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.
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.
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 . . .
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.
The honest politician is one who, when he is bought, stays bought.
—U.S. Senator Simon Cameron, 1862
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.
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.