A Pillar Of Fire By Night – Snippet 21


“How ridiculous and how strange to be surprised at anything which happens in life.”

–Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Tauran Union Expeditionary Force Headquarters,

Academia Sergento Juan Malvegui (Under New Management), Puerto Lindo, Balboa

Even when the academy, the shipyard, the scrapyard, and the submarine factory had all been going concerns, the port had never seen activity like this. It fairly hummed, except when it screamed, whined, and roared. It wasn’t a smooth enough operation yet to call it a logistics symphony, but things were clearly headed in a very Mozartesque direction. Cranes whined continuously. Some of these were ship mounted and newly arrived, while others were integral to the port and which the Balboans apparently hadn’t had time to sabotage. Helicopters whop-whopped in, bringing a steady stream of men and equipment from freighters stationed over the horizon. Lighters, too, chugged into the port, or split off to go to one of the two lesser ports framing this main one. The air was filled with a constant roar of big diesels, punctuated with the shriek of air brakes.

Teeth on edge from the brakes, Janier cursed the designer, long dead on Old Earth. God, I fucking hate the sound of those things.

But, on the other hand, I love the smell of diesel in the morning.

Janier stood atop old stone battlements, overlooking the terreplein, the town, and the asphalt surfaced road along which rumbled a steady stream of trucks, heading east to the building logistic base north of besieged Cristobal. He had a short brigade of engineers, two battalions and a headquarters, over fifteen hundred men working full time at keeping the road from crumbling completely away under the abuse. That was barely enough, as demonstrated by the frequent traffic jams where the two-lane highway had crumbled from the edges inward, turning it into a one-lane road, if that. A demi-battalion of military police was engaged along the same route, doing little but directing traffic along the stretches where that crumbling was worst.

Did they make the road deliberately so that it would crumble under heavy military use, Janier wondered, or was it a case of corruption in construction they never got around to shooting someone over and fixing? Or did they maybe notice the road was poorly made, because of corruption, and decide to leave it that way, in expectation of us?

Maybe I should call the high admiral; get another morale-building session . . . No! No, she means well, but she is warping my senses and dulling my carefully nurtured paranoia. That paranoia was a gift from Carrera and I think I’ve come to treasure it.

Not too far from where Janier stood, below him out on the fort’s old glacis, an Anglian soldier stood atop a captured Balboan cannon. He was recognizable, as indeed, were all Janier’s national troops, by the pattern of his camouflage. The cannon was, the general saw, one of the Balboan’ light eighty-five millimeter auxiliary propelled jobs.

The cannon had been rigged for sling loading, with steel shackles holding thick webbing, basically nylon straps, that ran from the axles at each side, and from the joined tubular trails. The three slings were joined by a “donut,” a multi-thickness roll of the same kind of webbing, held together by a steel connector.

The soldier balanced himself precariously, with one foot on the recoil cylinder and tube, and the other at right angles to the first, balanced on the scalloped gunner’s shield. He held in one hand the “donut,” and in the other a screwdriver from which wire ran down to the ground. Janier couldn’t see but presumed that the wire was attached to another screwdriver, or some kind of metal prod, stuck into the ground.

It was then that Janier noticed an Anglian helicopter coming in low and slow, and another soldier in the same uniform as the first, guiding the helicopter in.

I suppose I should put a stop to that, the general thought. It’s a waste of fuel, of parts, and of maintenance time, to say nothing of an unnecessary risk, to have my units looting souvenirs. Then again, what was it that Old Earth poet wrote? Something about, “Loot, loot, loot that makes the boys get up and shoot.”

How does one measure the morale value of letting men set up monuments to the future, especially when they’re avenging a humiliation like we suffered here? How does one measure the value of the Emperor pinching a grognard’s ear? How does one measure the morale value of a pickle and a loaf of bread?

So . . . I’ll let them have their trophies, as long as it doesn’t get out of hand.

Janier watched with interest as, under the control of the ground guide, the Anglian chopper assumed a low hover. It was low enough, in fact, that the donut holder had to duck. He tapped the metal hook under the helicopter with the screwdriver, then tapped it again.

From his perch, Janier couldn’t tell if the helicopter’s hook sparked when touched. Even so, he thought, Good; I approve of making sure, son. And I learned that the hard way.

Dropping the screwdriver to the ground, the soldier took the donut in both hands, and slammed it decisively into the hook, a sprung latch closing behind it. He then tried to pull it back the same way it had gone in. It stayed put.

At that point the soldier jumped off the gun to the ground, and trotted off briskly. The ground guide spun his hand over head, and pointed into the wind. With an increase in pitch, the chopper took off, the trophy gun swaying underneath. The helicopter was actually seriously undertasked, lifting a gun that weighed under two tons.

“Note to self,” muttered Janier, “and to G4, and to subordinate commanders, for next command and staff meeting: Burning up fuel and wearing out equipment for reasons of morale is one thing, but for God’s sake put the damned business on an efficient footing. Three units could have absconded with a trophy each for the price of that one.”

And the cannon are good choices; we captured something like fifty of the things, plus a couple of hundred rocket launchers and mortars. Most of it we got before their crews could shove thermite up the breaches or down the tubes.

Hmmm; that’s another note for the staff. The Balboans hardly got a shot off, we hit them so fast, and there are some pretty large stockpiles of shells sitting out there. I’d like to know how long before we can collect the stuff someplace safe and destroy it. I suppose, for now, we have better things to do.

Isla Santa Catalina, Mar Furioso, off the coast of Balboa

Fleet Admiral Wanyan Liang paid no attention to the sounds of construction behind him, a battalion of engineers erecting earthen air defense towers for the guns and missiles already coming off the artificial docks, below. Though called “towers,” in fact, they were more solid pyramid than anything else, albeit pyramids with softened corners and roads winding around their sides. A half dozen of the ninety to one hundred and twenty-foot high pyramids were done. To another ten spots long lines of groaning slave laborers carried baskets of stone and dirt from a quarry to put into the towers. Since the pyramids were located on high ground, that upward trudge added to the groaning.

Still others–impressed laborers,–pounded the material poured into the rising structures into something approaching the strength of concrete.

The reasons for expending all the effort on pyramids included raising radars, cameras, launchers and guns above the trees, and to extend their coverage by increasing their horizon. So far, the preparations hadn’t been tested. Wanyan thought though that, maybe, just maybe, the Balboans hadn’t figured out yet he was putting in a serious port where none had been before. When they did figure it out, the other benefit of raising the air defenses was that it changed their geometry as a target, mandating that only a direct hit would be effective, since shrapnel and shards would have no straight line to gun or gunner without that direct hit.

A serious port? Well, if Janier had cause for satisfaction at the logistic performance of his command, and he did, Fleet Admiral Wanyan Liang had still more. Wanyan had started with less, had no port to hand, had little in the way of heavy equipment, and far less in the way of modern engineering expertise.

“But through sheer bullheaded weight of effort, it’s working! By the empress’ fragrant cunt, it is working!”

“Admiral?” asked Wanyan’s aide, Lieutenant Colonel Ma of the Zhong Marines.