Kenallai, Kessentai Oolt'ondai of the Gamalada Oolt' Po'os' felt that, after conquering five worlds, after so many years of battles that the lowly fiefs bestowed by the Net upon a Scoutmaster were in the final stages of orna'adar, he had seen it all.
"Aarnadaha lost how many oolt'os?" He snorted in surprise, drifting his tenar absently back and forth in the verge of U.S. 1. The crackle of distant riflery echoed from the north and there was a stink of burning on the light wind. The house across the street was a crater that looked as if a giant had scooped it out.
"He has only a single oolt left," related Ardan'aath, his closest Kessentai. They had been associates for many years and he trusted the old oolt'ondai's advice.
Kenallai's crest rose in defiance of this impossibility. "He landed with a full Oolt' Po'os, did he not?"
"Yes, oolt'ondai. And they landed on the richest booty in the region, the storehouses of these thresh. As it is we hold only a smattering of living quarters. The thresh gathered so far barely will meet our needs for the next day. Furthermore, many of the living quarters were destroyed, either before our oolt'os entered or as they entered. Many of them blew up in their muzzles. Little of the thresh permitted itself to be in-gathered and much of the thresh and booty that was left behind had been damaged or destroyed."
"I have to call him." The senior battlemaster fluffed his crest nastily. "That thrice-damned puppy had it coming, pushing us aside as he did in the landing!"
"Tell it to the Net," grunted Ardan'aath. "He was removed from the Path as he exited his Oolt' Po'os. One shot to the crest!"
"What sort of Alld'nt planet is this?" Kenallai wondered aloud.
"I may have an answer to that, my edas'antai," answered one of the other God Kings in the ad hoc council of war.
He turned to his eson'antai, Kenallurial. Ardan'aath had yet to trust him. He was only recently raised from scoutmaster to the lowest level of battlemaster and filled with strange new concepts. Where a Kessentai might develop a few close and trusted allies, as Kenallai had with Ardan'aath, the Path was a Path of fury. In the heat the only call to depend upon was the call of the Blood. To trust an edas'antai was one thing, but to gather a group of like-minded Kessentai, to form wide allegiances and to advocate "thinking like the enemy" was not the Way of the Path.
Many of the other battlemasters advocated returning him to scoutmaster status for more seasoning. More time in the forefront of battle, when his weak allegiances disintegrated on him in the heat of edan, when his "allies" strove to be the first on the finest territory, thus increasing the yield of their fiefs, would, in the eyes of the older Kessentai, prove to him the error of his ways.
Nonetheless, whether because of the ties of blood, or because he suspected merit at the core of the young battlemaster's philosophies, Kenallai maintained him at his side.
Other oolt'ondai turned aside as the young battlemaster looked up from his Net interface. "I have found a reference to these thresh."
"I looked for data on this world," snorted Ardan'aath. "There was nothing. Only widespread reports of it as a fecund world of low technology, ripe for the plucking. We are lucky to have arrived ahead of the main waves. We shall gorge ourselves on territory and booty!" There were feral growls from the assembled God Kings.
"Not reports of these thresh from this world. They were reported on two other worlds within the last tar. Edas'antai," he continued, touching a control to send the data to his elder's screen, "this report is most disturbing."
The Posleen DataNet was a morass of poorly sorted information. Without a central control, information robots or any correlated indexes, data that was thousands of years old had identical priority with newer, more appropriate data. Navigating its rocks and shoals was a task few of the Kessentai enjoyed and most used it as little as possible. The Net permitted communication within the local area, distributed resources after conquest and occasionally called for reinforcements, but as a source of intelligence most Posleen found it lacking.
"In the last tar, thresh similar in appearance have begun to appear in small numbers. On Aradan 5 the invasion has been effectively repulsed."
"What?" scoffed Ardan'aath. "The Po'oslena'ar have never been defeated!"
"They are on Aradan 5," noted Kenallai quietly. "Many have already left. The few that remain are being pushed back day by day."
"Note the data on the physiology," Kenallurial continued. "They are definitely not modifications of the green ones for all they have some superficial similarities, nor of the thin ones. This is a new species and the first I have been able to find in the Histories with the Will to Battle."
The other Kessentai began perusing the data dredged up by the young battlemaster and murmured among themselves.
"But these reports do not mention dwellings of these thresh," noted the Oolt'pos' Kessentai. The brigade commander shook his crest in disturbed fury. The data from the other planets was ominous.
"No edas'antai, they do not."
"I believe we have landed on their homeworld," the young leader caste answered.
"Then we have truly placed our esonal in the grat's nest," said the brigade commander.
"We shall sweep them aside like abat," said Ardan'aath, confidently blowing out a snort that scattered sputum across the grass of the road verge. "What are a few thresh?"
"Ask Aarnadaha," commented Kenallai grimly. "Well, our scouts are pressing forward from the south. Soon we will have them between us, Sammadar and the remainder of Aarnadaha's forces." He looked at the schematic of the Posleen closing in on the defenseless city. The three-dimensional image showed the flecks of located enemy and the relative locations of the Posleen forces. But the image was not a map; there were no symbols for road, buildings or terrain. Like ants, the Posleen depended on the paths of scouts for finding their way around. The best that they could do was vague images garnered during the landing phase that noted built-up areas and heavy defenses. Usually, unless a God King and his sensors were sitting on it, it was unknown land.
"We shall crush them beneath our talons and move on to the greater prize to the north. This is a sideline. Send forces up the greater highway behind the oolt of Aarnadaha," Kenallai continued. "We can thereby lay claim to the fiefs he would have taken. There is great booty to be had there."
"My scouts report that they are about to contact organized forces," noted one of the oolt'ondai.
"Then let us move forward to observe these thresh. And hope that they are not threshkreen."
"Best hope they are not metal threshkreen," muttered Kenallurial, reviewing the data from the world humans called Diess, quietly so that Ardan'aath would not take notice. But Kenallai fluffed his crest in agreement.
* * *
"Is this gonna work, Sarge?" asked Lieutenant Kevin Ray, prepping a remaining claymore.
"Well, that depends on what you mean by work, sir," retorted Staff Sergeant Arthur Van Tri. His Eurasian features creased in a grin at the lieutenant who had reported to the unit only the week before. "If you mean save our lives, no. If you mean kill a whole piss-pot full of Posleen, oh yeah."
The group of mixed engineers and civilians huddled in exhaustion on the ground floor of the Fredericksburg Assembly of God Church. A hole had been knocked high up on the wall, through which Staff Sergeant Tri, perched on a ladder, could look from time to time.
"I just hope they don't realize that fence posts usually have fences attached to them," he continued, peering into the darkness through a night-vision scope.
"I just hope they don't realize that fence posts don't usually have bombs attached to their tops," chuckled one of the civilians, playing with his blisters. "I don't give a shit, as long as you engineers get the bunker ready in time."
"Don't worry, Mr. Sunday," said Lieutenant Ray. "We'll get it done. First we dig 'em, then we die in 'em, right Sergeant Tri?"
"That's the Seabees, sir," the sergeant sighed.
"Shouldn't we pull back, Sergeant?" continued the lieutenant, unrepentant. "We could set up another ambush." He flourished the claymore. The clacker was set to one side, already hooked up to a detonator.
"Except for that we're about out of demo, sir. We really should have used it on the ambush."
"Hey, Sergeant, it's like in the old days. Always save a round for yourself!"
"Echo 39, this is Tango 39, over."
Sergeant Tri picked up the handset of the radio. The PRC-77 was an antique, but it could still do the job. "Tango 39, this is Echo 39, over."
"Echo 39, we are about to initiate. Posrep Lafayette and Old Greenwich, over."
"Roger, Tango 39, understand Posrep Lafayette and Old Greenwich, over. Still negative activity at this site."
"Roger, Echo 39. Well, this is Tango 39, saying nice knowing you yah old chink."
Sergeant Tri swallowed as his eyes misted. "Copy that Tango 39. See ya in hell, Hillbilly. This is Echo 39 out."
Sergeant Tri wiped his eyes and peeked out through the opening again.
"Looks like I spoke too soon," he said. "Might as well get your weapons ready." Behind him the mixed force gathered up their rifles and started to move towards other slits cut in the wall.
Coming down the road, just as he had been told they would, was a phalanx of trotting centaurs. Their crocodilian heads swayed from side to side as they scanned the nighttime air, scenting for prey and resources. Well back from the front ranks a God King, notable by his larger form and crested head, rode in his saucer-car.
Sergeant Tri was no slouch with an Advanced Infantry Weapon, but there were a couple of serious shooters among the civilians who were headed up to the roof to take care of the God Kings, along with instructions on when not to fire.
Although the Posleen targeting systems could pick out a sniper no matter how well they were hidden, they got overwhelmed in a general melee, so smart snipers waited until forces were fully involved before firing. Sergeant Tri did not actually expect that to be a problem with the first or even second God King because the human force had just spent a productive hour preparing a fiery welcome.
The Jeff Davis Highway ran practically straight as an arrow from where it met with Interstate 95 south of town until it crossed the Rappahanock River north of town. From Walker Grant Middle School to the church was mostly empty fields. The road that had been virtually unadorned was now lined with oak fence posts.
Although a bush-hog was going to be useless to the city defenses, the posthole digger attachment that one of the civilians brought along was just the thing from Sergeant Tri's point of view. While the battalion was actually low on mines, as opposed to plain explosives, there turned out to be a simple remedy. On the way out of town they stopped by Fredericksburg Hardware.
There, not only were their top shooters able to pick up a few choice boxes of rounds, the rest of them were able to load the back of a pickup truck with cases of nails and duct tape.
Wonderful stuff, duct tape. A quick flick of the wrist and a small charge of Composition Four was bound to a box of one hundred nails. Another flick of the wrist and the package was attached to the top of a fence post, a tree, a sign, rope, mailbox, car door, or virtually any other structure. Although most authorities called for the tenpenny nail in a situation like this, Sergeant Tri found them lacking in imagination. While tacking nails will do the job, roofing nails, the kind for putting down roofing tack, with a wide flat top that tended to land point up, that was his favorite. That way, even if the nail failed to hit a Posleen, it was going to be a real pain to the next one to step on it.
"Is this going to slow them down?" asked Big Tom Sunday, gesturing in the general direction of the advancing Posleen. Tri was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt; he was the guy who thought of the posthole digger.
"Then why the hell did we do all this?" Big Tom asked without heat.
"It's not intended to slow these guys down, Mr. Sunday," said Tri, politely, not taking his eyes from the advancing enemy. "It's intended to kill them."
"Oh. And the ones that follow?"
"Well, it'll take them a little more time stepping over and around the piles of bodies."
Big Tom Sunday smiled and headed for the ladder.
* * *
Anarlaralta, Scoutmaster of the Po'oslena'ar swiveled his head from side to side as he moved his tenarin a random pattern, tiny touches of his talons slipping it from side to side. He had been warned that other groups were taking tremendous casualties but—with the exception of dwellings seeming to spontaneously combust—he had met with little resistance. A few of the thresh had shown fight, but they were rapidly dispatched. A few had even been captured. It was easier to have them transport themselves to the slaughter than to slaughter and carry them. They showed no fight; most seemed to be nestlings. All of that being the case, he was at a loss to explain the bad feeling in his gut. Perhaps he had not yet adjusted to the new thresh.
His oolt now approached a building where his sensors told him a group of thresh huddled, some of them armed. He thought of spreading his oolt to envelop it in its arms but decided not to bother. He would order a few oolt'os forward, to reduce the loss if the building erupted as others had. But for the rest they would remain between the many highway markers to either side.
These thresh certainly had odd habits. On this stretch not only were there overhead lines with many objects attached, there were markers every few feet and they were adorned with the same sort of odd contraption as the overhead lines . . .
* * *
Sergeant Tri watched the first few Posleen normals head for the church door, hefted his AIW, turned and nodded significantly at Lieutenant Lee.
As Lee moved the jumper cables into contact with the car battery, a fat blue spark jumped through the shadows of the darkened church.
Simultaneously, to the human ear, over three hundred improvised claymores detonated over a four-hundred-yard length of road. Each of the mines spewed out over a hundred missiles traveling much faster than a bullet. The mines were on both sides of the road, attached to ropes slung across the road, on the ground, at every level. Thousands of deadly missiles swarmed the road, and the Posleen were torn to shreds.
The nails tore the centaurs apart, yellow blood flying through the air along with bits of flesh and bone. Hundreds of rounds of ammunition detonated and the rear-rank God King's saucer was consumed in silvery fire as its onboard energy cells shattered. In that first violent instant, over a hundred Posleen were destroyed and the Battle of Concord Heights was joined.
* * *
"Colonel," said the S-3, "Lieutenant Ray reports they are in contact with the Posleen. The front ranks walked right into the ambush and they finished off the survivors pretty quick, but the rear ranks are pushing forward hard and he doesn't think he can hold his position much longer."
"Right. Well." Colonel Robertson looked around at the figures hurrying in and out of the armory. The pile in the center of the armory floor was getting to a respectable size. "We need to pull this operation back. What's the situation at the interstate?"
"The main Posleen force has basically extinguished itself, pun intended, but reinforcements are moving in from the north and south. They're going to be able to hold out for about fifteen minutes more."
"It's better than we had any right to expect. And the bunker?"
"Just about loaded."
"Heaven be praised. Okay, tell the sergeant major this is the last load."
"Who gets to do the honors?"
"I think I'll leave it up to the sergeant major. You and I need to head into town."
As they walked out the front of the armory for the last time, the colonel turned and looked at the sign just inside the front door and snorted grimly. "I hope that our enemy at least has enough intelligence to begin to recognize insignia."
"Why?" asked the S-3.
The colonel gestured at the two-turreted castle. "Just imagine how much they'll come to hate that crest."
* * *
"I will have the get of these Alld'nt threshkreen for my supper!" Kenallai stepped mincingly through the offal clogging the road, having abandoned his saucer for a closer look at the carnage. A haze of dust and smoke still hung over the battlefield and the shattered bodies of the Posleen companies were steaming in the cold night air. "What in the name of the nineteen fuscirt did this?"
"This, my eson'antai," said Kenallurial, gesturing into the building that had been the center of the fighting. He pointed to a large green-clad thresh missing most of his foreparts. An explosion had occurred that ate most of the thresh's mass, leaving little to salvage for rations. From the spray of oolt'os outward from the thresh, it was an explosion designed to kill the oolt'os as they tried to come upon him. Kenallurial tore a bit of the green garment away.
"Note the marking. In the reports it stated that all the green- and gray-clad thresh wore markings. Many await deciphering, but this one is recognized. It translates as something like 'leader of military technicians.' There are others that wear rifles that are leaders of warriors."
"Military technicians?" scoffed Ardan'aath. "What rot! What does war have to do with repairmen? War is for the warriors, not skulkers who use explosives for their weapons! Show me the ones with the rifles and I shall bring you their get on my blade!" He spun his saucer and darted off towards his advancing oolt'ondar.
Kenallai took the proffered piece of cloth in his hand, turning the symbol so that the protrusions were upward. "It appears to be a building."
"Yes, eson'antai. It may be their headquarters. And although their purpose includes construction, they also are the primary artists of explosive destruction," he gestured around, "as you can see."
"Well, do these military technicians have a name of their own?"
"Yes, they call them the 'engineers' or 'sappers.' " Kenallurial's muzzle made a hash of the syllables.
" 'Sappers.' " Kenallai tasted the word. "I hope that this encounter is the last that we see of them."
* * *
"Damn," muttered Colonel Robertson under his breath, "it's working."
The tail end of the line of women and children shuffled forward another few steps as he passed under the railroad bridge over Sophia Street.
He could see Lieutenant Young talking earnestly with a civilian construction worker as he neared the pump house. The power to the city had been lost, and thereby the streetlights, but construction Klieg lights had been set up and the bulldozers and earthmovers worked unabated. The hill that had flanked Frederick Street opposite the train station was leveled and the street was practically gone. There was no trace of the buildings that had been there, or of the Montessori School on the corner. In their place the Rappahanock had a new bluff. The area looked as if it had been attacked by a group of giant gophers.
The pump house had been a low concrete building, about fifty feet long by thirty feet wide, surmounted by what appeared to be a twenty-foot-high silo. The lower building had been partially covered by alluvial deposits, but otherwise was protected overhead and on the river side only by its three-foot-thick reinforced concrete walls. A narrow catwalk had led to the door at the top of the silo where there was a room ringed by windows: the "delightful view of the river." To the side of the catwalk had been another, wider, door with a crane mounted above it. It was through this door that replacement equipment was lifted when the pump house was still in operation.
Now fill dirt reached nearly to the door, as load after load of what the military referred to as overburden was dumped onto the lower building. It was in this lower compartment of the bunker that the noncombatants were being secured. The catwalk had been replaced by a wider ramp constructed of structural steel. Colonel Robertson could see military engineers rigging it to be destroyed as the noncombatants shuffled up. At the top, the wall had been ripped out around the door and other engineers and construction workers were driving holes for demolition charges. The line of women and children, their breath steaming in the air, disappeared into the maw of the beast at the top of the ramp.
As Colonel Robertson waited patiently for the young lieutenant to finish with his conference he found himself starting to nod off. He glanced at his watch and realized that they had successfully held the Posleen back for over six hours. On the other hand, with the Posleen across 95, through the defenses on the Jeff Davis and pressing up Tidewater Trail, it was really all over but the shouting.
Lieutenant Young turned away from the construction worker and nearly walked into the colonel. When the lieutenant finally focused on the obstacle he swayed for a moment and snapped off a salute. Sometime during the hellish evening he had lost his glasses and peered at his superior owlishly.
"Good evening, sir." He looked around and swayed again in fatigue. "I am pleased to report that we have sufficient room for all the remaining women and children." He looked at the line of crying children and worn women who were all that remained of the Fredericksburg noncombatants.
Only hours ago they had been as relatively carefree as any group of people could be in the face of an impending invasion: middleclass matrons and their children, the flower of American suburbia. Now they shivered in the freezing dark as predatory aliens closed in on either side and only a forlorn hope stood between them and an end in the belly of the beast. "This had better work."
"It will," the colonel assured the plan's developer. He had his own dark thoughts about the likelihood, but it was far too late to voice them. And when it came down to cases it was not a choice between this plan and a better one, but a choice between this plan and nothing.
"Well, even if it doesn't, sir, they'll never know."
"You're going to Hiberzine all of them?"
"All except the last few coherent mothers, sir. In the unlikely event that something goes wrong that is fixable, it would be a hell of a note to have the whole group die because nobody was awake to fix it."
"Like a leak or a fire or something?"
"Yeah, or somebody having an allergic reaction, whatever. It just seemed like a good idea. Sir," he added belatedly.
"I think at this point we can more or less dispense with military courtesy, Kenny. Aren't they going to use up too much air? I thought that would be a limiting factor."
"Well, the Public Safety folks and Quarles Gas came through again. They each had some CO2 scrubbers for work in confined spaces. So, anyway, the bunker will be outfitted with sufficient power and light for a two-week stay, at which point the sentry mothers will be instructed to put themselves under and hope for the best. If they're still alive at that point the Posleen will not have found them, which is good, but on the other hand neither did the Army so it would be a wash."
"Sir," said Colonel Robertson's radio operator, "the XO."
"Uniform 51, this is Uniform 82-actual, over."
"This is Uniform 51-actual, over."
"Uniform 51, we have penetration to Sunken Road and Kenmore House. Estimate old town entry in five, say again, five minutes. Over."
"Roger, Uniform 82. Am with Uniform 49 at Point Delta. Plan Jackson is nearly complete. Coordinate with . . ." His mind blanked on the call sign for Charlie company. "Coordinate with Charlie 6, over."
"Roger, Uniform 51. This is Uniform 82." There was a pause then the radio crackled one last time. "Nice knowing you, Frank."
"Same here, Ricky. God will surely know his own."
"Roger that. Out here."
Colonel Robertson handed the mike to the RTO, swallowed and cleared his throat. "Despite all your good work, we need to get a move on," he said, gesturing at the dwindling line.
"Yes, sir, I heard. I'm going to go coordinate some more overburden, but if you want to go chivvy some civvies, well, we work for you."
The colonel chuckled at the weak joke. "I wish we could get some support, any support. Any distraction right now would be a good one."