The Pentagon, VA, United States of America, Sol III
0424 EDT October 11th, 2004 ad
Jack Horner stared at the map-screen and wondered what in hell he was supposed to do. The roads out of the Arlington pocket were jammed with refugees. Turning the corps around had thrown the whole evacuation plan into a cocked hat and it had yet to recover. Although the interstates had been cleared of stalled vehicles, the side roads had become so gridlocked that virtually no one could get on the major arteries.
Most of the evacuees had panicked when the Tenth Corps had been destroyed. They did not understand that it would take the Posleen hours and hours to move around the Occoquan Reservoir and that Ninth Corps was in the way. Quantico—which had become the graveyard of the corps it once hosted—was a bare thirty minutes from Arlington. Faced with a nonmoving traffic jam, many had turned off their cars and started walking.
These vehicles now created a nearly impassable obstacle to movement. Many of those on foot had made it to the interstates where they were being picked up with buses. But many were wandering aimlessly northward on back roads, imagining that the Posleen were right behind them. These lost souls would eventually find their way to the Potomac bridges and safety. But many would be caught on the wrong side. Too many. The current guess was hundreds of thousands.
Normally, in exercises, he would be sending in flying armored columns about now. Their purpose would be to slow up and misdirect the Posleen while military police backed by light armor would be rounding up, and in some cases driving, the refugees.
Unfortunately that would have been the task of either the Tenth Corps, which was no more, or Ninth Corps, which was fading fast.
Part of Eighth Corps, the One Hundred Fifth Infantry Division, had arrived in northern D.C., but they were scattered hither and yon. It would take them a while—quite a while if recent history was anything to judge by—to get all the armored vehicles off the lowboys and the units assembled. And the idea of flying columns with those troops was a joke. Three months before he had sent an entire MP brigade from Fort Bragg to Fort Dix to put down a mutiny by the same unit. They were just as likely to run back to New Jersey as throw themselves between the Posleen and civilians.
And then there were the landings. Over fourteen B-Decs had exited hyperspace in the last twenty-four hours. Four had been totally destroyed by the remaining fighters and frigates. But that had been at the cost of three frigates.
The PDCs were still in their cleft fork. Designed to stop the landings, they were unable to perform that function, instead being held back to stop liftoffs on the part of the landers. Despite that, Europe had lost twelve of their total of twenty Planetary Defense Centers. China had lost eight, America four.
But the landings were occurring everywhere. There had even been one in Phoenix, for Christ's sake. With more Posleen coming in from God-knew-where, he could not totally strip any area of its local defenders. But he needed to get troops from somewhere.
He knew that the maps and graphs were not reality, but they were all he had to work with. The chart of Ninth Corps strength was dropping like a waterfall as more and more Posleen charged into the gap between Lake Jackson and the Occoquan. The icon of the Second of the Five-Fifty-Fifth was nearly to the staging point behind Lake Jackson, but even a flank attack would hardly stop the Posleen at this point. Hell, it might just point them to the way around. So far they hadn't tried that.
There was only one mobile unit left at Indiantown Gap, the closest base to Arlington that hadn't been emptied. Harrisburg had a brigade of the Twenty-Eighth Mech to defend the area. So. Time to dump out the tacklebox. And call a few people out of hiding.
* * *
The gentle rocking of the five-ton truck as it negotiated the stop-and-go traffic of the interstate was at first maddening and then lulling. But Michael O'Neal was heading to the sound of distant musketry as fast as he could.
Every time a unit stopped for a rest or the truck he was riding on broke down he hitched a ride with another unit. Usually the Fleet uniform alone would guarantee a ride. Once he had traded on his name. Once it had been necessary to get a higher chain of command involved. But it was slow going. He wasn't worried that the Posleen would go away; they were going to be around for weeks at least. But he was worried about the company being thrown into battle with Nightingale in command. It was his nightmare come true.
So he was nearly asleep when the AID chirped.
"Incoming call from General Horner."
Mike sighed and didn't bother to open his eyes. "Accept."
There was a pause. "We tried."
Another pause. "We've got a situation . . ."
"Yeah," the general sighed.
Mike flicked his eyes open. At this point the AID could practically read his mind and a hologram of the battlezone suddenly appeared in the troop compartment. The soldiers who were awake stirred uneasily. Suddenly, without a word of command from the Fleet Strike officer, a hologram of the battle over the eastern United States was floating in the darkened interior of the truck. The lights from the next truck in the convoy partially washed it out. But then the AID polarized that area and created a shadow zone.
It was as advanced as radio to an aborigine and just as alien. As superficially sophisticated as the soldiers were, the technology was still stunning.
The AID sketched out probable movement rates for the scattered evacuees in Arlington. Then the time for the Posleen to reach them, assuming that the Ninth Corps lasted as long as anticipated. Then it sketched in the best possible movement time for the MI battalion. The three washes of color clearly missed proper intersection.
"We'll be too late," Mike said quietly. Everyone expected the cavalry, yellow flags flying, to come rushing in at the last moment. Well, this time the cavalry was just too far away and scattered to the winds. After all his careful preparations, it was coming down to too little, too late.
"I'm ordering the movement anyway. I've got a gut that the worst point is going to be around the Fourteenth Street bridge."
"Yeah," Mike nodded, "makes sense. It's almost the last one in the line going east, it's a chokepoint and everybody knows where it is." The bridge was overlooked by Arlington Cemetery and led directly to the Lincoln Memorial.
"Yeah. I'm expecting that once the refugees are in contact, that will be where the biggest backup is. And the Third Infantry is planning on holding the south side as long as they can."
"Let me guess."
"Yeah, the CO more or less said that the Posleen could have Arlington Heights over his dead body."
"And he meant it literally." The Old Guard was fanatical about Arlington. Much more so than about any passing President or minor monuments. However, the unit was primarily ceremonial and had virtually no heavy weapons. "Well, I suppose one more stupid symbolic action won't hurt any more than all the others."
"He's our President, Captain O'Neal," the general said quietly. The rebuke was clear but Mike could tell the general's heart wasn't in it.
"Your President," Mike said just as quietly. "We renounce our citizenship when we join the Fleet. Remember? Sir?"
The statement was greeted by silence.
"Have you told the battalion they're moving, yet?" Mike asked, changing the subject.
"No, I'm going to call Major Givens right after we get done."
"I need to be there, General." Mike flicked the hologram away with a wave of his hand and puffed out a breath of air. The fog from his breath was misty white in the light from the following truck.
"Well, I don't see how, Captain."
"Are you nuts! The Posleen'll destroy it before you're halfway to Indiantown Gap! Hell, look at the ambush of Second batt!"
"Fluke," snapped Mike, pulling up the map again. This time he took command of the display, tapping on vectors and assigning threat levels. "Shelly, cross-link this to General Horner."
At those words, heard throughout the compartment, the troops realized who the Fleet captain had been arguing with. Their heads ducked as if he were going to be hit by lightning at any moment. Mike paid them no mind.
"We're almost to Winchester. Have a bird meet me there. Blackhawk, Kiowa, I don't care. We'll stay low by slipping through the gap at Harper's Ferry. I'll intercept the unit somewhere on Interstate 83."
There was silence on the other end as Horner studied the schematic. The hologram had the plotted positions of Posleen and probable fields of fire. If an aircraft stayed below one hundred feet, all the lines ended well short of the route he had sketched in. "You're assuming two things that are not true. One: that the Posleen will not take off. If a lander lifts it throws this whole thing away. Two: That there are no more landers coming in. We've had three landings in the past hour."
"And if one is coming in, or lifts, the schematic changes. Shelly will keep it continually updated. That's what she's for. We land if we have to until the threat is past."
"I don't like this, Mike. I feel it is an unnecessary risk of a vital asset."
Mike swallowed a lump in his throat. He considered Horner an alternate father but he was never really sure what the general felt. That was about as good a compliment as any son could want. "Were you talking about me, or the helicopter?" he joked. "Never mind. I'm not vital, sir. But I do think that it would be a good idea if I was in on this operation."
Again there was a long silence on the line. "I'll get you the helicopter. I agree we probably don't have much time."