The White House, Washington, DC, United States of America, Sol III
0526 EDT October 11th, 2004 ad
"Mr. President, it's time to leave," said the chief of the Secret Service Detail.
Thomas Edwards stared at the view-screen on the wall of the Situation Room. The occasional flickers of red across Fairfax County were getting closer and closer to the Fairfax Parkway. A solid bar represented the advancing Posleen chasing the remnants of Ninth and Tenth Corps up U.S. 28. He assumed that once they reached U.S. 29 and I-66 they would turn east towards D.C. and the nearest bridges. Unless the scattered forces could outrun the Posleen to the bridges, none of them would survive.
He had watched Monsoon Thunder. He knew all about retreats under fire. And ignominious defeat. He had been sure that those well-supplied and prepared corps could face the Posleen and live. All of his advisors had been sure. And he and they had been wrong. Completely and totally wrong. And it had led to the worst military disaster in American history.
And that was not the worst of it.
The view-screen also showed that the roads were packed with refugees. Most of them were in Alexandria or almost across the Potomac, but the distance between them and the enemy was reducing on a minute-by-minute basis. Soon the first reports of refugee columns overrun by the Posleen would come in. And he could do nothing about it.
"I'm sorry," he whispered to himself.
"Shit happens, Mr. President," said an unexpected voice.
The President looked at the doorway. The Secret Service chief was accompanied by Marine Captain Hadcraft, commander of the Guard Force. The hulking combat armor seemed totally out of place in the White House.
"Shit like this doesn't happen," snapped the President. "Not here. Not to us."
"What? You thought because this was Earth it would be different?" asked the captain with a faint note of scorn. "Well, welcome to our world, sir."
The President turned his chair to look fully at the Marine, who was being glared at by the Detail chief. Since the Marines were really loaners from the Fleet, there was a certain amount of friction between them and the Secret Service, friction that contradicted tradition.
The Marines had protected the American President since the days of John Adams. They had a longer and deeper tradition of it than even the Secret Service. But the Service had always treated them as the hired help. It was the Marines who held the perimeters while the Service took the close-in Protection detail.
With the splitting of the Marines to the Fleet, the Detail had assumed that they would take over full responsibility for Presidential protection. Instead, personnel were rotated out of Fleet and detailed to the Presidential Protection Unit. And that created two rifts between the Detail and the Marines. The first had to do with cost and the second with divided loyalties.
American ACS personnel who had distinguished themselves in combat on Barwhon and Diess and had good records could apply for placement to the PPU. The cycle was two years and it was, blessedly, out of combat.
On acceptance, the troopers would be sent, along with their suits, back to Earth. After a brief "refresher" course at Parris Island, they were sworn in as United States Marines, outfitted with new Marine Dress Blues and sent to D.C.
Then they could chase the girls, or boys as the case might be, turn their noses up at the garritroopers of the Old Guard and generally start to decompress.
However, they were still Fleet personnel. The suits and personnel were actually on loan from the Fleet. And the Federation did not cut the United States any slack on the cost. The reason that the American President, of all the chief officers in the world, was the only one that had a full company of guardian ACS was that they were horrendously expensive. The suits cost nearly a half billion credits apiece and were amortized by the Darhel over twenty years. Add to that the inflated Fleet Strike salary levels and the monthly cost for the company was nearly as much as a division of regular troops.
Then there was the problem of divided loyalty. The Fleet did not in fact require a person to renounce their citizenship, but had a strong sentiment against nationalism. And Fleet oaths were overriding. Under the laws of the Federation, the Marines were still under Fleet orders and answered only to the Fleet, just like any other ACS unit.
The Marines knew better. Some of them had applied to get away from Barwhon, where the hell of battle in the swamp ate away at the soul day by day. But most were there because they were, at heart, Americans and proud to defend the country's chief executive. But the incredible cost of the unit and its ambiguous loyalty was a cancer that ate at the Detail.
The President thought about all of that as he contemplated the Marine captain. The captain was the holder of the Silver Star and the Fleet Cross. The Star was an award retained by the Fleet in deference to the heavy American influence. The Cross was the equivalent of the Distinguished Service Cross.
No one had been so openly scornful of him in months. It just didn't happen to a President. On the other hand, this was a Marine who had "seen the elephant". He was entitled.
"Yeah," husked the President. His smooth, well-trained voice was gone after hours of talking. He had been awake for nearly thirty-six hours and felt like a week-dead corpse. "Yeah," he repeated, clearing his throat. "I did. Everybody told me that the terrain and the situation was right. It was just a matter of trying."
The suits, in deference to their position, displayed the seal of the President when in noncombat mode. But with the faceted helmet on, a seal revealed no emotion. The only hint was in the tone. "As I said, welcome to our world, Mr. President. We come back here to "The World" and listen to the commentators and bunker generals talk about how 'mobile warfare' and 'focal terrain' will defeat the Posleen. And we laugh. And get drunk.
"ACS troopers get drunk and stoned a lot, Mr. President. 'Cause we're always the ones who clean up the battlefields after the generals fuck us. And after all the fucked-up calls on Barwhon, this one takes the cake."
President Edwards held a hand up to the Detail chief, who was about to explode. "So. What do you think I should do? Resign?"
"No," said Hadcraft in a firm tone. "Running doesn't get you anything but a blade in the back. Another lesson of Barwhon. If you have to, you have to. But for what it's worth, I think you should stay. And I'll say that in public. But you'd better learn fast. This kind of mistake can only happen once."
The President nodded his head. "So it's time to leave?"
"Yes, Mr. President," said the Detail chief, with a final glare at the Marine.
"Where are we going?" asked the chief executive disinterestedly.
"Camp David, Mr. President," said the Detail chief.
"But there's a teensy problem," noted the Marine. There was a note of grim humor in his voice.
"We can't stay here. Because of all the bridges, General Horner won't guarantee that there won't be a crossing. But we've had landings all over, Mr. President," noted the Detail chief with a harried sigh. "We just had another one in Pennsylvania. So, I don't feel that moving you is absolutely secure."
"And don't forget," noted the captain in a wry voice. "There's a division between here and there. And some of them might not be as forgiving of presidential errors as I am."
The President held up his hand again to the Detail chief. "So, what's the answer?"
"Put you in a suit," answered Hadcraft.
The President blinked rapidly in surprise. "I thought that only one person could wear a suit."
"Well," said the Marine, turning his hands palm up. "There's a long story there."
"Make it short," said the President.
"Okay," sighed the captain. He walked over and sat on the edge of the conference table without asking permission. The President noted that crumbs from the secretary of defense's last meal danced off the table top and hung momentarily in the air. He finally realized that the suit's antigravity system must have activated to reduce the impact of the half-ton suit on the relatively fragile table.
"The first thing is, suits are fitted to a person," said the captain. "And once they've been 'hardened' to that shape, it takes an act of God, or at least an Indowy master-craftsman, to get 'em changed. That's why we try to make sure that people are gonna stay generally the same shape before we fit 'em. You can change slowly over time, that's okay. The suit will adjust itself to a slow change. But sudden weight gain is really bad. So is loss. The underlayer can expand and contract itself a fair amount, though, so generally we're okay.
"But somebody can put on another person's suit. If they are generally the same shape."
"I take it that I'm generally the same shape as someone in the Unit?" asked the President, dryly.
The suit was silent for a moment. The President was sure that if he could see the face of the officer it would show a certain amount of chagrin.
"It's not something that we talk about, sir," Hadcraft continued, reluctantly then stopped.
The suit finally did the palm-up gesture again. The President realized that it might be the only gesture open to a combat suit user. "More than half of the Unit is chosen on the basis of the physiology of the sitting President. We always realized that if the shit hit the fan we'd want the protectee in armor."
"Oh." The President looked at the Detail chief, who was trying hard to hide a stunned expression. "Well, Agent Rohrbach?"
The Secret Service officer shook his head. "You guys planned this?"
"Hey, Agent," said the Marine with a grim chuckle, " 'expect victory and plan for defeat' is the only way to survive on Barwhon. So, yeah, we planned this. Believe it or not we take our responsibility to the Pres very Goddamn seriously."
The suit did not change position an iota, but something told the Secret Service agent he was being regarded. He nodded in acceptance of that important point.
"Anyway," continued the Marine after a moment, "we've got an open suit. Sergeant Martinez was on leave and won't make it back anytime soon. Home of record is Los Angeles."
"I take it that Sergeant Martinez is my size," said the slight President with a chuckle.
"Yeah," answered the captain. "That ain't the other problem."
"So what is the other problem?"
"Well, there's two more. One major and the other minor."
"Tell me the major first," said Rohrbach, humorlessly.
"Okay. The way these things work is that they 'read' our nervous signals. It generally takes about thirty hours for them to get fully worked in. And the program that drives the pseudonerves is an autonomous AID that picks up not only our neural signals but also our 'personality.' And it's built off of a completely different algorithm than the AID's," the Marine continued, pointing at the President's AID on the desktop. "So the 'gestalt' is capable of taking over control of the suit if the human inside is injured and doing all sorts of things that an AID would be constrained against. Like, surgery, combat, all sorts of things."
"Hold it," said the Detail chief. "You mean there's a self-directing computer in there with some sort of 'personality'? How is it going to react to the President being in there?"
"What," asked Hadcraft in a tired, cynical voice, "you want to truck him through a landing in one of your fuckin' Suburbans?"
"Wait," said the President. "Just stop. Captain, can we . . . talk to this personality? Tell it what's happening? Reason with it?"
"Yes, probably and I don't know. You see, we don't even notice the gestalt. The thing is us. Do you carry on a conversation with your spleen?" he asked rhetorically.
"So you're going to try to talk to it before I try it on?"
"Yes, sir. And if we think it's too dangerous, we won't proceed," he continued, more to the Detail chief than to the President.
The President held up his hand to forestall the protest of the Detail chief and nodded his head. "Okay, we'll try it. I agree that wandering around in a Suburban given the situation is not a good idea. You mentioned there was one more minor problem?"
"Uh, yeah," said the Marine, with a chagrined tone.
* * *
Roselita Martinez was apparently a very angry woman. If there was such a thing as ESP, President Edwards was experiencing it. The rage of the suit transmitted up a link that was supposed to be unnoticeable two-way communication. The reason for the gestalt's rage was ambiguous. It missed its proper user. It hated Posleen. It hated "brass" and had one in its belly. But it loved the protectee. It adored the protectee. It had to protect the protectee. It was very confused. It was very angry. It was very, very angry.
"Mr. President," said the captain. The voice sounded odd, incredibly crisp and relieved of all background noise by the transmission technology.
The President tried to turn his head against the enveloping jelly in the helmet. He could barely move against it, but the viewpoint of the helmet shifted wildly as he struggled against the Jell-O. The way it flew around was dizzying.
"Mr. President," said the captain again, grabbing the suit and turning it. The President finally got the viewpoint settled down and focused on the officer. The view was cluttered by dozens of indecipherable readouts. "Just keep looking forward and walk carefully. If the viewpoint starts shifting all over just look forward and close your eyes."
"There's all sorts of readouts," the President said, closing his eyes as the viewpoint started to swivel again.
"AID, tell the suit to clear the view and reduce sensitivity to view shift by fifty percent," said the captain. "Sir, we don't have time to get you trained to the suit. We have to leave."
"Okay," said the President, fighting against the waves of anger flooding through him. He took a deep breath. "Okay, let's go." He started to shake his head and was stopped by the gel of the underlayer. The viewpoint nonetheless shifted side to side. How anyone got used to this insane device was a mystery to him.