Tools of the Trade 15

Tools of the Trade Chapter Fifteen

Philip Kronnin had read ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ often enough that he nearly had it memorized. He viewed it as far more than a mostly true historical adventure and a good story of what one man might dream of doing. To him it was inspirational literature, bringing an awakening that directed his path. Each small step adding up to lead him to this remarkable position, where he found himself today. He was sitting atop a dun colored dromedary, swaying back and forth to its motion as he contemplated the rest of his surroundings with supreme satisfaction.

Just as T. E. Lawrence had done, he had given up his uniform and was wearing the robes of the semi-nomadic Bedouins they traveled with. And like Lawrence had been, was thought odd because of it. No matter. He was living his dream.

Even more than Morgan and Davis, Kronnin was making certain that all those under his command were getting immersed in the local culture. Enough so that he knew it was leading some to grumble about going native. That bothered him not at all as he felt totally at ease with his own transformation. He had to admit he was going native to a degree and would need to continue to keep a close hold on his center and where his loyalties pointed.

Cpl Loomis was with the caravan but on the strangest kind of detached duty anyone had ever seen. He was working in full view of anyone in the unit who cared to notice as a new member of the native caravan crew, immersing himself in the language and culture. He dressed, ate, and was learning to act like a native. Both he and the rest of the squad were under strict orders to have no contact with each other unless the caravan should come under attack. And even then Loomis was to leave it up to Kronnin whether or not he broke cover.

Originally Kronnin had wanted Loomis to remain in Gabara when the others left for the mines but Wesley said no. “Give him a bit more time to get ready for the role. Any mistake will cost him his life.”

Loomis breathed a little easier after that but thought he probably could have carried it off.

Even the members of the caravan crew that he had joined had no idea he was actually a part of the Cardoman force. To them he was just an off planet miner leaving after the terms of his contract had run out. Probably out of fear of the danger of staying at the Mine. That was something they well understood and so they did not look down upon him because of it. Taking the money and surviving was always a good option.

Loomis gave his name as Ibrahim Saudi and claimed to have fled Ophia when his home was overrun and his family killed. His knowledge of Ophian conditions due to his service with the Seventh was good enough that his story was accepted at face value. The time he had spent at the mine also explained his language proficiency and lack of an Ophian accent, though he could do Ophian upon request.

Kronnin had said, “I understand the Ibrahim part of your new name. After all that’s just a form of your given name Abraham. But the Saudi part might seem a little presumptuous as it was once the royal house of an Earthly government.”

“That’s just it.” Loomis said, “I want people to think I’m a jumped up pipsqueak and take it as a joke and dismiss me because of it. No one will take the Saudi name seriously and I will get a pass because of it.”

“I find on second thought I agree Ibrahim.” Kronnin said. “And I like the way you think”

“I hardly ever get accused of that Sir.”

The Ophian Arabs that he claimed descent from were for the most part Christians. As Ibrahim he claimed to be a convert to the official Altoonan brand of the combination Christian and Muslim faith which was far more moderate than the Calp version and he spent as much time as he could talking to his fellow caravan members about it.

“You do not understand!”

“Yes, I do not understand.” was how most of the conversations continued after his first statement or question. But there was seldom any animosity on either side and never from his.

It was known that he had a little money saved and he had brought along more than what would normally be his expected contribution to the supply of delicacies shared out on such a trip to fellow travelers. Sharing was expected, but without going to extremes he showed what all the others thought was a generosity of spirit that made up for his failings in his primary job of helping to run a caravan. And all agreed that he was a willing and able learner.

Loomis had often been the butt of a joke and could take it well and in a manner that rarely offended. He had the type of personality that blended perfectly with the men he was now working with and made friends easily. He was going to hate to ditch the job when they got back to Gabara.

An unexpected side benefit of his position was that he was looked upon as potential and maybe even desirable husband material and there were three young ladies along who were eager to learn about him and reveal their own personal charms. A pity that being amidst a hundred troops, and with Kronnin watching him like a bird of prey, no privacy was possible. Even so he thought he was making progress. “Gabara here I come!”

Wes Calvert had taken over for Kronnin at Wadi Abbas when the caravan left for the city and was getting updates from the Jeddah group as well. They had no qualms about revealing there position as it was effectively impossible to hide that many people and animals moving, and the Alties cared little or nothing for radio discipline. Sgt. Madry was eavesdropping on their com links and sending the results to Major Calvert and both Captains. She had found the codes ridiculously easy to break.

Morgan and Kronnin had asked that the Alties send a number of secure messages to the Capitol to be delivered at the trade Mission or delivered to the units guarding their own supplies left in town, and the requests were always granted without a second thought. In fact the Altie communications soldiers felt they were making an intelligence coup by getting copies of what the Cards were sending.

Kronnin and Morgan tried to keep the messages interesting and important sounding enough, but a little thought would have shown just how unnecessary they really were. Once the coding scheme was broken they cut way back on traffic.

With both the plain text and coded version of the message available deciphering the underlying coding algorithm, complicated as it was, presented little problem for their software. Theoretically the code was unbreakable, but only in theory.

There was a higher level encryption system that an occasional message from the transmitters in Gabara was coded with but that system was going to remain secure unless they could get some inside information. They were keeping close tabs on it to see if any messages were returned in the same code because as of yet they had no idea where the messages were being sent to and for what purpose. Just knowing that much was always a help.

No messages had been intercepted from the Calps. There were a few stray bursts of something or other that could have been Caliphate traffic but it all could just as well have been random static or noise in the receivers. The Calps were either very good or very quiet. Or both.

At least, Audie had said to Lieutenant Jackson, she had something to do. Two weeks after Major Calvert had left the base all of the digging in and sighting in and perimeter defense that made any sense at all was complete. Jackson was doing his best to keep the troops alert but there was only so much he could do without making things worse.

“This is a lousy way to run an army,” Wes said to Connie over the secure com net.

“Wish I could help Wes but I know no other.” Melbourne replied. “You were in the thick of things on Witherway and Ophia. I had staff duty from the time I signed in until the last month on planet and this is how most of it went. Always remember that things could be worse and often are, that was what I did, and you’ll survive.”

“Thanks, I guess. So tell me again today, how are things at Mt. Hebron?”

“Bout the same. We do have more patrols out and have checked into all of the local settlements but until we can get reliable information on the political leanings of the local mullahs we can’t say much more than that they are really working at the kind of jobs that the Altie government says they are. Not any help in finding anti government forces or Calp supporters.”

“How sure are you of your defense network?”

“I would say with the number of Calps we are advised to guard against we are in very good shape. But what if the numbers are wrong? I’ve gone over the raw data again and again and see nothing to show the numbers wrong but nothing but wishful thinking to prove them right.”

“Kronnin brought that up too. All I can say at this point is plan for twice as many, maybe 500. And be ready to defend against that kind of a force.”

“What I’ve been up to Wes is thinking. And I think the caravans are going to get hit before we do and that will tell us more than we know now. I am really starting to worry about them. No particular reason just a nagging feeling something is not quite right”

“I plan to send out the two squads I have had doing the local tours out to meet them when they join up with one another a week from Hebron.”

“Sounds good to me Connie keep thinking on it. That’s it for now, and keep up the good work. Looks like I will be staying here at Abbas another month in any event. Wish we could predict the ship schedules but such is life.”

“Nothing more from my end,” Connie finished. “Out for now.”

* * *
It took six days of steady progress but Hassam had is men in position. They were in a wadi running parallel to the one leading directly to the Mt. Hebron Mine though the width of a mountainous spine of rock separated them. There was a small seep of fresh water flow from higher up and collecting in a man made cistern. This spot, known to all, was a natural and expected stopping place where it would have seemed odd if they didn’t plan on resting and watering for a day.

The now thrice daily flyover of the Cardoman drones were at first quite predictable. They would usually get one sometimes two visits each night. Nighttime was probably when servicing of the recon device took place. As the got closer to the caravan sent from the Abbas mine the number and duration of the overflights increased. They penned the camels and llamas several hundred yards apart in natural dead end pockets leading from the wadi and erected tents at the entrance to each with another by the cistern.

Hassam Tariq, knowing where the Cards had positioned their artillery firebase had verified that they were tucked in under the steep mountain slope so that the high trajectory lob of the long range guns would still find them in its shadow. He instructed the mortar team, fourteen strong, to do the same when they reached their position near the spines summit.

Three mortars were being carried up and everyone without a mortar would carry the ammunition. The path to the top, only about five kilometers long, was entirely too rugged for camels or even a lightly burdened llama. He would be leading this force.
“Abdel, you understand your part?”

“Yes, completely. The four of us remaining here move about as if checking on the animals and once in a while stop to talk to one another. We go inside the tents on occasion and shift the IR decoys so it looks like there is a little movement inside. When you pass the word back that the attack has commenced we let loose the camels to wander about and drive the llamas up the slope in your direction so their thermal sources can confuse the enemy sensors. Then we all try and slip away in the confusion.”
* * *
Not to shabby Ibrahim Saudi was thinking as he totaled up the final score. If he could collect the earnings this was going to be a profitable trip. These city dwelling desert nomads had not a clue when it came to games of chance. They seemed to think all was predestined from the first cast. Profit is where you find it. He better take it easy now. After all these guys were supposed to be his friends. And in a few cases were actually becoming so.
Another hour of play where he gave back some of his winnings and it was time to quit and get some sleep. He was glad he wasn’t one of those poor sods that Davis was leading up the mountain so he could get a close look at the llama herders the next wadi over.

“We’ll take a break when we reach the top so let’s see how soon we can get there,” Davis said and continued the climb.

They had eaten gotten set up for the evening and it was an hour past sunset by the time they had gotten underway. The lowlight goggles brightened things up enough but beyond a few meters depth perception and acuity suffered. The plan had been to keep the recon drone constantly above them but one of the com channels had cut out. They talked it over and decided they would keep it on station rather than send it back and get it fixed. At least until the llama herder camp was eyeballed even if only from a distance.

Performance would be degraded a little but they weren’t overly concerned. Another drone was being readied and would take over after midnight. The drone in place was showing normal camp activity and accounted for the IR signatures of all of the people expected to be there. Most were inside tents and motionless, something Davis wished he could say for himself.

“Smoke em if you got em,” he said, calling for the break just below the summit.

“This spot should do fine,” Hassam said calling for the mortars to be set up just below the summit.

The surrounding rock had cooled down from the heat of the day but not so much that the anti-IR gear couldn’t cope. As his men got things readied he set out on his own to get a close look at what was on the other side and got a very nasty shock for his efforts. The twinkling IR flares of what could only be a group from the wadi below, close to the ridge top and barely a kilometer and a half to the north of where he hid.

Hassam got the best count he could then hustled back down and alerted his men. He stressed the need for silence along with continued IR suppression. He got another of his men to follow him back to his observation site up top in case a runner was needed. No radio or laser communications tonight. But the larger worry was—What are they doing up here? And what do they know about us? They quite obviously knew the location of the camp, the drones were proof of that but this was far too small a force to use for an assault so it must just be a reconnaissance.

At least if as was likely the infidels were following a direct path, even if they go all the way to our camp, they would not get any closer to the mortars or where he was perched as he continued to watch the soldiers now climbing higher and cresting the razorback spine of the ridge.

An hour past midnight already! Davis muffled a curse as he checked the time. He needed to decide whether it was more important to get a very close look at the tents his imaging gear now showed so clearly or be back with the caravan when it left in the morning. He couldn’t do both and came to the conclusion he would try and split the difference.

They would stay where they were just on the other side of the ridge from their own camp and wait till it was light enough to see the llama herders start their day below. Then with the sun up they would get good visuals and make much better time rejoining the caravan. There were enough troops down there now and eight more wouldn’t make much of a difference if trouble came. In case of an attack it could even be better if they held some high ground.

Hassam was relived to see the scouting party stop and take up what must be their final position for the night. He waited to see if they would send anyone down for a closer look tonight. After watching long enough too be sure they wouldn’t he sent his runner to tell the rest of his men what had the force from the caravan was up to and then tell his own men to get some sleep. Hassam’s attack would go on as planed.

“Damn I’m tired, Sir,” Sgt. Madry said to Lieutenant Jackson as she watched the spare recon drone disappear almost as soon as it became airborne.

“No wonder,” Jackson agreed, “You’ve been up all night. What was the problem?”

“Crack in the wing sir. Musta’ happened when it was packed up. The things are so friggen fragile when they’re taken apart. It’s a wonder it doesn’t happen more often. I bonded the broken spar likity split but it needed to cure.”

“Go on and get some sleep Sergeant it’s still another hour till daylight.”

“Sure like to Sir but I got so much time invested in the thing now I think I’ll wait up for it to send back the first scans.”

“Coffee in the mess tent. I’m gonna walk the perimeter.”

After downing a cup Audie went over to the data receiver, saw that the drone was on course and a half an hour from position and decided to fool around with the data that had been coming in all night. She wondered if semi nomadic llama hunters and herders ran the same kind of night sentry rotation that they practiced in the regular military. She couldn’t see any need to. Without any predators to worry about they really didn’t need to keep anyone up at night. But they might be the worried about human predators. The data would show.

Ten minutes later Jackson had toured the perimeter and went inside the com bunker. He could tell Madry was intent on something and see her puzzled expression while looking at the magnified video of herders’ camp. He walked closer and saw that she had put little x marks on all of the sleeping forms inside their tents. The drone was that good. With even degraded imagery that it could see right through the fabric of the tent to the heat sources inside.

“What’s the new problem Madry?”

“Sir, I’ve been trying to follow their movement patterns to see what kind of a sentry schedule they keep and it don’t make no sense.”

“Does it really matter to us how they post sentries?”

“Probably not Sir, but I was curious and had enough data to figure it out. The first hour looks pretty normal. Four people waking around camp and a little movement inside the tents. But after that just the four people moving around and the same fourteen in the tents all the time. And see— they don’t move at all.” Audie played a rapid time lapse and none of the heat sources in the tents moved a bit.

“So lots of exercise and they sleep good. No need to change sentries if they plan on resting up a day.”

“That’s not it Sir. Six hours, fourteen men and no one even had to get up to take a piss? They can’t be real sir they gotta be heat sources set up to fool us while the people went somewhere else!”

Alarms were going off in Jackson’s head but Madry beat him to it. “Sir, you better wake up the camp and I’ll get on the horn to Captain Kronnin!”

Madry timed it, 82 seconds later she was filling in Captain Kronnin on what she had discovered.

Hassam Tariq had his men up and ready. In another fifteen minutes it should be light enough for him to see everything happening below and redirect his fire as necessary to insure maximum destruction of the enemy soldiers and spare as many of the camels and their loads as possible. He had given orders to shift one tube so it would cover the group of eight less than 2000 meters north of him who had only just begun to stir.. A dozen mortar rounds would do it and then that team would switch to the main group.

“Davis… this is Kronnin. Got a call from Vulcan and we could be having some trouble. Get your men moving fastest and head back to the top of the ridge. If you get there with nothing happening get under cover and I’ll fill you in. We don’t know where the Alties you were going to check on are but we are pretty sure they’re not in their camp. Keep your eyes open and move it.

“Grab your weapons, water and ammo,” Davis yelled, “leave the rest we’re moving now!”

That’s odd thought Hassam as he saw IR sources start moving up towards the spine dividing the two wadies. He looked down below to the wadi floor him and saw furious motion with heat sources moving in all directions and scattering for cover. It was darker than he had hoped for but as Allah wills so it shall be. He gave his men the order to fire. Twelve rounds were in the air before the first one hit the ground.

The native troops had admired all the hard work and energy the Cardomans expended, digging when possible and sandbagging it when not, but they didn’t admire it enough to copy it. Kronnin’s people were mostly shielded when they heard the shrill sound of incoming and the rounds started falling into the platoon tent areas a scant 50 meters away.

The displays at Firebase Vulcan were lighting up like holiday fireworks.
“Mortars Sir, 60’s, three of them. Backtracked and plotted.”

“Take em out!”

The big 155’s were slaved to Madry’s plotting computer and 10 rounds went screaming down range. Ten seconds later another 10. It would take almost 2 minutes for the first salvo to arrive. Sgt Bledsoe was topping off the magazines and preparing for a possible attack on the firebase.

“The think they got themselves into artillery shadow Sir.” Madry said to Jackson, “They’ll be dead before they know any different.”

Artillery pieces like Jackson’s 155’s had evolved but were not radically different from what had been in use for quite a few centuries. They had gotten good enough that they had run up against the physical limits of explosives and materials. They had gotten marginally lighter, had slightly higher muzzle velocities, a bit over 2000 meters per second, and slightly greater range. They were more rugged and easier to maintain.

The propellant was cast in one piece and no need for casings or the even older method of individual bags of powder. Range had been extended by using sustainer charges at the base of the shell that burned in flight not for thrust but to fill the vacuum that formed behind the projectile and cutting drag to almost nothing. Accuracy depended on the guidance package.

The rounds sent from Firebase Vulcan had a recent improvement in the final homing charges that controlled the very end of the trajectory. They were improved enough that they could kill the shells forward velocity almost entirely. Enough that at the end of their course they could even be moving back towards the firing point. No more artillery shadow at all. The only defense is to be dug in and dug in deep. And that was something one couldn’t do while conducting a mortar attack.

Hassam let them fire for the first minute as planned. The scattering of the Alties and the fact that most of the Cardomans were undercover when it started could now be dealt with.

He gave instructions for all three mortars to switch to the Cardoman trenches. That’s where the real enemies were, and started walking the fire towards them. He would get back to those on the ridge later if any has survived.

The dug in Cardomans were close to the near side wadi wall and they were putting out a thick cloud of smoke that lay heavy in the still morning air. Hassam could detect flares burning inside the smoke screen and knew they were there to confuse the guidance packages in his mortar rounds. He cut out the guidance from the loop. Right now he couldn’t call individual shots but they were going to saturate the entire area.

The Alties were another matter entirely. He estimated they had taken 20 percent casualties already and it was only going to get worse.

Kronnin was back on line with the firebase and Calvert was listening in, but careful not to interfere. He had the same data downloads the firebase was using but knew he couldn’t lead this from the rear.

Kronnin voice came through his headset. “Two rounds landed directly on our position. How soon before the arty gets here.”

“Twelve more seconds, hold on.” was Jackson’s response.”

Wes could hear the thump of the mortars and heard Kronnin’s order sending out a medic. Then a rumble like distant thunder as the 155’s hit atop the ridge. Before that sound died down he watched the second flight strike what they had thought was a herders’ campsite. It was cleanup after that and Wes commed over to Davis. “How are things on the ridge Sergeant?”

“Two dead Sir, Diddle and Stafford. Didn’t clear the camp soon enough. No other injuries six active.”

“Get out to the mortar site soonest and check for survivors. Kronnin will send a detail to help and bring down the bodies.”

“We’re already movin’ sir. Estimate twenty minutes.”

Audie Madry’s voice came over the channel, “Top, check yore visuals, I’ve got two moving south and down from the spine. Must be the observers. Caught em’ em with a shot to shot comparison. No IR signature. They gotta be regulars.”

Wes broke in, “They’re yours Davis see if can get them alive but take no, chances. We call in the 155’s again if we need to but no more casualties today.”

“Roger that Captain, Roger that.”

Hassam Tariq saw Aziz, his runner, drop before he heard the crack of the rifle. He was tucked into a crevice where part of the wadi wall had broken away. The Cardoman recon drone was doing a low circle directly above where he was trying to hide and those he had seen following him were very close. By the will of Allah then so be it. His men had accomplished much, he had wished for more, and even hoped to live beyond this day, but it was not to be.

“Allah Akbar,” God is Good! He yelled it again and heard his voice echoing across from the wadi’s other side. Then raising the barrel of his pistol to the side of his head, just above the ear, closed his eyes and pulled the trigger.”