The sensor wand was much more sensitive than the detectors on their suits. And Minnet was a maestro. For all the damn good it was doing.
The cold, pouring rain was washing the remaining soil and grit off the ridge. It had already formed gullies around the bits of buildings and roads, uprooting ancient flagstones and undercutting the three-hundred-year-old foundations that were all that was left of Fredericksburg, Virginia.
Minnet took another bound forward on the search grid and second squad bounded with him, grav-guns tracking. In the last two weeks they had hammered the Posleen in the Rappahanock Pocket into gravy. But there were still a few around. And dead was dead.
Using the untouched Fort Belvoir as a base, the battalion had split up into companies and had ravaged through the remnant Posleen. When a unit found a concentration they would call for fire then finish off the survivors. If the Posleen force was too large the company could either join up with other companies or fall back on Belvoir. The Army Engineer had been only too enthusiastic about turning his base into a giant fortress. The work was still ongoing, with concrete slowly replacing compacted dirt, but the facilities were more than adequate for the purpose. When a couple of thousand Posleen came up to the walls topped with a giant wooden effigy of the Engineer Corps symbol, they got the point. Just before the battleship rounds started falling. In the south the same was being done by a brigade from the Eleventh MID. With much the same result.
So now the Posleen were down to nuisance levels. The new President was even considering letting people back into northern Virginia. Those who wanted to.
Most of the refugees were already being installed in the Sub-Urbs. The vast underground cities were still under construction, but there was enough done to take the trickle of Virginians. With their homes mostly destroyed and the area still under threat of the Posleen, most of them opted to take the government settlement payment and start a new life. It was better than seeing the wrack of their once-beautiful state.
That was left to the ACS. As usual. They had carefully swept the battlefields of the Ninth and Tenth Corps, hoping against hope for a survivor. All they found was the occasional warrior staff, with a hero beside it. Usually the story was unknown. The biggest surprise had been on the first day of sweeps. They found nearly a whole company of the Third Regiment and a single God King all piled on The Tomb. And two staffs. There must have been a hell of a story there. But there was no one left to tell it.
Now they had come to the center. The detector would sniff out any living human, no matter how damaged, no matter how buried. But so far they were coming up empty.
"Hey, Sarge," called Wilson, waving for Stewart to join him.
The small NCO bounded over towards Wilson. He looked at his map and shook his head. He should have been standing on the site of the oldest Presbyterian Church in America. Instead there was a scoured flat waste. And one upthrust warrior staff with a small device dangling from it.
"What kind of unit was it here?" asked Wilson.
The question was probably rhetorical. They had been briefed. But Stewart answered anyway. "Engineers. A light battalion."
Wilson plucked the device off the staff. "Well, they must have been some bad news juju," he said grimly. He handed the scrap of cloth to Stewart.
Stewart popped off his helmet and turned his face up to the pouring rain. The cold fall would probably be sleet by morning. But now it worked admirably to wash away the tears. The bloody scrap of cloth was a tab from an engineer officer's uniform.
"Bad fuckin' juju, man," he agreed, his voice thick. He wiped his eyes and put the helmet back on. The nannites scurried to carry away the intruding water. If they had been human they might have clucked in approbation.
"Contact!" shouted Minnet, swerving to the side. He bounded twenty feet through the air and landed on a section of crumpled road. The point was damn near ground zero of the fuel-air explosion. How anything could have survived was a mystery.
Stewart caught a flash out of the corner of his eye and started to track on it before he realized that it was the captain. The officer was taking full use of the almost unlimited power available through the antimatter generator in his suit. He now flew towards the reported contact. The lidar on Stewart's suit clocked him at over four hundred klicks an hour. When they all had those it would make things a lot easier.
"Where?" said O'Neal, landing next to the sensor-toting private.
"Right under your feet, sir. Two forms. In hibernation or so it tells me." The private dropped and started to pull up the mixture of concrete, asphalt and glass that overlaid the find.
O'Neal laid a hand on his shoulder. "Hang on." He slid out his monomolecular fighting knife and cut into the mixture. A few slices and he had a cube of the overlay which he threw to the side.
The rest of the squad dove in and before long they were to a brick ceiling.
"What the hell is this, sir?" asked Stewart. The captain was tracking again, which was good. It had looked rocky the first day. But he seemed to be coming around. If he didn't, there wasn't a hell of a lot they could do about it.
"Dunno," said O'Neal, flipping through his database on Fredericksburg. "There's no mention of structures like this." A quick sonic pulse indicated that it was a single layer of brick. Mike lifted himself on his AG drive and took a slice out of the ceiling.
The gray light and cold rain fell on two dust-covered forms, one male, one female. The two young civilians lay in each other's arms on a mattress of body armor. To either side were automatic weapons. The sensors unnecessarily confirmed that the weapons had seen use.
Mike lifted himself out of the hole as the squad dropped in to extract the two. He snorted a few times then gave a deep braying laugh. Shelly had enough experience to know when he was talking to himself so the laugh was not broadcast. Nor was the statement, "Those poor Posleen bastards."
* * *
"Contact!" shouted another sensor wielder, closer to the river. "Big contact!"
This time the construction was a concrete bunker. Mike first wondered how the hell the engineers had managed to make it during the battle, but a brief study indicated that it was an earlier construction. Although what was not obvious.
"Whatta we got?" asked Pappas, kicking the wall of the concrete monstrosity.
"Lots of signal," said the sensor wielder. "All hibernating as far as I can tell. If there are any conscious, it's lost in the mass."
"How many?" Mike barked.
"Don't know, sir," said the tech. "Lots."
Ampele deployed his cutter and tackled an exposed corner. He was standing up to his knees in the rising river, but he didn't seem to notice. It took three cuts to get a hole in the thick concrete walls. He lifted his head up to look in and received a shotgun blast full in the face.
The blast, gnatlike to a suit of combat armor, hardly fazed the phlegmatic Hawaiian, but he dropped down anyway. Better to let whoever was on the other side of the shotgun realize what they'd shot.
Mike lifted himself on compensators and flew over to the opening. "This is Captain Michael O'Neal of the Mobile Infantry. We're friends." He lifted up until he was opposite the hole.
Inside there was a woman in what appeared to be a soiled waitress's uniform. She had stringy, unwashed blonde hair and a wild expression in her eyes. Having been trapped under a building one time, Mike could well appreciate her frame of mind; he still got a bit panicky in the dark. So he could never afterwards decide if he was brilliant or stupid to take off his helmet.
The woman took one look at the human face and burst into tears.
Mike lifted himself up so he could see in and almost recoiled in horror. The room was filled with bodies and they at first appeared to be corpses or even vampires. Their skin was waxy with red-flushed cheeks. Their lips were swollen and flushed and their eyes were open and glassy. But the same effect was caused by Hiberzine. It was just that he had never seen hibernation patients piled willy-nilly in a sarcophagus before. He shook his head and offered his hand to the woman. "Are you alone?" he asked solicitously.
The answer was another flood of tears but the woman took his hand and slid through the hole. "Ah, ah," she gasped for a moment then caught her breath. "There was a . . . a firewoman with me at first. But she . . . she couldn't take the walls. I had to . . . to . . ."
"Sedate her," said Mike. He shook his head again. Strength was an odd commodity. Like hope, it sprouted in the strangest places.
* * *
Aberdeen Proving Grounds, MD, United States of America, Sol III
1626 EDT October 13th, 2004 ad
Keren watched the video for the umpteenth time. The networks, overrun with incredible images of heroism and cowardice, competence and idiocy, had settled on this one to wrap them all up in a nice neat network package.
The crowd surged back. The lander had dropped perfectly; just far enough that none of the humans were injured, but too close for them to run far. As the giant landing door dropped the panicking crowd washed away from the single, still armored soldier in its midst.
The foreground held a crying child, her forearm obviously broken. If any parent had been in that crowd they had been swept onward, as had the guards of the figure standing in the background, perfectly poised against the foreground of the sobbing child. As the door dropped, silently in this version, the grav-cannon on the back of the figure dropped forward. The figure took a perfect position, a picture from a Fort Benning textbook of a rifleman firing from the standing position. One hand cradled the grav-cannon while the other pulled it into the shoulder. One foot was cocked slightly backwards with feet shoulder-width apart, body slightly canted towards the target.
Cheyenne Mountain, CO, United States of America, Sol III
1423 EDT October 14th, 2004 ad
She had never planned on being President. Her position was to balance the ticket. And she sure as hell did not want to be President stuck in a concrete bunker in the middle of a mountain in Colorado.
But she had to admit it made more sense than a combat suit in the middle of D.C.
The cabinet was scattered to hell and gone. And so were the staffers. And there was no conventional transport faster than trains. Trains. They were reduced to using trains.
But the Galactics weren't. The Tir Dol Ron would be here any minute, courtesy of a Himmit stealth ship. She supposed she could probably avail herself of one as well. But reassembling a staff was still going to take months.
She had had damn little staff with her when the landings started. And not many more had made it here so far. One of those, though, had turned out to be a goldmine. The girl was a total airhead about everything outside her narrow specialty, but she had an immense understanding of the Galactics and their punctilious protocol.
Which might make or break the war.
* * *
Washington Monument, Washington, DC
United States of America, Sol III
1430 EDT October 14th, 2004 ad
"It is you people, and other soldiers like you, who will make or break the war to come," said General Taylor.
Immediately following the battle, the two colonels and their sergeant majors had gathered the survivors of the Battle of The Monument and made a list. The six hundred or so that survived, along with a dazed platoon of engineers extracted with some difficulty from the Memorial, were now gathered at the site of their triumph to be decorated.
The tall black general looked around at the group with a penetrating eye. "Many of you, in years to come, will belittle that moment. That is a fundamental nature of true heroes. But I tell you now, this battle will be remembered with Bunker Hill and Lexington and Concord. Not only because those were battles that formed a great nation, as this was a battle that saved one. But because they were small skirmishes that presaged a great and terrible war. And the survivors from those small skirmishes formed the core of the great army that arose from their ashes." He smiled faintly.
"But enough of the words. We all know there ain't no extra pay, and rations will be catch as catch can. But we still got plenty of medals!"
* * *
Rabun County, GA, United States of America, Sol III
1820 EDT October 14th, 2004 ad
The reporter from the local station shook water from the hood of his raincoat and looked at the camera.
"And three, two, one . . . Good afternoon, this is Tom Speltzer from WKGR, reporting from Habersham, Georgia. It seems like there are plenty of medals for the soldiers, but it wasn't only soldiers that beat the Posleen.
"I'm talking with Mr. Michael O'Neal, of Rabun Gap, Georgia, and his eight-year-old granddaughter, Cally O'Neal." The reporter turned and proffered the microphone to the elder O'Neal, standing in the pouring rain like a statue.
Mike Senior's camouflage raincoat shed the water like a duck and the hood worked much better than the reporter's. And he wasn't about to let the newsie bastard in the house.
"Mr. O'Neal, can you tell us what it felt like to have the Posleen assault your home?"
"Well, first of all, they never got to the house. We had 'em pretty well stopped down in the valley," he said, gesturing towards the distant entrance.
"We?" asked the reporter, surprised. "You had help?"
"From me!" piped up the little girl. "I ran the demo!"
The reporter's face took on that special look of false pleased surprise that adults affect when children interject unnecessarily. The report was going out live nationwide and he just had to shut the kid up as fast as possible. But what the hell was demo? "Really? Did that help?" he asked.
"Blew the shit out of the bastards," Cally said, ingenuously. "Must have killed half the damn company. We had the whole fuckin' woodline strung with claymores and I just blew the fuck out of them."
The camerawoman suppressed her laughter but expertly caught the frozen look on the reporter's face as he attempted to come up with a response to this.
"Cut to the old guy," snapped the producer. "Ask him about the name."
"And Mr. O'Neal, there's another O'Neal that has become famous, again. By exactly the same name . . ."
"That's my daddy!" said Cally excitedly. "He really rolled those centaur sons of bitches up, didn't 'e?"
The reporter had assumed that out of control runaway train expression again. Mike Senior decided to twist the knife. He worked the wad in his cheek around and spit. "I teached 'im ever'thang he knows," he drawled, looking right in the camera. And hoping like hell the damn monks could keep their vow of goddamned silence and not laugh their asses off. There were enough damn problems in the world without having to explain them.
In the background, a green Army sedan appeared out of the woodline, headed to the house. In the cold Georgia rain.
* * *
Walter Reed Army Hospital, Washington, DC
United States of America, Sol III
2015 EDT October 15th, 2004 ad
Keren knocked on the door of the room and nodded at the nurse who was just leaving.
The room smelled of disinfectant. It was an odor that raised the hackles on the back of his neck. To the lizard hindbrain, it meant that things were bad and going to get worse.
He looked down at the figure on the bed. There were three medals pinned to the pillow; apparently something had made it into the database before it all came apart at Lake Jackson. He shook his head and sat down.
"You really missed a good party," he whispered, pulling a bottle out of the recesses of his coat. The gold bars of a second lieutenant winked for a moment in the light over the bed. "The general was buying. Damn, he can drink. And that old snake of a warrant officer that followed him around. And the general told this story, damn it was funny, 'bout how come the warrant follows him around. It's all about an alligator and two bottles of bourbon."
So he told his friend the story. And he told her a couple of others, about how General Simosin and General Ford finally had it out and Ford accused Simosin of incompetence in front of a TV camera and Simosin dragged it all out in the open how Ford had opposed integrating the old-timers and screwed around so bad that there was no damn way anything could have gone right. So now Ford was out and Simosin was back at Tenth Corps and General Keeton was First Army.
And he told about the meeting between the new Prez and the Darhel. How the Prez had threatened to recall all the expeditionary forces unless the Darhel ponied up all the grav-guns we could stand. And how the Tir had finally agreed that all equipment would be at no cost and that husbanding the humans was the most important thing in the universe. But the pipeline was still plugged and the Fleet was takin' forever and most of the PDCs were smoking holes. . . .
And he told how some rag-head had made a stand to equal theirs, taking a bit of this unit and a bit of that and somehow putting enough steel in their spine to hold a vital pass against a whole swarm. Or so they said.
But India was a madhouse and nobody knew what was happening in the Africa swarm. And the one in Kazakhstan was just wandering around trying to find its way out of the plains. . . .
But finally the bottle was empty and it was time to leave.
"Well, Elgars. They say you might be able to hear me. And they tell me you might come out of it someday. I left the e-mail to my . . . our unit with them. They're taking all the survivors from The Stand at the Monument and making a special unit. You're included as one of us. You and all the other . . . wounded. And the dead. So, you can, you know . . ."
He stopped and wiped a tear away. "And I watched Pittets hang. You'd be happy to hear that. They didn't tie it the way I asked, I wanted him to kick for a while. But he's gone. And you know about the decorations." He tried to think of something else to say but nothing came. "I gotta go," he said, looking at his watch and trying not to look at the lovely face behind the tubes, as the machine sucked in and out.
"The Galactics, they're picking up the tab now. So there's no reason to, you know . . . to take you off. And they'll be moving you to a Sub-Urb. They've got plenty of room and really good facilities. So they're gonna leave you hooked up in case . . ."
He wished now he hadn't finished the bottle. He could use a little taste. He took her hand one last time. "Thanks for that shot on Sixth Street." He nodded at her, one soldier to another. "I know it saved you, too. But it still saved my ass." He nodded again, hoping that she would do the thing with grabbing his hand, but there was no response. "Well, bye, Elgars. Take care." Finally, he turned and left the room. Behind him it was silent except for the suck and whir of the machines.
* * *
Beyond the path of the outmost sun though utter darkness hurled—
Further than ever comet flared or vagrant star-dust swirled–
Live such as fought and sailed and ruled and loved and made our world.
They are purged of pride because they died, they know the worth of their bays,
They sit at wine with the Maidens Nine and the Gods of the Elder Days,
It is their will to serve or be still as fitteth Our Father's Praise.
'Tis theirs to sweep through the ringing deep where Azrael's outposts are,
Or buffet a path through the Pit's red wrath when God goes out to war,
Or hang with the reckless Seraphim on the rein of a red-maned star.
They take their mirth in the joy of the Earth–they dare not grieve for her pain.
They know of toil and the end of toil, they know God's Law is plain,
So they whistle the Devil to make them sport who know that Sin is vain.
And ofttimes cometh our Wise Lord God, master of every trade,