Curly waved at the family driving a covered wagon toward Winthrop. They waved back, enthusiastically. The father and mother sat on the wooden driver’s bench with two children standing behind them.
Curly guided his horse to the right and passed them, smiling at everybody and waving.
They all wore something on their heads. The father and his son wore wide-brimmed hats, while the mother and daughter wore bonnets. In the back of the wagon, Curly thought he saw produce. Bushels of grain, some bags of other stuff. They were probably making a day of it, bringing in a load of food from an outlying farm and selling it in the city, either to a wholesaler for the grocery stores or some kind of farmer’s market.
“I swear,” he said out loud to himself after passing them, “it feels like I stepped back in time or something.”
But of course, he had not stepped back in time. He was on Halcyon, a frontier planet cut off from the rest of the galaxy due to the war. His ship, the Excelsior, was destroyed by the Republic’s new star weapon and came here as a last ditch maneuver before disintegrating in the atmosphere when pirates attacked.
Every now and then Curly would see some technological doodad left over from when the colonists first arrived, and it would spoil the effect of being back in time.
For right now, though, things certainly looked and felt primitive.
He glanced up at the telegraph wire running along poles planted beside the road. The line, he knew, stretched all the way to Wallisville, some 600 kilometers away. It connected all the towns on the road out of Winthrop, the only road that mattered.
There were surely other roads leading out of Winthrop, but none led to settlements of any size . . . yet. The colonists had only been here three years or so, since the start of the war. They hadn’t had time to grow their population much, and of course no new colonists had arrived since the League abandoned them.
Curly was now several klicks out of Winthrop, and traffic finally became lighter. Closer to town, there was much more activity. But the covered wagon with the annoyingly cheerful family was the last vehicle, horse, or pedestrian he had seen in a while.
Ahead, the road looked empty. Curly turned in his saddle and watched the wagon slowly crest a hill then dip down out of sight.
“Well, here’s as good as any place. Whoa, horsie.”
He reined the animal to a stop and dismounted. The horse looked at him with a glimmer of curiosity in its eye. Curly ignored it and opened up the saddlebags.
Inside, he pulled out a portable ladder, a single pole folded every half meter, with branching rungs. Curly placed it on the ground and quickly unfolded it, locking each segment into place until the ladder was fully stretched out.
He picked it up off the road and angled the top on the nearest telegraph pole. Then he grabbed a pair of wire cutters out of the saddlebag and carefully climbed the ladder. He reached up and cut the lower line, then climbed one more step and cut the upper line, too. The wires snapped back under tension, making a sound like a spring as they sailed away and hit the ground.
Curly breathed a little easier. He had been worried the lines might whip him when they snapped. He went back down to the ground and quickly folded up the ladder, trying to hurry before anybody came down the road and saw him. When he had it loaded back on the horse, he ran over to the fallen lines and made several additional cuts. He grabbed the pieces of wire and took them with him.
“They won’t be able to make a simple repair,” he reasoned to himself. “They’ll need a longer stretch of wire.”
His act of sabotage complete, Curly mounted his horse again, turned around, and headed back in the direction he came. He tried not to go too fast so he would not overtake the family in their wagon.
Benson could scarcely believe the colonists were already building a railroad. But from her hidden position up in the hills outside Winthrop, the evidence was literally right before her eyes. Surveyors had plotted a route all the way to Dennison, or so they heard. Below, she could see the freshly laid rails stretching out straight and level.
They extended over a new bridge, the wood latticework neatly filling the gap between two ridges, providing a level track for future trains.
Beside her, Kang took his binoculars down and said, “They finished the first few tunnels, and this is the first large bridge. Once they get out of these hills, the way will be smoother, flatter. They’ll go faster and complete the rails quicker now. They won’t have to worry about grades so much until they get to the mountains.”
Kang was of Asian descent, but he looked like he had some European blood in him. He was good looking, Benson thought, but far too young for her. And that led her to think of Chung and his smiling face.
She set it aside, determined not to wallow in memory or misery.
Out loud she said, “It makes sense that a lack of geographical barriers would help.”
Kang nodded. He said, “Yes, ma’am. The rail bed has to be flat. It can’t have steep inclines or sharp turns. They’ll be using a very primitive steam engine, and will thus be limited somewhat. Still, it’s going to advance their transportation capabilities significantly.”
Benson smiled grimly. She said, “We’ll just have to slow their advancement a bit, then.”
She took the binoculars and peered down at the bridge. In the middle of the latticework, like some kind of circus performer, she could see Kilmeade crawling around, placing the last of the small bombs they had stolen.
The railroad had foolishly left everything unguarded, including the explosives they used for construction of the line and to make tunnels. Kilmeade and her team had stolen the explosives two nights ago, but Benson waited until the bridge was complete and the construction crew moved on.
She watched as Kilmeade climbed up to the rails, and walked along the tracks. She made her way back to two other sailors, and together they retreated farther up the ridge.
Benson moved her binoculars back to the bridge and waited, holding her breath.
The latticework lit up in fire and smoke. Benson watched in satisfaction as the entire bridge collapsed, the fresh iron railing falling down with the wood.