The second ambush on Highway 17 had gone very well, with an estimated four Unfriendlies killed and another eight or ten lightly wounded. They had lost at least one vehicle going by the column of rising black smoke. The Unfriendlies, perhaps unsure of the road behind, were still bringing the dead and wounded along with them. A smaller, follow-up column was still thirty kilometres behind. This appeared to be a company of service troops, fuel trucks, along with some small fighting vehicles. This would be dealt with shortly by a stay-behind party.
It had taken the enemy a good hour to get going again, and they were definitely cruising along at a much slower pace.
Nine kilometres after that, just before darkness fell, came the pièce de resistance. This was an unmanned, fully automatic ambush carried out by a single 100-MW laser cannon. This was a cheap, black-market unit and disposable under the circumstances. In the darkness, the fire from it looked pretty spectacular. It would be so much worse to experience that in person. It would fire until its batteries were depleted. It could recharge under solar power, but likely wouldn’t get the chance. Two trucks were burning, the victims of direct hits. The enemy column had been halted, this time on the flats between towering ridgelines, and with pure muskeg on both sides of the causeway. A dozen or so Unfriendly infantrymen had jumped in there to the left and right, in the initial moment of fear and panic. Now, mired to the waist, they lay forward on their stomachs, chins right in the muck. Sheltered by nothing but hummocks of wet grass, they were firing intermittently at targets they could not possibly see in the gathering gloom. The Confederation mortars began firing, a pair of light machine guns began traversing, and there was nowhere for the enemy to go except backwards and forwards, desperately trying to escape, and to locate the source of fire and to engage it.
Not unexpectedly, they tried to do both, with forward elements going into the attack, large numbers of troops simply sheltering beside and under their vehicles, and those with heavier weapons laying down a curtain of fire along the distant hillsides. It was dark and misty in the evening light, but clearly where their enemy was located. A good number of vehicles at the rear of the column were desperately trying to back up. The results were predictable considering their hurry. A flurry of radio activity had been logged and retransmitted, and it was being analyzed.
Enough data, enough chatter, and they might even crack some of it. After a few last shots, the laser cannon fell silent, and the enemy was still blazing away.
The enemy was desperate to come to grips with an opponent.
If only—if only there had been anyone there. If only they weren’t flash-blinded…half-trained and scared shitless. Covered in muck and filth and wondering about those mines…as if on cue, a big one went up, unfortunately between a couple of trucks, nevertheless, they would have some damage at least. More dead people—
Anyone unlucky enough to be laying right on top of that would have been vaporized in a cloud of pink mist.
It was another time-sucking interval, nothing more. And now it was fully dark. They’d been hit by surprise three times so far. They would know all about the Walzbruch operations. It was best to stop and most likely, to consult. Patrolling in the dark took roughly twice or even three times the time of patrolling in daylight. It wasn’t too hard to read their minds on such a simple, technical operation.
Things grew quieter, although some of the enemy troops were still popping off rounds.
Time went by as they watched.
The Confederation had sacrificed a few weapons, for now the Unfriendlies were taking the time to regroup, patrol, find the weapons’ locations, and ultimately, to destroy them in place using sappers and satchel-charges, shaped charges, plastiques and the like. What was interesting, was that they didn’t seem to have located the laser cannon…to deliberately overlook it seemed a little too devious, and to what purpose? The Confederation troops knew where it was, and they had the codes to control it as well. The machine was fully autonomous.
It had a good-sized dataset attuned to this particular mission environment, and in general, this model of laser-cannon had a good reputation as far as not firing on non-combatants. No, they’d just plain missed it, the heat signatures of enemy troops coming within ten or twelve metres of it on their satellite views.
No audio, no video—just heat signatures.
It almost smelled of cowardice, something she hadn’t thought them capable of. Both of the planet’s two bright but tiny moons were down low, obscured by hills and trees, and visibility must have been pretty poor…but.
That laser-cannon must have still been warm—a fact quickly confirmed in the satellite view, and she wondered just how bad the Unfriendly troops would have to be to have missed it.
This all took time, of course. With cameras scattered all over the place, shitty little cams but with capability in the infrared, Dona and the troops in the Command Centre watched it all happen in real time. It was still fragmentary.
They’d been presented with some good shots, some good opportunities to fire upon the unsuspecting troops. The Confederation could afford to lose a couple of machine guns and mortar tubes. But. The enemy would remain unsuspecting a little longer—anything that looked like an ace in the hole was being carefully conserved. If the enemy didn’t find it, let it lay for a while—
Her troops had held fire just as ordered and that was reassuring.
The enemy drone still patrolled, scouring the vicinity. Finding no warm bodies or vehicles and weapons, other than the small selection laid out for them, it eventually turned away to return to base. Onscreen, its relief machine was just arriving on-scene. Without auxiliary tanks, they were only good for about four and a half hours or so it appeared.
Their own drones were out there too, of course.
If there was an enemy satellite up there, they must have a pretty good handle on the drone base by now—but so far, nothing. They should have a good handle on pretty much everything, but apparently they didn’t.
And by tomorrow morning, the Confederation drone centre would be somewhere else.
It was all a question of timing.
And luck—a bit of luck would be helpful.
“Is that thing ready to go yet?”
“Just a minute, Corporal.”
The trooper, a slight young woman named Wilson, tapped away on the small mechanical keyboard, plugged into a jack on the dog’s neck. This avoided the light show of the virtual keyboards, and the need for other mechanical display systems was obviated by the goggs. It was a forest, at night, and the strong blue light of the typical monitor was a dead giveaway.
There was no time to dig bunkers—it wasn’t going to be that kind of engagement.
It wasn’t really a dog, it was an autonomous weapons system. Its job was to range far ahead of their force, now on foot with the vehicles abandoned high in the hills behind, roughly at the end of any manageable road or track. The vehicles had been backed in under tight, dark conifers, camo-netted and covered with a few stray leaves and branches. Big ruts and tracks had been obscured for some distance, not that it would fool anyone for long—not once any sort of track was discovered. It was the very nature of the country, in that there were mysterious vehicle, game and native foot-tracks all over the place. The footprints of the Denebi were distinctive, that was for sure, little wedge-shaped marks vaguely reminiscent of cuneiform text as he remembered it from magazines and documentaries. The upland soil was thin and infertile, and once disturbed, the marks of a vehicle passage stayed for a long time.
They’d investigated a few themselves, before giving it up as a bad job. They were leaving good trails ahead of them in the case of retreat, and by the time the enemy got there on foot, theoretically the Confederation troops could be long gone—
If they had sufficient notice.
With luck and good information on that enemy force, small units dispersed and moving stealthily as they undoubtedly were, they could at least run for it. They would know exactly where to go to get to their vehicles. For most of the way, the tracks and trails were under the trees, and therefore difficult to detect or interdict. They would make their way individually in a worst-case scenario.
The enemy would have to use raw tracking techniques. Some of it would be by drone or other portable systems, and some of it by good old foot-slogging, all of it through unknown country.
The likelihood of ambush, mines and booby-traps would be foremost in their minds. So far, no one was really sure about that enemy satellite. This was definitely troubling.
There were enemy patrols out there, fairly strong, and according to satellite data, within ten kilometres of their own position. That was six miles back home, the quick and habitual mental calculation instinctive and instantaneous. The corporal had grown up in another time and place…under the proper conditions, you could hear an axe ringing at that distance, or even dogs barking or people singing.
“Okay. There we go.”
The corporal nodded.
“What do you do next?” Anna was the thing’s handler and programmer, and he’d specialized in other areas.
“So. Who’s a good doggie?”
The head swiveled around on silent gimbals and the dark orbs that were its visual sensors regarded her, reserving one quick and baleful look for the corporal. What was really sneaky was that there was an eyeball-camera on the back end as well. The thing stuck its nose in her hand, to all appearances giving her a good sniff. The so-called head came up. An artificial tongue, pink and wet, darted out and slapped her right in the eyes.
Artificial intelligence, and scary as hell to look at—it was unfortunate, but the Unfriendlies probably wouldn’t even see it coming.
She smiled, patted the thing on the head and then it put its head down, nose close to the dirt, and with a curious gait, enough to make one’s hair stand on end, faded quickly into the underbrush. It was a big, heavy machine, and the dainty way it had with its rubber-padded paws was downright unnerving. It was a machine, all joints and rivets and screws, cables and such, and yet it was somehow alive.
The big dog was on the loose and there were more like that standing guard duty in a thin picket line a good thousand metres out in front. This one was programmed for a longer patrol.
If necessary, or if a really good target presented itself, it would be sacrificed in an attack.
How the girl felt about that was none of his business. She would do it, and that was all he cared.
Hopefully, his people would be able to sleep now, as tomorrow, it looked like being a big day.
He keyed his microphone.
“Okay, boys and girls. We sleep in shifts. Also, we stand to at dawn—just as a precaution.”
The Confederation Force Z was composed of small patrols, sniper teams and reconnaissance teams. While it was important to keep track of each other and their progress, they were spread necessarily thin, which made an accidental engagement with friendly troops less likely. With everyone carrying a minimum of thirty kilos, plus weapons and heavy clothing, they could only go so fast. The big dogs had helped with the load, but when the machines were up forward patrolling, someone else had to carry it. The only consolation was that food was being consumed (at an alarming rate in some opinions). The loads were getting two to three kilograms lighter every day as rations were consumed, mines and boobies laid, cameras and vibration sensors deployed to watch their back trail.
The terrain was pretty rough, but simply following tracks and trails was too easy—too easy to be ambushed and so they were following the best cover. They were following terrain lines on hillsides, skirting anything that looked like a lake, a swamp, a pond, or any open ground of which there was definitely some. Valley bottoms were, by definition, overlooked by high ground. It couldn’t always be done in such country and so it was best to cross such ground at the narrowest possible point. If it was choked with vegetation, so much the better. Better than prairie, no matter how long the grass. Open ground, acidic soil and very wet, was, as often as not, a kind of muskeg. It was best to avoid it in any case, whether in peace or in war. This made progress slow.
The temperature was above zero at night, still going up to five, or even ten or fifteen degrees in the heat of the day. With the surprising heat of the previous few days, it was downright mild.
Feet were always wet and there was always moisture in the usual places inside the battle clothing. It was a hell of a lot of walking. People tired quickly under such conditions. After a couple of days, people forgot what home and civilization looked like to some extent, although everyone remembered what a bed was, as the joke went. They all spent at least some time in talking about it, when they could talk at all. A couple of more days and they’d be snapping at each other over what was essentially nothing.
Corporal Twon’s challenge was to get them into contact with the enemy, with enough poop left in them, to do the job and to get away. Any withdrawal would be a scramble. This was true no matter how well prepared they were—presumably, the enemy would be as equally well prepared to advance at all speed once they saw any kind of an opportunity. In the last resort, they could execute a fishhook maneuver and simply go to ground—they might get a bit hungry, but the enemy would simply blunder onwards, looking for a trail that was no longer there.
The real challenge was to locate the enemy, to see them before they saw you, and to hit them right in the mouth if possible. In the face of a superior force, it might be better to withdraw or go to ground undetected if that was called for. There was the unexpected to contend with.
When they were walking along, and a big game animal started up from sleeping under a bush and crashed off into the wilderness, it took real discipline not to shoot and some little time for the pulse to slow down again. Civilians thrashing about in the brush on a hunting or fishing trip, a bunch of old women gathering roots and berries, or the natives, might cause some real trigger itch and it was best to avoid such incidents…
Someone said it was a bear, with a quick burst of resulting chatter which he quickly stifled.
The big-dog weapons system was really something, hopefully it would give them enough of an edge. Equipped with IFF, slaved by laser to the satellite, it was also equipped with both long and short range radio. It was capable of laying fibre-cable when called for. No such signals had been detected from over there—just on the other side of that one big hill.
There were all kinds of animal noises, bug-like creatures and the noisy, warbling little flyers.
Small animals, startled by its appearance, scuttled away through the underbrush. They watched in amusement, as one abruptly squeaked and pelted up the nearest tree, pausing on a branch to scold the machine with a staccato chatter. A six-legged squirrel, essentially, living on nuts and berries or whatever and filling a similar ecological niche. With an extensive planetary database to work with, the system isolated, filtered and identified as many sounds as possible.
This left the working memory part of the system free to focus on what might be alien noises—alien signals, people and their technology, their chemistry, their plastics and their metals, and all of the infernal machinations that humankind was capable of. Among other things, it was sniffing for the typical outgassing, that new-car smell of just-out-of-the-box manufactured goods. Every little thing would have its own little plastic baggie, every bit of steel or other metal in terms of personal weapons, might be greased for long term storage, before leaving the factory, and every little bomb had its chemical primer. In a perfect world, those would all be fresh from the makers or some distributions-warehouse where it would have been stewed in a thousand such smells.
Low to the ground, the robot dog trotted confidently along, fairly quietly as its paws were composed of soft rubber and the four articulated legs had good shock-absorbing capability. With its relatively good vision, necessary for rapid travel in all kinds of terrain including indoors, stairs, even ladders, it could avoid snapping too many twigs or breaking off branches in passage.
Like its biological counterpart, the stock models weren’t much good at climbing trees, although there were special versions capable of just that feat.
Human operators saw what it saw, heard what it heard and in some analogous fashion, smelled what it smelled. With the ability to deploy sensors and cameras of its own, it covered a big swath of territory.
The big dog had traversed two big hills and the intervening valley, and now it was climbing down the far side of the second hill. Sea level didn’t mean much when the planet only had a couple of small saltwater oceans, completely landlocked. Those were thousands of kilometres away. There were a few smaller seas, and all kinds of lakes in the highlands, pretty much all at different elevations. In some nominal terms, this hill was a good six hundred metres tall, based on its adjacent valleys. It also had an official, civil elevation which was roughly thirteen hundred and fifty metres ‘above sea level’. Thick, old-growth trees blocked out the light and a dense understory made forward and downward vision difficult. The thing had gotten a good seven kilometres out in front, even as they eased forward another half a kilometre to get a good view from just over the brow of the ridge. Here the trees were thinner and they had crawled the last forty metres in long, and very wet grass or its Denebolan equivalent.
“Good dog. Sit.” The trooper peered through the VR goggles, almost becoming a part of the animal in what was a pretty old joke, but there was nothing out there.
The machine had detected anomalous sounds, coming from straight ahead at an unknown range.
It had moved laterally fifty metres, without catching another whiff, which would have allowed triangulation and given them the range with a degree of accuracy. It would just sit there for a while, or as long as necessary.
With the sound of its own progress gone, the dog, its camouflage blending into the shadows, would sit and wait for something more definite in terms of sound. So far, its olfactory system hadn’t detected anything over threshold levels of plastics, aromatics, in the typical stink of manufactured, high-tech goods against a background that was still pretty pristine in terms of the planet’s physical environment. The wind was strong from the northwest and the sounds had been from the southwest. Denebola-Seven had only been inhabited for about two hundred and fifty years, it was all modern technology, and there weren’t many people to begin with, which meant the air was very clean indeed.
The low-frequency vibration detectors in the thing’s belly and forepaws were getting nothing.
“What do you think?” The corporal was right there in her ear.
“I don’t know. That thing is smart—that’s for sure. It even understands English. Sorry, bad joke. But. We’ve got to be getting close by now.”
According to satellite and drone data, the enemy was still moving forwards. If the team could get to the right place at the right time, they might be able to get in a flanking ambush position.
The corporal nodded. What they needed was a definite sighting, a positive identification. Lost to sight by the satellite, his own instincts told him they had to be out there, and coming this way if the terrain and the enemy’s only possible target said anything. They weren’t exactly making a beeline for Roussef, but they weren’t going to make the walk any longer than they had to, either.
To go fifty or a hundred kilometres into the bush and then just squat there didn’t make much sense.
There was a notch in amongst the tall surrounding hills, no question about it, and the gorge created by some un-named tributary stream was passable going by historical information.
This was exactly the sort of information the enemy would be relying on—going by the previous satellite data, they were heading this way. That was all he knew.
His people were on the southeast rim of aforesaid gorge, the trees down below interspersed with boulder-gardens, sandy patches and noisy, noisy white-water. They’d been lucky to beat the enemy by about twenty minutes, which was more than enough time. More than enough—
Chewing a loose piece of skin from his right lower lip as he thought it out, Corporal Twon was prepared to take it from there. He’d put his girls up against their boys any day of the week.
Any time, any place. The six of them, fifteen of the enemy.
And this was a good place—a very good place.
(End of part twenty.)
|Yeah. I got all kinds of books and stories.|
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Image Four. CPCO.
Image Five. CPCO.
Image Six. Denebola-Seven Defense Force.
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