CHAPTER NAVIGATION BAR
TALES OF BUFFALO COMMONS
" KEEN "
Bruce Porter looked around at the gentle and seemingly endless vista as his Grand Designs IKARUS Aerocar glided toward its destination with a growing sense of tension.* * *
The nightly news did little coverage on the Buffalo Commons mission but the talk among many of the players he regularly found company with told him this area was as an increasingly dangerous war zone filled with small pockets of surprisingly heavily armed resistance fighters. But there was no indication of that from up here and Bruce was beginning to wonder if the stories were just that.
It wasn't that Bruce was ignorant of the area. Being the largest land mass on the planet without direct overhead surveillance it was a prime location for him and his team to bring their prototypes out for “quiet” test drives.
He knew first hand there were thousands of people living here. The First Nations population alone was more than two hundred thousand and was a thriving, interconnected culture spread over the 9 million hectares of the region, quite happy for their limited trade with the outside world because it came with limited interference.
And in the hundred or so passes he'd done over the Commons Bruce had interacted with a new group, family or homestead each time. You couldn't go a hundred klicks without meeting someone which is why Bruce Porter was one of the first voices among the power elite to suggest the originally planned ten thousand Troopers assigned for the Buffalo Commons mission wasn't going to be enough to do the job. He was also one of the first to hear about the troubles.
Bruce wondered how this mission could be going so wrong, so quickly. Network Squads were engaged in no less than one hundred and seventy six hot-spots against groups that shouldn't have been as hostile as they were.
No one could figure out why the squatters and even some native groups were assuming the Network was an invading force but as Network Squads came over each new hill they were more frequently coming into the sights of weapons and conflicts that ended badly for the locals and did nothing to help the Network's message.
Bruce understood that. No one signed up for a mission to get killed and although the Rules of Engagement restricted firing first they held no restrictions on returning fire. But the mounting casualties: six thousand dead, one thousand three hundred and sixteen of which were Network Forces, did nothing to ease the tensions.
This sleepy overlooked region might not have a recognizable infrastructure but obviously word got around and bad news always traveled faster than good.
The onboard navigator woke him from his reverie as he came on range and Bruce brought the Grand Designs IKARUS Aerocar on a gentle bank for final approach to the coordinates that Joules had given him.
As he did all the hairs on the back of his neck bristled and his eyes darted across the horizon looking for threats. A lot wasn't right with this situation and until normalcy re-asserted itself Bruce Porter was going to be on high alert.
Meanwhile he tried to focus on easing his Aerocar to its destination while his mind raced over the scenarios that would bring the city sophistic he knew Joules to be out the middle of a wilderness.
If the burnt umber colour of the approaching Aerocar hadn't gotten her attention the glint of sunlight off the highly polished body sure would've. As the flash blinded her momentarily Joules wondered if the car, held steady in the sky, positioned properly to reflect the sunlight at her as it had for a moment, couldn't tan someone, even at that distance.
Bruce brought the Aerocar toward her with the caution one might use on entering the den of a dozen sleeping lions while carrying a plate of steaks. Eventually he rotated the passenger side toward her and glided to a stop.
Joules came out from under the canopy of the tree as the canopy of the gleaming Aerocar rose and slid forward revealing the worried look of an old friend.
Then, without even the slightest glance at the spent cargo container that had gotten her here, Joules planted her foot in the side pocket, grabbed the grip and swung herself over the side of the hull and into the Aerocar with the smooth grace a Bronco rider would use taking his mount.
“Let's go.” Was all she said.
Bruce stared at her. She was a mess, beyond a mess. Her Phendo outfit was ruined, stretched out of shape, covered in dirt and grass, even torn.
In the six years he'd known Joules she'd never been in his presence looking anything less than radiant. She had even managed to wake in the morning looking more graceful than the night before, he'd been sure she snuck out of bed just before he'd waken to freshen up, but here she was like something the cat had dragged in, after the dog had been playing with it like a chew toy for the weekend.
Joules starred ahead on the expectation that they were leaving and after a moment of realization that nothing was happening she turned to him. A broad smile broke out at his expression, “I look awful, don't I?”
Bruce gasped at the realization that he'd been staring, he'd actually been stunned by her appearance, a pretty stupid thing considering this could be a dangerous situation. He instantly turned and keyed the canopy closed while bringing the Aerocar back to function.
“No.” He stammered, “I just…”
“It's alright Brucie.” She said as she began rummaging through his glove compartment, “I look awful! I just spent the last, I don't know… twenty hours playing 'Castaway' out here.”
“It okay, Joules. We'll get you back to my place and you can clean up. We'll order you something on my Shop-Link.” He paused and looked at her with sudden realization, “My Pete, you must be famished!”
Truth was Joules could wolf down even the most disgusting of meals right now and had the strangest craving for steak, something she almost never had, but that wasn't her hunger at the moment.
“We're not going to Calgary,” she said plainly as she continued to rummage through his compartments.
“We're not?” He replied with disbelief. She was safe, she could be back to civilization in less than an hour, what could be more important that that?
Joules turned to him with the intensity of addict, “Do you have a secure phone?”
Secure Phones were illegal, they were devices that most people didn't know about which used a complicated array of pirated channels to allow audio communications by methods which the Network couldn't monitor. It was dangerous to talk about such devices if you knew about them and those who did never mentioned them by name. Bruce was actually surprised Joules would even know about them.
Without giving any indication of it Bruce reached behind his seat and slid his thumb along the fabric at the back until it caught on the lip of a small pocket. He dug the thumb into the pocket which, despite its firm and unforgiving appearance stretched easily allowing Bruce to reach in and removed what, for all intents and purposes, looked like a very small pen-knife.
He brought it around to hand it to her but stopped as she reached for it, “What sort of trouble are you in, Babe?”
“The worst kind,” she said as the pried his hand open and took the small device. A moment later, after hesitantly keying what she thought was the right code, Joules brought the extended unit to her ear.
“Other way around,” Bruce offered and Joules quickly rotated the unit, and then smiled as she began to hear the connection tone.
* * *
Gilmore wore a retro-fitted headset most people would've assumed was a toy. It completely covered his eyes and the top part of his head and had a glow inside that gave him a faintly alienness.
He wandered around the open space of his hidden deck like someone going through the motions of Tai Chi and the combination of his actions and appearance would've given anyone watching the feeling that he was a ten-year-old playing in his own universe.
Despite being half a century old this wasn't far from the truth, but the device he wore was in fact a hastily constructed unit combining various interfaces and sensors in order to further study his new obsession, the composite rock creation Joules had brought back from Egypt.
A few hours earlier Gilmore had wedged it in the narrow space between two decorative panels on a Station Five elevator. He'd done this so the rock would travel around the station in, what was for him an unpredictable pattern, and he could test the limits of his new tracking system while refining and further studying the creation.
Although Gilmore could understand and even appreciate the gentle simplicity of an element which absorbed the low energy frequency of 321 megahertz he was having a crisis of imagination in getting why someone would attempt to distribute so many throughout a technologically backward region like Buffalo Commons.
Surely, he thought, there must be something else to this composite material. And until he figured out what that might be Gilmore was intent to study the properties of the rock with every available piece of equipment he had, could get a hold of, or think up.
Thus far however all he'd learned was that the elevator car he'd put the rock in never seemed to park.
The fortunate part of this obsession was that he was home when Joules called.
* * *