“Grain trucks rolling through their position.”
Another voice came from the next row of battle-stations.
“Their concealment seems pretty good, Colonel. The video from the trucks isn’t always the best.” This was due to the low acuity required for a vehicle to navigate roads equipped with transponders, radar reflectors, and strong ferromagnetic lines painted on the road surface.
“We’ve stopped using the Proctor call-sign. No sense in telling the bad guys exactly what we’ve got.”
The cameras aboard the robo-trucks picked out moving objects for safety, although other forms of motion-detection were the primary element. Otherwise, they were more of a back-up option for remote human operators when things went wrong.
This particular trooper was monitoring the convoy, along with a short list of other lower-priority objectives. With plenty going on all around her and the big boards up front for all to see, there was no question of boredom.
“Okay, check the view from each one as they go through. Force H, are you getting this?”
“Roger that, Command. Over.”
It would be helpful if all or most of the trucks got through their ambush position before the enemy caught up with them.
The trooper beside her spoke again, in a musing tone.
“Honey—or vinegar.” That is but the question—
“Pardon me, Trooper?”
The kid blushed.
“Well. It’s just that I read your book, Colonel. That was a while back, but.”
Dona nodded thoughtfully—and the girl had given her a powerful reminder.
This was one of her students—Alyssa, an average student, one who had passed with some bare margin. She was in a class two or three years ago. Confederation troops were among the best-educated in the galaxy, and that was the private soldier—officers had nothing but constant learning curve.
She was beginning to understand just what that meant—it was a kind of revelation, in fact.
Even though she had been teaching it for years.
The last name would come to her in a minute.
You learn or you die.
It was as simple as that.
|A grain truck, capable of autonomous operations.|
The Unfriendlies were on the move.
The largest force, including what appeared to be a couple of companies of Guards, had some big flatbed trucks, with three medium tanks so far identified. There were utility vehicles big and small, and batteries of artillery, towed along with their ammunition trailers. There were air-defense and surface-to-surface rocket batteries. The column had been reinforced with detachments of engineers, mobile air defense weapons, and more than a dozen big truckloads of regular, conscript infantry. Packed in like sardines, there had to be four or five hundred of them. They were inbound on Highway 17, having broken off of Highway 3 at the crossroads, a hamlet marked on the map as Gossua. They were under careful observation from Teams Three and Four during the initial stages. The satellite had them the whole way, but that might not last forever.
No one had any idea of what language that was or what it might signify. Gossua, being too far forward and too exposed, in the midst of a wide valley, had been left undefended, with only a camera or two for road-junction surveillance. Coming and going, the cams were pointed both ways.
In order to suck the enemy forward, it hadn’t even been mined or booby-trapped. There were certain assets in place. The time to activate them was later.
There was a joke going around.
Twenty credits a day combat bonus sure sounds like a lot of money.
Until you realize it’s only ten days a year.
The enemy had divided their forces. First, when leaving Deneb City, which had to be defended in its own right, including the spaceport and all stores, supplies and installations.
They had just divided their forces again—going for two objectives at once. Possibly even three objectives, for they were also patrolling south and north of town…there was nothing to the west except a vast, undeveloped wilderness, and they apparently knew that too.
An Unfriendly Guards regiment was generally four or five companies of troops, one of which was a headquarters company. Since this did not require the same manpower as a rifle company, the headquarters company would have attached platoons of specialists such as transport and quartermaster. One such rifle company, reinforced with other units, was now headed for Walzbruch. That force had a proportionate share of additional formations except for tanks—those were still headed for Roussef. In terms of sheer numbers, considering that her forces were divided as well, she was outmanned two or three to one in the Walzbruch operation, and a little less than two to one in the Roussef operation. The enemy still had five thousand troops in Deneb.
This allowed quite a reserve, and as the situation developed, some of it would be deployed. For this reason, a number of force multipliers were going to be vital. Everyone knew the defense had certain advantages. One of the less obvious of those advantages was surprise, not always so easily attained by troops dug into prepared positions, and under constant enemy surveillance. She had deployed them as far forwards as possible, in order to maximize the opportunities for surprise. It was a gamble, but then war always was. It was believed that small units of professional troops could withdraw faster than their more unwieldy and arguably less-professional enemy, where essentially, it was only the higher ranks that had any formal training in the art and science of modern warfare. That’s not to say that the staff work wouldn’t be good.
But those orders and that plan had to be carried out by what were not the best troops and in fairly large numbers.
Troops that might very quickly become disillusioned by defeat, casualties, the sights, sounds and the cost of war. The enemy is always a sentient being—one of her better lines.
The second column, perhaps a reinforced company, all mobile including some lighter armoured vehicles, continued on to the east-north-east, clearly heading in the direction of Walzbruch. The first column was about twenty-five kilometres out of Deneb as the crow flew, and the other party, perhaps forty kilometres. Although the road had its deviations, Highway 3 was relatively straight, following the valleys as opposed to climbing constantly in heavy terrain, such as what had been dubbed the enemy’s Main Force faced on the battle map.
Highway Two, running from Walzbruch to Roussef, was a combination of the two types of terrain, although it crossed fewer valleys than Highway 17. Within this triangle, all action would take place—anything else was a dead end road, with the possibility of entrapping one’s forces if someone blew a bridge behind you. To some extent, Ryanville was the same, which was why she was re-supplying there as much as she dared strip resources from other places.
Climbing hills, seeking the easiest pass, meant a lot of turns and switch-backs. Highway 3 was different. There were many small hamlets and scattered farmsteads all over the place.
The ochre band of population density on the maps stretched twenty and thirty kilometres to each side of the highway.
The secondary force, Walzbruch Force, was in nowhere-land, with little but the occasional farmstead, and clusters of small buildings at the rare crossroads and intersections. To the south, were the desert wastes of the low-lands. This meant that most of the roads to the right faded out to nothing or died at the edge of the escarpment, whichever came first. One or two faint tracks descended through shallower gullies, petering out into dotted lines that basically went nowhere. At one time, people might have gathered salt out there. The longer things went on with that force, without meeting any enemy, the closer they got to Walzbruch, the less alert they would be.
There would be complacency at first, followed by a gradually-rising tension as they got closer.
They would hate every minute of it, and they would still be surprised when it happened. They knew Walzbruch had been occupied, and according to the Confederation satellite surveillance, a drone had scouted out as far ahead as possible, and yet still being able return to base on available fuel. This tended to confirm their earlier range estimates for the drone-craft.
With all of the Confederation forces in Walzbruch under concealment, keeping their heads down and signals traffic to a minimum, even by fibrenet, one had to wonder what, if anything, the Unfriendlies might have learned.
To their left, roughly north-north-east, the side-roads went further, and here and there along the way there were more concession roads at right angles; roughly parallel with the main highway.
By no means continuous, the short stretches of back road and the rectangular surveys meant that, combined with the usual tracks and trails, there were a few ways to outflank an enemy going in either direction. So far, the enemy had ignored the possibility. Rather than investigate, sending out patrols along the better side-roads, they appeared to be making time and speed as their first priority. They were keeping their force together. This would be a one-task type of force and it would ignore anything but the most provocative target if they were going by the book.
It was true—she’d read a few of their books too.
The enemy’s Walzbruch Force appeared to be making sixty or so kilometres an hour. They slowed down and approached the major intersections more cautiously before racing on. They also stopped for breaks, meals and reconnaissance of major crossroads, using small patrol vehicles to scout ahead. They never went more than a kilometre or two on the side-roads.
They would pause at the first major intersection, perhaps fearing being cut off by light forces or even the locals...a quick report, and they would turn around and go back. Not very impressive, but it was a small force to begin with.
All by the numbers, and predictable in some ways. There was very little civilian traffic. The Unfriendlies, upon coming upon civilian vehicles, invariably stopped and questioned them. So far, no one had been detained as far as could be determined. However, after such encounters, the civilians appeared to be going straight to their home or farm or business—and not so eager to talk about it on the phone, although mentions were made of it. Hopefully, at some point, someone would activate a burner phone, walk up into the hills and talk to the Confederation directly. After that, it would be wise not to come home for a few days, as the Unfriendlies would be listening in—just as the Confederation was. As it was, data was fed into the system, building up a picture of what was going on down there, one that meshed with what was known from satellite and other sources.
It was unfortunate, but there were no cameras along this stretch and so it was all second-hand in a way.
Main Force, confronted by that washboard terrain, was also making pretty good time. They were fifteen kilometres out from the first of several villages. Crossroads where the highway intersected with semi-surfaced and improved gravel highways were common along the main, paved road, which linked the two biggest towns on Deneb, with 17 cutting through the most populated area of the planet. This wasn’t saying much.
The village, with a rocky little river meandering through it, weaving its S-bends on each side of the main street as it drained off to the southwest, gave the place a quaint charm in the street-views. She studied the situation.
The force under Captain Herzon were on the heights behind, overlooking the village of Kirk’s Falls, population about thirteen hundred according to the sign.
Again, there were side roads and trails leading off the secondary roads. These were mostly running northwest and southeast, following some original survey that, one day, might be properly filled in. The population was scattered along the side-roads, not quite as dense as along the main highway. There were farmsteads and ranches and small trading-posts—they could hardly be called stores in many cases, at crossroads and intersections where the structures and even a few side-streets seemed denser, according to the satellite map.
The best road on the planet, Highway 17, was the most winding, as the road-builders had sought to find the easiest gradient, not necessarily always in a straight line in such hilly country.
There was a third threat on the battle-board, one that seemed much more subtle. Several large parties, equipped with light vehicles and weapons, had departed from Deneb City using the better gravel roads leading northwest and northeast into the bush. As near as anyone could determine, that original survey must have used the escarpment above the Great Sandy Desert as a baseline.
The public roads really didn’t extend that far, at which point the parties had broken up, exploring their own individual tracks.
There was, unfortunately, a maze of logging and prospecting trails. The trees were tall and thick, and still partly in leaf, providing some cover from surveillance. There were clumps of Terran conifers which were evergreen. They might be fighting patrols, hoping to make contact with the enemy. The odds were, the enemy would push them out as far as possible, in order to detect and spoil an attack from the flank, or perhaps to provide a counterforce in the event of surprise. Her own people were engaged on exactly the same task, and if they lost sight of the enemy from above, there was a very good chance they would run into each other—hopefully not without sufficient warning to the Confederation troops.
For that reason, satellite and drone surveillance were absolutely vital. Enemy troops on the ground, on foot and hearing or spotting a drone before it spotted them, would immediately know something was up—this worked both ways, of course.
Are we expected? Or is there somebody else out here? These were only two of the most obvious questions. So Dona was holding back on drone flights south of Roussef, unless the track was dead straight and obviously heading for Deneb.
They could fake it, making a quick pass over the enemy, but only so often—otherwise, it would be a dead giveaway that the drones were out looking for something specific. They were limited to four or five passes a day, no more. It was better not to use the same machine twice if they could help it. If the Unfriendlies had cracked the Confederation’s IFF, it would look more random, and it might tend to exaggerate in the minds of the enemy, the number of drones actually available.
As far as the situation in Deneb City went, enemy patrols were scouring the countryside in all directions, paying particular attention to a series of small outliers, hills two or three kilometres to the southeast and southwest of town. The ridges flanked the flats where the actual city and the spaceport were located. If the series of small ridges were outliers of the highlands, the wide, arid valley of Deneb City was an outlier of the desert…the Deneb River coming down out of the hills, right through the centre of town. Then it petered out into a vast salt marsh with no outlet. Only south of that was the spaceport located, on hard ground in the desert proper, the access road skirting the east side of the marsh just below the biggest of their hills and the one where Team Two was hidden.
The satellite had watched the Unfriendly patrols depart, tiny dots flaring with the infrared, and in the time elapsed they couldn’t have gotten too far—three to five kilometres, tops.
They had figured out where the Barkers had been firing from, at least in the general sense.
They knew the direction, and might have had a pretty good idea of the range—multiple hits imparted a certain kind of information.
Sensors aboard ship would have noted the impacts, and combined with all the navigational and landing-positioning data, they must have had some kind of handle on it. The latest in micro-band radar might have picked up the slugs in flight. They had zero information as to whether the Boer-class ships had such a system.
The fire-teams in Deneb, holed up in the tops of half-empty office blocks, were sitting tight and awaiting developments. At this point, the enemy was still some distance away from the other teams—the satellite was still catching glimpses of the enemy patrols from time to time, but the higher the elevations, the thicker the brush in that ecosystem. Vehicles could only take them so far, after that it was all on foot.
In that terrain, there was map distance, and then there was vertical distance. The actual distance was a combination of the two.
Reading the enemy’s mind, they would try to make contact with the two known fire-teams, and then call in the big guns or missiles. They were well within range of the space-port, where there were batteries positioned and presumably ready. Some of the enemy’s long guns were capable of a range of up to thirty or forty thousand metres, and even smart-shells were relatively cheap.
Where the enemy had a few tanks, a couple of drones and helicopters, a handful of missile batteries, their artillery would be well-supplied with rounds of all types. Both of their mobile columns were well-equipped with towed artillery.
(End of part fifteen.)
Image One. Private collection.
Image Two. Confederation Public Communications Office.
Image Three. CPCO.
Image Five. Denebola-Seven Chamber of Commerce.
Image Six. CPCO.
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