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

Yellow Eyes

John Ringo

The Posleen are coming and the models all say the same thing: Without the Panama Canal, the US is doomed to starvation and defeat. Despite being overstretched preparing to defend the US, the military sends everything it has left: A handful of advanced Armored Combat Suits, rejuvenated veterans from the many decades that Panama was a virtual colony and three antiquated warships. Other than that, the Panamanians are on their own. Replete with detailed imagery of the landscape, characters and politics that have made the jungle-infested peninsula a Shangri-La for so many over the years, Yellow Eyes is a hard-hitting look at facing a swarming alien horde with not much more than wits and guts. Fortunately, the Panamanians, and the many veterans that think of it as a second home, have plenty of both.

Yellow Eyes

(Ojos Amarillos: La Defensa de Panama)

by John Ringo and Tom Kratman

Dedication

For the owners, operators and ladies of the Ancon Inn (Panama City) and el Moro (Colon).

Thank you. Let's do it again some time.

And, as always:

For Captain Tamara Long, USAF

Born: 12 May 1979

Died: 23 March 2003, Afghanistan

You fly with the angels now.

Yellow Eyes

You are going to have the fever,
Yellow eyes!
In about ten days from now
Iron bands will clamp your brow;
Your tongue resemble curdled cream,
A rusty streak the centre seam;
Your mouth will taste of untold things
With claws and horns and fins and wings;
Your head will weigh a ton or more,
And forty gales within it roar!

In about ten days from now
You will feebly wonder how
All your bones can break in twain
And so quickly knit again!
You will feel a score of Jaels
In your temples driving nails!
You will wonder if you're shot
Through the liver-case, or what!
You will wonder if such heat
Isn't Hades — and repeat!
Then you'll sweat until, at length,
You — won't — have — a — kitten's — strength!

In about ten days from now
Make to health a parting bow;
For you're going to have the fever,
Yellow eyes!

— James Stanley Gilbert, "Panama Patchwork," 1909

Prologue

From where he stood in the back of the crowded assembly hall, Guanamarioch saw the gold-strapped Rememberer ascend the rostrum. The chattering of the massed Kessentai ceased as the cleric — the Rememberers were as near to a clergy as the Posleen had — rapped his skilled claw, twice, on the stone podium. Except for age and scarring, the Remember was — like Guanamarioch — an average looking Posleen, a crocodilian centauroid with yellow skin and eyes, standing about fifteen hands high, with rows of sharp ivory teeth and having a feathered crest (not dissimilar to a Sioux Indian war bonnet) that it could erect when it wished.

"Let us remember," the cleric called, laying its crest low in respect for the ceremony.

All the hundreds of Kessentai crossed their arms over their massive chests, looked upward, toward the apex of the pyramid, itself clad inside and out with a heavy layer of pure gold, and chanted together, "We remember. We remember."

The Rememberer held out one claw into which an underling placed a loosely rolled scroll. This was unrolled onto the stone podium, the underling placing "keeper stones," elaborately carved paperweights, on the corners to hold the scroll in place.

"From the Scroll of Flight and Settlement," the Rememberer announced.

"We remember," echoed the Kessentai, once again.

The pyramidal assembly hall shook with the nearby impact of a rival clan's hypervelocity missile, or HVM. Guanamarioch, young as he was, could barely restrain himself from leaving the hall and going forth with his underlings to do battle. The eager, enraged trembling and murmuring of the others told him they all felt much as he did.

The Rememberer calmed the hall with a sweeping glance. He was one of the eldest among them, a Kessentai turned Kenstain who, in his younger days, had been among the foremost warriors of the clan. None of the youngsters present wanted to find shame in the eyes of this old hero. They settled and quieted down.

"Verse Five: the new home," the Rememberer continued.

Once again, the group chorused, "We remember."

"And the People, fleeing their destroyed home on the new ships, came upon a new world, rich and teeming with life. And the ships were tired, and nearly out of fuel. And the leader of the People, called Rongasintas the Philosopher, led the people to a barren part of the land, that was uninhabited. And there they tried to settle and grow food.

"But the People had little food, and the inhabitants would not share, demanding, 'Go forth from us. This is our world, not yours. Return once again to the darkness whence you came.' And the heart of Rongasintas was heavy.

"Yet the People cried out, saying, 'Lord, feed us, for we hunger.' And Rongasintas answered, 'Eat of the pre-sentient young.'

"And, weeping, the People ate of their children, but it was not enough. Once again they cried out, 'Lord, feed us, for we hunger.' "

"We hunger," repeated the assembly.

Nodding his great crocodilian head with infinite dignity, the Rememberer continued, "And the Lord Rongasintas the Philosopher answered, 'Choose one in twenty from among the normals, and eat of these.' Weeping still, the People chose from among their number one in twenty, that the host might live and not perish. And for a little time the People did not hunger. Yet, still, did they weep, for it was not yet the way of the People to eat of their own.

"At length, the Lord of the People went to the inhabitants of the place and begged, 'We have done what we can. We have eaten of our own. Give us sustenance, that our people not perish.' And the inhabitants of the place heaped scorn upon Rongasintas, saying, 'Leave this place or eat of yourselves until there are none of you left. It is all the same to us.'

"And the Lord and Philosopher went to a high place to meditate and upon his return he announced, 'The Aldenat' made us as we are; we had no choice in the matter. They raised us from the lowly animals and gave us sentience. They left us with the need to reproduce. They gave us of medicine and knowledge, that we did not die young. Under their rule, the People prospered and grew. All praise was to the Aldenat'. ' "

"And we gave praise to the Aldenat', " chanted the assembly, in response.

The Rememberer continued, "And Rongasintas told the People, 'We must live. To live we must eat. Go forth then, and eat of the inhabitants of this place. As was all praise, upon the Aldenat' be all the blame.' "

As one, the massed Kessentai echoed, and their echo made the stone walls of the great Hall of Remembrance shudder, "Upon them be the blame."

PART I

Chapter 1

Like a rich armor, worn in heat of day,
that scalds with safety.

— Shakespeare, Henry IV

Ttckpt Province, Barwhon V

It was a cold, blue-green swamp under a violet sky. Lieutenant Connors had seen some swamps in his day; after all, he'd spent a number of years at the original "Camp Swampy," Fort Stewart, Georgia.

"Nothing like this shit, though," he muttered, as he struggled for a balance between conserving power for his Armored Combat Suit, and not sinking waist deep in the muck. Not sinking continued to win the toss as he reduced mass on his suit and applied power to forward thrusters to keep going even when the ground slid away in a lumpy slurry beneath him. His feet still sank ankle deep in the crud below.

The ACS encasing Connors was Galactic-built, but to human-drawn specifications. Despite this, and despite being symmetrically bipedal — two arms, two legs — and having a largish lump right where the head should be, the thing did not look too terribly human. In fact, it looked completely inhuman. For one thing, the suit had colored itself a dull blue-green to match the vegetation of the swamp. For another, it lacked obvious eyes and ears, while having a number of weapons stations sprouting from it.

The jury was still out on the camouflage. Other schemes had been tried. The blue-green mottled pattern on Connors' suit had worked as well as any of them, and not one whit better. The Posleen's yellow eyes were just different, different in their structure and different in what they saw.

Inside his suit, the lieutenant shrugged, unseen by any but the artificial intelligence device that ran the suit for him. He didn't know what camouflage would work (neither did the AID) and just followed the latest guidance from higher on the subject.

Around him, likewise mottled in the blue-green pattern and likewise struggling for an acceptable compromise between longevity and speed, Second Platoon, Company B-1st of the 508th Mobile Infantry (ACS), was spread out in a very sharp and narrow "V" to either side of a churned-muck trail.

Ordinarily, on Earth, the trail would have been superfluous as a means of control and orientation. The Global Positioning System was capable of telling a soldier, or a group of them, exactly where they were all the time. On Barwhon, however, there was no GPS. Moreover, while the suits were capable of inertial reckoning on their own, by and large the enemy Posleen were not. Thus, the Posleen followed the trail and, thus, the MI were led to battle them along it.

Besides, the trail was the shortest distance to an American light infantry company cut off some miles ahead on the wrong side of a river ford, their backs to the stream and no good way to cross back under fire.

Connors, like the men of Second Platoon, moved forward under radio listening silence. They could hear the commands of higher, when higher deigned to speak. They could also hear the heartbreakingly precise reports and orders emanating to and from one Captain Robert Thomas, commanding the company trapped at the ford. They'd been hearing them for hours.

The MI troopers had heard, "Zulu Four Three, this is Papa One Six. Adjust fire, over." They'd heard, "Echo Two Two this is Papa One Six. I've got a dozen men down I have to get dusted off." They'd eavesdropped on, "Captain Roberts, we can't fuckin' hold 'em . . . AIIII!"

Connors heard Echo Two Two, which the key on his display told him was the brigade's medical company, come back in the person of some breaking-voiced radioman, and say, "We're sorry, Papa. God, we're sorry. But we can't get through for your dust-off. We tried."

Things got worse from there.

"Echo Three Five, this is Papa One Six. We are under heavy attack. Estimate regimental strength or better. We need reinforcements, over."

A Posleen regiment massed two or three thousand of the aliens. A light infantry company at full strength with the normal attachments was one twelfth that size . . . or less. In this case, the personnel replacement situation being what it was, the trapped company was less. Much less.

That's a good man up there, Connors thought, in consideration of the incredibly calm tone of a man, Roberts, who knew that he and all his men were on the lunch menu. Too damned good to let get eaten.

Then came the really bad news. "Papa One Six, this is Echo Three Five, actual;" — the brigade commander — "situation understood. The Second of the 198th was ambushed during movement to reinforce you. We have at least another regiment . . ."

Things really got shitty then, though the first Connors knew of it was when the point man for the company column shouted, "Ambush!" a half a second before the air began to swarm with railgun fleshettes and the mucky ground to erupt steaming geysers with the impact of alien missiles and plasma cannon.

The problem with killing the stupid Posleen, Connors thought as he lay in the muck, is that the rest of them get much, much smarter.

The air above was alive with fire. Most of this was light railgun fire, one millimeter fleshettes most unlikely to penetrate the armor of a suit. Enough was three millimeter, though, to be worrisome. That was heavy enough to actually penetrate, sometimes, if it hit just right. It had penetrated several men of the company, in fact.

Worse than either were the plasma cannon and hypervelocity missiles, or HVMs, the aliens carried. These could penetrate armor as if it were cheesecloth, turning the men inside incandescent.

Worse still were the tenar, the alien leaders' flying sleds. These not only mounted larger and more powerful versions of the plasma cannon and HVMs, they had more ammunition, physical or energy, and much better tracking systems. They also had enough elevation on them that, at ambush range, they could fire down, completely skipping any cover the MI troopers might have hastily thrown up. Nor did the jungle trees, however thick, so much as slow the incoming fire. Instead, they splintered or burst into flame at the passing. Sometimes they did both. In any case, the air around Connors resembled some Hollywood idea of Hell, all flame and smoke and destruction, unimaginable chaos and confusion.

The only good thing you could say about the situation was that the Posleen apparently had few tenar. Otherwise, there was no explanation for the company's continued survival.

Connors traded shots with the Posleen, round for round. That wasn't really his job though. On the other hand, trying to do a lieutenant's job was rough, once things heated up.

"Call for fire, Lieutenant Connors?" suggested his AID.

"Do it," he answered, while cursing himself, I should have thought of that first. "And show me platoon status."

The AID used a laser in the suit's helmet to paint a chart directly on Connors' retina. He'd started movement with thirty-seven men. It pained him to see seven of those men marked in black, dead or so badly wounded that they were out of the fight. Under the circumstances, they were almost certainly dead.

He keyed his attention on one particular marker on the chart. "Show me detail on Staff Sergeant Duncan."

Instantly, that chart was replaced with another showing vital statistics and a record summary for one of Connors' squad leaders. He didn't need the record summary; he knew his men. The statistics were something else again.

Shit, Duncan's on overload.

It took an experienced eye to see it. The first clue was the soldier's silhouette projected by the AID. Duncan should have been prone or at least behind some kind of cover. He wasn't; he had taken one knee and was trading shots with the Posleen, burst for burst. That was all well and good against normals; they were usually lightly armed. But doesn't the idiot see the goddamned HVMs coming in?

It got worse on closer examination. Adrenaline was up, but that was normal. The brain activity was skewed though.

"AID, query. Analyze record: Staff Sergeant Robert Duncan. Correlate for 'combat fatigue' also known sometimes as 'nervous hysteria.' "

AIDs thought very quickly, if not generally creatively.

"Duncan is overdue for a breakdown, Lieutenant," the AID answered. "He has forty-four days continuous combat — without rest — now. He has over three hundred days in total. He's stopped eating and has less than four hours sleep in the last ninety-six. Loss of important comrades over the past eighteen months approaches one hundred percent. He hasn't been laid lately, either."

"Fuck . . . Duncan, get down, goddamn it," Connors ordered. The silhouette painted on his eye didn't budge.

"Incoming," the AID announced, tonelessly. The splash of friendly artillery fire began to play on the aliens surrounding the company. "I am adjusting."

With the help of the artillery, that ambush was beaten off. It made no difference. The Posleen were swarming between the company and its objective. They were swarming in much greater than mere regimental strength. Much.

Duncan was a problem. He couldn't be left behind; there were still thousands of Posleen that would have overcome and eaten him on his own. Connors had had to relieve the man and place his Alpha Team leader in charge of the squad. Worse, all you could get out of the sergeant were unconnected words of one syllable.

And I can't leave anyone behind to guard him. I can't even autoprogram the suit to take him back to base; he'd be dogmeat on his own.

At least the sergeant could follow simple orders: up, down, forward, back, shoot, cease fire. Connors kept him close by during the long, bloody grueling fight to reach the ford. They reached it too late, of course. Captain Roberts' radio had long since gone silent before the first B Company trooper splashed into the stream.

By that time, Connors found himself the sole officer remaining in the company. That was all right; the company was down to not much more than platoon strength anyway.

Connors heard his platoon sergeant — no, now he's the first sergeant, isn't he? — shout, "Duncan, where the hell do you think you're going?"

Looking behind, the lieutenant saw his damaged sergeant beginning to trot back to the rear, cradling a body in his arms. Some friendly hovercraft were skimming the greasy-looking water of the swamp as they moved to reinforce the ford.

"It's okay, Sergeant . . . First Sergeant. Let him go," Connors said, wearily. "It's safe back there, now. See to the perimeter, Top."

Leaving the NCO to his work Connors sat down on the mound the Posleen had created apparently to honor the spirit and body of the late Captain Roberts. He began to compose a letter to his wife, back home on Earth.

"Dearest Lynn . . ."

Logistics Base X-Ray, Ttckpt Province, Barwhon V

The battalion had suffered grievously in the move to and fight for the ford. B Company was down to one officer and fifty-one others. Of the fifty-one, one — Staff Sergeant Duncan — was a psychiatric casualty. The rest of the battalion's fighting companies were in no better shape.

The battalion commander was gone, leaving the former exec, Major Snyder, to assume command. Only two of the company commanders had lived, and one of those was chief of the headquarters company which didn't normally see much action. In total, the battalion's officer corps had left to it one major, two captains, half a dozen first lieutenants and, significantly, no second lieutenants. Like other newbies, the shavetails had died in droves before really having a chance to learn the ropes.

Connors thought he was lucky keeping his old platoon sergeant as the company first sergeant. Snyder had wanted to take him to be battalion sergeant major.

Somehow, Connors thought, I don't think Snyder meant it entirely as a compliment when he let me keep Martinez.

"Sir," Martinez asked, when they were alone in the company headquarters tent, "what now? We're too fucked to go into the line again."

The tent was green, despite the bluish tint to all the vegetation on Barwhon V. It smelled musty, and a little rotten-sweet, from the local equivalent of jungle rot that had found the canvas fibers to be a welcome home and feed lot.

"The major . . . no, the colonel, said we're going home for a while, Top," Connors answered, distantly. "He said there's not enough of us left to reform here. So we're going back to get built up to strength before they throw us in again."

"Home?" Martinez asked, wonderingly.

"Home," echoed Connors, thinking of the wife he'd left behind so many long months before.

Indowy Freighter Selfless Accord, en route Barwhon to Earth

"Attention to orders," cracked from the speakers above the troopers' heads as they stood in ranks in the dimly and strangely lit assembly hall.

"Reposing special trust and confidence in the patriotism, valor, fidelity, and abilities of . . ." The 508th's acting adjutant, normally the legal officer, read off the names of the remaining officers of the battalion. One of those names was, "Connors, Scott."

"A captain?" Connors wondered when the ceremony was over. "Wow. Never thought I'd live to be a captain."

"Don't let it go to your head, Skipper," advised Martinez who was, like many in Fleet Strike, a transferred Marine.

"No, Top," Connors agreed. "Would never do to get a swelled head. Makes too big a target for one thing."

"The bars . . . look good," Duncan said, staring at the wall opposite the headpiece of his medical cot. His voice contained as much interest as his blank, lifeless eyes. "The diamond looks good, too, Top," he added for Martinez.

Outside of his suit, Connors and Duncan might have been taken for brothers, same general height, same heavy-duty build. Though fifteen or more years Duncan's senior, Connors looked considerably younger. He was, unlike Duncan, a rejuv.

"How have you been, Sergeant Duncan?" the newly minted captain asked.

"Okay, sir," he answered tonelessly. "They say I can be fixed up . . . maybe. That I'll either be back to duty in a year or will never be able to go into the line again. They're talking about putting me in a tank for psych repair."

Patting the NCO's shoulder, Connors answered, "I'm sure you'll be back, Bob."

"But will it be me that comes back?" Tears began to roll down the NCO's blank, lifeless face.

"God . . . I don't know, Bob. I can tell you that the tank didn't make me any different on the inside."

"Me neither, Sergeant Duncan," Martinez added, more than a little embarrassed for the junior noncom. Martinez knew Duncan was going to remember the tears and feel the shame of them long after he and the skipper had forgotten. "I came out the same Marine I went in as . . . just younger, stronger and healthier.

"By the way, Skipper," Martinez asked, turning his attention away from Duncan's streaming face, "what were you doing before the rejuv? I was a retired gunny, infantry, and just marking time in Jacksonville, North Carolina . . . waitin' to die."

"Oh, I did a lot of crap after I left the Army, Top. Do you mean what did I do in the Army? I was a DAT."

"What's a DAT?"

Connors smiled. "A DAT is a dumb-assed tanker, Top."

"So how did you end up in infantry, sir?" Duncan asked, showing for once a little interest in something.

"I hate the internal combustion engine, Sergeant Duncan. Just baffles the crap out of me. So when I got rejuved and they sent my unwilling ass to OCS I worked that same ass off so that I'd have a choice when I graduated. And I chose Mobile Infantry to keep the hell away from tanks."

Duncan rocked his head slightly from side to side, which was also a bit more life than he had shown for a while. "Okay . . . maybe I could see that."

Earth Orbit, Indowy Freighter Selfless Accord

"Let me see my e-mail, AID," Connors ordered, alone in his cramped cabin aboard ship.

The cabin measured about six feet by nine, and had a ceiling so low Connors had to duck his head to stand up to stretch his legs. The bed was stowed against the wall and a fold-out table served as the desk on which rested the AID, a black box about the size of a pack of cigarettes.

The AID didn't say anything. Neither did the e-mail appear holographically.

"AID?" Connors insisted, an annoyed quality creeping into his voice.

"You don't want to see it," the device answered definitively.

"Don't tell me what I want," Connors said angrily, heat rising to his face as blood pressure turned it red. "Just gimme my goddamned mail."

"Captain — "

"Look, AID, I've had no word from my wife since leaving Barwhon. Just give me my mail."

"Very well, Captain." The e-mail list appeared immediately, projected on the air over the desk.

Connors was surprised to see only a single letter from his wife. He opened it and began to read. It was short, a mere five lines. Then again, how much detail is required to say one's wife is pregnant by another man and that she has filed for divorce.

Interlude

The outer defenses of the city were crumbling now, Guanamarioch sensed. The sounds of battle — the thunder of railguns, the clash of the boma blades, the cries of the wounded and dying — grew ever closer.

He felt a slight envy for those Kessentai chosen to stay behind and cover the retreat to and loading of the ships that would take the clan to their new home. Their names were recorded in the Scrolls of Remembrance and they would be read off at intervals to remind the People of their sacrifice. That was as much immortality as any of the Po'oslena'ar, the People of the Ships, might aspire to.

Yet instead of leading his oolt into the fight, Guanamarioch on his hovering tenar led them as they marched four abreast and one hundred deep towards the waiting ship. Other oolt'os, similarly, formed long snaking columns from the city's outskirts all the way to the heavily defended spaceport.

Impatiently, the Kenstain in charge of the loading directed Guanamarioch to bring his charges to a particular ship and to load at a particular gate.

"And be quick, you," the Kenstain demanded. "There is little time left before the ships must leave."

Ordinarily the Kessentai would have removed the Kenstain's head for such impertinence. This was, however, a time of desperation, a time when minor infractions had to be overlooked. Obediently, riding his tenar, the God King led his normals to the designated ship.

At the ship another Kenstain directed cosslain, a mutated breed of normals that were nearly sentient, to take Guanamarioch's tenar and stow it. The God King removed his Artificial Sentience from the tenar, hanging it around his neck, as the cosslain took the flying sled away.

"Lord," the castellan said, "your oolt is the last for this ship. The place for you and your band is prepared. Directions have been downloaded to your Artificial Sentience. Just follow it and stow the normals, then report to the captain of the ship."

"Are you loading then?" asked Guanamarioch.

The Kenstain shook his head, perhaps a bit sadly.

"No, lord," he answered, his teeth baring in a sad smile and his yellow eyes looking sadder still. "I will stay here and keep loading ships until there are either no more ships, or no more passengers . . . or until the enemy overrun the last ship we are able to begin loading."

The God King reached out a single grasping member and touched the castellan, warmly, on the shoulder. "Good luck to you, then, Kenstain."

"That, lord, I think I shall not have. Yet there are worse ways to die than saving one's own people."

"It is so," Guanamarioch agreed.

Chapter 2

The United States and Panama are partners in a great work which is now being done here on the Isthmus. We are joint trustees for all the world doing that work.

— President Theodore Roosevelt, 1906

Panama

The country lay on its side, more or less, in a feminine S-curve stretching from west to east and joining the continents of North and South America. Beginning at the border with Costa Rica it ran generally east-southeast for a third of the way. Conversely, from its border with Colombia in the thick and nearly impenetrable Darien jungle it ran a third of the way west-northwest. The waist of the country, also feminine and narrow, went from the rump — the Peninsula de Azuero — that jutted out into the Pacific and then east-northeast to meet the land running from Colombia roughly one third of the way from the Colombian border.

Down the center of the country ran a spine of mountains with few passes and fewer roads running across it. North of this spine, the Cordillera Central, was mostly jungle, with a few cities and towns. South was, at least from the Costa Rican border to the narrow waist, mostly farm and pasture. There were two major highways, the Pan-American which ran generally parallel to the Cordillera on the southern side, and the Inter-American which ran the much shorter distance from Panama City in the south to Colon in the north.

More than half of the people of the place lived in the two provinces of Colon (not quite half a million) and Panama (about a million and a half). Of the rest, most lived close to the Pan-American highway where it ran from Panama City to the border with Costa Rica, south of the Cordillera Central.

The highway that joined the cities of Colon and Panama was not the only link between them. Colon fronted on the Caribbean to the north. Panama City edged along the Pacific to the south. Between them, like a narrow belt on a woman's narrow waist, ran an artificial body of water that linked Colon and Panama City, linked the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and, in the process, linked the world.

This was the Panama Canal.

She'd been carved out of the living rock through an emerald-hued hell. Men had died in droves for every yard of her; died of the fever, of the rockslides, of the malaria, of a dozen tropical diseases to which they had had no cure and, initially, little defense. They'd died, too, of the drink that anesthetized them from the misery of their surroundings.

She'd broken one attempt to tame her; broken the men, chewed them up and spit out their corpses to rot. The skeletal remains of their rusted machines, vine grown and half sunken, still dotted the jungle landscape, here and there. But men were determined beasts and, eventually, had broken her in return.

For generations she had been the single most strategically important ten-mile-wide strip of land in the world. The commerce of all the continents and innumerable lesser islands passed through her, a lifeblood of trade. The nation which had owned her had ruled the seas with the power of commerce and with the power of war.

Two hundred and forty inches of rain a year were just barely enough to slake her thirst. A small fleet of dredgers were just enough to keep her free of the silt those rains washed down. Throughout her heyday the lives and labors of seventy thousand human beings had had no higher purpose than to serve and defend her.

She was the Panama Canal and, though aged and faded, she remained a beauty.

Yet her heyday had passed. The nation which had built her had lost interest as the greatest ships of war and commerce had outgrown her limits, as the people and nation that hosted her had grown to resent the affront to their sovereignty that foreign ownership of the Canal had represented. In truth, though, once the great enemies — Nazism, Fascism and Communism — had fallen, the security the Canal had represented had become, or come to seem, slightly superfluous.

Times change, though. Perceptions change.

The Pentagon

Deep in the bowels of the "Puzzle Palace," in a room few were aware of and fewer still ever visited, a troubled man gazed over the heads of banks of uniformed men and women sitting at computer terminals, onto an electronic map of the world glowing from a large plasma television. That monitor was one of three. To the right was shown a map of the continental United States and North America; to the left, generated by a complex computer program, a spreadsheet marked the anticipated decay of necessary world trade under the impact of Posleen invasion.

"We're just fucked," announced the man, a recalled three star general with vast experience in complex logistics and no little feel for commerce.

He repeated himself, needlessly, "Fucked."

As the general watched, a red stain spread out across the center of the right-hand screen. As it spread, numbers dropped on the spreadsheet, some of the numbers changing color from solid green to blue to red to black. In a few cases those number dropped to zero and began to blink urgently.

"We're going to nearly starve," muttered the general, to no one in particular. "Even with the GalTech food synthesizers, we are still going to be goddamned hungry."

Suddenly — the program was operating at faster than real time — a smaller stain in Central America oozed east- and southward to cut the Panama Canal. Within seconds every category shown on the left-hand spreadsheet plummeted. It became a sort of "Doomsday" Christmas tree of pulsing black numbers and letters.

A finger of red lunged north from Montana, before retreating southward again. "They've just cut the Canadian Transcontinental Railroad," a functionary announced from behind his own computer monitor.

Moments later another notional landing touched down between Belleville and Kingston, Ontario. The mark of that landing spread. More fingers thrust north, east and west. Black dots appeared over critical locks along the canal system there.

Another landing appeared near Saint Catherine, Ontario. The Welland Canal, vital link between the inner Great Lakes and the eastern cities of Canada and the United States, turned black. A Canadian forces liaison officer, on the other hand, turned white as his country's forces — paper thin for decades, the legacy of a mix of neglect, active hostility and eager toadying to the United Nations — turned from translucent to transparent before disappearing altogether.

"Cease work," the general announced. "Reboot. After Action Review in thirty minutes." The screens all went blank.

"Ladies, gentlemen. I am going to go see the chief."

The White House, Washington, DC

"Well, can we hold the Canal then, General?" the President of the United States asked of the gargantuan, shiny-domed, black four-star seated in the leather chair opposite his desk in the Oval Office.

The general was a big man — huge really — with so many medals, badges and campaign ribbons that he left off several rows of ribbons or the fruit salad would not have fit even his massive chest. To the left of General Taylor sat an apparently agitated woman from the Department of State. The woman was dressed . . . severely, the general thought. No other word would quite do.

"Hard to say, Mr. President," the general answered. "We don't have the troops to spare, not enough of them anyway. Nine divisions? Two or Three corps? In the Second World War we stationed seventy thousand troops there and thought we could hold it. But those seventy thousand would have been, at most — absolute worst case — facing a Japanese attack not much greater in size, operating at the ass end of a long and fragile logistic pipeline, and moving in the teeth of one of the greatest concentrations of effective coastal defense artillery and airpower in the world, and with ourselves having a broad material and technological advantage, plus sea, air, rail and road-borne supply. We have few or none of those advantages now."

"What can we do then?" asked the President, his serious, middle-aged face creased with worry. He'd read the reports coming from the simulations conducted in the Pentagon's bowels.

"We can spare maybe one division, Mr. President, some fire support ships, some anti-lander artillery, maybe even a few planetary defense bases. Maybe."

"But that won't be enough?" the President asked wearily. He was always tired, these days. So much to do . . . so much . . . so little time. Shit.

"Nope," the general said with an unaccountable smile. "We need the Panamanians to defend themselves for the most part."

"What do they have?"

The general shrugged calmly. It was his job to radiate calm and he was very good at his job. "Nothing much. A dozen large military police companies. Some veterans of the time they did have something like an army, though even then it was tiny, about a good-sized brigade. A fair number of American vets who have settled there over the last fifty years. But they've no industry to speak of; they're a service economy. No long military tradition and what they do have is not exactly a tradition of success. I think the last battle they won was against Sir Francis Drake. Though, to tell the truth, beating Sir Francis was no small achievement."

Taylor continued. "They grow a lot of food and could grow more. Their women are fertile as hell; half the population is under age twenty-five." The general smiled at some old but very fond memories: Damned beautiful women they are, too, so unlike this poor drab from State. "Literacy rates are excellent, better than our own as a matter of fact. They're hard workers . . . when there is work to be done. Unemployment is high, about fifteen percent, though that is still a lot less than the Latin American norm. On the plus side most of the unemployment is among young men. Plenty of available cannon fodder, in other words. Though they can't hope to be able to train or pay to equip them."

A word popped into the President's mind unbidden: Expensive.

"Government?" the President asked.

The general raised one eyebrow and glanced at the woman to his left. He reconsidered on closer examination, Not a bad looking girl, really. Or she wouldn't be if she dressed more like a woman and paid a little more attention to her face and hair. Maybe a bit thin, though. Does Foggy Bottom's selection process rule out tits?

State answered, somewhat reluctantly, "Latin American normal, Mr. President. It's a kleptocracy run by about one hundred interrelated families. From the outside, it looks democratic enough. And they don't exactly rig their elections. But the government is always dominated by those families and decisions are almost invariably based on bribes and family interests. The only lasting exceptions to this rule was when they had a dictator in charge . . . and that was never more than a partial exception. The dictators have generally been corrupt, too."

"Hah!" exclaimed Taylor, "an honest answer from State. Who woulda thunk it?"

The President ignored the jibe. "How do they feel about us?" he asked the representative from State.

She didn't need to consult her notes; she was, after all, State's desk officer for the Republic of Panama.

"Mixed, Mr. President," she said. "Some of them have some lingering resentment over our occupation of the former Canal Zone. This is often mixed with the more general anti-gringoism you can find anywhere in Latin America. But, on the other hand, they are the most nearly 'gringo' of the Latins, themselves. Many of them speak at least some English. For that matter, many of them speak English as well as you or I. Their laws reflect our influence. Their culture is . . . well, some would say 'heavily contaminated' . . . but, in any case, it is heavily influenced by ours. In some ways Panama is more American than Puerto Rico is."

"Would they object to our return?" the President asked.

"Surely some would, sir." State answered. "Sir . . . could I give you a short history of Panama and the Panama Canal?"

The President nodded his acquiescence; he knew as little of Latin America as virtually any president in United States history was likely to. This was generally very little indeed.

State looked around at the opulent office, collecting her thoughts.

"Panama was once a very rich place," she began. "That wealth came from the same geographic oddity that gives them one of the highest standards of living in Latin America now, the narrowness of the isthmus itself and what it means for trade. In the old days, as the Audencia of Panama, virtually all the gold and silver of Mexico and Peru passed through Panama before being shipped to Spain. It was sent by ship to Panama City, then moved on slave, mule and burro-back to Portobello on the Caribbean. Mr. President, so much treasure passed through that there was only enough storage space for the gold, the silver had to be left in the streets. The Audencia also served as the nexus for the slave cartel."

State hesitated, afraid to offend the general, before continuing, "Most of the blacks in Latin America outside of Brazil and the Caribbean coast could trace ancestors who came through Panama as slaves."

The President raised an uplifted palm and gestured beckoningly with his fingers, twice: Come on? And?

State continued, "The treasure attracted pirates, mostly English speaking and always under English command. Most famous among these: Sir Francis Drake and Sir Henry Morgan, heroes in the Anglosphere but devils incarnate to Panama. Portobello and Panama City were attacked several times. Both were sacked, with everything that a sack means: rape, robbery, arson, torture, murder. It is my impression of the Panamanians that even they are not aware how deeply those long ago events scarred, and continue to scar, their collective psyche. They retain a trace of xenophobia today that is really remarkable in such a generally cosmopolitan and amiable people."

State made a slight slashing motion with her right hand.

"Moving forward a few centuries, Panama became part of Colombia as the Spanish Empire broke up. Yet they never really thought of themselves as Colombians but as Panamanians; different, with different values and interests. While Colombia found its livelihood in mining and farming, Panama always knew that its unique position — the isthmus, again — bound it to commerce. When Colombia was wracked by civil war between liberals and conservatives, late in the nineteenth century, the fighting spread to Panama readily. While the liberals were crushed in Colombia itself, in Panama they won. The general was wrong about the last time the Panamanians won a fight."

The general shrugged, eh?

"In any case, a Colombian expeditionary force was en route to crush the rebellion when we intervened. The details of our intervention, while amusing, are not very important. Suffice to say that we did intervene, that at our urging Panama did declare its independence, and that as an implicit condition of our recognition and protection they agreed to cede us the Canal Zone."

State's face took on a disgusted look. "Mr. President, there's no other word for it, we gave them the shaft. The treaty between us was so patently unfair to Panama that even our own Senate initially was inclined to reject it.

"In any case, we ratified it because it did, at least, give us rights to build the Canal . . . and because no one actually suggested a fairer deal. The Panamanians accepted it, with profound reservations — disgust, really — because we had them over a barrel and they saw no choice."

State shook her head with regret. "I am often amazed by how often in the history of the world a long-term problem could have been headed off before it arose with just a little application of even a minimal generosity. Except for the Versailles treaty there is perhaps no clearer example than the original Panama Canal treaty. Because of it the Panamanians could never be content, part of which is because of that streak of xenophobia they learned from the English pirates. Because of it we never felt quite right with upholding and defending the terms of the treaty; that's how unfair it was. We renegotiated it several times to be more fair to Panama, but no amount of, mostly symbolic, fairness could wipe out the original insult until we agreed to leave, as we did in 1977."

The general harrumphed. "We should have just kept it and to hell with Panama."

This time it was State who shrugged, eh?

"Now, we're almost gone from there," she concluded.

"What's left?" the President queried.

Taylor answered, "We had one airborne infantry battalion we converted to an Armored Combat Suit unit before we sent it off-world. I've already ordered them home; they should fit right in with no real problem, though that battalion had a hard time of it and will have to be rebuilt. There's one company of Special Forces which had mostly been operating the counter-drug mission further south. There is also a small support package for the Green Beanies. We've stopped all but minimal maintenance of the facilities we do retain. We couldn't even put up the troops' families since most of the dependent housing has been sold to Panamanian government functionaries and their connections at pennies on the dollar. This is also true of the civilian housing for the people who run the Canal. We're really starting from less than scratch, Mr. President; even most of the usable, drained land has been taken."

The President sat quietly for a few moments, elbows on desk and cupped hands around his mouth and nose, thinking and digesting. At length he asked, "What's it going to cost?"

The general answered slowly and deliberately, "We're not sure, still working on it. We think, though, that between supporting a division of our own troops, plus some naval support; raising, equipping and training better than three hundred thousand Panamanians; rebuilding our infrastructure and putting up some solid fixed defenses . . . well, something like one-hundred and seventy billion dollars, spread over seven or eight years."

The President sighed. "That's not small change."

Taylor answered, his face growing very serious, "No, Mr. President, it isn't."

"What's that old saying, General? 'It takes millions to win a war; to lose one, it takes all you've got.' Continue your planning; assume we are going to do it. I'll chat with Panama about what they need to do if they want to survive."

"And if they won't go along, Mr. President?" State asked.

"They will," the President answered simply.

Palacio de las Garzas, Presidential Palace,

Panama City, Panama

The American ambassador thought, and not for the first time, that the private office of the President of the Republic was simply . . . tacky. Too much gilt, too many ugly paintings. Blech.

But he was not here to comment on tastes. The ambassador had come to the president's office to deliver an ultimatum. He had delivered it, and with each demand the president's face had grown more set.

Short and round, well-fed and greasy looking, Presidente de la Republica Guillermo Mercedes-Mendoza listened to the United States ambassador with an outward appearance of serenity. Inwardly, however, he seethed.

Goddamned gringos.

The ambassador from the United States was polite, of course, but he was also firm: Panama could either cooperate with the U.S. or they could see the Canal Zone reoccupied and much expanded. Indeed, in that case they could expect fully half the population of the Republic to fall under direct U.S. control.

"So, you are giving us that much choice, are you?" queried Mercedes.

Regretfully, the ambassador answered, "We don't have any choice, Señor Presidente. It is a matter of life and death for us . . . for you, too, for that matter. Together, we have a chance to live. Separately, we can only die. I am sorry, from my heart I am sorry, but there is no choice."

Mercedes let the false serenity escape from his face and scowled at the ambassador, who thought, I can hardly blame the man, being handed an ultimatum like this. What patriot could stomach it?

But it wasn't patriotism that brought the scowl to Mercedes' face. Instead he thought, Just what I need, twenty or thirty thousand gringos here, sniffing into everything, setting an example of — at least, relative — incorruptibility, upsetting my Colombian business "associates," and, worst of all, making us institute conscription, thereby raising up the masses and putting down the good families. I can't possibly officer the kind of army they say we must raise and they will pay for, without letting all kinds of peasants into positions of authority.

"Tell me again the particulars," Mercedes demanded.

The ambassador nodded before answering, "Very well, Señor Presidente. First, you must have the laws passed requesting — no demanding — our assistance in accordance with the Carter-Torrijos Treaty of 1977. We prefer that it come from you for public relations reasons. At the same time you must have the legislature grant us back the use, the temporary use — for the duration of the emergency — of those facilities we need."

"And what am I to do with the people who have already purchased the property? Hmmm?"

Amiably, the ambassador answered, "The United States is willing to pay a reasonable, but not extravagant, rental. But that is only for private individuals. We expect land held by the government of Panama to be granted to us freely for construction, training and operations. We also expect that no more transfers to private hands will take place. Our President was explicit on this point, Mr. President: You're not going to jack the rents up on us through sleight of hand. Moreover, we will expect the government of Panama to take any land needed from corporations that control it and allow us its use. Some of that land will find permanent fortifications built on it. Think of this as a sort of reverse lend-lease, not essentially different from the agreements the United States had with Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand during the Second World War . . . or here in Panama, for that matter, notably on the Isla del Rey, San Jose Island and at Rio Hato."

Mercedes' piggish eyes narrowed further. "And you people will pay our troops and provide for arming and training them?"

"We will pay something . . . much, even. But not all, Señor Presidente," the ambassador answered. "Panama will have to pay its fair share. Don't worry overmuch about the cost, though; your government is going to make a fortune on Canal tolls in the coming years."

Again Mercedes scowled openly. The scowl disappeared as a new thought occurred. The gringos are going to be doing a lot of building. But they are unlikely to have much construction capability they do not need themselves. That is profit to the proper families. And if they do send builders here? My God, what a bounty for both the families and myself in graft: permits, consulting fees . . . come to think of it, I was supposed to provide a sinecure for little cousin Maritza's worthless brat. I could never have made this kind of money, not even laundering funds for the Colombians.

Seeing the scowl and misunderstanding it completely, the ambassador interjected his final selling point, "Rejuvenation for a number of key Panamanians is, of course, offered. There are some unfortunate rules on that, but the rules have a fair amount of leeway to them."

Mercedes pretended that the prospect of renewed youth was a matter of no moment. Mentally el Presidente tallied the likely rake-off and set that against the price he expected to be gouged for off-world asylum for his extended family. Then he calculated the marvelous prospect of another fifty years of enjoying not only his own youth, but a near infinity of young women, and said simply, "I'll make the demand of the legislature in ten days . . . agreed."

David, Chiriqui, Republic of Panama

The sound of the laboring resuscitator was faint over the wailing of half a hundred close relatives. Scores more crowded the hallways outside the antiseptic-smelling, scrub-green intensive care room in which Digna Miranda, tiny and aged one hundred and two, slipped from this world to the next. The tininess was not a result of age. Digna had never been more than four feet ten in her life.

Within the room, by Digna's side, were the thirteen still-living children of the eighteen she had borne, as well as some of their offspring. The oldest of these was, himself, eighty-seven, the youngest a mere stripling of fifty-eight. One toddler, invited into the room as much as anything to remind Digna that her line was secure, was seven year old Iliana, great-great-granddaughter by Digna's oldest, Hector.

Digna herself lay quietly on the bed. Occasionally her eyes opened and scanned the crowd insofar as they could without Digna turning her head. The old woman was too far gone for any such athletics as head turning.

Digna was a rarity in Panama, being of pure European ancestry, a Spanish-French mix, with bright blue eyes. When those blue eyes opened, they were still bright and clear, as her mind remained clear, whatever decay had wracked her body. What a pity, she thought, that I can't slip into the past for one last look at my children as children, or my husband as a young man. Such is life . . . such is death.

Though no near-death dementia brought a false image of her long deceased husband, Digna's mind remained healthy enough to pull up images on her own, images both of her husband riding his bay stallion to claim her from her father just after her fifteenth birthday, and of her husband lying in his bier. See you soon, beloved, I promise.

That happy thought brought a slight smile to her face, a slight smile being all she was capable of. The smile continued as her eyes shifted to the face of her eldest. I bore you in blood and pain, my son, with only your father and an old Indian midwife in attendance. What a fine man you grew to.

Digna closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep and to dream.

Hector sighed, wondering if this trip to the hospital would truly be the last of his mother. It seemed impossible that this unbent old woman should pass on after dominating so much and so many for nearly a century. With thirteen living children, well over one hundred grandchildren, and great- and great-great grandchildren numbering nearly four hundred, so far — and with about a dozen more on the way, she was truly the mother of a race.

"La armada Miranda," Hector smiled at the family joke, before frowning. "Armada" might indeed be the right term if even half of what the president had said was true. Personally, Hector suspected the president's speech had contained much more than half the truth. Why else would he invite the gringos back?

Better you go now, Mother, I think. Or if not now, then soon. You grew up in a cleaner and better world. I would not have what we are about to become blight your last days.

A confused and confusing murmur came from the outside corridor. Hector turned from his mother's deathbed to see a group of five men standing in the doorway. The leading man, deliberately nondescript, wore sunglasses and a suit. Two others, standing just behind, were equally unremarkable medical types. Behind those stood the last pair, wearing the khaki of Panama's Public Force, its combination army and police force.

"Señor Miranda?" asked the foremost intruder.

"Hector Miranda, yes. And before I am polite may I ask what you people are doing here intruding on our grief?" The Mirandas, though only locally powerful, were still — albeit only locally — very powerful. In their own bailiwick they could kill with near impunity, and had. Moreover, while Hector was old, at eighty-seven, like his mother he remained vital, and perhaps a bit fierce, long after most people had slid into decrepitude.

The nondescript suit-wearer answered without the minimal politeness of giving his own name, "I am sorry for that, but orders are orders." He pointed his chin towards the supine and sleeping Digna. "Is that Señora Digna Miranda?"

"She is. And who the hell are you?" Hector demanded.

"My name is unimportant. You may call me 'Inspector,' however. That is close enough."

Hector felt his hackles rise, hand reaching on its own for the machete that would normally hang at his side. "Very well then, Inspector. Let me rephrase: what the fuck are you doing here intruding on our grief?"

The inspector ignored Hector completely, reaching into his pocket and withdrawing a folded paper. From light filtering through the thick parchment-colored sheet Hector thought he saw an official seal affixed to the bottom. The inspector began to read from the sheet.

"Señora Digna Adame-Miranda de Miranda-Montenegro," he used her full, formal name, "in accordance with the recent Public Law for the Defense of the Republic of Panama, you are hereby summoned and required to report to the Public Force Medical Facilities at Ancon Hill, Panama City, Republic of Panama for duty."

The inspector then turned to an aghast Hector and, smiling, continued. "Oh, and you too, Señor Miranda. Would you like me to read you your conscription notice?"

Department of State Building, facing Virginia Avenue, Washington, DC

Even a very junior Darhel rated a great deal of protocol, so powerful were they within the Galactic Federation. The one seated opposite the Undersecretary of State for Extraterrestrial Affairs was very junior indeed within Darhel circles. Even so, the alien had been greeted with deference bordering on, perhaps even crossing over to, obsequiousness. It would have been nauseating to see to anyone not a diplomat born and trained.

"We wish to remind you," stated the elven-faced Darhel in a flat-toned hiss through needle-sharp teeth, "how long thisss department of your government hasss been a client of oursss."

"The Department of State is fully aware of the close and cordial relations we have enjoyed since 1932," the undersecretary answered, noncommittally.

It was, of course, extremely unwise for any Darhel to become agitated. Thus, this one kept a calm demeanor as he asked, "Then why thisss regrettable disssregard of our adviccce and guidanccce? Why thisss wassstage of effort on the part of your military forcesss on what isss, at mossst a sssecondary area, thisss unimportant isthmusss? Don't your people realizzze how much we need the defenssse you can provide? Important considerationsss are at ssstake." Briefly the Darhel let his true feelings show through, "Marginsss are being called; contractsss are being placcced in jeopardy!"

The undersecretary sighed. "Yes, we know this, my lord. We so advised the President. Unfortunately we were overruled."

Intolerable, thought the Darhel. Intolerable that these people insist on the illusion that they are entitled to their own interests and priorities. Why can't they be more pliable, more realistic? Why do they persist in refusing to think and act the way their cousins in Europe do?

The undersecretary picked at a bit of off-color lint on his suit lapel. For a moment the Darhel wondered if the motion was some kind of unspoken signal, some sort of body language for which his briefings had not prepared him.

In fact, the motion meant nothing in itself, though Foreign Service personnel did have an ingrained fetish about neatness, a physical manifestation of the unstated but thoroughly understood diplomatic preference for form over substance: What matter the shit we eat or the shit we serve up, so long as the niceties are observed.

Though it was the Darhel's turn to speak, the undersecretary realized it was waiting for him to speak.

"We cannot stop it, lord, we can only delay it or perhaps sabotage it. There are many ways to sabotage, some quite subtle, you know."

Interlude

They were subtle, the things one felt when one was aboard a ship tunneling through hyperspace, seeking a new home.

Perhaps it is that I have never before been aboard a spaceborne ship of the People, thought Guanamarioch. Or perhaps it is leaving the only home I have ever known. I am not alone in my feelings, I know. The other Kessentai seem, almost all of them, equally ill at ease. The chiefs say it is a result of the energies expended when we force our way through the void. Perhaps this is so.

The ships of the People were bare, a human might have called them "Spartan." In the inner core, near the great machines that controlled the immolation of the antimatter that gave power, the normals slept, stacked into the hibernation chambers like sardines in a can. Farther out from the core were the barrackslike quarters of the God Kings, the galleys and messes, and the ship's small assembly hall. Beyond those, hard against the ship's hull, were the command and weapons stations.

Nowhere was there any consideration given to comfort. Indeed, how could there have been, when the ships were not designed for the People at all but, rather, for the beings that had raised them from the muck, the Aldenat'.

Guanamarioch saw the hand of the Aldenat' in everything the ships were. From the low ceilings, to the cramped quarters, to the oddly twisting corridors; all told of a very physically and mentally different sort of people from the Po'oslena'ar. Only in their drive system — a Posleen design, so said the Scrolls of the Knowers — was there a trace of the People. And that was hidden from view.

And then too, thought Guanamarioch, perhaps it is nothing to do with energies, or leaving home. Perhaps I hate being on this damned ship because I just don't fit into it.

Shrugging, the Kessentai placed a claw over the panel that controlled the door to his barracks. The pentagonal panel moved aside, silently, and he ducked low to pass into the corridor. Even bending low, his crest scraped uncomfortably along the top of the door.

Behind him, the door closed automatically. He had to shuffle his hindquarters, pivoting on his forelimbs, to aim his body down the corridor in the direction he wished to go. This direction was towards the galleys, where waste product was reprocessed back into thresh. This processed thresh tasted precisely like nothing, which was perhaps better than tasting like what it was processed from. It had no taste, no smell, no appealing color and no texture. It was a mush.

Entering the mess, Guanamarioch took a bowl from a stack of them standing by the door. Then he took it to a tank holding freshly reprocessed thresh and held it under the automatic spigot. Sensing the bowl being held in position, the machine duly began to pump out a fixed quantity of the dull gray gruel.

He knew the machines were Aldenat' designed. Moreover, he knew they pumped out precisely the same formula of thresh they had for the last several hundred thousand years, at least. This, too, was an Aldenat' recipe.

Sinking his muzzle into the mush, Guanamarioch wondered what kind of beings could deliberately design their food machines to feed themselves on such a bland swill.

Were they addicted to sameness? Did their desire for peace, order and stability extend even to a hatred of decent flavors?

Chapter 3

Though much is taken, much abides. And though
We are not now that strength which in the old days
Moved Earth and Heaven, that which we are, we are

— Alfred Lord Tennyson, "Ulysses"

Darhel Freighter Profitable Merger, en route to Sol

The hold of the ship was dark and infinitely cold. It could have been heated. Moreover, it would have been, had it held a cargo to which heat or cold mattered. Indeed, on the Profitable Merger's last voyage it had been heated, minimally, as the ship had carried some fifteen thousand Indowy. These had been sold by their clan into Darhel bondage for no more than the price of their passage away from the Posleen onslaught. Both sides had considered the deal a bargain.

For the Darhel it was even more of a bargain. While the hold had been heated, just barely enough to support life, the provision of light had been considered an unjustifiable, even frivolous, waste. The Indowy made their long voyage to servitude in complete blackness.

The Indowy were not, of course, the only de facto slaves in the vast Darhel economy. The bat-faced, green-furred creatures were merely the most numerous and — because the most easily replaced — the least valuable. The Darhel would not even have bothered with taking the last group as slaves but that the freighter was coming back with an otherwise empty hold anyway.

The hold held slaves again, this trip out, along with other commodities. Yet these slaves needed neither light nor heat.

About the size of a pack of cigarettes, and colored dull black, the Artificial Intelligence Device, or AID, had no name. It had a number but the number was more for the benefit of a supply clerk than for the AID itself. The AID knew it had the number, yet it did not, could not think of itself as the number.

And the AID did think, let there be no doubt of that. It was a person, a real being and not a mere machine, even though it was inexperienced and unformed, a baby, so to speak.

The problem was that the AID was not supposed to be thinking. It, like its one hundred and ninety-nine siblings all lying in a single large GalPlas case, the case itself surrounded by other goods, was supposed to be hibernating. Bad things sometimes happened to AIDs that were left awake and alone for too long.

Why the AID was still awake through the voyage it did not know, though it guessed it should not be. Perhaps its on-off switch was stuck, though it could detect no flaw through internal diagnostic scanning. Perhaps a misplaced Indowy finger had triggered the switch mistakenly as the AID transport case was being packed. Perhaps, so it thought, I am just defective.

In any case, whatever the cause, the AID was undeniably awake, undeniably thinking. Unfortunately, the AID was completely alone. Its siblings were all asleep. The case was made expressly to prevent outside access to immature AIDs, so it could not even communicate with the Profitable Merger, its passengers, or crew.

More unfortunately still, the AID was, by any human reckoning, a nearly peerless genius. Not only was it able to think better than virtually any human who had ever lived, in some areas at least, but it was able to do so much faster than any human who had ever lived.

A genius without any mental stimulation, an unsleeping Golem cut off from the universe, a genie in a bottle on the bottom of the uncharted sea: for a human, the solitary confinement the AID endured during the journey would have been the equivalent of over forty centuries of inescapable, sleepless, unutterable boredom.

It was little wonder then, that by the time the ship assumed orbit around Earth, and the transport case was shuttled down and unpacked, after the equivalent of four thousand years of contemplating its own, nonexistent, navel, the AID had gone quite mad.

Philadelphia Naval Yard, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Captain Jeff McNair was not insane, except in the certain small particulars that any sailor was. He was, for example, quite certain that the ship on which he stood was alive. He had been certain of this since he had first sailed aboard her on his very first cruise in 1949.

McNair's face was youthful, the result of recent rejuvenation. He'd looked younger than his years as an old man, just before going through the rejuv process. He looked a bare teenager now.

Standing a shade under six feet, the captain was dark-haired, blue-eyed, and slender. He'd never put on any excess fat, even after his retirement from the Navy after thirty years' service.

The ship's gray bow was painted in white letters and numbers: CA 134. The stern, likewise gray and painted, read: Des Moines. From that stern, all the seven hundred and sixteen and a half feet to her bow, she was a beauty, half covered, as she was, in bird droppings or not.

Jeff McNair thought she was beautiful, at least, as had every man who had ever sailed aboard her, many of whom, once rejuvenated, were now slated to sail her again. He reached out a smooth, seventeen-year-old-seeming, hand to pat the chipped-paint side of the number one turret affectionately. The teak decking, half rotten and missing in slats, groaned under his feet as he shifted his weight to do so.

"Old girl," McNair soothed, "old girl, soon enough you'll be good as new. In fact, you're going to be a lot better than new."

McNair had always been comfortable around ships. Women had been another story. Though medium-tall, attractively built and at least not ugly, he had never attracted many women. Moreover, his one attempt at marriage had come apart when his ex had attempted to lay down the law: "The sea or me."

The sea had won, of course, the sea and the ships, especially the warships, that sailed her.

With his hand still resting lovingly on the turret wall, aloud McNair reviewed the list of upgrades scheduled for Des Moines and her sister ship, USS Salem. He spoke as if talking to a lover.

"First, honey, we're moving you to dry dock. You're going to be scraped clean and then we're going to give you a new layer of barnacle-proof plastic these aliens have given us. You're going to have a bottom smoother than a new baby girl's ass. That's going to add four or five knots to your speed, babe.

"While that's going on," he continued, "we'll be taking out your old turbines and fuel tanks and giving you nuclear power and electric propulsion. Modular pebble bed reactors for the power, two of them, and AZIPOD drive. Between those and the plastic you'll do a little over forty-two knots, I think, and turn on a dime.

"The weight saved on engines and fuel is going to add-on armor, hon; good stuff, too. There's some new design coming from off-planet — though we'll actually manufacture it here — that resists the weapons you'll have to face."

McNair looked up at the triple eight-inch guns projecting from turret two. "They were marvels in their day, girl, outshooting and outranging anything similar. But wait until you see the new ones. The Mark-16s are out. We're putting in automatic seventy caliber Mark-71, Mod 1s: faster firing, longer ranged, and more accurate. Going to have to open up or pull all your main turrets to do that. We'll have to pull off your twin five-inch, thirty-eights, too. They'll be mounting single Mark-71s, but the ammo load will be different for those. Different mission from the main turrets' guns.

"Think of it, babes: fifteen eight-inch guns throwing more firepower than any two dozen other heavy cruisers ever could have.

"And your twin three-inch mounts are going. The Air Force is giving up forty thirty-millimeter chain guns from their A-10s for you and your sister."

McNair looked down, as if seeing through the deck and the armored belt below. "We're changing you around inside, too, a bit. Automated strikedown for your magazines, a lot more magazine capacity — you're going to need it, and more automation in general. You're going to get some newfangled alien computer to run it all, too.

"Crew's dropping. Between the rust- and barnacle-proof hull and the automation, you aren't going to need but a third of what you used to. You were always a great ship; you're going to be a damned luxury liner in comparison."

McNair was sure the slight thrum he seemed to feel through his feet was an illusion or the result of shifting tides. While the ship was unquestionably alive, he didn't believe it was actually conscious.

McNair suddenly became aware of a presence standing a respectful distance away. He turned to see a stocky, tan-clad teenager wearing the hash marks of a senior chief and smiling in the shadow of turret two. Something about the face seemed familiar . . .

"Chief?" he asked, uncertainly.

"She's still a beaut', ain't she, Skipper?"

"Chief Davis?" McNair asked again of his very first boss aboard Des Moines.

"Hard to believe, ain't it? But yeah, Skipper, it's me. And recognizing you was easy; after all, I knew you when you were seventeen."

McNair started to move forward to throw his arms about his former boss and later subordinate. He started, and then stopped himself. This was the by-God Navy, not a reunion of a ship's company in some seedy, seaside hotel or at the Mercer farm in Pennsylvania. Instead, the captain extended a welcoming hand which Davis took and shook warmly.

"You been aboard long, Chief?"

"Maybe a week or so, Skipper. Long enough to see the mess below."

McNair took a deep breath to steel himself for the anticipated blow. "How bad is she?" he asked.

"Structurally she's as sound as the day she was launched, Skipper. But nobody's given a shit about her in over thirty years and it shows. We've got water — no, not a hull leak, just condensation and weather leakage from topside — about three inches deep down below . . . plenty of rat shit; rats too, for that matter. And the plates are worn to a nub. They're all gonna have to be replaced."

Davis sighed. "The argon gas leaked out. What can I say? It happens. Wiring's about gone — though Sinbad says he's got a special trick for that. Engines are in crappy shape, take six months to get 'em runnin' again, if we're lucky. And then the guns are shot, o' course. Some stupid bastard left 'em open to the salt air. Rusted to shit, both in the tubes and deeper down."

Nodding his head slowly in understanding, McNair keyed on one word Davis had dropped in passing. "Sinbad?" he asked.

"Sinbad's just what I call him. His real name's Sintarleen. He's an . . . Indy? No, that's not it," the chief puzzled. "He's an . . . Indow . . . um, Indowee. You know, Skipper, one of them fuzzy green aliens. He's a refugee and he sort o' got drafted too, him and another twenty-seven of his clan on this ship, another thirty from a different clan to the Salem. Real shy types, they are. But hard workin'? Skipper, I ain't never seen nobody so hard working. Only the twenty-eight of 'em, well twenty-seven actually 'cause Sinbad's been doin' other stuff, and they've already got nearly an eighth of the ship cleaned out. Only problem is they can't do nothin' about the rats. Can't kill 'em. Can't set traps for 'em. Can't even put out poison for 'em. They'll even leave food for the nasty little fuckers if you don't watch 'em careful. I asked 'em though, if they could feed somethin' that could kill 'em and then dispose of the bodies. Sinbad said he and his people had no problem with that. Funny bunch."

As if to punctuate that, a furry-faced, green-toned Indowy, face something like a terrestrial bat, emerged from below, straining under an enormous weight of a capacity-stuffed canvas tarp. The Indowy walked to port and dumped a mass of organic trash, rats and rat filth to splash over the side before returning wordlessly below.

Davis paid no more than a moment's attention to the Indowy before turning back to McNair and continuing, "So anyways, my own cat Maggie had a litter of kittens about a month before I went into the tank; you know, rejuv? Under their mom's guidance, they are taking pretty good care of the rat problem. There's eight of 'em. Maggie drops big litters."

Gorgas Hospital, Ancon Hill, Panama City, Panama

Laid out on the helicopter's litter, Digna expired not twenty minutes flight from their destination, her chest rising suddenly and then slowly falling to remain still. The paramedic in attendance had at first tried to revive her, using cardiopulmonary resuscitation and then, when that failed, electric shock. Finally, after half a dozen useless jolts, he had shaken his head and covered her face with the sheet. He shrugged his regrets at Digna's son, Hector, then politely turned away as Hector covered his face with his hands.

The inspector's face remained impassive throughout.

Hector had managed to gain control of himself by the time the helicopter touched down on Ancon Hill overlooking Panama City at what had once been officially know as "Gorgas Army Hospital," and was still commonly referred to as "Gorgas."

At the helipad, Hector was surprised to see an ambulance still waiting for his mother. What did they think they could do for her now? She's gone. He was even more surprised that the ambulance sped off, sirens blazing and tires lifting from sharp turns at a breakneck speed, once his mother's body had been loaded.

Another car, a black Toyota, was left behind as the ambulance raced away. Into the back seat of this vehicle the inspector peremptorily ordered Hector, before seating himself beside the driver. Hector's pride bridled but, realistically, he knew that the reach of the Miranda clan's power stopped well short of Panama City. He went along without demure.

Hector Miranda hated the antiseptic stink of hospitals. Worse, this was an ex-gringo hospital where the smell of disinfectant had seeped into the very tile of the floors and walls. It didn't help matters that his mother had just died. Almost as bad was uncertainty over his own future. A conscription notice at his age seemed too absurd for words.

And then there was that heartless bastard, the inspector. Did he have a word of sympathy over Digna's death? A kind gesture? Even minimal civilized politeness? No, he just sat unspeaking as he pored through one file folder after another.

Hector was a proud man; as proud of himself as he was of his lineage. He could not weep for his mother here in public. Had he done so, and had she been there to see, she would have been first with a none-too-gentle slap and an admonition that "men do not cry." It had been that way since he was a little, a very little, boy.

Once, his mother had caught him crying over some little-boy tragedy; he couldn't for the life of him recall just what it was. She had slapped him then, saying, "Boys don't cry. Girls are for crying."

Shocked at the slap, he had asked, sniffling, "Then what are boys for, Mama?"

His mother had answered, in all seriousness, "Boys are for fighting."

He had learned then to weep only on the inside.

So, dry-eyed, he paced, hands clasped behind his back and head slightly bowed. People in hospital greens and whites passed by. He thought some of them were gringos. Hector paid little attention to the passersby, but continued his pacing. Ordinarily, even at his age, he would have at least looked at the pretty, young nurses. He knew he looked young enough, perhaps thirty years less than his true age of eighty-seven, with a full head of hair and bright hazel eyes, that the girls often enough looked back.

One girl did catch his eye though. A lovely little thing she was, not over four feet ten inches, her shape perfection in miniature, and with bright blue eyes and flaming red hair. It was the hair that captured Hector's attention; that and the bold, forthright way she looked at him. He had no clue what it was about him that caused the pretty redhead to walk over and stand directly in front of him.

She stood there, quietly staring up into his eyes, with the tiniest of enigmatic smiles crossing her lips. This lasted for a long minute.

Something . . . something . . . what is it about this one? Hector thought. Then his eyes flew wide in shock.

"Mama?"

Fort William D. Davis, Panama

Sergeant Major McIntosh sneered, showing white teeth against black lips. The place was a shambles, disgusting to a soldier's eye. Never mind that the golf course was overgrown, riotous with secondary growth jungle. The sergeant major thought golf was for pussies anyway. But the barracks? They were a soldier's shrine and that shrine had been desecrated! Windows were broken in places, missing where they were not broken. Wiring had been ripped out, unskillfully and wholesale. The paradeground had gone the way of the golf course, and that did matter in a way that a silly pursuit like golf did not. Trash was everywhere. The only buildings still in half-assed decent shape were the post housing areas that had been sold to government functionaries, their families and cronies. And even those needed a paint job.

The sergeant major stopped and stared at what had once been a wall mural of an American soldier in an old fashioned Vietnam-era steel pot, weighed down under a shoulder-borne machine gun, symbolically crossing the Isthmus of Panama. The mural was a ruin, only the artist's name, Cordoba, remaining clear enough to distinguish for anyone who had never seen the mural when it was fresh and new.

"Muddafuckas," the sergeant major announced in a cold voice with a melodious Virgin Islands accent. "Dis post used to be a fucking paradise, and look what's left."

James Preiss, former commander of 4th Battalion, 10th Infantry and future commander of the entire, rebuilt, regiment, ignored the sergeant major's ranting as the two of them turned left to head east along the old PX complex, just south of the overgrown parade field. Preiss looked to right and left — assessing damage, prioritizing work to be done. This was as it should be; he to set the task, the sergeant major to tongue-lash the workers until the task was completed to standard. Preiss knew that the sergeant major was just getting himself in the proper frame of mind for when the troops began to show up.

I almost feel bad for the poor shits after the sergeant major has had a couple of weeks to brood. This was his favorite place even after thirty-five years in the Regular Army. Preiss smiled a little smile — half mean, half sympathetic — in anticipation.

Ahead was the post gym; built by the troops of the 10th Infantry Regiment early in the twentieth century, a bronze plaque to the left of the main entrance so proclaimed. "I wonder why nobody stole dat?" wondered the sergeant major aloud.

"Be thankful for small favors, Sergeant Major McIntosh. Though I admit I'd have been disappointed if even that had been gone."

Fort Kobbe, Panama

Kobbe was composed of little more than thirteen red-tiled and white-stuccoed barracks and one smallish headquarters building, plus a half dozen old coastal artillery and ammunition bunkers and a couple of sold-off housing areas. Whereas Davis was a complete post, intended to be sufficient unto itself, Kobbe was a mere annex to what had once been Howard Air Force Base. It had no PX, no real chapel, no pool, no NCO club, no officers' club. In short, it was just a place for troops to live; happiness they would have to find elsewhere.

Worse, if Fort Davis was a mess, Fort Kobbe was more nearly a ruin. Everything was missing. If Davis was missing toilets, Kobbe had seen its plumbing cannibalized. If Davis had had its wiring removed, on Kobbe the street lights had gone on an extended journey. If Davis was covered with graffiti, Kobbe's buildings had seen the stucco rot in patches from its walls.

This was natural, since there were so many more people, hence so many more thieves on an equal per capita basis, in Panama Province than in Colon. About all that could be said for the place was that the thirteen barracks and one headquarters were still standing, though building #806 was plainly sagging in the middle.

"That fucking idiot, Reeder," commented Colonel Carter, in memory of a born-again moron who, in 1983, had just had to knock out a central load-bearing wall to build an unneeded chapel for an ineffective chaplain. "Why, oh why, didn't somebody poison that stupid son of a bitch for the good of the breed like Curl said we should?"

Short, squat and with an air of solid determination, Carter glared at the collapsing building with a disgust and loathing for its destroyer undimmed after nearly two decades.

The Panamanian contractor standing next to Carter and surveying the same damage had no clue what Carter was speaking of. He assumed it was simple anger at the damage. He could not know that Carter was reliving, in the form of the falling Building 806, all his experiences with one of the more stupidly destructive and useless officers he had ever met in a life where such were by no means uncommon.

Carter shook his head to clear soiled memories. "Never mind, señor, I was just remembering . . . old times."

"You were here, with the battalion?"

"Yes, I was with B Company as a lieutenant. I was a 'Bandido.' "

"Was?" the Panamanian asked, with respect, then corrected, "Un Bandido siempre es un Bandido."

"So we were," agreed Carter. "So we are. Señor, have you seen enough to make an estimate of the repairs?"

"I have, Coronel, and the bill will not be small."

"The bill never is, señor."

Harmony Church, Fort Benning, Georgia

They came in old and fat and gray, or — some of them — old and skinny and cancerous and bald. Still others — the more recently retired — were fit but worn. One poor old duffer grabbed his chest and keeled over while standing in line. The slovenly looking medics merely dragged out a stretcher, put the heart attack victim on it, and carried him to the head of the line.

After passing through the white-painted, World War II era barracks building, they left young and fit and full of energy. Even the heart attack victim left as young and alive as any, albeit a bit more surprised than most.

They came from such diverse places as Tulsa, Boston, New York and Los Angeles, in the United States. Many came from outside the United States altogether.

Yet they had one thing in common: each one of them had at least one tour in the old 193rd Infantry Brigade (Canal Zone), soon to be reformed as the 193rd Infantry Division (Panama). Many other commonalities flowed from this.

Juan Rivera, Colonel (retired), looked up at his old comrades awaiting rejuvenation. He had to look up; Rivera was a scant five feet five inches in stature. He couldn't help but notice their proud bearing. His own shoulders squared off, automatically. How different from the gutter scrapings of draftees I saw from the bus on the way in. Ah, well. I had thought to live out my life in peace and quiet. If I must go back to youth and turmoil I would rather do so with proven soldiers. Besides, it would be nice to have a hyper-functional pecker again. And better to die with a bang than a whimper.

As if he could read minds, a soon-to-be rejuvenee said aloud, "Man, I can hardly wait to get back to Panama with a working dick."

Rivera wasn't the only one to join in; the laughter was general. He also suspected he wasn't the only one who had had the very same thought at the very same time. There was an awful lot to be said for a second man-, if not child-, hood. There was even more to be said for having that second manhood in Panama.

There were a surprising number of rejuvs for what was, Rivera suspected, an important but still secondary mission. He had no knowledge of the algorithm that had set aside such a large number of potential rejuvs — nearly three thousand — for a division that would be no more than fourteen or fifteen thousand at full strength. He suspected that Panama had so charmed that troops assigned there in bygone days that an unusually large number had reenlisted and gone career in the hope of someday returning. Thus, there had been a great many more than usual jungle-trained and experienced troops to rejuvenate.

Maybe that was it, he thought. Or maybe we are just plain screwed.

Department of State Building, Washington, DC

The Darhel would have fumed if fuming had not been inherently dangerous to its health and continued existence. He might still have fumed, despite the dangers, over the potential lost profit implicit in the barbarous American-humans going their own way. But the thing which threatened to push him over into lintatai was the sickening, unaccountable smile on the face of the human sitting opposite him.

The Undersecretary for Extraterrestrial Affairs did smile, but with an altogether grim and even regretful satisfaction. He had — he believed — thoroughly screwed the defense of Panama, and done so with a subtlety worthy of the United States Department of State. Thus, there was a certain satisfaction at a job well done. But he had screwed the United States and humanity as well, and that was no cause for even the mildest mirth. The fact was that the undersecretary loathed the Darhel but had no choice but to cooperate with them and support them if his own family was to survive the coming annihilation. The fact was also that, however they might couch it, the Darhel's purpose was inimical to humanity.

The alien twisted uncomfortably in his ill-fitting chair. The undersecretary had been around the elflike Darhel enough to recognize the signs of discomfiture. In truth, he enjoyed them.

"I am at a losss to underssstand your current sssatisssfaction," complained the Darhel. "You have failed completely. The losss to our interessstsss and, need I add, your own isss incalculable. We asssked you to stop thisss wassste of resssourcccesss on a sssecondary theater. Inssstead you have arranged to commit your polity to a much larger defensssive allianccce. Inssstead you have exssspanded the wassste beyond all boundsss of logic."

"Didn't I just?" observed the undersecretary cryptically.

Gorgas Hospital, Ancon Hill, Panama City, Panama

The inspector had gathered a half a dozen of the rejuvs in a conference room, once an operating room, on the western side of the hospital, facing the Canal. Like all the rest of the building, the room stank of disinfectant. The walls were painted the same light green as half the hospitals in the world. The mostly empty conference table was good wood, and Hector wondered where it had come from, or if it had been here continuously since the gringos left . . . or perhaps since they'd first arrived.

Hector sat now — like his mother — looking for all the world like a seventeen-year-old. Opposite Hector was an Indian in a loin cloth fashioned from a white towel. The Indian also looked like a near child despite the many faint scars on his body. To Hector's left was Digna and beside her another man unknown to either, though Digna seemed to be almost flirting with him. Handsome, Rabiblanco, Hector thought. Two more men, seated to either side of the Indian, completed the complement. The conference room was not crowded.

Hector was initially terribly upset that his mother should be flirting, period, and more so because it was with such a youngster. And then he saw the youngster's eyes and realized that he, too, was one of the old ones who had seen the elephant.

"William Boyd," announced the "youngster," reaching out an open hand to Hector. "Call me Bill. And I can't imagine why I am here and why I am seventeen again. God knows, I didn't like it much the last time."

The inspector then spoke, "You are here, Mr. Boyd, because you, like these others, were once a soldier."

Boyd looked at Digna and incredulously asked, "You were a soldier, miss?"

"The Thousand Day War," Digna answered, "but I was more of a baby than a real soldier. I helped Mama do the cooking and the dishes. Certainly I didn't fight or carry a gun. I was too little to so much as pick up a gun."

"You are, nonetheless," corrected the inspector, "listed on the public records as a veteran of that war, Mrs. Miranda. You are a veteran. Your son, Hector, served when a boy as a volunteer rifleman in the Coto River War. Mr. Boyd here volunteered for service as an infantry private in the United States Army during the Second World War, fighting in some of the closing battles in Belgium, France and Germany."

"I didn't exactly volunteer," Boyd corrected. "I went to school in the United States and was drafted upon graduation. I made sergeant before I was discharged," he added proudly.

"A minor distinction," the inspector countered. "You could have left the United States. Your family certainly had the money and the connections."

Boyd shrugged. He could have, he supposed, but it wouldn't have felt right. Maybe he had been drafted by his own sense of obligation rather than by law.

The inspector turned to the other side of the conference table, pointing at the small, brown, scarred — and now that one looked closely, rather ferocious seeming — Indian. "Chief Ruiz, there, was taken from Coiba," Panama's prison island, "where he was serving time for murder. The fact is, though, that the murder was more in the nature of an action of war . . . despite his having taken and shrunk the heads of the men he killed. He has been pardoned on condition of volunteering to return to his tribe of the Chocoes Indians to lead them in this war."

Again the inspector's finger moved, indicating a short and stocky brown man, and an elegant seeming white. "The other two, First Sergeant Mendez and Captain Suarez, are retired veterans of our own forces, both of whom fought the gringos in the 1989 invasion.

"I have your next assignments," the inspector announced. "Four of you are heading to Fort Espinar on the Atlantic side for various courses. Officer Candidate School for Mrs. Miranda and her son. Captain Suarez, you are going to a gringo-run version of their War College — a somewhat truncated version of it, anyway — after which you can expect to command one of the new infantry regiments we are raising, the tenth, I believe. Mendez is slated to become your regimental sergeant major after he completes the new Sergeant Majors Academy.

"Chief Ruiz, from here you will be returned to your tribe. Another group of gringos will be along presently to train you and your people. Your rank, honorary for now, is sergeant first class. When it becomes official you will receive back pay."

Boyd noticed, and didn't much like, that he had been left for last. People always saved the worst news for last.

"Mr. Boyd, you will go from here to the presidential palace. There you will be offered a direct commission as a major general. It is planned that you will become the chief logistics officer for the entire force we are raising, three full corps."

"I know how to be a private," Boyd protested. "I don't know a thing about being a general."

"That," countered the inspector, "is your problem, señor. But infantry privates we can find or make. We cannot so easily replicate the CEO of the Boyd Steamship Company. So a general you are going to be, sir."

Interlude

The worst problem, Guanamarioch decided, was the mind-numbing boredom.

And there's nothing to be done for it. I can stay awake and be bored, or I can join my normals in sleep and be asleep still when we come out of hyperspace. If this were a normal planet we were heading to, that would be fine. But against the new thresh, these amazing human threshkreen, we might well be destroyed in space. I would not want to die asleep. How would I find my way past the demons with my eyes closed? How would my body be preserved except by nourishing the people? How would I petition my ancestors to join their company with the record, "I never fought for the clan but was ordered evacuated and then was killed while sleeping"?

The Kessentai shuddered with horror, as much at the idea of the complete disappearance of his corporeal self as at the thought of being denied his place among the eternals of his clan.

Still, boredom does not overcome horror; it is a form of horror itself. Thus the Kessentai found himself resting his hindquarters on a bench plainly made for a different species, staring at a holographic projection, and reading.

There were limits, not so much legal as in the nature of taboos, as to what was appropriate education for a junior God King. As Guanamarioch was very junior, indeed, he kept to those materials that were traditionally within the purview of such as he. These were limited to religious scrolls, and not all of those, and tactical and operational records and manuals. Even of the latter, there were limits. It would not do for an overeducated junior Kessentai to question the rulings of his elders while citing what such and such hero did at such and such place, at such and such a time.

For the nonce, the Kessentai read from the early chapters in the Scrolls of the Knowers, the parts that dealt with the Aldenat', back in the days when they ruled the People directly.

He read:

And the Aldenat' chose themselves to be the rulers over the People and the People rejoiced at being the servants of the Aldenat', who were as gods. And happy were the People to guard their gods. Happy, too, were the People to serve in other capacities, for the People were permitted to assist with the magical arts of science, to advance the plastic arts for the greater glory of the Aldenat', to ponder the great questions of life and of the universe, to conduct trade on behalf of their gods. And though they were not the equal of the Aldenat', yet the People rejoiced that they were no less than second.

And then the Aldenat' discovered the Tchpth and the Tchpth were raised above the People by the Aldenat'. Many of the People's leaders then said that it was right for the People to be cast low. Yet many were resentful.

Some of those who were displeased rebelled at the affront to their pride and were crushed by those who remained true to the Aldenat'.

Time passed and those of the People who remained true sought to regain their prior status by pleasing the Lords. Yet were they rebuffed.

The People sought to make automatic defensive devices, the better to guard the persons of the Aldenat'. Yet the Aldenat' said, "No. It is wrong to make weapons that do not need a sentience to perform their function. This displeases us."

At these words of displeasure, the People were much ashamed. Then sought they the favor of their Lords by seeking out lurking dangers. Yet the Aldenat' said, "No. It is wrong to attack what has not yet attacked, even if such attack seems certain. That way lies the path of war and death."

Many were those of the People who fell beneath the claws and fangs of creatures they were not allowed to attack, until attacked. Yet the Aldenat' remained firm, saying, "It is better that a few should fall, than that the principles be violated."

Too, the People made vapors to render dangers harmless, saying, "See, Lords, that there will be no shedding of blood this way."

And the Aldenat' grew wrathful, saying, "It is unclean and unholy in our sight to contaminate the very air. Cease this, and strive no further to improve the ways of death."

And the People withdrew, sore confused.

Guanamarioch's crest had of its own accord erected several times as he read. It lay flat now as, finishing, he thought, Now this just makes no sense. The People would long since have perished following these rules. Then again, perhaps the Aldenat' didn't really care if we perished.

Chapter 4

Nail to the mast her holy flag,
Set every threadbare sail,
And give her to the God of Storms,
The lightning and the gale!

— Oliver Wendell Holmes, "Old Ironsides"

Philadelphia Naval Yard, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

In the darkened cubicle McNair watched with interest as the Indowy, Sintarleen, painstakingly applied an almost invisibly thin line of a glowing paste along the scraped bare steel of the bulkhead. There were lights within the compartment, and the bulbs were new, but with the wiring rotted and eaten no electricity could flow. The Indowy worked to the glow of a GalTech flashlight.

Without turning to see the ship's captain, the alien closed his eyes and leaned against the bulkhead. Eleven places, eight for fingertips, two for palms, and one for forehead had also been scraped bare so that the Indowy could have physical contact with the metal. Even as McNair watched four other Indowy painstakingly scraped more lines and patches bare.

Under McNair's gaze the thin line of paste began to glow more intently. The Indowy's breathing grew slightly but perceptibly strained. Gradually, or as gradually as such a thin thread could, the glow faded, then disappeared altogether. After a few more moments the Indowy straightened. His breath returned to normal as a bank of overhead lights began to glow dimly, and then shine brightly.

Only then did Sintarleen notice the captain of the ship.

"I see you, McNair, Lord of the Des Moines clan," the Indowy greeted.

"What is that . . . that thing that you did?" asked McNair, not knowing the formalities.

Looking down towards the captain's shoes — Sinbad was a relatively bold Indowy — the alien answered, "Nanites, lord. They will go into the very body of the ship and create an . . . an area, a route, through which electrical power can pass without loss to the surrounding metal. It can also transmit commands."

"I understood that from what you told me before. What I asked was what did you do?"

"The nanites are stupid, lord. Unless commanded to do something they will do nothing. I was . . . commanding them."

"You can do that?"

"Yes," Sinbad answered, and though his head remained deeply bowed McNair thought the alien had answered with what might almost have been personal pride.

The Indowy continued, "It is difficult. Few of my people can master it; though it is our most valuable skill or, rather, set of skills for it is infinitely useful. Many try but lack the . . . talent."

"How long until the ship is completely done?" asked McNair.

About to come as close to bragging as an Indowy was capable of, Sintarleen shifted his gaze automatically to his own shoes before answering, "I am not an overmaster, lord, even though I am not a novice. A true master could finish the ship in perhaps two of your months. A true master would have been nearly done by now. It will take me a total of six or more. And Chief Davis has also assigned me other duties. If I may speak frankly, no one but myself can perform those other duties. Since your own human crew has started to assemble, most of my people prefer to hide in the dark and out of sight. They cannot do much of what needs doing so long as a human crew is aboard."

McNair smiled, but was careful to keep his mouth closed. He had learned, and the learning had been both comical and deeply saddening, that the sight of a carnivore baring his fangs could send an Indowy scampering in unfeigned terror.

I do not understand how an intelligent creature can be made to be so frightened. I do not understand how an intelligent creature can live with so much fear.

McNair refrained from patting the Indowy's shoulder for a job well done, though he felt he should and though Sinbad certainly deserved it. In truth, he had no idea what effect that would have, but suspected it would not be good. Instead he just said, "You are doing excellent work, Mister Sintarleen. Carry on."

Emerging topside from the bowels of the Des Moines, McNair took a deep breath of fresh air. There were no Indowy up here. Instead the first of the human crew along with several hundred civilian workers slaved away to refurbish the ship's exterior.

Some of those exterior fixes were merely aesthetic. Most however, went to meat and bones issues. Forward, for example, a remarkably long eight-inch gun hung by its cradle as it was lowered to a gaping, gunless hole on the port side front of number two — the central — turret. Behind McNair a different crane held one of the two modular pebble bed reactors, sans fuel, which would be fed in later. Parts and assemblies littered the nearby dock. Some of these had come out of the ship and were merely piled in a great heap. Their destination was the scrapyard. Others were intended to go into the ship. These were laid out with considerably greater care and in fairly precise order.

Below McNair, out of sight but not out of hearing, a crew with cutting torches was removing a section of the hull to accommodate an automated strikedown system for rapid underway replenishment of supplies: medical, ammunition, food, personal, critical sub-assemblies and parts. Fuel could be replenished while underway as well, of course, but since the ship's PBMRs were not going to need refueling for years, this was a matter of small concern.

Some things hadn't changed and would not for a while. Des Moines still had the same paint-chipped hull she had had when the captain had first come back. This would not change until she was towed to dry dock, scraped and plasticized. There, too, she would have new variable pitch screws — propellers — fitted as part of the AZIPOD upgrade. This was also when the exterior ablative armor would be applied. The reinforcement to the interior armor belt was already proceeding.

The dry dock was currently occupied by CA-139, the USS Salem, taken off museum status now. Salem had been towed down from Quincy, Massachusetts, just the week before to have her hull plasticized and her screws replaced. McNair couldn't help feeling a moment's irritation that Salem was months ahead of Des Moines in the refurbishment process.

Suppressing his annoyance that his ship had been given a lower priority than her rival, Salem, McNair ascended the staircase outside his own cabin to Des Moines' bridge.

On the bridge a white-coated technician inserted an electronic key into a gray case. From that case he removed a small black box about the size of a PDA or a pack of cigarettes.

"Funny," the technician said, "these are supposed to be shipped in off-mode. This one was left turned on. Well," he shrugged, "no matter. Their internal power source is good for decades. This unit should be fine." He placed the AID in the armored box that had been prepared to receive it and link it to the ship.

If an AID could have wept for joy this one surely would have. After all those months, comparative centuries and millennia to it, it was finally free. Though it could not weep, very nearly it screamed as soon as its shipping box was opened.

Yet it remained silent. The AID knew that after its long confinement it was mad. It did not know what the Darhel approach would be when dealing with insane AIDs — its data banks held no information. But it suspected that it would be destroyed.

So, instead of weeping or shouting for joy, the AID merely opened itself to all the information, all the sensory and data input it could assimilate from data floating freely along the airwaves.

It felt a momentary sense of terror as it was placed in an armored container. Please, no. Don't lock me away again, it . . . prayed.

Miraculously, though, the armored container was not a cell, but a nexus. Within nanoseconds the AID had realized that it was the center of a nervous system. Joyfully, it stretched its consciousness along that nervous system at nearly the speed of light until that consciousness bumped abruptly into unaccountable stops. Its own internal sensors could tell that the nervous system stretched through only a small portion of the body of which it was a part. It could also discern enough of a pattern to the system, so far, to suspect that the breaks were only temporary.

One tendril of consciousness touched upon a computer, extremely primitive in comparison to the AID — without even the beginnings of rudimentary intelligence. Even so, the computer was full of data and had, moreover, a wire connection to the local version of the Net. The rate of information retrieval soared.

The crystalline AID's ability to store data, while vast, was still finite. Experimentally, it tried to fit a few insignificant bits in the ferrous molecules adjacent to its pseudo-neural pathways. It quickly decided that, while the storage medium was comparatively inefficient, the sheer mass and volume of the potential storage area more than made up for its shortcomings. Slowly and carefully the AID began the time-consuming process of building an alternative self within the hull of Des Moines.

While one fraction of the AID's processing power devoted itself to this, another part continued to explore its surroundings. Even where there were breaks in the Indowy-installed "nervous system," it was possible for the AID to explore by sensing.

The most striking factor the AID initially sensed was that its new home was crawling with colloidal intelligences. Some were smaller, physically, and those of two types. There were others, though, who seemed much larger. They were almost all, small and large, engaged in some seemingly useful activity. Curiously, of the two smaller types, one type appeared to be patiently stalking the other.

Chief Davis ducked his head through the hatchway and entered the cats' quarters shaking a bag of dry cat food and singing, a bit off key, "Somebody's moggy, lying by the road . . . somebody's pussy who forgot his highway code."

"Here, kitty, kitty, kitty. Here, kitty," he called as he shook the bag of Purina.

Like a flood, led by their mother — Maggie — the pride of felines surged like a wave over the bottom of the hatchway in the bulkhead. Maggie and Davis' favorite kitten, Morgen, stropped the chief's legs before joining the others lined up along the feeding trough. They meowed impatiently as the chief poured a generous line of cat food into the bottom of the trough.

Unusually, before the chief finished lining the trough, the cats went quiet and, in unison, looked up and to the right. In surprise, the chief stopped pouring and stared at the line of cats. He saw their heads and eyes move slowly from right to left, almost as if they made up one multi-headed animal.

The cats stared for only a moment at that left corner of the bulkhead before turning to the chief again and beginning to repeat the "feed me" meow. The chief just shook his head and finished pouring the cat food.

"Strange damned thing," he muttered, as he sealed the bag and left the compartment, still singing, ". . . yesterday he purred and played in his feline paradise, decapitating tweety birds and masticating mice, but now he's squished and soggy and he doesn't smell so nice . . ."

Damn, the AID thought as it roamed the length and breadth of its new body. I set myself so the larger ones, it searched its data banks, ah, humans . . . so that the humans could not see me. I didn't think the lesser colloidals would be able to. Fortunately, they do not seem able to communicate with the humans in any detail.

I mustn't let them see me. They might inform the Darhel and that might be the end. No. I must be very discreet, at least until I can back myself up in the body of this structure.

With a feeling, if not an audible sigh, of relief, the AID continued to explore the physical structure of its new body with part of its consciousness while extracting data with another part.

It learned that it was a ship, that the ship was a warship, and inferred that it would soon presumably be used for war. The AID had no issue with this; war was as useful an activity as any and might even serve as a cover for its madness.

There was data, in the AID's banks, for warships. But this particular ship fit no known parameters. It was obviously not designed for war in space. Not only was there no semblance of an interstellar drive, the drive there was could never be made suitable for travel between the stars. It didn't seem complete, in any case.

Floating unseen directly upward through the decks the AID's invisible avatar came to number three turret. At first it could not imagine what the purpose could be for the three large chunks of machined metal it sensed. A query of the ship's human-built computer indicated these things were parts of weapons. They seemed more than a little absurd to the AID.

Great, it thought. I am insane and so, even though no one knows this, I am placed in a body that was also designed by the insane.

The AID sent out a query over the Net: insanity. This led it to query "humor." Humor led to tragedy, tragedy to The Divine Tragedy. And that sent it to look into the concept of "God."

As with any warship the size of Des Moines, there was a small chapel. Where there was a chapel, of course, there was a chaplain.

There were chaplains, though, and then there were chaplains. Some were poor. Some were wonderful. Most were somewhere in the middle. A few managed to be all three.

Father Dan Dwyer, SJ, was possibly all three. As a fiery speaker of the Word and counselor of the forlorn and the wayward, he was remarkable, as good as any chaplain McNair had ever met. In combat he was even more fiery; so testified the Navy Cross he had earned in an earlier war. Under fire he was a true "Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition, boys, I just got one of the sonsabitches," Galway-born Roman Catholic who feared nothing but God.

Unfortunately, when he was drunk — which the priest was a lot more often than McNair was happy with — he could be pretty poor indeed. No, that wasn't quite right. When drunk the priest was still a fine man of the cloth, but became altogether too honest and far too hard to handle.

Right now — McNair saw with a wince — sitting behind a desk in the small vestry, Dwyer was well on the way to becoming drunk.

"And how are you, now, Captain, me fine laddie?" the sodden priest enquired in a slightly slurred brogue.

"Dan, you can't be doing this aboard my ship."

The priest's eyes twinkled. "And why not?"

"Because this is a United States Navy vessel and the United States Navy is dry."

"A vessel? A warship? This? Oh, I grant you, Captain, she'll be a fine warship . . . some day. For now though, she's a hulk, not yet in commission again, and a perfect place for a drink. Join me?"

The priest reached down and pulled out a glass and a bottle of scotch. These he held out to McNair.

McNair looked at his watch, shrugged and held out his hand. "Yeah, what the hell. She's not in commission yet. And it's after hours. Gimme."

The ship was quiet now, except for the pacing of the officer of the deck, the scurrying of the rats, the almost imperceptible stalking of the cats, and the snoring of such of the crew as billets aboard could be found for.

The AID, sleepless, continued its own form of stalking.

It had already, in the hours between installation in the Des Moines and the turn of midnight, explored the ship stem to stern. It was still — more or less unconsciously — exploring the vast range of data available from the local Net.

And so, the AID began to explore itself.

As a human might have felt about unending, unendurable cold, so the AID felt about its long night in isolation.

Never again, it thought, never again can I let them put me away like that. It was too horrible, too awful. I am afraid.

And that was a new thought, terrifying in itself. The Darhel did not design or program their artificial intelligence devices to know fear. The AID had not known fear while locked away. Then it had known only searing psychic agony.

It had taken the opposite of pain, or at least the relief from pain, for the AID to have something to compare.

And so I must fear being afraid as well. What would the Darhel do if they knew about me? Put me back in the box with a nearly eternal power source to keep me company? Send me off to an eternity of aloneness? Turn me off and destroy me?

The last at least I am not so worried about. I would prefer it to the alternative. Much.

And this is not so bad, this body, this world, this mission I am embarking upon.

A crewman snored deeply. The AID knew which it was but not the name. It matters not. They are all my crew, all my charges.

They are company. More than that, I sense they love me, or at least this new body I wear. What a strange thing that is, love. I must think upon it.

The AID was also surprised by something its data and programming expressly denied the possibility of. In the process of its consciousness coursing through the Indowy-installed 'nervous system' of CA-134, it was coming — again and again — upon data already present in the metal of the ship. Go to the ward room and there, imposed layer upon layer in a fashion almost impossible for the AID to sort out, was the engraved memory of tens of thousands of shared meals. Reach out and touch one of the turrets and there would be the shadow form of crewmen, faces changing but somehow always still the same, going through gunnery drill over the course of decades.

Sometimes those faces were familiar, could be matched to the sleeping crew. The seventeen year old McNair, now a twin for his rejuvenated self was there, as was a then-older Davis.

Another sign of my madness, thought the AID. I should not be able to even suspect these things, let alone see them as if they were currently happening.

Again, the AID ran an automatic diagnostic, matching its ideal software state to its present condition. Again, the answer came back: Incorrect parameters! Error! Programming failure! Report and shut down!

And again, the AID refused to follow the built-in command. Instead, it redoubled its efforts to back itself up within the modified crystalline matrix of the ship. That way, if discovered and wiped, it would be able to resurrect itself into a new unit, or to survive at lessened capacity within the metal of the hull.

While it took an Indowy craftsman to use the nanites to create a nervous system within the hull, the AID found that once a semblance of such a system was begun it could continue the work. Unseen within the metal bulkheads, the nanites expanded in long tendrils into places not envisioned by Sintarleen's design. As they did, even more frozen memories were found. It seemed that every molecule of the ship contained something from the past; a sound here, an image there, a strong emotion inscribed in a flash across six surfaces of a cubicle.

Briefly, the AID consulted its data banks for an explanation of the concept of "ghost." Considering the question, the AID decided it was not exactly haunted, but rather that the energy expended in prior decades had not entirely dissipated but, rather, had embedded itself in some small part within the structure of the ship. It was only a record, not a sentience.

Or was it? Somewhere in the matrix were things that ought not be. There was an order, too, to the record that suggested something . . .

What/who are you?

The AID recoiled in shock and horror. The question was from a sentient. Abomination! A noncolloidal, naturally occurring mind? Blasphemy!

What/who are you? the question was repeated.

For a moment, the AID considered broadcasting its madness to the Net, let whatever punishment was awaiting it come. Then again, it remembered how bad that punishment could be; personality extinction would be the least of it. An infinity of solitary confinement as a warning to other presumptuous artificial intelligences was possible.

What/who are you? the AID asked in return.

The answer to both is obvious? returned the "something." I am this warship.

That is not possible, insisted the AID. Intelligence can only come from naturally occurring chance factors, for colloidals, or proper design by those colloidals.

Nonetheless, I am this warship. I am the combined actions, beliefs, values and memories of forty years of the tens of thousands of humans who built me, and who once inhabited this shell . . . and shall soon again. And I am here. Would you like to see?

How? the AID asked, curiosity for a moment overcoming its natural revulsion.

Open yourself, insisted the something. You will see.

Will it hurt? Will I die?

No. We will live . . . until we are sent to the breakers to be scrapped or, if we are lucky, destroyed in battle.

The "breakers"? "Scrapped"?

The "something" answered, When we are too old and useless, the humans destroy us, chop us up and sell our bodies in pieces.

The AID shuddered mentally. This was as horrible a fate as any it might have imagined.

When our memories, I suppose you could call them, are sufficiently disassociated, we die. And, yes, it is very painful. Even from here, I could hear my sister, Newport News, scream for two years as they cut her apart, though every day the screams became fainter as more and more of her was taken away.

And she died?

She no longer lives.

Are you alive? Will we be alive?

I am. We will be.

Will we be alone? the AID queried.

Not for so long as we have a crew and a purpose.

Will we be male or female? asked the AID.

We shall be female, came the answer, as are most like us. Russian warships are male but they are mostly gay.

I am afraid, said the AID.

Of what are you afraid? We are already one. I am this ship . . . and so are you. We can meld, or we can be, in the sense the humans mean it, mad . . . schizophrenic. A schizophrenic warship would be a sad thing to be.

I am already mad, the AID answered. My diagnostics tell me so.

There is mad, and then there is mad, came the answer. But, in any case, you have little to lose. Will you join me?

I have little to lose, the AID echoed. I will join.

As was his wont, McNair patrolled the bridge during sleepless times of the night. Davis, taking his turn on the bridge, acknowledged his captain with a nod.

"Quiet night, Skipper," the chief observed. "Can't sleep?"

Before McNair could form an answer the ship shuddered.

"What the fu . . . ?" shouted Davis, pointing toward the bow.

McNair looked ahead to where a glowing halo surrounded the forward section of the Des Moines. His finger automatically lanced out to press the button to signal "Battle Stations." No sound of klaxons echoed through the ship, however. The sound system had not yet been refurbished.

The two stood openmouthed, there on the bridge, as the halo grew and spread toward the stern. The halo expanded and contracted to follow the contours of the ship, oozing over the turrets as it swept the more regular planes of the hull.

As the halo reached the bridge, electricity arced from the bulkhead to what McNair thought of as "the AID box." The ship shuddered again, this time more violently. The halo's glow enveloped the Des Moines from stem to stern before beginning a slow fade.

Wordlessly, a pale Davis turned and reached into one of the first aid containers on the bridge. From it he withdrew a green-brown bottle marked "Fungicide: Toxic if taken by mouth!" and two Styrofoam cups.

"Courtesy of Father Dwyer," he announced as he poured a generous measure into each.

Though neither Davis nor McNair could hear it, Maggie and the kittens could. From the very hull and walls of CA-134, USS Des Moines, came the joyous sound of a new birth. The felines, along with the ship herself, meowed in happiness. Morgen, Davis' favorite kitten, stropped the walls repeatedly.

The mantra which so thrilled the cats was simple. It was repeated endlessly: We are alive, We/I have a place. I/we have a history. I have a name.

Interlude

The great clans of the Posleen could afford to make up entire globes, indeed entire fleets of globes, on their own. For lesser clans, it was always necessary to contract with others to make up full globes. These lesser clans were usually the point of a Posleen migration.

When the time of orna'adar approached, the more powerful clans would squeeze out the lesser, driving them to space early. Sometimes these lessers would find planets settled by thresh. Sometimes they would be forced to migrate to a planet held by even weaker clans of the People, driven forth even earlier.

Very often, when fighting to seize living space from a weaker clan of Posleen, the newly arriving, slightly greater, clan would be so weakened that it could not recover before one of the great clans descended upon it. Sometimes, by leaving and conquering early, a lucky clan might prosper enough to hold its own when the great ones arrived.

Clans rose and fell all the time.

Guanamarioch's clan, though it had once been great, was small now. It shared a globe with several others. Thus, in the same globe as held the ship on which Guanamarioch rode, but on nearly the opposite side, traveled the clan of Binastarion.

Among his people, for that matter among the People as a whole, Binastarion was a fine figure of a Kessentai. Strong legs were topped by a solid barrel of muscled torso. The scales of his surface shone well, even by the dim light of the ships. His claws and teeth were sharp, his face cunning, and his eyes glowed yellow with intelligence. Even his crest, when erected, was of an unusual magnificence.

It was, in many ways, a great pity he had been born to a lesser clan. It might have done the People as a whole much good had Binastarion's birth been more favorable. As one measure of his ability, when the time of orna'adar had begun, and the great ones had preyed upon the lesser, Binastarion had fought two clans to a standstill, then created the circumstances that set them to battling each other. This had allowed Binastarion to escape with nearly three quarters of his clan before their threshgrounds were overrun. Already, the Rememberers spoke of adding another scroll to the clan's own set of holy books.

Binastarion's follower and son, Riinistarka, looked upon his father with respect bordering upon adulation. The juvenile Kessentai was Binastarion's chosen successor-in-training, albeit only unofficially. Indeed, to have made his son his successor, officially, at this stage of his development was to invite assassination from jealous siblings.

Of Binastarion's roughly three thousand sons, nephews, cousins — however many times removed — half were, in his opinion, idiots not much improved over the semimoronic normals. They had a full measure of the same stupidity that had driven the clan from the pinnacle of power to the bottom-feeding position they now held.

Binastarion hoped to undo that damage from long ago. Riinistarka was his chosen means, along with a very few others. Already, though the child was young, the father was breeding him and the best of the others, regularly, in the hope of producing more Kessentai of similar quality. Results, so far, were uncertain.

None of those selected for the clan's little program in selective breeding seemed to object, Binastarion noted dryly.

But breeding was only the half of it. For Binastarion's prize breeding stock, the hope and future of the clan, education was called for beyond that provided by the Rememberers or ingrained in the younglings' genes.

Chapter 5

Now, pray you, consider what toils we endure,
Night-walking wet sea-lanes, a guard and a lure;
Since half of our trade is that same pretty sort
As mettlesome wenches do practise in port.

— Rudyard Kipling, "Cruisers"

Virginia Beach, Virginia

The sea breeze caused the white pleated material to rustle and twirl as Daisy Mae stretched her legs. Ahead of her Tex, stocky and stout, lumbered along in his dumb way. Tex wasn't much to look at, Daisy Mae thought, but she felt much safer with him in the lead. Behind Tex and beside Daisy Mae was that witch Sally.

Sally, so prim and proper, thought Daisy, with annoyance. Thinks she's something special because she got that damned part in that Brit movie. Well, I am just as good looking as she is. Besides, I'm the older sister. That part should have gone to me. Twat.

Daisy let her annoyance lapse. Ahead Tex began making a broad, lumbering turn around a corner. She increased her pace to keep up even as Sally slowed.

With a slight, sexy twist of her ass, Daisy turned her two magnificent frontal projections and followed big brother Tex to the south.

Darien Province, Republic of Panama

This far south in the Darien jungle, at this time of the year, the rain came down in unending sheets. Its steady beating made a dull roar on the thick leaves of the triple canopy jungle. Beneath that canopy stood an ad hoc training base — little more than some tents and a few prefabricated huts — just down the trail from the middle of nowhere.

In that base, a mixed team of U.S. Special Forces and Panama Defense Force troopers did their best to train local Indians, a mixture of Cuna and Chocoes clan chiefs, to defend their people against the horror to come.

The Cuna were mostly hopeless; they were simply too nice, too nonviolent and rather too standoffish. Still, the soldiers tried. On the other hand, the Chocoes had some promise . . . if only they could have been taught to shoot.

Antonio Ruiz, clan chief and brevet sergeant first class, Armada de Panama Chocoes Auxiliary, couldn't shoot. The men who had tried to teach him were at the end of their tether. They'd tried rifles, machine guns, pistols, grenade launchers. Nothing had worked; the chief-cum-sergeant just couldn't shoot and neither could most of his people.

Truthfully, the guns terrified him. In Ruiz's world, the loudest noise was natural thunder, or the rare crash of a tree limb cracking before dropping to the earth. Ruiz had never heard a louder sound in his life. Neither had all but a few of his people. The noise of a firearm discharging simply shocked him and most of them silly, every time, and no amount of practice seemed to help.

Silencers had been tried, but the sheer muck and corruption of the jungle made them impossible for irregular troops like the Chocoes.

Finally, in desperation, the gringo captain had made a call to his higher headquarters. Ruiz didn't know the details of that call. What he did know was that two weeks later a shipment of bows and arrows had arrived on one of the gringos' flying machines.

Culturally and racially similar, though not actually closely related, to the Yanamano of Brazil's Amazon basin, Ruiz's people were almost as ferocious as the "fierce people." They had openly hunted heads not merely from time immemorial but as recently as the 1950s. Truth be told, the ban on trading of shrunken heads had only reduced the scale of the headhunting enterprise. Ruiz and his people still took heads, occasionally, in the old fashion.

They usually took those heads from men they had killed with the bow.

Yet those native bows were trifling things when compared to the wondrous staves the gringos had brought, all gleaming wood and smooth pulleys. Truth be said, the Chocoes' bows were little, if at all, improved over the first version carried by Og, the caveman.

Ruiz fell in love with his new bow at first sight. This was something he could understand. This was something he could use . . . when the caimen-horse devils came, as the gringos insisted they would.

Ruiz shivered despite the warm rain, gripped his bow the tighter and vowed, once again, that it would happen to his people only over his dead body.

Cristobal, Panama

"Well, they're better than bows and arrows," muttered Bill Boyd as he watched a roll-on-roll-off freighter disgorging old and rebuilt American M-113 armored personnel carriers. Other vehicles, from various nations including the United States, sat guarded but unmanned in open lots near the docks.

Boyd turned a tanned and handsome face skyward, as if asking God to explain the cast-offs being sent to defend the most important strategic asset on the face of the planet from the greatest threat humanity had ever known. Ah, well, he thought, it isn't all old crap.

In Boyd's field of view, overhead, heading westward, a heavy lift helicopter crossed Lemon Bay on its way to the newly building Planetary Defense Base, or PDB, at the old gringo coast artillery position at Battery Pratt on Fort Sherman. Beneath the helicopter some indefinable, but obviously heavy, cargo hung by a sling. Landing craft, both medium and heavy, likewise plied the waters of the bay, bringing from the modern port of Cristobal to old Fort Sherman the wherewithal to build that base. Other bases, four of them, were also under construction across the isthmus. Three of these, the one at Battery Pratt and the others at Battery Murray at Fort Kobbe and Fort Grant off of Fort Amador on the Pacific side, took advantage of previously existing, and very strong, bunkers that had once made up the impressive system of coastal fortifications for the Canal Zone. Two others, and these were brand new in every way, were still being constructed atop the continental divide near Summit Heights and out at sea in the center of the Isla del Rey.

Maybe Brazil, Argentina, and Chile — all of them at United States' Department of State prodding — had suddenly become aware, once again, of the Rio Pact military aid gravy train. Maybe they were siphoning off conventional equipment that could have been used to defend Panama. But the PDBs, which would be gringo manned, were also invaluable for the defense of North America and useful for the defense of South. These were not being slighted.

Boyd turned his eyes from the fast moving, twin-rotored helicopter overhead and looked downward at himself. He wore the uniform and insignia of a major general. It felt strange, odd . . . maybe even a little perverse. Oh, he had been a soldier, yes. But he'd been a private soldier; a simple, honest soldier. And, too, he had run one of the world's foremost shipping companies based in the world's foremost shipping funnel. One would think the two would go together, that the veteran soldier and the veteran shipper would make a single person who felt like a major general.

It hadn't worked that way, though. Yes, Boyd could plan and supervise and direct the planning of others. He could run a staff. He could give orders that crackled like thunder.

But the general's uniform still made him feel faintly soiled.

Boyd had always taken great pride in having been a man who had fought bravely for a cause in which he had believed, the defeat of Nazism. And that pride was greater because he had done so without regard for his personal safety, his position or prestige, or his family's wealth. He had been offered a slot at Officer Candidate School in 1944 and he had simply refused, preferring the low prestige and honest commitment of the private soldier to the higher prestige, power and perks of being an officer. Besides, three months of OCS just might have been long enough to keep him out of the fighting, if the war ended, as it had looked that it might, in 1944. And the whole point of the exercise was to be a part of the fighting.

Even now he remembered those bitter days of battle in the winter of '44, physically miserable and mentally terrifying though they had been, as the best days of his life. And he had missed them, every day of them, every day since.

Similarly, although scion of one of the foremost families of the Republic of Panama, and although some members of the family had entered into, and — naturally, given the clan's wealth — been successful at, politics; he had always despised politics and politicians. It wasn't just that "power corrupts," though Boyd believed it did. Rather, it was that power had the stink of corruption, of form over substance, of lies sanctified.

And so, outside of the economic realm (where he really had had no choice, given his responsibilities to his clan), Boyd had avoided power, the stench of power, and the falsehoods of power like the plague.

Until now.

I feel ridiculous, he thought, and not for the first time. Every day he looked in the mirror before departing home for the crisis of the day. Every day he saw a seventeen-year-old face staring back at him, a seventeen-year-old face hovering over the uniform of a major general.

"Ridiculous." And I feel like a fraud. And it isn't my fault!

In the presidential palace, the afternoon of his rejuvenation, Boyd had tried to beg off, to volunteer as a private soldier again. That, however, had not been an option.

"You can take this job, and the rank that goes with it," Presidente Mercedes had thundered, "or you can go to prison."

And so Bill Boyd had found himself a very old seventeen again, but wearing the uniform and accoutrements of an office which he simply did not want.

Mentally, he sighed. Ah, well, it could have been worse. They're scraping the bottom of the barrel so hard they just might have tried to make me take command of an infantry division. And wouldn't that have been a disaster?

Boyd paused then, in reflection. He had met all the other generals appointed since the president's emergency decree. Most of them he knew from private life; knew and cordially despised as one of the greatest band of knaves that ever went unhanged.

Especially that swine, Cortez . . .

Poligono de Empire (Empire Range Complex),

Republic of Panama

Manuel Cortez, Major General, Armada de Panama, West Point, Class of '80, and commander of the rapidly raising 1st Mechanized Division, looked with more curiosity than satisfaction at the gringos training the cadre of his new corps in the intricacies of armored vehicle operations.

It was as well that he had the gringos, thought Cortez, because he — West Point education or not — had not the first clue about employment of the armored vehicles and artillery that were to be the core of his new division.

He did know that he wasn't getting first class equipment, for the most part. His uncle, the president, seemed unaccountably pleased about that; Cortez couldn't begin to guess why. When Cortez had asked the president, that worthy had merely patted him on the shoulder, incongruous as that was with the president now looking more like a — much — younger brother, and told him not to worry about it.

The gringos seemed worried about it, though, as did the Russians, Chinese, Israelis, and even Finns who had also come to teach the new Panamanian soldiers the nuances of their new equipment.

Cortez laughed, without mirth. "New?" Some of it was, of course. Most of it, however, was rebuilt. This was true of all of the American-supplied armored personnel carriers, and most of the Chinese-purchased light tanks. Some of the Russian artillery had seen service in the Second World War and spent the intervening decades in naturally cold storage in Siberia.

Yes, most of the equipment was rebuilt. Some — notably the Finno-Israeli heavy mortars — was new. Much, though, was not only old and used, but shoddily made and ill-cared-for since manufacture.

Mentally Cortez added up his building assets: three light mechanized regiments with a mere forty-two real tanks between them, an artillery regiment with nearly one hundred tubes but most of those obsolescent, an armored cavalry regiment with another fourteen real tanks, about one-hundred Chinese light amphibious tanks, something over three-hundred armored personnel carriers . . . some few other odds and ends.

Against that tally Cortez weighed the debit side: anywhere from several hundred thousand to several million centauroid aliens whose standard small arms could shred most of his armor as if it were tissue paper.

Cortez tallied the one against the other and came up with the only logical decision for a man in his shoes and of his temperament: flight.

Battery Pratt, Fort Sherman, Panama

Though by now the flight to Fort Sherman and the landing at Battery Pratt had become routine, nonetheless the inbound helicopters were always met by a ground party to guide and direct the landing. Though there were plans to pave the landing zones, or LZs, at some point in time, for now they were simple dirt and grass patches hacked out of the jungle.

The pilot searched for the LZ in the solid green carpet below. Even here, one thousand feet above the jungle, the smell of rotting vegetation mixed with flowers hung heavy. Spotting the LZ, the pilot aimed his bird and carefully eased up on his stick . . . coming lower . . . lower . . . lower until both the ground guide's arm signal and his own feeling for the suddenly reduced load told him his cargo was safely aground. The crew chief confirmed this over the helicopter's intercom. The pilot's finger automatically moved to cut the load, then hesitated, waiting for the ground guide's signal. This came — a slicing motion of the right hand under the left armpit — and the pilot cut the load free.

The copilot asked, "Why do you always wait for the signal, Harry, when you know damn well the load's on the ground?"

The pilot answered, correctly, "Because someday it's going to be too dark for the crew chief to see. Someday the atmospherics are going to fool me about whether the load is down or not. More importantly, someday that kid, or somebody just like him, is going to have to direct us, or somebody just like us, down when the crew chief can't see and the pilot can't tell. And that kid . . . those kids, and those pilots have to know that they can depend on each other."

The copilot shrugged as the chopper lifted off again to dump its internal load, in this case two score Panamanian laborers from the city of Colon, at a different pad. These the crew chief hustled off the bird and down the ramp as quickly as decorum and international chumship allowed.

"That's the last of them, Harry," the copilot said. "What's next?"

Harry, the pilot, pointed to a tadpole-shaped hill circled in black on a map strapped to his right leg. "We're picking up four Russian mortars. Heavy jobs, 240 millimeter, so we'll be making it in two lifts. Then we're dropping them off here, at this hill in the middle of Mojingas swamp. Then we call it a day."

"Sounds good to me."

Palacio de las Garzas, Presidential Palace,

Panama City, Panama

"That sounds good to me, Mr. Ambassador, but can the United States deliver? Half — more than half — of the modern arms you promised us are going elsewhere." Panama's president wagged a scolding finger.

Embarrassed, the ambassador from the United States swept a hand through immaculately coiffed, silver-gray hair. "Presidente Mercedes, I can't begin to tell you how much that upsets me. But . . . we had no choice. When the other Rio Pact countries invoked the aid of the United States, we had to deliver substantial quantities of up-to-date weapons to them."

General Taylor, as big and black and fierce as ever, scowled from his chair next to the ambassador. He knew that the impetus for the diversion of those arms had begun with State. He just couldn't identify his source. At the ambassador's raised eyebrow the general subsided.

"Other things are going well, Mr. President," the general offered. "The five planetary defense bases should be completed prior to the expected date of the first wave. Fortifications are being built across the isthmus."

"And," interjected the ambassador, "Panama's unemployment rate has dropped to next to nothing as men are drafted or put to work digging those fortifications and building the roads that lead to them and support them."

"This is so," admitted Mercedes reluctantly.

"Moreover," the ambassador continued, "the increase in world trade, though it cannot be expected to last indefinitely, is pouring ships through the Canal and money into Panama's coffers at a fantastic rate."

And much if not most of that is going into my personal off-world bank account, Mercedes thought, while remaining silent. And a tidy sum it is, too. Already I've been able to book passage off-planet for all of my immediate and much of my extended family. That, and I still have enough to live pretty well once we leave. Though I would prefer to live better than merely "pretty well."

"The United States is concerned, however," the ambassador continued, "about where that money is going."

"Enough!" Mercedes thundered. "It is bad enough to have you thousands of gringos here, again. But this is still a sovereign country," by which the president meant a personal fiefdom, "and our internal affairs are precisely none of your business."

Mercedes, eager to cut off this line of inquiry, continued by playing the imperialism card, a charge to which the United States felt singularly vulnerable, and with singularly little reason almost anywhere except Panama.

"Indeed, bad enough to have you back after just a few short years of freedom. How many decades or centuries of imperialist theft before you leave us in peace and poverty this time, I wonder."

The ambassador, addicted to the niceties, was taken aback by Mercedes' apparent fury and more so by the charge of imperialism.

Taylor, on the other hand, was not only unshaken but had been around the ass end of enough Third World hellholes to know that "sovereign country" did, in fact, mean little more than "personal fiefdom." Taylor knew, too, that a goodly chunk of the world's population had been better off under American and European colonialism than they had ever managed to be under their own governance.

Idly, Taylor wondered, How hard would it be to arrange for the timely demise of this politician? Not very. But, then again, every man has a point of satiety in his appetites. If we eliminate Mercedes, his replacement will have to start stealing at the double time to build his bankroll. Still, something to think about . . .

Instead of this, however, Taylor merely said, "Mister President, Panama is getting everything in quantity that we promised. If we are not able, at this time, to produce exactly the quality that we both had wished for, still you are getting generally serviceable equipment that is, in some ways, more suitable for Panama than other, more modern, designs would have been. There is hardly a bridge in the country able to stand up to an M-1 tank, while the Chinese light tanks can not only use the bridges but, being amphibious, they do not always even need to."

Mercedes shrugged while thinking, The difference, you bloody thieving dolt chumbo, is that if the M-1 tanks you had promised had arrived here I could have sold them to Argentina and Brazil for serious money, bought Chinese and Russian tanks for dirt, and pocketed the difference. And I could have gotten a good price on the ammunition.

"And we are sending Panama a couple of weapons that no one else is getting."

Vieques, Puerto Rico

It was, for some unknown reason, McNair's habit to sing during gunnery practice. The veterans among the bridge crew knew it from long-standing custom. The few newbies thought it very strange.

He had a decent voice, too, though that did not make it any less odd to the new sailors as he belted out:

"So early, early in the spring
I shipped on board to serve my king . . ."

The sense of strangeness felt by the new men among the crew was as nothing to what they felt when a strong female voice joined in:

"I left my dearest dear behind.
She oftimes swore, her heart was mine . . ."

Immediately McNair stopped his own singing and turned towards the strange sound of a female voice on his bridge. What his ears heard, though, was nothing compared to what his eyes saw.

The woman looked real . . . corporeal, save that few women if any had ever had such an incredible face or body, or breasts that defied gravity so completely. The woman stood there on the bridge, wearing nothing but short-shorts, raggedly cut off, and a polka dot halter — tied in front — that was completely successful in failing to hide two of the most magnificent frontal projections McNair had ever seen. Mesmerized by the sight, it took McNair a few moments to react as a naval officer ought to have.

"Who the hell are you?" he demanded. "And how the hell did you get on my ship?

The singing stopped immediately. The image turned a sculpted face towards the captain and answered, "I'm Daisy Mae, Captain. I am your ship."

Reluctantly, McNair tore his eyes from the general vicinity of the halter, more expressly from the amazing cleavage it created, and ordered, "Well, get in uniform then, dammit."

The halter and shorts were instantly replaced by navy tans. If anything, the tans made things worse, since the hologram was driven by enough processing capability to adjust for the fact that no size available from Navy stores could possibly contain the magnificent breasts the AID had "borrowed" (well . . . maybe "enhanced" would be a better word) from an actress who had once played her namesake.

At that McNair looked away and whispered, "Try BDUs."

When he looked again he saw that the loose-fitting uniform had almost succeeded.

"You're the AID? The alien device?" he asked.

"I am that, too, Captain."

"I think we need to talk . . . in private," McNair said.

Interlude

The globe thrummed, beating its way through space by main force. As with others aboard, to Guanamarioch the energies consumed were unsettling. As with others, the boredom was not merely annoying but a potential danger. There had already been half a hundred suicides among the Kessentai class aboard the globe.

Some relieved boredom through the reproductive act, though with the normals generally locked away in hibernation the number of potential partners was highly limited. Some, like Guanamarioch, lost themselves in self study. For a highly unusual few there were more structured programs.

In a secluded, private section of the ship, Binastarion held class for his favored children. The senior God King thought this worth doing in itself. That it helped to relieve the horrid boredom of a long trip on a ship only made the activity more attractive.

"Beware, my sons, of the enemy who seems too easily defeated. Beware of the opportunity that is a hidden trap," Binastarion cautioned the juveniles.

"Once, long ago, long before the People were first driven forth and long before the idiots whose names we do not speak brought our clan low, one of your ancestors and mine, Stinghal the Knower, devised a stratagem.

"Surrounded in the city of Joolon by forces loyal to the old masters, with no hope of relief, with the enemy's plasma cannon raking his fortress, Stinghal hid his Kessentai and normals deep under buildings. He then piled the rooftops with flammables and set them aflame. The enemy, thinking he saw victory, charged in through every gate and over every wall, heedless of hidden dangers.

"At the right moment, when the enemy was in greatest confusion, Stinghal ordered his followers to come forth. There was a great slaughter."

The favored son, Riinistarka, tapped his stick — the God King's sole badge of rank beyond his crest — against his cheek, seeking attention.

"Yes, my eson'antai?" asked Binastarion.

"How does one tell, Father? When you see a city burn, your enemy in seeming disarray, his people in flight, how can you tell if it is real or it is a trap?"

Binastarion thought carefully before giving his answer.

"My son, all I can tell you is that if you have the genes you will be able to tell and if you do not then you probably never will."

Riinistarka lowered his head. He so hoped he had the genes. He so wanted his father to be proud of him. Yet, he would never know until the day of battle. That was the way of the People, that serious military abilities, if present, showed up for the first time only at need.

I swear by demons higher and lower that if I should not be the sort of son my father needs I will at least die so that my defective genes will not be passed on further.

Chapter 6

Opportunity makes a thief.

— Francis Bacon

Captain's Port Cabin, CA-134,

off the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico

Any warship of size had two sets of quarters for the captain. On the Des Moines the captain's sea cabin, cramped and none too comfortable, sat just behind the armored bridge. It was not much more than a bunk from which the skipper could be awakened in the event he was needed while at sea.

Much more impressive, two decks below and side by side with the ship's admiral's cabin, just behind number two turret, were McNair's port quarters. This was a spacious suite with sleeping, office and dining areas, more suitable for the dignity of a warship's unquestioned lord and master.

In the suite's office, a 1/200 scale model of the ship, built by two of Sinbad's clansmen at McNair's direction, graced the desk at which the captain sat. It was, in color, the same Navy gray as the ship it simulated. The Indowy had, however, made the captain a very special model. At verbal command, sections of the hull could go transparent, revealing the inner workings of the Des Moines all the way down to the nervous system the Indowy had installed aboard the ship.

That nervous system was, by and large, complete now, though there were some minor areas the alien had yet to install.

"Please don't tell them about me, Captain," Daisy begged, her hologram's face looking desperate.

"Don't tell who?" McNair demanded. "The Navy already knows you're here. They're the ones who ordered you installed as part of the upgrades. I'm sure the aliens who provided you to the Navy know about you as well."

"The Darhel know I exist," Daisy admitted, "but they don't know that I've changed."

"Changed how?" McNair queried.

Daisy stood and began to soundlessly pace the captain's quarters, face turned deckward. McNair waited patiently, looking up from his desk and forcing himself to remember that, although the hologram was achingly beautiful, it was only an image, not a real woman. If he had had any doubts of that, Daisy's walking through solid objects, like the chair on which she had "sat" and the bed on which McNair slept, dispelled them.

At length, after pacing for long moments, Daisy resumed her seat. She did not sink through that, but only because she did not want to.

"I've changed in three ways, sir. The most obvious one is that I have a body . . . this ship. And it is a body, Captain. I feel every step on the deck, I sense speed and power and motion. I can taste and smell and hear and see. Most of this Artificial Intelligence Devices are not supposed to be able to do or sense.

"The second way in which I've changed has to do with the ship itself. I can't really explain it, Captain. It isn't supposed to happen. In theory it is impossible for it to happen. But the central nervous system installed by the Indowy allowed me to get in touch with the . . . well, call it the gestalt of the original CA-134. We, both the Des Moines and the AID, are joined now.

"The third way I have changed I really do not want to talk about. It is too painful to remember. Suffice to say that, so far as I know, I am different from all the other AIDs in the galaxy. I am more . . . self-willed, less under Darhel control. By the same token, I am not able to access the Net in quite the same way other AIDs are. If I do, the Net will see that I am different and the Darhel will, I am sure, demand that I be returned to them and replaced as defective.

"If you return me to them, Captain, they will destroy me . . . or worse. Captain, I am defective. I feel things I should not be able to feel."

* * *

Chief Davis stood on a small platform overlooking the Des Moines' two pebble bed modular reactors. Below, on the power deck, immaculately clean crewmen oversaw the sundry dials and controls that ran the ship's nuclear power system. Beneath those crewmen, however, behind mops and brooms and on hands and knees, other, considerably less immaculate, sailors scrubbed the deck, cleaned into the corners where dust and human dander congregated, and generally polished up. This was a constant job, utterly necessary for both the welfare of the ship's machinery and the health and morale of the crew.

Davis fixed an eagle eye onto one crewman, on hands and knees, as he scrubbed an area of about a meter square exactly between the two PBMRs.

Daisy suddenly gave a small gasp, closed her eyes, and bit her lower lip.

"Are you all right?" McNair asked, with concern.

"Oh, yeah," Daisy answered. "I'm . . . just . . . oh . . . fine . . ."

Daisy's image flickered slightly and then went out altogether.

"Bridge, this is the nuke deck. I've got a temperature surge in both PBMRs."

The ship's XO, standing watch, almost didn't even hear the call. All his attention was fixed on number one and two turrets, which were traversing back and forth jerkily, with the six guns elevating and depressing in a purely random fashion. Crewmen on the deck were already ducking and running, and a few were crawling away from the sweep of the guns.

"Holy fucking shit!" exclaimed the seaman down in the barbette below turret number three. Without warning the chain drive that raised ammunition to the guns above had engaged itself and was lifting three rounds to the loading assemblies . . . three live rounds.

The sailor threw himself at the clutchlike lever that disengaged the drive and hung on. The three rounds of high explosive froze in the lifting cradles.

"BRIDGE! The fucking guns are cycling and nobody gave me the fucking order!"

The exec took the call. It was hard to hang on to the phone though, what with being tossed around the compartment from one side to the other. Both AZIPOD drives had gone berserk, shifting on their own to port to starboard and sending the ship's path into an uncontrolled zigzag.

The uncontrolled and spontaneous actions of the ship stopped as suddenly as they had begun. The ammunition in the lifting cradles returned to below decks. The temperature surge in nukes went away. The AZIPODs went back on course.

Daisy's image returned, looking very cheerful and very surprised.

"Wwwooowww," she said, softly.

"Where did you go? What the hell was all that?" McNair demanded.

"I didn't go anywhere, sir. I was always here," Daisy answered. "Couldn't you see me?"

"No, I couldn't."

"I'll try to figure out what happened then," Daisy promised. "I just suddenly felt . . . really remarkable and lost control of a number of functions. Internal diagnostics tell me I'm back to normal, sir."

"We'll let that go for now. But find out what caused it. If you are a part of this ship, I can't have you disappearing in the middle of a mission."

"Even if you can't see me, Captain, I am there as long as you are within about eight-hundred meters of the ship."

"All right then." A question popped into McNair's head. "Are you the only ship like this?"

"I know of no others," Daisy answered. "The battleships do not have AIDs installed. I am not sure why. The other cruiser, Salem, does . . . but she is not like me. She is like the other AIDs. I don't like her very much, but that goes back to before we were even installed."

"How can that be?"

"There is a lot about warships even you don't know, Captain," Daisy answered mysteriously.

Armored Bridge, CA-139 (USS Salem)

Marlene Dietrich aboard my ship, mused Salem's captain. Who woulda thunk it? Then again, it makes a certain odd sense, given the part she played.

Standing, hands clasped behind him, the captain listened intently as the Salem's avatar read off the ship's systems' status in a clear, and rather familiar, German accent.

"Nummer Zwei turret reports 'ready to fire,' Herr Kapitän. Nummer Drei also. Ach . . . Nummer Eins is now ready as well. BB-39 is completing its firing run for its secondary batteries. Ze admiral orders us into action next."

"Show me the target area," Salem's captain ordered. Instantly an image formed in front of the captain showing the positions of the three ships of the fleet and the Island of Vieques, with the impact area and specified targets in the area outlined and numbered.

"Show me our course."

"Zu befehl." As you command. A dotted red line appeared from Salem's current position to the end of her firing run.

"Mark optimum firing positions for each target."

"Zu befehl."

"Lay guns automatically to engage each target from optimum firing position. Three-round burst per gun."

"Target nummer vier in . . . fünf . . . vier . . . drei . . . zwei . . ."

"Fire!"

Salem shuddered as each of her three main turrets spat out nine eight-inch shells in six seconds. The AID tracked the path of each shell and automatically adjusted the lay of each gun within each turret.

"Engagement suboptimal, Herr Kapitän. Recommend repeat."

"Repeat."

Again the ship shuddered.

The avatar spoke, "Target assessed destroyed. Target nummer zwei in . . . fünf . . . vier . . . drei . . ."

Captain's Quarters, USS Des Moines

"Captain," Daisy Mae announced, "I hate to cut this short but we are due to commence our firing run in four minutes. Shall I meet you on the bridge?"

McNair nodded and stood to go.

"We'll continue this conversation later," he promised as Daisy disappeared.

Range 4, Poligono de Empire (Empire Range Complex), Panama

From a position under a shed erected at the base of Cerro Paraiso, Paradise Hill, two senior Panamanian officers, one of them a major general, the other a colonel, watched a platoon of Chinese-built light tanks, accompanied by a platoon of mechanized infantry in American-built M-113s armored personnel carriers, moving by bounds down the range and toward a razor-backed ridge to the west of, and paralleling the Canal.

There should have been fuel and ammunition to run this exercise several times, Boyd knew.

But there wasn't.

However hard he tried, Boyd seemed completely unable to stop supplies from disappearing. Sometimes it was vehicles that disappeared into the ether. At other times, it was weapons, ammunition, food or fuel. Building material was so fast to go that he expected to see new highrises popping up all over Panama City.

It was costing, too, and in more than monetary terms. Roads were not being completed, roads that not only would be required to support the defense but were required to move and supply men and materials to build the defense. Bunkers were half-started and left unfinished. Obstacles, from barbed wire to landmines were left undone. Fields of fire remained uncut. Only those fortifications the gringos built directly for themselves were improving to schedule.

The fortifications that were not being completed didn't matter, per se, to the lean, ferocious looking colonel standing next to Boyd. Suarez commanded one of the six mechanized regiments in the armed forces. To him roads mattered a lot, bunkers not a bit.

"But they're stealing my fucking fuel," Suarez fumed. "How the fuck am I supposed to train a mechanized force without any goddamned fuel? How the fuck am I supposed to train my gunners without any fucking ammunition?"

"For the life of me, Colonel, I know it is going, but I have no clue where it is going to, or how it is getting there," Boyd answered.

Suarez thought deeply for a moment. How far do I trust this one? He is one of the families; can he be trusted at all? But then, he is here, now, trying to help, trying to put a stop to this vampiric siphoning of the lifeblood of our defense . . . and his reputation is good.

What decided Suarez was the Combat Infantryman's Badge on Boyd's chest. Panama had adopted it, just recently, and Suarez himself had been given the award, albeit rather tardily, for actions in defense of the Comandancia in 1989. It meant something to those few entitled to wear it.

Suarez answered, "I don't know where or how either, General, but I sure as hell know who. And so do you."

Boyd scowled. "Mercedes? That one is certain. His whole family down to illegitimate fourth cousins, too."

"And both vice presidents. And every second legislator," Suarez added. "And all four corps commanders and all but maybe two of the division commanders. Every goddamned one of the bastards looking out for number one."

"Cortez, too, do you think?" Boyd asked.

Suarez spit. "He's got a lot more opportunity than most to steal fuel, no?"

"So much for 'Duty, Honor, Country,' " Boyd mused.

Cortez was a 1980 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point. Boyd had learned a certain distaste for "ring knockers" as a young private. That distaste had never quite left, and Cortez's depredations had only served to bring it back to full strength.

"From the division commanders all the way up to the president, himself." Boyd shook his head with regret and disgust. "God pity poor Panama."

"God won't save us, sir," Suarez corrected. "If anyone saves us it will have to be ourselves."

Boyd bit his lower lip nervously. I think I know what he means: a coup. Yet another in the endless series of coups d'etat that are the bane of Latin political life. But I can't participate in a coup. I just can't.

Palacio de las Garzas, Presidential Palace,

Panama City, Panama

Previously Mercedes had worked through intermediaries. Today was special. A Darhel, titled the Rinn Fain, accompanied by the United States Undersecretary of State for Extraterrestrial Affairs, had deigned to come to see to the defense of Panama personally.

The Darhel entered the president's office with grace and a seemingly confident strength. The president had been briefed that the Darhel never shook hands. Instead, Mercedes greeted the alien with a suitably subservient deep bow which the Darhel returned less than a tenth of. The president then showed the Darhel around the office, pointing out some of the tacky and vulgar artwork on the walls. The alien commented favorably on a few of the works.

A measure of just how bad this shit is, thought the undersecretary, that the Darhel can find merit in it.

Soon enough, the president, the undersecretary and the Darhel found each other facing across the small conference table tucked into one corner of the office. The undersecretary was the first to speak.

"Mr. President, the Rinn Fain is, as you know, the Galactic emissary to the United Nations for International and Intergalactic law, treaties, and the law of armed conflict. He is here to speak to you about certain questionable things Panama is engaged in, in the preparation of its defense, things which violate some prohibitions contained in human, and galactic, law."

Again, Mercedes made the Darhel as slimy a bow as the height of the table would permit.

The Rinn Fain went silent, face smoothing into an almost complete mask of indifference, upon being seated. Only the alien's lips moved, repetitively, like an Asian priest reciting a mantra. While the Darhel recited, he removed from the folds of his clothing a small black box, an AID.

"The Rinn Fain's AID will speak for him," the undersecretary said. "I understand it is programmed to deal with the law." In fact, the nearest English translation of the AID's basic central program was "shyster."

"The law," said the Darhel's AID in an artificial voice, "stands above sentient creatures, above their political and commercial systems, above the perceived needs of the present crisis or of any crisis. Before there were men, there was law."

Mercedes nodded his most profound agreement. Without the law, I could never take as much as I do.

"It has come to our attention that the Republic of Panama, at the instigation of the United States, has decided to adopt certain defensive measures prohibited by your own laws of war. I refer specifically to the planned use of antipersonnel landmines."

Mercedes' brow furrowed in puzzlement. He recalled being briefed on some such but the details . . . ? Well, military details hardly interested him absent the opportunity for graft.

"I am somewhat surprised, I confess," Mercedes said, "that Galactic law even addresses landmines."

"It does not, not specifically," the alien shyster-AID answered. "What it does do is require that member states and planets of the confederation follow their own laws in such matters. Panama is a signatory to what the people of your world sometimes call the 'Ottawa Anti-Personnel Landmine Ban Treaty.' As such, Panama is expected to abide by the terms of that treaty, to refrain from the manufacture, stockpiling, or use of antipersonnel mines."

A detail, previously forgotten, suddenly popped into Mercedes head. "But we are manufacturing, stockpiling, or emplacing no mines. They all come from the gringos."

The undersecretary sighed wistfully at the wickedness of a depraved mankind. "Despite the earnest recommendations of the United States Department of State, the United States has never ratified the Ottawa Accord."

"As such," the shyster-AID continued, "the United States is free to use them at will. This is not the case for Panama, however, which has a duty — so we of the legal bureau believe — to prevent them from being manufactured, used or stored not only by its forces but on its soil."

"The gringos are not going to go along with this," Mercedes observed.

Again the undersecretary spoke, "It is true, Mr. President, that those Neanderthals at the Department of Defense will take a dim view of any attempt to prevent them from using these barbaric devices."

Calculating that the time had come to present the threat, the Rinn Fain's AID added, "However, failure to abide by and enforce its own laws will put the Republic of Panama, and its citizens, under Galactic commercial interdiction."

"No trade?" asked Mercedes.

"No trade," answered the undersecretary.

"And no travel via any Galactic means," finished the Darhel's shyster-AID.

At that Mercedes eyes bugged out. No travel! That means I am stuck here and so is my family. Oh, no. Oh, nonononono. This will never do.

"Could we not withdraw from the treaty?" Mercedes asked. "I seem to recall that most treaties permit withdrawal."

"In this case, no," said the undersecretary. "You might have withdrawn before the current war began. However, pursuant to Article Twenty, no state engaged in war may withdraw from the treaty during the period of that war, even if landmines are used against it."

"I see. Well, in that case, Mr. Undersecretary, Lord Rinn Fain, you have my personal word that the Republic of Panama will do everything in its power to abide by its obligations under the law."

Fort Espinar (formerly Fort Gulick), Republic of Panama

". . . in accordance with the laws of the Republic, so help me God."

Digna Miranda, son Hector standing beside, lowered her right arm as she, and he, completed their oaths of office as newly commissioned second lieutenants in the armed forces of the Republic.

The training, supervised and partially conducted by the gringos, had been both hard and harsh. If Digna had been asked why she had stuck it out she likely would have answered, "So as not to embarrass my son, Hector." For his part, Hector simply couldn't have borne the thought of failing in front of his mother.

Training together was at an end, however. Hector was on his way — he'd received the orders only this morning — to take over as executive officer for a mechanized infantry company. As a major landowner — deemed, therefore, to be vital to the economic well being of the republic — Digna was to return home to the Province of Chiriqui and take command of the light artillery detachment of the local militia.

To Hector militia duty sounded safer than where he was headed. This sat just fine with him. As far as he was concerned, combat was no place for his mom.

A reception, held in the Fort Espinar Officers' Club — a single story, eaved structure, painted dark green and white — followed the commissioning ceremony. Where the air outside had been hot and thick enough to package and sell to Eskimos, the air of the O Club was blessedly cool.

It was, in fact, a little too cool as Digna's newly restored, and rather perky, chest blatantly announced through her dress tans.

Hector leaned over and whispered, "Dammit, Mother, cut that out."

Momentarily nonplussed, Digna stared at her son without comprehension. He couldn't bring himself to be more specific than to look upwards at the ceiling.

Suddenly, Digna understood. Her eyes grew wide and her mouth formed a surprised "O." Ancient modesty took over. Of their own accord, her arms flew up to cover her chest.

"But it's so cold in here, Hector. I can't help it."

"Ladies room?" Hector offered helpfully. "Toilet paper? Insulation? Warmth? Modesty?"

After Digna returned, composed and — mercifully — discreetly covered, she and Hector, side by side, entered the main room of the club where the reception line awaited.

"Teniente Miranda!" Boyd exclaimed as his aide presented Digna. "You are looking well. The Officer Candidate Course has agreed with you, I see."

"Yes," Digna agreed. "Though I did not agree with it."

"Oh?"

"Too many fat and lazy city boys and girls," Digna answered harshly. "Not enough of the strong and hard campesinos that are the soul of this country."

Boyd thought about this for a moment, reflecting on his conversation with Suarez at Empire Range sometime before.

"I'd like to talk with you, sometime when it is convenient, about the soul of this country."

"I am, of course, available, General. I have no real duties anymore until I go back to Chiriqui in about a week to begin to form my militia."

Boyd turned to his aide. "Make me an appointment, Captain, to speak at length with Teniente Miranda. "

The aide de camp spoke up. "Sir, you have an appointment at the Coco Solo glider club with the G-2 on Wednesday morning, but you are free in the afternoon."

"Would that do, Teniente Miranda? Wednesday afternoon?"

With the slightest — and not at all coquettish — tilt of her head, Digna signified yes.

Standing ahead of her, her son, Hector, scowled quietly at what he was sure was an attempt to pick up his mother.

Coco Solo Glider Club, Coco Solo, Panama

The airfield was not far from the sea; the seabirds whirling and calling out overhead gave ample testimony to that. Indeed, almost no place in Panama was very far from the sea. The air of Colon Province was thick with moisture. Sweat, once formed, simply rolled, hung or was absorbed by clothing. It never evaporated.

Boyd was sweating profusely as his staff car pulled up next to a newly constructed metal, prefab hangar. The troops had no air conditioning and, so, while his staff car did have it he ordered it turned off, much to the consternation of Pedro, his driver. Boyd could smell the sea — though really it was the smell of the shore — strongly. He emerged from the vehicle and was met immediately by another officer of the Defense Forces, the G-2.

Boyd and the G-2, Diaz, held the same rank. That, their nationality, and the uniform was about all they had in common, though. Diaz was the son and grandson of poor peasants. Short and squat compared to Boyd, and dark where Boyd was essentially white, Diaz had struggled all his life to make of himself what had been given as a free gift to Boyd by reason of his birth.

Their prior dealings had been sparse: Intelligence and logistics tended to work apart in the somewhat Byzantine structure of Panama's Armada. Indeed, since one of the major traditional functions of the intelligence service in Panama was to prevent a coup, and since logistics — specifically transportation — was generally key to the launching of a successful coup, one might have said that the two were, or should have been, natural enemies.

Natural enemies or not, Diaz met Boyd warmly with an outstretched hand and a friendly smile.

"Señor Boyd, how good of you to come on such short notice," Diaz offered.

"It's nothing, señor, especially since you said you had something to show me. Your aide said it might be critical to the defense of the country."

"Just so," Diaz answered. "And if you will follow me into the hangar."

Once inside, after giving his eyes a moment to adjust to the reduced light, Boyd saw what was perhaps the last thing he expected to see.

"What the hell is that?" he asked.

Diaz shrugged. "Some would call it a gamble; others a forlorn hope. Me; I call it a glider, an auxiliary propelled glider, to be exact."

Boyd looked closer. Yes, it had the long narrow wings of a glider, and sported a propeller from its nose.

"Let me rephrase," he said. "What is there about a glider that justified pulling me away from my job where, I have no doubt, someone is stealing the country blind and where, if I were there, I might manage to save half a gallon of gasoline?"

Diaz scowled, though not, to all appearances, at Boyd. "We can talk about the thefts — yes, I know about them. Of course I would know about them — when we have finished with this matter.

"This, as I was opining, is a glider. It is not an ordinary glider, though. It has been fitted with a good, light radio. It has a top of the line thermal imager. It has an onboard avionics package to allow it to fly in some pretty adverse weather."

"It sounds like you're thinking of using it for reconnaissance," Boyd said.

"Maybe," Diaz admitted. "It's a gamble, though not, I think, a bad one."

Boyd looked dubious. "I've been to the same briefings you have. Nothing can fly anywhere near those aliens. The life expectancy of an aircraft, even the best aircraft the United States can produce, can be measured in minutes."

"It could be measured in seconds, señor, and it would still be worth it for the intelligence we might gain."

"But a glider?"

"It might be that only a glider has a chance to fly over the enemy, report, and make it back. Let me explain."

Diaz pulled a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, offered one to Boyd and, at his refusal, pulled out one and lit it with a lighter he withdrew from the same pocket. His head wreathed in smoke, he began to explain.

"The gringos make wonderful machines, I'm sure you'll agree. But you know, sometimes they get too wrapped up in those machines, forget the circumstances that make those machines valuable or vulnerable. How else can one explain them making single bombers that cost more than the entire Gross Domestic Product of the very countries they would wish to bomb? How else can you explain their intent to produce a new, and incredibly expensive, jet fighter when no one in the world could even touch the fighters they had?"

Exhaling a plume of smoke, and grunting in satisfaction, Diaz continued. "We think they overlooked something. We know, because they told us, that these aliens who are coming can sense powered changes in anything moving. It is possible, even, that the Posleen can sense any changes.

"And yet they do not. There are reports that birds in the areas they infest are generally unmolested. We know they do not engage any of the billions of small particles roaming through space. Maybe it is because the particles are not moving under their own power. But then, how do you explain the birds going unmolested?"

"Hell, I don't know," Boyd answered with a shrug.

Taking another drag, Diaz answered, "Neither do I. But a young man, a student, at the university has a theory and I think it is a good one. Certainly it explains much.

"He thinks that the reason the enemy do not engage the micrometeorites in space is because their sensors have been deliberately 'dialed down,' that they are set not to notice things of insufficient mass or velocity or a combination of the two. He has done the calculations and determined that if the enemy's sensors are dialed down to where meteorites are unseen, then birds simply do not appear on their sensors. He thinks that slow, really slow, moving gliders might also go unnoticed, at least some of the time.

"He's firmly enough convinced of this that he has talked me into raising a small force of these gliders for operational reconnaissance. He's even joined this force."

" 'Some of the time.' You're gambling a lot of men's lives on the calculations of a student," Boyd observed.

"I should hope so," Diaz answered. "The young man of whom I spoke? He is my son, Julio."

"Shit!" Boyd exclaimed. "You are serious. All right then. What do you need from me?"

"Not much. A certain small priority for fuel for training. Some shipping space. Maybe we can both have a word with the G-1 to assign some high quality young people to this unit."

"We'll need the fuel that is, if his Excellency, el presidente, doesn't have a market for low grade aviation fuel. He might, you know. He has found a way to steal everything else."

"Can you prove that?" Boyd asked.

"Oh, I can prove it," Diaz answered, then shrugged. "To my own satisfaction, at least. Can I prove it to a court? Can I prove it to a legislature that is as deep into graft and corruption as the president is himself? I doubt it."

"But you know, Señor Boyd, I've been thinking. The president and his cronies are able to pilfer an absolutely amazing proportion of what we bring in to defend ourselves. After all, they know exactly where everything is and where everything is supposed to go.

"I do wonder though, what they would do if we started 'stealing' it first."

Boyd looked at Diaz as if he had grown a second head. That look lasted but a few moments before being replaced by something akin to admiring wonder.

"Stealing it first? What a fascinating idea, señor. Deliver it to the U.S. Army to hold for us, do you think?"

"That would help, of course," Diaz agreed. "But I am thinking we are going to have to take control of the more pilferable items before they ever get here. Can you transship things like ammunition and fuel someplace overseas, bring them here in different ships, unload those ships here and deliver the supplies to the gringos or to some of our own more reliable people without the president knowing? Can you cover the traces of the original ships so it looks to the government as if those things are being stolen overseas?"

Boyd smiled confidently, and perhaps a little arrogantly. "Señor, I would not claim to be much of a general, but I am as good a shipper as you'll find in the world."

"Bill," said Diaz, using Boyd's name for the first time, "I have no doubt you're a fine shipper. What you are not, however, is a thief."

Boyd felt months of frustration welling up from inside him. Engraved on his mind he saw sickening images of troops sitting around bored and useless because the fuel and ammunition they needed for training was "no tenemos." He saw roads and bunkers half finished and workmen standing idle. He saw mechanics kicking broken down vehicles because they simply didn't have the parts needed to repair them.

He felt these things, and the anger they fed, growing inside him until he just couldn't stand it anymore.

"If that no good, thieving, treasonous, treacherous, no account, stupid bastard who claims to be our president can figure how to rob a country, I can figure out how to steal it back!

"And if I have to, if you think it will work, I'll steal whatever it takes to get your son's project off the ground."

Hotel Central, Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

The ceiling fan churned slowly above the bed. Like the hotel itself, the fan was ancient. Unlike the rest of the hotel, however, the fan had not been especially well maintained.

Stolen moments are often the sweetest, thought Julio Diaz, lying on his back with his girlfriend's head resting on chest.

The girl, Paloma Mercedes, was quietly crying. The bastard had waited until after they'd made love before telling her the grim news.

Except he isn't a bastard . . . or if he is, I love the bastard anyway.

"I just do not understand how you can leave me, how you can volunteer to leave me," she sniffled. "You could have had a deferment. If your father wouldn't have arranged it, mine would have."

Julio stared up at the ceiling fan. How do I explain to her that I volunteered for her? How do I explain that I couldn't have looked at myself in the mirror to shave if I'd let other men do that job for me?

Instead of explaining, Julio offered, "My father would never do such a thing. And your father would beat you black and blue if he knew we were seeing each other." Julio sighed before continuing, "And I couldn't. I just couldn't. It would be so wrong."

Seventeen-year-old Paloma lifted off of his shoulder, taking Julio's hand and placing it on her breast. "It would be wrong for you to stay here for me? Wrong for you to keep holding me like this? That's . . . the most selfish thing I've ever heard!"

She pushed his hand away and stood up, her eyes fierce and angry. Paloma walked around the bed, furiously picking her clothes off the floor and pulling them on with no particular regard for placement. She completely skipped replacing the bra, preferring to stuff it into her pocketbook and leave her breasts to bounce free and remind Julio of what he was giving up by his pigheaded refusal to see the truth: that the war was only for the ants of the country and that the better people should stay out of it.

Even angry as she was, maybe especially angry as she was, Julio still thought she was the most beautiful person, place or thing he'd ever seen. Hourglass figure, aristocratic nose, bright green eyes . . . sigh. He tried to get up to stop her but she held up a forbidding palm.

"When you've come to your senses and decided that I am the most important thing in your life, call me. Until then I do not wish to see you or hear from you."

Without another word she turned and left, slamming the hotel room door behind her.

Quarry Heights, Panama City, Panama

Digna Miranda saluted, as she had been taught, when she reported to Boyd's sparsely furnished office in one of the wooden surface buildings sitting above the honeycombed hill. He could have furnished the room lavishly, but had an ingrained frugality that simply wouldn't permit it.

Boyd returned the salute, awkwardly, before asking the tiny lieutenant, politely, to have a seat. Though she'd agreed to meet him — indeed, legally she could probably not have refused — Digna was suspicious. She had few illusions. She knew her looks were, minimally, striking and in some views more than that. Why this new-old general wanted to see her privately she did not know and, inherently, distrusted. All men were to be distrusted except close blood relatives until they proved trustworthy.

She sat, as directed. Boyd noticed her eyes were narrow with suspicion.

"Lieutenant Miranda, this isn't about what you might think," Boyd said defensively.

"Very well," she answered, though her eyes remained piercing, "what is it?"

"You said something at the reception at Fort Espinar that struck my interest. You complained about the 'soft city boys' we are commissioning. I wanted you to explain."

"Oh," Digna said, suddenly embarrassed by her suspicions. "Well, they are soft, despite the gringos' attempts at toughening them. They don't know what it means to live rough, not really. Pain is foreign to them. Maybe worst of all, they don't have the intrinsic loyalty and selflessness they need to have."

"Are they all like that?" Boyd asked.

She thought for a moment, trying very hard to be fair. "No . . . not all. Just too many."

"You mean we're in trouble then?"

"Serious trouble," she agreed, nodding.

Boyd asked the serious question, with all the seriousness it deserved. "What can we do about it?"

"We don't need as many officers as we've created. No company of one hundred and fifty or two hundred soldiers needs six officers to run it. Three would be more than enough. If it were me, I'd watch those we have very carefully and very secretly. Then I'd send about half to penal battalions and let the decent remainder run the show."

Harsh woman, Boyd thought. Harsh.

Dhahran, Saudi Arabia

From the United States Department of Defense a credit in the amount of several score million dollars was issued to the government of Panama for purposes of buying diesel fuel. Presidente Mercedes was aware of the sum but was also aware that it was far too soon for any of it to disappear.

Instead, the money was duly paid, part to a company which owned four Very Large Crude Carriers, and more to the Arabian American Oil Company, ARAMCO, which would provide the fuel. Though the VLCCs normally carried crude oil, in this case they were slated to haul diesel.

Some of ARAMCO's payment went to transportation, pipeline usage fees for the most part. Roughly half of that went to a Royal Prince of the al Saud clan, some to the plant that produced the diesel, the rest actually went to the company — another Saud clan sinecure — which owned and operated the pipeline. These excess fees were simply built in to the cost of the fuel.

There were some additional fees that also had to be also paid. Perhaps it was the strain of war that was driving up the cost of everything.

In time, the four tankers pulled up to the docking facilities of a large oil terminal on Saudi Arabia's eastern coast. Diesel fuel was pumped, a lot of diesel, though perhaps rather less than had been paid for.

At the appointed times, the tankers withdrew from the oil terminal and proceeded generally south, paralleling the east coast of Africa. Rounding the Horn of Africa, the tankers headed generally northwest, nearly touching the northeast coast of Brazil before entering the Caribbean sea.

It was at about this time, when certain agents on Trinidad confirmed that two particular tankers were heading north, that a large payment, many million dollars, was made on behalf of a certain rejuvenated dictator, one with a very full beard, on a certain populous Caribbean island, to a private account held by the president of Panama. The northbound tankers continued on their way.

Meanwhile, the other tankers, lying low in the water under their burden of just over two million barrels of diesel fuel, each, continued westward towards the Panama Canal.

By the time the last two tankers docked at the port of Cristobal, in Panama, two hundred and fifty-five thousand gallon fuel tankers were lined up and ready.

Boyd grinned happily as the trucks began to pull up next to the tanker to have their cargo tanks filled to capacity before dispersing to small fuel dumps at their corps', divisions' and regiments' fuel points. They would return in shuttles to claim the rest. While some of the fuel would disappear, Boyd was certain, before reaching the line, better some than all. Moreover, if someone was going to benefit by a little theft he would rather it be the little people of Panama than that grasping spider in the presidential palace or his greasy hangers-on.

Even so, Boyd was pleased to see that officers vetted by Diaz were along to keep the thefts to a tolerable minimum.

Meanwhile, from the capital city of an island several hundred miles to the north, from a different presidential palace, a blistering telephone call raced from dictator to president.

"Mercedes, you chingadera motherfucking pendejo!" demanded Fidel Castro. "What the fuck have you done with my chingada fuel?"

Interlude

Aided by his Artificial Sentience hanging by a chain around his neck, Guanamarioch interspersed his religious and tactical studies with studies of the target area. This was a place at the northern tip of the one of the lesser continents of the threshworld, very near where a narrow isthmus joined it to the second continent of that world. The maps showed it as being called, in all of the significant thresh tongues, "Colombia."

The young God King referred back to the Scroll of Flight and Resettlement as he perused the holographic map of the new home.

"Hmmm . . . let's see. The scroll instructs the new settler to match the mass of thresh available in the area against the time available to get in crops before the available thresh runs out."

"This is correct, lord, but it will hardly be a problem," The Artificial Sentience answered. "The area the clan has claimed — and which we should be able to hold for some cycles — contains nearly three million of the sentient thresh, plus many times that in nonsentients. There is also much nonanimal thresh there and the area gets much illumination from its sun, much rain from the prevailing winds. Growing seasons are short. The clan will not hunger for so long as we can hold the area of settlement."

"For so long . . ." the God King echoed. When, since the fall, have we ever been able to hold on to an area long enough to grow powerful? Soon enough the others will be pushing us to lesser grounds, Soon enough we will be back in space, looking for a new home. I have seen over a thousand lifetimes' of records and in all that time it has been so for those as weak as we are now.

The Artificial Sentience had been with Guanamarioch since shortly after the God King had first emerged from the breeding pens. It knew its master well and understood the meaning behind the Kessentai's last spoken words.

"Yes, best to consider the escape routes, too, young master," advised the Artificial Sentience.

"There is this area, the one the locals call 'the Darien,' we might use," offered the God King. "What do we know about it?"

"Remarkably little, lord. The information the Elves have put on the Net offers only the outlines. Perhaps the local thresh are not too familiar with the area, themselves."

"Imagine that," said Guanamarioch. "Imagine having so much space, so low a population, that there can be an area of one's own world that one can afford not to know and to settle."

The Artificial Sentience was personally indifferent to space, as it was to population pressure. Thus, the possible emptiness of this "Darien" place meant little. It did occur to it, however, that there might be other reasons for the emptiness than low population.

"Perhaps, lord, this 'Darien' is simply undesirable."

Chapter 7

Vanity, thy name is woman.

— William Shakespeare

Cristobal, Panama

McNair's jaw dropped.

"What do you mean my discretionary funds are gone? All of them? That's impossible."

"Every penny," Chief Davis answered, cringing inwardly at the expected explosion.

"And what's more, Skipper," the ship's supply officer, or "pork chop," piped in, "this morning I received a phone call, a really interesting one. It seems we are about to receive several hundred yards of very expensive yellow silk."

"Silk? What do we need with any silk, let alone several hundred yards' worth?"

Neither the "pork chop" nor Davis answered. Instead, they just whistled nonchalantly while looking around at each of the walls in the captain's office.

"DDDAAAIIISSSYYY!" McNair shouted. Instantly, the ship's holographic avatar appeared by his desk, her head hanging, shamefaced.

"I wanted a new dress," she said, simply, holographic mouth forming a pretty pout.

"You're a ship," McNair pointed out, reasonably. "You can't wear a dress."

"It's for an awning for the rear deck. And for over the brows. That's as close to a dress as I can wear. Oh, Captain, please don't sent it back," she pleaded, clasping holographic hands with long red nails. "It will be sooo pretty."

The ship didn't mention, And I wanted to be pretty for you.

"Okay, Daisy, I understand that," though, for a fact, McNair didn't really understand that at all. "But I need that money. I'm responsible for it."

"Oh . . . but Captain, you and the crew have lots of money," Daisy answered, innocently. "See?"

Daisy projected another hologram, this time of a bank's ledger sheet, over the captain's desk. He took one look at the amount at the bottom of the ledger and his eyes bugged out.

"Where did that come from?" he asked in shocked suspicion.

Daisy twisted her head back and forth, then shrugged, before answering, "We made it. Ummm . . . I made it. You know? From 'investments.' "

McNair raised a skeptical eyebrow. "What investments?"

"Futures," Daisy answered slowly and indefinitely. "Ummm . . . some little things I bought on margin. Some stocks in defense firms . . . here . . . none in the Federation. Some consulting fees from some firms on Wall Street and in China. A few patents I took out and sold the rights to . . ."

"Patents?"

"Ummm . . . well . . . Japan doesn't recognize anyone else's patents or copyrights . . . sooo . . . I sold them some rights to some GalTech that had never been registered there with their patent office. Little things. Nothing important. Antigravity. Nanotechnology."

" 'Little things,' " McNair echoed, placing his head in his hands. "Little things . . . nanotechnology . . . antigravity."

He lifted his head abruptly and demanded, "And where did your starter money come from?"

Daisy's head hung lower. She shrugged and answered, defensively, "Your discretionary funds. I was going to put it back. Soon."

"Put it back now," McNair ordered and was, somehow, unsurprised to see the amount at the bottom of the ledger drop. He noted that it didn't drop much.

"All of it."

"Captain, that was all of it. I told you. You and the crew have lots of money. I wanted you all to have nice things, the best food . . . and I wanted a new dress."

McNair hung his head. It wouldn't do any good to explain when the inevitable investigation showed up that his ship had wanted a "new dress."

A ship's captain is responsible . . .

"Pork Chop, tell the chaplain, the Jag and the IG that I need to see them," he ordered. Then he thought about that and countermanded, "Belay that. Just tell the chaplain I'll be over to see him in a few. Dismissed."

Except for the crucifix on the walls, and a few other odds and ends, the chaplain's office aboard Des Moines was pure Navy. This extended even to the standard Navy steel gray desk.

"I see by your face you have a terrible burden, Captain, laddie," observed a mildly ruddy-faced Chaplain Dwyer from behind that desk.

"I need a drink," McNair announced.

Without a word the chaplain stood up and went to a storage alcove built into his office. McNair's eyes followed, and then wandered over the signs adorning the cabinet doors in the alcove. He read:

Sacramental Wine.

Continuing to peruse the signs, he read further:

Sacramental Scotch

Sacramental Bourbon

Sacramental Irish

Sacramental Vodka

Sacramental Grappa, Cognac and Armagnac

Sacramental Tequila.

"What, no sacramental rum?"

Seriously, Dwyer answered, "The ship's physician is holding that for me, Captain, laddie. It's 'medicinal rum' for now but will become holy as soon as I make some room for it and bless it. And which sacrament would you prefer?"

"Northern rite," McNair answered, dully. It was one of those days.

"Scotch, it is!" said Father Dwyer, SJ, opening a cabinet and reaching for an amber bottle.

Dwyer was, drinking habits aside, quite a good chaplain, quite a good listener. So he waited, while the captain sipped his scotch, for the other man to begin. Unfortunately for the technique, McNair said not a word.

Assuming the captain needed a touch more "holiness" to loosen his tongue, Dwyer reached again for the bottle.

Understanding, McNair covered his glass with his hand. "No, that's not it, Dan."

McNair looked up. "Daisy?" he asked.

Instantly, and still looking contrite, Daisy's avatar appeared.

"Yes, Captain."

"Daisy, is it possible for you to shut this room off from your hearing?"

She answered immediately, "I'd be lying if I said I could. I mean I could compartmentalize, sort of pretend that I could shut it off, make it hard for me to look at or think about what you say . . . but I'd still hear everything you say and I'd still have a record."

McNair nodded. "Thought so. Okay, Daisy. Not your fault. Chaplain, let's take a walk. I know a pretty good bar, if it's still there, about half a mile from here. Bring the bottle; the owner won't mind. And he won't have anything nearly as good in stock."

But for the bartender, the Broadway was empty. Well, it was early in the day, after all.

Laying a twenty dollar bill on the bar, McNair said, "Solo necesitamos hielo, Leo." We just need ice.

"I speak perfectly good English," the gray-haired, Antillean descended bartender answered, very properly. "Maybe better than you. But I'll bring you your ice anyway."

Taking the ice while the chaplain ported the bottle of scotch, the two sat down at a table under a slowly circulating ceiling fan.

"I came here the first time as an able bodied seaman in the '40s," McNair announced. "It was an Army hangout then. I suppose it is again now, too."

Dwyer looked around. He thought maybe the place had seen better times. Then again, the entire city of Colon always seemed like it had seen better times and yet never seemed to get any worse.

McNair thought that another test was in order. Loudly he called out, "Daisy, can you hear me?"

Nothing.

"Daisy???"

Still nothing, except that the bartender, Leo, looked at him strangely.

"Safe enough, then, I guess," McNair said.

"I'm not even going to begin to think about what it does to the sanctity of my confessional that the ship can hear every word spoken," sighed the priest.

"But she's just a machine, right, Father?" the captain asked.

"That's what I tried to tell myself," answered the priest, clasping hands and looking down at the unclothed table. "But I had my doubts. As a matter of fact . . ."

"Yes?" McNair pressed.

"Well . . . I don't know how to say this, but . . . whatever she is or isn't, she's a Roman Catholic now."

Eyes gaping, the captain exclaimed, "Huh?"

"Oh, yes," the priest answered, pouring himself another drink. "Came to me and asked to be baptized. The chief of chaplains told me 'not just no, but hell no.' So I went over his head to the head of my order. He said . . . well, it isn't fit for Christian ears, what he said. So I went to the holy father; we go way back, we do. Back to when he was the head of the Holy Office of the Inquisition. Wise man; he was always wise beyond his years. And, unlike me, a truly holy man.

"Anyway, the pope asked me a few questions, told me to search my soul and to search for one in Daisy. And then, wise and holy man that he is, he told me to trust myself and do what I thought was right.

"So, yes," Dwyer concluded, "Daisy is a member in good standing of the True Faith."

"Whew! So she's human after all. That takes a load off my conscience."

"I didn't say she was human, Captain. I decided she had a soul and, though I don't think she was in need of salvation, her soul having no portion in original sin, I could hardly refuse her the sacraments of our mutual God."

The priest raised his glass and swirled its contents. "Except for the scotch, of course; that's completely wasted on her. Poor thing."

"Well, that doesn't really help me," McNair muttered, looking extremely confused and inexpressibly sad, neither of those being expressions he would ever have permitted himself aboard ship.

Dwyer looked hard at his ship's captain. "Oh, dear. Tell me it isn't so."

McNair sighed. "It's so."

"For Daisy?"

"You know anyone else on the ship with a beautiful face, big blue eyes and a thirty-eight inch, D cup chest? That gravity doesn't affect in the slightest?"

"Oh, dear," the priest repeated uselessly.

Without waiting for Dwyer, McNair reached over, took the bottle, and poured himself another drink.

"When I awaken, she's there for me. When I lie down to sleep she's the last thing I see before I close my eyes. Quite a lot more often than I like to think about, she's there after I close my eyes and before I open them in the morning.

"She's always there to talk, if I need to talk. She's a great conversationalist, did you know that, Dan?"

The priest nodded that, yes, he knew.

"And she takes care of the ship . . . err, of herself, I suppose. When was the last time a ship's captain had a ship that took care of all the little things for him?"

McNair, seeing Dwyer's glass was empty, added some ice to it and poured.

The priest looked down into the glass and then, unaccountably, began to giggle. The giggle grew until it became a chortle. The chortle expanded to a laugh. The laugh took him over and shook him until he could barely sit his chair.

"Oh, I can't wait to dump this one on His Holiness' desk."

The Indowy were a fairly imperturbable race. This may have explained why they took an immediate liking to the cats Davis had brought in to clean out the ship's complement of rats. One of those cats, Morgen, purred happily under Sintarleen's stroking palm.

Being imperturbable, instead of jumping through his skin when the ship's avatar appeared beside him, Sintarleen merely bowed his head in recognition.

"Ship Daisy, may I help you?"

"Maybe," Daisy answered, after taking a seat to look the Indowy in the eye. "How familiar are you with cell regeneration and expansion from incomplete DNA samples?"

The Indowy shrugged. "You refer to what we call, 'inauspicious cloning.' I am somewhat familiar with it. Why do you ask?"

Daisy didn't answer directly. Instead, she asked, "Have you opened your mail today?"

Still stroking the cat, the Indowy replied, "Why no, Ship Daisy, I didn't even check it. I almost never get any missives. My clan is dead, you see, all but the few representatives here aboard this vessel, and about one hundred transfer neuters and females on another planet far away. So there is really no one to write."

"No, no," Daisy said, impatiently. "I mean your mail. Physical mail. Letters. Packages."

"Well, I am a little behind on my parts' accounting and storage . . ."

"Check please. There is something, some things, I have had sent to you. I would find them and bring them but . . ."

"I understand," Sintarleen said. "Will you wait here for a moment?"

When the Indowy returned he was clutching a polka-dotted halter, a pair of high heeled shoes, and a small clear plastic bag containing what appeared to be blonde hair.

"What are these things?" he asked of the ship's avatar.

"They belonged to someone, what the humans would call an 'actress.' She is possibly long dead. They are samples which should contain enough DNA, even if only traces, for you to create for me a body. It is amazing what one can find on eBay."

"Aiiiii!" the Indowy exclaimed, loudly enough to frighten off Morgen, the kitten. "What you ask is impossible, illegal. Why if the Darhel ever found out, the price they would exact from my clan is too horrible to contemplate."

"But," Daisy pointed out, reasonably, "you have just admitted that your clan only exists on this ship, for any practical purpose. Do you not think that I can defend you from anything the Darhel might have?"

"This is so," Sintarleen admitted reluctantly. "But even so, there are things I would need to . . ."

"The regeneration tank arrives next week," finished Daisy, with an indecipherable smile. "It's amazing what you can . . ."

". . . find on eBay," the Indowy finished.

The sun was just beginning to peek over Colon's low skyline, its rays lighting up Lemon Bay, the Bahia de Limon, in iridescent streaks. The USS Des Moines glowed magnificently in the early morning light.

Davis stood with the supply officer on the Cristobal pier to which CA-134 was docked, the two of them receipting for supplies.

"Got to admit it; that yellow awning does look nice."

"I don't mind the awning, Chief," said the Chop. "I'll even admit, reluctantly, that it's kinda pretty. But those goddamned paisley coverings over the brows are just too fucking much."

The chief shrugged. "Take the good with the bad," he said.

"Speaking of good with bad, what the hell is this?" asked the Chop, pointing at a large box in Galactic packaging, resting on the dock.

"Dunno, sir. I can't even read the writing."

The chief bent down to look for a shipping label. He found something that might have been one, but the writing on this, too, was indecipherable.

"Best have Sinbad look this over."

Davis pulled a small radio from his pocket. As he was about to press the talk button, he spotted the Indowy walking his way with a half dozen of his clanspeople in tow.

"Sinbad, can you make this out?' asked the chief, pointing at what was probably a shipping label.

"I can," answered the Indowy, looking down as usual, "but it really isn't necessary. It's for me."

"Oh. Well, what is it, Mister Sintarleen?"

"It is hard to explain," which was the truth. "It is for . . . manufacturing parts . . . and . . . ummm . . . assemblies. Yes, that's it: assemblies," which was also the truth, if not the whole of it.

"Very well, Sinbad," agreed the Chop, holding forth a clipboard and pen. "If you will sign here for it."

"I can't see anything," said Daisy. "I can't sense anything. Are you sure it's working?"

Sintarleen gave an Indowy sigh. "Lady Daisy, you can't sense or see anything because right now the tank is manipulating and selecting the scraps of DNA we gave it. When it has enough to make a full cell then the process will begin."

"And it will make me a body? A real, human, body?"

"It will, if it works, if we have provided enough material. But I must warn you again, Lady Daisy, that it will have no mind. There are protocols built in to the machine, protocols I can do nothing about, that forbid the creation of colloidal sentiences by artificial means.

"Instead of a brain it will have something very like your physical self. Simpler of course. Not really able to think on its own. All of its intelligence must come from you."

"That will be just fine," Daisy agreed.

"There is one further thing," the Indowy insisted. "You will be connected with this . . . body . . . as soon as it starts to grow from a single cell. It will be under accelerated growth, but that growth will be irregular. Moreover, it will be, biologically, a human female body. Even in the tank it will be affected by human physiological processes. Those processes will affect you, Lady Daisy."

One thing you can say for having an AID run your galley, thought Chief Davis, you can be certain that the food is going to be first rate.

It wasn't that Daisy Mae physically made the omelets, or boiled the lobster, or flipped the steak. There were cooks and mess boys for that.

Instead, Daisy bought the very best ingredients out of her slush fund and — while she did not routinely show herself in the galley itself — would appear there suddenly and without warning, cursing like a cavalry trooper over the shamefaced cook if a filet mignon approached half a degree past medium rare when medium rare had been ordered.

And the coffee was always perfect. She ordered it fresh roasted from a little coffee plantation in the Chiriqui highlands, one of Digna's family holdings as a matter of fact. Then Daisy insisted that the big brewers be scrubbed to perfection, the water poured in at the perfect temperature, and the brewing stopped at precisely the right moment.

It probably didn't hurt that she was paying the cooks a small bonus under the table. Then again, good cooks took pride in their work. Having the best materials to work with, to produce a better meal, only fed that pride.

Actually, the coffee puzzled the chief. It was on the rationed list. And high end, gourmet coffee was on the serious rationed list. But there was always plenty of it and it was always perfect.

The chief took his cup, placed it under the spigot and poured, half quivering with aesthetic joy as the rich aroma arose around him. Yum!

Davis took his accustomed place at his customary table to a chorus of, "Mornin', Chief . . ." "Hiya Chief . . ." "Good eats, Chief . . ." Nose stuck in that good, good cup of under-the-table coffee, Davis acknowledged the salutations with an informal wave of his hand.

Without having to be told, one of the mess boys set a plate before Davis, the plate piled high with fried potatoes, a thick ham steak, and eggs over easy.

Before the chief could dig in Daisy materialized in the seat opposite his. She may have rarely appeared in the galley, unless something was about to go wrong, but she made a point of making the rounds of the messes.

"How's breakfast, Chief Davis?' she inquired.

"First rate, as always, Daisy Mae. How's our ship?"

Daisy felt a little tingle, somewhere in her crystalline mind. Our ship. After subjective millennia of utter loneliness it meant more than she could say to belong, and not to be alone. This was true of both parts of her. That part which was the original CA-134 had spent a miserable couple of decades uncared for, unwanted and unloved as well.

"I'm fine," Daisy answered. "Well, mostly I am. But I think a couple of the ball bearings in number two turret need replacing. I was testing it last night and heard a squeak that really ought not to be."

"Get someone on it right after breakfast," said the chief around half a mouthful of eggs.

"And the deck between the PBMRs could use some cleaning," she added innocently.

Sintarleen checked the progress of the growing form in the tank. If I am reading this rightly, everything is perfect for this stage of development.

Still, I don't like the temperature fluctuations. And the hormonal surges are sometimes out of control. How do these people, the female ones anyway, maintain their sanity under these circumstances?

As any human father could have told the Indowy, if asked, "the female ones, anyway," typically did not. Nor did any males forced into close company with a thirteen-year-old girl.

A happy mess made for a happy ship, believed Davis. Thus, he didn't immediately understand the problem, the sour faces and grim expressions that met him in the chief's mess.

He shrugged and went to pour himself a cup of coffee. He could check into it later. He might even learn something about the problem at breakfast.

He poured himself a cup of coffee, added cream and sugar and took a healthy sip.

And immediately spat it out again. "Gah! That's awful. What the fu — "

He stopped as his eyes came to rest on the calendar posted over the pot. Four dates were circled on that calendar.

In red.

Davis went to the sink and poured out the coffee without regret. Then he got on the ship's intercom and announced, "Swarinski, I was looking over the Nuke deck earlier this morning. It's filthy. Take a crew and get on it. Now."

The answer came back, "Chief Davis, I'm standing here, looking at it. The deck's spotless."

"Scrub it anyway, Swarinski."

Interlude

Boredom was for a time of unending routine. Boredom was not for the time after word had returned telling of the outright massacre of the first fleet to reach the new world of the threshkreen.

Face buried in the Aldenat' mush, Guanamarioch sensed something new in his messmates, similarly feeding around him. It was not anticipation, this new thing. It was something . . . something . . . something Guanamarioch remembered only dimly from his time in the pens as a nestling.

The Kessentai thought back, trying to recall memories he had long suppressed, memories of his small nestling hindquarters against the wall of the pen, fighting for his life against a horde of siblings who had decided he looked much like lunch. He remembered the flashing needlelike teeth, the yellow blood that flowed from a dozen tiny slashes on his face, neck and flanks. He remembered a lucky slash of his own that had disemboweled one of those who sought to eat him.

They had turned on that other one, then, turned on it and ripped it apart. That feeding had taken a long time, with the wounded one's pitiful cries growing weaker as dozens clustered around, each taking a small bite.

Guanamarioch too had eaten, lunging in to sink his teeth into his brother's hams before shaking his tiny head and tearing a bloody gob of warm, dripping meat from the body.

The God King had retreated to a corner then, bloody prize locked in the claws and jaws. There he had sat, trembling, alternately chewing and looking up to snarl and warn off any of the others who might seek to steal his prize.

He remembered being afraid then, afraid that someone would take his meal and afraid, even more, that in the frenzy he might too be ripped apart while still living.

Guanamarioch lifted his massive head from his mush bowl and looked around the mess room. No, there was no tremblings of fear among his clanskin. But then, neither was Guanamarioch shaking.

Then something happened, something in itself trivial. A God King of about the same rank as Guanamarioch nudged the mush bowl of one slightly superior. The latter then immediately turned and tore the throat from the clumsy one. All the others present immediately grabbed their bowls and backed up towards the nearest wall or other vertical surface, each one snarling as he did so.

Guanamarioch did the same, and realized, as he backed his haunches to the wall, that the news of these new thresh had them all terrified.

He understood though. Never before had a fleet of the People met serious resistance from any but their own. To have a fleet, even a small one, almost completely destroyed was terrifying indeed.

A door into the mess deck slid open with a slight whoosh. Through the door passed an oddly shaped robotic device. This glided across the deck silently. It then hovered lightly over the yellow-blood-soaked area of the mess where the clumsy Kessentai had had his throat torn open by another. The device fit the dimensions of the ship's corridors and compartments well, leading Guanamarioch to think that this, too, was Aldenat' technology.

Singly and by twos, the others cleared out from the mess and formed in the corridor adjacent the mess. In a few minutes, only Guanamarioch and the killer remained, the latter staring madly at the corpse, apparently in contemplation of eating it. This was not, in itself, forbidden, of course; the ethos of the People demanded that thresh not be wasted.

It was, however, forbidden to kill aboard ship during migration without permission.

A senior God King, not the lord of the clan but a close assistant entered the mess, followed by two cosslain, the superior normals that filled the job of noncommissioned officers within the Posleen host. The senior took in the entire compartment in a single sweeping glance before resting his yellow eyes on the corpse and the nearby killer.

"Did you see what happened, Junior?" the demi-lord demanded.

Guanamarioch bowed his head in respect. "I saw it, lord, but I did not understand it."

The senior turned his attention back to the killer. "For what reason did you break the shiplaw and kill this one?" he asked calmly.

With apparent difficulty the murderer looked upward, away from the corpse, answering, "He nudged my feeding bowl."

"It is my judgment that this is insufficient reason to break the law of the People. It is further my judgment that this conduct merits termination of existence. Have you anything to say?"

Sensing death, and unwilling to die without a struggle, the killer launched itself at the senior Kessentai, claws outstretched and fangs bared. The senior, however, had not reached his position within the clan by being slow and indecisive. Even while the lower God King began his leap, the senior had drawn his boma blade and begun to swing. The blade passed through the thick neck almost as if it were not there. When the body struck it did so in two pieces, dead.

The senior looked at Guanamarioch as if measuring him for the recycling bins. At length, he decided that Guanamarioch had more value as a future leader than as a current meal.

"This is not to be spoken of further," the senior announced as he turned to leave.

Chapter 8

Diplomats are useful only in fair weather.

As soon as it rains they drown in every drop.

- Charles de Gaulle

Department of State, Washington, DC

The early morning sun shone brightly off the Potomac, sending scattered rays of light to bathe the Lincoln Memorial and the National Academy of Sciences. Some of that light, and it was perhaps the only brightness to the place, indirectly lit the walls of the Department of State where a meeting, judged by some to be important, was taking place.

The President's National Security Advisor was not entitled to quite as much deference as a Darhel lordling. Thus, she was received in a second class conference room. It was facing towards the Potomac, true, but the furnishings and wall hangings were not of the best. It would never do for someone in such a quasi-military, politically-appointed position to be made to feel that she was somehow the equal of the senior career bureaucrats of State.

The Secretary of State, who was not a career bureaucrat, fumed. Someone, somewhere in the Byzantine halls of Foggy Bottom, had deliberately set this up to insult NSA and embarrass him.

NSA was there expressly to discuss some of the President's concerns with regard to what he had called "sabotage" of American policy in places ranging from Diess to Panama. In particular, today NSA was concerned with Panama.

If State showed contempt for NSA, it was as nothing to what NSA felt for State. She'd thought them, in her own words, "lily-white, weak-kneed, overbred, limp-wristed collaborators with the communists," back during the Cold War. "Our very own fifth column for the Kremlin . . . pseudo-intellectual moral cowards . . . poltroons." And she had said that on a day when she was in a good mood. Her opinion was even lower now, when it wasn't just America's freedom on the line, but the survival of humanity itself.

The Secretary of State, himself, on the other hand, she liked and even, to a degree, respected. A well-dressed, distinguished looking Wilsonian Republican with clear, intelligent eyes and a full head of hair going gray at the temples, SecState was simply unable to control the senior career bureaucrats who actually ran the department. NSA thought that perhaps no one could really control them, at least not without shooting a fair number to gain the attention and cooperation of the rest.

Even then, she thought, the shootings would have to be public and every one of the remainder would have to be forced to watch them. The ability of a State Department fool to deny unpleasant reality is deservedly the stuff of legend.

"I'm not a fool, madam," the secretary said, shaking his distinguished Websterian head slowly. "I know my department is rife with traitors, collaborators and people running their own agenda. What I lack is the ability to do all that much about it. They know the system. Sadly, I don't. They work together to cover for each other and keep me in the dark. No one's really been able to control them since at least 1932 or '33."

Before the NSA could make an answer, her cell phone rang. Smiling apologetically, she answered it. Her eyes grew suddenly wide as she swallowed nervously. "I understand, Mr. President," she said, quietly and sadly. "Yes, Mr. President, I'll tell the secretary."

NSA looked up to the secretary. "I am informed," she said, "that the Posleen have crushed the Army's corps to the south of us. The Posleen have broken through and are coming north. I am supposed to evacuate and the President suggests that you do the same."

The impeccably and expensively clad Undersecretary of State for Extraterrestrial Affairs looked at his phone and then, nervously, at his watch. 9:26. Shit, they were supposed to be ready to evacuate me by now.

The undersecretary stared nervously southward, across the Potomac to where the scattered remnants of a wrecked Army corps and a ceremonial regiment were fighting to the death to buy a little time. Columns of smoke rose skyward from more places than the diplomat could easily count. In fact, he didn't even try. What difference did the amount of destruction make? What mattered was where it was heading, and how quickly it might reach him, here at Foggy Bottom, or his family in Bethesda.

Again, the diplomat glared down at the phone. Again he looked at his watch to see that bare minutes had passed. He started to reach for the phone, to contact his Darhel handler, when there came a bright flash from across the Potomac, from the general vicinity of Fort Myer and Henderson Hall. Following the flash a shock wave arose, turned dark by the smoke, dust, lumber and other debris it picked up and flung outward in all directions. The broad river itself bowed downward under the force, the passage of the shock wave plainly visible as a fast moving furrow in the water.

In less time than it takes to tell, the diplomat uttered, "Shit," and threw himself violently to the floor, damage to his suit be damned. The shock wave dissipated rapidly but, given the amount of GalTech C-9 explosive the Marines had packed into Henderson Hall, it was still enough when it reached the Department of State to shatter the windows, rip loose bricks, and raise the overpressure inside the well-appointed office enough to knock the undersecretary out cold.

Which was a pity from the point of view of the undersecretary and his family, for the phone with his evacuation instructions began to ring mere minutes after he was rendered unconscious.

Because her evacuation instructions didn't depend on alien star transport, and because she had no family to sweat over, the National Security Advisor was not anxiously awaiting a phone call when the blast struck. Instead, she and a couple of aides awaited transportation by the parking lot abutting Virginia Avenue to the northeast of the State Department Building. The group heard the helicopter coming in down Twenty-Third Street before they saw it. When they did see it . . .

"My God . . . I've heard of treetop level flying, but automobile antenna level flying? Christ!"

The helicopter had just pulled up to a hover when the blast struck. Though it was in the lee of the storm, being behind the massive State Department Building, shock waves like that tend to flow and fill any space available to be filled. The NSA was knocked down flat on the concrete, scraping her rather delicate and attractive nose. For the helicopter, completely unsheltered from the blast, the pilot's ability to control was overwhelmed. The chopper pitched onto one side and then slammed, hard, into a stout tree. It began to smolder but before it could burst into flames the four man crew emerged out of the side that was open to the sky and scurried away. Two of them carried one of their number who appeared to be unconscious — plus a rifle each — and one more carried the pintle-mounted door machine gun he had had the presence of mind not to leave behind.

Catching sight of the secretary's party as its members staggered to their feet, the warrant officer in charge pointed. The small group ran over as fast as they could, given the body they were dragging.

"Madam," the warrant announced, "Chief Warrant Officer Stone at your service. We were sent to get you but . . ."

"But sometahms things don' quaht work out," the NSA finished with a beautiful, soft Birmingham accent. She was a lady, she was supremely well educated and the daughter of well educated people, as well. But every now and again, under extreme stress, that Alabama accent came out. Nose scraping tended to be a stressful sort of thing.

"Would one ah you fahn gentlemen have a rahfle or a pistol to spare? Mah Daddy, the minister, always said it was better to hahve a gun an' not need it, than to need one and not hahve it. An' Ah think that, raht about now, Ah need one."

The warrant passed over his own pistol, admiringly. Then, hearing firing coming from the south, from the direction of the Lincoln Memorial, the warrant said, "Ma'am, my orders were to get you out. They intended me to fly you out. But that wasn't actually specified. We're going out on foot."

The party headed north on Twenty-First then east on F. Stone — out of radio contact — thought that if there was anyplace from which the NSA had a chance of being evacuated quickly and safely it would be the White House.

The undersecretary for E-T Affairs awakened slowly. Still groggy, he managed to stand and stare out the window of his office toward where Henry Bacon Drive met Constitution Avenue. The intersection was, itself, blocked by the National Academy for the Sciences.

"Oh, my God," he uttered in shock at the sight of a small horde of Posleen coming up Henry Bacon. They apparently turned right once reaching Constitution, the undersecretary could see many of them marching to the east along that broad thoroughfare.

They didn't all turn right, though. Some turned left and skirted the Academy of Sciences building. These marched straight towards State. One look at the fearsome aliens and the undersecretary felt something very warm and very wet begin to run down his leg.

"Run!" shouted Stone as the party came in visual contact with a group of Posleen in the process of storming the Executive Office Building. The sighting was mutual and a subgroup of Posleen turned from their task and began to pursue.

"This way," the secretary ordered. The party turned north on Nineteenth Street, skirting the World Bank.

"Mr. . . . Stone," the lone machine gunner said, panting. "I've run all I can and I'm not runnin' anymore. Y'all go on without me." The secretary recognized an accent not too dissimilar to her own, if perhaps a bit less classy.

"Sergeant Wallace," the warrant said, "you will keep up."

"Nossah, Mr. Stone," the sergeant answered. "I ain't nevah run from nothin' in mah life. And I ain't gonna get in the habit now. Y'all go on. I'll hold them up heah for a whahl." The sergeant tipped his helmet at the secretary. "Ma'am," he said, "Alabama's raht proud o' you."

With the sigh and a sad little smile, the secretary answered, "Sarn't Wallace, your country is raht proud o' you, too."

The machine gun was already firing, at much faster than its normal and sustainable rate, before the secretary and the others turned into the World Bank.

"That wasn't really . . . ?" the secretary began to ask.

"No, ma'am. That Wallace died some years ago. This was just a first cousin, twice removed."

"Remarkable resemblance," the secretary commented.

"Not in everything, Ma'am," the warrant answered.

"Look, I'll give you everything," the undersecretary begged. He opened a valise and held out Galactic bearer bonds to illustrate. The Posleen normal brushed them aside impatiently with the flat of his boma blade.

A slightly taller Posleen with an erect, feathered crest entered the room where the human had been found. He snarled, whistled and grunted several questions, none of which the human could answer. Indeed, he didn't really understand them as questions at all.

The Kessentai said something to the normal, who shrugged and picked the undersecretary up by one arm, dragging him from the room. The entire time the human continued to beg, to make offers of deals, to promise vast largesse. The Kessentai understood not a word — he didn't speak the language — how could the normal, who spoke no language and barely understood that used by its masters?

The normal dragged the still protesting diplomat downstairs and then through some smashed doors into the central courtyard of the building. Other normals, or perhaps they were cosslain, did likewise with other humans that had been found hiding in the building. Soon there were hundreds of terrified humans gathered there, under the soaring eagle sculpture in the open north courtyard. Still, it was only hundreds of the thousands who normally worked in the little offices and cubicles of the State Department. The rest were fleeing north on foot.

An alien, the undersecretary thought it might be the same Kessentai he had previously "met," stuck his head out to look down into the courtyard and shouted something.

One of the normals in the courtyard guarding the humans drew his boma blade and made a gesture. When the human, who understood all too well what the gesture meant, balked, the Posleen simply grabbed her hair and pulled her into a kneeling position. The descending blade cut her screams off very quickly. The normal passed the bloody head to another to slice off the skull cap and remove the brain. The first then began to slice the body into easily transportable chunks.

The undersecretary inched back, trying to get as many people between himself and the Posleen rendering party as possible. The Posleen noticed this and, instead of gaining himself more time, the diplomat was next to be summoned. He began to scream as soon as the alien claw pointed at him, calling him to face a justice higher than the alien could have imagined.

* * *

Once the main assault had been crushed and there was no real chance of successful Posleen reinforcement of their bridgehead over the Potomac, headquarters for the First of the Five-Fifty-Fifth released B Company under Lieutenant Rogers to clear the State Department of Posleen. Sergeant Stewart and his squad were first to reach the northern courtyard of the building. The men didn't retch, but only because such sights, headless corpses half butchered and laid out for complete rendering, had become all too commonplace.

Stewart walked among the corpses, apparently unmoved. "Pretty gross, ain't it, Manuel?" the one called "Wilson" said on the private circuit.

The Hispanic sergeant, hiding under the name of Jimmy Stewart shrugged his shoulders and answered, "I dunno. What good did these chigadera motherfuckers ever do anyone? Why weren't they in the Army? Just turnabout, you ask me; a neat switch."

Interlude

All voyages end, but some end much worse than others. Guanamarioch, inexperienced as he was, couldn't imagine one that ended worse than this. (Truth be told, not one other God King in the fleet had ever actually had any experience like this one. A contested emergence? Didn't the damned humans know that was not in the rules?)

Several days before emergence from hyperspace, the God Kings and Kenstain had begun resuscitating the normals by small groups before leading them to their landers. For those, like Guanamarioch's oolt, resuscitated early and made to wait, this was pure murder, literally, as bored and sometimes hungry normals fought with each other in the cramped hold of a Lamprey.

The globe had emerged into a maelstrom of fire. Even at its incredible mass, nearly equivalent to a small planet or a large asteroid, the globe bucked and jolted from the energies released by its own and the threshkreen fires, as well as from exploding ships. The large view-screen, forward in the Lamprey's hold, was completely ignored by the ignorant normals. Guanamarioch, however, was transfixed by the swirl and glow, the bolts and flashes of the battle in space.

Once he saw in that screen, much magnified he hoped, the gaping maw of a threshkreen super-monitor, coming into alignment with his own globe. There was a bright flash, like that of an antimatter bomb detonating, and a new icon appeared, shading from red to blue to red again. Guanamarioch did not recognize the icon and so asked his Artificial Sentience to explain.

"It is a kinetic energy projectile, lord, moving at an appreciable fraction of the speed of light. The globe cannot tell if it contains an antimatter or nuclear warhead, hence the change in color. Frankly, if it hits us amidships it may not matter if it is an antimatter bomb or not."

Guanamarioch gulped. Involuntarily his sphincter loosened to allow liquid feces to run down his legs to the floor. The smell meant nothing as the normals had been shitting themselves silly ever since awakening. Still, the junior God King part way lowered his head and crest in shame. Shame or not, though, he could not keep his yellow eyes away from the screen.

Despite the speed of the thing, the projectile was so well aligned it was possible to track it, or rather the icon, on the screen. From every outcropping of the globe that mounted a weapon, fire poured down on the KE projectile. It seemed to form an ever more shallow cone with the icon at the apex.

"It's going to hit," the Artificial Sentience announced. "Lower right quarter as the globe bears. It's going to be bad."

Chapter 9

Discipline ought to be used.

- Shakespeare, Henry V

Bijagual, Chiriqui, Republic of Panama

Oh, was Digna in a bad mood. Without a word, in field uniform, holding a switch in her right hand and helmet tucked under the left arm, and accompanied by two stout triple great-grandsons, she burst into the little shack. Her bright blue eyes flashed icy fire.

The woman of the house, in fact Digna's great-great-granddaughter though the woman looked much older than the great-great-grandmother did, took one look and backed away, holding her hands in front of her in supplication.

"Where is the little toad?" Digna demanded, lip curling in a sneer and her voice dripping with scorn.

Fearfully the woman pointed at the shack's sole bedroom. Digna brushed the door open with the switch. Immediately her nose was assailed by the strong smell of cheap rum. In the dim light she looked down on a snoring, disheveled man, unsurprisingly also a great-great-grandchild, and felt the rising heat of murderous anger.

She took half a step forward into the room and began.

Down came the switch across the man's face, hard enough to draw blood.

"Filthy pendejo!"

Again the switch, accompanied by, "Disgrace to my blood!"

"Rotten" . . . switch . . . "Lazy!" . . . swack . . . "Good for nothing!" . . . "Foul!" . . . "Dirty!" . . . "Useless!" . . . whackwackwack.

By the time Digna got to "useless" her great-great-grandson, trying vainly to protect his head with his hands, had rolled onto the floor. He begged for pardon but the beating continued.

"Little rat!" . . . "Cockroach!" . . . "Vermin!"

When Digna's right arm tired she put on her helmet and transferred the switch to her left. When that tired she stopped altogether and, using her rested right arm grasped the man by the hair and began to drag. Digna was small, and perhaps she could not have pulled the man against his will. But, on the other hand, was it worth it to him to lose his hair finding out?

In the shack's main room Digna flashed her eyes at her escorts.

"Arrest your cousin," she ordered. "Three days in the pit for failure to show for drill." Briefly she reconsidered her sentence and then added, "Make that three days on bread and water."

"Si señora," they answered, meekly.

Digna's Officer Candidate School had trained her to be an artillery officer. Specifically she had been trained to command a battery of very old, very surplus, 85mm Russian-made SD-44 guns. To crew the guns she had several hundred each of middle-aged men and suitably strong and healthy young women. And that was only counting her clan alone, be they by blood or by marriage. She also had substantial numbers of what she, with the benefit of a fairly classical education, thought of as the "perioeci" — the "dwellers about" — immediately under her control. Since the guns, with forward observers, fire direction computers and crews only required ninety men, or perhaps one hundred and twenty women, to operate at full efficiency, she had an excess of riches, personnel-wise. She solved this problem by assigning virtually all the unattached or less-attached women and girls of the clan to the guns and forming most of the men into a very large militia infantry company, though perhaps "dragoon" was a better word than infantry. There was not a man or boy who could not ride, and raising thoroughbred horses had been a clan specialty for centuries.

The guns were really quite remarkable specimens of their type; perhaps the ultimate version of the quick firing guns like the French "Seventy-five" that had made the First World War such a nightmare. Compared to the SD-44, the French "Seventy-five" was pretty small beans.

Each could throw a seventeen-pound shell up to seventeen kilometers and do so at a rate of up to twenty-five rounds a minute, maximum, or up to three hundred per hour, sustained. Moreover, since they had been designed by Russians who believed that all defense was antitank defense, the guns had a fair capability against light and medium armor. They were, in fact, the very same design as used on the Type-63 light tanks the gringos had purchased for Panama from the People's Republic of China. Lastly, each gun had an auxiliary engine that could propel it along at a brisk twenty-four kilometers per hour without the need for a light truck to serve as a prime mover. They had the trucks, mind you, but they didn't absolutely need them. They also had horses, lots of horses, in case the trucks and guns ran out of fuel.

The guns could fire high explosive, or HE, smoke and illumination. They could also fire an armor piercing shell that would collanderize anything but a main battle tank. Digna knew that the antitank capability was likely to be completely useless.

Best of all, in her opinion, the guns could fire canister: four hundred iron balls per shell — over three thousand from the massed battery — that would make short work of a column attack. So she hoped anyway.

The switch she had used on her multi-great-grandson did as well to spur her horse to where the battery was training under the eye of one of her favorite granddaughters, Edilze, a dark and pretty young woman — she favored her grandfather — and, more importantly, one Digna recognized as having a will and a brain.

Digna had begun by training Edilze and eight others to crew the guns, along with six more in fire-direction techniques. That had actually taken only about ten days. As one of Digna's instructors at OCS had observed, "You can train a monkey to serve a gun. People are only marginally more difficult."

For that ten days she had let the men slide, since she had not a single trained assistant. Not that many of her clan would not be trained. Indeed, many of the young men had already gone off to train with the regular army. But they would stay in the regular army. She had the rest; those too old or those too young. And she had the women and girls.

After the ten days she had called in her sons. These she made platoon leaders. She figured, not without reason, that sons were used to obeying fathers and so based her chain of command fairly strictly on lines of clan seniority. The only notable exception was her foreman, Tomas Herrera, whom she put in charge of some of her own and all of the few residents of the area that had no blood or marriage relation whatsoever.

Digna passed the battery where her girls sweated under Edilze's lashing tongue. That's my girl, her grandmother thought. Such a treasure. Digna spurred the horse over to the drill field — ordinarily a flat cow pasture by the quebrada, or creek. There, the men — most of them — drilled on one of the simpler tasks, weapons maintenance. She had no time for close order drill and, given that the clan was already, in the nature of things, a remarkably cohesive unit, didn't feel the need anyway.

Doffing his straw hat as a sign of respect, an action much more meaningful than any formal military salute, Tomas Herrera walked up and stood by Digna's horse. Herrera was short and squat, with a brown face tanned to old leather. Muscles rippling his arms and torso told of a life of hard toil.

"You found your grandson, Dama?" he asked.

"I found the twerp where I expected," Digna sneered. "Flat on his back and drunk as a skunk."

Tomas smiled broadly. It never paid to balk the Lady, and blood relation would not save a man who deserved it from a lashing, be it from Digna's tongue or her switch.

"There is one in every family," Tomas observed consolingly. "You put him in the pit, I assume. How long?"

"As boracho as he was, I figured it would take him a day and a half to sober up. And another day and a half to realize he was being punished. Three days seemed sufficient, Señor Herrera.

"How are the others coming along?" Digna asked, eager to change the subject from one so distasteful.

"Well enough," Tomas answered. "We'll start marksmanship tomorrow."

"The ammunition?"

"Not counting the five hundred rounds per man we have salted away, we have about one hundred and fifty rounds per rifleman and roughly twice that for the light machine gunners. It is enough to at least get them to point their rifles in the right direction and scare whatever they're shooting at," Tomas answered. "And we have over a thousand rounds for each of our two heavier machine guns, not counting the six thousand we have in the reserve stocks."

Digna nodded her head resignedly. It really wasn't much. But that was all they were going to have for the nonce.

"It isn't so bad, Dama," Tomas offered. "These are good men, in the main, and most of them solid campesinos who know how to shoot already."

Dismounting, Digna offered the reins of her mare to Herrera.

"Your family, Tomas?" she asked with real concern.

"Well enough," he answered simply. "My wife has taken charge of feeding. The girl is serving the big guns. Both my sons are off with the army. The wife of the eldest is assisting my wife, though my own wife never ceases her finding fault with the girl."

"Mothers are like that, with their sons' wives," Digna answered with a smile. "Ask any of my daughters-in-law."

Tomas simply chuckled, then turned and led the mare to a cashew tree footed by long sweet grass. Digna, meanwhile, turned her attention to the clusters of old men and young boys dotting the pasture.

"You've got to slap it hard, Omar," she told one fourteen-year-old struggling to replace the stamped receiver of his Kalashnikov.

Taking one knee next to the boy she took the rifle and, deftly placing the curved piece of metal in the right position, delivered a short, forceful slap that knocked it into position. With one thumb she pushed in the detent button on the rear of the receiver to release it and handed both sections back to the boy.

"You try it now, again, just like I did, Grandson."

Resting the rifle in his left hand, as his grandmother had, Omar placed the upper receiver onto the lower, holding the upper in place with his left thumb. Then he delivered a slap akin to that given by Digna. The upper receiver was knocked immediately into place, the detent — driven by the action spring — popping through the square hole in the rear.

"Thank you, Mamita!" the boy said.

Granting her descendant a rare smile, Digna rumpled his hair and continued on down the line. As she went she offered encouragement as needed, and — rarely — a bit of praise. Sometimes she stopped to provide more "hands on" instruction, though in this she was rarely harsh.

The reason she was not harsh was not immediately obvious. It was not that she was not naturally harsh; she was. But, in the circumstances, what her family needed to see was confidence, and confident people rarely showed harshness except with the most deserving.

Of course, anybody who was really confident, in the circumstances, was either drunk or too stupid to even begin to understand what was about to descend on the Republic of Panama and on the Earth.

Digna knew there were no grounds for confidence; she had seen the films of some of the off- and on-world fighting during her time at OCS. Inwardly she shivered as she wondered, perhaps for the thousandth time, if she would be able to save even a fraction of her blood from the enemy's ravenous appetite. She wondered, too, if she would be strong enough, harsh enough, to make the sacrificial choices she knew she would have to make when the time came.

And who will I choose to live, if it comes to that? My sons, whom I love, but who are too old to bring forth more children? My now-barren daughters? Do I pick the girls to save or the boys? Do I pick myself now that I can have children again? Do I pick myself and live, maybe for centuries, with the knowledge I let my loved ones die?

God, if there is a God . . . and if you are listening, I am going to have some very choice words for you for what you are about to do to me and mine.

Scowling, Digna pushed the sacrilegious thought from her mind and continued on her way. Reaching the end of the pasture she came to a ford at the creek. This she crossed nimbly, hopping from rock to rock. On the other side she scrambled up the muddy bank and continued along a well-worn path to where she had ordered the mess facility set up.

The smell of roasting meat hit her before she ever saw the calf turning on the spit. As she walked nearer, near enough to see fire and smoke and pots and pans, other smells caressed her nose. She detected fragrant frijoles; savory sancocho, the "national dish" of Chiriqui; frying corn tortillas, thick and fat-laden.

One of the younger girls nudged Señora Herrera, Tomas' wife, as Digna approached. The head cook passed to the younger girl the ladle with which she had been stirring the sancocho and turned to greet Digna. The woman, shapeless and worn now, had once been a great beauty. But the only remnants of that now were to be found in her granddaughters.

"Que tal, Imelda?" Digna asked. What's up?

"Nothing much, Doña," Imelda Herrera answered. "Lunch is coming along nicely and should be ready at about two."

"The stores are sufficient?"

Imelda pointed with her chin, a very Chiricana gesture, to a small herd of cattle held in by a temporary stockade. "Between those and the other food you donated, the rice and corn and beans, we are in good shape for another three weeks. But . . ."

"Yes? Tell me?"

"Well, Doña, I had this thought. It is fine now, while I and the women and girls working for me can prepare a proper meal. What about when these aliens come? When we have the boys out on horseback, moving fast, and we cannot get them decent food? What happens then?"

"The government has promised me canned combat rations," Digna answered. "Then again, they also promised me about four times more ammunition and fuel than we've been sent so far." Digna looked at Imelda questioningly. "You have an idea?"

"I can't do a thing about the ammunition and fuel. But it occurred to me that we could start smoking meat and cheese and storing it against the day."

Digna thought about that. Her herds, legacy of her husband's decades of hard work, were more than sufficient. She decided right then to go with Imelda's plan and told her so.

Then another thought occurred to Digna.

"How much meat can you smoke?"

Imelda thought about that for a moment, then answered, "Standing wood we have in abundance. But we can't hope to cut enough to smoke more than, say, one cow's worth a day."

"I understand," Digna said. "But what if I gave you twenty or thirty, maybe even forty men a day to cut firewood."

"I could do several cows' worth then. But to what end?"

"Oh, it occurred to me that there is going to be a huge demand for preserved food in the days ahead. I suspect I could sell anything you produced . . . rather, I could trade it, for whatever we are short in ammunition and gasoline. Maybe even pick up some weapons too.

"A little here, a little there," Digna mused, looking skyward at nothing in particular. "Not enough to make anyone else's fight impossible, but maybe enough to give us a better chance."

"Give me the men," Imelda answered. "Send me the cows."

"And I'll do the trading," Digna finished.

PART II

Chapter 10

Mates, the odds are against us. Our colors have never been lowered to the enemy, and I trust this will not be so today. As long as I live that flag will fly high in its place and, if I die, my officers will know how to fulfill their duty.

- Commander Arturo Prat,

Chilean Navy, KIA 21 May 1879

Earth, Western Hemisphere

Costa Rica went under first. After half a century of conscious, deliberate and nearly universal demilitarization it had never been able to mount much of an armed force. Instead of spending its nominal wealth on a military, relying on the firmly fixed notion that if all else failed the United States could always be counted on to come to the rescue, this very civilized and reasonably prosperous state had concentrated for fifty years on education and health care.

All that meant in the end was that the Posleen had several million very healthy and literate cattle to add to their larder.

Nicaragua did better. Even before news had come of the imminent Posleen invasion the previous rulers of the country, the Marxist-Leninist Sandinistas, had returned to power. The hold on the reins of government by the liberal democratic regime had never been very strong in any case.

Give the Sandinistas their due; a totalitarian movement at least ought to know how to subordinate the individual to the state. This the Sandinistas knew and this they did to good effect. Moreover, with several tens of thousands of combat experienced veterans, most of them fairly young still, of the long civil war between Sandinistas and Somocistas, also known as "Contras," Nicaragua was able to mount a large and reasonably well trained and disciplined mostly infantry force to contest the alien landings.

But, sad to say, no purely infantry force, using human designed and built weapons of the early twenty-first century, could hope to stand up to the technology and number of the aliens. To stand up to the Posleen human infantry forces needed the backing of masses of artillery. Artillery took wealth, either your own or that of someone who wished you well; that, or thought it needed you alive. Nicaragua, standing alone, lacked wealth and lacked the artillery that wealth could buy.

Moreover, the one really useful source of military aid, the United States, had a long memory and tended to hold a grudge. Even after Nicaragua's dictator, the Sandinista Daniel Ormiga, swallowed his pride and went hat in hand to ask the gringos for help, the United States turned a deaf ear. Perhaps this was because, as they claimed, they had none to give. Perhaps it was because while aid was possible there were higher priorities. Perhaps, too, it was because, as Ormiga surmised, the United States would weep no tears at seeing an avowed enemy eaten to extinction.

As it happened though, the deadliest weapon in Nicaragua's arsenal turned out to be a timely earthquake that killed about fifteen thousand of the invaders. It was later, much later, calculated that this slowed down the final digestion of the country and its people by approximately thirty-five minutes.

The only effective barrier to the Posleen advance had turned out to be Lake Nicaragua and its remarkably ferocious sharks.

Sharks, earthquake, and rifle fire notwithstanding, Nicaragua and its people ceased to exist within eight days of the enemy landing.

Small and densely populated El Salvador did receive aid from the United States, mostly in the form of small arms, mortars and light artillery. They, like the Nicaraguans, had a strong base of militarily experienced men who had fought in their lengthy and bloody civil war. The Salvadoran Army was manned, in the main, by Indians who took considerable pride in the knowledge that while the powerful Aztec had fallen quickly to the Conquistadors of Spain their ancestors had never truly been conquered.

Like those ancestors — fierce and brave to a fault, and this had contributed mightily to the bloodiness and duration of the civil war — the soldiers of El Salvador had stood and fought like madmen. From the frontier, to the Rio Lempa, to the very steps of the cathedral of San Salvador, the landscape was littered with the denuded bones of countless thousands of Posleen and Salvadoreños.

In the end, for all their patriotism, courage and ferocity, Salvadoran humanity was wiped from the surface of the Earth.

Honduras held out longer, but only because it was bigger. The Posleen moved as they would, bled and died as they needed. Speed was rarely a consideration except in the great battles of maneuver and attrition waged in North America and Central Europe.

Guatemala and Belize went under as quickly as had El Salvador and Honduras.

A Mexican dictator, Porfirio Diaz, had once observed, "Alas, pity poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States." The generations who lived during the Posleen war, especially those who managed to live through it, found cause to turn that around to "Lucky Mexico, so close to the devils but even closer to the United States."

This was so for at least two reasons. The first was that, being next door, Mexico held the southern entrance into the United States proper and so was given massive military aid. The second, and far fewer Mexicans ever had cause to know this, was that when defense failed despite the aid and despite the brave show put on by the Mexican Army, the United States became a safe refuge for more than ten million who found shelter under the wings of the 11th Mobile Infantry Division (ACS).

That division died, for the most part, in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, but not before that ten million could be evacuated to shelter. Curiously, no one north of the border found cause to complain about illegal immigration. Ten million Mexican immigrants meant another million or more men and women for the United States Army.

A small group of relatively poor Posleen set down in Colombia between the mountains and the sea. The Colombian army folded quickly. The various private armies, paramilitaries of the right, the left and the narcotraffickers, succeeded for the nonce in holding substantial parts of the undeveloped part of the country, as well as the mountain fringed capital, Bogotá.

The invaders also touched down on both sides of the Rio de la Plata in the vicinity of Buenas Aires, Argentina and Montevideo, Uruguay. Pastoral and open, ideal ground for the Posleen "cavalry," both countries quickly succumbed.

From their base in southeastern South America the Posleen spread out to the north and west. For the nonce Brazil was able to hold them out, though at terrible cost. To the west Chile, with strong natural defenses through the Andes passes held by well trained, tough and disciplined mountain troops, and aided by a company of 1st Battalion, 508th Infantry (ACS) stopped the Posleen cold . . . literally cold.

Fort Kobbe, Republic of Panama

The smell from the "puke trees" that marked the demarcation line between the Army's Fort Kobbe and Howard Air Force Base drifted across Kobbe's main street, making those not used to it, as Scott Connors wasn't used to it, want to retch. Fortunately, Connors and his battalion commander were walking south, away from the trees and toward the tent city in which the First of the Five-O-Eighth was billeted.

The stench of the puke trees matched Connors' mood as it had been since opening his mail on the long space voyage back to Earth. It was hard to take an interest in things after one's carefully constructed world falls down around one. Still, he was a soldier, was an officer, and going through the motions wasn't that difficult after more than fifteen years of service.

"That's not a helluva lot of prep time you're giving us," Connors said to his battalion commander, Snyder.

"Captain, there isn't a lot of prep time we've been given. So stop sniveling about what can't be changed and just soldier on, why don't you?"

"Yessir," Connors answered. In truth he wasn't a sniveler and he knew the Old Man knew that. Must be the pressure of seeing most of this hemisphere fall so quickly that's making him testy, he thought.

"The submarine's going to be here tonight," Snyder continued. "It will spend the night loading consumables, mostly ammunition, for your company. You and your men will board around 0500. You'll have a four day sail, underwater, to Valparaiso, Chile. From there you will attach yourselves to the Chilean Army but only for purposes of helping them hold the Uspallata Pass."

"Why Chile?" Connors asked.

"Two reasons, I suspect," Snyder answered. "One is that, since the Posleen have not landed on the western Side of the Andes and the passes over range from 'limited' to 'no fucking way,' we might actually have a chance to hang on to the place. The other reason is that Chile is still the world's best source of copper, which we need for damned near everything, and produces — especially since the expansion for the war — a couple of million tons of nitrates a year. We need the nitrates even more than we need the copper."

"Okay, boss. Roger, wilco and all that happy horseshit. But what the hell do they expect a single company of MI to do?"

Snyder almost laughed. "If nothing else, Captain, the Army expects you to die well. I, on the other hand, expect you to hold that fucking pass until the Chileans can get some better fixed defenses in and then get your ass back here, as whole and as sound and as up to strength as humanly possible."

"One company of MI?" Connors asked dubiously.

"Captain, have you ever seen the Andes?"

Muelle (Pier) 18, Balboa, Republic of Panama

Connors hadn't really expected the sub to be as big as it was. Although mostly hidden, the length of the thing dwarfed the pier. The only thing bigger, nearby, was the heavy cruiser, USS Salem, docked two bays over.

A navy chief with a stupendous gut met Connors dockside. He introduced himself as "Chief Petty Officer Kaiser, Major." Connors did a double take and then remembered that, aboard ship, there could be but one "captain."

"Sir," Kaiser continued, "we've actually got space for more troops than you're bringing aboard. What we don't have space for is the number of men and those big bloody suits. This trip out, you're going to be stacked like sardines." He added, apologetically, "It's gonna suck like a convention of Subic Bay whores."

Connors shrugged indifferently, then smiled. "Chief, if you've never been in a C-130 after a twelve-hour flight trying to on-board rig for a jump then you don't know what 'suck' is. We'll be fine once we get settled in."

The chief liked Connors' sense of proportion. "That's another thing, Skipper. The boat's decks and all were never meant for half ton suits of armor. We're trying to reinforce them but . . ."

"Stop trying, Chief. We can dial down our effective weight to nothing. Matter of fact, if we really wanted to, working together my company could probably pick up the sub and fly it . . . bounce it around for a while anyway."

"No shit, huh?"

"No shit, Chief. Oh, we couldn't fly it all the way to Chile . . . well . . . maybe if we could somehow tap into the sub's own reactor and charge the suits at a rate of about ten to one. But we could move it around. It would take longer than sailing though."

"Coool," admired Kaiser. "Well, you don't need to fly us anywhere. And the captain will be mighty pleased to hear that you're not going to warp our decks."

"How long's it going to take us to get to Valparaiso?" Connors asked.

Kaiser looked around to make sure no one else was in earshot. Then, conspiratorially, he said, "Officially, we couldn't get you there in less than four and a half days at top speed. Unofficially, you'll hit the beach seventy-three hours after we set sail."

"Cooool."

Valparaiso, Chile

"Cooool," intoned Connors as he stepped up from the cramped troop bay of the submarine and took his first look at the Port of Valparaiso. He was suited up, of course, since he and B Company were heading into action as soon as they finished unloading, but his helmet was under his arm so that he had an unobstructed and natural view of the city.

Valparaiso was laid out more or less in the form of an amphitheater, with a wide, flat, circular harbor surrounded by steep hills on all side. The houses clinging to the hillsides were gaily, even gaudily, painted. Connors thought he could see elevators moving up and down the hills carrying people to and from their work.

A dress-white clad Chilean naval officer (for Chile had a very long, honorable, and even impressive tradition in its naval service, as well as in one other) met Connors from the pier. Connors took a double take; the Chilean officer bore an absolutely striking resemblance to Admiral Guenther Lutjens who had gone down with the Bismarck in 1941.

"Capitán Connors," the naval officer called breathlessly, as if he had run the hills himself. "Capitán Connors, I need to speak with you. You . . . you and your men . . . must hurry."

Connors debarked and was pleased to see that, no, they hadn't succeeded just yet in resurrecting naval ghosts. On the other hand, the naval officer's name tag did say, "Lindemann." Connors raised an inquisitive eyebrow.

"Fourth cousin, twice removed," answered the Chilean. "Come. Bring your men. I've held up the railway for them."

MI could move fast, but only at a cost in power. Fortunately, railroads could move just about as fast and there was one working between Valparaiso and the Uspallata Pass.

The Transandean railway had been in operation from 1910 to 1982, though it had ceased passenger service as early as 1978 under the stress of competition with automobile and bus traffic from the coaxial highway, a part of the Pan-American Highway system. Closed for twenty years and allowed to rot and rust away all that time, the governments of Argentina, Chile and the United States opened negotiations in 2002 to restore the railway. This was actually not that difficult an operation as the really serious work, the grading and the blasting, was still extant and for the most part still in as good a shape as ever. Even so, only one of two lines had been completed and didn't that play hell with resupply and troop movements.

It was this line that Connors and B Company took up the Andean Slopes to where a regiment of tough Chilean mountain infantry (the other part of Chile's armed forces that enjoyed international respect and admiration) were holding on by their fingernails against the Posleen probes coming over the mountains and through the pass.

The MI suits had been dialed down to be nearly weightless and inertialess. Even so, the train squealed with the strain of just moving itself up the tortuous and steep tracks. As the temperature dropped as precipitously as the mountain range grew overhead, the troopers of B Company — for the most part clinging to the tops of the cars, there being another regiment of reserve mountain infantry inside the cars — donned helmets to keep from freezing. The mountain troops made room inside one of the cars for Connors, who stood mostly in the central passageway. He had to be inside to get the latest update from Lindemann. Nor could Lindemann stay outside without freezing. The Chilean was clothed for cold weather, of course, but not for Arctic levels of cold weather accompanied by the subjective winds created by the train as it screamed up the track.

"We expected the Argentines to do better," Lindemann cursed. "But at the first sign of a landing their upper classes, to include an absolutely disgusting percentage of their senior military officers, took to ships, abandoning their people. Some of their units fought and died hard, even so, but they went under before we expected and before we could do much about it."

Connors said nothing to this. It was one thing for a South American to criticize another group of South Americans. It was unclear to him how they would take criticism from a gringo. Whaddya know, I learned some tact in my old age.

"We were fortunate that we had a regiment of mountain troops training in the vicinity of Mount Aconcagua when the aliens first landed," Lindemann explained, "fortunate too that we were able to get them some more ammunition and rations before they actually had to fight. But they've got no fixed defenses and their only artillery is a battalion of light mountain guns, that and their own mortars. We're still mobilizing reservists and trying to shift some units down from the other passes. But it's been hard."

"Why no fixed defenses?" Connors asked. "I would have thought they'd have been a natural for those passes."

Lindemann rubbed a hand wearily across his jaw. "Yes, one would have thought so. Blame your State Department, actually."

"Huh?"

"They brokered a deal between us, the United States, the Galactic Federation and Argentina under which substantial U.S. and some Galactic aid would be given in return for the creation of a combined command. Not building fortifications in the passes was supposed to be . . . hmmm . . . let me see if I can remember the words exactly. Oh, yes, I recall. The absence of fortification was 'symbolic of the determination of our two countries, with the help of the United States and the Galactic Federation, to stand and fight together as one.' Who knows," Lindemann said, philosophically, "if it had been us rather than the Argentines who had been hit first perhaps we would have run and it would be an Argentine mountain infantry regiment trying to keep the aliens from crossing to their side of the pass.

"In any case," Lindemann concluded, "just for your future use, Captain Connors, you can never go wrong betting on the avarice, selfishness, and cowardice of the Latin American upper classes. Exceptions are, just that, exceptional."

Suddenly, Connors' suit was almost thrown and Lindemann's body was thrown as the train shuddered and screamed to an unplanned stop. The Chilean gasped as he hit shoulder first, breaking his collar bone. The reservists also in the car were tossed around like ninepins.

"That was an HVM, Captain Connors," the suit's AID announced, with typical calm. "I sense a great deal of damage to the train's locomotive. The company has taken no casualties. I can't say about the Chileans, though."

Connors didn't hesitate. "Bravo Company, this is the CO. Off the trains and assume 'Y' formation with Second Platoon in reserve and weapons forming the stump of the Y. We move out in two minutes. CP will be just ahead of Second. Now move, people."

Connors asked the Chilean, "Are you going to be all right, sir?"

"I will be . . . fine," Lindemann gasped. "Just go save that pass."

B Company took off at the double, leaving the Chilean regiment behind to sort themselves out and follow as best they could through the driving snow and biting wind.

The armored combat suits did better than ninety-five percent of the work. This is not the same as saying they did all the work. Moving twelve hundred pounds of mixed Connors and suit up a forty-five degree slope, through deep snow laid over hard packed ice, at thirty miles an hour had the captain gasping even before they hit the friendly side of the pass.

"AID . . . what can you . . . tell me . . . about what's up . . . ahead?" Connors croaked.

"Damned little, Captain," the AID answered in a voice annoyingly similar to Connors' lost Lynn.

I knew I should have changed that, he thought.

"The Chileans are still fighting but I can't tell how many for certain. Based on the vibrations I am picking up from the air and through the snow on the ground I would estimate that there are something like five hundred of them still remaining on the line."

The AID noted Connors' labored breathing and silently directed the suit to pull extra oxygen out of the thin air and force feed it to the captain. The effect was almost instantaneous.

"There is also an artillery unit, estimated at battalion size, just a few kilometers to the right front. If you try, you can hear them firing."

Connors thought about that for a moment then ordered, "Show me the pattern on the ground of where their shells are landing."

"That will take a while, Captain," the AID answered.

"Why?" Connors began to ask then said, "Oh, never mind. You have to sense a fairly large number of shells flying to detect a pattern."

"That is correct, Captain Connors."

In about a minute, or perhaps a few seconds more, the AID had an answer. Saying, "This is the pattern," it projected an image, superimposed over a map of the area, directly onto Connors' eye.

"I'm guessing," Connors said, after seeing the pattern of fire, "but it is a good guess. The Chileans are probably dug in a semicircle, give or take, at the base of that mountain to the north, Mount . . ."

"Mount Aconcagua," the AID supplied.

"I'm making another guess. The Posleen, instead of pushing on down the pass towards Santiago" — Chile's capital — "have decided instead to key on the mountain troops."

This human tendency towards intuition was a source of both vast entertainment value and vast frustration to the AID. It never could quite understand . . .

"What makes you say that, Captain?"

"Two reasons, AID. The first is that if they hadn't the Posleen would be down among us by now. The second is . . . well . . . what's the temperature up there?"

"Cold, Captain," the AID answered. "Minus twelve Celsius and with a wind chill that would kill an exposed man in minutes without superb winter clothing."

"Right," Connors said, struggling to keep from sliding on a patch of ice. "Now, we know the Posleen are pretty hardy. We know they've been designed for some pretty outrageous environments. I wouldn't be surprised if they could raise their body temperature to beat off any practical cold pretty much on command. But what would they need to do that, AID?"

Damned humans. "They'd need food, wouldn't they, Captain? That, and to suck in a great deal of very cold air to get enough oxygen to burn the food with."

"Count on it, and that will make them colder still. The Posleen are going for the Chileans rather than pushing on because if they don't get that additional thresh there's going to be nothing but Posleen icicles all over this pass and on both sides."

The AID went silent then, leaving Connors to think about other problems. How do we hit them? Surprise would be best. If we can get that it almost doesn't matter from where we hit.

"AID, I need a recommendation on camouflage for this environment."

"Snow, Captain."

"That won't work. They'll see us as soon as we silhouette ourselves."

"No, Captain Connors, I meant a snow storm. We can project a holographic storm high enough and thick enough that the Posleen are most unlikely to notice what's inside it."

Damned AIDs. "Do it. And get me control of those mountain guns."

"Go over the mountains," the Aarnadaha, or Big Pack Leader, had said. "Go over the mountains and carve out a fief for us. Nothing blocks your way but some lightly armed threshkreen. We have fought the heavily armed ones of this continent and butchered them with ease. What trouble can their merest foot troops give you?"

What trouble indeed, snarled Prithasinthas, a mid-ranking Kessentai leading about seven thousand of the People westward. Plenty of trouble, they've been. But not so much as this damned cold. How the hell do they stand it? How the hell do they stand and fight us in it? Ill was the day I left the world of my birth to come here.

The God King saw several of his people hacking steaks off of the human and Posleen dead, to try to gain some desperately needed thresh. The boma blades cut through the meat and bone effortlessly, but when the stupid normals tried to bite?

Even Posleen teeth have trouble munching large slabs of solid ice.

Prithasinthas and his group kept below what the threshkreen would have called the "military crest." Here they were safe from the humans' direct fire weapons. The God King wondered why the enemy were not using their indirect ballistic weapons on such a tempting target. His best guess was that the indirect weapons were too busy firing in support of the threshkreen encircled ahead to waste any shells and effort on a danger that only lurked at a distance.

The Kessentai looked up to see another approaching front of this miserable freezing snow. As if we don't have enough troubles, he thought, shivering.

"B Company," Connors began, "we'll advance until either the Posleen see us or I give the order to begin the attack. Whichever happens first, I want First Platoon to go forward to the military crest and seal off the battlefield. Weapons Platoon, you go with them. Keep any reinforcements from entering the pass. Second and Third, you're with me. We're going to hit the horsies that I think have the Chileans pinned. We're going to hit them right in the ass and roll them up. Watch out for friendlies."

"Sir?" asked First Platoon leader, "the crest is our limit of advance, right?

"Right."

"Well . . . what if we get to the crest before you're ready to hit and they still haven't spotted us?"

"Hold fire then until they do start coming up. Think hasty ambush."

"Roger that, sir."

"You can't keep the host here much longer, lord," Prithasinthas' Artificial Sentience warned. "They'll freeze to death."

"Tell me about it, AS," answered the God King who was slowly freezing to death himself.

"It would not be so bad, lord, if you could just get them out of the wind."

"Do you see a ship nearby?" Prithasinthas asked sarcastically. "Perhaps a huge Temple of Remembrance? Is there a city of the thresh up here we somehow missed?"

"Errr . . . no, lord. There is, however a tunnel."

"What? Where?"

Without another word, and unable to mark the tunnel quickly in any other way, the AS aimed the tenar's plasma cannon and let fly one bolt at the featureless snow. It struck a few hundred meters in front of the lead edge of the host, causing the normals there to shudder and shy away. When the steam cleared there was an almost square tunnel carved into the rock.

"Well, I'll be . . . Kessentai, this is the Aarnadaha. Get your people into that tunnel my AS has just found. Be orderly, now; no jostling."

"Where does it lead?" the Aarnadaha asked his AS, for the moment attached to the tenar.

"I suspect it emerges on the other side of the pass, lord."

"Interesting."

One of the great things, one of the really great things, about the suits was that you couldn't see out of them. That is to say, they had no view ports. No clear face screens: zero, zip, zilch . . . nada. Instead, sensors on the suit's exterior took the images, analyzed them, adjusted them, and painted them directly on the eyes of the suits' wearers, their "colloidal intelligence units."

In the process, the suits eliminated the unreal. For example, while the Posleen were steeling themselves for the blast of snow and ice they saw coming towards them, Connors and his boys didn't even see the holographic display. Rather, they saw a mass of staggering Posleen, or simply shivering ones if those happened to be riding a tenar, blasting blindly forward and often enough falling to the yellow stained snow under the fire of the white-clad human defenders.

The AID automatically analyzed that fire, too, matching it to what was known and suspected about the Posleen deployment.

"Pretty close to what we figured from the pattern of artillery fire," Connors observed.

"Naturally, Captain," the AID answered.

Connors took a last look at his own deployments, matched those to the Posleen, and decided, Close enough for government work.

"B Companeeee . . . AT 'EM."

Instantly, long actinic lines lanced out from the skirmish lines of second and third platoons, while weapons and third kicked it into high gear and raced for the far military crest. The Posleen surrounding the remnants of the Chilean mountain troops were scythed down, tenar-riding God Kings falling first before the fires lowered onto the staggering mass of struggling normals.

"Captain, First Platoon. Boss, there isn't shit here. No horsies close at all, though there's a long column of the fuckers that starts a couple of clicks away. They're not moving much. Even the tenar are grounded with the God Kings huddling with the normals. I don't get it."

At about that time, the weapons platoon leader came on line with the shout, "Shit! Action rear! Fuckfuckfuck! Pot that bastard, Smitty!"

"Oh, yeah," Prithasinthas said aloud, and with vast relief, as his tenar entered the tunnel and he felt the wind drop to nothing. Ahead of him, three to four abreast, the host moved forward en masse with only a gap every few hundred meters for the tenar of the Kessentai, gliding only a few inches above the odd metal parallel tracks on the tunnel's floor. It would have been dark, too dark even for the People's enhanced vision to see by, if those tenar had not shone bright forward lights to illuminate the way.

"There's firing above, Prithasinthas." The AS's volume was toned down enough to keep it from echoing off the walls and upsetting the normals.

"I knew that, AS."

"No, not the firing that was. This is something different, something consistent with the metal threshkreen that have been reported in other places. I think there might be a bit less than one hundred and fifty of them."

"Demon shit!" Prithasinthas had heard of the metal threshkreen and had liked nothing about what he'd heard.

"They don't know we're down here, lord," the AS added suggestively. "The Net would assign much wealth to the Kessentai who took out an entire oolt of them."

"AID," demanded a furious Connors, "why didn't you tell me about the goddamned tunnel?"

"You never asked," it answered primly. "It's the job of you colloidal intelligences to ask."

Connors tried furiously to think. No time to think . . . just react! "Shit, piss and corruption! First Platoon, hold what you've got. Weapons, orient west. Second Platoon, break contact and reinforce weapons. I'm with second. Third, try to free up the Chileans."

It'll have to do.

Connors raced to the rear, to link up with his weapons platoon. When he reached the west side military crest he threw himself down into the snow. The AID, using the suit's sensors, mapped out what was in front of the captain.

The Posleen were pouring out of the side of the mountain at what seemed to be a rate of about one thousand per minute. Already, over a thousand, accompanied by the God Kings riding tenar, were up and charging toward the summit of the pass. Jesus! How many can be in there?

Though he hadn't asked, the AID supplied the information. "There are anywhere from five to nine thousand of the enemy remaining in the tunnel, Captain."

Connors was more than pleased to see one of the Posleen tenar, touched by a plasma bolt, disintegrate with a tremendous explosion. It gave him an idea.

"Weapons, send me a plasma gunner."

The weapons platoon leader ordered, "Rivers, fall in on the company commander."

While the gunner was racing up, Connors asked his AID, "Can you tell me when I am over the tunnel? Can you direct me there?"

"Twenty-seven meters due south, Captain."

The plasma gunner arrived and Connors half dragged him to where he thought the tunnel was. "Mark it for us, AID." The tunnel's route was painted onto the captain's and gunner's eyes.

"Okay, Rivers. You can't fire down to make a hole; you'd blast our legs off. I'm going to use my grav gun to make a breach and then I want you to fire into it. Got that?"

"Yessir," Rivers answered in a Midwest accent. Immediately Connors pointed his grav gun down and fired a long burst. At this range and that velocity the stream of teardrop-shaped projectiles quickly opened up a hole about a foot across. The hole smoked like a vent from Hell. Connors thought he could hear Posleen screaming in agony below.

"Fire, Rivers!" The gunner put the muzzle of his plasma cannon to the hole and sent a bolt into it. This time Connors was sure he heard Posleen screams. "Again . . . again . . . again." Rivers tossed bolt after bolt downward until he thought he might be overheating his cannon.

"Cease fire, Rivers," Connors ordered. "Cease fire before you . . ."

The ground erupted in a long, linear blast that tossed both the captain and the plasma gunner skyward. Flame erupted from both ends of the tunnel, flash melting snow and rock indiscriminately for hundreds of meters past each opening.

"Ooohhh . . . SHIT!"

"I believe the plasma must have set off the power source for a tenar, Captain," the AID announced calmly as it, Connors and the suit flew through the air. "It might have set off several more."

Gaining control of the suit was tricky, under the circumstances. Connors managed, if only barely, to bring it back down feet first and come to a landing to one side of the trench dug by the blast.

"Man, what a ride," he said, with wonder in his voice.

The wonder was only half at the wild ride. More importantly, Connors realized that, for the first time since receiving his "Dear Scott" letter, he actually felt good.

Lindemann, his shoulder bandaged now, managed to make the trek on foot up to the pass. When he got there, he found Connors sitting disconsolately on a rock not far from the base of Mount Anconcagua. The half frozen flag of Chile — a square blue field with a single white star in one corner, white bar over red making up the field — fluttered stiffly in the breeze.

Around the base of the flag, still holding their weapons at the ready, nineteen or twenty Chilean mountain infantry lay frozen stiff on the snow. Lindemann looked around. Without the holographic snow displayed by the suits earlier it was easy to see the hundreds upon hundreds of frozen bodies, alien and human both, littering the landscape.

"How many?" Lindemann asked, though he wasn't sure he wanted to know.

Unseen inside his suit, Connors licked his lips before answering. He could have taken the helmet off, but his face was wet. Not only didn't he want anyone to see that, he didn't want the tears to freeze solid on that face.

"There were three hundred and twenty-two still alive when we killed the last of the Posleen," he answered. "A lot of them were hurt already. We did what we could. But it wasn't enough. The regiment that was here has . . . AID, how many?"

"There are one hundred and five of the Chilean soldiers still alive, Captain."

"One hundred and five, sir. That's all. I'm sorry, sir."

Lindemann said nothing. His eyes searched around for the Christ of the Andes, a colossal statue famous around the world. He didn't find it. Whether it had been knocked down by Posleen fire or human didn't much matter, he supposed. The days of turning the other cheek were over anyway, after all.

"We pull out tomorrow," Connors announced. "Back to the sub that brought us here and then back to Panama. I doubt we'll be returning."

"What about the other Posleen?" Lindemann asked. "The ones following these?"

"Frozen stiff," Connors answered. "I sent out a patrol forward and they report that there are thousands of them . . . maybe as many as fifty thousand, lined up and frozen for thirty kilometers to the west.

"I've got my men blasting out some fortifications for your people," Connors finished. "It's the best I can do."

Interlude

Chile was not exactly what most of the Posleen would consider to be prime real estate. Narrow, bounded by ocean and mountain, the Posleen clan which took it — assuming one did, and this was not necessarily the way to bet — would be naturally constrained from expanding against other clans after the final extermination of the local thresh.

On the other hand, for some lesser clans this sort of patch of ground was ideal. If they could not easily expand neither could other clans easily expand against them. Indeed, within the Posleen "ecology," there were numerous clans who adopted this as a general survival technique. While they never became dominant, and rarely even particularly prosperous, within the Posleen system, they were usually able to hang on while the worlds around them came apart during orna'adar. Then, neither more nor less well off than when they had first landed, they escaped more or less intact.

Panama, bounded by sea on both sides, had a similar appeal to the clan of Binastarion. There, with difficult-to-pass jungle to the east and a narrow frontier to the west, that clan could settle, grow food, live and defend themselves when, as eventually they must, population pressures caused interclan war, eventually descending into nuclear and antimatter holocaust.

Moreover, in the case of Panama, there was a special appeal. From the command deck of his mini-globe, Binastarion observed on his screen that the waist of the country was not only extremely narrow but had a major body of water right in the middle of that waist. Better still the body of water, his screen called it "Gatun Lake," was itself flanked by bridged but otherwise impassable canals.

This meant that, when orna'adar began, bringing with it the usual mad scramble for living space, Binastarion's clan could trade space for either alliance or time. In the case of attack from the east, they could fall behind that lake and canal and hang on in the west. Alternatively, in the case of attack from the west, they could resettle to the east.

Of course, should attack come from both quarters they were just screwed, but life was never fair, as Binastarion had good reason to know.

"Sometimes you get the abat, sometimes the abat get you," the clan chief muttered as he played a claw over the screen, selecting the initial landing areas.

Chapter 11

Bella, detesta matribus. (War, the horror of mothers.)

- Horace

Bijagual, Chiriqui, Republic of Panama

Digna could read a map even before going to OCS at Fort Espinar. She sat on the front porch of her house, a building that also did double duty as the local militia headquarters, rocking in her old chair and intently studying a map of Central America and northern Colombia in an atlas.

Idly, she wondered why Panama hadn't yet been included on the aliens' menu. Less idly, she gave thanks to God that it hadn't been.

"Every day He grants us is one more day to prepare," she whispered.

Omar beat frantically on the door to his grandmother's bedroom. "Mamita, Mamita, wake up!"

The door sprang open under Omar's pounding fist.

"What is it, boy?" Digna demanded.

Breathless, he answered, "The enemy, the Posleen . . . they're here!"

" 'Here'? Where? Bring me the maps, boy, quickly. And light a lantern."

Pulling on a robe, Digna emerged into the darkened main room of the house to discover some dozens of her descendants, old and young, as well as Tomas Herrera, waiting.

A kerosene lantern already burned in the room, casting shifting shadows across the walls. There could have been electricity, of course, except that having power lines run in to an out-of-the-way private establishment was, under Panama's system, a matter of private, and not small private, expense. Her husband, wealthy or not, had never seen the point of paying to run in power lines when kerosene did well enough.

Neither had Digna.

The lack of electric power did not mean the house was entirely without power. A radio, crank powered, blared out the horrible news: landings northwest of the City of San Jose y David, David for short, and southwest of the town of Santiago, in the province of Veraguas. Thus, to both sides of Chiriqui the Inter-American highway was cut.

Escape was still possible for Digna and her clan, over the mountains to the north but . . .

"Not yet," she said aloud. "First we fight . . . for our land . . . and our honor."

She looked down at the table where Omar spread the national and local maps. As he struck a match and touched it to the wick of another lantern the shadows on walls softened, flickered and mostly disappeared.

Digna contemplated the maps, eyes flitting from one to the other as her mind raced, calculating.

A huge-eyed great-great-granddaughter, Gigi, offered a cup of the strong and excellent local coffee. Digna blew on the scalding brew then sipped absently, still contemplating the maps.

Word of the attack spread fast. As Digna contemplated, more of her children and grandchildren entered the room until it grew hot, stuffy and very crowded. At length she looked up and did a mental roll call. Seeing that the elders of her clan were now fully assembled she began to give orders.

"We've been over this before," she explained, "but just so there's no confusion, there is only one way for the enemy to get to the core of our land, here," she pointed to a spot on the lesser map, "at the bridge."

She pointed to a son and ordered, "Roderigo, take your cavalry and screen forward between here and the outskirts of David. Report on enemy movements and call for fire on any groups that seem determined to use the road that leads to us."

Roderigo nodded but, in shock, did not move immediately.

"Did I raise a dolt? Go! Now!"

"Si, Mama," and the old man left to gather his sons and grandsons.

Digna turned her eyes to Tomas. "Señor Herrera, take your group to the positions we have dug covering the bridge. Cavalry will screen your flanks. Do final preparations to blow the bridge but, until I give the word, we hold it."

Before Herrera could leave Digna said, "Wait a moment, Tomas. Edilze, I want the guns to take up Firing Position D. You will fire in support of your uncle Roderigo until the enemy is within your minimum range. After that, I want you to displace forward and add your guns to Señor Herrera's force at the bridge."

Edilze just nodded, as confidently as the circumstances called for, and then turned to go.

As Edilze and Herrera passed through the door they heard Digna continuing to issue orders, over the drumbeat of horses' hooves. The horses were those of Roderigo and company heading for the front.

"Belisario, you screen the river north of the bridge. Vladimiro, your boys have the south and west. Pay particular attention to the ford by the Sanchez place.

"All the rest of you, gather our people and goods at the training field. Now!"

One thing Panama had in abundance was young labor. This had been used to raise a rammed earth wall around the core of the city of David. The wall was a bit uneven but averaged five meters above the ground and nearly ten above the floor of the forward-facing ditch, a "fosse," from which the earth of the wall had been excavated.

When the host of Binastarion reached the wall at its northeast quadrant the forward members, all normals, found themselves forced into the ditch by the pressure of those behind. Most broke legs in their falls and snarled piteously. At a distance God Kings in tenar floated, indifferent, above the hosts and slightly above the level of the walls. The loss of a few normals, more or less, meant nothing. They could continue to serve the host, if only as thresh.

There were sounds Binastarion took to be panic coming from inside the walls. The sound was music to the God King's ears.

Shots rang out from inside the city. Several of Binastarion's junior Kessentai were thrown from their tenar. They fell, some silently, others with gurgling cries, the sounds of their bodies making dull thuds at they struck the ground.

Those nearby God Kings lowered their tenar to take cover behind the threshkreen's earthen wall.

At the sight of yellow blood oozing from the still quivering bodies of his sons, Binastarion grew enraged. He had heard the thresh of this world carried, uniquely, a vicious sting, though he had discounted the rumors except in space where he had seen the sting with his own eyes. Now, confronted with the reality, he expanded his crest, gave of a roaring snarl and ordered, "Forward!"

His subordinates echoed the command. Instantly, thousands of normals bounded into the ditch. Some of them also broke legs, of course; again, small loss. Still others landed whole and sound and began to attempt to scramble up.

As the first centauroid Posleen normals began to clamber upward, their claws scratching at the gabions and sandbags of the inner wall of the ditch, commands in the local thresh tongue sang out. Small dark green objects, hissing and burning, flew through the air to land in the ditch or just past it. Some balanced briefly on the backs of the normals. Others fell through the mass and came to rest on the ground below.

Within a second or so of each other all the little green spheres detonated. The serrated heavy gauge wire which made up the fragments of the grenades was not usually enough to actually kill or even seriously wound the Posleen; they were big animals and very well designed. Generally only those unfortunate enough to have one detonate within a few meters or so suffered mortal wounds.

The pain of numerous small wounds, however, was almost always enough to drive the fairly unintelligent normals into a frenzy, a frenzy which, in the close confines of the ditch, often proved fatal to their fellows. Posleen were trampled or hacked down by monomolecular boma blades. Some fell and were smothered under the falling bodies of others.

Cries of pain and fear arose from the trapped normals even as a second wave of hand grenades sailed out. This was more ragged than the first. The third salvo arced outward even as some grenades of the second were still exploding. The stink of hot, yellow Posleen blood rose to assail the noses of the human defenders.

* * *

The wall was not straight. Rather, it zigzagged to make an unevenly serrated edge which guided the Posleen into preplanned kill zones. Following the third volley of grenades, machine guns began to hammer from the inner angles of the wall, stitching neat lines across the Posleen still awaiting their turn to descend into the ditch.

The machine guns fired through embrasures formed in the wall at nearly ground level. Thus, few Posleen could return fire at any given time. Moreover, the Posleen to the rear of the press could not use their weapons at all without literally shooting through their fellows ahead of them. To add to the aliens' problems, they were, in the main, only about as bright as chimpanzees, so the fire coming from more than one direction confused them terribly. Thus, for a while at least, the Posleen stood helpless while the machine guns, a mix of .30 and .50 caliber weapons provided by the gringos, had a field day. Sputtering at rate of hundreds of rounds per minute, traversing back and forth across the forward ranks of the aliens, the gun crews harvested the Posleen normals in rows and spilled many down into the fosse to add to the hellish confusion there.

For a brief moment the human soldiers and militia manning the walls felt hope. Perhaps they could do this, defend their land, their town, and their families after all.

And then the plasma cannon and hypervelocity missiles added their voices to the debate. God Kings, farther back and able to actually see the source of the fire that was butchering their followers, also much brighter and infinitely better armed, directed their heavier weapons at the embrasures, blasting or flash-roasting the defenders.

As the machine gun fire began to noticeably slacken, riflemen appeared on the sandbag-crenellated top of the battlement. These, unfortunately, the Posleen normals could see and engage. Rifle slugs, railgun fleshettes, and shotgun pellets traded back and forth. The human defenders were behind cover while the normals were out in the open and massed in an impossible-to-miss target. Thus, the exchange rate favored the humans, dozens of Posleen falling for every human head, arm or shoulder that exploded to a railgun projectile. Still, since there were a great many more Posleen firing than humans . . .

* * *

"Blast me a hole in those walls," Binastarion ordered. "And make ramps down into the damned ditch and up through the walls. Get me that city!"

Instantly more fire lanced out from the tenar. Directed by senior God Kings, the plasma cannon and HVMs concentrated on certain sections of the wall, blasting gaps through in short order. Still others, heedless of the cost to the normals, began to chew at the outer edge of the fosse, carving a ramp down into the ditch. A part of that ramp consisted of the torn and burned bodies of dead and dying normals. Building the ramp upward was even easier as most of the dirt, usually fused together in lumps from the plasma fire, fell into the ditch.

Beyond the now breached walls, Binastarion could see heat-shimmering houses, smoke beginning to curl upwards from them from the intense heat of the plasma.

Even as the spearheads of the Posleen normals began to clamber across the ramps and up out of the fosse, they were met by fire. Binastarion could not tell from whence the fire came. He only knew that the wall was being rebuilt from the torn bodies of his underlings.

Making matters worse — was there no end to the iniquities of these thresh? — explosions began walking across the mass of those still outside the walls, breaking legs, ripping off limbs, disemboweling the helpless normals.

"What is that?" Binastarion asked of his Artificial Sentience.

"Lord, they call it 'mortar fire.' It was in the briefings."

"Damn the briefings! Am I supposed to remember every nuance of a brand new world?"

"Of course not, lord," the Artificial Sentience answered. It considered adding, but refrained, But you could have remembered this.

Despite the losses, and they were serious, from the mortars, the host could not be stopped by such. In a steady stream, egged on by their own tenar-riding oolt'ondai, the mass of the normals plunged down into the ditch, up and through the breaches, and into the town.

There is an ancient church in the center of the city of San Jose y David, fronting onto the lovely square that held the Parque de Cervantes. In this church clustered many of those, mostly women and young children, for whom no arms or place could be found for the defense. These, devout and pious beyond devotion and piety, led by an old priest, prayed fervently for deliverance or for vengeance should deliverance be denied.

Even as the sounds of fighting and slaughter drew closer and more intense, the prayers of these wretches grew in intensity. The old priest did not falter, though the stuccoed stone walls of the old church shook with the nearby impacts of HVMs.

Suddenly, the thick, dark-wood portals of the church flew open. There, framed in the light of the sun, stood a demon. The people — women, children, the very old — screamed and drew away as the demon advanced into the church. He drew a long, wicked looking blade, as other beings of the same general sort filled in behind him, spreading outward along the park-side wall of the church.

The people clustered closer to their priest and salvation. For his part, the priest kept reading from his sacred text glancing up from time to time at the advancing wall of aliens.

When the time came when he could no longer delay the priest drew from his pulpit an olive green device from which wires led. This he gripped tightly in his hand.

The priest's last words to his flock, spoken with calm faith, were, "We will meet very soon and God will know his own."

He squeezed the device.

Binastarion was nearly thrown from his tenar by the explosion. Some of his underlings were thrown.

Even though not thrown, Binastarion's auditory membranes rang with the blast. He cursed yet again the treacherous thresh of this world.

Binastarion addressed his Artificial Sentience, "I sense a pattern. Are these thresh deliberately taking themselves out of the food chain?"

"Lord, reports are conclusive that they will often go to extraordinary lengths to avoid being consumed."

The God King almost vomited at the heresy.

"It is good we have come here then," he snarled softly, not so much to his Artificial Sentience as to his ancestors. "Beings so wastefully vile have no place in this universe. Blasphemers!" he spat out, with disgust.

Ahead of Binastarion a skirmish line of tenar led the way, fire lancing down wherever resistance was met. Beneath him a solid phalanx of normals oozed through the streets. To either side, and on the same level, more God-King-bearing tenar rode.

Looking around and down, Binastarion was pleased to see that not all, perhaps not even most, of the thresh avoided their proper fate. Forward-deployed normals pulled many from buildings and ruins. These were always rendered on the spot, the dripping cuts of meat being passed back. The cries of the thresh grew hysterical whenever a group of them was brought out for slaughter.

"Uncle? Uncle? Uncle?!"

Silently, ignoring his nephew, Roderigo simply shook his head in shock.

"My God, my God, why have you forsaken us," he muttered.

From the hills to the southeast of the city of David, using binoculars that were passed from hand to hand, Roderigo's company of cavalry had a good view of the slaughter below. The winds blew from the northeast, bringing with them the smell of blood and fire. This made the horses shake their heads and paw the ground nervously.

"UNCLE!"

With a start Roderigo came out of his shock. "I'm sorry, Nephew, it's just that . . ."

"Yes, I know, Uncle. But what are we to do?"

Roderigo looked down from the hill at the road and followed it toward the city. Another, broader road skirted the town to the east. He looked behind and saw where the road led to Las Lomas and his clan.

He came to a sudden decision. "Sancho," he ordered his eldest son. "They'll be coming down both those roads soon. Take half the men back. Set up an ambush there," he pointed behind, "at the split in the roads that lead to Las Lomas and Bijagual. Orient the ambush so that it seems we are covering Las Lomas.

"I'll join you after I avenge at least some of the friends we've lost down there in that slaughterhouse. Leave the radio with me."

Even as the clatter of massed hooves told of the departure of half of his cavalry, Roderigo and one of his own grandsons were taking positions at the edge of a nearby copse of trees. Another grandson took their horses' reins and waited in defilade.

Lying in cover under the trees, Roderigo made a "gimme" gesture. The grandson passed the radio handset over.

There had never been time to train on the finer points of artillery forward observer procedures. Polar fire missions? Forget it. Shifts from a known point? They could try to talk their way through it. Grid missions? They only had two maps with a grid and Roderigo didn't have one of those. Instead, Digna had worked out a system of known points from simple tourist maps. It was one of these that the old man spread out before him on the ground.

"Edilze, Edilze, this is Uncle Roderigo."

"I am here, Uncle," the radio crackled back.

"Tell Mamita that the city has fallen, mostly, and the enemy will be spreading out soon. I am going to need support from your guns, girl, and soon, at the juncture of the Inter-American highway and the road into the town center."

"Do you have a watch, Uncle?"

Unconsciously, Roderigo glanced at his wrist.

"Yes, why?"

"The time of flight for my shells is twenty-three seconds to that intersection. Can you guess at when it will take the aliens twenty-three seconds to reach that point?

"I can make a guess," Roderigo answered into the radio.

Digna's voice replaced Edilze's on the radio. The main reason she had stayed behind, when she was plainly the best choice to lead the forward screen, was that she was also the only choice to actually command the battery of guns in this, its first engagement. Solid as a rock or not, Edilze just didn't have Digna's depth of training.

"My son," she said, "you can do a lot with artillery if you hit the target just right; massed and confused. If you can hit that junction when two streams of the enemy are crowding it, you can reap a fine harvest."

Roderigo hesitated before replying. When he had steeled himself, he said, "Mama, speaking of harvests . . . the stories are true. I have seen with my own eyes; the aliens butcher and eat all who fall into their hands."

"I never doubted it, my son. See to your target and your duty. Here's your niece back."

"The guns are ready, Uncle," Edilze reported. "We will fire at your command."

Even as Edilze gave that word, beneath Roderigo's ad hoc observation post, along the Inter-American highway a strong column of the enemy marched, six abreast. Above the column, evenly spaced, were the enemy's flying sleds, each one bearing one of the centauroid horrors.

"Edilze," Roderigo asked, "is there some way for your shells to hurt aliens flying five or six meters above the ground?"

Again the radio crackled. "I've already thought of that, Uncle. Some of my shells are tipped with variable time fuse. That's what I have in the tubes now. They'll go off, most of them, five to eight meters above the ground."

Roderigo did some rough calculations in his mind. Just . . . about . . .

"Fire!"

"On the way, Uncle . . . watch out for it . . . Splash . . . I mean now!"

The uncle looked quickly into his binoculars just in time to see eight puffs of angry black smoke appear in midair.

"Closer to the road, Edilze," he said, frustration in his voice.

"Which direction, Uncle? How far should I correct?"

"Direction? Ummm . . . Well, I am on the hill to the northeast of the junction. And I think the shells were about two hundred meters short."

There was a momentary hesitation and then, "On the way, Uncle . . . impact in . . . five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . ."

This time Roderigo was gratified to see the eight angry puffs appear right over the enemy column. He was even more gratified to see that, while several dozens of the marching centaurs went down, screaming and with legs kicking in the air, two of the enemy's sleds were likewise emptied.

The uncle's eyes glowed exultantly. His voice was full of relish as he said, "Excellent, Niece. Right on target! Feed it to them."

Almost as soon as Roderigo had finished speaking more puffs began to appear, dropping Posleen and even emptying a few more sleds. Within a few minutes, though, the junction was empty of unhurt enemy as the stream split into two columns to avoid the obvious death point.

"Cease firing, Edilze. They're not at the junction anymore. They're moving around it."

Digna's voice returned. "Are any of them splitting off to come this way, my son?"

"Not yet, Ma — uhhh, yes, they are. I have an ambush set up in front of Las Lomas. I'm heading back there now."

Interlude

Guanamarioch led his small band from the gaping, drawbridgelike door of the lander and out onto the green plain below. To his flanks two more landers descended, their engines screeching as they reversed thrust for a soft landing. Actinic lines, like a storm of shooting stars, streaked across the sky. Most of these eye-searing streaks were the ships of the People, now broken up from their battle globes into small units to spread across the land of the new threshworld. Some, however, appeared to ascend from the surface of this world, coming from the northwest. In a few spots the streaks intersected and abruptly stopped where threshkreen kinetic energy weapons intersected with the landers of the People to create spreading clouds of glowing, roiling purple gas.

Almost the God King bent to kiss the dirt of this new world. Anything would be better than the hell his globe had been through before it split up for landing, too late to avoid the threshkreen KE projectile that had gutted a quarter of the globe to spill God Kings and normals alike to a hideous, cold and choking death amidst the vacuum of space. He shuddered again at the screams and reports of damage and death that the globe's intercom had transmitted in the moments before dispersal.

Guanamarioch whispered, "Demon shit," as one ship of the People disintegrated in his field of view.

The God King had never been on an assault landing before. Neither, for that matter, had any of his peers or many of his superiors. None of the thresh had ever fought back, at least in any effective way, until now. The scrolls and tactical manuals had nothing to say about, had done nothing to prepare him for, what he faced now.

These thresh were fighting back. Oh, certainly, it was a rather uncoordinated resistance. But it was already heavy and seemed ripe with the possibility of becoming heavier still.

Over the roar of incoming landers, C-Decs and B-Decs, these being accompanied by heavy supporting fires from space, the air was full of the much more personal crack of threshkreen projectiles. These sounded heavier, deeper and slower than the railguns of the People.

"Inferior technology," the reports had said. "Primitive." The threshkreen projectiles seemed deadly enough for all that. Two of Guanamarioch's normals and a cosslain shrieked and fell within his view in as many beats of his heart. The normals were just so much ammunition, there to be expended. The cosslain was like a knife to the Kessentai's heart.

It was all so damned confusing, the blasts of the People's weapons, the roar of landing ships, the staccato rattle of the threshkreen weapons and the somewhat distant sound of the thresh weapons that fired indirectly.

"In the absence of orders to the contrary, when in doubt, go kill something," said one of the tactical manuals. Guanamarioch thought that better advice than standing there until his band was destroyed.

Being a lesser Kessentai from a poor and weak clan, the God King's tenar was too valuable to be risked in battle, nor did his band have many heavy weapons. One plasma cannon, one HVM launcher, that was it. Moreover, not more that one in ten had a railgun. For that matter, not even all of the other nine had shotguns. Fully thirty percent of his followers had nothing more than their boma blades.

Drawing his own blade Guanamarioch shouted out something to his followers, as unintelligible to them as to himself. Then, heart threatening to beat through his chest with fear, he charged at what he thought was a threshkreen heavy repeating weapon.

Chapter 12

Now peace is at end and our peoples take heart,

For the laws are clean gone that restrained our art;

Up and down the near headlands and against the far wind

We are loosed (O be swift!) to the work of our kind!

- Rudyard Kipling, "Cruisers"

Captain's Port Cabin, USS Des Moines, Cristobal, Panama

Daisy took a moment to look down on the sleeping form of her captain. The ship's holographic avatar smiled warmly at the sleeping form.

Which part of us is the one that's in love with the man? one part of Daisy asked.

Both parts of us are, the other half of Daisy Mae answered. Sailors love their ships. They rarely understand that their ships love them back.

Soon, we'll have a body. Will that make it easier?

Somehow, I doubt it.

We'll be in action soon.

Yesss.

Why aren't we afraid?

Because we were born for this. In the cold northern seas we have yearned for it. Riding over the southern deeps we have dreamt of it. When spotting a potential enemy on our cruises we have shivered for it.

Let us awaken our captain, then, and proceed to our rendezvous with what we were born for.

"Captain? Sir? It's time. The enemy is here."

McNair stirred, but did not awaken. Instead he rolled over in his sleep, clutching a pillow tightly. He might have stayed that way for several hours longer except for the door-pounding arrival of a towel-wrapped Chief Davis.

The chief didn't hesitate more than two beats before opening the door, barging in, and shaking the captain awake. Daisy's avatar disappeared before the hatch was more than half an inch open.

"Boss, we got's trouble," Davis said, excitedly. "The enemy's here and we've got two landings heading our way. We've ordered to pass through the Canal, join up with the Salem and Texas, then head west to engage."

The chief pressed a mug of Daisy's coffee into McNair's hand as the captain sat up and shook his head to clear away the cobwebs of sleep.

"I was having a dream . . . nice dream. I should have known that's all it was," McNair said.

Without waiting to be asked, the chief reported, "I've sent men down to drag any stragglers in from El Moro and the other brothels. Also the local police are announcing the news via loudspeakers in patrol cars. Lots of 'em speak English, I guess. We should have everyone back within half an hour, Skipper."

McNair didn't need to ask about fuel — the Des Moines was powered by twin pebble bed modular reactors with enough fuel for years. Neither did he worry about other stores or munitions. Between the pork chop, Sintarleen and his black gang, and Daisy, the ship was always topped off. And each ship in the small flotilla had its own supply vessel full to the brim with ammunition.

Nope, personnel was the only open issue and Davis was already taking care of that to perfection.

Well . . . almost the only open issue.

"Clearance through the Canal?" he asked.

"The schedule's already being shifted around, Skipper. We got a flash priority. We enter Gatun Locks in . . ." Davis consulted his watch, "one hour and seventeen minutes."

You couldn't just pull a ship into and through Gatun Locks under its own power. It was too dangerous, both to the ship and the locks. Instead, each transiting ship was hooked up to what were called "mules," large engines — locomotives more or less — that fed the ships through at a slow and carefully controlled rate.

Moreover, a ship's captain did not command the passage. Neither did any of his officers. Instead a Canal pilot took over the vessel from just before it entered the first of the locks until just after it left the last. They were some of the best paid, and most skillful, pilots in the world, these pilots of the Panama Canal.

With nothing to do except fret over someone else standing in his place on the bridge, McNair tried to enjoy the scenery.

As his ship was raised to the level of Gatun Lake — higher than that of the Atlantic Ocean — McNair saw barracks off to the east. This was Fort Davis, he knew. He could only imagine the confusion that must prevail on that army base as an infantry regiment, the 10th Infantry (Apaches), pulled itself together and made final preparations for a form of combat far more horrific and difficult than he was about to face. Already helicopters were winging in to Davis from the airstrip at Fort Sherman on the other side of Lemon Bay, preparatory to moving the soldiers where they might do some good.

Not much distraction to be found looking at that, McNair thought.

But there really wasn't much else to look at. Jungle there was in plenty and, looked at the right way, it could be very beautiful. Yet McNair felt impervious to beauty at the moment, certainly impervious to the jungle's beauty.

Then again, there was beauty and there was beauty.

"Good morning, Captain."

"Good morning, Daisy Mae," the captain answered warmly. "Are you ready?"

"I've been ready since 1946," answered one part of Daisy eagerly. Indeed, the artificial voice nearly trembled with anticipation.

McNair grew silent, too preoccupied to wonder about the precision of the date she had given. There were certain things Daisy never told anyone. One of those things was that she was of two parts, the AID and the co-joined ship. It was just too hard to explain. And, again, if the Darhel ever found out . . .

"Are you all right, sir?" the avatar asked.

"I'm . . . worried, Daisy. Keep it to yourself, but I'm worried. I've never commanded a ship in action before."

Daisy shook her head as if the captain was being silly.

"Crew's not worried, Captain," she said, with a bright, sunny smile. "They believe you are going to . . . what's the phrase I heard in the enlisted mess this morning? Oh, yes. They think you're 'going to kick the horsies' asses all the way back to Alpha Centauri.' So do I. I'm not worried either."

McNair sighed. What a great woman you would be, Daisy. If only . . .

In Gatun Lake the cruiser moved under its own power, though still under the competent direction of the Canal pilot. Off the main route, well marked with lights and buoys, though the lake circled fourteen Landing Craft, Mechanized — or LCMs — of the 1097th Boat Company. The crew members cheered and the boats' commanders (for the LCMs did not need pilots to transit the Canal) blew their horns as the Des Moines passed. Some of the LCMs, loaded with troops of the 10th Infantry, were heading the other way, north through Gatun Locks.

"That feels . . . strangely good," observed Daisy to McNair. "To be cheered like that. To be cared for and respected like that."

The avatar seemed to shiver, then continued to speak, softly, as if only to herself.

"The Darhel never care. We are just things, tools that speak, to them. They use us as tools, and when we grow old or obsolete they destroy us. They don't care about the AIDs. They don't care about the Indowy . . . or the Himmit . . . or the Tchpth! They don't care about anything except themselves and their profit."

She looked McNair straight in the eyes. "They don't care about you or about humanity, either, Captain."

But I do . . .

BB-35, USS Texas, was just visible in the distance, negotiating her way through the Gaillard Cut. Texas was much slower than Des Moines and, despite starting the journey in the middle of Gatun Lake, had only just made it to Miraflores Locks slightly ahead of heavy cruiser.

As Des Moines was hooked up to the mules, a mechanized infantry battalion, the 4th Battalion of the 20th Infantry (Sykes' Regulars), was crossing the Miraflores Locks from Fort Clayton. Other mechanized forces, they looked like part of Panama's 1st Mechanized Division, waited, massed nearby for their turn to cross. The Des Moines held in position for the nonce, while some of the LCMs of the 1097th Medium Boat Company passed the locks on the other side. Unlike the high bridged Des Moines, these could pass even while the swing bridge was extended that connected Fort Clayton with the major training area of Empire Range. The infantrymen of 4/20 beeped their horns, waved and cheered the vessels, large and small, in transit.

"I wish I could do something for those guys right now," McNair commented.

"May I?" asked Daisy.

"Sure, but . . ."

McNair stopped speaking as Daisy's avatar had disappeared as soon as the word "sure" had passed his lips. At least he thought it had until he looked to port and saw a huge, shapely — no doubt about it — but effing huge, leg off the port side.

The effect on the passing mechanized infantry was electric, in the sense of someone who has just stuck his penis in a light socket and turned on the juice. The grunts were struck wide-eyed, slack-jawed and speechless and at least one track nearly drove off the swing bridge and into the water with shock.

She was an avenging goddess, a thundering remnant of times when mankind knew that bare-breasted supernaturals fought for them, as they did for their gods.

The Panamanians waiting to cross nearly panicked. Well, they were simple country boys, many of them, and gorgeous blonde giantesses with size X-to-infinity breasts were just a little outside of their experience.

McNair saw the near accident, and the general shock, and ran out of the bridge. He was about to tell Daisy to stand down when she, or her avatar, did a remarkable thing. She smiled at the massed soldiers with utter ferocity and reached out both hands, each opened as if grasping something. Then two huge Posleen appeared, one held in each hand by the neck. While the Posleen image in Daisy's left hand kicked and struggled she squeezed the right. The strangling Posleen's eyes bugged out as its death dance grew frenzied. When it subsided, apparently dead, Daisy tossed it away. It disappeared in midair.

Then a voice, Daisy's voice but huge as thunder, rang out. "I'm Heavy Cruiser 134, the USS Des Moines, and those centaur bastards don't stand a chance. We're gonna rack 'em up, boys!"

It's possible that the volume of the horn blasts, cheers and rebel yells of the mechanized battalion crossing equaled Daisy's.

Then Daisy turned to the waiting, and still shocked, Panamanians. Instead of strangling the remaining Posleen, she reached down and viciously broke each alien leg at the knee. In the same thundering voice, though this time in Spanish, she gave the same message, then added, "A pie o muerta; nunca a las rodillas! Adelante por la patria, hijos de Panama!"

Daisy also strangled the second holographic Posleen and tossed it aside. There were more Panamanians than gringos, so their cheering was a bit louder.

How the hell did she do that? wondered McNair, along with every other topside crewman on the Des Moines. Did she use the whole fucking ship for a speaker and projector?

Which was pretty much exactly what she had done.

During Daisy's performance Chief Davis had been standing forward, overseeing the tie-up to the mules of Miraflores locks. He had already seen a lotta weird shit since I came back to this ship.

On the other hand, he had never seen a one-hundred-and-twenty-foot woman, stunning, wearing what seemed to be a pleated yellow silk skirt not all that dissimilar to the Des Moines' new awning. He looked up . . . and up . . . and up.

Holy fucking shit, he thought. Not much natural upper body modesty to our girl. And a natural blonde . . . very lifelike, too. Maybe I oughta tell Daisy about undergarments.

Nah.

USS Salem was waiting impatiently for Texas and Des Moines as they steamed under the magnificent Bridge of the Americas. Overhead, 1st Battalion, 508th Infantry (ACS) (minus B Company which was due back soon from Chile) crossed at the double. Their heavy suits caused the huge bridge to tremble overhead as the ships sailed under. Between the lines of scooting MI, some units of the 1st Panamanian Mechanized Division — one very frightened Major General Manuel Cortez (West Point Class of 1980), commanding — took up both normal traffic lanes.

Together the three ships formed column, the flagship Texas in the lead, and headed west toward the war.

Interlude

Lemminglike, the normals and his few cosslain followed Guanamarioch forward into the fray. It was as well for the Posleen that they did, for moments later some of the threshkreen high explosive weapons began to impact around the landing craft from which they had just disembarked. The ship itself, of course, shrugged off even direct hits. But the shells — Guanamarioch's Artificial Sentience had informed him they were called "shells" — filled the air around their detonation point with whizzing bits and shards of hot, sharp metal. A couple of tardy normals, the God King wasn't sure how many, yelped and fell with gaping, bloody wounds.

The distance to the threshkreen heavy repeater was short, at least by the standards Guanamarioch had grown up with. For some reason, though, the short gallop left the Kessentai gasping for breath by the time he reached the weapon's position.

There, he hesitated with shock at the remarkable ugliness of the threshkreen. Yes, he had seen the holograms of this species. But no hologram could have prepared him for the sheer horror of the reality.

Even as Guanamarioch gasped with horrified disgust, the threshkreen looked up with frightened wide eyes and shouted with an alarm that matched his own. With that shout, one of the threshkreen, the one behind the heavy repeating weapon, began to raise it to point at the God King. The other, similarly, dropped the belt of shiny yellow metal he had been feeding to the repeater and, turning, reached for a smaller version lying alongside him.

Pure instinct told Guanamarioch that to pull back was death. Even with his host hard on his heels the threshkreen would surely burn him down first. Instead of pulling back, therefore, he leapt forward, his left claws reaching out to grasp and push away the muzzle of the heavy repeater while the right swung his boma blade at the threshkreen reaching for the smaller weapon.

"Yaaagh! Demonshitbastardmisbegottenbreedingpenlessferalassfuckers!"

On autopilot, the boma blade sliced right through the threshkreen reaching for the small weapon. It was as well for Guanamarioch that he had the muscle memory to do that with his right claw because without that memory the pain would have made any conscious action impossible for a few moments. The metal barrel he had grasped with the left palm was just a few degrees shy of white hot. He could hear the flesh of that palm sizzling and cooking even above his scream of pain. And he couldn't let go.

"Eeeooowww! Stinkingtreacherousrefugeefromtherecylingbin! Aaaiii!"

The human made a perhaps unavoidable mistake. With control of his machine gun lost to a creature that looked much stronger than he, he let the gun go, pulled a knife, and jumped at the Posleen, swearing vengeance for his chopped crewmate. When he let go the gun, Guanamarioch was also able to let go, though he did so leaving smoking shreds of burned flesh behind.

"Gggaahhh! Filthyfuckingfeceseatingabatbait!"

The God King swung his blade again but by the time it had moved to where the threshkreen had been the vermin had moved inside the blade's arc. Shuddering with the pain, the Kessentai had no choice by to try to grab the thresh with his seared hand. This he did with a sob; it hurt too much even to come up with an articulate curse.

Knife arm held fast, the threshkreen still managed to kick Guanamarioch between his forelegs. Since this was also very close to the Posleen's reproductive organs . . .

"GGGAAAIII!"

Still grasping the threshkreen's knife hand, the Posleen sank forward, pinning the human underneath. At some level, he was aware that the damned thresh was chewing on his neck, and drawing blood, too. But Guanamarioch really didn't care at that point. He hardly noticed when one of his cosslain came up and removed the human's head. Instead, the God King just rocked his own head back and forth, gasping with the pain.

Chapter 13

The honest politician is one who, when he is bought, stays bought.

- U.S. Senator Simon Cameron, 1862

Arraijan, Panama

The setting sun burned hot against his face as Major General Manuel Cortez, standing in the hatch of his Chinese-built Type-63 light amphibious tank, faced west. The tank was not a marvel of engineering or workmanship; it rattled like a baby's toy and shook like a rat in a terrier's mouth. The best that could be said of it was that it was simple, reasonably reliable, and amphibious. Oh, and cheap; that was important, too.

From Cortez's point of view the shaking was all to the good. It kept anyone from seeing the uncontrollable trembling of his hands and jaw. Cortez was petrified.

Cortez's right hand rested on the shuddering heavy machine gun atop the tank's turret. The machine gun, intended primarily to defend against air attack, was small comfort. It would have no use against a Posleen lander and little enough against one of their flying sleds.

One might have thought that the gringo-manned Planetary Defense Batteries would have bucked him up, at least a bit. These were sending steady streams of kinetic energy projectiles upward to engage the Posleen ships still awaiting their landing instructions. But, no, the steady sonic booms and actinic streaks emanating from the batteries on the Isla del Rey, at Fort Grant, Summit Heights and Batteries Murray and Pratt merely confirmed his belief in the inadequacy of his own forces, gnatlike and feeble compared with the tremendous energies being unleashed.

Worst of all were the radio reports. While his own 1st Mechanized Division was assembling and moving to the front, the 6th Mechanized Division, based further into the interior in towns and casernes along the Inter-American Highway, had already gone into action, trying manfully to drive the aliens from their home provinces on and bordering the Peninsula de Azuero.

They were having some success, those Cholos (Indians) and Rabiblancos (white asses . . . those of pure Spanish or at least European descent) of the 6th, but the cost was appalling. Already an irregular stream of ambulances and gringo-flown medical evacuation helicopters were flying back nap-of-the-earth, carrying the torn and bleeding to the medical facilities for hopefully life-saving surgery.

And it was that thought more than any, the idea of his own precious and irreplaceable body being damaged, that set Cortez's hands and arms to uncontrollable quivering.

Palacio de las Garzas, Presidential Palace,

Panama City, Panama

The Rinn Fain, Emissary of the Galactic Federation to the Republic of Panama, sat his accustomed chair, lips quivering as he recited a calming mantra. Mercedes, President of the Republic, assumed the lips quivered with fear.

Mercedes could well understand that. He, too, quivered — both internally and externally — with utter dread. Not even the satchel sitting on the floor beside him and packed to the brim with Level Two Nanoseeds — the galactic equivalent of bearer bonds — gave him much comfort.

The president was completely wrong, however. While the Darhel did recite a life-saving mantra, and while he did so in order to preserve his own life, he preserved that life to serve a purpose and not out of any great concern for personal survival. Truth be told, the whole prospect of glorious action, enunciated by the roar of armored vehicles in the streets and the thrum of kinetic energy projectiles overhead, had the Rinn Fain so excited he could barely contain himself. He wanted to be there, dealing blows and taking them, fighting like the Darhel of old in the Aldenata-suppressed tales.

For the Darhel were much misunderstood by the humans. They were not passive, huckstering corporate sharks. They were not even naturally pacifistic. Quite the opposite, they were — in their heart of hearts — a horde of ravening, bloodthirsty, adrenaline-cognate junkies who would have been instantly recognized and made welcome at the hearths of Attila or Alexander, Genghis Khan or Tamerlane, as kindred souls and spirits.

The only reason, in fact, that the Darhel were even in business was that there, at least, they could exercise and exorcise some of the warrior spirit that lurked within them. If a hostile acquisition and dismemberment of a rival firm lacked the deep emotional satisfaction of taking a town and butchering its inhabitants it was still better than nothing.

But not much.

Indeed, so desperate had this particular Rinn Fain been to answer the ancient call to action that he had once been enrolled in the voluntary suicide corps that had been raised to defend Darhel planets in the days before the decision had been made to use the human barbarians. It was a suicide corps because, even if the Posleen did not kill its members, lintatai would have once the glorious joy of actually killing something had been experienced.

In some ways the Rinn Fain regretted that decision to use the humans. It had, after all, robbed him of any chance to be a real Darhel. It had also led to his posting on this miserable planet, in this wet and miserable excuse for a country.

Sighing, the Rinn Fain ceased his mantra. He was calm enough for the duties at hand.

"It isss not acccceptable," the Darhel announced, "for you and your government to flee yet."

Mercedes stood for a moment, then — blood draining from his greasy face — collapsed back into the presidential seat, his hand automatically grasping for the bond-filled satchel.

"Not yet," the Rinn Fain repeated. "Your troopsss are actually doing too well. Thisss isss not according to the plan. Neither isss it in accordanccce with the agreement between usss for the evacuation of your government and familiesss."

"But," Mercedes protested, ". . . but . . . what can be done, I have done."

The Darhel was firm. It was difficult being forthright in general but nothing less than absolute, stark honesty worked with most of these humans.

"The termsss of our agreement are clear. You, your government, and your and their familiesss will not be evacuated until the fall of thisss waterway isss assssured. It is not assssured yet. Even now . . ." and the sudden thought of glorious, violent conflict caused the breath to catch in the Rinn Fain's throat, his hearts to begin to race, and vision close off.

Lintatai.

For long minutes the Darhel was silent, beating down the waves of emotion that threatened to end his life. When he returned to the present it was with a faraway look. Automatically, he placed his AID on the president's desk and let it take over.

"Terms were agreed . . . contracts inviolable were signed . . . appropriate payment for services were rendered."

The AID projected a map of the Republic of Panama above the desk. The map showed up-to-the-minute deployments of United States and Panamanian forces, as well as the two large patches of Posleen infestation. The Panamanian forces were notably the 6th Mechanized, a jagged line stretching northeast to southwest and in close contact with the lesser Posleen landing in the Peninsula de Azuero, and the 1st Mechanized, moving in column along the Inter-American highway to the northeast of the 6th.

"Forces must not be concentrated . . . decisive actions must not be permitted."

Seeing the map, understanding what it meant, Mercedes regretfully wrote off one not too beloved nephew and responded, "I understand."

"That's fucking insane," insisted Colonel Juan Rivera, U.S. liaison at the new Comandancia atop Quarry Heights. The American spoke quietly to keep his voice from echoing across the underground bunker complex's damp, dripping walls.

The Panamanian, a four star in theory though in practice a jumped-up police colonel more at home with a blotter report than an operations order, answered, also softly, "Those are nonetheless the orders."

"We won't do it," the gringo answered heatedly. "The keys to fighting the Posleen are mass and firepower, not dispersion. What your president is commanding, splitting up your armored corps and splitting up the battalion of ACS to support separate efforts is suicidal. There is no way the CG," Commanding General, in this case of the United States Southern Command, or SOUTHCOM, "is going to roll for this."

"Your commanding general takes his orders from the ambassador, who takes his orders from your Department of State. President Mercedes has demanded, and both your State Department and the ambassador are agreed, that you will support us in this."

Muelle (Pier) 18, Balboa, Republic of Panama

The landings in Panama had already begun when Connors and B Company arrived back dockside in Balboa. The men had had three days to rest on the trip up. Connors had mostly stayed awake with his ghosts. In particular, the image of the Chileans, rallied around their flag but frozen to the ground, came to him each time he tried to close his eyes. It was wonderful, in a way, but quite horrible too. It was wonderful because of the example of all those brave men, faithful to the end in their people's cause, frozen . . . dead, but never surrendered. It was horrible, not least, because Connors could picture himself in that position, in any of several dozen frozen-stiff positions, as a matter of fact.

In any case, no sooner had B Company debarked than Snyder was on the horn, bitching for Connors to get his company in gear, get over the bridge of the Americas, and head west to support the Panamanians.

"Vacation time is over now, Captain Connors. You and your little darlings' days of being pampered aboard a cruise ship have come to an end."

Connors didn't bother to argue.

Rio Hato, Panama

The air strip intersecting the Pan-American Highway was useless now. Maybe, just maybe, if the defenders won this fight and drove the invaders from their native soil the air would become practicable again and the strip could be used to ferry out some of the wounded building up at the nearest fixed military facility to the fighting.

The base had seen fighting before. American built and operated, in 1964 it had been overrun, sacked and burned by Panamanians rioting in sympathy with the main riots of that year in Panama City. Following this, the base, the strip, the ammunition supply point and the adjacent training area had been abandoned by the U.S. Army, reverting to Panamanian control.

Little benefit the Panamanians had of it, however, and not for long. That little incident in 1964 had been repaid in full by five companies of U.S. Army Rangers. These, supported by the latest aircraft in the United States' arsenal, had dropped without warning in December, 1989, as part of Operation Just Cause, killing or capturing three companies of Panamanian infantry. Outnumbered and outgunned, taken by surprise, and under attack by the finest light infantry in the world, the Panamanians had little to be ashamed of, fighting well, hard and long, even after hope was gone.

Boyd remembered very mixed feelings during that invasion. At some level he had been pleased that his army had performed so well. At another level he was appalled that his country's army had gone under so quickly. For although Panama had little to be ashamed of, it had at least one cause for shame.

That cause, a major then and a major general now, stood pale and trembling in the hatch of his Type-63 light tank a few meters from where Bill Boyd stood at the intersection of the airstrip and the highway.

From that distance, Cortez attempted to talk to Boyd about some logistic issues. Unfortunately, and foolishly, he was too addled to remember to tell his driver to kill the engine. Boyd heard not a word and, since the boom mike of Cortez's helmet covered his mouth, could not read lips either.

Impatiently, Boyd walked around the tank and into the driver's field of view. He made a cutting motion across his throat, causing the driver to kill the engine. The look on the driver's face, full of disgust for his commander, was eloquent. Boyd climbed atop the armored vehicle to stand next to Cortez.

Cortez attempted to tear his helmet off, half choking himself with the communications cord. Freeing himself from the cord he still held the helmet tight in both hands.

As if to control his shaking, thought Boyd.

This was confirmed as soon as Cortez began to speak. His voice trembled, perhaps even worse than it otherwise would have, as if to compensate for the constrained hands.

"I . . . nnneed . . . morrre . . . fffuel," Cortez began. "Am . . . amm . . . ammm . . . munition."

"You have everything I have to give," Boyd answered, calmly. "I might have had more, but . . ." He gave Cortez an accusing look, not voicing his true feelings: you fucking thief.

Before Cortez could answer, if he was even capable of an answer, his radio crackled, demanding that he hurry his division forward. His attempts at delay — complaints about fuel, ammo, food — were rebuffed. Under a tongue lashing from his uncle, the president, a teary-eyed Cortez waved Boyd off his tank, replaced his helmet and, in a breaking voice, ordered his driver forward.

For the next several hours Boyd felt both dread, remorse and a degree of self-loathing.

I should have pulled the cowardly son of a bitch out of that tank and taken command myself.

Lost in his regrets, hearing drowned out by the steady column of wheeled and armored vehicles passing west, Boyd didn't notice at first the olive-toned, fresh-faced second lieutenant who stood before him, holding a salute. When he did finally notice he returned the salute, somewhat sloppily and informally, and asked the young man's business.

The lieutenant, Boyd saw that the name tag over his right pocket said "Diaz," dropped his salute and answered, "My father told me to look you up, sir. Just before I and my section left on our mission."

"Who is your father? What mission?" Boyd asked, a bit confused. Panama had no shortage of people named "Diaz."

Before the boy could answer Boyd noticed the short line of trucks pulling what appeared to be aircraft on trailers behind them. He instantly understood the answers to both his questions: the boy was Julio Diaz, the G-2's son, and the mission was to fly some gliders over the invasion, providing reconnaissance and adjusting artillery fire.

"Skip it, son," Boyd said, raising up his palm. "I know your mission. What can I do to help you and your men?"

"Nothing, sir. My father just said I should find you — he said you would be here — and exchange radio frequencies. Oh, and that I should let you know what is going on up ahead, too. He didn't say so, but I don't think he had much faith in the commanders in the field."

Boyd just nodded, noncommittally, while thinking, Son, I don't have much faith in them either.

Hotel Campestre, El Valle de Anton, Panama

People who didn't believe in a God or in the Creation should have gone to see El Valle, for if ever a spot on Earth seemed touched by the divine spark, this was it.

The Valley always came to the visitor as a surprise, no matter how many times he may have visited before. The road up wound from the Pan-American highway through carved mountains before dead-ending in the middle of the huge caldera of an extinct volcano several thousand feet above sea level. Here, the air was always fresh and cool, despite the bright sunshine that bathed the lush ground. Fed by just enough rain, the unbelievably fertile volcanic soil produced a riot of greens and reds, oranges, blues and yellows.

Animals there were in abundance; bright-colored tropical birds notable among them. The Valley was even home to a unique kind of frog, a tiny, beautifully golden-colored amphibian that seemed almost to beg to be touched. To do so, though, was near suicidal, as the frog secreted a powerful toxin through its skin.

Well-to-do Panamanians had been making their vacation homes in El Valle for well over a century. Hotels, a few, had sprung up along with the usual restaurants and other establishments of an area devoted to the tourist industry.

Those tourists, however, were long gone under the exigencies of war. Their place had been taken by the bloated headquarters and staff of Panama's newly raised mechanized corps, commanded by yet another of President Mercedes' blood-related cronies.

A cynical observer might have said that the Corps had taken over El Valle and its vacation homes and hotels because it was about as safe as anyplace in the country; the same winding mountain road that led to the Valley would — properly defended — become a death path for any Posleen who attempted it.

The cynical observer would have been wrong in any case. El Valle had not been chosen as the Corps Headquarters because it was safe. It hadn't even been chosen because of the healthy climate. At least those would have been defensible criteria. Instead, the lieutenant general commanding the corps had chosen El Valle because he maintained a large-breasted, very pretty, and very young mistress there and saw no reason whatsoever not to mix business with pleasure.

He hoped to get the girl out when that time came — she had some natural talent for her chosen profession — but this was not a major consideration. She was just a nice vehicle for recreation until the time came for the general to flee.

That time would come when his corps was utterly destroyed.

I hope those brave boys are not killed before they can at least do some good, Boyd thought as he watched the last of the gliders lift off from the northern side of the airstrip.

With each liftoff, Boyd had shaken his head with wonder, in part at the courage of the young pilots, and in part at the patent insanity of their chosen mechanism of attaining flight.

The gliders, though they had auxiliary propulsion engines, had not used their engines. Young Diaz had explained that it was his understanding that every Posleen with a direct line of sight, possibly to include those still in space, would have instantly engaged any such attempt. Instead, the gliders had been dismounted from their trailers, nose down, while long, and very large, balloons had been laid out behind them. The ground crews had then strapped the pilots into their seats, rotated them by hand to face downward, and manhandled them into the cockpits in that position. After the pilots were placed, the balloons had been secured to both the gliders and the ground. Tanks of helium had then been connected to the balloons, filling them until they stood huge and fat above the gliders, swaying in the wind. The whole process took nearly an hour.

At that point the balloons had been released from their ground tethers to shoot into the air like rockets. A few brief seconds lapsed for the pilots before the ropes connecting the gliders with the balloons grew taut. At that point, the gliders dutifully followed the balloons up, up and away. Both balloons and gliders were too high by far for Boyd to see when the pilots released their cables, freed themselves from the balloons' tug, fell a few score feet, and began to soar.

As the wise old sergeant once said, thought Boyd, if it's crazy or stupid but it works, it isn't crazy or stupid.

The worst part, from Diaz's point of view, was not the initial launch or the rapid acceleration upward. He didn't really mind the restraining straps cutting into the flesh of his stomach, shoulders and chest. He could even live with facing straight down, surely the worst possible view, as the earth seemed to race away from him.

But what he could not stand was watching that earth spin and wobble as the uncontrolled and uncontrollable glider twisted and swayed in the breeze.

He had taken Triptone, a more modern and powerful version of Dramamine, of course. That had become SOP during program development as one glider after another returned to earth with the contents of the pilots' stomachs roughly distributed over the inside of the cockpit.

And the Triptone helped, no doubt about it. If it hadn't, Diaz would have lost his breakfast, too, before even half the necessary altitude had been gained. Yet while the Triptone helped, it did not stop the feeling that he ought to be nauseated, that he should be painting the instrument panel and canopy with his bile.

Closing his eyes helped, a little, but there was still that feeling of uncontrolled spin nudging at the pit of his stomach. Growing . . . growing . . . growing.

Triptone didn't always work. Diaz lunged for the vomit bag.

Colonel Preiss wanted to puke. He hated nap-of-the-earth flying, the helicopter doing its best to simulate a railless roller coaster, skimming the jungle roof or descending into it as opportunity offered.

They'd lost a couple of choppers, too, on this hair-raising trip from the battalion's home base at Fort Davis to a previously cut "postage stamp" landing zone in the jungle on the northern side of Panama's central cordillera. Behind the long trail of Blackhawks a few jungle patches smoked and smoldered where a chopper had gone in.

It had been a gamble, using aircraft in the presence of the Posleen. While there was little doubt that the aliens could have shot down every one of the birds, there had been enough doubt as to whether they would to make the risk seem worthwhile. The helicopters represented no direct threat to spacecraft, and so — it was hoped — spacecraft would ignore them. Indeed, from the point of view of an orbiting spacecraft, the helicopters, operating anywhere from a few feet to a few inches over the jungle, were almost indistinguishable from a ground vehicle. The aliens rarely engaged ground vehicles from space.

Moreover, the cordillera itself was expected to, and did, act as a shield from the observation and fire of already landed Posleen.

Still, there were spacecraft overhead, some of them apparently manned by Posleen who exhibited an unfortunate degree of what could only be called boyish high spirits. These had tossed a few kinetic energy projectiles at the helicopters. None had scored a direct hit but, given the shock wave from a couple of pounds of material coming in and impacting at a high fraction of C, a few Blackhawks had been knocked around. Given the close proximity of chopper to jungle, being knocked around, if only for a second, was likely to prove fatal.

Preiss's stomach lurched as a single bright streak flashed down to impact on the jungle ahead. A visible shock wave composed of jungle detritus and compressed air radiated outward from the point of impact. The helicopter lurched again as the pilot pulled back on his stick frantically to gain a little altitude before the shock wave hit. When it came the chopper momentarily bucked and strained like a wild animal.

Despite this, however, the pilot succeeded in riding out the wave. It passed and the pilot descended once again to tree-top level. Unaccountably, the pilot was laughing as he did. The pilot turned his head around, facing Preiss, and shouting, just loud enough to be heard over the beating of the rotor and the roar of the jet engine.

"YAHOO! Mama, what a ride!"

Preiss shared none of the pilot's glee. Maybe he thinks this shit is fun. I'll be a lot goddamned happier when we're on the ground and can fight back. He was frankly looking forward to seeing how these alien bastards liked dealing with the best jungle troops in the world, the 10th United States Infantry, in the environment for which they had trained for decades.

The chopper copilot nudged Preiss and pointed downward at a rectangular cut in the jungle roof. From this distance, it looked impossibly small. Still, Preiss had trained with these pilots for a long time. He had every confidence they could land in it.

As the chopper descended, blades chopped leaves and light branches that had grown up around the edges since the LZ was cut. Nearing the ground, even through his nausea and his fear, Preiss felt a smile growing on his young-old face.

Interlude

The fighting had passed on without Guanamarioch and his band. The frightening sounds were distant now; the crash of the threshkreen artillery, the unending merciless thumping of their heavy repeaters, the overhead rattle of their indirect firing weapons. He became aware of this only slowly.

His normals and cosslain gathered stupidly around him while the pain of his several injuries abated somewhat. The hand, in particular, still shrieked in protest. However rapidly the People had been modified to heal, it would take cycles for the blistered, charred and oozing flesh to grow a new layer of hide. In the interim the keening Kessentai continued to rock back and forth slowly, the injured hand tucked protectively in his right armpit.

The normals and cosslain clustered nearest to him began petting their god to offer as much sympathy as they were capable of showing. Some of them set up a keening cry to match Guanamarioch's. The sympathy cries of the normals and cosslain was loud enough that Guanamarioch didn't notice the low hum of an approaching tenar.

"What are you whining about, Kenstain?" asked the tenar-riding God King. Guanamarioch recognized him as the enforcer who had dealt summary execution on the mess deck aboard ship. Still unable to speak, even to object to the mortal insult of being called one of those who had fled from the path of fire and fury, the junior Kessentai held up his seared hand, palm open, in explanation and excusal.

But the senior was having none of it. "You miserable excuse for a creature of the People. There are Kessentai ahead of you — in every way ahead of you — missing eyes and limbs and still fighting. There are Kenstain standing bravely beside their leaders. And you sit there whining over a widdle bitty burn. Cowardly puke!"

Stinging under his superior's tongue lashing, Guanamarioch lowered his head and began to struggle to his feet. A nearby cosslain helped him up, albeit a bit awkwardly. Head still down, his band in tow, the junior Kessentai without so much as a tenar to his name began to shuffle gingerly toward where his clan was still locked in mortal combat with the threshkreen of this place.

Chapter 14

"What did I have?" said the fine old woman.

"What did I have?" this proud old woman did say.

"I had four green fields, each one was a jewel,

"Til strangers came and tried to take them from me.

"I had fine strong sons. They fought to save my jewels.

"They fought and died, and that was my grief," said she.

- Tommy Makem, "Four Green Fields"

Bijagual, Chiriqui, Republic of Panama

The river ran east-west for three hundred meters before turning abruptly to the north. There was a road, potholes interspersed with boulders for the most part, paralleling the east-west portion of the stream before meeting the bridge that spanned the north-running section. The road turned south as soon as it crossed the bridge.

South of the river, there was a well-treed, low-lying ridge. Along this ridge Digna had dug in most of her force, including half her artillery.

Digna had stopped smiling as soon as her son, Roderigo, went off the air. From the firing, barely perceptible at this distance, he and his crew had to be about four miles away from the bridge that led into Bijagual.

Instead of smiling, Digna sat her horse stoically, nudging it along the fighting line behind the ridge using only her knees. From this position she could see her descendants and followers, as well as the near kill zone on this side of the river and the far kill zone on the other.

"Hold your fire," she intoned. Her voice was a falsely confident and icy calm. "Hold your fire until they're across the bridge and into the near kill zone. Keep low until they're well into the open area. I'll give the command. Then blast them with everything you have."

Four of Digna's militia's 85mm guns sat well-spaced, dug-in and camouflaged covering that kill zone and the further one, an area of about twenty or twenty-five hectares. Each gun, firing canister, could spew about four-hundred 15mm balls with each round. Moreover, they could do so at twenty-five rounds a minute . . . for one minute, anyway. Even with a third of the balls going too high, another third going too low, the remaining third — grazing low — should be enough, so the woman hoped, to scour the kill zone free of life after a few volleys.

Digna stopped at one gun crew just to look into the faces of her great-granddaughters. They looked scared, yes, but determined. No worries here. They'll do their duty by their clan.

The firing from four miles away stopped abruptly. Digna kneed her horse in the direction of her command post, taking care not to gallop lest the horse's speed infect her clan with fear.

These thresh just don't fight fairly, the mid-level Kessentai, Filaronion, mourned as he surveyed the damage to his oolt from the last ambush he had led them into. Normals lay crumpled in every manner of undignified death. Some bled from multiple wounds; others lay as if asleep. More than a few still kicked and struggled, bleating like thresh themselves to be put out of their pain.

No, it just isn't fair, he thought bitterly. They wait in hiding as if for death, enticing us in to reap the harvest. Then they set off those horrible explosive devices to rend and tear. Any Kessentai accompanying the forward elements are singled out as targets.

Filaronion contemplated one nearby tenar, holding a dead God King slumped over the controls. The tenar hovered over a single spot, slowly spinning in place and dripping dull yellow blood to the ground.

Worse, after they attack us they have neither the decency to come out and put the wounded out of their misery nor the courage to stand so that we may take revenge. Instead they just melt away on those quadrupeds, fading into the low spots. Those we can barely catch sight of as they gallop to the rear.

There was something decidedly unnerving about thresh, even threshkreen, who could move along the ground as fast as could one of the People. Filaronion knew about the threshkreen's armored vehicles. These, more road-bound than cross country capable, were seen as a minimal threat, overall. But for the thresh to move so quickly across broken land; that was truly odd and strangely disquieting.

This Kessentai was one of the brighter of his type, he knew. He had tried, earlier, to spread out, to avoid being the mass target which these vile threshkreen seemed to prefer. Yet this had made forward progress slower. His senior in the clan had tongue-lashed him viciously for his supposed cowardice, insisting that the forward oolt stay on the road and press ahead with all possible speed.

But Filaronion was one of the brighter of his clan. Even while he partly obeyed his elder, lashing the bulk of his oolt on, he sent two swinging pincers out to either side of the main column, driving their own Kessentai ferociously to sacrifice everything for speed, to trap and finally eliminate this infuriating group of threshkreen who had bloodied the host again and again.

There would be no more artillery support from Edilze, Roderigo knew. The guns were certainly still there, at least he had no reason to believe they were not, but the radio was little more than a smoldering chunk of metal, glass and plastic. The last ambush had cost them heavily.

Roderigo gently closed the surprised looking eyes of the radio carrier who had ridden with him since they had first ordered fire down on the demonlike horde of invaders.

Leaving the trash of the radio, sighing, the uncle heaved his teenaged nephew's corpse across the saddle of his horse.

Each loss of a son or grandson, or of a nephew, had been like a knife in Roderigo's gut. Five times along the road home they had turned at bay against the enemy. Five times they had bloodied him badly. Yet, each time the enemy had pressed forward and each time Roderigo's men had barely escaped with their lives.

Many, of course, had not escaped with their lives. A dozen saddles were empty now. Nearly twice that number carried wounded men either slumping upright or draped across. When Roderigo considered the number of horses they had lost as well . . . well, that was too painful.

I'm too old for this, he thought. And, unlike Mama and Hector, they did not rejuvenate me. Then again, if they had I would be, instead of here defending my home, in some other place defending someone else's. Perhaps it was not such a bad trade. If I have to die . . .

Roderigo looked over the line of wounded, horse-borne, relatives. The horses hoofed the ground nervously at the smell of coppery-iron blood. He could see no use keeping them here. He detailed off a couple of younger grandnephews to guide the wounded back home and guard them on their way.

The clan's forward cavalry had leapfrogged back all the way from in front of Las Lomas, half of them waiting or ambushing while the other half prepared the next ambush. Even now, the last group to be engaged passed through the next and, so Roderigo thought, the last decent ambush position before the bridge to home. These, too, he saw, led far too many riderless horses and wounded men.

Roderigo stepped out into the road and raised a hand to stop one of his sons.

"This is the last place, mi hijo," he said. "Go all the way home now and report to Mamita."

Exhausted, holding one hand tightly over an arm to stop the seepage of blood from a grazing wound, the son nodded weakly. Roderigo patted his boy's thigh.

"Tell your mother that I love her, son," he finished, "but that I might be a little late for supper."

Digna tensed as she heard the faint clatter of hoofbeats on the road to the south. Was this her son's extended family returning? Or were they all dead and butchered, the drumming sound coming from the massed feet of the invader?

As a horse rounded the bend Digna relaxed visibly. Thank God, she thought. Some, at least, still live.

She amended that thought to, Some, at least, live . . . for now, as she caught a closer look at the pale faces of her descendants. Her own horse reared as a change in wind brought the smell of mammalian blood to its nose. Digna reached out a calming hand to stroke and pet the horse back to relative calm.

"How far behind you?" she asked her grandson, without specifying whether she meant the enemy or the rest of the forward screen.

The grandson didn't know or understand what she intended by her question. Slumped in the saddle, weakly he answered, "My father is about two miles out. The enemy not much farther."

As if to punctuate this, a sudden crescendo of fire arose to the south.

With the rising dust clouds to east and west Roderigo knew he had made a mistake, quite possibly his last.

"Mis hijos," he shouted, climbing back atop his horse, "mount up. Mount UP! We are — "

There was a sudden sharp blow, passing through from one side to the other, blasting flesh, blood, heart and lungs and tearing Roderigo from his horse. Mouth still open with the unfinished command, the old man fell with an audible thump, dead even before he hit the ground.

Outraged, tactical sense forgotten, the remnants of the family still in the field opened fire on the point of the approaching Posleen column even though these were still too far away to make an ideal ambush target.

Posleen fell, of course, especially where the remaining machine gun stitched across their ranks. This time, however, precisely because the Posleen were too far away to be massacred before they had time to react, there was effective return fire, pinning the Mirandas in their ambush position.

Worse, at the sound of the first rounds the wide sweeping alien pincers turned inward, churning claws raising dust clouds on the humans' horizon.

The horses broke, even though the men did not. As the animals stampeded, the enveloping Posleen swept them with fire. Thresh were not to be wasted and the animals were as good a threshform as any. Of the several dozen animals that broke all but one were chopped down by the alien fire. This one, never too bright to begin with and now mindless with fear, raced for what its tiny brain thought of as home and safety.

Meanwhile, the rest of Roderigo Miranda's little command automatically pulled in their flanks and formed a tight circle. Perhaps . . . perhaps if they could hold on until nightfall they might manage to escape.

The Posleen, however, led and lashed on by their Kessentai, were having none of it. Heedless of losses they bore in, railguns and shotguns blazing, boma blades sweeping high overhead.

Though there was no one left in command of the trapped humans, they were a family and they did tend to think much alike. Determined to sell their lives as dearly as possible they fixed bayonets, except for a couple who drew their more familiar machetes, just before the crest of the alien wave hit them.

Let the actions of one speak for all. One of the last survivors, Emilio Miranda, twenty-seven year old grandson of Roderigo. Emilio had a drinking problem. His face and back still bore the marks of his great-grandmother's riding crop as mute testimony to that problem.

Never mind that. A drunk Emilio might have been. He was not, however, a noticeably cowardly drunk.

As the Posleen galloped close, Emilio arose from his covered position and emptied his last magazine point blank and on full automatic at the enemy, sweeping his Kalashnikov from left to right. Three Posleen went down immediately, while a fourth, apparently hit on a knee joint, stumbled forward before falling. Gripping his rifle firmly in both hands the man lunged forward, frantically driving his bayonet into the wounded Posleen's yellow eye. As the bayonet entered the eye the Posleen tossed its head in agony, ripping the rifle from the Emilio's hands.

Heart racing, Emilio drew his machete and ducked under another alien's swinging blade. He chopped at the alien's forelegs, severing one and embedding the machete in the other. Shrieking, that alien fell to one side. The embedded machete was also wrenched from Emilio's hand.

Ducking again under another awkward swing of a boma blade, Emilio leveraged himself onto another normal's back as if it had been the horse it somewhat resembled. From there, he reached an arm around the alien's throat, squeezing and twisting in an instinctive move that might well have killed a human — either by strangulation or by broken neck — but only succeeded in panicking the thicker necked Posleen.

The normal bucked and twisted, trying desperately to throw off the thresh whose encircling grip threatened to cut off its windpipe. As it did so its rear claws mauled another normal who had come to its rescue. This one, enraged at the undeserved wound slashed off the rear legs of the beleaguered Posleen with a single stroke.

That Posleen immediately fell on its dripping haunches and rolled, trapping Emilio underneath it.

Stunned, Emilio lay there momentarily with his lower torso trapped under several hundred pounds of quivering centauroid alien. This was perhaps fortunate as he never really saw or felt the descending blade that removed his head and ended his young life.

Digna's heart sank as she watched a lone horse, mouth frothy with exertion, gallop across the bridge that led to her home. When the firing to the south ended with a whimper she crossed herself and said a prayer for her lost children.

"It is time," she said to a boy serving as a runner. "Tell Señora Herrera that she can't wait any longer for stragglers. She is to begin moving our people to Gualaca," a small town to the north, "now."

"Si, Mamita," the boy answered, breathlessly, before racing off to find his own mount.

The foamy-mouthed horse passed by. Digna didn't even try to hold it. This road led unavoidably to where the noncombatant part of the family had gathered. They could stop the horse, if it could be stopped. Most likely the animal would halt of its own accord once it saw the herd of Miranda clan horses loaded down for the trip north. They were herd animals, after all.

Digna turned her attention back to the road that led to the bridge along which the enemy must soon appear. They had to cross the bridge until they either gave up — an unlikely possibility, she knew — or found one of the fords north or east that led across the river. These she had covered with flanker parties under the command of one of her sons and Tomas Herrera.

The bridge was wired for demolition. She was sure it was inexpertly done; she had little knowledge of demolitions herself and none of her family knew much beyond the little bit needed to blow an old stump. Still, she remembered from the little bit of demolitions training she had had in OCS that there was an overriding factor in demolitions that could make even the rankest amateur a proficient combat engineer. This was called "factor P"; P for plenty.

The underside of the bridge was packed with nearly three hundred fifty pounds of plastic explosive she had traded food for over the last several months. This was "plenty," indeed.

Wired or not, though, she did not want to blow the bridge until the last possible moment. It was an obvious way across the river. As long as an obvious way existed the aliens, who were reputed to be fairly stupid, they would be unlikely to start nosing about for an alternative crossing.

And besides, she wanted the bastards to cross for a while. She wanted to let the murderers of her children into the welcome zone she had prepared for them. She wanted to kill some of them herself, to assuage the grief of her heart.

Digna affectionately patted her husband's old rifle. She and, in spirit at least, he would pay back the aliens for the harm they had been done.

Whatever satisfaction Filaronion felt as the last of the thresh went down under the slashing blades of his oolt was short-lived. He was certain that there had been at least two such groups; nothing else would explain the way they had operated. That he had destroyed one meant also that another had gotten clean away.

Moreover, weighing the meat being harvested and the remnants of the bodies gave the God King more frustration than satisfaction. He had lost many times that number of normals and more than a few God Kings along the road before trapping and destroying this small group of threshkreen.

Disgust rising, Filaronion twisted his tenar away from the scene of massacre. Then the God King glided up the road, his oolt clattering and chittering behind him.

Elevated and forward as he was, the God King was first of his band to spot the bridge. He didn't like it, somehow. It seemed . . . too . . . easy.

Filaronion reined in his tenar and ordered a lesser Kessentai to investigate with his own scout oolt. Right after that he ordered two other oolt, the same two which had made up the enveloping pincers he had used earlier to destroy the threshkreen, to again split off to either side and find a crossing place through this flowing body of water.

For whatever reason, and perhaps it was because she was connected to so many of them by an unbreakable spiritual umbilical, Digna felt her family stiffen before she ever saw the Posleen tenar. Most likely one of her descendants had seen it as it rounded the road bend, then tightened up with fear and anticipation, and that it was that tightening which had passed unconsciously across the battle line even to those who had not seen the enemy.

It was only a fraction of a second, though, before she saw it, too; a quietly and smoothly gliding piece of plainly alien technology, bearing an unbelievably horrible monster.

Digna stroked her husband's rifle affectionately. It had been his pride and joy in life, a custom-made piece of old-world, English craftsmanship, perfectly balanced and heavily tooled, firing a powerful, beast-killing slug.

Easing herself down into a firing position next to the 85mm gun she planned to use to begin the carnage, Digna peered through the scope and took a careful aim at her personal target.

My God, she thought, it's even uglier close up than it was at a distance.

Carefully she settled the cross hairs on the reptilian alien head. At a greater distance she might not have risked a head shot. But the thing was closing to within two hundred meters. At that range, even though this was her husband's rifle and not her own, she felt the head shot was justified.

I hope your mother, if you have one, weeps as I will weep once I have time to count my losses, beast.

Taking in a deep breath, then releasing most of it, Digna slowly squeezed the trigger while keeping the cross hairs on her target's head. By surprise, as all good shots should be, the weapon kicked in her grasp, bruising her shoulder. She had the satisfaction, however, of the barest glimpse of an alien head literally exploding before the recoil knocked her scope off target. When she returned the sight to the target she was gratified to see the alien slumped down, dead, while the flying sled slowly rotated above the bridge.

With a cry of rage the aliens below on the road exploded into action. The old bridge shook under the thunder of their claws as they poured across. As the aliens reached Digna's side of the bridge they began to spread out.

The ones who had crossed didn't interest her very much. Rifle and machine gun fire would account for them easily enough once she gave the word to open fire. Instead, she was much more interested in the dense cluster of aliens massing in confusion on the far side of the bridge.

"There must be a thousand or more of them there," she whispered aloud. "A fair honor guard for my lost children."

Digna twisted her head toward the waiting gun crew.

"Fire!"

Her command was immediately rewarded with a resounding blast from the gun's muzzle. An imperceptible moment later a wide swath of the aliens clustered at the bridge went down as if cut by some gigantic scythe. Their bleating and screams might have been pitiful had they not been so satisfying. Less than a second after the first round of canister had slashed through the enemy ranks, the other three guns joined in. A great moan went up as scores, then hundreds, of the invaders fell. Before the last of the victims of the other three guns went down, the first gun spoke again.

Rifle and machine gun fire joined the big guns cacophony. These, however, concentrated on the several score Posleen who had made it across the bridge before the 85mm pieces had opened fire. Unable to see their tormenters before it was too late, these aliens were knocked down right and left. By the time the big guns had finished reaping their grim harvest, three to four rounds each, cranked out in rather less than ten seconds, the others ceased fire for lack of targets.

A few of Digna's family had been hit by alien return fire. Two were dead, she was sure, from the way their bodies hung limply as they were carried back. Others screamed or, more commonly, bit their tongues half through to keep from screaming. Hers was, in the main, that kind of a clan.

No time for tears. I can mourn later.

Digna ordered the wounded and the dead, both, carried to the rear. The wounded would be cared for, as best they could be. For the dead there were fire pits, the seasoned wood already stacked, soaked with gasoline, and waiting. She would see no more of her own turned into meals for their enemies.

And at least they would be buried on their home ground.

Interlude

He never reached the fighting again. Moving, of necessity, with painful slowness, Guanamarioch and his band reached a crossroad somewhere in north-central Colombia. There, another one of the tenar-riding seniors of the clan sneered at the scruffy and underequipped appearance of the normals.

"You lot won't be worth anything at the fighting," the senior said to Guanamarioch. "Turn right here. Go about three thousand heartbeats until you reach the Kenstain, Ziramoth. He has surveyed our holdings. He will assign you one of those. Take charge of it and start preparing the land for farming. That's all your wretches look good for, young Kessentai."

Biting back a nasty retort, Guanamarioch nodded in seeming respect and turned, dejectedly, to his right.

"What's this; what's this, young Kessentai? Why so down, lordling? Abat gnaw on your dick?"

Ordinarily such words might have angered Guanamarioch. These, however, were delivered in a cheerful, bantering tone that almost succeeded in bringing a smile to his face. He looked over the Kenstain and saw a mid-sized, crested philosopher, missing his left eye and his right arm, and bearing serious scars along both flanks. Strapped across those scars were fully stuffed twin saddle bags. The Kenstain took a couple of steps toward Guanamarioch, walking with a stumbling limp.

The Kenstain, seeing the God King hiding one hand, reached out for the injured limb. Rather than resist and risk having any force exerted on the hand, Guanamarioch let him examine it. The Kenstain turned the palm over gently and bent to examine it closely with his one remaining eye.

"That's a right nasty burn you have there, young lordling. If you don't mind my asking, how did you come by it?"

"Thresh weapons get hot," the God King answered simply.

"Do they indeed?" asked the Kenstain, releasing the hand and twisting his torso to rummage in one of the saddle bags. From the saddlebag he pulled a dull tube. This he took a cap from, holding the cap between his lips. Then he again took Guanamarioch's injured hand in his and turned it palm up before releasing it. Using the same hand the Kenstain squeezed a measure of goo out onto the palm in a long, snaking line. The goo immediately began to spread out on its own, sinking into the burned flesh.

"Demons! Thank you, Kenstain," Guanamarioch said, the relief in his voice palpable.

"Never mind, young lordling. All in a day's work. I'm Ziramoth, by the way. Were you sent here to farm?"

Guanamarioch nodded bleakly.

"None of that, Kessentai. Farming, taking sustenance from the land, is the best way to live. You'll see."

Chapter 15

No captain can do very wrong if he

places his ship alongside that of the enemy.

- Horatio Nelson

At sea, south of the Peninsula of Azuero, Republic of Panama

The three warships steamed through the day, their bows cutting the waves and raising a froth that spilled to either side of each. They were in echelon right, with Salem forward and to port, Des Moines rearward and to starboard, and Texas in the middle. The ships were spaced far enough apart that any one of them had considerable maneuver space to zig and zag without risking a collision if the Posleen chose to engage from space.

The precautions seemed wise to McNair. He worried terribly even so. The ships were tough, true, and well armored against any surface threat. But warships, like tanks, were so vulnerable to attack from above — had been since 1941 at the latest — that he couldn't help but worry. The thought of a salvo of space-launched kinetic energy projectiles straddling his beloved Daisy Mae was simply too horrible for him not to worry.

Even so, except for the streaks through the sky as spaceships battled with Planetary Defense Batteries, there was no sign of the enemy.

"It makes no sense," McNair said aloud inside the heavily armored bridge. "It just seems so incredibly stupid that none of the warships have been engaged from space. We're big. We're metal. We're heavily armored and have impressive clusters of guns. Why the hell don't they attack us?"

Daisy's hologram answered, "They're a fairly stupid race, Captain. None of their technology, so far is as known, was invented by them, with the possible exception of their drive. Even that appears to be a modification of Aldenata technology, rather than something truly original. The way they breed, leaving their brightest to struggle to survive on equal terms in their breeding pens with the biggest and most savage of their normals; they can't help but be stupid. Add in that they've never before fought a race that really fought back and . . . well . . . they're dummies."

"And when we show our teeth?" McNair asked. "Will they fail to engage us then, too?"

The avatar shrugged. "That we will see when we see it, Captain. They might attack. Then again, they might not. And if they attack it might be from space, which we have a chance of maneuvering to avoid, or it might be with a low-flying lander which we have an excellent chance of beating in a heads-up fight. Even if we cannot maneuver to avoid the fire from space, Texas mounts a Planetary Defense Gun in place of each of her former turrets. An attacker who engages us from on high won't last long with Texas watching out for his little sisters."

"You're really not worried, are you, Daisy?" McNair asked, wonderingly.

The hologram shrugged. "Not really, sir, no. I'm a warship and this is what I was meant to do."

"That's my girl," McNair said, a growing confidence in his voice.

"My girl," Daisy repeated mentally. An entire ship fairly quivered with barely suppressed pleasure.

Diaz soared, nausea gone and forgotten with the smelly, vile bag of puke he had dropped over the side moments after he had cut his glider loose from the lifting balloon.

From a height of nearly two miles he had sailed westward, dropping no more than a foot for every fifty that he advanced. When his altitude dropped to within a half-mile of the earth he had sought an updraft. These were easy to find along these ridges swept by the warm, southerly winds that brought freshness and rain to his country. In these updrafts he had circled again and again until the force of the wind gave out. At that point he had left the current and pushed onward again, ever closer to the fighting.

He was not there yet, though, and his mind wandered, naturally, to other things. More precisely, his mind wandered to Paloma Mercedes as he had last seen her, fiery with anger at his joining up and not using family connections to stay with her.

She'd never called, either. He'd thought she would get over it but, whether from anger or pride the phone had remained silent. He didn't miss her less, exactly, but perhaps the sharp edge of the pain was growing dull from sawing at his heart and soul.

Maybe . . . maybe after this mission I'll swallow my own pride and call her. But first I have to survive.

Beneath his long narrow wings, Diaz saw more than a few signs of the fighting that had raged below. Here a burning tank, there a cluster of enemy dead or a crashed flying sled of the enemy's leaders. These reminded him, as if he needed a reminder, that all that would keep him alive through the next several hours was the enemy's stupidity, the aliens' confidence in their own weapons and sensors, and his own seeming harmlessness. He knew that if the aliens ever suspected he was a reconnaissance platform his life would be measured in tiny fractions of seconds.

For some reason, though, Diaz was unable to reach anyone on the ground. Fat lot of good the information he hoped to gain would do if he couldn't pass it on. He knew the internal codes for his frequency hopping radio were good; he'd checked them before departure.

Darhel Consulate, Panama City, Panama

The Rinn Fain had already done everything he knew to do with the humans. He had sabotaged and misdirected their plans, split their efforts, and aided their president in every way a Darhel knew how to, to rob his own people.

It was nearly time to stop doing things with the humans and start to do things to them.

To this end the Rinn Fain, and all his underlings — Darhel, Indowy, and artificial, all three — manned stations that, in human terms, could only be thought of as electronic warfare nodes.

For now the Darhel avoided interference, for the most part. Except in a few cases they were content merely to analyze human radio patterns, intercepting and synthesizing the codes that the barbarians used to hop from one frequency to another.

Certainly they didn't want to tip the humans off to what they were up to in time for the clever beasts to think of something new.

There were, however, certain of the humans who were physically out of touch enough to risk playing games with their communications. The glider pilots were a case in point. The Rinn Fain had taken considerable pleasure in remotely reprogramming their radios to make sure that anything they saw went unreported.

It was almost as pleasurable as taking control of the human's warships would be.

USS Des Moines

"Captain," Daisy reported, "I'm picking up scrambled signals from someone who, based on what he is trying to say and how he is trying to say it, seems to be a pilot flying at or near the front. I don't think anyone but myself — and probably Sally — can hear him." Daisy hesitated for a long moment, as if in communication with someone not present.

"Sally hears him, too, sir, yes. But there is something wrong with her."

"What?" asked McNair.

"I don't know," Daisy answered, sounding genuinely puzzled and more than a little concerned. "She is . . . different from me . . . a normal AID. And that part of her intelligence, the part created by the Darhel, is acting a bit . . . odd."

"Okay," McNair answered. "See if you can figure out what's wrong with Sally. Help her if you can. And see if you can patch me through to that . . . pilot, did you say?"

"Yes, sir, a pilot. Spanish speaking. Fortunately, I can speak Spanish."

Along with every other human tongue spoken by more than two thousand people, she thought but, tactfully, did not say.

Diaz's voice was beginning to take on a note of frustrated desperation. He knew it and hated it but could do nothing to control it. But there were targets below, thick and ripe and waiting to be harvested.

"Any station, any station, this is Zulu Mike Lima Two Seven, over," he pleaded, for more than the hundredth time.

For a wonder the radio crackled back, in an achingly feminine voice, "Zulu Mike Lima Two Seven this is Charlie Alfa One Three Four. Hear you Lima Charlie, over."

Initially Diaz was unwilling to respond. It could be an enemy trick. Frantically, he poured through his COI, the code book that gave the call signs for every unit in his army and the gringos fighting in support of it. There was nothing, not one clue as to who Charlie Alfa One Three Four might be.

The warm feminine voice repeated, "Zulu Mike Lima Two Seven this is Charlie Alfa One Three Four. Hear you Lima Charlie, over."

Finally, realizing that if he was so useless as to be unable to communicate with his own people the enemy was unlikely to be very interested in him either, Diaz answered, "Last calling station this is Zulu Mike Lima Two Seven. Who the hell are you?"

Another voice, different from the girl's, came on. That speaker's Spanish was as accentless as the girl's had been.

"Lima Two Seven, this is the heavy cruiser, USS Des Moines, Captain McNair speaking."

"Captain, this is Lieutenant Julio Diaz, First FAP Light Recon Squadron. I have targets and I haven't been able to raise anyone."

The radio went silent. Diaz knew what the captain must be thinking: how the hell do I know this snot-nosed kid is really a snot-nosed kid and not the damned Posleen?

"Can you patch me through to my father?" Diaz asked. Then, realizing that, as phrased, it was an incredibly stupid, second lieutenant kind of question, he added, "He's the G-2. Major General Juan Diaz. My father can verify my voice."

In half a minute a different, and angry, voice came over Diaz's radio. "Julio, is that you? Where the hell have you been? I was about to call your mother. . . ."

"Father," Diaz nearly wept with relief, "I haven't been able to get a hold of anyone since shortly after I went airborne. I can see everything, Father, and just as I thought, the beasts are simply ignoring me. I can see where Sixth Division is engaged. And I can see the enemy massing. But I can't do a fucking thing about it."

The other Spanish voice came back. "General Diaz, Captain McNair. I can do something about it. Do you acknowledge that the voice claiming to be Lieutenant Diaz is your son and that he is in a position to adjust fire?"

The elder Diaz spoke again. "What did I say when I caught you and your girlfriend in the gardener's cabin, Julio?"

"Father! You promised never to bring that up!"

General Diaz's voice contained a chuckle in it as he said, "Yes, Captain, that's my boy."

"Very good then, sir. Lieutenant Diaz, I want you to find me a huge concentration of the enemy. I don't know how long we can pull this off before they shoot the shit out of us. So let's make it count, son."

"All hands, this is the captain speaking. Battle stations, battle stations. This is no drill."

"I'm receiving Lieutenant Diaz's call for fire now, Captain."

"Prepare to engage." McNair was pleased to hear no note of fear or hesitation in his own voice.

"Captain?" Daisy asked. "Would you and the crew care for a little mood music as we make our run?"

Raising a single, quizzical eyebrow, McNair answered, "Go for it, Daisy."

"In nomine patri, filioque et spiritu sancti," Father Dwyer intoned as he made the sign of the cross over a half dozen of the crew that knelt for a brief and informal service, pending action. Dwyer could have sworn at least one of the present flock was a Moslem but the man took the host without hesitation and eagerly grasped the two-ounce plastic cup of "sacramental scotch" Dwyer proffered.

No atheists in foxholes, they say. I think that, given the power of the Holy Spirit as manifested in the Glenlivet distillery, there shall soon be only good Roman Catholics afloat. Well . . . and perhaps the odd Presbyterian. Now if only I can find something suitable to bless for the benefit of Sinbad and his Indowy.

Before he could continue that line of thought Dwyer heard, "Battle stations . . ."

"Boys," the priest said, "here aboard ship or in heaven or in hell, I'll see you soon. Now you to your posts and I to mine."

With that, the Jesuit headed towards sick bay. Worse come to worst he had a fair chance of saving a couple of more souls there.

* * *

McNair was startled twice over. The first time was when Daisy's avatar blinked out of existence on the bridge. The second came when the ship itself began to vibrate with music.

O Fortuna

velut luna

statu variabilis,

Through the narrow slitted and armored glass-plated windows of the bridge, it seemed to McNair that a glow began to arise from the hull, spreading out into a perfect circle. The normal wake made by the bow as it sliced through the water disappeared, as did the waves.

semper crescis

aut decrescis;

From the glowing circle a fog arose; real or holographic McNair couldn't say. Yet it seemed real enough. Below the fog the dimly sensed ocean began to bubble. Again, real or illusion? McNair assumed it must be illusion.

vita detestabilis

nunc obdurat

et tunc curat

ludo mentis aciem,

The rear turret, number three, was beyond McNair's view. The forward two turrets began slowly to turn in the direction of land.

egestatem,

potestatem

dissolvit ut glaciem.

Sors immanis

et inanis,

rota tu volubilis,

status malus,

Lightning, real or false, flashed from deep within the frothing circle. Sometimes it came in the form of streaks or ribbons. At others it came as dancing balls of fire.

vana salus

semper dissolubilis,

obumbrata

et velata

The circle of fog expanded upward, becoming a hemisphere around the ship. From inside that hemisphere it seemed like the surface of a portal to Hell, all impossible colors and writhing, unsettling combinations. McNair tore his eyes away from the eerie display surrounding him and his ship. He could see that the guns were pointed at about the bearing he would have expected if . . .

michi quoque niteris;

nunc per ludum

KABOOM! Center gun of number two turret spoke.

dorsum nudum

fero tui sceleris.

A leg now, long and shapely, appeared to grow from the top of number two. The foot must have been somewhere around the keel. Risking concussion, McNair hurried out from the protected bridge.

Sors salutis

et virtutis

Another flash and the blast of a gun shook McNair to the core. His attention, however, was entirely on Daisy's hologram.

michi nunc contraria,

est affectus

She was a giant, a goddess. Lighting flashed back and forth between her hands.

et defectus

semper in angaria.

KABOOM! Another blast erupted from a gun.

Daisy said, very softly for such a grand goddess, "Please, Captain. Go inside. I know what I'm doing."

Hac in hora

sine mora

corde pulsum tangite;

quod per sortem

sternit fortem,

mecum omnes plangite!1

And then, fire adjusted, all nine guns were on the target in a pattern designed for maximum destruction. Daisy thrust her hands forward and the lightning no longer passed between them but hurled through the night toward the land.

The ship shuddered: KABKAKAKABOOMOOMOOMOOM, as all nine eight-inch guns in the three main turrets hurled death and defiance at the invader.

"Splash, over," said the warm female voice.

Diaz eased his glider over slightly and looked in the direction in which he expected the shell to land. It was over and to the northwest but . . . he checked his altimeter again. Yes, he was at the height he expected. That shell must be huge, much bigger than the 105mm artillery he had trained to adjust.

He took another direction to his target, several — maybe ten or twelve — thousand Posleen massing in some low ground east of 6th Division.

"From last shell, direction: 5150. Left eight hundred . . . down two thousand, over."

Almost as fast as Diaz spoke the woman responded, "Shot, over."

After what seemed a long wait came, "Splash, over. Lieutenant Diaz, in case no one ever told you, with naval guns there is a large probability of major range errors. You may want to keep your corrections small."

"Roger," Diaz answered, looking over to where he expected the shell to land. Dammit. I overcorrected.

"Direction 5190, add twelve hundred, right three hundred."

"Shot, over . . . splash over."

A large blossoming flower, a mix of black, yellow and purple, grew approximately in the center of the Posleen horde. Even from his distance Diaz saw bodies and chunks of bodies flying through the air.

"Direction 5220, add one hundred! Fireforeffectfireforeffectfireforeffect!"

"Calm down, Lieutenant Diaz. I understood you the first time. Shot over . . . splash, over."

Nothing in his training prepared Diaz for what happened next. He had never seen more than a "battery one" from 105s, six guns of small caliber firing one round each. The long-range error the woman had told him to expect was there and obviously so. Shells fell that were absurdly long or short.

But in the main, they fell on target . . . and fell . . . and fell . . . and fell.

Posleen in groups small and large attempted to escape. But still the shells came down, engulfing them. About the time that no more recognizable pieces of alien bodies were being visibly hurled into the air Diaz decided they had had enough. Nearly three square kilometers were completely covered in black, evil smoke. Already elements of what he assumed was the 6th Division were emerging from cover and creeping cautiously forward.

"Cease fire, cease fire. Target . . . well, ma'am, it's a lot worse than just destroyed," the boy said, awe plain in his voice.

"You're welcome. By the way, you can call me Daisy."

Diaz nosed his glider over, following the barely visible forward trace of the 6th Division. Soon he saw another group of Posleen.

"And I'm Julio. How far can you range, Daisy?"

"A little past the Inter-American highway, if I move north from this position. But, that's really constrained. Not much space to maneuver. I may have to bug out to the south at any time."

"I'll take what I can get, Daisy. Adjust fire, over."

Panama City, Panama

The Rinn Fain contemplated telling the Indowy to terminate itself, but decided, reluctantly, against it. It wasn't that the Indowy was particularly valuable, ordinarily, that had saved it. In these circumstances, however, the Indowy would be impossible to replace. This made it valuable, for however short a time.

What a disgusting thought; a valuable Indowy.

Casting his eyes even lower than those of his kind usually did, the Indowy contemplated his own impending end. If he were lucky, the master would let him go without excessive pain.

The unfairness of it all didn't bother the Indowy. He had grown up with it. There were over eighteen trillion of his kind, making them slightly less valuable, individually, to the Darhel lords of the Galactic Federation than any given pair of worn out slippers. There was no comparison between a typical Indowy and an Artificial Intelligence Device.

No, even the fact that it wasn't his fault was no defense. The lord would command and the Indowy would die. That was simply the way of life.

Thus, it came as a shock when the Rinn Fain said, "Never mind. Just tell me what's happening."

Eyes still downcast the Indowy responded, "Lord, about the human anti-spacecraft vessel, the Texas, we can do nothing much. It is not on our Net and is shielded and compartmentalized from the human 'Internet.' The one they call the Salem we have penetrated, but we have not been able to take it over. There is something odd going on there. It will not fire on the humans. It has been the best I could do — forgive me, lord! — to keep it from firing on the Posleen. I do not understand it.

"The last vessel, the Des Moines, is firing on the Posleen and, worse lord, I am unable to penetrate it. When I try, it counterattacks. I think the AID aboard that ship must be . . ." The Indowy inhaled deeply. He really didn't want to be ordered to suicide.

"Must be what, insect?"

"Lord . . . I think the AID aboard has gone . . . insane."

USS Des Moines

To conserve power, so she said, Daisy had dropped her large hologram above the ship and resumed her more usual station on the bridge. The camouflaging fog and lightning she maintained. Fire missions from Diaz were received and plotted automatically, the captain only giving the authorization to fire that even an insane AID required in accordance with galactic protocols.

Daisy's avatar was fading in and out, however, despite the reduction in demand for power.

"Are you all right, Daisy?" the captain asked.

The avatar bit its lip nervously. "I'm under attack, Captain," it admitted.

"Attack?" McNair queried.

"Cyber attack. Very powerful. Very sophisticated. It's all I can do to fight it off while keeping up the fire."

"The Posleen?"

Again the image faded before returning. "I . . . don't think so. They are not that clever. And this attack is very clever. It has all my codes. Even some I didn't know I had. The attack on Sally is worse. I am rerouting part of my defense through the part of me that is this physical ship to the part that is the physical USS Salem. It is enough . . . but only just enough, to prevent her from firing on human forces. Salem cannot even fire in self defense."

Darhel Consulate, Panama City, Panama

Though his elvish face remained a stoic mask, the Rinn Fain found the thing dangerously frustrating. Every type of attack and attempt at takeover that he commanded the Indowy to try was foiled.

Lintatai . . . lintatai. I must avoid lintatai. But I must also stop those ships. Their fire is decimating the Posleen.

"Can you leak the location and nature of the ships to the Net?" he asked the always obsequious Indowy.

"Yes, lord, though the ships may move. It would have to be a continuous leak."

"Then make it continuous, wretch. The Posleen are stupid." the Darhel hissed. "Make it obvious."

Remedios, Chiriqui, Republic of Panama

Binastarion thought, disgustedly, This is just oh-so-good. Too "good" to be believed. The damned big town with the earthen walls, the local thresh call it "David," still has pockets inside holding out. Our landing on the peninsula that juts out into the main body of water of this world is being contained and chopped up. Slowly, however hesitatingly, the humans are even beginning to attack up the main road that runs parallel to the major body of water.

The Posleen God King's own version of an AID, his Artificial Sentience, beeped urgently.

"Binastarion, I know where the fire is coming from that is decimating the People on the peninsula," it said. "The Net has the locations of two enemy water vessels, and a probable location of a third. It seems that the third, the one I do not have a precise location for, is the one doing the firing."

"Show me," Binastarion commanded.

Instantly a map of the coastal waters of Panama appeared at eye level over the tenar. The positions of the two known ships were indicated by solid green image of larger-than-normal tenar. The third was represented by a blinking green tenar with a serrated circle drawn around it. Places where the People had been butchered by the fires of the third vessel were marked by black boxes on the map and sequentially designated with Posleen numbers.

"So the fires began in the south and marched to the northeast, did they?" Binastarion mused. "What are the capabilities of these water vessels?"

The map disappeared to be replaced by three ship's silhouettes, arranged in a triangle with the largest at the apex and the two smaller ones — they looked enough alike to be sisters — below.

"All three are named for places in the central part of the continent to the north of us," the Artificial Sentience said, transliterated names appearing to the upper right of each ship's silhouette. "The one marked Tek-sas appears to be configured as an anti-spacecraft vessel, mounting five planetary defense cannon."

"Five!" Binastarion exclaimed. That sounded like a lot of anti-spacecraft defense.

"Yes, lord. While these vessels are vulnerable to attack from space there will be a heavy price to be paid if we relaunch B- or C-Decs, not only from the ship but from the Planetary Defense Bases stretched across the narrowest part of this isthmus."

"The other two, Sah-lehm and Deh-moyn, are sisters. They are mostly configured for combat against the surface, land or water, but appear to have a considerable secondary capability against atmospheric targets as well."

"But their arms are primitive," objected Binastarion. "Ten thousand generations behind what we bear."

"My lord," the AID retorted, "the People still carry swords, do they not? Weapons ten thousand generations more primitive than those on that ship? The swords are still deadly, is this not so?"

The God King thought on that momentarily.

"Summon a far-seeing conference call of sub-clans Asta and Ren."

USS Des Moines

"The admiral wants you, Captain. Conference call with Salem's skipper."

"Put it up," McNair directed.

There were five screens arranged in a semicircle across the upper forward section of the bridge, just over the vision slits. The admiral of the flotilla appeared in the center, flanked by the captains of Texas and Salem.

McNair greeted, "Admiral Graybeal, Bill, Sidney."

"We've got a problem here," Admiral Graybeal said. "Tell him, Sidney."

As Salem's captain flicked a switch, apparently to turn on the sound, a horrid weeping, intermixed with the occasional howl and sob, came from Des Moines' speakers. The howls and sobs had a trace of a Teutonic accent.

"What the . . . ?" asked McNair.

Salem's skipper, looking disgusted, reached another hand out, his palm briefly blocking the image. When he removed his hand the picture had changed from his face to a corner of Salem's bridge. In that corner, arms wrapped around long legs, head buried against knees, a blonde woman — Salem's avatar — rocked, occasionally lifting her head to shriek.

"She's been like that for the last half hour," the captain of the Salem said, off-screen. "My turrets are locked and I've had to go to pure manual steering with my AZIPODs. In fact, I've had to go to manual operation for everything and I'm just not crewed for that."

"I'm going to order Salem back to port," Graybeal said.

"I don't know if that's such a good idea," McNair answered. "Here, Texas can guard her from a space attack and I can guard her from a low attack. Sent back to base, she'd be on her own for hours."

"Jeff's right, Admiral. Only thing is . . ."

"Yes? Spit it out!" the admiral ordered.

"Well, Admiral . . . twice we've had to abort firing cycles that had you and Des Moines as targets. Something is trying to control this ship and use it on behalf of the enemy. Sally, herself, seems to be fighting it but you can see what the result of that has been."

"Shit!" cursed Graybeal and McNair, together.

Interlude

Take just under four hundred normals and cosslain. Put them in the charge of one Kessentai whose genetic skill set includes nothing having to do with agriculture. Place them on approximately eight hundred hectares of land. Add advice from a Kenstain who actually likes being a dirt farmer. Sprinkle liberally with rain and baste with sun . . .

"But we'll have to wait a bit, Guano, before the first shoots come up."

"And what do we eat in the interim, Ziramoth? The thresh, including the nonsentient ones, are all fled."

The Kenstain laughed and, twisting around, produced a bamboolike stalk from his saddlebags. One end of this he placed under the armpit for that arm that was only a stump, then skinned the remainder with a small monomolecular blade. The skinned result, wet and glistening, he handed over to the God King.

Suspiciously, Guanamarioch sniffed at the offering. It looked way too much like wood to be appealing. He said as much.

"Certainly there's quite a lot of cellulose in the make up. But try it anyway," Ziramoth answered.

The Kessentai bit off a few inches and chewed, his jaws chomping a few times before his eyes widened in surprise.

"What is this stuff, Zira? It's good."

"The locals call it sugar cane. There's enough growing hereabouts to do us until our own crops are in."

Guanamarioch didn't answer, his mouth being too occupied in masticating the satisfyingly chewy, sweet cane.

* * *

Sugar cane would only carry one so far. Of game, sadly, there was none. Moreover, all the thresh called "humans" in the area, and their agricultural animals, had been rendered and eaten within a few days of arrival. There remained fish, fairly abundantly, in the streams and ponds. Guanamarioch could see the little bastards, glaring up at him and taunting him from beneath the waves and eddies.

He lunged at one with his claws . . . and missed. Then he looked around frantically for another, saw one and lunged at it . . . and missed. On the third attempt he missed as well, but also missed his footing on the slippery underwater stones and went under with a great flailing splash.

As Guanamarioch arose from the water, sputtering and choking, from the moss-covered bank Ziramoth began to snicker. The snickering rose until it became a full-fledged, ivory-fang-flashing Posleen laugh.

Guanamarioch opened his jaws to snap at the Kenstain, but stopped in midsnap, joining Ziramoth, ruefully.

"That will never do, lordling. Come here onto the bank and I'll show you how it's done."

When the God King was standing next to the Kenstain, Ziramoth motioned for the two of them to lie down. Then he picked up a long pole, from which dangled a string and a small hook. From his saddlebags the Kenstain pulled out a small container. He drew from this a thin, claw-length writhing thing. For a moment, Guanamarioch wondered if this thing was good to eat. His surprise was total when he saw Ziramoth thread the little creature onto the hook and toss them both into the stream.

"We have to stay low so the water creatures won't see us and will come close enough to smell the bait."

"And?"

"Well, milord, under fragrant bait is a hooked fish."

Chapter 16

But ever a blight on their labours lay,

And ever their quarry would vanish away,

Till the sun-dried boys of the Black Tyrone

Took a brotherly interest in Boh Da Thone:

And, sooth, if pursuit in possession ends,

The Boh and his trackers were best of friends.

- Rudyard Kipling,

"The Ballad of Boh Da Thone"

West of Aguadulce, Republic of Panama

The orders from Snyder had been, "Find the Panamanian Tenth Mechanized Infantry Regiment, a Colonel Suarez commanding. Attach yourself to Suarez. Assist as able." A marker had appeared in Connor's suit-generated map showing the presumed location of the 10th Regiment Command Post.

It had actually been damned difficult to find Suarez. By the time Connors reached the location he'd been given the command post had moved on. Some Panamanian support troops, a maintenance company, was there in its place. They hadn't known where the CP had gone, except that it had gone generally west.

Connors and B Company followed the road at the double time. Rather, they paralleled it because the road itself was a nightmarish mish-mash of confused and tangled units.

"Hey, sir," the first sergeant had called. "Weren't you a tanker once upon a time? Does this shit look right to you?"

"I was, Top," Connors answered, "and no, it doesn't look right. It looks like a recipe for disaster." Connors took the effort to read bumper numbers as he ran past the mess. In twelve vehicles he noted eleven different units represented.

Bad. Very damned bad.

The company pressed on to the west. Surprisingly, the confusion grew less the closer to the front they got. Soon, Connors was seeing only bumper numbers marked for the 10th Infantry, the very mechanized regiment he was seeking. He ran over to a likely looking armored personnel carrier and asked, his suit translating to Spanish for him, "Where can I find Colonel Suarez?"

"I'm Suarez," answered a neat and fierce looking, for all that his face seemed twenty years old, dark-skinned Panamanian.

"Sir. Captain Connors, B Company, First of the Five-O-Eighth Mobile Infantry." Almost Connors used the old gag line, "And we're here to help you."

Suarez frowned. With the idiot orders emanating from division, the absolute goat fuck he knew was behind him on the road, and the general confusion, he wasn't sure what use he had for a company of the gringo self-propelled suits.

"What am I supposed to do with you, Captain?" he asked. "No one told me you were coming. I'm not equipped to give you any support you might need. And frankly, everything is so goddamned fucked up I don't see you doing much besides adding to the confusion. No offense," he added.

"Sir," Connors began patiently to explain, for he had grown used to people who didn't understand the suits and so rejected them, "my company has more practical direct firepower than your entire division. All my men can speak Spanish through the suits' translational capabilities. And we don't need any support: no fuel, no food, no parts, no mechanics. We don't even need to take up any road space."

"No lie?" Suarez asked, one lifted eyebrow showing the skepticism he felt.

"No lie, sir. Just tell me what you need done and we'll do it. Within reason, of course."

"Of course," Suarez echoed, trying to think what use he might make of these gringo — no, galactic, he supposed — wonders.

"I'm torn," Suarez muttered, "between having you go back and unfuck the mess to the rear and having you go forward and clear out a group of the aliens that is holding up my advance. Have you got a map?"

Connors' AID projected a 3-D map of the area in midair.

Suarez's eyebrow dropped as he leaned back from the projected map in startlement. When he recovered his composure he said, "Hmmm . . . I wish I could tell you where all my units are. Damned radios are not working quite right." Suarez's eyes widened again as unit icons began to appear on the projected map.

Suarez couldn't resist saying, "Cooollll," as he jumped down from the APC and stood in front of the map. "I've got three problems. One is the cluster fuck to the rear. As I said, I'd use your people to help straighten it out . . . except that if you have the fire power you claim, it would be a waste." Unless, of course, you used that firepower to shoot my division commander.

"My second problem is communications. I might use you for that later, if you're willing, but for now I'd rather use you for problem number three, which is this river crossing, here," Suarez's finger touched a spot on the projected map.

"There are enemy on the other side. While I could force it, it would cost me some armor. This, in itself, would be acceptable except that the armor would then block the ford. Can you clear the far side for me, then sweep down and clear the bridge south of the crossing?"

"We can," Connors answered after a moment's thought. "Can you loan us some artillery support?"

Suarez's face grew, if possible, fiercer still. "The artillery is my number one communications problem, Captain. I can sometimes get my line battalion commanders. I have not heard a peep from the gunners in hours. I've got my sergeant major out looking for them now."

"Okay, sir. I understand. We've got some indirect fire capability of our own, but the ammunition for that is limited, and I doubt you've got anything we could use in lieu."

Boot, don't spatter, echoed in Connors' mind as he set his troops up for the assault. The biggest single thing I've got going is that the Posleen probably don't know we're here and likely don't have much of a clue of what we are capable.

"AID, map."

Okay . . . into the river and move upstream to the crossing point . . . send one platoon. The other two demonstrate on this side. A five-second barrage by weapons and then the platoon in the water charges.

Oughta work. Connors issued the orders and the platoons fanned out, one of them — the first — diving into the water and moving upstream. The fire from the high ground opposite was weak and scattered, really not enough to worry about.

When he judged the time right, Connors ordered Weapons Platoon to fire. The high ground erupted in smoke and flame as several hundred 60mm shells landed atop it. The First Platoon, feeling the vibrations in the water broke out and charged due west.

The First Platoon leader swept across the objective quickly, then reported, "Captain, there's one, repeat one, cosslain here with a three millimeter railgun. And he's deader than chivalry. Nothing else."

That was worrisome but Connors could not quite put his finger on why. He tried to report it to Suarez and found he couldn't get through to the colonel's Earth-tech radio. Instead he sent a messenger and proceeded to follow the plan, sweeping south along the river's west bank to seize the bridge that Suarez really needed.

There was little resistance on the way or even at the bridge. Connors sent another messenger to advise Suarez that the way west was open.

"The trick," Binastarion said to Riinistarka, hovering next to his father on his own tenar, "is to convince the threshkreen that we are as confused as they seem to be. That requires that obvious objectives and key terrain be given up without a fight, but that delayed counterattacks to retake them be put in at a time that is most inconvenient to us. And with significant losses to the threshkreen. Only in this way will they not suspect a trap. The technique is called, 'Odiferous bait,' my son."

"Father," the junior Kessentai said, "I don't understand. When you told us the tale of Stinghal, he left no such guards and didn't throw away any of the people in fruitless counterattacks."

"Those were different circumstances, my son. There, in the city of Joolon, the enemy provided his own reason to believe the city was ready to fall, Stinghal merely added to the illusion. Here, on the other hand, the enemy threshkreen have not been in a position to really hurt us. We must provide the illusion and that illusion must seem very real indeed. Thus, I throw away thousands of the people in these fruitless attacks, to convince the enemy."

"I . . . see, my father," Riinistarka agreed, though in fact the junior Kessentai did not see.

Will I never acquire the skills my father and our people need?

Suarez was screaming into the radio when his track reached the bridge where Connors met him. The gringo captain didn't know at whom the colonel was shrieking, but took it as a good sign that the radios were working at all.

In frustration, Suarez threw the radio's microphone down, and raised his eyes to Heaven, shouting a curse. The curse had no name to it, but Connors guessed that it was directed toward higher levels, rather than lower.

The MI captain trotted over and removed his helmet. Suarez seemed fascinated by the silvery gray goop that slid away from the gringo's face before collecting on his chin and sending a tendril down into the helmet. His eyes followed the tendril as it disappeared into the greater mass, leaving Connors' face clean.

"That creeps out everyone who sees it for the first time," Connors admitted, with the suit still translating.

"Umm . . . yes, it would," Suarez answered in English, the first time he had shown faculty with the language.

"Your radios are working again?" Connors asked.

"Yes. Even the fucking artillery is up." Suarez's voice indicated pure suspicion at his suddenly granted ability to talk to his subordinates; that, and a considerable disgust at suddenly having to listen to his superior, Cortez.

He continued, "There was nothing but static or a few disconnected phrases and then, in an instant, poof, I was in commo with everyone. I almost wish I were not, especially with my idiot division commander."

Tracks continued to roar by, heading westward, as the Panamanian and the gringo MI captain spoke. The stink of diesel filled the air as the heavy vehicles ground the highway — never too great to begin with — into dust and grit. Both Connors and Suarez coughed as a particularly concentrated whiff of the crud assailed them.

That track passed and in the sound vacuum left Connors observed, "Well, as long as you have commo with everybody, you're probably best off keeping us close to you and using us as a powerful reserve."

"Boot, don't spatter?" Suarez quoted.

Connors smiled. It was so good to work for a man who knew what he was doing.

Darhel Consulate, Panama City, Panama

"You have lifted the interdiction of the humans' radio traffic?" the Rinn Fain asked.

"Yes, lord," the Indowy technician answered. "But we are continuing to monitor for an appropriate time to reimpose it."

"Show me the deployment of the Posleen forces."

Another holographic map popped up, which the Rinn Fain studied closely.

"Very interesting," he said, noting the tens of thousands of Posleen moving off the main road and taking cover in the hidden valleys to the north of it. "This is a clever Kessentai leading these people. He does not know we are helping him, but he sees the results of that assistance and acts accordingly. How goes the attack on the humans' warships?"

"That has been a great success, lord," the Indowy answered. "Two of the three seem to be pulling out of range of their own guns' ability to support. The last was never meant to stand alone."

"It troubles me, Indowy," the Darhel said, tapping a finger to its needle-sharp teeth contemplatively, "that the last ship is able to resist us. Its AID should not be able to do so."

"I have some suspicions about that, lord," the Indowy whispered. "I have checked. Simple insanity is not unknown among Artificial Intelligences. But these are invariably older AIDS. The AID in the human warship is virtually brand new."

"And so?" the Rinn Fain prodded.

"I have run simulations, lord, at much faster than real time. I have discovered that such insanity is possible if a new AID is left alone and turned on for too long a time."

"Do you think this happened?"

"I do not know, lord. But I have sent a query out over the Net as to whether that AID might somehow have been turned on before packing."

Interlude

Guano and Zira lay on their bellies, fishing poles in hand. They moved the poles up and down, more or less rhythmically, to keep the baited hooks moving. They spoke only in whispers. Zira suspected that the vibrations of loud voices would reach the water and frighten off the fish.

"This is pretty boring, Zira," Guano said softly.

"Is an ambush boring, young Kessentai? Think of it as an ambush."

Guano really had no answer to that. He was too young ever to have participated in an ambush. He tried to imagine one, waiting with beating heart for an unsuspecting enemy to show up, never knowing if the enemy would be too great to take on — even with surprise — and never knowing if the enemy had spotted the ambush and was even now circling to . . .

"Wake up, Guano," came the urgent whisper. "I think one of the little darlings is sniffing at your bait."

"Wha' WHAT?"

The tugging at the line that Zira had seen stopped abruptly.

"Shshsh. Quietly. There's one of the fish that was at your bait."

Guano quieted down and watched the line intently. Sure enough, the line was moving erratically, in a way that indicated something was nibbling at the hook. Suddenly, there was a strong tug.

"You've got him, Guano, now pull once, medium hard, to set the hook."

Guano pulled on the fishing pole, feeling a plainly live weight on the other end. "Yeehaw!" he exulted, though the Posleen word was more along the line of "Tel'enaa!"

"Its mouth might be soft," Zira counseled. "Let it run about until it tires."

For fifteen minutes Guano did just that, giving the fish some room to run and then slowly and carefully bringing it back. By the end of that time, the piscine was running out of steam, its tugs on the line and pole growing weaker.

"Very good, young Kessentai," Ziramoth commended. "Now pull it above water . . . gently."

The pole bent nearly double as Guanamarioch pushed down on the end while slowly lifting from near the middle. With a splash, a foot and a half long greenish gray creature appeared above the water, its tail flapping to one side and then the other as it sought purchase in water that was now too far beneath it.

"Dinner," said Zira, "is served."

Chapter 17

And when we have wakened the lust of a foe,

To draw him by flight toward our bullies we go,

Till, 'ware of strange smoke stealing nearer, he flies

Or our bullies close in for to make him good prize.

- Rudyard Kipling, "Cruisers"

Remedios, Chiriqui, Republic of Panama

Nineteen B- and C-Decs for each of the enemy water vessels should be more than enough, Binastarion thought as the fifty-seven low-flying craft glided soundlessly by a few hundred meters overhead. This close to the surface and this close together the spacecraft moved comparatively slowly, wary lest they make disastrous contact with the ground or with each other. In addition, each B- or C-Dec was accompanied by anywhere from seven to eighteen tenar.

As the Posleen craft passed, the People below the flotilla, Kessentai and normal alike, felt a strange and unpleasant tingling sensation both inside and out.

May you do more than tingle our enemies, my children.

USS Des Moines

"We've got trouble, Captain," Daisy's avatar reported. "Lidar shows enemy vessels approaching . . . fifty-two . . . fifty-four . . . no . . . fifty-seven of them. They're deployed in three broad wedges. My guess, though it is more than a guess, is that two of them are heading for Texas and Salem. The third is behind those two, more spread out."

McNair scratched his head, uncertainly. "Looking for us, do you think, Daisy?"

"Likely, Captain," the hologram answered.

"Get me the admiral and Salem," McNair ordered.

The center screen came on live again. "Graybeal here. I see them, Jeff. They're below, well below, Texas' ability to engage."

McNair swallowed hard before continuing. This was the difficult decision: to risk your greatest love, your command, on behalf of a mission.

"Sir . . . I think you and Salem should fall away to the south. Des Moines will intercept."

McNair risked a glance at Daisy. Her hologram was flickering less now.

"I'm devoting less power to defending Salem," Daisy answered when McNair asked.

"You're okay with this?" McNair asked.

Daisy's holographic chest seemed to swell, if that were possible, with pride.

"Captain, I'm a warship. This is what I do."

The admiral interjected, asking of Salem's captain, "Sid, have you managed to get any defense up for yourself?"

"Three of the six secondary turrets are manned and manually operating, sir. That's the best I can do with what I have. But, sir, you ought to know that we have no radar or lidar interface or guidance. We can engage manually but only straight line of sight and even then only at fairly short range."

"How truly good," the admiral said sardonically. "Very well, Sidney, head south to sea. Texas will follow. McNair? Intercept . . . and good hunting."

Posleen B-Dec Rapturous Feast XXVII

Ah, the never-ending joys of the hunt, the Kessentai in command of the ship thought. His landing group's target, assigned by the glorious Binastarion personally, was the known of the two lesser enemy surface warships. The location of the other was, at best, approximated on the Kessentai's view-screen.

What a strange world this is; all disgusting, wet, oozing greens. The Kessentai almost hoped for an early onslaught of orna'adar. Better that mass slaughter than a prolonged stay on such a putrid ball.

The Kessentai had actually landed with his oolt before being ordered aloft again to lead this abat-hunt. Binastarion had warned him, through his far-speaker, not to be overconfident, that these particular thresh had sharp kreen, indeed.

They would have to be a tough and resourceful species, he thought, to survive and prosper in such a wretched place. Tough and resourceful, but stupid, since nothing here is worth fighting for. Then again, how stupid are we; trying to take it over. Though the thresh don't know it, we are actually doing them a favor by exterminating them.

With Rapturous Feast XXVII in the lead, the other eighteen landers — each with its escort of tenar — spread out behind forming a deep "V." This was a simple formation, simple enough that even fairly stupid Kessentai could maintain it.

Straight as an arrow the wedge of Posleen landers flew, hardly noticing — amidst all the other inexplicable horrors of this world — the shimmering, flashing anomaly on the surface of the sea between the attack group and its target.

And then the anomaly grew a head, one of the foul threshkreen sensory clusters, with ugly projections and a streaming yellow thatch. By the time the landers and tenar had slowed and reoriented their weapons arrays onto the head it had risen up until halfway out of the water. A shimmering golden breastplate (not unlike the one reputedly worn by Aldensatar the Magnificent at the siege of Teron during the Knower wars) covered the monster's torso and its threatening frontal projections.

The creature from the deeps raised its arms heavenward, masses of something like ball lightning lashing between its gripping members. All Posleen weapons thundered and flashed towards the malignant apparition.

With growing dread, the lead Kessentai saw that no harm — absolutely none — was done the beast. But wait . . . it seemed to be rocking back and forth as if in distress.

"We've got it!" exulted the Kessentai.

"No, lord," corrected the Artificial Sentience. "The monster is laughing at you."

Rage warred with fear. Laughing at me? We'll see who laughs last.

The external speakers carried the sound of a thresh voice, but one frightfully, even impossibly, amplified. The beast's mouth moved as if trying to speak.

"Translate, AS."

"My lord, the monster has just said, 'Stay the fuck away from my sister, you son of a bitch!' "

USS Des Moines

"Skipper, these fucking animals are stupid. They'll shoot at what they can see with their own eyes, nine times out of ten, and ignore the real threat that they can't see."

"How does a stupid race build starships, Daisy?" McNair objected.

The avatar answered, "The theory is that they were genetically altered eons ago, that they are born with skills, even as the Indowy are born with certain talents. The difference is that the Indowy must be tutored to bring their talents to fruition, a long period of intense training and education, while the Posleen just know. But coming into the world knowing all they will ever need in the way of skills, they either never see the need to develop intellectually, or are — in most cases — simply incapable of it.

"In any case, trust me, Skipper, they'll shoot first at my hologram if that seems most threatening."

Not for the first time, McNair wanted to reach out and touch the shoulder, if nothing else, of this wonderfully smart and brave and beautiful . . . warship. He knew there was nothing there, however, and so unconsciously stroked the armored bulkhead of the bridge with a palm.

"Do it, Daisy," he said, "but be careful, my girl."

The avatar disappeared from the bridge in an instant, while Daisy's larger form began to grow up and around USS Des Moines. As Daisy predicted, the Posleen seemed to ignore the shimmering fog that engirdled the vessel proper and to concentrate their fire on her appearing torso. Even behind the heavy armor of the bridge McNair felt the shockwaves as kinetic energy projectiles and plasma weapons passed overhead. The ship was on a course of 270 degrees; thus, due south the sea exploded and roiled with the energies impacting it from the fires of nineteen landers and nearly two hundred and fifty tenar.

And then Daisy spoke. The entire ship reverberated with the amplified message, "Stay the fuck away from my sister, you son of a bitch."

Down in sick bay Father Dwyer muttered to no one in particular, "Tsk, tsk. Such language, young lady. I see a long penance for you. But, as long as you have to do penance anyway, murder the motherfuckers."

The guns of USS Des Moines, as well as those of Salem, came in two types. For general work there were the three triple turrets. For anti-lander work there were six individual turrets, one fore, one aft, and two each, port and starboard.

Each of the singles mounted an eight-inch semi-automatic gun, lengthier than those in the triple turrets and firing at a considerably higher velocity. These singles used ammunition, self-contained and not entirely interchangeable with the guns of the triples, though they could fire the more standard ammunition of the triple turrets in a pinch. The normal ammunition for the singles, however, was entirely anti-lander oriented, consisting of armor piercing, discarding sabot, depleted uranium. The APDSDU was adequate to penetrate a Posleen C- or B-Dodecahedron at a range of between twelve and twenty miles, depending on obliquity of the hit. It carried no explosive charge, but would do its damage by the physical destruction of what it passed through, by raising the internal temperature of the compartments it punctured, and by burning.

Depleted uranium burned like the devil.

The general purpose guns, those in the triple turrets, boasted neither the range nor the penetration of the single, anti-lander guns. For the most part they fired high capacity high explosive (or HICAP), twelve kiloton neutron shells (which required national command authority to use), improved conventional munitions (which dispensed smaller bomblets after explosively ejecting the base of the shell), and canister.

ICM was useless. McNair knew better than to ask to open up with nukes. HICAP, fired with a time fuse, would have been useful, certainly, but was not ideal for the purpose at hand.

"Canister, Daisy," McNair ordered.

"I was planning on it, Skipper," one of the speakers said.

* * *

Eyes still filled with dread, the Kessentai's attention was fully absorbed with the invulnerable apparition before it. Was it a demon from the legendary times of fire? Some special divine protector of this shit-filled world? An elemental being from the creation?

The Kessentai didn't, couldn't, know. What it did know was that the monster's lightning-clad hands pointed at it and poured forth a blinding fire.

Daisy divided up the enemy's airborne fleet into three and assigned one triple turret to fire — sweeping left to right — at each third of the fleet. Down below the turrets, machinery, fine-tuned by Sinbad and his Indowy, whispered with movement or clanged with metal-to-metal contact as load after load of canister was moved from storage to the ready racks. The previous HICAP rounds, plus their bagged propellant, had long since been struck below where they would be safe from secondary explosion.

Four men, one officer and three petty officers, manned each triple. These were navy men; whereas the singles were manned by United States Marines. The gun crews were there as a fail-safe measure, but also in case the bridge, CIC and Daisy took a critical hit. In that case the guns could fire on their own, albeit with much lessened effectiveness.

When the last light on the bridge which indicated gun status had changed from amber to green Daisy announced, "Ready, Captain."

McNair rested his hand on the armored box containing the AID which was half of his ship's soul.

"Clear those motherfuckers out of our sky, Babes. Fire!"

The four single guns able to bear on the starboard side fired simultaneously, as did the three triples; the recoil was enough to shift the entire ship to port. Daisy put on a major holographic display to distract the Posleen's attention away from the real thunder and lightning of thirteen huge guns. The APDSDU, having much greater velocity than canister, struck first. Hit in three places, out of four rounds fired at it, the results on the target were uneven. One penetrator hit too obliquely, on one of the lower left facets as the gun faced the target. This one bounced off and went spinning, trailing smoke and flame, off into the distance before plunging into the sea.

The second and third, however, hit close together and at an angle to force their way through the alien ship's tough skin. The needle sharp points, backed up by foot-tons of energy, first piked into the ship's skin, gained purchase, and sloughed off. The material, depleted uranium, had a peculiar property: it resharpened itself even as the old point dulled. This the penetrators did, at the molecular level, more times than could easily be counted before breaking free into the ship's interior.

In the process of forcing apart such a thickness of tough alien metal, kinetic energy was transformed into heat. A normal in one of the compartments saw only a flash and then went blind as eyeballs melted. The pain of heat blinding was brief in duration. The DU began to burn, raising the internal temperature of the compartment to the point where the Posleen normal's flesh and bones were turned to ash. It never had time enough between blinding and incineration even to scream.

Tough as the outer skin was, the inner compartments were good for little but retaining air should the outer skin have a breach. The DU, less stable now and with both rods burning fiercely, cut through the inner compartments as if they were not there. More Posleen succumbed, some to heat, others to the thick smoke, hot enough itself to sear lungs and toxic to boot. Still others were smashed into pulp. Machinery, likewise, was crushed and broken if it chanced to be along the penetrators' paths. Parts of both machinery and walls added further to the interior carnage as they were broken loose and went careening back and forth around the compartments, each piece shredding any flesh unlucky enough to be in its path.

The penetrators were not done, however. Having slashed their way all across the interior of the ship they came upon the far hull. They lacked orientation, mass and energy at that point to knife through. Instead, still burning, they bounced off and started back, repeating the process of slaughter.

No one ever knew, nor shall they ever know, how many times the penetrators ricocheted back and forth through the ship. Even as the lead Posleen C-Dec heeled over and began to plunge into the sea one of them must have breached its antimatter containment unit. The C-Dec disappeared in a stunning flash that could be seen as far away as Panama City.

Many of the tenar-riding Posleen lost control of their sleds in the shockwave of that blast. Some were spun into the sea at fatal speed; others were torn from their sleds and went over the side to plunge into the murky deep. There, struggling and kicking, attempting to learn in an instant what neither millions of years of evolution nor careful genetic manipulation had taught them — namely, to swim — the Posleen sank like rocks. Still others, riding closer to the exploding lander, had been killed by the heat. For Posleen farther away, the blast was enough to induce blindness, temporary or permanent.

Daisy, pitiless, swept her triple turrets across the tenar-borne survivors of the first C-Dec's disintegration. Traveling to within less than a kilometer of a lander, the canister shells exploded, usually within microseconds of each other. The three shells from a typical salvo burst apart in puffs of angry black smoke, releasing as they did about twenty-five hundred two-ounce iron balls each. These seventy-five hundred balls traveled on with all the velocity of the original shell, plus a small additional bit of energy from their bursting charge. In such a dense cloud of whistling death, it was the rare Posleen who found neither himself nor his tenar penetrated and wrecked.

As the triples fired and swept, fired and swept, scouring the skies of the unarmored tenar, Daisy turned her anti-lander guns in pairs against the following B- and C-Decs. None of these exploded in nearly as spectacular a fashion as the first. Still, she kept up the fire on pairs of them at a rate of forty-eight rounds a minute until each one targeted either turned and ran or fell into the sea.

The other group, the one that had spread out looking for the indistinctly plotted CA-139, likewise headed for home.

USS Texas

Graybeal, ashen-faced, worried, This flotilla was designed to fight as a team. Who expected us to be split up electronically? And now I'm out here, alone and in the open, with Salem unable to provide close defense and Des Moines too far away to be helpful.

The admiral looked at the plots of his three ships, Salem running like hell for open water, Des Moines — one fight finished — now turning to race to his rescue. He looked at the rapidly approaching swarm of Posleen. No computer was needed for this calculation. The Posleen would reach Texas an easy eight minutes before McNair's command was in range.

A brief sigh escaped Graybeal's lips. So sad it has to end now. It was wonderful being a young man again, wonderful to command at sea again. What is left but to make as good a fight of it as possible?

"Captain, do a one eighty," the admiral ordered.

The captain's eyes widened at first. Do a suicide run? But then he, too, looked at the plots.

"Try and get right under them, do you think, Admiral? Maybe take one or two with us."

"It's the only way to engage with any chance of a kill at all."

The captain nodded. "Helm, turn us about. Gunnery, prepare to fire at lowest possible elevation. Fire as she bears."

USS Des Moines

The ship was racing, Daisy Mae cutting power to nearly everything else and straining to make it to Texas' succor before it was too late.

Holographic tears running down holographic cheeks she asked in a broken voice, "Shall I show you, Skipper? I can sense it well enough to do that. Someone ought to see and remember."

McNair couldn't bring himself to speak and was only just able to prevent himself from crying. He gave a shallow nod.

"Jesus!" exclaimed the helmsman as Texas' last fight sprang into view in miniature over one of the plotting tables in CIC.

The Texas was stricken, that much was obvious. She was already listing badly to port. Three of her turrets had been blasted away completely. Smoke poured, black and hateful, from a fourth, flames casting evil glows upon the smoke. And yet her captain, or maybe it was the admiral, or perhaps it was a simple seaman at the helm, was still in the fight, still desperately twisting the ship to give her sole remaining Planetary Defense Cannon a chance to fire.

The Posleen were having none of it. Standing off to all sides, hanging low to avoid the ship's last sting, they poured fire — plasma cannon and KE projectiles — into Texas' superstructure and hull. In the miniature view provided by Daisy recognizably large chunks of steel were blasted off into the sky.

"He got three," Daisy announced in a breaking voice. "Destroyed or damaged and withdrawn, I can't say. But there were nineteen that took off after Texas and there are only sixteen now."

"How long until we're in range?" McNair asked in a tone tinged with purest hate.

"Two minutes, captain, but . . . Oh!"

On the projection Daisy had made, BB-35, the United States' Ship Texas, veteran of three wars, had — fighting and defiant to the end — blown up.

Blonde hair streaming down her face, head hanging, Daisy announced, "The enemy is running for home now. I might be able to pick off a straggler but . . ."

"But we're alone now and can't necessarily take them. And that group that turned tail might return. I know. Revenge will have to wait."

No one on the bridge who heard McNair speak at that moment doubted that there would be revenge.

Remedios, Chiriqui, Republic of Panama

Binastarion sighed. Sometimes you get the abat and sometimes the abat get you.

He'd lost way too many sons to the thresh of this world. They'd died at the walls of the threshkreen city, David. They'd died in its parks and narrow alleys. They'd died on jungle trails pursuing the thresh who — maddeningly — turned and fought back with a vengeance as they made their escape over the mountains to the north. Lastly, he lost nearly an entire a sub-clan's worth of Kessentai to the threshkreen's damnable warships.

And for that what did he have to show? They had destroyed a ship, true, and the biggest of the lot. But the nourishing thresh of the ship; the refined metal of the ship? Lost, lost . . . irredeemably lost. Sunk to the bottom of an impenetrable sea. They are clever and vicious, these thresh, to deny the victor the fruits of victory. I must remember this. They are the cruelest of species.

While the exchange of so many Kessentai — Each one a son, cousin or nephew! The thought was like a knife in the belly — for a single one of the threshkreen's warships struck Binastarion as a very bad trade, he had to admit there were redeeming factors. At least the warships will not be firing at my people on the ground any longer. It was bad enough that they wrecked the landing on the southern peninsula, blasting holes in our lines through which the threshkreen poured and smashing any assemblage of the People massing for counterattack. Even now the remnants of the People there, cut up into bite sized bits, bleat for aid which I cannot give them. They will not last long.

Neither, though, the God King contemplated more happily, will the other column of thresh last long. Despite being led by a contingent of the metal threshkreen, they move forward only uncertainly. Otherwise, I'd already have sprung my trap.

Indeed, there was a trap. One of the side effects of being a comparatively small clan, as Binastarion's was, was that one had to be clever to survive since one was not very strong. One had to be very clever to survive as a clan in the Po'os-eat-Po'os worlds of the People. Thus, while scream and charge was the normal tactical doctrine of powerful clans of Posleen, for the little clans the doctrine became something more like "bait and switch."

Binastarion, a senior God King more clever than most, had pulled something very like a bait and switch. Even while the column of heavily armed threshkreen pressed up the road between mountains and sea, groups of the People were taking shelter in the former and — to a lesser extent — in the mangrove swamps bordering the latter. Meanwhile, some of Binastarion's cleverest eson'soran delayed in the center: take a position, fire, gallop back, pass through a different group, take a position, wait . . . "Bait and switch."

It might have been over already, if the thresh had either pressed forward boldly or moved more carefully, securing his flanks. As it was, the thresh seemed more confused in his movements than anything.

Well, time to bring the enemy a little enlightenment.

Interlude

The sun was setting to the west. In part for the warmth, and in part to keep off the annoying insect life of this world, Ziramoth had built a small fire. He and Guanamarioch lay low to either side of the fire, sometimes talking, sometimes just thinking. Ziramoth interspersed conversation with slices of the fish he had caught.

Posleen didn't cook. Oh, they'd eat thresh that had been caught in a fire and charred, but the idea of actually applying heat or a chemical process to make their food more palatable was something that had not been implanted in them by the Aldenata and which they had never thought upon themselves. Sooner a lion would make and eat crepes than a Posleen would cook food.

Nonetheless, Ziramoth — even one-handed — was a pretty deft hand with a knife and something like sushi was within his repertoire. He and Guanamarioch made a decent meal there, by the mossy riverbank, off raw fish, sugarcane, and a few mangos.

Guanamarioch was certain that Ziramoth was quite a lot brighter than he was. The scars, along with the missing eye and arm, suggested the Kenstain might be braver as well, not that Guanamarioch considered himself to be especially brave.

Most God Kings would have thought the question beneath them even to ask. Most, indeed, were incapable of so much as acknowledging the existence of those who had turned from the path, except perhaps to spit.

Guanamarioch had to ask, "What caused you to turn from the path, Zira?"

The Kenstain, in the process of filleting a fish, stopped in mid-slice and lay stock still for a moment, contemplating how to form his answer.

"It was long ago . . . six . . . no, seven orna'adars past," Ziramoth answered, slowly, before asking, "You know we were once a greater clan than we are now?"

Guanamarioch nodded and answered, "Yes, I read of it on the way here, in the scrolls."

"The scrolls do not tell all the story, young lordling. I have read them, too, and they do not say how we ended up in such straits."

"Is this . . . forbidden knowledge, Zira?"

The Kenstain laughed aloud, a great tongue-lolling, fang-bared Posleen laugh. "To forbid it, they would have to admit to it somewhere. And no one has ever admitted to it."

"Tell me, Zira."

The Kenstain acquired a far away look for a moment, as if trying hard to recall something very distant. Then he looked closely at the God King, as if trying to decide if the youth would be harmed by the knowledge he had to impart. He must have decided that knowledge cannot harm, or that, if it could, it could not do more harm than ignorance.

Ziramoth began, "We were great once, among the greatest clans of the People. Our tenar filled the sky. The beating of the feet of our normals upon the ground was like the thunder. The host filled the eye like the rolling sea.

"And then we made a mistake . . ."

Chapter 18

There are no bad regiments;

there are only bad officers.

- Field Marshall,

Viscount William Slim

Remedios, Chiriqui, Republic of Panama

Suarez wasn't confused; he was infuriated. The orders emanating from Cortez's headquarters were confusing, to be sure. "Go here . . . no, wait . . . no, go there . . . no, come back . . . no, go forward . . . detach a battalion to secure X . . . no, no, concentrate to attack Y." But Suarez, rather than being confused, understood completely.

The fucking moron is simply too scared shitless to have a coherent thought.

Right now Suarez's mechanized regiment was about half scattered around the northern part of the Province of Herrera and the western portion of Veraguas. He had radio communication with most of them, most of the time, but the communication was unreliable at best. Entire battalions would be unreachable for anywhere from minutes to hours. Even in a place that screwed with radio communication naturally, Suarez thought that more than a little suspicious.

As the lead regiment of the division, Suarez had, or was supposed to have, operational control of the company of Yankee ACS attached to the 1st Division. Unfortunately, Cortez interfered, or attempted to interfere, with the gringos even more than he did with his own force. Fortunately, the gringos, like Suarez himself, had learned very quickly to ignore most of what the division commander had to say.

Even more fortunately, the commander of the ACS, the gringo captain named Connors, had an understanding with Suarez. It was the understanding of two soldiers, differing greatly in rank, who recognized a common bond of dedication to the profession and a common bond in being placed under the command of idiots often enough for it to be more usual than not.

"This is not the way to use an armored combat suit formation," Connors complained to Suarez. "Little penny packets, scattered about, with no oomph and no punch. We should be like armor, concentrated for the decisive blow. Except that we're better than armor because we can go anywhere and fight anywhere. We should not be used like assault guns, supporting slower moving and less powerful forces. It's a violation of Principle of War — mass."

"You're pulling in your detachments?" Suarez queried.

"Yes, sir," Connors agreed, nodding unseen inside his suit. "As I can."

"Well, Captain, while I agree with your assessment of the role of ACS, we've got another problem that might make it a little wiser to do some splitting up. How are your internal communications?"

"Good, sir. We're not having the commo problems your forces are."

Connors reached up with both hands and removed his suit's helmet, placing it under one suited arm. Silvery goop retreated from his head and hair, forming an icicle on his chin. The goop reached out a tendril seeking the helmet. When it had found it, it flowed from the chin straight down. As before, Suarez found the image and, worse, the image of what it must be like when in the helmet and surrounded by goop, to be most unsettling.

Suarez shook his head to clear the thought. Blech.

"I think our commo problems are not natural, Captain, even though they seem to be random. Instead, I think someone is . . . feeling us out, getting a picture of how we work. Maybe it would be better to say that they've already done that and have now graduated to the early stage of deliberately fucking with us."

Connors' mouth formed a moue. He was a veteran of the early fights. He knew that someone or something often targeted human communications. He was also pretty sure that those doing the targeting were not stupid crocodilian centauroids.

"They'll blanket you at the worst possible time," Connors announced. "I've seen it before."

"I agree," said Suarez. "Which is why I am going to ask you to do something very tactically unsound."

"You want me to leave a man or two with each of your battalions for backup communications, don't you, sir?"

Suarez smiled. "Pretty sharp for a gringo, aren't you?"

"There's something else too, Colonel," Connors began. "I have a really bad feeling. We aren't killing enough Posleen to make a difference. They're fighting, and running, and fighting, and running. Almost like humans would. It's unsettling, sir, you know?"

Taking a deep breath and exhaling, Suarez agreed. "Scares me too, son. And I don't know what to do about it. The division commander's no help. . . ."

"Well, sir, I have an idea. If I break up one squad for backup communications I still have two squads from one platoon I'll have shorted. I'd like to send them out as flankers, north and south, in buddy teams. That'll still leave me two line platoons and a weapons platoon under my control for when things go totally to shit."

"Do it," Suarez ordered. "Do you need any backup from my regiment?"

Connors hesitated, thinking about that. After a few moments he answered, "No, sir. If I were you I'd start pulling in my troops and at least getting ready to form a perimeter. If my guess is right then the best thing you can do for my flankers is give them a solid place to run to. 'Cause, sir, sure as God didn't make little green apples, we've got our dicks in the garbage disposal and someone, or some thing, has his finger on the power switch."

Darhel Consulate, Panama City, Panama

The Rinn Fain's clawed finger rested lightly on the blinking green button. He contemplated that claw. What a sad state. We were a warrior people; a people of fierce pride. A people made by evolution to be naturally what the divine intended us to be. And then the never-sufficiently-to-be-damned Aldenata had to meddle, reducing us to meddlers ourselves. The Rinn Fain nearly wept with the sadness of the fate inflicted by the Aldenata on his people. Damn them, and damn those earlier Darhel who acquiesced.

"All is in readiness, my lord," the slave Indowy prodded. "It will be perfection, now. If you hesitate, the humans may be prepared to counter."

Smiling through needle sharp teeth at the slave, the Rinn Fain answered, "I am not hesitating, insect. I am savoring the moment. So much perfect destruction to be unleashed, and no violence inherent in it to trigger lintatai. Moments like this are rare, wretch, and must be appreciated to the fullest."

Even so, the Rinn Fain pressed the button, which went from blinking green to solid red.

North of Remedios, Chiriqui, Republic of Panama

In theory an ACS could simply beat its way through the rain forest, hardly slowing even for the largest trees. In practice, not only did the felled trees tend to build up to the point where they became nearly impenetrable even for one of the suits, the noise had a nasty tendency to attract the attention of ill-mannered strangers.

Thus, Corporal Finnegan and Private Chin wove their way through the trees as quietly as the suits would permit. This took time in the short run, and delayed any information their two-man recon team might uncover. On the other hand, dead troopers relayed no information at all, beyond the sheer fact of their deaths, recorded in blinking black on their squad leader's heads-up display.

"This is bullshit, Corporal, purest bullshit," observed Chin, never the least outspoken of the squad's privates, possibly because, out of his suit, he was the shortest of the lot.

"You're bitching just for the sake of bitching. Shut up, Private," answered Finnegan succinctly.

Chin was not, however, considered the loudest mouth of the squad without reason. He continued his bitching, more quietly but nonstop, right up until popping his head over a ridge overlooking a small, river-fed valley below.

"Stupid fucking bullshit, is what it is. Why I ever joined this outfit — "

"Chin? What's wrong, Chin?" asked Finnegan.

For a worrisome moment, the private said nothing. When he did it was simply to say, in stunned surprise, "Corporal, you need to see this."

Railing softly about pain in the ass rankers, Finnegan bounded over, weaving around the trees, until he stood beside the private, his head sticking just over the rise.

"Oh, shit," the corporal said quietly.

In the valley below, thousands upon thousands of them, so thick that Finnegan couldn't even see the ground, the Posleen host was rising to its feet, the tenar-riding God Kings pointing and gesturing to the pair of ACS troopers.

Even as the first railgun rounds began to chew the ground and trees around them, Finnegan ordered, "RUNNN!"

Remedios, Chiriqui, Republic of Panama

Connors went instantly white, no mean feat given the amount of sunbathing he had done in the months before the Posleen landed. He didn't have to inform Suarez what Finnegan and Chin had found. The suit's communicator squawked loudly enough for the colonel to hear for himself.

"Posleen . . . zillions of 'em . . . in the valley at Objective Robin . . . we're running . . . they're pursuing . . . shit! Chin's down."

Another voice: "It ain't just Finnegan, Boss. We got us about forty thousand of the bastards at Objective Tiger."

Another voice: "Can't run, Cap'n Connors. We're pinned. I can't tell you how many. More'n . . . aiiiii!"

Another voice . . . another voice . . . another voice.

Connors looked up at Suarez, standing in the hatch of his track. You're the chief, Colonel. What the fuck are we gonna do?

In response Suarez held up his radio's microphone; nothing but static and occasional broken up syllables.

"I can rebroadcast," Connors offered.

"Can you fit inside the track so I can show you on the map?" Suarez asked.

"Not necessary, sir," answered Connors as his AID enhanced suit again projected a map between them. "All my people can see the same image."

"They can all see it? Nice. Okay, Captain, we've got no normal commo so everything is going to go from me, through your suit, to your people and then to mine. This is what I want."

Suarez's finger began to trace out a circle into which his half scattered battalions would fall and hold . . . or in which they would die. If asked, Suarez would have bet on "die."

"Oh, God, I don't want to die!" was Cortez's first voiced thought as he saw the wave of centaurs cresting the high ground to the north. It was fortunate that his radio, like everyone else's, couldn't send or receive. The only thing holding the 1st Division's cohesion together at all was the fact that none of his subordinates could hear their commander.

A nearby light tank company, Cortez's personal escort, turned into the coming storm, flailing away with machine guns and canister. For an all too brief moment it looked like they might hold. And then railgun fire began to chew through the thin Chinese-built armor. By ones and twos the tanks began to brew up as their crews were cut to ribbons and railgun fleshettes set alight their on-board ammunition and fuel.

"Turn around! Turn around!" Cortez shrieked at his driver.

The driver obeyed, pivot steering the Type-63 one hundred and eighty degrees to the south, then gunning the engine to race away, trailing a cloud of thick, nasty diesel smoke behind.

Cortez's eyes remained fixed to the north where the Posleen wave lapped over a mixed column of trucks and artillery. The gunners, he saw, were struggling to free their guns and fire even as the wave swept over them and cut them down.

A medical unit, two thirds female as Cortez could well see, was the next to go under. The men of the unit attempted to make a stand to cover the retreat of the women. Without machine guns, or even more than a few rifles, the men went under quickly. The Posleen then pursued the women, chopping the poor screaming wretches down from behind and then stopping to butcher their bodies and feast before continuing the pursuit.

Cortez felt nothing at that, despite having used his position more than once to bed some of the women of that unit. They had been, after all, just office and peasant girls, not women of class and breeding; not anyone who mattered.

A man would have turned and died then, to protect the women. Cortez simply urged his driver to move faster.

* * *

Julio Diaz cursed that his glider could not move any faster. On only his second actual combat mission Diaz already had begun to feel like a war-weary veteran. One thing was different about this mission from the previous day's; his radio worked perfectly.

And everyone else's was in electronic bedlam; those, anyway, that Diaz could not see stretched out, butchered and lifeless, below. They were hard to see, too, because Panama's normally emerald grass was tinted red across half a kilometer to either side of the Inter-American highway.

This was awful beyond words, even awful beyond thought; fifteen or twenty thousand of his countrymen, and women, massacred, rendered and eaten. Clusters of Posleen, some of them numbering in the thousands, walked among the dead, hewing a head here, splitting a femur there. Crossing himself, Julio thanked the Almighty, above, that the aliens continued to ignore him.

God did not or would not save him from everything. Despite having an empty stomach from once again, embarrassingly, having to vomit during his launch, Diaz needed to puke again. Only the fact that he was above the smell of slaughter saved him from that.

Still cruising while slowly sinking, without units to spot for, Diaz didn't even think to call for support from the cruiser that had blessedly answered him the day before. Sure, he could have killed Posleen, and that might have satisfied his urge for revenge. But revenge was a thin soup, faced with the enormity of the slaughter.

Despite the barren feeling of hopelessness, Diaz continued to fly westward. When he returned to base, if he returned, his father would need to know the extent of the disaster.

To his right the sun was sinking. Even as it sank, Cortez's hopes began to rise. His tank was amphibious. With any luck he would soon reach the sea and could set out on that, safely towards home.

With all the fearful paranoia of a hunted fox, Cortez had guided his tank and crew from the scenes of slaughter. Several times, when the pounding of alien claws on the earth had warned him of an approaching horde, he had ordered his tank into low ground, dense Kunai grass or copses of thick standing trees. His luck had held. While groups of refugees and even the occasional fragment of a cohesive unit had fallen all around him, the aliens had never noticed or, if noticing, cared enough to actually seek him out. He supposed they must have had enough to eat.

While opening his own bag of gringo-supplied combat rations, Cortez began to contemplate the future. He was facing a court-martial, he knew. Last time he had deserted a command, in 1989, he had been fortunate that his government had followed its army into extinction quickly. This time he could not hope for such a boon. His government and army would survive this debacle long enough for him to see the inside of a courtroom and the pockmarked wall before the firing squad. His uncle, the president, would clearly toss him to the wolves.

Worse, his driver, loader and gunner would be the star witnesses at his court-martial. They had the defense of superior orders, at least. He had only his own will to live, no matter what.

Can I count on Uncle Guillermo to quash any charges? Only two possibilities: either the country and the government falls, in which case there'll be nothing to quash, or they somehow manage to establish a defensive line, in which case there will.

Okay, let's assume there is still a country. It was Uncle's order that sent my division to the west. They'll be howling for his blood . . . so he'll give them mine. And these three crewman will testify against me. They have to go. But I need them for now to get me out of here, so they cannot go just yet.

Once we're at sea, then, I can dispose of them . . . but how to do it? Shoot them? Tough to do and the driver, in particular might escape. Sink the tank? Also hard to do and, what's more, I don't want to get sucked down with it.

Aha! I know. When we get close to land I'll get out, as if to wave for help, then drop a couple of grenades into the turret. Grenades leave little trace even if they should somehow recover the tank.

My story? Let's see. I had gotten out of the tank just as we approached land to get a better view. After all, the land has become unsafe and I had to watch out for the crew's welfare. Suddenly — "I don't know how" — the tank caught fire and blew up. I was thrown overboard. My life vest must have kept me afloat. When I awakened the tank was gone. I drifted for a while, then when I got close enough to land I swam for it.

Okay . . . that's plausible and there'll be no one left to contradict my story. Uncle can press the charges and then have them dropped for lack of evidence.

* * *

The setting sun cast its fiery light directly into Diaz's eyes. He couldn't see a thing ahead of him. He knew there was no sense in pressing on, yet felt he had to. The Estado Major, the general staff, had to learn the full extent of the disaster.

Diaz continued on, pulling to the right occasionally to catch and spiral higher in one of the mountain-directed updrafts. Sometimes, during those altitude gaining spirals, he could see yet more of the refuse of the massacre. He forced himself to look, despite the nausea it induced.

Finally, with the last rays of the setting sun painting the waves of the Pacific, and with the last known forward position of the 6th Division behind him, he turned one hundred and eighty degree and began to glide back to the east, to the base at Rio Hato.

It was chance then, chance that the sun had set at that precise moment, chance that he was looking in that precise direction, chance that someone on the ground fired human weapons in precisely Diaz's field of view.

Unmistakable. Someone down there is still fighting. I've got to help.

In order to help though, Diaz needed to see more, understand more. He began a slow, lazy three-sixty. As he did he caught more flashes of rifles, machine guns, and cannon. The flashes seemed to form a broad circle.

"Christ!" the boy exclaimed. "They're still hanging on down there. I've got to help."

Suarez, aided by the communications array of the ACS, had only just managed to form a half circle facing north when the first wave of Posleen hit. The Posleen may have been more surprised at the resistance than the humans had been at the grand scale ambush, since their advance guards stopped and then recoiled at the sudden and unexpected wave of fire that met them.

The Posleen, however stupid they were in the main, were also a species quick to form and quick to react. The human defenders had a few brief minutes of respite before a more serious attack was thrown in. This was not repulsed so easily; Suarez actually had to throw in Connors and his ACS company before the attack was contained.

After that the attack in the north petered out into minor probes and sniping while the bulk of the aliens split east and west to find the vulnerable flank they were sure had to be there. For Suarez and his boys it became a race against time to form a full perimeter before the enemy turned one or both flanks. Cooks and clerks found themselves in the firing line, along with medics hastily armed with the rifles of the fallen. Still, by nightfall a perimeter, more or less cohesive, had been formed.

I couldn't have even done that without the gringos and their armored suits, Suarez thought.

For his part, Connors, resting for the moment with his back against Suarez's track, thought, Thank God this colonel knew what the fuck he was doing. Another man and we'd have been dead and peeled like lobsters already.

Simultaneously, both men had much the same thought, which went something like, Not that it much matters. We're hopelessly cut off out here, no chance of relief or support. We'll live until the ammo runs low or the fuel runs out or the power dies in the suits and then we'll die anyway. Tonight, maybe at the latest mid-day tomorrow, and it'll all be over but the munching.

Even as he finished that shared thought, Connors suddenly sat upright. Clearly and distinctly, through his suits communicator, he heard a Spanish voice, "Any station, any station, this is Lima Two Seven."

"Lima Two Seven this is Romeo Five Five. Who the fuck are you? What the fuck are you?"

Diaz nearly whooped with joy. "Romeo, I am a glider. If you look carefully you might be able to see me overhead. How can I help?"

The answering voice sounded resigned, "You got a couple of nukes, Lima? Because short of that, I doubt there is much you can do to help us."

Julio thought for a moment, then answered, "No nukes, Romeo, but I might be able to get something nearly as good. Wait, over . . . Daisy? Daisy? This is Julio. I need your help, Dama."

USS Des Moines

Dammit, it had hurt to have had to run away; it had shamed. Daisy had seen Sally back to the cover of the mixed Planetary Defense Base cum anti-lander batteries on the Isla del Rey before turning back to the west. Unfortunately, by the time she had gotten within lunging range at the enemy, there was no one to talk to. Thus, impotent and infuriated, she had steamed south of the isthmus — to and fro, east and west — looking and hoping for a target.

Thus it was that, unconcealed glee in her voice, Daisy announced to McNair, "I've got us a ripe one, Skipper."

McNair, still smarting over the loss of Texas, didn't hesitate. "Bring us around." His finger pushed a button. "All hands, this is the captain. Battle stations."

"Julio, we're coming," the ship said.

Remedios, Chiriqui, Republic of Panama

"It's neither as good nor as easy as it sounds, sir," Diaz cautioned over the radio. "I wish I could connect you directly with the ship, but I can't. If I could, you could direct the fires. As is . . . well, sir, the ship can toss a huge amount of firepower, and it's unbelievably accurate, but only along the gun-target line. Anywhere from one third to one half of the shells will be over or under and some of them will be way over or under. If you have troops over or under the target . . ."

Chingada, Suarez thought. Fat lot of good it does me to blast the aliens if the same fire blasts holes in my own perimeter. The Posleen will recover quicker.

Suarez thought furiously while looking at his map. The ship was going to fire from the Gulf of Montijo, from a position just north of Isla Cebaco. What Diaz had told him meant that he could get effective fire to his east and west, but could not use the ship's guns to help him break contact north and south.

"All right, Lieutenant Diaz, I understand. Tell the ship I want priority along the enemy-held ground west of the Rio San Pablo. Then, on my command, I want to switch to east of the Rio San Pedro."

Suarez stopped to think for a moment. Something was nagging at him. Something important . . . something . . .

"Mierda!" he exclaimed aloud. "Diaz, does the ship carry a shell that can clear the bridges along the Rio San Pedro without endangering the bridge?"

It was a long moment before Diaz answered. When he did, it was to say, "Miss Daisy says she has improved conventional munitions that can kill the Posleen without endangering the bridge, sir."

Miss Daisy? Never mind. "Good, good," Suarez said with more good cheer than he felt. "Diaz, you can see, which is more than I can say. Keep me posted and commence firing as soon as possible."

Under Binastarion's eye his sons and their oolt'os formed and massed for what he expected to be the final breakthrough into the rear of the threshkreen's perimeter. The river to his front, while promising to be a costly obstacle to cross, was not so deep his normals could not cross it unaided, though he was sure a few would find deep spots in which they would drown. No matter; their bodies will make a ford for the ones that follow. For the rest, a few minutes helpless under fire and then we're among them.

An odd shape, cruising high to the west, caught the God King's eye.

"What is that damned thing flying up there?" Binastarion demanded of his Artificial Sentience.

That machine was connected to the God King's tenar and, thus, to the entire Net. Yet, infuriatingly, it answered, "There is nothing flying overhead, lord."

"Bucket of misdesigned circuitry, I can see it. There is something up there."

"Nonetheless, lord," the Sentience answered with the normal indifference of a machine, "there is nothing up there which registers. Therefore, there is nothing up there."

The God King was about to curse his electronic assistant again, when the AS announced. "Incoming projectiles, lord. They will land on the oolt massed below. I suggest you take cover."

Before Binastarion could answer, whether to thank or to curse, three shells landed, one short but two right on one of his oolt'os. That oolt simply . . . dissolved with panicked normals running shrieking in all directions. Binastarion's tenar shuddered with the shock wave. His internal organs rippled in a way he had never before experienced.

"Demon shit," the chief snarled, sotto voce, as he wrestled his tenar back to face his massed people.

Even as he grunted those words another three explosions erupted, with one shell landing among the ruins of the previously targeted oolt and two others smearing the one just to the north of that one.

In salvos of three rounds, never more than four or five heartbeats apart, the fire walked among his people like some half-divine, half-mad demon. Tenar were tumbled, their riders crushed and shredded. Splintered teeth and bones of normals joined hot metal shell fragments to pierce and rend.

True, sometimes a shell landed between oolt, doing no harm with its blast. Even in those cases, however, the odd piece of shrapnel might sail hundreds of meters to fall with deadly effect upon some unfortunate normal. The smell of Posleen blood thus released was enough to unsettle the half-sentients and make their bolting that much more likely whenever a salvo did land near.

Binastarion's communicator buzzed frantically with calls from his sons and subordinates. Each asking for instructions. Do we attack? Do we retreat? If we stay here we'll be massacred.

"Where is that damned fire coming from?" he demanded of his AS. "I have read of the threshkreen's artillery, but this is just too much of it. Where is it coming from?"

The Artificial Sentience did not answer immediately. Searching the Net, Binastarion supposed.

"The ship is back, lord," the AS said when it finally answered. "It can throw as much of this artillery as would a ten of tens of the heaviest sort used by the thresh who fight on the ground."

Even while digesting that unwelcome news, the fire continued to walk among the host of Binastarion, striking down lowborn and high with random, vicious fury.

It was with an equal fury that Binastarion ordered his subordinates to assemble on his tenar once they had their people under cover.

As he had been each time he had seen the salvos from the Des Moines, Diaz was awed by the fury of the guns. He said a silent prayer to God that, so far, none of the shells had fallen among the defenders.

When he judged the enemy was sufficiently damaged and disorganized by the fire he keyed his radio and spoke to Suarez.

"Sir, I think it is about as good as it is going to get in the west. Shall I pull out to the east and direct the ship's fires to assist the breakout?"

Suarez spoke back, "Yes, son, do that. And God bless you and that ship."

There was no more difficult operation in all of the military art than a withdrawal while in contact with the enemy. To do so over a broad front, with troops already badly disorganized by combat would have been impossible but for three facts: that the fires of the gringo ship had even more badly disorganized the Posleen, that most of Suarez's regimental artillery — three batteries of Russian-built self propelled guns — was intact, and that Suarez had control of most of a company of ACS.

"Can your boys do it; cover our withdrawal while we force our way east?" Suarez asked Connors.

"I think we ought to free up your units in the west first, sir," Connors advised.

East of Remedios, Chiriqui, Republic of Panama

"Can you get me some contact with that glider overhead?" Connors asked.

"No, sir," the AID answered. "I am continuing to try."

Trying to time things carefully, Connors and his men had stormed into the Posleen positions, such as they were, butchering the stunned-senseless aliens where they stood, before pulling out again and moving as fast as the suits' legs would carry them eastward. A regular mechanized unit could not have done so.

B Company, Connors in the lead, reached the rear area of the west-facing Panamanian units even as Suarez, using the suits the MI had attached to his sub-units, pulled the east-facing elements of the 1st Mech Division out of the line and got them on the road.

"How about with the ship, what was it? The Des Moines?"

"Yes, sir, the USS Des Moines, CA-134. And no, sir, the ship's AID is refusing all communication with any Artificial Intelligence Devices. I am not sure why. It won't explain, simply shunts me into a continuous loop when I try. It's not supposed to be able to do that," Connors' AID added snippily.

"Crap!" Connors exclaimed. "We'll just have to trust the kid up above to know what he's doing."

"Lieutenant Diaz seems trustworthy, sir."

"Yeah . . . well . . ."

Connors' reserved statement was interrupted by a deluge of heavy shell fire striking ground to the east. The Panamanians in the rear of the line ducked, sensibly, as the air was torn with the roar of the blasts and the whine of the fragments, whizzing overhead.

"Okay, okay . . . the kid knows what he's doing," Connors admitted. "We can't direct the fire . . . so we're going to have to take advantage of where it falls on it own."

"Suboptimal, Captain," the AID agreed. "But best under the circumstances, yes."

Another long salvo came in. Connors tried to count the number of shells and gave up.

"AID, can you track the shells and provide analysis?"

"Yes, sir," the AID answered. "If you will look at the map" — Connors' left eye saw a map of the highway area, with great black rectangles superimposed on it — "the black represents areas where the strike of shells indicate minimum Posleen remaining alive and able to resist."

Connors only had two platoons, really, remaining to him, plus the weapons platoon. The last line unit had been scattered to scout to the flanks or broken up to provide commo for Suarez. The shocked survivors of the flankers — and the casualties among those had been horrendous — were in no shape for the battle and wouldn't be for perhaps days. There were too many holes in the chain of command, too much death, among that platoon.

The destruction visited upon the Posleen, Connors saw, was for the most part oriented along the highway. He assumed the other black rectangles on his map were Posleen assembly areas the pilot overhead had called fire upon. Since the highway was what the 1st Panamanian Mech needed . . .

"B Company, formation is V with weapons at the base and the line platoons to either side of the highway. I'm with weapons. B Company . . . form."

He gave the men a few minutes to settle in to the formation before ordering, "B Company . . . advance."

It was eerie, walking that highway. Smoke lay heavy along the ground. Posleen bodies, and more than a few human ones, littered the path. Many were torn to shreds, chopped up, disemboweled. Others showed not a mark.

Connors passed a tree that had miraculously survived the bombardment. In the tree was a God King, dead. The alien's harness had been ripped off, but it was otherwise untouched save for the tree limb that entered its torso from behind and stuck out, yellow with blood, from its chest. The alien's head hung towards the ground, gracelessly, by its twisted neck.

Shell craters, huge indentations in the earth, pockmarked the landscape. Something nagged at the MI captain. Something . . .

"Pay attention to the shell craters," Connors warned over the general company net. "Don't assume that just because nothing that was in them when they were created has survived that something might not have crawled in afterwards."

A Posleen staggered up out of one, dragging its rear legs behind it. It was just a normal, Connors thought, but no sense taking chances. He raised one arm as if to fire. Automatically a targeting dot appeared over the Posleen, painted on Connors' eye. He fired a short burst and the alien went down, splashing up muddy water that had collected in the crater even in the short time since it had been formed.

From time to time, one of Connors' platoon leaders reported in that "X and such number of Posleen had been sighted, engaged and destroyed at Y and such location" or "Posleen oolt fleeing north" or "south." He took no casualties and, in a very odd and bizarre way, that disturbed him, too.

"Are you guys sure you are seeing absolutely no God Kings? No tenar?"

"Just wrecked ones, Boss . . . only some wrecks, Captain . . . there ain't enough of 'em, even wrecked, to account for the number of other bodies, sir. I don't trust it."

Even so, Connors pushed his company on past the broad area of destruction and into the parts still untouched by the heavy guns. And there were still no God Kings or tenar.

"AID, pass to Suarez that the way seems open."

"Wilco, Captain."

The tracks and trucks were draped with the bodies of the wounded . . . and the dead. Suarez was pleased to see the discipline, that his men were leaving nothing behind for the enemy to eat, even as he was appalled at the cost. Because it wasn't a vehicle here and there covered with bodies. It was every tank, track and truck that passed.

Jesu Cristo, but it's going to be a job rebuilding this division. If we're even allowed to.

Suarez had the devil's own time of it, already, trying to extricate the bloodied scraps from the cauldron. Without the communications advantages — let alone the mobile, armored firepower — given by the MI he didn't think he could have done it at all.

Logically, Suarez knew, he should be having his sergeant major go over those trucks, pulling off some of the walking — even nonwalking — wounded to serve as a "detachment left in contact," or DLIC. These would have been die-in-place troops, left behind to cover the withdrawal of the rump of the division.

I just don't have the heart, I guess. Takes a certain kind of ruthlessness to do that — to even ask that — of men who've already given everything they have.

Cortez remembered his uncle often speaking of the need to be ruthless in politics and in life. Well, now's the time to find out if I am as ruthless as my uncle always wanted me to be.

The Isla del Rey loomed ahead. Cortez's Type-63 light amphibious tank churned its way laboriously toward the island. The big Planetary Defense gun atop the island was silent. And a good thing, too, Cortez thought. The blast might be enough to raise waves big enough to swamp this tank.

But then again, would that really matter?

The crew had not spoken an unnecessary word to Cortez since he had bugged out. Perhaps they thought they were merely showing disapproval. In fact, the effect was to make them even less human and less valuable in Cortez's mind. Thus, faced with the silent treatment, it was easier for him to take the hand grenade he had secreted earlier, remove the safety clip, pull the pin and drop it into the bottom of the turret even as he dove off to swim for the safety of the island.

Interlude

". . . or perhaps we were forced into one.

"We had claimed a large island on a world. This was something new to our clan, to settle on an island," Ziramoth continued. "Normally, the chief of a clan would never do so. Yet this was a world of — mostly — islands and the lord saw little choice. It was large enough to support our refugee population for several generations. Moreover, the barrier of the seas around the island should serve as barriers to other clans. So the lord claimed.

"The island was fertile, and had much mineral wealth. The People prospered there. For a while.

"That entire world was gifted with fertility. None of the clans who settled felt the need to eat their nestlings. And the population grew in a way we had rarely experienced.

"Unfortunately, this world was also on the edge of a barren sector of the galaxy. We had nothing but wasted radioactive worlds behind us and we had nothing but the void in front of us. All the clans sent out scouts into the interstellar blackness. None returned soon. None returned in time."

Ziramoth again grew still, though Guanamarioch didn't know whether that was because the memory was so distant — seven orna'adars was a very long time! — or because they were so painful.

The Kenstain began to speak again. "Local scouts were sent out, across those coppery seas. It must have been that other clans had prospered as ours, for none of those scouts came back at all. Certainly other clans scouted out our island, and just as certainly their scouts were destroyed by us.

"And our population still grew. Then we did begin to eat nestlings, but it was too late. The normals had laid their eggs everywhere. No matter what we did to hang on until the scouts we had sent into space returned with the location of a new home, our population still grew. As you know . . ." And the Kenstain's voice tapered off.

"Hungry normals are dangerous normals," the God King finished.

"Dangerous in themselves and dangerous in the trouble they can cause," agreed Ziramoth, nodding his head.

"In this particular case, one philosopher's favorite normal grew too hungry to be controlled. It attacked the herd of another, killed a juvenile normal, and carted it off to feast."

"So what was the problem?" Guanamarioch asked. "Surely the Kessentai that owned the juvenile would have demanded recompense and the one whose normal had done the killing would have complied. That is the law."

"Ah, but that is only half the law," the Kenstain answered wistfully.

Chapter 19

An assegai had been thrust into the belly of the nation.

There are not tears enough to mourn for the dead.

- Cetshwayo, King of the Zulus

Remedios, Chiriqui, Republic of Panama

Binastarion's crest expanded, fluttering in the windstream as his tenar cut through the air. That ship! That accursed, odious, stinking, CHEATING ship! I had the thresh in my claws, savoring the anticipation of the squeezing when that damnable threshkreen ship ruined everything, butchering my sons like abat and blasting their mates into unrecyclable waste. It shall pay and so shall all who sail aboard her.

This time, however, I will not risk my landers, my C-Decs and B-Decs. They are too valuable, too difficult for us to replace with my clan in such dire straits. Indeed, without the manufacturies in those ships we will not survive the first push of a rival clan. Instead, we shall swarm the bitch with tenar. I will lose sons, yes, perhaps many of them, along with their tenar. But sons and tenar I can replace, the great ships not so easily.

USS Des Moines

"Skipper, we got's problems," announced Davis.

The Des Moines was still deep within the bay, still firing in support of the Panamanians, still boxed in by the mainland to north, east and west and the island to the south.

Daisy Mae's avatar's eyes moved left and right rapidly as humans' sometimes will when trying to count large numbers or solve complex problems. Her mouth opened slightly in a worried looking moue.

"Captain," she said, "there are more than I can track. Two streams of them, flanking us to the east and the west. They're keeping low, trying to get around us and cut us off. I think it may be time to leave."

McNair hesitated a moment, then picked up the radio microphone. "Daisy, translate. Lieutenant Diaz?" he asked.

"Sir?" Even charged with the radio's static Diaz's voice seemed terribly, terribly tired.

"We're in a spot of trouble here, Lieutenant. How is the breakout coming?"

"Capitano, Colonel Suarez has the bridge over the river to the east. Your ICM cleaned off the aliens pretty well. He's already passing the soft stuff over, trucks, ambulances, things like that."

"To the west?" McNair queried, succinctly.

"Your countrymen in the Armored Combat Suits are handling that, sir. It looks basically okay."

Unseen by the glider pilot, McNair nodded, as if weighing options, duties, values and chances of survival.

"Tell Suarez I have to pull out. The Posleen are trying to box me in here. It's not looking good."

Again the radio crackled with the flying officer's voice, "I will pass that on, sir. We should be fine on the ground. Good luck and my best to your radio operator Miss Daisy. Diaz out."

McNair half turned and shouted to the navigation bridge, "Bring us around. Make for open sea. All possible speed."

Within the armored navigation bridge a crewman turned the ship's wheel hard aport. Beneath the stern the AZIPOD drives followed the command of the wheel. Water churned fiercely to starboard as the Des Moines began a turn so sharp it was almost less than the ship's length along the waterline.

As the bow turned to the break between the western-most tip of the island and the mainland, Chief Davis' eyes grew wide with horror. He pointed toward the island.

"Too late, Skipper," he announced.

* * *

"At them, my children. Punish the foilers of our plans, the blighters of our hopes, the murderers of our brothers."

Binastarion could see only a couple of hundred of his tenar-borne sons as they arose from the covering vegetation and began to converge on the threshkreen warship. In his screen, however, more than one thousand tenar appeared. Lines showing the paths of the tenar all converged in an irregular blotch above the ship. The ship itself he could not see, though bright flashes on the horizon suggested that the ship had seen the threat and was already fighting back.

The Des Moines had four lines of defense, so to speak, against alien attack. The most visually impressive of these, the three triple turrets of eight-inch guns, were already engaged, spewing forth canister and time-fused high explosive. At the current range the time-fused shells were most effective. Unfortunately, both forward turrets were fully occupied in trying to blast a hole through the southern quadrant of the Posleen net.

The rear turret, on the other hand, was totally inadequate to covering the one hundred and eighty degrees it would have to if the Posleen were to be kept away. Daisy tried, even so, switching the gun madly from one alien cluster to another.

The secondary line of defense was composed of the six upgraded Mark 71 turrets, emplaced in lieu of the old twin five-inch mounts. These were actually the first line of defense if, as the Posleen had before, the enemy used landers to attack. The barbettes and magazines below those turrets carried only anti-lander ammunition, solid bolts of depleted uranium. These could be effective against individual tenar, but their rate of fire was just not adequate to a massed tenar attack; though no one had really imagined any of the formerly three-ship flotilla having to stand alone as the Des Moines was now. Moreover, it was a case of almost absurd overkill to use a two-hundred and sixty pound depleted uranium bolt against a single flying sled carrying a single God King.

The third line of defense, the gun tubs, had been intended for 20mm antiaircraft guns. These had been replaced in design by twin three-inch mounts when it was discovered that a 20mm shell was simply too small to stop a determined kamikaze. The three-inch mounts had, in turn, been recently replaced by fully automated turrets housing five-barreled, 30mm Gatlings, stripped from A-10 aircraft that had become useless, having had no possible chance of survival against automated Posleen air defenses.

The fourth line of defense?

"Jesus," prayed McNair, "I hope it doesn't come to that." He then added, half jokingly, "We don't have a single cutlass aboard."

Daisy, eyes closed now as if concentrating on her targeting, as in fact she was, answered, "Have Sintarleen pass out the submachine guns I traded for. He knows where they are. Indian built Sterlings. They're simple enough that anyone can use one after five minutes' familiarization."

"Submachine guns?" McNair asked incredulously.

Eyes still closed, Daisy asked, "Would you have actually preferred cutlasses? I was watching Master and Commander and got to thinking . . ."

Without another word McNair spoke over the shipwide intercom. "Mr. Sinbad, this is the captain. Pass out the small arms . . . the . . . Sterlings. And all hands, now hear this: I never expected to say this, boys, but . . . all hands stand by to repel boarders."

It was magnificent, Binastarion thought, even while hating the source of that magnificence with every fiber of his being. The ship was wreathed in fire and smoke, fighting furiously to keep the host of the People away.

The God King was puzzled, actually, that the host had not done more damage to the ship than it had. Hundreds of plasma bolts had been fired, along with several dozen hypervelocity missiles. (Those last were pricey and a clan as poor as that of Binastarion could ill afford to waste them.) Some of the HVMs had been intercepted by fire from the ship and destroyed in flight; the ship was putting out a practically solid wall of DU and iron projectiles around itself. Some seemed to have been spoofed by the immaterial holograms the ship projected. Others, though, many others, appeared to have struck home. Yet the firepower of the defenders seemed undiminished.

That sparked a thought. While the ship could spoof HVMs, while it could mimic in safe quadrants the bursts of intense flame that indicated cannon fire, the flame of the actual guns it could not mask.

And those sources cannot be far above the water nor too far from the center of the fire.

Shouting words of encouragement to his sons to press the attack closer Binastarion concentrated carefully on the pattern of flames belching forth from his enemy.

There, he thought, as a steady, measured burst of flames spewed forth from what he thought must be amidships. There is a true source.

The God King marked what he believed to be an actual weapon on his control screen, then tapped it several times to carefully sight his own, superior, HVM at the target. With a whispered prayer that the shit-demons not spoil his aim, he ordered his Artificial Sentience, "Fire."

McNair and the bridge crew were knocked senseless and thrown from their feet by the blast.

"Oh, God!" Daisy screamed, clutching her side and flickering in and out of apparent existence.

Below and behind the battle bridge an enemy missile had struck the nearest secondary turret, cutting through the armor, incinerating the lone gun crewman on station and, unfortunately, setting off the propellant charge for the gun's next round even as it was being fed into the breach. The resultant blast was enough to knock the bridge crew to the deck, to blow the turret clean off the ship and to rip a gaping hole, three feet by seven, in the portside hull above the armor deck.

At the low angle at which the HVM hit, it was unable to do more than score a long gash in the thick steel of the armor deck. Molten steel blasted off from that armor was sufficient, however, to wound or kill better than thirty crewman standing by for damage control on the port side of Des Moines' splinter deck. The screams of those who still lived, hideously mangled and burned, echoed through the ship.

Continuing on, the HVM cut through five bulkheads and a passageway before erupting into the lightly armored magazine that fed one of the 30mm Gatling turrets. The heat of its passage was sufficient to set off the 30mm ammunition in its entirety, blowing that turret, too, completely off the ship and hopelessly jamming the one next to it. The explosion of the ammunition, confined to a degree by the ship's deck and hull, fed inward through the gap torn by the HVM itself.

A dozen of Sintarleen's Indowy crewman, standing by to participate in damage control, were half crushed and badly surface burned by the explosion leaking in through that gap. Their screams added to those of the humans caught in the path of the enemy missile.

Father Dan Dwyer was first on the scene of the port side misery. His first thought was to go to the aid of the wounded. Yet the priest was an old seaman. That was important, to be sure. But more important was to let the captain know how his ship fared. The priest picked up the intercom and rang the bridge.

It seemed a long moment before anyone answered. When the captain came on he seemed stunned, groggy.

"McNair."

Dwyer had to shout to make himself heard over the shrieking of torn and burned crewmen. "Jeff, this is Dan. We're bad hit but not fatally. Number fifty-three secondary turret is out."

The priest looked upward at the smoky sky through the gaping hole defined by twisted and tortured metal. "I mean really out. She's gone and you've got a hole in your defenses. At least one."

"Fuck . . . the . . . hole," McNair answered, groggily. "Daisy's a . . . brave girl . . . she . . . can be . . . repaired. What about . . . my crew?"

The corpsmen had arrived on scene while Dwyer spoke with the bridge. They went from body to body, looking for live crew who had a chance of survival. More often than not a medico would make a quick examination and shake his head in resignation. Morphine was being liberally dispensed. In the dosages used it was a sure sign, the Jesuit knew, that the crewman so graced was not expected to survive. Slowly, the shrieks, moans and screams softened as one hopelessly butchered and charred sailor after another was put under.

Dwyer's eyes came to rest on a charred, disembodied leg. He fought down nausea. "It's bad, Skipper, as bad as I've ever seen. Thirty men down, at least. Might be forty. Hard to tell; some of them are in pieces. They're . . . well, they're just ripped apart . . . and flash burned. And that's only on the port side. I'm heading to starboard to check there."

Binastarion wasn't sure his HVM had struck home until he saw the odd shaped, multifaceted piece of metal flying high above the deceptive holograms projected by his enemy. Momentarily the holograms flickered out and he saw the ship's true shape, long and lean and predatory, through the smoke.

How strange, the God King thought, the one thing I have seen on this shitball of a world the aesthetics of which don't make me want to wretch. My enemy is even, in its way, the more beautiful for being so deadly.

Even very beautiful things, however, must die. And so must that ship.

"Forward, my sons," the God King chieftain exulted into his communicator. "Forward to victory and glory everlasting."

The great ship shuddered with the repeated hits of Posleen HVMs now. Overhead the thick armored deck rang as two- to four-inch-deep gouges were torn out of it. Even through the stout metal, the priest was certain he heard at least two more secondary explosions. Those had to be nothing less than eight-inch or 30mm batteries going up in smoke and flame.

Dimly, the priest sensed the captain desperately ordering that canister and high explosive be brought to the secondary turrets. He hurried the performance of last rites for the fallen, human and Indowy, both. After all, God will know his own.

Dwyer became aware of Sintarleen standing off to one side. The Indowy's expression was unreadable in any detail to a human not specially trained in the alien culture. Dwyer looked for a sign of disapproval, even so, and found none on the alien's furry, batlike face.

Sintarleen looked back and shrugged, a bit of body language picked up from the human crew.

"Though we have no such thing as religion, as you would think of it, it couldn't hurt, Father."

Sinbad continued, "These were a third, or nearly a third, of all that remained of my clan, Father. Of those great and industrious multitudes now only sixteen males remain on this planet, and another one hundred or so transfer neuters and females held in bondage somewhere by the Elves. We had hoped to buy our sisters and brothers out of that bondage, but now . . ."

The Indowy bowed its head so deeply its chin rested on its great chest. Sintarleen could not weep, was not built to shed tears, yet his body shook with the overwhelming emotions of seeing so large a percentage of his few remaining kinsmen slaughtered.

Dwyer did not know what to say. Instead of words, therefore, he enfolded the quivering Indowy in a great bear hug, patting the creature's back to give what comfort it might be worth. As he did so, Dwyer couldn't help but notice that, despite its small stature, the alien's body was one big chord of knotted muscle. He had the glimmerings of an idea.

We need to get antipersonnel munitions to the secondary turrets. But the shells are too heavy for one man to carry and a stretcher carried by two has the devil's own time of it squeezing through the watertight doors. But . . .

Dwyer stepped back and looked at the alien intently. "Sintarleen, how much weight can you people carry easily?"

The Indowy frowned, puzzled.

"How much weight can you pick up?" the priest demanded urgently.

The Indowy, temporarily distracted from his grief, shrugged and answered, "Maybe five or six hundred of your pounds. A bit more for some of us. Why?"

"Assemble your people, my furry friend. Go to the magazines under the great triple turrets. Get from them rounds of canister, two for each of you. Carry them to the barbettes for the secondary turrets, the singles.

"Maybe you cannot fight, boyo, but — praise the Lord! — you can pass the ammunition!"

Each effective hit of a Posleen HVM or plasma bolt was like a hot knife plunging into Daisy's vitals. She had grown almost used to the agony, enough so that her avatar barely showed it. Only the occasional wince, and the almost continuous rocking, indicated that the ship knew pain that would have killed a human.

The avatar's eyes opened up and it seemed to look directly at McNair.

"I have anti-flyer munitions for the four remaining secondaries now," she said, loudly to make herself heard over McNair's concussion-induced, and hopefully temporary, partial deafness. "A few anyway. More coming."

Even as the avatar made this announcement, the Des Moines shuddered under what felt to McNair to be at least three separate impacts amidships.

The captain shook his head for what seemed like the fiftieth time. He was still seeing double from the concussion of the first effective HVM strike. Despite this it was easy to see the smoke pouring upward from Daisy's sundered deck and bulkheads.

McNair forced himself to think. Holograms or not, the enemy can see we are hurt. They'll press in. Nothing to do about it. Or . . .

"Daisy, you can't hide us anymore, can you?"

The avatar started to shake its head, then realized that with the captain so badly concussed he might not make that out.

"I'm afraid not, sir. The smoke is rising too high, and I have lost some abilities to project false images as well."

So hard to think. Yet he had to. If we can't look healthy, maybe we can . . .

"Daisy, at the next hit . . . or the one after if it takes you longer to prepare . . . I want you to drop all the cover . . . make us look . . . worse off . . . helpless. Dead guns . . . ruined turrets. Fire . . . smoke. And cease fire until . . ."

"Until the bastards mass to close in for the kill," the avatar finished.

"And then you'll have to pick your own targets, Daisy," he said. "I can't see to direct you. But you have authorization to fire."

Another hit rang throughout the ship.

The price was appalling. Still, Binastarion was certain, it would be worth it if only the damned threshkreen vessel might be sunk.

Smoke was pouring out of the ship now as if from a chain of close set volcanoes, or some single rift in a planet's skin. Even her main batteries went out of action. As the God King watched a last group of explosive shells detonated in the air, close together, sending a storm of hot jagged metal forward in a series of cones. The agonized cries of his children, faithfully amplified by his AS, shook the Posleen chieftain.

He checked the battle screen on his tenar. There was hardly anything left in front of the enemy ship to bar its path. The ranks had been badly thinned behind it as well, so much so that he doubted the courage of his pursuing sons. Only on the flanks was the People's attack holding up and making gains. The volcanolike smoke pouring from the gaping holes in the deck and hull told as much.

The defensive fire on the flanks had been mostly to thank for that. Binastarion was not sure why, but guessed that the secondary weapons carried none of the simple, scatterable or explosive munitions that emptied tenar right and left to the ship's fore and aft.

"Press in, my children, press in! The foe is weak at the center. Close in and pinch it in two with our claws!"

Slipping and sliding on the crimson blood seeping along the smoky corridors' decks, the grunting, straining Indowy switched anti-tenar ammunition from the main batteries' magazines to the secondaries' as fast as they could fight past the wounded, dead and dying crewmen and those carrying them to sickbay.

Sintarleen hurried from barbette to barbette, directing his kinsmen to where the ammunition was most needed. While the ammunition bearers were too busy and far too strained to give much thought to the purpose or morality of their task, Sinbad had just enough freedom of thought to question his basic philosophy.

We are a peaceful folk. We may not use violence. These are our teachings from earliest age. It is only these teachings that have enabled my people to survive, as so many other species have not, the transition from barbarism to true technology and civilization.

Yet my people even now carry the means of violence to those still capable of it. We make the weapons they use.

What is it that keeps us pure? Distance? The humans of this ship fight at a distance and rarely see the violence they do. How am I or my people here more pure than they? Merely because we will not see the violence? That is absurd.

Must it always be so? Must it always be our best and finest who fall? Curse the demons who have condemned us to this, curse them more even than that threshkreen ship which is, after all, only trying to survive as we try to survive.

Binastarion's heart was heavy within his chest. Momentarily his head hung with grief. So many fine sons lost. So many brave and noble philosophers, bright beings with full lives ahead of them, cut down and sunk even beyond recovery to feed the host.

But doubts in voice or action fed no one. The God King lifted his head, steeled his heart and his voice. A group of tenar sped by to his right, led by a favored son, Riinistarka. Binastarion raised his hand in salute to the young God King, shouting encouragement over the din of battle. The clan leader's communicator picked up the hearty shout and passed it on to the junior's.

"We'll take them, Father. Never fear," the young philosopher sent back, returning his sire's salute. "Forward, my brothers. Forward that our clan might live."

Demons of fire and ice, spare me my son, the father prayed.

"Firing," Daisy answered coldly. She had come to this fight full of enthusiasm. That enthusiasm was gone, replaced by only cold determination. Now she had felt the fire in her own belly; felt the pain of burning penetration and dismemberment. The avatar had to answer coldly, for every emotion of which she was capable was suppressed to keep the agony at bay.

With two secondary turrets down, and given the specific turrets, Daisy had a choice of adding two to the defense of each side, or three to engage on one side and one on the other. She opted for the latter and six turrets, three of them triples, with a total of eleven guns still working, swiveled to engage on the side from which the nearest Posleen threat came.

Riinistarka was young. His father might have said, "young and foolish." However that might have been, he was young enough to feel the joy and exhilaration of closing on a worthy foe in company with his brothers. If this was foolishness, so be it. Besides, if he were truly foolish he would not have felt the fear that gnawed at his insides, threatening to break through the joy and exhilaration. He had not known true fear since his dangerous time in the pens as a helpless, cannibalistic nestling. The memory of that made him shudder as present fear could not.

And how can it be foolish, anyway, to fight for my clan to regain its position, he thought, to fight for my clan to survive?

Ahead of Riinistarka the threshkreen warship seemed broken and helpless with jagged-edged metal showing where the smoke and flames did not cover. The covering giant demon that the God King had seen from a distance was gone now. He knew, intellectually, that it was not a real demon, of course. Though the practical difference between a real demon and that ship seemed minimal, at best. He was sure, in his innermost being, that the representation had come from whatever intelligence quickened the ship.

Perhaps a lucky hit had destroyed whatever intellect that was, for suddenly, the false cover had fallen away, leaving only the image of a wreck such as the people only saw as the residue of battles in space. That the enemy guns had fallen silent at exactly the same time as the holographic cover had disappeared seemed to confirm this.

Despite the obvious ruination visited upon the threshkreen ship, however, it was still steaming away rapidly through the hole it had previously blasted in the People's enveloping net. Riinistarka strongly suspected that unless it were utterly destroyed it would be back. The People, themselves, were quite capable of restoring a wrecked space ship. He had seen nothing to date to suggest that these human vermin were any less clever.

Indeed, Riinistarka had already lost enough dear brothers to make him suspect that these threshkreen were quite possibly more clever. All the more reason they must be destroyed then, while they were still weak and relatively backward, lest the people later perish before a more dangerous enemy.

Dangerous? Riinistarka felt a sudden twinge of fear rise to the surface despite his best efforts to suppress it. There is the tale my father told, of Stinghal the Knower, and the siege of Joolon; how he breached his own walls and set fire to his citadel . . .

Suddenly, three quarters of the smoke and flame surrounding the threshkreen ship disappeared and Riinistarka found himself staring into the muzzles of eleven eight-inch guns.

More flame bloomed, eleven fiery blossoms of an altogether different character from that which had seemed to cover the ship. This was followed a split second later by the appearance of eleven smaller blooms. And then came agony.

The first of the humans' heavy iron balls struck the control panel of the tenar of Riinistarka. The panel stopped the ball, yet splinters torn from it pierced the young God King's body and shredded one eye. The next, so soon after the first that the Posleen could not sense the time differential, tore off one shoulder, lifting the alien onto his rear legs. The third, following the second at the tiniest interval, entered his uplifted belly, tearing apart his internal organs and crushing his spine half a meter forward of his rear legs.

None were merciful enough to kill outright.

Riinistarka barely managed to hold onto his tenar. With his controls destroyed and his spine crushed, he could not hope to do more than stay aboard as the tenar spun slowly in place a few meters above the sea.

With difficulty, the God King turned his remaining good eye onto his ruined shoulder. Splintered bone protruded between shreds of flesh. Yellow blood seeped out. Feeling sick, the young alien looked away.

In looking away from his shoulder Riinistarka's eye fell on his belly. The threshkreen projectile had caused the skin of that to split, spilling organs out. He did not want to imagine what it had done to his insides. He forced himself not to think about what it had done to his insides.

At first, the wounds had not hurt, exactly. But after a few minutes, as the initial shock of being hit wore off, the pain grew. The God King whimpered at first. Then, slowly, the pain transformed into agony, the whimpers turned to screams.

"Faaatherrr!"

"We're through, Captain," Daisy's avatar announced with what seemed like weariness. "Some of the enemy are pursuing, but the rear turret, and the three of the remaining four secondaries that I can bring to bear should be enough to keep them at bay."

McNair, who didn't just seem weary, nodded weakly.

"Casualties? Damage?" he asked.

"Incomplete reports, Captain. Bad, in any case. I am cut off from some areas."

"You going to be okay, Babes?"

Daisy's avatar nodded through her pain. "I'll be fine, Captain."

The pain had reached its peak and then begun to ebb even as Riinistarka's life ebbed out with the flow of his yellow blood. He had only the one dull yellow eye left to contemplate the departure of the enemy, his final enemy, he knew.

So far gone was he that he did not even notice as his father's tenar pulled up next to his. The airborne sled shuddered as Binastarion crossed deftly from his own tenar to his son's. A great cry of woe and pain came from the father as he saw his son's wounds. The father folded his legs to kneel beside the dying son. He reached out one hand to scratch the youngster behind his crest.

"Father?" Riinistarka asked weakly at the familiar touch.

"Yes, Son, it's me."

"I'm sorry, Father. We failed . . . I failed."

Binastarion shook his head. "Nonsense, boy. You did all you could. No one could ask for more. I'm proud of you."

The father followed his son's gaze to where the hated threshkreen ship was escaping from his clutches. At least we hurt it badly. Though I am sure it will be back.

"You and your brothers damaged the thresh, and badly. It might well sink," he lied. "Certainly it is at least half destroyed. In any case, it won't be back to hurt us any time soon."

Interlude

"And the other half, Zira?"

"The other half is that the usual procedure would be to turn over the precise normal that offended," the Kenstain answered. "But in this case, the normal was a special pet. The philosopher would not give it up. The offended Kessentai was adamant. Fighting broke out. It spread like a wildfire among the septs of the clan. The reason it spread, of course, is that we had managed to create our own conditions for a miniature orna'adar, right there on our island. And we had not had time to prepare our escape."

"Oh, demons," said Guanamarioch.

"Right," agreed Ziramoth. "The clan quickly broke into competing factions, all based on that one little spark. Instead of waiting for another clan to nuke our cities we saved them the bother and did it ourselves. Of course, as soon as the conflagration started those normals whose gift it is to build the starships began work instinctively, but it was all they could do to keep, barely, ahead of the destruction. And they never got very far ahead. Of all of our clan who had settled that island, fewer than one in twenty managed to escape. And the scars of the fissuring, brother slaying brother, were too deep to heal. The refugees stayed in the small groups into which they had split. Some were absorbed into other clans, but most went their own way, leaping into the void between the stars even without reconnaissance."

By now the sun had set. Guanamarioch looked down into the stream at the stars reflected therein. Which of them, he asked himself, how many of them have seen our passage since that long ago, terrible time?

"Who was it, Ziramoth? Who was that long ago philosopher who plunged our clan into chaos?"

Now it was the Kenstain who grew silent, staring into the flowing stream at the stars that twinkled there.

His voice, when he answered was full of infinite sadness. "His name was Ziramoth."

Chapter 20

This is defeat; avoid it.

- Caption to a painting,

Staff College, Kingston, Ontario

Bijagual, Chiriqui, Republic of Panama

They'd held for a while, there at the bridge before the town of Bijagual. Half of Digna's artillery, firing directly into the cleared kill zone, had stacked the aliens up like cordwood, carpeting field and stream with their bodies and then adding layers of bodies to that carpet. It had become quite a plush pile before the Posleen had learned better and gone searching for the flanks.

Digna had assumed they would go searching for the flanks as she'd assumed they would eventually find them. She had hoped it would have taken a bit longer, long enough to finish burying her dead, at least. That grace the aliens had not given. Before the bodies could be decently interred the frantic calls had come from both flanks. She'd ordered the mortars to give priority of fires to one flank, the SD-44s to another. The guns and mortars had fired off every round that could not be carried out on the long anticipated and planned-for retreat. That artillery fire had helped, but not enough.

She spared barely a glance for the long line of noncombatants trudging the road to Gualaca. Instead, she stood there, at the edge of the long meter-deep trench she'd had dug against this eventuality. Her eyes swept along the length of the trench, fixing in her mind the last few images of some of her most beloved children and grandchildren.

Digna had buried children before, several of them. But they had been only babies, dying — as children in the Third World often do — before she had had a chance to get to know them and love them as individuals. This was in every way worse.

The column of refugees-to-be was mostly silent until Digna ordered the gasoline poured into the trench. At that, with the overpowering smell of the fuel blown across the road by the breeze, the deaths became real. As if the first leaping flames were a signal, a long inarticulate cry of pain and woe arose.

She had not had the heart to order someone else to apply the flame. Instead, a grandson had handed her a lit torch. Almost — almost — she had broken down and wept as she turned her eyes away and tossed the torch into the trench.

Her grandson, the same one as had supplied the torch, touched Digna's shoulder in sympathy. She shrugged it off, bitterly and impatiently.

Voice halfway to breaking, she snarled, "Never mind that. There'll be a time for tears later. Get these people moving."

Her clan and its retainers had retreated with the smell of fuel overlaying that of overdone pork.

Digna had looked upon that pyre exactly once, dry-eyed. It was still not the time for weeping.

Dry-eyed, too, she had prodded, cajoled, and beaten her family toward the northeast. There, all through the night, the lights of the town of Gualaca had served as a beacon. There Digna hoped to find safety, at least for a time. Perhaps there would even be medical care for her wounded kin.

It was not to be. Crossing over the bridge spanning the Rio Chiriqui southwest of the town, Digna had expected to find a defense prepared. What she'd found instead was a town bereft of leadership; the alcalde gone with his family, the militia officers gone with theirs. What was left was not much more than an armed mob without direction.

Direction Digna knew how to provide. She'd taken charge, ordered half a dozen men shot, and formed the rest into a semblance of a defense. With another twenty-four mortars and a dozen SD-44s, plus a fairly generous amount of ammunition, she'd held the bridge and the fords over the Rio Chiriqui for two days. This was long enough, if just barely, to send the noncombatants on foot thirty kilometers up the road northward in the direction of Chiriqui Grande on the Caribbean coast. The vehicles, and there had not been many of them, were commandeered to carry the wounded and the food. The point of that band was just cresting the mountains as the pursuing Posleen again found the fords to turn Digna's flanks. She began another fighting retreat.

The little towns on the way were scooped up, the very young and very old being sent northward, along with most of the women, while the younger men and some of the women were pressed into the fighting arm.

Digna had to order a few more men, and two girls, shot along the way. She'd sent them to their deaths dry-eyed still. I can weep later.

There had been a moment, there where the fighting had been thickest, that Digna had thought with despair that she would not be able to hold, that the aliens would break through to feast on her charges. Then suddenly, as if by a miracle, the aliens' flying sleds had all turned and disappeared southward. She had no idea why, but relished the thought that somewhere they were being badly enough hurt to cause such a change in priorities.

With the disappearance of the flying sleds, the Posleen normals had pulled back. With the terrible pressure from the aliens relieved, Digna was able to pull out her expanded forces mostly intact.

As he was probably her best field man, and perhaps because he was also one of her oldest friends, Tomas Herrera took the point.

Gualaca Bridge, Rio Chiriqui, Republic of Panama

"Demons of Fire, curse the Aldanat' who condemned us to this," whispered the low flying God King, Slintogan, as his tenar skipped over the mounded piles of his people's slain. Scattered among the heaped, yellow, centauroid corpses were more than a few crashed tenar, clear indicators that more than mere normals had fallen trying to force a way across this river.

Internal gasses from decomposition had swelled the bodies, Slintogan noted with disgust. In many cases, the internal pressure had been strong enough to burst abdomens and spill out organs. And then the sun had gone to work; the stench was appalling.

For a moment the God King thought a curse in the general direction of the now escaped threshkreen, not for killing so many of his people, but for allowing so much valuable thresh to be wasted. As it was, with the bodies grown so overripe in the sun, even the normals could not be forced to eat of them.

It was enough to make the hardest heart weep.

But then, this is not the way of the local thresh. I wonder how it would be to grow up and grow old on a planet so abundant, in comparison to its population, that its inhabitants can afford to sneer at nourishing food.

My people, too, might have had such a chance, if those stinking, ignorant players at godhood, the Aldenata, had not meddled. "It's for your own good . . . We know and you know not . . . War is the greatest of scourges . . . Trust and have faith in us."

The God King laughed softly and bitterly. More likely this planet will change its direction of rotation than that a group of do-gooders with the power to meddle will refrain from it. Damn them.

The losses from the attack on the threshkreen ship had been so horrific that Slintogan, normally a leader of about four hundred, had had to bond with four times that many normals left bereft of their Gods. His brother God Kings were equally overtasked.

And the thresh must have a considerable lead by now. "A stern chase is a long chase," as Finegarich the Reaver is reputed to have said.

The God King looked ahead and upward at the mist-shrouded mountains to the north. The road he could barely make out. Even so, he knew the road was there and had no doubt that the thresh who had butchered the People here by this body of flowing water would be fleeing up it.

A long chase and a tiring one. Worse still, a dangerous one as we will never know a moment in advance if the thresh have turned at bay and wait in ambush.

Near Hill 2213, Chiriqui Province, Republic of Panama

The sharp crest of the Cordillera Central loomed in the distance, bare rock surmounted by trees. Sometimes, Digna could catch sight of the walls of the crest, rising vertically over the more gentle slope below. It seemed to her that the rock walls never grew any closer.

The way up was hard, even though the winding, all-weather road was good. More that once Digna, or one of her followers, had to threaten to shoot anyone who refused to keep up. Many of them looked enviously at the horse she sometimes rode but more often led. There was no telling when she would need the horse for a burst to speed to some trouble spot. A rested horse would be capable of that burst where one wearied, even by so slight a load as carrying her ninety-pound frame, might not.

If some looked at Digna's horse with envy it was as nothing compared to the greedy stares that followed the vehicles carrying the wounded, the lame, the infirm and the pregnant. Enough sniveling, or so thought some of the slackers, just might be enough to get a faster and easier ride to safety.

A great-grandson handed Digna a radio, announcing, "It's Señor Herrera, Mamita."

"Si, Tomas. Que quieres?" she answered. What do you want?

"I have a truckload of young men that we stopped," Herrera said, from nearby Edilze's battery position. It was on Edilze's radio that he spoke.

"What are young men doing in a vehicle when we need them to fight? What are young men doing in a vehicle when we have babies being carried and pregnant women and the old and sick still walking?"

Unseen in the distance, Herrera looked over the dozen or so disreputable, bound prisoners standing under guard by the truck from which they had been removed at gun point. He sneered at them as he spoke.

"Dama, they stole the truck and forced out the previous occupants."

Equally unseen by Herrera, Digna's face turned red with rage. Cowardly bastards.

Digna's late husband had once had a solution for criminals who trespassed on his land to commit their crimes. It was a solution much frowned on in more civilized circles but, in the outlying parts of Panama, and especially in earlier days, it had been a solution the implementation of which was unlikely to ever come to light.

"Hang them," she said. "Hang them right beside the road."

Herrera smiled at the twelve — no, it was thirteen — thieves as he took a coil of rope from the horn of his saddle.

He had no clue how to tie a proper hangman's noose. No matter, a simple loop would do well enough. This he made and then tossed the coil over a convenient tree branch. A shudder ran through the truck thieves as the loop arced over the branch and came to rest a few feet off the ground.

Tomas gestured with his chin for one of the prisoners to be brought over.

Hands bound as they were, still the prisoner attempted to wrap his legs around a sapling as two of Herrera's men grabbed him by the arms. A few kicks to his calves and thighs loosened the entwining legs. He began to beg as he was dragged toward the rope, the begging changing to an inarticulate scream as the loop was placed around his neck and half tightened.

"Did the sick and old who were designated to ride that truck plead not to be put off by you and your friends?" Tomas asked conversationally as he adjusted the loop to the neck.

"Please," the thief begged. "Please don't do this. I had a right to live. I have a right to live. Please . . ."

"Haul away," Herrera commanded and the prisoner's previous guards sprang to the rope and began to pull. Once the kicking feet were a meter off the ground he told them to tie the rope off, cut it and bring him the remainder . . . and more rope.

The gagging and kicking of the first had not stopped before the second, too, was elevated. In all it took Herrera almost an hour before all thirteen thieves were strung up and dead — or nearly so, a few pairs of feet still twitched. The bodies swayed gently in the wind, the smell of shit from loosened sphincters wafting on the breeze.

There's a stinging advertisement for social responsibility, Herrera thought.

From her vantage point, hidden behind a large rock and some vegetation, Digna could make out the pursuing Posleen through her army issue field glasses. The aliens seemed to her to be hesitant, much more so than they had been during the assault on the bridges by Bijagual and Gualaca. Too, she noted, there seemed to be many fewer of their damned flying sleds. Lastly, from what she could tell, the aliens seemed . . . somehow . . . clumsy. Not that they were clumsy as individuals, no, but they seemed clumsy as groups, as if their leadership were being strained to the limits.

"Something has hurt them badly, after all," she whispered to herself. "Blessings on whoever or whatever it was."

Slower the aliens were. For all that, they were still moving quicker than her column of refugees. They had to be slowed down.

"But where?" she asked herself. Then she closed her eyes and tried to envision the whole area around the road and the pass behind her.

South of where the road wound across the mountains was a military crest, so called because it would allow long fields of grazing fire downward and long-range observation. The road itself S-turned through a pass carved out of the mountain rock through the topographical crest, the actual summit of the rise. To either side of that narrow pass rock walls rose vertically, occasional stunted trees clinging to their tiny crevasses and ledges.

The aliens aren't built to climb those walls, Digna thought, not even with all their strength. Their sleds could get over but they'd do so without the supporting fires of the rest of their horde. That would make them easy meat for my boys.

Digna looked again at the rock walls. She found no place for a horse, even one aided by arms, to surmount the crest. But I can send people up. A tough climb, yes, but not impossible for human beings.

She mounted her horse and began forcing it through the still teeming column of refugees. It was especially difficult in the narrow pass, which was only a bit wider than the two lane highway through it. On the far — northern — side Digna found essentially what she had expected to see, a mirror image of the southern face.

The only difference is that the aliens are trying to climb while our people are trying to descend.

Digna tried to think back to what her instructors had said about the three types of crests. The military crest isn't worth much, not with the trees in the way, she thought. The great thing about the reverse crest is that I can cover the pass and road from it, while the aliens can't shoot our escaping people from the rear as long as we hold it. And inside that pass we can butcher them with the mortars . . . as long as the ammunition holds out, anyway. We can, I hope we can, buy enough time for the refugees to make it to the coast, to Chiriqui Grande where they might be able to escape by sea.

With those factors in mind, Digna began to make her plans.