by Michael E. Lloyd
Table of Contents
Chapter 22, part 1
Chapter 22, part 2
appear in this issue.
Chapter 23: Mojave Desert, California
At one o’clock the previous day, at the Bearbite Mine in Montana, Lucia had sidled unnoticed up to Salvatore as he ate his lunch with the still taciturn Maelene.
‘Salvi,’ she murmured in his ear. ‘As soon as you’ve finished, you’ll need to organise your way out of here.’
‘I’m already on it,’ he said casually.
Maelene looked up, startled, for a few moments, then realised what was happening and left him to it.
‘In what way?’ asked Lucia.
‘Mac’s set me up with a dial-up Internet connection, and he’s agreed to drive us straight to the airport as soon as we need to leave. I’m ready to surf. Where are we going ...?’
They had checked out of their hotel first thing that morning, anticipating this next move. And forty-five minutes later they were all on the road again. Jack McGarran soon picked up the back-seat vibrations, and decided to join the party and hold his own tongue for the duration. Lucia, un-made in the front seat, did the same.
Just after three, as they approached the outskirts of Billings, Maelene’s phone rang, and she took Toni’s apologetic and uncharacteristically romantic call from Los Angeles.
That was probably good enough, she was thinking, after she’d chosen to close the call quite abruptly. Sal was sitting only inches away, and it had started to get personal. Yeah, she’d likely phone back herself. But make him wait a bit, first ...
* * *
Their first United flight left exactly on schedule, and ferried them over to Denver in little over an hour. They hurried across to make the six-thirty sister connection, which was soon due to close, but then discovered there was a forty minute air-traffic delay. So they had time for a slow, quiet cup of coffee before they were aloft once more.
After a while, Salvatore made another brave effort at normal conversation. But Maelene was obviously preoccupied and still brooding, and it got him nowhere. He quickly gave up again, set his watch back one hour, and settled for an unhappy little snooze instead.
They finally landed in Las Vegas just after eight, Pacific Time, and well before nine o’clock they were checking in at one of the nearby hotels recommended to Humphrey by Dave Evans.
They were now only sixty miles from the very special little Rare Earths mine. And they would be meeting up in Salvatore’s room, for their next team briefing with Lucia and the Chief, at a ridiculously early hour the next morning, with a taxi meter ticking.
Neither of them proposed another evening out together. Salvatore wandered off, saying he was going to get a snack in the hotel restaurant before going up to bed. And Maelene just picked up a cereal bar and a bottle of water from the shop, headed straight for the seclusion of her own comfortable room, and called her now largely-forgiven boyfriend as he was strolling down to Fisherman’s Wharf ...
* * *
The cab speeding down Interstate 15 early the next morning was bringing them ever closer to the elongated summit of Clark Mountain, sharply silhouetted against the brilliant Californian sky. But soon after the highway curved round to the west, the driver slowed, took a poorly-signposted right turn, and followed a rough track into the gleaming north-eastern foothills.
Maelene had gone to sleep in a happier mood, after receiving another boost of promised good loving from her newly-sweet-talking guy. So first thing this morning she, in turn, had promised herself she would be less aggressive towards Sal, as well as utterly and unswervingly professional in the day’s work ahead.
Salvatore had resolved, for his part, to play it as safe as he could today, and keep his own head down until Mother Bear’s became a lot less sore. So he had certainly been pleased, during the taxi ride, to find himself on the receiving end of some pleasant, light conversation about the stunning scenery and the very fine weather, rather than nothing much at all.
Dave Evans, with scruffy blond curls, flared blue-jeans and a clay pipe poking out of his mouth, was not quite what they had expected in a mining operations manager, especially after their encounter with the rather more conservative Jack McGarran. But he was smiling broadly as he walked towards the taxi to welcome them, and Maelene remembered that they had just crossed into what was almost a different country from the rest of the States. Not quite Beach Boys territory, yet, but they would soon try to do their best for Dave on that score ...
‘Hi, guys. Welcome to California! The beach starts here!’
‘Hmm,’ thought Maelene, ‘this is going to be a rollercoaster of a day.’ But out loud she chuckled in honest amusement, and came straight back at him. ‘Cool! You grab the guns, Snake, and I’ll find us a bluebird!’
Dave Evans guffawed with noisy delight at her speed of repartee and her grasp of surfing lingo, all delivered in a strong Carolina accent. Salvatore just stood and waited for normal English to be resumed.
‘OK, my lady! So — I’m Dave. Don’t know your names! Dirk wouldn’t say.’ He raised his voice still louder, and addressed the wilderness surrounding them. ‘Top-secret inspection, eh? Shssshhhhh ... ha, ha, ha!’
‘Actually, Dave,’ she replied firmly, switching instantly to her very-serious-indeed look, ‘it is precisely that. I’m Maelene Bay, and this is Salvatore Pirone. Now, can we please go inside?’
He got the message and led them straight into his little office. Salvatore closed the door behind them, and the ill-matched duo at once broke into a spirited rendition of Good Vibrations. And as Dave first stared at them in disbelief, and then began to smile broadly again, Lucia materialised in the corner and joined the chorus. He turned in delight at the sight and sound of his new blonde, buxom and bikini-clad guest, and she gave him a big California Girl kiss in return ...
Well, Dave, I hope you enjoyed that. We certainly did. Oh, by the way — they call me the “Chief”.
‘Not exactly what I was expecting, Chief.’
Nobody ever expects the ... ah, yes — never mind ...
The Handler had looked across at the Chief and sent another warning shot, and this time she had been quicker on the uptake.
No, you were expecting a little private inspection, Dave, and this is just what we are here for. You should certainly maintain, to all those around you, the pretence that it is being done specifically for Professor Bond — for as long or short a time as that proves necessary.
In fact, we have a much simpler investigation in mind. We merely require a thorough surface look at the seat of your extraordinary ore deposit, and the opportunity to make a little survey of it.
‘Sounds like fun after all, Chief. No problem for me — I’m just the manager here ... Dirk calls all the shots!’
Quite so. In a moment, then, we should like you to prepare some relevant charts and data, and conduct your two new friends on a short walking tour. Lucia here will make herself scarce for that exercise — she has forgotten her sun cream today.
But Ms Bay will have a brief word with you first ...
Lucia had retreated behind them all once again, and Maelene could see that Evans was back from his little trip.
‘Right, Dave — do you have GPS?’
‘What else, ma’am?’
‘Well, a compass and a measuring wheel else, please. Never know when GPS will fail, or be selectively failed for us. I like to cover my ... options.’
‘I’ll see what I can rustle up.’
The easy going chit-chat in the taxi, and now all this friendly banter, were encouraging Salvatore to let his guard down again.
‘Hey, Maelene — maybe you’ll bump into the guys from Forretan ...’
‘Sal, cut the crap and get yourself organised!’
‘What did he mean by that?’ asked the suddenly suspicious operations manager.
‘Nothing,’ Maelene came back with a big endearing smile. ‘He’s all shook-up today ...’
Lucia, unseen now but back behind Evans, at once injected a stronger level of persuasion directly into his left ear.
‘Dave, it’s all just fine. Ignore him, and forget it completely, my friend.’
‘Hmm. OK, then. Right, help yourselves to coffee! I’ll get the gear and the documents you need ...’
‘What did you have to go and say that for?’
‘I just thought it might be nice for you.’
‘You stupid boy! For one thing, it’s all supposed to be very secretive — we can’t go blowing the Chief’s cover, no matter what I think about it. And I joined Forretan two years after those guys found the special ores and left the company. So none of us have ever met anyway. The only link to Columbia was my accent, till you opened your big mouth!’
‘Oh, yeah? Huh! Bet you still haven’t called Toni to say that to him ...’
Salvatore ducked the swipe, and drove angrily on.
‘Why are we needed here at all, Maelene? Seems like too much trouble for everybody! Why can’t Lucia and the Chief do this without us?’
‘Oh, sure! Lucia just turns up on her own and starts enquiring after her long-lost boyfriend Dave, or something like that — and then goes un-making and re-making in public every few seconds, as she walks in and out of the buildings ... and so on! No, Sal, no — they have to have their Illuminators. Haven’t you worked that out yet? We’re indispensable for so much of what they need to do ...’
He finally engaged his brain and closed his mouth as advised.
The Chief made some further mental notes. And Lucia’s view of Salvi and his myriad weaknesses was finally maturing along similar lines. Her personal interest in him was slowly and correspondingly flagging.
Conversely, Salvi was steadily giving up on Maelene, as a probably irrecoverable cause, and his attention was turning back to Lucia as his only likely source of empathy amidst the unfamiliar human realities surrounding him.
* * *
‘So, there it is, guys.’ They had walked in a straight line from the entrance gate to the edge of a substantial, part-excavated pit. ‘Finest Rare Earth Elements in the world!’
‘And right at the surface, Dave!’
‘Yep. 90 feet thick, 1100 feet strike length, 33 degrees angle of dip. We start at the top and we take it out, bit by bit. Should last us a good long time, Maelene!’
‘So where are we on the map, roughly?’
Dave drew a cross on his chart. Salvatore took a compass bearing from the main gate and checked the measuring wheel readout, and Maelene watched carefully as he transcribed them, to ensure the units were correct this time. Then she hit “Mark” on the GPS handheld, and copied the saved Earth co-ordinates into her own notebook, while Lucia separately captured the spot for direct storage into the Mater’s own system.
‘Let’s walk, Dave.’
It did not take them long to circumnavigate the existing pit, recording selected positions in unison at regular intervals. Once that was done, and they had a pretty little near-circle of joined-up crosses on the map, they walked away from the pit, towards the first of a series of marker posts hammered into the ground, indicating the predicted outer limits of the entire deposit. Then they started their second, much longer trek, and Dave began to draw a far larger, jagged-edged, elongated oval shape on their working chart.
* * *
Lunch was served.
‘Job done, Dave. Thank you for all your help.’
‘My pleasure, Maelene. And hey, tell me something — what is this stuff used for? We know how to mine it and send it off to Dirk’s little refinery, and we know the standard applications of the REEs. But what happens to all this lutetium after that?’
‘They never told you?’
‘Well, I’m afraid we certainly can’t. In fact, we don’t know much more than you do. But we’re hoping to change all that, very soon ...’
‘OK. Good luck. It doesn’t worry me. I’ve got plenty of work here to keep me happy!’
Lucia, hovering discreetly at Dave’s side, grasped the moment and his head.
Dave, I suspect the work may in fact dry up quite soon. It might be wise to carry out an urgent little survey of your own — of the employment market.
And that reminds me — do you have a thorough evacuation plan for this facility, in the case of any emergency?
‘Sure do, Chief.’
Excellent. And now I shall add my thanks to those of Maelene, and wish you well, and counsel you again to remember from today’s little visit only what you know you should.
* * *
Up on the Mater, the Captain, Quo and the Chief were all feeling very satisfied with the morning’s rapid result. And the order had now been given to prepare, program and fully static-rehearse a waiting SOG-E.
This complex process would of course take a little while. About forty-eight Earth hours, the Chief had estimated with some confidence. And yes, the Captain and Quo had agreed — that particular period of time might prove to be a very suitable ingredient in their arsenal for the upcoming negotiations ...
So at one-thirty, as plans for that very important meeting were being finalised over in Oakland, Lucia again made unseen contact with Salvatore.
‘OK, amico. Everything’s underway now. There’s nothing more for you or Maelene to do here. Back on the Internet, please, and fix up your immediate travel to San Francisco and the Beechland Hotel ...’
By three it was all done, they had said their goodbyes to happy Dave and the rest of his bewildered crew, and Maelene had ordered a cab to come straight up from Baker to collect them.
To be continued ...
Copyright © 2006 by Michael E. Lloyd