The column was about as stretched out as it was going to get, for surely the lead vehicle must be getting close—
The bang of an anti-tank mine was considerable, even at two or three hundred metres.
Unlike the orange and black fireballs of popular entertainment, the concussion, the pale expanding orb of the shock wave, and the air full of impenetrable dust all happened instantaneously. In fact it was there before the report was actually heard.
With the prevailing winds blowing lightly from west to east, that would take a moment to clear.
In the meantime, the troops of Force One, H-for-Herzon, fired upon the column where it crested the hill, hoping to disable another vehicle and bottle up anyone in between. Light machine guns tracked up and down the ditches and the brush on each side of the road.
Someone launched a small anti-tank rocket and the fireball at the tail bobbed and wove across the small valley…foom.
That one might have been a hit, it was impossible to tell.
More dust and smoke.
Enemy troops spilled out of their trucks and fighting vehicles, which were only now beginning to return fire from their heavy machine guns and light cannons.
Her troops were behind a million tonnes of dirt and rock, only their weapons exposed.
More dangerous would be the mortars, but her people had their light and heavy tubes already in position hundreds of metres away, zeroed in on coordinates thoroughly computed using planetary positioning data and good old footwork. The enemy was seeing the ground for the very first time, they’d only been on the planet for about three days.
The first bombs were already dropping in among them as something heavier opened up from down below. Red balls of enemy tracer arced up and over the primary camera pickup.
The pop and crackle of guns and mortar fire rose to a crescendo, and then tapered off as targets became obscured, possibly even scarce. The bulk of the Unfriendly troops were now into the woods and down in the ditches and culverts returning fire at a furious rate.
There were shapeless bodies on the ground, some still moving, twitching, convulsing...burning.
The rest were keeping their heads down.
In a minute or two, their officers would have them under control, as of yet panic and confusion reigned below. The audio was chaotic, and whoever had brought that stream up shut it down just as quickly.
The noise diminished, with the enemy still firing erratically, and going by the display, at invisible targets all along the ridgeline for a half a kilometre or more in each direction.
“Suggest withdrawal. Your work here is done.”
“Roger that, Colonel. We’re just recovering the forward weapons now. No casualties to report. Fire is heavy, but inaccurate, and we had trenches, big rocks and cover for approach and set-up.”
She already knew that, but Kelly was no more immune than anyone else to the excitement of battle.
The difference was that he liked it, whereas so many dreaded it, and rightly so.
The fortunes of war are always uncertain.
Mortar-fired smoke charges began to go off from the ambush site, obscuring much of the action below.
She switched to another camera, one much further back as the first of two Pumas cautiously stuck its nose out of a patch of brush and then, having successfully crossed the shallow ditch, (an oblique angle was always best), accelerated rapidly on the downhill stretch, disappearing at the bottom in the camera view just as the Unfriendlies had one hill further back. Their timing was good, as the drone was racing back to the scene of the action, but on the wrong side of a low, mist-shrouded peak to the west. Down among the trees, this time of day, the road was all shadows and dim light.
A bit of real rain would be lovely—smoke drifted across her screen and then it was all gone.
By the time the Unfriendlies got organized, there would be nothing there to attack…and there would, inevitably, be some delay in getting them going again. The beauty of it all was that the cameras, for the most part, were still in place.
So far, all according to plan.
Time for analysis.
The Unfriendlies on Highway 17 had taken the bait. It wasn’t like they had much of a choice.
People get shot at, they’re going to fire back. They would take cover, they would shout back and forth on radios…sometimes barely two feet from a camera equipped with a microphone.
More data to work with for the signal-cracker program.
After bringing down fire from at least a half a dozen big mortars, they had formed skirmish lines, laboriously picking their way uphill, and then, using cover fire and shoulder-fired smoke grenades, rushed the high ground and the clumps of boulders where they thought the enemy must be. At least two had been killed by a simple grenade booby trap…
One or two had been unfortunate enough to activate glue-mines, which were exactly that, exploding on contact to fire a spray of adhesive and a chemical accelerant. Soldiers would be coated in the quick-drying adhesive, which might not be lethal but sure put a crimp in a soldier’s ability to perform. A clump of soldiers glued together felt very vulnerable, no matter what the circumstances or how it all turned out—it was interesting, just how many junior officers fell into the psychological trap of giving the survivors shit for something. Relieved as they must be that their men hadn’t been killed, they felt they had to say something—and as often as not, fell into the habits of amateurs in command of amateurs, bullying and shouting for lack of something to say. It was, oddly enough, a kind of humiliation weapon. It would take hours to clean the weapons, the uniforms would be scrap, and if the stuff got in the hair, the eyes, the mouth or the ears, the individual trooper would be a low-level medical casualty.
A time-consuming, not very serious casualty who was nevertheless out of action. Troops would think twice before rushing in a second time…that was the great thing about survivors.
People who knew that they might very well have been killed, if only it hadn’t been a glue-mine. They were a lot more cautious than the totally inexperienced. As far as genuine enemy losses due to more deadly weapons, two vehicles had been destroyed, several must have been damaged, and an estimated five Unfriendlies killed, with possibly a dozen or more light casualties.
Some of those would be burn victims, the worst of all under any circumstances. There were no signs that the enemy were looking for cameras…far from it. They seemed hesitant in the bush, once the initial objective had been secured. Perhaps it was the knowledge that there was nothing there—nothing there but trees, hills and rocks. That and a shit-load of river, lake and swamp. Or maybe it was the thought of what might be there, if only they looked hard enough.
Sergeant Kelly and a fire-team, along with one of the light scout vehicles, had escaped and evaded in the opposite direction. Rather than run west, to the roadside first and then to bugger off to the northwest in the Pumas and Panthers, they’d gone east on foot.
Higher into the hills, following the ridgeline. The Unfriendlies, pressed for time and ultimately, patience, would hopefully interpret any signs of their going as either panic or troops in some outlying fire-position setting up for the initial ambush. In that terrain, hard as the ground was, the lack of marks returning to the road would be inconclusive.
They were waiting, and so far, there were no signs of enemy pursuit. Up an almost invisible track in the hills, there was no indication that the vehicle, a good seven hundred metres back from the ambush point had been discovered…they had cameras watching it the whole time and no one had come anywhere near it. Other psychological factors having been well thought-out, there were no enemy patrols much past the ambush point…not in the woods. All the enemy was seeing would be empty cartridge cases, scuffed foot-marks and tire tracks in the muddy patches.
They had sent out road patrols, patrols which seemed shy and reluctant. Finding nothing obvious, they’d returned to the column. The enemy, intent on their attack on Roussef, was already out of sight down the road, and soon to be out of sound in this tight, closed-in hill country.
“After a while, we’ll go down there and have a look at those enemy vehicles.”
There were two of them, pushed aside and bypassed in the enemy’s haste to move on. An armoured car and a light 4x4. They still smouldered although the tires had long since gone.
There might be some useful intelligence to be gathered from the debris of battle. As for bodies, the enemy appeared to be recovering them and taking them along.
They always were pretty good about giving their troops a decent, Christian burial.
Their fibre cable had been cut by Confederation troops upstream. The short section leading from the first ambush site to the next was essentially just lying in the ditch. Sergeant Kelly and the others went about systematically retrieving some of their cameras, copying all files and switching them to standby, in a case of waste not, want not. Motion-sensors would turn them back on again in the event a sufficiently large target came along.
There were weapons, including a light machine gun and an air-defence tube to recover. It hadn’t been fired, and it would be good to have along. If the Unfriendlies had patrolled the area, and surely they had left their footprints and what was essentially garbage everywhere, they’d been remarkably lax. It was like they climbed to the top of the hill, sat down and had a picnic lunch in the grass. Perhaps they’d assumed a full-blown retreat, or maybe they just didn’t think a few unfamiliar weapons, extra weapons, would be useful. A lot of enemy troops couldn’t even read their own Bibles, or so he’d heard.
There was no way they would ever figure some of this out without a manual.
More likely, they’d feared booby-traps after the previous boobies and glue-mines, and had been ordered to ignore them…he might have done the same thing himself under similar circumstances. It depended on the people under your command.
So far, his people had been doing very well.
He nodded. Their orders were to wait, for there was a good possibility of other traffic—military or civilian, coming up the road. Theoretically, there shouldn’t be anything coming down the road, but you never knew. Civilians had minds of their own and didn’t always listen very well. A traveling salesman on the road and with a home in Deneb would want to go home at some point, and there were a hundred similar reasons—selling a big crop of soybeans for example.
The sound of a tractor off in the distance, working someone’s field, trying to get the crop off before the snow fell, was a pretty good reminder. Idly, he wondered what it was—corn, maybe.
Corn on the cob, with real butter, salt and pepper—
That would be great.
The enemy had three fuel trucks tagging along at the end of their little column. The cameras in Gossua had confirmed it. Their own fuel tanks were already partially depleted, and sooner or later there would be more.
There would have to be more.
Their drone was following the enemy column, and so far, the enemy drone was providing aerial eyes and cover for the Unfriendlies. It tended to stay out in front rather than coming back for another look. Even though some poorly thought-out ambush might be a lot more visible from behind than in front. The drone operators appeared to be either just as inexperienced, or just as overconfident as the rest. The Confederation drone was staying three thousand metres higher, hanging in the sun, and hopefully not being spotted—unless there really was an enemy satellite, in which case what were the enemy’s options? Or their own, for that matter…but sooner or later, that satellite had to reveal itself. If it was up there, it would be used—and something, somewhere, would be sacrificed in the revelation.
When the time came, with Force H withdrawing and the enemy’s Main Force in full chase, it would be time to attack from the rear. Enemy fuel and supply columns would be a high priority, but hopefully, he’d have plenty of warning from the satellite and other units closer to Deneb.
He sat in the passenger side of the vehicle, studying the battle-map and the tactical data gathered so far.
He looked over.
“What’s the worst thing about war? Brushing your teeth.” There was just never enough time in the day.
There was nothing like fresh, clean water running out of a tap.
She grunted. The trooper sat behind the wheel. A tall girl with biceps bigger than his, she was poised to fire up and go anywhere the sergeant wanted.
“Sit tight. They missed the vehicle the first time around. There’s no reason to expose ourselves before we have to.”
The trooper sighed, deeply. There were snores from the back seat, and there was someone wandering around on perimeter security. This was a bit of a euphemism for taking a dump, sometimes, in the typically irreverent humour of soldiers everywhere. In such circumstances, it was as good a method as any—to squat there and to shit very quietly, and to just listen.
“Yes, Sergeant Kelly.” And he was right about that tooth-brushing part, not to mention a few other things. “Now, the food, well—the food is okay.”
He grinned, rubbing his upper lip where the stubble was beginning to tickle his nose, and checking reports from further up the road, where battle was about to be rejoined. No, he’d never minded the food either. The messes were excellent. In his experience they were as professional and as well-run as anything he’d seen, and out in the field, you were just so damned grateful for a bellyful of hot grub. The thing with the Organization, as well as their typical clients, was that they made damned sure the food was there, on time and plenty of it.
It was up to the individual what they did with it.
The Command Centre was just one of many channels, but a burst of sound and activity caught his attention.
“Incoming! Missiles incoming!” On the battle-zone display map, the red tracks of the missiles, launched from just south of Deneb City, were headed straight towards Roussef and the bulk of the Confederation force.
He watched as Dona Graham sat up in her seat and began speaking in clipped tones.
People leapt up and headed for the doors, and the trenches outside.
She looked at the clock on the wall and for his part, Kelly nodded thoughtfully.
So, that was how long it took for the enemy HQ to get the bad news, and to respond.
They weren’t very happy about that ambush, were they.
The colonel was gone and he was looking at an empty Command Centre, all the displays still up and running so that they could be monitored from below ground.
That’s what backup boards and hard networks were for.
Image One. Collection of Louis Shalako.
Image Two. Confederation Public Communications Office.
Image Three. Denebola-Seven Chamber of Commerce.
Image Four. Collection of Louis Shalako.
Image Five. CPCO.
Image Six. The Organization.
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