"All work and no play makes Mike a dull boy," said General Horner, leaning casually in the doorway of Mike's tiny office; his junior aide, Captain Jackson, hovered at his side.
"Well, sir, the nightlife in Georgetown ain't what it used to be."
Since being given the almost overwhelming task of writing employment guidelines for the Armored Combat Suit units in the upcoming defense, Mike had been working sixteen to twenty hours a day, seven days a week. Work was actually a relief compared to contemplating the current situation. As the world hurtled to its inevitable rendezvous with the Posleen, society had begun a slow process of meltdown.
Once the full import of the upcoming invasion became apparent, a radical shift in economic and population emphasis occurred. Seventy percent of the world's population and eighty percent of its wealth was concentrated in coastal plain zones or plains contiguous with coastal plains. While these areas had many noteworthy features, defensibility against the Posleen was not one of them.
The developing "Sub-Urbs," underground cities for the refugees from the plains, had been designed with locations for businesses, factories and all the other necessary organs of society. However, like many things Galactic related, they were not being completed as fast as originally anticipated. The waiting list for businesses and manufacturing locations was even longer than the one for residences.
Businessmen, insurance adjusters and the common man could often do enough math to make their own decisions. Areas that had become moribund due to the previous decades' shift away from montane zones suddenly began to experience a rebirth.
The faded industries of Bavaria and the American Rust Belt, especially the cities of Detroit and Pittsburgh, saw a massive influx of new plants, as GalTech and more mundane terrestrial industries relocated their fixed facilities to locations that could be defended.
With this movement of industry and services came a matching movement of labor. The workers, managers and executives of the moving firms followed the jobs, but others could put two and two together and a massive movement of people without any fixed employment flooded the Ohio Valley and the Midwest in the United States, and Switzerland, Austria and the Balkans in Europe. In Asia, more limited infrastructures and disputed borders did not permit mass migrations such as occurred in the United States and Europe, but there was significant movement towards and into the Himalayas, Hindu Kush and Caucasus.
In Japan, meanwhile, all the industry remained on the plains, but massive civilian shelters were being dug and populated throughout the country's many mountain ranges. The Japanese experiences in World War II and their extensive civil engineering infrastructure continued to serve them well.
This mass migration and the flickering disruptions it caused in supply and demand of goods, services and labor were causing every kind of shortage in one area and oversupply in another.
Many individuals were getting rich on these supply problems, most of them ethically. Shortages had always been the creators of fortune. These individuals and anyone else with an income were then faced with the problem of where to put their money.
In most cases this was still the currency of whatever country the transaction occurred in, rather than Federation Credits. However, there was no convincing evidence that banks or even countries would survive the invasion. Thus, the cautious investor would prefer placement in a Galactic bank or a Terrestrial bank in a very secure location. Although most funds were merely electrons, a brick and mortar location remained a necessity. There was more to store than money. People had valuable artworks, personal treasures, precious gems and other items of "real" value. Terrestrial banks had, early on, joined in partnership with Galactic banks and, using this conduit, funds and goods began to flow outward from Earth.
However, the inevitable law of supply and demand again reared its ugly head, and as the flow continued from Terrestrial currencies to FedCreds, the exchange rate went up and up. Now, along with a famine of hope, was the specter of inflation. There were two exceptions to this.
Switzerland, already a renowned financial center, had been given the highest possible Galactic bond rating. Not only was it a major financial center already. Not only was it seventy percent mountains. But the Swiss militia had gone through several tests against notional attacks and every single assault had been beaten off with ease. However, another player had entered the banking market.
The ancient and secretive Buddhist country of Bhutan was briefly conquered by its neighbor, Bangladesh, for the purpose of becoming a leadership haven. A single visit by a British Armored Combat Suit battalion returned things to their original structure, but the Bhutanese had learned their lesson.
Obstructed by their religion from engaging in violence, they could still hire mercenaries, and a new Ghurka regiment was born. Ghurkas were mountain troops from Nepal that had a reputation as the best light infantry in the world.
To pay for it Bhutan opened a few small branch offices of major banks. Since the kingdom was determinedly old-fashioned and environmentally rigorous the bank branches were shoehorned into millennia-old massively built stone monasteries. Now, defended by the most renowned fighters in the world, massive stone walls and terrain obstacles to daunt Hannibal, the banks began to receive a tsunami influx of precious artwork, gems, metals and funds. A fractional tithe of this flood served to pay for the most advanced military equipment on Earth for the Ghurkas. The Ghurkas, and their British mercenary officers, were only too happy to put it to use.
Inflation, deflation and shortages wracked the world, causing famines and plagues in their wake. But through all of it most continued to work and struggle: to labor for a possible victory.
"Actually," said Horner with a smile, "I hear the ratio of unmarried females is even higher than ever."
"As, I said . . ."
"Well, you're getting out of this office tonight. You have to be about done."
"I am done," Mike answered, gesturing at a massive stack of hardcopy on his desk: reports and presentations. "That's it."
"Okay, good," Horner said, pleased but not surprised that everything was just so.
Mike had worked for him for two years when he was in charge of the GalTech infantry team, initially as a civilian TechRep and later as his aide. Horner had learned early that the junior officer had an intense ability to concentrate on getting a job done. He had chosen him for this job for that reason as much as for his ACS experience. Time had been short. There was a tiny list of people who could design the operational strategy for ACS employment in Fortress Forward. And there was a different tiny list of people who could pull something like that together in the bare two weeks he had had at his disposal. The only officer that Jack was aware of who was on both lists was sitting in the chair.
"As long as you're ready for the all-commands conference tomorrow, you don't have a reason not to come to the Fort Myer's club tonight, all spiffy in your Fleet Blues."
"Well, sir," said Mike with a not particularly false yawn, "actually I have about thirty reasons, starting with sleep."
Jack seemed to pay no attention to his rejection. "Besides welcoming all the Army commanders to this official kickoff of 'Fortress Forward' we will be celebrating the visit of the new French Ground Forces commander with a dining-out. I thought you might like to attend."
"Well, sir, as I said . . ."
"His name is Crenaus."
"The Deuxieme Armore commander, sir?" Deuxieme Armore, along with the Tenth Panzergrenadier and a scattering of British, Chinese and American armor units was rescued by then-Lieutenant O'Neal's platoon on Diess, when they had been encircled by Posleen in the Dantren megascraper. The platoon had dropped megascrapers on two sides of the encirclement and cracked the Posleen on the remaining side with a barrage of antimatter grenades. The French general—a gangling firecracker of a man who bore a remarkable resemblance to the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz—had been notably impressed. Mike, in turn, had been impressed with how well the general had held his unit together in such an impossible situation. Deuxieme Armore had come out of the conflict with lower losses than any of the other units in the mobile defense, to a great extent because they retained cohesion when others broke like glass vases. The strongest reason for that cohesion was the guest of the dining-out.
"The same. When he heard you were in town he insisted that you attend," Horner said with a rare true smile.
"Yes, sir." Mike took mental inventory of his wardrobe. He had a pressed set of Fleet Mess Blues and—on the suspicion that someone would require he wear them at some point—his medals.
He had thus far succeeded in not wearing any of them, despite Ground Force regulations to the contrary, by the simple expedient of pointing out that he was not, in fact, a Ground Force officer and, therefore, the regulation did not apply. He had had to endure three more drubbings by overzealous MP officers until a special order was circulated explaining the position of Fleet versus Ground Force personnel. He probably would not have made the issue were it not for the fact that other Fleet personnel assigned to the Pentagon were under constant harassment. If his application of the old-boy network could help to mitigate that in any way he felt it worth the effort. He also hated the looks he got when people saw him with the Medal. But, what the hell, it would be a chance to see some old companions.
"Airborne, General, sir. I'll be there with bells on."
"Just be sure you're there with all your medals on." Jack smiled one of his cold thou-shalt-obey smiles. "Medals, Mike, not ribbons. And all of them."
"Absent companions," chorused the inebriated crowd huddled around the new French High Commander.
The main ballroom of the Fort Myer Officers' Club was jammed with the Military District of Washington's finest. The bright light of the chandeliers pulled out highlights on gold braid and jewelry throughout the room as the officers and their ladies danced the minuet of power. The room was packed with generals of every rank; full colonels were not much more than waiters. But the entire room's focus was on the small group by the head table where a circle of aides and senior subordinates clustered around four officers. Three of them were four-star generals; one of them was a mere captain.
"By rights, mon ami, you should be factored in that toast," said the guest of honor, with a companionable clap on the shoulder to Mike.
"Well, there ain't many left from my impromptu first command, that's for sure." Mike looked around at his company, only faintly uncomfortable with the situation.
In the year after his return from Diess he had been dragged around the United States as a talking head for the Public Information Office. During the tour he had intimate conversations with every kind of senior officer. He was sure at the time that the Curse of the Medal was on him; that for the rest of his career the closest he would come to the front was talking about it with a commentator. He was finally reprieved with his current command. So he was comfortable with senior officers at this point. And he had no problems with uniforms.
Before the tour began the first thing that was required of him by the PIO was the purchase, at fabulous expense, of a set of the new Fleet Strike Mess Blues. The group of designers and forward-thinking military officers that designed it rammed through some wildly successful combinations of Galactic technology and the modern mania for efficient and comfortable clothing. The daily wear uniform, combat silks, was as comfortable a set of clothes as any casual dress maniac could desire and even the standard dress uniform was extremely comfortable compared to the norm. That mania for casual comfort had ended abruptly at Mess Blues.
Designed to highlight several traditions from members of the Fleet Strike amalgam, the uniform also called on futuristic styling. A long mag-sealed tunic of Navy blue, worn flapped open, was lined with the branch color of the wearer, in Mike's case Infantry sky blue. Around the middle was worn a full sash cummerbund of "Redcoat" red (the identical shade was used by, variously, the American Marines, American artillery, French paratroopers and the Red Army) looped with gold. The shoulders and sleeves were again covered in gold loops, the number of loops denoting rank. The pants were piped with red. It was topped by a simple Americanized beret in the color of the different branches of Fleet Strike. This gave the unfortunate impression that all members of the Infantry were on a UN Peacekeeping mission, but that impression would pass with time.
This admittedly flashy uniform was, in Captain O'Neal's case, further highlighted by a frightening set of medals. In the case of most persons with multiple layers of "fruit-salad" the weight was on the lower end, the various commendation medals and other bits of colorful "I Was There" ribbons that say that the wearer has been a good boy and gone where a soldier was supposed to go. In Mike's case, the weight was uncomfortably skewed in the other direction.
Besides the Medal, specifically awarded for single-handedly taking out a Posleen command ship at the Main Line of Resistance on Diess, he had been separately awarded for three other actions during that forty-eight hours of madness that saw victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. There was a Bronze Star for organizing the demolition of Qualtren, despite the accidental consequences, a Bronze Star for organizing the survivors under the rubble left from the explosion and a Silver Star for the relief of the Tenth Panzergrenadiers at the Boulevard of Death. He had not wanted any of them and argued that, by tradition, they should all have been lumped into one award. But they came piecemeal instead.
Along with those awards, and two Purple Hearts, there was a mass of foreign decorations from countries as widely varied as England and mainland China (almost three companies of the regiment China had sent survived due to O'Neal's platoon). A single Army commendation medal, a good conduct medal and an I-Was-There medal for Desert Storm huddled at the bottom.
In any other company the combination of uniform and fruit-salad would have looked maniacal, but that was in any other company.
The cluster of officers around Géneral Crenaus included the American High Commander in Ground Force Mess Dress, a veteran of Just Cause, Desert Storm and Monsoon Thunder along with so many odd little out-of-the-way missions he had long ago stopped trying to remember them all. His "fruit-salad" was also impressively high protein, low fat. General Horner, in Mess Dress, had managed to be involved instrumentally in all three operations and although he was light on "Forgot To Duck" Purple Hearts, his commendations were all about being out front leading troops.
And it turned out that Géneral Crenaus, in French Mess Dress, tails, stovepipe hat and all, had apparently been involved in every action the French had been able to think up over the last couple of decades. And, apparently, a few they were not quite willing to admit to as well.
Between the Mess Dress on all the senior officers and the medals on every chest, Mike was wondering when the Valkyries were supposed to show up and go violently mezzo-soprano.
"I like that one," said General Taylor rather thickly as he pointed to an unrecognized decoration on Captain O'Neal's chest. He had managed to ingest better than a quart and a half of scotch during the course of the evening. "I didn't think there were any Japs with you on Diess." The decoration worn just above the Combat Infantryman's Badge looked somewhat like a golden rising sun.
Géneral Crenaus laughed grimly. "That's not for saving Nip ass, bon homme. That is simply an award for being there. I have one as well." He pointed to the same medal on his own chest.
"That's not the Diess medal," pointed out General Horner, peering at O'Neal's chest. "That's our Diess Expeditionary Force medal," he continued, pointing at a normal-sized medal of tan and red.
"Not for being on Diess, mon Général," corrected Géneral Crenaus's senior aide from the periphery where the aides danced attendance. "It is a Federation recognition device for being in the effect zone of a nuclear blast."
"Oui, this one is entirely our young friend's fault," laughed the boisterous French general, thumbing in the direction of the captain. "However, on reflection, I can hardly fault him."
"Fine, great," said Mike, feeling the bourbons the senior officers had been pressing on him. "Next time I'll leave your Frog ass swinging in the breeze."
Géneral Crenaus laughed uproariously to the apparent relief of the officers in the outer ring. "I sincerely desire that there is never another such incident, my young capitaine."
Mike, in the meantime, was rather drunkenly looking at his Star Burst medal upside down. "You know the bastard part of it, sir?" he asked as he swayed forward and back; trying to maintain balance with his head down was getting harder and harder.
"What?" asked General Horner, knocking back his Absolut and picking another off a passing tray.
"I don't remember a bit of it. I mean, some of the guys got to really groove with the experience. Some of the platoon couldn't find bolt holes in time and they were on the roofs when it went. Now that would be a rush."
"A rush?" gasped one of the colonels in the periphery.
Mike rounded on the officer, with a look of disbelief on his face. "Sure, sir, can't you just see it? That wall of flame coming right at you and all you can do is duck and cover? I mean, like, what a rush!" He smiled ferally as the generals laughed. Most of the American aides, none less than a major in rank, were remarkably short on medals indicating combat time. They obviously were not sure to what extent the aggressive captain was joking.
Crenaus's aide, wearing the same medal, snorted and shook his head. Having met the junior officer at his best, and worst, he had no doubt of the little firecracker's sincerity. Deuxieme Armore called him "The Little Shrew" and spoke it in hushed tones. Not for any spitefulness, but because, weight for ferocity, shrews were the most deadly thing on earth. And quite utterly fearless.
"Oui, in a suit perhaps," interjected Géneral Crenaus, genially. "But most of us were not in suits. It was quite unpleasant from my point of view."
"Sure, sir," slurred Mike. "That's why I gave you thirty—hic—seconds warning."
"Twenty. You said thirty and detonated at twenty. Merci beaucoup, by the way, and what a surprise that was!"
"C'est la guerre. Vingt, trente, who's counting."
"We were, certainment. With our, how do you say it? 'pedal to the metal' we were. 'Dix-neuf . . . ' Wham! Zee Camera of God!" the general continued, mock angrily.
"Bitch, bitch, bitch," Mike snorted and took another slug.
Géneral Crenaus laughed again, hard, as at another thought. "Your Private Buckley did not think it was, as you say, a 'roosh.' "
"Heh, yeah, I heard that one afterwards. Hah! And I thought I was havin' a bad day."
"Would you care to let the rest of us in on the joke?" asked General Taylor, settling rather heavily on the head table.
"Oui, it is a good one," said Géneral Crenaus, gesturing at Mike.
"Well, come on in when you want. Where to begin?" mused Mike, taking a sip of bourbon.
"At the beginning is usually best," commented General Horner dryly. The dozen or so Absoluts had seemed to effect Horner not at all. Mike had heard he had a hollow leg. Now he believed it. The only way to tell he was drunk off his ass was that his normally sober expression had become like iron. Way drunk.
"Yeah. Well, Buckley was one of the guys caught under Qualtren. Now, we had to extract ourselves from the rubble, which we did by blowing through with our grenades and stuff, not a technique I suggest to the unarmored."
"Oui, they are after all . . ."
" . . . antimatter!" Mike finished. "Right. So, everybody was able to figure out how to do this successfully except the unfortunate Private Buckley, or Lefty as we came to call him. Private 'Lefty' Buckley, on his first try, slipped out his grenade, extended it as far away as he could, since it was, after all . . ."
" . . . antimatter!" chorused Géneral Crenaus and his aide.
"Right. So he sticks his arm out as far as it will go, pushing through the rubble, and thumbs the activator."
"Oui, oui! Only to find that he can't retract his arm!" crowed the French general, belly laughing.
"Yeah! The rubble shifted and it's caught. So, like, this is gonna huuurt, right? Actually, it only hurts for a second 'cause of all the suit systems. Blocks the nerve, shuts down the bleeding, debrides and disinfects the wound, all in seconds. But, ya know, ya got to imagine, I mean . . ."
"It's a ten-second count?" asked General Horner, looking grim, which for him was the same as smiling.
"Right, right. So like . . ."
"Dix, neuf, huit, sept . . ." interjected Crenaus, with tears of laughter in his eyes.
"Right, ten, nine . . ." Mike translated, "and then . . ."
"Wham!" interjected General Taylor, laughing.
"Right. Like, 'Whoa, is this a Monday or what?' Anyway, it didn't, doesn't really hurt, or it wouldn't be so funny. Just the really brief but memorable sensation of your hand vaporizing."
"So, what does that have to do with the command ship detonation?" asked one of the surrounding aides.
"Well," continued Mike, with another sip of bourbon. "Lefty has made it to the perimeter, and performed a really decent private's job, as well as he can left-handed. And when the command ship lifts he's one of the guys that goes with Sergeant Green." Mike paused and solemnly lifted his glass. "Absent companions . . ."
"Absent companions," the officers chorused.
" . . . he went with Staff Sergeant Alonisus Green to distract the command ship away from the Main Line of Resistance and focus its attention so that I could attempt to plant a friggin' antimatter mine on its side," he ended, quite solemnly.
"There was supposed to be a humorous punch line," said General Horner as the pause became elongated.
"Right, sir," said Captain O'Neal after a sip of his sour mash. " . . . so anyway the whole cockamamie thing works, I get through the defenses, plant the mine and do my now famous imitation of a piece of radioactive fallout . . ."
"Ten seconds early, might I add!" interjected Géneral Crenaus.
"Man, some people wouldn't be happy if you hanged them with a gold rope! I go 'to infinity and beyond' and all the friggin' Frenchie can do is complain about premature detonations. Where was I, sirs?"
"Detonation," answered a very junior aide, a mere stripling of a major.
"Right," said the captain. "Well, the mine works like a charm, except for some minor little secondary effects . . ."
"Another three meters and I would have been steak tartare!" the general shouted, holding his arms in the air.
"With all due respect: Quit interrupting, General, sir. Anyway it packs about the wallop of a Class Three Space Mine and it causes some nasty secondaries, most of which are, fortunately, directed away from the MLR and certain unnamed ungrateful Frenchmen . . ." commented Captain O'Neal, rolling his eyes.
"Did I say I was ungrateful? General Taylor, General Horner, I call you to witness, I never have said I was ungrateful. Nervous? A touch. Frightened? Merde, yes! But not ungrateful, you dwarf poltroon!"
"Hah, stork! Anyway, it tears the living shit out of the command ship, but about a third of the ship hangs together. It apparently was really spectacularly visible from some of the positions on the MLR. This big piece of space cruiser describes a beautiful ballistic arc almost straight up, looking like it's moving in slow motion," expounded Captain O'Neal, gesturing with both hands. "You have to remember, this is to the background of a relatively small but quite noticeable nuclear blast . . ."
"About four kilotons," interjected Géneral Crenaus, taking a hard pull on his cognac, "and less than a kilometer away!"
"More like three kilometers. Anyway, it rides up on the mushroom cloud, describes this tremendous vertical arc and comes gracefully back down . . ."
"Right on Buckley," hooted Géneral Crenaus and cracked up.
" . . . right smack dab on Private Second Class Buckley. He was one of the guys who was on the roofs, in the blast radius . . ."
"Sacré Bleu! I was in the blast radius!"
"You guys should have hardly felt it in the blast shadow from the buildings!"
"Blast shadow he calls it! Oui! They were around our ears!" shouted the general, hands waving on either side of his head. "I know, I know . . ." he continued, holding up a hand.
"Bitch, bitch . . . anyway, here's Buckley, grav-boots clamped to some nice powerful structure, miraculously alive, survives looking right into the shockwave, survives looking right into the neutron pulse, survives looking right into the thermal pulse . . ." Mike paused dramatically.
"It didn't kill him, did it?" asked one of the aides, right on cue.
"In a suit? Nah, but it did knock him clean out. And this time he waited for somebody to come dig him up. He kinda had to since he was about fifty stories down in the building with a quarter kilometer of space cruiser on top of him," ended Captain O'Neal, chuckling.
"To Private Buckley!" roared Géneral Crenaus, raising his brandy on high.
"To Private Buckley!" roared Captain O'Neal. "And all the other poor sods who wear the Mask of Hell!" he ended, a touch bitterly.
"Here, here," chorused General Taylor, after there was a moment's uncomfortable pause, and everyone raised their glasses and drank. "Is that what you call it, Mike?"
"Isn't it, sir?" asked Captain O'Neal, swaying like an oak in the wind. "I may joke about a rush, but it's armor that you can take into a friggin' nuclear blast. As we have, and will have to again. What else is the mission that I have been working on for two weeks? To go where no one else can go, to do what no one else can do and to do that until we are no more.
"For whatever goddamn reason we are going to get hit with five times the number of Posleen pointed at Barwhon and Diess. As we are all well aware. That level of force will leave us totally invested. No large ships are going to be able to sneak through that firepower!
"So, from when the Posleen land until Fleet is strong enough to invest us and take out the landers, we will be cut off from resupply of GalTech. And that means ten little MI troopers . . . nine little MI troopers . . . eight little MI troopers, until 'we're singing Glory be to God that there are no more of us, cause one of us could drink it all alone.' And it is my a-hoo-wah job to take my company into that maelstrom of nukes and gas and hypervelocity missile rounds and fight the Posleen on their own turf at up to one-thousand-to-one odds and cover all the other troops who don't have the equipment to experience it.
"Yes, sir," finished Mike. "I designed it, I made it, I live it and I call it the Mask of Hell. And all who wear it are the Damned!" he ended softly.