The Tennessee Volunteers had thus far failed to live up to their name. The landing was small, only a single lander. That meant no more than six hundred Posleen, probably closer to four hundred. But the force had gone one way and run into the unVolunteers. Then it had recoiled the other way and run into the Rabun Gap defenses. Now it was milling around more or less at the head of O'Neal's Hollow. And the first trace of entering scouts had appeared on the sensors.
"That was how you knew," said "Raphael" quietly, watching the sensors.
"Yeah. You guys made a signature like a rocket." Papa O'Neal chuckled.
"Hmm." The special action team leader nodded. "My fellows are confused by your granddaughter. They don't know what to make of her."
"Well," said O'Neal, dryly, "it's more what she makes of them."
* * *
"You ever use one of these?" Cally asked the black-masked commando, gesturing at the General Electric mini-gun. Since she would be handling the demo, putting one of the commandos on the 7.62mm Gatling freed Grandpa up to handle overall actions.
At his negative head shake she touched a control. "That arms it," she said as the barrel advanced with a whine. "Butterfly triggers just like a Ma-Deuce, but the safety is on the side." She pointed to the appropriate button then released it. "Other than that it works just like a hose. Fires eight thousand rounds a minute. Looks sort of like a laser going downrange. Just walk the fire onto the enemy." She stood on tiptoes to look out the slot of the bunker but declined to fire. The Posleen weren't in sight yet and they still might just go away.
The commando nodded and stepped forward. He carefully put the safety back on and advanced the barrels again. A single round flew out and dropped into an open blue plastic fifty-five–gallon drum.
"Keeps you from getting awash in brass," said Cally, gesturing to the huge box of ammunition under the weapon. "It'll only catch 'em on a narrow traverse, but it helps."
The commando nodded again and looked out the slit.
Cally tapped her foot a few times and rotated her shoulders to relieve the chafing of the armor. It was a lot more comfortable when it was dry. "You sure don't talk much."
The mask turned towards her and brown eyes regarded blue. He cleared his throat. "We kin talk," was all he said.
The accent was faint, but completely different from the team leader's. Cally nodded and put that and a few other facts together. "Can I ask you one thing?" she asked.
"Can I see your left hand?"
The head of the commando tilted slightly to the side but then he pulled the thin black Nomex glove off his hand. He held it up for a brief inspection, rotating it so that she could get a good look and then waggling his fingers. He obviously thought it a silly question. He put the glove back on.
Cally glanced at the hand and smiled. When he was done with his little pantomime she looked him straight in the eye and made the Sign of the Cross.
As the commando's eyes flew wide she smiled again, turned and left the bunker without a word.
* * *
"Oh, this is truly good!" snarled Monsignor O'Reilly, reading the missive on his Palm Pilot.
The message was written in Attic Greek, encrypted half a dozen ways, and used code phrases. The message was, nonetheless, clear.
"What?" asked Paul, looking up from the card game he was engaged in with the Indowy. The Himmit stealth ship was in two hundred feet of water in Hudson Bay. And the Indowy had explained that it would stay there until the majority of the Posleen were destroyed and clear areas declared. Himmit would risk much on occasion, but they believed that discretion was better than valor.
"Our team is trapped at the O'Neal farm!" he snarled.
"Calmly, Nathan, calmly," soothed the Indowy. "The O'Neals are an inventive clan. The team will be well taken care of."
"Bit of a turnabout for the books." Paul smiled, taking a card off the stack on the table. He grimaced. "Your move." The cards were difficult to read in the odd blue-green light. This Himmit ship, unlike some, had never been converted for human use.
The table was too low and the bench he sat on was designed to be used by lying on a hairy belly. The air was thin, the gravity too heavy and the lighting set to Himmit norm, which meant that it was mainly in shades of violet invisible to human eyes. The result was an odd blue-green that made everything look as if it was under deep water. There were odd sounds at the edge of hearing; the Himmit communicated in hypercompressed squeaks that were barely in the human audible range. There were strange chemical smells and occasional odd slurping noises. All together it was one of the most uncomfortable environments the widely traveled des Jardins had experienced.
Aelool looked to the Monsignor, who finally gave a resigned gesture. "It is not as if there haven't been breaches before," the little alien said.
"Hmm," said the Monsignor, irritably. "But there are reporters swarming nearly as thick as the Posleen. There are already reports that there is a well-defended farm near the landing. And the local commander says that the reason they haven't attacked Posleen yet is to see how the farm fairs. He says he's afraid of hitting the farm with friendly-fire, but it sounds more like he trusts the O'Neals to take care of the attack. One old man and a young girl up against a Posleen company?!"
Paul smiled sardonically. "Well, they are Irish, no?"
Nathan's eyelids dropped, giving him a sleepy look and he stared at des Jardins's back. "This is a small ship, Paul, and the lighting is really getting on my nerves. Don't push it."
* * *
"We gotta push it, sir," said Captain O'Neal, looking into the Virtual infinity of data. He was in a trance of data assimilation as graphs and maps cascaded past. The data included snippets of live video from the front lines, where reporters were finally encountering the enemy firsthand.
In many cases the locations of advancing Posleen had to be assumed. Here a company not responding, there a transmission suddenly cut off. But the picture was firming up. The battalion was still well short of the District while the Posleen were well into Fairfax County and nearly over the border into Arlington. They had spread up to the Potomac on the north side and were moving rapidly down the Beltway towards the crossing to the east of Arlington.
The movement was unconscious, but it was creating a pocket in the Arlington area. All the survivors were being pushed towards the downtown D.C. bridges, just as General Horner had anticipated.
"Agreed, Captain," responded the acting battalion commander. "Any more suggestions?"
"No, sir. Not at this time." The movement of the canisters was as fast as the AIDs could handle the information load. Not only did each suit have to be controlled, but the overall load had to be balanced among all the suits. The current speed of an average of eighty miles per hour was the fastest they could do. The alternative, exiting the containers and running, would be even slower. The maximum sustainable speed for suits was about forty miles per hour, if the roads were open.
The roads, however, were packed with military units and refugees. First Army was finally getting its combat power concentrated, with units flooding into the area of the Potomac from all over the northeast. Like the units of Ninth and Tenth Corps, most of the forces were undertrained and their equipment was in pitiful shape. But with any luck they would be fighting from fixed positions.
Mike glanced at the exterior view and his eyes narrowed. Somebody had had a rush of sense, and the lead units were mostly artillery. By the time they were in contact, there would be a mass of artillery available. Command and control, however, was spotty.
"But I'll figure something out. I'll get back to you soon, sir."
"Okay, Captain. We need a good plan if this is going to succeed."
"Roger, sir. Shelly," he continued, looking back at the feeds. "What are you getting from D.C.?"
"It's a bit of a dog's breakfast, sir," responded the AID.
Mike smiled. The device had been getting more and more attuned to human interaction, even starting to use some slang.
"There's a mishmash of units," she continued. "Some of them are ordered there, like the engineers that are rigging the bridges and the One-Oh-Fifth I-D. But most of them are from Ninth and Tenth Corps."
"Any sign of leadership?"
"There are small units that are coherent. But nothing over a company."
"Hmm. Bring up an appropriate scenario. Assume the Posleen take a bridge intact." If the Posleen did not take a bridge, the battalion could wait for Eighth Corps to get its act together, then cross the river at leisure to sting the Posleen. It was only if one of D.C.'s bridges fell that time would be critical.
"Is there a scenario in the can for this?" Mike thought there was, but there were so many developed "games" scenarios it was impossible to keep track.
"Bridge over the River Die," responded the AID. "On the basis of probable Posleen numbers at contact and probable friendly support I would recommend responses for difficulty level six."
"Yeah," whispered the officer, reading the scenario as it scrolled down the left of his heads-up view. He remembered it now. He had gamed it at least three times. It wasn't one of his favorites, but it had some interesting surprises. The similarities to the current situation were remarkable. Even the buildings were similar; the writer of the scenario had clearly envisioned Washington as a target. That was not in the description and Mike had never noticed the similarities. But it was obvious now. "Who wrote it?"
"A teenager in Fredericksburg. Thomas Sunday, Junior."
"Oh. Damn." Fredericksburg was, of course, gone. What a waste of a good mind. The writer had obviously had a good grasp of suit tactics. Losing him this early in the game sucked. "Shit happens. Shelly, can this one. Set it to level eight. Now, what are we missing for an eighth-level response?"
"Command and Staff. A level of response of that difficulty requires everything to hit the ground running perfectly."
"What's the first and most obvious lack? Take them in order downward."
"Artillery command and control. We do not have a Fire-Support Team."
"Right. Who do we have in the battalion with significant fire control experience?"
"Besides yourself?" she asked dryly.
Mike rolled his eyes at the ceiling. Save me from an AID with a sense of humor. "Besides me."
"There are four NCOs in the battalion with fire control experience and one lieutenant."
"Who's the lieutenant?"
"Lieutenant Arnold, your mortar pl—"
"Pass," he said. "I want Arnold right where he is." In case he has to take over from Nightingale.
"Then one of the four NCO's."
"Who is senior?"
"An E-6 in Bravo Company. Staff Sergeant Duncan."
Mike wrinkled his face in the flexible gel. He was unable to place the name in his own company's roster. And, as far as he knew, with the exception of Sergeant Brook in the Mortar platoon none of Bravo's NCOs had ever been in fire control. "The name rings a bell," he continued, "but not from Bravo Company."
"He joined Bravo Company while you were on leave."
Mike thought about the roster for a moment and grimaced. "Gimme Gunny Pappas."
The AID chirped after a moment and the Gunny's voice came over. "Yessir?"
"This new NCO that joined while I was on leave . . ."
"Yeah. Let me guess. He got put in charge of Second Squad of Second Platoon."
"Yup. Only squad without a staff sergeant. Wasn't much I could do."
"Agreed. So, how is Stewart taking it?"
"Fairly well. Duncan's a real experienced NCO as you know. Generally he lets Stewart continue to run the squad and helps Boggy with training. Stewart's actually started to pump him for information and support. They work well together."
"Hold it," Mike said after digesting this. " 'As I would know'? Is this Bob Duncan?"
"Yeah. Sorry, boss, I assumed you'd know." The Old Man was damn near omniscient normally. "Shelly didn't tell you?"
"No. Damn. Shelly, bring Sergeant Duncan in on this conversation."
"Yes, sir." After a moment there was another chirp of connecting circuits.
"Captain O'Neal?" asked the quiet voice.
"Duncan! Who the hell let you into my company?" Mike snapped in a serious voice.
There was a pause. "Well," responded the quiet baritone, "they wanted me to take a commission as a captain. They said there was this really screwed-up company that needed straightening out. I told 'em I wanted to infiltrate it first as an NCO. And here I am."
Mike and the first sergeant both chuckled. "Like I said," said Pappas. "He's a real screwball."
"Yeah," said Mike with a smile in his voice. "I've noticed that before." He thought about the situation for a moment. He had some of the best experience in the battalion in the three way at the moment. He thought about bringing in Sergeant Bogdanovich, but she was undoubtedly busy with her platoon. There were four other combat veterans that he knew of in the battalion, but none of them were officers. From the point of view of suggestions, this was as good as it got.
"We've got a bit of a FUBAR situation in D.C." He ran over the outline of what they could expect. "There's combat power to spare. But nobody has any sort of decent control and most of the line units have just been through a rout. The first problem on Shelly's list was artillery support. We don't have a Fire Support Team. And the automated system has been taken off-line. We need someone to coordinate artillery support."
"Me," stated Duncan.
"Right. If I had a FIST captain, it would be him. We don't. So it's you."
"Is the arty gonna go for that?" asked the first sergeant. It was a realistic question. Duncan would effectively be ordering artillery battalions. Colonels do not normally listen to sergeants.
"I'll take care of that," said Mike. "Shelly, send General Horner an e-mail. Tell him we are assuming control of the defense of the bridges of D.C. under Standing Regulations for the interaction of Federation and Local forces."
"Oh, shit," whispered Duncan.
"Did you just say what I think you said?" asked Gunny Pappas in an incredulous voice.
"Yep. We now own the forces in D.C.," said O'Neal in a definite voice. He suddenly realized that Major Givens might have liked to be informed. He had just sent a message to an Army General telling him that a lowly battalion, commanded by a major, was taking command of one of his Armies. If it was anyone but Jack Horner it would be impossible, whatever the standing orders. "Shelly, slug this plan to him so he understands what we're doing."
"Are they going to listen?" asked Duncan.
"That is where you come in. The first order will be to reestablish the automated fire control network. The AIDs will stomp any virus they find so security won't be an issue. Get that up. After that, we will have control. Without direct orders to the contrary, the cannon cockers will follow the computer guidance. And the computers will follow our orders."
"Then what?" asked Duncan. He knew his own AID would be taking in the details.
"The next problem is Command. We are short three of four combat company commanders."
"Pass. Nightingale can carry the company," said O'Neal. Lord, hear my prayer. "Same for Alpha's XO. We'll use Bravo for the shock company and Alpha and Charlie for support."
"This scenario will require all three line companies to interact perfectly," the AID demurred.
"If needs be, I'll take direct command of the suits. Start preparing a program to lead every trooper in Alpha and Charlie by the hand. We can slug them to replicate the actions of Bravo troops. That will give us three times the firepower for each Bravo shooter. Delta's Reapers will be under control of fire-support. They won't be a problem. Next."
"Captain, I cannot handle the entire communications strategy!" the AID responded. The tone was almost hysterical. "There are too many variables."
"Define the problem," Duncan interjected.
"We will require the support of forces in the area to accomplish the mission," his own AID responded, unexpectedly. The device had a slightly different voice than Shelly, more of a contralto. "Captain O'Neal, you yourself specified level eight difficulty. Given that, we will need the majority of the forces in the area for base of fire. We will need a complete fire control network. We will need communications to higher headquarters for logistical support. And we will need to maintain communications intelligence monitoring. We AIDs cannot handle all of that alone. We will be heavily tasked to maintain local coordination. Especially if you have to take direct suit command."
"Agreed. Okay, okay." Mike suddenly wished he could scratch his head. Inside the pod he couldn't even pop the helmet; there was no room. "Pass for right now. Next."
"That's it," answered Shelly. "With the forces in the area or approaching it we will have the force necessary to retake and destroy any two bridges that are no more than six miles apart."
"Okay. Duncan, Pappas, I'm open to suggestions on the communications problem."
"Debbie," said Duncan, "how are you planning on communicating out of the battalion? That is, who are you planning on talking to?"
"We would normally communicate with the local commander. However, there isn't a local commander. The units are fragments." Suddenly on all three screens a map of the area around the Washington Mall popped up. It was scattered with dots and blobs of all the colors of the rainbow. There was little or no rhyme or reason to the colors. "Each of the different colors represents a unit which has made it to D.C. It is based on a spectrum of units from each of the divisions involved. Therefore, units that are from vaguely similar units would have vaguely similar colors."
Mike made an okay sign with his hand. It was the body signal the ACS had developed to replace nodding the head. "Okay. Nice picture."
"And of course," he continued, "that's not what's there. These units are randomly mixed."
"Correct. A complete higgledy-piggledy. A mishmash. A hodgepodge . . ."
"Yes, thank you. We get the picture. So that is the communications problem. You'd be required to find the frequency of each unit and broadcast to it."
"Correct. We actually have the frequencies of all the units that have communicated. However, there are others that are not communicating at all. They might not even have radios."
"Are they all at the Mall?" Duncan asked.
"Many of them are," Shelly answered. "It is a prime destination. The units from Ninth Corps are trying to find transport to their bases. Tenth Corps units are just lost.
"Christ," muttered Gunny Pappas. "What a rat-fuck."
"Dantren," Duncan said, cryptically.
"Yeah," Mike agreed. "Remarkable how the Posleen keep doing this to us." The first expeditionary force to Diess had had its mobile units trapped by advancing Posleen in an Indowy megascraper. The siege had been lifted by then-Lieutenant O'Neal's platoon. In that case the hard-hit American and British units had been reduced to scattered squads.
"What about artillery?" asked Duncan, taking a closer look at the unit data on the screen. Most of the units seemed to be from front-line combat forces.
"Artillery and Service and Support units generally have stayed together better," answered Shelly. "Although many of them have crossed farther upriver, those that were caught in the Arlington pocket have mostly crossed the river and are assembling in the area of Chevy Chase and Rock Creek Park. The remnants of Ninth Corps's Artillery are actually assembling at the Chevy Chase Country Club."
The first sergeant snorted. "Hate to see the bill for that."
"Yeah," snorted O'Neal. "Anybody sends me a bill, I'll tell 'em to stick it where the monkey put the peanut. Duncan."
"This is going to hinge on fire-support. Get with those units. Get them to not just assemble but get ready to fire."
"Yes, sir," he said dubiously.
"If you get any guff, call General Horner, directly," Mike said definitely.
"Okay," Duncan answered in the same tone.
"Start setting up some commo with those units on the mall. Figure out a scheme for assembly and get them assembling. Get the units you can cajole to start making signs for assembly areas. Use the color scheme you've already got."
"Try to put some spine into them. We're going to have to get support. Remind everyone and anyone that if the Posleen cross the Potomac, we'll be running all the way to the goddamn Susquehanna."
"Ask your AID for help."
"Not a problem, sir."
"Okay. Good." Mike desperately wished he could rub his face. "Okay, Shelly. Anything else."
"Just one thing," she responded.
"This scenario will require forces that are willing to stand and fight. That is not a normal characteristic of routed forces."
"Well," said Mike softly. "We'll just have to hope that the survivors were not just the ones with the fastest horses, but also the best aim."