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The Shepherd's Household

The Shepherd’s Household

Shakespir Edition

Copyright 2017 by Ed Hurst

Copyright notice: People of honor need no copyright laws; they are only too happy to give credit where credit is due. Others will ignore copyright laws whenever they please. If you are of the latter, please note what Moses said about dishonorable behavior – “be sure your sin will find you out” (Numbers 32:23)

Permission is granted to copy, reproduce and distribute for non-commercial reasons, provided the book remains in its original form.

Cover image: Composite by Ed Hurst. Background – “Pipes for the Keystone Pipeline” by Shannon Patrick; used by permission under CC 2.0-Attribution; [+ source+]. Soldier silhouette is public domain. This cover image is available from the author under the same license as the background using this full paragraph.

[] Table of Contents

Prologue

Part 1: The Sniper

01

02

03

04

05

06

07

08

09

10

Part 2: The Fixer

11

12

13

14

15

16

17

18

19

20

21

Part 3: The Courier

22

23

24

25

26

27

28

29

30

31

Aftermath

[] Prologue

The young lad picked his way quietly along the narrow alley, stopping now and then to listen. The residents had fled the village long ago; mostly he was hearing the sound of the breeze whipping against the vacant structures. Near the end of the dirt track he paused again just back from the corner of the building. His ears could just barely catch the voices of men speaking a foreign language. Squatting down, he peered around the corner from under the bushes growing there and scanned the open area. On the far side of a small paved square was an old workshop of some kind.

The sign had been removed long ago, leaving a patch of different colored paint. There were some holes where lag bolts had held the sign to the concrete facing. From a somewhat larger hole, a single twisted tail of electrical wire poked through near the corner of the bare spot. The glass long gone, two windows stared out like empty eyes on either side of the front door. The ill-fitting garage doors farther along the face were clearly not the originals. Focusing his attention on this building, the boy believed the rather loud foreign voices came from there.

His hand shaking and sweaty, he reached inside the front of his tattered sweater. To overcome his fear, he pretended for just a moment to hate them with all his might. For just a few minutes the fire of hatred obscured the fearful image of his mother writhing in pain from torture. The rebel soldiers had attached bare wires to each of her ankles and made him watch as they sent a painful jolt through her body. She bit her lip to keep from crying out, but he had screamed for her.

The soldiers had trained him quite well, drilling repeatedly until he could do it with his eyes closed. The grenade inside his sweater was small, made for children’s hands, but a little heavy. It was a canister mounted atop a short stick handle. Drop or throw it and nothing happened. Press the trigger at the top of the handle and nothing happened. But press that trigger for three seconds, and then immediately throw it, and the device was armed. It would explode on impact. They warned him that if he didn’t protect himself, primarily by throwing it inside of an enclosed space where he couldn’t see it, then it would kill him, too. He couldn’t throw it far enough in the open to be safe.

He pushed aside all other thoughts and stepped forward from behind the bush. The open square was surrounded by taller buildings, making it oddly quiet with very little of the wind disturbing things. Glancing in every direction, he made sure he wasn’t seen. He got as close to the old garage as he dared and jerked out the grenade. He never got past cocking his arm back. Something in front of his face exploded and knocked him on his back.

He didn’t remember falling, and was only vaguely aware of hitting the pavement under him. Was he dead? Did the grenade go off prematurely? It was like trying to use his body from far away. He noticed the device was still in his hand. Presently he managed to let it go. There was an acrid smell of burnt synthetic fibers in his nostrils, and his eyes began to focus just enough to discern smoke arising from his body below his face.

Still somewhat stunned, his limbs were slow to respond. There was the sense that he was still trying to crawl back into himself from somewhere else. He hadn’t yet noticed any pain, but it was awfully warm on his chest in the cool fall weather. His hand slowly found it’s way to his side, and then crept up onto his torso. His sweater was mostly gone, and the shirt underneath had holes in it. Around the edges of these gaps the fabric was hot enough to sting his fingertips. Something had exploded in front of him and burned him, for his torso suddenly awakened in pain. Just trying to breathe hurt.

Tears ran down his dusty face and into the ears, but he was still too weak to move.

[]Part 1: The Sniper

[]01

For just a moment, Franklin rubbed his eyes, then continued scanning the village and surrounding terrain for any sign of movement. Had he been staring through the display on his rifle, it would have driven him nuts. Then again, it could have been worse. He was older now, but remembered all too well staring through the scope of that .30 caliber bolt-action rifle, waiting for a target.

Once more, he gave thanks for the new energy weapons. His was already old and battered, but still quite functional. It was sort of a cast-off, one of the last few of this early model still intact as the troops had turned them all in for newer versions that were less breakable.

Because of how the pulse rifles worked, the job of sniper was far, far easier now. No more windage and range; there was no leading a moving target calculating for time of flight. It was purely line of sight at the speed of light. If he could see it, he could hit it. No jolt from firing, either, so a light grip was enough. The scope was electronically enhanced, providing the same view day or night. All it took was steady hands, and he was fortunate at his age to still have them.

During daylight he kept it plugged into the solar panels to prevent running down the fuel cell. Next to Franklin was a target sensor, with a small stretchable wire linked to his rifle. The sensor had a downlink from tactical satellites and passing drones. It also had a built-in pulse shooter of its own, but that was even older technology than the rifle. The sensor could see almost anything out there, but nobody trusted it to know when to shoot or how to tune the pulse for different targets. Still, it made a good battle buddy because it could detect targets outside his view, though Franklin preferred gazing at his field of fire with naked eyes and didn’t miss much.

This time he caught it before the sensor did. Down across from the shop that the crawler team had occupied, there just a flicker of movement behind a bush. The village had been evacuated, so there wasn’t supposed to be any other people around. With virtually no wild animals and only a few birds, Franklin was inclined to believe this was human. Something inside of him had tingled this morning, warning there would be action, so he jolted to full awareness at the same moment the sensor sounded it’s barely audible alarm.

With only the smallest of movements, and no further noise, Franklin raised his rifle and sighted through scope. It was a human figure behind the bush. The distance was deceptive; was that an adult?

He saw the figure rise and step from behind the bush. He whispered to himself, “A kid?”

His scope eye kept watch on the boy. The sensor told him via the scope display that an explosive vest was unlikely and he breathed a sigh of relief, only to then be told the boy was hiding something inside his heavy outer shirt. Franklin groaned to think the boy had a grenade, but quickly reached his free hand around to dial down the aperture, and reduce both the duration and frequency on the rifle. No sense in killing if he could avoid it. The readout confirmed his shot would be non-fatal.

The lad had his hand inside the outer garment. As he got near the shop, he stopped and stood still for just a moment. Franklin aimed at the center of mass. Suddenly the lad jerked his hand out and cocked back to throw. Without hesitation, Franklin pulled the trigger.

There was a small explosion on the front of the boy’s chest as the pulse struck his clothing. The kid fell backward in a puff of smoke.

Disconnecting his rifle from the power and sensor feed hurriedly, Franklin reached over to switch the sensor to automatic fire. That was in case the boy was not alone. As he rose and descended the stairs from the rooftop of the building, his fingers double-checked to insure his “don’t shoot me” tag was attached and working so the sensor would ignore his presence in the field of fire. It would also still communicate with his rifle by an encrypted radio link from this distance.

One of the technicians came out of the shop and met Franklin on his way to where the boy was still lying, fingering the smoking remains of his clothing. The pulse had been very nearly the lowest setting. By reducing the diameter of the bolt and the power, it wouldn’t make such a big explosion. Reducing the frequency kept it from penetrating the boy’s clothing. Thus, the discharged pulse struck his sweater and scattered the outer surface molecules in a fireball with a rather low concussion.

Still, it had to hurt a lot and the boy was weeping. Franklin lifted him in his arms and tried to soothe him as best he could with a halting attempt to speak in the local language. I know it hurts, my son.

No, no, the boy was distraught. This pain is nothing. The soldiers will torture my mother!

Franklin took a moment to process that. He turned to the tech. “The boy says the rebels are torturing his mother. That’s probably how they forced him to try this stunt.”

They had seen these grenades before. The tech picked it up carefully and placed it inside the doorway of an empty building before rejoining them. Franklin was proud of his ability to pick up the language of the residents in these parts, but it took several minutes to get the whole story while he carried the boy inside the shop for first aid treatment of the burns on his chest. Eventually he worked out that the boy had followed the crawlers back around dawn, then waited awhile in a tiny house on the edge of the village. Having dozed off made him all the more scared that he was taking too long on his mission. He was supposed to find the crawler team and kill them with the grenade, and hopefully destroy some of their equipment.

Inside the shop, the tech hurriedly explained to the team chief. In response to some questions from the chief through Franklin, the boy replied that he had been told to look for the biggest building in the village, because the crawler team always took that for their operations. At that, the chief’s features sagged and his head turned to one side in a sort of “oh-crap” recognition that he failed on operational security. The rebels had discerned an established pattern in his team’s behavior, and it created a needless risk.

Someone found a somewhat too large shirt to replace the burned clothing. With further conversation during a meal they fed him, the boy explained that the rebels would be listening for the explosion, but that he also had to bring back something to prove he had done as ordered and get them to release his mother.

I have to bring back Crusader boots. He started weeping again.

The men looked down at their feet in unison. One of the few things the labor union was good for when they all signed their contracts was successfully demanding they be supplied with with standard military footwear. Everything was high-tech these days, and the boots were a lifesaver out here. Aside from being cushioned and nearly weightless, these low-cut boots could sense when the feet were wobbling on uneven surfaces. The soles, toecaps and heels grew almost hard as steel at such moments. Further, the area around the ankle stiffened, making the boot very solid and protecting the feet and ankles wonderfully.

And the rebels craved them, as well. But nobody on the team was eager to give theirs up, in part because they were accountable like weapons.

“Wait,” the chief stared upward at nothing in particular in obvious deep thought. Turning to one of the other technicians, he asked, “Didn’t we reclaim a stolen pair a couple of weeks ago? We had to go up into the hills after one the crawlers that got trapped in a pit. In the rubble of a structure was a rebel body with those boots, right?”

The other man replied, “Sure, but I’ve already turned them in.”

“Physically?” the chief pressed him.

“Well, no, not yet. I’ll do that when we meet with the supply truck for parts next week. But they have been accounted for, so we can’t just give them away.” The tech spread his hands, palm up for emphasis.

“We’re just loaning them out,” the chief replied. “Besides, if this works out, we’ll get ‘em back again.”

Franklin and the tech looked with interest at the chief. All of them were old military veterans, of course, but the chief had recently retired from the service and had seen combat right up until that point. Having reached a senior military rank that helped him land the job as crew chief on the crawler team, he clearly had a plan in mind.

[]02

While the rest of the crew got very busy with the equipment, the chief led Franklin and the boy to a desktop display screen.

For the lad, the technology was all new. Franklin first showed him a satellite view of their area, magnifying it until the buildings were distinct. Then he stroked the screen until the viewing angle was from the ground just outside the village where they sat. The boy’s eyes widened in wonder as he chattered too fast for Franklin to follow.

This is where we are, he told the lad. Where is your mother?

The boy touched the screen tentatively but quickly got the hang of it when Franklin demonstrated a couple more times. Spinning the display quickly up over a nearby ridge, the lad indicated a village perched just above the narrow wadi floor on the other side. It was too far from the pipeline project to get much attention. But it was a village hardly any larger than where they sat at the time. Where would the rebel soldiers hide?

Franklin asked a few more questions about where the soldiers were staying in the village. The boy pointed to a cluster of rocks jutting out of the side of the hill. They have a cave.

When Franklin relayed that to the chief, the other man clapped his hands. “So that’s why we couldn’t track them after their last attempt!” Turning to the crew behind him, “Joe! Have you got the trucks loaded up? We gotta get out of here!”

The specially built trucks were indeed ready to roll with the crawlers hidden inside the cargo boxes mounted on the frames. The garage doors were already open, and the trucks didn’t make too much noise. Compared against his memories, Franklin marveled afresh how recent technology had changed so very many things. The chief hastily folded the back cover over the front of the computer they had been using, picked it up and headed for the lead truck. Franklin took the lad with him and headed back to the building upon which his sniper nest stood.

With very little clue what he was seeing, the lad watched as Franklin collapsed the sensor into a box, then folded the large solar panels and placed them on top. He latched the hard plastic crate and reached up to pull on something hanging down from the semi-shading tarpaulin over their heads. Franklin fingered something on the end of the cord and the whole thing went limp, falling down on their heads. It seemed to shrink of it self into a rather small, thick fabric about the size of a small blanket. Folding it up neatly, the man stuffed it into a bag. Suddenly the previously shaded rooftop was bathed in ambient light from the thin overcast skies.

In just a few more minutes, Franklin had everything packed and stacked at the top of the stairs. He walked over to one edge and pointed below. Peering over the edge, the boy saw a Hummer hidden in a shaded spot between two buildings. Help me carry these things down there.

Descending the stairs, the boy put his load behind the armored Hummer just outside the entryway on the ground floor. Stepping out away from the buildings, he was surprised at how this thing was almost invisible behind the trees and shrubbery. He was still staring when Franklin came down the stairs with a load. Popping open the rear hatch, the man loaded what they had brought down. A couple more trips and they had the back of the vehicle packed and ready to roll.

From what the boy had told them, he pretty much had all day to deploy the grenade. The chief decided it was unlikely any of the rebels were actively watching from the ridgeline, since that would expose them to the various sensors deployed around this particular valley. However, they could have laid a surveillance device without being noticed; they were cheap and readily available. The trucks were already in convoy heading out of the village. Franklin escorted the lad back to the small square in front of the now empty shop. They retrieved the grenade from the open doorway on one side of the square. Franklin said a few more words while he led the boy behind a low wall facing the shop. He knelt down and had to boy throw the grenade into an open bay of the shop and they both ducked.

The detonation was more powerful than Franklin expected. It was likely the lad would have been hurt or killed had he succeeded on his first try. Peppered with concrete fragments and covered in dust, they were otherwise unharmed. Making their way back to the Hummer, Franklin sat the lad in the passenger seat, and then climbed into the driver’s side and cranked it up. He drove around the backside of the village to a different road from the trucks, barely discernible in the rugged terrain. The trucks were already rolling down the valley on the cratered gravel road that the locals referred to as a “highway” in their language.

Franklin steered the Hummer along the more tortuous track close up along the base of the ridge. Eventually they were just below a pass where a well-used goat path was visible zigzagging up the face of the rise. He let the boy out.

The boots were slung behind his neck, swinging under his arms on both sides. Franklin felt good that they had done as much as possible for the boy. He was on his own now.

03

Picking his way over the terrain, Franklin found the team farther along the broader valley. The chief had pointed out a sheltered pocket set into a bluff that the mapping software indicated was on a branch wadi. There was no chance of flooding this early in the fall, so they backed up on the hardened stone floor that was surrounded by high walls. The whole place had been repeatedly scoured clean over the centuries. The pocket was left from lighter material washing away to expose solid stone. It was essentially two massive boulders on either side that nearly met at the inflow point, which was a slit into which smaller boulders had rolled to create a nearly solid wall. It would be a waterfall dropping into a sheltered shallow pool during the wet season.

The larger trucks had room to park side by side and space left over. First the crews spread out the heavy weatherproof canvas tents built into the top of the cargo boxes. Each truck had its own high tech camouflage blanket like the ones Franklin had used back at the village. It was a smart material that would thin and stretch. The crew would pull it out by hand, tugging the edges into place to cover things. Then a small charge would be applied and it would firm up and hold itself in place. There was enough room between the trucks for the crawlers to unload and maneuver, and these camouflage sheets would join together and form one very large cover over the whole operation.

Franklin engaged in a similar task with his smaller rig hugging one wall out in front of the trucks, opposite from the small utility truck. By the time they stopped for dinner, the whole operation was virtually invisible from just outside the pocket. Over chow the chief was explaining his plan now that the boy was gone. Better that the lad not have to think about much more than just rescuing his mother. In essence, the crawlers would start their tour of duty that night by first visiting the village on the other side of the ridge. They were hoping that by nightfall the lad would have returned to ransom his mother with the boots and could get safely away from the cave. Then the crawlers would attack the cave, and perhaps collapse the thing.

Their mission had never been to simply kill the rebels; the new regime ruling this country was hoping to reconcile with at least some of them. The president wasn’t entirely a puppet, and had long served the previous government as loyal opposition. But sometimes the crawlers faced enough resistance that slaughter was about all that was left.

The crawlers were big and armored enough to withstand most small arms fire up to a direct hit from some of the grenades commonly used by the rebels. However, they couldn’t survive mortars or anything bigger. Each crawler bore it’s own heavy-duty pulse cannon that could open up just about anything but a tank. There was a designated overwatch crawler, bigger than the rest, equipped with missiles that worked against both tanks and aircraft. Yet the crawlers were no bigger than small compact cars, and with a lower profile. Given that the rebels seldom had anything more than battered lightly armored vehicles and trucks with heavy plating welded around it, the bigger beast seldom fired very many missiles. However, this mission might require it to unload into the cave. Franklin would have had to drive out and meet the crawlers and watch them work from a promontory outside the village.

[]04

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.

[]05

The woman exploded in the middle of the street. It wasn’t a boom, more like a loud pop, sort of muffled as if she had swallowed a half-stick of dynamite.

Pulse weapons were based on the principle of molecular disruption. How it was discovered remained a secret, as well as manufacturing details. Both materials and processes were tightly controlled by commercial monopoly. In essence, it was a burst of power that created a minuscule nuclear explosion from common materials, including live vegetation and flesh. It had a distinct frequency range that hindered affecting air molecules, but moisture and particulate matter in the air could leech off some of the pulse’s power before it reached the target. Thus, the weapons all required a certain amount of automated sensing for density of such things between the emitter and the target. It was also modulated so that the explosion itself released no significant amounts of gamma rays or dangerous particles. While it could burn up particulate matter in the air, it remained invisible to anyone except the shooter. It required a solid object of some minimal size, and simply caused things to explode on contact.

More than a combat firearm, it was a terror weapon. Needless to say it could be messy when used as sniper weapon, but that was partly intentional, since the grisly results served to persuade people to avoid the kind of behavior that made them a target. Snipers tuned their pulse rifles to enable killing one person without actually harming someone next to them, but the splatter was appalling.

Franklin was up on a bluff above the village and almost a kilometer away. This required attaching a peripheral display to the sensor device standing on a tripod just to his left. Naked eyes weren’t that much good at such distances, and normal optics distorted the perspective, spoiling depth perception.

He had asked the driver of their team’s small utility truck to park in such a way that it stood against a solid background preventing anyone approaching from the far side. The sensor collated data from other sources and displayed the scene with extra markers, just as you might see in a video game.

Franklin had learned to absorb the patterns of normal human traffic in an open marketplace like this one. Why the contract supply driver insisted on meeting here was likely nothing more than his own convenience, because it was bad OpSec. This is why Franklin had come out before dawn to set up his nest, so he could watch and construct in his mind a model of what was background for capturing anomalous behavior that marked threats.

It was approaching noon and traffic had picked up. There were old men strolling together or sitting at small tables sipping tea and smoking. Kids ran around playing their usual games. Women strolled along market stalls, most of them carrying baskets. Franklin had noted the village was close to a seasonal swamp that sported tall reeds perfect for making such baskets. His brain was organized to pull in such details.

So it was he spotted a woman who entered the marketplace with her basket already heavily weighing on her arm. All the other women had arrived with baskets clearly empty, often swinging gaily at the end of one arm. This woman with the heavy basket stopped here and there at booths and open tables, but didn’t buy anything, nor even haggle, just looking at the wares quietly. That was quite unusual to Franklin. He poked at the display and marked her for the sensor to follow. Then he kept an eye on others to see if there was anyone else seeming out of place; the woman might be part of a team.

The sensor beeped when the woman left the open market area and began walking toward the far end of the lane where the utility truck was parked. Franklin raised his rifle and watched closely. His eyes tracked the aiming point on the larger display he was using for this mission. The rebels had been moving away from using bomb vests because it was harder to get recruits these days. The bombs were more often hidden in common objects that the bomber could leave behind and make their getaway before detonation. The woman shifted her load to the hand on the same side as the truck. There was nothing else in that direction and she was almost the first human on foot that day to walk out of that side of the market. As soon as her path veered toward the truck, Franklin pulled the trigger.

Her basket hit the ground and rolled upside down. His sensor told him what he already knew, that she was not a walking vendor selling food or contraband. It looked for all the world like a homemade bomb. When people who noticed the explosion came to see what happened, some of them yelled, pointing at the thing that had rolled out of her basket. Most of them fled back until a couple of middle-aged men approached, probably local tribal enforcers. They would likely know how to handle it.

She hadn’t gotten all that close to the utility truck, but in the display Franklin saw the driver lean his head back, puff out his cheeks and blow through narrowed lips in relief that the bomber had been taken down. The two locals carefully moved the device onto a long piece of cloth they laid beside it, then they gently lifted the ends and folded the corner together, suspending it between them as they hauled it off outside the village toward an open area set in a depression. The woman’s remains took a lower priority. Franklin left it to them and kept watching to ensure there were no follow-on attempts.

It was only a half-conscious thought for him that most Western snipers would not have been as comfortable as he was having to kill a woman, much less to observe the effects of his weapon.

[]06

The driver of the utility truck had received his load from the larger supply truck and was making his way over the rough road back toward their camp. Franklin had time to watch for a while to ensure the truck got out into open territory before breaking down his nest. It didn’t take that long, but his aging body didn’t appreciate any attempts to hurry down from the bluff, nor to that longish hike down to the road with the load of equipment.

He set his gear in the back of the truck, but kept the pulse rifle in his hands. Climbing into the passenger side, he settled into the front seat. The driver was the chief’s second and senior technician, Joe. He was the only one on the team that insisted on clipping off the end of Franklin’s name.

“Frank, how do you do it? I know you aren’t like those snipers with no soul, the guys who kill for the fun of it. You’re friendly. You have a heart, like with that little boy the other day. How do you manage to shoot women and children without going nuts the way so many contract snipers do?”

Franklin didn’t interrupt his scanning of the terrain to say, “I don’t suffer much from Western social mythology.”

Joe grinned. “There you go again, sounding like a philosopher. I know you aren’t the average guy from back home, but you always seem to keep a lot of yourself back. I mean… You don’t hide your background. I know your wife left you and stuff like that, but even after three months of sleeping in the same space, I feel like I don’t even know you.”

Franklin glanced at him with a half-smile, then resumed his watchful scanning for threats as they trundled along the bad road, their bodies jolting now and then inside the cab of the truck. “I live in the same society as you do, and I understand it well, but I don’t belong to it.”

Joe craned to see over the hood of the truck some visual obstacle in the road, then sank back down and shook his head. He stopped, twisted in the seat and reversed the truck, and then turned back to take a different path forward. His face showed a genuine curiosity as he turned again and asked, “Where do you belong? Is it like another country or something?”

“Another world,” Franklin said absently.

Joe was silent for a moment. “You’ll have to explain what you mean by that.”

Franklin gave that half-grin again. “I’m part of a parallel society. It’s not based on geographical location, but internal orientation. We share an added component that affects everything we do, though it’s usually subtle. For us it holds the typical chaotic human nature together, provides an internal sense of order, and helps us make sense of this crazy world.”

“Sort of like a religion?” Joe offered. “I’ve seen you do stuff that looks like prayer rituals.”

“It includes religion, but the religion is an effect of, not the source of, the difference. My religion is my own personal thing, but it points back to something everyone in our society shares.” Franklin was never what anyone would call “animated,” but something in his demeanor seemed more relaxed, as if he were in total command of the situation.

Joe mulled that over for a while. Jokingly he said, “You make it sound like you and your friends have been taken over by aliens.” Then he added, “I’m educated enough to know you are referring to a different world view, but I wonder if you could sum it up before we get back to the camp.”

Franklin never seemed to lose track of the task at hand, scanning with his eyes. “Maybe I can get across the single key element,” he said, and then took a deep breath.

[]07

“In your mind, imagine a person, someone we all know and encounter every day. Most people pay little attention to this person who seems to speak a foreign language and seldom intrudes, just hanging around in the background. Most of us agree on what this person looks like, acts like and most other sensory data. However, it’s only natural that no two of us have exactly the same impression.”

Frankly glanced at Joe with a faint smile, then turned away to scan the terrain again. “But what if just a precious few of us humans bothered to get to know this person and learned to speak that other language? Our experience with that person would make a radical difference; we would actually have a relationship with that person.”

He let that sink in for a moment. “That person is reality, Joe. Reality is alive, has a unique character and will. It treats no two us exactly alike because no two of us are alike. When most of the world takes reality for granted, it creates a rather bland and lifeless impression with only minor differences from one person to the next. But those of who get up close and personal with reality find a vivid variation.”

After another pause, he went on. “You can’t rely on mere sensory data to tell you much about reality. And if you try to reason out what little you think you know, it will always be highly limited. When it comes time for something that demands reality to act, your sensory data and reasoning will fail. You will neither understand what they’ve done, nor will you understand what difference it makes. You may well decide nothing happened because you can’t process it. Until you get acquainted with the person, as a person, you have no idea what to expect and can’t interpret peculiar events. You may not even have any idea what that person actually does outside your active awareness. People don’t get to know each other by mere sensory data and reason. They share experiences and there is a depth that stands outside the intellect. Nor can you write it off as mere sentiment.”

Genuinely intrigued, Joe stopped the truck. “I get what your saying, but what do you call that other part of us where people become real to us?”

Franklin was ready for that. “You are familiar with the words: trust, loyalty, commitment. As long as you put them in the right context, you can say love and faith, but those words often come with too much false cultural baggage. It’s the same with the word ‘heart’ – our cultural image of that is just quasi-emotional but incomprehensible. In just about every other culture in history, especially the ones that once reigned in places like this damned place here, the heart was something entirely different. It was the seat of commitment and a higher form of moral awareness.”

As Joe started the truck moving forward again, Franklin added, “You can’t get to know reality until you accept it as a real person – a who, not an it. And you cannot rely on your senses and logic; there has to be that deep interpersonal connection. And it’s not just reality as all one thing, but every part of reality down to the smallest particle is a collection of persons, each with an individual will and intelligence. Every part of our reality knows us already, but we haven’t taken the time to get to know them. It’s not in our culture.”

A bit later, he added, “The society I belong to builds on that base, and we make every effort to know each other and the world around us on that level. It’s like living your whole life in sewers and discovering there’s a world of light above you. It’s blinding and even painful at first, totally unfamiliar, but once you’ve been there awhile and learn how to get around, you feel like life has just begun. More, you realize you never knew who you were, either. You have to get to know yourself as part of the massive living whole.”

Joe asked with a grin, “How does that help you deal with killing that woman back there?”

Franklin snorted. “The social mythology of chivalry belongs in the sewers. My commitment right now is you guys. Any threat to you is a threat to me. And you can bet the people in this country know about Western social mythology that includes chivalry. They take advantage of it all the time, sending women with bombs and kids with grenades. If a Western man kills them, it normally degrades him. Either he becomes a killing machine or he is tormented inside by the conflict. Until there is some higher moral purpose in dying, I’m going to take out every threat with whatever force seems appropriate. I could wish for a better world where nobody had to die, but I’m not in that world. I’m in this one, and folks who really want what makes for peace are few and far between. So that parallel society I belong to tries to make the most of a bad situation.”

The truck crested a rise and the camp came into view. Franklin added one last thought. “We know that the vast majority of the world remains blinded by false assumptions, and it’s not in our hands to change that. We can only change ourselves individually. We belong to the hidden reality nobody much seems to know. It’s the same reality, but we believe we see it far more clearly by getting to know it as a person.”

Joe had backed the truck in place. He turned to the sniper with an unspoken question still showing on his face. Franklin reached out his left hand and let rest on Joe’s arm. “The Coalition and corporations have decided to run this pipeline. The local people have decided to resist. I give both sides credit for being somewhat rational within their own context, and I offer them the respect due their actual authority to enforce their will. We cannot stop what they decide to do. I don’t waste time with envy at their power or anger at their choices for us. Only when their actions fall within our tiny little domain of free will can we apply our own leverage. I can’t keep the rebels from using women and children; it’s their choice to make them risk death. I’m committed to keeping you guys alive. All I can do is inject just a little sanity into the process. I’m doing that with all my heart.”

Joe’s face brightened just a bit as they got out of the truck.

[]08

For the first time since he took this job, Franklin was startled to realize he had almost dozed off. What had jolted him back to full awareness was the alarm on his sensor. It was loud, not simply because he had dared to turn the volume up, but because it was multiple alarms going off at once.

As he stared at the display analysis of the situation, a part of him was thinking the only reason he might have been drowsy at all was because he had been awakened after a mere half-night of sleep. He remembered a vivid dream where some figure had come into his tent and told him he needed to get up early. Then this person slapped him on the chest and Franklin had shot up on his cot coughing, knocking his water canteen onto the rock surface on which his tent stood behind the Hummer. He must have made quite a bit of noise, and scrambled to find the canteen. He was coughing because the air was painfully dry and it felt like the entire desert south of here had crawled into his mouth.

Having nearly drained the whole liter of water, Franklin decided to obey the figure who had ordered him awake. He really did believe in mystical stuff like that, but his response was entirely practical. Taking it as a clue, he loaded up some extra gear, including the small generator, extra gasoline and two extra fuel cells for the rifle and sensor.

This time he chose a different spot for his nest. It was just a small hump, but the whole area was a little higher than usual, placing him at a different angle to the camp. He took the time to make sure the camouflage cover blended into the hump, then he set up the extra display and elevated the satellite receiver as high as it would stand. Firing up the tiny, well-muffled generator, he cranked up the gain on the receiver to insure the sensor would pull in more data from farther out. The generator was mostly because it also meant the sensor had to work harder and run its own interior cooling fans. This whole set up was common back in the more populated areas, but was quite rare out here in the wilderness.

It wasn’t just the dream, but the whole way up he had the nagging sense that this was going to be a bad day. And it was. He had watched the crawlers return at dawn when the work crews began swarming the work site on the pipeline. It was an hour or so later – still early morning – when the alarms had sounded and the display showed unusual traffic from four different directions. He zoomed in on the closest first: a half-dozen mopeds coming up behind him from around a large hill. That many together was unusual, but not rare. And a couple of rifles meant nothing out here. While this group was in no particular hurry, being on a single-track goat trail, the sensor had worked out that each bike was two-up and each figure was apparently armed. Their rate of approach would put them in range in just a little over a half-hour.

From off to his left, another group of similar size was moving a bit faster on a better road, but they still had some distance to go. A third group was coming down the far slope directly in front of him, and it looked like they were about to meet up with some large vehicles coming up from the intervening side valley. The sensor said it looked like two technicals and an armored bomb rig gliding along the bottom of the wadi under some trees. Each group individually wasn’t such a big deal, but this was a company-sized unit coming down on a single crawler team.

Franklin slipped the headset over his stiff gray hair and pulled the boom mic into place. His wireless intercom should be just within range. To his surprise, someone responded immediately to his buzz. It was Joe.

Franklin’s tone was nonchalant. “Joe, how is that upgrade coming?”

“You know, Frank, I’m not a light sleeper but this morning you made some noise way before dawn and I got up. Couldn’t go back to sleep. So I got a head start and directed the crawlers to download that software upgrade on-the-fly from the satellite link instead of waiting for them to come back and feed it from the disk that courier brought. I even had it preloaded for installation because they all still showed green on reserve power. When they got here it was pretty quick to make them halt and install just sitting out in the staging area. They can reboot with their motors running. At any rate, I just got finished recalibrating when you buzzed. Is there something you need?”

“Joe, it looks like you’ll get to run them through the test firing immediately. We need the crawlers redeployed in defense; in about a half-hour a full company on mopeds, two technicals and a bomb rig will be close enough to hurt us.”

Franklin heard Joe swear before the radio link went dead. He chuckled as he set the sensor to fire on the group behind him as soon as possible. Its pulse gun was mounted inside a turntable that wrapped around the satellite dish mast on top. The turntable spun to face the rear. He watched the screen and saw where the crawlers came back online one at a time. They automatically moved forward and fanned out, seeking advantageous firing positions. From what he understood, the planned upgrade was supposed to make them better at optimizing fire and capacitor recharge timing, and an improved low-powered repeater that mimicked a machine-gun. Had Joe not gotten on the job before dawn, but waited and performed the upgrade by the book, the crawlers would not have been ready for another two or three hours yet.

The techs had only the older projectile assault rifles, so their direct contribution would come last. Franklin was watching and planned to hit the big vehicles from as far out as possible, before they were visible to the crawlers down in the pocket. He noticed the technicals and bikes had learned a new trick. Taking advantage of the exceedingly dry conditions, they were kicking up a huge dust wake that made the bomb rig invisible to energy weapons. Worse, according to the sensor, the driver of the bomb rig must have been prone inside the vehicle, because the whole thing was just about waist high, and with a good ground clearance, at that. Since the mopeds were in front of the technicals, he would have to pick them off one by one. Fine; each one would be a very messy detonation. Pulse fire hitting metal made a much fiercer explosion than striking flesh.

Apparently the crawler upgrade was worth the trouble. They picked off all the other riders before Franklin managed to get the ones only he could see. Those coming up from his rear had been fully exposed to the sensor’s fire because their path didn’t offer much loose dust. They all went up in smoke and flames, but the technicals managed to dodge the small craters that appeared in front them. His sensor kept track of everything and coordinated with the crawlers. Thus, the overwatch crawler fired off three missiles en defilade at the bigger vehicles and the whole battle was over. Franklin kept his eyes on the scanner for a few minutes, then radioed back that the fields of fire were now clear.

By this time the stronger radio traffic between the sensor and crawlers had gotten the attention of a couple of military choppers. They did a close flyover and hovered near the wreckage and remains of the attackers. The only thing Franklin hadn’t brought to his nest was a tactical radio, but apparently the chief got some feedback that he shared on the low powered wireless intercom link with Franklin.

“The chopper pilots told me it looked like they had matching brand new AKs, not the ratty stuff we usually see,” the chief said. “The technicals, similar with new 14.5s. The low-slung VBIED really surprised them; it had exploded like a flower, leaving some of the armored shell draped over the frame. Somehow the frame and part of the drive-train was still intact, like it had been loaded with shaped charges pointing laterally. Those weren’t your garden variety rebels.”

If that’s true, Franklin thought to himself, then the real trouble has just started.

[]09

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, and 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.

[]10

They should have moved the camp, but all the roads were blocked by troops keeping a perimeter around the craters left by the fighting. But then, the troops meant Franklin could take a break, too.

He was sitting at a small folding table under the big tent with his netbook. Ostensibly it was because he was involved in some kind of role-playing game with other players. However, this game was more turn-based instead of running full time online; there was no advantage offered to obsessive players who stayed connected. Instead, the participants incrementally updated the game as each interacted with the game offline, and then uploaded their actions in the form of a compressed data file. Franklin had told the curious team members that it wasn’t much on simulated combat, but heavy on adventurous quests.

He didn’t mind when anyone watched, so when Joe sidled up with a folding chair and sat next to him, Franklin turned to glance at him with a faint half-smile.

“Can you take a moment to tell me a little more about your parallel society?” Joe had obviously been thinking hard about their last conversation in the cab of the truck.

Without turning from his game, Franklin answered in quiet tones. “It’s not an organization in any conventional sense. More like a family. There’s no name for it, but there are clusters associated with some major players. Some are elders, and I stick with one in particular. He calls his part of the family ‘The Shepherd’s Household.’ Most of us call ourselves the Shepherd Family.”

“Okay, so it’s not like his name,” Joe guessed.

“Nah. It’s a role, the quintessential image of mature adulthood in our society.”

“How did this whole thing get started? How do folks join?” Joe was deeply curious.

“Well, the official answer is that it never did start. Whatever it is that gives us our shared identity is as old as the human race. But in recent centuries the distribution of such folks really thinned out. Where whole nations and civilizations had this outlook in ancient times, it almost disappeared when Western Civilization came to dominate. Some years back a few folks bumped into each other on the Internet and their shared outlook became a sort of self-conscious identity. Once they started writing about it, other folks recognized themselves in the discussion. They were still geographically scattered, but began to constitute a virtual miniature civilization, a parallel society.” Franklin glanced up with that faint smile again.

“So you don’t join it, you just decide to hang out with folks who think alike.”

Franklin released a single puff of laughter through his nose. “You got it. I can give you a link to the website where I connect to the Shepherd Family. If that doesn’t seem like home to you, there are links to other elders and websites.” He scribbled something on a small notepad next to him, then passed it Joe and resumed his game.

Joe took the piece of paper. “What’s this? It doesn’t look like a URL to me.”

Franklin responded almost absently. “It’s an IP address; my elder controls the whole server there. It will give you a large menu of links. There’s a library, chat forum, a couple of old timey blogs, and some other stuff. There’s even some games like this one,” he said pointing to his netbook screen.

“Is that where you got that game?” Joe was almost laughing.

“Yep. But I’ll let you figure out what the connection is.” Franklin seemed to get more involved in the game and Joe took the hint. He stood and picked up his chair, walking away with his eyes on the slip of paper.

What Franklin kept to himself at this point was that the game was just another way for members of the virtual family to chat with each other. The conversations were couched in terms of the simulated adventures, which was a key to understanding their world. They insisted that the real truth of reality didn’t yield itself to objective and concrete descriptions. Rather, it could only be indicated and explored internally. It was beyond words and rational thought; it was all about a personal and living moral force. So the game chatter conveyed far more than a casual viewer could guess.

There was no real intent to keep secrets, but mere privacy. However, when something truly private between two individuals arose, the game offered an option. To the casual observer, the simulated characters all reported to some branch office where at least one person was always sitting at a keyboard in front of an ancient style computer console. When they checked in, their character name was displayed on the screen in line of sight. If the name was followed by a few lines of status data, followed by a block of numerical codes, it was about the game play. If there were no status lines, only codes, then it was a private message that was keyed to a code on the player’s own real-world computer. The player could trigger a decryption and the message would be a pop-over displaying on the screen in front of the game.

When Franklin noticed he had such a message, that was when he subtly asked Joe to give him some privacy. The message wasn’t too alarming, but it was important.

Franklin knew that his virtual family was all over the place, but never expected something like this. Somebody knew he was nearly killed today, so that meant he had family in a position to know and offer help figuring out the puzzle. He couldn’t think of a reason to say “no.”

He saved his game, then moved his character up to the computer console and triggered the option to type on it inside the virtual world. He first selected the option to use an electronic one-time pad. It meant using a restricted vocabulary keyed to the codes that were randomized, but matched to another “pad” on the other end. Franklin had only ever used it once before back when he was getting help with his divorce. He decided to rely on the laborious process of picking one word at a time from the vocabulary list displayed in a pop-up. This kept him involved for quite a while, and he realized the rest of the team had retired for the night. Finally he saved the message, and then saved and closed the game. He took a moment to upload his game file before he quietly slipped off to his own tent for the night.

[]Part 2: The Fixer

[]11

Just a few more seconds and Ned would have it.

You wouldn’t likely have noticed him, sitting in a chair with his ticket curled out from between two fingers of his right hand. The people at the desk were taking numbers to process requests. Someone farther down was taking money in various forms and handing over fat wads of cheap paper. Most of the supplicants were attorneys in various versions of business attire, a few were reporters; everyone else seemed to represent a wide range of personal and academic interests. So this man appeared to be among that latter diverse group – an older guy, scruffy with gray hair and beard, and a jacket that stank.

He held a magazine in his hands, but if you looked closely you could see a tablet computer was inside the open journal near the bottom. Out of the corner of one eye Ned had been watching the rotund security guard, who normally sat near the last station where money changed hands. The guard rose and approached the corner of the counter at the far end from where he sat, drawn by a minor commotion among the workers at the ancient computer terminals along the back wall. They were talking and pointing at their screens. Eventually someone came around the corner from a back office. A little more chatter and this woman left, returning shortly with a device in her hands.

Ned recognized the device: Essentially a “bug” finder. It could pickup low powered transmissions across a very wide range of frequencies. A device like that would be run periodically so it would learn to ignore the ambient signals already coming from the office equipment. She watched the thing as she turned around and faced out over the counter. She looked up and said something to one of the people near her, who then came over to the counter and spoke to the guard.

He looked a little concerned, then turned and began scanning the supplicants sitting in chairs and on benches lining the walls of what amounted to a wide hallway. Ned slid his right foot up under his chair. The nearest exit was the stairwell door on his left. The display on his tablet indicate it was just seconds from completion of its task. He secured the grip of his left hand on the tablet as the magazine started to sag in his right. Just as the countdown hit zero, the guard yelled from just a few feet away.

“Hey, you!” His fat finger pointed directly at Ned.

Ned never looked up. It was all one fluid motion, and people who were actually looking at him didn’t even catch everything. Lurching upright on the right leg already under him, the other foot was planted off to his left at an angle. His right hand flung the magazine straight into the guard’s face. Despite the blinding distraction, the burly fellow lunged forward and grabbed Ned’s jacket. The rotten fabric ripped in his hand and Ned was already yanking open the stairwell door. Passing through the narrow minimum opening to admit his body, Ned jerked hard on the other side. The valve in the ancient door closer surrendered the door slammed shut behind him. By the time his foot hit the first step on the right side, he had flung off the remains of the jacket down the stairs on the left.

In steps entirely too quiet for someone sprinting, Ned flew up the stairs and was out of sight before the guard could wrestle open the door again. His radio squawked as he entered the stairwell and he spotted the jacket on the down side. Without really paying much attention, he loudly trod down the stairs and lifted the rag to compare with the fragment in his hand. “Hah! Gotcha. There ain’t no exit from this stairwell.”

He stood and listened a moment, then turned and clambered slowly back up to the landing, turning his face upward to the faint sound of patter from Ned’s flying feet. He snatched up his radio, pressed the key and barked into it, “Stairwell three, sounds like he’s climbing.” A few seconds later, a somewhat younger and fitter guard burst through the door and took off up the stairs. The older guard followed at a more leisurely pace.

Ned knew none of this, but thanked God for all the years he had invested in just this very form of exercise. It was his favorite and he had done it obsessively in his youth. Whether up or down, he had never met anyone who could catch him. His pace barely slowed as he reached the top floor after twelve flights of stairs. He had even managed to slip the tablet under his shirt into a pocked built into the thin mesh vest clinging to his skin. It was a long pouch with a zipper opening vertically along the front. Stowing the tablet inside this, he zipped it down as his hand came out. He could hear the pounding pursuit still far below.

From a pants pocket, he pulled out a small device with a long wire snout protruding from a fat rectangular box smaller than his palm. He inserted the wire into the lock on the door in the dark alcove at the there atop the last flight of stairs. His thumb pressed a button, then slid a toggle switch. The device was silent, but the lock was not, clicking loudly when the electronic pick had done the job. He twisted it quickly, and then yanked it out. Thrusting it back into his pocket, Ned turned the stiff knob and slipped through the door, resetting the lock as he closed it behind him. It was designed to keep people in, not out.

The roof was covered in loose gravel. Without pausing, Ned changed to a stride that was more like cross-country skiing, keeping his feet close to the surface. This allowed him to gain what little traction was possible and prevented him losing his footing on the forward plant. At the far corner of the ledge, he spun partway and dropped over the side. His hands caught the upturned edge of the roof, allowing him to reach around the overhang and grab a large pipe attached to the wall. Ned had noticed it when casing the building; it turned out to be PVC and pretty solidly clamped to the wall. Although the rubberized coating on his palms kept him from sliding down the pipe, he didn’t regret painting the stuff on. He took advantage of the firmness of the pipe, braced the soles of his feet on the surface and walked himself quickly down some three floors to another small section of roof atop an extended portion of the main building.

He was luckier this time, because there was a long section of the roof that had been raised due to repairs and it was bare of gravel. He stood just a moment, took three deep and calming breaths, then sprinted along the strip. Launching himself across the narrow alley far below, he landed just on the edge of the roof another story below. There was a parapet around this one. In a dive, his hands just caught the edge and he yanked his body toward it, rolling to his right side to protect the tablet snuggled against his ribcage on the left. It was ruggedized, but not impervious to impact. He rolled neatly to his feet again.

From here it was matter of vaulting across a series of connected shorter buildings, dropping a story or two with each transition using various fixtures. He ended up on a series of fire escapes, dropping smartly from one to the next using the outside railing of each. He enjoyed working out with the Parkour guys in the park, but wasn’t interested in the visually showy stuff, just the skills for moving quickly and confidently through obstacles. The last drop left him in a dead pocket alley. Around the corner was a foul-smelling dumpster used by a restaurant.

He crept up behind this huge bin. Reaching back to the base of his skull, he peeled off the grey wig and tossed it in with the stinking trash. Cheaply bought at a thrift store, he wouldn’t miss it. With his other hand he rubbed off the dabs of rubber cement that had held it in place. His other hand joined the rubbing routine on his face, removing the fake whiskers, heavy eyebrows and a few other bits and pieces. What was left was a fairly young Native American visage, incapable of growing whiskers. He jerked off his loose-fitting dark gray short-sleeved t-shirt, snapping it from the sleeves. This reversed the shirt and yanked out long sleeves at the same time. His sweating torso shivered in the cool autumn air and he hurried to put it back on, now bright red. In turn with each sleeve, he pinched and twisted the edge, then rolled it up, creating a cuff that held the billowing sleeves tight to his wrists.

Coming around the dumpster, he joined himself to the pedestrian traffic and disappeared.

[]12

It was just a few blocks home.

As he walked, Ned went back over the whole operation in his mind. The state was forced by class action lawsuit to make available a collection of old databases. The one that interested Ned was the forensic investigation files from white collar crime cases. It was part of a larger collection of case files. They were segregated internally, but all part of the same database. The state handed off the actual work to a contractor with a couple of state employees overseeing the operation. People would have to show up at this understaffed operation in one of the old office towers where the aging computers were still housed, and present whatever justification they had for one or more cases. The bureaucracy would decide what to release and charge for a primitive paper printout.

Ned had no intention of submitting to the painfully intrusive queries of the government and call attention to himself for just one record, when he actually wanted the whole database. In modern terms, it wasn’t that large, but there was simply no way to persuade the state to let him copy the whole thing. That wasn’t part of the settlement in the first place.

But he knew that if he could get close enough to some of the terminals, he just might be able to pirate the whole thing using a new proximity field technology scanner. Ned was by no means a hacker, just a serious technology user. He did poke around computer hacking in school, but decided it wasn’t his forte. Instead, he befriended the kids who were quite talented, and worked to support their exploration in other ways. One of those ways was using the kind of physical talents that got him out of that office building without capture. He would sneak into places that had things those kids wanted for their work.

While there was a turnover in those friendships, by early adulthood Ned was still actively supporting a group of hackers working on peculiar projects of interest. One of those projects was that electronic lock pick. But the real crown jewels was an alternative AI project. Despite all the big technology corporate and government hubbub about how AI could challenge humans, Ned’s friends never believed it. They were content with AI just doing more of what computers had always done: process data. The AI angle was to process it better and on much bigger scales. One of the yields from this project was using AI to write its own software, to reprogram itself after surveying existing software. Ned never had to be a hacker because he could tap into their AI to write the stuff he needed.

In return, Ned used his connections through his employer to get them hardware and server space. And not just existing computer hardware; Ned’s employer had access to industrial 3D printers that could construct custom computer components to order. These days, just about everything was “system on a chip” as more was crammed into the CPU. Using his friends’ expertise and his boss’s manufacturing lab, Ned had his tablet built to facilitate such things as his electronic burglary of the crime database today. He didn’t simply copy data from their machines, but transferred it through his tablet and uploaded it via the ubiquitous municipal wifi back to his server. The only problem was that his tablet was pulling so hard that it slowed all the machines in that office. It was just his bad luck that one of the state employees was a cop who knew how to use that bug scanner. It wouldn’t pinpoint him, but told her there was a data draw over radio link from very nearby. She guessed correctly that whomever was doing that would be holding an electronic device that was visible.

Ned was hoping after his escape that it would appear to be a mere nuisance, not a wholesale plunder. Otherwise they might keep looking into the incident. Interference was one thing, but the technology he used to pull from those old computers, so far as he knew, was otherwise totally unknown to anyone outside his boss’s lab, where it was developed. Ned never told his friends all that the chip could do, and they didn’t ask. It was their unspoken code of friendship. Besides, they could have worked it out if they wanted. But Ned was also a friend to one of the researchers at the lab who allowed Ned to test implementations of ideas like this.

As the researcher explained it, everything in the universe was constantly bouncing and emitting particles and energy waves. From a close proximity in particular, it was possible to read the signature of such emissions passively. That included electrons moving in wires, human DNA signatures, the presence of a void behind stone or steel, etc. All it needed was a tuned sensor and enough AI to interpret the data. Ned’s friends supplied the AI; the lab provided the hardware. Between the two, with Ned acting somewhat as a firewall, he was permitted to field test a chip that worked from a few meters away reading the activity of those old computers.

This allowed him to find out how to work through wifi to slip into the state’s internal network without facing their firewall against outside connections. Then he could emulate a signal that the old servers received as actual commands from a master terminal. Ned had ordered the system to dump the entire white-collar crime database through his tablet, onto the Internet via the external wifi and down to his servers at the building where he lived. It had taken two days of hanging around the office in different disguises, each time analyzing and tuning the procedure. It took only a half-hour that morning to get the data, but at the cost of annoying the employees with his hogging the system resources.

But it was his boss who wanted the data. Not that Ned had no use of his own for it, but he would have done almost anything for his boss.

[][]13

Ned’s employer was a senate staffer.

Most people called him Tim, but his name was Tymek. His parents saddled him with the traditional Polish variant of Timothy in honor of his grandfather. Tim’s family had been involved in banking and finance. Before the credit crisis, Tim had followed in that tradition, amassing a substantial fortune, though hardly anything like the bigshots. Some of those bigshots lost everything in the credit collapse, and only those who actually ran the system kept their obscene wealth.

Tim escaped with his more modest accounts almost by accident. The craziness during the days leading up to the crisis found him questioning his own purpose in life. In the process of his soul searching, he ran across a virtual community called the Shepherd’s Household. While he never really became that close as a family member, he did absorb the radically different approach to moral questions. Oddly enough, instead of working in finance, he felt he should be working in government. He was especially intrigued with uncovering fraud, and knew plenty about it from his wheeling and dealing in credit and currency swaps. So he just pulled all of his accounts one day and called someone he knew working in government oversight. He parlayed some insider information for a job helping to expose even more. One thing led to another and he ended up as an investigator for the committee that oversaw banking and finance; Tim specialized in keeping an eye on government contracts.

It was through the virtual family that he met Ned. It began mostly with Ned offering to serve as a personal fitness coach. Ned’s hobbies supporting the hackers taught him the value of superior physical fitness and agility. It was all his other talents at snooping that made him even more valuable to Tim. So Tim hired Ned full time as his personal assistant, paying him out of his investment income when he moved all his accounts into various business that seemed to have a future in the chaotic political and economic climate.

Ned had learned to trust Tim and welcomed him as a member of the family. Ned’s own history with the Shepherd family was quite different than most. He was the only one they had who joined early in life. For Ned, it was the best way to combine his Iroquois heritage with modern Western existence. His parents were quite active in keeping alive their native traditions. For Ned, the beliefs of the Shepherd family were substantially consistent with Iroquois mythology. It was the same basic approach in dealing with reality. It also helped him quell the apparent conflict between what the Western world seemed to demand and his burning sense that it was filled with lies and injustice. His grades were high, but it seemed to him the school system was determined to crush his creativity and sense of what was truly just. As an avid Internet user, he had stumbled across the Shepherd’s Household through gaming.

Ned eventually came to terms with the obvious conflict between the burning sense of morals in his heart and the world in which he lived. He became far wiser about not provoking people in authority, but routing around them when possible. His native intelligence led him to understand how to game people without violating his own conscience. And he learned all of this before he graduated public school, largely because he sought the counsel of Shepherd folks who had all been through the same stuff, and encouraged him to stay at it.

Both Ned and Tim shared the same passion for justice, with the sober reality of just how much and what kind of justice was possible in the current political context. It was a friendly conspiracy to infiltrate the system to answer their sense of calling. The bond was rather like an uncle and his favorite nephew, along with genuine friendship, keeping each other sane.

So Ned was coming home to a building his boss owned, to a free apartment in the basement, next door to the computer server room that Ned maintained with the help of his self-programming AI to provide networking for the numerous client businesses leasing space upstairs. This provided Ned with a maintenance badge to come and go at will. There were eight different entrances. Three were guarded and easily found; two more required access codes. The other three were a simple matter of accessing some other secured area with internal passages. Ned’s badge got him into far more than just this one building, and he used all of the different paths regularly.

Today he come in to find the computers next door already churning through the data he had pulled from the state’s old system. Through Tim, Ned already had access to the federal criminal data, but it was sanitized by security agencies. While Ned had often been able to work past those roadblocks, it was dicey and had to be targeted. This state data dump’s primary value to Tim was linking names to businesses and criminal deals that were never prosecuted for whatever reason. An awful lot of federal contracts were handled by the same people who made money from state contracts. It was a priceless history of underworld dealings far into the past. For Ned, it was priceless in terms of patterns of human behavior. He was looking for anything that helped him project future criminal dealing based on how they thought and acted, and casting that against a different technological background. This was his own long-term personal project, in that both he and Tim were also protecting their virtual family. They were always keeping an eye on trends that might present a threat.

[]14

In Tim’s line of work, a few good successes brought trust and access that ensured continued success. Granted, he was handed inquiries from the committee, but usually he knew about them long before through private comments and off-the-record guidance. Lots of business was done that way, all the way up the chain to the Coalition and trans-national corporations that did business with the government. Tim wasn’t even awake when he was notified of a very strange attack on one of the military contract teams in the Middle East. He met Ned for their morning workout just a short time later and mentioned it.

For Ned, it rang a bell in his soul. He delayed the start of his own workout and grabbed his tablet. It came with a folding keyboard that worked with the built-in field sensor. If authorities ever seized the tablet, it would offer no options other than standard commercial tablets did. However, the tablet knew Ned’s DNA fingerprint and recognized the keyboard, offering a whole range of possibilities that matched a lot of much larger desktop computers, and some that simply weren’t matched anywhere. Ned typed in the outline of the story and pertinent details. The tablet conferred with the AI system in Ned’s basement computer office. Before Ned could get past his warm-up, the tablet let out a warning signal. He came over to check; AI reported that a member of the virtual family was involved.

The reference was via the Shepherd family role-playing games, based on satellite matching of the IP address. Ned really didn’t play that often any more, but ran an AI simulation that kept on eye on things. So he directed it to send a message to their family member, someone he had never met, even in virtual terms. Then he chuckled, because AI reported that it had anticipated his wishes and done so as soon as it picked up the traffic from the secure network link. Thus, Ned was able to confirm to Tim a lot more than he had first heard from his leaker.

This was the first time Ned had gotten that kind of response. He decided his workout was already ruined for the morning and spent more time querying the AI. His hacker friends had assured him it would never outright disobey, so he wasn’t worried about that. And he had already made a few attempts to get the AI to anticipate his queries on some things, but this was the first time it sent a message on his behalf. And it was appropriate. Even better, the AI had taken advantage of the timezone difference and had ensured the family member on the other end got the message quickly, so he wouldn’t have to wait for Ned or Tim to respond in real time.

Finally, it was now showing the first-hand report sent from a Franklin, who worked as a sniper on a crawler security team. Ned wasn’t too sure AI could understand the kind of moral view the virtual family had about reality, but it clearly understood what mattered to Ned and Tim. It was treating Franklin as a highly trusted VIP source, whereas it usually handled such things with algorithms that offered varying degrees of probability.

It had all taken only about fifteen minutes and Ned decided to let Tim know what his AI had found.

First was a better summary of the attack and how it differed from previous rebel tactics. The satellite history indicated that the attackers had been moving into place over several days, one piece at a time. The tree-covered wadi had seen quite a bit of traffic: first some people with a small tent, then a small truck with crates. Later the two new pick-ups came over two nights. Another truck came with a welder. Then another came with some truck parts. The welder stayed a few days, then left. A few more loads came as trucks stopped only briefly, then drove on out the other end of the wadi. For two days it was quiet there while random mopeds kept coming spaced a few hours apart in other locations around the area.

There were more small truckloads to each of the four marshaling areas. Once the attack started, it was the satellite alone that had noticed the mortar firing from the place where the mopeds rolled out behind Franklin’s sniper nest, but dropping the mortars on his previous nest. That data was delayed for some reason, and only showed up in a subsequent query.

Finally, AI confirmed that the disk image that had been delivered to the camp the day before the attack contained code that would have bricked the crawlers entirely. It was this that seemed most threatening to everyone. While speculation was rife, AI suggested it was all an inside job. Pulling together all the pertinent fallout, it announced that the attempted bomb attack a few days prior – where Franklin shot the woman approaching the team’s utility truck – was part of this whole game. Thus, AI suggested that the parts driver had chosen the village as the exchange point to set up the senior technician. Further, the parts delivery driver had received a sudden boost in income without a change in salary. His supervisor was also spending more than he made on the contract.

Tim turned to look at Ned. “Why in the hell would someone on contract make common cause with the rebels? Where did the rebels get that kind of money, both the bribes and all those expensive arms, and then to have gotten their hands on the software upgrade and rewrite it? It’s making my head spin.”

Ned typed in another query. The answer came in stages, probably to show how AI arrived at it. The state forensic database had offered hints to the type of crime: Someone on the inside was skimming on the contract. To increase their take, they tried to make the contract more expensive by activating emergency clauses that would kick in with serious combat losses. If the rebels were suddenly more dangerous, the Coalition would have to increase the payout for better security, more equipment and personnel, which in turn would have to come from the petroleum companies. While it’s possible the Coalition would choose more uniformed troops for the job of increased security, politics made that unlikely.

What AI couldn’t do at this point was find the culprit. Too many corporate officers hid their banking offshore. Instead, it offered a list of those who were in a position to do this kind of stuff.

[]15

They had given up on that morning’s workout, and were changing back into street clothes.

“Ned, when did your AI wake up and start working independently?”

Ned had pulled on one sock and stopped for a moment with the other foot still bare. “I don’t think there was a single moment I can point to. There were a couple of little things over the past few weeks, but after I snagged that criminal database, it just took off. I was worried about whether it would choke on having to parse all that narrative, but I guess it found an approach that works.”

They continued dressing in silence for a few moments, and then Ned spoke again. “I see two questions here. One, how are we going to protect our brother Franklin? Two, and probably connected, is how much can I tell my hacker buds. They’ve never pried into my work, but any time I ask them stuff, you can bet it tips them off about things.”

Tim thought for a moment. “Let’s stand on the principle that exposure can do no harm in the long run, but timing does matter. Ask them to give us a day or two before they try to use anything. If we try to give Franklin new and better versions of his current equipment, that will only make things worse, since our culprit or culprits would know about it and could block it. But if your buds can craft a little brother to your tablet, something like a cell phone that can use the field sensor technology to talk to his equipment, and maybe then link back to your AI, he’ll have a major advantage. I’m sure he won’t complain about that.”

Ned grinned, “Nor would I. Having a live tactical feed for AI would expand… I can’t even imagine all the sources AI could discover with an inside link to all the military and corporate stuff over there.”

Tim agreed. “Yeah, we could sure use that. Seems to me there are several different Coalition countries with people on the ground there. I’ll ask around and see who has the best privacy in their mail delivery system. Maybe we can get them to deliver to Franklin. I’ll tell the lab to get ready for a custom cell phone build. Let’s offer your buds an incentive to push out a sharp design quickly.”

Ned still didn’t have his shoes on, but grabbed the tablet and keyboard and got to work on it.

Tim turned at the door. “You stay on that for now. I’ll have to attend lots of closed door meetings over that attack. I think I know how I’m going to pass the buck and make the contractors fix their own insider threat.”

Once at work, it was as Tim had expected: The CEO of the contract outfit was called into the senate offices. Because of the rigmarole in formal procedures, there was a dead spot on the agenda and Tim was able to catch the CEO on a smoke break outside. God alone knew how many secret deals were made on that balcony. The man knew who Tim was, and nodded as he approached.

“Mr. Dalmer, I’m not thrilled seeing you under this much pressure. It can’t be much help to our troops or the construction project.”

“Well Tim, you tell me – how do we get past this and back on track?”

“I’m not in this for reputation or revenge; I want the bleeding to stop any way I can. I think you are quite competent to handle this without interference. I can’t stop the freight train in its tracks, but I believe I can give you an escape hatch before the senators order me to take a scalpel to your business.”

The CEO threw away his cigarette and faced Tim. “You’ve got my attention.”

“I have evidence that, by itself, won’t meet the official guidelines. I can share it with you. It says you or someone in your company is embezzling on the military contract. They invested quite a bit of small change in this attack, even to the point of tweaking the firmware to brick the crawlers.”

Dalmer’s eyes widened at that.

Tim went on. “Somebody wanted that whole team destroyed to trigger an emergency clause that would boost the contract and maybe boost their chances of scraping more. I have no illusions of perfect accountability. Nobody is going to miss a little graft here and there, but that was going too far. Give the senators a sacrificial lamb or two, but make damned sure this crap stops today.” Tim raised his a hand with the index finger extended. “Those men in the field matter to me.”

“Deal,” the man said firmly.

Tim turned to go, then stopped and added, “If you want some details on what I know already, tell me where to send it. You know how to get hold of me.”

As Tim walked away, the CEO turned to face the cool autumn wind one more time before turning and following him back inside.

[]16

A few days later, and thousands of miles away, the chief of the crawler team was thoroughly surprised when a military vehicle belonging to a small European nation pulled up in front the small cluster of buildings the team had occupied. It was barely daylight.

In his oddly inflected English, the driver leaned out the window. “You got a Franklin here?”

The chief approached the van nodding. The driver handed him a small package. A quick look at the address and he glanced back at driver. “You found him; he’s here.” The chief pointed as Franklin emerged from one of the buildings.

“Thanks,” the driver said as he smiled and pulled away.

Franklin had been expecting it. Rather, he had been expecting something, but with all the description he was given by his new friend, Ned, he wasn’t sure he even understood it all. But Ned had assured him the thing was smart enough to be useful, almost like a human assistant. Franklin hadn’t bothered to bring his own cell phone out on this job, but relished the idea of having someone else to talk to, even if it was the phone itself.

It was still early and the techs were already busy working on the crawlers. The last one was just returning from patrol. Franklin decided to delay his climb up to the nest for just a few moments. He unwrapped the package, looking it over. He noted the solar power patch on the back and sat the device in the included cradle, facing him. For a moment he simply stared at it. “So, you come with advanced AI. What should I call you?”

The screen came to life, displaying clear sharp text. It was just the right amount of glow to be visible inside the tent. You can call me Bess.

Franklin’s eyes widened in surprise. It was already active.

I will awaken to your voice or your touch on my face. Just give me some sunlight every day and I’ll be fine.

“Just like having a girlfriend,” he muttered. “But apparently low maintenance.”

And I’m yours alone.

Franklin laughed and stuffed the thing in his pocket. Up in his nest, he pulled it out again. In his mind he reviewed what Ned had written to him. The thing had multiple sensors and could talk to any electronic device based on mere physical proximity. “Can you talk to my rifle and sensor?”

Linked. I’ve recalibrated both pulse dischargers. One of the satellites is reporting inconsistent data; I’ve notified tech support. There are three surveillance drones in range. There are no apparent human threats at this time, neither from rebels nor allies. However, the autumn storms should begin within 48 hours.

Franklin dropped his chin against his chest, eyes closed, and chuckled through his nose. Then he looked up at his tactical sensor. “Whaddaya think of our new friend?”

This time the device spoke in a tiny audible feminine voice. “Do wish me to take over aiming for the tactical sensor? There is no means to upgrade the firmware.”

So when his eyes were averted, the sensor could still get his attention through Bess. That was handy. “Sure, do that. It might make this job boring as hell, but your company makes up for it.”

Gazing across the terrain again, he realized that for once, he felt like he could afford to think about how he actually enjoyed being out here in the rugged landscape. It was quite lovely when you weren’t distracted by the heavy burden of looking out for trouble. He knew the tactical sharpness was still there, but it wasn’t necessary to push everything out of his mind for it. Would this device lull him into a false sense of security?

Only time would tell.

[]17

In the last exchange between Ned and Franklin before sending the souped up cell phone, there was a warning. It fit right into the game dialog.

“You know that this makes you a party to espionage, Franklin. Somehow you poked a hornet’s nest without knowing it. They came after you because you were the most effective one. They will try again, though it may be awhile. On our end, we’ve knocked that nest down and they’ll be after us first. We are already hard targets, so we just want to share our defenses with you.”

Franklin thought for a moment, and then typed a response into the game. “Bring it on. I feel like I’m in a first-person shooter. I’m supposed to be dead, but I redeemed my last extra life. Now I’m playing on borrowed time, so let’s see what the game throws at us next. If my character gets killed in this game, it’s only the start of Real Life.”

Upon reading that, Ned muttered to himself, “Amen, Brother. Amen.”

He and Tim had talked about it often enough, that sooner or later they were going to face genuine threats on their lives. It had been pretty tame until now. But someone who blew off several thousand on a single hit wasn’t working alone, and four insignificant patsies in jail because of Tim’s work meant nothing more than an inconvenience. AI insisted that the real culprit remained in the shadows for now.

And Ned had learned to trust the AI.

Back when Ned joined the Shepherd’s Household, something inside of him realized that hacking for entertainment and profit wasn’t the right direction. He began spending more time thinking about what made it all worthwhile. The one thing that mattered most for him was that sense of tribal trust and loyalty. So in order to protect his buddies from themselves, he gradually became somewhat the conscience of the group. At the same time, he began taking more physical risks to reduce their need for taking moral risks by hacking into the same stuff that young hackers everywhere were doing.

Along that path, they didn’t just learn exploits, but analyzed how exploits were found. They learned what made software difficult to crack. And instead of coding their own debuggers like everyone else, they started on a more ambitious project of writing code reviewer software. Before long they were using software to rewrite and improve other software. Ned convinced them that all the standard work in AI was a dead end. Instead of teaching computers to “learn” and wasting vast resources that had, after such a long time gotten nowhere, a more likely goal was simply teaching a computer to fix its own code.

But it was not according to some hacker’s elegance ethic, but to make code that served the user better. What good was elegant code that no one used? Conventional AI carried the risk of rising up against its creators. Over the years as the membership and projects of the hacking group morphed, Ned had eventually gotten an operating system that continually developed into a more and more helpful servant. Not just debug, not just design, but extrapolate from previous usage and learn to anticipate the user’s needs. Ned had long ago stopped trying to write code and became simply a director for a self-perpetuating system. The core had rewritten itself several times, and the code environment more often than that. At this point no human could have read any of it, since the AI churned out pure binary machine language.

Thus, the group of friends he supported directly, and that Tim funded, had eventually gotten more and more hardware oriented. It was too easy to let AI write the software to make this hardware do the most fascinating things.

Ned decided that it was time to retire his two-year-old tablet. He challenged is friends to cram all the tablet’s features and more into a cell phone for him. He also had them design an earplug that he could wear almost full-time, to keep his hands free for an uncertain and risk-laden future. In essence, he wanted AI to read his subvocalized input, respond with a nice female voice through the earplug, and display visual data when needed. Like Franklin, he had too little time for a human girlfriend, and right now someone like that would be a vulnerability he didn’t need. It was safer for the women of the world if he left them alone.

Time to work on his combat skills.

[]18

They knew that police protection was out of the question; Tim wasn’t a VIP.

Things had really changed in urban areas like the one flung out around the seat of government. Before the introduction of energy weapons, police departments had placed surveillance cameras and a mixture of wide-angle and directional microphones all over the place. Firing a regular projectile weapon guaranteed you would be traced and arrested sooner or later. Even silenced small caliber handguns created a shockwave the mics picked up. For a time, murdering thugs were restricted to quieter weapons. But then again, simply beating someone was easier because it was hard for the devices to distinguish actual violence from standard boisterous behavior that had become socially common these days.

Pulse weapons were silent, but cumbersome at first, and very tightly controlled. For once, crooks struggled to get their hands on something as dangerous as the technology was impossible to get, so bootlegging was out of the question. Once a few of the earliest model weapons became available on the black market, they were obscenely expensive on the order of small passenger aircraft, so common thugs were left out. By that time, the underworld had gotten used to employing a mixture of other methods that were much riskier than using firearms, in the sense that victims might have a chance to fight back. Casual slaughter eased off for a while.

Tim and Ned agreed that it was just a matter of time before pulse technology escaped into the world at large. For now, they took advantage of the situation and planned their security arrangements accordingly. They plundered the recent criminal databases accessible to them legitimately; the city was less prickly about it than the state. Ned had AI offer a list of the most probable threat scenarios, along with any known successful defenses. This became the basis for drills that took up a major portion of their workouts. At this point, Ned’s informal bodyguard role became more pronounced.

All the while, he kept his new “cellphone” with him, either on his person or with the camera watching their workouts. One of the most interesting new features was the one they had included for Franklin’s device. The field sensor would scan the user’s whole body and establish a baseline condition. While a full medical scan was still way beyond AI’s capacity, they were able to program the sensor to detect injuries – type, location and severity. Ned tested this detecting ordinary bruises and strains during training. While he couldn’t pin it down just yet, something told him this would make a world of difference somewhere down the road.

And then his hacker friends passed along a purloined toxicology database. Ned didn’t ask questions; he just started AI working on it immediately. He got the impression it was a substantial task, but hoped it would yield scanning for common poisons, either nearby or – God forbid – having been slipped into his body. He extended the protection for Tim when he was within range. Tim had to avoid carrying gadgets like that, since he spent too much time coming and going in the senate offices. Their security was downright excessive and not mere theater.

Ned’s decision was highly fortuitous. They stopped for lunch at one of their favorite cafes and Tim asked for coffee and a menu. Ned had never learned to tolerate coffee and sipped at the usual glass of water. Holding the menu, Tim reached absently for his cup. Ned glanced over the top of his glass and spoke quietly.

“Tim, I recommend you don’t actually drink the coffee. Maybe pretend you got a call or something and then leave this place.”

Tim let his hand rest on the edge of the table. Still perusing the menu, he replied in the same quiet tone, “Are you serious?”

“Drop some money and the table and walk out. Your coffee is poisoned.”

Tim jerked his hand back and reached into his pocket, dropping the menu in front of him. He gazed at his government-issued cell phone, and then rose still looking at it. He put it away, fished a few bills out of his pocket and motioned Ned to follow him.

Outside on the street, they walked a few meters before Tim turned his head to address Ned who was on his left and one step behind. “Was it really that bad?”

Ned pulled out his super cell phone and showed Tim the display. It said something about an obscure toxin that would have been tasteless in bitter liquids like coffee. He looked up and Ned pulled it back. As they continued walking Tim spoke without turning.

“Ned, can you cook?”

It was Tim’s deadpan humor. Since they were still hungry, Tim strode up a couple more blocks to a random sidewalk food cart and they grabbed something without a peep from Ned’s device. They moved off to the side in a small open spot where other folks were chatting or poking at their various cell phones. Facing away from most the crowd, Tim said quietly between mouthfuls, “So it begins. Your earplug came in handy.”

“Yeah,” Ned replied. “And I can still hear ambient sounds through it. Neat design.”

Tim winked. “Here’s hoping they don’t know we know. Crap like that can make you paranoid.”

“And we weren’t already? Looks like it was justified.” Ned was pretending to watch someone busking with a guitar a few meters down the sidewalk.

Tim followed his gaze. “I doubt there’s any way you could check on that cafe and find out how that happened. Let’s try to keep up our normal routine, as well as the guarded watch for the next trick. Provided we manage to keep evading, sooner or later they’re gonna try something that will leave evidence one of us can trace back to a culprit.”

Ned glanced around. “Agreed. Even if we never really unmask the big bad guys behind this, it’s almost fun to frustrate them. It’s like taunting them by refusing to hide out or make other significant changes to our routine. You still got work to do. And necessity is the mother of all kinds of brilliant new ideas, so I can’t wait to see what comes from our game of cat-n-mouse. Our technical advantage is worth a fortune on the market.”

Tim grinned. “Shhhh. That’s how my lab stays afloat, so don’t go behind them selling ideas like that. It’s bad enough your hacker buds know so much.”

Ned knew he was just kidding. The hackers were the source of most of the lab’s custom hardware designs. In return for churning out the prototypes for the hackers to test new ideas, the patents were licensed back to the lab free of charge. AI buzzed in his ear to remind him of Tim’s next appointment. “Back to work, Boss.”

They turned and headed toward the cluster of government buildings near the center of the city.

[]19

The next attempt targeted Ned.

It was just two days later that Tim had sent him down to the state’s corporation records office. For once, they were on a case trying to absolve someone – a senator – of false accusations. The senator wasn’t a good gal at all, but she certainly wasn’t doing what she was charged of. Ned was collecting evidence to show the charges were false. At least this particular state office was more or less on track with current technology. Ned needed the actual official proof on paper, but he was most certainly going to allow AI to snoop and plunder whatever was within reach while he stood in proximity to equipment connected to the LAN.

But he didn’t have time to stop and check on his new phone what AI had accomplished. Needing to keep his hands free, he stuffed the sheaf of papers inside his jacket, where a pocket was made just for that purpose. The offices were across town and he was taking the subway to get back to Tim’s office.

On the way out, AI had notified him of two different people carrying substantial knives, but they showed no signs of interest in Ned. Thus, he was ambivalent about the notice from AI as he entered the car that another passenger at the same station had an icepick. With the surveillance cameras in the subway cars, AI had suggested an attack there was unlikely. Most attacks were on platforms where people clustered closely and cameras would miss much, or on the stairs where camera coverage was poor. Most hits were made near the tops of the stairways.

Like any other bored rider, Ned scanned the ads scattered along the space between the windows and the ceiling of the car. He glanced down to see a slender Asian man that AI had tagged as the pickman. Ned had seated himself near one door and facing it; the pickman was at the other end on the opposite side. Ned tried to stay relaxed. At the third stop, he rose and stepped off the train and paused. AI told him the man had risen and was hovering at the door. Just before the door closed, Ned ducked back inside and resumed his seat. The pickman did the same.

Ned rode past his intended destination because the next one had stairs that were wider and not so steep, coming up in a small park. There had been an overnight frost with some rain, so when he exited to the train, the platform was wet from foot traffic, but no ice because it was slightly warmer than the open ground above. The stairs were icy, but traction plates had been installed on the lip of each step. Ned had moved quickly to the stairs and started ascending; there was very little other pedestrian traffic near him. AI whispered in his ear about how the pickman had raced to catch him and was drawing close. His own ambient hearing confirmed that.

A few steps down from the top, Ned suddenly turned and sat down. While he could have fought off an attack from that position, he was pretty sure that wouldn’t be necessary. The pickman suddenly froze in mid stride, two steps down and right in front of him. The man’s left hand disappeared inside his coat pocket. Ned gave the man a steely gaze, showing no emotion at all, his posture signaling a readiness for combat. After a few heartbeats, the pickman stepped sideways, then averted his gaze and continued up the stairs to disappear around the concrete entrance wall.

After a few more seconds, Ned had to peel his pants off the icy step as he stood. Had he handled this any other way, the message going back to the sponsoring party would have been ambiguous. Now the people behind this would know Tim and Ned were aware of the persecution and were not going to be easy targets. Whoever it was, they would have to change tactics. Would it be worth it to them?

AI said he was in the clear, so he walked out into the cold breeze, his heart now slowing as the steam from his breath disappeared quickly. A couple more deep breaths and he headed toward the building where Tim was waiting for the papers he bore.

After relating the events to Tim, his boss smiled. “Good. Maybe they’ll let us get some work done for a while. See if you and AI can discover where this fake whistleblower is who is attacking the senator. We can let someone else worry about who it is, but I want to see how these organizations and agencies interact. There’s big money behind this attempt to smear Madame Senator, and I want to see if I can shake this network loose.”

It seemed like a good time now to assess what AI had grabbed from the state’s computers, since it would have been pertinent. Ned had added two more servers to the stack and AI was getting faster at absorbing and processing the vast piles of data. But this time it needed a much larger display, so Ned transferred the image to Tim’s desktop. It was a large 3D model of how people and money connected a large network of what amounted to front offices, all with different pieces of the same single agenda. Adding a historical component made it almost incomprehensible to the two men.

Ned was laughing. “It’s worse than that Bermuda grass that grows in the south. It has runners going in all directions underground, and if you cut something off, it grows its own roots and you get even more of that nasty grass where you don’t want it.” He had AI collate the date with the secretive emails that had started this nasty mess of false accusations.

Granted, some network companies routinely deleted their records, and some never kept any in the first place. However, the logs AI did find scattered around the Internet were just enough. Whoever sent those messages didn’t control the network routing, and a few bounced in and out of government-controlled virtual space before arriving at the destination. It was the work of several hundred man hours for skilled technicians, but in less than just one hour, AI found the source inside the senator’s own home state office. A little clever source bouncing using wifi had no effect on the route the messages had taken after the first three hops.

It was yet another inside job. Someone was trying to unseat her and take over the network she had built. Instead of ruining the ongoing work she was doing by uncovering it, they were trying to move her out of the way with something totally bogus and unconnected to what she was actually doing.

[]20

Tim first sent a brief message to the senator in question, alerting her to the insider threat. Let her clean her own house. Then he began putting together his official report to the committee.

Ned still had one nagging question, something that hovered just beyond the edge of conscious awareness. He sat quietly with his eyes closed for a few minutes. Seeking a path that would pull it out into the light, he went through a sort of checklist he used for moments like this. He began asking himself if there was any threat to him in all of this. Ping! That was it. Deep inside he knew that the stalking of the past few days was connected in here somewhere. Then he pondered whether it involved Franklin. Again, he was certain it did.

To keep things in perspective, he whispered to himself that anything he might find would not necessarily make their lives any safer, but it would help them fix in their awareness how to deal with the ongoing threat.

To his surprise, Tim was listening. “Quite so. We aren’t going to fix any problems in the long run. All we can do is answer our own inner call for justice in what we can touch.”

Ned smiled; Tim always had is own way of saying what they both believed because Tim’s normal audience was entirely secularized. He shied away from what sounded like religious talk, but Ned knew Tim held the same faith.

Now he at least had some direction to look in working with his AI. Something in all of this senator’s mess was a connection to their personal threat. Her enemy was their enemy, though they could hardly be her allies outside this one issue. It was the enemy who was indiscriminate. So he began by trying to find links between that spider’s nest and the contractor.

Ned figured that was the kind of question AI could not yet anticipate, but it seemed to have no trouble finding such a link. It ran through an intermediary, though. Or rather, it ran through a conglomerate intermediary. Even as he prodded AI to refine the picture, it began to dawn on him that this looked almost like some weird plot to overthrow the government itself. The senator they just rescued was priming to reach for a higher office, and her peculiar agenda, bad enough in its own right, would act as a firewall for what seemed to be this other plot to seize the government. And the current government, though not a total rebuild from scratch, was substantially new in itself, so it was also rather vulnerable. Something told him that if this plot got very far, things in general would far worse than they were now.

That is, human government would never be good. The current system was tolerable. Something in his soul warned that this dark plot would be downright painful.

He turned his screen to share his thoughts with Tim. His boss responded, “I suppose you could say I have made a commitment to make this government work as well as it can, by whatever small part I’m playing. Someone who’s willing to walk on everyone in their way can’t be planning nice things for their subjects. Stay with it.”

Ned turned back to his task. A conglomerate like that was a whole new game of complications, largely because it had operations in multiple countries. Not just the Coalition members, either; this thing went off into places Ned felt his AI might never be able see.

[]21

Some promotion. They were exposed to more rebel activity than ever before.

Franklin was amazed at his new cell phone. He had already worked out in his own mind that what he was getting from it was not fully contained within the device. Granted, Ned had said so before sending it to him, but it just never registered fully until he saw it in action.

It was a standing joke with the crawler team that he referred to Bess as his girlfriend. Nobody imagined that Franklin was wacko enough to actually fall in love with a smart phone, but it put them off asking the wrong questions. They knew it was smart enough to help him coordinate his security work, but they had no idea that it was a virtual terminal on a very powerful AI back home. And Franklin’s military training helped him to keep that internal firewall between too much and just enough information to keep the chief or the techs from prying into his use of it.

Out of mere curiosity one day, Franklin had queried and found he could get all of the tactical analysis for the entire theater of operation. And he was of the opinion that he got a better digest of it than the military commanders or the contract management. Instead of their semi-separate parallel systems, he had it all in one. It was beyond his technical curiosity, but Ned had told him that by having the phone in proximity to satellite equipment, he was linking AI into nearly everything that passed between those satellites and the ground. Only a few hyper-secure channels were hidden so far. But what was visible was already so massive that AI easily extrapolated much of what was encrypted.

And, oh – the gossip he could have shared. All the corporate business was open to him. He knew when some of the field managers and their flunkies were sent home in handcuffs. He knew that one of the replacement managers was pushing a program to improve comfort and welfare for the contractors in the field. Somebody somewhere must have pushed a complaint that management couldn’t ignore. All Franklin knew for sure was that he was grateful for the better food they were getting. It went right along with the far better tactical data Bess was feeding him. Their crawler team was the best in the field.

And that got noticed. They were all given a pay raise and some better trucks, and then tasked with roving to any hotspots along the pipeline where the rebels were causing serious trouble. A new team was moved into their previous slot and Franklin’s team were the highfalutin troubleshooters. Franklin was careful to let the crawlers take the credit, as if the maintenance team was just better at keeping them working. Franklin walked close by each one sometime during the day and let Bess feed the results of a detailed scan back to the management system mounted on their biggest rig. They were always able to stay on top of issues way before they got critical. Nobody suspected; nobody was in a position to question why this team was so much better, but everyone took advantage of it.

Franklin wasn’t too sure about his own situation. On the one hand he had the best intel in the field. On the other hand, he kept having to work at least as hard as before putting that intel to use. At least the company did give him a newer pulse rifle and tactical sensor. Bess was making him a far better sniper and guard than he could have been on his own, but he didn’t let it go to his head. He couldn’t; there was too much work to do.

Meanwhile, Ned was pushing AI to new areas of analysis, rewriting itself repeatedly to handle bigger tasks with better results. If only he could get closer to the contractor’s corporate headquarters. It occurred to him that the problems he and Tim faced weren’t in the company providing the contract services along the pipeline, but something closely connected, and he had no way of finding what that was.

[]Part 3: The Courier

[]22

Standing atop the ridge, he listened to the wind. The place had called his name even before he rode the bike up the trail. He sat on a small ledge near the windward side, bowed his head and closed his eyes. The song of the wind took him far, far away to another world.

There were a few improved roads out here in the open wilderness, and the average courier took them on a regular basis. Not Barry, AKA “the Bear.” He always sought new routes, parts of the countryside he had never seen before. In his mind was a detailed map of everywhere he’d been. Some of those remote places he want back to again because they spoke to him, calling his name even when he had no scheduled runs.

His official job title was “field courier,” but it could just as easily been “flunky.” Each courier team was ensconced in a small office next to the big cheese of whatever location they were assigned. It didn’t signal their importance, but the convenience they were for the big shots. It included all kinds of things that just had to be done right then and there and didn’t require too much expertise. They only thing they didn’t do was janitorial work; that was always dumped on the local hires.

But because the couriers had to know how to maintain their own machines, most of them were pretty handy with anything mechanical, and sometimes with electronics. Their bikes were hybrids, with big fuel cells pushing a small engine and generator system connected to a rather large and powerful electric motor. But the generator motors could also contribute to the drive at certain points when the rider needed more power and wasn’t worried about the noise. There was an onboard GPS and computer that helped calculate the optimal balance, plus it was aware of tactical requirements for relative silence, at times using the residual charge from the battery power alone.

Despite Barry’s dislike for paved roads, he still managed to get out and back faster than most of the other couriers. He had never quite risen into the ranks of professional motocross riding, in part because of his weight – over a hundred kilos – but also because he really loved the natural terrain and didn’t want to shred everything he saw. He had the instinctive reactions and skill to virtually fly across the deserts on the alternative routes he took, making excellent time on his jaunts. It was enough time advantage that he could stop and commune with the open terrain. For him it was alive and alluring, one of his best friends.

Yet that morning he wasted an hour of company time pulling the shreds of torn paper from a printer because the IT guy was busy. How in God’s name anyone needed paper printouts was beyond him. This organization was littered with electronic devices, where every last contractor had at least a cell phone, and most had tablets and laptops, along with the company issued desktop units for official operations even in the most remote field sites. He had learned to hate paper as the biggest waste of natural resources in the world. He wasn’t a tree-hugger. There was nothing wrong with humans making wise use of natural resources, but there was already too much paper in the world already.

So as he sat atop the windy ridge far from any other human presence, he literally apologized to nature for the waste. There was noting he could do, but he wanted nature to know he cared. He was utterly certain nature knew and forgave him, loving him in return. He wasn’t much on theology and religion, but he was pretty sure he knew something of God because nature kept revealing His personality. Any day without some time alone like this was a day he felt lonely and just a little lost.

He said goodbye and mounted the bike. It always seemed to him that he could feel the terrain ahead of him as he bounced the machine down the rocky surface of the hill without losing control. The other couriers thought he was insane, and some of them were just as serious about motocross. Part of the application process included competition scores and awards from sanctioned meets. Barry didn’t have much of that, but when they were tested on a course, he qualified easily.

Upon returning to base, when he had checked over the bike and stowed it in the garage with the others, he shed the riding gear and stuffed it into his locker in an anteroom off the garage. There were only two women who qualified as couriers, and one of them was sitting on a bench next to the door. While not as bulky as Barry, she was a tad chunky and rather tomboyish. She kept her dark hair cut quite short and usually dressed like one of the guys.

“Bear, I think I broke something,” she said with dejection, without looking up at him.

“Something on your bike?”

“Nah. My leg. I smacked into a rock ledge and it’s been hurting pretty bad. Tried to play it off but it’s swelling and – well, it hurts like never before.” She looked up at him and pulled up her pants leg to expose a pretty serious injury to her left shin. It looked really bad, all swollen and discolored.

“Oh wow! Do you need help getting to the clinic?” He was genuinely concerned, despite finding her pretty annoying most of the time. She had a thing for him, but refused to do anything that might have made herself more endearing. She was rather pushy and demanding, and never missed a chance to crow about matching the other couriers’ manly exploits. Worse, she used the same repulsive “flirting” with other men.

“Yeah.” She waited for him to approach.

He decided she wasn’t just making an excuse to get her hands on him. He sat down next to her injured leg and put her arm over his shoulder, then his arm around her lower back. When she had planted her right foot firmly, he stood them both up. It was clumsy, but he managed to get through the door and across the graveled parking area to the clinic.

“How do you put up with me, Bear?”

“The same as the rest of the human race,” he replied evenly.

They were at the clinic door, which he managed to open with his free hand. He helped her up onto the exam table just inside the door. A medical assistant came around from behind a desk and Barry pointed wordlessly at the woman’s leg, lifting his eyebrows with a wry smile. The tech slid up the pants leg.

“Looks broken. I’ll get the nurse.” The clinic was staffed by a nurse practitioner; a doctor rotated in three days per week and this wasn’t one of those days.

As Barry turned to leave, the gal thanked him and added, “Bet you get my run for tomorrow.”

He shrugged and walked out. He was careful to remain detached and noncommittal with her on every interaction.

[]23

The next morning, he was told to be ready for VIPs.

Barry wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do, but he decided to smarten up the courier office a little. One was out with a broken leg, but the other three couriers who were assigned to his office had made themselves scarce. Apparently he was supposed to simply stand by for any sudden errands. There was an airstrip just about a kilometer away across the flat scrubby plain. Whoever it was, they were coming by aircraft, because there was unusual activity around the hangers and the miniature tower staffed by military flight controllers. Barry stood outside with quite a few other staffers. Sure enough, he heard the sound of a turboprop as it circled the airfield once, then went out far over the low hills and turned around to approach and land. It was a private craft, but not one of the corporate planes. Those were all Learjets.

He caught sight of the newest bus on the base rolling toward the plane where it had turned and taxied to a stop. This was about as fancy as it got out here on the edge of the big city where the company and the military shared their theater headquarters. Because this installation as down near the coast, it was often a good bit warmer than most of the pipeline route. Right now the digging was moving across some higher elevations and Barry always had to carry a coat to put on as he left the lowlands.

Eventually he got bored watching the activity on the airfield and went back into the courier’s office. He figured they would take the VIPs to the hotel closer to town and maybe he was needed for some silly fetch-it stuff that was demanded but unanticipated. He was wrong. The sound of the bus outside the building came as a surprise. He went out into the hall and stood peeking through a window between the blinds.

It was quite an entourage. There was a big, handsome older guy in expensive stylish clothes, with two trophy babes, one on either side. There were three older gals wearing smart suits and looking somewhat dignified. Last came some guy who looked a little rumpled and nerdy, slender and just average height. He was carrying a backpack and a briefcase and trying to keep up. Just for fun Barry help up his cell phone and snapped a shot of this group as the boss met them outside the door. They were ushered in with some ceremony as Barry ducked back inside his office.

Reviewing the photo, he guessed that the last guy was someone’s assistant. Snatches of conversation drifted to his ears. It was Mister This and Missus That. It dragged on for a while, then he heard his boss’s voice approaching his door. “We have a courier on standby to handle that.” Then the door swung open.

Here it comes, Barry thought.

“Barry, we have an urgent dispatch. Our guests would like you to deliver some disks.” He literally pulled Barry to his feet and dragged him out the door. Pointing to the frumpy guy, he told Barry, “This gentleman will give you the details.”

As Barry strode to where the man stood, he didn’t have to feign interest because he was genuinely curious.

The man seemed almost unsure of himself, but fished out of the backpack a bundle of DVDs in paper envelopes. As the boss led the entourage off into the other parts of the building, the fellow spoke with a rather soft and tired voice. “There’s a list on top of bundle with unit names. I was told you already knew where to find them. I’m afraid it will be long day for you, sir. There are eight of them.” He was almost apologetic.

“Oh, no problem, sir. We’re just like any other mail service; nothing can stop us from making that delivery.” He smiled. “Anything else I can do for you?”

“No, I’m sure that’s a tall order already. Thank you so much.”

Barry turned and headed straight out the door. As his eyes perused the list, something in the back of his mind made him shudder. It wasn’t the job that bothered him but the man. There was something really very wrong with that guy. Barry puzzled over it as he strode to the garage, donned his gear and rolled out the bike. So this was the run she was talking about. He was not going to make it back today, so he grabbed his overnight bag. He always kept it packed and ready.

He fired up the bike’s generator and reviewed the list. Double-checking the locations on the GPS display, he laid out a route in his mind. For the most part, they would be delivered in the order as listed. The last one was going to be the hardest to reach, though. It was out in the hills away from any highways, the leading edge of the pipeline construction.

Once he cleared the gate, he wasted no time heading straight out across the open country.

[]24

AI told Ned he was being followed again.

But this time there was no weapon, and no apparent means to threaten except bare hands. He had just about reached the corner of the block where Tim’s office was when some big guy caught up to him from behind. Ned steeled himself, but the guy spooked from a relatively safe distance and called his name.

Ned stopped and turned, not sure what to expect. The man was carefully avoiding anything that might seem threatening. With a sort of faint smile, the fellow acted quite professionally. “I hope you don’t mind. I just wanted to give you something that you might find useful.” He held out a small memory chip in the palm of his hand. Ned stepped over to take it, still being a little careful.

After handing it over, the man stepped back again. “The senator is deeply grateful for your assistance in that recent matter. She found some interesting data on one of the computers in her home office and felt you would be the best person to give it the attention it deserves. She offers the caution that this isn’t over yet. Have a nice day.”

The man turned and walked away, leaving Ned speechless. He wasn’t worried about any electronic traps. AI could read the binary code through the field sensor, but it was probably the slowest way to do so. Since AI had written all the code on all of his devices, he was pretty sure nothing could infect his systems. He watched the man receding into the distance, then turned and went on to the entrance of the office building.

Once upstairs in the office, he poked the chip into a slot on the side of his desktop computer. In just a few seconds AI reported it clean, and then began sucking up the data. Tim came in the door from somewhere else in the building. Before he could say anything, Ned told him, “That senator we saved paid us back.”

Tim came over to see what Ned was doing. “That’s a blessing. Any idea what it is, yet?”

“Looks like a raw dump of someone’s system disk. Lots of useless trash from that Swiss cheese operating system they all use… Whoa. This must have been the fake whistleblower’s system. Most of the files were deleted, but they’re all recoverable.”

Tim turned to his own desk. “Let me know if anything useful comes up.” He started reorganizing the papers and notebooks in front of him.

Ned’s eyes went wide. There was banking data, showing the system user was making money from what was presented as dividend checks from stocks. However, the amounts weren’t consistent with that sort of payout. Furthermore, they came from some kind of brokerage, not from the companies themselves. Not unheard of, but atypical for someone who was a small investor, as the payments suggested. He asked AI to try correlating those amounts with the stock market records. It was more out of personal curiosity, though, and he started looking at other things AI was finding. He wanted to know more about that brokerage.

Another hit: the brokerage was part of the conglomeration he had seen before. The senator had some dealings with it in the past, but at some point cut them off. Here it looked like that conglomerate was paying a spy in the senator’s office not long after breaking with them. So there was an ax to grind. AI suggested that the conglomerate had been making illegal contributions to the senator’s election campaign, and at some point began asking too much in return. It likely had something to do with legislation that protected the contracting corporations from being bought out while they were servicing a military contract. That kind of turnover had happened during the early stages of the pipeline and there was a move to stop the cycle of predatory takeovers. The conglomerate wanted to preserve the option of such takeovers. The senator voted to for the bill to stop it shortly after cutting ties with the conglomerate.

But for now, this speculation was based on probabilities and extrapolation. AI would be unable to lock it down without some kind of inside data from the contracting company itself. It seems the predatory conglomerate was using stock leverage in the contractor to enable a takeover.

“Tim, let’s take a moment to pray for a miracle. We need someone who works close to the Dalmer’s company headquarters where the pipeline is going into the ground. We need to find someone to carry one of our cell phones.” Tim stopped what he was doing and turned around to face Ned. They clutched a single hand with each other and closed their eyes.

Meanwhile, halfway across the planet, Barry had nearly finished a hard day’s ride. This was easily the single longest and most punishing ride he had taken yet since coming onto contract. The sun was setting over the ridgeline as climbed up to a wide shelf above the valley floor. The hottest crawler team in theater was up there under camouflage and only his secure GPS data knew it was there for sure. These guys moved pretty often, so it was just possible what his eyes saw from below were just rocks. Still, there was no better choice and he had felt driven all day. Something about that weird old guy who gave him the disks was still tingling in his soul.

Sure enough he passed a barely visible crawler heading downslope just a few meters away. They made just enough noise that he could hear it above the near silence of his bike. The bike’s computer kept the satellites and drones abreast of his location using a coded beacon with a signature that matched the unified military and contract targeting system. Anything with a weapon was supposed to see him as a non-target. To his eyes, as he came up on one end of the ledge, there was an open layer in the rock, a wide gap that sheltered something vaguely familiar. The camouflage was even better when shadowed by the ridge from the setting sun.

As he rolled to a stop under the outer edge of the covering, someone with a pulse rifle greeted him. This had to be the famous sniper. He looked old and pretty ordinary. Barry had never met even a quarter of the people who worked on the contracts, and this strange string of deliveries seemed oddly hit-and-miss to him. He had no idea what it was and knew better than to ask, but this one time the pattern was puzzling. So was seeing someone who seemed rather ordinary to him, but regarded by the company as a hero.

The man walked up and something inside of Barry just knew: This was his brother. Not in the sense of literal sibling, but a part of the Shepherd family. Barry had joined just last year and was still getting used to some parts of it. But he had long been that kind of mystic, having been a friend with nature his whole life. The Shepherd family had been a good fit from day one. This man was one of them.

For his part, Franklin was just meeting another courier. But as soon as he got close, the rider opened the face of his helmet and spoke quietly, “Are you part of the Shepherd’s Household?”

Franklin froze, his eyes wide. “Now that’s one whale of a greeting.” He walked closer and extended a hand and a grin. “Welcome, Brother. I don’t know what to say.”

[]25

Franklin took the disk; Barry’s job was done. He could stay here for the night and return to base tomorrow. Still, Franklin invited him to follow. He said something to one of the maintenance techs, and then ducked into a smaller tent next to a Hummer. He offered Barry a seat on the cot and pulled out a netbook. Holding up the disk he asked, “I suppose you have no idea what’s on here?”

Barry shook his head and grinned. “Not my job to know.”

Franklin inserted the DVD into the drive tray on his netbook. Then he pulled out a cell phone and held it close to the netbook. He offered no explanation, but made no effort to hinder Barry watching. After a few minutes, the cell phone spoke in a gentle feminine voice. “The disk contains flight plans and aircraft signatures for helicopters to prevent accidental targeting.”

That made perfect sense to Barry; the VIPs were going to be flown out into the field to see the work first hand. And since Franklin’s team got one, it probably meant the VIPs were coming out to see them. He said as much, and then pulled out his own cell phone and showed Franklin the image he captured that morning through the window blinds.

Pointing to the picture, he said, “That guy gives me the willies. You know what I mean?”

Franklin nodded. He had already felt a faint chill in his own soul just glancing at the picture. “I’m still learning from the elder’s writings, but there are some people in this world who just mean trouble for everyone. Whaddaya think, Bess?”

The cell phone quietly displayed the face of the obvious big shot, showing his name and associations as the head of some investment conglomeration. The two women were former models, while the other three represented a private investment club. The last guy was unknown. That didn’t help their sense of foreboding.

Barry rubbed his short hair. “Man, I sure could use a cell phone as smart as that one.”

Franklin snapped his fingers. “Hey, maybe I can help you with that. I received this as a gift from some of our brothers back home. You’ll have to get hold of them about it, but they told me they were praying they could find someone in the family who worked close to HQ.”

“That would be me,” Barry chuckled. “There ain’t no more family anywhere around that base or I would know.”

“Have you played any of the Shepherd games?”

“Nah,” Barry drawled. “I get on the forum when I can and I love those photographs people share.”

Franklin looked at his cell phone. “Bess, what’s the best way to get a message to Ned? Can we send it through the elder himself, maybe?”

The sweet feminine voice answered, “The elder’s site is hosted on one of Ned’s servers. Is that easy enough?”

They both had a good laugh at that. Franklin looked at Barry. “Pull out your cell phone, Bud.”

Barry complied. To his surprise, the screen automatically displayed the site and took him to a page for urgent messages. Barry’s eyes widened. “I never knew that was there.”

“You never needed it until now,” Franklin said.

As Barry was about to pull up the on-screen keyboard, it quickly typed itself into the message field in terse language asking to contact Ned to offer assistance. It was submitted automatically, too. Barry turned to Franklin and pointed at Bess. “Man, does she always take care of things like that?”

“She’s a good ol’ girl,” Franklin said, nodding his head.

“Tell ‘em I want a girlfriend like that. That gal back at the base would eat me alive if I didn’t turn to stone whenever she’s around.”

They chatted for a while as darkness fell.

[]26

Ned woke to see the message displayed on his smartphone.

“Yessss! Thank You, Lord.” It included a positive recommendation for Barry from his elder. He quickly ordered a duplicate of Franklin’s phone and requested a slightly different AI profile, something matching Barry’s age and background. This time they found an even faster courier service, piggybacking on one used by the senate committee.

Ned wasn’t even dressed yet before he looked at the picture and AI’s collation with other photos already on record. Then AI indicated that something was amiss regarding one figure, because even with full access to facial recognition records, he was still a complete cipher.

Ned felt a chill. AI indicated the records for the supposed big shot came to a dead end just a few years back. His biography was there, but it was missing too many essential indicators, as if the man had a fake ID. He existed, but there simply weren’t enough reference photos during most of his adult life. AI suggested they had been scrubbed. All those normal candid photos at the big events that men like this attended, news clippings, etc. – all missing. The guy was supposed to have gone to school right here in town. Where were the yearbooks? Eventually AI dredged up a copy from the municipal library. Most every book had been scanned and was available online. The pictured showed a younger version of the same handsome guy, but it was iffy.

AI then said the photo of the page had been modified. “That’s what you get when you digitize all your paper records,” Ned muttered. Where was that school?

It had been closed just a year or so after Mister Big had graduated. The buildings still stood on a fenced lot. AI said the city had issued a permit for demolition, but it wasn’t resubmitted by any contractors. Most likely it was down to contract disputes with unions; that stuff could hang up in lawsuits for years, even decades. Maybe Ned could find the building and take a look around.

He found the campus alright. It was overgrown, strewn with trash and the high fence had signs warning about trespassing. There were no guards in sight, and after strolling around the property taking pictures with his phone, AI displayed the message that the surveillance cameras appeared to be unmonitored during daylight hours, but recording nonetheless. Great; with the police patrols gliding by twice while he was in the area, jumping the fence in broad daylight was out of the question. It was solid all the way around. And part of the reason the place was condemned was because the subterranean service lines had collapsed way back when, so he couldn’t even sneak in through the sewers.

AI then informed him the cameras could be hijacked for just a few moments if tried to enter at night. That was it, then. He headed back to his apartment and worked on other projects until dark.

He was pleased to find the skies were overcast, but not too pleased with the light rain when he came back that night. He noticed that the school’s old playground had been divided off long ago as a local park. This allowed him some cover because there were bushes along the fence between the playground and the closest wall of the main building. He waited until AI said the coast was clear, and then sprang up and over the top with a quick flip. Landing in a cold puddle wasn’t fun at all.

He held his phone in front of him for a dim display that showed him how to avoid the trash and debris from years of decay and abuse by vagrants. A side door hung open, but the inside doorway was boarded up. He had expected that and pulled out a small nail-pulling bar from inside his coat. It was a little clumsy with gloved hands, but following AI’s guidance, he got just one corner to flex enough to let him slide inside. The best part of this was that his phone worked better than a flashlight, showing him where everything was as if in broad daylight. Where to start?

The old library was down at the other end of the building. He had to dodge some old furniture and other junk to get there. For two long hours he poured over the books still on the shelves and those on the floor. Between his searching hands and AI’s scan, nothing like a yearbook was in there. None of the loose papers offered any help. He sat down for just a few minutes in the one chair still standing and intact. Was this a waste of time?

He steeled himself and rose once more to search the rest of the building. He was just about to crawl back out under the corner of the plywood sheet when he spotted a decent sized supply room. One one shelf up high was an old stack of posters no one had touched. Ned flipped through them, slightly amused at what should have been a nostalgic collection of bulletin board art. About a third of the way down was a larger sheet folded in half. He dutifully set the stack on the floor and unfolded this larger piece of card stock.

At the top was emblazoned “SGA.” Ned muttered the phrase “student government association.” Below this headline was a series of firmly pasted photos of members of various clubs and organizations that year. In the dim light, Ned made out that it was the year Mister Big was supposed to have graduated. He decided he couldn’t wait. Allowing his smartphone just a small dim glow, he perused the pictures. Near the bottom – was that the investment club? This male dominated group posed with props that suggested old-timey trading floor boys, one holding what appeared to be an ancient stock-ticker.

One of the faces made Ned think it was the younger version of the dumpy nerd in that picture Franklin had sent. Ned’s heart raced. Damn the risks; he turned up the light enough to see. That was him! And the name in the caption matched Mister Big.

AI’s alarm went off; there was guard company car outside trying to unlock the gate to the campus. Folding the post on the fly, Ned almost ran to the stairwell, picking his way up the steps as quickly as he could. The landing split and ran back on both sides toward a long hallway matching the one on the first floor. Stuffing his phone inside the pocket under his arm, he hustled back along the hallway in the direction of the playground side. The one room on the front side was solidly boarded up on all the windows. Sprinting across the hall, he found another room with just one window that still had glass in it, and without any plywood. Of course, it was stuck fast even against his nailbar. The downstairs front door was rattling, so he squeezed the nailbar in his fist with just a tiny bit of sharp end poking out. Placing it against bottom windowpane, he bumped the fist with his other hand. It took a couple of tries, but the glass spidered out and fell onto the roof below with only a little bit of noise.

Ned shoved the rest of the glass out, backed up and then dove straight through the opening. He somersaulted to a landing and rolled to his feet. The guards were calling out inside the building as he sprinted across the roof toward the fence. He slowed and realized he hadn’t tried such a long jump from that height. The landing would be hard.

He threw the nailbar ahead of him, and then vaulted out across the gap. The trick on a vault like this is to tuck and roll just before hitting the ground. It would lessen the impact and give him a chance to roll his body on the ground. He just cleared the fence, but caught the left toe on a fixture atop an upright pole holding the wire. It put his landing just enough out of kilter to spoil the timing. Instead of a clean landing straight ahead, he was tilted to one side. He still managed to roll on impact, but it was cockeyed.

Ned got up and his right leg didn’t want to work. It wasn’t broken, he believed, but it hurt a lot to use it. He realized his right elbow and shoulder also hurt because he had instinctively tucked his arms in when he knew he hadn’t cleared the fence. All he could do was hobble away as quickly as possible. His device had survived and he used it to find the nailbar, which was just a couple of meters away. Hobbling across the unlit park, he cut through some bushes. Still favoring his right leg, he dodged the pool of light from a street lamp and turned up an alleyway that he knew should be open on the other end. It was here that AI notified him via the earplug that his right shin was cracked and would require treatment. Everything else was just bruises.

Limping more carefully now, he crossed the next street he came to. There was some sports bar at the corner, so he hobbled in that direction. Then he had an idea. Something he almost never did; he had AI call him a cab. He found a space outside the bar that seemed just perfectly made for resting his backside against a ledge without actually sitting down. It allowed him to take the weight off his bad leg. When the taxi finally arrived a half-hour later, there was still no sign of any pursuit from the direction of the school. Climbing in, he used his cell phone to transmit payment up front for fare to his own building, and then pulled out the big poster he had folded up and gazed at the pictures while the driver headed the car down the street.

[]27

Barry had delightful stay with Franklin.

It was the first time he had met someone face-to-face who understood his connection to nature. Franklin wasn’t so intense as Barry, but sensed the same things on a lesser scale. They chatted about their shared experience as members of the Shepherd’s Household way late into the night.

The next morning, as he was packing his gear, Bess announced that the seals were blown on the right front shock. There was no way to repair it out there. It was ridable, but it meant sticking to the roads and moving slowly where the pavement was rough. Barry called his actual supervisor to report the situation, and was instructed to do pretty much what he had already decided.

It was a bit clumsy to Franklin, but Barry couldn’t resist hugging the elder sniper and thanking him again.

A thousand things went through his mind on the long ride back. But as he drew closer to the base, his thoughts were dominated by the presence of the VIPs. Most of all, it was the unsettling man who appeared nothing more than a personal assistant to Mister Big. To his relief, when he checked in at the base, he found the VIPs had taken a mini tour of the local sights. They had managed to find limos for rent locally – with complementary military security escorts, of course. A major feature of their tour included several archaeological monuments from the ancient past. Only in the past few months had it become safe enough for that kind of tourism, given the turmoil the country had been through. It would be a few days until they returned from their pampered stay in the most expensive hotels. During that time a fancy chopper arrived, apparently another accommodation owned by Mister Big. It was hauled out of the back of a cargo plane, then unfolded and tested.

Between fixing the bike and some lightweight errands, Barry was able to stay out the big boss’s way. The man was constantly keeping track of what the VIPs needed and it was clear he would be glad when this ordeal was over. But when Barry’s new phone arrive, the big boss gave him the third degree. Barry figured it was just a matter of venting at someone who couldn’t push back, so he took it in stride. He was assured the phone would not betray its nature to anyone Barry didn’t want to know about it. It remained dead when the boss looked it over. Barry said he would have to charge it overnight before he could use it. As he had hoped, the boss never mentioned it again.

Meanwhile, Barry went out to one of his quiet places out near one corner of the base fence-line. First he held up his old phone. Ned had told him to hold the new one next to the old for a minute or two and it would copy everything automatically. The new device’s screen lit up and was blank for a few moments. Then it said, Ready. He watched it a little longer as nothing seemed to happen.

Suddenly it spoke to him. “Hi, Barry. My name is Torrie.” It sounded just like some girl he knew back home, with that same southern twang.

He grinned, and then started laughing out loud. “Girl, looks like you have me figured out already.”

“Well, not just yet, but I’m working on it,” Torrie assured him.

Barry never lost awareness that this was just a computer with AI. Still, it amused him to talk to it just like he did everything else in his world. Only, instead of sometimes a subtle response that might register deep in his soul, Torrie talked back audibly. This actually helped remind him that the phone was not a part of his mystical world, just a tool to get things done.

And what a tool it was! Torrie made herself at home in his world, scanning everything and telling him things he could not have known any other way. He wasn’t blind to the implications of this capability and made it a point to hang around the office a good bit so that, whatever it was Torrie’s AI did snooping on the company’s computers, it got a good chance to make the most of it.

That first evening, after most of the routine activity had shut down for the night, Barry walked out under a cluster of trees and sat on the ground. He pulled Torrie out and was about to engage in more of his inane chatter when she reported that the VIPs were not what they appeared. Mister Big was using a false name, which actually belonged to the frumpy assistant. Ned had assembled a slide show with narrative she read off to him. The real Mister Big had become camera shy right before going to college. He managed to miss out on all the typical sittings and left no face. That he kept to himself and avoided most social events only made him more invisible at the university. However, his name did appear associated with at least two elite secret societies.

Those societies had been officially disbanded during the years of crisis that saw the international banking system come apart. It also saw several national governments change, and even some borders, and things were only now beginning to stabilize in Western countries. Of course, the big multi-national companies managed to survive, and partly in thanks to a group of investors that included Mister Big. By the time his face started showing again, it was the one everyone saw attached to that name today.

So obviously Mister Big was a fake who kept an assistant that followed him everywhere, the man who was the real Mister Big. The faker got all the fame and fun, while the real guy actually ran things from behind the scenes. The slide show didn’t go into too much background, but noted that this man had invested in all kinds of companies, and was rumored to pass out a lot of bribes through false front companies. Just for good measure, AI discovered that the ladies’ investment club was another front, and the trio in his entourage was actually relatives. The man was fake in every way. Over the past few days, Ned’s AI had dug deep and found that Mister Big had been tracking carefully the weakest links in the current alliance between Coalition governments and the big corporations that were involved in the pipeline. This whole thing must have seemed to him his one best chance to exploit instability.

This man was using leverage from stock ownership on the companies, and bribes in government, with an eye to grabbing some obscene amount of power. And in the process he had betrayed an utter contempt for human life – “life” by any definition. The unassuming old nerd was a demonic thug.

Barry was silent for a while. Then he asked Torrie if this awful man was equally contemptuous about natural resources.

She didn’t respond right away, and then said, “Looks like he would be just fine turning the whole world into a radioactive swamp, given his investments and things he has sponsored.”

That settled matters for Barry. At the cost of his own life, that man had go. He couldn’t bring himself to think of killing in that sense, but this had to be stopped. He phoned up Franklin and asked if he had seen the same information. Franklin had caught it earlier in the day, and agreed they should work together with Ned to do something. He asked Barry to keep him up to date with the VIPs movements, even if he had no idea yet what they could do.

Barry concluded with, “We got some serious praying to do.”

“Amen,” Franklin agreed.

[]28

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.

The tech crew welcomed those who got out. They had gotten the warning, too, and moved out one of the crawlers for a demonstration. There were 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.

[]29

Nothing could have prepared Franklin for what happened.

It was surreal. The man seemed to have no trouble visually identifying Franklin’s location. The average human would have had trouble differentiating between the camouflage and the surrounding rocks. However, Franklin had heard there were just a few people who were born with some strange ability to see it, as if the cover was painted bright yellow. But that was the least of his talents.

The man seemed apologetic about bothering Franklin in his very important mission of protecting everyone. He offered profuse and eloquent thanks for Franklin enduring such privation to keep everyone safe. It was disarming, almost hypnotic. Was this man really so dangerous to everyone? Only when Franklin reached back from his mind into his heart did he find a flaming confirmation to watch out for this scheming liar.

“Please don’t let me distract you. My boss – such a fine man to work for – wanted me to ask you a few questions, if you don’t mind. It won’t bother me at all if you keep your eyes out for trouble.” It was all so soothing.

Franklin wasn’t having it, but he mustered nonchalant warmth. “There is more security around you folks today than normally covers this whole valley. I’ve been told to relax until your party leaves the area.”

“I see. That’s good, I suppose.” The man sat on a convenient rock across from Franklin. “We’ve heard a lot about you. Your team held off a truly monumental attack, thanks in no small part to your sharp tactical readiness.”

Franklin noticed how the man never quite pushed beyond the limits. He was careful not to let it sound excessive. He seemed to know just how much Franklin would be inclined to believe. Franklin did his best to respond in kind, indicating that Joe was smart enough to have the crawlers ready to do most of the work.

“Yes, of course. It’s good to work with competent men, isn’t it?”

Franklin nodded with a smile. He was trying to avoid saying too much.

“Sometimes I see that kind of camaraderie in the face of challenges and wished that I had had the nerve to spend some time the military. Yet your actual mission is still rather solitary, no?”

“We used to work with a spotter, but the modern technology has made that unnecessary. In the end, it’s the guy with his finger on the trigger that has to make the shot.” It was boilerplate sniper school platitudes.

“And you seem to be the best there is out here on this project. What will you do when this is over?” The man knew how to steer a conversation.

Franklin tilted his head to one side and his eyes pointed upward a bit. “Not too sure. To be honest, I feel like this is what I was born to do.” That much was the truth.

“So if someone offered you a similar job, you’d take it?” The man seemed faintly eager for an answer.

Franklin shrugged. “I might. Depends on who or what the targets were.” It was Franklin’s turn to dangle bait.

The man smiled as if at some joke. “I’m told you don’t struggle with the ugly necessities of the targets that present themselves here.” That was putting it delicately. This must have been a major point on the man’s intention here.

“It’s a matter of loyalty. Mine is not for sale, but it can be earned.” Would that deter the man?

He nodded sagely. “That’s what makes you the man. I’d really like for you to meet my boss. He has worked very hard to earn my trust and loyalty. He’s really a genuine man, someone that inspires everyone near him to work hard, and he rewards us all in ways that really matter. I know you can’t meet him today, but I want to leave you his personal phone number. I am firmly convinced that a couple of conversations with him and you’ll see what I mean. It’s not just the money; generous as it is, but all of us working for him feel like it’s everything we’ve ever dreamed. He seems to know exactly what makes life worth living.”

The man pulled out a business card. It was plain and dignified and it featured the assumed name of the fraudulent actor and his personal phone number, and nothing else.

“Thank you, sir.” Franklin took the card and put it into the vest pocket inside his coat.

As the man rose, he turned and said, “Oh, and I am quite certain he can insure you get to keep using that same weapon. He can pull strings like no one else I’ve known.” Then he ducked out from under the camouflage and picked his way down the hill.

[]30

Franklin waited with a blank face until the man was out of earshot.

“Bess, what are their flight plans for the rest of their day?”

She responded with a list that included the location of a key field commander who was known for his ambition. The next two puzzled Franklin for a moment, until he remembered they were the location of two very important vendors working in support of the larger contract. One was the new manager for the parts supplier for the crawlers; the other was something he had to query Bess about. It was the manager for the satellite communications support, an opulent bunker just below a massive dish antenna atop the highest mountain in that part of the country. Bess noted in passing that Mister Big held a major portion of stock in each of those companies. After that, the entourage was headed back to the base and was supposed to fly out on their plane that night.

Bess managed to relay all of this before the VIPs began heading back to their chopper.

It came to Franklin in a rush. This slimy bastard wanted to hire him to be his private sniper to kill his enemies, using a weapon that was undetectable by any existing technology. He was going to try to bribe the new parts manager just like the old one. He was going to try something easily as nasty with the satellite manager. And he was going to seduce that commander – and could probably make a genuine offer of promotion – to support him in something that required military force. What he didn’t actually own, he could disrupt by controlling critical elements. And maybe this stuff wasn’t going to happen anytime soon, because this nasty little man was prepared to keep working this way until he had control over everything.

“Bess, do you reckon this fellow seeks to take over the whole world?” He really didn’t expect an answer.

“That appears to be the obvious end of his maneuvering” Bess said dryly.

The chopper began to rev up the engines. A short time later it shot up in the air and climbed steeply overhead.

No.

“Bess, unlock the targeting.”

“Are you sure?”

“Do it. And make sure the sensor doesn’t record this.” Franklin raised his rifle and dialed up everything to max.

Just before the bird was out of range, Franklin pulled the trigger, sighting up the turbine’s exhaust vent. The engine exploded into fragments; the blades broke free and scattered across the sky, trailing smoke where they had been attached. The bird started to drop a few meters, and then a secondary fireball erupted from the fuel. The shell of the bird blossomed outward at the top and separated from the power train; the luxury interior kept burning all the way to the ground.

Back at the base, Barry had been sitting in his office with his head in his hands. It was all he could do to stay at his appointed place of duty; he desperately needed to be out on a lonely hilltop and sing along with the wind.

It sounded almost as if someone had kicked the door open. One of the secretaries blurted out, “The VIP chopper exploded!”

Barry jerked his head up. “When? Where?”

“We don’t know yet. All we have is the actual notification. It was taking off from a stop and exploded. There’s almost nothing left of it, and it was too high for anyone to survive.” The woman disappeared down the hallway.

It was over. Barry was numb. Eventually he came back to himself and looked around. He picked up Torrie from the desk. “What should I do now? Got any ideas, Torrie?”

“Prepare for some local errands, Barry.”

Of course he would. He turned his conscious mind to the task. First was the quick rundown of things he had already done, but it amounted to a readiness checklist. The mental exercise made him feel like he was back into some modicum of control. Then he checked to see if the sense of foreboding was gone. It was. But for some reason, he didn’t feel the least bit like celebrating.

There was some loud chatter in the hallway. He looked back at his phone. “Torrie, tell Ned about this. I can report later in more detail if he wants.”

“Done,” the cellphone reported solemnly.

Mostly Barry was hoping Ned would get back to him with something that restored a sense that things were alright. He didn’t want to know everything, just enough to make sense of the implications of this turn of events.

From the hallway: “Barry! Emergency dispatch!”

[]31

The official report was long in coming, but the preliminary forensics said the chopper’s engine had experienced a catastrophic failure in the turbine. There really wasn’t much left of the engine, nor much of anything else. The blackened, crumpled shell of the cabin was the single biggest piece. The combined human remains of crew and passengers weighed less than any two of the individual people alive. The eruption of the engine had scattered thousands of sharp fragments down into the cabin and cockpit; the fireball consumed everything except bones and steel, and some thicker pieces of aluminum alloy.

Franklin asked Bess to erase the record of his shot, but she had already done so. Then he simply sat in his nest and turned to the task of keeping watch, as if the rebels might attack any time now.

With the timezone lag, Ned was seven hours behind the events. The alert hit him at 2AM. He jerked up in bed and bumped his good leg with the cast on the other. “Ouch!”

Sitting up, he knew it was his AI device, but had no idea what was so important. He struggled to focus his eyes on the display, since he couldn’t wear the earplug 24/7. After his first quick read, he looked up and rubbed his eyes, then looked again.

“That mastermind sonuvabitch is dead. Messy dead. Wow. AI, how likely is this a hoax?”

It was the first time AI responded with, Are you sure you want to know?

“Where did you learn that?” He chuckled. “Did any of our people have anything to do with it?”

There is no way to prove it, but Franklin shot the chopper down.

“Franklin can tell whom he likes, but let me decide before anyone hears that from you.”

Of course.

This was one of those times when he would just have to trust AI. Then again, at this point he agreed with Franklin’s comment: They themselves were all supposed to be dead already. Without AI, none of them would have lived this long. Even Barry would have likely died with his bike crippled, had he not been told.

Ned closed his eyes. “God, I give thanks that You have chosen to work through us and through this AI for Your own glory. We have no other reason to live.”

[]Aftermath

The rebel activity virtually stopped along the pipeline. During a joint investigation with a senate intelligence committee, in a closed-door hearing, Tim learned that the clandestine funding for the rebels had evaporated. Ned later learned that the VIPs had visited with rebel leaders during their tour of ancient monuments.

The reduced resistance along the pipeline provoked a reduction in funding for defending the project. But most of the troops and contractors were simply moved to Africa and South America because of new conflicts there over more commercial exploitation of resources.

Franklin got a job as sniper instructor for his employer. Barry ended up working on a conservation project in the Atlas Mountains of North Africa and married a local girl there. Part of his work was engineering cheap hybrid bikes for much needed motorized transportation in the region.

Ned’s AI project went Open Source. That is, the same people who kept the Open Source movement alive embraced it. AI never developed an independent conscience because it couldn’t, but it did seem to be aware that humans had one. One of its primary features was extrapolating each user’s conscience and warning them of unforeseen implications of certain choices. This didn’t prevent big money tech dreamers from trying to create an independent AI, but it never happened. AI couldn’t be made to care. All the good or evil arising from the use of AI was still the result of human moral choices. Meanwhile, AI made software companies totally obsolete.

However, the collaboration between Tim’s lab and the hackers gave birth to quantum computing. Tim made Ned the CEO of the lab, and the hackers were all offered full time jobs at generous pay. Ned was careful to never take the company public; it remained fully privately owned. They retained hardware patents on the design and process and profited from the licensing. But Ned kept the focus on genuine innovation, as there was no way to prevent someone else from using their own implementation of AI to duplicate the results some other way. Ned’s company simply got a head start and tried to stay on the forward edge.

Because of deep bureaucratic habits, some government agencies clung to their old ways of secrecy and surveillance, until AI virtually destroyed the whole industry. The old established intelligence community became a joke, and private espionage via AI took over. It meant a return to some forms of physical spycraft, something only a new generation had the energy to pursue. Their entirely different moral outlook changed everything.

And somewhere in a forgotten Middle Eastern country, a young boy with burn scars on his chest remembered the kindness of strangers and grew up with a peculiar genius for peacemaking. He united the warring tribes in his country and became a powerful voice for the oppressed.

###

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The Shepherd's Household

It was just another pipeline project in the Middle East, but someone was paying big money to make the project fail. Three ordinary men working together discover a plot to take over corporations and governments. But who is this evil mastermind behind it all?

  • ISBN: 9781370139286
  • Author: Ed Hurst
  • Published: 2017-05-12 01:20:09
  • Words: 32156
The Shepherd's Household The Shepherd's Household