Into The Maelstrom – Snippet 52
Chapter 17 – Cut and Thrust
Allenson’s body went into that surreal zone he thought of as combat mode. Time slowed down and consciousness narrowed like turning up the magnification on a powerful microscope.
He saw the hovercraft in intimate detail. He noticed a spot where the carbon crystal skirt had been holed and patched with a material of a slightly different shade of light grey. The vehicle engine throbbed arhythmically as it drove the rotor. A detached part of his mind speculated that one of the blades on the prop must be slightly out of balance.
The driver controlled the hovercraft from a small cabin in the center. He stretched one arm out towards the side of the cockpit. The hovercraft hit the boulder still travelling sideways at some speed and the skirt tore with a sound like ripping cloth. The subsequent deep gash was going to need more than a patch to fix.
Forewarned, the pilot managed to keep his feet but many of his passengers were not so lucky. They tumbled about the hull like children on a funfair ride. One unlucky soul shot head first out of the hovercraft in a high arc. He crashed onto the rocks and lay like a crumpled paper model.
The driver had tried to do something clever. He turned the launch at the last moment intending it to slide gently into the bank sideways so that the assault troops could get over the gunwale onto the rocks as a single group. His instincts were sound. It would have been a more effective tactic in a contested landing than debussing a few at a time over the front or exiting at the sides and having to wade through the ooze.
But it hadn’t worked.
Maybe the driver was more used to boats than hovercraft. The greater viscosity of water compared to air would have slowed a boat for a perfect stop. Maybe, he just got it wrong in the heat of the moment. No matter, the result was chaos whatever the driver had intended.
“Take them before they can regroup,” Hawthorn yelled, projecting his voice through the mask. “Follow me!”
Despite his limp Hawthorn made good time down the slime-covered rocks. He headed straight for the crippled hovercraft. Allenson did his best to emulate but he lacked Hawthorn’s balance. The younger men overtook him. A ‘Streamer reached down and cut the throat of the Brasilian ejected from the hovercraft.
The act wasn’t nice and it wasn’t fair but it had to be done. It would be insane to leave an enemy behind them. Just because he was down now didn’t mean the soldier couldn’t get up. It wasn’t worth the risk of a knife in the back.
The first man over the side of the hovercraft stabbed at Hawthorn when he jumped down into the hull. Hawthorn deflected the Brasilian’s strike with his left arm and stabbed the man under his mask. He drove his blade brutally upwards through the victim’s neck into his skull. The Brasilian dropped back into the hovercraft. Before he hit the deck Hawthorn turned to engage another target.
Allenson slipped on some goo. He put down his left hand on the ground to recover.
Brasilians jumped out of the crippled launch only to slip and slide on the rocks. One went down on both knees. He held up a knife to scare of a large ‘Streamer who threatened him with an iron bar. The ‘Streamer swung the lever down with both hands. Muscles bulged under his jacket with the power of the blow. The Brasilian’s arm broke with an audible crack and he dropped his knife. He screamed, cradling his broken arm with his remaining hand. It was an understandable if suicidal reaction.
The ‘Streamer struck again catching the soldier’s helmet. It deformed under the blow pitching the soldier forward on his face. The ‘Streamer hit him repeatedly across the back and neck until he stopped moving.
A ‘Streamer went down from a knife thrust to the chest. Allenson tried to catch him but he was beyond help. Bloody froth bubbled on the inside of his mask. The badges on his uniform identified the stricken figure as one of Pynchon’s artillery men.
Allenson charged the artilleryman’s attacker. He mistimed his knife thrust and they crashed together. Allenson knocked the smaller man over and he rolled down the bank. One of Kemp’s men dropped on the Brasilian with both knees and thrust a knife through his mask. The man’s scream turned into a gurgle when toxic fumes filled his lungs.
A ‘Streamer threatened a Brasilian soldier with a knife to hold his attention while a comrade swung a hammer from behind. A blow to the back of the knee brought the soldier down and the two troopers fell on him like wolves. They got up covered in blood.
Allenson reached the hovercraft. Two of Kemp’s men materialized at each side to assist him over the gunwale. This bodyguarding lark was getting bloody ridiculous.
The fight was almost over by the time he jumped into the hull. The driver held both arms outstretched hands open to show he had no weapons. He appeared to be trying to surrender.
“Too late now, chum,” said a ‘Streamer wearing a security badge.
A vicious blow knocked the pilot out of the launch. He fell into the ooze on the offside. Allenson leaned over to pull him back on board but the mud had closed over.
“Defend the guns!” Hawthorn said.
Allenson took stock.
‘Streamer casualties were mercifully light. They’d wiped out the first unit of attackers. Few wounded survived as a damaged mask meant a death sentence. A ‘Streamer lay back against a boulder clutching his stomach. Blood seeped between his fingers. He would have to look after himself as nobody had time for first aid.
Brasilians scrambled towards the artillery from the second hovercraft that had stopped to seaward. The one that had split formation to get inland behind the ‘Streamers had further to go so was still maneuvering. Climbing back up the slippery scree was easier than going down. Hawthorn’s small force soon assembled in front of the artillery modules. The enemy came on in a disorganized group.
“Stand, wait for my command,” Hawthorn said, spreading out both arms as if to physically hold his men back.
The Brasilians lost further cohesion as they ran across the rocks. They looked more like a cross country run than a military unit. The first few to reach the colonial position slowed and looked nervously behind for support.
“Get them,” Hawthorn yelled, charging forwards.
The ‘Streamers rolled over the Brasilian vanguard without breaking stride. They left a trail of broken bodies in their wake. The charge slowed as it ploughed into thicker clumps of enemy soldiers until it halted in chaotic melee. Allenson hacked and stabbed as targets crossed his path. He lost his knife when it snagged on a Brasilian’s clothing. Cursing, he picked the man up and threw him bodily at a fellow. Both Brasilians went over. He lost sight of them when he had to defend himself against an enemy stabbing at his chest.
The Brasilians melted away suddenly. One moment Allenson was surrounded by struggling figures the next there were only enemy corpses. Some of the Brasilian rearguard never got as far as the colonial position. Upon seeing how the battle was going they dropped their weapons and made a run back to their hovercraft.
A ‘Streamer whooped and started to follow. Hawthorn backhanded him head over heels.
“Nobody pursues except on my order, Kemp!”
“You heard the govnor,” Kemp said, to no one in particular.
“We walk back to the guns and we wait,” Hawthorn said.
The third party of attackers halted twenty meters from the guns. They appeared to be holding a conference. Many of the soldiers displayed a reluctance to close. The fate of the first two groups probably did nothing for their confidence. Brasilian moral probably wasn’t helped by the various obscene gestures directed at them by the rude colonials.
An officer waved his arms. Sergeants physically shoved men into a skirmish line. Then the group advanced slowly and carefully.
Hawthorn ordered a charge when the Brasilians closed to just a few meters. The ‘Streamers had their tails up. They pounded into the Brasilian line despite their fatigue, bowling over soldiers with the ferocity of their attack. Allenson’s attention focused tightly into the opponent directly in front. A shock of orange hair projected out from under his mask like tangled fibers from a particularly revolting fungus.
The soldier lunged with a knife large enough to be an ancient short sword. He feinted then slashed at Allenson’s neck.
Allenson caught the knife hand by the wrist but another Brasilian dropped his weapon and grabbed Allenson’s free arm. He hung on with both hands preventing Allenson from using his weapon.
The three of them struggled like some sort of perverted love triangle. A small Brasilian hovered nervously at the edge of the melee waiting for a safe opportunity to sneak in and stab. Allenson must have seemed a sitting duck. The small man jumped forward knife-arm outstretched. Now would have been a good time for Allenson’s minders to intervene but they had unaccountably vanished in the confusion – sod’s bloody law.
Allenson had only his own personal resources to draw on. It was not enough for him to merely push at his attackers. Something so feeble would end with a blade in his gut. He had to overpower them, to deal them such a crack that they never got to exploit the advantage of their numbers.
He dropped his knife and took a firm grip on the two men clinging to him. He reached deep within himself as if to toss a rock for the winning throw. Allenson lifted his attackers off their feet. He clapped their bodies together like a cymbal player marking the final of a particularly energetic concert.
The men bounced off each other. Allenson released his hold allowing them to drop. The little man stared at Allenson goggle eyed. He’d lost his knife. He raised both hands ineffectually as if trying to swat a fly.
Allenson was fresh out of pity. This little bastard tried to gut him like a fish thinking him helpless. Some fish. He seized the soldier by the back of his neck with his left hand and pulled him in. Putting the heel of his right hand under the man’s chin he thrust upwards with a powerful rotating motion. The scrawny neck broke with an audible crack.
Allenson looked around for his other two assailants. The one on his right lay face down with the hilt of the small man’s weapon jutting from his back. That explained where the knife had gone.
The one on the left scrabbled on his hands and knees in the process of climbing to his feet. Allenson kicked him hard in the face like a footballer making a strike for goal. The soldier rolled down the slope and disappeared.
Just for a moment Allenson was clear. He did a quick three-sixty to gauge the tactical situation. The Brasilians were brave and determined but they were soldiers. Kemp’s men were street fighting thugs. This was no place for a soldier used to wielding a laserrifle at two hundred meters. This was a brawl for men who weren’t afraid of sharp edges and who were willing to shed blood, their own or someone else’s. A fight for men who had no compunction about ganging up on an opponent and hitting him from behind, men who were willing to put the boot in, Hawthorn’s type of men.
A clang of metal against metal drew Allenson’s attention. A Brasilian officer somehow broke free of the ruck and made it to the nearest artillery piece. He swung an iron bar vigorously and there was another clang.
Allenson ran back across the slippery rocks leaping from ridge to ridge. Momentum kept him going when his fleet slipped. It was madness but he had no choice.
The Brasilian officer got in two more heavy blows. Then Allenson reached over the officer’s shoulder and ripped the mask from his face.
The officer reacted automatically by sucking in a lungful of the polluted air. He coughed and retched, gasping and twitching. Blood-flecked foam sprayed from his mouth. Appalled, Allenson tried to get the man’s mask back on. The officer panicked and fought to keep it off his face.
The man bled from his eyes, nose, and mouth. Mercifully it was quick. Allenson struggled to avoid throwing up in his mask. That really wouldn’t be a good idea. He wiped his forehead with his sleeve while examining the equipment.
Fortunately the officer had attacked the catapult module. It might seem the most important part of the gear but it was also the strongest. It had to withstand the dynamics of throwing heavy iron balls. The beating this one received put a few dents in the casing but it seemed operational.
He had a sudden suspicion. Surely the Brasilians wouldn’t have put in such a determined attempt merely to belt the gear with iron bars? He checked the hydraulic module but found nothing so moved on to the power supply.
Taped to the side of the module was a round can with a screw top. It looked like a perfectly ordinary confectionary tin. Allenson doubted there was anything sweet inside. He dug his nails under the tape and ripped the can off the power supply. As it came free a small voice in his head chided with the words ‘trembler switch’. Oh well, too late now.
Throwing back his arm he bowled the tin as smoothly as he could out over the marsh. It plopped into the ooze creating a small crater that immediately filled with brown liquid.
The surviving ‘Streamers mopped up, slitting the throats of wounded enemies and tending to wounded comrades. There were few enough of the last.
He gestured trying to get Hawthorn’s attention, to warn him that some of the Brasilians were carrying bombs but a large bang from the swamp deluged him in stinking mud.
“What is it with you and mud?” Hawthorn asked, not entirely facetiously while helping to scrape Allenson off. “We dress you up in nice uniforms and you ruin them. Why can’t you just stay in your office and make fancy speeches like other generals?”
Allenson didn’t deign to answer the question.
“As I am the general, perhaps you wouldn’t mind giving me a situation report, colonel.”
“Certainly, sir,” Hawthorn replied, throwing a punctilious salute.
Allenson just knew that behind the mask his friend was grinning.
“One of the hovercraft got away with a few survivors. One lies wrecked as you can see and we have captured the other in full working order.”
“That will be useful as a ferry for the artillery shifts,” Allenson said. He turned to Pynchon who stood listening to the interplay between the old comrades. “What about the guns, I mean catapults.”
“Major Kiesche is checking them over.”
“Major Pynchon, I want the full battery to open up again immediately.”
“Sir…” Pynchon looked as if he was about to ask something but decided against it.
Allenson pointed to the escaped hovercraft which was making all speed back to Oxford across the bay.
“Those people will hardly admit that they fled without facing us. They will have great stories to tell of their daring and achievements that might raise hopes in the minds of the Brasilian command. I want to kill any such optimism not least because it might discourage a repeat attempt. Commence the bombardment immediately: maximum effort.”
Allenson was not required to explain his orders. Often it would not be useful to so do but he needed the enthusiastic cooperation of men like Pynchon. They were not regulars in a Homeworld army. They would perform better if they knew why he insisted on an apparently dangerous order.
“The target, sir?”
“Anything that catches your eye, Colonel Pynchon, it doesn’t really matter as long as the battery is seen to be in full operation.”
Iron balls bombarded the port, most falling once again on the syncrete apron. The odd lucky hit struck an installation. Kiesche hovered over his babies anxiously.
Allenson began to relax. A sharp twang like a shotgun fired from inside a metal drum jolted him out of his complacency. One of the thick metallic stays holding a recoiling catapult parted under tension. The cable recoiled like a cracked whip.
The stay slapped Kiesche across the head with a noise like an egg struck by a hammer. He spun around and flopped onto his front. The cable expended its final energy by smacking against the rock between Hawthorn and Allenson. It struck hard enough to break off a chip.
Allenson reached Kiesche in three giant steps and gently turned him over. The engineer’s mask had gone, worse, his face had gone. The front of his head was a bloody ruin exposing brain and skull fragments.
“That’s not your fault,” Hawthorn said.
“I know,” Allenson replied.
“That’s not even the catapult that was damaged,” Hawthorn said.
“True,” Allenson replied.
“That could have happened at any time to any of us,” Hawthorn said.
“Indeed,” Allenson replied.
The battery was still. The men had stopped firing. Allenson walked slowly and carefully over to the damaged catapult. He casually rested his foot on one of the stays.
“Recommence shooting with our two remaining machines, Major Pynchon,” he said.