Into The Maelstrom – Snippet 37
The wine ran out early, Allenson limiting himself to a single glass. After that it was tonk all round. Allenson joined in but cut his with water. He gently encouraged his companions to talk listening carefully to their conversation. He heard the usual stories of bored troops getting into fights, equipment that malfunctioned, stores that never arrived or contained something completely different from the label: all the usual trials and tribulations of an army in the field.
One casual remark from a young Lieutenant concerned him. It was to the effect that one third of his men had gone down with fever in the last week. The patients were responding well to a general viral suppressant but the bug was spreading through the camp and putting medical resources under strain.
Allenson eventually steered the conversation around to social matters. By the time tonk and cafÃ© was served officers were loosening their jacket button and removing neck ties. The evening began to take the form of a college supper. A captain called on one of the party to sing, a cry that was soon taken up by all. The victim made a token protest before standing up.
He had a good voice and gave a creditable performance of Bugle Calls, a marching song that probably dated back to when men trailed a pike. Each officer was prevailed in turn to contribute irrespective of whether they possessed any discernible musical talent. Most of the songs spoke of the terrible burden of duty or the girl/boy I left behind me, two tropes never far from a soldier’s mind. Some were serious while others were played for comic effect.
The revelers prevailed on the general to give them a song when suitably emboldened by liberal consumption of tonk. Frames, in his role as President of the Mess and hence technically the host, hushed them up but Allenson forestalled him by standing.
“Well, gentleman, no one has ever accused me of being able to hold a note but I see that also goes for many of the rest of you.”
The assembled company laughed. When a general assayed a joke it was always funny no matter how weak or poorly delivered.
“So here is a little marching ditty that the Manzanitan Militia picked up from Brasilian regulars in the Terran War. You may not have heard it yet this far up the ‘Stream.”
He cleared his throat.
“Here’s a shining crown yours for free
For all who’ll volunteer with me,
To ‘list and fight the foe today,
Over the stars and far away.”
“When duty calls me I must go
To stand and face another foe.
But part of me will always stray
Over the stars and far away.”
“If I should fall to rise no more,
As many good friends did before,
Then ask the trumpet band to play,
Over the stars and far away.”
“So fall in lads behind the drum,
Our colors blazing like a sun.
Along the road to come-what may.
Over the stars and far away.”
There was a pause then Frames banged his hand on the table.
“Bravo, general, bravo.”
The spell broken men applauded and called for more.
“No, no,” Allenson shook his head. “The night may be young but I’m not. But don’t let me spoil the evening. You carry on.”
He looked at Todd.
“You stay too, lieutenant.”
“It’s been a long day, sir, so I think I’ll join you.”
They left as the Mess began to warm up. An officer began a new song whose lyrics followed them out of the building.
“I don’t want to join the army
I don’t want to go to war
I’d rather hang around Oxford drinking underground
Living of the earnings of a high-born lady
I don’t want a bayonet up me arsehole
I don’t want me bollocks shot away
I’d rather be in Oxford
Merry merry Oxford
And fornicate my feckin’ life away, cor blimey.”
Todd firmly shut the door cutting off the next verse that discussed more intimate revelations about the aforesaid high-born lady’s boudoir.
“The winds changed but at least it’s stopped raining,” Allenson said when they got outside.
Todd lifted his face and sniffed the air.
“What the hell is that evil smell?” he asked.
“The reason there is fever in the camp,” Allenson said, grimly.
The next morning Allenson breakfasted in his room before attending the morning briefing. They held it in a stepped lecture theatre in the main building. He arrived early and waited by the lectern down at the front. Officers drifted onto the seats in twos and threes in various combinations of civilian and military dress. A number of majors put in an appearance but Masters still didn’t show. Allenson ordered the door locked dead on the appointed hour.
“Good morning, gentlemen, my name is Allenson. I hold the rank of Captain-General which means I am in command of the combined Cutter Stream army. You have a question?”
The last was addressed to a major who was visibly disturbed at the situation.
“But sar Allenson, there isn’t a Cutter Stream army.”
“The elected political leadership of the Heilbron colonies has asked the Colonial Assembly to adopt the Heilbron militias into the army. Right now your militias are the field force of the army which makes me your commander in chief. As such you will address as sir, understood?”
“Yes,” said the major.
Allenson stared at the major
“I meant yes, sir.”
“Good, and in future when my officers attend a meeting I expect them to be in dress uniform or combat fatigues. I expect you to look and behave like officers.”
“The Heilbron militias have always had a relaxed attitude to discipline, sir.”
“The ‘Stream Army doesn’t,” Allenson said firmly.
“Right, who’s General Master’s chief of staff?”
“That would be Colonel Wilson, sir. He’s away on business but I’m his deputy.”
“Major Ling, Sir.”
“Well Major, it appears you are elected to come up here and brief me. I want everyone else to remain and participate in the discussion. Assume I know nothing, Ling, and start with the basics. I want us all to be singing from the same sheet.”
Ling keyed a large scale holomap of the area from the lectern. The eastern half of the primary continent on Trinity drained into three major rivers which fed into a large bay called The Bowl. Two long fingers of bedrock projected out from low lying plains into the bay. Oxford city was built on one. Its space port with hard pads for small vessels and docksides for larger ships was on the other. Bridges linked the two peninsulas.
“The map only shows roads in and around Oxford and the spaceport?” Allenson asked.
“That’s pretty much all there are, sir,” Ling replied. “The rivers are convenient and cheap for transporting heavy goods and people and light stuff are moved around on frames.”
“It’s never been worth the expense to build and maintain a road network.”
Allenson grasped the point. Trinity was a convenient deep port all ready and waiting for the first colonists standing. It stood at the terminus of a massive waterway system suitable for concentrating goods to ship off planet and the distribution of imports. It hopelessly outclassed Manzanita’s lake and transient streams and rivers. Sheer chance gave the Upper Stream colonies like Trent and Trinity an economic head start which they had never relinquished.
Ling gestured to the low plain around the landward half of the rocky fingers,
“The low ground here is methane marsh so it’s unused waste ground.”
He turned his attention to the peninsulas.
“Brasilian Regulars landed on the spaceport and secured the town putting down rioters and generally imposing martial law.”
“Was this unpopular with the residents?” Allenson asked.
“Well, that kinda depends on who you talk to,” Ling replied, “It was unpopular with the agitators who were shot and their friends and relations. Many of the residents although politically for independence were none too sorry to see troublemakers dealt with firmly as there had been incidents.”
Allenson nodded. Criminal elements tended to come to the fore in any urban insurrection.
“Once they secured the city the regulars sent patrols out to pacify the countryside.”
Allenson said, “I suppose a pattern developed of ambushes, reprisals against the civilian population leading to stronger reaction from the militia and so on.”
“Yes, sir, eventually militias from all over the Heilbron Worlds arrived and joined in until we outnumbered their patrols considerably. After we gave them a few bloody noses the Brasilians retreated back into the town. The militias fortified this rock outcrop to pen them in.”
Ling pointed to a spot roughly at the shoreline.
“From there we could bombard Oxford, the Bowl and the most of the spaceport. We don’t actually have any artillery but it seemed useful to grab the high ground while we could.”
Such initiative and grasp of strategy pleasantly surprised Allenson.
“Excellent, major, you have done well. We have our foot on their throat.”
Ling looked uncomfortable.
“Well, we did sir but unfortunately they mounted an attack and recaptured the outcrop. Oh, we won the fight, sir, you can be sure of that. We killed ten of them for every man of ours that fell but eventually we were forced to pull back, you see.”
Allenson saw only too well. Potting men from behind fortifications was one thing but standing up to regulars in close assault was quite another. That required the confidence that comes with training and iron-hard discipline.
“So where are our lines?”
Ling’s discomfort increased.
“Well, sir, we ah don’t exactly have any. Most of our army has pulled back onto the dry ground leaving just a few scouts behind as a tripwire. It’s not like they’re going anywhere general.”
“Nor it seems, are we,” Allenson observed.