The others had disappeared down the road.
The machine was a twin-turbine, civilian model especially developed for resource exploration and utility work on pioneer planets and other harsh environments back on the Home Worlds.
One reason for Nield’s attitude might have been the six big, old-fashioned wooden crates of frozen seafood, if that was the proper word for a freshwater product, lashed down in the rear of the cabin. Company names and products were stenciled in paint—a stark contrast with the more usual plastic and metal radio-tag systems used all over the civilized galaxy. The faint aroma was unmistakable, if the labels weren’t enough to convince. Putting her hand on one, they were definitely cold. She grinned faintly, thinking of all those Ryanville wood products, with genuine people literally cutting the trees, cutting the lumber and brad-nailing them all together with hand-held air-powered nail guns. It really was a pioneering world, where the robots held no sway and might never, unless the population, and the economy, really took off.
This proved nothing, and dry ice would emit a lot of CO2. There were air vents open, which implied a low-altitude flight. Nield had done this before, obviously, and it was merely a passing thought. There was suspicion, or maybe caution, and then there was true paranoia—although it was a bit early for that. Nield was just another highly-skilled idiot, following his natural inclinations.
Powering up, all the lights came on and the machine seemed functional.
Her first task was to figure out the navigation system. The onboards were relatively simple and she even recognized the name of the manufacturer, complete with a stylish black logo on a silvery plastic ellipse, a dramatic arrow swooping up through it.
Deneb City’s air and spaceport complex was clearly marked, and prior flight-logs made things definitely easier. There were only so many places to go on Deneb, and Nield had been to all the local ones many times, with very few deviations. He’d done this exact same trip a week before. That pattern went back about two and a half years. She set the bomb to go off after descending from flight at two thousand metres to a bare one hundred metres of altitude.
Right over the airport. An airburst in the right place might do a lot of damage, although the odds of it getting through were not even fifty-fifty in her estimation. She pulled a peel-and-stick camera from her side pouch and stuck it onto the dashboard where it could get a good view. All she had to do then was to activate it, scan the serial number from the tag into her com unit and hit the power switch.
With no clear line-of-sight to the satellite, this one would be radio. It was a chance that had to be taken.
She had a picture upon checking her com-unit.
The thing then, was to set a few seconds of delay on the engine start-up and takeoff sequence.
The key was in, the red start-button just above it.
Shutting the door carefully, she stepped back and then, turning, sprinted off towards her chosen pickup truck, a red one with the plastic decal of the airport fire detail stuck on the doors.
With luck, the Unfriendlies would see the machine in the air when the helo came over the horizon, preparatory to what sure looked like a landing approach.
She’d been gone long enough, although no emergency messages had come.
As she started the truck’s engine, reaching for her com unit, she hadn’t left anything behind.
There was the squeal of a starter motor and the helo blades slowly began to turn. A bit of dark smoke came out the back and then it was running.
“Right. I am out of here.”
The airport was a couple of kilometres from the centre of town on a relatively straight gravel road. The flat, valley-bottom terrain was composed of brush and large patches of barrens, local terminology for bare, white, gravelly ground, moss and low shrubs of about ten centimetres. There were a few small farms, and, closer to the road, non-descript buildings that might have been some form of light industry judging by the types of vehicles, tractors and repair trucks.
These were all in yards that were fenced and lit by tall light standards. She saw one or two people in coveralls, working in the doorway of one such building, not even looking up at her passing.
She slowed, mouth open.
The small group of individuals walking towards her along the side of the road could only be the native Denebi.
She’d seen the pictures, of course, but this was the real thing.
If anything, they were even more ethereal in person. At the extremities, it was like the light shone right through them. The bodies were dumpy, cone-shaped or even pyramidal, although that was clearly the wrong word for something that was not four-sided. The limbs were quite long compared to the trunk. There was a certain grace as well, for they were easily two or more metres in height for the adults.
Slowing, she took a good look even as they raised…arms or tentacles or limbs to wave in what looked like a cheerful manner. Interestingly, the heads could still turn in a limited fashion, in spite of the radial symmetry and partial exoskeleton. Their single mouths looked almost humanoid. There were teeth in there and a tongue, bright purple lips and multiple red eyes really standing out on the pale, bluish bodies.
She wasn’t entirely certain of which might be the male and which the female, but it looked like a family grouping of seven individuals. According to her briefing there was little difference in height between adults of either gender. All of them were completely naked, with baskets on their heads and small packs and pouches slung over various shoulder-joints. The biggest one had a staff for defense or possibly just an aid in walking. The anatomy was unique in her knowledge, with three legs and nine arms and a head with both simple and compound eyes ringing them. The internal body temperature was a cool 25.4 C. With the ability to control their internal temperatures, they were classed as warm-blooded creatures.
They had multiple ears and multiple stomachs. It was said they were descended from bony, jellyfish-type creatures from the sea and had a matriarchal society…in which case, shouldn’t the female be carrying the stick?
Corner of her mouth curling, she shrugged off the question.
The ability to look in all directions at once must have led to some interesting adaptations in the brains and the minds of the Denebi, and that was for sure. Their counting system was said to be a source of endless fascination to exologists, all ones, threes, nines, and no way to express zero except to leave a blank. Two blanks represented the decimal point…fascinating in its own way.
She waved as she went by, marveling at the children bobbing along, each carrying their tiny share of the load.
Every single one of them waved right back.
Shaking her head, she gave it a little throttle, aware that it raised a dust cloud and she was probably under observation anyway.
This is who we’re fighting for.
We’re the best of a bad bargain.
In the mirror, there was the shape of the helo lifting off, its nose went down and then it headed south, gaining altitude and picking up speed.
She had high hopes for that one.
“Ah, here she is.”
Dona strode into the command centre. Having ditched the truck a few blocks away, she had kept the keys for future reference.
“Colonel Graham, this is Mayor Tor Byron of Roussef.”
While they shook hands, she had a moment to assess him.
He was a half a head shorter than her, a florid man with thinning hair, roughly mid-thirties.
“One minute, okay.”
Dona went to the trooper at the overall battle map console. Quickly, in a low voice she gave the girl the code number for the dash-cam in the helo and other data.
“Don’t bring that picture up just yet, please.”
With a nod, the trooper kept that small, just a tiny little box down in the right-hand corner of her desktop screen. The important thing was that the data had been received…
Tor Byron was watching when she turned and came back.
“What can I do for you, Mister Byron?”
“What is the meaning of this evacuation order?” He held up his high-end phone, with the text and headline visible.
One of the troopers at a workstation was beckoning at her, and the red dot that was the helo was probably the cause. Their own defense system had picked it up again, just as it had the first time.
Byron didn’t need to know about that. She probably should have said something before they left.
“I’ll be right there, okay?”
“Yes, Colonel Graham.”
“Sorry. It means that you and all residents will be evacuating a three-hundred metre radius, based on the town centre. There are a couple of other spots as well. We’re advising a two hundred-metre radius for those.” These were industrial plants, shipping and receiving facilities, fuel storage and thermal power generation. “We’re asking citizens not to abandon the town. There simply aren’t the facilities in Ryanville, and obviously you don’t want to go south…”
In such neighbourhoods, habitation was much more dispersed. Still, there were people there and they had to go. The initial colonization had been a hodgepodge of such developments, before the town was incorporated and some semblance of civic planning took hold.
“But—but—you can’t do that.”
“No. You’re going to do it. Look, Mister Byron. I don’t have a whole lot of time, and I would prefer not to reiterate what my staff have already told you.”
There were terse nods in the background, notably Lieutenant Wheeler and Major Chan, studying the moving red dot to the west.
“The Unfriendlies are coming down. The very first thing they’re going to do, Mister Byron, is to set up missile batteries and launch an attack. I’m rather surprised they haven’t used any space-based systems as of yet. That sort of implies they’ll be landing at Deneb, which they already control. It’s a good thing, too, because you’re not ready, are you?” Another trooper was waving madly from a console on the far side of the command centre. “They’re probably hoping to preserve as much of the local infrastructure as they can, in order to use it for themselves. Their own colonists are going to need it. Look, sir. We have no time, no time at all. If you do not comply, you will be placed under arrest and subject to military justice—battlefield justice, to be precise. Do you have any idea of that that means?” And then they would start on the deputy mayor…
Judging by the pallor, shifting eyes and a bit of a tremor in the hand when he looked at his phone again, he got it.
“Look. I promise we’re not going to shoot you. We will lock you up, and there will be a trial, with a jury of your peers. One has to wonder how they would react to all of this, especially after some major loss of life. You’re going to lose some buildings here, sir. Buildings can be rebuilt, but your people cannot be replaced. Your people need you out there, providing leadership above all else. Sir.”
He was getting it now, and clearly appalled by the reality. His lips were quivering.
“Do you understand, sir?”
He swallowed convulsively, then managed to say it.
“Yes. Yes, of course.”
“I can’t say for sure that they will, either, but one way or another. They’ll be coming up that road, within about the next forty-eight to seventy-two hours, and if you will forgive us, we are very, very busy preparing to meet that threat.”
“Can we spare the mayor a few troopers to help with the elderly, the disabled, and the people at the hospital.”
“Yes—fifteen or twenty, if we’re lucky.”
“Let’s be lucky then.”
“Absolutely, Colonel. Then there’s the militia. Unless they get busy doing something, they’re just a bunch of useless mouths, good for nothing and hard on food.” With a hint of pink high on Chan’s cheekbones, Dona sensed more to that story. “Perhaps if the Mayor shows up there and takes charge, they will be more inclined to get on it.”
“Okay, Major. Take ten troopers. And the militia. Tell them it’s an order. From me. Make it stick.”
“Right, Colonel.” Chan headed for her desk and the civil phone set-up.
“Right. Look, sir. We can let you have a few vehicles. The city has a few buses, and trucks, and then there’s the cab company. Tell you what. You and I are declaring martial law, right now. You and I are now duly authorized to seize and requisition any thing, any property or building, any vehicle. Right? You know more about what’s out there than we do. The safest place is probably well out in the residential areas. Anything that looks like it might house a substantial number of troops or provide a defensive position will likely become a target. That includes schools and hospitals. Any substantial building, any useful position. Trust me, the Unfriendlies are no respecters of property and persons. Not in war, sir.”
Not much in peace either, but she didn’t say it.
He was not happy, but that wasn’t her problem, and he knew enough about the Unfriendlies to know that it was all true.
“I understand. And thank you—” His face abruptly fell and the poor man was crying.
Dona caught Lieutenant Wheeler’s eye and she bustled forward.
“Come on, sir. Let’s get this show on the road.”
All of a sudden the rage broke loose. He was falling, sagging at the knees and at the same time lashing out with his hands. Byron was pounding on his own head, crying and moaning.
A pair of troopers rushed forward to grab him as he babbled and mouthed incoherently.
“Damn them. Damn them—we just built our city hall less than three years ago…Oh, Jesus, Christ. Oh, fuck. God, oh, God, damn them all to hell.”
With a solicitous air, Wheeler and the soldiers gently ushered Byron in the direction of the door, supporting him under the armpits as his legs didn’t seem to be working properly…
With one backward glance from Wheeler, the door swished closed and they heard her bellowing for the troops, lounging around and waiting for whatever word came down the pipes.
Dona heaved a sigh.
“Tell it to the Unfriendlies, Mister Byron. Tell it to the Unfriendlies.”
She looked around, having wasted enough time on him.
The trooper who was waving pointed at the big screen at the end of the room, the centre of a cluster of similar displays. Three ships, coming over the horizon, very low and about as slow as one could go without falling out of the sky.
The Unfriendlies were on their final approach.
“That third ship is a bit late.” The trooper stared, crunching numbers on his virtual board. “How much you want to bet? They launched a surveillance satellite.”
“Yes. Where in the hell is it?” Their light, ground-based radar sets were simply not powerful enough, and a prolonged search only gave their position away…the usual problem.
Probably not too far from their own, and the question wasn’t even worth answering.
“Depending on what they’re using, and how much they were willing to spend, it might be just as stealthy as ours.”
Dona studied the bird’s-eye view of battle zone from above.
“It would be nice to knock that down.”
“If we could even find it…we don’t have the weapons for that.”
“Hmn. True.” All of this was expected, of course.
Hopefully their initial plan would hold good, although they seldom did for long.
“Where are our people?”
“Under cover at the present time. Our nearest force is still eighty kilometres from Deneb City.”
He punched a virtual button.
“There. Our people have the spaceport under observation.”
Pulling out her com unit, Dona input the codes for their three teams in the city. Team Four was in a blocking position north and east of the town. A good idea for them to listen in. She touched the symbol.
“Teams One and Two. Fire at will. Team Three. Stay put. I repeat, stay put. Team Three, keep your heads down. Team Four. Observe and report. Heads down. Over.”
The laconic responses from all teams were only so much reassurance.
“Ah, yes. The helo. It’s rigged, and I’ve programmed it to fly and land at Deneb City. It will be interesting to see if they fire on it.”
Someone brought the feed up and then they were momentarily riding along with her before the pane got smaller and it was tucked down low in the right corner of the screen.
“Ah, yes, Colonel.” The half-dozen troops manning the consoles grinned and exchanged glances.
The first thing the initial Unfriendly troops had done was to set up high and low-level defense batteries around the spaceport, providing some level of protection for further landings.
The battle had commenced. A pawn had been placed on the board, and moved forward two squares in some symbolic terms.
(End of part eight.)
Image One. Collection the author.
Image Two. Sikorsky Helicopters.
Image Four. Confederation Public Communications Office.
Image Five. Denebola-Seven Defence Force.
Image Six. CPCO.
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