Macalister Farm, 13.20 New Washington Local Time


Lt Tranh and his platoon sergeant V J Singh crouched behind the remains of what used to be a concrete wall that surrounded a cluster of buildings that made up a typical New Washington homestead. The platoon had been taking fire from both snipers and what seemed to be remote mobile mortars all day and neither his men on the ground or the vast array of sensors at his disposal had been able to pinpoint exactly where it was coming from, that is until the orbital had caught some scrambled radio traffic coming from the homestead they were currently using as shelter. Unfortunately it turned out to be another decoy mounted on the roof of the main building and after breaching the wall with his first section led by V J Singh and Corporal Pusey they had spent the next hour or so rounding up the extended family and their workers, the rest of the platoon had spread out to cordon off the compound and were sitting on their arses ensuring no one got in or out. Orbital was now running biometrics on all the “detainees” and as usual the results were coming through with no matches. Tranh now had the task of explaining to the irate homeowner, a forty something sun ripened wheat farmer why he and his men had blown a hole in his nice new wall and no, he knew nothing about the transmitter sitting on the roof of his house. Unfortunately this held water as the insurgents had a habit of distributing relays, listening devices and decoys from remote drones which they launched over the valley at regular intervals. The compound was built a little way up the valleys surrounding hills which gave it an excellent view over the endless rolling wheat fields right down to the plains and through to the distant sea, at any other time, with the sun setting over the ocean this would be a great place to grab a beer, a seat on the verandah and watch the world go by. Another place, another time. Tranhs earpiece beeped and a text message scrolled across the top corner of his field of view: “OBJECTIVE UPDATE DOWNLOADING” Tranh pulled the map from the chest pocket of his body amour, and unfolded it to reveal the live image of the valley and its surrounds. At this scale his platoon was represented by a single blue square with the designator three-alpha-two sitting by a building symbol that said “Macalister Farm”, confusingly the owner of the place was called Harris but that meant little as the colonists on New Washington tended to name things rather eclectically, they either had absolutely no relevance whatsoever and referred to historical local identities or they were totally obvious like “Big Mountain” or “Long River” either way the Battalion had taken to designating everything with a number, Macalister Farm was referred as CIV387296, this ensured the Orbital Operations Centre had a unique reference for every point of interest on the planet. Tranh tapped V J on the shoulder and pointed to the map which was updating its objective markers and waypoints as they watched. “Suspected command centre? Bullshit!” muttered V J as the icons appeared over some hills about thirty clicks up the side of the valley. “Now V J, that attitude shows a lack of faith in our superior leadership and cutting edge technology” Tranh said sarcastically. V Js weather beaten Indian face glared out from under his up turned visor, he was now in his late thirties and had been on deployment for a large percentage of his eighteen year career, many planets and many different suns had etched their way into the lines on his face. Tranh at twenty two was relatively experienced as far as platoon commanders go but every minute he thanked the gods that he had been given V J as his platoon Sergeant. “Ell tee, you know as well as I do that no insurgent in his right mind would set up camp for more than five minutes out in the open especially on top of a hill where every remote can see what he is having for dinner, it’s another decoy or worst case it’s an ambush.” Tranh studied the map and zoomed into the objective marker, the sight looked relatively benign a small plateau on top of a mid sized hill at the base of the valley walls. He touched the map again and bought up the menu, scrolling down to “INTEL”. “POSSIBLE LOCATION OF COMMAND AND CONTROL CENTRE FOR LOCAL INSURGENT CELL, INTEL DELIVERED BY LOCAL HUMAN RESOURCE. EXPECT FIVE TO TEN ARMED PLUS COMMS AND SUPPORT. END.” “Well that says it all, very helpful” sighed Tranh. His earpiece beeped and a text scrolled across the top corner of his field of view “VOICE SUNRAY ZERO ALPHA ACCEPT YES/NO” Sunray zero alpha was his company commander Major King, he was probably after an update on the civilians he was running bios on, he blinked yes. “Sunray zero alpha this is sunray zero two alpha, go ahead over” Tranh nodded at V J who returned the gesture with a cocked eyebrow, voice comms with the CO were pretty rare, they mainly got map updates or text messages any voice was usually handled by their Orbital Tactical Officer. "Zero two alpha you have your new objective, be aware battalion has their eye on this as they believe this is a hot lead, Tacops is showing no activity on the target but they have intel that indicates that the reds may be using captured USMC cam gear, do you copy?" Tranh acknowledged the company CO. King continued , " we have allocated mortar support as needed and I will move three zero one alpha up to support if needed. You are weapons free, I repeat, weapons free, do you copy?" V J looked genuinely surprised, weapons free enabled their platoon weapons to fire at their owners desecration, usually targets had to be positively identified and designated before they can be fired upon, weapons free status was usually activated once the firefight heated up an then only on authorisation from the Orbital Tactical Officer. This was shaping up to be bigger than expected. Thranh acknowledged a second time realising he was now wholly responsible for any stuff ups by his platoon. King signed off, his command track was around sixty clicks further down the valley and by the sounds of it this little operation had grabbed both his and the battalion C Os attention. Tranh opened up his map and took a moment to digest what the platoon needed to accomplish. It seemed simple, mount the platoon up in their tracks, tactical move to the base of what was a lightly wooded hill then assault along the dirt road to the top dismounting and fanning out into a skirmish line as they hit the open area of the plateau proper. Speed and aggression, the only issue will be if they mine the track, most mines will not do too much to an M26 infantry carrier but you never know. The rebels had come mainly from a USMC battalion that decided to fight for local independence in exchange for land grants at the end of the conflict, being a garrison unit they were only equipped as light infantry with limited anti armour weapons however only a few had cropped up so far and Tranh didn't want a track full of troopers hit by one of the American smart missiles. "Ok V J here's the drill, we have this track running onto the plateau, if this is important to the reds they will have it mined an covered by anti armour plus they will have sensor coverage around the hill." V J nodded as Tranh sketched his thoughts out on the map, " so we drop two sections under me at the tree line on the closest side while you take the third section plus the support and the tracks, along the dirt road. The engineering 'bots should be able to clear the road but they will take their time, meanwhile I will have advanced the klick or so up the hill and be ready to assault from the tree line as soon as you and your tracks are ready to fan out and provide covering fire for us, wham bam anyone hiding up there gets the shock of their short lives." V J ran his eyes over the map and considered the plan, "mortars?" he queried. " Nope, let's catch em with their pants down, mortars will only tip them off, we have to assume they have dug themselves in after all we can't see anything up there so they must be cammed up good and proper." Tranh pulled his section commanders in for a briefing, usually briefings were done remotely via headsets, HUD and live map but V J had taught him that the only way you could be sure your guys " got it" was to have face to face briefings if time permitted. After half an hour he was confident everyone was onboard so he loaded his final plan onto the network updating all the live maps in the platoon, this was also fed through to the company commander who gave it a rapid green light on Tranhs checklist, ok they were now off. As the group broke up and headed back to their sections, Tranh quickly checked over his own gear, gauss rifle powered, each of the six eighty round magazines was showing a full charge and he made sure they were secured in his chest rig. He asked one of the one section diggers to check his emissions with his thermals, his cool suit under the rigid body armour should blend his heat signature into the background, coupled with the active camouflage it made them virtually invisible if they were still enough and went to ground, once they moved all bets were off and once you started building up a sweat the cool suits struggled to bleed heat fast enough. The boxy tracks pulled up in front of the homestead, dropped their rear doors and the squads started loading up, each track took a nine man section, each section consisted of two four man fire teams and a corporal. The average infantry squad pack some serious firepower, each fire team had three gauss rifles with an under barrel grenade launcher plus a heavy barrelled rapid fire squad support weapon firing the same five millimetre flechettes as the the standard rifle but at a rate of around eight hundred rounds per minute and fed from a thousand round magazine carried on the firer's back. Each soldier in the squad carried a spare five kilo magazine in their back pack enabling the support gunners to lay down some serious fire. At platoon level the support section had three medium support weapons, similar concept to the SSW but firing the bigger ten millimetre flechette. The bigger round had the ability to guide itself onto a laser designated target and could be set up to fire in a area fire mode or a single target mode, either way the sight of hundreds of darts covering onto a target was pretty awesome. The MSW was operated by a two man team and was tasked to the sections as needed, currently Tranh had one MSW team assigned to each of his sections to give them some beefed up firepower. The tracks forward twenty millimetre rail gun turret rotated slowly, remotely scanning for any activity while the rear point defence system hummed and whirred ominously waiting for any incoming threats to unleash it's multi barrel gun onto. Tranh watched as his squad leaders marshalled their men and loaded them up, no fuss or bother, everyone new the drill. Weeks of training on earth plus endless simulator time on board HMAS Kapyong, third battalions troop transport, on the six week journey out had honed the whole battalions skills, now with three months on the ground and more than a few firefights the platoon was sharp. He shouldered his rifle and trotted over to one sections track and headed up the ramp, squeezing past the soldiers seated on either side. Most had their visors up and were chatting to comrades or munching on rat pack energy bars, it helped that Tranh was small, his Vietnamese ancestry paid off at times like this. He strapped himself into the command seat directly behind Private Mellon, the tracks seventeen year old driver. The first thing each soldier did was plug his power/data cable into the port on the roof by his seat. The cable charged the batteries than regulated all the electronic equipment from the HUD to the heat management and enabled access to the expanded bandwidth of the track WAN link, the latest data was updated instantly plus they could access the feeds from the external sensors on the vehicle. The command seat was a little different, it had three touch screens that enabled the occupant to manage the tactical operation of the units under his command. From this seat Tranh begun to designate waypoints for each of his sections while at the same time issuing the order to move out. Usually the command seat was dedicated to the operation of the vehicle and controlled the weapons system as well but since it was doubling as the platoon command vehicle he had handed the weapon control off to orbital. Usually he would have his own track, driver and analyst which he would share with his AT team and the medic but the shortage of interface tonnage had left them short of vehicles. The AT teams had been re-tasked as rifleman, much to their annoyance, to fill out the holes left by the slow arrival of fresh meat from Infantry Centre. "Ok ladies, time to review our orders, HUDs up people and let's step it through, we only have thirty clicks before showtime". He ran through the operation using the soldiers HUD displays, everyone of them would have a complete picture of what his part in it would be, what to expect when the ramp dropped and they headed into the real world. He also had orbital tapped in so they could mange his support requests when he needed them, his orbital controller plus his AI could mange their data flow and keep Tranh and his team fed with relevant data avoiding the "analysis paralysis" that can happen with so much information being fed into the mix. The whole idea behind the networked soldier was to enable him to think ahead of the enemy, predict what, where and when they would act and take them out before they had a chance to react. Great idea in theory but of course now even the bad guys had their own systems so what had been a competitive advantage now became a battle between processing power and management software which in the end usually was won by the deepest pockets. As had been the case with all technology, including the good stuff like chameleon uniforms and vehicle coating, it still took boots on the ground to win battles and if anything the infantryman was even more important than ever. "Orbital, what's the latest" Tranh kept his internal platoon communications pretty informal, radio procedure was generally reserved for communicating on the wider company and battalion net. "Ground, nothing much so far, still no visible activity from the location but intel is still Insisting their source is good. I have two mortar tracks online and designated call sign "thunder one" and " thunder two ". We also have some air on call if we need it and worse case some orbital arty if we need to dig some serious holes". Tranh checked the icons on his left screen, tap them on the touch screen, map or select them on his HUD and he could designate any target to rain destruction down on, the only factor was how quickly it arrived. He checked the time on target number next to each of the support icons and naturally the mortars at three hundred and twenty seconds provided him with the best immediate support. The actual vehicles themselves were cruising with the battalion command group and mounted one hundred and twenty millimetre auto fed and magnetically propelled tubes on the standard track hull, their crew of two were really only there to maintain the system and keep the autoloaders fed with bombs, even the driver was hands off most of the time. "Orbital, looks good but keep full spectrum on the target, no surprises ok?" Corporal Foster Bullis sat strapped to two sections tracks command chair, the hum and whine of the vehicles multiple electric engines never really getting load enough to force him to raise his voice if he needed to talk to his driver. The rail gun turret buzzed fitfully in it's mount behind his right shoulder, the huge cylindrical magazine blocked off most of his view to the passenger compartment behind but he could hear the section chatting and laughing amongst themselves. Morale was good. They were all impossibly young having been sold the ANZAC dream and the promise of good pay plus the soldier resettlement scheme at the end of their five years. Their ticket to the Australian dream on one of six established colony worlds including the Australian continent on the one they were now fighting on. So far they hadn't faced anything but remote snipers, IEDs and the occasional hit and run raid but they had taken their toll, nothing like the shit fight they would have if the reaming rebel USMC units decided to get serious and take them on. He was pretty sure they would be able to hold them off, orbital superiority was a bitch if you didn't have it but these guys had taken with them some serious kit including fourteen combat walkers, none of which had made an appearance. Bullis had been through three major off world operations in his ten years with the infantry including the nasty boarder dispute with the Chinese on New Victoria, two modern and well equipped forces went head to head for four months with no result except a whole heap of additions to the honour roll on both sides. In the end Australian Navy starships managed to secure orbit but the ground forces had run out of just about everything and had no way to exploit it, enter the UN and a negotiated ceasefire. Six years on and it was still holding, just. Reviewing the LTs plan as the track bounced and rolled along what was now only a dirt track surround on either side by endless pine plantations, he got the feeling that it was about time the rebels made an appearance and that this may be as good a place as any for them to do so. They we coming up to the point where his and Puseys one section would break off ninety degrees to the road and push through the pines for a short distance into some open fields at the base of the hill. He felt the track lurch to the right leave the road and start to push through the pines, he could faintly hear them cracking as his lead vehicle started to make headway. This was one if the many situations where a good human driver who was actually sitting in the vehicle made all the difference, feeling your way through the trees was not a job for a remote. "Keep it up Burnsey, watch those bigger trees mate" Bullis egged on his driver. Ahead he could see open grassland through the pines, his rear view showed the LTs track following around twenty meters behind. "Two section, gear up boys prepare to debus right on my command, extended line five meter intervals" He flipped down his visor, gave himself a quick check over and noted that each of the squad member icons were showing green with full ammo loads. "Jimmy Chan are you looking to end you tour early?" Bullis heard a curse from the back as Chans IFF icon glowed green, identifying him as a friend to the rest of the world. The IFF would actually disable any friendly weapon targeted on him and was relatively effective in avoiding blue on blue incidents. The track broke through the tree line with a burst of power, the idea was the two sections would form a skirmish line facing the hill with the tracks anchoring the flanks and once they had sorted themselves out the two tracks would break off and hook up with the others for the move up the dirt road. Classic and simple. The only issues would be alignment and spacing but the HUDs would keep the boys on track, if not a quick verbal from him would bring them into line. Burnsey gunned the vehicle throwing up large clumps of grass and dirt and sped the hundred meters into the open field then spun the vehicle ninety degrees, pulling up to a skidding halt. "Ramp down, debus right go, go, go!" The rear ramp dropped with a thud, bright blue tinged sunlight burst into the red lit interior of the track as the soldiers burst out, right side first then left sprinting off to the right. Bullis followed last and went to ground in the yellow waist high grass closest to the vehicle. He gave the all clear an the ramp closed with a thud. Silence. Only the faint rustling of the grass and the trees in font of them could be heard. The only way he could tell where the section was were the ID codes floating over their location, even his track had taken on the mottled grass colour. Bullis slowly lifted his rifle and winked on his sight feed using the optical sight to scan along the tree line to his front. "Anyone got anything?" Tranhs voice came across the platoon net. Nothing. "Ok one and two section with me in extended line, let's go for a walk" Bullis switched to the section net, "Up you get boys, walking pace", he stood up and looked to his left. A line of twenty three men appeared from the grass, strangely they seemed to shimmer a little as their cammo adapted to their new position. It always sent a chill down his spine, this was one of those "movie moments" that he he filed away in his memory, even after so long it still impressed him to see the machine in operation.

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