Keren frowned as he tapped out a cancer stick. He lit the Pall Mall with a butane lighter and leaned back in the comfortable driver's seat of the Suburban. He had the plotting table balanced on the steering wheel, a fresh cup of really lousy coffee and a cigarette. It was as good as it got. Of course, that wasn't all that good.
"Those'll kill you," said Elgars in a quiet voice. She snapped the freshly cleaned AIW back together and gestured for him to pass over the pack. "Gimme."
Keren snorted and fished the pack back out.
Elgars looked for a car lighter but the Suburban had only an empty socket marked "12-Volt Power." The vehicle also had no ashtray and a cute little trash hamper now stuffed to overflowing with Meals Ready To Eat wrappers. Keren passed her the lighter and she lit the cigarette and propped her feet up where the windshield used to be.
"So," she said, getting her weapon laid across her lap just so. "What happens now?" She took a deep pull on the unfiltered cigarette and coughed wrackingly. "Aw, Jesus! That's awful!"
Keren blew out a cloud of blue smoke and laughed again. "Yeah, ain't it. Well, in a while the horses are gonna show up. And they'll call for fire," he said, gesturing towards the hilltop. "I've set up all the probable avenues of approach on this." He tapped the mortar plotting board. "When they call for fire, I'll tell the guns. They shoot the mortars, the bad guys die. Everybody who matters is happy."
"Uh-huh," said the soldier who had fought her way out of two bloody defeats. "And when the yellow bastards just keep coming?"
Keren took another puff, blew it out and propped one boot up in the shattered driver's window. "Well, then it gets interesting."
* * *
"Mortars, what's your callsign?"
Keren picked up the handset. "Golf One One."
"Golf One One, this is Third Regiment fire control. Adjust fire, over."
Keren shook his head and snorted.
"What?" Elgars asked, picking up her rifle. She had fallen into a cat nap in the fifteen minutes or so they had been waiting.
"Hang on," he chuckled and composed his voice. "Roger, Third Regiment, adjust fire, out." He unkeyed the mike and snorted again. "They wanted to know our callsign, which is used to keep the 'enemy' from knowing what unit is calling. But they sent their own unit in the clear."
"Oh," she said and frowned. It was obvious she didn't think it was important.
"Elgars, everybody in an infantry unit should know correct radio procedure. It's basic infantry training. But they don't. What does that tell you?"
"Oh," she said again and nodded. "They don't know shit?" she guessed.
"Yeaaah," said Keren, nodding. "Makes this real damn interesting, don't it?"
"Uhmmm," the radio said and was silent again. "Golf . . ." It went silent again.
"One One," offered Keren. "Or just say, 'mortars.' "
"Golf One One, fire mission, over."
"The Posleen are at the intersection of Washington and Fifty. And there's more by the annex."
Keren shook his head. The humor, though, was gone.
"What?" said Elgars.
Keren keyed the radio. "Roger, stand by." He spun the plotting board: "Could you try to find something called 'The Annex' on that map, please?" he asked Elgars.
He picked up the microphone for the gun frequency as she said, "There's something called the Navy Annex. It's over by the Pentagon."
"Guns. Deflection two seven three seven, elevation eleven hundred, charge three. Four rounds." He dropped the radio and spun the board again. "Where by the Pentagon?"
* * *
The Posleen normal stared up at the symbol. It was not one of the familiar ones. There was the crossed projectile weapons; they were familiar and easy to deal with. There was the two-turreted building of the military technicians. There were orders to avoid that symbol at all times. This was a new one. It appeared to be picture of a world with some device on it and rope around the device. Perhaps it was a symbol of a group that chained the world. The normal looked over its shoulder towards its God King. That worthy ordered it to open the doors with a gesture of its crocodilian head.
* * *
C-9 was an atomic catalyst explosive. The President's Marine Guard Force had easy and unquestioned access to Galactic weaponry and explosives. They also were veterans of Barwhon and Diess. Since they were well aware that the Posleen first looted, then destroyed, most of the buildings they captured, they saw no reason not to advance the timetable. Well, the destruction timetable. And there was a whole lot of tradition attached to Henderson Hall. So there was no damn reason at all to give it to the horses. It just wasn't a Marine "thing."
* * *
Keren had discovered that there weren't many safer places than under the steering column of a Chevy Suburban. So when the white flash to his left transferred palpable heat to his skin, he dove for the floorboards.
The shockwaves from the series of triphammer micronuclear explosions rolled the Suburban over onto its top then back up onto its springs. Shaken, Keren took a moment to compose himself and make sure that the worst was over, then dragged himself up into his seat and looked to the south.
From the area where the Pentagon had been faintly visible a pall of smoke was rising. The trees across Arlington Hill had been stripped of most of their fall leaves and the tops of some of the southerly ones were sheared off. Several fires had started on the south edge of the hill.
He did a quick inventory to check the damage. One of the PRC-2000s, the one set to support the regiment, was smashed. The other had apparently jammed under one of the seats and physically survived. He'd check to see if it still transmitted in a minute.
The interior of the vehicle was trashed. All the personal gear that had accumulated in the back along with half-eaten meals, open drinks and other debris had been thoroughly mixed. On the other hand, it wasn't much worse than it had been before the explosion. There had been less spaghetti sauce on the royal blue headliner. But not much less.
Elgars was apparently alive. The soldier was braced against the door cradling her left wrist with an expression of agony on her face.
First things first. Elgars wasn't dripping blood, so finding out if they still had wheels was paramount. Keren turned the key and after a couple of cranks the engine caught. There was some blue smoke but all the gauges dropped into the green and the engine kept running. He cautiously put the Suburban into gear, but the grinding sounds were no worse than they had been.
He looked over at Elgars. "Broken or just sprained?" he asked.
"Broken, I think," she said through clenched teeth.
He nodded his head. "Hang tight for a couple of minutes." The last question was whether the radio would key. The blasts had looked like nukes, which meant Electro-Magnetic Pulse. EMP was supposed to destroy all electronics. But the truck had started, which came as a surprise. Now if the radio had just survived.
"Guns, you there?" he asked.
"Roger, FDC. What the fuck was that?" asked the sergeant from One Gun.
"Dunno," answered Keren. "Can anybody see any of the bridges?"
"Yeah," answered Three Gun. "I can see the Arlington Bridge. It's still up."
"Okay, I gotta switch freqs. I'll be right back. Is everybody okay?"
"We're here," answered One Gun.
"For a while," Three added.
Keren switched frequencies to the regiment's and set the remaining radio for ease of switching back and forth. "Regiment, this is Mortars, over." No response. He turned to Elgars. "Hang on a sec." He crawled into the back of the vehicle and started turning over the mass of rucksacks, clothing, candy wrappers and sleeping gear. After a few moments' search he found a medic's kit he had picked up on the retreat. In it, as expected, was an inflatable splint. A few moment's later he had Elgars' wrist splinted and was back on the radio.
"Regiment, this is Mortars, over." He unkeyed the radio and took a deep breath. The fires on the hill were getting worse, the small blazes joining and catching the dry grasses of the graveyard. A few of the trees on the south side were smoldering as well. If it spread much farther they were going to have to leave, good timing or not.
"Mortars, this is regiment," came another voice. The previous caller had clearly been young and extremely confused. This was an older voice, full of assurance.
"Regiment, we have fires spreading towards our position. We will have to move soon. Do you need fire, over?"
The bleak humor of the responder was clear. "Mortars, we need a hell of a lot more support than you can give us. What's your ammo situation, over?"
Keren didn't know who this person was, but it was a completely different cat than the colonel in command. "Not so hot. We've got about fifty mortar rounds a track left and we're about out of Ma deuce."
"Roger." There was a pause. "Gimme a volley of twenty rounds of variable time per gun on the big twisty intersection right by the Marine Memorial. Seems the Marines didn't rig that for some strange reason. It's grid 1762-8974 if you're using a military map."
Keren's face split in a grin. "Roger. But who the fuck is this?"
"Major Cummings. I'm the S-3."
"Well, Major, nice to talk to a professional for a change. Stand by."
* * *
"Yeah, likewise mortars," said Major Alfred Cummings, lowering the radio. Not that it was going to matter. Alpha Company was heavily engaged by the Posleen mass coming down from the north. In Andatha this would have been the time for a shower of artillery, cluster ammunition for preference. What really pissed him off was that he knew there were artillery units in range, but he didn't have the frequencies or codes to call for fire. Just another cock-up.
The post was supposed to be a sinecure. A comfortable unit for a company commander who had seen just a little too much combat. He and a few NCOs were there to add a tone of reality to the purely ceremonial guard force.
But now it was a different beast. The colonel had decided to make this stupid stand. Naturally, when the C-9 went off and the pressure went on, he didn't make the grade. Major Cummings had hated polluting this holy ground with that coward's blood, but he was sure the ghosts would approve. Some of the boys had run into the coffins as they dug in. Most were intact, but a few had spilled. He told them to dig on, dig on. The soldiers, sailors and Marines who were buried on this hill would have no argument with a little jostling. They understood.
And that boy on the radio had understood. The major could tell. That was a good troop. He smiled as he heard the crump of the mortars firing in the background. Only two tracks, which was a shame. Mortars were hell on the yellow devils.
"Sir," said Sergeant First Class Smale. "Them's mostly through Alpha Company. Bravo an' Charlie's holdin', and thems that's gonna stays from Delta, they's up at the Tomb."
"But we're being flanked."
"Should we pull out?" he asked. It wasn't much of a test, the sergeant was another veteran.
"Nah, Major. Whut's da fuckin' point? Landin's right and left. Might as well die here as anywhere. Better than fuckin' Andatha." The NCO turned to the side and spat.
"Yep. But no reason to take everyone with us."
* * *
"Golf One One, this is Echo Niner Four, over."
Keren picked up the mike as he carefully watched the hill to his west. "Golf One One, over." It was the S-3 by the voice.
"Golf One One, the explosions from the complex slowed the tourists down on that side. However, we are being pushed back to the north. We anticipate losing the bridge shortly. I recommend that you move out on completion of the fire mission."
Keren smiled and his eyes misted slightly. "Roger, Echo Niner-Four." He wondered how to ask the next question. "Will we have company?"
The smile on the radio was evident. "Not unless you're slow and our out of town visitors catch up. I think this is all the farther I'm gonna go."
Keren nodded. "Well, there are worse places."
"Roger, that, Golf, and I've been to most of them. Looks like only one to go."
Keren smiled. "Roger, Echo. See you there. Golf One One out." He flipped frequencies. "Can you still use your rifle?" he asked Elgars. The private was white-faced with pain, but had the weapon trained towards the fire to the north.
"Yeah. When the hell are we getting out of here?" As she asked that there was a large but distant explosion to the southeast. "And what the hell was that?"
"Probably a bridge going. And we need to be across one before we're the main course." He keyed the mike again. "One Gun, how many left on that volley?"
"Just about done. We sort of lost track."
"That was the last."
"Roger. Button up and do the boogie. We've been waved off by the Regiment." At the words the Three Gun track jerked to life. The driver apparently did not think it necessary to take the gun out of action. Keren had never turned the Suburban off, so he put it into gear as well. One Gun still wasn't moving.
"One Gun, you mobile?"
"Roger." The track spat one more spiteful round skyward and lurched into movement. "We're outta here."
"Let's just hope the engineers know we're coming," whispered Elgars pessimistically.