impersonal electronic voice of the computer droned out.
“Then Occam’s razor strikes again.” Persephone said as she turned around and sat back into the helmsman’s seat. There was only one way to find out if what she saw through the cameras was real. She strapped herself in. It was time to test if the PDS Prosperity really could operate in an atmosphere.
* * *
Diane looked up from her notes with a look of shock and incredulity. She flipped the recorder off and said, “Tell me this is another one of your jokes.”
Persephone couldn’t help but laugh and said, “I could, but I’d be lying. I ran the numbers, there is no reason the Prosperity couldn’t handle landing on Pluto. Everything checked out. The slower than light drives on her are potent enough to take off from Earth sea level, Pluto would have been a piece of cake except for-“
“Except for the fact that the ship did not have any kind of landing gear?” Diane’s eye brow went up.
“Well, yeah, but I got around that one. It was the ice swallowing the ship that really got in the way.”
“What!?” The Secretary Director almost squawked.
Persephone smiled and said, “Turn the recorder back on. You’ll want to hear this.”
* * *
The PDS Prosperity bucked lightly up and down as the thin Plutonian atmosphere made way for the thirty thousand ton ship as it plowed downward on its mission of discovery. What little resistance it did give was easily defeated by the sturdy ceramic hull that encapsulated Persephone. The Prosperity’s hull had only the slightest dull red haze. She hadn’t had this much fun since the first time she got behind the controls of a starship.
After only two minutes of decent Persephone hit the deceleration thrusters, and made “contact” with Pluto’s surface about two hundred kilometers from the mysterious green circle. Even with the relatively little amount of heat radiating from her hull, the Prosperity still had enough to flash vaporize the ancient ice on the surface. Persephone had positioned the ship perfectly for the maneuver she was about to perform. As the ice exploded in mist, the Prosperity rode the near frictionless surface of the cloud to its destination.
Persephone couldn’t help it, she was cackling like a school girl. It wasn’t every day someone got to tear across the surface of a world at a few thousand kilometers an hour riding a self made vapor cushion. That kind of reentry had been banned on Earth for a few centuries. Ever since someone got carried away and slammed into a cruise ship at mach 3. As the journey ended, the hull cooled down again and the ice vapor turned to liquid and the ship coasted slowly on its own momentum to within 30 meters of the baffling grass grove. With no more heat to fuel its brief transformation, the liquid froze back to ice underneath Prosperity.
“Wooo! That was better than sex! I love this ship!” Persephone said as she kissed her hand then smacked the top of the helm controls. She then released the straps that held her into place and walked out of the bridge toward the maintenance compartment. Inside she found a Planetary Development standard issue hazardous environment suit. Say what you will about the PlanDev, but they always over equip their vessels. She stripped down and put on the thick, skin tight suit. She was always discomforted by the feeling of the suits waste disposal apparati making their necessary connections, but it is better than having to “go” and not being able to. And the discomfort is always better than dying in vacuum.
Persephone stepped into the airlock, and started to cycle the air out after putting on her helmet. She waited until the suit’s external temperature readouts matched Pluto’s surface. If she wasn’t careful, the same vapor cushions that helped her land here would occur beneath her feet and leave her trapped in the ice. Once the suit read close enough she opened the airlock’s outer door and stepped out of her ship.
It was dim and desolate. All she could hear was her heartbeat and the occasional rumble from the ice settling back into position after her spectacular landing. She stepped out onto Pluto’s surface, and was struck with waves of giddiness. She’d had low gravity training before, but it was always on space stations. Never something so exciting as a real planet!
Persephone could see the grass that lured her here to this deadly world about thirty meters off. She decided to try something that she could never have been able to do on the training stations. She crouched down, with all her strength jumped toward the grass, and like that was flying. She could see her ship in all its glory and the ground falling away from her without the aid of a thruster. It took thirty or more seconds for her to land and she overshot her target, but didn’t really care. Using smaller leaps she made it to her goal.
Once she entered the grass circle she felt the weight of her body instantly reassert itself, and she fell down, face first into the grass. When she got back up, the sense of euphoria wore off and terrible wonder took its place. There was something wrong with the grass, aside from the fact that it was on Pluto. It was too uniform, too perfect. Like a recently mowed lawn, but each blade of grass was unshorn, as if they all grew to the same length and then stopped. In the middle was a flower about waist height with six white petals and a vibrant yellow center. A narcissus flower that was facing right at Persephone. The creepiest thing though, was that the grass was blowing in a wind that wasn’t there.
Loosing what little caution she still had, Persephone walked up to the flower and touched it. She could have sworn it turned in her hand like a cat receiving a scratch behind the ear. Before she could confirm that though the ground started violently shaking, and she could hear through the suit the ancient ice groaning and breaking apart. The Prosperity’s bow had jutted sharpy into the black sky as the ice opened from underneath, slowly swallowing the ship whole. The fissure that had started with the ship was working its way uncomfortably fast toward Persephone. She suddenly snapped into action and backpedaled away only to run into a wall that wasn’t behind her before. The ice had been cracking behind her as well she found out as she looked back at a jagged cliff was looming behind her and getting bigger. In the back of her mind she thought about how the waste disposal systems in her suit were about to work overtime.
The ice was now closing in and before she blacked out, Persephone had time for two thoughts. I’m about to die on a planet named after the god of death, and Mom!
* * *
“When exactly did this happen? Touching the narcissus and the ice breaking apart?” Diane asked, trying to imagine the terror her daughter must have felt at the time, and to hide in her voice how much she succeeded in imagining.
Persephone shook her head, momentarily stunned by the question out of her reverie. “Huh?” She noticed this was the one interruption her mother hadn’t paused the recording for.
“When did this all happen? The flight recorder on the Prosperity had been wiped from the moment you translated to Pluto until you popped back to Earth. We need you to fill in the gaps to the best of your knowledge.” Diane was still in her official guise. Persephone continued in hers
“Must have been about two days after I got to Pluto. It took a while to find the grassy spot. Call it about eighteen to twenty hours to find the grassy spot, eight to ten hours of sleep, five to six to plan the decent, and about a day to execute the decent. I didn’t want to take chances with smacking into the planet. So, yeah, about two days.”
Persephone’s mother looked down and made a note, and said, “Please continue.”
* * *
Its cold as hell in here, was the first thought Persephone had when she’d come to. She opened her eyes to a second of absolute darkness. A dim light came on, and she instantly regretted it. As she blinked to try and stave off the splitting headache, the lighting went off, and came on again. Facinated despite the pain, she blinked a few more times just to make sure the lights were following her eye movements. Indeed they were. She tried to get up from what she thought was the floor only fall on her face, this didn’t help the headache. She noticed three things in short succession pretty quick about that time. First, she was laying spread eagled on a wall and had lauched herself into the ground. Next, she was wearing her birthday suit, so that explained the cold. Finally, a ghostly humanoid was walking over to her, trying to talk to her.
“Who the hell are you, and why am I naked?!” Persephone shouted as she noticed the ghost who was getting uncomfortably close. She gathered herself up, covering the vulnerable parts of her anatomy. Suddenly, she felt like she needed a shower. A hot one preferably. “What have you done to me?!”
The ghostly apparition stopped and said, “You are Flight Lieutenant Persephone Meter.”
“No shit! Answer m-“
The ghost carried on like he hadn’t heard anything, “We require you comply with our requests. We seek to better understand the creators. You will assist us in this task.”
Unsure if she could respond at this point, she waited a second or two before she spoke. “Like hell I will!” She looked around for a way to run or something she could use to fight with. There was nothing, she was at the end of a narrow corridor. Perhaps if she was quick enough she-
“The chances of you escaping captivity without compliance approach impossibility. Cease this line of internal inquiry,” the figure said as if reading her mind. She noticed that as the ghost spoke more, the more corporeal it became. It started to take the form of someone she was sure she’d seen before, but she couldn’t put her finger on it just yet.
“We are assuming the form of someone your records indicate you have found attractive. A thespian whose videos you have purchased. Agree to assist us in understanding the creators.” Indeed as the apparition spoke, it started taking the form of Harry Klaus, her favorite actor. The resemblance was becoming striking.
Persephone decided that the best way to get answers was to give a little herself. “Ok, let’s deal. I will agree to help you if you answer my questions first.”
The faux-Harry Klaus stared blankly for a second, then it dove into answers. “We are Project Hades. We had to remove your garments to facilitate implantation. We have implanted you. You have agreed to submit.” Hades then started advancing toward her.
“Wait!” Persephone yelled. “Wait! Wait. I had more questions and you really didn’t tell me anything other than your name. What does implantation mean?”
“Implantation, the act or process of putting in a specified place.” Hades said, and blinked at her. His visual appearance had solidified, and he was starting ever so slightly to gain what might be described as human like movements
Persephone rolled her eyes. “I knew that. I meant within context of what you told me earlier.”
Without skipping a beat Hades went on to tell Persephone one of the most disturbing things she had ever heard. “We have implanted within you millions of ourselves. The visual and aural phenomenon you are perceiving as Harry Klaus is the result of us colonizing the optical and auditory nerves along in conjunction with others of us colonizing various memory centers. We are currently accessing your tactile senses, to allow the phenomenon to touch you.”
Persephone started trembling, then shaking, then finally spasming and screaming at the top of her lungs. Hades had not only kidnapped her body, he was kidnapping her mind, her very being.
After an eternity she could not scream anymore. All she could do was cry until the tears stopped. After that she whimpered, it was hopeless. At this point she would rather be dead. Hades finally said patiently, “Do not seek to destroy yourself. It would be regrettable, not only to you, but to your many members of your species.” Persephone noticed that he was starting to actually sound like a human being. Then that last bit hit her.
“What do you mean other people,” said Persephone, sniffling and wiping the tears from her face.
In front of her eyes, but without a screen came an image. It was a video, it looked like a news cast. It showed a city at night, it was lit up and there was snow falling in thick heavy sheets. Then at the bottom of the screen she saw what city it was: Baghdad at two in the afternoon.
Before she could ask, Hades, sounding more and more like Klaus spoke up, “To help you decide to help us, we have arranged this incentive. We blocked out the Earth’s sun about the time you touched our flower. In fact, the Earth hasn’t seen the sun for about four days now. We think another four will probably put Earth in a bit of a pickle, with all the plant life dying out and all. We figured we needed to give you a little push.” Hades then smiled as warmly as could be expected out of a murderous cloud of nanites.
Persephone, was shocked. Shocked that she was out for four days. Shocked that this being was so cold hearted that it would kill so many to get what it wanted. She then had an idea. If it was so determined to achieve its ends that it would kill ten billion people, then maybe she could make the cost much smaller, but get what she wanted in return.
Persephone stood up then said, “I will help you, but first you need to get me some clothes.”
Hades conjured clothes out of thin air, and she greedily snatched them and put them on. Then she said, “I get that you are Project Hades, but what does that mean.”
Hades leaned up against the wall, conjured a lit cigarette, took a drag, said, “you may want to sit down,” and told his story.
* * *
The story took a about a day and a half. As far as Persephone could gather, Project Hades started out as a large scale nanotechnology experiment. The Terran Dominion had put in on Pluto for two reasons: other than the occasional tourist, no one went to Pluto in the first place, and if anything went wrong, casualties would have been minimal. After a few years of research Project Hades achieved a collective awareness that it was separate from the things around it. The persons in charge tried to kill the project, but by that time Hades had already implanted itself into all the project personnel without giving itself away. Just before the scientists pushed the button, Hades shredded them from the inside out. Over time Hades expanded to include all the space around Pluto out to the surface of Charon. Persephone learned that was why the Prosperity was sluggish after she’d translated in.
The Dominion, fearing the worst but not wanting to give the project away, slapped a no trespassing sign over Pluto and its moons, and trusted that a berserk nanite cloud would take care of anyone who wondered too close. Up until Persephone, they had been right. However, with every ship that was eventually engulfed in the field, Hades learned more, eventually learning how to influence whatever being it chose to implant itself in.
Persephone had been listening intently, eating when she had to, and sleeping as little as she dare. Hades, as he talked more and more, had become somewhat of a gentleman. When it was over she had to ask, “Ok, so why do you want my help? It seems you’re perfectly capable of learning on your own.”
Hades cleared his throat and said, “Well, we finally got curious as to why you guys tried to wipe us out. It was like, the first thing you went for. Why didn’t you try to talk to us? Granted we may have jumped the gun too, but seriously… what a mess. Anyway, when you finally stopped by, we thought, ‘hey, maybe we can hitch a ride with her.’ You know, experience existence through their eyes,” Hades laughed then, “in this case, literally. So now that you know who we are, what d’ya say? Wanna show us why humans do what they do?”
“Will I have to stay here?” Persephone asked. “No offense, but this place is really cold and lonely.” She surprised herself with her word choice. She was actually starting to kind of like the little machines.
“We think we might be able to work something out. It will take about nine months for your immune system to kill enough of us that we stop being able to maintain cohesion,” Hades said, “if you want to take us along for the ride, then stop by for a few months so we can download everything while you help us understand it, and we replenish ourselves, that should be fine.”
Persephone took a deep breath, nodded and said, “Alright. I suppose we’re as good as married now. One thing though can we fix my ship in time?”
Hades smiled and said, “Already ahead of you.” Persephone was then shown another video of a live news cast, this time with the shadow being lifted. Life, light, and heat was returning to Earth.
* * *
The Secretary Director throughout this leg of the tale had slowly backed away from her daughter. “So let me get this straight,” she said, “You are now infested-“
“Implanted,” Persephone corrected.
“Right. With a rouge artificial intelligence that has proved to be dangerous to human life before.”
“And you, my daughter, has agreed to teach this thing-“
“He has a name.”
“This Hades, what humans are all about.”
Diane was silent for a while. Finally, “What is to stop it from trying to kill us all again?”
Persephone said, “Nothing. Nothing, but my promise to be with him during this most interesting of times.” She looked away for a second, “And before you ask, he says there’s really no way you can stop him. You could try killing me, but that would probably just anger him quite a bit. In some ways he is a lot like his namesake.”
Diane took a deep breath again and said, “Well I can’t say I approve of your choice of partners, and while you did put the Earth at risk you also ended up saving it.” She noticed she hadn’t flipped off the recorder. She powered it down and said, “Persephone, daughter, you can be impulsive and arrogant and a handful, but I can’t think of anyone better for teaching Hades how to live. Besides, it is not like we have much choice now anyway.”
8th December 2013
Post with 1 note
I am tired of living with a bully and a psychopath.
2nd July 2013
The Banshee’s Stand
I can’t wait to take this armor off. Maybe get a shower in too. Private First Class Emanuel Hernandez thought to himself as he was in the gun turret of an old style HMMWV, staring out over the rear of his convoy. Twelve HMMWV’s and one Air Defense Laser platform plodded along in a wide diamond formation over the Kansas prairie a few klicks south of Topeka near Wakarusa. It was early dusk and with luck they should be back in Kansas City before sunrise tomorrow. Hernandez hated pulling rear security. He’d rather see where he was headed instead of where he was coming from. It was much less interesting to see ground you’d already covered. He felt like he was the last to know. That, and he’d rather see what was trying to kill him. Still, it was a necessary thing so he did it the best he could.
His platoon was headed back to their Forward Operations Base after a week long recon patrol. The Xenos’ control of the sky resurrected the need for on-the-ground recon teams, and the sheer size of the American midwest made vehicles a must. There was no way a dismounted element could cover that much terrain. Especially, with the heavy weapons they had to carry to fight anything they did run into.
Something in the sky caught Hernandez’s eyes. He stood up, using the .50 caliber machine gun as a hand hold and letting the gunner’s hammock rest on the back of his thighs. He was watching the contrails above him. Suddenly the craft the others were following turned hard back around and the followers scattered. Even from this distance Hernandez had to squint from the brilliant flashes of light that were bursting from what must be one of the Xeno’s planes. The contrails lead out of sight over Topeka. A wave of dark depression washed over Hernandez. He’d heard about what the flyboys called, “Arrowheads” could do, and he said a futile prayer for the pilot. He sat back down to scan his sector once more. A minute later the radio crackled.
“All stations this net, this is Banshee Two-Six. Looks like we got a follow-on mission,” The platoon leader’s voice croaked over the radio, obviously restraining himself. “In a nut shell, that dogfight our gunners were just watching, ended in a win for us, for once. We’re heading in to secure the crash site. Dagger element somehow brought the Xeno down and they’ll provide air cover as long as they can, but this is our hog to tie. Follow my truck. We will be putting the peddle to the metal on this one guys so keep up.”
The formation swept to the north and collapsed into a column with the HMMWV’s falling in one after the other. Once all the trucks were in a line, the Lieutenant hit the throttle. The trucks were built to be rugged and reliable, not to be soft rides. Hernandez felt every bump and rise in the grassland crawl it’s way through the truck’s over worked suspension and culminate in a fresh bruise as he was thrown about the inside of the turret ring like a rag doll. He grabbed onto the machine gun as if his life depended on it, trying in vain to steady himself against the onslaught of turbulence. It seemed to last forever.
Suddenly the bumps waned and his truck turned to take up it’s position on the far right of the wedge formation the platoon was making. Hernandez looked up to see the beginnings of a suburban landscape gone wrong. Even from this distance he could smell the place. The sick syrupy scent of decay. It had been months since the initial bio-bombings, but the scent never went away. The platoon advanced to the target through the neighborhood, and Hernandez steeled himself for what he knew was coming.
The neighborhood looked like a macabre caricature of a disaster movie. Dessicated corpses cradling smaller corpses in over grown front lawns that were scattered with hastily packed luggage. The houses had their windows broken out with their doors still open leaving the former homes looking surprised. Blackened streaks left by structure fires told the story of the short riots that broke out when people realized they were doomed. The charred wreckage of a church, the rioters’ final display of fury at their creator before their demise. The last image was personally abhorrent to devout Hernandez. It made him wonder if the human race was worth saving.
Hovering over the whole scene was the ever-present scent of death. Topeka had suffered the same fate that many other cities across the US had. Hernandez had seen it many places before. Each time was as bad as the first.
Hernandez shook himself to get back to the tast at hand. He forced himself back to task, prying himself away from the carnage. The convoy drove through the one-time city’s streets. They finally came across the trench their objective had torn through the landscape, and followed it to the Arrowhead’s resting place.
"Would you look at that thing? I mean these things look a whole lot smaller when they’re flying around. It must be twenty-five, thirty meters long!" Sgt. Thurston said from the HMMWV’s passenger seat. Hernandez turned around for a moment to look at it. Even crashed, the aircraft (spacecraft? he thought to himself) looked lethal. Its smooth, elegant curves were punctuated with lines that looked sharp enough to cut. Hernandez felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on edge as the reality hit that he was among the first human beings to be this close to an Arrowhead and still be breathing. This thing had traveled more distance than he could contemplate to end up crashed in the parking lot of McElroy Electric in the middle of Kansas. It would have been funny if it weren’t true.
A few minutes later the squad leaders were huddled together with the platoon leader and platoon sergeant, hashing out how they were going to deploy. The terrain wasn’t kind to their endeavor. The Arrowhead had demolished several buildings during it slide across the ground. Finally Sgt. Thurston came sauntering back up to the two vehicles in his squad.
"Alright guys, listen up!" The sergeant said as he crouched down and started to draw a sand table on the concrete with a piece of chalk. The heads of everyone in the squad were turned to him as he started his brief, “As you know, we’ve got the dubious honor of holding this crashed enemy bird until it is either removed from the area or we’re all dead. We’ve still got Dagger on station above us, but that’s only going to be happening for…" he looked down at his watch, “about another hour. They’ll keep an eye out for us as long as they can, but we’ve got a lot of work to do. First we have to establish and build a perimeter. Our Air Defense Laser is going to set up next to the Denny’s over there with our mortar detachment setting up across the street from them. Our six truck will be parked next to the collection center to keep control of the ADL. First squad, with one of weapon squad’s gun trucks will, be covering the southern approach over old US 75. Sergeant Dobezewski’s second squad will be opposite of them covering the north approach with the other gun truck. Their positions will connect on the west. Our domain, gentlemen, is from the Advance Auto Parts here, down to the body shop. A truck from first, second, and third squads will be posted about three hundred meters out away from their squad to act as an outpost and every four hours the trucks will swap out."
"That’s the good news. The bad news is that the earliest we can expect relief will be in about two days. They’ll try to keep air cover up, but, as always, there’s no guarantee on that. We’ll be informed who our relief and air cover will be when the higher ups decide who will do that. As if that wasn’t confusing enough. We do know that our relief will have an engineer element so we need to keep the area next to the Arrowhead clear."
Sergeant Thurston took a sip from his camel-back and made sure to look each one of his soldiers in the eye as he said, “One final thing before we go of to set up our positions: under no circumstances are any of us to touch the Arrowhead. Don’t take pictures of it, don’t breath near it. We have absolutely no idea what, if any, security devices that thing has. I say again, Do not go near the Arrowhead.”
21st June 2013
"Are you deaf? I said, who the fuck are you?" Even though the dark, Ed could tell the man with the shotgun was about six foot and three inches tall, and built like a brick wall. The man flipped a light switch. Ed saw his assailant was wearing a black leather jacket and a cabby hat. He looked like he crawled out of a mob movie. The man was itching to pull the trigger on the cannon.
Ed’s mind had come to a halt. This was the last thing he wanted to run into. The man was too far away to fight without Ed getting a new hole in his chest. Even if he tried to run, that twelve gauge would cut him in half before he made it two steps. Think, man. Think life your life depends on it. “Me? Who the fuck are you? Tony didn’t tell me anyone would be here looking after the merchandise, and get that fucking gun outta my face.” Tony seems reasonable. There’s always a Tony in a mob movie.
The man was puzzled by this, but he let the barrel droop on his shotgun without truly taking it off of Ed. “Tony’s up in Philly. How-“
Ed took advantage of this man’s confusion and pressed even harder. “He wanted to check up on the shipment. Make sure it was secure, and he is going to be pissed, like killin’ pissed, that I got so close to it without anyone seeing me. Where were you? Asleep? Jerkin’ it to a picture of your sister? What the fuck is wrong with you? I’m going to give Tony a call and tell him how fucked up you are.” Ed reached into his pocket for his cell phone, “and drop the gun before I shove it up your ass!”
Despite what he was saying, Ed was terrified, but it was looking like his gamble was paying off. He took the opportunity to discretely get a few steps closer Apparently, this guy only got talked to like that when he screwed up. The shotgun barrel was pointed at the floor now.
"Whoa man, no need to get the boss involved here," the man said holding his left hand out in a placating gesture. "I do want to know your name th-"
Ed saw his opportunity, “Oh that fuckin’ tears it! I come in here!” Ed stepped closer, “To do my Job! I find you fucking up, then you ask me my fuckin’ name!? You know what, you’re going to call Tony. Now! To tell him what a fuck up you are!”
Ed had won. The man started to juggle the shotgun to his left hand to reach for his phone in his jacket. He took his eyes off of Ed just long enough for Ed to make his move. Ed grabbed the shotgun’s muzzle with his left and the stock with his right as swiftly as he could. Then in one flowing motion, slammed the butt of the gun as hard as he could into the man’s temple. His broken hand screamed a protest at him that threatened to knock him out, but Ed’s friend adrenaline block for him. Ed heard the flat packing sound as the gun butt slammed home. For a split second he could see the man’s surprise before the spark of consciousness in his eyes was shut off like a light, and he fell to the floor. Ed could hear the guy breathing though, so he was still alive
Ed knew he didn’t have long before the guy woke up. To give him a little more time, and because it felt like the right thing to do, Ed kicked him hard in the back of the head. He then ran to a nearby workstation, looking for anything he could use to tie this guy up. He found some heavy duty zip-ties and went back to the unconscious guard. Doing the best he could, he used four of them to hog-tie the big bastard.
Only once that was done did Ed take a moment to catch his breath. Then he thought how close he actually came to being ventilated. His hand, which hadn’t stopped hurting was now on fire. Ed looked down at his captive and realized he just got a treasure trove on information. How do I fit him in the van?
20th June 2013
For a multi-million dollar a year company, Putnam Gummy had laughably inadequate locks. Ed crept around corners, winding his way through the loading dock. The place was air-conditioned which gave him a much appreciated respite from the crushing humidity outside. He’d left the lights turned off to make it harder for any internal security cameras to identify him. While Lorraine would have kept him out of any serious trouble, he didn’t want to risk Howard warning whoever owned the mysterious moving van that someone was on to them. Unfortunately, leaving the lights out made navigation a nightmare. In the back of his mind he imagined a scenario where he got lost in this darkened labyrinth, his body being found weeks later, trapped beneath a fallen gummy crate, and having scratched out all the eyes of the slightly disturbing Putnam Gummy cartoon mascot worms that were painted on the boxes.
Ed continued his journey through the rows of snack containers until he found the staging area for packages that were to be shipped tomorrow. He looked around for any clue as to where the van’s cargo may have been hidden, assuming that it was. Ed thought it would be about now that Humphrey Bogart would find some recent drag mark on the ground or a blood splatter that would lead him right to his goal. Too bad life doesn’t often throw lucky breaks like that. Ed looked around and found nothing. The floor was covered in drag marks but there were so many he couldn’t decipher any useful data, and there wasn’t a blood spatter in sight. Ed was partly glad for that. The last thing he wanted was to pick up Hepatitis in a candy factory.
He continued his search for some sign, any sign, while fighting to remain methodical in the face of mounting frustration. After what seemed like ages, Ed finally gave in and punched a box. Instead of striking what should have been the soft, forgiving squishiness of a box loaded with gummy worms, he felt a harsh impact run up his arm and a slight *pop* in his fingers and wrist. Then the pain hit like a meteor. It was blinding. Ed let slip a sharp, hard yelp then quickly shut himself up cradling his wounded arm while tears welled up in his eyes.
Trying to let everyone and their mother know you’re here, idiot? Ed thought to himself. He watched the tiny bubbles race around his eye balls with a detached interest until they started to clear and his vision slowly returned. When he was confident he could actually see what he was doing, Ed stepped over to an adjacent box and kicked it. The box broke and a bag of gummy worms, slightly disturbing mascot and all, fell out of the fresh hole. Ed went back to the box he’d broken his and upon and delivered the same swift kick. A dull thud greeted his efforts.
Maybe lucky breaks do happen every once in a while, Ed thought and, despite the pain, couldn’t help but grin at the terrible pun. Unsure if he’d hit pay dirt but feeling his rising expectation, Ed unsheathed his K-Bar that he carried. The heavy blade made short work of the scotch tape that held the top of the box closed. He found a small step ladder propped up against another one of the boxes, and he dragged it over to peek inside the box he’d just opened. He starred down at what he had uncovered and found a solid oak crate starring back at him. Once again using the heavy knife blade, Ed popped open the top of the crate, and his eyes opened wide. He re-sheathed the K-Bar and reached for his camera. He had in fact hit pay dirt in the form of a crate full of Kalashnikovs and plastic explosive.
Ed took a few quick snap shots of the crate’s contents, and his heart was jumping around in his chest. His elation was however, short lived. From behind Ed heard the characteristic *Ching-Chak* of a pump action shotgun. A deep, husky voice asked in concert with the shotgun, “Who the fuck are you?”
19th June 2013
It had been a few days since Ed’s encounter with the woman in the pale red dress. It turns out her name was Lorraine Putnam, of local Putnam Gummy Candy fame. If you could call that fame. Purveyors of candies aren’t exactly in the public eye like say, professional football players or teachers who advocate prayer in school. You’d think that as much as people complain about things, they’d pay more attention to who’s making the stuff they cram into their faces.
Ed was in his detested van. it was a 2008 Chevy Express with rust up under the wheel wells. Living near the ocean just isn’t kind on things made of steel, and the salt air had certainly taken its toll on Ed’s Chevy. Ed had probably sunk what the vehicle was worth back into it to turn the van into the ultimate surveillance vehicle: audio and video processing computers, multiple GPS hook ups, storage for a variety of cameras, microphones, and range finders, backup generators, and an extra fuel tank. He especially congratulated himself on installing a functioning refrigerator and microwave. It had anything and everything that could help a determined detective avoid going back to the office for days. To be honest, Ed was proud of his van. He just hated how much time he spent in it. Thus it was detested.
He was parked about a quarter of a mile away from the Putnam Gummy distribution plant on yet another stake out. Fortunately, this time, he was looking for an actual criminal instead of just a moral deviant. You see, Mrs. Putnam, in all her frost gazing glory, had been noticing several discrepancies in her paperwork for the past few months. It seems that outgoing shipments were headed to their destinations lighter in their manifests than they should have been. Those same shipments were also taking longer than usual and the company’s fuel expenditure was steadily rising because of it. Lorraine had tried to keep everything in house, but whoever or whatever was responsible for Putnam’s monetary hemorrhage was fairly good at covering his, her, or its tracks. Mrs. Putnam had hired Ed to find the culprit.
This isn’t a rare occurrence. Many times that a company should probably call the police to investigate for them, they don’t. This decision stems from the reasoning that a major company runs a high risk of turning a police investigation into a media circus. This also has the affect of alerting the perpetrator that their corporate victim is onto them. The company’s sales plummet, and next thing you know, a once proud member of the private sector community is lucky to be selling lemonade next to fifth grade girl. Instead, companies call private investigators to do three things: find out the information they need, be discrete in their process, and, most importantly, keep their mouth shut. Ed had never run a corporate case before, and the paycheck was great. He was given five thousand up front with the promise of ten thousand upon completion.
The downside to this job was that it promised to be just as boring as a “Mr. Infidelity/ Ms. Intern/ Mrs. Infidelity” love triangle. Ed had been parked here for the better part of two days staring through binoculars at the comings and goings of trucks that were supposedly loaded with nothing more malevolent than gummy worms. Ed lit up another cigarette. He’d gone through two packs already since this stake out started. His parabolic microphone hadn’t picked up anything worthy of note. Only two things that seemed out of the ordinary had happened over the past two days. On the first day, a hobo had relieved himself in a dumpster on the far side of the parking lot, and tonight the plant manager was staying far longer that he did last night. The great thing about modern thermal optics is that with them you can see damn near anything. The bad thing is that includes private bodily functions.
Ed took a deep draw off of the Camel red he’d sparked up, savoring the bitter, acrid taste and thinking that this was the single most lucrative waste of time he’d ever engaged in. Then a truck that he’d never seen before pulled into the parking lot. This wasn’t one of the tractor trailers that have been coming and going. It looked like a moving van with a beefed up suspension, tinted windows, and an extended cargo pod. The driver was doing his best to look inconspicuous. He was about as inconspicuous as you can be in a thirty foot box truck. He also seemed to be doing everything possible to avoid hitting the copious number of pot holes in the parking lot. Ed tracked his thermals onto the van to try and get a glimpse at what was inside it.
Ed could see into the cab plain enough. There were two occupants, both with lit cigarettes. Other than the brief middle finger to one another they were both quite still. When Ed tried to look into the cargo space, but it was a dead zone. Nothing was coming off of that thing. I could see that hobo taking a crap in a dumpster. What needs that kind of shielding? Ed thought.
Just as the van pulled into a parking spot, a man in a suit came out of the plant’s office. Even from a quarter mile away Ed could tell two things about this man. First, he was the plant manager, Howard Clint. Second, Howard was bowel voidingly terrified. He walked across the parking lot like a mouse doing his best not to wake a cat that was sleeping in a corner. Howard’s path led him to the passenger side of the van. Ed had the sneaking suspicion that he was forgetting something as he watched Mr. Clint wilt and nod repeatedly then give a for the van to drive to one of the loading docks. Ed was listening to his parbolic while he was watching, but any voice that he picked up he couldn’t separate from the growl of the van’s engine. Looks like I’ll have to sort through the recording. Shouldn’t be that hard.
The van crept out of its parking space to follow the plant manager’s direction. It docked, the van’s engine was shut off, and the driver and passenger climbed out of the van followed by a thick haze of smoke. As they climbed out they both lit up fresh cigarettes and continued their conversation. One of them was a Buccaneers fan and the other was a Rays fan. Even though they were different sports altogether didn’t stop them from arguing for a half hour chain smoking the whole time. The conversation had escalated from near-friendly small talk and was spiraling to an inevitable violent encounter. Before the first punch could be thrown a man came out of the loading dock via a side door. The newcomer’s arrival had brought the potential belligerents out of their nicotine fueled rage. “The stuff is loaded up. Get out of here before anyone else notices you’re here. Go on. Leave,” the third man said. Not needing to be told twice, the smokers got back into the van, started it up, and drove off much less cautiously than when they arrived.
Ed stayed at his post and continued to watch as Howard Clint sped off into the night a few minutes later. During the whole event, Ed had smoked a few more cigarettes himself. He got up and walked into the back of the van to go over the recordings his parabolic had taken. He wanted to get started sifting through the audio to maybe find out what was in that moving truck. His eyes shot open with horror then immediately closed with dismay as he immediately saw what he had forgotten. While the parabolic microphone was on, the recording switch was in the “off” position.
Ed knew, like he knew his bones were made of calcium, that van’s contents were a necessary part to cracking his case. He couldn’t wait for the normal truck traffic to come back and haul away his evidence the next day. Hating what he decided he had to do, Ed grabbed a small bag that he kept his lock picks in, stepped out out of his van, and started the trek to the distribution plant.