"Mr. President," said Captain Hadcraft, "this is stupid."
The commandeered Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle crabbed sideways as it fought its way up the road embankment. The platoon from the One Hundred Fifth Infantry Division had been reluctant to give up the vehicles. But the combination of a direct presidential order and a platoon of Armored Combat Suits had won out. Now the suits had transportation that was all-terrain to an even greater degree than the Suburbans they had started out in.
But that wasn't going to help a bit if they were overrun by an angry mob.
U.S. 29 and U.S. 50 on the north side of D.C. were being ruthlessly cleared of vehicles. Anyone who had not made it to the Beltway by this time was ordered out of their car, truck or van and the vehicle pushed to the side by dozerblade-mounted tanks. The refugees from this and the battles to the south were being trucked to parks around the Veterans' Hospital where a tent city was forming.
The Presidential Unit had been headed by the area when this came to the attention of the Commander in Chief. And he had ordered that they detour immediately.
The problem from the point of view of the Secret Service, and the Marines for that matter, was that the President's approval rating was not the highest at the moment. By a result of a direct presidential order, the United States had just lost more soldiers in a forty-eight–hour period than at any time in the last century. There was a formless anger about this that had already been observed on the still-functioning Internet. What form it had was directed at the President. Add to this the anger of people forced from their homes and it meant a good chance these people would attack the Chief Executive.
The President turned the helmet over and over in his hands and finally shook his head. "Maybe. I've never been called smart. Stubborn, yes. A pain in the ass, yes. But not smart." He looked up at the Marine officer hunched forward on the crew seat. Bradleys were never designed to accommodate combat suits and it was obvious. The squad in this one was crammed in like sardines. He looked directly at where he figured the captain's eyes would be. "But these are my people. This is part of the job. Put it to you this way; when one of your soldiers is in the hospital, do you go see him?"
The suit was unmoving, but the President imagined there was a tiny change in the set of the arms. "Yeah."
"Same deal. And sometimes they're angry at you."
The captain turned his palms up in admission.
The President turned the helmet over in his hands again, watching as the mobile gel flowed and humped. It looked like something from a bad horror movie and he was supposed to put it on his head. "I gotta see these people. If I blast past them on my run to Camp David, it'll be a slap in the face this administration might never recover from." He looked up and his face hardened. "So tell the driver to head over there."
* * *
The refugees were a milling mass. Thousands of people, individuals and families, had been transported to the area by truck and bus and dropped on the golf course. A company of MPs was futilely trying to get the people sorted out and tents erected, but by and large the people stood, sat or walked around as they wished. The MP company commander had set aside a platoon for a reaction team and they occasionally had to enter the mass to break up fights or stop incipient riots. The management was becoming more and more like dealing with prisoners of war as time went on.
The Bradleys and Suburbans of the presidential caravan swung up Arnold's Drive towards the Soldiers' Home then pulled to a stop. Because all the Marines had not been able to fit in the Bradleys and SUVs, one squad had clamped onto the outside of the fighting vehicles. These individuals dropped to the ground before the tracks had stopped turning, their grav-guns dropping into place as they searched for threats.
The milling refugees had watched the caravan approach with mingled curiosity and trepidation. The Suburbans indicated that it might be a higher government official, although the usual limousine was missing. But the armored fighting vehicles, tanks to most of those watching, were a scary reminder that the government was not always a friend. Already treated as effective prisoners by the necessities of the situation, seeing heavier firepower, and especially the half-saint/half-demon Armored Combat warriors, was a mixed blessing. When the Marines lowered their weapons, searching for an exterior threat and not thinking about the effect on the civilians, the mob surged backward.
Newsies had swarmed to the refugee camps like flies to jam. It was apparent from several of their fellows' transmissions that reporting on the Posleen advance was tantamount to suicide. That being the case, the next best press was governmental incompetence and bullying. Since the "government" had not been able to instantaneously provide food and shelter for fifteen thousand refugees, it was obviously incompetent. Along with the deaths of nearly a hundred thousand soldiers in northern Virginia, this was proving to be a scoop of legendary proportions. Or so it appeared.
In the wake of the Posleen destruction of the satellites, most standard television signals had been lost. Although cable companies were scrambling to connect their networks back up through the Internet, most people had switched to the nationally mandated broadband for their primary media link.
While the regular media still had a significant share of that market, many viewers had become savvy enough with the still-developing medium that they were seeking out their own news venues.
Major "alternative" news sources were sustaining such massive loads that servers were failing left and right. However, enough of them remained up for the viewers at home to zero in on each individual's concept of "newsworthy." For once a major war was being sent into homes virtually unfettered.
Viewers had a choice of live feeds from Inter-Vehicle Information Systems that clearly indicated where the fighting was going on, or even live video from combat suits headed to or involved in the fighting. An encounter between First Battalion Five Hundred Eighth Mobile Infantry and a small landing outside Redmond, Washington had the highest audience rating in history, surpassing even the final hours of the Battle of Fredericksburg. The fact that it occurred at primetime had something to do with it.
And the highest rated "show" for the battle was not on any of the networks. The output of a website dedicated to Armed Forces news and issues was the most common "hit" on several major search engines for "combat news." This relatively minor website had nearly sixty million simultaneous connections for the full three hours of the battle. The entire event was "commentated" by text box overlays, unit descriptions and explanatory graphics.
The "commentator" was a former Army colonel who was too old, even with regen, to have been recalled. His expert analysis was compiled by a team of communication-savvy internet geeks, then interactively viewed by over a hundred million people in the United States alone. Not only did he determine in advance the precise outcome of the battle, he was correct within two suits of the total friendly casualties. The video was enhanced with audio clips from the battle and erudite commentary on the similarity to battles ranging back to the campaigns of Sargon. Sun Tzu was frequently quoted, leading to overloads in most of the search engines that had led to the site. And their primary advertiser, which was Barrett assault rifles, experienced the largest ordering frenzy any site had ever seen. They and all their linked sales outlets immediately went into terminal overload.
But the "major media" ignored these quiet inroads on their market share and continued to concentrate on the tactics that had worked for them in the past.
So when the crowd surged back from the Marine Guards, the reporters crowded in. The screams of the hysterical refugees, already driven to the brink of despair by the loss of their homes and the possessions that they had accumulated over the years, were faithfully broadcast across the world.
The Marine captain put his hand on the President's chest as the rest of the company deployed. "Not until it's safe," he growled. The President, still holding the hated helmet, just nodded his head. The sound of the plasteel armor slamming through the troop doors and the diesel engine overrode any note from outside. But a moment later the detail chief put his head in the door.
"Sir," he said, his face tight. He was in a dilemma. The crowd was about to turn into a riot and the only person who might stop that was the President. But by the same token, doing so would be nightmarishly dangerous.
Captain Hadcraft put his hand up to his helmet, then cursed. Since he had been on speaker it was faithfully reproduced. "Sir," he said, grabbing the President by the arm, "we got another problem."
The President ducked to keep from smashing his head on the troop door. The suit was already trying to adjust to his shape and style of movement, but occasionally it interpreted his sharp, precise movements as a command to jump. Fortunately that had not happened while he was in the crew compartment with his helmet off. Now it propelled him out and down the troop ramp in a near sprawl.
As he came around the back of the AFV it was immediately apparent what the problem was. He looked back and forth for a moment from the Marines with lowered weapons to the surging crowd and the news cameras.
"Christ," he whispered, "what else is going to go wrong?"
He thought for just a moment and the capacity for rapid and effective action that had stood him in good stead in his climb up the political ladder came to the fore.
"AID, the suit can act as an amplifier, right? Like that suit unit did on Diess?"
"Okay, tell the damn Marines to raise their weapons." He dragged himself up onto the roof, unable to find the footholes he knew should be there.
He reached the top of the vehicle just as the Marines raised their weapons. He dropped the helmet, raised his hands and said, "Amplify."
"My fellow Americans!" were the words that boomed out of every suit at tremendous volume. The tornado of sound, the words and the familiar voice shocked the crowd from motion into inertia. The President put his hands on the hips of the suit and leaned forward. "I came to see what I could do to help!"
* * *
The President was in the midst of the crowd and the Secret Service was frantic. They could barely keep up with his rapidly moving suit as it shook hands and gave bone-crushing hugs. The smell of the crowd was completely different from any he had ever worked. It was not just the lack of baths. There was a stink of fear to them that was palpable along with the effect of not having latrines. Unless they got this camp under better control disease would begin breaking out. The thought of cholera and typhus in modern America was mind-boggling. Especially on the steps of a hospital.
"We're doing all we can," he said, nodding at another problem. He stopped at the sight of a mother with a sleeping child in her arms. The little boy had a large gash on the side of his head, only partially healed.
"Ma'am," said the chief executive carefully. The woman had her eyes closed, rocking back and forth. "Your son's hurt." There was no response as the woman continued rocking and the President looked over his shoulder. He didn't know what any of the suits were but surely the company had medical supplies. "Captain Hadcraft," he snapped as the Detail finally caught up with him through the press of the crowd.
"Do we have a medic?"
"You mean a corpsman, sir? No, they're not on our roster."
"Get in here," he finished, stepping towards the woman. "Ma'am?"
"Sir," cautioned Agent Rohrbach with a hand out to stop the executive as he stepped forward. The massive man reached out gently and touched the woman's arm.
The woman's eyes flew open and she hissed at the agent. "He's dead!" she spat. "Dead! Leave me alone! He's dead! Dead!"
The President and the agent both stepped back as the woman started to cry. "AID?" the President queried, "can you . . ."
"The child is not dead, sir," the device stated definitely. "His vital signs are not even bad. He does, however, appear to have some cranial damage." The sensors of the suits were better than an MRI at that range. "He is probably unconscious and in a coma. But not dead."
The crowd was pushing forward again to get a look at what was going on, and the reporters were forcing their way to the fore as Captain Hadcraft arrived. He didn't even ask a question, just stepped forward with an injector and caught both falling bodies. The mother was handed off to one of the Detail as he cradled the child to his chest and headed back to the tracks.
"Captain?" the President started to ask. The action had been so fast and smooth there had been no time for reaction and the suit was halfway back already.
"I'll take him to the VA hospital, sir. You get the situation stable."
The Commander in Chief shook his head and smiled. Having good subordinates was a treasure. The crowd was still pushing forward but there was enough room for a conversation. It would have been better to be up on something to be able to see more people and be seen but this appeared to be as good as it got.
He looked around and caught the eye of one woman who looked composed. "What do you need? Tents? They're here and more are coming. What else?" His stare was like a laser, daring her not to answer.
She looked startled for a moment then responded. "Food. Most of us have hardly any. And there are already fights over it. And we need more protection. It's like hell in here." Her eyes went wide at that and she looked around.
"Okay." He nodded. "I'm going to do something about that right now. But . . ." He looked around. He needed to address the crowd but there was no podium or stand or anything. "AID, I need to get higher."
"There is a way. I can simply lift you up on antigravity. However, it might be viewed negatively."
The President shook his head. Lifting himself up like Christ would not be a good image. "Well, I can't damn well stand on anyone's shoulders." The suit weighed half a ton and it was fully loaded with ammunition.
"If you wish I can reduce the effective weight of the suit to nearly zero. Then you could stand on Agent Rohrbach's shoulders. I also can stabilize it so that you don't fall over."
"Do it," the President said, catching Rohrbach's eye. "You heard?"
"Yep," said the burly former football player dubiously.
As he felt the weight come off, the President swarmed up on the agent's shoulders. The Detail surrounded their chief to keep the crowd from jostling him.
He looked around for a moment and decided that the only way to start was a joke. "Hi, I'm from the government and I'm here to help you!"
Some of the crowd looked nonplussed but there was actually a slight chuckle.
"Seriously," he continued, still amplified but not as loudly as the crowd stopped pushing forward. "Help is on the way. I, personally, am not leaving until it gets here. But you need to help too! There are tents over there that need setting up. I'll get more soldiers over here to help, but there's enough of you here that with a little organization you could have had them set up already.
"Food," he said and stopped. "AID?" The conversation was still amplified.
"Is there a large mess unit available that can be diverted over here? One that is close?"
"Yes, sir. The primary supply company for the Thirty-Third Division is assembled less than four miles away."
The President looked out over the crowd. "I'll get them on the move over here. And other units to the other camps. You have given to your country your whole life and now is when you get some of your own back.
"But you have to help. Work together! Take care of each other! There's a hospital right over there," he said, gesturing over his shoulder. "If there's someone who is injured, help them get there. Let the strong aid the weak until we can rebuild and repair our lives!"
"When can we go home?" a voice floated out of the crowd. There was a rumble of discontent at that.
The President's face went grim. "I didn't want most of you to have to leave! So I made the biggest screwup in American history. I am never going to do that again! When forces are assembled and prepared we'll go home. When all the units are ready. When we are damn well going to kick those Posleen bastards' asses we will go home!" The cheer that raised was faint-hearted but the best that could be expected under the circumstances. He didn't bother to mention that most of the homes would probably have been destroyed. Those that did not have mines would be first looted, then demolished by the Posleen as they converted the area to their use.
"I screwed up big time," the politician admitted. "And as soon as there's a moment's peace I am going to submit myself to the Congress for impeachment."
The shock of that statement was so great that one news cameraman actually dropped his camera and several microphones were dropped.
"But until then, I'm going to hang on. I'm in contact with Generals Horner and Taylor. I don't know if you know it, but we've totally smashed the invasion in the south, using the tactics that were planned on before the landing. General Keeton and Twelfth Corps have done a tremendous job.
"But here in northern Virginia, the battle isn't over yet. We still have random landings going on and no real force in this area. So I'll stay here until more support arrives."
At that the Detail chief on whose shoulders he was standing began to curse quietly and fluently.
"According to plan I was headed to Camp David and then to a defense bunker," he admitted, shaking his head. "But seeing this, I can see where I'm really needed. Generals Horner and Taylor can run this battle without me joggling their elbow. After we've got this area squared away I'll go to the other camps to make sure they're okay."
He looked around the sea of uplifted faces one last time as the mob seemed to drink energy from him. The group was totally mixed. There might have been a few more black faces than others, but there were white men in suits next to black laborers, Hispanics next to Orientals, Hindus shoulder to shoulder with Pakistanis. In the face of the alien horror, little differences like Shiva versus Allah were temporarily forgotten.
And all of them were looking to him for the strength to make it though the bad times. Whatever mistakes he might have made, however bad it had been and would be, he was their President and he was standing by them in need. It was nearly worth a meal.
"Now I'm going to detail my Marines to show you how to get these tents set up and latrines dug. They'll be getting people to help. Everyone is going to end up with a job. And every job is important. I've got to go get some supplies and support headed this way."
"We are Americans. Black, white, brown or yellow, we are the descendants of survivors! And we have proven again and again that we are the toughest people in the world because of it! Now is the time to prove that!" To the sounds of cheering he jumped down off the Detail chief's shoulders and shook his head.
"What a screwed-up situation," he whispered to the agent.