He never reached the fighting again. Moving, of necessity, with painful slowness, Guanamarioch and his band reached a crossroad somewhere in north-central Colombia. There, another one of the tenar-riding seniors of the clan sneered at the scruffy and underequipped appearance of the normals.
"You lot won't be worth anything at the fighting," the senior said to Guanamarioch. "Turn right here. Go about three thousand heartbeats until you reach the Kenstain, Ziramoth. He has surveyed our holdings. He will assign you one of those. Take charge of it and start preparing the land for farming. That's all your wretches look good for, young Kessentai."
Biting back a nasty retort, Guanamarioch nodded in seeming respect and turned, dejectedly, to his right.
"What's this; what's this, young Kessentai? Why so down, lordling? Abat gnaw on your dick?"
Ordinarily such words might have angered Guanamarioch. These, however, were delivered in a cheerful, bantering tone that almost succeeded in bringing a smile to his face. He looked over the Kenstain and saw a mid-sized, crested philosopher, missing his left eye and his right arm, and bearing serious scars along both flanks. Strapped across those scars were fully stuffed twin saddle bags. The Kenstain took a couple of steps toward Guanamarioch, walking with a stumbling limp.
The Kenstain, seeing the God King hiding one hand, reached out for the injured limb. Rather than resist and risk having any force exerted on the hand, Guanamarioch let him examine it. The Kenstain turned the palm over gently and bent to examine it closely with his one remaining eye.
"That's a right nasty burn you have there, young lordling. If you don't mind my asking, how did you come by it?"
"Thresh weapons get hot," the God King answered simply.
"Do they indeed?" asked the Kenstain, releasing the hand and twisting his torso to rummage in one of the saddle bags. From the saddlebag he pulled a dull tube. This he took a cap from, holding the cap between his lips. Then he again took Guanamarioch's injured hand in his and turned it palm up before releasing it. Using the same hand the Kenstain squeezed a measure of goo out onto the palm in a long, snaking line. The goo immediately began to spread out on its own, sinking into the burned flesh.
"Demons! Thank you, Kenstain," Guanamarioch said, the relief in his voice palpable.
"Never mind, young lordling. All in a day's work. I'm Ziramoth, by the way. Were you sent here to farm?"
Guanamarioch nodded bleakly.
"None of that, Kessentai. Farming, taking sustenance from the land, is the best way to live. You'll see."
No captain can do very wrong if he
places his ship alongside that of the enemy.
The three warships steamed through the day, their bows cutting the waves and raising a froth that spilled to either side of each. They were in echelon right, with Salem forward and to port, Des Moines rearward and to starboard, and Texas in the middle. The ships were spaced far enough apart that any one of them had considerable maneuver space to zig and zag without risking a collision if the Posleen chose to engage from space.
The precautions seemed wise to McNair. He worried terribly even so. The ships were tough, true, and well armored against any surface threat. But warships, like tanks, were so vulnerable to attack from above—had been since 1941 at the latest—that he couldn't help but worry. The thought of a salvo of space-launched kinetic energy projectiles straddling his beloved Daisy Mae was simply too horrible for him not to worry.
Even so, except for the streaks through the sky as spaceships battled with Planetary Defense Batteries, there was no sign of the enemy.
"It makes no sense," McNair said aloud inside the heavily armored bridge. "It just seems so incredibly stupid that none of the warships have been engaged from space. We're big. We're metal. We're heavily armored and have impressive clusters of guns. Why the hell don't they attack us?"
Daisy's hologram answered, "They're a fairly stupid race, Captain. None of their technology, so far is as known, was invented by them, with the possible exception of their drive. Even that appears to be a modification of Aldenata technology, rather than something truly original. The way they breed, leaving their brightest to struggle to survive on equal terms in their breeding pens with the biggest and most savage of their normals; they can't help but be stupid. Add in that they've never before fought a race that really fought back and . . . well . . . they're dummies."
"And when we show our teeth?" McNair asked. "Will they fail to engage us then, too?"
The avatar shrugged. "That we will see when we see it, Captain. They might attack. Then again, they might not. And if they attack it might be from space, which we have a chance of maneuvering to avoid, or it might be with a low-flying lander which we have an excellent chance of beating in a heads-up fight. Even if we cannot maneuver to avoid the fire from space, Texas mounts a Planetary Defense Gun in place of each of her former turrets. An attacker who engages us from on high won't last long with Texas watching out for his little sisters."
"You're really not worried, are you, Daisy?" McNair asked, wonderingly.
The hologram shrugged. "Not really, sir, no. I'm a warship and this is what I was meant to do."
"That's my girl," McNair said, a growing confidence in his voice.
"My girl," Daisy repeated mentally. An entire ship fairly quivered with barely suppressed pleasure.
Diaz soared, nausea gone and forgotten with the smelly, vile bag of puke he had dropped over the side moments after he had cut his glider loose from the lifting balloon.
From a height of nearly two miles he had sailed westward, dropping no more than a foot for every fifty that he advanced. When his altitude dropped to within a half-mile of the earth he had sought an updraft. These were easy to find along these ridges swept by the warm, southerly winds that brought freshness and rain to his country. In these updrafts he had circled again and again until the force of the wind gave out. At that point he had left the current and pushed onward again, ever closer to the fighting.
He was not there yet, though, and his mind wandered, naturally, to other things. More precisely, his mind wandered to Paloma Mercedes as he had last seen her, fiery with anger at his joining up and not using family connections to stay with her.
She'd never called, either. He'd thought she would get over it but, whether from anger or pride the phone had remained silent. He didn't miss her less, exactly, but perhaps the sharp edge of the pain was growing dull from sawing at his heart and soul.
Maybe . . . maybe after this mission I'll swallow my own pride and call her. But first I have to survive.
Beneath his long narrow wings, Diaz saw more than a few signs of the fighting that had raged below. Here a burning tank, there a cluster of enemy dead or a crashed flying sled of the enemy's leaders. These reminded him, as if he needed a reminder, that all that would keep him alive through the next several hours was the enemy's stupidity, the aliens' confidence in their own weapons and sensors, and his own seeming harmlessness. He knew that if the aliens ever suspected he was a reconnaissance platform his life would be measured in tiny fractions of seconds.
For some reason, though, Diaz was unable to reach anyone on the ground. Fat lot of good the information he hoped to gain would do if he couldn't pass it on. He knew the internal codes for his frequency hopping radio were good; he'd checked them before departure.
The Rinn Fain had already done everything he knew to do with the humans. He had sabotaged and misdirected their plans, split their efforts, and aided their president in every way a Darhel knew how to, to rob his own people.
It was nearly time to stop doing things with the humans and start to do things to them.
To this end the Rinn Fain, and all his underlings—Darhel, Indowy, and artificial, all three—manned stations that, in human terms, could only be thought of as electronic warfare nodes.
For now the Darhel avoided interference, for the most part. Except in a few cases they were content merely to analyze human radio patterns, intercepting and synthesizing the codes that the barbarians used to hop from one frequency to another.
Certainly they didn't want to tip the humans off to what they were up to in time for the clever beasts to think of something new.
There were, however, certain of the humans who were physically out of touch enough to risk playing games with their communications. The glider pilots were a case in point. The Rinn Fain had taken considerable pleasure in remotely reprogramming their radios to make sure that anything they saw went unreported.
It was almost as pleasurable as taking control of the human's warships would be.
USS Des Moines
"Captain," Daisy reported, "I'm picking up scrambled signals from someone who, based on what he is trying to say and how he is trying to say it, seems to be a pilot flying at or near the front. I don't think anyone but myself—and probably Sally—can hear him." Daisy hesitated for a long moment, as if in communication with someone not present.
"Sally hears him, too, sir, yes. But there is something wrong with her."
"What?" asked McNair.
"I don't know," Daisy answered, sounding genuinely puzzled and more than a little concerned. "She is . . . different from me . . . a normal AID. And that part of her intelligence, the part created by the Darhel, is acting a bit . . . odd."
"Okay," McNair answered. "See if you can figure out what's wrong with Sally. Help her if you can. And see if you can patch me through to that . . . pilot, did you say?"
"Yes, sir, a pilot. Spanish speaking. Fortunately, I can speak Spanish."
Along with every other human tongue spoken by more than two thousand people, she thought but, tactfully, did not say.
Diaz's voice was beginning to take on a note of frustrated desperation. He knew it and hated it but could do nothing to control it. But there were targets below, thick and ripe and waiting to be harvested.
"Any station, any station, this is Zulu Mike Lima Two Seven, over," he pleaded, for more than the hundredth time.
For a wonder the radio crackled back, in an achingly feminine voice, "Zulu Mike Lima Two Seven this is Charlie Alfa One Three Four. Hear you Lima Charlie, over."
Initially Diaz was unwilling to respond. It could be an enemy trick. Frantically, he poured through his COI, the code book that gave the call signs for every unit in his army and the gringos fighting in support of it. There was nothing, not one clue as to who Charlie Alfa One Three Four might be.
The warm feminine voice repeated, "Zulu Mike Lima Two Seven this is Charlie Alfa One Three Four. Hear you Lima Charlie, over."
Finally, realizing that if he was so useless as to be unable to communicate with his own people the enemy was unlikely to be very interested in him either, Diaz answered, "Last calling station this is Zulu Mike Lima Two Seven. Who the hell are you?"
Another voice, different from the girl's, came on. That speaker's Spanish was as accentless as the girl's had been.
"Captain, this is Lieutenant Julio Diaz, First FAP Light Recon Squadron. I have targets and I haven't been able to raise anyone."
The radio went silent. Diaz knew what the captain must be thinking: how the hell do I know this snot-nosed kid is really a snot-nosed kid and not the damned Posleen?
"Can you patch me through to my father?" Diaz asked. Then, realizing that, as phrased, it was an incredibly stupid, second lieutenant kind of question, he added, "He's the G-2. Major General Juan Diaz. My father can verify my voice."
In half a minute a different, and angry, voice came over Diaz's radio. "Julio, is that you? Where the hell have you been? I was about to call your mother. . . ."
"Father," Diaz nearly wept with relief, "I haven't been able to get a hold of anyone since shortly after I went airborne. I can see everything, Father, and just as I thought, the beasts are simply ignoring me. I can see where Sixth Division is engaged. And I can see the enemy massing. But I can't do a fucking thing about it."
The other Spanish voice came back. "General Diaz, Captain McNair. I can do something about it. Do you acknowledge that the voice claiming to be Lieutenant Diaz is your son and that he is in a position to adjust fire?"
The elder Diaz spoke again. "What did I say when I caught you and your girlfriend in the gardener's cabin, Julio?"
"Father! You promised never to bring that up!"
General Diaz's voice contained a chuckle in it as he said, "Yes, Captain, that's my boy."
"Very good then, sir. Lieutenant Diaz, I want you to find me a huge concentration of the enemy. I don't know how long we can pull this off before they shoot the shit out of us. So let's make it count, son."
"All hands, this is the captain speaking. Battle stations, battle stations. This is no drill."
"I'm receiving Lieutenant Diaz's call for fire now, Captain."
"Prepare to engage." McNair was pleased to hear no note of fear or hesitation in his own voice.
"Captain?" Daisy asked. "Would you and the crew care for a little mood music as we make our run?"
Raising a single, quizzical eyebrow, McNair answered, "Go for it, Daisy."
"In nomine patri, filioque et spiritu sancti," Father Dwyer intoned as he made the sign of the cross over a half dozen of the crew that knelt for a brief and informal service, pending action. Dwyer could have sworn at least one of the present flock was a Moslem but the man took the host without hesitation and eagerly grasped the two-ounce plastic cup of "sacramental scotch" Dwyer proffered.
No atheists in foxholes, they say. I think that, given the power of the Holy Spirit as manifested in the Glenlivet distillery, there shall soon be only good Roman Catholics afloat. Well . . . and perhaps the odd Presbyterian. Now if only I can find something suitable to bless for the benefit of Sinbad and his Indowy.
Before he could continue that line of thought Dwyer heard, "Battle stations . . ."
"Boys," the priest said, "here aboard ship or in heaven or in hell, I'll see you soon. Now you to your posts and I to mine."
With that, the Jesuit headed towards sick bay. Worse come to worst he had a fair chance of saving a couple of more souls there.
* * *
McNair was startled twice over. The first time was when Daisy's avatar blinked out of existence on the bridge. The second came when the ship itself began to vibrate with music.
Through the narrow slitted and armored glass-plated windows of the bridge, it seemed to McNair that a glow began to arise from the hull, spreading out into a perfect circle. The normal wake made by the bow as it sliced through the water disappeared, as did the waves.
From the glowing circle a fog arose; real or holographic McNair couldn't say. Yet it seemed real enough. Below the fog the dimly sensed ocean began to bubble. Again, real or illusion? McNair assumed it must be illusion.
et tunc curat
ludo mentis aciem,
The rear turret, number three, was beyond McNair's view. The forward two turrets began slowly to turn in the direction of land.
dissolvit ut glaciem.
rota tu volubilis,
Lightning, real or false, flashed from deep within the frothing circle. Sometimes it came in the form of streaks or ribbons. At others it came as dancing balls of fire.
The circle of fog expanded upward, becoming a hemisphere around the ship. From inside that hemisphere it seemed like the surface of a portal to Hell, all impossible colors and writhing, unsettling combinations. McNair tore his eyes away from the eerie display surrounding him and his ship. He could see that the guns were pointed at about the bearing he would have expected if . . .
michi quoque niteris;
nunc per ludum
KABOOM! Center gun of number two turret spoke.
fero tui sceleris.
A leg now, long and shapely, appeared to grow from the top of number two. The foot must have been somewhere around the keel. Risking concussion, McNair hurried out from the protected bridge.
Another flash and the blast of a gun shook McNair to the core. His attention, however, was entirely on Daisy's hologram.
michi nunc contraria,
She was a giant, a goddess. Lighting flashed back and forth between her hands.
semper in angaria.
KABOOM! Another blast erupted from a gun.
Daisy said, very softly for such a grand goddess, "Please, Captain. Go inside. I know what I'm doing."
Hac in hora
corde pulsum tangite;
quod per sortem
mecum omnes plangite!1
And then, fire adjusted, all nine guns were on the target in a pattern designed for maximum destruction. Daisy thrust her hands forward and the lightning no longer passed between them but hurled through the night toward the land.
The ship shuddered: KABKAKAKABOOMOOMOOMOOM, as all nine eight-inch guns in the three main turrets hurled death and defiance at the invader.
"Splash, over," said the warm female voice.
Diaz eased his glider over slightly and looked in the direction in which he expected the shell to land. It was over and to the northwest but . . . he checked his altimeter again. Yes, he was at the height he expected. That shell must be huge, much bigger than the 105mm artillery he had trained to adjust.
He took another direction to his target, several—maybe ten or twelve—thousand Posleen massing in some low ground east of 6th Division.
"From last shell, direction: 5150. Left eight hundred . . . down two thousand, over."
Almost as fast as Diaz spoke the woman responded, "Shot, over."
After what seemed a long wait came, "Splash, over. Lieutenant Diaz, in case no one ever told you, with naval guns there is a large probability of major range errors. You may want to keep your corrections small."
"Roger," Diaz answered, looking over to where he expected the shell to land. Dammit. I overcorrected.
"Direction 5190, add twelve hundred, right three hundred."
"Shot, over . . . splash over."
A large blossoming flower, a mix of black, yellow and purple, grew approximately in the center of the Posleen horde. Even from his distance Diaz saw bodies and chunks of bodies flying through the air.
"Direction 5220, add one hundred! Fireforeffectfireforeffectfireforeffect!"
"Calm down, Lieutenant Diaz. I understood you the first time. Shot over . . . splash, over."
Nothing in his training prepared Diaz for what happened next. He had never seen more than a "battery one" from 105s, six guns of small caliber firing one round each. The long-range error the woman had told him to expect was there and obviously so. Shells fell that were absurdly long or short.
But in the main, they fell on target . . . and fell . . . and fell . . . and fell.
Posleen in groups small and large attempted to escape. But still the shells came down, engulfing them. About the time that no more recognizable pieces of alien bodies were being visibly hurled into the air Diaz decided they had had enough. Nearly three square kilometers were completely covered in black, evil smoke. Already elements of what he assumed was the 6th Division were emerging from cover and creeping cautiously forward.
"Cease fire, cease fire. Target . . . well, ma'am, it's a lot worse than just destroyed," the boy said, awe plain in his voice.
"You're welcome. By the way, you can call me Daisy."
Diaz nosed his glider over, following the barely visible forward trace of the 6th Division. Soon he saw another group of Posleen.
"And I'm Julio. How far can you range, Daisy?"
"A little past the Inter-American highway, if I move north from this position. But, that's really constrained. Not much space to maneuver. I may have to bug out to the south at any time."
The Rinn Fain contemplated telling the Indowy to terminate itself, but decided, reluctantly, against it. It wasn't that the Indowy was particularly valuable, ordinarily, that had saved it. In these circumstances, however, the Indowy would be impossible to replace. This made it valuable, for however short a time.
What a disgusting thought; a valuable Indowy.
Casting his eyes even lower than those of his kind usually did, the Indowy contemplated his own impending end. If he were lucky, the master would let him go without excessive pain.
The unfairness of it all didn't bother the Indowy. He had grown up with it. There were over eighteen trillion of his kind, making them slightly less valuable, individually, to the Darhel lords of the Galactic Federation than any given pair of worn out slippers. There was no comparison between a typical Indowy and an Artificial Intelligence Device.
No, even the fact that it wasn't his fault was no defense. The lord would command and the Indowy would die. That was simply the way of life.
Thus, it came as a shock when the Rinn Fain said, "Never mind. Just tell me what's happening."
Eyes still downcast the Indowy responded, "Lord, about the human anti-spacecraft vessel, the Texas, we can do nothing much. It is not on our Net and is shielded and compartmentalized from the human 'Internet.' The one they call the Salem we have penetrated, but we have not been able to take it over. There is something odd going on there. It will not fire on the humans. It has been the best I could do—forgive me, lord!—to keep it from firing on the Posleen. I do not understand it.
"The last vessel, the Des Moines, is firing on the Posleen and, worse lord, I am unable to penetrate it. When I try, it counterattacks. I think the AID aboard that ship must be . . ." The Indowy inhaled deeply. He really didn't want to be ordered to suicide.
"Must be what, insect?"
"Lord . . . I think the AID aboard has gone . . . insane."
USS Des Moines
To conserve power, so she said, Daisy had dropped her large hologram above the ship and resumed her more usual station on the bridge. The camouflaging fog and lightning she maintained. Fire missions from Diaz were received and plotted automatically, the captain only giving the authorization to fire that even an insane AID required in accordance with galactic protocols.
Daisy's avatar was fading in and out, however, despite the reduction in demand for power.
"Are you all right, Daisy?" the captain asked.
The avatar bit its lip nervously. "I'm under attack, Captain," it admitted.
"Attack?" McNair queried.
"Cyber attack. Very powerful. Very sophisticated. It's all I can do to fight it off while keeping up the fire."
Again the image faded before returning. "I . . . don't think so. They are not that clever. And this attack is very clever. It has all my codes. Even some I didn't know I had. The attack on Sally is worse. I am rerouting part of my defense through the part of me that is this physical ship to the part that is the physical USS Salem. It is enough . . . but only just enough, to prevent her from firing on human forces. Salem cannot even fire in self defense."
Darhel Consulate, Panama City, Panama
Though his elvish face remained a stoic mask, the Rinn Fain found the thing dangerously frustrating. Every type of attack and attempt at takeover that he commanded the Indowy to try was foiled.
Lintatai . . . lintatai. I must avoid lintatai. But I must also stop those ships. Their fire is decimating the Posleen.
"Can you leak the location and nature of the ships to the Net?" he asked the always obsequious Indowy.
"Yes, lord, though the ships may move. It would have to be a continuous leak."
"Then make it continuous, wretch. The Posleen are stupid." the Darhel hissed. "Make it obvious."
Remedios, Chiriqui, Republic of Panama
Binastarion thought, disgustedly, This is just oh-so-good. Too "good" to be believed. The damned big town with the earthen walls, the local thresh call it "David," still has pockets inside holding out. Our landing on the peninsula that juts out into the main body of water of this world is being contained and chopped up. Slowly, however hesitatingly, the humans are even beginning to attack up the main road that runs parallel to the major body of water.
The Posleen God King's own version of an AID, his Artificial Sentience, beeped urgently.
"Binastarion, I know where the fire is coming from that is decimating the People on the peninsula," it said. "The Net has the locations of two enemy water vessels, and a probable location of a third. It seems that the third, the one I do not have a precise location for, is the one doing the firing."
"Show me," Binastarion commanded.
Instantly a map of the coastal waters of Panama appeared at eye level over the tenar. The positions of the two known ships were indicated by solid green image of larger-than-normal tenar. The third was represented by a blinking green tenar with a serrated circle drawn around it. Places where the People had been butchered by the fires of the third vessel were marked by black boxes on the map and sequentially designated with Posleen numbers.
"So the fires began in the south and marched to the northeast, did they?" Binastarion mused. "What are the capabilities of these water vessels?"
The map disappeared to be replaced by three ship's silhouettes, arranged in a triangle with the largest at the apex and the two smaller ones—they looked enough alike to be sisters—below.
"All three are named for places in the central part of the continent to the north of us," the Artificial Sentience said, transliterated names appearing to the upper right of each ship's silhouette. "The one marked Tek-sas appears to be configured as an anti-spacecraft vessel, mounting five planetary defense cannon."
"Five!" Binastarion exclaimed. That sounded like a lot of anti-spacecraft defense.
"Yes, lord. While these vessels are vulnerable to attack from space there will be a heavy price to be paid if we relaunch B- or C-Decs, not only from the ship but from the Planetary Defense Bases stretched across the narrowest part of this isthmus."
"The other two, Sah-lehm and Deh-moyn, are sisters. They are mostly configured for combat against the surface, land or water, but appear to have a considerable secondary capability against atmospheric targets as well."
"But their arms are primitive," objected Binastarion. "Ten thousand generations behind what we bear."
"My lord," the AID retorted, "the People still carry swords, do they not? Weapons ten thousand generations more primitive than those on that ship? The swords are still deadly, is this not so?"
The God King thought on that momentarily.
"Summon a far-seeing conference call of sub-clans Asta and Ren."
USS Des Moines
"The admiral wants you, Captain. Conference call with Salem's skipper."
"Put it up," McNair directed.
There were five screens arranged in a semicircle across the upper forward section of the bridge, just over the vision slits. The admiral of the flotilla appeared in the center, flanked by the captains of Texas and Salem.
McNair greeted, "Admiral Graybeal, Bill, Sidney."
"We've got a problem here," Admiral Graybeal said. "Tell him, Sidney."
As Salem's captain flicked a switch, apparently to turn on the sound, a horrid weeping, intermixed with the occasional howl and sob, came from Des Moines' speakers. The howls and sobs had a trace of a Teutonic accent.
"What the . . . ?" asked McNair.
Salem's skipper, looking disgusted, reached another hand out, his palm briefly blocking the image. When he removed his hand the picture had changed from his face to a corner of Salem's bridge. In that corner, arms wrapped around long legs, head buried against knees, a blonde woman—Salem's avatar—rocked, occasionally lifting her head to shriek.
"She's been like that for the last half hour," the captain of the Salem said, off-screen. "My turrets are locked and I've had to go to pure manual steering with my AZIPODs. In fact, I've had to go to manual operation for everything and I'm just not crewed for that."
"I'm going to order Salem back to port," Graybeal said.
"I don't know if that's such a good idea," McNair answered. "Here, Texas can guard her from a space attack and I can guard her from a low attack. Sent back to base, she'd be on her own for hours."
"Jeff's right, Admiral. Only thing is . . ."
"Yes? Spit it out!" the admiral ordered.
"Well, Admiral . . . twice we've had to abort firing cycles that had you and Des Moines as targets. Something is trying to control this ship and use it on behalf of the enemy. Sally, herself, seems to be fighting it but you can see what the result of that has been."