Waller still didn’t know where they were headed, but his optimism was low. The Royal Newfoundland Regiment had avoided disaster three times since coming to this planet, but each encounter with the blue men had become increasingly dangerous. Luck simply couldn’t hold… perhaps Hughes was a sign of that.
“Here, gentlemen,” Byng finally came to a stop in front of an enclosed stockade. It actually appeared more like a walled-off rail freight yard – there were narrow-gauge tracks running inside. Judging by the breadth of the front wall, it was quite a large space… what was hiding within?
“They haven’t just been shipping us the QF guns,” Alderson announced dryly, his hands linked behind his back as he spoke. “I know there’s utility to these things, but some man in the War Office who’s never really used them seems to be convinced they have magical powers.”
Once again, the cryptic comment inspired little confidence, and as Tucker and Miller considered the walled rail yard, Waller swallowed and prepared for the worst.
A sentry at the nearest gate to the yard had come to attention at the arrival of the officers, and once Byng drew closer and nodded to the Private – a Voltigeur – the doors began to part. All six men in drab green uniforms eased their way forward, and then the disaster was revealed.
“Lorries?” Tucker asked with a scowl.
The rail yard was, it seemed, a motor park – more than 100 trucks and cars stood in the place.
Stepping through the gate, Waller was immediately struck by the smells of oil, grease and machinery. Big, cumbersome trucks and smaller, faster-seeming cars sat all around in ranks, though the method behind their organization was a mystery to the Lieutenant Colonel.
A few mechanics were working on a nearby machine, and they paid no attention as the officers passed by – these specialists’ task was too complex, and too difficult, to permit the niceties of rank to get in the way. None of the officers minded – Byng, as a soldier’s General, was entirely sympathetic to the notion that the men were simply trying to get their job done, and Alderson, typically a more disciplined sort, was too disgusted with the entire situation to bother.
“These machines are Hughes’ brilliant plan,” Currie offered some minor explanation, though the words didn’t clarify much. Brilliant plan to accomplish what?
Before Waller could pose that question to any of his commanding officers, he caught sight of a man hurrying towards them down a long lane of vehicles – a shorter fellow with a bald head which was plain to see because he wore no hat. His drab green jacket with Major’s braid around its cuffs suggested he was an officer, but he was hardly in a formal state of dress. The jacket itself was unbuttoned, as if the man had only quickly pulled it on when he realized there were guests, and instead of fussing with it the Major was wiping his hands on a rag.
He’d probably been working on one of these vehicles… he was probably in charge of them.
“Ah, that’s Andrews,” Byng came to a stop and turned to face the approaching man. The rest of the touring officers halted around their superior.
It took a moment for Major Andrews to reach their party, and as he did, he saluted in an almost frustrated fashion, “I’m sorry General, I didn’t realize you were coming over here right at this moment.”
“No apologies, Iain,” Byng shook his head. “We came unannounced, wanted you to meet the Newfoundland officers. They’ll be your… what’s the term, embarked unit?”
Andrews frowned slightly, looking at Waller and then back to Byng, “Sure. We could say that, General.”
At this point, Waller glanced at Miller, and then Tucker, then felt a frown sink deeply into his brow as he looked back to Byng, “I’m sorry, sir, but I’m piecing this together. We’re going to be riding these vehicles.”
Byng nodded slowly, “Yes, good man. Sorry, we should go to Andrews’ office and discuss this properly.”
“We’re going to be working together,” Andrews added. “Whether that’s a good idea, is not really for me to say. But if you’ll come this way…”
Stepping back, Andrews extended his hand in the direction from which he’d come, and led the group of officers deeper into the motor park. As they went, Waller found his eyes traveling over the vehicles to either side of him. They were large-seeming iron beasts, and he remembered times in Egypt and India when trucks like the ones he was seeing had seemed rather remarkable.
Now they looked cumbersome, and oddly fragile – Waller had seen the blue man version of such machines, and the silver lorries were infinitely faster and more robust than these crude brutes. Not that he would say as much to someone like Andrews, who seemed to be an officer who specialized in their operation. It would be rude…
“Well they look familiar.”
Waller blinked at Tucker’s dark remark, and then shook himself out of his thoughts in time to recognize the flash of a bright silver hull in line ahead. In fact, there were several flashes: ten blue man lorries, lined up at the back of the motor park. As they approached the vehicles, Waller was able to see bullet holes in some of them, and others that had been patched with welded plates. Some windshields seemed to have been replaced in a crude fashion too…
These mechanics had been working on the Martian vehicles, trying to mend the damage caused by the Newfoundlanders and Voltigeurs?
“The Martian vehicles?” Andrews responded to Tucker’s observation as he waved his greasy rag in the direction of the lorries. “We still don’t understand their engines. I think we might need a physicist to understand where their power comes from. But we have figured out how they work, a little bit anyway. They are the best trucks in this park by a long way.”
The candid statement surprised Waller. He supposed he shouldn’t have been shocked that a mechanical officer would be willing to admit the plainly obvious and provable…
“The problem is no one seems to want to admit that,” Andrews tacked on that sharp remark as he turned down another lane between vehicles – one that led to a shed that probably held his office.
“We believe you, Major Andrews,” Byng replied easily. “Unfortunately, that’s not enough.”
By now, the cryptic observations were piling a little too high, so Waller considered asking for more clarification. The Skipper beat him to the punch.
Looking to General Byng, the small Newfoundland Major spoke easily, “Now, General, as one wise old man to another, you should stop talking around your meaning, and get down to telling us what we’re about.”
Byng had gained a liking of Miller during the Farpoint battle, and though they’d seen little of each other in the months since, the General still appreciated the small, tough, Newfoundland officer.
Glancing at Alderson and then back at Miller, Sir Julian smiled, “Damn me, Major, it’s like my father’s just told me I’m being a daft boy. Of course, of course, I should explain…”
Waller raised his eyebrows at Miller, who simply shrugged innocently. As far as the Skipper was concerned, being small and older had its advantages – good men didn’t argue with their elders. And he had nearly a decade on Sir Julian.
“My map in here will help, General,” Major Andrews said as he stepped through the large open door into the shed, and the officers followed, eyes adjusting slowly from the daylight to the gloom of the workspace.
Waller and Miller were the first to come to a stop behind Andrews, and to see the map he was referring to – it was pinned to the wall of the shed, with scribbles all over it.
“That’s… the Martian buildings map, we got off their moving pictures screen?” George Tucker asked as he came up in third position, and Andrews nodded.
“That’s what they tell me,” he turned away from it. “But the General would know best.”
Byng finally pulled one hand from a pocket as he arrived at the group, and he nodded at Andrews’ words, “It’s exactly that, Tom. And it shows the destination the War Office has in mind for every machine in this park.”
Immediately, Waller realized how bad the mission they were about to be tasked with would be: a pool of trucks had been assembled because some General had decided that, if the blue men could drive powered lorries over the grasslands, then the British Army could too.
What was the objective?
Moving up beside Andrews, Byng considered the map for a second, then reached up and gestured to a point far to the north, which was marked in red.
“It’s a long story, Tom. But one of the blue men you captured at Promised Town gave up the fact that this unusual marking here actually refers to something like a prison camp. For the enemies of the blue men.”
Waller heard the words, but didn’t process them for a moment. A prison camp. For the enemies of the blue men.
According to what Waller had learned during his first encounter with the creatures in the glass building – now Fort Martian – the blue men were in the middle of a war with… lizard men. If not for the war, the bastards would probably have had the resources to send dozens of aircruisers to destroy the Selkirk Mandate by now… or at least that was how Waller figured it.
But if they were in a war… and there were members of the enemy faction right here on the new world…
There were many, many implications, but this wasn’t the time to try to wander through them all, because Byng’s finger was now drawing a diagonal line from the red-marked building down to Long Prairie.
“It’s at least 700 miles,” Sir Julian said, his words simultaneously soft and thunderous.
There were no blue man installations indicated on the map between Fort Martian and the supposed prison camp, but the distance separating them was nevertheless staggering. Quick-marching infantry would need a month just to reach the place. Cavalry might do it in two weeks.
But, Waller realized, a silver Martian lorry could probably cover that distance in ten or twelve hours. A day or two if there were complications.
“So…” the Newfoundland Lieutenant Colonel could not keep his suppositions to himself any longer, “we need to go out there to see if there are any living representatives of the blue man’s enemy, hoping that we can strike a deal… or something. But the only way to get there fast enough to avoid being noticed on the way… is to use motor transport?”
Alderson had arrived right behind Waller without the Newfoundlander noticing, and now the General released a frustrated sigh, “It’s an important objective, but it’s a foolish plan. Sam Hughes came up with it, convinced the Canadian Prime Minister, who convinced the British Prime Minister…”
He let his words trail off, disgust for the political intervention dripping off them.
Byng’s calm was more intact, “It’s an important mission. There’s no easy way to do it, but this way has the benefit of perhaps being the fastest. It has the disadvantage of being somewhat impossible. Am I wrong, Major Andrews?”
The bald-headed mechanic Major shook his head, “You’re not wrong, sir. Everyone’s read about the Martian lorries, and they think that four wheels and a metal frame make ours the same. They are wrong.”
“Major Andrews is one of the only officers in the entire British North American Army who has any idea about how to run our machines,” Currie appeared on the far side of the group with that praise. “Worked his way up to Captain in Third Division’s motor pool.”
Currie was referring to the fact that Andrews had done an exchange with the British Home Army, and there had served in a motorized unit. The British North American Army had no trucks or cars of its own – there weren’t enough roads in Canada to warrant an investment in such vehicles because they weren’t equal to the task of driving over open country.
That fact seemed rather important considering the current circumstances.
“So,” Waller turned his eyes back towards the map. “Our job is to take all the vehicles here… including the Martian ones… out to that prison… and break out the lizard men. So that we can try to open a dialogue with them?”
Byng turned back to Waller with some pride. One of the reasons the Newfoundlanders had seen so many difficult mission during their time on the new world was because Byng knew that Waller was particularly sharp. Here again, the Lieutenant Colonel’s intuition and reason were ably demonstrated.
“Almost right, Tom,” Byng said with a nod, and then he took a breath. “Major Andrews here will command the vehicles… mainly try to keep them running. You will command your regiment, and everything related to combat will be under your control. We’ll have Captain Carstairs join you with an aero plane or two as well. But the expedition itself… will be led by… well.”
The fact that Sir Julian Byng felt some reluctance at actually saying the name of the mission commander left no doubt in Waller’s mind as to who was to be in charge.
“Evelyn Hughes and I used to be friends,” Currie picked up from Byng. “I’ve been better off since ridding myself of him.”
“Political orders,” Alderson added stiffly, and as he listened to the commentary, Waller could only clamp his jaw shut and stare at the map.
The mission was, by most standards, incredibly difficult.
The fact that the three senior officers in the new world were already apologizing for the circumstances of it, before it had even been launched, inspired no confidence.
“Well,” George Tucker folded his arms, “I guess we’re going to have a right adventure.”
That seemed likely.