So this is despair. Jack Horner looked at the two messages in the light from the hatch of the swaying Bradley. The ACS battalion was at the intersection of U.S. 1 and Capitol Avenue. They were barely ten blocks from where the President was under attack.
They had been planning on leaving their canisters when they were almost at the Mall. The incoming lander, however, had forced them to ground. Once they were on the ground they were not a target to the lander, but anything flying was fair game. They were assembling even as he read the conflicting messages. If he sent them north to the refugee camp that was under attack they would still not be able to save the President, who was probably already dead. They might be able to save a few more civilians, but the President's Guard was probably going to do the job just fine.
So that meant south. But by the time they got there the Posleen were going to be deployed. Which meant that most likely the battalion would be overrun just like those poor bastards at Lake Jackson. It was precisely the sort of place where he had told his subordinates to use regular forces to stop the Posleen, not the ACS. The suits were a finite resource. He should use the Hundred and Fifth to try to stem the tide. Using the ACS would be the wrong strategic decision.
But the Hundred and Fifth wouldn't stop the crossing. They were weak as a twig even with the "band of heroes" that he could throw in. They would break just like the other units; you can't stiffen a bucket of spit with a handful of buckshot. And then the Posleen would be across the Potomac. And that meant backing up to the Susquehanna. And ceding Maryland and Delaware to the Posleen. And the Washington Mall. When it came right down to it, it was the battalion or the monument. And he just could not make the professional choice.
He shook his head and tapped his AID. "Nag, get me Major Givens of the ACS."
* * *
Mike watched Major Givens giving unseen thumbs-up signs as he tapped one armored boot on the ground. O'Neal had six different battle maps up on his display and the lander to the north, President or no President, was not the problem. Standing around and discussing it was just making it harder. He popped off his helmet, clamped it to his side and took a whiff. The one thing the suits did not replicate well was smell. There was a hit of wood smoke from the mess around the mall. Some less savory burning smells in there as well. Probably the Pentagon. And the slight waft, even from here, of unwashed humanity. Soon, soon, there would be the stench of slaughtered Posleen. Or his name wasn't Michael Leonidas O'Neal.
There was no room for failure; the choice was success or the ferryman. He inhaled the last fresh air he was going to smell for a while and felt his center finally click into place. No doubt. No fear. No failure. He'd sworn it on the graves of his dead.
"The Marines can handle the refugees, sirs," Mike said, cutting him off abruptly. "We need to get to the Mall. Now." He opened up a belt pouch and extracted a can of Skoal. The transceiver in the helmet seal broadcast his words faithfully.
"Mike," said General Horner. "They're going to be spread out . . ."
"Not a problem," he said shortly, taking one gauntlet off and clamping it onto the outside of his suit.
"Mike . . ." said General Horner over the circuit.
"Jack. Do not tell us our job. We don't have time for this." He tamped the can down hard and turned his head to the side to listen. The firing to the north, felt and heard in the background, reached a crescendo and died away as a large number of grav-guns opened fire. It sounded as if they were finally clear of an intervening obstacle. And as if the users were very, very angry.
"Captain . . ." Major Givens said.
"No," interrupted General Horner quietly. "Major, the captain is the expert. If he says let's go, then you better go."
"We have . . . fourteen seconds to continue this conversation," said Mike stonily, with a glance at a projected hologram. He had programmed the time he thought it would take the Posleen to get assembled into a countdown timer along with the minimum time to make the movement. The battalion was ready. All they needed was the word.
No doubt. He'd gamed this a thousand times before. It would work.
The suits were also useless for pinching snuff. He popped the can with his left hand and pulled out a pinch. "General Horner," he continued formally, "Fleet Strike is not giving Washington to the Posleen."
No fear. They were invincible. The Posleen would kill individuals. But as a unit, the only way to fail was to fail to try. This was a strightforward "Horatio at the Bridge" action. He had forty scenarios prepared. Any of them would work.
"General?" asked the acting commander. The officer was used to clear plans developed in advance. While he could change them on the fly to an extent, he was not a "seat of the pants" warrior. He found himself simultaneously in command and out of his depth. It was a most uncomfortable feeling.
"Do it," said Horner. He had no idea what the plan was. But he knew Mike O'Neal. If Mighty Mite said the sky was green, Horner would double-check the forecast and then get a second opinion before doubting him.
"Okay, Captain O'Neal," said the commander, "what's the plan?"
"I'll have to tell you on the way, Major," said O'Neal. "We haven't got any time at all." He then belied his own words by inserting the pinch between his cheek and gum. He carefully closed the can and put it away, then reclamped the gauntlet and helmet. He spit out a few stray bits of tobacco and keyed the frequency to the battalion broadcast.
No failure. He hadn't read the book, he'd written it. "Okay boys and girls. Lets go kill us some E-Ts."
* * *
"Man," snarled Keren, "it seems like we never have any time together. All we've been doin' is killing Posties!" He helped Elgars up and got the big rifle hoisted over her shoulder.
"Well," she smiled grimly, "maybe later."
"Sure." Like there was going to be a later. He could see the Posleen pouring across the bridge and the God Kings popping up and flitting around the Memorial. The whole damn pack of demons was over the river and all hell was out for noon.
Elgars trotted towards the Monument, supporting the weight of the bouncing rifle with her right hand. Keren shook his head one more time and headed for the Suburban. He was glad she finally got her gun back. He suddenly realized he'd never even found out her first name.
The area under the Memorial was not exactly a warren of tunnels, but it bade a fair resemblance. And, as the Posleen were discovering, engineers above ground were nothing compared to engineers in tunnels.
The ball bearings from the claymore bounced off the walls and ceiling of the stone-lined tunnel and tore the front rank of the assault apart. A few tossed grenades finished off the rest and the engineers lunged forward to retake their positions. The first private in kicked closed the brass-fitted door at the end of the corridor and threw the bolt.
"Set the charges!" shouted Sergeant Leo, spooling out the wire and preparing the blasting caps. "Move! Move!" He handed one to each of the chosen privates as they emplaced the charges to blow the tunnel. These young men, and one woman, had experienced a crash course in demolitions over the last three days. The survivors had become experts.
He rounded the corner and nearly ran into the L-T and the security team. The security team held everyone that, in Sergeant Leo's opinion, really needed to become a rifleman. They were the survivors who had not learned the lessons of demo adequately. They were used for support of the "real" sappers. Leo intended to suggest each one of them get a small medal then send them over to the infantry.
"We've got the corridor secure," said Lieutenant Ryan, gesturing over his shoulder. "Once you blow that tunnel, there's only one way in and one way out. And they'll have to dig us out."
"Well, we're about done," said Sergeant Leo as the sappers came around the corner. He counted each one past then leaned around the corner for a visual check. The look drew a violent response as flechettes spanged off the rock walls and ricocheted down the side tunnel. There was a cry of pain from one of the engineers as a ricochet caught him in the thigh.
"Fire in the hole!" shouted Leo as he twisted the hand-dynamo generator up to speed then pressed the firing switch.
There was a blast of heat and a wash of marble dust. As the platoon coughed on the dust there came a complicated sound of settling from overhead.
"Uh-oh," said one of the privates, quietly.
"Yeah," said Lieutenant Ryan. "I think we might be in a little trouble here."
* * *
Elgars's jaw dropped as the statue of Lincoln in the distance settled slightly to the left. "Holy shit." But that was only one bad sight among many.
The area around the Memorial was rapidly filling up with Posleen. The assaulting God Kings had been joined by their units and the forces were deploying outward, opening the wings of the Host to capture the city. Starting with the Memorials.
She filtered out the shouting and sounds of panic behind her and set the familiar stock into her shoulder. It was a long shot up the entire length of the reflecting pool. The laser range finder gave a reading of forty-two hundred feet to the steps of the Memorial. As she shifted her sights to the side, trying to decide which one of the God Kings to gift with her attention, there was another gout of dust and fire from the interior of the monument. At least one other group was willing to fight. Behind her she could hear the fading engines of those either smarter or more cowardly.
* * *
"I am didee-mao, asshole!" snarled the specialist in charge of the Three Gun track. The driver put words to action, backing out of their position and spinning the track in a shower of carefully tended turf.
Keren stepped up to the spinning treads, daring to be churned into paste. "Austin!" he shouted.
As the specialist turned to look, a grenade came flying through the air and landed in the crew compartment in the rear.
Trailing blue air, the gunner and ammo bearer dove out of the compartment, falling to the ground in a heap. The driver took her foot off the gas and piled out as well, as the heavy-set squad leader tried to struggle out of the TC's hatch.
The assistant gunner had been deep in the belly of the beast when the grenade came flying into the compartment and rolled to the front. With nowhere to go he picked it up in the vain hope of throwing it back out. And howled in rage.
"The fuckin' pin's still in!" he shouted swarming up the side of the crew compartment bent on killing a café au lait gadfly.
He was met at the edge of the compartment by a cocked Beretta. Keren punched the barrel of the gun into his nose hard enough to draw a spurt of blood and followed his tumbling body into the interior of the track.
Austin tried to train the .50-caliber machine gun to bear on the raging Keren. But the pintle mount was designed to prevent accidents just like that. Keren kicked the squirming assistant gunner in the crotch, turned and triggered a single round into the squad leader's face.
It was a shot he never could have made on a range. The bullet entered just below the squad leader's nose. The top of the specialist's head was lifted up into the air in a spray of blood and brains. He slumped backwards over the front of the Mortar Carrier and landed on the still-quivering driver.
Keren pulled himself up on the top of the Mortar Carrier and pointed the pistol at the gunner and ammo bearer just starting to get up from their crumpled heaps.
"You will get into this vehicle," he shouted. "And you will lay in the fuckin' gun! Or I will personally kill every one of you sons of bitches! Is that clear?!"
"The fuckin' horses are over the river!" the gunner shouted, then looked at the unwavering pistol. He wondered where Austin was. Then he saw the faint trail of smoke from the barrel and made a rapid guess.
"I am not giving the horses the goddamn monument!" screamed Keren, leaping off the track and striding over to shove the still-warm gun into the face of the recalcitrant gunner. "We have run and run and run and we are not going to run anymore! Are we clear on that? Or do you need the same lesson?!" The barrel intersected the cheek-bone of the gunner hard enough to leave a bone bruise. The gunner closed his eyes as urine trickled to darken his BDUs.
The ammo bearer raised one shaking hand to wave at the pistol. "We . . . we're clear. Okay?"
Keren jerked up and strode to the front. The slight specialist pulled the driver out from under the former squad leader with a single jerk. The female private was stuttering and shaking uncontrollably. Keren shook his head and dragged her back to where the gunner and ammo bearer were just starting to regain their feet.
"Get . . . the . . . gun . . . laid . . . in. Now. And don't ever try to cross me again."
The gunner nodded as the specialist strode away.
The ammo bearer shook herself and hissed. "We could shoot up that piece-of-shit Suburban. See it make it through some Ma-Deuce fire!"
The gunner slapped her across the back of the head so hard it knocked her to the ground. He sucked his knuckles and kicked her. "Don't even think about it. What if he lived? And One Gun would eat us alive. Now get in the fuckin' track."
As Keren strode towards the Suburban he noticed that One Track had been watching the whole show. Sergeant Chittock was on the .50 caliber and the weapon was pointed more or less towards the Three Gun track.
"Point it that way!" he raged, pointing towards the Potomac, "and get ready to fire the gun!"
Chittock just watched him as he headed to the SUV. The rest of the crew flew to getting the weapon trained towards the enemy; nobody was going to get in the way of the sulphurous specialist. As Keren reached the truck Sergeant Chittock caught his eye with a lifted chin. The specialist stopped and looked towards him with fury in his eyes. But Chittock just saluted, very precisely. Keren stopped and nodded. Then returned the salute, just as precisely. As he stepped into the truck he realized that the stench of urine he was trailing was not from the gunner of Three Track. We're all fuckin' cowards, he thought. And picked up the firing board.