When they were far enough away that nobody could hear them, Dekker fished the STI grip from a bag hung on his belt and held it in his palm. Both Lt. Simmons and Sergeant Preston stared at the device. Preston seemed to stop breathing and reached out to touch it, as if it were made from a web of glass threads, ready to disintegrate and blow away in the wind.
“Is that what I think it is?” he asked. Dekker nodded, easing the device towards him. Sergeant Preston let the words roll off his tongue as if he were describing the first bone of a new species dug up from the ground. “Forward Observer’s Strategic Target Interdiction Fire Control Assembly.” He froze when he turned the grip over and saw the display. Catching Dekker’s eye, he said, “This is a live track.”
Dekker nodded. “Uh huh.”
Preston squinted. “Where did you get this?”
Preston tapped the screen. The tracking line shimmered and a faint red X flashed on the screen. “You know, we could bring this whole thing to a screeching halt with this.”
“If we had the codes,” Dekker said.
Preston turned the grip over in his hand. “We don’t just need the codes” he said. “We also need a com link to the bird.”
Dekker closed his eyes and felt his shoulders starting to slump. “Can you rig something on the HQ track?”
Preston smiled. “It’s – complicated sir.” He shook his head. “Bottom line is this is just a trigger. There’s a lot of infrastructure we just don’t have.”
“Lay it out for me Sergeant.”
Preston cocked his head. “Alright. First, we need two codes. One for the grip to the linkup, the other one for the bird. Then we need an SGL system and a big enough dish antenna to go with it -“
Dekker put his hand up. “I’m an infantry officer, Sergeant.”
“Sorry, sir. Basically we need a radio that can talk to the satellite so we can conduct TT&C – I mean, so we can control it.”
“And we don’t have any of that?”
“Not even close sir. We need the ground station.”
“And that’s at MEF,” Dekker said. A chill ran through him. “Can the Guard get into this thing now that they’ve compromised MEF?”
“If they got their hands on the codes.”
Simmons caught Dekker’s eye. “Do you have something to add, Lieutenant?”
“Well, first off, S-2 would have purged the codes if they really were overrun. The codes are kept in the S-2 bunker. It has a full magnetic purge that wipes everything. If they got in, I’m sure he pulled it.”
“Well then this thing is dead in the water,” Preston said. “Without the uplink codes, we can’t do anything with it.”
Simmons clasped her hands behind her back and scraped the ground with the toe of her boot.
“What is it, Lieutenant?” Dekker asked.
“Neither of you is supposed to hear what I’m about to say, but under the circumstances -“
“Just spit it out.”
Her eyes narrowed. “This isn’t a trivial matter, Colonel. I’m about to break orders.” She took a step closer. “Very important orders.” She stepped back and folded her arms. “And you’re not going to like it. I need your guarantee of amnesty, right here, right now.”
“Again?” A whirlwind kicked up and danced past them, splashing against the tower as he stared at Lt. Simmons.
“This is different. This is orders. I need your personal guarantee,” she said.
“Whose side are you on, Lieutenant?”
Simmons let her hands drop and the tension in her face drained away. “I’m on your side,” she said. “I’m totally, completely on your side.”
“Then you need to trust me.”
Simmons looked away, blinking. “I guess so,” she said. “The STI has a one-time override passcode that resets the SGLS transponder to accept a new primary key for encrypted coms.”
“In case the MEF ever lost control of the keys,” Preston said, his eyes lighting up.
“That’s right,” Simmons continued. “Or if they’re compromised. But we can only do it once. After that, it’s locked to whatever new key we generate for it and that’s it.”
“Well, alright,” Preston said. “That’s all well and good if we have the override.”
“The SGL uses the P series bands,” Simmons said,” but we can rekey with Ka, Ku or even S band. Whatever frequency band we use for the rekey, it will let us continue to use that band for TT&C”
Dekker cleared his throat.
“Um,” Preston said. “Right. Well, all she means is that we have a choice of fequency bands to use. That’s good because it gives us more options depending on what equipment we have available. TT&C is like command and control – the stuff that tells the satellite what to do, including the firing sequence.”
He turned to look at Simmons. “We still need the one-time passcode though. Without it, we’re just talking here.”
Simmons glanced at Dekker and let out a sigh, as if she was pushing away a lifetime of secrets. She reached down to her boot and unzipped a pocket stitched into its side. She pulled out a composite armor plate and then a thin plastic circuit card that had been nestled in behind it since they had left MEF headquarters. She held the card out to Dekker.
He stared at the card, then at her. “Why do you have this?” he asked. Her eyes remained fixed on his as she held the card. He needed the card more than he needed to know why she had it. She probably knew that, too, but he waited anyway. She said she was on his side, but there was more, and he needed to hear her say the words.
She took his hand and placed the card in his palm. “My mission”, she said, “was to make sure you didn’t use the STI against the Paladin.”
©2016 Michael J Lawrence