Below, you’ll find Chapter Four of the Uncommon Bravery short story. If you’re interested in reading the chapters as they’re released, please subscribed to my newsletter.
Chapter 4 – Casualties of War
Clara stood in the back of her pickup and watched as T-Rex, the largest excavator within five hundred kilometers rumbled out of the lot and turned east on Highway-32. Weighing in at 240 metric tons, it was a true throwback, technologically, relying on metal tracks instead of the anti-grav components common in smaller machines. Capable of moving twenty cubic meters in a single bucket, it was every bit her daddy’s baby, just as she was. She threw him a smile when he caught her eye and waved proudly as he led the charge with all ten of his giant earth movers and trucks in line, right behind him.
“Keep your eyes on the road, Daws,” Clara admonished over the fleet channel. “We don’t want Toad pulling you out of the ditches this morning.”
It was a long running joke, unfair as it was inaccurate, but the comms burst to life with friendly chatter, the men and women happy to be moving instead of talking doom and gloom in the bay.
“Thanks, Clara,” Frank finally answered.
“Just keeping it real, Dad,” she replied. “I need T-Rex over on the south ridge. Cut through Evans’ field to get there.”
“Damn, no can do, he’s got crops in. I’ll have to take the long run around,” he said.
“Negative, Frank,” Captain Noister interrupted. “We’ll reimburse locals for damages. I just got word, we need to step up the time table.”
“Step it up? We haven’t even started,” Frank argued. “Clara, call Bob Evans and let him know we’re coming through. He’ll be pissed, but tell him I’ll re-step his terrace on the old Cherry property next spring for free.”
“Copy, Frank,” Clara replied. Frank could just as easily talk to Bob, but they both knew he was less likely to read Clara the riot act than he was Frank.
Joss, the lead explosive engineer was the next person in her ear. “Clara, what about Mrs. Belvin’s orchard? We’re going to cover those trees if I blow that ridge like you’re showing. I can’t guarantee we won’t hit her house.”
“You’re clear to set the explosives, Joss. Army is working on evacuating Mrs. Belvin. Her house and that orchard are being removed.”
Clara rubbed her temples. Her dad had taken the easy way out of the organizational nightmare by jumping in T-Rex. Normally, they had weeks, if not months, to plan a big operation and get all the permissions and land-rights issues worked out. Captain Noister was claiming eminent domain based on orders from Washington, but it was the type of thing people needed time to get used to. It was time they weren’t going to get.
“Bob Evans is available for conversation,” Clara’s soft-spoken AI informed her.
“Hi Bob. Clara Daws,” she answered.
“Clara, what’s this I hear about the government claiming eminent domain? Is that you making all that racket up on 32?”
“That’s us, Mr. Evans,” she answered. “National Guard says we have to barricade the highway and we need to blow a piece of Quail Bluff. Dad’s heading your way right now in an excavator.”
“Call me Bob. You know me better than that. And, yeah. I see him,” Evans replied. “He’s tearing up my wheat right now. Better tell him it’s soft through there, he’s going to get stuck. You need to get your equipment off my property. I’m not agreeing to this.”
“I really sorry, Bob. Not our decision,” Clara said. “Dad says if you’ll give him a break on this, he’ll re-step your Cherry property next spring.”
“I’ve been after him for a couple of years to do that,” Evans grumbled.
“He’ll do it for free, Bob.”
“That’s not like Frank,” Evans said. “Say, you’re not putting any credence in this alien invasion thing, are you? Is that what this is all about?”
“Can’t say, Mr. Evans,” Clara said. “Sorry about the field.”
“Yeah. All right,” he said. “Tell Frank I’m holding him to that terrace work.”
“Will do. Be safe.”
Clara hung up and checked on the other properties impacted by the plan she’d drawn up just a few hours back. There were only twenty permanent residences in the ravine leading from Elm Bluff to the plains below. Of those twenty, only five were directly impacted by the earth movers and of those, only two needed to be evacuated this morning. The others could wait until later in the day.
She’d felt like a heel giving those addresses to the national guard. The families of Elm Bluff weren’t wealthy — their property and homes had been passed down from generation to generation. She could only imagine how she would feel if the Army showed up one day and gave her and her dad two hours to pack everything they cared about and move to a shelter.
“Jake, Tom, can you put the overseer into my truck?” Clara asked two of the men who should have gone home already but were milling around the now, mostly empty machine shop.
“We’re not on until next shift,” Jake said.
“Sounds like someone’s looking for a bit of hand work,” Clara said, looking meaningfully at her tablet. “I’m sure Joss could use some help digging holes later today.”
“I was just kidding, Clara. You don’t have to do me like that,” Jake said. “Come on, Tom.”
Clara placed a hand on the side of the pickup’s bed and swinging her legs over, jumped onto the ground. Earth moving was a tough business and as her dad had taught her, if a woman wanted to be respected, she had to be tough. She wasn’t particularly impressed by the level of toughness required by the so-called roughnecks. They were mostly all bark until you got them drunk and even then, they weren’t safe from each other.
A thump on the top of the truck’s cab startled Clara from her reverie.
“Ready to go boss-man,” Jake taunted, enjoying having made her jump.
Clara wiggled her eyebrows. “Hey Jake, make sure to bring your gloves this afternoon.”
“You think she’s serious?” Jake asked as she pulled away from the machine shop.
By the time she arrived at the top of the hill, the ravine was almost unrecognizable. Apple trees, still holding un-ripened fruit had been bull-dozed and lay in a giant bramble further down the hill. Clara’s stomach soured as she remembered visiting the fruit stands set up on the side of the road in the late summer and early fall. She didn’t want to think about how Mrs. Belvin felt.
The Army had asked them to effectively build a dirt dam. To do so they needed to get the base of that dam cleared so they could build it up.
Clara jumped out of the pickup, energized by the sounds and smells of heavy machinery working all around her. Ordinarily reserved for her Dad, she climbed into the bed of the pickup and through the back hatch of the overseer. As machines went, the overseer was relatively simple. From a meter and a half wide circular disc, translucent walls rose two and a half meters, giving the impression of an elevator car removed from its natural element.
Punching instructions onto the small control surface, Clara synced the overseer’s controls with her own AI. Easily lifted by a strong grav repulsor, she leveled the machine ten meters above the truck and glided forward as the ground gave way beneath her position. Swiping at the sides of the panel, she overlaid the plans she’d hastily assembled on top of the existing terrain.
“Show burn-down, twelve hours,” she ordered. Each machine in the fleet had been given specific instructions on where to dig, dump, or scrape. The AI generally did a good job of organizing the drivers, but Frank had drilled into her that preparation was the key to success. It was an ironic statement as he preferred to jump in his excavator and sling dirt.
Clara watched as her AI virtually projected the machines moving at 50x speed as they toppled the hills of the ravine into the valley forming the earthen dam. She could find no fault with the projection when a visual red alert throbbed on her display.
Pointing at the alert’s location, she motioned for the overseer to move toward the issue as she zoomed in on the location. Sitting in the middle of the screen she found Toad Thedford’s bulldozer sitting with its giant blade only inches from the Belvin’s white home. An elderly woman — old Mrs. Belvin herself — stood with a shotgun in her hands, waving it wildly between a knot of National Guard and Toad’s machine.
Urging the overseer forward, Clara rushed toward the scene, fearing more for the woman than the soldiers or even Toad, who sat behind a metal blade no shotgun pellet would ever penetrate.
“Shame on you, Clara Daws,” the woman spat as Clara exited and closed the distance between them. “You have no right.”
“Mrs. Belvin, put that gun away. You’re not going to shoot anyone,” Clara said, only half believing her own words. The old woman’s eyes were wild with fear and something Clara couldn’t quite identify.
“You don’t think?” The woman turned the gun toward the bulldozer’s blade and fired. The sound of pellets ricocheting was followed by a screech from one of the Army National Guard troops.
“I’m hit!” a man Clara felt certain was still in his teens cried.
A look of panic crossed through the old woman’s face as her wild eyes darted from Toad’s tractor to the guardsman who’d fallen. Clara seized the moment and grabbed the shotgun’s barrel, struggling with the surprisingly strong woman for control. The sick feeling in the pit of her stomach grew as the woman fell back onto her bottom in the flower bed she’d no doubt tended for most of her life.
“Get it over, then,” Mrs. Belvin said. “You might as well shoot me. You’ve taken my Davey.”
Clara’s AI raced forward and displayed context on her HUD. Davey was Mary Belvin’s deceased husband.
“Where’s Davey, Mary?” Clara asked.
A soldier, leveling an assault rifle at the old woman, approached. “Mary Belvin, on orders of the North American Alliance, you’re required to vacate your premises immediately. Any deviation from this order will be met with immediate and dire consequences.”
“Oh, for frak’s sake,” Clara said, cracking open the receiver of the shotgun and ejecting the shells. “She’s an old woman. Give me a damn minute.” She tossed the now useless weapon to the ground.
“No can do, Miss,” the soldier replied. “I have my orders.”
“Well I’ve got your order. Every minute I’m standing here doing your job is a minute we’re delaying this entire project. I’m telling you to stand down or I’ll make it my personal mission to have Captain Noister find you a nice latrine to dig. You copy, soldier?” While she hadn’t intended to yell, she realized too late that she was barking at a heavily armed soldier with more than a few men backing him up.
A look of incredulity crossed the man’s face and he took a step forward, grabbing Clara’s lapel in his hand. “My orders are clear, Miss. I’m to remove all impedance from my mission by any means necessary. Now step aside before I put you there … by any means necessary.”
The sound of the cocking of a pistol’s hammer sounded loudly in Clara’s ear.
“Well ain’t you just the biggest piss-ant of them all.” Toad’s breath reeked of alcohol as he pushed the pistol in the soldier’s face. “Maybe you don’t get the overall mission. You start threatening the boss and you have to deal with all us hillbillies. Now, let the girl handle this. You copy?”
The sounds of large machinery grinding to a halt and massive engines shutting down echoed through the valley. An urgent comm from Captain Noister showed on Clara’s HUD.
“Turn them back on,” the soldier demanded, releasing Clara’s shirt.
“I’m pretty sure you meant impediments and this is for you.” She pinched the incoming comm on her HUD and flicked it to the soldier.
“Mrs. Belvin,” Clara helped the woman from the flower bed where she still sat, “where’s Davey?”
“He was in the orchard, but he’s down there, now,” she said, tears streaming down her face as she pointed at the pile of fruit trees three hundred meters from their position.