"How the hell do you guys get used to this?" asked Captain O'Neal, fighting down the nausea as the OH-58 Kiowa banked past Harper's Ferry and dropped down to follow Interstate 70 towards Baltimore. The road was packed with military vehicles, most of them at a standstill.
"Get used to what?" asked the pilot, keeping a close eye out for wires. The requirement to stay below one hundred feet was nerve wracking. You never knew where some stupid electric company was going to stick their lines. And half the time it seemed like they weren't on the damn chart.
"Never mind," muttered Mike, wishing he was back in a suit. Even the interface using a set of Milspecs was limited. He craved the total immersion of the suit like the drug it was. But he had other things to worry about right now.
He leaned back in the seat of the small helicopter and let the information flowing from the Virtual Reality glasses sink in. The interstates were completely overloaded, as were the side streets. But the mission was to get the battalion to D.C. before the Posleen. There seemed to be no way, but that was an illusion.
Back under the hammer of necessity, doubts and fears started to fall away. "Impossible" was a word that left his vocabulary as the information started flooding through his synapses. The Posleen had torn his world apart and ended the Golden Age he had grown up in. Such a species would not be permitted to continue to live, breathe and breed. Earth was their last stop. He nodded his head as the final piece of the plan fell into place and keyed the AID.
"Shelly, get me Major Givens." It was time to start the dance.
* * *
Bob Givens was an experienced officer. Therefore, he knew that what he was in the grip of was a classic military disaster, not a nightmare. There was a simple difference. You woke up from nightmares.
"I know, Sergeant Clarke. I agree," he said to the battalion operations NCO. The sergeant first class was one of the few battalion staff NCOs that was not scattered to the four winds. And the NCO had a legitimate complaint. The tasking from Continental Army Command was clearly impossible. The roads were packed with military units scrambling in every direction and refugees heading for the hills. Getting to Washington in anything under twenty hours would be a miracle. "But those are the orders."
"How in hell does General Horner expect us to perform them, sir? Did he give a hint?"
"No, but we'll have to figure something out."
"I'll start getting transportation laid on," said the NCO. "But I'm damned if I know how it's going to cut through the traffic jams."
"Major Givens," chirped his AID. "Incoming call from Captain O'Neal."
Givens's shoulders slumped. He shouldn't be ashamed of his delight that the captain had finally initiated communication. The colonel had told him that if O'Neal made it back he would be taking over operations while Givens took command. And God knew he needed all the help he could get. There was only one company commander present and half the first sergeants were still out. There were no other battalion staff officers. He was just about to shanghai senior lieutenants from the companies to take up some of the administrative slack. Having a captain back would be a bonus even if it weren't O'Neal. But it was. And although Givens was an experienced and capable field-grade officer, he still had a germ of hope that the doughty captain would have thought of a miracle.
He picked up the AID and decided that humor would be the best approach. "Dammit O'Neal, where the hell have you been," he said with a smile in his voice.
O'Neal's mind felt like a whirring machine and he neither acknowledged the humorous greeting nor misunderstood it. "I've been fighting my way up I-81, Major, just like the Eleventh Division."
"Good to have you back. Where are you?"
"In a Kiowa headed up I-70. I'm planning on meeting you in Baltimore."
"Well, you'll probably get there before we do."
"Yes, sir. But not long before you do."
"I estimate that it will take us nearly twelve hours to get there through the traffic, Captain. Sergeant Clarke is calling for trucks right now."
"Trucks, sir?" said O'Neal in a bad Hispanic accent. "We don' need no stinkin' trucks."
* * *
The command track lurched to a halt and the following MP Humvee drove up to the man standing by the side of the road. The vehicle commander dismounted and saluted the boyish-looking colonel. "Colonel Cutprice?" he asked. The BDU uniform had only rank insignia, no nametag, no United States Ground Force identifier.
"Yes," answered the colonel, shortly. He had spent two weeks going through rejuv processes and he was still sore as hell. And cooling his heels with the rest of the officer "heroes" while they watched "The Jig and The Kraut" screw things to hell had been worse. In all honesty it did not seem to be Taylor and Horner's fault things had come apart so badly. They had inherited most of the problems and had been working to remedy them. But the vision of those fine boys being slaughtered through bad strategy and lack of training had been hard to take. It was goddamn Korea all over again. And Kasserine. And Bull Run. And the Somme for that matter. The goddamn Perfumed Princes just never ever seemed to learn.
"The general would like to speak to you," said the MP, leading the way to the back of the track and opening the door.
Horner was sitting in front of a video communicator smiling like a tiger. The colonel the smile was directed at was not enjoying the call.
"Colonel, when you receive orders from those units they will take priority over any other orders below the level of this command. Is that clear?"
"Sir . . ." the colonel started to respond.
"Goddamnit I asked if that was clear!" Horner shouted, finally losing his normally placid temper. "If I do not get a straight answer I will have an MP unit over there so fast it will make your head swim! I have a half a dozen colonels loading ammunition and driving trucks! Do you want to join them?"
"No, sir, but . . ."
"Yes or no?"
"Yes, sir," said the recalcitrant colonel. "I'll pass on those orders."
"Good, now get off my monitor," snarled the harassed general. He swung around and pinned Cutprice with a glare.
The colonel, however, had been glared at by the best of them, and it washed off him like dew. He stood at attention and looked six inches over the general's head. "Colonel Cutprice, reporting as ordered."
Horner looked at him for a moment and spun around again. He rummaged in a desk and came out with a small medal. "Take this," he said, tossing it to the colonel. "Wear it."
The device in question was a blue field with a rifle on it. Around the field was a wreath and it was surmounted by two stars. The Combat Infantryman's Badge signified that the holder had been in infantry combat; actual firefights where people were trying to kill you and you were doing your best to "do-unto-them" first. The stars signified that the combat had occurred over the course of three wars. There were very few people breathing entitled to wear one.
"Stand at ease, damnit," snapped the general. "I heard you weren't even wearing a goddamn nametag. So I acquired that for you. Do you feel like you need anything else?"
"No sir," said Cutprice quietly. He shifted his feet shoulder width apart and looked at the general, as the command allowed. The door behind him opened and closed again and someone came up beside him and came to attention as well.
"Sergeant Major Wacleva, reporting as ordered, sir," said the soldier. Cutprice gave the individual a quick glance. He was a short, skinny young man with sergeant major's stripes on his collar. Given his apparent age he had to be a rejuv and he looked faintly familiar.
"At ease, rest even, both of you," said Horner shaking his head. "I think you've met."
"Have we?" asked Cutprice.
The sergeant major just smiled, extracted a pack of Pall Malls and tapped one out. With a flick of a lighter the room was filled with the pungent odor of unfiltered cigarette. "Yeah," he answered in a surprisingly deep voice. It was almost gravelly, which was unusual for a rejuvenated individual. "We did meet. Briefly." He blew a smoke ring. And coughed.
"Oh, shit!" said Cutprice with a laugh. "You're trying for new lungs already?"
Horner just shook his head. "I want you two to get the rest of your respective groups together and get down to the Washington Mall. Most of the units that survived Lake Jackson and the rout are there. I want you to see if any of them are fit to fight. I've got an ACS unit on the way and an intact division assembling. I'm worried about the Posleen capturing a bridgehead. If they do, it will be fight or die time."
"Yes, sir," said Wacleva. "We let 'em get over the Potomac and it's gonna screw us."
Horner nodded. "The big problem will be that we probably won't be able to dislodge them before the main landings. That means all the production and control that is in this area will be lost. There's actually not that much that was vital in the area between the James and Potomac. Not that we're not going to take it back. But losing the area north of the Potomac this soon will kneecap us.
"So, go get your band of brothers," he continued with a faint, real, smile, "and get down to the Mall. Find some that have a spine left and get them organized. Get ready to use them, too. 'Cause I got a bad feeling about the Potomac."
He smiled again. "Fortunately, besides your 'band of brothers' there's another card up my sleeve."
* * *
In the dawning light O'Neal waited on the Crosby Road overpass of I-695, the Baltimore Loop. The smell of jet fuel from the departed Kiowa still filled the air when the first of the apparitions came in sight.
The armored combat suits were delivered and stored in large Galactic-supplied storage containers. The silvery "Morgues" looked like oversized shipping containers and held forty suits. They came equipped with a Federation Class Two fusion plant or antimatter generator for recharging.
The Morgues were designed for the suits to be readily accessed, each suit stored in an interior pod, the double row of pods aligned down both sides of the large container. When the troopers suited up they went into the container, tossed their uniforms in the provided laundry bin and loaded up in the pods. The struggle of naked bodies in the narrow corridor normally led to a certain amount of playful grab-ass, but it was an efficient process. The suits exited through portals in the sides of the container.
The Fleet Strike Armored Combat Suits included a full suite of inertial compensators and drivers. Given enough power, the suits could and did "fly" under the combination of compensator and drivers. The process, however, was power-intensive. A normal combat suit could only sustain about ten minutes of flight, a command suit twenty to thirty, compared to three days of use before having to recharge if conditions were perfect.
However, as stated, the Morgues had their own onboard power source. And they were designed for high-intensity charging.
* * *
Mike thought the silvery containers probably caused their fair share of accidents as they floated down the interstate. The speed was not much, not more than seventy or eighty miles per hour, but it had permitted the battalion to cover the distance from Harrisburg to Baltimore in an hour. And it would permit them to continue on to D.C. in no time at all—once they picked up a stray captain.
* * *
The giant boxes floated noiselessly to a halt around the overpass and began to drift downward to the roadway. The control on the way down, managed by forty AIDs in each container, was spotty and most of them dropped to the roadway with rumbles that shook the early morning air. Many of the remaining residents rushed out to see if the sound was landing Posleen. When they saw the strange and obviously alien objects scattered down the road many of them took it as a final sign that it was high time to head for the hills.
The nearest conex began to spit suits and Mike let go of a deep sigh. He had not even realized how uneasy he had been until that moment. A soldier without his unit is like a man with one arm. He was finally home.
The first suit sprinting towards him was the unmistakable outline of Gunny Pappas. He grinned wryly as the NCO slid to a halt. "What kept you, Gunny?"
"Goddamn, am I glad to see you, boss," said the NCO, quietly. "We've got a hell of a situation on our hands."
"Yeah, same here. How's the XO holding up?" he asked, almost afraid of the answer.
There was a momentary hesitation. "Lieutenant Nightingale is doing fine, sir," the NCO answered baldly.
O'Neal stopped and turned towards the NCO. He wished, not for the first time, that he could see the first sergeant's face. "Does that mean that she's marginal?"
"No," said Pappas instantly and definitively. "She's made a hell of a lot of improvement. I think she'll be fine."
"This is going to be the real deal, Top," said the captain with steel in his voice. "I can't take any chances. She'd better be ready."
"I know that, sir," answered the NCO. "She's ready. I'd say that . . . anyway. She's ready."
O'Neal tilted his head to the side and wrinkled his forehead. "Say that again?"
"She's ready, sir. She'll do fine. I'll make sure of that."
Mike had thousands of hours in and around suits. They had virtually no body language, but virtually was not the same thing as none. And the first sergeant's body language was contradicting his words. O'Neal placed both hands on his hips. "Top, what the fuck is going on?"
The gunny paused for a moment then made a negating gesture. "It doesn't affect the efficiency of the company or my analysis of Lieutenant Nightingale, sir. You gotta take my word on that."
Mike shook his head and sighed. "Okay, Gunny. I'll take you at your word." The other suits were a small security force. He wasn't sure if someone had ordered it or if the troopers had taken the responsibility themselves. "What's with that?" he asked.
"The landers are everywhere, sir," grumped the first sergeant as he gestured towards the container. The subject of whatever nonsubject they had just not discussed was obviously dropped. "We actually got jumped by a lander on our way down."
"Any casualties?" asked Captain O'Neal. He stripped quickly and unselfconsciously, tossing his gear in the bin. The stuff would get sorted out if and when.
"No, sir," said the sergeant. "We mounted sensor balls all over these things so we could see where we're going. We spotted it coming in and landed our ownselfs. The horses had a kinda hot reception."
Mike shook his head with a smile and headed for his pod. The container popped open before he even reached it and the suit was opened up like a lobster as he stepped up. "Missed me, did you?" he chuckled. He slapped Shelly into her interface slot and stepped into the future.