Link to Installment 1
As part of my previously discussed plan to make my site more interesting to me I’m going to publish my ongoing attempt at a dystopic science fiction story, “Sniper.” Part of my reason for putting it up on the site is to get feedback from sf fans and also because I hope at some future time to finish it and put it up for sale. If anyone likes the story, I highly encourage him to spread it to anyone among his acquaintances or sites that he thinks would be likely to be interested. After all the whole reason for the internet is mass communication.
Also, I’m encouraging all comments; positive and negative. Feedback is greatly desired.
The American Archipelago
Book 1 – The Sniper
Chapter 3 – King of the Mole Men
Monday at eleven in the morning Bogey showed up at the loading dock and parked his tractor. He walked up to the office and announced himself and asked for Connors. A call was placed and a few minutes later a well-dressed young man in business casual hustled into the office and shook hands with Bogey and asked him to follow him to Mr. Connors’ office.”
Luckily the weather was dry because the office was about half a mile and several twisting roads away. When they reached the building Bogey was startled to see that the executive office was a repurposed Woolworth’s store. The letters of the sign had been removed but their shapes were still visible from the contrast of the lighter areas that had been hidden from sun and rain. Most of the furnishings had been removed but there were still enough retail relics scattered around the walls to let older people know that this was the shell of a creature from a bygone era. And Bogey nodded his head. Reusing this building was an act of respect for the people who had been here before.
Bogey followed the earnest young man right into the store and near the back there was a sudden change of décor. The back corner of the building had solid cherry wood walls meeting up with the brick of the two building walls to form an office about 100 feet by a hundred feet square. The ornate wood walls went from the ceiling to the floor and contained large double doors. The earnest young man placed his id card in the reader and was rewarded with the approving beep that allowed him to open the opulent rich brown door and lead Bogey into the presence of the boss.
Before Bogey was halfway to the desk Connors was up on his feet and almost running toward Bogey. “Bogey, damn it’s good to see you. Have you had lunch yet?” Bogey braced for the impact as this juggernaut of bon homme bore down on him. After the requisite back slapping and hand shaking slowed down, he said, “Hey it’s good to see you too Connors. No, I haven’t had lunch, I just got into town.” This news set Connors off again, “That’s perfect. There’s a diner a few blocks down that has a chicken-butternut squash soup that will restore your faith in mankind. Let’s walk over there now and I’ll begin the tour after lunch.” Connors turned to his employee and said, “Dave, I’ll be in meetings with Mr. Boghadair for the rest of the week. I’ve left instructions on how to contact me and what can be put on hold this week. I’ll get in touch with you when I need support.” The earnest young Dave nodded his head and disappeared from the office without a word.
As they exited the building Connors turned right and walked leisurely down the mostly empty sidewalk and smiled at the sunshine on his face. “You know that’s one thing that I do miss about Iraq, the sunshine.” Bogey let out a sarcastic hah. “Your memory must be going on you. A hundred and twenty in the shade is not something you miss. You just pray it misses you. So, Connors, how come a big shot billionaire like you can take a week off from billionaire-ing to give the deluxe tour to a zero like me?”
Connors continued to smile into the sunshine that was warming his glad face, “That’s because it’s a privately held company. I am that rarest of birds, a billionaire who truly is his own boss. No stockholders, no board of directors, no government oversight, no nothing. I even decide what my own salary is. And believe it or not it’s paltry. I really do plow the profits back into the company. But what I do have is a slush fund that could fill the Grand Canyon. I’ve always found enormous liquidity allows me to make strategic moves quickly.” Bogey thought about this and said, “I guess that means you can pick up the check at lunch then.”
Lunch was eaten in mostly silence. Bogey had to admit the soup was pretty damn good. When they were done, they walked back to the company building and Connors steered Bogey into an alley where their ride was waiting. It was a late model gray Toyota sedan. When they were in, Connors drove it down the main drag and then onto the interstate at the first entrance outside of town. He kept up a leisurely conversation for the first few minutes then they both settled into a comfortable silence. A little less than an hour later they reached an industrial site. The site was colossal. Bogey guessed it was ten miles on each side and surrounded by some rather formidable steel fencing. They were steel panels that resembled the privacy walls you sometimes see along highways that abut neighborhoods that resent the noise and view of an adjoining highway. But these panels were 100 feet tall. When Connors drove up to the entrance Bogey could see that the security guard had a very serious sidearm on his belt. The make wasn’t familiar but it looked to be about a .45. Connors caught him eyeing the weapon and smiled, “We take security very seriously here.” Connors put his hand against a fingerprint scanner that the guard provided and after the reassuring ding sounded, they were allowed to drive through.
From the parking lot they walked about a quarter of a mile and reached another fence with a guard shack built into it. Bogey noticed that the sound of massive fans got louder as they approached the fence. This fence was only thirty feet high but of the same metal construction. Connor used his badge to get in the door and once inside both of them walked through metal detectors followed by a retinal scan on Connors and a pat down for Bogey. As they exited the guard shack into the secured area Bogey complained, “You store a lot of gold and platinum around here?” “Sure, until we get a chance to use it. Those are fairly useful engineering materials.” “Sorry I asked.”
As they approached a bank of doors Connors smiled at Bogey and asked, “Have you ever seen the movie Forbidden Planet?” Bogey shrugged his shoulders as if to say, “I hope not.” Connors continued, “Well then you won’t object if I paraphrase and tell you to prepare your mind for a new scale of physical engineering values.” Bogey shook his head and muttered “Nerd.”
But as he stepped out on the other side of the door he came face to face with the Void. It was a square shaft going straight into the Earth. But it was a mile on each side. Close to the door he had exited there was a railing about four feet high at the edge of the excavation. Connor walked over to it and looked down. As if it were a dare Bogey slowly and nervously followed him and holding onto the railing with both hands looked down. For the first half mile he could see the sides of the hole. It was not uniform in color or pattern. It looked to be natural rock but Bogey wasn’t sure of that, only an impression. Below a couple of thousand feet, it became too dark to make out details and right in the center of the hole it was pitch black like the depths of Hell. Connors said in a casual way, “It’s pretty damn creepy the first time anyone looks down on this thing.” He walked back away from the edge and headed back toward the building exit they had gone through. Once Connors had stepped away Bogey felt he had proved himself and gladly backed away from that nightmare and followed Connors. He didn’t want the other man to know how rattled he’d just been by the sight of that yawning emptiness. It was like the Grand Canyon but instead of awesome it was unnatural, almost horrific.
Catching up to Connors they followed the wall of doors until the building ended and they came to a set of stairs about seventy five feet wide. They walked down several flights and came to a bank of elevators. There were freight elevators that were seventy five feet wide but there were some passenger elevators and they took the nearest one. Bogey had expected to see buttons for hundreds of floors. But there was only a terminal on the wall that Connors accessed and after a number of key strokes the elevator began to descend. Bogey could feel that they were descending very rapidly. He noticed it was getting warmer. “Connors, how warm does it get down here?” “Hotter than Iraq Bogey. But don’t fret. The living quarters are air conditioned to keep you happy. This isn’t our first rodeo down here as I’m sure you can tell.”
When the elevator finally stopped and opened Bogey could feel the cooled air around him. And he was surprised how bright the area was kept. It seemed like natural sunlight. They were in a reception area with a suite of offices surrounding them and a large open area beyond outfitted with desks and large engineering monitors that were covered with schematics and other drawings. Busy nerds were designing, revising and reporting their calculations, drawings, plans, schedules and cost analyses. But in Bogey’s mind it was just nerd stuff, what really smart people do that no one else understands or cares about. He looked around at Connors and said, “It’s worse than I thought. You’re not a Bond villain, you’re the King of the Mole Men.” Now Connors broke into a broad smile and said, “Bogey you have no idea how true those words are. Come on. This is just the office. Let’s get out into the world.”
They walked to the end of the corridor and behind a door they entered a huge cavern. The temperature in the cavern was stifling and had to be at least 120 degrees. Looking around Bogey could see that it was like an enclosed railway yard. There were tracks radiating out from a round house in the center of the space like the spokes of a wheel. They terminated at huge metal doors that measured one hundred feet wide and fifty feet high. As he watched one of the doors opened and a vehicle emerged. It was like a series of cylinders on wheels strung together. It had a diameter of about forty feet. And looking at the train he could see it was radiating heat off of its surface at a furious rate. Suddenly the sound of enormous fans filled the space and a gale of wind flowed through the cavern apparently to remove heat from the newly emerged train. It occurred to Bogey that the train must be hotter than a blast furnace.
Over the roar of the fans Connors shouted for Bogey to follow him and they headed for the round house. Once inside they headed for a smaller train engine. It was twenty feet long and ten feet in diameter. It had a passenger section in the middle of the cylinder with the doorway open and cowlings in the front and back that covered some internal mechanisms. Inside Connors strapped in behind an instrument panel and Bogey took the seat at his right. Connors triggered the door mechanism and the car sealed itself and the air conditioning system activated and quickly brought the vehicle to a comfortable 72 degrees. Connors activated two video screens and now both occupants could see views for both forward and behind the car. The image was surprisingly sharp despite Bogey not noticing a camera when he examined the outside of the vehicle.
Connors engaged the engine and the car headed down the track toward one of the doors which was already opening. After passing through the entrance the car moved forward about a quarter of a mile where it stopped in front of another door that was closed. Looking at the rear camera feed he could see that the first door was already almost closed. And sure enough, as soon as the first door was closed the second began opening and soon Connors had the car heading forward. And Bogey realized this was some sort of air lock system. He said to Connors, “Is that door system meant to keep out fumes?” Connors answered, “Somewhat, but mostly it’s heat insulation. We keep the air lock under vacuum between openings to minimize the amount of heat transferred into the train yard. We have an enormous thermal load to dissipate with the air system and anything we can do to minimize it we do.”
The car was travelling at about sixty miles an hour and the external lights must have been very powerful because Bogey could see the inside of the tunnel as if it were in the sun. After about an hour they came to another air lock where they cycled through the doors and ended up back in another railyard. After waiting some time for the exterior of the car to cool they exited the car and walked through another building into another cavern. And here Bogey saw a wonder. A miner or maybe we should say a technician was supervising an excavating machine that was cutting into a granite wall that clearly contained a wide and very bright vein of pure gold. The jaws of the machine drilled into the rock on either side of the precious metal and undermined the section then hammered it to pieces and fed it into a hopper. Bogey could see jagged chunks of gold the size of bricks heading down the conveyor toward a waiting train car that was being loaded.
Bogey was stunned. Connors said, “Want a souvenir?” Before Bogey could think to answer Connors went up to the tech and yelled something at him. The tech hit the red mushroom stop button and looked around on the ground and found a scrap on the ground and handed it to Connors before restarting his machine. Connors walked over to Bogey and handed him a chunk of the yellow metal about the size of a hen’s egg but jagged and embedded with stone. Bogey looked at his gift and tried to figure out how many thousands of dollars this heavy little memento was worth. Connors told him to stow it in the car for later since it was heavy and inconvenient to carry.
They re-entered the car and after the round table turned through about thirty degrees of angle, they proceeded through another air lock and headed back into the tunnels. Once they were cruising Connors put the controls on automatic and went into the galley to get some drinks and snacks. He handed Bogey a beer and a ham sandwich and got one of each for himself. “So we’ve got about thirty mining sites in various states of operation and we extract cobalt, tantalum, nickel, platinum, silver, copper and, as you saw, gold for refining and either use or sale. But our latest venture is in geothermal energy and applications to energy storage and transportation. That’s our next stop.”
The car began down a decline that continued for an hour. After the car passed through another air-lock they found themselves inside a climate-controlled building. Leaving the car behind they took an elevator up twenty floors and walked into an industrial plant with a fairly loud power hum that they could feel through their feet. Looking through an observation window they could see a row of colossal steam turbines on the floor of the plant. Bogey was completely unfamiliar with the details of current industrial art with respect to turbine technology but he was pretty sure these were abnormally large. Connors leaned over to be heard and said, “Each of those turbines produces 2 gigawatts of electric power. We have twenty on-line and are installing ten more a year for as long as we find we can use the power for our own use or the customers we serve. Come on, let’s get out of this noise, it gives me a headache.”
They followed the corridor for a hundred yards then ducked through a side door into an office space that was carpeted and obviously heavily sound proofed. Bogey heard his own breath released noisily and realized he had been experiencing nerves while out in the plant environment. “Connors, I’ve got to hand it to you. This ride is better than Disneyworld. But can we rest for a while? I’m a little worn out from gasping at, what did you call it, preparing my mind for a new scale of physical engineering values.”
Connors looked concerned, “We can stay here overnight if you’re tired.” Bogey waved his hand and said, “No nothing that drastic. How about if we stop for dinner?” Connors nodded and changed direction. They headed into a company cafeteria and Connors showed him the menu and the ordering panel and they punched in their selections. The containers dutifully appeared from an aperture and they brought their selections to a bank of microwaves where passable stew was rendered edible and they added a couple of cups of fresh brewed coffee to their trays. Sitting at an ordinary white corporate cafeteria table on the typical puke green plastic cafeteria chair Bogey found it hard to believe he truly was in the realm of the Mole King. But his eyes had told him otherwise.
“Connors, you’ve convinced me you’re the real deal. Tony Stark ain’t got nothing on you. But you know I can’t hope to appreciate all this Buck Rogers stuff. I’m an ex-trigger puller and now struggling freight company owner. But if you can stand one bit of criticism, how can the King of the Mole Men have such ugly cafeteria furniture right here at the very heart of his realm? Won’t the other comic strip villains steal away your most loyal minions with promises of designer cafeteria furniture?”
Connors squinted his eyes and, in a voice choked with outrage he said, “Bogey you’re mentally ill. You know that? I’ve revealed industrial secrets that corporate and government spies would pay serious money to learn and you’re carping about plastic furniture?” But suddenly, he burst out laughing, “Well, you’ve got a point, these are the ugliest damn chairs I’ve ever seen in every cafeteria I’ve ever walked into. I’ll fix it. I guess I’ve given you a big enough dose of the tour. I can tell you about the rest. But I actually love an excuse to come down here and see what’s going on. Anyway, I’ve been expanding our capabilities around the full spectrum of applications. I use the electrical power to run a syn-fuel operation. I’ve got two primary products I produce hydrogen gas by electrolysis from water and I also run an octane synthesis plant, that’s basically gasoline. I make it from water and carbon dioxide. And next year I’m putting together a team to start developing an automobile that runs safely on hydrogen gas.”
Bogey continued to eat the stew in his bowl and stare up at a spot on the wall. Then he wiped his mouth on a paper napkin and looked at his host and said, “Connors, I’m glad to have someone as high powered as you interested in my existence but for the life of me I can’t figure out why someone smart enough to build this brave new world would need to talk to me about it.”
“Bogey, I’m not a scientist or an engineer. I wouldn’t know a neutron from a proton if it came with a label on it. What I do know is men. I can recognize quality and talent. I pick the men and the results follow. So, no, you can’t build me a power plant or an ore smelting operation but you very easily could run a security operation. And I know you could lead a team into a firefight if needs be. Those are very valuable skills to a man like me who is doing big things that will make him lots of powerful enemies. Now I know you’ve started your own company and of all people I know the satisfaction in building something of your own. But I give people who I believe in, enormous scope to run things themselves. In a lot of ways, I’d be like your client and your team would work for you. So, I didn’t see any harm in making the pitch to you.
Bogey’s face took on a thoughtful expression and he stared at the plate in front of him. He looked up and said, “Connors, I don’t want to do that for a living. I know this is an incredible financial opportunity but I want to do something else. Security is about worrying and I have enough worry in my life already. But I’m flattered and grateful that you asked me. Hell, I think this whole world you’re building is unbelievable. I’d love to do business with your galactic empire and someday be the bull goose looney space trucker to the king. But no more security for me. No more peering through the fence at the bad guys.
Connors nodded his head slightly then shrugged his shoulders. “Okay cowboy, have it your own way. We’ll leave it at that. You haul freight and we’ll build a new world under your feet. But I still have one more show and tell for you to see.” They tossed their plates in a waste barrel and headed out into the plant space. After about twenty minute’s walking they reached a cavern that had only one vehicle parked outside the building. It was also cylindrically shaped but very different in appearance than the previous cars. It was fifty feet in diameter and a thousand feet long. The front of the vehicle was shaped like a cone and was obviously some kind of drill. Bogey guessed that this was what created the tunnels they had been travelling through. “How much did this thing cost to make?” he asked. Connors cocked his head and pursed his lips, “Including research and development, prototypes and all the other resources devoted to it I’d say nothing less than ten billion dollars. But it’s worth a hundred times that when you factor in what it has yielded for us just so far. Without this machine we’d be sitting on square one. This device speeds up tunnelling by a factor of ten thousand and eliminates human miners from most of the most dangerous parts of the job because it’s a drone. Even though we’ve only had one failure where the tunneller was lost that one collapse would have taken dozens of lives if it had occurred while using miners.”
Bogey walked along the machine and tried to guess how it actually worked. Connors came up and put a hand on his shoulder and warned, “Let’s move out of this area now. This thing is only mildly radioactive and we wouldn’t even get a chest x-ray worth of gamma from standing here for a week but I’m superstitious about that stuff so let’s move along.” Bogey followed him away but was still trying to figure how the thing worked. “What’s the nuke material for?” Connors smiled, “Power source. That thing produces enormous power for cutting rock and also to fuse the rock surrounding the bore hole into an incredibly strong wall.”
Bogey kept walking but continued to think of how the tunneller worked. “But where does all the rock crushed by the drill go? It can’t be compressed enough by being melted.” Connors said, “Smart boy! I should’ve asked if you wanted to join the eggheads in my engineering group. When the drill is in use it is extended quite a distance in front of the tunneller. This leaves an aperture that the rock enters and is transported by conveyers to the end of the tunneller where it is excreted. It’s sort of like how a worm moves through the soil and sends the soil through its guts and out the back end.”
Now Bogey broke into a broad smile and laughed, “So the King of the Mole Men has an atomic earthworm to dig his tunnels. I should write this into a pulp novel. But it’s so fantastic that no one would believe it.” Connors shook his head and said, “It’s a good thing I know your brain was damaged from all the hits you took to the head back in the sandbox otherwise I’d resent such juvenile remarks. Alright, grand tour completed. Let’s head back up.
For the whole trip back up to the surface Connors talked enthusiastically about his enterprises and the plans he had to expand it. Bogey listened mostly silently and noted the almost religious intensity that his friend spoke with. When they had driven out of the fence line and were back on the interstate Connors ran out of words. It was 3 a.m. and they were both pretty exhausted. When they got back to town Connors dropped him off at the small motel where he had registered Bogey for the night. When Bogey got to his room he dropped his backpack, took off his shoes and fell dead asleep on top of the quilt on the bed.
The next morning Bogey got up, took a shower and headed to the dining room. And there sitting at a table with a plate of food was Connors, with a mug of coffee at his mouth. He waved Bogey over enthusiastically and continued his breakfast. Bogey groaned inwardly at the thought of another seminar on the wonderful world of Paul Connors. But he managed a half smile and sat down.
But Connors had switched gears overnight. He was done with the technical presentation. Now he was enjoying his ham and eggs and asking Bogey about the details of his shipping business. Bogey was astonished about how much this titan of industry knew about his one-horse operation. But because Connors seemed genuinely interested, Bogey found himself talking candidly about the challenges and opportunities that currently kept him up nights. Connors was mostly quiet and nodded his head from time to time and when there was a break in the talk said, “Well, it sounds like you’re in the thick of it. How’s that family of yours getting along?” And feeling comfortable and after ordering and beginning to eat a stack of pancakes and some sausages Bogey talked about his wife and son and what was going on at home. Afterward it occurred to him that he had maybe been a little too long winded about home matters with someone who probably was more interested in the price of crude oil than he was with the domestic details of the Boghadairs. But Connors seemed to have the knack for putting a speaker at ease. Probably the skills of a master salesman. When Bogey ran out of words they both sat for a few minutes drinking a second cup of coffee and relaxing in the stultifying embrace of motel muzak emerging from the tinny public address speakers.
When they left the dining room Bogey checked out at the front desk and joined Connors at his car in the lot. They drove back to the main office and walked into Connors office for their final talk before headeding home. “I hope my tour wasn’t completely boring for you.” Bogey shook his head, “Exhausting maybe, but the opposite of boring. I have no idea how you did all of this but I’m amazed that I haven’t heard about your company before.”
Connors nodded, “We keep a very low profile. I have very important contracts with the government and with most of the larger industrial corporations but my focus is on building up my community-based networks. And within those networks it’s clearly understood that the goals and progress of those communities is proprietary. My forecasters predict that there will be enormous political dislocation in the near future. I expect to have to navigate a chaotic mess of local, state and federal disputes. If I’m not high on the radar of any tinpot dictators until late in the game it may afford me time and opportunity to avoid trouble, at least long enough to make some irrevocable decisions.”
Bogey chewed on his bottom lip for a second, “You really think the end of the world is coming?” Connors smiled and said, “Something like that. I’m planning for up to and including the dissolution of the United States of America. And don’t forget that when a county’s domestic affairs are in disarray that’s when its external enemies act against it. I’m even preparing for a full nuclear exchange. Although I hope for something less.” Bogey chose his words carefully, “That seems a little pessimistic to me.” Connors spread his hands in front of him, “Perhaps. But remember one thing. If you reach a point where the environment where you live no longer allows you to guarantee the safety of your family, call me and we’ll implement an extraction plan. Believe me when I say I’ve got the resources to make it happen. In fact this is the kind of thing I was hoping to recruit you to oversee. But regardless, call me and we’ll get you to a safe place.” Then Connors extended his hand across the desk. Bogey half smiled but then stood up and gave his friend a pretty solid handshake. “Thanks Connors. I hope I never have to take you up on the offer but it’s good to have a doomsday plan. Well, I better get on the road. It’s a long drive and by now a bunch of stuff is bound to have gone wrong. I’ll think about what you’ve said and if you’re ever in my neck of the woods stop by and have dinner with me and the family. Connors said, “Sure.” but they both knew it would never happen.
Bogey walked out and headed for the loading dock area to get his rig and then began the drive home. Along the way he reflected on what an interesting but crazy world Connors had built around himself. And how glad he lived in a simpler, saner world. He wondered when if ever the two men would meet again. As it turned out it would be fifteen years before that would happen.
Link to Installment 5