With Unfriendly forces inbound or in the area, their arrival on-planet was more of an insertion than a landing.
Escorted by a pair of destroyers of the Confederation, their transport, the Eliza, had arrived in-system with no major vessels of the Conglomerate detectable. The destroyers had peeled away, off on a hunting trip of their own.
It was a high-energy approach, with tight radii and rapid decelerations.
Eliza, approaching in a fast spiral from the far side of the planet, had hopefully been undetected by ground-based sensors but that wouldn’t last for long.
“Hang on.” There were over a hundred and fifty of them in there, scattered all up and down along the freight deck.
The load was exquisitely balanced on the centres of thrust, maneuver and braking. The warm-blooded part of the cargo was almost an afterthought. People were easier to stow, whether strapped in thin aluminum and nylon-web seats or hanging in a sling-net from the rafters.
The ship vibrated and moaned in the upper atmosphere, the jostling intense as people bounced around in their straps.
Her officer’s voices rang in the background, cheerful and confident. They were keeping an eye on things and joshing with the troops. Up front, just above her shoulder, on the other side of the hatch, their pilots were engaged in their own little world, plotting to the second when they should be able to get off the ground again—just more pressure and nothing to be done about that.
If she cared to look, there would be men and women, young and scared, watching her for any kind of a sign.
Then there was Gunnery Sergeant Kelly. Ten metres away on the port side of the ship, the man hung in the gap between cargo nets and the walls of the ship with perfect aplomb. Some would have found it claustrophobic. Dona wasn’t so sure she would have liked it much herself. The cargo, even the vehicles, strapped down as they were, heaved up and down on their tires, left and right with the momentum of every turn. He couldn’t even let himself down, relying on others to do that for him. It was a sign of confidence, she supposed. Anyone who screwed up that operation was going to get one big blast.
She almost laughed.
Every strap and line hummed and twanged with the tension.
Kelly had been there before, of course, where so many of them hadn’t. Four major campaigns, wounded twice, refused promotion more than once. Decorations, which he didn’t wear. Bonuses, which he sent back to his mother on Old Earth…his needs were simple, apparently, and he’d signed on without hesitation. That was all she knew.
That and the fact that he looked the part—
As for Dona Graham, she was head down, reading as much as she could jam in before touchdown. She needed to know everything there was to know about the place, its people and its terrain. Her own people were also on that reading list.
As far as leaving that part a bit late, her first study had been of the enemy, the local economy and the road network.
That wasn’t saying much. There was hardly anything down there.
The co-pilot spoke in her ears. Captain Aaron in the rear of the compartment would hear it too.
This was the command circuit.
“Ground’s coming up, thirty seconds. We’re coming in a bit hot, so make sure everything is secure.”
“Thank you. I think we’re okay.”
There wasn’t much to see out of the tiny portholes stretching the length of the cargo bay. The big display screen on the rear wall of the crew compartment lit up. There was a view straight ahead and down, very much down as the crew tried to kill energy and neither overshoot or undershoot.
The nose came up, bleeding off speed, they all gained a lot of weight in a hurry, and she sank into her seat insofar as that was actually possible in the thin aluminium bucket.
The ship, creaking audibly from frame members and bulkhead joints, went into another hard turn. From her position, watching it was hard on the neck under the gee-load and she decided to ignore the view and trust to their pilots. It was hard enough just keeping breath in her body.
“Ten seconds. Brace yourselves.”
The good ship Eliza, CT-119, a combat transport, had the latest threat-detection systems. If there was anything out there, no one up front was saying anything. Unarmed, their only hope lay in flight and the active defense systems designed to defeat missiles, jam radars and fool optical tracking systems.
Borderline obsolete, the ship was expendable, pulled out of mothballs and recommissioned.
She was under short-term lease from the Kant system, an independent entity under the umbrella of the Confederation. She’d always thought of them as the psychological planets.
There was no colourful nose art on the front end. That sort of shit was pointless these days…Eliza probably wouldn’t be around long enough to justify that kind of effort.
The crew were all volunteers. Highly-paid, but volunteers nevertheless.
“Okay, people, here we are.”
The sky was gone, it was all dirt and hills and scenery.
They must have hit pretty hard. The first bounce was a big one and there were shouts and curses all up and down the line. That second one came right up through the tailbone, echoing around the teeth and up into the top of the skull.
Confederation troops were trained in military Anglic, but there were one or two unfamiliar words in there. These could hardly be complimentary.
There was another big bash from the bottom and then they were skidding along a grass strip of about two kilometres in length. The noise was overwhelming. With the ship relatively level, only a small patch of ground was visible in the view-screen. The rest of the picture was deep blue sky and fluffy white clouds and a big flare where the sun should be.
The retros flared, one more big blast.
“Hang on…hang on…wait for it.”
The ship finally slowed and then stopped, hooking a bit left at the last second. The ship had heeled to the right discernably, not enough to interfere with unloading. It was unbelievably quiet, but only for a moment.
There were some muted cheers in the background and a few nervous laughs.
Someone was still puking…off in the background noise.
“Doors opening. Stay clear. I repeat. Stay clear.” Daylight flooded in from the after end and the smaller side hatches as people struggled up and out of the straps and the seats.
“All right, people. Everybody out. Remember your assignments.”
The nearest exit was five metres away and Dona headed for it. Captain Aaron and several other senior officers followed, a small squad of enlisted rank carried communications equipment and weapons slung in case of trouble.
So far, it seemed pretty quiet out there.
When she got to the hatch, she was pretty much blinded for a moment, but the stairs were deployed and there were handrails. People were jostling from behind and she scuttled down.
Dark forms flurried forward and someone took her right hand in a strong grip.
“Welcome to the planet Denebola Seven-A, Colonel. We are sure as hell glad to see you, ladies and gentlemen.”
“Thank you. We’ll need as many people as you can spare. Let’s get this thing unloaded. The pilots are engines-hot and anxious to get going.”
Her eyes adjusting, Graham saw that the need had been anticipated. There were already growing piles of equipment and supplies outside of each hatch and there were voices yelling back and forth in the interior of the ship. People milled around, getting their bearings as Kelly and the security squad sprinted off towards the nearest tree-line. The airfield was north-northeast of the town of Roussef, in one of the longitudinal, flat-bottomed valleys where most of the planet’s agriculture was carried on.
They were surrounded by steep hills of five hundred to a thousand metres at about the same distance. The vegetation above was spotty, all rock in some places and a lot of brush in others.
The darkest clumps would be plantations of imported Terran species, a valuable resource locally and for export. It had its beauty.
First impressions are lasting ones—
“All taken care of, Colonel. Please, if you would like to step this way, we have transportation back to the command centre—”
“If you don’t mind, I’d like to hold up for just a minute.”
“Of course, Colonel.”
Graham turned to a slight figure at her side.
“Major, I want you to take charge here.” When in command, command—the voice of her father speaking.
Shut up now.
“Right.” Major Victoria Chan snapped a quick salute and turned away towards the rear loading doors where the bulk of the cargo and the vehicles would have to be unloaded.
Graham took a more leisurely walk down there, the rest following along. She gave a firm nod to one or two troopers, but said nothing as she turned back to the line of vehicles.
Everyone seemed to be busy.
Vicky would have no problems with this crew.
“Right. Let’s go.”
The young lieutenant beckoned at the open side door of a good-sized all-terrain utility truck.
There was room for six or seven, there were leather seats and a rather pretty looking young trooper sat at the wheel, eyes a bit wide and taking it all in.
CT-119 was probably the biggest ship that had ever landed there, not since the initial colonization ships decades previously, which might have accounted for it.
Other troops and officers piled into a second and third vehicle, all rather civilian-looking in dull black, charcoal grey and even a dark blue one. Their original planetary contingent had debarked at Deneb City, a much larger facility.
Doors thudded closed.
Graham turned to the nearest one and stuck out a hand.
The girl at the wheel let out the clutch and they were moving.
“Okay. Get on the horn and let people know. Briefing as soon as the ship is unloaded. We can leave the troops and as many rolling units as possible moving all of that to secure storage—the hangars on the field are a bit too obvious, although that will be a good place to start.”
“My people know all of this and they have their instructions. I’ve given them one hour to clear a few hundred tonnes and I’ve got a funny feeling they can do it.” Everything was crated and palletted and the ship had its own material handling system. “However, I need to be briefed and then I might have a few things to share as well. What is the status of the enemy?”
“Haven’t seen hide nor hair of them, Colonel. They have their main detachment in the big city, and that’s why our troops had to withdraw. We were originally contracted as police for the colony, and sometimes a bit of honest persuasion as far as the natives are concerned. We were never intended for planetary defense. The natives actually like us, incidentally. We put down a couple of disturbances, which probably saved them from massacring each other—the elders know that even if some of the young hotheads don’t. This was a couple of years ago. As for the Unfriendlies, they put down a thousand troops where we had maybe two hundred and thirty.” The other thing was that the Confederation’s hired mercenaries were relatively impartial in administering justice to colonists and natives alike.
It was in the Contract and they were being paid for their time.
It might not have been that way before. She wound up this aside before Dona had to cut her off.
Best to let them talk sometimes—when one had a minute. The road slid past, at roughly sixty-five kilometres an hour.
“What have they been doing.”
“About what you’d expect. Still unloading the ships. Haven’t even refueled them yet. Building checkpoints, some small field fortifications around the port, and most likely, waiting for reinforcements and considering themselves lucky. They’re being remarkably smart. If the main body is down yet, there’s no sign of them so far. Deneb City is about a hundred and ninety kilometres southwest. If they brought ships of any size down there, we really ought to have seen something. Let alone detected it.” The other thing was, none of their civilian contacts in Deneb had seen or heard anything of the sort. “It’s only a matter of time before they send a patrol up the road.”
They had so many contacts among the local colonists, the information almost had to be genuine.
Looking out the window, Colonel Dona Graham, on her first major combat command, took a good, long look at the terrain.
End of Part Three.
Image: Wallpaper Cave
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