"Our responsibility is to do what we can, learn what we can, improve the solutions, and pass them on."
- Richard P. Feynman
"It takes effort."
Britain looked tired. The dark bags under his eyes were so heavy that they appeared to be pulling his eyelids closed. He looked down at his clipboard as he rubbed his temples between his finger and thumb.
"More effort than most men can muster."
He was talking to the greenest, wettest, and sorriest looking selection of engineers he had ever laid eyes on. There was not a single male among them, near as he could tell. Skinny, spotty boys the lot of them, fresh off their wet-nurse's tit and he was certain he had been landed with a few girls to boot. He had been very specific in his staffing request to the overseer. He wanted able-bodied men. Limp wristed girls were about as useful to him as a smacked arse.
"You will work harder than you have ever worked before." He had to project his voice quite hard to make himself heard above the background roar of the Gateway generators.
He cast a withering eye over the assembled recruits. They were gathered in an open square, formed by the prefabricated barracks on the western side of the large steel structure that marked the northern end of the Gateway. The barracks were situated roughly a mile away from the leading edge of the firewall, precariously close to the boundary where it was still safe to be in the open, exposed to the sky. A vicious sunburn was still guaranteed if one ventured out without adequate protective gear.
"We are maintaining a gateway that, to date, has been open for exactly one week."
His clipboard blipped a notification at him and he paused to clear it.
"For one week" he continued, "we have managed to keep a door to the Southland open. Make no mistake, this is no ordinary door. We have created a portal through the very bowels of hell itself."
"The sun, that shiny bitch floating above us, is doing everything in its power to shut this door. Your job is to make sure that doesn't happen."
This was the single largest engineering project he or anyone had ever been involved in. The European Nation States had taken more than three thousand years to recover from the cataclysmic events that now bore the moniker of 'The Purge'. The North American and Asia-Pacific Nations had been completely obliterated. Through a simple quirk of geography, namely the open Sahara and Mediterranean basin, Europe had been spared the full force of the initial firestorm. Many of the more northern population centers in Europe managed to survive with some of their core infrastructure intact. Scandinavia, Great Britain, and a few of the North-Eastern European States became a loosely connected conglomerate of techno-feudal city-states known as the Northland Kingdoms.
The building of a tunnel through the Firewall had long been a dream for many in the Northland Kingdoms. Elaborate myths and legends had spread about what had happened to the Southland survivors after 'The Purge,' but the fact was that there was simply no way to know. The Firewall completely cut the two hemispheres off from each other and no one could say what had befallen the nations that called the southern hemisphere home.
Work began on the construction of the Gateway when it was determined that the Northland eco-systems were gradually shutting down. Of the many proposals for projects to ensure the continued survival of humanity, the Gateway had been the most radical and hotly debated.
Many considered it to be a waste of time and more importantly, precious resources. After all, there was no way to know what lay on the other side of the firewall. This had been put to rest once it had been demonstrated that a project to build a gateway through the Firewall would provide a valuable source of jobs, significantly boosting the fragile Northland economies, and would jump-start profound scientific research and development. The great city-states had put aside their petty differences, pooling their engineering talent and the project had effectively unified the Northland, giving humanity a collective purpose and a glimmer of hope for the future.
"You will be divided into work squads." Britain barked, he had given this speech a thousand times.
"Each squad will be composed of two welders, two drillers, two joiners, one foreman, and a collector."
"Your squad will be your new family. You will spend every waking moment with them. You will eat when they eat, shit when they shit, and sleep when they sleep."
"They will be your family but you cannot love them like family, nor can you ever befriend them." He paused, gauging their reaction. His words did not appear to have made any impact.
"You cannot befriend them," He continued. "Because many of them will die."
"Death will be your friend on the gateway. You will see members of your squad burned alive, this I promise you. Watching a person's flesh melt off their bones is something you will not soon forget."
This provoked the reaction he had hoped for. A few of the recruits were looking around them in wide-eyed panic. They hadn't been told this, they had been told this would be standard civil engineering work, doing their bit for the Northland survival project.
Britain let them stew for a moment, savoring their fear. The human cost of the Gateway project was indeed severe. Many thousands of lives had been lost over the course of generations. System failures, blowouts, radiation exposure, sabotage, human error, all were experienced by the brave souls that devoted their lives to the work.
Little progress was made during the first two centuries of work on the Gateway. There was, however, a tipping point where the level of investment and sacrifice began to start paying dividends. Research in robotics, advanced A.I., and metamaterials began an exponential process of discovery and advancement in the project which had significant implications for the broader Northland economies and more importantly the safety record of the project.
"Oh, pull yourselves together," he snapped. "I'm just yankin' yer chains. This work hasn't been life-threatening for decades."
The statement was a barefaced lie, but Britain was not the sort of man who cared much for honesty. They would learn soon enough that the work would still carry severe risk with death being one of many possible outcomes for carelessness. Their relief was palpable. It washed over him in a wave of whispered gratitude. He chuckled to himself.
The Gateway towered above them, its iron hide glowing a dull rusty sheen that could melt lead. Britain began pairing the recruits off into their work squads. He was careful to ensure that no squad had more than one girl in it. No sense hobbling the squads needlessly, they could take on collector duties.
"Chad, Guam, and..." He paused momentarily as a sneer of disgust bent his upper lip,
"...Mali!" He spat the name out as if the very taste of it repulsed him. He really despised girls.
"You three are assigned to Squad Lambda Seven. Chad, you are on drilling detail. Guam, it's your lucky day. You are replacing Jamaica as a foreman. Report to me once you have your gear secured. You will need to be briefed on your new status." Britain paused again and looked Mali up and down, not bothering to disguise his displeasure at her presence.
"Mali, you're on collection duty. Try not to fuck it up, love."
He made a mental note to keep a slightly keener eye on Lambda Seven. Even covered up by the rough, shapeless work-crew overalls there was enough of a curve and swell in Mali's figure to make her a distraction for the rest of the crew. The last thing he needed was another one to one with the Overseer to explain how yet another girl had managed to get accidentally raped and murdered while on his watch. He did not much care what happened to the girls under his care, but he did have a keen eye on his promotion prospects. He was on the cusp of bringing himself up a social class. Losing crew was not an option for the next couple of months at least.
"You can count on me, chief!" Mali's response was clear and confident. She had her head up high, shoulders back. She was in no way intimidated by the head foreman's clear distaste for her gender.
"I'll bet," Britain said to himself.