Time was on the side of Washington. The direct line distance between D.C. and Fredericksburg was practically the same as the distance between Fredericksburg and Richmond. But the dogleg around the Occoquan Reservoir and the resistance of the Ninth and Tenth Corps ensured that the first city to be hit by the spreading incursion would be Richmond.
And in Richmond they were just about done laying in the drinks.
* * *
"Won't they spot that?" asked the specialist who had been assigned as Mueller's driver.
"Maybe," said Mueller, affixing the last connection on the sensor pod. The small device was a surveillance tool that had been modified for long-range transmission. Set up in a lightly armored shell, the tiny camera and transmitter looked northward on I-95.
"But we'll be able to fire them up at least once with artillery. If they don't notice them, or do and don't take them out, we'll be able to use them for long-range artillery fire and surveillance during the whole battle."
* * *
"Yeah?" Ersin turned from supervising the installation of a field of mines along the northwest rim. The querying individual was one of the junior engineers assigned to the area. The kid didn't even have his professional license. He was a junior flunky at one of the local engineering firms sent out as a last bit of support. But at least he knew he was wet behind the ears and wasn't afraid to ask questions. He was accompanied by a tall, beefy civilian. Something about the florid face and casual clothes spelled "salesman" to Ersin.
"This guy is trying to explain something to me . . ." the engineer started to say.
"Hi there, Sergeant . . . Ersin, was it?" asked the civilian, brushing aside the engineer and taking Ersin's hand in a hearty shake. "Tolert, Bob Tolert, I represent Advanced Materials Manufacturing here in Richmond . . ."
"If it's about the Golden Girls . . ."
"No, no, different company entirely. We have a line of . . ."
"We're a little busy here . . ."
" . . . military supplies that I . . ."
" . . . and I really don't have time . . ."
" . . . think would be just perfect for . . ."
"You're not listening to a thing I'm saying, are you?" said Ersin in a dangerously calm voice. The scars on the side of his neck and face were flushed.
"Oh, yes, I am, sir; yes, I am," said the salesman, smiling broadly in reply. "You have the most important job in the entire United States right now, protecting our fair city, and these little caltrops my company makes are just the thing to help." The smile was wide and patently insincere. The salesman was obviously figuring on a hard sell.
Ersin snapped forward like a snake until his scarred Eurasian face was inches from the civilian's. One hand snatched the collar of the Dockers shirt and dragged the salesman the last inch. "What did you say?"
Bob Tolert had dealt with difficult customers in his time. However, he'd never dealt with ones who had an instant ability to remove him from the face of the earth. He considered his next words carefully.
"We're under contract to produce something called caltrops for the mountain defenses," he croaked. "I don't even know what they are. One of our foremen told me you might want to buy a few."
"Neither did I," said the civilian engineer. The junior engineer was waving his hands around as if to try to suggest that maybe killing a civilian would not be a good idea.
"How many can we get?" asked Ersin, his smile turning feral.
"He brought some dump trucks with him," offered the engineer.
"Can you let go now?" Tolert croaked. "Please?"
* * *
The Posleen scout company trotted in good order down the broad highway. Their God King followed them pensively despite the rearing buildings of the great prize plain before him. His was the fifth company from the oolt'ondar to be in the lead. Between the ambushes of the tenar and the ballistic weapons of the thresh the horde had lost oolt after oolt. He was determined to last longer than the rest.
To avoid the ambushes that had plagued his fellows, he had a scout well out in the lead of his oolt. The oolt'os was a superior individual, it could nearly talk. The Kessentai's sole eson'antai had been born from their coupling and he trusted the oolt'os to respond effectively to mildly complex problems. If any of the oolt'os would spot a problem, it would be that one.
So he froze his tenar then slid to the side when the point let out a surprised cry. However, the cry was not one of fear or anger and the point almost immediately turned and ran towards him.
In the oolt'os's hand was a strange device. A metal stake, dirt dribbling to the ground unnoticed, topped with a symbol. The metal of the symbol looked like . . . but it couldn't be . . .
The God King let out a cry like that of his scout and practically snatched the golden trinket from its hand. He patted the excited semimoron on the back and gave it bits of thresh from his own hand in approval.
The God King held the implement overhead. "Pure heavy metal," he crowed, waving it back and forth.
"No," shouted the newcomer his crest standing straight up in excitement. "Is there more?"
"Let us find out," he cried and waved to his oolt. "Forward, find more! Follow the road!"
* * *
"They're at the first Babe," said Mosovich, adjusting the sixty-power spotting scope. He smiled faintly at the silent pantomime in the distance. "It looks like they took it hook, line and sinker."
"We ought to fire 'em up," said Ersin sourly, leaning back on the head of the hotel-room bed. From the suite in the Marriott they had a clear view of the advancing host. He took a bite out of the dehydrated peaches from his MRE and wrinkled his face like a rat. "That's what cannon-cockers are for." He stopped talking as the absorbent fruit removed all the moisture from his mouth.
"Suck 'em in, General," said John Keene to the air. "Don't shoot till you see the yellow of their eyes." With the defenses completed, he found himself flapping around at loose ends. After considering his options he decided that the best place to be would be with the SF team. Among other things they were the only people in Richmond he knew weren't gunning for him. They also made fair bodyguards.
He now lay on his back on the floor, nursing the first beer he'd had in two days. He took another sip of the astringent brew and smacked his lips. "Let 'em get in the sack."
"Yeah," said Mueller, assembling a sandwich on the table. He carefully laid out a sliver of ham, layered it with lettuce, then another layer of ham, lettuce, pastrami . . . "We want as many of 'em as possible to reach Schockoe Bottom."
"Fine," snorted Ersin cynically. "Be complicated. All that complicated means is more to go wrong."
"It looks good so far," said Keene, defensively. He sat up and drained the bottle to the dregs. "They're going for it," he finished with a belch and tossed the bottle in the wastecan.
"That they are," agreed Mosovich. "But I don't believe they're going to get to Schockoe without anybody firing. That'd take more discipline than this Army's got."
* * *
"Come to papa," whispered Specialist Fourth-Class Jim Turner, snuggling the .50 caliber sniper rifle into his shoulder. For once he was able to use the tripod that came with the beast and he now waited impatiently for the signal to fire.
The interstate highway was marked at regular intervals by survey stakes with colored ribbons attached to them. With the time they had to prepare, each company was detailed with specific areas of fire and those were then broken down to the point where every rifleman, grenadier and sniper had a specific area to concentrate on. The snipers were given larger fields of fire to work with, but even then the section of interstate that was "his" was only two hundred yards long and a hundred deep. There were currently three God Kings, his particular target, in his box. He had already decided to take the rearmost one first and work his way forward. That one was moving faster than the main force, coming up through the host with his normals trailing. As soon as the signal came, he was history.
Jim was of two minds about whether everyone could hold fire until the signal. The order was to stay out of sight but ready and not watch the approach of the enemy. Most of the troops had been ordered to sit on the floor, their manjacks safed, and wait for the order. How many of them were doing that he didn't know. He wasn't. And then there were the fifteen or twenty thousand manjacks set up to cover the whole of the interstate and Schockoe Bottom. The only reason none of them had fired yet was that all the ones the Posleen had come across were on safe. Sooner or later they were going to cross the laser of one that was overlooked. The odds of everybody getting the word and getting it right were slim.
On the other hand, virtually everybody had also gotten the word that the Posleen reacted violently to fire. If they didn't wait for the signal and somebody fired on their own, the whole host would target that single individual. So, when somebody did screw it up, it'd be Darwin Awards time. And the NCOs and officers were supposed to be . . .
"Turner, Goddamnit!" said Sergeant Dougherty from the doorway.
"I'm just watching, Sergeant," he answered reasonably. Dougherty was a hard case. She ought to have gone Fleet Strike with the way she ran around all the time like a spike was stuck up her ass. On the other hand, she was fair and, more to the point, right. He wasn't supposed to be where he was. "I'm not gonna fire." Nonetheless he stepped away from the rifle.
"I don't give a shit, get on the floor like everybody else! We've been taking magazines away for less than that!"
"You ought to know better. If you can't handle the responsibility of being a sniper, we can find somebody who can! An' don't call me ma'am," snapped the short, heavy-set, dishwater blonde in summary. "I work for a living."
Her back straight and face set in a disapproving frown she stepped back into the hallway to continue her circuit of positions. Time to go find some more ass to chew.
* * *
Inevitably everyone didn't get the word.
"How is the road to the east?" asked Artulosten. The returning scoutmaster looked grumpy. Many of his oolt'os were limping and all looked miserable.
"Horrible," snapped Arstenoss. "There is nothing out there, the buildings burned, the roads destroyed or scattered with these." He held up a caltrop. "I've half my oolt injured, many of them made to thresh by these damn things."
The battlemaster took the offending item and looked at it curiously. It was a small bit of metal. He understood its purpose, to present a small knife turned upwards. "How could these kill an oolt'os?"
"They don't kill. But when they are driven into a foot, many of the oolt'os panic and roll. Then they are driven into them all over their body. I had to put nearly two dozen down. I finally said enough and came back. There is nothing of interest out there. I understand that there is a road of heavy metals here?"
"Indeed. This must be a place of great worth. The lead force has encountered no resistance and found marker after marker made of pure heavy metals. They are all on the one road and appear to lead towards the other side of that river." He pointed to where the distant James was partially visible. "That would normally be the objective." He pointed up at the skyline. "And it is packed with thresh, but the host seems content to follow the markers to their source."
The interstate had already started to bend away from the city proper. "Other scoutmasters have returned from the west with much the same news. There is nothing of worth out there now. What would have been of use has been destroyed or removed."
"Those buildings are packed with thresh," noted the scoutmaster, studying his sensors. Every looming skyscraper was patterned with red. "Why don't they fire?"
"Fear of the host," snorted the battlemaster. He gestured to the front where they were preceded by the thousands of Posleen of the vanguard and backward to where another million and a half followed. "They are numerous but not nearly so numerous as the host. They would be fools to fire."
* * *
The Posleen normal was responding to a call of nature. Posleen would drop solid and liquid waste without question. But it was time for a birthing, and that required a modicum of privacy lest a fellow oolt'os succumb to hunger. In camp, even a temporary camp, there would be an egg pit where the leather-skinned egg would be dropped until it hatched. And there would be designated nursemaids to remove the hatchlings to the hatchling pens, there to fight for survival until they reached maturity.
But when the host was moving, the best that could be done was to set the eggs aside and let the hatchlings free. Most would die, even more than in the pens. But there was no easy way on the Path and the normal could care less. All it wanted to do was relieve the discomfort and nausea of the fully mature egg.
It trotted away from its group and down off the interstate to the east; the western wall towards the thresh was a sheer bluff topped with barbed wire so there was no going that way. It had to cut a fence, but that was easily done with its monomolecular short sword. There was a small building of nondescript purpose immediately available. It was under strict instructions not to enter buildings without permission, but being out of sight was enough for the purpose. It trotted around the back of the building and started the birthing process.
Its abdomen began to ripple and the ripples spread quickly up its neck. It had almost waited too long. A bulge appeared at the base of its neck and traveled upward like a python swallowing a cat in reverse. Finally it spat up a spotted, leathery egg the size of a small chicken. It licked the last birth juices off the egg, tossed it disdainfully against the wall of the abandoned subsidized housing and trotted back towards the interstate. Mission complete.
The normal's company had gotten far ahead of it. It hurried through the smashed buildings and hacked-down and burned trees along the interstate trying to catch up to its god. As it did it passed through an invisible beam of light.
Everything was wrong with the manjack. It was not on safe. It was pointed more or less sideways into another brigade's area. And the linked ammunition leading to it was bent around the corner of a desk, ensuring that the weapon would fire for the shortest time possible and then jam.
The team from the Seventy-First Infantry Division had set up the weapon and its bitchingly heavy ammunition cases with unseemly haste. They were more interested in getting back to their crap game than whether the weapon was aimed or the belts of ammunition run smoothly. The sergeant who was supposed to ensure that the gun was aligned properly and on safe was enjoying the fruits of her position with a good-looking and limber young soldier. The first sergeant was playing poker with two of the platoon sergeants and a warrant officer from supply. The company commander was at battalion ensuring that the battalion commander knew just how well his company was being run.
* * *
In the end it was all the same. The weapon fired twelve rounds and then jammed. The 7.62mm bullets, two of them tracer, drifted with apparent laziness through the air until they reached their point of aim and dug into the soil of Virginia. Since the manjack had never been boresighted, they did not even strike their erstwhile target, which continued on towards its objective oblivious of being fired at.
* * *
Specialist George Rendel had just thrown a three and snatched the dice back up. He rattled them a few times and prepared to throw again when the manjack across the room stuttered its twelve rounds. He froze, wide eyes echoed by everyone else in the game.
"We forgot . . ." someone said and the world fell in.
* * *
The Posleen were used to fighting enemies who were visible. Most of their opponents had no history of warfare and, therefore, had never heard of such items as camouflage, cover or concealment.
However, they had developed a process for dealing with humans' cowardly tendency to hide themselves while fighting. The God Kings' saucers possessed not only weapons, but excellent sensors. So, even if the position of a firing platform was not clear, the sensors could pinpoint it. When there were hundreds of positions firing they tended to become overloaded with information, but when there was a single target it was easy. And wherever the God King fired, there fired its company.
There were over twenty God Kings in sight of the manjack. All of them fired at the sensor point. And so did approximately eight thousand normals.
A storm of flechettes and missiles slammed into the side of the skyscraper. Since Posleen aim was weak at that range, the storm was diffused over two or three floors and half the side of the building. Hundreds of soldiers throughout the structure were killed and injured by the storm of fire. The only survivors of the laggard company were the company commander, downstairs in the battalion TOC, and the first sergeant and platoon sergeants in their poker game.
The plasma cannons and hypervelocity missiles, designed to defeat plate armor, cut upward through floor after floor, most of them passing entirely through the building. Structural members were cut and the building reeled with the impact of the storm of fire.
Throughout the line, thousands of heads popped up to see why the storm of fire had occurred. Some individuals, more panicked, brave or foolish than their fellows, started to fire. However, in every case other, wiser, heads prevailed and soldiers were ordered, cajoled or wrestled to the floor to prevent creating another target. The single burst had proven the truth of the order and, despite the ongoing hammer from the Posleen, the check fire held.
With no further fire forthcoming, the Posleen resumed their interrupted advance towards their distant El Dorado.