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

When the Devil Dances

John Ringo

After five years of battling invaders, human civilization prepares a strike to drive the aliens from the Earth. But the Clan-Lord of the Sten has learned from the defeats humans have dealt him, and has his own plan. When he squares off against Major O’Neal, the only winner will be Satan himself.

When the Devil Dances

by John Ringo

Call me not false, beloved,
If, from your scarce-known breast

So little time removed,
In other arms I rest.

For this more ancient bride,
Whom coldly I embrace,

Was constant at my side
Before I saw thy face.

Live, then, whom Life shall cure,
Almost, of Memory,

And leave us to endure
Its immortality.

— Rudyard Kipling “The Bridegroom” Epitaphs of the War

Dedicated to:

Thomas Burnett, 38, father of three, and all the other warriors of flight 93.

They died that others might live.

Posleen Invasion Timeline

October 9, 2004 — First Landing Five Globes: Landings: Fredericksburg, Central Africa, S.E. Asia, Uzbekistan.

July 28, 2005 — First Wave 62 Globes: Primary Landings: East Coast North America, Australia, India.

August 15, 2005 — Last Transmission: Australian Defense Command, Alice Springs.

April 12, 2006 — Second Wave 45 Globes: Primary Landings: China, South America, West Coast N.A., Middle East, S.E. Asia.

May 14, 2006 — Last Transmission: Chinese Red Army, Xianging.

May 28, 2006 — Last Transmission: Turkic Alliance, Jalalabad.

June 18, 2006 — Last Transmission: Combined Indochina Command, Angkor Wat.

December 19, 2006 — Last Transmission: Allies of the Book, Jerusalem.

January 23, 2007 — Battle of L3: Loss of Supermonitor Lexington, Task Fleet 4.2.

February 17, 2007 — Battle of Titan Base.

March 27, 2007 — Third Wave 73 Globes: Landings: Europe, North Africa, India II, South America II.

April 30, 2007 — Last Transmission: Islamic Defense Forces, Khartoum.

July 5, 2007 — Last Transmission: Indian Defense Force, Gujarrat.

August 25, 2007 — Last Transmission: Forces of Bolivar, Paraguay.

September 24, 2007 — First Battle of Irmansul: Loss of Supermonitor Enterprise, Yamato, Halsey, Lexington II, Kuznetsov, Victory, Bismarck. Task Fleets 77.1, 4.4, 11.

December 17, 2007 — Second Battle of Earth: Loss of Supermonitor Moscow, Honshu, Mao. Task Fleet 7.1, 4.1, 14.

December 18, 2007 — Fourth Wave 65 Globes: Primary Landings: China II, East Coast North America II, Europe II, India III.

March 14, 2008 — Last Transmission: European Union Forces, Innsbruck.

August 28, 2008 — Fifth Wave 64 Globes: Primary Landings: West Coast North America II, East Coast North America III, Russia, Central Asia, South Africa, South America III.

September 17, 2008 — Last Transmission: Grand African Alliance, Pietermaritzburg.

October 12, 2008 — Last Transmission: Red Army, Nizhny Novgorod.

October 21, 2008 — Official Determination: No coherent field forces outside of North America.

November 14, 2008 — Second Battle of Irmansul: Loss of Supermonitor Lexington III, Yamato II, Task Fleet 14.

December 1, 2008 — Senate Select Committee classified report: Earth Human Population Estimate 1.4 billion Posleen Population Estimate: In excess of 12 billion.

May 26, 2009 — Last operational Posleen force destroyed on Irmansul.

CHAPTER 1

Clayton, GA, United States, Sol III

2325 EDT Friday September 11, 2009 ad

The Commando’s Prayer

Give me, my God, what you still have;
give me what no one asks for.
I do not ask for wealth, nor success,
nor even health.

People ask you so often, God, for all that,
that you cannot have any left.

Give me, my God, what you still have.
Give me what people refuse to accept from you.
I want insecurity and disquietude;
I want turmoil and brawl.

And if you should give them to me,
my God, once and for all,
let me be sure to have them always,
for I will not always
have the courage to ask for them.

— Corporal Zirnheld Special Air Service 1942

The night sky over the ruins of Clayton, Georgia, was rent by fire as a brigade’s worth of artillery filled the air with shrapnel. The purple-orange light of the variable time rounds revealed the skeleton of a shelled-out Burger King and the scurrying centauroid shapes of the Posleen invaders.

The crocodile-headed aliens scattered under the hammer of the guns and Sergeant Major Mosovich grinned at the metronomic firing of the team sniper. There had been three God Kings leading the Posleen battalion, what the invaders called an “oolt’ondar,” a unit over size varying from a human battalion to a division. Two of the three leader castes had been tossed from their saucer-shaped antigrav craft with two precisely targeted rounds before the last had increased the speed of his saucer-shaped craft and flown quickly out of sight. Once he was gone the sniper began working on the Posleen “normals.”

The rest of Long Range Reconnaissance Team Five held its fire. Unlike the sniper, with his match-grade .50 caliber rifle, the tracers from the rest of the team would be sure to give them away. And then it would be wheat against the scythe; even without their leaders, the battalion of semi-intelligent normals would be able to wipe a LRRP team off the map.

So they directed and corrected the artillery barrage until all of the remaining aliens had scattered out of sight.

“Good shoot,” Mueller said, quietly, glancing at the dozens of horse-sized bodies scattered on the roads. The big, blond master sergeant had been fighting or training to fight the Posleen since before most of the world knew they existed. Like Mosovich he had seen most of the bad, and what little good, there had been of the invasion.

When they first got orders to fire up any targets of opportunity while on patrols it did not seem to be a good idea. He’d been chased by the Posleen before and it was no fun. The aliens were faster and had more endurance than humans; getting them off your trail required incredible stealth or sufficient firepower.

However, the invaders never seemed to sustain any pursuit beyond certain zones, and the LRRPs had sufficient firepower to wipe out most of their pursuers. So now they took every chance they could to “fire-up” the invaders. And, truth be told, they took a certain perverse satisfaction from a good artillery shoot.

“Took ’em long enough,” Sergeant Nichols groused. The E-5 was a recent transfer from the Ten Thousand. Like all the Spartans the sergeant was as hard as the barrel of his sniper rifle. But he had a lot to learn about being beyond the Wall.

“Arty’s usually late,” said Mueller, getting to his feet. Like the sniper, the team second, who always took point, was draped in a ghillie cloak. The dangling strips of cloth, designed to break up the human outline and make a soldier nearly invisible in the brush, were occasionally a pain. But it was manifestly useful in hiding the oversized master sergeant.

The lines along the Eastern seaboard had been stable for nearly two years. Each side had strengths and weaknesses and the combination had settled into stalemate.

The Posleen had extremely advanced weaponry, hundreds of generations better than the humans. Their light-weight hypervelocity missiles could open up a main battle tank or a bunker like a tin can and every tenth “normal” carried one. The plasma cannons and heavy railguns mounted on the God King’s saucers were nearly as effective and the sensor suite on each saucer swept the air clear of any aircraft or missile that crested the horizon.

In addition to their technological edge they outnumbered the human defenders. The five invasion waves that had hit Earth, and the numerous “minor” landings in between, had ended up dropping two billion Posleen on the beleaguered planet. And it only took two years for a Posleen to reach maturity. How many there were on Earth at this point was impossible to estimate.

Of course not all of those had landed on North America. Indeed, compared to the rest of the world the U.S. was relatively unscathed. Africa, with the exception of some guerrilla activity in central jungles and South African ranges, had been virtually wiped from the map as a “human” continent. Asia had suffered nearly as badly. The horselike Posleen were at a distinct disadvantage in mountainous and jungle terrain, so portions of Southeast Asia, especially the Himalayas, Burma and portions of Indochina, were still in active resistance. But China and India were practically Posleen provinces. It had taken the horses less than a month to cross China, repeating Mao’s “Long March” and, along the way, slaughtering a quarter of the Earth’s population. Most of Australia and the majority of South America, with the exception of the deep jungle and the Andes spine, had fallen as well.

Europe was a massive battleground. The Posleen did poorly in extreme cold, not from the cold so much as an inability to forage, so both the Scandinavian peninsula and the Russian interior had been ignored. But Posleen forces had taken all of France and Germany except portions of Bavaria and swept around in an unstoppable tide to take all the North German plain to the edge of the Urals. There they had stopped more from distaste for the conditions than any military resistance.

At this point there was resistance throughout the Alps and down through the Balkans and Eastern Europe but the beleaguered survivors remained low on food, manufacturing resources and hope. The rest of Europe, all of the lowlands and the bulk of the historically “central” zones, were in Posleen hands.

America, through a combination of luck, terrain and strategic ruthlessness had managed to survive.

On both coasts there were plains which, except for specific cities, had been ceded to the Posleen. But the north-south mountain ranges on both sides of the continent, along with the Mississippi, had permitted the country to reconsolidate and even locally counterattack.

In the West the vast bulk of the Rockies protected the interior, preventing a link-up between the Posleen trapped in the narrow strip of land between the mountains and the sea. That narrow strip of land, however, had once contained a sizable percentage of the population of the U.S. and the effect of the dislocation and civilian loss there was tremendous. In the end most of the residents of California, Washington and Oregon made it to safe havens in the Rockies. Most of them found themselves in the still-building underground cities, the “Sub-Urbs” recommended by the Galactics. There they sat, working in underground factories to produce the materials the war needed and sending forth their hale to defend the lines.

There were many untapped sources of materials in the Rockies and all of them were being exploited, but what was missing was food production. Prior to the first landing all holds had been released on agricultural production and the American agricultural juggernaut had responded magnificently. But most of the spare food had ended up being sent to the few fortified cities on the plains. They were scheduled to hold out for five years and food was their overriding concern. So there was, elsewhere, a severe shortage when the first massive landing occurred. Almost all the productive farmlands in the west, with the exception of the Klamath Basin, had been captured by the Posleen. So most of the food for the Western Sub-Urbs had to be provided over a long, thin link across the Northern Plains following I-94 and the Santa Fe Railroad. Sever that link and eighty-five million people would slowly starve to death.

In the east it was much the same. The Appalachian line stretched from New York to Georgia and linked up with the Tennessee River to create an uncrossable barrier from the St. Lawrence to the Mississippi. The Appalachians, however, were nothing compared to the Rockies. Not only were they lower throughout, but they had passes that were nearly as open as flatland. Thus the Posleen found numerous places to assault all along the line. And the fighting at all of them, Roanoke, Rochester, Chattanooga and others, had been intense and bloody. In all the gaps regular formations, mixed with Galactic Armored Combat Suits and the elite Ten Thousand, battled day and night against seemingly unending waves of Posleen. But the lines held. They held at times only because the survivors of an assault were too tired to run, but they held. They bent from time to time but nowhere had they ever been fully sundered.

The importance of the Appalachian defenses could not be overstated. With the loss of the coastal plains, and much of the Great Plains, the sole remaining large areas for food production were Central Canada, the Cumberland plateau and the Ohio Valley. And although the Canadian plains were high quality grain production areas, their total production per acre was low and they were effectively unable to produce a range of products. In addition, while there was increasing industry throughout British Columbia and Quebec, the logistical problems of a broad-based economy in nearly sub-Arctic conditions that had always plagued Canada continued even in the face of the Posleen threat. It was impossible to shoehorn the entire surviving population of the U.S. into Canada and if they did the survivors would be no better off than the Indians huddling in the Gujarrat and Himalayas.

Lose the Cumberland and Ohio and that would be for all practical purposes the end of active defense. There would be humans left on the continent, but like all the other major continents, they would be shattered survivors digging for scraps in the ruins.

Knowing that the lower Great Plains were indefensible the forces there, mostly armor and Galactic armored suits, had retreated, never engaging unless they could inflict terrific casualties. This retreat had ended near the Minnesota River for much the same reason as the Siberian retreat. However, the Posleen had succeeded in one objective, whether they knew it was an objective or not. In the long withdrawal, the 11th MI, the largest block of GalTech Armored Combat Suits on Earth, was destroyed.

All of these defenses were predicated on the Posleen’s major weaknesses: inability to handle artillery and inability to cross significant barriers. The God Kings were able to engage aircraft and missiles with almost one hundred percent certainty but still were unable to stop indirect, free-flight artillery. So as long as they were in artillery range of humans they were vulnerable. And because of their odd mental dichotomy, it was virtually impossible for them to overrun modern defensive structures. Posleen attacks that carried the first layer of a prepared defense normally involved casualty rates of one hundred Posleen for every human killed; even with their overwhelming numbers they simply could not take more than the front rank of a prepared defense. And virtually all the defenses along the Rockies and Appalachians were layered with large units up and multiple supporting units. So the Posleen came on and they died in such vast numbers that it was impossible to count. And they lost. Every time.

Now, in most areas humans crouched behind their redoubtable defenses while the Posleen created a civilization just out of artillery range. And in between was a weed-choked and ghost-haunted no-man’s-land of shattered towns and ruined cities.

And it was this wilderness through which the LRRPs patrolled.

“Let’s head out,” Mosovich said quietly, slipping his binoculars into their case. The binos were old technology, not even light gathering, but in conditions like this they worked well enough. And he liked to have a completely nonelectronic backup; batteries, even GalTech batteries, ran out. “I suspect those guys were headed south towards our target.”

“What, exactly, are we supposed to do against a globe, Jake?” Mueller asked. But, nonetheless, he headed down the slope to the south.

The week before one of the gigantic “battleglobes” of the Posleen invader had been detected in a landing pattern. The vessel had landed with more control than normal for the Posleen. Usually the landings were more or less at random but this globe landed in one of the few areas in the Eastern U.S. that was not covered by heavy fire; the Planetary Defense Center that would have interfered with the landing had been destroyed before completion.

The globes were made up of thousands of smaller vessels from multiple worlds. They formed at predetermined deep-space rendezvous then proceeded to the target planet. When they reached the outer strands of the atmosphere the globes broke up and the subvessels, Lampreys and Command Dodecahedrons, would fan out in a giant circle around the landing target.

It was one of these that had landed somewhere around the already conquered Clarkesville, Georgia. And it was the LRRP’s job to find it and find out where the forces from it were going.

So far it looked like they were gathering forces, not leaving. Which was, to say the least, unusual.

“First we find it,” said Mosovich. “Then we figure out what to do.”

Finding it would be difficult. There were parties of Posleen moving everywhere throughout the rugged countryside. Since the centauroid Posleen found mountains difficult, that meant they were confined to the roads. That meant in turn that the LRRP team had to be careful to avoid roads. The best way to do that would have been to “ridge run” — follow ridges from hilltop to hilltop. However, the general trend of the ridges in the North Georgia hills was from east to west, rather than north to south. Thus the team had to first climb up one ridge, averaging from two to six hundred feet, then down the other side. In the valley they would carefully cross the inevitable stream and road, then ascend the next ridge.

Mosovich took them wide off of Highway 441, descending from their perch on Black Rock Mountain and down into the wilderness around Stonewall Creek. The pine and oak woods were shrouded in a medieval darkness; the background light of civilization had been extinguished for years. The primeval woods rustled with wildlife and in the hills south of Tiger Creek they startled up a herd of bedding deer that must have numbered in the hundreds.

Up the hill from Tiger Creek Mueller stopped and raised a hand. From ahead there was a low, constant rustling. He crept forward, cranking up the gain on the light amplification goggles.

When he saw the first of the beasts climbing laboriously out of a ten foot high mound of dirt, he just nodded and backed up. He looked at Mosovich and gestured to the south, indicating that they needed to go around. At Mosovich’s gesture of inquiry he held out two fingers, formed in a V and curved down, then gestured as if driving them at the ground. The sergeant major nodded and gestured to the south as well; nobody wanted to go through an abat meadow.

The creatures were one of the pests brought by the Posleen. Like the Posleen they were omnivorous and capable of surviving on Terran vegetation. They were about the size of rabbits, white and looked somewhat like a cross between a rat and a pillbug. They moved like a rabbit, hopping along on a single rear leg that had a broad, flexible pod-foot. Individually they were inoffensive and, unlike Posleen, fully edible to humans; Mueller had eaten them and he had to admit that they tasted better than snake, something like capybara. However, they nested in large colonies dug into the ground like anthills and defended their colonies viciously, swarming out on anything that came near them and attacking with a pair of mandibles that looked like oversized rat-teeth. They also cleared large meadows out of the forests, felling the trees like beaver and chewing them up to create underground fungus gardens. They also ate a variety of vegetation and had been observed to scavenge carcasses.

They were eaten by everything at this point including wolves, feral dogs and coyotes, but their only natural predator was what the Posleen called “grat.” The grats were much worse than abat, being a flying pest that looked remarkably similar to a wasp. However, grats were limited since the only thing they could eat was abat. With a mature abat nest in the area, Mueller made sure to keep a sharp eye out for grat; they were much more territorial than the abat and the sting from one was deadly.

The rest of the trip was without incident, however, and by dawn they were bedded down themselves on the hills overlooking Lake Rabun. Their movement had been slow but that was okay. By tomorrow they would be snooping around the Posleen encampment and sending back reports. Clarkesville was within range of the 155mm artillery batteries around the Gap so whatever the Posleen were doing they could expect to receive a warm welcome.

Sister Mary gave a thumbs up that communications were established. The commo sergeant had been preparing to become a nun when the word came of the pending invasion. She was released from the preliminary vows of a novice and enlisted in the Army. The first days of the war had her repairing field radios in St. Louis but when a Posleen globe surrounded the city, her service in a scratch company earned her a Distinguished Service Cross. The unit of odds and sods from the support units in St. Louis — no more than eight hundred personnel, none of them infantry — had ended up defending the Granite City Steel Works and shattering better than a hundred times their number. Her own exploits were too numerous to list, thus the simple “actions in and around the Granite City Steel Works” in her citation.

The communications situation Beyond the Wall was complex. The Posleen had become more and more adept at detecting and localizing radio transmissions. After repeated losses, the LRRP teams began using automatic laser retransmitters for commo. Every team went out with large numbers of the bread-loaf sized devices and emplaced them on the ridges in their areas of operations. Since the retransmitters doubled as sensors they also gave the commands a feel for movement in their area.

Thus the short, stocky commo tech carried a huge load of retransmitters. And had to continually ensure that they were in communication with the rear.

Mueller rolled out his poncho liner and covered it with the ghillie blanket. Crawling under the combination he held up two fingers indicating he wanted second watch.

Mosovich nodded, pointed to Nichols and held up one finger then four fingers to Sister Mary. They would sleep most of the day and head down to the river near dusk. By the next morning he intended to be looking at Clarkesville.

Nichols dragged the ghillie blanket up to cover himself and his rifle then set up on a convenient rock. The march had been a bastard; the hills were pretty steep and the undergrowth was thick as hell. But he had a secret he was not about to share. The secret was that a bad day hiking up and down hills was better than a good day in the Ten Thousand. All in all he would rather be here than Rochester.

CHAPTER 2

Rochester, NY, United States, Sol III

0755 EDT Saturday September 12, 2009 ad

God of our fathers, known of old,
Lord of our far-flung battle-line,
Beneath whose awful Hand we hold
DoGeorgia over palm and pine —
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget — lest we forget!

— Rudyard Kipling “Recessional” (1897)

Mike O’Neal looked down at the smoke shrouded valley where Rochester, New York, used to be. The embattled city was now flatter than any hurricane could have made it; the humans were adept at fighting in rubble whereas the horselike Posleen found it nearly impossible. But that didn’t mean it was a human city anymore. Just that two different species of vermin battled over it.

The rain was misting, a thick, drizzly fog blown in from Lake Ontario. Mike cradled his helmet in one hand and a grav pistol in the other. Behind him was a distant rumbling like thunder and on the east side of the Genesee River a curtain of white fire erupted with the snapping of a million firecrackers. The heights above the former Rochester University were taking another misdirected barrage.

“These mist covered mountains, are home now for me,” he sang, twiddling the pistol in one hand and watching the fire of the ICM.

“But my home is in the lowlands, and always will be.
Someday you’ll return to your valleys and farms.
And you’ll no longer burn to be brothers in arms.”

Dancing in front of him was a hologram. A tall, lithe brunette in the uniform of a Fleet lieutenant commander was talking about how to raise a daughter long distance. The commander was very beautiful, a beauty that had once been an odd contrast to the almost troglodytic appearance of her famous husband. She also was calmer and wiser in the ways of people, an anodyne to the often hot-headed man she had married.

What she was not was as lucky as her husband. A fact he never could quite forget.

Another wash of ICM landed and hard on its heels a flight of saucer shapes lifted into the air and charged west across the river. The Posleen were learning, learning that terrain obstacles could be crossed with determination and a well led force. He watched clinically as the hypervelocity missiles and plasma cannons of the God King vehicles silenced strong points and a force of normals crossed on the makeshift bridge. The wooden contraption, simple planks lashed to dozens of boats scavenged from all over, would have been easily destroyed by the artillery fire but, as usual, the artillery concentrated on the “enemy assembly areas” and “strategic terrain.” Not the Posleen force, without which the terrain would no longer be strategic.

“They learn, honey,” he whispered. “But we never do.”

They hadn’t learned in the unexpected skirmishes before the war officially started, when they lost Fredericksburg and almost lost Washington. When lightly armed “fast frigates” had been thrown willy-nilly at battleglobes.

The battleglobes were constructed of layer upon layer of combat ships. A direct hit by an antimatter warhead would strip a layer off a section of the exterior but the inner ships would simply blow the damage off and reengage. Thus the theory of using a massive punch to break them up and then engaging the scattered ships with “secondaries.” But that required not only fleets of secondary ships, fighters, frigates and destroyers, but a massive central capital ship.

However, rather than wait until the Fleet was fully prepared the Galactic command had thrown more and more ships, practically right out of the shipyards, into the battle. Pissing them away in dribs and drabs not only in Terran space but over Barwhon and Irmansul. The loss of the ships, the secondaries that were vital to the overall plan, was bad enough, but the loss of trained personnel had been devastating.

The invasion of Earth had practically cut it off from space and none of the other races of the Galactic Federation could fight. To provide the planned crews for the Fleet, Earth had been stripped of likely candidates and they were put through months and years of simulator training in preparation for when they would venture forth to triumph in space. Instead, they had been thrown away in skirmish after skirmish, none of them doing any noticeable damage to the Posleen. Thus, the limited number of off-planet forces had been bled white before the first capital ship was completed.

The second invasion wave was fully in swing before the first “superdreadnought” was launched. This massive ship, nearly four kilometers long, was designed to use its spinal hypercannon to break up the globes. And it worked with remarkable facility. Coming in at high velocity from Titan Base the Lexington smashed two of the globes headed for Terra. And then it was swarmed.

Thousands of smaller ships, the skyscraper shaped Lampreys and C-Dec command ships, surrounded the beleaguered superdreadnought and pounded it to scrap. Despite the heavy anti-ship defenses along the sides and despite the massive armor it was stripped to a hulk by repeated antimatter strikes. Finally, when no further fire was forthcoming, the wreckage was left to drift. So durable was the ship the generators at its core were never touched and it was eventually salvaged and rebuilt. But that took more years, years that the Earth didn’t have.

Mike wondered how many other wives and husbands, mothers and fathers were pissed away by the goddamned Fleet. By “admirals” who couldn’t pour piss out of a boot with the instructions on the heel. By a high command that kowtowed to the damned Darhel. By senior commanders who had never seen a Posleen, much less killed one.

And he wondered when it was going to be his turn.

He watched the ghost of his wife’s smile as the cold autumn rains dripped off his shaved head and the artillery hammered the advancing centaurs. And flicked the safety of his pistol on and off.

* * *

Jack Horner stood arms akimbo smiling at the blank plasteel helmet in front of him. “Where in the hell is O’Neal?”

Inside his armor Lieutenant Stewart winced. He knew damned well where the major was. And so did the Continental Army Commander. What neither one of them knew was why O’Neal wasn’t responding to their calls.

“General Horner, all I can say is where he is not, which is here.” The battalion intelligence officer gave an invisible shrug inside the powered battle armor. “I’m sure he’ll be here as soon as possible.”

The colloquy of commanders and key staff from the Ten Thousand and the ACS were gathered on the hills above Black Creek. From there, even with the waves of cold, misting rain coming off the lake, the successful Posleen assault across the river was clearly visible. As was the ineffectual artillery fire of the local Corps. Whose headquarters, commander and staff were forty-five miles behind the Continental Army Commander’s current position.

“We need to get this penetration contained,” said Colonel Cutprice. The colonel looked to be about twenty until you saw his eyes. In fact he had been one of the most decorated veterans of the Korean War. Thanks to the miracles of Galactic rejuvenation, and a push for more “warriors” in the officer corps, the decrepit old warrior had been restored to youth. And almost immediately started gathering medals again.

The silver eagles on his shoulders were almost an affectation; the “Ten Thousand” force that he commanded was better than a brigade in strength and thanks to its converted Posleen equipment had the combat power of an armored corps. But he refused any rank higher than bird colonel and the one abortive attempt to replace him had resulted in something very close to mutiny. So a colonel commanded a pocket division.

“My boys and the 72nd Division have ’em contained along Genesee Park Avenue and there’s a company or so of the 14th holding on in The Park; they’re dug in hard on the hill. But more of the fuckin’ horses are pushing over that damned bridge all the time. We need to drive in a counterattack and destroy the crossing. It would be helpful if we could get some combat suit support on that.”

Stewart winced again at the neutral tone. For conventional forces, or even the unarmored Ten Thousand, assaulting the Posleen was a brutal business. The railguns and plasma cannons of the enemy turned troops in the open into hamburger and the God Kings opened up main battle tanks like tin cans. It was why the ACS, the Galactic supplied Armored Combat Suits, were always used for assaults. But that meant that the ACS had been whittled away in attack after attack, especially on the Great Plains and here in the Ontario Salient. And with Earth interdicted and the only factories for making suits off-planet that had meant “ten little suits, nine little suits.” Until there were none.

There was a trickle of resupply from the Galactics. Stealth ships slipped onto Pacific Islands and transferred their cargoes to submarines. These, in turn, visited high latitude ports such as Anchorage. The cargoes then would be trucked to where the lines were still holding. But that resupply route was pitifully inadequate for making up losses. Which was why the U.S. had gone from two divisions of ACS to less than two battalions, a ninety percent reduction in total force, in the last four years. And it had used up more than four divisions of suits along the way.

1st Battalion 555th Mobile Infantry, “The Real Black Panthers,” had lost fewer units than the other battalions and it still maintained a solid core of veterans who had survived every battle. But even they had had a nearly two hundred percent turnover rate. And with the slow rate of resupply that meant eventually even “First Batt” was doomed.

Whereas the supply of Posleen just seemed to be growing.

Horner shook his head and turned to the other suit in the conference.

“If Major O’Neal does not appear soon, I am turning command over to you, Captain Slight.” His blue eyes were as cold as agates. Mike O’Neal had once been his aide and was a hand-picked protégé but if Rochester got turned the next fall-back line was just east of Buffalo. And the front there was twice as long. Holding the Rochester defenses was, therefore, the number one priority in the eastern United States.

“Yes, sir,” said the Bravo company commander. “Sir, it would help if we could free up the artillery. We need it to hit that bridge, not the, pardon my French, fucking ‘logistical tail,’ sir.”

Horner smiled even wider, a sure sign of anger, as Cutprice snorted.

“We’re working that out. As of twenty minutes ago General Gramns was relieved by my order. The Ten Thousand artillery coordinator is up there right now trying to convince them that a pontoon bridge is a better target than ‘assembly areas.’ ”

“With a platoon of my MPs,” Cutprice added. “And two saucers. I told him the first one of those chateau generaling bastards gives him shit, he’s to blast him right in fucking public. With a plasma cannon.” The lean colonel was so utterly deadpan it was impossible to tell if he was joking.

“Whatever it takes to get their attention.” Horner sighed. “And it might take a summary execution. I’d put you in charge of the Corps, Robert, but I can’t spare you. And you can’t do both jobs.”

“I’d end up killing all their rear echelon asses anyway,” the colonel grumped. “And all the goddamned regular Army assholes that can’t get their divisions to fight.”

“The 24th New York and 18th Illinois are reassembling near North Chili,” Horner said. “But I don’t want to just slot them into the hole. Once we get the pocket cleared out I want you to throw up bridges and press a counterattack. I’ve sent for Bailey bridge companies and I want you to use them. Harry those horses. Drive them as far east as you can. I guarantee you that there will be infantry for you to fall back on. On my word.”

“What is the target?” Stewart asked. “Where do we stop?”

“The goal is the Atlantic Ocean,” Horner answered. “But don’t outrun your supports. I’d like to see the line pushed back to Clyde. The front would be narrower and the ground is better for us.”

“Gotcha,” Cutprice said with a death’s head grin. “Our flank’s gonna be as open as a Subic Bay whore, though.”

“I’ll have the ACS out there,” the general said quietly. “Whether O’Neal shows up or not.”

* * *

Ernie Pappas sighed. The hill was a moraine, a leftover of the glacier that had carved out Lake Ontario. On the back side, facing southwest away from the fighting, a former children’s hospital had been converted to tend to the thousands of wounded produced by the month’s long battle. Including at least a dozen ACS troopers too busted up for their suits to fix.

Even up here in the clean, fresh air the miasma of pain could be sensed. But the hill provided a fine view of the battle that VIII Corps was in the process of losing. A fine view.

Which was undoubtedly why the Old Man had chosen it for his meditations. The major had gotten more and more morose as the war went on and the casualties just kept mounting. There wasn’t anything that anyone on Earth could do about it, but the Old Man seemed to take it personally. As if saving the world was all on his shoulders.

That might have come from the early days when his platoon was credited with almost single-handedly stopping the Posleen invasion of the planet Diess. But that was revisionist history. Some of the best and most veteran NATO units had been involved and it was the Indowy-constructed Main Line of Resistance, and the conventional American, French, British and German infantry units that manned it, that stopped the Posleen butt-cold. O’Neal’s claim to fame, besides being the only human to ever detonate a nuclear device by hand and survive, was in freeing up the armored forces that had been trapped in a megascraper.

But it might be that that had the Old Man thinking he could single-handedly save the planet. Or maybe it was just how he was; the lone warrior, Horatius at the bridge. He really believed in the ethos of the warrior, the philosophy of the knight, sans peur, sans reproche. And he had made his troops believe in it too, by his shining vision and his intensity and his belief. And that shining vision had sustained them. And maybe this was the cost.

Gunnery Sergeant Ernest Pappas, late of the United States Marine Corps, knew that knights in armor had been nothing more than murdering bastards on horseback. And Ernie knew that what you did was survive. Just survive. And maybe you managed to stop the enemy and maybe you didn’t. But as long as you survived to cause them grief that was good enough.

But Gunny Pappas knew that wasn’t what got the boys to get up and shoot. The boys got up to shoot from the shining vision and because they believed with Ironman O’Neal beside them there was no way they could lose. Because that was how it should be.

Pappas looked down at the smoke and flames drifting off the rubble of the city and sighed. This sure as hell wasn’t how it should be. And if Captain Karen Slight tried to carry the battalion into that fire they would evaporate like water on a griddle. Because they wouldn’t believe.

“Major?” he said, putting his hand on Mike’s shoulder.

“Ernie,” the major answered. They had been together since O’Neal had taken command of Bravo back in the bad days when it seemed like the entire Army had lost its mind. They’d been through the ups and the downs, mostly downs. Whether they knew it or not it was the team of Pappas and O’Neal that defined the 1st/555th and made it what it was.

“That was a long goddamned climb you just forced on an old man.”

“Great view, though. Don’t you think?” Mike smiled sadly and carefully spit into his helmet where the biotic underlayer picked up the spittle and tobacco juice and started it on its long trail back to being rations.

Pappas glanced at the pistol and winced. “You need to quit listening to Dire Straits.”

“What? You’d prefer James Taylor?”

“We’ve got a situation.”

“Yep.” Mike sighed and rubbed his eyes with his free hand. “Don’t we always.”

“The 14th Division high-tailed it.” The battalion sergeant major took his own helmet off and shielded his eyes. “They’re halfway to Buffalo by now.”

“What else is new?” O’Neal intoned. “Nice artillery fire, though. Not hitting anything, but very pretty.”

“Corps arty. I doubt they’ll stick around much longer. The whole corps is thinking the ‘bugout boogie’ by now.”

“Ten Thousand plugging the gap?”

“Yep.”

“Yep.”

There was a long silence while the sergeant major scratched at his scalp. The biotic underlayer of the suits had finally fixed his perennial dandruff but the habit lingered on long after the end of the problem.

“So, we gonna do anything about it, boss?”

“Do what?” the battalion commander asked. “Charge heroically into the enemy, driving him back by force of arms? ‘Disguise fair nature with hard-favored rage’? Break the back of the enemy attack and drive them into rout? Retake positions lost for months? Drive them all the way back to Westbury and Clyde where they are supposed to be?”

“Is that what you’re planning?” Pappas asked.

“I’m not planning anything!” Mike answered shortly. “But I suppose that is what Jack is expecting. I notice he turned up.”

“It’s how you know it’s serious,” Pappas joked. “If CONARC turns up the shit has truly hit the fan.”

“I also notice that there are no artillery units responsive to calls for fire.”

“They’re working on that.”

“And that both flanking divisions are defined by Shelly as ‘shaky.’ ”

“Well, they’re Army, ain’t they?” the former Marine chuckled. “Army’s always defined as ‘shaky.’ It’s the default setting.”

Artillery fire dropped on the rickety pontoon bridge and the wood and aluminum structure disintegrated.

“See?” said O’Neal. “They didn’t really need us.”

“Horner wants a counterattack.”

O’Neal turned around to see if the sergeant major was joking but the broad, sallow face was deadpanned. “Are you serious?”

“As a heart attack. I thought that was what you was bitching about.”

“Holy shit,” the major whispered. He reached down and put on his helmet then shook his head to get a good seal on the underlayer. The gel flowed over his face filling every available crevice then drew back from mouth, nostrils and eyes. The Moment, as it was known, took a long time to get over and a lifetime to adjust to. “Holy shit. Counterattack. Grand. With Slight in command I presume? Great. Time to go pile up the breach with our ACS dead.”

“Smile when you say that, sir,” the NCO said, putting on his own helmet. “Once more into the breach.”

“That’s ‘unto,’ you illiterate Samoan, and I am smiling,” O’Neal retorted. He rotated his body sideways, turning the snarling face of his battle armor towards the sergeant major. “See?”

* * *

“Gotta love his armor,” Cutprice chuckled.

“I wish I had a thousand sets,” Horner admitted. “But I’d settle for a thousand regular sets so that’s not saying much.”

The armor was a private gift to then-Captain O’Neal from the Indowy manufacturer and included all the “special” functions that he had requested when he was a member of the design group. Besides the additional firing ports on wrist and elbows for close range combat, it was powered by antimatter. This eliminated the worst handicap of powered armor, its relatively short combat range. Technically, standard armor was designed for three hundred miles of range or seventy-two hours of static combat. In practice it had turned out to be about half that. Several suit units had been caught when they simply “ran out of gas” and were destroyed by the Posleen.

The drain on suit power had just gotten worse with the ammunition shortage. Because it was impossible for any terrestrial factory to produce the standard ammunition, which had a dollop of antimatter at the base to power the gun, it had been necessary to substitute simple depleted-uranium teardrops. Thus the grav-gun, which should have been powering itself, was forced to “suck” power from the suits. Since the rounds were still accelerated to a fraction of lightspeed, and since that required enormous power, the “life” of the suit batteries had been cut to nearly nothing. It was getting close to a choice of shoot or move for most of the standard suits, the exception being O’Neal’s, which had almost unlimited power.

The flip side, of course, was that if anything ever penetrated to the antimatter reservoir, Major O’Neal and a sizable percentage of the landscape for a mile around would be vapor.

But all of those things were invisible. It was the “surface” that attracted attention; the suit gave the appearance of some sort of green and black alien demon, the mouth a fang-filled maw and the hands talons for ripping flesh. It was startling and barbaric and in some ways, for those who knew O’Neal, very on cue.

“It suits him,” said the colonel from long experience. The ACS went wherever it was hottest. And the Ten Thousand followed.

The Ten Thousand — or the Spartans as they were sometimes called — was an outgrowth of a smaller group called the Six Hundred. When the first Posleen landing occurred, early, by surprise and in overwhelming force, the green units sent into Northern Virginia to stop them were shattered in the first encounter. Many of them, especially rear echelons, escaped across the Potomac. A large number of these gathered in Washington so when the Posleen forced a crossing of the river, right on the Washington Mall, thousands of these soldiers who had been in the rout were directly in their path. All but a tiny handful fled. This tiny handful, six hundred and fifty-three to be exact, had decided that there were some things that were worth dying for in a pointless gesture. So they gathered on the mound of the Washington Monument for the purposes of a stupidly suicidal last stand.

As it turned out it was not, quite, a suicide. Their resistance, and the confusion among the Posleen crossing the bridge, slowed the enemy just enough for the armored combat suits to arrive. Between the ACS and artillery fire the Posleen pocket in Washington was first reduced, then eliminated.

A special medal was struck for those six hundred and fifty-three truck drivers and cooks, infantrymen and artillery, linemen and laundrymen, who had stood their ground and prepared to go to their God like soldiers. After a brief ceremony, they were to be spread throughout the Army with nothing to remember the encounter but the medal. The leader of the resistance, however, successfully argued that there should be a better use than dissemination. Thus the Ten Thousand was born. Most of the Six Hundred were given promotions and used as a nucleus of the force which was then armed from captured and converted Posleen weapons. Once completed, the Ground Forces commander had at his fingertips a fast, heavy and very elite unit.

But it did not assault swarming Posleen; only the ACS could survive that.

“Major,” General Horner said. The use of O’Neal’s rank was the only sign of reproof for his tardiness.

“Jack?” O’Neal answered.

Horner smiled coldly. The ACS was not an American unit; it belonged to the Fleet Strike, a part of the Galactic Federation military. Therefore it would only be common military courtesy, not regulation, that would require O’Neal to use the general’s rank. But the blank name was as much a rebuke as his use of a blank rank. In better times O’Neal had referred to him as ‘sir’ or ‘general’ and even ‘colonel.’ Calling him ‘Jack’ in public was as good as a slap.

“We have a situation,” the general continued.

“People keep saying that,” O’Neal snorted. “What we have is a Mongolian Cluster Fuck, sir. Is General ‘the ACS is an unnecessary expenditure of resources’ gone?”

“Gramms has already been replaced,” Cutprice interjected. “And Captain Keren is currently explaining to his staff the words ‘fire support’ and ‘responsive fire.’ ”

“Do we have a plan?” O’Neal asked. “Or are we just going to get on-line and charge at them screaming?”

“We hold the heights on this side of the river,” Cutprice answered again. “But they’re pressing into the city and up along the canal and the heights on their side are higher so the ones on this side are getting fire support from the groups gathering on the far side. They’re also about to cut our supply line at the Brooks Avenue bridge. I’d like you to open up a pocket between the river and the ridge. My boys will follow in support but you’re going to have to take the first shock.”

“Why not just pin them and hammer them flat with artillery?” Stewart asked. “If you need Keren, by the way, we can always send Duncan over to ‘reason’ with them.”

“Hell no! I want the damned headquarters standing.” The boyish colonel gave the broadest grin anyone had ever seen and burst out in a belly laugh. “I’ve seen Duncan on a roll!”

“We need a crossing and we need it fast, Lieutenant,” Horner said gravely. “Not because I want my name in the news but because the Posleen are just as susceptible to rout, once you get them running, as humans. And we need them to be back at the Clyde lines. Long range recon teams tell us that the defenses haven’t been touched. If we can harry them all the way back to the Clyde half our problems in the East are done.”

“I’ve been watching their numbers building,” Mike pointed out. “They’re headed into this battle like ants headed to honey.”

“So what then?” Horner asked. “You have an idea.”

“Yes, sir,” the major responded, forgetting his anger. “What I’d really like to do is use a flight of Banshees to land behind them; but given the terrain I don’t think it would be possible and I doubt that we could hold out until the reinforcements arrived. Barring that, I want to hammer them flat then paint the lines for once. Nukes are still out?”

Horner winced. He was personally in favor of the use of tactical nuclear weapons in situations like this one. Tac-nukes had a wider “footprint” than any other form of artillery including Improved Conventional Munitions.

The majority of China had fallen in less than two months; it had taken the first major Posleen landing only forty-two days to go from Shanghai to Chengdu. And along the way the Race of Han had been reduced to a shallow splinter as over nine hundred million humans and a five thousand year old culture were wiped from the face of the earth. There were still pockets of resistance in the previous regions of Chinese control, the most notable of which was a small contingent in the Luoxia Shan led by the former head of Red Army procurement and “Radio Free Tibet.”

But in the process of disintegration, the panicking Chinese military had fired off a nuclear arsenal that was six or seven times larger than prewar intelligence estimates. The last spasm had been in the region of Xian, where the rearguard of the column retreating into the Himalayas had expended itself in a nuclear firestorm whose net effect was to slow the Posleen by only a day. The result was that China’s death throes had consumed enough nuclear weapons to poison the Yangtze River for the next ten thousand years. And to poison the political climate for nearly as long.

“No nukes,” Horner said. “There’s things the President will waffle on. And she turns a blind eye to the fact that SheVa rounds and your handgrenades are essentially micro-nuclear weapons. But we’re not going to nuke Rochester.” He held up a hand to forestall the argument he knew was coming and smiled tightly. “Not even neutron bombs or antimatter. No. Nukes.”

Mike turned away and looked at the far heights. The Genesee Valley was an obstacle to the Posleen and conventional forces but nothing to the suits; they were as comfortable in water as in space. However, there were millions of the Posleen swarming in the valley and only a bare handful of suits to oppose them.

“They’re still going to have to be cleared out of the valley before we can move,” Mike said. “That has to happen before we cross the river. I will not perform this assault without artillery fire that I consider adequate. Nor will any member of my battalion.”

He could hear the in-drawn breaths around him but he also could care less. The ACS was, in a very real and legally binding sense, a separate military from the United States Ground Forces. Technically, by the treaties which the U.S. Senate had signed in all innocence, he was Jack Horner’s superior officer. Technically, O’Neal could order a nuclear preparatory barrage and technically General Horner would have to follow his orders. Technically.

Realistically, no ACS major had ever refused an order from a Terran general. Not even “Iron Mike” O’Neal. Mike had occasionally argued about specific orders. But point-blank refusal was new. Call it the result of having watched the battalion have two hundred percent casualties over five years and slowly dwindle away to nothing.

Call it experience.

Horner considered his options for a moment then nodded coldly. “I’ll go get the artillery preparations arranged. I assure you that when you come up out of the water there will be nothing living between the Genesee and Mount Hope Avenue.”

“Ensure that the artillery is prepared to maintain that support,” O’Neal said. “We’ll need a curtain of artillery; I want to walk under a back-scratching all the way to our primary positions. And we’ll need an ongoing curtain until the support is in place. If we don’t get that, I’m not sure this is doable.”

“Agreed,” Horner said with a tight smile. He looked to the east as well and shook his head. “I’ll give you all the artillery I can scrounge between now and tomorrow morning. On my word.”

“Do that, General, and we’ll eat their souls,” Stewart said softly.

“We’re gonna do that little thing,” O’Neal said definitively. “Whether any of us survive is another question. And, Stewart: massage your AID. I want you to see if you can identify the incredibly smart Kessentai that came up with this bridge idea. Such intelligence should be rewarded.”

CHAPTER 3

Clarkesville, GA, United States, Sol III

1350 EDT Saturday September 12, 2009 AD

Oh, East is East and West is West,
and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently
at God’s great Judgement Seat;
But there is neither East nor West,
Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face,
tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!

— Rudyard Kipling

“The Ballad of East and West” (1889)

Tulo’stenaloor regarded the young Kessentai coldly. “Tell me again about this skirmish.”

“This what, estanaar?” Cholosta’an asked. The young scout-leader was clearly confused to be discussing the encounter. Especially with the “estanaar” of this large band. The term was both new and old, it was to be found in the net, but it had not been used in the memory of anyone in the Horde. It had connotations of “Warleader” and “Mentor” and even “King” in human terms. However, the days of the last estanaar were recorded thousands of years before.

“The sky fire,” Tulo’stenaloor said with a snarl. “This small battle.”

“There was no battle, estanaar,” the God King admitted. “There was only the sky-fire…”

“Artillery,” Staraquon interjected. Tulo’stenaloor’s intelligence officer flapped his crest in derision. “Start learning the words.”

“I am not a nestling,” snarled Cholosta’an. “I do not have to take this from you, Kenstain!” The term was a terrible insult, the equivalent of calling someone a eunuch. Kenstain were God Kings who had been removed for all time from the Battle Rolls, either by their own choice or by the decisions of the Posleen Data-net. Some were God Kings that had chosen not to engage in battle, but most were those unlucky in battle or who were unable to garner riches through either fighting or deceit.

Kenstain were useful on a certain level, they provided the minimal “administration” that could not be provided by the Net. But since they were unrecognized by the Net, they could not engage in legitimate trade and had to survive at the whim of their luckier or more courageous brethren.

No one liked Kenstain.

Tulo’stenaloor leaned forward and raised his crest. “If you say that one more time I will have you killed. You agreed to obey my orders if I led you to victory. Learn now that I was serious. I want your information, but not so much as to have my intelligence officer called such. Do… you… understand?”

“I…” The young God King slumped. “No… estanaar, I do not understand. I do not understand why it matters and I do not understand why I must be put through this. It is not the way of the Path.”

“Do not speak to me of the Path,” spat the older God King. He fingered the symbol dangling from one ear and snarled. “The Path is what has led us to this impasse. It is the Path which has hurled us into defeat on Aradan and Kerlan. We will use the Path when it is the way to victory, but the only Path in my encampment, the only mission,” he said, using the human word, “is to defeat the humans, utterly. It goes beyond this small ball of mud, it goes to the survival of the Po’oslena’ar as a race. If we do not destroy these humans, they will destroy us. And I will destroy them, root and branch, here and on Aradan and Kerlan and anywhere else they exist. Not for the Path, but for the Race. And you will either aid me in that, without question, or you may go. But if you say you will aid me and you question me or the officers I appoint to you then you will die. Do you understand me now?”

The young God King had been born on Earth in the heat of battle and since leaving the slaughter of the pens had heard nothing but the stories of defeat at human hands. Not for him the riches of the initial landing when vast stretches of land fell before the onslaught of the Race. Not for him the easy way to pay his edas debts, the crushing weight of the cost of outfitting his oolt. Until that was paid there was no way he could do anything but be a servant to more capable or lucky Kessentai. Thus, his first battle had been like all the others, a blindsided slaughter in these hills, shredded by artillery that they could never reach and he and his fellow Kessentai pecked at by snipers that were impossible to distinguish through the mass of fire. There was no glory, and certainly no loot, to be gained from those pitiful assaults. Not even by picking over their own dead.

He had seen the weakness of the Path, the Path of War that called for berserk assaults no matter what the target, and he knew there must be a better way. It was because of this that he had responded to the messages filtering through the Net. There was a new Way, a new Path, and a new messiah that would lead them beyond these trackless wastes into the promised land of the interior. It was a new Way and it was a hard Way, but he had never expected how hard.

“I… will obey, estanaar,” the scoutmaster said. “I do not understand but I will obey.” He paused and thought back. “The sky-fire… the artillery… fell without warning. Rather our tenaral told us it was coming, but only when it was on top of us. Then Ramsardal fell and when I saw the damage I began weaving; I knew it was the human ‘snipers’ but with the sky… artillery fire the tenaral were unable to find them. I bonded as many of the oolt’os as I could on the way past and moved as quickly out of the fire as I could.”

“Can you read a map?” asked Staraquon.

“I…” The young Kessentai fluffed his crest nervously but finally laid it flat. “I do not know what a map is…”

“Call me ‘Esstu,’ ” Staraquon said calmly. “I gather information about the humans. You will be given a lesson in maps later by the Kessentai of Essthree, but a map is basically a picture of the ground from in the air. I would like to know where the encounter was. Since there was sniper fire, it was from a reconnaissance team, one of the human ‘lurp’ teams, rather than fire directed from their sensors. If there is a reconnaissance team out there, it is probably coming to see what we are doing. We don’t want that; we don’t want the humans seeing what we are doing. Therefore we want to know where the encounter was and when.”

The God King fluffed his crest again and clacked his teeth. “It was last night and it was closer to the human lines. I… knew a way to this area but it passed close to the human lines. It was the only way I knew so I took it. I could show you where it is, but I cannot tell you.”

“All right,” Staraquon said with a flap of his crest. “It would have been good but not necessary.” He turned to Tulo’stenaloor. “I wish to send out more patrols and I want some of my esstu Kessentai included. There are detectors we have been working on that might help us find these pesky lurps.”

“Was there a transmission from the area?” Tulo’stenaloor asked. He admitted that he did not have the expertise in figuring out how to gather information that Staraquon did. But that was why he had recruited him as his ‘esstu.’

“No,” the intelligence officer said. “It would appear that they are using some nontransmissive form of communication. Probably these laser retransmitters that they have scattered around the hills.”

“Is there some way to gather the information from them?” the older Kessentai mused. “Or some way to feed it in?”

“Both,” Staraquon said with a bark of humor. “But shouldn’t we wait on that for when the attack takes place? I want these humans to suspect nothing until then.”

“Agreed,” Tulo’stenaloor said. “Very well, do what you need to, you may even draw on the Kessentai force if you think it can be kept secret. But find this recon team and kill it.”

* * *

Jake took another look through the binoculars and scratched his chin in thought. The Tallulah River drained the northeast Georgia mountains, joined by numerous smaller tributaries until it became a substantial stream. At that point, however, humans had taken a hand and the river was repeatedly used for hydroelectric power generation. Currently he was observing the bit of it that flowed out of the Lake Burton Dam and, in very short order, became Lake Seed. Between the two lakes was a short stretch that, according to the map and their intel report, was supposed to be fordable. Only about thirty meters from side to side and knee deep at worst. What was even better about this point for a crossing was that there were steep, heavily wooded slopes on either side of the river. All the team would have to do was move down through the woods, pass through a blessedly small open area, cross the river and move back into the sheltering woods.

Unfortunately, the intel reports neglected to take into account the sumptuous rains of the previous few months and the power plant on the dam.

The plant was old, possibly as much as a century passed since its construction, the large multi-pane windows and antique lights scattered around made that clear. The generators inside would probably be signed by Thomas Edison himself, but the plant still functioned and it was evident that the Posleen were using it to supplement their fusion plants.

Which, by itself, was no skin off of Jake Mosovich’s nose. But the problem was the generation had raised the level of the river to nearly chest height and the power of it would make any white-water kayaker happy. But the objective was on the far side. Which created a number of unpalatable options. They could turn around and cross Lake Burton on the north end. But if they did that it would make more sense to extract to behind the lines, drive around to the Highway 76 defenses and start all over again.

Alternatively, they could move closer to Toccoa and make a crossing. The problem with that was that the most dangerous point of the insertion would take place practically on the target. A landing zone for a globe was commonly almost ten miles in radius. It would be expected that landers were at least as far out as Toccoa although telemetry had indicated this landing was remarkably tight. Whichever was the case, crossing further down would be much more dangerous. If anything went wrong on the crossing, they might find upwards of four million Posleen chasing their asses. And while Jake had developed a fond affection for Posleen stupidity, he had also gained a strong appreciation for their tenacity and speed. There was no way they would survive a globe-force on their ass.

That left one option.

“The bridge is up,” he whispered.

“Yeah,” Mueller said. “And by that you are suggesting what?”

He and Mueller had been together a long time. Along with Sergeant Major Ersin they were the only survivors of the first, disastrous human encounter with the Posleen on Barwhon when a hand-picked team of the best the U.S. Special Operations Command had to offer was sent out to learn about this amazing and unlikely reported extraterrestrial threat.

All went relatively well until the small team was ordered to retrieve some live Posleen for study. It was then that the team learned, to its cost, about the efficiency of God King sensors and how very fast the “dumb” Posleen could react to a direct and recognizable threat. He had completed the mission, but at the cost of six legends in the SpecOps community. And he had never again underestimated the Posleen.

But there was a difference between underestimation and necessary risk.

“I don’t see a choice,” Mosovich pointed out. “And there’s not much traffic. We’ve seen, what? One group cross it in the last few hours? We move down to right on top of it, make sure there aren’t any bad guys around and then sneak across. What’s so tough?”

“Getting killed is what’s so tough,” Nichols interjected. “What happens if a God King wanders by? I guarantee you that if we’re ‘on top’ of the bridge, their sensors are going to scream, even if we don’t get spotted by sentries on the dam!”

“What sentries?” Mosovich said. “Posleen don’t post sentries. They never do.”

“They never send out patrols, either,” Mueller pointed out. “And it sure as hell looks like that’s what’s going on here. How many of these damn groups have we seen, just milling around. Usually they’re constructing something or farming or working. These guys are acting like… soldiers.”

“You spooked?” Mosovich asked seriously. Mueller had been at the Posleen killing business as long as the sergeant major; it made sense to listen to his hunches.

“Yeah,” Mueller answered. “Something ain’t right. Why land a globe out here in the middle of nowhere? Why’re all these guys doin’ what look like patrols? For that matter, how many times have you seen one of these dams generating?”

“And then there’s why we’re here,” Sister Mary added quietly.

Much of the intelligence that humans gathered on the Posleen was from one of three sources: the sensor net scattered through the woods, high-intensity telescopes scattered across the face of the moon and special scatterable, short-lived mobile “bots” that could be fired from artillery shells.

Since this latest globe landing, all of the sensors in line of sight of Clarkesville had been systematically eliminated, every set of bots sent in had been localized and destroyed and the Posleen had put up a blanket of smoke over most of the area they were organizing in. It bespoke something very unusual. And now they seemed to be actively patrolling.

“We gotta get into the area,” Jake pointed out. “To get there we gotta cross the stream.”

“Next time, we’re humping in SCUBA gear,” Mueller grumbled. “Then we swim across the lake.”

“I don’t know how to SCUBA,” Sister Mary whispered.

“I don’t know how to swim,” Nichols admitted.

“Babies,” Mueller grumped. “We’re taking out babies. Don’t they teach you anything in Recondo?”

“Sure,” Nichols said. “How to do a repulsion jump. I think I’ve used it as much as you have SCUBA training.”

“Tonight,” Mosovich said. “We’ll move out at two ohmygodhundred. Standard formation. If we make contact, follow SOP, rally here. Sister Mary, call up the arty and make sure they’re awake for our crossing.”

“Gotcha.”

“Chill until then. Tonight’s going to be busy.”

* * *

“You have had a busy day, eson’sora.”

Cholosta’an laid his crest down and bobbed his head to the older Kessentai, uncomfortable with the unusual term. Like many others it had been ferreted out of the Data Net by acolytes of the unusual master of this Globe-force, but it was unfamiliar to the majority of Posleen. It had echoes of a genetic relationship, father to son or sibling to sibling. But they were overtones only; the term meant neither father nor master but something similar to both. Defining the relationship, however, was an ongoing process.

“It has been… interesting.” The ever-present smoke of the main camp stung his eyes but at least now he understood the reason for it. The humans, too, had maps, and ways of seeing from the sky. Most of those had been destroyed automatically, the reason, apparently, that the Alldn’t equipment engaged what appeared to be harmless targets. But there were other ways; communications had been… intercepted from the orbital body. The humans even had eyes there.

Orostan fingered his harness in thought as he idly drifted his command saucer back and forth. The continuous movement of the tenar was a habit the smarter God Kings learned. On this benighted ball the less smart didn’t last long. “You understand maps now?”

The young Kessentai looked around at the purposeful activity of the encampment and flapped his crest. “I believe so. They are similar to the graphics of a construction survey. Once I connected the two it got much easier, but thinking of them flat rather than raised was tricky. And learning is one thing, but it takes experience to set a skill.” He had been born with many inherently transferred skills, not least the skills of battle but also a large nonviolent skill set ranging from how to construct a polymer extrusion machine to how to build a pyramid made of nothing but one foot blanks of steel. However, gaining new skills was harder, it required both time and materials to repeat the processes over and over again. Map reading at a “skill” level would take some time.

The oolt’ondai clacked his teeth and pulled out a roll of paper. “Well, for today you need to send half your oolt out on patrol. The rest will move to an outlying camp that is being prepared. Can your cosslain handle the patrol?”

“What is the nature of this ‘patrol’… thing?” the young Kessentai asked.

“Another of Tulo’stenaloor’s human practices. Oolt’os are sent out to walk on the roads and in the hills looking for humans that might be spying on us. We lose a few to their damned artillery, but it keeps prying eyes away.”

“But…” The Kessentai fluttered his crest in agitation. “I can send them forth and tell them to keep an eye out for humans. But it sounds like you have something else in mind.”

“Indeed,” the oolt’ondai said with a clack of humor. “Other groups already go forth. Send them to the attention of Drasanar. He will have them follow a patrol group on their path. After they know it they will be set to follow it until told to stop. Can they be trusted out of your sight?”

“Oh, yes,” Cholosta’an admitted. “My cosslain are actually quite bright and I have three in my oolt. Any of them will be capable of following those directions.”

“Good, send one half of the oolt to the attention of Drasanar, he is the patrolmaster. Then send the other half to the,” the oolt’ondai paused as he tried to get his mouth around “Midway.” Finally he got out a map and pointed to it. “Take them to the camp here. Turn them over to one of the Kessentai in charge of constructing the camp and return. We’ve many things to do and not much time to do it in.”

“What is all the rush?” Cholosta’an asked. “I thought the battle was not to take place so soon.”

“Ask Tulo’stenaloor,” Orostan said with another clack of humor; while the leader of the force was always glad to answer questions, he rarely had time. “He wishes us to be spread out in ‘well defended camps.’ He is having them expand the production caverns, as well, to hold the entire host and shield it from this human artillery.” The older God King flapped his crest and snorted. “He is in love with the humans I think.”

Cholosta’an looked at him sideways, swinging his long neck around nervously. The oolt’ondai was far older than he, with tremendously more experience. It showed in the outfitting of his tenar and the weapons of the cosslain that surrounded him. While Cholosta’an understood the draw of Tulo’stenaloor for himself, he had to wonder what drew the old ones, the long time warriors like Orostan.

The oolt’ondai noted his regard and flapped his crest until the wind raised a small dust cloud. “Don’t get me wrong, I follow Tulo’stenaloor and I believe.”

“Why?” Cholosta’an asked. “I know why I’m here; I was born on this mudball and I intend to get off of it. But every battle I’ve been drawn to has been a slaughter. I’ve replaced most of my oolt twice over to no gain. Three times I’ve had to return to my chorho, bowl in hand, asking for a resupply. If I return again I will be denied. But you don’t need a chance. You don’t even have to be on this Alldn’t cursed planet.”

Orostan considered his answer for a moment then flapped his crest again. “If you have actual needs, for thresh or ammunition, even replacements for damaged equipment, tell me and it will be made good; you shall not go into battle with the Host of Tulo’stenaloor underequipped. There will be a bill if we succeed, otherwise it will be charged to the Host. To the rest of the question, call it another way, The Way of the Race. The humans are the first race to challenge the Po’oslena’ar in many long years. For the Po’oslena’ar there is only the Way. If we do not defeat the humans, if we do not continue on our Way, the tide of orna’adar will sweep over us and we will perish as a race. This is the homeworld of the Humans, the queen of the grat’s nest. We must seize her and destroy her or we shall be destroyed in turn.”

He scratched at a scar on the tenar and ruffled his crest. “The People almost took this planet by storm. We have taken most of it, but a few geographic areas remain. The most troublesome is surely this one. And I think that Tulo’stenaloor’s plan will work. We have to think like the humans to defeat them and we must copy some of their ways while using our own also. But the most important thing we must do is we must surprise them. The humans have a saying ‘to take somebody from behind.’ Like many human sayings it has several overtones which don’t translate well.

“You are right, I don’t have to be here,” the oolt’ondai admitted, looking to the mountains to the north. “I have four estates that are not in orna’adar; I have gathered the treasure of eight worlds and could live wherever I wished if I wanted to settle into death. I am an oolt’ondai, commander of my own oolt’poslenar. I can go anywhere in the galaxy that my drives will carry me and my personal oolt is armed with the finest weapons the People make so once I get there I can take any lands I desire. But for the race, for my genetic line, I am here. And, for the race, for our clans and for our lines, you and I, young eson’sora, we’re going to crack this stev. We are going to take their passes, take their valleys and drive to the heart of the grat’s nest, ‘rolling them up’ from behind. We are going to smash these humans flat.”

CHAPTER 4

Rochester, NY, United States, Sol III

0547 EDT Sunday September 13, 2009 ad

“Just as soon as the arty arrives, we are going to smash these Posleen flat.”

Mike didn’t bother to look around; the silty water would have prevented a “real” view of the company commanders gathered in a crouch. Besides, his attention was fixed on the symbology being trickled into his eyes.

The inside of a suit of GalTech armor was filled with a semibiotic shock gel. The silvery gel was the medium that supported the billions of nannites that fed and cared for an ACS trooper, but it also served to prevent high speed impact injuries. Since these affected the head as much as, or more than, any other part of the body, the helmet was cushioned on all sides by the gel, leaving only a small portion open for the eyes, mouth and ears. The exterior of the helmet was opaque; what the “Protoplasmic Intelligence System” inside the armor saw was a fully conformable construction of the external view. This “construction” was, in turn, conveyed to the eye by small optics that were extruded from the helmet. A similar audio system threaded out of the wall of the suit and into the ear canal for hearing while air was pumped to the opening around the mouth.

This engineering, some said over-engineering, had stood O’Neal in good stead on Diess. There, when it all went to the wall, when a Posleen battlecruiser had come in for direct support of the invaders, he had taken the only road to “victory” he could see and used the last bit of his suit energy to fly up to the ship and hand detonate a cobbled together antimatter limpet mine.

He knew at the time that he was committing suicide; had sent a note to his wife to the effect. But through a series of low order physics probabilities and the “over-engineering” of the suits he had survived. Since then, many troopers had survived nearly as strenuous situations, although none as strenuous, and these days no one used the term “over-engineered.” “Hideously expensive,” yes. A command suit cost nearly as much as a small frigate. But not over-engineered.

The armor also permitted degrees of control that were both a blessing and a nightmare. A superior could control every aspect of the battle down to the smallest action of a subordinate. Which was the nightmare. However, it also permitted a commander to lay out a very detailed and graphic plan, then monitor events and intervene if necessary when, not if, the plan went awry.

Now, though, it permitted the major to cover last-minute changes with his company commanders and battle staff while standing on the bottom of the Genesee River.

“Word is we have an additional artillery battalion,” he continued, updating the schematic with the icon for on-call artillery. “It’s still not what I would prefer for this assault. But I think that it’s all that we’re going to get in less than five or ten days. And if we wait that long all that we’ll really get is more Posleen.

“That brings us up to close to two brigades but only one of them is fully coherent and effective. That brigade will initiate with a time-on-target over our initial movement area. With luck that will plaster the Posleen in our way and this will be a walk in the park.”

“Riiight,” Captain Slight said, to assorted chuckles. The captain had come a long way from the newbie lieutenant who had joined Mike’s company before the first landing of the Posleen and she was well respected by her company, what had been Mike’s company. She was also trusted by her battalion commander.

“When we move forward, our right will be aligned on the canal,” Mike pointed out “So it will be covered. But our left flank is going to be as open as a gutted whale.”

“I thought we were going to have a curtain barrage covering it,” Captain Holder said. The Charlie company commander was responsible for the left.

“We are,” Mike said with an unseen grimace. He worked his dip and spit into the pouch the somewhat prescient gel produced. “But Duncan is defining the battalion responsible for the barrage as ‘shaky.’ ”

“Who’d he get that from?” Slight asked. The icon for the artillery coordinator was firmly fixed on the hill previously occupied by the battalion commander and for some of the same reasons. Among other things, it gave a lovely view of the battlefield. More importantly, it permitted the suit’s sensor suite a lovely view of the battlefield, and what the suits could do with that information continued to astound everyone. Including, from time to time, the artificial intelligence devices that drove the suits.

However, the artillery that would be supporting the push was miles back, nowhere near the location of the battalion’s artillery expert.

“I understand he is liaisoning with the Artillery Coordinator of the Ten Thousand,” Mike answered in a lofty tone.

There was a grim chuckle from the officers.

* * *

“Colonel, I’ll ask the question one last time,” the captain said with a grim smile. The junior officer was slight, café au lait in complexion and furious. Furthermore, his reputation preceded him.

“Captain, there’s nothing else to do,” the older officer said seriously. “The guns are getting in place as fast as possible. I know it’s not up to standard, but it’s as fast as this unit is capable of. You have to understand, we’re not some sort of super unit…”

“No, Colonel, you’re not,” the captain spat back. For most officers it would have been suicide, but Keren, and every other member of the Six Hundred, already knew what suicide was. Suicide was huddling around the Washington Memorial, damn near out of ammunition and completely out of hope, because you’d rather pile up the mound with your dead than back up one last yard. And the one thing that the Six Hundred never, ever accepted was an excuse. From anyone. “What you are is an artillery battalion of the United States Ground Forces. And you are expected to perform as such.

“Unless your command is laid in in the next three minutes, prepared to fire, I will ask for your relief. And General Horner will order it. And then I will take command of this battalion. If I have to kill every member in this unit, until I get to the last ten reasonably competent people, I will do so to get fire on target. Am I making myself perfectly clear?”

“Captain, I don’t care who you are,” the colonel said harshly. “I do not have to take that sort of tone from any goddamned O-3.”

“Colonel,” the officer said coldly, “I have shot superiors that failed to perform to my satisfaction. I don’t give a flying fuck how you feel about getting reamed out by a captain; we no longer have time for your incompetence. You have one of three choices, lead, follow or die. Choose.”

The colonel paused as he realized the captain was absolutely serious. And there was a pretty good chance that if a captain of the Six Hundred asked for his relief, it would be granted. That was what the Army was coming to, damnit.

“Captain, we will not be laid in in three minutes,” he said reasonably.

“Colonel, have you ever heard of the Spanish Inquisition?” Keren asked tightly.

“Yes,” the officer said and blanched. “I’m… sure we can get laid in to your satisfaction, captain.”

“Try,” the captain rasped. “Try like the Posleen were about to eat your ass. Because if you’re caught between the Posties and the Six Hundred, choose the Posties. Do I make myself clear?”

“Clear,” the colonel answered and checked his salute before turning away.

Keren watched him leave with cold, dead eyes then stepped around the command Humvee by which they had been carrying on their quiet conversation. He assured himself that no one was watching, then, retaining the identical expression, casually threw up.

He washed out his mouth with a swig from his canteen and shook his head. It wasn’t that he was unprepared to shoot the arrogant, incompetent bastard in command of the artillery. It was that it wouldn’t help. The unit had been on support duty in Fort Monmoth for so long they weren’t in any way, shape or form prepared to do anything but fire, from exactly the same positions, on the same azimuths and elevations, day after day.

Unfortunately, they had been pulled out of their comfy positions as the ones “most excess to need” and sent to support the assault in Rochester. What “excess to need” was turning out to mean was “excessively incompetent.” It was an old problem, when a unit called and said “we need your best for something hard” the unit that was losing the capability naturally did not want to send their best. Whether it was a levee of individuals or a shift of units, the commander always tended to send whoever they felt the most comfortable with losing.

And any commander in his right mind would be willing to get rid of this battalion of artillery. Keren had to wonder how many “friendly fire” incidents they had been involved in.

Keren shook his head again and pulled a cellphone out of his pocket. There were still plenty of the towers and, as long as the Posleen weren’t jamming, they were a pretty decent way to communicate. And they weren’t monitorable by most military units, which was a real plus at times.

“Hey Duncan, man, I think it’s time for the Spanish Inquisition…”

* * *

Mike watched the quality marker of the new artillery battery switch from Quality Two to QualFour and smiled. If things like that didn’t happen, he’d wonder what was wrong.

“And it appears that Keren just downchecked them,” he continued as the rumble of the brigade time on target started, right on time.

“Oh. Joy,” Captain Slight said with a slightly hysterical laugh. “We’re going out there with our ass in the breeze, sir.”

“And such a nice ass it is,” Mike said in an abstracted tone. He was flipping at icons and as they changed back and forth knew that Duncan was doing the same. “The choice is the curtain barrage or on call fire. We can put down the curtain with mortars or shift the mortars to on call. Your call, so to speak. I want to shuffle the companies and put Bravo on the left flank. Your orders will be to spread yourself along the left flank and hold that zone until relieved by the Ten Thousand or other similar units. Since you’ll be the most spread out, I’ll give you the majority of the supplementary fire. For what it’s worth, this number of mortars will make a lousy curtain barrage.”

He knew that if he set the suit systems to simulated vision, the female officer would be tapping her fingers on the front of her helmet. It was a nervous habit that was the best substitute she had for nibbling her fingernails. Which, when she was out of armor, was what the commander did constantly. He could practically hear the plastic on plastic thunking sound from here.

“On call, sir,” the captain said. “I’ll want to make the company even more of an ‘L’ shape. And they’ll eventually get in behind us.”

“We’ll make that bridge when we come to it,” Mike answered. “Captain Holder, d’you have a problem taking the center?”

“Negative, Major,” the commander replied. “We’ll hammer them flat.”

“Okay,” O’Neal answered, resetting the markers for the three line companies. The three units were already short of bodies and inverting Bravo to cover the flank, necessary as that was, would reduce the density of fire, the “plowing the road” that the ACS depended on to reduce the Posleen swarms. The only reserve was going to be their Grim Reaper heavy weapon suits. Since the suits were configured for indirect fire support, if there was a breach in the line, the only people to take care of it would be the battalion command and staff. Not a pleasant thought, but it had happened before. He reconfigured the companies while the Artificial Intelligence Devices spread the line of attack for each individual trooper in the companies. The lines of attack were only recommendations, though. The ACS troops knew that if things changed they were supposed to think on their feet and get the job done. “Maximum aggression” was the byword. From the saying their commander used all too often, they just called it “Dancing with the Devil.” “The artillery’s getting ready to wind down support. Let’s get reconfigured, fast.”

The commanders handled it without even moving and from the surface the movement would have shown nothing but a series of odd ripples. The suit troopers accepted the change without comment; their systems gave them more than enough individual data to understand the reason and they were all chosen for more than just their aggressiveness. It was apparent that they were going to lose the support of the curtain barrage. Without it, the main threat changed to the left flank. And that meant, naturally, that Bravo company would be reassigned. Much as Mike tried to rotate the companies, everyone agreed that when it was really tough, Bravo got the call.

The troopers therefore handled the unexpected move with equanimity and dispatch. They had been arrayed on a line, ready to move out. This required shuffling nearly two hundred suits, under ten feet of water, but that, too, was no problem. The AIDs in each suit gave the path and the troopers followed the guidance, “flying” with their suit drivers in and around each other until all of them reached their assigned positions.

O’Neal didn’t even look to see if there was a problem. The Panthers had been hammered until all that was left was bare metal; they could handle the move in their sleep. They could handle the next battle the same way, but the casualties would be steep. And then the battalion would be even shorter, with no significant resupply in sight.

He glanced at his timer and grimaced. He had hoped to move forward in the last stages of the artillery strike; the barrage wasn’t going to hurt the suits. But the time-on-target was lifting already and they were just getting into place. It would have to be good enough.

“Move out.”

Karen Slight grunted when she saw the actual conditions on the land. Until the suits had crested the water the situation had been a thing of icons and readouts. She could have slaved a view off of Duncan’s suit, but it wouldn’t have told her anything the sensors didn’t. In fact, it would have been far less clear. But what the sensors couldn’t give her was the graphic image of the shot-torn hell that was central Rochester.

The time-on-target had been a mixture of variable time, impact and cluster ammunition that stretched in a one kilometer box with the canal on the south side, Castleman Avenue on the east, the river on the west and Elmwood Avenue on the north, and it had flayed the Posleen in the pocket. There had been thousands, tens of thousands at least, of the centauroids preparing to push across the river and most of them had been killed outright by the fire. The bodies of the Arabian horse sized aliens were strewn across the shattered rubble of the city, three and four deep in spots.

This left a ruined wasteland of piled rubble, scattered bodies and the wispy miasma of propellant fumes, smoke and dust that lingered over a battlefield. But in that fire-laden mist, shapes were moving.

Some of the Posleen, many of them even, had survived the initial time-on-target and were now reacting to the walking barrage. Some were running away and others were standing up and waiting for it to come to them. But a few were learning the human trick of finding cover. It was hard with a variable time barrage; to avoid the slashing overhead shrapnel of VT required overhead cover and the damage of the last few weeks of constant battle had destroyed most of that. But some few of them dove for remaining cellars and bunkers. And they would surely be back after the barrage moved on.

The battalion moved to its first phaseline, the high banks of the river, and flopped to its belly as if it were one beast. The suits had activated their cloaking holograms and the only sign of their presence was a brief series of mud splashes. Some of the survivors of the barrage had been God Kings, however, and they used their sensors to track on and fire at the cloaked combat suits.

The humans responded immediately, the mass fire of the battalion seeking out the better armed God Kings for lethal attention, but the far more numerous “normals” were now aware that there was an enemy on their flank and they turned towards the threat and opened fire more or less at random.

Most of the fire was high, but some of it was punching into the ground and even into the troopers of the battalion. It was under these conditions that the ACS proved its worth. Hunkered flat to the ground as they were, they made poor targets at best and most of the rounds that hit them, that would have demolished a Bradley fighting vehicle, glanced off harmlessly.

Not all of them, though, and Slight grunted again when she saw the first data lead go dead from her company. The location and name of the trooper, Garzelli from third platoon, flashed briefly on her heads up then faded. She didn’t allow herself to focus on it, she just noted it and marked it for pickup. Her first sergeant would have done the same thing, but no harm in being sure.

She looked up at the heights overlooking the battlefield. The slope was actually sharp and the battalion was enjoying some cover from the Posleen that were massed above. They had not been under the hammer of fire and were fresh; when they moved to engage things would be hot and Bravo would be in the thick of it.

Most of the remaining fire on the flat had been suppressed, however, and she noted and passed the battalion commander’s orders to begin the movement to the next phaseline.

This was when it got a tad tricky. Only one of her platoons, third, was actually going to be “on-line” with the rest of the battalion, the other two were going to be echeloned to provide cover for the left flank. This required that the two platoons wait as the battalion moved forward and string themselves out like beads along that side. She waited until about half of them had started forward and then moved out herself. After a few steps she stumbled and looked down at the Posleen she had tripped over. It was impossible to tell if it was a God King or a normal, the entire front half had been devoured by one of the 155mm impact rounds. But there was enough left to get in her way and as they progressed it was only going to get worse. She was having a hell of a time watching the whole company while also watching out for herself and she sometimes wondered how in the hell O’Neal did it.

Mike didn’t even notice, consciously, the icon for friable ground, but he stamped down, shoving his boot through the chest cavity of the Kessentai then kicking to free it as he moved on. The symbology for the ground around him would have been impossible for anyone else to read, a hyper-compressed schematic showing ground level and conditions. The original schematic had replaced a lower screen view that he had originally used after falling through ice a couple of times. Then the half screen of images had been compressed laterally until all that was left was an inch high readout stretching all the way across his view.

His “view” of the battle, after five years of command, was nothing but a mass of icons and graphs; an external view was nothing but a distraction. He ran his eyes across the readouts with satisfaction. All the companies were moving out in good order and Captain Slight was doing an excellent job getting Bravo in position along Elmwood Avenue. Sooner or later the mass of Po’oslena’ar around the Strong Memorial Hospital, what was left of it, was going to come tear-assing down in a tena’al charge and smash into Bravo like an avalanche. As long as they waited until Bravo was fully in the groove it shouldn’t matter. And so far all was in the green.

A couple of the bridges were showing as questionable, the icons outlined in yellow. He didn’t bother to try to find out why; his AID was processing data from a thousand sources and any of it could have led to that conclusion. Over the last few years Shelly had become remarkably adept at gauging the quality of units and if she said the bridges probably would take a bit longer than anticipated to move into the hot zone she was probably right. Another screen showed the symbology for the Ten Thousand getting into position.

There were high buildings across the river and he noted the fact that Kessentai on the heights were beginning to drop. The snipers of the Ten Thousand were obviously getting into the act, using both their own weapons and tripod mounted “teleoperated” systems. At those ranges, though, it was unlikely that they could get rounds into the power storage compartments of the tenar, which was unfortunate; when one of the .50 caliber sniper rounds hit the storage crystals the unstable matrix tended to turn into a good copy of a five-hundred-pound bomb.

The battalion had reached the Conrail line, and he ordered a short stop to get everything set. The Reapers, who had been responding to calls for fire all along, yanked charging tubes out of the huge ammo baskets welded on their backs while the regular ACS troopers checked ammunition levels and shifted as necessary. The standard suits carried hundreds of thousands of the depleted uranium teardrops but the grav-guns fired nearly five hundred a second. This meant that the suit troopers occasionally had to worry about running out of ammunition, a situation that would have been considered impossible before the war.

Bulbous bodied medic and engineer suits moved forward supplying additional ammunition to the fighters and checking on the dropped data links. Such damage usually meant that the trooper was terminal, a DRT or Dead Right There in the cold battlefield parlance of the medics, but occasionally it was just massive suit damage that the trooper had survived. In that case, nine times out of ten, the medic would leave the trooper anyway.

A few troopers had fallen back from the fight with serious injuries or damaged weapons. Usually anything that penetrated a suit was fatal, but, again, if the trooper survived the initial shock the suits would keep them alive until pickup, sealing the injury, debriding the wound, attacking infection and either putting the trooper out or shutting down the nerve endings depending on the tactical situation. And even such injuries as lost limbs were, at worst, an inconvenience as O’Neal was well aware; he came away from Diess with only one functioning limb. Regeneration and Hiberzine were perhaps the two greatest boons the Galactics had presented to humans and the suit troopers well knew it; most of the veterans had lost at least one limb at some point.

Mike spit a bit of dip into a pocket in the undergel. The icons for the Posleen on the heights indicated that they were starting to get their shit together. Among other things, there were signs of Kessentai going ground-mounted. If they were also smart enough to keep their crests down, the snipers across the river were going to have a damned hard time spotting them. Even if the snipers could pick them out it was a bad sign. It meant there was a God King who knew what he was doing and could command the obedience of others. Now was when the battalion was really going to earn its pay. Time to Dance.

* * *

Duncan hunched forward and wished he could get a Marlboro in the suit. He’d done it a couple of times before, but the suit had a hell of a time handling the fumes. The undergel acted… real strange for a couple of days afterwards. He didn’t know if it was toxic shock from the smoke or if it had just gotten pissed off; the underlayers developed “personalities” after a while that were still something of a mystery. But whatever the reason, he finally decided it was a bad idea and gave it up.

Which left him trying to direct nearly a division of artillery while having a nicotine fit.

He was watching the same icons as the battalion commander and if he didn’t have Mike’s instincts for how the Posleen moved he could tell they were shaping up for an attack. He’d been calling for fire from the two battalions of 155 tasked for “on call” fire, but they were half useless. He’d finally switched to using the organic mortar elements of the waiting divisions and the Ten Thousand. There were quite a few of those that were not very responsive, or bloody inaccurate, but there were also nearly twice as many of them as the artillery. Coordinating all of them was a bastard; some of them wouldn’t respond to electronic commands while others would… but incorrectly. It left his AID “faking” his voice all over the nets. But they were starting to get some good fire going on the Posleen assembly areas just as the main force began its push.

He took a look at the flow of the icons and wished he could scratch his head. His guess was that they were going to come down the sidestreets around PS 49. Most of them had been using West Brighton and Elmwood Avenues to move up to the flimsy crossing. If they followed the same route they’d be filing right into the “corner” of the battalion and cutting hard into Bravo company.

The problem was time of flight. The Posleen moved more or less like horses and just about as fast. So he had to decide where the majority of them were going to be in four or five minutes, the time it took to send the order and have it turned into fire commands then have the artillery or mortars fly, rather than where they were right then.

It was tricky. But that’s why he got paid the big bucks and didn’t have to be in the line anymore.

Now they seemed to be angling towards Elmwood Avenue and with a short plea for luck to anyone who was listening he concentrated all his available fire in and around PS 49.

* * *

Mike noted the shifting call-for-fire icons and nodded. It was a good call and that would probably catch a large percentage of the assault. But there were still going to be leakers, through the fire and around to the sides. That was up to Captain Slight to handle and it was time to move out; the walking barrage in front of them had already completed its timed halt and was preparing to move on.

* * *

Captain Slight relayed the order to move out and returned her attention to the north. The massive mortar barrage was just getting into swing and the Posleen were trying hard to get ahead of it. Somewhere around the hospital there was a God King or God Kings with sense and they were not only pushing “their” forces towards the humans, but pushing the undirected mass of normals who had lost God Kings ahead of them. This was just about like herding cats, since normals that were not immediately bonded after the death of their leader caste tended to get chaotic and grouchy. But in this case there was no place for the unbonded to go but straight into Bravo.

It started as the battalion moved out again. Most of the unbonded that were carrying heavy weapons had dropped them and most of the fire was from 1mm railguns and shotguns, neither of which was even noticeable by the suits. Unfortunately, buried in the mass of normals was the occasional one with a heavier 3mm railgun, that could penetrate a suit if the Posleen got lucky, or a hypervelocity missile launcher that could smash a suit like a walnut. And with all the bodies in the way it was hard for the AIDs to point them out for special attention.

There was also the problem that the company could not just ignore the huge mass to concentrate on the more dangerous companies behind it. Every one of those centauroids was carrying a monomolecular boma blade. Enough chops from one of those and the suit integrity would be gone; one of the greatest fears of any suit trooper was getting stampeded by the horses.

So as the avalanche of Posleen started down the narrow streets, dodging in and out of the rubble, the company took it under fire.

The Indowy-made grav-guns fired 3mm droplets of carbon-coated depleted uranium that were accelerated to a small fraction of the speed of light. The carbon coating was added after it was discovered the DU rounds tended to “melt” at about ten kilometers in standard air pressure, but the carbon didn’t prevent them from creating their characteristic “silver lightning” of plasma discharge. In addition, because of the relativistic speed of the rounds, when they hit a solid object they converted most of their kinetic energy into a racking explosion.

Thus the wave of Posleen was met by nearly a hundred lines of actinic fire, reaching out to waves of racking explosions as the tiny “bullets” converted themselves into uranium backed fire. The first wave was shattered by the volley; any of the rounds that missed traveled on to hit succeeding aliens.

Fighting the Posleen in a situation like this was often likened to trying to stop an avalanche with fire hoses and that was precisely what was happening here. As long as Bravo kept the fire up, none of the Posleen could get a good shot off before being swept away in a tide of grav-gun fire. At the same time, the mortars and artillery were thrashing them in the pocket.

However, this was simply ground they had to cross to get to their objective. The battalion couldn’t stop to wait for Bravo to kill all the Posleen around the hospital. Even if it was possible, and it probably wasn’t, the mission was to take and hold the bridgehead then wait for the Ten Thousand in support.

Bravo simply had to move out. And when they did, it would open up their flank to fire.

CHAPTER 5

Rochester, NY, United States, Sol III

0633 EDT Sunday September 13, 2009 ad

Mike glanced at his monitors and watched the movement without expression. The worst part about it was the ammunition counters. In that one brief engagement, Bravo had used up fifteen percent of their ammunition and there was no end to the Posleen in sight. The plan had been for an orderly advance to the objective, basically a horseshoe by the Genessee Bridge, but he was pretty sure that was out the airlock. The lack of a curtain barrage and the frantic and fragmented nature of the mortar fire that replaced it meant they were going to have to run for it.

This was exactly the situation that he had feared when he had had his confrontation with Horner. The battalion was strung out, in its most vulnerable possible position and still well short of its goal, the top of the ridge overlooking the river.

If they didn’t have the ridge the Posleen could pour fire into the bridgehead, and the battalion, from above. There would be no way to effectively direct fire and there would be no way to reduce the Posleen numbers, much less break their spirit, from in the valley. But when the ACS finally got there, the battalion would come into the view of literally millions of Posleen, millions of still unbloodied Posleen. They needed all the artillery there to suppress the Posleen fire and for smoke missions so that the normals couldn’t target the battalion. So far the majority of the battalion had been able to move with relative impunity because of the supporting fire from the “better” artillery battalions. If that went away the casualties would start to mount fast.

But there were tens of thousands of really angry Posleen starting to dig themselves out of the rubble around the hospital. And they were getting ready to fall on Bravo Company like the hammers of hell. Bravo Company needed all the artillery there to keep from being overrun. If they didn’t get some support, and fast, they were going to be thresh-in-a-can before you could say “Spam, spam, spam, spam and rat.”

The only thing that would save their ass was more artillery, which they weren’t going to get, or sacrificing the Ten Thousand, which he wasn’t willing to do.

There just weren’t enough resources to get the job done.

In other words, just another day fighting the Posleen.

“Duncan, shift all artillery to the north in support of Bravo Company. Battalion… prepare for tena’al charge.” He touched a series of imaginary keys and the scene started to change. Where before the holographic camouflage had been blending the suits into the background it now shifted to reveal larger versions of the demon worked into his own armor. As it changed the armor began to boom out a driving electric drum solo.

“Okay,” he growled, stamping downward on the dead Posleen at his feet to get a better footing. “Playtime’s over. Let’s kick some ass.”

* * *

“Jesus, Mike, it’s not that bad?” Horner whispered as the suit units seemed to go into hyperdrive. All of them had shape-shifted into large demonic creatures and then started sprinting for the heights, laying down a curtain of fire as they went. The silver lightning was chewing the ridgeline, sweeping away the front rank of Posleen as they came into view.

He looked to the north and it was apparent that the company there was in serious trouble. The artillery on the hills had stopped and he could only presume that meant it was shifting to the north in support of that unit. The company did not seem to have taken major casualties yet. But there was a huge mass of undirected normals heading for it and if they could not be stopped they were going to hack the beleaguered company to bits. It was clear that O’Neal had chosen to remove the artillery support from the majority of his unit in the belief that the company could hold out. Overall it did not look like a good bet to Horner; spread out as they were, the ACS were inviting defeat in detail. They might take and hold the bridgehead, but it looked like it would be at the expense of most of the battalion.

On the other hand, the overall requirement had been laid by one General Jack Horner. So he couldn’t exactly complain when they did whatever it took to perform the mission.

“Another day at the races,” Colonel Cutprice said from the other window. “I’m not going to wait for the bridge. First Batt is fully airmobile; I’ll send them across immediately using their tenars in support of Bravo company then start ferrying the rest across to support the ridge. Otherwise we’re going to end this day without a battalion of ACS.”

“I’ll go down and see if shouting at people gets the bridges up any faster,” Horner said with a smile, his version of a frown. “And find out why the boats aren’t already assembled.”

“That would be nice,” Cutprice said in a disinterested tone. “It’s going to be kinda lonely over there for a while.”

“ ’Course, what else is new, sir?” Sergeant Major Wacleva asked. “I’ll go get your body-armor.”

Horner looked over at the colonel and smiled again, tightly. “Do you really think that is a good idea, Colonel? Leading from the front is for squad leaders, not colonels.”

“As opposed to, say, watching the ACS slaughtered from across the river, General?” Cutprice asked, pulling out a cigar and slowly lighting it. “Yeah, I think it’s a grand idea.” He looked east where a cloud shadow seemed to be moving rather fast and frowned.

“Ah yes,” Cutprice said after a moment. “Right on time. Wouldn’t be a really screwed up battle without a five percenter.”

Horner looked to the east and up. “Well, that, at least, we can take care of.” He tapped his AID and gestured out the window. “Nag, tell SheVas Twenty-Three and Forty-two to engage the approaching Lamprey at will.”

“Colonel, you know that discussion we had the other day?” Sergeant Major Wacleva asked, walking back into the room with two sets of body armor.

“Which one?”

“The one about ‘when do you know it’s really bad’?”

“Sure.”

“Well, it’s bad if the Ten Thousand shows up. And it’s worse if the ACS shows up. And it’s really, really bad if General Horner shows up. But the ultimate in bad has to be when two SheVas show.”

* * *

Attenrenalslar was what the humans had taken to calling a “five percenter.” Ninety-five percent of Posleen God Kings understood only the simplest imperatives. Eat, screw, fight, take territory and repeat until death. However, that remaining five percent was, in some ways, more trouble than the other ninety-five. The “five percenters” were the ones that jammed the humans’ frequencies at seeming random, but always it seemed at the worst possible time. It was the five percenters that occasionally took over a fire net to the consternation of all. It was the five percenters that organized groups of Posleen to act in what was an almost concerted action. And it was the five percenters that used their Lampreys and Command Dodecahedrons as airmobile units.

One of O’Neal’s nightmares was somebody who would organize all the five percenters into one massive unit.

Currently, though, Attenrenalslar was one of the very few God Kings that had determined that the best way to turn the tide of this battle was to take his lander across the river and attack the humans from behind. He might be the only one; the percentages on “air-mobile” had gotten worse and worse for the Posleen of late.

Early in the war it was a nearly guaranteed tactic. The humans had very few weapons that could engage the landers and as long as they stayed below the horizon from one of the few remaining Planetary Defense centers, the humans almost had to wait for them to land before having any real chance to attack the Posleen within. Since the landers also mounted anti-personnel weaponry, not to mention space-to-space weaponry that was good for taking out most of a battalion, they could attack ground units with impunity. The wonder was that the Posleen didn’t use them all the time.

However, that weakness had been noted even before the enemy made their first landing; Mike O’Neal’s first Medal of Honor accrued from almost single-handedly taking out a command ship. But the method was not considered survivable.

In the first major Earth landing it appeared that a battleship had managed, through a fluke more than anything, to take out a Lamprey. From that was born the concept of the SheVa Gun, the sort of weird bastard weapon that is only created in the midst of really terrible wars.

The gun was named after the Shenandoah Valley Industrial Planning Commission, the group that had first solved all the various design problems inherent in the new system, and the majority of the first parts and pieces of the massive construction were made in the Roanoke Iron Works.

The basic parameters for the weapon were simplicity in themselves. The gun was an extended barrel, smoothbore, 16” battleship cannon. Because of the occasional necessity of rapid fire, the standard 16” “bag and round” method of loading, which involved sliding a 1200-pound round followed by fifty-pound bags of powder, had been replaced with a single shell the size of a small ICBM. The SheVa gun carried eight rounds as a “standard load” and a tractor-trailer could haul two “four-packs” that permitted reloading in under ten minutes. Each gun was loaded with standard rounds, but there were at least two tractor trailers “on-call” carrying special munitions, including both sensor and antimatter area effect weapons, at all times.

The other parameters were that it be able to fire from two degrees below horizontal to ninety seven degrees above with a swiveling turret and that the system be fully mobile. It was this combination that had caused all the design teams to almost give up in despair. That was, until the good old boys (and girls) from the Shenandoah went ahead and admitted that the parameters just meant it needed to be bigger than anyone was willing to admit, even privately.

The monstrosity that was finally constructed defied belief. The transporter base was nearly a hundred meters long with two fifty-meter-wide treads on either side supported by four-story-high road wheels. The “gun” was mounted on shock absorbers the size of small submarines and constructed using some of the same techniques. The swivel turret was two stories thick, constructed of multiple pieces “welded” together by an explosive welding technique, and nearly fifty meters across. The upper deck was six-inch steel plate, not for any armoring purpose, but because when the gun fired anything else would buckle.

When the design was mostly done the power source was obvious; there wasn’t enough diesel in the entire United States to support the projected requirements for the guns. On the other hand, Canada’s supplies of pitchblende were plentiful and above the weather-line that the Posleen preferred. Therefore, nuclear was the only way to go. However, putting a large “reactor control crew” onboard seemed silly. Finally, they “borrowed” a South African design for a simple, practically foolproof nuclear vessel called a “pebble-bed helium” reactor. The system used layered “pebbles” that automatically mitigated the reaction and helium — which could not pick up, and thus release, radiation — as the temperature transfer medium. Even if the coolant system became totally open, that is if it started venting helium to the air, no radiation would be released and the reactor would not “melt-down.” Of course, if the reactor took a direct hit there would be “hot” uranium scattered all over the ground but other than that, no problem; the system was absolute proof against “China Syndrome.”

The control center and living quarters were actually located underneath the behemoth and were the size of a small trailer. It wasn’t that it took a large crew; the system could actually be run by one person. It just made more sense that way. The designers looked at the physical requirements for the three-man crew and finally settled on a small, highly armored command center. But the monstrosity had so much power and space to spare that they added to the design until they had a small living quarters that would permit the crew to live independent of the surroundings.

The designers also included a rather interesting evac vehicle.

So when the crews of SheVas Forty-Two and Twenty-Three got the word that a lander was on the way, they dropped their cards, dropped their Gameboys and slid smoothly into action.

“This is Forty-Two, General,” said Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Wagoner. Forty-Two was a brand new SheVa, the newest until there was a “Forty-Three.” And Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Wagoner was a brand new SheVa commander. He had just been transferred, over his howling objections, from command of an armored battalion and was having trouble adjusting to being a tank commander, by any other word, again. But he was pretty sure he could remember how to crank a track, by God. “We’re on it.”

“Okay, boys, blow the camouflage; it’s time to lay some tube.”

* * *

Duncan felt a rumbling in the seat of his pants and configured his view to “swing” westward. The remains of West Rochester were shuddering as if the town had been hit by a minor but persistent earthquake and he could see boulders being kicked loose from the hill he was sitting on. When the viewpoint finally swung to the west it became obvious what had caused the effect.

Behind him, about four miles to the rear on the south side of the canal, an oddly shaped hill was shuddering apart. As the greenish foam fell away the enormous shape of a SheVa gun was revealed.

The thing was just ugly. There was no other word to describe it. The bastardized cannon required something like a crane cantilever to keep it from bending and the massive construction of the whole system didn’t permit anything on the order of beauty. Like a steam shovel for a giant open-pit mine or a deep ocean drilling platform, the only things prior to the SheVa to be built on its scale, it was pure function.

The scale of the guns was hard to grasp until you realized that the tiny ants running alongside weren’t even people, they were trucks.

He shook his head as the thing first waggled from side to side to warn all the little “crunchies” that it was preparing to maneuver and then accelerated up the side of a small moraine, smashing a factory to bits on the way.

“Fucking show-off,” Duncan muttered, turning back to the east.

* * *

“Forty-two,” called the commander of SheVa Twenty-Three, “be aware that we have two more lift emanations including a C-Dec.”

“Got that,” said Colonel Wagoner. His intent was to use the moraine as cover until they could get a good hull-down shot at the Lamprey. The problem with SheVa guns was that “hull-down” generally required something like a small river valley; the moraine was as good as he was going to get.

But when the other two lifted, they would be in a position to rake Forty-Two’s position from the north. The question was whether to engage them as they came in view or after the leading Lamprey.

“Sergeant Darden,” he called to the driver. “Swing us around to the south side of the moraine with the gun about forty degrees to the angle of the slope. We’ll take the current Lamprey as it bears then continue around the slope to engage the others.” He switched to the SheVa frequency and glanced at the battlefield schematic. “Twenty-Three, prepare to move out. As we engage the first Lamprey, engage the first of the trailers. The we’ll gang up on number three.”

“Got it, sir,” called the other gun. “Time to show these ACS pussies what ‘heavy metal’ really means.”

* * *

Duncan just sighed as the ground really started to shake. The secondary screen showed another hill — this one much less artistic; it had buildings sticking out of it — coming apart as the second SheVa went into action, its cantilevered gun pointing to the east.

It suddenly occurred to Duncan that the gun was not pointing particularly high in the sky. He looked at the gun, looked towards the probable target and had just enough time to say: “Oh, shit,” before the weapon fired.

* * *

The rounds for the SheVa guns used the equivalent of a battleship 16” gun “max charge.” The bullet, however, was a sabot round, a depleted uranium “arrow” surrounded by a thermoplastic “shoe.” The bullet, therefore, was very light compared to the standard 16” gun “round.” And instead of a rifled barrel, which permitted a round to stabilize in flight by spin, but also retarded the speed of the round, it was a smoothbore. The barrel was also extended to nearly three times the length of a standard sixteen-inch barrel, thus permitting more of the energy from the charge to be imparted to the bullet.

Since round speed is a function of energy imparted versus round weight and barrel drag, the round left the barrel at speeds normally obtainable only by spacecraft.

The plastic “shoe” fell off within half a mile and what was left was an eight-inch-thick, six-foot-long, pointed uranium bar with tungsten “fins” on the back. The fins stabilized its flight. And fly it did crossing the twenty kilometers to the target, trailing a line of silver fire, in just under two seconds. However, such speed and power do not come without some minor secondary effects.

Duncan dug plasteel fingers in the bedrock as the hurricane of wind hit. The sonic boom, which shattered windows and even walls in the hospital down the hill, was almost an afterthought to the wind. It was the wind, driven to tornado speed, which tore at buildings and people throughout Rochester, ripping off roofs, toppling walls, turning trucks on their sides and pitching troops around like bowling pins.

Whatever secondary effects the round might have had, its primary effect was even more spectacular. Simple kinetic impact would usually destroy a Lamprey or even a C-Dec — when the rounds did not explode they tended to punch all the way through the ships. But the designers of the SheVa guns weren’t satisfied with “usually.” So at the core of the SheVa round was a small charge of antimatter. Only the equivalent of a ten-kiloton nuclear weapon.

The effect of the round punching into the ship was obliterated by the rush of silver fire that gouted from every seam and port. For a moment the ship seemed like it would hang together, but then it just came apart in a blossom of fire that consumed the Posleen for a quarter of a mile around. Large pieces, the size of cars and trucks, flew out as far as the human battle lines and bits the size of a human head reached even to Duncan’s location.

“Show-offs,” Duncan muttered, dusting off some dirt. He picked up a piece of Lamprey that had impacted on the hilltop and tossed it in the air. “Sure, it’s easy to do with the right equipment. Try doing it with just a suit sometime.”

* * *

“Target,” said Twenty-Three. “Your turn, Colonel.”

“Right,” Wagoner said. “Try to get some elevation next time; the secondaries on that one shook up the whole corps.”

“Crunchies,” Twenty-Three, called. “What can you say?”

“You can say ‘Yes, sir,’ ” said Wagoner. “And get some cover.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Forty-Two out.” He tapped a control and nodded as the line of travel dropped into place. The target line was plotted and potential secondary damage noted. They would be firing over the edge of the corps, but not near any of the hospital like that idiot in Twenty-Three. And they would be higher off the ground by at least a thousand feet. The damage should be minimal.

“Forty-Two, prepare to engage,” he said over the intercom. “Target in three, two, one…”

* * *

Attenrenalslar cursed as the trailing command ship exploded and began moving his Lamprey from side to side, hoping to throw off the aim of those demon-cursed weapons.

The vehicle that had engaged the command ship had already disappeared behind one of the small mountains that dotted this plain and he was sure the instruments had detected another for a moment. But deciphering the cursed technology of the Alldenata was a task for those who had studied it; most of the icons were unfamiliar to him.

“Come out, though,” he whispered, caressing a weapons control that was targeted on the distant hillock. “Come out little abat and see what Attenrenalslar has in store for you…”

* * *

“Fucker’s maneuvering, Colonel,” Sergeant Pritchett called. The gunner turned the SheVa gun to full auto as the Lamprey came in sight and clamped down on the firing circuit. “Solution coming up.”

Millimeter wave radar on the side of the gun “painted” the target, comparing it to the electronic pictures it stored of various Posleen equipment. The onboard computer determined that, yes, this was a lander and the lack of return from an “Identify, Friend or Foe” query indicated that, yes, this was a valid target. It then ran a laser down the barrel, determining that it was in good condition to fire and another on the outside determining that all the support structures that were supposed to be supporting were in fact functioning. Last it computed barrel distortion, number of rounds fired through the barrel, temperature of the air and a myriad of other variables to arrive at an adequate firing solution.

It also noted in passing that the target was slowly maneuvering. But when the distance to target is less than ten kilometers and the round is traveling at twenty-five hundred meters per second, that is less than four seconds of movement on the part of the target. And it was a biiiig target.

* * *

“Fuscirto uut,” Attenrenalslar snarled. “There are two.” It was unlikely that the secondary weapons would scratch that thing; it was the size of a oolt’pos. But he tried to slew the ship to get a plasma cannon to bear.

* * *

“On the way!” Pritchett called as the entire world went red.

The gun used more energy in one shot than a brigade of armor and although the gun was heavily reinforced and the platform was the size of an oil rig, it still shook the entire beast like a terrier shaking a rat.

But before the last rumble had faded away, Darden had thrown the monster in reverse and Pritchett was ensuring the automatic loading sequence was progressing properly.

“Target!” Colonel Wagoner said with a note of satisfaction. “Now that is what I call laying tube.” Maybe he could get used to being a tank commander again after all.

* * *

Mike grinned inside his armor as a wash of over-pressure blasted Posleen off the ridgeline. “Cool. Now if we could just get a little of that over by Slight.”

The battalion had covered the thousand meters to the heights in just under sixty seconds, long enough for the Posleen landers to react and be neutralized in turn by the SheVa guns Horner had called up. There had been several thousand Posleen in the pocket. Most of them were still dazed from the artillery fire, but quite a few had put up a struggle. None had survived.

Now the Posleen were just below the ridgeline, at the point called the “military crest.” The wash of nuclear fire had probably opened up a fair sized hole in the Posleen on the height, so it was undoubtedly time for the ACS to earn their pay. Mike tapped a control and the entire battalion took one leap to the edge of the natural parapet. They probably weren’t going any farther and with the way the ridge was shaped it wouldn’t even be necessary to dig in. After ensuring that that was the case, he elevated his main gun and took a peek through the sensor system.

“Oh, shit,” Mike whispered. At the first view of the conditions in the valley beyond, his readouts had gone blood red and he just had to clear the visor to see what was really there as the entire battalion opened fire.

* * *

From his perch Horner had been able to see some of the forces beyond the ridge, but the view from the ACS made his belly clench; as far as the eye could see the ground was a seething mass of Posleen. Earlier estimates had been something on the order of four million; assuming the density that they saw there and continuing only four miles out of sight Little Nag was calculating it at over for-ty million.

* * *

“We can’t do this, we can’t do this…” Mike heard. The circuit was open to the entire battalion and he was picking up bits and snatches of conversation. The suits were protected by the cover of the top of the hill, with only their guns elevated above the crest. But a plasma cannon or hypervelocity missile fired from the far side of the other valley could tear through the ground and take them out with just a couple of hits. For that matter, the number of Posleen meant that some of them were bound to make it through the fire, if for no other reason than that others were masking them. And once the Posleen got to hand-to-hand range, their boma blades could get through the armor. Not to mention point-blank cannon and railgun fire.

“Steady down,” Mike said. He’d turned off the unpleasant view and had pulled up the schematics again. They were saying the same thing, but the view wasn’t so visceral. “Steady down, keep your barrels low and maintain fire dispersion.” He glanced at his readouts and chuckled. “The good news is that even we can’t miss.” Because of the automation of the systems and the fact that the ACS was designed to “spew” fire, it was an article of faith among the conventional forces that they couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn.

“Major,” said Captain Holder. “We’re getting heavily flanked to the north. It’s not like they’re meaning to do it, but that’s where they’re being pushed.”

“I’m aware of that, Captain,” O’Neal said calmly. The numbers on Bravo did not look good. They had twice the separation, which meant half the fire pressure, that the rest of the battalion did. And in the face of forty million Posleen the main battalion’s fire lanes seemed woefully inadequate. For that matter, Bravo had already expended forty percent of their onboard ammo. “Duncan, get all available fire in front of Bravo Company.”

“What about us, sir?” asked Captain Holder.

“Well,” Mike answered, “we’re just going to have to kill all these Posleen by our own selves.”

“We’re in the right place, though,” Mike whispered to himself. Shelly, correctly, didn’t transmit the mutterings. “We’ve got the heights, we’ve got the position, one flank, at least, is secure. We can do this. All we have to do is hang on.”

The majority of the Posleen directly in front of Alpha and Charlie company for a half kilometer or so had been killed by the explosion of the second lander. But that dead zone was quickly being filled up by the tremendous pressure from the rear. The Posleen, as normal, were coming on fast, hard and blind, charging right into the fire. But this time there were so many of them it might just work.

Mike had gamed out scenarios just about this bad and “won.” That is, some personnel survived and they held on long enough that the follow-on forces were able to get into position. But in this case he had no artillery support and the battalion was just too spread out. It didn’t take him long to calculate their odds of survival.

“Slim to none,” he muttered.

“Battalion,” he called. “All units lay down interlocking fire with your sharpshooters concentrating on the God Kings. Bravo, you need to tuck your corner in a little. All Reapers from all companies to the corner and dig in. All medics and technicians just became ammo runners; start ferrying ammo and power packs. And bring up the Reapers flechette cannons; I think this is going to end up being some close-in work.” He worked his dip and spat as the first hypervelocity missile flew overhead. Over the past five years he swore he’d used up his entire fund of motivating things to say at moments like this. “I can’t get my boots off to count on my toes, but if we win this one I do believe it will be one for the record books.”

CHAPTER 6

Rochester, NY, United States, Sol III

0817 EDT Sunday September 13, 2009 ad

Staff Sergeant Thomas (“Little Tommy”) Sunday realized that he just loved this shit too much.

He stepped off the platform attached to the side of the tenar and shot one of the Posleen in the head and smiled. The normal had been hacking at one of the pieces of shattered combat armor adorning the ridgeline. The extender for the suit’s grav-gun was blown away and Sunday couldn’t tell if the ACS trooper had tried fighting in direct view or if he’d been killed by one of Posleen at short range. Whatever, the position looked just about right for him to hunker down and do some killing of his own.

Reaching onto the tenar he hefted a two-hundred-pound battle-box in one hand and then marched up the hill, firing the twenty-pound railgun one-handed at any Posleen that showed its head over the ridge.

Thomas Sunday, Junior, had joined the United States Ground Forces on his seventeenth birthday. In the intervening years he had grown into the spitting image of his father, an All-Pro linebacker in his time, and “Little Tommy” now stood six foot eight inches tall in his stocking feet and weighed in at nearly three hundred pounds. He hadn’t been this big when he joined, though. His seventeenth birthday had been four months after the fall of his hometown of Fredericksburg, Virginia.

In the first landing, Fredericksburg had been surrounded and cut off from any aid by an estimated four million Posleen. A scratch force of the local Guard unit, a combat engineering battalion, and the local militia had held off the advance of the Posleen force for nearly twelve hours while a special shelter was prepared for the women and children. At the end of that long night the defenders had detonated a massive fuel-air bomb as cover for the hidden noncombatants and to remove any capability for the Posleen to use the bodies of the defenders as food, “thresh” as the Posleen called it.

The Posleen had come away from Fredericksburg with a healthy respect for the twin-turreted castle that was the symbol of the Engineers. Thomas Sunday had come away with a girlfriend and memories.

Of the people that he had grown up with, only four were left alive. Of the defenders of Fredericksburg, people with actual guns in their hands, he was one of only five still alive, including his girlfriend.

Not one member of his militia group. Not one friend, only a few acquaintances. His mother and sister had survived in the shelter and were now in a Sub-Urb in rural Kentucky. Everyone else was gone.

All of them were gone, wiped from the face of the earth as if they had never existed.

The Posleen had gone away with a respect for the Engineer, and by extension all humans. Little Tommy had come away with memories. And a burning desire to kill Posleen.

He did so now, dropping into the prone, snuggling up to the shattered combat suit for better cover and sticking his head up over the ridge to get a look at the conditions.

“Man, I have just got to get a transfer,” he muttered.

The slope downward from his position was just carpeted with dead Posleen. There were still millions left to kill, sure, but the ACS must have accounted for nearly a million all by itself and at this point the remaining ranks were finding it hard to make it up the hill for all the bodies. There was no single bit of ground visible for at least a klick from the very top of the ridge down to the valley. Every single square inch was covered in bodies, most of them two, three, even four deep. And it was apparent to Sunday that very little of it had been artillery fire; Posleen that had been hit by artillery looked more chewed up for one thing.

He set the railgun up on a tripod and set it to autofire as he opened up the battle-box. There were four cases of ammunition and a dozen battery packs in it as well as a second railgun which he set up alongside the first. Then he ganged the ammunition cases together, giving two to each of the guns, and ganged up the battery packs. When all of that was done — he pulled his personal weapon — a 7.62 Advanced Infantry Weapon that had had the original barrel switched out for a “match grade” — off his back and adjusted his shooting glasses.

“Now to have real fun,” he chuckled.

Crouching down he ran down the ridgeline a few meters, ensuring that the rest of his section was emplacing their weapons. Each of them was armed with a railgun and each three-man team manhandled a battle-box into place. Then as two of the members covered the third, the “layer” installed the last railgun in “auto” mode.

Basically, Sergeant Sunday had emplaced nearly as much firepower as half his team.

Now he found a comfortable spot to set up and peeked past a shattered cornerstone. The Posties were getting their shit together again and they just couldn’t be allowed to do that.

Whistling the opening bars to “Dixie,” Thomas Sunday, Junior, took a bead on a God King and gently squeezed the trigger. Just like a tit.

“Speaking of which,” he said to himself as the first God King pitched backwards off his tenar. “One of these days I’ve just got to get down to North Carolina.”

* * *

The first thing that Wendy noticed was the glow-paint. It was set to the flattest, whitest intensity. The room was almost painfully neat. Part of this was an intentional minimalism; there was very little of a personal nature at all. The walls were undecorated Galplas. The standard building material of the Galactic manufacturers of the Sub-Urb could be adjusted to reflect light in practically any tone or shade so naturally some bureacrat had decreed that there were only four that could be used: institutional green, institutional white, institutional blue and institutional salmon. These were institutional white and looked as if they’d just been extruded. Since this was an outer portion of Sector F that might, in fact, be the case. The combination of the light, the impersonal nature of the room and the lack of ornamentation gave the quarters a greasy, clinical feeling.

The second thing she noticed was the locker. The dull gray, unmarked polygon squatted in the far corner like some sort of mechanical troll. The material looked like regular Galplas, but it clearly was plasteel; the container was more proof against burglary than a steel safe. The Indowy manufacture was readily recognizable to any resident of a Sub-Urb — all the high security sections were sealed with the same stuff — and nothing but a high-watt plasma torch or a molecular grinder could cut it. There was a standard issue wall-locker in the room as well, so the plasteel safe was probably for security purposes.

With those exceptions, the room was otherwise standard for the Sub-Urb. By the memory-plastic door was an issue emergency locker, the only thing unusual about it being that it hadn’t been vandalized. According to the seal and the inventory on the exterior, if she opened it up it should contain four emergency breath masks, a limited first aid kit and a pair of Nomex gloves. If it did, it would be the first complete set that Wendy had seen in four years. One wall sported a 27” flatscreen viewer and the carpet was basic polylon. All in all, it looked like an original issue personal living quarters. Or what they had looked like when Wendy had first been dropped in this underground hell.

The girl sitting on the room’s single bed was wearing only a pair of running shorts and a midriff top. That was not terribly incongruous because she was very good looking. Her skin had the teenager fineness of a recent rejuvenation and her clearly unsupported breasts were high and firm. Strawberry-blond hair cascaded over her crossed arms and the white coverlet in a titian waterfall while sharp green eyes regarded her visitors with wary intelligence.

“Annie,” said the doctor, “this is Wendy Cummings. She’s going to help you with your recovery.” The psychologist smiled cheerily. “We think it will help you at this stage in your development to get out a little more.”

What Dr. Christine Richards did not say was that the post-op team was petrified. The latest round of cognitive tests had shown that, despite the speech impediment, Anne O. Elgars was fully recovered from her multi-year coma and experimental surgery. What they were not sure of was that it was, in fact, Anne Elgars.

“Hi, Anne,” Wendy said, holding out her hand and giving a lopsided smile. “We’re supposed to be ‘compatible’ as friends. We’ll see. Sometimes psychologists can’t tell their ass from their elbow.”

The person who might or might not be Anne Elgars tilted her head to the side then returned the slight smile with a broad grin. “A… Ahm A… Annie tuh fr… en.”

“Glad to hear it,” said Wendy with a blinding smile in return. “I think we’ll have lots to talk about. I understand you were in 33rd Division at Occoquan?”

“Well,” said Dr. Richards. “I think I’ll leave you two girls alone. Annie, if you would, I’d like you to help Wendy with tasks. Now that you’re recovering it’s important that every pair of hands help.”

The expression slid from the redhead’s face like rain. “Unnnnkay Derrrr…”

“Don’t worry,” said Wendy with a glance at the psychologist. “We’ll be fine.”

As the door closed on the doctor Wendy stuck her thumb behind her upper teeth and flicked it in the direction of the retreating specialist.

“I hate psychologists,” she said making a moue of distaste. “Fucking shrinks.”

Elgars’ mouth worked for a moment then with an expression of frustration she held both of her hands palm upward.

“To qualify for front-line combat as a female you have to pass a psych eval,” said the blonde, tying up her ponytail in frustration as she sat next to Elgars on the bed. “And it’s a real Catch-22. They won’t admit anyone who is ‘unstable,’ but a fighting personality is considered borderline unstable for a female.”

Elgars’ mouth worked again and she grunted a laugh. “Fum… fu. Umbitch!”

Wendy dimpled. “Yeah. They’re all sons-of-bitches. I agree. But they can fuck themselves. So, you’ve got amnesia? And a speech impediment, obviously.”

“Uhhh… yuhhhh,” Elgars said with another flash of impatience.

“Don’t worry about it,” Wendy said with a smile. “We’ve got plenty of time to get the story. But can I ask one question?”

“Yuhhh.”

“Is that a weapons locker? Because if it is I’m really pissed. They took all my shit away when I got to this damned hole. I go to the range at least once a week, but they won’t even let me try out for the security force.”

“Yuhhh,” Elgars said with a quizzical expression. “A… Ah doooo.” She stopped and her mouth worked. “Ah… don’n… know wha…”

“You don’t know what any of it is?” Wendy asked. “You know the words, you just can’t say them, right?”

“Yaaah.”

“Okay.” Wendy hopped off the bed and walked over to the featureless polygon. It was about two meters high, with six “facets” on the side and no apparent locks or doors. “How does it open?”

Elgars slid off the bed and swayed over to the locker. Her speech may have left much to be desired, but her movements were efficient and graceful.

Wendy regarded her carefully and smiled. “Have you been working out?”

“Phy… skal ther’py,” Elgars answered, placing her hand on the face of the polygon. “A’ so’ o’r stu’.”

The front of the cylinder opened to either side with a blast of gun-oil scent, and Wendy’s jaw practically hit the floor. It wasn’t a couple of personal items, it was a damn arsenal.

The left door was hung with dress uniforms. The officer’s dress blues on top, with rank marks for a captain, were practically coated in awards and medals. At one point, besides being expert in rifle, pistol and submachine gun, Elgars had passed, in succession, the Army Advanced Marksmanship Program and Marine Corps Sniper School, the last of which was practically unheard of. She was a veteran of infantry combat, as denoted by her Combat Infantry Badge, and had apparently earned two Purple Hearts and a Silver Star along the way. But the capstone was the simple device on the right breast, a gold “600.”

“Oh, shit,” Wendy whispered. Besides the uniforms — the right door was hung with camouflage and Fleet Strike grays for some reason — there were a half dozen weapons in the locker. Taking place of prominence was something Wendy had only seen pictures of: a Barrett M-82A1 .50 caliber sniper rifle. It clearly had seen use, but before being put away had been factory serviced and sealed in PreserFilm. There also were two different submachine guns, with loaded clips dangling on harnesses, a couple of pistols, one a silenced Glock and the other something odd and bulky with a laser sight and silencer, and a “bullpup” style assault rifle. Hanging in the back was a combat harness with full loadout for a team sniper.

“How the hell did you get this in here?” Wendy asked. “The Sub-Urbs are zero-tolerance zones!”

“Uah… Ahmmm ’ct’ve… Aaaaactive…”

“You’re active duty?” Wendy said with a laugh. “Sorry, but…”

“Ahmmmm Ssssixssss…”

“Six Hundred,” the former resident of Fredericksburg said with a sober nod. “And even the dead of the Six Hundred are still listed as active duty.”

Elgars smiled and nodded. “Buuuu… wha’sssss,” she gestured into the locker.

“And you don’t know what this stuff is, do you?” Wendy asked.

“Nuuuu.”

Wendy regarded her levelly and green eyes met her blue.

“Okay, let’s find something out. Do you have something that shows you can have this?”

Elgars gestured at the uniforms, but Wendy just shook her head.

“No, for the shit-head panic children in Security we’ll need more than that. Any documentation specifically stating you’re authorized? You got a gun card?”

Elgars reached in and extracted an envelope. Inside, on driver’s license-sized card, was a simple note:

“Captain A. O. Elgars is a currently serving member of the United States Armed forces on detached duty and her right to carry weapons irrespective of type or caliber in any portion of the United States or its Territories for any reason she at her sole discretion shall deem reasonable and prudent shall not be infringed. Any questions regarding these orders shall be directed to the Department of War.” It was endorsed by the Continental Army commander and the commander of the Ten Thousand. The back had her picture and personal data.

The license was standard issue. At the beginning of the war the right of the Federal military to conduct maneuvers in and around non-threatened zones had been repeatedly questioned. Among the questions raised was whether military personnel should be restricted in access to their weapons, especially in and around cities which had anti-gun laws.

Most of the complaints had ended after the Fredericksburg landings, but when a detached brigade of infantry was surprised and overwhelmed in Seattle, with their weapons still in the unit armory, the question was settled once and for all. Serving members of the armed forces were not required to wear uniforms at all times. But for “the duration of the current emergency” serving military personnel were required, by Federal law, to be armed at all times with a “basic load” for their primary weapons. Posleen landings occurred at random and on the balance it had been decided that the occasional irrational act was balanced by the security of an armed response to the invasion.

“Now the important question,” said Wendy with another smile. “What to wear.”

Elgars smiled back and reached for the Battle Dress Uniform. She fingered the lapel with a puzzled expression.

“Do you recognize the uniform?” Wendy asked. “It’s BDUs. That rank shows you’re a captain. Do you remember being a captain?”

Elgars shook her head and shrugged. “Ser… sar… sar’nt.”

“You were a sergeant?” Wendy asked. “Why do you have captain’s tracks?”

“Sarn’… pri’ate.” Elgars face worked and she banged her head. “Staaaa… No… Ahhhh!”

“Calm down,” Wendy said, shaking her shoulder. “Whatever you were, you’re a captain now.” Wendy looked at her for a moment and shook her head. “Have they given you any background on why you’re here? Or even where ‘here’ is?”

Elgars shook her head and gestured around at the room. “Is an’ off’ce a’ I see.”

Wendy took a breath and thought about where to start. “Okay, you know you’re underground, right?”

“Righ’.” Elgars nodded at that. “Su’-ur’.”

“A Sub-Urb,” Wendy agreed. “Have they shown you a map?”

“N’.”

Wendy picked up the remote for the flatscreen and punched in a code. “This is the information channel. Did they show you that?”

“N’.”

“Christ,” Wendy said. “Okay, here goes.” She flipped through a menu and brought up a schematic of a cube. “Welcome to the Franklin Sub-Urb. Here’s Getting Around One Oh One.

“The Burb is a cube. The top of the cube is one hundred feet underground with the area over it reinforced with ‘honeycomb’ anti-shock armor. The cube is broken into eight sectors and each sector is broken into subsectors. The primary sectors are letters, A through H. The subsectors are numbers and once you figure out the way that breaks down if I say something like ‘C8-8-4’ you know right where you’re at. The subsectors are each four stories high and four blocks wide and deep. They start numerically at the center and work outward both from the center and from the joining line to the next sector. The sectors are eight subsectors, or eight blocks, wide and eight deep, but they are still under construction and a few of them continue out beyond eight subsectors.

“Right now you’re in Sector F, Subsector 1-1-4. That means that you’re right at the top of F, on the border with E and four blocks out from the center. Sector A is security, emergency services, administration and a few living quarters, mainly for administration and security. Sectors B through D are living quarters. Although some of C and D are given over to support. Sector F is hospital and environmental support and E through H are generally given over to support including a fusion reactor in H and an extensive hydroponics and waste reprocessing section in G.

“The main personnel entrance is above Sector A and joins A near the juncture of the other three living sectors. Just outside of it is a large parking garage where most of the vehicles used by the evacuees are parked. On the southwest quadrant, adjacent to Sector D, is the main resupply route. Supplies come in there and are transported down elevators to Sector H.

“There are primary movement routes running along primary sector junctures — that is, where four sectors converge — and at four points within each sector. Prime Corridors have slide-ways, walkways and cart paths. Secondary movement routes are found at every other subsector juncture point. Secondary Corridors do not have slideways and you have to be careful of carts and vice versa. The small corridors where residences are found also can be used to move around; they are referred to as tertiary corridors. Except in special cases, carts are not permitted in residential corridors.

“If you get lost,” she continued, hitting a command so that a list of icons came up, and pointing to an icon that looked like a computer, “look for this symbol. That’s an info-access terminal. You can query one as to your location and how to get to just about anywhere in the Urb. You also can ask for a ‘sprite,’ which is a Galactic supplied micrite. It’s about the size of a fly and glows. It will leave and take the shortest primary route to your destination. Follow it. It will stop if you stop and leave when you reach your destination.”

She gestured to the rest of the icons. “There’s other symbols you need to get to know. There’s symbols for security, bathrooms, cafeterias and stuff like that. Most of them are sort of self-explanatory, but you need to get familiar with them.

“You are permitted to leave the Sub-Urb, but it is strongly discouraged and no unauthorized personnel are permitted into the Urb and no military personnel are permitted unless they have written orders or are on hospital status and assigned… like you.”

“You’ gi’ ’is for,” Elgars said.

“Yes, I’ve given this lecture a few times,” Wendy said with a grim smile. “I’ve been in this fucker since it was just a giant echoing hole.” She thought about it for a moment. “That’s all you really need to know for now. There’s some minimal emergency information you should get familiar with, but it’s available on channel 141. I’d recommend watching that fairly religiously for a couple of weeks; there’s all sorts of tips to getting around. Any major questions for now?”

Elgars shook her head and went over to the other locker to get a bra. The locker had a chest of drawers in it and several sets of civilian clothes, mostly blue jeans and dresses. On the right hand side was a shoe rack with one pair of running shoes, two sets of shined combat boots and nine pairs of high heeled shoes, most of them black. The only thing that showed any sign of use was the running shoes.

“Man,” Wendy breathed. “You’ve got enough clothes for five people down here.”

Elgars made a questioning sound in her throat and Wendy shrugged.

“There aren’t any clothes getting made these days; all the mills make stuff for the Army. So whatever people brought, and most of ’em only brought a suitcase or two, that’s what they had to wear.” Wendy gestured at her own outfit of a dungaree type shirt and slightly oversized jeans. “They make a few things to keep people dressed and shoes, but none of it is ‘fun clothes.’ You’ve got more dresses than I’ve seen in three years.”

Elgars looked at them then at Wendy. They seemed to be about the same size so the captain gestured. “Yuuuh… waaa… ?”

The blonde dimpled prettily and pushed the air off her right ear. “Not now. Maybe some other time if I can borrow something that’d be great.”

Elgars reached into the locker and pulled out one of the dresses. It was a violet wrap, consisting of multiple layers of lace in a variety of shades. She looked at it with distaste for a moment then thrust it at Wendy. “Take.”

“Are you sure?” Wendy asked. The dress was beautiful.

“Suuurre.” Elgars’ face worked for a moment as if she was going to spit. “Ah don’t lahk purple,” she continued in a soft southern accent. There was no trace of a lisp.

* * *

Elgars looked around with interest. The corridors were wide — wide enough to slip a car through with difficulty — and high. And they seemed to go on forever. Every fifty meters there was a set of stairs and every hundred meters there was an escalator flanked by an elevator. At each such intersection there was another emergency pack, but unlike the one in her room, most of these were hanging open and empty. The plastic walls changed color, but all were calming pastels. The tones were pleasant, though, not institutional in any way. Occasionally there were walls of what looked like stone but with a smooth look as if it had been extruded or melted.

Overhead there were regular sprinklers and innumerable pipes with cryptic markings like “PSLA81.” At intervals the one of the pipes that was marked with a red and blue pattern would have an extension downward to a double headed ending. Since it was valved and capped, Elgars imagined that it was probably designed to supply emergency water for some purpose.

The main corridors were open but there were memory-plastic doors on either side, some of them marked and others not. Most of the ones that they passed seemed to be residences although a few were marked with names like “The Cincinnati Room.” At intervals in the main corridors there were open doors with control panels on both sides. These were heavier and seemed to be designed to close in the event of an emergency.

At every set of stairs or escalator was a sign: “Primary evacuation route” with an arrow up, down or pointing into the corridor. Flanking it was another: “Secondary evacuation route” pointing in a different direction. In addition to the emergency signs there were signs with some of the icons that Wendy had pointed out. Elgars was fairly sure she could figure out the bathroom and the cafeteria signs. But what was the one with three things that looked like feathers?

As Wendy had pointed out, there were regular markings on the walls, a letter followed by three numbers. In their perambulations they had proceeded out of Sector F and into B. It seemed to Elgars that they were taking a very roundabout route; they seemed to be staying in personnel quarters corridors and away from the main thoroughfares.

Most of the residential corridors were narrow, no more than two persons wide, and showed signs of wear. In one area most of the glow-paint had been damaged, leaving long sections of near total darkness. Wendy didn’t stop but Elgars noticed that she seemed to be much more cautious in her movements, slowing as she approached intersections as if to listen for other footsteps, and the few people that they passed seemed to avoid eye-contact.

“This is the older section,” Wendy said quietly as they were headed down a secondary corridor. This one had scorch marks on the walls as if a fire had once raged through the area and the damage was never completely repaired. “I was here when this corridor was as new and shiny as your room. But it’s near a maintenance section now and… well… it’s sort of a bad neighborhood. On the other hand, the security pantywaists don’t like it much, so I don’t think we have to worry about them.”

What they did have to worry about became evident as they came to a residential intersection. In the better sections there was a slight widening of the corridors at the intersection, a water fountain and signs to the significant support facilities in the area. Two of the three corridors leading to this spot had had their glow-paint almost entirely stripped away and the water fountain had been ripped out of the wall and was sitting in a pool of rusty water.

As Wendy stepped cautiously into the shadows along one wall, there was the rasp of a match and a group of figures emerged from one of the darkened corridors.

“Well, whatta we got here?” the leader asked, lighting her cigarette. The girl was below normal height and unhealthily skinny. Her face had been badly tattooed with a figure that was probably a spider and her hair was pulled up in patches that had been dyed a variety of colors. She was wearing heavy boots, short shorts and a midriff top. Elgars would have laughed at the combination if it wasn’t for the aluminum baseball bat she was swinging in one hand.

“I think we’ve got trespassers,” giggled another. This one was above average height and heavyset with wide hips and pendulous breasts. The two would have made a comical couple were it not for the weapons in their hands.

“Whatcha got in the bag, cutey,” the leader said as the other three started to spread out.

“Nothing you want,” Wendy replied quietly. “You just go your way and we’ll go ours.”

“Oh, I don’t think so,” the heavier one said, pulling a chain out from behind her back. “I really don’t.”

“Do we kill them?” Elgars asked with perfect clarity. She was standing quite still, her weight forward on the balls of her feet and her hands at her side. The question was asked in an absolutely toneless voice.

“Uh, no,” Wendy said. “Security gets all pissy when you do that.”

“Okay,” Elgars said and moved. From Wendy’s perspective, one moment she was totally still and the next she was practically chest to chest with the leader.

The captain blocked the swing of the bat with her forearm — she was well inside the arc — and ripped the ring out of the leader’s nostril. “That’s to get your attention,” she said in a deep voice just before she head-butted the leader into the far wall.

Wendy’s hand dipped into the bag and came up holding the Glock, which more or less stopped the other three in their tracks. “Oh, look, there was something you guys could have used. And, lookey, it’s got a silencer on it. Which means that when I blow you all over the wall, security won’t even hear. Now, why don’t you three just take off while my companion finishes playing?” They took one look at the pistol and decided there were corridors that needed their attention. Like, now.

Wendy winced as Elgars kicked the henchman in a place that is, arguably, more sensitive in women than in men. The chain had disappeared somewhere down a corridor and a knife was already on the floor broken at the tang. The woman was waving one hand in front of her face, fighting to get a word out, when Elgars followed it up with a kick to the side of the head.

“If you didn’t want to play, you shouldn’t have brought the ball,” the captain said, bouncing on her toes with her hands up at shoulder height, fingers folded and palms out. Again, the voice was decidedly deep and clear.

“I think you’re done here, Annie,” Wendy said, stepping over to the leader to check for a pulse. There was a good solid beat, which was nice considering the bang her head had taken. Wendy flipped out a penlight and checked the pupils. The right pupil was a little sluggish but Wendy figured she had a better than fifty/fifty chance of waking up. The henchman was even better off, already starting to groan into consciousness.

“Damn, you two are luckier than you have any right to be,” Wendy said, straightening up. “I’d suggest you run by the infirmary, though.” She kicked the leader in the shin. “You’ve got a pretty good concussion going there.

“Right,” Wendy said, “I think we should get as far from here as possible.”

“ ’Ka,” Elgars mouthed, lowering her hands. “N’d t’ ge’ ou’ o’ D’ge.”

A few turns, a short secondary corridor and they were back in well-maintained corridors as if the encounter had never taken place. These corridors were, for the most part, not crowded. The one exception was an open area where at least four hundred people, mostly older but with a scattering of younger women and children, sat on metal chairs playing board games, talking and sipping drinks. One end of the area was an elaborate playground, like hell’s own hamster trail. It was mainly around this centerpiece that the children ran screaming happily.

Wendy didn’t even pause, continuing her unerring navigation towards their eventual goal.

“We’re almost there,” she said, taking another up escalator. “This place is laid out really logically. Once you get used to it you can find anything. All the security stuff is up and towards the main entrance which is on the inner corner of A.”

Elgars pointed to a large red box on the wall of the corridor. It was the second one that they had passed. It was marked in a similar manner to the emergency packs in the rooms, but had a large sign “For ER Personnel only.” And it apparently hadn’t been looted.

“It’s an attack pack,” Wendy said. “There is one in each subsector, located at the subsector’s 4/4/4 point; that’s short for the middle of the subsector. It’s got basic rescue and fire gear in case of an emergency. There’s some class B breath packs, a trauma kit including foldable stretcher, a defib kit, firefighting gear and an entry kit. They can only be opened by qualified emergency/rescue personnel; there’s a palm print scanner on them. I can get one open; I’m in the fire/rescue reserve force. I’m hoping to get on a regular crew soon, if I can pass the Physical Performance Eval.”

Elgars pointed to the sprinklers on the ceiling. “F’r’?”

“Yeah, they’re for fire suppression,” Wendy agreed. “And some of the areas that have a lot of computer equipment are Halon fed. But even with them, there’s the possibility of a large breakout. And if a big fire breaks out, we’re screwed. This thing is like a ship; you have to kill the fire before it kills you. The alternative is going to the surface, and if we wanted to be up there, we wouldn’t be stuck down here.”

“Wur ahh… are we?” Elgars asked gesturing around. She apparently had decided to ignore the earlier adventure.

“You mean in the world?” Wendy responded. “They didn’t tell you?”

“Nuu…” the captain said. “Ne’er ask…”

“Didn’t want to ask the shrinks, huh?” Wendy said, taking another turn. This corridor was less well lit and appeared to be unused. The doors along both sides all showed the red panel of being locked. “We’re in the mountains of North Carolina. Does that mean anything to you?”

“Nuuu…” Elgars said with a shrug then frowned. “S… saw a m… map. A… Ash…”

“Not near Asheville,” Wendy said with a snort. “It’s a long story.”

“Tell.”

Wendy shrugged. “When the Posleen dropped on… Fredericksburg,” Wendy said with only a slight catch in her voice over the destruction of her hometown, “most of the Sub-Urbs weren’t ready for people to move in. But there were nearly two million refugees from Northern Virginia. Some of them could go back but… well most of F’Burg was just gone. I mean, between the battleships and the fighting and the Bomb it had been smashed flat. And we were going to have to move out soon because the Posleen were just coming back. And most of the survivors were… well… not in the greatest shape…

“Anyway, this was the only Urb that was almost finished on the East Coast. It was the first one started; the local congressional representative had managed to wrangle getting it placed in his district even though it’s in a really stupid spot.”

Elgars made another sound and Wendy grimaced.

“Well, first of all, all the other Urbs are placed near interstates, usually near existing cities. Asheville has two really huge ones and they’re both full. But we’re near a place called Franklin. It’s just a little town in southern North Carolina, a dot on the map. The only reason we’re here is because of the congressman; he’d been in Congress for just about forever and was the committee chairman for the procurement process. So this was where the first Sub-Urb went.

“Supplying us, what little supplies we get, is a real pain because the trucks have to compete with the supplies for the corps that’s defending Rabun Gap. And the corps is practically on top of us; their main rear area supply point is Franklin, so at first we had all sorts of trouble. There’s a Kipling poem that points out that soldiers aren’t ‘plaster saints.’ Mix a corps of soldiers with an underground city full of women and things got… bad for a while. So now they stay out there and we stay in here and almost everybody’s happy.”

She shook her head after a moment. “We’re just about the only Sub-Urb that has that problem, too. You see, we’re just about the closest Urb to a defense line. I mean, there are a couple of others that are this close and then there was the Rochester Urb…” She paused and shuddered.

“Ba… ?” Elgars asked.

“Yeah,” Wendy said quietly. “Worse than F’Burg really. The Posleen got into the Urb and after that there just wasn’t anything to do. There’s really only one way in and out. The defenders put up a good fight, or so we hear. There… weren’t any survivors.”

“Urgh…”

“Yeah,” Wendy said. “That’s why whenever the news mentions fighting around Rabun Gap we sort of tense up. If the Posleen come through there’s not much we’re going to be able to do.”

Elgars just nodded and kept looking around. Like Wendy, most of the people were poorly dressed. The exception were one or two teenage females who were wearing flashy shorts and midriff tops. The clothing was clearly new, but the style was… different from the rest of the inhabitants.

Wendy noted her glances and frowned. “Corps whores,” she whispered.

“Whuh?”

Wendy shrugged again. “Everybody finds their niche here. Some of them turn into drones, some of them decide to have some fun running the corridors and acting like they’re bad. Others… find a party. The soldiers up top are restricted from coming down here; there were just… too many problems when they had unrestricted access.” She frowned and it was apparent that there was a wealth of stories in that simple sentence. “So after a while the head of security and the corps commander reached an agreement and now the soldiers don’t come down here. That doesn’t mean we’re restricted from leaving. So some of the girls, women too… ply a very old trade on the surface.”

“I do’… n’er’stan’,” Elgars tried to enunciate.

Wendy looked at her with an arched eyebrow. “You don’t know what I’m talking about, do you?”

“Nu.”

Wendy sighed and hitched the bag higher. “They trade sex for money, Captain. And goods. Like better clothes and food than you can get down here. And electronics gear: that’s almost nonexistent these days.”

Elgars looked around at the high plastic walls and the unending corridors. She thought about being stuck in here for years and shook her head. “So?”

Wendy looked at her again and shook her head. “Never mind. It would take too long to explain why people find that bad.”

The captain nodded as they turned into a door marked “S A Securities.” There was a small alcove on the far side and another door which was locked.

Wendy pressed a buzzer and looked up at a security camera. “Lemme in, David, I bring a visitor.”

“You’re carrying, honey. I’m surprised you made it.” The deep voice came from a speaker almost directly overhead as the door buzzed.

“I just walked around all the detectors,” Wendy said as she entered the sparse room beyond. “And it was a good thing I was.”

There were steel weapons lockers with mesh fronts along the left hand side of the room. The shape of rifles and submachine guns could be seen faintly though the mesh. Opposite the door was a low desk; as Wendy and Elgars entered the room a dark, burly man pushed a wheelchair out and came around to the front.

“You have problems?” the man asked.

“Nothing we couldn’t handle,” Wendy said with a shrug, still bleeding off adrenaline.

“Who’s your visitor?” the man said, watching her with eyes that knew darned well that it hadn’t been something minor.

“David Harmon, meet Captain Anne O. Elgars,” Wendy said with a smile. “Captain Elgars took a little damage a while back and she’s not quite up to form.” Wendy frowned. “Actually, she’s got amnesia, so she doesn’t have a clue about weapons. But she used to. We need to see what she remembers.”

“Remembers?” Harmon said with a frown. “My legs don’t remember running. How are her hands going to remember shooting?”

“The doctor said she’s remembering most of her motor skills; she can write and eat and all that stuff. And… well… I think the Blades would safely say that she recalls some basic fighting skills. I thought we could try at least.”

“You ever been on a range?” Harmon asked Anne. “Blades?” he queried Wendy.

“Crazy Lucy and Big Boy,” Wendy said, jerking her chin at Elgars. “She spent most of her time toying with them.”

“I do-o…” Elgars said with a frown. “I do-o-o ’member… W’a’n’t toy’ng.”

“The captain’s still recovering,” Wendy said quietly. “She’s…”

“Got a serious speech impediment,” Harmon said. “Yeah, well ain’t none of us whole in this fucking place,” he continued with a snort and a gesture at his legs.

He unzipped the ballistic bag and started extracting hardware. “MP-5SPD. Nice. Silencer package. Did you used to do point, Captain?”

“Du-du-dunno,” Elgars answered. “Do’ ’member.”

“She also had a Barrett in the locker,” Wendy added.

“That doesn’t make sense,” Harmon said with a frown. He pulled out the next piece and frowned. “Desert Eagle .44. This is not the weapon of a sniper. At least, not one from a regular unit. Were you in special forces or something?”

“No,” Elgars said and frowned. “At least, I d-d-don’t thin’. P-p-papers s-s-say Th-th-Thirt’-Third. Then uh S-s-six hunnert.” She frowned again and snarled, bearing even, white teeth. “S’all wrong.”

Harmon looked over at Wendy with a lifted eyebrow. “You didn’t mention that.”

“She’s on ‘detached duty,’ ” Wendy said with a shrug. “Hospital detachment. I don’t know if they’re going to put her back through training or what. But it makes sense for her to re-learn the basics.”

“Uh huh,” the weapons instructor grunted. “Makes as much sense as anything else that has happened to me in the last six years.”

He cleared the chamber on both weapons and rolled over to a locker. “Get her a set of earmuffs and I’ll set up the range.”

* * *

Harmon extended the Glock to the captain and watched her hands carefully. “The weapon is not loaded, but you never take a person’s word for that. Keep it pointed downrange and keep your finger off the trigger.”

Elgars took the pistol with a puzzled expression and rotated it from side to side. The indoor range had been set up with man-sized targets placed at various distances between five and thirty meters. She glanced in the chamber and cocked her head to one side like a bird then picked up one of the magazines. “S’fam-uh… famil’ar. Kin ah lock an’ load?”

“Go ahead,” said Harmon watching carefully.

Elgars swept the unloaded weapon back and forth keeping it pointed downrange. “Th’somethin’ wrong,” she said, turning to look at the instructor. Following her body the pistol swung to the left and down. Directly at the wheelchair-bound range-master.

“Up!” Harmon said sharply, blocking the swing of the pistol up and out. “Keep it pointed up and downrange! Go ahead and pick up the magazine and seat it, then lock and load. This time, though, keep it pointed downrange, okay?”

“S’rry,” Elgars said with a frown. “S’all wron’. S’righ’ an’ wron’ a’ same time.” She picked up the magazine with a puzzled expression, but there was no fumbling as it was seated and she jacked back the slide.

“Uh, ‘The firing line is clear’?” Wendy said with a grin.

“ ’Re’y on uh lef’?” Elgars muttered with a frown.

Harmon smiled. “Ready on the left? The left is ready. Ready on the right? The right is ready. Firing line is clear. Open fire.”

Before the former police officer’s chin could hit his chest all five targets had taken two shots in the upper chest and one in the middle of the face. The sound was thunder, a series of blasts like a low speed machine gun, then the magazine dropped to the ground and the weapon was reloaded. He had never seen her hand move to pick up the spare; the weapon seemed to reload itself by magic.

“Bloody hell,” Harmon muttered while Wendy just stood there with her mouth open.

“Was that okay, sar’nt?” Elgars asked in a shy little voice.

“Yeah, that was pretty good,” Harmon said, waving away the cordite residue. “Pretty good.”

CHAPTER 7

Rochester, NY, United States, Sol III

1014 EDT Sunday September 13, 2009 ad

“I think this is goin’ pretty good,” Colonel Cutprice opined. He ducked as a stray railgun round glanced off the shot-up piece of combat armor shielding him. “Could’ve been worse.”

Would’ve been worse if it hadn’t been for that late shipment of Bouncing Barbies,” Sergeant Major Wacleva grumped. “And the Spanish Inquisition.”

“ ‘I’ve got a list, I’ve got a little list,’ ” Sunday said, belly-crawling over to their position. “We could use a few Bouncing Barbies out here, sir.” He popped his head up over the armor and ducked back down. “There has been a fine killing, but it could always be better.”

Cutprice shook his head. “You know why they’re called ‘Bouncing Barbies,’ Sunday?”

“Yes, sir,” the sergeant replied. “They really ought to be called Duncan’s Folly. But they call ’em ‘Barbies’ because it is alliterative and, like Barbie, they just up and cut you off at the knees if you get anywhere near them. You know she would. The cold-eyed bitch.”

The M-281A anti-Posleen area denial weapon was one of the few commonly available bits of “GalTech,” the technology that the Galactic Federation had first offered then been unable to supply in any significant quantity.

The device was the bastard child of a mistake, a mistake made by one of the members of the 1st Battalion 555th Mobile Infantry. In the early days of the conflict, Sergeant Duncan, who was a notorious tinkerer, had tinkered a Personal Protection Field into removing all its safety interlocks and then expending all of its power in a single brief surge.

The surge, and the removed safety interlocks, had created a circular “blade” that cut through several stories of the barracks he was in at the time. And, quite coincidentally, through his roommate’s legs.

It took quite some time for all the right questions to be asked and in the proper way. But finally it was determined that the boxes were relatively easy for the Indowy technicians to produce, even one at a time. And they easily could be fitted into a human device called a “scatterable mine platform.”

The resultant artillery round threw out forty-eight mines, each of which was slightly mobile and had a conformable appearance; the mine was a flattened, circular disk, somewhat like a “cow-patty.” The surface could change color and texture depending upon the background, but the default setting was the yellow of Posleen blood, for reasons that became obvious.

After being released from the artillery round in flight, the disks would scatter across a “footprint” about two hundred meters long and seventy meters wide. Then if anything came within two meters of it, the mine would “hop” up one meter and create a field of planar force that extended out fifty meters in every direction. The field would cut through anything except the most advanced Galactic armor, which meant sliced and diced Posleen.

What was nice about the system, from the humans’ perspective, was that it had up to six attacks on “onboard” batteries. After its attack it would scuttle sideways slightly and “hide” again, waiting for the next wave of Posleen and looking for all the world like one of the unpleasant “Posleen bits” that was left behind. Although the piles of chopped up Posleen generally gave away the fact that there were Bouncing Barbies in the area. Even to the moronic normals. Since the Posleen generally reacted to minefields by running normals over them until they were clear, this gave the capability to deal with multiple waves, which normal mines did not.

“We really need some out here, sir,” Sunday insisted. “For one thing, when they fall on a big pile of dead like this they chop ’em up into bits. It would make it easier to move out. And it’s a hell of a lot of fun to watch.”

“You’re so ate up you make O’Neal seem like a piker, Sunday,” Sergeant Major Wacleva said with a death’s head grin. He obviously approved.

“Call but upon the name of Beelzebub,” Mike said striding up the hill. He knelt down by the armor and patted it fondly. “Juarez. He’s been with the battalion since before I took over Bravo Company. He used to be in Stewart’s squad. Good NCO. Hell of a loss.”

Cutprice really looked at the armor for the first time; something, an HVM or a plasma cannon, had eaten the top of the armor. “How many did you lose, Major?”

“Twenty-six,” O’Neal said, standing up to look over the slight parapet. His appearance was apparently ignored for a moment then a hurricane of fire descended on him. “Most of ’em were newbies of course. They do the stupidest things.”

Cutprice and Wacleva ducked and huddled into their heavy body armor while Sunday cursed and crawled sideways to retrieve one of the railguns. The fifty-pound combination of motorized tripod and railgun had been hit by a stray round and tossed backwards. One glance determined that it was a goner.

“Damnit, Colonel,” the sergeant called. “You just got my gun shot up!”

“Oh, sorry about that,” O’Neal said. He sat down in the mud and reconfigured his visor to external view. “Cutprice, why are you hunkering down in the mud? Oh, never mind. Do you know if there are any more Barbies around? We need to get them out on the slope. They chop up the Posleen real fine; that will make it easier to move out when the time comes and besides it’s fun as hell to watch.”

“Were you guys separated at birth or something?” Cutprice asked. “And we’re huddling in here because the ricochets from your armor were just a tad unpleasant.”

Mike took off his helmet and looked over at him. “What are you talking about?”

“You were just taking fire, hotshot,” Wacleva said. “You did notice, right?”

“No,” Mike said simply. “I didn’t. Sorry about that. I guess… it wasn’t all that intense.”

“Maybe not for you,” Wacleva said, pulling a spent 1mm railgun flechette out of his body armor. “Some people, however, aren’t covered in plasteel.”

“And that’s the problem of course,” Cutprice said grumpily. “If we try going over that ridge, we’ll be so much hamburger.”

“We need to break up this force some,” Sunday said. “Nukes, nukes, nukie nukes.”

“That would be nice,” Cutprice said. He was well aware that they barely had the Posleen force stopped, much less “backing up,” which was the requirement. “Unfortunately, the President still says no. The artillery is getting into battery…”

“Spanish Inquisition time?” O’Neal asked, opening up first one armored pouch then another. Finally he gave up. “Sergeant Major, I apologize most abjectly for causing you some temporary discomfort. Now, could I bum a smoke?”

“Yeah,” Wacleva said with a laugh, pulling out an unfiltered Pall Mall. “Keren started the Spanish Inquisition. Send in a platoon of MPs each with a sheet of questions and answers. Walk up to the senior officers and NCOs and ask them three questions off of the sheet. If they don’t get two out of three right, they’re relieved. Before you know it, you’ve lost half your dead weight and people who know what they’re doing are all of a sudden in charge.”

“The only thing I’ve got against it is that I didn’t think of it first,” Mike said. He put the cigarette in his mouth, lifted his left arm and a two meter gout of flame suddenly spurted from one of the many small orifices on the surface of his suit. He took a drag on the cigarette and the flamethrower went out. “It’s not much good with infantry and armor units, but artillery is a skilled branch. If you don’t know how to shore a fucking trench, you shouldn’t be in the engineers. If you don’t know how to calculate the proper size of an antenna, you shouldn’t be in commo. And if you don’t know how to compute winds aloft, you shouldn’t be a artillery battalion-fucking-commander.”

“I gotta get me one of those,” Sunday said, pulling out a pack of Marlboros. “Can I try?”

“Sure,” O’Neal said.

Sunday leaned back from the gout of flame and sucked on the cancer stick. “Love it.”

“It’s not standard,” Mike pointed out. “It’s one of the modifications I suggested that got nixed in committee. I believe in a Ronco suit.”

“It slices, dices and makes Julienne fries?” Cutprice said with a laugh.

“You got it,” O’Neal said soberly. “Obviously it’s not just for lighting cigarettes. So, how do we get these fuckers reduced to the point that we can get them backing up? And maybe have somebody standing after we’re done.”

“I take it you’re not up to the task?”

“Nope,” O’Neal said, leaning back on the late Sergeant Juarez. “We took about one in four casualties this morning. Not as bad as Roanoke — that was a real shitstorm — but if we go over that ridge they’ll eat us alive. We can hold the box but not move out of it. And we only hold the box because the arty is holding one side.”

“They’re getting slaughtered down there,” Wacleva said with a gesture of his chin towards the hospital. “That’ll cut down on ’em some.”

“Have you really looked over the hill, Sergeant Major?” Sunday asked incredulously. “They’re losing maybe a thousand a minute, which seems like a lot. But at that rate we’ll be here for forty days and forty nights.”

“Yeah, and in the meantime they’ll be reproducing all up and down the coast,” Mike pointed out. “The horny bastards.” He scratched his chin and took another drag on the cigarette. Reaching over he picked up a shattered boma blade and held it overhead. After a few moments, railgun rounds started to crack overhead followed by the occasional missile. Finally a stream of rounds smashed the sword out of his hand, taking half of the remaining blade away in the process.

“Fire pressure’s still up there,” O’Neal opined as the others dug themselves out of the ground again. “Sometimes if you pin them in place and don’t kill the first million or so they run out of bullets. But when you’re killing wave after wave the guys behind are always fresh and have full loads. We used that in… Christ… Harrisburg One, I think. Pinned the front-ranks down until they ran out of fire, moved forward and dug in again so the rear ranks could come forward a bit then did it all over again. Sort of. I think. It’s been a long time. But if we try that here, we’ll get flanked. That was when we were retaking the outer defenses and we were covered on a narrow front.”

“So obviously that is out,” Cutprice said sourly. “Any other ideas?”

Mike rolled on his back and looked at the sky. It was still overcast, but the light rain had faded. The sun was up in the east and it might just burn off sometime after noon. He thought about that and realized it was already after noon.

He rolled over to the side and fingered the dirt. The brick buildings of the area had been pounded to a fine red clay that reminded him of home. And underneath? He sniffed at the ground for a moment, looked down the hill towards the river with his head sideways as if measuring the angle then flicked the cigarette over the crest of the hill and put his helmet on.

Cutprice hit the ground again as the thermal signature attracted a storm of fire. “Are you just communing with nature or do you have a plan?”

Mike held up one finger in a “wait a minute” gesture then rolled back over. “I have a plan,” he intoned. “My mother would be proud; reading is finally going to save my ass.”

“Reading what?” Sunday asked.

“Keith Laumer short stories.”

* * *

Colonel Wagoner looked at the video in his heads-up-display in disbelief. “Pardon me, General. Would you mind repeating that?”

Horner was smiling. Which as practically everyone in the world knew at this point meant the fecal matter had really and truly hit the rotary air impeller. “You are to cross the Genesee River and go into direct support mode for the ACS and the Ten Thousand. They are pinned down on the ridge that parallels Mount Hope Avenue. Cross the river, climb the ridge and give them on call direct fire support.”

“General,” the colonel protested, thinking about all of the really bad aspects of that order, “you do realize that… well…”

He paused for a second to collect his thoughts. “Well, for one thing, the rounds aren’t exactly howitzer rounds, General. If they do hit something they’re going to make an atomic fireball about a quarter the size of the Hiroshima bomb; it’s going to be noticeable on seismometers from here to Tibet. Second, they go for a looong ways; there’s a couple of fortress cities out there. New York comes to mind. Last but not least, we’re not a tank for all we look like one. We don’t have any armor over our tracks or on the gun mantlet. In other words, we’re vulnerable to Posleen fire. And if we sustain a critical ammunition hit you’re going to have an explosion that makes the Shanghai Strike look like a firecracker and you’ll lose everyone in the pocket. And most of the forces on this side of the river.”

He waited for a moment as Horner appeared to be waiting for him to go on.

“Is that it?” Horner asked.

“Well, yes, sir.”

“Okay. You forgot that without infantry support the Posleen would be able to close in on either side and attack you from underneath. Which, all things considered, really is your most vulnerable direction. You don’t have anti-Posleen secondary weapons.”

“Yes, sir,” the colonel said. “You have a point there.”

“Also that unless the Ten Thousand pulls back, you’ll almost surely crush them in large numbers. And that moving you through the assaulting corps is not going to be what you would call easy.”

“No, sir, it won’t,” the colonel admitted.

“You also missed the more significant aspect of your possible demise,” the general continued inexorably. “If you sustain a critical ammunition hit, the resulting ground level explosion will be on the order of seventy kilotons. While this will, undoubtedly, kill Posleen for miles around, it will also create a very large crater. This crater, based upon the subsurface structure, will probably dam both the Genesee River and the Erie Canal. While the large area of marsh that will result will somewhat impede the Posleen, they will then have crossing points over both water structures. Just at the time when the local defense forces will probably be in full-scale rout to Buffalo.”

The colonel suddenly recalled the tiny and almost forgotten datum that Horner’s original education was engineering. “Ah. That’s… not a point I had considered, sir.”

“Colonel, listen very carefully,” Horner said with a broad smile, speaking as if to a child. “Move your vehicle over to the Genesee Valley. Cross the river. Engage the Posleen in direct fire mode in support of the ACS on the ridge. Fire your weapons low. As often as possible, engage concentrations on hilltops that you can impact; if there are occasional detonations of your antimatter munitions this is an unfortunate side effect for which neither of us can be held responsible. As you move up, the Ten Thousand will shift left to cover that flank. The ACS will provide you with close infantry support. Use the slope of the ground for hull down fire; it is, I am told, almost perfect for it. Try not to hit New York City. Is this understood?”

“Yes, sir,” the colonel said quietly. He was beginning to get the impression that this was not entirely the general’s idea. And that the general was not particularly happy with it.

“And Colonel Wagoner.”

“Yes, sir?”

“Don’t get hit. Especially in your magazines.”

“I’ll try, sir. Sir? One question?”

“Yes?” Horner snapped.

“The Ten Thousand are getting out of my way. What about the ACS? What if we roll over one of them?”

Horner paused and for just a moment frowned slightly, a sign of amusement. “Colonel, have you ever watched the Coyote and Road Runner?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, if you run over an ACS, he’ll just have to dig himself out. There’s one over there painted like a green demon; you have my personal permission to show him why you call infantry ‘crunchies.’ ”

CHAPTER 8

Near Seed Lake, GA, United States, Sol III

1147 EDT Sunday September 13, 2009 ad

“Good cosslain,” Cholosta’an said, rubbing the superior normal on the back. The half oolt had returned from its first “patrol” on its own and from all appearances had made all the turns perfectly.

Many of the cosslain, the higher intelligence normals that were almost high moron level, could not have remembered all the turns in the complex patrol pattern they had been assigned. But the one good thing about his oolt was the cosslain, and this one sometimes seemed almost intelligent enough to handle God King duties. He couldn’t talk, but his hand gestures were occasionally almost eloquent.

“Did you see anything of note?” Cholosta’an asked, signaling the half oolt to begin their daily feeding.

The cosslain gestured in the negative as he pulled a ration pack out of his harness. The food resembled a small mineral block and was just about as hard, but it gave the oolt’os something to do with their time.

“You’ll go back out in a few hours,” Cholosta’an continued, pulling out a slightly more palatable ration pack. It wasn’t much better than oolt’os food, though, and he longed for a victory to give him the funds to afford better. “If you see any sign of the humans you are to fire off a magazine to bring the nearest Kessentai, you know that?”

The cosslain gestured in the affirmative, his triangular teeth grinding through the rations sounding like a rockcrusher.

“Good,” Cholosta’an said. All the oolt’os seemed healthy and reasonably well fed so there wasn’t much else to do.

“You do a good job,” said Orostan.

Cholosta’an stifled his start and turned around slowly. The oolt’ondai had come up so softly that the younger Kessentai never even heard him. “Pardon me, Oolt’ondai?”

“You care well for your oolt’os. Many Kessentai, especially young ones, don’t pay any attention to their care. It is good to see.”

“They can’t very well care for themselves,” Cholosta’an said, wondering why the oolt’ondai was paying any attention to him.

“Let me ask you something,” the oolt’ondai said, gesturing for the younger Kessentai to precede him. The newly dug cavern rang to the sound of devourers and the cries of the oolt’os manning them. It was only one of dozens that the hard-driving Tulo’stenaloor had ordered. It was his intention, apparently, to put the entire host underground, out of sight of the observers in the sky and out of danger from the human artillery. With more and more young and hungry Kessentai arriving every day, it was a matter of continuous construction.

The oolt’ondai fluffed his crest as he made his way through the thousands of waiting oolt. The bodies of the oolt’os, and the occasional Kessentai, stretched for acres in every direction. The smell was an interesting admixture of home and fear. The smell was of pack, but the continuous battle for survival and status in the pens never quite left Posleen subconscious. The oolt’os would wait stoically until called upon, but if something wasn’t done with all the Kessentai, such as having them manage patrols, they would begin to bicker, gamble and fight. A firefight in the cavern, once started, would butcher the majority of the force.

“Look around you. How many of these Kessentai do you think are doing more about their oolt’os than assuming they are fed?”

“Very few,” Cholosta’an admitted. “I see many oolts who appear to be underfed and with poor equipment. I’m sure the Kessentai have many problems as I do, but I also doubt that the reason their oolt look so terrible is that they can’t afford to trade for resupply.”

“Agreed and agreed,” Orostan said with a hiss of humor. “The host cannot make good every piece of junk shotgun and broken strap this flock of poorlings has brought with it. But we have more than sufficient thresh’c’oolt for the host. But it is not my duty, not my ‘job’ as the humans would put it, to care for every oolt’os in the host. So, why am I ensuring that your oolt is cared for? And, by extension, why are you under my… guidance?”

“I…” The young Kessentai paused. He realized that no one had ever told him that he should care for his oolt. It just seemed… natural. It would be through his oolt that he could, perhaps, take new lands and acquire possessions to make his life better. Without his oolt, functioning well, he would be nothing but a Kenstain. “I do not know.”

“The reason you are working for me is the appearance of your oolt,” Orostan said. “When I was told to go choose from among the new forces I chose on the basis of how the oolt looked, not how it was armed as some of my equals did. Your armament is, frankly, crap. But it is well cared for.”

“It was all I could afford,” Cholosta’an admitted. The shotguns that the oolt’os carried were the simplest, and therefore, cheapest systems available. And even at their small cost, the debt he had incurred was ruinous.

“Perhaps,” Orostan admitted. “But a light railgun costs less than twice as much as a shotgun. And it is far more than twice as effective. Why not have half the number of oolt’os and railguns? Or, better, a third and a mixture of railguns and missile launchers. If you had that you would have a far smaller force to look at, but it would be much more effective.”

Cholosta’an thought about it for a moment. It was a new concept; the assumption was that more was better. And he knew why. “The… the Net assigns spoils on the basis of how much you have contributed to the Taking. To… to get the best spoils, the best lands and the functioning manufacturing facilities, requires that you have more oolt’os, a larger and more powerful oolt.” He paused. “I think.”

“The net assigns spoils on the basis of effect,” Orostan said definitively. “If you had half your number of oolt’os and railguns you would have a greater effect, everything else being equal, than your current balance. At some point in the future I may ask you to release half your oolt’os; will you?”

“If…” The young Kessentai paused again. “If you think it best.”

“I do,” the oolt’ondai said meditatively. “We’ll sell off the guns — I know a Kenstain that specializes in that sort of thing and we’ll get a good transfer on them — and re-equip the remainder more heavily. The released oolt’os will go to the Kenstains who are working on the encampments and will be… ‘supporting’ us when we move forward.” He hissed grimly. “Better that than the alternatives.”

“What is the ‘alternative’?” Cholosta’an wondered. “Thresh, one would presume.”

Orostan hissed in laughter. “There are worse things than becoming thresh. We have to have something to clear these human ‘minefields.’ ”

The younger Kessentai looked around at the thousands of Posleen normals in this single cavern. “Oh.”

“Waves of disposable oolt’os for the minefields, oolt Po’osol for the walls, the tenaral to pin them in place and destroy their hated artillery and then, my young Kessentai, we feast.”

* * *

The rest of the shoot had been without incident as Elgars demonstrated a tremendous proficiency with each of the weapons in the bag. She could strip down an MP-5, Glock .45, Steyr assault rifle and an Advanced Infantry Weapon, prepare any of them for firing and fire each expertly. But she didn’t know any of the names.

All of her shots were in the “sniper’s triangle” area of the upper body and head. Her reloads were fast, smooth and perfect and she always reloaded immediately after all targets had been engaged. That last was a clear indication of background in special combat techniques. But she did not recognize the term.

Now they carefully made their way back to her room. It was apparent that Elgars now recognized the roundabout path for what it was; an attempt to avoid security. She seemed mildly amused about it.

“S’okay fer me to c-c-carry?” she asked, hefting the bag of weapons.

“Technically, yes,” Wendy answered, checking a cross corridor before she stepped into it. “Technically, you can’t move around without weapons. But security is so anal-retentive about guns they freak whenever anybody is carrying.”

“No gu’ here?” Elgars asked, shifting the bag uneasily.

“Oh, there are guns aplenty,” Wendy answered with a snort. “Well, not aplenty. But there are guns, pistols mostly. Hell, there’s plenty of crime here if you don’t know where to go and what to avoid. And people break into the cubes all the time, what they call armed invasions. You can get any kind of gun you want if you know who to see.”

“So, why no… ?” Elgars stopped frustrated by her inability to speak clearly.

“Well, ‘less guns, less crime,’ right?” Wendy said bitterly. “It’s part of the contract on the Sub-Urbs; they are zero weapons zones. When you get inprocessed, they take away all your weapons and hold them at the armory, which is up by the main personnel entrance. If you leave, you can reclaim them.”

“So, leave,” Elgars said slowly and carefully.

“Haven’t you been following the news?” Wendy asked bitterly. “With all the rock-drops the Posleen have been doing it’s the beginning of a new ice-age up there. It’s a record low practically every day; you can’t move for the snow and ice from September to May. And there aren’t any jobs on the surface; the economy is shot. Then there’s feral Posleen.”

“F’r’l?” Elgars asked.

“The Posties breed like rabbits,” Wendy said. “And if they’re not around a camp, they drop their eggs at random. Most of them are fertile and they grow like crazy. Since there’s been landings all over, there have been eggs scattered almost across the entire U.S. Most of the feral ones can survive in the wild quite well, but they flock to humans for food. They’re as omnivorous as bears and have absolutely no fear of humans; they tend to attack any person that they run into. So it’s like having rabid Bengal tigers popping up all over.”

Wendy shook her head sadly. “It’s bad down here, but it’s hell up there.”

Elgars looked at her sideways. The way that Wendy had said that didn’t ring quite true. After a moment she frowned and nodded uncertainly. “Joi’ s’cur’ty?”

Wendy shook her head angrily at that, striding along the corridor. “I don’t have the ‘proper psychological profile,’” she snarled. “It seems that I’m ‘uncomfortable with my aggressive tendencies’ and ‘present an unstable aggression profile.’ It’s the same excuse that was used for why I couldn’t join ground forces. Catch-22. If you’re a woman and you think you’d make a good soldier, you must be unstable. Same for security.”

“S’crazy,” Elgars said. “No women ’n s’cur’ty?”

“Oh, there are women,” Wendy answered with a snort. “They wouldn’t have a security department if there weren’t; all the males that aren’t Four-F are in the Ground Forces or buried. But the women in security are ‘comfortable with their aggressive tendencies.’ ”

“Huh?” Elgars said as they came to another cross corridor. “Whuh that m’n?”

“Well, what do we have here?” a voice asked from the side as an alarm began to beep. “If it isn’t Wendy Wee. And who’s your friend? And why don’t you keep your hands where I can see them. And put the bag on the ground and step away from it.”

Wendy moved her hands away from her side as the three guards spread out. All three were wearing blue vaguely military looking uniforms, bulky body-armor and ballistic helmets. Two were carrying pulser guns, short barreled weapons vaguely resembling shotguns that threw out small, electrically charge darts. The darts transmitted a high-voltage shock that would shut down the human, or Posleen, nervous system. The leader, a stocky female, had a charge-pistol dangling from her hand. The GalTech weapon projected a line of heavy-gas that acted as a charge carrier for a massive electrical field. The weapon was short ranged, but it was capable of penetrating all but the most advanced armor.

“Hello, Spencer,” Wendy said with a thin smile. “My ‘friend’ is Captain Elgars. And she is authorized, as you know, to carry whatever she wants.”

“I could give a shit what you say, Cummings,” said the leader. “I’ve got you dead to rights smuggling guns.” Spencer turned to Elgars and gestured at the bag with her charge-pistol. “Put down the bag and step away from it or you’re going to get a taste of my little friend.”

Wendy glanced over at Elgars and blanched. The captain was still as a statue, but it was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a stillness of fear. The redhead was staring at the guard like a basilisk and it was clear that she was on the ragged edge of violence.

“Annie, put down the bag and show the nice guard your ID, slowly,” Wendy said.

“Shut up, Cummings,” snarled the guard sergeant stepping up to Elgars and tapping her on the chest with the pistol. “Are you going to put down that bag or are you going to drop it ’cause you’re twitching on the floor?”

Elgars slowly looked down at the pistol then held the bag out to the side and dropped it. As it fell she reached up and twisted the pistol out of the sergeant’s hand. A short flurry of hand motions had the weapon in nine pieces which she scattered across the corridor. The captain reached down as the guard started to draw her truncheon and seized Spencer’s wrist in a bone crushing grip.

The guard sergeant froze, caught by pit-bull-like grip and the lambent green fire of the captain’s eyes; the two other guards didn’t have a clear shot since their team-leader’s body was in the way. Elgars slowly reached into her hip pocket and extracted her ID pack. She flicked it open a handspan away from the struggling guard’s eyes and cocked an eyebrow. “Now, are y’all gonna put them sticks away, or am I gonna stick ’em up yo’ ass?” she said in a soft, honey-smooth southern voice.

“Let go of my wrist,” Spencer ground out, wrenching at the viselike grip.

“Tha’s ‘Let go of mah wrist, ma’am’, ” Elgars whispered, leaning into the guard sergeant so that she could whisper in her ear. “And if you don’t quit struggling Ah’m going to feed you yo’ arm, one inch at a tahm.”

“Let go of my wrist, ma’am,” the guard ground out. As the pressure from Elgars’ grip increased instead, she ground out a: “Please.”

Elgars relented and Spencer finally wrenched her arm away. She shook her wrist, trying to get some circulation back in her hand, and it was clear that she would prefer to just leave the confrontation. But her pistol was scattered all over the ground. She looked up at the captain, who over-topped her by at least an inch.

Wendy smiled brightly and stepped behind Elgars to pick up the bag. “We’ll just be going now,” she said, grabbing Elgars’ arm. “Right, Captain?”

Elgars leaned forward and looked carefully at the guard’s nametag. “Yes,” she said softly. “O’ course. Ah’m sure we’ll be seein’ quaht a bit of each othah, won’t we, Sarn’t… Spencer is it?”

“Of… of course, ma’am,” Spencer answered. “Sorry about the misunderstanding.”

* * *

“This is one of the cafeterias,” Wendy said turning off of a main corridor into a large antechamber. There was a series of roped off “mouse mazes” leading to four open blast doors. Beyond the blast doors was a long, low room with a fairly standard cafeteria line down the middle. There was a stack of trays, cups, a beverage dispensing unit with a limited selection, utensils and sundries and a short section of food. The food consisted of rather bland dishes, weighted heavily towards starches.

Wendy took a tray and moved down the line accepting a helping of corn and a small piece of badly overcooked pork from the unsmiling servers. Elgars followed, carefully mimicking her choices.

At the end of the line Wendy turned to a small box mounted near eye height. The screen lit up and identified her correctly then scanned her plate. It noted that she had received their midday ration and indicated a large calorie balance.

Wendy gestured at that. “Unless you’re a real pig, you can make it on less than the calories that you’re allotted every day. You can transfer a percentage of it to somebody else’s account and you get increases for community service. It’s the main medium of trade in the Urb.”

Elgars stepped up to the box which repeated the performance noting an even larger ration balance.

Wendy raised an eyebrow quizzically and looked at the details at the bottom of the readout. “Oh, that makes sense,” she said with a nod. “You’re on active duty ration levels; which basically means a double ration.”

“Why’s that?” Elgars asked as they headed for the door.

“Active duty is assumed to be doing physical labor,” Wendy pointed out. “Anyone that does day in and day out physical labor has a higher ration level; it’s based on 2600 calories per day so that individuals can have some to trade. But if you’re in the infantry, say, you’re usually expending that much every day. So they double the ration level.” She shook her head. “That’s not real well known, but once you’ve been in this hole for a while you learn stuff.”

They passed through a second set of open blast doors and into the eating area beyond, where Elgars stopped to look around.

The ceiling was about twenty meters high with glow-paint along the upper portions of the walls and onto the ceiling that gave a fairly pleasant indirect lighting. The walls, with one exception, were floor to ceiling murals, this one being a southwestern motif. The exception was a wall that was clearly stone, but unlike most of the other stone walls that Elgars had seen, this was a pattern of red on red with yellows shot through. It was pretty and clearly fit with the overall motif, but something about it waked an unpleasant memory. Elgars shivered and looked away.

The room was filled with tables and had six marked exit doors on the far side from the entry. In addition, on the parallel walls were large blast doors marked “Authorized Emergency Personnel Only.”

“The cafeterias double as emergency shelters,” Wendy said, gesturing at the doors. “There’s nothing in them which is a fire hazard, just the tables and some drink dispensers that are pressurized in another room. In the event of a fire in the sector, people are directed to the cafeterias. The blast doors close and internal ventilation goes on; the ventilators are on the other side of those doors.

“There are eight in each of the housing sectors, two in Sector A, two in Sector F and one in each of the others. The ration level varies day by day and what’s here is what you get; there’s not much variety. There are a few ‘restaurants’ scattered around, but they’re not much better and they all get the same food. There’s a couple of ‘bars’ for that matter. Not that there’s anything much to drink, either.”

Elgars nodded and gestured with her head towards the rock wall. She still didn’t like the look of it, but she wanted to know how the designer had gotten the pattern into it and what it was made out of.

“That’s actually sandstone,” Wendy said, guessing her question. “Each of the cafeterias are a different motif. For this one, the designers had some sandstone rubble shipped in and they vitrified it. That’s what that melted rock is. It’s been broken down by Galactic diggers — which shatter the rock by ionizing some of the molecules in it — then put in forms and melted.”

As they sat down Elgars sniffed the offering then carefully cut the pork into tiny bites and slowly ate each one. Wendy was done eating before the captain was done cutting.

“Your voice changed again,” Wendy commented, dabbing at her lips with a cloth napkin. “Back there dealing with security.”

“I’ ha’?” Elgars asked. She carefully cut out a bit of fat and flipped it off her plate. “How?”

“You keep sliding in and out of a southern accent,” Wendy noted. “And when you’re speaking with that accent, you don’t have a speech impediment. Where are you from?”

“Nuh J’sey,” Elgars answered.

“So, where’s the southern accent come from?”

“Ah dunno, honeychile,” Elgars answered with a thin smile. “An’ Ah wish you’d drop it.”

Wendy’s eyes went wide and a shiver went down her spine. “Did you do that on purpose?”

“Whuh?”

“Never mind.”

They ate in silence for a period while Elgars looked around with interest and Wendy carefully considered her new acquaintance.

“Do you remember what a southern accent ‘sounds’ like?” Wendy asked carefully.

Elgars turned from her examination of their surroundings and nodded. “Yuh.”

“Have you thought… would you want to try talking with one?” Wendy asked. “It sort of seems like… you want to be talking with one. It’s the only time you’re clear.”

Elgars narrowed her eyes at the younger girl and clamped her jaw. But after a sulfurous moment she took a breath. “You mean lahk this?” she said. Her eyes widened at the smooth syllables. “Shee-it, thet’s we-eird as hay-ll!”

“That’s a bit thicker than you were,” Wendy said with a smile. “But it’s clear.”

“What the hayll is happenin’ to me?” Elgars said, the accent smoothing out and the voice softening. She set down her knife and grabbed her hair with both hands. “Am Ah goin’ nuts?”

“I don’t think so,” Wendy said, quietly. “I know people who are nuts, you’re just eccentric. I think the shrinks were driving you nuts, though. I don’t know who is coming out of that head, but I don’t think it is the person who went into the coma. For whatever reason. They kept telling you that you had to be what they reconstructed that person to be. And I don’t think they were right.”

“So, who am Ah?” Elgars asked, her eyes narrowing. “You’re sayin’ Ah’m not Anne Elgars? But they did a DNA check and that’s the face Ah’m wearin’. Who am Ah then?”

“I dunno,” Wendy said, setting her own implements down and regarding the redhead levelly. “We all wear masks, right? Maybe you’re who Anne Elgars really wanted to be; her favorite mask. Or maybe you’re who Anne Elgars really was and the Anne Elgars that everybody thought they knew was the mask.”

Elgars regarded her in turn then pushed away her tray. “Okay. How the hell do Ah find out?”

“Unfortunately, I think the answer is talk to the psychs,” Wendy said. She shook her head at Elgars’ expression. “I know, I don’t like ’em either. But there are some good ones; we’ll just have to get you a new one.” She glanced up at the clock on the wall of the cafeteria and her face worked. “Changing the subject, one of the things we haven’t discussed is work. As in what I have to go to. I think you’re suppose to help with it; at least that is what I think the psychs meant. God knows we could use a few more hands.”

“What is it?”

“Ah, well,” Wendy said carefully. “Maybe we should go look it over, see if you like it. If you don’t, I’m sure we can find something you’ll enjoy.”

“So,” Elgars said with a throaty chuckle, “s’nc you can’ be in s’curity or t’ Arrrm’uh, whuh do you do?”

* * *

The door must have been heavily soundproofed because when it opened the sound of shrieking children filled the hallway.

The interior of the creche was, as far as Elgars could tell, a kaleidoscope that had experienced a hurricane. There was one small group of children — most of them seemed to be five or so to her admittedly inexpert eye — that was not involved in movement. They were grouped around a girl who was not much older, perhaps seven or eight, who was reading a story. And there was one little boy sitting in the far corner working on a jigsaw puzzle. Other than that the remaining ten or so children were running around, more or less in circles, shrieking at the top of their lungs.

It was the most unpleasant sound Elgars had ever heard. She had a momentary desire to pounce on one of them and eviscerate it just to get it to Shut Up.

“There are fourteen here during the day,” Wendy said loudly, looking at Elgars somewhat nervously. “Eight of them are here all the time, Shari’s three and five other who are orphans.”

A medium height blond woman carrying a baby made a careful path through the circle of playing children. She could have been anywhere between thirty and fifty with a pleasant face that had probably once been exceedingly pretty. The years had clearly been hard, though, and what looks were left hovered between rough and beautiful, like a tree that had been battered by a century of winds. Despite that she seemed to be almost completely imperturbable as if she had seen the world at its worst and until something to equal it came along it was a good day.

“Hi, Wendy,” she said in a husky contralto that bespoke years of cigarettes. “Who’s your friend?”

“Shari, this is Anne Elgars. Captain Elgars, technically, but she’s on convalescent status,” Wendy said in one rush. “Captain, this is Shari Reilly. She runs this creche.”

“Pleased to meet you, Captain,” Shari said, holding out her free hand, which happened to be the left.

“Pl’sed,” Elgars croaked.

“One of the reasons Captain Elgars is on convalescent status is that she’s still in speech therapy,” Wendy explained. “And the psych suggested that she sort of ‘follow me around’ for a while to get her bearings; she lost most of her memory at the Monument.”

“You were at the Monument?” Shari said neutrally.

“S’ the’ tell muh,” Sandy responded. One of the kids maneuvered out of the swarm, trying to escape a pursuer in what Elgars had finally determined was a sort of free-form game of tag. The little girl, about six or seven, came swooping around the group by the door, shrieking like a banshee.

“You handle this very well,” Shari said with a faint smile. “Most people would have flinched at Shakeela.”

Wendy cocked her head to the side and nodded. “That’s true. But I’ve never seen you flinch at all.”

As the tension from the sound built up, Elgars felt herself getting more and more still as if a blanket was coming up to protect her senses. She still could hear, even faint noises, but as long as she stayed in this place, not drifting but not really feeling connected to the world around her, she was fine. Unfortunately she found she also couldn’t talk. Which precluded staying “safe.”

“I don’ fl’nch,” she finally answered. “Don’ know why.”

Shari nodded after a few seconds when it was apparent no more was forthcoming. “Wendy, I’ve got to go change the twins. Little Billy had an accident and that set Crystal off. Could you hold Amber?” She held out the infant.

“Why don’t I start cooking lunch instead?” she asked. “I think that Annie can probably handle it.”

“Okay,” Shari said with only a moment’s hesitation. “Do you know how to hold a baby?” she asked.

“No,” Elgars answered, eyeing the little mite doubtfully.

“Just put it up on your shoulder like this,” Shari said, tucking the baby’s head under her neck. “And support it from underneath like this,” she continued, lifting Elgars’ left arm to hold it up. “The most important thing is to not let the head flop. Okay?”

“No h’d fl’p,” Elgars repeated, patting the baby lightly on the back with her free hand. She had seen Shari doing it and it somehow seemed right. Not particularly important, sort of like tapping your fingernails on a table or flipping a knife in the air. Just something to do with the hands.

“There you go,” Wendy said, headed for the door at the back. “You’re a natural.”

“I’ll be back in just a second,” Shari said, grabbing one of the running children and carrying it over to the changing station. “Won’t be a moment.”

Elgars just nodded as she continued to tap the baby. With no one talking to her she was free to experiment with the feeling she had had. It was not just a stillness, but a sort of unfocused awareness of her surroundings. Although it seemed to reduce the effect of the children’s voices she could still hear them clearly. And she found herself noticing little details. It was a moment of transcendent stillness and perfection that she had rarely enjoyed. And all because she found herself wanting to rip the little bastards’ throats out.

At which point the little twerp she was holding threw up half its lunch.

* * *

“I work there six days a week, six hours per day,” Wendy said as they made their way back to Elgars’ quarters. “Since you’re supposed to follow me around… I think you’re supposed to work there too. It will fulfill your community service obligation anyway.” She looked over at Elgars, who had had that strange stoniness to her countenance ever since Amber had burped. They probably should have explained about the towel.

“So, uh, what do you think?”

Elgars thought about it. She had become familiarized with making large quantities of something called “grits” which seemed to be the staple food for children. She had also learned how to change diapers. She’d tried reading a book, but that hadn’t worked out too well.

“I di’n’t l’ke it,” Elgars said and worked her mouth trying for more clarity. “I’s not as ba’ as sur-ge-ry with no drugs. Close but not as bad.”

“Oh, it’s not that bad,” Wendy said with a laugh. “It is a tad noisy, I’ll admit that.”

Elgars just nodded. She supposed it was one of those things that you had to put up with. Like vaginal exams and pain threshold tests.

“That’s sort of my day,” Wendy continued, looking at Elgars worriedly. “Except extraction drills. Like I said, I’m a reserve fire/rescue. That’s Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday I go to the range. And one hour in the gym every day except Sunday.”

Elgars just nodded. It was different than the hospital, but that was good. The hospital mixed unpleasant sameness with occasional bouts of pain. This at least was consistent.

“Are you okay?” Wendy asked.

“Don’ know,” Elgars admitted. “Want to kill something.”

“From the kids?” Wendy said nervously.

“Maybe. M’stly wanna kill whoever decided I needed to be ‘fixed.’ Or ge’ ou’ where I can do some’ing.”

“Your speech is already improving,” Wendy pointed out. “Maybe the psychs will let you go soon.” They had arrived at Elgars’ quarters and she shook her head. “Maybe you should write to your commanding officer and ask him to intervene. Even though you’re on hospital status you’re still on his books. He’s got to want to get you back. Or get you off the books. And he can’t do that without the shrinks getting off the fence.”

“How d’ I d’ that?” Elgars asked with a frown.

“There are public e-mail terminals,” Wendy said. “Let me guess, they didn’t tell you you have e-mail access, right?”

“No,” Annie said. “Where?”

“Do you have an address for your commander?” Wendy wondered. “If not, I bet I know who could forward it…”

CHAPTER 9

Near Cayuga, NY, United States, Sol III

1723 EDT Sunday September 13, 2009 ad

The tumult and the shouting dies;
The captains and the kings depart:
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget — lest we forget!

— Rudyard Kipling “Recessional” (1897)

Mike sat in the sunshine on Fort Hill looking down over the interleaving ridges and marshes running north and south from Lake Cayuga to Lake Ontario that comprised the Montezuma Defense Zone.

The terrain had been perfect for the human defenders; with all the roads and bridges cut, the Posleen assaulting out of fallen Syracuse had been cold meat in the first days of the war. Whether slogging through the numerous marshes or rushing the slab-sided hills they had fallen by the hundreds of thousands. And human losses, while high, had been a bare fraction; it was believed that the Battle of Messner Hill had achieved over one thousand Posleen deaths for every human defender.

Therefore, the decision to retreat barely a month into the war had been a critical blow. It had been on the plains between Clyde and Rochester that the Ten Thousand was born and the ACS died. It was in the politically driven decision to defend every hamlet, to counterattack every hilltop, that six divisions of veteran soldiers had been turned into food for the alien invaders. In the process, over three thousand M-1 tanks and two thousand irreplaceable suits had been lost. It was on the Ontario Plain that the war was nearly lost.

But now it was all returned. The Posleen, once broken in the brick-dust ruins of Rochester U, had run. And the ACS and the Ten Thousand hammered them for it. The Ten Thousand needed no encouragement; from the lowest buck private to their commander, every single soldier believed in “keepin’ up the skeer.” And any time a Posleen force turned at bay they would call on the supporting artillery and ACS.

That last, however, had cost the ACS battalion dear. Every suit was precious and they had lost better than two dozen troopers or suits in the pursuit. Supposedly a few new ones were on the way. But when they arrived would be problematical.

Looking down over the sparkling marshes, though, Mike had to believe it was worth it. The Ontario Plain was the weakest point in the Eastern U.S. With it back in human hands not only was there defense in depth — unlike at the beginning of the war the plain was now being covered with line after line of trench works — but the strongest points were held by veteran soldiers that knew the Posleen, however fierce, were not invincible. Posleen could die and their crested heads made great decorations over a mantelpiece.

Mike didn’t even raise his head at the sound of a helicopter behind him. That was the definitive sign of a secure area; any aircraft was vulnerable to God Kings’ fire and helicopters were worse than planes. If a helicopter was buzzing around it meant that all was right with the world. He smiled and recrossed his feet on the headless God King propping them up. Life was good.

Jack stepped out of the OH-58 and shook his head. It looked like the orders he brought were none too soon. There were quite a few signs that both the 1st/555th and the Ten Thousand needed a break. But the crests that some of the Ten Thousand troopers had attached to their rucksacks was nothing compared to the head of a God King stuck on an upthrust sword. The dripping yellow trophy had stained the weapon, probably the God King’s own boma blade, and pooled under the ACS commander.

But Mike didn’t seem to notice that little fact or the smell, despite having his helmet off. He just kept looking to the east, towards Syracuse and the distant Atlantic. Towards the enemy that held the plains.

The general walked up behind his former aide with a glance at Mike’s staff. The group of officers and NCOs kept a respectful distance, also looking to the east and conversing in low tones. Most of them were young, like the commander, and all had learned in a hard school. But Horner understood the difference, the reason they were not starting to act oddly; they didn’t have the added weight of command.

From the very first contact with the Posleen, O’Neal had been in one position of command or another. Frequently, in the early days, these were thrust upon him unexpectedly. And unlike Horner he had not had the time before the war to come to terms with the weight of responsibility or the little tricks that commanders learned to manage the load. The result was his psychological management techniques took unexpected and, arguably, unwise directions.

No question, it was time for a break.

“Morning, Mike,” said the general.

“You will note that it is Tuesday,” the major said, standing up. “And while we are not in Syracuse that is not our fault; I was informed that to go further would be ‘logistically insupportable.’ Thanks for the armor support, by the way.”

“It’s okay,” said Horner. “We got back Savannah. And, believe it or not, there are no problems anywhere in the Eastern U.S. As a matter of fact, the worst I have to worry about is a globe in Georgia that’s not acting the way it should.”

The ACS commander turned around and looked up at the much taller general. “So you’re telling me we’re going west.”

“Nope,” said the Continental Army Commander. “You’re not going anywhere. Except back to Buffalo for at least a week of R R.”

Mike frowned. “Harrisburg?”

“The assault got beaten off. And we managed to slip in a resupply of critical parts so they’re back in full form.”

“Roanoke?”

“The 22nd Cavalry retook the forward positions. And the Posleen look like they’re licking their wounds. Actually, they’d better be ’cause General Abrahamson boxed ’em in and pounded them into scraps. He couldn’t get a good count, but it looked like over two million lost there. Better than Richmond.”

“Chattanooga?”

“Hasn’t been a probe in a couple of months.”

O’Neal tugged at the collar of his armor and worked his neck around nervously. “California?”

“There hasn’t been any activity in weeks,” Horner sighed. “Mike, you need to take a break. You’re propping your feet on dead Posleen and screaming ‘eat me’ at my corps commanders.”

“You heard about that, huh?” the major asked without chagrin. “He deserved it, though. We’d been ready to move out for two hours when his first unit showed up.”

“Probably,” Horner admitted. “But you still need a break. There’s not enough time for you to go see Cally, though. Is that okay?”

“Yeah,” said the ACS commander looking around as if awakening from sleep. “I just… I don’t know what to do, Jack!”

Horner snorted. “Keep your battalion on standby, but one day recall is fine. I’ll go tell Duncan; he can handle the details. Go back to Buffalo. Get some dress greens, flash the medal around, get your tubes cleaned. You’re a widower, not an ascetic.”

“That’s cold, Jack,” O’Neal said with a touch of anger.

“And that is something you haven’t figured out, yet,” the general responded. “War is cold. You have to be colder.”

“Yeah,” Mike said, wiping his gauntlet over his face and glancing at the head of the God King with distaste. “Maybe a couple of beers are in order.”

“Two weeks,” Horner said. “After that there’s that globe landing in Georgia I want you to go check out. I had the local corps commander put a Fleet LRRP team on it, but they don’t appear to be moving. So take a couple of weeks. Besides, we’re getting ahead of the game on SheVas and I sent SheVa Nine down there to backstop Fourteen. If two SheVas can’t handle it, what’s the point of sending the ACS, right?”

“Okay,” O’Neal said. “I got the picture.” He took one last look at the marshes and hills to the east. “All in all, though, I think I’d rather be in Georgia.”

“I need you functional, Mike. This war has cost us too many good soldiers already.”

Mike nodded and scratched at one of the newer gouges on his suit. The nannites would eventually clean it up, but the repairs left visible traces like scars, slightly off-color. The sign that a suit had seen wear.

“Did you really tell that SheVa colonel to run me over?” he asked.

“Who?” Horner said with a frown. “Me? Whatever gave you that idea?”

“ ’Twas a terrible cruel thing to do,” Mike grumped. “I got half a dozen ports clogged.”

“Face it, Mighty Mite,” Horner said, slapping the suit lightly on the shoulder. “You needed a good shellacking. It was a tough job, but somebody had to do it.”

Mueller crouched on the slope above Bridge Creek Road and regarded the bridge sourly.

The rest of the team was gathered around, belly down on an outcrop of schist that gave a fairly covered view of the dam and the bridge at the same time. In spring or summer the slope of mixed white pine and hardwoods would have obscured the view of the dam and vice versa. But this late in the fall the only thing protecting the team from view was camouflage and stillness. Which meant that crossing the bridge was going to be tricky.

Coming out of the dam the river curved around the slope they were on, slightly to the east, then straightened back out in an “s.” The bridge was a strikethrough in the middle of the “s,” slightly out of sight from the dam. On the north side of the road, the side they overlooked, was a low field of white pine that came within twenty meters of the road and ran right up to the water’s edge. The road’s right-of-way hadn’t been bushed since before the invasion from the looks of things and was thick with weeds and brambles. The cover down on the flat was going to be much better than anywhere on the slope.

On “their” side of the river was a power substation that appeared to be still functioning. At least, the road up to it had been recently regraded and the fence metal looked to be in good repair. If it wasn’t in use, the Posleen probably would have salvaged it long since.

From long years of experience, Mueller was fairly sure which way Mosovich would hop, but he had to be sure.

“Well?” he whispered.

Mosovich’s camouflage-painted face was set and still for a moment, then he grimaced. There were two problems in the crossing. The first was the slope, which was not only open — it was steep as hell. Most civilians would have referred to it as a cliff, but it was really just a very steep, standard Appalachian, forested slope. The trees alone would reduce the difficulty in going down and it was cut by both the back-and-forth trails of deer and a couple of what looked like old logging roads. The team, with the exception of Nichols, had been spending enough time climbing up and down similar slopes that they were as good as any mountain troops, with the possible exception of the Gurkhas, in the world. So they would be able to negotiate it. But it was still steep as hell and that meant the possibility of somebody getting injured on the way down.

If they went straight down they would also be in view of the dam. For all his words about the Posleen not posting sentries he wasn’t about to take an unnecessary risk. Just to their left, moreover, was a very shallow gully. If they moved around to that they would be out of sight of the dam, any Posleen coming from the east would have to look back over their shoulder to spot them and the ground was a tad less steep.

Once they were on the flat they could get into the trees by the stream and have fairly good concealment right up to the bridge. Crossing that would be tricky thing number two.

“Left. Take the slope fast. Go for the drainage ditch by the road then into the trees.”

“Gotcha,” Mueller said, swinging off the gray rock outcropping to get ready to go down the hill.

“Fast is a relative term,” Nichols pointed out. “I ain’t gonna win any hundred yard dashes with this heavy mother.”

The sniper’s rifle weighed thirty pounds and the ammunition for it was not exactly light. Although the snipers carried relatively few rounds, their “loadout” — the amount of material and equipment they carried — rounded out at over a hundred pounds. Nichols wasn’t a slouch, but Godzilla couldn’t dash with a hundred pounds on his back. Not very far.

“Mueller, take one end,” Mosovich hissed. “I’ll take the lead. When we hit the flat, trot, don’t dash. But for God’s sake, keep an eye out, don’t trip and don’t slow down.” He crouched as well, looked both ways and nodded. “Let’s go.”

The safest and quietest way to go down the leaf-covered slope would have been to follow the deer paths step by cautious step. In places they might have been able to drop a level or two, moving onto the occasional outcrop or fallen tree so as to get down on the flats a bit quicker, but by and large it would have been a slow, serpentine, back-and-forth trail to the valley floor.

However, that serpentine trail would have meant being exposed for ten or fifteen minutes on the lightly wooded hill. Mosovich had considered and discarded that method, preferring to get to the flat, and some reasonable cover, as fast as possible. Which meant tobogganing.

The most deadly part of the descent was that each step was in danger of sliding on the leaves. But that slide could be used to the advantage of the team and Mosovich was more than willing to go for it. He sat down, planted both feet lightly and kicked off.

The sensation was similar to tobogganing on snow and just about as fast. It was also reasonably quiet, not that that would matter; if there was a Posleen close enough to hear their passage they would be spotted as well. The technique was different from sledding on snow in that it was easier to slow yourself and Mosovich was careful not to let it get out of control. Fortunately, there were not only trees to occasionally catch himself on but several natural breakpoints.

He reached the first of these, a broken section of what was probably once a logging road blasted into the slope and went flat to listen for a moment. The Posleen companies weren’t quiet and there was a chance that if one was coming from the east they would hear it before it came in view. The same couldn’t be said for the west, which was the more dangerous direction, but life was a gamble much of the time, especially for the LRRPs.

After a brief pause he started down again. This portion of the slope was, if anything, steeper and he had to catch at trees several times, banging himself painfully on the inner thigh on a small, concealed stump and catching a small beech sapling just before going over the steep bluff at the bottom. He paused again to listen, but there was nothing to hear except the soughing of wind in the trees and the faint hum from the power substation no more than twenty meters away. And ten meters down on the flat.

The ten-meter bluff was not quite ninety degrees. Once upon a time he would have turned around and carefully found his way down using hand- and footholds. But, once upon a time and far away in a land called Vietnam, a visiting Gurkha had first laughed himself sick then shown him the proper way to traverse such a slope. So, standing up, he leaned forward and started to run. The movement could best be described as a controlled fall, there was no stopping it until you reached the flat and could coast to a stop. Or keep running as the case might be.

He was never able to determine where he had put his feet in these situations and it didn’t really matter because a second after he started he’d dropped the ten meters, feet flying from one friable bit of quartz embedded clay to another, and was on the flat pounding towards the drainage ditch by the road. He flopped on his belly in the stagnant water in the ditch, extended a camera to cover both directions and popped up a directional antenna.

“You guys coming or what?”

It was exactly two minutes and thirty-five seconds from when he had kicked off of the ledge.

The rest of the team descended more circumspectly, but with Mosovich in place he had a view that would give advanced warning if a Posleen patrol was approaching. As long as the team could freeze in place their camouflage and the darkness would probably prevent their being spotted. As it turned out, there were no patrols in the time it took them to descend the hill and join him on the flat. A small patrol, no more than twenty, came by while they were making their way through the grove of white pine along the river. But they just crouched in the close packed trees — the area looked almost like a Christmas tree farm — until the Posleen passed, then the human patrol closed on the bridge.

The bridge was a simple, flat, concrete structure that just spanned the rushing waters. Checking both ways as if for traffic, Mosovich hopped over the near guardrail and started across the span with the rest of the team not far behind. On the far side, to the left, was another small field, the intersection of the main road and a washed-out side road that paralleled the river on the west side. The field was covered in brambles and small white pines, none of them more than knee-high, but it looked like some concealment to Brer Mosovich and he jumped the far guardrail and went to ground again.

As soon as the rest of the team was in place, and making sure again that there was no sign of Posleen, he trotted through the brambles to the side road. The nearest woodline was up a chest-high embankment and across another small, sloping, weed-covered field. Once they crossed that, no more than another seventy meters, they would be in the woods and out of sight; the woods on this side were much more “bushy” than on the far slope.

Jake jumped up the embankment and waited for Mueller and Nichols. After helping the sweating sniper haul the rifle up the embankment the team leader headed for the woodline.

Daffodils, some roses run wild and a shallow crater showed that this had once been a homestead. There was also a low, stone terrace to be negotiated. As Jake scrambled up that — reaching the deeper shadows under an enormous pinetree — he looked to the east and went flat on his stomach; a Posleen patrol had just come around the bend on the far side of the river.

The rest of the patrol saw him go down and followed suit, hoping for the darkness and their camouflage to conceal them. Sister Mary took a calculated risk and reached back to flip down her own ghillie net, which was kept in a bag at the top of the rucksack. It only took a few twitches to cover herself and a human could have walked within a few feet and never realized she was there.

The Land Warrior suits they all wore had a nice suite of “sensors,” one of which was a fiber-optic periscope. Mosovich, and everyone else, used theirs now as they slowly extended them above grass height and looked back towards the bridge. The small diameter of the optics, even with the best processing in the world, did not give much detail in the extreme darkness, but some gross outlines were possible to make out. The Posleen patrol had come from the northeast, from the general direction of Tiger, and now they broke rhythm and ranks to cross the small structure.

As the patrol watched, the Posleen force, about two hundred in number, formed up on the near side of the bridge, no more than fifty meters away, turned up the far hill and trotted away.

Mosovich waited a moment for them to get out of sight then stood up carefully. “Now why the hell didn’t they see our trail?” he wondered.

“I dunno,” Mueller responded, picking up the barrel of the sniper rifle. The four trails were clear in the vision systems, with bent down grass and weeds pointing directly to their position. “I dunno,” he repeated. “But let’s get the hell out of Dodge.”

“Concur,” Mosovich said, heading towards the trees again at a moderate but steady pace. “No reason to look a gift horse in the mouth.”

* * *

The Posleen normal had very few desires in life. Eat. Sleep. Reproduce. Satisfy the desires of its God. Kill anything that threatened it or its God.

Currently it was satisfying its God that had it bugged. The orders it had been given were right at the edge of its competence. Most of its limited intelligence was bent on keeping to the complicated patrol path that had been laid out for it. The rest was burdened with determining what “signs of the threshkreen” meant. It knew threshkreen; it had survived all three of the fights its God had been involved in. They mostly wore green and brown. They carried weapons not dissimilar to the People. They were generally tough and stringy.

But, by all reason, threshkreen either should be or should not be. This… being in potential, having been, but are not now, but might be again, this was rocket science to the poor normal.

However, as it passed over the bridge, ready to make its programmed turn, it paused. Around it the part oolt formed, looking for the threat that had prevented their temporary master from continuing on. No threat. No thresh, no threshkreen. Just the dark silence of the moonless night.

For the superior normal, however, there was a problem. The last time the God had spoken to him — he recalled it with a thrill of pleasure — the God had asked if he had seen anything not-normal. This, then, these… trails through the high grass and thorn bushes, this was not normal. By extension, it was possible that he should call for help if something was not normal. However, those were not his orders. His orders were to fire off one magazine if he saw “sign of threshkreen.”

But… this could be the mysterious “sign.” Running thresh made such trails; it was a good way to find the thresh for gathering. Threshkreen, though, tended to leave things on the trails themselves, so walking on them when gathering threshkreen was contraindicated.

But even the four-legged thresh of these hills made trails like that from time to time. Another patrol could have scattered them, driving them away from the road by their presence. It could even have been wild oolt’os; there were some of those in these death haunted hills.

Rocket science indeed. Finally, cautiously, the normal moved towards the trails, searching and scenting for any clue. The trails came off of the road, crossed the field with some evidence of scattering or bedding, then went up into the hill beyond. He cautiously paralleled one of the trails. There was a scent of oil, a bite of gun-smell, that combination of propellants, metal and cleaners. But that could have come from anything. It could be in his nose from their own weapons. Finally he paused.

The field was covered in thorn and grass, a simple triangle between the trees along the river, a road that paralleled it and the main road they were patrolling. The parallel road, a washed-out track now after the first onslaught cleared these hills, was also torn in the passage of whatever had made the trails. And in the mud on the far side, under the short cliff that terminated the field beyond, was a clear and unmistakable boot print.

The normal didn’t know it was a bootprint. But he now knew what his God had meant by “sign of threshkreen” for he had seen this before as well. And when he saw it, he lifted his railgun in the air and fired.

* * *

“Oh, bloody hell,” Nichols said quietly.

“Somebody spotted the path,” Mueller added unnecessarily. “Jake?”

“Sister, call for fire on that field, call for scatterable mines on our trail, too. Let’s didee-mao, people.”

* * *

Cholosta’an scratched up behind the head of the superior normal as he drew his blade. It bothered him to gather this one. The normal was, without a doubt, the best of his oolt’os, but he was wounded sore and the path of duty was obvious. Cholosta’an scratched the chosslain and told him how good he had been to find the trail of the threshkreen as he laid the monomolecular blade against the normal’s throat.

“Wait,” Orostan said quietly. “Is that the one that found the trail?”

“Yes, Oolt’ondai,” the younger Kessentai answered. “It… bothers me to gather him. I have none better. But the way is clear.”

“Leave him. We will provide him with food. With enough food and rest he may grow well.”

“Even if he survives he will be crippled,” Cholosta’an protested feebly. The idea was attractive, but the oolt’os would be nothing but a weight on his balance sheet.

“If you will not support him, I will,” Orostan said. “Keep the genes. Keep the material. Put him to the work of a Kenstain, that which he can do. We need such as he. And you have other things to do.”

“As you bid, Oolt’ondai,” Cholosta’an said, sheathing the blade. He gave the oolt’os some of his own rations, a singular honor, and stood up. “Well, you suggested I give up half my oolt and that is, more or less, what has occurred.”

“Not exactly as I had intended,” Orostan said. “But not without some good. We now have these damned threshkreen, this Lurp team, localized. We can put all our patrols on a few roads and narrow the area down even more. Once we have them in a tiny box we will find and destroy them if it takes the entire host to do it.”

“Good,” Cholosta’an said savagely. “When we do I want to eat their hearts.”

Orostan hissed in humor. “I am no human lover, but they do have some good expressions. They refer to that as ‘payback.’ ”

CHAPTER 10

Near Seed, GA, United States, Sol III

0623 EDT Sunday September 14, 2009 ad

Mosovich cursed bitterly. “I’m getting too old for this shit.”

“Yeah,” Mueller whispered. “Tell me about it.”

Oakey Mountain Road was a tiny thread paralleling the Rabun/Habersham county line. The line itself followed the ridges that the team was using to avoid detection, but the road, not all that far away at most points, was generally obscured by the thick forests of the hills. This was their first clear glimpse, paused on the mountains above Lake Seed, and it was horrifying; the narrow trail was crawling with Posleen.

“That’s a couple of brigades’ worth, Jake,” Mueller whispered.

“Yeah, and if they’re there, they’re going to be on Low Gap Road… They’re boxing us.”

“Jake, Posleen don’t do that,” Mueller protested, ignoring the evidence of his own eyes.

“Yeah, well, these Posleen do,” Mosovich answered. “Sister Mary, are we secure?”

“Yep,” she answered. “There’s a box over on the other side of Lake Rabun and I’ve put in a couple of new ones. We’re solid laser back to corps.”

“Wake somebody up. I want a human being, not a machine. I think this mission is a bust and we’re going to have to cut our way out.”

* * *

The officer rubbed his eyes sleepily and took the proffered headset from the communications tech. “Major Ryan, FSDO. Who is this?”

Ryan sometimes wondered if he wouldn’t have made a greater contribution to the war effort in the Ten Thousand, a posting that came automatically with the tiny “Six Hundred” embroidered on the right chest of his BDU uniform. However, a brief but memorable “counseling session” with the Chief of Staff of the Army Corps of Engineers had convinced him that there were better places for him, and for the Army.

The Ten Thousand generally depended on other units for their engineering support and their senior engineer was basically a liaison. Sergeant Leo, now suitably promoted to warrant rank, fulfilled the position perfectly. And it would be a dead end for a junior engineer who had realized he liked being an officer.

Thus had started a series of usually high profile, and always critical, assignments. The first had been as junior aide to the Commander of the Corps of Engineers and almost all the others had involved positions equally challenging and career advancing. Even this last, a redesign of the Rabun Gap defenses, was a high profile job. He was, technically, just the Assistant Corps Engineer, but in reality he was directing not only the brigade of engineers but all the divisional engineers in a complete rebuild of the valley’s defenses.

The defenses for Rabun Gap were extremely heavy, make no mistake. The gap was a relative low point in the eastern ranges with a major road passing through it, so the United States had spared no expense in preparing for the Posleen onslaught. The primary physical defense was a curtain wall that stretched across a narrow point south of the former Mountain City like a slightly smaller Hoover Dam. The wall stretched, on an only slightly less massive scale, up both of the steep slopes on either side running along a line of ridges up to to the east and west. The “long wall” was being worked on constantly and would soon exceed the Great Wall of China as the single most massive human construction on Earth.

However, beyond The Wall, and behind it for that matter, was a different story. Originally The Wall was intended to be the centerpiece of a defense structure that stretched down past Clayton and filled the entire Rabun Gap, which, technically, began behind the primary structure about two miles.

Early landings and different priorities had meant that much of the preparations had not been carried through. None of the defenses in front of the wall remained; succeeding waves of attempted assaults had swept them all away and there had been no replacement. Furthermore, the defenses behind The Wall that were supposed to extend in depth for miles, had either never been completed or, in many cases, had been obliterated by the corps units as they jostled for space.

On a tour that had finally included the relatively low-priority Rabun Gap region, the current commander of the Corps of Engineers had gotten one look at the defenses and nearly died of shock. Defenses three or four times this quality had been repeatedly gained and lost around Harrisburg and Roanoke so she knew damned well that these could be taken by a sufficiently determined Posleen assault.

She first considered calling in John Keene. The civilian engineer was another special trouble-shooter that the COE kept in reserve. But not only was he deeply and inventively involved in rebuilding the Roanoke defenses, the local corps commander was General Bernard of 29th Infantry infamy.

It was by the order of General Bernard that the Posleen who had settled in to feast on the corpse of Fredericksburg in the first landing were induced, instead, to come swarming out and attack the forces gathering to their north and south. General Bernard, ignoring orders to the contrary, had ordered his division artillery to fire on a concentration of Posleen that had no apparent interest in continuing in a hostile manner. This had the effect, metaphorically, of poking a stick into a wasp nest, with similar results.

John Keene had successfully designed and implemented an engineering defense plan for Richmond to the south, literally at the last minute. The plan was implemented in opposition to the one suggested by General Bernard and had to be rushed through due to the poor tactical judgement of the general.

The corps to the north of Fredericksburg, however, through a combination of bad political decisions, poor training and an apparent computer hacking by renegade forces, was overrun almost to a man. This left only Engineer Officer Basic Course student Second Lieutenant William Ryan, fellow classmates and other engineer trainees pulled from Advanced Individual Training to harass and delay the Posleen. With a little help from the USS Missouri they had fought their way back to the Lincoln Memorial, where they basically got tired of running and held the basement until the ACS arrived to dig them out.

Which brought to the COE Commander’s mind Lieutenant Ryan, now Major Ryan, who would be the perfect party to put in an operational position. Especially if the major was put in place with a very quiet word to the prickly Bernard that if he didn’t give the major all the support he needed then get the hell out of the way, a certain court-martial board could be reconvened to “discuss” his failures in Virginia.

Thus Major Ryan found himself explaining to administrative units that they could either move their facilites back from the wall or to the other side of it and he really didn’t care which.

And pulling Field Grade Staff Duty Officer.

* * *

Jake winced. He didn’t know who this turkey was, but given that he was pulling staff duty in a nice dry headquarters it was pretty unlikely that he knew which end of a rifle a bullet came out of much less how vitally important getting fire to a cut off patrol was.

“Major, this is Sergeant Major Jake Mosovich, Fleet Strike Recon. And we’ve got us a situation here.”

Ryan tugged at the lock of hair that always seemed to dangle on his forehead and tried to remember why the name sounded familiar. “Go ahead, Sergeant Major, you have my full and undivided attention.”

* * *

Jake dialed up the magnification on the night vision system and sighed. “Sir, we are surrounded by Posleen. Our position is southeast of Lake Seed and the Posleen have apparently figured this out and are patrolling all the surrounding roads. Our objective was an overlook of Clarkesville, but at this point that is impossible. If we can cut our way out alive we’ll be lucky. Are you with me, sir?”

* * *

Ryan shivered and remembered the mingled shame and relief when his own platoon was permitted to leave the Occoquan defense. He knew, only too well, how Mosovich was feeling at the moment. Or maybe not: in Ryan’s case he had always had the option of retreating.

He glanced at the artillery availability board and blanched. The sergeant major was not going to like what he was about to tell him; it was likely that he wouldn’t believe it either.

“Sergeant Major, I’ve got some really shitty news. The fighting up north has had CONARC calling for available artillery from all over. We’ve lost both additional heavy artillery regiments in the area, the additional special arty we were supposed to get was diverted to Chattanooga and Asheville and half our corps arty is gone. We don’t have any of the heavy, special guns at all, except one SheVa and they don’t have any useful ammunition. And you’re out of range for anything else except one five-five. And half the one five-five is tasked to emergency protective fire. I can’t get that released without the corps commander’s permission.”

Ryan could hear the sergeant major swearing softly over the open circuit and something about it made the memory click. “Sergeant Major Mosovich? From Richmond?”

There was silence over the circuit for a moment. “Yeah, that’s me. Why do you know about that, sir?”

Ryan stroked his mustache. He had grown it as an affectation back when he thought he was a little too young to suddenly be a captain. Then, after a while, he noticed that people tended to avoid looking him in the eye. Oh, not the combat types, but around corps headquarters you didn’t run into many of them. But for the rest… they tended to look away. Some of them said he didn’t look like he was still in his twenties.

But he kept the mustache.

“I know Mr. Keene. Pretty well.” He’d studied under Keene’s tutelage in Chattanooga during the rebuild and they had become more than acquaintances; Keene was one of the ones who could look the young major in the eye. And Keene had some good stories about Richmond. Better than Ryan’s, which mostly ended “and then we ran away again” or “and then he died.”

“Better than Barwhon, Sergeant Major,” Ryan added, realizing now, how he could get the NCO to work with him. If they worked together rather than at cross-purposes, which would just happen if Mosovich assumed he was dealing with an arm-chair commando, they could, maybe, get the LRRP team out.

“Better than Barwhon but not as good as Occoquan,” the major added. “I had the Missouri on my side there.” Ryan paused again and clicked icons, reconfiguring data. “You now have everything I have the authority to release, Sergeant Major. I’m going to send a runner over to the corps commander with the request that he release the fast reaction forces, all but one batt. Some of these guys are probably asleep, so it will take waking them up. But in just a bit you’ll have the better part of two brigades of artillery at your beck and call.”

* * *

Mosovich smiled as his AID showed all the available artillery in the corps transferring to his control, but he suppressed his chuckle. “So that was you, sir. Yeah, I wish the Mo was in range. Or any of the railguns. But what we’ve got will have to do.”

* * *

Ryan pointed at the nearest senior NCO and towards the corps commander’s quarters. The headquarters was on a hillock in the middle of the Gap and had once housed the Rabun School. Now the dormitories were officers’ quarters and the headmaster’s home was the corps commander’s quarters. Generally, the commander did not prefer to be disturbed in the middle of the night, but one look at the major was enough to send the staff sergeant scampering. And he wasn’t going to return unless he had the release of the artillery.

“I’ll see if I can scrounge up anything else. Can you think of anything?”

“Just one, sir,” Mosovich added. “It might make sense to wake up Major Steverich in S-2. These guys are not acting like normal Posleen. Way too controlled, way too… something. They seem to be anticipating us in a way I don’t like one bit. Like they’re anticipating everything we do.”

“Or reading the mail?” Ryan asked. “You’re secure, right?” He checked the notation on the communicator. “Right.”

“Yes, sir,” Mosovich answered. “We’re using the laser system, I’m not even trusting ultra-wide band. But we’ve been losing sensors. That’s why we’re out here; because we’ve lost all our sensors on this side of the mountain. What have they been doing with them?”

* * *

Tulo’stenaloor looked over the shoulder of the God King and reined in his impatience. Goloswin had been almost impossible to find, and even harder to dig out of his comfortable rut on Doradan. From the point of view of the young hotheads that made up the majority of the Host, Kesentai like Goloswin were not much more than Kenstain. They may have fought well enough to get a few small possessions, a square of property and a factory or two. But then they quit, leaving the fighting to their betters. And they had odd… hobbies was not a Posleen word, but it fit.

In the case of Goloswin the hobby was… devices. He seemed to understand the Alldn’t equipment better than its long dead Alldn’t and Posleen designers. He could improve, another human word, “tweak” came to mind, a tenar so that it was faster, smoother and the sensors interacted even better with the guns. His sensor suites were a thing of legend and many well-to-do Kessentai waited years for one of his systems to be built and eventually catch up with them.

And one of them cost more in trade credits than a basic oolt, fully equipped.

But the technician’s real love was new discoveries, new devices to tinker with, such as the sensor box floating in the stasis field.

“These humans, so endlessly inventive.” The God King sighed. “Look. Not just a communicator, not just a relay and not just a sensor, but all three rolled into one. Crude in places; I think that some of these components undoubtedly came from something else. But quite, quite inventive.”

“And now a defense device,” Tulo’stenaloor pointed out. “The last one that we tried to take down blew up when it was moved.” The loss of an oolt’os and a Kessentai who was supervising was not worth commenting on.

“I need a sample of one of those,” Goloswin said. “I have an oolt’os who will probably be able to take one down successfully.”

“After this little problem is rectified,” Tulo’stenaloor said. “They are dependent for untraceable communication on these things. I would like to remove that link if I could.”

“Oh, it’s not untraceable,” Goloswin pointed out. He slid his talons through some glowing dots in the air and a new holofield opened and configured. It was a rough map of the region and Tulo’stenaloor realized that the “bright” areas were where the human sensors could see. And he realized immediately what he was looking at.

“You’re in the sensor net?” he breathed.

“Oh, yes,” Goloswin agreed. “Trivial exercise, quite trivial. The nice part is this.” He highlighted a field and four purple icons sprang to life on a ridgeline. “There are your pests. Now go take care of them and get me a sample of the new sensors. I look forward to examining this ‘boobytrap.’ And the next human you talk to, please ask it what a ‘booby’ is before you eat it.”

* * *

Mosovich looked at the map and got a sick feeling in his stomach. The fact was that, no matter how much artillery fire they got, they were in a box. There were only three places where crossing the Talullah River would be a reasonable proposition. As Mueller had pointed out, if they had SCUBA gear they could have crossed any of the lakes at any point. But without the gear they would be four obvious targets, out on the flat nowhere and open to fire from any passing patrol. And the crossing would not be quick. Even if they could “drownproof” Sister Mary and drag her across on a float. But otherwise it was a matter of choosing the bridges; crossing the streams would be nearly impossible and — between having to rig ropes to keep from being swept away and making their way across — sure to take too long as well.

However… these Posleen were acting like humans. They seemed to be thinking about the possible actions of their quarry and reacting in a reasonable manner. Which meant that they would be expecting the team to either cross the bridges or the lakes heading more or less directly towards the lines. They might or might not know that the latter would be virtually impossible.

If they could break through the lines to the west, then break contact, two very big ifs, they could make their way towards the lines around Tray Mountain. That was a wilderness area and the roads were few and far between, making it much better from their perspective.

But getting there would be a long damned walk with, apparently, damned little support. The artillery, though, what there was of it, would be able to cover them the whole way. The important point would be to make sure they didn’t get spotted by where the artillery was firing.

He chuckled silently. This was almost as bad as fighting humans.

* * *

“There is a reason that fighting humans is so hard,” Orostan mused. “They apparently have been warring amongst themselves, and surviving at it, for their entire history. Their legion of dirty tricks comes from those millennia of experience. We Posleen, on the other hand, have either fought those with no experience of war, or fought the ornaldath. And the ornaldath has always lasted for such a short period of time, and been so chaotic, that little can be learned.”

“With humans, every day is ornaldath,” Cholosta’an muttered bitterly. “They… cheat.”

“Yes,” Orostan admitted in an amused tone. “But it is not ornaldath. They do not use the greatest weapons, much. Tulo’stenaloor’s… ‘intelligence’ people have learned that they have a great reluctance to use those that are not chemical, those that use fusion and antimatter for their propellants. So it is not, by any stretch of the imagination, ornaldath. Except when you corner them. And then, sometimes, they use those weapons. Rarely.”

“They are not cornered now?” Cholosta’an asked. “They are only a bit of one continent. The ones that are to the north have no materials to fight with and other than this remnant it is all tribes scattered in the mountains. Except for this remnant, they are broken. Isn’t that the point of gathering this host?”

“Don’t count the humans out until the last one is dead and you have hacked its body to bits and eaten it,” the oolt’ondai cautioned. “Many of them got off the planet before we landed and those ‘scattered tribes’ are still strong enough to be a challenge in many areas. We have taken the bulk of the planet for our lands, and the bulk of the human population for our feed, but their fleet rebuilds and rebuilds seemingly endlessly. And these humans, these ‘trapped abat’ are no joke. Every day they find new ways to confound us.”

As if on cue the sky began to scream.

* * *

“Splash out,” Mosovich said, listening to the firecracker rattle of ICM landing in the distance. The team had moved down the mountainside, using every bit of concealment, until it was within two hundred yards of Oakey Mountain Road. The biggest worry were the God Kings scattered among the normals. It was hard, in the heavy foliage, to spot the occasional passing saucer, but whenever one came in view the team went to ground and held their breath in anticipation. But, so far, so good.

Now, with the firing behind them, if the Posleen stayed true to their current form they should hurry towards the bridge in anticipation of the team’s movements.

And that did appear to be happening. The normals in view, almost immediately after the artillery began to land, began to stream to the north. With any luck in a few more minutes there would be enough of a reduction the team could consider trying the road.

They were on a ridgeline perpendicular to the road, bedded down in a thick stand of white pine saplings. At the point they would be crossing the road it went through a small saddle and there was a hilltop on the far side. There had been a house or small farm to the right of the saddle in bygone days, but now all there was, was another weed-covered field and the overgrown right-of-way. The open area was small, as well, no more than fifty meters including the torn up grassy track that had been Oakey Mountain Road.

On the far side of the hill that was their objective the ground fell off down a steep slope to the Soque River. Although that would normally be a tough crossing, the area was densely grown and there was small chance the horselike Posleen could keep up with the team in there. They would have to cross Highway 197, but unless the Posleen were patrolling everywhere, any movement over there should be slight. And, again, the ground should be overgrown enough to permit them to slip past any patrols.

From the crossing of the Soque they would swing west of Batesville. If they weren’t spotted on their crossing, corps would maintain harassing fire on the Posleen in regular spots near the Talullah. With luck, it would be some time before the Posleen commander discovered that they had slipped out of the trap. By that time they should be well outside the main search area.

If. With luck.

In a remarkably short time the masses of Posleen that had been in the area were gone. The road was empty and still in the pre-dawn night.

“Time to move out,” Mosovich whispered. Steep slope again. Time to slide.

* * *

“Well, at least it is falling on others,” Cholosta’an observed. The tenar’s sensors were set to replicate the activity on the far side of the mountain.

The town of Seed had often been described as not much more than a stop sign; it really it wasn’t even that. The “main” road was Oakey Mountain, a two lane winding bit of nothingness going from nowhere to nowhere in the hills. And there wasn’t even a stop sign on it, let alone a convenience store. The other road was Gap Road, a macadam track going over the mountains to Lake Seed.

And it was less now. Where before there had been a few houses now there were only weedy fields, scrub and the occasional shallow crater that indicated a home with a “Scorched Earth” home defense system.

Currently the fields were covered with the oolt’ondar of Orostan and the many additional newcomer oolt attached to it. This force had been primarily responsible for patrolling Low Gap Road. Orostan had ordered in road construction materials and the track over the mountains was in the process of being graded for the first time since the initial invasion. But most of his force was now consolidated at Seed in case the humans broke in another direction. As opposed to the forces over by the lake that were closing in, presumably closing in, on the human team. And it was clear that these latter were getting hammered.

“Yes,” Orostan said. “And Lardola is being conservative. Most of the loss has been among the new forces. And especially among those marked as the least favorable.”

“I’m glad I wasn’t marked as ‘unfavorable,’ ” the younger Kessentai commented sourly.

“No, you weren’t,” the oolt’ondai agreed. “Or you’d probably be in there getting turned into thresh.” His communicator chimed and he touched one of the glowing dots, receiving the call.

“Orostan, this is Tulo. The humans appear to have tricked us; they are attempting to break to the west. Again, they are preparing to cross the road on the western side. The patrols over there have scattered and headed for the firing. Cut the humans off if you can get there in time, pursue them if not.” A holo map blossomed over the older Kessentai’s tenar showing the relative position of the human team and the Posleen force.

“Understood,” the oolt’ondai said. “I will do that immediately.”

“And,” the distant commander added with a hiss of humor, “I take it I don’t have to suggest that you use caution.”

“Agreed,” the oolt’ondai answered.

“I will take my oolt immediately, Oolt’ondai,” Cholosta’an said, starting to swing his tenar to the north.

“Softly, Kessentai,” Orostan said, flapping his crest in negation. “I did mention that you were not considered entirely expendable, right?” The oolt’ondai ran his finger down the readouts until he grunted in satisfaction. “Oldoman,” he said into his communicator. There was a moment’s pause, which evoked a snarl, but the communicator finally lit.

“What?” came a harsh answer.

“The humans have been seen trying to make it across the road. Go north and cut them off; I will follow with the rest of the force.”

“I go!” came the reply. “Enough of this waiting in the dark!”

“An expendable one?” Cholosta’an asked.

“Eminently,” Orostan agreed. “His oolt’os are on their last legs from hunger, not because he does not have the credits to afford it, but because he expects them to find food on their own. Terrible equipment, not a decent gene line in the group. Damned few usable skills and all replaceable. He’s not worth the air he and his oolt breathe.” For a group called ‘The People of the Ships’ it was the ultimate insult.

“And will we follow with the rest of the force?”

“Oh, definitely,” Orostan said, sending orders to his key subcommanders. “But carefully and slowly, the least worthy scouts out to the front. It is not worth losing a thousand oolt’os to catch one small group of humans, no matter how dangerous.”

* * *

“I don’t see that it’s worth this expenditure to cover one group of lurps,” the corps artillery commander complained.

It was inevitable that everyone would want to get their two cents in just as soon as they woke up. And with the corps commander fulminating in the pre-dawn hours the word had quickly woken his staff. Who had descended in full fury on one lonely major.

Who didn’t have an ounce of back-up.

“I don’t see that it’s worth the expenditure to keep you fed, Colonel.” Major Ryan was tired and getting just a bit cranky. And trying to follow the battle around Seed while surrounded by chateau generals was getting on his nerves.

“Enough of that,” General Bernard said. He was a big, florid commander who filled his BDU uniform like a bass drum. This also described the occasional military genius in history, but unfortunately that particular description, “military genius,” did not extend to General Bernard. He had been the Virginia National Guard commander prior to the invasion, what is called the Adjutant General. Upon the Federalization of all forces he had retained command of the 29th Infantry Division up until the debacle that was generally called the Battle of Spottsylvania County. During the first landing individual units of the division had fought bravely and occasionally brilliantly. But the general had been shown to be completely out of his depth and when he ordered his division artillery, against standing orders, to initiate contact with the Posleen, it had contributed, markedly, to the ensuing massacres of the 9th and 10th Corps.

However, his political skills had stood him in good stead in the following war of blame-calling and finger-pointing. Certain prominent generals had gone down in flames, the President at the center of the controversy had, of course, died, but a few others, both deserving and undeserving of blame, had managed to survive. In Bernard’s case he had even prospered, pointing out that the general that ordered his relief was shortly thereafter soundly defeated by the Posleen. The fact that General Simosin was also the victim of a very deliberate and subtle hacking of his control net was missed in the debate. Indeed, the fact that the battle took place at the time and in the way that it did being at least partially the fault of General Bernard and his single rash and stupid order was missed in the debate. Thus he was reinstated and even, eventually, promoted. However, everyone who was “in the know” was aware that as a field commander he was incompetent at best and dangerous at worst. Thus his posting to the relatively low priority Rabun Gap Defense Zone. This was not a guy you were going to trust at Chattanooga or Roanoke or Harrisburg.

General Bernard was also aware of this thin ice. And thus he did not immediately hop to the defense of his artillery commander. “One of the things we are here to decide is how much support they need. And I released the FPF batteries.”

“We probably won’t need final protective fire right away, sir,” Colonel Jorgensen said. “They seem to be expending most of their attention on these lurps. But if they follow them all the way back to the lines, assuming they make it, then we might have problems.”

“The indications so far are that this group is sitting on its hands,” Colonel McDonald pointed out. The corps intelligence officer was well aware that those were, technically, “his” lurps out there. What was even more important was that if he lost them it was unlikely he’d get a new set with the same capabilities any time soon. He had some “home grown” teams, but they didn’t have the experience or the equipment of the long-service Special Operations types that had been transferred to Fleet Strike. Which would mean local patrols with standard equipment. Including regular radios. And since the Posleen seemed to be learning to track in on radios pretty quick, that would mean teams with not much in the way of communications ability.

So for a variety of reasons, not excepting the milk of human kindness and the interests of one soldier looking out for another, he didn’t intend to let these two jerks hang Mosovich out on a limb.

“We have plenty of movement in the sensor areas,” McDonald noted. “They’re getting ready to move out of the sensor coverage. But even if they do we can get good fire on the approaching forces. It’s only ammo; bullets not bodies, remember?”

“It’s only ammo to you, George,” Colonel Jorgensen said. “But it’s my boys and girls feeding the guns. It’s my cost for replacing tubes. I’ve got to explain the trunion damage and, for that matter, the ammunition expenditure. And we’ve got a globe sitting out there, planning who knows what. What happens when they come swarming at the wall? Where do we get the ammunition then?”

“Colonel, I’ve seen your ammo dumps,” Major Ryan said. “You’ve got enough ammo on hand for five days of continuous fire, especially with all the units we lost to Tenth Army. Five… days. Trust me, those defenses will not last five days if the Posleen come at us in force. Five hours will be about right. So you’ve got plenty of ammo on hand in that case.”

“I think we’ll give a better accounting of ourselves than that,” Bernard said. The wear and tear on the artillery would just mean he got new tubes sooner and this damned major would undoubtedly make some sort of a report of his “fighting spirit.” “But we do have a sufficiency on hand. Fire them up, Red. Take every call for fire, fire on every sensor target. Major Ryan has been on this from both ends; let him handle the interface and you give him all the support he asks for.”

“Thank you, sir,” Ryan said. “I have been on their end and I do know what it’s like.” He paused for a moment. “And I’ll admit this is way beyond my level, but I think you need to call Army and ask for your arty back, sir. I’ll double that through COE if you like. Those Posties aren’t acting right.”

“I concur on that analysis, sir,” Colonel McDonald said. “Just watching them on the sensors you can see they are staying way more coordinated. Look at this group over by Seed. Or the one that has been pinning down Low Gap Bridge and the 441 Bridge. Usually when you get shooting the Posties swarm towards the fighting. These guys are sitting the fighting out, holding key terrain. That, sir, in my professional estimation is a nightmare.”

General Bernard paused and rubbed his almost totally bald head. That was a horse of a different color. He’d protested having the artillery pulled away when it occurred. If he called Army now and complained about nebulous reports of a Posleen globe force that was acting “funny” then nothing happened it could be the final nail in his professional coffin. The Army still had institutional memory all the way back to the Civil War of officers who were too quick to take counsel of their fears.

“Colonel, I want a full intelligence analysis,” he answered. “Get a good count, or a good estimate. Detail all the ways they have been acting strangely and what the possible increase in combat effectiveness is from that. If it looks like a significantly increased threat, I’ll take that to Army. I’ll take it to CONARC if I have to. But I need more than ‘these Posties are acting funny.’ ”

“I wish we had a Mike Force,” McDonald said softly. “I hate just leaving the lurps to their own devices.”

“I’ve heard about Mosovich before,” Ryan said, tugging at his forelock. “He’s not a guy to go down easy.”

* * *

“I’m really getting too old for this shit,” Mosovich growled as they darted across the road.

“Not that again,” Mueller gasped. He’d given up trying to support one end of the Barrett and was carrying it on his own, along with his own weapons, equipment and ammunition, leaving the heavy ammunition pack to Nichols. Making it down the steep slope to the road had been… interesting. “You just got a rejuv; you’re under warranty for another century.”

“ ‘It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage,’ ” Jake answered. This field was thankfully untorn and he led the team across it at a lope towards the woodline. “I’m just getting really tired of trying to make it to woodlines before somebody starts shooting at me.”

“Try flying on the outside of a saucer into the middle of a Posleen swarm,” Nichols gasped, sweat pouring down his face.

“Well, it looks like we cheated death again,” Mueller answered, as they made it into the woods. This area, however, was a fairly open decidous slope, leaf covered but with little undergrowth. They were open to being spotted until they made it halfway up the hill where there was a large thicket of rhododendron. The slope was reasonably gentle and Nichols took the Barrett back.

“Thanks, man,” Nichols said in an embarrassed tone. “This is the first time in my life somebody’s had to hump some of my gear.”

Mueller just nodded. He and Nichols were of similar build, heavy, stocky bodies with a lot of muscle on a heavy-boned frame. But he overtopped Nichols by almost eight inches. “Don’t sweat it,” Mueller said and looked over his shoulder. “Oh, shit.”

To the southeast there was a small valley that was surmounted by another saddle slightly higher than the one they had just crossed. It was out of sight of the one the humans had used and the road ran through it, bent to the left to pass down the valley then up through “their” saddle.

Another Posleen force was coming over the far hill, but this was no patrol. At its head was a God King saucer and although it was clear the humans hadn’t been spotted yet, the saucer was headed straight for “their” hill.

They had left a laser retransmitter on the far hill, but there was no time for Sister Mary to hunt for it with an antenna. “Fire Control,” Mosovich snapped into his UWB transmitter. “Fire concentration Juliet Four. Say again, Juliet Four. Now. Now. Now.” The ultra-wide band system was difficult to detect, difficult to find and difficult to jam. That didn’t mean the Posleen couldn’t do all three, just that short transmissions were, generally, safe. However, if they had to depend on it the Posleen would eventually localize and destroy them.

But the operative word was “eventually.” Right here and right now it was the only way to call for fire. And if they didn’t get some metal on target, and jack quick, that was all they would have wrote for Mama Mosovich’s son.

The God King was a good four hundred meters away and there was only one. The sensors of the saucers had been shown to be able to “see” humans at that range, but could not “discriminate” them if they were not firing. If the Posleen company had been headed down the hill the team would simply have dropped and hoped they weren’t spotted. But it was clear from the movement of the force that it knew where the humans were and was headed over there to wipe them out.

Given that fact, there was only one thing to do; get the God King and hope they survived. The problem was that once they opened fire, despite their flash-suppressed weapons, if the God King was still up the sensors would point right to their position. So the God King had to be taken out, first, and the God King had to be taken out with the first shot.

Nichols flipped out the bipod of the Barrett and dropped to his stomach. He was heaving from the exertions of the last few hours, but he figured he could catch his breath for one decent shot. That was why they taught the technique at sniper school and he was starting to hyperventilate even as he was dropping. His heart was racing so it was a good thing the shot was only a few measly hundred yards; if it was over a thousand, and he had made shots like that, the shot had to be taken between heartbeats.

He took four more deep breaths, let the last one out in a long blow and leaned into the rifle.

* * *

Orostan shook his head as the data-link from Oldoman’s tenar went dead. “Not even maneuvering; what a stupid abat.”

The majority of his force was headed down Oakey Mountain road towards the last reported position of the human team. A few oolt had been left behind in case the humans slipped by, but the better part of six thousand Posleen were on the road with Orostan and his picked Kessentai near the front. At the front, however, were a few more of the more “expendable” oolt.

Who were trying to run through a rain of steel. The majority of the artillery available to Mosovich had not been pointed at the Rabun Lake area. The fire down there was from one battery of 155, trying to draw the attention of the Posleen off of the real moves of the team. The rest of the artillery, nearly two brigades, had been prelaid for support along their actual line of march. Some of it was set on the actual target that he had called for fire on, while the other tubes were set to fire on additional possible target points.

At his brief call for fire, the guns that were already set up simply pressed the firing button and went into reload. The other guns, those set on other Target Reference Points, were required to swing from their initial azimuth and elevation to reengage. But the system was fully automated for such a tiny adjustment and within fifteen seconds they had fired.

The time of flight was nearly forty seconds, so the Posleen force was given time to flay their surroundings for upwards of a minute before the first rounds began to impact. And then, forty seconds later, fifteen more batteries rained down.

After that it got bad.

“Their artillery is killing us,” Cholosta’an muttered. “As usual.” The God King swept his tenar back and forth as they went down the road towards the distant thunder of artillery. The habit had stood him in good stead in the face of human snipers and, because he never assumed that there were none around, he had survived when many of his age-mates did not.

“Hmmm,” Orostan said noncomittally. “It is killing some of us. But we have them definitely localized,” he added, tapping at the hologram in front of him. “They are transmitting now. Two bursts of communication have come from this hill. As soon as we crest the ridge they will be in view.”

“Yes,” Cholosta’an noted. “But so will we, Oolt’ondai. And I note that you are not maneuvering.”

“So I’m not,” Orostan said, flapping his crest in agitation at his own stupidity as the symbol for another Kessentai dropped off the hologram. “But they are quickly retreating up the hill. They should soon be out of sight and the artillery will abate. And we will soon be in position to pursue them closely; they will not be able to adjust their artillery then.”

“Are we going to try to cut them off?” Cholosta’an wondered. “Where do you think they are going?”

“I think we can directly pursue them,” Orostan commented. “The hill on this side is not heavily wooded. Once we get through this artillery we can charge the slope. Humans are slower than we are; we should be able to run them to ground.”

“That sounds… easy, Oolt’ondai,” the younger Kessentai noted, suddenly remembering that Orostan had never actually faced humans. “But are you only going to send those who are expendable into the artillery? Or are you going to run through it?”

Orostan paused momentarily in thought. “That’s not a bad question,” he admitted, looking at the three dimensional schematic. “I think, all things considered, that we’ll send the majority of the force through the notch, because that is the only route that will accept it. But you and I will swing to the east of the road, out of the main artillery fire.” He tapped the map, which gave a good view of the immediate area. “There is a hilltop here to the east. It’s still across the valley from the humans, but it will give us a view of their approximate position without going through the main fire.” He paused again as the next oolt entered the hammering artillery. The data-link of the Kessentai stayed up, but the condition marker of the unit indicated that it was, more or less, shattered with better than forty percent casualties. “And I’ll probably send a few more units around as well.”

* * *

“Sergeant Major, this is Major Ryan.”

Mosovich didn’t reply; he knew the UWB was detectable, but he could listen just fine. As long as the Posties didn’t start jamming.

“You’re leaving the edge of the sensor zone, so we won’t know where you are. But we’ve got a good read on the Posleen and there’s damn near five thousand of them on your tail. I’ve called for some obscurement and I’ll adjust fire to follow you up the hill, but you’d better scram. Good luck.”

Mosovich glanced at the far saddle and nodded to himself. A salvo of variable time rounds was coming in at the moment and the air was filled with black puffballs. The beauty of the scene belied the shrapnel that he knew was flying downward from the red-cored explosions. A rank of Posleen was shattered under the line of fire even as he watched.

But even as the line of Posleen went down another God King stumbled out of the fire and then another. It was definitely time to leave.

Nichols peered through the scope and hammered out another round. The big rifle pushed his stocky body back at least four inches, but he quickly brought the weapon back into battery and started searching for another target. It had long been determined that the artillery messed with the sensors the God Kings used to find snipers so the shots were not as supercritical as the first had been. But every round helped and the team was laying down fire right alongside.

Mosovich swore softly as he picked out another target in the gathering light. Their position was not as concealed as he would have liked. And, despite the artillery, some of the normals were surviving the gauntlet in the gap to spray the hillside with fire. None of it was aimed — they couldn’t see where the team was firing from — but as soon as the sun came up that happy circumstance would surely change.

Mosovich, however, could see the normals fairly clearly. The Land Warrior system was proving its worth again, giving him the capability to easily direct and redirect fire on the targets in the gap, enhancing the team’s vision and permitting them to communicate clearly. Shoot, move and communicate was what war at all levels was about. But it was especially critical at the level of the small team and the suits were a real boon.

They weren’t perfect though. Advanced research on them had more or less been halted at the start of the war and even with the Galactic power systems they were fairly heavy. They also did not have GalTech clarity levels in low light; there was a particular problem with depth perception that seemed insoluble without the Galactic ability to make continuous micro-sensors.

But what they did, they did very well. Mosovich picked out another target, bringing the aiming bead onto the target and squeezing the trigger of the Advanced Infantry Weapon. The system used a series of sensors in the suit and the weapon to determine the accuracy of the shot and whether any inaccuracy was the fault of the weapon or the operator. If any inaccuracy was an environmental input, whether a temperature change in the barrel or a shift in the wind, the system automatically compensated on the next shot. If it was the fault of the operator it simply sulked in electronic silence. In this case it determined that the 7.62 round would miss its target point by less than three centimeters in the four hundred meters of flight. Since this was well within its margin of error, it made no adjustments.

Mosovich knew, intellectually, what was going on, but he wasn’t really worried. The system had proven to be better “straight out of the box” than he had had any inkling would be possible and he had come to depend upon the accuracy of the system. It occasionally “threw” shots, but it enhanced his own already expert marksmanship to stellar levels. Especially in this half-light, half-dark.

Nonetheless, there were already several hundred Posleen forming up out of the artillery box and the system revealed a seemingly unending stream coming up the road from Seed. There was also a smaller group trying to probe around to their right. As soon as it came into view, he’d have to split his artillery and some of the God Kings were bound to get through.

All in all, it was an unpalatable situation.

“We’re going to have to move out,” he yelled. “Nichols, I need you to stay in place until we move up the slope. Then we’ll take over potting the God Kings and you can move. I’ll call for fire on that group coming around the hilltop from there. Clear?”

“Gotcha, smaj,” the sniper said. In a different unit the person being left behind might consider that they were being sacrificed. But Nichols knew that if that was really Mosovich’s intent, he would say “Nichols, I’m going to use you like a cheap pawn.”

“Mueller, Sister, move it,” Mosovich snapped, throwing himself to his feet and turning to scramble up the slope. “Time to didee.”

CHAPTER 11

Near Seed, GA, United States, Sol III

0715 EDT Monday September 14, 2009 ad

Orostan snarled as artillery started to land on the hill. The thick deciduous and white pine secondary growth should have concealed their movements, but the fire had followed closely on another call from the human reconnaissance team. Now it seemed to be closing in on his more elite forces and that was not to be tolerated.

“I am getting tired of these insufferable humans,” the oolt’ondai snapped. The team was also slipping out of their sensor range, clearly escaping over the hilltop beyond even as the pincer movement appeared to be closing on them.

Cholosta’an flapped his crest with a great deal more resignation. “Artillery happens. I don’t like it, but I have yet to find a battle where the humans don’t use it.”

“Well, these will not for much longer,” the oolt’ondai replied, yanking a weapon up from around his feet.

The gun looked not dissimilar to the shotguns of Cholosta’an’s oolt’os. However, when the oolt’ondai fired it was clearly different. For one thing, since the humans had dropped over the back side of the hill and were under cover from direct fire, he would not have been able to hit them. But the senior Kessentai did not seem to be trying to, rather firing into their general vicinity. Another change was that the round was clearly visible, travelling at relatively low speed to drop into the distant white pine and hardwood forest. The last difference was that there was no apparent effect except a slight flicker in the tenar’s sensors.

“What was that?” Cholosta’an asked warily.

“A little present Tulo’stenaloor cooked up,” Orostan said. “Now to see if it worked.”

* * *

Nichols peered through the mountain laurels, trying to get a clear shot at the new Posleen force coming around the shoulder of the far ridge. The good news was that his position, hunkered down under two granite outcroppings and surrounded by mountain laurel, was both well concealed and protected from most fire. But the problem was that he would be firing through heavy vegetation. Although the .50 caliber rounds were unusually massive, they nonetheless tended to tumble and stray off course if they hit a branch. So it was critical to get a clear shot. And that didn’t seem likely. But when he saw the distant God King lift a weapon and fire something at the hill, he thought he could almost take the shot.

Then his sniper scope went black.

“Sarge,” he whispered into his radio. “What the hell just happened? My scope just went blank.” There was no immediate reply and he noticed that there was no sound from his earbuds, not even the usual background hiss of the frequency carrier. “What the fuck?”

He turned around and slid down the hill towards where the team had assembled. He was taking rear-end Charlie again, but the position had been good so it was no big deal. But now, with his scope down, he was going to need some help. He hit the diagnostic button on the side as he slid but nothing lit up. It was as dead as a doornail.

The area under the white pines was still fairly dark here on the west side of the ridge and this early in the morning so he flipped down his helmet visor and nearly slammed into a tree in the utter darkness.

“Sergeant Major?!” he yelled.

Mosovich slapped the diagnostic box on his Land Warrior suit and looked up. “Sister Mary?”

“I got nothin’, sergeant major,” she whispered. None of the communications gear was functioning and even some of the medical devices were not responding.

“Dump anything that doesn’t work,” he said, slamming his helmet into a tree. “Shit!”

“We’re golden, Jake,” Mueller said easily. “We can do this.”

“We can’t call for fire!” the team leader snapped back as Nichols slid to a stop. The team was gathered on a reasonably flat spot that was probably another one of the ubiquitous logging roads from the 1920s and ’30s. “Nichols, you down?”

“Everything, Sergeant Major,” the sniper said, furiously starting to change out the batteries on the sniper scope.

“That probably won’t help,” Sister Mary said. “I already tried on the commo gear.”

“Did you see anything unusual?” Mosovich asked.

“Yeah,” Nichols said, looking at the scope and shaking his head. “That group that was coming around the side of the ridge. One of the God Kings fired something, it looked like a grenade. I thought I was done, but there wasn’t an explosion, just my scope going dead.”

“EMP,” Sister Mary said. “Unbelievable.”

“Yep,” Mosovich replied. “Just fucking duckey.”

“EM-what?” Nichols asked.

“EMP,” Mueller answered, beginning to strip his Land Warrior suit. “Electo-fucking-Magnetic-motherfucking-Pulse.”

“Yep,” Mosovich said again. “Nichols, might as well shitcan that scope. And your helmet systems; keep the helmet, and all the other electronic gear. None of it’s going to work now.”

“How in the hell did they do that?” he asked, starting to dismount the scope. “And what is electro-magnetic Mfing pulse?”

“It’s kind of like a big electro-magnet,” Sister Mary answered, starting to dig all the commo out of her rucksack. “It scrambles electronics, completely shuts down anything with a microchip in it. Most military stuff used to be partially hardened, but I guess since the Posleen weren’t using anything that generated EMPs they backed off on that.”

“The suits were supposed to be,” Mosovich said. “Same with the scopes. My guess is that it was just a mother of an EMP burst.” He looked over at Nichols, who had nearly finished unbolting the scope. It was not designed to be removed in the field and acted like it. “Can you shoot that mother without a scope?”

“I have,” Nichols said, yanking off the last recalcitrant bolt and, just for the fun of it, wacking the $50,000 anchor into a tree. “There’s a ladder sight and a ghost ring. I shot with both of them in sniper school.” He paused. “But sniper school was a long damned time ago.”

“Okay, gather up whatever you’re going to carry,” Mosovich said, flipping the last piece of nonfunctioning electronics away into the brush and hefting his rucksack. “Just because we got hit doesn’t mean the Posties slowed down. So we need to get a move on.” Mosovich moved to flip up the map on his visor and frowned when he realized he didn’t have a paper backup.

“AID,” the sergeant major said, wondering if the Galactic technology had survived. “Do you have maps for this area?”

“Yes, Sergeant Major,” the light soprano of the system answered, bringing up a local map as a hologram. The map was three dimensional, which the Land Warrior suit could only do with difficulty, and Mosovich wondered for a moment if the AID was jealous of how much more he used the human systems.

“Okay,” he said, pointing to the faintly glowing dot on the hillside that was the team. “We’re about a klick and a half from the Soque, if the ground was flat. But it’s practically vertical instead. So we get down this hill fast. Unless the Posleen react really fast we should be able to make it across 197 before they get there.”

“And if they are there already?” Nichols asked.

“We cross that stream when we come to it,” Mueller growled.

* * *

Orostan grunted as it became clear that the artillery both at his location and in the gap had ended. “It appears to have worked.”

“Yes,” Cholosta’an said. “But they still have slipped away,” he added, gesturing at the sensors.

“There are oolt moving to the far road,” Orostan said with a shrug. “Sooner or later we will box them and without communications they will not be able to call for fire on us. Then we will finish them once and for all.”

* * *

Mosovich frowned as he caught another tree to keep from falling down the mountain. “AID, can you get a communication back to the corps?”

There was a pause that did not seem to be entirely for effect and the AID answered. “I can, Sergeant Major. The Posleen will be aware that you are communicating.”

“Will they be able to find our location?” he asked. “Or decipher it? I assume it will be encrypted.”

Again there was a pause. “I calculate a less than one tenth of a percent chance that they will be able to decipher it while in the GalTech net. There is no chance that they will be able to physically localize you. However, I do not have secure entry into the military communications system; all AIDs were locked out of it after the 10th Corps blue-blue event. I can only contact the corps by standard land-line. That system is not only non-secure, it has occasionally been hacked by the Posleen. The alternative is contacting someone in the corps chain-of-command and having them set up secure communications. There is a secure land-line system, but AIDs do not have standard access to it so I can’t just connect.”

“Why don’t I like that option?” Mosovich said quietly.

“The first person in the corps chain of command with AID access is the Continental Army Commander.”

* * *

Jack Horner balanced his cheek on one closed fist as he watched the hologram. The speaker was a spare man with dark eyes. Dark pupils, dark irises and dark circles. In better days the Continental Army Commander and the commander of the Irmansul Fleet Strike Force had spent some good times together. At this point both realized that there were no more good times. That was not, however, something that they mentioned in anything other than private e-mails. Such as this one.

“With the ‘unfortunate’ loss of Admiral Chen and his replacement by Fleet Admiral Wright we might get some movement,” the speaker said. He turned to the side and picked up a piece of paper. “To give you an idea of how precisely useless it is to have us sitting here, our total actions on Irmansul for the last month were forty patrol-sized actions against unbonded, and in most cases unweaponed, normals. This is what our mutual amie would call ‘fucking bullshit.’ Not that I would use such language about our benefactors the Darhel. Wright has at least allowed the detachment of a few ‘scouting’ forces. And I am told that the armor team on Titan Base has made some breakthroughs, so there may be help available from that quarter.”

The speaker spat out an untranslatable French epithet that had something to do with donkeys. “My own forces realize that there is nothing for which to return. However, we strain at the leash nonetheless. Yes, there are still Posleen on this planet. There are now and probably always will be; there are too many wilderness areas to eliminate them all and they are in the food chain at this point. But they can be ‘managed’ by a small police force and the killersats. The Fleet won the last action decisively and with small loss, but if Earth is totally lost it will be for nothing. We must return and we must return soon. And if the Darhel do not release us, soon, we will take that signal honor upon ourselves.

“No matter what.”

“Crenaus, out.”

Horner smiled like a tiger as the image winked off. It had been clear to him from almost the First Contact by the Galactics that the Darhel were playing their own game. And that the survival of the human race was, at best, incidental to it. However, it was not until fairly recently that he realized the extent to which the Darhel were inimical to the concept of Earth surviving as a functional planet. The Galactic society was very old, very stable and, above all, very stagnant. The humans were more than just physically dangerous; the philosophies, thoughts, processes and methods that they would bring with them would be a deathblow to the Galactic society, a society that the Darhel controlled absolutely. Just the concept of democracy, true, unfettered democracy, and human rights, would in all likelihood destroy the Galactic Federation if they were allowed free rein. Thus it was imperative that the human race be turned into a non-threat.

He had begin to wonder lately why, exactly, the Darhel had waited until practically the last minute, only five years before the invasion, to contact the humans. There were a thousand and one hints that they knew about Earth long before that, from the prepared medicines to the knowledge of all world languages. Some of it was certainly “fear”; the Galactic aliens were nonviolent and nonexpansionistic and the humans were anything but.

General Taylor, the previous High Commander, had wondered some of those things aloud. Just before he was assassinated by “Earth First” terrorists. Of course, five senior Darhel were killed in that spasm of violence, so suggesting it was the Darhel assumed that they were willing to cover their actions by killing five of their own. And it also assumed that the Darhel could kill, period. There were indications that in fact they could not even order killing, much less kill someone themselves.

But that didn’t mean that Jim Taylor had gone down to terrorists, either.

It might all be paranoid delusion, but the arguments for not redeploying the Expeditionary Forces were becoming more and more specious. All the arguments were becoming more specious. And even if the EFs left Irmansul orbit at this moment, the only major country with any continuity left was the U.S.; everyone else was for all practical purposes gone. India had some significant hold-out areas and Europe as well. But the fractions that existed there were insignificant compared to the Cumberland basin.

What were the Darhel waiting for? The Americans to lose too?

His AID chimed a priority message and he regarded it balefully for a moment. The device was Galactic provided. And it was more likely than not that the Darhel could read anything sent over one, such as the last message from General Crenaus. Which Crenaus knew as well as he did. So had they already taken the hint, that the message was directed as much at them as at him? He smiled again, a sure sign of displeasure, and tapped the device to answer the call.

“Incoming message from Sergeant Major Jacob Mosovich, Fleet Strike Reconnaissance.”

Horner vaguely recognized the name; Mosovich was one of the old hands who had been transferred to Fleet when they swallowed the U.S. Special Operations Command. He also vaguely recalled that Mosovich was the team leader of the LRRPs at 12th Army so he was probably the team leader sent out against the globe that had landed opposite Rabun Gap. But that didn’t explain why the sergeant major was calling him directly. “Put it through.”

“General Horner, this is Sergeant Major Mosovich,” Jake said.

“Go ahead, Sergeant Major,” the general said. “What is the reason for the call?”

“Sir, we just got hit with an EMP round by the Posleen and you’re just about the only person we can talk to.”

Horner rocked back and smiled broadly. “Better and better. From that globe down in Georgia?”

“Yes, sir,” the sergeant major replied. “These guys aren’t acting like Posleen at all, sir. They’ve got patrols on all the roads, real honest to God patrols, they’re taking out sensors, they’re using some half-way decent tactics from time to time, they seem to have expected us personally and now they are all over our asses. And using some sort of EMP round to take out our Land Warrior suits and communications.”

“What’s your status at present, Sergeant Major?” the general asked, waving at the AID to bring up a map.

“We’ve temporarily broken contact, sir, and we’re trying to put some distance between us and the main force. We hope to be able to stay out of contact, but I won’t put money on it. The primary mission is blown, though, sir.”

Horner looked at the map and smiled again, tightly. He’d driven through that area a couple of times in better days and the terrain the team was entering really didn’t favor humans all that much. “Looks like it’s getting ready to flatten out, Sergeant Major. I’d send a flying team of ACS down there if I had anything to give you.”

“Oh, we’ll make it out, sir,” Mosovich answered. “But we do need to talk to our artillery folk. And we can’t at present.”

Horner gave an unseen nod to the distant team. “AID, connect directly to secure communications and get the sergeant major back in touch with his artillery, will you?”

“Yes, sir,” the device answered.

“Will that be all, Sergeant Major?” Horner asked.

“Yes, sir. Thank you.”

“Well, good luck,” the general said. “I’ve made a note that I want to see your raw debrief. But that can wait until later. Make tracks.”

“Roger that, General. Mosovich out.”

* * *

Ryan looked up as the planning officer came in the Tactical Operations Center.

“It looks like they’re gone, Major,” the PO said.

“I sincerely disagree, Colonel,” the engineer replied. “We lost a sensor at the same time. It looks like they used something along the lines of an EMP to take out their communications. Which means they might or might not be out there someplace. Their intention was to cross the Soque and swing west of Batesville. So I have the arty laid in to cover that movement.”

“That’s the point,” the planning officer snapped. “That artillery is laid in there ‘covering’ what is probably a terminated team. We need to talk about retasking.”

“We can ‘retask’ when we’re sure they are gone,” Ryan snarled. “Until then the damn artillery can just stay pointed. It’s not like it’s going to wear out the tubes or the personnel to stay up.”

He snatched up the buzzing secure phone and snarled: “What?”

“Stand by for connection to Continental Army Command,” an electronic voice chirped.

“You might want to tell the commander we have an incoming from CONARC,” Ryan said to the planning officer.

The lieutenant colonel gave the major another look and left the room as the tone on the line changed.

“This is the Office of the Continental Army Commander,” a light soprano said. “Stand by for direct transfer to Sergeant Major Jacob Mosovich. All connections on this system are fully secured. A directive has been issued for the full debrief of the sergeant major and his team to be forwarded to the attention of the Continental Army Commander. Stand by for transfer.”

“Bloody hell,” Ryan said with a chuckle.

“That you, Ryan?” Mosovich asked.

“Good to hear from you, Sergeant Major,” the major said with a laugh.

“Yeah, I can imagine what was being said. Well, the report of my demise was exaggerated. As usual.”

Ryan laughed as the corps commander strode into the TOC. “Well, Sergeant Major, we’re set up at three or four points on 197. I’ll list ’em out for you and you can get ready to call.”

“Gotcha,” Mosovich said. “Glad to be back. I’ve got to slither down this damned mountain now.”

“I’ll be standing by,” Ryan said. “That was Mosovich, sir,” he continued, turning to the corps commander. “He’s using his AID to bounce through CONARC’s AID and then into the secure phone net.”

“So it wasn’t CONARC calling?” General Bernard asked.

“Not directly, sir,” Ryan agreed. “But there is a directive to send Mosovich’s full debrief to him, direct and personal. I get the feeling he wants to know what the hell is going on out there.”

“The directive to take a look at the globe came from Army,” the S-2 said. “But it looked like a rephrase of CONARC.”

“Well, I guess if General Horner is going to get his debrief we’ll just have to get the team back, won’t we?” General Bernard asked tightly. “Is there anything we’ve missed?”

“We could try to send a flying column out of Unicoi Gap,” the planning officer said. “We’ve got a battalion of mech up there. There’s no report of heavy Posleen presence near Helen. If they didn’t run into one of these heavy patrols they could, possibly, make it to Sautee or so. South of Sautee there’s indications of the outer forces of this globe landing.”

“Send a battalion in in support,” Bernard said. “And have them send out a company. Tell them to move down to the vicinity of Helen, get in a good hide and stand by for further orders.”

“I’ll get on it, sir,” the planning officer said, heading over to the operations side.

“I hope I haven’t just sent out a forlorn hope,” Bernard commented.

“Well, we already did that, sir,” Ryan said, looking at the map. “The question is whether we can get them back.”

* * *

Mosovich looked down the hill and shook his head. There was a very steep, very high road cut then the road, which was clear at the moment, then another cut down to the river, then the river and on the far side a short bank and dense underbrush. The best bet, again, would be to go down the hill fast, but that would mean doing a rappel. The distance wasn’t far enough for their static rappel systems to engage effectively. And they didn’t have a rope that was long enough to loop around a tree. So when they got down, the rope would dangle there as a marker. So they’d have to take it in stages.

“Mueller, rope,” he hissed, pulling on heavy leather gloves.

“Gotcha,” Mueller said, pulling the line out of his rucksack and shaking it out. The Army green line was the sort of stuff to make a serious climber blanch, simple braided nylon with a very high stretch rate and rather high bulk, but it had a number of features in its favor. One of them was that when doubled over you could “hand rappel” if the slope wasn’t absolutely sheer. “Good” climbing ropes were much thinner than the green line and had smoother outer layers. The benefit of the first was reduced bulk and the benefit of the second was reduced wear from “rubbing.” But there was no way anyone could slow themselves going down a slope with “good” line without using, at the least, a “figure-eight” rig, and a ladder rig was better. So, using the “bad” green line, the team would not have to stop and get full climbing gear out. Just hold on and hope for the best.

Mueller flipped the rope around a fairly well rooted hickory and slithered both ends so that they were even. If they had any sense at all they would have quick knotted it as well; if anyone lost one of the doubled ropes they would be holding thin air, but sometimes quick knots got stuck and while if the rope slipped one of them might die, if the rope got spotted all of them probably would.

“Me first,” Mosovich said, picking the rope up and slipping it under his thigh.

“Let me go,” Mueller said. “I’m the heaviest; it’ll be the best test.”

“Nope,” Mosovich said with a chuckle. “We’re going in order of weight. I want as many of us as possible to make it down. You go last. And carry the Barrettt.”

“Screw you, Jake,” Mueller growled. He put one hand on the rope. “Just remember who’s at the top with the knife.”

“I will,” the sergeant major said. He leaned back and started to walk backwards down the slope.

Although he probably could have gotten away with a simple “hand” rappel, holding onto the rope with both hands, Mosovich had set up a “body” rappel with the rope run between his thighs and up over his shoulder. It was much safer and more controllable and he was, frankly, getting a little tired of living on the edge. As it was, it worked well. He went down the slope about seventy feet, well short of the end of the rope and better than two thirds of the way to the road, and found a sort of ledge where a vein of quartz created a shelf. There was just enough room to stand with relative ease. Mountain laurels grew all around it so there was some concealment, and another largish tree jutted out of the soil-covered cliff. This tree wasn’t quite as robust as the one Mueller had secured the rope to above and was on a worse slope, but beggars can’t be choosers.

Sister Mary came next, fast and smoothly. They had been training together for nearly six months, but she had come with mountain climbing experience from somewhere and she showed it now. She actually bounded down the slope, something Mosovic preferred not to do when on a body rappel, and still managed not to dislodge much in the way of debris. She hit the ledge a bit hard — the quartz was friable and rotten — and dislodged a fairly large rock. But it hit in the mud of the drainage ditch along the road and disappeared into the muck; no harm done.

Next came Nichols, who hadn’t had any mountaineering experience before joining the LRRPs. He took the slope very carefully, both moving slowly and making more of a trace than Mosovich or Sister Mary. But he made it, one-hundred-fifty-pound rucksack and all, and shuffled sideways to make room for the next team member, very carefully not looking at the straight drop to the roadbed below.

Instead of coming down, Mueller pulled the rope up. It took Mosovich a second to figure out what he was doing, but when the Barrett and the master sergeant’s rucksack came down the slope it was fairly obvious. Mueller followed them in rapid succession, dislodging another rock when he hit.

“I dunno, Jake,” Mueller said, looking at the best available tree. It was a twisted white pine that was growing out of the juncture of another decaying quartz vein and the schist it was intruded into, which was weaker.

“I’ll take it,” Mosovich said, throwing the rope over his shoulder. “Sister, on rappel.”

“Okay,” Sister Mary said without demur. If the sergeant major said he could hold the rope, he would hold the rope. She took it and slipped it around her body. “I’m going to cross right away.”

“Oh, yeah,” Mosovich agreed. “And hit the stream. But wait there.”

“Roger,” she said, dropping over the cliff. Her descent, again, was fast and smooth. When she hit the road she crossed quickly, grabbed one of the saplings on the edge of the bank and dropped out of sight into the streambed.

“Nichols,” Mosovich said. “And take the Barrett. Mueller, gimme a hand.”

Both of them bracing were able to support Nichols and his massive load. The weight caused the sniper to drop far faster than he had probably preferrred, but he made it to the road and crossed quickly, dropping out of sight on the far side. There was a faint cry that reached their perch over the chuckle of the river and the two NCOs traded glances and a shrug.

“You sure you can support me, Jake?” Mueller asked. “I could go last.”

“Sorry man, I’d rather trust myself,” Mosovich said. “I can handle it. ‘He ain’t heavy…’ ”

“Right,” said Mueller with a laugh. He dropped over the side of the ledge, but was careful to catch his weight on as many footholds as he could find in the eroded cliff. At the bottom he threw the rope aside and darted across the road.

Which left only Mosovich. Jake looked at the tree he was supposed to depend upon, the eroded hillside and the woods across the way. “What a screwed up situation,” he muttered. Then he coiled up the rope, tucked it in his rucksack, turned around and dropped off the ledge.

The technique was another picked up in too many years of risking his life. On a cliff like this, with outcroppings, brush and trees sticking out all over, it was barely possible to slow yourself by catching various items on the way down. It was not a matter of stopping, that was going to happen suddenly at the bottom, but just slowing yourself enough that you didn’t break anything.

It was not the sort of technique that anyone but mountain troops used, and then only in extremis, because it was so stupidly dangerous. But, Mosovich thought, that’s my life all over. There were two things uppermost in his mind on the short descent. One was that if he dug in too hard, it would leave a path a blind normal would notice. So he couldn’t slow himself the way he would have preferred, placing both hands and feet into the slope and “dragging down.” The other thing that was uppermost in his mind was that, at the speed he was going, if one of these damned white pine saplings jammed him in the groin there weren’t going to be any more little Mosoviches.

The cliff flattened out a bit at the bottom from runoff and caught one foot sending him into a backwards roll. He tucked into it and fetched up, hard, against a rock fallen at some previous time. But all the pieces were in place and nothing appeared to be broken. So it was clearly time to cross the road.

He trotted across and grabbed one of the saplings on the edge to swing down on. He was going to drop directly into the streambed and that was damned near as dangerous as going down the slope; the rounded and slimy rocks of the stream would turn an ankle sideways in a heartbeat and with all the gear they were carrying that would mean a broken tibia just as fast.

He slipped down the slope and looked at the team huddled against the streambank. “Everybody golden?”

“No,” Nichols gasped out.

“He broke both ankles jumping off the bank, smaj,” Sister Mary said, putting a splint in place.

“Well, Stanley,” said Mueller leaning back until his head was in the stream. “Isn’t this a fine mess you’ve gotten us into.”

CHAPTER 12

Near Seed, GA, United States, Sol III

0825 EDT Monday September 14, 2009 ad

Lying in a freezing cold mountain stream was not one of Jake Mosovich’s favorite pastimes. And doing it next to a troop with two broken ankles wasn’t adding to the experience any a’tall.

“Jesus, I’m sorry about this smaj,” Nichols gasped. Sister Mary had used a neural stunner to deaden the ankles, but it still wasn’t going to feel all that good and the cold water obviously wasn’t improving the sniper’s shock; his face was a pasty gray.

“I didn’t figure you did it on purpose, Nichols,” Mosovich whispered. “Shit happens.”

So far there had been no sign of the Posleen on this side of the mountain, but crossing the stream with a busted up sniper and all their gear was not going to go fast and a patrol could be along any time.

There were basically two choices: take off like jackrabbits, hoping to make it across the stream and the mercifully narrow open area on the other side, or find a hide along the streambed and hope the Posleen eventually gave up and figured that the team had moved on.

Of course, there was a third option.

“Okay,” Mosovich said. “Change of plan. Again. Mueller, move up the stream. Look for a better hide, someplace we can stash Nichols, you and Sister Mary. Nichols; we’re going to put you under with Hiberzine. Moving you is going to tear up your legs something fierce. This way if they’re bad enough, Sister Mary can just tie ’em off and forget about them.”

“I can make it, sarge,” Nichols said, shivering with cold.

“Can it, you idiot,” Mueller said. He looked at Nichols under lowered brows. “If we don’t put you under, your own body is going to put you down before the day is out. This is not a good way to grow old, Jake.”

“What is?” the sergeant major said, starting to strip his combat harness. When he started pulling off Nichols’ harness, the sniper grunted.

“You’ve got to be joking, right?” the specialist said, rolling over so the sergeant major could yank the harness, with its pouches of .50 caliber magazines, out from under him. Nichols was not as large as Mueller by any stretch of the imagination, but he made Mosovich look like a shrimp.

“No, I’m not,” Mosovich said, folding up the bipod on the sniper rifle and submerging it in the water. “I was humping a Barrett when you weren’t even a gleam in your daddy’s eye.” He looked over at Mueller. “Go to ground while I raise a ruckus. When the Posleen pull their patrols off wait a bit then hump buddy-boy out of here. Head for Unicoi; I’ll lead ’em off to the southwest.”

“Okay,” Mueller said. “Have fun.”

“Oh, yeah,” the sergeant major said, submerging in the icy water until only his mouth and nose were exposed. “Never better.”

* * *

Mosovich was shivering from the cold, but he hardly noticed. The current was strong as it pushed him downstream over rocks and occasional rapids and he floated backwards on his stomach, hauling the Barrett behind him and moving slowly and carefully from one bit of cover to the next. The river was full of old snags and boulders, fallen limbs and natural dams so there was more than enough concealment to be had and the river actually had passed under the road without his being detected.

He was lying on his belly behind a long fallen white pine, getting ready to move over a set of falls, when he saw the first Posleen patrol. It was better than two miles downstream from the team’s crossing, but moving up the highway in the general direction. Mosovich froze when he realized it was being led by a God King. The indications were that at anything under a hundred yards the God King sensors could detect humans no matter what; they certainly had done so one time to him on Barwhon. But in this case the group of about three hundred passed on oblivious, no more than twenty meters from where his ghillie clad body crouched.

After that he was a little less circumspect since he had a particular point he wanted to make and not much time. The team was, apparently, not spotted by those Posleen, but it was only a matter of time before they would be detected. Unless, that was, the Posties had something better to worry about.

Finally Mosovich reached the position he had been looking for, where the stream made a sharp bend to the east and was intersected on the west by an old forestry road. In this case the road had been recently repaired, that is not much prior to the war, and was in fairly good condition. However, it only went “straight” for a short distance before angling south towards Ochamp mountain. It was across the highway, but beggars can’t be choosers.

Mosovich carefully looked both ways, up and down 197, then heaved his dripping form up and began trotting. A trot was the best he could do, weighted down with the Barrett and nearly a hundred pounds of ammunition. But he made it across the road, continuing to trot up the forestry road and leaving as little trail as he could manage.

The road was grown up with a variety of weeds and scrub, so if he had to he could go to ground. But this time he was careful to move around the worst of the grasses, preferring to drift through the more resilient white pine and beech. The careful movement stood him in good stead because just as he was reaching the bend where he would have been safely out of sight, he heard the unmistakable clatter of Posleen headed up the road.

It only took a moment’s thought for him to swing around, crouch down and swing up the ghillie cloak. He was better than seventy meters up the road, in light scrub and covered in a ghillie cloak. With humans there would have been no question that he was invisible, but these Posleen were starting to spook him.

The column of Posleen seemed like it would never end, a contiguous mass of alien centauroids. He automatically started a rough count, but when he went over four thousand he just gave up. This must be the brigade-sized force that had been menacing them at Seed. He wondered if it knew where they were, as it seemed to have on Oakey Mountain Road, but whatever prescience it had seemed to have deserted it and the last of the force passed quickly by.

He briefly wondered if he should have called for fire on the unit, but he wanted to put a bit more distance between them before he started playing artillery games again.

As soon as the last straggler had apparently passed he stood up in a half crouch and began backing slowly out of sight. As soon as the road was completely around the bend he turned and started trotting up the winding mountain trail. He clearly had a rendezvous to make.

Thirty chest-heaving minutes later he had climbed about five hundred feet and was on the top of Ochamp Mountain. The “mountain” wasn’t much more than a hill, but it afforded a good view of the Soque valley and, again, had a well wooded backside that he could use to break pursuit.

As soon as he found an open area — another former homestead from the weedy flowers growing in the torn ground — he pulled out his binoculars and started scanning. Without too much trouble he found the brigade force, or at least a bit of it, continuing up the road towards Batesville. The problem was, they were practically on top of where the team should be, more or less.

Mueller scanned to the south and found another God King patrol, this time well away from the team’s position. In fact, they were a just-possible sniper shot. With a scope they would have been dead easy, but using the ladder sight it was going to be tricky.

But if he missed the God King that would just make it better.

* * *

Lakom’set was beginning to wonder if following Tulo’stenaloor was the best decision he had ever made. So far the “Great War” had consisted of travelling up and down roads doing nothing. Given his preference he would be killing humans. But even being shot at by humans would be better than this endless wandering.

“This is boring, boring, boring,” he said aloud. Naturally, his normals didn’t respond. They could follow simple commands, but as conversationalists they left something to be desired.

Fortunately for him, just about then a .50 caliber round cracked by just over his shoulder and blew out the chest of the cosslain at his side.

“Maybe boring is good,” he said as he whipped his tenar around in the direction of the sniper.

* * *

Mosovich ducked as the rocks around him were flailed by fire, then slid backwards on his belly. Clearly these Posleen were no longer taking his little pot-shots with any degree of humor.

Time to didee-mao.

* * *

Mueller didn’t move as the shouting Posleen force headed to the south. Despite the fact that they passed less than fifty meters from the team’s position in the stream, the God King sensors did not detect them. He suspected there was something to be learned from that, but what he wasn’t sure.

It took nearly a half an hour for the whole to pass by. It was fortunate that the aliens hadn’t taken longer. Both of the recon team members were on the verge of succumbing to hypothermia; if they didn’t get out of the cold, running water soon they were going to drift off into the long sleep.

Their plan was simple. While Mosovich played rabbit and led the majority of the Posleen to the west, they were to head almost due north, passing through the human lines somewhere around the thinly held Lake Burton Line. The defenses in that section followed the trace of the Appalachian Trail and if the Posleen attacked or even took a section, they would be easy enough for light human forces to contain and push back. The roads into the sector had been demolished, walls thrown up in the lower sections and other than that the only activity was patrolling by infantry forces.

He glanced over at Nichols’ still body and shook his head. The sniper didn’t have to worry about hypothermia. The Galactic Hiberzine medication used a combination of drugs and nannites to slow human internal functions to close to zero and the nannites prevented, to the greatest degree, anything but gross mechanical damage to the body. So as long as they made sure some blood stayed in his system, he was “good,” under virtually any conditions, for about three months. When administered the anti-drug, or after the nannites ran out of energy, the patient woke up with no memory of the time in between; to them it was as if no time had passed.

On the other hand, he wasn’t light.

Mueller jerked his chin at the hills to the west. “We’ll move out to a new hide,” he whispered over chattering teeth. “Wait for nightfall then move out. Try not to make any tracks getting out of the water.”

“Who gets the first carry?” she asked.

Mueller grimaced and looked at the river to be crossed. The water was rushing over hundreds of smooth, rounded, slimy rocks.

“The hell with carrying,” the NCO said, grabbing the unconscious sniper by one wrist. “I’m gonna drag his ass.”

* * *

A big hayfield on Lon Lyons Road had nearly nailed him as he was faced with the choice of crossing it, and probably getting spotted, or going around it and taking an extra ten minutes. He finally took the time and was glad when he spotted the Posleen patrol coming to the edge and looking at the open area askance. The God Kings had developed a healthy respect for human snipers and the open area probably looked like a good way to go to whatever gods the Posleen worshipped.

The patrol had taken long enough, waiting for another God King to join them, that he made it all the way across the road and into the heavy woods on the far side. In scrubby undergrowth he had no fear of the Posleen keeping up or even coming close. As he trotted through the woods, following deer trails when he could and breaking new trail when he couldn’t, he had wondered which way he should go. He could turn to the south, towards Amy’s Creek, and continue to “menace” Clarkesville, or he could continue more or less due west towards Unicoi Gap. After a moment’s thought he decided on west; why throw away a perfectly good baseline for the Posleen to follow?

This position though, just to the east of 255 Alternate, was getting untenable so he slid down the hillside and started moving again. Crossing 255 would be a bear, but the map showed woods on both sides and most of the stuff around here was young and, therefore, thick white pine. It should be possible to move completely undetected on either side.

So it was with this happy thought in mind that he trotted completely out into the open.

The area on both sides of the road, that was shown as forest, had been cleared long before. Where he stood looked to have been the back area of some sort of small manufacturing facility. The buildings were gone, but there was too much unscavenged metal on the ground for it to have been anything else. On the far side of the road was a still-paved road and an intact farm. The paved road curved around behind the facility, which looked to have been a horse training facility, and the sudden incongruity, given what was baying at his back, caused a momentary snort of half hysterical humor to slip out.

He glanced quickly at the map the AID had brought up and shrugged. He and the Posleen had been playing a constant game up until this point. He would cut through the woods between these mountain roads, firing them up with artillery and sniper fire whenever he spotted them. A few of the, apparently, junior God Kings would push along on his backtrail while the majority of this brigade force swung around from one direction, or both, on the roads he had to cross. Assuming that the same situation was going on here, trying to bolt in either direction was just as likely to run him into the Posleen.

After only a moment’s pause, he made the only decision he could and started jogging towards the road.

* * *

Cholosta’an looked up from his instruments at a warbling cry from one of his scouts. There, silhouetted on the distant ridgeline, was a figure that could only be the human they had been hunting for so long.

He swung his railgun towards the silhouette; the automatic tracking system, as usual, ignored the human, but before he could target the scout the figure had trotted across the road and out of sight. He reached down to loft his tenar, but Orostan raised a claw.

“Softly, Kessentai,” the oolt’ondai said. The older Kessentai looked at the three dimensional map on his screen and grunted. “I think we may have him trapped.” He began tapping at keys and sending commands to the nearer and farther Posleen forces, sending them out in fans to the west off of the road. For one thing he had noted that this opened them out and made them less vulnerable to artillery fire.

“How?” the oolt’os leader asked with a frustrated snarl. “They move through these hills like Sky Spirits.”

“But they cannot fly,” the oolt’ondai said with a flap of humor and pointed at the map.

After a moment the younger Posleen hissed in humor as well.

* * *

Jake leaned against a relatively ancient hickory and gasped for air. He was sure that some time in his long career he had been this utterly exhausted, but when was a good question.

He was on a saddle just below the summit of Lynch Mountain and all the hounds of hell were on his path. The wood was open, mostly big old hickory, oak and beech, and showed sign of heavy foraging from deer.

To either side of the saddle, to the north and the south, the ground fell off in sheer cliffs. The spot would have been a good place for a last stand if Jake Mosovich had any intention of committing suicide. As it was it was just a damned good place to stop and catch his breath before the last push.

The last four hundred feet of Lynch Mountain loomed above him, looking just about straight up. The only way up was a narrow ridge that led from this knife-edge saddle up around in a curve to the left and then eventually to the summit. The path was, fortunately, covered for most of the way. Fortunately because the Posleen, as far as they were concerned, had him well and truly trapped and the entire brigade force was dead on his trail.

He glanced down the hill and shook his head. Give the bastards credit for tenacity. He had called for fire on his backtrail again and he was fairly sure that the lead, at least, of the brigade force was getting shredded by the artillery. There had been a number of unreduced houses on the hill and, but by the time the artillery was done they might as well have been destroyed by the Posleen.

Now, though, it was time to go. He pulled a small device out of the side of Nichols’ rucksack, pulled a pin, set a dial and tossed it on the ground. He was both lightening his load and putting a “sensor” in place; the effect of the device would be practically nothing compared to the artillery. Then he threw the Barrett over his shoulder and started out along the saddle. The path was actually about ten feet wide, but it fell off a couple of hundred feet to the east and west so in a way it felt narrow as a string. On the far side an old path continued up the ridge and there were occasional very old trail blazes, the faded orange paint pale against the grey of the tree-bark.

He scrambled up through the mountain laurel and rhododendron, grabbing at the granite and schist that were jutting up now through the thin soil, and climbed as fast as his quivering legs could carry him. The alternative didn’t bear thinking on.

About forty five seconds after he dropped it, the plastic oblong quivered, turned over and — with a slight “huff” of expelled air — threw out three fishing lines, complete with treble hooks. Then, with an almost unnoticeable clicking noise, it slowly pulled the lines in until the treble hooks caught on the surrounding vegetation. At that point the device was apparently satisfied and settled back into quiescence.

* * *

Orostan flapped his crest in agitation and glanced at the portable tenaral again. The humans had not cut back to either side, so they could only be continuing up the hill. The oolt’ondai had split his force around the artillery fire — it was clear that it was not being observed — and thus had avoided significant casualties there. But it would be necessary to cross a narrow lip of land to reach the crest of this hill and that would entail tremendous loss.

“This is not going to be pretty,” Cholosta’an said.

“Tell me to eat, nestling, why don’t you,” the oolt’ondai snapped back. “Sorry, but that is obvious. Nonetheless, if we are going to run this abat lurp to ground, we must close with it.”

“Well,” the younger Kessentai said, with a slight flap of his crest, “we could just sit here and starve them out.” He looked over at the oolt’ondai and hissed at the expression on his crocodilian face. “But I guess not.”

The oolt’ondai appeared not to hear as he took a series of breaths. “Fuscirto uut!” he cried. “Forward!”

* * *

Jake dropped into a small “cave” between two large granite boulders and breathed deep. The position was just about perfect and, coincidentally, about as far as his legs were going to take him. The two “boulders” — both the size of a large truck — were actually outcrops that had been worn away until one dropped onto the other. In between was a small, rather dry gap about head height on the west side that narrowed to barely knee height on the east. Located slightly below the true military crest of the mountain and to the west of the mountain’s summit, it looked over the last nearly vertical climb, which was on the east side of the mountain, and down to the saddle the Posleen would have to cross. Not only would the Posleen have to cross the saddle, struggle up the trail and then cross the actual summit, in full view most of the time, the position was darn near impregnable to anything but their heavy weapons — a concrete bunker might be a slight improvement, but not much — and had a back way out. Of course, the “back way” led to a four hundred foot high vertical cliff, but beggars couldn’t be choosers.

The wind-swept mountain had once, clearly, been a popular hangout. There was still a vague outline of some old lean-tos and two fire pits. It was well covered in gnarled trees, white pine and oak with a scattering of maple, their twisted trunks and branches leaning primarily to the south. The reason for their twisting was clear; what had been a light breeze down on the flats was a blowing gale on the heights and the wind whipped the leaves around him in a fury.

There were several large boulders and outcrops, but most of the moutain was covered in loam and brush. The exception was by the cliff, where the loam came to an abrupt end about four meters from the edge. The first few meters of the cliff were broken, with a fair-sized cave on one side, a fair number of wind-twisted white pine and several ledges. However, beyond the ledges the cliff fell away sheer for over four hundred feet to the tree-covered base of the mountain. The trees swept out for almost a kilometer from there before hitting the beginnings of “civilization” and another open field.

Jake flipped down the bipod on the Barrett, flipped up the ladder sight and pushed an old Jack Daniel’s bottle out of the way. The range to the saddle, actually to the upper edge of it where the trail was clear of obstructions, was just at eight hundred meters. Judging distance like that, downhill in the mountains, was usually tough. But Jake’s AID just laid a hologram on the hill and marked various points with range markers.

What the AID could not judge quite so well was the wind. At that distance the bullet would tend to drift rather strongly, perhaps as much as six inches given the wind and its direction.

Fortunately, Posleen were big targets.

The sergeant major rolled Nichols’ rucksack off his back and rummaged around in it. He’d lightened it up on the way up the hill by some judicious disposal of devices, but it was the first “down-time” he’d had all day and all he’d had to eat since the previous night was a handful of hickory nuts he’d picked up on Ochamp Mountain.

Mosovich pulled out four one-hundred-round boxes of .50 caliber BMG, a bag of peanut hard candy, two packs of Red Man, three packs of some sort of apparently homemade jerky, and three MREs. Apparently Nichols wasn’t big on “pogie-bait.” No Fritos, no Pringles, no soynuts, trailmix or cornnuts, not even a damned Ramen package. What the hell were they teaching these kids? The MREs were spaghetti and meatballs, tortellini and lasagna. Either Nicols had eaten everything else before these or he had packed out mostly Italian. Mosovich dove back in and rummaged for a while, but came up empty. Nothing else, but socks.

“Damn, no hot sauce. What kind of a soldier goes out on a mission without hot sauce?” He could stomach the Army’s version of “Italian food” if it had enough hot sauce in it. Otherwise it was just south of fried salamander — which wasn’t half bad really — in his personal view of military food. Somewhere way down from fried grasshopper and just above kimchee. After a few moments’ thought he pulled out one of the pieces of jerky and sniffed at it. His brow rose and he took a bite.

“Where in the hell did Nichols get venison jerky?” he asked no one. “And how come he was holding out?” After a moment’s thought and another bite he answered the second question for himself. “I’m gonna have to speak to that troop about his choice of rations.”

The sergeant major leaned on the pack and listened to the artillery in the distance. As he did he realized that the position also gave the first clear view he’d had of Clarkesville. The town was darn near fourteen klicks off, but it was as close as the team had gotten and the day was clear.

Mosovich pulled out his binoculars as he masticated the jerky. The stuff had the consistency of shoe leather, but it tasted heavenly. Bit light on the spicing, but perfection exists only in the mind of Allah.

“Lessee,” he murmured around the jerky. “There’s 441… And there’s Demorest. Probably.” The town was noticeable mostly for the cleared areas; there weren’t many buildings standing.

The day was as clear as a bell, one of those beautiful fall days when it seemed that from a high hill you could see creation. In this case the NCO could easily see all the way to where Interstate 85 used to be and Clarkesville was more than a tad easier.

The Posleen had covered the area with a smoke curtain, but the smoke pots, hundreds of them, were located on hilltops and left a “side” view of the area only lightly obscured. There were thousands of figures moving in the area, but that was only to be expected. What he hadn’t expected to see was a gaping hole in the side of one of the hills just to the north of Demorest.

“Damn, they’re digging in.”

The humans had observed that behavior before, but only on Earth. Although the God Kings invariably lived above ground, usually in large stone or metal pyramids — although there didn’t seem to be any evidence of those here — most of their manufacturing facilities seemed to be underground.

Apparently this was a “late conquest” activity. After an area had been fully reduced and all the human evidence cleaned up the Posleen generally put in farms. They primarily grew local crops having, apparently, none of their own. While this was going on the local God King’s pyramid was constructed and the multitude of items necessary for that and day-to-day existence was created from the “factories,” mostly nannite “vat” production, on the ships. But as soon as an area reached a certain level of production, underground facilities started being built. And when they were complete, the ships were passed on to the next generation and took off for either another planet or another part of the same planet. And the local settlement started working on the next ship out of their surplus.

The evidence for this process was gleaned mostly from overhead imagery observing the digging process and what went into and out of the caverns. The process was probably going on on Barwhon as well, although there was no way to get overhead on that planet. On Diess, which the humans had mostly retaken, the Posleen had not dug in their facilities. But the entire arable area of the planet was covered in megalopoli so they had just occupied the Indowy megascrapers. Digging them out of them had been interesting.

Most of the Earth though was in Posleen hands and thousands, millions, of the manufacturing facilities were scattered across the planet at this point. When it came time to reclaim the world, digging the centaurs out of the holes would be tough. On the other hand, it was expected that most of the factories could be put back in commission so Earth was looking at a whole new world of productivity. Usually, though, such facilities were in well-settled areas outside the war zone and Clarkesville was inside the artillery envelope. So seeing them digging in like that was unusual.

And so was the column of Posleen pouring into the dugout.

“That’s not a factory, then,” he muttered, working a big wad of jerky into his cheek. He wondered just what those sneaky yellow bastards thought they were doing. The Posleen under certain conditions dug like gophers; they apparently had very good mining technology, along the lines of the Galactics’ ionic miners. But they generally left their normals on the surface farming, strip mining and gathering.

Then he saw what was following the column into the cavern and nearly choked to death.

* * *

Ryan looked over at the fire control officer and tapped his monitor. “Send a sensor round in the next volley.”

As the day had progressed more and more people had gotten in on the act but, by and large, that had been good. Controlling this many artillery batteries, and their care and feeding or at least resupply of rounds, was no job for a single engineer major. Among other things, dozens of intelligence specialists had gotten into the act, massaging every bit of data collected for hard evidence of the Posleen’s intentions.

So far the information was ambiguous. There was no question that the Posleen seemed to be acting in a more “logical” fashion than they usually did. But that didn’t mean they were a greater threat. With the exception of the EMP grenade, there had been no new weapons. And while there were some improved tactics, they had not notably improved as shown by their chase of Mosovich.

It had been quite a while since the sergeant major’s last call for fire and they had been desultorily pounding the hilltop, with only one battery now, for the last two hours. But there had been lulls like it throughout the day and it was, judging from past experience, just about time for another call.

“Sensor round inbound, sir,” the lieutenant said, shunting the data to his monitor.

The round was based on a standard 155 millimeter round. But instead of explosive it carried more dangerous weapons: a camera and a radio.

As the round left the distant artillery gun, a shroud fell away and the camera was uncased. Using an internal gyroscope it compensated the sensor mount against the spin of the round and kept the camera pointed at the indicated target, which in this case was the ground.

The camera was only a sophisticated visual light system; transmitting systems such as millimeter wave radar were engaged by every God King and lander in sight. But the visual light system was able to pick out the shapes of Posleen and Posleen devices from the background clutter, sending the data back to the intelligence center in narrowly directed, short, encrypted bursts.

Despite the short, directed transmissions, the Posleen were able to detect and destroy the rounds most of the time in flight and they did so in this case, catching the round as it passed over Lake Burton, but leaving all its non-transmitting brethren, who only carried high explosives and lethal shrapnel, alive.

Ryan shook his head in bafflement. None of the humans could understand why the Posleen were so damned effective at destroying anything that maneuvered or transmitted, but left “ordinary” artillery alone. He checked the FireFinder radar, which actively worked with the gun targeting systems to ensure accuracy, and, sure enough, the rest of the rounds went on their way to the target.

The picture that had come back from the round was interesting enough. The artillery had reached over fourteen thousand feet in its parabolic arc, and the “visual footprint” had stretched from Dahlonega to Lake Hartwell. There were red traces of Posleen throughout the area, but the majority of them were concentrated around Clarkesville and Lynch Mountain. In other areas the centaurs were scattered. Clarkesville was still obscured because of the angle of flight of the round and the resolution on the Posleen around Lynch Moutain wasn’t all that great.

“Get the intel guys to massage this as much as they can,” Ryan said, scrolling his view around the snapshot of the battle and zooming in on the area around Mosovich. “In the next volleys I want you to have them set the sensor rounds so that they don’t go active until they are a few seconds out. That way we may not have as wide a field of view, but we’ll at least be able to see what we’re hitting. Or not hitting. It’s pretty clear that the Posleen are beyond our current fire point.”

“Should I adjust fire, sir?” the lieutenant at the artillery control station asked.

“No,” Ryan answered. “When Mosovich wants it, he’ll call for it.” Ryan pulled up a topographic map of the area, zoomed the resolution and then laid on recent overhead. After scratching his chin for a second he grunted. “But take everything that’s not tasked and put it right… there,” he continued, pointing to the saddle with a feral grin. “It’s the only place there’s a path the Posleen could use.”

“Do you think that the sergeant major is up on the mountain?” the lieutenant asked, scanning his own system for a trace of the NCO. “I don’t see him anywhere.”

“Oh, he’s there, somewhere,” Ryan answered. “What I don’t know, is where in the hell he thinks he’s going.”

CHAPTER 13

Rochester, NY, United States, Sol III

1925 EDT Monday September 14, 2009 ad

Major John Mansfield crouched low, hiding in the shadows of the roof of the trailer. He could hear the crunch of gravel as his target approached and this time there would be no way to escape. He’d been tracking him for the last four days and tonight would be the time of reckoning. Preparing to spring he pulled his legs under him and clutched the sheaf of paperwork attached to a clipboard in one hand and a pen in the other; being adjutant for the Ten Thousand was no picnic.

As the official personnel officer for eleven thousand eight hundred and forty-three soldiers, officer and enlisted, all of whom were about as safe as Bengal Tigers, his was not always the funnest job. But the worst part was trying to pin the colonel down long enough to do his paperwork.

It had become something of a game. Cutprice would set up an obstacle course, human and often physical, between himself and his adjutant. Mansfield would try to pass it to get the colonel to take his paperwork in hand. Once a human being put something, anything, in the colonel’s hand, he was very concientious about completing it. But forget putting it in an “In” box.

But this time Mansfield had him dead to rights. The colonel had become a little too complacent, a little too regular in his schedule. And Mansfield had used all the tricks. A dummy was occupying his bed so no one would know he was stalking the night. No one had seen him crossing the compound so none of the troops would give him away this time. And a female trooper who really needed the colonel to sign a waiver so she could be promoted out of zone, a waiver that had been approved by her company commander, the sergeant major and the adjutant, had spent the evening plying the colonel with Bushmills. With any luck his defenses would be low enough that Mansfield would surprise him for once.

He crouched lower and leaned to the side, peering around the sign announcing that this simple single-wide trailer was the residence of the commander of the Ten Thousand. He glimpsed a shadow and consulted his watch. Yes, it was precisely the time the colonel should be showing up. He readied the pen and prepared to spring as a voice spoke over his shoulder.

“You lookin’ for me, Mansfield?”

Major Mansfield stood up and looked at the figure that was now standing on the stoop of the porch. Now that it was in the light it was clear that the figure was both shorter and darker than the colonel. And wore the wrong rank.

“Sergeant Major Wacleva, I am, frankly, shocked that you would stoop so low as to assist this juvenile delinquent over my shoulder in his avoidance of duty!”

“Ah, don’t take it personal, Major,” the young looking sergeant major responded in a gravelly voice. “It is the age-old dichotomy of the warrior and the beancounter!”

“Since when did you get cleared for words like ‘dichotomy’?” the adjutant asked with a laugh.

“Since the colonel spent half the night getting plastered with Brockdorf,” Wacleva responded sourly. He pulled out a pack of Pall Malls and tapped out a cancer stick.

“Yeah,” Cutprice said with a laugh. “Did you know she was a philosophy major before she enlisted?”

“Yes, I do, Colonel,” Mansfield answered testily, finally turning around to look at the officer. “Which is why she’s one of the very few people I know who can read the Posleen mind. And did you know she needed your signature to get her promotion to E-6?”

“Why the hell do you think I’m standing on a roof in the freezing cold?” Cutprice asked. He took the pen out of the S-1’s hand. “Which one is it?”

“Oh, no, you’re not getting away that easily,” Mansfield answered. “Among other things there’s a real strange one in here. I think we might need to send a squad down to North Carolina to spring one of our officers.”

“Who’s in North Carolina?” Cutprice asked, stepping lightly off the roof and landing on sprung knees. “Goddamn it’s nice to be young again.”

“No shit,” the major responded, landing next to him. “I think the last time I could be assured of doing that and not killing myself was in ’73.”

“With all due respect, sirs, yer both wimps,” the sergeant major growled. “Try being old before ’73. I couldn’t do that when I was datin’ yer mothers.”

Cutprice chuckled and reached for the sheaf of papers. “Gimme the 3420, I promise I’ll do the rest.”

Mansfield and the sergeant major followed the colonel into the trailer and Mansfield extracted a sheet of paper from the pile as the sergeant major went to the sideboard. “One 3420, complete and ready to sign,” Mansfield said.

“Hmm.” The colonel read it carefully. The game went both ways; Mansfield had twice inserted orders transferring himself to a command slot so the colonel was now careful to read the documents he signed. “This looks kosher,” he said, scrawling a signature.

“So is this,” Mansfield said. “There are two documents here. One is from Captain Elgars and the other is from her original shrink.”

“Elgars doesn’t ring a bell,” Cutprice said, picking up the printout of an e-mail.

“And it shouldn’t, she’s never been ‘with’ us, so to speak,” Mansfield said. “She was at the Monument, the sniper who is the reason it has a brand-new aluminum top.”

“Hang on a bit,” the sergeant major rasped. “Redhead, broken arm. What’s she doing as a captain?”

“Just about everybody that was there got battlefield commissions,” Mansfield pointed out. “Unless they specifically turned them down,” he added with a “hrum, hrum.”

“Well, I didn’t turn it down, it’s just a reserve commission and I’m acting in my regular rank,” the sergeant major said with a grin. “That way when I retire I get major’s pay and in the meantime nobody can make me a fuckin’ adjutant.”

“Elgars was in a coma so she wasn’t in a position to turn down a promotion to first lieutenant,” Mansfield continued. “And she got promoted in her zone automatically, since she was officially on the roll as patient status.”

“That’s the silliest fucking thing I ever heard,” the sergeant major said, pouring himself a drink and setting the bottle on the table. Then he paused. “Naw, I take that back. I’ve heard sillier stuff. But it’s close.”

Cutprice glanced at the two letters. He had come up from the ranks himself and he was a little short on college education, but he was a fast and accurate reader. The letter from the psych was the normal bureaucratic gobbledygook. The patient was refusing “treatment” and acting manifestly crazy. The shrink tried to cloak that with words she thought the colonel probably hadn’t heard, but in that the psychologist was wrong; the colonel had heard them before from shrinks talking about him. The letter from the captain was a bit different. Straightforward, spelling wasn’t too great, but that was normal for enlisteds which was what she really was. She wanted to see another shrink, her original one was treating her like she was nuts. Yada, yada. Huh?

“She says she’s got two people’s memories?” Cutprice asked.

“Apparently so, sir,” Mansfield replied.

“No wonder her shrink thinks she’s nuts,” the colonel mused. “She says she thinks the Crabs did it to her.”

“Her treatment was experimental, sir,” Mansfield noted. “It… sort of hangs together. And she doesn’t want to discontinue treatment, she just wants to continue with a psychologist that doesn’t think she’s nuts.”

“Sure, if you’re willing to believe she’s not,” Cutprice said.

“We’ve got a lot of people who are a few bricks short of a load,” Wacleva pointed out. “Look at Olson, I mean, nobody is sane if they go around wearing a God King crest all the time.”

“Well, sure, but…” Cutprice paused. The captain had apparently been a pretty good shooter and she might be a good addition. He read the postscript and frowned. “She says she knows Keren and it got forwarded by Sergeant Sunday. Both of those are recommendations in my book. Better than any fucking shrink’s.”

“That is one of the reasons I’m here, sir,” Mansfield noted. “I talked to Keren and he really went off. He didn’t know she was out of her coma and he wants to go see her. Now. He really had good things to say about her. ‘Greatest shooter on Earth. Natural leader. Crazy as a bedbug…’ ”

“But I can’t afford to send him to North Carolina just to straighten this out.” Cutprice picked up the bottle of bourbon and poured himself a drink. “I’ll tell him that myself and why. Next suggestion.”

“Nichols,” said the S-1. “He’s not an officer, but I cross-checked the records for any of the Ten Grand who have been in contact with her and they both went through the 33rd sniper course before the Fredericksburg drop. In the same class no less. He transferred to the LRRPs and he’s stationed down in Georgia or North Carolina, in that corps zone. If you send him orders to go see her, he could stop by and talk. Get an idea if she’s nuts or what. But he’ll need written orders; they won’t let the riff-raff in the Sub-Urbs.”

“Nichols?” the sergeant major replied dubiously. “He’s a decent troop, but for one thing he’s not Six Hundred and she is and the other thing is he’s… just a troop. Nothing against Nichols, but he’s just a spear-carrier.”

“Well, the other suggestion is that I know his teamleader,” Mansfield said. “And Jake Mosovich ain’t just a spear-carrier. If I ask Jake very nicely, he’ll probably even do it.”

“I know Mosovich too,” Cutprice said with a chuckle. “Tell ’im if he doesn’t, I’ve got pictures from an SOA convention he doesn’t want to see the light of day. And video from a certain AUSA convention elevator. Okay, send Nichols and ask Jake to backstop. Tell Nichols you just want him to stop by and say ‘Hi,’ but tell Mosovich the real reason they’re there. It’s pointless to add, but tell him to handle it as he sees fit and ask him for an after-action report. Also, put him in touch with Keren. If she’s not crazy, according to Mosovich, I’ll tell her psych to take a running jump at a rolling donut. If she is nuts, and unusable nuts, I want her off the rolls. She’ll always be Six Hundred, but I don’t want her messing up the rolls of the Ten Thousand. Clear?”

“As a bell,” Mansfield said with an evil grin. “I’m sure that Mosovich could use a little authorized ‘comp’ time away from his daily rut. He’s probably getting bored at this point.”

* * *

Mosovich swallowed the last of the jerky and washed it down with a swig of water from his Camelbak just as there was a “crack” and a puff of smoke from the saddle.

The device he dropped on the trail had started life as a scatterable mine. The devices were packed into artillery rounds and fired into battlefields to “scatter” and create a problem for the enemy to deal with.

The Posleen response to minefields was to drive normals across them. It was an effective method of clearing and, from the Posleen’s point of view, very efficient since they would scavenge the bodies for weapons and equipment then butcher the dead for rations.

Therefore, generally the humans didn’t use scatterable mines. While “every little bit helped” in killing Posleen, by and large minefields were pretty inefficient. There were, generally, and with the exception of Bouncing Barbies, better uses for artillery.

Scatterable mines themselves, however, were a different story. In bygone days the sergeant major probably would have stopped to set a claymore. While that might have been more effective, it also took more time. Or, if he was in a real hurry, he would drop a “toe-popper,” a small mine that would detonate if stepped on. But toe poppers were, at best, wounding. And, unless you dug a small hole and hid it, which took time, they were also easy to spot.

One of the modified scatterable mines, though, was just about perfect. The “fishing lines” were monofilament trip-wires. They threw out the hooks then pulled them in until there was a graduated resistance. At that point, the mine was “armed” and if the lines were disturbed in any way, either by pulling or cutting, the mine would detonate.

No matter how it was dropped, the first thing the mine did was right itself. So when detonated, as in this case when the lead oolt’os of the approaching company charged up the saddle, it would fly up one meter and send out a hail of small ball bearings.

A claymore had a similar number of bearings in it, and sent them in a single line, which made it more deadly. But the “Bouncing Betty” tore the head off of the Posleen and scattered it over the trail. Good enough.

And it alerted Mosovich. Who lifted his AID.

“Ryan, listen up.”

* * *

Ryan leaned forward as the distant AID poured information into the net. The Posleen charging up the saddle were clear and so was Mosovich’s position.

“Are you going to be able to get out of there?” Ryan asked.

“I’ll be fine,” the sergeant major said. “I want fire on that saddle, right now, please, sir.”

“On the way,” Ryan said, sending the fire commands to the prelaid guns. “Twenty-seven seconds. I figured you’d fire up the saddle.”

“Right,” Mosovich said, leaning into the rifle and taking his first shot as the Posleen came into view. “Until we’re done here my AID will give a continuous feed; keep the fire on the pass, though, I don’t want you to follow the Posleen up the hill. And, if you wouldn’t mind, sir, pass this on. I can see Clarkesville from here and I figured out why they’re trying to keep us from observing them. They’re digging in, like they do with their factories, but these are apparently barracks.”

“That’s not a surprise,” Ryan said, watching the artillery flight clock. “Why would they be so worried about that? I mean, we have a pretty fair count on their numbers, so it’s not like they’re hiding anything.”

“Well, they’re barracks and motorpools, I should say,” Mosovich added. He knew that firing the Barrett was giving his position away to the God King’s sensors, but apparently they were all still in the trees. He saw one plasma round hit a poplar and turn it into a ball of fire.

“Motorpools?” Ryan asked suspiciously. “Splash, over.” The rounds were only a few seconds away from impacting.

“Yes, sir,” Mosovich said, as the first rounds started to land in the trees. “For the flying tanks. Splash out.”

* * *

“A kenal flak, senra, fuscirto uut!” Orostan shouted. He shook his arm and glared at the flash burn. “I am going to eat that human’s GET.”

“Perhaps,” Cholosta’an said, running up the trail behind the oolt’ondai’s forces. “But only if he doesn’t adjust that artillery onto us!”

The two Kessentai along with the first oolt of Orostan’s force, by pure luck, had been off of the saddle and out of the beaten zone by the time the first round hit. But behind them the sound of superquick detonating in the treetops was mixed with the scream of oolt’os and Kessentai caught in the barrage. That included what was left of Cholosta’an’s oolt, but he wasn’t going back for it either.

A normal ahead of Cholosta’an grunted, slapped at his side and fell sideways screaming down the slope.

“The artillery is masking the fuscirto fire,” Orostan snarled, pointing his plasma gun towards the hilltop. He had had a bead on the sniper earlier, but the thrice-damned trees had gotten in the way. His crest on his left side was scorched so badly it might have to be cut away.

He fired at approximately where he thought the sniper was and the normals around him followed the target point slavishly.

“Uh, Oolt’ondai,” Cholosta’an said, darting past the older Kessentai, “you might want to move around a little.”

As the words left his muzzle, Orostan let out a bellow of rage and clapped at the furrow that had appeared along his flank. “Sky demons eat your souls! Come out and show yourself, you gutless bastard!” he screamed. But he started back up the path anyway, ducking and weaving among the limited cover while peppering the smoking hilltop with shots from his plasma gun. “Gutless abat!”

* * *

Jake slapped at the leaves in front of his position to put out the fire. Fortunately the God King seemed to think he was firing from about fifty meters to the west. Unfortunately, he’d missed the one shot he got at the bastard. It was difficult to tell which ones were God Kings at this range, unless they lifted their crests and these seemed to be keeping them down. There was usually a little difference in size, but not enough to be noticeable at eight football fields. God Kings were generally more heavily armed, as well, but judging by this group headed up the hill that wasn’t clear. Most of the Posleen had either heavy railguns or plasma cannon with a few hypervelocity missile launchers thrown in for giggles. Which one was the God King on the basis of weaponry was anyone’s guess. The last difference was “attitude” or at least who did what first. In this case, one particular Posleen sporting a plasma gun had fired, then all the other Posleen followed suit.

Fortunately they all fired at the wrong place, but the misses, thermal wash and ricochets had been mighty interesting for a few seconds there. A chunk of the hilltop the size of a house had been flattened and was surrounded by a growing forest fire. The trees, shrub and dirt in the area were just gone and most of the exposed rocks were smoking. If they’d fired at the right bit of mountain, or if they spotted him, his ex-wife would be getting a telegram and a check.

It wasn’t dying so much that worried him, but it really ticked him off that his ex would get the check.

“I gotta find a better beneficiary,” he muttered, taking a bead on the next Posleen in the line.

* * *

Cholosta’an darted around the oolt’ondai and put his hand on the older Kessentai’s chest. “Let the oolt’os go first, Oolt’ondai,” he said.

“I will eat the heart of this thresh,” Orostan ground out. “I swear it.”

From just up the trail came a crack of another mine and the descending scream and clatter of a Posleen falling off the narrow track. “Yes, Oolt’ondai,” the younger Kessentai said. “But you can’t do that if you are dead.”

The oolt’ondai lifted his crest for a moment then lowered it as more oolt’os trickled by. There was a steady stream making it through the artillery beaten zone and there was no way the human was going to escape this time; the other side was too sheer for even one of these damn rock-monkeys to scale.

They had made it far enough up the trail, apparently, that the human could not observe their location. But as he looked back he saw another oolt drop off the trail with a fist sized hole through his midsection and this one, in its flailing, knocked another off the path. The human was up there and still stinging them, but Cholosta’an was right; he would have to live to get any revenge worth savoring.

“Very well, youngling,” Orostan finally said with a hiss of humor. He stepped to the side to clear the path. “We’ll let a few more oolt’os get ahead of us, yes?”

“Yes, Oolt’ondai,” the oolt commander said. He recognized a few of the oolt headed up the trail by sight and smell and that indefinable sense of “mine” that said they were of his oolt’os. But damned few. “So much for being unexpendable.”

“Not at all, youngling,” the oolt’ondai said with a limited crest flap, lest the sniper still have an angle on them. “Again you prove your worth. How many Kessentai in your position would have had the head to hold back? And of those, how many would have thought to stop my impetuousness? And, last, of those very few, how many would have dared?”

“Few, fewer and fewest,” the Kessentai agreed as another “crack!” came from up the trail. “But I could wish that my oolt’os were not so few as well.”

“That we will make up for after this,” the oolt’ondai said, getting back on the path. “But I want to be there at the kill.”

* * *

Mosovich stroked the trigger one more time and rolled to his feet. He had been carefully counting the mines on the hill and the last one was, indeed, the last one. If it did not kill the Posleen that had detonated it, a short dash would take the centauroid to the crest of the mountain. That spot was in a thick stand of rhododendron and mountain laurel, but just beyond there the Posleen would be in position to flank Mosovich’s position, and, what was worse, cover the back door to the hide with direct fire.

Mosovich backed out leaving most of the boxes of ammunition and all of Nichols’ dirty socks behind. He wouldn’t, frankly, need either where he was going.

He moved over to the edge of the cliff and hefted the big rifle so he was pointing it unsupported. He couldn’t hold it up for long, and God knows, he wouldn’t be able to fire many rounds. But he wouldn’t have to.

* * *

“Don’t eat them!” Orostan bellowed as the boom of a rifle came from over beyond the obscuring vegetation. “They are mine!”

The only response was a burble from beyond the brush as another boom echoed on the mountain. The trees were whipped in a gale as the God King reached the summit and started to descend. The trail was tricky, more broken even than on the way up and the rhododendron, laurel and white pine was whipping in his face as he finally came into the open.

The human seemed to have been waiting for that, for Orostan would always remember the smile. The apparently sole survivor just smiled that tooth-baring human smile, jumped back and fired.

And flipped backwards into nothing.

* * *

It was tricky. As expected the shot, which undoubtedly went off into nowhere, gave him a few extra feet of boost. The Barrett had always pushed him backwards a few inches no matter how hard he braced and when he fired it off-hand it had pushed him back a couple of steps with each shot. So firing it completely unsupported, effectively in midair like some sort of damned Coyote/Road Runner cartoon, actually turned him for a somersault.

The good part about this was that the combination took him well out from the ledge. He had chosen his spot carefully and he had actually been standing on an overhang. However, the ground started to slope outward after only a few hundred feet long so it was important to get prepared quickly.

The static rappel system was one of the first that used the more advanced Galactic sciences in a device of purely human design and manufacture. Humans had implemented “old” Galactic technology, some of which was close to the cutting edge of human tech and theory, in many designs. New gun barrels were the most common devices, but there were also some small railguns designed for humans and “human only” fusion plants, that were only five or six times the size of equivalent Galactic and about a third as efficient.

This device was the first that used theories that were beyond human ken. The Tchpth considered gravity to be, at best, a toy and, at worst, a minor nuisance. A few of their “simpler” theories were explainable to humans, such as the theory that led to the Galactic bounce tube.

When Indowy wanted to travel up or down in their megascrapers, they generally travelled by bounce tube. This was a narrow tube that went to a specific floor. You entered it and if you were at the bottom it shot you to the top and if you were at the top it let you drop to a screaming (in initial usage this was literal) stop at the bottom. What it took humans a while to discover was that while bounce tubes were “active” devices on the lift side, they were “passive” on the drop. That is, a device at the bottom detected something coming in at high velocity, generated a very minor field and when the item hit the field it was decelerated using its own positive momentum for energy.

The Tchpth and Indowy considered this purely efficient. The humans initially considered it magic.

However, after staying up for several days, smoking a large amount of an illicit substance and taking a very long shower, a research grad at CalTech suddenly realized that if you took some of the things that the Tchpth were saying and turned them on their sides… sort of, it was a lot of very good stuff… it made a certain amount of sense. Then she wrote them down and slept for three days.

After deciphering what she wrote, which, as far as anyone but her mother was concerned was apparently Sanskrit, she created a little box that when thrown at a wall “threw back.” The energy usage involved was no more than that of a small sensor and it always threw back, even when fired from a low velocity pneumatic cannon. (The cannon was called a “chicken gun” and was usually used to test aircraft windshields. But that is another story.)

There was a current upper limit on the device, that is, when fired at very high velocity it tended to break the windshield, and it was better at stopping itself than it was at stopping stuff coming at it. So there was no “personal forcefield.”

In other words, it was a very fast way to get to the ground in relative safety.

The device was modified and adjusted until it didn’t just stop itself, but created a “static repulsion zone” which, when there was a situation of sudden kinetic change, damped that change. Then it was turned over to TRW for manufacturing purposes. The device was being installed on every vehicle still on the roads and in other places where sudden stops happened in a bad way. And it was issued to all the LRRP teams.

Mosovich looked down at the rapidly approaching ground and swore he was never, ever going to do this again. “It’s not the fall that kills you,” he whispered.

Generally, if you’re going down a cliff or the face of a building, the best way is to rappel. Tie off a rope, hook up any number of devices and lower yourself on the rope. However, there are any number of cases where this is impractical; ropes are not infinitely lengthy. There was another device available that used a very thin wire for the same purpose. And Mosovich really wished he had one with him. But they were much harder to construct than the static repulsion boxes and weren’t standard issue. Given the number of times this sort of thing came up, he was definitely getting one for everyone in the team and keeping them.

The problem was that static repulsion systems didn’t slow your fall at all until they came near solid materials. For example, this system was going to completely ignore the trees he was just about to hit.

* * *

“Fuscirto uut!” Orostan shouted, jumping over the corpse of the last oolt’os and darting to the edge. His talons scrabbled on the rock as he almost slid over the side then he looked down the cliff face just in time to see the human disappear into the trees below.

“You cannot escape me that easily!” the oolt’ondai shouted to the winds, knowing that the words were a lie. “I will still eat your heart!”

Orostan looked out over the valley below and screamed in rage. The sun was sinking to the northwest and before anyone could get to the landing area the human, if it was alive, and he doubted that it had just committed suicide, would be kilometers away. In any of three directions.

Cholosta’an came up beside him and looked down. After a moment he pointed downwards with a flap of his crest.

“Yes,” Orostan ground out.

“Alive?” the younger Kessentai asked.

“Probably,” Orostan snarled. “And there was only one.”

Cholosta’an thought about that for a moment. “The last time we had a good count it was over by the town of Seed. There were four.”

“Yes,” Orostan said. “Four.”

“And now there was only one,” Cholosta’an said. “One. And no bodies.”

“No.”

“Oh. Fuscirto uut.”

“I’ll send someone around to look for a corpse,” Orostan said after a few moments’ contemplation. “But I doubt they’ll find anything.” He looked at his tenaral and started to wonder who. Finally he turned away and started back down the hill. The human might have escaped today, but it undoubtedly was “based” beyond the Gap. Its time would come. Soon.

* * *

As the last Posleen normal faded out of sight, the “rock” that Mosovich had been standing on shifted and rippled, revealing something that looked very much like a four-eyed, blotchy, purple frog. The creature, if it was stretched out, would have been about eight feet from four-fingered foot-hand to foot-hand and was perfectly symetrical; it had two hands and two eyes on either end with a complex something in the area where a nose might be.

The Himmit scout leaned out from the rock, its rear two foot-hands spreading out over the surface for purchase, and noted the faint heat signature moving away that was probably the human. He then levered himself back and looked towards the retreating Posleen. Such decisions. Human/Posleen, Human/Posleen? Finally, deciding that humans were always more interesting than Posleen — who basically ate, killed and reproduced and who could make a story from that? — it leaned sideways and started flowing from handhold to handhold down the cliff.

Such exciting times.

CHAPTER 14

Rochester, NY, United States, Sol III

0928 EDT Tuesday September 15, 2009 ad

Mike looked around the room and then undogged his helmet. The command and staff of the 1st/555th was grouped in a kindergarten schoolroom, sitting on the floor to use the undersized tables. The battlescarred combat suits made an unpleasant contrast to the colored drawings on the walls and the prominent poster of the five food groups.

“Well, we’ve had worse meetings.” He chuckled as the last of the gel underlayer from his suit streamed off into his helmet. “Much worse.”

“Yep,” Duncan agreed as he set his helmet carefully on the desk in front of him. The plasteel was still heavy and hard enough to mar the stick drawing of a little girl with “Ashley” written below it. “At least nobody is shooting at us.”

“We’ll get back to that pretty soon,” Mike said. He worked the ball of tobacco from one side of his mouth to the other and spit into his helmet. The nannites of the semibiotic underlayer gathered up the disgusting glop which, from its perspective, was simply moisture, nutrients and complex carbon molecules, and carried them off to be reprocessed. “There’s groups of Posleen holed up all along the bottom of the Plain. We’re going to help with the mop-up for the next week or so as reaction forces. After that, Horner has ordered us to move to our barracks and take some time off. Given that we had to reconsolidate without Alpha company, I think some time in barracks is called for.”

“We’ve got barracks?” Stewart asked with a chuckle. “I mean, like, real barracks that are ours and everything? Or are we going to a ‘rest and recreation’ barracks?” he asked with a grimace. The facilities were run by Ground Forces and varied wildly.

“They’re ours,” O’Neal said with a grin. “They’ve been on my books the whole damned time. They’re in the mountains in Pennsylvania. A place called Newry, just south of Altoona. We’ve even got a rear detachment.”

“We do?” Duncan asked, bemusedly. “I would have thought the S-3 would know about that sort of thing.”

“It’s not all that big,” Mike said. “And they’re all seconded from Ground Forces. But there’s a supply officer and a personnel section.”

“And barracks?” Captain Slight said with a light chuckle. “With beds and stuff?”

“The same,” O’Neal said with another grin. “I’m not sure I’ll be able to sleep in one; the last time I tried I was up all night tossing and turning.”

“I think the troops will adjust,” Gunny Pappas said, shaking his head now that he’d doffed his helmet. “They seriously need some down time. And there’s gear that needs work, even the GalTech gear.”

“We’ll do all of that,” Mike said. “My basic plan is this. We should arrive, transportation being available, on Monday or Tuesday. We’ll spend a day cleaning up the barracks and our gear and morguing the suits. Then a day or two on short days around the barracks, getting used to wearing silks again and working on our dress stuff. Friday we’ll have a real honest to God ‘payday activities’ with an inspection of the barracks and dress uniform inspection followed by a battalion formation and dismissal by noon. Everybody to be back in formation no earlier than noon the next Tuesday.”

“You know, I don’t know how that will go over,” Captain Holder said. “Frankly, I think some of the troops will view it as… well…”

“Chickenshit, sir?” Gunny Pappas said. “With all due respect, Captain, I disagree…”

“So do I,” Stewart interjected. “And I disagree as a former troop. All of these troops are volunteers. You don’t get to the point that we’re at without realizing that there’s a reason for all the happy horseshit in garrison. Sure, you ignore most of it in combat, but the best, the most elite troops, have always been the snazziest dressers.”

“Waffen SS,” Duncan noted. “Now there were some guys who knew how to wear a uniform.”

“The 82nd,” Captain Slight noted. “They were chosen for the role of Honor Guard in post-WWII Europe mainly on the basis of how well they dressed out. And nobody can fault their combat record.”

“Rhodesian SAS and the Selous Scouts,” O’Neal said in agreement. “Two of the baddest groups ever to come out of the Cold War and they were like peacocks in garrison; Dad still has his uniform and it looks like something from a Hungarian opera.”

“Okay, okay,” Captain Holder said, holding up his hands. “But do the troops know that?”

“We’ll give ’em evenings off,” Mike said. “Short passes; they’ll need to be back to barracks by a curfew. There’s a reason for it. Gunny?”

“You don’t just rip soldiers right out of combat and drop them on a town, sir,” Gunny Pappas said with a nod. “You have to… acclimatize them first.”

“We’ll give them a week of ‘chickenshit’ to acclimatize, and a week for the town to get used to the idea and more or less prepared, and then we’ll let them go for a weekend. I don’t see us having more than a couple of weeks, maybe a month, in garrison. We’ll let them unwind for a bit then train back up and then…”

“Back to killing Posleen,” Duncan said with a growl.

“Back to making Posleen sausage,” Mike agreed. “What we do best.”

“We getting any replacements, sir?” Pappas asked. “We’re… getting a little low on bodies in case nobody had noticed.”

“There are twelve suits in the pipeline,” O’Neal said. “They’re all supposed to be waiting for us when we get to Newry.”

“And bodies?” Captain Slight asked. “Even with the troops we picked up from Alpha, we’re under manning.”

“And bodies,” Mike agreed. “Given that we have some mopping up to do, the bodies should be there in time to get the suits fitted and even dialed in. I understand we’re even getting a couple from the Ten Thousand.”

* * *

“Ten shut!” Sunday called as Colonel Cutprice entered the room.

The conference room was in the offices of a factory, long since abandoned, just west of the Genesee River. The blasts from SheVa rounds, which had levelled practically every prominence east of the Genesee, had blown out the windows of the room and Cutprice strode across crackling glass as he entered. But it was better than being outside; the rains had set in again and it looked to be turning to snow soon.

“At ease, rest even,” Cutprice said, striding over to the group of four troopers. He was trailed by Mansfield, carrying a set of boxes, and the sergeant major, similarly weighed down.

“Smoke ’em if you got ’em,” he continued, suiting action to words as he pulled out a pack of Dunhills. They were getting hard to find so he saved them for special occasions.

“You might be wondering why I called you here and all that…” He smiled and nodded at the boxes. “All of you transferred in from other units, and when you got here we took a rank away from you to make sure that you could cut the mustard, that you weren’t just garrison rangers with great counseling statements and no damned heart for war.” He looked at Sunday and shook his head.

“As it turned out, you all were what the Ten Thousand wanted; warriors to the core, psychotic motherfucking Posleen killers, willing to walk into the fire over and over and never flinch.” He shook his head again, this time in sorrow. “And now we’re losing you to those ACS bastards.

“Well, those ACS bastards do the same thing,” he noted, taking the first box. “They take a stripe away when you get there, just to make sure you’re what they need in a warm body. Then they stuff you in a can until you look like a worm that crawled out from under a rock.” He glanced at the note attached to the box and nodded.

“Sunday, get your ass over here,” he growled. “I don’t know if your old unit did this before you came here, but they should have. Most of you is getting bumped a rank before you leave, that way when you get to the damned clankers you’ll end up at the rank you have, by God, earned.

“The exception,” he continued, looking up at Sunday, “is you, Tank. I’d been thinking about doing this for a while and I don’t know what took me so long.” He glanced at Mansfield then looked away. “Some paperwork problem. Anyway, I’m going to screw you for all time. You ready?”

“Yes, sir,” Sunday said in confusion. “Whatever you think is best.”

“Okay, if you’re that trusting,” Cutprice said with an evil grin, “you deserve this. Attention to orders!

“Staff Sergeant Thomas Sunday, Junior, is released from Service of the United States Ground Forces September 17, 2009, for the Purposes of accepting a commission as a Regular Officer of the United States Ground Forces and concurrent reentry to the United States Ground Forces as First Lieutenant. First Lieutenant Thomas Sunday, Junior, is ordered to active duty this September 17, 2009, with date of rank September 17, 2009.” Cutprice stopped reading, reached in his bellows pocket, pulled out a battered pair of first lieutenant’s bars and replaced Sunday’s staff sergeant collar stripes. “You don’t owe me anything for these, by the way. I had them rattling around in the back of my desk.”

* * *

“Very well, Orostan,” Tulo’stenaloor said. “I’ll send Shartarsker in to make sure they are not coming closer to the base.” He looked at the map and considered the report the oolt’ondai had sent in. “Good luck.”

Goloswin looked up from the sensor readout. “It does not go well?”

“The team apparently has escaped,” Tulo’stenaloor said. “After ravaging Orostan’s oolt’ondar.”

“Well, they are not in the sensor region,” Goloswin said, gesturing at the map. “Or at least not marking themselves as such. I’m not sure if they can at this point. There is a way to communicate with these boxes without other devices, but this assumes the humans are as clever as I am.”

“So even if they are in the sensor net, we might not know it?” Tulo’stenaloor asked.

“Yes,” Goloswin answered, ruffling his crest. “There is a way to modify their software to make them detect humans. The sensors ‘see’ the humans, but they also see the thresh of the woods and all the greater thresh of this planet. The ‘deer’ and ‘dogs’ and such-like that have survived. The humans have designed the systems, quite efficiently I might add, to sort through the information they collect in several different ways. And it sorts out anything but Posleen and humans that are ‘in the net’ and telling it they are there and want to be tracked. Thus I would have to tell all the boxes to change their filters to find humans. And even then it would assume the humans are not cloaking themselves in any of several ways. I could do it — I am, after all, clever. But the humans might, probably would, notice. They, too, have clever technicians.”

“And then they would know that we… How did you put it?” Tulo’stenaloor asked.

“They would know that they have been ‘hacked,’ ” Goloswin said. “That we ‘own’ their system.”

“We don’t want to do that,” Tulo’stenaloor mused. “Yet.”

“What do you want to do in the meantime?” Goloswin asked. “Or can I go back to tinkering?”

“Just one last question,” the War Leader said. “Can you set the system to ‘filter’ out the Po’oslena’ar?”

* * *

Wendy shook her head as she watched Elgars finish up her workout. The sniper always closed with an exercise that was peculiar to her. She had suspended a weight, in this case fifty pounds of standard metal barbell weights, from a rope. The rope, in turn, was wrapped around a dowel; actually a chopped down mop handle.

Elgars would then “winch” up the weights by twisting the rope in her hands. Up and slowly back down, fifty times. Wendy was lucky if she could do it five times.

“I gave up on that one,” Wendy admitted. They generally worked out once a day for about an hour switching between strength and cardiovascular sessions. Lately, though, they had been concentrating more on weight training; Wendy was trying out for a “professional” emergency services position and Elgars was backstopping her training. Today Wendy had stuck to warm-ups; when they were done she was going to go to the tryouts and she didn’t even want to think about going through that SOB after a full workout.

“You ought to start at a lower weight and rep,” the captain said. “It’s good for the wrists.”

“I can see that,” Wendy admitted, looking at the captain’s; the woman’s forearms were starting to look like a female Popeye’s.

“Makes it easier to climb ladders among other things, most of the stuff in your PPE.”

“Yeah, well, time to go to that now,” Wendy said nervously.

“One of these days I will figure out the purpose of a fire department in this place,” Elgars said, wiping off her face with a towel and wrapping the towel around her neck. “Every fire that has broken out was extinguished before the crew arrived; that is what sprinklers and Halon are for. I think they’re just a very overtrained clean-up crew.”

“Well, at least it feels like you’re doing something,” Wendy said sharply.

“And caring for screaming children is not doing something?” Annie asked with a thin smile.

“Do you want to do it the rest of your life?” Wendy asked.

“No,” the captain said, leading the way out of the gym. “But, then again, you don’t get the desire to disembowel the little bastards.”

“You get along with Billy,” Wendy said with her own tight smile.

“That is because he doesn’t say anything.”

“Well, there is that,” Wendy snapped. “You weren’t in Fredericksburg; you can’t know what it was like.”

“No, I can’t,” Elgars said. “Thank you very much for pointing that out. I was not in Fredericksburg and I wouldn’t remember anyway.”

Wendy stopped and looked at the officer for a moment. “When did we start fighting?”

Elgars stopped in turn and cocked her head. “I think when I complained about the fire department.”

“Okay,” Wendy said. “It’s something to do that helps. Yes, I’m tired of the daycare center. I was tired of it when most of this damned place was open cavern and it was just a couple of hundred shaken up Virginians. I’m sick and tired of it now. I’ve watched those kids grow up without sunlight or anyplace to play but a few rooms and I just can’t do it any more.

“I’m tired of wiping noses. I’m tired of not making a contribution. I’m tired of being treated like some sort of brood mare, especially since the only guy I’m willing to be one with is NEVER HERE!”

“Okay,” Annie said, raising a hand. “Gotcha.”

“As to Billy,” Wendy continued, leading the way down the corridor, “Shari was the last person out of Central Square. Billy… looked back.”

“I don’t know what that means,” Elgars said with a sigh. “What and where is Central Square?”

“It was the big shopping center outside of Fredericksburg,” Wendy explained patiently. “The Posleen dropped right on it. Shari just… walked away. Carrying Susie and leading Kelly and Billy. Billy… looked back. He’s never been right since.”

“Okay,” Elgars said patiently. “I still don’t understand. Looked back? At the shopping center? Whatever that is.”

“The Posleen were… eating the people there.”

“Ah.” Elgars thought about that for a second. “That would be bad.”

“And they apparently were… spreading out towards Shari. She says she doesn’t really know because she wouldn’t look back. But Billy did.”

“Okay,” the captain said with a frown. “I guess that would be bad.”

“You don’t get it, do you?” Wendy asked. She’d noticed that sometimes the sniper was sometimes almost inhumanly dense about stuff.

“No,” Elgars replied.

“It was like one of those nightmares,” Wendy said with a shudder. “Where something’s chasing you and you can’t get away no matter how fast or where you run. The docs think he’s sort of… locked up in that. Like he can’t think about anything else; he’s just replaying the nightmare.”

“I still don’t get it,” Elgars opined. “I don’t have that nightmare.”

“You don’t?” Wendy asked. “Never?”

“I did once,” Elgars admitted. “But I turned around and killed the thing that was following me.” She shuddered. “It was one of the octopuses again.”

“Octopuses?” Wendy stopped and turned to the captain. “What octopuses?”

“You don’t dream about giant purple octopuses?” Elgars asked in surprise. “I do. Usually I’m watching from the outside and they’re pulling out my brain. It’s like it’s all squiggling worms and they lay it out on a table and hit the worms with mallets to get them to quit squiggling. Every time they hit one of the worms, I can feel it in my head. You never have that dream?”

Wendy had gone from astonishment to wide-eyed shock and now turned back towards their destination shaking her head. “Huh, uh. And, friend that you are, I have to admit that that falls into the category of TMI.”

“TMI?” Elgars asked.

“ ‘Too Much Information.’ ”

“I wouldn’t have run, for that matter.”

“Even with three kids that were your responsibility?” Wendy asked.

“Ah…” Elgars had to stop to think about that. “I probably would have fought anyway. I can’t imagine running from the Posleen. It seems like a losing proposition.”

“Shari’s alive,” Wendy pointed out. “So are her children. All the other people, adults and children, who were at Central Square are dead. Unless you’ve got the force to hold ground, staying is a losing proposition.”

Elgars shrugged as a double set of high blasplas doors, similar to an airlock, retreated into the walls. The room beyond was large: high-ceilinged, at least sixty meters across and even taller than it was wide. The walls were covered in white tiles and there were large fans on the distant ceiling.

In the center of the room was a large structure made out of vitrified stone. It looked something like a small, separate building, about six stories high, but it was covered in black soot and had dozens of different pipe-ends sticking out of it. The numerous windows were all unglazed, with edges cracked as if from hammering or, perhaps, really intense heat. A series of catwalks led off of it to lines arrayed up to the ceiling.

Arrayed along the base of the walls were hundreds of small openings. As Elgars and Wendy entered, the overhead fans kicked on with a distant howl and a faint draft came out of the nearest opening. The fans were drawing the air in the room fast enough to slightly reduce the pressure; if it was not for the hundreds of air-vents along the floor wherever the air did enter would be a hurricane.

The walls were lined with lockers and rescue gear and near the structure in the middle were some of the “fire-carts” that the rescue teams used for transportation in the Sub-Urb. The carts were sort of like a large golf cart with a high pressure pump and racks for rescue gear on the back. With the pump removed they could double as ambulances.

There were about twenty people gathered in the room, most of them females in good to excellent condition. Elgars had met a few of them when Wendy went to her EMS meetings and the captain had to admit that Wendy was in the middle range from a physical perspective. Wendy worked out every day, but she wasn’t very well designed for high-strength, especially upper body strength; among other things she had parts that got in the way. It also appeared that a once a day workout was not quite enough; more than half of the women waiting to try out looked like female triathletes; their arms were corded with muscles and their breasts had shrunk to the point where they were practically nonexistent.

There was a group of emergency personnel confronting them, ten of them in a line. They were wearing the standard day uniform of the emergency, a dark blue Nomex jumpsuit. All of them were female and most looked like ads for a muscle magazine; Elgars had the unkind thought that they probably opened doors by chiseling through with their chins. In front of them was an older female in a bright red coverall. As Wendy joined the group, she glanced at her watch and nodded.

“Okay, I think everybody’s here that’s going to try out,” the firechief said. Eda Connolly had been a lieutenant in the Baltimore Fire Department until she received a politely worded order to leave Baltimore as “excess to defense needs.” She had found herself one of the few fully trained emergency personnel in this hole, but in the last four years she had built a department to be proud of. And she was fundamentally uninterested in lowering her standards.

“You all know what you’re here for,” she continued, gesturing behind her. “You want to join this line. You want to be in emergency services instead of whatever hole the powers that be have stuck you in.

“Fine,” she said with a nod. “I’d love for you to be in emergency services too. I think that if we had three times the number of emergency personnel it would be grand; too many times we find ourselves being run ragged because we don’t have enough hands. But every single hand that we have can do every single job that needs to be done. And that’s not always the easiest thing in this hole.

“There are two million people in this hole. Two million people that, every, single, day, seem to find a new way to get hurt. Arms caught in drains, knifings, shootings, industrial explosions. There are grain elevators that catch on fire, a situation where if you turn off the ventilation the whole thing just blows up. There’s chemical plants and showers to slip and fall in and four thousand foot vertical air shafts that kids manage to climb out into and then panic.

“And all there is keeping them alive, half the time, are these gals,” she said with another gesture behind her. “Every one of them have passed this test. And then, within a week or two, found something harder than this test that they had to complete. Or someone, probably themselves, would die.

“So today you get tested,” she said with a sigh. “And if you complete the course in time, making all the requirments, you’ll be considered for inclusion. I’ve got seven slots to fill. My guess is that only five or six of you will pass. But… I’d rather have five that pass than seven that don’t.”

One of the group behind her stepped forward and handed her a clipboard. She glanced at it and nodded. “As I call your name, step forward, join up with one of the officers behind me to draw bunker gear and get ready to start your evaluation.” She looked up one more time and smiled thinly. “And good luck. Anderson…”

* * *

Wendy threw on the bunker-coat and buckled it up. Once upon a time she had heard that there were multiple ways to put on a bunker-coat, most of which could get you killed. It had always seemed silly to her; like having a gun that shot you if you loaded it backwards. The gear was heavy and hot, but it had its purpose. On the wall above the lockers was a sign: “Like a rich armor, worn in the heat of the day.” She’d tried for years to find the source of the quote, but the firefighters weren’t telling and she’d never been able to find it anywhere else.

She reached into her locker and pulled out the breath-pack, spitting into the facescreen and wiping the saliva around to prevent condensation. There were various products to do the same thing, but strangely enough saliva was the least unpleasant at high heat conditions; you could use baby shampoo but it had a vaporization point well below that of the lexan visor and the fumes were unpleasant. Saliva had a low vaporization point as well, but it just smelled a bit of burning hair. Which, if you were vaporizing it off your faceshield, you were already smelling.

She checked the air and all the rest of the gear. There weren’t supposed to be any booby traps built in at this point, but she wasn’t willing to go for “might”; among other things, for part of the test the firehouse would be filled with smoke and she’d need the air.

Everything appeared to be right, though, so she donned the breath-pack, put on the respirator, put on her helmet and turned around.

By that point, the smoke was already streaming out of the smokehouse. The smoke was generated — there was no actual fire involved in the event — but it looked real. It looked as if the smokehouse was going to billow with flames at any moment.

She was supposed to be the fifth person to take the test, but there was only one person in front of her. As she noted that, the first testee exited the smokehouse on the roof and started the rope portion. The various lines above the smokehouse, which stretched around the room in a spiderweb, were an integral portion of the event. The Urb had some awesome chasms in it and emergency personnel never knew when they might be dangling over a two thousand foot drop. Being able to do specific rope work — and more importantly, being fundamentally unafraid of heights — was an important portion of the test.

Wendy shivered. She was not fundamentally unafraid of heights. Quite the opposite. But she could still do the job.

“Cummings.”

She shook herself and tore her eyes away from the testee who had just jumped across a small gap onto a swaying platform. “Yes?”

“You’re up,” said the firefighter who had led her through the preparations.

“Okay.” She knew the firefighter; she knew most of them. But at the test it was all supposed to be totally impersonal. She knew why; she understood why. But it would be nice if somebody acknowledged her; acknowledged that she’d been a reserve ER for four goddamned years and this was the first time she’d managed to even make the pre-quals for the PPE. She paused a moment, but there was nothing else. Then she stepped forward.

“Cummings,” Chief Connolly said. “Eight events. Ladder move, ladder raise/lower, high-rise pack, hydrant manipulation, the Maze, door breach, vertical environment, hose drag and dummy drag. You are familiar with each test?” she asked formally.

“I am,” Wendy answered just as formally, her answer muffled behind the faceshield.

“At each station there will be a firefighter to direct you to the next station. Each station is timed. Movement from station to station is timed. If you ‘bump up’ on the person in front of you, you may wait and rest and the time does not count against you. The entire course, method and time, is graded and you must make a minimum grade of eight hundred points to qualify. Do you understand?”

“I do.”

“In addition there are specific items that are automatic fails. If you lose the high-rise pack, it is a fail. If you skip a step of the door breach or misevaluate it is a fail. If you enter the smooth tube in The Maze instead of the corrugated it is a fail. And if you drop the dummy, it is a fail. Are you aware of these fail points?”

“I am.”

“Do you fully understand the requirements to pass the evaluation?”

“I do.”

“Very well,” Connolly said. She looked around for a moment then leaned forward and whispered, very definitively, “Don’t. Drop. The dummy.” Then she straightened up, looked at her watch, pointed at a rack of ladders and said: “Go.”

Wendy trotted over to the ladders at a fair pace. She could have run, but this evaluation was as much about pacing as capability; she’d seen women in fantastic condition wear themselves out halfway through.

Three ladders were racked on the wall, hung vertically. Beside each one, to the left, was a spare, empty rack. The test was simple; lift off each ladder and move it over one rack.

The ladders weighed forty-seven pounds and were awkward in addition; it was quite a test of upper body strength and balance for a one-hundred-and-twenty-pound female to lift and move one, much less three. Add in forty pounds of bunker gear, a breath-pack and all the rest and it was a challenge. And only the first.

She managed the ladders in good time. And managed the second evaluation which was to fully raise and lower, “extend and retract” one of the ladders. Harder than it sounded, it had to be done hand over hand, maintaining control, or the ladder simply “dropped.” A drop was not an automatic fail, but it would count heavily against her.

The third evaluation, the high-rise pack, was the first that she knew was going to kick her ass. This involved carrying an “assault pack,” two fifty foot sections of 1¾-inch attack line, a nozzle, a gated Wye valve and a hydrant wrench, to the fifth floor of the smokehouse. Forget that the smokehouse was living up to its name, with thick black smoke belching from a generator on the ground floor and billowing up through the stairwells. Just lifting the pack — which was about a hundred pounds, or more than seventy percent of her body weight — off the ground was a struggle. The requirement was to move “expeditiously” up the stairs, but in reality nobody managed so much as a trot. Each step was a struggle and by the time she reached the third level she knew that if she paused for even a moment she could never get going again. But finally, panting in the heat from the suit and gasping for air, she saw the firefighter at the top. It was through a haze of gray that was only half to do with the smoke, but she’d made it. She carefully lowered the pack to the ground and just rested on her knees for a moment until the red haze over her vision cleared. Then she stood up and, following the pointed finger, went back downstairs to the Maze.

The Maze was the confined spaces test chamber on the third floor. A plywood and pipe “rat-maze,” it filled only one room but encompassed a total of a hundred and sixty-five feet of linear “floor.” The Maze was multi-level with a series of small passages and doorways, many of which could be slid open or closed at the whim of the testers. None of the passages permitted so much as crouched movement; the entire maze was done on the belly, sometimes crawling at an angle or twisting through three (some suggested four) dimensions to reach a new passage.

Strangely, Wendy had never had a problem with the Maze, even when it was blacked out. Perhaps being buried alive in Fredericksburg had some compensations; she had come out of it with a fundamental lack of claustrophobia. Much the same could be said for Shari, who had waited out the weeks awake. If she had tended to claustrophobia, she would have put herself under like the firefighter who was trapped with her.

That didn’t mean it was easy. The movement method was difficult. But Wendy didn’t have a problem, including remembering not to take the smooth tunnel. The plastic tunnel was greased after a few feet and anyone who went in wasn’t backing out. And it dumped them out right at the feet of the grader.

Wendy, on the other hand, came out the corrugated tunnel and popped to her feet reasonably refreshed. She knew she had made up time on the Maze and the next test, the door breach, was another “good” one for her.

She trotted up the stairs to the roof and picked up the essential tools for the door breach test: a backpack of liquid nitrogen and a CO2-powered center-punch. The testing device was in the center of the roof; an apparently freestanding doorway with a closed memory plastic door in it.

The design of the door necessitated the unusual gear. For safety reasons, memory plastic doors were designed so that their “base” configuration was “closed.” That meant that a precisely graduated charge had to be applied to them to get them to “open” or collapse into a tube along one side of the door.

When in their extended configuration the doors were very tough; you could hammer at them with a sledge all day long and not get them to break. And for security purposes the charge had to be applied along a recessed edge. When first confronted with this design, emergency personnel were momentarily stumped. However, a former Marine firefighter pointed out that lexan shatters fairly easily when chilled. Thus, a new entry method was born.

The tester nodded when Wendy had the gear on, held up a stopwatch and pressed the start button with a shouted: “Go!”

There were several steps to the door breach and each had to be done precisely. She trotted to the door, positioning herself on the left side, and removed her Nomex gloves then began running her hand over the door and doorframe. She started at the top and ran her hand rapidly across and down. As she reached the bottom left-hand corner of the door she suddenly noted increasing warmth. The bastards.

She stepped back and shouted “Hot door!”

The tester hit the stopwatch and made a notation on her clipboard as Wendy took the opportunity to put her gloves back on. “The door is to be considered hot, but breachable,” the tester said. She did not bother to note that if Wendy had not detected the heat she would have been disqualified; that went without saying. “Continue,” the tester added, hitting the stopwatch again.

Wendy stepped back and looked at the pressure gauge for the LN bottle. The bottle had a line running out of it to a nozzle similar in appearance to a flamethrower. The outlet pressure, which was controllable at the nozzle, determined how far the stream of nitrogen would go. There was a maximum effective distance, but that really didn’t matter. What was important was to reduce, as far as possible, splashback.

The nitrogen gushed out of the nozzle in a white, foaming stream, exploding into vapor as it heated in the room-temperature atmosphere. The reason that the test was on the roof was two-fold; it permitted the gas to be carried off and it prevented having a supercooled room.

There was a limited splashback zone, about a foot out from the door, and the small amount of liquid quickly boiled off. Before it had entirely vanished, however, Wendy stepped forward, avoiding the drops, and placed her punch against the left side of the door.

Normally she would have placed it against the lower left, but with the single point of high temperature being there, she felt a need to adjust. As cold as the nitrogen was, the memory plastic of the doors had a fairly high specific heat and the lower left might not have cooled off enough to be cleared.

Placing the punch, she angled it so that it would go straight in but, in the event of a refractory door, would not kick into her body, and pulled the trigger.

The punch, which looked somewhat like a cordless electric drill, contained a twenty-centimeter steel spike, charged by a CO2 cartridge in the handle. When triggered, the spike flew out at over three hundred meters per second, penetrating the door and, if it was cold enough, shattering the plastic.

In this case it was cold enough and the door shattered from top to bottom, breaking into chunks ranging from dust up to a few centimeters across. The sole exception was an almost perfectly circular point on the lower lefthand corner. It looked like her decision not to punch the door there was a good one.

She looked at the person in a silver suit on the other side of the doorway. The firefighter was holding a propane torch in one hand and faintly through the layers of lexan Wendy could see a grin.

“Bitch,” she whispered under her breath with a returning grin. You always popped the door on the lower left, if you were right-handed anyway. It was the safest side and generally the bottom of a door was cool in all but the most intense fires.

The firefighter just pointed at the start of the rope course.

God, this was going to be a long day.

She managed to survive the gear drag and rope course. Both of them were basically gut-checks, in one case for strength and in the other for fear of heights. She wasn’t the strongest person on the course and she hated heights, but she could take gut-checks all day long.

But at the end of the rope course, the only thing left was the buddy drag. She started to trot over to the station and realized that she just didn’t have any trot left. She kept wondering when that famous second wind was going to kick in, but so far the only thing that had kicked in was utter fatigue. The buddy drag was going to be a hell of a lot of fun.

The test involved lifting a 225-pound dummy and dragging it. The dummy was on the ground, lying on its back, dressed in a bunker-coat and trousers. The candidate was required to lift the dummy up, holding it from behind with their arms wrapped around to the front, and drag it one hundred feet without dropping the dummy.

“Don’t drop the dummy,” she whispered, grabbing it by the shoulder of the bunker-coat and pulling it up to a sitting position. The head flopped to the side and the arms dangled, all of the appendages getting in the way no matter what she did. Finally she maneuvered herself behind it, her arms under the dummy’s, right hand gripping the front of the bunker-coat and left hand locked on her right wrist.

With a grunt she straightened her legs, getting the dummy up, and then just paused, trying not to sway. The dummy was taller and much heavier than she was and just staying on her feet was a challenge. Finally, she leaned carefully backwards and started dragging.

Every step was an agony and a struggle. There was no momentum to build up, that evil enemy gravity prevented anything along those lines. She just had to drag it step by painful step. Two thirds of the way there, her grip on her wrist slipped, but a quick snatch with the left hand got a handful of bunker-coat and the dummy didn’t, quite, fall. Now all she had was its coat and her Nomex gloves had gotten slippery with sweat so maintaining her hold was problematic. But she could still do it. She was nearly there.

Then disaster hit. She was within ten feet of the line, almost completely done, when she felt the first snap give way.

The dummy, unfortunately, had been used for thousands of drags. It had been lifted and carried and hauled hither and yon and always in the same bunker-coat. A bunker-coat which chose that moment to decide to open up.

She felt the snaps give way and frantically started scrabbling at the front of the coat, trying to get a handhold anywhere. The dummy poised for a moment on her knee, but then her last handhold slipped and it hit the floor.

She just stood there and… looked at it. The dummy was on the floor. She’d dropped the dummy. After all that…

She wanted to scream. She wanted to beg for another chance. And she knew that if she did either one, she’d never be accepted for another evaluation. So she just stood there, tears streaming down her face, unable to move as one of the examiners came over, buttoned up the bunker-coat and lifted the dummy into a shoulder carry to reposition it.

Finally, Chief Connolly came over and took her by the arm. She led her over to a bench and pulled off her helmet.

“There’ll be other events,” Connolly said. “All you have to do is as well as you did and don’t drop the dummy.”

“How did you know?” Wendy whispered.

“I didn’t,” Connolly answered turning to watch the next candidate. “I jinxed you. I knew you had screwed up your courage for the rope sequence so I decided to throw you a curve on the dummy. I didn’t fiddle with the buckles, though. That was just bad luck.”

“Bad luck,” Wendy whispered. “That’s the story of my life.”

“And that’s why I jinxed you,” Connolly said calmly. “You don’t really have your head around this yet. It’s all a game to you, even when it’s tough. I don’t want anybody going into the fire with me that’s in it for the ‘fun.’ Or the uniform. Or anything, but the burning desire to kill the flame and save the people.”

Connolly turned back to look at her and shook her head. “You’re still playing fireman, Wendy. That’s what your psych profile says; that’s why you’re not in Security either. You’re not sure that you can do it, you’re not sure you can handle it and you want to play at it for a while to see if you like it. I don’t want anybody in the department who’s just playing. I don’t want anyone who isn’t perfectly, completely, confident and competent. We’ve got too big a responsibility for ‘might.’ ”

Wendy looked up at her for a moment and nodded her head. “Fuck you.” She pointed her finger at the firechief as she opened her mouth. “If you say another fucking word I will kick your ass,” she whispered, getting to her feet and then getting to her feet again to stand on the bench so she could look the taller firefighter in the eye.

“Let me tell you about bad luck, Chief ‘I am God’ Connolly,” she whispered again, carefully stripping off the bunker gear. “Bad luck is knowing, not worrying, not wondering, but knowing that the Posleen are going to kill you and then almost assuredly eat you. Bad luck is having every single member of your family, everyone that you are going to school with, everyone you have ever known, killed in one day. Bad luck is seeing your life wiped out in an instant.

“You came here from Baltimore before it was even invested,” Wendy continued softly. “You’ve never seen a Posleen except on television. You’ve never seen them in their waves, cresting the hills and filling every corner of your town. You’ve never heard the crack of railgun rounds overhead or had your ears ringing from missiles slamming into the houses around you.

“You’re right. I don’t want to be a fucking fireman. I don’t want to pull hoses and run up and down stairs all day. I want to kill fucking Posleen. I hate them. I hate them passionately. You think you hate fire, but you love it at the same time; most firemen do. Well, I don’t love Posleen at all. I take it back, I don’t even hate Posleen. I despise them. I don’t respect them, I don’t think they are fascinating, I just want them to cease to exist.”

She’d stripped out of the bunker gear by then and she stood in the coverall tall and stone faced. “You’re right, I’m playing at firefighting. Because compared to killing Posleen, firefighting ain’t shit. So. Fuck you. Fuck your tests. And fuck this department. I’m done.”

“You’re right,” said Connolly. “You are. I’ll keep you on the reserve rolls, but don’t bother turning up for drills. Not until you can keep it together.”

“Oh, I’ve got it together,” Wendy said, turning away. “Never better.”

“Cummings,” the chief called.

“What?” Wendy asked, pausing, but not bothering to turn around.

“Don’t do anything… stupid. I don’t want to be cleaning you up from someplace.”

“Oh, you won’t be cleaning me up,” Wendy said, walking away. “But if anybody gives me any shit, you might as well bring the toe-tags.”

CHAPTER 15

Franklin Sub-Urb, Franklin, NC, United States, Sol III

1048 EDT Thursday September 24, 2009 ad

They do not preach that their God will rouse them
a little before the nuts work loose.
They do not teach that His Pity allows them
to drop their job when they dam’-well choose.
As in the thronged and the lighted ways,
so in the dark and the desert they stand,
Wary and watchful all their days that their brethren’s day
may be long in the land.

— Rudyard Kipling “The Sons of Martha” (1907)

“Look, buddy, do you have a problem with the concept of ‘written orders’?” Mosovich asked.

The security guard behind the armored glass looked at the piece of paper again, then gestured for them to wait. “Let me call somebody. This is the first time I’ve had to deal with this.”

“I hate these fucking holes,” Mueller grumped. And Mosovich had to agree. Mansfield was going to owe him. Big time.

The “request” to go check out this crazy bitch came at a good time, anyway. After the last reconnaissance debacle, the corps commander had ordered a halt to long-range patrols for the time being. The gap was being taken up by increased use of unmanned aerial vehicles and scout crawlers. The former were small aircraft, most of them not much larger than a red-tailed hawk, that hovered along in the trees, probing forward against the Posleen lines. The problem with them was that the Posleen automated systems identified and destroyed them with remarkable ease. So they would only get a brief view of any Posleen activity. Crawlers — which looked like foot-long mechanical ants — did a little bit better. But even they had not been able to penetrate very far; whoever was commanding the Posleen had the main encampment screened tighter than a tick.

Mosovich had heard rumor that Bernard had requested permission to nuke the encampment with SheVa antimatter rounds. It had been denied of course — the President was death on nuclear weapons — but the fact that the question might have been asked was comforting. It meant that somebody was taking the landing seriously.

However, until they figured out a way to probe the Posleen, Mosovich, Mueller and Sister Mary didn’t have a job. Since sooner or later somebody was going to notice and figure out something stupid for them to do, Mosovich was just as glad to have this “request” forwarded through corps. It had ensured a written pass from headquarters, without which getting in would have been nearly impossible. And it got them away from corps and the various idiotic projects that the staff would be coming up with.

The flip side to it was that they had to go into the Sub-Urb. He’d been in a couple in the last five years and they were depressing as hell. The sight of all those people shoved underground was somehow obscene. Especially since ten years before, ninety percent of them had been living in comfortable neighborhoods. On the lines there were times when you could almost imagine that, yeah, there was a really big war. But, fundamentally the United States was still there, still functioning. And once the off-planet forces returned, everything could go back to being more or less normal.

Then you went to a Sub-Urb and realized that you were kidding yourself.

The Franklin Sub-Urb had a particularly bad reputation and he wasn’t surprised. Half the escalators on the personnel entrance they used had been out of order and the reception area was scuffed and filthy with trash and dirt piled up in the corners. And the security point, an armor-glass-fronted cubicle something like a movie theater ticket booth, was even worse. Every shelf in the booth was piled with empty food containers, half of which were filled with cigarette butts.

Realistically, though, the conditions weren’t too surprising. Not only was it one of the oldest ones, meaning that it had people from the first refugee waves when the Posleen were really hammering civilians, but its proximity to the corps support facilities had only managed to degrade the condition. They’d had to catch a ride from their barracks in the Gap to Franklin and it was apparent on the ride that even though the Line forces in the Gap weren’t the greatest, the support groups were worse. No wonder they’d placed the Urb off limits; he’d have kept these “soldiers” out and he was a soldier. And from what he’d heard the first few months when they hadn’t kept the soldiers out boiled down to a sack.

No wonder the security was jumpy about letting them in. Especially armed.

Mosovich shifted his rifle as the female guard returned with an older male. The newcomer was overweight, but not sloppily; it was clear that a good bit of the body was muscle. He was wearing rank tabs for a security major which meant he was probably the senior officer on duty. No wonder she’d been gone for a while.

“Sergeant Major—” the security officer said, looking at the e-mail orders, ” — Mosovich?”

“The same, and my senior NCO, Master Sergeant Mueller.”

“Could I see some ID?” he asked.

“Okay,” Jake said, fishing out his ID card and gun orders.

“This is fairly irregular,” the security officer continued. “We have a few personnel that have open permission to pass back and forth. But for all practical purposes no military personnel are permitted other than that.”

“Unless they’re on orders,” Mosovich said. He supposed that he could bow and scrape and it might help. But the hell if he would to this Keystone Kop outfit.

The officer carefully considered the two IDs and then sighed. “Okay, it looks like I have to let you in…”

“Then would you mind opening the door?” Mueller growled.

The officer put his hands on his hips. “First, a few words…”

“Look, Major…” Mosovich leaned forward and peered at the badge, ”… Peanut? We’re not support pogues. We’re not the barbarians you had coming down here before. I may look 22, but I’m 57; I was in the Army when you were a gleam in your daddy’s eye. We’re here on a mission, not to fuck around. And there’s only two of us; if your department can’t take down two soldiers then you need to shitcan it and get some real guards. And, as you noted, we’ve got qualified passes. So open the door.”

“Well, that covers part of it,” the major said dryly. “Here’s the rest. People down here don’t have guns. They don’t like guns; they’re afraid of them. Except for the ones that want them and will gladly take yours if you give them half a chance. Carry them slung across your back, not combat slung. Make sure you maintain control of them at all times. If you lose one, I guarantee you that the corps commander will make your life absolute hell.”

“He’d be hard pressed,” Jake said. “We’re Fleet. But I take your meaning.”

“Okay,” the major said with a sigh, activating a solenoid. “Welcome to the Franklin Sub-Urb.”

* * *

Mueller shook his head as they passed through another one of the open gathering areas. “Strange looks.” The sprite turned left out of the commons and onto another slideway.

“Yeah,” Mosovich replied. “Sheep.”

Mueller knew what he meant. The people of the Sub-Urbs were giving them the sort of look sheep gave sheepdogs. They knew that the dog wouldn’t bite them. Probably. This time. But they definitely did not like to see the uniforms or the guns. To sheep, all sheepdogs are wolves.

“Probably worried about an attack,” Mosovich added.

“I would be,” Mueller agreed. The Sub-Urb was an easy drive from the front lines; whatever idiot put it this close should be shot.

“No way out,” Mosovich said. “Stupid.”

“Lots,” Mueller contradicted. “All marked. And the armory at the front.”

Mosovich just snorted. If the Posleen ever came up the Gap, the people in the Sub-Urb were so many food animals caught in their pens. And with the Armory on the upper side of the Urb, unless they got the word in very good time, the Posleen would be sitting on their weapons.

The decision had been made to make the Urbs zero weapons zones and in the eyes of Mosovich and plenty of other people that was just wrong. If everyone in the Urb was armed it would probably mean a higher murder rate. But compared to the one hundred percent loss in the event of an attack, even one by a random landing, a few murders would be worth it. Besides, the improved defenses if everyone was armed might keep the Posleen out.

Nonetheless, through a combination of politics and Galactic intransigence the Urbs had been disarmed.

“Stupid.” Mueller shook his head.

Mosovich nodded as he turned down a brightly lit corridor. The walls had murals on them, which was unusual, and each of the doors had the nameplate of a different doctor on it. The sprite stopped in front of a door marked “Dr. Christine Richards, Psy.D.”

Mosovich touched the entry pad and the door chimed.

“Yes?” a voice asked through the pad.

“Doctor Richards? It’s Sergeant Major Mosovich. I’m here to talk to you about Captain Elgars?” The good doctor was supposed to have received an e-mail, but who knew what was really happening.

“Could this wait?” the box asked. “I’m preparing a report right now, but it’s not complete.”

“Well, you can report all you’d like, doc,” Mosovich replied to the speaker. He was getting a bit ticked about talking to a closed door. “But I suspect that the Army is going to pay more attention to me than you. And I’m going from here to run down Elgars. So this is your one chance to convince me that Elgars is crazy.”

The door opened and Dr. Richards sighed. “She’s not crazy, she’s possessed.”

* * *

Dr. Richards had spread out all the case files for Annie Elgars on her table, trying to explain why she wasn’t crazy. “I want you to look at this,” she said, laying down a long strip of paper with squiggly lines on it.

“Okay, I know my line here,” Mosovich said. “I’m supposed to say ‘Is this a brain map, doctor?’ But Special Forces guys used to get shrunk all the time and I’ve seen an EEG before.”

“Fine,” Richards said, pulling out a textbook. “You’re right, that’s an EEG and it’s Elgars’ to be exact.” She opened up the book to a marked page and pointed to the lines on the paper. “This is a normal EEG when a person is awake, or not in alpha mode. Look at it.”

Mosovich did and then at Elgar’s EEG. There was no comparison. “What are all these extra notches?” he asked, pointing to Elgars’.

“You tell me,” Richards snapped. “And here, look at this.” She riffled through the readouts until she came to another one that was marked. “When you do stuff that you’ve done thousands of times, the sort of stuff that they say ‘He can do it in his sleep.’ What’s really happening is that your brain switches to alpha mode, which really is like you’re asleep. It’s one of the bases for zen, that ‘state of nothingness.’ Look, when you’re shooting, do you actually think about what you’re doing?”

“I know what you’re talking about here,” Mueller interjected. “You’re talking about like when you’re in a shoothouse. No, you have to turn your brain off and let go, let your training do the thinking for you. When you’re really clicking we call it ‘being in the Zone.’ ”

“Exactly,” Richards said, pointing a different set of spikes. “This is alpha state. In Elgars’ case, she doesn’t have many specific memories, but she can perform a remarkable series of actual manual tasks. If a person is that badly injured, you expect them to have to learn to walk and eat and go to the bathroom all over again. When Elgars was wheeled into the recovery room, she was lucid and capable of performing almost all normal daily functions. Furthermore, we have since determined that she has a wide variety of basic skills, including driving and operating a variety of hand weaponry from knives to very large rifles.”

She pointed to the chart, running her finger along the normal rhythms until she got to the alpha rhythm and then pulling the book up alongside. “This is the transition point, where she goes from beta to alpha. And here is a normal transition.”

Mosovich and Mueller both leaned forward and looked. Again, the transition area was completely different than the textbook version. It was somewhat longer and had numerous extraneous spikes. Mosovich pointed to the alpha rhythm on the chart.

“Her alpha looks almost textbook, though,” he noted.

“Yes, it is,” Richards said. “The differences are just those of being a different human. And that’s the other scary part; her alpha is absolutely normal.”

“So that’s why she’s possessed?” Mueller asked with a raised eyebrow.

“Look,” Richards said with a sigh, leaning back in her chair and taking off her glasses to rub her eyes. “None of us are experts at this. I was a damned family counselor before they sent me down here. We have one, repeat, one clinical psych researcher, and he was an expert on sleep disorders. We’re all out of our depth on this… phenomenon. But… yes, we have come to the conclusion that there is more than one… person, not just personality, person, living in Elgars’ head. And that the primary personality might not be, probably is not, Anne Elgars.”

“Why not Elgars?” Mosovich asked, thinking that Mansfield was really gonna owe him big time.

“Memories mostly,” Richards said, putting her glasses back on and scrabbling through her notes. “Anne Elgars has memories that she really shouldn’t have.” The doctor finally seemed to find the notes she was looking for and frowned. “Ever seen the movie Top Gun?” she asked.

“Yeah,” Mosovich admitted. “A few times.”

“You’re a rejuv though, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Did you see it when it first came out?” Richards asked.

“I think so,” Mosovich said with a shrug. “Probably. That was, what? ’82? ’84? I think I was at Bad Tölz then. If I saw it, I saw it on post.”

“The movie came out in 1986,” Richards said, glancing at her notes. “Elgars has distinct memories of seeing it for the first time in a movie theater then going over to a friend’s house, driving herself to a friend’s house to, as she put it, ‘jump his bones.’ ”

“So?” Muller asked.

“Anne Elgars was two years old in 1986,” Richards said, looking up and taking off her glasses again. “Even the most open-minded of parent is going to question her two-year-old driving. At the least. And she has another memory of watching it for the first time on TV in a living room.”

“Oh,” Mueller said. “What about… what’s it called… ‘implanted memory syndrome’?”

“Up, got me there,” Mosovich said. “Whassat?”

“We considered classical implanted memory,” Richards said, leaning back again. “Implanted memory used to be called ‘regression analysis.’ It turned out that the process for regression analysis implants a memory that is absolutely true to the person with the memory. I could run you through a little scenario right now and you’d end up with a memory of having been a giraffe. Or a woman. Or that you were sexually abused as a child. Guaranteed. And none of them would be real.

“It caused huge problems for a while with child molestation cases; I was still dealing with the repercussions when I got moved down here. Still am for that matter. Women that have a distinct memory of having been molested by a parent or a family friend and it’s very unlikely that it ever happened. The only way to get them to even consider that the memory is false is to go through the same process with one that is clearly impossible. And then they end up with this really impossible memory. Which has its own problems.”

She shrugged and put her glasses back on. “What can I say? I’ve dealt with dozens of implanted memories in my time. This one doesn’t show any of the classic signs. She recalls small details that are not germane to the memory. That’s one sign of a ‘true’ memory versus implanted. Then there’s the EEG.” She picked up the alpha rhythm sheet and pointed to the transition. “We think that weird transition is where she is hunting for the right… call it ‘soul’… to manage the action. It only happens the first time she engages a skill, so new examples are getting harder and harder to find. But it’s consistent. And she goes alpha when she shouldn’t. When she’s writing, for example. That’s not a normal alpha moment, except when typing.”

“So what’s going on here?” Mosovich asked in exasperation.

“Like I said, we’re not experts,” Richards answered. “We can only speculate. You want our speculation?”

“Yes,” Mueller said. “Please.”

“Okay,” Richards said, taking off the glasses and setting them on the table. “Anne Elgars sustained a massive head wound in the battle of Washington. The damage was extensive and large portions of her brain showed no normal function. She was in a coma, effectively a permanent one, for nearly five years.

“The Tch… Tchfe…” she paused.

“We usually just say Crabs, doc,” Mosovich said. “Although the best pronouncement a human can get along with is Tch-fet.” He smiled. “I’m one of the few people I know who has ever had to try to speak Crab. And even I don’t try when I don’t have to.”

“Very well, the… the Crabs approached the therapy team, us that is, with an offer to try to heal her. They noted that she might die in the process, but that if it worked it would permit various others who had sustained damage to be recovered as well.

“We had… authorization to do whatever we liked, except cut off her lifeline, so we acquiesced. She disappeared with the… Crabs and reappeared… as she is. In less than a week, with significant muscular improvement. ‘Miraculous’ was the most minor word we used.”

Richards paused and shrugged. “From there on out, it’s speculation.” She frowned and shook her head. “Crazy speculation if you don’t mind my using the word.

“Say you have a computer that is broken. You pull out the broken parts, clear out the memory and load on new software. We think that’s what the Crabs did… All of it.”

“Shit,” Mueller whispered. “You mean they…”

“They probably had to cut portions of the brain away,” Richards said. “Or something just as radical. The damage was extensive and not just a result of bruising; she had some comintuated fractures in her tissue. Repairing that would require cutting and regeneration in, say, your liver. At least for us humans. But whatever the Crabs did, it was just as extensive. And when you finish that, you still have a ‘dead’ computer. So we think they took a… personality, a person if you will, that they had… hanging around, and loaded it in Elgars. And the memory stuff that we’re seeing is the result of the sort of little fragments of code you just have… hanging around. You rarely can get rid of all of it in a computer, much less a human.”

“So, Anne Elgars the person is dead,” Mosovich said. “This is a different person entirely.”

“Sort of,” Richards said with another sigh. “Don’t ask me about souls. Who or what a person is is a religious debate as much as a psychological one. For one thing, nature does have some influence on it; that’s been repeatedly proven. People seem to tend to… fill a mold that is somewhat prepared. They’re not locked in deterministically, but it is unlikely that the person Anne Elgars eventually becomes is either Anne Elgars or the person that the Crabs apparently ‘loaded into her.’ ”

“What about the thing with the alpha waves?” Mueller asked.

“Ah, that’s different,” she answered. “Anne not only seems to have been loaded with a person, but also, separately, loaded with skills. And we think that some of them are ‘integral’ to the base personality, or even the original Elgars, and others are separate. So when she runs across a new situation, she has to ‘hunt’ for the right file so to speak. It’s quite unconscious on her part; she has no idea what she is doing. But that’s the reason for the odd transition.”

“Well, I don’t know who she is,” Mosovich said. “But the question is, can she do her job? Right now we need every rifle we can get. Can she soldier or not?”

“She can do a job,” Richards answered. “Quite easily. She’s programmed to be a soldier, arguably a ‘supersoldier.’ She has skills ranging from advanced marksmanship to field expedient demolitions. She can certainly soldier. The question is, what else is she programmed for?”

* * *

Wendy opened the door at the buzz, tucked a squirming Amber under one arm and frowned at the figure in camouflage filling the door. “We gave at the office.”

Mueller frowned. “I’d think this was your office.”

“It is, but we already contributed,” Wendy answered. “In other words, what are you here for?”

“Ah, we were told we could find Captain Anne Elgars here,” Mueller said. “From the picture, you are not Captain Elgars. However, it is nice to make your acquaintance Miz… ?”

“Cummings,” Wendy said, wincing at the anticipated joke. She had lived with her name her whole life. “Wendy Cummings.”

“Master Sergeant Mueller,” Mueller said. “Charmed. And is Captain Elgars available?” he continued as the baby let out a howl like a fire engine.

“Sure, I’ll get her,” Wendy said. “Come on in.”

She stepped around Kelly, who had chosen the middle of the floor as the obvious place to do a life-sized Tigger puzzle, and walked towards the back.

Mueller looked over his shoulder at Mosovich and shrugged, then stepped through the door. The room was filled with the sort of happy bedlam you get with any group of children, but the noise was dying as the kids noticed the visitors. Before too long Mosovich and Mueller found themselves in a semicircle of kids.

“Are you a real soldier?” one of the little girls asked. Her eyes were brown and just about as big around as saucers.

Mueller squatted down to where he wasn’t much over their height and nodded his head. “Yep. Are you a real little girl?”

The girl giggled as one of the boys leaned forward. “Is that a real gun?”

“Yes,” Mosovich said with a growl. “And if you touch it you’ll get a swat.”

“Guns aren’t toys, son,” Mueller added. “What’s your name?”

“Nathan,” the kid said. “I’m gonna be a soldier when I grow up and kill Posleen.”

“And that’s a fine thing to want to do,” Mueller opined. “But you don’t start off with a big gun. You learn on little guns first. And someday, if you eat your vegetables, you’ll be big like me. And you can kill Posleen all day long.”

“Without getting tired?” one of the girls asked.

“Well…” Mueller said, flipping a surreptitious finger at Mosovich for laughing, “you do get tired.”

“Okay, let’s start getting ready for lunch, children,” Shari said, coming out of the back with Elgars and Wendy. “Leave these gentlemen alone. Wash hands then sit down for grace.”

“I’m Elgars,” said the captain, ignoring the children. She had white powder on her hands and a cheek.

“Captain, I’m Sergeant Major Mosovich with Fleet Recon and this is my senior NCO Master Sergeant Mueller.” He paused and then nodded as if he’d done some sort of a mental checklist. “Your commander, Colonel Cutprice, sent a message to one of my troops asking him to come down here and find out if you needed rescuing from the shrinks. I don’t know if you remember Nichols, but you two went through sniper school together. He got banged up on our last op and is still down in the body-and-fender so I came down here with Mueller instead. Anyway, here I am.”

“Okay,” Elgars said, with a nod. “So am I being rescued from the shrinks?”

“Is there someplace we can talk, ma’am?” Mosovich temporized. “Someplace quieter?” he added as the children trooped back from the bathroom.

“Not really,” Elgars said, raising her voice slightly over the children. “The kitchen isn’t much better. We’d have to go to my quarters and I can’t really afford the time for that.”

“Is this where… Do you work here, ma’am?” Mosovich asked.

“Sort of,” she answered. “I help out. I’m following Wendy around, getting my bearings again.”

“Well,” Mosovich frowned. “Okay, the question, ma’am, is, how do you feel about going back on active duty?”

“I feel okay about it,” Elgars said. “Can I ask a question?”

“Of course, ma’am.”

“Are you here to evaluate me?”

It was this question that had made Mosovich pause early in the discussion. The question was whether to answer honestly or do the two-step. He finally decided that honesty was the right policy even if it wasn’t the best.

“I guess you could say that, ma’am,” the sergeant major admitted. “I got told to come down here and check you out then report back to your commander in writing as to your perceived fitness. You don’t normally use a sergeant major to report on an officer and I’m not a psychologist. But I’ve been beating around this war for quite a while and I guess the powers that be trust my judgement.”

“Okay,” Elgars said. “In that case I’ll be honest too. I don’t know what the hell a captain does. I can shoot, I know that. I can do other stuff. But I keep finding holes. And I have no idea what the job of a captain even is. So being a captain would be tough.”

Mueller tapped Mosovich on the shoulder and whispered in his ear. Mosovich turned and looked at him with a quizzical expression and held a finger up to Elgars. “Captain, could you excuse me for just a moment.”

He and Mueller went over into a corner of the daycare center and spoke for a moment. Elgars could see Mosovich shaking his head and Mueller gesturing. After a moment, Wendy came over to ask Elgars what was going on.

“I dunno,” the captain replied. “But I don’t think I’m gonna like it.”

Mosovich came back over and looked at both of them. He opened his mouth for a moment, stopped, glanced over his shoulder at Mueller. Looked at Wendy for a second then looked at Elgars.

“Captain,” he said over the shrilling of the children in the background. “I don’t think we can get a good read on how you really feel about your abilities in this environment.”

Elgars looked at him for second, looked at Wendy then looked back. “So, what would you suggest?”

“Mueller suggests that the four of us go take a turn up on the surface. Maybe go to dinner, go to a range, see how you feel about being in an environment other than…” at which point Shakeela started with one of her patented howls ”… a daycare center.”

“Sergeant Major Mosovich,” Wendy asked with a raised eyebrow, “are you suggesting a double date?”

“No,” Mosovich said. “Just a chance to talk somewhere other than in here.”

“Uh, huh,” Wendy said, glancing at Mueller, who returned a look that said butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. “Well, Shari can’t take care of the children alone. I think that Captain Elgars is capable of taking care of herself, however, so why don’t the three of you go?”

“Okay,” Mosovich said with a shrug. “Works for me.”

“Hold it,” Elgars said. “Wendy, how long has it been since you’ve been to the surface?”

“November?” Wendy asked with a frown.

“Uh, huh,” Elgars said. “What year?”

“Uh…” Wendy shook her head. “2007?”

“And how long has it been since Shari had anything resembling a break?” Elgars asked.

“Taking the kids to the surface wouldn’t be a break,” Wendy noted. “But… I don’t think she’s been out of the Urb since we came here from Fredericksburg. And the last time I was up there was… was to give testimony,” she continued with a stony face.

“Well, I think we should all take a trip up to the surface,” Elgars said.

“With the kids?” Mosovich asked incredulously.

“Sure,” Mueller said. “With the kids. Stress testing for the captain.”

“Christ, okay, whatever,” Mosovich said, raising his hands. “Stress testing for me. We’ll all go up top and have dinner someplace in Franklin. See how Elgars handles being out and about. I’ll include that in my report and we’ll see what Colonel Cutprice says.”

“I could use some help,” Shari said, walking over.

“Well, that clarifies that,” Wendy said with a laugh.

“Clarifies what?”

“The sergeant major needs to spend some time around Captain Elgars,” Mueller noted. “I recommended going to the surface, along with Wendy so that the captain wouldn’t be completely alone. Wendy pointed out that you needed too much help with the kids for her to leave. So it came down to inviting all of you to the surface.”

“Where, on the surface?” Shari asked nervously.

“There’s at least one decent place in Franklin, I think,” Mosovich noted. “It’s an R R area for the corps. There’s got to be someplace.”

“I dunno,” said Shari, reluctantly. “Franklin? It…”

“It doesn’t have a very good reputation down here,” Wendy noted with a grim chuckle.

“We don’t go there much either,” Mueller said. “But, trust me, the food’s better than down here.”

“I’m not sure…” Shari said.

“Well, I am,” Wendy argued. “How long have we been down here? Five years? How long since you’ve seen the sun?”

“Long time,” Shari whispered with a nod. “Except for Billy, I don’t think any of the kids remember what it looks like.”

“There will be three trained soldiers with us,” Wendy noted. “It will be safe. It will be a chance for the kids to look at the surface. How bad can it be?”

“There’s basically no Posleen activity at the moment,” Mosovich pointed out. “There’s a globe around Clarkesville acting funny, but they haven’t done anything either. Except chase us around the hills.”

“Okay,” Shari said after a moment’s thought. “Let’s do it. Like you said, Wendy, how bad can it be?”

* * *

“You’ve completely outgrown this, Billy,” Shari said, adjusting Billy’s windbreaker as Wendy negotiated for her personal weapon.

“This is… unbelievable,” she said looking at the weapon. It was an Advanced Infantry Weapon, the standard issue weapon for the Ground Forces, a 7.62 semi-automatic rifle with a 20mm grenade launcher on the underside. This one had been personalized with a laser sight on the top.

Had.

“Where’s my laser sight?” she asked angrily, turning the rusted weapon over and over. “I turned this in with a Leupold four power scope that was laser mounted. There does not appear to be a Leupold scope on this weapon. There also were three more magazines. And you made me turn in my two hundred rounds of ammo that weren’t in the mags. So where is all that?”

“The inventory just lists the weapon,” the guard said, looking at his screen. “No ammo, no scope, no magazines.”

“Well, bugger that,” Wendy said, leaning forward to shove a faded receipt against the greenish glass. “You want to read this motherfucking receipt, asshole? What the fuck am I supposed to do with a weapon and no goddamned rounds?”

“Wendy,” Mosovich said, pulling at her arm. “Give it up. There’s no scope. There’s no rounds. These assholes shot them off long ago. And the scope is probably on this dickhead’s personal weapon. That he hasn’t shot in a year.”

“You want to get out of here at all you better jack up that attitude, Lurp-Boy,” the guard snarled from behind the glass.

Mueller leaned forward until his nose was within inches of the armored glass and smiled. “HEY!” he shouted, then laughed as the guard jumped. He reached into the billow pockets of his blouse and pulled out a charge of C-4. Pulling off an adhesive cover he applied it to the glass then began patting his pockets, muttering “Detonators, detonators…”

Mosovich smiled. “You wanna open the doors or you want I should come in and press the button?”

He smiled and nodded as the armored doors behind him slid back. “Thanks so very much. And if you’re thinking about dicking around with the elevators, let me just point out that that means we’ll have to come back.”

“And… have a nice day,” Mueller said, taking Kelly’s hand and heading for the door.

“I can’t believe this,” Wendy snarled as she turned the rifle over and over in her hands. “I dropped this thing off immaculate. Like the day it came from the factory.”

“I doubt it would even work now,” Mueller said with a sigh. “Those things are a bastard when they rust. It’s the firing mechanism; it’s fragile as hell.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Mosovich said. “It’s not like we’re going to get jumped by the Posleen in Franklin.”

“We heard they were all over the place,” Shari asked nervously, as they reached the elevators to the surface. “That people are killed every day.”

“Oh, they are,” Mueller said walking over to hit the elevator button. The elevator was huge, easily large enough to carry a semi-trailer, separated into lines by a chain and post arrangement. Several of the chains dangled free and one of the posts rolled on the ground as it lurched sideways. “There must be three or four civilians killed every day by ferals. You know how many people were killed every day in car wrecks before the war?”

“Yeah,” Mosovich agreed. “Death rates, excepting combat casualties, have dropped in the States.”

“Why are we going sideways?” Elgars interjected.

“Oh, sorry, I forgot you’ve never been in one,” Mosovich said. “There are multiple elevators for each shaft, so that incoming refugees could be shuttled down really fast. There’s an ‘up’ shaft and a ‘down’ shaft and they slide between the two.” He nodded as the structure shuddered and began to rise. “I’ve been on one that got stuck; wasn’t pleasant. Anyway, where were we?”

“Reduced death rate,” Shari said.

“Not reduced overall, mind you,” Mueller said. “Combat casualty rates have made up for it.”

“How many?” Elgars asked. “I mean, combat casualties?”

“Sixty-two million,” Mosovich said. “In the U.S. and of American military forces. And that’s just the military losses. Pales compared to China and India, mind you, but still pretty bad.”

“Six…” Shari gasped. “Could you say that again?”

“Sixty-two million,” Mueller said quietly. “At the height of the war there were nearly that many under arms in the Contiguous U.S., what they call CONUS, and in the Expeditionary Forces. But in the last five years, most combat units, most infantry battalions, have had three casualties for every position in them. That is, they have had three hundred percent casualties. At its height, the American portion of the EFs had nearly forty million personnel. But the total casualties have topped that and the AEF is below twelve million, and only half of that is actual ‘shooting at the Posleen’ fighters.”

“And there’s a steady attrition in the interior,” Mosovich added. “There’s still landings from time to time; there was a globe that made it down, mostly intact, near Salt Lake just last year.”

“We heard about that,” Wendy said. “But… nothing like those casualty figures.”

“They’re not very open with them,” Mosovich agreed. “Add in the forty million or so civilian casualties and the fact that we’re fighting this war in the middle of a ‘drop’ in males of prime military age and we’re… well, we’re getting bled white. Even with rejuving older guys, taking a person that has never held a weapon in their hands and teaching when they are eighteen is one thing, doing it when they’re fifty is… different. They, generally, aren’t stupid enough to be good soldiers. Not cannon fodder soldiers. Young guys want to be heroes so the women will love them and have their babies. Old guys just want to live to see the next sunrise.”

“Which just makes keeping women out of combat units stupid,” Wendy said, shaking her head at the condition of her rifle. “This is…” She shook her head again. “I know that I can depend on you big strong men to protect me. But I don’t want to have to!”

“Don’t sweat it,” Mosovich said with a chuckle. “We’ll find you a weapon. And women generally aren’t stupid enough either; they can have babies any time they want. That being said; I don’t agree with the policy either, but nobody can seem to get it changed.”

He stepped through the door into a concrete room. It was about fifty meters wide and a hundred deep with black lines painted on the floor. The walls were covered in condensation and a steady breeze blew out of the elevator towards the glass doors at the end. Halfway down the room there was a series of small bunkers. As they approached them it was clear that most of them were half filled with dirt and garbage, some of it blown in, but much of it dropped into them by passersby. Many of the lines on the floor had peeled up and there was trash all over the room, although clearly little of it was new.

“I think I know the real reason that it’s nearly impossible for females to get in Ground Force these days,” Mosovich noted. “But it’s a nasty reason and you won’t like it.”

“I’ve dealt with a lot of stuff I don’t like,” Wendy said. “My life seems to consist of dealing with stuff I don’t like.”

“In that case I think the casualties are the answer, two answers really,” Mosovich said.

“The first reason is that we’re being bled white. We’ve lost about eighty percent of our productive-age male population. But even with combat casualties, we’ve only lost about thirty of our productive-age females…”

“We’re breeders,” Wendy said.

“Yep,” Mosovich agreed. “The powers that be are obviously thinking that when the Posleen are kicked off planet, it won’t do much good to have nobody left but a bunch of old women and a few children to ‘carry on.’ So they’re conserving the breeding population.”

“It takes two to tango,” Shari pointed out, adjusting Shakeela’s coat. The bunker was quite cool compared to the underground city they had left and it was clear that the fall had settled in up here. “Where are the ‘breeders’ going to find…”

“Guys?” Mueller asked. “It’s not a nice answer, but it doesn’t take many guys to make lots of babies, but it’s a one for one ratio with women.”

“He’s right,” Mosovich said. “It’s not nice, but it is true. That’s only half the story, though.

“In the first wave there were massive conventional casualties. There was a real question whether we were going to hold everywhere and we didn’t hold a couple of places. Losses among combat formations were huge. And there was a… a disparity in female losses versus male. Losses among women in combat units were nearly equal to males, but they only comprised a third of the force at the maximum.

“I read your whole packet, Captain,” he continued doggedly. “And I’d already read a classified after-action report in which you were a minor bit player. You did a good job at the Monument, no question, but if it hadn’t been for Keren, you’d be dead right now. And your… experiences in the retreat from Dale City are one of the classic egregious examples.”

“Who’s Keren?” Elgars asked. “And what do you mean by that?”

“Keren is a captain with the Ten Thousand,” Mueller said as they reached the doors. There were two sets with a chamber in between and they acted as partial airlocks, reducing the blast of wind that was trying to escape the bunker. “He was in a mortar platoon near the rear of the retreat. He apparently picked you up during the retreat and you rode with him all the way to the Monument.”

“You’d been dumped by another unit,” Mosovich said tightly. He turned left and headed up the wide stairs on the exterior. There were two sets of those as well, one on each side of the entrance. There was a walkway on the wall opposite the doors that joined them near the top. Running along the surface on that side were small concrete combat positions, which were accessible from the walkway. On the far side was an open area nearly two hundred meters across and then a large parking lot filled with dirt covered cars and trucks and one Humvee, parked on the grass on the verge.

“That was what happened to a good many females in that retreat and others. Some units returned with nearly one hundred percent female casualties versus fifty to sixty percent casualties among the males.”

“Well, the actual incidence of why she was dumped wasn’t that high,” Mueller pointed out.

“Why was I ‘dumped’?” the captain said carefully.

“You’d been raped,” Mosovich said tightly. “Then they took away your sniper rifle and dumped you with an AIW and a single magazine.”

“Oh,” Elgars said. “That’s… annoying in a distant way.”

“So, you’re saying that they don’t want me in the Ground Forces because I might get raped in a retreat?” Wendy said angrily. “Then they shouldn’t ought to let their damned soldiers in the Sub-Urbs!”

“Am I to take it that’s why you were so uncomfortable coming to the surface with us?” Mueller said. “In that case, I’m sorry I asked. And if you’ll give me a name and unit I’ll take care of it.”

“I was just giving testimony,” Wendy said. She stopped at the top of the stairs blinking her eyes against the light and looked down at the town.

Franklin had been a small, somewhat picturesque city nestled in lightly inhabited hills before the war. Its main industry was supporting the local farmers and retirees who had moved up from Florida to get away from the crime.

With the change to a war footing, it became a vital linchpin in the southern Appalachian defenses. Units from just south of Asheville to Ellijay depended upon it for supply and administration.

The city was now overrun by soldiers and their encampments stretched up the hills on either side of it. The small strip mall that the entrance overlooked had been taken over by pawnbrokers and T-shirt shops with the only sign of “normal” presence being a dry cleaner.

She looked down over the bustle and shrugged. “When… when the Urb was first set up anyone could come and go at any time. That was… good at first. The corps did a lot of good in the Urb. And… there was a lot of dating. Most of the corps was male and most of the Urb is female so… things naturally happened. Then… the… the attitude sort of changed.”

“A lot of the girls in the Urb were… lonely,” Shari said. “They would take up with the soldiers and some of the soldiers practically moved into the Urb. A lot of what you could call ‘black market’ transfers went on; you used to be able to find coffee even. But then things started getting out of hand. The security force wasn’t large enough, or effective enough, to keep the soldiers under control and they had an authority dispute with the corps MPs, who were numerous enough and quite ready to crack heads.”

“We ended up having a…” Wendy shrugged her shoulders and shuddered. “Well, one of the officers that was involved in the investigation referred to it as a ‘sack’ during a long weekend. Something like a riot with a lot of rapes. I made it to the range and Dave and I sort of stood off the couple of groups that came around us.”

“I had a… well, a group of… boys really that were like kids I was taking care of,” Shari noted. “A couple of them were there when the riots started. I was okay.”

“Others weren’t,” Wendy said darkly. “So we don’t like the corps in the Urb. Anyway, the Urb was put off-limits to military personnel…”

“Unless they had orders,” Mueller pointed out.

“Unless they had orders to go there,” Wendy agreed. “And now they stay up here and we stay down there and any girls who want to go…”

“Ply a trade?” Mosovich asked. “I get the point. But you don’t have to worry about human threats either.”

“Oh, I’m not worried,” Wendy said, stroking her rusted rifle. “It might be a bit screwed up, but it will do for a club if it comes to that…”

CHAPTER 16

Ground Force Headquarters,

Ft. Knox, KY, United States, Sol III

1453 EDT Thursday September 24, 2009 ad

General Horner read the debrief of the recon team with a blank expression. His intelligence section was of two minds about it; Mosovich had an excellent reputation, but nobody had ever seen flying tanks before.

Horner didn’t have a problem in the world with the information. It was bad. That was normal.

He sighed and pulled up a graph that he knew he looked at too much. It was his own AID’s estimate, based upon all available information, of… relative combat strength in the United States. It took into account that the casualty ratio of humans to Posleen tended to be about one thousand to one, but it also took into account the dwindling supplies of soldiers and Posleen birthrates. What it said was that sometime in the next twelve months, when the current crop of Posleen nestlings reached maturity and were given their weapons, there would be enough Posleen to swamp every major pass in the Appalachians. And it wouldn’t even take smart Posleen.

Add in smart Posleen and things just went right down the old tubes.

The report from Georgia, though, was very troubling. He knew that Rabun was considered one of the less well maintained defenses, mostly because it had hardly been hit. There was a defense specialist down there, the name hovered on the edge of his recollection, but they needed more than that.

And Bernard was there. That would give the Posleen all the advantage they needed.

What to do, what to do…

First he typed in orders for the Ten Thousand to prepare for movement. They could stay in place, they needed the break, but they went to a four hour recall and were ordered to begin packing all their gear for a move. Cutprice was probably already packed, but it never hurt to be sure. He considered doing the same for the ACS, but if he did O’Neal would probably put everybody in suits and head for… Oh… shit.

He looked at the map again and shook his head. That put a twist in the whole plan. He really needed to not mention the situation to O’Neal, who really needed a few more days rest. Getting the battalion south fast, though, would be tough. Or not.

He checked the inventories and they had a sufficiency of Banshee stealth shuttles in inventory. The shuttles had been ordered when it appeared the Galactic largesse was unending. In twenty-twenty hindsight he wished they had the same relative value of suits, but they had to play with the hand they were dealt. If it really dropped in the pot in Georgia he could fly O’Neal and the Black Tyrone down by shuttle. Most of them were out west, but he should have some warning before it dropped in the pot.

That was the extent of the forces he had immediately available. He would have his staff start looking at what else was available to reinforce in the Gap. But then he noted that it only had one SheVa. Moving one of those was not a short term operation.

He tapped the controls and noted that there was a SheVa in movement to Chattanooga.

Not any more.

* * *

Mosovich looked at the façade of the building. The business had once been a family-owned barbecue restaurant and Mosovich had vaguely recalled it from years before when he visited the area. The local VFW had been next door.

Now it was a bar designed to separate soldiers from their money in the shortest possible time.

The front deck was packed with soldiers, most of them lightly armed and heavily drunk. Squeezed into spaces in between were the waitresses and other working girls.

He winced as a soldier stumbled out the main door. The unshaven sergeant was supported by a lightly clad female who couldn’t have been over the age of consent. The sergeant squinted at the sunlight, grabbed the girl by a tit and stumbled off down the street, weaving on and off of the sidewalk towards a nearby motel.

“Not,” he said.

“Not,” Wendy agreed as she shivered in the wind. “Five gets you ten he gets rolled. Any other bright ideas?”

“Just one,” Mosovich said, looking up at the sun. They had managed to pack the whole group into the appropriated Humvee by much sitting on laps and packing some of the children in the bed. But travelling much further would be problematic. And the afternoon was upon them; it was October and most of the kids were underdressed for nighttime fall temperatures. “How you doing, Captain?”

“I’m… fine,” Elgars said, shifting her body to track on the sergeant as he stumbled past. “The… number of armed personnel is throwing me. I’m… feeling twitchy.”

“That’s normal,” Jake admitted. “And not out of reason; there’ve been some hellacious firefights in these military towns.” He looked around and shook his head. “Franklin is out. There are probably places frequented by the locals, but it would be pointless to look for them.”

He looked at the sun again, counted on his fingers then looked at Wendy. “Do you trust me?”

She regarded him calmly for a moment and then nodded. “Strangely enough, yeah. Why?”

“I’ve got a buddy who’s got a farm near here. He’s got a granddaughter not much older than Billy and he’d probably be more than happy to have some company. We could go there, but it would be an overnight stay.”

“Oh.” Wendy looked at Shari, who shrugged then looked at the sun herself. “We need to get the kids out of the cold before dark.”

“That won’t be a problem,” Mosovich said. “Getting back might have been a problem, but not getting there. And, frankly, he’s probably got some clothes that would fit them; they’re the worst outfitted kids I’ve seen in years.”

“All we’ve got for the surface is what we arrived in,” Shari said quietly. “Billy’s wearing a jacket I borrowed a couple of years ago. And none of the other children have anything.”

As if on cue, Kelly pulled at Shari’s hand. “Mommy, I’m hungry.”

“That’s it,” Mosovich said. “The farm or go back to the Urb as a bad plan.”

“I don’t want to go back underground,” Elgars admitted. “Not just yet. I… like it up here.”

“So do I,” Shari admitted, looking up at the sky. “I miss the wind. Okay, if you’re sure this friend of yours won’t completely freak at having five adults and eight kids descend on him out of the blue.”

“Not a problem,” Mosovich said. “He can handle anything.”

* * *

Michael O’Neal, Sr., pulled the Palm from his belt and frowned. Since the interesting events a few years back he had updated his security systems. The cameras at the front gate now transmitted back to a webserver that, in turn, sent a compressed video stream to the device. So he found himself looking at a Humvee piloted by Mosovich. Not a big deal, Jake had been up a couple of times in the last year. But the fading light showed that the Humvee was packed with other bodies.

O’Neal rolled the huge wad of Red Man in his cheek from one side to the other and frowned in thought. He was not a huge man, but he had an aura of squat stolidity that was almost preternatural; it appeared as if it would take a bulldozer to move him. His arms were overlong for his body, reaching, simianlike, almost to his knees, and his legs were just a tad bandied, adding to the overall aura of a slightly annoyed male silverback.

He jacked up the gain on the distant cameras and zoomed in on the front seat. Jake was driving and the guy next to him had to be Mueller from past descriptions. But Mueller had two kids on his lap and unless Papa’s eyes were deceiving him there was a female leaning between them. Hot diggety. Just what he’d been praying for this last few months; maybe there was a God who took care of fools and drunks.

As he activated the gates there was a scream from upstairs like a panther with its leg in a trap.

“WHERE’S MY GUN-SMITHING KIT?” came a shriek from above.

Ah, Cally had apparently found something to her dissatisfaction.

“Have you looked in your desk?” he called calmly.

“DON’T YOU TAKE THAT TONE WITH ME, GRAMPS!” she yelled. “Of course I looked in my DESK! I keep it…”

He nodded at the cut off sentence. Time to get out of the house before she got down the…

“I just looked there!” she said, breathing angrily and waving the cloth-wrapped tools above her head as if she was going to use them as a weapon. The young woman was as tall as her grandfather, long of hair and leg with wide, cornflower blue eyes. Her grandfather had often considered that it was a good thing she’d gotten her looks from her mother rather than her father. But those looks, along with the fact that she was barely thirteen and a few… incidents had gotten surreptitious pictures tacked up on barracks walls. With the caption: “Warning: Jailbait. To be considered ARMED AND VERY DANGEROUS.”

“Cally,” Mike Senior said calmly. “Calm down. You found it and…”

“DON’T YOU DARE SAY HORMONES!” she shouted.

“And what I was going to say was we’re about to have visitors,” he continued as if she hadn’t said anything. “Mosovich and a packed Humvee full of women and kids it looks like.”

“Refugees?” she asked calmly, setting down the smithing kit and holding her hand out for the Palm Pilot.

“I don’t think so,” Papa O’Neal said, handing it over and heading for the door. “Visitors at a guess. But that’s just a guess.”

“Okay,” Cally said, unconsciously checking the H K P-17 in her wasteband. “I’ll stay back.”

“Just follow procedure,” Papa O’Neal said. “Don’t get… don’t go overboard.”

“Not a problem,” she said with a quizzical expression. “Why would I go overboard?”

* * *

“Jesus Christ,” Mueller whispered. “Who is that?”

“That is Michael O’Neal, Senior,” Mosovich said. “I knew him a long time ago in a much hotter place we generally just called Hell.”

“Not the guy,” Mueller said, gesturing into the shadows of the front porch. “The girl.”

Mosovich looked again and frowned. “She’s… twelve or thirteen, Mueller. Waaay too young. Even in North Carolina.”

“You’re kidding me,” Mueller said as the Humvee pulled to a stop. “She’s like, seventeen if she’s a day!”

“No, I’m not,” Mosovich said coldly, holding onto the door-handle and staring at the NCO with dead eyes. “And if you want to live through the next few minutes, put your tongue back in your head. If O’Neal doesn’t kill you for being an idiot and a drain on the genepool I will. And if you somehow manage to survive both us old fucks, that little bit will kill you without a word or a whisper; there is no proof, but there is some indication that she has done so before, possibly more than once. Last, but not least, her daddy is Major ‘Ironman’ O’Neal of the ACS, Mighty Mite his own self. And if he comes after your ass he is, first of all, a Fleet officer with the legal authority to kill a Fleet NCO out of hand and second of all god-damned unstoppable. You don’t have the chance of a snowball in hell if any of the three of us think you’re going to try to make time with her. Do not make eyes at Cally O’Neal. Understood?”

“Gotcha,” Mueller said, holding up his hands. “I don’t go for jailbait, Jake, and you know it. But… Jesus, I want an ID or something! I swear she looks like, seventeen, even eighteen!”

“Sorry about that,” Mosovich said over his shoulder.

“Not a problem,” Elgars said. “It was a pretty professional dressing down. I’ve filed it for future reference. Can we get out yet?”

“Sure,” Mosovich said, taking a deep breath to clear the anger. Just let something go right today.

* * *

“What was that about?” Cally asked quietly.

“Dressing down,” Papa O’Neal responded just as quietly. The throat mike was nearly invisible againt the collar of his shirt and the receiver in his ear was invisible to the naked eye.

Just because his military background stretched back to the dawn of time, or Vietnam, which was close, that didn’t mean that Papa O’Neal wasn’t up to date. His security systems were as state of the art as he could accumulate and a few of the items were, technically, restricted to Fleet personnel only. But when you’re guarding the daughter of a living legend, people make exceptions.

The grounds were scattered with sensors, cameras and command detonated mines and the house behind him had enough surveillance equipment in it to be a demonstrator. This had occasioned some embarrassment, in ancient times when he used to have friends in the area. From time to time he would host rather… raucous parties at which his friends, mostly retired military who had moved to the North Georgia mountains for the air and the proximity to Ranger students they could mess with, would occasionally forget or ignore that the entire house was wired for sound. And video.

He was still humorously blackmailing people with those tapes.

The friends were gone, now. Many of them were dead on one battlefield or another and all the rest of them had been rejuvenated and were scattered throughout the United States. He was the only one left, one used up, worn-out old warhorse that was, in the eyes of the U.S. government, too tainted to be called up under the worst duress.

Which, fortunately, left him to guard the farm. And a Farmer’s Daughter who was practically its Platonic archetype.

“What over do you think?” Cally asked as the door opened.

“At a guess, ‘If you mess with Cally O’Neal you will die a quick and painless death.’ ”

“Why?” she asked as the rest of the doors opened and people began spilling out. “He’s kind of cute. In a great big teddy bear sort of way.”

Why me, oh lord? Papa O’Neal thought. Couldn’t you just have killed me on some battlefield? Slowly? Under the knives of the women? Why this?

* * *

Wendy looked around as she unloaded Susie from her lap.

The farm was set in a small pocket valley, a “holler” in the local vernacular, set off of the main valley that comprised Rabun Gap. The valley was an almost perfect bowl with steep, wooded sides and a narrow opening where a small river dropped down a series of cataracts. The opening to the valley was to the south and the two-story stone and wood house, which was backed up onto the north side, faced it across a checkerboard of fields. One of the fields had just been stripped of its corn and another was covered in wheat or barley that was just about ready to be harvested. Others were devoted to hay or lying fallow under clover. On the east side where the valley started to slope up was a small orchard of mixed trees, some that she recognized as pecans and others that were probably fruit trees. The western edge was devoted to a large barn and a massive rifle and pistol range.

The house had the look of a fortress; the windows were generally small and, especially on the stone ground floor, set back in the thick walls. There was a large front porch overhung by the upper story, but that looked like a defensive item as well; anyone trying to get through the front door could be terribly discommoded by people on the upper story. On the western side, where most houses would have a garage, was a low sand-bag and wood bunker with the snout of a tarp-covered gun jutting from the center loophole and on the eastern side there was a large outdoor cooking area that clearly had seen more active days.

She finally unwedged herself from the back of the Humvee and nodded as she stepped down from the vehicle. She had to admit that despite the cool evening, and the temperature really was dropping like a rock, this was much better than the Sub-Urb or Franklin. Now if the locals were just friendly.

* * *

Mosovich shook Papa O’Neal’s hand. “I’m throwing myself on your mercy here, Snake.”

“Visitors are always welcome,” O’Neal said with a smile. “As long as they are either pre-cleared or female.”

Mosovich laughed and shook his head. “It’s a long story.”

“Come in to tell it,” Papa O’Neal answered. “It’s getting cold and those kids are kind of underdressed.”

* * *

Cally started fading backwards as the group entered the living room. It had been so long since they had had unknown visitors that her defenses were screaming about threats that didn’t exist. Finally she stopped by the couch and smiled in welcome, her left hand by her side and her right on her hip. Where it could access the H K better. It would be okay. And if it wasn’t, it would simply be very bloody.

* * *

Papa O’Neal saw Cally and realized she was wound tighter than a string. He knew that he had to defuse that situation quickly.

“Sergeant Major, you’ve met my granddaughter, Cally. But I don’t think she’s met any of the rest of you.”

Mosovich smiled and ran through introductions on the adults. “I’ll admit I don’t know the names of all the children.”

“Billy, Kelly, Susie, Shakeela, Amber, Nathan, Irene and Shannon,” Shari said, pointing to each child. “Thank you for taking us in like this. We won’t be here long.”

“Nonsense,” Papa O’Neal said, shaking her hand. “Feral Posleen move more after dark and, frankly, as packed into that rattletrap as you are it would be hard to defend. Except by running one over, which is admittedly a technique.” He realized he hadn’t let go of her hand and released it quickly. “No, staying overnight would be better. I insist. We have plenty of room.”

“Uh…” Shari said, turning to look at Wendy.

Wendy shrugged her shoulders. “We don’t have so much as a toothbrush with us. On the other hand, we’re not exactly dressed for the fall and that Humvee is pretty uncomfortable.”

“Seriously,” Papa O’Neal said. “Stay the night. We’ve not only got beds, there’s spare clothes around; I’m the designated storage point for… well, a lot of people. And…” he looked at Wendy and Shari somewhat pleadingly, ”… I’d consider it a personal favor.”

Shari looked at him with a puzzled expression then shrugged her shoulders. “Well… okay, if it’s not an imposition.”

“Not at all,” Papa O’Neal countered forcefully. “Not. One. Bit. Please stay. At least overnight and part of tomorrow.”

“Okay,” Wendy said. She shrugged one arm where her coat covered the shape of a rifle. “On one condition; do you guys have any cleaning kits?”

* * *

Cally cocked her head as Wendy rubbed naval jelly into the barrel. “You’re really pretty.”

“Thanks,” Wendy said, looking up. “You’re one to talk.”

They were attempting to repair the damage to Wendy’s rifle in the O’Neals’ gun room. The room was in the basement on the back side of the house, but well ventilated. It had to be; the air reeked with gun oil, propellants and solvents.

The west wall was taken up with a workbench that included a lathe, drill press and various rotary polishers. There was also a large tumbler, some buckets of soapy water and an elaborate reloading kit. Under the workbench were blanks of metal and several barrels marked “Explosive: No Smoking.”

The east wall had three large blue barrels, each apparently filled with solvent. Wendy was just about ready to plunk the weapon in the one marked “Warning: High Molar Acid.” But since she didn’t know what the O’Neals used it for, she was still of two minds.

The north wall, towards the mountain, had a few gun racks and a large, heavy steel door with a numeric keypad in the center and a lever handle. It looked like the door to a safe.

In the center was a large table, with various cleaning supplies under it and six barstools. It was around this that Elgars, Wendy, Cally, Kelly and Shakeela had grouped. Billy had started to come with them and then decided to beat feet.

“What do you mean?” Cally asked.

“Well… you’re friggin’ gorgeous. I’m surprised you don’t have fifteen boyfriends hanging around. I did when I was your age and I wasn’t nearly as good looking.”

Elgars set down the disassembled trigger mechanism and picked up a corroded spring. “What’s a boyfriend?”

Cally laughed. “Good question. There aren’t any families left in the Gap; they all moved out because of the Posleen being right over the ridge. So there aren’t any boys around to have as boyfriends. And… well, given who my daddy and granddaddy are, I’m not impressed with the quality of the soldiers. And they’re all too old for me. And only interested in one thing.”

“Yeah, let me write the book about that one,” Wendy said with a laugh. “Fortunately I have a magic charm to use on them. All I do is show them a picture of my boyfriend and they tend to leave me alone. And I can deal with the ones that don’t.”

“Oh, they’re not so much trouble these days,” Cally said with a shrug. “Not since I shot the 103rd Division sergeant major.”

“You’re joking,” Wendy coughed, trying to suppress a laugh.

“Nope,” the thirteen-year-old said with a grin. “That’s when I switched from a Walther to the H K. We were in town and this fat old soldier followed me around until he cornered me in the hardware store. He wouldn’t take no for an answer so I pulled out the Walther and put a round through his kneecap. That got his attention.

“They initially tried to charge me as a juvenile with intended murder. Then I got the grand jury to go out to the range with me. They dropped the charges — the foreman noted that if I was attempting murder the sergeant major would be… how did he put it? ‘pushing up privet hedge’ — and charged him with attempted rape instead. I understand he’s limping around a prison to this day. Since then, and since Pappy quit letting most people come over to the farm, there haven’t been any problems.”

“Why’d you switch?” Elgars asked. “Guns I mean.”

“Ah, they were holding the Walther as evidence,” Cally answered with a shrug. “And my hands had finally gotten big enough for the H K. Besides, that bitty little 7.62 just made a neat little hole in his knee. If I’d had the H K it would have blown the back right out of the sucker. I really regretted that when I was in juvie hall; anybody tried to cop a feel on me I want to see bits of bone on the floor. I swore I’d never use a damned little 7.62 to shoot somebody again.”

Elgars chuckled and then shook her head as the spring in her hands snapped. “I don’t think we can fix this, Wendy.”

“I think you’re right,” Wendy said with a sigh, putting aside the barrel. “This really pisses me off; it was a present from my boyfriend.”

“Well, I can’t fix your present,” Cally said with a shrug, holding the separated grenade breech up to the light and turning it back and forth. “Not quickly anyway. I think I could remachine all the action parts, even the ones for the grenade launcher which are a stone bitch. But the electronics are shot and I’m doubtful about this breech. I could probably make one of those with a few days work, but really, Wendy, I think it needs to be cannibalized for parts rather than used. Whatever you ended up with probably wouldn’t be safe or reliable.

“However, I think we can find a suitable replacement.” She walked over to the back wall, keyed in a code on the safe and opened it up. “We have a few choices in here.”

“Good God.” Wendy laughed, looking at the row on row of racked rifles that were dimly visible in the gloom. The “safe” was really a door to a large room, apparently set back into the hillside. She walked over to the door as Cally stepped through and flipped on the light switch.

“I think we probably can,” Wendy continued with another chuckle.

There were four rifle racks in the room with just about enough weapons to equip a rifle platoon. If it was a very eclectic rifle platoon.

The left-hand side was the “heavy” weapons, including at least three crewed machine guns, Barrett sniper rifles and a couple of other heavy rifles that were similar. The center double rack was devoted to rifles, both military style and hunting, while the right-hand rack was mostly submachine guns.

The back wall was pistols — Wendy was pretty sure there were over a hundred — and a large variety of knives.

Stacked on the floor, on both sides, under the racks, and in every corner all the way to the ceiling was case on case of ammunition.

“Good God,” Wendy said again. “This is…”

“Kind of over the top?” Cally said with a grin. “I haven’t even shot most of these. I still don’t know what some of them are. And you don’t even want to ask about the ammo. There’s stuff in that pile I don’t think the Feds realize they let into the country. I’ll have to check with Granpa, but most of these,” she continued, gesturing at the center and right racks, “are pretty standard weapons. You can pretty much take your pick.”

“It would just get fucked up again,” Wendy noted darkly. “I’d have to leave it at security on the way in.”

“We can drop this one with Dave,” Elgars pointed out. “I can carry it to him and he’ll hold onto it. That way you can work with it and keep it in shape.”

“If you’re sure,” Wendy said, pulling a bullpup configured rifle from halfway down one rack. “I think you have two of these.”

“A Steyr,” Cally said. “Good choice. That used to be mine as a matter of fact and I can let you have it on one condition.”

“What’s that?” Wendy asked.

Cally looked around as if anyone but the girls might hear, then shrugged. “I’ve got a few… girl questions I need answered.”

“Ah,” Wendy said with a grimace. “Well, men and women are designed to be sexually complementary…” she said in a rote voice.

“Not that kind of question,” Cally said with a laugh. “You only have to listen a couple of times to Papa O’Neal when he’s drunk and reminiscing about R Rs in Bangkok to find out all about that you need to know. No, it’s… something else.”

“What?” Wendy asked doubtfully.

“Well…” Cally looked around again as if seeking inspiration from the weapons on the walls. “Well… how do you put on eyeshadow?” she asked plaintively.

* * *

“You’re kidding,” Shari said with a laugh. She was up to her elbows in corn on the cob and she couldn’t have been happier; she couldn’t remember the last time she had fresh corn and this was from the O’Neals’ garden, a delicate hybrid that positively reeked of sugar.

“No, I’m serious as a heart attack,” Papa O’Neal countered as he sliced steaks off a beef portion. “She has no female influences at all. No female friends, hell, no friends near her age at all. For all practical purposes it has been me and the occasional screwball I let up here like this shrimp.”

“Just because I don’t look like a gorilla, he calls me a shrimp,” Mosovich said washing the potatoes. Given the suddenly descending hordes, Papa O’Neal fell back on easy and tried foods. But considering the rations that were standard among the combat troops, much less the Sub-Urbs, the meal would be ambrosia.

“He doesn’t look like a gorilla,” Shari said in an off-hand manner. “So you want me, us, to talk to Cally about ‘girl things’ while we’re here?”

“Well, I don’t want to be offensive,” Papa O’Neal said. “But… the only thing I know about makeup is how to tell when somebody has been KGB trained to apply it. And I got her a book on… well… the whole feminine hygiene ‘thing.’ I… kind of need somebody to make sure she’s doing it right.”

“Has she had her first period?” Shari asked calmly. She took a sniff of one of the ears and picked off a worm. There had been several in the corn, but she suspected that was the nature of having it fresh.

“Yes,” Papa O’Neal said uncomfortably. “I’d… laid in stocks. Fortunately.”

“Has she had to go to the doctor for ‘female problems’?” Shari asked with a smile.

“No.”

“Then she’s doing it right,” Shari said. “Why don’t you have her discuss this with her OB-GYN?”

“Uh, she doesn’t have one,” O’Neal admitted. “There’s not one short of Franklin, and that one has a several month waiting list. And the local general practitioner has talked with her about… that sort of thing. But…”

“Is it a ‘he’?” Shari asked with a grimace.

“Yeah.”

“I’ll talk to her,” she said.

“And she’s got some… control problems,” Papa O’Neal continued carefully.

“She’s going through puberty,” Shari said with a laugh. “Who doesn’t?”

“Would you marry me?” Papa O’Neal said plaintively. “Never mind. I didn’t ask that.”

“I understand,” Shari said with a smile. “This has got to be tough. I think I’ve got some of the same problems with Billy, but they’re not so obvious. Or they’re overwhelmed by the other problems.”

“That’s the… little boy?” Mosovich asked. “The one that never says anything?”

“Yes,” Shari said, stacking up the cleaned corn. “He’s been that way since Fredericksburg. He’s listening; he learns. He’s not unintelligent and he’ll even communicate through sign language, occasionally. But he never, ever, talks.” She sighed. “I don’t know what to do about it.”

“Make him a monk,” Papa O’Neal said with a grim chuckle. “There’s groups of them that are sworn to a vow of silence. Then he’ll be right at home.”

“I suppose that is one choice,” Shari said tartly.

“Sorry,” O’Neal said, stacking the beef. “Me and my big mouth. But if you decide to take that route, I know a few of them. They’re good people.” He frowned and looked at the pile of meat. “How much do you think the little kids will eat? I’ve got a steak for all the adults, Cally and Billy. You think one steak for all the others?”

“That should work,” Shari said. “Where do you get all this food?”

“It’s a farm,” O’Neal said with a grin. “What, you don’t think we give it all up, do you? Besides, it’s harvest time. We just slaughtered some cows and the pigs were going to be tomorrow. I’ll probably harvest one for a pig roast in the morning then roast it all day. That’s if you guys are willing to spend another night.”

“We’ll see,” Shari said with a grin. “Ask me in the morning.”

CHAPTER 17

Newry Cantonment, Newry, PA, United States, Sol III

1928 EDT Thursday September 24, 2009 ad

We aren’t no thin red ’eroes, nor we aren’t no blackguards too,
But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you;
An’ if sometimes our conduck isn’t all your fancy paints,
Why, single men in barricks don’t grow into plaster saints…

— Rudyard Kipling “Tommy”

“It’s a real cantonment,” Gunny Pappas said, staring out the windows of the converted bus.

Moving ACS had been a problem from the beginning. Packaging their suits and moving them separately effectively disarmed them; most ACS troopers were fairly incompetent without a suit wrapped around them. And moving the suits with people in them was a horrendous operation; even with their pseudo muscles turned “down,” suits tended to destroy normal structures when the two came into contact.

Finally, standard forty-five passenger school buses had been converted to carry the units. The seats, basically bars of raw steel welded into benches, were intensely uncomfortable for anyone not in a suit. But they had the benefit of being able to survive even a long bus trip with ACS enlisted infantry onboard.

The sole concession to comfort in the buses was an adjustable headrest. The first thing ACS troopers tended to do once they were out of combat was remove their helmets and that habit had been recognized in the design. It was a well understood action; ACS sometimes spent weeks in continuous contact with the Posleen; after that long in a virtual environment the need to breathe uncanned air and feel wind on their face became overwhelming.

Stewart picked his head up from the rest and looked at the approaching gates. “Well, with any luck we won’t have to E E our way across this one.”

“Long time,” Pappas answered with a sigh. The sergeant major had brought a platoon of new recruits with him to their former base at Fort Indiantown Gap, back when he was Gunnery Sergeant Pappas. At the time the Ground Forces were in a state of only slightly controlled anarchy and the platoon had found it necessary to sneak in and fight their way across the base to their barracks. Once there they found the acting first sergeant engaged in black-marketeering and, possibly, murder. With the help of the acting company commander they had settled that idiot’s hash and managed to maintain a semblance of order in their company until O’Neal and the new battalion commander arrived almost simultaneously.

“Roanoke?” Pappas asked.

“Harrisburg,” Stewart corrected. “I was the second platoon leader.”

“Harrisburg,” Pappas agreed after a moment. He remembered the shattered armor of Lieutenant Arnold well, but while his recollection of battles was often too clear, inessential details like where they occurred had started to fall by the wayside. “HVM.”

“Yep,” Stewart agreed.

“Quit weirding each other out,” Duncan said from the next row. He leaned forward and pointed at the barracks and the neatly trimmed parade grounds. “Garrison time. Time to get drunk and laid, not necessarily in that order.”

“If everything’s ship-shape, sir,” Pappas pointed out. “I’ll believe it when I see it. I mean, these are garrison troopers forwarded from Ground Forces. How good are they going to be? There’s probably a foot of dirt on the barracks floor.”

* * *

Mike heard the challenge of the MP at the gate distantly and the response of the driver sounded like it was at the bottom of a well. But he swiveled his vision sideways to watch the exchange.

The MP could not have known he was being watched by the battalion commander; the suit did not move and the helmet remained facing forward. But he was punctiliously correct anyway, checking the driver’s orders and receiving a confirmation download from Mike’s AID. When he was sure everything was correct he stepped back and saluted, undoubtedly waiting for the vehicle to move on before dropping it.

Mike touched the driver on the arm to keep him from pulling out and inspected the MP’s turnout minutely. Most of his gear was clearly designed to look good and stay that way. The holster for his service pistol was patent leather as was his brassard and his battle dress uniform, a pattern still called Mar-Cam, was tailored and pressed.

But he was also well shaven with a fresh haircut and in good physical condition. The fact that they were coming was well known, but up until today Mike had not been sure of their ETA. So the soldier had either cleaned up quickly or maintained good grooming even when “the cat was away.” On reflection Mike decided that it was probably the latter. After a moment, during which it must have been like looking at a statue, he returned the salute and waved for his Humvee to move on.

The MP must have called ahead because by the time the convoy reached the battalion area there was a small group of officers and NCOs gathered on the front lawn.

Mike clambered carefully out of the seat and walked over to the group, casually returning the salute of the slightly overweight captain who appeared to be in charge.

“Major O’Neal,” the captain said with a nod. “I’m Captain Gray, your adjutant; we’ve never met, but we have exchanged e-mails.”

“Captain,” O’Neal said, taking off his helmet and looking around. Besides the captain there was a single second lieutenant. Other than that there were no officers. And the few senior NCOs did not seem to have been rejuved. However, the personnel were in good looking uniforms, Mar-Cam again rather than silks since they were only seconded to Fleet, and the junior personnel were in good physical condition. All in all, it was a decent looking body of REMFs. “Do I have a part in this little ceremony?”

“Not a ceremony, sir,” the captain said. “But I thought you might want to get familiar with a few of the faces.” He gestured at a sergeant first class in the first rank. “Sergeant McConnell is the battalion S-4 NCOIC. He’s actually the regimental S-4 NCOIC…”

“But since there’s not a regiment to be NCOIC of…” Mike continued. “Good afternoon, Sergeant. And do you have a boss?”

“I think you’re it, sir,” the sergeant said. He was short and also overweight, but he gave the impression of being an india rubber leprechaun: hard, mischievous and very elastic. He had bright eyes that regarded O’Neal warily.

“We don’t have an S-4 at the moment, sir,” Captain Gray said. “We’ve been promised one a time or two but…”

“But there are places that they’d rather be,” O’Neal filled in. He looked at the group and cleared his throat. “I’m sure we’ll get to know each other very well over the next couple of weeks. For the time being, continue as you have been. I’d like you to get with the battalion command sergeant major and the company first sergeants as to billeting. The troops will need to do an issue draw,” he continued, looking at the S-4 sergeant. “We’re basically here in the suits we stand in and not much else.”

“I took the liberty of looking up everyone’s sizes, sir,” Sergeant McConnell answered. “And everyone is assigned a room and a wall-locker. The wall-lockers all have a complete issue in them. They’ll have to sign for them of course…”

“We have a team on standby to examine deficiencies,” Captain Gray said, anticipating O’Neal’s question. “I hope that your commanders find the barracks to be acceptable; I had a full unit GI of the Bravo and Charlie barracks last week and the inspection showed that they were in pretty good shape. They’re brand new so there’s some indications of that that we haven’t been able to work out; paint around the edge of the windows and stuff like that. But otherwise I think you’ll be pleased.”

“Hmm,” Mike said, not knowing quite how to respond. “Very well, get with the sergeant major, as I said.” He paused and thought for a moment. “Do officers have an issue?”

“Officers have to buy their uniforms, of course,” Sergeant McConnell said. “But there is a temporary issue in their quarters and they can choose what they want and buy it with a comment to their AID. We also have uniforms standing by in your lockers in the Morgue.”

Mike looked around again and shook his head with a frown. “Tell me that this isn’t as rikky-tik as it seems. I mean…”

“You mean ‘what the hell are REMFs doing getting something right,’ sir?” Sergeant McConnell asked with a puckish grin.

“I probably would have put it more politely,” O’Neal noted as Pappas walked up behind him.

“I’ve been a REMF ever since I got out of Delta Force, sir,” the sergeant answered. “Where I was a… not a REMF. I got recalled as my final MOS, which was supply. I decided that, all things considered, I’d stay there. I had my salad days. But, if I do say so myself, I’m a pretty damned good supply sergeant.”

“Everything okay, sir?” Pappas rumbled.

“The only thing wrong seems to be that there’s nothing wrong, Top,” O’Neal said with a shake of his head.

“We’ve had plenty of time to prepare, sir,” Captain Gray pointed out.

“And you have done so,” O’Neal agreed. “Which is all too rare.”

“There are also some combat replacements, sir,” Captain Gray said. “They’re in barracks and have been issued their basic equipment. They’ve been fitted and the lieutenant that is in charge has been having them work their suits in.”

“What did we get, sir?” Gunny Pappas asked, taking off his helmet.

Gray’s eyes fixed on the line of what looked like semi-intelligent water, or maybe a silver slug, that gathered on the side of the NCO’s head and then humped itself down the armor and into the helmet. “Ahhh… we received four NCOs and an officer from the Ten Thousand and a group of privates from other Ground Force units. All of them have had some combat experience.”

“Sounds good,” Mike said. “Sergeant Major, these gentlemen have the billeting mapped out. Why don’t you get with them and get the troops moved through in…” He paused and looked around. “Where are the Morgues?” he asked.

“In the basement of the barracks, sir,” Captain Gray said, pointing at overlarge side entrances.

“Cool,” O’Neal responded. “Company commanders and staff to battalion headquarters as soon as they’re in silks. Troops fall into the barracks and get their issue squared away.” He glanced at the sun and shook his head as he sneezed. “Damn. Shelly, what time is it?”

“Just past fourteen hundred, sir,” the AID replied out of the helmet.

“Seventeen hundred formation for all companies,” Mike continued. “I want everybody in silks and standing tall by then. The companies can release the troops to the cantonment area at that time, if they so choose, but they cannot release them off post.”

“Clear,” Pappas said. “You know that if we wait too long it’ll just build up the pressure.”

“I know,” Mike said with a slight smile. “I used to be a grunt back when, smaj. Friday night. Payday procedures. By then I’ll have had a chance to meet with the locals and get them marginally prepared. Then they can tear down the gates.”

* * *

“Man,” Mueller said, leaning back from the table. “If the troops in the corps knew you ate like this they’d be tearing down the gates.”

“They could try,” Cally said with a laugh. “I think we could probably turn ’em around with the first line of claymores though.”

Papa O’Neal looked at Shari’s half finished steak and frowned. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” Shari said with a wan smile. “It’s just that this is as much meat as I can remember eating in a month.”

“Well, you ought to come around more often,” O’Neal said with a smile, poking her in the arm. “You’re as thin as a board. We need to get you fed up.”

“I know,” Wendy said, scraping up the last of her baked potato. “In the Urb we both eat about the same amount and I have a problem keeping my weight down. Shari never gains weight.”

“Oh, I used to have to diet,” Shari said, wiping her mouth and setting the napkin down alongside the half full plate. “But the food in the Urb isn’t…”

“Much good at putting on weight,” Elgars finished, wiping up steak juices. “It’s also lousy for putting on muscle; the protein portions aren’t large enough. I have a hell of a time with it; I always feel like I’m being starved to death.”

“It’s one of the reasons I stopped exercising,” Shari said, pulling a sated Kelly onto her lap. The two youngest were already in bed and most of the rest were outside in the dark, having borrowed warm clothes from the O’Neals. The kids were revelling in the freedom to just run and play; that was all too rare in the Urb. “I’d just get exhausted. Between the lousy food and taking care of the kids. And there was nowhere to send them where they were safe like here; so they were always right there.” She hugged Kelly and rubbed her cheek on the sleepy girl’s head. “Not that I minded, sweetie. But it’s nice to have a break.”

“Well, you’re not getting any lousy food here,” Papa O’Neal said definitely. “And you can definitely take a break. I want you to stay over tomorrow night. And we’ll really have a feed then.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Shari said rocking back in the chair. “There’s so much to do…”

“There’s nothing critical,” Wendy said. “We are the creche. We don’t really ever have to go back.”

“Not true,” Shari said. “The children are in our care, but we don’t have custody. That would be kidnapping.”

“Okay,” Wendy said, admitting the point. “But we don’t have to go back in the morning. We can stay over.”

“And what about the sergeant major?” Shari asked. “He has to get back, right?”

“Nope,” Mosovich said. “If anybody wants us, they can page us; I can get to corps headquarters as fast from here as from my barracks. We’re on duty anyway; the orders that I got cut say so. And both the food and the scenery are better here,” he finished, winking at Wendy.

“So there,” Wendy said, sticking out her tongue. “And I think that Annie’s doing better here than in the Urb.”

“I do too,” Elgars said. “I don’t know if it’s the air or the food or what. But this is the first time I’ve really felt… alive. Whole.”

“Well, if we’re not an imposition,” Shari said one last time.

“If you were an imposition, I wouldn’t have insisted,” Papa O’Neal said with a grin. “I’m looking forward to feeding you up,” he continued, poking at her ribs. “You’re too skinny. Skinny, skinny, skinny.”

“That, frankly, sounds heavenly,” Shari said with an almost giggle, slapping at his hand until he desisted. She ended up holding his fingers and released them. But not too quickly.

“It is nice,” Wendy said with a smile as she leaned back and stretched. “But it has been tiring. I think we should all go to bed…”

Mueller suddenly coughed hard. “Oh, sorry,” he gasped, quickly looking away.

Wendy stopped in mid stretch and regarded him out of lowered eyelids. ”… And I was going to say, ‘and get some rest for tomorrow.’ Master Sergeant Mueller, have I ever shown you a picture of my boyfriend?”

* * *

“Oh, my,” Captain Slight muttered. “I think he must have been the biggest one in his class.”

First Sergeant Bogdanovich suppressed a snort. Bogdanovich, Boggle to a very select few veterans of the battalion, was a short, muscular blonde whose fine skin was as translucent as paper from years in suits. She had been in the battalion since before its first blooding and she thought she had seen it all. But Boggle had to admit that the first lieutenant reporting to the company commander was rather oversized. He actually seemed to have trouble making it through the door straight. She hoped there was a suit that was fittable to him. On the other hand, he looked like he could survive an HVM round to the chest without one.

“Sar… Lieutenant Thomas Sunday, Junior, reporting to the commanding officer,” Sunday said, rendering a hand salute.

Sunday wondered at the timing of this meeting; the majority of the company had been released and he could hear the racket of their settling in throughout the barracks. But the officers and NCOs were apparently still going strong. He’d noted that was usually the case in the Ten Thousand, unlike his first Ground Forces unit, and he wasn’t sure what it meant.

“At ease, Lieutenant,” Slight said. “This is First Sergeant Bogdanovich. Later she’ll be introducing you to your platoon sergeant.” Slight paused and went on delicately. “It seems that you might have recently been promoted…”

“Yes, ma’am,” Sunday admitted. “I was promoted to first lieutenant about five minutes before I left the Ten Thousand.”

Slight smiled as the first sergeant chuckled. “Well, you have to admire Cutprice’s chutzpah. What were you before you were so abruptly promoted? A two L-T?”

“No ma’am,” Sunday said with a frown. “I was a staff sergeant.”

“Hmm,” Slight muttered with a frown. “I’ll have to think about that one. I think the message we were supposed to get was that he thinks you’d make a good ACS platoon leader. What do you think of that?”

“With all due respect, I don’t particularly like it, ma’am,” Sunday admitted. “Lieutenants don’t get to kill Posleen. I wanted suits to kill horses, not to pull George and ‘determine zones of fire.’ And… there are some benefits to being a Fleet sergeant or a Ground Forces staff that you… don’t have as a lieutenant. Besides getting to kill horses.”

“I tell you what, Lieutenant,” the captain said with another slight smile. “Let’s slot you in at platoon leader for the time being. And if we decide it’s not right for you, we’ll break you back to sergeant with no hard feelings; Fleet Strike moves people around like that all the time with no real effect on their record. How does that suit?”

“Whatever you say, ma’am,” Sunday rumbled.

“Have you met the battalion commander?” she asked. “He wants to meet any officers we receive.”

“No, ma’am. I was told to report to the company commander first.”

“Okay,” she said. “AID?”

“Major O’Neal is in his office reviewing the training schedule,” the AID said promptly. It had a deep male baritone unlike most of those Sunday had heard, which seemed to be all female. “His AID says he’d be happy for the interruption.”

* * *

Mike nodded at Sunday and returned his salute. “Chill, Lieutenant,” he said as a grin violated his habitual frown. “Sit, even.”

The office was small, smaller than the company commander’s and like hers almost completely unadorned. Behind the major a private from the rear detachment was up on a step stool painting in a motto on the wall. So far he had gotten to “He who” in thick black, Gothic lettering.

The major leaned back and picked up the cigar that had been smoldering in his ashtray. “You smoke, Lieutenant?”

Sunday paused for a moment then shook his head. “No, sir.” He remained sitting rigidly at attention.

“Well, if you’ve been with the Ten Thousand for the last few years there’s no point in trying to corrupt you,” O’Neal said with another grin. “I got an e-mail about you from Cutprice. He explained that if I try to take any of your rank, he will personally… what was the phrase? ‘Boil me in my own suit like an undersized lobster.’ ” The major puffed a few times on the cigar to get it started again and peered at the lieutenant through the smoke. “What do you think of that?”

“Uh, sir…” Sunday said, frozen. “I… uh… I wouldn’t presume to comment on your interaction with Colonel Cutprice or on your decisions in regards to my position in the battalion.”

“Sunday… Sunday… ?” Mike mused. “I swear I recognize that name…”

“We… have met briefly a time or two, sir,” the lieutenant said. “The last time was at…”

“Rochester,” Mike completed. “That one I remember; your physique is… distinctive.”

“So is yours, sir,” Sunday said then froze. “Sorry.”

“No problem,” Mike said with another grin, flexing one arm. His forearms were still the size of most people’s thighs. “I take it you work out?”

“Yes, sir,” Tommy answered. “At least two hours per day, duties permitting.”

“Yeah,” O’Neal said with a nod. “You’ll be glad to hear that the suits permit weight exercise while in them. Otherwise there is no way I could maintain this. But I wasn’t thinking of Rochester or even, I think, other battles… Shelly: Thomas Sunday, Junior, encounters and relationships, not while he was a member of the Ten Thousand.”

“Thomas Sunday, Junior, is one of five combat survivors of the Fredericksburg defense…” the AID started to answer.

“That’s it!” O’Neal said excitedly. “The kid wrapped up with the blonde! Even then I knew that anybody that could survive that and wind up with the girl was going to go far.”

“Thank you, sir,” Sunday said with the first smile since he’d entered the room.

“Thomas Sunday, Junior, is also the developer of ‘Bridge over the River Die,’ ” Shelly continued doggedly. “That is all known connections.”

“Hell, that was you?” Mike said. “That’s a great module! We used it in Washington in the first landing. I remember being told that it was written by somebody from F’Burg but… well…”

“You figured they were dead?” Sunday said. “That was a good guess, sir,” he continued with a grimace. After a moment he shook his head. “You actually used it off the shelf?”

“Even the smoke,” Mike said. “Everybody thought I was some tactical genius. Thanks.”

Sunday laughed. “You’re welcome. If it makes you feel any better—” He paused and shrugged. “Well, I ripped some of your code from the Asheville Scenario.”

“I know,” O’Neal said with another grin, taking a pull on the stogie. “I reversed it and read the code; you even left in my trademark.”

“Well…”

“S’alright, it’s still a good module. So, what happened to the girl?”

“Wendy?” Tommy shook his head at the change of direction. “She’s in a Sub-Urb in North Carolina. We… keep in touch. Actually… we keep in touch.”

“Uh, huh,” the major said. “In one of the ones around Asheville?”

“Uh, no, sir, Franklin. It’s a little town…”

“By Rabun Gap,” Mike finished with a frown. “I’m from there. My dad and daughter are still in the area. I doubt they’ll meet up, though; people who go into Urbs rarely come out.”

“Well… sir, I was wondering something,” Tommy said carefully.

“Spit it out,” Mike said with another pull on the cigar.

“Well, it’s like this. Ground Force does not recognize dependents for anyone under E-6. I’d just made staff when Rochester came up. But if I’d stayed in Ground Force, we could have…”

“Gotten married,” Mike said with a frown. “You ever hear the thing ‘lieutenants shouldn’t marry’?”

“Yes, sir,” Sunday answered quietly.

“Shit,” the major said with a shake of the head. “Fleet’s started to get some very ‘old fashioned’ types in its upper echelons; and some of them are getting downright nasty on the dependents issue. I’m not sure if it will fly for a lieutenant. The fickle finger of fate, eh?”

“Yes, sir,” the lieutenant answered. “I still wanted to transfer, sir, I’m still glad I’m here, however that affects Wendy and I. I… killing Posleen is what I do.”

“That’s a bit of an understatement and an underestimation, son,” O’Neal answered. “I’ve seen your code. It’s good; you even know what to rip off and what not to. Killing Posleen isn’t all of what anyone should do.”

“Well, sir, with all due respect I don’t have much more,” the lieutenant said. “My mom is in an Urb in Kentucky; she and my sister were in the Bunker. But, really, we hardly keep in touch. With the exception of Wendy, everything I ever knew is gone. And it seems like to make a real life, I have to kill all the Posleen I can. Until they’re gone, we can’t begin to get back to normalcy. So… I kill Posleen.”

“Well, this conversation has taken a turn for the morbid,” Mike said with a shake of his head. He pulled on the cigar for a moment looking at the lieutenant in the blue haze then shrugged. “You’re not the only one with a story, L-T. Yours is well known, but it’s not the only one. Gunny Pappas lost a daughter to the Posleen in the Chicago drop. Duncan’s family farm is nearly five hundred miles behind the lines. Captain Slight’s lost her mother and brother to the war; both of them were civilians.

“If all that any of us do is kill Posleen, they’ve won. When this war is over, we’re going to have to go back to being humans again. If the only thing we know how to do is kill Posleen, if we’ve forgotten how to be human, to be Americans not to put too fine a point on it, we might as well not even fight it. You can feel free to hate the Posleen as long as that doesn’t eat you up as a person. Because at the end of the day what we’re fighting for is the right to wrap ourselves around a blonde in peace.”

“Understood, sir,” the lieutenant said. But Mike recognized the closed expression; the lieutenant understood the argument, but wasn’t willing to admit its validity. “I’ve got a question, if I may, sir.”

“Shoot.”

“Do you hate the Posleen?” Sunday asked warily.

“Nope,” Mike answered instantly. “Not a damned bit. They’re pretty obviously programmed to be what they are. I don’t know who programmed them — I’m pretty sure in other words that the tin-foil hat types are wrong and it wasn’t the Darhel — but if we ever meet them, I’ll damned well hate their asses. I don’t know what the Posleen were like before they got tinkered with, but I doubt they were interstellar conquistadores. The Posleen can’t help being who they are and we can’t help resisting them. Not much room for hate in that situation. But if it helps you to hate them, go right ahead.

“Look, let’s change the subject for a bit. It’s after seventeen hundred and none of this crap is really vital. Let’s go find the officers’ mess together and talk games design. I’ll think about the marriage thing and try to find an out. In the meantime I hear Mongolian Barbecue and some really lousy beer calling to me.”

“Hell, sir, it’s practically free,” Sunday pointed out. “And free beer is, by definition, good beer.”

“Boy,” the major said with a shake of his head. “You even drink love-in-a-canoe beer. You’re going to fit right in.”

On the back wall the battalion sign painter shook his head and carefully cleaned up the last part where his stifled laugh had caused his hand to slip. Then he continued with painting the new battalion motto on the commander’s wall.

But he had to wonder. Most mottos made sense. “Fury From the Sky,” “The Rock of the Marne,” “Devils in Baggy Pants” and, of course, “Semper Fidelis.”

But somehow he was having a hard time getting his head around: “He Who Laughs Last, Thinks Fastest.”

CHAPTER 18

Rabun Gap, GA, United States, Sol III

0925 EDT Friday September 25, 2009 ad

Shari awoke with a start and rolled over to look out the window of the small bedroom. The sun was already high and the bedside clock, which she had set and wound up last night, showed that it was nearly 9 a.m., an unheard-of time for her to still be sleeping.

She looked over where Amber had been in her crib and felt a stab of fear when she noticed she was gone. But then, faintly through the house, she heard her squealing in glee at something and the sounds of children playing outside. Apparently someone had crept into her room and slipped out with the baby while she slept.

She stretched and ran her fingers through the tangle of her hair. She’d only been awakened once in the night, to give Amber a change and a bottle, and that was another miracle. All in all she felt as well rested and comfortable as she had felt in… about five years come to think of it. Maybe longer.

Everyone referred to the destruction of Fredericksburg in hushed tones, but her life had come apart well before then. Marrying one of the football team was considered a coup in high school, but twelve years, repeated battered women’s referrals, three kids and a divorce later and it didn’t look like such a good idea. Having the Posleen land and destroy the town had just seemed like a natural progression.

Now she found herself thirty… something, with three kids, a GED, wrinkles to shame a forty-year-old and — she took off the night dress she had found in the closet and looked down — a skinny body with… okay still fairly decent breasts, and stretch marks. She also lived in a cubicle with eight children. A catch she was not.

She shook her head and looked out the window; it looked like a beautiful day, she’d gotten a chance to sleep in and there was no reason for her to be falling into this melancholy mood. With a deep breath she picked up her neatly stacked clothes off the bedside table and then wrinkled her nose. It had been a long and active time the day before and they were still slightly damp with sweat. Shari was a fastidious woman and wandering around smelling like a bag lady was not her idea of a good time. After a moment’s thought she looked at the chest of drawers and the closet. After her shower last night she’d peeked in the closet hoping to find something to wear to bed and had glimpsed a large number of plastic wrapped dresses. Now she opened up the top drawer of the chest of drawers and shook her head; the room was packed with clothes.

She pulled out a pair of bikini briefs and sniffed them. They were musty with long storage, with a faint hint of a spice that had probably been in the drawer as a preservative, and slightly… fragile in feel, as if they were quite old. They still smelled better than what she had been wearing… and they fit. They were on the large size, but they were close enough; the elastic had apparently survived storage.

Rummaging further she found bras and, in lower drawers, blouses, T-shirts and jeans. Whoever’s clothing this was had been addicted to jeans; there were at least seven pairs, most of them hip-hugger bellbottoms.

Shari pulled one out and shook her head; there was no question that these were “originals” and not from the brief pre-Posleen renaissance. Not only did they have that same old, fragile feel as the panties, that she now realized must have been at least thirty years old, but someone had taken a pen to them in some bygone fit of insanity and covered them in graffiti. Kids of the turn years had rarely known who “Bobby McGee” was, although the peace sign and the “I got laid at Woodstock” would be recognizable. The strangest, scrawled on the seat in a different hand, was “Peace through superior firepower.”

She shook her head and carefully put away this artifact then chose a simple pair of straight-leg jeans that were barely worn.

Bras turned out to be a problem. Shari had often felt that her only two saving graces were planted on her chest; indeed, her endowments were often the only thing that Rorie could not find to fault in her. However, whoever’s clothing stocked this chest of drawers did not, apparently, have that particular grace/curse. After much searching she managed to find one that wasn’t actively painful to wear. After managing to get it snapped, she looked at herself in the mirror and snorted.

“That’s the answer, girls. Find a bra that is both undercut and a size too small and you too can have cleavage.”

She initially pulled out a very pretty flowered blouse then looked at the neckline. Looking down she shook her head and pulled out a T-shirt emblazoned with “Led Zeppelin World Tour, 1972.” It was a tad tight, but at least it didn’t plunge and if, when, she fell out of the bra she wouldn’t be into public view.

Digging around in the bathroom exhumed a brush, old, but serviceable, and a toothbrush, new, still in the box. She used both to good effect then looked in the mirror and stuck her tongue out at the reflection.

“I don’t think so, girlfriend,” she said to the sag-face wreck in the mirror.

The first set of makeup that she found had obviously been stored for decades. If anybody was still collecting memorabilia, this house was a gold mine; there was even an unopened box of L’Oréal hair coloring with the faded picture of an actress who hadn’t looked that good in thirty years.

“Thanks,” she muttered. “I know I’m worth it, but I just did them last week.”

The makeup case was a loss, though. Oh, there was plenty in it, whoever had owned it must have occasionally made herself up like a kewpie doll, but it was all dried up. The foundation broke away into chunks when she opened the jar.

Next to the case though, hidden by it until she pulled it out, was a small, plastic container. It looked like Galplas, but Shari thought that was unlikely; where would a Galplas zipper bag have come from? However, on the top of the bag was a small green dot and when Shari touched it and slid her finger along the top the bag opened along an invisible seam. Galplas all right.

Inside was what Shari mentally decided were someone’s “bare essentials.” There was a tube of mascara, a light lip gloss, a single eyeshadow case with an eyebrow pencil and a pair of eyebrow tweezers. The colors were not perfect for her — if she wasn’t careful she’d end up looking like Britney Spears — and she really wished there was a base and some rouge, but they would do. And this was practically brand new.

She quickly applied the makeup, sparse as it was, and then stepped back to consider the overall effect.

“Baby, you look like a million dollars,” she said. Then: “Liar.”

She made the bed then followed the smell of bacon downstairs to the kitchen. Kelly and Irene were at the table nibbling on biscuits, Amber stuck in a high chair just to the side, and Mr. O’Neal was at the stove, frying another pan of bacon and cracking eggs.

When she came through the door he did a double-take and missed the bowl, the hand with the uncracked egg in it flailing in the air for a moment before he looked down and lined back up.

Shari tried not to smile and walked over to the stove, sniffing at the food. “That smells heavenly.”

“How would you like your eggs, milady?” Papa O’Neal said. “I’m scrambling some more for the bottomless pits over there, but I’ll be happy to fix some any way you please.”

“Scrambled is fine,” Shari said, trying not to smile again as she caught a surreptitious peek in her direction. She shook herself internally. Don’t you dare arch. Don’t do it or you’ll never forgive yourself. Despite the internal debate she felt a stretch coming on and stretched and, yes, she couldn’t help herself, arched.

A piece of bacon hit the stove top as Papa O’Neal missed the frying pan.

“Damn,” he muttered. “Clumsy…” He picked the bacon up with his fingers and juggled it to the cloth covered plate. “Would you like bacon or a… would you prefer some sausage?”

“Bacon is fine,” Shari replied, walking over to the table to give the poor guy some space. As she did she realized that she was putting some extra sway in the walk and wanted to hit herself on the side of the head.

He’s… well, he’s got to be at least sixty and what in the hell is he going to see in you, but a has-been divorcee refugee with kids and stretchmarks?

“I… uh, I see you found something to wear,” O’Neal said, filling up the children’s plates and carrying them over to the table. “I thought some of Angie’s stuff might fit you. I meant to tell you to take your pick last night. Actually, I was talking to Elgars about the supply situation in the Urb; I had no idea. The house is packed with stuff; you should take anything you see that you want. I’m… surprised you found a bra that fit, though.”

“I appreciate the offer on the clothes,” Shari said. “It feels like charity but, what the hell, I’m willing to take a little charity. There really isn’t anything available in the Urb.” She smiled and stretched again. “I will admit that I’m unlikely to find some stuff, though.”

Papa O’Neal coughed and went back over to the stove while Shari looked around for something neutral to comment on.

“Where are the rest of the kids?” she asked. Irene got down and climbed up on her lap, bringing the plate with her. She then went back to the serious business of stuffing biscuit and bacon in her mouth.

“Some of them are still asleep,” Papa O’Neal said. “The rest are out with Cally doing chores. They like them. She took them egging this morning and then they got to eat them. Billy even helped milk the cows and that’s really above and beyond the call of duty.”

“Kids always like doing chores,” Shari said with a chuckle. “Once. And as long as it’s not too hard.”

“Well, it’s kept them outside and running around,” O’Neal said. “And out of your hair; I could tell you needed a break.”

“I like my kids,” Shari protested. “Even the ones that aren’t mine.”

“Sure, and I like ’em too,” O’Neal replied. He picked up a cooled-off piece of bacon and put it on the baby’s tray. “But having to be on them all the time is too much for anyone, even Super Mom.”

Shari frowned and cleared her throat. “Uh… should you be giving Amber bacon?”

Papa O’Neal frowned in turn and shrugged. “I don’t see why not. I got given it as a baby and so did my son from what I hear. And that’s the third piece she’s gummed to death so far this morning. What do you think I should give her?”

Shari paused and watched as Amber picked up the slightly undercooked bacon and began gumming on it. “I… well, if you’re sure it’s okay,” she said doubtfully. “We usually serve her cream of wheat…”

“Semolina,” Papa O’Neal said. “Got that. Fresh off the farm. Got two different varieties as a matter of fact.”

“Or creamed corn?” Shari continued.

“Got that too,” Papa O’Neal said. “But how about some nice cornmeal mush? That’s good baby food. With some bacon ground up in it for flavor and texture.”

“Do you always eat like that?” Shari asked. “I’m surprised your arteries don’t clang closed with a boom.”

“Got the lowest cholesterol my doctor’s ever seen,” Papa O’Neal said with a shrug. “It’s all the cold baths and healthy thoughts.”

“Uh huh,” Shari said, picking up a slice of bacon that Kelly had overlooked. “One question and I hope I’m not prying. Who is ‘Angie’?”

Papa O’Neal grimaced and shrugged. “Angie’s where Cally got at least half her looks; she’s my ex. She lives on a commune in Oregon and has ever since she was in her forties and discovered a true calling for… well, for Wicca.”

He shrugged and put the eggs, bacon and a biscuit on her plate and brought it over to her.

“We never were real compatible. She was the communal nature-lover artist type and me, well,” he shrugged. “The best you could say about me is that I never killed anybody that didn’t deserve it. She never liked what I did, but she put up with it, and me. Part of that was that I was gone a lot and she sort of got to be her own person. She lived here, raised Mike Junior here for that matter. Pappy was still alive back then, but he practically lived up in the hills so she ran the farm her way.

“Anyway when I came back for good, we got along for a while then we commenced to fighting. Finally she discovered her ‘true calling’ to be a priestess and left for that commune and I understand she’s been happily living there ever since.”

“The ‘Woodstock/Peace through superior firepower’ graffiti,” Shari said with a smile.

“Ah, you saw that,” O’Neal said, laughing. “Yep. That was us all over. She got massively pissed at me for scrawling that on her butt. My point was that she shouldn’t have gotten so stoned she let me. I told her what I was doing and she thought it was a cool enough idea that… well… she thought it was a good idea at the time.”

“So no grandmother to help out,” Shari sighed. “And somebody has to have a girl talk with Cally.”

“Assuming you can find her,” Papa O’Neal said. “I haven’t seen her all morning. I’ve heard her; she’s using her drill-sergeant voice on your kids. But I haven’t seen her at all. We’re usually up around dawn, but she was up even earlier and out the door before I got up.”

“I thought you were getting up and slaughtering the fatted pig this morning,” Shari said with a smile. The eggs and bacon had been wonderful and she had more of an appetite than yesterday.

“I did,” O’Neal said, grinning. “And it’s on the barbeque, slow roasting even as we speak. And Cally normally would have been right there with me. But not this morning; she hasn’t gotten within fifty yards of me this morning.”

He paused and rubbed his chin then looked at the ceiling in puzzlement.

“She hasn’t been within fifty yards of me all morning,” he repeated thoughfully.

“I wonder what she’s done wrong,” Shari said with a grin.

* * *

“You have to tell him,” Shannon said. “You can’t go on hiding all the rest of your life.”

“I can too,” Cally answered. She forked another load of hay over into the stall with more vehemence than it actually needed. “I can hide as long as I have to, put it that way.”

The barn was huge and quite old. The original structure dated to just after the War of Northern Aggression, as Papa O’Neal called it. There were several horse stalls, an area for milking and a large hay loft. Along one wall several hay rolls had been stacked. Leaning against them was an odd rifle with a large, flat drum on top of it. Cally never left the house unarmed.

“It’s a natural thing,” Shannon argued. The ten-year-old slipped off the hay round and picked up a chunk of clay on the floor of the barn. She waited just a moment until the mouse stuck its head out of the hole again and pitched the clay at it. The chunk shattered on the wall above the hole and the mouse disappeared. “You have a right to live your own life!”

“Sure, tell that to Granpa,” Cally said with a pout.

“Tell what to Granpa?”

Cally froze and stuck the pitchfork into the hay without turning around. “Nothing.”

“Shari and I were just wondering where you’d been all morning,” Papa O’Neal said from behind her. “I notice you’ve got all your chores done. But you somehow managed to get them all done without coming within a mile of me.”

“Uh, huh.” Cally looked around, but short of actively fleeing by climbing up into the hay loft and then, all things being equal, probably having to climb out the side of the barn through a window, there was no way to escape. And sooner or later she’d have to turn around. She knew she was caught fair and square. She thought briefly of either turning around and shooting her way out or, alternatively, jumping out the window and going to Oregon to live with Granma. But she doubted she could get the drop on the old man. And as for living with Granma, the commune depended on the local military for protection; they’d take her guns away. Blow that.

Shannon, the fink, had actually made an escape. Bolted. What a jerk.

Finally she sighed and turned around.

* * *

Papa O’Neal took one look and pulled out his pouch of Red Man. He extracted about half the pouch, laboriously worked it into a ball just a bit under the size of a baseball and then stuffed it into his left cheek. Then he put the pouch away. The whole time he had been looking at Cally’s face.

“Granddaughter,” he said, his voice slightly muffled, “what happened to your eyes?”

“Don’t you start, Granpa,” Cally said dangerously.

“I mean, you look like a raccoon…”

“I think she was going for the Britney Spears look,” Shari said delicately. “But… that density doesn’t really… suit you, dear.”

“I mean, if you go into town, they’re gonna arrest me for beating you,” Papa O’Neal continued. “I mean, your eyes are all black and blue!”

“Just because you know NOTHING about fashion… !” Cally said.

“Oh, fashion is it… ?”

“Uh, whoa, whoa!” Shari said, holding up her hands. “Let’s all calm down here. I suspect that everyone in this barn, except me, but probably including the horse, is armed.”

Papa O’Neal started to say something and she laid her hand over his mouth.

“You wanted me, us, to talk to Cally about ‘girl stuff.’ Right?”

“Yes,” O’Neal said, pulling the hand away. “But I was talking about… hygiene and…”

“How to make guys complete doofuses?” Cally asked. “I already know those things.”

Shari slapped her hand over his mouth again and he pulled it back.

“Look, I’m her grandfather!” he argued. “Don’t I get to say anything?”

“No,” Shari answered. “You don’t.”

“Arrrr!” O’Neal said, throwing up his arms. “This is what I hate about having women around. Okay! Okay! Fine. I’m wrong! Just one thing.” He pointed at Cally and shook his finger. “Makeup. Okay. I can handle makeup. Makeup is even good. But no raccoon eyes!”

“Okay,” Shari said gently, turning him towards the barn door. “Why don’t you go check on the pig and Cally and I will have a little talk.”

“Fine, fine,” he muttered. “Go ahead. Clue her in on how to make a guy insanely angry without even opening her mouth. Put her through girl academy… Fine…” He continued to mutter as he stalked out of the barn.

Cally looked at Shari and smiled happily. “You seem to be getting along.”

“Yes, we are,” Shari admitted. “Whereas you don’t seem to be getting along with him at all.”

“Oh, we’re okay,” Cally said, sitting on the hay. “I just spent so many years being his perfect little warrior child and now… I don’t know. I’m tired of the farm, I’ll tell you that. And I’m tired of being treated like a child.”

“Well, get used to that continuing for a while,” Shari said. “Both of those things. Unless something very unpleasant happens. Because you’re only thirteen and that means you’re going to be in parental control for five more years. And, yeah, they’ll wear. And, yeah, you’ll want to find any way out from time to time. And if you want a really stupid one you can find some cute jackass with a hot car and a nice butt and have a passel of kids and find yourself out in the cold at thirty with mouths to feed.”

Cally pulled at a strand of hair and examined it minutely. “Wasn’t exactly where I was going with that.”

“That’s what you say now,” Shari nodded. “And in about two years you’ll be in town talking to one of those nice young soldiers with the wide shoulders. Trust me. You will. You won’t be able to help yourself. And I have to admit that if you’re doing that with, as your grandfather so delicately put it, ‘raccoon eyes,’ your chances of ending up holding somebody like Amber a year later is really high.”

Cally sighed and shook her head. “I was talking with Wendy and Elgars last night and we didn’t have any makeup, but Wendy was telling me a few things. So I got up real early this morning and…”

“Tried it,” Shari said. “Totally normal. Not a bit of problem. Want to go inside and try it again? This time with some help?”

“Oh, could we?” Cally asked. “I know I look goofy. I just don’t know how to fix it. And I love what you did with whatever you used!”

“Well,” Shari said with a grimace. “I prefer a bit more than this; I no longer have your perfect skin. But that was all I had to work with. It was in a pouch under the sink. It looked like Galplas…” She stopped at the look on Cally’s face. “What?”

“That’s…” Cally shook her head, obviously having a little trouble speaking. “That was my mom’s. They… sent it back from Heinlein Station, from her quarters. It’s… about all there was in the way of personal effects; everything else went up with the ship.”

“Oh, Cally, I’m so sorry,” Shari said, her hands going to her face.

“It’s okay, really,” Cally replied. “You can use it. It’s just… junk.”

“It’s not junk,” Shari said, walking over to her. “Are you okay? I’m sorry I used it.”

“It’s okay, really,” Cally said with a set face. “I’m glad you did. I really am. I… I just wish mom… Ah!” She grabbed her hair. “There are four billion dead in the last few years! I will not blubber because my mother was one of them! I. Won’t.”

Shari sat down next to the girl and carefully put her arms around her. “You can mourn your mother any way you choose, Cally. Strength and even denial are forms of mourning; trust me, I know. But don’t… blot her out. Don’t… leave her behind.” She rubbed at the teen’s eyes and rocked her for a moment.

“Let’s go get that stuff off of you and then pull out your mom’s bag of essentials and see what works. I think that would be a good start. In more ways than one.”

Papa O’Neal looked up as Mosovich and Mueller rounded the corner.

“Isn’t it a little early to be hitting the booze?” Mosovich chuckled.

Papa O’Neal held up the bottle of homebrewed beer and peered through it. “I’m raising jailbait in a valley full of horny soldiers; it is never too early to start drinking.”

“Well, they’re going to have a hard time getting in here,” Mueller admitted. “We were wandering around checking out the defenses; I’ve seen firebases with worse killzones than these.”

Elgars wandered up behind the two soldiers then walked over to the barbeque. She looked at the pig, which had been butterflied onto a large grill and was slowly grilling over hickory.

“This is a pig, right?” she asked with a sniff. “Like you have in the cells.”

“Pens,” Papa O’Neal said with a smile. “Yes.”

“And we’re going to eat it?” she asked. “They are… very dirty.”

“I cleaned it up before I threw it on the grill,” O’Neal answered. “And you can feel free to refrain. But I’m, personally, planning on, pardon the expression, pigging out.”

Elgars nodded and pulled off a piece of half burned meat. She juggled the piece of pork for a second, blowing on it until it cooled enough to pop in her mouth. She chewed on it for a moment and then nodded. “It’s good,” she said.

“Why thanks,” O’Neal said with a snort. “I try. Just wait until the skin gets to cracklin’ stage.”

“This won’t be ready until this evening, right?” Mueller asked.

“Right,” Papa O’Neal said, pouring a little of the beer on the fire to cool it. The hickory hissed and spat, making a succulent smoke. “It’ll probably be ready a little before dark. But I don’t have to stay here the whole time; Cally can watch it to make sure it doesn’t flame up too far. I was thinking of taking y’all up on the hill. I’ve got a couple of caches that might come in handy if it drops in the pot and there’s a couple of trails for coming over the ridges, places you’d be surprised about, that you might be able to use some time.”

“Works for me,” Mosovich said. “Would you care to accompany us, Captain?”

Elgars looked up at the steep-sided hills. “I think I would like that very much. I have been interested in wandering around here, but I was unsure of the protocol. And there was some mention of mechanical defenses.”

“I can’t leave anything live,” O’Neal pointed out. “Too many large animals. We’ve got sensors and we get the occasional feral Posleen, but we only turn on the automatics for an attack.”

“You know,” Mueller said. “I feel like a real idiot. Here we are wandering around and there’s ferals in these woods. We’ve run into ’em before. And without a gun, we might as well be walking larders.”

“He doesn’t have a gun,” Elgars said, pointing at Papa O’Neal. “And he lives here.”

“O ye of little faith,” O’Neal answered, reaching up and behind him. What he pulled out looked like a hand cannon.

“Desert Eagle?” Mueller asked, holding out his hand.

“One up the spout,” Papa O’Neal answered, handing it over by flipping it around and offering it butt first. “Desert Eagle chambered for .50 Action Express.”

“Cool,” the master sergeant said. He dropped the magazine and jacked out the round up the spout. The brass and steel cartridge was as big around as his thumb. “Jesus! That’s a big goddamned round!”

“You can lose a .45 cartridge in the shell casing,” Papa O’Neal said with a laugh. “I did that one time reloading. And the bullet’s the new Winchester Black Rhino .50. It’ll put a Posleen down with one shot almost anywhere you hit it. And there are seven. I got tired of carting around a rifle all the damned time.”

Elgars took the weapon and handled it carefully then lined up a shot with a perfect two-handed grip. “I love it, but the grip’s too large for my hands.”

“There is that,” Papa O’Neal said. He slathered some more barbecue sauce on the meat then reloaded and reholstered the gun. “And the recoil is a stone bitch. But it’s got authority, by God!” He finished the beer, rinsed out the bottle in the outdoor tap and set it upside down in a rack that was clearly intended for the purpose. Then he burped and looked up at the sun.

“If we take off now, we can get up to the caves and be back by lunchtime. That gives us all afternoon to drink beer, lie about our exploits over the years and act as if we’re not tired old farts.”

“Works for me,” said Mosovich with a grin.

“Then let’s go load up,” O’Neal said. “You don’t walk these hills armed with a pistol. Even one this big.”

* * *

Wendy smiled as Shari and Cally entered the kitchen.

“I see you took my advice,” she said. “Nice job. Very understated.”

“Ah…” Cally said.

“We had to do a little revising,” Shari admitted.

“Granpa said I had raccoon eyes,” Cally said bitterly.

“You did have raccoon eyes,” Shari said. “And later Wendy can show you how to do raccoon eyes the right way; I’ve seen Wendy do the ‘Britney Spears look’ and it’s a very good similarity.”

Wendy stuck her tongue out, but otherwise forbore to comment.

“Until then,” Shari continued, “go with the minimum. You don’t really need it, you know. Most makeup work is designed to make women look like you do naturally. And, be aware, one of the reasons not to ladle it on like warpaint is that that’s what the young ladies who are selling their affection do. And if you are walking around with that sort of makeup in dowtown Franklin, don’t be upset if one of those soldiers gets the wrong impression.”

“I’m just tired of being ‘one of the boys,’ ” Cally said. “I mean, up until I started to get breasts and the boys started following me around with their tongues hanging out, Granpa treated me like I was a guy. Now he wants to stick me in a tower until my hair is long enough to climb down!”

Shari smiled and shook her head. “He’s a father. Well, a grandfather, but arguably it’s the same thing. What he really wants is what’s best for you, in his eyes. He might be right, he might be wrong, but that’s what he’s trying for. That’s what every parent tries to do,” she finished with a sigh.

“The other thing is that he’s a guy,” Wendy said. “He used to be one of those boys with their tongues hanging out and he knows what they’re thinking and he knows what they want. And all that ninety-nine percent of them want is to get laid. They’ll say anything, do anything, to get that. Some of them are even willing to use force. He knows what they’re thinking, he knows what they’re saying to each other in the barracks and he knows what they are willing to do to get it. So he’s very paranoid about it.”

“I’m paranoid about it, too,” Cally said. “You only have to get stalked a couple of times to get really paranoid. But…”

“But me no buts,” Wendy said. “I spent four, heck, six years with the reputation of school slut because I was the only girl not putting out. I spent I don’t know how many summer dates perspiring in a long sweater and tied tight sweat pants. And don’t even get me started on fumbling with electronic locks. I got to where I knew not to get in the backseat because they might have engaged the damned child locks and I wouldn’t be able to open the door. I walked home at least six times in four years. When it comes to guys and hormones there is no such thing as too paranoid.”

“There’s worse,” Shari said darkly. “If you choose wrong in one of those back seats, you can get to the point where you really believe that you’re in the wrong. That the hitting is because it’s all your fault. That the abuse is okay because you’re not good enough, not pretty enough, not smart enough.” She stopped and looked at Cally shaking her head. “Don’t get me wrong, men are great and they have a place…”

“Plumbing, electrical,” Wendy said with a snort. “Carrying heavy loads… killing spiders…”

“… But choosing right is the most important choice you’ll ever make,” Shari continued, looking at Wendy severely. “But at that point, my advice is all dried up; I’ve never been able to choose worth a damn.”

“Well, I did okay,” Wendy said with a smile. “So far. And if you want some advice on that, it’s just this; if he tells you he wants you to put out, run like hell. Shoot your way out if you have to. If he’s not willing to wait for you to say you want to, he’s not worth your time.”

“How do you know he really likes you if he’s not asking?” Cally asked. “I mean… what if he doesn’t like you?”

Wendy smiled in recollection. “Well, in my case I knew he liked me because he carried me out of a firefight instead of putting a bullet in my head as we’d agreed. So I was pretty certain he liked me. But I’d sort of come to that conclusion before that anyway. You’ll know. If you don’t, he doesn’t like you enough.”

“This is too complicated,” Cally said. “What about I shoot him? If he comes back, he really likes me. And I can guarantee he won’t try anything until I say it’s okay.”

“Well…” Shari said.

“I was joking,” Cally said with a laugh. “At most a broken arm.” Cally looked pensive for a moment then shrugged. “So, to decide whether a guy is worth going to bed with, I wait. And if he doesn’t ask…”

“Or beg or whine or bully,” Wendy said. “They’re all much more likely…”

“… Then it’s okay?”

“If you want to,” Shari noted. “And… wait a while, okay? Thirteen is way too young to make a good decision, however grown up you feel.”

“I wasn’t planning on testing it out tomorrow,” Cally said. “Okay, so we’ve got the basic rule down.”

“Yeah, and it’s really the basics,” Wendy said with a sigh. “It’s the deciding if you want to that’s tough.”

“If he doesn’t ask, but you’re still getting a creepy feeling, or he’s always making fun of you or talking you down, especially in front of people, don’t, even if you want to.” Shari shook her head with a dark expression. “Don’t, don’t, don’t.”

“This is getting complicated,” Cally said. “I think I should just shoot him and see what happens from there.”

“It’ll drive away some good ones, you know,” Wendy said with a smile. “Actually, I can’t think of a guy it wouldn’t drive away.”

“I could just shoot ’em lightly,” Cally said plaintively. “With a .22. In a fleshy spot. No pain, no gain.”

Shari laughed out loud and shook her head. “Okay, it sounds like a plan. If you like ’em, and they seem to be okay, and they’re not asking for you to go to bed with them, shoot ’em lightly in a fleshy spot. If they never come back, you know they weren’t for you. But don’t get in a habit of shooting him every time you disagree, okay?”

“Just one question,” Wendy said with a mock serious expression. “Where are you going to get a .22? I mean, I’ve seen .308s and .30-06s, but .22s seem to be in short supply in this household.”

“It’s what I carry as my main weapon,” Cally said with a snort. “It’s not like I’m going to carry around a special ‘guy test’ gun just to shoot guys if I think I like ’em.”

“You carry a .22?” Wendy said with a laugh. “Wow, that must really scare the Posleen no end! You’re joking, right?”

Cally smiled thinly. “Let’s go down to the range. And see who laughs last.”

CHAPTER 19

Rabun Gap, GA, United States, Sol III

1325 EDT Friday September 25, 2009 ad

“So that’s a .22?” Wendy asked in disbelief. The weapon was odd looking, resembling nothing so much as an undersized “Tommy Gun” with the drum magazine placed on top. She could see the tiny aperture in the barrel, but she found the concept of this warrior-child carrying a .22, a round usually used by eight-year-old boys to shoot rats, ludicrous. The gun looked like a toy, which she knew was a dangerous mental attitude.

“Yep,” Cally said, walking around onto the range. “Range is cold, people, no locking, no aiming, no, no, no firing; safe your weapons.” She picked up a broken cinderblock off of a stack and, with remarkably little difficulty, carried it halfway to the first target and set it on a section of tree trunk that had apparently been set up for the purpose. “This is the standard demonstration for the American 180,” she continued, walking back to the firing line.

There were two ranges set up on the O’Neal property. The first, where they were preparing to fire, was a standard target range. There were a variety of pop-up targets, scoring circles and man- and Posleen-shaped silhouettes, ranging out to two or three hundred yards. The other range, which ran along the road to the entry, was a tactical firing line.

Cally looked at the group and frowned. “Papa O’Neal usually covers this, but I think I’m elected. How many of you have been on a range before?”

Most of the children had wandered over and she frowned when none of them raised their hands. “None of you have been on a range? Where do you do weapons training?”

“It’s illegal to let a person under sixteen handle a weapon in the Urb,” Wendy said with a frown.

“That’s… ridiculous,” Cally said.

Wendy shrugged. “You’re preaching to the choir; there were kids in the Hitler Youth that were younger than that. They tended to surrender pretty quick and they weren’t much good. But they fought in a real war.”

“I won’t even go there,” Cally said with a frown.

“Have you ever shot a Posleen?” Shari asked. “I only ask because… I don’t see somebody Billy’s age being…”

“Useful?” Cally said with a snort. “You see the bunker by the house? I killed my first Posleen when I was his age, covering Granpa with my rifle; he was manning the mini-gun. It was during the Fredericksburg landing cycle and a Posleen company landed at the head of the valley and ended up coming up the trail. None of them left the holler; we hit ’em with the band of claymores and then stacked the survivors. So, yeah, I think Billy could be pretty useful if you let him be.”

“It’s not my rule anyway,” Shari said with a shrug.

“Whatever,” Cally replied. “You gonna mind if he fires one here?”

“Will it be safe?” Shari asked, looking at the odd little rifle in trepidation.

“Of course it will,” Cally said. “The first thing to cover is range safety.”

She ran through an abbreviated range safety briefing covering hearing protection, ensuring that the weapons were safed and cleared if anyone was to be downrange, keeping fingers off the triggers and always assuming a weapon was loaded. “The most important thing is that; never, ever point a gun, even an ‘unloaded’ gun, at anything you don’t want destroyed. For the purposes of safety, every gun is loaded. Guns aren’t evil magic; they’re just tools for killing something at a distance. Treat them as useful, but dangerous tools, like a circular saw or a chainsaw, and you’ll be fine.”

She picked up the rifle and flicked on the laser sight; a tiny red dot settled on the cinderblock. “If not, this is what happens.” Holding the weapon by her side, the dot barely shivering on the block, she opened fire.

The weapon was quiet: a series of pops like a distant, poorly tuned outboard motor. An outboard motor going very fast.

Wendy shook her head as the cinderblock disintegrated. The individual rounds were tiny, an individual .22 round was about as big around as a drinking straw. But the gun was spitting dozens of them in under a second and with negligible recoil; Wendy could see the rounds impacting in the haze of dust and the laser aiming point still wasn’t moving.

After a few moments the bolt clicked on an empty chamber and Cally pulled the drum off, a single round falling into the dust at her feet, and replaced it. The cinderblock had been hammered into a pile of dust and chunks no larger than a thumb.

“It runs through its rounds in a jiffy,” Cally noted, setting the weapon down. “And it’s no good at any sort of range. But it’s good in close, even against Posleen, and it’s fun as heck to fire. However, if we’re going to fire anything else, we need to put on our earmuffs.”

Cally gestured to Wendy to hand over the Steyr then waved to Billy. “Your turn.”

She jacked a round into the chamber and settled the weapon into his shoulder. “Left hand on the stock, right hand on the pistol grip, finger off the trigger,” she continued, gently moving it away. “Safety is by your right thumb. Look through the rear ring, lay your cheek onto the stock and find the front sight and focus on it. Lay the top of the front sight on the target. Take a breath and let it out and when you’re comfortable, slowly squeeze the trigger. Squeeze it gently; the shot should feel like a surprise.”

Billy looked at her and nodded then leaned into the rifle, pulling it into his shoulder hard.

“Don’t tense up so much,” Cally said. “This is a bittly little .308 round. The recoil is not going to knock you on your ass.”

Billy nodded again and slowly squeezed the trigger, putting a round into the center of the man-shaped target and knocking it down.

“Good,” Cally said as he grinned. “Now, I’m going to pop up a target of a Posleen. There’s a head-sized patch on its side, right behind the shoulder, marked in red. I want you to shoot it there. Okay?”

Billy looked unhappy, but eventually shrugged and nodded. So Cally popped up the target.

The Posleen was twenty-five meters downrange, a cold shot for a rifle, and in line with where the human silhouette had been. Billy was so startled that his first round went high, but he quickly settled down and put the second one into the target area.

“You don’t like Posleen, do you?” Cally asked. Billy shook his head.

“They die,” she said with a grin. “You shoot ’em and they die. Fall down and go boom. The point is that you have to shoot ’em, and you have to shoot ’em before they shoot you. Now shoot it again.”

They spent the next few hours on the range, eventually going back to the house for a picnic lunch, feeding the baby and more ammunition. All