Guano and Zira lay on their bellies, fishing poles in hand. They moved the poles up and down, more or less rhythmically, to keep the baited hooks moving. They spoke only in whispers. Zira suspected that the vibrations of loud voices would reach the water and frighten off the fish.
"This is pretty boring, Zira," Guano said softly.
"Is an ambush boring, young Kessentai? Think of it as an ambush."
Guano really had no answer to that. He was too young ever to have participated in an ambush. He tried to imagine one, waiting with beating heart for an unsuspecting enemy to show up, never knowing if the enemy would be too great to take on—even with surprise—and never knowing if the enemy had spotted the ambush and was even now circling to . . .
"Wake up, Guano," came the urgent whisper. "I think one of the little darlings is sniffing at your bait."
The tugging at the line that Zira had seen stopped abruptly.
"Shshsh. Quietly. There's one of the fish that was at your bait."
Guano quieted down and watched the line intently. Sure enough, the line was moving erratically, in a way that indicated something was nibbling at the hook. Suddenly, there was a strong tug.
"You've got him, Guano, now pull once, medium hard, to set the hook."
Guano pulled on the fishing pole, feeling a plainly live weight on the other end. "Yeehaw!" he exulted, though the Posleen word was more along the line of "Tel'enaa!"
"Its mouth might be soft," Zira counseled. "Let it run about until it tires."
For fifteen minutes Guano did just that, giving the fish some room to run and then slowly and carefully bringing it back. By the end of that time, the piscine was running out of steam, its tugs on the line and pole growing weaker.
"Very good, young Kessentai," Ziramoth commended. "Now pull it above water . . . gently."
The pole bent nearly double as Guanamarioch pushed down on the end while slowly lifting from near the middle. With a splash, a foot and a half long greenish gray creature appeared above the water, its tail flapping to one side and then the other as it sought purchase in water that was now too far beneath it.
"Dinner," said Zira, "is served."
And when we have wakened the lust of a foe,
To draw him by flight toward our bullies we go,
Till, 'ware of strange smoke stealing nearer, he flies
Or our bullies close in for to make him good prize.
—Rudyard Kipling, "Cruisers"
Remedios, Chiriqui, Republic of Panama
Nineteen B- and C-Decs for each of the enemy water vessels should be more than enough, Binastarion thought as the fifty-seven low-flying craft glided soundlessly by a few hundred meters overhead. This close to the surface and this close together the spacecraft moved comparatively slowly, wary lest they make disastrous contact with the ground or with each other. In addition, each B- or C-Dec was accompanied by anywhere from seven to eighteen tenar.
As the Posleen craft passed, the People below the flotilla, Kessentai and normal alike, felt a strange and unpleasant tingling sensation both inside and out.
May you do more than tingle our enemies, my children.
USS Des Moines
"We've got trouble, Captain," Daisy's avatar reported. "Lidar shows enemy vessels approaching . . . fifty-two . . . fifty-four . . . no . . . fifty-seven of them. They're deployed in three broad wedges. My guess, though it is more than a guess, is that two of them are heading for Texas and Salem. The third is behind those two, more spread out."
McNair scratched his head, uncertainly. "Looking for us, do you think, Daisy?"
"Likely, Captain," the hologram answered.
"Get me the admiral and Salem," McNair ordered.
The center screen came on live again. "Graybeal here. I see them, Jeff. They're below, well below, Texas' ability to engage."
McNair swallowed hard before continuing. This was the difficult decision: to risk your greatest love, your command, on behalf of a mission.
"Sir . . . I think you and Salem should fall away to the south. Des Moines will intercept."
McNair risked a glance at Daisy. Her hologram was flickering less now.
"I'm devoting less power to defending Salem," Daisy answered when McNair asked.
"You're okay with this?" McNair asked.
Daisy's holographic chest seemed to swell, if that were possible, with pride.
"Captain, I'm a warship. This is what I do."
The admiral interjected, asking of Salem's captain, "Sid, have you managed to get any defense up for yourself?"
"Three of the six secondary turrets are manned and manually operating, sir. That's the best I can do with what I have. But, sir, you ought to know that we have no radar or lidar interface or guidance. We can engage manually but only straight line of sight and even then only at fairly short range."
"How truly good," the admiral said sardonically. "Very well, Sidney, head south to sea. Texas will follow. McNair? Intercept . . . and good hunting."
Posleen B-Dec Rapturous Feast XXVII
Ah, the never-ending joys of the hunt, the Kessentai in command of the ship thought. His landing group's target, assigned by the glorious Binastarion personally, was the known of the two lesser enemy surface warships. The location of the other was, at best, approximated on the Kessentai's view-screen.
What a strange world this is; all disgusting, wet, oozing greens. The Kessentai almost hoped for an early onslaught of orna'adar. Better that mass slaughter than a prolonged stay on such a putrid ball.
The Kessentai had actually landed with his oolt before being ordered aloft again to lead this abat-hunt. Binastarion had warned him, through his far-speaker, not to be overconfident, that these particular thresh had sharp kreen, indeed.
They would have to be a tough and resourceful species, he thought, to survive and prosper in such a wretched place. Tough and resourceful, but stupid, since nothing here is worth fighting for. Then again, how stupid are we; trying to take it over. Though the thresh don't know it, we are actually doing them a favor by exterminating them.
With Rapturous Feast XXVII in the lead, the other eighteen landers—each with its escort of tenar—spread out behind forming a deep "V." This was a simple formation, simple enough that even fairly stupid Kessentai could maintain it.
Straight as an arrow the wedge of Posleen landers flew, hardly noticing—amidst all the other inexplicable horrors of this world—the shimmering, flashing anomaly on the surface of the sea between the attack group and its target.
And then the anomaly grew a head, one of the foul threshkreen sensory clusters, with ugly projections and a streaming yellow thatch. By the time the landers and tenar had slowed and reoriented their weapons arrays onto the head it had risen up until halfway out of the water. A shimmering golden breastplate (not unlike the one reputedly worn by Aldensatar the Magnificent at the siege of Teron during the Knower wars) covered the monster's torso and its threatening frontal projections.
The creature from the deeps raised its arms heavenward, masses of something like ball lightning lashing between its gripping members. All Posleen weapons thundered and flashed towards the malignant apparition.
With growing dread, the lead Kessentai saw that no harm—absolutely none—was done the beast. But wait . . . it seemed to be rocking back and forth as if in distress.
"We've got it!" exulted the Kessentai.
"No, lord," corrected the Artificial Sentience. "The monster is laughing at you."
Rage warred with fear. Laughing at me? We'll see who laughs last.
The external speakers carried the sound of a thresh voice, but one frightfully, even impossibly, amplified. The beast's mouth moved as if trying to speak.
"My lord, the monster has just said, 'Stay the fuck away from my sister, you son of a bitch!' "
USS Des Moines
"Skipper, these fucking animals are stupid. They'll shoot at what they can see with their own eyes, nine times out of ten, and ignore the real threat that they can't see."
"How does a stupid race build starships, Daisy?" McNair objected.
The avatar answered, "The theory is that they were genetically altered eons ago, that they are born with skills, even as the Indowy are born with certain talents. The difference is that the Indowy must be tutored to bring their talents to fruition, a long period of intense training and education, while the Posleen just know. But coming into the world knowing all they will ever need in the way of skills, they either never see the need to develop intellectually, or are—in most cases—simply incapable of it.
"In any case, trust me, Skipper, they'll shoot first at my hologram if that seems most threatening."
Not for the first time, McNair wanted to reach out and touch the shoulder, if nothing else, of this wonderfully smart and brave and beautiful . . . warship. He knew there was nothing there, however, and so unconsciously stroked the armored bulkhead of the bridge with a palm.
"Do it, Daisy," he said, "but be careful, my girl."
The avatar disappeared from the bridge in an instant, while Daisy's larger form began to grow up and around USS Des Moines. As Daisy predicted, the Posleen seemed to ignore the shimmering fog that engirdled the vessel proper and to concentrate their fire on her appearing torso. Even behind the heavy armor of the bridge McNair felt the shockwaves as kinetic energy projectiles and plasma weapons passed overhead. The ship was on a course of 270 degrees; thus, due south the sea exploded and roiled with the energies impacting it from the fires of nineteen landers and nearly two hundred and fifty tenar.
And then Daisy spoke. The entire ship reverberated with the amplified message, "Stay the fuck away from my sister, you son of a bitch."
Down in sick bay Father Dwyer muttered to no one in particular, "Tsk, tsk. Such language, young lady. I see a long penance for you. But, as long as you have to do penance anyway, murder the motherfuckers."
The guns of USS Des Moines, as well as those of Salem, came in two types. For general work there were the three triple turrets. For anti-lander work there were six individual turrets, one fore, one aft, and two each, port and starboard.
Each of the singles mounted an eight-inch semi-automatic gun, lengthier than those in the triple turrets and firing at a considerably higher velocity. These singles used ammunition, self-contained and not entirely interchangeable with the guns of the triples, though they could fire the more standard ammunition of the triple turrets in a pinch. The normal ammunition for the singles, however, was entirely anti-lander oriented, consisting of armor piercing, discarding sabot, depleted uranium. The APDSDU was adequate to penetrate a Posleen C- or B-Dodecahedron at a range of between twelve and twenty miles, depending on obliquity of the hit. It carried no explosive charge, but would do its damage by the physical destruction of what it passed through, by raising the internal temperature of the compartments it punctured, and by burning.
Depleted uranium burned like the devil.
The general purpose guns, those in the triple turrets, boasted neither the range nor the penetration of the single, anti-lander guns. For the most part they fired high capacity high explosive (or HICAP), twelve kiloton neutron shells (which required national command authority to use), improved conventional munitions (which dispensed smaller bomblets after explosively ejecting the base of the shell), and canister.
ICM was useless. McNair knew better than to ask to open up with nukes. HICAP, fired with a time fuse, would have been useful, certainly, but was not ideal for the purpose at hand.
"Canister, Daisy," McNair ordered.
"I was planning on it, Skipper," one of the speakers said.
* * *
Eyes still filled with dread, the Kessentai's attention was fully absorbed with the invulnerable apparition before it. Was it a demon from the legendary times of fire? Some special divine protector of this shit-filled world? An elemental being from the creation?
The Kessentai didn't, couldn't, know. What it did know was that the monster's lightning-clad hands pointed at it and poured forth a blinding fire.
Daisy divided up the enemy's airborne fleet into three and assigned one triple turret to fire—sweeping left to right—at each third of the fleet. Down below the turrets, machinery, fine-tuned by Sinbad and his Indowy, whispered with movement or clanged with metal-to-metal contact as load after load of canister was moved from storage to the ready racks. The previous HICAP rounds, plus their bagged propellant, had long since been struck below where they would be safe from secondary explosion.
Four men, one officer and three petty officers, manned each triple. These were navy men; whereas the singles were manned by United States Marines. The gun crews were there as a fail-safe measure, but also in case the bridge, CIC and Daisy took a critical hit. In that case the guns could fire on their own, albeit with much lessened effectiveness.
When the last light on the bridge which indicated gun status had changed from amber to green Daisy announced, "Ready, Captain."
McNair rested his hand on the armored box containing the AID which was half of his ship's soul.
"Clear those motherfuckers out of our sky, Babes. Fire!"
The four single guns able to bear on the starboard side fired simultaneously, as did the three triples; the recoil was enough to shift the entire ship to port. Daisy put on a major holographic display to distract the Posleen's attention away from the real thunder and lightning of thirteen huge guns. The APDSDU, having much greater velocity than canister, struck first. Hit in three places, out of four rounds fired at it, the results on the target were uneven. One penetrator hit too obliquely, on one of the lower left facets as the gun faced the target. This one bounced off and went spinning, trailing smoke and flame, off into the distance before plunging into the sea.
The second and third, however, hit close together and at an angle to force their way through the alien ship's tough skin. The needle sharp points, backed up by foot-tons of energy, first piked into the ship's skin, gained purchase, and sloughed off. The material, depleted uranium, had a peculiar property: it resharpened itself even as the old point dulled. This the penetrators did, at the molecular level, more times than could easily be counted before breaking free into the ship's interior.
In the process of forcing apart such a thickness of tough alien metal, kinetic energy was transformed into heat. A normal in one of the compartments saw only a flash and then went blind as eyeballs melted. The pain of heat blinding was brief in duration. The DU began to burn, raising the internal temperature of the compartment to the point where the Posleen normal's flesh and bones were turned to ash. It never had time enough between blinding and incineration even to scream.
Tough as the outer skin was, the inner compartments were good for little but retaining air should the outer skin have a breach. The DU, less stable now and with both rods burning fiercely, cut through the inner compartments as if they were not there. More Posleen succumbed, some to heat, others to the thick smoke, hot enough itself to sear lungs and toxic to boot. Still others were smashed into pulp. Machinery, likewise, was crushed and broken if it chanced to be along the penetrators' paths. Parts of both machinery and walls added further to the interior carnage as they were broken loose and went careening back and forth around the compartments, each piece shredding any flesh unlucky enough to be in its path.
The penetrators were not done, however. Having slashed their way all across the interior of the ship they came upon the far hull. They lacked orientation, mass and energy at that point to knife through. Instead, still burning, they bounced off and started back, repeating the process of slaughter.
No one ever knew, nor shall they ever know, how many times the penetrators ricocheted back and forth through the ship. Even as the lead Posleen C-Dec heeled over and began to plunge into the sea one of them must have breached its antimatter containment unit. The C-Dec disappeared in a stunning flash that could be seen as far away as Panama City.
Many of the tenar-riding Posleen lost control of their sleds in the shockwave of that blast. Some were spun into the sea at fatal speed; others were torn from their sleds and went over the side to plunge into the murky deep. There, struggling and kicking, attempting to learn in an instant what neither millions of years of evolution nor careful genetic manipulation had taught them—namely, to swim—the Posleen sank like rocks. Still others, riding closer to the exploding lander, had been killed by the heat. For Posleen farther away, the blast was enough to induce blindness, temporary or permanent.
Daisy, pitiless, swept her triple turrets across the tenar-borne survivors of the first C-Dec's disintegration. Traveling to within less than a kilometer of a lander, the canister shells exploded, usually within microseconds of each other. The three shells from a typical salvo burst apart in puffs of angry black smoke, releasing as they did about twenty-five hundred two-ounce iron balls each. These seventy-five hundred balls traveled on with all the velocity of the original shell, plus a small additional bit of energy from their bursting charge. In such a dense cloud of whistling death, it was the rare Posleen who found neither himself nor his tenar penetrated and wrecked.
As the triples fired and swept, fired and swept, scouring the skies of the unarmored tenar, Daisy turned her anti-lander guns in pairs against the following B- and C-Decs. None of these exploded in nearly as spectacular a fashion as the first. Still, she kept up the fire on pairs of them at a rate of forty-eight rounds a minute until each one targeted either turned and ran or fell into the sea.
The other group, the one that had spread out looking for the indistinctly plotted CA-139, likewise headed for home.
Graybeal, ashen-faced, worried, This flotilla was designed to fight as a team. Who expected us to be split up electronically? And now I'm out here, alone and in the open, with Salem unable to provide close defense and Des Moines too far away to be helpful.
The admiral looked at the plots of his three ships, Salem running like hell for open water, Des Moines—one fight finished—now turning to race to his rescue. He looked at the rapidly approaching swarm of Posleen. No computer was needed for this calculation. The Posleen would reach Texas an easy eight minutes before McNair's command was in range.
A brief sigh escaped Graybeal's lips. So sad it has to end now. It was wonderful being a young man again, wonderful to command at sea again. What is left but to make as good a fight of it as possible?
"Captain, do a one eighty," the admiral ordered.
The captain's eyes widened at first. Do a suicide run? But then he, too, looked at the plots.
"Try and get right under them, do you think, Admiral? Maybe take one or two with us."
"It's the only way to engage with any chance of a kill at all."
The captain nodded. "Helm, turn us about. Gunnery, prepare to fire at lowest possible elevation. Fire as she bears."
USS Des Moines
The ship was racing, Daisy Mae cutting power to nearly everything else and straining to make it to Texas' succor before it was too late.
Holographic tears running down holographic cheeks she asked in a broken voice, "Shall I show you, Skipper? I can sense it well enough to do that. Someone ought to see and remember."
McNair couldn't bring himself to speak and was only just able to prevent himself from crying. He gave a shallow nod.
"Jesus!" exclaimed the helmsman as Texas' last fight sprang into view in miniature over one of the plotting tables in CIC.
The Texas was stricken, that much was obvious. She was already listing badly to port. Three of her turrets had been blasted away completely. Smoke poured, black and hateful, from a fourth, flames casting evil glows upon the smoke. And yet her captain, or maybe it was the admiral, or perhaps it was a simple seaman at the helm, was still in the fight, still desperately twisting the ship to give her sole remaining Planetary Defense Cannon a chance to fire.
The Posleen were having none of it. Standing off to all sides, hanging low to avoid the ship's last sting, they poured fire—plasma cannon and KE projectiles—into Texas' superstructure and hull. In the miniature view provided by Daisy recognizably large chunks of steel were blasted off into the sky.
"He got three," Daisy announced in a breaking voice. "Destroyed or damaged and withdrawn, I can't say. But there were nineteen that took off after Texas and there are only sixteen now."
"How long until we're in range?" McNair asked in a tone tinged with purest hate.
"Two minutes, captain, but . . . Oh!"
On the projection Daisy had made, BB-35, the United States' Ship Texas, veteran of three wars, had—fighting and defiant to the end—blown up.
Blonde hair streaming down her face, head hanging, Daisy announced, "The enemy is running for home now. I might be able to pick off a straggler but . . ."
"But we're alone now and can't necessarily take them. And that group that turned tail might return. I know. Revenge will have to wait."
No one on the bridge who heard McNair speak at that moment doubted that there would be revenge.
Remedios, Chiriqui, Republic of Panama
Binastarion sighed. Sometimes you get the abat and sometimes the abat get you.
He'd lost way too many sons to the thresh of this world. They'd died at the walls of the threshkreen city, David. They'd died in its parks and narrow alleys. They'd died on jungle trails pursuing the thresh who—maddeningly—turned and fought back with a vengeance as they made their escape over the mountains to the north. Lastly, he lost nearly an entire a sub-clan's worth of Kessentai to the threshkreen's damnable warships.
And for that what did he have to show? They had destroyed a ship, true, and the biggest of the lot. But the nourishing thresh of the ship; the refined metal of the ship? Lost, lost . . . irredeemably lost. Sunk to the bottom of an impenetrable sea. They are clever and vicious, these thresh, to deny the victor the fruits of victory. I must remember this. They are the cruelest of species.
While the exchange of so many Kessentai—Each one a son, cousin or nephew! The thought was like a knife in the belly—for a single one of the threshkreen's warships struck Binastarion as a very bad trade, he had to admit there were redeeming factors. At least the warships will not be firing at my people on the ground any longer. It was bad enough that they wrecked the landing on the southern peninsula, blasting holes in our lines through which the threshkreen poured and smashing any assemblage of the People massing for counterattack. Even now the remnants of the People there, cut up into bite sized bits, bleat for aid which I cannot give them. They will not last long.
Neither, though, the God King contemplated more happily, will the other column of thresh last long. Despite being led by a contingent of the metal threshkreen, they move forward only uncertainly. Otherwise, I'd already have sprung my trap.
Indeed, there was a trap. One of the side effects of being a comparatively small clan, as Binastarion's was, was that one had to be clever to survive since one was not very strong. One had to be very clever to survive as a clan in the Po'os-eat-Po'os worlds of the People. Thus, while scream and charge was the normal tactical doctrine of powerful clans of Posleen, for the little clans the doctrine became something more like "bait and switch."
Binastarion, a senior God King more clever than most, had pulled something very like a bait and switch. Even while the column of heavily armed threshkreen pressed up the road between mountains and sea, groups of the People were taking shelter in the former and—to a lesser extent—in the mangrove swamps bordering the latter. Meanwhile, some of Binastarion's cleverest eson'soran delayed in the center: take a position, fire, gallop back, pass through a different group, take a position, wait . . . "Bait and switch."
It might have been over already, if the thresh had either pressed forward boldly or moved more carefully, securing his flanks. As it was, the thresh seemed more confused in his movements than anything.
Well, time to bring the enemy a little enlightenment.