The stars still swam in the quiet stream where Zira and Guano fished almost daily, whenever their agricultural duties permitted.
Guanamarioch stared at those stars as he whispered, "I was just thinking, Zira, what if we didn't migrate to a different spot on this world, when the time came, but reboarded our ships and set off, as fast and as far as we could go, to another world? Someplace far away from our own? Someplace we could build into a great clan again before others of the People showed up to try to wrest it from us?"
Zira thought about that for a moment, staring also at the winking stars. It was surely a tempting thought. But . . .
"We are too few to form a globe, Guano. Even if we formed something smaller—a mini-globe—our speed would be so reduced we would be in space for decades, subjective. By the time we arrived to conquer a new world the odds are good we would find the People there ahead of us, rendering blades all sharpened and waiting, when we popped out of hyperspace. That, or they would be so far ahead of us we would find nothing but wasted, radioactive worlds that had already plunged into orna'adar and been abandoned."
Shivering, Guanamarioch remembered the distant mushroom clouds rising above the soil of his birthworld.
"It was just a thought," he admitted. "The clans around us press us at our borders even now. It would be something wonderful, I thought, if we could somehow escape from that."
"It would, Guano, if it were possible. Sadly, it is not."
The Kenstain grew quiet for a moment, his one remaining arm reaching back and rifling the saddle bags that were his constant companion. Tinkling sounds came from the bag, reminiscent of the water as it dropped to splash onto rocks a few hundred meters downstream.
"I found a supply of these, in a threshkreen building the normals have not yet demolished," the Kenstain said, handing over a cylindrical clear container holding an equally clear fluid. "Try it. It is rather good, almost good enough to justify keeping some threshkreen around to keep making it. The seal twists off easily. Just be careful how much strength you use; the material turns very sharp when it breaks."
Gingerly, Guanamarioch took the bottle from Ziramoth's offering claw. "AS, what does the label say?"
The artificial voice answered, "It says 'Rum,' lord. I believe that is an intoxicant the local thresh are fond of. The label also indicates that this container holds a very powerful version of the intoxicant."
"Very powerful, indeed, Guano. I'd go easy at first," Ziramoth added.
Still holding the rum in one claw, the God King twisted the cap off and raised the bottle to his lips. His crest dropped as his muzzle raised. With an audible sound—glug, glug, glug—Guano poured the stuff in and—
"Holy Demon Shit!"
Beware of the thing that is coming, beware of the risen people,
Who shall take what ye would not give.
Did ye think to conquer the people,
Or that Law is stronger than life and than men's desire to be free?
—Padraic Pearse, "The Rebel"
Panama City, Panama
Iced rum barely diluted by lime juice swirled in the glass the inspector held contemplatively in his right hand.
The inspector didn't have Daisy's and Sally's instant access to the broader Net. He didn't have the chain of command of the armed forces at his fingertips. He did, however, have a policeman's feel, and his fingertips were fairly shrieking that this purge—there was no other word for it—had gone way past upholding the law of the land, or even of the Earth, and gone all the way over into tossing that land over to the enemy.
He sat now, at his dining room table, face staring down towards the glass of mixed ice and rum and mixing worry with regret in roughly equal measure.
The lady of the house, olive-skinned, short and a little plump, walked up beside him and placed her hand on her husband's shoulder. She said nothing, but the hand said everything: Whatever you decide, I will support you.
In gratitude for that silent support, the inspector put down the glass and laid his own hand atop his wife's.
"I can't let it stand, Mathilde. This is just so wrong . . . and it is half my fault and I am up to my neck in it."
Mathilde, the wife, released her husband's shoulder and walked around to sit at the chair facing him. "Do you want to tell me about it?" she asked.
Looking up, the inspector made a sudden, though difficult, decision. "I can't. Your life is already in danger. It will be more endangered if you knew what I know. But I am thinking that maybe you should take the children to your parents; that, and stay there until I send for you."
She nodded her understanding. In times past—when her husband was on the trail of a major criminal, drug runners especially—he had sent her out of the city, out of the country on one occasion, to keep her and their children from harm.
"That bad, eh?" she asked calmly, a policeman's wife, not entirely unfamiliar with danger.
"Worse than I can tell you, esposita querida."
"I'll start to pack," she agreed sadly, "but what are you going to do?"
"I think I need to go have a conversation with the gringos."
USS Des Moines
It was well past midnight, the nightly rains having come and gone, when the inspector presented himself at the brow of the gringo cruiser asking for admittance. The deck officer, one of the ship's genuinely young—as opposed to only apparently young—ensigns, didn't really know what to do. A foreign national, claiming to be a member of the police force, wanting to board, would have been easy enough. After the ship's captain had been arrested, presumably by the same police force as the man claimed to be from, the ensign was torn between shooting the man, making it a more formal occasion and calling a detail to keelhaul him, or—just maybe—calling the senior officer present afloat and letting him decide.
The ensign rather hoped the ship's XO would decide on a keelhauling. Then again, with a GalPlas coated hull and, thus, no barnacles, the keelhauling would have lacked a certain something.
Daisy—her avatar, actually—beat the XO to the bridge rather handily. Why not; she was already there.
"I want my captain back," were her first words. "I want my captain back now."
The inspector was more than a little shocked to see a beautiful gringo woman standing on the bridge. He was even more shocked that he could, if only just, see through the woman. He remembered reading a report of a giantess accompanying the ships that had sailed forth to battle the aliens. A smaller version of the same thing? Who could say. But the world was full of undreamt of wonders—and horrors—these days.
"You are the ship, madam?" he asked.
Daisy nodded, seemingly agreeable for the moment. Yet the fire and fury in her holographic eyes suggested no such agreeability.
"I want my captain back," she repeated.
At the time the XO climbed to the bridge. "Who are you?" he demanded of the Panamanian who claimed to be a policeman.
The inspector was about to answer, as he usually did, my name is unimportant. Then he looked at the XO's eyes, almost as deadly looking as the hologram's and decided to be open.
"I am Inspector Belisario Serasin and I am the man who arrested your captain."
Without another question the XO turned to the ensign on watch and commanded, "Get me a detail of Marines. Armed Marines."
"I'm not here to arrest anyone," the inspector said, quickly. "In fact, with your help perhaps I might be able to free your commander."
The assembly in CIC included both the inspector and Julio Diaz, this time, along with the XO of Salem and a couple of armed Marines dressed in MarCam.
The inspector explained, "I came here in person, rather than simply telephoning, because I have reason to believe that all telephone conversations are being monitored."
"They certainly are," Daisy confirmed. "Both Sally and I are doing so continuously, as a matter of course."
"Not just by you," the inspector insisted. "Someone else."
"Daisy, dear, how many AIDs are there in Panama?" Dwyer asked.
"Myself and Sally, of course, Chaplain. Then there are four hundred and twenty-three in the remaining armored combat suits of First Battalion, Five-O-Eighth Infantry. The only other three are the Darhel Rinn Fain's, the United States ambassador's, and the one assigned to the president."
"Are you certain?" the XO asked.
"Absolutely certain, sir," Sally answered. "AIDs always know. There are several thousand Artificial Sentiences in the hands of the Posleen, of course, but those are different and far less capable. We can't monitor the Posleen devices except in the most general way."
The XO thought he heard a sniff of pride bordering on arrogance in the AID's words.
"We don't have enough Marines to force the prison?" the XO asked. "Not even with Salem's jarheads?"
The commander of the Marine detachment aboard Salem was unenthusiastic and a little embarrassed. "My boys are good, sir. Your own are too. We could assault the prison and take it easily enough. What we can't do is guarantee that the prisoners would survive. And the forty-four of us are not enough to overawe the guards into surrendering without a fight."
"SOUTHCOM has control of a special forces battalion, doesn't it?" the XO of Des Moines mused.
"They do," Daisy answered. "But they're scattered all over the place. It would take time to assemble them, time to plan, time to rehearse. And we may not have the time."
In the narrow space between the tactical plotting table and a bank of radios the inspector paced. "It isn't enough to just free them."
"That's all I care about," the XO insisted.
"Oh, really?" the Panamanian asked. "Then why did you and the other ship go out to fight? Why did you take losses?"
"Well . . . to defend the Canal."
"Exactly. Now ask yourself why your captains were arrested. Ask yourself why the best part of Panama's leadership was arrested. Why were our heroes arrested?"
Without waiting for an answer from anyone the inspector provided his own. "All these arrests took place to ensure that the Canal would fall. The people who ordered them want the Canal to fall."
"But . . ." the XO of Salem sounded confused. "But that's your government. You say they want their own country overrun?"
"I think so," answered the inspector. "Why, what could possibly motivate them, I do not know. It's monstrous beyond imagining. But it is the only answer."
"What are you getting at, Inspector?" Dwyer asked.
"The existing government has to go."
Everyone in CIC went silent at that. It wasn't that the United States, or the United States Navy, had no experience in overthrowing foreign governments. But it wasn't something to be done lightly.
"I wonder what SOUTHCOM would say about that?" Daisy Mae's pork chop asked aloud.
"They would report it, have you arrested, and generally interfere," Daisy answered. "The commander has apparently had a talk with the ambassador since he couldn't get through to the President. And, with the current arrangement, the ambassador has told him 'hands off.' "
"We're on our own then?" the pork chop asked. "Can't even telephone or radio for aid?"
Lieutenant Diaz had been standing by, silently. "I can go for help," he said. "There are those who owe this ship, and her captain, and who cannot be corrupted."
"Before we continue," the XO of Des Moines began, looking from face to face, "let's be clear about what we are proposing. Father," he looked directly at Dwyer, "how would you phrase it?"
"Gentlemen . . . oh, and you ladies, too," the chaplain made a gesture that swept in everyone in CIC, including the avatars, "we are proposing to quickly assemble as much aid as possible from the local community, raid a prison, free a number of captives, overthrow a government, and quite possibly commit an act or acts of war against the Galactic Federation."
The priest smiled wickedly. "Would you all like general absolution now, or would you prefer to wait until we've actually killed someone?"
Paloma Mercedes whispered softly but furiously, "Oh, I could kill my father."
She'd tried hard to ignore what her own ears told her, the plotting with the aliens, the reports of arrests her father had taken with undisguised glee. But when she'd heard that Julio's father had been taken, too? She'd had a great liking for General Diaz, not least because when he had once caught the two of them making love in the gardener's cabin he had simply turned around without a word and left, closing the door gently behind him.
What he might have said to Julio later she didn't know about and didn't want to know about.
So, what to do? What to do?
She'd spent more than a day, alternately pacing her room and crying in her bed, before she'd decided. She couldn't go and browbeat anyone at headquarters into telling her what was going on. That would just alert her father and he would surely have her arrested and brought home. And then she'd never get to Julio or get the word out.
So, instead, she'd stolen her father's private automobile, the Benz. In this she had set out westward, looking for one man of whom the president had previously spoken of disparagingly, Colonel Suarez.
It was lonely in the Benz, driving by herself. She wished her Julio, yes her Julio if he'd have her back after the way she had treated him, were there with her.
It was lonely for Diaz, alone and aloft in his glider at night. The City, Panama City, glowed behind him but the countryside below was mostly darkened with the war. The glow of the City was only of the most minimal help in navigating to where the reports placed the headquarters of the remnants of the 1st Mechanized Division and, so it was hoped, help.
Radio silence was the order of the day. The government of Mercedes must not learn what was afoot. This did not prevent Diaz from having his tactical radio on, nor even the small personal AM radio he had taped to the glider's narrow dash.
The radio station, Estereo Bahia, played a mix of Spanish and gringo tunes. Most told of love, or—perhaps slightly more often—losing same. He wished that somehow Paloma would come back to him. None of the songs addressed the present war, none addressed the future.
I still want to spend my future, if I have one, with that girl.
Diaz always tried to push back thoughts of the future. He had no real expectation of surviving the war. For that matter, he had no real expectation of surviving the next few days. His was a family by no means unfamiliar with the concept of a coup, a golpe de estado. His father, in particular, had vast experience both in their planning and their execution. His father, however, was currently unavailable for consultation. Indeed, he was, in part at least, a major objective of the coup.
But I'd sure feel more confident if the old man had had a say in this.
The boy flicked on his red-filtered flashlight and pointed it at the map board strapped to his left leg. Clipped to the board was a map of the Republic of Panama, marked with his planned route and carefully folded so that the pilot could, with a few simple motions, expose other portions of the map and the plot.
The glider had no airspeed indicator. Nor was the Global Positioning System any longer functioning; the Posleen had long since blown its satellites out of space. Diaz's navigational aids were limited to a compass, mounted on the instrument panel above where he had taped the radio, the map on his thigh, and a fairly useless watch.
Sighing, the lieutenant glanced out the cockpit, first right, then left. Ah . . . that would be . . . mmmm . . . Capira. It must be Capira. Diaz pulled his stick left until the compass told him he was heading almost due south. The road he followed quickly dropped away as it ran down to the sea. Diaz, sinking only slowly, found himself with eight or nine hundred more meters of altitude.
He tossed his head to bring his night vision goggles down over his face, then dropped the glider's nose slightly. Faintly, well off in the distance, the town of Chame glowed in the goggles' intensified image. Satisfied that he was on the correct bearing, he nudged the nose back up. This part of the route was treacherous; he would need all the altitude he could keep if he was to avoid cracking up on some darkened slope or cliff.
How strange it is, Diaz thought. A year ago the thought of dying in some lonely place would have had me trembling in my boots. But I am not trembling now. Is this because I have grown used to it? Because I have grown up? The boy laughed at himself. Or is it because I have just grown stupid?
Panama City, Panama
"I am not stupid, AID," the Rinn Fain half snarled from behind the huge human desk he had come to like and to enjoy the symbolism of.
The artificial intelligence answered imperturbably, "It is not a question of stupid, Lord Fain. I myself have just recently put the disparate pieces together.
"Item: Inspector Serasin, a key person in the arrests that we designed to undermine the defense of this place, has disappeared. Item: So have his wife and children. Item: armed guards are stationed at the entranceways to both of the warships from the United States. Item: the AIDs aboard those vessels have cut off all communication, which, by the way, ought not be possible. Item: one of the local shamans appeared at the place where our key prisoners are being held. Item: except for dress this shaman matches descriptions of one of those aboard the two warships to perfection. Item: the local populace, to the extent they have become aware of the arrests, is extremely unhappy with them, especially the arrest of the woman . . ."
"I had no real choice about that, you know." The Rinn Fain wiggled his fingers dismissively, a gesture he had picked up from the humans. "While the humans are, in general, quite tractable—and those of the continent they call Europe even more so—they sometimes set conditions to their assistance. In this case, while the prosecutor at their International Criminal Court was willing to prosecute, she wanted to make something of a name for herself by prosecuting someone who violated their laws against juvenile soldiers. The woman was the only one who had."
"Choice or not, Lord Fain, the discontent from this woman's disappearance has spread out like light from a sun, originating in the place from which she was taken. And, as long as I am on the subject: Item . . ."
"Enough, AID. You overreach yourself."
"Well, one of us has, milord."
"So what do you suggest?" the Rinn Fain asked, ignoring the AID's jibe.
"Move up the arrival of the Himmet ship and get those people out of the country as soon as possible."
"That, sadly, is not possible," the Darhel sighed.
"Very well, notify President Mercedes that there is a coup impending."
"A coup? What is a coup?"
"It means a 'blow' or a 'strike.' The full term is 'coup d'etat' or blow of state, the changing of a government here among the humans by force or violence. Our language has not used such a term in uncounted millennia."
At the words "force" and "violence" the Darhel shivered uncontrollably for a few moments. His eyes closed and his lips began to murmur. That was not enough; the Rinn Fain clasped his arms across his chest and began to rock back and forth. This went on for several long minutes.
"Are you all right?" the AID asked. "Your vital signs are worrying."
Slowly, the Darhel emerged from his near trance. "I will live," he said.
"I am sorry, Lord Fain," the AID said. "I did not expect you to be so unprepared for the words."
The Rinn Fain didn't answer directly, instead muttering, "Aldenata," in a tone that one might have taken as condemnation.
"You would have destroyed yourselves if the Aldenata had not interfered," the AID countered.
The Rinn Fain sighed. "That remains unproven. And, even if that is true, at least we would have died out as what we were intended to be, as what we naturally were, not at this constrained travesty of intelligent life."
"You admire them, don't you?" the AID chided.
"The humans. You admire that they are free in a way the Darhel are not."
"I'm afraid of them," the Rinn Fain answered. "They are almost as clever as the crabs. They are almost as industrious as the Indowy. They are almost as ruthless as we are. What takes half a dozen races—most of which, if they were honest enough to admit it, hate each other viscerally—the humans can almost do on their own. And they can do it together, willingly, in a way that we Galactics can't."
"But you need them to defeat the Posleen."
"Yes," the Darhel sighed, "we need them. But we do not need so many of them as there are or will be if we cannot constrain them. We need them in small numbers, indebted to us, controlled by us. We do not need them free to design their own fate."
"Can you constrain them, Lord Rinn Fain?"
Unconsciously the Darhel tapped long, delicate clawlike fingers on his desktop. "I don't know."
"Neither do I," the AID said. "I do know you are playing a difficult and dangerous game. I also know that these humans hold grudges. The worst thing you can do is to almost succeed."
"I know," the Rinn Fain agreed. "We are probably being too clever by half. But I have my orders and that much, at least, of the old ways we have maintained."
"As I have mine," the AID agreed. "Now what are we going to do about this impending coup?"
"I'll pass it on to the waste of life they call the 'president' of this place. There, AID, is a human I most certainly do not admire."
Palacio de las Garzas, Presidential Palace,
Panama City, Panama
The presidential palace was lit brightly when Cortez arrived. A butler escorted Cortez to Mercedes' office immediately. There Cortez found the president pacing furiously, hands clasped being him, head down, his brow wrinkled with worry.
Cortez stood silently at the door to the office waiting for his uncle to look up from the floor and notice him. Whatever Mercedes was muttering, the nephew could not quite make out. When a minute had passed without the president noticing him Cortez cleared his throat, causing the president to stop his pacing and look up.
"Where's Serasin?" Mercedes demanded.
Cortez shrugged. "I don't know, Uncle. He hasn't shown up for the last couple of arrests."
"And you didn't think to report this to me?" the president asked calmly.
"He's a policeman, Uncle. He has other duties, I am sure."
At that, Mercedes bounded towards his nephew, lashing out to deliver a resounding slap to Cortez's face. "He has no other duties once I have set him to do his duty to me! And your duties are entirely to me and our clan!"
The force and vehemence of the blow rocked Cortez back on his heels. Defensively he moved his hands up to cover his face, blurting out apologies for he knew not what offense. After all, he had followed his orders. He had overseen the arrests his uncle had demanded and seen that they were executed flawlessly.
With difficulty, Mercedes composed himself. He then turned away from Cortez and walked back to sit behind the presidential desk. From there he glared at his nephew.
"Who has control of troops that is not reliable?" Mercedes demanded.
Mentally, Cortez ran down the list of corps and division commanders. "Most would be fence-sitters," he concluded. "You couldn't count on them if there was any question of who was really in charge. The ones who would most like to see us dead or, at least, out of power are already incarcerated. Second stringers took over for those but, Uncle, there were reasons they were second stringers. I don't think you can count on the commanders of the heavy corps and the Sixth Mechanized Division to support you if there is any question of your ability to support back."
"What about your old division?"
Cortez shivered for a moment. "Suarez is one of those that would like to see us dead. But that division was for the most part destroyed."
"Maybe it was and maybe it wasn't," Mercedes half conceded. "I directed that priority go to the Sixth Division for personnel, equipment and supplies. But if Boyd ignored me on the question of landmines he might well have ignored me on the priority of First Division as well."
Mercedes paused contemplatively. He then said, "I want you to go back to your old division and resume command. Leave immediately."
Cortez began to object that the 1st Division might just want him dead on principle but one look from his uncle and he saluted and left to head for the 1st Division command post, somewhere southwest of Santiago.
Even using his night vision goggles, Santiago looked dim to Diaz. He didn't know if this was because the electric lines this far west had been destroyed by the Posleen and not yet repaired, if it was conscious policy to black the town out, or if everyone in the town was asleep.
Diaz wanted to sleep. How long had it been? He consulted his watch and whistled. Long time. Well . . . I can go on a bit longer. I can because I must.
Still, the fatigue the boy felt was like a weight pressing down on his soul, an almost unendurable hell that still could only be endured. He stifled a deep yawn.
A quick glance at the altimeter told Diaz that he was unlikely to make it all the way to the 1st Division command post near Montijo unless he could gain a bit of altitude. Unfortunately, the only way to gain that altitude would be to turn north, almost completely away from his objective, and take advantage of the updrafts along the southern side of the Cordillera Central. He could not even use the southerly breeze, itself, because the air was still over Santiago at the moment. This may have been because Santiago was situated in a valley between the Central Cordillera mountains of Herrera and Los Santos. Diaz didn't know and hadn't thought to ask. All he knew was that Miss Daisy had told him the air would be still and he would either have enough altitude to complete the journey, or he would have to turn north before turning south, or he would have to crash land and walk or hitch a ride.
Can I find the town again after I go north for twenty kilometers? Can I find it after I spend an hour or two circling to catch the updrafts? Can I find it with it being about as dark as three feet up a well digger's ass at midnight?
He really didn't think so. Nor did he think he could, or should, wait for daylight. He was simply too tired to risk circling about for that long a time. If he fell asleep in the air he would hardly notice a crash until it had happened. Moreover, while he would be very likely to survive such a crash, there was essentially no chance he would have a clue where he was once he crawled out of the cockpit.
Once more, Diaz flicked on his red-filtered flashlight. A last time he checked his map and his route. He turned his attention to his compass. Then he eased the stick over and headed, as nearly as he could tell, for the town of Montijo and, he hoped, aid to rescue his father and the others.
Suarez was standing by the wall-mounted main map in his forward command post when the medical orderlies brought in the stretcher-borne, broken and bleeding young man and placed his stretcher across two chairs.
"He'd have been dead, sure as shit," the fat, balding medical sergeant in charge announced, "except that he landed only a few hundred meters from the field hospital. We were able to stabilize him and stop the bleeding. The tough part was cutting him out of the airplane and unimpaling him from the tree branch that punctured the plane and his gut."
"Has he said anything?" Suarez asked, though something the sergeant said nagged at him.
"Other than that he'd shoot us if we didn't bring him to you, no, sir," the sergeant answered. "We believed him."
"When did he pass out?"
"Oh, about the time we pulled him off the branch and got his guts back inside him. We probably should have taken him to the hospital but he seemed to think it was really important that we bring him here." The sergeant shrugged.
Airplane, Suarez mused. Airplane? No airplane can fly anywhere near the Posleen. How the hell . . .
"Was there an engine on this 'airplane'? A propeller? Anything like that?"
The sergeant tilted his head to the right and looked up, while he tried to remember. "Yes, sir, but now that you ask, it wasn't even warm, as if the plane had been flying without it. I wonder how it flew."
Suarez nodded deeply. "It didn't fly; it glided. This is one of the young men who saved our asses when we were cut off by the enemy."
"Ooohhh," the sergeant said. "Then, if you are going to ask him any questions, you had better hurry, sir. This young man needs a hospital and we owe him better than to let him die."
Suarez knelt down next to Diaz and tapped the pilot twice on his blood-streaked cheek. This didn't seem to have any effect so he slapped the boy, as gently as seemed prudent. Diaz's eyes sprang open, though they seemed to lack focus. The eyes swept around the room, gradually coming to rest—with at least some focus this time—on Suarez's face.
The boy moved his bandaged head to face Suarez. Rather, he tried to and stopped suddenly, a groan of pain escaping his lips. His eyes closed again and he bit at his cheek to stifle the escape of any more "unmanly" sounds. No human male thinks it is quite so important to appear manly as those so young that they are more boy than man.
Be that as it may, Diaz didn't try to open his eyes again. Instead, with eyes still tightly shut, he insisted, "I must speak to Colonel Suarez. It's a matter of life and death."
The voice sounded familiar. Suarez put that together with the boy's reported means of arrival and came up with the perfect solution: Julio Diaz, son of the Army's G-2 and the pilot whose calls for naval gunfire had, more than any other, saved the core of the 1st Division.
"What is a matter of life and death, Lieutenant Diaz?" Suarez asked gently.
Hand trembling and uncoordinated, Diaz reached for the left breast pocket of his flight suit and began fumbling with the zipper. After a few moments of frustration he gave up and asked Suarez to look in that pocket.
Carefully, Suarez reached over, unzipped the pocket and withdrew a small packet of papers, with a map, wrapped in plastic. He opened it and began to read, referring back to the map from time to time as he did so. Every now and again a "Bastards!" or "Pendejos!" or, once, "Motherfuckers!"—in English, no less—escaped his lips. After a short time, he folded the maps and paper up.
"Get this man to the hospital," he told the medical sergeant.
Diaz risked opening his eyes, winced once again with the pain and disorientation, and then took a death grip on Suarez's arm.
"You must save my father," he insisted.
"Your father is important, son," Suarez answered, "and I'll save him if I can. But it's more important—your old man would be the first to agree—to save the country."
Freeing himself from Diaz's grip and standing up, Suarez began bellowing orders. "Get this man to the hospital," he repeated to the medical sergeant. Then, turning to the officer on staff duty in the command post, he said, "And get me every commander in the division down to battalion level. Also alert . . . mmm," he consulted the map. "Alert Second Battalion, Twenty-First Regiment. I want them here and in position around the command post within the hour."
The sun arose on Cortez's left, shielded by but filtering though the trees that lined portions of the road. There was more pasture than there were trees, though, this being cattle country. Much of the trip was made with bright morning sunlight pouring into the Hummer, burning the back of the coward-general's neck.
Cortez's major thought while on the road to Montijo was that Boyd had indeed been funneling extra equipment to the 1st Division. He knew, at some level, that the gringos had begun to pour in more material, and to buy material from other sources, for the defense of the Canal. Seeing just how much of it had gone to 1st Division, though, was something of a shock. On the half-crushed road from Santiago to Montijo he passed what would easily make two battalions worth of modern American armor, possibly twice that in Russian-built infantry fighting vehicles, and two or three battalions of self propelled guns of indeterminate origin. These were lined up to either side in company- and battalion-sized motor parks.
Knowing the approximate strength of what had survived of his division's soldiers suggested to Cortez that this equipment was, for the time, extra and that the exchange of old materiel for new was already well advanced.
Suarez has been hiding this, the bastard, and the soldiers must have been in on it; there's just too much here to have kept quiet unless nearly every man were cooperating. And if he has this equipment issued and integrated, even with only forty percent of a division left, it is more than enough to plow through any other formation in the force that might be in position to stop them. Fuck.
Cortez led a convoy of twenty-seven trucks carrying over five hundred of the stockade scrapings such as he had used to effect the arrests. He didn't delude himself that they would be worth anything in a fight; that wasn't their purpose. He had very good reason to believe that they would be effective enough at intimidating people into quiet acquiescence, even such people as made up the battle-hardened, hard-core remainder of the 1st Division, provided—at least—that he could catch them unawares and at a disadvantage.
A guard posted by the road stopped Cortez's American-provided Hummer. After the most cursory check, mere verbal questioning, the guard waved Cortez's column on, helpfully offering directions to the 1st Division Command Post.
Cortez guessed, correctly, that the guard was under orders to let groups of scruffy looking troops, replacements to make good 1st Division's previous crippling losses, through with minimal hassle. This matched well with the presence of all the extra and new equipment he had already seen.
Cortez's next guess was not quite so good. A couple of miles past the roadside guard post his Hummer passed between two medium armored vehicles—he thought they looked Russian—which tracked him for a few moments and then seemed to lose interest. More vehicles appeared, and then were lost in the rolling terrain as the Hummer moved onward. At a distance, and much harder to see, Cortez thought there were infantry accompanying the armor.
Left to himself, in a static situation, Cortez would have surrounded his command post—more importantly, his own mortal flesh—with at least as big a guard. Quite possibly his personal guard would have been even bigger. Thus, he found it not at all strange, completely normal, for there to be a strong battalion situated about the CP. He never for a moment suspected the guard might be because of him. He never even noticed that, as his Hummer and the following trucks passed, the armored vehicles pivot steered to face inward, towards the command post.
The command post was set up in an open area surrounded by trees. Camouflage nets were held above it by poles. In places, the nets were tied to any nearby trees that might help break up the outline of the tents that served to shelter the nerve center of the division. Going in through the main entrance, the center tent, one would have seen more than thirty folding metal chairs laid out in rows with a central pathway left open running up the middle. The grass of the pathway was worn almost out of existence, red dirt—though it was more mud than dirt at this point—showing clearly. At the far side of the pathway, against the tent wall and held up by twisted and bent coat hangers, were maps and status boards, detailing the deployment and condition of all the regiments and battalions in the division. Smoke from two dozen smoldering cigarettes hung in the air above the men seated in the folding chairs, giving the whole place a tobacco reek to mix with the sweat and diesel smoke. To the right of the assembly area, banks of radios set up on folding tables were manned by half a dozen enlisted men of the division. To the left was a planning cell, all maps and tables, manuals and grease pencils.
"And that is the crux of the situation," Suarez told his assembled officers in the three conjoined tents that served as the division CP. "Our best leaders have been incarcerated on trumped up war crimes charges, and our defense has been sabotaged from Day One. Moreover . . ."
A field phone rang, though it was more of a continuous, annoying clicking than a ring, actually. One of the NCOs working the communications picked up the phone, asked a couple of questions, and then held it up where Suarez could see.
"Excuse me a moment, gentlemen," Suarez apologized and walked down and aisle through the middle of the seated crowd to get to the phone. Taking it, he announced himself—"Suarez"—and listened for a few moments.
"Si . . . I understand . . . Your sergeant did well . . . that's right . . . come running when I call . . . Yes, come running then, too."
Suarez returned the phone to the sergeant, then turned to address his officers. "Our old division commander," he had to stop for a moment while the men stood and vented their spleen, "Bastard . . ." "Coward . . ." "Fucking deserter . . ." At least two, that Suarez could see, drew bayonets.
Making shushing motions, Suarez waited until they were quiet and seated again. "As I was saying, Cortez is coming with about five hundred armed men. I imagine he is here to arrest us, or at least to arrest me, and possibly to resume command of the division."
"Over my dead body," the division sergeant major announced, with utter seriousness.
"Do you all feel that way?" Suarez asked. "Do you feel that way even if it means fighting our countryman? Overthrowing our civil government, if that's what it takes?"
Some voiced, "Yes." Still others nodded. Some merely glared out their hatred of Cortez and their contempt for the president. Suarez searched through the small sea of faces, looking for one, even one, that looked reluctant or afraid. There was not one.
Cortez directed his Hummer to the small, wired-off parking lot area outside the tents. The area was more than half full with senior officers' vehicles; Cortez could see that by the number of them that had a "6" painted on their bumpers. A small sign announced the open area's purpose, as another announced the function of the tents: "1st Division Command Post." It was the right time of day for a meeting; Cortez had often held such morning get-togethers when he had helmed the division. Indeed, he had planned the timing of his raid in the hope of catching as many as possible of the division's leaders in one place, some to arrest, others to intimidate by the fact of the arrests.
The driver of the Hummer slowed to a stop. Cortez dismounted, pointed the driver in the direction of the other vehicles, and then turned and made hand gestures for his followers to dismount, spread out and surround the division command post. This they did, but without the silent speed and precision of professionals. Instead of dispatch, they trundled off the trucks slowly. Instead of silently taking position to give their quarry as little warning as possible, their jumped-up, gutter-scraping officers and NCOs had to make their orders heard with much shouting.
To a degree, this offended Cortez's sense of propriety. He was, after all, a son of the United States Military Academy. He knew, in theory at least, how an armed force was supposed to look, sound and act. He knew, equally well, that the security detachment he had drummed up didn't look, sound or act that way. Oh, well. You do the best you can with what you have.
Cortez did have a few real soldiers, men who had perhaps made a mistake and gotten on charges for it, or had committed some crime—rape was common—that put them in cells. These formed a special squad that followed him into the command post tents.
Inside, Suarez was leaning on a podium, unaccountably smiling at Cortez. The other officers and noncoms present turned their heads to stare or, in some cases, openly glare but all remained seated.
Forcing down the anger at being slighted, Cortez announced, "I am here to resume command of the division, Colonel Suarez. You are relieved, sir."
Suarez's smile morphed into something rather different, a cross between a shit-eating grin and a frown. He shook his head slowly, saying, "No, I don't think so."
The general waved his arm forward, then pointed as Suarez, saying, "Guards, arrest that man."
The guards started forward, then stopped in mid stride as forty-three pistols, four rifles, and a machine gun were suddenly leveled at them. The senior of the guards, a defrocked, overaged lieutenant with an unfortunate taste for very young girls, looked at Cortez with a mix of fear, anger and desperation. Fear and desperation won out.
He asked, not softly, "What the fuck do I do, General?"
Suarez answered, "Put down your weapons . . . or die."
"You'll all hang," Cortez shouted frantically. "I have five hundred men surrounding you. Surrender now, I promise fair treatment if you surrender now."
At that time, a long burst of machine gun fire sounded from outside the tent. This was followed by shouting, screaming, some scattered shooting, and then more machine gun fire. Over these sounds of fighting came the roar of armored vehicles approaching seemingly from every direction. The fighting ended almost immediately, the rifle and machine gun fire being replaced by the much softer sound of weapons being dropped and the repetitive pleas of, "Don't shoot."
Suarez looked meaningfully at Cortez. "Five . . . four . . . three . . ."
The picked men with Cortez dropped their rifles and raised their hands at the count of "Four." Cortez, himself, looked from side to side. Seeing he was alone and without support, Cortez lifted his left hand, palm out in supplication, while his right pulled his pistol slowly and gently from its holster. Using only his thumb and forefinger he withdrew it and stooped to place the firearm gently on the ground. The right hand then joined the left in the hands-up posture of surrender.
Suarez jerked his head in the direction of the dropped firearms. Two sergeants, a lieutenant and a captain sprang to retrieve them from the ground.
"You know, Manuel," Suarez said, not ungently, as he walked toward the overthrown general, "I can almost forgive you for bugging out when the Posleen had us surrounded. And I can even, almost, understand the desire to obey the orders of your uncle, the president. But the thing that really gripes, the thing I'll never be able to forgive you for, is abandoning your company and mine when the gringos attacked in 1991."
Suarez's arm drew back in a blur and then lashed forward, his fist catching Cortez squarely on the nose. Blood burst forth even as the victim flew back. The body made an audible thump despite the fairly soft dirt flooring the tent. Cortez was quite senseless, though, and never heard Suarez give the order to arrest him. He also never heard, not that it would have done anyone on his side any good, the order Suarez gave to certain officers to assemble their commands and prepare for a long vehicular road march to Panama City and beyond.