They send us in front with a fuse an' a mine,
To blow up the gates that are rushed by the Line,
But bent by Her Majesty's Engineers,
Her Majesty's Royal Engineers
With the rank and the Pay of a Sapper!
Now the Line's but a man with a gun in his hand,
An' Cavalry's only what horses can stand,
When helped by Her Majesty's Engineers,
Her Majesty's Royal Engineers
With the rank and the Pay of a Sapper!
Artillery moves by the leave o' the ground,
But we are the men that do something all round,
For we are Her Majesty's Engineers,
Her Majesty's Royal Engineers
With the rank and the Pay of a Sapper!
Rudyard Kipling, 1896
Fredericksburg, VA, United States of America, Sol III
1950 EDT October 9th, 2004 ad
"Dependents are on their way in, Colonel," said the supply officer, the S-4. The "Four" had taken over the job of Civil and Dependent Affairs; he was out of any other job. All the equipment and ammunition was issued and there wasn't going to be a resupply.
"For all the good it will do," noted the Charlie company commander. "They're due to land in fifteen or twenty minutes."
"None of that," said Colonel Robertson. "We do what we can do, and all that we can do. The telemetry looks like the Posleen are going to be spread hither and yon. The probable landing zone stretches from over the Potomac in Maryland to Spotsylvania County. They seem to be spreading out to surround Fredericksburg and the area immediately around the township will be clear. Captain Avery," he turned to the supply officer, "get the dependents who are under sixteen years of age headed into town with their available parent. That will give them a few more minutes. Who knows, the horse might still sing. Put the other ones to work."
"Doing what?" the S-4 asked.
"Setting up our Go-To-Hell Plan. Captain Brown," Robertson turned to the Charlie commander and began snapping out commands, rapier fast, "start entrenching around the city center, with outliers to the interstate but no farther."
"Yes, sir," said the company commander, noting the instructions down in his green leader's notebook.
"Four, have someone call the radio station and tell them to start broadcasting for anyone with heavy equipment to come to—"
"The Mary Washington College parking lot," interjected the executive officer. He and the operations officer had taken over the tactical map from the two privates who normally updated it and were sketching in a battle plan. The battalion staff and company commanders had been together for years, as was common with National Guard units. At this point they could practically read each other's minds.
"Good," said Robertson. He was new to the unit, but he had already recognized that it had a superior staff for a "part-time" unit. And they were coming together beautifully. If he could keep up the momentum and keep them from falling into depression they would teach these centaur bastards a thing or two. "And call for all noncombatants to head for the city center, coordinate with Public Safety on where. Bravo company . . ."
"Start mining the Chatham bridge . . ." said Captain Avery, the Bravo company commander, glancing at the map on the wall.
"And the railroad bridge and the Jeff Davis, but not the I-95 bridge; it's too far out," agreed the commander.
"I'll take some of the older dependents with me for gophers. If any of them have a clue I'm arming them."
"Approved, we're shorthanded." Many of the personnel had chosen to remain home rather than respond to the recall.
"Some of those AWOLs will be coming in now, if they can make it," Avery pointed out. "There's nowhere to run."
"And nowhere to hide," remarked Brown, the Charlie commander, darkly. "Jesus Christ," he whispered, his mind on his wife and two sons gathering with the other dependents on the armory drill floor.
"Gentlemen," said the colonel, glad that his children were grown and well away from here. "Many of you have wives and children out in the armory. There is not a lot I can say. There's just not time for you to run, or I would say 'Run like hell.' The landing will happen in moments; if you tried to get out from under the interdiction circle you would run right into it.
"As I told Lieutenant Young," he said with a nod at the introspected assistant division engineer, "the best we can do is hold them back for as long as possible, make it as painful as possible for them, and ensure that the deaths of our loved ones are quick and relatively painless. We should also try to determine some manner by which we can destroy as many stocks of food as possible before we are overrun. We must, unfortunately, include ourselves in that equation; we've all seen the reports from Diess and Barwhon.
"Stay straight, keep your troops in hand and do the mission. Our only choice is to stand. We shall stand like Americans have always stood at a moment such as this, on our feet, heads up and fighting," he concluded. "Now get out and do it."
As the two company commanders and the staff filed out Lieutenant Young gestured for the battalion commander to remain a moment.
"Sir?" said the young lieutenant.
"Yes, Lieutenant? You've been quiet."
"I have been thinking about what you said at the first briefing, about how in this situation we would all die and all of our loved ones."
"And now it comes to fruition," the colonel snapped. Then he relented. "Your point?"
"That is my point, sir. Does it have to happen?"
"There is nowhere to run, son, and the forces outside the pocket are not going to charge in and rescue us."
"Yes, sir," admitted the lieutenant in a distracted tone. "But eventually, in two or three weeks, maybe a little longer, we, that is the United States, will have retaken this area. And we've got enough demo to destroy every bridge in Virginia."
"We can't hold out for two or three weeks against upwards of four million Posleen with a short battalion of light engineers." The colonel mused for a moment on a couple of terrain features last used in the Civil War but the situation was fundamentally different and he shook off the unreal idea.
"No, sir, our death is a foregone conclusion, I accept that, intellectually, but what about the dependents?" the acting assistant division engineer continued, abstractedly. His eyes, concealed behind thick glasses, began blinking rapidly.
"Lieutenant . . ."
"That's it!" the junior officer blurted with a snap of fingers.
"I was trying to figure out . . . Look, sir . . . damn, this is complicated."
"Hold on, son, what are you talking about?"
"Okay," the ADE paused and nodded his head as the last piece of the puzzle fell into place. "Okay, sir, here goes. I'm from here, most of you officers aren't. I got into the history of Fredericksburg in high school really heavily and one of the things I learned is that there are tunnels under the city, mostly forgotten, connecting into basements. Now, if we just stash the women and children in the tunnels the Posleen will find them, right?"
"Hold on, who knows about these tunnels? I've never heard of them! Where they are and how large are they?" asked the surprised battalion commander, hearing of the feature for the first time.
"I don't know where most of them are, sir, but somebody will," the lieutenant answered. "They were used in the old days, like the nineteenth century, to move supplies up from the river. They're not very well-known, even to locals, but I'm sure that someone in EMS or city engineering will know where they are. They'd practically have to."
"All right, we'll get past that," said the colonel. "The Posleen will still sniff them out."
"Yes, sir, so we have to make the Posleen think there is nothing left to find in Fredericksburg."
"And we do that . . ." asked the colonel, quizzically.
"By setting off a real mother of an explosion," said the junior officer excitedly. "If I had a nuke it would be perfect."
"But we don't have one."
"Quarles Gas is right outside of town, sir," the lieutenant pointed out. "Fill up a couple of the buildings with natural gas and set them off. Can you say, 'F-A-E'?"
The colonel opened his mouth to rebuke the idea then pulled out his pipe and began tamping it in thought.
A fuel-air explosive, FAE, was the next best thing to a nuclear weapon.
During Desert Storm the United States Air Force dropped pamphlets—helpfully translated into Arabic—on the Iraqi lines explaining that at 10 a.m. on a certain date they would drop a fuel-air bomb on an area which was held by a brigade of the Iraqi Republican Guard. The pamphlets went on to explain that the weapon would have the effect of destroying all the life in a two-square-kilometer area and be severely damaging out to three square kilometers. All personnel in the affected area were urged to evacuate before they dropped the FAE, to reduce needless loss of life.
Naturally, Saddam Hussein—that polite and abstemious gentleman—derided the idea that such a weapon existed. So at 10 a.m., a battalion and a half of soldiers, over eight hundred human beings, were wiped from the face of the earth in a pair of milliseconds. The Air Force spokesperson promptly held a press conference to defuse Saddam's natural reaction that America had initiated first use of weapons of mass destruction.
The next day the United States Air Force dropped pamphlets—helpfully translated into Arabic—on the Iraqi lines explaining that at 10 a.m. on a certain date they would drop a fuel-air bomb on an area which was held by a brigade of the Iraqi Republican Guard. The next FAE took no lives, but did leave a three-mile-wide stretch of the lines open to advances. At least three Iraqi officers, however, are known to have lost their lives trying to stop the mutinying troops from retreating out of the area of effect.
"Yes, I can. So we hide as many women and children in these tunnels as we can, then we set off an FAE."
"Yes, sir," answered the excited lieutenant.
"Then it kills a lot of Posleen, they think everything is destroyed and go away in frustration."
"And the women and children dig themselves out of a series of collapsed tunnels? Into a possibly hostile environment? Do you happen to know how they are constructed?"
"No, sir," answered the lieutenant. It was a good question. If the tunnels were not structurally sound, the overpressure from the shock wave would collapse them on the very people they were trying to save.
"What the structural integrity and overburden are?"
"No, sir," said the crestfallen civil engineer.
"Well, neither do I," mused the commander. "Obviously we don't have all the answers. You know, I think that our alien friends have never read Sun Tzu."
The young ADE nodded his head. " 'Cast them into positions from which there is nowhere to go and they will die without retreating.' "
" 'On dangerous ground one must devise stratagems, but on deadly ground do battle,' " concluded the battalion commander.
The sergeant major stuck his head in the conference room as the colonel nodded his head in turn. "Sir, it's the fire chief, she's here with a group of cops and firefighters to see what they can do."
"Get them to the operations officer . . ."
"Sergeant Major, Colonel," shouted the colonel's driver, running past the sergeant major in the corridor. "You need to come outside and see this." The officers and NCOs, perforce, followed.
* * *
Shari finally made it out of Target, after what seemed like hours and she only had half the things she felt like she needed. For once the problem was not money. By prior plan on the part of the Target corporation and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the store offered everything for free. One person had quipped that that really meant the world was coming to an end. The problem was reaching the merchandise.
Everyone in Fredericksburg seemed to have come to Central Square at once and there were fights breaking out everywhere. Twice she was sure she had lost Billy in the crowds and even as she fought through the crowds she had things snatched from her basket.
Finally she decided that whatever she had was going to have to do. All of her acquisitions were in four shopping bags, three that she carried along with the baby and one that Billy lugged. Two boxes of cereal bars, diapers, wipes, some bottled water and juice, a few batteries. It was not much to make a run for it.
She heard them saying that the Posleen were coming to Fredericksburg but wrapped in her own straitened world she had not assimilated it. As she fought through the crowds towards her distant car, the movement and noise around her dropped off, the crowd in front of her stopped. She was forced to stop as well and looked up with everyone else in the parking lot.
* * *
In the east, the sky was on fire. A new sun made up of hundreds of glowing red landing craft tight-packed into a giant disk was an eye of Baal descending upon the Virginia tidewater. The sight was unreal in the dusky afternoon sunshine, a blazing circlet of death picked out among the fleecy clouds and the darkening cerulean blue sky.
Every human in view of the spectacle stood transfixed as the circle grew and grew, swelling from a moon-sized ring to a horizon-spanning wall in moments. In the time it took to scream, the circle went from a speck to a ring to a blazing wall of fire and then snuffed out as the landing craft slowed below orbital velocities. As the meteoric reentry slowed, the individual ships could be picked out, the twelve-sided polygons of the command craft surrounded by their rings of protective landers. Moments later the sonic boom hit.
The sound was too large to be real, an aural Krakatoa beyond the ability for human hearing to accept. Most in the parking lot were driven to their knees and many lost their hearing permanently. None were spared.
* * *
Shari screamed with everyone else, her hands flying to her ears, for once matronly protectiveness being driven out by self-preservation. Billy and the other children were writhing on the ground in agony when the crowd began to surge. She snatched her children up, overcoming her own pain, dropped her hard-won possessions and stumbled into the lee of a truck that, for the moment, was stationary.
The crowd around her broke into riot as everyone individually did whatever they thought was the best for themselves. Some tried to get back into the stores, some ran for their cars, some, like Shari, huddled in the shelter of unmoving vehicles and some began firing randomly into the air. She held her babies as the world around her went mad and they screamed in pain and fear, from the riot as much as the sonic boom. Her ears ringing madly, she cradled her children in the space afforded by the shadow of the truck and waited for the panic to subside. Instead it increased, the crowd surging first one way and then the other as more shots rang out. She steeled herself to look, needing to know the cause of the newest panic and was nearly panicked herself as the shadow of an interstellar craft swept across the parking lot.
The lander drifted across the shopping center, like a zeppelin before a zephyr, and settled as gently as a dandelion seed onto Salem Church hill. The appearance of weightlessness was abruptly dispelled as the titanic craft, as tall as a fifteen-story skyscraper, dropped the last few feet.
As the reverberation of the landing crashed across the crowds, the lower fifty feet of the facet facing the parking lot dropped outward with another resounding clang. Moments later the Posleen came pouring out, a yellow tide of hunting centaurs.
Shari on the other hand took one look at the tide of Posleen pouring out of the landing craft, put Kelly's left hand in Billy's, picked up the baby, took Kelly's right hand and began walking towards town.
It was not hard. Just stand up, drop everything and go. Like the time that Rorie finally got too drunk and crazy. All the other times, the cops would tell her to go to the shelter but she stayed. She told them she would know when it was time. And it was time. Not hard, just pick the babies up, walk out, get in the car and drive. When the time came you just went. Maybe later there would be time to go back and pick up all the things you left behind. And maybe not. As long as you got away alive and unmaimed that was the thing.
Just walk away and keep walking. As guns go off on either side, and a high, whispery racket goes overhead with a crickety-crack. As a line of giant holes suddenly appear in a Jeep ahead of you, and the policeman that was firing from behind it flies backwards in a mass of intestines.
Just keep walking and don't look back, as the crowd tries to pluck your babies away faster than the courts, and the chatter of alien voices and boom of alien guns comes closer.