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For All Nails #219: Operation Excalibur

Venezuela, Kingdom of New Granada
31 March 1975

The first wave of airmobiles set out at dawn from the newly-constructed air
bases at the mouth of the Orinoco River.  There were eighty bombers with an
escort of thirty-seven chargers.  Two thirds of the way to Ciudad Camacho a
flight of New Granadan chargers rose up to challenge them.  A dozen of the
British chargers peeled off to meet the attackers while the rest of the wave
continued upstream.  On the outskirts of the city the antiaircraft guns opened
up, and the sky became spotted with black clouds of razor-sharp metal, opening
up like dark blossoms in the tropical morning.  Bombs fell and rockets flew,
and the antiaircraft guns were silenced one by one.

The surviving attackers flew away back east, and were replaced by a second
wave.  More guns were knocked out, and now the attackers began hitting
structures within the fenced-in camp on the northeastern edge of the city. 
After a time the second wave turned back and a third wave came in to replace
them.  While the third wave continued hitting targets within the camp, a flight
of gyropter gunships appeared.  The gunships dropped down into the fenced-in
base and began to disgorge men in the dun-colored battle fatigues of the
British Army.  Other men in the olive-green camouflage uniforms of the Fuerzas
Armadas de Nueva Granada swarmed out to meet them, and the gunships rose to
give combat.

More gunships came from the east with more men, and a fourth wave of the Royal
Air Arm took over from the third.  The British troops moved outward from their
perimeter, and buildings holding FANG troops were taken or destroyed.  As the
sun crossed overhead and drifted down into the west, more of Camp Adolfo
Camacho came under British control, until the FANG troops had all either
surrendered or retreated out into the streets of Ciudad Camacho.

It was getting on past four in the afternoon, and a cloud bank had risen to
hide the westering sun, when Dr. Perceval Braxton emerged from an Army gyropter
into the aftermath of battle.  Columns of thick black smoke rose into the sky
from scattered points in the camp, and every building, it seemed, bore a
greater or lesser number of bullet holes.  There was a distant rattle of
sporadic small arms fire, sounding like a Hausknecht counter in the presence of
uranium ore.

Braxton couldn't escape a faint sense of unreality about being here in Ciudad
Camacho.  Fourteen years before, he had been a freshly-minted Cambridge PhD,
aflame with the desire to explore the properties of the transuranic elements
being created by the new techniques of neutron bombardment.  That had come to
an abrupt end in June 1962 when the world learned about the atomic fission bomb
detonated by Kramer Associates.  Braxton's degree made him one of the most
sought-after men in Britain, and he had disappeared into a secret government
laboratory in North Yorkshire.  Three years of intense work had ended in a
flash of light in the Australian badlands.

Now Braxton was a civilian advisor to the Ministry of War, assigned to
investigate New Granada's atomic weapons programme.  In a sense, all of the
death and destruction taking place around him had been arranged for the sake of
himself and his team from Maiden's Bay.  As soon as they had looted the New
Granadans' secrets from Camp Adolfo Camacho, the atomic weapons plant would be
destroyed and the Excalibur force would withdraw back to Tobago.

Braxton was met at the gyropter by an officer in a smoke-darkened uniform who
introduced himself as Brigadier Parkes-Brattle.  The Brigadier led him at a
trot through the camp to a blocky concrete building.  Like the rest of the
camp, it was pitted with bullet holes and burn marks, and a pair of twisted
metal doors lay on the ground next to a ragged hole in the wall.  "We had a bit
of trouble getting inside," the Brigadier explained.

Inside, all the walls looked as though someone had tried to push them through a
cheese grater, and there were stains on the floor whose origins Braxton
preferred not to think about.  The Brigadier led him through empty hallways to
an equally empty control room with glass walls on one side that looked out onto
a vast space filled with machinery.  Although he had been a physicist
originally, Braxton's work in the British atomic energy programme had given him
a thoroughly practical knowledge of atomic power generation.

A trifle nervously he asked the Brigadier, "How long have these controls been
left unattended?"

"No more than an hour, Doctor," the Brigadier assured him.  "You were brought
here directly we secured control of the building."

Braxton was puzzled to find that the room's controls were all in English.  A
moment's thought gave the obvious explanation: the station, of course, had been
built by Mexican technicians, and in Mexico English was the language of science
and technology.  This simplified the task of working out how the power
generators had been set up.  Based partly on clues provided by the controls,
partly on the machinery sitting out on the plant floor, and partly on his own
experience, Braxton soon figured out that the New Granadans were using a
water-cooled plant (sensibly enough, given the Orinoco flowing just outside)
with graphite damping rods controlling the fission process.

Unclipping a Hausknecht counter from his belt, Braxton opened the door leading
from the control room out into the plant proper, with the Brigadier behind him.
 The two men made their way down a set of concrete steps and into the works,
Braxton pointing his softly clicking Hausknecht counter at various pieces of
equipment.

"Is it safe for us to be out here unprotected, Doctor?" the Brigadier wondered.

"Oh, quite safe, Brigadier," Braxton said as he peered down into a large tank
of water over which he was waving the Hausknecht counter.  "You see, it's been
at least two weeks since there's been any fissile material in this station."

It took a moment for the import of Braxton's statement to reach the Brigadier. 
"What, you mean all the uranium and whatnot's gone?"

"Gone, but not forgotten," said Braxton, gesturing with the Hausknecht counter.
 "There are still trace amounts of radiativity, but only traces.  All the
actual uranium and whatnot, as you put it, has been removed.  No doubt the New
Granadans have shipped it all west, and begun setting up a new station."

The Brigadier thoughtfully tapped his swagger stick against his leg.  "And how
long do you estimate it'll take them to get their new station operational?"

"From a standing start," said Braxton, "it ought to take them at least a year."

The Brigadier nodded.  "Well, that's something, anyway."

"That's assuming, of course," Braxton pointed out, "that they've just now begun
work on the new station.  I'm sure it's been clear to Colonel Elbittar since
the Bornholm Pact's ultimatum in January that this station would be our chief
military target."

"So," said the Brigadier unhappily, "we've got less than nine months."

"Nine months at the most, I'd say," said Braxton.  "If the New Granadans
started work on a second plant /before/ the Christmas Bombing and the
ultimatum, out of a simple desire for redundancy, there's no telling how far
along they might be.  For all we know, it might already be operational."

"Thank you, Doctor," said the Brigadier, in tones that sounded anything but
thankful.

"Not at all, Brigadier.  All part of the service."