Into The Maelstrom – Snippet 50
The heavy duty pipes that linked the machinery had to be bolted on manually as the use of power tools constituted too great a hazard. Each of the three engines consisted of three separate modules: a power supply, a hydraulic pump, and a catapult with twisted steel torsion bars. Connecting the modules involved a great deal of sweat and general cursing. Kiesche constructed the gear in situ on any available bit of flat surface so each installation was laid out differently. Heavy steel cables attached to pylons driven into crevices in the rocks by double-handed hammers locked down the catapult sections.
Allenson and Hawthorn had little to do but stay out of Kiesche and Pynchon’s way. Allenson amused himself by observing the port and city. The port was already awake. A trans-Bight civilian freighter had landed during the night on the waters of the bay. Tugs pushed and pulled the vessel up against the dockside where laborers waited by the unloading chutes and cranes. A couple of smaller tramps sat on the concrete aprons.
Over in the town it was still quiet. One or two early birds hurried through the streets but the majority of the citizenry snored on. He examined the lasercannon towers carefully. From his vantage point in the swamp he could see they were made from preassembled modules like giant scaffolding, which explained how the Brasilians had erected them quickly. He had wondered whether they could be toppled but the lattice arrangement of supports would be difficult to hit. Knocking out just one or two struts would have little impact on the integrity of the structures.
A flash of reflected sunlight from one of the towers caught his eye. He jacked up the magnification on the scope as high as he could go without losing all detail in hand-shake. The scope’s stabilization function helped enormously. A figure hunched over an observation device that was pointed in the direction of the expedition.
He nudged Hawthorn.
“We’ve been spotted.”
“They were bound to clock us sooner or later,” Hawthorn replied.
“I suppose so.” Allenson chuckled. “They must wonder what the hell we’re up to.”
After another hour Kiesche approached Allenson, rubbing his hands together in satisfaction like an excited schoolboy.
“They’re done and I’ve dry tested the systems. The power supplies discharged a little overnight but I’ve got men replacing the lost energy.”
“So I see,” Allenson replied.
A man stood over each of the three power supplies pumping backwards and forwards on a lever. Manual recharging was the only sure way to replenish power into the sealed batteries without risking an explosion.
“We’ll have to set up a rota with a frequent change over. The men won’t be able to stand that level of work for long in these damn masks.”
Allenson walked gingerly across the rocks which were slippery with some disgusting slime-mold like growth. He was naturally clumsy at the best of times. On this surface a fall could damage more than just his dignity. Pynchon bent over one of the pumping modules intently watching a pressure gauge crudely welded onto the case. He looked up when Allenson approached and switched off the pump.
“Morning, sir, just powering up one of the engines. I intend to try a few shots to calibrate tension against range before we open up with the full battery. Do you have any particular mark you’d like me to try to hit?”
Oddly enough, Allenson’s attention had been so fixed on getting their home made artillery into position that he hadn’t given the matter much thought. He looked across the bay allowing himself the luxury of choosing a target.
“You see that big bugger tied up against the dock,” Allenson said, pointing to the newly arrived freighter.”
“Yes, sir,” Pynchon replied with a grin.
Pynchon measured the range with his datapad. He carried out a quick calculation before running the pump for another five minutes or so. The torsion bars on the third module imperceptibly tightened causing the engine to make sharp clicking noises as various components took up the load.
Pynchon adjusted the rake of the carbon fiber and steel tube that served as a barrel before signaling to the loaders. Two men carried a heavy iron ball to the muzzle and rolled it down the barrel where it lay on a striker connected to the torsion bars.
“Stand clear,” Pynchon said, testing the various cables anchoring the module to the rock one last time.
The artilleryman fired the piece by flipping a lever as they didn’t want to risk a remote. A mechanical delay gave Pynchon a valuable half second to put a couple of meters between himself and the device before it released. The catapult emitted a great clang and thumped against the ground. It bounced a few millimeters into the air before being caught on the cables. Allenson winced, thinking of the strain on the pressurized pipes connecting the pump.
“Would you look at that,” Hawthorn said in wonder.
The ball soared majestically into the air, clearly visible to the naked eye. It described a high parabolic curve before dropping into the bay with a visible splash. Unfortunately it fell well short of the ship.
“I was concerned that we wouldn’t be able to see the fall of shot,” Pynchon said, half to himself, “but that isn’t going to be a problem. The equipment is less efficient than our initial tests suggested. No matter, we’ll try another round with ten percent more pressure.”
The last was directed at a technician on the pump who pressed a large red button to reset the safety and switch on the apparatus. It took ten minutes to re-tension the catapult. Not a devastatingly fast rate of fire, Allenson reflected but the targets weren’t going anywhere. No one in the port appeared to have noticed the attack.
Pynchon fired again. This time the ball sailed clean over the ship and kicked a chip from the tough material of the syncrete. They certainly noticed that in the port but didn’t connect it with Allenson’s little band. Dockers stood curiously around the crater alternating between peering down at the damage and gazing up at the sky.
Pynchon’s third shot hit the water just in front of the floating ship and bounced into the hull with a crack that could be hear across the bay.
“Skipping stones,” Allenson said delightedly, imitating throwing a stone across the water with a flick of his wrist.
“I remember your brother Todd was a demon at that,” Hawthorn said with a grin.
“Happier times,” Allenson replied, regretfully.
He turned to the engineering officer.
“That completes your part in our enterprise, Major Kiesche. You and your technicians may as well walk back and get a decent meal and rest. I expect you’ll be glad to get these damned masks off and enjoy a hot shower”
“I’ll send my men back, sir, but with your permission I think I should stay just in case a problem arises with the equipment.”
Allenson grinned within his mask. Kiesche didn’t fool him for a moment. The man wouldn’t miss seeing his inventions in action for anything.
The artillery proved to be horribly inaccurate. Only one in three shots managed to hit even such a large target as the freighter but they had plenty of time and plenty of iron. The solid shot inflicted limited damage but you can erode granite if you flick enough water drops at it.
It didn’t take the Brasilians long to join up the dots and work out the source of the bombardment. They reacted by raking the area with lasercannon fire. Fingers of green punched into the air in front generating opaque clouds. Acid rain fell into the swamp in heavy drips. When they realized that they weren’t getting results, the enemy’s next tried focusing a group of lasercannon on a single spot.
Boiling energy reached deep into the vapor but the extra power was counterproductive. All it did was spawn a massive chemical reaction that completely shielded the rocky outcrop. None of this affected Pynchon’s bombardment. Not being able to see the target was little disadvantage as the catapults didn’t exactly have sights anyway.
The green fog slowly dissipated over half an hour finally allowing Allenson to see the fruits of their efforts. A dockside crane jib hung over at a crazy angle, swaying from side to side. The container being unloaded had half slipped out of the lifting cables so that one corner was smashed on the ground. Dockers swarmed around the wreckage trying to make it safe before the whole thing collapsed.
The Port defenses were on automatic, firing at each iron ball as it left the protective screen of marsh vapors. The Brasilian lasercannon were quality kit and the artillery rate of fire glacial so the energy pulses repeatedly hit and lit up the shot. Defenses like these easily destroyed artillery shells and missiles. Lasers wrecked their delicate fuses and thrusters and set off the various unstable chemicals in the warheads. On the other hand, heating a lump of iron white hot before it smashed into you was not all that much of an advantage. The Brasilians eventually worked this out and shut their lasercannons. The civilian laborers not unreasonably took this as a sign to abandon work.
The captain of the freighter inevitably lost patience with the situation. The freighter was valuable private property and he was responsible to the owners for its safety. Tugs maneuvered the ship away from the dockside. As soon as it was clear the ship extended pylons and lifted off. The artillerymen raised a cheer, well more of a squawk actually because of the masks, but the sentiment was clear.