"My name's John Keene," said the tall, distinguished engineer, taking the hand of the Green Beret sergeant who met him at the airport.
"Sergeant First Class Frank Mueller."
"I could have caught a cab," the engineer continued as they walked through the Richmond airport. It was filled with more smokers than any airport he had ever seen. In fact, the entire airport was a smoking area with the exception of occasional small nonsmoking areas. It almost made him think about having a cigar.
"No you couldn't, there aren't any. Or hardly any. And anyway, I wasn't busy. You got any bags?"
Keene gestured by lifting the small carry-on and briefcase in his hands. "What is the Special Forces role in all this?" he asked.
"The Richmond Defense Project?" asked Mueller, wresting the carry-on out of Keene's grip but leaving him with the briefcase. He gestured with his head towards the front of the airport and started walking. "In the case of our team, not much. Virginia already has a Special Forces group. We were sent to beef up the local defense training program. But Twentieth group has that well in hand, so we were mainly sitting on our thumbs waiting to go back to Atlanta until the 'Fortress Forward' program was announced. The local corps commander knew our team chief 'back when' and he made us a sort of super IG for the time being. When there's a problem, we get sent out to deal with it. Occasionally we lend a helping hand, like picking up a defense engineering specialist at the airport."
"I'm not that much of a specialist . . ." said the engineer in deprecation. Until the project to create the regional defense center in northwest Georgia was dropped in his lap he had been a well-respected but otherwise unremarkable civil engineer in the Atlanta market, one of literally thousands. However, as the project had progressed, his innovative plans and almost fiendish details had vaulted him to the top of the hierarchy of "continental defense engineers."
"I saw the raw reports from the Fort Mountain Planetary Defense Center," Mueller disagreed. "You had more innovative recommendations than any seven other engineers involved. Same with Chattanooga. Richmond is going to need innovative ideas to survive."
"So is Atlanta," Keene protested, "where my exwife and daughter are. So you can understand if I would rather be there."
"You'll be going back. For that matter so will we; Atlanta is where we are being based. But Richmond needs some input."
"What's the problem?" asked Keene, looking around the area of the airport. The first thing that came to mind was that the area was flat, which favored the Posleen. But, heck, airports always were.
"Terrain, or lack of it," said Mueller, as if he was reading Keene's mind. "When I was a terrain analyst we would call the terrain around Richmond, with the exception of the James River and a couple of hills, microterrain. From a military point of view, it's flat as a pancake. I don't know why they chose it for a defense city."
"Politics, history and size," said the engineer, "the same reason they chose Atlanta, which has the same problems. Hell, Atlanta doesn't even have the James; the Posleen can cross the Chattahoochee at any point they choose. And what am I to do about that? I can't bring a mountain to Mohammed."
"I don't know, why don't you wait and see?" Mueller said as he walked up to a car parked in a no-parking zone. He tossed the carry-on in the backseat, pulled the sign that said "Richmond Defense Planning Agency, Official Business" off the dashboard of the unremarkable white Ford Taurus, pulled a ticket off the window and put it in the glove compartment. He had to stuff it into a pile of others.
"Okay, any other information before the briefing?" asked Keene with a smile at the little pantomime.
"Well, we're all staying at the Crowne Plaza hotel."
"It's a nice enough place with a good view of the James . . ."
John gave Mueller a sidelong look; even in their brief walk from the gate he was experienced enough with the sergeant to wonder where the explanation was going.
"It's fairly convenient to the state capitol, which is where most of the meetings are, but not very. However, it is within walking distance of Schockoe Bottom. Which is really important."
"Well," said Mueller, pulling out onto Williamsburg Avenue, "there's this fantastic microbrewery . . ."
John laughed, the first full belly laugh he had had in a while. He looked around at the sparse traffic for a moment as if someone might have heard the mirth and found it out of place.
"You guys are better prepared, mentally, for this than civilians, I guess."
"Man, have you got that wrong," Mueller denied. "There is no way to be prepared for the Posleen. None."
"Well, you can joke about it, anyway."
"Ah, well, that I can. If you can't joke about dyin' you are not suited to the military. So I guess that means we are better prepared."
After that they continued in silence through the suburbs of Richmond, heading towards the barely visible city center. Avoiding the fork onto Government Road, Mueller took the more scenic drop into Stony Run, overlooked by the Confederate Memorial. Beyond the juncture with Main Street they touched the outskirts of Schockoe Bottom. Abandoned factories loomed on their left as a giant hill rose on their right.
"This isn't exactly microrelief," commented Keene, looking up at tree-covered Libby Hill looming over the valley of the James. The trees were turning color with the first chill of autumn and the hill was a mix of brown and yellow. "Hell of a lot better than Atlanta."
"Maybe not," replied Mueller, "but it's not like the city is up there. I'm damned if I can think of a way to use it."
"Possibly," mused the engineer, "possibly you are."
"The capitol and city center are that way." Mueller gestured to their right as they dropped into the sector of old brick factories. The dying rays of the sun lit the crowds beginning to come to the area after the work of the day. Music began to pulse as soldiers of the Twenty-Second Cavalry Regiment in BDUs mingled with female office workers, dancing the dance that was old before clothing was born. The city, each night, seemed to empty to Schockoe Bottom. They climbed out of the bottoms and made a series of lefts to intersect the one-way Cary Street. As they approached their hotel Keene took another look around.
"Yes, there's definitely possibility here," Keene whispered, almost inaudibly.