2952-05-21 – Tales from the Service: The Listening Post on the Ridge 

Though the attack on Ortberg Ridge was far better supported than most of the participants realized even while it was ongoing, the heroism of the volunteer troops fighting far from home cannot be understated. Ayama has, at this point, fallen to Confederated forces, pushing the Incarnation one step further away from Sagittarius Gate. No doubt, there are many thousands of enemy holdouts still on that world, but it is no longer a resource depot for the enemy. 

[D.L.C. 05-23: Apologies for any delays in distributing this item to your feeds; the same day it was prepared for ingest, an Incarnation raid broke the Hypercast relay chain across the Gap. I have been informed that connectivity back to the Core Worlds has been restored; those of you on my side of the Gap should not have noticed any interruptions.] 

Sergeant Helen Keir sat with her back to a brown boulder and listened, barely daring to breathe. Reyer and Tuominen, a few meters down-slope, hugged the ground and clutched their weapons, trusting in what meager cover the uneven ground afforded them. 

After a long moment, Helen heard it again: the sound of metal scraping against stony soil. It was close, perhaps ten meters from her up the slope. 

Helen glanced at her comrades and pursed her lips. Exposing themselves to the multitude of electronic eyes on the ridgetop would be suicide. Still, Helen knew she needed to learn what the sound meant. Her squad, along with the rest of the company, was going to attack the hill the next day at dawn, and if victory were possible at all, it hinged on the attackers having all the surprises. 

Things didn’t seem quite so hopeless as they had a few hours earlier, at least. Tuominen had led the way from their bivouac to a dry gulley in the hillside, which had let them climb up a fair distance unobserved. At the upper end of the gulley, a stand of boulders had given them cover to advance a little further, but they hadn’t even gotten to the edge of this before the scraping noises had stopped them short. 

Helen was, as usual, carrying a pocket-full of micro-drones, but those would be slagged a soon as they rose into the air, and alert the enemy to the presence of Helen and her patrol. So near to Incarnation lines, even sending a tight-beam radio signal might raise the alarm. If they were going to do anything, it would need to be something low-tech – in other words, something dirty. 

Moving slowly, Helen lifted her carbine’s carry-strap over her head and set the weapon down on the ground. Motioning the others to stay still, she drew her side-arm, an antiquated VT-31 chemical-cartridge gun she’d bought secondhand before joining the FVDA, and dropped flat against the pebbly dirt. 

Were it not for the thick fibers of her laser-vest, Helen probably couldn’t have crawled any distance on her belly without being shredded by the sharp-edged rocks. As it was, her hands and knees, despite being protected by thick gloves and pants, screamed in pain every time she pushed herself a few inches forward.  

After what seemed like an hour, Helen poked her head around the side of a boulder, then ducked back a moment later. No laser drilled out her brains, and no near-misses charred the soil nearby, so she was still not exposing herself to the guns on the hilltop. Slowly, she pushed forward once more, and peered out toward the intermittent scraping noises. 

Not far uphill from where she was hiding, Helen saw a trio of Incarnation soldiers, their silver-grey fatigues stained brown with dirt, digging into the hillside. They had that absent, glazed-eyes look that Nate personnel usually did while performing manual labor; thanks to the implants interfacing with their brains, the mind of each of the laborers was elsewhere, tapped into an entertainment broadcast or interacting with his fellows on the implant network. Their position was invisible from Confederated positions at the hill’s feet, and they trusted in their comrades on the hilltop for protection against any patrol that might interrupt their work. 

Helen watched the digging for nearly a minute before creeping back to Reyer and Tuominen, as slowly and painfully as she had departed.  

Only when her back was resting against the big boulder where she had started again did she speak. “Three Nate soldiers digging on the hillside right in front of us.” She gestured back toward the sound. The trio wouldn’t hear her over the sounds of their labor, as long as she kept her voice low. “Setting up a sensor picket, probably.” 

Tuominen shook her head. “Doesn’t make any sense. That spot doesn’t have eyes on any of the approaches.” 

“It does block the top of our gulley.” Reyer gestured behind himself. “They must have noticed it was a weakness.” 

Helen nodded. She too had considered the laborers’ proximity to the defile unlikely to be a coincidence. “By dawn they could have a squad entrenched there with sensors and crew-served weapons.” She didn’t need to say what that would do to their chances of taking the ridge in a frontal attack; the others knew well enough. 

Tuominen unslung her rifle. “Dead bodies don’t dig.” 

Reyer held up a hand. “If they know we’ve been up this far they’ll be on alert in the morning.” 

Helen sighed. “Reyer’s right. We need to make it look like an accident. Tuominen, get a position fix on that dig.” 

Tuoiminen nodded and started to crawl away toward the edge of the boulder field. 

“Reyer, get back down to the bivouac and tell Barden what we’ve got up here.” Helen pointed back the way they’d come. “Tuominen and I will be staying until nightfall.” 

“Sarge, Nate patrols will come out when the sun goes down.” Reyer shook his head. “We’ve run into them way down-slope.” 

“I know.” Helen shook her head. “Tell the Lieutenant that we’ll want a bombardment on our target some time after nightfall, but to send a bunch of rounds long, to make it look like a ranging walk up the ridge.” 

“Ah.” Reyer flashed a lop-sided smile. “I get it, Sarge. Ranging walk after dark is bound to catch a few people outside the lines.” 

“Get moving. If the Lieutenant has any better ideas, he might send you back up.” Helen angled her head up and back to indicate the ridge-top. “Remember, no radio up here.” 

Reyer nodded and began creeping backwards toward the gulley. As soon as he was gone, Helen dropped her shoulders and sighed. Maybe Lieutenant Barden would have a better idea; even if they did get the whole company up this far undetected, and past the listening post site without raising the alarm, the morning’s attack still seemed hopeless.