Standing against the rush of open air, Commander Michael Kroh gripped the forward guardrail of Deck Two as the massive all-terrain wheels of the GTA Iron Horse buckled over a washout in Interstate 10. The roads were in dire condition these days; bumpy rides were the rule in most places. The Iron Horse and her crew were en route to the Southwest Regional Spaceport near the city of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.
The Armored Personnel Carriers of the Global Transport Affiliate were considered to be the most versatile wheel-dependant transports ever built by Man. The Iron Horse APC was of the Titan class, fully complemented with Bridge, Battle Platform, Sickbay, Crew & Guest Quarters, Mess, Promenade, Garage, Cargo Bay, Refinery, Brig, and Storage. Utilizing the latest in hydrogen and solar cell technologies, she could be refueled at any water source and negotiate the Frontier almost indefinitely.
The United States in the West were slowly moving East, reclaiming her territories from the grip of Green’s Optimal government, using incentives of first aid, credit, reconstruction contracts, alternate energies, education, basic rights and peacekeepers. The GTA chewed away at the Frontier, establishing First Contact with enclosed civilizations and their strange little worlds. GTA transports also carried young Vulcan ambassadors in training, to soothe and nullify the widespread fear of extraterrestrial invasion. It was damned hard work, often dangerous, but the world was gradually coming together, bit by bit.
The radio strapped to Kroh’s belt chirped for attention. He reached under his coat and tapped the PTT that coiled to his lapel. “Kroh here, go ahead.”
“Commander,” called the young voice of Lt. Kara Rochelle at Operations, “We’re being hailed, New Mexico Outpost Four is standing by for your PIN.”
“Be right down, Lieutenant.” Kroh tapped off and stepped carefully in the open air toward the manhole in the center of the Deck. He toed the access latch and the circular cover geared open. He hooked his arm around the fixed pole-and-ladder and slid down to Deck One, his heavy boots crashing onto the grated steel floor of the Bridge.
An immense panoramic windshield cast of transparent aluminum allowed the natural afternoon sunlight to flood the Bridge, casting long shadows and keeping it warm despite the cooling system. Kroh removed his coat and hung it on the backrest of his command station. He gripped one of the many padded rails with one hand as the Horse rumbled down the ruined Interstate, as they all did when the APC was in motion. After a time one got used to moving about the superstructure in a half-walk, half climb.
Forward and to the port bulkhead, Lt. Rochelle was comfortable at her station, wearing Levi’s denim and a white cotton shirt. The nineteen year-old had jettisoned her deck shoes and was nesting cross-legged and bare-footed in the chair that was too big for her. Her long red hair cascaded over a set of headphones she cupped to one ear.
“Outpost is standing by, Commander,” Rochelle leaned forward to tap the return beacon. “PIN required, so it’s your eyes only.”
“Thank you, Miss Rochelle, I’ll take it in my Ready Room.” He glanced at the Timex on his wrist, marking the time at 18:30 hours.
She dabbed her face with a damp cloth. “Aye, sir.”
The Helmsman of the Iron Horse was harnessed to his station at the center-left of the windscreen. Brian Gaines had a very simple mind operating inside his bald head, but the sturdy fellow was an excellent driver and was quite proud of his work. He found child-like delight in piloting the APC through the post-apocalyptic landscape.
Kroh dropped a heavy hand on Gaines’ shoulder and raised his voice over the ambient hum of the electric engines.
“How does she hold, man?”
The drivers’ face broke open in a wide chuckle-headed smile. He raised his station to a full standing position so he could stretch his limbs.
“I love the Interstate, Boss! Nice ‘n flat like glass! Hell, we’re cruisin’ at a steady 100 KPH on front-wheel drive only, hardly usin’ any juice at all!” He paused to chug warm water from a plastic bottle and reported a long, satisfying belch. “She’s awesome!”
The Commander nodded in approval. “As you were, Helmsman. Steady as she goes.”
Kroh turned for his Ready Room, just behind his command station to the port side. He slid through the narrow hatch. The efficient room featured a small desk, an enclosed single bunk and a tiny privy featuring an ultrasonic mist showerhead. Padded grab rails complemented the furnishings. Sunlight slanted through a small porthole in the bulkhead.
Built into his aluminum desk were a small workstation and a keypad security lock. His battered black Stetson hat rested on the corner of his chair. Kroh punched his PIN number as he scooped up his hat and settled in. He rested his dusty boots on the tabletop, tipped his hat forward and crossed his arms, his chin low and waited for the dispatch to respond.
A minute later, the speaker crackled to life. “This is New Mexico Outpost Four calling APC one-zero-zero-seven, PIN verified. Iron Horse, copy this transmission, over.”
Kroh clicked on the return switch and leaned back again, lowering his hat. “Affirmative, Outpost. Commander Kroh here, I read you loud and clear. Over.”
“Copy, Iron Horse. Uploading now, a critical TAD has been issued at eighteen hundred hours MST, your manifest has been suspended, over.”
“Roger that, Outpost.” Kroh reserved. “What’s the story?”
“All senior staff, report to the Bridge.”
Kroh’s voice boomed throughout the mobile habitats of the Iron Horse.
“Captain Skyes, Doctor Sina, Mr. Jeffries, Mr. Steel, fall in.”
“Just one person?” Asked Kara Rochelle at her Op station, facing center. The senior officers began to arrive on the Bridge. The Horse herself was now at rest along the eastbound shoulder of Interstate 10.
All hands were seated at their workstations or standing by, facing Kroh at his central command station. He held up the decoded printout of the Temporary Additional Duty.
“Just one.” He handed the paper to the Jamaican-born warrior, Captain Marjorie Skyes as she manned her station at Tactical to the center-right of the windshield, symmetrical to the Helm. Kroh continued.
“Dr. Sloane is a scientific pioneer. She helped develop the faster-than-light propulsion technology known as warp drive, in cahoots with the infamous Doctor Zephrame Cochrane. More recently, she is the founder of the Starfleet Academy Project. Two days ago, bounty hunters abducted her in Corpus Christi and transported her to the Optimum’s Amistad Reservoir fortress along the border. The Doctors’ companion was severely beaten, but he survived and sought out his contact on the edge of the city.”
“So the GTA has chosen to intervene.” Skyes stated the bottom line.
Kroh leaned back in his chair. “And we are the emergency counsel. The Iron Horse is the only APC that can be spared for the effort. And just putting our asses on the line for this woman is a huge gamble of resources. Apparently, even the Vulcans hold the Doctor in high regard; there is a personal note from an ambassador Soval that we act quickly.”
“Indeed,” graveled the voice of Mr. Steel, the young Vulcan diplomat whom established First Contact with the variety of humans the Iron Horse encountered. Steel was twenty Standard years old; he had lived fifteen of them on Earth. His dense black hair was still very long, indicating he had not yet passed his First Rites. His dusty cowboy boots rested on a padded rail. His Levi’s jeans, flannel shirt and denim jacket were his own and blended him naturally with the crew. The points of his ears were tucked away in his hat.
“I have met Doctor Sloane, once when I was six years old. This was during the celebratory opening of the Vulcan compound in San Francisco fifteen years ago, she was an honored guest at the reception.” He removed his boots from the rail and straightened his hat. “I doubt she would recognize me today, however.”
“Good,” Kroh acknowledged. “Then you can identify her.”
He turned to his first officer. “Marjorie, Have your mercenaries pack their gear and up-armor two of the Crawlers. We’re likely to have a fight on our hands.”
“Aye, Commander.” She relished the order. “We haven’t had a good bout in a while. The CATS can be ready in one hour.”
“At your convenience, Captain. Doctor Sina?”
Kroh nodded at his chief medical officer, Ibin “Ben” Sina. “Prepare the Sickbay. Expect some casualties.”
The Doctor was of Arabic ancestry, a man of faith and a brilliant medical practitioner by any standard. He was renowned for his ability to heal; the Iron Horse was fortunate to have him aboard. He nodded solemnly at Kroh’s order, but said nothing.
The Commander turned to Operations. “Miss Rochelle, time and distance to Amistad?”
She swiveled around in her chair and activated her Westinghouse touch LCD, calling up a map of the Southwestern States. The results displayed on the 36-inch main viewer mounted above her station.
After some quick number crunching she reported, “Approximately 800 kilometers, over relatively flat terrain. Let’s see...we’ll have to pass through Las Cruses and El Paso. That’ll take some time. We’ll hold our course east on Interstate Ten for most of the journey, turning off on Highway 277 south for as long as it can carry us.”
Her fingers danced and slid on the touch screen, she continued her report as the Eagle satellite images panned and zoomed on the main viewer.
“We’ll have to move off-road on the approach, the 277 bridge over the Reservoir itself won’t accommodate the Iron Horse. This will slow our exit. But we should still make excellent time on the journey, even at night. Off-roading around ruins shouldn’t be a problem. About twenty hours travel time under ideal conditions, Commander.” She turned to the group.
“Then let’s get going. Miss Rochelle, lay in that course and send it to the Helm.”
The Chief Engineer of the Iron Horse, Cyrus Jeffries leaned against a pad rail with his massive arms folded.
“Rotate one of your technicians to relieve Mr. Gaines at twenty-two hundred hours, and drive at best possible night speed until zero-six-hundred tomorrow.”
“How are the batteries?”
“Batteries are still in the green, Commander. I don’t expect we’ll need to change water ‘till we clear away.”
“Good enough.” Kroh answered. “Everyone man your stations, time is short. Mr. Gaines, take us out.”
“On the road again, boss!” The pilot spun around at his station and activated the drive systems, bringing the Iron Horse to life. He fastened his six-point harness and smashed an old hat on his shaved head, with the word “Survivor” embroidered on the brim. The APC crawled off the shoulder, its girth taking up both eastbound lanes of Interstate Ten.
End Of Book Two