"Mortars, throw some rounds on the other side of that bridge we just passed over."
So much for fire control procedure, thought Keren bouncing along in the back of the commandeered Suburban.
Military equipment has a life of its own. The military spends billions of dollars every year not on procurement of new equipment, but on maintaining the equipment they have. Armored fighting vehicles, next to helicopters, have to be the worst. They have thousands of moving parts, none of which, it seems, have sealed bearings. The tracks of an AFV are only good for a few hundred miles, a fraction of the life of a tire and a thousand times as expensive. Maintenance is not a haphazard requirement, but a vital necessity.
Unfortunately, the divisions committed to the defense of northern Virginia had only begun to become coherent when the Posleen landed. Training had been sorely lacking. Maintenance had been worse.
Of the four armored mortar carriers the platoon had possessed at the start of the bugout, only two remained. The Fire Direction Center track had been the first to succumb, dying of a failed track bearing before they were five miles down the road. But the Three Gun track had been destroyed soon after, casualty of their one close brush with the Posleen.
The FDC section had packed into the Two Gun track, still humming along like a top, thanks in no small part to Keren's efforts before the battle, until they found the diesel Suburban by the side of Prince William Parkway. The SUV had turned out to be victim of simple lack of fuel, and a few five-gallon cans of premium military diesel fixed that.
But hundreds of other tracked vehicles had failed to survive, and the troops from those Bradleys and M-113s were strung along both sides of the road, marching as fast as they could to try to outrun the oncoming horde. Both gun tracks were covered with personnel, and wounded were packed all around him in the Suburban. This really is "Needs must when devils drive," Keren thought.
But the problem of friendly-fire was on his mind with the last call for fire. He looked out the window. If there were this many personnel along the road here, the roads had to be packed back there.
"Boss, are there friendly troops in the area, over?"
Their mortar platoon leader was the last officer in the battalion and had taken command of all the line tracks he could find. A few tracks had bugged out, others had died from mechanical failure, but seven remained from the battalion, with about half the crews for them, and the lieutenant had picked up replacement personnel as he went. The deal was simple, you could ride if you would fight. If you wouldn't fight, you could walk. After the last Nineteenth Armored Division unit was destroyed, the scratch unit continued a nearly single-handed rear-guard throughout the afternoon and simultaneously replaced all its casualties. Along the way, "Puppy-Dog" Leper had been forever changed.
"Not any more. Engineers just blew the bridge with the last few stragglers on it. The horses are bunching up on the other side. Fire 'em up, Keren, ten rounds per gun then move on back."
"Roger." He popped up through the sunroof and waved to the gun tracks on either side. "Fire mission, hip shoot!" As he did he noticed a Humvee in the woods to one side, with a soldier leaning against the hood. Well, if the stupid bastard can't figure out to run like hell, that's his problem.
* * *
Arkady Simosin silently watched the last unit crossing the Davis Ford bridge. Whoever it was had fought a hell of a rearguard action after the last of the Nineteenth Armored expended itself. "The Last Charge" would probably be forgotten in the throes, but the final company of the armored unit had shattered a flanking movement that would have cut off half the survivors of the corps. It had been a heroic and ultimately suicidal charge.
He had come to the conclusion that military disasters follow certain prepared scripts. There is ample warning of the danger. There are critical moments, even after the disaster is clear, where proper orders and actions can correct the situation. And there is a reactionary political response in aftermath.
Given the modern speed of information transfer and decision making, it appeared that the reactionary aftermath was not even going to await the end of the battle. He looked again at the bald prose ordering him to turn over his command to his chief of staff and report to First Army Headquarters in New York. The e-mail continued with the comment that a replacement was on the way. He knew the general, a crony of General Olds; Olds would have done better to leave the COS in charge.
So, he thought, this is what a thirty-year career comes to. Better than the poor bastards caught in the political-correctness witchhunts of the '90s.
He crumpled up the flashpaper and dropped it on the ground, adding one last bit of litter to the battlefield. He turned and climbed in the Humvee as the first crump of departing mortar rounds filled the air.