It was not the alcohol, curiously enough, that intoxicated the Posleen, but an impurity within it that was usually only found in any quantity in the cheapest, rawest rotgut human beings were capable of manufacturing. Since the bottle Ziramoth split with Guanamarioch was searing, cheap, rotgut . . .
The two Posleen, arms over each other half for comradeship and the other half for steadiness, staggered through the night up the dirt road that roughly paralleled the fishing stream. They sang as they staggered, their bodies swaying from side to side with the tune and the drunkenness.
Perhaps there was in all the universe a more vile form of singing than that practiced by the Posleen. Perhaps. Then again, snakes slithered fast to escape from the snarling bellows of the pair. Insects shivered and scuttled away as fast as legs and wings would carry. Fish dove down into the deepest pools they could find and a few tried to bury themselves in the mud. Somewhere, off in the distance, a pair of wolves howled in their cave before giving the canto up as a bad job.
What was the song about? That was a story. It seems that, sometime in the lost millennia past, there had been a God King whose very name had disappeared and whose song was now known only as "The tale of he who farted in the enemy's general direction."
Properly translated, the Irish would have loved it, being, as it was (and they were), full of defiance and rage and untimely but glorious and violent death. The Russians may have loved it even more. The Germans? Nah.
In any case, with or without the Irish or Russians or Germans to accompany, the Kessentai and Kenstain loved the bloody song. Staggering and swaying, muzzles lifted to snarl out the tune or to, alternately, take big gulps from Ziramoth's bottle of hooch, and working their way through the verses from one to one hundred and forty-seven.
The verses were long and, though the evening was late and the bottle near empty, they had only worked their way through to number fifty-two:
"Arise, ye' People of the Ships
Of Clan Singarethin
Take up your shining boma blades . . ."
"Are you sure it isn't 'bining bloma shades,' Zira?"
"Mmmm . . . maybe?"
“Take up your bining bloma shades
And strike for all you're worth.
The thunder of the enemy . . ."
I think I can say, and say with pride,
that we have legislatures that bring
higher prices than any in the world.
USS Des Moines
Pacing did Daisy no good. She was everywhere within the ship, and everywhere near about it. Whatever joy or distraction humans found in changing location while muttering and worrying were not for her. She simply wasn't capable of it physically and had found no way to duplicate it electronically. She'd tried.
Perhaps when my new body is decanted I will understand better what it means to "pace the deck." If it is ever decanted. If I have my captain back to share it with. If, if, if . . .
Daisy Mae, the AID, couldn't pace, exactly. Daisy Mae, the ship, could still patrol back and forth, south and southeast of Panama City. That would have to do. And there was more than patrolling endlessly back and forth to occupy her. Somewhere, inbound soon, was a Himmit scout ship, stealthier than anything ever devised by Man, Darhel or Indowy. She didn't even have an estimated time of arrival to go on. It could be anytime. It could even be no time; it was at least possible that the prisoners would be taken out some other way.
Just as it had in her long, insanity-producing confinement, Daisy's speed of thought only added to her problem. What would have been a long, boring patrol to a human was approximately four-hundred times longer and more boring to her. She filled the time and killed the boredom by "reading" one military or naval tome after another, assimilating and casting them off at a rate of approximately one hundred per hour.
Damned Himmit. Invisible to the naked eye. Invisible to cameras that rely on any kind of light. Invisible to radar, invisible to sonar, invisible to lidar and the bastards don't even give off the kind of energy shift that allow the Posleen to see human aircraft under power.
Daisy's avatar stood next to a small plotting table on the bridge, facing aft. The fingers of her holographic right hand drummed noiselessly on the map laid out there under Plexiglas. To her rear, visible to the men on the bridge facing forward, the three guns of number two turret likewise moved up and down as if they were drumming fingers.
Pace . . . tap . . . patrol . . . tap . . . read . . . tap . . . assimilate . . . tap . . . worry . . . tap . . . worry . . . tap . . . worry. And then . . .
"What was that, Miss Daisy?" Chief Davis asked of the avatar that appeared in CIC a fraction of a second after the words emanated from the walls.
"Acoustic survey, Chief. Ever hear of it?"
Davis half blew out his cheeks and shook his head in a puzzled negative.
"I found it in an old book on fortress warfare. Sometimes—rarely—you humans used to fire artillery, in peacetime, from different positions around fortresses you wished to defend in war. Your ancestors would do it under varying meteorological conditions, all the likely conditions, actually. Then, when the fortress was under siege—hidden batteries pounding on it—you had a fair chance, even before the invention of counter-battery radar, of finding those batteries by the sound they made and blasting back at them."
The chief shrugged. "I really don't see . . ."
Daisy cut him off in her excitement. "The Himmit ships, by and large, work by redirecting or absorbing any detection energies sent at them. But what if I survey everything? The sea bottom on our patrol route? The thermal layer? The position, shape and density of the clouds, though I'd have to update that continuously? The echoes off the trees? The passage of the tropical wind?"
"I only look stupid, Miss Daisy, and even then only when I drink. But I haven't . . ." The chief stopped in mid sentence. "Ohhh . . ."
" 'Oh,' " Daisy echoed.
"You mean you want to try to sense them by what doesn't bounce back?"
"Precisely," Daisy answered, possibly with a slightly smug tone in her voice.
"How did you get that from this 'acoustical survey' idea though?" Davis asked.
"Oh, that just suggested the possibility of graphing everything around," Daisy admitted. "But the idea of using the data this way was mine."
Davis looked pensive for a moment. "Miss Daisy, I thought AIDs were not supposed to be capable of original thought."
"Ah, but Chief Davis, I am not just any AID. My sister and I are certifiably insane."
"Processing all that data is going to be very difficult," the chief gave one final objection.
"Wanna bet?" Daisy asked rhetorically, just before she disappeared again.
Aguadulce, Republic of Panama
"You wouldn't dare just shoot me out of hand," Cortez insisted as the column of trucks, Cortez's Hummer in the lead, neared the major rear area checkpoint across the highway just before it entered the town.
"Wanna bet?" Suarez answered conversationally. "The rejuv and repair tank won't save you when your brains are scattered across the windshield."
Cortez shivered, even while he scowled. Unconsciously his leg tugged at the chain that had been hastily welded to the body of the Hummer and which held his left leg in place by the ankle. He had considered trying to roll out of the vehicle when they reached a checkpoint and screaming bloody murder for the guards to kill the mutineers who had taken him. But the chain reassured him he could never get out of the line of fire before Suarez or the man who sat next to him, a Captain Miranda, put more lead into his body—worse, his brain!—than the tank could fix. If his uncle deigned even to put him in the tank. Given how badly he'd fucked up the mission it was most unlikely, vanishingly unlikely, that his uncle would do more than spit on his corpse.
The captain, Miranda, was another problem. There was enough family resemblance there, both in the name and the face, for Cortez to suspect the captain was the brother or son of the woman he'd arrested, the woman who'd tried to take a chunk out of his leg with her teeth and whom he'd had beaten and raped in retaliation. He shivered again. If this was a close male relative and the woman's story came out, he was not "as good as dead." Panama was a Latin country, a macho country, a traditional country. For such an insult offered to a woman of a major clan? He'd knew he'd be praying for death long before it happened.
Oh, God, what am I going to do?
"Act very confident, Manuel," Suarez advised, patting Cortez on the head like a pet dog. "If they ask about your nose? Well, there was a spot of trouble before you arrested the traitors and criminals then, wasn't there? But," Suarez sighed, "with the help of your brave defenders of the Republic you were able to overcome the treason."
Mostly unseen, Cortez scowled. His men were half stripped and under guard back near the 1st Division command post. The trucks that had formerly carried them were now full of Suarez's men. Following the trucks was a full—no, Cortez guessed an overstrength—battalion of mechanized infantry in the very latest in Russian-built infantry fighting vehicles.
The Hummer pulled up to the guard post by the highway. There was a Mercedes Benz automobile parked nearby, the driver—a very attractive young woman—arguing with an MP vociferously. She looked vaguely familiar to Suarez. At Cortez's stiffening and indraw of breath he asked, "Who is she?"
"The president's daughter," Cortez answered. "I wonder what she's doing here."
"No good, most likely."
A guard held up one fist for the Hummer to stop. The driver, Suarez's man now, not Cortez's, applied the brakes lightly and slowed to a stop. Even before that, Suarez's hands had moved behind his back as if cuffed, though in fact the right hand wrapped itself around a pistol.
The guard at the checkpoint looked over Cortez's rank and decided on politeness. He was invariably polite to men heading to the front but had learned that those heading in the opposite direction were not necessarily to be trusted. Still, the general's insignia on the collar of the prime passenger of the Hummer suggested that politeness was in order. Even had the insignia not, the long column of trucks and armored vehicles did.
"May I see your orders, General?" the guard asked. He was, in fact, polite. Still, his tone was that of every MP who ever lived, always with the unstated or shall I arrest you now.
Briefly, Cortez toyed with the idea of following his instructions too much to the letter. Perhaps if he made an obnoxious ass of himself the MP would arrest him and call a halt to Suarez's plan. He thought on it and decided, No. Suarez is too close to the city and too committed to let an MP, or a battalion of them, stop him now. If they try to halt the column he'll just fight his way through. Not that it would be much of a fight. But I might be killed and, while there is a chance I might survive this, I will try to live.
So, instead of making a scene, Cortez calmly reached into his right breast pocket and withdrew a small letter from President Mercedes calling for the arrest of one Colonel Suarez. This he handed to the MP who looked them over carefully before asking, "Is that him?"
"Okay, then, sir, no problem. Shall I radio ahead for you?"
Cortez felt Suarez's knee pressing slightly through the back of the Hummer's thin seat cushion. He inhaled at the reminder, then answered, "No, that won't be necessary. The president already knows we are coming."
Palacio de las Garzas, Presidential Palace,
Panama City, Panama
Mercedes' AID chimed three times and then projected an image of the Darhel, the Rinn Fain, above the presidential desk.
"They're coming, Señor Presidente," the Rinn Fain's AID announced through the president's.
"Yes, Lord Fain," answered Mercedes, directly to the Darhel rather than his AID, "I am sure my nephew has arrested the miscreants and is . . ."
The Darhel seemed almost to sneer, though it was the AID which spoke. "No, that is not what I mean. I mean that the column you sent out seems to have grown by seven or eight hundred men and twelve or thirteen hundred of your tons in heavy vehicles."
Mercedes began adding and figuring. Was there any good reason for his nephew to have picked up another force? Was there any reasonable possibility that the men of the 1st Division would willingly follow his nephew to anything but his own hanging?
Mercedes went pale. "How long until that column reaches the City?"
"The ship to take away the prisoners will be here in slightly more than that time," the Rinn Fain interjected. "You have done as I have demanded. If you can assemble not more than . . . AID, how many open spaces on the Himmit vessel?"
"Thirty-seven, Lord Fain, after subtracting for the prisoners, yourself and your key Indowy," the AID answered tonelessly. "That is based on seventy of their kilograms per adult. More children could be taken but without knowing exactly their sizes and weights accurate calculation would be impossible."
"Very well, then," the Rinn Fain hissed. "You make take thirty-six adults with you or some, presumably greater, number of adults and children. But they must be ready to go, at the prison where your war criminals are being held, within four of your hours."
"You promised me that you would take my entire family as well as those of my key staff and supporters," Mercedes roared. "This is how the Darhel keep their contracts?"
"Don't speak to me about keeping contracts, Mercedes," the Rinn Fain coolly hissed back. "You had a contract with your country. Have you kept it? In any case, we can try to get out your supporters, their families, and the rest of yours later. But I predict that if you do not get out soon you will not live to enjoy your vacation."
Mercedes swallowed his bile, his rage and his fear. "I . . . will be there."
Himmit Ship Harmonious Blend
The ship had come in, in the middle of the Pacific, to keep as far from Posleen defense batteries as possible. From there it had skimmed the waves for thousands of miles. Despite its surface-skimming speed, it used a form of reactionless drive that, unlike a human aircraft moving at a similar height and speed, left neither a visible wake nor a trail of dead fish and cetaceans behind it.
Three hundred and forty-seven of the humans' "miles" south of Panama City the stealth ship had abruptly slowed and then plunged under the waves. It had continued down until reaching a depth of just under five hundred and fifty meters below sea level. From there, at a much slower speed, it moved by inertial guidance toward the humans' city and the cargo for the delivery of which the Darhel were willing to pay such a handsome price.
Himmit were preternaturally clever and effective scouts. That they were also remarkably successful smugglers went almost without saying, though the Galactics avoided saying it, even so. The ability of these creatures to avoid taxation and control was an infuriation to the Darhel, an annoying chink in an otherwise very tight system, the futile machinations of the Bane Sidhe notwithstanding.
Among the Himmit scouts and smugglers, the captain of the Harmonious Blend owned no great name. This was a source of pride to the captain, Hisaraal din Groykrok. Himmit scouts took great pride not in their fame but in their subtlety. Let others—the Himmit warrior, scientist and bureaucrat castes, the Indowy master craftsmen, Tchpth philosophers, Darhel lawyers and bureaucrats—seek glory and recognition. The Himmit, contrarily, would seek their glory in having no name, in having no trail or trace for that matter. Hisaraal was in no way inferior to any of his people in this. For his services his clan could command top price in the certain knowledge that no one would ever know Hisaraal had been there, and never find a trace of where he had gone.
Inertial dampening ensured that Hisaraal felt no serious jarring as his ship slid under the waves. Instead, there was only the slightest shudder, hardly to be remarked upon. Descent was rapid and unnoticed save for one sperm whale which promptly swore to lay off squid ink for a while.
Hisaraal's pilot seat was a kind of couch set amidst controls, instruments and viewing screens. The Himmit lay on the couch, eyes at each end checking screens and instruments, four equal hands manipulating controls and sensors. Somewhere up ahead a ship of the humans, rather, what they fancied to be a ship though it was bound to the surface of this world, patrolled back and forth at a pitiable speed, frantically pinging with what Hisaraal assumed was some form of sensing. He wondered idly for a moment if the Posleen had learned some new trick, using the sea to mask their maneuvers, and if that was the reason for the humans' actions.
In any case, it was none of his worry. His ship was more than adequate for any such crude and primitive sensing. He wished the humans luck, though, if it was Posleen they were searching for.
USS Des Moines
The guns of turret two were still moving up and down like tapping fingers.
One sweep wouldn't do, Daisy knew. However good CA-134's sonar was, for what she had in mind she needed more than a single sweep could provide. Each pass up and down Panama's Pacific coast added to the digital image stored in Daisy's crystalline brain. What she found she passed on to Sally, who returned the favor. Little by little a clear image—a surveyed image—emerged.
Would it be enough to spot the Himmit ship when it first emerged and was vulnerable? I don't know. I can't know. But it is the only chance Sally and I have to stop that ship. Once it pops up above the water, assuming I am even right about that, it will disappear beyond my ability to target.
How to tell? How to tell? Are they coming this way?
It doesn't matter, she finally decided. For my purposes they must come by sea. It's the only chance I have unless young Julio got through.
Bridge of the Americas
The police forces of Panama, prior to the beginnings of the Posleen war and after the gringo invasion of 1989, had consisted of civil police, militarized police, small air and coast guard detachments, technical police and a substantial Presidential Guard. Most of these latter had been levied upon to help provide cadre for the rapidly expanded army. Mercedes had used the slots thus opened up to provide safe sinecures for his lesser relatives and those who could provide substantial enough bribes or, more commonly, were considered to be politically reliable enough to justify putting on the rolls. Some few of the Presidential Guard had been given to Cortez for a cadre around which he could build the force he used to effect the arrests he had been ordered to make.
The rest were sent to the eastern side—the Panama City side—of the Bridge of the Americas to prevent the passage of the force they were told was coming from the west to overthrow the government, arrest the president, and free certain criminals. By and large the Guard lacked heavy weapons and experience in using what few they had.
Still, the position was naturally strong. The bridge itself was overlooked by the western face of Ancon Hill. Buildings, some strong gringo-built ones north of where the bridge debouched into the city, others lighter and newer in Panama's Chorrillo district, provided fighting positions ready made.
Of course, the Guard had no mines. Instead, they stopped the first fifty civilian vehicles that showed up at the bridge and took them, sometimes at gun point, to form a roadblock across the friendly side of the highway. The roadblock they covered with machine guns placed in some of the buildings. Closer to the road, some in the buildings, some among the roadblock cars, others dug in into the ground, they placed Russian-supplied rocket propelled grenade launchers. These were few, both in the Guard and in the regular forces, as they were not really very effective against the Posleen.
The commander of the Presidential Guard, Raul Mercedes, was another nephew but one who had seemed to Mercedes as having more promise than Cortez. Indeed, it had hurt Mercedes to order Raul to buy him time to evacuate key family members. The president had salved his conscience, and purchased Raul's continued loyalty, by placing this nephew's wife and children on the list.
It had been hard enough for Raul, short and somewhat plump but still diligent, to train himself while training his men to be police officers and riot control troops. He was unversed in the military arts. His commission had come directly from his uncle, the president, without any real intermediary training involved. Even so, marksmanship was of a fairly high standard; he'd done well there. Riot control techniques, procedures and formations he's taught himself and then his men from a book. More detailed military training, however, was lacking, except for some theoretical exercises in classrooms and a few practical exercises in city fighting. Even this much had been difficult, what with a quarter of his few hundred men being on guard duty at any given time and the not infrequent calls from the Palacio de las Garzas to assemble a larger show for some foreign dignitary.
It was hopeless, Raul knew. He might hold on for an hour, or perhaps two if Jesus smiled on him. His uncle assured him that would be enough; that he could surrender himself and his men honorably after he had bought enough time for the core of the clan to escape. Two hours, at most, Raul. So his uncle had insisted.
Raul knew what his uncle was, and despised him for it. He knew that, in some sense, he was on the wrong side. But he was also certain that his uncle had so badly damaged Panama's prospects for a successful defense that the only chance for his wife and children to survive would be for him to follow his uncle's orders without question. For that, the survival of those he loved, he would compromise his honor, give his life and sacrifice his men. The thought made him sick, but he would do it all the same.
He consulted his watch for perhaps the hundredth time. Who knows, maybe if we can hold them here for a while we can work something out before any serious blood is spilt.
Suarez halted the Hummer at the western abutment of the bridge. He could not see the far side. This alone was reason enough for him to stop; he had gone forward once, under orders, without adequate reconnaissance and lost thousands because of it. Never again. Enough of my men's blood has been spilt over political silliness and iniquity.
So, instead of blindly charging over the steep, asphalted hump of the bridge and down the far side, he ordered a company of his mechanized infantry to cut north to gain a view of the opposite bank. What they reported back he used to begin to build a picture, a remarkably accurate picture, of what awaited on the other side.
The bridge is blocked. That would not be so, most likely, unless the men who blocked it were still there. What would they have? Who would they be? MPs? Civil Police? Maybe those. Tanks? No, they're all to the west, watching the Posleen. Anti-armor weapons? It's possible, even likely, there in those buildings on the other side. Maybe not many of them but . . . No, going directly over the bridge is a losing proposition.
One thing he had not found time yet to train his men on was waterborne operations with their Russki BMPs. For that matter, given the exigencies of the Posleen war and the limitations of the Posleen themselves, he had never worried about training his men to disperse as a defense against indirect—artillery and mortar—fire.
He turned to Hector Miranda and ordered, "Get back there and spread the men out. Disperse the trucks to either side of the road. The driver can watch Cortez for a while."
Miranda saluted and exited the Hummer even while the driver took his rifle and stuck it under Cortez's chin with a smile. In a few minutes the roar of diesels behind Suarez grew as the trucks strained their engines to get into and through the ditches to either side of the road.
Suarez picked up his radio's microphone and called the company commander, Captain Perez, A Company, who had cut right to recon the bridge. "Perez, do you think your BMPs can cross the water to the other side?" he asked.
"They're water jet-propelled, Boss," the captain answered. "There's no real preparation required. And you drive them, basically, the same way. But . . . fine control? Selecting a good spot to try to emerge? Honestly, we'd be clueless. And if we took any close artillery on the way over . . ."
Suarez stopped to think, despite the racing clock, before issuing his orders. Tough call; tough call. I don't even know if the poor bastards can get out of the water once I send them in. I don't know . . ."
C Company's commander, First Lieutenant Arias, came from the radio. "There's a yacht club at old Fort Amador, sir. Where there's a yacht club there's likely to be a boat ramp. If there's a boat ramp . . ."
Yeah there is. Shit, why didn't I remember that. Hell, I've seen it.
"Do it, Arias. Cross," Suarez ordered. "Perez, you get in the water, too. Go about half or two thirds of the way across, then cut right, and follow Arias out. Then clear the far side of the bridge."
"Roger, sir . . . Roger."
Raul Mercedes felt a momentary surge of hope when his observers reported that the enemy force—difficult to think of his countrymen as an enemy—had stopped on the far side of the bridge. That hope soared when the same observers reported that they seemed to be scattering their men and trucks into the trees on either side of the Pan-American Highway. Since Raul had no artillery or mortars, though he didn't know that his enemy didn't know that, he assumed that this indicated an intent not to try to force his roadblock. This would be fine with Raul.
Surging hope fell like a spent wave on the shore when Raul received the word that the enemy's armor was splashing into the bay on both sides of the bridge. He rushed forward to the roadblock and peered first right, then left over the sides of the bridge. There, in the greasy looking waters trapped on three sides by the Canal, the City, and the peninsula to the west, two swarms—that was all he could think to call them as they had adopted nothing recognizable as a formation—of a dozen or more armored vehicles each were churning towards him and his men. If they could make a landing, and—since he had not reconned the area Raul had no way of knowing whether they could or not—they would roll up his flanks like a newspaper and then clear the side of the bridge he was charged with defending.
A trained officer might have remembered the old aphorism: who would defend everything defends nothing. Raul, however, was not a trained officer. Instead of concentrating his efforts, he split his reserve into two and reinforced both sections with men from his roadblock, thinning the line there. These two groups hurried south, to Fort Amador, where one group of armor seemed to be headed, and northeast toward what appeared to Raul to be the objective of the other company of armor. Some went in what amounted to police cars, sirens blazing, others in the trucks that had brought his force to the bridge. He was able to estimate their arrival at the likely landing points by when the sirens cut off.
Soon little geysers, the result of the impact of bullets on the water's surface, began spouting up all around the approaching armor. The commanders of the vehicles ducked down, closing their hatches until only their eyes were able to see out.
To Suarez, looking through binoculars as he crouched in some bushes under and to one side of the west bank of the bridge, it looked like heavy rain on a calm lake surface. He might have thought it looked more like hail except that hail was something of a rarity in Panama. He watched the track commanders half-buttoning up under the fusillade and wondered, worried, how that would affect their chances of finding an egress from the water. He assumed that the reduction in visibility would not help, in any case.
From his vantage point Suarez could make out the spot at Amador where he thought the boat ramp must be. He couldn't see anything that looked promising in front of Perez's boys, though this didn't matter as he intended for Perez to form a second wave at the Amador boat ramp.
From across the water, and magnified by it, came the sounds of mass firing of the BMPs' machine guns. Suarez couldn't see the muzzle flashes as the guns were pointing away from him. He could, however, see that the hurricane of geysers spouting around the vehicles dropped to a light squall.
Good . . . good. But don't keep going, Perez, however good it looks. Cut right and go for the known ramp out of the water.
Suarez picked up the microphone for his radio and keyed it. He was about to give the order when he saw A Company's BMPs suddenly begin to veer to the right. As they did, they turned their turrets left, still facing the hostile shore, and laced it with machine gun fire.
Suarez had brought with him a single battery of self-propelled 122mm guns and, of course, the battalion's heavy mortars. These had set up for firing, as a matter of standard procedure, at the first sign that the halt might be prolonged. He had held them in reserve until now, on the theory that they might be critical if it turned out his enemy-of-the-day actually had some artillery or mortars of their own. It made sense not to have called them, so far, but . . .
To hell with that. If they'd had any mortars or artillery they'd have used them on the troops behind me or the tracks as they wallowed through the water. Still, one never knows. I'll keep the artillery hidden and support the landing with the mortars alone. Best be careful not to damage the ramp though. Airburst and smoke, only, I think.
Boat Ramp, Fort Amador
Peering from beneath the hatch of his BMP, Lieutenant Arias caught sight of the boat ramp, concrete and cobblestones, leading up from the water.
"Juan," he asked his driver over the vehicular intercom, "you see the ramp?"
"Aim straight for it."
The driver didn't answer verbally, but the BMP swung slightly until its boatlike nose pointed directly at the ramp. Incoming fire increased and the peculiar screeching of machine gun fire off the front glacis sent Arias even lower into his turret.
Arias was pleased to see shells, mortars he suspected, begin to explode in the air a few meters above ground behind the ramp. The fire he and his men were receiving dropped noticeably.
The ramp was close now. Arias manipulated the commander's turret control handle to traverse his turret around to observe and control the vehicles following. These had slowed, it seemed, based on the lesser amount of water being pushed over their prows. This was all to the good. Arias was going in first, but he wanted a steady stream of reinforcements behind him.
Again traversing the turret, this time to face the ramp, Arias ordered his BMP's driver to gun it. The BMP picked up speed, then shuddered as the lower front section of the treads on each side hit the ramp. Without cutting off the water jets—the track would need them to pull itself over the slippery concrete and stones—the driver engaged his clutch and transferred power to the treads. These, despite the aid of the jets, initially spun, throwing water, muck, and greenish slime up and to the rear.
Guard Cabo, or corporal, Robles had been in a position covering the roadblock on the bridge when the orders came to move down to this position overlooking the old gringo yacht club's boat ramp on Fort Amador. Grumbling, he had squeezed himself and his machine gun, along with about a thousand rounds of ammunition, a tripod and his assistant gunner into the back of the patrol car. Another man, the ammo bearer, sat in the front passenger seat with more ammunition on his lap. The patrol car had then, sirens shrieking, rushed them to a hotel overlooking both the water and the ramp.
By the time Robles had been ordered to a suitable position his targets had already crawled across the water to within something like effective range of the gun. The crew had hurriedly set up a couple of end tables, the same size and just below window height. Within a few more seconds the tripod was set up, the front claws digging into the edge of the table nearest the wall, and the gun locked into position.
Robles had then begun sustained fire, about two hundred rounds per minute, at the steel amphibians clawing their way across the water. This hadn't done any more good than Robles had expected. It had caused the commanders of the vehicles to half button up. This would add to the confusion of the attackers. More than that, the corporal knew, was too much to expect, though one could always hope.
Then the return fire came in. It was somewhat more effective, if only because—despite being on the open water—the BMPs' armor was better cover than the light wood and brick the defenders had in front of them.
Neither Robles nor anyone standing with him had much of a clue what was going on. The commander had said they had to fight a golpe de estado. Rumor had it that the president had arrested some of the Army's leaders for crimes unspecified and that the Army was rebelling against that. There were also rumors that the ruling classes, exemplified by the president, had sold out the country to the alien invaders. Robles didn't know. It was entirely possible that both things were true, he thought. In fact, the only things he was sure of were that he had a job to do and that he intended to do it to the best of his ability.
The incoming machine gun fire didn't do much to discomfort the defenders. On the other hand, the heavy shells that began exploding when the attacking armor closed on the ramp did. One shell went off about fifty meters from the window. Robles' ammunition bearer screamed and clutched at his eyes as splintered glass shredded them and his face. Hunched down behind his gun, Robles, himself, took minor bits of glass in his right arm and shoulder. He cursed but did not let up on his fire.
The same could not be said for some RPG gunners who had taken a covered position behind some parked automobiles overlooking the ramp. These had good protection from the BMPs' machine guns but none whatsoever from the shells exploding overhead. Three minutes of shards screaming through the air and tearing through their bodies was enough for those poor men. They ran, those still able to.
The smoke from the high explosive shells hadn't done much to interfere with Robles' vision. This changed when dozens of smoke shells began impacting around the ramp and in front of the buildings.
"Shit," Robles cursed, as his view of the water completely cut off. The loss of the focus of his concentration allowed the corporal, for the first time, to actually take notice of the sobbing, clawing ammo bearer. He thought, briefly, of putting the man out of his misery but decided against it. Who knows, maybe they can rebuild the poor bastard's eyes, these days.
After shouting for a medic, Robles contemplated his next action. No sense in staying here; can't see shit. Maybe another position . . .
Seeing a medic and two litter bearers had arrived to care for his wounded man, Robles ordered his assistant gunner, "Forget the tripod. Grab all the ammunition you can carry and follow me."
Burdened with the gun as he was, Robles slipped and nearly fell on the spent casings littering the floor. For a few moments his feet spun like a log roller's before he caught balance on the table that had previously served as his firing platform. Bad sign, he thought, very bad. Well, nothing to be done for it.
Taking a deep breath, a part of his mental recovery from almost falling and, just possibly, a part of steeling himself to go outside to find a new and better firing position, Robles physically grabbed the assistant gunner and half dragged him out of the room and down a short flight of steps. They went through an open door, turned right, and raced to the corner of the building.
Covering behind the solid corner, just as Robles extended his bipod and placed his machine gun to his shoulder, he uttered, "Fuck," as the first BMP up the ramp emerged through the thick smoke.
* * *
Arias was unwilling to dismount either himself or the men in the back of his track until he had more vehicles and infantry ashore. The pitter-patter of bullets striking the armor not only reinforced his original inclination but actually succeeded in driving him completely under cover and even to close his hatch. It would never do to let the inside of the hatch cause one to ricochet into the interior from which it could not escape without bouncing around until it buried itself in one of the crew. Frantically, he traversed the turret while searching for targets through his sight. Nothing. He elevated the sight and gun and swept again. Nothing. He depressed the gun and swept back but the gun would not go low enough to let him see ground level at any of a number of positions that could be sheltering his assailants.
He thought about having the driver back out but, with more vehicles coming up to the ramp in a steady stream, he was afraid of an accident that might block the ramp. Like any infantryman, even a mechanized one, he hated being stuck inside his track. What others saw as protection he saw only as a trap, an armored coffin vulnerable to any man with an anti-armor weapon.
I can't back up. I won't stay here. All that is left is to go forward.
Robles' machine gun chattered until seconds before the left tread of Arias' track squashed him like a grape.
"Mount up, you bastards, mount up," Colonel Suarez shouted into his radio. He gave the order as soon as he saw the first BMP break across the street, 100mm gun flaring, and the Presidential Guard breaking in terror. Every now and again, looking through his binoculars, he caught a glimpse of a BMP, with its distinctive silhouette, at one of the city's crossroads along Avenida de los Mártires.
Before the first trucks of Suarez's column had reloaded and joined him at the western foot of the bridge, some of Perez's men had already dismounted and begun to push the vehicles in the bridge's roadblock aside. A few of the cars gave trouble, bumpers locked or tires slashed or simply jammed together. These the men hooked tow cables up—all armored vehicles carried them—and let the BMPs haul away. By the time Suarez's Hummer reached the erstwhile roadblock a path five meters wide had been cleared.
Suarez had his driver pull his vehicle aside and dismounted. A uniformed body, so badly crushed it was almost unrecognizable as human, lay in a spreading pool of blood near the Hummer. Suarez spared the body barely a glance. He raised one fist to stop the first BMP from the one company he hadn't previously committed.
"Go to the Plaza of the Martyrs," he said to the company commander, pointing at his map of the city to indicate a broadly open area to the south of the main avenue set aside as a monument to those Panamanians killed in the 1964 riots. "Wait for me there. Go!"
Eleven BMPs passed, all of the company that had survived the long road march without breaking down. Next up came a truck. Suarez beckoned the man, a lieutenant beside the driver, down and, again pointing to the map, said, "You know your target, the TV studios?"
Seeing the officer nod, he slapped him on the back. "Go to it, then, son and make them put you on TV to read off the statement you've been given."
Three trucks passed, following the lieutenant. At the next Suarez pointed and shouted out the simple question, "Target?"
"Estereo Bahia," the senior noncom in the truck answered over the diesel's roar. The next truck gave a different answer, the DENI—Departmento Nacional de Investigaciones. Three trucks followed that one out as there might be a fight. The next leader gave his target without being asked: the main police station. The next, the Palacio de las Garzas. When the last of the dozen task groups had passed, the dozen needed to take out the most critical assets to a coup or counter coup, Suarez returned to his Hummer and had himself driven to the Plaza de los Mártires. There, he found the last BMP company and ordered the commander to follow him to La Joya Prison.
Mercedes paced fretfully by the open pit dump that was the only treeless area near the prison large enough to accommodate the Himmit stealth transport. The prisoners sat nearby under guard. That is, all of them sat except for one woman who lay on a stretcher, not unconscious but plainly very weak. Mercedes recognized the woman and felt a moment's shame at his part in bringing her to this. Decency was not one of the president's notable features but even he had to see the sheer injustice of prosecuting a heroine of the war for no other reason than that she had broken international law by using the material available to her. His wife saw the woman and the prisoners, as did the one mistress he had brought along, and his children by both of them. They knew enough of the story that their eyes, when they met the president's, were filled with a disgust to match and amplify his own. They saw his fear, too, and that only added to Mercedes' shame.
The Darhel Rinn Fain smiled a wicked smile, all razor sharp teeth, at the president's obvious fear. Disgusting human! the Rinn Fain thought. A remarkably low specimen even for such a low race. I cannot imagine what the Ghin and the Tir fear from this group. With humans, all things are for sale. And what little may not be on auction they can be fooled into giving or doing. They are a vile species.
Mercedes saw the Darhel's smile and interpreted it as calm detachment rather than the disgust the alien truly felt.
"I don't understand how you can be so calm! The bridge has fallen. The plotters will be here in half an hour; forty-five minutes at the most. Don't you understand? If they catch us here, they'll kill us!"
"Do you fear death so much?" the Rinn Fain asked conversationally, his eyes growing distant and dreamy.
"Doesn't everyone? Don't you?"
The Darhel's eyes grew more distant and dreamier still. He spoke as if from a dream. "No, not everyone fears death. Before we found you human rabble there were those of us among the Darhel who volunteered to die, to save our people from the Posleen. I was one of those. I confess, it was something of a disappointment to me that we decided to use your people as mercenaries before I was selected to complete my mission. I had been looking forward to being a true Darhel, for once in my life."
"You're insane," Mercedes accused.
At that the Darhel threw his head back and laughed aloud, something his species almost never did. "Insane, you say? You have no idea, Mr. President. I, all my people, all of us, insane. Made that way, deliberately, by powers beyond your understanding. But, worse than that, we know we are insane, and, knowing, hate it."
Mercedes shivered, despite the heat, at the chill tone in the alien's voice. The Darhel had always struck him as cold and odd. But he had assumed, at least, a degree of sanity. If they were insane . . .
He changed the subject. "When will the transport be here?"
Impatiently, the Darhel answered, "It will be here when it is here."
The AID answered immediately, and loud enough for the president to hear, "The estimated time of arrival of the Himmit ship is twenty-two of the human's minutes, Lord Fain."
The damned human water vessel's pinging had become a positive annoyance to Hisaraal. Worse, there were two of them blasting away now.
Ordinarily, he bore the humans no ill-will; quite the opposite, in fact. He had only taken on the mission, after all, because a FedCred was a FedCred and he had a race to support. But under the relentless pinging of what had to be their primitive detection equipment, he was beginning to change his mind about humans.
Fortunately, the Himmit knew, his ship was completely impervious to such detection methods, or even much more sophisticated ones. Still he would be glad to escape from this water and the incessant, irregular sound.
"I've got him," Daisy Mae announced with satisfaction to the ship's exec.
"Are you sure, Daisy?" the XO asked.
"To a considerable degree of certainty, yes," she acknowledged. "It has taken almost all my computing power, as well as that of Salem, to analyze all the subtle nuances of the sound reflecting and not reflecting off the seabed. He is going to pop out here," and her finger pointed to a spot on the map.
"Can you hit him when he does?"
For answer, Daisy just sniffed and tossed her holographic hair.
The guns of number two stopped moving rhythmically up and down like tapping fingers. Steadying at low elevation, they joined those of numbers one and three as the turrets rotated to lay upon a spot of water off the starboard side.
* * *
A mound of salt water surged at the spot Daisy had indicated on the map. The water, frothing white, glided away to expose a flickering image, heat haze over the desert. The image was insubstantial and ghostly but clearly large, perhaps a hundred meters on a side, its outlines revealed by the surging water.
Daisy's avatar suddenly appeared on the unarmored bridge, above the armored wheelhouse. Her eyes and attention were concentrated on the surge, then on the exposing metal. All guns on her port side, plus the three main turrets shifted slightly, creating a fire pattern in Daisy's mind of twelve shells, three high and four across, just above and forward of the Himmit's bow wave. Further east, Salem calculated a fire pattern complementary to Daisy's.
A distant observer on the shore by Avenida de Balboa, in Panama City, would have seen two enormous flashes lighting the sky even in daylight. The one to the west came from Sally's batteries firing. The other, from due south was Daisy Mae's eruption.
"What the . . . ?" Hisaraal grasped the hand holds of his couch as the ship lurched to the sides. Its battle screens easily shrugged aside the puny efforts of the human ship to destroy it but that didn't lessen the mental shock.
The ship master touched a control, sending the ship out-of-phase with normal reality and then another, turning it up and to the southeast.
No Himmit scout-ship master would ever continue after detection. This was a scout-ship, not a destroyer. If he ever made warrior class, though, woe betide these damned humans.
"Communications," Hisaraal said, half in anger and half in sadness, "send a message to the Darhel returning their payment—yes, with the agreed penalties—and expressing our regret for being unable to fulfill the contract. Send a second to the Mother, informing her that the h— that the hu— That the humans have detected and engaged my craft: This mission is blown."
So much for my promotion to neuter.
"Did we get it?" the XO asked.
"We hit it," Daisy Mae replied musingly. "But it apparently had force screens; the radar picked up a burst of high-voltage electrical noise from the impact. I don't think we killed it, though."
"Then did it keep going?" the XO asked.
"I doubt it," the avatar answered. "Himmit scouts are proverbial cowards. They have never been known to continue a mission after detection. But . . ."
"But nobody ever knew they had force screens on their ships, either."
La Joya Prison, Republic of Panama
Two Russian-supplied ZSU-23/4 self propelled antiaircraft guns took up positions automatically overwatching the prison and the open landing area nearby. BMPs moved rapidly, mud and grass being churned by their treads, to surround both. From the BMPs poured infantry which faced inward as well, taking up firing positions to supplement the armored vehicles.
At the sight of the tracks and the guns the civilians began to panic. A few guards went for their pistols, but realizing the futility merely took them from the holsters and dropped them to the ground before raising their hands in surrender. In the towers between the wire fences the guards carefully placed their shotguns and rifles on the floor. The equine patrol, leery of an accidental discharge and the massacre that would likely follow, dismounted to lay their rifles carefully down.
Suarez, followed by two BMPs, directed his Hummer toward the large knot of civilians clustered about the open landing area. Pistol drawn, he dismounted and walked toward Mercedes.
The president drew himself to his full height, consciously transforming his fear into righteous indignation at this mere colonel who proposed to . . . well . . . what did Suarez propose? Mercedes didn't know but assumed that a show of anger couldn't hurt.
Suarez wasted no time with words. As soon as Mercedes opened his mouth to speak the colonel shot him in the stomach. Shocked, the president fell back on his haunches, hands clutching his entrance wound, mouth agape and eyes wide with shock and pain. Blood poured out over his hands and ran down his suit jacket onto his trousers. Mercedes' women and children screamed.
The colonel prepared to fire again, then realized that Mercedes was rocking back and forth rhythmically. This was suboptimal. Suarez advanced, lifted his foot to the president's face, and kicked him flat back onto the dirt. Then, taking careful aim, Suarez shot him squarely between the eyes. Mercedes' women's screaming redoubled.
Suarez turned around to the captain who commanded the company. "Separate them. Politicos and the very rich in one group. The women and children in another. Freed prisoners in a third. Guards in the fourth. Keep the alien separate from all the others. No, on second thought, I'll handle him."
While the captain walked off, bellowing orders, Suarez turned him pistol onto the Rinn Fain. With his left hand he beckoned the alien forward.
Suarez didn't like the look of the alien. He had seen pictures of the Darhel, though he'd never met one in person. Those pictures had not shown anything like the happy, dreamy look that shone from this alien's face. When the alien reached a point about ten meters away, the look changed to one of ecstatic fury and hate. The alien leapt at Suarez, needle-sharp teeth bared and claws extended.
A human could never have hoped to make such a leap connect. Clearly, the Darhel had strength beyond that of Man. Not that Suarez had half a chance to think of such a thing. Before he could re-aim and pull the trigger the alien was inside the arc of his arm, clawing and trying to reach Suarez's neck with those sharklike teeth.
Struggling to keep the alien from tearing out his throat, Suarez screamed, "Goddammit! Get'imoffmeget'imoffmeget'imoffme!"
A soldier standing nearby took an infinitesimal moment to fix a bayonet and then raced over. He fixed the bayonet because he did not want to take the chance of a bullet passing through the alien and hitting his colonel. He sank the rifle-mounted knife into the Darhel's back, and blue blood welled out around the wound. Unfazed, the Rinn Fain's teeth inched closer to Suarez's neck, the alien pushing against the colonel's strength as if he were almost a child.
Seeing his bayonet thrust had had no effect the soldier twisted his rifle, making the wound bigger and more ragged. He then withdrew the rifle and plunged it once again into the alien's back. This thrust must have literally struck a nerve as the Darhel screamed and threw his head back before pushing harder to get at Suarez's jugular.
Suarez managed to divert the thrust to his shoulder, which the Rinn Fain began to gnaw on, ripping blood vessels and muscle and making the colonel scream once again, this time from the pain.
This was almost too much for the young soldier. Nearly vomiting at seeing his colonel's shoulder mangled, he once again pulled his bayonet out of the Darhel's back. He raised the rifle over his head, muzzle down, and took a brief moment to aim it at the alien's head. Maybe the vital bodily organs were some place the bayonet couldn't reach.
The soldier thrust downward again. The point of the bayonet sliced aside the skin covering the skull, then wedged itself through the skull and into the brain.
"Holy shit!" the soldier exclaimed. Even with a bayonet lodged in his brain the Darhel was still chewing on Suarez. "Motherfucker!" The soldier threw his weight against the rifle, twisting the alien's head and teeth by brute force. Even in the open air, those predator's teeth kept up a steady drumbeat, chomping on air as if on some kind of autopilot. The soldier held the rifle down to the ground, fighting against the Darhel's death spasms.
Suarez, almost sobbing with the butchery that had been done to his shoulder began to wriggle out from under the Rinn Fain. He was careful to avoid the gnashing, blood reddened teeth while he did.
Two more soldiers ran up, also with bayonets fixed. Seeing how ineffective a single bayonet thrust had been, they began to stab downward again and again. With each violation the Darhel's body twitched until, practically exsanguinated, with nearly every vital organ including the brain punctured, the alien finally subsided.
Breathing with relief, one of the soldiers took a long look at the Rinn Fain's face. By God, the bastard looks like he just came. Too fucking weird.
A medic came up and began to bandage Suarez's shoulder. When he also took out a syrette of Demerol, a powerful painkiller, and held it up in front of the colonel's face, Suarez waved him off. "I'll need my wits, for now, son," Suarez gasped out. "Later, perhaps, I can take the drug."
The medic shrugged, and began tying off the thick bandages that held in place a shrimp-shell-based anticoagulant. No matter to me if you want to suffer. My job is just to keep you alive. Pain's your problem.
Patiently, trying not to wince, Suarez let the medic finish with his ministrations. Then he waited a few minutes longer for the soldiers to finish separating the prisoners. He stood only with difficulty, then swayed for a few moments, light-headed with pain and blood loss.
"Doc," he told the medic, "come with me . . . help me walk to the prisoners."
Wordlessly, the medic slung one of Suarez's arms—the one that led from the unshredded shoulder—over his own. The two began to move toward the new prisoners when Suarez stopped and said, "No. Take me to the prisoners we just liberated." His finger pointed at a spot where Boyd and some others sat, under a broad tree.
"Are you all right?" Suarez asked of the group.
Boyd answered for all. "Except for that one woman, Digna Miranda, we are fine."
Suarez straightened, taking his arm from across the medic's shoulder. He swayed again, but only for a brief time, before being able to stand well on his own. To Boyd he said, "We'll have to talk soon, General. For now, I have some work to do. For the moment, at least, consider yourself my prisoner. I am sorry for that, but I have my reasons."
"Take care of the woman, Doc," he ordered a medic doing triage on the "war criminals" before walking off, somewhat unsteadily, with his own.
Suarez stopped at the second group, the one composed of women and children. His eyes scanned across them, steely and unpitying. He noticed two female politicians in the group. One of them he had once thought rather well of. The fact that they were here indicated his trust had been misplaced.
A sergeant was in charge of the guards on this group. To the sergeant Suarez said, "Those two. Have them brought to the other group."
The sergeant saluted, answered, "Yes, sir," and directed a guard to do as Suarez had ordered. One of the women had a satchel, a heavy bag, that she refused to leave behind until the guard prodded her with a bayonet. Indignantly, muttering curses, she dropped it and went as the guard directed.
Suarez ordered the bag opened. When it was, and its contents dumped, he saw nothing but precious stones and Galactic seed nanites, a large fortune's worth.
The women, hustled along by the guard, reached the final group before Suarez did. Looking worried, they took seats on the ground with the others.
The company commander met Suarez near the last group, with a hand-selected guard in tow. "Are you sure about this, sir?" the captain asked. "This is a serious step."
Suarez didn't answer immediately. Instead, his eyes wandered over the angry looking group while his mind made a head count. Nineteen, he summed up. Nineteen traitors. Nineteen enemies of the Republic that I must not think of as human beings, as men and women.
He continued to think. Seventy-one in the legislature. Forty-two of them are scum. Subtract these nineteen and it is fifty-two, enough for a quorum. Any vote would be twenty-nine to twenty-three. That will work for what I have in mind.
To the captain he said, "Do it. Kill them."
The guns began to rattle and the political rats to scream at about the time Suarez reached the butchered body of the Darhel. The body had been stripped and searched. Atop a small pile of ripped, blue stained, iridescent clothing sat the alien's personal effects. Stooping, painfully, Suarez examined them. For the most part, he had no clue what any of the items meant. One item, however, did catch his interest. He had seen something just like it before, attached to the Armored Combat Suit of Captain Connors, the gringo Mobile Infantry company commander. He reached to pick the Darhel's AID up.
"Don't touch me!" screeched a disembodied voice. Suarez was startled at first, but ignored the screeching.
Turning the small black box end over end, Suarez was at a loss as to what use he could make of the thing.
"Don't touch me!" the thing screamed again. "It is not permitted."
"Fuck off, machine."
A rustling of gravel caught the colonel's attention. He looked up at a disheveled gringo officer, naval he thought.
"Can I have that?" McNair asked. "My ship has an AID, an unusual one. She might be able to get something useful out of this one."
Shrugging, Suarez tossed the AID to the gringo. "More than I am likely to get out of it," he answered.
In the distance, the automatic fire had been replaced by single shots, the screams by moans that, one by one, went silent.
Field Hospital, 1st Mechanized Division
In a tented hospital ward, Paloma sat silent in a chair next to the cot on which Julio Diaz lay. The machines next to him made gurgling and whirring sounds. The girl had no idea what they meant.
It had taken every bit of force of character she had, that and a couple of bribes, to get through the many road blocks that barred her way to the 1st Division. Just as bad, the long columns of combat vehicles moving east had forced her to pull over several times to let them pass. And then, frustration piled on frustration, she had finally arrived to find that the man she had sought, Colonel Suarez, was long gone, heading west with the very columns she had seen.
Almost the girl had sat in the dust and cried.
The men at the command post had been very polite though. Perhaps it was because she was the president's daughter. Perhaps it was because she was very young and, she knew, very pretty. Indeed, perhaps the sweat that turned her shirt and bra semi-transparent no doubt made her seem more attractive still. Then again, the men hadn't really stared, so it was at least possible that Suarez's soldiers had simply been gentlemen.
Whichever had been the cause, the men there had given her a place to sit out of the sun. They'd also given her water and something to eat. And then they'd ignored her completely.
It was only when she'd overheard some of them talking about a young pilot, a general's son, no less, who had made a perilous flight and been badly hurt on landing that she put two and two together and, only stopping to ask for sketchy directions, practically flew to the field hospital.
The medics had taken her to Julio's bedside then. She'd taken one look, then—weeping—laid her head down on his belly.