The second engagement on Highway 17 was reaching a crescendo. The Unfriendlies were adapting quickly, having kept a light scouting force a half a kilometre ahead of the column.
The main body was still mostly screened by the intervening hillside. The first of their larger armoured cars was only now cresting the ridge, quickly firing off smoke and backing up hastily. The enemy seemed to be leaving a bigger gap between vehicles, and this time the surprise wasn’t nearly so complete.
“All right, break it off.” The corporal in charge of this team received an acknowledgment from all personnel and then activated their smoke screen, hard-wired and fired from a panel with its own power supply and solar charger. “All right. Go, go, go.”
Rounds began exploding between the two forces, and a thick white fog descended over the valley…
Again, a small party, their vehicle heavily camouflaged and well off out of the battle zone, would be staying behind. They could only do that so often before running out of people and Pumas. For the time being, it seemed the enemy had no clue and probably thought all Confederation forces were withdrawing. That was the big Hail Mary play—
And it seemed to be working. The enemy were dismounting on the other side of that mountain.
The ones down in the valley were out of sight behind the brow of the hill, also there was still smoke and dust hanging in the air. Fire opened up from the other side, and there were impacts and explosions over there, as hot targets were acquired by the Confederation’s light weapons.
There were bangs and booms all over the place as the enemy responded, and a light scatter of blasted tree branches, stones and clods of earth fell among them. With nothing much to aim at, the anti-armour unit stayed quiet, and now the first mortar bombs were landing on the Unfriendly column.
It was as good a time to go as any—and the next ambush would be purely automated, with no Confederation warm bodies anywhere in the vicinity.
His people could use a rest—however short.
Force multiplication was the key to any success against superior forces.
Dona Graham was not the first to write a book on the subject, but so much of what had been written was ancient history. It didn’t take modern technology and the spread of humankind among the stars into account. Hopefully, higher command understood that part—although there were times when she wasn’t sure she did herself. Not really—not completely. There was room for instinct in that equation, or set of equations.
The tactics of delay used force multiplication as a basic tenet. If defense was favoured over the offense by three or four to one, by classic definition, then anything that could be added to that equation, in terms of the terrain, superior intelligence, superior weapons and tactics, only unbalanced that enemy force even further. This was not likely to be a rehash of World War One, but with their ten-to-one advantage, the Unfriendlies were clearly hoping for a battle of attrition.
For a couple of thousand dead, they or their alleged clients would gain an entire planet, one that had been well-modified, one where human life was relatively easy compared to some airless asteroid, no matter how rich in one element or another.
The agricultural potential would be especially attractive, certainly in the eyes of the Unfriendlies, with their hordes of the Faithful to feed and house, and ultimately, to govern. To go forth and multiply—this was something they were actually good at.
She would have to use all of her advantages, in order to exploit enemy weaknesses to the full, and to not allow them to use too many of their strengths.
This was very much true for the fighting retreat. The terrain was perfect for it, with the land a quilt of forest, hills, rivers and lakes. Less than one percent of the battle-zone as predicted was open ground, farms, fields and pasture. Plenty of swamps thrown in for good measure. Forward elements, in very small numbers, were sufficient to set up an ambush and slow down an enemy.
Falling back, they faded through the next ambush or line of defense. If under observation by drone or satellite, yes; they could be followed. The next line was still concealed. There were just too many hills, big, small and indifferent. There were too many cuts, gullies and gorges.
Each line was set up at some random distance, and staffed by fresh troops, eager for action and champing at the bit after learning about the previous success. Hell—they were watching it in real-time, something the average enemy trooper was not technically capable of. All the enemy soldier knew was what he was told, or what he saw with his own eyes.
Larger forces could be held back. In this case, they were simply unavailable. They were also unnecessary—which was probably why she’d been assigned to Deneb in the first place.
What better way, what better time and place, to demonstrate her theory and to prove that it worked in practice.
As for the enemy, forced onto the offensive, due to circumstances or inclination, on a single avenue of attack such as Highway 17, their numbers almost didn’t matter.
A plan depends on information, a good plan demands good information. A great plan takes into account every single scrap of available information. There was no such thing as the perfect plan…but then, there was no such thing as perfect information.
Especially once things got going, and things got going pretty fast, sometimes.
It was all about situational awareness.
While much about the enemy remained unknown, they had good information about their own forces and about the local terrain. They were more familiar with the local conditions, even the local weather information that the enemy might not have or might not be totally familiar with.
It wasn’t so much the information as the significance that it held, which might be denied to the enemy. Such things often came from hard, practical experience.
As for the enemy, all she had to know was where they were. And the answer was almost too simple. The enemy was on the road.
There was nowhere else for them to be. In fact, this might account for McMurdo and his planners using multiple columns. They knew they outnumbered the Confederation troops. It was an attempt to divide attention, to spread the Confederation as thinly as possible, trying to meet all possible threats…some food for thought there regarding the action, or imminent action, in the hill country south of Roussef. On balance, her forces there were very small and one would have little choice but to patrol such a sector anyways. Her initial plan had a few optional variations, for her forces in the boonies south of the town.
However that might turn out, it was not a big factor.
Six or eight people with relatively simple weapons could stop an enemy column in its tracks for x-amount of time. It was not a question of defeating that enemy, merely slowing them down.
The key was to make them think.
In this terrain, hilly, forested and cut with long, narrow valleys going across the line of the enemy’s attack, this was doubly true—another force multiplier. Six, really good people, could escape and evade across country where a hundred more mediocre soldiers could not. At least not without some losses. Some leadership, some direction.
One light vehicle was easier to hide than a dozen heavy ones. Their loss would not cripple the Confederation, although the same held true for the enemy.
The enemy could afford to trade busted vehicles at a rate of nine or ten to one. For all she knew, they could outspend her at the same or an even greater rate. She was sure they had their budget too. The question was, what was the ratio in terms of time?
With the Confederation already in residence, duly-signed contracts in place, and a presence of forty or more years already, the onus of action lay with the enemy.
Winter was coming, but it was the enemy setting the time-table, as best they could. They knew enough not to waste time. They’d attacked at the earliest possible moment after landing the main force. The fact that resistance was made would play into the enemy thinking. Was the Confederation planning to reinforce or relieve the forces in place? The Organization’s reputation preceded it, in which case, evacuation would appear to be unlikely, even to the Unfriendlies. In which case, the Unfriendlies had better get there first and mop up any last resistance. They needed victory and for that they also needed Roussef, and Ryanville as well.
With some level ground and open fields up there, a landing from space was definitely possible. The Confederation had already proven that.
That went for Milo too, but clearly the enemy was leaving them for last. It’s what she would have done with such an obvious backwater, unconnected by road with any other populated place, and with such a vast, uninhabited hinterland between here and there.
That was the trouble with Milo, any Confederation force that was foolish enough to land there, would be stranded with no avenue of attack and no possibility of withdrawal in the event of a superior force coming down on their heads.
Yet in the political sense, it might become a necessity. This would effectively divide the planet, leading to the formation of two competing governments…it would at least prevent total victory for the Unfriendlies. That unpleasant eventuality had also had been written into the plan.
With Unfriendly forces in close proximity to all the local landing ports, the Confederation would be foolish to attempt any further action. The Unfriendly experience at the hands of the fire-teams with their Barkers would be utterly convincing. They had their own, similar weapons-systems too.
Unfortunately, Dona knew enough not to count on such relief, but McMurdo had no real way of knowing that, or so she was hoping.
A few dead bodies and a couple of vehicles destroyed would not deter them for long, and they would keep coming on. This was exactly what her plan depended on, and she was confident enough in that aspect of theory.
The thing was, it didn’t matter if the enemy had sixty, or six hundred, or six thousand troops—there was only one road. At its best, it was ten metres wide, sometimes less. Blowing even the smallest culvert would cost the enemy time. As they got closer to Roussef, more and more of the smaller bridges would be blown. The enemy didn’t know that part, not yet. Side-roads, serving perhaps a half a dozen householders, might seem initially inviting, but they quickly deteriorated into muddy tracks going nowhere. The enemy seemed to understand that, for it hadn’t even really been attempted, not yet, anyways. A battle or firefight took only so long, and then her troops broke it off. If they kept it short, the enemy had no time to flank them on the side-roads.
The enemy wouldn’t waste a missile where a few troops would suffice…not when they didn’t know what they were looking at. The ambush points were carefully chosen due to a lack of nearby side-roads, at least on the enemy’s side of the line. The surrounding terrain was rough indeed. It took twenty minutes to climb the average hill, and people weren’t much good by the time they got to the top…not carrying a pack, a weapon, and some water. Not under fire, hearts pounding and blinded from sweat running in the eyes.
The enemy would always be thirsty. Although there was plenty of fresh water around, the stuff in the ditches wasn’t very appealing. Going into the hills looking for water would be time-consuming and dangerous with unknown forces in the vicinity.
Outflanking maneuvers would take more time than the enemy was willing to commit. It took the enemy time to scout, clear and remove any obstacle. The enemy would have some kind of a time-table. Her impression was that they were figuring on wrapping this one up in about a week or ten days…sooner if they could do it.
Her reading of the strategic situation in this sector of the galaxy was such, that their troops were urgently needed elsewhere. The same could be said of the Confederation, of course, but the numbers were so small, her contingent would hardly be missed in the larger conflict…
This had its psychological imperatives, alone and of itself. And the more troops there were, the more the confusion, the longer it took to get them going again in any semblance of order.
This was an odd double-whammy of force multiplication that would become clearer as the battle went on. It was almost the reverse of force-multiplication. Her forces would always be more agile, more elusive, more dispersed. Sooner or later, McMurdo must figure it out. A few things, anyways—in fact she was counting on it. In a sense, she was hoping that he would reinforce—the more troops he had up here, the more supply they required…the more opportunities for surprise and ambush along the way. For the enemy, two-way traffic was required to sustain any operation. By withdrawing, she had foregone that luxury as it was too expensive to maintain anyways.
There was also the war of information—good or bad, information or disinformation. This was why, in war, we talk to our enemy.
There were many forms of communication, not all of them quite so formal as picking up a phone and calling a number.
This was non-verbal communication in its extreme. This was kinetic activity, a fine euphemism for killing each other.
The Unfriendlies had stopped, backed up and taken cover on the other side of a small ridge on the approach to Walzbruch.
This had been anticipated, and the distances had been carefully measured and ranges taken.
All the mortar teams had to do was to fire on the coordinates. Since they were planning on recovering the tubes, there were a few people involved. This was still true in modern war.
Not all weapons were disposable, although it was a trend.
Smoke and fire erupted from over there as Robert and the sergeant searched the sky. The noise was enough that they were never going to hear the drone overhead…the rocket batteries screamed and the explosions merged into one dull roar. The tops of trees moved back and forth in the wind, adding their own soughing sound to the mix.
Off in the distance, thunder rumbled and lightning flared in the blue-black masses of cloud on the horizon. Their half of the sky was still relatively clear, but the storm was moving fast.
They were looking for a moving dot in a sea of moving branches and quivering dead leaves against a sky that was bright and milky with haze.
They got lucky. The Unfriendlies, desperate to locate and engage with an enemy, even a fully-automated one, had brought the drone down to five hundred metres.
“Can you get a lock?”
“I can’t even see it yet.” The faint hum overhead was muffled by trees, the leaves now rapidly turning, and the breeze in the treetops. “Damn. Damn…”
They had to wait for the sun-dazzle to clear.
Foom, foom, foom, as more mortar-bombs went off amidst the background roar. Snap, crackle and pop as things began to burn and men over there began to fire back. The sergeant had one ear open for the spang of a bullet through tree branches, but nothing yet—
Robert peered through the detached eyepiece, keeping his left eye open to search for the target.
The sergeant’s head bobbed around, trying to keep as much cover as possible and still trying to see it the second it popped out from behind the treetops.
“Ah, that’s better.”
“What’s that, sergeant?”
“They’re shooting at us, lad.”
“Oh.” The kid laughed—
The kid laughed.
The Sky-Cat missile could be shoulder-launched, but in its present mode it was mounted on a heavy tripod with electric motors driving it around and changing its elevation and depression.
The growl coming from his earpiece indicated that the enemy drone was using active radar and suppression, however if it got close enough the Sky-Cat’s own system would burn right through that. This particular model of drone was powered by turbines and ducted fans, shrouded and set up high so there wasn’t much chance of getting heat-lock in the infrared. For this, the Sky-Cat’s radar set, fifty metres further on, would be key. When the trigger was pulled, it would come on, and not a second sooner.
The thing was headed downrange, having come over from behind their position, looking for a heat-trace, a physical object its systems could identify, possibly even with human eyes monitoring the cameras and sensors…in which case mere colour, something shiny, an unusual shape, or just a bit of exposed flesh might give them away. The battery, a hundred metres to their right would be a dead giveaway.
There were always going to be risks.
The sergeant put the pipper of his laser-designator onto the rear belly of the aircraft. The drone had been barely three hundred metres out to the left, a hundred and fifty metres up. It was crossing now to the right, although the distance was rapidly growing and he could barely see what he was doing…the sun was setting into thick clouds, which was helpful.
It was a pretty small target. He was pretty sure he had locked it.
It was noisy as hell out there.
“…good lock, here we go…”
The Sky-Cat could use both target-acquisition methods simultaneously, comparing the data from each of them for better accuracy, and just then Robert must have pressed the tit.
There was a blast of heat felt even from forty or fifty metres away, and noise and smoke, and having turned off the power switch, Robert tossed the sighting-tube inside its padded case, diving back into their own special little hole and reaching for his personal weapon.
“All, right, hit the boots, Robert. Escape and evade. Follow the plan.”
The enemy was already laying fire down on their position, given away by the ropy smoke-trail and the whoosh of the missile launch. At this range, return fire wasn’t so much aimed as sprayed across the hillside, and the odds of being hit were pretty low.
The trouble was, they had no choice but to leave their friendly little hole in the ground. The nice thing about trees was that there were a hell of a lot of them.
He’d read once somewhere, that three metres of corn would stop a rifle-calibre machine gun bullet at a hundred metres.
Hell, it might even be true.
(End of part nineteen.)
Part Eighteen. (Appears on bringer of rain blog due to administrative error. Other than that, it’s quite all right. – ed.)
Image One. Confederation Public Communications Office.
Image Two. Roussef Daily News.
Image Three. Denebola-Seven Chamber of Commerce.
Image Four. Collection of Louis Shalako.
Image Five. CPCO, taken by Team Three early in the conflict.
Image Six. Manufacturer's Handout Photo.
Image Seven. CPCO.
Image Eight. CPCO, Command Centre Three.
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