The White House, Washington, DC, United States of America, Sol III
2045 EDT October 10th, 2004 ad
"That's it," said General Taylor, glancing at the e-mail brought in by a communications technician. He looked over to where the President was hunched into his chair. "All the remaining units of Tenth Corps are through the Ninth Corps lines."
"How many are left?" asked the Secretary of Defense, staring at the electronic map on the wall.
"Of infantry, armor, engineers and other front-line units, there are less than two thousand accounted for."
"Okay," said the President, in a harsh voice, "put another way, how many did we lose?"
"Over twenty-five thousand . . ."
"We sent in a heavy corps, Mister President," said the general, in tones to bend metal. "Five heavy divisions with full support. Of front-line troops we've gotten back less than one battered brigade! We lost half the total number of casualties in Vietnam; five times the estimate for the first day of the Normandy invasion. We killed approximately nine thousand Posleen, according to the last and only reports we received. All that did was add to their goddamn supplies."
"If it hadn't been for the hacking . . ." said the secretary.
"If it hadn't been for the hacking," interrupted the general, "we would have killed more Posleen. We still would have taken these losses."
"We'll never know," said the secretary.
"Yes . . . we . . . will, Mr. Secretary," responded the general, suddenly tired of the whole game. "There's Ninth Corps." He gestured towards the screen. "It's had hours to dig in, lay wire and mines, which Tenth didn't, and it has nearly secure flanks, which Tenth didn't, and it is not being hacked, which Tenth was, and it is not going to be pasted by its own artillery and mortars, which Tenth was, and we are going to lose them, too! Oh, they'll kill more Posleen, but it doesn't damn well matter, Mr. Secretary, sir, because the Posleen can afford to lose a million troops to destroy one of our corps! This is just the start of the damn war! The only way we could win it from the beginning was to kill over a hundred Posleen for every guy assigned to a gun! And we just took about twenty casualties for every Posleen killed! At that rate we'll lose every goddamn soldier in the eastern United States to this single landing!"
The High Commander suddenly realized that he was shouting at the secretary of defense. On the other hand, no one seemed to care if he was. He also realized that the secretary was not the one to be shouting at.
"What if we recall Ninth Corps?" croaked the President, looking up at the map for the first time in nearly an hour. His eyes burned. He had spent twenty years trying to get into this chair. It had cost him most of a stomach, a marriage and his children. And one mistake was all it took.
The general shook his head in resignation. "Too late." He looked down at the briefing papers. The critical information on maintenance was damning. "The Posleen can move faster than those units."
"Tactical mobility is one of the American Army's strong suits," said the secretary, his tone resounding with surety.
"It is when you have well-trained, experienced units," said the High Commander, raised back into fury by the fatuousness of the remark. "It is not a strong suit when you have undertrained, inexperienced, unsure units. Patton's Third Army could have done it easily. Waffen SS? No problem. The Allied troops in Desert Storm? Fuck, yeah. Give an order, pull out, run to the next position, be it a mile or a hundred miles, reassemble. No problem, Can Do.
"Here we have troops that have only had a filled chain of command for five months. Units that were rioting three months ago. Units that are a year behind on scheduled maintenance, almost two years behind on training. Units where half the vehicles break down in the first fifteen miles. Units that will have a hard time holding fixed positions, much less maneuvering.
"No, sir," he continued, looking the President square in the eye. "The best we can hope is that Ninth Corps does more damage to the enemy than Tenth did, before the bastards pull them down."
"And Richmond?" asked the secretary of defense.
"Well, sir," said the general, "if we could only get them to turn around and attack Twelfth Corps."
* * *
"How's it coming?" asked General Keeton.
John Keene spun around in his swivel chair and stared at the commander with a blank, distant expression for a moment. Then he shook his head and focused on the reality of the moment.
"Sorry," he said, ruefully, "I was elsewhere."
"I could see that. How's it going?"
"Remarkably well. Good news: by the end of this battle, we'll hardly have to do a thing to prepare Richmond for the long-term projects." That was good for a weary chuckle.
"And what about being prepared for this particular set of visitors?"
"Well, the weakest points are still there. If they turn to the west, we are screwed and if they turn to the east we have great difficulty. But we think we have a good plan for centering their focus."
"Yep. The Posleen are notorious looters and they seem to be particularly interested in heavy metals and gems. It seems crazy, because you can get gold and diamonds much more easily from an asteroid belt than you can from a hostile city. But they really seem to crave it. Anyway, the Federal Reserve Bank here had a rather large supply of it. We . . . came up with a designation for Fourteenth Street as 'Gold Avenue' so to speak and have put what looks like some sort of ornamentation, made out of pure gold, on the street every fifty yards."
"Oh, joy . . ."
"Yep. So, there will be a line of ornaments, on little stands, every fifty yards all the way up to the floodwall gates."
"And that means that they'll follow the yellow brick road and want to keep following it."
"Right. And just to add a little fun to it, we had a choice of five different sizes, so the first twenty were small, the second twenty were larger, and so on. By the time the front rank gets to the wall and the word gets around among them, we hope they're in a frenzy. We had quite a bit left over, so as an added bonus we put out larger ornaments from time to time. But only along Fourteenth Street. If they use the logic . . ."
"They will really want to cross that bridge when they come to it."
"Yes, sir. And if the word gets around, most of them should head for Schockoe Bottom."
Something about the facile explanation started to bother the corps commander. The general looked a little questioning for a moment. "How did you get the ornaments made so quickly?"
"Well, there is quite a bit of industry in the area," Keene temporized.
"Or perhaps I should be asking what kind of ornaments they are?" asked the general, his suspicions now fully aroused.
"Well, we didn't have much of a choice . . ."
"What are they, Keene?" asked General Keeton.
"Well, you ever been behind a tractor-trailer, and noticed how on some of them, on the mudflaps, there are these shiny silhouettes . . . ?"
* * *
Ersin watched as the private hammered in the last iron stake topped with a golden silhouette of two busty females in a reclined position and shook his head.
"Yah know, boss," said Mueller, "somebody's bound to have a cow about this."
* * *
"And the defenses at Libby Hill are as complete as was planned for this battle," continued the High Commander. "Later on we'll build concrete bunkers and such, but the Twelfth Corps is going to have it as good as it gets on such short notice. And we're bringing in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Corps from the Carolinas. Richmond is going to be a graveyard of Posleen," he stated definitively.
"What about their data security?" asked the secretary of defense.
"There was a cyberpunk team in Richmond on an unrelated mission," answered the High Commander. "They checked the Twelfth Corps's IVIS and FireTac systems. Both were infected by a virus that apparently noted the detection and performed an autodestruct.
"They're picking apart the remnants right now and scratching their heads like everyone else. But as far as NSA, the Cybers and CONARC's own Data Security department can determine, Twelfth Corps is fully mission capable, including all automated systems. On the other hand, they've also zeroed every weapon in the Corps on particular targets and are only awaiting the Posleen to open fire. They really don't need FireTac or IVIS."
"So you're saying that this battle should go as planned?" asked the secretary, sarcastically.
"I did not plan the previous engagement," said the High Commander.
"No, General," said the President. "I planned that engagement, as I made plain on national television. What can we do about Ninth Corps?"
The general shook his head again. "We can pull out some of the supply personnel, but not many. I mean, there's a reason for every person who is that far forward. We don't have a terrain obstacle to interpose between Posleen and our support as we did with Tenth, so our downside is actually higher.
"If . . . when, the Posleen break through the defenses, they'll be able to engage the support elements, including artillery and supply units, that they weren't able to assault at the Dale City defense. Casualty estimates on this battle are double or triple the Tenth Corps battle."
"And there's nothing we can do?" asked the secretary, incredulously.
"First Army has committed all of the Tenth Corps units that are reasonably cohesive to reinforce Ninth along with Tenth's Corps and division artillery, which was mainly behind the Occoquan. He was sending the Eighth and Eleventh Corps in to reinforce them, but he was countermanded by CONARC."
"Why?" demanded the secretary.
"If Ninth can hold with all six divisions, two corps of artillery, and fixed, prepared positions, we'll send them in to reinforce. If it can't, and I do not expect it to, it is futile to throw away another sixty thousand troops. Besides," he concluded, "First Army is strung from here to Boston. We're parceling them along the Potomac at crossings. We might have to use them to extract the refugees."
"What about the ACS battalion?" asked the President.
"They are on their way. They should be there about three hours after the battle is joined. At that point the plan is to send them around Lake Jackson and hit the Posleen in the flank."
The overloaded tractor-trailers carrying the Third Battalion Five-Fifty-Fifth Mobile Infantry Regiment had left the secure Interstate 81 hours before. The laboring trucks packed with half-ton suits had crossed the outer Blue Ridge before descending into the Virginia horse country. This was no-man's-land. Even the police had evacuated with the last civilians, heading to the Blue Ridge and safety.
To the troops, packed like sardines in the trucks, it had been a nightmarish ride. Although they each had hundreds of hours in their suits, lying on their backs under, in some cases, a dozen suits while swaying from side to side for hours in a tractor-trailer had been a shattering experience. There were several cases of troopers panicking; in one case the spasmodic gyrations of the panicked troop tore open the side of the truck, spilling two squads of ACS troopers out on the interstate to the general detriment of any vehicle that hit them. Between panic and motion nausea, the unit was in poor shape when the convoy ran into a Posleen ambush outside of Warrenton, VA.
The Posleen were not even skirmishers. The God King had gotten his fill of fighting humans when he lost almost his entire oolt to the guns of the North Carolina. Having lost all interest in engaging artillery he struck out in the direction of least resistance. He was one of the rare Posleen that was not spoiling for a fight.
Along the way he lost a few more oolt'os to random armed humans. They mostly fired at long range and from cover, but were remarkably accurate and persistent. And the oolt learned quickly not to bother with the residences. The few that did not explode in his face yielded only scraps of food and occasional bits of light treasure. Many had been cleared of anything of value. The God King and his forces followed U.S. 17 northward through the rolling hills of Spotsylvania, Stafford and Fauquier counties, past country farms, mostly deserted, and occasional clusters of houses. Nowhere did he encounter significant storehouses, but on the other hand he also did not encounter significant resistance; he felt it was a fair trade.
At the junction of 17 and 15/29 the group encountered a large abandoned vehicle. The cargo area revealed a vast storage of multiple types of foodstuffs. The side of the vehicle sported a picture of a food beast he had already encountered. The beast yielded a flat and tasteless food. The similarity in taste to the threshkreen caused some of the Kessentai to speculate that these might be the threshkreen's nestlings. The disparate sizes and conformation argued against it. But the Posleen had seen stranger methods of reproduction.
However, the cargo vehicle had many other types of food, many of them oddly spiced and prepared. Some of the material, sporting a picture of a white avian, tasted remarkably like nestling.
Other than the storehouses of the thresh it was the finest booty taken so far. Obviously, the cargo vehicles were to be captured whenever possible. They had found three more on the way north. Only one contained more foodstuffs but the others had useful mixed supplies.
Thus, when the four vehicles hove into view, the oolt'os followed their carefully conveyed and simple orders to open fire on the motive portion of the lead vehicle.
When the tractor-trailer containing Alpha Company and part of the battalion staff jackknifed, the heavy and refractory suits tumbled through the light sidewalls of the trailer like buckshot through paper. The troopers were thrown through the air and tumbled along the ground for multiple meters. The trailing trucks slammed on their brakes and, as soon as they slowed to a survivable speed, the truckers dove out and took shelter in the roadside ditch.
Most of the troops tucked themselves into balls as they flew through the air, the inertia of the thousand-pound suits carrying them hundreds of feet in an uncontrolled tumble. Since the Posleen company was more or less in line with the inertia of the vehicle, several of the troopers and the battalion intelligence officer were carried into its midst.
The GalTech Armored Infantry Design Team had been composed of knowledgeable and careful individuals. They were people who had either experienced or extensively studied a variety of calamities. To a man, or in one case, woman, they were pessimists where combat was concerned; Murphy was an old and dear friend that they kept always at the forefront of their brains.
In addition, the conditions that the company was in were remarkably similar to an insertion technique briefly considered during the initial phases of development. Thus, when these particular conditions arose, a series of planned and legacy software reactions occurred.
Inertial compensators did not slow the suits, but rather served to remediate the effect on the users. The apparent roll was significantly reduced, while the visual conditions were matched to the apparent inertial effects. Thus, instead of feeling like bowling balls, the luckless troopers found themselves wrestling with molasses. But the reduction allowed them to see what was coming and, at least partially, prepare.
Three of the troops tumbled into the midst of the Posleen were from Alpha weapons: Grim Reaper suits. Realizing that they might need close-range support on the way, the platoon leader had switched out all four weapons points for flechette cannons.
Composed of twelve-barreled light flechette guns, each flechette cannon could spew forty thousand lethal steel slivers a minute. Of course, like all Grim Reaper systems, they could also run through the onboard munitions in less than six minutes of combat. Grim Reapers always preferred to be close to their ammo sources.
Two of the weapons troops, through a combination of luck and gymnastics, ended up on their feet and practically side by side in the midst of the Posleen. Most of the Posleen lining their backtrack were dead, or well on their way, but the final group that cushioned their stop was struggling to their feet even as the Reapers opened fire.
Dropping all four cannons to horizontal, the two suit troops went back-to-back and began to spin in place, throwing out a horizontal steel rain of destruction. The steel razors shredded any Posleen in their path, the yellow centaurs tearing apart under the fatal onslaught of the hypervelocity flechettes.
Unfortunately, there was no way for two troops to cover the entire circuit. Posleen on every side hurled themselves on the explosive dervishes in their midst, monomolecular blades rising and falling in awful cadence. In moments the luckless Grim Reapers were taken apart like lobsters.
However, their sacrifice was not in vain. The violence of their entry into the Posleen force had thrown it off balance just a moment too long. The moment's breathing space was enough time for many of the troopers of the ambushed ACS to regain their feet and their wits.
Before the Posleen could regain the upper hand, fast-thinking troopers whipped their grav-guns to level and opened fire.
A hurricane of silver lightning crashed into the remaining Posleen. The God King had lost most of the oolt at Market Crossing. When the tsunami of fire crashed into it the remainder was washed away in seconds; the few scattered defensive rounds of the Posleen disappeared into nothingness.
The faithless and luckless God King attempted to escape the tidal wave of relativistic fire, but was picked out of the sky by a cone of fire from dozens of troops. The detonation of the energy matrix was muted by the kinetic explosions of thousands of rounds intersecting on the point in space once occupied by the vanished saucer. Of the God King, naught was left but a whiff of putrescence on the wind.
Lieutenant Colonel Calvin Bishop pulled himself up out of the wrecked cab of the third truck and sat on the mangled door. His AID was already cataloging the damage and he grimaced at the digests. The battalion was mostly intact—the losses were actually minimal—but the ambush on top of the devastating ride over the Blue Ridge had combined into nightmare.
He was in the middle of nowhere, thirty miles from the battle and already four hours behind schedule. He wasn't sure his lone battalion could exactly turn the tide, but if they made it to the Ninth Corps's line in time they might be able to extract the corps. It had become something of an instant tradition among the ACS.
He took a brief moment to contemplate the situation and began to snap orders to his company commanders. They had a battle to catch.