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," 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."
"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."
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."
"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?
"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."
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."
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."