A Pillar Of Fire By Night – Snippet 17

A Pillar Of Fire By Night – Snippet 17

***

With three small moons, Hecate, Eris, and Bellona, tides were generally lesser on Terra Nova than on Old Earth. There were odd exceptions, as when all three moons were in position to pull together, but on a normal day this coast of Balboa experienced tides of nine to ten feet. With heavy silt covering the bedrock, out to a distance of nearly eighty kilometers, this made bringing a ship in to unload a very problematic issue. At high tide, for example, a standard Zhong replenishment ship of the 309 Class, coming from the west, would ground out about eight miles from the island.

But there were a couple of oddities that worked in the Zhong’s favor. The eastern coast of Santa Catalina, for example, was actually quite deep for a few hundred meters eastward. Thus, a ship that could be gotten into it during high tide could stay there to unload, even during low tide, without risk of grounding. It would have to be turned around by something else; Wanyan’s staff was planning on cables and winches until some tugs could be ferried in. Moreover, because just outside of that trench in the sea bottom things returned to the more normal depth for this part of the world, the Zhong engineers believed they could ground two freighters, with their own integral cranes, and link them by a mix of floating bridge and barges that had been filled with rock and concrete and then sunk. Already there were pilings pounded in, to hold both bridge and barges in place and a set of anchored floating docks, as well.

That was all well and good, but the real trick was still to get their cargo ships to the trench to be unloaded, that, and getting the freighters with their cranes in, in the first place.

***

“The engineers report they’re ready for the first stretch, sir,” Wanyan’s aide reported. The aide, the new aide, the old one being food for the fishes, was a marine, selected from among the unwounded who had still never made it to shore on the Isla Real for lack of transports to get them there. Though a lieutenant colonel, the aide, Ma Chu, carried a radio on his back. The radio was in communication with the party at work out at sea.

Letting his hand holding the hand mike drop, Ma Chu announced, “They say the tide will be fully in in a few minutes.”

“They’ve accounted for every diver and all the slaves?” the admiral asked. Wanyan was perhaps ruthless, but no more, not a bit more, than the job required. When this was over he fully intended to release all the impressed workers and pay them standard Zhong rates for their pains. Not that that was overly generous.

Best I can do, though.

“They insist so, yes.”

“Very well. Tell them to proceed.”

***

Wanyan’s engineer’s trick was actually threefold.

The first part was that, in fact, there was bedrock under the silt. They knew it because they’d drilled down to it. Moreover, though there were a few projections upward from the bedrock, there were only that few, and they could be blown.

Secondly, silt could be removed explosively. At the moment there were explosive charges, hundreds of explosive charges, placed atop the bedrock sufficient to clear away the silt, over an area of forty-five meters–easily sufficient, if properly marked, for one-way nautical traffic–by eight hundred. The channel they intended to cut was oriented perpendicular to the tides, which could be expected to carry off silt suspended in the water before it could settle again.

The third trick involved shipping containers, filled with rock, sitting atop barges at a safe distance from the underwater blasting area. The containers had their walls perforated to sink, but not so quickly that they couldn’t be guided into position.

For a blasting project of this size, a simple “fire in the hole” just wouldn’t do. Instead, the Zhong began to sound sirens, not all that dissimilar really to the ones that announced air raids to the Balboan enemy. Everywhere people began to bolt for cover.

“Sir?” asked the aide, meaning, Are we going to take shelter or what?

“You go,” said the admiral. “This, I really want to see.”

“If it’s all the same with you, sir . . .”

“Then stay, son, and acquire a memory to tell your grandchildren about. This is going to–”

The blast was like nothing ever in Wanyan’s experience. The sound wasn’t as much as he’d expected, but from placid seas, suddenly, the surface rose in a sort of boil, followed by a wall of water lurching essentially straight upward. The wall was clear above, but brown as mud below. Up it sailed, and up some more, before reaching apogee in a spray and then settling back with vast but reluctant majesty.

“Hmmmm . . . I wonder if the messes won’t be serving fish tonight,” the admiral said aloud.

“Wouldn’t surprise me a bit, sir,” said Lieutenant Colonel Ma, in a tone still replete with wow.

And, indeed, as soon as the water settled, small launches and rubber boats began to sortie, collecting up the blasted harvest. Among those lesser craft, tugs and landing craft began guiding in the barges to dump their loads, to seal off the edge of the trench just cut from a return of the silt.

Ma pointed his finger at something that had just popped to the surface. “Admiral, you know, it might not be just regular fish tonight.”

“What?” the admiral asked, as he turned to follow Ma’s finger.

There, out in the still roiling sea, bobbed a twenty-meter long megalodon.

“Meg tastes like shit, Ma,” the admiral said. “Find the supply weasels and tell them that under no circumstances are my men, nor even the prisoners, to be fed megalodon. Yes, despite the poetic justice of it. Though, you know, it’s sad, too. They’re magnificent creatures, the Megs, much like the people we are here to subjugate or destroy.”

Parilla Line, Balboa

The fire from the previously unsuspected trench line was nothing short of awesome. It was, if anything, the more so for the discipline the enemy had shown, to hold their fire until the Haarlemer Commandos were out in full view. A dozen men were bowled over in an instant, while the rest dove for the sparse cover on the jungle floor, the sparser for what had probably been a deliberate and careful clearing of fields of fire.

Somebody made a bad goddamned mistake, thought Sergeant Werner Verboom, heart doing the mamba as he slithered backwards, dragging his rifle behind him as he did. “It’s the rear of a fortified line,” they said. What bullshit. “There’ll be nothing there to stop you,” headquarters insisted. Horseshit. “Cakewalk,” they told us. My ass.

He felt the solid thunk of one of those overpowered Balboan six-point-fives slam into his ruck, which was still perched on his back. Shit. Too close. Well . . . at least it didn’t feel like it hit my bottle of jenever. If they had, I’d have to start taking this personally rather than as an unfortunate professional matter.

As soon as he sensed a change in the ground, a dropping of it, that had him more or less safely below the arc of enemy bullets–And, Jesus, isn’t that damned Zioni-Balboan rifle one fucking bullet hose? Or maybe a bullet firehose–Verboom halted, and began scanning for other retreating troops from Thirteenth Company. These he began ordering back into a line under the cover provided by the fold in the ground in which they found themselves. Then he took his entrenching tool, the infantryman’s standard “wretched little shovel,” and held it up to show it to the men he had with him.

The message was clear: We’ve pulled back far enough; dig in.

 

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