Into The Maelstrom – Snippet 45
The first mortar bombs exploded over the edge of the siege lines. The laser cannon picked them off but the fast rate of fire from the simple artillery weapons moved the intercept barrier closer and closer to the town. The centralized fire control of the lasercannon prioritized which targets to defend once the defenses started to be overwhelmed. The selection chosen by the weapons defending Oxford suggested that these priorities included the gun towers themselves and certain strategic assets but not civilian property.
The rain of fire continued until hits registered on Oxford roof tops and in the streets. The light bombs caused but slight damage. A single hit on the side of a tower chipped off small fragments of syncrete.
“Cease fire, we’re just wasting ammunition,” Allenson said. “Even when we get a strike we barely scratch their paintwork.”
Buller tapped his pad and the mortars wound down.
Todd said hesitantly, “I suppose we could make larger rocket-fired guided missiles with armor piercing warheads.”
Buller dismissed the idea.
“We could but it might be more useful to set up a catapult and throw rocks at them. At least rocks would take more than one laser pulse hit to knock out unlike your rockets and we have plenty of stone. Bloody fool suggestion.”
Todd’s face reddened. Allenson wasn’t sure whether it indicated embarrassment or anger. Perhaps fortunately the Brasilians chose that moment to switch their cannons to manual and sweep the ridge with laser fire. Impacts washed over the siege lines like dragon’s breath. Earth fused into glass. Ground water converted into superheated steam exploded the heat-crystals like a firework display. Allenson might have found it rather beautiful if he hadn’t got his face pressed into the ground.
Fortunately Buller had the besieging units so well dug in that the laser cannon barrage was little more than a gesture of defiance. A few bits of vegetation not yet completely scorched by earlier attacks caught fire. Greasy black smoke drifted into the air.
Allenson noticed an odd phenomenon when laser bursts overshot the peninsula into the marsh. The pulses flashed bright green and created rods of thick green vapor in the air like giant fingers pushed into blancmange. The laser fire penetrated only a few meters as if fired into fog.
Crushing his curiosity he examined the town through the scope. Bodies lay scattered amongst the wreckage where a mortar bomb had hit a market stall in a square. He noticed the bright colors of women’s and children’s clothes among the fallen.
“There are to be no more artillery demonstrations without my written permission,” Allenson said.
Two weeks later and nothing had changed. The Brasilians settled into a garrison force. Allenson’s concern that he would have to be the one to break the strategic log jam hardened into certainty. The ‘Stream Army was at the peak of its preparation for battle. The only direction for the army’s efficiency now was down. People began to lose interest as marked by a rise in the desertion rate. He was required to demonstrate that service was not voluntary by making examples.
Bored men rapidly become malefactors of one sort or another. The root of the problem often involved alcohol. He considered declaring the army dry but Hawthorn strongly advised against such a course.
In desperation he called an open meeting of all officers for a brainstorming session. The junior officers expressed enthusiasm for a simultaneous dawn assault by foot along both causeways coupled with a low altitude frame attack to the flanks. Morton was the prime mover of this plan. He spoke most eloquently in its support.
Buller heaved himself to his feet and repeated his objections to an assault with his usual pithy tact. Allenson noted the detrimental effect Buller’s comments had on the other officers and intervened.
“Thank you Colonel Buller for your contribution,” Allenson said.
Unfortunately, Buller carried on as if Allenson hadn’t spoken.
“And our green army of amateurs is not going to be able to take casualties. They’ll break and run and they won’t stop until they reach home.”
The fact that the comment was possibly true made it all the more unwise, particularly when garnished with Buller’s normal contemptuous sneer.
“Sit down, Colonel Buller,” Allenson said, curtly.
Mouth dropping open, Buller sat. Army to his core he obeyed the voice of command before remembering that he didn’t respect amateur generals.
“If I have understood the intelligence reports properly,” Ling said, inclining his head respectfully in Hawthorn’s direction, “the issue is the naval lifeline into Oxford. Cut that and we have the strategic initiative.”
Allenson could have kissed him. The intervention came just in time to stop Buller saying something stupid.
Morton piped up. “My unit could attack the ships out in the Continuum, General. We could do to the Brasilians what you did to the Terrans in the last war.”
Allenson shook his head reluctantly.
“I only had to deal with a single slow moving convoy of lighters moving down a chasm. I knew exactly where to find them and could attack any time I liked. We didn’t have to destroy the convoy just slow it down. Even then it was a close run thing who collapsed with exhaustion first. You’d have to maintain standing patrols around a hostile base and engage purpose-built gunships. The Brasilians could hit your patrols at times of their own choosing until they wore you down. I have better uses for your men, Morton.”
“What about using artillery?” asked a captain who clearly hadn’t watched Buller’s demonstration. “Landed ships would be sitting ducks.”
“Won’t work,” a major said.
“Major Pynchon, commander of artillery,” Ling said quietly to Allenson.
“Our mortars are too light and we don’t have enough,” Pynchon said.
“Surely the lasercannon…”
“Only if you want them smashed by direct line of sight counter-battery fire,” Pynchon said, patiently stating the sheer bloody obvious.
The captain sat down red-faced.
Hawthorn rose and walked to the situation hologram in the center of the horseshoe-shaped amphitheater. The display lit up in yellow and green giving him a ghostly appearance. He pointed to a third peninsula that jutted into the bay. It was considerably lower and shorter than the other two, terminating in the marsh well before the open water.
“How about we dig in here and put laser cannon in fire pits deep enough to keep them out of line-of-sight to counterbattery fire but just shallow enough to light up incoming ships. The end of this peninsula should be close enough to the open water to give us a working angle of fire.”
There was dead silence and Ling inspected the ceiling as if it had been painted by an artist of singular talent.
“Look, I know laser cannon are ineffectual against military transports and large ships but they could scare off the tramp ship captains,” Hawthorn said, clearly surprised at the lack of response.
“I can see why you might think so,” Ling said carefully “but it won’t work.”
Hawthorn showed his exasperation. “Why the hell not?”
Ling explained. “The marsh, you see, surrounding the peninsula, has a peculiar biochemistry. Vapors given off by the mud ignite from laser shots. The resulting hydrofluoric acid steam mix is highly corrosive. You’d be lucky to get off three or four shots and the pulses wouldn’t get out of the swampy area before dissipating into heat.”
“So that’s what I saw down on the siege lines,” Allenson said, recalling the laser pulses ending in bright green flashes. Now he thought about it they hadn’t actually made contact with the sediment but ended in the air.
“So how come these vapors aren’t a problem for people on the causeways to Oxford and the port complex?” Hawthorn asked.
“It’s a matter of height, the gasses being heavier than air. Occasionally conditions coincide to cause the causeways to be submerged but that’s hardly much of a problem. People just hop over the top using frames or wear a ‘breather’. The vapors aren’t dangerous unless you inhale them or ignite them with a spark or some such.”
“Have you never thought of draining the marsh?” Allenson asked, curious as to why Oxford allowed itself to be almost cut off by useless and potentially dangerous swamps.
Ling shrugged. “People have thought about it and even tried to raise money for land reclamation projects. Nothing has ever got very far. Sooner or later there’s an accident taking out the pumping gear and, well, land’s cheap around Oxford.”
“So we just sit here until the Brasilians have stockpiled sufficient materiel to attack us,” Hawthorn said impatiently.
“Unless you have a better idea, colonel,” Ling replied.