Call to Arms
In the early morning near-light a pickup truck rolled down the dirt road that stretched across the flat launcher-range landscape. Its high beams competed with the gray pre-dawn illumination. Inside the cab, Cal Schmidt listened to a rusty-voiced country singer celebrating the joys of being on the road again. Suddenly thunder rolled over the vehicle. There was a momentary glare of light streaking in the distance, followed by an incredible boom which rocked the truck on its worn springs. In the sudden silence afterwards, Cal stared at the horizon in awe. "Sheesh. And I remember thinking a night launch of an F-4 was cool!" The old diehard fighter was long since out of active military service, but Cal's father knew a Confederate Air Force pilot with more money than sense. Cal smiled in remembrance of an impromptu air show, then drove on, his destination almost at hand. Just as well, since he was already running a little late, delayed by an unexpected detour.
After a couple of months of operation, Cal was getting used to the activity, but he still loved watching a launch. It was a daily, indeed, multiple-times-per-day spectacle on the Launcher Company's range. Begun as the dream of space enthusiasts networking around the world, the Company was busily making a reality of the dream- orbital transport affordable by anyone. The Company was also busily making a fortune building that dream; orbit is a resource that many were willing to purchase. As a launcher employee, Cal was socking away bond shares and wages with which he eventually planned to buy his own part of that resource. And more.
Out of sight of the driver, the launcher screamed across the desert. The elaborate ground effect machine went supersonic, fighting for control with a confusion of computer-driven air dams, spoilers, and canards; it thrusted forward on a powerful rocket engine drinking JP-5 and hydrogen peroxide. At Mach 1.4, another engine fired; this one mounted in the delta shape atop the launcher's back. There was a nearly invisible flash as explosive bolts fired, freeing the the mini-shuttle to shoot into the sky, where it climbed to orbit.
Back on Earth, the booster's engine shut down and aerodynamic drag immediately clutched at the sleek beast. Once it dropped below the speed of sound, the launch vehicle trailed streamers which further increased drag. Finally, it deployed a parachute. When it had come to a complete halt, recovery vehicles drove out and began the turn-around process. It would send another package skyward before the end of the day. Out of the grasp of government, and safely in the hands of the free market, cheap orbital access had become a reality.
As the truck pulled up beside the lonely metal building, its high beams splashed across a sign- "Orbital Ops." Below that, someone had hand-lettered the extra "Home Of The Hovercraft From Hell." As always, Cal smiled at his own handiwork; while not strictly an accurate description of the ground effect booster, it was pleasingly alliterative. He climbed out of his truck and headed for the building, a refuge from the comparatively chill pre-dawn Texas air. He left the truck unlocked, crime being somewhat less of a problem than coyotes on the launch path.
Inside, he blinked against the bright fluorescent lighting. He looked around the large open space. Grandjean wasn't immediately obvious, and Cal mentally thanked whatever gods there might be for the break. He walked quickly towards his console.
Oops. The supervisor was present after all; he came from the corner break area and approached the tardy controller. Cal did his best to appear contrite as he spoke. "Sorry I'm late, Andre. I had to detour off the road. There's a regular tent city sprung up all around the headquarters building," he explained. There had always been something of a 'tent cty' augmenting the company dormitories for lower echelon and short term workers, but it had been growing in the last few weeks. Launch clients' support crews, tourists wanting to see a boost, even the sort of permanent-tourist nomads that appear around any desert RV park. And lately there were a those with a more militantly pro-Launcher agenda.
Andre Grandjean said, "Yes, but now that you know, please allow for it in the future." He shrugged. "We are trying to relocate some of them, but it may not be completed until tomorrow."
"Joy." He continued on to his post where he began the process of relieving the night shift man. "So whuzzup, Louis?"
"Everything." The smaller, dark, and wiry controller tapped a few keys and brought up a display. "Special launches all night. Mostly LEO, inclined around thirty degrees plus or minus a few degrees." The paths would carry the new birds over Launcher's west Texas facility every ninety minutes. And the sats were staggered into orbit, providing nearly continuous coverage.
"More traffic control satellites?" Cal asked.
"I don't know. If they are, the video doesn't seemed to be integrated into the regional summary yet." The night shift controller referred to a composite image built up from satellite imagery provided by multiple birds, and used by Launcher to control Freeport airspace. The company had offered to provide the highly detailed air traffic control data to the Federal Aviation Administration at cost, to supplement the federal agency's aging, if not quite totally decrepit, ground radar-based system. The move bought the upstart access company some brownie points in public opinion polls, as did the feds' refusal to accept the offer. Several airlines took advantage of the opportunity to enhance their own PR images by contracting for the feeds themselves, bypassing the FAA. The man yawned and added, "Head shed wants them watched closely." He tapped screen traces with a lightpen. "These are yours." A miniature of the orbital projections showed a constellation of six traces. "Got it?" he asked. "I've really got to hit the latrine and go get some sleep."
As his predecessor got up, Cal slid into the vacated seat. He shifted the keyboard and entered a string of characters. Once logged in, he called up the stats on the birds he would be monitoring. "Weeell," he drawled to himself, "somebody paid serious money for this." Each of the satellites appeared to be fairly massive; close to the four ton mass limit of a Launcher payload. "Lot's of delta vee, too," he added quietly. "And six telemetry channels?" He called for a set of position and vector checks on the orbiting objects. The computer performed a variety of tests on the satellites' transponders; Doppler analysis, phase comparisons, and triangulation yielded the satellites location and orbital elements. Cal checked that against the specifications in his database. All were nominal.
Unnoticed, Grandjean had come up behind Cal. He waited quietly, watching the young man run through the orbit checks, then a set of systems status inquiries. Then he spoke quietly. "Cal?"
Cal spun his chair and answered, "Yep?"
"I need to speak to you, please. Shall we get coffee?"
"Umm, sure. I suppose." He tapped the adjacent controller on the shoulder, and asked, "Take it for a bit?" His partner nodded and flashed an OK sign. "Thanks." Cal got up and followed Grandjean. "Hey, Andre; I'm sorry I was late. I really didn't know all those folks..."
Grandjean held up a hand and said, "No, no," reassuringly. "You are not in trouble. Quite the opposite." He paused, then, "I... We need to ask you some things."
Suddenly on guard, Cal asked, "What sort of things?"
They had reached the improvised break area; a small couch, a couple of chairs, and a table with a coffee maker and condiments, all set off from the main room by a freestanding office divider, to the side of the electronics racks. Andre poured two styrofoam cups of coffee, and asked, "Cream? Sugar?"
Cal stuck out his tongue. "Bleah. Pollutants. Black, please." He reached out and accepted the cup Grandjean offered. Then he flopped down on the couch. "What's happening, Andre? You never made me coffee before."
Grandjean smiled deprecatingly, and responded, "I never asked such a favor before."
"Uh oh. Go on."
"Cal, the Company is in serious trouble. You know this. I will not so insult you to ask if you know of the UN resolution." Those within the United Nations who saw private launch capability as a threat - most of that bureaucratic body - had attempted to force the shutdown of the company's space ops.
"Gods, no. But it got repealed pretty quick"
"True. But that was only a single action. Perhaps you have also noticed that the American government seems less pleased with Launcher than even the United Nations." The supervisor essayed a small smile.
Cal echoed the hint of amusement. "Yeah, I kinda noticed that." The smile faded. "You don't think the feds are going to do anything, do you?"
"No, not yet. But soon, I think." He sighed. "Maybe not today, nor even tomorrow. But it is now inevitable. I think that many people realize this now; it is why so many have come here in person to show support." He looked faintly sad. "Many have brought arms. I will not decry the right of a person to any weapon, but it is unfortunate that we seem to be coming to this point."
"So what else are they supposed to do? Hand 'em a jar of Vaseline and roll ever on their stomachs? I hear most of those people are bond holders like me. They're worried"
"I should certainly hope not. They are right to be concerned. The major company partners certainly share that concern." He squared his shoulders. "They feel that we must prepare for ill-considered actions on the part of your government."
Cal's eyes narrowed. Since Launcher had been formed, some of the federal government's better considered actions had included IRS agents gunning each other down, and causing an inflation rate that spiraled higher than a Launcher spaceplane. Other feddie blunders had a significant number of Texans openly advocating secession and the re-establishment of the Lone Star Republic. If Texas went, the better part of the western U.S. was likely to spin off their own little country, or 'Jackelope Republic', as one of his favorite authors named such a fictional nation. "How so?"
"That, Cal, is what I wish to speak of with you." Another sigh. "Launcher has many supporters within the government, also the military services. We are told that soldiers from Fort Bliss at El Paso are being prepared to enforce a presidential confiscation order."
"That's crazy," Cal objected. "What good is the damned booster without the launch strip and support facilities? Heck, without the ground support people?" He shook his head.
"Correct. Our information is that the company will be nationalized. This applies to the people who are a part of it."
"What? They're gonna draft us all?"
"In effect, yes."
"And what are they gonna pay me? Heck, ever since the the hackers and guerrillas crashed the IRS, the gov's been bankrupt; just won't admit it."
"This is all true. This is why the controlling partners have chosen to resist confiscation." Grandjean snorted softly. "As a point of fact, the federal government has been de facto bankrupt since very long before the network attacks. But that is a moot point now."
Cal stuck to the issue at hand. "Resist how?" he asked uneasily.
Grandjean took a deep breath, then exhaled. "Now we come to what I must ask you, and the other controllers as well."
"Yeeaah?" Cal asked slowly.
"Do you understand why the people in your 'tent city' have come? Many with guns?"
"Oh, lord; you want us to fight the army." Cal felt a little queasy.
"One would hope not," Grandjean replied. "We believe that a show of solidarity will demonstrate our resolve to remain free should the Army come here. We hope that honest soldiers will be reluctant to initiate force against honest civ..."
"Free?" interrupted Cal.
"Yes, free. Consider," Grandjean stared across the space at Cal. "If a thief comes and takes your property, what do you do?"
"Stop him, and take it back."
"Ah." Grandjean abruptly changed the subject. "Did you receive your tax notice?"
Cal squirmed uncomfortably on the couch. "Yeah. Yesterday. Day after the bank statement with the zeroed out balance showed up."
"Were you pleased that the IRA, er... S, had confiscated your money for nonpayment of income taxes?" Grandjean asked; surely a rhetorical question.
"Hell, no! I've been paying my taxes! Company's been withholding the whole time!" Cal exploded. Cal had been hard pressed to explain to Micky why he hadn't accepted the company's offer of contractor status, with the attending effective pay hike, as the company would have ceased withholding federal and state taxes. Even though he fully intended to leave Earth someday
"Quite so. Yet the IRS maintains that since its database has become unreliable, they must assume nonpayment until proven otherwise. Guilty until proven innocent."
"That's bull...!" Cal began. A murmur from the console area arose, and Cal shut up.
"Yes, I agree. Theft, as it were." Grandjean eyed Cal appraisingly. "As well, the government wishes to take the launcher. Indeed, nationalization would also take the people who operate it." He looked down into his as yet untouched coffee. "More theft. And what do you call theft of a person?" Cal made no reply. Grandjean continued, "I came to his country because it seemed more free than what I left. It cost me a great deal to do so. The Constitution became my bible."
"Yeah, well..." Cal began again.
"I believed that the Constitution was intended to provide a framework in which individuals could interact fairly, that it was truly meant to 'promote the general welfare.' " Grandjean sneered. "Now it appears to be a masquerade, a mask, behind which those who desire to control others because they cannot control themselves pretend to work for the general good. A good which they conveniently define themselves. And in reality they steal to recreate the same neo-communism which I once fled... because they cannot create for themselves!" Grandjean was wound up for a serious tirade. Issues which had been building pressure for months were finally popping valves.
He went on, "I joined Launcher Company because I thought we were to be free to reach for the stars! What we have created, the government could create as well. Instead, they choose to steal what is ours." Grandjean shook his head angrily. "No. I will not allow it! And I ask your help."
Cal's eyes bulged slightly at Andre's uncharacteristic outburst. He couldn't recall ever seeing his boss so... impassioned. "Me? What can I do?" Cal asked.
"You have seen our supporters gathering in their tents and automobiles. Many came with guns, to defend their liberty against an unjust government," Grandjean said.
"You want me to grab a gun and play soldier?" Cal exclaimed. "I think you want my dad for that. I can't hit the broad side of a barn beyond a few yards."
"With the gun we give you, you can," Grandjean answered. "You have been robbed; will you take back your rights from the thief?"
"I need time..."
"We have no time. We must prepare now."
"Shi... Why me, anyway?" demanded Cal.
"You are liked, and respected by the other controllers. If you agree, I think it likely that they will, as well," explained Grandjean.
"But why us; why computer operators? You have an army outside." Cal retorted.
Grandjean smiled. "There are armies, and then there armies." The smile turned to a grin. "Or perhaps I should say air forces."
"Cal, we stand at the edge of a new frontier, at the beginning of a new age. Will you let thieves stand in your way?"
Cal stared at the floor. The background murmuring died to silence. Minutes passed. Grandjean waited patiently. Cal finally looked up at his supervisor and asked, "How can I know if it's right?"
"I am told that there is no certainty on this side of death. We must simply do the best that we are capable of. I cannot say for you. For myself, I wish freedom, and this seems the way. You must decide what you desire."
"Damn." Cal suddenly stood and faced the open room. "For years I carried an illegal concealed pistol `cause I thought it was my right to defend myself, even if I was supposedly just a kid." He turned to the supervisor. "This is the same thing, really; isn't it?"
"I believe it to be so."
"I'm in," Cal said. "What do you need from me?"
Grandjean smiled, and held out a hand to Cal, who grasped it. Then, "For now, merely to continue with your normal duties. And also to review some files; I will give you the filenames." Grandjean's smiled faded. "Please familiarize yourself with the data and specifications in the files. Later this afternoon, we will bring in more people to cover the usual work." Cal thought he could see a predatory gleam in Andre's eyes as he continued. "We shall arrange time for you and others in the simulators. Practice makes perfect, as they say."
"Hold launch." A normal enough command; given almost weekly, as the controllers waited for sightseeing aircraft to clear the downrange launch path. But today the controller's voice crackled with tension. Word had been passed from on high, or at least the upper levels of company management, that an Army detachment from Fort Bliss was likely to arrive today to enforce the presidential nationalization order that finally come down. Everyone had carefully neglected to inquire as to the source of the data. Clearly there was a mole or two left in fed service. As may be, the news had Cal doing double duty today; shepherding both the usual batch of commercial traffic and the specialized company birds of which all the controllers knew, but none spoke. Were his months of training to be put to use today?
From his desk to the rear of the room, Grandjean asked, "What is it, David?"
"Choppers. Two. Good-sized ones." He pressed a key and shared the his screen with the room. The left projection screen showed the enhanced satellite imagery which Launcher used in lieu of more expensive ATC radars.
Grandjean studied the east-bound aircraft and announced, "Gentlemen, I believe our visitors from El Paso are almost here." He lifted his telephone handset and pressed a button. "Good morning, Mr. Neville." Pause. "Your guests are en route." He glanced back to the projection. "No, sir; do finish your lunch. They are fifty miles out. I believe you have approximately twenty-five minutes." Another pause. "Thank you, may you also have a pleasant day." He placed the instrument back in its cradle.
Grandjean looked to Cal, who wore a questioning expression. "Yes, Cal; do be ready. Although I sincerely hope everyone will behave reasonably." Cal nodded, pointed to his display and gave a thumbs up. Then he nervously wiped the sweat off his palms. Grandjean spoke to range safety. "David, when the helicopters have safely landed, please clear the launch. We would not want to pay a late launch penalty. The controller grinned; Launcher had never yet had to pay off on their launch guarantee. Then the supervisor addressed the remaining controllers. "Gentlemen, ladies; it seems unlikely that anything untoward will occur for at least half an hour. You may wish to take this time to relax, to stretch your legs, perhaps to enjoy a cigarette." He paused and looked resigned. "Soon we may not have such a luxury."
Aboard the inbound helicopters, a company of troops from Fort Bliss made final preparations for landing. Naturally, everything was already in as good order as could be expected, but the sergeants, and the soldiers themselves, found that the practice helped settled their nerves. No one but the Captain seemed to be comfortable with the assignment. The First Sergeant snuck a glance at his company commander and thought about retirement as they flew over a tent city that seemed to have sprung up overnight. He nervously considered the apparent thousands awaiting their arrival. Someone had told him once that as much as forty percent of the world's hundreds of millions of small arms were in the hands of American civilians. He wondered how many of those guns were waiting for him. Most of them, it seemed in his paranoia-enhanced vision.
Oblivious to the sanguine possibilities, the Captain mentally rehearsed his coming moment of glory. Visions of medals and early promotion danced in his head. The helicopters touched down on the marked helipad, and discharged the troops. The rotors slowed, and stopped. As a group of casually dressed people approached from the building their briefing had identified as the company headquarters building, the soldiers eyed the surrounding crowd of laborers, technicians, engineers, programmers, and general run of Launcher supporters. Arms were evident. Yeah, and Niagara Falls gets a little damp on occasion.
The top kick hated it. Too many guns, and not a friendly expression to be seen for miles. Those spectators not toting guns seemed to be bearing flags and banners; the sullen crowd was festooned with an assortment of stylized rattlesnakes and Revolutionary Minutemen. I shoulda refused the assignment, he realized. I'd have had plenty of company in the brig with the other guys smart enough to tell the Captain what to do with the job. Those who hadn't simply disappeared overnight; Fort Bliss was beginning to look deserted lately. He shuddered as he eyed the crowd again.
In the Ops center, Grandjean and his controllers were watching the projection screen intently. Some kind soul had set up a video pickup atop the headquarters building. The controllers had one of the better views of what they were already calling the showdown, though there was no accompanying audio. As the Army aircraft, long since positively identified, settled down on Launcher's tarmac, the range safety controller spoke into his microphone. "Groundpounders are down, and the air is clear. Launch at your discretion." He listened for a moment, then turned to Grandjean. "They're off, Andre." As launches became routine, the procedure had been streamlined.
Onscreen the Launcher representatives stopped in front of the soldiers. An elderly man whom the officer recognized as Launcher's president eyed his collar and spoke. "Well, Captain; what can we do for you today?"
The officer stepped forward. In his most officious manner he proclaimed, "By the authority of Executive Order 17329, signed by the President on September 21 of this year, I am hereby taking possession of this facility on behalf of the people of the United States of America, for reasons of National Security! I will arrest anyone opposing this Order!" The Capital Letters were evident in his self-important voice.
With helicopter engines off, there was near silence as Neville and party considered these dramatic words. The wind whispered in the rotors. Then off in the distance came the booming sound of the booster's engine igniting. There was a huge roar, followed by a fading scream as the launcher accelerated. Thunder abruptly echoed from the distant craft as it went supersonic, followed by the near-silence once more.
Neville spoke. "I don't think so."
The Captain's faced turned red. Angrily, he turned to his top kick. "Sergeant! Prepare..." He was interrupted by a ratcheting click. And another. Then still more clicks, clanks, and noisy clatter; the air was filled with a mechanical clamor. To a man, the soldiers blanched as they recognized the sound of too damned many recently banned hunting rifles, target pistols, and 'assault weapons' being charged.
In the control center all eyes were fixed on the drama unfolding on the screen. A voice stage-whispered, "Oh, sweet Jeezus..."
Under the hot sun, Neville stood staring down from his gaunt height at the military bureaucrat before him, and considered the slowly fading racket from the surrounding crowd. He had exercised more than a few doubts as to whether Americans still had the cojones to stand up to armed thugs; he had his answer now. And he hadn't even asked for these people to come, nor suggested this show of force. He smiled just a little.
An anonymous voice called out from the crowd, addressing the increasingly nervous Captain. "I don't think you brought enough handcuffs!"
The Captain's anger began to turn to panic. He turned back to the smug Neville, who simply said, "Thank you for your visit, Captain. Do come back when you have more time be sociable." He gestured towards the helicopters. Without any prompting from their superior, the pilots began running up the engines, and the rotors started to turn.
The First Sergeant called out, "Cumpnee! Load 'em up!" Let the damnfool ossifer face down a few thousand pissed-off civilians. He remembered how civvies had taken over the top spots in the Camp Perry marksmanship championships and felt more sweat running down his sides than even the Texas heat could account for. The small of his back felt like a swimming pool. The soldiers piled back into their craft. For a moment the Captain stood abandoned on the tarmac, looking at Neville.
The exec looked him in the eye and said, "You have a good day now, Captain." He turned and walked back to the building. 20
The Captain stood in the glare, perspiring. He felt... exposed. And alone. He scrambled back to his helicopter, which levitated even before he strapped in. A wave of motion seemed to ripple through the crowd on the ground as weapons tracked the departing craft.
The Ops center screen went dark as the controllers' unseen benefactor shut down his camera. They muttered among themselves. Someone voiced the rhetorical question, "Just who won that face-off?"
Looking at the dark screen, Grandjean said, "David, please inform the launch unit that there will be no further launches today." Then more generally, "Gentlemen, please place your current projects on hold. Initiate burns on the observer birds to maximize surveillance time over central Texas specifically, and the southwest U.S. generally." He breathed deeply. "Cal, naturally, you will continue your assignment. Please open the database file 'David's Sling'. You will find the necessary parameters for your orbital adjustments. When you have completed your burns, please utilize your payload optics to aid your fellows' watch." He turned and walked to his desk in the corner. He thought about the unanswered question that still echoed in his head. "Who won? No one was victorious today."
Neil swore roundly, including obscenities in six languages, as he tried to untangle his cables. The musty air in the access tunnel made him sneeze, which triggered another burst of curses. He hated DC, and seeing the nation's capitol from underground didn't make it look any prettier. He figured it should have been left an un-air conditioned swamp. Funny how wetlands protection and restoration never applied to feddie holdings
He promised himself that he'd keep his bright ideas to himself in the future, and never volunteer again. Goddamn how Misty could talk him into anything. He rechecked the ground strap bridged onto the heavy duty conduit that was his target, and went to work with a Dremel tool. He had to guess at what protections the fiber optic link between the White House and the Pentagon might have, but some sort of resistance check that could reveal a cut on the conduit seemed reasonable. The strap was meant to beat that. He hoped it would work.
The ceramic blade made quick work of the metallic tubing. He bent back a long flap of steel and looked at the armored cable within. The rest took rather longer. When he was finished, he had hung an odd device on every active fiber in the cable. The gadgets bore a passing resemblance to the laser signal tracers which telecomm techs used to bend a glass fiber just enough to allow some light, if any was present, to leak out and be detected. But these did a bit more than detect light. They amplified the laser signal and passed it on through a second optical fiber to a suitcase the tech had lugged through the dank tunnels.
The dozen fibers in the cable were now connected to a portable laser receiver and multiplexer. In theory, his system could now monitor any traffic passing over the government comm network. He had tried it out on some commercial networks, so he had faith in his handiwork. He hoped the gadgets he'd been given to defeat the tunnel's physical security systems worked as well; he had the idea that federal prison would be a very unpleasant place to live, assuming he made it that far.
He jacked his handheld comp into the elaborate line tapping device and set the thing to scanning for traffic. The results were fed down yet another fiber optic cable that he'd trailed behind him, like Jason in the Minotaur's labyrinth. Some other poor schmuck was stuck with the job of analyzing the data from the taps. He wondered how they'd deal with the encryption that the feds must be using. But that wasn't really his problem, so he settled his haunches down onto the chill concrete floor and pulled a worn copy of The Venus Belt from a hip pocket. It was a favorite anyway, and the anti-gov covert action in the tale made it seem... very appropriate just now. Neil tried to relax and read.
The General pulled the handset of the crypto phone from his ear and looked at it doubtfully. Unfortunately, he could hardly blame what he'd just heard on the complicated electronics. It took a politician to be that stupid. "An... air strike, Mr. President?"
"Damned right. I'm forced to conclude that the Launcher Company poses a grave threat to national security. Given the present state of affairs regarding the ongoing cyber attacks, we cannot take any more chances. Launcher... Neville has resisted a lawful order and rebuffed a military operation by force of arms. I want this settled. Now."
"Mr. President, is this the best avenue to pursue?" asked the JCS chairman. "It seems to me that destroying the very asset we wish to acquire may be... ill-considered."
"General, you have your orders. Carry them out, or I'll replace you with someone who can!"
He wasn't that far from a thirty year retirement, and it seemed a shame not to play the whole thing out. The General also recalled the nuclear connection between Launcher and NRU. Perhaps it was better to be safe than sorry. "Very well, Mr. President." The men hashed out details, and the General placed more calls to put wheels into motion.
Cal was fetching his sixth cup of coffee when he heard a vehicle pull up to the building. A few moments later Bill Neville walked in carrying a large briefcase. "Good afternoon, Mr. Neville," he said.
Neville's face held a worried frown, as he looked the controller over. "Cal, isn't it?" The controller nodded, and Neville continued, "Afraid there's not much good about it; but thanks anyway." He eyed Cal carefully. "Aren't you on the Bow?" he asked.
Cal sighed. "Yes, sir. How's it looking?"
"Terrible." The executive walked over to Grandjean's desk, where he conferred quietly with the supervisor. While they spoke, two more men entered the building, carrying cases. When they caught Neville's eye, he pointed them towards the break area. They appropriated the table, carefully placing the coffee pot on the floor, and opened their cases.
Cal watched briefly as they began setting up what seemed to be a mobile command post, something that should have been ridiculously redundant in the company operations center. He considered what sort of situation could make the gear a necessity, then looked at his coffee cup. He threw it into the trash and went back to his post. His appetite had fled.
From his seat to Cal's right, David asked, "What're they doing?" He tipped his head toward the visitors.
"Looks like Ops just became Headquarters."
"That's not good. You think it's going to be us then?" David was Cal's backup for the new duty. He wiped sweaty palms on his trousers.
"I'm a-thinking so." Cal wondered if he should try calling Micky; she might be good for his nerves. Then he saw Hank Hanners slip quietly through the door, and thought about Erin; as if he didn't have enough on his mind already. He shook his head and tried to focus on the tasks at hand. And the ones that might soon be. Neville's voice broke through his thoughts.
"Okay folks, status report. Things have looked better. I've been on the phone with the President." He sighed. "That little show after lunch just plain pissed him off. He demanded our total surrender. He directed us to, I quote, 'remand yourselves t' the proper authorities t' stand trial as war criminals.' end quote." Neville shook his head in disgust. "Little bugger's nuts, 'a course. Seems t' blame us for everythin' from the hack attacks t' fluoridated water. But what's left'a the government is supportin' him." He walked out in front of the consoles where he could be more easily seen. "We've monitored a call t' the JCS. The little SOB has ordered an airstrike, and the crazy sons'a bureaucrats are goin' along with it."
"How were we able to monitor something that sensitive?" David asked, gettin the words out only a moment before Cal could.
From the break area, one of the technicians setting up the extra comm gear answered. "Because the clowns think optical cable can't be tapped, and they still think Skipjack is worth a darn."
Cal considered. "Skipjack? Isn't that the one that... ?" But then, he'd heard the feds still used DES for some stuff, too. But at least they admitted that one was useless for anything but basic privacy.
The tech grinned and said, "Yeah. Years ago. Idiots." He continued connecting cables. Cal shook his head and laughed to himself, finding what humor he could in the life-forsaken mess.
More hours passed. The shift changed in Ops, but Cal chose to stay on. He couldn't say exactly why, but he kept thinking about the people out on the flight line who had unequivocally, if nonverbally, told the Army to go diddle themselves. Most of them probably didn't even have any financial stake in the company, but they'd... come. Cal wondered if they knew why, exactly, either. No, he - and they - knew; it was just hard to articulate. Unless you were Thomas Jefferson. Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit.... Cal shook his head and hoped he really did know what he was doing.
Someone had replaced David on range safety, a new girl; Sunni. A fellow controller had told Cal that the long-haired, athletic babe was nearly forty, but Cal didn't believe it. She waved to catch the CEO's eye. "Mr. Neville?"
Neville looked up. "Yes, umm... Sunni?" All things considered, Neville thought it worthwhile to try to learn the names of the people with whom he was working today.
"I'm seeing flight line activity at both Holloman and Cannon. They've both usually shut down by now."
Neville thought. "What kinda aircraft?"
"I think those are F-111's at Cannon. I'm afraid I know more about SF spaceships than military planes."
"Yeah," replied Neville, "I think Cannon still has FB-111's. What is it at Holloman? F-15's?"
"Er... long skinny things. Like darts," she added apologetically.
Neville smiled and said, "Those would be T-38's. Old trainers. Air Force never gets ridda anything that still sorta works." He shook his head. "Don't worry 'bout `em. It's probably the 111's at..."
"Got something else now," Sunni interrupted. "Holloman. Arrowhead-shaped, so they must be the 117A's." She winked at her boss. "Even I can recognize those."
"Shee-it." Neville calculated quickly. "I don't like that." He turned to Cal.
The young man was already at work. "Yeah, boss," Cal answered; typing frantically.
"How do we stand if it's Holloman? Or Cannon?"
"Umm... " Cal stared at his screens, waved his lightpen like a magic wand, and tapped keys. His face brightened. "Pretty good, if they go in the next 10 minutes. Not so good, but okay for two hours after that." He spun his chair to face Neville. "That's for either base. From orbit, there isn't that much difference."
"Good. Stay ready." Neville looked to one of his comm techs, who had long since moved the coffee table and their gear next to the control consoles. "William, can you find me any radio traffic at either air base? I need to know."
The technician stared at his screen, evaluating the geographically distributed communications assets at his disposal, and answered, "I've got folks working UHF ATC freqs; oughta be something there." He kept typing. "246..." he muttered. "No... maybe... Got modulated carrier. Encrypted."
Tense, Cal asked, "Can you crack it?"
"This quick? No way. But maybe we already have. I'm checking the database for New Mexico." William watched data scroll by on his display. With computational power getting cheaper every month, codeheads around the world amused themselves by cracking the less secure algorithms still used by the military, a hobby that was slowly convincing the powers that be in the Pentagon to upgrade their crypto systems. But it was slow going for the bureaucrats. In the meantime, the cipherpunks were feeding the Launcher Company cracked codes. William was trying to match the available crypto routines to the bases in question. "Okay; got something. They usually change their keys over the weekend so's not to bother the brass. So we may not have this one yet... Bingo!"
A speaker came alive. "...confirm strike orders. On launch, go dark. Target is suspected to monitor electronic emissions."
"Better believe it, buddy," William mumbled to himself.
The voice from the speaker continued, "Good hunting."
Another voice replied, "Thanks, Ops Figures we'd have to clean up after the army."
Neville made a chopping motion and William killed the speaker. "William, where's that comin' from?"
"That's Holloman, sir." He grinned. "I guess somebody thinks we're worth the very best."
Neville ignored the quip. "Sunni, how many birds is Holloman sending?"
"I see two 117's lining up on the runway now."
"That's a lot of ordnance." The executive turned to Cal. "Cal, it's time. This is something no one can order you to do. But I'm asking."
Cal blew out a large breath he hadn't realized he was holding. "Yeah, I know." He tapped the ENTER key on his board. "Payload deployed."
Somewhere high over head, just beyond the edge of the atmosphere, a satellite dumped a bundle of ceramic rods. A small retro-rocket fired, deorbiting the package. As it hit air, it extruded a long streamer similar to those used by the launch booster for deceleration. The package shed velocity, then separated. Individual ceramic arrows continued their fall.
They were simple devices. Most of them had nothing more than a radio receiver hooked to servos controlling their 'fletching'. Guidance instructions came from Cal's computer, relayed by the parent satellite. Of the two dozen arrows dropped, four were were special. They too had flight control servos, but they also had very basic CCD cameras in their noses. Video was passed back to the satellite via tiny low power transmitters. The satellite relayed the data back to Cal.
In Texas, Cal's computer took in the four video signals, and built an enhanced composite image which gave the controller a view of where the arrows were falling. He guided their fall with a joystick. On the right projection screen the overhead image of Holloman Air Force Base seemed to shift. After a few seconds, the base appeared larger. The image abruptly jerked, bounced, blurred and cleared. Cal announced, "Package dropped, and braking chute deployed and detached. We're ballistic for now." He smiled as a random thought drifted through his mind. "Probably got folks across the Southwest making wishes on us, too." No doubt the man-made shooting stars were putting a fine display.
On the left screen, two blurred images left the ground. Cal tweaked his joystick, and the aircraft came into his field of view. His computer analyzed vectors and fed him intercept data. "Tracking. Adjusting the... Got 'em." He looked up. "If they stay on course, we impact in one minute. Should I deploy a second package? Just in case?"
Staring at the right screen, which now showed the aircraft, Neville said, "No. They won't do anythin' fancy. They think they're attackin' a buncha helpless civilians."
That very thought had already occurred to Strike One. This would be easier than Baghdad, even. These poor clods don't even have obsolete ack-ack to pop his way. Go in, hit 'em, leave; all safe and sound. And home for dinner. "Strike Two, Strike One," he called to his wingman.
"One, Two. Go." Terseness and low bandwidth encryption stripped the radio voice of any humanity.
"Breaking away now. I'll illuminate initial targets for your run, then you pull back while I crater their strip." A simple reiteration of the plan to trash the launch prep facilities, then destroy the booster's asphalt runway. He wasn't too sure how effective cratering would be in preventing a hovercraft from using it, but his not to wonder why, just to do or... He derailed that train of thought.
Cal swore quietly. "One plane is peeling away! I might not... " he played with his controls for brief seconds. "Okay. The planes separated, but I split the pack, and have a few arrows targeted on both of 'em now." He was too intent on his display to know if anyone else was listening to him. The words were as much for his own benefit as anything.
Onscreen, the image from the arrows closed on the aircraft, blurred, cleared, and closed again. And again. Then... blank.
Strike One was just leveling off on his new path when a flash to the north caught his eye. He looked, but Strike Two was nowhere to be seen, replaced by a dirty cloud lit from within with orange. Shit! "Strike Two, Strike... " he began, when his own situation went insane. His bird jerked hard, shuddered, lost stability, and every alarm she had went off. Then his world ended in a wall of bright fire.
Cal watched the video feed from the navsat composite. All that remained of the two attack craft were a streaks of smoky fire across the New Mexico landscape. He stared. It looked like a video game. But something in his guts crawled. He heard muffled curses, and wasn't even sure if any were his own. He was lost in the image of death. And went cold with another thought. It couldn't just... stop here. Could it?
Behind him, Neville was asking someone, "You got that telco hookup?"
"Long since, Mr. Neville." William had gotten some instructions from Neville early on. In response, he'd had some guy named Neil in Washington break a fiber and splice in a connection so they could do a little more than listen in. For now, William was staring at the fiery display. The similarity to a game display struck him as well.
"Put me through to the President."
Cal turned back to his workstation and began calling up orbital tracks, and checking potential targets. He found one he liked and nudged a bird coming over the Left Coast a few more degrees to the north. His stomach started doing flipflops.
Neville was on the phone. "Good evening, miss. This is Bill Neville with Launcher Company. Yes, I believe you can help me. Would you please put me through to the President?" He paused. "Yes, I am quite serious." Waiting. "Miss, why don't you check with your supervisor? I think you'll find that it's a real good idea to put me through." Pause. "Yes, ma'am, I expect you are recordin'. No, this isn't a threat. Time for threats is long past." Pause. "Neville. Launcher Company." He rolled his eyes. "Yes, the folks who ran off the army." He shook his head. "Yes, ma'am, and for the record, we just shot down a flight of F-117A's from Holloman Air Force Base, and I imagine your President would like to talk about it." Still another pause. "No, ma'am, he is not my president, too. Not anymore." Pause. "Thank you; I'll hold." He pressed the speaker button and put the handset down. "Bloody bureaucrats!" he snorted. While he waited waited, he thought about his last words. At what point had he decided that the President, all he represented really, had no more hold over him? Ain't it a little late t' be turnin' anarchist, Billy-boy? Maybe Hank could scare up one'a those Gadsden flags for him.
The speaker spoke. "Hello? Is this Mr. Neville?"
Neville held up a hand, asking for silence in the control room. A few hushed conversations had broken out. "Yeah, Neville here. Who's this?"
"This Gordon Hollyfield, aide to the President..."
"Then be a good little aide, and assist him t' the phone."
"Really, sir. That's quite impossible. The President of the United States is a very busy man. As much as he might like to, he really can't chat with everyone who calls the White House..."
"Hollyfield," Neville interrupted, "does the civil service have a maximum IQ requirement?"
"Sir? I'm afraid I don't understand..."
"No shit. Tell you what; as soon as your security people figure out that I'm apparently callin' in on one'a the Pentagon hotlines," Neville grinned at his comm tech, who beamed in pride and polished fingernails on his shirt front, "you can go tell the President that I called to talk about the current state of war we find ourselves in." He reached over to the phone cradle and set a finger on a button. "Have a nice evenin', Mr. Hollyfield." He hung up. "America was such a nice civilization before it fell," Neville said to no one in particular.
"Hey, boss," William called out suddenly. "Would you be interested in some telephone traffic between NEACP and what seems to be the White House?" One of William's scattered frequency watchers had found something interesting and alerted him over the 'Net.
"Kneecap?" Neville replied quizzically; the acronym went right over his head for the moment.
"N-E-A-C-P," the tech spelled it out. "Airborne command post. Sounds like the Vice-Prez is up there, just now."
"Ah, yes. Sorry; went blank for a second there." Neville nodded. "Put it on."
"Are you out of your freaking mind?" exclaimed an excited voice. "You can't send a major land and air assault against Texas! It's a state, for crying out loud!"
"Not Texas, Dick!" screamed a second voice. "That goddam Launcher Company!"
"They're CITIZENS! You can't declare war on them!" The vice-president shouted.
"Wanna bet? It's already done! Had to can that insubordinate SOB Pace. But General Lawler understands! He's sending the troops out..."
Neville reached over and killed the speaker himself. "Good god, he's completely lost it." He turned to the room. "Suggestions? Anyone?"
"I've got one," volunteered Cal. Everyone turned to him.
"What? Surrender?" Sunni countered caustically. "I don't think I'll like prison camp." Neville was shaking his head, as well.
"Nope." Cal leaned back in his chair, resting one arm by his keyboard. His guts had stopped churning, but only because they'd finally congealed. At least it kept his dinner down. Mostly. He could still taste bile.
"What then?" Neville wondered sadly. "I'm out of ideas. We can't fight the entire U.S. military." He sagged, and Cal thought that one of the saddest things he'd ever seen. "I never expected it all to go this far."
Cal wondered if he'd be drooping himself if he didn't have the console to hold him up. "No, we can't fight the whole army. But we can decapitate it." His own words chilled him again.
"Beg pardon?" Neville hoped he was misunderstanding the boy.
"It's an army. We take out the commander-in-chief." There; he'd said it plainly.
Shocked, Neville exclaimed, "You can't kill the President!"
Far more calmly than he actually felt, Cal replied, "I've been thinking about this all day." He glanced over to Grandjean, and continued. "Three points- You just said it yourself; he's not our president anymore. I think you're right. Next, as a military commander-in-chief, he's just as valid a target as those fighter jocks we just killed." He stared at Neville. "Yeah, people just died. I killed 'em myself." Then more generally, "And you and he have both said it; it's a war now. We have to fight. And if we don't do something, we've got a couple thousand friends outside who may die." Then he pointed at the right projection, which was now showing an overhead of the White House, the image from the killsat he diverted shortly before. "Besides, they started it."
Grandjean was in shock. "That is more than three," he said inanely.
Cal shrugged. "So pick your three favorites, and run with 'em." He wondered at the hard facade he was projecting. Where had he found this in himself? Was getting into space this important to him?
Neville said, "Okay, war. But assassination..."
Yes. It is that important. This isn't just about going somewhere; it's about being free to go. Cal tapped a key. Behind him, the image jerked. "...Works for me." he finished Neville's sentence. "It's a defensive action, and he's a military target."
"But the civilians there!"
"And the civilians here?"
Cal shrugged again, and pointed his thumb over his shoulder at the widescreen. "Done is done. Or about to be. You can always blame me, anyway."
The entire room watched as the White House grew large on the relayed display from the arrows, then went blank.
Sunni scrambled to find another view from the navsats. "Got one. Lousy angle, though. Enhancing." She found another navsat coming over the horizon whose eyes she could add in. Through a haze of dust, they saw the ruins of a building surrounded by untouched grass.
"Sweet Jesus," someone whispered. Neville thought it was Cal.
Haze. Leveled rubble. Fires appeared to be breaking out; probably from ruptured gas lines. Indistinct figures were standing on the sidewalk looking at the destruction. In the ruins nothing moved, save fire, smoke, and an occasional toppling structural remnant. Certainly nothing alive.
A phone chirped. And again. Neville looked down at his mobile comm station. The hotline was ringing. Feeling empty, he pressed the speaker button. "Neville."
"Mr. Neville." It was a weak, wavering voice. It sounded like a shock victim. "This is... the Vice-President."
Neville took a deep breath, and slowly let it out. For better or worse, it seemed to be time to talk. "For lack of a better term... Good evening... Mr. President," he corrected.
"I've not been sworn in yet. There seems to be some difficulty in locating the Chief Justice. He... may have been traveling to the White House."
"I see." Neville thought carefully, and chose not to give up any ground before negotiations began in earnest. "And what exactly do you have t' tell us, Mr. Vice-President?"
"Let us come directly to the point. Through a very unfortunate and costly series of events, I am forced to accept the reality of Launcher's independence." The man's voice cracked, and he laughed bitterly. "Because of what has happened, I may even be forced to accept the fact of Texas' independence in the next few days. I deeply regret what has happened, Mr. Neville. And I fucking well hope you do, too." There was a hiss, like a suppressed sob. "You may have destroyed the Union, you son of a bitch."
"I do regret what as happened."
"Do you? Really?" A snort.
"Oh, yes," Neville whispered. Cal saw what might've been a tear beading at the corner of one of the man's eyes. "But it wasn't I who may've destroyed your precious Union. We only defended ourselves. Ya'ller the ones who couldn't bear t' let go just a little bit." The tear began a slow trek down Neville's cheek. "Ya'll are the ones who drove me t' what I've become."
A loud exhalation came over the speaker, as the VP gathered himself. "Regardless, it is an accomplished fact. We have fought a short, if definite war. Shall we discuss terms?"
Ignoring the ongoing discussion, Cal, white-faced, got up and headed for the door. He was intercepted by Grandjean. "Calvin," he whispered. "Where are you going?"
"Out," Cal replied through tight lips. He tried to push past the ex-pat Frenchman.
The Ops supervisor blocked him, and demanded harshly, "Now? Now you go? Why?"
"Because right or wrong, good or bad; what I've done today makes me sick and I have to throw up! Okay?" Cal shook free of Grandjean's grasp on his arm and ran to the door. He pushed it open and ran out blindly. His stomach heaved, and he bent over and disgorged sour coffee and whatever it was he had eaten during the day. Sweating, he lifted his head and discovered he was braced against his hand-lettered sign bragging on the launcher. He'd splattered his work with rank vomit.
He sucked in air, still hot and thick from the day's sun blast. He looked at the sign and wondered if it was some strange token of things to come. Had his unilateral action fouled the entire effort of the company? Of his friends? He glanced back at the Ops building. Harsh light blasted out of the ajar door. Somehow he suspected they wouldn't need him to do any more controlling today. He wiped his soiled face, and walked wearily to his truck.
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