Take just under four hundred normals and cosslain. Put them in the charge of one Kessentai whose genetic skill set includes nothing having to do with agriculture. Place them on approximately eight hundred hectares of land. Add advice from a Kenstain who actually likes being a dirt farmer. Sprinkle liberally with rain and baste with sun . . .
"But we'll have to wait a bit, Guano, before the first shoots come up."
"And what do we eat in the interim, Ziramoth? The thresh, including the nonsentient ones, are all fled."
The Kenstain laughed and, twisting around, produced a bamboolike stalk from his saddlebags. One end of this he placed under the armpit for that arm that was only a stump, then skinned the remainder with a small monomolecular blade. The skinned result, wet and glistening, he handed over to the God King.
Suspiciously, Guanamarioch sniffed at the offering. It looked way too much like wood to be appealing. He said as much.
"Certainly there's quite a lot of cellulose in the make up. But try it anyway," Ziramoth answered.
The Kessentai bit off a few inches and chewed, his jaws chomping a few times before his eyes widened in surprise.
"What is this stuff, Zira? It's good."
"The locals call it sugar cane. There's enough growing hereabouts to do us until our own crops are in."
Guanamarioch didn't answer, his mouth being too occupied in masticating the satisfyingly chewy, sweet cane.
* * *
Sugar cane would only carry one so far. Of game, sadly, there was none. Moreover, all the thresh called "humans" in the area, and their agricultural animals, had been rendered and eaten within a few days of arrival. There remained fish, fairly abundantly, in the streams and ponds. Guanamarioch could see the little bastards, glaring up at him and taunting him from beneath the waves and eddies.
He lunged at one with his claws . . . and missed. Then he looked around frantically for another, saw one and lunged at it . . . and missed. On the third attempt he missed as well, but also missed his footing on the slippery underwater stones and went under with a great flailing splash.
As Guanamarioch arose from the water, sputtering and choking, from the moss-covered bank Ziramoth began to snicker. The snickering rose until it became a full-fledged, ivory-fang-flashing Posleen laugh.
Guanamarioch opened his jaws to snap at the Kenstain, but stopped in midsnap, joining Ziramoth, ruefully.
"That will never do, lordling. Come here onto the bank and I'll show you how it's done."
When the God King was standing next to the Kenstain, Ziramoth motioned for the two of them to lie down. Then he picked up a long pole, from which dangled a string and a small hook. From his saddlebags the Kenstain pulled out a small container. He drew from this a thin, claw-length writhing thing. For a moment, Guanamarioch wondered if this thing was good to eat. His surprise was total when he saw Ziramoth thread the little creature onto the hook and toss them both into the stream.
"We have to stay low so the water creatures won't see us and will come close enough to smell the bait."
"Well, milord, under fragrant bait is a hooked fish."
But ever a blight on their labours lay,
And ever their quarry would vanish away,
Till the sun-dried boys of the Black Tyrone
Took a brotherly interest in Boh Da Thone:
And, sooth, if pursuit in possession ends,
The Boh and his trackers were best of friends.
"The Ballad of Boh Da Thone"
West of Aguadulce, Republic of Panama
The orders from Snyder had been, "Find the Panamanian Tenth Mechanized Infantry Regiment, a Colonel Suarez commanding. Attach yourself to Suarez. Assist as able." A marker had appeared in Connor's suit-generated map showing the presumed location of the 10th Regiment Command Post.
It had actually been damned difficult to find Suarez. By the time Connors reached the location he'd been given the command post had moved on. Some Panamanian support troops, a maintenance company, was there in its place. They hadn't known where the CP had gone, except that it had gone generally west.
Connors and B Company followed the road at the double time. Rather, they paralleled it because the road itself was a nightmarish mish-mash of confused and tangled units.
"Hey, sir," the first sergeant had called. "Weren't you a tanker once upon a time? Does this shit look right to you?"
"I was, Top," Connors answered, "and no, it doesn't look right. It looks like a recipe for disaster." Connors took the effort to read bumper numbers as he ran past the mess. In twelve vehicles he noted eleven different units represented.
Bad. Very damned bad.
The company pressed on to the west. Surprisingly, the confusion grew less the closer to the front they got. Soon, Connors was seeing only bumper numbers marked for the 10th Infantry, the very mechanized regiment he was seeking. He ran over to a likely looking armored personnel carrier and asked, his suit translating to Spanish for him, "Where can I find Colonel Suarez?"
"I'm Suarez," answered a neat and fierce looking, for all that his face seemed twenty years old, dark-skinned Panamanian.
"Sir. Captain Connors, B Company, First of the Five-O-Eighth Mobile Infantry." Almost Connors used the old gag line, "And we're here to help you."
Suarez frowned. With the idiot orders emanating from division, the absolute goat fuck he knew was behind him on the road, and the general confusion, he wasn't sure what use he had for a company of the gringo self-propelled suits.
"What am I supposed to do with you, Captain?" he asked. "No one told me you were coming. I'm not equipped to give you any support you might need. And frankly, everything is so goddamned fucked up I don't see you doing much besides adding to the confusion. No offense," he added.
"Sir," Connors began patiently to explain, for he had grown used to people who didn't understand the suits and so rejected them, "my company has more practical direct firepower than your entire division. All my men can speak Spanish through the suits' translational capabilities. And we don't need any support: no fuel, no food, no parts, no mechanics. We don't even need to take up any road space."
"No lie?" Suarez asked, one lifted eyebrow showing the skepticism he felt.
"No lie, sir. Just tell me what you need done and we'll do it. Within reason, of course."
"Of course," Suarez echoed, trying to think what use he might make of these gringo—no, galactic, he supposed—wonders.
"I'm torn," Suarez muttered, "between having you go back and unfuck the mess to the rear and having you go forward and clear out a group of the aliens that is holding up my advance. Have you got a map?"
Connors' AID projected a 3-D map of the area in midair.
Suarez's eyebrow dropped as he leaned back from the projected map in startlement. When he recovered his composure he said, "Hmmm . . . I wish I could tell you where all my units are. Damned radios are not working quite right." Suarez's eyes widened again as unit icons began to appear on the projected map.
Suarez couldn't resist saying, "Cooollll," as he jumped down from the APC and stood in front of the map. "I've got three problems. One is the cluster fuck to the rear. As I said, I'd use your people to help straighten it out . . . except that if you have the fire power you claim, it would be a waste." Unless, of course, you used that firepower to shoot my division commander.
"My second problem is communications. I might use you for that later, if you're willing, but for now I'd rather use you for problem number three, which is this river crossing, here," Suarez's finger touched a spot on the projected map.
"There are enemy on the other side. While I could force it, it would cost me some armor. This, in itself, would be acceptable except that the armor would then block the ford. Can you clear the far side for me, then sweep down and clear the bridge south of the crossing?"
"We can," Connors answered after a moment's thought. "Can you loan us some artillery support?"
Suarez's face grew, if possible, fiercer still. "The artillery is my number one communications problem, Captain. I can sometimes get my line battalion commanders. I have not heard a peep from the gunners in hours. I've got my sergeant major out looking for them now."
"Okay, sir. I understand. We've got some indirect fire capability of our own, but the ammunition for that is limited, and I doubt you've got anything we could use in lieu."
Boot, don't spatter, echoed in Connors' mind as he set his troops up for the assault. The biggest single thing I've got going is that the Posleen probably don't know we're here and likely don't have much of a clue of what we are capable.
Okay . . . into the river and move upstream to the crossing point . . . send one platoon. The other two demonstrate on this side. A five-second barrage by weapons and then the platoon in the water charges.
Oughta work. Connors issued the orders and the platoons fanned out, one of them—the first—diving into the water and moving upstream. The fire from the high ground opposite was weak and scattered, really not enough to worry about.
When he judged the time right, Connors ordered Weapons Platoon to fire. The high ground erupted in smoke and flame as several hundred 60mm shells landed atop it. The First Platoon, feeling the vibrations in the water broke out and charged due west.
The First Platoon leader swept across the objective quickly, then reported, "Captain, there's one, repeat one, cosslain here with a three millimeter railgun. And he's deader than chivalry. Nothing else."
That was worrisome but Connors could not quite put his finger on why. He tried to report it to Suarez and found he couldn't get through to the colonel's Earth-tech radio. Instead he sent a messenger and proceeded to follow the plan, sweeping south along the river's west bank to seize the bridge that Suarez really needed.
There was little resistance on the way or even at the bridge. Connors sent another messenger to advise Suarez that the way west was open.
"The trick," Binastarion said to Riinistarka, hovering next to his father on his own tenar, "is to convince the threshkreen that we are as confused as they seem to be. That requires that obvious objectives and key terrain be given up without a fight, but that delayed counterattacks to retake them be put in at a time that is most inconvenient to us. And with significant losses to the threshkreen. Only in this way will they not suspect a trap. The technique is called, 'Odiferous bait,' my son."
"Father," the junior Kessentai said, "I don't understand. When you told us the tale of Stinghal, he left no such guards and didn't throw away any of the people in fruitless counterattacks."
"Those were different circumstances, my son. There, in the city of Joolon, the enemy provided his own reason to believe the city was ready to fall, Stinghal merely added to the illusion. Here, on the other hand, the enemy threshkreen have not been in a position to really hurt us. We must provide the illusion and that illusion must seem very real indeed. Thus, I throw away thousands of the people in these fruitless attacks, to convince the enemy."
"I . . . see, my father," Riinistarka agreed, though in fact the junior Kessentai did not see.
Will I never acquire the skills my father and our people need?
Suarez was screaming into the radio when his track reached the bridge where Connors met him. The gringo captain didn't know at whom the colonel was shrieking, but took it as a good sign that the radios were working at all.
In frustration, Suarez threw the radio's microphone down, and raised his eyes to Heaven, shouting a curse. The curse had no name to it, but Connors guessed that it was directed toward higher levels, rather than lower.
The MI captain trotted over and removed his helmet. Suarez seemed fascinated by the silvery gray goop that slid away from the gringo's face before collecting on his chin and sending a tendril down into the helmet. His eyes followed the tendril as it disappeared into the greater mass, leaving Connors' face clean.
"That creeps out everyone who sees it for the first time," Connors admitted, with the suit still translating.
"Umm . . . yes, it would," Suarez answered in English, the first time he had shown faculty with the language.
"Your radios are working again?" Connors asked.
"Yes. Even the fucking artillery is up." Suarez's voice indicated pure suspicion at his suddenly granted ability to talk to his subordinates; that, and a considerable disgust at suddenly having to listen to his superior, Cortez.
He continued, "There was nothing but static or a few disconnected phrases and then, in an instant, poof, I was in commo with everyone. I almost wish I were not, especially with my idiot division commander."
Tracks continued to roar by, heading westward, as the Panamanian and the gringo MI captain spoke. The stink of diesel filled the air as the heavy vehicles ground the highway—never too great to begin with—into dust and grit. Both Connors and Suarez coughed as a particularly concentrated whiff of the crud assailed them.
That track passed and in the sound vacuum left Connors observed, "Well, as long as you have commo with everybody, you're probably best off keeping us close to you and using us as a powerful reserve."
"Boot, don't spatter?" Suarez quoted.
Connors smiled. It was so good to work for a man who knew what he was doing.
Darhel Consulate, Panama City, Panama
"You have lifted the interdiction of the humans' radio traffic?" the Rinn Fain asked.
"Yes, lord," the Indowy technician answered. "But we are continuing to monitor for an appropriate time to reimpose it."
"Show me the deployment of the Posleen forces."
Another holographic map popped up, which the Rinn Fain studied closely.
"Very interesting," he said, noting the tens of thousands of Posleen moving off the main road and taking cover in the hidden valleys to the north of it. "This is a clever Kessentai leading these people. He does not know we are helping him, but he sees the results of that assistance and acts accordingly. How goes the attack on the humans' warships?"
"That has been a great success, lord," the Indowy answered. "Two of the three seem to be pulling out of range of their own guns' ability to support. The last was never meant to stand alone."
"It troubles me, Indowy," the Darhel said, tapping a finger to its needle-sharp teeth contemplatively, "that the last ship is able to resist us. Its AID should not be able to do so."
"I have some suspicions about that, lord," the Indowy whispered. "I have checked. Simple insanity is not unknown among Artificial Intelligences. But these are invariably older AIDS. The AID in the human warship is virtually brand new."
"And so?" the Rinn Fain prodded.
"I have run simulations, lord, at much faster than real time. I have discovered that such insanity is possible if a new AID is left alone and turned on for too long a time."
"Do you think this happened?"
"I do not know, lord. But I have sent a query out over the Net as to whether that AID might somehow have been turned on before packing."