For the first time since he took this job, Franklin was startled to realize he had almost dozed off. What had jolted him back to full awareness was the alarm on his sensor. It was loud, not simply because he had dared to turn the volume up, but because it was multiple alarms going off at once.
As he stared at the display analysis of the situation, a part of him was thinking the only reason he might have been drowsy at all was because he had been awakened after a mere half-night of sleep. He remembered a vivid dream where some figure had come into his tent and told him he needed to get up early. Then this person slapped him on the chest and Franklin had shot up on his cot coughing, knocking his water canteen onto the rock surface on which his tent stood behind the Hummer. He must have made quite a bit of noise, and scrambled to find the canteen. He was coughing because the air was painfully dry and it felt like the entire desert south of here had crawled into his mouth.
Having nearly drained the whole liter of water, Franklin decided to obey the figure who had ordered him awake. He really did believe in mystical stuff like that, but his response was entirely practical. Taking it as a clue, he loaded up some extra gear, including the small generator, extra gasoline and two extra fuel cells for the rifle and sensor.
This time he chose a different spot for his nest. It was just a small hump, but the whole area was a little higher than usual, placing him at a different angle to the camp. He took the time to make sure the camouflage cover blended into the hump, then he set up the extra display and elevated the satellite receiver as high as it would stand. Firing up the tiny, well-muffled generator, he cranked up the gain on the receiver to insure the sensor would pull in more data from farther out. The generator was mostly because it also meant the sensor had to work harder and run its own interior cooling fans. This whole set up was common back in the more populated areas, but was quite rare out here in the wilderness.
It wasn’t just the dream, but the whole way up he had the nagging sense that this was going to be a bad day. And it was. He had watched the crawlers return at dawn when the work crews began swarming the work site on the pipeline. It was an hour or so later — still early morning — when the alarms had sounded and the display showed unusual traffic from four different directions. He zoomed in on the closest first: a half-dozen mopeds coming up behind him from around a large hill. That many together was unusual, but not rare. And a couple of rifles meant nothing out here. While this groups was in no particular hurry, being on a single-track goat trail, the sensor had worked out that each bike was two-up and each figure was apparently armed. Their rate of approach would put them in range in just a little over a half-hour.
From off to his left, another group of similar size was moving a bit faster on a better road, but they still had some distance to go. A third group was coming down the far slope directly in front of him, and it looked like they were about to meet up with some large vehicles coming up from the intervening side valley. The sensor said it looked like two technicals and an armored bomb rig gliding along the bottom of the wadi under some trees. Each group individually wasn’t such a big deal, but this was a company sized unit coming down on a single crawler team.
Franklin slipped the headset over his stiff gray hair and pulled the boom mic into place. His wireless intercom should be just within range. To his surprise, someone responded immediately to his buzz. It was Joe.
Franklin’s tone was nonchalant. “Joe, how is that upgrade coming?”
“You know, Frank, I’m not a light sleeper but this morning you made some noise way before dawn and I got up. Couldn’t go back to sleep. So I got a head start and directed the crawlers to download that software upgrade on-the-fly from the satellite link instead of waiting for them to come back and feed it from the disk that courier brought. I even had it preloaded for installation because they all still showed green on reserve power. When they got here it was pretty quick to make them halt and install just sitting out in the staging area. They can reboot with their motors running. At any rate, I just got finished recalibrating when you buzzed. Is there something you need?”
“Joe, it looks like you’ll get to run them through the test firing immediately. We need the crawlers redeployed in defense; in about a half-hour a full company on mopeds, two technicals and a bomb rig will be close enough to hurt us.”
Franklin heard Joe swear before the radio link went dead. He chuckled as he set the sensor to fire on the group behind him as soon as possible. It’s pulse gun was mounted inside a turntable that wrapped around the satellite dish mast on top. The turntable spun to face the rear. He watched the screen and saw where the crawlers came back online one at a time. They automatically moved forward and fanned out, seeking advantageous firing positions. From what he understood, the planned upgrade was supposed to make them better at optimizing fire and capacitor recharge timing, and an improved low-powered repeater that mimicked a machine-gun. Had Joe not gotten on the job before dawn, but waited and performed the upgrade by the book, the crawlers would not have been ready for another two or three hours yet.
The techs had only the older projectile assault rifles, so their direct contribution would come last. Franklin was watching and planned to hit the big vehicles from as far out as possible, before they were visible to the crawlers down in the pocket. He noticed the technicals and bikes had learned a new trick. Taking advantage of the exceedingly dry conditions, they were kicking up a huge dust wake that made the bomb rig invisible to energy weapons. Worse, according to the sensor, the driver of the bomb rig must have been prone inside the vehicle, because the whole thing was just about waist high, and with a good ground clearance, at that. Since the mopeds were in front of the technicals, he would have to pick them off one by one. Fine; each one would be a very messy detonation. Pulse fire hitting metal made a much fiercer explosion than striking flesh.
Apparently the crawler upgrade was worth the trouble. They picked off all the other riders before Franklin managed to get the ones only he could see. Those coming up from his rear had been fully exposed to the sensor’s fire because their path didn’t offer much loose dust. They all went up in smoke and flames, but the technicals managed to dodge the small craters that appeared in front them. His sensor kept track of everything and coordinated with the crawlers. Thus, the overwatch crawler fired off three missiles en defilade at the bigger vehicles and the whole battle was over. Franklin kept his eyes on the scanner for a few minutes, then radioed back that the fields of fire were now clear.
By this time the stronger radio traffic between the sensor and crawlers had gotten the attention of a couple of military choppers. They did a close flyover and hovered near the wreckage and remains of the attackers. The only thing Franklin hadn’t brought to his nest was a tactical radio, but apparently the chief got some feedback that he shared on the low powered wireless intercom link with Franklin.
“The chopper pilots told me it looked like they had matching brand new AKs, not the ratty stuff we usually see,” the chief said. “The technicals, similar with new 14.5s. The low-slung VBIED really surprised them; it had exploded like a flower, leaving some of the armored shell draped over the frame. Somehow the frame and part of the drive-train was still intact, like it had been loaded with shaped charges pointing laterally. Those weren’t your garden variety rebels.”
If that’s true, Franklin thought to himself, then the real trouble has just started.