Into The Maelstrom – Snippet 39
“Go on, I need my Chief of Staff to speak his mind.”
“Well, it’s just that the men are not used to regimentation so I expect we will have to make examples of a few recalcitrants. Your policy won’t be popular, sir.”
“I really don’t expect to be popular, Ling.”
Ling wasn’t stupid so why couldn’t he see the obvious? The answer came to Allenson as a revelation. Manzanita City had long stopped dumping raw sewage offshore after the Big Stink when Lake Clearwater became anything but. The waters around the island turned anoxic. Vile-smelling vapors wafted into the air. Since the people who lived along the shore were the wealthy villa owners this created a political stink of equivalent proportions to the chemistry.
The large cities of the Heilbron colonies, in contrast, were built on continental sized rivers – usually at the point where they opened into an ocean. All they had to do was channel rainfall through the sewers and the waste just washed away and diluted into the oceans.
Similar forces operated in the countryside. In the southern ‘Stream, large demesnes carried out most of the agricultural activity. Manzanita land owners might not be all that concerned over creature comforts in their servants’ barrack-like quarters but they sure as hell were willing to spend money on sewage systems. Labor was always in short supply and one just couldn’t afford to have half your servants down with some loathsome disease at harvest time. Beside, said loathsome disease didn’t always stay in the servant’s quarters. Sometimes it got into the big house, bugs not being a great respecter of social position.
In contrast, the Heilbron practiced farming on smaller scales presided over by single family units living on their own land. The opportunity for contagious disease to spread was limited.
Allenson decided to have one more try.
“More soldier casualties are caused by disease throughout history than ever through enemy action. I reckon we were two weeks away from a major outbreak here at most, Colonel.”
Ling looked shocked.
“I’ll get right on the matter at once, general, as soon as we are finished here.”
“Good, in that case we shall proceed to inspect the camp without delay, after you Colonel Ling.”
The crocodile of officers wound through the camp. Hawthorn’s party attached itself to the rear of the retinue. Ling pointed out the camps of the various militia units. The procession elicited cheery greeting from troops. The better trained occasionally saluted. A courtesy Allenson returned. He stopped every so often to exchange a few words with a man chosen at random.
The results both pleased and depressed him. Morale was high and the physical condition of the troops was generally still good despite the poor hygiene but the place had the feel of a holiday camp. An air of relaxation pervaded that had no place in a combat zone.
Outside one tent an elderly man cut the hair of another soldier. From his kit and competence at the task it was clear that he was a tradesman.
“I see we have all the comforts of home,” Allenson said to Ling. “I’m surprised you can get a barber to come out to the camp.”
The barber smiled.
“Bless you, general, I’m here anyway. I’m the commander of the Treeline Militia. I think they only elected me so they could get a decent trim.”
The barber laughed, clearly having made the joke often. Ling looked embarrassed, an emotion that was becoming his stock expression.
“I set great store by a proper cut myself,” Allenson said, lying.
Trina had to tie him down to a chair when she summoned the demesne barber.
“However you do present me with a certain problem since barbering is a corporal’s job,” Allenson said with a straight face. “So I think we will have to bust you down and promote your second in command. “Make a note, Mister Ling.”
They proceeded to the next group of tents. Half dozen men sat outside one tent playing dice and, from the flashes on his sleeve, one of them was the major commanding. They watched Allenson approach with some interest but without letting his presence disturb their game.
“Attention,” Ling yelled, red faced.
“You can’t tell my men what to do,” the sitting officer said.
“Oh yes Colonel Ling can,” Allenson said. “I am Captain General Allenson. Now get on your feet before I bust you down to private soldier.”
The officer jerked to his feet and saluted.
“This is Major Vaun. His unit has performed better than most,” Ling said.
“Indeed, so what are you doing gambling with the other ranks?”
“No excuse, sir,” Vaun said, showing remarkable quickness on the uptake.
Unfortunately this was not shared by all his comrades.
“Now wait a damned moment,” said a large solid man opposite Vaun said, climbing to his feet. “We’re not your feckin’ servants and you’re not on your sodding estate out on some southern mudball. Here in Heilbron we do things democratically.”
Hawthorn took two steps forward and punched the man on the point of a chin. He went down like a felled log.
“Anyone else have a comment to make?” Hawthorn looked around. “No? Excellent.”
There was one of those tricky silences. Allenson looked around for inspiration on how to defuse the situation. He pointed to a large block of stone beside the tent.
“What do you use that for, Major Vaun?”
“Some of the fellows and I have been throwing for distance: a sort of test of strength and skill, general.”
“I wondered if that was the case. I used to enter similar contests myself. Do you remember, Colonel Hawthorn?”
“I do. I also seem to recall that you usually won. Of course, we were all a lot younger and fitter then,” Hawthorn said.
“I suspect you are being diplomatic. What you mean is that I was a lot younger and fitter in those days. Well let’s see if I have retained any of my talent.”
Allenson picked up the stone, swaying slightly under the weight as he maneuvered his hands underneath. Men from other tents gathered around to watch. The sight of a general playing “toss the stone” must be a remarkable novelty. Allenson pointedly didn’t notice money being produced among the men as bets were laid.
“Is that the mark, Major Vaun?”
“Yes, sir, and that peg marks the furthest throw yet,” Vaun said, pointing to a stick hammered into the ground a couple of meters beyond.
Allenson stood behind the line and inhaled deeply. Taking one step forward he thrust the stone up with both hands. It curved in a parabola and hit the ground just behind the peg, bouncing so it ended up some ten centimeters in front.
Allenson laughed again.
“It seems you are right, Colonel Hawthorn. I’m not the man I was.”
“No general,” a soldier said, while collecting from his fellows. “We take the mark to be the furthest distance reached by the rock not its first contact with the ground. You win squarely.”
“Well let’s give the previous record holder a chance to regain his crown with the best of three,” Allenson said. “Who is he?”
“Macreedy, sir” said the soldier, chuckling. “‘You’ll have to wait until he wakes up ’cause that colonel of yours has laid him out.”
There was a general burst of laughter. Even the men who had lost money seemed not entirely displeased to see Macreedy knocked off his throne. Possibly he was not the most popular man in the unit.
“Well, well, he obviously needs a bit more practice, as do I. Major Vaun?”
“Tell Macreedy to come up to the headquarters when he’s recovered and we’ll do a bit of toss-the-stone training together. Carry on, major.”
Allenson returned Vaun’s salute and resumed his tour.
“Tell me, Colonel Ling, is it normal practice for the officers to share a tent with their men?” Allenson asked when they were out of earshot.
“That stops now. I want the officers to mess together to create an army esprit de corps. We need to separate them from the men they command. The officers will endure the same conditions as their men, eat the same food and undergo the same dangers but they will not fraternize. When they give an order it must be obeyed without question or argument. That won’t happen if they are seen as one of the boys.”
“Very good sir, I’ll arrange it,” said the unflappable Ling.
Allenson hid a smile. Ling was going to be very busy in the next few days but if he survived this challenge he would make an excellent staff officer.
The raucous sound of a badly silenced internal combustion engine drew Allenson’s attention. An agricultural tractor pulled a trailer from the direction of the siege lines.
Ling anticipated Allenson’s question.
“Frames near the shoreline attract Brasilian lasercannon fire if they rise above the skyline. We tend to use ground vehicles to shuttle backwards and forwards. They’re not much slower than a frame crawling along at ground height particularly if it’s got metal on board,” Ling said.
“Damn sight noisier though,” Hawthorn observed.