During the early morning hours, work had virtually stopped on the Richmond defenses. Occasionally the crash of explosions could be heard in the distance and the portable TVs receiving broadcasts from Continental Army Headquarters held everyone enthralled. However, with the breaking dawn the enormous boom of the FAE in the distance and the uplinked video broke the spell and the tired cavalry troopers and civilian grading contractors returned to preparing the I-95 fighting positions. Meanwhile teams of women and teenagers emplaced claymores and other mines along the verge. It looked to be a hot reception for the Posleen.
"Let's get to it, boys and girls," said Sergeant First Class Mueller as the extended break ended. "It's us next."
* * *
"Are we ready?"
"Yes, Mr. President. Obviously, given the time of day and all the transmission problems there is not a major audience. But there is a higher share than normal because of the emergency."
"It'll have to do." He turned to the secretary of defense. "What is the situation with Tenth Corps?"
"They've turned around and are headed back down to Quantico. It's a bit confused but I'm sure they'll get straightened out in time."
"They'd better. What about Ninth Corps?"
"They're headed for Manassas. The whole First Army is heading into northern Virginia, with the exception of the Fifty-Fifth Armored Division, which is assaulting a landing in Maine."
"Maine. Maine and where else?"
"Arkansas, California and Oregon all have at least one landing of a battlegroup," answered the FEMA representative referring to her notes. "Several other states have already dealt with individual landers. But only Fredericksburg has been hit by a full globe. Not counting Fredericksburg or areas that haven't turned in complete reports, we have over fifteen thousand civilian casualties. Most of those are in the immediate area of landings. About two-thirds are mortalities." She almost continued with a report on the evacuation of northern Virginia.
A bad situation had gone completely catastrophic when Tenth Corps was forced to shut down Interstate 95 and the Beltway to turn around. The corps was out of the way now, and most of the lanes on both sides of the highways had been opened to traffic, but the monumental traffic jam had stalled cars all over it. Instead of pushing more traffic through than normal, the interstates were almost deserted. Millions of Virginians were now on foot, heading towards the Potomac bridges.
"Mortalities," repeated the President with a grimace. "Great. How 'bout just telling your President that he lost fifteen thousand American civilians in the depths of the night."
"And an almost irreplaceable engineering battalion. And a city, sir," said the secretary of defense. "On national television no less. There, feel better?"
"No." The President turned to the makeup artist. "Are we done?"
"Just about, Mr. President. You want to look your best, don't you?"
"That's going to be hard," he commented looking at the text of the speech. It was not the best copy he had ever seen, but it was fairly good given the time the writer had to create it.
"You need to look good, Mr. President," said his Chief of Staff. "Presenting just the right face at this time is very important. You can't appear worried or haggard. It will send the wrong message."
"Would someone please tell me something new? I can do without the pointless reminders."
"The Eleventh Mobile Infantry Division commander called," said the secretary of defense, reading an e-mail hardcopy from CONARC. "As the senior Fleet representative, he asked that we hold off on using the Third Battalion of the Five Hundred Fifty-Fifth. He recommended that we use First Battalion instead."
"Did he give a reason?" asked the President with a look of confusion. "General Olds didn't want them because they're on block leave, right? And isn't the commander stuck in California?"
"Well, Mr. President," said the secretary. "He pointed out that they are fully trained and tested, unlike the Third. Third Battalion is only halfway through their initial training cycle, sir, and has not had an FSTEP."
"So why did General Olds prefer to bring them all the way up from Carolina instead of using First Battalion?" asked the president. The answer had just reinforced the question. "Isn't that the battalion that's officially assigned to him?"
The secretary of defense looked uncomfortable. "I think you'd have to ask General Olds, sir."
"I'm not asking, Olds, Robby. I'm asking my secretary of defense! Is it that divided chain of command thing, again?"
"I wouldn't venture to guess, Mr. President," the SecDef answered, tightly.
"Guess," the President snapped, tired of the prevarication.
"I think it might be a matter of General Olds's opinion of the First Batt's officers, Mr. President, rather than their readiness," commented the President's military aide.
The President turned and looked at the normally silent brigadier general. Since his function was specifically to handle information flow and keep his opinions to himself, the President was surprised to hear him say anything.
"Why do you say that?"
"I was present for the conference on Fortress Forward, Mr. President," the brigadier related without a change of expression. His face might as well have been carved from mahogany. "General Olds several times expressed openly his distrust of the ACS concept in general and specifically of some of the officers of the battalion assigned primary responsibility for his area of operations."
"Did he state which officers?" the President asked.
"No, sir, but the person giving the ACS brief to which he took particular exception was Michael O'Neal."
"The Medal Of Honor winner?" the President asked, surprised. "Did he indicate what he had against him?"
"Again, Mr. President, let me clearly state that he expressed reservations about the ACS program and some of the officers in the battalion attached to his Army. He did not state that it was Captain O'Neal he particularly found offense with, although that might have been taken from the context."
The President looked at his secretary of defense. "He's your friend. You want to explain that?"
The secretary gave the military aide a long measuring look which the general returned without a blink. The brigadier had commanded the Special Forces Sniper School for three years and could stare down a cat. "Jim Olds is an experienced and combat tested officer who has certain strongly held opinions, Mr. President," the SecDef explained. "Many of those opinions are about the nature and function of an officer corps within an Army. He also has a strong opinion about how this war should be prosecuted and how funding should be distributed. They are opinions that the majority of the ACS community disagree with.
"Given those facts, I doubt that General Olds is particularly happy with one of the companies in his command that consumes a disproportionate share of funding being commanded by a former sergeant. Or the influence that that former sergeant has had on its preparation and training."
* * *
Mike fishtailed the Tahoe through the median, climbed out of a ditch and pulled out under the nose of a five-ton truck. The vehicle braked with a blare of horn as Mike cut into the lane and then swung the Tahoe back onto the median as the way became clear. The pickup pounded down the rough median, swerving around trucks, buses and Humvees pulled off the road for breakdowns and bouncing in and out of ruts cut by previous passersby. It seemed like he had been traveling up the twisty mountain interstate his whole life. He was barely over the border of Virginia and the traffic was only getting heavier.
He glanced at the heads-up display of the Eastern United States with unit movements denoted on it and grimaced. Murphy's Law was settling in with a vengeance.
"Captain O'Neal," chirped his AID, "incoming call from Lieutenant Colonel Hanson . . ."
"Caught in traffic, I see." The colonel was getting good at drawing information from his AID.
"I'm stranded in Los Angeles. I'm hopping AMTRAK in about thirty minutes, but . . ."
"Shelly, display continent tactical." Mike glanced at the virtual display. Green and red zones were scattered across the United States, with grounding and routing arrows superimposed. "It'll be at least a couple of days, sir. Unless the Sixteenth Cav can clear that infestation in Kansas."
"Yep. And airlines are well and truly grounded. There were scatter landings in the interior and all it takes is one lander in the wrong spot."
"Roger that, sir."
"How long for you?"
Mike saw another MP post coming up, the Hummer-25 already training its barrel on his hurtling truck.
"Damn near as long at this rate, sir. I'll see what I can do."
"Well, I talked to Major Givens, and unless either I or Major Rutherford makes it back in time, that'll leave the battalion in command of the S-3. Who do you think I said should fill in as S-3?"
"Great, like I want to plan this operation." Mike didn't mention his questions about Nightingale's abilities or his own capabilities. It would be a hell of a test of both. "Did you see the Tenth Corps go into defense?"
"Yes, lovely. I wonder what's going on there?"
"I don't know, sir, but I have to talk my way past a roadblock." He started slowing as the MP team leader got out of the Humvee.
"Okay, good luck. I don't know if it will help, but I'm ordering you to reach the unit as quickly as possible. Using any means you deem necessary."
"Roger, sir. Well, good luck to you as well."
"Thanks. Out here."
"Shelly, get me First Sergeant Pappas."
"First Sergeant Pappas is not near his AID," answered the AID.
Mike wrinkled his brow. "Is he on post?"
"When last located. But he is not in range of his AID. His AID is in his office. He is not."
Mike, who went virtually nowhere without his AID, shrugged in puzzlement. "Okay, get me Lieutenant Nightingale."
"Lieutenant Nightingale is not near her AID."
"What the hell is this?" the commander grumped. "Is anybody with their AIDs?"
"Lieutenant Arnold is available."
"Well, get me Tim then."
After a moment the weapons platoon leader answered. "Captain O'Neal?"
"Yeah, Tim. Look, I'm stuck in traffic on I-81. I don't know how long I'll be. Tell Top that I want an assessment of Nightingale. If she's not up to the job he's to tell Major Givens on my say-so. I don't care if she remains technically in command, but I want Gunny Pappas to run the show. Clear?"
"Uh, yeah. Yes, sir."
"Do you know where the gunny is? He's not by his AID."
"Not exactly. I'll see if I can track him down."
"Okay. I'm gonna bend heaven and hell to get back as fast as I can, but I don't know if its gonna work."
"Yes, sir. Take care."
"Right. Out here. Corporal," said O'Neal, rolling down the window and holding out his Fleet ID, "my name's O'Neal, Fleet Strike . . ."
* * *
"My fellow Americans . . ."
The President personally hated that phrase but it was the only acceptable one for such a usage. He stared at the TelePrompTer and firmly quelled all doubts. Though he knew that the country was about to pay a terrible price, it was a price he was sure the American people would call for, a price that duty and honor called for.
" . . . you have by now all witnessed the terrible events which have occurred overnight. In the space of twelve hours thousands of American citizens have lost their lives and one of the most historic cities in our nation has been erased from the face of the Earth.
"I call upon you now, as Americans, to face this challenge as we have faced every challenge in our great history, with honor, courage and a sense of duty towards all mankind.
"The current military plan in a situation such as this is clear. Since the Posleen are here earlier than expected, and in overwhelming local strength, the proper military reaction is to retreat to better terrain, to retreat behind the James and Potomac Rivers to the north and south, into the Appalachians on the west, until such time as sufficient military forces are assembled to defeat the enemy on the plains of battle.
"This is a good and just plan, one caring, as American generals always have, for their soldiers. If there were insufficient time to evacuate the civilian populace the decision would be to stay and slow the Posleen until the civilians could evacuate. But there is enough time to evacuate these areas. Manassas, Arlington and Alexandria, all of northern and central Virginia, is evacuating even as I speak." He took a pause, not for any reason of drama, but gathering courage for the words he was about to say.
Throughout the country, at radios and, where they were functioning, televisions, Americans leaned forward waiting for their chief executive to continue, knowing that such a reaction, such a decision was anathema to the politician.
"Unfortunately, sometimes the proper military response is not the correct action for the country as a whole. Many mistakes have been made in history because of taking the proper military choice. It is for this very reason that the military is under civilian control in the United States and virtually every western nation. If we had taken the proper military choice we would have dropped nuclear weapons in Korea. The proper military choice led to the Battle of the Bulge. The proper military choices nearly lost World Wars One and Two to the Germans.
"I have, therefore, decided to override the 'proper military choice.' I have ordered the Tenth Ground Forces Corps, the Corps of Northern Virginia, to go into defensive positions south of the Occoquan River in the area of Quantico Marine Base. Their purpose is to stop Posleen incursions aimed towards Alexandria, Arlington and Washington, D.C.
"In addition, the soldiers of the Ninth Corps, the Pennsylvania and New Jersey Corps, should arrive in time to take positions south of Manassas, Virginia, a name well known to us all. It is also remembered in some parts of the country by the name Bull Run. It is a land saturated in the history of conflict.
"I have done this, over the strong objections of my most senior commanders, because I believe that is the desire of the American people and I believe that the justifiable military reaction misses one small factor.
"We have been attacked," the simple statement came out as almost a snarl, while his expression changed hardly at all. "For the first time in nearly two hundred years, the United States has been invaded. And I don't like that. If these . . . things communicate among themselves I want them to get one communication loud and clear. If you attack the United States, you are asking for a bucket-load of trouble. If you land on these shores, the only things you are going to get for your pains are chaos and death!
"The video from Fredericksburg, horrific as it is, clearly shows what Americans, surprised and facing overwhelming odds, can do to these creatures on their own turf. As your President, I cannot simply throw away northern Virginia, not and face myself in the mirror in the morning.
"I have made this decision, knowing that it means the death of many of the soldiers sworn to the service of their country.
"To the soldiers in the field, I have only this to say.
"Obey your orders, care for your comrades and take the field knowing that few things can face a human who is in the right and just keeps coming.
"Good luck. Pile 'em up like cordwood."
* * *
Mueller watched the female technician hooking wires up to the demolition circuit board. "Where are we with the stringing?" she asked. Her hands moved with a graceful haste, barely pausing as each circuit was connected; her fingers seemed to blur in the morning light.
"We've strung all but the outer edge, and the engineers have placed all the detonators. We're still putting up the claymores, but they'll be done by the time you're ready."
"I wish we had enough Pyronics for this job," she said, testily. "I hate working with this lowest-bidder military stuff."
"Hey, MILSPEC is the class of the world!"
"Hah! Tell it to the amateurs, kid. I've worked with every type of detonator in the world and five gets you ten one of these blasting caps fails when I do the systems check. These dang military caps are too dang sensitive."
"Okay, I've got ten bucks says you're wrong."
"It was an expression. I don't drink, swear or bet. I have enough excitement in my life as it is."
"What do you usually do?"
"Well, I used to drop buildings for a living, but lately I've been a home demolition contractor." She set the last circuit in place and hooked up the meter. "How certain are you that they haven't hooked up any of the blasting caps?"
"Not certain enough."
"Good answer. I wanted to see if you had any sense." She stood up and arched her back, rubbing at her lumbar. "I prefer doing this with a table, too."
"We must all make our little sacrifices for the war effort."
"Sure. Personally, I gave up chocolate. I'm gonna go do the circuit. Stay here and make absolutely certain no one touches the board. I don't like all these amateurs running around."
"I thought I was one of them."
"Yeah, but that way I only have to worry about one."
"Let me make you a deal. Since I am in charge of most of the 'amateurs,' especially the civilian ones, and I really shouldn't be tied to this spot, let me get a guard who knows darn well not to touch anything and only understands simple commands so he gets it right."
Mueller came back a few moments later with one of the cavalry troopers providing security for the construction site. With a screen of Bradleys and Humvees five miles down the road, Mueller was personally convinced that the Posleen would be spotted well before they reached the ambush. But the military's standard operating procedures were developed from numerous situations where people were personally convinced of one thing or another and totally wrong. So—despite anyone's personal conviction—Colonel Abrahamson was providing security to all of the ambush preparation sites.
This was the ambush site most distant from Richmond and presumably the point of first contact for the Twelfth Corps. At this point, near Road 656, there was a perfect site for a long-range armor and mechanical ambush. An overpass ran along a very slight ridgeline perpendicular to the interstate. North of the overpass there was a straight stretch nearly two miles long. Half a mile from the overpass a group of trees crowded the road at either side and ran down the median. In the midst of the trees a shallow and apparently unnamed creek crossed the interstate in a box culvert.
Now, both sides of the interstate just behind the overpass had been cratered and dug out for fifty meters towards Richmond, creating a shelf in which a platoon of cavalry vehicles crouched with their twenty-five-millimeter cannons pointed northward. They would be able to fire hull-down, protected from most of the Posleen fire, until the Posleen were close enough to be a threat. When the cavalry started taking casualties they could drive away protected by the slight ridge.
And the wooded patch was lined with two thousand claymore mines.
Each mine was a narrow curved box, with thin "legs" on the bottom, projections for detonators on the top and the convexly curved front labeled, humorously in the opinion of most military personnel, front towards enemy. The directional antipersonnel mine consisted of a plastic cover encasing a thin metal backstop, a pound of Composition B explosive and seven hundred fifty small metal ball bearings, just a little larger than a standard BB. On detonation the ball bearings would spew out in a cone, tearing apart anything in their path. At fifty meters, the recommended stand-off for maximum effect, the mines were designed to create a zone of total destruction thirty meters wide. Fifty meters was just about the width of the right of way and there was one claymore spaced every two meters, or six feet, for two hundred and fifty meters on either side of the road, on both sides of the interstate. When the daisy-chained mechanical ambush was detonated, nearly a million and a half ball bearings would fill the air, each traveling faster than a rifle bullet.
"Specialist Rossi," said Mueller, introducing the cav trooper, "this is Amanda Hunt, the lead demolition person for the claymore ambush."
"Ma'am," said the specialist with a nod of the head and a wave of the hand at his helmet. He knew better than to salute, but wanted to acknowledge her civilian rank.
"Ms. Hunt is going to go check the demolition circuits." Mueller pointed at the circuit board. "This is the controller for the ambush. One of the things she is going to do is check to make sure none of the detonators have been connected. This is like the claymore clacker, so she would like to take it with her. But she'd have to hook it back up and that takes time. So, you are hereby ordered to remain at this post until personally relieved by Ms. Hunt, understood?"
"I've coordinated this with your squad leader and your platoon leader. Now, I don't think that this will happen, but in the event that we are attacked while she is out there, you are to remain at this post until relieved by Ms. Hunt, understood? You are not, I repeat, not to return to your fighting vehicle, but remain here. Understood?"
"Yes, Sergeant." The trooper was clearly unhappy with the order.
"In the event that your platoon pulls out before Ms. Hunt returns, you are to destroy the circuit board. Do not attempt to use it, do not let anyone else, not your platoon nor any of the engineers, use it. Understood?"
"Yes, Sergeant, understood. Why?"
Mueller smiled. "Because I might be out there, and I don't want any idiot cooking off two thousand claymores because somebody saw a horse run across the road. And if Amanda isn't back, it means that some or most of the detonators are not hooked up. If she makes it back after you destroy the box, she can probably get most of them to detonate anyway.
"I would order you to stand your post until the Posleen are on you. That would do the same thing, would mean that she and the engineers weren't still trying to hook up claymores. But I'm not going to expect you to remain when your platoon pulls out. You're behind the overpass embankment and the drainage ditch runs right into the fighting position, so even if she doesn't get back when we're taking fire, you can still hold out until the tracks start to move, so stay here until relieved. Understood?"
"Repeat it back."
"I am to remain at this post, letting no one but Ms. Hunt have access to this circuit board, until relieved by Ms. Hunt personally and no other. I will remain under those orders, unless my platoon retreats from its position, at which time I am to destroy the circuit board and retreat with my platoon."
"Okay." She looked deeply skeptical. "If I ain't back though, your boss better make damn sure he waits as long as he can."
As she drove away in her pickup Mueller looked the specialist in the eye.
"How long you gonna stay?"
"Till she gets back or the Posleen are swarmin'. I'll get a radio from the track, I'll still be able to call fire right up till then."
"Right." Mueller looked down at the departing civilian contractors. Their grading work done, they were headed to the next ambush. It would probably be less elaborate than this one, but the Posleen were going to be greeted as many times as possible as they advanced.
"Any word from the scouts?"
The cav scout pulled a device out of his thigh cargo pocket and tapped the keypad. The box was the size of an old "brick" cellular phone and had a hand strap on the back for ease of carrying. This was useful, for example, when under fire. The LCD display flashed as he scrolled through options and finally settled on a screen.
"Nah, the Posleen they're watching are still in some sort of security distribution around their lander. There's some sort of armor indicator, maybe one of their God Kings. But they still don't seem to be moving this way."
"Nice," said Mueller. "What is it?"
"You've never seen one?" said the surprised scout.
Mueller held up his wrist where the GalTech AID was wrapped as a thin bracelet. "I use an AID."
"Oh, well it's a combination of the IVIS and the ANCD," said the scout, using the military acronyms for the InterVehicle Intelligence System and the Army-Navy Cryptographic Device.
"So it's both a tactical dispositions locator and a code book?" Mueller asked.
"Yeah. Your position is broadcast by it to command vehicles that gather the data and pass it on. And you can pull down signals information from the intervehicle network. So, like, if I want to call up that battleship, I just search for . . . what was its name?"
"The North Carolina."
"Right." The scout tapped keys for a moment and grimaced. "It doesn't want to give me Navy information. Why the hell do we practice Operational Security when the Posleen don't use the information?" he asked rhetorically.
"Where's it getting its location data from?"
"Triangulation from the vehicles. They're getting it from reads off of other vehicles that get hard position data from those position markers that are scattered around. We hit one on the way up here and the guidance system has us just about where we are—sitting under the overpass—so it seems to be working." He tapped the device again. "I can put in a call for fire to the artillery battery that's attached to us, but I can't get up to the Navy."
"You can do a call for fire?" asked the Special Forces NCO.
"Yeah, in case it, you know, like drops in the pot." The trooper shook his head. "I hope I don't have to, though. That means the chain of command is down to me, you know? How's that thing work?" he asked, gesturing at the AID.
"Pretty much the same." Mueller held out his wrist. "AID, battlefield schematic out five miles." A holographic projection of the battlefield in three dimensions appeared in front of the two soldiers. As they watched, units, friend and foe, were sketched in. "A little easier, though."
The trooper shook his head again. "Why'd you ask me?"
"I was actually thinking you might say something like, 'Oh, yeah, I heard on the radio. . . .' " Mueller lowered the device and it decided the demonstration was over and switched off the schematic. "Little did I know you were going to pull out your own handy-dandy battlefield computer."
The trooper smiled. "I really love this thing."
"What's the brief for the front-line scouts?" asked Mueller, wondering if everyone had gotten the same word. "Are they staying out of sight?"
"Oh, yeah. They're not gonna stick their dicks in there, man. The quickest damn way to get the Posleen to follow you is attack them."
"Yeah, it's kind of like leading a pig." Mueller felt the glimmerings of an idea.
"Huh?" asked the urban-raised cavalry specialist.
"The best way to lead a pig is to poke it in the nose," said the NCO with a distracted smile.
"Oh. Well, until the colonel says different, we're staying out of sight."
"Yeah, best thing for it."
"I thought you'd know that."
"Why?" asked Mueller, warily.
"Well, wasn't it a Special Forces team that got shot up on Barwhon?" asked the specialist.
"Actually, it was a mixed special operations team: some Special Forces, Marines, a SEAL."
"And they stuck their dicks into a Posleen camp, killed some God Kings and got their butts kicked, right?" the specialist asked archly.
"More or less."
"So we don't want to do that, do we, Sergeant?"
"We didn't want to either," Mueller admitted, grimly.
"So why did they do it?" asked the scout.
"We got orders from higher to snatch some Posleen for medical experiments. We didn't exactly like it and we liked the result even less than we thought we were going to. We lost two absolute legends in the special ops community—Sandra Ellsworthy and Arthur Tung—and when we made it back to the Himmit scout we were at Death's door from fatigue and vitamin deficiency."
"Hold on, by 'we' you mean you were on that team?" asked the cav trooper, his eyes round.
"Me, Ersin and Mosovich. We were the only survivors."
"Jesus, sorry, man. I, well, you know . . ."
"Yeah, you didn't know. It's all right. But the only reason we went into the camp was on orders. The real bitch of it was the whole mission was out of date by the time we did it. They wanted a Posleen to study, but by the time we got back with it there were captured Posleen and frozen Posleen bits out the ass coming in from Diess. Total and complete fuckup."
Mueller paused, his face hard as he remembered the results of following incompetent orders. The general whose bright idea it had been had never even commented, not even obliquely apologized. Just handed out the medals, tapped them on the shoulders and went on to his next star. "Anyway, the point is, I agree with the scouts staying out of sight." He looked down the road. "AID, how's the installation coming?"
"Engineers report all claymores installed, all wire run and all blasting caps are in place and ready to be connected. The engineer teams are ready to start connecting the circuits when Ms. Hunt gives the command."
"Okay, tell the engineer lieutenant to move all the civilians back to the buses and on to the next ambush. What's the status on claymores for that?"
"Tractor-trailers are unloading them as we speak, however, we have received only seven hundred, since the rest have been diverted to the defenses on U.S. 1 and U.S. 301. If time permits, more will be sent forward when a shipment arrives from the plant. The factory is emptying its storage as fast as it can move the material out."
"Master Sergeant Ersin is with the forward scouts."
"Hell. Well, tell him to be careful."
* * *
Mark Ersin adjusted the focus on the purely optical binoculars and let out a soft sigh. He and the cavalry scouts with him were wearing ghillie suits, coveralls sewn with dangling fabric strips that made them almost impossible to see against the scrub pine they were nestled in. But Ellsworthy had been wearing a similar suit when she bought it. Up against Posleen sensors, a ghillie suit was cold comfort.
The Posleen, a God King and about thirty normals, had obviously been left behind as security for the lander. The numbers were far under the normal number of troops associated with a God King, though, and Ersin was nervous about where the rest might be.
The lander loomed on what had previously been a tobacco farm. A tractor jutted out from under one edge. The God King and normals had begun surveying duties soon after the scouts came on site and, with the exception of the arrival of a small anti-grav tank that was parked on the interstate, no changes had occurred.
"Three Five Echo Two One, this is Nine Eight Bravo One Seven, authenticate Whiskey Tango, over," came a whisper over the scout's radio.
"I say again, Three Five Echo Two One, this is Nine Eight Bravo One Seven, authenticate Whiskey Tango, over," the transmission repeated.
"AID, who is that?" whispered Ersin.
"Master Sergeant Ersin, that is the Twenty-Ninth Infantry Division's division artillery fire direction center."
"What? Direct?" asked the NCO, his faintly Eurasian face wrinkling in puzzlement. His nose twitched like a rat sniffing cheese.
"Yes, Master Sergeant."
"What's the authentication?"
"I've got an ANCD here," whispered one of the cav troopers, pulling a box out of his thigh pocket.
"Don't worry about it," said Ersin.
"Authentication is Mike."
Ersin picked up the handset and keyed it. "Niner Eight Bravo One Seven, this is Three Five Echo Two One. Authenticate Mike, over."
Ersin wrinkled his brow and took a deep breath. "Bravo One Seven, this is Echo Two One. Negative, say again, negative. Stay off this net in the future. Out."
"Echo Two One, this is Bravo Five Nine Actual, over."
"Okay, AID, who's that?" queried Ersin, angrily.
"The Division artillery commander."
"Shit." He thought about it for a moment then keyed the radio anyway. "Bravo Five Nine Actual, this is Echo Two One. Negative fire. I say again, per corps orders, negative fire. Get off my net. Out."
"Echo Two One, this is Bravo Five Nine. This is an order. Call fire, I say again, call fire, over."
"AID, contact corps, send these transmissions with explanation. Do it now. Bravo Five Nine, require electronic authentication and link. AID, don't accept the link."
"I have to. Bravo Five Nine outranks you."
"Not really, haven't we been transferred to Fleet Strike?"
"Your team has not been officially transferred yet."
"Okay, what about divided command authorities? I fall under CONARC, not corps and we are under a corps command not to fire."
"Most recent orders of a superior officer overrule previous orders. That's Ground Forces General Regulation One Dash One Zero Five. Link confirmed, Posleen positions transmitted." There was a brief pause. "One-Five-Five fire on the way. Your position was noted as well. They are using close support rules as stipulated by doctrine."
"Goddamnit! Have you contacted corps?"
"I am unable to contact corps at this time due to message traffic. Material transferred to e-mail and sent to queue."
"Get me Sergeant Major Mosovich," he snarled at the recalcitrant machine as the sky began to scream.
* * *
"He what?" shouted the normally mild-mannered Twelfth Corps commander.
"General Bernard ordered his artillery to engage the Posleen positions near Virginia 639." The corps operations officer looked like he had taken a drink expecting water and gotten unsweetened lemonade. In a way he had.
"Send the corps provost to the Twenty-Ninth Infantry Division headquarters. Order him to place General Bernard under arrest for insubordination and disobedience to direct orders. Send General Craig to take command."
"Craig isn't from the Guard, sir."
"Fuck 'em. This is the last irresponsible action I am allowing that rat-fuck division command and staff to undertake. Tell George to put a leash on those idiots. Contact Division Arty, tell them that the order is countermanded. Relieve the commander, have him report here, replace him with his XO pending final disposition. Tell the XO he can figure on finding a new home unless he justifies staying in command."
"Get me Colonel Abrahamson. He needs to know we may be kicking off early."