"Jesus Christ!" Lieutenant Young shouted, clamping his hands over his ears, "what the fuck was that?!"
"Had to be one of the new Peregrines to survive this far in," Colonel Robertson surmised, shaking his head to clear the ringing. Just when his hearing was getting back to normal from the noise of landing, the human fighter had slammed it again. "It was definitely a jet."
The mothers, intent on getting into shelter, paid little or no attention to the cries of their children as they carried them, with the help of the many defenders who had gathered in the area, up the ramp to safety. There were fewer than fifty to go, but the line had started to slow.
Lieutenant Young was peering past the Klieg lights in the direction the fighter went when there was a tremendous explosion to the west. Again the group was rocked by a pressure wave as a huge fireball climbed above the trees in the distance. For a moment the city was lit as if it were day, then the magenta and orange flash faded. A split second later there was a second, fairly anticlimactic, explosion to the northwest.
"Well, there goes the fighter," said Lieutenant Young. "So much for support."
"I think that first one was the armory," Colonel Robertson corrected. "The second was probably the fighter. But if he was running a direct feed, we might get some artillery. Depending on how far out the Posleen go, One-Five-Five might reach. And there might be more fighters, there's a whole squadron up at Andrews."
"I don't think they're going to slow them down, though," the lieutenant commented grimly.
"No, probably not," the commander agreed. His tone was fairly philosophical. His unit had done its job and more. When he died he would know that no one could have done more. It was a form of peace. "I think I will go chivvy some civvies."
"Okay, sir. I think I'll head over to the Executive Building and see how that's going."
"Good luck, Lieutenant."
The young officer straightened up and snapped a parade ground salute. The old commander solemnly returned it. Without another word they turned away, each in the direction they felt that duty called them.
* * *
Ted Kendall found himself, unfamiliar rifle in hand, in a line of figures shuffling past the Executive Building. Led by a tough old bird from the National Guard armory, they were headed towards the sounds of rifle fire to try to slow down the Posleen. It was their last detail, having spent the previous three hours working on the bunker being prepared for the women and children. He stopped when he saw a familiar figure hunched over a large piece of banner paper.
"Morgen, honey," he rasped, his voice gone from passing commands in the construction around the bunker, "what do you think you're doing?"
"I'm making a sign." Morgen Bredell had been in one cheerleading or pep squad or another since she was eight. She knew she was not as brilliant as she was good-looking, but if there was one thing she could get straight, come hell or high water, it was making a sign out of banner paper and paint. She could even paint a picture, after a fashion. She reached for the Red Brick color as she continued: "When the Posties get here, I think they should have a sign. Don't you?" She started crying as she slowly dabbed in a building on the banner paper.
"Sure, honey, sure," he comforted. "I love you, Morgen."
"I love you too, Ted. Sorry about the fight."
"Yeah, me too, honey. Good luck."
"Yeah." She did not look up. "You too."
"Yeah." He shook his head and hurried to catch up with the last platoon of the militia reserve.
* * *
"This is insane," Wendy muttered as they lifted another piece of antique furniture onto the pile under the glassless window.
"Would you quit with the Zen quotes, already," she snapped.
"Well, you could just blow your brains out and be done with it," he answered serenely. He gestured at the pistol. "That'll do the job nicely."
"What? You want me to kill myself?" she retorted.
"No, I want you to be as happy as you can be in what are probably your last few minutes of life," he answered with a grim smile. "What's the point of getting angry? It just reduces the quality even further."
"Sorry, but I'm not even completely through the denial stage, okay?"
"It's not upsetting me, it's upsetting you. What we have here is a case of pronoun trouble."
"This is a great way to spend the last hour of life," she continued, pulling over a table to lean against as she fired. "Not. Besides, the old thing about, 'you don't want to die a virgin, do you?' keeps running through my head."
He nodded his head, putting a pillow on a table of his own then stopped. "Hold it, does that mean . . . ?"
"What about . . . ?"
"The whole football squad?"
"Yeah. And . . . ?"
"Half the other guys in school?"
"None of them wanted to admit to the rest that I was a tease."
"Really?" he asked and guffawed.
"Fuck you. I wasn't a tease. I told them all up front that I wasn't that kind of girl. Most of 'em figured they could change my mind, but they were wrong. Now I wish I hadn't held out."
"Well," said Tommy, setting up a command-detonated claymore by the door, "I'd love to help you out and all, but all things considered I think we should concentrate on what we're doing."
"Yeah, what are you doing?" she asked, placing her Galil on the table, pointed out the window.
"Well, the plan is we fire a few rounds from here for glory and boogie out the back door, run into Alesia's and get to our firing point there, right?"
"The problem is, I don't think we'll have enough time to get in position in Alesia's. We need something to slow the horses down. Voilà, the claymore. It's a command-detonated mine that can be pointed at the enemy. Then when you're ready to blow it," he pulled the clacker out of his cargo pocket, "you hook this up, clack it three times and BOOM!"
"Oh, okay. Then when are we going to blow it up?"
"As we enter Alesia's. I'll run the detonator line back there and as we run through the door I'll set it off. That should slow them down a few seconds at least. Then we get into position, fire a few more rounds for glory, run down to the basement and hide in the tunnel. With any luck they'll lose the trail when I detonate the other claymore I set up in Alesia's."
"Why do you clack it three times?" she asked, holding out her hand for the device.
"Just to be sure," he said, handing it over and looking out the window.
"Okay, so the wire . . ." There was a sudden massive boom and both of the teenagers slapped hands over their ears moments too late.
"Fuckin' 'ell!" shouted Tommy as a second and third massive explosion erupted.
"What was that?" shouted Wendy through the ringing in her ears.
"The first thing was a sonic boom, a jet, had to be a Peregrine . . ."
"A ground-attack version of the Rapier Stealth Fighter."
"Oh," she said, understanding not a word of the explanation.
"The other two, I don't know what they were."
"Did they blow up the Executive Building already?"
"No. If we're above ground when that goes up we won't have to worry about wondering what the sound was. We'll be dead. And those explosions came from the wrong direction. Actually, one of them was probably the fighter eating a plasma round."
"Okay. If they got a fighter in here, does that mean help might be on the way?"
"No. The reason I think it was an F-22 is that's the only thing that might have survived to get this far. The Posleen are murder on aircraft."
"Yeah." He looked out the window. "So now we wait. It's supposed to be the worst part."
"Even worse than getting wounded? That's what really scares me."
"Yeah, me too."
"You? You're not scared of anything."
"Yeah, I am. I'm scared of being just bad enough wounded that I'm conscious when the horses get to me. That or being captured alive. You heard about their pens?"
"Yeah. That scares me too." She got a thoughtful look on her face. "Umm . . ."
"Yeah. No problem."
"You know what I was going to say?"
"Well, it was probably going to be that old saw about, 'if they're goin' to take me alive . . . ' And the answer is, 'okay.' "
"Okay. Thanks. . . . What about you?"
"I'd appreciate it," he said and paused. "Oh, my," he said mildly.
"What?" she started and then she heard it approaching.
The sound was a freight train of the gods, tearing the firmament asunder with its roar. All nine of the sixteen-inch, two-ton rounds rumbled over the town with a thunder to drown the Hellbound Train. The culmination was a relatively anticlimactic sound like millions of firecrackers in the direction of the distant mall.
"Fuckin' A!" shouted Tommy, "ICM!"
As the Volkswagen-sized shells rumbled over the town, their nose cones began to open and release their submunitions. Each submunition, about the size and shape of a softball, was an onion of destruction. Surrounding the central ball of explosive was layer after layer of notched steel wire and white phosphorus. As the munitions spun gently through the air, a cocking mechanism was engaged by the inertial force. When the cocking mechanism reached a certain point, after some seven hundred spins, the weapon was armed. A moment after impact, the hammer released.
As the bomblets arrived in fan-shaped sprays they first bounced back into the air then detonated individually, giving the weapon its characteristic firecracker sound. Across the length and breadth of the highway interchange, the ground flashed white.
The weapons were designed to detonate at head height on a person, so across the mass of Posleen thousands of grenades began to explode. The explosions hurled the centaurs aside, tearing their yellow bodies asunder, but the worst effect was from the shrapnel. Each bomblet released thousands of tiny bits of metal, each traveling faster than a bullet and along with these bits of shrapnel traveled burning white phosphorus.
The phosphorus and steel wire smashed into the bodies of centaurs throughout the Posleen swarm with terrific effect. Thousands of the Posleen normals were killed, along with their God King commanders, as they drove forward towards the beleaguered defenders of Fredericksburg. Those that were not killed outright were horribly wounded by flying steel and the phosphorus that refused to extinguish even after penetrating the bodies.
The first salvo eliminated the last remnant of Aarnadaha's brigade, which had swept across the mall area only to be decimated at the I-95 interchange. They had paused, fatally, to regroup in the shadow of the melted Quarles Gas truck and were swept away on the tides of destruction. And another salvo followed, and another.
* * *
"What are those?" Chief Wilson asked Charlie company's first sergeant, pulling back her Nomex head cover to hear better.
"Artillery," answered the first sergeant, not looking up from the circuit he was installing. "What I don't know is where the hell it could be coming from. And it's big, too. At least as big as one-five-five, sounds like larger."
"It is," said Lieutenant Young, joining the conversation as he arrived from the bunker. "I think it's one of those converted battlewagons they refurbished."
"Damn," laughed the NCO, "with fuckin' sixteen-inch ICM, those Posties are gonna be Post Toasties."
"Yeah," smiled Lieutenant Young grimly, "between this an' that, these fuckers are at least gonna know they've been kissed!"
* * *
"Change of mission, boyos," said Captain Kerman over the squadron channel. "Fredericksburg is still holding out. We're going to be going in as ground support, adding our weight to the North Carolina's broadside. In addition, set your ground support radios to settings 96-35 and 98-47. Those are the ground support settings for the engineer unit in Fredericksburg. They may try to contact us. If they come over the radio, don't try to respond, we won't have time, just let it uplink.
"One of the reasons for this strike is to try to get more targeting data. We don't know exactly where the Posties end and the humans start, so we're going to continue to pound the interchange. The battleship has to have had an effect by now, so we might survive the encounter. If you do, return to base for bullets and gas.
"Your flight paths are on your computer; modify them as you see fit." He paused, searching for something to say as the squadron banked out of its figure-eight pattern and lined up to face the embattled city.
"Sir," interjected Lieutenant Wordly, "what about straying into one of the sixteen-inchers. Shouldn't we avoid their path?"
Kerman blanked for a moment on how to answer the question. "I tell you what, Lieutenant. If you run into one of those shells, you may officially complain about having a bad day." There were actually a few chuckles transmitted over the frequency-hopping radios.
"Well," he concluded, "I guess it's time to go back to historic Fredericksburg."