Rounding a leg of the ridge-line, the switchback revealed a broad valley sweeping down to a much broader one. It was this latter which was their destination. The haze, smoke and dust hanging in the air could not fully obscure the ancient city. As their snaking descent showed them ever wider views of it, they saw it was clearly never subjected to the stagnation of urban planning. It was living and growing, and somehow the phrase “random development” did not convey the full impact of what they saw.
Krumm ticked off in his mind the list of things he remembered from the official guide they were required to read during orientation. The city hosted numerous neighborhoods, each with its own cultural biases. Even the police uniforms were different. It might not have mattered so much, but in the hurried scrambling for vacant building space, the Human Terrain offices ended up planted inside a rather strict Muslim enclave. While during the course of this interminable war, the HTS had botched more than they got right so far, one thing they understood clearly was the utter necessity of having only men hired to run the place.
This crew was essentially mid-level management for a support facility which would hire local workers. As with every business there not catering directly to women, the whole operation would be entirely men. The contracts were ostensibly set for four years, which in practice meant little. These were typical middle-aged American guys.
Krum was the exception. He had mentioned being a widower. “So, how old are you, Krumm?”
Another guessed, “You look about 45 or possibly 48.”
Krumm actually laughed. “How flattering!” Completely deadpan, “I’m 57.”
To their exclamations of shock, he presented his official ID card, showing a birth date nearly six decades ago. “That’s almost twice my age… all or our ages.”
“How did you get this job? They told us we had to be under 40 to apply.”
Krumm shrugged. “They hunted me down. I had written a bunch of articles online about running modern software on ancient hardware, and the recruiter mentioned how important that was to this operation.”
“Do you reckon being a veteran made any difference?”
Krumm had turned back to gazing at the city they were approaching. “Obviously. That’s how they knew where to find me. At the time I thought it was a mistake to have used the veterans’ medical system, because it meant they had my current address. I really didn’t need much care once they fixed my shoulders, but I was worried about something and couldn’t afford private treatment. Turned out to be nothing. At any rate, they knew all about my age and health.”
“You must have had a good military record.”
Krumm turned and relaxed in his seat as the truck reached the valley floor. “Good enough, I suppose. They must have been pretty hard up, because they surely knew of my other articles criticizing everything about the government.”
“Maybe you can tell us why they didn’t fly us in. If I’m not mistaken, that’s an airport right there.” The man pointed out the back opening as the truck followed a curve around toward a bridge.
Krumm half-smiled. “New technology discovery. Someone came up with a missile tracking system smart enough to make passive use of electronic noise from aircraft. Then they found a way to do it cheaply. Problem is, they lived in China, which in turn licensed it to our nation’s enemies. Just a couple of months ago someone fielded a batch of hand-held anti-aircraft missiles among the southern tribes with this passive tracking, and our military hasn’t come up with a counter-measure yet. Flights are restricted to air lanes we fully control.”
“Where did you hear that? We couldn’t get any answers when we asked.”
Krumm’s smile twisted a little farther. “Unregulated news sources on the web run by crazies who spout wild conspiracy theories.”
“Sarcasm. I like that.” The future office manager, Ripley, hadn’t been the most chatty on their journey. “I’ll need a regular dose of that, I’m afraid, to maintain my sanity here.”
The city swallowed their truck, which was one of the few large and motorized vehicles in a place apparently run by mere muscle power, gaging by the traffic.