The convergence of Highway 2 and Highway 17 meant a real bottleneck for the Unfriendly columns. First, they had to get past the biggest hills they’d encountered thus far, hills on each side of the notch where the road went up…
The Unfriendly column on Highway 17 was clearly coordinating with the column on Highway 2.
They had made an effort to properly time it, both columns setting off shortly before dawn, with their battery of heavy artillery now in position. They were still towing some lighter weapons.
Unopposed, they would arrive at the junction more or less at the same time, even with the clearing of certain obstacles. A two-pronged attack, converging on a point.
Drone Two, currently piloted by a trooper named Jimmy Dakota, was reporting that the Joshuas, still on their flatbeds, were now right up to the front of the column. A pair of Samsons were deployed at the rear. They were, in fact, a good kilometre behind the main column. They were traveling with one six-by truck, clearly meant for infantry support in the rearguard actions which they were anticipating going by this development. They had a proper scout car and a half a dozen of the ubiquitous olive drab pickup trucks, each capable of carrying a handful of troops and some light weapons.
The Unfriendlies were getting smarter.
The people in the Command Centre were watching in fascination, everything from the satellite feeds and all other sources, which included a map as well as real-time video in pretty good colour and detail. The only thing missing here was quality sound, but they had cameras with their cheap little microphones, vibration-sensors, and roadside radar and other detector units out all over the place.
“Unfriendly Battery A is firing, Colonel.”
“Roger that, thank you.” Having been off for eight hours, the staff were all strangers to her, and yet they sure as hell knew all about her.
She took a good look. Battery A, one more red icon on the battle-board.
Again, she thought of McMurdo’s sick little video. A sour grin crossed her face. The truth was, they all knew a little too much about one another by this time in a deployment. She had, after all, read many if not all of their files—as situations came up, as names and assignments came up.
The military life didn’t promise a whole lot of personal privacy to begin with.
They watched as the top of Hill 114-A lit up, smoke and fire billowed, and at ground level, the explosions were right there. One or two cameras were either out of action or had been blown into positions where they could do no good—face down in the dirt, perhaps. Sooner or later, the enemy must stumble across a camera, or, say a motion-detector, and in a very short time, they’d figure out what it was.
After that, they would try to hack it—and the first one, would explode, taking out at least one enemy tech. That would be one real steep learning curve, an expensive one. She had no doubt the units could eventually be hacked or cracked. As long as you were real careful—
They waited as the enemy deployed.
On the map, less than two kilometres down the road, it appeared the Joshua tanks were finally down off the trucks.
They’d been fueled and stores had been put aboard. It all seemed to take one hell of a lot of time, the tension rising with every minute that passed. Beginning to move, it looked like they’d be leading the column. Dona wasn’t too sure of what her expectations had been, but the enemy was using the classic wedge, with one company forward, and two flanking companies back. They had this on both sides of the road, where there were open fields and the pastures, some of which were still green with good old Terran grass. At the company level, it was one platoon out front, and two more flanking, right out of one very old book.
With four or five platoons to the company, the same at battalion or regiment level, they were keeping an estimated twenty-five to forty percent in reserve.
Interestingly, the Guards were behind the regular, short-term recruits—a classic case of putting the cannon fodder out front where it belonged, soaking up bullets meant for more valuable troops. They were there for discipline as well, the unspoken threat being that retreat was not an option, or they might even be fired upon by their own troops. It had happened before and it could happen again.
There was one low split-rail fence, some wire fences, and some brush along a creek, and other than that, no cover at all. The infantry had been deployed as far forward as possible, just inside their own treeline. It was a classic start-line. Just out of range of Confederation small-arms fire and clearly intended to swamp any defenses.
At the base of the hill, the trees and rock faces began, and this would be an entirely different kettle of fish. They seemed to be waiting for the Joshuas to come up, although there were a couple of Samsons with them and the small four-bys with their heavy machine guns. A pair of them sat out in the open, at the base of the hill.
Bait, attempting to draw fire. Her people were smarter than that. No searching fire for her people.
Even the snipers had their orders to keep it quiet. Nothing less than a sergeant was worth that one precious shot. It had to be assumed that the enemy had a few snipers out there of their own, on overwatch, and her people knew enough to keep their beaks down until the action actually began.
It was a bare five degrees C and fairly dark under the overcast…
With a light rain coming down, just crossing seven or eight hundred metres of ploughed field would be difficult enough for people on foot. Every inch of it swept by her people and the sensors and the machine guns. At that point, they would be in tangled bush and the boulder-gardens at the base of the slopes. The cover would be better, but it would still be slow going.
This was where the small, anti-personnel mines began.
The problem with fields and pasture of course, was that this meant settlement, farmsteads and cabins and barns and livestock. They’d done their best to get everyone out—
Fire erupted from the ground. There was a short pause and then the targets became apparent.
The Unfriendlies were firing on those positions and there wouldn’t be much left for people to return to. Houses and barns were blown to matchwood in pretty short order. One could only wonder at the logic.
They were upping the ante, alienating the locals in a game where the stakes were already high enough. In classic land warfare, such positions were often used for observation. The fact was, the Confederation troops had cameras everywhere, some a lot closer to the road than the house or the barns. Actual troops were pretty thin on the ground. She had been smart to keep her people out of there.
Her standing orders insisted on it, and for the most part, people agreed with her.
Sleep in a vehicle, sleep on the ground. Sleep in a hollow log. Stay the fuck out of people’s houses. It was succinct.
Hopefully, it was better for everybody. What was interesting was that the Unfriendlies would absolutely go in there, no question, risking exposure to boobies and potentially, unexploded ordnance including their own, UXBs, when there was nothing there to find. It would also take a few warm bodies off of more important matters. They’d be looking to assess results and hopefully to recover a few Confederation corpses for their own propaganda pictures.
And they would be disappointed again—more psychology.
“Okay, here they come.” Three Joshuas, coming over the top of yonder hill.
Hill 114-A was next, and at this point, the Unfriendly infantry in the fields got up from their prone positions on the far side of the valley and started walking. They had their bayonets fixed.
Smoke rounds from the enemy firebase erupted in front of them and the haze began to drift…
The Joshuas seemed to speed up on the downslope…
There were grey forms flitting through the trees on either side, guarding against ambush, or intrepid enemies with any sort of limpet mines or shoulder-launched weapons shooting from the forested areas, up close and personal. A squad of men followed each tank doggedly, as close to the tail as they could get, out on the actual road surface.
This was going to be bad—
“Hold fire. Hold fire.”
Vicky’s voice was there in their ears, and views from individual troopers were there for the asking.
The Joshuas were halfway down the hill, guns trained on their target hill, and clearly expecting trouble.
What in the hell they expected to fire at was a good question. But it was clear they were meant for infantry support. Psychological support. Not so much armour-to-armour—there was nothing really there for them to shoot at.
Not in the classic sense. In her opinion, the things were almost entirely useless, but the Unfriendlies were still using them. That was the trouble with having no option but to attack.
You used what you had. You used what was available. This included the Unfriendly doctrine, all according to intel, which she had reviewed when she had a minute. Insofar as that was known—
Or suspected. Maybe she was over-analyzing. Maybe the Unfriendlies had no way of knowing for sure just what the Confederation had to oppose them. If true, the enemy’s intel didn’t seem all that impressive, not considering they had been planning an invasion. They hadn’t just come up with the idea ten days ago and then rushed into it without any thought.
Perhaps it was a case of just in case.
Her Barker teams were engaging the enemy four-bys and the Samsons, other vehicles. Hits all over the place—a light vehicle turned and plummeted over the edge of the road, disappearing into the scrub below. There were flames and black smoke down there.
That one was dead enough.
With the two enemy columns only a few kilometres apart as the crow flew, they had a pair of drones zigzagging along, one for each column. There was another drone hanging back. The third one was apparently trying to do the work of two, as it was up a good five thousand metres where it could at least get a look at both situations at once. It could only hold its cameras on multiple targets for so long, cruising along on its basic course, before it had to break off, maneuver, and come back around again.
Those gaps in coverage would be taken advantage of.
It was a lot to keep track of—
The other pair of drones were intent on what lay below, circling around down low, and with all of their sensors going, active and passive.
Hill 163 was, if anything, even higher and more rugged than 114-A.
This ambush, confronting the Unfriendly forces coming up from Walzbruch was a real doozie.
Since 114-A was nearest to the junction of Highway 17 and Highway 2, Hill 163 would be given up first. They needed a half-hour or forty-five minutes head start. Warm-bodied troops would have to time it carefully, in order to get past the junction before the Unfriendlies took 114-A, and got their artillery and other weapons set up for the next phase of their attack. The Confederation had x-amount of time to set up their next ambush although some assets were already emplaced.
All of this was under the eyes of the drones and with enemy artillery in the vicinity.
The command team watched, listened, and gave orders or advice, but it was up to the troops on the ground. Just as Command had their information, full information hopefully, the troops knew what was expected of them. They had been rehearsing their moves right up until the moment the enemy showed up. Some of them would be using a couple of available side-roads, which was a blessing.
For the common trooper, orders were kept to twenty-five words or less—
If possible. But it kept it simple and everyone knew exactly what they were supposed to do.
Individual troopers were expected to be able to make a few moves of their own and to recognize when it was necessary to do so. The most inexperienced had a senior partner and were under orders to stick to them like crazy-glue.
This enemy column had no tanks, so it was a pair of Samsons leading the way, with another pair at the back to guard the rear of the column in what was a new wrinkle for this bunch. The leading Samsons came out from behind a cloud of black smoke billowing from a less fortunate crew and machine that had already been destroyed and began to advance.
At this point the automatic and robotic weapons came into play. With the Confederation artillery limited to relatively short-range pack howitzers, it was important in fighting a rear-guard action, to leave robotic systems to cover their tail on the way out. It bought them some time.
They watched as one of the laser-cannons engaged. The enemy Samson, trying to save itself, began firing off smoke and turning, bolted up into a gap in the brush along that section of roadway…
They were hoping to get those guns out, and only three were anywhere near the hill itself.
Even so, it took time to hook them up, and the road to Ryanville was very vulnerable—this was the downside of the bottleneck ambush.
Your own forces also had to get out of the bottleneck.
On almost any other planet, anything really populated, there would have been more side-roads, alternate ways of getting from one place to another.
Two hills leading up to 163 had a double-reverse ambush, automated. Those weapons were still firing, taking the enemy column from both ends as they raced up and down the road, ignoring hits, ignoring casualties. Perhaps they were hoping to kill or capture some live troops, which would be good propaganda for them at this point. Both of the hilltops in question were being blanketed in heavy Unfriendly artillery fire, and the drones hung in the sky, directing fire toward targets identified by flash and flame.
A direct hit on a big six-by truck, and it looked like being another bloodbath. The rest of the enemy troops dismounted, forming up alongside the road, which was lined with black spruce, interspersed with tangled thickets of deciduous and native species. Split-rail fences lined the road on the northeast side, a cheap way of keeping the hogs in the woods and off of the road…wood was plentiful enough.
There was no way to use the dispersed formations of the school-books. Not in thick brush cut with precipitous gorges, sometimes also fenced at the lip. It was all they could do to keep low, spaced out five or ten metres apart, and use the vehicles, and more importantly, smoke and return fire to keep them alive. Belly down, on hands and knees, down in the ditch, it would appear that they were advancing. Where else were they going to go. They were soldiers, their officers were with them, and they were there to fight. When one of the automatic machine guns had a good firing solution, it could hit what it saw, or what the forward cameras saw if the trajectory was clear. Arching fire. It was a series of rapid calculations, all automatic. At that point, anyone not hit went to ground and returned fire, desperately trying to take out the Confederation weapon so they could make forward progress. From time immemorial, like infantry everywhere, more than anything, they relied on armour and artillery support. After that it was support from the air. In a really big, set-piece battle, they’d be relying on support from space.
Space-based support was Dona’s biggest nightmare.
They had the Samsons and other vehicles, they had the artillery, but it was armed aerial support that was lacking. The Confederation guns and mortars were firing from the best cover they could find.
In the interest of surprise, they’d waited until the last possible moment. They sure as hell weren’t going to be there for very long.
They were firing from prepared positions, on high ground, using overlapping fields of fire, at an enemy that must expose themselves if they were to accomplish their mission.
Confederation troops, on hand for a frontal defence for the first time since the conflict began, would make individualistic choices, and this alone made it a different ball-game from the one the Unfriendlies had been playing up until now. They were in good holes, beautiful holes.
Dona had only to check individual troopers, one or two of whom were blazing noisily away at nothing visible—robotic guns, with their laser, micro-millimetric radar, remote cams, optical and infrared sensors, didn’t do that nearly so much. These were people with eyes and brains, and they knew that some Unfriendlies had just gone into those bushes, that culvert, or hidden behind that little rise where a shoulder-fired grenade might just do the most good. They had minds and imagination where the machines only had recognition systems.
Two clips, properly aimed, the first one semi-automatic fire, (please), and then get the hell out—
That was the most basic order.
Also. That way, there was no talk of rationing ammunition.
And once again, the Unfriendlies were using up time, precious time, while they shouted back and forth on the communications net.
“Looking good, Colonel. At the rate they’re going, they won’t take that before dark.”
“Roger that, Ted. Bring up Corporal Twon for me, will you?”
With Major Chan in charge of the hill defense, it was time for Dona to move on to the next picture.
(End of part thirty.)
Image One. Confederation Public Communications Office.
Image Two. CPCO.
Image Three. CPCO.
Image Four. Ryanville Daily News.
Image Five. CPCO.
Image Six. The Organization.
Image Seven. Collection of Louis Shalako.
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