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CHAPTER 1

 


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


 


 


 


Clayton, GA, United States, Sol III
2325 EDT Friday September 11, 2009 ad


 


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.


 


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