By R.W.Van Sant
During the first Gulf war, weapons systems became so sophisticated that it became possible for the enemy to fire missiles that locked on to the signals put out by field radios. This story was my third published story. Ricochet appeared in the summer 2008 issue of Victory News-Press. This short story was an attempt to solve that problem.
“Head up that rise!” The sergeant ordered the driver.
“Yes, Sergeant.” Private Martins did his best to convince the Armored Communications Relay Unit that it was actually a bulldozer. The truck fought its way through dense East Asian foliage; the engineers didn’t design it for use in such terrain, but ACRUs were tough.
Martins drove past a squad of cheering infantrymen, then turned the truck the path and headed into the rocky hills to get a good vantage point for the coming battle. “Ricochet!” The soldiers cried out the name they had given the trucks after the first battle. An appropriate nickname, he thought. After all, radio signals were ‘bounced’ off them—sort of. Someone in brass must have thought the name was clever because the generals code-named his ACRU ‘Ricochet Eight.’
The private felt the blood rise up in his cheeks in pride at the accolades. For him, there was no better job in the infantry. At times, however, he felt more like a decoy; sent to draw fire instead of being the essential part of the communications structure that their superiors claimed they were. His suggestion for painting a large bull’s eye on the side of the truck, on the other hand, met with little enthusiasm from the sergeant.
Martins didn’t tell him he’d already ordered tee shirts: black with a large bulls-eye in the center with the words ‘Team Ricochet #Eight. Taking flack, so you don’t have to’ embroidered around it in silver (the silver cost more, but he liked the effect). The sergeant didn’t have to wear his if he didn’t want to.
The truck bounced unevenly over a fallen tree concealed by brush. One day we’ll blow an axle trying to obey these stupid orders. Trees and broad-leaved plants all but blocked his view of the ground over which he drove. Martins struggled to keep the ‘Eight’ from tipping over every time she found a deep rut or large bump in the impossible terrain. One does not ask a pawn about the board before making a move.
A sudden dip rocked them violently, sending their sergeant unceremoniously on his ass. Martins cringed in silent apology. The sergeant regained his feet with curses far more descriptive than Martins could have managed. Such skill must come with time in the service. The other two members of the team, safely strapped into their seats, smiled, and said nothing of the incident.
Specialist Hawkins, the soldiers’ guardian angel, sat at the communications station. He monitored all battlefield transmissions, ensuring a secure, un-targetable communication link with the generals who gave orders from afar.
New weapons technology made radios too dangerous to use in combat. Martins’ brother-in-law had been a radioman for twenty seconds—how long it took the enemy to detect, lock on, and fire the shoulder-launched rocket that made Martins’ older sister a widow.
Then came the Ricochet trucks and soldiers were saved from such an ignoble, if not spectacular, death. The idea was brilliant: radiomen would send all battlefield communications via ‘burst-com.’ The radiomen recorded the message into a radio, digitized and condensed the signals into a tight beam microwave signal lasting a microsecond. There was no time to lock onto the directed signal even if they detected it; the enemy didn’t know what hit them.
Hawkins encoded and relayed the signals to a communications satellite in high orbit using oscillating frequencies to further confound the enemy. From this lofty position, the satellites relayed the messages to field commanders, generals, the Pentagon, and even Langley with complete impunity.
Combat Countermeasures Specialist McCoen was the ‘Eight’s’ guardian angel. He kept the missiles away. Once they transmitted, enemy missiles could lock on, that meant they would be coming for them instead of the radiomen. The thought gave Private Martins the shakes. McCoen was good at his job and at his disposal were a battery of jamming devices, bafflers, and decoys. Should those fail, the ‘Eight’ also mounted a Mini Phalanx, point defense system, it made tinfoil out of missiles. They rarely ever took more than small arms fire, easily rebuked by the truck’s armor plating.
Sergeant Upton activated the strategic terrain display. This time he strapped himself into his seat before he entered the long sequence of numbers on a panel keypad that would allow him access to the ‘grid.’ The battlefield appeared as a topographical display on the screen before him, fed by information from satellites and drone spy planes. “Ten more meters dead on. Good, now lock her down. Duty stations we’re going active! Call it out!”
Martins eased the vehicle to a stop and released the external brace lever that anchored the Eight to the ground. No chance of flipping over now, or moving. “Locking down.”
“Sensor array up! Defensive systems online,” McCoen activated their electronic eyes and ears.
“Com Sat Six located. Sending recognition code. Connection confirmed we’re in. Uplink active.” Hawkins flipped the switch that raised the external antennae to ‘catch’ the incoming burst coms.
Red dots forming a crude triangle on the surrounding the battlefield appeared on the sergeant’s display; one dot for each of the ACRUs on the field. “Confirmed. Keep the engines running.”
“Yes, Sergeant.” And my hand on the brake release. Private Martins scanned the brush ahead for an escape route.
“Signal confirmed.” A red light above Hawkins’ head lit up, sending him into a flurry of action; he received, recorded, coded, and scrambled the radio frequencies. Thus packaged, he transmitted them into space and the waiting receiver of Com Sat Six. Textbook perfect.
“Incoming!” Sergeant Upton cried. A new blip appeared on the grid. It was moving quickly and closing the distance between their dots.
“On it,” Specialist McCoen activated the baffler signals that sent out false ‘images,’ making it harder for a missile to detect them. Another switch sent waves of conflicting radio signals to overwhelm the missiles guidance and homing systems. “Activating countermeasures.”
“Damn, they’re getting quicker!” Martins prepared a quick getaway.
“It was a matter of time. Co-ordinates!”
“Yes, Sergeant.” Specialist Hawkins analyzed and triangulated the signals from ricochets Two and Ten. “Sending to field units.”
“Incoming two!” Two dots now converged on their location.
“Jamming ineffective, deploying decoys.” The roar of small interception rockets broke the monotony of droning electronics.
“Missile three. We’ve been made. Martins, get us out of here.”
“Yes, Sergeant.” He slid the truck into gear and pulled on the lever that retracted the braces. The flustered private pressed the accelerator pedal to the floorboard, applying his full weight, and the ‘Eight’ lurched forward. The truck slowed minimally as it plunged into the dense green wall that surrounded them. “I hate being popular.”
“Target one, eliminated.” McCoen’s voice was proud.
“Ground units have engaged source, Sarge.” Hawkins looked up from his panel.
“Missile three eliminated.” McCoen continued to manipulate the baffler and jamming controls to get the third. “I can’t jam it. Permission to go hot on the phalanx?”
The phalanx was a system of last resort. It relied on the use of active radar and computer tracking to achieve a targeting lock. Activating it was like sending up a flare to all enemy units within twenty miles. Martins’ heart raced as the sergeant responded. “Do it! Martins, we need some room. Get us on a hill, quickly.”
“So much for hiding.” The truck shifted severely as Martins drove into a rocky creek. The large truck bounced along the narrow winding stream until it disappeared between two ridges. So much for a quick getaway. The Eight’s tires slipped on the muddy embankment, spinning and throwing mud until it slid onto a rocky patch and pulled itself out of the creek bed. The muddy truck lumbered to the top of a small hill.
“Target acquired and locked.”
“Fire!” The fifty-caliber Gatling gun sent out a stream of two thousand rounds per minute, computer controlled, radar aimed, armor piercing hail. The noise, like that of ripping fabric amplified a hundred times, assaulted the crew’s ears.
Martins searched the terrain for the foliage of least resistance. When the order came, he wanted to get out of there as fast as the ‘Eight’ could take them. If the gun failed, their only protection would be the armored exterior of the truck, and it wasn’t thick enough to stop a missile.
The shells ripped into the unarmored, undeterred missile causing it to detonate several hundred yards short. The battlefield lit up with the brightness of a sun. Explosive shock waves buffeted the truck. Martins collided with the steering wheel; the force of the blow knocked the air out of his lungs. He gasped. The blinding whiteness of the explosion filled the cabin. The polarized glass of the viewports and windshield diminished the light, reducing its intensity so that the flash wouldn’t damage the passenger’s vision. In Basic Training, his trainer told him that such flashes burn out retinas.
Even so, Private Martins’ eyes stung something fierce. Spots swam across his field of vision, obscuring the ground before him. Nevertheless, the private kept the ‘Eight’ upright long enough to bring her to a stop. Inside the cabin, the electrical systems sparked, producing billows of acrid smoke. The cabin quickly filled with the dense choking haze, making it difficult to breathe.
“What—the—Hell!” Martin tried to coerce the air back into his lungs, just to cough the lung burning fumes back out.
“Electro-Magnetic Pulse.” McCoen unstrapped, yanked his off jacket, and started patting down the smoking panels.
“That was a nuke?” The Sergeant gasped for breath. “Intel didn’t mention anything about nukes.”
“I think we were the field test.” McCoen moved from one panel to the next patting and smothering the flames.
“How’s our uplink?” Sarge asked.
“Lost it. I’m attempting to re-establish.” Hawkins waved his hands through the thick haze to clear enough of it away to see the displays.
“Martino, get us to our backup position.” The sergeant pushed at buttons on the display panel. Dots faded in and out.
“Already—moving, Sergeant.” Martins felt extremely motivated to vacate the area. The blast had left behind a desolate smoking terrain, a nightmare scene, now heavily irradiated. The ground units were more than likely burned to ash the second it blew. Even the backup position wouldn’t be far enough for his comfort.
“Vents are toast; the controls are fused.” McCoen coughed and stomped on his jacket to put out the fire that started in it.
“These systems were supposed to be hardened.”
“Sorry, Sarge. Damned contractors probably tried to save a buck. They didn’t care if a nuke fried secondary systems.” McCoen tried to suck air through his shirt as he fumbled with the melted wiring. “Yeah, fried. It’ll take hours to rewire.”
“Great. I wonder what else they skimped on.” Martins turned the truck around and started looking for the best way to site B. The foliage was smoking ash, it made the job of navigating much easier. Only the haze of smoke hampered his sight.
“Use the override. It’s getting pretty thick in here. And break out the masks.” The sergeant coughed and raised his shirt to filter out some of the smoke.
McCoen turned the manual hand crank opening the filtered vents. Slowly the smoke in the cabin started to thin.
“I want that uplink.”
“Working on it. “Hawkins fanned at the smoke as if to force it out the vent more quickly.
McCoen fumbled through the emergency equipment locker until he found the respirator masks. “Masks,” he cried.
“What’s the problem? Can we transmit?” the sergeant adjusted the seal on his mask and took several breaths.
“We’re sending, but I’m getting nothing back. Our dishes must be out of alignment. I can broadcast send and lock onto the return signal.” Hawkins did not relish the idea of exposing themselves again, but he didn’t see any other way.
“Do it. McCoen, get back to your station. We may need you soon.”
McCoen strapped in. “Defensive systems are active. At least they didn’t skimp on these.”
“Yes, Sergeant.” Hawkins typed the recognition code and broadcast it to the world, a split second burst of scrambled microwaves. “Done. There was no response.”
A loud, screeching noise burst forth from the speakers. The glass windshield vibrated, and Martins thought it would shatter. His eardrum felt as though it nearly ruptured, and he knew he wouldn’t get back from this mission with all his senses. Hawkins rushed to turn down the speakers. “Ouch!” he cried.
“What was that?” the sergeant asked.
“Guess the pulse tagged your systems too.” McCoen held his hands tightly to his ears.
“A signal,” Hawkins said.
“Can you lock on?” The Sergeant moved to the radio station shaking his head and popping his jaw, trying to clear the ringing in his ears.
“Already done, Sarge, but …”
“What’s the problem?”
“It’s not a ComSat signal. I don’t know what it is.”
“It’s not responding.” His hands tapped the panel. “Wait… I just received an– echo.”
“No, the signal bounced off something, but it didn’t respond. All I got back was… echo.”
“Off the satellite. Don’t those things hide their radar profile?” It was becoming obvious that the truck had taken significant damage. Martins wondered if they would be able to complete their mission.
“The echo’s too big for a satellite, and it took too long to bounce back. Whatever the signal hit, it’s not in orbit.”
“In English!” The sergeant had little patience for techie talk.
“The microwaves travel at light-speed Sarge. The satellite is only a few hundred miles away. The signal should have returned instantly. This one took about eight seconds to return. Whatever it is, it’s much farther out.”
“So, how far?”
“Four light seconds, over a million clicks, farther than the moon, twice as far.”
“We found a comet? Hey Sarge, can I name it after my sister?” Martins asked.
“Incoming coded communication.” The light over Hawkins’ display lit up again.
“Site Beta is half a click ahead sergeant.” The Eight was making good time over the new atomic wasteland.
“Find a spot and secure.” The Sergeant ordered Martins, then turned his attention back to Hawkins. “Read the message.”
“Cam Sat Six destroyed at nine thirty-two and eleven seconds. Authorize the use of ComSat Four until further notice.”
“Okay, log it. Let’s get back to work. Get me an uplink. Find out what’s been happening with the battle while we’ve been offline.”
“Yes, Sergeant!” Hawkins complied, typing the message. “What about the signal?”
“The one we received before the echo, the screech.”
“I thought it was a malfunction, caused by the EMP.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Could it have it have been a signal surge as the satellite blew up?”
“No Sarge. The signal has structure. Binary code maybe. I think it was a response.”
“If the satellite was destroyed, how could it have responded?”
“Then what did?”
“Whatever made the echo,” Hawkins said the words slowly as if trying to measure their implications.
“What are you saying?” The Sergeant focused his attention on getting his topographical display back up by hitting it.
“Maybe it was a solar flare or another nuke detonation somewhere near?” McCoen asked.
“No, it was a focused, directed signal.”
“Do comets send radio signals?” Martins threw in his two cents.
“No! I could try to decipher it, Sarge. We have it recorded.”
“A spaceship?” Martins blurted out.
“Stow that!” The sergeant cried. “We don’t know anything, none of us! We have a job to do. Save all data. Let the egg heads at Langley sort it out.”
“Yes, Sergeant.“ Hawkins complied. “New connection secure.”
“We’re back on duty. Give me a status report. We’ve got a war to fight, and there’s probably a lot of wounded. “The Sergeant moved back to his battlefield display, the dots still faded in and out.
Private Martins brought the damaged truck to a halt and released the braces. Once he released the brace supports, he couldn’t stop himself from looking up through the windshield. ‘Enjoy the show.’ The driver of ‘Ricochet Eight’ started scanning the terrain for their next escape path.