Saturday, July 29, 2017

Tactics of Delay, Pt. 16. Online Serial. Louis Shalako.



Louis Shalako



“Enemy drone overhead.”

“Roger that.”

They were using their short-range pocket devices as little as possible. Communication with their combat teams, Force H and Force Two, (although it really should have been Force W), were relatively secure, at least until the Unfriendlies stumbled across one of the fibre-lines and tried to tap into it. While this would be easily detected, it would also render them much less useful.

Their upland patrols were using tight-beam communications bounced from the satellite. 

Unless a properly-equipped drone flew right through such a burst, there was little chance there, of being popped as it was called. Since it was laser and not radio, jamming was problematical without drowning out all signals—including the enemy’s own transmissions. 

The enemy drone was controlled by radio, and the Confederation were letting that run, unjammed, until the opportune moment…their own drones were capable of operating on a bounce-back circuit, laser signals from the ground going up to the satellite, relayed to the drone’s receiver, and back again. They had to let the enemy drones operate long enough to get close enough for a shot, essentially.

Presumably, the enemy also had this capability. The fact that they were not using it—not yet, might very well be a bit of misdirection.

This stage of the battle was one hell of a cat-and-mouse game.

Enemy radio transmissions were encrypted, and they were sophisticated enough not to use the same prefixes over and over again. Just as the Confederation, they were relying on a one-time system for each transmission. Yet much could be learned from the locations of the signals, frequencies used, (i.e. not civilian, industrial, or local government frequencies), the bandwidth, the amount of traffic and other factors. Simple triangulation pin-pointed locations with pretty good accuracy. The thing was to find out just exactly what was there, missile battery, artillery, or barracks? Is that location in the downtown area a command post? Or is it just someone talking from a coffee house? She had people working on that, and the battle computers might even crack some of the signals. They had a lot of confidence in the battle-map, but only insofar as it went.

What they didn’t know was more worrisome. As for the Ultra-type intel from Central Command, neither the cracked messages, nor the details of that code had been shared with the other members of her mission.

There were of course dangers in monitoring enemy communications. It was common practice to use such signals to introduce a bug or virus, electronic spy-bots and the like, into an enemy’s information-gathering, communication and control systems. The enemy, of course, would have the correct bug-protection for their own devices.

So far, their anti-viral programs had warned of attempts but successfully blocked them. The enemy was successfully blocking the Confederation’s hacking and cracking attempts…insofar as they knew. It was just one more aspect of the game. Ultimately, they were all using the latest software, for attack and defence.

She was fairly certain the Confederation held technical superiority in this field, but one could never know for sure. Technical superiority seldom lasted for long, and there were independent, off-world contractors selling systems to all sides in any war—or in any peace.

It was all part of the fog of electronic battle.

Considering the odds, with Command probably holding a few things back from her, well. 

That might be wise. As things stood, only she and Captain Aaron knew a thing about the ultra intel. In the event of capture, they didn’t know much. It was all in their heads and not recorded anywhere.

What they didn’t know couldn’t be beaten out of them. That was standard operating procedure.

The key thing there was that she had listening posts in Deneb City.

The enemy would also be listening, following similar processes, and trying to crack Confederation communications. The real question, was whether or not the Unfriendlies had agents on the ground, in which case they’d be monitoring the situations in Roussef and Walzbruch, Milo, and Deneb City. It was a difficult problem to ignore. So far, people were using their phones, but no anomalous signals were being detected on other, more military frequencies.

Civil telephone traffic would be bounced from tower to tower, the more military stuff would use much more esoteric freaks, more power, and arguably, have much longer range. It would probably rely on the satellite. If so, they were being smart about it. Yet McMurdo and his staff officers would be screaming for information. If they had that capability, sooner or later, they must dust if off and use it…it would also be interesting to see what code-type they used. So far, the enemy traffic was ten times her own. This alone said something.

She had done the best she could. She was doing the best she could.

Team Three was under total silence, and the same went for Team Four, neither of them on the fibre network, and watching the action along Highway 17. It appeared that small follow-up forces were being dispatched, now that the Unfriendlies had secured the highway. At least, in their own estimation. All the Roussef Command Centre wanted was cameras on target, in terms of Team Four for example. Their fire-power was being held in reserve for maximum psychological impact.

Local hard-wired phone systems, could be eavesdropped using ancient techniques. Luckily, these were mostly in-house systems at various industrial establishments. The planetary cellular phone systems, operated by a partnership of public utility and private contractors, would be easy meat for the Unfriendlies.

So far, she had decided to leave it in play—and let the civilians talk. It was a question of which side blinked first. Much of it would be unreliable anyways, in the minds of the Unfriendlies.

Their paranoia could read much into the most innocuous talk, and at the same time they might discount reports of Confederation troops as planted information. There was a real psychological double-game going on. This was probably true for both sides…one’s head ached with the permutations sometimes.

Was she being paranoid too?

Probably—and why not.

It was unknown how long the enemy might have been planning for this operation, and therefore it was probably better to assume that they already had agents in place. This included Roussef, Ryanville, Walzbruch, Milo and naturally Deneb City. The latter was a for-sure. The smaller centres, farms, villages and crossroads, would be tough to infiltrate as there were so few people there. It could be done, but it would have had to have been a long-term operation, one where the agent had a very good cover story. Depending on how long the operation had been planned beforehand, enemy agents could have literally bought themselves a small farm and begun working it.

Identifying them might be another matter, as there was plenty of traffic and an automated system could only do so much with keyword identification and social-profiling. In terms of social profiling, it was interesting to know that the enemy would be on the exact same network. In fact they were stalking each other on a system, watching and listening to each other, without either side having taken any actions that would shut the whole thing down…modern electronic warfare was a bit schizoid in that sense.

All one had to do was to sign up for some social platform, stick up some bogus profile photo, and start making connections—which were useful in so many ways, including information warfare. In a medium where there were already plenty of fake names and spam accounts, there was always room for more. This led to a huge crush of information to be analyzed.

A simple spoken code, and some short messages embedded in innocent-sounding conversations might have told them much. That worked both ways too—

Briefly, she thought of Trooper Noya and the phone call to a possible mother.

Haliwell had cleared him. That was good enough for her—she hadn’t exactly listened to that conversation.

With no other evidence to go on, there was nothing much in it. However, there were thousands of similar local calls—and family members, the young people, just as in any society, grew up, got jobs and families and moved to other towns. It would be difficult to screen all of this with the limited number of live operators and code-breakers on hand, which was virtually no one. The Unfriendlies had more manpower. They would have a small coterie of the usual specialists.

For that sort of thing, she would have to rely on the program and let it run…here was Kelly in her headgear, audio and pictures relayed by fibre.

“Sine”

“Cosine.”

A simple password/response to avoid dupes—fake transmissions, although the Unfriendlies really hadn’t had the time, not yet. She’d only put limited thought into that herself, but troops were trained to destroy their com units, where the one-time day-codes were stored, rather than let them be captured and potentially hacked. So far, this looked more like a guns-and-butter type of conflict. The Unfriendly troops had nothing so sophisticated, although they had person-to-person battlefield communication. It was better than hand-held walky-talkies and hard-wired field telephones, but not by much.

Outnumbered, out of communication with Central Command, she needed an edge—any edge she could get.

In that sense, she probably shouldn’t have taken McMurdo’s call. They had Dona’s picture now, and a recent one. The only real comfort was that she had been wearing the flash-goggles, and there was no way for them to get a retinal scan. It was still a mistake on her part—the codes for electronic money transfers, were sometimes unlocked by retinal scans, and that was just one example. And she was allegedly a professional.

It was wise to remember that civilians were nowhere near as well trained as her troops, or even the enemy troops, in spotting and ignoring false signals and misinformation. The enemy troops had their dogma, a lifetime of indoctrination, and if anything contradicted that, would be so much harder to convince than the civvies.

The problem with civilians was that they were reasonable men.

On a pioneering world with limited government, they were beholden to no one but themselves and their family, their friends and their neighbours. The whole planet had two small universities, three or four community colleges, even smaller, and the average person had the benefit of at least a high-school education. That wasn’t to say they would be stupid—

“Go ahead, sergeant.” She watched intently.

They had cameras deployed forward of their position. Nailed onto trees and fence-posts, the little plastic units were scattered on hillsides, laying in the ditches and stuck with glue inside of carefully chosen culverts. Made of a chameleon-type plastic material, they would take on the colour of the dominant background hue, effectively becoming invisible. The small, articulated lenses had only limited traverse, tilt, pan and zoom capabilities. Half of them or more would never acquire a target, but they were cheap and plentiful. Half a dozen in a location would be its own small network, all of them linked and all of them in touch with home base via satellite and their seeker-type, self-locking antennas. Once one had found the satellite, they all had. Having found it, they would not let it go without being reset by Confederation troops or reprogramming by enemy hackers. It appeared in the overhead satellite view that the Unfriendly column was grinding up the far side of the steep hill across a small valley of about five hundred metres. 


The lead vehicle was a small armoured scout, with six big, low-pressure tires and a long, low, wide turret. There would be a 27-mm cannon in there, a coaxial machine gun of 12.7 mm, and another lighter machine gun in the hull. There were laser range-finders, ground-level radar for hard targets, motion and heat detectors…everything but the kitchen sink. Buttoned up, the enemy could survive in there in the worst of chemical, nuclear and biological environments. For about a week…ten days at most.

That was sitting at idle, presumably in a defensive or holding position. As long as the fuel and batteries held good and they could stand the smell. As far as CBW capability, the Unfriendlies, with their half-trained and unprotected troops, it was presumed that they had it, but were reluctant to be the first to use it.

They definitely had nuclear capability, as a last-resort sort of deterrent. The Universe was a dangerous place, and they had to be able to defend themselves…there were all the usual justifications.

There were smoke and grenade launchers angled up and out, front and back of the turret. 

These were traversable as well, that way the main gun could hold onto a major target and the vehicle could be defended against infantry attack. The vehicle, a Samson, had a crew of four as well as being capable of independent action. One big drawback as she knew, was the diesel engine, although it had its adherents…it could run on low-quality fuel and the engine was relatively powerful. Recruits more familiar with farm tractors and simple fossil-fuel vehicles would have no trouble maintaining such a machine. Built on Shiloh, it used the same engine as a big farm combine common in the Unfriendly hegemony.

With hatches open, the commander was sitting confidently in the ‘up’ position. Other heads, all clad in the familiar black berets, stuck up through open hatches, as the visibility through screens was never quite the same. It seemed that they were pretty confident so far.

All of that was about to change.

“We’ll wait until they come over the crest. When they get close to the bottom of the valley, they will disappear from sight—I noticed that when our own patrols came back.” The hillsides were rounded, rather than being all straight lines and sharp angles like a proper, storybook mountainside. “But I’d like to get a shot at some of the tanks, if they’re close enough to the head of the column.”

Kelly had deployed a single squad. There were two on one side and four on the other side of the road, with the heavier vehicles and more people back a good kilometre. More troops were already setting up for the next reverse-slope ambush. This was three kilometres up the road, at a particularly narrow defile. At a good hundred kilometres an hour, that was two minutes up the road…a bit more with acceleration and braking, getting on and off of the road again.

The armour was thinner on top, compared to the turret, the gun-mantlet, or the front hull armour.

“Very well.”

“We’ve got mines laid right there, which should stop or slow the column. If they’re smart, which they’re not, they’d be a lot more spread out than they appear to be.” The mines, buried in soft dirt beside the road and easily camouflaged, were big enough to do a lot of damage, and in their present, ambush mode, fired by magnetic proximity rather than ground-pressure or remote signals. “Considering they’ve already been fired upon, and the fact that we’ve withdrawn, they must anticipate some resistance.” If nothing else, mines and booby-traps.

The Confederation had clearly concentrated their forces, in the eyes of the enemy. The intention to resist, to hold out as long as possible, was written all over that…

It was just a question of when.

In the forward camera-views, following vehicles were hard to identify in the jumble, although one could see the familiar outline of tank turrets with their long guns, as well as the whip antennas and their black and white triangular pennants. It was difficult to judge just exactly where they were in the column from this angle.

Interestingly, the tanks were still on the flatbeds—their own drone had confirmed this more than once. The trouble with tanks was the fuel consumption, and most of the vehicles were not electric, rechargeable machines.

At the actual ambush position, the troops had the Pumas, the lightest of their vehicles, hidden in the brush on their side of the hill. Their firing positions were fanned out on each side of the road, looking down from crags and from rifle pits dug into patches of soft, dark humus, sheltered beneath the heavy dark forest.

With the views from every vehicle, every weapon and every soldier to contend with, the machine sorted them instantly and the most relevant were displayed on three main screens. 

There was one dead centre and a couple of smaller, flanking screens. There were other displays of course, including a couple of smaller duplicates, but the main battle map was built up from a hundred sources of information, satellite, airborne, original survey maps, dash-cams and a cam on every trooper, and everything else that might be of help.

There was one in particular—a set of cross-hairs centred up on some anonymous patch of tarmac on the downslope opposite the forward elements of Force H.

The concealment must have been good. The enemy drone kept sweeping, zigzagging up the road, and the enemy column was just below the brow of the far hill.

She listened, almost afraid to speak at this point. She had to trust her troops. They were risking their lives out there. Some of that was pure professionalism. Some of it was simple ignorance, never having seen action before. A sense of adventure. An unwillingness to let one’s fellow soldiers down. Some of that was for her, and she was sophisticated enough to know it.

What a horrible thought that was—

“Stand by. Stand by. Hold fire.” Kelly’s calm voice was right in their ears.

People who should have been doing other things, stood, watched, listened—and waited. One could hardly blame them. It was a major psychological moment.

A faint noise came through the speakers. All of those vehicles made a certain amount of noise…Kelly and crew had put out vibration detectors half a kilometre out, and the indicators were soaring.

“Sergeant.” Trooper Makin, as labeled onscreen, was nervously clutching an assault weapon, the left hand clearly visible in his helmet pickup, fingers clenching and stretching, as the scope bobbed around with sheer nervousness.

She didn’t bother to look up the kid’s record…no time. First tour, never seen combat by the looks of it. The quaver in the voice said it all.

Eighteen degrees Celsius out there. A hot day for late autumn. He’d be sweating like a pig, but then so was everyone else. She sure as hell was—

“I see it.” The roof of the turret and the upright, open hatch of the first armoured car was just coming over the top of the hill, the road surface shimmering in heat haze and there was the commander, wearing the big Unfriendly VR goggles attached to his headset—he was probably watching the view from their drone as much as anything else, either that or talking to someone further back.

For some reason, possibly the inexperience of the troops, or maybe the distances involved, but the enemy were traveling in daylight when they really didn’t have to. All of their vehicles and the drones were all-weather, night or day systems. The notion that they thought they were just going to drive up to Roussef in ten or twelve hours, twenty hours maybe, didn’t hold much water…they were, however, known to be pretty arrogant at times. Again, she thought of McMurdo.

He really didn’t have to do that, did he.

“Hold fire…hold fire.”

The column, bunched up by foreshortening and optical effect, seemingly dropped their noses, one at a time, and headed down into the valley, stretching out into distinct targets now, with spaces between them of perhaps thirty to fifty metres.

In hostile territory, this was the absolute minimum.



(End of part sixteen.)


Previous Episodes.



Images.

Image Two. Denebola-Seven Chamber of Commerce.
Image Three. CPCO.
Image Four. Denebola-Seven Defence Force.
Image Five. CPCO.
Image Six. CPCO.
Image Seven. Collection of Louis Shalako.
Imge Eight. Deneboloa-Seven Defence Force.


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Saturday, July 22, 2017

Tactics of Delay, Pt. 15. Online Serial. Louis Shalako.



Louis Shalako



“Report from Force H, Colonel.”

“Yes?”

“Grain trucks rolling through their position.”

“Very well.”

Another voice came from the next row of battle-stations.

“Their concealment seems pretty good, Colonel. The video from the trucks isn’t always the best.” This was due to the low acuity required for a vehicle to navigate roads equipped with transponders, radar reflectors, and strong ferromagnetic lines painted on the road surface. 

“We’ve stopped using the Proctor call-sign. No sense in telling the bad guys exactly what we’ve got.”

“Very well.”

The cameras aboard the robo-trucks picked out moving objects for safety, although other forms of motion-detection were the primary element. Otherwise, they were more of a back-up option for remote human operators when things went wrong.

This particular trooper was monitoring the convoy, along with a short list of other lower-priority objectives. With plenty going on all around her and the big boards up front for all to see, there was no question of boredom.

“Okay, check the view from each one as they go through. Force H, are you getting this?”

“Roger that, Command. Over.”

It would be helpful if all or most of the trucks got through their ambush position before the enemy caught up with them.

The trooper beside her spoke again, in a musing tone.

“Honey—or vinegar.” That is but the question—

“Pardon me, Trooper?”

The kid blushed.

“Well. It’s just that I read your book, Colonel. That was a while back, but.”

Dona nodded thoughtfully—and the girl had given her a powerful reminder.

Recognition dawned.

This was one of her students—Alyssa, an average student, one who had passed with some bare margin. She was in a class two or three years ago. Confederation troops were among the best-educated in the galaxy, and that was the private soldier—officers had nothing but constant learning curve.

She was beginning to understand just what that meant—it was a kind of revelation, in fact. 

Even though she had been teaching it for years.

The last name would come to her in a minute.

You learn or you die.

It was as simple as that.

A grain truck, capable of autonomous operations.
***

The Unfriendlies were on the move.

The largest force, including what appeared to be a couple of companies of Guards, had some big flatbed trucks, with three medium tanks so far identified. There were utility vehicles big and small, and batteries of artillery, towed along with their ammunition trailers. There were air-defense and surface-to-surface rocket batteries. The column had been reinforced with detachments of engineers, mobile air defense weapons, and more than a dozen big truckloads of regular, conscript infantry. Packed in like sardines, there had to be four or five hundred of them. They were inbound on Highway 17, having broken off of Highway 3 at the crossroads, a hamlet marked on the map as Gossua. They were under careful observation from Teams Three and Four during the initial stages. The satellite had them the whole way, but that might not last forever.

No one had any idea of what language that was or what it might signify. Gossua, being too far forward and too exposed, in the midst of a wide valley, had been left undefended, with only a camera or two for road-junction surveillance. Coming and going, the cams were pointed both ways.

In order to suck the enemy forward, it hadn’t even been mined or booby-trapped. There were certain assets in place. The time to activate them was later.

There was a joke going around.

Twenty credits a day combat bonus sure sounds like a lot of money.

Until you realize it’s only ten days a year.

The enemy had divided their forces. First, when leaving Deneb City, which had to be defended in its own right, including the spaceport and all stores, supplies and installations.

They had just divided their forces again—going for two objectives at once. Possibly even three objectives, for they were also patrolling south and north of town…there was nothing to the west except a vast, undeveloped wilderness, and they apparently knew that too.

An Unfriendly Guards regiment was generally four or five companies of troops, one of which was a headquarters company. Since this did not require the same manpower as a rifle company, the headquarters company would have attached platoons of specialists such as transport and quartermaster. One such rifle company, reinforced with other units, was now headed for Walzbruch. That force had a proportionate share of additional formations except for tanks—those were still headed for Roussef. In terms of sheer numbers, considering that her forces were divided as well, she was outmanned two or three to one in the Walzbruch operation, and a little less than two to one in the Roussef operation. The enemy still had five thousand troops in Deneb.

This allowed quite a reserve, and as the situation developed, some of it would be deployed. For this reason, a number of force multipliers were going to be vital. Everyone knew the defense had certain advantages. One of the less obvious of those advantages was surprise, not always so easily attained by troops dug into prepared positions, and under constant enemy surveillance. She had deployed them as far forwards as possible, in order to maximize the opportunities for surprise. It was a gamble, but then war always was. It was believed that small units of professional troops could withdraw faster than their more unwieldy and arguably less-professional enemy, where essentially, it was only the higher ranks that had any formal training in the art and science of modern warfare. That’s not to say that the staff work wouldn’t be good.

But those orders and that plan had to be carried out by what were not the best troops and in fairly large numbers.

Troops that might very quickly become disillusioned by defeat, casualties, the sights, sounds and the cost of war. The enemy is always a sentient being—one of her better lines.

The second column, perhaps a reinforced company, all mobile including some lighter armoured vehicles, continued on to the east-north-east, clearly heading in the direction of Walzbruch. The first column was about twenty-five kilometres out of Deneb as the crow flew, and the other party, perhaps forty kilometres. Although the road had its deviations, Highway 3 was relatively straight, following the valleys as opposed to climbing constantly in heavy terrain, such as what had been dubbed the enemy’s Main Force faced on the battle map. 

Highway Two, running from Walzbruch to Roussef, was a combination of the two types of terrain, although it crossed fewer valleys than Highway 17. Within this triangle, all action would take place—anything else was a dead end road, with the possibility of entrapping one’s forces if someone blew a bridge behind you. To some extent, Ryanville was the same, which was why she was re-supplying there as much as she dared strip resources from other places.

Climbing hills, seeking the easiest pass, meant a lot of turns and switch-backs. Highway 3 was different. There were many small hamlets and scattered farmsteads all over the place. 

The ochre band of population density on the maps stretched twenty and thirty kilometres to each side of the highway.

The secondary force, Walzbruch Force, was in nowhere-land, with little but the occasional farmstead, and clusters of small buildings at the rare crossroads and intersections. To the south, were the desert wastes of the low-lands. This meant that most of the roads to the right faded out to nothing or died at the edge of the escarpment, whichever came first. One or two faint tracks descended through shallower gullies, petering out into dotted lines that basically went nowhere. At one time, people might have gathered salt out there. The longer things went on with that force, without meeting any enemy, the closer they got to Walzbruch, the less alert they would be.

There would be complacency at first, followed by a gradually-rising tension as they got closer.

They would hate every minute of it, and they would still be surprised when it happened. They knew Walzbruch had been occupied, and according to the Confederation satellite surveillance, a drone had scouted out as far ahead as possible, and yet still being able return to base on available fuel. This tended to confirm their earlier range estimates for the drone-craft.

With all of the Confederation forces in Walzbruch under concealment, keeping their heads down and signals traffic to a minimum, even by fibrenet, one had to wonder what, if anything, the Unfriendlies might have learned.

To their left, roughly north-north-east, the side-roads went further, and here and there along the way there were more concession roads at right angles; roughly parallel with the main highway.

By no means continuous, the short stretches of back road and the rectangular surveys meant that, combined with the usual tracks and trails, there were a few ways to outflank an enemy going in either direction. So far, the enemy had ignored the possibility. Rather than investigate, sending out patrols along the better side-roads, they appeared to be making time and speed as their first priority. They were keeping their force together. This would be a one-task type of force and it would ignore anything but the most provocative target if they were going by the book.

It was true—she’d read a few of their books too.

The enemy’s Walzbruch Force appeared to be making sixty or so kilometres an hour. They slowed down and approached the major intersections more cautiously before racing on. They also stopped for breaks, meals and reconnaissance of major crossroads, using small patrol vehicles to scout ahead. They never went more than a kilometre or two on the side-roads. 

They would pause at the first major intersection, perhaps fearing being cut off by light forces or even the locals...a quick report, and they would turn around and go back. Not very impressive, but it was a small force to begin with.

All by the numbers, and predictable in some ways. There was very little civilian traffic. The Unfriendlies, upon coming upon civilian vehicles, invariably stopped and questioned them. So far, no one had been detained as far as could be determined. However, after such encounters, the civilians appeared to be going straight to their home or farm or business—and not so eager to talk about it on the phone, although mentions were made of it. Hopefully, at some point, someone would activate a burner phone, walk up into the hills and talk to the Confederation directly. After that, it would be wise not to come home for a few days, as the Unfriendlies would be listening in—just as the Confederation was. As it was, data was fed into the system, building up a picture of what was going on down there, one that meshed with what was known from satellite and other sources.

It was unfortunate, but there were no cameras along this stretch and so it was all second-hand in a way.

Main Force, confronted by that washboard terrain, was also making pretty good time. They were fifteen kilometres out from the first of several villages. Crossroads where the highway intersected with semi-surfaced and improved gravel highways were common along the main, paved road, which linked the two biggest towns on Deneb, with 17 cutting through the most populated area of the planet. This wasn’t saying much.

The village, with a rocky little river meandering through it, weaving its S-bends on each side of the main street as it drained off to the southwest, gave the place a quaint charm in the street-views. She studied the situation.

The force under Captain Herzon were on the heights behind, overlooking the village of Kirk’s Falls, population about thirteen hundred according to the sign.

Again, there were side roads and trails leading off the secondary roads. These were mostly running northwest and southeast, following some original survey that, one day, might be properly filled in. The population was scattered along the side-roads, not quite as dense as along the main highway. There were farmsteads and ranches and small trading-posts—they could hardly be called stores in many cases, at crossroads and intersections where the structures and even a few side-streets seemed denser, according to the satellite map.

The best road on the planet, Highway 17, was the most winding, as the road-builders had sought to find the easiest gradient, not necessarily always in a straight line in such hilly country.

There was a third threat on the battle-board, one that seemed much more subtle. Several large parties, equipped with light vehicles and weapons, had departed from Deneb City using the better gravel roads leading northwest and northeast into the bush. As near as anyone could determine, that original survey must have used the escarpment above the Great Sandy Desert as a baseline.

The public roads really didn’t extend that far, at which point the parties had broken up, exploring their own individual tracks.

There was, unfortunately, a maze of logging and prospecting trails. The trees were tall and thick, and still partly in leaf, providing some cover from surveillance. There were clumps of Terran conifers which were evergreen. They might be fighting patrols, hoping to make contact with the enemy. The odds were, the enemy would push them out as far as possible, in order to detect and spoil an attack from the flank, or perhaps to provide a counterforce in the event of surprise. Her own people were engaged on exactly the same task, and if they lost sight of the enemy from above, there was a very good chance they would run into each other—hopefully not without sufficient warning to the Confederation troops.

For that reason, satellite and drone surveillance were absolutely vital. Enemy troops on the ground, on foot and hearing or spotting a drone before it spotted them, would immediately know something was up—this worked both ways, of course.

Are we expected? Or is there somebody else out here? These were only two of the most obvious questions. So Dona was holding back on drone flights south of Roussef, unless the track was dead straight and obviously heading for Deneb.

They could fake it, making a quick pass over the enemy, but only so often—otherwise, it would be a dead giveaway that the drones were out looking for something specific. They were limited to four or five passes a day, no more. It was better not to use the same machine twice if they could help it. If the Unfriendlies had cracked the Confederation’s IFF, it would look more random, and it might tend to exaggerate in the minds of the enemy, the number of drones actually available.

As far as the situation in Deneb City went, enemy patrols were scouring the countryside in all directions, paying particular attention to a series of small outliers, hills two or three kilometres to the southeast and southwest of town. The ridges flanked the flats where the actual city and the spaceport were located. If the series of small ridges were outliers of the highlands, the wide, arid valley of Deneb City was an outlier of the desert…the Deneb River coming down out of the hills, right through the centre of town. Then it petered out into a vast salt marsh with no outlet. Only south of that was the spaceport located, on hard ground in the desert proper, the access road skirting the east side of the marsh just below the biggest of their hills and the one where Team Two was hidden.

The satellite had watched the Unfriendly patrols depart, tiny dots flaring with the infrared, and in the time elapsed they couldn’t have gotten too far—three to five kilometres, tops.

They had figured out where the Barkers had been firing from, at least in the general sense. 

They knew the direction, and might have had a pretty good idea of the range—multiple hits imparted a certain kind of information.

Sensors aboard ship would have noted the impacts, and combined with all the navigational and landing-positioning data, they must have had some kind of handle on it. The latest in micro-band radar might have picked up the slugs in flight. They had zero information as to whether the Boer-class ships had such a system.

The fire-teams in Deneb, holed up in the tops of half-empty office blocks, were sitting tight and awaiting developments. At this point, the enemy was still some distance away from the other teams—the satellite was still catching glimpses of the enemy patrols from time to time, but the higher the elevations, the thicker the brush in that ecosystem. Vehicles could only take them so far, after that it was all on foot.

In that terrain, there was map distance, and then there was vertical distance. The actual distance was a combination of the two.

Reading the enemy’s mind, they would try to make contact with the two known fire-teams, and then call in the big guns or missiles. They were well within range of the space-port, where there were batteries positioned and presumably ready. Some of the enemy’s long guns were capable of a range of up to thirty or forty thousand metres, and even smart-shells were relatively cheap.

Where the enemy had a few tanks, a couple of drones and helicopters, a handful of missile batteries, their artillery would be well-supplied with rounds of all types. Both of their mobile columns were well-equipped with towed artillery.


(End of part fifteen.)


Previous Episodes.

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six.
Part Seven.
Part Eight.
Part Nine.
Part Ten.
Part Eleven.
Part Twelve.
Part Thirteen.
Part Fourteen.


Images.

Image One. Private collection.
Image Three. CPCO.
Image Five. Denebola-Seven Chamber of Commerce.
Image Six. CPCO.
Image Seven.




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