Lieutenant Leper lurched awake, AIW in hand. Keren grabbed the barrel and pointed it upward and away.
The lieutenant shook his head a few times, then peered blearily at Keren. "What time is it?" The inside of the Bradley was pitch black.
"Four thirty, L-T. The ACS just got in. They're assembling up behind us. The colonel, he'd like to talk to you. I told him you was sleepin' . . ."
Leper snorted. Knowing Keren he'd done more than just tell the colonel. "It's okay. I was just back when we lost Three Track."
"Yeah. Like you said, L-T, we're fine until we're on charge zero." Keren shuddered. Mortar platoons aren't ever supposed to see the enemy. Those that do rarely survive the experience.
The lieutenant lurched upward and automatically checked his AIW. He jacked a grenade into the chamber, checked that both the rifle and grenade launcher were on safe and scrambled across the scattered gear and sleeping bodies to the troop hatch.
It was black as pitch outside, the stars glittering in the clear sky. They added nothing, however, to the illumination. Leper could hear the chuckle of Kettle Run nearby. The run took a turn to the north as it approached the Occoquan reservoir, then looped back. The remnants of the company were assembled in the middle of the loop astride Brentsville Road.
He regretted not grabbing a pair of night-vision goggles. The power had been sundered to Manassas and the surrounding area, so the backscatter that was so difficult to avoid, that contributed at least an erg of illumination on the darkest night in the eastern United States, was entirely absent. He could barely see his hand in front of his face.
He took a step forward and his Kevlar ran into a metal wall.
Leper could vaguely make out a looming presence. "Lieutenant Leper?" the apparition asked.
"Yes, sir," said the tired lieutenant. Two hours sleep after all that they had been through was simply not enough.
"What's the situation, Lieutenant?"
Leper tried to digest the question and had a sudden urge to scream at the fresh, technologically sophisticated officer. What's the situation? The situation is we're all fucked! The word from Ninth Corps was that they couldn't hold out much longer. How anyone was going to retreat with the Posleen right at their heels was a good question. It was going to be ten times as bad as Occoquan. Then at least the Posleen had been scattered. In this case they would be massed and right up the corps's backside.
And his units were on the wrong side of the Ninth Corps. Since they were guarding the south flank, if the corps broke the Posleen would be swarming in behind them. And that was just a matter of time. There was a pretty strong rumor that MP units had been stationed behind the line with orders to shoot deserters.
None of it would matter for much longer. When the levee broke, none of it would matter a hill of beans.
"We're holding the south flank of the corps, sir." Actually they were holding the south flank of Lake Jackson. Lake Jackson itself was anchoring the south flank of the corps. "The area has been quiet. We had one God King come this way with one of their companies, but we took care of it without significant casualties."
There was less than a brigade in total holding the line. Most of them weren't even infantry. Clerks and cooks and the officers' band. Everything that was left of Tenth Corps less DivArty.
The casualties when the Posleen company hit had been less than a platoon's worth. On the other hand, this was all that was left of a corps. There was some sort of calculation there that he didn't want to think about. Would that platoon be the equivalent of a battalion to a corps? And if so, should they be considered the same as the loss of a battalion? "So far so good?" he finished.
"I understand that you were in the retreat from the interstate?" The question was asked without any emotional overtones, but Leper felt Keren bristling behind him.
"We were the rear guard. Sir," the lieutenant said in an absolute monotone.
"What do you estimate the Posleen forces as?"
"How many of them are there, Lieutenant?" the colonel asked with iron patience.
The exhausted officer goggled at him for a moment. "Is this a trick question?"
"No." The blank of faceted plasteel was nearly invisible and even if it weren't there was no way to see the officer's expression. The question was nonsensical.
"Sir, there are more than the stars in the sky, more than the blades of grass, more than the trees in the forest. One good look is all it takes. They fill the world from horizon to horizon and every fucking one of them is trying to kill you!"
The armor was still and silent for a pause. "So, how did you survive?"
Leper blinked rapidly and thought about all the ones that didn't. "I don't know," he admitted. "I oughta be dead." He closed his eyes and shook his head.
"We lost—oh, Christ. Forget losing the company and the Old Man to the artillery. We lost 'em like a river loses water! Sometimes I'd have fifty, sixty troops. The next thing you know, we'd just stop for a second to . . . to get a breather, to . . . to reconsolidate, hell, to find out who the hell was hanging on the vehicles. And then they'd come. And . . . and the next thing you knew we were back on the road, running as fast as we could. And we'd have maybe two squads. And that'd happen over and over." His hand was over his eyes now and he shook his head continuously.
"I don't know how many went through my hands, Colonel. I don't know how many I lost along the road. I don't know how many we passed. Some of them just gave up. Some of them were injured. Some of them were just tired of running. I don't know their names!" The lieutenant drew himself up and tried to clear his eyes.
The colonel reached up and removed his helmet. The solid pyramid of plasteel came away with a sucking sound. A tap of a control and the suit began to glow a faint blue, just enough to give some vision.
"Have you been debriefed at all?" the senior officer asked in a gentle, surprised voice.
"No, sir," Keren answered for the lieutenant when the officer just shook his head. "When we rolled into Ninth Corps territory they got rid of us like we had the plague. They just told us to come over here and get our shit together. And don't walk on the grass."
The colonel nodded his head at the answer. "Well, Lieutenant, I think you did just fine." The tone was firm and believable. The colonel put his hand on the lieutenant's shoulder. "Son, that was hell. I know. I've been in hell too."
"My company had a week-long firefight in Dak-To. We would lose a couple and then get a resupply then lose them as often as not. I never knew who the hell was in the holes. At the end of the whole thing the VC just melted back into the jungle. I had fifteen left in the company that started the battle, including me. I had worked my way through nearly two hundred troops in those weeks. I'd use them like pouring water in a well. I didn't recognize any of those names. Nobody else in the company did either."
"No records, sir," said the lieutenant, quietly.
"No. And that will probably haunt you. But there is still a job to do. Are you gonna do it?"
"You got observation posts out?"
"Yes, sir. So far nothing except the one company."
"No. I've got one going out in a couple of hours. The Posleen have got to find this edge sooner or later. But we only got finished digging in a couple of hours ago. If I sent out a patrol right now, they'd go out a couple of hundred yards and rack out."
"All right," said the colonel. At least the lieutenant had a grasp on reality. "Just as well you don't have a patrol out there. We're gonna pass through your lines in about ten minutes. Then we're gonna stroll on down Bristow Road and try to take the Posleen like the monkey took the miller's wife. It might work and it might not. But there's a chance that we're gonna be coming back about as fast as we went out. You gonna be here?"
"Good. Glad to hear it. How 'bout you, Keren?"
"Maybe," said the private. "Depends on who gets here first. If it's the Posleen, you better be ready to walk back to the mountains."
"Fair enough," the colonel said and put his helmet back on. The blue glow of the armor faded after a moment as he rolled his shoulders. " 'Bout time to go, don't you think?"
* * *
Ardan'aath snarled as yet another road to the north was bypassed. "Can we not turn yet?" he raged. He pointed to the north with his plasma cannon, where the thunder of artillery and rockets could be clearly heard. Beams of light and orange tracers could be seen ascending into the sky. "There! There is where the battle is!" He fired a spiteful plasma burst towards the distant battleline.
"Soon," soothed Kenallai. He glanced at his eson'antai. "Soon?"
"Soon," agreed the young Kessentai, fluffing his crest in thanks. "Up ahead is the road. Arnata'dra has already turned up it."
"Finally!" snarled the older Kessentai. "The battle will be over before we can make this stupid turn!"
"Ardan'aath," said Kenallai, "look you at the results of charging these thresh head on! There are more oolt'ondai dead at the feet of these thresh than Po'os in the Swarm!"
Ardan'aath fluffed his crest in anger but had to agree. The thrice-damned harvest of this world was damnably capable at battle. He had finally reviewed the information from Aradan 5, when no one was watching. The metal-clad thresh would be formidable foes. He had begun to consider how to fight them and had a few ideas. He hoped he would not be forced to test them.
* * *
It was more than ten minutes. The Fleet Strike battalion had only gotten their suits a month before. While the First of the Five-Fifty-Fifth averaged over a thousand hours of suit time, most of Second Battalion had less than three hundred hours. It took time for the officers to decipher the icons of their forces, to set up the formation, to finalize briefings and recharge the suits before going in harm's way. They had been doing all of those things while the colonel talked to the local commander. But it still took more than ten minutes.
In the end, it took more time than they had.
As the first scouts approached the Tenth Corps line, their sensors started to scream.
* * *
"Colonel," said the S-3, traveling between the two lead companies and the reserve.
"See it," barked Bishop. He had two "up" companies in movement with the third waiting to see if they ran into anything. If he had thought there were bad guys out there it would be the other way around. "Stop Bravo and Charlie. Have Charlie dig in with the Mech guys. Tell Bravo to cover Charlie until they're dug in. Send Alpha to the right to probe for a flank."
The scout's eyes were flared wide to drink in every bit of luminance. The battle to the north occasionally caused painful flares in his vision, but he paid it no mind. He paid mind to few things, he was focused on the link between himself and his god and the question of where the thresh were. He hungered for them, for the approval of his god in the gathering and the harvest. Well down the hierarchy was self-preservation or pain.
He paused, dust-flaps lifting off his nostrils to scent the air. Behind him his pack-brothers paused as well, scenting. The smell was an acrid mixture of chemicals and organic respirations. He turned to look towards his god.
* * *
Arnata'dra studied his readouts for a moment and then cross-linked them to Kenallurial.
* * *
The Kessentai studied them for a moment and winced. "My edas'antai, we have a problem."
Kenallai studied the readout for a moment and flared his crest. "Indeed."
"We could attempt to bypass them . . ."
"Gutless babe . . ."
"Stop!" Kenallai studied the readout again. The signatures were clearly the metal-clad thresh and already they were extending their line. The next thing would be to drive forward on his oolt'ondai. In addition they were supported by regular troops lightly dug in. They appeared to be the warriors, thank the spirits of the land, rather than those bastard military technicians. But there would still be explosives and the ballistic weapons.
"No. There is a time to maneuver and a time to strike. We must drive into the rear of the thresh. Drive hard. If we maneuver around these thresh, the main body will attempt a retreat. We will drive through these and destroy the resistance in the pocket. The Net will recognize the worth and grant us extensions to our fiefs."
"Yes, my edas'antai."
Ardan'aath had studied the reports from Barwhon and Diess. These threshkreen were tricky and capable, more of a challenge in their way than the Po'oslenar in orna'adar. But there were only three things present to fear. The ballistic weapons, the fact that they dug like abat, and the metal-clad thresh.
The only way to deal with the ballistic weapons was to close with the thresh. Once his oolt'ondar was among the harvest, the ballistic weapons were forced to cease fire. And, if he was among them, they could be dug out like the abat that they were. The metal-clad thresh remained the only problem. However, they too were vulnerable to the Posleen blades and, as usual, they were few. He could overwhelm them with numbers, especially if he extended his line and concentrated on them.
Everything called for a wide front charge. It could not have been more perfect.
"Telaradan! Forward! Assarnath! To the left. We shall eat their get! Forward! Spread out. And kill the metal thresh first! Tel'enaa, fuscirto uut!"
* * *
"Dig in!" The Charlie Company first sergeant was striding down the line of suits, pushing them into position or juggling firepower. And giving a few hasty lessons.
"No! God dammit!" He yanked a cratering charge off the belt of the trooper who was shoveling dirt with his armored gauntlets. The suits could move a massive amount of dirt in a surprising hurry, but the digging charges were still faster. "Use your foxhole charges!" the NCO snarled over the company push, snatching another off a belt and slapping it into the gauntlet of a confused trooper.
* * *
"Here they come!" one of the outpost troops shouted and jumped out of his shallow hole to try to make the security of the lines. He almost made it to safety before his chest erupted in red. In the darkness a parachute flare floated upward with a hiss. There was a pop overhead and the field in front of the infantry company was lit like day. It was covered in centaurs.
* * *
The first to fire was the Third platoon machine-gun post. The orange tracers drifting lazily through the still night air towards the unexpected company seemed to trigger a firestorm.
The gun crew startled awake and stumbled to the gun. When the remnants of the Corps were reassembled there were enough gun tracks to scatter them around. As a reasonably intact unit, Alpha Mortars had received two orphan tracks to replace their maintenance losses. They had also been offered an FDC track. Keren had demurred. The Suburban was much more comfortable.
At Keren's suggestion the platoon had left their mortars set up to support the company. Three gun's mission was to fire flares and all that they had to do was begin dropping rounds.
The assistant gunner, the person who actually fires the mortar, had actually slept curled around the cold metal of the weapon. At the cry from FDC she simply rolled upward with a round in her hand. Before she was fully awake she had the round in the tube and firing. It was a regular HE round instead of a flare, and the setting of the gun sent it flying almost a mile downrange, behind the charging Posleen. But it was the thought that counted.
The next round was a flare.
Lieutenant Leper ran forward towards the front-line CP. He was not only in charge of the mortars, but of the company as well. That being the case he had completely scrambled normal procedures. The mortars were well forward with his CP closer to them than the line. He had planned on straightening things out in the morning, but the Posleen hadn't given him the time.
As he reached the large hole scraped out of the Virginia loam, he got his first clear view of the enemy and despaired. The company was in no shape to face that mass; the Posleen must outnumber them a hundred to one. It looked like a full Posleen brigade was charging them at a gallop.
He dove into the hole and reached for the radio.
* * *
If there was one thing that Keren had learned along the way, it was that there was no such thing as too much information. Which was why he had one radio set to the company frequency, another on the fire control frequency and two "off the books" radios that he had picked up along the way set to battalion and brigade. So he was the first person in the company to hear the lieutenant condemn them to death.
The distant crack of railguns and the hammer of machine guns was echoed in the transmission.
"November One Five, this is Papa One Five, over."
"Papa One Five, we are in contact with approximately a regiment of Posleen. I do not estimate that we will be able to hold them off, over."
"Roger, understood. ACS support is on the way. Over."
"Papa, they are already here. I still don't estimate we'll hold. The Posleen look fresh and they are charging the line even as we're talking. The ACS is spread out and looks pretty confused. I don't intend to do the bug out boogie, but I don't see us stoppin' these guys, either. Tell corps to get ready to run. Over."
"November One Five. All of corps's reserves are on the line. You are ordered to hold. Over."
"You're dreamin', Papa. November out."
* * *
"Tango Three Six, this is November One Five, over."
There was a pause. The fire control center for the defense was busy; they were still scrambling to replace the central fire net.
"Calling unit say again callsign, over."
"Tango three six, this is November One Five. Final protective fire call, designation One-One-Bravo. Posleen in close-contact. Final protective fire. Over."
"November, be advised we are tapped out for artillery at this time. We are in final protective mode for the entire Ninth Corps, over."
"Well, if we get overrun you're gonna have visitors pretty damn quick. So make up your mind. Out."
* * *
"All guns!" yelled Keren, out the back of the Suburban. "Final Protective Fire! Continuous fire!"
* * *
Specialist Nick Warren crouched in his foxhole and tried to count kills. The foxhole had been built for interlocking fire, with a mound of earth in front of it and the firing slot angled out to the right at a forty-five degree angle. The idea was to fire at everything from the side and not be shot at by the horses you were shooting at. Which was fine except that the whole wall was being hammered by railgun and shotgun rounds. Dirt drifted around him in streams as the pounding fire tore apart the sandbags on the outer layer, then began to destroy the packed dirt of the fill.
His zone of fire was packed with horses. There were so many that he had stopped bothering to aim. If he missed one the bullet was sure to hit the one behind. He would run but he had done that once and knew what it brought. The horses could run you down faster than you could escape. There was nothing to do but kill them and keep killing them and hope it was enough. He had to keep them off the other holes and hope that there were enough guys left to keep the horses off his. He wished he'd saved some grenades, they'd be a treat. But he was out of gun grenades and the hand kind both.
His bolt flew back on an empty chamber and the plastic magazine dropped out. He was patting his ammo pouches trying to find another magazine when he heard a sound like a machete hitting a watermelon and looked over his shoulder.
The other soldier in the foxhole was down, half her face torn away by the railgun round that had finally punched through the wall of sandbags. He couldn't even remember her name, some chick from headquarters company. He had a moment of shame at his first thought, which was joy that he could see she had two magazines left. But he didn't have much time to dwell on the shame. There was a sudden shower of dirt, heavier than the earlier ones. He never even saw the blade that clove into the back of his head, slicing through the Kevlar helmet, bone and brain like butter.
* * *
There just wasn't enough concentrated firepower. Fighting Posleen had often been described as trying to stop an avalanche with a fire hose. It only works if you have enough fire hoses.
The Posleen were on a narrow front, crossing an open beaten zone. They were, in fact, a perfect target for a prepared veteran unit with backup or even an intact, dug in, green ACS unit. But without massive artillery fire, without an intact ACS battalion, without more troops and tangle-foot and barbwire and mines, Ardan'aath drove his forces forward in a wild charge that overwhelmed the defenders in bare minutes.
Bravo Company of the ACS was the first to fall, left exposed on the flank of the mechanized company. Their lines of silver lightning stretched out to the charging Posleen and tore them apart like paper. The same carnage would have shocked a human force into immobility. But there were over twelve thousand Posleen charging down the narrow front and dozens of God Kings. And Posleen just don't stop.
The Posleen focused on this danger first, striking the company with direct-fire. The armor was usually proof against anything but a plasma cannon or an HVM. But as the mass of fire pounded them, occasional three-millimeter rounds would find a weakness. And there were over six hundred HVM launchers and nine hundred heavy railguns in the force. Between those and the God Kings the exposed ACS company was eliminated without killing more than five or six hundred of the enemy.
The dug-in forces fared better, but not so much that it mattered. The first to be silenced was the partially dug-in Charlie Company as their grav-guns and Grim Reapers were picked out for special attention by the heavy weapons of the Posleen brigade. Charlie Company put up a hard fight but the whistling centaurs drove forward against the wall of fire, piling up windrows of their dead in an effort to close with the armored humans. It finally came down to hand-to-hand as the Posleen reached the foxholes of the unit and overwhelmed it in a charge with monomolecular blades.
In the meantime the lighter railguns and shotguns of the Posleen normals concentrated on the foxholes of the mechanized unit, in most cases hammering them so hard they were unable to respond. Anyone who jumped out of a hole and started to run was cut apart by massed fire. When the Posleen reached the firing line it was all over. The forlorn troopers were butchered in place like so many sheep. A few made it away in the confusion, but for all practical purpose the unit had ceased to exist.
* * *
"We cannot leave those metal thresh wandering around," said Kenallurial, gesturing at the display. Inside he was bitter with envy. He knew his worth, but a successful te'naal charge like that one would be spoken of for a thousand years. That it was his trickery and thought that brought them here would be forgotten.
"Ardan'aath will dispose of them in good time," said Kenallai calmly. "Look at the thresh run," he continued, gesturing at the schematic. The remnants of the Tenth Corps were pulling up stakes and backpedaling towards Manassas as fast as they could. "Like abat from a corpse."
"We should press them," said Kenallai. "We must not let them stop and build defenses before the great prize to the north."
"We will, my eson'antai, we will," the oolt'ondar said, fluffing his crest. "Don't be so envious."
Kenallai turned away at that insight, tapping the display to bring it wider. This was a fine land, rich and with much booty to be won. There would be fine fiefs to be had. If only the Net recognized his contributions.
In the distance there was an end to the screaming and a fading sound of diesel engines.