Three big assault ships, each sufficient to carry two or three thousand troops along with weapons, vehicles and all the paraphernalia of war. They were inbound, still out on the edge of the system, motors flaring with the thrust of deceleration. They had a respectable escort of frigates, sloops and a light cruiser of the Revelation class. Unless they were carrying troops or cargo, these would either break off or orbit…
The Confederation had nothing to oppose them. All they could do was to watch, and to some extent, wonder.
“Estimated time of arrival?”
“Six hours until orbit, a couple or three orbits to stabilize and plot their insertion. Anything up to an hour or an hour and a half after that, they’ll be on the ground, hatches open. Based on their present numbers, Deneb City looks to be the most likely landing point. At the present time, all targets are still possible.”
“What about Eliza?”
“They must have seen her, Colonel. No signs of pursuit though.”
Tiny in size compared to most of the enemy ships, the Eliza had gotten clear. Dona stood on the edge of a black precipice, the virtual reality headsets giving her a satellite view of the system, coloured tracks appearing among the background stars and the coloured dots of light indicating planets and other bodies in the system.
Background star fields were completely new to her, although the major stars were labeled.
“How long until they go blind?” Hot plasma from their own braking engines would ensure this, at least until they had bled off most of their energy.
“Another hour or two, Colonel.” The trooper’s fingers flew over a keyboard only he could see.
A boxed pane appeared and then Colonel Graham could watch him do the math.
A figure appeared out of thin air.
One hour, thirty-six minutes and nineteen seconds, with some margin for error, plus or minus point-oh-three in pitch, yaw, roll and power axes. The window would last a little over four hours.
The more they slowed, the longer the window. Mass versus gravitation dictated their escape velocity, and therefore their orbital speed of a little under 38,900 k.p.h. The planet had a ten percent greater circumference than Earth but was slightly less dense. The math was simple, the ramifications more profound.
The clock was also ticking.
“Very well, and thank you.”
Dona removed the standby headset and set it down on the desk by her right side.
She took a breath and a second to think.
“All right, ladies and gentlemen. We have some time. Let’s use it. One, talk to me about drones and air cover.”
“We have one Mark Seventeen surveillance satellite in geosynchronous orbit. It’s in a position to monitor the battle area and also, with a bit of luck and a strong signal, anything coming out of Milo.” This was the only other major inhabited area of the planet, about four thousand kilometres southeast of the battle area. “We have three drones in crates. No one really has the ability to set them up and so we haven’t done that. They can carry missiles, and we have a crate or two of those. Other than that, not much, really. Whatever we can improvise.”
“Huh.” Having foreseen the possibility, Dona had made sure to grab a couple of technical types.
Then there were civilian contractors—engineers and skilled people in the local population.
They had a budget for just such contingencies. With the local economy disrupted, they might be glad of the work.
“How vulnerable is the satellite?”
“They must have surmised we have something up there. Their capabilities are relatively well-known, and their ships will probably try and take it out if they can locate it with a fair degree of probability.” Small and very stealthy, the Confederation satellite might be a hard target to find.
Milo had mines, water, and geothermal power generation. Its population, not including the surrounding area, was about forty-eight thousand people, and its small spaceport was geared mostly to automated cargo launchers and a landing field of three kilometres in length. In all, there were about two hundred thousand people scattered within a radius of fifteen hundred kilometres of Milo.
It was another mining area, but there were other industries, including aromatic woods, exotic pets, and packaged, frozen meat for export among other things. A few hundred kilometres further south than Deneb City, there was grain farming and truck gardening, again mostly for export.
Electromagnetic linear-acceleration-type launchers would put packages up to low planetary orbit.
There they were scooped up by robotic tugs and then carried afar by interstellar ships, running mostly on automatic, although they were always manned by some nominal crew due to security concerns and age-old salvage law. The next big transport was from a neutral entity and a week or so out on the inbound track. Also under heavy deceleration, they were out of radio and laser contact. There was an airport, but the distances were such that it was strictly local stuff, moving people and stores to the various outlying installations. The small military and police detachment there were monitoring the situation and all communications. Other than that, there wasn’t much they could do except run and go to ground if Unfriendlies showed up. Rather than take heavy casualties, it had been decided that Milo would be a sacrificial backwater in any extreme circumstances…
Dona felt the inexorable weight of gravity dragging her down. The fact was, after the last few busy days, plus the inevitable lag of space travel and its well-known effect on the pineal system, all of a sudden she was one tired cookie.
Giving the officers of her new command the code to unlock a slew of new files took but a moment. A tap of a button and everyone had the data. The people she had brought with her were well briefed and they already knew what they had to do.
“Okay, ladies and gentlemen. As soon as our window opens, we’re going to push our perimeter out as far as we can get it in the time allotted. Until then, we sit tight and under cover. Make sure everyone knows that. Also, now that the Unfriendlies can see their friends coming down, they may very well begin patrolling aggressively in the hopes of finding out what we’re up to. There is the possibility of a spoiling attack. So let’s keep on our toes out there and don’t take anything for granted. Their combat philosophy may be different than ours, and yes, the common soldier is a poorly-trained conscript. That doesn’t mean they’re stupid, incompetent, cowardly, or any less of a threat.”
She heaved a bit of a sigh.
“Okay, so get to know each other. We’ve got a lot of new people and some old hands. Talk to each other. We already have a basic plan. It’s all laid out for us. With local knowledge, maybe we can refine that plan. While we still have time to do it. Remember, our number one tenet in a situation where we are outnumbered, is a very simple one: violence of action.”
Also, promptness of decision. As far as she was concerned, they were all in the hot-seat.
There was a short silence as they digested this. Going by their faces, there were questions but Dona had had enough after being up for thirty-plus hours continuously, ironing out the plan and a million other details. Throw in a high-energy landing, and it was like she’d been beaten with a stick.
“Captain Aaron. You have the hot-seat.” That was the thing about being second-in-command, but Paul could stand another four hours.
“Now, if someone would just point me in the right direction, I need quarters. I could use a hot meal, a shower and a few hours of sleep before all of this breaks loose.”
Lieutenant Wheeler spoke.
“Corporal, would you show the Colonel to her quarters, please?”
“Yes, Lieutenant. Colonel Graham. Would you please follow me. Someone will be bringing your bag along as soon as possible.” The corporal turned and looked at the nearest trooper.
“Corporal.” The fellow nodded and turned for the door.
“Thank you. Thank you very much.”
Her bag was quickly located.
Dona was driven a short distance down Highway 17 to a cheerful, fieldstone-faced motor lodge on the south-eastern edge of town. The place had the look of an alpine chalet, with a big A-frame façade and plenty of exposed wooden beams visible through the all-glass front.
She’d be trying the food soon enough, it was nothing if not convenient.
Leaving the vehicle running, the corporal nipped into the office and came out with the room key.
Colonel Graham would be staying in Nine, taking over from her predecessor in what was purported to be the largest and most luxurious unit.
“We’ve got an observation post about five kilometres out…I’ll have some people patrol the woods up above, if you like. We can’t spare too many, but we have some other folks staying here too.” According to him, they had a few cameras out and someone monitoring them.
She would be staying in the Honeymoon Suite, or so he said in a subdued tone, glancing quickly over.
He drove another thirty metres and then parked.
The corporal leapt out with an energy that was frankly hard to watch, opening Dona’s door and dragging her big duffel bag out of the bed of the vehicle, a four-wheel drive pickup with a plastic topper, all in a dull matte black.
“That’s okay, Corporal. I’ll take it.” With the thirty kilos or so of the bag slung over her shoulder, Dona waited patiently while the corporal fiddled with the lock, which seemed recalcitrant.
“There we go, Colonel.” Handing over the key, the fellow sketched a vague salute. “Push zero on the house phone if you want room service.”
“What’s your name, anyways?”
“Mike. Uh—sorry. Corporal Michael Haliwell.”
“Thanks, Mike. I’m going to sleep for about three hours and then I want to go back to the command post.”
“Consider it done. Colonel. Wake-up calls are a specialty.”
“Thank you.” This was it.
She was home for the duration.
There were lights on in the room and there was music going, soft and low. Something jazzy and romantic.
With a grimace, Dona dropped the bag on the second of two good-sized beds.
There was the faint aroma of soap or perfume in the air, and something else—something pungent, reminiscent of a dead skunk on the road back home in sunny Indiana. A poignant memory. They’d left Earth when she was about nine years old.
In contrast to the dry heat of the outdoors, the humidity in the room was really something.
Sighing, wondering if there was a problem with the room’s heating and cooling system, Dona began pulling off her boots. The socks were distinctly wet, the feet pale and impressed with the pattern of the knitted fabric.
“Ah, at last.”
The jacket went on the rack by the door and the rest of her clothes over the back of a chair near enough the bed.
Dona was just getting up after pulling off the underwear and flinging it across in the general direction of the rest of the pile.
The bathroom door opened, a cloud of steam came out and then Dona was standing there naked as someone in a white robe stopped dead in their tracks.
She realized she was cowering before him, covering breasts and bush awkwardly, and Dona straightened up, letting her arms drop to her sides. It was a relaxed but unmistakable fighting stance…
“Who in the hell are you?”
There was amusement in those dark eyes.
“I’m sorry. I was a friend of the Colonel’s.”
“Yes. A very good friend. I’m sorry, I kind of knew you’d be along, but.” The man sighed. “The truth is, I don’t quite know where to go.”
His eyes traveled over the duffel bag, the briefcase, then the boots. Her socks on the floor where she had flung them, the clothes on the back of the chair.
“I’m terribly sorry, Colonel Graham.” He looked down, taking in his own attire, the bare feet and hairy legs sticking out the bottom.
“Where are your clothes? And what the hell’s your name, anyway?”
“I have shorts hanging on a hook in the bathroom. My name is Noya.”
“That’s it? Just Noya?”
“Ah, yes, Colonel.”
Taking off the damp robe, still warm, he handed it off to a bemused Dona and then nipped back into the bathroom to get his shorts. He had firm, hairy buttocks, strong-looking legs and some pretty good shoulders. She couldn’t help but notice.
(End of Part Five.)
Second Image: Denebola-Seven Department of Defense.
Third Image: CPCO.
Fourth Image: CPCO.
Fifth Image: Private collection of Louis Shalako.
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