The gruff but friendly colonel had left, after ensuring that Ryan's platoon of trainees was firmly attached to the local force. He had been replaced by a much more dour captain. Lieutenant Ryan felt like he'd wandered into a play in the middle of act three. The colonel and the captain seemed to communicate in some sort of code. But he could tell that the captain was not pleased to make his acquaintance. His only comment was something to the effect of points for the WPPA.
Now, Lieutenant Ryan had not been in the Army long, but he knew what the "West Point Protective Association" was. Since it was normally invoked to save the career of a West Point graduate, he had to assume that he was in deeper shit than he thought over "losing" his platoon. The good work they had done at Occoquan had been forgotten, of course, and the only thing that would be remembered was that he had wandered around the Mall all day looking for a home. It didn't seem fair but, then again, the Army rarely was. All the "atta-boys" in the world were erased with one "oh-shit."
However, whether the captain liked him or not, Ryan felt it was his duty to point a few things out to him. So he screwed up his courage and approached.
"Sir?" he said, diffidently. The captain turned from where he had been surveying the work on the Arlington Bridge. The location was perfect for getting a good overview, since the back side of the Lincoln Memorial looked directly across the bridge. It did, however, have a few down sides.
"Yes, Lieutenant Ryan?" he asked in a supercilious tone. Captain Spitman was a tall, broad officer whose black eyes were piercing.
"I was just wondering, sir," said the lieutenant, hesitantly. He cleared his throat. "This location is . . . sort of exposed." Some of the engineers on the deck had been blinded by the flashes of the Pentagon's destruction. It only highlighted how exposed the position was.
The captain's face tightened. It could just have been a question from a junior officer requesting greater knowledge, but the captain obviously took it as an attack. "And I suppose that that observation is from your mass of combat experience, Lieutenant?" he snarled.
The fact that the reaction was completely overboard was lost on the lieutenant. Ryan's first reaction, which he suppressed, was sarcastic. He wanted to say, No, it's from having my head somewhere above my waistline. The location was exposed. The first Posleen approaching the bridge would be looking right at them. And if they were even slightly on the ball they would shoot the shit out of this half-ass "command post."
But he controlled himself manfully. "No, sir. I was just wondering."
"This is the best location to control the rigging and detonation of the charges, Lieutenant. We have three separate methods of detonation leading to the command center. I would hate to have one of those out where anyone could blow up the bridge at whim. Furthermore, it permits me a clear view of approaching Posleen. Last but not least this is well beyond the standard range of engagement for Posleen forces."
The lieutenant nodded in agreement at this fatuous explanation. It immediately called to mind Law Seven of Murphy's Laws of War: If the enemy is in range, so are you. "Very well, sir. Thank you very much for that explanation. I was wondering, I have a few issues to discuss with my platoon sergeant. By your leave, sir?" He finished in a ritual request to be excused.
The captain grandly waved him away and went back to watching the last few wires being rigged into the circuit board. The bridge did indeed have three backup systems to drop it. One of the three would be guaranteed to work. Of course, they all terminated at the command post, so it was a point failure source. A minor item that had been glaringly obvious to the trainee lieutenant. A minor item that was pointed out in all the "how not to do it" parts of the manuals. But that had somehow completely escaped the engineer company commander.
* * *
"Echo Three Golf One One, this is Whiskey Four Delta One Five, over."
Keren glanced at the radio with a puzzled expression and handed the mike to Elgars as he pulled out his ANCD. The device was about to expire, and he had no idea where to find another.
The platoon had stopped on the back side of the Washington Monument mound. It put them hull-down to any Posleen at the level of the Potomac, but they were still in view of Arlington Hill. There were no more fireworks from the Hill, so he had to assume that the Old Guard major was raising one with absent companions. But, for the time being, the platoon was out of it.
They had set up with the guns ready to fire, and Keren had automatically laid them in and set up the plotting board, but now they were just resting. Eventually he was planning on finding somebody in the mass who had some idea what was going on. But for now he was content just to chill. They had done their bit and more.
So the radio call, an unknown station trying to log onto their net, was unexpected.
The ANCD listed the caller as the Fiftieth Division Artillery Fire Direction Center. But the hacking on the first day of battle made him cautious. He took the mike back from Elgars. She stepped out of the Suburban with a whispered, "Gotta go."
"Whiskey Four Delta One Five, this is Echo Three Golf One One. Authenticate Victor Charlie, over." There was no such authentication line. It was a trick.
"Golf One One, there is no such authentication, over," said the confused voice on the radio. On reflection the voice sounded a bit rote. It could be a very good voice processor and Keren was suddenly glad he had used the old trick.
"Sure there is, Delta. Figure it out or get off my net."
There was a brief silence on the radio. Keren suddenly realized that Elgars was striding steadily towards a cluster of soldiers about seventy meters in front of the platoon. From the set of her shoulders there was a problem and as he watched she drew his 9mm Beretta out of her BDU cargo pocket. He had assumed from her words that she meant to find a latrine; that was obviously incorrect. He flipped frequencies.
"Sergeant Chittock," he yelled. "get somebody out there to cover Elgars!"
The private had walked into the midst of the group and up to a beefy soldier showing the admiring crowd his .50-caliber sniper rifle. As Keren looked on in horror she placed the barrel of his Beretta on the back of the soldier's head and thumbed back the hammer. It appeared that she was about to pull the trigger.
One of the group lunged towards her but stopped at a burst of overhead fire from the .50-caliber machine gun on Three Track. The heavy machine gun would chop the entire group into hamburger if the gunner dropped the barrel a few inches lower. The tracers drifted past Washington's Monument and towards the distant enemy.
By this time the crews from the two tracks were deployed and had their weapons out. The array of leveled rifles and grenade launchers convinced the crowd that making an issue of the lady's informal declaration of war would be inadvisable. Sergeant Chittock apparently talked Elgars into walking back to the Suburban. She was carrying on a continuous harangue directed at the now white-faced holder with the sniper rifle. Several of his former admirers were not looking so admiring.
Keren switched frequencies again as the milling crowd, herded by the platoon's weapons and covered by the two machine guns on the tracks, made its way towards the Suburban.
"Whiskey Four Delta One Five, this is Echo Three Golf One One, over."
"Golf One One, this is One Five," said a different voice than the previous. "What is this authentication problem? And where have you been?"
"Delta, we got some shit going down here, sorry. Authenticate Victor Charlie or get off my net." Keren was rapidly tiring of the game but he was bound and determined not to get screwed by orders from nowhere again.
"Echo Three Golf One One, this is Whiskey Four Delta One Fiver. I authenticate Khe-Mother-Fucking-San. Now are there any other stupid radio tricks you want to play?"
Keren smiled. "Negative Delta One Five, welcome to the net."
"Roger, what is your position and status, over?"
The group of individuals, covered by the rifles of the platoon, had nearly reached the Suburban. Sergeant Chittock was now carrying the sniper rifle and the Beretta. Things had definitely gotten interesting. Keren was spot-on for a bit of boring in the near future.
"Delta, I'm going to have to put you on standby soon. We've got a personnel problem that has gotten out of hand. Our location is on the east side of the Washington Monument mound just short of Fifteenth Street. We're a one-twenty mortar platoon with two remaining tubes on tracks. We have approximately twenty rounds of H-E left per gun and some flares and Willi-Pete. We badly need resupply of diesel, beans and bullets. We've been in the goddamn last rank of the goddamn retreat since fucking Dale City and we are about done in. That is our status. Over."
"Roger, Golf One One," said the voice, cooly. "Understood. We'll try to scrounge up some supplies for you. Get back to us when you're under control. Out."
Keren nodded to the unseen fire center and flipped back to the platoon frequency. The confrontation outside had been reduced to fluent cursing on the part of the female soldier. Keren got out of the Suburban and lifted his palms in a calming gesture as Sergeant Chittock handed him his Beretta back. "Okay, one at a time. What the fuck just happened?"
"This son of a bitch . . ." "This lying cunt . . ." "She said he . . ."
Keren lifted the 9mm and fired it towards the Potomac. "I said one at a time. Sergeant Chittock?" He held the pistol barrel up and pointed downrange. If anyone was wondering why a Specialist Fourth Class was ordering around a sergeant, they weren't asking.
The sergeant's round and normally friendly face was creased in hard lines. "She says this is her rifle and that this soldier and some of his friends raped her an' took it off of her."
Keren thought about that. He had seen Elgars in several moods and easily rapable was not one. "Okay." He turned to Elgars and held up a finger in warning. "Calmly," he emphasized, "explain."
She took a deep breath and crossed her arms. "I was a sniper with the Thirty-Third. Bravo Company, Second Battalion Five-Ninety-First Infantry. We were in Third Brigade. My platoon got attached to the Twenty-First Cav in that rat-fuck at Dale City. I was on the west side when it all came apart. I ended up with these clowns." She jerked her thumb at the beefy specialist who had been holding the sniper rifle. "I don't know where the rest of them are, but he was with a truck unit. I stuck with them at Lake Jackson 'cause I didn't know where the fuck to go. He was always wanting to try my rifle and he tried to cop a feel a couple of times. I didn't think about it. That kind of shit happens all the time.
"Then when it came apart again, I had just decided to catch some rest. We were in the back of a truck headed up the road to Manassas." She paused and took a deep breath.
"I woke up with two of 'em holding me down and Pig-Breath here pulling down my pants. When the three of 'em were done they dumped me by the side of the road with that piece of shit rifle and one fuckin' magazine. I guess they thought we were the back side of the retreat." She took another deep breath. "Which was where you found me." She looked at Keren with eyes smoldering. "I want my fuckin' piece back and Pig-Breath charged! I'd prefer castrated, but I wanna stay out of Leavenworth myself."
Keren nodded at her when he was sure she was done and turned to the beefy specialist. He noted in passing that his nametag read "Pittets." It was obvious where Elgars had derived the name Pig-Breath.
"What do you have to say?" he asked evenly. He was ninety-nine percent certain that Elgars was telling the truth. But since for some ungodly reason everyone was looking to him for judgement, he had to be impartial.
"This cunt is lying," snarled the heavyset specialist, flexing his fists. "I'd never met her before she walked up and stuck a fuckin' gun to my head. She just wants my rifle, the bitch, and I can't believe you're letting her fuck me over like this!"
Sergeant Chittock grabbed Elgars by the collar of her BDUs just in time and got an elbow in the stomach for his pains. But she subsided after she realized who she'd hit.
Keren nodded again. He rubbed the stubble on his chin in thought and nodded a last time. "What's the serial number of the piece?" he asked Pittets.
The beefy specialist blinked a few times. "Why the hell would I memorize a serial number? I don't see what that . . ."
"BR 19784," Elgars hissed. "It stands for Barrett Rifles. And my initials are scratched on the bottom of the receiver pan. A-L-E." She smiled thinly. "If I've never met you, I've never met the rifle, right, Pig-Breath?"
Keren looked at Sergeant Chittock, who was searching the rifle for the serial number. He stopped, then looked up at Keren and nodded.
Keren's face tightened. He looked at Pittets. "Wrap him up with hundred-mile-an-hour tape and strap him to the side of One Track. We'll turn him over to proper authorities if we ever find them. If he makes too much noise, put a piece of tape over his fat mouth."
"Hey," shouted the specialist as willing hands dragged him towards the Mortar Carrier. "You can't do this! I've got rights . . ."
Elgars hefted the rifle and tried to support it with her broken left wrist. She grimaced and let the barrel drop.
"Well," said Keren with a grim expression. "You've got it again. What the hell are you going to do with it?"
She slid the butt to the ground and opened the bipod one-handed. "Well, first I'm gonna give 'im a good bath," she said. "Then I'm gonna zero 'im back in." She lowered it onto its bipod and sat crossleg alongside. "What I don't know is how I'm gonna reload the magazines."
"Well," said Keren with a faint smile. "I guess you're gonna need some help."