Building The Road

8 Tuesday 272 ED

Jack was eating breakfast when he heard the truck driving into the latest base camp. He got up and pulled the entry flap aside in time to see the truck come to a stop and Russell and Diego leap out of the back. It was taking about four hours now to get from Lovell Station Four to the current base camp, a little over a hundred miles inland, but the two new arrivals looked fresh and ready to work, so they had probably been successful in getting some sleep in the truck.

The day before, the truck had brought Brayden McCready, a biologist, and Sebastian Radcliffe, a geologist, down the mountain to Lovell Station Four, where the River Queen would take them back down river to spend some time with their families. Russell and Diego were replacing them for a week; then they would go back and Brayden and Sebastian would return. Jack, with no family other than his parents, and no desire to return to Ellis, led the survey team without being relieved.

"Another fifty miles or so since we've been gone?" Diego said as they two men strode over to Jack's tent. "Not bad."

"More like sixty, I think," Jack responded. "The road must be in pretty good shape. You two looked like you didn't have too bad a trip."

"I wouldn't know," Russell answered with a grin. "I slept until we hit the unpaved part just before the camp. You wouldn't think a bag of dried beans would make that comfortable a pillow."

"Well, welcome back. You're just in time for a challenging stretch. According to the maps, the mountain takes a steep rise about two miles from here. It could be tough to find a good route."

"Well, we'll take a look at the maps over some breakfast," Russell said. "Then we'll get going."

The three men went into the tent to get breakfast and pack for the day's survey work. Meanwhile, Bertram, one of the robots, was preparing the automated equipment that would pave the stretch of road that other automated equipment had cleared the day before. Some of the construction equipment had been in storage at Ellis, not used since Ellis had built roads up to the research facilities on the mountains above Ellis. Other equipment was road-building machinery used to lay paved roads in Ellis and Grissom. That equipment, along with the truck that had brought Diego and Russell to the camp, had been ferried up the river from Grissom by Dawson Ramirez and the River Queen.

Half an hour later, the three men were heading out of the camp, farther into the mountains. They would return to the base camp sometime during Late Day, after surveying ten to fifteen miles and marking a route for the robots. During the night, the route would be cleared and turned into a rough road, and the base camp would be moved to the new end point. Then they would start again.

For the first couple of miles, they covered territory that was only moderately inclined. They could still hear the noises coming from the construction behind them, slowly fading as the trees absorbed the sounds. They could see a higher slope looming in front of them and angled to the south where the aerial survey had indicated they might be able to find a better path. Three miles from the base camp, they came to the edge of the prominence and walked around it trying to find their way back to the northeast and the general direction of the mine. The ground rose more quickly as they walked but not too steep for the road.

"Is this what it felt like for Daniel Boone?" Russell asked, breathing hard as they climbed the slope.

"At least Daniel Boone could find food along the trail," Jack retorted. He wasn't breathing as hard as Russell and Diego, he noticed with satisfaction. He had thought he was in good shape before, hiking the gentle hills of the Fredericks, but weeks of surveying had driven his body far beyond that.

"Daniel Boone didn't have this much quiet either," Diego added. "There's not a sound out here."

"Earth would have birds singing," Jack said. "Birds haven't evolved here yet."

"No animals either." Diego stopped and looked at the base of one of the trees. "Scratch marks," he said. "There are animals out here. We just don't see them."

"Has anyone ever done any research to find out why?" Jack asked. "How do they avoid us so well?"

"There were some papers written in the early days, but they couldn't capture anything to study."

"The elephant moles don't seem as shy as the other animals," Russell pointed out. "They live pretty close to Grissom, right on the edge of the pastures."

"They live almost entirely underground," Diego said. "That might have something to do with it. Still, that's a good idea. We should be able to capture a couple. I don't think anyone has ever tried that, probably because they don't live around Ellis."

The trail got steeper, and they stopped talking. Ten minutes later, they had climbed to the top of a ridge and could look around the surrounding area.

"This hill is the best path through here," Jack decided. "We'll have to do a cut, though. It's too steep."

Russell nodded in agreement. "Not too bad, though. We'll have worse spots before we're done."

"Count on it. We've only just started to get into the real mountains." He stared out onto the landscape. "We can follow this ridge for a while. It will add a nice scenic view for the road."

"Break time," Diego said. "I need to catch my breath." Diego sat down on a rock and Jack and Russell followed suit.

Russell pulled out a copy of the notes from the earlier Progress survey. "We had identified the need for a cut through this hill from the aerial survey," he pointed out.

Jack nodded. "What's your point?"

"Do we really need to be doing this ground survey?"

Jack turned and looked at Russell with a big grin. "Probably not, for the most part," he answered. "Maybe a few spots here and there, but walking the whole route is probably more than we need to do."

"Then why are we doing it?" Russell asked.

"You didn't question it when we were planning it," Jack pointed out. "But, since you ask now, exploration for its own sake. Exercise. Because I enjoy it. Take your pick."

"The ecological information I'm getting is invaluable," Diego added. "What about your study of the geology of this planet?"

"The value of that in my mind varies inversely with the distance I've walked," Russell grumbled. "Come on, we might as well get going again."

"Oh, I forgot one reason," Jack said as he got up. He clapped Russell on the shoulder. "Don't forget the pleasure of our company."

"We really need to find him a wife," Russell told Diego.