"This is scary," said General Keeton, staring at the hundreds of monitors set up throughout the battle control room. The large meeting hall in the R.J. Reynolds facility was crammed with intelligence technicians and a few conscripted secretaries. The group was deciphering the data from the video cameras strung along the route of advance and keying it into the battlefield control system. General Keeton was left with the summarized version to work with. The twenty-four-inch monitor appropriated from the head of Reynolds' Management Information Systems department was indicating that the Posleen vanguard had just reached the floodwall and was spreading out to either side of the entrance.
He almost felt embarrassed by the appropriation. The company had been surprisingly enthusiastic in their support of the defense. The local vice president for facilities had organized most of the support and had rousted out the MIS head and dozens of technicians to cobble together the network Keeton was working from. Integrating the military system and the various PCs and Macintoshes that were being used would have taken a military contractor ten years and two hundred billion dollars. The Reynolds' MIS folks, told to just figure out a way, had jury-rigged a fully functional system in hours. It just showed what happened when you gave clear goals, plenty of resources and let competent people get on with the job.
The whole defense was like that. Once the plan was in place, he had barely been able to keep up. So many little details had been handled by people who realized there wasn't time to argue. From Keene, who had been a veritable whirlwind, directing projects here and there, to Sergeant Gleason from the SF team who had strong-armed half a dozen intransigent hospital administrators into providing impromptu MASH units.
There had been the other side as well. He had generated a simple order. If a situation came to the attention of a general officer in which an officer of captain's rank or above was slowing down the progress of the defense for political or bureaucratic reasons, that officer was to be relieved of commission and sent to the front to dig foxholes. He had fully twenty former field-grade officers and three flag officers wielding shovels. When the defense was all over he was going to have to sort it all out. The generals were likely to be a problem.
In the meantime he had a godlike view of the approaching enemy, a clear view of the thousands of them spreading through the kill-box and enough support in place to fight for days. And he'd only had to deal with three problems in the last hour. Remarkable.
But it was about time to give the signal to open fire. He suspected he was just about to be very, very busy.
He keyed the headset microphone that connected him to the Tactical Control Officer. "Okay, ADC. Open the ball."
* * *
The technique was called time-on-target. Depending on the distance to the target and the type of weapon, it takes a certain amount of time for an artillery shell to reach its objective. Some artillery, like mortar, fires at a high angle. These projectiles describe a high arc and take a relatively long time to reach their target. Some artillery is fired on a flatter angle and takes less time to reach a target.
This phenomenon was known, but up until World War II no one had paid much attention to it. However, early on during that war a senior American artillery officer had determined that a better "punch" could be gotten if the initial salvo of an artillery barrage arrived more or less simultaneously.
After thinking about this for a relatively short time, he decided to try having guns fire at timed intervals. With proper planning, all of the rounds would arrive within seconds of each other. The technique was discovered to work quite well, as surviving Germans were happy to attest after the war. And a new technique in the old, old game of artillery was born.
* * *
Arstenoss shot a spiteful plasma bolt at the towering wall. The lead Kessentai had loaded their tenars with heavy metal and retreated to the rear. The treasure could be bartered for prime genetic samples and fiefs, disdaining the necessity to fight for them. Now the host had reached this demon-bedamned wall, with the symbol of those thrice-damned and soul-chewed military technicians on it, and there seemed no way to follow the trinkets onward. The few God Kings that had floated their tenars above the wall had been removed from the Path. To make matters worse the trinkets had been getting larger and larger as the road progressed. Demons only knew what the eventual horde would look like. Faced with the potential for riches and the sudden blockage, tens of thousands of the host were packing into the valley, looking for more treasures or for the cowardly thresh to at least show themselves. A small bridge had been found to the east and many Kessentai were leaning that way, but it was both heavily defended and very small. It would take days for the host to cross the river and take the thresh from behind. Occasional blasts of fire out of frustration would drift up towards the dots of positions in the towers without eliciting response.
"We'll have to go over it," said Artulosten thoughtfully as the Posleen normals packed around his tenar jostled it on its ground-effect. The tens of thousands of oolt'os were reassuring. Surely nothing in the universe could stop such a host. "If we get a number of the Kessentai together, we can assault over it and take the gate from the far side. Then . . ." He stopped as a sound over his shoulder made him look back and up. It appeared that the top of the towering hill to his left had exploded as a ripple of purple fire and smoke exploded upward. His sharp eye caught a flicker of objects lifted on the columns of fire. There were hundreds of the things. He froze in indecision, unsure what action would help the situation. A human would have screamed "incoming." That action would have been just as useful as paralysis.
There were five divisions of infantry involved in the defense of Richmond. Three of those divisions had contributed their mortars and artillery to the Libby and Montrose Hill firebases. The relatively low velocity and high arc of mortars ensured that they would be the first to fire. The 120mm rounds arced gracefully upward to apogee then tilted over and headed down. It would take twenty-three seconds for the one hundred fifteen rounds to reach their targets. Before they were one-third of the way a second salvo was fired. And a third. At the third salvo the ninety-seven artillery pieces finally fired.
* * *
The Posleen were packed practically shoulder to shoulder in Schockoe Bottom. Many of them had started to try to climb the obstacles into the city. Others had started pressing against the wall of rubble across Williamsburg Road. A stream was headed towards the Belle Isle footbridge. None were prepared for the incoming salvo.
The devastation was impossible to describe. Within seconds of each other two hundred rounds of artillery landed in a space that could be occupied by four football fields.
The center artillery fire, well away from the infantry positions along the wall, was set to variable timed fire. VT rounds exploded above the Posleen force, scything downward in an oval pattern of death. Posleen caught under the hammer of the guns were torn apart by the artillery bursting charges, their yellow blood flying in an unnoticed mist from the fury of the charges.
The mortar rounds were, if anything, more effective. Using a proximity fuse they exploded a mere meter off the ground. The circle of death that spiraled outward slaughtered packed centaurs by the dozen. And another salvo hit. And another.
The infantrymen and women packing the buildings and defenses around the Bottom had been told that they would know when to fire. "Fire when the artillery goes off." For a few moments they were shocked into immobility as the black puffballs of VT and purple flashes of proximity rounds struck the world with a jackhammer of the gods. But as the stunning overpressure of that first devastating time-on-target passed and the guns set into the steady rhythm of eight rounds a minute the forces arrayed along the line popped up, took the safeties off the various weapons and started hunting targets.
The manjacks started going off before the first rifle. The entire kill zone was still packed with dazed and wounded Posleen, stumbling here and there under the thunder of the guns. As one would cross the interlocking target beams of the manjacks the robotic weapons would fire. Often the same Posleen would break three or four beams at a time, so densely packed were the weapons. The 7.62mm rounds, admirably designed for killing the centaurs, would tear the luckless alien apart, adding the slime of its juices to the ichor-soaked ground.
Much of the battlefield was already obscured by the smoke and dust thrown up from the artillery when the first infantrymen looked over and through their defensive walls. But there was the occasional flash of a centaur, most of them reeling stunned through the hammer of the guns. Such were taken under fire with glee; everyone had seen the news from Fredericksburg and the news media had already started on the interviews of survivors and relatives. They engaged the yellow centaurs with a fiery rage.
The snipers, arrayed higher in the buildings with their tripod-mounted .50 caliber sniper rifles, were having a field day. The surviving God Kings throughout the mass were trying to rally their forces, trying to return fire, trying to retreat out of the sudden abattoir that Twelfth Corps had made out of Schockoe Bottom. But the snipers were having none of it. The occasional flash of a plasma cannon or HVM, the white light so different from the black-orange of the artillery or the orange-purple of the mortars, revealed them clearly. Then, disdaining their target zones, dozens of snipers from as far as a kilometer away would return fire. Any God King saucer pulling out of the maelstrom of dust and smoke in the valley of death was targeted immediately. The plunging fire of the .50 caliber rifles smashed the centaurs off their vehicles, smashed through their inertial drivers, smashed through their energy crystals and added their devastation to an afternoon of fire and smoke and death.
* * *
General Keeton's monitor had a battlefield schematic and four waterfall graphs. The graphs were controlled by the Galactic AID that had been supplied to each corps commander and higher. One graph tracked casualties among the human defenders, the actual soldiers with rifles in their hand, who would keep the Posleen from coming out of the Bottom. The second tracked live Posleen in the fire-sack. The third tracked total Posleen that had entered the fire-sack. The fourth tracked total Posleen numbers.
Despite the fact that human numbers were less than a hundredth of the Posleen, they were on the same scale. The number of defenders was limited, the Posleen seemingly unlimited. When he had taken too many casualties he intended to retreat across the James.
That, however, looked a long way off. The graph indicating Posleen in the sack had climbed and climbed and climbed. Then, when it was apparent that they were about to stage a breakout, the Corps scale ambush had opened up. Now, there was virtually nothing left alive in Schockoe Bottom and human casualties had been next to nothing. If he had lost two hundred troops, excepting that company erased by one idiot's actions, he would be surprised. His total losses to date, as far as had been reported, were two hundred fifty killed in action, four-twenty wounded in action. And the Posleen had lost better than forty thousand.
However, there were still darn near two million left to kill. And the portion of the host that had not entered the kill zone was spreading to either side, despite the caltrops and craters.
Couldn't have that.
"Send out the sally," he whispered.
* * *
Lieutenant Colonel Walter Abrahamson wrapped a yellow silk scarf around his face and waved his hand overhead in a "wind-'em-up" signal. This was not, technically, the place for a cavalry battalion commander to be, in the hatch of an Abrams leading a do-or-die charge into the face of two million enemies. On the other hand, be damned to where he was supposed to be. The mission was to give the Posleen a sharp enough poke in the snout that they charged back into the fire-sack. He could have left it up to his company commanders. Should have. Had been ordered to. Sure. Like hell. Where else would a lifelong cavalry officer be?
"Stew, you better be damned sure those cannon-cockers have got the word, over," he shouted into his intervehicle microphone. Despite the sound-proofed helmet the thunder of sixty jet-turbine driven main battle tanks revving their engines was an aural Vesuvius.
"No problem," said his fellow battalion commander. The Second Battalion of the Twenty-Second Cavalry regiment had been relegated to defending the Libby Hill defenses and the other officer was bitterly envious of his comrade. "I'm in the fire control center now. They've got the word. They'll cease fire when the gates start to open. Even the mortars will be landed by the time you get through.
"Just in case, you might want to go through buttoned up, though," he joked.
"Yea verily," shouted Abrahamson. He waved to the civil engineers manning the gates. The hasty job done on the locking mechanism meant a hastier job done on the opening system. The gates, multiton concrete and steel behemoths, had been hooked to bulldozers to open them. The two structural engineers waved to the drivers and started moving them forward carefully. If the gates warped there might not be a way to get them closed again. And when the cavalry came back they were really going to want to be able to close the gates.
"Okay, tell 'em the gates are moving back," he yelled and switched to intercom. "Move us up to the entrance," he said as he hit the switch to drop him into the belly of the beast.
* * *
As the gates rolled back they revealed an alien world. The artillery still falling in the bottom churned an indescribable stew of yellow Posleen corpses blended indiscriminately with the shattered brick of the former buildings. There was no living thing in sight. The hammer of the artillery combined with the fire of the infantry had done what practically never happened in battles: the combination had killed all of the enemy. Even in the most intense battles of World Wars I and II there had been a few survivors. Not here. The slaughter of the Posleen in Schockoe Bottom had been efficient, remorseless and complete.
"Pull forward slowly a hundred meters," he said over the intercom. "Then stop and wait for the squadron to get on line."
"Yea, though I ride through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil," said Private First-Class Mills, the tank's gunner.
"For I am the baddest motherfucker in the valley," laughed the colonel, ending the military version of the psalm.
"Amen," whispered Private Hulm, the driver. The young private was as stunned as everyone else by the grounds-eye view of the devastation, but he gunned the big tank and pulled it slowly forward into the devastation.
The surface of Fourteenth Street was coated in a layer of slime and the rubbercoated tracks of the behemoth threw up a fine spray that looked like orange mud. With the exception of the occasional shattered carcasses of God King saucers, there were no obstacles. The occasional nearly intact Posleen corpse was ground beneath the treads of the tank without notice or comment. The seventy-ton armored juggernaut didn't even lurch.
PFC Mills swung the turret to the side. "Target. Moving saucer."
The colonel checked his repeater display by reflex. The saucer was skewed to one side, crabbing to the north and out of the firesack. As soon as it left the overwhelming haze it would be a target for the snipers dotting the towers, but it also could be a threat.
"Confirmed," said the colonel. "Engage co-ax."
"Roger, co-ax," responded the gunner, switching to coaxial fire instead of main gun. "On the way."
The M-1E was a modification of the venerable Abrams main battle tank. Designed for fighting the Posleen, it had improved frontal armor and thermal damping to make it more survivable when hit by hypervelocity missiles and plasma cannons. It also took a leaf out of the Russian Army's book.
The Russians, their tank markets faced by overwhelming air threats, had modified their tanks to double as antiaircraft platforms. They had mounted a twenty-three millimeter cannon on each side of the turret and slaved the fire control to the tank gunner. With a little luck, the mass fire from a battalion of tanks might take down an attacking aircraft.
The Americans had looked at the idea and scoffed. Until the coming of the Galactics. The Posleen depended on mass assaults, but their weapons were also phenomenal. A conventional platform to combat them would have to be able to survive plasma and hypervelocity missiles but still be able to kill large numbers of troops. Rather than try to develop an entirely new platform, the army had taken the Russian idea and improved it.
On each side of the turret of the M-1E was a pod of four 25mm Bushmaster cannons. The cannons turned with the turret and could swivel up and down for targeting. The targeting computer of the Abrams, still the most advanced and capable of any tank made by man, was modified to accommodate the new weapon, making it incredibly accurate. But it really wasn't about accuracy. It was about massive firepower.
The gunner chose "HE" from a menu of ammunition options. Then he stroked the trigger.
The Bushmaster cannon had a maximum fire rate of twenty-five hundred rounds per minute. There were eight cannons targeted on the lone God King. The single stroke of the trigger fired a burst of seven from each cannon. The fifty-six rounds, each with nearly a pound of explosives and notched wire for shrapnel, exploded across the saucer, shredding it and the riding God King.
* * *
The gunner continued to search, but with the exception of the sole God King, no targets showed themselves. The tank moved through the lifting cloud of dust and smoke as the stench of the dead Posleen became thicker and thicker and the other tanks of the squadron spread to either side.
The artillery had stopped as promised and Colonel Abrahamson decided to pop the hatch and look around. The alternative was staying inside, and the atmosphere couldn't be any worse outside.
It was. The stench of the Posleen increased five-fold as he raised himself out the hatch, but he controlled his desire to heave and looked around. The squadron was spreading out and he was happy that he had talked the colonel into the earlier reconnaissance mission. The squadron was fairly well trained, for this day and age, but the battles to the north, small-scale as they were, had helped immeasurably to put some polish on it. And it had gotten rid of some deadwood.
Now the unaccompanied tanks spread out into an extended V formation without a hitch, aligning on their pennon-flapping company commanders and platoon leaders. He had decided not to bring any of the Bradleys or Humvees for this mission. They knew, generally, where the enemy was and he did not intend to press home an attack. The Bradleys were slower than the Abrams and more vulnerable, while the Humvees were completely unsurvivable.
No, this was a straightforward heavy cavalry charge: Run out, lower lances, hit the barbarians and charge back through the gates. The barbarians always chased after you. But the general had better have everybody off the Mayo Bridge when they came back. Anybody in Walter Abrahamson's way was going to be paste.
The radio crackled. "Bravo troop, in position."
"Charlie troop in position."
"Alpha, rrready to rock-and-rolll."
He smiled. The Alpha commander was a bit of a personality, but he knew his business. Abrahamson stopped noticing the stench as the moment came upon him. He looked through the haze towards the distant and unseen enemy and nodded his head. "Roger," he said over the radio. "Move forward to phase-line Shenandoah. And may God defend the right."