Lang hooked his fingers under the manhole cover and nodded to Bragg, who had just gotten a grip on the other side. With a quick, synchronized yank they hefted the metal disc up and out of its seat and tossed it aside. Although the city was long unused the sewer below was still damp and pungent. “Fuck,” Bragg murmured, “that smells terrible.”
“Probably runoff from the rain keeping it moist,” Lang muttered. “If the air down there is poisonous we’ve got respirators we can use and it’s a damn sight better than letting the disassembler field get to us.”
Bragg nodded and looked back at the line of twenty or so people behind him. “He’s not wrong. Get down there, people, double time!”
The weird, shimmering curtain of Earth’s disassembler field advancing slowly behind them, turning the empty buildings of Anaheim to dust, was all the encouragement they needed to do as instructed. Their expressions told Lang it didn’t smell great down there but no one complained in his hearing. The smell wasn’t what worried him, though. “Are you sure, like absolutely sure, they aren’t going to just dust the whole sphere their magfield covers? Because if they do that we’re just going to die smelling actual shit rather than fresh air.”
“Nanolathes require a pretty strong magnetic field to provide power and suspend them in the air. Dirt and most paving is dense enough to disrupt that field, at least enough to prevent nanotech function.” Bragg shrugged. “Assuming their power delivery mechanisms aren’t more than twice as advanced as ours.”
“What if they are?”
“Plug your nose when you die.” Bragg laughed at Lang’s expression. “Look, the forward bases didn’t see the field carving up the ground at their location, I see no reason for them to do it here. Relax.”
Lang sighed and sat down at the sewer entrance, dangling his legs over the ledge as he said, “I’d try it except I’ve been down here once before. I’m not sure I’ll ever relax on Earth again.”
“Pity, that,” Bragg said as he followed Lang down. “It’s a beautiful planet. Makes me look forward to the days when Copernicus has it’s own ocean.”
A shudder ran down Lang’s spine as his memory of visiting the ocean front last week came unbidden. Like most of the spacers on assignment planetside he’d made the short trip to the beach just for the experience. He still remembered the endless dark expanse that spread out as far as the eye could see. “You want one of those on our planet?!”
“Sure.” Bragg hopped off the ladder and dropped the last three feet to land next to him. “Why? Do you not like water?”
“Water’s great in manageable quantities, not so much when it can jump up and slap a whole city off the map.”
“Ooookay.” The other man’s expression suggested he wasn’t interested in digging any deeper than that. So he turned to the rest of the people down there with them who stretched out in a ragged line on either side of the sludge in the middle of the sewer and clapped his hands. “Look alive, people! We’ve got work to do. Nnadi, Bryzowski, Suzumiya, break out the gells and lay down a sterile surface please. I want everything from here by the ladder to forty feet that way to be usable ground in an hour.”
“Lieutenant?” Glenda Nnadi scratched absently at her curls as she spoke. “Sergeant Langley mentioned something about rainwater runoff. Is flooding a concern if we stay here?”
“I don’t know.” Bragg looked further down the line. “Hu? Have you been able to establish a signal with the Major’s group yet?”
Priss looked up from her portable comm rig. “Yes, but it’s very spotty and it may cut out as the magfield up above moves over our position. Captain Byson has recommended we run physical cables to facilitate communications but the Major hasn’t decided if we will yet.”
“Can you check to see if we still have the Tranquility‘s weather reports available?”
“Will do.” Priss bent back over her rig.
Bragg looked back at Nnadi and her crew. “I guess we proceed as if we’ll get some rain in the next couple of days. Is that going to be an issue?”
Suzumiya shook his head. “I think we can rig a micropump through the gell to keep things moving without coming up over the new flooring.”
“I’m surprised they didn’t cut the old tunnels out of the system and just switch to individual sterilizer hookups,” Bryzowski said, poking the toe of his boot into the sewage. “It would’ve been a lot easier than continuing to route all this through a central location.”
“UNIGOV works in mysterious ways,” Lang muttered, opening his AI’s holodisplay.
“Doesn’t matter to us,” Nnadi said, opening up Bryzowski’s backpack and pulling out a pump and a roll of conduit. “Suzumiya’s plan is viable and will only take a couple of minutes to put in place. We’ll have the whole place floored and sterile in an hour, maybe less. Can’t do much about the smell, though.”
Bragg spent another few minutes handing out assignments to secure their position and get a cable run to Goldstein’s group – the Major having decided it was a worthwhile investment in the interim – before coming back around to Lang. “Alright, Sergeant,” he said, looking over the other man’s shoulder. “What is it that’s so interesting?”
“I loaded all the Departure era maps we had in the Tranquility database in my AI before we came down here,” Lang said, gesturing to the holos he had pulled up. “Along with all the updates we were able to get from Aubery and Sean.”
“How extensive were those?” Bragg asked.
“Not very. Apparently UNIGOV keeps information very segregated by location, which is probably the only wise tactical decision they’ve ever made. But we do know they’re not the world’s biggest fans of nuclear power, fusion or fission.” Lang pointed to two large facilities he’d highlighted on the map of the area around Anaheim. “These two locations – the Los Angeles Fusion Plant and Hollywood Auxiliary Power Plant – are the only two power plants of a size that could potentially power a magfield on the scale of what we just saw. Assuming no one built a new plant before UNIGOV took over.”
Bragg studied the map for a long moment. “Okay, that’s very interesting Sergeant. In case you haven’t looked around recently we don’t really have the manpower to launch a full scale offensive against a major infrastructure site right this instant. Not to mention the fact that we just abandoned most of our gear inside a disassembler field.”
“With all due respect, sir, that’s not the drawback you think it is. These aren’t the Isaacs or even the moonies at this place, it’s UNIGOV of the oh-so-peaceful homo sapiens.” Lang’s grim smile drew a skeptical look from Bragg. “They don’t believe in weapons, Lieutenant, and they can literally look through the eyes of their citizens so they don’t bother with a lot in the way of surveillance beyond that, either. I’m willing to be security at these facilities is practically nonexistent.”
“Wrong.” Bragg folded his arms in front of his chest. “First off, if these places were on Departure era maps then they were built before the age of kumbaya took over Earth. Did you visit any facilities from that time period on your last visit?”
Lang racked his brains. They’d been to the Launch Zone, of course, but he’d been unconscious for their arrival and hadn’t seen any of it’s exterior. Also, it was an entirely underground facility. Fusion plants were typically half buried but they still needed some portion of the building above ground for vents and the like. He wasn’t sure what time period the library or houses he’d seen dated from but they were all public or residential facilities. Not major infrastructure. “No, I can’t say I did. You’re from the Spacer Engineering Corps, don’t you know what defenses of that era were like?”
“I’m not a historian like the Major. Besides.” Bragg pointed up the ladder. “UNIGOV has just proven they’re adaptable enough to create a working, large scale weapon system in a couple of weeks. Who’s to say they haven’t done the same with surveillance systems and fortifications?”
“Sir, the longer we wait to take proactive steps to get off this rock the less like we are to ever accomplish it.” Lang folded his arms over his chest. “This makes the third time I’ve been grounded on a hostile planet. I’ve made it back to space twice before and it’s turning into quite the habit. I’d rather not break it.”
For a long moment the two stared at each other, Lang waiting patiently for Bragg’s answer, the officer quietly mulling over the map. Finally Bragg said, “I’ll go with Corporal Hu when she runs the comm cable to the Major’s location and run it by him. Until I get back with his decision I want you to grab a buddy and start mapping out the sewer system so we have an idea of our options if we do have to go back up. Prioritize routes that take you west.”
Lang looked to the map then back at Bragg. “West, sir?”
The lieutenant pointed a finger at the LA Fusion Plant, which the map showed taking up a whole city block of oceanfront real estate. “We have no idea if that facility is a part of this sewer system or the Los Angeles system. It may even be self contained. It may be simpler to work our way out to sea and come around that way.”
“Out to sea, sir?”
Bragg gave him an amused look. “Out to sea, Sergeant. You’re a pilot most of the time, right? Any chance you know how to sail a boat?”
His stomach did a little flip flop at the thought. “No, sir. Never even been on one.”
“Well ask around, see if anyone here has. I’ll do the same with the Major’s group although I’m not going to hold my breath. Get to it, Sergeant.” With that Bragg turned and picked his way through the trickling sewage towards Priss.
Lang heaved a sigh and closed up his map. There was no guarantee that Bragg or Goldstein would want him to be a part of the expedition to the power plant but given the way things had gone so far he wasn’t planning on holding his breath either. Which meant he was probably going to wind up out on the water at some point in the future. Sooner more likely than later.
He shoved down another round of nerves and started sizing up their group for potential sailors. If that was what it took to get off the ground again then that was what he was going to find.