Teri Nightingale was not happy. The plan that battalion, which meant Captain O'Neal, had downloaded was unnecessarily hazardous and invited defeat in detail. It also left Bravo Company with an unsecured flank. The hazards of that were obvious to a blind man. But not to the world's greatest expert in combat suit tactics.
He also had sent Ernie out on a forlorn hope. Trying to hold that force coming across the bridge with a few infantry troops and some cowardly tank crews was impossible. They would be slaughtered. And that would be the end of Ernie Pappas.
She was not happy with the direction that relationship had taken. She had never intended to actually go to bed with him. But when the captain had turned her training over to the NCO, she felt a certain amount of flirtation in order. A good report from the NCO, much as it galled her, would go far towards restoring her position in the captain's eyes. Since the captain wrote her evaluation report, her career depended on keeping this NCO happy.
Flirtation had, unfortunately, quickly led to more. And now she was not sure she could end the relationship without causing the exact opposite of the effect she had been striving for. It was a hell of a predicament. Much as it bothered her to consider it, Sergeant Pappas's death would certainly permit her to be free and clear.
Her own death, however, might quickly follow. She swallowed at that thought and caught her breath. For the first time she seriously regretted her change from Intel to Infantry. A career in Intel would have meant slower promotion, but one of the costs of being in combat arms was the chance of dying. That had never been real to her until today. Despite the reality of the training systems, the possibility that Teri Nightingale might cease to exist was a shock.
That possibility was much on her mind as the company double-timed down New York Avenue. Confident in his company and assured by the first sergeant that the XO was capable of handling the load, Captain O'Neal had assigned Bravo the most difficult assignment. It required moving across Washington at an oblique angle and taking the Posleen forces in the flank. It also left them out on a limb, unsupported by the rest of the companies in the battalion. And to get to the point where they were truly in trouble required a headlong charge towards the distant enemy.
Second platoon was in the lead as they approached the back side of the White House. Lieutenant Fallon had pushed his point out well in advance of their location, but they were running without flankers, an invitation to ambush. That was not a comforting feeling to the XO.
"Lieutenant Fallon," she said, carefully controlling her voice, "hold up at the intersection of New York and Fifteenth Street. I don't like this running blindly towards the enemy. We need to get some scouts forward."
"Ma'am," said the lieutenant, diffidently. "With all due respect we're behind schedule as it is. We need to be in position to support the battalion's assault."
"I am aware of the plan, Lieutenant!" snapped the acting commander. "But if we get ambushed it will not help the battalion either!"
"Yes, ma'am," said the officer, tightly.
The company stopped in the open area to the east of the Treasury annex and automatically trained weapons out. The unit had been moving in tactical formation, the suits spaced twenty meters apart, weapons trained out to either side. If any Posleen unit had ambushed them it would have been toast.
* * *
Wilson tapped a grav-gun to get the rifleman on the correct axis and walked over to where Stewart was standing, one foot tapping a rhythm on the concrete. He leaned into the squad leader and set his communicator to private mode.
"Manuel, we're not supposed to be stopped here," he hissed.
"No shit," snapped Stewart. He did not even correct the use of his former name. The alias James Stewart was a bit of comedy that the gang had managed to keep secret to everyone but the first sergeant. But right now he was worried more about the colossal screwup the company was engaged in than in keeping his former existence a secret.
"Well, do something!"
"What would you have me do?" he asked in exasperation. "Off the XO?"
The response was resounding silence.
"Oh, great," Stewart responded. "Do you have any idea what a really bad idea that is? No? You think that Rogers or Fallon would just pick up the ball if we shot Nightingale? Or, maybe, they would have to deal with whoever shot her first? Bad, bad, bad idea."
"Okay," relented the former gang member. "But what the hell are we going to do?" he asked plaintively. "We were supposed to be in position by now, not standing by the White House with our thumbs up our butts!"
"Muy trabajo, buddy. I know that, you know that, the L-T knows that. The only one who doesn't know it is the fuckin' XO. So, when the Old Man figures out what's going on he'll kick her ass and get it in gear. No problemo."
"Sure, sure, Jim," snapped Wilson. "No problem for us. But the rest of the battalion is going to get corncobbed."
Stewart snorted faintly and smiled in his armor. "Why, Juan, I didn't think you cared about anybody but the gang!" The sarcasm was gentle and ironic.
"Well." Wilson looked at the symbol across the street. "I guess maybe I figure this is as much my turf as anybody's. And you know damn well that if you're standing still, sooner or later the Bloods are gonna find you!"
* * *
Atalanara had been part of Kenallurial's charge across the Potomac. But, unlike most of the other Kessentai, he had marshaled his oolt by the bridge, ready to cross. So the force had made it across relatively intact. Seeing the massive confusion near the Memorial he had struck out on his own.
A very junior battlemaster, he had no interest in facing well-prepared forces. His first movement to the north along the great river had been rebuffed by fire from thresh dug-in among the buildings of a large complex. Although the complex had looked desirable, he doubted his ability to drive the force of thresh out of their positions.
Taking a side street he sent teams of oolt'os into the buildings lining the roads. They reported nothing of value. Some of the buildings had fine artwork or well-made equipment, but nowhere were the heavy metals, refined chemicals or production facilities that he craved. Such a find would assuredly be assigned by the Net to the first to capture it. And it would permit him to equip his oolt with much better weapons.
Of course, the threshkreen had already helped in that regard. The oolt had exited the lander equipped mostly with the cheapest of shotguns along with a few missile launchers. The tenar that he had started off with sported the company's sole 3mm railgun.
The tenar was the same, but it now was mounted with a gigawatt laser and a new sensor suite. The Kessentai that had "improved" his vehicle would never miss the equipment. And their oolt, scattered in death from the threshkreen's ballistic weapons, had yielded a mass of weapons. So, now, the normals of the company were armed with a decent mix of weaponry. He had been able to double the number of hypervelocity missile launchers in the company and most of the remaining normals were now armed with railguns. True, many of those were 1mm rather than 3mm. But there were several plasma cannons to make up the lack. There was not a single shotgun left in the oolt; he was as well armed as a senior battlemaster. Now if he only could avoid using all that might!
The map that Kenallurial had been using indicated that there was a "Treasury" around here somewhere. The translation of that term had been more than satisfactory. That would be a prize worth fighting for.
* * *
"Okay," said Nightingale over the leader's circuit. "I know you're wondering why we've stopped. I'm not happy with running around without scouts further out. We don't know what is out there and we could get hit at any second."
"In that case," said Lieutenant Rogers, angrily, "we should be moving, not stopped. And, in case you haven't noticed, the rest of the battalion is about to engage the enemy. They are expecting us to hit them in the flank and cover the holes on that side! Which we are not doing standing around with our thumbs up our butts!"
"Watch your tongue," snapped Nightingale. "I understand your concerns, but we need a good op order on this." She paused for a moment. "This plan is not complete. We don't have good intelligence on the enemy's dispositions."
"Ma'am," said Sergeant Bogdanovich, "that is the Infantry. We're always the people who are gathering the intel the hard way. And this isn't about intel, it's about assault. We have to move."
"Yeah," sighed O'Neal. "I see it." Bravo had stopped at the intersection of New York Avenue and Fifteenth Street. Although it was not where he would have had a pre-rally, a stop made sense. If they had moved on. But they hadn't.
The battalion had finally cleared the detritus on the Mall and was preparing to cross Fifteenth Street. The forces on the Mound were getting hammered so he had brought the unit up to a lope. As they cleared Fifteenth, Alpha Company opened out like a fan. The edges of the company were already taking fire from distant God Kings and as soon as they cleared the mound it was going to be a firestorm. He needed to get Nightingale going. Fast.
"Top," he said, letting the AID switch him automatically.
"Yes, sir," said the first sergeant. According to the schematic he was not far from Bravo, in the company of a platoon of tanks. "I got a more or less intact battalion to move over to the Watergate. They got a brush from Posleen but beat them off. I'm taking these tanks over and there's some more forces that might trickle along behind. If we get artillery and not too many bad guys we should be fine."
"That's great, Top," said Mike quickly. "Just one problem. Look where Bravo is."
Mike waited a moment then snorted faintly at the fluent swearing that the AID faithfully broadcast.
"Shit," the first sergeant finished. "I'm sorry, boss."
"You get one suggestion," Mike answered. He was not terribly happy with the situation he was in. Pappas was normally to be depended on for a logical evaluation of personnel. In the case of Nightingale it had obviously failed and he was beginning to suspect why.
Pappas thought about the question furiously. If he left the Abrams unit they would take off like a scalded cat. But if he tried to persuade Nightingale over the radio it would be a waste of breath. He could see as clearly as the Old Man that she had frozen, whatever she was telling the company. There was only one choice, as painful as it was personally and professionally.
"Relieve her, sir," he said after the brief moment's thought. "Put Rogers in charge. If they're stopped and get hit by a Posleen company, you'll have a hell of a time getting them started again."
"Concur. Out here," said O'Neal, coldly.
Pappas knew he was going to get his ass kicked at some time in the near future by the little fireball. But that was only if they survived the upcoming battle.
* * *
Atalanara was nearly there. All he had to do was take this "Treasury" building and survive the battle. If he could, he would be set for all eternity; the treasury of such a rich nation would be bulging with loot. As he cleared the intervening bulk of the Old Executive Office Building the long-sought building came into view. And so did an oolt of metal threshkreen.
* * *
"Posleen!" shouted a private in First Platoon and sent a stream of relativistic teardrops towards the Posleen company that had appeared around the corner.
The fire was obscured by the fences and trees at the back of the White House as well as the bulk of the government office building. This gave the company enough time to react to the sudden appearance.
"Okay," said Nightingale, looking at her readouts, "we can do this." She tapped her gauntlets together and thought for a moment. "Okay, First platoon. Dig in and prepare to lay down a base of fire. Second, swing to the right and prepare to hit them in the flank. Third, get ready to pass through First to lay down more fire. Mortars—"
"No, no, no, no!" shouted Stewart over the command channel. "Kick their ass don't piss on them! The battalion is about to get fucked because we're out of position!"
"Stewart," the officer snarled. "One more word out of you and I'll have you court-martialed!"
"He's right, Nightingale," snapped Rogers as he stepped into line with his platoon and opened fire at the Posleen. The force was actually moving into the Executive Building, using the mass of the structure as cover and concealment. And the fire coming back was heavy. But they could bypass this resistance and move to their positions with minimal casualties. If the intel-weenie bitch could ever get off the stick. Giving vent to his frustration he sent a code to the platoon to open fire with grenades.
The small antimatter grenades sailed out in a volley, the spheres smashing through windows and bouncing off of walls before detonating. The arc-light bright flashes tore off the front of the building without noticeably impeding the Posleen fire. Whoever the God King in charge was, he was starting to learn human tactics.
"Cease fire with grenades!" shrilled Nightingale, horrified by the damage done to the building. It was on the grounds of the White House for God's sake. The consequences were going to be catastrophic.
"Nightingale," came O'Neal's voice, snapping across the company general circuit. "You are relieved. Move immediately to the area of the cargo canisters and remain there until further ordered. Lieutenant Rogers, you are in tactical command. Move immediately down G Street to Nineteenth. Take your positions along Constitution. You have three minutes to effect this maneuver. If you hit resistance punch through. Kick their ass, don't piss on them!" he finished in unconscious mimicry of his most junior squad leader.
"Yes, sir!" said the new acting commander. "Bravo Company! Follow me!" He locked his grav-gun and mortars on the building sheltering the entrenched Posleen and began a cascade of fire as he trotted off. By the time he reached the end of Lafayette Square he was at a full loping run, accelerating past forty miles per hour.
* * *
Stewart was right behind him with Lieutenant Fallon at his side and the rest of the company charging behind them. The hurricane of destruction from the company chewed away the north end of the Gothic structure, shattering the concrete and stone around the Posleen and covering them with cascading debris. Stewart realized halfway down the street that making the requisite turn was going to be nearly impossible. If they turned to the left it would take them towards the fire.
They had the Posleen suppressed at the moment, but when they turned the fire would break up, permitting the aliens to pick the suits off at the corner. However, if they turned right it would put the Posleen behind them. That was no good either since it would give the enemy a clear shot at the company for several blocks.
However, as they reached the end of Lafayette Square and faced the need to decelerate, he realized that Rogers had no interest in turning.
Accelerating past forty miles per hour, the combat suit of the acting company commander smashed into a building at the end of the street without slowing. The concrete and stone wall shattered at the impact of the thousand-pound suit, leaving a vaguely human-shaped hole as the officer disappeared into the depths to the echoed sound of destruction.
Laughing like madmen Stewart and Lieutenant Fallon lowered their heads and prepared to enlarge the hole.