"The engineering companies of the Thirty-Sixth, Forty-Ninth and Hundred and Fifth Mechanized Divisions are on the way via I-95," said the Twelfth Corps operations officer, looking at a flimsy. "The remainder of the divisions are going to take a back way across the James and blow it behind them. That will be it for Fort A.P. Hill. The dependents are already gone."
The temporary headquarters that Twelfth Corps had set up in the First Union building was coming down. With the Posleen on the north side of the James, the area was going to get untenable fast. Already the sound of folding chairs and collapsing equipment could be heard in the background.
The meeting was taking place in a gorgeous fourth-floor conference room. The wonderful view to the east was about to be surrendered to the infantry. Present were a skeleton staff, the commander, some operations and intelligence officers, the major local commanders and the ubiquitous Special Forces representatives.
"My boys are ready to roll," said Colonel Walter Abrahamson, commander of the First Squadron Twenty-Second Cavalry (Virginians), the armored cavalry unit assigned to the Richmond local area. The commander was as tall and broad as one of his armored behemoths, but his hooked nose and generally saturnine look bespoke his desert heritage. With his current grim and implacable expression he looked like a biblical plague preparing to spring forth upon the enemies of his people. A gold Star of David earring, strictly nonregulation, sparkled on his left earlobe.
"Unfortunately," commented the corps commander, "we don't have a mission for you."
"Then let us go perform our traditional role." The Cav commander smiled confidently. "Eyes and ears."
"He's got a point," said the corps intelligence officer. "We're effectively blind. All we know is that all communication into the Fredericksburg area is cut off. All the wireless communications are being jammed and we lost the last phone trunk about twenty minutes ago. There were a few Spotsylvania County sheriff's deputies that made it out, but they've only been able to tell us where the Posleen aren't. We still don't know exactly where they are. We need to find out."
"Sir," said Sergeant Mueller, "they could do more than that. We can hit back."
"Oh?" commented an Intel/Planning officer, looking askance at an NCO devising strategy. "The Cav is in Bradleys and Humvees. The Posleen open those like tin cans."
"Yes, ma'am, if you put them out in the open. But I went out on 95 north and south last month, just nosing around. Coming down from Fredericksburg it's pretty darn flat but there are a few areas where, with improvement, they could fire hull-down. Get them hull-down, fire at max engagement range, which with those twenty-five millimeters is, what two thousand meters?" he asked the Cav commander.
"About that," agreed the Cav officer with a nod at the NCO.
"Call for a volley of fire and boogie out," continued Mueller. "It will require some engineering support but just a couple of bulldozers. That way we both keep the enemy in view and slow them down."
"You'll take casualties," said the corps commander, turning to the battalion commander, "and the few Posleen you kill will be a tithe of a tithe of their main force. Are you for it?"
"Yes, sir," said the cavalry officer with understated enthusiasm. "That is a straightforward Cav mission. My boys are cocked, locked and ready to roll."
"Very well. Sergeant Mueller, you and Master Sergeant Ersin head up the road," said the corps commander. "Get with the corps engineer before you leave. Tell him to assign you some civilian construction equipment. Make a list."
"Yes, sir," said Ersin quietly.
"Colonel Abrahamson," said the corps commander, "we have a battery of mobile one hundred fifty-five millimeter available. They're the new Reaver model. Take it with you. As more come on-line, we'll send the mobile units out to support you; the others we'll be digging into Mosby and Libby Hills. Have your fire-support chief coordinate through corps artillery, since you're effectively cut off from the rest of the Twenty-Second."
The Lieutenant General smiled grimly. "Last, Colonel, I hope I don't have to say this. You are not to become decisively engaged, not for any reason. Understand?"
"With upwards of four million Posleen?" The cavalry colonel chuckled dryly, with a rub of his thick, black hair. "General, my name's Walter Jacob Abrahamson, not George Armstrong Custer." The infamous cavalry general had been both blond and balding.
"And remind your men not to try to enter abandoned homes and businesses," the corps commander commented, sadly. "It looks like the 'Scorched Earth' program is going to get an early test."
* * *
Parker Williamson closed the front door, blotting out the sight of the Posleen lander that had crushed the Hawkes's house at the end of Bourne Street. He had already closed the curtains on the unpleasant view out the back. He turned to face his wife, down whose face tears cascaded.
"Well," he sighed, "I guess we drew the short straw."
She nodded, unable to speak, as their oldest daughter entered the room.
"Is it gonna boom anymore, Mommy?" the four-year-old asked, dabbing at the passing tears.
"No, sweetie." Jan Williamson gathered her composure, picking up the two-year-old as he toddled into the room, still crying from the painful sonic booms. "Not that we'll notice."
Parker locked the door and turned to a red panel by the standard home security system. The door swung open to reveal a key pad. A yellow light flashed above the pad and a beeping tone started.
"Federally Authorized Home Destruction System Mod One is activated. Posleen emanations detected, predestruct sequencing authorized. Enter code for command authorization."
Parker punched in a code and hit set.
"State your name."
"Parker Williamson, are you at this moment in your right mind?" the box asked, beginning the federally mandated litany.
"Emergency bypass authorization."
"Please key in second authorization as required by federal law."
Jan walked over and keyed in a second sequence.
"What is your name?"
"Jan Williamson, do you concur in setting the Federally Authorized Home Destruction System Mod One into function? Be aware that the system is monitoring Posleen emanations in the near area."
The panel chuckled for a moment, checking that their voice prints were correct and then the light went red. At the same time the home security system turned on.
"Intruder detection system activated, autodestruct sequence activated." In the basement of the house, two chemicals, harmless when separated, began to mix. "Destruct sequence will auto-activate upon unauthorized entry . . . may God protect and keep you."
"Come on, honey," said Jan Williamson, picking up their daughter in a big hug, "let's go read Peter Rabbit . . ."
* * *
Lieutenant General Arkady Simosin, Tenth Corps Commander, the corps tasked with the defense of Northern Virginia and Maryland, humorously called "The Army of the Potomac," looked at the giant blotch of red on his southern flank and wiped his mouth.
"Tell the Twenty-Ninth to pull his armored battalions back," he told his G-3, pointing at the tactical display. "They're too far forward. Empty Belvoir and Quantico, get them headed north of the Potomac. That's going to be our defensive line."
"Yes, sir. Sir, I called General Bernard. He said that he would only take that order from you directly and that he intended to drive into the Posleen flank to pull them off of Fredericksburg."
"What?" the general asked incredulously.
"I just got off the horn with him."
"Get him back." The general fumed as contact was made with the subordinate commander.
"General Bernard?" he asked on speaker phone.
"I believe the G-3 told you to pull your battalions back. I would like to know why you have refused."
"I believe that I can put enough pressure on the Posleen to pull some of them off of Fredericksburg, possibly give the Two-Twenty-Ninth some time to organize a breakout."
General Simosin considered General Bernard the epitome of the one officer you could do nothing with: active/stupid. A consummate politician, General Bernard had expended sweat and blood to become the Virginia Adjutant General—the senior military commander in the Virginia National Guard—in the days before the Posleen threat. With the rejuvenation of so many senior officers, such as Simosin, advancement had effectively stopped. General Bernard naturally blamed the rejuvenation program for his inability to advance to Lieutenant General.
In fact, the general had been strongly considered for relief for cause. He was chronically insubordinate, jumped the chain of command at every opportunity, was tactically unsound and refused to subordinate his units to either Tenth or Twelfth Corps. Instead he insisted that they remained distributed in penny packets throughout the state.
Now he held true to every negative in his history and it was about to get his troops slaughtered. Unfortunately, General Simosin knew that if he put pressure on him the idiot would just jump to the First Army commander and get the order countermanded. It was worse than the damn Confederates! Well, too bad.
"General, you are ordered to round up your units and pull them across the Potomac. We cannot stop the Posleen short of that natural obstacle and I will not throw units away in a pointless gesture. That is an order, failure to follow it will result in your arrest."
"Dammit, General, do you realize that that will throw away Alexandria, the Pentagon and Arlington Cemetery? Not to mention thousands of American citizens in Fredericksburg!"
"And Washington National Airport and Fort Belvoir. I can read a map. And I'm in that area at the moment, I might add. I am fully aware of those facts as is the Continental Army commander. He is evacuating the area even as we speak."
"We can stop them! This isn't Barwhon or Diess; common people are standing up to them everywhere and wearing them away. We can stop them at any point on the map! Just give me one brigade of the Forty-First Division, and we can stop them before Quantico."
"Since I just ordered you to retreat, I could scarcely authorize a forlorn hope with someone else's troops. General, pull your battalions back and do it now. Failure to do so will constitute violation of a direct order in combat. That is my final word."
Simosin squeezed the tabletop, trying to keep the tension from coming through in his voice. Now, if the First Army commander would only have the sense to see reality. Even if he did not, CONARC was one hundred percent behind pulling across the Potomac.
"If that is your final word, General, very well."
"Then you will pull your troops back? Let me be clear, both General Keeton and I agree that contact should be held until all necessary measures have been emplaced. Do not contact the Posleen without direct and clear orders to do so by either myself or General Keeton. Is that clear?"
"Yes. I will contact you when that withdrawal has been effected."
"Very well, start them back immediately. Out here." He turned back to the assembled staff that had listened to the call.
"And in the real world . . . how is the evacuation going?" General Simosin asked, taking a deep breath and turning to the Federal Emergency Management Agency representative.
"Fairly well, all things considered," the FEMA rep replied. "We've opened up the HOV lanes into Washington and we're routing the refugees through and out of town. It's moving slow, but we should have most of northern Virginia evacuated by morning. It would help if we could open up a few of the lanes the military isn't using.
"I know they are designated for defense use, but they're being underutilized by your military forces. We could maintain one lane and an emergency lane for the military forces and it would more than handle what is moving currently."
He turned to the G-3. "Are we going to have a big increase?"
"No, the convoys are pulling out of Belvoir and Quantico in a steady stream. We planned it that way and it's taking about an hour per battalion to cycle them through beans and bullets. They shouldn't pulse much. Most of them are headed towards D.C. also, but a few are being sent up the Prince William Parkway to Manassas. But I'm worried about civilian vehicles intruding on troop lanes."
"Issue orders to disable any civilian vehicle in a military lane with all appropriate force. Have the order broadcast and displayed on those overhead signs, then turn over unutilized lanes to FEMA. Anything else?"
"No, we're cutting all the corners we can," replied the FEMA rep. "But when the Posleen start coming close, into contact, things could get out of hand."
"Do you need troops?"
"We could use a few. MPs by preference."
"Three-Twenty-Fifth MP Battalion at your service, Madame."
"Thank you," the FEMA rep said. "That should cover it."
"Get those civilians out of harm's way; we'll try to slow the centaur bastards down." General Simonsin wiped his face and looked at the map projection.
"Now as to that. I don't want to have even cavalry in contact; the Posleen move too fast and hit too hard. We will follow the Reticulan Defense Plan to the letter and pull fully across the Potomac. I have so informed First Army and CONARC. So, to slow them down, what do we do for engineers?" The corps engineering brigade was at Fort Leonard Wood going through a large-scale engineering exercise. The timing of the exercise was exquisite. Exquisitely lousy.
"The engineering companies of the Forty-First and Ninety-Fifth Divisions probably should accompany them, since they'll have to dig in," said the G-3.
"So, what do we use?" the commander asked again.
"Sir," said one of the operations officers. "I called Fort Belvoir and, since they've reactivated the Fifty-Two Echo program there, they have plenty of combat engineering instructors and trainees. And there are the officers going through basic and advanced courses . . ."
" 'And to the strains of Dixie, the cadets marched off the field to war,' " Simosin quoted. "Well, that's a start. Where do we deploy them?"
"The first real terrain obstacle the Posleen will encounter is at the Occoquan Estuary . . ." said the corps intelligence officer.
* * *
Second Lieutenant William P. Ryan—being a not quite graduate of the Basic Combat Engineers Officers' course—did not know much about combat engineering. And he knew even less about combat in general. But he was willing to learn, even if this kind of makee-learnee was not particularly survivable. One look at the pitiable stream of refugees headed north on Interstate 95 was enough to make him determined to do his best.
Most of his classmates were rigging the I-95 and U.S. 1 bridges over the Occoquan River under the expert tutelage of their instructors. The senior instructor had decided that Ryan was a good-enough prospect that he was sent to destroy a bridge all on his own, and his "platoon" was rigging the 123 bridge under the guidance of an experienced instructor-sergeant. The platoon was a group of trainees from the enlisted combat engineers course along with their drill instructors and junior technical instructors. The interesting challenge in concrete cutting posed by the bridge he had left up to the much more experienced NCO instructors.
He crossed the river and walked down through the charming little town of Occoquan to get a better look at the far ridge from the Posleen's perspective. The town was nestled along the south side of the river where it passed between two high ridges. The subsurface geology of the ridges created the falls that gave birth to the town and that were integrated into the Occoquan dam. That dam, in turn, created the reservoir that stretched from his location nearly to Manassas, twenty miles away.
As he stood just below Rockledge Manor he noticed a small footbridge crossing over the river just below the waterworks. He made a note to have a squad come over and rig it for demolition as well. The dam, on the other hand, was another matter.
If they dropped the dam, God only knew where the Posleen might be able to cross the Occoquan. After checking his map he guessed it would be somewhere around Yates Ford Road, half the distance they might otherwise have to travel. On the other hand, the Posleen could push forces across the dam itself. Not many or in great force, but any intrusion was to be dissuaded. And there was an older, partially submerged dam as well. He was unsure how to handle that tactical problem and decided to pass it up the line.
Walking rapidly back through the deserted town he got a strange feeling of sadness. He could remember the days before the Posleen were a word, before Earth knew it was in the path of an invasion. Even as America prepared, as more and more shortages occurred and liberties fell by the wayside in the race to get ready, the world was more or less the same as it had always been.
At that moment, striding rapidly back to where engineers under his command were preparing to destroy a major civil structure, he knew that this was truly the end of the golden age. That from now until an unforeseeable future man would be a hunted animal on his own world and that only God knew what the outcome would be.
* * *
"Ladies and gentlemen," the loudspeaker boomed, "we need you to remain calm." The crowd gathered behind the Fredericksburg Public Safety Building was mostly women and children. They had run from their homes in fear and fled to the only refuge they knew. There was plenty of room with all of the ambulances and police cars dispatched. The group huddled in the gathering dark, most of them knowing that by coming here they were only delaying the inevitable.
"We are working on a way to get you out," continued the speaker, one of the remaining fire fighters, "and we just need you to remain calm."
"He's dreamin'," said Little Tom Sunday in a monotone. Then, "Hiya, Wendy."
Wendy Cummings spun around. Little Tom stood behind her with a pack on his back and duffel bag at his feet. He was wearing some sort of weird black padding that stretched almost to his knees, a black helmet like the soldiers wore and a pair of sporty sunglasses. Inside she sighed in exasperation. If there was one person she did not want to spend her last hours with, it was Little Tommy Sunday. But she might as well be polite.
"Hi, Tommy. What's that stuff?" she asked out of curiosity, gesturing at the padding.
"Body armor," he answered in a disinterested tone. "It won't stop one of their railguns, but it'll stop the shotgun rounds and spalling."
Her eyes widened as she recognized it from "Real Police" shows. Officers had been shot at point-blank range wearing similar suits and survived. "Do you have any more?" she asked, hopefully.
"Well," he answered, bending down stiffly to rummage in his duffel bag, "I don't have any more Class One, but I've got a Safe-Tee, some T-shirt Kevlar." He pulled the body armor out of the bag, revealing the contents. He glanced at her chest. "It might fit," he ended doubtfully.
"Holy shit," she gasped, "what-all do you have in there?" The bag gleamed with the bluing of lethal purpose. She recognized the shape of some sort of machine gun and other things she thought were grenades.
She had taken the school survival course, but only because it was required. But, since you didn't have to pass, she had spent most of her time doing homework from other classes and passing notes to her friends. She barely recognized the items in the bag from familiarization.
"A few odds and ends," he answered, zipping the bag shut.
"Do you . . . Could I borrow a gun or something?" she asked, trying to figure out the connections on the body armor.
"What would you do with it?" he asked, disgustedly, grabbing the Velcro and efficiently connecting first one underarm strap then the other.
"Try?" she asked, looking him in the eye for the first time in years. She suddenly realized that he was far taller than she thought; much taller than she was, which was a surprise. Everyone just thought of him as Little Tommy. He had been self-effacing for so long, it had made him appear short.
"You should have tried years ago," he answered. He reached back into the duffel and brought out a short black pistol in a shoulder holster.
"You ever use one of these things before?" he asked rhetorically, dropping out the magazine and yanking back the slide to eject the round up the spout. He caught the 9mm round in the air like a trout after a fly.
"No," she answered, intimidated by his suddenly revealed expertise.
"Okay." He lifted up the magazine. "This is the gas, you fuel it like this." He slid the magazine back into the well. "It's fueled when you hear the click. You start it like this." He jacked back the slide. "And," he said, laying one finger lightly on the trigger as he pointed the weapon skyward and across the river, "this is the accelerator. You drive it by looking through the rear sights while focusing on the front sights. Place the white dot on the front sight across the V of the rear sights and pull on the accelerator real slow. There, the Tom Sunday School of Glock Driving."
She accepted the weapon gingerly as he ensured she had it pointed up and downrange.
"So where is Park?" she asked dryly.
He took the weapon back, put it into the shoulder holster and handed her the rig. "There is no Park," he said as he easily hefted the weapon-stuffed duffel. "See ya."
"Where are you going?"
He looked at her for a moment and cocked his head to one side. "That stuff," he noted, gesturing with his chin at the body armor, "is really supposed to go under your clothes. I'm heading up to somewhere on Charles or Princess Anne Street that has a good view," he said, throwing the strap of the duffel across one shoulder, "then I'm going to smoke a whole pack of Marlboros waiting for the Posleen to show their heads. Then I'm going to die." He smiled warm and quietly, as if asking her to deny the reality of that statement.
She smoothed the stomach of her armor unconsciously and went through a series of rapid mental readjustments. "Can I come with you? Maybe I can reload or something."
"I sincerely doubt that there will be time to reload," he answered, "but you would be extremely welcome. Now, to find a good spot on Charles Street," he said, turning up the hill.
"How about Worth's?" she suggested.
* * *
Bill Worth sat at ease in the rear of his store, a Franklin stove removing the last tinges of chill from the evening of this truly wearisome day. The large front room of the shop was redolent with the scent of old books and fine antiques. It was the scent of home.
He was spending what he considered to be his last few moments perusing an early edition of Moll Flanders that included some tracts not usually found outside of the editions published during Defoe's era and sipping a Cóte d'Azur '57 he had traded the previous year for a prototype Colt Peacemaker. As in all good business deals, both parties felt they got the better of the bargain.
He had just reached a condition of maximum comfort, his sockless loafers perched on an ottoman, his wine close at hand, when the door to the shop jingled as, most unexpectedly, a pair of customers entered.
"Feel free to look around, gentlemen," he told the pair of soldiers, officers if his "Uniforms and Insignia of the United States Armed Forces" was any judge. "However, I prefer not to sell anything today. I have decided to maintain my collection intact for old sake's sake." He chuckled at the reference neither of the soldiers would possibly recognize.
"Hi, Mr. Worth, it's me, Kenny Young," said the younger officer, truly a babe-in-arms as it were.
"Ah, yes, young Mr. Young," he said with another breathy chuckle. "The uniform befits you. I thought you were studying engineering?"
"I'm a military engineer."
"Ah! A Pioneer! Bravo. Where are you based?"
"Here, Mr. Worth. That's what the local Guard unit is, Engineers." Lieutenant Young smiled faintly. It was a well-known fact that Bill Worth hadn't set foot outside of the five or ten blocks of what he termed "historic Fredericksburg" in years.
"Ah, yes, somewhere up Route 3 isn't it?" asked the shopkeeper, quizzically.
"Yeah, about a mile from here," chuckled the lieutenant.
"Ah. Terra Incognita, indeed. So, to what do I owe the honor of your presence on this most gloriously unpleasant evening?"
"Well, we need to find out about the tunnels. We were told you might know something about them."
"Yes," commented the local historian, with a nod of his head. "Well, it would really be Ralph Kodger, you need to talk to about them . . ."
"But he's . . ." noted the lieutenant.
"Dead, yes, but a great historian in his time. Or perhaps Bob Bailey . . ." continued Worth.
" . . . who . . ." said Young.
" . . . moved to Kansas, yes, I see you're ahead of me here."
"Do you know anything about them? Where the openings are?" asked the engineer.
"What their structure is?" asked the other soldier.
"And you are, sir?" Bill asked politely. The older soldier was obviously impatient, one of those people who feel it necessary to continuously rush about as if life wasn't always exactly the same length.
"Captain Brown, sir, Charlie Company commander," said Captain Brown, shortly. "We hope to hide some of the women and children in the tunnels and blow up, well, the city basically, to cover our tracks. We wondered about a '50s-style bomb shelter, but there aren't any. So we're back to the tunnels. Unless you know where a bomb shelter is."
"A valorous endeavor indeed," commented Worth, setting down his Defoe and walking to the desk that was the center of his domain. "Might I ask a few questions?"
"As long as you're quick," snapped the impatient commander.
"How are they to survive?" asked the shopkeeper. "The women and children that is. Without air, food or water? There won't be much room for that sort of thing, I would suppose." He rummaged in the top drawer of the desk and extracted a pad of what appeared to be parchment.
"It turns out that the paramedics have been using a Galactic medication called Hiberzine that can put a person in suspended animation for months," said the lieutenant, excitedly. "Public Safety has plenty of it; we can pack in as many as can fit. Resources are not an issue."
"Ah, and how do you intend to blow up the city?" Mr. Worth asked, beginning to doodle on the pad.
"We're going to fill some of the buildings with natural gas, basically," answered Captain Brown. "It'll do the job; do those centaur bastards anyway. Now, I'm sorry, but if you don't mind, we need to find somewhere to stash the women and children. If you'll excuse us?"
"Actually, I think you might consider my pump house," Worth noted with a world-weary laugh, continuing to sketch.
"We need something larger than a pump house," said the captain, assuming he meant one covering the well for a house. "Thank you just the same. Come on, Lieutenant."
"Captain," the storekeeper drawled, finished scribbling rapidly on his pad, "would something like this suffice?" He held up the sketch. "A two-story underground pump house for an industrial plant? Three-foot-thick concrete walls? Fifty feet long, thirty feet wide? Two levels? Underground?"
"Jesus," whispered Captain Brown, snatching the pad. "Where is this?"
"By the river," Worth answered with a dry smile.
"You own this?" asked Lieutenant Young, peering at the well-drawn sketch.
"Yes, I bought it several years ago and fixed it up," answered the storekeeper.
"Well," answered Bill Worth, with a sigh, "it's got such a beautiful view of the river. . . . Captain, if I offer this made-in-heaven facility for your little plan, can I pick which building you blow up?"
* * *
"Are you sure about this, Captain?" asked the first sergeant of Charlie Company as Second and Third platoons assembled in the parking lot of the Fredericksburg Executive Building. A seven-story block of unimaginative '70s architecture, it had all the aesthetic appeal of a brick, creating a modern eyesore among the pleasant stone seventeenth- and eighteenth-century buildings that predominated in the city center.
"It was Mr. Worth's only condition and it's really the best building for our purpose," answered the captain. "It's got plenty of volume, it's close to the pump house but the railroad embankment will create a blast shadow and I have to agree, not that it matters, that it is one of the ugliest buildings I have ever seen." He turned back to the assembled troops and raised his voice to carry over the sound of approaching semitrailers.
"Men, we are going to kill two birds with one stone. While some of you prepare a bunker to hide the women and children, others of you are going to prepare a reception for the Posleen they will never forget. We have found an industrial pump house that used to supply water for the old cellophane mill. It is partially buried and has three-foot-thick concrete walls.
"Second platoon, along with these arriving construction guys, is going to finish covering it with as much overburden as we can find, while also preparing the inside. You need to fair over the opening to the pump house proper, you'll see what I mean when you get in there. The radio station is calling for anyone with welding equipment to come here and construction equipment is being diverted from the Interstate lines to assist.
"Get the pump house covered with overburden and get the opening faired over with sheet and structural steel, whatever you can find. When we get as many women and children in as we can, we'll blow the tower and seal them in.
"I've looked it over and there may be room for all the surviving women and children, praise be to God. Since there may not be time or room, the chief of police is starting a lottery for who goes in and the order. Only children under sixteen and their mothers are going in the bunker.
"The problem is that if we just bury the noncombatants, the Posleen will dig them out like anteaters after termites. We need to create as much disruption as possible and try to make it appear that there is nothing left to find in Fredericksburg, and especially not on this side. To do that, we are going to turn this building," he pointed with his thumb at the monstrosity over his shoulder, "into a giant fuel-air bomb.
"Trucks are coming from Quarles Gas to pump it full of propane. But first it has to be prepped. I want Third platoon to get in there and blow holes through all the floors, to increase interior circulation. And before you leave make sure every interior door is open. While the building is being prepped, the first sergeant will rig it for demolition. Don't set any of your charges in his way.
"When you're done, which should take less than forty-five minutes, you'll either go to the bunker work, or up to prepare the town defenses."
He gestured to the arriving lowboys burdened with bulldozers and backhoes. "Second, we're depending on you and those guys to make an impregnable bunker. Get to work. And Third," he gestured to the cases of C-4 at the entrance to the building, "go blow some holes. Keep your helmets on, somebody might be blowing above you."
"Sir," muttered the first sergeant as the platoon pounded into the building, grabbing demo and caps as they went by, "this is bound to cause casualties."
"Well, Top, there are times when you have to balance relative risk. I don't have much idea how much time we have, but I doubt we have much longer."
* * *
"We have to slow them down," noted the S-3, desperately. "Charlie is just starting on the bunker and the FAE. It'll take them at least an hour."
"More," noted the fire chief, "it'll take that long just to pump the building full of gas."
The Posleen had taken their time assembling—for which everyone was thankful. But having reduced the last resistance and most of the buildings around Central Square, the nearest B-Dec force was coming down Highway 3. And there was only a scattering of militia and police to stop the six-thousand-odd rampaging aliens. Other Posleen were moving in from the east and west, but by the time those Posleen reached the city center it would be nearly dawn and the bunker and FAE would be prepared.
It was the Central Square force, rolling down the main highway into town, that would be the primary threat to the plan.
"We need something to distract them, to scare them," commented the battalion commander, "something like that dragon that the ACS used on Diess."
"I'll tell you one thing every Earth animal is afraid of," said the scarred chief, getting the glimmering of an idea, "and that's fire."
"What are you thinking?" asked the commander.
"If we had some flamethrowers . . ." said the S-3 and his eyes widened at the same time as the chief's.
"Jerry," said the S-3, turning to his NCOIC, "call Quarles Gas, and tell them we need some more flammables. Some gas trucks, gasoline that is, or kerosene. Any liquid flammables."
"Kerosene is the preference. I'll go get the fire trucks," said the chief, shaking her head.
* * *
"Yes, Sergeant Major?" Colonel Robertson was mortally tired. The strains of the day were rapidly taking their toll and he wondered what new catastrophe the sergeant major had to report.
"Well, sir, I was checking on the detail that was issuing from the ammo point, and all the parties are out on site, but there's still over a ton of demo and ammunition of one sort or another left."
"Okay, I guess we could blow it in place when the Posleen get here."
"Yes, sir, we could, but I was thinking, the ammo dump isn't far from the armory and I've got that detail still on site . . ."
"And you think there might be better places to put the ammo than in the ammo dump."
"Yes, sir. Face it, the dump is designed to contain an explosion," said the sergeant major with a feral smile.
"Well, Sergeant Major, why don't you just take charge of that little detail." The colonel smiled back. Good subordinates were such a treasure.
* * *
Shari stumbled into the crowd behind the Public Safety Building and carefully lowered Kelly and Susie to the ground. Billy let go of her skirt and sat down, his eyes wide and unseeing. She slumped beside him as the two girls huddled into her lap, Susie quietly whimpering from the broken blisters on her feet and the sights glimpsed over her mother's shoulder. A woman coming through the crowd stopped and stared, then walked over.
"Are you in the pool?" she asked abruptly.
Shari looked at her with wide unemotional eyes. It took a long moment to register her question. "What?" she croaked.
"Are you in the basket? Did you enter your name to be drawn?"
"Drawn for what?" she gasped again, mouth and throat dry from dehydration and agonizingly extended fear.
Finally the woman grasped that Shari was suffering from more than the general shock of the loathsome afternoon drawn into evening. "Are you going to be all right?"
Shari started to laugh quietly and the laughs began to segue into sobs.
Every step she took, from the parking lot to where the Army and police were digging in along the interstate, she knew would be their last. Time and again she heard the centaurs drawing closer, only to be delayed by some more interesting target. When she was forced to pick up Susie, drawing her already slow progress to a crawl, she was overcome with the utter certainty that her babies were going to die. And from what she had heard behind her it was going to be one of the worst of all possible deaths.
The pain-racked march was a drawn-out nightmare, in which the monsters were always just behind you and you knew that at any moment they would touch you and then you would die. But this was no nightmare; this was a stark reality as the sun set behind her in a blaze of red and she dropped into the shadows of Salem Hill to the accompaniment of dying screams.
The passing matron waved for one of the tending fire fighters as Shari began to collapse into hysterics. The EMT came over, readying a dose of Hiberzine.
"No," said one of the other paramedics. She grabbed Shari by her shoulders and forced her to look up. "You have to keep together," she snapped. "We need you; we need all the mothers. You're Shari Reilly, right?"
Shari nodded her head, still unable to stop the sobs. The girls started crying softly in response as Billy just sat and rocked, looking into the deepening twilight.
"You came in from Central Park?"
"Uh-huh," Shari sobbed, unable to catch her breath.
"All you have to do is hang on until they call your name, okay? It's a lot easier than walking from Target to the interstate. We got a call on you. Let me see your daughter's feet."
As the paramedic tended to Susie, Shari slowly got herself under a little better control.
"You're going through a normal reaction," said the medic, soothingly. "You've had a shock, Jesus, we all have! But yours was worse. You go through a reaction period. You held out until you were here, which is better than most. You held it together getting out of the . . . the . . ."
"Out of hell," said Billy.
Shari squeezed her son to her. "Are you gonna be okay, baby?"
"I . . . I . . ."
"It's okay, baby, we're safe."
"No, we're not, Mom. Don't lie."
"Son," said the medic firmly, "the engineers are building the best damn shelter they can to protect you, and the rest of us are going to try to make sure there's nothing to draw the Posleen in. We're gonna do our level best to save you, I promise you that."
"Is it gonna work?" asked Shari, catching her breath in a pause between crying spells.
"I won't promise anything," said the paramedic honestly. "But it's a better chance than without it."
"Excuse me," said a woman, looming out of the darkness, "somebody said you were up at Spotsylvania Mall." The woman's voice caught for a moment. "Did you happen to see a man driving," she paused, "driving a hunter green Suburban . . ."
"My husband was a tall man . . ."
"Did you see . . ."
The women rose around her, closing in with desperate questions, but the paramedic rose over her like an enraged lioness. "Look, people, I know you're wondering about your . . . your families, your husbands, but this lady's been through enough already . . ."
"No," said Shari, with a quavering voice, "I have to say it, I have to. . . . There was nobody behind me, nobody at all. I'm sorry . . ." She started crying again, quietly. "There wasn't anything I could do. I, I, just had to walk away, you see? I had to save my babies, I had to walk and keep walking . . . There was this little girl . . . she wouldn't come with me and I was carrying my babies . . . I couldn't, I couldn't . . ."
"Shhh," the medic cried into her hair, "it's all right, it is. There's nothing to do . . ."
"We had to walk," laughed Billy. "We just walked and walked and never ever looked back. You can't look back, you just have to walk and walk . . ." He began to scream.
The paramedic leaned over and pressed an injector against his neck. In a moment he was out cold.
"What was that?" Shari snarled, struggling to her feet.
"Shh, just Hiberzine. He'll sleep quiet. Unfortunately, when he wakes up to him it'll be just a moment from now. So before anyone gives him the antidote, make sure they know he's not tracking very well. We've put quite a few out." The lost wives had faded back into the darkness and another paramedic brought over blankets and soup.
"I put you in the drawing," he said. "The engineers are about to start loading."
"I wonder how they're doing at the interstate?" said the female paramedic.
* * *
The chassis of a gas truck, caught on the overpass as the Posleen pounded into view, was silhouetted by the fires of thousands of gallons of kerosene, diesel and gasoline. A fire truck kept up a steady stream of mixed flammables as its counterpart stood at a comfortable distance across Plank Road awaiting its turn to fire. The giant flamethrower had demonstrated truly awesome range from time to time as the Posleen tried to bypass the incendiary barrier. The gushing fuel spouted out at tremendous force and ignited only as it touched the other burning fuel. Occasionally openings would occur. When the Posleen tried to charge through, the fire fighters would get them good and soaked then drift a line of fuel to the nearest patch of flame. The explosion of fire would immolate the group and the massacre would continue. Behind the two fire trucks was a line of fuel trucks, well dispersed, and a spare pair of pumper cars having their seals replaced.
"Damn if this isn't working, Chief," said Colonel Robertson with an amazed smile. The stupid aliens were hell-bent on forcing the passage and getting turned into Posleen Toasties in the process.
"Yes, sir, Colonel. Those holes your boys put in help too." She gestured to the large craters blown into the median, requiring the Posleen to go out of their way by nearly a kilometer on either side. Explosions and shots in both directions showed where skirmishing was occurring on the flanks. The Posleen had not yet pressed in either direction nor did they appear to be interested in pursuing it. When they did the defense would have to fall back.
"It's amazing. They don't seem to have consolidated, yet," the colonel informed her. "They're just coming in piecemeal and we're blowing them away all over the place. We blew the Jeff Davis bridge, but they're pressing up from the south on the Jeff Davis and Tidewater Trail. We're going to be untenable here before the juice runs out."
"Okay, well, we'll pull back when you call it," said the fire chief, wiping at a bit of soot on her cheek. The smell of burning Posleen was like nothing else on earth. The closest she could come was burning rubber and that was about as close as alligator to chicken. The smoke was almost enough to call for breath-packs and who knew what toxins it might contain.
"It won't be soon," he commented with a grim smile as another group tried to charge the fire. The fire fighters had almost made a game of it, opening pockets to allow the enemy to charge forward then cutting off their retreat before filling the hole and incinerating them. Even the God Kings seemed unable to find the source of the fuel as the flames climbed high into the night.
"You probably ought to turn this one over to your second," Colonel Robertson noted. "I'd like you to take a safety look at the fuel-air explosive. It would be a bitch if it prematurely detonated, but we have to fill the building in advance."
"You got it, Colonel. Where are you going to be?"
"Oh, I have an appointment at the armory. Something about preparing a reception."
The old fire fighter smiled. "Well, lay in the punch and I suppose they will come."
"Right down William Street."
"Yup. Welcome to Historic Fredericksburg."
* * *
"I think they'll spread out a little from William Street," said Little Tommy, turning away up Princess Anne Street. "Probably as far as Fauquier or Hawk before they blow the Big One."
They walked along Princess Anne in the dusk, crunching the shattered glass from display windows underfoot as the rattle of gunfire sounded in the distance. The quaint shops had taken a big hit from the sonic booms of the landing.
"I was wondering . . ." he said diffidently. "Do you want to take a chance on the bunker? Now that they're going to do that?"
"I'm over sixteen," Wendy pointed out, "and not a mother." The last was somewhat sharp, almost bitter.
"You wouldn't hide if they gave you the chance, would you?"
Tommy thought about it. "No; no, I probably wouldn't. Not until I . . . did some good. And by then it would be too late."
"What is it with all of this?" she asked, gesturing at the body armor and bags. "I mean, I know kids that are in Junior Militia who are less well prepared."
"Yeah, well, my dad's one real regret in life is that he took a scholarship to Clemson to play football instead of West Point to play army. Then he went pro and that ended any chance of going in the military. Instead, he became an armchair soldier. You know, CNN junky, shooting pistols instead of playing golf, playing paintball all weekend. The whole Posleen thing was the greatest thing that ever happened to him; he was finally going to get to be a soldier. He even tried to enlist, but he was outside the range since he wasn't prior service. And then there's the knees . . .
"Anyway, he decided early on, way before we Knew, that I was going to be the next Hannibal . . ."
"Who?" asked Wendy, coughing as a particularly strong swirl of smoke from the interstate wafted down the street.
" . . . the next Robert E. Lee," Tommy translated.
"I've been training to be a soldier since most kids were learning to play T-ball. My dad made a big thing about giving me my first pistol when I was eight. I'd asked for a new computer."
"Yeah," said Wendy, in a questioning tone. "I thought you were a computer geek, not a gun geek."
"Gun geek, that's rich," he said bitterly. "I am a computer geek, actually a computer super-geek. I'm nationally ranked number eleven at Death Valley and the smart money was on me going into the top five next week. I've been coding practically since I could write. I live for computers. Knowing that, Dad requires that I give equal time to this kind of training. I have to put in exactly as much time on the range or in the field as I do on a computer.
"I was the youngest member of the Junior Militia and basically quit after two years because I was so far ahead of the rest of those slow-assed bozos. I can run well enough to go out for track, but it was track or computer time. And, hell, football? Lifting weights is considered 'military training' so I can press well over my body weight and Dad wanted me to try out for the squad. It was the one time I basically told him to stuff it. If I was a jock it would cut into either range time or computer time and I knew which one my dad would choose."
He shrugged philosophically. "So, here I am, the most dangerous kid in school, and an outcast computer geek. Go figure."
"Well," said Wendy carefully as they stopped by Goolrick's drugstore on the corner of George Street, "I guess you've come to your moment."
"My dad's moment, you mean. He's out there, somewhere, holed up, waiting for the Posleen to come into view and just living for it. Mom and Sally will go into the hole and I'll 'give 'em as good as I get,' " he quoted in a false baritone.
"Fucking bastard," he spat, bitterly. "The bitch of it is, I'm sitting here figuring angles of fire as well as any infantry lieutenant, and as if it's going to do any good." He shrugged and looked around, still figuring the angles.
"What about Alesia's Antiques?" he asked, gesturing across the street with his chin. "It's got a good shot across the courtyard behind it. We might even move into the Bank Museum. That would give us first and second positions. We might even survive three minutes," he finished with a laugh.
"I've been thinking about Alesia's," she answered speculatively. "You know when you asked if I wished I was going in the Bunker?"
* * *
"Jesus," said Tommy, as the rebar went through the brick wall next to an antique safe, "it really is here. How did you know about this?"
"Well, your love is computers and the military. Mine is local history and research."
He poked his head through the small hole and into the musty tunnel beyond, shining a Maglite around. "It's about five, five and a half feet high. Brick arch, dry earth floor. Amazing. What were these things for?"
"Nobody's sure. There's no written records about them, but they date to the Eighteenth century at least. The best guess is that they were used to bring cargo up from the docks. The streets back then were dirt and they got awful boggy in the rain. The romantic story is that they were for transporting contraband. Smuggled silk and untaxed tea, stuff like that. The really stupid story is that they were created by the slaves as escape routes. No way. They might have been used as hiding places for the Underground Railroad, but they were not created by it; they're from an earlier period."
He turned and looked at her in the dimness of the antique shop's basement. "I guess I'm not the only one surprising people today."
"I usually get complimented on my intelligence just before I get dumped," she said, frowning.
He swallowed a lump of his own resentment. "Maybe you were hanging out with the wrong guys."
"Yeah," she answered, "maybe I was. Look," she continued, pulling out the Glock, "this isn't going to do me much good against the Posties. You got anything heavier in there?" She gestured at the duffel.
"Yeah, good point. The only problem is these are a little more complicated." He unzipped the duffel and started emptying it. He had set aside his armor and backpack to move the heavy sideboard blocking the tunnel wall and now gestured at the backpack. "Open that up and start laying the stuff out. We'll need to divvy it up."
In a few minutes the two bags were emptied out on the floor and their contents neatly arranged. It made an impressive arsenal.
"We're not going to get to use a third of this stuff, but I believe in being truly prepared."
"I can see that," she said, picking up one of the assault rifles that had been stowed in the duffel bag. "What's this one?"
"That's a Galil .308. It's a good anti-Posleen weapon. Do you want to try it?"
"Okay, it looks less complicated than that one." The other weapon appeared to have more than one rifle on it.
"It is. This one is my baby." He hefted the rifle. "It's an Advanced Infantry Weapon, a 7.62 rifle with a twenty-millimeter grenade launcher underneath. Thirty-round magazine for the rifle and five rounds for the grenade launcher. Laser designator. Definitely the thing."
"I'll take this one," she said, lifting the Galil. "Is it loaded?"
"No." He took it and went through the basic steps to arm, fire, reload and safe it. "Pull it into your shoulder and squeeze the trigger. This one has a laser designator, too, but it's low infrared so you can only see it through the scope."
He safed the weapon and handed it back. "It's empty. Point it at the far wall and squeeze the trigger while you look through the scope." He helped her get a good cheek-to-stock position. "See the dot?"
"Yeah, it's all over the place."
"Take a deep breath," he said, forced to notice the pleasant things it did to her anatomy even under body armor, "let it out and squeeze the trigger gently . . ." He almost continued with the standard line but snorted instead.
"Don't laugh at me!" she snapped, dropping the rifle to waist level. "I'm trying!"
"I know you are. I wasn't laughing at you," he said, snorting again. "I was trying not to continue the saying that goes with that."
"With what?" she asked, confused.
"Look, when you're teaching trigger control the way the saying usually goes is 'let your breath out and squeeze it gentle, like a tit,' okay? That was what I laughed about, I almost said it. Okay?"
"Okay," she said, mollified. "What a crude and stupid thing to say," she continued.
"I tried not to! You badgered me into saying it, okay?"
"Like you would know what squeezing a tit felt like!" She stopped and her hand flew across her mouth as she realized what she had blurted.
"Thanks," he smiled grimly, "thanks a lot. If you must know, I guarantee I know more about squeezing tits gently than you do."
"Oh, sure. I don't think you've gone with a girl since Kathy Smetzer in fifth grade!"
"Jesus, you really have been keeping up with my life, haven't you," he snarled.
"It's a small town," she answered, lamely.
"Right. Well, for your general fund of information, my dad also had very . . . different ideas about summer camp . . ."
It took a moment for the gist of what he had said to sink in. "Oh, sure, a camp story."
"The camp I go to is a coed combat-training camp in Montana, run by the National Militia Association," he continued, firmly. "Although sex is not specifically encouraged, sex education, as in, 'this is how you do it, boys and girls' is taught. In detail. And there are no restrictions except those relating to consent. Okay?"
"You wish. Every year I get through the year's insults, slights and put-downs knowing that the big man on that campus is the best shot, the best at hand-to-hand or the most stealthy. And I generally come out somewhere close to the top. And all the girls are in great shape."
"You're not kidding."
"So," she snapped, returning to the crux of the argument, "do the girls at that camp say that, say 'gentle like a tit'?"
"Some do," he said, smiling warmly, obviously cueing on a happy memory, "but most say 'gentle like a dick.' "