With modern battlefield communications, sent via tight-beam and relayed by satellite to great distances, it was possible to look over the shoulders of troops at all times or focus on one aspect of a battle at any given time.
What would be extremely unwelcome during off-duty hours was tolerated and even welcomed in the heat of battle and the fog of war. It meant that the greenest soldier was never truly alone. There was always that editorial detachment, calm, patient, close in their ears, giving them instruction, listening, reassuring.
Just being there for them was something. And when a person died, there was someone there for them too—
That was the darker side of good communications.
There were others, of course.
Sergeant Kelly was in the passenger side of a Hellion. Those in the command centre were monitoring as the armoured patrol vehicle cruised along a winding, two-lane blacktop road that appeared to have well-tended gravel verges, deep ditches and any number of small bridges and culverts.
The road wound through a notch in the hills ahead, the low, tree-clad peaks all around, shrouded in mist. The nose of the vehicle dropped and the only view was downwards. The view was spectacular, if one had a minute to see.
There was no real need to talk. Senior officers had all the numbers. This included the speed, direction, battery-state and global position of each vehicle, and all the troops aboard had their individual dots on the battle-board. In two and a half hours of driving, with stops to talk to the local population, not incidentally conveying some information as well, they had gotten a bare fifty kilometres from Roussef.
The complexity of the data-flow meant that several battle screens were needed for each detachment. With a touch of the appropriate icon, Colonel Graham was in communication with Kelly. His detachment was on the road to Deneb City, or as close as they could get in the time allowed. Their commander, Captain Herzon, was catching some much-needed sleep in the back of the vehicle.
“Sergeant. How’s it going?”
“It’s going very well, Colonel.”
“This looks like beautiful ambush country.”
“Yes, I know, Colonel. But so far, we haven’t seen anything. The civilians are sure glad to see us.”
“What are they saying?”
“Pretty much all saying the same thing. They haven’t seen any Unfriendlies. Lot of rumours going around. Not too happy about being in a war zone. They’ve got a bit of a beef with the Unfriendlies. I’ve been told more than once to kick their asses—sorry, Colonel.”
“That’s okay, Sergeant. You can always speak your mind in this command.”
She smiled as best she could, and he grinned right back at her.
“Ah, thank you, Colonel. But seriously, they are not too happy about being invaded by religious wingnuts. They understand very well what the Conglomerate means for them. Some of them are asking exactly what we think we’re going to do about it. It’s a difficult question.”
“And what are you telling them?”
“I told them we’re going to kick their asses. But basically, we’re asking them to remain in place. If the Unfriendlies come up the road, and surely they must, we’re advising no resistance. We’re also asking them not to evacuate, sure as hell not in the direction of Roussef. There are plenty of upland farmsteads, hunting and fishing camps. If they can just get out of the actual battle zone for a few days, they’ll probably be all right no matter which way it goes. It’s either that or live in the basement for a while, and it seems not too many buildings around here have such a thing, although some do.”
No, they wouldn’t like living in the root-cellar for any length of time. Civilian morale was an important consideration.
Everything is politics.
And all politics is local politics.
“Very well. Let us know if you need anything—or see anything.”
“Colonel.” There was a hand on her shoulder.
It was Major Chan.
“Good luck, Sergeant.”
“Thank you, Colonel. With all due respect, we prefer to rely on skill.”
With a faint grin, Dona slipped of the headset, letting it dangle around her neck.
“The window of opportunity is closing. We’ve got like five minutes, no more. They’ll be able to see us now, for the next twenty minutes, roughly the same amount of time, open and closed, for however many orbits required to make planet-fall.”
“Okay. All units are to take cover. Make sure they have full information. Make sure they know why.”
“Roger that.” Chan activated the circuit even as Dona cut herself out of that loop.
Dona moved to the next screen, preferring to move around a bit rather than just sit at her station like a bump on a log. Wheeler was in the same mode, roaming up and down the rows of work-stations, looking over people’s shoulders, asking and answering questions in a low, calm tone.
It was a fascinating picture.
“Sergeant Danik.” This detachment was on the road to Walzbruch.
They were looking over his shoulder.
“Yeah, well. We’re moving right along. There is virtually nothing out here. We haven’t seen a house or a barn in half an hour, maybe longer. Vehicles are so few that when we see one, we stop them and talk to them. They seem glad enough to get a bit of news and gossip. It’s all very friendly. The big trucks are mostly robotic. They’re dumb as sticks, although you might want to check camera-logs. It’s the smaller utility vehicles that have any people in them. I was stationed in Deneb City for most of my hitch, and I’ve actually run into one or two familiar faces. That helps a lot. Quite a few are farmers or ranchers. Out here, in summer, they go into town and buy their groceries and other supplies by the month. In winter they tend to really lay it in. What with the harvest, they’re busy, they’re making money and they’re spending it too. This at a time when local food prices tend to fall. People take advantage of it. Other than that, we’re under cover right now and in no real hurry to go walking face-first into a wall of gunfire…”
“Very well. Carry on, Sergeant.”
On one screen in particular, the Unfriendly ships were just going over the horizon, braking into the first of several orbits.
“Let us know if there’s anything you need.”
“Oh, I don’t know, Colonel. I think we’ll be okay.” The patient humour was unmistakable.
Sergeant Danik had the exact same data as hers displayed on his major screen, and so Dona left it at that.
She turned to the nearest available trooper, with Wheeler hovering there at her side.
“I want a list of every food processor or supplier in Ryanville, Roussef, and Deneb City.”
She engaged the trooper’s eye, one not too busy at that particular moment. Trooper Harvey.
“Yes, Colonel.” The sardonic grin was a bit of a bonus, not entirely unwelcome—
They had a crate of money—and the Unfriendlies would probably want to eat.
They might be able to do a little something about that.
Buy low and sell high, for example.
“Ah. Yes, Colonel. Sorry, I’ve just woken up.” Onscreen, the captain sipped at a chipped tin coffee mug, discoloured bags under the eyes and deep lines around the mouth.
He grinned under her look and she nodded thoughtfully.
Herzon was about forty-five, and in charge of a tough crew. They had at least gotten to know each other aboard Eliza. As for his own people, they’d been together for a while.
“What are we hearing out there?”
Through the view-screen, all she could see was that it was very dark out there in the boonies, the only thing visible in the windows were dim reflections from instruments inside the cabin.
“Yeah. The locals say they haven’t seen any Unfriendlies. Truck traffic in both directions has been severely curtailed. Owners are waiting to see what happens, I guess, and the shelves on the local grocery stores are thinning out in spots. With such a small population, processed foods such as milk and bread all come from Deneb City.” Raw materials, for the most part, went the other way.
There was a cannery in Roussef, and her troops were already moving as much food as seemed advisable to Ryanville.
Imported goods were a different story, although the traffic volume was much lower in terms of high-value freight.
“Other than that, we’re in a secure position. We’re on high ground and we can see for miles down the road. It’s interesting, to see vehicle headlights, coming over the hills and then disappearing again. They pop in and out, taillights, same thing. As soon as the window closes again, we’ll move on. I plan on entering Walzbruch just before dawn. Lights off and very slow.”
“Very well. Stay on the alert, take command of all local operations. You know all of this, so good luck.” The troops there would be expecting them and communications were still good.
“Thank you, Colonel.”
“Colonel Graham.” There was a gentle tap on the shoulder, made necessary by the headset.
A name flashed in the corner of the display, Dade, and she took off the set.
“We have a liftoff. A helo from the local airport. The pilot’s talking to us. He says it’s a regularly scheduled flight…also that he has a wife and kid in Deneb City.”
“Shit. Get him down—get him back here. Tell him we’ll fire on him if he doesn’t comply.”
“Absolutely, Colonel Graham.”
Dona stood looking and listening.
“Victor, Charlie, Tango, four-oh-three, come in please.”
“Victor Charlie Tango four-oh-three. Go ahead.”
The voice was male, with some overtones of nervousness and possibly resentment.
“Please return to base. This is the Command Centre, Lieutenant-Colonel Dona Graham, commanding. That is an order. Failure to comply is not an option. We will fire upon you. Over.”
The waiting was painful.
“Say again, please. Over.”
“We have orders to bring you down if you do not return immediately to base. Over.”
“This is a scheduled flight. I have urgent cargo and a contract. My flight plan has been filed. Am pre-cleared for landing at Deneb City. Over.”
“Not today, please. Return to base or we will shoot you down. Over.”
Dona stepped in close. Her voice was crisp.
“Arm the missiles, please.”
“Sorry, Victor Charlie Tango, four-oh-three. You have thirty seconds. Use it wisely. Over.”
The tiny red triangle on the big tactical screen slowly tracked onwards.
“Prepare to fire.”
Dona exhaled. The red spot was coming around. In a few seconds, it had reversed course.
“Thank you, Victor, Charlie, Tango, four-oh-three. You’re doing the right thing. Return to base.”
The response was unprintable and the trooper winced.
“I’m heading to the airport. I want to talk to that man.”
“In the meantime, one of you guys is in charge.”
“What—what are you going to do?’
“I want to find out if that ship can run on automatic.”
She suspected that it could—but only a first-hand look could give any real answer to certain questions.
A quick glance confirmed that the Unfriendlies were still out of the observation window.
That didn’t prove that they hadn’t deployed a satellite for battlefield observation. It was an obvious move and she would have been surprised if they hadn’t.
It would take x-amount of time for a satellite to boost into position and stabilize…that would be hours rather than days. The next two or three hours would have to be used very wisely.
“Word from Deneb City. Activity on the ground.” Getting ready for the landing, no doubt.
“Roger that. Keep on it.” Having stepped out into the corridor to take the message, she came back into the room.
Dona had the pilot under arrest. Her bodyguard, a driver and another trooper riding shotgun, weapon at the ready, were more than enough for any indignant civilian.
He was smart enough not to offer resistance. Not that he wasn’t upset.
Luckily for him, the gentleman was unarmed. He had all the proper documents and appeared to be exactly what he claimed, a claim borne out by other civilian employees at the air and space-port.
“Look, Mister Nield. We know you have a schedule, and no one’s told you any differently.”
He’d arrived the evening before from Ryanville. In all the excitement, no one had really noticed.
There were some big lakes up there and a thriving little seafood industry.
Ancient history at this point, although surely he must have known about the invasion.
“Okay. So you have a wife and children in the city. But there’s just no way that we can let you risk your own life and the lives of others at the present time.”
“Sure. Whatever. I was alone, you know. I guess there probably was a risk…I just wasn’t thinking.”
Trooper Valla spoke.
“If that chopper came down in a residential area—”
Dona silenced him with a glance and a wink.
“My cargo will spoil quickly. No one in Deneb City is saying anything about flights being grounded.”
“I’m sorry, I really am. I can’t speculate as to the reasons for that, but I have no doubt the Unfriendlies would be happy to make use of your machine. If it fell into their hands. They are unlikely to leave it alone, and quite frankly, they have all sorts of bolt-on weapons.” So did her own people, but there was no need to fixate his mind on that. “However, the telephone service still works and you can always call home. I’ll take the keys, incidentally.”
The troopers gave the man a dark look, and Nield reluctantly pulled them out of a hip pocket, face reddening further. He pulled two old-fashioned mechanical keys, a big one and small one, from the ring.
“Your property will be returned to you, sir.” The trooper, a massive man named Broser, pulled out a paper pad and wrote a quick receipt.
Name, date, description of property, name of receiving officer…half soldier and half cop around here, and that was about the size of it. Broser had clearly written a few tickets on this tour…he’d interacted with the citizens, not always in a nice way as the saying went.
“There you go, sir.”
The man was silent, slumped in defeat on a hard plastic chair in the threadbare little airport office, paper stub clenched in a reluctant hand.
Dona carried on.
“The only thing we ask there, is not to talk about local security arrangements. Also this little incident. Tell your wife that the machine had some kind of minor malfunction and that you had to turn back. It’s a safety issue. That’s what you tell her, okay? You’ll get home as soon as possible. Right, sir?”
“Ah. Shit. Yes, Colonel.”
“The other thing is your cargo. We have a lot of people to feed here. I was thinking of buying it from you. Either that or seize it.” Compensation would appear to be in order—an old joke but still relevant. “So. How much is your cargo worth, under your present contract?”
He mentioned a figure. It was only a few hundred credits.
“Very well. Sounds good to us. Tell you what. Since this is all sort of out of your control, we’ll tack on an additional thirty percent. Okay?”
Broser made a quick note of it.
Nield sighed and nodded. That was it.
Taking her eyes from the prisoner, she nodded to the troopers.
“Okay. Take the gentleman and his personal luggage to the hotel, please. Get his phone number and relay that to the Command Centre.” All telephone calls were being monitored, something he might have guessed, assuming if he had any brains at all. “We’ll send that around in cash, okay, sir?”
No response, but he probably heard her.
With the phone number programmed into the database, he would be red-flagged and closely monitored by the system. He hadn’t done anything really criminal—except to ignore the order that grounded all aircraft until further notice. The notion that he hadn’t heard about it wasn’t very credible. She was certain it would be logged into the helo’s computer…and yet alienating the local population wasn’t part of her plan.
There were a handful of rather bashful civilian employees at the airport. The manager was the typical bureaucrat, suddenly out inspecting the farthest hangars. Her impression was that they were keeping their heads down and not volunteering too much of anything, and surely pilots and ground staff talked amongst themselves.
“Come along, sir. I’ll get your bag. We have a car right outside—”
“Oh. That reminds me—I left my briefcase in the back. Could you bring that in for me, Trooper Valla? I’m going to see if I can find the keys to one of the pickup trucks here. You guys will be gone a while and I have to get back. If anyone asks, I’ll be along in a few minutes.” She engaged Nield with her eyes. “Basically, sir, it’s just that we need every vehicle we can get.”
He nodded, swallowing.
“Yes, Colonel.” Trooper Valla gave a slight inclination of the head, staying back a bit and watching as Broser removed Nield’s field restraints.
“I don’t like them bastards any more than you do.”
“That’s very wise, Mister Nield.”
What in the hell could anyone say to that?
The restraints were little more than electrical tie wraps, quickly cut with a very small set of side-cutters pulled from one of several belt pouches. Nield stood, rubbing his wrists with a rueful look. He was keeping his mouth shut with some force of effort, outflanked by the towering Broser and the more compact but equally-impressive Valla.
If all of her new command were that slick, she would be amazed.
In that briefcase was one Mark 46A satchel charge, with enough explosive power to seriously damage any structure, vehicle, air or spacecraft within a fifty to one hundred-metre radius.
Mister Nield’s helicopter, fully programmable for autonomous flight, was just one more asset, perhaps more disposable than most.
The best thing of all was that he would be expected—especially after he called the wife.
Hopefully he would stick to the suggested script, if not, it might reveal something.
If the Unfriendlies weren’t listening to every word of it, she would be very much surprised.
And if not, they had their radar systems up and hot.
(End of part seven.)
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Image One. Snipers in Ghillies.
Image Two. Confederation Office of Public Communications.
Image Three. COPC.
Image Four. COPC.
Image Five. Denebola-Seven Defence Force.
Image Six. COPC.
Image Seven. Collection of the author.
Thank you for reading.