The Suburban lurched as it crossed the toothpick remains of a backyard fence.
The fastest way through the neighborhoods of scattered one- and two-story houses was often the yards. They had had to turn around at Glebe Road and backtrack up Wilson Boulevard until they found a section not completely blocked by cars. The choked roads had overflowed to the point of bursting and the abandoned vehicles were scattered through the strip malls and fast-food restaurants along the major thoroughfares. Once they got across Wilson they stayed as much as possible on yards and side streets, only attempting crossings at the least likely places.
They could have abandoned the vehicles. There were military vehicles scattered throughout the region. But if they left the tracks they would lose the mortars and the .50 calibers. All in all, Keren was willing to chance the Posties catching them to keep the firepower.
But the circuitous route had other problems.
"Where are we?" asked Elgars, leaning out the window and looking back at the two following mortar carriers. Surprisingly, none of the vehicles had broken down in the harum-scarum run from Manassas. Apparently all the deadwood had been left in Prince William County. "You got any idea?"
"Not really," said Keren, handing her the map. They had switched drivers when the going got bad. She was fine on streets but he had much more experience at off-road.
She found the last notations he had made, back at Wilson Boulevard. "That doesn't tell me much."
He picked up the microphone. After the third time he had pushed it out the window, Elgars had found a roll of duct tape and fixed it so the antenna stuck out the moonroof of the vehicle. It worked remarkably well and he wondered why he hadn't thought of it. Probably because the only time he hadn't been running for the last three days was when he was dead asleep.
"Find a road sign."
The mortar carrier made a hard left, kicking up a rooster tail of soil from the manicured yard. It trampled a pink plastic tricycle then slipped into the space between neighboring houses. The wooden fence between them turned to splinters as the vehicle ran down its length. As he cleared the house he made another abrupt turn to the right.
The houses were halfway down a block. The mortar platoon proceeded to the end of the street where the ubiquitous green sign finally fixed their location.
"Jackson and Sixth," said Reed over the radio.
"Damn," said Elgars. "Not bad. We're nearly to Arlington Cemetery."
"How far?" asked Keren, peering ahead. There were skyscrapers ahead, which was not good. The damn things drew Posleen like flies. He keyed the mike again. "Anybody see a big hill? Should be at our nine o'clock."
"I got it," said somebody from the Three Track. The squad was from another brigade, added on to their nearly intact platoon at Jackson Lake. They still didn't feel like family, but at least they kept up. "Between two buildings. You probably can't see it from there."
"Okay," Keren said, "that's our objective . . ."
A tremendous explosion tore the face off a skyscraper to the south and a tracer kicked up and out crazily.
"Holy Shit!" shouted Reed. "Posleen!" The .50 caliber on the top of the mortar carrier tracked to the south down Sixth Street and began to spit fire.
"Goose it!" shouted Keren over the radio, putting action to words as he dropped the Suburban into gear. "Don't just sit there!"
He turned into the road just as the mortar carrier began to move. A hypervelocity missile evaporated a section of roadway to their right as the Suburban slid crazily into the intersection. Elgars had her AIW out and was climbing into the moonroof. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the other tracks cutting across the parking lot on the corner but he put his foot down and accelerated towards the distant hill.
He had just passed forty when Elgars kicked him painfully in the shoulder.
"Stop!" she yelled as another HVM flew by. The shockwave of its passage shook the heavy vehicle like a terrier and the missile itself demolished a gas station on the corner.
"Fuck you!" he shouted back and started weaving. The silver lance of plasma cannon came from nowhere and he saw the Two Gun track erupt in fire. "Goddamnit!" The mortar carriers were firing their .50 calibers but with the way they were jumping over curbs there was no chance in hell of hitting the Posleen leader that must have fired that accurate blast. He was barely in sight in the rearview, at nearly a thousand yards. The distance was the only thing saving them from the notoriously inaccurate Posleen. Distance, however, helped not a bit with God Kings.
"Stop or we're all FUCKED!" Elgars shouted again. Her feet were braced on the backs of both front seats and the rifle was rock-steady.
He stomped on the brakes and reached in the back for his own AIW. He was no expert, but unless they took out that God King, they were all toast. Two rifles were better than one. The 7.62 rifles had the ability, technically, to hit something at that range. He'd never been able to hit the broad side of a barn at over five hundred yards. But, hell, the horse might sing.
The vehicle had barely lurched to a stop when there was a single crack from overhead. "Go!"
He looked in the rearview as a storm of fire erupted towards them. The Posleen normals of the company were attacking berserkly. But they were firing at everything in sight, not just the vehicles, and the fire was scattered. There was enough to begin slamming into the Suburban, but the God King was clearly dead. His saucer was barely in sight drifting off to the side. Keren dropped the Suburban back into gear and floored the accelerator. The smoke from the burning gas station was just ahead and if they made it to that obscurement they might just survive.
"Holy Mother of Acceleration, don't fail us now!" shouted Elgars as she began pumping out grenades. The 20mm rounds pounded out like a metronome, weaving a dance of destruction in the wake of the retreating platoon.
* * *
The platoon had torn through Fort Myer as if it weren't there. Headquarters of the Continental Army Command and one of the most famous facilities in the United States, it was now a ghost town; it seemed that the only sentients in the world were the platoon and the pursuing Posleen. The mortar unit had a blurry view of the commissary and the clinic as they rushed past and then they were at the wall around Arlington Cemetery.
Knowing the barrier was coming up, Keren had slowed to let the tracks catch up. He picked up the mike again. "Three Track. Run that thing over," he said, pointing at the wall.
"Idn't there a gate?" asked the person on the radio in One Track.
"You wanna take time to find it?" asked the Three Track commander and waved at the wall. The vehicle snorted forward and put its nose against the low stone wall. With a burst of power a wide section of the wall came down.
"Now, goose it. Three Track, FDC, First. Go!"
Keren fell in behind Three Track as it began to weave a way up through the headstones. The specialist looked around at the white markers drifting off into the distance and shook his head. He suspected that the residents would understand the unseemly nature of the platoon's passage, but dislike the running away part. Well, sooner or later they were going to find a real unit to rejoin. And they could stop running.
Three Track turned right on the first road and followed it around the hill. The trees in the area shielded them from sight, but until they were on the back side of the hill, Keren wouldn't feel happy. Mortars are never, ever, ever supposed to see the enemy. It was drilled into them from basic training. Unlike artillery, they could not fire directly at an attacker. Used correctly, though, their big 120mm rounds could be devastating.
They were just approaching a traffic circle when an officer came striding down the hill towards them. The lieutenant colonel was in Dress Blues and carried an MP-5 submachine gun. He walked out in front of the leading track and held up one hand for them to stop. After a brief conversation with the vehicle commander, he strode back to the Suburban.
Elgars laid down her AIW and reached for the 9mm that was half-forgotten in Keren's holster.
Without turning his head he said: "No."
"Why?" she asked. A brief glance in her direction revealed pale blue eyes as dead as a shark's.
Keren gestured up the hill to his right. A line of foxholes could be seen running up the ridge towards the Tomb of the Unknowns. The soldiers in them were hunkered down waiting for the approaching centaurs. Their AIWs and crew-served machine guns were plainly in evidence.
"You want to take the chance that all of them are willing to have this guy fragged?" he whispered as the officer approached.
"I'll think about it," she said, leaning back into the passenger's seat. "We'll see." She was as determined as any of them to put a river between themselves and the Posleen.
* * *
Keren fixed a military expression on his face and saluted as the officer approached. It was not precisely correct under the circumstances, but it never really hurt to salute.
"Colonel," he said, "Specialist Keren, Mortar Platoon, Alpha Company First Battalion Four Fifty-Second Infantry, Third Brigade Fiftieth Infantry Division."
The colonel was tall, slim and almost painfully handsome. He looked more like some movie star in a truly screwed-up war movie. He returned the salute with parade ground precision. "Lieutenant Colonel Alexander." He looked at the Suburban. The vehicle had been some yuppie's pride and joy before it fell into the clutches of the Infantry. Now it had only one remaining window, the side and rear panels were pocked with flechette strikes, the left rear quarter panel had been mostly torn off by a close encounter with a mortar track and the engine compartment was spurting steam.
"Where did you acquire the vehicle, specialist?" he asked in a dry and deadly voice.
Keren blinked rapidly. It was the last question he had expected to be asked. Hell, the platoon had stayed together, unlike most units. They had practically no NCOs left, the tracks were on their last legs, they had no officers, no spare ammo, no communications. And this stupid bastard wanted to know why they stole a truck.
There was only one option: Lie.
"Sir. Our Fire Direction vehicle was struck by friendly-fire in the Occoquan Defense. My company commander personally commandeered this vehicle, which was out of fuel on the Prince William Parkway. We used it for an ammunition carrier and to transport wounded in the withdrawal. We were overrun again, in company with an Armored Combat Suit battalion, at Lake Jackson. We lost our company commander, our platoon leader and all of our NCOs in the first contact at Lake Jackson. I've been using it as an FDC vehicle ever since. Sir. We are the last unit in. We have been performing a fighting withdrawal under fire. I could not have done that without a vehicle. Sir."
And the colonel could believe as much or as little of that as he liked. If the bastard made any more complaints, Keren would just let this hard-faced bitch do her thing. And then the platoon could just perform another fighting retreat.
The commander of a unit like this should have been a grizzled veteran as well as a martinet. Keren knew that was what the President's Marines were. Every swinging dick was a veteran of Barwhon or Diess. And they still had lovely drill. So it only made sense that the commander of the Old Guard would be the same. But the fruit-salad on the Dress Blue uniform said otherwise.
Keren wasn't one of those guys who spent all their time memorizing the medals they wanted to get someday. But he had seen fruit-salad before. And he knew a few things to look for. He didn't recognize the highest award on the colonel's chest, but it was probably a Legion of Merit. And that pretty much said it all. An L-o-M was the sort of award a really proficient paper-pusher got for thirty years' slavery in the Pentagon.
After careful but covert searching of the dangling medals, Keren determined a few lacks. There were no Silver Stars. There were no Bronze Stars. The colonel was infantry, he had the crossed rifles, but no Combat Infantry Badge. Expert Infantry Badge, yes. Expert Marksmanship Medals, yes. Master Parachutist Wings, yes. Combat Jump Star, no. His chest full of medals broadcast as plain as day that the colonel had never heard a shot fired in anger.
Patton might have shown up at a time like this in a dress uniform. He probably would have been in BDUs, but Georgie was funny. The same with MacArthur. If he had been ordered to hold Arlington Cemetery to the last man he probably would have had the entire unit in Dress Blues. It was an impossible task and everyone was going to die anyway. Might as well go out with style. But both of them had seen the elephant.
Keren's face was a polite mask but he knew the deal. This guy was a piker. He was scared shitless and throwing away his unit to prove he wasn't a coward. When the time came he would probably be running down the hill for the bridges. And praying like hell the engineers wouldn't blow them before he was across.
The colonel favored him with another cold look and nodded. "Very well. I am aware that there have been certain exigencies of service in the last two days." His face twisted into a sour expression that ended as contempt. "Your division has been on the run for quite a while."
Keren suppressed a deep angry breath as a last tiny trickle of adrenaline made it into his overloaded system. After a brief pause he nodded. "Yes, sir. We have."
"Well." The officer smiled coldly. "Lucky for you. Your running days are over." He gestured up the hill towards the barely visible Tomb on the hill. "Move your . . . unit up there. And dig your mortars in. They will be a useful addition to our firepower."
Keren nodded respectfully and reached for his map. "Yes, sir. Sir, might I point out two items of mortar doctrine . . ."
The officer's face hardened. "I am quite aware of mortar doctrine, specialist. I gave you an order."
" . . . which point out that in close contact mortars are to be maintained on the mortar vehicles. We can be in operation in four minutes after we stop if we stay in the vehicles, sir. It will take time to dig in." He looked the officer right in the eye. "We were in contact less than two miles from here, sir."
The officer's face tightened at that. He could not have missed the hypervelocity missile impacts, but apparently he had hoped that the enemy was farther away. "Where?"
"The Posleen unit was at Arlington Hall, sir. Their God King was using a plasma cannon. You did see the fire, sir?"
"Yes. Specialist, we don't have time to argue . . ."
I've got all the time in the world, you jackass. If you put us on that hilltop we've got maybe fifteen minutes of life left. "Sir, we were heading for a traffic circle on King Drive. One-hundred-and twenty–millimeter mortars have a minimum firing distance of nearly eight hundred meters. I cannot provide Final Protective Fire for your unit from the hilltop." It was a bald-faced lie. The distance was a third of that. But he was betting that this officer wouldn't know it.
And he was right.
"Very well," the officer snapped. "But if you attempt to move out of position once we are in contact, I will have your vehicles destroyed. Your running days are over, Specialist."
"Yes, sir!" said Keren. "What is your fire control frequency?"
The officer was desperately attempting to not look over his shoulder towards the encroaching Posleen. So his sudden look of shock was comical. "Uhhh . . ."
"We're on Sixty-Three Seventy, sir," said Keren, helpfully. He pulled out his leader's notebook and made a note. He tore the sheet of paper out and handed it to the colonel. "Here, sir. We'll go set up then?"
"Yes. Go, I'll . . ."
Keren saluted again and picked up the mike. "Three Track. Hold up. I'll ground-guide into position." He was glad that the receiver was turned down and to his ear.
"What? We're stopping?" said Three Track. One Track responded similarly but the response was garbled by Three's response.
"Yes, we're going to the roundabout. I've got the map and the colonel has our frequency. I'll lead in. Get ready to get set up." He smiled at the colonel and saluted him without taking the mike out of his hand. Then he put the Suburban into gear and gunned it around the big mortar track in front of him. The rear wheels of the big SUV tore the carefully tended sod and threw a rooster tail of loam back along his backtrack. He looked in the rearview to where the colonel was still standing, holding the little slip of paper. What a dumbfuck.
* * *
"You dumbfuck," snarled the specialist, leaning in the window. Third squad's leader was not happy about stopping. Keren glanced up from his board and saw first squad's leader headed over to the Suburban as well. The sergeant was from another battalion in Third Brigade and outranked Keren. But he was originally a rifle team leader and did not know much about mortars. He also was not much of a leader. He had been happy to defer to Keren throughout the entire flight. Keren finished setting up his board just as the sergeant arrived.
"Yeah, maybe," Keren admitted. Then he jerked his chin towards the hill. "There's Dragon antitank missiles up there. And maybe those big goddamn sniper rifles. If we try to run you want one of those up your ass?" He looked third squad's leader in the eye. "The fuckin' Posties are gonna be here anytime. You think maybe we better be ready to fire?"
The squad leader was a big man, with fine blond hair that was cut down to the stubble. The stubble on his face was nearly as long. His nostrils flared as he clenched and unclenched his hands. Then, with a glance up the hill towards the rifle positions and a curse, he turned around and stomped back to his track, shouting for them to get the gun into action.
First squad's leader was an older guy, balding, fat and black as an ace of spades. He stood with his arms crossed as the other squad leader stomped away and looked at Keren somberly.
Keren looked back. "Yeah?"
"How long we gonna stay?" the squad leader asked.
Keren shook his head in resignation. "The smart answer is until they," he said with another jerk of the chin towards the battalion, "have got it well and truly stuck in the horses. When they don't have any time to spare for a mortar unit that is running away."
The sergeant nodded his head. "In other words, we gonna run at the worst possible time." The statement was toneless.
Keren looked down at his shaking hands as they spun the board. "I've never been accused of being smart," he answered. "Stubborn, yeah. Stupid, yeah. A pain in the ass. Oh yeah. But not smart."
The sergeant smiled faintly and nodded his head. With that he started walking back to his track.