/ Language: English / Genre:sf_action / Series: Legacy of the Aldenata

Gust Front

John Ringo

The aliens had arrived with gifts, warnings, and an offer we couldn’t refuse… Our choice was simple: we could be cannon fodder, or we could be… fodder. We could send our forces to fight and die (as only humans can) against a ravening horde that was literally feeding on its interstellar conquests — or remain as we were — virtually weaponless and third in line for brunch. We chose to fight. Thanks to alien technology and sheer guts, the Terrans on two worlds fought the Posleen to a standstill. Thank God there was a moment to catch our breath, a moment, however brief, of peace. Now, for the survivors of the Barwhon and Diess Expeditionary Forces, it was a chance to get some distance from the blood and misery of battle against the Posleen centaurs. A blessed chance to forget the screams of the dying in purple swamps and massacres under searing alien suns. For Earth it was an opportunity to flesh out their force of raw recruits with combat-seasoned veterans. Political, military and scientific blundering had left the Terran forces in shambles — and with the Posleen invasion only months away, these shell-shocked survivors might be the only people capable of saving the Earth from devastation. If the veterans had time to lick their wounds. Because the Posleen don’t read schedules.

Gust Front

by John Ringo

In Memory of William Pryor Ringo, Engineer Extraordinaire.

Prologue

“Well, Tir, you think your plans for the humans are working?”

The Darhel Ghin waved a stick of incense through the air and placed the message to the Lords on the Altar of Communication. The background of melodiously chiming song-crystals and the mirrored silver colonnades aided his contemplation of the multitudinous alternate futures. At the moment he sorely needed the aid. Most of the futures looked bleak.

His Indowy body attendants lifted his robes as he rose and turned to the attendant Tir. The younger Darhel’s foxlike face was the well-trained mien of a senior Darhel manager. He returned the Ghin’s ear flick of polite query with total impassivity. In fact better than two-thirds of the overall plan was in total disarray, mostly because of the actions of a single lucky individual. Admitting that, however, was not a route to power. And there was little for this old fossil to pick apart. The entirety of the plan was known only to himself.

“No plan unfolds in perfection,” the Tir said smoothly. “That is the purpose of management.”

The elfin Ghin flicked his ears again. The gesture was deliberately ambiguous. It might have been polite agreement. Or it might have been polite disbelief. The difference was subtle. “We retain Diess.”

The Ghin deliberately did not ascribe that as a positive or a negative trait. Destroying the allied human forces arrayed to defend the planet might or might not have been part of the young pup’s plan. Leaving the statement ambiguous was a deliberate trap with overtones he doubted the Tir was aware of.

The Tir flared his nostrils in agreement and glanced at the gathered Indowy. “It is an important world.” The corporations of Diess were entirely Darhel-controlled despite the billions of Indowy residents. The laborers of the Federation were as disposable as bacteria. “The revenue is significant.”

The Ghin’s nostrils flared. As expected the young fool had sidestepped. “And Barwhon as well.”

“Regrettably the human loss there has been great.” The expression he displayed now was one copied from humans, cat-pupilled vertical-lidded eyes opening wide. The wide mobile mouth turned down, exposing the edge of sharklike teeth. Even the ears drooped. It was a subtle and effective expression and one difficult to copy. Humans would have slumped in apparent defeat as well. Sorrow was not a Darhel emotion. Hatred, yes. Anger, definitely. Sorrow? No.

The Ghin took a moment to contemplate his own plans. The Ghin knew that the road to mastery was not one of plots alone. A clear understanding of reality was paramount. That the young fool had risen to his current place was a sign that the quality of the opposition had fallen off.

Or of a deeply laid plan.

The Ghin gave an internal flare to the nostrils. No. No deep plans here. His own plans had every path to the future open to his own designs, and every path shut to the young fool. There were no flaws in his approach. It was a warm feeling.

“Your plan will require further… adjustment? You were frustrated on Diess by the actions of a single human.”

“Yes, Your Ghin,” agreed the Tir. He had set the trap and the old fool had wandered right in. “I fear my presence on Earth will be required for the next phase.”

“And that is?” The Ghin set the targan trap and waited for the quarry.

The Tir’s face settled into even less readable lines. The next phase was obvious. Even to this old fool. “The humans must enter the path to enlightenment. Individuality is an obstacle to oneness that must be overcome.”

“And you propose to do that how?” The Ghin flicked his ears again in that deliberately ambiguous manner.

“There are so many paths to success it would take days to describe. Suffice it to say that the humans must be pawns to the Path of Enlightenment. Their myth of individuality shall be crushed and with it their passion. The way of passion is not the way to success in our current endeavors. Nor is it the way to enlightenment.”

The Tir paused, trembling slightly. “The time of heroes is past. And the time of certain individuals in particular is long past.” The Tir was a master of facial control, but his control of body language was still spotty. The deep breath and rippling of muscles along the upper limbs spoke of surging anger.

The young fool was on the edge of lintatai! The Ghin schooled his face into immobility. The Tir had been reading his reports and analyses too long. He had forgotten that, hidden deep beneath the veneer of civilization, the heart of the Darhel was the heart of a frustrated warrior. This was the very urge that he now fought. And that heart told the Ghin that his opponent had seriously miscalculated. Humans would not be so easily vanquished as a threat to Darhel control.

“I am joyful that our people have such exquisite leadership,” the Ghin said. Then he also copied a human expression as his lips drew back in a broad smile. The glittering teeth of a rending carnivore were exposed for all to see and the watching Indowy shut their eyes and turned away. None of them had the stupidity to actually run or otherwise embarrass the Darhel lords, but none of them would ever forget the sight. “Our future is in good hands.”

Chapter 1

Ttckpt Province, Barwhon V

1625 GMT November 23rd, 2003 ad

Kabul town was ours to take —
Blow the trumpet draw the sword —
I’d ha’ left it for ’is sake —
’Im that left me by the ford.
Ford, ford, ford o’ Kabul river,
Ford o’ Kabul river in the dark!

— “Ford O’ Kabul River”

Rudyard Kipling

A burst of machine gun fire took the lead Posleen in the chest. The orange tracer of the fifth bullet drifted past the crumpling creature as steaming yellow blood stained the purple ferns of the undergrowth. The company of centaurlike aliens began to spread to either side as the remainder of the humans opened fire. The ford behind the humans echoed a liquid chuckle, as if laughing at the poor soldiers called to their deaths by its aberrant presence.

Captain Robert Thomas peered through the ever-present mists and whispered a call for fire as the Posleen deployed. His company was heavily outnumbered by the approaching Posleen battlegroup and low on soldiers, ammunition and morale. But they had also dug in on the soggy, forward side of the ford. The unit had a choice of fight or die. Crossing the ford with the Posleen at their backs would be a losing proposition.

It was a desperate position to take, almost suicidal. But unless someone got their thumbs out and reinforced them, the surprise strike by the Posleen would turn the flank of the entire Fourth Armored Division. In a situation like this Thomas knew his duty. Place his soldiers on the deadliest ground possible; when the choice is death or death, soldiers tend to fight the hardest. It was the oldest military axiom in the book.

The heavy vegetation of Barwhon had prevented engaging the centaurs at maximum range, so it was the sort of point-blank shoot-out that favored the Posleen. Thomas grunted in anger as his Second platoon’s machine gun section was taken out by a wash of plasma fire, then snarled as the first God King made an appearance.

There were several ways to distinguish the God Kings of the Posleen from the combatant “normals” that made up the bulk of the Posleen forces. The first thing was that they were larger than normals, being about seventeen hands at the complex double shoulder versus the normal’s fourteen to fifteen hands. The second thing was that they had high feathery crests running along their backs and opening forward like the ceremonial headdress of the plains Indians. But the main way to distinguish a God King from its bonded normals was the silvery ground-effect saucer it rode.

The device was not only transportation. A pintle-mounted heavy weapon — in this case a hypervelocity missile launcher — bespoke its prime reason for existence. In addition the vehicle mounted a mass of sophisticated sensors. Some God Kings used them actively, others passively, but the sensor suite was just as dangerous in its own way as the heavy weapon. Denying information to the enemy is the second oldest lesson of warfare.

However, in the last year of give-and-take in the jungles of Barwhon V humans had learned a few lessons about fighting God Kings. All the heavy weapons of the company redirected their fire to the forces around the saucer as the company’s sniper targeted the God King and its vehicle.

Well before the units had left the blue-and-white ball of Terra, the American military had begun modifying their weapons to deal with the changed threat. First the venerable M-16 had been replaced with a heavier caliber rifle capable of stopping the horse-sized Posleen. In addition there had been changes to the sniper force.

Ever since snipers were reactivated as a position in the 1980s there had been debates about the appropriate standard rifle. The debate was ended by a special operations group deployed to Barwhon. The only reason that any of the reconnaissance team survived to see the green hills of Earth was the use of a .50 caliber rifle by the team’s sniper.

The debate went on over the use of bolt-action versus semiautomatic. However, that was a debate for military philosophers. The M-82, the semiautomatic “Murfreesboro Five-Oh,” had become the weapon of choice.

Now SP4 John Jenkins demonstrated why. He had chosen to set up on a slight mound behind the company and across the gurgling ford from the likely direction of contact. His coverall, sewn all over with dangling strips of burlap, made him invisible to the naked eye. However, the God King’s sensors would not be fooled. To avoid having the sniper detected, the company had to cover his actions with mass fire.

As the M-60s of the three line platoons took the forces around the God King under heavy fire the specialist triggered a single round from the thirty-pound sniper rifle. His two-hundred-pound body rocked from the recoil and the saturated ground under him squished in shock.

The round that the rifle used was essentially the same one used by the time-honored M-2 .50 caliber machine gun. Three times the size of a .30-06 round, it had a muzzle velocity normally associated with antiaircraft cannons. A fraction of a second after the recoil shoved the heavy-set sniper backwards, the armor-piercing bullet struck the saucer to the left of the pintle base.

The Teflon-coated tungsten-cored bullet penetrated the cover of an innocuous box at the God King’s feet. Then it penetrated the slightly heavier interior wall. After that it passed through a crystalline matrix. It would have passed entirely through the matrix but its passage had disturbed the delicate balance of the power crystals that drove the heavy antigravity sled.

The power crystals used a charge field to hold molecules in a state of high-order flexion which permitted tremendous energy to be stored by the crystals. However, the flexion was maintained by a small field generator embedded deep in the matrix. When the dynamic shock of the bullet shattered the field generator, the energy of the crystals was released in a blast equivalent to half a ton of high explosives.

The God King vanished in a green actinic flash along with better than half his company as the shrapnel from the shattered saucer washed outward. The fireball consumed the two dozen remaining senior normals immediately around the saucer and the blast and shrapnel killed better than a hundred and fifty more.

The first volley of cluster ammunition artillery seemed almost anticlimactic to Captain Thomas. The next wave of Posleen disagreed.

* * *

“Echo Three Five this is Pappa One Six, over,” Thomas whispered hoarsely. The past two hours had been a blur of charging Posleen, hammering artillery and dying soldiers. He felt that they were about done. He blew on his hand to warm it and stared out at the battlefield. The slope down to their position was littered with Posleen corpses but the damn horses just kept coming. As usual, there was no way to tell how many more there were — aerial reconnaissance was a distant memory in the face of the God King sensors and weapons. But there were at least two thousand scattered in front of his company. The bare hundred soldiers he had brought to the table had destroyed twenty times their number.

However, the horrific casualty ratios were beside the point. He was down to less than a reinforced platoon and the next push should slice through them like a hot knife through butter. The problem with fighting the Posleen was rarely killing them; the problem was killing enough of them to matter. Unless the promised reinforcements arrived he was going to have destroyed his whole company for nothing. Having been on Barwhon since the first day the Allied Expeditionary Force arrived, the captain could handle killing his entire company. It had happened before and it would happen again; the unit had had two hundred percent turnover in personnel in the last year. But it irked him when it was for nothing.

He dropped back into his water-filled foxhole. The cold, viscous liquid came up to his waist when he sat on the bottom. He ignored the discomfort — mud was as common on Barwhon as death — slid another clip of twenty-millimeter grenades into his AIW and called brigade again. “Echo Three Five this is Pappa One Six, over.” No response. He pulled a steel mirror out of his thigh pocket and held it up where he could see the battlefield. The tired officer shook his head, put the mirror away and jacked a grenade into place.

He moved to a kneeling position and took a deep breath. With a convulsive lunge he popped up and fired a string of grenades into a set of normals that looked ready to charge.

In general, once their God Kings were killed the normals gave one burst for glory then ran. But some of them were more aggressive than others. This group was hanging around, exchanging some fairly effective fire and generally being a pain in the ass. Since most of his troops were scrounging ammunition, patching wounds and preparing for the next heavy assault they did not have time to deal with harassment. This would have been Jenkins’s job, but he had bought it almost an hour before. So the company commander spun another group of grenades at the idiot centaurs, dropped back into his hole and switched out magazines. Again. Overhead flechette rounds flailed his hole for a moment and then stopped. Posleen normals were so stupid they had eclipsed all other ethnic jokes.

“Echo Three Five, this is Pappa One Six,” he whispered into the microphone. “We are under heavy attack. Estimate regimental strength or better. We need reinforcements. Over.” His company was good; after this long they had to be. But ten-to-one odds was a little much without prepared defenses. Hell, ten-to-one against the Posleen with prepared defenses was a little much. What was needed was a concrete or rubble wall and a moat filled with punji stakes. Not a company on the ass-end of nowhere and barely enough time to dig in. No mines, no claymores, no concertina and damn sure no support.

The radio crackled. “Pappa One Six, this is Echo Three Five, actual.” At that moment Captain Thomas knew he was screwed. If the brigade commander was calling it could only mean the shit had truly hit the fan.

“Situation understood. The second of the one-ninety-eighth was ambushed during movement to reinforce you. We have at least another regiment moving uncoordinated in the brigade’s rear area.”

In the pause Thomas closed his eyes in realization of what that meant. With over two thousand Posleen in the brigade’s vulnerable rear, there was no way they were going to be able to spare reinforcements.

“Your retreat route is impassable, Captain. There are Posleen all over it.” There was another pause. The sigh at the other end was clear even over the frequency-clipping radio. “It is imperative that you hold your position. If we have time we can handle this. But if another oolt’ondar breaks in right now the whole salient will be in jeopardy.” There was another pause as the colonel on the other end of the phone tried to find something else to say.

Captain Thomas thought about what it must be like to be on the other end of the phone. The brigade commander had been here as long as Thomas and they knew each other well; the commander had pinned on Thomas’s first lieutenant and captain’s bars. Now he was sitting in the heated tactical operations center, staring at the radio, telling one of his subordinate commanders that the situation had just murdered him. That he and his whole unit were nothing but centaur fodder. And that they not only had to die, but that they had to die as hard as possible. Die alone and forlorn in the cold purple mists.

Half the unit was veterans, the usual proportion in experienced combat units. After the first week of firefights most of the non-survivors were gone. As time went by the occasional veteran would be killed and the occasional newbie would survive. The two-hundred-percent turnover generally occurred in the newbies who did not learn fast enough. At this point in the battle Captain Thomas figured that most of the newbies had already bought it and those remaining were mainly veterans. That meant that they might just die as hard as brigade wanted them to.

He shook his head and stared up into the violet sky. He closed his eyes for just a moment and tried to conjure up the sky over Kansas. The smell of baking wheat and the hot, dry wind of the prairie. The blue bowl of the sky on a cool autumn day as the sky seemed to stretch to infinity. Then with a final sigh he switched the radio to the local frequency and keyed the mike.

* * *

Staff Sergeant Bob Duncan closed the sightless eyes of the captain and looked around.

The autoprojector of his helmet system sensed the tensing of his neck muscles and swiveled the viewpoint around the area of the ford. Target points and intelligence information — trickled deep into his eyes by tiny laser diodes — cascaded across his view unnoticed. Calculations of Posleen and human casualties flickered across the top of his view as the artificial intelligence that drove the armor calculated blood stains and damage assessment. The soft puffs of recycled air that drifted across his mouth and nose were, fortunately, devoid of smell. Nannites swarmed across his eyelids, automatically collecting the water that threatened to drown the vision tunnel.

The powered combat armor automatically adjusted the light levels so they remained constant. The resulting lack of shadows gave the scenery a flat look. After a year and a half of combat Duncan had become so used to it the effect was unnoticeable unless he took his armor off. Since that had last happened nearly six weeks before, “real” vision seemed abnormal.

The advancing Posleen forces had done their usual bang-up job of removing all the corpses from the battlefield. Since humans and Posleen were both edible, they considered humans nothing but tactical problems or rations. The Posleen word for human was “threshkreen.” It translated more or less as “food with a stinger.” Which made the captain’s unmolested body all the more unusual.

Duncan picked up the stick thrust into the ground beside the officer. Duncan had seen one exactly twice before, both times when bodies of commanders were left unmolested. This time, however, the body was on a mound of dirt that must have taken some time to construct. Duncan examined the indecipherable writing on the stick for a moment then picked the stiffening corpse up in his arms. The body’s weight was as nothing to the powered battle armor, light as a feather with the soul fled to some region beyond this blood-torn realm. He started trotting.

“Duncan,” called his platoon sergeant, first noting the movement on sensors then turning to eyeball the retreating suit. “Where the hell do you think you’re going?”

Duncan appeared deaf. He continued to trot back along the trail the suits had used to retake the ford. Here was where the Posleen regiment from the ford had made its stand. The gigantic trees of the Barwhon jungle were flayed, their branches stripped of leaves, massive trunks shattered from heavy-weapons fire.

There was where the last of the scattered Posleen regiment had been overrun. A final pile of bodies indicated where the normals piled on their beleaguered God Kings in a last-ditch attempt to save them from the advancing armored monsters. A pile of combat suits attested to their effectiveness when cornered.

There was where the suits had been ambushed in turn. A God King corpse — pooling yellow blood staining the ground — was sprawled across a shattered suit awaiting recovery. No miracles of modern technology for that trooper; the readouts of the armor showed the telltale signs of a penetration.

Once a Posleen penetrator round entered a suit it tended to stay inside, caroming around like a blender blade. The only sign of damage on the armor was a tiny hole. It still leaked red. Private Arnold was a newbie and with his pureeing the company of one hundred and thirty nominal suits was down to fifty-two functional. That fifty-two had been reduced to forty by the time the unit retook the ford.

Duncan continued on in the ground-eating lope of the armored combat suits. His mind was a blank, without purpose or desire, simply cruising on autopilot.

He finally entered the area of the brigade command. The scattered positions were already being reconsolidated. The damaged vehicles were under repair or being towed off as graves’ registration teams moved around “taggin’ and baggin’ ” the bodies of the dead soldiers. Each of the casualties was being fitted with a tag indicating name, location, unit and general nature of death; then the bodies were loaded into black plastic body bags for processing and burial. The cleanup crews would get to the swath of destruction from the armored combat suits in their own good time. The swath from the Posleen, of course, would not need them.

Duncan finally slowed as he neared the brigade’s tactical operations center. He noted without caring the expressions on the faces of the MPs at the entrance and the platoon of troops dug-in around the command post.

The Galactic-supplied combat suits were made without any face shields; their visual repeaters took the place of that possible weakness. The MPs and security troops were faced with a featureless front of faceted plasteel that was impregnable to any Terrestrial weapon; a similar suit had survived a blast from a nuclear weapon. Although there were a few hypervelocity missile launchers in the area, there were none at the TOC. So there was no stopping this juggernaut unless reason or orders worked.

One of the MPs decided to try. She was either braver or more foolish than her fellow as she stepped out into Duncan’s path and held up a hand like a traffic cop.

“Hold it right there, soldier. I don’t care if you are Fleet, you don’t have authorit—” Duncan never even slowed and the half-ton suit tossed her aside like a rag doll. Her fellow MP rushed to her side but other than a bruised rib and an assault on her dignity she was unharmed.

The TOC was three prefabricated structures hooked together. The doors were not designed to accommodate armored combat suits but that was moot. The door and frame resisted his suit as well as wet tissue paper and he continued through the briefing area and down a short hall to the commander’s office. The startled brigade staff followed him.

The brigade commander had his door open. He watched the battle-scorched apparition stalk down the hall towards him without expression. The suit was covered in gouges from glancing hits and splattered with drying Posleen blood. It looked like a mechanical demon from some hell devoted to battle. As the commander recognized who was cradled in the arms of the suit his expression altered, becoming terrible and fey.

Duncan walked up to the commander’s desk and gently set the captain’s husk on the scattered papers. One of Barwhon’s ubiquitous beetles hovered over the open mouth and terribly disfigured face. The mortal blow of a Posleen combat blade had opened the side of Thomas’s head like an egg.

Duncan tapped a control on the forearm of the suit, activating the surface speakers. “I brought him home,” he said.

The colonel continued to stare up at the angled slab of plasteel armor in front of his desk. The suit radiated heat from blows of kinetic energy weapons, and the stink of putrefying Posleen was thick and hot. He started to open his mouth to speak, but stopped and worked his mouth as if trying to clear his throat.

“I brought him home,” said Duncan again, and laid the stick across the captain’s body.

The symbol was one that had become universally familiar since the landing. Many were to be found among the rear area troopers, each supposedly authentic. In fact there had only been eight confirmed recoveries of them and the real ones were all accounted for, all carefully laid to rest with their owners. Between them the owners of the staffs had collected four Medals of Honor, three Distinguished Service Crosses and Silver Stars innumerable. The staff alone was guarantee of at least the Star. The colonel’s hand went over his mouth and unmanly tears coursed down his cheeks at the sight of the ninth. He cleared his throat again and took a deep breath.

“Thank you, Sergeant,” he said, tearing his eyes away from the warrior staff. “Thank you.” The suit was swaying in front of his eyes and for a moment he thought it was an optical illusion. But it was soon apparent it was not. Duncan dropped to his knees with a rumble that shook the flimsy building and wrapped his arms around himself.

What was going on inside the suit was impossible to discern, but the colonel had a very good idea. He got up and walked around the desk, with a passing pat on the shoulder to his former subordinate now leaking red all over a report titled “Manpower Requirements FY 2003.” The colonel crouched down and put his arm around the shoulders of the gigantic suit.

“Come on, Sergeant,” he said as tears continued to course down his cheek. “Let’s get you out of that suit.”

CHAPTER 2

Ft. Indiantown Gap, PA, United States of America, Sol III

1423 EST January 18th, 2004 ad

It shouldn’t oughta be this way, thought Lieutenant Colonel Frederic (Fred) Hanson.

The incoming commander of the First Battalion Five-Fifty-Fifth Mobile Infantry Regiment had years before retired from the Army as an Eighty-Second Airborne Division brigade executive officer. He was familiar from long experience with monumental screwups, but this one took the grand prize.

The way a unit is usually activated — from scratch or from “regimental reserve” — is from the top down. The commanders of the activated units would meet with their officers and work through a plan of activation. The plan could either be supplied or one they developed themselves. In good time the various senior noncommissioned officers would arrive, usually with the subordinate commanders and staff. Then the soldiers would arrive, before the staff was ready but after all the officers and NCOs basically had their feet under them. The equipment would arrive, training schedules would be finalized and the units would begin to come together. Slowly they would become a unit instead of a collection of individuals. In time they would be sent off to war — rarely are units pulled from storage in peacetime — and the hard work of the formation would be forgotten in the harder work of combat.

Under the best of circumstances it is a careful dance of supplying the right number of officers and NCOs along with their equipment. In any war the cannon fodder is the easiest to lay your hands on and trained and confident junior officers the hardest.

In the case of the First Battalion, Five-Fifty-Fifth MIR — or for that matter any of the battalions forming throughout the world — the process did not occur so smoothly. Fred Hanson thought he had seen every possible combination of mistakes the United States Army had in store. As the borrowed Humvee pulled into the activation area he was forced to admit he was wrong. This time the Army had made one small mistake, actually microscopic, with macroscopic implications.

The Terran Ground Defense Commands — the various national armies of earth — were not worried about trained personnel. In return for humanity’s help in battling the Posleen, one of the first technologies offered by the Galactic Federation was a rejuvenation process. A long-retired senior officer could take a graduated series of shots, possibly go through a few simple surgical procedures, and drop away years. Within a few weeks, months at most, the patient would end up an apparent twenty or so. Thus many of the senior military personnel retired over the previous decades were available for recall in a time of planetary need. There was, however, one tiny difficulty.

The rejuvenation program was matrixed on a combination of final rank and present age. An E-9, a Sergeant Major in the Army or a Senior Master Chief in the Navy, would be called up if he or she were within forty years of service, an E-8 within 39. The scale progressed down to the point where a soldier or sailor who left the service as an E-1 could be called up within twenty years of service. Officers followed a similar matrix.

The personnel of the first enlisted and officer ranks who had been out of service longest were the first called up and rejuvenated. Thus, in the United States, there was a sudden influx of extremely senior officers and NCOs, many of whom last heard a shot fired in anger during the Tet Offensive.

Simultaneously there was a general call-up of personnel shortly out of service and a universal draft. This created a rush of lower-ranking officers and NCOs along with a mass of low-rank enlisted. The rejuv program was designed to supply an equivalent number of field-grade officers, the military’s equivalent of middle management.

There was a gap, but there would be more than sufficient capacity to provide command structure and unit integrity. For the first time in the history of an emergency call-up, there would be an overabundance of trained enlisted and commissioned personnel.

The two programs were carefully and strategically timed so that there would be enough recalled senior officers and NCOs to fill all the slots allotted to them. If all went well, before the secondlieutenants, first lieutenants and captains along with their respective platoon sergeants and first sergeants got to their units, the brigade and battalion commanders and staff would be in place with their feet on the ground, their “warpaint” on, and an activation plan ready to get into gear.

Unfortunately for the plan, about the time the rejuvenation program reached the level of master sergeants and full colonels, brigade commanders and very senior staff officers, the nannites started to run low. While Galactic technology was impressive, Galactic production capacity was hampered by cottage-industry techniques. As with combat technology, human techniques were slowly gaining currency. That did not, however, help with the critical nannite shortage.

There was virtually no way to slow down the training and deployment of the new draft and the recalled prior service that did not need rejuvenation, so suddenly the Army and Navy had a whole bunch of chiefs and quite a few Indians but not many people to help them communicate.

Colonel Hanson had been briefed on the situation so the sight of trailers stretching off into the distance was not a shock, but the conditions were.

The area was a former live-fire range. He had spent one hot nasty week there as an observer/controller and he remembered it well. Now it was the snowy home of two regular infantry divisions and a Fleet Strike Armored Combat Suit battalion along with support for the activated but still widely distributed Twenty-eighth Mechanized Division formerly of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard.

There were twenty-six thousand personnel on the Table of Organization and Equipment of an infantry division and almost eight hundred in an ACS battalion. Hanson was one of the first crop of O-5 and below to be rejuvenated and he knew that this seething mass of humanity was critically short on senior officers.

The trailers were laid out in battalion and brigade formations with the battalion offices to the notional front and the battalion commander’s, staff’s, and senior NCOs’ housing to either side. To either side of this “headshed” formation was a company street. Stretching down one side of the company street behind the battalion area were the company offices surrounded by officers’ and senior NCOs’ quarters and supply. Across the street were the enlisted barracks. Each enlisted barracks held fourteen personnel in six two-man rooms and two single rooms for squad leaders.

The companies of one battalion backed on a parade field; across the field was another battalion and the process started again. However, there were over nine thousand trailers in a mass a couple of miles on a side. And, although the personnel were theoretically barracked with NCOs nearby, most of these people were not even soldiers yet, much less units, and the senior NCOs, E-6s, -7s and -8s, were virtually absent.

By the time the rejuv situation turned critical, the pipeline was already full of incoming soldiers. Since basic trainees need constant supervision, the majority of the incoming senior NCOs were going to training units. Battalions in that seething mass were being commanded by captains and companies by brand-new second lieutenants. Most of the companies had staff sergeants as first sergeants, if they were lucky, and often only sergeant E-5s. Without the backbone of a solid NCO and officer corps, command and control was spotty. The children were all home but the parents were trickling in late.

So he had been told by the G-1 Personnel Officer of the Fifteenth Mechanized Infantry Division, and the picture was worse than any briefing could paint. He saw sections of the canton where control had obviously broken down completely. There was laundry strung on the walls of the barracks, garbage littering the company streets and soldiers openly fighting. Groups of soldiers huddled around fires, some of them in shreds of uniform that must barely be fighting off the Pennsylvania winter cold. One block was a mass of fire-torn trailers where a party had apparently gotten out of hand. Other areas were orderly, reflecting the attitudes of the junior officers and NCOs put in charge.

Without his battalion commanders and brigade and battalion staffs in place, the activation commander effectively had his hands tied. There was absolutely no way for a few generals, a handful of “bird” colonels and some sergeant majors to police fifty thousand people. The entire activation had been based on the rejuv program and with that prop kicked out it had fallen apart. Food and supplies were arriving and that was all the rampant juvenile delinquents in the cantonment cared about.

As the Humvee pulled into “his” battalion area Colonel Hanson wanted to cry. It was one of the “bad” areas, the kind of block he would have been loath to walk in without a weapon and body armor. He gestured for the driver to pull down a company street and was appalled. The battalion area was nice enough. It had a rock-bordered entrance to the headquarters and the sidewalks were shoveled and swept. But with one exception the company areas were a disgrace. He could see sections of the barracks that had been ripped away in apparently casual vandalism and garbage covered the ground.

As the driver swung around the back side of the battalion area he saw that the last company was quite neat. Furthermore it had posted guards clad in Fleet Strike gray “combat silks” outside the company offices and was running two-man patrols between the barracks. Since the weapons were M-300 grav-guns the show of force was impressive. The M-300 weighed twenty-three pounds — the same as the Vietnam-era M-60 machine gun which it resembled — but most of the soldiers in sight handled them easily. Their obvious fitness and gray combat silks were the first good news he had seen.

The thin uniforms were supposed to be proof against any normal cold and so it seemed; the lightly clad soldiers were handling the windy winter day with aplomb. Although combat silks were officially the daily uniform of Fleet Strike units, most personnel elsewhere in the battalion seemed to be wearing BDUs and field jackets. It also answered the question of whether any GalTech equipment was available. What the acting battalion commander had to say about wearing the uniform might be instructive. Colonel Hanson wondered why the rest of the battalion was out of uniform and where he was going to get his own set of silks.

He gestured for the driver to pull up in front of the company headquarters.

“Go take my bags to my quarters. Then head back to headquarters.” He wished he could keep him — the kid seemed well turned out and smart — but the G-1 had been specific, “Send the driver back along with his Humvee, clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

“If anybody gives you any flack over at my quarters, come get me. I’ll be with the Bravo Company commander.” He gestured at the company headquarters with a thumb.

“Yes, sir.”

As Colonel Hanson headed up the snowy path to the trailer the two guards came to attention to a barked “Atten-hut” from the right-hand guard. The guard could see that it was just a baby-faced kid walking into the headquarters, but the kid had been riding in a Humvee and wheels were hard to find. Ergo, it was not a kid; it was a rejuvenated officer or NCO and it looked like an officer. When the private first class finally determined that the black rank on the kid’s BDU collar was oak leaves, he blessed his prescience. The two dropped back to parade rest at a returned salute and traded shrugs after the colonel entered the trailer. The senior private blew on his frigid hands and gave a quiet smile. By the appearance of the commander, things were going to go either very well or very poorly for Bravo Company. And he was willing to take book which it would be.

Colonel Hanson was surprised and pleased to see a CQ — a sergeant detailed for a twenty-four-hour period to be in charge of the company area — standing behind a table inside the door at the position of attention. The slight, dark-haired sergeant, who did not look old enough to shave, saluted.

“Sir, Sergeant Stewart, Bravo Company, First Battalion, Five-Fifty-Fifth Mobile Infantry. How may I help you, sir?”

The sergeant was either a refurb, or well trained, and Colonel Hanson could not tell off-the-cuff which it was.

“Well, Sergeant,” he said, returning the salute, “you can show me to the company commander’s office and get me a cup of coffee if it’s available. Water if not.”

Yes, sir,” said the sergeant, rather too loudly. Fred wondered why, until he realized that it would probably be audible through the paper-thin walls. He smiled internally as the sergeant continued in the same loud tone. “If the Colonel will just follow me to the commander’s office, I’ll see about the coffee!” Colonel Hanson kept from laughing with only marginal success as a small snort slipped out.

“Pardon, sir?” asked Sergeant Stewart as he led the colonel down a corridor on one side of the trailer.

“Cough.”

“Yes, sir.”

The narrow passage to one side of the trailer passed one door labeled “Swamp,” a second labeled “Latrine” and a third, which showed signs of repair, labeled “First Sergeant.” At the end of the corridor the area opened out to reveal a desk with someone who was probably the company clerk behind it at attention. On the table was a cup of coffee and the private’s position was ruined by having a pitcher of cream in his left hand. He saluted.

“Cream, sir?”

“Black. Do you have sugar?”

“Sir!” The private held up a handful of packets.

“One, please.” The sugar was dumped and stirred as Sergeant Stewart knocked on the door.

“Enter,” came a raspy voice from the interior.

Normally on taking over a unit the incoming commander had the option of studying his officers’ open records — their 201 files as they were called — and the officers’ efficiency reports. In addition he was able to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of his subordinate personnel with the outgoing commander. In this case the G-1 admitted he was only able to provide the officers’ names, and that with difficulty. The information systems were as confused as everything else and in most cases officers’ files were still in storage in St. Louis. All that Colonel Hanson remembered was that his Bravo Company commander was named O’Neal.

“Sir, a Lieutenant Colonel Hanson is here to see you,” Stewart said through the doorway, respectfully.

Colonel Hanson had pegged Stewart immediately as one of those individuals in any command who can make or break a small unit. He would have to be in charge of something and needed to respect his leaders or he would be running all over them in short order. So the deference he showed towards his company commander told Fred something. Of course the condition of the company had told Colonel Hanson something already but that could be due to several causes. This Captain O’Neal could have an enormously effective senior sergeant, he could be a martinet, and so forth. But O’Neal had at least one hard case eating out of his hand and that said everything necessary about his leadership. Now if he only had some tactical sense.

Thus Fred Hanson thought he showed admirable control when a squat juggernaut who, despite the faint sheen of sweat from a recent workout, was immediately recognizable from numerous TV appearances rolled through the door. Hanson noticed in passing the scars still on O’Neal’s forearm as the captain saluted.

“Captain Michael O’Neal, sir, Commander, Bravo Company First Battalion, Five-Fifty-Fifth Mobile Infantry Regiment. How may I help you, sir?”

Fred Hanson slowly returned the salute, as properly as he had ever done in his life. That’s how you do it when returning the salute of a holder of the Medal of Honor.

“Lieutenant Colonel Frederic Hanson,” said the colonel into the silence. “I’m about to assume command of the One-Five-Five-Five and I thought you might like to come along.”

Fred thought he saw a brief flash of suppressed glee go across O’Neal’s face but the shuffle of Stewart’s boots was the only sound in the silence that followed that announcement.

“Yes, sir. I’d like that main well. Stewart, go find the Gunny then come up to battalion.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Shall we?” asked the baby-faced battalion commander.

“After you, sir,” answered O’Neal, his eyes shining.

* * *

“I think that went rather well,” said the colonel, shutting the door on the departing major.

“Yes, sir. I think Major Stidwell will be a real asset at post headquarters,” agreed O’Neal. “Although he might want to be a tad more careful about who he calls a ‘snot-nosed kid’ next time.”

“I also suspect,” continued the colonel with a slight grin at the memory, “that despite whatever damage this might have done to his career, any complaints that Major Stidwell might voice will be pro forma.”

“Surely you’re not questioning the major’s, uhm, intestinal fortitude are you, sir?”

“Not really,” Colonel Hanson said, glancing over the battalion commander’s desk at his most junior company commander. The new battalion commander started taking down the late Major Stidwell’s extensive “I-love-me” wall. As a piece or individually it was impressive. From his West Point diploma to his graduation from Command and Staff College Major Stidwell seemed to have all the merit badges any field-grade infantry officer could ever wish. A graduate of both Ranger School and Special Forces Qualification Course, when in uniform Major Stidwell would be entitled to wear the “Tower of Power”: the three stacked tabs of Ranger, Special Forces and Airborne qualification. He was a holder of the PT badge and probably could make a fire with only two sticks.

But somewhere along the line the major had somehow missed the whole concept. What was conspicuously absent were plaques from previous commands. There were two possibilities and, without having seen his personnel file, Colonel Hanson could not decide which was more likely. Either Stidwell was so disliked by his commands that they celebrated his leaving without any sign of regret or he had had very few leadership positions. On second thought, it had to be the latter; some sycophant would always gin up a plaque no matter how disastrous your tenure.

“Although Major Stidwell seems to have all the requisite abilities to be a commander,” the colonel professed, gesturing at the wall, “sometimes that does not mean a person has command ability. Often an inability to command can be masked in peacetime by an able staff. However, during times of stress when quick and accurate decisions must be made without benefit of objectively correct answers or able staff support, the inability to lead becomes crystal clear. I suspect that Major Stidwell can function as a junior officer quite well and may even be exemplary as a senior staff officer but is incompetent as a commander, especially a combat commander.” He concluded the lecture with a shrug. “It happens.”

“Are you supposed to discuss the merits of senior officers with junior officers, sir?” Mike asked, leaning back in a rickety armchair, probably acquired from post stores after being rejected by a dayroom as too old and worn out.

“Well, Captain,” the colonel responded, “there are junior officers and junior officers. In your case you can be sure that I will discuss with you anything that I believe will help you in your military development and I will in turn solicit your advice on ACS tactics on a regular basis. I don’t intend to take everything you say as gospel. But I will listen.”

“Because of the Medal?” Mike asked with studied casualness as he pulled a cigar out of the sleeve of his gray silks.

It was not the first time Colonel Hanson had heard of Michael O’Neal. He was That O’Neal. Mighty Mite. Ironman O’Neal, the hero of Diess. Colonel Hanson had known more than one real hero in his military career and he knew that without being there it was impossible to determine what actions might or might not have occurred when a medal, especially the Medal, was handed out. Sometimes the most heroic stories turned out to be so much bullshit while others that seemed simple turned out to be unexpectedly complex. Some real heroes were braggarts, some quiet. Often heroes were simply in the wrong place and survived. Sometimes everything was exactly as indicated.

In the case of Michael O’Neal, the sequence of events that led to him being showered with medals was as analyzed, dissected and researched as any sequence in the history of military operations. When the media got as carried away as they did with O’Neal’s story there was an inevitable reaction. First he was idolized, then the media tried to pick the story apart. It never found any detail to be any less than it appeared at first glance. Arguably the story had been understated.

As an advisor on armored combat suit tactics to the Diess Expeditionary Force, then-Lieutenant O’Neal had taken command of remnants of the Armored Combat Suit battalion to which he was attached after it had a drastic encounter with the first wave of Posleen. The platoon-sized band, initially weaponless due to a fuel-air explosion that had swept away their suit-mounted weaponry, ended up breaking the Posleen siege of the armored divisions of the expeditionary force. Along the way they killed a plurality of the Posleen in the attack and destroyed a Posleen command ship that had come in for close support of the Posleen forces. O’Neal had accomplished this last feat by the simple expedient of flying his command suit up to the ship and detonating an improvised antimatter limpet mine by hand.

The armor enclosing the young man across from him, who was now examining a cigar as if it were a weapon on guard mount, had been blown five kilometers through the air and several buildings. Finally that particular bit of detritus along with what was left of O’Neal had skipped a further two kilometers out to sea and sunk. Weeks later it was found by a SEAL recovery team homing in on the automated beacon and glad to find a half a billion credits’ worth of combat suit partially intact. To their surprise the armor announced that the occupant was viable.

“Not just the medal. More the way you kept your company together. That’s the sign of a good commander.”

“Good command team, sir, pardon the correction. Gunny Pappas is tops.”

“They sent us a Marine? I thought they were mostly going to Fleet.” The way that the Galactic Federation fought the war against the Posleen had caused numerous schisms in the way the United States military did its job. The aliens’ Federation supported their Fleet from funds drawn on all two hundred-plus planets of the Federation.

However, planets that were actively engaged against the Posleen had to fund their own ground defenses. In the case of established planets, corporations whose trade would be affected drew on multiple planets to fund the defense. The planet Diess, which O’Neal had served on, drew forces from the spectrum of Earth’s armies. However, the planet Barwhon, which despite its lack of industry had more monetary resources to draw on, was being defended only by “NATO” troops.

Since Earth had only heard of the Federation three and a half years before, it was without any monetary support other than whatever it could raise by selling its military forces to the highest bidder, which also served to train Earth’s forces for its own impending invasion, now less than two years away. Despite the situation, it seemed impossible to become politically cohesive and prepare as one planet for the invasion. This caused a number of compromises.

Some Fleet Strike forces were detailed directly to the Fleet, while others were detailed to the planets either under attack or about to be attacked. In the case of the Earth, those units detailed to Terran defense were to be retained for their parent countries’ usage, while still being under the Fleet’s regulations and chain of command. However, Fleet personnel were drawn primarily from Terran navies. And Fleet Strike forces — the ground combat, special operations and fighter forces — were drawn from each country’s Marine, Aviation and Special Operations units.

Because of the size of the United States and NATO’s Navy, Marines, Airborne and Special Operations, the defense Fleet was heavily influenced by NATO with Russia and China a close second. Virtually every Fleet Strike ground unit was found in those four areas with one battalion in Japan. There were howls of outrage over the patent injustice from the Third World, but this time nobody had time to listen.

The force situation and alien technology had modified some long-standing traditions in the United States military. Fleet Strike’s American contingent now consisted of the First through Fourth Fleet Strike Divisions, drawn from the Marines, the 82nd, 101st and 11th Divisions along with the 508th, 509th, 555th, and 565th Separate Regiments, all drawn from the Airborne. The Marine and Airborne Units were or would soon be Armored Combat Suit units, mobile infantry units whose personnel fought encased in powered battle armor and wielded grav-guns that hurled depleted uranium teardrops at relativistic speeds or plasma cannons that could go through the side of a World War II battleship.

Since the Fleet Strike personnel placement system no longer recognized a difference between Marine and Airborne there were occasional situations that were extremely nontraditional. A Marine Gunnery Sergeant might be ordered to a unit that was drawn from the Airborne tradition or an Airborne commander put in charge of a Marine unit. There were more Airborne personnel and senior officers than Marine, so to cantilever the Airborne influence all senior battalion and brigade NCOs could be called “Gunny” although the actual rank was being slowly phased out. Fleet Strike’s American Command Post, however, was at Twenty Nine Palms, a former Marine base. And their dress uniforms, while drawing heavily on certain well-known science fiction TV shows, were dark blue piped with red, the color of Marine Dress Blues. The Airborne establishment found itself busy playing catch-up.

A small ceremonial contingent of American Marines remained, passing back and forth between Fleet and the Presidential Guard. They were the only Terran forces under the sole and direct command of a country that wore battle armor. America, with not only tremendous economic clout but equally great military renown, was the only country with an off-planet credit high enough to afford the incredibly expensive suits.

“Yes, sir,” said O’Neal with a characteristic frown. “An actual Marine Gunny, long, long service. He’s a hippie.”

“Hippie?”

“What they call a Vietnam vet. Real old timer.”

“Well, I suppose us hippies will have to talk over old times,” said the commander with a smile.

“Jesus, sir!” said Mike, looking at the apparently teenage colonel in surprise. “You’re for real?”

“I took a company of the One-Oh-One into Happy Valley in Vietnam,” said the colonel with a suppressed shudder at the memory. “I started off as a butter bar with the One-Eighty-Seventh.”

“Hmmm. Well, at least I won’t have to explain who Janis Joplin is.”

“It is damn strange, isn’t it?” said the commander, tossing another piece of “I-Love-Me” claptrap into a box. “How the hell do you separate the wheat from the chaff? The regimental commander is forty years younger than me. When I was retiring he was a second lieutenant. I’m glad I didn’t know him; I can imagine what my memories of him would do to our relationship.”

“What about his memories of you, sir? Can you imagine if you wrote him a bad OER back when?”

“However, like your first sergeant…”

“He’s a Marine,” said O’Neal with a chuckle. “Yes, sir, I know. Well, as long as we don’t have to take any beaches everything should be fine. Actually I kind of prefer a Marine for this.”

Colonel Hanson looked at him quizzically as he dropped the last plaque into the box. “Pourquois?”

Mike suddenly looked grim as he held up the cigar with his own querying expression. At a nod he lit it with a Zippo emblazoned with a black panther on a rock. Drawing in a series of puffs he said, “Well, sir…” puff, “the Airborne has a tradition,” puff, puff, “of in and out. Wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am.” Puff. “Also, the Airborne tradition is, practically, for hit and run.” Deep draw, puff. “Hmmm, El Sol Imperials. Damn hard to find, what with the shortages.” He dropped the affectation with a sudden intensity, stabbing the cigar as if to drive in the points.

“This situation is much more like the Marine tradition, especially the tradition of World War II and Korea. Take a hard objective. Hold it against all comers, against human-wave attacks with critical shortages and damn little support. Hold at all cost and die to the last stinking soldier if necessary, killing as many as humanly possible the whole time. No retreat, no surrender, no quarter. Sir.”

Mike had a sudden vision of a narrow clay street with towering skyscrapers to either side. The street was packed with yellow centaurs, the horse-sized invaders in a bayonet to boma-blade battle with a beleaguered German panzer grenadier division. The bodies of the Posleen and Germans were piled in mounds, blocking his way. Their red and yellow bloods had commingled and an orange river was flowing into the alien sea.

He tilted his head down and fiddled for a moment with his cigar as he struggled to throw off the flashback. “Damn, it went out.”

Colonel Hanson dropped into his swivel chair as Mike pulled the Zippo back out. He reached into his breast pocket and produced a pack of Marlboro Reds. It had taken him years to break the habit, but the Galactics had a pill to do that now and besides they had eliminated cancer, heart disease and emphysema for military personnel so… “You okay, Captain?” he asked as he tapped out a coffin nail.

“Yes, sir. I am just peachy-keen,” said Mike, meeting his eye steadily.

“I… we cannot afford a shell-shocked commander.”

“Sir, I’m not shell-shocked,” disagreed O’Neal, against the cacophony of internal voices. “What I am is one of the damn few people you are going to meet short of Barwhon or Diess who is prepared, mentally, for this invasion. I had gamed it for thousands of hours, before Diess. Diess was, so to speak, just the icing on the cake. When you get your AID you can cross-check me on it.” He took a pull on the cigar. Since Diess he had been hitting both tobacco and alcohol kind of hard. One of these days it was gonna catch up with him. “This war is going to be a form of hell, sir, for every single American. The shit just doesn’t get any deeper than this.”

Colonel Hanson nodded thoughtfully. That made a lot of sense. “Which brings us to the here and now. Now that I have that obnoxious oaf cleared out of my headquarters, what’s the situation? The G-1 didn’t even know the players and he had no ideas about ACS equipment, but he did say the supply situation is as confused as could be expected. Who are the acting staff? And since this headquarters seems to be absolutely empty, where the fuck are they?” he concluded.

“Major Stidwell was acting as his own G-3, sir, since that was his slot anyway. Actually, he was doubling up on everything except the -4.”

“Maybe I should have given him the benefit of the doubt if he was that overwhelmed,” the colonel mused.

“Actually, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that, sir. The only reason there is an S-4 is that we got sent a supply officer, a mustang L-T, to the assistant -4 slot. Otherwise, Major My-Lot-In-Life-Is-To-Micromanage Stidwell would undoubtedly have taken that slot as well.”

“Oh,” said the colonel with a grimace.

“We also have a full set of captains as company commanders, sir, any of whom could have taken a second hat if Stidwell was overwhelmed. We’re better off than the Line and Guard units from the point of view of company-grade officers.

“However, if he made the decisions he could be absolutely sure that they were the right decisions,” the captain said with a snort. “God knows what decisions might have been made by mere captains that did not have his years of experience. They might have, oh, ‘taken excessive initiative with the training schedule,’ or, God forbid, ‘begun ACS training before all the meetings about how to implement it were completed.’ ”

“If I remember my recent history, you have been there and done that as well, haven’t you?” said the colonel neutrally.

“Yes, sir, I have,” said O’Neal with instant seriousness. “As a matter of fact, he was trying very hard to have me court-martialed for insubordination.”

“Were you insubordinate?” asked the new commander, wondering what sort of answer he would get. He shouldn’t have wondered.

“Sir, I disobeyed not one direct order, but so many I can’t begin to count,” O’Neal stated definitively.

“Why?”

“I did not think anyone would dare court-martial me, sir, and if it was disobey them or have my company die in combat it was a no-brainer.”

“Why would they have died?” asked Hanson.

“Sir, he was starting training exactly as they did with the Two Falcon on Diess. Yes, sir, I have been there and done that before and I was not going to do it again; that was an oath I swore on the souls of my dead. We had, have, a critical suit shortage, the unit has not received its issue and only a few of the troops, ones transferred from other ACS units, have them. So he wanted everyone to memorize all the parts to the suits, do Posleen flash cards, and all the rest of that. In other words, bore them to death. What I tried to explain to him was that I obtained a shit-load of Milspecs, VR glasses for training, through… some secondary channels.” Mike cleared his throat and took a puff of his cigar.

Colonel Hanson smiled. He had to remember that although this officer had extensive experience with suits and even suit combat, he did not have extensive experience as an officer. Needs must when devils drive. Since time immemorial, units that were not properly supplied had found ways of obtaining the equipment they needed. As long as it was kept to a minimum and under control it was not a problem.

“We could have been training in the field simulating eighty percent reality combat weeks ago,” Mike continued after determining that the colonel was not going to question him on the source of the Milspecs. Mike was prepared to back his personnel, but it had surprised him as much as the losing company when second squad showed up with a truck full of GalTech equipment. Since then, of course, he had learned all about Sergeant Stewart and “The Squad From Hell.” Now nothing surprised him.

“But that wasn’t by the book — which is not my fault, I wanted to include it — so he wouldn’t buy it. Then we started having problems with shit being stolen out of the barracks, rioters, vandalism, and all the other fun stuff that has been going down around here. I broke out the ‘nail-guns’ and got rounds for them from the ammo dump out of the training budget. Forget the rants about extremism; I thought, still do, that it made sense to at least put the weapons in the troop’s hands, give them a feel for those big bastards and get in some physical training that made more sense than long slow distance runs. But he wasn’t worried about the image or whatever, he was most upset that the rounds couldn’t be returned to the dump and were going to be charged against his training budget before he was ready to use them for training.”

“Well, I can empathize,” said the colonel with a frown. “Live-fire training is expensive.”

“Oh, Jesus, sir, not you too!” Mike could feel the iron bite of anger on his tongue and tried to keep under control. The last two months with Stidwell had strained his already damaged patience to the limits. This colonel was an entirely different kettle of fish, though. All he had to do was keep in control and present the situation rationally. Right. And then maybe the dreams would stop?

“Captain, training budgets are just that, budgets. You have to stay in them, especially when everybody is having to make sacrifices for this goddamn war.”

“Sir, what we will actually spend for training this year can come out of my pay,” Mike answered reasonably.

“What? How much do you make?” asked Hanson, surprised.

“Well, in case you haven’t noticed, Fleet makes a hell of a lot more, rank per rank, than the Army, sir, but what I meant was: What is included in a training budget?”

“Well, vehicle fuel, expended rounds, consumable expenditures, food, special field equipment, that sort of thing.”

“Yes, sir. The first thing to remember is that the Army had no idea what training budgets for an ACS unit would be, so they kept the budgets that they would have had as Airborne, Marines, whatever. What wasn’t considered is that the suits are fueled off a dedicated fusion plant at company level that is rated for forty years use with on-board fuels. The cost is part of our capital budget including the fuel, just like suits. Suit food is cheap, a basic supply comes with the suit and recycles itself so the cost of the whole battalion’s food for the year, if we stayed in suits, would come out of my pay, easy. No field toilet paper, no MREs, no vehicle fuel, no disposable plastics, the suits take care of it all, garbage in garbage out. For that matter, food comes out of the general battalion expenditure. And no ammunition costs.”

“What do you mean, no ammo costs?” Colonel Hanson replied, still trying to assimilate all his other assumptions about training costs being stood on their ear.

“When we start suit training, or even VR training, you’ll see, sir. The suits are absolutely awesome training vehicles; there is virtually, pun intended, no point in having a live-fire. So, we are so far overbudgeted that we could all buy Cadillacs out of the ammo budget and leave plenty to go around. So, anyway,” he concluded, “the big problem is not that we don’t have equipment, it’s that we haven’t received all of our personnel.”

“I wasn’t aware that, except for senior officers and NCOs, there was a personnel shortage. It sounds like you’re talking about troops or company-grade officers.”

“Yes, sir, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. We’re still waiting on twenty percent of our junior personnel consisting of females and recalled enlisted and current training cadre.”

“You did say females? Females?”

“It was recently decided to open the Combat Arms to females,” O’Neal answered with another puff. He was tempted to chuckle, since the colonel had gotten quite red faced at the concept of females in his battalion. But he finally decided that discretion was called for. “We are expecting four female junior officers, that I am aware of, two transfer first lieutenants from other arms and two butter bars; hell, I am getting two of them. We’re also getting a slew of privates and rejuv or current-service NCOs including one of my platoon sergeants. All the girls are going through infantry training at the moment. The others are either going through retraining if they’re recalled or still at their units.”

“Oh, joy.”

“Yes, sir. Better now than when we were having the riots; I hate to think of what would have happened then. And then when they get here we have to retrain in ACS. There is still no ACS training center.”

“Right, well I do not intend to wear myself ragged trying to be my entire staff. Until there is a qualified replacement, you are the acting G-3. Get the other company commanders up here one at a time. I am taking them all on sufferance given the condition of the battalion.”

“It’s only partially their fault, sir. In many cases conditions resulted from direct orders of Major Stidwell.”

“Well, we’ll see if I agree. Okay, who is senior?”

“Captain Wolf, Charlie Company.”

“Get him up here.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then get started on revising the training schedule. We don’t have any duties to interfere and I believe in training. As soon as the new chums arrive, I want us out in the field, twenty-four/seven until Momma makes us come in from the rain. Create a training schedule beyond your wildest dreams.”

“Yes, sir!”

“And in your planning, keep one thing in mind. Our job is to put ourselves between the Posleen and civilians. The mission is to save our people. And we will not fail.”

CHAPTER 3

Atlanta, GA, United States of America, Sol III

1025 EST January 15th, 2004 ad

Said England unto Pharaoh, “I must make a man of you,
That will stand upon his feet and play the game;
That will Maxim his oppressor as a Christian ought to do,”
And she sent old Pharaoh Sergeant Whatisname.
It was not a Duke nor Earl, nor yet a Viscount —
It was not a big brass General that came;
But a man in khaki kit who could handle men a bit,
With his bedding labeled Sergeant Whatisname.

— “Pharaoh and the Sergeant” Rudyard Kipling, 1897

“My name is Sergeant Major Jake Mosovich.” The lights of the hall glinted from the silver badge on his green beret.

It was, Jake had decided, a singularly inappropriate environment. But the reception hall of the First American All Episcopal United African Church was packed to overflowing with a mixture of the very old, the very young, and women. All of them were gathered at tables piled with an odd assortment of weapons, household items and general bric-a-brac. The new Special Forces team, with a few old faces, was scattered throughout the room prepared to train or intervene, whichever seemed necessary. There was a jarring note to the room; there were no young men. Virtually every male of military age in the United States was already inducted into the military and if any of the local teens had gone AWOL, they certainly were not going to turn up at a Special Forces local defense training clinic. Even if it did mean a hot meal on a cold day.

“I am a twenty-five-year veteran of the United States Army Special Forces: We’re called The Green Berets. We are one of the special operations units your tax dollars have supported for years, so now you get to get some of your own back.” As usual that was good for a small laugh.

“The mission of the Special Forces is to train indigenous forces in irregular tactics. What that means is that we are supposed to go into countries and teach guerillas that are friendly to the United States how to be better guerillas. Officially, we have never performed our stated mission.” He smiled grimly and there was another chuckle. Some of them got it.

“But it is what we are trained to do. And guerillas, in general, do not have access to regular weapons or equipment. They have to make do with what’s around. And they don’t work with huge supply systems, the ‘tail’ as we military folks call it.”

His face turned grim. Combined with the scars it made him look like something from a nightmare. “We all know what’s coming,” he said, gesturing at the ceiling and by extension into space. “And we all know that the Fleet won’t be ready when it hits. The ships are taking a long time to build. And unless they are all ready, throwing the few that are ready at the attacks would not help us at all and would set the plans back for years.

“And the politicians have finally admitted that there won’t be much of a chance of defending the coastal plains.” He chuckled grimly at the simple term. “In case any of you are not aware, that includes Atlanta. And Washington and L.A. and Baltimore and Philly and just about every other major city in America.” He didn’t completely agree, and he wondered who thought that it wasn’t political suicide. But the decision had been made.

He shook his head again. “And I know that most won’t be leaving.” He looked around the room at the assembled faces. Old women and men, boys and girls. A smattering of women between twenty and fifty. Two men in the same range, one with both legs missing and the other showing signs of palsy. “At least not right up until the invasion. I’ve seen more wars than most of you have seen movies and don’t nobody leave until right up to the last minute. Then there’s always a mad scramble. Something always gets left or forgotten. Somebody is always at the back of the line.” He shook his head again, face gray and grim.

“So, we are here to teach you all we can about how to survive at the back of the line. How to live and fight without much in the way of support or regular weapons. We’re hoping that it will give you an edge if it comes time that you are at the wall. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t.” He he tapped his camouflage-clad chest, looking at one little girl. “That is right in here.

“We will also be teaching you about how to spread mayhem with regular equipment in case you get access to it,” he continued, returning to parade rest.

“Let me say this, I hope I don’t have to but we are required to by our orders, what we are teaching you is absolutely and strictly illegal to use outside of time of war. We are going to be at the First American for five days, by the grace of Pastor Williams, and when we get done you are going to know how to make weapons that make Oklahoma City look like a firecracker. But so help me God — and I say that without taking the Lord in vain, this is an oath before Our Lord — if so much as one of you uses this against another American citizen I will hunt you down if it takes the rest of my life.” He looked around the room and his scarred face was molded granite.

“You will not use my teaching against your fellow man. You must swear that now, on the Ever-loving God, before we will teach the first lesson. Do you swear?”

There was a sober muttering of general assent. He thought it would be enough. The pastor seemed to understand his flock and most of those present were his congregation.

The training actually served two purposes. It was not expected — and this lesson would be drummed in over the next few days — that these people could hold their neighborhoods. Shelters were being constructed that should be able to hold most of the displaced population. But as he had said, it was human nature to leave it until just a little too late. In addition to teaching a few techniques that might help some of these citizens against the enemy, they would, together with the pastor, designate locals to be official evacuation coordinators. Evac coordinators would hold a semiofficial position, analogous to World War II Air Raid Wardens. In the event of a Posleen landing, they would direct their neighbors towards the most efficient evacuation routes and, if necessary, organize local defenses.

Statistically some of these people they were training would be caught behind Posleen lines. In that sad event, viewed coldly, the more Posleen they could take down the better. Vietnam taught the American Army that even a baby can plant a mine if properly trained. These people would be as well trained as Mosovich could arrange in five short days.

“We are going to start today with basic weapons training. I know that many of you have had bad experiences with guns. Until the call-up sucked up all the gangs, this neighborhood was basically a write-off. I know that bullets flew around practically at random and there were some terrible acts committed. Well, we are going to teach you how to handle guns the right way and how to use them effectively. Not randomly.

“The police department is setting up a firing range for this neighborhood and it will be manned during the day. You are encouraged to go over there and shoot. The training ammunition is free and there will be standard weapons available, you just can’t take any with you. When the Posleen are scheduled to start landing, weapons and ammunition will be issued as requested — we have plenty of rifles and ammunition — and if there is a local scatter landing before then you can draw your allotment from the local police station. In the meantime, it is feared that weapons would be stolen from you if they were generally distributed.

“I personally think that is a crock, but all of us occasionally have to live with city hall, or in this case the federal government. I find it easier to think of it this way; soldiers don’t take their rifles home, either, they leave them in an armory. Same thing, basically. Anyway…

“We are going to take a look at two weapons today, the M-16 and the AK-47.”

Sergeant First Class David Mueller watched the lecture bemusedly. It was almost impossible to imagine that an SF team was teaching lower-income city dwellers about urban terrorism techniques. It made sense in abstract. But later he was going to be teaching the first class in a series that would put every one of these people on an FBI register of potential urban terrorists. It was a list that every member of the SF team was on as well.

Yeah, it made sense in a cruel way, but there was one little black girl, hair in pigtails and not more than twelve, who was staring at the AK like it gave milk. This was a group of people who had not seen much in the way of power, and a lot of power was about to be put in their hands. These techniques would work even better against the government than against the Posleen.

* * *

“Okay, what’s this?” Mueller asked the group of churchgoers, holding up a white plastic bottle of a name-brand cleaner. They had broken up into groups for specialized sessions and analysis. They would be looking for leaders and individuals who showed special talents. So far Mueller was pretty sure he had picked out a team leader. And he suspected the little twelve-year-old would turn out to be pretty talented at mayhem.

“Bleach,” the little girl blurted, with a “what, you don’t know bleach when you see it, whitey?” look in her eye.

“Really? Okay, and what’s this?” he asked, holding up a translucent bottle of clear liquid.

“ ’Monia?”

“Right. And what do you use ’em for?”

“Cleanin’ stuff,” said an older gentleman in the second row.

“Well, I admit I’ve used them for that, but what I usually use them for is blowin’ stuff up.” He could see he got their attention then. “You can use these, and some other common products, to produce explosives.” To their obvious amazement, he then proceeded to demonstrate the entire process of making a pipe bomb from start to finish.

“Now, you can get slow fuse for the detonator from a gun shop, they use it for hobby cannons and some muzzle loaders, or I’ll show you a couple of ways to make it yourself. Also, later on I’ll be showing you ways to make a nifty trip-wire booby trap with a pistol or rifle cartridge and some string. If you put more liquid in the mix you get slurry, and I’ll show you some neat stuff to do with slurry later. But first, I want you all to make your own pipe bombs, being very careful to follow the steps exactly as I showed you. Afterwards, we’ll go over to that old house on the corner, the one that was a crack joint, and blow that SOB sky-high.”

Most of them seemed to like that idea.

* * *

“You need to brush your teeth more often, young man,” said the medic, peering at the ten-year-old’s molars. “How long has that tooth been aching?”

“A’out a mo’h, ah ’ess.”

“Well, you need a filling, maybe a root canal.” A portion of the mission that had just evolved was providing medical support to the communities they trained. It disgusted Sergeant First Class Gleason that her country — with the best health care system in the world — would permit the degree of health neglect that existed in these communities. They should have sent in the Berets long before now; some of their “hearts and minds” techniques might even have done something for the gang problem.

Not that there was one now. That problem had loomed large in the minds of early planners, but it turned out to be basically moot. All the gang members were in the Guard and generally stayed there. Local Guard commanders, when first faced with desertion problems, took a cut a la the Gordian Knot solution. The death penalty had never been removed from the books and local commanders resorted to it more often than not in situations where a soldier had deserted as opposed to taking an extended AWOL.

It was not hard to spot deserters. Police forces were exempt from call-up, being effectively an extension of the war effort when the Posleen landed, and they were on the lookout. Military personnel were, as in the old days, required to be in uniform at all times and, although the local commanders were lenient about weekend passes, if there was a male of military age not in uniform who was spotted by the police he was invariably stopped and asked for his deferment card. Since deferment was now a line on the driver’s license, a false deferment card turned up with a simple call to the station or a check of the carcomp. It was a nerve-wracking stop for the cops; the deserters knew what could await them, and most reacted violently. Usually if a suspected deserter was spotted the cop would call for backup and shadow; only when enough force was in place would the stop would be made.

It occasionally made for a comic opera when some poor unsuspecting policeman from another force would find himself suddenly surrounded by fellow officers with drawn guns. But it made the cops pretty damn mad at the Guard commanders when the suspect just said “Fuck you,” and pulled out a pistol, suicide being preferable to hanging.

So now the gangs were extinct and only the young, old, female and frail were left. And those people needed better health care than they were getting. The medic looked in question at the boy’s mother.

“Ain’t no dentist, no doctors neither. They either in the Army or they too expensive. It’s a all-day wait at Grady, an’ maybe they do something, maybe they don’. So, what you say, soldier-girl?”

The matronly Sergeant Gleason, a recent graduate of the all-inclusive Special Forces Medic course and mother of four, smiled pleasantly. “I say I pull the tooth and do an implant. That way he’ll grow back a new, good one. While I’m in there, I’ll do any fillings he needs and a general preventive work-over.

“For you, son, since I see your eyes getting round at the thought, I’ll be putting you under, so you won’t feel a thing. And for you, Mom, I’ll tell you it won’t cost you a blessed dime.” A military nurse for fourteen years, Gleason jumped at the first chance to move to Combat Arms. The choice of Special Forces was difficult for her family, her children especially, to understand, but if she was going to be a combat medic it was going to be the best there was to offer.

Special Forces was designed from its very inception to be a unit that spent most of its time away from the regular force structure and logistic tail. That meant that the team must be self-reliant when it came to medical support. Since it was generally difficult to find an MD willing to go through Special Forces Q course, the SF had to grow their own. While SF medics were not and never would be MDs, they were nearly as well-trained as Physician’s Assistants in the area of trauma medicine.

While on a mission they were authorized to perform minor surgery, prescribe drugs and perform minor dental procedures. What actually went on was something else. Although every medic really did know that they were not the equal of a drunk MD on his worst day, sometimes they were all that was available. In situations just like this, throughout the world, SF medics had saved lives with emergency appendectomies, tonsillectomies, tumor removal, benign and malignant, and other actions that would have them burned at the stake by the American Medical Association.

Sergeant First Class Gleason was acting in the best tradition of SF canker mechanics since the Berets had been in existence.

“Thank you, soldier-girl. He says, Okay!” said the relieved mother.

“I do not!”

“Don’t you sass your mother. That tooth’s just gonna hurt worse if’n you don’t get it fixed.”

“She’s right, you know,” said Gleason. “Always trust your mother.”

“Okay, I guess,” said the child, nervously. “You gonna put me out, right?”

“Yep, with new Galactic medicines so I don’t have to worry about dosage and you don’t have to worry about aftereffects. When you want to do it?”

“Can it wait ’til tomorrow?” asked the mother. “I gotta go to work an’ I wanna be there.”

“Sure, anytime. In the meantime, son, you brush good tonight with this toothbrush, and rinse your mouth with this rinse. I’ll see you tomorrow at, say, ten?”

“Dat be fine, doctor,” said the mother.

“That is one thing I am not. I am, however, licensed to perform minor procedures and I put this in that category. See you tomorrow.” The two walked out, the youngster clutching his toothbrush and mouthwash like talismans.

“Last client, doc,” said the team leader, Captain Thompson, stepping aside to let the pair through the door.

“Good, I’m about done for. We got any new orders?”

“Yeah, I’ll detail it at the team meeting, but we’re supposed to wrap up Atlanta. We’re going to Richmond next.”

“I wondered if they’d consider sending us overseas.”

“I think, given our area of responsibility, that we’ll probably stay in country.”

“Meaning let Africa go hang?” asked Gleason with a grimace.

“Hell,” said Master Sergeant Mark Ersin, wandering into the room and the conversation, “let Africa hang. We’ve got enough to do here.”

“Agree,” said Captain Thompson, his ebony face somber. “The cities are going to get hit hard. The more prepared our own people are, the better. The Mideast is bristling with weapons and not really attractive and Africa will never get its shit together in time. Let ’em hang.”

Ersin’s scarred Eurasian face creased in a grim smile. “Trust me, we do not want to be away from supports if the Posleen land early.”

Along with Mueller and Mosovich, Ersin was a survivor of humanity’s first contact with the oncoming threat. The three were members of a joint service special operations force sent to recon the planet Barwhon. They had survived when the mission was changed from reconnaissance to snatch, had survived when the other five members did not. And along the way they had gathered an immense fund of information about the Posleen rear areas and how they organized themselves. One piece of information all three reinforced was that fighting the Posleen was not a pleasant proposition.

“When the Posleen land,” he continued, “we want to be somewhere we can go to ground behind defenses. Once they are down and deployed, I’ll be happy to go mess around in their rear. Until then, I want a roof over my head and a wall around me.”

“Well,” continued Captain Thompson, “after Richmond we’ll be finished with our outreach program. We’re slated to come back here and act as command and control skeleton for the militias. Cadre.”

“What?” gasped both Gleason and Ersin. It was the first time that the cadre idea had been mentioned.

“Apparently the militia training program is working well, but they want professionals in place,” the captain explained with a shrug.

“I thought that was what the Guard was for!” Ersin snarled.

“Hey, Sergeant, these are the civilians you are supposed to protect!”

“Excuse me, sir, but I don’t think I can do that if I’m dead! If I fight the Posleen again, I want it to be from fixed defenses!”

“Whatever your wants might be, Sergeant, those are our orders,” the captain answered with an iron clang to his voice.

“Our orders friggin’ stink, sir. Oh, Jesus! We have just been royally corn-cobbed. Have Jake or Mueller heard this yet?”

“No. I didn’t realize you would have such an extreme reaction,” said the captain with a tone of bemusement.

“Oh my word, sir, you haven’t seen extreme reaction yet.”

* * *

“What pissant son of a bitch came up with this fuckin’ cadre bullshit?” shouted the irate sergeant major.

This is not the sort of language normally heard between sergeant majors and four-star generals; however, the Ground Forces Chief of Staff had been more or less expecting the call. When his aide allowed that Sergeant Major Mosovich was on the phone and would like to have a brief word with the General, the General acceded, after making sure no one else would hear the conversation.

“Hello, Jake. Nice to hear from you. Yes, I’m fine, overworked but aren’t we all.”

“Fuck that! Who? I will personally frag their ass! Is this some slimy regular-army plot to be done with SF for once and for all?!”

“Okay, Jake, that is just about enough,” General Taylor said, coldly. “It was my fucking plan.”

What?!” If General Taylor thought the previous volume was extreme he now discovered a new meaning to the word.

“Okay, you’ve been teaching them. What chance do those people have if the Posleen land before the evacuation is complete?”

“So you’re going to throw the goddamn SF away? Is that it?”

“No. I am going to use them up as carefully as possible. But they are going to be between Posleen and civilians. Where they damn well belong. Clear?”

“Clear. We are not armed, or trained for the mission. We have limited tactical mobility. We are trained to be behind-the-lines, hit-and-run fighters or cadre for that type of force but we will make our stands and be overrun to buy the civilians a few minutes that they will undoubtedly squander.” The sergeant major hissed the last words.

“Jake, how do you fight Posleen?” the general asked in a reasonable tone.

“What?”

“I thought the question was in English. How do you fight Posleen?” he repeated.

“My best idea is with artillery and fixed defenses,” the sergeant major replied.

“How about mortars and firebases?”

“And then what, sir? We’ll be in scattered firebases, cut off and without support. And where are the firebases coming from?”

“Well, in the case of Atlanta, there are several major geographic positions to choose from. The mission will be to form firebases along evacuation routes and man them with indigenous nonmilitary personnel who have some limited training: American Strikers. The teams will form and train these militias and design and construct the fixed defenses from available local materials and using local assets. Now, in what way is this not in the SF tradition, Sergeant Major?”

“Shit.” There was a long pause. “We are not going to survive this, Jim. Among other things, our ‘militias’ will consist of old men and teenage women.”

“When the Posleen are down and their deployment is clear, when all civilians are effectively evacuated or hors d’combat, when the fuckin’ job is damn well done, SF personnel may make their way to secure areas using any means available.”

“There won’t be any means, Jim. None.”

“Sure there will, dammit. ‘If you ain’t cheatin’ you ain’t tryin.’ ”

“ ‘If you get caught, you ain’t SF.’ Understood. I still think this is a Guard function.”

“There’s gonna be plenty of targets to go around.”

“My point was not lack of targets, sir.”

* * *

“Okay,” said Mueller, “we are fucked.”

“Sergeant Mueller,” said Warrant Officer First Class Andrews, “attitude will not help.”

Warrant Officer Andrews and Sergeant First Class Mueller did not get along well. Whether Mr. Andrews knew it or not, in this instance that was going to affect him more than Mueller. Most of the SF warrant officers were ninety-day wonders, junior SF NCOs or even non-SF NCOs who were sent through a warrant officer’s course to become the second-in-command of a team. In the new Special Forces, essentially reborn since the oncoming Posleen threat, when a veteran NCO has a problem with a junior officer, the junior officer goes. That tradition had wavered in the last couple of decades. But in the face of adversity old habits die hard.

“I don’t see the problem. We build a firebase and secure it. We have a massive amount of building materials to draw on. This is a basic Special Forces mission. What is your problem, Sergeant?”

“It’s not his problem solely, sir,” interjected Sergeant Major Mosovich, rather harshly. “I made some of the same points to High Command. They had the same attitude. Maybe you just have to see the Posleen in action to realize that this plan is pretty much pissing in the wind.”

“Yeah,” remarked Ersin. “I wouldn’t mind if it made any sense. But it doesn’t.”

“Pardon me, perhaps it’s being a junior officer,” started Andrews, meaning “maybe it is my being a little more intelligent than you old fogies,” “but we just establish a strong outpost and slow the Posleen advance with indirect fire.”

“Yes, sir. And then what?” asked Mosovich. Mueller was uncharacteristically quiet, perhaps realizing how close he was to losing his cool.

“Well, then we E and E out, I suppose. If we can’t escape or evade, we go down as hard as possible. It’s happened before and it will happen again. Bataan, for example.”

“All right, sir. Point one, the Posleen do not slow in the face of indirect or, for that matter, direct fire. They move as fast under fire as not under fire. If you kill enough they stop but only because they’re dead. Point two, there will be virtually no way to E and E out. The Posleen will closely invest the strong point and then probably overrun it with mass attacks. If we could build large curtain walls, maybe it would work, but I don’t think we have the time and we couldn’t supply it for a multiyear siege.” He paused and mentally counted.

“Point three, we don’t know where they will be coming from or going to. They land more or less randomly and their objectives are more or less random. We will be a focal point for attack without any reasonable chance of killing enough to matter. Now, does the situation make a little more sense, sir?”

“I can’t believe that the Posleen will be that great a threat, Sergeant Major,” said the warrant officer, somewhat smugly. “While I know you have experience fighting them, that was without fixed defenses. I think we should be able to hold them for a time and then escape.”

“Yeah, well, keep dreamin’, Mister,” Mueller finally interjected, then walked away in disgust.

CHAPTER 4

Ft. Indiantown Gap, PA, United States of America, Sol III

0900 EST January 22nd, 2004 ad

“For those of you just arrived, welcome to Bravo Company First Battalion Five-Fifty-Fifth Fleet Infantry, my name is Captain Michael O’Neal. And the unit you have joined is called the ‘Triple-Nickle.’ ”

Mike looked the final draft of soldiers over. Already they were scattered through the formation, but they were noticeable by their BDUs and Gortex as opposed to the rest of the company’s gray silks. They were also noticeable by being either female, or older than the norm or both. None of them were actually rejuvs, although most had been recalled out of the inactive reserve. Unlike the colonel, Mike had an AID and although the local personnel officers might not be able to call up 201s, he could. He had quickly perused the draft and was generally satisfied. He had a couple of hard cases, including one private second class who had been a sergeant not once but twice, but mostly they were good troops on paper. When he got done with them they would be better. Now for The Lecture, so that they would be absolutely clear where their company commander stood.

“If you’re wondering, yes, I’m that Captain O’Neal. That is all I am going to say on the subject. What I am going to talk about you will hear me say today, and on numerous occasions until you have the unpleasant opportunity to see what I mean.

“Those of you, most of you, who have never been in combat, you are not ready for the Posleen. Those few of you who have previous combat experience, you are not ready for the Posleen. The way you fight Posleen, the way we will fight Posleen, is brutally simple. You get a good position, hunker down, call for all the artillery and mortar fire available and kill as many of them as you can until you are almost overwhelmed, then move as fast as you can back to the next position. Since the situation is a binary solution set, win or lose, there is only one choice. We will win. Whether any individual present survives to see that victory is going to be a combination of training and luck.” At the back of the formation he could see First Sergeant Pappas looking over the group. Mike suspected that the senior NCO was doing the same thing as Mike: scanning the group of mist-puffing soldiers and wondering where the losses would come from. Would it be the tall guy in Third platoon? The cut-up in First? The wiry, deadly Sergeant Stewart of fame and legend? Sergeant Ampele, his stolid antithesis? New guy? Old? Mike nodded internally and went on.

“Many of us are going to pay the ferryman. But, as George Patton said: ‘Your job is not to die for your country. Your job is to make sure the other poor bastard dies for his country.’ Do not concentrate on the ferryman, he will be there in the end for all of us, whether it is next week, on the plains of battle or at an advanced age at the hands of an outraged spouse.

“Until you meet the ferryman your only thought should be to kill Posleen. If you love your family, put them out of your mind. I have two daughters and a wife. Except in a small compartment deep within myself, I could care less. I live, breathe and eat killing the Posleen. Not because I particularly hate them, not because of Diess, but because anything less is not my all. We have to kill and kill and kill until there are no more Posleen. Until then no one is safe. Until then put away your emotions, unless hate helps you to drive on, and prepare for training harder than anything in your miserable lives.” Mike inhaled through his nose and felt the cold burn his sinuses. He couldn’t wait to get suits!

“Until the suits arrive we will train on Milspecs sixteen hours a day with one half-day off a week for personal business. Once the suits arrive we will take to the field for the same regimen. You can send e-mail during personal stand down. Your pay is direct deposit; there is no other option. If your family needs a larger allotment, see your squad leader; he can show you how to manage your pay through your AID.

“To those of you who are prior service: you are no longer Airborne or Marine, you are Fleet Strike. You may respond ‘Airborne’ or ‘Semper Fi’ as you wish, but remember, the persons you are training with, whether they come from your background or not, are the people you will be fighting beside. Don’t make judgements on the basis of their prior service or you will find yourself sorry and sore. Fleet Strike is an entirely new organization, drawing, I hope, on the best of the Army elite and the Marines. Each of you volunteered for this unit, but I doubt you understand what a radical change you have made in your lives. If you are in the Line or Guard, you are first a citizen of the United States, then of Earth and only last of the Federation, operating under basically the strictures with which you are familiar. As a member of the Fleet, your first line of control is the Federation military.

“The Federation treats its military in a way very different from the United States military. You will shortly have a briefing in the high points of Federation military law. I say the high points, because the Federation military operates under a set of strictures more complicated than anything on Earth. You swore an oath to that law and are now bound to it. But there is no way you could possibly understand it.

“For example, as your commander, I can shoot any one of you dead, for no reason whatsoever, and suffer no adverse consequences. To the Federation the military is a separate caste, exempt from most laws while bound by a hedge of others. You may kill a civilian nonmilitary human without legal consequences, with one tiny caveat: as your commander, I absolutely forbid you to violate any American law outside of time of conflict.

“However, the American branch of Fleet Strike operates under a secondary set of regulations which is essentially the Uniform Code of Military Justice. There are massive loopholes; I can shoot you dead and get off scott free, but for your purposes following the UCMJ will do.

“One last word. I expect nothing less than one hundred percent of your mind, body and soul. Those of you who are prior service may have heard that one before, too. Do not fuck with me. If you play games, I will have you in a ‘prison-unit’ so fast the paperwork will take a year to catch up. You all volunteered to be here. If you want out, say so at any time and I guarantee it will be acted on.

“Officers fall into my office after you turn over your troops. First Sergeant, post.”

* * *

Mike looked coldly over his officers, those already attached and those just arrived. There had been three officers with the new draft: a tall, blond female first lieutenant with the unlikely name of Teri Nightingale, slated to become his XO; a greyhound slender brunette female second lieutenant named Karen Slight headed for Third Platoon; and a dark stocky male second lieutenant, Mike Fallon, who was that rarest of birds, a ring knocker, slated for Second Platoon leader. In Mike’s experience service academy officers came in two extreme brands, good and bad. Good West Pointers were very good indeed, but bad West Pointers were simply very good at kissing the boss’s ass and covering their own. Only time would tell with this one.

Tim Arnold, previously the acting XO, was a first lieutenant and the weapons platoon leader. A tall, goofy-looking fellow, he was a Mustang like Mike, with prior service as an enlisted man in the Twenty-Fourth Mechanized Infantry Division, then the Eighty-Second Airborne Division as a lieutenant. The goofy personality hid a head full of simple wisdom about the military and people. Mike would miss him as an exec because on at least a couple of occasions it had been Arnold who had kept Mike from losing his famous temper in a very public way.

Dave Rogers, the First Platoon leader, was the odd duck. Rarely do you have a first lieutenant as a grunt platoon leader but with the overabundance of first lieutenants, and being junior, he was stuck. Tall and aristocratic, he seemed to be resigned but offended by the position and Mike suspected there was going to be bad blood between him and Nightingale. Unlike Arnold, he was lightning quick to correct deficiencies, real or imagined, and had nearly as short a temper as Mike’s. For all that, he was experienced and sharp. Mike read him as hard but brittle; once Rogers had his first taste of fighting the Posleen, he would find a job as an aide or something similar in short order.

“As those of you who have been here have discovered, what I told the troops goes double for the officers. Despite the spectacularly fucked-up supply situation we should be getting our full equipment loadout next week in one abysmally confused shipment. If the new battalion commander hadn’t arrived we would be truly up shit’s creek getting it sorted out, but he’s detailed me as acting Three, so I’ll have some impact on the plan, especially since I get along with Wilson, the Four.

“Once the suits are uncrated we have to adjust them to the troops. As far as I know, I am the only qualified suiter in the battalion, so they’ll have to send a tech or techs. I can find no mention of that in the mails, either general or GalTech, and none of my contacts have heard a word, so who knows when the techs will arrive. Whoever and whenever they are sent, it will take two, three, maybe even four weeks thereafter to get everyone suited. Command suits will be first, then platoon sergeants, but then it will be first through weapons. I have already discussed this with Top and he will pass it to the NCOs.

“In the meantime, we have four tactical exercises without troops next week. The first will be an open-field skirmish as a lone company, the second will be integrated with the other companies in a larger open-field encounter, the third a company defense with good to fair terrain and light opposition, and the last will be my personal favorite, the Spartan scenario. Since there’s been a shakeup at battalion, that means I can take the aggressor. Nightingale, you’ll run the company, you need to learn the ropes; Arnold, brief Nightingale on what that entails.”

“Brief Nightingale on the playbook.”

“Right.” Mike looked at the newly arrived officers. “Combat against the Posleen requires swift fluidity and total concentration. So we’re stealing a page from football and soccer and using ‘plays’ at the squad and platoon level. This serves two purposes.

“The first purpose is to reduce the time it takes to give orders. A series of simple two-part commands covers the vast majority of instructions given in combat.

“The second purpose is to overcome ‘combat lock.’ I want our troops so conditioned that when the time comes every single one of them opens fire without hesitation. Stopping a Posleen charge is like stopping an avalanche with fire hoses; you can do it, but it takes all the water in the world. We need every single son of a bitch firing.”

“Most of that will be up to the NCOs. I want the officers to remain as hands-off as possible unless we are in active company or platoon-level training. If there is an issue with one of your platoons’ readiness, bring it up with First Sergeant Pappas or myself.”

“Get your shit squared away this afternoon, because as of tomorrow there aren’t enough hours in the day. We have a Tactical Exercise Without Troops scheduled for tomorrow and sixteen hours per day of training from here on out until our Fleet Strike Readiness Evaluation Series. So you’d better get cracking.

“Dismissed.”

CHAPTER 5

Rabun County, GA, United States of America, Sol III

1723 EST February 3rd, 2004 ad

As the car dropped over the ridge into the pocket valley in the Georgia hills, Sharon O’Neal almost turned around.

She had never understood her reaction to Mike’s father. A gruff but fair man, he occasionally called her “Lieutenant” and treated her like a chief would a junior officer, courteous if occasionally salty. At her request, he refrained from relating war stories to the children and rarely did so around her, but she had heard enough over the years to understand him somewhat.

Perhaps it related to her Navy experience, where she felt so exceedingly rejected by the “old-boy” establishment. Mike Senior would drop without a ripple into a group of Navy chiefs, without much of a ripple into a group of Navy officers, especially a group of surface-warfare types. He would be indistinguishable from a group of SEALs. Whether it was real or not, she always felt a trace of contempt or perhaps superiority emanating from the old war-horse.

After a long career related to the unfortunate brevity of human life and the means to arrange for reducing it, Michael O’Neal, Sr., returned to the family farm to raise crops like generations before him, and to raise his family. Since then, with the exception of collecting weapons, some of them illegal, and a group of retirees with a similar bent, he appeared to have put that earlier phase of his life behind him. She knew he had left the Army under somewhat mysterious circumstances — the failure to be recalled along with all his buddies was confirmation of that — and that he had spent some time overseas doing things of a military nature, but what really bothered her was the old-boy feeling. Now he seemed tailor-made for her needs and she was going to have a hard time looking him in the eye and saying that.

She glanced at Cally beside her. If she had to choose which of her children might survive on a world consumed by war, she would have chosen Cally. Usually the older child is more reserved and prissy, but with her children it was reversed. If Michelle scratched her finger, she broke into paroxysms of tears; if Cally ran into a wall, she stood up, wiped the blood off her nose and kept running. But she was still only seven, would only be nine when the Posleen landed, and her mommy and daddy were both going to be far away.

Michelle was already gone, consumed by a colony ship packed with dependents headed for safety. That program had come under fire, both in the United States and overseas. Called racist, supremacist and every other -ist anyone could come up with, it still made too much sense to stop. If a human gene pool was going to be moved off-planet (and given the situation, it made sense to create such a backup), it made sense to choose from the gene pool that represented the necessary skills. Right now, the Federation did not need scientists and it did not need politicians and it did not need engineers; what it needed was soldiers. It might not be nice, it might not be politically correct, but it made sense and that was all the Federation cared about.

* * *

The house was stone, unusual in this part of the mountains, and dated to well before the Civil War. The O’Neals were among the first settlers in the area after the Cherokee were forcibly relocated, and the house was designed to protect against the understandably angry stragglers. The first O’Neal was an Irish immigrant who mined gold for a few years then decided that there was more money to be made selling food to the miners than mining. He marked out a stake, broke the ground and built the farmhouse with the occasional help of his fellow miners.

It presided regally over a small valley so filled with good things that it seemed that God had touched it. On the south-facing slope was an orchard of apples and below that an orchard of pecans. The fields were broken into tillage and pasture with hay in portions. It was a tidy and productive six hundred acres that satisfied the financial and nutritional needs of the O’Neal family even in these hard times.

The government was gathering all the foodstuffs it could and caching them in hardened shelters throughout the Rockies and Appalachians. The survivors of America might be on the run, but the United States government was determined that they be well-fed runners. Unfortunately, even with new ground being broken, genetically modified crops and the modern American agricultural engine getting into high gear for the first time, that meant shortages. Shortages were something that happened to other people, not Americans.

When Americans walk into a grocery store, they expect cheerful, smiling bag boys and fresh produce. Now the bag boys were all in uniform and the produce fields were producing wheat and corn crops that were going into holes in the mountains. America’s wheat yield the previous year had been twenty-five percent higher than at any time in history but there was a bread shortage.

Even small farmers such as Papa O’Neal were required to report their production and adhere to crop rotas, but the government did not expect or desire to control every acre. The O’Neal garden had kept the family in fresh vegetables throughout the long summer as Sharon awaited her summons to uniform and Mike sat through endless speeches and parades.

The simple numbers meant that one of them would not be coming back, probably Mike, and that Cally’s chances were less than good. As a mechanical engineer specializing in maintenance support requirements, Sharon fully expected a glorified clerk’s position on Titan Base. Her chances were better than fair. Unfortunately she could take neither her husband nor her eldest daughter with her.

As they pulled up in the twilight the simian shape of her father-in-law, the man from whom Mike had derived his innate strength, if not height, stood silhouetted in the doorway.

* * *

“Papa O’Neal?”

“Uhn?” They were sitting in the living room of the farmhouse. It had a bachelor-pad look to it, the feeling that there were no women resident in the house, for all that it was neat as a pin. An oak-wood fire blazed on the hearth against the winter chill while Sharon nursed a glass of white wine that was growing quite warm. She wondered if she dared ask for ice, while Mike Senior nursed a beer gone much the same way. Both of them had been sitting that way since getting Cally off to bed, more unspoken between them than might ever be possible to say.

“I have to ask. It doesn’t have a thing to do with this, with Cally, but it’s important to me.” She paused, wondering how to go on. Wondering if she should. Did she really want to know the answer? “Why’d you leave the Army?”

“Shit,” he said, getting up and going to a sideboard. He threw away the warm beer, pulled out an ice bucket, walked over and plunked two cubes in her glass then walked back over and pulled out a Mason jar. He poured two fingers in a small glass mug, knocked it back with a “pah!” and a grimace, then poured two more and walked back over to his chair carrying the jar.

The chair, with its cowhide cover, complete with coarse hair, had the look of much of the house: rough, dependable, marginally comfortable but not by any means aesthetic. He flumped into it with a sigh and continued, “I just knew you were working up to that.”

“How?” she asked, swirling the wine and ice with her forefinger. She took a sip as it slowly cooled.

“You’d never asked. And I could tell that you’d never asked Mike.”

“I did. He told me to ask you.”

“When?” he asked, pouring another hit of the fiery moonshine.

“Shortly after I first met you. I asked him what was with you, you know, why you were so…”

“Loony?” he asked.

“No, just… well…”

“Eccentric then,” he prompted with a shrug.

“Okay, eccentric. And he told me you’d had an interesting career. And you’ve talked about other stuff, but never that. And hardly at all about Vietnam.” She cocked her head to one side.

“You were born in, what? Seventy-two?” he asked roughly.

“Three,” she corrected.

“Lessee,” he said scratching his chin. The action reminded her so strongly of Mike Junior for a moment that she caught her breath. “In nineteen seventy-three,” he continued, “I was at Bragg, but I went back in seventy-four.”

“I thought we pulled out of Vietnam in seventy-two and three,” she said, puzzled.

“Oh, we did, sure.” He smiled slyly. ”… all except the ‘Studies and Observation Group.’ ”

“The what?”

“The SOG. What was the SOG?” he asked rhetorically. “Well, first of all, we were guys that you absolutely could not introduce to mother, or to Congress, which amounts to the same damn thing. We were a bunch of major bad-ass hard cases for which the war just could not be over. It could not be a loss; therefore, they created a way for us to go back into the jungle.

“SEALs, LRPS, Rangers, Phoenix, SF, Marine Recon, they all contributed. Its purpose was, basically, payback. The brass knew the war was lost. Hell, officially and effectively we had pulled out, but there were some targets that we just felt should not survive the experience, a few situations that needed cleansing in a big way.” He took a pull from the two-hundred-proof liquor and stared at the crackling fire, mind far away in time and space.

“I really didn’t understand the fuckin’ Vietnamese then. I mean, the fuckin’ VC were such absolute stone-cold motherfuckers. They would do things to people I still wake up in a cold sweat over. But some of them, hell, maybe most of them, did it because they were patriots. Maybe some of them got their rocks off, but quite a few of them were as sickened by it as I was. They did it because the mission was to unite Vietnam under communism, and they believed in that with the same hard cold light that I believed it was evil incarnate. It took me damn near fifteen years to come to that conclusion.” He shook his head over old wounds, bone deep.

“Anyway, we were there to arrange permanent solutions for some of the more unpleasant examples of dialectical materialism as manifest on Earth.

“There were two targets that stand out in my mind. It was one of those situations when there was a fine dividing line. There are a lot of situations that are black and white, but most are shades of gray. This was a situation where two people disagreed on what shade one of the targets was. They were both consummate motherfuckers, no disagreement there, but one motherfucker was, officially, on our side and the other motherfucker was, officially, on the other side.

“Well, I finally decided that I was tired of distinctions like that, so I killed them both.”

She looked at the glass clutched in his hand, thick crystal formed into a handleless mug. On it was a legend so chipped and marred as to be illegible, but from a faint outline of a shield and arrow she knew what the inscription would be: De Oppresso Liber, “To Liberate the Oppressed.” It was such a high-minded motto, dropped in the Devil’s cauldron of Southeast Asia, where the oppressed seemed to seek oppression over freedom, where enemies were friends and friends were enemies. For the lesser soldiers it was the moment-to-moment fear of the booby trap, the mine and the sniper. For those who ruled the jungle, it was the fear of betrayal, the knife in the back. Across more than thirty years, the jungle of the mind seemed to reach out and touch the tough old man across from her.

“Anyway, it really pissed off the brass. However, giving the real reason it pissed them off wouldn’t work. But everybody was into something, back then. Some of them were smuggling drugs back to the World, some of them were moving comfort rations out to the front. Whatever.

“Me? I had been moving some equipment back to the World for the last few tours, the kind of equipment guaranteed to not make the ATF very damn happy. Anyway, they put that together with a couple of other things and whomped up a court-martial for smuggling and black market. Twenty years in Leavenworth was the verdict. I got shipped off about when Mike was born. After three years a particular appeal worked and I was out.” He snorted faintly at some remembrance and Sharon realized that the hits of white lightning were finally starting to have some effect.

“Now, I could have, probably should have, come home. But I never was into the story of the prodigal son; if I found myself shoveling pig shit I wasn’t going home until I was chief pig-shit shoveler.

“A buddy clued me that there were positions available for someone with my skills. Positions where I’d probably meet a few old friends. The Feds wouldn’t care for it, but, hell, they don’t like anything they don’t directly control while being spot on any evil they do. So I went back to being a soldier. On my own side.” He shook his head again at the futility of the long war between East and West. It was fought on battlefields throughout the world, most undeclared. And it killed more than bodies.

“But you know, me and my buddies, we sure could win the goddamn battles but we could never win the goddamn wars! It was Vietnam all over again. In Rhodesia, my unit, the RSAS, we had one team rack up the highest kill ratio in history. Five guys wiped out a guerilla regiment, poof! Gone! And we still lost the goddamn war.

“It was then, after Rhodesia, that I just got fed up. I was making a living, but I sure as hell wasn’t making a difference; the gooks won every fuckin’ time. So I came home and became a farmer like my father, and his father, and his father. And someday, God willing, Mike will come through that door again and only leave horizontal.”

He turned blazing eyes on his daughter-in-law and she realized that he was finally talking to her as a fellow soldier, not just a civilian in uniform. “Know this, Sharon — and this may be the last time I get a chance to teach a young officer — it really is true that you have to pay more attention to your friends than your enemies. You can defend against the enemy, but it is damn hard to defend yourself against your own side.” He shook his leonine head again and poured more moonshine, the fire of his soul suddenly damped.

“Papa O’Neal?” she said, after some thought.

“Yeah, L-T?” He did not look up from swirling his moonshine.

“I’m glad you shot him. If you hadn’t, you wouldn’t be here for us.” She smiled faintly. “God works in mysterious ways.”

“Hmmph,” he commented. “Well, in any case I didn’t shoot him. I used a knife. I wanted to see his eyes.” He shook his head again and threw the fresh white lightning onto the fire where it blazed like a beacon in the night.

CHAPTER 6

Washington, DC, United States of America, Sol III

0812 EDT May 23rd, 2004 ad

The President hunched forward in his chair, watching the video from Barwhon. The scene was a large, dry open area in the towering forests and swamps. Debris was scattered across the field, bits of cloth and torn tents. Ripped packages of combat meals could be discerned in the foreground, the Mylar linings reflecting the omnipresent purple sky.

The voiceover from the reporter was unnecessary. A clip taken the week before of the same crew’s visit to the command center of the First Infantry Division had preceded the current view. Where the brigade of logistics and management personnel had been was now a wasteland of shredded equipment and camouflage uniforms. There was not a body to be seen.

The mistake had been trivial, a battalion being rotated out of the line, their relief missing the “handoff” by a slim margin, an unanticipated Posleen assault. Suddenly a mass of Posleen equivalent to a division was in the rear area. While the flanked line brigades of the division had struggled for existence, the Posleen had sliced through the lightly armed and undertrained rear area personnel like a buzz saw through balsa.

The final casualties were still being counted. As always with the Posleen, it was the Missing In Action column that was the largest. Virtually all of them could be counted on as dead. Many would be rations for aliens, others bits and pieces lost in the ruck the Armored Combat Suits had made of the Posleen.

The ACSs, a British battalion this time, had led the rescue divisions. The suits, heavily reinforced with fire from the oncoming support, had slashed through the centaurs and relieved the survivors of the American infantry division. Then they had led the French reinforcements into their positions and hunted the Posleen into the ground.

But the losses were enormous. Most of the division was missing, which meant dead. And during the primaries, he was not in a position to take the heat from this debacle.

He flipped off the television and spun in his chair to face the secretary of defense.

“Well?” the President asked.

“It’s not as if it hasn’t happened before—” said the secretary, only to be cut off.

“Not in the last year. We lost heavily in the first year’s fighting, but this is the first big loss anyone has had this year.”

“The Chinese just took a big hit on Irmansul, Mister President,” commented his national security advisor. The former infantry commander rubbed the side of his nose. He had made his suggestions the first week he had been with the administration. Now to see if they would take fruit.

“But not NATO forces,” the President snapped. The treaty was nearly moribund, but the term was still used to indicate the units from “First World” countries. NATO forces commanded far higher funding from the Galactics than counterparts from other areas of the world; a NATO division cost the Galactics twelve times as much as a Chinese division. “Let the Irmansul consortium get what they paid for! But we cannot afford these sorts of losses. And they have to stop!”

“It’s war, Mister President,” said the secretary, casting a sidelong glance at the NSA. “You win some and you lose some.”

“Well, I’ve never been a ‘loser,’ Robby,” the President snapped, angrily. “And I’ve got to wonder if that’s the case with all of our commanders?”

“Do you have a problem with the chain of command, Mister President?” asked the secretary.

“I don’t know,” said the President, snidely. “Do you think we have a problem? First we have all these news reports about training and discipline problems. Then we’re still reeling from the arguments over whether we should defend the coastal plains or not. Then we have this. I have to wonder if we have the right people in the right jobs!”

“There are several issues currently—” the secretary started and was cut off again.

“I don’t want to hear about issues!” the President snapped. “I want to hear about results! Now, do you have any suggestions?”

The secretary of defense finally understood what the President wanted. The President wanted a “policy-maker’s” head. With the campaigning already started, he wanted to be distanced from the failure on Barwhon, while having the blame pinned precisely. That meant placing it at a high enough level that the administration could be seen as “doing something.” The secretary suddenly realized that he should only offer his own resignation if he really meant it.

“I think we need to consider a new command team for Ground Forces,” said the secretary, carefully.

“I think we need to consider more than that,” said the President. “I think we need to completely replace the upper command and change the command structure…”

The NSA hid a small smile. Fertile ground indeed.

* * *

The general gave a broad and humorless smile. It was a well-known mannerism that countless subordinates had fallen victim to. “He did what?”

General Jim Taylor, Chief of Staff to the Ground Forces High Commander, gave a huge grin and balanced the Fairbairn combat knife he was playing with on one finger. “He canned the commander and the vice.” Jim Taylor had dealt with plenty of Marines in his time, and as far as he was concerned, the vice commander was just a guy wearing a Marine’s hat. “And he’s completely changed the command structure. The High Commander will command Training Command, Intelligence, Logistics, what have you. Including ‘Base Support Command.’ ”

“CONARC,” said the other general. He gave a resigned sigh. At least his position had finally been given its correct name. He had held the position of CONARC for the past two years, ever since completing his assignment as head of the Infantry branch of the Galactic Technology Board. It had been an intensely frustrating period. Not only was his background as one of the most experienced combat commanders in the Army being squandered, he was responsible for bases that were out of his control. He was the “commander” of the base personnel and “owned” the bases, but he did not have command of the units assigned to those bases. And those units were halfway mutinous and engaging in almost daily riots. Then the cost of the cleanup for those riots came out of his budget. So he was watching a previously stellar career come crashing down because of others’ failures.

“Nope,” said General Taylor. “Continental Army Command is the biggest change. There will be two ‘Force’ commands under the High Commander: CONARC and ExForC. Continental Army Command and Expeditionary Force Command. The commander of CONARC will have direct command and control of all combat forces in the continental United States.”

The silver-haired general Taylor had been addressing sat bolt upright in his chair and pinned his ebony-skinned superior with a glacial-blue gaze. “Are you kidding?”

“Nope,” said Taylor with a grin. “And, before you even ask. Yeah, Jack, you get to keep the position. I say that as the new High Commander,” he added with an even wider grin.

General Jack Horner sat back in his chair and a rare, real smile violated his normally serious mien. “Congratulations. Jesus, there is a God.”

Taylor shrugged and expertly threw the knife into a cork dartboard with a picture of Jar-Jar Binks pinned on it. “There are other problems. He wanted to switch back to Ridicuplan, but I talked him out of it, I think. But we have to maintain forces on the coastal plains during the main invasion.”

“Oh,” said Horner with another thin smile. “Great.”

“Yeah. He’s got a point; public opinion is dead set against losing the plains completely. It would tear us apart as a country to fall back on the Appalachians and the Rockies, giving up all the major cities…”

“Nice recitation,” commented Horner. “Are you considering running for Congress?”

“Say that and smile, partner,” said Taylor, with a warning grin. “No, but it’s also true.”

“Sir,” said Horner, formally. “There is no way to defend the plains.”

“Oh, don’t get me wrong, Jack. I know that and I’m not gonna piss away boys’ lives trying. And I’m not gonna let the President, either. What we have to do is come up with a plan to defend certain key cities.”

“Which ones?” asked General Horner, frowning slightly in agreement. “That I can live with, if we don’t have to defend too far out.”

“Well, we’re going to decide which ones and where. But I more or less promised that if it is ‘historic’ it would get defended.”

Horner nodded. “You know, I played around with that a while back. Defend the inner part of all the ‘major’ cities that we were planning on losing. But we don’t want to do it with a normal population.”

“I told him that, too.” Taylor nodded. “We’ll plan on evacuating all but the military and an essential civilian presence. No children stay.”

Horner nodded with another positive frown. “Good. This will actually be a better defense plan, you know.”

Taylor nodded with a grim smile. “The cities will pull some of the heat off of the mountain defenses.”

“That and it will keep some of the Posleen where those refurbished battleships can reach them,” Horner noted. “I’ll have a list of recommended cities for defense by the end of the week. Count on Norfolk, DC, San Francisco and New York.”

“Okay,” said Taylor. “And start thinking about ways to pull out the defenders if it gets too hot. They’ll have to be planning on staying for five years, without external support. But if they’re going to get overrun, there will have to be a plan.”

“Something else for the ACS to handle,” Horner said with a frown. He had just the person in mind to write that part of the plan. Always call on an expert.

CHAPTER 7

Washington, DC, United States of America, Sol III

0605 EDT May 28th, 2004 ad

“Good morning, professor!” came the call from the door.

Monsignor Nathan O’Reilly, Ph.D., the Reagan Chair of Archaeology and Ancient History, looked up from the computer screen and his eyes lit. The young lady in the doorway was not only one of his favorite former students, she was a notorious gossip. Since her new job often included gossip that he wanted to hear, it was always a pleasure to see her.

“Kari! Come in,” he said, rising to his feet to rearrange chairs. “Sit,” he commanded, pointing at the comfortable armchair placed by the desk. “Coffee?”

“Oh, no!” she gasped. “I couldn’t hold another drop. I’ve been up practically the whole night and I’m headed to bed!”

“Since when does the White House Protocol Office work swing shift?” he asked with raised white eyebrows. He took a sip of his own coffee and glanced at the cesium-quartz clock on the wall. Among the bric-a-brac of ancient alembics, archeological relics and old books it stuck out like a nuclear reactor in a Roman coliseum.

The clock had been a gift from another former student. The newly promoted Vice Admiral with the Federation Fleet had presented it to his old mentor with the joke that now he could always be sure what century he was in. It indicated that Kari was returning home shortly after six in the morning. While he was habitually early to work, he knew from experience that Kari, while quite beautiful and intellectually brilliant, was a tad lazy. Her working through the night was something he would have deemed impossible.

“Oh!” she exclaimed, tossing her head to clear an errant blonde hair. “It is just so exciting! The Tir Lord Dol Nok is coming on a state visit! And the first place he is visiting is right here!”

“Kari, Kari,” the professor soothed, “calm yourself. Precision, darling. By right here are you referring to George Mason University or Washington?”

“Washington! He’s going to hold a summit with President Edwards to finalize the sale of the heavy weapons for the planetary defense centers in the U.S.!”

The professor shook his head. Kari was a wonderful girl, but it was early for her particular brand of cheerleader enthusiasm. “That is wonderful news. But why were you up all night?”

“Oh,” she said, letting out an exaggerated sigh. “The summit won’t be for months, but the protocols for the High Tir are just sooo complex. Previously the WHoPo thought that the only significant similar human protocols seemed to be among the Mandarin. But that was just being narrow-minded. I was able to convincingly demonstrate that there were more similarities with observed Egyptian motifs…”

O’Reilly leaned forward and gave her every bit of his attention. While in many ways Kari epitomized the image of the dumb blonde, she was one of the most brilliant young ladies it had been his privilege to teach. Her insights into early societies’ interactions probably exceeded his own. If she were not such a natter-head or had an inkling about what was actually happening in the world around her, she would be a perfect recruit for the Société.

He nodded his head as she made a point about the surprising similarity between Minoan court protocols and the protocols of the Darhel. He was aware of the similarity, had in fact pointed it out to her on a previous visit. Unlike Kari, however, he had a pretty good idea why the similarity existed. The protocols of the court of Minos derived from both Egypt and Phoenicia. Since becoming a member of the Société, what he had to say about Maya, Egypt and Phoenicia was no longer printable. He could not, unfortunately, teach the truth. That was the part that stuck furthest into his craw.

“So, anyway,” she finished her dissertation, “we had to completely restructure the plan. I swear, those idiots from the State Department think that the Darhel are just funny-looking Chinese or something! They had no idea at all that the manner of precedence is reversed with the Tir. They had no idea about food protocols; they were going to serve roast beef to vegetarians!”

“State is usually more competent than that,” commented the professor, chuckling. “Surely they have dealt with the Darhel’s idiosyncrasies before this?” He knew that they had. Kari was not the only former student who came back for occasional “chats.”

“I don’t know what moron concocted the menu,” she answered. “But we got it straight. The precedence thing has apparently been overlooked before.”

“Well, not this time,” the professor said with a smile. “You seem to be doing well?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” She sighed, her normally vivacious face deflated. “What the heck is the point? We’re still going to have hell on earth, no matter how good I am at protocol.”

“We each must do our small part for the future,” he said with a reassuring smile. “Think of the poor people who labor in factories or even work in a convenience store. At least you work at the White House.”

“Hmm,” she said with a pensive frown. “But, lately I feel like I should be doing more.”

“Such as?”

“Larry offered me a position on his staff,” she said.

“You want to enlist in Fleet?” he asked, surprised.

“Not enlist. Get a commission. They need officers who can be liaisons with the Indowy and Darhel.”

He regarded her somberly for a moment. If she left the White House not only would he lose a very good source, she would be like a fish out of water. She simply had no concept of how different military life was from anything she had ever previously experienced.

“Kari,” he said carefully, “why did you say the Tir was coming to visit?”

She wrinkled her brow prettily and cocked her head. “There’s a problem with the heavy grav-guns going into the planetary defense centers. The Galactics can’t produce as many as had been planned for before the invasion. Also, the new plan to defend the cities is going to require more than the Pentagon had planned for. The Tir is coming to decide the final apportionment not only for the United States but worldwide.”

“Hmm,” the professor murmured, nodding his head. “Do you think that the Tir would have been more or less favorably disposed to the United States for more grav-guns if the President had shaken his hand, walked at his side to dinner and fed him beef?”

Kari’s eyes widened. “Oh.”

The old man’s face creased in an engaging smile. Kari thought that when he did that it took thirty years off him. He still had the greenest eyes she had ever seen. She wondered for a moment what he was like as a young man. She knew he had come late to his current profession. And he had flaming red hair before it turned white. He was probably a pistol as a kid, she thought.

“So,” he asked, “still planning on taking that position with Fleet?”

“No,” she said, shaking her head. “Your logic, as usual, is perfect.” She smiled back. “What about you?”

It was his turn to look rueful. “Well. The Ministry did not feel it necessary to reactivate a former subaltern, whatever his later accomplishments.”

She shook her head. “What idiots. They could use you in Fleet Intelligence. You seem to understand more about the Galactics and the Posleen than anyone I’ve ever met in the military.”

His face displayed none of the terror that little admission fired in him. He had thought his understanding of both their Galactic “allies” and their putative enemies was carefully hidden. Apparently he had been insufficiently circumspect.

“Well, it seems to me that knowledge of humanity and its many foibles gives more than enough background to understand our allies and enemies. We are, after all, not so terribly different.”

She nodded and yawned. “Oh!” she exclaimed with a hand over her mouth. “Sorry!”

“No problem, dear,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “I think you need some rest.”

“Mmm,” she agreed, getting up and heading to the door as he stood in anachronistic gentility. She paused at the open door. “I’m going to be busy for a while, so I may not be able to see you. Take care, Monsignor.”

“And you, my dear,” he said as she walked out. “And you. Most definitely take care.”

He sat down and went back to parsing out the Sanskrit tablet on the screen as his mind worked on many different tracks. He began to mutter a tune that had nearly fallen out of favor except as a corrupted nursery rhyme.

“Yankee Doodle went to town a-ridin’ on a pony…”

CHAPTER 8

Ft. Indiantown Gap, PA, United States of America, Sol III

1023 EDT June 6th, 2004 ad

“Does he ever lighten up?” asked Lieutenant Nightingale as she stepped onto the covered porch of the company headquarters. Tall and greyhound thin, the blonde XO had just been the victim of an O’Neal smoking. She now took a moment in the shade out of sight of the troops to regain her composure.

“I don’t think so,” said Lieutenant Arnold, her fellow sufferer. The tall, balding thirty-two-year-old weapons platoon leader shook his head.

Until the arrival of the second draft, he had been the executive officer of Bravo Company. He knew exactly how stringent their commander’s standards were. He had come to grips with them. Teri, on the other hand, was having problems.

In the captain’s eyes, the faults of the two lieutenants were too numerous to list.

The job of an executive officer was usually to ensure that the unit was functioning smoothly first and learn to be a company commander second. O’Neal, however, had put “tuning” the company in the lap of their extremely competent first sergeant and insisted that Nightingale become as competent as he was at maneuvering the company in combat. She had thus far failed miserably.

She was having a hard time adjusting her command style to combat troops. The gentle cajoling that worked well with the techs who had been in her previous intelligence company was perceived as weakness by grunts. She also seemed to have no tactical sense at all. The fact that she was for all practical purposes a neophyte was beside the point. From Captain O’Neal’s uncluttered point of view she was one heartbeat away from having his company in her hands and either she could cut the mustard or she could not.

In Arnold’s case, the new weaponry and employment techniques were the problem. He was having to adjust to ranges of fire and maneuver he had previously never considered. At the same time he was overseeing the training of troops in a variety of weapons beyond their dreams.

The military had learned some lessons on Diess and Barwhon, and the ACS weapons platoons now packed so much firepower they were jokingly referred to as the Grim Reapers. They had initially been deployed with 75mm automortars and terawatt lasers. Diess had proven that the standard suit grenade systems were superior to the automortars at short ranges while the lasers were too bulky and awkward for the sort of rapid movement ACS had adopted. The mortars and lasers were effectively retired, but in their wake came a diversity of suit-mounted special weapons. From this diversity the platoon leader was supposed to choose which would be appropriate for the probable mission. Since no mission ever went as planned, there were far more wrong choices than right.

If the probable mission was indirect fire-support, the platoon packed individual multimortars. These were enhanced grenade launchers and each weapon-suit packed four: one on each shoulder and one on each arm. They threw 60mm rounds up to five miles with pinpoint accuracy and had fourteen separate munition types from which to choose.

The basic munition was a standard high-explosive (HE) round that could be set for airburst, surface detonation or delay. The weapons graded up from there through “enhanced conventional munitions,” i.e., cluster bombs, to antimatter rounds with a “soft kill” radius larger than the range of the mortar. Thus any unarmored humans, or Posleen, in the immediate area of the mortar platoon would be fried if these were used. Unfortunately, for everyone involved, these heavy weapons suits could run through the available onboard rounds in twenty seconds. The “Reapers” joked that they all needed one platoon of grunts apiece, just to carry ammunition.

If the probable mission was close support there were three separate weapons systems to chose from, depending on how close and how personal. The simplest was a set of super shotguns with multiple types of rounds from which to choose. From there it got complicated.

Unfortunately each suit could only mount one type of weapon and choosing the right weapons mix could make or break an engagement. The Old Man was actually beginning to perfect some beautiful sucker moves for the playbook that involved the heavy weapons platoon. But they required that the platoon leader be able to read his mind. As the playbook got firmed up it might be a little easier but in the meantime there were far more wrong mixes than right.

“Well, I don’t care what anybody says,” continued Nightingale, angrily, “there’s such a thing as — What the hell is that?” she broke off.

“Those are Indowy, I think,” said Arnold seriously.

Outside the headquarters the Pennsylvania summer sun stirred up the yard of the company area in playful dust devils. Emerging from the swirling dust was a group of squat green humanoids. Looking superficially like fat children, their coloring derived from a chlorophyllic symbiont that wavered across their lightly clad skin like green fur. Their faces were nightmarishly batlike but their eyes were large and round, giving them an ingenuous expression that actually went well with their personalities. In their midst they towed a large crate on an anti-grav dolly.

“No, that. It looks like a coffin,” said Nightingale.

“Little coffin,” commented Arnold. Neither of them had ever seen the traveling carton for an armored combat suit.

The nine Indowy were led by an individual with somewhat more ornamentation, but otherwise indistinguishable to the pair of officers. When the lead Indowy reached the bottom of the rickety metal stairs leading to the company headquarters it stopped and bowed. The following Indowy set the box down and shuffled nervously.

“Is this the clan of the most illustrious Michael O’Neal?” The AID translation was in a higher pitch than the two were used to, almost off the audible scale.

Arnold nudged Nightingale.

“Yes,” she said. “Yes, it is. I am Lieutenant Nightingale,” she continued more firmly, “his second-in-command.”

“I bear a gift from my master, the Indowy Aenaol,” said the leader with a deep bow. At a gesture the remaining Indowy righted the sarcophagus and touched a button. The box opened to reveal a small combat suit that sported some notable modifications from the standard command suit.

The first thing the officers noticed was the ornamentation. The suit was covered in complex designs that at first appeared to be three-dimensional, an absolute no-no when dealing with penetrating fire. On closer examination they appeared to be holograms somehow incorporated into the armor. There were some elegant fins running down the arms and legs that might help with heat dissipation, a major fault of most combat suits. The helmet was formed into the face of some sort of demon or horrific alien creature, smooth to the front with pointed demon-ears and fangs dangling nearly to the suit’s chest. Both arms sported underarm daggers and more weapons peeped from unlikely places. It appeared that if it was surrounded the whole suit might start blasting. More of the company were gathering around to look at the apparition as First Sergeant Pappas stepped through the door.

“Okay, what the hell is… that?” the tall, Herculean Samoan NCO said, uncharacteristically dumbfounded.

“The captain’s new suit, Top,” chuckled Arnold. “Why don’t you go get him?”

Mike walked through the door a moment later to the relief of the Indowy team, who were becoming nervous at being surrounded by humans. For the Indowy, dealing with humans had much the same effect as a human dealing with a tiger. The trainer can tell you all day it is harmless, but once you’re in the cage it is just a damn big carnivore.

“Top, clear these people out,” Mike said, instantly analyzing the situation. He turned a bit of dip between his lip and gum, then spat in the dust to the side of the porch.

“What the hell does this look like, a fuckin’ circus?” the first sergeant said, rounding on the first NCO in sight. “Sergeant Stewart! Move your squad out of here before I find something useful for you rag-bags to do! What? None of you have anything better to do? Maybe we need to GI a few barracks?” The crowd rapidly dispersed leaving only the captain, the lieutenants and the first sergeant.

“Indowy Aelool, taon, I see you,” said Mike, making a fractional bow. He had not dealt with any Indowy since Diess, but he had kept current with the position of the human military ranks in the complex hierarchy of the Federation. However, the decorations marked the Indowy as a senior craftsman. As a Fleet Strike captain Mike outranked the Indowy by several degrees despite the fact that it might command thousands of Indowy. In the Federation scheme of things, Indowy had incredibly low caste.

O’Neal was not certain but he suspected the senior craftsman was a transfer/neuter. That Indowy sex had a natural advantage career-wise, since they were only peripherally involved in childbirth; they also were a strong political force within the Indowy ranks. That made his assignment to a fitting team unusual to say the least. Mike would have expected a lower-rank female craftsman.

“Inspired Lord O’Neal, I see you,” the Indowy intoned.

“Inspired Lord?” asked Mike. It was an Indowy rank equivalent to a clan leader; he was not aware that it was ever bestowed on non-Indowy. He could not immediately determine a human equivalent, but there was rarely more than one per planet, sometimes none on a minor planet.

“It was the determination of the grouped clans that such would be your rank among the Indowy, henceforth until time should end. Never has one done so much for so many. I grieve that no greater lord than my humble self could greet you as fit.”

“I understand the difficulty.” And he did. The Darhel would probably look poorly on this example of Indowy independent thought. “But,” he continued determinedly, “the success on Diess was the result of the actions of many.”

“So you have said, repeatedly,” the Indowy Master agreed. “Yet the strategy for success did not exist until you showed your own commanders the Way. The forces necessary for success were freed by the action of men under your command. The final action, protecting the assembling defenses by single-handed destruction of a command ship, was not done by others.” It wrinkled its jowls, an Indowy head shake. “Your humility is in keeping with the finer traits of the humans, but it is false. Argue not, you are an Inspired Lord, in thought as well as deed.

“In keeping with your new assumption,” it continued, “it was found mete to gift you with this token of our gratitude. A free gift, freely given as you gave so freely to our brothers.” He gestured grandly at the suit. “It incorporates every aspect of suit design that you called for, that was possible to construct.”

“Power source?” asked Mike glancing quickly at the suit. He moved the bit of dip to the side as a slight smile violated his face.

“Class Two antimatter reactor, as you specified. Equivalent to a five-kiloton antimatter warhead, but small enough to armor against almost any strike. Just such a warhead could go off next to the armor and not penetrate the energy core, so strongly is it protected.”

“Armor?” Mike asked on a rising tone.

“Sixty-millimeter frontal monomolecular uranium-silicon alloy with energetic reinforcement. The energetic reinforcement is logarithmically autocontrolled against nonrelativistic-velocity projectiles. As the round comes closer to a penetrating angle, the deflection energy increases logarithmically.”

Mike stepped gingerly down the steps and ran his hand down the front of the suit. “Inertial systems?”

“Two hundred eighty gravities with full lift and drive, seven inertial sump points. Sorry,” he said with a shrug. The gesture was shared by Indowy and humans. “It was the best the Tchpth could do.”

Mike turned with a closed-mouth smile — he knew what the sight of teeth did to the Indowy — and gleaming eyes. “Tell the Indowy that I accept with thanks!”

“Umm, sir?” interjected Nightingale.

“Yes, Lieutenant?”

“Is that legal? I mean, isn’t there some law against it?” she asked.

“No,” he responded definitively. His face was quite closed as he turned slightly to spit out another stream of tobacco juice.

“Sir? I mean, conflict of interest? And gifts from contractors? I know there are Army regulations, sir.” She finished with a moue of distaste. He was the commander and could have any filthy habit he wanted to have. But he could at least have the decency to keep it private. Her former unit had a zero-tolerance tobacco policy.

“There aren’t any in the Federation laws, Lieutenant. None at all,” said the Indowy Master. “We checked quite carefully, and it is entirely within the agreed-upon structure for the Federation Armed Forces remuneration process. Also, since it is a necessary piece of equipment for the captain’s function, it is not taxed.”

“Oh.” The group of officers and NCOs shared looks. The Indowy had just handed their captain nearly half a billion credits worth of suit, untaxed. In perspective, an Indowy junior craftsman earned less than five credits a month.

“Again, my thanks,” Mike said to the Indowy.

“It is little. My team will be staying to fit your clan. I guarantee you the best fitting possible.”

“Why don’t you come inside out of the dust and we can talk,” said Mike, gesturing towards the headquarters. “There are a few things I’ve been hoping to talk to a good technician about.”

“Thank you. And my team?”

“Top,” O’Neal said.

“Right you are, sir. Beds for the Indowy, coming right up. I think a trailer to themselves?”

“Reading my mind again, Top.”

“Yes, sir,” said the darkly tanned mountain with a smile. “That and training is what NCOs is for.”

CHAPTER 9

Rabun County, GA, United States of America, Sol III

1023 EDT June 17th, 2004 ad

“Okay, honey, now turn the cam a quarter twist, carefully, while making sure the pin don’t come out.”

“Like this?” asked Cally, her forehead wrinkling in concentration.

“Just right. Now, can you feel any resistance to the pin?” asked Papa O’Neal, watching the exercise from the shade of a tree. The heat of Georgia’s summer enveloped them here at the edge of the fields and every little scrap of shade was appreciated. He worked the massive wad of Redman in one cheek then moved it to the other side.

“No,” she said, licking a drop of sweat off her lip. “There’s no resistance at all,” she confirmed, barely moving the cotter pin.

“Okay, pull it out, carefully. Don’t move the trip wire and for dang sure if you feel any resistance, stop.”

Cally was taking to demolitions like a duck to water. She had incredible hand-eye coordination for an eight-year-old, and took infinite pains. It only took Papa O’Neal blowing up one cow for her to decide she wanted to be real careful. This was the most advanced technique yet: a claymore directional mine on a trip wire, with the trip wire booby-trapped. Okay, so it was not a real claymore, yet. It was, however, a real blasting cap.

“Okay,” he said, continuing the lesson, “so you’re walking along a trail…”

“No, I’m not, ’cause trail is spelled D-E-A… T-H… uh… T-R-A-P,” she contradicted.

“Okay, you’re having a bad day.”

“ ‘Pay more attention if you’re having a bad day, you make more mistakes, not less,’ ” she recited pedantically.

“Okay, your target is walking along a trail,” said O’Neal with a shake of his head. He took a pull from the Gatorade at his side and nodded at her canteen.

“Posleen or human?” she asked, taking a large swig of water. Papa O’Neal’s house had the best water in the entire world.

“Well, human this time.”

“Okay,” she agreed with equanimity. Humans were generally smarter than Posleen according to both Papa O’Neal and her daddy, who ought to know. If you trained to kill humans you were bound to be better at killing Posleen.

“And he’s smart…” continued Mike Senior, turning slightly to the side to spit. The stream of brown juice nailed a grasshopper as it slumbered on a grass stem.

“No, he’s not,” she disagreed, putting away her canteen. “He’s on a trail.”

“Sometimes you gotta use the trails,” said Papa O’Neal.

“Not me, I’m in the trees.”

“Okay, a target is walking along the trail, a not-very-smart human target.”

“Okay,” she agreed.

“And he’s smart enough to be looking for trip wires.”

“Dogs?”

“Feelers.”

“Okay.”

“And he spots the trip wire…”

“Feels.”

“Right. And what does he do?

“Not-very-smart?”

“Right.”

“ ‘Always assume your target is smarter than you.’ ”

“Would you stop throwing my statements back in my face and go with the exercise!” He worked the Redman back over to the other side and spat again. A beetle started to burrow, thinking it was raining.

“Okay,” she agreed. If that was how he wanted to do it, fine.

“Okay, what does mister not-so-smart do?”

“Cuts the wire.”

“Go ahead.”

“No way!” she disagreed. “You cut the wire. I’m not taking your word on that being a practice claymore!”

“Okay, pull the blasting cap, then cut the wire.”

“Okay.” She crept over to the camouflaged claymore, sweeping carefully ahead of her with a long piece of grass; you never knew when Papa O’Neal was going to booby-trap his exercises. Then, with a glance over her shoulder to make certain that Grandpa was not going to mess with the detonator, she pulled the blasting cap out.

There was a series of sharp retorts behind her as the training claymores that were hooked to the booby trap on the blasting cap went off in a daisy chain sequence. If all of the claymores had been real, a hundred-meter swath of the edge of the fields would have erupted in fire.

“And the moral of today’s lesson?” asked Papa O’Neal dryly. The wad of chewing tobacco distended his grin.

“You are an obnoxious prick, Grandpa!” she retorted.

“And I’m teaching you bad language.”

“Hey!” she shouted indignantly, holding up the blasting cap. “This isn’t even real!”

“Like I’m going to let you handle a live cap hooked to a trip wire,” said the old man. “Get real. I promised to return you in one piece.”

“You pull caps all the time,” she said, puzzled.

“Not once I’ve set an antitamper device on it. If I can’t blow it in place, I go around. Handling live traps is for fools and damn fools. Which kind are you?”

“Oh, okay. Enough demo for today?”

“Enough for today, except I want you to repeat after me. I will not…”

“I will not…”

“Attempt to disable… ” Spit.

“Attempt to disable…”

“Any demo…”

“Any demo…”

“So help me, God.”

“So help me, God.”

“Amen.” Spit.

“Amen.”

“Let’s go bust some caps,” he said with a smile. Cally was good at demo but shooting pistols was her real love.

“Okay, but I want a five-point handicap this time,” she said, checking the Walther in the skeleton holster at her back.

“No way. I’m getting old, my hands are all palsied,” he quavered, holding out a shaking left hand. “I think I should have a handicap.”

“You do have a handicap, Grandpa; you’re getting senile. Remember last week? Fourteen points ahead on the twenty-meter range? You know what they say: short-term memory…”

“Are you sure you’re eight?” he asked. A moment later an ant was smashed to its knees by a descending mass of mucus and vegetable matter. After a moment it shook its head and looked around in ant wonder at the largess from the sky.

CHAPTER 10

Ft. Indiantown Gap, PA, United States of America, Sol III

2237 EDT July 28th, 2004 ad

For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard,
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And, guarding, calls not Thee to guard,
For frantic boast and foolish word —
Thy mercy on Thy People, Lord!

— “Recessional” Rudyard Kipling, 1897

Stewart’s second squad sprinted forward and dropped to the prone, their grav-guns tracking and firing on the advancing virtual Posleen the whole time. Wherever the silver beams of relativistic-velocity teardrops intersected the Posleen wall, racking explosions tore deep gaps in the oncoming line. In response, hypervelocity flechettes and missiles tore at the defenders’ armor, most of the hipshot rounds missing high. But with millions of penetrator rounds coming at the relatively few suits, losses were a statistical certainty.

“Ten-twenty-two, ten-twenty-two, execute!” Stewart said in a steady voice as Private Simmons’s data lead went blank. Half the team checked fire just long enough to reach into a side compartment and pull out a small ball. Flicking off the cover and thumbing the switch they set it offset to their right and went back to firing.

“Clear Ten-Alpha,” said the Alpha team leader as Bravo team duplicated the maneuver.

As Bravo resumed firing, the cratering charges emplaced by the Alpha team went off. They again checked fire only long enough to slither into the impromptu foxholes, then took the Posleen back under fire. “Clear Twenty-Two-Alpha,” called the team leader.

Moments later the entire platoon was under cover.

* * *

“So that’s your playbook,” said Colonel Hanson.

“Yes, sir,” said O’Neal, watching Second platoon perform an advance under fire. The hasty defense presented by second squad was temporarily impregnable to the Posleen who were advancing on a narrow strip between a ridge and the Manada River, a much larger body of water than reality for the purposes of the exercise. “We’ve got about two hundred plays, so far, with the various levels of the company trained in their own actions under each play. It’s more or less analogous to the bugle calls the cavalry used. In this case, the squads are performing a Ten-Twenty-Two, ‘form hasty fighting positions and take cover.’ Not that it will help them for long on this exercise.” He worked a bit of dip and spat it into a pocket in the biotic underlayer of the all-enveloping helmet. The saliva and tobacco products were rapidly ingested by the system like all wastes. To the underlayer it was all grist for the mill.

“Is this a fair test?” asked Colonel Hanson, noting how Second platoon was dissolving as inexorably as rock candy in hot water. He wished he could have a cigarette, but they were a bitch to smoke in the suits.

“I think so. By the time Nightingale noticed the flanking maneuver, it was nearly too late for Second to establish the optimum conditions, which was for the Posleen to be a hundred meters farther up river. There the chokepoint is only thirty meters wide, and Lieutenant Fallon could have held them indefinitely. As it is, I don’t think they’ll make it.”

“What would you do?”

“I’d probably try a charge, maybe with some psychological refinements, and try to push them back to the chokepoint,” said O’Neal. He swiveled his viewpoint down into the river for a moment then back to the fighting. “It’s really not a time thing; the length of time they hold is moot. If the Posleen break through now or three hours from now they’ll crack the company defense down the river.”

“Would it work?” asked Colonel Hanson, now paying much more attention to the briefer than the essentially finished engagement.

“According to the scenario, it will work on an irregular basis, dependent on a number of factors not available to adjustment by the tested,” O’Neal answered precisely. Whether any of it would work in the real world was the question in his mind. Every time he looked back at Diess he got cold chills. The chances he had taken were insane. Every single action had been long-ball odds and only incredible good luck had carried the platoon through. His own survival was still placed, by everyone, in the “miraculous” category. And he was afraid he’d used up not only his own quota of luck, but his company’s. If these plans were wrong, it was going to be a massacre. And the fault would rest squarely on his shoulders.

He worked the dip around in thought and spat again. “The Posleen might have a wimpy God King, they might not have enough muscle to the front, minute factors of surface structure on the squad’s armor affects penetration, and so forth. But if you’re this far back you have to hammer them like the hinges of hell, and Lieutenant Fallon’s not a hinges-of-hell kind of guy.”

“So the mistake on Lieutenant Nightingale’s part was farther back?”

“Yes, sir,” Mike answered, in a distracted tone. Something about the scenario was playing false to his experienced senses.

“I almost always leave First platoon in reserve, which pisses the other two platoons off,” he continued automatically. “But Rogers always goes around with such a head full of steam, when I use him to reinforce or blitz it gets hammered home with a vengeance.”

The First platoon leader was a tall, broad, good-looking first lieutenant. As a first lieutenant he would normally have either a heavy weapons platoon or a staff position. Filling a slot for a second lieutenant was beginning to eat him alive; Mike had forwarded four requests for transfer in the last six months.

“Nightingale believes in distributing the load. I am trying to disabuse her of that. The only thing that matters is the mission. You have to pick your units on that basis, not on the basis of ‘fair.’ I finally decided that what she needed was more of a helping hand. But I’d backed myself into a corner being overcorrective.” He grimaced at admitting the mistake.

“Finally I took over most of the stuff the first sergeant had been handling for both of us and sicced him on her. They’ve been spending a hell of a lot of time together and she’s starting to get the hang of it; Gunny Pappas is a top-notch trainer. But I’m still not totally comfortable with her tactical sense.”

“It takes time to learn that,” Hanson admitted.

“Yes, sir. And I hope we’ve got it.” Mike kicked up a probability graph of the engagement if it continued on the current course and fed it to the battalion commander. The casualty graph looked like a mountainside.

For Hanson, who came to his military maturity in the cauldron of Southeast Asia and the Army of the ’70s, the Virtual Reality gear the unit trained with was the next best thing to science fiction.

He had been nearly seventy when recalled and although he had continued in business after the Army, he was one of those executives for whom computers were Greek. These systems, however, were as far from modern computers as a Ferrari from a chariot.

Taking his lead from the resident expert, he started calling his artificial intelligence device, a Galactic-supplied supercomputer the size of a pack of cigarettes, “Little Nag.” He now used her for all his official correspondence and, now that he had gotten her over the annoying literalness of a new AID, she was better than any secretary he’d ever had. In the regular exercises the battalion was conducting, Little Nag kept better track of friendly and enemy disposition, personnel and equipment levels, and all the other minutiae that made for a successful military operation, than any staff in history. The newly arrived S-3 and the other battalion staff officers were getting used to their own AIDs and the staff was approaching a level of perfection seldom to be dreamed.

There was a rapid shuffling below as second squad left their positions and the others moved to cover the extended front. The reduced fire pressure permitted the Posleen to begin moving slowly forward, piling up windrows of their dead but willing to take the sacrifice to overrun the position. However, what remained of second squad eeled past the other positions and, using a gully that kept them more or less out of Posleen sight, slipped one by one into the river and out of Virtual sight.

“Oh, God damn,” whispered Mike, cutting in an overlay of positions to track second as they moved up current. He smiled and spit into the vacuole again.

“What?” asked Colonel Hanson. “It looks like a forlorn hope to me.” He tapped a series of virtual controls to project the course of the unit. The leader, the Sergeant Stewart he had met his first day at the unit, had entered orders for his team and the group of eight survivors was headed for a point in the river opposite the narrow chokepoint the platoon had been unable to reach.

“Not necessarily, sir. Even with the few that remain, second squad could take and hold that chokepoint for a moment, given the right conditions. Maybe long enough for the rest of the platoon to charge forward and relieve them. Damn, I didn’t think that by-the-book Long-Grey-Line son of a gun had it in him.”

Mike watched as the squad formed under the cover of the green waters then erupted upward. As they moved, the water began to hump and wriggle as if infested by snakes. What surfaced was not a group of suits, but a swarming mass of worms, each gray body surmounted with a fang-filled maw. As lines of silver explosive lightning flicked God Kings out of existence, the worms snatched Posleen from the banks and dragged them screaming into the suddenly yellow-stained water. The air, at the same time, was filled with an evil caterwaul and the thunder of drums.

“Is that what I think it is?” asked Colonel Hanson. His own half-smile was unseen. The flair of their company commander was obviously rubbing off on some of the members of the company. O’Neal’s own use of music in battle had become legendary almost overnight.

“If you think that’s the Seventy-Eighth Fraser Highlanders’ bagpipes slamming out ‘Cumha na Cloinne’ it is. Stewart’s been listening to my CDs again.”

“Your idea?”

“No, sir, but now I know what infested Lieutenant Fallon’s mind. That would be Sergeant Stewart.” The smile of the company commander was hidden by the faceless armor but the battalion commander could clearly hear it in his voice. “You remember him, sir.”

“Mmm,” was the only comment. The battalion commander had recently returned a request from the Ground Force Criminal Investigation Division for an investigation into various items of equipment that had gone missing around post. His basis was insufficient evidence of it being traced to Bravo Company. In fact, he was fairly certain that the diminutive second squad leader was responsible.

“You know,” the battalion commander commented. “Bravo had a fairly shabby reputation before you took over. You might want to ensure that it doesn’t get one again.”

Mike’s abbreviated nod was unseen. Prior to the nearly simultaneous arrival of First Sergeant Pappas and Lieutenant Arnold, the company had been a center for black marketeering at the post. The easy and unquestioned availability of technology that was centuries ahead of current had created a tremendous profit for the former first sergeant. Stewart and his squad of recent basic trainees, along with the first sergeant and Arnold, had been instrumental in cleaning up the situation. The former first sergeant was now serving time in the Fleet military prison on Titan Base. The prisoners were used for work out in the vacuum that was considered particularly hazardous.

“I’ll point that out at the next leaders’ meeting,” was Mike’s only comment. He let out another stream of tobacco juice and smiled at the course the battle was taking. Stewart was definitely a subordinate worth having around. Too bad he was only a squad leader.

Their God King lords dead, and under assault from a creature of an evil mythology, the Posleen advancing through the gap turned and tried to fight their way to the rear as the mass of worms humped itself up onto the ground and began attacking in both directions.

“How are they snatching the Posleen?” asked Colonel Hanson, watching one struggling centaur being dragged below the water.

“Well, sir, you’ve got me there, unless they’ve retrofitted the suits somehow.” Mike keyed into a higher level of oversight, on channels poorly understood by most of the AIDs, much less humans.

O’Neal had been in on the design of the suits from the very beginning and had been fighting in them from the first contact on Diess. He knew more about the real abilities of the weapon than any other human in the Federation. His last suit had more hours on it when it was lost than any two others in the armed forces, and his new suit was climbing in hours fast. Single-mindedly devoted to the mission, he spent virtually every waking hour, and a significant amount of sleep time, in armor. He had, as far as Hanson could tell, no social life and interacted with the other battalion officers only on business matters or at required social functions.

Not that there were many of those. Indiantown Gap did not present many amenities to the units forming there. The clubs, officer, NCO and enlisted, were overrun with activating units, and the town of Annville, which was the only civilian area reachable without a personal vehicle, was equally overrun with servicemen. In addition, with the limited training costs of the suits the unit could train 24/7 if so desired. The colonel was taking full advantage of these facts, and the battalion had been in the field nearly every day since they completed fitting.

“Okay,” Mike said in a distant voice, consciousness deep in an electronic world. “I see what they’re doing. They’re grabbing them with space grapples. Could work.”

“The AIDs are going with it,” said the colonel, overlooking the lack of a “sir” in the sentence. “They’re not disallowing it anyway.”

“I don’t know if it would work or not, I’ve never tried it,” Captain O’Neal continued in a distant tone. “That’s odd.” He had finally found what was bothering him.

“What?”

“The Posleen are being run at only eighty percent efficiency.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you can adjust these scenarios to the user. It’s kind of like levels in a computer game. You don’t want to kick the ass of a basic trainee; it takes their edge off to get beat all the time. So, you set the level of difficulty.”

“What level was this set to?” asked the battalion commander. Sometimes the things he did not know about his job frightened him and most things like that were not in any manual. With the exception of a few people like this captain, there were no “old hands” with suits. He wondered how the battalions without an O’Neal were able to prepare at all.

“I set it at a hundred percent,” answered the captain. “These are trained troops and we could expect real-world landings at any time. The problem with fighting at a lower level is that it doesn’t simulate reality well. You want to train harder than real combat, not easier.”

The months since he had taken over the battalion had flown by; Hanson could hardly believe how fast. The first wave of Posleen was only six months away, but they were expecting a few scouting Battle Dodecahedrons any day. And before that there would be a few tests.

Captain O’Neal did not know it yet, but Colonel Hanson had arranged for an FSTEP, the Fleet Strike Testing and Evaluation Program final exam. He was going to inform the company commanders right after this exercise. One week after the FSTEP would be an Organizational Readiness Survey and an inspection by the Fleet Strike Inspector General’s office.

Thanks to his increasingly able staff and the little troll standing next to him he expected to pass all three tests with flying colors. If they got a first-time pass, which had rarely happened with the other units that were already operational, he had been approved for unit leave of one week. O’Neal would take the time off, out of a suit, or the colonel would have him escorted off the post. And the colonel had arranged a little surprise for the unassuming former NCO. One that he would never have asked for, deserving or not.

“There it is,” continued the company commander. “Hmm.”

“What?” asked the battalion commander, drawn back from pleasant reverie. The surprise had required an unforeseen number of participants. Mike should be astounded.

“There is a command line in the general training software to reduce difficulty levels at some unspecified intervals. The intervals are tied to about a million lines of spaghetti logic.”

“What’s that mean?” asked the colonel, wondering what pasta had to do with combat suit programs.

“It means someone’s been screwing with the code: I didn’t call for this. It could only be the Darhel, they wrote the software. There’s a communications protocol in it as well. I wonder if it’s a bug or a deliberate function. If it’s a deliberate function, I can’t see the sense. All it could do is lower the readiness of the training units.”

“What do you do about it?” asked the colonel with an unseen half-nod. He was still getting used to the lack of head movement caused by the gelatinous underlayer of the suits.

“I’ll report it to GalTech; maybe one of the new members called for it,” commented O’Neal, coming out of his programming trance. “But we won’t be using the training software much longer, will we, sir?” he asked grimly.

“No,” agreed the battalion commander. “No, I think the time for training is about over.”

The training for the Second platoon was, indeed, about over. Second squad was entirely expended in the attack, but by the time the last trooper fell the rest of the platoon had fought its way into the gap and was in prepared positions. With a limited front to fight through, it would simply be a matter of how long humans could hold on, not how long they could hold out. It was a subtle differentiation that was often a deciding factor in war. This action was a win; the company’s role was to drive forward and hold on until “conventional” forces could reinforce. Whether the company would ever be used that way was the question.

“Have they finalized what our role is going to be, sir?” asked O’Neal, hoping against hope that the battalion commander had heard something that he had not.

“Not yet, and, yes, that bothers me.”

“I wish to hell Jack would get his shit together,” Mike concluded with an unseen grimace. He moved the dip to the other side of his lip and spit. It wasn’t like his old boss to jerk around this way.

CHAPTER 11

The Pentagon, VA, United States of America, Sol III

1523 EDT August 29th, 2004 ad

Jack Horner currently demonstrated the trait that was his trademark; his face was fixed in a tight, nearly friendly smile that stopped dead at his eyes. The general that this mien was directed at was not fooled; he recognized the danger signs. But he also considered it his duty to continue the diatribe he had embarked upon.

“In conclusion, General, the CONARC staff is unanimously of the opinion that the projected distribution of forces is tactically untenable and logistically unsupportable. The stated intent — to place seventy percent of our combat power and nearly eighty percent of our real shock power — on the coastal plains is patently unacceptable.”

“To whom?” asked General Horner, tightly.

“To your staff, sir, and to the nation we are sworn to defend,” answered his chief of staff, Lieutenant General Bangs, rather pompously.

“Very well, General, I will accept your resignation, if you feel so intent upon protest.”

“Pardon me, General?” gasped Bangs in surprise, face suddenly ashen.

“I think I spoke English, didn’t I?” asked Horner rhetorically. He smiled like a tiger, lips drawn back in a rictus, and his bright blue eyes were cold as a glacier. “I will accept your resignation if you feel so strongly about it. Because I have my orders from the Commander in Chief, and he says we are going to hold the plains. To do that, we have to place the majority of the combat power there, because it is also where the Posleen are going to concentrate. I gave my staff, as you so succinctly put it, their marching orders, through you, two months ago. And you come back to me, a month and a half late and more than a dollar short, with the bald statement that you are not going to support the plan. Fine. I will accept your resignation within the hour, or I’ll relieve you for cause. Your call.” And only after more months of back-room political dickering to make it acceptable to the critical politicians. It was still amazing to him how many politicians simply accepted the “Mountain Plan” and now held it close to their hearts.

“You cannot relieve me for cause,” snarled General Bangs, his florid face broken out in a sweat. “You don’t have it.”

“Actually, your simple statement could be construed as insubordination, not against me, but against a Direction of the President. I could care less: I can fire you at will, whether you think so or not. The President has a declared war on his hands. All your friends in Congress can do is hold on to his coattails. They’re not going to expend any effort on a broken-down war-horse. Now, unlike some people, I have work to do. You are dismissed.”

As the shaken Lieutenant General Bangs left, Jack shook his head. He had put up with Bangs for half a year and he was glad to have him off his back. Besides being well over the range into the “active/stupid” category of officer, Bangs was the most immoral senior officer Jack had ever met. Talking about women was, admittedly, a common sport of all soldiers — J.E.B. Stuart put it succinctly when he said “a soldier who won’t fuck, won’t fight” — but senior officers should not openly brag about their prowess outside the marital bed.

He went back to looking at the logistics distribution report. Bangs had been nearly accurate when he said that the distribution was logistically unsupportable, but he and the rest of the staff were thinking linearly. Jack was as certain as the staff that the plains would be lost, but how they were lost was important.

The initial concept of the war was to play a giant game of Go. Since they could not predict where the Posleen landers would come down, the forces would be widely distributed. It was accepted that the Posleen would overwhelm some of the forces. By the same token some forces should be able to defeat the Posleen in their areas. The standards for open field battle would require nearly four-to-one superiority on the part of human forces. But if the conditions were right they could recapture small areas.

The plan was that these survivors would then rally and reduce the areas that held active Posleen. As in Go, if a human unit was surrounded by Posleen, it was effectively gone. On the other hand, if the human units could surround the Posleen, the reverse was true. Take the white and black balls and cast them upon the Go board of Earth. Begin the game.

However, the Go field does not have terrain obstacles. The first and greatest obstacles were the oceans. The Posleen were almost intensively terrestrial. While they were masters of extracting every last bit of resource from land surfaces of terrestrial type worlds, they left oceans alone. Thus as the landers came in on scattered ballistic paths, they had to divert towards the continental landmasses.

The simple orbital mechanics of this maneuver meant that there was a concentration on the eastern and western coastlines and that there was a greater concentration on eastern than western.

Once the landers were down, the invaders had to deal with the terrains of these regions. The Posleen were structured much like horses, except for the arms jutting from a forward double shoulder, and they were fairly dense so they did not swim well. Also — with the notable exception of the God Kings — they did not use anti-grav vehicles for planetary transport and they were useless as combat engineers. This meant that they were stymied by terrain obstacles that had even the lightest defense. They could not climb mountains and they could not swim rivers, ever, in the face of any sort of defense, even a teenager with a .22-caliber rifle.

In addition, they did not land at random. Landers had never been observed landing in extremely built-up areas, such as the center of large urban areas. Instead they landed in clusters around the cities and moved in towards them.

Despite the reluctance of some of his staff, in the months since the meeting with Taylor, Jack had worked out the broad plan for coastal defense. His AID, along with selected lower level staffers, was fleshing it out even as he had the confrontation with his chief of staff.

The suburbs were indefensible; that was an absolute. Evacuate them when the first real incursion was scheduled, but not before. Plan for that, because nobody, realistically, would leave until the last minute. That was one of the things the Interstate system was designed for; use it. Have the people pull out every scrap of food before they left, bring out all the domesticated animals beforehand. Supermarkets, in general, used “Just-In-Time” inventory systems, so the Posleen were going to get, perhaps, two to three days rations from the available resources. All the other food was in production or stored by the various agricultural companies and grocery chains.

Part of the work being done by his staff was compiling a list of all the locations where food was stored in bulk and integrating it, where possible, into the coastal defense plan. Any stocks that could not be easily integrated were going to be either confiscated or destroyed before the landing. The Posleen would not find one iota of harvested food if he could help it.

The inner cities, on the other hand, were a different kettle of fish. The plan called for defense of the inner cities, but only as firetraps, hell holes to slaughter Posleen. The basic plan had worked well for General Houseman on Diess and Jack intended to use it in America. It also meant that the plains were going to be the battlegrounds that the American populace insisted on.

Again, evacuate the cities. Around them in the suburban areas, at locations that were being determined, would be established firebases. Around the inner city construct a wall. The bastions would be the warehouses and skyscrapers of the city itself. Those bastions would be able to interlock fire with the firebases surrounding the city. As the Posleen attacked the city, the firebases would take them under fire from behind. If they turned on the firebases, the city defenders would take them under fire. The city would become a giant octopus of destruction, engulfing the attacking Posleen in its arms.

Certain major boulevards, preferably ones that were in direct line of sight with the outer fortresses, would be left open, but with walls on either side and the ability to close them off if necessary. Such killing fields had worked well on Diess and they might work again. Let the Posleen file into the boulevards, thinking they were advancing, then open up with all the weaponry in the city.

The fortress plan also reduced the logistical argument. The city fortresses could be stocked for a five-year siege if the Army started constructing and filling warehouses and silos immediately. If the urban forces had to retreat they would destroy the remaining stocks of ammunition and food with preplaced charges. If the war took more than five years, they might as well slit their throats and be done with it.

He understood that eventually the coastal plain cities would fall unless the Fleet came in time. But the reduction of the Posleen forces would work in America’s favor in phase two.

Phase two involved drawing back to the mountains. When a region or city became untenable the forces would have to be drawn back through secured routes to the mountains. In this more than anything he thought the Armored Combat Suit units would be effective.

The cities’ outer fortresses would be designed whenever possible with their heaviest concentration along the side toward the nearest refuge areas. When a city’s defense became untenable, large sections of the city would be dropped, then the remaining defenders would gather on the refuge side and perform a breakout. With the interlocking fires of the exurbs and the city bastions, the forces might be able to break through the surrounding Posleen and start on the long route to safety. As they performed their breakout, ACS units could descend on closing Posleen columns and break them up.

In some cases the Navy, the wet arm, might be able to slip in and perform the evacuation or provide fire-support. He expected this in the case of the Florida cities especially. The Navy was reactivating ships long dormant to support those endeavors.

In the long run most of the cities would fall. But the Posleen that were attacking them would break their teeth, reducing the pressure on the mountain defenders and reducing the overall Posleen population. Until the Fleet was completed it came down to a war of attrition.

The initial mountain plan, which called for a complete retreat to the mountains and the turning over of the cities to the Posleen, would have left vast numbers of Posleen virtually untouched and all the resources of those cities at their disposal. Once the Posleen attack on the mountain passes got into high gear those forces would have been available and fresh. Now they would generally be unavailable. And if the Posleen did attack the mountain defenses they would be battered from hammering on the brick wall of the city fortresses.

If the situation dictated, forces could even sally against the Posleen. But he intended to hold that card up his sleeve or three years from now some politician would give away their hard-won gains in a pointless gesture.

In the mountains and in the interior the situation would be slightly different. The Appalachian and Rockies routes had been worked on for the past two years and featured multilayered defenses all the way up to the Continental Divides. In the southeast, heavy defenses had been prepared along the Tennessee River, through the region of and heavily assisted by the Tennessee Valley Authority, guys who knew all about big projects. In addition, along the outer slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Rockies twenty-seven superfortresses were under construction. These fortresses, once completed, would afford interlocking antiship fire all along the coasts and overlooked strategic cities. In addition their locations provided an umbrella of defensive fire over the entire country. Posleen forces that attacked the mountain defenses from the coastal plains were again going to break their teeth. They would advance, but he doubted they would be able to break through.

In the interior, landings were anticipated to be light. The way that the Posleen assaulted planets, in large more-or-less random swarms, caused them to concentrate the majority of their forces on the seacoasts. As in the coastal areas, defenses were just starting construction around the inner cities and forts were being constructed in the suburbs. In the case of the Midwest, however, the parasite forts were larger and, conversely, less heavily armed. They were larger because these cities were not going to be evacuated and if the Posleen landed in and near them, the civilians were going to run for shelter. The entry systems were being built by amusement park companies and were designed to accept millions of people in a matter of hours.

The fortresses were less heavily armed because there were only so many heavy weapons to go around. The armaments allocated to cities such as Pittsburgh, Minneapolis and Des Moines were based on the lower likelihood of attack and the greater likelihood of external support. The fortresses also were designed similar to traditional “castles” and hosted numerous firing ports on every side.

After the gates shut the “civilians,” many of whom had designated militia positions, would be expected to pick up arms from armories scattered throughout the walls and proceed to firing positions. From there, behind fixed defenses, the refugees could become effective fighters. They would have to be; the interior fortresses would have a third of the “conventional” forces allotted to the coastal fortresses. The interior would also be completely without ACS support. The ACS would have other overriding missions.

The Posleen, as a rule, did not care for extreme cold any more than humans. They also were less able to deal with it effectively. Therefore, they landed in temperate or tropical zones. Thus, Canada could be guarded by her own forces and be well off; the northern border was not considered a problem. That did leave Mexico as a failure source.

An argument had been advanced that America should just erect a great wall along the Mexican border, something that some people had wanted for years. Whether it was a valid argument or not was moot; there were insufficient resources to do the job before the Posleen landed. Any Posleen that landed in Mexico were going to have the field day expected in the Third World for the Posleen and most would probably remain there at first. But some of them were going to turn north; how many was anyone’s guess.

Unfortunately, as the Border Patrol had often said, there are virtually no terrain obstacles in the southwestern United States. The only forces that could fight the Posleen effectively without either fixed defenses or terrain obstacles were the ACS, so the ACS were going to be committed primarily to the southwestern U.S.

Jack Horner had, effectively, two divisions of ACS. Fleet had left behind in America the Eleventh Mobile Infantry Division, formerly the Eleventh Airborne Division of World War II Pacific fame, and three regimental task forces: the 508th, the 509th and the 555th Mobile Infantry Regiments. How he distributed these forces might make or break the defense. Some were going to have to be distributed to the coasts, especially the East Coast, with its broader plain and less defensible passes, but most would have to go to the Southwest.

He had a little time to decide on the distribution and he knew only one person on Earth who was more expert in the abilities of the combat suit units than himself. He decided it was time to call in another opinion.

CHAPTER 12

Ft. Indiantown Gap, PA, United States of America, Sol III

0922 EDT September 5th, 2004 ad

The grader was a Marine né Mobile Infantry Major from Fourth Fleet Strike Division. The unit was currently deeply involved in the battles on Barwhon. He was a dark-skinned, blue-eyed Iron Man in the square-jawed movie-star Marine fashion, but his armor was commendably battered. Fighting the Posleen left gouges all over. The nannites that maintained it, that existed throughout the underlayer, could, with time, work out all the wounds on the surface. But the process left a faint discoloration, obvious to the trained eye. Repaired gouges and nicks were regarded much as scars were, badges that said that you had been there and done that. Unmarred armor, like Mike’s, was a sign that either you had been through total hell, or were a rookie.

The grader had maintained a deadpan through the entire company FSTEP. Mike was not terribly worried about the results; he had more or less written the book and was careful to follow it to the letter at each stage of the exercise. He was wondering, however, what the major made of it all.

They completed the last exercise, a prepared company defense, just as the first of autumn’s cold-front thunderstorms came across the ridges. The hurtling cumulus started to darken the air as Mike bounded up to the major on the ridgeline. Mike unsealed his helmet, the molecular seal bright in the afternoon sunlight, pulled it off his head with a sucking sound as the shock gel released, tucked it under his arm, then lifted one eyebrow in question.

“That scenario was designed as a no-win,” stated the major, removing his own helmet with a characteristic slurp. His dark skin could only have come from tanning beds; most ACS personnel were as white as slugs. A wash of cold air suddenly displaced the muggy early fall heat as a swirling wind stirred the dust and leaves on the ridgeline.

“Yes, sir, I know,” said Mike carefully. “I wrote it.”

“You obviously also know how to beat it,” commented the major. “Were you going to tell anyone else?” Mike could see the last of the nannites that had been left on the former Marine’s scalp scampering down to the helmet. The silver trickle writhed in the afternoon sun like intelligent water. The elongated droplet reared out from the major’s head, apparently sensed its objective below and jumped into the helmet.

“It’s not something I am able to teach systematically, sir,” O’Neal admitted with a wrinkled brow. “It is a matter of reading the movements of the Posleen and shuffling your subunits to react to them along with careful employment of artillery and positioning of observers. I only break it about one time in ten. This time it was relatively easy and I wonder if the controller didn’t adjust it. The Posleen acted… uncharacteristically during the final assault phase. They were almost timorous.” He spat into his helmet. The juice was a brief brown spot on the writhing gray surface. A moment later the juice disappeared, absorbed into the underlayer and beginning the long journey to becoming rations.

Another blast of wind whipped the yellowing beech trees around them in a frenzy as a distant branch cracked. A rumble of thunder rolled across the valley as lightning played on the ridges in the distance.

“Gust front,” commented the major, looking up at the swirling cumulus. The sky was turning black overhead.

“Pardon, sir?” shouted Mike, not quite catching the words over the wind.

“Gust front,” the major yelled back, redonning his helmet. When Mike hooked back up, he continued, “It’s the term for that blast of wind you get just before a storm.” As the heavens opened their sluice gates and water began to pour from the sky Mike shivered for a moment with a wave of cold chills; the shiver was unnoticeable in the armor. “It’s often the strongest wind of a storm.

“The adjustment to Posleen actions is a random effect based upon their actions on Barwhon,” the grader continued. “Every now and again they do seem to turn timorous, as you put it. Good exercise,” concluded the major.

“Thank you, sir, we try.”

“Not that I was going to be able to give you a fail, even if you deserved one.” The mahogany face was covered with two inches of plasteel and another two inches of underlayer. But Mike could still see the angry grimace.

“I hope that is not the case.”

“Don’t worry, Captain, your company seems well prepared for the invasion,” the major admitted. O’Neal’s reputation as a tactical innovator and near-god of suit combat had only grown since Diess. There were plenty of people in Fleet who felt that O’Neal’s reputation was so much bull. The major, at least, was starting to be a convert.

Mike watched his company assembling in the valley as visions of silver fire and swarming yellow centaurs swept across his memory. “I wish I could agree, sir. I wish I could agree.”

“Captain O’Neal,” the battalion commander’s voice chirped in his earpiece.

“Yes, sir?”

“Report to battalion, on the double.”

“Yes, sir.” He saluted the major. “Sir, I have to go.”

“Roger, Captain,” said the major, returning the salute, “good luck.”

“And to you, sir,” said Mike. He dropped the salute and took off down the ridgeline, legs blurring into run mode.

* * *

The colonel was waiting outside the command vehicle, a converted Humvee since they had not yet received updated combat shuttles. The first generation of combat shuttles was determined to be deficient even before deployment when the humans discovered that one of the Galactic races, the Himmit, had incredibly effective stealth technology.

The Himmit were an inquisitive species of cowards. Although curiosity might have killed the cat, it never killed the Himmit because they were very, very good at hiding. They had reconned multiple Posleen worlds without ever getting caught. It was a success which humans did not even consider until the first human special operations team went to do the same thing and failed miserably. One small note in the resulting multihundred-page report caused more changes in the war effort than the entire rest of the mission.

The weapons that the Posleen God Kings mounted on their saucer jeeps had continental range and autotargeting ability. While they seemed to have a blind spot where ballistic weapons were concerned, they would sweep away any item under power that crested the horizon. Therefore, tactical operations involving aircraft were basically out the window.

The original teams that designed the Galactic equipment that humans would use, such as the combat suits and the space dreadnoughts, designed a combat shuttle that was heavily armored, incredibly fast and surprisingly maneuverable. But on Diess they discovered it was still vulnerable to the God King launchers; of nine combat shuttles sent to succor then-Lieutenant O’Neal’s cut-off ACS platoon, only one survived.

The answer was stealth. Using a combination of human and Himmit stealth technologies a new generation of combat shuttles was being created that would be slightly less heavily armed and armored, but even faster and more maneuverable. Best of all it would be extremely stealthy.

The shuttles had a negative radar cross-section to human systems and only showed up as ephemeral ghosts on Galactic detectors; projectors even smoothed turbulence zones at subsonic speeds. The first prototypes had been fielded on Barwhon, where the humans were engaged in a desperate struggle in the swamps. While they continued to take losses, the rate was much more acceptable.

But until Terran Fleet Strike units received them, the battalions used a mixture of modern and futuristic equipment, such as the converted Humvee with a Galactic communications and battle planning center on the back deck. It affected their strategic mobility, but not local combat.

Colonel Hanson high-fived his Bravo Company commander with a resounding metallic clang! “Airborne, Captain! They’re trying to find a fault to discuss!”

“Well, I think I should have salvoed the third fire mission just a little earlier,” said Mike soberly. “The wave that made it through the fire on that one caused about three percent higher casualties than it should have. I have got to find somebody to delegate fire control to.”

“Well, I’ll just have to send you to bed without supper!” laughed the ecstatic battalion commander. All his other companies were performing well within expectations, but O’Neal’s performance had definitely been the cherry on the sundae. He had exceeded every pretest estimate of the highest possible marks. “I don’t think they’re gonna notice that one, frankly, and neither did I. I don’t think they can find a thing negative to say.”

“I didn’t think you could max an FSTEP, sir,” Mike said.

“I think you might have set a new standard. But that wasn’t what I called you back for.” The battalion commander proffered a hardcopy of e-mailed orders. “Nightingale is going to have to deal with the ORS and IG on her own; you’ve been ordered to CONARC on temporary duty. Your master’s voice, I guess.”

Mike glanced at the bald prose of the orders. It had Jack Horner’s touch all over it.

“Yes, sir, it sure looks that way. Well, the company’s as squared away as it’s gonna get. When do I leave?”

“There’s an evening flight out of Harrisburg direct to D.C.; you’re on it.”

“Yes, sir. By your leave?” he asked, saluting.

“Get outta here, Captain,” chuckled the colonel, returning the salute.

* * *

The flight into D.C. turned out to be a connecting flight full of uniforms. If there was a male of military age not in uniform, Mike thought he should be shot, stuffed and put in a museum as a rarity. The variety of uniforms was a surprise. Although most of the military on the flight seemed to come from Ground Force Guard and Line units — notable by their essentially unchanged United States Army greens — there were also “wet” navy officers and chiefs in black uniforms, Air Force in their blue, and Fleet officers in high-collar black uni-seals and beret. Mike was the only one on board in Fleet Strike blue and red, and felt conspicuous. He was glad that his seat companion, a forty-something female Fleet captain, either did not recognize him or did not care.

After the flight reached cruising altitude, the flight attendants came around with drinks. When the flight attendant passed him the requested Coke, she did a double take, but continued on, apparently dismissing the idea that Michael O’Neal would be on her plane. Afterwards, however, as the plane was just beginning its descent into Washington National, she came forward and did the approved stewardess squat by Mike’s seat.

“Excuse, me, sir. I was wondering something…” she said, diffidently.

“And that was?” Mike had cycled into a foul mood. Although the company was in good shape for an ORS and IG he wanted to be there to smooth out any wrinkles that might come up. He wanted the company to do as well on the inspections as they did in their readiness test. Although he respected Nightingale’s organizational abilities, he was worried about how she would manage the “problem children” in the company, even with Gunny Pappas riding herd. In that kind of mood, he didn’t give anyone any slack, much less a stewardess who just wanted to rub elbows with notoriety.

It was the very reason his tunic, against regulation, was totally unadorned with ribbons. He was wearing a Combat Infantryman’s Badge, with one star, indicating that he had been in two major conflicts, and a pin that was still so unusual as to be nearly unrecognizable: a half starburst. The pin had been developed by Fleet to recognize persons who had been in the path of a nuclear blast. Despite the fact that it was authorized to both Fleet and Terran personnel, there were not many people vertical who wore them.

“Are you the Michael O’Neal that was on Diess, the one who got the Medal of Honor?” she asked quietly.

“Yes,” Mike snapped. “Next question.”

“No question,” she said with an honest smile. “I just wanted to thank you. My brother is in the Seventh Cavalry. He made it back to the Dantren Perimeter, but he never would have made it out without your platoon arriving when it did. Thank you.”

Well, that was an entirely different matter. “Damn, I’m glad to hear that! You know, the armored forces hardly ever get any mention in all the fuss. They stacked the damn Posleen up like cordwood even before we got there and nobody ever gives them any credit. How’s he doing? I admit I haven’t kept up with the units on Diess.”

“They returned his division to the States. He’s down with the Texas Guard units, getting ready for The Day.”

“Well, when you talk to him, wish him well from me,” Mike said with a smile.

“Okay, I’ll do that. He’ll be happy I stopped.”

“Good luck yourself.”

“Well, we’re from Missouri. From what they’re saying on the news, we should be hit lightly. I hope so, but I’m sorry for all the people on the coasts.”

“Yeah, most of my people are in the coastal plains. But no place is going to be completely safe, so get yourself a weapon. If they’re swarming, you might not even be able to take one with you,” he said bluntly. “But if they’ve been whittled down, it might save your life. I recommend a twelve-gauge riot gun. They’ve got a kick like a mule, but it’s hard to miss with a shotgun at close range and double-ought will take down a Posleen just fine. You may be in the safest spot there is and have the bad luck of a globe landing on you. So get a weapon.”

“Okay, I will. Thanks again.”

“Take care.”

As the stewardess walked away, the Fleet captain looked up from her papers.

“I thought it was you, but I wasn’t going to be impolite and ask,” she said with a strong English accent. Mike, who had a fair ear for accents and had spent time with the British while developing the ACS program, placed it as Midlands.

“Yeah, well, I’m me, ma’am. I’ve never been anything else.”

“You’re going to Washington?”

“Yes, ma’am, apparently General Taylor wants some advice on how to run the war.”

“Well, I can’t think of a better source for Combat Suit advice. Might I ask you what is causing you to be so caustic, young man?”

Mike let out a sigh, much of his formless anger blowing out with it. The problems he was dealing with weren’t the captain’s fault. Nor was his own lack of confidence. “Well, Captain, my company is going through an Operational Readiness Inspection and an inspection by the Inspector General’s office at the moment and I would much rather be there than giving dog and pony shows in D.C. I gave a bunch of them last year and nobody gave a shit, pardon my French, so I don’t know that it’ll be any different this time.”

“So you’re really going to be telling General Taylor how to run the war?” she said with a chuckle.

“I suspect I might be, ma’am, at least from an ACS standpoint. The CONARC commander and I have a long-term acquaintance. The orders came from CONARC at Fort Myer, but I’m supposed to report directly to the Pentagon. Go figure.”

“I think you should be happy about a chance for input,” she said, puzzled.

“Well, ma’am, the other problem is the difference between tactical and strategic. Although I will admit to being one of the experts at tactical employment of ACS, I won’t bet dollars to donuts about strategic employment.”

“Just remember,” she said, “ ‘an Army travels on its stomach.’ Strategic and operational art are better than eighty percent logistics. Approach it from a logistical standpoint and you’ll have them eating out of your hands.”

“Logistics.”

“Logistics.”

“Okay, thanks, ma’am,” he said with a smile.

“Don’t mention it.” She laughed.

“Captain Michael O’Neal,” said Mike holding out his hand, “Fleet Strike.”

“Captain April Weston,” said the gray-haired battleaxe, “Fleet Line. Command.” The period was easy to hear.

“Oh, you have a ship?” asked Mike, interested. Very few of the ships being built for the defense were on-line or would be before the first few waves of the invasion. It was what would make the coming years such a difficult prospect.

“If you can call it that,” she said, with a sour grimace. “It’s a converted Galactic frigate.”

“Ouch,” said Mike, with a grimace of his own. “I saw the specs when I was at GalTech. No armor…”

“Light weapons…”

“No redundant systems…”

“Limited targeting ability…”

“Well,” said Mike, with another grimace, “at least you’ll have Combat Environment space suits.”

“Great,” she said with a snort. “I spend a career fighting my way up through bloody-mindedness and knowledge of the sea, and now I have to learn to breathe vacuum.”

“You’re a regular?” Mike said, surprised.

“Actually, I was Royal Navy reserve until I made captain when they finally succumbed to the bloody inevitable and switched me to regular. My last command was the Sea Sprite, which, for your general fund of knowledge, is a cruiser. Now I’m off to the boundless depths of space and classes in astrogation. At my age,” she concluded, throwing up her hands.

“Well,” Mike smiled, “good luck.”

“Yes, we’ll all need it.”

CHAPTER 13

Washington, DC, United States of America, Sol III

2317 EDT September 5th, 2004 ad

The Sons of Mary seldom bother,
for they have inherited that good part;
But the Sons of Martha favour their Mother
of the careful soul and the troubled heart.
And because she lost her temper once,
and because she was rude to the Lord her Guest,
Her Sons must wait on Mary’s Sons,
world without end, reprieve or rest.

— “The Sons of Martha” Rudyard Kipling, 1907

Except for the profusion of uniforms, the nation’s capital was virtually unchanged. Mike had taken the shuttle bus from Washington National and it went all over town before heading to the relatively nearby Pentagon. He caught brief glimpses of the Mall, and the streets of Georgetown were surprisingly crowded with partyers. Mike finally saw males out of uniform, persons with jobs so vital that they could not be spared as cannon fodder for the war effort. From their suits, age and haircuts, they were mostly attorneys or congressional aides. Probably for the best, thought Mike. God knows what they would be like in uniform.

In the previous year, while on tour after the Diess victories, Mike had had his fill of politicians, political aides, political military officers and everything else spin-related. Diess had given him such a clear and uncompromising view of the coming storm that he sometimes felt like the one-eyed man in the country of the blind. There had also been much more exposure to the upper echelons of the military than he had been used to and it had not been a successful exposure.

Mike’s idea of subtle was to not tell the person, word for word, that they could not find their ass with both hands. Nonetheless the message came across. When a lieutenant, as he had been then, even a lieutenant with The Medal, takes an attitude like that towards officers thirty or more years his senior the lieutenant comes out of the contest the loser.

The problem, from O’Neal’s point of view, was that although many of the senior military officers he had met were quite prepared for and capable of, even brilliant at, fighting humans, they still could not get their minds around the Posleen. Despite the ongoing stalemate on Barwhon and the horrendous daily losses it inflicted, they insisted on thinking of the Posleen as simply suicidal humans, something like the Japanese in World War II. And the numbers were not real to them. They thought in terms of weapons systems, tanks and armored personnel carriers, then troops, because waves of humans simply could not stand up to a modern army.

But the Posleen not only boasted incredible masses of troops so fanatical they would happily take any ordered loss to achieve any ordered objective, they also had weapons capable of negating the utility of tanks and armored personnel carriers. Although the weapons of the normal Posleen were unaimed, fired “from the hip” without careful sighting, many Posleen carried heavy railguns, capable of penetrating side armor on an M-1 tank, or hypervelocity missile launchers capable of penetrating frontal armor. And the God King leader caste carried either automatic HVMs, laser cannons or plasma cannons. A plasma cannon, even if it struck a modern tank with a glancing blow, raised the interior temperature so high it cooked the crew to death.

But all that senior officers heard was “wave charges” and “unaimed weaponry” and they assumed it would be like fighting Napoleonic-era human troops. It might even have been true were it not for the God Kings and their systems. It seemed to those senior commanders as if a modern, well-trained and equipped force should be able to slaughter them.

On that point Michael agreed; the Posleen were going to be slaughtered. What he could not get across to the senior leadership was that the Posleen couldn’t care less how many they lost. They came in such masses that reducing their numbers by ninety percent often left them still outnumbering defenders, and with superior weaponry. Well, the powers-that-be would discover the error of their ways soon enough. Unfortunately Mike expected blood baths aplenty in the near future.

The bus finally pulled up to the side entrance of the Pentagon, disgorged a mass of uniformed personnel and prepared to take on another mass headed back to the airport. Mike stared at the busy, scurrying officers, so intent on superior performance of their little niches, and wondered what they all did. What in the world were thirty captains, majors and colonels, most of whom wore the Military District of Washington shoulder patch, doing flying out to distant places at ten o’clock at night?

“Their contribution to the war effort, I guess,” he muttered as he stomped wearily over to the MP-guarded entrance. His day had begun at 3 a.m. and had included a prepared attack, a hasty defense and a prepared defense. He had fought three virtual “murthering great battles” and it was, in his opinion, getting nigh on to bedtime.

“Can I help you, Captain?” asked the MP lieutenant in an oddly supercilious tone, as he stepped in Mike’s way. Mike recognized the symptoms. Many Army and Navy personnel resented the whole concept of Fleet Strike, effectively American units being put under a broader command, some of them removed from America and not directly defending it. And the difference in pay scale did not help matters.

Since Fleet and Fleet Strike were paid by the Federation, as opposed to Terran governments, they were paid in Federation credits. The Federation had a fixed payment scale for every level of worker throughout the Federation and the soldiers and spacemen of Fleet and Fleet Strike were given positions in that hierarchy.

Through one of those quirks of Federation law that was so beneficial to humans, military personnel had an automatically advanced caste position. Federation law legitimized differing legal structures for differing societal rank; what was illegal for a lower-rank Galactic might be legal for a higher-rank Galactic.

Since the Galactics did not recognize the difference between the legality of things civilian and military, most military activities, such as terminating sentient life, required special permissions. These, in turn, required a higher “caste.” That being the case, the lowest ranked soldier or spaceman was ranked the same as an Indowy junior master craftsman. The higher ranks were thus extremely advanced in the overall Galactic hierarchy.

Given these advanced ranks, the Galactic pay scales were equivalent. A Fleet Strike captain made as much as a junior Darhel coordinator-nearly as much as an Army major general. On the other hand, with the tax increases for the war he was being taxed at almost eighty-seven percent of his income. It was a reasonable contribution to the war fund by anyone’s estimation. Mike had also heard something about a Federation-mandated bonus from the Diess action. That would further add to the disparity in pay scales. Whatever the case there was extreme prejudice over the pay structure.

It was an attitude that would slowly dissipate after the war, if anyone survived, as Army units were subsumed into Fleet Strike. In the meantime it was just another hassle to be shrugged off.

“Yes, you can, Lieutenant. You can check me in. I’m supposed to report to CONARC.”

“I’m sorry, Captain, you seem to be in the wrong place. CONARC is based at Fort Myer. There will be a shuttle in about forty-five minutes.”

Mike handed over his copy of the e-mail and fingered the AID wrapped around his wrist. “As you can see, the orders clearly state to report to the CONARC commander at the Pentagon, not Fort Myer. So, where am I supposed to go?”

“I don’t know, Captain, I’m just the gatekeeper. But these aren’t authority for Pentagon entry.” He did not seem a bit displeased by the problem. “And in case no one ever explained this sort of thing to you, when it says report to the commander, it actually means report to someone at the command who will report you as arrived.” The lieutenant proffered another smug smile, having to explain such a simple item to one of the lords of the Fleet.

Mike fingered the AID for a moment. “Would you care to try to find out?”

“I wouldn’t know where to start, Captain. I suppose you could call CONARC,” he finished, pointing to a rank of pay phones outside the entrance.

“Okee-dokee.” Mike slipped the AID off his wrist and set it on his head. It automatically conformed into a headset/microphone array. “Shelly, get Jack, please.”

“Yes, sir,” the AID chirped. There was a brief pause, then, “General Horner on the line.”

“Mike?” came the clipped tones.

“Yes, sir.”

“Where are you?” asked General Horner.

“At the side entrance.”

“Tell the MP to clear you through to the High Commander’s office, ASAP.”

“Yes, sir.” He looked at the MP. “Okay, Lieutenant, the Continental Army Commander say, go to dee High Commander’s office, ASAP. Whadda you say?”

“I have to have an authorized clearance to permit you entry to the building, sir,” said the MP, obviously calling the snotty Fleet jerk’s bluff.

“Jack, he says he has to have clearance.”

When Mike used the Continental Army Commander’s first name, without being rebuked, the MP’s face turned as white as milk. It was obviously not a bluff.

“Give him the phone,” General Horner said, icily.

Mike handed over the AID, which the MP accepted gingerly, and watched as the lieutenant basically melted into the concrete. After three “yes, sirs” and a “no, sir” he handed the AID back and waved over one of the guards.

“Sergeant Wilson, take the captain directly to the High Commander’s office,” he said quietly.

“Have a nice day.” Mike waved airily as he snapped the shiny, black AID back around his wrist.

“Yes, sir.”

REMF, thought Mike.

* * *

Although Shelly could have led him through the labyrinth to the HC’s office, Mike was just as glad to have the sergeant along. The slightly smiling noncom led him first to a secondary guard room to get him a temporary pass, which was, miraculously, already cleared for him, then to the area formerly dedicated to the Joint Chiefs.

They walked in through the clerks, still hard at work, and up to the desk of the final keeper of the portal, an aged black warrant officer who looked like he ate nails for breakfast. Mike had heard of Warrant Officer Kidd, an SF legend who apparently had decided that General Taylor needed a keeper at all times. He and the general went way back, so it was said, to an unlikely incident involving an annoyed alligator and two bottles of Jack Daniels. The sergeant stopped at the final keeper and saluted. “Chief Kidd, Sergeant Wilson reporting with Captain Michael O’Neal, who is here to see the High Commander.”

Warrant Office Fourth Class Kidd returned the salute. “Thank you, Sergeant. Return to your post.”

“Yes, sir,” said the sergeant, did a perfect about-face and marched out.

“I think I ruined his whole day,” said Captain O’Neal.

“Naw. Made it maybe. But you sure as hell ruined that L-T’s. Or so I heard,” said Kidd with a cruel chuckle. “Did you really call CONARC ‘Jack’ to his face?”

“And you’ve never called General Taylor ‘Jim’?” Mike answered with a smile.

“Well, not where anyone could hear.” The warrant officer stood up and towered over the dwarfish captain. “Damn, you are short,” he said and held out his hand. “Warrant Officer Kidd. You can call me Mister Kidd.”

“Captain Michael O’Neal,” said Mike as Kidd’s hand engulfed his. Kidd went immediately for a crusher grip which Mike deflected through superior gripping power, although it was hard with the size of Kidd’s hands. They wrestled for a moment until a look of pain flashed across the warrant’s face. “As a special favor, you can call me Mighty Mite,” said Mike as he let up, slowly.

“Okay,” Kidd gasped.

“Can I go in now?” asked Mike, maintaining a grip.

“Will you let go if I say, ‘Yes’?”

* * *

“Mike!” said the CONARC, striding across the office with his hand outstretched, “it’s good to see you. You look a hell of a lot better than the last time.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Mike after a perfunctory salute, shaking General Horner’s hand. “Belated congratulations on the fourth star. It is well deserved. Sorry, I didn’t bring any cigars, I’m flat out.”

“Good cigars are getting hard to find,” said General Horner, leading him across the office to a sofa set. General Taylor stood up and walked to his desk to retrieve a cigar box.

“Here,” the High Commander said, proffering the box to Mike, “on the house. There’s a guy in Readiness that flies down to Guantánamo about once a month. What with the warm relations we’re developing with Cuba, cigars are no problem. He always brings me a couple of boxes.”

Mike extracted one of the long black panatelas. “Thank you, sir.”

“Take a handful. I’ll get a box sent over to your company next trip.”

“ ‘He said to the captain, just before the axe fell,’ ” said Mike.

“What gives you that impression?” asked Horner.

“Well, both of you gentlemen are nice guys, but there has to be a reason you’re up until after midnight plying me with tobacco,” Mike said with a smile.

“Not really,” said General Taylor, chuckling as he lit one of the long, black cigars. “We were going to be up anyway and now was as good a time as any to brief you on your temporary mission.”

“Which is?” asked Mike as he extracted his Zippo and began to puff.

“Mike,” started General Horner, “as you know, as everyone knows, the defense plan that everyone was calling ‘The Mountain Plan’ has been scrapped. The President and the Congress will not stand for the Armed Forces not defending the coastal plains, especially the coastal plain cities. The President accepts that we cannot fight for every piece of ground, but he insists that we defend every major city. You with me so far?”

“Airborne,” said Mike, carefully judging the flame on the end of the cigar. When it was drawing just right he took a deep puff. Good cigar, he thought. “Okay, boss, it’s a given: The cities will be fought for. Does the President realize that that will probably inflict more damage than if we can come back in two-three years’ time with full Fleet backing and kick them out?”

“Yes,” said Taylor.

“Oh.”

“That has actually been the subject of a series of news magazine reports,” said General Taylor, dryly. “I gather you haven’t been keeping up with current events.”

“No, sir, I haven’t,” said Mike. “Not even Net news. I’ve been getting my company as ready as it can be.”

“Apparently you succeeded,” said General Taylor, chuckling. “I got a rather snippy e-mail to the effect that there must be a bug in the software for your engagement. You were able to score one hundred percent on a no-win situation. There is some question whether you diddled the software.”

“I don’t think so, sir,” said O’Neal with a smile. “It is a well-known fact that only SFers cheat. We happened to luck out and the God King assigned by the software on the final engagement was a wuss and routed. But mostly, it helps to have done the same exercise a couple of hundred times in VR and Tactical Exercises Without Troops. I play those scenarios in my spare time for recreation, sir, something that other leaders need to learn to do. I mean, most of them don’t even play Mario Brothers with their kids.”

“Are you saying they need to play video games more?” asked the High Commander, surprised at the frivolous approach.

“Basically, sir,” said Mike, peering at the cigar blearily. The fatigue from the long day and the days of preparation beforehand had him saying more than he intended at a first meeting with the generals. He still was not too sure of himself.

Preparing his company was at a level he understood. This “strategic” level was something else. But if being in the game had taught him one thing, it was never lose the image of confidence. Sometimes rep was the only thing that would carry your men through. And sometimes the definition of “your men” could get awfully broad.

“This gear creates a video game environment and the wargames are based on a number of video game archetypes,” Mike continued. “If they would spend less time doing the work of their first sergeants and pushing hardcopy and more time in the VR environment they would do better in notional battles.”

“Well,” said General Horner, “we, and by that I mean General Taylor and myself and to a lesser extent you, need to decide what that battle is going to be and how it is going to be fought. I am going to outline for you, in broad strokes, what the strategic and operational mission of the ACS should be and, over the next two weeks, you suggest how we should do it, in as much detail as possible given the time. Got it?”

“Got it,” answered Mike, leaning back in the chair. After a moment he leaned forward again. The comfortable armchair was a surefire way to put him to sleep. If he was going to keep from making an ass of himself in front of these officers, he was going to have to stay on his toes.

“Okay.” General Horner looked up at the ceiling as if drawing thoughts from the pooling cigar smoke. “We are required, by order, to do as much as humanly possible not to lose the cities to the Posleen. First we have to define what a city is. We have arbitrarily decided to defend only the city core, because, quite frankly, we don’t see any way to defend into suburbs. Oh, we’ll have some depth, and some outer defenders, besides the parasite forts I’ll talk about in a minute, but basically we’re just going to try to hold ‘downtown,’ the part with the skyscrapers that Posleen shy away from landing on anyway.

“Outside the cities, near the beltway that is around most of them, now, we are going to construct modern fortresses. They won’t be ‘state-of-the-art’ like the planetary defense centers, but they’ll have some sort of curtain wall and moat system along with massive conventional firepower. We are going to give the fort commanders pretty wide leeway on how they want to arm their walls. The idea of these forts, and the central city fortifications, is to catch the Posleen between two fires. We call the outer forts ‘coral forts’ because they are like a spreading coral.

“The cities and the coral forts will have enough supplies to hold out for five years, if necessary. Each of them will also be just out of line of sight of a planetary defense center; that was already in the PDC plans, so we don’t have to worry overmuch about them being directly assaulted by landers or command ships. If landers or command ships take to the air less than en masse, the planetary defense centers should be able to sweep them out of the sky.

“If the situation becomes completely untenable for a city’s forces, they may attempt to flee to refuge. For the purely coastal cities, we are coming up with plans to evacuate them by sea.”

“How, sir?” Mike interrupted. If he had one weakness it was sleep. Without regular doses his brain turned to mush. It had pretty much gone south sometime around the landing in D.C. He was currently well beyond playing guessing games. He took another hit of the nicotine hoping it would clear some cobwebs.

“Partially by subs. We’re reactivating a bunch of the nuclear launch boats, boomers, that haven’t been scrapped. We’re ripping out all the weaponry and upgrading the environmental systems. We figure we can pack nearly a battalion into the missile section alone, more in the torpedo rooms, and so on. We’re substituting the nuclear kettle with power crystals to appease the environmentalists.”

“Like there’s going to be an environment left,” snorted General Taylor. He walked over to a sideboard and poured a measure of scotch. “Anyone care to join me in a snort?”

“I’ll take a vodka, straight,” said General Horner.

“Bourbon on ice, sir, thank you, sir. Much ice, sir.”

“Don’t be so uptight, Captain. We’re all old soldiers here,” said the High Commander.

“Yes, sir,” Mike answered with a wink. He would rather have asked for coffee, but when the High Commander offers drinks you don’t refuse.

General Horner snorted and went on. “The Navy is also reactivating all the battleships that haven’t been turned into razor blades. Since there were a bunch of them that have become museums and since there were howls of protest over scrapping the last two of the Iowa class that weren’t, it turns out we have eight.”

“I heard about that, sir,” said Mike. “Can they stand up to Posleen weapons?”

“Well, their belt — that is, the portion of their hull that is above the waterline, and most of their bridge armor — is twelve to fourteen inches of homogenous steel. That would normally be light to stand up to plasma cannons, but the steel that they are made of turned out to be surprisingly resistant. Also they’re adding on some lightweight ceramet enhancements that increase their resistance to laser and plasma fire by about twenty-five percent. They’ll be able to hold their own, even at short range, and think about the firepower! Each of those things has nine guns, either fourteen or sixteen-inchers.”

“Didn’t the Iowa lose one in an accident?” asked Mike, rubbing his chin and thinking about having a battleship broadside at his beck and call.

“Yes,” said General Taylor. “But they are building a new breech at Granite City Steel in St. Louis. It’ll be ready in about ten months.”

“However, for those cities which cannot be evacuated by sea,” continued General Horner, “there must be some alternative means.”

“If you mean fighting their way out through the investing Posleen, sir,” interrupted Mike, “I don’t see any. Are we talking about light infantry, sir?” He hid a yawn and took a deep breath to drive some oxygen into his flagging brain.

“Some, but with enough transport organic to the division to move the whole thing. Basically a motorized infantry regiment. Most will actually be mechanized infantry, Armor or Armored Cav. The tanks and AFVs will be positioned in forward revetments or ready to sally and the troops will be in bunkers. If they have to retreat or sally there will be trucks and other transports to move the entire force and any civilians who’ve stayed behind. In one sortie.”

“Okay, let me give you a situation and a city, sir,” said O’Neal, rubbing his chin in thought, flogging his brain. “Let me see if I understand this plan. Let’s talk about… Sacramento.”

“Good choice,” said General Horner, leaning back.

“Okay, sir.” Mike tapped his AID. “Map menu.” He tapped the icons on the hologram until he had the map he wanted and yawned again. “It looks like about a two-hour drive from Sacramento to Placerville, where, I would guess, the first of the mountain defenses would be placed. How am I so far?”

“About right,” said General Horner after a moment’s thought.

“Okay, sirs. That means about six to ten hours of battle to reach the first defense lines,” Mike said, taking another pull on the cigar. He looked at the ceiling and flicked an ash.

“About that,” agreed Taylor from the bar.

“Through a Posleen swarm,” said Mike, still contemplating the ceiling.

“Yes,” the generals chorused.

“Nope,” said Mike, shaking his head definitively. “Sirs.”

“Really?” asked General Taylor, handing out the drinks.

“Really, sir. Look at Diess or Barwhon. Remember that French armored division on Barwhon that got caught out of prepared positions during a movement?”

“Right, Third Armored Cav,” said General Taylor.

Troisieme Armore Chevalier,” Mike corrected. “They lasted, what? thirty minutes?”

“There had just been a landing, Mike,” pointed out General Horner, “the Posleen numbers were at their maximum.”

“We have to assume an outside influence to force the evacuation, sir,” O’Neal pointed out and took a sip of the bourbon. He raised an eyebrow at the quality of the sourmash. It had been in an unlabeled decanter, but it was a nice Kentucky distillery, probably an “estate” brand. Obviously being High Commander had a few perks even in these days of universal rationing.

“Okay, I’ll give you that,” admitted the CONARC. “Now, assume MI support for the retreat and reconfigured roadways to maximize terrain cover. How much MI support would you want to evacuate the remains of a corps out of Sacramento?”

“Oh. You’re talking about covering three or four divisions?”

“Yes, or five. I think Sacramento is detailed for five divisions.”

“Jesus, sir.” Mike shook his head. “I don’t think you could lead five of the current standing divisions to a whorehouse on a Sunday morning much less through five hours of battle with the Posleen in open field combat.”

General Horner looked at Taylor and raised an eyebrow. “You wanna take that one, General?”

General Taylor smiled and shook his head. “We hope to get that under control, Captain.”

Mike snorted. “Better you than me, General. Which particular magic wand are you planning on waving?”

“Mike,” said Horner, warningly.

“No,” said General Taylor, holding up a hand. “He’s right. Things on the ground are totally fucked-up. Every fucking report we get from the IGs says the same thing.” He turned to the frowning and bleary-eyed captain. It was always hard to tell if O’Neal was pissed off or not, however, because the frown was plastered on his face at all times. “There’s no magic wand. We’re getting more and more rejuvs in the pipeline. As we get people into their positions, most of the major problems will correct themselves. When there are officers and NCOs available to lead and be held responsible the directives that are already in place will start to take effect.

“We’ve got the better part of a year to fix things. And most of the divisions, especially the really bad ones, will be fighting in fixed positions. So even if they crack in places it should be controllable. But we do have one trick left.”

“Mike,” interjected Horner, “remember back when we were with GalTech we discussed who was going to be called up in what order?”

“Sure,” said Mike, thinking back. “Combat background personnel first. Start from the highest ranks and work down. Noncombat experienced last.” He thought about it a bit more and smiled faintly. That was in the days before the Galactics’ problems with supply became evident. When everything was going to be pure Tech as a salvation. When the plans were perfect and the future was rosy. “Good days,” he added.

“Well.” General Taylor nodded, with an understanding smile. “That was the plan. But somewhere along the line the plan and the process went astray.”

“One of my ‘computer geeks,’ ” said Horner, with a wry aside to General Taylor, “finally got a look at the algorithm the personnel department was using for the call-up. It was based on Officer and Enlisted Evaluation Reports.”

“Oh, shit,” said Mike, with a chuckle. Although good soldiers generally came out fine on the Army’s evaluations, the reports tended to miss the difference between a good leader and a “Lifer.” The original plan had been to call up warriors as the first wave, setting a tone for the forces to follow. That had obviously not happened.

“So,” said General Taylor, “we’ve had the software rewritten…”

“By my people,” General Horner interjected.

“Right,” continued Taylor. “From now on combat experience will have a high multiplier along with medals for valor. We’re calling it ‘The Old Soldier’ program.”

“Oh, hell,” said Mike with a grim chuckle. “No modifier for age, right?” Most of the files that a program like that would spit out would have been formed in the caldrons of World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Old soldiers indeed.

“Right,” said Horner. “The program has been in place for a couple of weeks getting the bugs out, but the really big call-up will be during the conference.”

There was an unexpected bark of laughter from Taylor. Both of the officers looked at him in puzzlement. Then Horner realized what he was thinking about and frowned in humor.

“What?” said Mike. The fact that something had discomfited his former mentor was obvious even through his fatigue.

“There were…” said General Horner, carefully.

“A few bugs,” completed Taylor with a laugh. “His computer super geeks forgot that there are certain persons who, shall we say, are unavailable for recall.” The senior commander laughed again, uproariously. “Oh, Jesus, the look on his face!”

Horner frowned. Hard. A sure sign he was about to burst out laughing. “The computer was searching for high-ranking officers who were still alive and had combat experience. We felt that if there were bugs, it would be better to make the mistake with senior officers than junior. The program had been deliberately set to ignore whether their experience was as the rank they ‘retired’ at.”

“Although in one case it wouldn’t have mattered,” pointed out Taylor helpfully.

“I still don’t get it,” said Mike, looking from face to face.

“Mike,” said Horner, with a slight snort of his own. “You do realize that Commander in Chief is a rank, don’t you?”

“Oh,” said Mike, then, “Oh!

“Yep,” said Taylor, and howled in laughter, “it called up all the surviving Presidents who had either served during a time of combat at any rank or who were President during a time of war. It recalled them at the rank of four-star general, that being the highest available, and ordered them to report to Fort Myer immediately for inprocessing as same.”

“Oh, God,” laughed Mike, “that’s rich.”

“I got a couple of very irate calls from the Secret Service,” Taylor laughed. “But what was even funnier were the direct calls. One of ’em even offered to come back as his ‘original’ rank.”

“Did you take him up on it?” asked Mike.

“Nah. I was tempted. God knows Fleet needs every pilot it can get. But it would have been a political nightmare. I hope he was just joking.”

“Anyway,” said Horner, severely, “right after this conference is the big kickoff. To make sure nothing goes too wrong on one end of the spectrum, we will, with great ceremony, recall every single winner of the Medal of Honor still at large.”

“Oh, man,” said Mike, quietly. Although he wore the Medal himself, he was sure that most of the other winners were real heroes. Whenever he was in their company he felt like a piker. What he had not yet realized was that most of the Medal winners felt the same way about the other holders.

“We’re hoping that the infusion of ‘heroes’ will put some spine in the force,” said Taylor, seemingly pulling a knife out of the air and cutting the end off of his own cigar. The knife, after a brief flurry that looked like a simple habit rather than showing off, disappeared as rapidly.

“We’re reactivating the ‘Strike, Line, Guard’ concept as well,” the High Commander continued. “The plan of creating ‘elite’ Line forces that were mobile shock forces fell by the wayside along with a lot of other ideas.” He lit the cigar with a silver lighter. The inscription “Who Dares Wins” was faintly visible along with a chased dagger and wings.

Taylor took a drag on the cigar and let out a stream of blue smoke. “Right now, other than the Fleet Strike Forces and Special Operations, the only forces that show overall high readiness are some of the Cavalry regiments. We’re going to start the Line concept around them. They will become mostly volunteer and will be moved to locations where they can be used to reinforce defense points and sally against Posleen columns. They’re going to take a hell of a lot of casualties, but I expect there will always be volunteers.

“So, most of the ‘heroes’ will end up in Line units,” Horner pointed out. “But they’re going to be bearing the brunt so it’s the right place to put them.”

“Just remember,” said Mike, rubbing his eyes, “some of these guys are not going to be tightly wrapped.”

“Speaking from experience, Mighty Mite?” asked Horner.

“I’ve had my bad days, sir,” Mike admitted, quietly. “Nights, usually.”

“You need a break, son,” said Horner. He didn’t tell him they already had something in mind.

“I had one, remember, sir,” said Mike, sourly. “I was on a Bond Tour.”

“That wasn’t a break and you know it,” said Horner. “And it wasn’t my fault. I didn’t have a shred of pull back then.”

Mike nodded and decided to change the subject. “Apropos of nothing, sir, where is the equipment for all these mechanized and mobile divisions coming from?”

“Chrysler is back in the armor-making business, has been for nearly a year. They and GM have been producing like mad, son,” said General Taylor. “They’ve not only stepped up their production rate beyond anything they expected, they’ve converted two factories in western Pennsylvania and Utah for M-1 production and four for Bradley production. The Toyota plant in Kentucky is about to get into the business as well. Modern equipment we have out the ass. What we don’t have is GalTech.”

“And even an Abrams can’t stand up to Posleen for very long,” continued General Horner.

“Hmm. Any more rabbits in the hat?” asked Mike.

“Like what?” asked Jack.

“Like independent forts along the way?”

“No,” said the CONARC. “We’ve only got so much logistics to go around. Not to mention bodies. We have to concentrate on the cities, not long-ball chances like the evac. There might be some small outposts — we’re looking at doing some stuff with militias — but by this time they will probably be swept away. That’s where the mobile infantry comes into play.” The fate of the defenders was obvious. But the general carefully did not comment on that.

“And in the southwest,” interjected General Taylor, flicking an ash from his stogie.

“And in the southwest,” agreed Horner, “which is going to be an Eleventh Mobile Infantry show. The other use for the MI will be as support during the initial retreat to the montane defenses and to ensure that the Posleen do not break through the Appalachian defenses especially. What we want you to do is go over the conventional battle plans being developed and set up the MI zones of responsibility.

“Zones of responsibility will not be detailed to units smaller than a battalion,” continued Horner. “The units you have to work with are the 508th, 509th and the 555th. The Eleventh will be used as a division to hold the ‘underbelly.’ ”

“Are we going to have all of those?” Although there were plans in the pipeline to supply all those regiments with suits, the schedule of supply had been pushed back and back. Pretty soon they were going to start taking losses and the new suits would be going to replace casualties.

“We have to assume so,” Horner stated. His grim smile belied the words. “I’ve set up an office with a couple of staff and all the necessary clearances. And of course you’ve got Michelle,” said General Horner, gesturing at the captain’s AID.

“Shelly,” corrected Mike, fingering the bracelet of black intelli-plastic. “Michelle died on Diess.”

“Sorry,” said General Horner, ignoring the inquiring glance from General Taylor, “Shelly. Can you work out the details with just that?”

“I could do it without the staff, if everything is in the network.”

“It is,” said Horner.

“Then no problem.”

“Initial deployments and SOP battle plans for three regiments in wildly varying terrain?” asked General Taylor. “No problem?”

“Yes, sir,” said O’Neal with a tired smile. He thought it would be a nightmare, but doable. “After activating a company of multigenerational soldiers being introduced to science fiction technology for the first time, in an encampment that has daily riots, this will be a piece of cake.”

“Okay,” chuckled General Horner, tossing back the last of his vodka. “You have three weeks. Your company will be on leave by then and you’re going on leave as well. Colonel Hanson asked me to make that an order, by the way.”

“Yes, sir. I could do with a little time off.”

“I agree,” said Taylor. “And so did Lieutenant General Left.”

Mike looked suspiciously from general to general. “How did the Fleet Strike Commander, who I trust is still safely ensconced on Titan, become involved?”

“Well, Bob seemed like the best point of contact to make with Fleet,” said Horner with a frown.

Mike flicked an ash off his cigar and frowned warily. “And why did Fleet get involved?”

“Well, we had to get permission from Vice Admiral Bledspeth,” explained Taylor.

“Yes, sir,” said Mike, his suspicions fully aroused. “I suppose you did. For what is the question?”

“Well, to get them to kick Sharon loose,” said Horner.

“And shuttle her down for a break of her own,” pointed out Taylor. “That was almost harder.”

Mike’s jaw dropped. “Sharon’s taking leave?” he asked incredulously. “Since when?”

“What time is it?” asked Taylor, ostentatiously looking at his watch.

Horner gave one of his rare true smiles. “Close your mouth, Mike, flies will take advantage. Think of it as having friends in high places. Or, if you prefer, think of it as a reward for maxing your FSTEP.”

“Sir,” the captain spluttered. “This is not funny. It is completely unfair to everyone else in the world who has a spouse on detached duty! It is the worst case of personal privilege I can imagine!”

“Yes, it is,” said Taylor, seriously. “But most of those soldiers have not made the contributions you have. Most of those soldiers are not going to be asked to shoulder the burdens you, and Sharon, will be asked to shoulder. And most of those families, despite the occasional tear-jerker news report, don’t have both parents in harm’s way.”

“Mike,” said Horner, seriously also. “It’s a done deal. I knew you would react this way which is why I didn’t even ask you about it. Take it as a gift from a friend or an order from a general. I don’t care which. But Sharon will be on leave a week before you get kicked loose. Then you’ll have a week together. After that you’ll have a week by yourself. And that will probably be the last break you have for years.”

“Yes, sir,” said O’Neal, finally getting over the shock. Looked at a different way it was a hell of a compliment. The only part that bothered him was the personal privilege. He finally decided that this was one gift horse where he wasn’t gonna look at the teeth.

“Take off, Mighty Mite. It’s good to have you around.”

“ ’Night, sir,” said Mike. He paused at the door in thought. “And thanks,” he said.

CHAPTER 14

Lagrange Point Four, Sol III

0510 EDT September 10th, 2004 ad

I wanna pony. Her young face was scrunched in an unhappy frown, her arms crossed over her chest and tears threatening in her eyes. The light wind of the summer afternoon had faded and the trees in the background were dropping their leaves like rain.

I’m sorry, sugar, you can’t have a pony. None of us can have ponies.

Why not?

There’s no air for them to breathe. As she said it Sharon realized that there really wasn’t any air. She began to pant but she couldn’t fill her lungs.

Mommy? said the little girl, receding into the blackness. She had fallen out of the air lock and was drifting off into the depths of space, the diamond-hard stars wheeling around her as she fell and fell. Mommy? Mum? Comman’er O’Neal? Commander? Mum? COMMANDER!

Sharon started up in the bunk and banged her head into the bunk above hers. For a moment stars wheeled around her and she nearly screamed at not waking from the nightmare. Instead she took a deep breath and quietly let slip her husband’s favorite swearword.

“Are you quite all right, mum?” asked Boatswain Michaels. He squatted by the side of the bunk with a cup of steaming tea in his hand. His thick Midlands accent was, as always, nearly incomprehensible.

“I’ll be fine as soon as I figure out how to kill Lieutenant Crowley so I can have his bunk removed,” she joked, swinging her legs over the side of the bunk. It was necessary to hunch forward to avoid banging her head again. The ceilings of the converted Indowy fast courier were barely six feet tall. Cramming two bunks in vertically had been challenging.

Everything had been challenging since she’d been assigned to the position of executive officer on the Agincourt five months before. During her tenure she had suffered through three different captains as Fleet High Command cycled officers through the few available warships. The first one was fine, a former submariner who had taught her many of the tricks that stood her in good stead since. The other two had been losses, micromanaging assholes who were lost commanding the ship. The last one had been a philanderer to boot, a Russian bigot with wandering hands.

She had firmly quashed a mutiny by the ship’s crew that would have led inevitably to a fatal “accident” for the officer. The crew treated her more like an older sister than their XO, and had fiercely defended her. By the time the captain left he had discovered the many pleasures of a badly tuned ship, such as varying air pressure in his cabin, reversing toilets, lighting that remained at constant intensity but slid through the spectrum in varying increments, now red, now purple, now, apparently, out, but really broadcasting in high ultraviolet. The sunburn from the last had actually overwhelmed his antiradiation nannites.

Since he had completely bypassed his executive officer, placed in the position because of her background in astronautic engineering, the systems failures were entirely his fault. He, of course, did not see it that way, blaming everything on Sharon. She, in turn, kept full records of all meetings or even casual encounters.

The past two weeks of inquiries had been… interesting. It was not an experience she cared to repeat. However, a new commander was on the way and the Russian was headed back to the land of borscht.

“Ach, you don’ wann’ remove Lieutenant Crowley now, mum,” the boatwsain disagreed. “Thin you’d have’ta con this bitch on your own everytime.”

She accepted the cup of tea, then rubbed her forehead before taking a sip. She’d have a knot there. The request for foam rubber had been on the books for nearly four months. Time to send another HEAT round. And then there was the shortage of filters, which was why the ship smelled like a goat-locker. And the forward force screen was acting up. And the number three impeller. And about half the environmental fans, thus the hint of ozone in the goat-locker. And the heat exchangers. And with the main water recovery unit down, the cup of tea she was ingesting was a third of her potable water ration for the day. But with the Russian gone at least they might get some of it fixed. If they could squeeze the parts out of Titan Base.

“Anything I need to know right away?” she asked and reached across the narrow compartment for a bottle of Tylenol. The living compartments were designed for four-feet-tall Indowy. At five feet eleven she fitted in them poorly.

“Aye, mum,” said the boatswain soberly. “Wiv finely lost the forward force screen.”

“Damn,” she muttered, swallowed a handful of the acetaminophen and chased it with a swig of the bitter tea. The “chai” as the NCO insisted on calling it was a thick, nearly black concoction preferred in the British Navy. Sharon had talked the crew out of many things, feeding her pickled herring for breakfast as an example, but she had been unable to adjust the tea. Whatever. It woke you up.

She pulled off her T-shirt and pulled out one that was marginally fresher. Michaels was queer as a three-dollar bill, so it wasn’t going to inflame him.

They’d had a couple of problems with sexual harassment and one attempted rape in the first few weeks she was onboard. Not all the countries that had contributed sailors to the Fleet had a tradition of females serving on ships. She had stamped on it hard. Maybe too hard. She sometimes wondered if being left on the ship was punishment for suspending the attempted rapist in microgravity, vacuum and darkness for fourteen hours. With his radio pulled. The sailor had had to be transferred to Ground Forces.

She pulled on a stained coverall and stamped her feet into a pair of shipboots. The emergency belt pack was the last piece of necessary equipment to go on and she was ready to face her day. She was already hot as hell. The backup heat converter must be out again.

“You should at least have a bite,” said Michaels reproachfully. He held out a platter with toast on it.

She tilted her head to the side, a habit she had picked up from her husband, and smiled. “You’re the bosun, not a steward.”

Michaels shrugged. “Cooky’s pretty damn busy, mum. I knew you’d not eat if I di’nt insist.”

Sharon picked up one of the pieces of toast and took a nibble. It was dry and quite awful. There was no decent bread flour in the ship and the last fresh food they had received had come in nearly a month before.

The ship was on a seemingly endless patrol of near-Earth space. Parts and food, such as reached them, were shipped in by light freighters and transferred by hand from ship to ship. The crew struggled endlessly against the conflicting demands of failing systems and the boring patrols.

Sharon knew they were no better or worse off than the other frigates. The converted fast couriers were the front line of the Federation’s defense against the Posleen, but they were frighteningly inadequate from the human’s point of view. The ships were ancient, literally centuries old, and lacked every item that humans had come to expect in a warship. There were no redundant systems, no easily switched out spares, not much in the way of defense, and the weapons were nearly useless.

What made matters worse was their customization. Each ship was hand built over nearly a half century by one of a few Indowy families. Since each ship was custom fabricated there were no interchangeable spare parts. For that matter, since the ships were designed to last for a few centuries of blemishless activity, then be taken out of service, there were no parts whatsoever. Every part was solid-state; there was no reason that they would not last a pair of centuries. And the Indowy guaranteed it.

Unfortunately, most of the ships, like their own Agincourt, had been in service since the beginning of the war. The losses from the war were straining the production capacity of the Federation beyond the maximum and the shortage of shipping was the most obvious aspect. These ships, which should have been taken out of service a century earlier, were still being used on the front line. And the Indowy technicians attached to the Fleet were learning a new term from the humans: jury-rigging.

She nibbled at her dry toast and had another sip of the bitter tea. Then she tapped the artificial intelligence device on her wrist. “What’s the news?” she asked.

“There are twenty-seven messages in your e-mail queue,” the AID answered in a melifluous baritone.

“How many of those are the maintenance people on Titan whining about our parts requests?”

“Fourteen.”

“Delete.”

“Okay. Then there are five denying requests from various crewmembers for a transfer off ship. One of those is a rather snotty question about the leadership of the frigate.”

“Send ’em a copy of the transcript from the inquiries and tell them to kiss my ass. Diplomatically. And resubmit the requests. God knows somebody should be able to get off this tub.”

“Done. There are six answers to your requests for better food, all of which boil down to quit whining.”

“Okay. Send the requests back but increase the requested amount every time until you get to our maximum stores level. Do that once per day or once per denial if they respond within the day. Carbon-copy all requests to Fleet HQ.”

“Okay. Most of the rest of it is junk. But there is a message from Titan Base stating that the new CO has been assigned and will be arriving this afternoon.”

“Joy,” said Michaels. “Bloody joy and happiness. Another one.” Part of the problem was that the COs for the frigates were captains. The post would have been one for a lieutenant commander or even a lieutenant in a regular navy but the frigates were the only place for “wet navy” sailors to learn the ins and outs of space command. Because the posting was relatively “simple,” the senior officers assigned generally started off assuming that they knew twice as much as the officers and crew in place. Many of them had learned what it was like to breathe vacuum.

Sharon shook her head. “Hey, maybe this one will be different. Who is it?” she asked the AID.

“Captain April Weston,” said the AID.

At the name, Michaels sucked in his breath. “Bloody hell.”

“You know her?” asked Sharon.

“I’ve never met her,” said Michaels. “But everybody in His Majesty’s bloody Fleet knows about her.”

Sharon made a come-on gesture, indicating a request for enlightenment.

Michaels shook his head. “Well, she’s just about the only woman who has ever stood for admiral in the fleet who came out of surface warfare. She’s a bloody legend among the swifties. On her mother’s side she’s related to a dead chappie named Mountbatten.” He paused trying to figure out how to explain that to an American.

“I’ve heard of him,” Sharon said dryly. The late Earl Mountbatten had been the last of a breed. Closely related to the Royal Family he had been an officer in the Navy during World War II. After distinguishing himself as commander of a destroyer squadron and having repeated ships shot out from under him he had formed the first combined special operations groups in history. After the war he had been made Earl of Burma and expertly ushered that country into independence. He was a national hero and a treasure whose life was finally snuffed out by the bomb of an Irish terrorist. “So she’s related to the Royal Family?”

“Distantly,” said Michaels with a shrug. “Us Brits have still got a thing about, well, ‘blood.’ You know?”

“Lineage,” said Sharon.

“Bloody right. Well, this Weston is the sort of person who… sort of reinforces that. If there was ever a case of the acorn not falling far from the bloody oak.”

Sharon nodded. “So this is good?” she asked cautiously.

“Oh, yeah,” said Michaels. “Of course, Mountbatten survived four ships. And most of his chappies never made it back. There was some as would jump ship rather than sail with him.”

Sharon snorted and thought about the departed Russian. “I’ll take my chances.”

* * *

The air lock hissed and Captain Weston stepped forward, still fumbling at the catches of her pressure helmet. It annoyed her to demonstrate incompetence in her first moments on the ship, but the only previous time she had worn a battle suit was during the four-hour familiarization class at Titan Base.

One of the petty officers standing at attention stepped forward and unhooked the last recalcitrant fitting and her ears were blasted by the shrill of a recorded boatswain’s pipe.

She stepped forward and returned the salute of a good-looking brunette in a slightly soiled coverall. “Captain April Weston,” she said and removed a folded piece of paper from a sealed belt-pouch. That maneuver she had managed to practice on the shuttle over and it went off flawlessly.

“ ‘You are hereby ordered to proceed forthwith to the Fleet Frigate Agincourt for purposes of assuming command,’ ” she quoted. “Signed Hareki Arigara Vice Admiral, Director, Fleet Personnel Department.” Weston lowered the paper and nodded at the presumptive executive officer. “I take command, ma’am.”

“I stand relieved, ma’am,” said the brunette. “Sharon O’Neal, Lieutenant Commander. I’m your XO.”

Captain Weston nodded and looked around at the assembled crew. It was a fairly small party. “I am about to betray my ignorance,” she admitted. “Is this most of the crew?” she continued, slightly aghast. Normally most of the off-duty crew members would be present for the greeting party. There was more than enough room in the pressure hold for more people, so the group of twenty or so might be it. That would place the upper end of the crew at thirty or so. The crew of a “wet” frigate would number over a hundred. Her previous cruiser command had numbered over a thousand.

“Ma’am, there are four on duty in the tac center,” the XO answered, “three in engineering and four more at various other points. There are also six Indowy crewmembers.” She hesitated. “They… don’t usually associate with large groups of humans.”

Weston nodded her head. That was one briefing she had gotten. “Understood.” She looked around and raised her voice slightly. “I’m sure we’ll all get to know each other well over the next few months.” The tone was a command voice. It implied that what the speaker said would occur, whatever the universe might throw at the speaker. Compared to the whiny and blustering Russian she replaced it was immensely heartening to the crewmembers. Which was what she had intended.

She looked around at the damaged and dingy interior of the ship. The lighting was purplish and unpleasant and the cargo hold was covered in scuffs and dents. For all that there was little real dirt. The ship was obviously well cared for. But the age and poor condition were clear nonetheless. She smiled and chuckled. “I’m sure we’re going to get real friendly.”

There was an uneasy chuckle in response from the group and she turned to the XO. “Mrs. O’Neal, why don’t you show me to my dayroom and we’ll get down to business.”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Sharon. The new commander had obviously gotten a realistic first impression and the response was better than she had hoped. “If you’ll follow me?”

* * *

The commander’s office turned out to be a cramped antechamber of the captain’s quarters. It was smaller than the office April had on her first command — also a frigate, as it happened — and very poorly positioned. The captain’s quarters were nearly thirty meters away from the bridge through a twisting maze of unusually low corridors. Using this as an office was obviously out of the question.

She turned to her XO, standing at attention behind her. She waved a hand. “This isn’t Fleet Headquarters, for God’s sake. Simply bowing will suffice.” She smiled to assure the XO it was a joke. “Is there anywhere closer to the bridge for me to do my paperwork?”

The XO shook her head. “No, ma’am, there isn’t. Believe it or not, engineering and the bridge are almost collocated. The engineering section pretty much wraps the bridge. Then, out from there are a mass of environmental systems. This is as close as any quarters are to the bridge. And there’s not anything that can be moved or taken off-line to get you closer. I’m even farther away, which is why I was using the office in the period between the last commander and your arrival.”

Captain Weston nodded firmly. “Well, I suppose I shall have to learn to hurry.” She sat in the workstation chair and spun it to face the XO standing at parade rest. “Sit,” she commanded, pointing at the nearby bunk.

Sharon seated herself carefully, hands on knees.

Weston examined her just as carefully. The officer was attempting to radiate calm but was obviously as nervous as a virgin in the East End. Weston nodded unconsciously.

Sharon wondered what the nod meant. The new commander had been regarding her steadily for nearly a minute. If she thought she could outwait Sharon O’Neal she had another think coming. The stare was, however, disconcerting. The captain had blue eyes so dark as to be almost black. They were like looking into a Highland loch; there was no way to know how deep it might be. They seemed to suck light into them. Sharon almost shook herself, realizing she was becoming half mesmerized.

“Lieutenant Commander Sharon Jerzinsky O’Neal,” said the new captain, startling the XO. The captain smiled. “Jerzinsky?”

Sharon shrugged. “Polish, Captain.”

“That I recognized. Rensselaer Polytechnic, Class of ’91. BS Aeronautic Engineering. Cum Laude. Entered the United States Navy Reserve Officer Training Program in 1989. Why?”

Sharon shrugged again. This was going differently than she expected. Among other things she was amazed at the officer’s memory and wondered how far it would stretch.

“I took the ROTC program for the money, Captain. It wasn’t much but with a couple of scholarships I only had to have one job on the side.” She carefully refrained from discussing what the job was. Modeling was modeling but there were a few pictures around of her that she sure hoped never made it into her official packet. Or the fact that her minor had been in dance.

The new commander nodded and went on. “Commissioned as an ensign and took training as an aeronautics maintenance officer. Assigned USS Carl Vinson. Served four years, three on the Carl Vinson. Exited regular service in 1995. Why not continue?”

Sharon wondered how to explain to this career officer. How to explain that despite all the pressure being applied to reduce harassment, an aircraft carrier at sea for six months or more at a time was still no place for a former model. How to explain the decline in morale and discipline during those dark days of the American military. How to explain the frustration of not being able to keep birds in the air because of a lack of parts. Or the pressure to put up birds you were not one hundred percent sure were good. Of having a husband knife her in the back so he could get a few more hours in the air. Of having the same son of a bitch leave her for an “LBFM,” a “Little-Brown-Fuck-Machine.” The Indonesian wife was nice and almost apologetic. But that hadn’t helped.

“There was no reason to continue at that time, ma’am,” she answered, her stock noncommittal response. “I had never considered the Navy a career.”

“Despite a string of ‘Excellents’ on your Officer Evaluation Reports?” asked the British officer. “Despite, ‘this officer manifests maturity and ability far beyond her age and far beyond her peers. Future assignments of this officer should be determined keeping in mind the good of the service and possible future high rank rather than the immediate needs of career placement.’ And it was ‘enthusiastically endorsed’ by the carrier commander.” The professional officer cocked her head to the side in puzzlement. “That’s better than any evaluation I got at the same rank. So, why leave? You had the possibility of a fine career in front of you.”

Sharon raised her hands palm up. “I was never a careerist, Captain. I’m happy that Commander Jensen was so enthusiastic and that Captain Hughes agreed. But I still was not there for a career.”

The new commander cracked her fingers and leaned back in the station chair, fingers laced behind her head. “Bullshit.”

Sharon stared at her stonily. “Perhaps, Captain. But it is all I am required to discuss with my superiors.”

Captain Weston cocked an eyebrow. “Once burned thrice shy?”

Sharon smiled faintly. “More like eternally shy. Ma’am.”

“Okay.” The officer nodded. “Fair enough. Returned to school, Georgia Technical Institute. Met and married one Michael O’Neal.” She stopped. “Parenthetically, I met the Mike O’Neal who won the medal on Diess on a plane just the other day. Nice fellow, if you’ve never met him. Just as short as he looks on TV.”

Sharon smiled thinly. “Yes, he is, ma’am. But I find him quite tall enough.”

Captain Weston looked surprised for the first time in the interview. “Seriously? He’s your husband?” she asked, her accent for once becoming prominent.

Sharon smiled whimsically. “Seriously. I mean, I know he’s not much to look at…” she said and smiled again.

The captain shook her head and trudged on. “Took your masters in aeronautic engineering, specializing in determining maintenance cycling. Went to work for Lockheed-Martin in Atlanta on the F-22 project. The project was then in the process of being ‘downsized.’ I’m surprised you got a job.” She cocked an eye for an answer.

“So was I,” Sharon admitted. “But they were continuing background developmental work, figuring that sooner or later Congress was going to give up and buy the damn thing. I was fresh out of college and cheaper than the people they were letting go. I wasn’t happy about it, but I took the job anyway.”

“But you stayed for two more years. Until you were called up, in fact.”

“I’d hardly been there any time when We Heard.” Sharon finally crossed her legs and interlaced her fingers over her knee. “By then we’d started tinkering with the Peregrine variant. When the parameters came back it looked like the Peregrine would be the answer to our prayers. Now that I’ve gotten a better look at the data on Posleen weapons I think it’s a death trap. But nobody listens to me these days.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” said Captain Weston, enigmatically. She leaned back and ran her fingers through her hair. They came away greasy and she grimaced. “They listened to you at the Board of Inquiry. And that was with an entirely male board and two Russians on it. Have you ever wondered why you are still on this ship when all the other officers have been cycled through like shit through a goose?”

Sharon snorted at the sudden profanity out of the somber officer. “Yes, Captain, actually I have.”

“So, we’re back to ‘Captain’ are we?” asked the officer, with a snort. “As you wish. You realize that none of the officers have been in place long enough to give you an evaluation report.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Sharon answered, more carefully.

“Captain Stupanovich tried. He submitted your review despite only being in command for sixty days. The minimum is one hundred and eighty.”

“Yes, ma’am,” replied Sharon with a grimace. “I saw it.”

“Not particularly good from what I’ve heard,” admitted Weston. “Well, that was one piece of paper that will never see the light of day. If there is a remaining copy anywhere, Fleet has been unable to find it.”

Sharon wrinkled her brow. “I don’t understand. Why would Fleet be trying to purge that review? I can understand denying it, but why purge it?”

“Commander,” asked Weston, leaning forward and pinning her with that deep, black gaze, “how many systems are currently down on this barge?”

Sharon grimaced. “There are seventeen ‘minor’ systems down and four ‘major’ systems, ma’am. The major systems are limited to environmental and defense. All weapon systems and drive systems are on-line.” She shrugged. “The crew is doing wonders, especially the Indowy, but we don’t have the spares! We might have been able to get spares delivered for the heat exchangers and the number six forward fans by now if Captain Stupanovich had bothered to forward the requests!” she finished angrily.

Weston nodded. “Commander, there are seventeen frigates assigned to Earth system defense. You know that, right?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Do you know how many are flying?” she continued, aggressively.

“Twelve, ma’am,” said Sharon, wondering where the discussion was going.

Weston nodded again. “Do you know how many have more than fifty percent capability in weapons and drive? The two systems that you correctly pointed out are the most important?” She waved at the air. “It’s hot! The exchangers are off-line, right?”

“No, ma’am, I don’t know how many are out of service and yes, ma’am, the heat exchangers are out,” said Sharon. “Actually, half—” she continued and was cut off.

“I’m not attacking your job, Commander. I’m telling you why you should straighten up your damn shoulders! Having all the heat exchangers off-line can be deadly. But not nearly as deadly as having our lance-launch ability off-line! Do you know what Admiral Bledspeth, whom I have known since I was in diapers, said to me?”

Sharon shook her head, wondering what the Terran System Fleet Commander would have said about this bucket of bolts. She felt like she was being slapped in three different directions by the rapid turns of the new commander.

“He told me to keep my damn comments to myself and listen to Commander O’Neal and I might just live to see Terra again.” She shook her head and swore. “This is the only damned frigate circling Earth that has all its weapons on-line and a fully capable drive! And if you don’t think Fleet notices that, you’re not as smart as they say you are.

“We are currently the only frigate that is more or less ready to sail in harm’s way!” continued the captain, seriously. “If there is an emergence of Posleen ships, the fighters and the other frigates will try. But most of the frigates, if they’re not limping on one reactor their launch systems are off-line!”

“Oh, joy!” said Sharon as anger built in her system. “So, what you’re telling me is I’ve been stuck in this hell-hole for doing a good job?”

“No, Commander!” said the captain, determinedly. “I’m telling you that you are stuck for doing an incredible job! And you are now going to have to teach still another sea-sucking regular Navy asshole how the hell you do it!”

“Oh, God,” said Sharon, with a laugh for the accuracy of the phrasing. The laugh held a note of despair.

“And I, in turn,” said the officer quietly, “will give you all the support I can. So, maybe, we can turn this into something other than a flying rat-hole sardine-can.”

Sharon nodded and sighed. “Well, ma’am, in that case we’d better get you accustomed to the paperwork.”

“Not the systems?” asked the captain. It was a test. The captain might learn a smattering of the equipment, but for the moment getting the parts out off the supply chain was much more important.

“Not if you want to have any running in a month,” said Sharon, shortly. “The Fleet floats on electronic paperwork. And my AID is about to give your AID a crash course. Starting with how messed up the parts program is.”

CHAPTER 15

Ft. Indiantown Gap, United States of America, Sol III

1427 EDT September 13th, 2004 ad

“Yes, Ampele?” First Sergeant Pappas looked up at the image of the operations sergeant displayed by his AID. The call had interrupted his attempt to reduce the mass of paperwork that had built up while he was on leave and he suppressed an illogical snarl; the recently promoted ops sergeant was famous for not wasting his time.

“Top, battalion PAC just called and we’re getting another E-6.”

“We’re up to strength,” responded Pappas as a knee-jerk reaction.

“No, we’re down one, according to PAC, and technically they’re right.”

“If you’re talking about Stewart’s squad, you’ve got to be joking.”

“I don’t know what else we’re going to do with him. He’s senior to Stewart and all the other squads have staffs as squad leaders.”

“Do we have his two-oh-one? And where are we on getting Stewart his Six?”

“The two-oh-one’s still queuing from all the transfers, but PAC is ‘very confident’ that we will have it in hand by the time he arrives, and he has a hardcopy with him. And there is no way that battalion is going to board Stewart. He’s barely out of basic!”

“So are you, and I got you your five stripes. Never mind, I’ll take another hammer to the sergeant major. When the new guy arrives, send him straight in.”

“Roger.”

* * *

“Staff Sergeant Duncan,” said the new NCO, from the doorway, “reporting to the first sergeant as ordered.”

Duncan had been around — he was entering his twelfth year in the military — and he knew that when you reported to your company, whatever the procedure might say, you usually saw other NCOs before you were introduced to your new first sergeant or commander. Because they were very busy people with tight schedules, if you were ordered to report directly to one or the other on arrival, it usually meant trouble. And he really had no interest in trouble. Especially from the big son of a bitch that was his new Top.

“Come on in, Duncan was it? Pull up a chair.” Ernie Pappas, who still thought of himself as a gunnery sergeant, could tell when someone was on pins and needles and suspected he knew why.

“No big problem,” he continued. “If you’re wondering why I asked to see you right away, just a couple of things I wanted you to be aware of. Termites in your new home, so to speak.”

First Sergeant Pappas did a quick perusal of his newest NCO and came away with varying first impressions. For one thing, the guy was no rejuv. Pushing thirty probably, though it was hard to tell with his eyes. He had a battered look, kinda shocky, that reminded him of the Old Man when he first arrived, and a pin that he had only ever seen before on the captain, the one that meant that the person had been in nuclear ground combat. Despite how bad it was on Barwhon, the pin had only been earned in one engagement.

He held out his hand for the hardcopy personnel file clutched in the new NCO’s hand. “Diess?” he asked, softly.

“Yeah. And I just got back from Barwhon,” the staff sergeant replied, surprised. “How’d you know?”

“I’ve seen the pin before.” Pappas let it lie at that and started reading the file. He skipped all the marketing bullshit at the front that was mainly for promotion boards and went straight to the military history file. Several items leaped off the page. After a few moments’ scan he closed the file and smiled.

“What?” Duncan asked. He knew that his new first sergeant had seen something that made him adjust his first impressions, probably either the Article 15 just before Diess, or he had read through the lines on his most recent transfer. The smile could mean anything.

“Well, I have the old good news, bad news routine,” said Pappas with a slight smile. “And I’ll lay it out with the intermediate news first. I wanted you to know that your platoon sergeant is a female.

“Sergeant First Class Bogdanovich was an instructor for the Marines before they opened up the combat arms and she jumped at the chance to go to Strike. She is extremely competent and runs a helluva platoon. I doubt that you’re going to have problems, but you’re not prejudiced against women, are you? I’d appreciate an honest answer; I can shuffle things if you are.”

Like I could say yes? thought Duncan. “No, that’s fine. I’ve never worked with a female boss, but we were having them trickle in as I was leaving Diess. The ones who are professional are fine.”

“You got a problem with some that aren’t professional?” asked the first sergeant cautiously.

“Top, if one of my troops starts bawling because I told them they fucked up, that’s their problem,” said Duncan with a frown. “I do not coddle my male troops, I damn sure won’t coddle any female ones. Yeah, I had a little problem with that on Diess, not one of my troops. She eventually decided that maybe Fleet Strike wasn’t the place for her.”

The first sergeant decided to take that one on faith. It sounded like a couple of incidents he’d heard about, but not in Bravo since they’d received their first group of women. Fleet Strike was composed of multiple countries’ forces, some of which had a tradition of women in combat. It made no allowances for feminine virtues or perceived weaknesses. It was not that what was generally considered a feminine approach did not have merit, it was just that it had no merit in combat. The Fleet forces were slowly coming to terms with that fact, the American forces generally much slower than others. From Pappas’s point of view, it was up to the Bogdanoviches and the Nightingales to prove that they had a place. There were no freebies in the infantry. Not with a war on.

“Okay,” he said with a nod, scratching the back of his head with a pen. “I don’t think you’re going to have a problem with that. Now for the really bad news. We’ve already completed our FSTEP, and maxed it, so I’m understandably proud of our junior leadership and don’t really want to mess with it.

“The only squad that does not have an E-6 squad leader is headed up by an E-5 who is so outstanding I’m considering offing you to keep him in charge.” Pappas smiled to show he was joking. “Unfortunately, he is also so incredibly junior — he’s practically straight out of boot camp — that you virtually have to take the squad.”

“Well, Top,” said Duncan, furrowing his brow, “you know that thing about a lazy man? If I can let my Alpha team leader run my whole damn squad…” He held up his hands as if taking them off.

“Sure, sure, I believe that. Anyway, I think you can handle Stewart. You’ll find this out soon enough, but I came here from the Fleet Basic course at McCall with the skeleton of the company, and Stewart came with me. Nonetheless, he really is extraordinary. Wait’ll you deal with him. Last but not least, I think you should know that I doubt I will be able to do anything about it even if you do have problems with Stewart. Or Bogdanovich, for that matter. Or even me.”

“Why?” asked Duncan, sensing a trap.

“You know how I said I’d seen that pin…”

* * *

“Sergeant Bogdanovich,” said the first sergeant as he walked into the Swamp, “meet your new second squad leader, Staff Sergeant Duncan. He was in the Old Man’s platoon on Diess.”

Natalie Bogdanovich hesitated fractionally as she extended her hand, then took Duncan’s in a strong grip. “Welcome to O’Neal’s Traveling Circus.”

Duncan sized up his new platoon sergeant and was immediately impressed. Bogdanovich was a short, heavily muscled blonde with engaging blue eyes and her hair pulled back in a bun. Her fresh good looks were barely undone by a nose that was slightly crooked from being broken some time in the past. But the energy and enthusiasm she exuded quickly drew the attention away from that tiny defect. Duncan could feel a restrained power behind her grip that reminded him of Lieutenant O’Neal.

“I didn’t even know he made captain, although I’m not surprised.”

“Given the size of Fleet Strike,” pointed out Gunny Pappas, “we were bound to get someone who knew him on Diess. There’s not that many units.”

“Well,” Duncan noted with a grim shake of the head, “there were only twelve of us left and three are on permanent disability.”

“How do you get permanently disabled?” asked the first sergeant. “Galactic Medical can fix anything that doesn’t kill you outright.”

“Psychiatric,” Duncan and Bogdanovich said together, then looked at each other quizzically.

“Boggle did a tour on Barwhon, first,” said Pappas.

Bogdanovich nodded, somberly. “It seems there’s still some things they can’t cure.”

“Yeah,” Duncan agreed quietly. “Although I think in the case of Private Buckley, they let him off ’cause they didn’t want to put up with the stories.” Duncan gave a grim chuckle.

“Private Who?” queried the first sergeant.

“What, Mighty Mite never told that one?” said Duncan with a smile. Two combat vets and Mighty Mite as a commander. It looked like this might be a good place to call home for a while.

CHAPTER 16

Ft. Myer, VA, United States of America, Sol III

1825 EDT September 13th, 2004 ad

“All work and no play makes Mike a dull boy,” said General Horner, leaning casually in the doorway of Mike’s tiny office; his junior aide, Captain Jackson, hovered at his side.

“Well, sir, the nightlife in Georgetown ain’t what it used to be.”

Since being given the almost overwhelming task of writing employment guidelines for the Armored Combat Suit units in the upcoming defense, Mike had been working sixteen to twenty hours a day, seven days a week. Work was actually a relief compared to contemplating the current situation. As the world hurtled to its inevitable rendezvous with the Posleen, society had begun a slow process of meltdown.

Once the full import of the upcoming invasion became apparent, a radical shift in economic and population emphasis occurred. Seventy percent of the world’s population and eighty percent of its wealth was concentrated in coastal plain zones or plains contiguous with coastal plains. While these areas had many noteworthy features, defensibility against the Posleen was not one of them.

The developing “Sub-Urbs,” underground cities for the refugees from the plains, had been designed with locations for businesses, factories and all the other necessary organs of society. However, like many things Galactic related, they were not being completed as fast as originally anticipated. The waiting list for businesses and manufacturing locations was even longer than the one for residences.

Businessmen, insurance adjusters and the common man could often do enough math to make their own decisions. Areas that had become moribund due to the previous decades’ shift away from montane zones suddenly began to experience a rebirth.

The faded industries of Bavaria and the American Rust Belt, especially the cities of Detroit and Pittsburgh, saw a massive influx of new plants, as GalTech and more mundane terrestrial industries relocated their fixed facilities to locations that could be defended.

With this movement of industry and services came a matching movement of labor. The workers, managers and executives of the moving firms followed the jobs, but others could put two and two together and a massive movement of people without any fixed employment flooded the Ohio Valley and the Midwest in the United States, and Switzerland, Austria and the Balkans in Europe. In Asia, more limited infrastructures and disputed borders did not permit mass migrations such as occurred in the United States and Europe, but there was significant movement towards and into the Himalayas, Hindu Kush and Caucasus.

In Japan, meanwhile, all the industry remained on the plains, but massive civilian shelters were being dug and populated throughout the country’s many mountain ranges. The Japanese experiences in World War II and their extensive civil engineering infrastructure continued to serve them well.

This mass migration and the flickering disruptions it caused in supply and demand of goods, services and labor were causing every kind of shortage in one area and oversupply in another.

Many individuals were getting rich on these supply problems, most of them ethically. Shortages had always been the creators of fortune. These individuals and anyone else with an income were then faced with the problem of where to put their money.

In most cases this was still the currency of whatever country the transaction occurred in, rather than Federation Credits. However, there was no convincing evidence that banks or even countries would survive the invasion. Thus, the cautious investor would prefer placement in a Galactic bank or a Terrestrial bank in a very secure location. Although most funds were merely electrons, a brick and mortar location remained a necessity. There was more to store than money. People had valuable artworks, personal treasures, precious gems and other items of “real” value. Terrestrial banks had, early on, joined in partnership with Galactic banks and, using this conduit, funds and goods began to flow outward from Earth.

However, the inevitable law of supply and demand again reared its ugly head, and as the flow continued from Terrestrial currencies to FedCreds, the exchange rate went up and up. Now, along with a famine of hope, was the specter of inflation. There were two exceptions to this.

Switzerland, already a renowned financial center, had been given the highest possible Galactic bond rating. Not only was it a major financial center already. Not only was it seventy percent mountains. But the Swiss militia had gone through several tests against notional attacks and every single assault had been beaten off with ease. However, another player had entered the banking market.

The ancient and secretive Buddhist country of Bhutan was briefly conquered by its neighbor, Bangladesh, for the purpose of becoming a leadership haven. A single visit by a British Armored Combat Suit battalion returned things to their original structure, but the Bhutanese had learned their lesson.

Obstructed by their religion from engaging in violence, they could still hire mercenaries, and a new Ghurka regiment was born. Ghurkas were mountain troops from Nepal that had a reputation as the best light infantry in the world.

To pay for it Bhutan opened a few small branch offices of major banks. Since the kingdom was determinedly old-fashioned and environmentally rigorous the bank branches were shoehorned into millennia-old massively built stone monasteries. Now, defended by the most renowned fighters in the world, massive stone walls and terrain obstacles to daunt Hannibal, the banks began to receive a tsunami influx of precious artwork, gems, metals and funds. A fractional tithe of this flood served to pay for the most advanced military equipment on Earth for the Ghurkas. The Ghurkas, and their British mercenary officers, were only too happy to put it to use.

Inflation, deflation and shortages wracked the world, causing famines and plagues in their wake. But through all of it most continued to work and struggle: to labor for a possible victory.

“Actually,” said Horner with a smile, “I hear the ratio of unmarried females is even higher than ever.”

“As, I said…”

“Well, you’re getting out of this office tonight. You have to be about done.”

“I am done,” Mike answered, gesturing at a massive stack of hardcopy on his desk: reports and presentations. “That’s it.”

“Okay, good,” Horner said, pleased but not surprised that everything was just so.

Mike had worked for him for two years when he was in charge of the GalTech infantry team, initially as a civilian TechRep and later as his aide. Horner had learned early that the junior officer had an intense ability to concentrate on getting a job done. He had chosen him for this job for that reason as much as for his ACS experience. Time had been short. There was a tiny list of people who could design the operational strategy for ACS employment in Fortress Forward. And there was a different tiny list of people who could pull something like that together in the bare two weeks he had had at his disposal. The only officer that Jack was aware of who was on both lists was sitting in the chair.

“As long as you’re ready for the all-commands conference tomorrow, you don’t have a reason not to come to the Fort Myer’s club tonight, all spiffy in your Fleet Blues.”

“Well, sir,” said Mike with a not particularly false yawn, “actually I have about thirty reasons, starting with sleep.”

Jack seemed to pay no attention to his rejection. “Besides welcoming all the Army commanders to this official kickoff of ‘Fortress Forward’ we will be celebrating the visit of the new French Ground Forces commander with a dining-out. I thought you might like to attend.”

“Well, sir, as I said…”

“His name is Crenaus.”

“The Deuxieme Armore commander, sir?” Deuxieme Armore, along with the Tenth Panzergrenadier and a scattering of British, Chinese and American armor units was rescued by then-Lieutenant O’Neal’s platoon on Diess, when they had been encircled by Posleen in the Dantren megascraper. The platoon had dropped megascrapers on two sides of the encirclement and cracked the Posleen on the remaining side with a barrage of antimatter grenades. The French general — a gangling firecracker of a man who bore a remarkable resemblance to the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz — had been notably impressed. Mike, in turn, had been impressed with how well the general had held his unit together in such an impossible situation. Deuxieme Armore had come out of the conflict with lower losses than any of the other units in the mobile defense, to a great extent because they retained cohesion when others broke like glass vases. The strongest reason for that cohesion was the guest of the dining-out.

“The same. When he heard you were in town he insisted that you attend,” Horner said with a rare true smile.

“Yes, sir.” Mike took mental inventory of his wardrobe. He had a pressed set of Fleet Mess Blues and — on the suspicion that someone would require he wear them at some point — his medals.

He had thus far succeeded in not wearing any of them, despite Ground Force regulations to the contrary, by the simple expedient of pointing out that he was not, in fact, a Ground Force officer and, therefore, the regulation did not apply. He had had to endure three more drubbings by overzealous MP officers until a special order was circulated explaining the position of Fleet versus Ground Force personnel. He probably would not have made the issue were it not for the fact that other Fleet personnel assigned to the Pentagon were under constant harassment. If his application of the old-boy network could help to mitigate that in any way he felt it worth the effort. He also hated the looks he got when people saw him with the Medal. But, what the hell, it would be a chance to see some old companions.

“Airborne, General, sir. I’ll be there with bells on.”

“Just be sure you’re there with all your medals on.” Jack smiled one of his cold thou-shalt-obey smiles. “Medals, Mike, not ribbons. And all of them.”

* * *

“Absent companions,” toasted Mike, as junior in the group.

“Absent companions,” chorused the inebriated crowd huddled around the new French High Commander.

The main ballroom of the Fort Myer Officers’ Club was jammed with the Military District of Washington’s finest. The bright light of the chandeliers pulled out highlights on gold braid and jewelry throughout the room as the officers and their ladies danced the minuet of power. The room was packed with generals of every rank; full colonels were not much more than waiters. But the entire room’s focus was on the small group by the head table where a circle of aides and senior subordinates clustered around four officers. Three of them were four-star generals; one of them was a mere captain.

“By rights, mon ami, you should be factored in that toast,” said the guest of honor, with a companionable clap on the shoulder to Mike.

“Well, there ain’t many left from my impromptu first command, that’s for sure.” Mike looked around at his company, only faintly uncomfortable with the situation.

In the year after his return from Diess he had been dragged around the United States as a talking head for the Public Information Office. During the tour he had intimate conversations with every kind of senior officer. He was sure at the time that the Curse of the Medal was on him; that for the rest of his career the closest he would come to the front was talking about it with a commentator. He was finally reprieved with his current command. So he was comfortable with senior officers at this point. And he had no problems with uniforms.

Before the tour began the first thing that was required of him by the PIO was the purchase, at fabulous expense, of a set of the new Fleet Strike Mess Blues. The group of designers and forward-thinking military officers that designed it rammed through some wildly successful combinations of Galactic technology and the modern mania for efficient and comfortable clothing. The daily wear uniform, combat silks, was as comfortable a set of clothes as any casual dress maniac could desire and even the standard dress uniform was extremely comfortable compared to the norm. That mania for casual comfort had ended abruptly at Mess Blues.

Designed to highlight several traditions from members of the Fleet Strike amalgam, the uniform also called on futuristic styling. A long mag-sealed tunic of Navy blue, worn flapped open, was lined with the branch color of the wearer, in Mike’s case Infantry sky blue. Around the middle was worn a full sash cummerbund of “Redcoat” red (the identical shade was used by, variously, the American Marines, American artillery, French paratroopers and the Red Army) looped with gold. The shoulders and sleeves were again covered in gold loops, the number of loops denoting rank. The pants were piped with red. It was topped by a simple Americanized beret in the color of the different branches of Fleet Strike. This gave the unfortunate impression that all members of the Infantry were on a UN Peacekeeping mission, but that impression would pass with time.

This admittedly flashy uniform was, in Captain O’Neal’s case, further highlighted by a frightening set of medals. In the case of most persons with multiple layers of “fruit-salad” the weight was on the lower end, the various commendation medals and other bits of colorful “I Was There” ribbons that say that the wearer has been a good boy and gone where a soldier was supposed to go. In Mike’s case, the weight was uncomfortably skewed in the other direction.

Besides the Medal, specifically awarded for single-handedly taking out a Posleen command ship at the Main Line of Resistance on Diess, he had been separately awarded for three other actions during that forty-eight hours of madness that saw victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. There was a Bronze Star for organizing the demolition of Qualtren, despite the accidental consequences, a Bronze Star for organizing the survivors under the rubble left from the explosion and a Silver Star for the relief of the Tenth Panzergrenadiers at the Boulevard of Death. He had not wanted any of them and argued that, by tradition, they should all have been lumped into one award. But they came piecemeal instead.

Along with those awards, and two Purple Hearts, there was a mass of foreign decorations from countries as widely varied as England and mainland China (almost three companies of the regiment China had sent survived due to O’Neal’s platoon). A single Army commendation medal, a good conduct medal and an I-Was-There medal for Desert Storm huddled at the bottom.

In any other company the combination of uniform and fruit-salad would have looked maniacal, but that was in any other company.

The cluster of officers around Géneral Crenaus included the American High Commander in Ground Force Mess Dress, a veteran of Just Cause, Desert Storm and Monsoon Thunder along with so many odd little out-of-the-way missions he had long ago stopped trying to remember them all. His “fruit-salad” was also impressively high protein, low fat. General Horner, in Mess Dress, had managed to be involved instrumentally in all three operations and although he was light on “Forgot To Duck” Purple Hearts, his commendations were all about being out front leading troops.

And it turned out that Géneral Crenaus, in French Mess Dress, tails, stovepipe hat and all, had apparently been involved in every action the French had been able to think up over the last couple of decades. And, apparently, a few they were not quite willing to admit to as well.

Between the Mess Dress on all the senior officers and the medals on every chest, Mike was wondering when the Valkyries were supposed to show up and go violently mezzo-soprano.

“I like that one,” said General Taylor rather thickly as he pointed to an unrecognized decoration on Captain O’Neal’s chest. He had managed to ingest better than a quart and a half of scotch during the course of the evening. “I didn’t think there were any Japs with you on Diess.” The decoration worn just above the Combat Infantryman’s Badge looked somewhat like a golden rising sun.

Géneral Crenaus laughed grimly. “That’s not for saving Nip ass, bon homme. That is simply an award for being there. I have one as well.” He pointed to the same medal on his own chest.

“That’s not the Diess medal,” pointed out General Horner, peering at O’Neal’s chest. “That’s our Diess Expeditionary Force medal,” he continued, pointing at a normal-sized medal of tan and red.

“Not for being on Diess, mon Général,” corrected Géneral Crenaus’s senior aide from the periphery where the aides danced attendance. “It is a Federation recognition device for being in the effect zone of a nuclear blast.”

Oui, this one is entirely our young friend’s fault,” laughed the boisterous French general, thumbing in the direction of the captain. “However, on reflection, I can hardly fault him.”

“Fine, great,” said Mike, feeling the bourbons the senior officers had been pressing on him. “Next time I’ll leave your Frog ass swinging in the breeze.”

Géneral Crenaus laughed uproariously to the apparent relief of the officers in the outer ring. “I sincerely desire that there is never another such incident, my young capitaine.”

Mike, in the meantime, was rather drunkenly looking at his Star Burst medal upside down. “You know the bastard part of it, sir?” he asked as he swayed forward and back; trying to maintain balance with his head down was getting harder and harder.

“What?” asked General Horner, knocking back his Absolut and picking another off a passing tray.

“I don’t remember a bit of it. I mean, some of the guys got to really groove with the experience. Some of the platoon couldn’t find bolt holes in time and they were on the roofs when it went. Now that would be a rush.”

“A rush?” gasped one of the colonels in the periphery.

Mike rounded on the officer, with a look of disbelief on his face. “Sure, sir, can’t you just see it? That wall of flame coming right at you and all you can do is duck and cover? I mean, like, what a rush!” He smiled ferally as the generals laughed. Most of the American aides, none less than a major in rank, were remarkably short on medals indicating combat time. They obviously were not sure to what extent the aggressive captain was joking.

Crenaus’s aide, wearing the same medal, snorted and shook his head. Having met the junior officer at his best, and worst, he had no doubt of the little firecracker’s sincerity. Deuxieme Armore called him “The Little Shrew” and spoke it in hushed tones. Not for any spitefulness, but because, weight for ferocity, shrews were the most deadly thing on earth. And quite utterly fearless.

Oui, in a suit perhaps,” interjected Géneral Crenaus, genially. “But most of us were not in suits. It was quite unpleasant from my point of view.”

“Sure, sir,” slurred Mike. “That’s why I gave you thirty — hic — seconds warning.”

“Twenty. You said thirty and detonated at twenty. Merci beaucoup, by the way, and what a surprise that was!”

“C’est la guerre. Vingt, trente, who’s counting.”

“We were, certainment. With our, how do you say it? ‘pedal to the metal’ we were. ‘Dix-neuf…’ Wham! Zee Camera of God!” the general continued, mock angrily.

“Bitch, bitch, bitch,” Mike snorted and took another slug.

Géneral Crenaus laughed again, hard, as at another thought. “Your Private Buckley did not think it was, as you say, a ‘roosh.’ ”

“Heh, yeah, I heard that one afterwards. Hah! And I thought I was havin’ a bad day.”

“Would you care to let the rest of us in on the joke?” asked General Taylor, settling rather heavily on the head table.

Oui, it is a good one,” said Géneral Crenaus, gesturing at Mike.

“Well, come on in when you want. Where to begin?” mused Mike, taking a sip of bourbon.

“At the beginning is usually best,” commented General Horner dryly. The dozen or so Absoluts had seemed to effect Horner not at all. Mike had heard he had a hollow leg. Now he believed it. The only way to tell he was drunk off his ass was that his normally sober expression had become like iron. Way drunk.

“Yeah. Well, Buckley was one of the guys caught under Qualtren. Now, we had to extract ourselves from the rubble, which we did by blowing through with our grenades and stuff, not a technique I suggest to the unarmored.”

Oui, they are after all…”

“… antimatter!” Mike finished. “Right. So, everybody was able to figure out how to do this successfully except the unfortunate Private Buckley, or Lefty as we came to call him. Private ‘Lefty’ Buckley, on his first try, slipped out his grenade, extended it as far away as he could, since it was, after all…”

“… antimatter!” chorused Géneral Crenaus and his aide.

“Right. So he sticks his arm out as far as it will go, pushing through the rubble, and thumbs the activator.”

Oui, oui! Only to find that he can’t retract his arm!” crowed the French general, belly laughing.

“Yeah! The rubble shifted and it’s caught. So, like, this is gonna huuurt, right? Actually, it only hurts for a second ’cause of all the suit systems. Blocks the nerve, shuts down the bleeding, debrides and disinfects the wound, all in seconds. But, ya know, ya got to imagine, I mean…”

“It’s a ten-second count?” asked General Horner, looking grim, which for him was the same as smiling.

“Right, right. So like…”

Dix, neuf, huit, sept…” interjected Crenaus, with tears of laughter in his eyes.

“Right, ten, nine…” Mike translated, “and then…”

“Wham!” interjected General Taylor, laughing.

“Right. Like, ‘Whoa, is this a Monday or what?’ Anyway, it didn’t, doesn’t really hurt, or it wouldn’t be so funny. Just the really brief but memorable sensation of your hand vaporizing.”

“So, what does that have to do with the command ship detonation?” asked one of the surrounding aides.

“Well,” continued Mike, with another sip of bourbon. “Lefty has made it to the perimeter, and performed a really decent private’s job, as well as he can left-handed. And when the command ship lifts he’s one of the guys that goes with Sergeant Green.” Mike paused and solemnly lifted his glass. “Absent companions…”

“Absent companions,” the officers chorused.

“… he went with Staff Sergeant Alonisus Green to distract the command ship away from the Main Line of Resistance and focus its attention so that I could attempt to plant a friggin’ antimatter mine on its side,” he ended, quite solemnly.

“There was supposed to be a humorous punch line,” said General Horner as the pause became elongated.

“Right, sir,” said Captain O’Neal after a sip of his sour mash. ”… so anyway the whole cockamamie thing works, I get through the defenses, plant the mine and do my now famous imitation of a piece of radioactive fallout…”

“Ten seconds early, might I add!” interjected Géneral Crenaus.

“Man, some people wouldn’t be happy if you hanged them with a gold rope! I go ‘to infinity and beyond’ and all the friggin’ Frenchie can do is complain about premature detonations. Where was I, sirs?”

“Detonation,” answered a very junior aide, a mere stripling of a major.

“Right,” said the captain. “Well, the mine works like a charm, except for some minor little secondary effects…”

“Another three meters and I would have been steak tartare!” the general shouted, holding his arms in the air.

“With all due respect: Quit interrupting, General, sir. Anyway it packs about the wallop of a Class Three Space Mine and it causes some nasty secondaries, most of which are, fortunately, directed away from the MLR and certain unnamed ungrateful Frenchmen…” commented Captain O’Neal, rolling his eyes.

“Did I say I was ungrateful? General Taylor, General Horner, I call you to witness, I never have said I was ungrateful. Nervous? A touch. Frightened? Merde, yes! But not ungrateful, you dwarf poltroon!”

“Hah, stork! Anyway, it tears the living shit out of the command ship, but about a third of the ship hangs together. It apparently was really spectacularly visible from some of the positions on the MLR. This big piece of space cruiser describes a beautiful ballistic arc almost straight up, looking like it’s moving in slow motion,” expounded Captain O’Neal, gesturing with both hands. “You have to remember, this is to the background of a relatively small but quite noticeable nuclear blast…”

“About four kilotons,” interjected Géneral Crenaus, taking a hard pull on his cognac, “and less than a kilometer away!”

“More like three kilometers. Anyway, it rides up on the mushroom cloud, describes this tremendous vertical arc and comes gracefully back down…”

“Right on Buckley,” hooted Géneral Crenaus and cracked up.

“… right smack dab on Private Second Class Buckley. He was one of the guys who was on the roofs, in the blast radius…”

Sacré Bleu! I was in the blast radius!”

“You guys should have hardly felt it in the blast shadow from the buildings!”

“Blast shadow he calls it! Oui! They were around our ears!” shouted the general, hands waving on either side of his head. “I know, I know…” he continued, holding up a hand.

“Bitch, bitch… anyway, here’s Buckley, grav-boots clamped to some nice powerful structure, miraculously alive, survives looking right into the shockwave, survives looking right into the neutron pulse, survives looking right into the thermal pulse…” Mike paused dramatically.

“It didn’t kill him, did it?” asked one of the aides, right on cue.

“In a suit? Nah, but it did knock him clean out. And this time he waited for somebody to come dig him up. He kinda had to since he was about fifty stories down in the building with a quarter kilometer of space cruiser on top of him,” ended Captain O’Neal, chuckling.

“To Private Buckley!” roared Géneral Crenaus, raising his brandy on high.

“To Private Buckley!” roared Captain O’Neal. “And all the other poor sods who wear the Mask of Hell!” he ended, a touch bitterly.

“Here, here,” chorused General Taylor, after there was a moment’s uncomfortable pause, and everyone raised their glasses and drank. “Is that what you call it, Mike?”

“Isn’t it, sir?” asked Captain O’Neal, swaying like an oak in the wind. “I may joke about a rush, but it’s armor that you can take into a friggin’ nuclear blast. As we have, and will have to again. What else is the mission that I have been working on for two weeks? To go where no one else can go, to do what no one else can do and to do that until we are no more.

“For whatever goddamn reason we are going to get hit with five times the number of Posleen pointed at Barwhon and Diess. As we are all well aware. That level of force will leave us totally invested. No large ships are going to be able to sneak through that firepower!

“So, from when the Posleen land until Fleet is strong enough to invest us and take out the landers, we will be cut off from resupply of GalTech. And that means ten little MI troopers… nine little MI troopers… eight little MI troopers, until ‘we’re singing Glory be to God that there are no more of us, cause one of us could drink it all alone.’ And it is my a-hoo-wah job to take my company into that maelstrom of nukes and gas and hypervelocity missile rounds and fight the Posleen on their own turf at up to one-thousand-to-one odds and cover all the other troops who don’t have the equipment to experience it.

“Yes, sir,” finished Mike. “I designed it, I made it, I live it and I call it the Mask of Hell. And all who wear it are the Damned!” he ended softly.

CHAPTER 17

Lunar Orbit, Sol III

2230 EDT September 13th, 2004 ad

“Oh, I will be God damned!” If anyone had been present when Captain Weston opened the e-mail from Fleet HQ on Titan Base, they would have been amazed at her command of invective. She managed to curse for a solid pair of minutes without repeating herself once. At the end of the diatribe she cut herself off abruptly, realizing that the stresses of the new command were causing the reaction.

In the short time she had been there, the only thing she had been able to determine was that the situation was worse than expected. She now realized that keeping the systems on-line had meant not only Herculean effort on the part of her XO, but sheer good luck. Any of the jury-rigged repairs, patches and add-ons could cut out at any time. This would make it appear that Captain April Weston was not quite as competent as some had supposed. She doubted it would destroy her career, but it would be awfully embarrassing.

For that matter they might not have to worry too much about embarrassment. With the forward deflector screen out any Posleen missile that made it through the defenses would have a free ride. The detonation of a twenty-kiloton nuclear missile in contact with the hull would erase any need to worry about career advancement.

The parts were bound to turn up sooner or later. And the XO was just as good as advertised at wheedling them out of Titan Base and getting the Indowy to venture out of their quarters and install them. Losing her “immediately” and without any warning for a two-week leave was not good news.

The other side of the ledger, however, was that the XO definitely needed some time off. She had brightened up in the last few days, but it was a brittle brightness. She definitely needed some shore leave.

So be it. Far be it from April Weston to hold someone back from their just deserts. If Uncle Al Bledspeth thought it was a good idea then it was a good idea. But when she found whoever it was pulling the strings in the background, she was going to have their guts for garters. She hated figuring out who was conspiring with whom.

* * *

“Nathan!” came the pleased cry.

Monsignor O’Reilly looked over his shoulder and stood up in greeting. “Paul, how are you?”

The short, balding, dapper man was finely dressed in a tailored silk suit shot through with threads of purple and green that caught the soft lighting in the Century Club dining room. He smiled at his old friend and shook his hand vigorously.

“Oh, well, my friend, well.” He was accompanied by an Indowy. While they were no longer in the two-headed calf category, it was exceedingly rare to see one in public. Paul des Jardins gestured at the alien. “Monsignor Nathan O’Reilly, I would be pleased to introduce you to the Indowy Aelool.”

O’Reilly was aware that Indowy did not consider touching to be an appropriate action. Like the Japanese they engaged in a variety of bows depending on status. Since he had no idea what its status would be to the Galactics and since he had no conception of the Indowy’s rank, trying to bow appropriately would be an exercise in futility. He settled for bowing his head fractionally.

He also was unsure of the Indowy’s sex. They had male, female and transfer neuter to choose from and there was no discrimination. They also were difficult to discern: The Indowy did not have significant external physical sexual expression such as mammaries. And their subtle expression — their equivalent of softer skin and rounded hips — was notoriously hard to spot. After a moment’s introspection he decided that the neuter forms of speech would be best. Male and female Indowy rarely objected to an accidental neuter reference, but transfer neuters tended to treat male/female references with humor.

The Indowy had an aura of peace and calm that was rarely found when they were near humans. Normally the little creatures were as nervous as cats in a room full of rocking chairs. This one did not even flinch at the sight of humans eating meat.

“Indowy Aelool, I see you.” He was enough of a student of the Galactics to know their greetings. Actually he was enough of a student of the Galactics to know three of the extraterrestrial languages. He still had no idea why Paul had tracked him down at the Club. They normally used cut-outs. This was lousy tradecraft and could damage an executive cell. He was furious; Paul had better have a damn good reason for this.

“Please.” He gestured at his table. “Sit down.” The damage, if any, was done. Might as well play the hand.

“I’m glad you were here, Nathan,” said Paul, taking a seat. One of the hovering waiters came forward and replaced the high-backed leather chair with one designed for Indowy. Nathan had not been aware that the club had them, but he was not surprised. The Century Club was one of the most exclusive clubs in Washington. Since it catered to the highest class of clientele, it undoubtedly had preparations for every type of Galactic visitor. “The Indowy Aelool is heading off-planet shortly and I wanted you to get a chance to meet him.”

“There was so much to do,” said the diminutive alien in a soft, high voice. Monsignor O’Reilly suddenly realized that the Indowy had spoken English rather than use an AID translator and was surprised. As far as he knew, no Indowys spoke the language or any language but Indowy. It was generally believed that their vocal resonance cavities could not form human-style words. What other capabilities might they be hiding? “My team has just completed the armoring of the First Battalion of your Five-Fifty-Fifth Fleet Strike and I was to head back to Irmansul immediately. However, my good friend Monsieur des Jardins insisted that I meet you. As he said, ‘A stitch in time saves nine.’ ”

O’Reilly paid no attention to the code phrase, simply nodding and taking a sip of the fruity Washington State Beaujolais the waiter had delivered earlier. As he did his mind raced and a series of pieces fell into place.

Apparently Paul or someone high among the Fellowship had decided that the Indowy was the perfect conduit into the Galactics. And he was sure enough to possibly burn his sole contact to O’Reilly’s Société. The Fellowship and the Société had similar aims, but O’Reilly was, as far as he knew, the sole link. If this little meeting exposed him it would set back the work a decade. On the other hand, access to Galactic technology was imperative. Both groups were hampered by imperfect knowledge of the Galactics’ surveillance capabilities.

And the Indowy always insisted on a face-to-face meeting before any serious alliance was joined. From what he had been able to glean from current study, and on the basis of Société records, he could understand why. The Darhel had owned the electronic information systems of the Galactic Federation for thousands of years. That gave them the ability to create any illusion they chose using those systems. Face-to-face was the only way to be sure you were talking to an actual contact.

The logic complete he nodded to himself internally. The risk was worth the action. He would have to sever himself from Paul as a contact for some time to come. However, they would still be able to use intermediaries. And there was always the Internet. The chaotic system still seemed to have the Darhel confused; they depended upon filtering proxy servers for information control and the American Supreme Court — bless those nine unknowing fools — had recently ruled them unconstitutional.

“Well, Indowy Aelool, if this Yankee dandy felt it necessary, I suppose I have to agree.” He delivered the countersign with a broad but toothless smile. A toothed grin was the sign of a predator to the nervous Indowy. Something about this one, though, made him suspect that it could take a full-toothed grin without a flinch. “Will you join me for dinner?”

“I think not,” said the alien, his face wrinkling in a complicated expression. After a moment Nathan realized that it was an attempt to copy a smile. The closest Indowy expression was actually a motherly expression of disapproval. “I have a ship to catch. But perhaps we shall meet… anon.” Again the odd grimace. In this case a few broad ratlike front teeth were exposed.

Nathan thought for a moment. Then he wrinkled his nose as hard as he could, pulled back his upper lip and crossed his eyes. At the incredibly silly expression Paul nearly choked on his own recently delivered wine but the Indowy simply copied it in surprise and emitted a series of high-pitched whines like a kitten with its tail caught in a door. He clapped his furry hand over his mouth but was unable to stop. Heads throughout the room turned at the odd and annoying sound.

“Where did you learn that?” asked the Indowy, having finally managed to stop whining. The sound was Indowy laughter and was as infectious and difficult to stop for them as laughter was for humans. “That was the best human copy of ‘ironic agreement’ I have ever seen.”

“I’m a student of anthropology,” said the Jesuit with deprecation. “There is nothing that says that ‘anthro’ must refer only to human beings… You ought to see me do Darhel ‘unfortunate embarrassment.’ I’ve been practicing.”

CHAPTER 18

Ft. Myer, VA, United States of America, Sol III

0710 EDT September 14th, 2004 ad

“Hangover or no, you’re giving the brief this morning,” said Captain Jackson as he sauntered into Mike’s cubicle.

Mike turned and looked at him with one eye shut, as a piston hammered his head. “I will have you know, I have never had a hangover in my life. This headache that is currently pounding me into the ground is entirely coincidental and based upon nervousness over the briefing. It is not the result of trying to drink officers who have far more experience and training in the imbibing of hard alcohol under the table.”

“Same for the light sensitivity and the taste in your mouth?” asked the nattily dressed aide. Mike was fairly sure that the tailored uniform had not come off the rack at the Officers’ Sales Store. Like Mike’s it was probably Brooks Brothers or Halberds. The cloth was noticeably better and the fit was immaculate.

“Correct. Besides, in about three minutes the GalMed I just took will kick in and no more headache. To what do I owe the honor, Captain, sir?”

“Actually,” said Captain Jackson, with a smile, “I think you have me by date of rank, Captain, sir.”

“Ah, that would explain the confused look you perennially sport.”

“Actually, that look comes with the position of aide.”

“That I am familiar with,” Mike agreed with a wince. “I held the position myself, briefly. Thank God there were no real aide’s duties, though; I was basically the wild-hair guy for the GalTech program. But since there were no real aide duties it was a good place to stash me.”

“So I’ve heard. I also heard you fought it tooth and nail.”

“Well, the position of aide is one that is strongly political, no offense, and I’m lousy at passing canapés.”

“Unlike us ring knockers?” asked the new aide with a raised eyebrow and an almost subconscious gesture of his right hand. The West Point ring briefly caught the light.

“I will admit that I have met only one mediocre West Point graduate,” Mike said in oblique agreement.

“Thanks.” The captain’s brow furrowed. “Why do I suddenly suspect that is not the outstanding advertisement for West Point it at first sounds?”

“As I was saying, to what do I owe the honor?” asked Mike.

“Well, first the general sends his regrets. He won’t be able to see you prior to the briefing, other items have suddenly come up, but he will see you at the reception afterwards.”

“Tell the general, thank you, I can hold my own pecker just the same.”

“You are really in a savage mood this morning, aren’t you?” the aide commented with a nervous chuckle.

“Yes. Is there anything else?”

“Do you think the damn medal gives you the right to dispense with common courtesy?”

“No. I was a revolting SOB before I got the medal. Is there anything else?”

Captain Jackson’s face worked for a minute. “No. But can I ask you something?”

“You just did.” After a moment Mike relented. “Go ahead.”

“You are about to go out in front of a bunch of goddamned senior brass, under the direction of CONARC, and tell them how CONARC — really meaning you — thinks they should handle their ACS forces. Now, if you show your ass, it’s going to reflect poorly on my boss. Since one of my jobs is to make sure that doesn’t happen, I’ve gotta find out if you’re up to this briefing, because right now I am tempted to call General Horner and tell him his fair-haired boy is even more canned than last night and not up to the briefing.”

“That would be bearing false witness, Captain,” said Mike, casually. He obviously considered it an empty threat. He took a sip of his coffee and swished it around in his mouth. “And isn’t there some sort of unwritten code at West Point about ratting?”

“There is a written code about reporting… questionable behavior. I would be following the written code. And good sense. I will stop this presentation if I think you can’t answer questions civilly. Trust me, I know the system and how to use it. If General Horner doesn’t pull you, there are other venues.”

Mike smiled calmly for the first time in the encounter; it was like a tiger stretching to work out the kinks and the toothy smile was strangely feline as well.

“Like I said, Captain, to each his own. Very well, my problems are as follows. One.” He flicked a finger up, counting. “I am about fed up with professional paper-pushers. It was paper-pushing, political, regular-Army assholes that fed me into a grinder on Diess and that probably will here on Earth. So — remember you pointed out that you are politically connected not me — you were probably the worst possible person to send to buck me up. Since Jack knows this, it was probably a test. I am in no mood for tests, which I will point out the next time I see him.

“Two.” He flicked another finger. “I am giving a briefing for the senior commanders of America’s defense on the subject of usage of ACS. I figure that there is about one chance in ten of those senior officers paying me any attention, despite the fact that these are the recommendations of their commander. We will undoubtedly institute the strategic logistical plan. After that single bone tossed to us, the ACS will get used in one of two ways: as cannon fodder, or as a last desperate measure.

“In the first case, ACS will be sent out unsupported by artillery or followed by conventional forces and thrown at the Posleen in movement-to-contact environments. They will be expected to make contact and stop the forces, without flank support or logistical tail. Most of the time, they will run out of juice, be surrounded and overrun. That will happen to about three battalions in the first month of skirmishing, on the East and West Coasts. This will be completely contrary to recommended doctrine.

“In the other scenario, ACS will be sent into close-contact infernos when all other methods, except nukes, have failed. They will be in close terrain, but, again, not in prepared positions. They will be given orders to hold on like the Spartans at Thermopylae and, by and large, much the same fate will befall them. This will include the fact that the follow-on forces will be ineffectively assembled or completely imaginary. And then the strategic scenario they died for will die with them. That scenario will occur repeatedly throughout the invasion. Again, it will be contrary to recommended doctrine.

“In the meantime, senior officers will complain that the MI are a waste of funds, that the same funds spent on conventional equipment would have given us much more capacity. The ones that complain the worst will be the most pissed off when the ACS are destroyed by improper implementation, and point to those defeats as support for their arguments. The fact that they would not even consider sending a conventional unit into the same environment will be completely overlooked. And the whole time, we, meaning the ACS, will be watching our numbers dwindle, without the ability to reinforce. It is not a pleasant scenario, sort of like suicide by arsenic: slow and painful.”

“Well,” said Captain Jackson, shaking his head at the Fleet Strike officer’s vehemence, “congratulations, you have one last chance to get them to see the light.”

“Captain, did you ever read ‘The Country of the Blind’?”

“No.”

“Well, the one-eyed man did not become king!”

CHAPTER 19

Richmond, VA, United States of America, Sol III

1232 EDT September 19th, 2004 ad

“My name’s John Keene,” said the tall, distinguished engineer, taking the hand of the Green Beret sergeant who met him at the airport.

“Sergeant First Class Frank Mueller.”

“I could have caught a cab,” the engineer continued as they walked through the Richmond airport. It was filled with more smokers than any airport he had ever seen. In fact, the entire airport was a smoking area with the exception of occasional small nonsmoking areas. It almost made him think about having a cigar.

“No you couldn’t, there aren’t any. Or hardly any. And anyway, I wasn’t busy. You got any bags?”

Keene gestured by lifting the small carry-on and briefcase in his hands. “What is the Special Forces role in all this?” he asked.

“The Richmond Defense Project?” asked Mueller, wresting the carry-on out of Keene’s grip but leaving him with the briefcase. He gestured with his head towards the front of the airport and started walking. “In the case of our team, not much. Virginia already has a Special Forces group. We were sent to beef up the local defense training program. But Twentieth group has that well in hand, so we were mainly sitting on our thumbs waiting to go back to Atlanta until the ‘Fortress Forward’ program was announced. The local corps commander knew our team chief ‘back when’ and he made us a sort of super IG for the time being. When there’s a problem, we get sent out to deal with it. Occasionally we lend a helping hand, like picking up a defense engineering specialist at the airport.”

“I’m not that much of a specialist…” said the engineer in deprecation. Until the project to create the regional defense center in northwest Georgia was dropped in his lap he had been a well-respected but otherwise unremarkable civil engineer in the Atlanta market, one of literally thousands. However, as the project had progressed, his innovative plans and almost fiendish details had vaulted him to the top of the hierarchy of “continental defense engineers.”

“I saw the raw reports from the Fort Mountain Planetary Defense Center,” Mueller disagreed. “You had more innovative recommendations than any seven other engineers involved. Same with Chattanooga. Richmond is going to need innovative ideas to survive.”

“So is Atlanta,” Keene protested, “where my exwife and daughter are. So you can understand if I would rather be there.”

“You’ll be going back. For that matter so will we; Atlanta is where we are being based. But Richmond needs some input.”

“What’s the problem?” asked Keene, looking around the area of the airport. The first thing that came to mind was that the area was flat, which favored the Posleen. But, heck, airports always were.

“Terrain, or lack of it,” said Mueller, as if he was reading Keene’s mind. “When I was a terrain analyst we would call the terrain around Richmond, with the exception of the James River and a couple of hills, microterrain. From a military point of view, it’s flat as a pancake. I don’t know why they chose it for a defense city.”

“Politics, history and size,” said the engineer, “the same reason they chose Atlanta, which has the same problems. Hell, Atlanta doesn’t even have the James; the Posleen can cross the Chattahoochee at any point they choose. And what am I to do about that? I can’t bring a mountain to Mohammed.”

“I don’t know, why don’t you wait and see?” Mueller said as he walked up to a car parked in a no-parking zone. He tossed the carry-on in the backseat, pulled the sign that said “Richmond Defense Planning Agency, Official Business” off the dashboard of the unremarkable white Ford Taurus, pulled a ticket off the window and put it in the glove compartment. He had to stuff it into a pile of others.

“Okay, any other information before the briefing?” asked Keene with a smile at the little pantomime.

“Well, we’re all staying at the Crowne Plaza hotel.”

“Okay, wherever.”

“It’s a nice enough place with a good view of the James…”

John gave Mueller a sidelong look; even in their brief walk from the gate he was experienced enough with the sergeant to wonder where the explanation was going.

“It’s fairly convenient to the state capitol, which is where most of the meetings are, but not very. However, it is within walking distance of Schockoe Bottom. Which is really important.”

“Okay. Why?”

“Well,” said Mueller, pulling out onto Williamsburg Avenue, “there’s this fantastic microbrewery…”

John laughed, the first full belly laugh he had had in a while. He looked around at the sparse traffic for a moment as if someone might have heard the mirth and found it out of place.

“It must help to be military,” John commented.

“Huh?”

“You guys are better prepared, mentally, for this than civilians, I guess.”

“Man, have you got that wrong,” Mueller denied. “There is no way to be prepared for the Posleen. None.”

“Well, you can joke about it, anyway.”

“Ah, well, that I can. If you can’t joke about dyin’ you are not suited to the military. So I guess that means we are better prepared.”

After that they continued in silence through the suburbs of Richmond, heading towards the barely visible city center. Avoiding the fork onto Government Road, Mueller took the more scenic drop into Stony Run, overlooked by the Confederate Memorial. Beyond the juncture with Main Street they touched the outskirts of Schockoe Bottom. Abandoned factories loomed on their left as a giant hill rose on their right.

“This isn’t exactly microrelief,” commented Keene, looking up at tree-covered Libby Hill looming over the valley of the James. The trees were turning color with the first chill of autumn and the hill was a mix of brown and yellow. “Hell of a lot better than Atlanta.”

“Maybe not,” replied Mueller, “but it’s not like the city is up there. I’m damned if I can think of a way to use it.”

“Possibly,” mused the engineer, “possibly you are.”

“The capitol and city center are that way.” Mueller gestured to their right as they dropped into the sector of old brick factories. The dying rays of the sun lit the crowds beginning to come to the area after the work of the day. Music began to pulse as soldiers of the Twenty-Second Cavalry Regiment in BDUs mingled with female office workers, dancing the dance that was old before clothing was born. The city, each night, seemed to empty to Schockoe Bottom. They climbed out of the bottoms and made a series of lefts to intersect the one-way Cary Street. As they approached their hotel Keene took another look around.

“Yes, there’s definitely possibility here,” Keene whispered, almost inaudibly.

Mueller hid his small, unsurprised smile.

CHAPTER 20

Ft. Myer, VA, United States of America, Sol III

1650 EDT September 27th, 2004 ad

“General Olds,” said O’Neal, nodding his head slightly to the approaching First Army commander, “I hope you enjoyed the conference.”

The reception ending the all-commands conference was considered mandatory, a way for the various commanders and their staffs to get together one last time and go over all the things that had been missed at the marathon series of meetings. For the next few weeks, e-mails would fly hot and heavy as everyone came up with questions that they forgot or modifications arose from those questions. However — as the American Army had repeatedly proven — open and complete communication was the key to effective military operations. The left hand not knowing what the right was doing was the quickest road to defeat.

On the other hand, what it meant for Mike was one last run of the gauntlet with some senior officers that in O’Neal’s opinion were poster children for the Peter Principle. But once it was over, it was off for two weeks’ leave and finding out what bad habits Cally had picked up from Dad.

“O’Neal,” said the tall, spare commander, nodding his own head. “I thought I would get a clarification on one item. I believe you stated that the directive of CONARC was that ACS should not be used in a situation where a ‘Fortress Forward’ or montane defense point had already fallen.”

Mike gave it a quick scan for booby traps. “Yes, General, that is correct.”

“Even if the ACS could permit the survival of the defending units.”

“Again, General, that is the intent of the directive.”

“So, you, or CONARC through you, equate an ACS battalion to be the same as the units in a ‘Fortress Forward’ position, equivalent to a corps of trained soldiers? All their support? Some seventy thousand lives balanced against six hundred?”

Mike considered his response carefully. “General, I realize that you disagree with the logic…”

“You are correct, Captain, a point that I believe I have made with General Horner. There is no military justification for such a stance, and if Fleet Strike feels that its units are too good to support Army units, then I question why we are funding Fleet Strike!”

Earth provides a fraction of Strike’s funding, General. We are almost abysmally poor by Galactic standards. So we are not exactly “funding” Fleet Strike. Of course we do provide one hundred percent of its personnel. “It is not a situation of lack of desire, General, but rather the coldest of military necessities,” Mike stated. While the general had been reactivated after one of the longest careers in the history of the United States Army, he had somehow obtained his current rank without ever hearing a shot fired in anger. Furthermore, the primary period during which he was a senior officer was the period of retrenchment by the Army that culminated in Monsoon Thunder, a period during which the Army was often less worried about a unit’s readiness than about physical fitness norms and political correctness.

While the general had served during the periods of both Desert Storm and Monsoon Thunder, coincidentally in neither case had he been deployed to the combat zone. Possibly because of that fact he was among those officers who placed the blame for failures during Monsoon Thunder on the forces that were deployed, not the plan or the overall level of military readiness.

Mike was in one way looking forward to the day the general was finally responsible for a real world military operation. Someday the general would be faced with a situation where he was losing lives and territory faster than reinforcements could be thrown into the gaps. But Mike was sorry for the troops that would have to pick up the burden. What am I thinking?! I am the troops that will have to pick up the burden.

“Let me ask you a question, sir.”

“All right.”

“I am sure you have examined the reports from Barwhon and Diess, sir. Have you noticed that while conventional forces invariably suffer significant levels of casualties when they venture out from fixed defenses, the ACS is able to roam virtually at will and can often stand and fight or break contact without major levels of loss?”

“I am aware of that fact but I disagree with the conclusion you are about to draw: that therefore, the ACS must be preserved because they are the only mobile force that can take the fight to the enemy. Those casualty levels are primarily a terrain issue as opposed to a tactical, equipment or operational issue. The terrain of both Barwhon and Diess is not suited to modern, mobile combat.

“The swamps of Barwhon hamper our Abrams and Bradleys, while the megascrapers of Diess hamper artillery and deny effective logistical support. Given open terrain, or even broken terrain, mobile cavalry and armored forces would be able to outmaneuver the Posleen forces and subject them to repeated firetraps. That is the way to fight them, on the plains that everyone wishes to avoid!

“Right here in Virginia would be perfect. Everyone says that the plains are lost, but that is bullshit! Once the Posleen are on the plains, in nonrestrictive terrain, our armored columns and artillery will eat them alive. ‘Fortress Forward’ ought to be called ‘Maginot Two Thousand’! We don’t need to go back to tactics that were smashed by the Wehrmacht! Apparently everyone has forgotten Military History One-Oh-One!

“And as for the ACS-one-tenth the expense poured into those tin suits would have bought thousands more fighting vehicles. And I have stated my professional analysis of the effect of conventional equipment in the upcoming conflict. So, I beg to differ that one ACS battalion is worth five damn divisions of trained and equipped mechanized infantry, armor and cavalry, I really, really do.” The general was practically frothing by the end of the tirade.

“Well, General,” said Mike and stopped. He thought for a moment and decided that there was no way to antagonize the officer more than he already was. It was obvious that this was one officer who rejected every concept under which the GalTech and Fortress Forward programs were designed. Furthermore, he was so far out of Mike’s chain of command that Mike could do just about anything but punch the officious oaf in the nose and get away with it. Fleet and Ground Force’s first official point of contact was somewhere in the morass of Galactic bureaucracies.

“Well, General,” he repeated, “that’s your opinion… and you know the saying about opinions.” He grinned coldly to drive the insult home. “Before the primary invasion we will, I fear, both have ample opportunities for vindication. I frankly hope you are correct; it would make my job easier. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a plane to catch. Heaven and hell have been moved so that I can spend one more week with my family. It behooves me to keep them both on my good side.”

CHAPTER 21

Big Pine Key, FL, United States of America, Sol III

1422 EDT October 4th, 2004 ad

The Keys were a scene from the Twilight Zone.

The last time Mike had been down Highway 1 — the long strip of asphalt and concrete that linked the beads of the Keys together like the cord in a coral necklace — the traffic had still been heavy at 1 a.m. The occasion was a spring break from college and the party would go on through the night and the next day. Honking cars and pickup trucks crowded the highway, and people packed the shops and restaurants from Largo to Key West.

Mike watched an errant palm frond tumble across the sand-filled parking lot of the Piggly Wiggly and knew in his bones that the world had turned a corner. The strip mall on Big Pine Key had never been a center for bustling tourism, but the islands to the north of it, where once retirees and college students mingled, were just as deserted. The O’Neal family had driven ever southward on the strip of blacktop looking for an open motel, or even a gas station. Instead there had been an unending string of closed shops, abandoned businesses and tumbledown residences. Crossing the Seven Mile Bridge to this ghost town had been the final straw.

The whole trip had been a disaster. The visit to Sharon’s parents had been particularly excruciating. Despite the fact that he had faced the Posleen in combat, and still held the scars to prove it, Sharon’s parents had retreated into the disbelieving shell that many of the nation shared. In their hearts they truly believed it was all a made-up threat of the “gubermint” and stated the fact in no uncertain terms.

To many of their ilk the world was flat, the sun revolved around it and there were no other worlds. The sociologists were referring to this stance as “societal denial.” After the third time his father-in-law had carefully but firmly corrected him on the subject, Mike started referring to it as “total bullshit.”

Finally Sharon had cut short the visit and they had continued on their way to the Keys. The locale held special meaning for Mike and Sharon. They had briefly met on Key Largo during school and felt a mutual, undeclared, attraction. When chance happened to throw them together at a later date the mutual attraction had rapidly flowered. Michelle and Cally were the results.

When the opportunity had come to take time together the target of the Keys immediately came to mind. The lure of four-star hotels, pools and diving was almost irresistible. Mike knew that Cally would love it; there would be other kids to play with and the clean green sea to play in. The only thing that would make it perfect would be to have Michelle along. But at least she was safely on her way to Adenast. Whatever happened on Earth, at least one member of the family would survive.

But the vacation might not. They had traveled through the deserted islands looking in vain for a place to lay their heads. Or even refuel. The Chevy Tahoe was a gas guzzler. Since Mike had packed along some items to start prepositioned caches they were able to get all the gas they needed from military rations, but the range of the tank was only so great.

They had filled up in Fort Worth, north of Miami, but they had now reached the point of no return. There was not enough gas to get them to Key West, where Mike was sure he could get refilled at the reactivated Navy base, but if they turned around they could make it back to Miami. If they did that they would stay; the Keys were not worth wandering in the wilderness. And that would put the cap on the trip.

Mike tossed the useless map he had been perusing on the floor and looked at his wife. Even with the travails of the vacation she still looked like a starlet in a low-budget disaster movie. Her hair was just pleasantly mussed, her eyes slightly shadowed, her face lineless and grave. It made him sit back and pause. She had hardly talked about her Fleet position, but he was sure it was no sinecure. He suddenly realized that being lost in a howling wilderness, running out of gas and on the edge of being stranded might look good. What that told him about her last few months was unsettling. He cleared his throat.

“Take the chance on going on or turn around,” he said, laying out the options for discussion.

She nodded her head and looked around again. There was nothing more to be revealed by the scenery. The day was one of those “blazing gray days” that south Florida had from time to time. A cold front had petered out to the north but the high-level clouds had continued on, obscuring the sun but permitting the heat to build up underneath. The result was a condition of terribly bright indirect light, combined with a dessicating wind. It was like being in Kansas, except with palm trees and green water.

The scenery matched the conditions. The strip mall had once sported all the usual businesses for such a locale. There was a grocery store, nail kiosk, chiropractor and hair salon. The “random choice” on this particular mall was a small restaurant that professed to sell “Authentic Keys Food.” This could be read on the sign that was now swinging from side to side in the hot, dry wind.

Sharon stared at the same palm frond that had caught Mike’s eye and snorted. “This isn’t going so well, is it?” she asked.

Mike had talked endlessly about his company. And every word was praise for the men, the command and the training. Which just meant that his situation was about as fucked-up as hers. She knew she should talk about it. He might even have some input that would help; he had been bumping around Fleet for a couple of years longer than she. But it would sound like complaining and she just couldn’t add that to the unmitigated disaster the trip was becoming.

The days at her parents’ house in Orlando had been bad for many reasons. Besides her parents’ complete illogic about the Posleen there was also the fact that Cally was used to going to the various amusement parks in the area. Unfortunately, they were all closed “for the duration.” Cally had taken it well; she seemed to have developed an almost unhealthy control under her grandfather’s influence. But not being able to give her the treat hurt at a subliminal level. The trip to the Keys was as much for Cally as for Sharon and Mike.

Now even that had come apart. The world’s greatest natural tourist trap had apparently closed for the duration as well. And that did not leave many alternatives.

“There has to be a way to find a motel or something,” she said, fingering her AID.

“We already checked for websites,” Mike reminded her, noticing the gesture. The Galactic artificial intelligence devices were connected to the Web and capable of searching it as well as or better than any human-made interface. But they could not produce shelter from thin air. “Heck, we haven’t seen a single person except that one lady working in her garden up in Largo.” He now regretted not asking directions, but at the time it had not made sense to stop.

“Hmm,” she responded noncomitally. “A-I-D?” she queried.

“Yes, Commander O’Neal?” Mike was amused to note that the AID was a baritone. Most males preferred female voices; females appeared to choose the opposite.

“There are no website listings for motels in the Marathon or Big Pine Key area,” Sharon stated. “Is that correct?”

“Correct, ma’am. There were such sites, but all are now inactive or specifically indicate that the hotel is closed. The nearest hotel that indicates functionality is on Key West.”

Sharon let out a breath and thought for a moment. “AID, is there any other source of information that indicates that an area might offer guest services?”

“Please specify a source, ma’am.” The AID actually sounded puzzled.

“Oh, police reports, news articles…”

“Infrared satellite imagery,” Mike interjected.

“Right,” said Sharon, nodding her head. “That sort of thing.”

“Commander O’Neal, you are reminded that you do not have access to civil-political intelligence gathering,” stated the AID. It was the flat, unaccented response Mike had come to recognize as security protocol response.

“Let me try.” He smiled. “AID, check my overrides and use the lowest level of intelligence necessary to derive requested information.”

The AID did not exactly sniff in disdain, but the tone of voice was distinctly unhappy. “National Technical Means,” it said, sarcastically, “indicates that the small fish camp on No-Name-Key is in operation. There is no indication of cabin usage, but it has had cabins for rent in the past. They should still be available.”

Mike picked the map back up and searched for No-Name-Key.

“That’s right next door,” he said in surprise.

“Correct,” said the AID. “In addition, imagery indicates that the proprietor has been underreporting fish harvests by about twenty percent, contrary to United States Rationing and Storage Regulation F-S-B-One-Zero-Seven-Five-Eight-Dash-One-A.”

Mike rubbed his chin and frowned. “Is that your own analysis or did you pull it out of a file?”

“That is my own analysis, Captain O’Neal,” stated the device.

“Well, lock that analysis down unless overridden and remind me at an opportune time to discuss where you developed the information,” Mike snapped. The hell if he was going to let a piece of GalJunk drop the dime on some hard-working fishermen.

“Yes, sir, Captain,” the AID snapped back.

“Well, that’s that settled,” said Sharon with a smile.

“Mom?” asked Cally from the back seat.

“Yes?”

“Do you think there will be somewhere to eat?” she asked. There was not a hint of a whine, just a simple question.

Sharon turned and looked at her oldest daughter. Cally lay against the driver’s side door, looking out at the abandoned landscape, idly tapping her fingers on her thigh. Her face was somber and grave but the eyes slid across the area outside, constantly questing. For targets or threats, Sharon suddenly realized. The light blouse the eight-year-old wore had ridden up enough to reveal the small automatic in her waistband. Taken all together the image made Sharon want to cry. It was as if disaster had already come to America and they were wanderers in some post-Apocalyptic nightmare. Sharon took a deep breath and forced herself to be calm. Most of the reaction was stress still bleeding off from the Agincourt and the disastrous visit to her parents. It would pass. It had to.

“Probably. There should be somewhere to get something. And if not we’ve got more ‘travel rations,’ ” she finished with a smile. The rations had been Papa O’Neal’s suggestion and it had been a good one.

Papa O’Neal had been paying more attention to conditions across the United States than either Sharon or Mike. When they had stated their plans to take a car trip down the Florida Peninsula he had demurred. Even though they had access to unlimited fuel supplies because of the “cache” items Mike had ported along, he pointed out other problems. Without stating anything other than vague reports of lack of services in south Florida he had suggested that staying at the farm would be the best plan. But when Sharon and Mike had been insistent he had made a series of startling suggestions. He had been so adamant about them that the couple had finally given in, figuring that the additional items fell under the category of “better safe than sorry.”

Thus, attached to the spare tire on the back was a five-gallon can of gas and a shovel. In the morass of material in the back were three cases of beer and two other cases of mixed liquor. There were more cases of smoked and tinned meats, gathered and prepared on the farm, along with sealed containers of flour, cornmeal and a variety of dried fruits. If they did end up on a desert island they could live comfortably for nearly a month on the stored provisions they had packed along.

In addition to food and liquor, Papa O’Neal had strongly recommended taking along “trade goods.” The very thought of taking such ubiquitous items as hooks, heavy monofilament and rubber tubing for sling spears to the Keys was ludicrous. Looking around at the surroundings Mike had had more than one occasion to bless his father’s foresight. The Old Man had spent years in Third World hellholes and now it looked like the Keys just about fit that bill. Even if no one was willing to take Galactic credits for room and board, Mike was willing to bet dollars to donuts a case of six gross Number Two hooks would open doors.

“Well, let’s go find out, shall we?” said Mike, putting the Tahoe into gear. He deliberately steered to crush the tumbling palm frond, metaphorically spurning the depression caused by the desolation around them. As they turned down the side street towards No-Name-Key, the wind caught the shattered palm frond and tumbled the pieces onto U.S. 1. The hard wind whistled through the abandoned buildings and erased the marks the vehicle had made on the drifting sand in the parking lot.

CHAPTER 22

Ft. Indiantown Gap, PA, United States of America, Sol III

1400 EDT October 2nd, 2004 ad

“Teri, you have got to stop getting into pissing contests with enlisted men.”

Teri Nightingale sighed deeply as Ernie Pappas’s strong, oil-covered fingers dug out the tensed muscles on her back. The first sergeant’s thumbs rolled up along both sides of her spine, smoothing away the accumulated stresses of the day. At the accusation she could feel the muscles try to tense, but forced calm into her system. It was no good getting angry; he was right.

“I know,” she said with another resigned sigh. “I know. But I was so goddamn mad at Stewart I couldn’t stop myself.”

“And now you’ve ended up looking like an ass,” said Pappas with toneless brutality. “And such a nice ass it is,” he added, giving it a little pat as he rolled off her back and propped himself up on one fist.

The tiny motel on the outskirts of Hummelstown was as far as they could reasonably get from the post. But Pappas was fairly sure a few of the company suspected something. Which must have really confused them when he quietly corrected his lover after her latest outburst.

The Old Man had left a list of missions to work on in his absence, missions that he specifically felt the unit was weak on. Earlier that day, practicing an envelopment maneuver, the entire exercise fell apart. The Posleen had attacked with more ferocity than normal and exploited a gap between First and Third platoons to roll up the company.

Stewart, in the after-action review, had injudiciously pointed out that proper employment of the reserve would have plugged the gap and saved the maneuver. They still would have taken more casualties than their “norm,” but less than the total wipeout they had experienced.

It was the casual remark of a young man who was rapidly turning into a brilliant tactician. The formal training of the military had taken an untutored but febrile mind and rocketed it into areas of genius. He proceeded to outline four other simple steps that, either before or during the engagement, would have saved the company’s ass. It was a given that he had thought of them in the thick of the action and not as a “Monday Morning Quarterback” reaction after the drill. He was only trying to be helpful, but the XO had taken it as a direct attack and responded at length.

When the harried XO, in front of most of the leaders of the company, had finished describing her opinion of the comments she went on to discuss Stewart’s parentage, unfortunately probably with more truth than she realized, education and probable future. Before she realized what she was doing, she had thoroughly poisoned the well.

When she finished, the young NCO had stood up, stone-faced, and left the room without a word. And also without asking permission, which was a legally objectionable action. No one had suggested that he stay. Or be charged for that matter.

Pappas’s comment had been pithy, succinct and to the point: “Lieutenant Nightingale, with all due respect, that was a stupid thing to do.”

Their discussion of how to rectify her mistake had drifted to bed, as many of their discussions did. The relationship had taken both of them by surprise, but when Nightingale put her hand on his neck the first time and hesitantly drew him towards her, Pappas’s sixty-year-old brain had been run over by his freshly rejuvenated twenty-year-old hormones. Although he had been faithful to his wife during his entire previous enlistment, the current situation was just too tough. For Nightingale, the combination of nearly a half century of sexual experience and a twenty-year-old’s body had been an intensely pleasant surprise. Pappas not only knew some of the oddest tricks, he was back in condition to be able to use them.

He now ran a finger down her perfect back, hooked a thumb into her armpit and turned her to look at him. He pulled her to him, tucking her leg over his and slid his hand down her back. “You had better get a handle on this, soon, or the Old Man will turn you to paste.” He gently caressed her inner thigh then slid his hand upward.

She made a hissed inhalation and arched her back. “I know,” she said with a little gasp. She paused for a moment then went on, panting slightly. “I just cannot get a handle on…” She paused again, making little inhalations through her nose. The nostrils fluttered in and out prettily.

“On?” asked Pappas, waiting for her to try to answer.

“On… uhm…” she said as he moved his hand slightly to the side. She stopped trying to talk.

“Are you listening?” he asked, backing away slightly then sliding forward. Docking was abrupt and perfect.

“Umm-hmm,” she murmured. “Definitely.” She slid her leg up to hook over his hip.

“Stop fighting with Stewart and listen to him. He’s better at this than anyone else in the company besides the Old Man.”

“Okay,” she squeaked, starting to rock back and forth.

“I’m serious,” said Pappas, giving a little gasp of his own as well-trained muscles clamped. He was on the losing side of the battle now.

“I’ll make up to the shrimp,” she said pushing his shoulder to roll him over on his back. She grabbed his short thick black hair in both hands. “Now hang on.”

* * *

Duncan popped the top off the unlabeled beer bottle with a K-bar combat knife and wordlessly handed it to Stewart. The younger NCO was staring unseeingly at the wall of his tiny room. He took a swig without looking at the product, then stopped and stared at the bottle.

“Damn,” he said, looking up at the recently arrived staff sergeant. “I thought I had balls. Raiding the Old Man’s home brew is a capital offense.” Beer was getting harder and harder to find. Materials such as barley and hops were strictly controlled under emergency rationing and storage plans. The easy accessibility of the materials to the company commander was a closely held secret of the company.

“He’d understand,” said Duncan, slipping a pack of Marlboro Reds out and lighting one. “He’s good people.” He took a deep drag on the butt and blew smoke at the ceiling.

“Unlike certain unnamed stuck-up bitches,” snarled the younger NCO and clenched both hands. His arms were shaking in anger.

“Who is currently getting her ass fucked off by Top,” noted Duncan, with a wry smile.

Stewart shook his head. “I never thought I’d see the day.”

“Well, he’s a good-looking guy…” said Duncan.

“No,” interrupted Stewart with a grimace. “I was talking about Top fucking her, not the other way around. I mean, damn, the Gunny was always such a straight arrow!” Only then did he realize that the other NCO was jerking his chain.

“Well,” mused Duncan with another puff on the cancer stick, “I wouldn’t kick her out of bed for eating crackers.”

Stewart snorted. “Yeah, neither would I. Gotta admit it. Great set of knockers. Prime slice any way you cut it.”

“So,” asked Duncan with a smile. “Is your anger with Gunny Pappas because he is fucking your Public Enemy Number One, or because he’s getting some and you’re not?”

“Who says I’m not getting any?” snapped Stewart, machismo aroused.

“Well, I know you’re not getting any from Nightingale, although the way you two fight…”

“Oh, fuck you,” said Stewart, trying not to laugh.

“And Arnold has already nailed up Lieutenant Slight, so she’s right out.”

“No!” gasped Stewart, starting to double up in laughter. “Jesus! Arnold and Slight? Are you sure?”

“Well, I suppose he could have been demonstrating mouth to mouth…”

“Oh, shit!” laughed Stewart, finally letting go of the tension of the argument with the XO. “So when are you and Boggle gonna do the dirty deed?”

Duncan’s face took on a look of deepest sorrow. “I fear never,” he said, placing a hand on his chest in simulated despair. “Methinks that Sergeant Boggle pines for Lieutenant Fallon!”

Stewart laughed so hard that nut-brown ale spurted out of his nose and he started gasping. The battles between the Second platoon leader and his female platoon sergeant were as legendary as his own with the XO. The image of “Boggle” Bogdanovich and the West Pointer wrapped up in Eros’s embrace was as implausible as… the XO and Top.

“Jesus,” he swore again, after regaining control of himself. “You don’t think?”

“Well, not yet,” said Duncan, leaning forward and taking the home brew for a swig. “If you’re just going to waste this blowing it out your nose…”

“So,” said Stewart with a smile as he wiped beer off his chair, “who are you planning on getting a leg over with?”

“Oh,” commented Duncan, handing the bottle back and waiting for Stewart to take another slug, “I was thinking about… Summerhour.”

Beer blasted across the room again. Summerhour was a nearly seven-foot, not particularly bright, fairly ugly, male, heavy weapons private. Since Stewart was fairly sure Duncan was straight, the choice could not have been more unlikely.

Stewart finally wiped up the mess, wiped his eyes and gave up on drinking. “You think the Old Man knows?” he asked soberly.

Duncan shook his head. “Everybody thinks I’m some sort of expert on Captain O’Neal. I was only with him for a couple of days. You guys have been training with him for over a year. You answer the question.”

Stewart thought about it. “Probably. I’ve never seen anything surprise him.”

“I have,” admitted Duncan. “But only when the enemy pisses all over his battle plans. He gets really angry then. Really angry.” He shook his head and finished the brew to the yeasty dregs. “You don’t want to see him when he’s angry.”

CHAPTER 23

No-Name-Key, FL, United States of America, Sol III

1440 EDT October 2nd, 2004 ad

Mike was trying very hard not to get angry. “Sir, I understand that you’re out of the hotel business. I can even understand you being unhappy with tourists. But I’ve got my wife and daughter with me and we need someplace to put our heads down.”

The man behind the counter was in his fifties, his long graying hair pulled back in a ponytail. He stared down his nose at the short, massively built soldier and wrinkled his nose in distaste. “Look, buddy, you’re right. I’m out of the hotel business. There ain’t any tourists anymore. How the hell did you get leave when everybody else is locked up on a base or working their ass off?”

Mike threw his hands up in despair. “I pulled every string in the book. Is that what you wanted to hear?” In fact, every string in the book had been pulled behind his back. But that would take more explanation than it was worth.

The proprietor’s face worked. “Look…”

“Harry,” said a female voice from the office at the rear. “Calm down.”

The No-Name-Key Fish Camp consisted of eight ancient, wooden bungalows bleached gray by a half century of sun, a few rickety docks surrounding a small but deep embayment, a brand new cinder-block icehouse about thirty yards long and the office, a single-story wooden building protruding over the small harbor. The buildings all surrounded an oyster-shell parking lot. The parking lot had a motley assortment of vehicles, mostly pickup trucks, parked at every angle. Most of the trucks appeared to have been abandoned where they sat, palm fronds and dirt encrusting their hoods. The racket of a large diesel generator sounded from somewhere behind the icehouse and an overwhelming scent of fish and rotting weeds was being carried away on the strong southwest wind.

The office was a T-shaped building that doubled as a general store. The front area was normally devoted to food and sundries while the back area was devoted to tackle and live bait. On one side of the crossbar was the cash register and an empty cooler. The other side had a door with a sign over it that said “Keep Out.” It was from beyond this door that the voice had issued.

Both areas were barren. The live bait tanks were uniformly empty and the tackle shelves were bare while the food and sundries area was nearly empty. There were a few jars of peanut butter and some quart Mason jars for sale. Other than that the store had been picked clean. For all it was nearly abandoned, it had been well cared for. The empty shelves had been covered with plastic sheets, to keep flies and their specks off, and the floor was freshly scrubbed.

The proprietor, propped beside his antique cash register, rolled his eyes and looked out the window as the source of the voice walked into the main area. The woman was fortyish and reminded O’Neal of Sergeant Bogdanovich. She had long, blonde hair tied in a ponytail which hung down her back and wore faded jeans and a peasant blouse. She had one of the darkest tans Mike had ever seen in his life and a nice smile.

“Forgive my husband, sir,” she said, sliding behind the counter and knocking that worthy aside with a casual bump of her hip. “He’s best suited as a hermit.”

“I’m sorry to impose on you…” said Mike.

“It is not an imposition,” the proprietress said, with another smile. “Harry has a lot on his mind is all. But one of them is the condition of the cabins and about that I’ve got to be frank—”

“They’re a wreck,” said Harry with a slight snarl. “We haven’t had a visitor for nearly a year. There’s only one that the roof doesn’t have a leak!” He thought about the admission. “Well, two.”

“And those we offer,” stated the proprietress with a tight smile.

“We’ve used up most of our linens for other things!” said Harry.

“We’ll improvise,” said the proprietress.

“There’s no electricity!” the proprietor thundered.

“There’s the generator.” The blonde smiled.

“It’s for the ice!”

“These are guests,” said the proprietress, reasonably, but with a hint of teeth.

“No! We don’t get a gas ration for guests!”

“We’ll improvise.”

“There’s no food!”

“Oh, pish. There’s fish, lobster, crab…” She turned to Mike, who was watching the familial argument with amusement. “No one in your family is allergic to shellfish, are they?”

“No,” said Mike with a smile at the play. “Look, let me get a word in edgewise.” He started ticking things off on his fingers. “One, we don’t need electricity. We came prepared to camp out, so we have our own lanterns.” He thought about the argument. “Two, we have our own sleeping bags, so we don’t need linens. Having a bed, any bed, is better than the floor and a roof is better than a tent. We just want to spend a few days in the Keys and maybe get a little snorkeling and fishing in.”

Mike turned to the proprietor as he opened his mouth to argue. “Look, I understand where you’re coming from. But let me say a few things. We’re prepared to pay and pay handsomely. But if you don’t take FedCreds, we brought stuff that people said was in short supply down here. I’m sorry to point it out, but I notice your cupboards are bare. I’ve got fifty- and twenty-five-pound monofilament, sling-spear rubber, five diving masks and two cases of large hooks.”

Mike raised an eyebrow as Harry’s mouth closed with an audible clop. When he did not say anything Mike went on. “We’ve also got some other ‘comfort rations.’ So we’ll be okay without all the usual amenities.” He looked from proprietor to proprietress. The two exchanged a look and then Harry shrugged his shoulders.

“Sir,” said the proprietress with a smile, “welcome to No-Name-Key Fish Camp.”

O’Neal smiled back. “Call me Mike.”

* * *

The cabin was small, old and smelled heavily of the mildew as common in the Keys as mosquitoes. A chameleon had broken off its pursuit of a large antlike insect as Mike opened the door. The cabin had two beds for the adults and another had been prepared for Cally. It was divided into two rooms, the side towards the parking lot being a combination living room/kitchen/dining room, while the rear side towards the bay was the bedroom and bath.

The furniture must have dated from the 1960s. The chairs, gleaming yellow in the fading light from a window, were all tube steel and cracked plastic padding. The countertops and floor were cracked linoleum, the patterns so worn as to be indecipherable. Mike glanced at the nonfunctional stove, television and refrigerator. The bedroom window showed signs of once sporting an air conditioner, but here under the spreading palms and salt-tolerant oaks the wind was relatively cool. There was running water but the proprietress, whose name was Karen, pointed out that it was strictly rationed and not to be trusted for drinking. There was a certain amount of imported bottled water, but the main source for drinking water was the distiller attached to the icehouse.

The icehouse turned out to be the center of the little community, as Mike found out when he left the cabin at dusk. The rising clouds of Keys mosquitoes drove him quickly across the parking lot to the knot of men gathered in the screened porch of the large building. It turned out that they were preparing the day’s catch.

With the exception of the baseball caps, sputtering incandescent lantern and modern clothing, the scene could have been from any time in the last thousand years. The men and women were arranged along tables, talking and laughing quietly as they expertly processed the harvest of the seas.

How they kept up with whose was whose was a mystery to Mike as rubber tubs of fish were dumped on the communal table. The piscines would slither outward, some of them still faintly thumping, until they reached an available preparer. There they would be filleted or simply gutted.

Mike was amazed at the speed and technique of the workers. The gutting was different from what he was used to. When he gutted fish he generally inserted the knife into the anus and cut towards the gills. Then the head could be cut off and the guts dragged out with it or the guts could be pulled out by hand and the head left on.

The fish that were being gutted here, mainly yellowtail grunt and mangrove snappers, were being done in the opposite direction. The knife was drawn across the fish’s throat just forward of the gills then the belly was slit back to the anus. A twist of the hand brought out gills and guts in a smooth motion and the fish was flipped away and the next one expertly snatched up.

The filleting was, if anything, faster. A cut would be made across the meat of the fish, just behind the pectoral fins down to the backbone. Then a cut would be made along the backbone itself. A third sweeping motion lifted the meat off, leaving a flap of skin attached to the tail. A swift slice along this flap lifted away a clean fillet. Then the fish was flipped over and the same motions cleared its other side. The remains of the fish were going into a bucket; they were useful in traps and for trolling lures. The filleters would stop after every couple of jobs and run the knives over a sharpener, then get back to work.

Once prepared, the harvest slid down the steel table to the tubs at the end. At that point a group of children under the direction of a young teen female sorted them by type, washed them and iced them down. Whenever a tub got full it would be covered and wheeled into the icehouse, only to be replaced by another.

After watching quietly for a few minutes Mike picked up an abandoned knife and gloves and joined in. He chose only the types to be gutted, recognizing that his filleting technique was not up to par. He tried his own gutting technique and quickly found that not only did it require more motions, it left more junk in the body cavity. So he started experimenting with the new technique.

The conversation went on around him, much of it in such a thick cracker accent as to be nearly incomprehensible. The conversation, whether it was the norm or censored for the visitor in their midst, centered around the weather to be expected for the next few days, fair, and the fishing, fair, and the price the fish might fetch when the buyer came through in a few days, poor. Despite price stabilization supports and general inflation the price per pound of all the major fish types, even the prized black grouper and red snapper, had been going consistently down.

Mike kept his face in its habitual frown when Harry and a fisherman called Bob got into another argument about power. Bob was of the opinion that Harry was being stingy in not providing electricity for the regular Saturday-night party at the No-Name-Key Pub. Harry pointed out the consequences of overusing fuel in a way that was so oblique as to be opaque to an outsider. Thereafter the conversation slid to less ominous topics, leaving Mike metaphorically scratching his head.

Finally the last fish was gutted and Mike stripped off the chain mail gloves. The fisherman called Bob looked him up and down and tossed over a cut lime. “Let’s get washed up and head to the pub,” he said in general. There was a chorus of muttered agreement which Mike decided to take as invitation. The worst that would happen was that someone would try to throw him out.

Good luck.

Harsh, homemade soap and the strong Key limes took away the worst of the fish smell and the crowd headed out of the screening to brave the mosquitoes. The distant pub was lit by kerosene lanterns hung over the doorway, but the path to it was pitch-black darkness. Mike found himself walking between Harry and Bob and decided that he was more or less being escorted.

“It was good of you to help with the cleaning,” said Harry, somewhat stiffly.

“The more hands the better,” was Mike’s only comment.

The walked a little farther in silence.

“You in the Army?” asked Bob, noncomitally.

“Fleet Strike,” said Mike and heard a faint snort.

“Really,” said Harry in a sarcastic tone. “I bet you’ve been off-planet and everything, huh? Got a chest full of medals from Barwhon. Pull the other one.”

“We had a guy down here a couple of times,” said Bob in explanation. “He was a SEAL based at Homestead Airforce Base, or so he said. The cops finally caught up with him. He was a deserter from a Guard unit in Missouri.”

“He sure could talk the talk, though,” said Harry, bitterly.

“He stiffed Harry for a goodly bill. And ate us out of house and home,” Bob commented.

Mike’s nod was unseen in the darkness but they stopped when he did. He reached into the depths of his jacket and extracted a card from his wallet. It was easily discerned by the faintly glowing purple stripe around the edges.

“You forgot to ask for my ID,” Mike noted, handing it to Bob instead of Harry. As he did he tapped a control on the lower face of the electronic ID.

A full-length hologram of Mike at parade rest in combat silks sprung up as an electronic voice intoned the appropriate statistics. Name, rank, service, Galactic ID number, height, weight, sex and age were all recited by the combination ID and dog tag. The IDs were made of the same refractory material as the suits, designed to take damage and still be able to identify their users. In a pinch they made a dandy weapon in trained hands.

The group had stopped when the hologram blossomed. When the recording ended the only thing that could be heard was the buzz of mosquitoes and the occasional idle swat. Bob handed the ID back.

“Hmmph,” said Harry, noncommitally. “Okay, you’re really in Fleet Strike. Big deal.”

“And my wife’s an XO of a frigate in Fleet,” said Mike mildly. “And if you give her the same ration of shit I’ve gotten I’ll feed you your left arm.”

There was a general chuckle from the group in the darkness and a movement towards the pub. “I think he means it,” said Bob, chuckling at the store owner’s discomfiture.

“Yeah, well,” said the aging hippie. “It’s been so long since I had any red meat, it might not be all that bad.”

“Things are getting a tad complicated,” admitted Mike.

CHAPTER 24

Washington, DC, United States of America, Sol III

1937 EDT October 2nd, 2004 ad

Monsignor O’Reilly regarded the small piece of electronics that had mysteriously appeared in his cassock pocket. It looked like a standard flash memory card, but there were no manufacturer’s marks on it. Nor were there any instructions. He finally put it in the flash reader attached to his computer and checked its directories.

The chip was apparently named “Religious Documents.” The first directory was titled “Rig Veda,” the second “Koran,” the third “Talmud” and the fourth “The Franklin Bible.” He opened up this directory and stared at the single file titled “Install.” He twisted his face a few times, took a deep breath and double-clicked the file.

It asked for a password. He thought about it. He had not been given a password. The likelihood was that if the first guess was wrong, the chip would erase instantly. Finally he typed, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” The computer chirped and the installation began.

Either the chip had more memory than any flash card should or the file had been hyper-compressed. The tiny file was expanding to dump a mass of files into his computer. If he had to destroy the evidence it would be nearly impossible to track them all down. He nearly pulled the chip in panic, but the file dump finally ended and a text box popped up.

“Welcome,” it read, “To The Franklin Bible Complete Study of Human Archetypes And Pre-Historic Myths.”

There was a new icon on his taskbar, a tiny blue world with a telephone on it. He drifted the mouse across it and the caption “New Messages” popped up. He clicked it.

“Dear Monsignor O’Reilly,” the simple text box read, “in the event that you do not want this program to stay on your computer, simply uninstall it using the uninstall icon on your desktop. Uninstallation will remove all files created with this program, all messages associated with this program and every bit of evidence that it ever existed on your computer. This will take less than fifteen seconds with the system it is currently installed on. You may also do this by simply saying, ‘Dump the Post Office.’

“At this time these are the critical messages for the Society of Jesus.

“The Tir Dol Ron is en route to Earth. His first stop will be the United States.”

The message that followed was much the same information he had received from Kari. It did, however, include some expansions. Apparently the reason that the Tir was coming to finalize the negotiations was that the humans could not possibly kill this messenger.

The message contained detailed data on requested defensive systems, construction rates for Galactic-supplied weapons and Fleet construction rates. Actual rates were graphed against planned and currently reported rates and the difference was obvious. The bottom line was that less than half the equipment requested for Terran Forces would be available before the invasion. There would, however, be sufficient materials to equip all the expeditionary forces. Those forces, by solemn and binding agreement, came first.

With America asking for more grav-guns and fewer being available, it should be an interesting meeting.

The final piece of information was a note on subsystem suppliers. He nearly overlooked it but a particular note caught his eye. All sixteen Darhel clans were participating in supplying materials for the Fleet and the Terran Defense systems. And all of them were behind on their schedules. However, one particular clan, the Tindar, was farther behind than any of the others.

He narrowed his eyes and wondered about the significance of that bit of information. The list had been intentionally sorted by negative production rates. It was definitely a clue to something. After a moment’s introspection and a mental memo he returned to reading the primary message.

“We have no suggestions or requests at this time. The installed software has complete plans for a variety of Galactic systems including descriptions of production and use.

“All messages will completely clear themselves five minutes after reading; there will be no trace of them on the system. The flash card will erase itself in twenty seconds and will dissolve if submerged in water. We are happy to once again be in contact with our human comrades.

“The Bane Sidhe.”

CHAPTER 25

No-Name-Key, FL, United States of America, Sol III

0922 EDT October 3rd, 2004 ad

Mike woke to the to sound of the wind-up radio they had brought with them. It was forecasting four more days of perfect weather to be ended in the season’s first severe cold front. Hurricane Janice was proceeding to the north of Bermuda and was not expected to make landfall in the United States. The United States Ground Force command had recently upgraded its forecast likelihood of early Posleen landings. The new forecast called for small-scale landings to begin occurring no later than two months from the date of forecast.

Mike snorted and threw aside the poncho liner he had been sleeping in, flipping a small lizard nose-over-tail through the air. The silky, smooth nylon and polyester blanket was a near-perfect camping accessory. It was the one item that Fleet Strike had eliminated from its inventory that Mike disagreed with. Although he understood that the replacement item was supposed to be better in every way, there was an atavistic thrill to the simple polyester fill product that the newer one did not have. In addition to that, there was also the fact that the GalTech version was virtually unavailable, whereas the South Carolina factory that made poncho liners was running three shifts and had ample supplies on hand. It had recently been moved up the waiting list for Sub-Urb production facilities on the basis of the product being designated “critical warfighting supplies.” Not bad for an ersatz blanket.

Mike rubbed the stubble on his face and decided that it was acceptable. One of the GalTech products he had fallen in love with was depilatory cream. The product not only removed hair, it inhibited growth for nearly a month thereafter. Of course it was in as short supply as everything else, so Mike eked out his cache by using razors in between. But he was still in the latter stage of inhibition and could more or less ignore shaving for a few days.

He rubbed his face, looked around the dilapidated room crawling with ants, and shook his head. With a snort at the fruition of their plans for the trip he took the two steps necessary to enter the bathroom. The mirror was losing its silvering, giving an impression of leprosy to his face, and had a large chunk cracked out of one corner. He propped up the seat of the toilet and did his morning business, smiling at the handwritten sign the proprietress had posted at eye level.

With the shortage of water, flushing urine was contraindicated. To point this out delicately the sign stated “If it’s yellow, it’s mellow. If it’s brown, it goes down.” There was a bottle of bleach on the back of the toilet and Mike carefully measured a capful and tossed it into the bowl to neutralize the ammonia.

When he came out after a sketchy wash-up Sharon had come back to the room.

“If you hurry you can probably still get some breakfast,” she said with a smile. She had a bouquet of tropical flowers that she set on the cracked linoleum table.

Mike smiled and shook his head. “Not exactly what we planned, eh?”

“Not the Ritz-Carlton,” she admitted.

Although they had both visited the Keys more than once, it had always been on a shoestring. This time they had looked forward to staying in the best hotels in Key Largo. Not only were they both making as much as pre-war generals, Mike was absolutely flush with prize money from Diess.

The Fleet fell under Federation regulations. One of those complex rules related to property captured or recovered by military forces. It had been enacted, along with a slew of other inducements, when the Posleen had first entered Federation space. The monetary inducements were designed to persuade the chronically poor Indowy to renounce their minimalist and nonviolent ways and enter the Galactic military. The various inducements had failed miserably in their intent, but they had never been taken off the books.

Military equipment abandoned by the Posleen, as thousands of ships had been abandoned on Diess, fell under the category of “salvage.” It belonged to the forces that had either captured it or permitted its capture.

This was not immediately apparent to the human forces on Diess. They had simply let the thousands of in-system and interstellar ships sit until a Darhel factor had pointed out that they were responsible for clearing them off the planet. The military had protested that it did not have the equipment to remove the ships, so the Darhel offered to remove them for them.

The commander on Diess was not born yesterday. He decided to put the ships up for bid and was amazed by the response. Both in-system and interplanetary ships were at a premium due to low production rates and war losses. To date, fewer than half the ships had been sold, but the income had exceeded the Federation “payment” for all other NATO forces.

However, the Federation regulations also required “sharing” of the income from the prizes under a complicated scheme. One aspect of it related to “actions of extraordinary nature.” Since it was unlikely that any of the ships would have fallen into human hands without the actions of O’Neal and his platoon, a percentage of every ship was detailed to them.

Mike’s prize income the previous year had been larger than the Gross National Product of most Terran countries. Not that it did them any good in the Keys.

“Where’s breakfast?” he asked, pulling on a pair of multipocketed safari shorts and a light cotton button-down shirt with still more pockets. He tended to get lonely without them.

“Over at the pub,” she said, putting the flowers in water. “The locals apparently sell them eggs from free-range chickens. One of mine was… a little on the pink side.”

Mike grimaced. He hadn’t had fertilized eggs since his dad got out of the egg business decades before. He had just opened his mouth to retort when there was a shriek from the direction of the harbor.

Sharon was not sure where the Desert Eagle appeared from, but before she had started to move Mike was outside with the .357 caliber automatic leveled. As she ran out the door she saw him lower the weapon from its two-handed grip and grin sheepishly. Then she realized that the second shriek from their daughter was a cry of surprised delight. It took her a moment to recognize the chittering squeals that responded.

Cally, in the company of Karen the proprietress, was squatting at one end of the closest dock, trading splashes with a dolphin. The small bottlenose was chattering back at her every squeal and she was obviously having the time of her life.

Mike slid the gigantic automatic into the rear of his shorts and stepped out onto the dock. At the creak of the wood, Karen looked over her shoulder and smiled.

“Morning sleepyhead,” she quipped and stood up.

The dolphin protested as she stepped away but she just waved and tossed it a handful of fish bits. The bottlenose caught them expertly and went back to charming bits out of Cally.

“Tame dolphin,” Sharon commented, squinting against the bright morning sun. “They aren’t usually like that, are they?”

“No,” Karen said. “I was Shirlie’s trainer.”

Sharon raised her eyebrows in surprise. “Where? Sea World?”

“No,” said the woman, bitterly. “Not anymore anyway. I was at the Marine Mammal Research Facility in Marathon. It was really just a tourist trap for dolphin rides, but I’ve never had anything against that. I was with Sea World for years as a trainer and really believe that we did good work. Making cetaceans stars kept all sorts of ugly things from happening to them over the years. Heck, if it wasn’t for places like Sea World, nobody would care about dolphins and orcas.”

“So how’d you end up here?” asked Sharon as Mike walked down the dock to where his daughter continued to converse with the cetacean.

“Well, when the tourists started to fall off, we got a notice from the National Marine Fisheries Board that we were to release all of our specimens. Their reasoning was that there was no way to maintain captive marine mammals in adequate conditions and it was better to release them.”

Mike turned and looked behind him. “That’s insane!” he stated. “You can’t just release a captive mammal and expect it to survive!”

“No duh,” Karen said, then smiled sadly to take the sting out of the words. “That was exactly what I said, and two or three dozen other trainers that I kept in contact with. What really pissed me off was that we couldn’t even get any press time. The NMFB just shoved the damn ruling down our throats and the press paid no attention.”

Mike nodded. “Let me guess. It wasn’t ‘newsworthy.’ ”

“Exactly.” Karen nodded. “Anyway, I was dating Harry at the time. Instead of going back up north-I’m from Chicago originally-I moved in with him. Shirlie and four other dolphins just sort of ‘followed’ me here,” she concluded with a sly smile.

“Trail of breadcrumbs?” asked Sharon, watching Cally pat the six-hundred-pound sea mammal. She wondered when the inevitable question would hit.

“Something like that,” said Karen. “We used to take them out for swims with the boat.” She gestured at a well-kept Boston Whaler tied up to the office. Something about it indicated to Mike that it hadn’t moved lately. “I just told them to follow me over.”

“What happened to all the rest?” asked Mike. “I mean there was Sea World and the Miami Oceanarium and that one in St. Augustine…”

Karen’s face pinched up at the thought. “Sea World just went over to the coast and released theirs in the Intercoastal Waterway. I don’t know about the dolphins and porpoises, but at least one male orca was later found dead. The rest did pretty much the same thing.”

“Damn,” said Mike. There didn’t seem to be much else to say. Then another thought hit him. “Hey, what about all—”

“The zoos?” Karen interjected. “And animal parks?”

“Yeah,” Sharon agreed. “What about them? I remember something about Zoo Atlanta only being able to keep the gorillas.”

“There are a couple of big parks in Florida that have taken in some of the animals,” Karen said. “The herbivores are free roaming and more or less making it. Most of the carnivores have had to be put down. And anything that can’t get into one of the reserve parks is getting put down.”

“That’s not right,” Mike said. “We’ve got an obligation to those animals! They didn’t exactly ask to be put in zoos.”

“You’re preaching to the choir,” said Karen sadly. “We’ve been writing Congress, the President, everybody. But the responses we’ve gotten have a point. With shortages for humans, where are we going to get food for the animals?”

“Daddy, get real,” said Cally, rolling onto her back, then flipping to her feet in the most limber move Mike had ever seen in his life. “It’s an obligation, not a suicide pact. Once you kick the Posties’ ass, we can gather them back up and recover whatever we find. Until then, we gotta concentrate.” She rubbed the small of her back. “Shit. I forgot about the Walther.”

“Showoff,” Mike laughed. He shook his head. “I suppose you’re right, kitten. It still pisses me off.”

“Softy,” said Sharon with a smile and gave him a thump on the shoulder.

Karen smiled at the byplay then turned to Cally. “You want to swim with Shirlie?” she asked.

“Sure!” said Cally with a grin. “That’d be spar!”

“Go get a suit,” Karen said, and smiled as the girl scampered off. “Harry and I don’t really think children are a good idea,” she commented without looking at them as Cally went around the corner.

Mike grimaced. “I can understand that.”

“She carries a pistol with her?” Karen asked, carefully.

“You don’t?” Mike snorted. “Yeah. And she knows how to use it. She also knows all about firearm safety. Don’t worry about Cally; Dad’s turning her into a survivor.”

“Our other daughter is off-planet,” Sharon said, quietly. She was looking at the dolphin racing around the small harbor. “Could I join you?” she asked.

“Sure!” said Karen. “The more the merrier. The boys’ll probably show up around ten, after they’re done foraging. Shirlie’s just so lazy she’d rather be fed.” Karen turned to Mike. “What about you? Want to join us?”

“Maybe later,” Mike said. “I think I’m gonna go try to butter Harry up. You guys have got a couple of cases of hooks coming.”

Karen exhaled in relief at that the thought. “That would be great. You don’t have any idea how bad it’s been lately.”

“Yeah,” growled Mike. “We’ve got a few things to thank the Posleen for.”

* * *

Mike set the case of fishhooks on the counter and smiled. “There’s another case in the Tahoe, and the other stuff. I’ve also got a Number-Ten can of coffee, but you can’t have all of it.”

Harry shook his head and smiled faintly. “You sure know how to make friends,” he said. He opened the case and pulled out a box of hooks. “We’ve been making them out of nails and tearing up lures. But, believe it or not, we’ve got coffee.”

Mike reached behind his back and extracted a hip flask. “I’ve got some of this out in the Tahoe, too.” He took a hit and passed it to Harry. “I’ll even give some of it up for some goddamn explanations.”

Harry regarded the clear liquid carefully. “Well, it’s a little early,” he said, then took a swig. He grimaced and coughed. “Oh! Smooth!” he gasped. “Jesus, what is that?”

“Georgia Mountain Dew,” Mike answered with a laugh. “Only the finest. Now what the hell is going on around here?”

* * *

Mike had never had a conch omelet before. He had to admit it wasn’t bad, but the thought would take a little getting used to. He scraped up the last of the grits and wiped his mouth with the provided hand towel. The Key did indeed have coffee, and Mike had to admit that wherever it came from it was better than the issue can he had with him. He took another sip of the excellent brew and cleared his throat.

“So let me get this straight. All fuel is rationed. Okay, got that; it’s that way all over. Fuel for the boats is rationed on the basis of their production. High-producing boats get more fuel.”

“Right-on so far,” said Harry, taking a sip of the java as well.

“And power to the islands has been out for months. So you have to have a generator to distill the water and make the ice. And the fuel for the icehouse has to come out of the pool of fuel for the boats?”

“Right.”

“And every month the price of the fish has gone down along with the fuel ration.”

“Yep,” said Harry. “Next month there won’t possibly be enough fuel for all the boats and to make ice. If we can’t store the fish until the trucks arrive, we might as well give up.”

“What about the stuff you’ve been holding back?” asked Mike, carefully.

Harry was cool. “What stuff?” he said, blandly.

Mike laughed and held up his wrist to reveal the AID. “My AID analyzed satellite imagery of this place for the last year. It says you’re holding back about twenty percent of your production.”

Harry grimaced and nodded. “Yeah. But that goes to a lot of places. It’s not really… available.”

“Maybe you’d better make it available,” said Mike, quietly. Hoarding was becoming a real problem as more and more people reacted to the coming invasion with a panic mentality.

Harry sighed. “If we did that it would take away the only things that make working here worth living.” He paused and thought about it for a moment. “The spare isn’t just in fish. It’s in stuff that’s more transportable. It’s in dried conch and lobster tails. Shells. Stuff like that.”

“What the hell do you use that for?” asked Mike.

“Trade goods, partly,” Harry answered, holding up the cup of coffee. “There are small traders who move stuff around the islands and up to the mainland. Conch keeps for a long time. There’s a market for it in Florida. The traders get stuff in Miami you can’t get in places like Cuba and bring back rum and coffee.”

“Oh,” said Mike, nodding his head. He was aware that the shortages had created a thriving black market, but this was almost like pioneer days. It sounded like a triangle trade.

“Some of it goes to the dolphins,” Harry pointed out. “They do a lot of their own foraging, but we still eke out their feed. And we do a little dealing on the side with the general goods trader that comes through.” He grimaced again. “The damn thief.”

“That bad?” asked Mike.

“Half the stuff he carries he’ll only sell at black market prices. He’ll have two cases of corn flour, but officially it’s only one case. Once the first case is sold the rest sells at whatever the market will bear.”

“Damn,” said Mike with a stronger than habitual frown. “That’s not the way it’s supposed to work.”

“There’s not enough fuel for us to go up to Miami every week or even every month. So we have to depend on the one ‘official’ trader or the free traders. But the free traders are totally black market and there’s no way to be sure what they’re going to be carrying.”

“And every month the price of the stuff is going up and the price of the fish is going down,” said Mike sourly.

“Right,” Harry said with the same tone. He looked like he’d bitten a Key lime.

Mike nodded in thought. He had had a thought the night before but it was firming up now. “Let me ask you this, Harry. What happens if you take the icehouse out of the equation?”

“What do you mean?” asked Harry. “We have to run the generator to keep the fish iced. Besides that, the distiller is our only consistent source of fresh water. We can’t take it out of the equation.”

“But what if you could not use the fuel for the generator?” Mike asked. “What then?”

“Well, that puts off a reckoning,” Harry admitted. “We’ve thought about a windmill or something. We’d be pretty okay then. Hell, I’ve got an electric car stashed. We could load up on spare batteries and make it to Miami and back with at least some of the stuff we need.” He shook his head in despair. “But we don’t have a windmill and they’re impossible to buy these days. Even if we had the cash. And it wouldn’t produce enough electricity to matter. And the first good storm would tear it up.”

“Ay-aaaah-ah,” Mike whispered and whistled a scrap of melody.

Harry smiled. “It’s not quite that bad. We haven’t had a Viking raid. Yet.”

Mike smiled. “It’s an old memory. Who’s your electrician?”

Harry wrinkled his brow in question. “Why the twenty questions?”

“I’m getting to that,” Mike said. “Is it you?”

“No,” admitted Harry. “It’s one of the guys on Bob French’s long-line boat.”

“Okay,” Mike said. “Well we’ll have to wait for Bob to get back in to get it installed, but let me show you something I just happened to have brought along.”

* * *

Good day, thought Bob French as he navigated the cut up to No-Name-Key. The world might be going to hell in a handbasket, but the lack of tourists, fuel and markets had reduced fishing pressure to the point of recovery. Since the types of fishing that prevailed put more pressure on the upper end of the food chain, the stocks of feeder fish recovered in the first year of the emergency. Since then the increases in catch size across the board had been phenomenal. On ledges where he used to be lucky to get one legal-sized snapper he now was taking dozens a day. Lobster pots were coming in brimming with “keeper” langostino and occasionally had a real monster, the sort of lobster that hadn’t been seen in the Keys since the ’60s. And he had always thought that the tales the old-timers told of multi-square-mile shoals of herring and sardines were sea-stories until he saw one just this year.

This day he was coming in with a boat loaded to the gunnels with giant groupers and snappers. Unfortunately, the thought of what that meant was disheartening. Every month the price was going down for all the fish, even the best cuts. And the official trade company paid in warbucks instead of pre-war dollars or, best of all, FedCreds. The warbuck was deliberately inflationary, so the cost of everything went up nearly as fast as the price of fish went down. It should have been the other way, but it wasn’t.

He suspected, hell, all the fishermen suspected, that it wasn’t supposed to be that way. But without any way to communicate with the mainland except mail or driving, nothing seemed to be happening. He had finally used up his hoard of gas tickets and gone to Miami to complain. After two days of getting shuffled from one department to the next at the Marine Fisheries offices he had to get back. If he wasn’t fishing he’d find himself on the shore.

And he was better off than most of the fishermen. His boat was free and clear and one of the larger ones still operating. Two of the guys working for him had lost their boats to the repo companies after they couldn’t make the payments. He couldn’t pay his crew much — hell most everybody got paid in fish or supplies — but it was something. The communities had pulled together so nobody starved and everybody had a little something extra. But nobody, not even he or Harry, had much.

What was going to happen when the invasion finally came was another question. But that was a worry for another day. For today there was gutting a bumper haul of fish that would just put him more in the hole for gas.

He made the cut ahead of the tide race and finally saw something to smile about. John Samuels had made harbor, which was the first bright spot he’d seen in a month of Sundays.

They called Samuels “Honest John” as a joke. The free trader ran a sixty-foot sloop that carried small cargoes from Miami to Cuba and back. He stopped at all the islands, buying delicacies “on the left” and trading at prices lower than the “official” black marketers. He and the other traders were practically the only source of tobacco and alcohol in the islands.

The trader was sitting on the dock of the harbor office with Harry and the “visitor” from Fleet Strike. The little fireplug probably was an actual Fleet officer; his casual demonstration of Galactic technology the night before had been impressive. Before everything went south they had watched the video from Barwhon and Diess. Fighting the aliens was going to be hell. He didn’t envy the frowning little bastard his job.

The visitor seemed to have mended his fences with Harry. As the boat took the final turn to the dock the sound of their laughter was clear over the quiet chugging of the diesel. He killed the engines and drifted into the dock; every bit of fuel was worth saving. As Harry and Honest John caught his tossed lines the visitor flicked the butt of a cigar into the waters. Unless Bob was mistaken it was one of John’s prized Havana Panatellas. The Fleet guy was making friends fast.

“How’s the fishing?” John asked, taking the boat captain’s hand as he jumped ashore.

“Oh, it was a hell of a haul,” Bob answered bitterly. “For what it’s gonna fetch.”

“Smile, Bob,” Harry said with a grin of his own. “We just got a new set of buyers and suppliers.”

The fisherman looked from one grinning face to the other in puzzlement. “You want to explain that?”

“FBI agents just performed raids on your suppliers’ and buyers’ offices along with the offices of the Miami Rationing Board and the Marine Fisheries Board,” the visitor answered for them.

“Why the hell would they do that?” he asked in surprise. “And how did we find out so fast?”

“Well,” answered the visitor, with a slight smile violating his habitual frown, “they are required to perform an investigation at the registered request of a Galactic Enforcement Officer. All Fleet officers are also law officers. A second request from the office of the Continental Army Commander just got them moving faster than you can say ‘posse comitatus.’ ”

“That black thing around his wrist is a communicator,” Harry added with a laugh. “The FBI has already called him back. They said it was the best black market bust they’ve made since the start of the emergency. It’s gonna make national news.”

“Things are gonna be screwed up for a while still, man,” Honest John cautioned. “They’re gonna have to find a replacement that ain’t part of the Cubano Mafia that’s been controlling it.” He shook his head. “Ain’t gonna be easy. The Cubanos have gotten used to having their way in South Florida. One raid ain’t gonna stop it.”

“Cooperate,” said the Fleet officer. “The assets of the companies have been seized. Ask the FBI to turn them over pending the completion of the investigation. They don’t need the trucks to prosecute the perps. And you can probably get them permanently as the ‘victims.’ Get some materials and convert the old Piggly Wiggly to a warehouse so you don’t have to base in Miami.”

“That takes electricity,” said Bob, with his own shake of a head. “Which is something we ain’t got. We can’t afford the diesel to run a generator that big. Even if we’re in a co-op with the whole Keys.”

“Ah, well, as to that,” said the visitor, with a real grin while John and Harry just laughed.

“What?” asked the captain, as the crew started to unload. The four of them joined in as tub after tub of prime grouper and snapper were unloaded. He looked at Harry again, waiting for him to go on. “What’s so funny?” he asked again, heaving a hundred-pound tub to the Fleet Strike officer. The heavyset dwarf caught it like it was a feather and slid it across the dock. He was even stronger than he looked.

“Mike had a little present with him,” said Harry with a grin.

“It’s not a present,” said the visitor, seriously. “It isn’t even a loan. One of the things I was doing on my vacation was finding places to plant energy caches. We’re seeding the coastal plains with power sources to recharge suit units that get caught behind the lines. When I was on Diess it was a pain in the ass trying to find power. So I came down with three antimatter generators. They’ve got a finite amount of power, but it’s enough to run a small city for a year, so…” He shrugged and smiled again.

“Damn,” said the boat captain, tossing him another tub. “Thanks.”

“Well, the priority is any unit that needs it,” Mike said severely. “And, technically, you’re not supposed to tie into it. But since you don’t have a power grid, it’s not like the whole Keys are going to be hooked up to it.” He shrugged again and frowned. “As screwed up as it is down here, it seems the least I could do for you. Just don’t overuse it. It’s like a really big battery and once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

“Well, thanks anyway,” said Harry, stacking the last tub on the dock. The three hands were already loading up dollies to carry the fish to the icehouse for cleaning. “This means we don’t have to waste fuel for generation so the boats can stay out longer. Hell, we’ve got a satellite dish, so we can hook up a TV in the pub and even get real news.”

“Getting news again will be great,” said Bob, with a smile. “Hell, before you know it we might even have telephones again!” He laughed. “And then it’s faxes…”

“… and cell phones…” laughed Harry. The electronic impedimentia they had all grown up with was as distant as buggy whips these days.

“Well, enjoy it as long as you can,” said Mike grimly. “The first serious invasion will hammer the satellites. And there goes your reception again.”

“Yeah,” said Bob, “that’s true. But it’s a hell of a long time since we got any news but radio. I got a question to ask on that, if you don’t mind.”

“Shoot,” said Mike, but there was a hint of wariness.

“You said you were on Diess, right?”

“Right.”

“There was this guy that won the Medal. They said he got blown up in a nuclear explosion and lived. What really happened?”

* * *

Sharon squealed and spun around in the water as Herman goosed her.

Karen laughed in return and slapped the dolphin on the flank as it went by. “You have to watch that one. There’s a reason we named him Herman Hesse.”

The three of them had been dragged off to a tidal pool by the dolphins. Here, on the Florida Bay side of the island, they had been swimming with the big cetaceans most of the day. Cally had stayed firmly attached to Shirlie, who at less than five hundred pounds was the lightest of the four. The other three were males: Herman, who had more or less attached himself to Sharon, Charlie Brown and Ted. Ted had left for a few hours in the midafternoon, but the others had stuck with them.

The day had not been for pure fun. The pool was home to a vast collection of the sorts of rare marine organisms that could be traded for luxury goods. Seven species of anemones, several more types of urchins, two types of lobster and various other items had been gathered. Sharon watched Cally as she rode the small dolphin to the bottom of the pool. There, in about fifteen feet of water, the eight-year-old let go and began plucking at the reef. A sponge, a spider crab and an anemone found their way into her mesh bag before she began to claw for the surface and air.

“This has been great,” said Sharon, finning slightly and spinning in place to keep Herman in sight, “but I’m getting worn out.”

Karen smiled. “A little different than what you usually do, huh?”

“A bit,” Sharon admitted. She could see the dolphin trying to get into position behind her.

“What do you do?” Karen asked. Most of the conversation of the day had been taken up by the tasks that they had been learning.

Karen had prepared well. The dolphins had taken turns toting the three humans and an inflatable boat full of the necessities of the expedition. She had packed a light lunch of cold lobster salad and some cut fruits along with plenty of fresh water. Sharon had been careful to wear a T-shirt and to insist that Cally wear one as well. The hot South Florida sun would still have burned their legs badly, but Sharon kept Cally well covered with sunscreen. In Sharon’s case, the same nannites that scoured Fleet bodies for radiation damage would make short work of the sunburn.

Sharon watched Cally line up for another run at the bottom. She was too worn out to even think about making another try, but the energetic youngster seemed as fresh as when they started. “I’m an XO on a frigate,” she answered, watching the quick hands snag a passing shovel-nose lobster. Although they were less plentiful than the more common spiny lobsters, they were prized by the oriental community as an aphrodisiac and fetched a high price among the free traders.

“What’s that mean? I mean, what do you do?” asked Karen, interested. She had never met a person who had been off-planet.

Sharon suddenly found herself unable to explain. How could she explain the constant strain of wondering which critical system would fail next? When the hull would suddenly breach? How the ship, and herself, would perform when they were finally in combat?

She paused a moment and smiled faintly. “Mostly I wait for the air to run out.”

Karen was a kind and empathetic woman. And she recognized that not only was the answer correct, it was also as much as she could expect to get for the time being. She nodded in agreement instead. “We ought to be getting back.” She suited action to words, tossing her nearly full mesh bag into the cooler in the inflatable. She pulled a harness out and winked. “If you waggle your hips do you think you can lure Herman over?”

* * *

Mike took another pull on the bottle of beer and a puff from the cigar. The sky was slowly darkening, the famous purple of the Caribbean drifting up from the east as they kept watch over the westward opening. The girls had been gone most of the day and it was about time they turned back up.

“If this isn’t paradise,” he opined to the trader, “it’s within the limits of tolerance.”

“It is close,” Honest John admitted. “In a lot of ways, life’s gotten better. Slower at least.”

“Down here,” Mike pointed out. “It hasn’t been slow for me.”

John nodded in agreement. “The margin sure as hell has gotten thinner, though. It used to be there was, I dunno, flex in the system. These days it’s sink or swim. Sometimes literally.”

“So, how is the Coast Guard these days?” Mike asked with a laugh.

John laughed in return. “Not bad. They keep the pirates in check, at least. But a lot of them have gotten transferred to ‘more vital’ tasks. So, SAR is spotty.” He pronounced the acronym for Search and Rescue “Sahr.” It was a military way of phrasing it that caused Mike to cock his head.

“Have you lost many boats?” Mike asked.

“A few. There’s two problems. Some of the boats have gone to pirates. Or that’s the way it looks. Boats just disappear in calm seas. And the free traders are in a constant low-grade war with the Mariellitos bastards who think they control the trade down here.” The trader frowned and looked over towards his ship as if to ensure it was still intact.

“Have you been having much trouble?” Mike asked.

The trader snorted, gave a grim smile and shook his head. “Not… anymore.” He seemed disinclined to explain the reference.

“The other problem is a lot of the boats, their GPS and Loran is giving out; they’re at sea more than the systems are designed to handle. And most of the traders aren’t real sailors, guys who know how to navigate by the wind and the stars. So if they lose their GPS, they get lost: really lost. There was one was just making the crossing from Los Pinos to Key West. The crossing’s maybe two hundred miles. Stupid fucker ended up near Bermuda. Dismasted, out of water, half mad. How in the hell anyone could completely miss the Bahamas I’ll never know.” The tall captain took another toke on the joint he held. “Nobody could get that stoned. Hell of it is, he wants to go back to sea.”

Mike chuckled grimly. He had his own massive list of screwups that he could detail, starting with the Diess Expeditionary Force. But the situation in the Keys was something of a whole different order.

“I don’t understand how it could get this way,” said Mike, gesturing around with the beer bottle. “Where the hell is everybody? I can understand the tourists, but where’s the retirees?” The whole state of Florida was filled with retirees. Some of them were recalled military, admittedly. But that had to be a small percentage. Where were the rest?

“It happened slowly,” Honest John admitted. “Not just here but all over Florida. First, the tourists started trickling off. Then, most of the people who could hold a hammer or run a press without cutting their fingers off went up north to get jobs. The Fisheries Board reinstituted net fishing for the Florida waters about then and there was a small rush to get into that. But when people found out how hard it was most of them moved away too. Then all the young guys got sucked off by the Army.”

He smiled and took a big toke. “I was getting recalled my-own-self,” he said with a chuckle. “But not only is free trader a ‘vital war production position’ — and didn’t that take some squeeze to a certain congressman — but I convinced the in-process board it would be a waste of perfectly good rehab just to get a drugged-out Petty Officer Three.” He grinned again.

“Anyway, before we knew it the entire population of the Keys was below twenty thousand, most of them retirees. The nursing homes and ‘managed care’ retirement centers started having problems with taking care of their old folks. Some of ’em died cause there just wasn’t anybody on duty.

“Then when Hurricane Eloise came through, they took it as an excuse to evacuate all the retirees that were not ‘fully capable of self-care.’ Down here in the Keys, anyway.

“That meant the only people left, other than in Key West, were the fishermen and their families. There’s a federal law that Florida Power had to deliver down here. But after Eloise, they got an ‘indefinite suspension’ because there was a shortage of parts, or so they said. That was last year.

“So that,” the ship captain finished, “is how it got so totally screwed up down here. An’ that’s the truth.”

The trader took another toke on his joint and a pull on the glass of Georgia branch water Mike had supplied. He worked his mouth for a moment. “Cotton mouth. Haven’t talked this much in a coon’s age.

Mike nodded and took a contemplative puff on the cigar. Papa O’Neal’s branch water was awfully smooth. He doubted that the trader had any idea what proof he was knocking back like water. It was eventually going to catch up with him. “Just one thing I don’t understand,” he mused. “Where’d they put them? The retirees I mean.”

“Some of ’em got mixed into the groups up the peninsula. Lots of ’em went to the big underground cities they’re building,” said John. He took a last puff on the joint and spun the butt into the water. “One nice thing about this war. Not only has it driven the cost of Mary Jane down, the coasties don’t give a rat’s ass if you’re carrying.”

“That’s crazy,” Mike argued, thinking about the first part of the statement.

“Why?” asked John with a laugh. “They’ve got a real war to worry about. They don’t have to worry about the ‘War on Drugs.’ ”

“No,” said Mike with a touch of impatience. “I was talking about the Sub-Urbs. The work on them is hardly complete. I don’t see them being able to take tens of thousands of geriatric invalids! Who the hell is going to care for them there?”

“Search me,” said Honest John, putting words into action as he patted his pockets. “Damn,” he muttered, swaying to his feet. “I gotta go back to the ship an’ get some more weed.” He took one step forward and fell in the water. He came up spluttering and looked around. “Where’s those damn dolphins when you need them?” he said blearily.

Mike shaded his eyes against the westering sun and smiled. “Be filled with joy; salvation is at hand,” he quipped and pointed at the opening where the group of humans and cetaceans had just hove into view.

“Hey Herman!” shouted Honest John. “Give a poor drunk trader a fin, buddy!” He grabbed a dangling rope and smiled up at Mike happily. “To think I could have been in-processing right now.”

Mike nodded in mock soberness. “I gotta agree that might not have been a great idea.”

CHAPTER 26

The Pentagon, VA, United States of America, Sol III

1328 EDT October 3rd, 2004 ad

“You know, General,” said General Horner, with a characteristic antihumor frown, “I gotta wonder if this was the greatest idea.”

Taking a look around the in-processing station, General Taylor was forced to wonder the same thing. Even if Horner had said it in jest.

Shortly after the change of command structures, one of General Horner’s computer geeks pointed out that the recall program had been misdesigned. Any serious student of modern militaries could recognize that there were, of necessity, two general types of officers: warriors and paper pushers. There were a few officers, such as Jack Horner, who were superlative in both areas. But they were few and far between. Most officers were very good at one or the other, but not both.

The reason for a fighting army to have warriors in the officer ranks was obvious. But there was a viable reason for paper pushers as well. Armies float on a sea of paper. The logistic problems of Napoleonic armies had been solved, but only at the expense of constant information flow that required humans in the loop. Humans who were much more comfortable making decisions on the basis of a spreadsheet than a map. Humans who found a more efficient way to load trucks, well, exciting.

But bureaucracies are like hedges: beautiful when pampered and trimmed and ugly as hell when left to run riot. A military filled with warriors slags into a scrapheap as the warriors vie for command slots and neglect their paperwork. A military filled with paper pushers bloats out of control as the paper pushers create new empires to lord over.

The upcoming war with the Posleen was, admittedly, going to require lots and lots of bean counters. But the previous personnel policies had left it with, in both Generals Horner and Taylor’s opinion, more than enough bureaucrats at every level. What it desperately needed was leaders and warriors.

However, most of the first “crop” was… a little on the moldy side.

* * *

“What’re you in for?”

The questioner was a tall, trim man in his early seventies. He vaguely recognized the man next to him, but could not quite place the face.

The man in question took a suck off the oxygen tube in his nose and wheezed out a reply. “I got the Medal in Holland,” he croaked. The statement set off a paroxysm of coughing that trailed into laughter. “They’re gonna have their jobs cut out with me!” The laughter led to more coughing until he was turning blue.

“You gonna be okay?” asked the questioner.

“Sure,” said the emphysemic once he had reestablished control. “As long as the damn ceremony don’t go on too long. What’d they get you for? I don’t recognize you from any of the meetings.” The last was accusatory. The group consisted mostly of Medal of Honor winners. The emphysemic former paratrooper knew them all by heart and could list off the missing files along with dates of service and death. He was not so good on what he’d had for breakfast, but he was spot on for fallen comrades.

“I made it on points,” said the tall former lieutenant colonel. He’d never thought he’d be wearing Army green again; it was almost ludicrous. Hell, there were more people who wanted him offed in the Puzzle Palace than in the rest of the globe. If they ever organized, his ass was as good as dead.

The emphysemic just grunted and went back to listening to the brass drone. He thought he knew who was who, but then realized that the black guy was in charge. Hell of a world.

“Who’s the jig?” the WW II paratrooper asked and coughed for his efforts. He rattled the bottle to get it to deliver a decent amount of oxygen but it didn’t help.

His former inquisitor just laughed.

“In conclusion,” said General Taylor, “I’ll just mention a few things about where you should expect to be placed. Most of you are thinking, ‘Hell, I’ve got the Medal. They don’t dare let me get killed.’ All I can say to that is, sorry. This is the real and the bad and the scary. I can’t afford to waste warriors on bond tours and rear-area paper pushing. You can expect to be placed with Line forces and shuttled from front to front for emergency reaction forces. You are going to be the tip of the spear, always the men in the breach.

“Face it, most of you screwed up over and over again to win the awards that are on your chest.” This last brought a note of often hacking laughter from the two hundred or so in the meeting room. “If I had to be there, I couldn’t think of a better group to have at my side or behind me. So it is the least I can do for my soldiers.”

“There are,” he finished, “a lot of things going wrong in the Ground Forces today, and throughout America. Our job is to fix them. And we are going to.”

CHAPTER 27

No-Name-Key, FL, United States of America, Sol III

2022 EDT October 3rd, 2004 ad

With great ceremony Harry pressed the “on” button. There was a buzz from the crowd enjoying alcohol and appetizers as the thirty-inch television blossomed into life, showing the CBS evening news.

He bowed to the humorous applause, then walked to the back of the bar where Mike and Honest John were continuing a running argument.

The weekly party was in full swing as the mosquitoes closed in on the pub. In one corner the youngsters from throughout the mid-Keys region played and argued as the teenagers danced. A table down the middle of the room was half covered with dishes brought in by families. Most of them consisted of various ways to prepare conch. The pièce de résistance, two man-sized black groupers, a butterflied yellow-fin tuna and three bushels of lobster tails, was grilling outside.

Mike and family had contributed to the haul. Honest John had accepted Mike’s charter for the remainder of their stay and the boat had sailed out daily for fishing and diving adventures. Mike had returned laden with lobster and a variety of species of fish, while Sharon and Cally had collected inshore species with the dolphins and Karen. Despite his intent to spend time with Cally and Sharon, they had been drawn to the inshore and the dolphins while he had been drawn to the sailing, fishing and diving offshore.

The expert captain proved that it was not necessary to have a “tuna boat” to catch tuna, as he and Mike hit the yellow-fin run in the Stream. Mike had been thrilled by the explosive strikes of the streamlined eating machines, while John and the Key co-op had been thrilled by the high-quality protein; freshly caught tuna was a valuable trade meat.

Mike had also caught some praise for his diving skills. His GalTech breath-pack was a major reason for that. The small, experimental system included a nitrox rebreather that extracted oxygen and nitrogen from water. The staging bottle was small but high-pressure so the system was good for several days. The depth on it was limited to one hundred twenty feet, but the tiny pack made for such limited drag that it was like diving without gear.

Mike was able to approach normally skittish hog-fish and groupers without disturbing them with bubbles. And if they spooked anyway, he was still usually able to make a kill; the fish had no time to learn that a compact body and giant fins meant incredible burst speeds. Then the blood, turned green by the light filtering of the water column, would flow backwards as the fish made a last desperate dash for safety.

He was even able to make a rare tuna kill on a young fish that was attracted by the strange seal-like creature in the water column. The thirty-pound yellow-fin made a fine contribution to the catch.

He had finally dragged Cally away from the dolphins for a day to go fishing. Floating along a weed patch she had hooked into a big bull dorado and practically been dragged out of the boat. Any lingering resentment at being taken from her cetacean friends was washed away as the rainbow-sparkling fish tail-walked across the wake of the drifting sailboat, taking the line out of the reel with a banshee’s shriek.

The nights had been just as good as the days. Mike, Sharon and Cally spent most early evenings at the pub, eating part of the day’s catch and discussing the news from the radio with Harry, Bob, Honest John and Karen. By eight o’clock, though, Cally was whipped. Most nights Mike ended up carrying her off to bed. Then the conversation on wide-ranging topics would either continue or Mike and Sharon would retreat to their own room and renew their acquaintance.

The last two evenings the news had been about the war. And it was mostly bad. The goodness mopping up on Diess was countervailed by the opening of the Irmansul campaign, where the Posleen had gained an immediate upper hand over the mostly Asian forces. The Chinese Third Army had suffered over one hundred thousand losses in the first week’s fighting and the bets were on that the Darhel would call on European forces to help them out. While European and American forces had suffered horrendous losses at the hands of the Posleen on Barwhon and Diess their superior coordination often permitted them to avoid the massive casualties that were characteristic of Chinese and Southeast Asian forces.

During the discussions, Mike — and Cally, to everyone’s amusement — pointed out that the best units were on Barwhon, not Earth. The Barwhon units had a high percentage of veterans and were well drilled in to the needs of battle against the alien centaurs. By comparison the units left “Earthside” were in lousy shape. Units stripped from France, Germany or the United States would be no better off at the outset than the Asian units.

The virtual destruction of the first Expeditionary Forces and the ongoing blindsided slaughter on Barwhon had stripped the NATO militaries of most of their trained forces. The rejuvenated officers and NCOs would, eventually, take up some of the slack of their loss. But the current forces were a rotten branch. Until the reforms that Horner and Taylor had instituted took effect the units that were “Stateside” might as well be back in basic training.

All of which was surprisingly hard to explain to the boat captain.

“Look,” said the slightly drunk captain, pugnaciously. “They’re soldiers, right?”

“Sure, John,” O’Neal said, “but soldiering isn’t just about shooting a gun. Most war is about getting the shooters and the backing for them to where the enemy is. Even the Posleen aren’t everywhere. So getting the right forces to the right place is the problem.”

“What’s so hard?” asked Harry. “They’re right there,” he continued, pointing in the general direction of Florida Bay. “What’s so hard about finding them?”

“Oh,” Mike said ruefully. “You’ll find them. Or, usually, vice versa. But for regular forces to survive them you have to dig in. Do you understand that?”

“No,” said Harry. “But I’ll accept it.”

Mike took a pull on a panatela and wondered how to explain. “Okay, here’s the best explanation I can give. You’re going to fight somebody. You’ve got a one-shot pistol. They turn up with fifty buddies armed with machine guns. What do you do?”

“Oh,” said Harry. He scratched his head for a second. “I guess you shoot the son of a bitch who called you there.”

“True,” agreed Mike. “But if you do it from behind a wall you might be able to reload and kill some more, right? Hell, you might be able to survive.”

“Okay,” agreed John, taking a pull on a lemon-dashed rum. “I’ll buy that.”

“So, the way to fight is from prepared positions. It’s a lot like World War I that way. But you’ve either gotta have enough men to man a huge front or you’ve gotta guess where the Posleen are coming. And this is realizing that they can drop out of the sky, anywhere, at any time.”

“Gooks used to have little antiaircraft batteries all over the damned place,” said Honest John with a belch. “Why don’t we?” The tone was bitter.

Mike raised an eyebrow but answered the question. “Technology. The ‘gooks’ got antiaircraft batteries from the Russians. The Russians had scads of gear lying around and lots of production facilities. We’re having to teach the Galactics not only what to build but how to mass-produce stuff. Even then what we’re really doing is a sort of super cottage industry. So, we don’t have many weapons that can hurt the landers.”

“So we have to hit them on the ground,” Cally interjected, suddenly popping up to snatch a conch fritter. “Until they give mom a real ship and we get some more Class Nine Grav Cannons we’re shit out of luck.” She popped the tender piece of giant whelk into her mouth and trotted back to the arcane games being played in the corner.

“And you’re saying if we hit ’em on the ground, we’re screwed,” said Honest John. He grinned ferally. “I bet there are ways to hurt ’em that don’t involve tactics we gave up after Belleau Wood.” He took another pull on the rum and pulled out a joint. “You oughta be able to sneak into the rear area.”

“And do what?” asked Mike, curious. Honest John had always been happy to talk about fishing or the sea and he had debated a few military subjects, but this was the first time he had evinced any real knowledge or background. It was like he had dropped a mask or thrown off a cloak and said “Ah, hah!”

“Ambush convoys? Destroy supply depots? Call in artillery strikes? Kidnap cadre?”

Mike shook his head. “There’s a fairly robust long-range reconnaissance section on Barwhon. But they don’t really strike, they give warning where strikes are going to occur. The Posleen don’t have much in the way of convoys, not yet anyway, and they don’t have supply depots besides their ships. And those are pretty heavily defended.” Mike paused and thought about the question.

“The way that the horses partition stuff, most of their good artillery targets end up being beyond artillery range. Which is why a couple of universities are working on longer-range artillery.” Mike shook his head again and puffed on the cigar. “And the Posleen don’t care if a ‘town’ gets wiped out by a special op group. They don’t pull forces back from the front to look for the group. They use local forces. So it is generally a net loss. Just ask the combined ops team that we sent to Barwhon before the expeditionary force.”

“So we just, what did you call it, ‘hunker down and take our licks’?” asked Karen, softly.

“I’m afraid so,” said Sharon in reply. “The Fleet is building. I don’t know if it could go faster; maybe it could, maybe it couldn’t. Once we have a real fleet we’ll be safe. But until then we have to fight them on the ground.”

“We’ve tried mobile warfare,” said Mike, taking a sip of his beer. “The French tried it a couple of times on Barwhon. It was not successful.” He grimaced.

“Well, that was the French,” said Harry.

Mike snorted. “Don’t let General Crenaus hear you say that. They also ate our lunch on Diess, but that was when they had already ‘broken the square.’ So it’s not a fair comparison. But an M-1 is a tin can to their weapons. So I don’t see being able to fight them in open field.”

“Well,” snorted John, drunkenly, “they don’t do islands.”

“No, they don’t,” Mike agreed.

“So we blow the Seven Mile Bridge and we’re golden,” continued John, taking a big hit on the joint.

“And that will be that,” said Karen quietly. “We’ll be cut off.”

“It’s already bad enough,” said Harry. “Since the clinic in Marathon shut down we’ve lost two people who should have lived. Tom Robins died from appendicitis and Janey Weaver died of scarlet fever. God help us if there’s something like a measles epidemic.”

“If there’s an epidemic the government will help,” said Karen.

Mike took a pull of his beer to make sure his face was covered but John was not so diplomatic. “The government?” he laughed. “What government? The one that saddled you guys with the Cuban Mafia in the first place? Or the one that made Florida Power fix their lines? How about the one that is setting the prices so low nobody can make a dime to set aside then, if you do, taxes the shit out of it?”

Harry held up his hands to forestall further argument. “No, no more!” he intoned. “For tonight, we have power, no one is sick, the leeches have been taken off our backs and there is plenty to eat. Let’s worry about which bridges to burn tomorrow.”

John nodded his head. “Yeah, man. You’re right.” He looked at Karen and smiled lopsidedly. “Sorry, gal. Don’ mind me. I’m drunk.”

“And stoned.” She laughed, picking up the smoldering joint and taking a hit herself. “Damn,” she said, coughing, “no wonder you’re stoned.”

John laughed in return and hoisted the glass of rum. “Only the best! Cuba doesn’t only make fine cigars!”

“Speaking of which,” said Mike, happy to change the subject, “what do you want for a couple of cases of cigars and rum?”

John thought about it for a minute and shook his head. “I know better than to dicker when I’ve got a load on,” he laughed. “But what the hell. How much of that white lightning you got?”

“Two cases of liquor, white lightning and muscadine brandy in liter bottles. I’ve got a couple of cases of beer as well. Then there’s some smoked and tinned wild boar and venison. I’ve got a five-gallon can of gas. I can give you the gas but I want the can back or an empty.”

Honest John nodded. “Well, I think I can give up a box of panatelas for that,” he said.

Mike’s normal frown turned up in a smile. “Now I know why they call you ‘Honest John.’ ”

“Mike,” said Sharon, smiling sweetly, “let me do the dickering.”

“Uh, oh,” said John, setting down the joint. “I don’t like the sound of that.”

“Did I mention I spent six months as a procurement officer?” she asked, cracking her knuckles and leaning forward. “Now, I’ve got to wonder if the local authorities are fully aware of your cargoes…”

CHAPTER 28

No-Name-Key, FL, United States of America, Sol III

0832 EDT October 5th, 2004 ad

Mike carefully set the last case of hand-rolled Imperials on the stack. The cigars were in twine-wrapped bundles of fifty, a gross of bundles to the case. The stack of cigar cases and rum barrels made an awkward fit in the back of the SUV.

Honest John rubbed his face and grimaced. “Christ, I knew I shouldn’t dicker when I was drunk.”

“And never play poker with her, either,” Mike opined. “She’ll clean your clock.”

“She already did,” the trader bemoaned.

“Oh, fiddlesticks,” Karen said. “You know how that wine-jerked venison will go over in Havana. Not to mention that muscadine brandy. You’re going to make a killing.”

The trader just snorted but then smiled. “It’s been a good visit, guys,” he said to Mike and Sharon. “You guys keep safe. Don’t bunch up.”

Mike turned from where he was securing the empty gas can and frowned at the trader. “What rank did you say you were?” he asked.

“A third class petty officer,” John answered. He smiled faintly and patted the pockets of his floral shirt until he found a panatela and a match. He flicked the match with his thumb and lit the panatela. “Why?”

“ ‘Don’t bunch up’ is not a Navy saying,” Mike answered.

“Musta heard it somewheres,” was the trader’s answer.

“Uh-huh,” Mike answered. “And didn’t you say they just sent you a recall notice?”

“ ’Bout two weeks ago,” John agreed, warily. “Why?”

“Oh,” said Mike, smiling. “Just wondering. Most of the notices went out last year. I can only think of one group that got recalled in the last few months.”

“What are you two talking about?” asked Sharon, frowning.

“Nothing,” said Mike, closing the back of the Tahoe.

“Guys,” said Harry, giving Sharon a hug. “You take care, ya hear?”

“We will,” said Sharon.

“Keep in touch,” said Karen, smiling. “Herman will want to hear about all your big adventures.”

“Okay,” said Cally, giving the woman a hug. “I’ll make sure to write him.”

“Well,” said John. “I’m not into soppy good-byes and I’ve got a tide to catch.” He hugged Sharon and Cally and waved at Mike. “Tell that big ugly bastard Kidd that Poison said ‘Hey.’ ”

“I will,” said Mike with a smile.

“And tell Taylor he can kiss my fat, white ass.”

“Okay,” said Mike with a snort.

“Keep your feet and knees together, snake,” he finished and walked towards the dock. He started to yell for his two missing crewmen but after the first wince thought better of it and just hopped in the dinghy, untied and started rowing towards the harbor opening.

As he was clearing the opening the two half-clad worthies, trailed by two swearing females, charged out of one of the abandoned bungalows and down the shore towards the retreating rowboat.

“What were those women saying, mom?” asked Cally, ingenuously.

“I think it was ‘See you later honey,’ ” Sharon answered, pushing her towards the back seat.

“Oh,” said Cally. “ ’Cause, you know, it sounded a lot like, ‘What about our money?’ ”

Mike laughed and shook Harry’s hand. “Thanks for having us.”

“Anytime,” Harry answered. “On the house.”

Mike nodded and smiled, then got in the Tahoe. He turned to Sharon and shrugged. “Ready for a long damn drive?”

“Sure. And this time let’s bypass my parents.”

“Works for me. Actually, if we go by way of Mayport, you can probably catch a shuttle from there. Then Cally and I will drive back to Dad’s. I can catch a shuttle out of Atlanta or Greenville.”

“Okay,” she answered with a sad smile. “And one last night?”

“Yeah,” he answered. “One last night. Until the next time.”

Sharon nodded. Of course there would be a next time. It had taken the highest possible command authority to pry them both loose for this time. And they were both going to be in the thick of combat. But, of course there would be a next time. Mike put the Tahoe in gear and they drove out of the parking lot, down the shell-paved path, wrapped each in mirror thoughts.

CHAPTER 29

Geosynchronous Orbit, Sol III

1444 EDT October 9th, 2004 ad

“Join the Fleet and see the Universe, eh Takagi?” mused Lieutenant Mike Stinson for the umpteenth time as he looked out the clear plastron of his fighter canopy at the swirling stars.

“Yes, my friend. For once the recruiters didn’t lie.”

Captain Takao Takagi was the number-one-rated fighter pilot in the Japanese Self-Defense Force when he leaped at the opportunity to transfer to Fleet Strike Fighter Force. He knew the objective realities of the situation, that without dreadnoughts to break up the Posleen battleglobes the fighters could only peck ineffectually at the surface, that the Posleen space-based weapons would probably sweep the limited number of fighters available out of the heavens. He recognized that his chances of ever seeing the snow-capped mountains of Honshu again were slim to none. But he also understood the ancient mantra of the Japanese warrior, the words that every Japanese soldier, airman or sailor carries in his inner heart: Duty is heavier than mountains, death is lighter than a feather.

Someone must stand between Earth and the Posleen landings. Until the heavy Fleet forces were ready, that meant a rag-tag band of converted Federation frigates and the space fighters as they came off the assembly line. If it was his day to die, when the Posleen came, then so be it, as long as he could take an offering with him to the ancestors.

And the view didn’t hurt.

Working in two fighter Combat Space Patrol teams, the first three fighter squadrons maintained a close Earth patrol. Since the first few scouting Posleen could be expected any day, it was hoped that the CSPs could intercept the Posleen as they exited from hyperspace and began their movement to Earth.

There were two forms of hyperspatial transport known: “ley-line” transport and “quantum tunneling.”

The Federation, without exception until recently, used “line” transport. A quirk of quantum theory first proposed by humans in the 1950s turned out to be true. Along the path from star to star was a “valley” or “line” that permitted easy entry into the alternative dimensions of hyperspace. These valleys permitted ships to travel at high “relative” speeds, far exceeding the speed of light. Although it was possible to “quantum tunnel” outside the valleys, it was slower and more power intensive.

The problem from a military perspective with the “valleys” was that the openings were both a known location and they were relatively distant from the inner planets. Therefore, it took hours or sometimes even days for a ship to travel from the habitable world to the “valley entrance.” Nor were the entrances necessarily near each other or near planets. So most of a long hyperspatial trip involved movement in star systems from one valley to the next. Furthermore, the approach of a ship in the “valley” set up a harmonic that was detectable outside the “hyperspace dimension,” but ships in the valley were blind to the outside. Although the Posleen did not, currently, set up space ambushes, the possibility existed. And that made Fleet dislike “ley-line” hyperspace intensely.

The Posleen, however, used an alternative method. Disdaining the “valley” method they used “quantum tunneling.” Quantum tunneling had numerous items to its advantage. It permitted “small” jumps within star systems. It permitted the ships to come out relatively close to their target, be it a planet or some other location. And it was practically undetectable.

However, “tunneling” had two countervailing problems. First, it was slow and energy intensive, compared to the “valley” method. The trip from Diess to Earth took six months using the “valley” method; most of the time spent in systems going from valley to valley. Using the “tunneling” method it took almost a year and seven times as much energy. Second, the “exit” phase was highly random. Ships come out of hyperspace on a random course and at low velocities. But it was the preferred method of the Posleen. Indeed, the species seemed unaware of the “lines” between star systems.

Because of the vagaries of “tunneling,” and the low relative velocity of the ships exiting it, if the first few ships were individual Battle Dodecahedrons or Command Dodecahedrons, the combination of fighters for immediate reaction and frigates to pound with marginally heavier weapons might keep some of the pre-landings from happening. At least, that was the hope.

In the meantime, what it meant for the pilots of the First, Ninth, and Fifty-Fifth Interplanetary Fighter Squadrons was an up-close and personal view of the world spread out before them. The patrol positions were just beyond geosynchronous orbit — close enough to intercept the Posleen but far enough out to avoid the junk belt surrounding the planet — and the swirling blue globe constantly caught the eye. As Takao rotated his fighter to take in the view again, the terminator was just starting to cross the Atlantic. The pair’s current patrol was just ahead of it — maintaining a near geosynchronous orbit — and he could clearly see the American coastline coming up. After the series of cold fronts that had lashed them for the past two weeks it looked like they were having some extraordinary early fall weather.

He had spent some time at Andrews Air Force Base, cross training with the American F-15 wings before anyone had heard the word “Posleen” and he imagined that quite a few people were heading to the mountains or the beaches this weekend. His next leave was several months off, but he might take it there instead of…

* * *

“Come on, Sally!” shouted Big Tom Sunday as his daughter stepped up to the plate, “keep your eye on the ball!”

The booming voice caused more than one head to turn and Little Tom at his side grinned sheepishly as he saw Wendy Cummings look their way. She gave a slight, disinterested smile and looked back across the diamond. There Ted Kendall was surrounded by a bevy of young ladies like her, sentenced by their parents to watch a Saturday afternoon elementary school softball game.

Tommy followed her eyes and quickly turned back to watching the game. At a moment like this the shadow of his father seemed to overpower him like a rising flood, just as irresistible and as elemental. His father had been a football star, his father had been chased by the girls, his father never had to worry about what to do on a Saturday night. His father was a butthead.

Little Tom pulled his glasses off and wiped them on his shirt. There was a moment’s sting in his eyes that he put down to the strong north wind and he took a surreptitious swipe as he redonned them. Just the wind. He need not bother being surreptitious, another check had Wendy halfway around the diamond, headed in the other direction.

* * *

Wendy walked slowly and carefully towards the crowd around Ted Kendall. Until the week before he had seemed welded at the hip to Morgen Bredell, the two the undisputed class king and queen as a classic double whammy: head cheerleader and lead quarterback. Since their spectacular breakup during study hall, the competition for both had become heavy. Morgen had latched onto Ted’s number one rival for big man on campus, the school’s lead fullback, Wally Parr, but Ted had seemed totally uninterested in female companionship.

Most of the school thought that he was waiting for Morgen to come back. Sooner or later she was bound to discover that Wally had fast hands not only in the backfield. Besides being the quarterback Ted was considered an all-round nice guy. As too many girls had learned, that did not hold for Wally.

Wendy had considered that dissimilarity carefully before deciding to move into the circle around Ted. After a few unpleasant dates with the backfield she had practically sworn off football players, but maybe Ted would be different. She practiced her opening line as she swayed closer.

* * *

Little Tom glanced over again as Wendy closed in on the bevy, then looked away as his eyes burned from the sun shining off her long blonde hair. You’d figure sooner or later they’d learn. He pulled his glasses off again and took another swipe at his eyes.

“What the hell’s wrong now, Tommy?” asked his father.

“Nothin’, Dad.”

“Allergies?”

“No, just the sun. I should have brought my shades.”

“With all I paid for custom sunglasses, you think you would. Stop a Posleen shotgun blast.”

“Yep,” said Little Tom with an unheard sigh at his dad’s total cluelessness. “Pity about the rest of my face, mind you.”

His dad laughed and went back to berating his sister. At nine she was already a star athlete and well on the way to erasing Big Tom’s shame at having a computer geek for a son. Big Tom unconsciously checked the Glock behind his back as a high, thin line of cirrus clouds swept across the sun.

“Could come any time,” he commented just as unconsciously.

“Yep. Anytime,” Little Tom agreed. Another sigh and rolled eyes. “Dad, can I go home now?”

“No. We need to stay here and show our support for Sally.”

“Dad, Sally’s got enough confidence for three of us. She knows we support her. I’ve got homework and I have to get in two hours range time so I can be in the tournament next week. When am I going to be able to?”

“After the game,” answered his father with a frown.

“After the game you are taking Sally and her friends out for sundaes,” answered Little Tom with the sort of remorseless logic that always got him in trouble. “You will expect me to participate in that as well. After sundaes we will convey Sally’s friends to their various residences. We will return home at approximately nine p.m. You will maintain lights out for ten p.m. I repeat…”

“Tommy,” Big Tom growled.

“Shut up.”

“More or less. You are going to show your support or you can kiss any goddamn computer game tournament good-bye.”

Little Tom took a deep breath. “Yes, sir!” he snapped, crossing his arms and tapping one boot.

“When is this damn tournament, anyway?” asked his father.

“Next Saturday, three p.m. until it finishes,” said Little Tom, knowing he was in for it.

“You’re supposed to be participating in a Youth Militia exercise that night!”

“Chief Jordan excused me,” said Little Tom with another roll of the eyes. “I’ve outgrown the local militia, Dad. Besides, the tournament counts as tactical exercises for military prep credit.”

“Who says?” asked Big Tom with a snort of disgust at the asinine idea. As if sitting in front of a computer playing shoot-’em-up games could be considered real combat training.

“Fleet,” answered Tommy. “They count national standing in Death Valley toward military pre-training.”

“Well, I don’t. You need to know what the real thing is like, not a Virtual fairy tale. You’re going on the Youth Militia exercise.”

“Dad!”

“No means no.”

“Okay, no means fucking no,” said the son furiously. “In that case, what is my motivation for watching this softball bullshit, O Great Master of All Things Military?”

“Watch your mouth, mister!”

“Dad, you are a fuckin’ dinosaur!” the teenager finally exploded. “I am damned if I’m going to be in any Ground Force unit! I am going to be Fleet Strike or nothing! And Youth Militia does not count towards Fleet! I don’t mind you acting like I’ve got two heads and a tail because I don’t measure up to your ideal son, but you are not going to screw up my chances of getting into Fleet!”

“You had better calm down and get a civil tongue in your head or you’re going to be grounded for the rest of the school year!”

Little Tom met his father’s eyes fiercely but he knew the old man would never back down now. With the other parents listening it was going to be a point of pride, something that his father had in overabundance. His eyes closed and his face worked in anger as he tried to control himself. Finally he opened his eyes.

“I am going to go catch a ride home,” he snarled at his father. “And then I am going to cap targets for a couple of hours. And I suspect I am not going to miss.”

“Get out of here,” his father husked and dismissed him from his attention.

He stepped out of the crowd of parents and started looking for someone, anyone who had a car. As he did he saw the coach of the opposing team charge onto the field towards the umpire.

* * *

Wendy waited carefully as Ted warmed to expounding about himself. Until his breakup with Morgen he had been the quietest of all the football players. His humility was rapidly slipping away under the onslaught of female attention and since there was not much he could think of to talk about except football the focus was on recent games.

“Then I handed off to Wally and he ran…” he continued.

“Thirty-two yards for a touchdown,” interjected Wendy.

“Yeah,” he said, momentarily stymied.

“You were down by more than seven, so you decided to go for the double point rather than try for a touchdown and a field goal.”

“Uh-huh.”

“So you threw to Johnny Grant for a touchdown,” continued Wendy, flipping a lock of blonde hair out of the way, “but I was wondering something at the time…”

“Yeah?”

“It looked like Jerry Washington was in the open and you had to throw past a safety to get to Johnny. Why didn’t you throw to Jerry?”

“You know,” he said, chagrined, “Wally, the big son of a bitch, was blocking, was in the way, I couldn’t see past him. Everybody asked me that, afterwards, especially Jerry. He was really pissed.” He turned towards her as the conversation finally turned to something he could talk about.

“You need to do something about that. That explains the same problem on the next series when you got intercepted,” she said with a toss of her hair. She personally thought it was her best feature and decided that subliminally showing it off would help.

“What,” he asked, laughing, “you doing a piece for the school newspaper?”

“No,” she answered, “do you think we need a better sports section?”

“Oh,” he started to respond, “I think the school…”

“What is that bozo doing?” asked one of the suddenly snubbed coterie, watching the coach of the opposing team apparently charging the umpire.

* * *

“For she’s a jolly good fellow, for she’s a jolly good fellow, for she’s a jolly good fellllow, which nobody can deny!” “Woof! Woof!”

The chorus of male, female and canine voices rang through the Fredericksburg Public Safety Building and out the open windows into the splendid autumn sunshine. A mob of happy faces in jumpsuits and body armor-bulked uniforms were gathered around a conference table to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the fire chief.

“Speech! Speech!” cried the usual joker at the back.

“Speech! Speech!”

“Okay! Okay!” said the slight gray-haired female as she stepped up to the head of the table. Her blue, patch-covered coverall bore the nametag “Wilson” over her left breast. One side of her face and the back of her hand on the same side bore the stigma of replaced skin, slick and shiny, but her electric blue eyes were undimmed by age and untrammeled by care. “If I can get you guys to just shut up for once it’ll be worth it.”

She looked around at the sea of young faces and suddenly grinned. “Now,” she cackled, shaking her finger and gumming the words, “lemme tell you about the ooold days, smack, smack, wah in mah day, we had ta carry the water up from the river, yep…” At the common, quavered litany the group of firefighters and police — most of them trained and all of them at one time counseled by the wise old woman — laughed uproariously.

“No, really,” she continued in a normal voice, shaking her head. “I just want to say that the last thirty years are what living is all about. I don’t know how people who don’t like their jobs get up in the morning. Every damned day I wake up and spring out of bed more ready to come to work than the last.” That the job had eaten two marriages and left her without children she carefully did not mention. There were balances in any life and on the scale she was willing to accept her portion.

“You people, and the generation before you and I hope the generation after are what makes this job so special. That and the chance, every day, to go out and do some good. If there is a better thing to do with your day than to save a life — whether fighting a fire or preventing a crime — I don’t know what it is. Someday, someday fairly soon, I suspect, I won’t be able to climb the ladders, or carry the stretchers or run the hoses. And the legacy that I will leave is right here in this room.” There were a few sniffles in the bunch now and she thought it best to wrap up before it got too sentimental.

“And every day, I want you to keep that in mind. There is nothing more important than saving an innocent life and anything that you have to do, through fire or explosion, it is worth whatever effort. There is just nothing like it.” As the crowd was cheering the door to the hall burst open to admit the dispatcher.

* * *

One of the opposing team softball players was following her coach, dragging a boombox nearly as big as the player. At the same time, one of the teenaged sisters dragged along by the parents was tugging at her father’s arm, leaning into him and proffering the headset from her Walkman. At the coach’s first words the umpire waved the game to a halt, leaned over and dialed the boombox’s volume to the max.

“… not a test, this is an announcement of the Emergency Broadcast System. Posleen ships have been detected exiting hyperspace in near-Earth proximity…”

Everyone at the game unconsciously looked up. As they did there was a flash of white light, clear against the crystalline blue sky. The blossom of nuclear fire marked the location of at least one space battle. Tommy looked back towards his dad and, as they caught each other’s eye, they both unconsciously checked behind their backs. When they realized the mimicry, they both looked chagrined. For a moment they seemed to connect in a way that they had not felt in years. Then Big Tom headed out to the field to collect his daughter and Tommy headed for the Suburban.

* * *

“Earth is under a landing watch. This means that probability of landing in your area within the next four hours is high. All military personnel are ordered to immediately return to their units by the shortest possible means. All aircraft are ordered to ground immediately at the nearest possible landing area. Citizens without military duties are strongly urged to go immediately to their homes and stay there until landing areas are determined.

“All businesses with the exception of essential services, such as groceries and fueling stations, are ordered to close immediately. All citizens are urged to return to their homes and remain there. Stay tuned to your local TV and radio stations for updated watches and warnings. Up-to-date watch and warning information for your local area is available through National Weather Service Broadcasts…”

Wendy listened to the announcement in shock. The group around Ted swayed towards him then started to break up as individual girls sought out their parents. Wendy was the last one to leave and she looked at him for a moment, reached out her hand in farewell then walked away.

* * *

“… Citizens are urged to remain off interstate highways which are designated for military troop movements. If you feel it necessary to leave your area, or if your area is ordered to evacuate, follow the designated evacuation routes from your area to refuge areas. There will shortly be a statement from the President…”

The dispatcher had a portable weather radio with her and simply held it over her head. As the dispatch began to repeat Chief Wilson looked around and said, simply, “You all know the drill. Time to get to work.”

* * *

The mountain of black metal had appeared with a brief flicker of plasma discharge at a range of less than six hundred kilometers — knife-fighting distance in space — and more or less on a collision course. Before Takagi and Stinson could even initiate evasive maneuvers a plasma cannon wiped Stinson from the heavens. Takagi grabbed his stick, flikkered, engaged thrusters and hit the Hammer. The next plasma wash missed his fighter by less than thirty meters.

The fighters conceived of and designed by the GalTech Fighter Board were the most advanced spaceships ever built. Because the Posleen occasionally exhibited a degree of skill at jamming, and because the Galactics required a human in the fire decision loop, there had to be a body in the cockpit. To survive in the expected environment the ships had to mount not only impressive countermeasures but be able to maneuver in ways considered impossible by the first designers.

The primary Posleen weapons that would be used against fighters were either a terawatt laser system on the landers or a similar grade plasma cannon. Galactic reports and information developed on Barwhon and Diess determined that Posleen detection and acquisition systems were state-of-the-art. Indeed, there was mounting evidence that they surpassed the Federation in every respect. Furthermore, a laser beam traveled at the speed of light, a plasma ray only fractionally slower. While over extremely long ranges there was lag, at any practical engagement range the time between firing and impact was effectively instantaneous.

Given these two facts there was little hope for a fighter component, despite their obvious utility against landers. The entire battle would have to be fought by ships that could take a hit and keep coming.

However, in any weapons system there was a slightly longer lag between acquisition of target and firing, the “lock-on” phase. It was this inherent lag that was the single chink designers could foresee in Posleen antiship weapons. What would be required to survive in that type of environment would be a fighter capable of carrying a reasonable payload and sufficient projectors and deflectors to be able to somewhat spoof the Posleen acquisition systems, but most of all it would have to be incredibly maneuverable. It would have to be able to make vector changes that could avoid a light-speed weapon in the time it took that weapon to acquire it and fire; it would have to be able to turn on a dime at a fraction of the speed of light.

The only thing that made this possible was inertial control. Inertial controllers were used in all space craft, otherwise they could not reach reasonable speeds without squashing their crew flat from acceleration forces. After months of research and development the Galactic science/philosophers, the crablike Tchpth, managed to create an inertial stabilization system capable of damping six hundred standard gravities with a reasonable field area and mass. Since the resulting craft would be at least the size of a conventional F-15 it had more than enough room for weapons and jammers. Acceleration, however, remained a problem.

The Federation in general used a reversal of the inertial damping field for reactionless acceleration. While it was a tremendously efficient system, it had some limitations that they had not yet overcome. Specifically, although they could damp six hundred gravities of acceleration, they could not generate them. Thus the fighter’s dampers exceeded its actual abilities. This was where human ingenuity came to the fore.

The humans on the design team made a series of points on the subject of reactionary as opposed to reactionless thrust and the utility of some of the materials the Galactics used regularly. After a brief protest over the inherent danger of the system, the antimatter thruster and afterburner were born. Antiprotons and water were squirted into a plenum chamber at a three-to-one mix ratio. When the antimatter hit the water it created a thrust just made for getting down and busy. Dropping more raw antimatter into the thrust plume created an afterburner that gave new meaning to the name “Hammer.” The Space Falcons could even do a maneuver previously the sole prerogative of the Harrier jump jet, a VSLP.

This maneuver was discovered, accidentally, by a new Harrier pilot who found himself in a fairly high-altitude battle of maneuver — a dogfight or furball to the military — with an F-16. The F-16 was inarguably the superior aircraft for the situation; it was considered the best dogfighter in the world.

The new pilot was desperate to avoid impending mock doom and not yet instinctive about what not to do in a Harrier. As a mistake, he accidentally pointed all of his vector fans in opposed directions, then somehow recovered. If he had not been high above the ground he would have found out just how unforgiving an aircraft he was flying. Briefly.

Instead, he suddenly found himself going one hundred eighty degrees in the opposite direction, directly at the rapidly encroaching F-16. He fired his own, notional, missiles, dove for the deck and both avoided the nearly inevitable midair collision and “killed” the surprised and momentarily terrified F-16 pilot. Once it was determined what he had done — and a method to successfully and safely replicate it was developed — the maneuver became a regular part of the Harrier’s repertoire. All the other pilots suddenly started to give Harrier pilots, mostly semisuicidal Marines, a wide berth in a furball; they were likely to fly right up your nostrils.

What was unusual in an “airbreather” fighter was the norm in a space system and the F-2000 Space Falcon could do the identical maneuver. In spades. With a flip of the pilot’s wrist the fighter could be pointed in the opposite direction, but because of inertial forces would continue along its initial vector. However, an application of antimatter thrusters and afterburners slowed all but the most extreme velocities and had the fighter headed in the new direction in no time. In the case of Takao Takagi — up close and personal to a Posleen Battleglobe that had not even existed moments before — he used every trick he knew in that first moment and it spared his life for another day.

He flipped his fighter end for end, a “flikker” maneuver, and fired off his antimatter thrusters. At almost the same instant he kicked in his afterburners. Hitting the Hammer was a desperation maneuver at low relative velocities. At reversed velocities, as he was after the flikker, it was nearly suicide, requiring an extraordinary degree of skill. If the ship already had velocity or acceleration negative to, that is away from, the antimatter mass, the additional punch of the antimatter degrading was absorbable by the ship systems. Although the inertial effects would be high, the dampers could absorb them. All that occurred was extremely rapid acceleration.

However, if the vector was neutral with respect to the location of the antimatter mass or positive to it — as in flying into it — the danger was that not only could the inertial dampers be overloaded, resulting in pilot mush, but portions of the unconverted antimatter might touch the ship itself, with catastrophic results.

As it was, for a moment he sustained over sixty Gs after damping. While likely to kill most human beings, with training and if they are sustained for only an instant, sixty Gs are marginally survivable. In the case of Takao Takagi it was an instant he would remember for the rest of his life. As he came out of momentary shock, he fired a volley of antimatter “lances.” The small, “brilliant” weapons were about the size of a conventional AMRAAM that had hypervelocity drivers and penetration aids designed to get inside Posleen defenses. The Class Four antimatter warheads should be able to destroy or severely damage a lander. He knew that his AID would be broadcasting warnings so he didn’t even bother.

The battleglobe right in front of him was the only one he could worry about, but he heard scattered reports of others. His globe was on a vector headed away from Earth but it was already maneuvering ponderously back into orbit.

The thing was so large it was incomprehensible as a ship. Up close his fighter, nearly the size of a World War II bomber, was swallowed by the immensity, a gnat pecking at a house. The black globe was kilometers across, and every cubic meter was devoted to killing. As his fighter tossed him through pounding evasion maneuvers, it seemed that every one of those weapons was aimed at him.

The gigantic black globe was comprised of thousands of individual ships. It was not concentrating on the unimportant gnat pecking at its exterior. Indeed, it was throwing missiles and plasma and lasers in every direction. As the Posleen dropped towards Earth they seemed to target everything for destruction. Whether it was wanton violence or calculated experience, nothing escaped their ire. Satellites flickered and died, burning like moths in a flame as gouts of plasma or laser beams touched their fragile skeletons. The nascent International Space Station, a valiant project dropped in favor of more immediate plans and real deep-space work, was good for an antimatter missile. Inoffensive bits of space junk, sections of orbiters, detached skins or deceased satellites that had inhabited useless orbits doing nothing but being in the way since the 1960s were washed from space as the extraterrestrial juggernauts descended.

Light kinetic energy weapons dropped towards the planet below as probable threat locations were spotted or a God King simply wanted to make a pretty explosion. Dozens of the small, smart entry vehicles dropped through the atmosphere striking cities and military bases across Earth. Four of them for some reason struck the Great Pyramids in Cairo and another half dozen were targeted on deserted areas in the Central American jungle. The detonations — equivalent to a ten-kiloton nuclear weapon — were tiny, white pinpricks on the surface of the planet.

After what seemed like days, but was in fact hours, Takao had expended all his lances and was reduced to peppering the globe with his dual terawatt lasers. The globe began to break up, exposing to fire more of the vulnerable landers and the more important command dodecahedrons as it neared the atmosphere.

But despite its increasing vulnerability, Takao had to break off. Space Falcons were exactly that: Space falcons. Only vaguely aerodynamic and without a heat shield, they would burn up entering the atmosphere at combat speeds.

Bitterly ashamed at his inability to stop the inevitable, the pilot turned back to Lunar Farbase, watching in his rear camera as the black ball broke apart into a swarm of death descending towards the Pacific and his beloved home islands.

CHAPTER 30

The Pentagon, VA, United States of America, Sol III

1749 EDT October 9th, 2004 ad

“This is Bob Argent at the Pentagon.” The familiar reporter was grim faced. He stood in a nondescript, brightly lit hallway in the background of which figures in green, blue and black uniforms could be seen hurrying in every direction. “While it would be inaccurate to say that the United States military was caught flat-footed by the upcoming Posleen landing, it is true that the Posleen are both earlier and in greater force than anticipated. As the situation progresses, we will be bringing you live feeds from Continental Army Command here in the Pentagon, where their state-of-the-art GalTech landing projector is hard at work determining probable landing areas. The word is that the final landing area will probably be determined only half an hour before the actual landing and we will be standing by live. The Continental Army Commander is expected to have a short press conference within the next hour. He will discuss defense plans and known American and other casualties from the bombardment. This is Bob Argent, live, at the Pentagon.”

* * *

When the word came over the radio, Shari Reilly took off her apron, handed it to the manager and walked out of the Waffle House without looking back. If he didn’t like it he could mail her the check. Most of the customers were walking out and not many were paying. She had wanted to be prepared for this, but when the daycare and the bills and the rent and the groceries were paid for, there was not much left to set by. She had thirty dollars stashed in her purse and she fully intended to write checks that were not good if she had to but first she had to get the babies.

Wherever the Posties landed, it was going to be chaos and she had to hang on to her cash as long as possible. But if she was going to have to get out of town, she needed some stuff. The baby — Susie was hardly a baby anymore, really a big girl at two, almost as big as Kelly, but she still needed diapers — and little Billy was sick and she needed some medicine. They needed some road food, stuff that would keep, and batteries. Some bottled water. After she picked up the kids she would just have to go to Wal-Mart or Target, just like everybody else in Fredericksburg.

She walked to her battered gray 1991 Grand Am, a faded beauty in faded clothes, her fine hair wisping out from under the hairnet, got in and pumped the gas. After several false starts the engine finally caught. Turning out onto VA 3 she debated going to the stores and then getting the babies, but she felt a strong need to have them by her now, when it all came to the wall.

The sitter was frantic, wanting to keep the little ones while Shari shopped, but she finally got the babies away and headed back to the malls. By the time she got out onto 3, the traffic from the malls was backed up to U.S. 1.

She turned around, got around the line of cars and pickup trucks pulling into the Guard Armory and found a gas station. When she got to a pump she filled it up with regular then walked into the 7-Eleven. As she got to the front of the line, she pulled out her checkbook and screwed up her courage. She had used this same store and dealt with Mr. Ramani for over three years and she knew the answer was no.

“Take a check?” she asked, holding up the checkbook.

Mr. Ramani looked at her with the most neutral expression she had ever seen on his coal black face, then nodded. “You postdate it.”

“What?”

“Postdate it. And call me to tell me if I can deposit it.” He pulled out his card and pressed it into her hand.

She began to tear up then shook herself inside and wrote the check so fast her hand practically cramped.

“You take care, okay?” asked the Hindu as he took the proffered check.

“Okay,” she answered, then blurted, “you too. God bless you.”

“Thank you, and may your God bless you and your children,” he said and gestured at the man behind her. “You pay cash or charge!”

“Why?” asked the startled customer, putting away the checkbook.

“You got money. Pay up.”

Shari stepped outside trying not to cry and got back in traffic.

* * *

Lieutenant Colonel Frank Robertson, battalion commander of the Two Hundred Twenty-Ninth Engineering Battalion (Light, “Sappers Lead!”) United States Ground Forces, stood at the head of the battalion conference table at parade rest. His first order on arriving at the Fredericksburg headquarters that afternoon was to have the chairs removed, since “nobody was going to have time to sit down anyway.”

“All right, gentlemen,” he said to his assembled staff and company commanders, “we’ve gamed this plenty of times. They’re here in more force than we expected and earlier than we expected, but that doesn’t really affect us much. We have our full equipment and ammunition load-out, including all necessary demolition charges in the new ammo dump, and by the time we have a probable landing zone the majority of our personnel should have made it in.” That would not include the Alpha Company (Equipment) commander or his assistant division engineer. Both of them were out of town on business and would certainly not be back before the landing.

“There are effectively two possibilities. We will be in the landing zone or we will not be in the landing zone. If we are not in the landing zone we respond as ordered to act against Posleen spread and localize them until sufficient forces are available to destroy the infestation. On that highly probable basis I want all of the companies fully loaded and ready to roll on first orders to do so. You have the demolition plans for every bridge in Virginia and your primary, secondary and tertiary targets.

“On orders, if there is a landing in our area of responsibility, which is central Virginia, we will begin rigging all the bridges leading out of the infested zone for demolition. You will not, I say again, not, destroy any bridge without express order unless the Posleen are in near contact, that means one thousand meters or less.”

He paused for a moment, obviously trying to find a good way to say something. “I think that if you haven’t talked about this you probably have thought it. It may be, probably will be, that some of those bridges will have… refugees on them when the Posleen come into close contact.

“You have all seen the news and official reports from Barwhon and Diess; you know what it is like for refugees with the Posleen. You may be tempted to let the refugees over the bridges and blow the bridge up with Posleen on it. Gentlemen, I will have court-martialed anyone who does that. You have no flexibility in this. You will blow the bridge when the Posleen reach five hundred meters distance. We cannot take the risk of the Posleen capturing a bridge. Is that clear?” There was a muted rumble of ascent from a ring of serious faces. “Very well, are there any questions?”

Only one hand was raised, that of the acting assistant division engineer. A terribly young, recent graduate of the University of Virginia. He was just out of the state-sponsored OCS that was providing most of the new crop of Virginia’s officers.

“Yes, Lieutenant Young?”

“And if we are in the interdiction circle, sir?”

The commander paused and looked around the circle of serious older faces. Most of them had known each other off and on for years and he wondered how much longer he would be looking at the same group. “Well, Lieutenant, in that case we die and all of those we love die with us. And all we can do is take as many Posleen with us to hell as we can.”

* * *

Mueller had driven the quiet engineer around town since just after sunrise. They had done the Fan and the university district in the morning and south Richmond — with its unique intermingled odor of petrochemical plants, paper manufacture and tobacco processing — in the early afternoon. Now, as the afternoon wore on, Mueller had negotiated the tour into Schockoe Bottom. After a brief tour around the Bottom, he intended to head up to Libby Hill and the best view of Richmond around.

Instead the engineer gave his first command of the entire tour, ordering him to turn down Twelfth Street then following it around onto Byrd. After a dizzying series of turns and three stops to consult the U.S. Geological Survey map they had brought, they were stopped under the Schockoe Slip underpass, a stone arch bridge that once connected the city proper to the Kanawaha Canal. Now it connected two trendy office complexes built into and around the nineteenth-century buildings.

“You’re thinking of something,” stated Mueller, as the engineer again consulted the map, switching between the quadrangle and a larger street map. More detailed maps supplied by the city engineering department littered the backseat of the government sedan.

“Umm,” Keene replied, noncommittally. He got out and walked up the gray stone stairs from Canal Street to Schockoe Slip. He stopped at the top and looked down from the overpass into Schockoe Bottom. Mueller looked at the same scene and could see some good positions for a small-unit firefight, but not anything to interest a nationally renowned defense engineer.

None of the major city engineers or officials had been officially available to “sight-see.” The strategic plan for Richmond’s defense was still up in the air, one of the reasons that Continental Army Command had sent John Keene. Keene’s suggestions and use of terrain in the construction of the Tennessee River defenses had brought him to the attention of the chief engineer for Third Army. When Richmond’s planning had begun to lag, the chief engineer had offered Keene’s services to First Army as a useful addition.

However, despite the enthusiastic reception by the Twelfth Corps Commander, who was tasked with the defense of Richmond and southern Virginia, Keene was less enthusiastically received by the other engineers. Each of them had their own pet projects to advance and the internecine fighting was the fundamental reason that the defenses were lagging.

The Corps Engineer, Colonel Bob Braggly, commander of the Corps Engineering Brigade, preferred turning the Libby and Mosby Hills into a giant firebase and giving up the center of Richmond to the Posleen. The city engineer, given quasimilitary standing by the new “Fortress Forward” stance, absolutely refused to surrender one inch of ground, preferring the concept of a wall enclosing the entire city limits.

Various local engineering firms had been called in to break the deadlock. Instead they offered their own versions or negated each other’s effects by weighing in on one side or the other. Either project was going to be the biggest engineering contract in a hundred years of Richmond’s history, ten or twenty times as large as the Floodwall project.

The corps commander had flatly stated that there was no way to defend a wall that extensive with the troops at hand. But one of his subordinates, the Twenty-Ninth Infantry Division commander, had bypassed the corps commander in the chain of command and sent staff studies supporting the elongated wall to First Army. John Keene, as a disinterested third party recommended through national command, was a possible way to break the deadlock.

Keene looked at the map again and walked under the Martin Agency building into the circle at one hundred Schockoe Slip. Mueller had never been this way and had gotten slightly turned around but it only took a moment for him to reorient himself when he saw the Richbrau microbrewery. It had been a long day and he was trying to figure out a way to subtly suggest that maybe it was Miller time, when Keene finally responded, “I’m thinking of Diess.”

“So am I,” remarked Mueller, following his own thought process, “it sure is warm for October.” In fact the weather had been unseasonably cool, but he was about to continue in the vein that a cold Ole Nick would go down a treat when he realized that Keene had gone almost catatonic in thought. He waited for him to go on. “Is this when I’m supposed to prompt you,” he finally prompted, “or when I’m supposed to shut up and wait?”

Keene looked at the fountain in the middle of the circle without replying and muttered, “Captain Morgan, I am really sorry for what we are going to do to you.” Then turning back to Mueller he thumbed across the street. “Time for a cold one, Sergeant.”

Once they were seated in the dimness of the microbrewery, having dodged the various street people between themselves and their goal, Keene became abruptly animated.

“Okay,” he said taking a sip of the tasty malt and stabbing the map, “how do you kill Posleen?”

“Well, apparently they’ve ruled out poison gas,” Mueller joked, “so I guess that leaves artillery.”

“Right, and what is the problem with killing them with artillery?”

“I don’t know.” Mueller waited for Keene to go on but realized that the engineer was really testing him. “Forward observers I suppose. Seeing them while staying alive yourself,” he finally answered testily. He’d had more than enough personal experience with how hard they were to kill.

“In part. And that if you don’t contain them, physically, they both do more damage and have the option to figure out how to get to your forces. The best thing is to keep them at arms’ reach. Failing that, to have them contained where you have superior terrain advantage, man-made or natural. With me so far?”

“Yep.”

“Okee-dokee. On Diess, once the humans got their shit together, they formed the boulevards into tremendous killing grounds. In Tennessee we were doing the same thing with walls and even some tunnels. Lead them by the nose, then corral them and pound them with machine guns, manjacks and artillery.”

“Never work here,” countered Mueller. He was familiar with the Diess operation where the Third Corps commander had built walls along the boulevards and slaughtered the Posleen. The differences in cities were marked. “The skyscrapers are too flimsy, the distances are shorter and the city engineer would have a cow. Then the governor, who is a buddy of the city engineer and the Twenty-Ninth ID commander and, for that matter, the President, would have a cow.”

“Sure,” agreed Keene, easily. “But would they give up Schockoe Bottom?”

Mueller thought about that one. “Possibly,” he finally answered. “I would have to say probably.” The area was half deserted, with only a few businesses and the bars that supplied the local forces with beverages surviving the economic blight.

“On every other planet the Posleen have invaded for the past hundred and fifty years, all the wealth, the production wealth, is in the megascrapers,” Keene pointed out. “The Galactics have their factories built right into them. So, the Posleen are expected to go for our skyscrapers; if it’s low, it’s less of a target to them.

“So when they land near Richmond, from any direction, they’re going to head for the city center. Now, Richmond should have been evacuated by then. The city engineer can bitch all he wants, but CONARC has designated the inner cities as the defense zones, screw the suburbs.

“So, using techniques as yet undetermined, we will lure the Posleen forward from every direction, but all the roads will lead to Schockoe Bottom and none of them will lead out. The tough part, the heavy engineering part, will be making sure that, one, they can only get to Schockoe Bottom and, two, they can’t get back out.”

“Posleen check in…” said Mueller with a growing smile.

“… but they don’t check out. You got it. I want to go look at those heights across the way…”

“That’s Libby Hill. It was next on the agenda.”

“But first I want to get a better look at the Bottom. It would be good if we could set up some sort of direct-fire positions into the pocket. I was thinking of firing from across the river, but maybe we could build a berm.”

“What’s wrong with the Wall?” asked Mueller, puzzled. “Besides wracking stress. Can’t we just backfill?”

“What wall?” asked the puzzled engineer.

* * *

John Keene looked up at the thirty feet of reinforced concrete that made up the mile-long Richmond floodwall and grinned like a teenager. “Oh, man,” he said, gesturing at the Army Corps of Engineers heraldic device, a two-turreted castle, on the face, “are the Posties ever going to learn to hate that symbol.”

For the next two hours he and Mueller walked around the floodwall, Schockoe Bottom and the surrounding area, occasionally driving when something in the distance caught their fancy. Finally they stood in Mosby Park, on Mosby Hill, where a group of children from a nearby preschool played under the careful tutelage of elderly teachers. As Keene looked down his mind was filled with visions of fire.

“We can just pack the back side of this hill with those stubby tube artillery things…”

“Do you mean mortars?” asked Mueller, chuckling.

“Yeah, them. Do you know they have more killing power than much larger artillery?” Keene continued animatedly.

“Um, yeah. I knew that.”

“It’s because they don’t need as heavy a casing.”

“I know, sir.”

“Right. Anyway. We block off exit from the pocket on this side by rubbling those abandoned factories down there and piling the rubble from the wall to this hill.”

“Got it,” said Mueller, sketching a diagram on his AID.

“On the other side, it’s not as good but we have plenty of time and concrete. We’ll build a wall connector from the Ethyl Corporation Hill to the wall. Then continue around the terrain of the city, basically down Canal to Twelfth then over to Thirteenth then along the streets to 95.”

“Good,” Mueller commented.

“Why good?”

“That leaves the Richbrau in the perimeter.”

“Yeah,” laughed Keene, “I hadn’t thought of that.”

“Well, we just would have had to change the perimeter.”

“Right,” laughed Keene again. Then he looked puzzled. “Hey, why are we in the Crowne Plaza instead of the Berkley Hotel? It’s right next door to the Richbrau.”

“Hardy Boys.”

“What?”

“Cyberpunks. They got there first. One of the laws of SpecOps: never mix Cybers and SF, it just doesn’t work.”

“What the hell are Cyberpunks doing in Richmond?”

“… and never ask Cybers what they’re doing anywhere.”

“Oh.” Keene shook his head and returned to the business at hand. “The perimeter will be as follows: 95 to the Franklin exit. Block all entrances into the city. Use all the buildings for direct fire into the pocket. Continue up Thirteenth then cut across to Twelfth at Cary down to Byrd. The old power station is outside, the Federal Reserve and Riverfront Plaza are inside. Maintain the defenses up to around Belvedere Street where it gets carried down to the river and necked off with the only real wall we’re going to have to build.

“Whatever direction the Posleen come from, all roads leading to Schockoe Bottom are open and all roads leading elsewhere are closed. Pack the back side of the wall with troops, pack the skyscrapers with troops, all of them firing into the pocket. Artillery and mortars on the heights. If they’re only on the north side, we can pack artillery on the south side of the James River and pound them all day long.

“God,” John paused for a moment, eyes practically glowing, “it’s going to be glorious.”

“Just remember,” Mueller cautioned, “no plan survives contact with the enemy.”

“What?” asked Keene, confused.

“They never told you that in Tennessee?”

“No. Why is that?”

“It’s sort of a military axiom,” explained Mueller, watching the afternoon traffic build early. “The other side wants to win too, so they try to figure out how to defeat your plan. Although that’s less of a problem with Posleen than with humans. And then there are all the little things you didn’t think of. There are changes in orders that don’t take into account the real situation. There are bad communications that lead to actions like Pickett’s Charge. Lee said ‘Don’t charge’ and the message was received ‘Charge.’ There’s the ‘fog of war,’ making decisions on the basis of what you think is reality when in fact it is not.

“Anyway, you construct your plan and really internalize it, but you also construct alternative plans in case that one goes awry. If your primary plan is internalized, but not really expected to succeed perfectly, you can devise changes on the fly. And then you construct your GOTH Plan.”

“A Goth Plan?” asked Keene again, shaking his head at the pessimistic outlook of soldiers. “What? As in getting overrun by Goths?”

“Not ‘Goth’ as in ‘Hun,’ ‘GOTH’ as in G-O-T-H. Your Go-To-Hell plan. Your plan when all your other plans have gone to hell and the wolf is at the door. Your, ‘They died with their boots on’ plan.”

“Oh.”

“So what’s the GOTH plan?”

“I don’t know,” answered Keene, musing on the landscape below. “I don’t plan for failure very well.”

“Then somebody fucked up saying you’re a defense expert. ‘Expect success, plan for failure’ is right up there with ‘on dangerous ground maneuver, on deadly ground fight’ as a military axiom.”

“The only military axioms I was aware of before the Planetary Defense Center program were ‘never volunteer for anything’ and ‘never get involved in a land war in Asia.’ ”

“Well, now you know,” Mueller fiddled his fingers and wrinkled his brow with a grin, “um, three more.”

Keene chuckled as Mueller’s AID chirped.

“Sergeant Mueller.”

“Yes, AID?” Mueller said with a smile.

“Five Posleen globes have just exited hyperspace in near-Earth orbit. TERDEF analysis calls for landings in approximately three hours.” The voice was so toneless that the facts took a moment to sink in.

What?” Mueller’s eyes momentarily went round and his skin flushed with a cold sweat. He involuntarily looked up, then shook himself thinking the action was futile. Even as he mentally started to berate himself there was a sudden flash of light in the cloudless sky. The detonation of an antimatter reactor was clear even in bright sunlight.

“Five Posleen globes have just exited hyperspace in near-Earth orbit. TERDEF analysis calls for landings in approximately three hours.”

Mueller looked at Keene who had continued to look out over the cityscape.

Uh, oh. “AID.”

“Yes, Sergeant Mueller?”

“Contact Sergeant Major Mosovich. Tell him to get the corps commander to stall on the defense plan. I think we have a winner.”

“Well,” said Keene turning back to the sergeant. “I see what you mean about plans now. I suppose I’d better get started on that GOTH plan.”

CHAPTER 31

The Pentagon, VA, United States of America, Sol III

1820 EDT October 9th, 2004 ad

“Have you been getting everything you needed?” asked General Horner as he strode into the conference room. It had been billed as a press conference but, in a rare burst of sanity, the news media agreed to simply have one representative of each major media “type” in the Continental Army Center.

Until the Blue Mountain Planetary Defense Center was completed, the nerve center for the defense of the United States was in the Pentagon. The indefensible building gave Jack Horner the uncomfortable feeling of swinging in the breeze. Being on the front line did not bother him — he had been there and done that — but it was no place to command a continental-scale battle.

His AID would help, but even with it he needed an undistracted staff and that was not going to happen if the Posleen were breathing down their necks. And the latest information made that look pretty likely.

“Well, sir, we really haven’t been given any access since the first warning,” answered Argent, as the unofficial spokesperson. Although the other representatives were all “Pentagon Hands” none of them had Argent’s depth of experience or name recognition. His cameraman, another old Pentagon hand, subtly directed his camera towards the general. Although the press conference had not officially been “started” all was fair in a fluid situation like this.

“So I understand,” said Horner with a bleak smile of anger. It was not how he had told the Pentagon Public Information Office to handle information flow. As he had just explained to the chief of information’s replacement.

“To change that, I’m going to assign you Lieutenant Colonel Tremont, my senior aide.” He gestured to the slim, dark lieutenant colonel accompanying him. “He can cut through any red tape you may encounter. We so far have no indication that the Posleen use battlefield intelligence. I’ve already cut half of the red tape out and decided you can report on just about anything you generate while you’re in here. I’m giving you one hundred percent access to my areas of responsibility. You basically have Top Secret clearance and assumed Need-To-Know on anything related to this invasion. If anyone has any questions about that they can direct them to me after they have answered your questions.”

Argent looked momentarily stunned. “Thank you, sir. Are you sure about that?”

“This was the original plan, believe it or not. I have to communicate effectively not only to my troops, but to the citizens of the United States. It is my job, my duty, to protect them and keep them informed of dangers to the best of my ability. The best way to do that is through you,” he gestured at the TV crew, “and your radio friends.” He gestured at the representatives from ABC Radio.

“Pardon me,” he continued, turning to the print journalists and photographers, “but you guys come last.” That got a laugh.

“So, shall we start?” asked Bob.

“What, we haven’t already?” Jack said with another cold smile.

“Well…” Argent temporized. He hadn’t dealt much with the Continental Army commander but he recognized the smile as a bad sign.

“Hasn’t your cameraman been filming the whole thing?” asked Horner, shortly. “And unless I’m an idiot, everybody is taking notes.”

“Okay,” admitted Argent. “In that case: General Horner, it has been an hour since the Posleen came out of hyperspace. What’s happening?” The cameraman lifted the minicam to his shoulder to get a steadier shot.

“There’ve been some space battles between the fighter patrols and the converted frigates that were on station, but this incursion has been outside all the expected parameters,” responded Horner formally. “The Posleen are here in greater strength than we anticipated, they are more bunched than we were expecting not only on the basis of Galactic reports but on the basis of our own experience on Barwhon and Diess. Last but not least, they came out unusually close to the Earth; dangerously close in fact.

“Because of all of this the Fleet has been unable to engage them with any sort of strength. They are coming down more or less untouched, while we have lost quite a few of the fighters and frigates that engaged them. I have to say this, those Fleet people did a hell of a job given the disparity of the forces they faced. Their efforts were just outstanding.”

“Can we get a look at some video?” asked one of the radio personalities.

“We’ll get some of that in from the Operations center in a moment. Having said the other, about total access, I want you to understand that we have a job to do and we need to do it to the best of our ability. Understand?”

“Yes,” replied the reporters, wondering when the hammer was going to fall.

“I don’t have time to draw any of my people off their duties; so we’re going to go into the CIC to meet the players. They are all very busy trying to save our country, so be polite. This is a very quiet, serene place where people concentrate very hard: no disruptions. Think of it like a war library. No shouts for a quote, no flash photography, no camera lights.” He fixed them with a blue, basilisk stare until all of them had nodded in compliance. “If any of you do any of those things in CIC, I’ll have you thrown out of this building by a suit of combat armor. He will have orders to shot-put you into the Potomac.” The river was nearly a mile away. The reporters were fairly sure it was hyperbole, but looking at the grim-faced, cold-eyed general, they were not absolutely sure.

“After the CIC, I’ll hook you up with a couple of our technical people who will try to integrate our systems with yours. I want you guys to know where the landings are going to be as fast as I do. But no disruptions. The American people cannot afford them. Your families cannot afford them. Clear?”

“Clear,” answered the sobered journalists. Never had a situation like this occurred, where the people they were interviewing were in charge of saving not only their lives, but the lives of their families and loved ones. In real time. Usually, rattling a subject or throwing an unanswerable question at them was the best way to get a really juicy quote. Those techniques suddenly seemed like a bad idea. Rattled would be bad. Argent looked around and saw the other reporters coming to the same sobering conclusion.

Horner and his aide led them down a short corridor and over to an MP-guarded door. On the far side was a small antechamber and beyond a large, darkened room filled with a mixture of Terran and Galactic technology. On the far side of the room was a giant Mercator projection showing a number of orbit lines in green, blue and red and five large ovals designating possible landing areas. The outside of the ovals, where they were discrete, was yellow and they shaded inward through orange to red. One was centered on the Atlantic, another on the Pacific, a third on Southeast Asia to India, one on Central Asia and one on Africa. The TV cameramen started filming, not sure if the screens would show well enough to broadcast. The quiet atmosphere reminded him of a surgery, everyone concentrating on their individual tasks for an overall good.

The possible areas for Posleen landings were still vast; the Atlantic oval spread from Chicago to Berlin. The Africa oval overlapped the Southeast Asia oval. The very edge of the Pacific oval overlapped the Southeast Asia oval near the Philippines. In all they nearly circumnavigated the northern hemisphere.

“Full house spread,” whispered a reporter from the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

“This screen used to be covered with satellite tracks,” pointed out Lieutenant Colonel Tremont in a whisper. “The remaining military satellites and facilities are the green tracks, while the blue tracks are remaining commercial facilities.”

“Yeah,” whispered the CNN producer in return. “We’re mainly going out on dedicated landlines to cable operators and on the Internet. Cell, pagers and phones are mostly down.”

“This screen is, obviously, not used for tactical operations,” Colonel Tremont explained. “But it is useful for getting an overall picture.”

“Colonel,” Argent asked quietly, putting on his reporter face, “is the loss of the satellites going to degrade the quality of your artillery fire and command and control? I understand that most development in those areas has concentrated on global positioning satellites.”

“It would, yes, except for the extraordinary work over the last three years of the United States Geological Survey Service. Using a mixture of military, civilian and volunteer personnel, they have put in survey markers across the country, in most areas no more than a kilometer apart. In turn, the location and elevation of the markers have been put into a universal target database. Now, whenever an artillery unit gets into place, they just find the distance and elevation to the nearest UTD point and input that data. That gives them their location to the millimeter. Other units use a similar although slightly less accurate system. So, yes, it will be a pain, but with the UTD we have effectively replaced GPS.”

“What about targeting the enemy? Didn’t that depend on the GPS as well?”

“Same thing, only backwards. The forward observer determines his distance and elevation to the nearest UTD and his distance and elevation to the target and sends the raw data to the targeting computers. It all can be done with a special laser range-finding system. The targeting computer crunches the numbers and assigns the fire to the appropriate guns. It’s incredibly automatic.”

“Will it work?” asked the Journal Constitution reporter.

“Ah, well that is the question isn’t it?”

“You said something about connecting our equipment up, General,” interjected the producer.

“Of course, let me introduce Major George Nix.” General Horner gestured for one of the hovering officers and the slight, bespectacled major hurried over from one of the displays.

“Major Nix came out of Space Command and is our tactical systems officer. The TacSO is the officer in charge of making sure all the systems integrate and are maintained, as opposed to the tactical actions officer, Colonel Ford. Colonel Ford — we call him the TacCO — is in charge of making the moment-to-moment tactical decisions.

“Major Nix, can you get these journalists a feeder screen and somehow hook their cameras up? I want to make sure that everyone in the United States has up-to-the-minute access to all the data we are generating.”

“Yes, sir, we anticipated this.” He turned to one of the video technicians. “Come with me.”

Nix led the tech out of the room, the reporters following and quietly making notes about the intense atmosphere in the room. He led them down the corridor and into a well-lit chamber where two specialists and a slightly overweight staff sergeant were arguing at a display.

“Sergeant Folsom, ‘One If By Land.’ And do it fast.”

“Yes, sir.” The two specialists hurried out of the room as the sergeant went around configuring displays. As he worked he talked. “Gentlemen, we had anticipated this, so you will get more functionality than you would expect, but less than you are used to. I’m setting up two displays for the print and radio guys, and we’ll feed you to your headquarters, ABC, over RealAudio, so you can do your radio thing over the Net. The Net is busy right now, but the usage is not as high as a normal business day so you should have good connectivity.

“The consoles use a simple graphic user interface. Right-click on an area of the map and it will zoom down to a fineness of about six hundred miles on a side. It’s not a political map. It’s drawn from satellite imagery, so somebody had better be up on their geography.”

“Sergeant,” asked the CNN producer, appropriating one of the consoles, “is there any way to run a second audio feed back to CNN?”

“Sure, if somebody there has Interphone or NetMeeting.”

“Where?”

The sergeant walked over and tapped at the next console. “What’s their URL?”

Within minutes the sergeants and the specialists, returned from rerouting Internet T-3 lines to increase the room’s available bandwidth, had configured all of the backup CIC consoles to support the media effort. The reporters were practically speechless.

“Sergeant,” said the CNN producer, as she finished preparing the headquarters’ team for the next round of reports, “when this is all over, if you ever need a job, come see me.”

“I’ll think about it, when this is all over.” The question of when it would be over and whether any of them would be around to see it was unspoken.

“Well, now all we do is wait,” said Argent, watching the ovals of probable landing areas reduce on his monitor.

“What about reporting on the personnel being called back to duty?” asked the video technician, watching the feed on his own monitor to ensure the “take” was working.

“That’s being reported on in Atlanta.”

“Poor bastards.”

* * *

“Bye, honey,” said Mike, shrugging into his silks top.

“Bye, Daddy,” said Cally, looking up at him with round eyes.

“You listen to Grandpa, all right? And be a good girl.”

“I will, Daddy. When the Posleen come we get a few, then run and hide. Stop, drop and roll, right?”

Unless they’re right on top of you.

“And then I’ll come dig you out,” he promised.

“Right,” she said, face twisting as she tried not to cry.

“Take care, son,” said his father, proffering a Mason jar for the road.

“Too right, the last time in the body and fender shop was enough. Getting shot smarts.”

“Long drive.”

“Too long. They’ll be down before I’m in South Carolina.” He looked at the Mason jar, shrugged and took a hit. The fiery liquor felt good going down. He sealed it and tossed it in his bag.

“How you going?”

“Want to know if I’m going to be in a landing path?”

“Something like that. The Twenty-Fourth Tennessee Volunteers are right up the road as the Tennessee Divide reserve and the whole Fifty-Third Infantry is holding Rabun Gap. So we’re probably going to be fine. You, on the other hand, are driving up to Pennsylvania. So, are you taking the plains or the mountains?”

“I’m still trying to decide. The plains would be faster, even with the interstates doglegging away from the Gap. But, that is a possible landing area according to Shelly, so…”

“So. Which way?”

“Mountains,” Mike decided. “Up Interstate 81. Better to be caught in traffic jams than in a landing.”

“Want a piece?” A Glock 9mm appeared by legerdemain in the old man’s hand.

“No, I’m packed. Speaking of which.” He reached into his bag and pulled out a finely carved wooden box. The wood was an odd shade of lavender-brown Mike Senior had never seen before. Mike Junior handed it to Cally. “I was going to leave this with your Grandpa as a birthday present, but I think now would be a good time to give it to you.”

She was puzzled by the latch, a circular pattern similar in appearance to a maze, with no obvious buttons. Pulling on the sections caused them to lift, and they could be twisted on their axes but none of the actions seemed to open the box.

“It’s an Indowy puzzle box, which I don’t, unfortunately, have time to let you work through. Watch.” He lifted three sections and twisted them until the sections joined together to form a pattern reminiscent of a multiheaded dragon. When slid back into place, the latch released and the top opened as the serpent seemed to writhe off the box and into a circuitous dance. The fire-breathing hologram danced above the open box as Cally gasped at the contents.

“I’m still getting presents from Indowy clans over Diess. Most of them I pass on to the survivors or their families, but this I couldn’t resist.” In the box, cradled in a lustrous silken foam were a gilded pistol and two magazines.

“I’ve got a case of ammunition for this out in the truck. The powers-that-be still frown on grav-guns in civilian hands but this is a pulser gun. It fires pulse darts. Each of the darts has an electrical charge in it powerful enough to kill an elephant, much less a Posleen. There are twenty-four darts in a clip. It’s accurate to about a hundred yards with a good hand.” He pulled a clip out of his cargo pocket. “This is a clip of practice ammunition and you can reuse an expended dart as practice ammo. But to fire it in practice, you have to charge the onboard capacitor.” He turned to Mike Senior. “It charges on 220.”

“No sweat.”

“Thanks, Daddy,” said Cally, picking it up and feeling the heft. “It’s small.”

“It’s designed for Indowy, not that they would ever use it. It’s made out of lightweight boron polymers. The charge on a dart is adjustable, so it can be nonlethal. And it’ll take down a Posleen, unlike your Walther.” The small-frame pistol was notorious for jamming, but it was one of the few in the world that both fit her hand and had a decent-sized round. Since the Posleen were not going to be stopped by an itsy-bitsy little .380 low-velocity, Papa O’Neal had tapped and filled its bullets with mercury. The Posleen that caught one might not be killed but it was going to know it had been kissed.

“Umm,” she asked, carefully turning it so as not to point at either adult, “how do you clear it and where is the damn safety?”

Mike laughed and pulled out a computer disk. “Here’s the manual, read it on your laptop. For the time being you have to trust me that it is empty.”

“Thanks, Daddy.” She grinned, putting the pistol back in the case. “You’re swell.”

“Get some practice with it right away. I know you’re good with that James Bond gun, but this has more stopping power and is better suited for your hands. I’d prefer you get familiar with it in case you have to use it.”

“Okay.”

He tousled her hair, thinking that she looked a lot like her mother must have at the same age. “You stay safe, okay, pumpkin?”

“Okay.” She was tearing up again, the excitement of the gift giving way to the fear of the moment.

“And you listen to your Grandpa.”

“You already said that.”

“I’m sorry we didn’t get up to the base so you could see my unit.”

“It’s okay, we can after you kick their asses back into space.”

Mike Junior looked significantly at Mike Senior, who shrugged his shoulders, unrepentant. “What do you want, a little lady or a little warrior?”

Mike picked her up and hugged her gently. “G’bye, pumpkin.”

“Bye, Daddy.” She bucked a little in his arms, holding back the sobs.

He set her down, grabbed his bag and headed out the door.

They followed him downstairs and out the front door where he removed the case of pulser darts from the front of the Tahoe, handed it to his dad and threw in his bag. He took his daughter in his arms one last time.

“And if they land here, what do you do?”

“Shoot, scoot and hide.”

“Okay.”

“Don’t worry about us, Daddy, you’re going to be on the sharp end.”

“Are you worried about me, pumpkin?” asked Mike, honestly surprised.

“Uh-huh.” She started to cry.

“Oh, pumpkin,” he smiled, putting on his mission face, “don’t worry about me.” He slipped on his Milspecs, wrapped Shelly around his head as a hands-free communicator and smiled ferally. “I’ve finally got the Posleen right where I want them. They don’t know it, but they’re about to get the whole can of kick-ass.” He looked out at the fields he had grown up in and thought for a moment about what he had said. The company was trained and ready. He was trained and ready. They could do this. The company believed it. The battalion commander and staff believed it. Regiment was as sure as if it were a steel-hard certainty.

Now if he could only convince himself.

* * *

Mueller, meantime, was getting on a different kind of mission face, as were Mosovich, Ersin and Keene. Keene’s proposed plan for the defense of Richmond was not meeting with the approval of the mayor or the city engineer.

“We thought you were going to come up with a compromise plan, Mr. Keene, not a new plan to destroy the city,” snarled the mayor, banging the conference table.

“It is not intended to destroy the city, Mr. Mayor, only a small portion of it.”

“And it does not provide for the defense of the outskirts whatsoever,” noted the city engineer, poring over the detailed plan that Mueller’s AID had printed out on their arrival.

“Fortress Forward does not intend the defense of the majority of the city,” interjected the corps engineer, “as we have pointed out time and again.”

The corps commander motioned him subtly to back off, more than familiar with the old argument between the two. “This firesack of Schockoe Bottom actually looks like precisely what the Fortress Forward program is all about, but it only makes provisions for one outer fort,” he continued, “instead of the suggested multiple.”

“Yes, but it makes best use of the available terrain,” noted Keene. “This is really the only area where you have two useable terrain features to emplace on and catch the Posleen in a crossfire. And the outer fortress can provide fire support if the forces are forced to retreat towards Newport News.”

“What about the rest of the city? What about south Richmond? Our primary industrial area?”

Colonel Braggly was again waved down by the corps commander as Keene answered. “It is indefensible. Period. With the exception of a few gently rolling knolls, the James is the only noticeable terrain feature.

“There are four scenarios to work with here, gentlemen,” Keene said in an iron voice, “and we have to be very clear about what they are. Sergeant First Class Mueller, what is the best-case scenario for Richmond?”

“The Posleen land beyond masking terrain features, effectively out of range to cause us harm.”

“Right,” agreed Keene. “In which case, a few days later a portion of the corps rolls out to wherever they are needed.”

“What?” shouted the mayor. “Why the hell are you going to do that?” he snarled, turning to the corps commander.

“To support those in need, Mr. Mayor,” replied the corps commander, calmly. “I would hope that other corps would do the same for us. No, I know they would; it would be the right military decision and so ordered. Of course, if the Posleen land well away from here, other units would react. We’re not going anywhere if they land in California.”

“Yes, sir, but I was thinking if they landed south of the Broad River or north of the Potomac, for example,” noted Keene. “Now, Master Sergeant Ersin, what is the worst-case scenario?”

“They land directly on us,” he said to universal grimaces. His own scarred face remained stone-faced, eyes remote.

“And in that case,” Keene said, with an almost unnoticeable twinkle in his eyes for the moment of levity, “we activate our GOTH Plan.”

“Our what?” asked the city engineer.

“Our Go-To-Hell plan,” answered Mosovich, face as stony as Ersin’s.

“The plan you use when all your other plans have failed,” noted the corps commander, nodding his head at the clued-in civilian engineer.

“Your ‘On Deadly Ground Plan,’ as it is sometimes called,” interjected the otherwise silent corps chief of staff.

“Our ‘we are fucked’ plan,” Keene clarified, “will be to destroy the city, Mr. Mayor, because there will be no survivors anyway and we might as well leave the Posleen a smoking ruin. Mine every building, blow up every block as they come to it. Leave not one edible scrap of food including humans, destroy the bodies as we go. Kill as many Posleen as we can, but most of all, make it very plain that fighting humans is a losing proposition: All you get is sorry, hungry and sore.” He looked around the room and for once saw consensus.

“You might make that Virginians,” corrected the city engineer with a slight, sad smile.

“As you will. Ah, sir, am from the Great State of Juwjah, Ah will have you know.” It was good for a little laugh. “But that is the absolute worst-case scenario. There are two more, anyone care to take a stab?”

“They land either north or south of the James, but not right on us,” said the corps commander, “we’ve gotten that far.”

“Right. Now, if they have landed south of the James, my professional recommendation is to pull back across the James and wait for support. Maybe do some things with the bridges and the floodwall on that side, in the way of sucking them in, but basically the south side is open terrain and you’ll just have to sit on this side and pound them with artillery. On the other hand, if they land on the north side we probably have the time to implement the fire-trap plan. If we get started right away.”

“You already said it is pointless if they don’t land between the Potomac and the James. It might not even work if they land north of Fredericksburg,” argued the City Engineer. “In that case, I don’t think we could get the support of the owners of those facilities for the demolition work.”

“We don’t need it,” pointed out the corps engineer. “Necessary defensive works under the emergency war provisions. We have eminent domain.”

“That could be tied up in court for days,” bemoaned the mayor.

“They can apply for just reparations,” said the corps commander, “but that is all.”

“Yes,” said Keene, “that has all been covered in the PDC program. The private owner just does not have a leg to stand on if the property falls under the heading of necessary defensive structures as defined by the area commander, which is General Keeton,” he noted, gesturing at the Corps Commander at the head of the table. “He can order it with no debate now or in the future, if he, in his sole opinion, feels it militarily justified.”

“On the other hand,” noted General Keeton, with a frown, “we will absolutely require the help of the entire civilian populace. We cannot afford to antagonize the city and certainly not its leaders,” he concluded, gesturing at the mayor and the engineer. “We will need your complete and undivided support.”

“Do we really have to destroy Schockoe Bottom?” asked the mayor, plaintively. “It’s an eyesore and a crime zone, but there’s a lot of history there.”

“Mr. Mayor,” said Mueller gently, “whether today, or in the next year, a whole new book in the history of Richmond is about to be written. The only question is whether there will be anyone to write it.”

The mayor looked at the city engineer, who shook his head in resignation. “I still say we could have circumvalleted the entire city.”

“Maybe we could have,” nodded Keene, “but we’re out of time and it would have thrown away our best terrain features. There is no way, in Fortress Forward, to save the city as a functioning entity. Rather, the idea is to absolutely screw the Posleen while retaining the historic core.”

The corps commander nodded. “Correct. Mr. Mayor? Mr. City Engineer? I need your active support in this. Are you with us?”

The mayor nodded his head. “Yes, yes.” He looked at the engineer, who nodded his own head mutely. “Yes, we are.”

“All right,” said the corps commander turning to the corps engineer, “initiate Mr. Keene’s plan, modifying as you see fit while staying within the overall plan.”

“What do we call it?” asked the Chief of Staff.

“How ’bout Operation Abattoir?” joked Mueller.

“Actually,” said the corps commander, who had planned more than one antiarmor defense against aggressor cavalry forces, “I prefer ‘Operation Big Horn.’ ”

The military guys laughed while the civilians looked confused. “Why Big Horn?” asked the mayor.

“First you suck ’em in…” answered Mueller in explanation.

“Then you blow the shit out of ’em,” finished Ersin with eyes as dead as a shark’s.

* * *

“Gentlemen,” said Sergeant Folsom, poking his head in the room, “you might want to start a feed; the computers are about to give final projections on Posleen landings.”

For the past hour the newsmen had been giving almost continuous live reports but, except for the narrowing of the potential landing ovals, it had been much of the same. It amazed the CNN producer that anything could be so terrifying and boring at the same time.

Argent got up and stood in front of the American flag that had been procured from a nearby general’s office, preparing to say his piece as the technician checked the live feed from the defensive computers again. All of the ovals were discrete, now, and the Atlantic oval, with the exception of an attenuated end that made it look like a comma, had shifted almost completely away from the European continent. It appeared the Europeans were going to sit this one out.

“In three, two, one…”

“We have just been informed that the defensive system computers are about to determine the final Posleen objectives. As we have been telling you, until the Posleen globes definitively commit to a reentry trajectory, the landing areas remain only possibilities. Now, however, there are signs that the Posleen are about to commit to definite targets.

“They have had one orbit of the world, under fire from the available Fleet Fighters, as has been reported from Palo Alto, and by now they must have picked their targets.” At a call from the producer he hastily finished, “We now cut to the live feed from the defensive computers…”

* * *

And Colonel Robertson leaned towards the wardroom TV, taking a pull on his pipe…

* * *

And Little Tommy Sunday stopped packing his war bag and turned to the radio in his room…

* * *

And Lieutenant Young stopped compulsively reviewing demolition plans…

* * *

And General Keeton turned away from the mayor and towards the TV in his office…

* * *

And throughout the world, people stopped whatever they were doing, pulled over in their cars or set down their burdens and waited for the American Defense Command, or Russian Army Headquarters, or Japanese Defense Forces Headquarters or Chinese Red Army Headquarters, to place the seal on their fates, whether for good or ill.

“The ovals are shrinking rapidly now,” continued Argent coolly. “So we are going to zoom in on the American landing. I’ll keep you updated on the other zones and when the final points are determined we will zoom back out and note their particular areas.

“We can definitely say, at this time, that there is little or no chance of a landing in Australia, South America, Central America, Europe or Russia. There is very little chance of a landing in the Midwestern United States. It mainly looks like West Africa, India or Bangladesh, Coastal Northern China, the Eastern United States and somewhere around Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan.

“The ovals are shrinking. The American oval is centering on the eastern seaboard between Philadelphia and… somewhere in central South Carolina. Getting smaller…”

The oval abruptly collapsed and turned a complete malignant red. “The area is now centered on Washington, D.C…” he continued with a note of strain building in his voice as cold adrenaline jetted into his stomach…

And shifted south…

“Richmond, Virginia…”

North and smaller…

“Washington…”

And finally centered between the two, straddling a river. It began to pulse an evil crimson, the vague outline of a city on the computer-generated map in the center like a pupil. Argent just paused for a moment, shocked by the evil icon blazing out from the console.

“The target,” he paused for a moment to compose himself, “the target, ladies and gentlemen, is Fredericksburg, Virginia.”

CHAPTER 32

Fredericksburg, VA, United States of America, Sol III

1950 EDT October 9th, 2004 ad

They send us in front with a fuse an’ a mine,
To blow up the gates that are rushed by the Line,
But bent by Her Majesty’s Engineers,
Her Majesty’s Royal Engineers
With the rank and the Pay of a Sapper!

Now the Line’s but a man with a gun in his hand,
An’ Cavalry’s only what horses can stand,
When helped by Her Majesty’s Engineers,
Her Majesty’s Royal Engineers
With the rank and the Pay of a Sapper!

Artillery moves by the leave o’ the ground,
But we are the men that do something all round,
For we are Her Majesty’s Engineers,
Her Majesty’s Royal Engineers
With the rank and the Pay of a Sapper!

— From “Sappers” Rudyard Kipling, 1896

“Dependents are on their way in, Colonel,” said the supply officer, the S-4. The “Four” had taken over the job of Civil and Dependent Affairs; he was out of any other job. All the equipment and ammunition was issued and there wasn’t going to be a resupply.

“For all the good it will do,” noted the Charlie company commander. “They’re due to land in fifteen or twenty minutes.”

“None of that,” said Colonel Robertson. “We do what we can do, and all that we can do. The telemetry looks like the Posleen are going to be spread hither and yon. The probable landing zone stretches from over the Potomac in Maryland to Spotsylvania County. They seem to be spreading out to surround Fredericksburg and the area immediately around the township will be clear. Captain Avery,” he turned to the supply officer, “get the dependents who are under sixteen years of age headed into town with their available parent. That will give them a few more minutes. Who knows, the horse might still sing. Put the other ones to work.”

“Doing what?” the S-4 asked.

“Setting up our Go-To-Hell Plan. Captain Brown,” Robertson turned to the Charlie commander and began snapping out commands, rapier fast, “start entrenching around the city center, with outliers to the interstate but no farther.”

“Yes, sir,” said the company commander, noting the instructions down in his green leader’s notebook.

“Four, have someone call the radio station and tell them to start broadcasting for anyone with heavy equipment to come to—”

“The Mary Washington College parking lot,” interjected the executive officer. He and the operations officer had taken over the tactical map from the two privates who normally updated it and were sketching in a battle plan. The battalion staff and company commanders had been together for years, as was common with National Guard units. At this point they could practically read each other’s minds.

“Good,” said Robertson. He was new to the unit, but he had already recognized that it had a superior staff for a “part-time” unit. And they were coming together beautifully. If he could keep up the momentum and keep them from falling into depression they would teach these centaur bastards a thing or two. “And call for all noncombatants to head for the city center, coordinate with Public Safety on where. Bravo company…”

“Start mining the Chatham bridge…” said Captain Avery, the Bravo company commander, glancing at the map on the wall.

“And the railroad bridge and the Jeff Davis, but not the I-95 bridge; it’s too far out,” agreed the commander.

“I’ll take some of the older dependents with me for gophers. If any of them have a clue I’m arming them.”

“Approved, we’re shorthanded.” Many of the personnel had chosen to remain home rather than respond to the recall.

“Some of those AWOLs will be coming in now, if they can make it,” Avery pointed out. “There’s nowhere to run.”

“And nowhere to hide,” remarked Brown, the Charlie commander, darkly. “Jesus Christ,” he whispered, his mind on his wife and two sons gathering with the other dependents on the armory drill floor.

“Gentlemen,” said the colonel, glad that his children were grown and well away from here. “Many of you have wives and children out in the armory. There is not a lot I can say. There’s just not time for you to run, or I would say ‘Run like hell.’ The landing will happen in moments; if you tried to get out from under the interdiction circle you would run right into it.

“As I told Lieutenant Young,” he said with a nod at the introspected assistant division engineer, “the best we can do is hold them back for as long as possible, make it as painful as possible for them, and ensure that the deaths of our loved ones are quick and relatively painless. We should also try to determine some manner by which we can destroy as many stocks of food as possible before we are overrun. We must, unfortunately, include ourselves in that equation; we’ve all seen the reports from Diess and Barwhon.

“Stay straight, keep your troops in hand and do the mission. Our only choice is to stand. We shall stand like Americans have always stood at a moment such as this, on our feet, heads up and fighting,” he concluded. “Now get out and do it.”

As the two company commanders and the staff filed out Lieutenant Young gestured for the battalion commander to remain a moment.

“Sir?” said the young lieutenant.

“Yes, Lieutenant? You’ve been quiet.”

“I have been thinking about what you said at the first briefing, about how in this situation we would all die and all of our loved ones.”

“And now it comes to fruition,” the colonel snapped. Then he relented. “Your point?”

“That is my point, sir. Does it have to happen?”

“There is nowhere to run, son, and the forces outside the pocket are not going to charge in and rescue us.”

“Yes, sir,” admitted the lieutenant in a distracted tone. “But eventually, in two or three weeks, maybe a little longer, we, that is the United States, will have retaken this area. And we’ve got enough demo to destroy every bridge in Virginia.”

“We can’t hold out for two or three weeks against upwards of four million Posleen with a short battalion of light engineers.” The colonel mused for a moment on a couple of terrain features last used in the Civil War but the situation was fundamentally different and he shook off the unreal idea.

“No, sir, our death is a foregone conclusion, I accept that, intellectually, but what about the dependents?” the acting assistant division engineer continued, abstractedly. His eyes, concealed behind thick glasses, began blinking rapidly.

“Lieutenant…”

“That’s it!” the junior officer blurted with a snap of fingers.

“What?”

“I was trying to figure out… Look, sir… damn, this is complicated.”

“Hold on, son, what are you talking about?”

“Okay,” the ADE paused and nodded his head as the last piece of the puzzle fell into place. “Okay, sir, here goes. I’m from here, most of you officers aren’t. I got into the history of Fredericksburg in high school really heavily and one of the things I learned is that there are tunnels under the city, mostly forgotten, connecting into basements. Now, if we just stash the women and children in the tunnels the Posleen will find them, right?”

“Hold on, who knows about these tunnels? I’ve never heard of them! Where they are and how large are they?” asked the surprised battalion commander, hearing of the feature for the first time.

“I don’t know where most of them are, sir, but somebody will,” the lieutenant answered. “They were used in the old days, like the nineteenth century, to move supplies up from the river. They’re not very well-known, even to locals, but I’m sure that someone in EMS or city engineering will know where they are. They’d practically have to.”

“All right, we’ll get past that,” said the colonel. “The Posleen will still sniff them out.”

“Yes, sir, so we have to make the Posleen think there is nothing left to find in Fredericksburg.”

“And we do that…” asked the colonel, quizzically.

“By setting off a real mother of an explosion,” said the junior officer excitedly. “If I had a nuke it would be perfect.”

“But we don’t have one.”

“Quarles Gas is right outside of town, sir,” the lieutenant pointed out. “Fill up a couple of the buildings with natural gas and set them off. Can you say, ‘F-A-E’?”

The colonel opened his mouth to rebuke the idea then pulled out his pipe and began tamping it in thought.

A fuel-air explosive, FAE, was the next best thing to a nuclear weapon.

During Desert Storm the United States Air Force dropped pamphlets — helpfully translated into Arabic — on the Iraqi lines explaining that at 10 a.m. on a certain date they would drop a fuel-air bomb on an area which was held by a brigade of the Iraqi Republican Guard. The pamphlets went on to explain that the weapon would have the effect of destroying all the life in a two-square-kilometer area and be severely damaging out to three square kilometers. All personnel in the affected area were urged to evacuate before they dropped the FAE, to reduce needless loss of life.

Naturally, Saddam Hussein — that polite and abstemious gentleman — derided the idea that such a weapon existed. So at 10 a.m., a battalion and a half of soldiers, over eight hundred human beings, were wiped from the face of the earth in a pair of milliseconds. The Air Force spokesperson promptly held a press conference to defuse Saddam’s natural reaction that America had initiated first use of weapons of mass destruction.

The next day the United States Air Force dropped pamphlets — helpfully translated into Arabic — on the Iraqi lines explaining that at 10 a.m. on a certain date they would drop a fuel-air bomb on an area which was held by a brigade of the Iraqi Republican Guard. The next FAE took no lives, but did leave a three-mile-wide stretch of the lines open to advances. At least three Iraqi officers, however, are known to have lost their lives trying to stop the mutinying troops from retreating out of the area of effect.

“That’s ‘Can you say FAE, sir,’ ” the colonel corrected, distractedly.

“Right, sir.”

“Yes, I can. So we hide as many women and children in these tunnels as we can, then we set off an FAE.”

“Yes, sir,” answered the excited lieutenant.

“Then what?”

“Then it kills a lot of Posleen, they think everything is destroyed and go away in frustration.”

“And the women and children dig themselves out of a series of collapsed tunnels? Into a possibly hostile environment? Do you happen to know how they are constructed?”

“No, sir,” answered the lieutenant. It was a good question. If the tunnels were not structurally sound, the overpressure from the shock wave would collapse them on the very people they were trying to save.

“What the structural integrity and overburden are?”

“No, sir,” said the crestfallen civil engineer.

“Well, neither do I,” mused the commander. “Obviously we don’t have all the answers. You know, I think that our alien friends have never read Sun Tzu.”

The young ADE nodded his head. “ ‘Cast them into positions from which there is nowhere to go and they will die without retreating.’ ”

“ ‘On dangerous ground one must devise stratagems, but on deadly ground do battle,’ ” concluded the battalion commander.

The sergeant major stuck his head in the conference room as the colonel nodded his head in turn. “Sir, it’s the fire chief, she’s here with a group of cops and firefighters to see what they can do.”

“Get them to the operations officer…”

“Sergeant Major, Colonel,” shouted the colonel’s driver, running past the sergeant major in the corridor. “You need to come outside and see this.” The officers and NCOs, perforce, followed.

* * *

Shari finally made it out of Target, after what seemed like hours and she only had half the things she felt like she needed. For once the problem was not money. By prior plan on the part of the Target corporation and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the store offered everything for free. One person had quipped that that really meant the world was coming to an end. The problem was reaching the merchandise.

Everyone in Fredericksburg seemed to have come to Central Square at once and there were fights breaking out everywhere. Twice she was sure she had lost Billy in the crowds and even as she fought through the crowds she had things snatched from her basket.

Finally she decided that whatever she had was going to have to do. All of her acquisitions were in four shopping bags, three that she carried along with the baby and one that Billy lugged. Two boxes of cereal bars, diapers, wipes, some bottled water and juice, a few batteries. It was not much to make a run for it.

She heard them saying that the Posleen were coming to Fredericksburg but wrapped in her own straitened world she had not assimilated it. As she fought through the crowds towards her distant car, the movement and noise around her dropped off, the crowd in front of her stopped. She was forced to stop as well and looked up with everyone else in the parking lot.

* * *

In the east, the sky was on fire. A new sun made up of hundreds of glowing red landing craft tight-packed into a giant disk was an eye of Baal descending upon the Virginia tidewater. The sight was unreal in the dusky afternoon sunshine, a blazing circlet of death picked out among the fleecy clouds and the darkening cerulean blue sky.

Every human in view of the spectacle stood transfixed as the circle grew and grew, swelling from a moon-sized ring to a horizon-spanning wall in moments. In the time it took to scream, the circle went from a speck to a ring to a blazing wall of fire and then snuffed out as the landing craft slowed below orbital velocities. As the meteoric reentry slowed, the individual ships could be picked out, the twelve-sided polygons of the command craft surrounded by their rings of protective landers. Moments later the sonic boom hit.

The sound was too large to be real, an aural Krakatoa beyond the ability for human hearing to accept. Most in the parking lot were driven to their knees and many lost their hearing permanently. None were spared.

* * *

Shari screamed with everyone else, her hands flying to her ears, for once matronly protectiveness being driven out by self-preservation. Billy and the other children were writhing on the ground in agony when the crowd began to surge. She snatched her children up, overcoming her own pain, dropped her hard-won possessions and stumbled into the lee of a truck that, for the moment, was stationary.

The crowd around her broke into riot as everyone individually did whatever they thought was the best for themselves. Some tried to get back into the stores, some ran for their cars, some, like Shari, huddled in the shelter of unmoving vehicles and some began firing randomly into the air. She held her babies as the world around her went mad and they screamed in pain and fear, from the riot as much as the sonic boom. Her ears ringing madly, she cradled her children in the space afforded by the shadow of the truck and waited for the panic to subside. Instead it increased, the crowd surging first one way and then the other as more shots rang out. She steeled herself to look, needing to know the cause of the newest panic and was nearly panicked herself as the shadow of an interstellar craft swept across the parking lot.

The lander drifted across the shopping center, like a zeppelin before a zephyr, and settled as gently as a dandelion seed onto Salem Church hill. The appearance of weightlessness was abruptly dispelled as the titanic craft, as tall as a fifteen-story skyscraper, dropped the last few feet.

As the reverberation of the landing crashed across the crowds, the lower fifty feet of the facet facing the parking lot dropped outward with another resounding clang. Moments later the Posleen came pouring out, a yellow tide of hunting centaurs.

Virtually every armed human, the vast majority of the immense crowd, pointed various weapons at the yellow mass and opened fire.

Shari on the other hand took one look at the tide of Posleen pouring out of the landing craft, put Kelly’s left hand in Billy’s, picked up the baby, took Kelly’s right hand and began walking towards town.

It was not hard. Just stand up, drop everything and go. Like the time that Rorie finally got too drunk and crazy. All the other times, the cops would tell her to go to the shelter but she stayed. She told them she would know when it was time. And it was time. Not hard, just pick the babies up, walk out, get in the car and drive. When the time came you just went. Maybe later there would be time to go back and pick up all the things you left behind. And maybe not. As long as you got away alive and unmaimed that was the thing.

Just walk away and keep walking. As guns go off on either side, and a high, whispery racket goes overhead with a crickety-crack. As a line of giant holes suddenly appear in a Jeep ahead of you, and the policeman that was firing from behind it flies backwards in a mass of intestines.

Just keep walking and don’t look back, as the crowd tries to pluck your babies away faster than the courts, and the chatter of alien voices and boom of alien guns comes closer.

CHAPTER 33

Richmond, VA, United States of America, Sol III

2025 EDT October 9th, 2004 ad

“The engineering companies of the Thirty-Sixth, Forty-Ninth and Hundred and Fifth Mechanized Divisions are on the way via I-95,” said the Twelfth Corps operations officer, looking at a flimsy. “The remainder of the divisions are going to take a back way across the James and blow it behind them. That will be it for Fort A.P. Hill. The dependents are already gone.”

The temporary headquarters that Twelfth Corps had set up in the First Union building was coming down. With the Posleen on the north side of the James, the area was going to get untenable fast. Already the sound of folding chairs and collapsing equipment could be heard in the background.

The meeting was taking place in a gorgeous fourth-floor conference room. The wonderful view to the east was about to be surrendered to the infantry. Present were a skeleton staff, the commander, some operations and intelligence officers, the major local commanders and the ubiquitous Special Forces representatives.

“My boys are ready to roll,” said Colonel Walter Abrahamson, commander of the First Squadron Twenty-Second Cavalry (Virginians), the armored cavalry unit assigned to the Richmond local area. The commander was as tall and broad as one of his armored behemoths, but his hooked nose and generally saturnine look bespoke his desert heritage. With his current grim and implacable expression he looked like a biblical plague preparing to spring forth upon the enemies of his people. A gold Star of David earring, strictly nonregulation, sparkled on his left earlobe.

“Unfortunately,” commented the corps commander, “we don’t have a mission for you.”

“Then let us go perform our traditional role.” The Cav commander smiled confidently. “Eyes and ears.”

“He’s got a point,” said the corps intelligence officer. “We’re effectively blind. All we know is that all communication into the Fredericksburg area is cut off. All the wireless communications are being jammed and we lost the last phone trunk about twenty minutes ago. There were a few Spotsylvania County sheriff’s deputies that made it out, but they’ve only been able to tell us where the Posleen aren’t. We still don’t know exactly where they are. We need to find out.”

“Sir,” said Sergeant Mueller, “they could do more than that. We can hit back.”

“Oh?” commented an Intel/Planning officer, looking askance at an NCO devising strategy. “The Cav is in Bradleys and Humvees. The Posleen open those like tin cans.”

“Yes, ma’am, if you put them out in the open. But I went out on 95 north and south last month, just nosing around. Coming down from Fredericksburg it’s pretty darn flat but there are a few areas where, with improvement, they could fire hull-down. Get them hull-down, fire at max engagement range, which with those twenty-five millimeters is, what two thousand meters?” he asked the Cav commander.

“About that,” agreed the Cav officer with a nod at the NCO.

“Call for a volley of fire and boogie out,” continued Mueller. “It will require some engineering support but just a couple of bulldozers. That way we both keep the enemy in view and slow them down.”

“You’ll take casualties,” said the corps commander, turning to the battalion commander, “and the few Posleen you kill will be a tithe of a tithe of their main force. Are you for it?”

“Yes, sir,” said the cavalry officer with understated enthusiasm. “That is a straightforward Cav mission. My boys are cocked, locked and ready to roll.”

“Very well. Sergeant Mueller, you and Master Sergeant Ersin head up the road,” said the corps commander. “Get with the corps engineer before you leave. Tell him to assign you some civilian construction equipment. Make a list.”

“Yes, sir,” said Ersin quietly.

“Colonel Abrahamson,” said the corps commander, “we have a battery of mobile one hundred fifty-five millimeter available. They’re the new Reaver model. Take it with you. As more come on-line, we’ll send the mobile units out to support you; the others we’ll be digging into Mosby and Libby Hills. Have your fire-support chief coordinate through corps artillery, since you’re effectively cut off from the rest of the Twenty-Second.”

The Lieutenant General smiled grimly. “Last, Colonel, I hope I don’t have to say this. You are not to become decisively engaged, not for any reason. Understand?”

“With upwards of four million Posleen?” The cavalry colonel chuckled dryly, with a rub of his thick, black hair. “General, my name’s Walter Jacob Abrahamson, not George Armstrong Custer.” The infamous cavalry general had been both blond and balding.

“And remind your men not to try to enter abandoned homes and businesses,” the corps commander commented, sadly. “It looks like the ‘Scorched Earth’ program is going to get an early test.”

* * *

Parker Williamson closed the front door, blotting out the sight of the Posleen lander that had crushed the Hawkes’s house at the end of Bourne Street. He had already closed the curtains on the unpleasant view out the back. He turned to face his wife, down whose face tears cascaded.

“Well,” he sighed, “I guess we drew the short straw.”

She nodded, unable to speak, as their oldest daughter entered the room.

“Is it gonna boom anymore, Mommy?” the four-year-old asked, dabbing at the passing tears.

“No, sweetie.” Jan Williamson gathered her composure, picking up the two-year-old as he toddled into the room, still crying from the painful sonic booms. “Not that we’ll notice.”

Parker locked the door and turned to a red panel by the standard home security system. The door swung open to reveal a key pad. A yellow light flashed above the pad and a beeping tone started.

“Federally Authorized Home Destruction System Mod One is activated. Posleen emanations detected, predestruct sequencing authorized. Enter code for command authorization.”

Parker punched in a code and hit set.

“State your name.”

“Parker Williamson.”

“Parker Williamson, are you at this moment in your right mind?” the box asked, beginning the federally mandated litany.

“Emergency bypass authorization.”

“Please key in second authorization as required by federal law.”

Jan walked over and keyed in a second sequence.

“What is your name?”

“Jan Williamson.”

“Jan Williamson, do you concur in setting the Federally Authorized Home Destruction System Mod One into function? Be aware that the system is monitoring Posleen emanations in the near area.”

“I do.”

The panel chuckled for a moment, checking that their voice prints were correct and then the light went red. At the same time the home security system turned on.

“Intruder detection system activated, autodestruct sequence activated.” In the basement of the house, two chemicals, harmless when separated, began to mix. “Destruct sequence will auto-activate upon unauthorized entry… may God protect and keep you.”

“Come on, honey,” said Jan Williamson, picking up their daughter in a big hug, “let’s go read Peter Rabbit…”

* * *

Lieutenant General Arkady Simosin, Tenth Corps Commander, the corps tasked with the defense of Northern Virginia and Maryland, humorously called “The Army of the Potomac,” looked at the giant blotch of red on his southern flank and wiped his mouth.

“Tell the Twenty-Ninth to pull his armored battalions back,” he told his G-3, pointing at the tactical display. “They’re too far forward. Empty Belvoir and Quantico, get them headed north of the Potomac. That’s going to be our defensive line.”

“Yes, sir. Sir, I called General Bernard. He said that he would only take that order from you directly and that he intended to drive into the Posleen flank to pull them off of Fredericksburg.”

“What?” the general asked incredulously.

“I just got off the horn with him.”

“Get him back.” The general fumed as contact was made with the subordinate commander.

“General Bernard?” he asked on speaker phone.

“Yes, General?”

“I believe the G-3 told you to pull your battalions back. I would like to know why you have refused.”

“I believe that I can put enough pressure on the Posleen to pull some of them off of Fredericksburg, possibly give the Two-Twenty-Ninth some time to organize a breakout.”

General Simosin considered General Bernard the epitome of the one officer you could do nothing with: active/stupid. A consummate politician, General Bernard had expended sweat and blood to become the Virginia Adjutant General — the senior military commander in the Virginia National Guard — in the days before the Posleen threat. With the rejuvenation of so many senior officers, such as Simosin, advancement had effectively stopped. General Bernard naturally blamed the rejuvenation program for his inability to advance to Lieutenant General.

In fact, the general had been strongly considered for relief for cause. He was chronically insubordinate, jumped the chain of command at every opportunity, was tactically unsound and refused to subordinate his units to either Tenth or Twelfth Corps. Instead he insisted that they remained distributed in penny packets throughout the state.

Now he held true to every negative in his history and it was about to get his troops slaughtered. Unfortunately, General Simosin knew that if he put pressure on him the idiot would just jump to the First Army commander and get the order countermanded. It was worse than the damn Confederates! Well, too bad.

“General, you are ordered to round up your units and pull them across the Potomac. We cannot stop the Posleen short of that natural obstacle and I will not throw units away in a pointless gesture. That is an order, failure to follow it will result in your arrest.”

“Dammit, General, do you realize that that will throw away Alexandria, the Pentagon and Arlington Cemetery? Not to mention thousands of American citizens in Fredericksburg!”

“And Washington National Airport and Fort Belvoir. I can read a map. And I’m in that area at the moment, I might add. I am fully aware of those facts as is the Continental Army commander. He is evacuating the area even as we speak.”

“We can stop them! This isn’t Barwhon or Diess; common people are standing up to them everywhere and wearing them away. We can stop them at any point on the map! Just give me one brigade of the Forty-First Division, and we can stop them before Quantico.”

“Since I just ordered you to retreat, I could scarcely authorize a forlorn hope with someone else’s troops. General, pull your battalions back and do it now. Failure to do so will constitute violation of a direct order in combat. That is my final word.”

Simosin squeezed the tabletop, trying to keep the tension from coming through in his voice. Now, if the First Army commander would only have the sense to see reality. Even if he did not, CONARC was one hundred percent behind pulling across the Potomac.

“If that is your final word, General, very well.”

“Then you will pull your troops back? Let me be clear, both General Keeton and I agree that contact should be held until all necessary measures have been emplaced. Do not contact the Posleen without direct and clear orders to do so by either myself or General Keeton. Is that clear?”

“Yes. I will contact you when that withdrawal has been effected.”

“Very well, start them back immediately. Out here.” He turned back to the assembled staff that had listened to the call.

“And in the real world… how is the evacuation going?” General Simosin asked, taking a deep breath and turning to the Federal Emergency Management Agency representative.

“Fairly well, all things considered,” the FEMA rep replied. “We’ve opened up the HOV lanes into Washington and we’re routing the refugees through and out of town. It’s moving slow, but we should have most of northern Virginia evacuated by morning. It would help if we could open up a few of the lanes the military isn’t using.

“I know they are designated for defense use, but they’re being underutilized by your military forces. We could maintain one lane and an emergency lane for the military forces and it would more than handle what is moving currently.”

He turned to the G-3. “Are we going to have a big increase?”

“No, the convoys are pulling out of Belvoir and Quantico in a steady stream. We planned it that way and it’s taking about an hour per battalion to cycle them through beans and bullets. They shouldn’t pulse much. Most of them are headed towards D.C. also, but a few are being sent up the Prince William Parkway to Manassas. But I’m worried about civilian vehicles intruding on troop lanes.”

“Issue orders to disable any civilian vehicle in a military lane with all appropriate force. Have the order broadcast and displayed on those overhead signs, then turn over unutilized lanes to FEMA. Anything else?”

“No, we’re cutting all the corners we can,” replied the FEMA rep. “But when the Posleen start coming close, into contact, things could get out of hand.”

“Do you need troops?”

“We could use a few. MPs by preference.”

“G-3?”

“Three-Twenty-Fifth MP Battalion at your service, Madame.”

“Thank you,” the FEMA rep said. “That should cover it.”

“Get those civilians out of harm’s way; we’ll try to slow the centaur bastards down.” General Simonsin wiped his face and looked at the map projection.

“Now as to that. I don’t want to have even cavalry in contact; the Posleen move too fast and hit too hard. We will follow the Reticulan Defense Plan to the letter and pull fully across the Potomac. I have so informed First Army and CONARC. So, to slow them down, what do we do for engineers?” The corps engineering brigade was at Fort Leonard Wood going through a large-scale engineering exercise. The timing of the exercise was exquisite. Exquisitely lousy.

“The engineering companies of the Forty-First and Ninety-Fifth Divisions probably should accompany them, since they’ll have to dig in,” said the G-3.

“So, what do we use?” the commander asked again.

“Sir,” said one of the operations officers. “I called Fort Belvoir and, since they’ve reactivated the Fifty-Two Echo program there, they have plenty of combat engineering instructors and trainees. And there are the officers going through basic and advanced courses…”

“ ‘And to the strains of Dixie, the cadets marched off the field to war,’ ” Simosin quoted. “Well, that’s a start. Where do we deploy them?”

“The first real terrain obstacle the Posleen will encounter is at the Occoquan Estuary…” said the corps intelligence officer.

* * *

Second Lieutenant William P. Ryan — being a not quite graduate of the Basic Combat Engineers Officers’ course — did not know much about combat engineering. And he knew even less about combat in general. But he was willing to learn, even if this kind of makee-learnee was not particularly survivable. One look at the pitiable stream of refugees headed north on Interstate 95 was enough to make him determined to do his best.

Most of his classmates were rigging the I-95 and U.S. 1 bridges over the Occoquan River under the expert tutelage of their instructors. The senior instructor had decided that Ryan was a good-enough prospect that he was sent to destroy a bridge all on his own, and his “platoon” was rigging the 123 bridge under the guidance of an experienced instructor-sergeant. The platoon was a group of trainees from the enlisted combat engineers course along with their drill instructors and junior technical instructors. The interesting challenge in concrete cutting posed by the bridge he had left up to the much more experienced NCO instructors.

He crossed the river and walked down through the charming little town of Occoquan to get a better look at the far ridge from the Posleen’s perspective. The town was nestled along the south side of the river where it passed between two high ridges. The subsurface geology of the ridges created the falls that gave birth to the town and that were integrated into the Occoquan dam. That dam, in turn, created the reservoir that stretched from his location nearly to Manassas, twenty miles away.

As he stood just below Rockledge Manor he noticed a small footbridge crossing over the river just below the waterworks. He made a note to have a squad come over and rig it for demolition as well. The dam, on the other hand, was another matter.

If they dropped the dam, God only knew where the Posleen might be able to cross the Occoquan. After checking his map he guessed it would be somewhere around Yates Ford Road, half the distance they might otherwise have to travel. On the other hand, the Posleen could push forces across the dam itself. Not many or in great force, but any intrusion was to be dissuaded. And there was an older, partially submerged dam as well. He was unsure how to handle that tactical problem and decided to pass it up the line.

Walking rapidly back through the deserted town he got a strange feeling of sadness. He could remember the days before the Posleen were a word, before Earth knew it was in the path of an invasion. Even as America prepared, as more and more shortages occurred and liberties fell by the wayside in the race to get ready, the world was more or less the same as it had always been.

At that moment, striding rapidly back to where engineers under his command were preparing to destroy a major civil structure, he knew that this was truly the end of the golden age. That from now until an unforeseeable future man would be a hunted animal on his own world and that only God knew what the outcome would be.

* * *

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the loudspeaker boomed, “we need you to remain calm.” The crowd gathered behind the Fredericksburg Public Safety Building was mostly women and children. They had run from their homes in fear and fled to the only refuge they knew. There was plenty of room with all of the ambulances and police cars dispatched. The group huddled in the gathering dark, most of them knowing that by coming here they were only delaying the inevitable.

“We are working on a way to get you out,” continued the speaker, one of the remaining fire fighters, “and we just need you to remain calm.”

“He’s dreamin’,” said Little Tom Sunday in a monotone. Then, “Hiya, Wendy.”

Wendy Cummings spun around. Little Tom stood behind her with a pack on his back and duffel bag at his feet. He was wearing some sort of weird black padding that stretched almost to his knees, a black helmet like the soldiers wore and a pair of sporty sunglasses. Inside she sighed in exasperation. If there was one person she did not want to spend her last hours with, it was Little Tommy Sunday. But she might as well be polite.

“Hi, Tommy. What’s that stuff?” she asked out of curiosity, gesturing at the padding.

“Body armor,” he answered in a disinterested tone. “It won’t stop one of their railguns, but it’ll stop the shotgun rounds and spalling.”

Her eyes widened as she recognized it from “Real Police” shows. Officers had been shot at point-blank range wearing similar suits and survived. “Do you have any more?” she asked, hopefully.

“Well,” he answered, bending down stiffly to rummage in his duffel bag, “I don’t have any more Class One, but I’ve got a Safe-Tee, some T-shirt Kevlar.” He pulled the body armor out of the bag, revealing the contents. He glanced at her chest. “It might fit,” he ended doubtfully.

“Holy shit,” she gasped, “what-all do you have in there?” The bag gleamed with the bluing of lethal purpose. She recognized the shape of some sort of machine gun and other things she thought were grenades.

She had taken the school survival course, but only because it was required. But, since you didn’t have to pass, she had spent most of her time doing homework from other classes and passing notes to her friends. She barely recognized the items in the bag from familiarization.

“A few odds and ends,” he answered, zipping the bag shut.

“Do you… Could I borrow a gun or something?” she asked, trying to figure out the connections on the body armor.

“What would you do with it?” he asked, disgustedly, grabbing the Velcro and efficiently connecting first one underarm strap then the other.

“Try?” she asked, looking him in the eye for the first time in years. She suddenly realized that he was far taller than she thought; much taller than she was, which was a surprise. Everyone just thought of him as Little Tommy. He had been self-effacing for so long, it had made him appear short.

“You should have tried years ago,” he answered. He reached back into the duffel and brought out a short black pistol in a shoulder holster.

“You ever use one of these things before?” he asked rhetorically, dropping out the magazine and yanking back the slide to eject the round up the spout. He caught the 9mm round in the air like a trout after a fly.

“No,” she answered, intimidated by his suddenly revealed expertise.

“Okay.” He lifted up the magazine. “This is the gas, you fuel it like this.” He slid the magazine back into the well. “It’s fueled when you hear the click. You start it like this.” He jacked back the slide. “And,” he said, laying one finger lightly on the trigger as he pointed the weapon skyward and across the river, “this is the accelerator. You drive it by looking through the rear sights while focusing on the front sights. Place the white dot on the front sight across the V of the rear sights and pull on the accelerator real slow. There, the Tom Sunday School of Glock Driving.”

She accepted the weapon gingerly as he ensured she had it pointed up and downrange.

“So where is Park?” she asked dryly.

He took the weapon back, put it into the shoulder holster and handed her the rig. “There is no Park,” he said as he easily hefted the weapon-stuffed duffel. “See ya.”

“Where are you going?”

He looked at her for a moment and cocked his head to one side. “That stuff,” he noted, gesturing with his chin at the body armor, “is really supposed to go under your clothes. I’m heading up to somewhere on Charles or Princess Anne Street that has a good view,” he said, throwing the strap of the duffel across one shoulder, “then I’m going to smoke a whole pack of Marlboros waiting for the Posleen to show their heads. Then I’m going to die.” He smiled warm and quietly, as if asking her to deny the reality of that statement.

She smoothed the stomach of her armor unconsciously and went through a series of rapid mental readjustments. “Can I come with you? Maybe I can reload or something.”

“I sincerely doubt that there will be time to reload,” he answered, “but you would be extremely welcome. Now, to find a good spot on Charles Street,” he said, turning up the hill.

“How about Worth’s?” she suggested.

* * *

Bill Worth sat at ease in the rear of his store, a Franklin stove removing the last tinges of chill from the evening of this truly wearisome day. The large front room of the shop was redolent with the scent of old books and fine antiques. It was the scent of home.

He was spending what he considered to be his last few moments perusing an early edition of Moll Flanders that included some tracts not usually found outside of the editions published during Defoe’s era and sipping a Cóte d’Azur ’57 he had traded the previous year for a prototype Colt Peacemaker. As in all good business deals, both parties felt they got the better of the bargain.

He had just reached a condition of maximum comfort, his sockless loafers perched on an ottoman, his wine close at hand, when the door to the shop jingled as, most unexpectedly, a pair of customers entered.

“Feel free to look around, gentlemen,” he told the pair of soldiers, officers if his “Uniforms and Insignia of the United States Armed Forces” was any judge. “However, I prefer not to sell anything today. I have decided to maintain my collection intact for old sake’s sake.” He chuckled at the reference neither of the soldiers would possibly recognize.

“Hi, Mr. Worth, it’s me, Kenny Young,” said the younger officer, truly a babe-in-arms as it were.

“Ah, yes, young Mr. Young,” he said with another breathy chuckle. “The uniform befits you. I thought you were studying engineering?”