Chapter Five
An Entirely Alien Approach


General Adminstration Archives - Case 1529 [Ref. No. D1174-451]

...... Sagging wood steps led up to a hardwood floor worn smooth by numberless shoes. Two paint-peeled columns supported a tiny roof which once had been dark green. A family had lived here, worked here, farmed the small valley below. Now, only traces of blackened brickwork remained to mark the circumference of the old farmhouse. That, and a dilapidated porch to welcome visitors who would never come to a scarred front door which opened into nowhere.
...... Here, the dry ruts I'd been following came to an end in the half-frozen earth, and only a few broken branches showed where large trucks had proceeded. I twisted the steering wheel to the right, pushed down on the throttle, and drove into the gap in the torn brush. Somewhere up ahead would be the work crew I'd been told to meet.
...... The hill crested within two dozen yards. From its top could be seen several bright red trucks parked randomly near each other in the valley. Off to the left the soil had been furrowed by the treads of heavy tires. Where they'd gone, I certainly could follow.
...... A series of S-curves, which tracked the contour of the ridge, brought me to the valley floor about half a mile from the trucks. Amid the squeaking of the seatbelt and the rattle of sliding equipment in the back, I bounced along what once had been a cleared and cultivated farm field, long ago. Now the weeds and brush had seized it back. No one but the meadow animals had been here for fifty years -- or so it seemed.
...... Within a few minutes, I pulled in next to the group of trucks, shoved the transmission selector into park, and stepped out for one more performance in this continuing pantomimed drama.
...... "Special Investigations?" she shouted from the partly open window of the red Blazer. A construction company name was stenciled in slanted white letters on its door, somewhat obscured by drying mud.
...... "That's me," I acknowledged, walking over. "This must be the right place."
...... She shoved open the vehicle door, slapped on a white hardhat, and climbed out. "Wilson. Crew chief. We called in and were told to wait for someone. You're here sooner than I expected." She zipped her jacket the last inch against the damp chill in the unmoving air.
...... "I just happened to be in the area." Digging around in my card case, I extracted a business card -- name, post office box address, and phone number. It wasn't intended to be overly informative. "What have you got here?"
...... "Are you at all familiar with cathodic protection systems?" She tucked the card in a vinyl-fronted field notebook, then gestured with it. "Do you know what I mean by an interference on a pipeline?"
...... "Accidental bonding, natural or artifact, between the protected pipeline and some other large metallic object," I recited. "The cathodic protection system tries to protect the total metal area against rusting and overloads itself."
...... "Exactly right." She wiped at a strand of short blonde hair which the hardhat had plastered against her forehead. "Over here," she ordered, moving to a big engineering drawing which lay spread out on the hood of the Blazer.
...... Often, technology is a better introduction than any printed credential -- professional cooperation from one technologist to another. I stepped over to look at the drawing.
...... "A week ago, a routine monitoring of our number eleven station showed a fifty percent increase in current flow." She tapped a place on the drawing with a stubby forefinger. "We put out a crew for a polarization survey, found the leakage point, had the pipeline dug out there, and discovered a noncontact current path where groundwater seepage had made the soil conductive. The crew insulated the pipe for thirty feet each way and buried the thing again. Job completed, or so we thought. Follow me?"
...... I nodded. "What changed your mind?"
...... "The maps were checked, but no other pipeline was found. Or anything else." She gestured with both hands. "We advised the County, and they checked their records. Still nothing. They notified the State environmental group. After a flurry, we were ordered out again with a metal detector to chart the other pipeline. Or whatever it was. Somebody was worried it might be an abandoned line with material still inside." She moved a rock paperweight and allowed the top page to roll itself up. "This is what we mapped."
...... It was a square configuration, about four hundred fifty feet on a side, with two parallel crossbars equidistant down -- a closed square with no apparent inlet. The drawing itself was a simple inked figure on graphed engineering paper with a size scale in the legend. The draftsman's block was signed Cynthia Wilson.
...... "Not a configuration I recognize," I admitted.
...... "You, me, and everybody else!" She pulled a sheet of clear plastic over the drawings and tucked it under the makeshift paperweights. "So we were instructed to dig out a section and look at it. We excavated a place at about the middle of the east side and found a polished pipe, no markings and only a couple rust pits, eighteen inches in diameter. And not a standard size, English or metric. Per request, we tapped and sampled and found high pressure gas, twenty-two hundred pounds per square inch. The lab reported nitrogen, high purity, virtually no moisture content."
...... "And no flow rate," I suggested.
...... "None we could measure, not that we found any place for it to flow to, or flow from." She leaned on the hood of the four-by, one hand for a brace. "We were ordered to vent, since it constituted a safety hazard. We did so. We also dug out three more sites, one at each of the other sides, and drilled safety vents. To confirm full venting. Zero pressure at each. We cleaned up and went home. That was yesterday."
...... "And you returned this morning," I coached.
...... She tilted her head and gestured toward the field. "That we did. And what we found was senseless. Totally!" She pulled off the hardhat, scratched the top of her head, and slapped it back on. "We were instructed to dig out one corner of the square, check for markings, make exact size measurements, then cut a section off for samples. Per procedure, we began by digging out the closest vent hole to check for zero pressure. That vent had been sealed. Overnight!" She waved one hand upward. "The repair work was so good that we'd never have found it, if we hadn't measured so precisely. Half the crew dug out the other three vents, while we tapped and sampled again. They found those vents also repaired, and we found twenty-two hundred p.s.i. again. A gas sample went to the lab, but I can guess the results." She walked four paces away, turned, and walked back, her boots crunching slightly on the crust of frozen soil. "The follow-up instruction was to wait. So we're waiting. All right with me, my paycheck doesn't vary. Neither do those of my crew."
...... I glanced over at the trucks. Her crew was lounging comfortably inside, chatting the time away, while their Crew Chief paced up and down beside the Blazer. Waiting was not her forte, obviously.
...... "Suppose I requested you to continue. Dig up the corner and take samples as before. What then?"
...... She stopped pacing. "According to my boss, the day's shot anyway. If it can be done with the crew I have right now, my orders are to do whatever Special Investigations asks." She turned as a tiny shower of half-snow, half-rain swept by. "Is that what you'd like done?"
...... I nodded agreement and shrugged deeper into my own coat.
...... Trotting to the center of the truck grouping, she whistled and yelled: "Everybody out and back at it. Same thing as before. We're continuing as per plan. Lenny, tap and vent again. John, finish digging out that corner hole. Maria, pull out the cutting torch and set it up."
...... The truck doors opened all at once, and the entire crew bailed out, hurrying to their work assignments in that highly organized, apparent aimlessness which characterized a good crew. Everyone knew what they had to do, and what everyone else was doing. There were no wasted motions -- unintentional or otherwise.
...... Wilson watched them at work with sharp-eyed concentration, but that was unnecessary as she most certainly knew. However, this time they had an outsider for an audience.
...... "You're a private contractor?" I asked, thinking of one more possibility.
...... "On contract to the pipeline company for this type of work," she allowed, walking back. "We do a bit of most work. Long-term as much as we can manage."
...... "How's business these days?"
...... She grimaced and folded her arms. "I've been through worse. So far, I've been able to keep all of my crew on the payroll, but it's been day-to-day. There's some bids out, but nothing's come in yet." She shrugged lightly. "If you know of anything, just give us a call. Like I said, we can do most anything in general construction work."
...... The backhoe finished the mechanized portion of the digging. It maneuvered away, and three men climbed into the excavation to finish the work with shovels. They were taking no chances at all of damaging whatever was down there. I walked over to the edge of the hole to look at what was being uncovered.
...... A pipe about fourteen inches in diameter protruded from the sloped side of the excavation, bits of dirt still clinging to the brightly-metallic surface. It made a right-angle turn in two diameters and entered an eighteen inch diameter pipe through a dull-white bushing. A three-foot segment of the larger pipe had been uncovered by the digging. Both pipes had the burnish of stainless steel, or something similar, and the bushing looked like unglazed ceramic. No markings were visible on bushing or pipes.
...... One man pushed his shovel into the loose earth at the edge, bent down, and brushed away the last of the soil clinging to the bushing. "How in the world was that bend made?" he remarked idly, gloved hand resting on the section. "It's seamless."
...... I slid down the incline, hunched over, and inspected the pipeline myself. It did appear oddly out of place in a dirt trench in the middle of an abandoned farm field.
...... "That's some connector, too," another man added. "A ceramic plug good for two-thousand isn't nothing I've ever seen." He moved out of the way to let Wilson slide down next to me.
...... "We'll cut this entire corner off, if that's okay." She made fast motions to outline the intended section. "The guys should be starting to vent any minute now."
...... "Go ahead," I agreed, climbing back up the loose clay slope to make room for the compressed gas tanks being lowered. Torch-cutting two pipes that size was going to give someone here a long hard task.
...... A shrill whistling started -- twenty-two hundred pounds of gas pressure being vented off for the second time. Another quick shower of light snow obscured the workmen over by the venting site.
...... Back in my Jeep, I took out the small yellow notebook I used for such things and started my own notes while my memory was fresh. The report on this case was going to be difficult enough to write as it was.
...... "Driver!"
...... I looked up from my pages, saw Wilson motioning, checked the dash clock to discover that time had bustled by, shoved my notes into the map pocket, and opened the door. The flickering white from the cutting work, which had illuminated the brush next to the excavation, was gone. She was sliding down into the trench, one hand held out for balance, as I hurried forward at a trot over the broken ground and entangling weeds.
...... "Now don't that beat anything," the Cutter commented to Wilson, when I'd scrambled down behind them.
...... The Cutter was shining a flashlight down the inside of the larger pipe, the segment still buried. The smaller pipe had continued on inside, supported in the exact center by dull-white disks, each disk perforated with several vent openings.
...... She looked at me and waved the flashlight for emphasis. "It may look like stainless, but it didn't torch through like any stainless I've done before. I didn't think I'd ever get both those cuts finished."
...... "Looks like rather thin walls." I touched a ragged edge.
...... She shrugged. "I know. Hard to believe it was that hard to cut."
...... "It's also hard to believe that's engineered for high pressure," Wilson added.
...... "Reminds me of rigid coaxial cable," the Cutter offered. "I did some welding work for a new television transmitter station. They used something like this going up the tower, but nowhere near so big."
...... "We couldn't find any power connections," Wilson argued. "Or any other connections either." She straightened and rubbed at her back beneath the jacket.
...... "It might be a receiving antenna of some sort." I was guessing by analogy as was everyone else.
...... "That's a pretty heavy structure for half a watt," Wilson replied, hunching down again for another look.
...... "Unless tolerances are tight and the structural strength is needed for the dimensional stability," I countered, looking at the trampled ground beneath my feet. The earth was slowly turning to mud in the half-frozen splatters of rain.
...... "Like microwave." Wilson nodded her head, causing droplets of water to splash onto the shoulders of her jacket. "I suppose it could be. If the leadoffs were just ordinary gauge wire or something similar, we'd never have found them by metal detector. Quite a size here for microwave, though."
...... "Merely a guess. No better than anyone else's." I stood up. "You may have a chance to look for electrical wiring. Can you patch me through to a telephone number with that radio of yours?"
...... "We can sure give it a try." She gestured to the Cutter. "Have Jake bring the crane in, and swing this section onto the flatbed."
...... The Cutter gestured in return and scrambled up out of the hole, followed by Wilson and I. The whatever-it-was had the fascination of the inexplicable -- I wanted to stay to study it but would feel better with some distance between me and it.
...... Wilson opened the passenger door of the Blazer for me, before hurrying around to the driver's side. She bounced into the seat, clicked on the ignition, and revved the engine. "This antique works better with the alternator pushing juice," she explained, tapping the worn case. Picking up the microphone, she tossed her hardhat onto the backseat and switched on the old-style transceiver. "What phone did you want?"
...... I recited the number, same area code and exchange as my card, and spent the waiting time trying to put some usable order into my thoughts. Salesmanship wasn't my forte, either. She handed me the mike. "You're on."
...... "That you, Driver? What's up now?" The speaker vibrated with the audio.
...... "More trouble. Same as always." I paused for a second. "Lee? We're going to have to spend some money. Quite a lot of money, in fact. Right now. Not on bid."
...... "You're not in jail, 'cause you're calling on the radio. You don't gamble, so it can't be that. Just what are we spending quite a lot of money on?"
...... "We're going to dig up a . . . pipeline, for want of a better description. A very peculiar pipeline. I want a civil engineer and a photographer here to document this mess. And not A.S.A.P. Right now this instant. Yesterday, preferably."
...... "Keep talking, Driver. Don't stop now."
...... "The contractor here is a per-job outfit in excavating. Their Estimator will be calling you shortly about how much this is going to cost. Limber up your check-writing hand, because I want roughly twenty-seven hundred feet of large diameter pipe pulled up and trucked away."
...... Several long seconds went by -- it wasn't a disconnect, he merely needed time to adjust to the idea.
...... "I'll push it through, but you'd better have a very good reason for all this." The reluctance in his voice survived the timber of the speaker. "If I get stomped on by Upstairs, I'm going to land on you with my golf shoes. I think I can get full approval by Monday." I thumbed the mike. "Not approved, work finished by Monday. Started today! With approval for overtime, including weekend rates. Give me a purchase order number. You can fill out the paperwork this evening when you have the estimated cost."
...... The speaker reproduced a long sigh. "What have you got against me, Jay? Why are you always trying to get me into trouble? What did I do to deserve you? I'll send an authorization down by fax. Get your pencil ready, 'cause here's your P. O. Number."
...... I didn't need to write it down. Wilson had her notebook open and a pen in one hand. She jotted the information down as Lee slowly read it out, including the billing address.
...... "Now, as for you, Driver," he continued in his most exasperated tone, "you go to a telephone and get me a report within the next few hours. I know you can't say much with half the country listening in to the Public Service bands, but I want the panic factor. I got to have some support real quick, before somebody from Upstairs finds out about this and comes to tread on my face."
...... "The pipeline in question here doesn't belong to anyone. Yesterday, it was drilled and vented. When the construction company arrive at the site again this morning, it'd been repaired and refilled sometime during the night."
...... His answer was a low whistle. "I think I'll see about a charter helicopter for the engineer and the photo man. I've never heard anything like it. Have you?"
...... "In all my investigations, abandonment immediately followed discovery. This is the very first time I've encountered active intervention after exposure, and I don't like it! If this pipe configuration is that important, I want it dug up, cut apart, hauled away, and the site graded over. And the pipe melted down for scrap iron."
...... "You and me both." He paused for ten seconds. "Enough out of you. Get me that construction company estimator, if you can. I'll need to fit together what little you've left me out of this quarter's budget."
...... She took back the microphone and signed off with the office dispatcher, then turned to look critically at me. "I'll write you a work order," I offered.
...... "No need. In a minute they'll be back to me with a new set of instructions." She closed her notebook and tossed it onto the back seat beside her hardhat. "I'll have to admit, though, I never expected that kind of purchasing authority out of somebody in jeans and a Wear-Guard flight-style jacket . . . even if he did pull up in a with-everything Jeep." She brushed at a loose strand of hair. "You really are a surprise. I'm about ready to ask you out to dinner tonight, but I don't think you'd accept," she laughed.
...... "Actually, I would accept, but tonight I won't be here." I flipped over a palm. "I'll be lucky if I manage to catch a fastfood sandwich on the run." In a manner of speaking, it was completely true.
...... "And married too," she decided. "You have to be. All the good ones are."
...... The dispatcher called her number, and she reached for the mike. The new work authorization was coming through from her supervisor.

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