Another wash of firecrackers slammed into the hill as a barrage of sixteen-inch cluster rounds landed and Tommy picked up his AIW. "Okay, let's go over it one more time."
"We fire a few shots from here," said Wendy, tiredly, "then move back to Alesia's."
"You go first, let me take any of the fire that might come through when we run. I'd trade armor with you, but I don't think you could move fast enough in this."
"Okay." She looked at the shoulder-to-knee padding. "I don't think so either. At Alesia's, we set off the claymore in here." She pointed to the mine set up in the middle of the room pointed at the door. "When they attack Alesia's, we go to the basement, get in the tunnel, pull the safe in front of the hole using the pry bar and set off the claymore in Alesia's when they come through that door."
"Okay. Good enough." A burst of fire came from the machine gun post catty-corner across the intersection from their position. A hail of flechette rounds answered the fire and the wall of the building sparkled in ricochets. The M-60 coughed once, twice, then was permanently stilled by a hypervelocity missile. The kinetic explosion sent a shock wave across the street that hammered the breath from their lungs.
"Oh, God," Wendy coughed on the cloud of dust blasted into the street, pulling the rifle into her shoulder, and placing it on the pillow.
"It's time to dance," whispered Tommy and snuggled the AIW into his shoulder. He switched to grenade launcher and took up slack on the trigger.
When the first rank of the Posleen phalanx entered the intersection of Charles and George Streets it was met with a storm of fire. Wendy fired a series of laser-aimed bursts that were surprisingly accurate for a beginner while across the street a pair of youth militia fired rapid individual rounds from their vintage M-14s. The real killers, though, were the five 20mm grenade rounds that Tommy Sunday used to fill the intersection with dead Posleen. By walking the fire rapidly from one side of narrow George Street to the other, he created a flesh barrier of dead and wounded centaurs that, for a moment, balked their trailing fellows. Unfortunately, the second rank could see the location of the defensive fire.
A tungsten and steel rain of flechettes hammered the openings through which the two youths were firing and ricochets bounded though the stone-walled room. Tommy dove back and down in a roll away from the windows.
Wendy lurched towards the door, then stumbled as her right leg refused to support her weight. She looked down and, in the gathering daylight, saw a dark stain on her calf from a ricocheted flechette. She used the Galil to prop herself up and limped towards the door.
Tommy leaned out the door, rifle training left and right as he slid in another clip of grenades. "Come on!" he shouted above the din of fire on either side. When she did not bypass him he looked back in the room. The problem was obvious.
"I can make it," Wendy cried, stumbling on half-seen furniture as tears of pain clouded her eyes and the world swam in gray.
He looked at her and for a moment time seemed to stand still as his mind raced over alternatives. His hand twitched once towards the Desert Eagle at his side, then in sudden decision he hefted the assault rifle in his left hand and swept her over his right shoulder. As pounding started on the front door of the shop, he sprinted for Alesia's Antiques.
* * *
Bill Worth coughed wrackingly in the rubble of his demolished book shop, the cough sending fresh waves of formless pain through his body. The heavy wooden rafter pinning his legs and his general condition indicated that he would not be in the most dignified of positions when it came time to meet the gentlemen from off-planet.
However, whatever John Paul Sartre might have thought, one did not always choose one's destiny. If this was how he was to meet the latest visitors to Fredericksburg, so be it.
From a vague feeling of weakness and the spreading stain under his chest, he suspected he might not be greeting the visitors in person anyway. To take his mind off the vagaries of fate, he tried to sight-inventory what was left. A book by his right hand caught his eye and he tugged it over despite the discomfort it caused somewhere in his nether regions. Not immediately recognizing the binding, he opened it to the title page and was pleasantly surprised by his unexpected discovery.
"My goodness," he whispered, "an original Copperfield! Wherever have you been hiding, young man?"
Thus, the words of Dickens served to soothe him, like the gentle friends that they were, until grayness overwhelmed his vision.
* * *
"Tommy?" said Wendy, coming out of her daze into darkness as a hand clamped over her mouth.
"Shh!" he whispered fiercely. Somewhere above there was loud crashing. A thump through the ground told a story of distant detonations.
She recognized the smell of the tunnel and realized, shamefully, that he must have carried her all the way down here instead of fighting. She was feeling better all the time, the wound a distant discomfort but no more. She felt at it.
"I injected it with a local," he whispered. "You were in shock, that's all."
"Sorry," she whispered back.
"It's okay; it takes some people that way." He pushed an object into her hand. "This is a Hiberzine injector. Hold it down where our thighs are close together. If we get buried when I set off the claymore, or when the Big One comes, you can inject yourself and maybe make it until we get dug out."
"Okay, what about you?" she whispered.
"I've got one too, but if I get knocked out by debris, inject me, and I'll do the same for you. Now hang on." He picked up the claymore clacker and squeezed it three times rapidly.
With the first compression came a tremendously loud explosion and the sound of complicated destruction. The safe covering their hiding place rang as a series of heavy weights fell on it. There were further sounds of settling material and finally silence.
"I took a couple of seconds to set some more explosives in place after I got you in here," he whispered. "They pretty much dropped the bottom floor into the basement and sealed us in." He paused for a moment. "Now we just wait to find out if we survive the Big One."
* * *
The reinforced concrete top of the pump house had been blown into the interior and more dirt piled on top of it to within four feet of the top. Colonel Robertson, his RTO, two engineer privates and a civilian grading contractor now waited in the resulting fighting position for either the Posleen to reach them or the fuel-air explosion to end the defense once and for all.
Colonel Robertson took a moment to watch the nascent sunrise while one of the engineers kept watch. The other engineer, the radio operator and the civilian were playing liars' poker. A few birds, more hopeful than realistic, were participating in a limited dawn chorus. Except for the cold, and the fact that he was about to die, it was a beautiful morning, clear and with a good chance of a perfect fall day. Too bad he was going to miss it.
* * *
And Major Witherspoon lay among the dead in the Command Post, half of his head scooped away by a railgun round, as the Posleen pounded at the church door. The wounded and medics clutched their weapons and waited in silence. The ghosts seemed to gather around, in their blue and gray and camouflage, waiting for their fellows to come join them.
* * *
And Chief Wilson stood on the ground floor of the Executive Building wearing her breathing apparatus. At her feet was a car battery and in her left hand was a clamp, opened wide. She carefully transferred the clamp to her right, making sure it stayed open at all times, and worked her hand before transferring it back to the left. As she did so, she saw movement through the doors.
* * *
Since they knew the Posleen were east of 95 now, Kerman, Wordly and Jones had permission to avoid the interchange and each intended to stay among the trees where the Posleen had far more trouble finding them. As they rocketed through the dawn, the Gs, the slamming of the plane, the route, seemed as familiar as a daily commute. As they crisscrossed the Rappahanock they took each G shock with aplomb, passing on up the valley towards the rapidly approaching town.
"Lay it on the ridge," said Kerman.
They spread apart and, from three different axes, dropped napalm along Prince Edward Street in a crossing maneuver to shame the Thunderchiefs. Kerman could see no tracers, although there was plenty of Posleen ground fire.
"Ground control, Tigershark Two. Negative human activity Fredericksburg."
"Copy Two. Concur. One more pass, over."
The three performed a synchronized fifteen-G bank over Belmont Manor, drawing sporadic fire in the morning light, and approached from the rising sun.
* * *
"Lord, take me down to the river . . ." Morgen whisper-sang, wishing the sun into the air as she sat on the bank of the Rappahanock. She saw a set of dots, banking through the rising sun and closing fast . . . " . . . and wash me in the blood of the lamb . . ."
* * *
Even Posleen normals can learn, after a fashion, and they had slowly learned that a quick way to not pass one's genes on to the next generation was to simply open a door in this gods-forsaken town. This was the first company to reach the town's single high building. Or rather the remnant survivors from the company that opened the door to the headquarters of the military technicians, the lucky ones that were behind a hill.
They had, however, heard the reports, seen the results, the remnants of the building and the signs around it. So, although they could not read the words "Welcome to Historic Fredericksburg, Home of the Two-Twenty-Ninth Engineer Battalion" emblazoned on the paper banner flapping above the door in the auroral light, the lopsided and runny twin-turreted castle was as clear to them as a skull and crossbones sign would be to a human.
As the remaining thirty out of four hundred approached the door, they slowed. Every step of their advance had been contested, every building mined, yet here was the largest structure in the town and it was undefended save for the sign. They peered through the shadowed windows, discerning a figure within. Their God King had carefully remained all the way across the street. At a barked command from it, the lead normal stepped forward and opened the door.
* * *
Chief Wilson was almost glad. The agonizing night at long last was at an end and whatever was on the other side would no longer wait. Everything that could be done, to preserve life a little while longer, to make safe the innocent, had been done, and now, for the first and last time, she would take sentient life. Most would be Posleen, but many would be human. And she was one who felt that at the bottom they all were brothers. However, she was sure that the humans were just as ready for this long night to be over, as content to enter into a longer but hopefully more peaceful one.
With the closest simultaneity that an experienced engineer NCO could achieve, sixty one-hundred-gram charges of Composition Four, located on window ledges, detonated. The detonations simultaneously ignited the liquid propane gas still being pumped to the interior and ensured oxygen was provided to the environment to sustain the reaction.
In a pair of milliseconds, every window in the seven-story building imploded, as the air for three blocks in every direction was sucked down to near vacuum by the reacting propane.
As the propane consumed the oxygen, the inrushing air served to compact the highly energetic reaction until virtually the last molecule of the propane was consumed, at which point the superheated air erupted outward with cataclysmic force.
For Morgen Bredell and Colonel Robertson—along with all the surviving humans and Posleen above ground in historic downtown Fredericksburg—it was a sudden moment of breathless vacuum as a hurricane of wind rushed towards the city center and ice picks drove into ear drums, an almost unnoticeable pause and then darkness as the shock wave slammed outward leveling everything in its path.
"Nuke!" shouted Jones at the sun-bright dome of fire, automatically snapping his fighter into a hard right bank away from the formation as Kerman snapped into a hard left. Wordly was left with the unsurvivable up and yanked his stick back in a twenty-G climb at nine hundred knots.
His fighter was immediately acquired by God King saucers from Marlboro Point to Spotsylvania as well as landers and C-Decs. A pyramid of light beams followed his exploding fighter as it climbed into the sky, a high-tech Vesuvius, a bright triangular firework in the dawn to punctuate the erupting town.
The shockwave propagated outward, leveling the Public Safety building, historic downtown, finally demolishing the cut Chatham bridge, ripping up rails from the railroad tracks and tumbling them through the air.
Wendy screamed as the ground bucked like a bronco, brick and dirt raining around her. She had one arm over her head, and noticed that Tommy had his over her head as well, so the only thing protecting her ribs when a melon-sized rock fell on them was the body armor. As the rubble fell around her, she inched the Hiberzine injector towards her thigh. . . .
To Shari and the fire fighter in the bunker, the effect was only a slight tremor, the combination of the blast shadow from the railroad embankment and the tons of overburden serving to reduce the concussion to a minor nuisance. They stopped their gin game for a moment, said a prayer, swiped at the tears again and returned to the distraction of cards.
Jones hit the afterburners as soon as his ass was to the blast and settled into his seat as the fighter rocketed towards its maximum speed. The fighter began to buck from ground-effect and then the buffet increased as the shock wave started to catch up. Finally the buffeting slowed as the shock wave receded and he reduced speed and turned back towards the town.
Or where it had been. For five hundred meters on every side of the tall building offset from the city's center the ground was as flat as if scoured. The quaint buildings that had survived multiple bombardments in the Civil War were erased down to the cornerstones. The largest remaining structure was a nub of grain elevator south of the train embankment.
The ridge where they had previously dropped napalm was wiped as clean, the churches gone, but the sheltered valley beyond was still intact and there was sporadic fire as he rocketed across. He banked sharply north, avoiding the open area around the interstate, and called base.
"Ground control, this is Tigershark Five, over."
"You copy this uplink, over?"
"Roger, Tigershark." A single turret volley from the battleship landed in the swale from which he had taken fire. "Return to base, Tigershark."
"Two," echoed Kerman, unexpectedly.
The last survivors of the Peregrine squadron turned to the north and headed for Andrews Air Force Base.
* * *
"Are you all right?" asked Tommy, sitting up as brick chips, mortar and dirt cascaded off him. He flicked on a portable fluorescent light.
"I'm alive," said Wendy, staying horizontal, but kicking some of the debris off her legs. She pushed aside the stone that had glanced off her side. "How all right am I supposed to be?"
"Jesus," said Tommy, shining the light up at the intact arch above them. "I can't believe this held," he continued, looking at the sealed tunnel at both ends. He pulled off his helmet and scratched his head vigorously then wriggled out of the body armor.
"What if the Posleen find us?" asked Wendy, gesturing at the doffed armor as he detached the side connections and laid it out flat.
He shook it to get the last brick and stone chips out and flopped down on the field-expedient mattress, hands cradled behind his head. "At this point, if the Posleen want me, they can just eat me, okay?"
Wendy snorted, sat up and shook the bits off as well. She took off her own body armor and stretched, wincing at her bruised ribs, then lay down and put her head on his chest. He wriggled over to let her get on the armor-mattress. After a few moments, they both sighed as the tension came off the day.
Tommy's breath began to deepen as the strains of the long night took their toll. At some time in the future—he feared many times in the future—he would think about the destruction of all he held near and dear. But for now it was enough that, for a moment, there was peace, if only the peace of the dead.
Just as he was drifting into sleep, he felt a pair of fingers slip under his T-shirt. He froze, suppressing a snore and a moment later, one of these fingers began playing with the hairs around his navel. Wendy leaned forward, her breasts pressing into his chest and put her face against his ear.
"Tommy Sunday," she whispered, flicking his ear with her tongue, "if you don't take off your pants right now, I'm going to cap you with your own Glock."