“Colonel. Report from Team Three. Deneb City.”
Team Three—she had allowed them to slip to the back of her mind.
“Looks like another column forming up.”
Pictures came up on a large screen in front of the hot-seat. With a casual hand motion, she let Trooper Harvey sit a little longer.
Sure enough, one of their scattered cameras had zoomed in to a scene in the industrial part of town. The largest of several industrial areas, it was located on the east road leading out of Deneb City. There were plenty of wide-open spaces, a lot of parking lots and undeveloped land. The area was strewn with warehouses, vehicle loading-docks, industrial plants and production facilities, as well as the smaller, spin-off operations necessary to all such environments.
They must have been using the larger buildings for storage and keeping the vehicles out of sight.
As they knew from civilian reports as well as their own observation, the troops were dispersed, having been billeted in hotels all over town. The Unfriendlies had grabbed up a fair amount of unlet commercial space. There were also some more temporary quarters, which included rows of cots and portable office partitions.
City buses had been commandeered, leaving the minimum to carry on with the more normal, civilian operations, leaving the local bus schedule severely curtailed.
There were hundreds, maybe a couple of thousand Unfriendlies housed inside of hangars out at the spaceport. Certain units of these troops and some smaller contingents had been trucked and bussed to the present location. That made sense—they wouldn’t be staying, so why assign them to an expensive hotel room in the centre of town?
This was in the northeastern quadrant of the city, a few blocks from the highway and attendant access ramps.
There were still kit-bags on the ground. Weapons were slung in reverse, no magazine, upside down and with bright orange plastic caps still on the muzzles. Troops milled around, looking a lot like kids on a class trip in some cases. She watched, they all watched, as some dumbkoft kid almost skipped, going from one little gaggle to another. It was all just a big adventure to that one…one big fucking party all the way, maybe.
From the plumes of smoke, the engines had just been started up as people at the back end slung bags and boxes into the big six-by-six trucks.
“Activate Mongoose One, please.”
“With pleasure, Colonel.” Harvey had quickly become her boy.
They were on the same shift, and he had actual combat experience. Face-to-face, bullet to bullet, and not just in a control room. Unlike a lot of them.
There was some humorous tone in the voice that pretty much said it all.
Mongoose One, a rocket battery in the hills above Deneb City, would be auto-loaded with high-explosive and anti-personnel rockets.
“Mongoose One, she is hot. She’s ready, all she needs are the coordinates…” Harvey tapped his keys and possibly being a bit short-sighted, pulled up the goggs and leaned in to his hard-screen to make sure there had been no errors. “Looks good, Colonel.”
“Fire at will, Trooper.”
“Launching now, Colonel.” There was the distinctive ‘boink’ noise as he keyed it.
Mongoose One fired three heavy rockets, and then the tubes were immediately re-loaded and awaiting further orders. “Buh-bye, motherfuckers.”
Three little orange carets appeared onscreen…tracking onwards.
There were one or two grins in the background…a head in the front row turned to look.
She gave him a sharp glance and he reddened, not meeting her eyes but.
The kid had definitely caught it.
If she didn’t shut them down once in a while, they’d all be doing it. It was easy to be the cool, comic type when you were winning. They needed to keep the channels clear, and there were all kinds of justification if she needed it—which she didn’t. You could not defeat the enemy if you could not control your own people, in the simplest possible of terms.
Fire teams in the city were in on the loop, as was anyone else who cared to watch. Gawkers had strict orders to keep their mouths shut on the circuits if they weren’t directly involved in a situation. Yet it was also good if people paid attention, and if everyone was fully up-to-date when they did get an order. It helped them to understand the nature of their present employments, and for some that would inevitably mean digging latrines and setting up OPs and roadblocks, and moving around piles of boxes and crates in warehouses.
There were orders to keep out unless one had actual business in the Command Centre.
“Ten seconds to impact.” He glanced over, with that funny little smirk back in place.
There was no keeping this one down—
The missiles were bang-on, as far as anyone could tell.
The shock waves made instantaneous, expanding bubbles visible for the briefest of moments.
There were silent flashes. It took some time for the smoke to clear. Such detonations lifted every bit of dust, every pebble, every piece of crap on the ground. Small flocks of birds inevitably rose in a panic, taking some time to settle down again…good old pigeons, wings beating away, in their white and grey liveries, quite surreal in terms of its visual effect against the dull, smoky background.
It was a bit anti-climactic, in that the vehicles, for the most part, were all still lined up in three or four rows. There were wisps of smoke and steam all over. For the most part, the soldiers were still just lying there, although some were getting up. The fastest-moving ones were probably lightly wounded…they’d be in a hurry to get help and were at least still able to do so. Someone was dragging a buddy up off the ground. That one was hit bad. You could just tell, from the impression of dead weight and that hanging head. Her guts clenched and her heart sped up. There was always going to be that emotional wrench, having killed someone on the telly, as a colleague had once told her.
The thing was, to remember to breathe properly and to try to sit or stand up straight. To maintain that mental calmness…a kind of editorial detachment. You had to accept responsibility.
There was no denial and that somehow made it better…somehow easier to live with.
Or so the theory went.
There was one big fire where a fuel truck had been located, still identifiable by its shape and bulk.
So far, no one was fighting the fire, although there were desperate figures running, pissy little fire-extinguishers in their hands…sirens would be going off in the background by now.
Someone was dragging out a hose and struggling with the hydrant. No wrench—no wrench.
Some of them went to ground, crawling under the vehicles, knowing there could be more missiles. One or two just kept running towards the open warehouse doors. Two large trucks smouldered, and there was some other smoke or steam coming from a pair of small scout cars far enough across the open space that it must have been from a different rocket impact, armour-piercing projectiles coming down from above. There were bodies, difficult to identify with any certainty with all the other junk, equipment and yes, plenty of debris scattered about down there as Harvey zoomed in closer.
“Hold fire, Trooper.”
With the enemy drones way out at the end of their tethers, scouring the roads ahead of the Unfriendly columns, it would take some time for the Unfriendlies to figure out what had just happened, and with the barest of information, hopefully longer to locate the source. With good camera and satellite surveillance of the launch site, the Confederation could put their short-range, battlefield missiles down anywhere within a hundred-kilometre radius. Long before anyone got close enough to attempt neutralizing the battery by road or by foot. With counter-battery fire, it might be destroyed—but it would still get off a few shots of its own, and not a single Confederation soldier was at risk. It was just money, in some odd sense.
Money well spent.
“Estimated casualties, twenty-five, ten killed and fifteen wounded. Fifty percent of those injured will be seriously. We clearly have three to five vehicles damaged or destroyed, and probably another dozen holed. Whether that holds them up for very long, is unknown.” He looked over. “We’ll see in a minute though.”
“What would you do, Trooper Harvey?”
“If they’re going to do this, then they really ought to get those people out of there.”
He thought for a second.
“Of course, that was before they knew about the Mongoose. Still, I’d like to know what the hell else they could do.”
“True. Very true.” The enemy, canceling the plan, could disperse in town, and the Confederation could still hit their billets.
The gears would be turning over in their heads, and that was a certainty. They’d be counting missiles just as she was.
Three for you, and three for me—
How many more have you got?
When they got out on the road, they could keep a lot of distance between vehicles, which opened them up to attack by lighter forces, ambush parties and the like, even as it made missile strikes more difficult. A tough compromise, with a tendency to drive as quickly as possible…making surprise by ground-level ambush even easier.
People were trying to get damaged and undamaged vehicles away from the biggest fires.
There were clearly NCOs, grabbing people, taking charge, and organizing things down there.
His instincts were pretty good. This was confirmed within ten minutes as the first of the enemy column, the scene still blazing in the background, zoomed out of the gates and got out on the highway heading for the road connection where Highway Seventeen headed off towards Walzbruch and Roussef. That was the thing about superior numbers, there were always more where that came from…the Unfriendlies would be much more open to taking a few casualties.
“Choppers in the air.” They watched as the pair of helos headed north over the city. “They’ll be looking for that launch site.”
It was difficult to see what else it might be, but they didn’t launch without some kind of a purpose.
Harvey looked over.
“I wonder if anyone’s aboard.”
“Let’s hope so, trooper.” Especially with a pair of defensive Sky-Cats at the Mongoose One site, set on full auto, just waiting on their trailers for a target to appear.
The odds were the helos were being piloted from the ground, but one never knew—one just never knew. On the ground, they couldn’t watch everything at once. From space, there was a huge amount of information to digest, although points of interest had been marked. Deneb City was just too big a target. The space-borne cameras saw everything of course, but she only had so many people to look at the pictures. Software could only accurately analyze so much, so fast.
Fuck. There was only so much time in the day—only so much bandwidth in any system.
So far, it had been one hell of a busy day and it wasn’t even noon yet. If only her stomach would loosen up. If only she could get a proper sleep.
She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a proper bowel movement. It was all black, grape-sized marbles lately. She just hadn’t been eating enough.
If only someone would say something funny.
“Good work, Harvey.”
“We aim too, please, Ma’am.” An old bathroom joke—adapted.
“As long as you remember to put the seat down.” That’s all I care.
This time she let them have their little snickers.
The Unfriendlies on Highway 17 had been doing some thinking. When dawn broke, their feverish activity of the night before was fully revealed to satellite and drone reconnaissance.
The nearest camera was two kilometres up the road, with intervening hills in the way.
They’d set up a battery of their big guns. There were nine guns in total. With a few small patrol vehicles and at least a platoon of infantry, one or two light machine-gun nests for defense, they were clearly intended to support the Unfriendly advance up the road. With their range, they could soak any hillside, any cut or gap, any location that looked likely to provide an ambush position to the Confederation troops. With this terrain, they’d be firing at a high angle, which reduced the potential range somewhat, in order to drop things down on people’s heads most effectively. Call it twenty thousand metres, twenty-k, and that was just a guess.
This implied rapid movement of the battery at fairly short intervals. This meant another target to track, and another set of opportunities for surprise. If nothing else, the forward column would pause when they ran out of range and they had to move the guns forward. Beautiful.
Another whole set of delays. McMurdo and his staff would be attempting to surprise the Confederation. This was merely one more example of their thinking…in that sense, it was fairly conventional.
The thing with firebases was their vulnerability—
It was another small division of forces.
The column, minus a few trucks and trailers, moved out about eight a.m., giving a fresh drone time to come up from Deneb City. Dona and others had wondered when they would think to set up an advanced base for drones—there were long stretches of relatively straight road, with one or two small buildings and sheds handy, more than sufficient to handle a drone or two and a flight crew, some small security detail. Hanging weapons and bombs on a drone sapped the range, and the Unfriendly drones already appeared to be working at their maximum range in the case of the Walzbruch operation.
As for the Confederation, they’d noted a few good places along the way, and if the opportunity arose, Dona intended to do just that. The difference was that the Confederation had the support of the locals, whereas the Unfriendlies clearly knew they did not. The very small team required for the Unfriendlies to operate a drone or two would be expensive in that it would take at least a platoon, better yet, a couple of platoons, to protect them.
The Confederation already had a drone base set up forty kilometres up the road to Ryanville. It had its own air defense battery, and about a dozen troops involved in the whole operation. With the days getting shorter, transit times would be reduced to a minimum. With the days getting shorter, the Unfriendlies would be trying to jam as much into a day as they could, assuming a preference for day-time operations. Even so, sooner or later they might try a night assault. With little going on at night, the enemy night-time drone operations had been relatively routine, basically just keeping the thing up there and watching over their formations as they slept. Since the Confederation wasn’t attacking, there really hadn’t been much to see.
Certainly the Guards were capable of night-time operations, even if the conscripts weren’t.
This was just outside the range of heavy artillery in Roussef or more likely the road junction where Highway 2 from Walzbruch met Highway 17 coming up from Deneb City. This position seemed the more logical. The junction was a few kilometres out of town to the east, connected by what was called the Walzbruch Line.
Dona became aware of the voice with a bit of a start. Had she been asleep? Oh, shit.
“What’s up, Trooper?”
The young woman, one of several dedicated to watching the drone and satellite feeds, was looking at her, goggs up on her forehead.
“They’re loading the guns at Point B.” This was their name for the overnight bivouac area used by the Unfriendlies on the road to Roussef.
As long as they were setting up a firebase, why not land a drone there? But there was more to it, of course. The artillery position would undoubtedly be moving on, always trying to be in a position to support the Unfriendly column. As forces converged on the way up from Walzbruch as well, at some point they would be in position to support either force or both at once. This might have been in the enemy’s original plan, it probably was in fact.
“Somebody’s in for it.”
She ignored the comment and the murmur that went through the room, with an undertone of calm humour evident. They were still confident—and confidence was everything.
The column ground its way up the first hill, and down the other side. The Confederation, not anticipating their sudden halt, had been unable to return. To get too close was to risk sonic or even detection by the good old human ear, assuming the enemy had thrown out patrols in a simple security measure.
The red dots on the satellite view didn’t lie, they had gone at least three kilometres up the road and up to a half or three-quarters of a kilometre into the bush before apparently deciding there were no threats in the vicinity. The truth was, there weren’t. They’d kept a line of pickets out three hundred metres, all night long, in a thin perimeter. The ground was good there, fairly level and open fields, with no impassable swamps for an enemy to hide in. Enemy troops had apparently searched several nearby farmhouses.
Finding nothing, they had left the civvies unmolested. Still playing nice with the locals for the most part.
The next hill was right there, and the enemy column, with Roussef still a good hundred kilometres up the road, seemed to be speeding along pretty well. At the top of the next hill, they halted. Ahead, a small bridge had been taken out over another small creek, and they could probably see that from there, if the drone hadn’t already…time to bring up the engineers again.
There was a brief pause, and then the guns fired, instantly detectable from high in space and visibly through the camera of Drone One, operating from its new base up the road.
The third hilltop exploded in fire and smoke. There were a total of maybe twenty rounds fired.
They would be firing by coordinates, at this short range, at a high angle. With no targets on site, and consequently no real feedback, the smart-rounds would fall more or less as predicted…and no good pictures would be coming back. Reconnaissance-by-fire.
Getting no results and no response, the Unfriendly column, commanded by a person identified as a Colonel Joseph Smith and with supporting elements under Major Hubbard, dashed across the valley.
Pulling off the road, they waited with guns elevated. Truckloads of men and equipment. They watched in fascination, assessing the enemy’s ability. Literally, timing it, just how long it took for them to build a small bridge. They had a small bulldozer, driven down off a hauler, and the bridgework was sectional. More brawn than brains to set that one up…a few had plunged into the waters, swimming across to work the other bank. There must have been a hundred men swarming all over it, for a creek that was barely ten metres wide at water level, although the gully itself was substantial.
After forty minutes or so, with people still working on the bridge, the first of the enemy column was climbing up the other side and pausing again. The next valley was about two kilometres wide, all choked with brush and cut by winding streams, with a few small meadows along the roadside…there was a house and a barn, presumably one small homesteader and his family…a couple of vehicles out front. And nothing.
Zooming in, there was the impression of moving objects in the front yard…was it possible that those would be chickens? Geese, or goats, or something like that? But the distance was too much for the camera.
The big guns spat smoke and fire, the big rounds momentarily visible from behind, with the Confederation drone hovering there in the sun and in behind the enemy battery.
The fourth hilltop erupted, trees, dirt and rock shattering and flying all over the place in the sudden onslaught. Still, the farmhouse slept, or so it seemed, although the animals seemed to have scattered.
“Okay, here they go—”
But there was more happening elsewhere, and they still had a few tricks up their sleeves.
Every shell the enemy fired at barren hilltops depleted their ammunition, both on hand and ultimately, down the road in Deneb City. This might help to account for the new column, which appeared to be almost as large as the initial one. Then there was the small convoy of fuel trucks and some other technical vehicles—a couple of mobile bridge-building teams were coming along by the looks of it. The enemy would have to send a follow-up to the Walzbruch occupation force as well—
Right now her focus must be on Highway 17. This was the big threat. Everything else was just a sideshow.
Sergeant Kelly was just a couple of kilometres up the road, and he had a surprise or two waiting for that little contingent.
(End of part twenty-four.)
Image One. Confederation Public Communications Office.
Image Two. CPCO.
Image Three. Denebola-Seven Defense Force.
Image Four. CPCO.
Image Five. Interstellar News Service.
Image Six. Higgins.
Image Seven. Public Domain.
Image Eight. Collection of Louis Shalako.
Yeah. If you guys fuckin’ want, you can grab some of my books and stories over fuckin’ here at iTunes.
By Venkat Mangudi - IAF LCH chopping up the air, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56538829