Into The Maelstrom – Snippet 51

All through the afternoon they intermittently bombarded the port mostly achieving little other than chipping tiny fragments of syncrete out of the aprons. One of the tramps lifted off but the other stayed. Maybe it was inoperable. Pynchon didn’t manage to hit it but he did smash holes in a number of the port buildings and facilities.

Allenson buttonholed the man in a short break in the bombardment while his men recharged the batteries.

“Major Pynchon, I believe we will rotate the artillery crews this afternoon before it gets dark. I don’t want to lose any more men in that damn mud.  With the benefit of hindsight moving the equipment at night was overly cautious. There’s not a damn thing the Brasilians can do to stop us short of attacking through our siege lines and sealing off our supplies from the land. Colonel Buller would love them to try that.”

“Very good, general.”

“You may as well take your people back as well, Hawthorn. There’s no need for a security detail here.”

“Oh, I think we’ll hang around for a mite longer, Allenson,” Hawthorn replied with a cheery disregard for military lines of command.

“As you wish,” Allenson replied, avoiding giving a direct order which would not be obeyed.

Allenson slept badly again that night. Hawthorn silently observed him in the morning drumming his fingers in an irritating manner on a power supply casing.

“Okay,” Allenson said, conceding the unspoken point. “I’ll go back with this afternoon’s shift.”

A civilian freighter phased in over the sea and started its descent into the bay. Pynchon opened the bombardment as soon as he had the ship in range. By chance he scored a lucky hit on the hull not long after it settled into the water to wait for the tugs. This captain didn’t attempt to unload but simply relifted and reversed course.

A few tramp ships made fast blockade-runs into the port dumping boxed and barrels on the syncrete before scuttling out. Pynchon failed to hit any of the relatively small targets but it was not for want of trying.

“You know something, I think we’ve done it,” Allenson said to Hawthorn, resisting the urge to destroy his credibility by dancing a jig.  It was damn difficult keeping the gravitas of a general when matters went well: easier somehow in the midst of catastrophe.

“The Brasilians can’t survive on anything like that level of supply. There’s not enough there to support the civilian population let alone the army. We’ve only damn well cut their logistic line. Now they’ll have to break the stalemate by attacking our siege lines and we’ll have all the advantages of a dug in position. Their only other choice is to ask for terms.”

“If I was the Brasilian General I would think about driving unnecessary mouths out of the city,” Hawthorn said, thoughtfully. “We should of course refuse to let them pass our siege lines. It’s not in our interests to lessen the pressure.”

Allenson sighed.

“That’s logical but we couldn’t do it. Suppose the Brasilians simply barred the city to refugees leaving them to starve on the peninsulas? Think of the message it would send to other colonial communities and the legacy of bitterness and hatred it would incur down the generations.”

He shook his head firmly.

“No in the event of an expulsion we’ll take in anyone who asks. We’ll find them food and accommodation and we’ll make sure everything is publicized here and back in the Homeworlds. If nothing else we should be able to claim the moral high ground and get some propaganda use out of the situation.”

Hawthorn shrugged.

“I suppose you’re right. It wouldn’t concern me but lots of things upset other people that don’t bother me much.”

There’s an old saying that when you force the enemy into a corner where he has only two possible choices, the sensible one or the stupid alternative, then you can rely on him doing the third option that you’ve failed to consider. So it was at Oxford.

Pynchon kept up an intermittent bombardment of the port more to remind the Brasilians that the ‘Stream artillery was still there than with the hope of hitting anything vulnerable. Allenson took a rest on a rock on the side of the peninsula facing the port so he could observe events.

While he cogitated, a man rushed up breathing heavily through his mask. He stumbled over a jagged projection until Allenson caught him.

“Steady son, this has been a near bloodless operation so far and I’ve a mind to keep it that way,” Allenson said

“The guvnor says you should come quick boss,” the man got out.

Allenson translated guvnor as Hawthorn, whose security men had a cavalier attitude to military terminology.

“I’m to tell you that the bastards in the town are up to something.”

Having discharged his duty the trooper sat down hard and bent over to catch his breath.

Allenson gingerly threaded his way over the treacherous slippery jagged stone to the Oxford side of the peninsula. Hawthorn studied something intently through a scope.

“What’s up?” Allenson asked.

“Not sure, three boats have put out from behind a pier below Oxford. Have a look yourself.”

Hawthorn handed Allenson the scope.

It took a moment for Allenson to adjust the binocular to his eye width, Hawthorn had a narrower face, then another half second to find the boats and up the magnification.

Small launches bounced over the waves in ragged line-astern formation. They had squared off bows and flat bottoms judging from the way they flopped over a swell. Strangest of all, large air fans at the rear pushed the launches over the water. Box-like rudders behind the blades controlled steering. It all seemed incredibly inefficient.

“What the hell are they?” Allenson asked.

“I’ve been asking myself that,” Hawthorn said faithfully. “Never seen anything like them before but I suppose they would be useful in shallow water.”

“They’re crammed with men,” Allenson said.

“Yeah, I noticed that,” Hawthorn replied, dryly. “I suspect the boats are bigger than they look in the scope. The bloody thing tends to foreshorten shapes. I reckon they could have a dozen or more men in each hull.”

“That’s damn near thrice our strength but surely they can’t get to us. Flat-bottomed or no they still would get stuck way out in the marsh where it’s mostly liquid.”

“Yeah I agree but they don’t look like a fishing expedition. Perhaps the Brasilians are treating their men to trips around the bay. Can you see ice creams or amusing hats?”

“No,” Allenson replied, curtly.

Hawthorn’s sense of humor could be ill placed.

The launches turned in line, sliding sideways in wide arcs that suggested they had no keels at all.

“Shit!” Hawthorn said. “Come on.”

The boats began to run in towards the marsh. Allenson and Hawthorn scrambled back up to the artillery modules.

“Kemp, where the hell are you?” Hawthorn shouted.

Here gov,” replied an anonymously masked man.

“Get tooled up. We’re about to be attacked.”

“Righto gov,” Kemp replied emotionlessly.

Hawthorn might have asked him to fetch lunch for all his reaction.

“I don’t understand,” Kiesche said, shaking his head. “How do they expect to get through all that liquid mud?”

“I don’t understand either but I know an attack run when I see it,” Allenson replied.

Hawthorn produced a wicked looking dagger with a curved point and a serrated edge from a pocket in his suit. From another he extracted a similar blade which he offered to Allenson.

“Thanks, I didn’t bother to bring a weapon,” Allenson said.

“I guessed,” Hawthorn replied.

Various unpleasant devices appeared as if by magic in the hands of Hawthorn’s security detail. Kiesche removed one of the recharging levers from a power model and swung the heavy object, presumably to test its utility as a club.  Pynchon chose a heavy wrench used to tighten the bolts on the hydraulics.

At the edge of the marsh muddy water transformed imperceptibly into watery mud. When they reached it the launches kept going.

“They’ll bog down soon,” Kiesche said, in disbelief.

But they didn’t! They didn’t even slow down. The launches penetrated deeper into the marsh until they reached the first mud flat whereupon the front runner rode over the bank spraying ooze in all directions as it came down.

“Shit,” Kiesche said. “They’re hovercraft.”

“What?” Hawthorn asked.

“Hovercraft, they ride over land or water on a cushion of air.”

“Terrific,” Hawthorn replied.  He raised his voice. “Stand by to repel boarders. Stay up where we have the advantage of height, stay close, and keep them off the guns.”

“I guess we aren’t the only ones with inventive engineers,” Allenson said.

He was furious with himself because he should have anticipated something like this. Thank heaven for Hawthorn’s instinctive paranoia and indiscipline. At least they still had his security detachment with them.

The launches spread out. The lead vehicle headed straight for the guns on the peninsula while the other two spilt off to the right and left to enfilade. This was normally good tactics if you were equipped with guns but Allenson couldn’t imagine how splitting one’s force could help in a brawl. Soldiers, like ordinary people, tended to revert to what they knew under extreme stress when the forebrain shut down. That was why you trained troops hard so the right reactions would be instinctive. The problems were that standard reactions were designed to cope with standard situations and this was anything but.

The rudders on the lead launch went hard over when it was a few meters off the rocks. The craft spun on its axis, sliding sideways towards the promontory on its cushion of air.