Near Dale City, VA, United States of America, Sol III
1258 EDT October 10th, 2004 ad
It started with a crackle of manjacks. The observation post was a regulation one-hundred meters out from the company and in view of the Second platoon but, being barely in view and after the stresses of the night with multiple moves and digging in not once but a total of four times, as the division moved again and again and the battalion adjusted lines, reassigned areas of responsibility, moved the company forward and back, the two-man team had fallen asleep. They awoke to the rattling burp from the manjack set up beside their foxhole and the cracking whistle of railgun rounds in return.
In his foxhole, Captain Brantley dropped the half-eaten remains of a hotdog loaded with chili, onions and relish, and rotated his shoulders. To the captain's amazement the first sergeant had made it back. And although he had not found an open restaurant, he had found enough supplies and cookware to feed the entire company on hotdogs, hamburgers and a really horrible concoction of canned baked beans and chili. After nearly two days on MREs, the troops consumed it so fast that the first sergeant's party had to make seconds and even thirds in the ten-gallon pots hung over sooty fires.
The commander had been a history major in college. To him, the scene was reminiscent of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War Years. The same scene was replicated over and over in the woods and fields around his position. The soldiers digging their foxholes had turned up Civil War era "Minié" balls as they dug and the ghosts in their tattered gray and blue seemed to hover around them, urging them into battle. He heard them now, rattling their ramrods and whispering in his ear of the terrible sights to come and he wrapped the whispers around himself like armor.
He looked at his thin line of troops—the few in view in the thick pine scrub—and knew despair. What the situation called for was defense in depth, pillboxes and wire, trenches and no-man's-land. What it had was a thin screen of infantry, dug-in deep, with a few mines and claymores out front, hoping against hope for the strength to stop a force a hundred times their size.
The one bright spot was artillery support. With the shift in emphasis from human-human to human-Posleen combat, the Army had radically changed its approach to artillery equipment. Although the bulk of the Army would remain mechanized infantry, the lack of counterbattery ability—the ability of one artillery unit to fire on another—by the Posleen meant that the division and corps artillery did not need to be armored. Thus the M-222 "Reaver" was born.
Modified from a South African mobile artillery piece, the Reaver was a six-wheeled all-terrain vehicle mounting a 155mm howitzer. It had the speed to keep up with mechanized forces and the ammunition capacity to support them effectively.
Three full batteries of these artillery behemoths were in places to support the division and the resultant firepower exceeded the artillery of three divisions of the latter twentieth century. The Posleen might succeed in overrunning them, but they should take massive casualties in the process.
The captain had previously ensured that he was authenticated on the automated central firing network, so he calmly picked up the microphone and called in his first ever real-world call for fire.
He paused and waited a moment for a response. Usually, the newly fielded Central Artificial Intelligence Targeting Artillery Fire Remote Command and Control System, or Central for short (the military, for once, had universally decided not to use the acronym), came back practically before you could unkey the microphone. In this case it seemed to either not receive the call or be overloaded.
"Central, Central, this is Echo-Three-Five. Fire mission, over."
"Echo-Three-Five, this is Central, call fire."
Better. "Central, Central, fire concentration, Echo-Two, say again, Echo-Two."
There was another pause. Fire was building on the line, but these Posleen seemed to be the equivalent of scouts and there had yet to be a call for a medic. He waited a moment longer then called again.
"Central, Central, this is Echo-Three-Five. Say status fire mission, over."
"Echo-Three-Five, no fire mission in status, over."
"What?!" he shouted and stared at the radio in his foxhole. His RTO looked around, puzzled.
"What's wrong, sir?"
"The—" He realized a need to maintain a calm demeanor. Even if the one ace he thought he had in a hole was starting to look like a deuce. "I'm having a little trouble with the artillery net, I keep getting stepped on." It was a bald-faced lie, but better than the truth.
He had used Central several times in Exercise Without Troops, map exercises and field problems and it had never shown a bit of problem, once you got used to the syntax. The system had been designed by the Advanced Technology Research Board, a board formed in reaction to the "GalTech" group, and was the brainchild of the former Ground Forces High Commander.
As a concept it was deceptively simple; rather than having fallible humans make numerous transmissions in the call for fire chain, let computers do the work. Practically "off-the-shelf" voice-recognition software would "recognize" calls for fire, given by authenticated individuals and in the proper form, register them and pass them to a central computer. The computer would determine priorities, make the fire calculations and both send out fire commands and update the units calling for fire on the status of their request.
Combined with the Inter Vehicle Information System and the Ground Tactical Positioning System, it would eliminate "blue on blue" or "friendly" fire and distribute the available fire more equitably and efficiently. As a salve to the technological nay-sayers, there were both system overrides that commanders could invoke and real human beings in the chain. And it was just about time to invoke one.
He poked his head up to get a look at the situation and called again. "Central, Central, this is Echo-Three-Five. Final protective fire, I say again, final protective fire. Command override, priority one. Over."
"Sir?" said his RTO, as the first medic cry came from Second platoon, "where's the artillery?" One of the medics in the next foxhole crawled out towards the line, just as a centaur group broke through the firelanes and into view. Shotgun rounds flailed the foxholes, momentarily suppressing the company's fire and smashing the luckless medic into red paste. Captain Brantley dropped back into the foxhole just as the radio crackled back into life.
"Echo-Three-Five, authenticate Whiskey-Tango."
I already did that! The captain dug into his rucksack and dragged out his ANCD. "Victor! Over!"
"Say, again, syntax not recognized, over."
"Central, this is Echo-Three-Five, authentication Victor, over." He ground his teeth, seemingly drawing patience out of the air.
"Echo-Three-Five, say again full callsign, over."
"Juliet-Mike-Echo-Three-Five," he said, very slowly and carefully.
"Juliet-Mike-Echo-Three-Five, welcome to the net, say request, over."
"Central, this is Echo-Three-Five, fire mission, over."
"Echo-Three-Five, call fire, over."
"Central, this is Echo-Three-Five, fire mission, concentration Echo . . ." He popped his head up and took a quick look towards the front. The Posleen had begun to thicken, their fire beating down the company's with the exception of the manjacks. As he watched, a God King plasma cannon removed one of those, reducing the fire pressure. A lane was being cleared through the minefield by the simple expedient of pushing the Posleen normals through it. He saw two blown up in the brief span he was up but there were thousands behind them, a mass of yellow centaurs so great they were pushing down the trees, turning the forest into a plain.
"Fire mission, concentration Echo-One. Final Protective Fire, priority one. Say again, FPF, Echo-One, Priority One, over."
There was a brief pause and panic set in as he feared he would have to start over from the beginning. There was no time.
"Echo-Three-Five, this is Central. FPF on the way. Splash in two-five seconds. One hundred rounds."
Captain Brantley switched to the platoon local net. "All Echo units, all Echo units, final protective fire, One-Five-Five close. Twenty seconds! Incoming!" He clamped his hands over his ears, hunkered down and smiled at the RTO. "Here it comes! Better late than never!"
"Yes, sir!" shouted the RTO, quickly stuffing earplugs in and dropping into the hole. The captain noticed that his Kevlar helmet had a furrow across the left-hand side. Good troop, he thought.
The commander was still smiling when the first 155mm round dropped in his hole.
* * *
"Juliet One-Five, Juliet One-Five, this is Whiskey One-Five, over!"
Keren turned from the fire control computer and picked up the microphone. The rumbling impact of heavy artillery to the front had been going on for nearly two minutes, meaning that the captain must have called for Final Protective Fire, but there had not been a command over the net for fire from the mortars. Now Third platoon was calling and he still could find no request for fire. At least the L-T had sent Sergeant Herd off to recon their secondary firing position. Maybe if they gave him an hour or two he could be ready to lay in the guns.
"Whiskey One-Five, this is Juliet One-Five Papa, go ahead."
"Juliet, we're getting pounded by this goddamn artillery! The fuckin' CP is gone and so is Second platoon. It's got the horses stopped, but it's killin' us! Get 'em to stop! We can't reach anybody!"
Oh, Jesus. Keren used his free hand to wave at the platoon sergeant and lieutenant, talking quietly by the Three Track. "Whiskey, sorry, confirm friendly-fire call!"
"Yes, confirm damnit! Blue fire! Blue fire!"
Keren swung around and keyed the Central Fire Net. "Central, Central, blue on blue! Say again, blue on blue! Check fire! Check fire!" At his shouts, every head in sight turned towards him and the two leaders started running towards his track.
"Central, this is Juliet One-Five, check fire for Echo-Three-Five, say again, check fire, check fire, blue on blue, check fire." He waited for a response as the thunder of artillery in the distance and the express train rumble overhead continued. A checkfire for "friendly-fire" was supposed to occur immediately, then authenticate. The cumbersome authentication problem was programmed to occur after friendly artillery stopped killing human troops.
"Juliet One-Five, authenticate Alpha Sierra."
Shit. Fuck this. Something was obviously screwy with Central, he should not even have had to state his callsign. He punched numbers on his ANCD. Since it was for a fire direction track, it held all the "phone numbers" for the entire division. The platoon leader started to reach for the ANCD and stepped back at the involuntary feral snarl that crossed the specialist's face.
He now knew why Keren had gotten demoted; the officer suspected that if he had tried to take the ANCD, the private would have simply shot him where he stood and not even noticed.
"Charlie-Five-Papa-Five-Four," Keren called, using the callsign and frequency of the artillery battery tasked to support his company. If Central was the problem, then simply take it out of the loop. "This is Golf-Four-Juliet-One-Five, check fire! Check fire! Blue on blue, say again, blue on blue! Check fire! Check fire!"
"Calling station, say again callsign, check fire confirmed! Say again callsign!"
Thank God. "This is Golf-Four-Juliet-One-Five. Check fire!"
"Confirmed." The rumble of artillery died away overhead as the unit called back. "Juliet One Five, authenticate Whiskey Romeo."
"Roger, stand by . . . authentication Del-Ta."
"Juliet, this is Papa, that fire was confirmed by Central, over."
"Roger, well, we don't have a fuckin' company anymore, Papa. I don't know what's wrong with Central, but you just wiped out Alpha Company First Batt."
"Jesus. It's a damn authenticated order! And . . ." There was a pause, "Yeah, and the target point is forward of the company on our IVIS! What the fuck, over?"
"What do you have for the company coordinates?"
"Juliet, this is Whiskey, over!" came another call from the Second platoon.
"Hang on Arty!" Keren swung to the other radio as the platoon sergeant picked up the microphone and continued the questioning of the artillery unit.
"Go ahead, Third."
"We still need fire! The Posleen are massing for another attack!"
"Roger. Stand by." Keren picked up the intervehicle transmitter and almost called for the pre-laid Final Protective Fire, then looked at the fire control computer. Obeying an instinct he did not want to define, he dove across the compartment and rummaged behind a seat in the Humvee until he found an overlooked piece of equipment.
"What are you doing with that?" asked Lieutenant Leper, trying to keep up with three nearly incomprehensible situations at once.
Keren continued sketching in positions and locations on the mortar plotting board. It was nearly two years since he had last picked up the obsolete piece of equipment and this was turning out to be a lousy time to try to remember how to use it. But with the problems with Central, and the fact that the new Mortar Ballistic Computers interacted with it, he was damned if he was going to depend on anything else at that moment.
"Just checking something, sir."
"Well, check fast."
"Mortars, this is Third platoon! We need some damn fire, over!"
Keren picked up the mike without taking his eyes from his calculations, "You want it on the Posleen or on your heads?"
"Keren!" said the lieutenant.
"Sorry, sir," said the specialist. He pulled out a calculator, looked up a trajectory in a book and made a final calculation. His shoulders slumped. "Shit."
"What?" asked the platoon leader. The platoon sergeant looked over as well, telling the artillery to hold on.
"This FPF is fucked, sir," said Keren, scribbling furiously again. "Our computer-calculated Final Protective Fire would have landed right on the company command post. And the mistake is somewhere in the computer."