Following the doctor’s advice, she’d been using the goggs more judiciously. The headache hadn’t come back, not so far.
The retreat was going well. The Unfriendlies were occupying the respective hill-tops. They were moving carefully, with small teams checking for booby-traps before the bulk of them moved in. They were now patrolling ahead of themselves, staying off the road when possible and using foot-soldiers almost exclusively when away from the main road. Side-roads were used by the civvies who lived in the area, and so those hadn’t been mined at all. Unfriendly mine-detection teams were out in force, wasting their time as there was nothing there to find. There were Confederation cameras. The enemy was being judicious in dealing with civilians. Far from the main road, the small farms and ranches were being visited. Just visited. Enemy drones probably weren’t seeing much down there, which proved nothing and so it still had to be checked. Therefore, the enemy was checking—and the Confederation was monitoring.
The problem was, there was nothing there to find, and yet it still ate up a lot of time.
Their great victories at Hill 163 and Hill 114-A were probably already being written into the history books and going out on all the news services. Virtually everyone in human space would soon know all about it.
The enemy newsfeed was there if one cared to look at it. The only thing missing in there was dead bodies—in all the old documentaries, no matter who was producing them, the dead were there on display, in spades. The more the merrier, or so it would seem. It would soon be apparent to almost any viewer that the same few smouldering Confederation weapons and vehicles, were being shown over and over again.
Yet, they would play it for all it was worth. Always with the thought of the negotiating table in the background. Cynical, but also probably true. She had put some thought into that herself—she had to. It was part of the job and all eventualities had to be covered.
One of those possibilities was defeat.
Public opinion being what it was when people were far, far away. Every society had its fringe elements, every polity had its own local, internal opposition. These could be very contradictory at times. The galaxy was a big place full of divergent cultures, all of them busily polling themselves. That, was the soldier’s opinion of civics and society, when the moral questions should have been obvious to anyone.
Public opinion still mattered.
“Another column forming up. In Deneb City—”
“Activate Mongoose One.”
“Activated.” The soldier made a funny little grunting noise and hit the firing button.
They watched onscreen as the missiles tracked.
“Colonel?” Another voice, another problem, yet another question.
“Yes? Go ahead.”
“They seem to be settling in for the night.” Another picture flashed before her eyes.
He was referring to the forward elements of the enemy, digging in to hold the hills. No real counterattack was possible, probably even not really expected. It was sniper and missile protection, random stonks of artillery and mortar fire, which could be kept at a distance and didn’t require a shit-load of manpower. Nothing beats a good hole in the ground. The enemy had plenty of shovels and good, strong, farm-boy backs.
“Well. Colonel Graham—” It was Captain Aaron, looking tired and yet oddly cheerful. “This might be a good time.”
Harvey looked at her.
The next big booby trap had been Paul’s idea.
“The honour is all yours, Colonel.” Harvey gave his head a rueful shake. “Too bad poor old McMurdo can’t be here to witness this one personally.”
With enough manpower, and more than enough rock-drills and slurry, some volunteer civilian labour, the hills in question were death-traps. This was the sort of explosive power used in the trench and tunnel, underground warfare of WW I. Thousands of kilograms of it. It was all wired, with the cables and the charges well camouflaged under a foot of dirt, leaves and pine needles. Two hills were about to change in elevation.
Luckily, none of the enemy diggers had hit one of their lines. These had purposely been kept to the steeper slopes, the power lines leading in the perpendicular, up to individual charges strung off of a main, horizontal bus.
The charges were properly wired in parallel, like a good string of Christmas lights. If one shot-line was cut, the rest were all still live.
“I guess I have as much right as anybody.” It was a way of acknowledging responsibility.
A responsibility which they all shared, but the boss was still the boss.
She leaned in over Harvey’s shoulder.
The room was very quiet as she selected the weapon, punched in the code, 1-3-4-2-F, tapped her screen, and two great explosions ripped through the night. Two hilltops had just been torn apart.
More silence, just two flaring blossoms, a few kilometres apart on the satellite feed, the on-scene cameras temporarily blinded or even burned out by the sudden overload. It was the sheer speed of the change in contrast that did it.
“…estimated casualties. One hundred.” The algorithms were running, always running in the background. “Fifty of them fatal, with a mix of light and seriously wounded. Congratulations, Colonel.”
“Thank you. Thank you very much.” The room was very quiet.
There must have been a few guns, weapons and vehicles among that tally, that toll, but it would take a while to get a better picture. Still, one could imagine what two hundred holes like that would do, when an entire hillside came down, the land under you erupting in a million flying chunks of torn trees and shattered granite.
The scattered dots on the screen didn’t lie.
As usual, it was like a punch in the guts.
Sorry about that.
Just doing my job.
Uncharacteristically, the Unfriendlies had paused. They’d set up a veritable tent city, one which could, admittedly, come down just as quickly. This was down off of the heights proper, well back and in under a lot of trees and forest. The previous night had taught them an abject lesson, but also a valuable one. They were holding their hills with the minimum of people, with reinforcement within a short radius. In an emergency, all they had to do was to run up that hill.
Having taken the hills, they had set up what were nothing more than some glorified guard-posts.
Having studied the Confederation tactics, the Unfriendly camp was just out of range of her howitzers and the mortars set to defend the next little stretch.
Predicting their next encampment had just become that much harder. Which wasn’t to say that it couldn’t be done, and this new wrinkle had been programmed into the system for further study.
This would be by machine-intelligence, as she had no one to spare to sit around poring over maps. Next time, set the mortars a bit further forward. That was one option. Find the next really good camping-spot, maybe more than one, and mine them extensively, purely on spec. That was another option.
With the commanding heights of Hills 163 and 114-A dominating the road junction of Highway 17 and Highway 2, the town of Roussef and the first part of the road to Ryanville, they were digging the long guns into the rubble. The Unfriendlies were building a temporary helicopter and drone facility on the flats, and obviously preparing for a second phase of operations now that their second major column had joined the first.
And there were more where that came from—a lot more.
With Roussef laying right there, undefended, and Ryanville at the end of the line, it was only a matter of time before they moved. The Unfriendlies had sent a large contingent back down the road, establishing a much more formidable roadblock. This was presumably in response to the civilians and the native Denebi attacks on their rearguard and patrols. They had grabbed stone buildings for their command posts. They had a smaller one on Highway 2 coming up from Walzbruch.
They were using forward pickets and what appeared to be anti-personnel mines, motion-sensors, trip-wires, laser and mechanical, as well as vibration sensors in a ring about the main emplacements.
They had also set up larger roadblocks on the approaches to Deneb City, Walzbruch and a few smaller but significant villages and crossroads. Another dispersal of their forces, all of which had to be planned, manned, set up, supplied, fed, relieved, (and in typical Unfriendly fashion, the troops ministered-to by the chaplains). It all had to be supervised and commanded. Two or three shifts a day. It all took people. Always, more people. That tooth-to-tail ratio could become pretty long in certain cases. It tended to grow in complexity over time. So far, they’d only had a week or so.
Just across the valley, on the other side of the road junction, lay another series of high ridges, rising up into the real lake and snowfall country. The dome, as it was dubbed locally, was the highest elevation for a hundred kilometres around. Here the tops of the hills were barren, as much due to the altitude as well as the latitude. With the planet’s density less than that of Old Earth, (it was also a younger planet) the atmosphere thinned very quickly with altitude. At so-called sea level, it was only three-quarters Earth pressure, although slightly more oxygen-rich.
The habitable zone was much narrower, about half as compared to Old Earth. The rest was all Arctic and sub-Arctic.
Eons-old, ground down by ancient glaciers, it wasn’t exactly Mount Everest up there. It was definitely different, with a lot of fog and mist, grasses and mosses, lichens, a few slightly-mutant marmots, and the more purely Denebian species of flora and fauna which had adapted to that range.
Trees, food crops, didn’t grow here. It was so remote, and the season so short, even the sheep and cattle herders ignored it.
After several minor skirmishes, the armed civilian groups appeared to have faded off into the bush, where there were farming hamlets, logging camps and hunting cabins, fishing camps, and small habitations of various kinds. These were in what the locals called hollers. In the valleys, game was plentiful and there was plenty of wood for the stove. Every little creek and pond was teeming with fish.
These scattered homesteads were so far off the beaten path as to represent nothing of interest to the Unfriendlies, not at this stage of the game, and it would be difficult and dangerous for the civvies to return to Walzbruch. It was expected that the Unfriendlies, aware of the civvies as well as the natives, would begin patrolling the main roads, at the very least. Small as the forces would be, it was another division, another commitment, another distraction. Another time-suck for the enemy, especially if they started taking an interest in every little track and side-road.
There had been a phone call, purporting to be from the leader of one such group, down at the south end of Highway 17. The individual, a male, calling himself Hawk, had reported two civvies killed and three more seriously wounded.
They claimed to have killed quite a few Unfriendlies, which she was taking with a grain of salt.
Shouting at the phone didn’t make it any more true.
He had said there were some minor injuries which they could deal with on their own—
He had asked for helicopter extraction for the wounded, which she had no choice but to refuse. It was just too far away. All she had were civilian helos and she was holding them back for a possible raid. None of his business in any case. He hadn’t been very happy about that, and she’d cut him off rather than argue, or worse, to explain.
She had no time for idiots and the untrained.
Her own forces, the bulk of which had successfully withdrawn from Roussef, had either made their way to Ryanville or had been redeployed along the axis of attack. In this country this could only mean Highway 17 and a few connected side-roads.
There were stay-behind parties right in Roussef, staying undercover by various means, and then there were the patrols south of the town.
The next phase of the battle was clearly about to begin, with another major column coming up the road from Deneb City, and with feverish activity being reported by civvies at other Unfriendly installations in the city.
The odds were, this meant even more Unfriendlies on the road.
Hungry as hell, she was already sagging in her seat.
Dona was sitting with Lieutenant Tanguy and a very large trooper named Rodriguez in the dining room of a popular family restaurant overlooking Lake Ryan. Right on the docks, there were fishing smacks of a peculiar, enclosed type lined up at the wharf. Apparently the fishermen worked out of big, side doors coming down fairly low to the water. In rough weather, the side doors could be closed and they would ride it out, or one must assume. They could literally watch tomorrow’s special being unloaded from the hatches, big wooden boxes of ice and fresh-caught fish. Other, lugger-type boats, with all their booms and spars, would be for shellfish. Shrimp or something. She really didn’t know much about it, although it was picturesque.
There was the clink of cutlery in the background, cutting through the low volume of the light, airy, vaguely country-western sort of elevator music that was apparently a requirement in public places on the planet. Some of it wasn’t so bad, not compared to the metal that had been popular on campus at the time of her going.
As for herself, she was fond of Old Earth’s Iranian bossa-nova resurgence of the late 2300s.
You didn’t hear too much of that anymore.
She had decided on the scallops, local yams, fresh green peas, tomato juice and a nice tossed salad with the vegetables fresh from a local garden. On this planet, you ordered each and every item from a list of the several major food groups. No pre-planned menus, meat, potato and veg, juice or salad and a bun here. Every meal was a custom job.
Having ordered, and with none of them really in the mood for small talk, listening to the mundane conversations from other tables was a reminder that there was a whole ‘nother reality out there, a world of normality. She couldn’t help but be a woman, with the odd little twinge when she saw some other woman. A mother, a father and a couple of children sitting about their own table, perhaps laughing and giggling. A few tables away, a similar tableau, where the kids were misbehaving and the parents weren’t presently on speaking terms—
And sure enough, that could be me. Either one of them could be me.
That is your reality, and this is mine.
Just one more personal observation.
The people had their own unique accent, in spite of entertainment media from other worlds being prevalent. In the original phases of colonization, several contingents brought in by different commercial ventures, (all of which had eventually failed and gone into bankruptcy), had been ethnically-diverse, some from Old Earth and some from newer planets. Over time, all of those influences had gelled into something uniquely its own. There were extremes of skin colour, dress and probably cultures, too, some of which would be preserved and some of which would fall by the wayside...
With no lack of space, the town, really just a big village, Ryanville stretched for quite a few kilometres up and down this end of the lake. There was really only the one road, gravel, improved. It went on for about forty k to the west, and maybe twenty-five to the east, up and around the V-shaped east end of the lake. She’d had a quick drive around town, and she’d gone up there and had a look. The roads were at least usable, this early in the season. How long that might last was another question.
Lake Ryan was two hundred and seventy kilometres long, and more than fifty wide in places.
This end of the lake, an impressive body of water indeed, was about thirty-four kilometres across, measuring due north from Ryanville, with the bulk of the lake laying off to the northwest.
There had to be a thousand islands in the lake, the tops of former hills sticking up from below.
This end, the deepest, was relatively open.
Back from the water, there were a few small hamlets and enclaves, mud huts with corrugated metal and sod roofs in some cases, recent arrivals apparently, and even some classic trailer parks, up in the hills.
So far, no one had seen a flurry—
But winter was coming. It had to be. Where else was it going to go, as the saying went.
This one from a table somewhere behind her left ear.
With all the stay-behind parties out there, and a few more still to be deployed, the Confederation had over four hundred troops in the town. This, was the end of the line.
Still, it was important to try and enjoy the moment.
If only she could.
(End of part thirty-three.)
Image One. One of Deneboloa-Seven’s slightly-mutant marmots. Louis Shalako.
Image Two. Collection of Louis Shalako.
Image Three. Confederation Public Communications Office.
Image Four. Denebola-Seven Defense Force.
Image Five. Higgins.
Image Six. Anonymous selfie.
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