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.
Bella, detesta matribus. (War, the horror of mothers.)
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.
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.
"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 . . .
"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."