Hundreds of kilometres to the north, the battle for Ryanville was unfolding.
Confronted by a major bridge spanning a switchback of the Ryan River a few kilometres below the town, the enemy had thoroughly scouted it. Finding no charges, it seemed as if they were suspicious in the extreme. They were just sitting there, on the far side.
Waiting for something, but it had been noted, despite a persistent rain and heavy clouds, that the common enemy soldier seemed to be eating up a storm, what with the unexpected luxury of time.
Night had fallen.
There were rows of trestle tables, scores of folding chairs, all under a long lash-up of poles, ropes and tarpaulins. A line-up of cooks and kitchen labour manning dozens of gas barbies and liquid-fuel stoves in the typical Unfriendly battlefield kitchen. A lantern or a chemical light-stick hung on every tree.
They were being issued ammunition, as well. In the camera views, one of them barely three metres up, stuck to the bottom of a branch of a tall jack pine. They had been making some pretty big bonfires to warm themselves. People milled around, talking, sitting, smoking, on their waterproof ponchos laying under trees. After counting the tents and the vehicles, it would appear that a good number were in the tents, oblong heat-signatures tending to confirm that they were going to bed early. All the tents seemed to have heaters, just inside the door, easily identifiable from three hundred kilometres up.
“So. What are we thinking, Colonel?”
Paul was just coming on shift and Dona was more than ready to go off.
“Ah—a night attack, probably” Shortly before dawn, in her estimation.
“Hmn.” They wouldn’t want to drive across that in daylight, in full view of the Confederation, with their troops and weapons high in the hills overlooking the bridge.
One good missile, even just mortar fire in the right place, and they would lose valuable assets—their forward elements would also be cut off and vulnerable. Infantry might try crossing the river in inflatable boats, and with supporting artillery fire, they would try and clear the overlooking hilltops. This would seem to be a logical move for the biggest bridge so far.
“Very well. We’ll put the word out and maybe, Colonel. Maybe you can have a good sleep.”
“I wish. Hell, it might even happen.”
She looked at the big clock up on the wall.
The thing to do was to go off now.
When things started popping, she would be called and that was the best that could be done.
As for the missile strike on Deneb City, they had gotten two good hits. An unknown number of casualties. With fairly small warheads of high explosive, outward damage was extensive but the building hadn’t come down and that might have been a good thing. It was, after all, private property. There would have been at least a few civilians in the building, janitors and maintenance staff. So much simpler for the Unfriendlies to supervise the civilians with a couple of troopers, as opposed to bringing in their own stationary engineers to run the boiler room.
Why bother, when you expected to win? Civilians, with a gun poking in their face, tended to cooperate. Once the situation had stabilized, they would have little choice but to serve a new master—at a slight cut in pay, perhaps.
“Have you seen the weather picture?”
There was a storm brewing, no question about it. The meteorologists were not entirely sure if it would snow or if it would be rain. One, very cold rain. And after that, a whole lot of mud, with every little creek and gully a raging torrent.
It would inevitably warm up again.
Whatever happened, it would arrive in the next twelve to twenty-four hours. If the Unfriendlies knew about it, which they surely must on some level, they must also know that their time was quickly running out.
Someone poked their head in the side door as Dona chatted with Paul and exchanged a few lame jokes with one trooper in particular. This one was busting out with personality. Jesus, they were all like that around here, each one trying to top the last one’s joke.
For whatever reason, this guy, the punster was the best one of all—
“…trench warfare is so very often a last-ditch effort…”
Ha, ha, ha.
“Colonel. Your ride is here.”
“Okay. Thanks, guys. See you later.”
It was definitely cool out there, and Dona was grateful for the blacksuit. Even more so for a long mink coat that some thoughtful citizen had donated to the cause, along with a handwritten note that it was specifically for her—a little token of appreciation as it were. She stopped, taking a look at the stars, noting faint smudges of colour that might have been an aurora. Both moons were still in the sky, a possible hint as to the enemy’s timing. She’d use her com unit and tell Paul in a minute.
Every detail was important.
The truth was, she probably did look good in that coat.
Who wouldn’t, but the trooper was patiently holding the vehicle door for her and she really was tired.
She sighed. It was the sort of thing she never would have bought for herself. She could always donate it back when she left. Some homeless person, of which there were always going to be a few, might be sleeping in that coat someday—sleeping it off in some alley somewhere.
She wished them all the best.
One way or another, the way things were going, that day might not be too far away.
Having slept better than she had any right to expect, Dona was just stepping out of the shower when the com unit on the corner of the vanity buzzed.
Stark naked and dripping wet, she hit the button to kill the camera. The person on the other end was blocking their own ID and image—
“It’s on, Colonel.”
“No, the coffee-pot. Yes, Colonel. It’s the attack.”
“Who the hell is this?” She had sounded rather sterner than intended, quickly realizing that much.
A big grin split her face.
“You mean you don’t know?”
“See ya later, Fatso. Sorry, Colonel. A very old joke. Still a good one though, eh? Your ride is on the way,” And then the little bugger hung up.
One had to assume he was just going off shift, and taking a bit of a chance on her temperament.
The place would be roaring with laughter, and that might not be such a bad thing at a time like this. It said a lot—a lot about their mood, and their confidence. Whoever she was relieving, her mind a perfect blank on that score, had probably been out of the room or he would have never tried it.
Morale seems pretty good, she thought. Very good.
The enemy artillery barrage opened up, the forward vehicles, all stoutly armoured, started moving, and in the satellite view, the hot-spots that were individual enemy troopers began walking. Fanning out on each side of the road, they quickly resolved themselves into squads and platoons, small groups of various sizes, speeding up and slowing down as the terrain changed, the land climbing up and down before them.
Confederation artillery rounds fell in among them, flaring and blossoming briefly. They were taking whatever toll they could, while they still could. Some of the dots stopped moving. Some of them didn’t get going again.
Still out of range of the machine guns, it looked like five or six hundred troops were involved in the initial phase of the attack. There were a dozen scout cars, eight Samsons, and a host of smaller vehicles on the road. The Confederation had about forty people facing them, not so much to lay down small-arms or anti-tank fire as to recover some of the more important equipment when they were done in their planned roles. She was risking a dozen Pumas and three Panthers, but then they were running out of usefulness as the road ran ever shorter…
Studying the ground carefully, the speed of the enemy foot-sloggers had been estimated, and so far the data looked pretty good. Her people still had a good few minutes—twenty minutes, half an hour, maybe.
The hills were rugged, the slopes steep and overgrown with tough little cedars and other plant life growing out of cracks and crevices everywhere.
In the dark, even with night-vision goggs, it was slow going and her people had been all over it.
One or two notches where the going was easier, ones that had been scouted by the Confederation, had also been scouted by the enemy. Some of the larger groups were heading for those gullies, which, considering the ever-present rain, would be gushing torrents at the bottom.
They had also been carefully registered on the artillery boards and in such rocky, confined quarters the Unfriendlies were in for an unpleasant time of it.
On the wrong side of the hill, some light machine-guns had been sited accordingly and would be lost in the engagement. They would also take their toll. The really great thing about them was the odd-ball calibre favoured by their Arcturian makers.
Out of ammo or with only a few rounds left in the belts, the Unfriendlies wouldn’t be able to use them for much, and they were of course boobied.
The enemy was about forty kilometres south of Ryanville at this point, which would force them to stop, regroup and to bring their artillery forward at least one more time.
“Hellion One-One-Five has a firing solution, Colonel.”
This machine was stashed in a copse of silvery, trembling aspens. On the enemy’s right side of the road, it was obscured by a gentle rise behind some open ground. The range was quite long for shooting in this country, eighteen hundred metres. With a few degrees of elevation and a pair of forward cameras triangulating onto the forward elements of the column, they could pop their ESP rounds up and over the rise and still hit their targets. All the enemy would see would be a flash on the other side of yonder ridgeline. They would bring down fire accordingly.
“Roger that. Permission granted.”
There was the spark of an impact and it appeared that one target had been hit. However, it kept rolling, and so that was it. You had to go with what you saw—
“Hellion One-One-Five. Results contradictory, Command Centre.”
“Yes, we see that. Take the second target, One-One-Five.”
That one was definitely a hit.
In the satellite view, the dot stopped moving, and then all the ones behind slewed to a stop, however it wouldn’t take them long to clear that. Sure enough, the forward vehicle had now stopped. Whether it was actually damaged or just being prudent was hard to guess.
“One-One-Five. Try target number one again.”
“Roger that. Firing.”
One-One-Five only had the three rounds for the 85-mm, one wire-guided missile and a single belt for the machine gun in the hull. The 50-cal on top had been demounted for use elsewhere.
Anticipating the destruction of One-One-Five, the crew were out and in a deep hole in the ground, roofed with heavy timbers and with a foot or so of dirt on top for good measure.
“It’s a hit, Colonel.”
In the nearest camera view, the leading vehicle started to burn.
With the scene garishly lit by the flames, it looked like no one got out.
“Okay, One-One-Five. Targets of opportunity for you guys now, and you have permission to maneuver.”
“Roger that and thank you very much.”
That little group had just earned themselves over nine hundred credits each, for less than five minutes work, not counting set-up time.
Hard-linked with fibre-optic line, they weren’t anywhere close to the machine.
Their instructions were explicit and short: fire off everything you have as quickly as possible, and then get in the fucking truck and go. Lieutenant Wheeler had written that one.
“Enemy troops have reached the river. Presumably, launching their assault boats.”
McMurdo had decided she wasn’t going to blow the bridge. Still, the infantry would have been a little too exposed to walk it or ride on the back of a truck. It was a good seven hundred metres in span. The vehicles would speed across with minimal manning. Their assault parties would clear the hills before a major move. It made a certain amount of sense.
The enemy had wasted one more day, and now they were setting up what might be their last artillery position, twenty-three kilometres from Ryanville town centre.
The call was not entirely unexpected.
“Thank you for speaking to me. I would like to thank you again for returning Phillip to us. Your truck will be returned to its rightful owners, the, er, Roussef fire department.”
“Thank you. That was always my intention—”
“Your targeting was very good, Colonel. I was just sitting down at my desk when the missiles struck.” He smiled, perhaps a bit ruefully. “I spilled my coffee. A fact which you and your people will no doubt enjoy. It will take a while to fix the roof. I have to admit—it’s quite damp in here now, at least on the upper stories. Oh, I’m sure we’ll be okay.”
He didn’t mention it, but the fact was, they were moving to another building with all of the attendant disruption to headquarters staff. This building was lower, surrounded on all sides by taller buildings. It was said the underground parking garages, with their construction of reinforced concrete, were presently the focus of a flurry of activity.
Some lamps, some nice rugs, half-decent curtains on the windows, it might be okay—
Sure they’d be okay. They’d lost a few people judging by the number of ambulances and hospital-admissions. They had plenty more where that came from. In the satellite view, they’d tarped up the top of the building. It would be fragile in the winter winds, but tarps could be replaced if torn or blown off. Repairs would take months, depending on what sort of structural damage had been done. Team Three was being very quiet and waiting for whatever came next…
She nodded thoughtfully.
Something flashed across his face, an unguarded moment. He seemed tired, grim, resigned perhaps.
One couldn’t help but to sympathize on some level. These were his people, after all. She always tried to think of them as people. Misguided, misinformed, delusional perhaps. As religious fanatics, they were definitely dangerous. They were still people.
“Sorry about that, General. Uh—Ralph. Nothing personal—just business.”
He nodded as well, studying her.
He sighed, deeply.
“This is very difficult. Dona, I want you to know. That, er, video really wasn’t my idea.”
“It’s true. It’s not in the official, written plan. I have inquired. It seems that it was an on-the-spot inspiration of, ah, one of our younger and more enthusiastic officers. In charge of that particular section. It was well within the scope of his brief, in my estimation. We have used such tactics before. Not me, personally, but, uh, in fact he hasn’t even been disciplined. Nor will he be, perhaps unfortunately. What I have done, is to ask him not to do it again. I can assure you that he has agreed. You have my most humble apology.”
“I would plead with you. I would get down on my hands and knees, kiss your feet if necessary. If only I could get you to see reason.”
“That won’t be necessary, General McMurdo.”
“It won’t?” That face went grim again.
“No. All I require is the immediate and unconditional surrender of all Unfriendly forces on Denebola-Seven, and an undertaking on your part that you will withdraw, remove all equipment, ships and personnel from this planet and this system within seven days. I’ve mentioned before, that we don’t have the facilities for large numbers of prisoners. Your parole will have to suffice. As for the damages, those will be assessed and invoices will be sent to the government of Shiloh as well as the governing council of the Mining Worlds.” Civilian deaths would be compensated, amply, if next of kin could be found.
Otherwise it would go into a more general compensation fund.
The list was comparatively short.
“Dona, Dona, Dona—”
She cut him off in mid-stride.
To hell with it.
The first big storm of the season was a hundred and twelve kilometres away and moving rapidly.
(End of part thirty-eight.)
Image One. Confederation Public Communications Office.
Image Two. Denebola-Seven Defense Force.
Image Three. CPCO.
Image Four. Our book cover. Eventually.
Image Six. RGO News.
Image Seven. Collection the author.
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