Having lost the enemy machine, camouflaged and flying low over the terrain, Trooper Noya had reacquired it. He held it centred up for a moment, the system automatically recording everything that could be seen. His own radar was still turned off—he didn’t need it and the enemy machine would have detectors plastered all over it.
“Trooper Noya. Please break off and proceed to the patrol area.”
“Right. Anyhow, our trajectories are similar. I mean, coming and going. He must have launched at dawn, some time, maybe twenty minutes or half an hour after we did. I’m about a thousand metres behind and five hundred above in altitude. I don’t think they can see me. Logging all data-points. Coming about, Colonel. Sorry about that.” He tore his eyes away from the display to engage the camera pickup. “What’s interesting is that they went straight across country. They really should have followed the road, shouldn’t they?”
It might have implied haste, it might have implied some sense of insecurity. The Unfriendlies would like to know more about her own force, and that was for sure. They also knew exactly where to look, which was interesting in that their intel was accurate enough—insofar as it went, which could also be said of her own intelligence set-up.
They would have a lot of gaps in the data. They knew about the recent Confederation landing, or would very quickly. It had been reported on all the news sites, just as had the original small Unfriendly landing.
They knew all about her, and that was interesting.
“Hmn. Interesting observation. We are assuming they have a satellite, but. It is an assumption. Anyways, that was good thinking, Trooper. Welcome to the team.”
“Roger. Two minutes out at full throttle. All cameras and sensors on.” His active radar was still switched off.
His reasoning seemed good.
There was no need to respond, and there were people monitoring the cameras besides Noya.
“Force Two has arrived in Walzbruch and rendezvoused with our forces there. They’re setting up a few boobies and then they want to establish a blocking position.” His stylus indicated a point on Highway Three leading from Walzbruch to Deneb City. “When we get a minute, we’ll set up a few ambush points on Highway Two.”
Highway Two led from Walzbruch to Roussef.
In the immediate area of Walzbruch, there was the typical web of secondary roads, unimproved in most cases. The weather had been dry. They had local knowledge, and they would be able to withdraw under some cover and by a number of different tracks. Sooner or later, they had to pop out onto the highway in order to make any time.
Boobies were just that, booby-traps of varying complexity and lethality.
“Very well. Ask them to set up a couple of fallback positions on the way into Walzbruch, and one or two on the way out again.”
Captain Aaron stood there looking at the terrain, with the highways cut by numerous streams falling down from the highlands and a couple of vital bridges. Blow the right bridge, and the enemy would be held up for hours. If they went the wrong way around and took the wrong trail, or especially if the muddy season hit at just the right time…they could be stuck in the hills for days.
“Yes. I think that will be best—”
Looking around, it seemed the Colonel was busy elsewhere.
The Combat Command had come to the end of their window.
Holing up on high ground, on both sides of Highway 17, the heavier vehicles were five hundred metres or so further back, under the cover of trees and terrain. The fallback position was just over the brow of the hill using the reverse slope to keep plenty of dirt and rock between them and any enemy.
The Colonel was on the line, but she cut off abruptly.
They had their instructions. She was confident enough in them, and the plan. The only question was the cost.
With modern battlefield communications, now secure in their private fibre network, distributed by low-power radio at point of use, any unit or individual trooper could see everything that the people in the command centre saw. With nothing much going on where they were, it was an interesting insight into the battle.
“Proctor One. Proctor One. Missile launch—” This from Fire-Team Three to Trooper Noya on the drone.
“Thank you. Maneuvering.”
The horizon tipped over and then the machine was apparently spinning.
“Sorry, Colonel. I saw the flash—wasn’t too sure what it was.”
With the feed from the Mark Seventeen Satellite overhead, plus the report from Fire Team Three in the city, the missile tracked across the map, a small red bogey arrowing towards the green caret that was now Proctor One. Noya had been fine-tuning his display and controls and seemed fairly confident. Rapid confirmations came in from the other fire-teams, removing all doubts.
She’d have to ask Noya about all that ability—but he clearly had some.
“Trooper Noya.” In the camera view, the horizon spun wildly.
“Hopefully we don’t pull the wings off this thing.”
“Proctor One. Proctor One.”
“Go ahead, over.”
“Missile impact in three, two, one.”
“What? Say again. Say again, Proctor One.”
“Not if I can help it. I’m right on the treetops. I just saw something, a quick flash in the corner of the view-field.”
“Proctor One. Proctor One, come in please.”
“Proctor One here. Go ahead.”
“Status of Proctor One.”
“We’re still flying. That was nowhere near us.”
“Proctor One. Report.”
“I did a snap-roll and then threw her into a flat spin. Otherwise you get going too fast, and we’re only a thousand metres up. We got lucky. Over.”
She could look up flat spin later—
“Roger that, Proctor One. They’ll have a few more of those, over.”
“Absolutely. Colonel. I’ve got an idea. I’d like to get closer, over.”
“What’s your plan, Proctor One?”
“We go semi-autonomous, nap-of-the-dirt, down low where they can’t see us. We get close. Pop up, take a look, and then drop down before they can hit us. Over.”
“Can you program that, Proctor One?” Or fly it.
“Yes. If I can get one of the girls to fly this thing for a couple of minutes, I should be able to figure it out. Manual flight with stability-control and terrain collision warning and avoidance. It’s all high-G stuff. If we weren’t in so much of a hurry this morning—”
“Roger. Permission to proceed. Do you need a break? Can you set the thing to circle for a couple of minutes?”
“Marissa’s here, she thinks she can handle it. Some of them have been taking turns on the game, uh, I mean the simulator.”
“Very well. Carry on, and good work.”
“Thank you Colonel. Likewise, I’m sure.”
Gunnery Sergeant Kelly was in the front seat of a Hellion, with the board down low in front of him, watching and listening in fascination.
“Go ahead, Proctor One.”
“How many of those things do they got?”
“At least three launchers in a typical battery, three missiles per launcher. They have pretty good range for their size. Thirty to fifty kilometres, depending on altitude, distance and angle.” Straight up, it was all boost, on lower angles the small, pop-out winglets helped support it and extended the range. “We can assume quite a number of reloads, copy?”
“Yes, Proctor One?” There was a patient note in the Colonel’s voice.
She must be having a hell of a long day, thought Kelly.
“If you don’t mind—I’m going to pull a few more teeth.”
The sergeant grinned a feral grin.
I don’t know who the hell that guy is, but I like him—
“Very well. And thank you, Trooper.”
“Yes, ma’am. My pleasure.”
Kelly sat there grinning.
Yeah, she’d been having that effect on a lot of them—the males, anyways.
Apparently, back home, his youngest kid was sick and the marriage wasn’t doing too well either.
Captain Herzon had all kinds of worries.
Kelly only had the one.
Get in, get the job done. Get paid, and go home.
It was as simple as that.
He’d also read the Colonel’s book and she really knew her business.
Otherwise, he wouldn’t have bothered to come along.
“Okay. Here we go. Brigadier-General McMurdo was a full Colonel. Only recently promoted, he was a colonel for fourteen years. This looks like a big opportunity for him. Was second in command at the siege of Roget Four. Implicated in war crimes, but never indicted. His family owns a few hundred-million hectares on Shiloh, as well as being involved in big agri-business there.” Many of his troops, raised on his own manor by the regiment, would also be tenants and clients, some of them personally known to him.
Like the manor itself, the regiments raised this way would be passed down within the family tree.
The troops might be traditional military retainers. At least some undoubtedly would be.
They would be the sons of his nearest neighbours—more food for thought. The other thing was that Guards units were of very high status. The regiment had been constituted by his great-grandfather, with a patent from the government of Shiloh. Guards status had been earned in a particularly vicious little siege fifty years ago. The McMurdo name was all over the place, not just historically, but presently, as a captain and a lieutenant of that name were also serving.
Hmn. Very interesting—
Holding up a hand, Dona answered the trooper, his face tense as he pulled off his VR set.
“We’ve got trucks coming out of Deneb City. They’re not on the main road…”
“Ah.” With a nod to Lieutenant Wheeler, interrupted in her briefing on McMurdo, Dona got up from the hot-seat in the command centre.
Going over to the trooper’s station, the two of them put on the goggs and had a look.
In the background, phones were buzzing and there was a dull hum of activity as data came in and orders, instructions, clarifications, went out.
“Ah.” License numbers flashed across the screen, captured and analyzed by the drone aircraft as it popped up once again from behind the hilltops. “Nothing to worry about. Those trucks belong to us. They’re full of grain. Flour, cereals, all kinds of staple and prepared foods.”
The trucks had transponders, all of them pinging away in routine fashion. They all matched up with a list of numbers provided by a civilian, known only as Dav13. Dav13 was risking a lot if they got caught—man, woman, child, whatever.
The trooper zoomed out to a larger picture of the battle zone.
“The Unfriendlies have a roadblock on Highway Seventeen…fifteen kilometres out. Nothing on the secondary roads north of town.” He bit his lip. “They’ll figure it out soon enough. But they’ve been unloading and billeting their troops. They have a command post, they’ve commandeered truck garages and repair shops. They’ve put out a couple of proclamations—”
“They know where we are, all right. Mostly. They’ve got a lot to think about. With numerical superiority, they may be a bit lax. Keep an eye on those trucks…”
Taking off the goggles, another trooper was signalling from a nearby station.
“Thank you. Keep on it—and watch them. Our people have been in communication. Dav13 seems legit, but there is always the possibility of a trick.” She patted him on the shoulder and went to the next trooper.
“What’s up, Trooper Kubili?”
“Ah. Seems to be some rioting in the town square.”
Absently nibbling her lip, she nodded.
Paul had been busy while she was asleep…and that was what money was for, after all.
Right on schedule. All her junior officers had to do was to follow their various time-lines, much like a big engineering or construction project. Some of those time-lines started or stopped at different times, some were of different lengths. Various units had been assigned to various tasks, although they had scrambled to revise the plan somewhat once on the actual ground.
Whether long or short, the timelines for each task were set in different colours—she and Paul had only had so many coloured markers when they laid it all out, but they were all on parallel tracks, clearly labeled, units and commanders penned in there, hopefully leading to some kind of a decisive conclusion. That original paper schedule had been professionally rendered onscreen and all commanders and NCOs had it. Troops could look at it if they wanted to—and reassuringly, quite a number had already done so going by the autocount.
Hopefully the enemy would play along—and they probably would, if presented with exactly the right case at any given moment.
“Very well.” The camera, set up earlier by Fire Team Three, was on a tall building a couple of blocks from Deneb City Hall and the built-up downtown area.
They had a half a dozen cameras in the downtown area. Slaved to the Confederation satellite, this one was running on pure laser.
“Right on time. This is a diversion—and it proves something. The people are on our side, or at least enough of them…”
“Won’t the Unfriendlies just fire into the crowd, Colonel?”
“Yes, probably. But not right away. They’ll try bellowing through a megaphone first. Water-cannons and tear-gas. They’ll form a line of shields and try and push them out. Right? Hopefully, our friends will follow advice.”
“Advice? Which was what, exactly, Colonel. If you don’t mind me asking?”
“Not to push their luck too far. Draw as many enemy troops into the city centre in as short a time as possible, and then disperse as quickly as possible…” She watched, fascinated, as protesters rolled a police vehicle onto its side.
One had to wonder if they’d done it before.
People were milling around, shouting, waving fists and signs, showing signs of some organization as they confronted the Unfriendly position on the edge of a large square.
The Unfriendlies were assembling at the end of a couple of side-streets.
There was no sound, not at that range. Whether this was a blessing or a curse was a question for another day. The usual leadership types would be right in the Unfriendly faces, hollering abuse and baiting them to fight. There was a semi-circle, a gaggle of the uncommitted, all along the periphery.
Within a minute, black smoke began billowing from the vehicle, and yet there were clearly visible, men and women in police uniforms, standing off to one side and watching the protest without attempting to interfere—thus far. At the far end of the block, a mass of field-grey uniforms were forming up, officers scurrying to and fro, lining them up for what might be an unusual situation. There were anti-riot weapons, batons, helmets and plastic shields, shotguns with non-lethal rounds…at first, at least. That would only hold true for so long. They were trained in conventional infantry tactics, and dealing with an unarmed mob was going to be something of a challenge. Assuming they didn’t want a bloodbath—
The first puffs of white gas exploded over the heads of the crowd. There were a few civilians down there with gas-masks of a sort used in industry. Pretty much all of them had some sort of masks or bandannas across their faces. Someone had been using their heads…that also went for the enemy, clearly somewhat prepared for civil unrest. The possibility of civil unrest would commit a sizable force just to hold Deneb City and keep order. She wanted the mob to underline that point. A city of that size would nail down at least a thousand troops and possibly more, just to keep positive control.
“More trucks coming out.” A voice from nearby. “They match our list.”
She lifted the goggles, giving the trooper a wave.
He nodded, as people’s eyes were glued wordlessly to their screens, while others typed messages and listened intently to calls and signals coming in from all over the zone.
“You’re welcome, Colonel Graham.”
(End of part twelve.)
Image One. Confederation Public Communications Office.
Image Two. Walzbruch Public Library.
Image Three. Denebola-Seven Defence Force.
Image Four. CPCO.
Image Five. CPCO.
Image Six. Denebola-Seven Chamber of Commerce.
Image Seven. Collection the author.
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