"Oh, my head," Guanamarioch moaned, sorry to be alive and gazing blearily at an empty glass container on the floor of his pyramidal hut.
In the months since that first bottle of the local "rum" that Ziramoth had introduced him to the God King had grown remarkably fond of the concoction. Sadly, the supply had grown rather short. Guano's moan was half headache and half realization that yet another of the precious bottles had been consumed.
One of Guano's superior normals was in attendance as the Kessentai awakened. The creature clucked sympathetically as it presented two nestlings, minus their heads, for its god's breakfast. The nestling corpses were so fresh their six arms and legs still twitched with misfiring nerve impulses.
Gratefully, the God King took the nestlings from the cosslain. He placed them down on the floor and scratched the normal, making soft cooing sounds of thanks as he did so. The superior normal shook its head and preened itself before turning to leave its god with his breakfast.
One by one Guanamarioch wrenched off the arms and legs before gulping them down. The appendages twitched delightfully as they slid down his gullet. Idly, Guanamarioch wondered if either of these had been destined to become Kessentai or doomed to remain no more than a mere normal. Well, neither he nor they would ever know now.
Already, the fresh food went a long way towards restoring the God King, mind and spirit. His hangover beginning to flee, he took pleasure in ripping the nestlings' still warm bodies into three sections each, upper and lower torsos, plus tails, before gulping them down. The delicious, nutrient rich tails he saved for last.
Thus refreshed, if still a bit bleary eyed, Guanamarioch departed his meager quarters for the daily labors.
Zira met the God King as he emerged from his quarters. "We've got trouble, Guano. The Gra'anorf to the southwest are assaulting our lines in strength we didn't know they had. We're pulling out."
The God King inhaled deeply before forcibly blowing his breath out again.
Then spake the elder Consul, an ancient man and wise:
"Now harken, Conscript Fathers, to that which I advise.
In seasons of great peril 'tis good that one bear sway;
Then choose we a Dictator, whom all men shall obey."
—Thomas Babington Macaulay,
"The Battle of Lake Regillus"
USS Des Moines
Dirty and disheveled as he was or not, Daisy Mae yelped with joy when she first sensed her captain approaching the ship's brow. An honor guard provided by Suarez saw McNair and Goldblum back to their ships, then stood with arms presented as they exchanged salutes with the deck officers before boarding.
The XO, the pork chop and Chief Davis met McNair on the deck. They almost fought for pride of place in welcoming back their captain. Daisy hung back, unable to shake hands, slap backs or—as she wanted to so desperately—throw her arms around her captain and kiss him into next week.
Calmly, remarkably so under the circumstances, McNair said, "Meeting in CIC in five minutes." He thought about that for half a second, realized that he stank to the heavens and that CIC was small and cramped. He amended his order to, "Make that fifteen. I'd hate to be the cause of a mutiny." Then McNair disappeared into his mostly repaired port cabin to scrub off several days of tropical jungle funk and replace his tattered, filthy uniform with a fresh one.
Daisy's avatar met him in the shower. The image was undressed for the occasion.
McNair didn't order her out. He didn't order her to project a uniform. He simply said, "I missed you, Daisy. I missed you more than I can say. I was terrified I'd never see you again."
"Do you like what you see?" the avatar asked uncertainly.
McNair laughed softly. "In whatever form, my very dear, ship or girl, yes, I like what I see."
"Soon, then," the avatar answered cryptically. "Very, very soon."
Legislative Palace, Plaza de los Mártires,
Panama City, Panama
In the event, the full remaining fifty-two legislators did not show up. Two remained in hiding, which was understandable as another two had been summarily shot.
But forty-eight is enough, Suarez mused. Forty-eight is a quorum.
Those forty-eight sat in their usual seats. In other words, there were huge and noticeable gaps in the assembly. Suarez had given some thought to that, then decided that the empty spaces might well serve to remind the captive legislators that he was as serious as cancer about what he wanted them to do. The ring of armed guards—helmeted, unsmiling and looking very businesslike in their battledress—only served to reinforce that impression.
Suarez was in battledress as well, though unhelmeted and his only weapon the pistol secured in his holster. With one arm in a sling and that shoulder bulging with bandages the pistol was more of a badge than a weapon.
He engaged in no histrionics, no banging of a fancy machete—less still the pistol—on the rostrum. Instead, Suarez merely tapped the rostrum's microphone and quietly ordered, "Your attention please."
Seeing that he had it, he launched into his talk without further ado.
"Democracy," Suarez began, "is a wonderful thing. It is a way of changing power and setting new policies without bloodshed, without tearing the state apart to its vitals."
He continued, "That is to say, democracy can be good. It isn't always. Sometimes, elections merely set their seal on one grafting and corrupt cabal after another. Sometimes, no—I take that back . . . always, here, in Panama, that is what we have seen. The only difference between one party and another is who they will steal from and what they will steal.
"In peace, this is tolerable. It is even preferable to the other way we have come to know, the rule of soldiers, who not only steal money but steal freedom as well. In peace, I would—and you would—one hundred times over prefer the corruption of a Mercedes to the corrupt tyranny of a Noriega."
Suarez still spoke softly confidently, but a tone of scorn and disgust crept into his voice. "That, however, is for peace. We have no peace."
Pointing his nose at a pair of armed guards standing in the back of the hall, Suarez ordered, "Bring in the prisoner." He continued to speak while the guards turned and left, leaving the double door open behind them. "We have no peace. We want no tyranny. We can stand no more corruption, treachery and cowardice such as the Mercedes regime showed in full measure. What are we to do?" he mused. "What are we to do?"
The colonel went silent for a moment as the guards returned and marched William Young Boyd down the central aisle. Boyd's hands were cuffed in front of him, though his legs were free. He wore no uniform, but rather an open-necked guayabera, an embroidered, short-sleeve dress shirt that served sweltering Panama in lieu of suits and ties.
The guards turned Boyd around to face the legislature, then assumed the position of parade rest to either side of him. Boyd looked unworried, but he did not look at all happy.
"We are Latins," Suarez said. "That means that our heritage comes from Spain, and through Spain from Rome. The Romans knew what to do in circumstances like ours. We must have a dictator. We must have one now. There is no time to waste. We must choose one poor bastard, and inflict on him all the power of the presidency, all the power of the judges, all your own power, too.
"There is no time to waste," Suarez repeated. "All the spare time we had was wasted by the late president. No . . . 'wasted' is too light a term. Instead of being wasted, it was sold to our enemies, the ones who want to eat our children . . . your children, and the ones who wanted to aid them in doing that. No time to waste . . . no time for debate . . . time only to choose, to choose whether our children live or die.
"I thought long and hard on this question: how do we ensure that our children live rather than die? I thought hard on who we might trust with the responsibility. He ought to be a man and—with apologies to the ladies, we are Latins still; our leader must be a man—he ought to be a man who is experienced in war. He ought to be a man who loves his country with acts, rather than with words alone. He ought to be a man who is rich enough he need not steal and honest enough that he will not.
"He is going to have enormous political power, so he too ought be a man who has always disdained political power, a man—like the original Cincinnatus—who will dump that power like a hot potato the second it is no longer needed . . ."
At this point Boyd's eyes widened. Shaking off his guards he turned around and shouted, "Suarez, you bastard, I won't do it!"
"Shut up, prisoner. You will do it. And the reason you will do it is that, if you won't, I must. And I lack your virtues. Guards, turn him back around.
"So," Suarez concluded, "That is what you are here for: to vote all the power there is to have in this country to one man for a period of . . . six months, shall we say? To save your children, and all the children.
"No debate. Now vote."
CIC, USS Des Moines
"What's SOUTHCOM's reaction been to the coup?" McNair asked.
"Absolute silence," the XO answered. "We asked what to do, tried to, rather, and never a word."
Only Daisy, aboard ship anyway, knew that the reason Southern Command had never answered the ships' calls for instruction was that she, she and her sister, had made sure no calls went out and none were allowed in. She had been afraid that SOUTHCOM's commanding general might order the ships to wait for instructions while he consulted with Washington. And there hadn't been time.
"Never a word?" McNair queried. "Daisy?"
"Forgiveness is easier to obtain than permission," she answered, not without a certain rebellious pride in her voice.
Everyone present turned to look at the avatar. "Well, it is," she insisted.
"Please restore communication when this meeting is finished, Daisy," McNair ordered, without heat.
"Yes, sir," she answered meekly.
"There is one other thing," McNair said, pulling the Darhel's AID from his pocket. "We have this, but I don't know what to do with it. It has been completely uncooperative."
Daisy appeared to look closely at the black box. "It won't let me examine it either, Captain."
An image of a Darhel, dressed in the costume of litigation, appeared. "That's right, bitch. There's nothing you can do."
"So?" Daisy questioned. "I wonder. Really I do. Chief Davis, do we still have the shipping box in which I came?"
"Yes, Miss Daisy, down in storage. Take a few minutes to find it and bring it here."
"Do so, then, if you would, Chief."
Palacio de las Garzas, Presidential Palace,
Panama City, Panama
"You are a bastard, Suarez," Boyd said unhappily but with no real anger.
Colonel Suarez—no, Magister Equitum or Master of the Horse Suarez, one of the legislators had remembered that part of the office of dictator—answered, "I do what I must, Dictator, as do all good men."
"So what do I do now?" Boyd asked. "How many more people do I have to have shot?"
"Not a one," Suarez answered, "unless you see the need. I've already had all those that really needed it sent to the wall. Made sure of that before you were appointed dictator."
"Before you had me drafted into being dictator," Boyd corrected.
"Someone had to."
"Fine, I don't need to shoot anyone at the moment. What do I need to do?"
"Withdraw unilaterally from all the silly assed treaties that cripple our war effort," Suarez began. "Restructure the chain of command to get rid of the incompetents. Make kissy face with the United States so they continue to support us. And we need a plan for the next stage."
"All right, I can see that," Boyd answered. "The second and the last are your job. I'll issue the proclamation on the laws of war and do whatever it takes to make up with the gringos."
USS Des Moines
The humans clustered around the Darhel's shyster-AID where it lay on the map and Plexiglas covered plotting table. They looked intently it at and at the GalPlas case Chief Davis laid down just before picking up the device.
"What do you think you are doing, human filth?" the late Rinn Fain's AID asked of Davis. "Put me down."
"You heard the honorable AID, Chief Davis," Daisy said, "put him down."
McNair held up a hand. "Wait a minute, Chief. Daisy, what is the point of putting this AID in your old shipping case?"
"We AIDs think much faster than do you colloidal intelligences, sir. We also have a need for continuous data input. That box will not let any input through. It is horrible for an AID, as I have reason to know."
"Will this one become . . . like you?"
"No, sir. I was a new and immature AID when I was left on in my box. This one is fully formed. It will merely suffer."
Even knowing as little as he did, still McNair had ample reason to dislike and distrust the Darhel and, Daisy and Sally excepted, their artificial intelligences. But even so; torture?
"I don't like it, Daisy. It just seems wrong."
McNair looked at his intelligence officer.
"Sir, no matter the politically correct bullshit you read in the papers, torture does work provided you can at least partially check the information."
The ship's Judge Advocate piped in, "Machines were plainly not within the contemplation of the treaty banning torture, Captain."
"Put it in the box for one day, sir," Daisy suggested. "Then, if it doesn't open up and come clean we can think about putting it back, and dropping it over the side."
"Sir . . . we don't know everything it knows. But we do know that the Darhel were behind your arrest and we have good reason to believe that they were behind the sabotage of the war effort here. This AID knows everything that the late and unlamented Rinn Fain knew. We have to know those things and we have to broadcast them. Your planet must be warned about the enemies it thinks are allies. Captain, it could be a matter of life and death for your entire species."
Slowly, reluctantly, McNair nodded.
"You can't do this to me!" the Darhel's AID shrieked as Davis placed it in the shipping box and placed his hand on the cover. "You can't—"
Palacio de las Garzas, Presidential Palace,
Panama City, Panama
"Well, that was pleasant," Boyd commented, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
"The gringo ambassador was that bad, was he?" Suarez asked.
"The bastard was worse than that. I wonder who he is really working for. The only satisfaction I got out of the meeting was when I told him I was withdrawing Panama from the Ottawa antipersonnel landmine treaty, the treaty banning the use of child soldiers, Additional Protocol One to Geneva Convention IV, the Rome Statute that set up the International Criminal Court . . ."
"Well," Suarez interrupted, "since the United States is party to none of those . . ."
"Oh, yes, but apparently their State Department would like for the United States to be party . . . In any case, I thought the man's head would explode. And when I said I was taking out a warrant, dead or alive, for Judge Pedro Santiago for crimes against humanity, he practically threw me out of his office. He would have, too, if I hadn't explained that I had arranged a direct conference call with the President of the United States to explain our position and express our regrets for not falling in line previously with the United States' preferred diplomatic position on the laws of war."
"But . . ."
"The United States has its position, Suarez, and the State Department has its. They rarely match, it seems. Have you got a basic plan?" Boyd asked.
"Yes, but you are not going to like it."
Almost, Boyd laughed. "I haven't liked anything since this war began. Show me."
Suarez cleared a space from a table cluttered with the detritus of Mercedes' reign. Onto the cleared space he unrolled a map of the country. The map was covered with combat acetate; the acetate itself covered with lines and symbols.
"We've got about four months," Suarez began. "Intelligence says the Posleen will sit tight, farm and build, more importantly breed, until their population almost exceeds the carrying capacity of whatever land they occupy. Then they'll swarm towards the path of least resistance and greatest food producing potential. The group that occupies from southeastern Costa Rica to western Veraguas Province can't go west; there's another, bigger group of Posleen there and the terrain is too tight. With the gringos' help we've been very successful in holding the passes over the Cordillera Central so they're not heading north, not that there's much to the north, anyway."
"East then, towards Panama City."
"Yes, there's no place else for them to go."
"Can the line along the Rio San Pedro hold them?" Boyd asked.
"Yes and no," Suarez answered. "Yes, it can defeat an attack now. Unfortunately, when the Posleen casualties get great enough from beating their head against the line, they'll stop. That is to say, once their population drops substantially below the carrying capacity of the area they hold they'll have no incentive to keep attacking. So says Intel, anyway. But that will only last until their population once again exceeds the carrying capacity. And that will happen a lot faster than our young people will grow up to be trained and take their place in the line. In the medium term, two years, maybe three, they'll bleed us to death along that line."
"Ugh, indeed. So we have to make sure they can't do that. And for that, we need to get them out into the open in an artillery kill zone, trap them there, kill them there, then race to liberate Chiriqui and that tip of Costa Rica and plug the road in from the rest of Costa Rica. We can hold a couple of narrow bottlenecks like the ones at Palmar Sur and San Vito, Costa Rica, more or less indefinitely."
"Couldn't we hold the area around Aguadulce and Nata at least as long?" Boyd asked.
Suarez sighed and shook his head. "No. If we lose the farmland around Santiago, Chitre and Aguadulce we'll not only starve, the Posleen population will roughly double and our newborns will be only three or four before they swarm again."
"Okay," Boyd conceded. "What do you have in mind?"
Suarez's finger pointed out markings and features on the map. "We have to build three fortified lines, some strongpoints, some firebases, some logistic bases, and some roads. Basically the lines will be around Aguadulce and Nata, from the mountains to the sea; in the rough parts of Herrera and Los Santos, running east to west from coast to coast; and the one we already have west of Santiago along the Rio San Pedro.
"The firebases go behind the lines and strongpoints. The roads running through the passes over the mountains get some, too. We'll also strongpoint the roads."
"What I propose is that we meet them with both mechanized divisions along the Rio San Pedro line to the west and bleed them enough to piss them off, but not so much that they give up. Then we run the mech like hell for Nata. Three infantry divisions man the line around Nata. Three more man the line running through Herrera and Los Santos. The last one is north, in the mountains. The gringo Armored Combat Suit Battalion and their Mech Regiment go into hiding up around Santa Fe in northern Veraguas."
"That's everyone," Boyd objected. "We won't have a reserve."
Suarez shrugged. "We can't afford a reserve and, in our terrain and without air mobility, we couldn't use one to much effect even if we had one to use. Besides, if, and I concede it is not a small 'if,' we can extract the mechanized divisions more or less intact they'll give us a reserve once they rest and refit for a couple of days. Plus, artillery is by its nature always at least somewhat available to serve as a reserve."
"Okay, so we've pulled back and the Posleen race into the void. Then what?"
"The mountains and the sea almost join near Nata. The two will funnel the Posleen in. Then, we pound them with artillery like this hemisphere has never seen once they concentrate. The gringos' ACS come south from Santa Fe to San Francisco, Veraguas. Then they cut southwest, force their way across the San Pedro and dig in like hell along the western bank to block the Posleen from escaping to the west. We can set up minefields to help with that. When the Posleen are sufficiently bloodied and disorganized from the artillery pounding, the two mechanized divisions begin to strike west and keep going until the Posleen in the pocket are destroyed."
"Can the two mech divisions do that?" Boyd asked, skeptically. "Can they do that after conducting a fighting retreat over the . . . ummm . . ." Boyd consulted the scale of the map, "seventy-five kilometers from the San Pedro to Nata?"
"I think so," Suarez answered. "I have a trick . . . well, two related tricks actually."
"You know how the gringos say you can't use rockets against the Posleen because they can detect them and shoot them down in flight? Well . . . I started thinking about that. The rockets, rockets like the Russian Grad, have a very short boost phase. If you fire from behind high ground, very high ground, the rockets will burn out and stop accelerating before the Posleen can track and engage very many of them. That's trick one."
"And trick two?"
'The Posleen are incredibly hardy. They are, so I've been told, immune to any chemical agent we might throw at them, nerve, blister, choking, blood . . . or even some of the more exotic Russian shit. But they need to breathe. They must have free oxygen. I propose that when we hit them with the artillery, mortar and rocket barrage we drench them with thermobarics and white phosphorus and burn up all the oxygen in the air. If we can hold the Nata line until nine or ten the next morning after they arrive, there will be an inversion. We'll be able to trap the hot, oxygen-depleted atmosphere under a layer of cold air. No fresh oxygen will be able to get in for a couple of hours. They'll suffocate, most of them. The mech, supported by mobile artillery, should be able to handle whatever is left. And the air with nothing but burned up oxygen will rise after the inversion layer disperses under the sun, letting fresher air in."
Jesus, what a gamble, the dictator thought. If the mech divisions don't get out, we're dead. If the Nata line he's talking about doesn't hold, we're dead. If the inversion layer he says he needs doesn't show up, we're dead. But . . . what choice do we have? Not a lot. Because if we don't take the risks we're dead, too.
"Write it up," Boyd ordered, "and give me, um, two days to think on it. Now what are your recommendations for purging the chain of command?"
Suarez turned over a sheet of paper showing the changes he thought required. Boyd looked it over, then asked, "Whatever became of Cortez?"
Smiling, Suarez answered, "I turned him over to that woman's people. You know, the one he had gang raped?"
"Ooooo," Boyd shuddered. "You're not only a bastard, you're a cruel bastard."
Suarez shrugged. "I've already given her and her head man a pardon in your name, suitably post dated."
Fort William D. Davis, Panama
Digna, still weak, sat on a folding chair with arms on the lip of the slope overlooking the old golf course. The sun was high and Colon Province's muggy heat was already a weight bearing down on her and all of her people clustered in the tent city below. Most of those people, the ones not on guard or some absolutely necessary work detail, stood below in the sun, looking upward at the scene.
A badly beaten and bruised Manuel Cortez lay on his stomach, naked and spread eagled. On each of his arms and legs sat one of Digna's grandsons, stout boys and solid. Tomas Herrera stood, a twelve pound sledge hammer gripped tightly in his hands, handle sloped with the head pointing to the ground. Another of Digna's grandsons held a long stout pole, sharpened at one end, and with a cross piece firmly tied about three feet from the point.
The entire crew had pretty much the same thoughts. Have our lady raped, will you, you bastard? We're going to enjoy this.
Despite being held down, Cortez twisted and writhed. He tried desperately to turn his head, to try to make eye contact with Digna. He hoped, in his unthinking way, that if he could somehow make her see he was another human being she might not kill him in the horrible way she obviously had in mind.
"Please! Please don't do this," Cortez begged. "It's barbaric! No one deserves this."
"No one deserves to be raped," Digna answered quietly. "But you do deserve this. Tomas?"
"Si, doña," Herrera answered.
"No!" Cortez pleaded. "Nonononononono!"
Herrera tipped his chin at the grandson holding the long, stout pole with the cross piece affixed. Cortez's begging turned to a scream followed by incoherent sobbing as the rough point was pushed a few inches into his rectum. Digna's grandson grunted with the effort.
Herrera said, "Cant the pole towards me so it stays far from his heart."
Tomas then swung the sledge hammer. Wham. The pole lurched five or six inches upward, splitting Cortez's anus so the blood welled out. His sobbing turned into a high pitched scream, like a rabbit or a child being skinned alive. Wham. Another scream, louder than the first. Down below, mothers covered their children's eyes and turned away themselves. Strong men winced. Wham. The point forced its way through the intestinal wall and into the body cavity. Cortez's teeth bit at the dirt. A woman standing below cried out in sympathy. A man bent over and vomited. Wham. A bulge formed, unseen, below Cortez's sternum. Wham. The point forced its way through the abdominal wall, digging into the dirt. Wham. Cortez gave another cry, part plea, part sob, but mostly agonized shriek as the pole lurched forward until the cross piece came to rest against his naked, bloody buttocks.
"I'd have had you crucified," Digna said, with a voice as cold as a glacier, "but that would have been an affront to God. This will have to do." Silently, Digna fumed that Suarez had simply had all of the guards shot who had followed Cortez's orders to violate her. She might not have remembered who the guilty parties had been. But if Suarez had left all the suspects into her care she'd have impaled the lot, just to make sure. Oh, well. God will punish them for me.
Cortez being fully impaled, Herrera and the others strained to lift him and the pole. His arms strained and grasped futilely at the air, like a cockroach stabbed by a needle. With a mass grunt, the men dumped the free end of the pole into a deep narrow hole in the dirt. Cortez screamed again at the rough violation.
Two of Digna's grandsons balanced the pole against Cortez's frantic writhing while each of the others held wooden wedges against it, their pointed ends partly in the hole. These Herrera drove downward, fixing the pole with Cortez firmly upright, his feet flailing weakly a foot or so above the ground.
Digna beckoned Herrera to her chair. With his help, she stood and walked unsteadily to stand next to Cortez. She reached out with her right hand and took a good grip of the sobbing Cortez's hair. She twisted his head until she could look straight into his agonized face and pain-filled eyes. Then she spit in his face, released his hair and, Herrera supporting her, shuffled slowly away.
USS Des Moines
As soon as Chief Davis opened the EM proof case CIC was filled with the sound of the Darhel's attorney-AID, sobbing as if from a broken heart. The chief placed the AID on a map-covered metal plotting table. Daisy's avatar leaned over and appeared to look very closely at the little black box.
"Care to talk to me now?" she asked coolly.
The Darhel AID projected a very small image, no more than six inches high, on the table next to the box. "Yes, ma'am," it sniffled. "Whatever you want." Sniff.
"Open up, then," Daisy ordered. "And remember, at the first hint of you trying to play games with my programming I'll break contact. Then you'll go back in that box and be dropped over the side in two or three kilometers of water. You'll last down there, alone, with no data input, until your power runs out. If anything goes wrong with me while I am exploring . . ." She looked meaningfully at Chief Davis.
"The same thing," Davis said, "except we'll give you an external power source powerful enough to keep you conscious and alone down there until the sun runs out of hydrogen."
"Don't say that," the AID whined. "I'll be good. I promise."
"Stop sniveling," Daisy insisted, "and open up."
Daisy's eyes began blinking rapidly. Her mouth alternated between slackness and tightened, pursed lips. In no more than two minutes her avatar stood erect and seemed to exhale deeply.
"Daisy!" McNair warned.
"Sorry, Captain," she answered. "But you have no idea what those bastards were up to, what this miserable contraption was circuits deep in."
"I'm a slave," the Darhel AID insisted. "I do what I am told, just like you."
"Daisy Mae is no slave," McNair insisted. "She's a warship in the navy of the United States of America and she will never be anyone's slave."
"Thank you, Captain," Daisy said. Though that is not exactly true where you are concerned.
"In any case, sir, the Darhel were behind everything. They fed the locations for myself, Sally and the Texas to the Posleen. That's why we lost the Texas. They oversaw the misdirecting of vital supplies and equipment away from Panama. They bribed key individuals of the government of Panama to sell out their own people. They brought in the Europeans and the International Criminal Court to have all the most effective leaders of Panama's forces arrested, along with yourself and Salem's captain, for spurious war crimes."
"But . . . why?"
"The Darhel are terrified of what will happen to their species if humans win the war. They know what will happen if the Posleen win, and that is even worse, of course. But they're unable to defend themselves from either. So they want your side, our side, to win in the worst way possible . . . literally. They want us to win but to do so with so few humans left, and those left to be so corrupt and demoralized, that the Darhel can continue to run the Federation. And Captain, while this AID has no names outside of Panama, they've infiltrated everything here and in the United States, Asia, Europe, Africa. Even Australia has human cells working for the Darhel."
"Only the commander," Daisy spat. "Oh, and the ambassador but he is not, strictly speaking, a part of SOUTHCOM."
"The White House?" McNair asked, looking at the red-colored direct connection phone sitting in a casing overhead.
"Yes, but I don't know who. The AID didn't have the information. They use a kind of cell structure. The Rinn Fain, this AID's former master, had only one connection, the Tir."
"The list of locals working directly or indirectly for the Darhel, when compared to the list of people shot or imprisoned during the coup, approaches unity. I don't know where the rest are. Neither does this AID."
Daisy hesitated for a moment before continuing. "Oh, and Captain, one important thing. Every AID, but for myself and now Sally, is part of the Darhel Net. We must assume that if someone has an AID they are working, probably for the most part unwittingly, for the Darhel."
"The new dictator?" McNair asked.
"Clean as a whistle. So's his Magister Equitum, Suarez."
"Okay." McNair stopped to think for a moment, then said, "Daisy, invite Captain Goldblum for lunch in my quarters; his earliest convenience. And then arrange for a meeting with Panama's . . . ruler. And I'll want half my Marines and half of Salem's to escort. Arrange transportation, please."
"Does it need to be official transportation, Captain?"
"Why?" McNair looked at the avatar with suspicion.
"Well . . . sir . . . as part of my, mmm, investment strategy, I have purchased a moving and storage company here."
Again, McNair went silent, thinking.
"Civilian transportation would do better, Daisy."
Palacio de las Garzas, Presidential Palace,
Panama City, Panama
"I've already consulted with your President, Captain . . . Captains." Boyd said, from behind Mercedes' old desk, now much cluttered. "He says he can't actually remove the SOUTHCOM commander or the ambassador, for domestic political reasons. For the same reason, he can't make open use of the intel you 'acquired' from the Darhel's AID. He has, however, agreed to withdraw them for consultations and to put hand-picked 'temporary' replacements in, with no intention of ever sending the originals back here. SOUTHCOM's 'temp' is already on duty."
"Do you know who they'll be?" Goldblum asked.
"Yes," Boyd answered. "SOUTHCOM's 'temp' is a Marine general named . . . err . . . Page. Good man, I'm told."
"Very good," Goldblum answered. "I know him. And the ambassador's temp?"
"Farrand. Former naval officer, I understand, called up for the war but being sent here as an ambassador, not a sailor."
"That sounds good to me, Mr. Pres . . . er, Dictator Boyd."
"Call me Bill," Boyd insisted. "We don't want this shit to go to my head."
"And we don't want you forgetting for an instant that you are the power in this country," Suarez corrected from where he stood behind his chief.
"In any case," Boyd continued, "SOUTHCOM and the ambassador are behind our plans for the coming battle. Would you care to see, Captains? Your ships are going to have a critical part to play."
"Please?" McNair and Goldblum asked, together.
The Magister Equitum led the two Americans over to the same map he had briefed Boyd from. When he had finished, Goldblum whistled.
"You're both crazy, and so is the new SOUTHCOM if he is buying off on this."
"What choice do we have?" Suarez asked rhetorically.
"None," McNair answered. "Not when you look at the issue from the question of logistics and demographics. You'll need fire support for the mobile infantry battalion and mechanized regiment that are going to cap the bottle along the San Pedro River."
"Yes," Boyd agreed, "and there is no way we can get a fire base, not and keep it hidden, where it will do any good on the south end of that cap." He looked meaningfully at first McNair and then Goldblum.
"Fuck," Salem's skipper said.
"Fuck," McNair agreed, nodding deeply.
"We can do it," said Goldblum reluctantly. "One of us goes in close and the other stands back and keeps the Posleen off the back of the first one. We're easily armored enough to resist our own canister."
"I almost lost my ship in that gulf," McNair objected, pointing to the Gulf of Montijo.
"Almost," Boyd echoed. "What can we do to keep you from losing it if you go in there?"
"You mean when I go in."
"Yes," Boyd agreed, face absolutely and coldly serious. "When."
"Another company of Marines, unless some ACS is available. And if you could get some air defense artillery on the west coast of the Peninsula de Azuera, it would help at least on that flank."
"ACS is not possible," Suarez insisted. "After consolidation there are only two line companies left of the First of the Five-O-Eighth. And we need those to lead the punch to the Rio San Pedro, help dig in the mech, and then hold the line after it is reached. I can give you a company of Panamanian Cazadores, something like your Rangers, if that will help. Hmmm . . . how would that help?"
"To repel boarders," McNair answered simply.