With the first enemy column just fifteen kilometres away, and the second column, composed mainly of small scout vehicles, fuel tankers and cargo-laden trucks, the Unfriendlies were about to receive a nasty shock.
Perhaps they had made an assumption, which was always risky. But now, the presence of more stay-behind parties would be revealed. It was a psychological moment, and irrevocable in terms of information for the enemy. They would understand the significance, no doubt about that.
Sergeant Kelly and his little team watched, as the first two scout-cars swept past, with the heavy machine guns in the back manned, the gunners alert enough, fingers on the trigger, and no doubt with full sensors deployed.
Next in line were three big six-by trucks, the backs covered under camouflaged canvas. This would be the infantry. It would be close and uncomfortable in there, with nothing to see except out the back end. Then three big fuel bowsers, all strung out in a row. After that, the engineering vehicles, with what were clearly prefabricated bridge sections chained down on their big flatbeds.
This must have its manpower component as well. More big trucks. Clearly the Unfriendlies were anticipating the Confederation plan as best they could. Although there wasn’t enough equipment on the whole planet to bridge some of the really big spans, this lot would do for anything less, and the Confederation troops, mindful of the civil population, were reluctant to blow those particular spans. Blowing bridges slowed the enemy, it also limited your own options.
If nothing else, they could hold this little bunch up for a while.
“Fire the mine.”
The results were spectacular. Again, they were rewarded with the sight of a vehicle, up in the air, spinning end over end. There was fire and burning fuel everywhere, the mine having exploded right under the rear wheels. The vehicle behind was at a dead stop, the front end of it torn open and peeled back, and then all that diesel and maybe even good, old-fashioned gasoline went up.
“Two bowsers. Nice shot.”
“Estimated: three dead, minimum.” Probably more than that, if the big trucks each had a couple of people aboard.
The column was so small, there were barely a couple of platoons of proper infantry, and they were on the ground, popping off at the verdant green hillside confronting them. Since Kelly and his people were actually on the hill behind them, it was all the same to them. His people didn’t even need to be told to hold fire. All personal weapons were presently on safety, a fact confirmed in the bottom left corner of his goggs.
They had one light machine gun ahead of the Unfriendlies, sweeping the ground and the leading scout cars, hatches down and visibility much-reduced, were engaging with what was essentially a mindless robot.
“All right, people. Over the hills and through the woods.” This time they had only a hundred and fifty metres to run.
“To grandmother’s house we go—”
“Shut up, Giovanni.”
They were carrying enough, it really cracked a sweat, and the older ones, the smokers in particular, were distinctly out of breath. He grinned, standing tall as they tossed their bags in the back. To his eternal gratitude, the hatch was closed quietly rather than slammed. Now that guy had brains.
“Where’s the drone?”
“Searching the wrong hill, Sarge. Still out in front of the main column.”
“Good.” With all the noise back there, there was no way anyone would be able to hear their departure.
That was the great thing about electric vehicles.
With drones in short supply, and no word of any enemy satellite observation, they hopped into their Puma, got her down onto the road, and headed south at a high rate of speed. With plenty of rock between themselves and the enemy column, all threat sensors were on. There was nothing there to detect, which was always good—all of their own mines and boobies were carefully marked on the local zone map. The next enemy column was a good forty kilometres off.
That didn’t mean the enemy couldn’t lay a few boobies of their own.
So far, there was no sign of that, but it was almost sure to happen.
“Relax, trooper. Slow it down just a bit—” The thing to do was to get her off the road again, as quickly as possible, and get the Puma under wraps again.
A little more altitude on that drone, and they’d be popped for sure…with their present tactical area zoomed-in on the display screen, it looked like it was still a long ways off. It could also hit a top speed of about two hundred and fifty kilometres per hour. That didn’t leave the Confederation troops much of a margin for error.
Surely the enemy would send a drone, or even one of their helos, which hadn’t been used for very much so far. They were definitely being held in reserve for something. The pair sweeping the hills above Deneb were still airborne. A quick glance at the main battle-map confirmed it, and they were kilometres off of their target. At that rate, they’d never find the Mongoose.
“Roger that, Sergeant.” The kid backed off, eyes searching for the scrap of orange crepe paper hung on a tree branch marking their turnoff into the woods.
Never use the same colour twice in a row—
There were so many bits of crap, bottles and cans in the ditch, with plenty of garbage blowing in the wind, the Unfriendlies had driven right past it without realizing the significance. It was the next column, much larger and clearly meant for action, which was of much more concern.
Now those guys, those guys would definitely be looking for them—loaded for bear and wanting to see some Confederation blood.
“All right, people. Let’s get out there and see if we can make those tracks go away.” With the ground pretty hard in spite of the recent rain, all it would take was a rake and some dead leaves, which were falling, more and more steadily, with every passing day. “Get that orange thing off of there, okay?”
A trooper turned and ran back down the track, weapon slung and pack on. Giovanni—that guy just loved running. He didn’t mind being on his own, either, and would probably take the roadside position as his own. The only real drawback to Giovanni was that real strong need to express himself.
He checked the monitor. The helos were still well off, arguably low on fuel, and the drones were still circling ahead of their two main columns. So far, the enemy had only revealed three or four drones. One had been damaged, and one destroyed. If they had more, they really should have been using them.
If necessary, they could sacrifice the Puma, booby-trap it three ways from Sunday, escape and evade a few kilometres through the brush and then simply wait for pickup. Designed with such eventualities in mind, the battle-gear, fully closed up, would keep out most of the water, and there would be plenty of rivers and streams to cross. They would be out of the game for a few hours, a couple of days, maybe, but they would still be alive, and that was always something.
It sure beat being dead.
By all accounts, being dead is no fun at all.
Further up the road, the main enemy column had advanced by fits and starts. Using their artillery, they were attempting to clear the way forward. For the most part, they were bombarding empty hilltops and non-existent targets. It might have still been helpful, in that their troops were no longer being surprised, or at least not in quite the same way. It was difficult to be surprised when the hill a kilometre and a half in front of you was exploding in shellfire and the sergeant was screaming in your ear. It might be more of a surprise to discover that your efforts had been in vain, if so, the enemy was prepared to accept it.
It was revealing of McMurdo’s mindset. With such insights, he was definitely a dangerous opponent, and Dona must assume that he understood his own troops very well. He probably understood her tactics. He claimed to have read her book. The real question was how well?
He might have taken it to heart—he might also have dismissed it.
The timing was fortuitous, as it would take some time for them to digest the information.
The enemy force advancing up the Walzbruch road was about to make the same mistake, after having been hit from the front several times.
These two timelines were nicely converging. Her troops could drive faster—the enemy had no choice but to go fairly slowly. They had broken bridges and blown-out culverts to contend with.
There was the occasional big tree, laying across the road. A few small charges went a long way in such terrain. Axes and chainsaws were plentiful, and it didn’t take a whole lot of brains. It was just grunt work and yet terribly effective. Killing time was just as important as killing enemy soldiers.
Winning wars wasn’t just about getting there firstest with the mostest. It was also about being the last man standing on the battlefield.
The lastest with the mostest.
This time, the enemy artillery bombarded the hillside in question on Highway 17. This hill had been dubbed Hill 98. Getting nothing in the way of results, the enemy had concluded that there was nothing there and advanced again. It was only having gone down the other side of Hill 98, when the Confederation weapons opened up, from positions deep in ravines and grottoes. A reverse-slope ambush, in reverse. One or two small machine guns were in actual caves, more like horizontal crevices in a layer of softer rock. With the infantry vehicles at the rear of the column totally exposed, it was a bit of a massacre.
Her troops were all under deep cover, as deep as they could get it…
Mortar-bombs fell among troops hastily dismounting, the pitiful rag dolls flew through the air, the machine guns stuttered and stammered out their one-note death song…there was smoke, fire and carnage below. People were obliterated by direct hits…cut in half in some cases, and much of it was caught by the cameras. With a bit of experience, her people were getting better at anticipating what was going to happen, where the people and vehicles were likely to take cover, and they were placing the cams accordingly. The same might be said for their shooting—it was getting better, no doubt about it.
The lead vehicles, stoutly armoured, could do nothing. Fearing further ambush up ahead, and with the road too narrow to turn around quickly, due to the steep slopes on both sides of a winding, dog-leg switchback roadway up the hill, it was all over before they could get back to the rear of the column. One or two of the smaller fighting vehicles did so, and quickly paid the price as the mortars fired their reserve rounds at such delicious offerings...they were getting kills all over the place.
Finally, the distant Unfriendly artillery began dropping their big rounds onto a firing position that was mostly automated as well as sheltered by trees, hills and downright cliffs. As for directed fire from below, there was so much smoke, fire, noise, brush and rock that finding a target that was no longer shooting was going to be problematical.
The message was a pretty simple one. We are behind you as well as in front of you…
The enemy would make changes. They would be forced to adapt, to rethink, to waste more time, precious time, due to the new tactics and the new circumstances.
There was another culvert, a small rivulet going under the road. With a nod from Chan, the trooper in charge of that aspect of the battle spoke into his microphone. The people at the other end blew that, and now the enemy column would be cut in two…someone would have to take charge at both ends, with units separated to some extent. Their command was now divided.
They would feed in more troops, more weapons, more vehicles, and more resources. They would use up more time.
Those watching the action via remote could only nod, wonder, and wait to see what happened next, for the same thing was about to happen on Highway Two coming up from Walzbruch. If nothing else, the enemy might finally get the tanks down off the flatbeds and try and use them in some way—it was difficult to see what other purpose they might serve. In terms of Roussef and Ryanville, certainly the Confederation had nothing to oppose them. If they were meant to be purely psychological weapons, the Unfriendlies were going to be disappointed.
The typical Confederation trooper had more than one weapon with anti-tank capability at their disposal.
The bounty for taking out a tank was considerable, a thousand credits or so, and her people were nothing if not resourceful. If six people took part in digging a hole, sticking in a big bomb, and ultimately blowing up a valuable resource, then the prize was split six ways with another share going into the general fund. This would be split by all concerned in any particular command, which was good for the morale of rear-echelon troops, of which there were always going to be some. Ultimately, everyone in-theatre got some kind of combat bonus, as well as the campaign badge. Fifty credits here, and a hundred credits there. Ten credits somewhere else. It was still worth doing. There was the aspect of seniority as well, with everyone on up taking a small but proportionate cut out of every prize taken by the people under their command.
It was a strange thought, but getting rich was about the farthest thing from Dona’s mind. Still, at the rate they were going, that might still yet happen.
The other interesting thing was that the Unfriendlies had finally taken down the civilian phone system.
In Dona’s theory, as it was presently being applied, defense in depth worked both ways. By sucking them forwards, she was forcing them to provide themselves with a defense in depth as well. There was no way in hell she could really attack, but then, she didn’t have to. It all took resources, at a rate of ten to one, according to intel and even McMurdo himself. During the Second World War, commandos, partisans, encircled troops fighting on the wrong side of the front line, the siege of Tobruk even, had revealed some important lessons on the psychological impact of even small parties operating behind enemy lines.
She’d studied commandos and rangers, the Chindits, the British Long Range Desert Group, and David Stirling’s Special Air Service, those particularly of World War Two, and a hundred similar formations active since then. The 20th Century war in Vietnam was a case in point. A very small group of people could disrupt an enemy out of all proportion to their relative numbers, and even a technical disparity in armaments to some degree. It forced the enemy to commit more and more front-echelon troops to the rear areas of the battle. This weakened their fighting potential where it really mattered, up at the front line.
This was true for both sides, the highly trained LURPS and the Phoenix operations being balanced on the other side by the grab-them-by-the-belt-buckle, don’t-let-go small-unit tactics of General Giap and the communist guerillas.
The difference was, that Dona Graham had known that this was what was going to happen—she had accepted it, and then she had made that the whole basis of her plan. Had McMurdo been smart enough to do that?
In her present situation, even if the enemy was smart enough to withdraw, her troops would still exact a toll upon them. A successful retreat would only take them back to Deneb City.
They’d be bottled up and impotent, and their ships would still be vulnerable coming and going. They’d be shot at coming and going, with double the chances of surprise and ambush.
The fact that were was only one road, whether it be the Roussef operation or the Walzbruch operation, (and ultimately, the Ryanville operation), made it all too easy to sacrifice a few weapons, a vehicle or two, and get her people out. They could simply melt away into the bush, with whatever they could carry on their backs, and reappear in a day or three or five. They could follow the advancing enemy force, or double back the other way, knowing that there was another enemy column coming up that road. As time went on, it was inevitable that enemy vehicles would be going back the other way. Her plan, if it made any sense at all, called for instant improvisation at that sharp end. There would always be another enemy column, or patrols, or small installations like their new artillery position. That artillery position would almost certainly be moved as the enemy made forward progress. There was, in fact, a stay-behind team in between the artillery position and the lead column. They’d put out a couple of mines and faded off again…waiting for the next crummy little target to come along. It was a shitty way to live and yet they could keep it up for quite a while.
Such small parties had been planned, due in no small part to the difficulty of resupply, over a road that the enemy ostensibly controlled for some distance. Naturally, there were depots, caches of fresh weapons, fuel and ammunition, and of course food and liquid refreshments for the troops—and there were a few tracks and side-roads. There were spare vehicles stashed here and there. That was the beauty of being there first—getting there firstest, with the mostest. That was the beauty of having a minute to think—and the cooperation of the civilian population, who had been asked not to look too closely at odd caches of stuff popping up here and there.
So far, the locals, the real hillbillies huddled around their phones and radios and wondering what the hell was going on, had been more concerned with their own business.
“How are things?”
“I’ve got the bulk of my force under cover. We made fifty kilometres last night, with no real sign of the enemy being any the wiser.”
He sat there on his water-proof poncho, cross-legged in the forest, to all appearances enjoying a leisurely picnic lunch, if it hadn’t been for the infantry rig and the assault weapon.
“I’ve been thinking, and I suddenly realized why they’re not attacking at night.”
“And why is that, Sergeant?”
“It’s because of the tracers, Colonel Graham. It’s the lasers, and the terrain, where it’s kind of hard to run in the dark. Especially if you’re half-blinded. And what else I’m thinking, is this. These must be very green troops indeed, if you have to forego the advantages of night-fighting, ah…because of the sheer fright value of facing a stream of tracer. Like from a mini-gun for example.”
Six thousand rounds per minute, every third or fourth one a tracer…knowing there were solid projectiles in there was almost worse than laser fire, for whatever psychological reason. But flash-goggles and the thin, protective clothing or the emergency mylar laser-blankets couldn’t protect a soldier against a metal slug that could penetrate thick trees or several walls of concrete-block.
She nodded thoughtfully. That would explain one or two things. Any satellite the enemy had up there, actually had an advantage at night—in terms of the infrared, the temperature differential between a human body and the background landscape was greater than in the daytime, when the sun heated the land and the human body was actually cooler than certain surfaces. That would include the sun-baked surface of a road. The top of a house, or any open area of sufficient light-absorbing tendency. It also included similar sensors aboard the drones.
Vehicles were a lot hotter due to engines and exhaust, or electric motors and batteries, but that was only amplified at night. Then there was all that metal, inevitably some of it ferrous and therefore detectable by magnetics or glint from their hard-surfaced radar returns in the case of alloys.
“Okay. Let’s keep that in mind. It’s only a matter of time before they change tactics again.”
She breathed for a moment.
“They have no choice but to attack. The overall strategy will remain the same.”
They were also a part of the bigger picture—
The enemy was only going to take so many needless casualties before a major rethink. While they were advancing, they were also wasting a lot of time…the weather forecast was not good from Dona’s perspective. More mild weather on the way for the next few days at least. Winter wasn’t exactly late, it was just a season of transition and day-to-day conditions could never be counted upon. The only comfort was that a warm spell must be followed by a cold snap. She was looking at the weather long-term. The trouble was, they were only getting closer…there were storms and a high-pressure front to the northwest. It was, unfortunately, still a few days out assuming the prevailing winds held good. With the planet’s eccentric, egg-shaped orbit, with Deneb-Seven currently on the small end of that orbit, the days were getting shorter very quickly, hopefully another psychological edge. It would get colder, darker and wetter. Interestingly, winter occurred when Deneb was closest to the star, for it was this hemisphere that was tipped away during closest transit. It was the angle of the sunlight, and the shortness of the day, that were the deciding factors.
The leaves were falling…not too many left now, especially in the highlands. It was only a matter of time before some real bad weather came up to unbalance those forces even further.
We own the night.
We own the forest.
We are everywhere.
The enemy would do their best to take full advantage of their window of opportunity. As well they should—that imperative of time that she was counting on, was exactly what was what was driving them.
“Report on the force coming up from Walzbruch.” It was another trooper, waving from the far end of the command centre.
“Very well. Shoot.”
(End of part twenty-five.)
Image One. Confederation Public Communications Office.
Image Two. CPCO.
Image Three. Denebola-Seven Defense Force.
Image Four. Collection of Louis Shalako.
Image Five. Ministry of Defense, United Kingdom.
Image Six. Fred.
Image Seven. Collection of Louis Shalako.
Image Eight. CPCO.
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