Cally rubbed the orange solvent into the Cordura nylon, trying to get the last stains out. "I wish those white-suits had stayed around long enough to clean this stuff."
Papa O'Neal chuckled, working a bit of bone out of a crevice. They had both taken fast showers to get the bits of the late Harold Locke off, but the armor had picked up quite a bit of evidence. Getting it cleaned up was a priority.
"Yeah, well, I guess we're just going to have to use a little elbow grease." He took a puff off his pipe and scrubbed at another spot of blood.
"Who do you think they were, really?" she asked in a serious tone.
He stopped looking for spots on the black cloth for a moment and leaned back. It was a good question. "Honey, I don't rightly know. They were obviously here to save our bacon. Now, I've got a lot of friends in the business, but nobody that could call up a team like that. And they knew Harold was coming to call. Now, they might have figured on being able to cover things up so whoever sent him didn't figure out what happened. That's more or less what happened. If the question gets bandied around we can take quiet credit for it.
"But that still begs the question of who sent 'em."
She nodded her head and went back to working, but he could tell from the expression on her face she was thinking about something. "Penny for your thoughts," he said.
"I think it was somebody that thought they owed Daddy a favor."
He started to open his mouth to dismiss the suggestion and stopped. Mike Junior had told him about the present of the combat suit. At half a billion credits, one of the suits was, to say the least, no small gift. Somebody who thought they owed him a half-billion-credit suit might think they owed him a quick response from a special actions team. Instead of dismissing the thought he nodded his head in agreement. "Okay, I can buy that."
She nodded in turn and picked up the toothbrush as a sonic boom hit.
Both of them looked upwards and cursed simultaneously.
"Oh, fuck!" said Mike Senior.
"Batshit!" echoed Cally.
Michael O'Neal, Sr., looked at the wet, orange-scented armor in his hands and shook his damp head. "What the hell else is going to go wrong today?" he asked with a slightly hysterical laugh.
* * *
The team leader pressed the fingers of his hand into his forehead, as if to press in an idea. There were no safe houses nearby where the team could to go to ground. Even if the lander did not land on them, the team would surely be stopped, the vehicles might be commandeered by the local response teams. And then the shit would well and truly hit the fan. Their hastily prepared covers would not survive investigation.
There was only one possible path to obscurity.
"Turn around," he snarled to the driver. The monk obeyed without a word, swerving right and spinning the over-powered van into a fishtail. "Go to the O'Neal house." He pulled out his cell phone for the second time in an hour.
* * *
Papa O'Neal had the local weather radio turned up loud as he and Cally battened down the hatches. There was a protocol for a landing, one that they had not been able to perform for their unexpected visitors. Shutters were closed across the windows, even the ones that had cracked at the sonic boom. The horses were brought into the barn. The cows could fend for themselves. Circuits were rechecked, ammunition was laid out, spare weapons were set up to hand.
The phone ringing was almost drowned out by the radio, the automated voice now chanting a mantra of landing warnings. But Cally heard it and ran to pick it up.
"Hello?" she said.
"Miss Cally O'Neal?" asked a faintly accented voice.
"May I speak to Mr. Michael O'Neal, Senior?"
"May I ask who's calling?"
"Recent visitors," said the voice with a note of faint humor.
"Oh. Hang on." She ran outside and clamped the cordless phone against her side. "Granpa!" she shouted.
He looked up, startled, from where he was fixing one of the defective firing circuits.
She waved the phone overhead vigorously. "He'll be here in a second," she said to the "recent visitor."
There was a pause as they waited for the senior O'Neal to trot up the hill. Cally could hear a background of a growling engine. Their visitors appeared to be in a hurry.
"Might I ask a question?" asked the accented voice in the interim.
"How to say it? The other visitor. He appeared to be . . ."
"Ah. That would explain it." The voice sounded somehow satisfied with the answer.
"Here's Grandpa. Bye."
She covered the mouthpiece again and smiled. "Our visitors seem to be coming back to tea."
"Oh, shit," said O'Neal, Sr., shaking his head. "Be careful what you ask for."
"This is one of your recent visitors. We find ourselves somewhat at a disadvantage . . ."
"Come ahead. Put the vehicles in the garage. I'll move the truck out so there's room. And hurry. If our friends get here before you I'm activating the minefield and you're on your own."
"Of course. We're nearly there."
In the distance there was a thump of artillery and a rattle of machine-gun fire. The Posleen lander had managed to land squarely between the Fifty-Third Infantry, defending Rabun Gap, and the main positions of the supporting Tennessee Volunteers. And only two miles from the entrance to the O'Neal valley. In all likelihood they would bypass the small entrance to the valley. The turn was deliberately obscure.
On the other hand, the way the day had been going . . .
* * *
Papa O'Neal rotated a shoulder to get the armor seated better. Either it had picked up ten pounds of water in the cleaning, or he was getting too old for this shit. He smiled at the black-masked commando coming up the walkway and held out his hand. "Mike O'Neal. And you are? I didn't quite catch the name before."
"Call me Raphael," said the team leader. He took the proffered hand as his team hurried up behind him. The "white-suits" were following them. Although the black-suited commandos were armed, the white-suits were unarmed and without armor.
"You want to outfit them?" asked Papa O'Neal, gesturing with his chin at the white-suits.
"It would be fairly pointless," said "Raphael." "I doubt they could hit the side of a mountain. But if you have some little hidey-hole it would be perfect."
"Well, can't say as I'm sorry you came back," admitted Papa O'Neal. "We can do with the extra firepower if the Posleen come up here." He gestured towards the house and started walking.
"I take comfort in the fact that we are not the only ones assailed by these visitors," said the visitor dryly. "Surely we are not forsaken by God if they also land upon the Muslim."
* * *
Lieutenant Mashood Farmazan sighed as he gazed down at the enemy host through the ancient Zeiss binoculars. The Posleen group was a remnant of the mass that had descended upon Turkmenistan. The force had slashed through the impoverished country, spreading out from their landing around devastated Chardzhou and destroying every unit thrown against them. The force that was marching towards the Iranian border was still tens of thousands strong and had cut a bloody swath through Bagram-Ali and Mary following the Old Silk Road. Fellow forces had leveled ancient Buchara and now pressed storied Tashkent. This force was presumably headed for Teheran and the riches it hoarded.
He would like to say that this was as far as they were going. The terrain at this pass through the Koppeh Dagh was very favorable for stopping their advance. However, he was the commander and sole officer of the single understrength battalion that now stood between the Posleen and the Fars plateau.
The unit was part of the First Armored Division, the Immortals. The division traced its roots to the fabled days of the Medes and Cyrus. It had, however, fallen upon hard times since the days of the Shah. The current regime seemed to question the integrity of a unit that traced its genesis to Zoroaster.
But the predecessors of the division had blooded their teeth repeatedly on barbarian invaders in these very mountains. Smart barbarians took the long way around through Pulichatum and up the flank of the Dasht-e-Kavir to capture Mashad. Or to the north to the passes along the Caspian. Only very stupid barbarians came through the little village of Bajgiran. Up through the serpentine Bajgiran Pass. Through the easily defended pass.
Since this was a well-known fact, the majority of the division, along with two other regular infantry divisions, was assembled outside Mashad. Reserve divisions and the Islamic Guard were assembling around Gorgan. Mazandaran might be lost but the enemy would be stopped well short of Quramshar.
The only unit available to defend the inconsequential Bajgiran pass was a "battalion" of clap-trap M-60s from the days of the Shah. The total number of working tanks was less than a company and those were held together with baling wire. And a single unprepossessing, politically unconnected, overly intellectual officer to command what was a battalion in name only. Such were the defenders of Bajgiran.
The village nestled in the high mountain valley behind him. A typical village of the uplands, the green winter rye was just starting to sprout on the fields and a stream chuckled between the fields and a large stand of poplars. The village itself was a huddle of ancient mud and brick houses nestled at the base of the soaring gray mountains, with a few more modern structures scattered among them. Even these dated back to the heydays of the '70s. Nothing much ever changed in the upland villages.
Roads were paved or cobbled, then faded back into dirt tracks. Empires waxed and waned, power structures rose and fell in distant Teheran or Isfahan or Tashkent, whichever owned them at the time. But the muezzin called the faithful to prayer five times a day, regardless. And the goats ate the sparse grasses of the mountains, regardless. And the snows of winter came, regardless. And the occasional invader came through, regardless. Then the fields would be uprooted by battle until a new tax collector was appointed. And life, for most, would go on.
Lieutenant Farmazan had had the most difficult time persuading the local mullah that such was not the case with this invader. He had shown the old man pictures from distant stars. They had been dismissed as fairy tales. He had shown him the edicts of the revolutionary counsel, requiring evacuation in the face of the oncoming horde. They had been dismissed with a long exposition on the Koran and the inconsequence of mortal rulers. He had shown him videos from distant America where battles ranged on land, air and sea. A well-known place of perfidy was the response. Such could only be expected in such a Gomorrah. Finally, nearly tearing his hair out, the lieutenant had invoked the demon Tamerlane.
At this dread name the stern old mullah had blanched. The Mongol invader had reduced the fabled Aryan empire of old to a shadow of its former self, killing every single lord, leader, official or member of the intelligentsia. The only Persians that were left after Tamerlane swept through the country were the peasants. And most of them had been killed or enslaved.
After hearing further descriptions and having the similarities pointed out, the mullah relented. With histrionic wailing and gnashing of teeth he had begun chivvying the poor farmers and artisans of the remote town out of their houses and down the long road towards distant Mashad. The last forlorn figure was still visible at the final turn of the plateau as the terrible host on the plains hove into view.
The lieutenant had been able to scratch up a few artillery pieces and some rounds to go with them. The artillery was laughable, mostly ancient 105mm cannons. The guns were dated at the time of the last Pahlavi. They harked back to lend-lease from the United States during World War II. Along with them were some dilapidated British five-pounders. The sturdy cannon were the mainstay of British artillery for decades but were now so antiquated that most countries considered them museum pieces. None of the weapons would be allowed in any real army. The tubes were practically worn to bare metal and the trunnions could crack at any moment.
With this scratch force of half-trained conscripts, antiquated weapons, limited ammunition and short rations he was supposed to stop an alien army that had cut through half a dozen Turkmen brigades. He hoped that they might turn to the north where the remnant of the Turkmen army was digging in to defend Ashkabad. They might, but somehow he doubted it. His luck just didn't seem to be falling that way.
He supposed it could be worse, although how he was unsure. As he thought that, fine flakes of snow began to fall on the arid, gray, rock-strewn mountains. He sighed. Was there anyone in the world more accursed than he?
* * *
Pham Mi shook his head and took the rifle out of the young recruit's hand. He quickly disassembled the venerable AK-47 and shook his head. The militia recruit hung his head in shame as the veteran pointed to the rust on the bolt.
"Stupid child," snapped the scarred Pham. He hit the young man on the head with the extracted bolt. "You may wish to die, but your comrades wish to live. Clean this, then join the women digging the positions."
It had been years since Pham had fired a shot in anger. Many, many years. He had not been in the Democratic Army during either the defense against China or the incursion into Cambodia. However, as the leader of the People's Militia for his village it was his responsibility to slow the advancing enemy as much as possible. The leadership did not expect him to stop them. However, the actions of all the aroused People's Militias would definitely hamper the enemy. They had hamstrung the enemies of the People again and again. This was their thousand-year history. And this day would be no different.
A hundred women from the village were working on the slit trenches and bunkers while the men of the militia worked on their weapons and equipment. He had to snort at that. Most of the weapons were antiques, relics of the great struggle against the French and the Yankees. The equipment, however—the boots, backpacks, ammunition harnesses and uniforms—were all American.
The equipment was used, assuredly, and much of the material in the crates and crates the militia received was damaged beyond repair. There was much, however, that was not. Only the Americans would be so spendthrift as to throw away perfectly good equipment. And only the Americans would be so strange as to give it to a former enemy for free.
In addition, there were several crates of excellent American mines. The weapons were familiar as an old friend; he had cut his teeth in the militia removing such from the American lines for later reuse. This was actually the first time he had seen them packaged for shipping and he marveled at the interlaced packaging. The Americans apparently expected them to be shipped in a hurricane.
With the weapons, ammunition, equipment and, especially, claymores and "Bouncing Bettys" the People's Militia would seriously sting the enemy. The force from the small-scale landing would undoubtedly make it past the large-scale ambush. And, despite the rhetoric of the local commissar, they would take Dak Tho. But the militia would continue to sting them. And sting. Until they were no more. It was the least they could do. America had its own problems; they would not be coming to help. Humorous as that would be. To wish for a battalion of the "puking chicken" soldiers to drop from the sky. Truly humorous.
* * *
"Oh, this is truly humorous!" snapped Sharon O'Neal.
"What've you got, mum?" asked Michaels over the radio.
Sharon shook her head inside the bubble helmet of the battle suit and snarled, "The clamps on Number Four launcher are bent!"
The fast frigates had never been designed for war. But human ingenuity had managed to work around some of the problems. The answer in this case was external Missile/Launch Pod Assembly systems for antimatter armed and driven missiles; the frigates could fit six of the big box launchers, each of which stored four missiles. However, because the frigates also lacked storage space, there was only room for two extra M/LPAs, and attaching them meant that a team had to go out of the ship, presumably in the midst of a battle.
Despite careful husbanding of the weapons, Captain Weston had finally used up all twenty-four missiles. Although there were still occasional emergences, she had determined that it was worth the risk to try attaching the spare stores. Which was why Sharon, two human techs and an Indowy were EVA with a box launcher. And a warped clamp.
Michaels studied the picture of the clamp in the monitor. "We've got a spare that will work, mum."
"No," snapped Commander O'Neal. "We'll shift to Number Five."
"We lost the feed to Five, mum," Michaels reminded her.
Sharon shook her head and snarled at the tiredness that was clouding her thinking. Even with the near miraculous Provigil, combat fatigue crept up on you. She had to remind herself from time to time that she wasn't functioning at top form, even if she thought she was.
"We reloaded Three," she said. "Two and Six are gone." The blast from the Posleen nuke had been too close. It was probably what had done the damage to the current launcher. If it had exploded forward of the ship, where the deflector screen still was not fixed, instead of under it, the entire crew would already be talking to the angels.
"And we're getting intermittent faults from Three, mum," Michaels finished. "I think it's repair the bloody thing or go with one launcher."
Sharon nodded. She knew her preference but it was really a decision for the captain. As long as they were EVA, the team was sitting ducks. "Captain Weston?" she asked, knowing the AID would switch channels.
"I was listening," answered Weston, her voice raspy from hours of giving commands. Sharon winced at the fatigue in the officer's voice. They all were on a thin string. "We need all the launchers, Commander. Sorry."
"That's fine, ma'am," answered Sharon. "That was my call as well. Bosun?"
"I'll break the clamps out of stores, mum."
"We'll get started on getting these removed." She shook her head again. Working EVA was hard under any condition; working EVA with the specter of suddenly being a target was for the birds.
It was a sight she never expected to see with her naked eyes, and one she expected she would never see again, as the Posleen Battle Dodecahedron translated out of hyperspace. The tear in reality caused localized energy buildups that caused distortion of the stars behind it, so the ship seemed to almost appear out of "cloak," with a ripple like water. The surface of the ship sparkled for a moment more with static electricity discharges and then it was there, fully emerged and seemingly close enough to touch.
"Emergence," yelled the sensor tech, startled out of a fatigued half doze. "Angle two-nine-four, mark five!" His eyes bulged at the distance reading. "Four thousand meters!"
"Lock-on," called Tactical, the weapons tracking lidar and sub-space detectors locking onto the gigantic signal.
"Fire," snapped Captain Weston, automatically. Then her eyes flew wide open. "Belay that order!"
But it was an eternity too late. The weapons tech had been on duty for eighteen straight hours and fire orders were a reaction that bypassed the brain. His thumb had already flipped up the safety cover and depressed the switch.
A pyrotechnic gas generator fired as the clamps holding the missile flew open. The gas pushed the eighteen-foot weapon far enough away from the ship that it was safe for it to kick in its inertial thrusters and antimatter conversion rocket.
Safe for the ship. But not safe for the weapon installation team. Or the pod of antimatter missiles they were installing.