Mike had one eye on the repeater from Stewart's suit as the battalion reached the Mound and he laughed as well. The two forces arrayed against one another were shaping up. The Posleen had the advantage of numbers but, since they had to pulse the forces across the Arlington Bridge, it would be difficult for them to gather enough forces to dislodge the defenders. If, that was, the humans killed them fast enough.
The humans were at an apparent disadvantage. Most of the units were barely recovered from a rout. There was no central command. And there was no vital rationale to defend this spot. The location was not clearly critical terrain.
But Mike could see that few agreed with that analysis. As he passed the line of figures hunkered down on the mound and firing steadily he could see others picking up weapons from the dead and thickening the line. The mortar tracks were firing their guns steadily and adding the weight of their .50-caliber fire to the mix. Snipers were interspersed with regular infantry, and officers and NCOs were moving among the troops cajoling, correcting or ensuring that everyone had enough ammo. The fact that they had barely slowed the Posleen advance was apparently lost on the soldiers on the mound. They were done running.
The Posleen, on the other hand, were advancing. The lead companies were already past the Reflecting Pool and nearly to Seventeenth Street. Mike was surprised that there were no saucers in the mix, but he quickly surmised by their regular order that the God Kings must have dismounted to make themselves less of a target. The force was not, however, solid. There was a large force advancing on their position, but just as many or more were still milling around in the area of the Memorial. If they stopped this force butt-cold they could deal with the others at leisure. If.
This was where having Bravo in place would have helped tremendously. Not only could Bravo have taken the force with enfilading fire, but the plan called for the battalion to wait for Bravo so that the shock of their first strike would turn the Posleen towards the Monument and into the killing field he intended to make of the monument area.
The mound was now within effective range of the Posleen weapons and the forces on the mound were starting to take serious casualties from the fire of the approaching wave.
* * *
"Forward!" shouted Kenallai. "If we take that monument we break their backs!" He did not know what the obelisk was that had drawn the threshkreen to it. Perhaps it was a power generator or some other important structure. Whatever it was, it was obviously vital and he intended to capture it.
He had the pleasure of seeing the thresh begin to fall, some to the plasma cannons in the host around him, or thrown up and away by strikes from railguns. Still others were hit square on by the massed HVM fire of the force around him. They were being whittled away and in a few more moments the host would be upon them. And then they would feed.
* * *
Duncan took a suck on his suit rations and grimaced. The Old Man seemed to love fried rice, but it wasn't his favorite. He punched in the last few fire commands and looked around for a good spot to sit. There was a badly beat-up Suburban sitting forlorn on the torn lawn of the Mall. He walked over and sat on the tail as he monitored his readouts. It looked like the ball was about to begin. The fuckup with Bravo had cost them a few minutes and the poor bastards on the mound a few casualties. But no plan worked perfectly. As it was, this one was close. He compared the Posleen positions to his readouts and smiled. They were not going to like what happened next. But he was gonna love every fucking minute of it.
* * *
Mike checked the feed from his rifle and smiled. The Posleen were making headway against the fire; there weren't really enough guns to stop them. The fire, however, was having another, more salient, effect.
It would be useful if the whole host became focused on the Monument. Not vital, but useful. And it had required taking some casualties to let the Posleen live long enough to draw attention away from the north. Now if Bravo would just get in position they could fuck them all, not just the few.
* * *
Stewart slid into position with a sigh. The Pharmaceutical Institute building on the corner of Twenty-Third and Constitution had a wonderful view of the Potomac and the Memorial, even on the ground floor. Well, normally. Now it had a wonderful view of more Posleen than he had ever wanted to see in his life. The position was horribly exposed and if the captain's plan screwed up in even the smallest detail it would be a death trap. But it was also the best possible place to kill Posleen. And he found that he was looking forward to that.
His squad had slipped in the back way and was now preparing to dig in. There had been a few scattered normals on the ground floor, but without their God Kings normals were cold meat and had been dispensed with quietly. The suits were in place with their deception holograms on, waiting for orders to trigger their cratering charges.
* * *
Mike glanced at his readouts and waved at the rejuv colonel who seemed to be in charge of the mound defenses. The officer had not even asked why they were just sitting there, out of sight, while his soldiers were taking all the casualties. Which meant he knew why, more or less. At the gesture he started shouting to the riflemen along the slope to retreat. He had to pull some back by main strength.
Mike smiled and punched in a few last-minute commands. The moment had to be timed perfectly, not because it would effect the outcome of the battle, but because it meant the difference between winning and winning with style.
"Duncan," he whispered. "Now." And stood up.
* * *
"The thresh flee!" Kenallai shouted in glee. He waved to the force. "Forward! Take the hill! The Host shall be invincible!" He did not believe it, however. He knew full well the fact that the Host was doomed. But the more damage he could do to the thresh that had taken his eson'antai the better.
The first of the host were at the base of the hill when the sky rang out with thunder.
* * *
Over the crest of the mound came a creature from nightmare. The beast was a dragon of a hundred heads, every swiveling head spitting silver fire. It was preceded by a horrible caterwauling and the thunder of drums as the silver lightning of its breath tore the host apart.
The Posleen of the host were shocked by the appearance of the fell beast but they held their ground. There were tens of thousands of their fellows behind them and their massed might was sure to bring it down. The breath flying down from the height was opening huge rents in their wave but they drove forward against the fire, clawing to engage the beast talon to talon.
* * *
Atalanara had retained his tenar on the stumbling retreat to the Mall. The damage from the metal threshkreen had been bad enough but to find that the "treasury" was filled with nothing but paper and the offices of castellaines was enraging. Now he simply hoped to rejoin a force with a decent oolt'ondai who might be able to explain this strange world to him.
As he crossed Virginia Avenue on Eighteenth Street, just short of the Mall, a monitor on his new sensor suite chirped.
"Incoming artillery fire," it relayed in its androgynous tenor. The term was familiar. It meant the hated ballistic weapons of the thresh. "Time on Target, fire. Forty rounds."
That sounded like quite a lot. He started looking at the surrounding buildings, wondering if it would be better under cover. Forty rounds would be very bad.
"Sixty rounds. One hundred and twelve. One twenty. One sixty three. Two twenty-four. Two fifty-eight. Splash."
* * *
The fire was a complicated curtain barrage. The technique had been developed in World War I as a method to prevent movement of forces across no-man's-land. In this case it was being used to drive the Posleen into the anvil of the ACS.
Duncan had had the full authority of the Continental Army Commander and the artillery of two decimated corps. Most of it was 155mm mobile cannon. The variable time and cluster rounds dropped in a veritable curtain of death along Constitution Avenue, heaviest in the opening leading to the Watergate, but everywhere in incredible density.
Forces squeezing out of the press towards the north ran into this wall of death. The few that stumbled out were hit from the side by the silver lightning of the ACS now firmly dug-in on the ground floor of the pharmacy building and the distant fire from the Watergate.
Duncan switched to the next stage of the game, which was smoke. Four batteries were tasked purely to obscurement missions and they began to lay a curtain of white along the Potomac. This effectively stopped the Posleen across the river from determining what was happening in the cauldron. Then he started to walk the curtain barrage down from the north.
* * *
Kenallai looked at the approaching wall of steel rain. Then he looked to the east where the strange beast wrestled with the first ranks of the host. Steel-rain. Beast. Steel-rain. Beast. His crest slowly lifted until it was straight up. He looked at the Kessentai gathered around him and started snapping out orders.
"Alrantath, take your oolt'ondar to the right. Tenal'ont, take the left. All the rest, form behind them and my own oolt'ondar. Call to all the Kessentai in reach! Cry unto the oolt'os! Upon my signal, we shall lead the host in a te'naal charge the likes of which has never been seen!"
* * *
Mike had expected the Posleen to move towards his position, had, in fact, depended on it. But not with the immense unanimity they displayed. The word that came to mind was stampede as the huge mass, the AID counted it as a quarter million, turned ponderously to the east and made a concerted bolt for the monument and freedom from the steel rain. He stopped the battalion and started snapping out orders. As usual, timing would be everything.
* * *
Lieutenant Rogers swore fluently. This was the moment that Bravo had been placed for, but the reality exceeded the Old Man's expectations by an order of magnitude. He wasn't sure that the original orders, to wait until the enemy was within two hundred meters of the battalion before he opened fire, should be followed or not. He finally decided that they were still extant. It would just be a lot more exciting.
* * *
"Forward!" shouted Kenallai, firing his plasma cannon over the heads of his personal oolt. The ranks of his own forces had been swelled by the majority of Ardan'aath's oolt'os and the reinforced company was leading the charge.
The fire of the beast was a silver waterfall, tearing the host asunder, but the return fire of the host was as deadly. Already many of the heads had fallen to the ground and were lying quiescent. They were finally reaching the point where the mass fire of the host could have good effect and within moments the horrid creature would be another trophy to brag upon.
* * *
"Jesus Christ!" shouted Major Givens, stumbling backward under the hail of railgun rounds.
The God Kings were interspersed in the body of the Posleen forces, effectively hidden by the intervening normals. However, every now and again they would target a particular suit. When they did, thousands of normals would follow the lead of their gods. Even catching the edge of such a hurricane of destruction was enough to damage the suits, and the luckless individual at the center was usually toast as a storm of 3mm railgun rounds and hypervelocity missiles struck their suit.
The exception, thus far, had been Captain O'Neal. Twice he had been targeted by God Kings. In both cases he was able to evade the majority of the fire, including the initial fire of the God King, while still managing to crank out a stream of orders.
The diminutive suit seemed to be everywhere. Whenever the fire of the Posleen forces appeared sure to destroy a section of the line, he was in the thick of the fighting. He was moving the suits in a complex pavane designed to avoid the majority of the damage. Whenever a section became bogged down, he was sure to be there first, loosening up the movement, directing the fire, calling for support.
Givens realized he had been still for too long and began his next movement. Even the acting commander followed the baton of the little hobgoblin.
* * *
"Why aren't they digging in!" shouted Lieutenant Nightingale. She had set her helmet aside, but she continued to follow the course of the battle on a computer-generated hologram. "He's killing them! The sadistic little bastard!"
"Teri, you need to get a grip," Pappas snapped over the communications circuit. "If he had them dig in, it would ruin the illusion. Right now, the Posleen believe they are fighting a dragon. As soon as he's sucked as many as possible into the kill-box, he'll go to ground. Until then, he's doing his job, as an officer, and accepting the casualties to further the mission."
"That is insane!" she shouted. "He is butchering the battalion for . . . for nothing!"
Pappas sighed quietly and decided he had more important things to do than continue this pointless argument. "Lieutenant Nightingale, I think you need to find another job. There are realities about combat I don't think you will ever grasp." He tapped a control on the suit for privacy. "AID, unless I have to, I don't want to talk to Lieutenant Nightingale again."
"Very well, Gunny," said the female contralto. There was a slight pause. "Does that mean I'll be seeing more of you?"
* * *
Mike skipped past a private from Charlie Company and pointed to the right. "The bouncing ball is that way, Private Vargas. Follow the bouncing ball."
The suit followed the directions, sidling off to the right just as a cone of railgun fire tore through the space where it had paused.
"Nah, nah, nah, nah," Mike called, broadcasting the taunt over both speakers and the battalion broadcast frequency. He stopped and directed the holographic dragon head he projected to stick its tongue out at the advancing Posleen mass. "Youuu caaan't touch meee!" he taunted again, the cry this time going out in Posleen. As the fire of the division twisted towards his location he popped out a string of grenades and sidestepped. "Nah, nah, nah, nah," he taunted as the storm of fire swept by.
Gone were the fear and uncertainty. Gone were the question and doubt. The high of combat, the joy of battle had taken him and he was once again in his element. There were at least four ways to win the current scenario and do maximum damage to the Posleen. Each of them projected nearly identical casualties for the battalion. Given the choices, he had chosen the one with the maximum style. Even now with the casualty graph climbing and the whole mass of the Posleen force charging them. Whatever the outcome of the battle, they'd fought it "their way."
But the time for stylish destruction was coming to an end. The Posleen were getting close enough that they could overwhelm the battalion with their massed fire. They were still steering away from the curtain barrage to the north, but it was time to teach them that there were worse things than artillery.
He skipped to the left and hopped over a crossing trooper as he considered the timing. With human troops it was usually better to withhold your heaviest fire until they were within two hundred meters. At that point, human troops felt that no matter how much fire there was, they still had a chance of overrunning the position. So they would come on in droves, through any sort of maelstrom. If your intent was to kill as many as possible, and his was just that, then waiting until they were that close was best.
With Posleen, this magic distance was still unclear. Simulations refused to recognize it, instead opting for an almost suicidal determination on the part of Posleen forces. But he had seen them break and run, even up close. So. When to start the real massacre?
He decided to let the music choose. They had started out the battle with Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" pounding in the background. The tune had become something of an instant tradition for the American ACS units after Diess. That had segued to the Rolling Stones' "Paint it Black" and that was good. But not quite what he was looking for. Something . . . more. When the next song started, he smiled ferally.
"Lieutenant Rogers," he whispered over the comm, trotting sideways towards his predesignated position.
"Sir," responded the camouflaged acting-company commander.
"Prepare for enfilading fire on my mark."
Mike tapped a series of Virtual icons floating in the air in front of his face. The AIDs accepted the commands, considered the current conditions and prepared movement orders for all the individuals in the battalion.
"Execute," he whispered as the first bars of Black Sabbath's "The Mob Rules" began to boom out through the battalion's suit speakers.
* * *
Kenallai exalted as the mass of the Host approached the beast. Despite the beast's awesome fire and the writhing, difficult to strike heads, the host had passed through the worst of the fire. In moments they would take the beast and drive on to the prizes to the east. They were close enough that nothing could stop the Host now. Some of the dragon's heads had already fallen, their fire stopped. The rest would fall soon enough. However, as the Host closed to perfect range, everything changed.
Before the eyes of the front rank of the Posleen the creature dissolved into an oolt'ondar of metal-clad thresh. The thresh were visible for only a moment, however, for as fast as they appeared they disappeared into holes dug by special charges. A moment later their guns poked out of the holes and the only thing visible was the guns and the scattered few bodies of metal thresh.
Even as they were greeted by this horrid sight, worse horrors fell upon them.
* * *
"Bravo Company, fire," said the officer, quietly.
The three companies of the battalion formed a box. Each of the suits could keep up a continuous stream of fire for over thirty minutes with onboard munitions. When a unit of ACS was faced with a unit of Posleen the usual method of engagement was face-to-face. By waving the fire of the individuals back and forth, the Posleen were, more or less, washed away with fire hoses.
However, the current situation was perfect for enfilading fire. By firing the grav-guns straight forward at knee-height each individual suit-trooper created a "beam" of destruction. If a Posleen touched one of the beams, they died. And the fire of the three companies was interlaced.
When the beams of fire from Bravo Company reached out, they slaughtered Posleen by the thousands, driving all the way through the mass of the host. The terrain was nearly flat and there was nowhere for the centaurs to hide. Driving towards the Monument, towards the submerged suits of the majority of the battalion, meant crossing the beams of fire from Bravo. Turning and driving towards Bravo meant crossing not only the fire of the battalion, but that deadly curtain of steel rain which was still falling.
Then the companies started panning their fire.
* * *
It hadn't been the direct fire of the horrid weapons of the threshkreen that had struck him down. If it had he would have died instantly. The terrible weapons of the threshkreen rended oolt'os and Kessentai alike in a single burst. When one struck it was as if they were hit with a missile, their bodies exploding outward. To be tapped with even a glancing blow was fatal.
No, it had not been the terrible weapons of the thresh, but a weapon of the host that had laid him low. When one of those terrible beams had struck the power-pack of his bodyguard's railgun, the resulting explosion had broken his back and buried Kenallai under rendered Po'oslena'ar. Now he caught glimpses of the terrible rendering going on on either side.
His personal oolt and the Kessentai of his oolt'ondar were scattered in death around him. There lay brave Alltandai, swift and fell. Behind him lay Kenallurial and Ardan'aath. Before him lay only death.
The battlemaster turned his head from side to side, looking at the piles. Finally it was too hard to hold up and the broad head settled to the ground. It was as well. The host was doomed. The thresh would destroy them somewhere. Somewhen. Better that he not be there to see it. Strange that it was getting dark.
Dimly, he heard the sounds of the other, older, nestlings out in the dark, screaming as they fed. But here beneath his mound of treasured dead he was surely safe. Tonight they would feed on another.
Might they always feed on another.
* * *
The mounding centaurs began to form a wall and the windrow finally obscured the view for the battalion.
"Up and at 'em!" Mike snapped, suiting actions to words as he stood up out of his hole. He marked the next point for the battalion to move to on the dispositions map. "Move to the Seventeenth Street phase-line with rolling fire," he continued. "Duncan, we need a rolling barrage."
The line of the battalion was slightly broken up by the windrow of bodies, but the Posleen force was no longer a threat. The survivors had fled into the pocket and very little fire came the way of the battalion as it advanced. Nonetheless they kept up regular fire, picking out any individuals or groups that looked to cause trouble.
The worth of the suits was finally being proven as they followed the fire. Although the barrage would eventually devastate the Posleen force, the fire that the battalion was taking was enough to wipe out a conventional infantry force or even tanks. But the suits shed all but the fiercest flame. In some cases the fire from the Posleen force was so great it was like walking into a rainstorm, but it had as much effect. Only the three-millimeter railguns could penetrate the suits, if a round hit perfectly, and the rest of the 1mm and shotgun rounds were no problem. The occasional HVM that fired out of the mass or the fire of a God King's plasma cannon would remove a luckless trooper. And then it would be silenced by mass fire. The battalion was still able to advance with "acceptable loss."
Mike pushed the battalion forward until they were on a line with the end of the Reflecting Pool and dug-in one last time. There, with any conceivable Posleen assault broken up by the topography of the monument area and with the Posleen forces pushed into a relatively small area, the final phase of the artillery battle could get underway.
The three companies locked their forces into grazing fire across the paths out of the pocket and Mike called for the final fire plan.
* * *
No more bad guys seemed to be coming over the hill, so Keren took the long walk up the Mound. The smoke across the Potomac was fading, but there was a solid core of it around the Arlington Bridge and the Memorial. It was an eerie sensation to look out over the battlefield. The view was famous from movies and TV shows, the green lawn, the Memoria, the cherry trees. Now it was torn by fire and the tracks of armored vehicles, with white obscurement smoke drifting in the light wind, the scent of burning and slaughtered Posleen carried upon it.
What was going on in the pocket around the Lincoln Memorial was invisible, but it didn't sound good. The occasional red-cored puff of VT could be seen above the curtaining smoke and there was a continuous clatter from cluster rounds, sounding like the world's largest Chinese funeral. And that was exactly what it was. The Posleen were being forced into a sausage grinder.
The aliens, without any real internal communication, could not see what was happening in the smoke. And the few who survived for a moment were pushed willy-nilly into the caldron of fire by the pressure from behind. What was happening, however, was clearly evident to the armored combat suits. Their all-weather, all-conditions systems made it all too clear.
The Posleen were literally being ground by the fire. The Variable Time fire would explode overhead, scything down a cluster of Posleen. Then the cluster ammunition would butcher the downed group. As wave after wave fell, the earlier ones would be chopped into smaller and smaller bits under the hammer of the guns. The ground was running with yellow blood, the flood pouring into the Potomac, tinging the brown waters an unwonted sienna.
And it was unrecognized by the oncoming tide. Thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of the centaurs poured across the bridge in a continuous flood. A few made it through the caldron. A very, very few.
These few were picked off by the interconnected grazing fire of the battalion. The intersecting bars of lightning looked like a light show, but they were lines of death for the Posleen. Bravo had been split, with half the company firing across the Mall while the other half fired at an angle across the opening to the north.
The battalion had been similarly split, with half firing to the south side of the memorial and the other to the north. Posleen in the pocket trying to escape to the north ran into the intersecting beams of Bravo and Alpha Companies. Those trying to escape towards Inlet Bridge ran into the fire of Charlie Company. And all of them ran into artillery.
A few of the survivors made it to the Roosevelt Park, on the south side of the pocket around the Tidal Basin. These shell-shocked survivors were all that told the Posleen something bad was happening.
The forces massing to cross in Arlington could clearly see these battered and bloody remnants of the horde. From that, some few began to deduce that entering the smoke was a bad idea. These few told others. And they told others. Then they started taking notes on the color of the river. North of the bridge, brown. South of the bridge, yellow-brown with lots of yellow streaks. Those few who had made a study of sensors studied them. And came to conclusions. And turned away from the inviting bridge.
But . . . most stayed. The Posleen were, by and large, a not very bright species. On that horrible afternoon of blood and slaughter they went through a brutally Darwinian evolution. The few, the smart ones, the ones who used their eyes and the sensors wrested from the long-gone Alld'nt, turned away. The many, the stupid and ignorant, those for whom being the warrior was the all and be damned to the technological claptrap, crossed the bridge.
The few survived. For the day.
* * *
Mike watched the slaughter stonily. He had come to understand the Posleen in a way that many humans did not. Sometime in the past of the species tinkering had occurred. And that tinkering, rather than some "normal" process, had led them on the long journey to this field of death. Led them on the quest for newer, fresher worlds to conquer.
Understanding them meant that he could not hate them. They were trapped in a cycle they had not created. But he could be a professional about destroying them. And there was a small, professional satisfaction in the carnage before him. He keyed the AID. "Give me General Horner."
"Captain O'Neal," said Horner.
Mike thought he sounded more tired than ever. Maybe they could both get some rest. "General, I would like to report that we have the infestation stopped at the Potomac. As soon as forces are reassembled we can begin reducing them in northern Virginia."
"That is good, Captain," said Jack.
"So, formal, sir?" he quipped. It was a heady high to have succeeded so totally in the sight of his old mentor. "It's okay, General. We've taken too much damage, but we'll take it to them next."
"Yes, we will, Mike," said Horner. "Captain O'Neal . . ." he continued with a catch and stopped.
"Jack," said Mike with a smile, "it's okay . . ."
"No, it's not, Mike. Captain O'Neal, I regret to inform you that your wife, Lieutenant Commander Sharon O'Neal, was lost in action this morning at approximately oh-five hundred hours."
"Oh, shit!" said Mike, in a near wail. "Oh, fuck!"
"I convey the regrets of the new President."
"Oh, goddamn, Jack!"
"I've ensured a qualified contact team is on the way to the farm." Horner waited through the silence, not sure what was happening on the other end. "Mike?"
"Yes, sir," said Captain O'Neal in a toneless voice.
"Are you going to be okay? I, you can ask for some time, if you want it."
"No, sir. That will be fine," the captain said in a monotone. "I'll be just fine."
"Mike . . ."
"I will be fine, sir."
"If you're sure?" The general knew that this was not going to be the end of it. But there were other demands on his time. Other needs to fill.
"I will be just dandy, General, sir," said the captain in an icy voice. "Just dandy."
And he was, as he watched the remorseless destruction of the centaurs. As he led his battalion in the part of the anvil. For the anvil never cries for the iron.