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.
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.
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.
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.