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Stories from the Verse
Chapter 21: Slade 99
Table of Contents
Previous chapter: Chapter 20: Brown 105
Slade suddenly wished he could read Joe's mind. There was something about this entire situation he didn't understand, and he thought somehow that Joe knew what it was, and was hoping he would catch on and do the right thing--whatever the right thing was. If he had some clue, some way of knowing, he could at least try.
Joe wouldn't expect him to do something without giving him a clue. What was Joe doing? His friend seemed to be looking at the people, and sometimes at the screens, as if trying to connect what people did with what he saw. He was trying to figure out how the defenses of the bunker worked. What would that tell him?
It would tell him where the weaknesses were. Everything had weaknesses. Acquivar's castle had a back door. The roof of the snake's mouth was soft. The vampire Horta fell to a sleeping drug on a pin prick. Understanding your enemy's weakness was the key to defeating him.
In the same way, seeing your own weaknesses the way your enemy would see them allowed you to anticipate his movements. Presumably the attackers had been watching, scouting, and knew that this bunker was undermanned. They knew they were overmatched technologically--how could they not know this?--but they were attacking anyway. That meant they believed there was a flaw somewhere, a spot in the defenses they could penetrate. Where was it, and how would they exploit it?
The answer was on those screens. He stared at them, trying to work out their relationships, understanding what each showed and how it connected with the others. There was a logic to it, although it was a difficult logic. Because the cameras were on the guns, they showed where the guns were aimed; and because the guns were constantly in motion, it was rather common for a screen on the left to show the landscape to the right of the screen beside it. The only way to get a composite picture of the entire surround was to point each gun at its own center position. When the action started, the guns shifted, moving the cameras with them. This gave the gunners a very clear view of what they were targeting; it gave a very poor idea of the total picture.
So, what were the enemy doing?
They were massing to what Slade deduced was the northeast corner and along the eastern part of the north wall; all the guns on the east side, and those to the north, were focused in that direction. The western and southern guns lay idle, scanning mechanically over the land, showing nothing but the occasional burst of a misdirected incoming shell. Still, about half the guns in the compound were in use against the onslaught, and that was a formidable arsenal.
As he watched, another contingent started sweeping around the complex toward the south, staying at some distance but skirting southeast of the building. They were sending a small force to the opposite corner; they were going to launch a secondary assault from the southwest. The colonel was no fool; he saw this, and immediately assigned some of his people to leave their stations on the north guns and move to the south and west positions. Soon the cameras that had been sweeping were tracking, focused on troop movements at extreme range, waiting to repel an attack.
It didn't make that much sense, really. After all, when the attack was focused on one corner, the defenders could only use half of their firepower. Now that they had spread out, they were inviting the full force of the bunker to be used against them. The colonel recognized this.
"Stupid ghosts," he exulted. "Now we've got them." Soon guns were blazing in both directions. Soldiers were rushing around, trying to man multiple consoles to keep all the guns in action against the attackers.
It had been going for several minutes; Slade was beginning to wonder why he was bothering to stand here, why he didn't just return to his room and his wife and let these people fight their war. It was that thought, however, that kept him in his place. This was indeed their war; but he was here to learn something, to become a better warrior, to prepare himself for Ragnorak. The old legends said nothing about cannon or anti-artillery weapons, defended bunkers or tracking systems, but why shouldn't the gods have weaponry at least as good as those of men? And how could the ancients who reported these prophecies be expected to understand warfare beyond what they knew? Focus, he told himself. See what is happening here, and learn from it.
The colonel was right. It made no sense for the ghosts--that is, the attacking white army--to split up their forces to opposite corners of the building, and so bring the full force of all the guns and all the cameras on themselves. Had they stayed massed to one side, they could have limited the defensive abilities of the fortress significantly. Were they really just being stupid, or was there something else happening here?
Slade had no experience with artillery, nor even with mass troop movements. He fought alone, or with a small group of comrades. This sort of warfare was unfamiliar to him. Colonel Mlambo, Lieutenant Lyson, even Joe, would all have more insight into what was happening than he would. He was wasting his time. Just watch and learn, he thought. It's too soon to be involved; you don't really know what's happening here anyway. Think about what you'd do if you were in this situation, and see how it compares to everyone else.
If he were attacking the bunker, he thought, all this artillery would be nonsense. He would bring a small group of men and attack the bunker by night; find a weak point, take out the guards, get inside and take over. That's what he did with Acquivar. The commando raid worked well. Of course, in this case it probably wouldn't work well. A small group couldn't get close enough to the bunker without being spotted, even at night, he reckoned, and the machine guns now trained on the enemy lines would cut them down.
Wait a minute; that was it. How could you get close enough to this bunker with a small group of men that you could attack it and get inside? You'd have to get on the roof, probably--the doors were well defended, and difficult to breach, and the walls were thick and hardened, but the guns on the roof were probably vulnerable. It was believed that the whites had some new kind of bomb. They weren't firing them from cannons. The guns were fitted with cameras, moved on turrets, raised mechanically--there had to be weak points there, places where well-placed explosives could destroy the surveillance capability and disable the mechanisms. A few men on the roof with some powerful explosives could render the entire facility useless and possibly breach the complex through those weapon housings. Once they were on the roof, firing at them would be problematic at best; the blacks could easily destroy their own defenses.
What stopped the enemy from doing this was that no one could approach the bunker without being seen. The cameras could provide a complete panorama of the world outside. However, right now those cameras were all pointing toward the northeast and the southwest. The enemy had created a significant vulnerability.
"Lieutenant," Slade said, "could I speak with you?"
"I'm a bit busy at the moment, ghost." The officer didn't even look at him.
"Lieutenant," Joe said, "the man has asked for a moment of your time. He might have some clue what the enemy is thinking."
"The enemy doesn't think," he said. "They're ghosts. They're not capable of anything we would call thought."
"All the more reason," Joe said, "why you should take advantage of the opportunity to hear from one of them how it is they do whatever it is that they do which resembles thought, particularly when you don't understand what they're doing."
The lieutenant gave an exasperated look toward the colonel, who had heard this and was watching. He gave the lieutenant a nod, and the lieutenant put down what he was doing and in a rather disgruntled voice he snapped at Slade, "What?" Joe walked over to join them.
"You're vulnerable," he said.
The lieutenant started to turn away.
"With a couple of decent bombs and a handful of men, I could take this place out right now without breaking a sweat, and you would never see it coming." Lyson hesitated.
"I'd listen to him, lieutenant," Joe said. "He's done as much before."
Lyson turned back to hear what Slade had to say.
"Look at your screens," he said. "You've got everything pointed to the northeast and the southwest. The enemy knows this. If I were out there, I would take a small contingent of men with grapples, come at you from one of the blind corners--probably the northwest, since you might be watching the southeast to keep an eye on our troop movements--get on the roof, and set charges on your gun turrets. You would never see us coming until it was too late. The guns go first, the cameras go with them, and then we punch a hole through the roof and take you on man-to-man. You're dead, lieutenant. It's been nice knowing you.
"Now, if you'll excuse me, I should get back to my wife before the attack comes."
The lieutenant seemed stunned, blindsided almost as badly by Slade's suggestion as he would have been by the actual assault. "Wait here a moment," he said, almost a request. He looked at the screens; he walked to them and studied them. Then he walked over toward the Colonel. "There is some merit in what the ghost says," he said, but as he continued his voice dropped, and they conferred quietly. Periodically the colonel nodded. Then he took action.
"I need gun thirty to sweep the southeast corner, and gun seventy to sweep the northwest. We're looking for a small group of soldiers, possibly as few as six, probably using stealth techniques to reach the bunker." Men moved to different consoles, and started punching buttons. The larger screens stopped showing the battle and started showing the broken ground outside the bunker. There was little in the way of cover for hundreds of yards, other than the craters created by previous artillery bombardments. The room grew silent, but for the hum of machines here and the crashing of artillery outside.
"There they are, sir," one of the men shouted.
"Fire," the colonel said. "Take them out, now."
Machine gun fire burst from the camera's point of view; soldiers fell or fled. There was an explosion in their midst.
"What was that?" The colonel demanded.
"Not ours, sir," was the answer. "Probably they were carrying explosives, and we hit one."
The field to the northwest corner was now clear; the attack had been repelled. Slade had a nasty feeling in the pit of his stomach, uncertain whether he had just helped the good guys or the villains.
There is a behind-the-writings look at the thoughts, influences, and ideas of this chapter, along with twenty other sequential chapters of this novel, in mark Joseph "young" web log entry #218: Versers Resume. Given a moment, this link should take you directly to the section relevant to this chapter. It may contain spoilers of upcoming chapters.
As to the old stories that have long been here: