“Enemy drone overhead.”
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.
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.
“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.)
Image One. Confederation Public Communications Office.
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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