Clara Daws shook her head as she looked back through the diner’s glass window. Tinker and Knight back together again. The two were like brothers to her growing up and she thought that was all gone. She’d dated Knight when he came back from the service, but it didn’t last. Though it shaped him into a strong, honorable man, she’d discovered a dark, moody side that he kept bottled up. As if he knew she was watching, Tinker turned and made eye contact through the glass. She flashed him a grin and turned back to the business at hand.
Her old grav-truck hummed across the worn brick streets of Elm Bluff. Weeds filled in the cracks between the bricks.. She’d have to remember to bring it up at the next town council meeting. The town’s image as a well-manicured, picture of days gone by, was a legacy she’d accepted when elected to the council. It would have been substantially less expensive to pave over the old street, but it was one of a kind. Just like her truck, she thought, patting the dashboard.
A sense of unease settled on her as she drove the twelve kilometers out to the cleverly named ‘Daws’ Earth Moving’. The news channels had been reporting on the arrival of the fleet of alien warships as an exciting moment of first-contact. Rumors swirled on non-sanctioned news sources about space combat leading to heavy losses. She wasn’t sure who could be trusted, but blocking Highway 32 didn’t seem like the actions of a confident government.
Cresting one last hill, her family’s business came into view. The familiar barns where equipment was stored and repaired, dwarfed the small office off to the west. In the parking lot, she expected to see the familiar tan and brown camouflage vehicle favored by Captain Chuck Noister, her dad’s typical contact with the Army Corp. What she wasn’t expecting was a convoy of heavy Army vehicles lining both sides of the road and two jeeps sitting crosswise, blocking the highway.
She jammed on the brakes, her old truck’s grav plates whining in response. With a quick hand, she grabbed the bag of breakfast rolls before they slid off the seat beside her. She didn’t have enough hands to catch one of the coffee cups with a poorly attached lid. Hot coffee splashed down her leg.
“Frakking hell!” she said as she pulled to a stop a few meters short of the blockade.
Looking up, she recognized one of the two uniformed men standing next to the jeeps. She used to babysit Jimmy Wynn, a town kid who worked for the grain co-op. With a rifle slung over his shoulder, he held his hand up unnecessarily indicating for her to stop, walking up next to the truck when she did.
“What’s going on, Jimmy?” Clara asked, tamping down the anger she felt at the coffee dripping down her tight pants into her shoes.
“Gotta turn around, Clara,” Jimmy said. “Highway 32 is closed; nobody gets through.”
“I’m going to work, Jimmy.” She pointed at the buildings only a few hundred meters over his shoulder.
“Not today, Clara. We have our orders and you’re not on the list.”
“What list? And, what dumbass puts a road block on the back side of a hill?” Her frustration finally boiled over. “Is anyone in charge here? I’m supposed to be meeting Captain Noister and Dad. Move your truck.”
“I’ll call it in,” Jimmy said, looking away sheepishly.
“Good. Get someone up on that hill so you don’t get killed.”
Clara looked down the line of National Guard vehicles at the young men and women all in uniform. Somewhere along the line soldiers had become kids, most of them barely eighteen years. The sight of Jimmy Wynn holding a rifle added to the overall unease that wrapped around her heart. She didn’t like to think she was one who gave credence to rumors, but official news reports didn’t line up with what she was seeing.
Jimmy held a hand over his ear and talked for a few minutes, finally turning to one of the soldiers next to him. After a brief conversation, the solider jumped into a jeep and backed it into the shallow ditch. Stepping out of the way, Jimmy waved her through.
Clara slowed as she pulled alongside. “What’s this all about, Jimmy?”
“I’m sorry, Clara, we’re under orders not to talk.” He scowled. But it’s not like they’d tell us anyway. And, sorry about the blockade. We’ll move up the hill.”
“Thanks, Jimmy. Be safe, okay?”
Jimmy nodded. “You too, Clara.”
The parking lot was never this full. Daws employed forty heavy equipment drivers and another half-dozen mechanics, but their schedules were such that most worked less than twenty hours a week and they only had equipment for half of them to be driving at any time. At her dad’s request she’d sent message out, announcing a mandatory, full-company meeting scheduled to start in ten minutes.
“They’re all in Bay-1.” Jayce Simmons stood from the reception desk when Clara approached her dad’s office. “I’m supposed to bring you with me when you get back.”
Clara cocked her head, setting the bag of breakfast rolls on the desk. “Dad met with Captain Big -Pants when I was off grabbing breakfast?”
Jayce looked at the ground – not making eye contact. “It wasn’t a long meeting.”
Clara took off down the hallway that connected to the garages behind the office building. Pushing through swinging, double doors, Clara immediately found herself in the midst of a crowd of Daws employees, all talking in exited, low whispers. She worked through the crowd and caught her dad’s blue eyes as he tracked her approach. He stood next to Captain Big-Pants on a hastily assembled platform. A good-looking man, well into his sixties, Ralph Daws had a permanent tan on his face, neck, and arms from too much time in the sun, preferring work to office management.
A look of chagrin crossed his face as he broke eye contact and tapped on the small microphone attached to the earwig. “All right, everyone. If we could quiet down. It looks like Clara’s here and we can get started. If you would give Captain Noister your attention, he has information he’d like to share with us.”
Clara glared at her father, knifing her way through the crowd. He’d sent her away so he could have his meeting in private and wasn’t about to give her a chance to berate him about it.
“As you’ve all heard, the Navy is engaged in a conflict with aliens that arrived in our solar system over a week ago,” Noister said, quieting the room almost instantly with a promise of news. “It had been hoped we could communicate with this alien host, but so far all attempts at diplomacy have failed.”
“What’s this got to do with us?” Clara recognized the voice as belonging to Joe ‘Toad’ Thedford. A murmur of concern rippled through the room.
“Quiet down folks, give the Captain a chance.”
“Thank you, Mr. Daws,” Noister said. “The fact is, our Navy is taking a hell of a beating and Central Command believes an invasion is imminent.”
The room erupted in chaos and it took several minutes before Ralph Daws was able to get control again.
“Tell us straight, Ralph. Why are we here?” Toad’s voice was the loudest.
“We’re closing Highway 32,” Daws said. “The bluffs are a natural defense against a ground assault and the Guard is setting up Elm Bluffs as a fallback position for the regular army. Our job is to fill in the ravine to twenty meters so nothing can get around.”
“You’re crazy,” Toad argued, evidently appointing himself as the spokesman for the group. “Even with every machine in the shed working around the clock, that’d take weeks.”
“That’s right, Joe.” Pissed as she was, Clara appreciated how her dad could bring calm to any situation. “Preliminary estimates show fifteen hundred hours of digging. That’s eight days if we keep our buckets and excavators running at ninety percent. It’s going to take sacrifice from everyone, but we’re talking about our home.”
“I have family down in the valley.” Clara couldn’t catch who’d said it, but the sentiment was shared by several.
“We’re leaving the door open,” Captain Noister said. “Anyone who wants on the bluff will be allowed in, but no traffic East will be allowed. If anyone wants to go west to Omaha, Highway 32 will be open as long as possible. We’ll set up refugee camps south of the highway.”
At the mention of refugee camps, the room once again erupted in chaos.
“People. Listen. I’d never ask you to do something I’m unwilling to do. But this emergency is as real as it gets and people’s lives depend on us. Clara, I need you to get us organized. Will you do that?” Ralph Daws looked to his daughter.
She realized that he was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders and her annoyance with him evaporated.
Clara donned a pair of clear glasses she had pulled from her pocket. Her AI had been listening to the entire conversation and instantly displayed the gorge that led east to the plains. A wireframe projection of the blockade had already been loaded, no doubt by Ralph and Captain Big-Pants. Wordlessly, she flicked the beginnings of a plan onto the bay’s wall and started assigning drivers.