Mikhail Keng looked briefly around the government subway
lounge at Selantan, an hour north of the Selangor capital of Singapore. As
usual he was on the lookout for anything interesting, which covered a broad
range from beautiful women to anyone who might be following him. In this age of
turnkey surveillance, there were still advantages to the observational skill of
with slow deliberation past the restaurant, thinking about fresh noodles and
pork, or maybe rabbit stew. This was all cut short by two arriving messages;
one, an open line from his sister Aleksandra and the other a secure thread from
one of his intelligence officers. He brushed aside his sister's message. Real
news was mixed; the new offensive was making good headway on Java and some
Australian command centers had been captured typically a mark of
success. Casualties and equipment losses had been severe though, and worst of
all, Keng's intelligence team had been killed. They were visiting one of the
forward command centers at the time of the Australian counterstrike, and the
next officer up the chain of command had suffered a nervous breakdown. Keng
looked up, mildly shocked
his men were dead. More messages arrived,
including new orders: "Return immediately to Singapore and prepare for
Im going to Java. Keng mumbled to himself as he looked across
Absent-mindedly tapping his fingers on the head rest of a lounge couch, he
considered his options for a few seconds and then walked over to the
restaurant. Got to have something to eat. he thought to himself.
A crowd had
formed in advance of the run to Singapore and so the restaurant was busy. As he
waited in line, he tried to distract himself and eventually his eyes settled on
a Chinese girl in front of him. Her graceful hands were working some kind of
craft project. Using two sticks she was winding colored string together,
manually creating woven material.
fascinated by this arcane display and watched as they stood in line. She
continued her work, oblivious to the world, until a cockroach tumbled out of
the overhead and onto her weaving. Startled, she dropped her work on the floor,
not uttering a sound in the process. After a moment of hesitation she squatted
down and tried to use one of her weaving sticks to gently push away the
intrusive pest. Religious. Keng thought to himself. As if to prove
his point, she persisted in pushing the erratic bug carefully away so as not to
harm it. To Keng's mild surprise she finally managed to persuade the insect to
wander away toward the sure protection of the wall nearest to them.
its new objective the cockroach was intercepted by the foot of an Indian lady
standing ahead of the young Chinese girl. A loud STAMP and the cockroach was
flattened. The woman looked back at the hapless girl with a scowl and
reproached her; Don't you know those things are filthy? she asked
and turned back in a huff. The young girl looked back at Keng in helpless
shock. He returned the visual equivalent of a shrug and looked away in mock
sadness, but he wasn't thinking about the girl or her pet cockroach.
hours later Keng stepped onto the subway platform at Bogor, Western Java. He
looked around the old station with its musty architecture. The late afternoon
sun still streamed in through the deep skylights. This station always reminded
him of an old still image taken from the great evacuation. Walking toward him
was one of his best officers, atypically shouldering a large packset.
him before he came within voice range. Good afternoon Vasily
Petrovich. The two men smiled at the joke, Vasiliys middle name was
not Petrovich, and neither was Kengs for that matter.
afternoon Sir. replied the loyal Vasiliy. I have everything needed
for the front, we are ordered to leave immediately.
I'm assuming air travel is out of the question. he said, smiling tightly.
They joined up and walked over to the elevators that led to the surface.
is correct sir. The civilian subway line through Bandung has been commandeered,
but given the public nature of its tunnels, we have been ordered to avoid using
it. They do not want to lose any more trained intelligence people. he
said, grinning widely at his commander. Keng continued looking up at the
elevator ceiling and only slightly lolled his head in Vasiliy's direction.
briefest of pauses Vasiliy continued. The safest way at this point will
be ground travel, I estimate we can be at the front by 0400. Keng
crunched his eyes shut. He had already known that getting to the front would
now be harder because penetrators had been introduced. Things were becoming
like the old wars, when the very firepower one used tended to impede all
movement for both sides.
Alright. Keng said after a few moments pause. If we must go
overland, the sooner we leave the better. With that the elevator doors
opened into the main reception area adjoining Bandung's outdoor plaza
something unusual in the world and only present at the relatively pacific
equator. The two men did not go outside however, and instead walked down the
length of the hall, through a series of unmarked doors to a new set of military
elevators. Riding these down to a small station, they used the local military
transit system to move across town to a base where they would be issued
something to get them moving.
while later they were standing in full uniform next to a high speed
Router, a word borrowed from the Australians for the standard
ground transport used by armed forces around the world. Like a giant
four-wheeled insect it rested on wide-set pylons that supported a low passenger
cabin. They climbed slowly inside, secured themselves and opened a line to the
vehicle. Within a few seconds it had a full map of their route and opened the
blast doors of the hardened parking garage. Into the open air and down the
muddy road the router rolled and bumped along the Javanese countryside.
looking around they were now a military target and not mere civilians
both men kept an eye on their communications and network alerts. An
unspoken rule among combat planners was not to shoot at unarmed military ground
taxis, but that was before. The war had seemed to take on a meaner edge in the
last few days.
know. Keng said. I hear the Californians have routers that you can
barely detect until they are nearly on top of you. He looked over at his
subordinate, who was resting lightly in his seat. Vasiliy had been called in
from a scouting mission to Kalimantan, he was exhausted. Keng went back to his
own thoughts, about the Californians, the Australians, and yes, even the
Japanese. What would they do now? None of my business yet. he
thought to himself. Im here to get this job done. Ill worry
about the rest later. With that he reviewed the latest information from
By dawn they
were walking cautiously through the carnage in the original rear lines of the
Selangor front. It was like a giant shredder had ripped a million tons of metal
into random confetti and sprayed it far and wide across the area. In a way that
is exactly what had happened. The region was starting to look more and more
like a junkyard on the moon.
approached the edge of a massive depression in the ground that marked the spot
where Keng's men had died. Only the barest signs of the original command center
entrance were visible; however one of its massive blast doors was lying a
kilometer to the west, buckled almost in half.
brief examination of the blast area and a quick perusal of reports relating to
the strike that destroyed the base deep beneath them, Keng and Vasiliy hiked
back to their router. It was parked inside a low revetment next to a trio of
armored command tanks. They grabbed their gear from the router and hauled it
over to the tanks they could get no closer to the front now without much
better protection. Beyond their current position they were overt targets for
anything and everything the enemy could use to chase them. A series of covering
fire missions had been planned precisely so they could investigate a captured
Australian command center in person.
Vasiliy each climbed into a different tank. The third tank was a sapper
carrier, equipped with unmanned engineering systems that would hopefully clear
routes into the enemy bunker and secure them from anything still wandering
pulled out of the revetment, their now empty router vehicle pulled out on its
own and headed back to headquarters. It quickly disappeared behind them and
their own path across the wrecked valley cleared the revetments and adjoining
shelter entries. Along they went, listening to the rumble of heavy support fire
and counterfire away to the East. This was partly arranged for them and
partially a typical occurrence. The Selangor had purposefully delayed sending a
team out to the enemy bunker too soon, correctly guessing that the Australians
would not watch it so carefully after several days. They made sure the
Australians had other things to worry about by then.
through his reports, Keng checked local fire missions and units. There was a
new divisional controller in position a few kilometers to their right rear, and
through a nearby combat unit the controller briefly contacted Keng: Do
not communicate amongst vehicles in any way, Australian reconnaissance ordnance
regularly overhead. After a long pause, the controller continued.
Recommending alternate path for your sapper unit, three vehicles in one
convoy is too many. The message tersely closed by ordering Keng not to
respond. At least it was good to see high command had assigned more competent
people to the front line. Or maybe it was just that wars had a way of getting
rid of the less able.
back in silence and noted his engineering escort peel-off onto a different
route the divisional controller had not even bothered asking permission.
The remaining two tanks continued on their way through the ruined countryside.
Signs of pre-glacial buildings were mixed with more modern construction. The
local city had been fairly thriving until the war came. Beyond, on the
ridgelines to the northeast lay their destination; Ratu Boko. The Selangor
offensive had secured the area of course. In fact the latest fighting had
pushed all the way across the Gunung Butak highlands and into the valley 20
kilometers east of here. Yes, the Australians had plenty to think about for the
moment, but the Selangor were just about out of reserves and the offensive
would soon be over.
the ruined town, Keng and Vasiliy passed ancient temple ruins standing mute
over the devastated countryside. Keng knew these were the Prambanan temples
built long before the Glacial. Both men took a good look, feeling some pride
that the ruins had not been damaged during the fighting. Both Selangor and
Australian support fire and ground fighting had maintained a one-kilometer safe
zone around the ruins. Inside that zone, no military units operated. Even Keng
kept his small column well clear so as not to ignorantly jeopardize the
It was dusk
by the time they arrived near the base of the ridge. Above them was the
hammered ruin of the Australian command bunker, vacant and still giving off a
faint trace of smoke. There was no easy access, the entire area was devastated.
Keng noticed their sapper tank had already arrived and ascended part way up the
wrecked slope in order to clear a route to the bunker.
middle of the night the way was clear and the sappers had secured the interior.
Both men dismounted their tanks and hiked carefully up the route cleared for
them. The ground was still uneven, and all around the slopes on either side
were more signs of intense fighting. Gutted and burned out airframes lay
crumpled into the sides of the hill, the ground was littered with drifts of
microscopic debris billions of combat MGVs in their final state: scrap.
the enemy bunker they stayed together until they were satisfied the sappers had
done their job. Then Vasiliy stalked down to the maintenance levels to see if
anything worth examining remained undestroyed. It was unlikely that they would
find much, but the smallest item could offer an insight to new Australian
technologies. This might take days, so there was no hurry. By the time they
left the bunker there would probably be a cease-fire agreement in effect.
his way through the upper levels, carefully examining the halls and rooms. The
bunker was strangely unremarkable strange because there seemed to be no
real command center. In fact most of the small complex seemed to be living
quarters. It was as if this were a fortified barracks for two, with signs of
only one person having been there
to one room that had all the appearance of a small, comfortable dining area,
there was still a bowl and spoon on the table. It looked like it had held
Australian style cold cereal with milk, but the remnants had apparently been
sanitized by the Australian base maintenance before the place was overrun.
What a shame they couldnt get in faster and disable the
place. Keng thought. He looked around some more, the furniture and
appliances were all well-made and had nicely survived the shock of the
bombardment. Taking any of it was out of the question, there was no telling
what it was infested with.
re-entered the hall, something further down caught his eye. He walked slowly to
the other end, looking cautiously around both corners where the hallway formed
a T-intersection. The flash of blue that had caught his attention was setting
on a small table projecting from an alcove; he walked closer and stood in quiet
amusement. Setting there were some small fruits tiny New Zealand
blueberries from their appearance. They were carefully laid out in the pattern
of what the Australians would call a smiley face; two circles for eyes and a
curved line for a smiling mouth. The smiley face grinned up at Keng out of the
smoke damaged ruin of an Australian officers bunker quarters. Looking
around the spartan interior, the Selangor intelligence officer saw no other
signs of interest.
thinking to himself and looked down again at the odd sign left by the
but nothing important. We need to look at something on the outside before we
will be fine, there is nothing else here for us to look at, let's leave the
rest of salvage to the locals.
looked down and smiled, shook his head slightly and turned away.
07. Conversation One