By John Ringo
Baen Books Copyright © 2004 John Ringo
All right reserved. ISBN: 0743488423
Go tell the Spartans, passerby That here the Three Hundred lie Obedient to their commands.
Near Asheville, NC, United States of America, Sol III 0215 EDT Monday September 28, 2009 AD
Major Michael O'Neal checked the holographic schematic he had thrown up and nodded as the Banshee banked to the right and dropped; now the fun started.
The shuttle he was riding in looked like a black scimitar scything across the cloudy Appalachian sky. The combination of human, Indowy and Himmit technology had created something that was neither the best nor the worst of the three worlds, a ship that was somewhat stealthy, somewhat armored, somewhat maneuverable and somewhat fast.
Of course, compared to anything from pure human technology, the Banshee III was a marvel beyond words.
The stealth shuttles had had an uneventful voyage until reaching the area of the southern Shenandoah. There the Posleen invaders, who held virtually all of the Atlantic and Pacific seaboard, had made an incursion in the area of Staunton. And that required the scimitar-shaped ships to drop to below the level of horizon and begin evasive maneuvers.
Over the past five years the Posleen had landed in waves throughout the world, overrunning virtually every defense. The few survivors of Western Europe were now huddled in the Alps, eking out a retched existence among those upland valleys. The Middle East, Africa, most of South America, were either in Posleen hands or in such a state of anarchy not even radio communications were coming out. The only survivors in Australia were in the far western territories and roaming the desert interior in a post-apocalyptic nightmare. China had been lost only after loosing nearly a thousand nuclear weapons in the long retreat up the Yangtze Valley. Others survived in the highlands of the world, holding passes against the enemy. But few of those scattered groups were a coherent defense. Everywhere, one by one, the civilizations of the world had fallen to the remorseless invaders. With one small exception.
In the United States a combination of geographic luck-the Posleen tended to land in coastal plains and the U.S. had defendable terrain features inward of all the coastal plains-and, frankly, logistic and political preparation had permitted the U.S. government to retain control, to retain a condition of "domestic harmony" in a few areas. Of these, the most vital were the Cumberland and Ohio basins due to their industrial might and breadth of agricultural resources. The vast plains of Central Canada were still safe, and would remain so as long as the Posleen were resisted at all, for the Posleen were almost incapable of fighting in snow. But those plains, and the various western areas in human control ranging from the Sierra Madre to the Canadian Rockies, could produce only a small number of crops, mostly grains. Furthermore there was little or no industrial infrastructure in comparison to the might found in the Cumberland and Ohio.
The Cumberland, the Ohio and the Great Lakes regions were the heart and soul of the defense of the United States. Losing the Cumberland, furthermore, would open all of that up to conquest.
And with one thrust the Posleen had placed all of that in jeopardy. For years the major blow had been expected at Chattanooga, where little would stand in the way of a break-out. This battalion, and others, had defended the cities that were scattered down the range of the Appalachians, each of them, at one time or another, assaulted in force by the enemy. Only a few weeks before the battalion had been in a hair-raising battle on the Ontario Plain. But this time the Posleen had surprised everyone, striking an unnoticed and lightly defended sector, and throwing the defense of the entire Eastern U.S. into flux.
O'Neal and his forces had passed over southern Pennsylvania and through West Virginia without incident. But now, approaching the jumbled mess of western Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee, it was time to get down and busy.
From this point forward the Posleen were pressing hard or already over the Appalachian Wall. The battalion would actually be forced to fly between two Posleen thrusts; besides the attack through the Gap the Posleen were pressing in on two flanks of Asheville. If the Posleen were able to reach the embattled city from the rear, the end would be assured. On that flank, the mountains above Waynesville would be the key, but they were a problem for others; the only thing the First Battalion Five-Fifty-Fifth infantry had to worry about was surviving as a plug.
O'Neal nodded again as another turn was faintly sensed. The shuttles used just a touch of inertial compensation to reduce the impact of their course corrections. Too much and they stood out like light bulbs to the Posleen. Too little and they smashed their passengers into jelly. Mike switched to an external view and by the light of the waxing moon he could see the mountains flashing by overhead; the ships were down in a valley, following its wandering path and only the occasional shudder passed through to the humans.
Soon enough they began an ascent, traveling at over five hundred knots and not much more than a hundred feet off the ground. The shuttles rapidly shot to the top of the next ridgeline and then, in a maneuver that looked flatly impossible, dropped down the back side in exact parallel with the slope. At no time did their speed increase or slow; it stayed a constant fifty kilometers per hour under the ambient speed of sound.
Mike noted another checkpoint and looked off to the left. Somewhere out there was Asheville, awaiting the dawn of a new day, a city still inhabited by over a million civilians and six divisions of infantry. Behind it were two Sub-Urbs with a combined total of five million souls. And all of it was in the vise of a nutcracker.
He sighed and brought up a collection of tunes; a little music seemed appropriate at a time like this.
Might as well share the misery.
"What the hell is that?" Lieutenant Tommy Sunday asked as a strange keyboard melody started on the command override frequency.
"'Don't Pay the Ferryman,'" SPC Blatt said. The Reaper's armor had a purple and pink holographic teddy bear on the front of it and when the music started, the bear jumped to its feet and began to dance, shaking its fat little belly in time to the music. "The Old Man must be really depressed."
The Grim Reapers were the heavy weapons suits of the ACS. They were designed for long-range indirect fire or heavy-duty close-in support and generally carried four weapons (versus the standard one rifle of the Marauders). These might range from anti-ship heavy grav-cannons to long-range auto-mortars to flechette cannons capable of spewing millions of rounds per minute.
The Reapers' suits were bulkier and slower than the standard Marauder suits, looking a bit more fat bellied than the "muscle" look of the Marauders, but given that most of their weapons had much higher ammunition bulk than the Marauders, that was all to the good. The flip side was that their armor was lighter, so getting into direct fights with the Posleen was usually a losing proposition.
"Christ," PFC McEvoy cursed, rubbing at his nearly bald head. He'd detached the gauntlets of his suit and his hand made a rasping sound over the short, thick stubble. He leaned forward as far as he could and looked to the doors at the front of the compartment. "I hope it's not that whole 'we're all a gonna DIE!' playlist. If I hear 'Veteran of the Psychic Wars' one more time I'm gonna puke."
The shuttles were small, designed to carry thirty-six troopers and two "leaders" in no particular comfort. Each "suit segment" was rigid, with clamps to hold the suits in place against the worst possible maneuvering and designed to swivel and fire the troopers out into a hostile environment. This did not make for the most comfortable of seating.
"Nah," Blatt replied. "James Taylor next. Betcha five creds."
"Sucker bet," McEvoy replied. "I hear the Old Man's daughter was in the Gap."
"Ah fuck me," Blatt said, shaking his head. "That sucks."
"She's tough," McEvoy said, leaning forward to spit into his helmet. "So's his dad from what I hear. They might make it."
"That is questionable," Sunday said, looking up from his hologram. "According to seismographic and EM readings, there have been multiple nuclear detonations in the area of the Gap. And we're about to make the area extremely unpleasant ourselves."
"I didn't think we'd opened up nukes yet, sir," Blatt commented. He started to put his gauntlets back on as a timer in his suit tinged. "Twenty minutes."
"We have recently," Tommy answered, putting on his helmet. "But these appear to be secondary explosions."
"Oh, that's okay then," Blatt said. "As long as they're not targeted on us or anything ..."
"Yeah," McEvoy agreed. "The last time I worried about nukes was the first time I got hit by 'em."
"Any suggestions?" the lieutenant asked.
"Lay flat," Blatt said with a laugh.
"Yeah, getting tossed through the air is the worst part."
"I'd think having your arms and legs ripped off would be the worst part," Tommy commented.
"Well, the only one who's survived from that close is the Old Man, sir," Blatt pointed out. "You don't wanna be that close; getting an arm blown off smarts."
"Agreed," Tommy said. "Been there done that."
The lieutenant was new to the armored combat suits but not to battle; up until a few weeks before he had been an NCO in the Ten Thousand, the most elite unit short of the suits. The Ten Thousand was armed with captured Posleen weapons and other devices and shuttled from crisis to crisis, thus in his time in the unit Tom Sunday, Jr. had seen more than any trooper short of the ACS. And he had managed to survive and rise in rank to staff sergeant. All of which spoke for his versatility and ability to take cover when the shit hit the fan. But even the best soldier tended to run out the law of averages from time to time.
"Which one, L-T?" McEvoy asked. The officer was new to them and they hadn't had much time to get to know him.
"Right, just above the elbow," the lieutenant said. With his helmet on it was impossible to tell where he was looking but McEvoy was pretty sure it was directly at him.
"Ah," the Reaper said. "Just asking."
"You're right," the lieutenant said. "It smarts. So does taking a shotgun flechette in the chest. Or getting your right kidney taken out by a three millimeter that was, fortunately, going too fast to do much more damage. And getting caught in your own company's mortar fire sucks. So does getting shot in the back by a cherry radioman who panics. All in all, I imagine it's really unpleasant to get blown through the air by a nuclear explosion."
"I guess so, sir," the gunner said, swinging his heavy grav-gun from side to side to ensure it tracked smoothly. "All things considered I guess wearing armor is the way to go."
"Ah hell," Blatt said, changing the subject. "It looks like you were right. Here we go with 'Veteran of the Psychic Wars.' "
"He's something pissed at those Posleen," McEvoy said.
"I'm sure he's not the only one," Sunday said quietly.
Captain Anne Elgars looked at the motley group gathered around the small fire and sighed. The captain appeared to be about seventeen and had a heavily muscled body with long, strawberry-blond hair. She was, in fact, nearer to thirty than twenty and had until recently been in a coma. Her recovery from the coma, the musculature, odd skills and personality quirks that had arisen from the recovery, were mysteries that were only starting to be illuminated.
There were two other adult females, two soldiers and a group of eight children in the small, wooded dell tucked into the North Carolina mountains. The women and children had been in a Sub-Urb, an underground city, when the Posleen struck the Rabun Valley and swiftly pushed most of the defenders aside. Through a combination of luck and ruthlessness the three women had reached the deepest areas of the Urb, intending to escape through the service areas, when they happened upon a hidden installation tucked into the Urb. It was there that they had been "upgraded," their wounds repaired, and imparted with both increased strength and some basic weaponry skills. They had also found an escape route.
Trying to make their way to human-controlled areas they had first been cut off by the advancing Posleen and then encountered the two soldiers, Jake Mosovich and David Mueller. Now the question was where to go now that the easy route was closed.
"It's agreed?" Elgars asked, her breath ghosting white in the frigid air. "We'll head for the O'Neal farm and raid the cache?"
"Don't see any choice," Mueller replied. He was a bear of a man, not only tall but wider in proportion, with a thin shock of almost white blond hair. The master sergeant had been running around snooping on Posleen since before the first invasion and he had regularly found his ass in a crack, enough times that he'd frequently asked himself why in the hell he kept doing it. But none of the other times did he have to worry about getting three women and eight children out of the crack. And in this case, the crack included that the children, at least, were likely to die of exposure if something wasn't done.
"There wasn't anything to use at the Hydrological Station." The Posleen raided for loot, then destroyed every trace of previous habitation. While the station hadn't been leveled it had been emptied. As had every other building they had checked.
Shari Reilly grimaced. "It's still nearly fifteen miles," she said. "Even carrying the kids, I don't see how we can make it."
Shari had been thirty-two, a waitress and single-mother of three, when the Posleen dropped on her hometown of Fredericksburg, Virginia. She was one of the very few survivors from that town and was resettled, along with her three children, in one of the first underground cities. It had been placed in an out-of-the-way valley in western North Carolina, despite a lack of roads to supply it, for two reasons: it was unlikely the Posleen would attack into such rugged country, and the local congressman was the chairman of the appropriation's committee.
As it turned out, after five years of battering their heads everywhere else the Posleen did attack up the Rabun Valley.
Excerpted from Hell's Faire by John Ringo Copyright © 2004 by John Ringo. Excerpted by permission.
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