|See below for photo credits.|
When the initial Unfriendly landing began, all the small contingent in Deneb City could do was to withdraw. Their other options were to fight and be overwhelmed, or simply surrender.
No one had been able to think of a fourth option.
With only six hundred Confederation troops on the whole planet, their number one priority was to preserve their force and to maintain a presence.
Their command post in the small town of Roussef had been selected in some haste. Dona was pleased to see that they hadn’t taken the biggest hotel in the middle of town. That would have been a little too easy. Not just for them but for the enemy. City Hall, the police station, any substantial building, were pretty obvious targets and the Unfriendlies would have all the usual strike weapons.
Sooner or later, those would be attempted—
Before then, all of the most obvious targets would have to be cleared of military and civil populations.
The small cavalcade arrived in front of a large, industrial warehouse on the outskirts of the town.
The big truck doors along one side were open and the vehicles drove straight in. All the machines, grinders, cutters, jigs and other industrial equipment had been uprooted and jammed together in the far end of the building. It looked to have been a pretty big welding and fabrication shop, an impression reinforced by racks of angle-iron, channel-section steel and the low stacks of steel plate laying on squared baulks of timber on the ground outside.
Their business was the manufacture of steel trusses and pre-fabricated buildings by the look of some unfinished work hastily cleared into the outdoors.
Pulling up in front of the heavily sandbagged office section of the facility, everyone got out and headed up a half-flight of steps into a large, well-lit room full of computer screens, people wearing headsets, and the backup display units of defensive systems. All the exterior windows had been blacked out for night-time operations. Interior windows looked out onto the shop floor, dimly lit by the yellow orbs of the overhead fixtures. There were curtains for those windows as well, as people and vehicles would be coming and going by night. The sandbagging was internal, so as not to give anything away to air or space-borne observation.
She would have speak to people about blackout operations. Just one more thing, or rather, one of many things, as there were going to be problems with infrared and radio traffic as well.
Even laser wasn’t one-hundred percent secure. When the enemy got closer, sonic detection might play a role. The thing there was that the enemy had to attack, while the Confederation would most likely sit tight, keep quiet and prepare to defend. It was a case of reading the enemy’s mind, a tough thing in any operation of any size at all.
“Come this way please.”
On the other side of the room was a series of smaller offices and conference rooms, where presumably, the Major would be found. The lieutenant had the com unit up to her ear and led the way to a door near the end of the row.
There were three or four officers and troopers in the room. The one behind the desk stood up.
The lieutenant made the introductions.
“Major Taylin, This is Lieutenant-Colonel Graham and Captain Aaron. Unless you need me for something else—”
“No, that’s fine, Lieutenant. Welcome ladies, and gentlemen, and congratulations.”
“Thank you, Major. Or Colonel, as soon as you’re on your way. Congratulations on your own reassignment. Our condolences regarding Colonel Race, incidentally.” The former commander had died of a sudden heart attack.
Her brief said that his people had liked him and she sort of had to accept that at face value.
For the sake of military propriety, Taylin’s promotion would take effect as soon as he cleared ground.
|Courtesy the Confederation Department of Defense.|
This simplified the present relationship.
“What’s the situation? I understand the pilots want to take off within the hour—”
“Thank you. A lot of our people are new, but I’ve made a few friends here. I will miss them.” The major paused, standing in front of a genuine paper map, several sheets pieced together on the otherwise featureless rear wall of the room. “There’s a fair bit of information, so let’s get started.”
In his early forties, making colonel might have been a bit of a relief in a career that hadn’t been going too far too fast. Not until his commanding officer died, and then the Unfriendlies came down. At which point he’d handled the situation with few losses and keeping the force’s capabilities sharp and relevant. All of a sudden he had a lot more seniority than people like Graham, and he had been needed elsewhere. This might have explained his rapid departure from a mission he presumably knew well enough.
“As for the situation. Nothing much has changed since our last report. We’ve concentrated our force here, with small detachments in surrounding villages. We’re keeping an eye on the sky and the road network. The most important detachment is about seventy kilometres southeast of here, in Walzbruch.” Founded by Poles, the town was a support centre for the mining of heavy metals, with the several active mines in the area a strategic resource in this sector of the galaxy.
Right out of the book, in other words, and sometimes that was a good thing.
“We’ve got two platoons down there, providing security and making sure our civilian friends carry out the demolitions properly, which they have agreed to do.” There weren’t a whole lot of qualified people available, civil or military, and there was plenty of work to be done.
The door opened and a lance-corporal stuck her head in. On seeing the new faces, she entered fully and saluted.
“Sir? Your bags are all packed. We’re pretty sure we haven’t missed anything.” She eyed a small stack of boxes just inside the doorway. “We’ll start loading that now, sir, if that’s all right.”
“Carry on, thank you.” The Major would be taking the Colonel’s body and personal effects along, as well as a few troopers whose contracts had expired.
Some people had chosen not to re-up and that was their option, especially so as transport was available to get off-planet. The cut in pay from combat status to available status might have been worth it to them, for any number of reasons. Some people specialized in security and police duties. They tended to live longer and even have families—sometimes. Some had never envisaged anything other than a short term contract—the old five years and then out sort of thing. A five-year hitch and then an honourable discharge qualified a person for the minimum of pensions—little better than subsistence, but people had signed on for less. They could have contributed the max out of pay and thought it was time to go—
With the Confederation’s mandatory savings program and the honourable discharge bonus, it represented a small grub-stake for their new civilian life.
They didn’t always have to have a reason.
The corporal spoke into her unit. More troopers appeared to do the actual lifting. They each grabbed a box and headed out again. Presumably, the Colonel was all boxed-up and around there somewhere—probably down at the food-processing plant.
That would be the biggest meat-locker in town.
Her own com-unit buzzed. The others would wait.
“Chan here. We’re just clearing the last of the crates. The vehicles are all out, no problems in start-up. They’re green for go. The pilots are inquiring after our passengers.”
“Roger that. They’re on their way.”
She looked at the others in the room.
“Well. Goodbye and good luck, Major. As for the rest of you, briefing in fifteen minutes. All senior officers down to sergeants. Carry on.”
With a slight air of sadness, the Major indicated a seat behind the desk, which was now hers and hers alone.
That’s why they called it the hot-seat.
“We’ve got a bit of time here, Colonel, so let’s go over a few more things.”
“Yes. Thank you. Major. Take all the time you need. The ship’s not going anywhere without you.”
With such a small force, those officers on scene all fit into a moderately-sized conference room.
The commanders of remote detachments were watching and listening from their own positions via tight-beam laser, bounced back and forth from a satellite above.
With their bright and eager faces on the screens bolted high up on the walls all around the perimeter, it was a chance to get to know each other as much as anything else.
Colonel Graham had begun the briefing by letting the officers on the ground explain the situation.
Lieutenant Wheeler was up first. Her specialty was administration and organization according to Dona’s notes.
The biggest screen displayed a map, a rectangular section snipped from a radius of about three hundred kilometres.
“Okay. We’ve sent detachments here, here and here. In order to provide adequate security here in Roussef, we’ve already committed a sizable proportion of our force. We have no choice but to keep Deneb City and the spaceport under observation. That’s a very small force. Before his unfortunate passing, the colonel decided to make sure the some of the major mine equipment is destroyed. He lived just long enough to see the Unfriendlies come down…we believe he had been ailing for some time, but his medical records are none of my business—that’s for sure. That’s Highway Three that I am referring to, and don’t ask us about the numbering system. That’s actually a bit further up the road from Walzbruch. There are a couple of big operations and a handful of smaller operators. However, even though it’s the long way around, a strong detachment at the road junction prevents surprise attack. It’s a base for farther patrols. It provides security for the locals and might even be the basis of our own counterattack. The enemy has to take any mobile force with access to almost any good road fairly seriously. At least until they determine its strength and composition. They will have little choice but to provide a blocking force…the mines are a strategic target. Essentially, if they can beat us, it’s winner take-all. Surveys indicate the system is resource-rich by comparative standards. Arable land has always been precious. Anyways. Moving on. With only one direct main road between here and Deneb City, it implies the threat of an outflanking maneuver.” This was true for combatants on either side…
There were exactly three paved roads on Deneb, not counting those within city or town limits.
Everything else was improved dirt and gravel, clay roads or simple tracks through the bush.
Some of those tracks, still visible from space or airborne observation, had been used exactly once. Some tracks dated from the early days of colonization, and some had probably been made yesterday. Satellite maps were updated hourly.
“I don’t have a problem with any of that. What’s with this place here—” She highlighted it with a touch of her stylus.
The village was about forty-five kilometres north of Roussef. The first part of the road, numbered one-twelve, was paved, then it turned to ‘improved gravel’, whatever that meant.
The creeks and ravines were bridged. A thin straggle of settlement followed much of its length, leading out of Roussef and closer to Ryanville with a barren, unpopulated stretch roughly halfway between them.
“Ryanville was one of the early settlements. There’s good hydro-power there and the original lumber-mill is still in existence, although it’s small. Half the buildings of any size on Deneb use Ryanville wood products, studs, plywood, sub-flooring and the like.” They had a fleet of trucks.
Some products went by air to outlying settlements, and didn’t come cheap.
“It’s a hunting and fishing community. There’s some tourism. People make a living from it. It’s the centre of its own little network of roads, petering out into what is essentially a temperate rain forest up there. The median elevation is a good thousand metres higher and that makes a big difference in terms of both rain and snowfall.” According to Lieutenant Wheeler, the Terran population was about thirty-six hundred, with another few thousand dispersed over a few hundred square kilometres.
Nothing uncommon for a pioneering world. The whole planet had a population of less than a million, possibly a billion natives on top of that. No one had ever done a real census.
“It’s late summer now and probably the nicest weather we see all year. Spring is wet and windy, summer is insufferably hot even at this elevation. Winter is as cold as hell. Late summer and early autumn can be glorious. It isn’t always, or so we have been told. The orbit is slightly eccentric, with multi-year cycles in terms of apogee and perihelion. None of us have been on-planet for more than a year, a year and a half in some cases. But when fall really rolls around, there is absolutely no doubt that winter is coming.”
The skies would grow grey and dark and the rains would come. After the rain, the mud, and then the big freeze-up.
This was hard on morale. Soldiers were nothing if not people.
Graham knew the bulk of them were on three and five-year contracts and that it had been a relatively happy command.
“The thing is, they also have an airport. Several light aircraft, a handful of helicopters. Some small robotic cargo craft. We felt that it was best to secure these assets and provide security up there as well. It’s also close to the biggest village of one of the major tribes. There are three or four actual towns up there. Nations, really. The native peoples are pretty settled, and although it’s very much a subsistence economy, they’re fairly prosperous as such things go. They don’t have to work too hard. Producing a surplus of sorts allows them the luxury of warfare and religion. In relative terms, a highly-advanced culture. They use iron and copper and basic chemistry, without really understanding it. They’ve got some interesting toys, without actually having invented gunpowder or the steam engine. When colonists arrived, there wasn’t a single stone building on the planet. They say that has changed due to imitation. It’s like they’d never even thought of it before. Some sort of accident of cultural evolution, but there are one or two odd gaps that aren’t accounted for by religious beliefs, for example. They like us for some reason which no one can explain. They also appreciate firmness and directness as opposed to double-talk and subterfuge. Before we got here, they were dealing with strictly commercial enterprises…no comment on that one. I just don’t have any real facts. The natives feel hard done by in certain cases, big dams, open-pit mines and the like, which they may not have properly understood at the time of the original treaty negotiations. They may have understood the concepts, it was the scale that shocked them. We can’t assume anything about the natives, except that they are presently tolerating us as the political and economic situation currently stands.”
“Very well. What about some of these other units.”
“Ah, yes, Colonel. We have observation posts set up along any passable road. The locals can’t help but be aware of them—a vehicle that is clearly military pulls up and starts cutting brush for camouflage, well. We’re going to leave tracks going off the road, and depending how wet it is, and how deep the ruts are, it’s not that easy to conceal. It sticks out like a sore thumb. They know their own backyard and their own neighbourhood. The roads are traveled pretty frequently. The distances are too far and no one really walks anywhere on this planet. Not Terrans, anyways. The teams do a bit of public relations and pick up whatever intelligence they can. We’ve been pushing those forward incrementally, and even in the real bush, up in the hills between here and Deneb City, we have a perimeter, a light one, out as far as forty kilometres in the southwest. That’s a hundred and fifty kilometres northwest of Deneb City.”
The thinking there was that the troops could be pulled back fairly quickly, and that the enemy was unlikely to try an overland penetration.
Not on foot, anyways.
Dona studied the map. There were all kinds of marked tracks, the records of the planetary positioning systems going back forty or fifty years.
Ninety percent of the planet’s population lived on small, scattered farmsteads. With very little in the way of social services, they were a pretty self-reliant bunch. This accounted for the spider-web of bad roads and the ubiquitous all-terrain vehicles. When people got hungry, they loaded up the gun, climbed into the vehicle, and went off looking for meat.
“They’ve been living by their wits for a very long time.” With help so far away in any emergency, it didn’t pay to be too stupid on Deneb, not for those outside of established settlements.
They saw everything that moved, and heard, or heard about, every damned little thing that happened.
Graham studied the main map, zooming in to examine villages, hamlets, crossroads, dead-end roads and tracks, swamps…hills, rivers and terrain in general. Tiny black squares indicated houses, shacks, cabins, barns…dotted lines for tracks through bush and swamp. A thin black line for a serviced road, two black lines and a bit of grey for pavement. Bridges, cuttings, lakes, rivers and dams, it was all there. The terrain reminded her of somewhere…Appalachia, she decided.
Lots of long, narrow ridges interspersed with even narrower valleys, due to the soft limestone bedrock and numberless torrential streams running through them. To the south lay the Great Desert, and to the north, some real lake and glacier country.
“How…how were all these little farmsteads, ah…initiated.’
“The people were literally dropped off by air, with a pile of supplies, tools and equipment.”
“Oh, my, God.”
“Yes. It’s surprising that they survived at all. Some of them were organized groups, and some of them, a lot of them, were one family or even just one person.”
“Very well. Tell me about your weapons and equipment.”
The young Lieutenant looked around.
“Perhaps Lieutenant Tanguy would address this question.”
“Right.” A burly young woman in forest-pattern fatigues, Jerri Tanguy stepped forward as Lieutenant Wheeler moved aside.
She took a breath and a certain stance, then began.
“Okay. We have three teams in Deneb City. Two teams with Barker anti-materiel weapons are southeast and southwest of the spaceport, which is ten kilometres south of town. It’s open, flat country although there is some light terrain-change.” Those were teams of six. “We have another team on high ground watching the highway.”
With the latest scopes, plus remote sensors left in place, they could see everything that moved.
Team Three in the city itself were dispersed over three locations, in tall buildings with a view over the main drag and the city centre complex of buildings. Teams of two. They slept in rotation, with someone always on duty.
Graham studied the map.
“They have four Panthers, which are four-wheel drive utility vehicles. They’re hidden in good cover, within the security screen of each post. They’re good for about three-quarters of a metric ton and have seating for five or six. They’re lightly-armed with automatic weapons. All teams have one chemical mortar, one shoulder-fired anti-aircraft tube and an assortment of personal weapons. Upon their own suggestion, they took a handful of mines, grenades, and remote sensor pickups. They have deployed enough of those to cover their own lines of retreat. Hopefully.” If the shortest line of retreat was blocked, they could simply go to ground in broken country, or abandon the vehicles and evade on foot. “They can give any pursuer a rough time, that’s for sure.”
If necessary, they would seize civilian vehicles, leaving an official receipt.
Graham nodded. Panthers were pretty common. In addition to having used them once or twice, she’d taken the time to look them up. Powered by fuel cells and electric motors, they could climb a seventy-degree slope if the ground was right. They were fast, reliable, easy to fix and anyone with legs and arms could drive them. Park them in the sun, and they would recharge in about three statute hours under local planetary conditions.
She had about a million questions.
“Do we have autumn camouflage?”
“Uh, yes, Colonel. That’s a lot of pinks and greys and browns. We have good winter stuff too—proper snow-suits, insulated boots, helmet-covers, you name it. Lubricants, self-heating rations, everything we need.”
“Okay. Now, what about Walzbruch.”
“We sent two platoons of B Company. There were a few civilian police and a squad there already. They have a small militia detachment—weekend soldiers, some of them have some training. A few came up from Deneb City as well, and they’re quartered in the gymnasium of a local high school. For the most part, it’s a bit of a beer-drinking club. They have boots and uniforms and some light weapons. They drill on Thursday nights, do light maneuvers on weekends, and have a big role in the Independence Day parades. A couple of antique armored cars—those are the guys from Deneb City. They buggered off about the same time we did. Ah. Back to our own troops. They’re all equipped in similar fashion, Confederation-standard infantry rig. We also have trailered anti-air and anti-missile defense systems with the attendant radar and infrared detection systems.” They had to be able to defend themselves, and at the same time, the equipment was not expendable. “They’re hidden in the hills overlooking Deneb City. With luck, we can get some people back there. They might be able to withdraw on back roads.”
They had the bare minimum and not much more. A few extra clips per trooper was the best they could do.
“What about the civilian police?”
“They’re on our side. As far as we know. They’re private, corporate police, mostly responsible for site security, anti-pilfering, things like that.” They had agreed to the necessity of destroying some of the plant equipment and were cooperating. “Every company has their own force, with the biggest company, TiCor, sort of taking leadership.” Tanguy took a breath. “It’s a civil government. When my little group landed a few months ago, about forty of us, the civilian police, private and public, met us at the airport and welcomed us with every appearance of sincerity.”
Walzbruch was very much a company town, Deneb City not much better. Roussef had a good mix of light industry, with no really big player to dominate the market or politically.
“And their vehicles?” Dona meant the Confederation troops.
“Half a dozen Panthers, six-by-six trucks and the heavy transporters of the Mongoose missile systems.” All vehicles had self-driving capability, with autonomous defense systems…food for thought there. “We’ve got some Pumas, which are basically good for half a ton and three, four people.”
The Mongoose could be used for air defence, but it was more suitable for surface-to-surface work. The warhead was big, far more than that required for air defence. It was also high-explosive, not so much the ball-bearings or chains of metal mesh thrown by air-to-air missiles.
“Light arms, Barkers, machine guns and three light anti-tank tubes. Those are mounted on Panthers.” The small arms were equipped with grenade launchers and a good number had night-scopes. “The tubes have been dismounted, and set up in good ambush positions.”
A guard rotated through the missile positions, all of them qualified to lay and fire the system, and it would be set on auto in the event of a withdrawal. Heaven help anyone that came along after that…innocent or guilty.
Two platoons and a few already stationed there. That would be about fifty people, armed with the latest in VR combat technology. The local cops and maybe a few more militia.
The VR sets had all the latest anti-detection, anti-glint technology. The great thing about Panthers was the ability to bolt-on any light weapon system in a matter of minutes.
The thing to do was to leave them in place until the enemy made a move…
Wheeler was talking about the anti-tank capability of the Barker.
“It’s a nice scope, the eye-piece is really soft rubber and it keeps the light out—and in, when you really need it at night.”
“I see. Who’s in command down there and what are they reporting?”
“That’s Lieutenant Sallet. Sergant Kawaii is in charge of the second platoon. The original squad has been re-absorbed. First Platoon. Basically, we’re just talking to the people. Travelers and anyone coming up from the big city are saying that the Unfriendlies have taken over in Deneb City, using main government buildings, the police station, et cetera. The enemy is digging in, mostly in defence of the spaceport, although they’ve sited some artillery pieces to command the approaches.” All they could do was to check civilian ID and backstories insofar as that was available on a pioneering planet without much social-media infrastructure.
The civilians were not happy with the presence of the Unfriendlies, but in no real position to resist.
So far, no one really suspicious had come up the road.
The situation could be described as fluid.
Dona studied the icons on the main map screen. A battery here, a command post there…the main road between the port and the city.
A trooper stood up from his desk, holding onto something as he was blind to the real world in his headset.
“They’re coming, Colonel.”
(End of Part Four.)
Photo 2: The Confederation Department of Defense.
Photo 5: The Confederation Public Communications Office.
Photo 6: Members of Team Three on operations on Deneb 7-a. CPCO.
Photo 7: Lieutenant-Colonel Dona Graham. CPCO.
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