With the Unfriendly artillery in their new position, the Confederation drone base had been pulled back. They were now operating from a paved street in a new subdivision, one that had never really taken off and there were only about a dozen houses on what had to be a hundred hectares.
There were light standards, but none of the old-fashioned overhead wires that were sometimes a feature of less-developed worlds. Most of the trees had been taken out to make way for construction.
The biggest hazard would be for a drone to go off the road in a crosswind, in which case they would hit utility service-boxes, a light pole or even just a big stake sticking up out of the ground.
There were weeds, mounds of earth, even abandoned vehicles.
Further back, there were the occasional foundations, the ground floor topped off with plywood sheathing and yet the house it was meant for had never been completed.
Some kind of story there no doubt, but with the hills sloping steeply down to Lake Ryan, and a fairly busy little town strung out along one main road, there weren’t too many other places to put it. All the empty streets meant dispersal was at least possible, and with good separation of elements, including their small operations centre. This had ended up in someone’s two-car garage, the home’s occupants having been compensated and moved, along with a half a dozen cats, to a basement apartment in the middle of town.
There was a municipal airport, a grass strip no less. But that seemed a little too obvious a target, and in fact it was time to do something with their little rag-bag of helos and private aircraft.
Most of them were capable of automatic flight. They still had a few satchel-charges left. Hang a few cameras on there and they would be effective enough.
There were all kinds of Unfriendlies just up the road.
Then there was the question of the weather. It was getting colder, and the breeze was picking up, which it normally didn’t do at night around here. That’s what the local meteorologist, more of a serious hobbyist than any real paid position, was telling them. She had no reason to doubt her, it was basically what her own people were saying as well.
Her spoiling attack had done its job, and the Unfriendlies had taken a good hour, an hour and a half to regroup.
While they probably couldn’t be stopped with the weapons and forces available, all of her assault troops had withdrawn successfully, with only a couple of minor wounds to show for it. They had a couple of prisoners for interrogation, practically a formality at this point. The enemy would be operating in daylight very soon, as morning was just an hour off.
The storm-front was seventy kilometres away and closing.
The way the thermometer was dropping, there might even be snow.
Operation Dynamic had been in full swing for a week.
Having commandeered the entire local fishing fleet, large yachts and all of the available tugs and work barges, a small cruise boat, tonnes of grain, tinned foods, even refrigerated truckloads of frozen meat had been ferried a hundred and thirty kilometres down the lake. Two of the drones had been taken aboard as well, leaving just one for intermittent cover over Ryanville. Lake Ryan had an outlet via the Deneb River to the southwest. Her few engineering troops had found a beach with sloping flat rock shelves going down deep into the water. They were using heavy wooden planks and steel bridging equipment for ramps. They were building a supply dump. This was up fifty metres from the water. They had small tractors, four-bys, some six-bys, rows of portable generators, and prefabricated sheds and barns to erect.
Commandeered might be too strong a word. She’d spread a big bundle of cash around and then, after explaining that bit of the plan to the civilian captains, had phrased it as a request. If they wanted to back out, all they had to do was to return the money and no questions would be asked.
In front of their friends, neighbours and competitors, with their homes about to be invaded, not a one had spoken up.
That was a lot of money around here, another factor. All Interstellar Gold Coin, negotiable anywhere. She was sure they’d bury it in the fucking backyard when they had a minute—
They had a tent city up the lake, Command Centre Four all set up, and the latrines had been dug.
There were some small fuel dumps, ammo-dumps, well-spaced and separated from the shacks and even tents in some cases. Machinery, a generator for example, or weapons-caches didn’t need much heat. Rather, it was a case of keeping the weather off of them. They were knocking down trees and building a dock in deeper water. Some of the yachts were being armed with light weapons and sensors, proper communications and the like. Mostly wood and fibreglass, their upper-works were being cut down or stripped of radar-reflecting hardware. Painted matte-black, dazzle-striped in charcoal, they might do all right, at least in terms of patrolling and observation by night.
They’d brought in three of the howitzers in the rather vain hope that the Unfriendlies would attempt a landing, or even an overland attack from around the eastern end of the lake.
This camp would be well out of the present range of enemy rockets, artillery, but unfortunately not the drones…
Too bad about that, but with trenches and bunkers all over the place, a raid or two might have to be endured. On the plus side, the weather was worsening. With Sky-Cats on hilltops and even sitting under the trees right along the shoreline, the enemy would be risking valuable assets as there was a clear view of some miles out over the lake. A helo attack from behind the hills overlooking the camp had also been taken into consideration by placing a couple of low-level radars up there.
On their estimated time-line, with the Unfriendly speed of travel on the map, there simply wasn’t enough slack to take the stuff any further. Someone had already named it Donaville.
And this, this was the end-game. Everything was now on the table, her plan finally revealed to the naked eye. Resistance at all costs.
“All right, Colonel. I’m off.” Captain Aaron would take charge up there, activate Command Four, and keep people busy.
All personal kit was in the bag, the weapon slung, pistol on the belt and a couple of rocket-grenades bulging in the side pockets. Paul very much looked the part, with a dark blue bandanna around the neck the only personal touch.
He grinned, eyes meeting hers, eyes glittering in some sort of self-appreciation, and she smiled back.
They still barely knew one another.
He had two hundred and fifty people and their personal bags all lined up, waiting to board six of the larger fishing boats. The sooner he left, the sooner he could send the boats back.
“Thank you. Good luck—and we’ll be seeing you in a few hours, unless I miss my guess.”
“Roger that, Colonel.”
Stepping back, he gave her a formal salute.
Turning, he was gone.
The rest of her troops would be sufficient to hold Ryanville for another day, and the stay-behind parties had their own orders. They had their own time-lines, their own supplies, and their own targets.
This was the nitty-gritty.
By sucking the enemy forwards, ever forwards, by putting out bait, always more bait, and then by selectively blowing this bridge here, now, and this bridge here, later, and by activating this automated defense there, and that other defense over there, later again, they had strung the enemy out.
The enemy was losing trucks, tanks, Samsons and people at an ever-increasing rate.
Still eight or nine kilometres out from the first commercial strip, composed mainly of motor hotels, truck stops and all-night coffee houses. This in a town of a few thousand people, but it was also one that helped feed the whole planet. One where land was cheap and plentiful. The Unfriendly forces had been broken up, delayed, and stopped in place. They had upwards of twelve hundred troops on that road, where Dona and the Confederation had less than a hundred to oppose them.
All Hellions, all but a few of the Panthers and Pumas, were on automatic mode. Their crews could still monitor and maneuver them, this all by fibre, in some cases hundreds of metres from the actual vehicle. As positions were overrun, Pumas and Panthers, any number of borrowed pickup trucks, loaded with Dona’s people, raced down to the docks. They were zigzagging through the narrow and gravelly side-streets, thankfully heavily-treed, dodging the resultant artillery fire as the drones tried to pick them up for the big guns. Driven right onto the barges, the tugs, engines hot, took them off up the lake…
It was all very slick.
They’d lost one Panther and five people by one such hit. So far, they’d been lucky, very, very lucky.
Half a dozen other casualties. One person missing and unaccounted for—that one might be a simple com-unit failure as they weren’t getting a return when pinged. This proved nothing either way. Trooper Singh might very well have taken a direct hit from a heavy shell. None of his mates had seen him in a while.
Enemy artillery fire was falling intermittently on the target hills and defiles out on the road. Still nothing on Ryanville town centre itself. Not yet, but it would probably happen.
With their off-kilter, eccentric orbits, both moons had come up, and the enemy was stalled at the one big hill before the last long, sloping plunge down across the face of the escarpment. When they got around to attempting it, her remaining howitzers were going to have a field day. The Barker teams in the town were quite looking forward to it. Fire a shot or two, make it count and then get the hell out. The bounty for a Samson was five hundred credits. A four-by, a hundred and fifty.
When the main column came down, their cameras would see it. Two hundred shot-holes, fired by an independent tactical observation computer, would bring down a significant portion of the cliff. Luckily for the locals, relying on trade and commerce for their livelihoods, there was another way out of town. It was a little tight and a little steep, but it would suffice. The town would still live. Most of the houses and buildings were quite far away from the escarpment.
It was zero degrees Celsius, and the sky had cleared, cold, hard and clean, the stars unforgiving in their solitude.
The storm was roughly fifty kilometres out and closing fast.
(End of part forty.)
Image One. Confederation Public Communications Office.
Image Two. Ryanville Chamber of Commerce.
Image Three. Ryanville Chamber of Commerce.
Image Four. CPCO.
Image Five. The cover of the book version of this story.
Image Six. Fred.
Poor old Louis Shalako has all kinds of books and stories available from Kobo, for all the good that it has done him. Incidentally, how stupid do you have to be to have no share buttons on a bookselling website.
Sorry, that wasn’t really a question, was it.
(Although you are certainly welcome to hang out to the end and read it for free in serial form. – ed.)
Thank you for reading.