In the midst of a global energy war, the North American army has decided to create a 20,000 foot runway by disintegrating the top of a Pacific island. To avoid alerting the enemies, this operation has to be done with remarkable speed and precision—the runway is being created mere minutes before a bouncer, a giant, unbelievably expensive transport, is due to land. Computers using Manufactured Intelligence, MI, will coordinate the diggers and heaters that will burn away the mountaintop under the command of Major Cole. Here is the operation as told by Eddie Torres.
* * *
Major Cole was crazy. He was a powerful West Indian with bulldog features and wary eyes, and he snarled orders and browbeat the company until we were all nervous and on edge.
It was dark, less than an hour before we were supposed to blow off the ridge and make the runway. Polaski and I were at the western end of the ridge, looking back along the island’s flanks toward the east; the bouncer would be landing toward us.
A few stars shone, but no moon. The metal flanks of the digger in front of me creaked as it cooled from the day’s heat. The rest of the digger and heater crews were strung out along the left and right slopes of the island in front of us, two strings of them along what would become the left and right sides of the runway after the ridge was removed. We couldn’t see the crews themselves, but we saw their work lights flickering in the night, forming a four-mile-long line on each flank of the ridge stretching away toward the approach end of the runway.
All of the machines on the flanks were slaved to Major Cole’s computers. Polaski himself was responsible for the only two that remained freelance, positioned at our end of the island and aimed back along its length: my own digger, and a big two-barreled heater run by Ellen Tanaka. She was about fifty feet to my right, with Polaski crunching back and forth between us. Tanaka, Polaski and I were the only ones at our end of the runway. We couldn’t see anyone else except Elliot, holding down the right-side digger position closest to our end.
We had dark goggles pushed up on our foreheads, and wore padded, noise-canceling headsets linked together by ground wire. On a rise to the left was an antenna Cole had put up, linking us to him and to a voice named Bella, the name he had given his MI. We didn’t know where they actually were. Chan and Paulson, our own MI people, were somewhere down-slope behind us, monitoring the heavy machines.
“Three minutes to braking,” came Bella’s silky electronic voice through the headset.
“Paulson, Chan!” It was Cole. “Who the hell’s not responding?”
“All diggers and heaters are timed and green on both sides, sir,” said Chan.
“Maybe now they are. Polaski—Tanaka and Torres at your end are the only ones off-line, so listen close. Torres is going to eyeball the finished runway and take off the rough spots. But there’s going to be about a million tons of dust in the air, and the pilots aren’t going to be able to see. So Tanaka’s going to sweep the range with her heaters and draw the crap off. She doesn’t look too bright, Polaski. You watch her close.”
“Lay off her, Cole,” said Elliot, a dim shape behind his own digger. He was fiercely protective of his platoon at the best of times, and today, already edgy about the operation and refusing from the very outset to give quarter to Cole’s abuse, he’d been at Cole’s throat all afternoon. “House nigger with airs,” Elliot had called him, “who don’t know shit about real people.”
“Sir,” said the tiny Tanaka to Cole through her headset.
“Hurry it up. What?”
“When do I stop sweeping the runway with the heaters?”
“When I tell you to, damn it! Listen, you people, this is a billion-dollar bird and it’s my ass, and I’m not going to let a bunch of piss-ant wireheads blow it for me. Now shut up, all of you. The clock’s running.”
“Two minutes to braking,” said Bella, reading his mind.
I was listening to all this with a kind of numb disinterest, my hands sweating on the digger’s controls.
“Rather be reading, Torres?” It was Polaski, off in the darkness.
“Who the hell said that?”
“Piss off, Cole.” Even Polaski had had enough.
“Yes, sir. Clock’s stable. Handshaking, no faults. All machines polling—one skip on number six, single retry. RPM’s in spec across the board. Ready, sir.”
“I don’t want another skip—anywhere. Is that understood? Paulson, are you backing up Chan?”
“Fifty-six seconds to braking.”
“I want all the digger crews to switch their ranging lasers on manually,” said Cole, “so I can see if anyone’s paying attention. Now!”
All the way up the island, thin red beams shot out from the diggers to measure the distance to the slope, lighting up in a herringbone pattern pointing away from us. After an instant’s pause, one last laser flickered on way up on the left.
“Who the hell was that? Who the hell’s the useless piece of crap that can’t pay attention for a whole minute? Well?”
“It’s on now, sir.” The voice was that of the woman who’d heckled Bolton in the briefing.
“Ten seconds to braking,” said Bella. “I have timing.”
There was a moment of suspense, then in perfect unison all of the ranging lasers winked out. It was dark and quiet for several heartbeats, then the ground shook with a powerful jolt. I felt sick at what was coming.
Then all at once the noise hit us, a wall of howling and clanging, even through our headsets, as all the diggers surged in unison through their frequencies, looking for a hit. The noise came screaming out of the blackness, swelling even louder as the farthest sounds began to reach us. Parts of the island began to glow and heave upward.
“Heaters—now!” shouted Cole.
The night erupted into searing white light as bolts of lightning shot out from the heaters and stayed lit, burning off the mass dislodged by the diggers. A single, ripping curtain of thunder pounded us for twenty seconds and then stopped, leaving just the snarling of the diggers and a roar as hurricane-force winds rushed into the vacuum behind the blinding white beams of the heaters. Cole was screaming something into his microphone—then a new voice came on.
“Thunder Island, this is Thunderbird on slope, two-niner miles. We have your lights, thank you. They’re mighty pretty.”
“Chan! God damn it—”
Bella cut him off. “Thunderbird, I have you at three-zero. I have data channel negative—are you automatic or pilot?”
“Colonel Alice Rajani at your ser vice, with a crew of fourteen of the Air Force’s finest. Advise your timing on those lights, please, Thunder Island.”
“Three seconds, Colonel.”
I tripped my ranging laser and got ready. The world went dark. I ripped my goggles off and strained to see. Stretching away in front of me was a glowing runway, socked in under a layer of grey smoke, eerily quiet. On the surface were a few darker irregularities I was to remove, but one of the heaters up on the left was still lit. Cole was screaming about it.
“Chan! Cut that thing off! Override it! What the hell’s the problem down there? Paulson!” Chan’s backup MI priest. “Take over—get that Chink bitch out of there. And where the hell’s the Jap? Why isn’t she clearing that smoke?”
Elliot’s voice: “Because you didn’t tell her to, you son of a bitch!”
Up the runway, heater number six finally blinked out.
“Come on, Tanaka,” said Polaski. “Your heaters!”
“Two minutes,” said Bella. Tanaka’s two barrels erupted into sun-bright shafts of light straight down the centerline, smoke rushing in to follow them.
“Four degrees up!” Cole screamed at her. “Four degrees! And swing it! Somebody do something about that piece-of-crap imbecile down there—”
Elliot cut him off.
“Chan, get me off- line! Come on, give me this thing. We ain’t getting this done till we put a sock in this asshole’s mouth.” Elliot’s ranging laser flicked on, still aimed up the runway in its locked position.
Chan shouldn’t have let him have control of the digger. Its barrel released from its locked position, then swung across the runway, across Tanaka’s heater beams and up toward Cole’s antenna. Then the digger itself flashed into life.
Wherever he was, Cole saw it.
“Jesus Christ! Paulson, get control of that thing! Take—”
The antenna flashed with a brief flame as Elliot sliced through it with the digger, silencing Cole. Paulson must have taken control back at that moment, however, because the digger’s beam jerked to a stop and started swinging back toward its old position up-range.
It was still on.
I was halfway to my feet and screaming when the live beam from Elliot’s digger, now slaved blindly to Paulson in keeping with Cole’s final order, swept through the first crew on our left. More screams, and the digger swept down the whole left side of the runway dragging a wall of flame behind it, finally merging with the double lance of Tanaka’s huge heaters on the centerline. The digger flashed out and a horrified silence settled over the island. Whimpering came from the headsets.
The question took a while to sink in.
“Major Cole?” It was Tanaka.
“Oh my god! Tanaka! Ellen! Kill your heater, now!”
Elliot was already racing toward Tanaka’s heater, which was still blazing down the runway long after it should have been off. At the start of the operation, Cole had backhanded her with his order to leave the heater on until he told her to stop, and now he couldn’t. She stood next to it in confusion, staring instead at the lethal wall of flame down the left side of the runway caused by Elliot’s digger. Elliot leapt onto Tanaka’s machine and groped for the controls, then finally tore out the breakers. The twin shafts flashed out. We spun around to look down the dark island.
Suspended above the runway was a swirling layer of smoke, drifting in quiet eddies. Floating above it was the moon—huge, round and full, the color of lead through the overcast, lifting into view.
And then, slowly and gracefully, into the grey circle of the moon came a giant silhouette—the breathtakingly huge, powerful shape of an aircraft, gliding silently through the top of the smoke layer, its nose rising majestically as it began its flare for the landing. The nose lifted higher, then higher, then gasps came through our headsets as the nose rolled higher still, exposing a glowing, jagged edge where Tanaka’s heater had melted the great plane in two.
The front end of the aircraft rolled slowly onto its back, settling closer and closer to the runway, the glowing maw of its wound approaching as though to swallow us all. Molten fragments floated across the island and flared into pillars of flame where they hit the jungle, making no sound at all.
Then suddenly the trance was broken as the plane plunged through the wall of smoke and smashed into the runway, spinning furiously toward us along the right side, crushing the remaining crews watching from behind their machines.
Polaski jumped. I strained to see through the smoke, and then I saw it too.
Barely outlined against the glow of the flames, a black figure was walking toward Elliot where he stood by Tanaka’s big heater. I started to run, pulling off my headset as I went. “Elliot! Elliot, look out!”
Elliot spun just as Cole raised his arm and pulled the trigger.
He hit Ellen Tanaka squarely in the face from just inches away.
Copyright © 2006 by Thomas A. Day
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A Grey Moon Over China is available now from Tor Books