“Rod opens the hatch over his head and takes a look outside. The Stryker column snakes along the road at a reserved thirty miles an hour. They are in no hurry. Ten feet both high and wide and nearly twenty-five feet long, the squat metal titans look like ungainly boats on eight giant rubber wheels. Most are still clad in cages of slat armor to protect them against rocket-propelled grenades and piled with gear, making them look like something from The Road Warrior. The commander of the next vehicle in line grins at Rod under his Ray-Bans and spreads his arms as if to say, Look at all this. Can you believe this shit?
“The combat engineers spent two days clearing a twelve-foot-wide path through what was a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam of abandoned cars and trucks choking Crystal Drive all the way to their objective. Judging from the scattered luggage, these folks were probably trying to get to the airport, which had already been shut down. The vehicles, stripped of gas and useful parts, are now piled along the sides of the road awaiting towing. It is like driving through a junkyard. Rod scans the wreckage for improvised explosives out of habit. Bodies are entombed in some of the cars. Loose trash floats and rustles on the breeze.
“The plaintive notes of a religious song fall on his ears from one of the lead vehicles. It’s “Ave Maria,” Rod realizes with a frown. Christ, what a downer. And yet it fits.
“Ave Maria, gratia plena.
“Hail Mary, full of grace. Roger that.
“The Strykers ahead disappear into a wall of black smoke billowing from a distant hill of burning corpses, and Rod follows, emerging coughing on the other side. The entire city is shrouded in haze, ashes of torched people floating on currents of hot air. An automatic cannon booms in the distance, drowning out the crackle of small arms fire that is so omnipresent it is only noticeable when it stops. Fighter jets roar through the distant murk, barely visible in this false twilight at nine hundred hours. One of the fighters breaks formation, veering toward the earth like a bird of prey to fire a missile at a target on the ground. Light flashes on the horizon. BOOM.
“The battle for the capital is in full swing.
“On his right, C130 cargo planes drop from the sky in a steady stream of screaming metal and disappear behind Terminal B of the airport, where they will land and disgorge even more troops and equipment. Rod’s regiment has been bivouacked in Terminal A for the past few days, one of the first units to arrive, and it is already getting crowded. The troops swarmed Washington’s key facilities and most defendable and sparsely populated patches of ground—Reagan Airport, East Potomac Park, Theodore Roosevelt Island. The engineers began the herculean task of clearing the major arteries. This beachhead secure, the invasion force now needs to expand to make room for more troops as well as civilian refugees starting to trickle in.
“Something about the whole operation still smacks of a massive Army foul-up. Oops, we invaded ourselves by accident. Nice going, General Stupidity, you’re relieved. General Chaos will take it from here.
“He can’t get used to it.
“A foghorn booms in the west, answered by another in the south. Rod knows they are not real foghorns. They are giant monsters browsing their way through the city. He can’t get used to that either. An MH60 Blackhawk gunship catches up to the column and paces it, the thumping of its rotors drowning out even the foghorns. It will provide top cover for the rest of the trip.
“It’s good to be back in the USA one way or the other. They all feel this way. They are back on sacred ground, that much closer to the people who matter most to them. They are home. When they captured the airport, a grizzled veteran dropped to his knees and kissed the tarmac. Mecca’s the other way, Sergeant, one of the boys said, slurring the word as Sarrunt as so many of them did, but nobody laughed. Rod nearly kissed the ground as well. Leading his squad across the tarmac, he half expected to see the Washington Monument wrapped in monstrous tentacles or the Lincoln Memorial covered in vines or half buried in apocalyptic sands. Instead, he saw a typical airport with stately jumbo jets at rest among fuel trucks, water trucks, ramps, hoses and other white utility vehicles. Some scattered luggage offered the only clue something was wrong. That, and the total absence of people. Everything was abandoned. The city appeared to have been converted into a massive, derelict parking lot.
“The column winds through an artificial canyon formed by rows of boxy office buildings, street-level retail stores and the ever-present piles of cars pushed to the side of the road. One of the buildings boasts in large letter signage that it is the corporate home of GENERAL DYNAMICS. Rod grins. They’re the company that makes the Stryker. The vehicles pass their maker. Minutes later, the column grinds to a halt in front of another large building and sits idling.
“This is their objective. Seven floors. Three hundred and forty rooms.
“The Crystal Palace Hotel.”