Lieutenant Ryan was not lost. It was impossible to be lost on the Washington Mall. You always knew right where you were. What he did not know was where he and his platoon were supposed to be.
After Occoquan the platoon had been unable to find anyone in their chain of command. The trucks that had brought the rifle company to replace them had left immediately. Without transportation they had walked northward, hopping the occasional ride. Their target had been Belvoir; however, just short of their goal they were directed away by MPs and told to join the bits and tatters of units headed for Washington. They eventually found transportation but the bus drivers had no better idea of where they were supposed to be than anyone else.
By default they had ended up on the Mall. Most of the remnants of Ninth and Tenth Corps were there, electronic intelligence units without divisions, mess halls without battalions, the occasional artillery or infantry unit that had made it out of the rat-fuck to the south. There was no attempt at organization; units set up wherever they stopped.
Lieutenant Ryan parked the platoon near the D.C. War Memorial and sent Sergeant Leo out on a scrounging mission, hoping that he'd actually come back. The sergeant had and reported that anything anyone wanted was available, for a price. Since nobody had orders to release anything, the only way to get it was black market. There had been one mess hall that had set up, but it had run out of food in no time. Now it was cash on the barrelhead or go hungry.
However, Leo also reported that engineer units were on their way to rig the bridges for demolition. When they showed up the platoon might be able to attach themselves and at least get some rations.
Lieutenant Ryan passed around the hat for donations. After that was unsuccessful he and Sergeant Leo shook down each of the engineer privates individually. This time Lieutenant Ryan left Leo with the platoon and went out on his own. While he fully recognized that the older soldier could probably negotiate a better deal, that assumed that he came back with the rations.
Their combined two hundred dollars was enough to secure two cases of MREs. His Academy ring got them a heated tray meal. Water was still flowing in the city so that was no problem. As the platoon shared a tray of lasagna, the lieutenant pointed out that it was better than Ranger School. Within a day or so they should be able to find a unit to attach to so the food only had to last that long. Sergeant Leo pointed out that he had managed to avoid Ranger School at least three times.
* * *
The approaching sounds of battle had drawn many of the insanely curious towards the Potomac. But Lieutenant Ryan had drifted that way in hopes of finding the engineers who were sure to be rigging the Arlington Bridge. The MPs who were holding back the curious let him through without comment when they saw the engineer tab. He could see figures moving carefully along the bridge, stringing wire. It looked like about a platoon of engineers, and he knew he was almost home. There was a single figure leaning on a Humvee supervising the activity. Lieutenant Ryan walked up to him and saluted.
"Ryan, sir. Second Lieutenant, Corps of Engineers," he said to the officer.
The officer was a short, broad colonel smoking a cigar. He looked the lieutenant up and down for a moment and then took the cigar out of his mouth. "What can I do for you, Lieutenant?"
"Sir, my platoon apparently has been lost by higher. We were deployed from Belvoir and couldn't get back in. We're out of rations and don't know where to report." The young officer paused as if unsure how to go on. "I don't know what to do, sir. I'm not even through the basic course!" he ended on a rising note. He caught himself as he almost began to babble. Just because things were a little fucked-up was no reason for an academy graduate to lose control. It could always be worse.
The colonel took another puff on his cigar and regarded him evenly. "Where were you?"
"No," said the colonel, flicking an ash. "Which bridge were you blowing? That's what all the Belvoir Boys were doing, right?"
"Oh. Yes, sir. My platoon was tasked with the Virginia 123 bridge at . . ."
"Yes, sir," the lieutenant finished lamely. "How'd you know?"
The colonel finally let a smile violate his face. "You're the 'Lost Platoon,' Lieutenant."
"Where's the rest of your unit, Lieutenant?" asked the officer without answering either query.
"Back on the Mall," said the thoroughly confused lieutenant.
"Well, I'd offer you my Humvee, but you're just going to have to walk a little longer. Go find them and tell them to get their asses over here. I've got to get on the radio."
"Yes, sir," said the lieutenant. The colonel saluted in dismissal and the tired and still confused lieutenant started trudging back to the platoon's bivouac.
* * *
"Castle Six this is Castle Five, over."
The officer who leaned in and snagged the microphone ahead of his RTO was a mountain. Nearly seven feet tall and proportionately broad, his uniforms required custom-tailoring from raw material. The crew-served M-60 machine gun slung across his back looked like a toy. "Castle Five, this is Six actual, over." The voice was a deep, rich bass.
"Six, we found the 'Lost Platoon', over."
The ebony face creased in a broad smile and the general gave a thumbs-up to the distant and unseeing colonel. "Great! which one was it?"
"Well, the West Point Society is going to be pleased as punch to hear that."
The smile in the distant officer's voice was evident. "Only the cream, boss."
"Well, only the stuff that rises to the top," corrected the general, a graduate of a 'lesser' school. "How's it going otherwise?"
"Pretty well. I'm gonna have to put those poor kids to work one more time, but we'll be ready."
"Roger. We're about done laying in the champagne."
"Sorry I'm gonna miss the party."
"So'm I. But we all must have the occasional sacrifice. Good luck, Tom. Out here."
* * *
The general looked around and smiled. Most of the forces that had been sent out to mine the bridges over the Occoquan had come back immediately. They had then been sent back out in a less harum-scarum fashion to prepare other sites for demolition and to establish fighting points. After those tasks were complete they again returned to their base at Fort Belvoir.
With the destruction of Ninth and Tenth Corps the general had put his personal plan for Ragnarok into place. The ammunition dumps of Fort Belvoir, filled once again for the training of recruits, had disgorged an amazing variety of explosives and mines.
Since he had at his disposal the equivalent of a brigade of Army Combat Engineers, he was determined that the Posleen would have a very hot reception. On the other hand, he was no fool and had no intention of being a hero. The force of trainees and their instructors were put to work turning Belvoir into mechanical hell.
Mining and booby-trapping is a matter of art. The point is not just to kill the enemy, but to frighten and shock them. Simple overwhelming force is usually the best bet. But with all the munitions and time available to them, the general felt that the "Home of the Engineers" could do a little better than that.
He dug out a computer program a nasty-minded engineer had come up with and tried it out. The program was called "Perfect Hell" and was a minefield design aid. It created a fiendish series of concentric self-activating fields. The purpose was to first suck a force in, then thoroughly trap it. Feed in an inventory of available materials and personnel and it spit out a design and a timetable.
He had run the available parameters and almost choked on the solution. It turned Belvoir into a nightmarish set of mine nets. The nice part about it was that it designed with the Posleen in mind. They could drive their forces right across the mine zone, but it would cost them thousands and thousands of "troops" to clear it that way. Of course, if he had to come back and take it out it would not be pretty. But that was another bridge.
He'd started the installation and the brigade had worked like demons. However, as each section was completed he sent the trainees down to the fort's marina, where they were ferried across the Potomac.
* * *
He now waited with a few remaining senior officers and NCOs. For the last hour they had talked about old times and watched the monitors that had been scattered along U.S. 1. He was currently outside getting a breath of air. But at a yell from inside the boat house he strode back in rapidly.
"They're in sight," said the Belvoir operations officer. The colonel was leaning forward, hand on the shoulder of the tech managing the monitors.
The general grabbed the back of the colonel's battle dress uniform and pulled him gently back. "You can't make 'em come on any faster. And that's practically the only private we've got. She's more important than any three of us."
The colonel shook himself and laughed deprecatingly. "Sorry, soldier," he said.
The tech nodded with a smile and switched screens. The new screen was from a sensor ball placed on the sign at the main entrance. The mine fields started just on the other side of the sign. The staff officers leaned forward like spectators waiting for a crash and the general had to laugh. The operations officer was actually washing his hands in anticipation.
"Sir," said Belvoir's sergeant major, keeping one eye on the screen, "I made a little foray on the officers' bar." The sergeant major held up two bottles of Moët & Chandon. "I thought we might want to toast the first blast. Or something."
The general laughed again. These guys were really getting into the spirit. "Sure, why not," he said then turned back to the screen at a gentle "Shit" from the operations officer.
The mass of Posleen on the screen had stopped. A single Posleen was forward of the rest and it had stopped cold fifty meters in front of the Main Post welcome sign. The mass of Posleen behind it was not a single company but thousands. They had been concentrating on the drive up the U.S. highway and now milled in front of the sign, shuffling back and forth and fidgeting.
A God King came forward and then another. Their alien saucers were drifting from side to side constantly, apparently to make it harder for snipers. Several of them gathered in front of the sign and appeared to engage in an argument. Slowly the saucers stopped moving back and forth as alien teeth were bared and crests lifted and fluffed.
Another one came forward, finally, who apparently was senior. This God King took one look at the sign and backed away. Much further away. It then called the other God Kings over and continued the discussion. Another argument ensued which was finally cut off by the senior God King. At his gesture most of the God Kings and their forces simply turned around and trotted back to the south away from the facility.
One leader was left with a single company. He watched the others retreat, then took a last glance over his shoulder and headed after them.
* * *
The jury-rigged control room in the boathouse was filled with stunned silence. The general leaned forward and tapped the tech on the shoulder. "Switch to U.S. 1 north," he said quietly.
There another force was trotting, a single company in the lead without a "point" individual. The God King was close to the front in the midst of the company and others were visible farther up the road. The company trotted down U.S. 1 to the main entrance and swung in. However, just as it neared the MP Post, which was where the booby traps started on this side, it too stopped, piling up in its haste. The God King came forward for a brief look and his crest went straight up in the air. He appeared to shout something and lifted his saucer out of ground-effect. Before the regular Posleen of his company could even get turned around, their leader was back on U.S. 1 and accelerating to the north.
The general was never sure where the laughter started. Some said it was the sergeant major. Some said it was the female technician's infectious giggle that set it off. Some insisted it was the deep, bass laugh of the United States Army's Engineer. Whoever started it, it turned out to be impossible to stop for nearly ten minutes as monitor after monitor showed untouched Posleen units in full retreat.
For years afterwards, in the midst of the worst of news, the few lucky souls who were in that control room could look at one another in brief encounters and crack the other up by a simple widening of the eye or a gesture of a crest lifted in total fear. Utter, total and abject fear. Of a twin-turreted castle. Of "Fort Belvoir, Home of the Engineer." Of the Sapper.