Breaking Strain: Prologue
August 4, 1964 2133 Hours
Aboard USS Yarrow
Northwest of Madagascar
"Radar contact!" A half-dozen quick steps brought Lieutenant Commander Raymond Archer across the bridge of his destroyer escort and into the Combat Information Center on the heels of that call. The nineteen year old seaman hunched over the phosphor screen didn't look up at his captain's approach- he'd learned that much, in the six months he'd spent in the fleet. Out here you did your job, or the opposition did for you. Now he fiddled with the controls of his scope, working down the gain to refine the contact. "Multiple small surface contacts bearing three-one-five, range thirty miles and closing."
"Speed?" Archer bent over the seaman's shoulder, expertly picking out the dim dots against the background of the screen. The seaman shrugged.
"More than five knots, less than fifteen or twenty, Skipper. Can't tell for sure yet. Got a course, though- straight for the Line." Now he did look up, enthusiasm bubbling through tension and the starch and polish of a new-minted trainee. "Looks like you were right, Sir."
"Uh huh." Archer looked at the scope for a moment longer, then up at the big transparent board where a plotter was already entering the contact. "I thought if we dangled a predictable hole in coverage they'd try something cute on the new moon. That's how we catch 'em in the Africa Patrol, Mister Bartlett." He patted the boy on the shoulder, then turned back to the bridge, pitching his voice to carry.
"Officer of the Deck, bring her fifteen degrees to port and go to flank speed. Tell Flag we are in hot pursuit. Sound general quarters for surface action, silent mode." Moments after he heard the OOD repeat his orders, Archer felt the deck shifting under his feet as his command surged forward and heard the sounds of scrambling feet from the ship's main deck and inside the CIC. He pulled his flotation vest and steel helmet from their locker and busied himself with buckling them on, listening with half an ear as the bridge talker repeated station reports. It took much longer for Yarrow to close up for action this way, with the word being passed by phone and messenger rather than by a screaming klaxon over the ship's PA system, but it did have one advantage. On a clear night like this the sounds of sirens could carry a long way over water, and Archer didn't want to chance spooking the game.
Twenty minutes later, Yarrow had slowed back down to a crawl, creeping up the last few miles towards her targets as they drew near the Line. She had managed to cut across their course, putting herself between the dozen or so small boats out there and their objective. Her big diesels were shut down, the ship creeping forward on electric drive. Forward of the bridge, the 3-inch rapid-fire mount was indexing towards unseen targets in the darkness, while forward of it the destroyer's lone big 5" gun pointed at the sky. Along the sides of the ship, men stood ready behind splinter shields, aiming 40mm grenade launchers or 20mm Oerlikon cannon. The torpedo aiming stations were manned, although firing a fish at the size of craft that were out there would be like shooting a dragonfly with a .45. Aft on her fantail, beneath the muzzles of her second 3" rapid mount, her Marine boarding squad waited near their whaleboat while bluejackets stood by the depth charge racks. Yarrow was ready for whatever the night might bring to her.
"All stations set, Cap'n." Lieutenant Delacour, his exec, puffed up from damage control central where he had been monitoring the ship's progress towards battle stations. Delacour was the son of a fisherman from the U.S. state of Santo Domingo, soft-spoken and capable of improvising a magnificent steel drum set out of virtually anything on liberty days. Tonight he was all business as he peered out into the darkness, letting his eyes adjust from the dim red light of belowdecks. "Think we gettin' some trade t'night?"
"Yeah." Archer scanned the horizon with his binoculars, aware of the exec doing the same next to him. Delacour eschewed the use of artificial magnification, claiming that by cutting down your field of view you lost as much as you gained. Navy regulations and the laws of physics said he was wrong, but somehow he managed to pick out contacts in the dimness just as quickly as regular hands. "Right about…"
"…There." Captain and XO spoke at the same moment, as a gaggle of small boats emerged from the darkness, cutting across Yarrow's path on their way in towards the Line.
Archer swung himself down from his bridge chair. "Take the conn, XO. Nice and quiet." No need for more direction than that. Delacour had been out on the Africa Patrol almost as long as he had and was more than ready for his own command. Ray Archer swung out onto the bridge wing, crowding the lookout who was already there, and leaned forward onto the railing with his binoculars up against his eyes. With the luxury of a few minutes in hand, he began to plot out how he would take his prey.
The boats would be built for speed with retrofitted aircraft engines, and would probably scatter as soon as he challenged them. They could outrun Yarrow, eventually, but not his shells. It was unlikely they'd carry anything that could hurt his ship, but the possibility always had to be allowed for. He'd try to drift close without letting them see him, get between them and the far shore they were trying to reach, and trust in his guns to smash anything that looked like too much of a threat. Very likely he'd smash them all to matchwood and bits of floating metal, with nothing worse on his ship than jangled nerves.
Wearily, Archer reached into his breast pocket and drew out a cigarette, stepping inside before he used his electric coil lighter to set it going. God damn these people anyway. Even if they made it past the Patrol, they'd get in no more than one or two fast raids ashore before the local reaction forces chased them out. Then there would be the Patrol again on the way out. Even if they made it, the most they would do would be to smash a few farms up, kill the families there, perhaps shoot up a town. Just enough to make the people there hate them even more while changing nothing at all.
Then again, the people who manned those boats had never forgotten their warrior heritage. This was about honor for them, and pride, and revenge for the world they'd lost. Archer didn't see any of that changing soon.
Yarrow was pulling in front of the boats now, less than a mile away as they bore off her bow. Through his binoculars Archer could see one of them stop, perhaps trying to make out a half-there silhouette in their path. Time!
"Now!" Archer grabbed the loud-hailer microphone off its clips as the bridge talker repeated the word into his headset. The forward 5" mount let out a low, flat boom, then another. Star shells burst over the ocean with deadly radiance, and Ray Archer's voice boomed over the water like an angry deity's.
"Unidentified vessels, this is U.S. Navy warship operating under the International Quarantine Enforcement Authority! You are in violation of the Exlcusion Zone and are directed to heave to immediately! If you continue you will be fired upon and sunk without warning!" The boats stopped, and Archer's lip curled. They were waiting for Yarrow to board one of them, so the rest could take off for their target. Well, he'd seen this one before.
"Launch the whaleboat. Tell 'em to pick a big one and expect the usual." The fast motorboat swung out from Yarrow's quarterdeck and cut out towards one of the larger raiding craft. Its crew were all Marine Boarding Party men, piratical customers who favored automatic rifles, sawed-off shotguns and .45s, punch daggers and bush knives and the occasional cutlass, men who had never passed inspection or failed combat. If Archer had to leave them for an hour or two, he was confident they could hold off any three of the raiders- for that matter, if the rest of them somehow sank Yarrow they would probably capture a boat, sail to the flagship, and report him missing.
The whaleboat pulled up along the raider, and Archer tensed. Any minute now. Sometimes a very stupid or very canny flotilla master would let him take one or two boats, try to tempt him into pulling Yarrow up to speed up the boardings. That had worked, once.
The sounds of a scuffle carried across the water, muffled shots and a body that let out a long wail before plunging overboard from the captured raider into the warm Indian Ocean. As if that had been a signal, the dozen other boats roared their engines and burst apart like a knocked-over anthill, scattering away from the escort and heading for their goal. Archer didn't need to give an order. The 5" mount boomed again, putting up fresh light to kill by, then swung its barrel down to track one of the targets. The three-inchers opened up with their high, flat crack sound, twin barrels pushing forward and back as they sent streams of shells out into the night. The first boat blew up, then another. One drew near their port side as they came around, wicking the air with machine gun tracers, and Archer heard the hollow thudding sound of the grenade launchers sweeping the open boat clean and the high chatter of the Oerlikons cutting it into driftwood. Delacour had already brought the bow around and had the diesels howling as they gave chase.
"Sonar contact!" The call from CIC brought Archer's head whipping around. His voice was high, almost a scream as he cried back,
"Where? Whereaway?" An eternal moment, then the sonarman's voice came back.
"Port quarter, solid contact! Range five hundred yards, depth about sixty feet!" Archer cursed, then waved to Delacour.
"Ring her down and bring her about, Ed. Sub on the port quarter. Stand by depth charges, sixty feet." Yarrow heeled over into a turn, her forward 3" mount falling silent as her bow turned away from the fleeing targets. Archer cursed venomously under his breath. He'd heard reports that the raiders were starting to use midget submarines, but never encountered one up until now. If he let it go now odds were he'd never reacquire, but stopping to drop depth charges meant at least some of those boats would get away.
"Radio, get on the horn." Archer looked over his shoulder, towards the last of the fleeting boats. As his ship's bow swung around into her depth charge run, the 5" mount fired and one flared into a fireball, but four more headed in for the coast. "Tell the Snakes they have company coming."
August 4, 1964 2157 Hours
Firebase Mamba, Northeast Madagascar
Centurion Pietr Ellis was out of his bunk and running across the open ground of the firebase before his mind had a chance to switch from asleep to awake. Around him his troopers were doing the same thing, pounding out of the thatch-roof reaction shelters and over to their vehicles. By the time Ellis finished strapping himself into the commander's seat of his Hyena scout car, the entire column was showing their ready lights and the sentries were already sliding the perimeter gate aside. A tortured squealing of tires against cracked pavement, and Century D of the First Reaction Cohort went screaming off into the night.
Ellis fitted the microphone of his vehicle crewman's helmet in front of his lips and slammed the plug jack home into the commander's console. He keyed the mic.
"On line, Centurion." Jenny White's voice was cool as ever, though Ellis knew her heart had to be hammering just as hard as anyone's. "Got Cohort on the line fo' you."
"Blessings. Patch me through." There was a click, then Ellis started up again. "Mamba Den, this is Flashfire. Say again, Mamba Den, this is Flashfire. We are rollin' and golden, what's the emergency?"
"Flashfire, this is Mamba Den." Sweet Nothing, that sounded like the bad old man himself. "Just got a flash off a damnyank destroyer. Bushmen comin' in, four boats got past 'em and headin fo' the beach. Cuttin' party, most like." Ellis cursed venomously under his breath. Philosophically speaking, he found it hard to blame the former slaves of the Domination of the Draka and their children for wanting revenge on their former masters- were the positions reversed, he imagined he'd be after much the same. It was rather hard to take that view, though, when that impulse took concrete form and started sailing speedboats from the Sultanate of Greater Zanzibar to try for Draka ears. It had gotten especially hard over the past couple years, since the ongoing ratfuck in Indonesia had diverted the Yankees' attention and weakened the Quarantine. Five years ago, not one raid in twenty would have gotten to the Draka enclave of Madagascar, and ten years before nobody had even been trying.
"Ah, roger that Mamba Den. Any eyeballs out there?"
"That's a negative on that, Flashfire. We got the C50 on patrol and divertin' to search, but nothin' yet from the coastwatchers. The course we got from the Yankees indicates Sector III, anywhere from Dragon Green to Fox Red Sectors. Use your discretion." Ellis grimaced. Among many other restrictions great and small, the Draka were forbidden by the Treaty of London to operate heavier than air craft. The Air Corps did the best they could with their blimps and a few rigids, but they couldn't make them fast. Unless they got very lucky, he was going to have to guess where to put his men and hope to play catch up after the bushmen landed. Just what he needed.
"Roge-doge, wait one, Mamba Den." He switched over to the century net and keyed his mic. "Flashfire Guides, this is Actual. Head to Eland Black dispersal point and start workin' secondaries for Dragon Green to Fox Red." A murmur of acknowledgements, his scouts fanning out to guide the Century to its goal. "Max Flashfire units, this is Actual. Company comin'. Get hot, Draka." Click-click, and he was back on with Cohort. "We on the way, Den. Any mo' good news?"
"Some." The Cohortarch sounded darkly amused. "Alert Net workin', all settlements in the area acknowledgin' and mobilizin'. C Century mountin' up now, B standin' to, and yo' have first call on artillery." The old man sighed. "I know that ain't much, Pete, but it's all we got. Get it done."
"We'll get it done, Sir." Not much else they could do.
Ten minutes later, they were all laagered at the rally point waiting for the first call to come through. The night was split open with the throaty growl of idling diesels from the armored cars, muffling the softer hiss of the steam-powered personnel carriers and the metallic clicks of weapons coming up to the ready. No one spoke unless they had to. Any minute now-
"Flashfire, Flashfire, this is Sentry Dragon Black. Two contacts comin' in, heading fo' the beach at my sector. Request backup." Before Ellis could key his mic to reply, the emergency push sounded again. "All units, all units, we have a confirmed landing in Fox Green sector. Outlyin' settlements report they under attack." Shitfire. That was another problem- the bushmen had been getting better and better at coordinating their attacks lately.
"Right. Flashfire Fourth, head to Dragon Black. Hold 'em and call up help from the reserves if yo' need it." With a squeal of tires, his four Scorpion combat cars pulled out of the laager and headed off for the beach. The Draka Archonate didn't really have tanks or the need for them, but the Scorpions' long-barrel 90mm guns should be able to deal with the incoming boats before they could land. "Flashfire First, Second, Third and Guides, Fox Green. Let's go, people!"
Ellis could hear the cracking of small arms and the occasional burping rip of a machine gun long before the settlement of Fisherman's Bend came into view up ahead. Sounded like a fair amount of fire, which was bad. Two boats left, which could have meant a Tetrarchy's worth of raiders or considerably more, depending on how big they were and how close the raiders were willing to pack themselves for the run over to Madagascar. By the sound of it they were already in among the outlying farms and heading for the town center, mixing it up with the militia along the way. Have to do things the old-fashioned way, then.
"Max Flashfire units, this is Actual. Dismount an' quick advance, Draka. Don' let nobody by yo', and don' stop for nothin' till we have these sumbitches back in the water. First and Second Tetrarchies up, Third back. Yo' know the drill, now move!" As the Century pulled into the center of town, it seemed to break open and swarm like a shattered hornet's nest. The two SP automortars, mounted on Hyena chassis, braked into the town center and started setting up. The big Buffalo halftrack transports stopped, molting infantry that quickly spread out into skirmish order, then started forward again with the muzzles of the heavy machine guns mounted on their cab roofs turning back and forth alertly. The Hyena scouts did the same, ready to lay heavy rocket-gun fire on any strong points that might present themselves. D Century plunged ahead into the burning night.
Thorn Hollow Farm, Madagascar
Yolande Ingolfsson was very quiet. She had to be, because that was what Father and Mother had said when they put her down the hole. The Bushmen were coming and Father and Mother had to go fight to keep them away, but Yolande was only nine and a half and wasn't allowed to do that yet. She was old enough to wait by herself, though, carrying the stiletto she'd gotten as a present last birthday, and Father said that was enough for now. Even if she couldn't fight, she could free another Draka to fight, and that was all a nine and a half year old could do.
Yolande turned on her pen light and looked at her watch. That had been her other present when she turned nine, a real Forces-issue watch that Mother had helped her sink with her parents before they went away. Yolande wasn't sure what it was supposed to sink into, but it made her feel good to know she was seeing the same time as her parents. They had told her to wait until they came back, or for three hours before she went for help. That sounded like a long time to her, but she had to be very sure the bushmen were gone before she came out.
She'd asked her parents why the bushmen came, a long time ago, but she hadn't asked again. Father and Mother had both gotten hard looks on their faces, and said that it was because of bad things they did a long time ago, things that made the bushmen angry. Yolande wasn't sure what her Father and Mother had done, but she hoped it was nothing too bad. Maybe the bushmen wouldn't be too angry.
Thump. The floorboards above her head shook as someone stepped onto them, pacing through the house. Thump. Thump. Yolande looked up, wide-eyed. Was it Father and Mother already? It hadn't even been one whole hour yet, and they'd said…
There was a loud crashing from up above, and a burst of quiet laughter. Bushmen! Bushmen were wrecking the house, and the thought made Yolande flush with anger. She remembered what Mother had said, though. Her job was to stay quiet, let the adults fight, and not cause problems. So she bit down on her lip and waited, while the crashing continued. Waited, while the floorboards kept creaking and she heard blades pushing into them, looking for any secret doors. Like the one to her shelter.
Waited, to see who would come to get her.
August 5, 1964 0530 Hours
Archona Nova, Madagascar
Sophie von Shrakenberg found her husband on the roof of the Archonal Residence, looking east out over the Indian Ocean as the sun rose. For a moment she remembered another morning, almost twenty years before, when she'd watched another sunrise with him in what seemed like another world. In the years since she'd learned that finding her husband absent from their bed when she woke was a bad thing. Eric came to watch the sunrise when he wanted to be alone, and that usually meant something bad had happened.
"Sophie." He didn't look back at her anymore- just knew she was there.
"Eric." She settled in next to her, leaning against the wrought-iron railing. "What happened?" For a moment all she could think of was their little family, and a moment of fear gripped her heart. "Something happen to Anna? Marie or Johnny?" Eric shook his head.
"Not quite that near, but close. 'Nother raid last night, up in the northeast." A long pause, and Sophie felt her body clench as she realized what was coming. "They hit Thorn Hollow. Reaction Century pulled Yolande out of the shelter, but Johanna and Tom, they-" He broke off, and Sophie wrapped her arms around him, silencing him before his grief could drive him to shame. After a moment she asked,
"How soon is she coming?" He looked over at her, shrugged.
"Well, I thought I would ask before I inflicted a nine year old-"
"And so yo' did, Centurion." Sophie shook her head, voice dry and bemused. "And thank yo', but I am not going to make yo' orphaned niece sleep on the streets. We'll find a way."
"Thank you." Eric nodded, once, then looked off at the horizon. When he spoke again, his voice was full of tears.
"We've got to stop doing this to each other, Sophie. We can't keep on doing this!" Sophie nodded, and kept her peace. It was the same thing Eric said after every raid, if a little more plaintive than usual. She was too wise to speak when she had no words that would help. He was too wise to expect words when there could be none.
And they were both too Draka to think that every problem had a solution