Into The Maelstrom – Snippet 43
Chapter 14 – Siege Lines
Allenson spent the next few weeks reorganizing his army. He set up a rigorous training schedule. He bust some officers and NCOs and promoted others. Slowly but surely the army changed from a ragbag collection of militia into a professional fighting force. He created uniform regiments by merging understrength units. He grouped the regiments into brigades until he had a field army of interchangeable units with predictable reactions.
He pitched brigades and battalions against each other in competition. The winner was excused fatigues. The losers got their duties in addition to their own. Men lounging while catcalling and uttering unsubtle jokes to colleagues digging ditches became a familiar sight along with Allenson’s universal reply to any complaints: “it pays to be a winner”.
He was cordially hated by all and sundry but they sweated and they worked nonetheless. Allenson consoled himself by the thought that being popular was not in his job description.
He set up an event and was cheering on the contestants when the intruder alarm sounded. Companies were competing to dig and occupy a trench line before an automatic defense laser cannon raked the air space above one meter off the ground.
There was in theory no danger. One meter was easily sufficient for someone to survive simply by lying down on the surface never mind in a trench. Regrettably, some idiot always ran too slow or cut it too fine when the warning claxon sounds. Live fire casualties inevitably happened in training. Each one lay on Allenson’s already burdened conscience but a little blood shed now could save rivers of gore when the army had to do the business for real.
This time the klaxon went off early before either of the trenches was ready. The troops flung themselves at the ground without waiting for an explanation but the laser cannon unaccountably failed to fire. It wasn’t even pointing in the right direction. The barrels stuck fast in the rest position. The weapon’s crew gawped at it in astonishment. They prodded a few buttons experimentally but the machine continued to sulk like a teenager at an aged relative’s birthday party.
This other defense cannon positioned around the perimeter of the camp also went on strike. They failed to react even when a swarm of one and two-man frames phased in directly overhead. The intruder alarm successfully detected intruders but that wasn’t all that helpful if the defense cannon failed to respond.
Allenson pulled his ion pistol out and shot it uselessly into the air. He had enough trouble hitting anything with a rifle. With a pistol he could barely target the sky. His action was more in the way of a warning to the camp. Kemp’s men closed up on each side of him carbines at the ready. They, sensibly, did not try to target small fast-moving objects at extreme range.
The klaxon continued to wail signaling an air attack. Soldiers tumbled out of tents. Some, those who had both remembered to grab their rifles and managed to switch them on, fired at the frames – mostly without effect. A rare hit caused a two-man frame to sideslip towards the ground trailing smoke. The front rider slumped forward over the controls while the man behind pedaled furiously.
The frames scattered, some rephrasing back into the Continuum. Others dropped swiftly to the ground, braking only just in time to effect a soft landing. The crews dived off their machines as soon as they were down. They hid in the half finished trenches or lay flat with their arms over their heads. If this was an attack then the enemy were a right bunch of pacifists.
Allenson keyed an all ranks channel. “Cease fire. The newcomers are friendly, cease fire immediately.”
Rather to his surprise his men obeyed and the shooting died away. Allenson shrugged off the restraining hands of his minders bounded over to the half-finished defenses.
A young man wearing a cheeky grin and an unfamiliar canary-yellow uniform climbed out of a trench with his hand extended.
“Who the hell are you?” Allenson demanded, ignoring the proffered limb.
“Captain Reese Morton, sir, Morton’s Marauders. I guess you must be our new general,” the young man said, saluting with a flourish.
At that point the klaxon sounded again. Allenson turned and was horrified to see the exercise laser cannon swiveling on its gimbals. The damn thing was still obeying its preprogramed fire pattern instructions.
Some things are so burnt into one’s body that they override the conscious mind. Allenson’s old combat reactions kicked in. He was the first into the trench. The others landed on top of him.
Allenson felt the back of his neck gingerly. Some damned squaddie had planted a combat boot on one of his upper vertebra.
“I’m terribly sorry, sir. I didn’t think,” Morton said.
“No, sir, you bloody well didn’t,” Allenson replied. “You are damned lucky half your command wasn’t flamed by our lasercannon. Never ever try to beat up my command like that again or I will shoot you personally if the autos don’t do it for me.”
He turned to Ling.
“And why is Morton still alive, colonel? Why didn’t our autos fire? What if it had been the Brasilians and not some damn fool from our own side.”
Allenson glowered at Morton who was not noticeably crushed.
Ling said, “I anticipated you would want to know what went wrong so I’ve had the engineering officer check the equipment over. It seems there’s a flaw in our control system.”
“A flaw that could get us all killed,” Allenson snarled.
Ling nodded, seriously.
“Yes, sir, taking one cannon off line for the exercise shut down the entire system. Apparently, it’s a health and safety measure to render the equipment safe in the event of a malfunction.”
“Safe?” Allenson asked, pronouncing the word as if it described an obscene act involving rubber trousers and an electric prod. “I see we are using a novel definition of the word safe. Safe to me means having a working bloody air defense system.”
“Yes, sir, I agree. I have instructed Major Kiesche to disable the, ah, safety feature.”
“I suppose you actually did us a favor, Morton. Just don’t do it again,” Allenson said, rubbing his neck.
“Do you want the doctor to have a look at that?” Ling asked.
“I’ve had worse. A plum brandy will put me right.”
Taking the hint Morton caught the waiter’s eye and ordered drinks.
“Remind me, what are Morton’s Marauders?” Allenson asked.
“A small detached commando operating independently in the Hinterland,” Ling replied.
“We’ve been hitting isolated Brasilian outposts and their supply routes,” Morton replied proudly.
“Pin-pricks only, I’m afraid, sir,” Ling said. “I doubt the Brasilians care overmuch but Morton’s raids do show the flag around the mudball colonies and dissuade Brasilian loyalists from trying to raise an army in our rear.”
“I think I do rather more than that,” Morton said, a trifle stiffly. “On this raid we captured Fort Champlain, slighted the defenses and burnt the building to the ground.”
“Indeed,” Allenson said, impressed.
“Fort Champlain was a weapon store. We’ve brought back some useful captured equipment,” Morton said.
“Like what?” asked Allenson.
“Mortars, sir! Ceramic tubes and a supply of shells.”
“Now that is truly useful,” Allenson replied, delighted.
With mortars in support, an infantry assault on Oxford might become a viable proposition. Allenson would prefer the Brasilians to be the ones to launch an attack. It was true that modern troops were so tactically mobile that the attacker had all the strategic advantages of tempo. He chose the time and place and could easily concentrate overwhelming force on the point of contact before the defender could reinforce. Nevertheless the defense was always tactically stronger. This was especially true if the defenders were aided by the force multiplier of a prepared position. Green troops in particular found it easier to defend fortified positions than to attack them.
“How did you storm Fort Champlain with only light infantry?” Allenson asked.
“Truth to tell it wasn’t as difficult as it sounds,” Morton replied with disarming honesty. “The walls were in a parlous state. The fort was undermanned with demoralized garrison troops. They fired a few volleys for effect then legged it.”
Allenson thought Morton underrated his achievement.
“Nevertheless, a successful coup de main requires boldness and skill. Well done.”
He noticed that Morton visibly preened under the praise. The young man wasn’t overly modest at all. In fact he was incorrigibly vain but it was difficult not to like him.
“The choice of uniform for your unit surprises me. Isn’t bright yellow a little, well, visible?”
“You are not the first to express that view,” Ling added.
“There was talk of a combat uniform in some peasant shade like earth brown or olive green but I soon put a stop to that,” Morton replied, loftily. “I want my men to be seen and recognized as an elite fighting force. Besides, no gentleman should be asked to go to war looking as if he has just rolled in a swamp.”