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The Shadow of Saganami: Chapter Forty Three

       Last updated: Thursday, October 7, 2004 13:33 EDT



    “I understand that we need to train our people with the new weapons before we start using them, Sister Alpha.”

    Drazen Divkovic’s tone and manner were both as respectful as always, but he had a certain air of stubbornness, Nordbrandt thought. He always did, for that matter. Stubbornness, determination, sheer bloody-mindedness -- call it what you would, it was one of the qualities which made him so effective.

    “And I understand you want to begin making effective use of them as soon as possible, Brother Dagger,” she replied. “I know all our brothers and sisters do. My only concern is that our eagerness to take the fight to the oppressors may betray us into striking before we’re truly prepared.”

    “Yet we’re already making use of the new equipment, Sister Alpha,” Drazen pointed out, and Nordbrandt nodded, even though neither he nor anyone else could see her.

    Although Drazen was always careful to address her, even in their face-to-face meetings, as “Sister Alpha,” she normally referred to him by his actual name in those meetings, rather than his FAK name. It wasn’t that she was any less security-conscious than he, but she never met with more than a single cell leader at a time, and she knew the given names of more of them than she really ought to. There was no point pretending she didn’t, as long as not doing so didn’t threaten their security, and it was good for their morale, helped nourish their sense of unity. She told herself that, and it was true, but it was also true that the human within the revolutionary leader, the extrovert who’d become a successful politician, hungered for the occasional pretense of normality. The ability to call an old companion by name. To pretend to forget for that fleeting moment that she -- and they -- must be forever vigilant, forever on guard.

    But neither of them would risk that informality mow, because she was meeting simultaneously with the leaders of no less than eleven cells.

    She would never have dared to do that in person, but the encrypted military coms from the Central Liberation Committee enormously enhanced her communications flexibility. She had to admit that the belief she’d taken away from her first meeting with Firebrand -- that what had eventually become the CLC would probably never amount to more than words -- had done him a gross disservice. She could scarcely believe the cornucopia of weapons and explosives, man-portable surface-to-air-missiles, night vision equipment, and body armor even the abbreviated CLC consignment had delivered to them. And the military coms were almost better than the guns and explosives.

    She reminded herself yet again that she mustn’t extend some sort of magical faith to the new tech advantages she’d received. Good as the coms might be, the damned Manties could undoubtedly match them. But not until they knew to look for them. And not even the Manties could direction find on the coms when they weren’t broadcasting.

    One advantage of Kornati’s relatively primitive technology level was that an enormous percentage of their telecommunications still passed over old-fashioned optic cable. In some cases, over actual copper. In this particular instance, she and her cell leaders had simply plugged their coms into the existing hardwired communications net, then placed a conference call. The coms’ built in encryption was more secure than anything the local authorities might possess, and the wire connection meant there was no broadcast signal for listening stations to pick up. And they’d been designed to be used in exactly this way, as well as in the normal, wireless mode. Their software continually monitored any landline connection to detect any tap, all of which meant it was now possible for her to teleconference with her top leadership.

    As long as we’re still careful, and don’t start taking the ability for granted, she reminded herself sternly.

    “Yes, Brother Dagger,” she acknowledged. “We are already using some of the new equipment. But we’re phasing it in gradually. And we’re still not using it -- or relying on it -- in the field.”

    “Excuse me, Sister Alpha,” another leader said, “but that may be a false distinction. No, we’re not in the field. But if we screw up during this discussion, if we give ourselves away and the grays pounce, it’s going to cost the Movement a hell of a lot more than losing one action cell in the field.”

    “Point taken, Brother Scimitar,” she admitted ungrudgingly. One mistake she was determined not to make was to create some sort of personality cult in which her senior subordinates were unwilling to challenge what they saw as possible errors of judgment on her part.

    “I think what Brother Dagger’s suggesting, Sister Alpha,” a third cell leader said, “is that we should consider the possibility of using some of the new weapons in smaller, secondary operations that would let us gain experience with them.”

    “Not exactly, Sister Rapier,” Drazen said. “I agree that we should use them at first in small operations, that expose us to only limited damage if we lose the strike team. But what I’m really suggesting is that we should begin stepping up our training schedule.”

    “In what way, Brother Dagger?” Nordbrandt asked.

    “We had a big part of the shipment delivered to… a secure location,” Drazen said, and Nordbrandt smiled in approval. Drazen had been in charge of the delivery of the bulk of the equipment to Camp Freedom, but he wasn’t about to share that information with anyone who didn’t need to know it. Not even people he knew were the leaders of Nordbrandt’s most trusted central cadre.

    “And?” she invited, when he paused.

    “I think we could safely transport a couple of action groups to that location. I’ve had my own team studying manuals and learning to field strip and maintain the new equipment. Most of it’s actually fairly simple -- what they call ‘soldier-proof,’ I think. But, anyway, my team is far enough along to need someplace to actually fire the weapons and do some serious hands-on practice. And I think we need to set up a permanent training cadre, probably at the same secure location, though I guess we might want to set up another one, separated from any of the rest of our operational locations. Let us spend some time -- at least a few days -- working with the new weapons. Not the missiles, or the plasma rifles, or the crew-served weapons. Let’s get our toes wet with the small arms and the grenade launchers -- they’re not so very different from the civilian weapons we’ve already been using, except that they’ve got higher rates of fire and longer ranges. Well, and they inflict a lot more damage if you hit something.

    “Anyway. Let us check ourselves out on them, then see about a few small-scale operations, somewhere away from the capital. We’re going to have to do that sooner or later, Sister Alpha. Let’s go ahead and get started.”

    No one else said anything, but she could almost physically feel their agreement with Drazen. And as she considered the proposal, she found herself sharing that agreement.

    “All right, Brother Dagger. I think your suggestion has merit. I’ll approve it. And since your team’s that far along, and since you already know where the secure location is, I believe your cell should be the first to cycle through the training program. Is there any other business we all need to discuss?”

    No one replied, and she nodded to herself in satisfaction.

    “Very well then, Brothers and Sisters. I’ll continue this in private with Brother Dagger. The rest of you should disconnect now. You know our communications schedule, and I’ll expect to speak to each of you at the scheduled time. Go now.”

    There were no verbal responses; just a series of musical tones and the blinking of extinguished telltale lights as the other cell leaders disconnected, leaving only Drazen.

    “This is a good idea, I think,” she complimented him. “Do you have secure transportation, or do we need to work something out?”

    “I’ve already got it arranged,” he said, and she could almost hear him smiling. “I figured you’d probably approve it. And if you didn’t, I could always just cancel the arrangements.”

    “Initiative’s a good thing,” she said with a chuckle. “How soon can you move your team to Camp Freedom?”

    “This evening, if that’s all right with you.”

    “That quickly? I am impressed.” She considered for several seconds, then shrugged to herself. “All right, it’s authorized. Go ahead and alert your team.”




    “That’s odd,” Sensor Tech 1/c Liam Johnson murmured.

    Abigail Hearns looked up from her own console in CIC at the rating’s quiet comment. She and Aikawa Kagiyama had just been re-examining -- playing with, really -- the sensor data on Kornati’s orbital space activity Captain Terekhov had asked Naomi Kaplan to run down when Hexapuma first arrived in Split. It wasn’t exactly exciting, but it was good practice, and there hadn’t been a lot else for Aikawa to do during the current watch.

    Johnson was studying his own display, and Abigail frowned. The sensor tech was responsible for monitoring the orbital sensor arrays Hexapuma had deployed around Kornati. Even a planet as poor and technically backward as Kornati had an enormous amount of aerial traffic, and trying to monitor it was a stiff challenge, even with Hexapuma’s sophisticated ability to collect and analyze the data. For the Kornatians themselves, it was more of a matter of brute manpower and making do, given their limited and relatively primitive computer capability. Air traffic control worked fairly well, but it really relied upon the fact that most of the pilots involved wanted to obey the traffic controllers, and the Kornatian ground radar stations weren’t all that terribly difficult to evade.

    But what was impossible for the Kornatians, was simply difficult for Hexapuma’s CIC. Sensors and computer programs designed to handle hundreds, even thousands, of individual targets moving on every conceivable vector in spherical volumes measured in light-hours, were quite capable of searching for patterns that shouldn’t be there -- and flaws in patterns that should be there -- in something as small and confined as a single planet’s airspace.

    Abigail rose from her own chair and crossed to Johnson’s station.

    “What have you got, Liam?”

    “I don’t know, Ma’am. It may not be anything, actually.”

    “Tell me about it.”

    “It might be better if I showed you, Ma’am.”

    “All right, show me,” she said, leaning one forearm lightly on the sensor tech’s shoulder as she leaned over his display.

    “I was doing a standard analysis run of yesterday’s data,” Johnson explained, tapping keys rapidly.

    “Which data set?”

    “Northern hemisphere air traffic, Ma’am. Quadrant Charlie-Golf.”

    “I didn’t know there was any air traffic up there,” Abigail said with a smile.

    “Well, there isn’t much, Ma’am, and that’s a fact. Most of it’s south of the Charlie line, but there’s actually more local traffic than you might expect, given the population level, and about five or six regularly scheduled air transport routes that come up from the smaller continent -- Dalmatia -- and cross the pole on their way down to Karlovac and Kutina or going the other way on the return leg. They come straight through Charlie-Golf, but it really is what you might call a quiet chunk of airspace as far as through traffic is concerned.

    “The local air traffic’s so high because ground traffic’s pretty nearly nonexistent in the area. The airspace’s an awful lot less crowded than someplace like Karlovac, of course, but with no decent local roads, everybody who does move around, does it by air.”

    “Okay,” she said. “I’ve got the location, now. And this was yesterday’s data?”

    “Yes, Ma’am. The time chop would be from about seventeen-thirty to midnight, local.”

    “Okay,” she repeated, nodding to herself more than to him as she mentally settled the references into place.

    “All right, Ma’am.” Johnson tapped a last command sequence and sat back with his arms folded. “Watch this.”

    The data take from the array watching that portion of Kornati’s airspace played itself out on Johnson’s display at a considerable time compression rate. The little icons of aircraft went streaking across the plot, trailing glow worms of light behind them. The regularly scheduled transport aircraft were easy to identify. Not only were they bigger, and normally at a higher altitude, but they were also faster, moving on straight-line courses, and their transponder codes were crisp and clear.

    The local traffic was much more erratic. No doubt a lot of it was nothing more than local delivery aircraft, dropping off overnight parcels to the isolated homesteads in the area. Others were probably joy-riding teenagers, buzzing around in old jalopies. And at least one larger, slower aircraft was identified by its transponder as a tour bus of high school students on a nature field trip. None of that traffic seemed ever to have heard of the notion of straight lines. They wove and twisted, plaiting their scattered flight paths across Johnson’s display, and if there was any pattern to them, Abigail couldn’t see it.

    Johnson looked up at her, one eyebrow raised, and she shrugged.

    “Looks like so much spaghetti to me,” she admitted, and he chuckled.

    “Trust me, Ma’am -- I didn’t spot it by eyeball, either. Assuming there’s really anything to it, that is. I was running standard analysis packages, and the computer spotted this.”

    He tapped one of the macros he’d set up, and the same timespread replayed itself. But this time the computers were obviously filtering out the bulk of the traffic. In fact, there were less than a dozen contacts, and Abigail felt both eyebrows rising.

    “Run that again.”

    “Yes, Ma’am,” he said, and she straightened up, folding her own arms and cocking her head as she watched. There was no time association she could see between the contacts Johnson’s data manipulation had pulled out. The first appeared at 17:43 hours local. The others were scattered out at apparently random intervals between then and 24:05 local. But what they did have in common was that regardless of when they crossed into the quadrant, they each terminated at exactly the same spot.

    And they stayed there.

    “That is odd,” she said.

    “I thought so, Ma’am,” he agreed. “I’d set the system filters to show me any location where more than five flight paths terminated, and this was the only one that turned up, aside from a couple of small towns scattered around the area.” He shrugged. “I’ve been trying to think of some reason for them to do that. So far, I haven’t been able to come up with one. I mean, I guess they could all be going on a fishing trip together, and it just happened to take them six and a half hours to get together. But if it was me, I think I’d try to schedule my arrivals a little closer together than that. Besides, this is yesterday’s take, and I’ve already done a search of today’s. We still don’t have a single departure from that location, so whoever they are, they’re still there, right?”

    “That’s certainly the conclusion which would leap to the front of my own powerful brain,” Abigail said, and Johnson grinned at her. But then his grin faded into a much more sober expression.

    “The problem is, Ma’am, that according to passive scans of the area, there’s nothing down there but a river and some trees. Not a helicopter, not an air car, not even a log cabin or an old pup tent.”

    “To quote Commander Lewis, ‘Curiouser and curiouser,’” Abigail said. She gazed at the plot for several more seconds, then shook her head. “Sensor Tech Johnson, I think it’s time we consulted with older and wiser heads.”




    “Johnson and Abigail are right, Skipper,” Naomi Kaplan said flatly. “We’ve got ten aerial vehicles of some sort -- analysis suggests at least six of them were private air cars -- all landing at exactly the same spot, and then just disappearing. And a standard passive scan of the landing area shows absolutely nothing there now. Except, of course, that they have to be there, because they never took off again.”

    “I see.” Terekhov leaned back, gazing at the holo map projected by the unit in the center of the briefing room table. “I suppose we could do an active scan,” he said slowly. “But if there is anyone down there, and they pick it up, they’ll know they’ve been spotted.”

    “Well, before we do that, Skipper, you might want to look at this.” Kaplan gave him the smile of a successful sideshow conjurer, and the holo map disappeared. In its place was a detailed computer schematic of a single small portion of the total map, showing contour lines, streams, rocks, even individual trees, and Kaplan looked at it fondly.

    “That, Skipper, is from one of Tadislaw’s stealthed battlefield recon drones. They don’t begin to have the raw computational power we do, and they sure as hell don’t have our range, but they’re specifically designed for taking close, unobtrusive looks. So when I decided I wanted more detail on the area, I got hold of Lieutenant Mann, and he and Sergeant Crites went out to the main airport in Karlovac to inspect the aircraft there. And somehow one of their drones accidentally got itself tractored to the skin of one of the regularly scheduled transports that cross through the area. And it fell off again right about… here.”

    A bright, irregular line appeared on the map, which obediently zoomed in still closer on the roughly wedge-shaped area it contained, and Terekhov’s eyes narrowed.

    “This, Skipper,” Kaplan said, her tone and manner now completely serious as she leaned forward, using a stylus as a pointer, “is the thermal signature of a carefully hidden access -- one big enough for an air car or even one of the Kornatians’ big freight helicopters, if you fold the rotors -- to a large underground structure of some sort. And this,” the stylus moved to the side, “is a ventilation system designed to disguise the waste heat. And this over here,”the stylus moved again, “is what looks like a pretty well camouflaged observation post, placed high enough on this hill to command most of this entire end of the river valley all of this is tucked away in. And this right here,” her voice sharpened and her eyes narrowed, “is a pattern of earth and leaves that were turned over fairly recently -- probably within the last seventy to eighty hours -- that happens to be big enough to cover the marks the landing skids of a good sized shuttle a really big counter-grav air lorry might have left. If that’s what it is, it can’t have been there for more than seventy-seven hours, unless whatever left them had better stealth capacity than anything of ours does, because that’s how long ago we put Johnson’s array up and tasked it to watch this area.”

    “And we couldn’t pick any of this up our own array?”

    “Whoever put this in, did an excellent job,” Kaplan said. “My best estimate is that the Defense Force’s recon satellites wouldn’t have seen this at all using their optical or heat sensors. There are power sources down there, but they’re also extremely well shielded -- so well that even Tadislaw’s drone can’t isolate point sources reliably. You can do that with enough dirt or ceramacrete. I don’t think anything the KDF has could spot this without going active with radar mapping. We couldn’t spot it from up here, using purely passive systems, partly because of the sheer depth of atmosphere, partly because of the dense tree cover and how good a job they did of hiding it when they put it in, and partly because for all the computational power we’ve got, our arrays simply aren’t designed for detailed tactical work in this type of environment. The Marines’ equipment is, and that’s why Tadislaw’s drone could spot what we couldn’t.”

    “All right, that makes sense.” Terekhov sat gazing at the holo for several more seconds, thinking hard, then nodded.

    “This is on the planet, so it’s clearly in Suka and Basaricek’s jurisdiction. Both of them would be more than mildly irritated if we crashed the party without even mentioning it to them. On the other hand, none of their units have the same ability we do for getting in hard and fast. So it’s time I brought them up to speed, but I think I need to talk to someone else first.”

    He punched a combination into the conference table com.

    “Ground One, Kaczmarczyk speaking,” a voice said.

    “Tadislaw, it’s the Captain.”

    “Good afternoon, Sir,” Captain Kaczmarczyk said from his command post at the spaceport. “How can I help you this afternoon?”

    “Commander Kaplan and I have just been discussing some equipment you lost earlier today.”

    “Ah! That equipment.”

    “Yes. I think we’re going to want to go collect it this evening. Has Commander Kaplan shared her analysis of the data with you?”

    “Yes, Sir. She uploaded it to me about a half-hour ago.”

    “Good. Who have you got down there who could go get your toy back?”

    “Lieutenant Kelso’s platoon has the duty this evening, Sir. She’s got enough battle armor for two of her squads.”

    “I’ll leave that to your judgment, Tadislaw. It’s not my area of expertise. Just bear in mind that we don’t have any idea what might be waiting underneath. I’d recommend against assuming there won’t be any modern weapons down there, though.”

    “I think that’s wise, Sir. Should I plan on local participation?”

    “I think so. I’ll speak to Colonel Basaricek. If she feels we should get the Defense Force involved, we’ll be bringing General Suka on board, as well. I’d really prefer to keep it as closely held as possible, but I think good manners require that we have at least some of the locals along in the follow up wave. Unless I tell you differently, plan on going in first with our people. And work out the details for a covert insertion. I’d really like your people to be on the ground and kicking in the doors before whoever’s down there has a clue you’re coming.”

    “Yes, Sir. Gunny Urizar’s down here with me. She and I’ll sit down with Kelso and put together an ops plan for your approval. I should have something in an hour or two.”

    “I’ll try to get back to you sooner than that with Basaricek’s reaction to the news,” Terekhov promised.

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