The early morning sun shone brightly off the Potomac, sending scattered rays of light to bathe the Lincoln Memorial and the National Academy of Sciences. Some of that light, and it was perhaps the only brightness to the place, indirectly lit the walls of the Department of State where a meeting, judged by some to be important, was taking place.
The President's National Security Advisor was not entitled to quite as much deference as a Darhel lordling. Thus, she was received in a second class conference room. It was facing towards the Potomac, true, but the furnishings and wall hangings were not of the best. It would never do for someone in such a quasi-military, politically-appointed position to be made to feel that she was somehow the equal of the senior career bureaucrats of State.
The Secretary of State, who was not a career bureaucrat, fumed. Someone, somewhere in the Byzantine halls of Foggy Bottom, had deliberately set this up to insult NSA and embarrass him.
NSA was there expressly to discuss some of the President's concerns with regard to what he had called "sabotage" of American policy in places ranging from Diess to Panama. In particular, today NSA was concerned with Panama.
If State showed contempt for NSA, it was as nothing to what NSA felt for State. She'd thought them, in her own words, "lily-white, weak-kneed, overbred, limp-wristed collaborators with the communists," back during the Cold War. "Our very own fifth column for the Kremlin . . . pseudo-intellectual moral cowards . . . poltroons." And she had said that on a day when she was in a good mood. Her opinion was even lower now, when it wasn't just America's freedom on the line, but the survival of humanity itself.
The Secretary of State, himself, on the other hand, she liked and even, to a degree, respected. A well-dressed, distinguished looking Wilsonian Republican with clear, intelligent eyes and a full head of hair going gray at the temples, SecState was simply unable to control the senior career bureaucrats who actually ran the department. NSA thought that perhaps no one could really control them, at least not without shooting a fair number to gain the attention and cooperation of the rest.
Even then, she thought, the shootings would have to be public and every one of the remainder would have to be forced to watch them. The ability of a State Department fool to deny unpleasant reality is deservedly the stuff of legend.
"I'm not a fool, madam," the secretary said, shaking his distinguished Websterian head slowly. "I know my department is rife with traitors, collaborators and people running their own agenda. What I lack is the ability to do all that much about it. They know the system. Sadly, I don't. They work together to cover for each other and keep me in the dark. No one's really been able to control them since at least 1932 or '33."
Before the NSA could make an answer, her cell phone rang. Smiling apologetically, she answered it. Her eyes grew suddenly wide as she swallowed nervously. "I understand, Mr. President," she said, quietly and sadly. "Yes, Mr. President, I'll tell the secretary."
NSA looked up to the secretary. "I am informed," she said, "that the Posleen have crushed the Army's corps to the south of us. The Posleen have broken through and are coming north. I am supposed to evacuate and the President suggests that you do the same."
The impeccably and expensively clad Undersecretary of State for Extraterrestrial Affairs looked at his phone and then, nervously, at his watch. 9:26. Shit, they were supposed to be ready to evacuate me by now.
The undersecretary stared nervously southward, across the Potomac to where the scattered remnants of a wrecked Army corps and a ceremonial regiment were fighting to the death to buy a little time. Columns of smoke rose skyward from more places than the diplomat could easily count. In fact, he didn't even try. What difference did the amount of destruction make? What mattered was where it was heading, and how quickly it might reach him, here at Foggy Bottom, or his family in Bethesda.
Again, the diplomat glared down at the phone. Again he looked at his watch to see that bare minutes had passed. He started to reach for the phone, to contact his Darhel handler, when there came a bright flash from across the Potomac, from the general vicinity of Fort Myer and Henderson Hall. Following the flash a shock wave arose, turned dark by the smoke, dust, lumber and other debris it picked up and flung outward in all directions. The broad river itself bowed downward under the force, the passage of the shock wave plainly visible as a fast moving furrow in the water.
In less time than it takes to tell, the diplomat uttered, "Shit," and threw himself violently to the floor, damage to his suit be damned. The shock wave dissipated rapidly but, given the amount of GalTech C-9 explosive the Marines had packed into Henderson Hall, it was still enough when it reached the Department of State to shatter the windows, rip loose bricks, and raise the overpressure inside the well-appointed office enough to knock the undersecretary out cold.
Which was a pity from the point of view of the undersecretary and his family, for the phone with his evacuation instructions began to ring mere minutes after he was rendered unconscious.
Because her evacuation instructions didn't depend on alien star transport, and because she had no family to sweat over, the National Security Advisor was not anxiously awaiting a phone call when the blast struck. Instead, she and a couple of aides awaited transportation by the parking lot abutting Virginia Avenue to the northeast of the State Department Building. The group heard the helicopter coming in down Twenty-Third Street before they saw it. When they did see it . . .
"My God . . . I've heard of treetop level flying, but automobile antenna level flying? Christ!"
The helicopter had just pulled up to a hover when the blast struck. Though it was in the lee of the storm, being behind the massive State Department Building, shock waves like that tend to flow and fill any space available to be filled. The NSA was knocked down flat on the concrete, scraping her rather delicate and attractive nose. For the helicopter, completely unsheltered from the blast, the pilot's ability to control was overwhelmed. The chopper pitched onto one side and then slammed, hard, into a stout tree. It began to smolder but before it could burst into flames the four man crew emerged out of the side that was open to the sky and scurried away. Two of them carried one of their number who appeared to be unconscious—plus a rifle each—and one more carried the pintle-mounted door machine gun he had had the presence of mind not to leave behind.
Catching sight of the secretary's party as its members staggered to their feet, the warrant officer in charge pointed. The small group ran over as fast as they could, given the body they were dragging.
"Madam," the warrant announced, "Chief Warrant Officer Stone at your service. We were sent to get you but . . ."
"But sometahms things don' quaht work out," the NSA finished with a beautiful, soft Birmingham accent. She was a lady, she was supremely well educated and the daughter of well educated people, as well. But every now and again, under extreme stress, that Alabama accent came out. Nose scraping tended to be a stressful sort of thing.
"Would one ah you fahn gentlemen have a rahfle or a pistol to spare? Mah Daddy, the minister, always said it was better to hahve a gun an' not need it, than to need one and not hahve it. An' Ah think that, raht about now, Ah need one."
The warrant passed over his own pistol, admiringly. Then, hearing firing coming from the south, from the direction of the Lincoln Memorial, the warrant said, "Ma'am, my orders were to get you out. They intended me to fly you out. But that wasn't actually specified. We're going out on foot."
The party headed north on Twenty-First then east on F. Stone—out of radio contact—thought that if there was anyplace from which the NSA had a chance of being evacuated quickly and safely it would be the White House.
The undersecretary for E-T Affairs awakened slowly. Still groggy, he managed to stand and stare out the window of his office toward where Henry Bacon Drive met Constitution Avenue. The intersection was, itself, blocked by the National Academy for the Sciences.
"Oh, my God," he uttered in shock at the sight of a small horde of Posleen coming up Henry Bacon. They apparently turned right once reaching Constitution, the undersecretary could see many of them marching to the east along that broad thoroughfare.
They didn't all turn right, though. Some turned left and skirted the Academy of Sciences building. These marched straight towards State. One look at the fearsome aliens and the undersecretary felt something very warm and very wet begin to run down his leg.
"Run!" shouted Stone as the party came in visual contact with a group of Posleen in the process of storming the Executive Office Building. The sighting was mutual and a subgroup of Posleen turned from their task and began to pursue.
"This way," the secretary ordered. The party turned north on Nineteenth Street, skirting the World Bank.
"Mr. . . . Stone," the lone machine gunner said, panting. "I've run all I can and I'm not runnin' anymore. Y'all go on without me." The secretary recognized an accent not too dissimilar to her own, if perhaps a bit less classy.
"Sergeant Wallace," the warrant said, "you will keep up."
"Nossah, Mr. Stone," the sergeant answered. "I ain't nevah run from nothin' in mah life. And I ain't gonna get in the habit now. Y'all go on. I'll hold them up heah for a whahl." The sergeant tipped his helmet at the secretary. "Ma'am," he said, "Alabama's raht proud o' you."
With the sigh and a sad little smile, the secretary answered, "Sarn't Wallace, your country is raht proud o' you, too."
The machine gun was already firing, at much faster than its normal and sustainable rate, before the secretary and the others turned into the World Bank.
"That wasn't really . . . ?" the secretary began to ask.
"No, ma'am. That Wallace died some years ago. This was just a first cousin, twice removed."
"Remarkable resemblance," the secretary commented.
"Not in everything, Ma'am," the warrant answered.
"Look, I'll give you everything," the undersecretary begged. He opened a valise and held out Galactic bearer bonds to illustrate. The Posleen normal brushed them aside impatiently with the flat of his boma blade.
A slightly taller Posleen with an erect, feathered crest entered the room where the human had been found. He snarled, whistled and grunted several questions, none of which the human could answer. Indeed, he didn't really understand them as questions at all.
The Kessentai said something to the normal, who shrugged and picked the undersecretary up by one arm, dragging him from the room. The entire time the human continued to beg, to make offers of deals, to promise vast largesse. The Kessentai understood not a word—he didn't speak the language—how could the normal, who spoke no language and barely understood that used by its masters?
The normal dragged the still protesting diplomat downstairs and then through some smashed doors into the central courtyard of the building. Other normals, or perhaps they were cosslain, did likewise with other humans that had been found hiding in the building. Soon there were hundreds of terrified humans gathered there, under the soaring eagle sculpture in the open north courtyard. Still, it was only hundreds of the thousands who normally worked in the little offices and cubicles of the State Department. The rest were fleeing north on foot.
An alien, the undersecretary thought it might be the same Kessentai he had previously "met," stuck his head out to look down into the courtyard and shouted something.
One of the normals in the courtyard guarding the humans drew his boma blade and made a gesture. When the human, who understood all too well what the gesture meant, balked, the Posleen simply grabbed her hair and pulled her into a kneeling position. The descending blade cut her screams off very quickly. The normal passed the bloody head to another to slice off the skull cap and remove the brain. The first then began to slice the body into easily transportable chunks.
The undersecretary inched back, trying to get as many people between himself and the Posleen rendering party as possible. The Posleen noticed this and, instead of gaining himself more time, the diplomat was next to be summoned. He began to scream as soon as the alien claw pointed at him, calling him to face a justice higher than the alien could have imagined.
* * *
Once the main assault had been crushed and there was no real chance of successful Posleen reinforcement of their bridgehead over the Potomac, headquarters for the First of the Five-Fifty-Fifth released B Company under Lieutenant Rogers to clear the State Department of Posleen. Sergeant Stewart and his squad were first to reach the northern courtyard of the building. The men didn't retch, but only because such sights, headless corpses half butchered and laid out for complete rendering, had become all too commonplace.
Stewart walked among the corpses, apparently unmoved. "Pretty gross, ain't it, Manuel?" the one called "Wilson" said on the private circuit.
The Hispanic sergeant, hiding under the name of Jimmy Stewart shrugged his shoulders and answered, "I dunno. What good did these chigadera motherfuckers ever do anyone? Why weren't they in the Army? Just turnabout, you ask me; a neat switch."