This book should be available now, so this is the last snippet.
Into The Maelstrom – Snippet 53
Allenson stayed with the catapults until the men’s nerves settled then he and Hawthorn departed with the shift change as planned. He slept like a log that night and most of the rest of the next morning. After a substantial brunch, he felt almost human.
A note from Ling awaited him on his datapad inviting General and Lady Allenson to dine at his villa outside Oxford. Allenson was tempted to refuse citing the work that had built up in his absence but, in truth Trina, Todd and his staff had handled most of it already. The rest would keep. Trina had taught him the importance of seemingly pointless social conventions. If Ling wanted to meet privately in an informal setting, it probably indicated that he wished to convey some informal message. That evening Allenson and Trina duly set out in their finery in a tolerably functional frame carriage that Boswell had scrounged from somewhere.
Boswell had been vague about the carriage’s provenance and Allenson thought it best not to enquire too closely. He strongly suspected that somewhere in Oxford was a garage with an insecure lock, a lock that may or may not have been insecure before Boswell discovered it.
Ling lived in a small comfortable home on the outskirts of a village that served the local agricultural community. His villa looked as if it had been converted from a farmhouse since it was structured around a central two story building with bedrooms on the top floor above functional rooms at ground level.
A one-story wing at right angles to the main structure may once have served for animal husbandry and equipment storage. Now it made a pleasant suite for guests and entertainment. A low wall from wing to building enclosed a triangular frame park and small formal garden. Allenson suspected that the wall had once been much higher. What remained was far too substantial to be a mere ornament. He also noticed that none of the buildings had ground floor windows onto the outside.
In less settled times the farmhouse would have doubled as a castle. Now it was a gentleman’s residence.
A log fire warmed the interior of the dining room. The meal commenced after the usual convention of welcoming drinks in front of the flickering flames.
Ling’s wife, Alphena, was a willowy lady who overtopped her husband by at least ten centimeters although she wore flat heeled shoes to disguise the height differential. She said little through the formal dinner but listened intently.
After they dinner, Ling escorted Trina into the formal garden beside his villa to show her some exotic blooms he had been cultivating in controlled environment greenhouses. Allenson was left alone with Alphena. They settled into comfortable chairs and Alphena kicked off her shoes and tucked her legs under.
“Bring us some tea, Lily,” she instructed the maid who appeared to be the only servant in the house.
Allenson wondered what the purpose was behind the evening, pleasant though it was. Chiefs of Staff commonly invited their commanders to dinner but the way he had been separated from Trina seemed a little contrived. Trina had clearly thought so too as she indicated by a raised eye-brow to Allenson when Ling ushered her out. Allenson had expected the ladies to retire leaving him alone with Ling. Clearly this conversation was to be very informal.
Alphena made small talk about the price of tea and the merits of various suppliers until the maid left the room. That was unusual in itself. Normally the maid stood unobtrusively against one of the walls in case further service was required. She had obviously been given prior instructions.
Allenson waited patiently making polite conversation while sipping his tea. Something sensitive was about to be touched on. Prodding the lady would not expedite matters. No doubt she would get around to the matter in her own time.
“You are not quite what I expected, general,” Alphena finally said.
“Indeed, what were you anticipating?” Allenson asked.
“I’m not sure. Someone more…” she paused, selecting her next words carefully, “…authoritarian and ambitious perhaps. Someone more interested in politics and less involved with his family and farm.”
“We call them demesnes,” Allenson said.
He smiled, “Although they are just farms albeit on a large scale.”
“That’s it exactly, that self-deprecating humor. That was not what I expected.”
“I’m afraid that I’m poor martinet material,” Allenson replied.
“Yes,” Alphena said seriously.
There was a pause in the conversation.
“What made you imagine I might be?” Allenson eventually, asking an open-ended question to get her talking.
“You came to us with a great reputation, Sar Allenson, not just your record as a war hero but as a powerful businessman and a key player in Manzanitan and ‘Stream politics. It’s difficult to reconcile that image with the man. People who have never met you have some strange fancies.”
“Really?” Allenson replied, merely to keep the conversation going.
She chose her next words carefully, like a lawyer recalling the terms of a verbal contract.
“Many of the radicals, particularly the younger men, and some of the army officers are frustrated at the slow progress of the Assembly and their inability to come to any decision. There is talk in such quarters that we would be better off with a strong-man in charge. Someone who gets things done…”
“…and makes the frames run on time.” Allenson interrupted.
“And these hotheads imagine me in the role of captain-general, dictator and all-round grand supremo of the Cutter Stream?” asked Allenson, shaking his head in amusement.
Alphena looked serious.
“Put like that the idea is ridiculous to anyone who’s met you or bothered to take a close look at your decisions. You don’t act like a supremo and your actions are hardly calculated to set up a military dictatorship.”
“But there is still a problem,” Allenson said flatly.
“These’re troubled times. Many people have not met you and are too frightened or ignorant to analyze the situation logically. There are several people horrified at the idea of a military dictator for every individual who likes the idea.”
“A view I share, Lady Ling. I assure you that my only intention is to get this unpleasant business over as soon as is practical. I’m impatient to return to my demesne on Manzanita and get on with my life. My personal plans have no room for ridiculous coups.”
“I believe you, Sar Allenson, but not everyone will. Not all your enemies are on the Brasilian side. I urge you to watch your back.”
From there the conversation returned to trivial matters.
Allenson was inclined to dismiss Alphena’s warning as understandable paranoia. Everyone was nervous and inclined to see plots behind any chance remark. There would be losers whoever won the confrontation with Brasilia. Some people were going to be labelled loyal patriots and others traitors but at this stage it was not clear which was which.
The trooper reeled and waved a glass of plum brandy.
“Another bol, barkeep. Plum brandy, only the best for me and my mate. If it’s good enough for the bloody nobs it’s good enough for us.”
He turned to his drinking companion, waving an arm for emphasis.
“Whatdaya say your name was again?”
“You don’t like nobs much then,” said his companion, deftly putting out an arm to steady the drunken trooper before his expansive gesture caused him to overbalance.
The bartender opened a fresh bottle of branded plum brandy and poured the first glass. The drunk tossed a Brasilian twenty crown onto the bar. He used far too much force so the coin skated off the other side. The barmen, who was used to dealing with drunks, caught it one handed.
“Keepsh the change, my good man,” said the drunk waving his hand in what he clearly fondly imagined was a display of liberality to the lower orders.
The barman examined the coin carefully. In his considerable experience drunken troopers rarely owned twenty crown pieces let alone threw them around. The coin must have passed the barman’s expert scrutiny because he put it in the till.
“You don’t like nobs,” repeated the drunk’s companion.
“Feckin’ Manzanitan snobs,” the drunk said, reflectively. “Come here to a civilized world like some cock o’ the walk. Captain of Militia I was, properly ‘lected by my peers.”
He thrust his chin out and raised his voice.
“Wasnae good enough for Him though was I. Busted me he did for being more popular with my men than he was.”
“Bloody liberty,” said his companion, raising his refilled glass to his lips.
An observant person might have noted that the level in the glass had not perceptibly changed when he set it back down on the bar. The drunk was far too deep in his cups for such levels of perception.
“Liberty, yeah, liberty’s coming mate,” said the drunk. “Feckin’ snob’s turn will come. Gonna be a reckoning though or my names not Prat.”
“A reckoning! What are you going to do?”
The drunk tapped his nose conspiratorially.
“Wait and see, mate, wait and see. Gonna be a reckoning soon. Whatya say your name was again?”
His companion looked at something over the drunk’s shoulder.
“Kemp, my name is Kemp,” his companion said.
“This the man,” drawled an upper class voice from behind the drunk.
“Yes, gov, he’s come into money suddenly and been making threats against the boss.”
The drunk frowned, his fuddled brain processing the information slowly that a third party had joined the conversation. When it did, he turned.
“You’re a feckin’ snob as well.”
The drunk threw a sudden swinging punch. Hawthorn leaned his head back three inches so the blow expended on empty air. This time Kemp made no effort to effect a catch so the drunk crashed to the floor.
Hawthorn looked down at the drunk dispassionately like a taxonomist who had discovered yet another new species of parasitic roundworm doing all the usual things one expects such creatures to do.
“Hose him down and detox him until he’s reasonably sober then we can have a little chat. You recorded the conversation?”
Kemp’s face showed an unusual expression. Actually any expression was unusual for Kemp.
“Something on your mind?” Hawthorn asked.
“Well, gov, you know recordings can’t be used in trials,” Kemp asked, adopting the tone one uses when a normally reliable superior appears to have overlooked the sheer bleedin’ obvious.
Kemp and the criminal justice system of the ‘Stream were old acquaintances. He had a working knowledge of court procedure that would not have disgraced a professional advocate.
“Trial?” Hawthorn asked, genuinely astonished. “This man’s not going anywhere near a court.”
“Good of you to see me, Jeb. I realize that you have many calls upon your time,” Trina said.
“Not at all,” Hawthorn replied.
In truth he was curious why Trina should suddenly demand his attention. They were hardly intimates so why did she want a private meeting?
“Would you care to take tea?” Hawthorn asked, politely.
“As you are busy I will get right to the point,” Trina said showing a most unnatural directness for a Manzanitan lady.
“That would probably be for the best,” Hawthorn replied, neutrally.
“I understand that you have arrested a man for threatening the life of my husband.”
“Possibly you should be running security rather than me, Trina. We only picked him up a couple of hours ago. The matter is not supposed to be public knowledge. I would be curious to know your source of information.”
“Oh one hears things,” Trina replied, vaguely.
Hawthorn wondered who inside his organization was spying for her. It didn’t really matter that Trina had a pipeline into Special Security but he was concerned that he hadn’t known. It was professionally annoying and it raised the possibility that other more unfriendly principals had planted double agents on him. He resolved to have a purge. No one had yet adequately resolved the conundrum of “who will watch the watchers?”
“Was it a serious threat or just a drunken blowhard?” she asked.
Hawthorn regarded her curiously.
“I have reason to believe that we should regard it as serious.”
“Have you told Allen yet?”
“That we have made an arrest? Not yet.”
“Then don’t,” Trina said firmly.
Now she really had surprised him.
“Why ever not? He should be warned to be on his guard.”
“You will question this would-be assassin to establish who his principals are.” Trina made a statement. She hadn’t asked a question.
“Of course, my people are sobering him up and putting on the frighteners to prepare him.”
“Quite so. If you tell Allen he will insist on the matter being done by the book with a proper trial.”
“That would certainly impede my investigation,” Hawthorn said, thoughtfully.
Trina leaned forward and her eyes blazed.
“Let me make myself clear, Jeb. Some bastard is plotting to murder my husband and I want this person found and permanently neutralized by whatever means you find necessary.”
Hawthorn threw one of his dazzling innocent smiles.
“Then we are of one mind, Trina.”
He paused to reflect.
“It hadn’t occurred to me that Allen would be squeamish about this but you’re right. He’d do anything to protect his friends but would regard it as ungentlemanly to do the same for his own welfare. Sometimes I forget how bothered other people can be by abstract ideas of conscience.”
He shook his head, ever puzzled how seemingly intelligent people failed to grasp simple truths.
“You can rely on me, Trina. I will squeeze this oik like a soft fruit in a vice. I will to get to the next link in the chain and so on until I find the head of the conspiracy.”
He looked her firmly in the eyes.
“Then I will decapitate it,” he said without especial emphasis as if stating a simple fact.
Trina visibly relaxed.
“I knew I could rely on you, Jeb. I believe I will take that tea now.”
Hawthorn called in an orderly and gave the order. They made small talk while they waited for their tea to brew. Trina finally raised something that was clearly on her mind.
“You haven’t told Allen that it was me that sent you away all those years ago,” she said, somewhat diffidently. “Why is that?”
“It would upset him,” Hawthorn replied.
“Beside you didn’t send me away. You merely pointed out to me how much damage I was causing my friends and suggested a solution. As it happened I agreed once the matter had been explained to me. Sometimes I overlook how people react. So you see, I sent myself away.”
“I’m glad you don’t hold a grudge.”
“I make my own decisions about what I do or not do, Trina, and I blame no one but myself for the consequences.”
At that point the orderly came back and the conversation shifted to safer ground.
Allenson was not quite as naïve as his nearest and dearest assumed but in this case he was far too busy to notice that Trina and Hawthorn were unusually close. An urgent message summoned him to the control room in his headquarters. He erupted from his office pulling on his jacket as he ran as warning sirens sounded all over the camp.
He burst into the control room to find Todd and Ling already present. Ling stood behind the main hologram conferring with the operators. Allenson didn’t want to distract his chief of staff so he grabbed Todd and pulled him to one side.
“What’s happening? An attack?”
“It could be, Uncle, our instruments have detected significant wash in the Continuum from a sizable inbound tonnage.”
A new hologram opened in the room showing a visual of the air above Oxford Bay. It shimmered and distorted then three large structures appeared. The picture sharpened and they clarified into ovoids with shimmering pylons that slid from red to blue as the ships turned and descended onto the Port’s hardstands.
“That’s precision navigation,” an operator said. “To dephase in formation like that right above the target is bloody impressive.”
“Brasilian Navy pilots,” said another operator. “Flying like that means they have to be regular navy.”
“Surely Port Oxford hard stands aren’t big enough or strong enough for ships of that size,” Todd said, shaking his head.
The ovoids deployed dozens of ground skids under their hulls and settled down. The hard stands weren’t nearly big enough but the ovoids landed mostly on the grass surrounds. The ships rocked gently as the skids took the weight and self-levelled when their pads pushed deep into the soil.
“Those are specialized assault ships,” Allenson said. “They can land regiments damn near anywhere reasonably flat and cost as much as a battleship. I doubt if there are more than a dozen in the whole Brasilian Navy. Why the hell are they using them here?”
“How do we fight that?” Todd asked in wonder.
“We don’t,” Allenson said bleakly.