Keren started awake and yanked the wheel to the left as the Suburban drove off the road.
"Sorry, man," said the driver, shaking her head to wake up. He didn't even know the girl's first name; her nametag read "Elgars." She was wearing a Thirty-Third ID patch, which put her miles away from her unit. How she had made it to Lake Jackson and then out of the rat-fuck when the Ninth Corps came apart was a mystery. He had picked her up when he saw her by the side of the road with a disassembled AIW, carefully oiling the parts. It was obvious she'd decided she had had enough running.
"Where the fuck are we?" asked Keren, his voice rasping. He'd had barely three hours of sleep in the last forty-eight. The division was supposed to be supplied the new antisleep drugs but, like a lot of things, that hadn't worked out. The platoon was subsisting on caffeine. And it was starting to fail.
"We just passed the Beltway," said the female soldier in a husky contralto. "But we got a problem."
"Yeah," Keren agreed. "What else is new."
Interstate 66 was the major thoroughfare through Fairfax County, Virginia, leading into the nation's capital. The Army had maintained a stranglehold on it for the movement of troops and material until the Posleen cut through the Lake Jackson defense. Since then, between panicked civilians who would not take "no" for answer, routed units from Ninth and Tenth Corps and desertions among the MPs tasked to maintain control, the interstate had become a solid grid of fleeing vehicles.
From where they were currently parked, the roadway gave a clear picture of the surrounding secondary roads. At first the press of vehicles indicated to Keren that taking the platoon off the interstate would be no better than pressing on. But then he changed his mind. The major thoroughfares were thoroughly blocked, but many of the neighborhood roads were open.
"The good news," he whispered, "is that this is gonna slow the horses up some." He picked up the radio and extended the whip antenna out the window. "Reed, you there?" he said.
"Yep," came the response on the frequency-clipping radio.
"Looks like we gotta take to the side streets," he said, pulling out a DeLorme gazetteer. The multipage map of Virginia had repeatedly come in handy when the smaller scale tactical maps ran out. But now he needed even more detail.
"We're gonna cut the corner on Sixty-Six and head for Arlington," he said over the radio, trying to find a good route on the map. "There's bound to be some sort of units assembling around there. Reed, I want you to take the front. If there's a couple of cars blocking the way, try to push 'em out of the way with your track. If we can't push through a blockage we'll go around. We'll take to the back roads and back yards if we have to. Go through houses and buildings."
"Okay, turn off and take out the fence. I'll follow, then Three Track then One Track. Stay together but put your foot in it. The damn horses can't be far behind."
* * *
Kenallurial looked at the report and his crest stood straight up in stunned amazement.
Ardan'aath looked over his shoulder and grunted. "Apparently, the Net recognizes your worth." The senior Kessentai chuckled at the figure on his own monitor. "And mine as well."
The area surrounding Fredericksburg had been designated as "secure" by the information Net and the distributed processors were beginning the assignment of resources. How the Net decided what area was to be distributed to what Kessentai was not understood by the aliens; the technology predated their recorded history. But it was generally fair and the best way to distribute initial booty. Often, it was the only way to prevent an early descent into orna'adar, the apocalypse of post-conquest worlds.
There was even trade and wagering based on future conquests. Ardan'aath owed quite a chunk of the area he had been bequeathed to the late Aarnadaha; a matter of a wager on offspring hatched during the voyage. The debt was now void. All debts were voided by death.
"And as we take more of these lands from the thresh," said Kenallai, joining the conversation, "the amount will grow. At this rate we'll be the richest Kessentai in seven systems. You are going to need a castellaine soon."
Kenallurial flared his nostrils in agreement. His previous service as a scoutmaster had granted him a bare minimum of range. A small farm, a bit of land for hunting and a minor factory. All of them were managed through a proxy castellaine. There had been no need for the expense of one of his own with such meager resources.
The results from the last three days' work was not a minor fortune but a major one. With the income from the miles of arable land, several industrial areas and four chemical processing plants he could retire. The choice was retire or refit. Ardan'aath, for example, had the most heavily armed oolt'os in the host. He had been involved in five conquests and his only interest was the Path. That being the case, he poured his riches into outfitting his oolt'ondar and eson'antais. The result was that he took fewer casualties and was able to take more land; paying for better refitting. His entire oolt was now armed with three-millimeter railguns and the oolt of his "subordinates" were nearly as heavily armed.
Kenallurial's plan had always been to retire from the Path so that he could start a long-term genetic modification program. But he had not expected it to be so soon.
"This is amazing," he murmured, his mind awash in plans for the future. He had already begun collecting prize genetic samples from the smartest of the normals. His plan was to design a complete line of superior normals, standard Posleen nearly as intelligent and independent as God Kings. The line could fill in that fuzzy gap in labor caused by the shortage of Kenstain, the cowardly "castellaines" who were used to manage the absentee estates of the Kessentai battlemasters. The income from that prize would be enormous. Especially if his newly acquired skill in cybernetic repair transferred to even a fraction of the offspring.
The income would be enough to equip a dozen eson'antai, to go forth and conquer other worlds. And they would owe him for the equipment, as he had owed Kenallai. That debt was settled before the landing, so he was clear.
"And the greatest prize lies ahead!" Ardan'aath boomed. His crest fluffed once again, finally standing straight up in excitement.
"As long as it is not as bad as the 'prize' to the south," said Kenallurial, gloomily. But quietly also.
Kenallai rattled his crest in response.
* * *
Colonel Abrahamson led the way up the dirt ramp. The jaunty yellow scarf around his throat was dark with soot and oil, stained with human and Posleen blood. He strode with determination, but the set of his shoulders spoke of overriding fatigue.
The trailing General Keeton paused for a moment, causing a backup in the gaggle that followed him, and stamped the soft earth. The ramp, and the rest of the wall of earth along the interior side of the Richmond floodwall, was loose and uncompacted, barely useable for foot traffic. The first serious flood would wash it away but it had served its purpose and served it well.
General Keeton shook his head at the thought of all this effort disappearing in the first hard rain and continued up the slope. At the top of the ramp he looked at the wall and shook his head again. It looked chewed. The top of the smoking concrete and rebar was missing chunks and wedges, some of them leading down to the uncompacted fill. The bodies of the Sixtieth Infantry Division dead and wounded had already been removed, but the dark staining of the soil and gouges of melted soil were eloquent testimony to the casualties the division had suffered. As were the flickering fuel fires and smoking armored vehicles along the support road.
Survivors of the brigade in this, the hardest hit sector, were moving around performing all the usual after-battle chores. Ammunition parties were coming up from the trucks at the base of the wall and technicians were moving down the wall repairing or replacing manjacks. All of the soldiers staggered about like drunks, but the progress was steady.
The general walked over to stand by the cavalry officer, who had moved to the wall and now stood quietly looking out over the valley beyond. As far as the eye could see there was a carpet of dead Posleen and smashed saucers. The general leaned over and looked down. Sure enough, there was the ramp of Posleen dead he had been told about. The mass of centaurs ran for at least a hundred yards here near the Fourteenth Street gates. How many bodies were in that pile alone was impossible to calculate. Most of them had been pounded into paste by their fellows in a vain effort to surmount the fateful obstacles envisioned by John Keene.
" 'They just came at us in the same old way,' " he quoted quietly. The morning was quiet, with the exception of the distant boom of artillery targeting concentrations of the shattered enemy.
"Hmm," murmured Colonel Abrahamson in slight demurral. "The third wave was a little different. They were finally starting to use some sense, or there were more God Kings using sense than in the other attacks. They hit us while we were still headed out to them."
"That was when you lost your track?" asked the general.
"Yeah. Got a little hairy there for a bit." They had slowed the Posleen by calling for a full artillery concentration on his own position. He would go to his grave remembering the sound of One-Five-Five shrapnel pinging off his tank like steel rain while the vehicle took hit after hit from hypervelocity missiles. Why none of the missiles had penetrated the main crew compartment would remain a mystery. But he had lost his driver, six other tanks and a dozen troopers in the counterambush. The remaining Posleen had still chased them back to the Wall. That wave nearly overran the defenses, when a half million blood-mad Posleen crowded into the killing zone, taking the hammer of the guns on the chance that some of them could surmount the Wall or the obstacles along the sides. The final straw was when nearly two hundred God Kings had sailed over the Wall all along its length.
Snipers from the skyscrapers had shot through the flying roadways above the defenses or from the far side of the James while the defenders hammered the assaulting saucers. The casualties had been fierce as plasma cannon played along the berm and hypervelocity missiles slammed into the ammunition and fuel bowsers cached behind the defenses.
But in the end even that was not enough. The human defenders soaked up the charging God Kings, taking the casualties and dishing them out, supporting the fire from across the river. And the God Kings had died, one by one and in bunches. As had the forlorn normals in the pocket. And in the end the survivors stumbling out of that hell of death were less than one battalion. A paltry few hundreds of the half million that had entered the valley of death.
Keeton was of two minds how to respond. He almost sallied the Seventy-Fifth Armored to drive into them one more time and lure some back. On the other hand, the defenses were in sorry shape and the Posleen seemed to be headed back north.
Better to chase them in good time, with prepared units. For all he believed in Bedford Forrest's aphorism about "keepin' up the skeer," he also knew that facing the enemy in prepared positions was one thing; chasing them back up I-95 and U.S. 1 was another. The Eleventh MI was nearly on site. Let them go out in the open and play tag with the Posleen. That was what combat suits were designed for. He would husband his forces instead. It looked like being a long war.
"Maybe," agreed the general. "They've still got the numbers for it. And I'll worry about that if it looks like they're coming back in a serious way. And then I'll send somebody out to poke them in the snout."
"Somebody else, I hope," the colonel said, dryly.
"Somebody else," the general agreed.
"Good," said the exhausted officer. "It's about time somebody else had some fun."