Knaves over queens, p.30
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       Knaves Over Queens, p.30

         Part #26 of Wild Cards series by George R. R. Martin

  The sunrise was almost beautiful. Rory watched the scene in the Sound below from the hilltop observation post. Most of the troops had landed by the time the sun peered over the mountaintops to the east, and now the landing ships unloaded the heavy equipment, vehicles and light armour. Out in Falkland Sound, the frigates had taken up station in a rough line that extended for several miles. Any enemy plane coming up the Sound would have to run the gauntlet of their air defences before they got to the transports, but the frigates would also have to bear the brunt of the bombing runs.

  ‘Tea, sir,’ one of the SAS men said behind him. Rory turned to see that the commandos had set up their personal folding stoves to heat water. The soldier handed him a mess tin that had steam rising from it.

  ‘Thank you, Sergeant.’ Rory took the hot tin, grateful to have something to warm himself up. The wind up here bit even through the many layers he was wearing. It was bearable if you moved around, but standing still and watching the horizon was freezing business.

  It was just after ten in the morning when the first Argentine plane appeared in the sky over Falkland Sound. A single jet popped over a mountain ridge to the southwest, changed course sharply, and dropped low over the water. The roar from its jet engines reverberated from the hillsides.

  ‘Light attack plane, bearing two-twenty, coming in right above the water,’ one of the SAS observers said, already tracking the target with the super-powered binoculars mounted on one of the tripods. ‘He’s got underwing ordnance.’

  Rory got behind the eyepiece of his own stationary binoculars. It took maddeningly long to find the plane through the high-power optics. The Argentine plane was a light jet, slender and graceful, with a pointy nose and bulbous tanks on the wingtips. It roared up the Sound at what had to be full throttle. There were cylindrical objects under the wings, but Rory couldn’t tell whether they were fuel tanks, bombs, or rocket pods. He focused his attention and felt the familiar light dizziness as the electromagnetic energy between him and the distant plane built up. Just as he was about to direct an EMP blast at the nose of the aircraft, the pilot pulled up from his suicidally low approach run, and Rory lost him with the binoculars as the plane rapidly gained altitude in the middle of the Sound.

  ‘Fuck!’ Rory shouted. He didn’t bother trying to reacquire the plane with the optics. Instead, he shielded the left side of his face with his hand against the morning sun and looked out over the Sound with just his eyes. By now, the Argentine plane was within half a mile of the southernmost ship in the screen.

  ‘He’s making a run on Argonaut,’ someone said behind him. ‘Take him down, take him down!’

  The Argentine plane levelled out and dipped its nose towards the water once more to line up whatever weapon he was about to release. There was a distant pop and a whooshing sound coming from the frigate, and an anti-air missile left the launcher mounted on the side of the ship. At the same time, Rory let loose a strong blast of EMP energy in the direction of the plane. It must not have been quite as focused as he had intended, because both the plane and the missile racing to meet it went haywire at the same time. The plane spun around its longitudinal axis until it flew inverted. The missile corkscrewed wildly and splashed harmlessly into the water five hundred yards from the frigate and its intended target. Rory knew that the pilot had just lost everything in his cockpit that had an electric wire connected to it – every screen, instrument, radio. He still had his flight controls, though, and he managed to roll the plane upright just a second or two before it hit the water. At this distance, Rory didn’t see the canopy blow off the plane’s fuselage just before the splash of the impact, but the orange and olive-green parachute canopy that bloomed in the sky a moment later was hard to miss. The pilot had managed to eject at the last second.

  ‘Splash one!’ an SAS lad shouted, and the rest of them cheered as if someone had scored at a football match. Except that Rory was trying for the opposite – he was there to stop anyone scoring. He was the goalkeeper right now.

  ‘Argonaut says they’ve lost their radar,’ the SAS radioman reported. ‘They are swapping positions with Antelope.’

  Whoops, Rory thought. The Argentine pilot hadn’t gotten any ordnance off before Rory shut him down, but part of Argonaut must have been caught in the slightly unfocused blast he had panic-fired at the attacking plane.

  The sounds of anti-aircraft gunfire and jet engines ebbed. Far out in the middle of Falkland Sound, Argonaut halted her forward motion, then started steaming backwards. Another frigate, presumably Antelope, had changed course and was heading towards Argonaut. The Argentine pilot’s parachute was in the water now, but the hull of Argonaut blocked Rory’s view of it. He hoped they were fishing the pilot out of the water before he drowned.

  The respite did not last very long. Maybe ten minutes later, the next Argentine plane appeared, and this one had brought company. The two-plane flight came over the ridge that bordered Falkland Sound and banked and dived at the task force at a much closer distance than the light recon plane that had come before them. These were much more lethal-looking, with triangular delta wings that had big bombs slung underneath, fighter planes obviously built for speed. This time, Rory didn’t bother waiting for someone to call out a bearing or a type designation. He focused on the first plane and pushed all the energy he could muster into the pointed nose cone of the fighter jet. There was a bright flash and a muffled explosion. The sound only reached Rory a few seconds later, and by then the enemy pilot had pulled his jet into a steep climb. Presented with such an easy target, the frigates and destroyers of the screening force didn’t need a special invitation. Heavy gunfire thundered across the Sound, half a dozen warships opening up with their gun mounts. Two of the frigates launched their Seacat missiles, which homed in on the stricken jet from two different directions. One shot past the plane and flew down Falkland Sound, where it splashed into the water far in the distance. The white smoke trail of the other Seacat converged with the plume of black smoke in the wake of the Argentine jet, which was still heavy with the bombs the pilot had failed to jettison. This time, Rory saw the canopy fly away from the sleek fuselage, and the pilot ejected just before the Seacat struck home and blew the plane apart in a brilliant plume of sparks and smoking parts.

  The second Argentine jet had barrelled on undeterred, and it was fast, so much faster than the little plane that had made the first attack run on the Argonaut. It banked to the right, fired flares, then banked to the left and past Argonaut, which was still going in reverse. Then the pilot pulled up the nose of his plane and pointed it at the next ship in the screening line on the Sound, a destroyer. Rory focused and blasted the jet like he had the first one, but he was a fraction of a second too late. Two bombs detached from the triangular wings of the Argentine jet and tumbled through the air towards the British destroyer. One bomb skipped off the water and bounced past the destroyer’s stern. The other one hit the hull in the aft quarter of the ship. Rory held his breath, expecting the huge explosion that was sure to follow. He could see the stern of the destroyer rocking from the impact of the heavy bomb, but it didn’t blow up. The Argentine jet, its nose section now on fire, made a valiant attempt to line up on another British ship, maybe to fire its cannon or ram it, but the plane was too low and the pilot had too little control of his craft left. One wingtip clipped the surface of the water, and the plane cartwheeled into the sea with an enormous splash. As quickly as this latest duo of attackers had appeared, silence descended over the Sound again.

  ‘Bomb didn’t go off,’ the SAS man next to Rory said in amazement. ‘They released too low. Didn’t give the fuse time to arm itself. Lucky buggers on that ship.’

  ‘Antrim confirms they got hit by a dud,’ the radioman called out. ‘No word on damage yet, but it holed the hull.’

  Rory sat down hard on the sandbags next to him. He felt as if he had the world’s worst case of vertigo.

  ‘Splash three,’ the SAS sergeant said. ‘Good job, mate. You okay?’

/>   ‘I can’t hold them off if they keep coming in like that,’ Rory replied.

  ‘Can’t you blast them all at once?’

  ‘Focus is too wide,’ Rory replied. ‘It’s like a flashlight, see. The wider you make the beam, the more gets caught in it. I try to do two or three planes at once, I’ll catch one of our ships in it too. They’re coming in too bloody low.’

  ‘They’ve got some guts, all right. Didn’t think they had it in them.’

  The battle had been on for fifteen minutes, and already Rory felt drained. Between him and the anti-air systems on the Navy ships, they had downed all three attacking aircraft, but two of the screening force ships were already damaged. Antrim had a hole in its hull, and Argonaut’s radar was out, probably because of his failure.

  Overhead, two Royal Navy Harriers thundered past and headed down Falkland Sound. Rory and the SAS sergeant watched them climb as they flew over the formation of warships assembled on the Sound, then peel off to the southwest in search of targets.

  ‘About time they turned up,’ the SAS sergeant said.

  The land battle around San Carlos was still being fought by the Royal Marines and the Army paratroopers. They could hear regular exchanges of small-arms fire from the hills on the far side of the inlet. The settlement of San Carlos wasn’t even big enough to be called a town. It was just a handful of buildings that looked like a very spread-out farm. Armoured vehicles in British camouflage were advancing past the houses and into the hills beyond, and the beach was bustling with activity.

  In the distance, Rory heard jet engines again. He hoped they belonged to the Harriers that had overflown them on their way south just a few minutes ago, but when the planes came over the hills to the southwest, their wings had triangle shapes, loaded with bombs. Rory saw the puffs from the cannons of the frigates on the south end of the formation as they started pumping shells towards the new attackers.

  ‘Incoming air!’ the SAS sergeant shouted. ‘Two Daggers, bearing two-three-zero. Here we go again.’

  Below them, Falkland Sound came alive once more with gunfire and the sound of anti-air missiles launching. Rory focused on the lead plane descending into the Sound and went back to work.

  For the next two hours, the Argentines came in like clockwork, a new pair of planes every ten minutes, then flights of four. Rory had never expended so much mental energy. Focusing his EMP blasts at targets several miles away took an enormous amount of concentration. He knocked down plane after plane, frying their electronics to slag and setting their wiring harnesses on fire. Most pilots ejected, but some went into the sea with their planes. And despite his best efforts, some of the Argentine jets still got close enough to strafe British ships with their guns or drop bombs. Most of the drops were misses, and almost all the rest didn’t go off because the Argentinians came in low to avoid the curtain of gunfire and Seacat missiles the fleet threw at them. Rory dropped two planes from a four-plane flight into the ocean with one forceful EMP blast, but watched in horror as the other two Argentine jets lined up on a frigate and peppered her superstructure with cannon fire. Rory blasted one of the jets out of the sky just as it pulled out of its attack run and started to climb away. Then two missiles streaked in out of nowhere and connected with the remaining Argentine attack jet. It disintegrated in a thunderous explosion that echoed across the Sound. The remains of the wreck, carried by the momentum of the jet, ploughed into the hillside at the other end of the inlet. A moment later two Harriers streaked across Rory’s field of vision. They split up and banked away, one west and one east.

  ‘Antelope is hit!’ the radio operator in the tent behind them shouted.

  ‘We can bloody well see that!’ the SAS sergeant next to Rory shouted back. Out on the water, smoke came from the superstructure of the damaged frigate. The cannon shells had managed to set something on the ship on fire. But she was still in the fight, radar antenna spinning and gun turrets turning to point back towards the southwest end of the Sound.

  Rory sat down on the sandbags with a groan. The SAS sergeant handed him a canteen, and he drank half of the water in one greedy gulp.

  ‘You’re doing brilliant,’ the sergeant said. He picked up a stick and pointed at a row of marks he had scratched into the earth next to his binocular tripod. ‘That was number thirteen out of fifteen.’

  ‘We downed fifteen planes this morning?’

  ‘You did. The Seacats and the Harriers got seven more. That’s twenty-two down. They really want us off this beach, don’t they?’

  ‘How many bloody aircraft do they have in their air force?’

  ‘I don’t know for sure, sir. But I think we’ll see most of them today at some point or another.’

  By the early afternoon, the Argentine planes had stopped coming. When an hour had passed without any attack runs, Rory allowed himself a little flash of optimism. Maybe they did run out of planes.

  The SAS captain in charge of the troop came up to Rory’s position.

  ‘The ships are offloaded. The marines are advancing south towards Goose Green. There’s a command post set up two klicks past the settlement,’ he said. ‘I suppose we can get off this hill now. Good work all round. You saved a lot of lives today.’

  Rory thought about all the planes that had splashed into the waters of the Sound below them before the pilots had had a chance to eject. But their planes had been carrying bombs, and the British warships, for all their martial looks and intimidating weapons-bristling presence, were fragile and staffed by a lot of sailors. A few lives traded for many, but it was still a grim trade when you were the one whose thumb tipped that scale.

  End Phase: Blood and Coffee

  Goose Green, East Falkland Island, May 25th, 1982

  Back home in Scotland, Goose Green would barely register on a map. On the Falklands it was a town – its third-biggest settlement, in fact – but it consisted of only about two dozen buildings, clustered on a little peninsula jutting into Falkland Sound. It reminded Rory of the remote towns in the Highlands, the ones with one shop and one pub supporting populations of a hundred people and a thousand sheep. But after a whole week of camping out on wind-blown hilltops all along the shoreline as the British troops made their way south, the place looked like civilization to Rory.

  While he was keeping away the Argentinian planes trying to make attacks on British ships and ground forces on their way south, the troops had prised Goose Green away from the Argentine troops that had dug in all around the town, and it had taken two bloody days and nights of hard fighting. But now the Union Jack was flying over the town hall again, there was a pile of surrendered Argentine rifles and machine guns sitting by the dock, and Rory stepped into a heated room for the first time since they had left Hermes to assault San Carlos.

  ‘There’s the walking weapons system,’ Major General Moore greeted him when he walked into the command post set up in an old farmhouse. ‘You have done fantastic work, Sub-Lieutenant.’ Instead of returning Rory’s salute, the general held out his hand. Rory accepted the handshake.

  ‘Thank you, sir. I think I could sleep for a month straight now.’

  The other officers and senior sergeants in the room, Army paratroopers and Royal Marines alike, looked just as tired as he felt. They were all in battle fatigues and still decked out in combat gear, and most of them were dirty and still had camouflage paint on their faces. He didn’t dare ask how many they had lost in the fight, but he knew that medical evacuation flights had been leaving from the hills around Goose Green constantly since the end of the battle.

  ‘If you are looking for your Silver Helix colleague, he’s in the kitchen. You should get yourself some hot coffee while you’re here. You bloody well earned it, I’d say,’ the general said, but his smile looked hollow.

  ‘How is your war going?’ Major Singh asked when Rory walked in. The Lion sat on a kitchen chair that looked far too rickety for the weight of the big Sikh. He looked exhausted as well. The major’s boots and the hilt of his big knife wer
e flecked with mud, and there were dark stains on the major’s uniform that didn’t look like sweat or spilled coffee. It seemed he’d had a very busy week with the Royal Marines.

  Rory looked around for the promised coffee. There was a pot sitting on an electric heating plate on the counter nearby. The Lion pointed to a cupboard wordlessly. There were cups inside, and Rory took one out and filled it from the pot, trying hard to control himself and not just guzzle the stuff straight from the spout.

  ‘To be honest, it has been the most boring and most terrifying week of my life. Both at the same time, somehow, if that makes sense.’

  ‘Yes, it does. Long periods of boredom interspersed with moments of sheer terror. That’s what it’s like to go to war.’

  Rory took a sip and promptly burned the roof of his mouth, but the taste was so decadently delicious after a week of horrible instant coffee that he didn’t care.

  ‘Thirty-nine planes,’ he told the Lion. ‘They just kept coming. And I kept sending them into the water. Why did they keep coming? They had to notice that none were coming back.’

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