"We finally made it, Raych."
Rachael Stowe glanced over at Hans, her latest boyfriend, standing at parade rest next to her. She flashed him a quick grin. He was an older guy from Germany, quite handsome save for his right arm. He'd been a thalidomide baby; the right arm he'd been born with was little more than a flipper. So when the opportunity arose, last year in 1985, he'd come here to Dockran's Island to get his degenerate right arm completely replaced with an artificial robotic one.
The two months since her basic training started had been the most gruelling of her life. Some of it, she couldn't even remember. But right now, this formation was the biggest collection of soldiers Rachael had ever stood with. Her bootcamp platoon was lost in a sea of white battle armor and gray blasters. Her drill sergeant marched out in front of them, in lock-step with the drill sergeants for every other platoon here, and as one they called out "Ten-HUT!"
The entire mass of soldiers shouldered their blaster carbines and stomped to attention. Then, from the left, a dark, four-meter diameter sphere floated into view in front of all of them. From this distance, no one could tell whether it was hovering on vertical jets, or levitating via some even more exotic technology. It was him, Rachael thought. Norman Dockran. Mister Eternal himself!
In the air before the sphere, a face as tall as the sphere itself flickered into being. Everyone recognized the face of Mister Eternal, Normal Dockran. The face was a projection in red laser light, but fully three-dimensional — a moving hologram. The face spoke, in perfect sync with a voice that boomed from the sphere behind it. "Congratulations to all of you. Today, the greatest number of you in history are graduating from basic training. For the first time, a single graduating class is large enough to form its own battallion. You are now, officially, the Fourteenth Battalion in Eternal Mankind's Perpetual Army."
As if on cue, the faint rumbling thunder of distant jets came from the west, and grew louder. But this was no flyover from a friendly air force. Rachael sneered at the horizon from whence the engine noise came.
The voice of Norman Dockran spoke from the sphere again: "And lest any of you think that Eternal Mankind doesn't need an army, you only need to cast your eyes skyward."
The jets thundered into view, flying almost directly overhead. They were American F/A-18 Hornets, doubtlessly launched from a carrier out at sea. Bombs bristled under their wings; they were configured as strikefighters, and could rain incendiary hell down upon them at any instant. No bombs had ever been dropped on the island so far, but —
"The American Military," Mister Eternal's voice continued, "Is telling you that they could attack us any time they wanted. The Perpertual Army exists because they exist. I know many of you are Americans yourselves, and not everyone in that country sees us as villains. But enough of them do. Transhumanism scares them. You know how the Southern Baptists think it's an affront to God."
That wasn't quite fair, Rachael thought. Most of the Southern Baptists she'd grown up with in Georgia were nice, friendly folk. But the Southern Baptist Coalition, the guys with their hands in the hip pockets of every conservative Congressman, they were another matter. They'd managed to pull millions of Americans down to their level, and all but declared open war on the very technology that could eventually save their own lives.
"But we're more than just some island nation," Norman went on. "What we represent is nothing short of the end of enslavement to our own biologies. Look down upon the tiny scar in your own belly buttons, where the laproscope worked its miracle upon you. The devices that have replaced most of your own guts eliminate your need for oxygen and blood glucose, by receiving the energy broadcast by the island's great transmitter."
At a gesture from their sergeants, the whole battalion looked over their shoulders at the massive sphere far behind them, suspended over a hundred feet in the air like a water tower. Even from this distance, the arcs of lightning flashing from it were unmistakable. It was like Tesla's wireless power transmission station, except that this one was . . . practical. And its range was, theoretically, four times the width of the entire Earth.
"But they do more than relieve you of the need to eat more than a tiny daily dose of essential micronutrients, or to breathe. They unlock the possibility of your own immortality. Nature's metabolism is its own curse. While the burning of glucose with oxygen powers a normal man, it also burns away at his own cells. That is the main reason he ages. The procedure you have all undergone has eliminated that. And this procedure was only a first step, the quickest and easiest way to start down this grand road. A few of you here are the lucky recipients of the second procedure, a simple tweaking of your genome so that even the once-essential micronutrients can now be synthesized by your own bodies. My genetic engineers assure me that we will be able to roll this procedure out to all of you before the end of this year.
"And yet more is coming. Portable power sources. Fixes for the rest of the aging process. Cybernetic organs, better than the originals. Entire cybernetic bodies. We represent only the beginning of humanity's shining future. We are merely . . . the harbingers of Eternal Mankind."
Rachael suppressed a snicker. The initials for The Harbingers of Eternal Mankind spelled "THEM". The acronym hadn't escaped the notice of their detractors.
Mister Eternal's projected face closed its eyes, briefly, then spoke more somberly: "I've done all this, I've set all this in motion, because I don't want to die. I don't want anyone to die. Mankind finally has the power to vanquish death, and with your help, we'll spread it to every corner of the globe."
Norman Dockran's face faded from view. Rachael's sergeant, and all the other sergeants throughout the new Fourteenth Battalion, called out, "Salute!"
Rachael pointed her right index finger skyward, and shot her right arm straight up overhead — in sync with every other soldier see could see. And as one, they all shouted: "ETERNAL MANKIND!"
Rachael rolled over in her bunk in the darkness and gave Tom a quick kiss, then nuzzled her face in next to his. Hans wasn't exactly thrilled when he'd seen her getting friendly with Tom, but Hans had known going in that he wasn't going to be her one-and-only. She'd acquired a reputation as the platoon's bicycle ("everyone's had a ride"), and she didn't care. She'd left a long string of broken hearts behind back in Georgia, too. Every man who wanted her, thrilled her. The physical intimacy just felt so damn good. The fact that her fellow soldiers were all in such good physical shape didn't exactly discourage her, either.
"Mmmm," Tom whispered in her ear. "We should try and get some sleep tonight, y'know."
Rachael nodded. Not that Tom could see the gesture in the dark; she'd caught herself nodding to someone she was talking on the phone with more than once, too. She whispered back: "A real mission tomorrow. I can hardly believe it."
"I just wish we knew more about it," Tom whispered.
Rachael shrugged. "Command's gotta keep its secrets. Loose lips sink ships, and all that."
"Speaking of loose lips," Tom replied, then kissed her sensuously. She felt her loins tingle again, and hoped Tom had the stamina for another round of lovemaking.
The plane transporting them to the mission site was as odd as the Perpetual Army itself. Rachael had heard rumors about stealth technology that could render a plane invisible to radar, but invisibilty to human vision was a whole different ballgame. It was also bigger than a 747. She wasn't just sharing the cabin with her platoon; all 234 members of C Company (to which her platoon belonged) were aboard, already in their combat gear.
Out over the atlantic, a few miles off the east coast of North America, the call rang out: "Ten-HUT!"
Rachael and the rest of C Company stood and snapped to attention. Then C Company's C.O., Captain Harwith, marched to front-and-center. A projection screen next to him sprang to life and showed a satellite photo of a heavily fortified builing. "Ladies and gentlemen, your mission today will take place just south of Louisville, Kentucky."
Rachael turned Louisville over in her head. It was hundreds of miles inland, so they'd really be putting their plane's invisibility to the test. And there was something . . . familiar about that city name. Something it was famous for. The Lousiville Slugger baseball bat? No, it was something bigger, something —
Hans, standing three places over from her, shot his hand into the air. The Captain glared at him. "Yes, soldier?"
Hans said, "Sir, are we raiding Fort Knox?"
Rachael's eyes popped open wide. That was it!
"No," the Captain said with a hint of a smirk. "Fort Knox is just an army base. A lot of people get it confused with the United States Bullion Depository, which is next door to it. We're going to be raiding the latter."
Rachael's blood ran cold. Holy cats. They really were going to rob Fort Knox!
"The Depository is heavily guarded," the Captain went on, "But that's why you've got your blasters and your body armor. Our objective is the 24 karat gold bullion. At four hundred dollars per troy ounce, it's very valuable, but also very heavy. A single seven-inch bar weighs twenty-seven and a half pounds; a gold cube a foot on each side weighs over half a ton. Our goal is to transport at least one hundred tons onto this plane, then take back off with all of you back aboard.
The Captain pulled a reinforced steel cart into view by a long handle. Its wheels hummed and pivoted as he steered the handle left and right. "To this end, each squad will be issued one of these motorized heavy carts. It can support up to four tons, and has enough power to climb up shallow inclines."
This didn't sit right with Rachael at all. She put her hand up.
"Soldier," the Captain said to her, "We can't keep interrupting the mission briefing like this. What do you want, and make it quick."
"Uh, sir," she said, cowed but determined to make her point, "I thought we were fully funded by angel investors, who believe in Norman Dockran's cause. This mission sounds like we're stealing."
Captain Harwith snorted, briefly, and smirked. "An army's expensive. Venture capital and charity aren't gonna get anywhere near the amount of funding Dockran's Island needs, no matter how rich or numerous the donors are. You'd need a real national government with a real economy to generate that kind of cash flow, and Eternal Mankind . . . isn't one. And until we are, we've gotta make up the difference."
The projection screen zoomed in on one part of the satellite photo. "Now," the Captain went on, "There's only one official entrance and exit in the front of the building. Which is why we're going to blast our way in through this side window. First platoon, you'll be carrying a ramp in four sections and bolting it together right below . . ."
Rachael tried to pay attention, but her mind was reeling. She'd volunteered for Norman Dockran's cause, because she believed in the promise of Eternal Mankind. She was sure she was on the right side of history. But breaking into Fort Knox and stealing gold?
Stuff I intend to have happen in this story:
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