"Major, they're across the obstacles on Sunken Road," said the civilian runner, a well-set-up football type with blisters on his hands and blood from a head wound dripping down his sweat-streaked face.
Major Witherspoon looked at the dead and wounded piled throughout the Presbyterian church. The dead were rapidly cooling in the unheated vestibule as medics pointlessly worked to repair the wounded. Then he looked through the broken windows to the west. There the inexorable tide of centaurs was clearly visible, pushing through the piles of demolished trucks and cars at Williams and Washington. A rolled-over gas truck—converted to a suicide bomb by the driver—gave its last spiteful luminance to the scene.
"God," he chuckled, "I love it when a plan comes together. Okay," he continued, turning to the now-veteran soldier, "tell First platoon and the militia to pull back and head to the south. We don't want fire directed at the Executive Building. As of now they are detached to whatever means they want to use, just don't get between the Posleen and the Exec. Same general orders to the Second and Third, but tell them to pull straight back."
"Yes, sir." The private now had tears mingled with the blood on his face. "I wish we could do more."
"When you do the best you can, there isn't any more to do, son. We held them through the night; held them longer than the expedition on Diess. You should only have regrets if you have not given your all."
"Yes, sir." Then Ted Kendall hoisted his AIW, and trotted off into the darkness.
* * *
"Ma'am," said Colonel Robertson, proffering a bundle to the last mother entering the bunker. "I'd like you to take this in there with you. When you get your place, just set it down and don't tamper with it. It's booby trapped in case the Posleen try to open it, but it won't injure anything outside the box if it goes off."
Shari looked at the bundle in bemusement, wondering how to juggle it while carrying Kelly.
"I'll take it down with her, sir," said the fireman who was carrying Billy. "And make sure it gets in a secure place."
"It's a record of the defense and the unit's colors. You know, the Flag?"
The fireman nodded, eyes misting slightly, "Yes, sir."
"No, it doesn't." She gestured with her chin at the line entering the bunker. "Where else would this happen?"
"Well," said Colonel Robertson, picking up his rifle, "you'd better get down there." He glanced back over his shoulder at a sudden burst of fire due west. "It won't be long, now."
Shari hurried down the steep stairs as best she could. The rungs were pierced steel, but the passage of so many feet had packed the planking with dirt and the steps were slick with mud and other debris.
She passed the first level, where the engineers and civilian workers were welding the last steel in place, and ended up on the muddy bottom floor. The concrete walls rose up around her, dripping condensation from the packed humanity's breath, the water sparkling brightly in the massed Klieg lights.
A firewoman took the sleeping baby from her arms and ducked through a low opening. To either side engineers worked feverishly to shore and strengthen the hasty walls that had been faired over the opening. Following the firewoman out of the echoing chamber Shari entered the vault beyond.
On the left-hand side along the wall was a series of closed ports, apparently the pump outlets. The fifty-foot concrete cellar appeared to be a sepulcher, with the women and children under the Hiberzine resembling corpses in the harsh lights of the medics' headlamps. The bodies were piled throughout the long, low-ceilinged room, children as much as possible on the top, but with little other order. The flaccid limbs, slack jaws and staring eyes made Shari balk for a moment, but the fireman just inside the door was used to the reaction and pulled her through, gently but firmly.
"They're just asleep, promise," he said with an automatic grimace he probably thought was a grin. "It's the Hiberzine that makes them look that way."
Shari skittered sideways and pulled Susie back to her as she stared wide-eyed around the apparent tomb.
"Go feel a pulse, if you want," said the fireman who had brought Billy down, carrying his burden to the front corner.
She bent and felt at the neck of the nearest woman, a lady in her forties, well-dressed as if going to work at a bank. After a long and frightening moment when the vein in her neck remained flaccid, there was a single strong pulse then nothing.
"It works," said the firewoman who preceded her. She gently pulled the protesting Susie away and gracefully put her under; the motion was as automatic as breathing by this point. "Be glad for it."
"Carrie," said the fireman at the door, holding out his arms.
The firewoman wrapped her arms around her compatriot and slapped him on the back. "Sorry, man."
"Hey, just make more good babies, okay?"
"Yeah. Do good."
"Yeah." The fireman ducked through the low opening and was gone.
Carrie repeated the pantomime with the other fireman, then a civilian in a hard hat propped up a steel plate and with a last spiteful burst of an arc welder, the two women were alone among the piled bodies.
"Well," the firewoman said, "it looks like you drew the short straw."
"What?" said Shari, looking for a place to lie down that was not on a body part.
"They decided that there needed to be a few people awake on each level. You're the last one in and I've got a ten-year-old somewhere back there." She gestured towards the rear of the pile of bodies. "So we get the pleasure of waiting to see who finds us first." Beyond the wall a sound like rain on a roof announced the first load of dirt that would bury them alive.
* * *
As a burst of fire came from just beyond the hill where the engineers' command post was located, Wendy became aware of what Tommy was whistling under his breath. Then she recognized it as a current pop hit. The singer who had popularized the lyrics was considered to be going through a mid-life crisis and the song was a cool, subtle composition about her relationship with a man young enough to be her son.
The diva was not particularly exhibitionistic so the lyrics were subtle double entendres. The substance of the aria was, however, clear.
"Do you boys ever think of anything else?" she asked in exasperation.
"There was a study done back when," Tommy answered calmly, continuing to look towards the sound of distant fire, "where some psychologists determined that a teenage boy thinks about sex every fifteen seconds on average. The old joke is about two kids who hear about this and wonder what they are supposed to think of the other fourteen."
Wendy snorted in response.
"Besides," he continued, "violence and sex are inextricably linked, at least in men. Similar endorphins and hormones are released during violent confrontation and sex, they both use the same areas of the brain, and one has a tendency to trip the other. Tell me you're not thinking about sex more today than normal."
"I don't know, I suppose there are lots of theories. Survival reaction is what the Darwinists say, a counter-reaction to death say the philosophers. A joke by Mother Nature. Take your pick." Another salvo of shells rumbled overhead. "Shit, I wish we could communicate with that battleship."
"We could bring the fire in closer and really get the Posleen slowed down." There was a sudden series of tremendous sonic booms. The room rocked and plaster fell from the damaged ceiling as firecrackers detonated in the distance, intermingled with the sound and glow of exploding aircraft.
"I guess the fighters are back," said Wendy, brushing plaster dust out of her hair.
* * *
"Peregrine squadron, Peregrine squadron, this is Tango Five Uniform Eight Two, over."
"Tigershark Five, go ahead Uniform," gasped Captain Jones as his fighter rocketed across the Rappahanock on final. "Ground Control's listenin'."
"Roger, that, Uniform." Jones risked a quick glance at his terrain map, but was unable to find the designated intersection. "That's gotta be for Showboat, we're hot for the interchange."
"Roger, Peregrine . . . Good luck."
Luck would have no place in this mission if Jefferson Washington Jones had anything to say about it. He might have gotten his high school equivalent when most of the other fighter jocks had been out of college, but he had years of experience with the bad and ugly. Over the years he noticed that there was rarely such a thing as a no-win situation. Sometimes you had to really try, but he had never been in a situation he could not think his way out of and this one was no exception.
The flight paths downloaded to the Peregrines all had the I-95/VA 3 intersection in common, but they continued on to varying other locations from there, as if everyone in the squadron was going to survive. When the mission was changed and the flight paths downloaded, he immediately set to reprogramming.
While his flight path still went over the Posleen positions at the interstate, it deactivated the terrain-following gear and followed a manual profile that was much closer to the mapped terrain. As long as there were no unexpected obstacles the plane would probably not fly into the ground and the new flight path had far fewer sight angles than the standard terrain-following path would have taken.
But the computer did not like it one bit.
"Terminal flight path entered," the cockpit voice system chirped. The sexy contralto was standard equipment on all the Rapier series. "Terminal flight path requires command override."
"Override." It might look like suicide to the computer, but that was why there was still a person in the cockpit.
"Confirm flight path data. Press set three times."
"Last warning, terminal flight path entered. Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary situation. Are you sure you want this flight path? Press set three times if you do, otherwise press cancel."
He pressed set three more times. Since the cockpit system was not designed to get in the last word, it let him get away with it.
"Like it ain't a suicide mission already."
Passing over the old mill district, he pressed the bomb release button on the joystick. The system was set to "pickle at drop point" as long as the trigger was depressed, so all he had to do was hold on and pray. He thundered across Mary Washington Hospital, sparing a brief thought for the patients as lasers and plasma searched for him to either side and hung on for dear life as the fighter dove for the deck. As he came up on the interchange he suddenly realized that he had failed to compensate for the trees.
The robust stealth plane survived the lurch as its underframe snapped off the last few oak tops surrounding the interchange and then dropped into the open. Around him, as far as he could see in the odd mixture of moonlight and ground fires, the ground bucked and heaved with wounded and dead Posleen.
The centauroid bodies were a carpet of dead and dying, the ground soaked with their fluids. Thousands, tens of thousands of the centaurs had crossed the light-years only to find a final resting place under the hammer of sixteen-inch guns.
"HOOOOWAH!" Kerman shouted over the squadron frequency, as other pilots cheered the sight of the carnage from the battleship's fire.
Jones's fighter immediately performed its programmed hard bank to the north. As its wingtip dipped to within inches of the masses of alien flesh, the weapons bay popped open and deployed a totally unnecessary CBU-52. The cluster bomb opened out almost immediately and scattered two hundred more bomblets across the decimated Posleen adding insult to the masses of injury.
As the plane snapped through a programmed set of low-level evasion maneuvers, Jones could see other flashes to the south that told of squadron mates less fortunate. He finally cleared the treeline on the northeast side of the interchange—chased by a last spiteful burst of laser fire—and returned to terrain-following mode. Now all he had to do was survive the unknown dangers between here and Manassas and he would be home free. Until the next mission.