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Chapter 38

The Potomac River, Near Potomac Creek
United States of America, Sol III
0548 EDT October 10
th, 2004 ad

Video from the side cameras of all the Peregrines was downloaded to the North Carolina along with the orders to fire on the intersection of Williams and Kenmore Streets. The captain ordered the video piped over the closed-circuit TV system, while the tactical officers huddled over their maps.

"Okay, Williams is VA 3, but where in the hell is Kenmore?" asked the peeved S-2. Standard tactical maps never denoted street names. This was because calls for fire never used them as references. Except in real life.

"Well, it has to be further into the city," noted the chief gunnery officer. The lieutenant commander turned to his fire direction chief. "Pull the fire in some, and spread it out. Target all the major intersections on the way into town, one battery each."

"Aye, aye." The warrant officer began punching commands into his computer as the officers went back to arguing. Suddenly one of the communications technicians jumped up from her station.

"Sir," she said, coming to attention next to the chief gunnery officer, "permission to speak, sir."

The officer rounded on her testily. "What?"

"I've got a way to get a map of Fredericksburg, maybe, sir."


"Off the Internet. I've got a laptop in my locker. I can hook into the Internet and get it."

"Shit," said the S-2, "good idea, why didn't I think of it? Or maybe put in a priority call to the Defense Mapping Agency?" He caught the eye of the communications officer and gestured him over.

"I think Expedia would be faster, sir," said the tech, diffidently.

"Can we still get Internet access?" asked the gunnery officer.

"The Posleen have destroyed all the standard systems in the area around us," said the communications officer, "but we might be able to punch through a short-wave transmission. What's this all about?"

"We desperately need a map," said the gunnery officer. "Your tech here thinks she can get it off the Internet if she can get her laptop and connect to Milnet."

"Okay, girl, good work. Go get your laptop. If the Marines stop you, tell them to call me."

"Yes, sir," said the tech and jogged out the door.

"How are you going to get through?"

"Patch a line to Norfolk. I'll get one of my techs on it."


"You know, we're going to have company before too long," commented the S-2, poring over the updates to the dispositions map. He noted the red marks showing Posleen in close proximity. The Peregrines had come within five miles of the ship on their way out. "That should get interesting."

Like everyone else in the ship, he was becoming bored with the continuous main gun fire. After cheering the first few rounds it just got damn loud and monotonous. He could hardly imagine what it was like for the gunners.

"Briefly," laughed the fire control chief.

"Yeah," noted the gunnery officer, "if only they'd all come down to the water and get baptized."

"You wish," said the S-2 with a grim chuckle. The Posleen were not going to like their reception from the North Carolina.

* * *

It was by far the most monotonous job on the ship. The Electrician Class Two was one of the close-approach lookouts, the eyes and ears of the ship. Since the environment the ship had been refitted for was projected to be extremely hostile, a duty that traditionally involved exposure to salt spray and fresh sea air was now performed in a crowded, air-conditioned compartment.

And instead of hefting a pair of heavy binoculars and spotting the occasional leaping porpoise or diving bird, the technician ceaselessly scanned a bank of twenty monitors hooked to low-light cameras. Five across, four down, numbered sixty through seventy-nine, back and forth, top to bottom, bottom to top, every odd monitor, every even monitor, back and forth, top to bottom, for eight long hours.

Then, after a rest period that seemed shorter and shorter all the time, it was back to scanning monitors, each of which now showed the same monotonous scene of a nighttime Potomac riverbank.

When they first sailed up the river, civilians had poured out of the woods. Some had their own boats, but many just lined the bank hoping to be rescued. They had been picked up by boat parties or the Marines and now huddled in the forecastle awaiting a return to port. But since that first flurry of activity, the shoreline had been undisturbed.

The tech had just picked up a Pepsi and taken a sip when a centaur appeared from the trees lining Marlboro Point Road and immediately opened fire with its shotgun.

The light shot did not even reach the ship—which was moored nearly a mile out in the broad river—and was unnoticed in the next crash of the main guns, but the lookout lurched forward in his station chair and keyed a mike.

"Posleen report, monitor sixty-eight, starboard abeam."

"Posleen report, monitor ninety, port forequarter," sang the soprano of a seawoman handling the portside monitors. The hull rang as the first hypervelocity missile struck the case-hardened steel of the bridge.

"PosRep monitor seventy-three, seventy-five, sixty-nine . . . PosRep all monitors."

"CIC, this is Lookout Control," the chief petty officer managing the compartment called over the intercom, "we have a full court press."

* * *

"Go to full auto on all Thermopylaes and Mark 49s, engage the zone defense system," ordered the captain, panning his monitor along the shoreline suddenly packed with Posleen.

The defensive systems officer flipped a cover up and inserted a key in a slot. With a twist of the wrist, the close-in defenses went to fully automatic mode.

The original Close-in Weapons System, codename Phalanx, was developed in the 1970s as a defense against antiship missiles and other close air threats. A sophisticated radar guidance system was coupled with a rapid-firing Gatling gun. The guidance system was mounted atop the gun and the single housing looked for all the world like a little robot. The conical white weapons sprouting up on the decks of Navy ships all over were immediately dubbed "R2D2s." With the transition from a stance of the Navy fighting humans to the Navy fighting Posleen, the weapons appeared, like most of the Navy, to have become obsolete.

However, the same bright boys at Naval Sea Systems Command who pointed out the relative invulnerability of World War II battleships to Posleen ground weapons noted one other point about fighting the Posleen swarms. While the swarms might be difficult for weapons systems to distinguish when they were just moving or standing, once they fired it was a different story entirely. The conical white radome then disappeared, replaced by a heavy-action turret borrowed from the Abrams tank and a turret targeting system borrowed from the Hummer-25. Atop the turret was an infrared spike detector.

As the Posleen God Kings in their saucer-shaped craft came down to the river, they immediately opened fire with their pintle-mounted heavy weapons. The lasers, hypervelocity missiles and plasma rifles scored deep ridges in the battleship's plate, occasionally penetrating to the surface magazines of the vessel's secondary weapons. When they did, thundering explosions would rupture forth from the embattled dreadnought. But with the turn of a key, the tides of war changed sides.

The Thermopylae turrets—so christened for a famous defense in ancient Greece—swiveled outboard and the infrared spike detectors immediately found targets. It was the most robotic of actions, as each weapon noted spikes in their area of responsibility, double checked their safe systems, swiveled in two axes and fired.

Every fifth tungsten ten-millimeter penetrator was a tracer, and the shells were so close together that the tracers seemed one continuous beam, a curved orange laser searching out the impudent fools who had dared to challenge the Navy's battlewagon. The plasma cannons and lasers caused huge thermal blooms each time they fired and the signature was distinctive against the cold night background. Six CIWS on each side locked on to the targets in their area of responsibility and serviced them with the greatest of efficiency.

Each thermal spike was fed back from the CIWS and noted by the onboard defensive computer. It, in turn, swiveled the five-inch secondary cannons outboard and loaded them with canister ammunition. Its algorithm called for a certain number of spikes over a certain vector. At that point there was a seventy-five percent certainty of hitting significant numbers of Posleen normals.

The certainty levels reading was displayed on the defensive systems officer's monitor while the captain was cross-feeding. Each waited for the heavy guns to engage, but the certainty level first rose, then started to fall as the heavy weapons of the God Kings were silenced one by one.

"Turn the certainty to sixty-six percent," said the captain, swinging back and forth in his command chair, arms crossed. He had never agreed with the standard setting on the defensive systems.

"Aye, aye," said a tech, and tapped in the command.

Immediately twelve five-inch double turrets fired canister rounds filled with flechettes along the average bearing-to-target in their area. Then they started to sweep from side to side, pumping out a beehive round every second and a half.

"Lordy," whispered the EL-2 lookout as the centaurs were slaughtered. The dead began to mound in heaps as the turrets swung from side to side, the weapons sweeping across the normals like huge brooms as the Thermopylaes picked off leader after leader.

As the certainty level dropped from lack of targets, each time a God King or one of the HVM-toting normals fired at the armored dreadnought it would be answered by a storm of fire. As trailing God Kings came up, they began to concentrate the fire of their companies on the secondary turrets that were decimating their ranks. However, the dead continued to mound as the Posleen swarmed to the sounds of the guns.

* * *

Althanara was only a scoutmaster, but he knew a losing situation when he saw one. The heavy fire from the direction of the water was bad enough, but the description he coaxed out of the net interface was worse. He gestured to his oolt and turned to the rear.

"Where are you going you coward!" shouted Stenarnatta, the battlemaster he had attached himself to. "The Net will cast you down as a Kenstain if you do not return NOW!"

"Kill yourself if you desire," he snarled. "I'm going to attack that thing with a Po'osol!" He gestured at the shotguns that his oolt carried. "These abat-spit guns are useless."

"Fine," snarled the battlemaster, "run away. Kenstain!"

The scoutmaster turned his back on the soon-to-be-destroyed battlemaster and trotted his company to the rear.

* * *

"We're down twenty-five percent on monitors on the port, only fifteen percent to starboard," noted the defensive systems officer. "And we're down twelve percent overall on secondary systems; we took a bunch of casualties in turret five. They're whittling us away and we're taking heavy fire from Fairview Beach since we can't bring the broadside to bear."

"So far so good," said the XO.

"Sir," snapped the regional alert communications technician, "incoming alert from CONARC!"

* * *

Althanara double-checked the complicated controls of the ship. Normally the devices were left on automatic, although a few Kessentai did make a study of their use. He, however, was barely out of the nest, on his first conquest. Well, if the Net granted him the victory of this horrible battle then the debts for his entire company might be set aside. He might even be able to get a few decent weapons from this damn battlefield.

He entered the last command into the Alld'nt damned equipment and fluffed his crest. "May the demons grant me luck."

* * *

High Knob Planetary Defense Center was as open as a strip mine. The plan of construction had all the PDCs opened in a cone from the top down, then the various equipment installed. Last the centers would be covered in concrete, steel and native rock.

But the plan had only gotten as far as installation. When the guns had not arrived in time, it had thrown everything behind. Thus the defense center, which was designed to be complete in another month, was wide open at the top and had only one of its slated nine guns installed.

Since they were relatively defenseless, they were under strict orders not to engage landings. What they were being held back for were the "airmobile" operations the Posleen initiated at seeming random that had repeatedly hammered human forces. It was hoped that engaging a lifting lander would not call down the devastation that had been wreaked on other defense centers around the globe.

Euro Fortress Command, a joint operations unit centered on France and Germany, had chosen to engage the initial landings. The massive European defenses had been created from the fortress lines that both countries had constructed as historical enemies. The line of fortresses, representing tens of millions of man-hours' effort, had been shredded by the first wave of the assault. Whereas during World War I and World War II the fortresses had been proof against days and days of conventional shelling, twenty-kiloton kinetic energy weapons had opened the forts like so many tin cans. Rebuilding the centers would require a miracle from a beneficent deity. China and India had also used their incomplete fortresses to engage the landings, with like results. In one day better than half of the planetary defense centers under construction had been totally destroyed. Only the United States and Japan of the "primary powers" had refrained from engagement.

The control was now going to be loosed. When Posleen landers engaged their antigravity systems, distinct emanations were detectable. The command center for the fortress, which, being on the ground floor, had been completed, detected the emanations of the rising lander immediately.

"Lifting lander, Westmoreland County, Virginia," sang out a female technician, studying the readouts. The final box of the form blinked and cleared. "The box says it's a standard lander, not a command ship."

"Roger," said the operational commander, a bird colonel. He shunted the information to Continental Army Command along with a request to engage. The answer had already been fed into the computers and he got a nearly instantaneous response. "Weapons free. I say again, weapons free."

The one-hundred-millimeter grav-gun was fully automated and required no crew. There was, however, a crew of three detailed to respond to mechanical malfunction or to man it if the central fire control failed. The procurement process had insisted on a backup "local" control system that seemed as useful to most of the personnel assigned as teats on a boar hog. If the central control was out, aiming the weapon was going to be a matter of luck.

The weapon defied most conventional Air Defense Artillery concepts, as could only be expected of something designed to engage space cruisers and not lightly built aircraft. Instead of swiveling gears to track and aim it, the support struts flexed in a sinuous fashion that was mildly nauseating to watch. The struts also were only required to maintain its position against gravity; the grav-drive system had no recoil.

In addition, instead of sending up a hail of exploding "flak" like most antiaircraft weapons, it fired single free-flight bars of depleted uranium, accelerated to .3c in the path up the twenty-meter barrel. One hundred millimeters in diameter and two meters long, the bars would go through a command ship long ways when they hit. Besides the massive kinetic explosion such an impact would entail, as they passed through the atmosphere the bars created a standing relativistic wave in front of them that generated a blast of gamma and X rays sufficient to cook anything in the ships.

However, instead of nine such weapons there was a single gun. And, instead of the fortress being "buttoned up," a mass of concrete and steel, with concentric, compartmentalized defenses and multiple firing points of the main guns, there was sunlight coming in from both directions in the firing area. Both the armored outer door, which should have protected the compartment from impacts on the surface of the fortress, and the armored inner door, which should have protected the compartment from internal blasts, were missing.

Basically, they were naked as a jaybird.

Which was why the three-man crew decided there were better places to be as the gun swiveled and pointed down and to the southeast. The last one out grabbed the helmet for his skin-suit and then pelted after the others. Without his helmet the mass of radiation that was about to be generated would cook his brains.

The lander was currently below the horizon. But the Posleen had never heard of "nap-of-the-earth" flying; hugging the ground made no sense to them. The ship finally crested into view, visible both through the Galactic-supplied sensors and the various radars scattered across the surrounding hills.

"We have lock," stated the control tech. Although there was a manual override, the system was designed to be automated. The tech only need keep his thumb on the firing tab and the weapon system would do all the work. The thumb was currently ready to flip off the safety cover.

"Engage," said the operational commander. The tone was level and disinterested. It was the professional tone of the truly terrified.

The tech flipped up the cover and depressed the firing stud.

The gun gave a final, organic quiver and fired one round.

* * *

Althanara had finally cleared the obscuring trees. He began the rotation of the ship to align the main plasma cannon as his secondary weapons opened fire on the Po'osol floating on the water. The great ship was continuing to fire, oblivious. The thresh obviously did not recognize the threat. But as the heavy plasma cannons and lasers of the secondary defenses began tracking across the floating ship it rocked with explosions. Just wait until the antiship HVM was able to target.

* * *

"Sir, damage control!" said the damage control officer. "We've lost number three, five and seven turrets. Four of the six Thermopylaes are out and Main Turret C is welded to the deck!"

The captain fanned himself with a clipboard and swore fluently. The temperature in the bridge had risen fifteen degrees in transmitted heat and he could hear the screams of burn victims transmitted through the foot-thick walls of the bridge. "What the hell was that?"

"Lander, sir," said the defensive systems officer. He pointed to a screen. "It's up on anti-grav firing on us with its secondaries." As he said it there was another series of wracking explosions punctuated with a roar that tossed the multithousand-ton ship like a terrier.

The captain held onto the arms of his command chair as the ship rocked in the waves it had generated in the explosion. He had felt the distinct thud! of the hull hitting the bottom. Which meant it had been driven at least twenty feet downward by the explosion. "What the hell was that?"

"We're holed!" said the damage control officer tapping frantically at his keys to get data. "Something punched right through the ship! We lost number three boiler, number two engine, two five-inch magazines and, Jesus, sickbay!"

The captain spun on the defensive systems officer. "Can you see it?"

"Yes, sir," said the officer, pointing at the screen, "but . . ."

"Then try to hit it!"

"Yes, sir," said the officer, punching commands as fast as he could type. The remaining Thermopylae began to point skyward as the five-inch turrets followed.

The same communications technician who had found the firing locations on the Internet suddenly lurched to her feet, laptop in hand, and ran to the main-gun control center. Pushing another tech out of the way, she ripped out a standard computer plug and hooked it into her computer. Preempting the displaced technician's station chair she started loading a program.

"Come on, come on, come on you son of a bitch," she chanted. Never had a simple DOS program taken so long to load.

* * *

"Yahai!" shouted Althanara, as the ship rocked in the water. Somewhere would be the magazines. Once he hit those it was all over. However, even as the next HVM loaded, the ship began to spit fire back.

* * *

"What are you doing, girl?" asked the gunnery officer. He was fairly sure there was a rhyme or reason to the tech's actions, but the kid had taken his main guns off-line. As he asked he saw the repeater panel indicate movement of the guns. "Or should I say, 'Why are you doing it?'" he asked in a deadly voice.

"Trying to save our ass, sir," the tech said in a distracted voice. A solution light blinked on the computer and she hit the enter button. All six remaining main guns of the ship fired at one point in space.

* * *

Althanara had just raised his arms in celebration when he realized the fire from the ship was not a palpable hit. He did not, however, have time to panic. Before the thousand-pound shells of the ship had made it halfway to the target, the uranium bar from the distant Planetary Defense Center arrived.

The round penetrated from the bottom of Athanara's ship and exited the top. Along the way it passed through the matter-antimatter converter and the antimatter storage tanks. Puncturing the plasma conduits of the HVM launcher on its way out was merely a formality.

The expanding ball of nuclear fire that had been a lander caught the main-gun rounds in mid-flight and disintegrated them. The shockwave and thermal pulse caught the Posleen along its path and incinerated them as well. From the exterior it was impossible to tell which round had arrived first.

This incident would create a running debate in history. The argument over whether it was the PDC round or those of the battleship that had destroyed the lander would be argued from boardroom to bar for years to come. The optimistic assumption was that it was the battleship's guns that had caused the destruction. Medals, commendations and lucrative defense contracts would be based on that, false, assumption. That, however, was for the future. The present held only the result of the action. The shockwave that finally reached the battleship.

It was tests of the hydrogen bomb at Bikini Atoll that finally broke the power of the battleship. On that morning of hydrogen fire a fleet of empty ships was sunk by a single weapon. However, the blast from the already depleted lander was far less than the blast from the Bikini Bomb. And the lander was rather farther away.

When the shockwave from the nuclear blast washed across the ship the damage was great but not catastrophic. The wave of fire searched down through the great rents in the fabric of the ship, but was stymied by the same blast doors that were containing the flooding water. It exploded a few more exposed magazines, killed a handful of damage control personnel and tore the ship loose from her moorings. But it did not sink her.

Sunk or not, the North Carolina was done for the day. One turret welded to the deck, huge gaps torn in her armor, and belching smoke and flame from the punctured engine rooms, she raised her other anchor and turned to the southeast. Let one of the other battlewagons take the position. "Showboat" had some cleaning up to do. The Planetary Defense Centers, however, were still in the midst of it.

* * *

Sten'lonoral fluffed his crest. The world below, which was supposed to be of relatively low technology, was aflame with war. The evidence was obvious even from space as flashes of nuclear fire and kinetic bombardment sparked on the surface.

His oolt'ondai was passing over a large sea and coming up on a continent, still in orbit, but descending, when a little-used sensor chimed.

"Antiship surface weapon detected," the androgynous voice stated. "Request permission to engage."

Sten'lonoral leaned forward and inspected the readout. It was so much gibberish but he did not want this supercilious Alld'nt piece of crap to know that. "Very well, you have my permission to engage."

The signal was sent to an outer lander with a kinetic energy weapon launcher. The large weapons platform shot the massive hyper-velocity round out like a pumpkin seed and continued on its path.

The kinetic round took a moment to orient itself, nosed over and dove for the planet. The drivers in its body accelerated to a fraction of the speed of light then cut out. At those speeds additional aiming was unnecessary.

* * *

"Sir!" shouted a technician, as the round of congratulations swept the PDC. "Incoming K-E-W!" All eyes swung to the sensor screen but that was all they had time for.

* * *

The warhead was massive but contained no explosives; all its power was in the kinetic impact. On impact with the base of the bowl, directly above the thinly shielded control center, the potential energy of its descent converted to light and heat.

The fireball was mostly contained by the cone shape that had been carved out of the mountain, so the damage to the surroundings was mitigated. The few watchers had the amazing image of fire gouting out the side of the mountain forever imprinted on their brains, just before the kinetic blast erupted out of the top of the mountain. The mushroom cloud was all that they needed to see to know the fate of the poor souls in the command center.

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