They might not win, but they were taking their best shot. Keren had tossed aside his board and was down to breaking rounds. The guns were traversing their fire, walking the explosions across the front of the oncoming Posleen force. Two more gun tracks had joined them and the four mortars stitched a seam across the enemy.
Three Gun seemed to have settled down now that more ammo and support had shown up. He wished that the backup driver of the ammo truck would pitch in or at least put down her rifle. But he had become familiar with the look in her eye and wasn't going to be the first to suggest it. And it wasn't as if they needed the help.
The troops helping wore every damn kind of unit patch. There were cavalry, infantry and a mass of combat-support types. They didn't really know what they were doing, but the hands made the job much faster and the mortar rounds were finally piling up quicker than the guns could pour them out. About half of them had come with a cavalry bird colonel. The guy looked like he was seventeen, which just meant he was another rejuv. As he strode around directing the support force he displayed the most incredible command of invective Keren had ever heard.
And these were just the dregs, the ones without decent weapons, or any at all for that matter. Most of the volunteers had joined the cavalry troop on Monument Mound. Some of them, they were just tired of running. Some of them figured if they didn't stop the horses here it was all over; might as well die here as anywhere. But plenty of them seemed to just be pissed about where it was. Sure, take Virginia, who cares. Take Arlington Cemetery. We'll take it back. But the Monument? Fuck that. There were a bunch of obvious rejuvs; most of them arrived together and seemed to know each other. He didn't know who they were or where they had come from; they weren't from any regular unit. But they were coming out of the woodwork now, leading any damn soldier that showed an ounce of willingness.
He had seen plenty of the soldiers on the Mall run. The tent city that had been setting up was nearly empty. And most of them weren't here. But a good few were.
They were black and white and oriental and Hispanic. Men and women. Most of 'em stank from days of running. Plenty of 'em looked like they could use a good meal, or a night or two with no guard duty and no nightmares.
But they were here. And they were helping. The ammo truck carried a mixed load and the volunteers swarmed over it, throwing down cases of .50 caliber to feed the guns on the tracks, breaking open the mortar rounds and running forward to feed the infantry positions.
The infantry, in the meantime, was laying down a curtain of fire. At least six hundred soldiers had crept up the mound and now fired at the oncoming Posleen. They were belly down with just their heads and rifles showing. An occasional HVM would strike a section and open it up or the odd round would strike an individual, but more volunteers would creep forward to fill the gaps.
Sure, most had run. But plenty more stayed. And the horses would have the Monument over their dead bodies.
* * *
"First Sergeant, I don't care if you are Fleet. I don't care if you have orders from God Himself. I am going back there over my dead body. I'm not even going to think about it. There's no way to win and I'm not going to be a stupid hero." The tired and dirty first lieutenant was the last officer the cavalry company had left. Of course, he was in charge of less than a platoon of Abrams so it wasn't like he was overtaxed.
Pappas thought about the statement for a moment. "L-T, I need your tracks at the Watergate. I'm getting part of an infantry battalion headed that way and there's a buncha artillery support. But I really, really need your tracks, too."
"No. And what's more—fuck, no," snarled the lieutenant, tired of arguing with the remorseless NCO. The upstart Fleet bastard had been nagging him for nearly an hour before the horses crossed the river. If they hadn't crossed he might have stuck around, but as it was there was just no reason. No reason at all. No force on Earth was going to stop the Posleen tide now that it was over the Potomac. They might as well head back to New York city as stick around and get eaten.
The officer dug at the plasteel fingers holding onto the coaming of his TC hatch. "Get off my track." The lieutenant switched on the intercom. "Pauls, move out." As the Abrams sprang to life, the other four tanks fell in behind it, moving down the Mall to the east, towards the Capitol and away from the fighting around the Arlington Bridge.
Pappas sighed and leaned forward. Steel fingers removed the helmet from the struggling lieutenant's head and pulled him in close. The writhing officer found that fighting against them was like fighting a mechanical clamp.
"AID, whisper mode," said Pappas, calmly. Then he whispered to the lieutenant. "You said that it would be over your dead body. Turn this platoon around or I will squeeze your head until it pops. Literally." Pappas palmed the back of the officer's head and applied a calculated amount of pressure.
The officer writhed in the iron grasp and whined from the pain. It felt as if his eyeballs were going to burst. "You can't do this the whole way there!" he shouted. One shin banged painfully against the thermal repeater but the lesser pain went unnoticed.
Pappas face hardened and he yanked the officer out of the tank. "AID, broadcast to all tank units. All units. Stop right here. We have to have a little talk." The tanks continued to the east. Instead of stopping they actually increased speed. "AID, did that get to them all?"
"All tanks have active carrier waves and I shunted it to the intercom."
"Right," snarled Pappas. He pulled out a roll of spacetape and secured the futilely protesting officer to the turret. Then he walked across the tank to the driver's hatch, his EVA clamps holding him to the skin of the armored behemoth. He knelt by the driver's hatch and pounded on it. "OPEN UP!"
He tapped a spot on his forearm and a two-foot blade sprang out from the underarm of the suit. The blade had been suggested by Duncan, and the Indowy fitters had been more than happy to oblige for the whole company. Now it came in handy as the monomolecular vibroblade slid through the Chobham armor like butter and sliced the hatch lock in two.
In short order Pappas had the remaining members of the platoon lined up at attention. Two or three were bruised and at least one had a broken arm. There was a cooling spot on the turret of one tank from a glancing armor-piercing round and there was a gunner who would require serious medical attention. But most of them were there.
"I tried to do this the easy way. I am now going to have to do it the hard way," he said in an iron tone. "This unit is guilty of desertion in the face of the enemy. The life of every member of this unit is forfeit, under both the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Federation Procedures for the Prosecution of War." He stopped and looked at the figures. Most of them were still defiant. Despite the regular hangings for desertion before the Posleen landed, the bug-out in this case had been so widespread that it was unlikely they would be charged. What they did not realize was that they were no longer under the control of American Law.
"You were given an order by a duly designated noncommissioned officer of the Fleet Strike Forces. As such your offense falls under Federation law." He stopped again and lowered his voice. "What that means is that you have just entered hell."
He picked up the securely bound lieutenant and held him again by the back of the head. "This officer ignored a direct order. He led this retreat. He is primarily at fault." Pappas closed his fingers and the skull of the officer exploded. The corpse of the lieutenant catapulted to the feet of the lined-up troops along with a splatter of blood and brains that covered the arrayed troopers in gray matter. The nearly decapitated body kicked and thrashed on the ground as undirected nerve impulses continued to fire for a few more moments. Most of the troop looked stunned, a couple looked satisfied. Then about half doubled over in nausea.
"I want you to understand something," Pappas snarled. "The Posleen might kill you. If you try to run again, I will kill you." Pappas lifted his M-300 and fired over the head of the platoon. The blast of relativistic teardrops took out a section of the Longworth building, scattering debris into the street. "This weapon will go through your fucking tin cans long ways. You will be more terrified of me than of the enemy."
* * *
"Mortars, they're over Seventeenth Street and spreading out," said the cool voice on the radio. Keren had seen him from time to time, pulling out the occasional wounded or dead, calling for more volunteers, even, for God's sake, giving marksmanship lessons. And he didn't sound any more flustered now. "Can you get us any more fire-support, over?" The voice was young, but the assurance wasn't. Rejuv again.
"Negative," responded Keren over the radio in the Three Track. His hands dripped blood to the steel deck as the blisters took another beating from the rounds. The members of Three Track had finally had it, slipping out one by one in the crowd of volunteers. But it didn't matter. There was a halfway intelligent gun bunny dropping rounds. And two chicks with signals intelligence patches cutting charges. And a dozen more men and women preparing rounds. The bastards from Three didn't matter a damn. "I've tried all the arty freqs. Nobody." Not even the Fiftieth Division control. The bastards had probably run.
"Well," said the guy on the radio in a voice that was both resigned and positive, "gotta die somewhere."
Keren twisted the traverse and dropped the range a crank. "Guess it's that time."
"Yep," said the guy on the other end. "Well, I always said every day after the Chosin was one I wasn't meant to live. Thanks for the support, Mortars. Out here."
Keren shook his head in wonder. Maybe the guy was talking about Valkyries or something.
* * *
Mike had some important decisions to make. As the battalion stepped out, crossing the Twelfth Street Phase-line he was still in a quandary. But, after thinking long and hard, he finally came to a decision.
"Duncan?" he asked.
"We're up! Where do you want it?"
"Question. What tune should I use?" he asked. The firing from the distant Monument was clear. The forces had to be thinking they were doomed.
"I'm thinking 'Ride of the Valkyries.' "
"Or should I go with tradition?"
"What tradition? . . . Oh."
"Yeah, tradition wins. Pity, really. This is such a Wagnerian moment."
* * *
Keren looked up and snarled as the guy hanging rounds froze. Then, when he saw his slack-jawed face he looked to the rear. The tune was familiar. At first he could not for the life of him place it. But then, as the approaching unit began singing, it came to him and he started to laugh so hard he thought he would die.
* * *
Colonel Cutprice looked up at the sound behind him and started to laugh. Just when you thought you had lost the game, sometimes life handed you an ace. Some of the riflemen on the mound turned to snarl at the misplaced mirth but then, as more and more of the veterans began laughing, they looked to their rear and smiled. They weren't sure what the joke was—the song was familiar from basic training but otherwise a mystery. But the old guys obviously got whatever the joke was.
* * *
And to the strains of "Yellow Ribbon," the anthem of the United States Cavalry, the men and women of the First Battalion, Five Hundred Fifty-Fifth Mobile Infantry Regiment, the "Triple-Nickles," began to deploy.