Eric Flint: The Dance of Time

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Eric Flint The Dance of Time
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Eric Flint,David Drake

The Dance of Time


The Iron Triangle

Autumn, 533 AD

Belisarius watched Eusebius and his crew as they carefully slipped the mine off the deck of the Victrix, using a ramp they'd set up in the stern for the purpose. Because of its design, it had been relatively easy to adapt the fireship to the task of becoming a mine-layer. Doing so with the Justinian would have required a major reconstruction of the armored gunship.

The sun still hadn't come up, but there was enough light from the approaching dawn for Belisarius to see. Quietly, almost soundlessly, the mine slid below the surface of the water. Eusebius measured off the depth of the mine's placement using the prepared lines, squinting at the marks nearsightedly.

A trio of ducks flew past swiftly, just above the level of the reeds. Their quacking sounded like the slap of bamboo canes.

You are fortunate to see them, said Aide, the crystalline being that rested in Belisarius' neck pouch. Those are pink-headed ducks, very rare here in the Indus Basin. Indeed, they're not common even in Brahmaputra.

When we've defeated the Malwa, Belisarius replied silently to the voice in his mind, perhaps I'll retire to a monastery and write a treatise on natural history based on my travels. Of course, first we have to defeat the Malwa.

We will, said Aide firmly; and that was not a joke.

Aide had come-been sent-to Belisarius from the far future; from one of two alternate futures, more precisely. Aide's purpose was to prevent the Malwa Empire from conquering the world as it had already conquered most of the Indian subcontinent.

The real horror of a Malwa victory would come tens of tens of thousands of years in the future, when the Earth was ruled by the so-called "new gods" that had evolved from men. In human terms, though, what a Malwa victory meant in this 533rd Year of Christ was bad enough.

Laying the mine took some time, because the crew had to lower it slowly and carefully. There wasn't really much danger of the charge going off simply due to a rough landing on the river bottom, especially as muddy as the Indus was. But, understandably, no one wanted to take any chances.

Eventually, the lines grew slack. The heavy stone weight that had dragged the mine below the surface had reached the bottom.

"About where we want it," Eusebius proclaimed, checking the marks on the lines. "She'll be sitting just the right depth to cave in any ironclads the Malwa send at us."

By now, his crew had placed so many mines in the rivers that formed two sides of the Iron Triangle that the rest was routine. The lines were hauled up, after the ends were released so they could slip easily through the mine's handles. Very easily, since the shell of the mine was nothing more than an amphora sealed to contain the charge and the air that kept it floating above the weight that anchored it to the river bottom.

All that was left was the very thin wire that would transmit the detonation signal when given. Like all the mines the Romans had placed in the Indus and the Chenab, the mines were designed to be exploded on command. It would have been possible to design contact fuses, but the things were tricky and Belisarius saw no need for them.

In fact, mines with contact fuses could conceivably become a handicap. Belisarius wasn't expecting to use the rivers for a rapid assault, but war was unpredictable. If he did find himself doing so, he didn't want to be delayed by the dangerous and finicky work of removing the mines. With command detonation mines, if need be, he could clear the rivers in less than a minute. Just blow up all the mines.

Eusebius leaned over the rail of the Victrix and handed the end of the signal wire to a soldier in a rowboat. Moments later, while the soldier holding the wire kept a good grip on it, the other soldiers in the boat rowed it ashore. The wire would join others in one of the many little mine bunkers that lined the banks of both rivers in the Triangle. A spotter in the bunker would already have noted the location of the mine.

Eusebius straightened. "And that's pretty much all there is to the business, General. The old emperor had the right of it."

Grinning, then: "Much as he still pisses and moans about how much he'd like to build a submarine. But the fact is that for the purpose of fending off those ironclads the Malwa are building upriver, these mines will do the trick just fine. And it's a lot less risky than spar torpedoes."

"Not to mention a submarine," Belisarius chuckled. "All right. I just wanted to get a sense of how it was going."

Had the Malwa been simply an Indian dynasty, they would not have posed a threat to the present world, let alone that of the far future. Aide had showed Belisarius visions of both past and future. Indian nations had often been rich and powerful and influential, and would be again; but never in the timeline that led to Aide and those who created him had the men and women who ruled India looked beyond their own subcontinent. Missionaries and traders from India would turn most of Southeast Asia into a cultural extension of Hindu India; and, through Buddhism, India would have a major impact on the societies of the Far East. Still, no Indian ruler in that timeline ever attempted to conquer the world in the manner that the Malwa Empire was doing-using methods of conquest that were even more savage than Genghis Khan's, with an end goal that had none of the Mongols' tolerance as actual rulers.

But the ruler of the Malwa Empire was not a man or woman, to begin with. The real ruler of the empire was not the official emperor, Skandagupta. It was Link, a machine, a monster, which the "new gods" had sent to change the past and bring their bleak future into existence. If the Malwa armies defeated Belisarius and his outnumbered forces here in the angle of the Indus and Chenab Rivers, the losers would not only be the citizens of the Roman Empire but also all other humans in all times.

Belisarius glanced to the side, where the Justinian was slowly steaming. The gunship was keeping a distance from the mine-laying activity, but it was still close enough to come to the Victrix's support in the unlikely event that the Malwa tried to launch an attack on the fireship.

The very unlikely event. The Victrix herself had already proven to the Malwa, several times, that she could destroy any wooden riverboats sent against her. And the one time the Malwa had sent down a partially armored boat, the Justinian had blown it into wreckage in less than a minute. For the past several weeks, there had been no Malwa incursions on the river at all. From the reports of spies, the enemy had apparently decided to wait until their new heavy ironclads were finished.

Furthermore, if Justinian and Eusebius were right, even those wouldn't do them any good. The Malwa had no way to build completely iron ships; none, at least, that would have a shallow enough draft for these rivers. Their ironclads were just that: clad in iron. The underlying boats were still wooden-and even these small mines would be enough to break such hulls in half.

"To tell you the truth, General," Eusebius commented, "I don't even understand why the Malwa have kept building those ironclads. There's no way to lay these mines secretly, even working at night the way we've been doing. By now, they must know we've got both rivers saturated with them."

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