Lieutenant Ryan tried not to listen to the quiet murmur of the troops around him, but the rumors of defeat were reinforced by the continuous rumble of artillery vehicles crossing the I-95 bridges. A few armored personnel carriers even rumbled across the VA 123 bridge, tearing at high speed to the north. It was clear from every sign that Tenth Corps had had its butt kicked and was escaping as fast as it could. Even as his platoon continued its preparation for the Posleen, the rumble of falling artillery came closer and closer.
He had moved his command post to the high ridge on the north bank of the Occoquan. Screened by a thicket of beech saplings—their palmate leaves turning brilliant yellow in the autumn chill—he had a clear view of the town, including the opposite ridge and both bridges. The last orders he had received were to blow the bridges when the Posleen were in sight and remain in position to cover the old dam. Until an infantry unit could be found to replace him, his platoon was responsible for preventing the Posleen from crossing that vital defense work.
In preparation for the oncoming tide, the engineering platoon had been busy little groundhogs. A slit trench ran the length of the top of the ridge, with V-cut positions for riflemen stretched along its length and intermittent reinforced positions for machine guns. The slope was a mass of concertina and barbed-wire tanglefoot and the road running across the south slope was mined for demolition. Should they somehow force a crossing it would be extremely difficult for the inflexible Posleen to establish a bridgehead without the road.
When an artillery battery began firing from just behind the ridge, with impacts on the south edge of the town sending woodwork flying into the autumn sunshine, Ryan decided that knowing how to contact artillery might be a good thing. A brief scroll through his ANCD, however, indicated that there might be a problem. He did not have listings for Tenth Corps units.
Since the platoon had been drawn from a training establishment, their chain of command did not include any of the local tactical forces. The ANCD listed a vast number of training units in the Belvoir local area and even higher command frequencies that few platoon leaders would have under normal tactical conditions. But, unfortunately, there was not a single artillery unit listed. The closest thing to an artillery unit was the cryptic entry: "Continental Indirect Fire Net."
With a shrug, he flipped his PRC-2000 to the listed frequency and keyed the mike . . .
* * *
Since the prohibition on automated indirect-fire, the Fire Direction Center had been stymied. Even when automated fire was allowed, so few units had direct contact that the Fire Control could only order fire on rough guesses of enemy location. Even worse was the lack of feedback. Nothing got a gun crew hopping like the word that they just destroyed an enemy.
So when the crewwoman heard a faint whisper in her earphones, she clamped her right hand over the earphone and responded instantly.
"Unit on this net, unit on this net, you are coming in faint and broken. Say again callsign."
"Unit on this net, you are broken. Say again, or boost signal."
A few minutes later the calling unit came back in, still faint but clear.
"Oscar Five Uniform Four Seven, this is Mike Eight Romeo Six Seven, over."
"Romeo Six Seven, this is Uniform Four Seven. Authenticate Victor Hotel."
Pause. "Authentication, Bravo, over."
"Romeo Six Seven, welcome to the net, over."
"Roger, adjust fire, over."
"Adjust fire, out." She began to enter the order as she hit the foot trip to switch to intercom. "Fire mission!"
"Target, Posleen in open, coordinates 654894. Can you range, over?"
"Romeo, what map sheet are you on, over?"
The lieutenant stared at the private next to him and realized that he was no help; they were both trainees.
"I got an artillery unit that needs to know what map sheet we're on!" The platoon leader looked at the military grid map covered in incomprehensible signals. "Where the hell is it?"
"Why do they need the map sheet, sir?"
"You want me to take the time to ask?"
The NCO forced his way through the troops between himself and the lieutenant and ran a practiced eye over the map.
"There it is, sir, in the upper right. Occoquan. That was next week's course," he finished with a wry grin.
"Right." The lieutenant keyed the mike. "Occoquan, over."
"Umm," the fire direction technician checked her map and eyeballed the range. "Roger. say your position and condition, over."
"Ridge to north of Occoquan River, overlooking 123, dug-in, coordinates 654897."
"Roger, stand by."
* * *
"L-T, we got movement on 123!"
Lieutenant Ryan lifted his head out of the slit trench and peered into town. Down Main Street, "Old 123," trotted a swarm of yellow centaurs, their God King prominent in their midst. He had been surprised by the female voice, but now just wished she'd get her fanny in gear.
"Drop the 123 bridge!"
"Yes, sir. What about the footbridge?"
"Let's keep that up for a while."
A group of centaurs came around the shoulder of the hill, trotting down 123. At the sight of the intact bridge they broke into a gallop. Almost simultaneously there was a thundering racket from downstream where the I-95 and U.S. 1 bridges went up simultaneously.
"Purple Heart Bridge indeed," muttered the lieutenant.
"What was that, sir?" asked one of the waiting engineers.
"Nothing, I think I've got some artillery on the way."
"Great! That battery behind us?"
"No, I don't have their frequency. Somebody else, I don't know what."
As the 123 bridge blew up, the two hundred pounds of Composition-4 explosives lifting concrete chunks and the first rank of centaurs into the air, the radio crackled with a transmission.
"Say again, over!" shouted the young officer, ears ringing. Despite orders and pointed suggestions, he wasn't wearing earplugs.
"This is Uniform Four Seven, ranging round incoming. Danger close, say again, danger close!"
The lieutenant lifted his head up to see if the view had changed. No, he was still over three hundred meters from the center of town. "Danger Close" for 155mm was only two hundred yards. What the heck.
"Uniform, this is Romeo Six Seven. We are three or four hundred meters from impact area, over."
"Roger, incoming five seconds, danger close, I say again, danger close. Hunker down and cover your ears, soldier-boy! Splash in five seconds!"
"Sir, what's that?"
The lieutenant looked up and followed the private's view to a rapidly descending dot. As it lowered it loomed larger and larger. The precise size was hard to determine, but it was the biggest shell the young officer had ever seen or could possibly imagine. It looked like whatever it was was firing cars.
"Incoming! Everybody down!" the lieutenant screamed and demonstrated by throwing himself to the bottom of the slit trench.
The impact of the shell rivaled the explosion of the much closer bridge. The officer stumbled to his feet, partially stunned and shaking off good Virginia loam to survey the damage. The round had impacted on the far ridge, near where the now silent artillery had fallen, and the damage area was wider than that of the damage from the full battery behind him. The area was covered in dust and smoke from the explosion, but he could make a reasonable guess at adjustment. With the "footprint" of whatever it was, "close" was going to be good enough.
"Jesus Christ, sir," yelled Sergeant Leo, "who the hell did you call?"
The shaken lieutenant picked up the microphone. "Uniform Four Seven, roger. Down seven five meters and fire for effect. And careful with that seventy-five meters! What unit is this, over?" It was lousy communications discipline to ask, but he felt like he needed to know what he had called down upon their heads.
"Romeo Six Seven, confirm down seventy-five meters and fire for effect. This is the USS Missouri, at your service. Hunker down for a nine-gun salute, Romeo."
* * *
Kenallai cursed the evil harvest that inhabited this thrice-damned world.
"Threshkreen, indeed, my edas'antai," murmured Kenallurial as the nearby guns hammered the remaining scouts of Sammadar as they swept down the main street of the small town.
He had convinced his edas'antai that the proper way to deal with this enemy was to observe his methods, then develop ways to combat them. Sammadar had been virtually wiped out assaulting the enemy lines to the south. But when the enemy's own guns destroyed their positions, Kenallurial's oolt'os were in position to exploit the break in the lines.
He had maintained a forward position, capturing rich booty on the way. But on approaching the town, which captured maps showed bisected by a large river, he had slowed, probing forward carefully, and instructing his junior Kessentai, with hard blows when necessary, to remain under cover. Now his oolts held a strategic ridgeline—one without noticeable booty, but a commanding view—and he and his edas'antai observed the destruction of the rival oolt'ondar from a house on the ridge.
Houses were a dangerous prospect on this thrice-damned planet, but the Posleen had slowly begun to recognize the signs. A single oolt'os would be sent to, carefully, open what looked to be the primary door of a building. If there was a beeping sound and a black box with a flashing light, the oolt'os would run like the demons of the sky were after it. Sometimes it made it, sometimes it did not. But at least they were not losing oolt'os by the double hand anymore.
This house had no flashing lights, nor demolition charges. It rested comfortably on the riverward shoulder of the ridge overlooking the town. The sign on the front, in the beastly language of this planet, said something about "Rock Shelf," which certainly described the terrain.
The far bank of the river was steep as the side of a building, with a narrow road winding around to the right. The left was obscured. He could see a four-lane highway bridge downriver, and there was a small footbridge just below the house they occupied.
"We should send forces to seize that crossing!" snarled Ardan'aath, pointing to the four-lane bridge. "Why do we skulk in buildings?"
"Hmmm," murmured Kenallai. The oolt'ondar was feeling unrecognized emotions. Among others, doubt.
"If you wish to try," said Kenallurial, calmly, "go right ahead."
Ardan'aath had not gotten to where he was by being stupid. The thrice-eaten-by-demons puppy had something up his sleeve. "Why don't you?"
"I prefer to live long enough to enjoy the fruits of my conquests," answered the younger Kessentai, with an almost contemptuous snout wrinkle.
Ardan'aath started to say what he thought of such a cowardly approach, but was stopped by the raised hand of Kenallai.
"The argument is done," he said, gesturing out the window.
They watched as Sammadar charged his main force towards the bridge, and as the front two oolt were swept away by the explosions.
"Sky demon shit," snarled Ardan'aath, rounding on the junior Kessentai, "you knew!"
"Why?" asked Kenallai.
"It is what I would have done."
"And what would you do next?"
Kenallurial looked towards the river below. "I would pound this valley to pieces as our comrades rush to try a crossing." He pulled out the captured map. Ardan'aath turned away from the piece of alien garbage, but Kenallai bent over in interest.
"Look, we are here," he said, pointing to the town. "This river stretches all the way to here," he continued, pointing to the town of Manassas. "That is the first place that we can turn towards the treasures to the north."
"What about this?" asked Kenallai, pointing to a symbol. "Is this not a closer bridge?" Near the possible defense point, but to the side, a bridge crossed.
"What bridge, my edas'antai?" asked the junior, respectfully, keeping his eyes on the map.
"Oh." Once he thought about it, it was obvious that the threshkreen would destroy the bridge before it could be taken by the host.
"But before the Po'oslenar can turn this corner, can take that booty to the north," continued the eson'antai, "there is this stretch here." Near the end of the Occoquan reservoir, a thin line of blue stretched to the south and widened to become Lake Jackson. "The threshkreen can organize here and meet us in terrific battle. Woe betide the force that first assaults them there!"
"It would be an honorable battle," snarled Ardan'aath, "none of this skulking and running about. We could sweep them aside as we did their fellows to the south, as we destroyed their town! As we shall sweep all these thresh into our pens!"
"We would be like Sammadar!" snarled the junior, rounding on the older Kessentai in challenge mode. "Without an oolt'os to our name, reduced to a castellaine! Perhaps that is what you seek?"
"Enough!" snapped the oolt'ondai, stepping between the two officers as they began to close. "Each has his merits! I listen to both, and each decides for himself the actions of his oolt'os. For himself! That is the Way and the Path. Ardan'aath, I listen to this one, for he is often right before the battle. But as battle is joined, do I not take your advice?"
"Aye, my lord," said the older advisor, calmer with the reminder.
"Then, listen to this one. Take not anger from this conference, but wisdom."
"I listen. As to wisdom, when this puppy has seen the burning of the orna'adar, when he has conquered worlds, then will I learn his wisdom." He turned away and stomped again to the window. As he did, a tremendous crash on the southern ridge smashed the remaining glass inward, scattering it about the room and into the God King's crest. With an angry gesture, he shook his crocodilian head to clear it. "Demons of the sky eat your souls, you gutless thresh!"
"My edas'antai, we do not have much more time," whispered the junior softly.
"The firing of this valley? You are sure of that?"
"Yes, here is the final quotient. If the thresh defend here," he pointed once again to the map, wondering for a moment about the mind of a species that would make such a thing, the Po'oslenar had no equivalent, "then they will be strong. But if we swing here," he pointed south of Lake Jackson, "to the south, we can come in behind them. They cannot be strong everywhere."
"That will take us hours out of our way, we will not be there before deep night!"
"That is my suggestion. If you prefer to try that footbridge . . ." He gestured pointedly out the window.
The oolt'ondai winced, without looking again. He was experienced enough to recognize a trap when he saw one. "I think not. Ardan'aath!"
"Are you with us?"
"For a long march with no prospect of battle for hours? When battle rages all around us? What use am I?"
"Ardan'aath! Yes, or no? We must move!"
"I have traveled far with you, Kenallai. I continue, despite your dependence on this puppy."
"Then we move!" With those words he led the way out of the room, already at a trot, a terrible fear clutching at his soul.
* * *
They passed the outskirts of the town of Occoquan, the normals of the brigade in a ground-eating lope, just as the first salvo of sixteen-inch rounds landed in the square.
* * *
"Big Mo pour it on!" The condition of Ryan's ears, despite hastily jammed in earplugs, had gone beyond ringing to probable permanent deafness. "I can't hear any response! I think I'm deaf! But you've wiped out hundreds so far."
The plan had worked beyond his wildest dreams, because somehow the word had gotten around that there was an intact bridge at this location. Through the afternoon, the Posleen poured into the valley, charging for their chance at taking the far bank, and the shorter route to the prizes to the north. But as fast as they charged, the guns of the Missouri pounded the narrow defilade where the town had once stood.
Occoquan was no more; not a single house was left standing throughout the entire valley. As the engineer/forward observer walked the big sixteen-inch rounds back and forth, the quaint one- and two-story wood and stone houses had been torn apart under the hammer of the guns. Main Street was choked with rubble and in places the big rounds struck so many times they had pummeled the underlying rock into layers of gravel. The spot where the Occoquan Boatyard had once stood was now a channel, dug by repeated impacts of the big rounds.
The huge shells were briefly visible as they plunged into the maelstrom, each one adding its load of dust and smoke to the surreal haze across the river. Occasionally, the pall was blown away by the light north wind but not fast enough for clear vision. Parties of the Posleen would make their way through the holocaust, taking casualties that would turn back a human force, all the way to the foot bridge and the dam, where they would run into more problems.
The dug-in engineer platoon had festooned the bridge with command-detonated mines. As the Posleen continued to reach the bridge, these were slowly used up, but the base of the narrow bridge was within easy small-arms fire. As the Posleen tried to cross, one at a time, they were brought under a hail of fire from the M-16s and AIWs of the platoon. Three times God Kings had made it through the curtain of battleship fire, but even their heavy weapons had been unable to force the passage.
Trying the old dam was no more use. In an inspired move one of the privates had found a can of grease in the now-erased waterworks and spread grease all along the top of the dam. The engineers rarely fired at the centaurs trying to cross there, instead taking notional bets on how far they would make it. There was a steady flow of white water across the top and the massive Posleen rapidly drowned in the deep water at the base.
The platoon had lost some trainee engineers, and the names of each would lie heavy on his soul, but this day Lieutenant Ryan knew he had done a man's job and done it with style. The sun descending in the west was bringing on the night's bitter autumn cold when the private next to him yelled to get his attention.
The sound barely penetrated the ringing as he called another adjustment, but the hand on his shoulder turned him around. There was a captain in battledress on his stomach behind him, camouflaged face split in a watermelon grin and crossed-rifles on his collar.
"We're here to relieve you!" the lieutenant half-heard, half-lip read.
The battle-shocked lieutenant just nodded his head. Combined with an infinite feeling of relief as he saw fresh, trained and heavily armed infantryman swarm over the lip and drop into the slit trench was a terrible sadness. It was the feeling of a job not completely done, of leaving a battle to another, a feeling similar to survivor guilt. It said "I am alive, and going to safety, but I leave you here to carry on my work and die."
It was a silly feeling in the conditions; the infantry company was better trained for this sort of battle, fresh, more heavily armed, with three times the personnel. If his platoon of trainee engineers had been able to hold the bridge through the day, then surely this unit would have no problems through the days to come. And there must be a sore need for engineers in other battles. But it still hurt.
He nodded his head again at the captain now standing next to him. "I can't hear anything, sir, just nod your head!" To which the captain nodded.
"USS Missouri," Ryan shouted, gesturing with the microphone, "Uniform Four Seven! Be careful how close you get." The hammer of machine guns in the background was washed out by another salvo of three rounds impacting. "You're sharing fire with the divisions getting pulled off at Deep Hole Point and over in Maryland, but it's enough." He keyed the mike a last time.
"Uniform Four Seven, this is Romeo Six Seven, over."
"Romeo, this is Mo, over."
"Mo, we are being relieved. I'm turning you over to . . ." He glanced at the captain.
"Lima Niner Two!" shouted the captain.
"Lima Niner Two, over!"
"Roger, I accept Lima Niner Two to this net, over."
"Well, thanks Mo, this is Romeo Six Seven, out."
"Good luck, Romeo, this is Juliet, out," responded the unknown female on the other end of the circuit.
With a smile, the tired lieutenant carefully slid out of the trench and down the back side of the hill to where the remains of his platoon was gathering.