The three Joshuas ground their way across the valley. Unfriendly troops jogged as best they could across the ploughed fields. They were already falling behind…
The first of the tanks was a bare hundred metres from the base of Hill 114-A when the Confederation howitzers opened up. Tall grey plumes of dirt spurted up all around the advancing tanks.
In some reactive twitch, the first Joshua fired, the round going into the trees and the hillside to no real effect. With no visible smoke or flame at the point of impact, that one had to have been armour-piercing.
More and more mortar bombs and 75-mm shells began to fall, tearing up the earth and bursting in the air over the infantry. The foot-sloggers promptly went to ground, calling for smoke and support fire. This much was obvious. In time, with enough enemy radio talk, the Confederation cracking and analysis systems might get more codes and call-signs. They already had a few of the most basic signals and were in the process of identifying various units in the enemy’s order-of-battle. That was the thing with any battlefield communications. Units had to identify themselves or they would simply be ignored. Once units had been identified, whether infantry or an artillery battery, the enemy’s one-time prefixes didn’t mean to much anymore.
Her mouth opened, watching the picture—a set of crosshairs in a circular optical frame as something rolled into it.
The Hellion fired.
With all of the distractions, the first of the Joshuas was hit. Still moving forwards, one or two figures spilled out and then it went up in a sheet of flame, shooting like a blowtorch up out of the open hatches.
There was a major explosion and the spinning turret went fifty metres straight up, coming down upside down and with smoke pouring out of the hole.
With all of the mortar and howitzer fire coming down, the others had no clue—no clue that it had been taken out by the Hellion, screened as it was by trees and the sides of a gully.
Fifty metres apart, the next two Joshuas halted, their big guns spitting flame as they fired high-explosive at something, (no sabots being visible in an instant, slow-motion replay of their one good close-up), something that was still straight ahead of them.
Probably the laser cannon, or one of the 20-mm cannons or a machine-gun on auto-fire.
They seemed oblivious to the fact that there was a side-track right there, just to the left of their blazing companion. Too many trees in the way.
In the camera views, the Unfriendly infantry were now filtering through the woods.
The Hellion was almost sure to be discovered.
“Command Centre. Hellion One-Three.”
“Permission to advance with Hellion-One-Three.”
“Roger that. Get out there and take the shot—”
No response, but the machine was already moving, a reel on the back deploying a cable and the onboard cameras and sensors slaved to four or five people up in the woods. There were the crew and a rather junior infantry lieutenant on their local battle-board. This was for moral support on the one hand and a bit of first-hand combat experience on the other.
They would be heads down, behind as much rock and as many trees as possible, staring at their individual screens and holding their breaths.
“Colonel Graham?” Yet another trooper at a board, beckoning for attention.
“Yes, go ahead—” There was a lot going on and it was getting hard to keep up with it all.
“The civilian forces on Highway 2 are closing up on the rear of Walzbruch Force.”
“Roger that.” More complications—but she’d already decided they were on their own.
“…and the Denebi on Highway 17 appear to be laying an ambush for somebody, probably the Unfriendlies. The second big assault column is about fourteen kilometres farther down the road…”
She looked at him, mouth open.
Those eyes were alight—
“Well, damn it all. This just keeps getting better and better—”
It sure as hell was.
And the second part of the reverse-slope ambush was just opening up from behind both enemy columns. They still had to get all of the Confederation troops out, and as many heavy weapons as possible—then hit them going down the far side and at the base of the very next hill.
The Hellion, with no one aboard, came to the brightness at the end of a tunnel of trees, its nose slewed hard right, and then there was a blast of fire, the onboards having acquired a target.
They were not known for their hesitation.
That one, appeared to be a hit, and from under fifty, maybe seventy-five metres.
Another Joshua started to burn. There were men baling out. The Hellion was already reloaded, but with all the smoke and fire, there wasn’t much to see.
It was like a big fist, as if someone or something had punched the camera, hard. Everything went black, and then white.
That was all, just white. One or two signals were still up, but all the other sensors were out.
Hellion One-Three was gone. That left one Joshua on the field.
Whoever that was, they could at least shoot and they were very quick with the reaction-time.
Two dead Joshuas.
One dead Hellion.
Money well spent.
“Okay, people, haul ass—” The Unfriendly infantry was maybe fifty metres away from the ridge-line on the south side of the gully.
They were still downslope, but climbing inexorably onwards.
Judging by the bright blue dots on the board, the Hellion crew was already moving.
It was infuriating. The Denebi civilians had set up another ambush on Highway 2, and there were no cameras in the vicinity. If they were lucky, an Unfriendly patrol would come along.
That was about it, as there were no major Unfriendly forces on that road. A half a dozen Confederation troops were sixteen kilometres further to the northwest, in no position to help in any way. Her own artillery was concentrated in the defense of the two major hills. While dispersed, most of the pack howitzers could hit targets on either hill.
So far, there had been no contact, although a trooper had spoken to someone. That someone had promised to talk to someone else, and so far, they hadn’t gotten back. What she might have told them was a good question, probably just to stop. Ditch the weapons, cook up some kind of a cover story and go home.
As it was, the Confederation troops could only proceed with their own plan, and wish the civvies the best of luck.
Not that they would have listened anyways.
The natives were another story. They seemed oblivious to the significance of the enemy drone aircraft, which must have spotted them. The Unfriendly column was now running with a heavy forward reconnaissance force, and this unit had stopped, hiding their vehicles and setting up an ambush of their own.
The natives must have had scouts trailing them or observing them from the woods, for shortly after this development, someone had popped out onto the road a couple of kilometres away.
There had been a quick confab. The war party had abandoned the road. In the imperfect satellite view, for there was scattered low cloud over the scene, they had separated into two major parties, one on each side of Highway 17, two or three hundred metres from the road. If anything, they were trotting along at an even quicker pace than before. Within the next half hour or so, these sets of opposing forces must collide. She was thinking double envelopment in a classic fish-hook maneuver. Native tactics could be surprisingly sophisticated, as in the case of the Zulu impi for example. In an impi attack, the horns of a bull flanked the enemy while the big head engaged the enemy’s front. There was more to it, the young braves taking the frontal attack and the older, more experienced males taking the two sides of the flanking maneuver. It could be hideously effective, even against the British and their rifles. But also with the British in such very small numbers, cut off and surrounded. A rather unpleasant thought considering her own current circumstances.
Simply put, the enemy, whether facing forwards or backwards in their ambush position, could still be taken from the rear. It could still be an impi attack.
A party under Sergeant Kawaii was literally sitting on the hillside above the Unfriendly ambush, with mortars hastily set up and zeroed in as best as could be done in such circumstances—it really was better to walk the ground, with GPS in hand, marking your spots but sometimes it just wasn’t possible. If he could time it right, he might be able to hit the Unfriendlies with a few rounds and then just stop—let the natives come rushing in, if that’s what they decided.
A few bombs in there might also persuade them to go home, but he had a funny feeling they weren’t about to do that anytime soon.
At least they were on the right side, out here fighting the good fight, and that was always good to know.
“Oh, my God.” The tone was one of awe.
The trooper, eyebrows visibly rising behind the headset, stared at the board.
“Colonel. I’ve never seen such a strong signal—or anything quite as tight as that before.” Ten thousand watts, no bigger than a spider web. Silent for days now, the receiver, like the transmitter, was directional to the nth degree.
The planet was speeding along, rotating, tipping back and forth with the seasons in its eccentric orbit, the whole system moving and rotating, in relation to some other arbitrary point in the Universe, the centre of their galaxy in this case. Point Zero-Zero-Zero-Etc., also moving through time and space, which was the only way you could ever map such a complex system. It could only have come from a ship, a planet or some other body.
Coming in from a point far outside the system, whoever had sent that package must have had some pretty damned good information.
“It’s marked, ‘your eyes only’, Colonel.” Lifting the goggs, he gave her a speculative look.
“Send it over please. I’ll scan that before opening…” Her heart had just skipped a beat there.
So had his, come to think of it.
It took but a second to validate the prefix, suffix and helix codes. No bugs. Her hand shook a little, and then there was Brigadier-General Renaldo, still looking tired and with the usual dark bags under the eyes.
“Good morning.” He smiled. “Colonel Graham. I am authorized to tell you that Operation Bluecoat has been a success. Thank you for your efforts and good luck with the rest of the plan—Renaldo, out.”
It was that quick, and nothing much there for an enemy to read even if they had cracked it.
She sat there with mouth open. When writing the plan, she almost hadn’t dared to suggest it—but the Confederation destroyers escorting CT-119, Eliza, D-17, Erebus, and D-24, Terror, had successfully evaded interception by the incoming enemy fleet, with their big cruisers and a pack of smaller warships. Rather than fleeing to a safe port, after escorting Eliza initially, the destroyers had broken off and gone hunting. The deep penetration into enemy space, sort of hunting…
They had intercepted the enemy at some point not known to her, and then inflicted some level of damage, also not known to her. Ultra—probably. It would have been a big help.
The very fact that Renaldo had gone to the extraordinary lengths required to let her know about it said something. It said a lot. It was risking one very expensive ship (an assumption, but probably true judging by the point of origin and backtracking of the trajectory), to send one very terse message.
It also seemed rather well-timed on his part, coming along just when they were getting down to the nitty-gritty, planet-side.
She had full discretion as to what she told her troops, whose focus should necessarily be trained on those ground-level operations for which they were best-suited.
Still, this was big news—the sort of news that McMurdo would do his best to stifle, and this was an important consideration for her own policy.
Whatever you do, I do the opposite—
What’s bad for you is good for me, and vice versa.
The question was, what exactly could she tell them.
Report-writing was among the most basic of skills, one learned very early in the Organization, and this was a kind of report—in a way.
When in doubt, bullshit—
She cleared her throat, and then set her com unit to record a clip. She took a good breath and let it out.
Open the mic for full broadcast.
“Ladies and gentlemen. Your attention please. We have just received word by secure communications. Confederation ships have won an important victory over the Unfriendly invasion-fleet escort.” A whole bunch of faces had just turned her way, mouths open and dead silent now after the hubbub of ongoing operations. “Those vessels were returning to Shiloh and other ports in preparation for reassignment or engagements elsewhere. Details of the battle are necessarily thin, due to counter-intelligence considerations. But I think it’s safe to say that the enemy lost a few ships there, destroyed or damaged. This will materially affect the strategic balance in this sector for quite some time. It’s also important to note that the enemy fleet was here because we were here. You were here, and they knew you were going to fight. They don’t know it, but you’re also going to win. General Renaldo sends his thanks and his congratulations. Keep up the good work.”
She nodded at the trooper, a girl named Rafferty, on the communications board.
“We have achieved a strategic victory already. We don’t know what casualties might have occurred. That goes for our own people as well. However, here on the ground, we haven’t lost a one. Let’s try and remember that, ladies and gentlemen—win, lose or draw.”
A low hum of chatter went through the room.
Authorization for use of the file was quick and slick. Another tap and she sent it over.
“Okay, put it up on the board. Open access. Thank you.”
“Roger that, Colonel Graham. Open access. I’ll send that over to the media centre too, uh, if you don’t mind.” She was right, the civilians must be told of this. “I’m thinking a thirty-second spot. Stock videos of Confederation and Unfriendly ships, some old archival video of a battle in space…”
“Yes, absolutely. Thank you for the excellent suggestion. I’m sure Trooper Thornton can handle it.” A thought struck her. “Send that package, when he’s done with it, to the Unfriendlies as well, please.”
Dona would take that as a yes.
(End of part thirty-one.)
Image One. Joshua tank. By Jorchr - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
Image Two. Confederation Public Communications Office.
Image Three. CPCO.
Image Four. CPCO.
Image Five. CPCO.
Image Six. Collection of Louis Shalako.
Image Seven. Deneboloa-Seven Defense Force.
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