The private bit her lip and caressed the unfamiliar rifle on her lap. There was still a shortage of the Advanced Infantry Weapon, so rear area units were issued the venerable M-16A2. She had shot it in the abbreviated basic course, but once she reached her permanent post the situation was so messed up the chain of command was not about to let soldiers have weapons. So the first time she had actually had one in her hand since basic was three days before, when the ammo supply unit scrambled out of Fort Indiantown Gap.
She looked at the selector now and considered her options. There was the easy one, which was to go along with the actions of the driver. That made a lot of sense, really. Who the hell wanted to drive a truck full of ammunition towards Posleen.
But then there was the fact that they'd been ordered to go resupply a mortar unit by the Washington Monument. The platoon had shot out all their ammo, which meant they'd at least been fighting. And they were probably still there, whatever Lee thought.
Let's see, she thought. How hard can it be. It says "semi" right there.
"Turn around," she whispered. The voice was barely audible over the scream from the overstressed engine of the five-ton truck.
"What?" snarled Private Lee. The stupid bitch was always whispering shit. Just like she never pulled her goddamn weight when they were unloading. He'd thought half a dozen times about dropping her off as a present for the fuckin' horses. One of these days . . .
"Turn around." The voice was a bare whisper again, but something about the quiet click as the rifle was taken off safe penetrated the thunder of the engine.
Lee turned to look at her with disbelief in his eyes. "Are you fuckin' nuts? Point that goddamn thing somewhere else before I make you eat it, cunt!"
The slightly built private looked like she had swallowed a lemon. Her mouth was dry with fear, but she slowly lifted the rifle until it was pointed at the temple of the driver and snuggled it into her shoulder. Take a breath and let it out, just like the drill instructor said.
With a jerk she pointed it to the side and shot out the driver's side window. The blast from the rifle tore the glasses off the driver's face and peppered his face with burns. "Turn us the fuck around, you bastard," she screamed, "or I will spread your brains all over this cab."
As the truck rocked through a U-turn she felt that that was insufficient. "There, was that loud enough for you? Asshole!"
* * *
There was a snort of diesel behind Elgars as a Bradley troop carrier spun around and started disgorging troops. The squad spread out down the mound, using the reverse of the gentle slope for cover. The guy in the lead was real young for a lieutenant colonel, but as he dropped to the ground not far away she saw he was wearing a dress uniform Combat Infantryman's Badge with two stars. Either the "fresh-faced" kid had been in three wars already and was working on his fourth or he was a "PX Ranger." From the calm expression on his face and the expert way he surveyed the battlefield she was fairly certain which one it was.
The Bradley spun on its axis again and moved to the other side of the Monument, well away from the squad. The mound was just a bit higher than the top of the vehicle but that was no problem. The barrel of the Bushmaster cannon canted upward and fired a burst of tracers.
Elgars watched with glee as the rounds drifted up and then down, splashing without particular note into the Potomac. She nodded her head as the lieutenant colonel "squad leader" whispered into a radio, directing the fire of the gun.
"Hey!" she called, catching his eye. "Those mortar tracks behind us are on sixty-three-seventy!"
He grinned and gave her a thumbs-up then started switching frequencies.
There was a thonk! from the rear and she realized that a 60mm mortar team had set up right behind her. The squad leader, another "fresh-faced kid" with master sergeant's chevrons, was lifting his head up to spot the fall of the shot then adjusting with hand and arm signals. It was the crudest of fire control, but with the mass of Posleen forming on the sward it was effective. Elgars saw a splash of Posleen thrown away from the fall of the one-pound shot and nodded in satisfaction.
At least she wasn't gonna die alone. She could see more people moving up to the mound, many of them obvious rejuvs by their rank and assurance but others just simple soldiers responding to the threat to the nation's soul. She understood the call. As screwed up as her life had been, she was still an American. And the thought of the Posleen taking the White House, or the Capitol or even the stupid Monument was just more than she was willing to accept.
If she fired at a God King without more covering fire she was doomed. But maybe if she didn't fire at a God King? Just one of the "normals?" She had to re-zero the damn thing somehow. She used the splinted forearm to support herself as she took a calming breath.
* * *
"Yeah, boss?" the NCO responded, his breathing deep and regular.
Certain anomalies of armored combat suits had modified long-standing military practices. One of them was the ubiquitous "jody" calls, chants paced to a running or marching beat. When ACS units ran, it was at a long open lope, the rhythm of which had so far resisted every attempted choreography. The standard ACS "double time" was approximately a four-and-half–count beat that carried the unit forward at nearly thirty miles per hour.
What had been discovered, however, was that certain popular music, especially "hard" seventies and eighties rock and roll and the rhythm-similar "raker" rock of the turn years fitted the pattern with remarkable congruity. Thus, units usually pumped one or the other type of music through to the personnel, helping to set the running beat. A fair simulation is to imagine listening to "Thunder Road" by Bruce Springsteen while running on the moon. Long-forgotten, and in many cases dead, artists were staging a quiet comeback among Armored Combat Suit units.
Although the physical strain was lower than a standard training run, it was fairly equivalent to a "long slow distance run." A well-trained unit in peak shape could generally sustain the pace for two to three hours. This gave the ACS an approximately sixty-mile range using the same technique, the difference being that a unit doing a "long slow distance run" usually did it in PT uniform, whereas the ACS did the same thing in battle armor.
This time the movement was a relatively short distance. The battalion, less Bravo Company, was in a four-column formation, running down Seventh Street in Downtown D.C. to the beat of Heart's "Crazy on You." All Duncan had to worry about was coordinating two corps' worth of artillery while doing it.
"Status." The voice on the other end was cold and distant. Mighty Mite was obviously in his prebattle trance.
"Up." It was not that the run was taking away air. This was barely breaking a sweat. But that was all the Old Man needed to know. It was all he wanted to know.
Well, usually. "Three battalions of One-Five-Five and scattered mortars."
There was no answer and Duncan realized that the Man was gone. It was just as well. The tubes were there, but he was still slamming out the plan, his fingers flying across a virtual map. Each of the units that had responded positively was available for fire as an icon along one side of the map. Dragging an icon onto the target point called up a dialogue asking for fire type and quantity. After the first the others called on the same locations took the first as a default. It was a simple method of developing a fire plan, but the complex plan the Old Man had laid out called for several separate fire plans with contingencies. Setting it up was taking time but he kept slamming it out. To the sound of the drums.
* * *
"Yes, sir." The NCO angled across the formation as they passed the MCI building. He accelerated ahead, driving the pace and elongating his stride to get to the front. He pushed it up to nearly fifty miles an hour down the nearly empty street. An advance party of real runners had moved ahead to seal the Mall end, preventing a general retreat up the route. But he had to get to the Mall ahead of the battalion. He needed to have a heart-to-heart with a couple of units. Sergeant First Class Clarke had done wonders getting the cluster fuck on the Mall organized, but that was just organization. Some of the units were willing to stand and fight. But most were running again. He was zeroing in on a few that were critical to the plan. If he couldn't get them to stand and deliver the Old Man might as well throw in the towel.
"Status." The captain was at level four again. It wasn't like anybody had to protect him or keep him from tripping over the curb, he reacted faster in a trance than when he was "here." But it was mildly unsettling to hear a voice with no more emotion than a new AID.
"Coming along. They don't want to deploy forward."
"Push it. Get some units to the Watergate. Any units. Stat."
Pappas swallowed the sigh. "Yes, sir." There was no point arguing; he knew the plan and the requirements. But doing the plan was something else. He put one foot down on the hood of a Mercedes and soared off it, pushing the speed up even further. If he was going to get somebody to the Gate, he had to step on it. It was going to take direct, personal attention. The fucking Mall was a mess. The Posleen were organized and ready to roll. It was gonna be a slaughter.
* * *
Ardan'aath snarled. "This puny bridge is creating a total hash of our units! The entire host is pushing forward without any control! It will take forever to sort out." He drifted his tenar to the side, watching his junior Kessentai trying to reform the oolt'ondar. His own oolt'os were somewhere in the mess as well, but they would find him. Most had been with him through worlds. They would find him in Hell.
"Well, at least we have a bridge," said Kenallurial, blowing a snort.
Kenallai raised his crest to forestall fresh argument. "We are exposed here," he said, just as a wave of explosions tracked across the oolt to the south. The blasts were small, the charges weak. But it killed several oolt'os outright and others were rendered as a loss.
The exuberant young commander waved off the blasts. "The fire is coming from near that structure," he said, gesturing to the distant obelisk behind him. "It is random. The thresh cannot hi—" His chest exploded in yellow as a .50-caliber bullet punched through his neural path and out through his chest.
The head of the young Kessentai flew upwards and yellow blood spurted from his mouth and nostrils. He slumped onto his tenar controls and his talons scrabbled at them as he appeared to be trying to say something. The crocodilian mouth appeared to shape the first syllables of the name of his lord, father and master, then he slid out of the cradle and to the torn ground, his fiery eyes going cold and glazed.
The sensors on a half dozen tenars screamed and weapons automatically swiveled towards the source of the fire. The weapons vomited a mixture of coherent light, relativistic missiles and concentrated plasma. A corner of the Monument was gouged out as the fire continued into the spot where someone had had the temerity to assassinate a God King. In a moment it was joined by the fire of dozens and then hundreds of Posleen normals, following the aiming points of their gods.
Of all that host, only one did not fire. Kenallai sat upon his unmoving tenar, staring down at the body of his eson'antai. As the fire slacked off the oolt'os came forward to start the rendering, but he held up his hand.
Finally, finally, he understood the thresh and it made him fear. Suddenly he was forced to wonder if there was not a better way than to make such a one into an evening's meal. Not even a special meal, but simply one bit mixed into the ration chain. Was there not something to such a one as this brilliant Kessentai? Something that lasted beyond the moment the thrice-Fistnal threshkreen put a bit of metal through him? Was there not something that lived on?
And he finally understood something else. Sometime, somewhere, someone in the Host had felt as he had. Had felt this for an eson'antai, for a beloved comrade, for a beloved enemy. And had fought for a change. For a bit of tradition that lifted out of the continuous cycle of conquest and orna'adar. For something higher.
He had never felt that calling. But he understood it now. Understood it at last.
He reached down to his feet and snapped loose a staff. There was only one per Kessentai, in keeping with tradition. Some cast them away as scoutmasters. Most had cast them at one time or another. Three had been cast on the long ride to this hellish spot. But never by him. He had never understood the need. Now he did. Finally. He finally understood his son, who had cast his at the blasted heath of the first conquest on this blasted planet. This thrice-damned, never to be mentioned, horrid, horrid little planet.
And he finally understood the thresh. And feared. For they felt this way for every single death. To the threshkreen, all the gathered thresh, all the wasted thresh, all the thresh on the hoof were Kessanalt. Each and every one. And everysingle threshkreen felt the anger he did now. It was terrifying to suddenly realize how thoroughly they had erred in landing on this white and blue ball.
"We are doomed," he whispered, as he tossed the staff onto the body. He looked to the oolt'os. They were of his personal oolt and all fairly intelligent. They should be able to follow the instructions. "Carry him to the hill." He pointed to be sure they were clear on which hill he meant. "Place him on the pile of threshkreen that are upon the top of the hill. Take the staff. Report back to this location when you are done."
Ardan'aath drifted his tenar up behind him. "We have to get moving." He pointed to the distant obelisk. "We've killed that one, but more will be back."
Kenallai turned to the older Kessentai. The commander could not expect him to suddenly change as he had. He had not had the vision. "Do you realize how thoroughly we have failed?"
Ardan'aath did not even turn his head. But a twitch of crest betrayed his discomfort. "I never expected you to be one to throw the staff," he said dubiously.
Kenallai flared his nostrils in agreement. "Well, I have. And I will tell you. We are caught in the grat's nest. There is no escape."
Ardan'aath took a deep breath. "I will give you a moment to decide. After that you can take the field or return to the rear."
Kenallai flared his crest in bleak humor. "You idiot. There is no rear. I will take the field with or without you. And be damned to your threats. But it is because we have no retreat! This is the end! We have thresh dug-in like abat in this damn building," he continued, gesturing to the monument behind him. "We have the force to the south, which has destroyed the host there and we are faced with this force here while the host trickles across the river. We are fuscirto uut!"
Ardan'aath gestured in negation. "You are made soft by the teachings of that young fool." He gestured towards the obelisk-topped mound. "They are few and already running."
The sensors screamed again as another God King slumped off his tenar. This time the fire raked from one end of the mound to the other, tearing across the front of the obelisk. But even as the fire tore into the engineering work, another target dot appeared on the OAS Annex. And another on the Agriculture Building. Then a group of oolt'os splashed away from the explosion of the first 120mm mortar round.
The .50-caliber rifles were not only powerful, they had enormous range. The snipers were taking shots from nearly a mile. Most of them were falling among the normals, causing unnoticed casualties. But the occasional shots, better or more lucky than the others, were hitting the leaders. And drawing massive response. But as more of the weapons joined the fray, the response of the God Kings was becoming more diffused.
Kenallurial fluffed his crest. "We have come far together. But now it is time to sever our relationship." He nodded at his old friend. "I go to the field. And I shall not return."
He turned his tenar and sent it floating down towards his waiting oolt. The heavily armed company would scythe into the distant defenders. But he already knew it was for naught.
Suddenly a targeting dot appeared at the top of the obelisk and a moment later the tenar of Ardan'aath evaporated in actinic fire as a bullet penetrated the crystal pack.
The low-grade nuclear explosion washed the steps of the Monument clear of Posleen. Kenallai had already moved away from his former comrade when it happened and he controlled his tenar as the shock wave threatened to drown it in the shallow reflecting pool.
He was beyond cursing. He winced at the gouge riven across his back by a bit of shrapnel and looked to the distant obelisk.
"That is just about enough," he whispered. "To the Alld'nt with this." He gestured to the members of his oolt'ondar. "Off your tenar!" He suited action to words, climbing off his own saucer and removing the plasma cannon from its pintle mount. The heavy power pack was lovingly placed across his back as the other God Kings dismounted and began gathering the oolt'os of the late Ardan'aath. "If we are among the oolt'os the fuscirto uut thresh cannot pick us out!"
He turned to the east and the distant monument as another line of explosions tracked across the mass of oolt'os gathered before the pool. "Let us to battle!" he cried. "It is a good day to die!"
* * *
The cough tore wrackingly through her chest and more blood spotted the white dust. The falling limestone cap stones had pretty well flailed her ribcage and put the final whammy on her left arm, but it had been a good shot. She had stayed in place long enough to see the God King saucer blow. Her eyes were still mostly blind from it. But it had cost her.
She knew all the long goddamn run up the stairs that it was stupid. But the thought of the shot, when she'd managed to avoid getting killed after the first one, was just too good to pass up. A shot from the top of the Washington Monument. It was a sniper's wet dream. And it had been a good shot. She knew it the moment the stock slammed into her shoulder. Perfect, right through the fuckin' X-ring. Despite the heaving breath. Despite the pounding heart.
The heart still refused to stop pounding. Only, now it was pounding blood out on the marble floor. But it was worth it. It had been a perfect moment. And her life had had damn few perfect moments. It had been a good shot. . . .