Thursday, December 18, 2008

Return to Fusang: When all else fails, attacking remains an option

Directly follows from HERE | Meanwhile... | Meanwhile...

I'm torn between firing at the Marines landing just upriver of the Bridge City and running back and forth to the South side of the bridge to signal to the oncoming flotilla. I can't do two things so I wave at Shea to come out on the bridge. He complies by dashing out with five bandits armed with a collection of weapons. I explain the situation to him and he nods, taking up a firing position behind some rubble and directing fire at the Marines landing. He's a damned fine shot, if a little wet behind the ears. Even at this distance, I see the bos'un at the back of the whaleboat leap up and fall into the water, clutching his chest. It's critical we slow their advance AND maintain the fiction that the bridge is mined and we will blow it at any provocation.

The firing from the secondary batteries on the Iron River Dragon starts to intensify as the ship ponderously noses around in a long curve, bringing its two giant main batteries to bear directly at the center of the bridge. They still aren't firing with the big guns yet.

Looking South my spirits soar as I see the tiny fleet of shallow draft paddle wheel steamers chugging up to the bridge city, their decks crowded with Celestial soldiers in brick red uniforms. Obviously this is the vanguard of the Army of Progressive Peace, and Feng has stolen a march on his opposite number in Fusang, General Yen. I fancy that killing one of the foreign observers in the Land Dragon slowed Yen's advance to a crawl. Fred is a very competent engineer from what I have seen, but he is no great leader of men I trust he isn't in charge at the moment.

On the lead riverboat, I make out a shape I can recognize. A shabby green coat, bottle green glasses, panama hat and handlebar mustache. He is standing next to a florid giant of a man wearing a rather absurd tam-o-shanter. It's Mason, here, in the middle of the back of beyond. He is pointing a spy glass in my direction. This IS good news! The Progressives are getting excited-- the musicians (musicians??) on the riverboats start up a good old fashioned Chinese caterwaul-- banging on gongs and cymbals, shooting off fireworks. I can't help but laugh a bit-- here, at least, was someone who enjoyed the traditional Chinese ways of going to war. I wave the makeshift red flag more energetically, until I am sure the troops on the Texas deck can see me. I gesture to the North side of the bridge excitedly, then point to the shore. The riverboats are made out of wood, and would not stand up to even a single shot from the River Monitor's main gun.

Running back to the north side of the bridge, I can see that perhaps our ruse may not last much longer. The white-coated marine force have landed and are forming up for a bayonet charge into the north section of Bridge City, being held by a paltry force of bandits with pea-shooters and limited ammo. Chen runs up, panting, with a bandoleer of bullets and the small rapid fire gun.

"Comrade Yao states that you can get a better angle on the white sailormen from here, Long Nose"

"He's right, too! We need to set this up at once!"

With Shea providing covering fire, we set up the rapid fire gun and commence firing at the party of marines. At least they do us the honor of scrambling for cover in a hasty fashion; we manage to down nary a one, but we have slowed them down. That's the GOOD news. The bad news is that now I can distinctly hear the two rear main turrets cranking up-- they are clearly aiming at the bridge now. I have just enough time to shout a strangled "Duuuuuck!" when the nearer gun belches fire and smoke with a loud HOOOOOM! I dive for the ground covering my head with my hands.. only to hear the WHOOOOOOOSH of the giant projectile lobbing over the bridge to land on the other side. I can't run over to see where it fell but it's clear that the River Dragon is firing over the bridge in hopes of hitting targets beyond-- the Riverboats. Then I hear distant WHAM! SWOOOSH! And a water spout appears over the South railing of the bridge. How could that be? How had the River Dragon seen them? As if supplying a mocking answer, I look up, alerted by the whirrring sewing-machine sound again. The kite-thing is back-- high in the air, circling above the river fleet. As I watch, it launches a red rocket I can just hear go off as a distant popping noise. That damned flying thing! It is acting as a flying artillery observer for the River Monitor! There's not much I can do from this distance-- the pea shooter I'm firing with hardly has the range.. then an idea hits me!

Maintaining a steady, if somewhat ineffectual fire on the marines, I motion to Chen and explain the plan to him in short sentences. He grins, and is off again, like a wild rabbit, his green ex-Fusang uniform rather distinctive against the bridge background. I cross my fingers, as the secondaries from the upper decks of the Monitor stitch a deadly pattern of misses directly behind him as he runs. Yao leans a head and shoulders out of the upper story of the bank. I point up above at the Kite-Thing circling around. He understands at once and his head bobs up and down vigorously.

Shortly thereafter a team of two Jingal-men appear outside the bank and set up their long, outrageous weapon in anti-aircraft mode.

In case you have never seen one of these ancient siege weapons, they are a two man "small cannon" in musket form, originally used in siege warfare and castle defense. They have become en vogue in recent years for punching through armor on vehicles and smashing down doors at strong points. What the lack in portability and accuracy, they make up in sheer punch. A Jingal bullet is the size a water-glass, and can punch a giant hole in a wooden door, but the bullet is relatively slow. This would be tricky work. Chen tries to spot for them... the first shot is wide, and the second.. I shout, impatiently, in bad Mandarin: "LEAD them, you fools! LEAD them! The Flying Kite Thing is faster than your bullet.! You must shoot ahead of them, slightly!" They bob their heads nervously, and try again. CRAAAAAACK!!! A hit! The top "windsail"? "windvane?" "Steering Vane"? Gives way suddenly, and the Kite-thing flip flops over and over spiraling down into the forest beyond the river on the South Side. The Bandits AND the men on the riverboats (from what I can hear) are yelling excitedly. "AIiiiiiiiyah! A hit! You are a clever fellow, Huan! Well done!"

I go back to providing covering fire for the bandits. The marines have abandoned their bayonet charge and have scattered to skirmish order, which makes them harder to hit at a distance. They are advancing in leapfrog bounds, one squad of ten covering the other two as they advance. Well trained, these. I suspect the Prussians again. One bandit topples off the roof, then another, then another. I am running low on ammo for the quick firing gun, now at the last bandoleer. As I busily reload, I feel a hand on my shoulder. I look down, and see that it is huge, and freckled. I spin around, and a cup is thrust into my hands. As I sip, I stare up at a kilted giant of a man. "You ordered COFFEE, laddy?" I sip gratefully, and realize it is liberally dosed with whiskey. Gods! But that is good. After months of living on rice and fish and water.. But I must be sociable.

"You have the advantage of me, sir! Hotspur O'Toole is the name, late Lieutenant Colonel in the First Caledon Lancers!"

"Och, aye, and more besides that, but we're not telling.." he wheezes. "Angus Glitterach is me name, of Edinborough. Airship Cap'n and Explorer. I've heard stories of you. Looks as if ye have a fight on your hands here, and no mistake!"

"That wouldn't be the half of it." I gesture. "See that? That's a German River Monitor with 8 inch Krupp guns. If they WANT to, they can turn this bridge into slag. That makes me think there's a large Fusang army nearby that wants this bridge intact. But they havent' shot at the bridge yet, possibly because I've tricked them into thinking we mined it. They HAVE landed marines on the north shore over yonder, and they're proving deucedly hard to kill at the moment, with the weapons on hand. I have a small force of bandits and refugees in the remains of the north village there, underarmed and rapidly running out of ammunition. Ideas?"

"I may have something up my sleeve", says a new, very familiar voice, as a figure with a panama hat and handlebar moustache heaves into sight from behind the massive Glitterach, accompanied by a squad of the brick-red soldiers.

"Doctor Mason! Good lord, man, what brings YOU to the back of beyond, like this? You are most welcome!" We shake hands enthusiastically.

"Trust you to leave Steelhead in chains, disappear, and be found on the other side of the world, leading an insurrection!" Mason grins sardonically.

"I confess, it wasn't in my plans to do so-- these things just seem to happen to me."

"Aye, they certainly do. Fortunately we are here to assist at a key moment, it seems. What are the targets of opportunity?"

"The Marines. The Giant Metal River Dragon.. er.. River Monitor, yonder"

"Hmm. not a moment to lose, then. Here, both of you help me here..."

Ducking from the incessant spattering gunfire from the River Dragon, Glitterach and I help him unship and assemble a series of connecting gold metal rods of increasing girth, so the assembled pole, about 8 feet long, tapered slightly. Then we set it up on a tripod, bracing the feet. Mason grabs the thick end and sights down it the pole.. and turns to me. "Which target, Hotspur? We've got ONE shot at this!"

"The marines! As many as you can get..."

Doctor Mason crouches over the end of pole-thing, and starts chanting in a sibilant, yet guttural voice, in a tongue that contained a few familiar words but is on the whole indiscernible. Gradually a glowing red nimbus forms on the thick end, steadily glowing at first, then sparking on and off, running up the pole and down again, and the faint hummmm of the contraption grows to an almost roar, when suddenly we are rocked by a huge BOOOOOOOOOOOM!! as a giant arc of red fire leaps from the narrow end of the pole and arcs over to the Marine force.. most of them are caught up in the weird, eldritch red fire and even from a distance, it appears sickening to see them dance with electrical discharge like so many excited puppets.

Of the force of 60 men (approximately) there appear to be ten left, standing in stunned silence.

"Gods above, Man! What hell-spawn IS that thing? "

"Staff of Ra," Mason grins smugly. "Takes forever to charge. "

Even Glitterach is impressed. "Och, laddy, that was something your Da nebber taught you and make no mistake!"

The remaining Fusang marines have dropped their rifles and have their hands up, obviously upset. Suddenly a secondary battery in the top cupola of the River Dragon swivels around and stitches across them, right and left, and all of them collapse to the ground, killed or wounded. So much for surrendering to the enemy as a soldier of Fusang.

"That's bad news, then?" asks Mason.

"It might be. The Captain may loose patience any second now and start firing."

As if prescient, the top most main battery swivels, aims and fires, in about as much time as it takes to tell it. This time, they land a shell directly on top of the bank building holding Yao and some other bandits. The roof collapses, messily.

I frown, remembering Yao's words about not seeking a death in service to the Western powers, and yet, that is just what occurred.

"Can't cross over, can't advance against it.. the big Egyptian boom-stick is spent.. What to do?" I asked the company.

"Perhaps we can help.. " says yet another voice, this time from a lean, ascetic looking Englishman, and his huge companion, dressed in aviator flying gear. They are accompanied by a youthful, but serious looking Chinese officer in brick red robes. Was this General Feng? It was. Introductions all around. The Englishmen are a government functionary type named Nayland Smith (whose name I've read in the Far East Review from time to time) and an Aviator named Biggles. The Chinese man is indeed General Feng.

I bow respectfully upon meeting him, and he returns it.

Smith begins.. "They are currently advancing against the current at a low rate of speed to maintain position, with the stern of their ship toward us. To do this, they need rudder, the top part of which is discernible from here, the river being low. We have some portable artillery that won't be able to penetrate that ship's armor, but might impair their steering".

"What sort of artillery?"

"2.5 inch Mountain Guns, mostly"

"Oho! The old Pom Pom Guns!"

Feng nods. "British Surplus. Very accurate"

I nod, delighted. "I am familiar with the ordinance in question. It has been a few years since I have used it, though."

Feng says "Our Gunners are quite proficient, Colonel. Let us demonstrate our drill for you."
No need, Sir. Let us demonstrate on yonder Iron behometh!

The conversation is punctuated by another shelling of the North side of the bridge, this one landing in the town square, creating a giant dust and debris cloud.

The Pom Pom Gun team is as proficient as advertised. They perform the assembly drill in almost the same amount of time as a British Gun Crew; certainly as well as the old EVA gunners used to manage. Smith sights along the barrel.

"Word of Warning, Smith.. that Captain has been here for three hours, waiting for the field army to show up. He may be getting excited. I suggest you make your shots count."

He gives me an odd, withering look. Oh, I know that look. Doesn't like to be lectured by an Irishman, does he? Oh well, he can play at being in charge then.

I find myself mouthing the commands silently as Smith attempts to adopt a heroic stance, pointing at the stern of the River Monitor.


POM! (they didn't call this the Pom Pom Gun for nothing)

SPANNNNG!!! The round ricochets off the steal taffrail of the river monitor. The crew needs to decrease elevation 1 notch and correct to the left about a yard. The effect on the Monitor crew is electric. They think they are facing some quick firing automatic guns, the artillery, small as it is, is a new wrinkle. Even at this distance, we can see them diving for cover.

Again, then!



The report isn't much, but it is a square hit and a small explosion. When the smoke clears, it's clear that the shot had achieved its goal: not much in the way of actual damage, but the top part of the rudder is bent sideways from the explosion and broken off its fitting. The Monitor, which had been firing in a desultory way towards the shore, is now a beehive of activity. Even at this distance I can hear the captain frantically ringing for full speed ahead.

Tsk, tsk.. running from a little Pom-Pom gun?? This is the vanguard of Fusang's naval future?

The River Dragon gets the steam up, and attempts full speed ahead upriver. The effect is almost comical. Slowly, the boat describes a long circle in the Yalu, fighting against the current, and when it arrives at the bottom of the circle, the captain can be seen frantically tugging at the wheel, trying to free the rudder. He's not noticing what the rest of us are.. The River Monitor has executed an almost 360 degree turn and is stuck at an angle heading upriver somewhat, but mostly perpendicular to us-- and the boat is drifting inexorably right towards our position on the bridge.

Feng blows harshly on his whistle three sharp blasts. In Mandarin, he barks out orders... three squads of the brick red soldiers arrive, armed with parangs, temple swords and short pikes. I don't have a cutlass, so I make do with a Chinese sword-- far more decorative than I like, and balanced oddly. It'll do, I think.. making a few swishes in the air. I check my pistol. Three bullets left. Doctor Mason is priming a giant clockwork gun of some sort, and Angus has a pump shotgun.

I see the captain clearly at last, a thin, spruce looking gent, looking up with eyes in wide astonishment as his River Monitor, almost at level with our position on the bridge, strikes with a grinding, rending crash against bridge. Almost at once, a wave of Brick Red Progressives, Bandits, myself, Doc Mason, Glitterach and le Favre leap across the taff rail.

The captain had gambled by placing his entire Marine detachment on shore, and now he had lost-- there was nobody left on board to provide shipboard defense. What is left is the core engineering and gunnery crews, as well as some officers. Once we are 'inside the perimeter' and they can't shoot at us from a great distance, we make short, bloody work of them.

It takes all of 20 minutes to hunt down the last handful of crewmen, and hold them prisoner at sword's point.

Glitterach, Mason, LeFevre, Smith, Biggles, Feng and two of his officers meet me on the bridge.

Feng is looking around him in wonder.

"Think of it as the flagship of the Army of Progressive Peace, General." I say, a tad grandiloquent.

Feng nods to his officers, one of which spreads a map out on the chart table. It is suprinsingly good; far more detailed than any I had seen of the Yalu before this. Feng points to a mark on the Yalu, about 80 miles form Fusang.

"This is where we are." He gestures again, to a point 20 miles inland. "this is where I estimate the main army of the Fusang Field Force to be. They are approaching this point rapidly."

"Naturally" grunts Smith. "They wish to seize this bridge. It will be our duty to defend it".

The officers nod, not looking thrilled with the prospect.

"How many men do you have under arms in that flotilla, General?"

"Around 6000 Infantry, 10 small batteries of artillery, 2 squadrons cavalry. There are more downriver, but this is the most we could bring on such short notice." Feng said, giving Smith an arch look.

"Against a field force estimated to be 10 to 12 thousand? It's doable, I suppose. They won't be all in one spot.. this army doesn't march that fast, I've noticed. If you can hit the head, or better yet, the tail of that column, then retreat.. then hit again, you'll have a chance. I wish there was some force that could pin them down, though..."

Smith suggests: "Suppose we take up a defensive position on the North side here, with the Monitor supporting us? We would have firepower, then."

Feng, surprisingly, is dead set against it. "I did not mobilize the Army of Progressive Peace to avoid a decisive battle, Mr. Smith. We must meet the enemy on the field of battle and decisively defeat him, one way, or the other."

I interrupt. "I have a third option, perhaps."

They all look up, sharply.

"We repair the rudder, which is damaged but servicable.. although it will take longer to fix than we have time before the Fusang Field Force arrives. I suggest we put some of our Chinese nationals in the Fusang Navy uniforms, keep a small force of Progressives and Bandits below decks, and sail this ship right up to the Capital itself. Meanwhile, General Feng fights a hit and run battle with the FFF down here."

Feng's eyes widen. "What do you wish to accomplish, Colonel?"

I turn on him, excitedly. "Don't you sense it, General?? NOW is the time.. The Dragon who Waits has sent all his forces abroad.. abroad to smash YOU and carry on to Kowloon. How many forces can he possibly have in his capital now? A thousand? two? He CANNOT defend everywhere all at once. NOW! We strike at the snake's head NOW!

I can tell he is intrigued by this possibility. "Assuming you can sail up to the dock..." he is interrupted, rather rudely, by Smith. "Preposterous, sir! You could never pulls this off in a thousand years!"

Feng holds his hand up... "Mr. Smith, need I remind you who commands here?"

"er.. no, sir, forgive me.. but his suggestion endangers any position of retreat we could manage on this river! If we lose in the field, we will need this bridge to cross and we will need the Monitor to hold it"

Feng looks troubled, but looks up, a decisive tone in his voice. "I have decided, my friend."

Turning to me: "What will you need?"

"Engineers to fix the rudder as fast as humanly possible. A small field gun, perhaps two.. those Pom-Poms will suffice. We will need them for the assault on the palace. And about 100 picked men. I only wish Yao had survived to see this, he would have liked to have taken part."

"Oh, but he has, Colonel!" In marches a grinning Yao, his arm bandaged and head in a sling.

"YAO! My God, man, are ye hurt? The building fell in on you!"

"Oh, I have the luck of a Celestial, Long Nose." Turning to the General:

"Captain Yao, Second Ever Victorious Army, reporting, sir"

We all laugh.

Doctor Mason chimes in. "Well, O'Toole, this sounds like a mad enterprise, almost certain death, with little chance of success. naturally, I'm in."

"Aye, me too, Laddy! You have the devil's luck, for an Irishman, and I mean to see it through!" rumbles Glitterach.

Sir? a quiet voice behind me asks. It is Shea. He looks positively shame-faced.

"I was wondering.. erm.. if I might accompany General Feng? Perhaps I am a novice at Field Intelligence Work, but the Army of Progressive Peace is about to engage in a form of warfare that I DO know, intimately.. when I was a cavalryman in the late unpleasantness, this was the sort of hit and run warfare that we excelled at" He mumbles... "Perhaps I could be useful..."

"Hell's Bells, Shea, it's fine by me if it's fine by the General!" Feng nods, granting permission.
"But don't you getting yourself killed, you hear me? The Duchess will beat me about the head and shoulders if we bring you back in a tar sack!"

"Nothing personal, sir, but I think the odds are with ME this time.. " he returns, seriously.

"To work then!" cries Feng, and we scurry off, to take charge of our various tasks.

Followed by HERE (about 20 hrs. later)

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