Picture, if you will, a lone insect, flying aimlessly through a primordial jungle in search of food. . . .
The grat operated off of instinct. Instinct had carried its ancestors, distant in both time and space, across half a galaxy. Instinct had brought it aboard the Posleen ship fleeing orna'adar. Instinct now carried it in search of the communal abat, the agouti-like, hive-building creatures that were its sole source of food. Where there might be abat, there would be grat. Briefly the grat hovered in his search before landing on a nearby tree.
But this is not just any jungle. Watch out! There's a signpost ahead. This grat has just taken a wrong turn and entered into . . . The Darien Zone. (Insert appropriate music here . . . )
The tree ant popped its head out before rapidly drawing it back into its hive tree. Pheromones were released, only to be picked up by others of the colony. From ant to ant the pheromones spread. The pheromones spoke of "invader"; they spoke of food. In a short time the message reached the queen who redoubled them, adding in the chemicals that said, "Feed me; I hunger."
From deep inside the hive, which extended well below the tree's base, the ants began to mass at the exits. The mass of ants grew and grew until the level of concentration of the pheromones reached a certain critical level. Then the ants swarmed out.
The grat was stupid; not so stupid that it didn't notice the beginning of the ant swarm, but stupid enough not to recognize that the swarm might pose a threat. Absently, the grat flexed its stinger and flicked it at a convenient ant. The stinger connected and pulsed a tiny dose of its venom. The targeted ant twisted itself into a C and began to writhe in a death dance.
Before that ant died, a hundred more swarmed over the grat—over its abdomen, up it jointed legs, onto its thorax.
Snip, snip, and a grat wing fluttered groundward. Now in pain itself, the unbalanced grat tried to ascend but only managed to flip itself off the tree and onto the ground. A hundred ants managed to hang on during its fall, their mandibles imbedded in the grat's chitin, cutting through to the soft meat below.
Once on the ground the grat knew a brief moments' respite from fresh wounds. Its remaining wing beat the ground futilely. In a circle about it the ants collected. The grat's tiny brain, though foggy with the burning pain of the formic acid injected by the ants' mandibles, still registered the looming harvesting machine surrounding it. It tried to right itself and rise to its feet to fight.
Before the grat could arise the ant pheromones reached critical mass again. With the grat still half on one side the circle of tree ants swarmed again and buried the grat completely from view. A hissing scream emerged from somewhere under the pile. Soon, the scream was followed by pieces of grat, being carried in an orderly fashion, single file, up the tree and down to the queen.
The Posleen normal's genetically engineered ears picked up the scream of the grat. This was a common enough sound on Posleen worlds. Grat often went into abat nests in search of food. There was a saying among the Kessentai that the normal could not have articulated but at some basic level understood: "Sometimes you get the abat, sometimes the abat get you."
The normal, scouting forward for the main host, continued deeper into the dank, dark, wet and miserable Darien jungle.
Picture, if you will, a lone Posleen, scouting through the jungle in advance of its clan. But this is not just any jungle. Watch out! There's a signpost ahead. . . .
(Insert appropriate music here . . . )
Hear the wind blow, hear the wind blow;
It is calling for him.
See the grass grow, see the grass grow;
It whispers his name.
See the fire glow, see the fire glow;
His heart is aflame.
Bayede Nkhosi! Bayede Nkhosi!
The setting sun washed the great step pyramid of the clan leader Binastarion in pale red light. In that light, the pyramid rose high over the area once known as the Parque de Cervantes. Of the park, the stores and hotels that had once encircled, the ancient church which a priest had detonated to prevent the Posleen from eating his flock, not a single trace remained. The very stones and blocks had gone into the pyramid. Only the metalled square of road indicated that here had once stood human habitation.
The time was very soon, Binastarion knew, the time when population pressures would have built to the point the People began spontaneously to march, to seek his leadership in acquiring new lands.
Walking up an interior ramp to the platform just below the summit of the pyramid, the God King looked over the normals, cosslain and few Kenstain that ran and maintained his palace. The others scrambled to get out of their leader's way as he made his way upward. Are they looking thinner than they should? he wondered.
At the head of the ramp was a small landing. Binastarion surmounted this, then turned to walk outward to the platform that engirdled the pyramid's square summit. Even before passing the sound-deadening electronic barrier that also served to keep the voracious local insect life at bay, the God King heard the snarling and grunting of masses of the People. He asked himself, Is it the Time, already? It is so soon.
A great cry went up from the People massed about the pyramid's base. Thousands of boma blades were drawn in salute, hundred of railguns brought to Present Arms.
"Haiaiailll, Chief!" thundered the God Kings, hundreds of whom hovered in their tenar above the mass. The normals inarticulately snarled welcome and praise.
Binastarion looked above the masses, to where even at this distance he could perceive columns of the People descending from the hills surrounding what had once been the major human town of the area.
"Is it time, old companion?" he asked his Artificial Sentience.
"Lord, it is not the best time. Too many Kessentai ride their own feet rather than tenar. Not all the normals have even shotguns. That said, and despite whatever these humans could do; moreover, despite much sun and rain and a fertile land, the People have grown quickly. Nestlingcide has done little to help. Incidents among the normals are up. They hunger."
Deeply, solemnly, the God King nodded. "Sound amplification," he ordered his Artificial Sentience.
Binastarion reached around to place his own grasping member on the heavy metal hilt of his own, hereditary, boma blade. This his drew, the scraping sound echoing across the masses. His People shouted and thundered his acclaim from below.
"We march!" the God King said.
San Pedro Line, Republic of Panama
The first sign came well before dawn, a glowing line drawn in the sky above the Inter-American Highway. The glow spread outward to become a fan the nearer it came to the edge of human resistance to the Posleen infestation. To the human soldiers, watching and waiting in their trenches and armored vehicles, the glowing fan spreading above them seemed like the warning that the gates of Hell had broken loose and a swarm of Satan's own were coming to drag their souls down to damnation.
The defenders weren't very far wrong either.
To Sergeant Quijana, standing in a trench line two hundred meters east of the river, it wasn't the glow that frightened. Indeed, that was all to the good as it would give his men clearer targets, presupposing the light lasted until dawn and—as seemed likely—the enemy showed up before then.
No, the glow was good. What bothered Quijana, and apparently most of his men, was the sound. Even at this distance the sound struck at the soul: the whine of the aliens' massed tenar, the clatter of their claws on the hard surface of the highway, their growls and snarls, even the sound of branches of trees breaking as the Posleen horde forced its way through woods—and all the sound, all the time, growing . . .
Quijana shivered. He sensed his men doing the same. God, I feel so alone.
From overhead came the freight train rumble of a few score shells being lobbed in the enemy's direction. For a moment, the flight of the shells downed out the Posleen cacophony. Moreover, when the shells—122mm Russians, Quijana thought—impacted, the flash of their explosions, sensed even in the distance, briefly overwhelmed the glow in the sky. Somehow, the sergeant felt instantly better. He looked around at the soldiers lining the trench with him, and saw that they, too, had relaxed—if only a bit—once they'd heard the screaming friendly shells.
Hmmm. If the aliens' noise frightens me and the men, and our own calms us . . .
Announcing, "I'll be back in a few minutes, Boys. I need to call the commander," Quijana turned and scrambled up a few steps cut into the back of the main trench, then followed a narrower one to where his own squad's BMP awaited in a hull-down fighting position. He placed one foot on the track of the vehicle and hoisted himself halfway up.
"Hand me your helmet," the sergeant ordered a corporal standing in the hatch of the BMP. When he had the helmet on his head, Quijana made a call to his platoon leader.
"Sir, I think we ought to start our engines."
"Why, Sergeant?" the lieutenant queried back.
"I think it will have a good effect on the men, sir."
The lieutenant never answered. Instead, after a couple of minutes and from about five hundred meters back, the sergeant heard one heavy duty engine, and then another, rumble into life. He handed the helmet back to the BMP's track commander. In few minutes more his own track gave off a roar as the driver started it, as did the BMPs to either side.
As Quijana reached his dismounted squad, back in the trench, the entire San Pedro Line had come to life, better than one thousand heavy and medium armored vehicles, growling their defiance and making the ground for thirty miles shake. More artillery in the rear—mortars, too, now—began to speak. The landscape lit up, to the front from the bursting shells, to the rear with the muzzle flashes of hundreds of heavy guns. The sound of the Posleen horde was lost amidst the roar.
Confidently, more confidently than he had felt since spotting the first sign of the approaching enemy drawn in the sky, Quijana said to his squad, "Boys, we're just gonna murder the bastards."
Posleen normals were stupid, even moronic, but they could be taught if one used the right tools. When the first wave of the first scout oolt hit the leading edge of a minefield the dismounted junior God King in command and a dozen of his people tripped off an even half dozen Bouncing Betty mines. The Kessentai went down, eviscerated and screaming in agony as did over a score of the normals. Seeing legs blown off, flesh oozing yellow blood where ball bearings had imbedded themselves, and entrails draping the ground and entangling such limbs as remained, the bulk of that scout oolt stopped, frozen in their tracks.
Two BMP gunners, seeing the freeze, had the same thought at the same time. Within seconds, and milliseconds of each other, two 100mm high explosive antipersonnel rounds went off above the oolt. The rounds were auto-loaded and detonated by a laser beam range finder precisely above the spot picked by the gunners. (Where the United States had made a 25mm rifleman's grenade launcher to do the same thing, the Russians had never thought the effect of such a grenade justified the expense. A 100mm shell, on the other hand, did.)
Packed as they were, without a God King for leadership, with shrieking almost-corpses rolling on the blood-stained ground ahead of them, clear space behind, and with two large shells exploding overhead, the normals of the scout oolt broke.
Quijana's company's first sergeant, El Primero, risked a look over the lip of the trench, saw the enemy running and did a quick count. "Hmmm. With sixty of the bastards down, that leaves only about five-million, nine-hundred and ninety-nine thousand, nine-hundred and forty to go."
The primero shrugged, "Piece o' cake." Then he lowered his head, and walked on down the trench.
The trench was camouflaged and each of the men had several obliquely oriented firing positions from it, dug into the western wall. Quijana walked along the duckboarded floor, stopping at each man to pass a few words of encouragement, check on ammunition, or ensure they were drinking water as they ought. Spent ammunition casings, steel with a brass wash for the most part, littered and smoked on the duckboards. Idly, Quijana brushed some of them aside with his boot to let them fall through the spaces in the flooring. Some of the freshly fired casings made a slight, almost imperceptible hiss as they hit the mud under the duckboards.
The enemy were still coming and the riflemen and machine gunners were still killing those who managed to make it through the thick minefield. The BMPs were donating shells at any cohesive looking groups that seemed about to make it past the mines or which were held up by the wire to the front. The air above was thick with lightning-fast railgun fleshettes.
Quijana reached an arm up to tap a shoulder. "Let me up there, Gonzo," he told a scared looking, sixteen-year-old private named, appropriately enough, Gonzalez. The young private sighed audibly, then withdrew his long rifle—one of countless thousands of Dragunovs purchased from Russia to give the defenders extra reach and a heavier bullet—and stepped down into the greater safety of the main trench.
Carefully, Quijana's face searched out the young soldier's face. Scared; but then who wouldn't be? Briefly, he reviewed what he knew about the kid. Gonzalez, Angel F., sixteen, drafted six months ago. Father and mother live in the City. Some brothers and sisters, all younger. Good kid; did well in training.
"You're doing fine, Gonzo," Quijana said as he slapped the kid's shoulder. Then, to emphasize that the danger wasn't that great, Quijana himself took Gonzalez's previous position and—keeping as much of his head under cover as possible—looked out over the battlefield.
The first and most noticeable things Quijana saw were eight—no nine, one was crashed and smoking amidst a pile of Posleen bodies—tenar. He ducked down again and looked behind him. The trench was competently laid out, which is to say that the rear berm was higher than the front, or firing, berm to prevent the heads of the defenders from being silhouetted against the sky. Still, he saw about as many smoke trails from his own side's armor as he had seen tenar crashed or hovering lifeless.
Oh, well; sometimes you get the abat and sometimes the abat get you. He wasn't sure where he had heard that first, perhaps it was from one of the gringo or Russian trainers who had helped run one or another of the courses he had taken.
More worrisome than the smoke columns from behind, Quijana's next look showed the ground carpeted with Posleen bodies. Ordinarily, this would be a happy sight. On the other hand, If there are any mines under those bodies still left they sure won't go off now.
Worst of all was the wire. This was laid out normally: protective wire forty or fifty meters to the front, tactical wire past that to guide the enemy into preplanned kill zones and final protective lines, and supplementary wire to fool them as to which was the tactical. (For the serious downside to tactical wire was that it almost always led, inexorably, to a machine gun or other crew-served weapon sited to fire along it down the enemy side.)
The wire had been well strung and constructed, and competently laid out. Unfortunately, if one threw enough railgun rounds at it some of them had to connect. And even a gram's worth of metal, moving at an appreciable fraction of c, would be enough to sever the wire. Quijana wasn't even sure the Posleen were doing it deliberately, but great swaths of the wire were severed and down even so. Moreover, in places the Posleen had stacked their wounded and dead so thick and deep that the wire had become more of a frame for holding up a Posleen-paved aerial pathway.
"Can't be too long now," Quijana commented to himself as he stepped down to the floor of the trench.
"Sergeant?" Gonzalez queried.
"Huh? Oh. It can't be too long before we get the word to pull back, Gonzo. We're not supposed to hold this line indefinitely, you know."
"Oh. Whew. I thought you meant something else entirely." The private looked visibly relieved.
"No," Quijana laughed. "Not that; we'll be fine. Now back to your post, soldier," the sergeant ordered.
As Gonzo mounted the step back to his firing position, Quijana turned away to continue his walk down his short section of trench. The sergeant then heard a heavy thwunk behind him. He turned instantly and began to shout, "Med . . ."
The shout died, stillborn. There was nothing a medic could do for a private missing his head. Quijana fought down the urge to vomit at the finely sprayed blood and chunks of skull and brains dotting the back wall of the trench.
Damn. The kid was only sixteen years old. For the moment, Quijana took over Gonzalez's position on the firing step. I hope to hell the word comes to pull back soon, even though I know the retreat will be a nightmare.
CA-134, USS Des Moines, off Isla Cebaco
CIC was a little metal pillbox containing barely suppressed excitement and fear. McNair could smell the emotions, sour and bitter, on the recycled air. The whole ship reeked of it in a way it never had before, for on the first deadly mission of this war the crew had been ignorant. On the other runs to raid the Posleen-held coast it had felt safe in the darkness. This fight saw the men of the ship wise in bitter ways and, however determined to do their duty, frightened of what that duty was likely to entail.
The exec looked up as the ship's captain entered. "We just got the word, Skipper. The Heavy Corps, First and Sixth Panamanian Mechanized Divisions, are going to start pulling back in half an hour. We need to help them break contact. I've already given the order to commence the firing run while Salem and the land-based air defense provide cover."
McNair looked over at Fire Direction.
"Skipper, we will be in range of Target Group Alpha in," the FDO consulted the chronometer above his plotting table, "seven minutes and . . . thirty seconds."
The captain nodded, said, "Well done," and turned to Daisy's avatar, already present. "You ready, my girl?"
"Willing and able, Skipper. We're gonna murder the bastards . . . for Julio, among others."
Lastly, McNair ordered the ship's public address system turned on. Then he turned to Father Dwyer and asked, "How do we stand with the Almighty, Chaplain?"
Dwyer smiled a wicked smile, all bared human incisors and fangs, and spoke loudly enough for the PA set to pick up his words. "With regard to the enemy, Captain, the good Lord says, 'I will leave your flesh on the mountains, and fill the valleys with your carcasses. I will water the land with what flows from you, and the river beds shall be filled with your blood. When I snuff you out I will cover the heavens, and all the stars will darken.' Ezekiel 32; verses five through seven."
"So be it," McNair agreed, then ordered, "Marine marksmen and Panamanian Cazadores topside. Prepare to repel boarders."
San Pedro Line, Republic of Panama
"Wait for it, boys, wait for it," Quijana cautioned his squad. Only two men—exceptional shots, the both—still manned their firing steps in the trench. The rest clustered around their squad leader near the back step that led to the narrow communication trench that, in turn, led to their BMP.
"What's it like, Sarge, when a ship fires?"
Quijana and one other man, his corporal assistant, were the only men in the squad who had survived the near destruction of 1st Division when the Posleen had come pouring out of the hills and valleys to surround them during the early stages of the invasion. He knew what the guns were like.
"Fucking scary, Soldier," the sergeant replied. "Also fucking beautiful and wonderful . . . like manna from Heaven or God's own lightning when you need them. But keep your heads down, anyway, because God's manna didn't have a deadly radius of hundreds of meters and He had better quality control at the lightning factory."
"What about Gonzo?" one of the other privates asked. "We going to just leave him for the Posleen to eat? Seems . . . wrong."
Quijana thought about that. "You're right, Private. It is fucking wrong. Tell you what; go to the BMP and get me a Bouncing Betty and an extra four or five pounds of C-4, also some det cord and a nonelectric cap. We'll rig Gonzo so he can get a few more and leave nothing behind for the aliens to eat. Go, son."
The private took off at an awkward run down the communication trench. By the time he returned, Quijana and his corporal had dug a small hole for the mine and prepared Gonzalez's body, removing his bloodied combat gear and shirt. The detonating cord they formed lumps of C-4 plastic explosive around, then further wrapped it around the corpse. One end of the det cord they also wrapped around the mine. The mine itself went into the hole, with its safety pin still in place but the retaining bends straightened. The squad put Gonzalez's shirt back on him and gently eased his headless body down onto the mine's three detonating prongs.
Quijana patted the corpse's shoulder, then slid one hand under the body until he was able to grasp hold with a finger and thumb on the ring of the safety pin. Silently praying—mistakes did happen, after all—the sergeant eased the safety pin out of the mine's fuse and from under the body, then deposited it in his right breast pocket.
Breathing a sigh of relief, Quijana whispered, "Get some, Gonzo. Get some."
"Sergeant! I think the ship's firing."
CA-134, USS Des Moines, off Isla Cebaco
The bow below cut through the water, churning it to a furious white froth as twelve Daisies above, each perfectly identical to the others, stood holding holographic candles around Father Dwyer.
The priest intoned, "Wherefore in the name of God the All-powerful, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, of the Blessed Peter, Prince of the Apostles, and of all the saints, in virtue of the power which has been given us of binding and loosing in Heaven and on Earth, we curse the Posleen themselves and all their accomplices and all their abettors. We order them gone; we exclude them from the bosom of our Holy Mother the Church in Heaven and on Earth; we declare them anathematized and we judge them condemned to eternal fire with Satan and his angels and all the reprobate. We deliver them to Satan to mortify their bodies, now and after the Day of Judgment."
The twelve Daisies—six to either side of the priest, lining the bow, and wearing something like vestments—intoned, "Fiat. Fiat. Fiat," and then cast their virtual candles over the side.
"It is done," the priest said.
The twelve Daisies immediately shrank to one, standing at the chaplain's left shoulder. "Father," she whispered, "I know the ceremony as well as you do. That wasn't quite right."
"Yes, Daisy," the priest answered. "I had to modify a bit. No matter, His Holiness will understand and God will know His own . . . and so will Satan."
The single avatar remaining shrugged. "As you say, Father. But, while God and Satan may know their own, my guns won't give a shit and the captain is about to give the order to fire. Go below, please."
San Pedro Line, Republic of Panama
It was the thunder of God. It was the raging of Satan. It was the walls of Hell being tumbled as Christ died on the cross.
It was nine semi-automatic eight-inch naval guns firing "high capacity" shells at maximum rate and walking the blasts across the landscape to a plan and a timetable.
Quijana and the six remaining dismounted soldiers with him huddled on the floor of the trench as shell after shell exploded to their front, shaking their internal organs mercilessly and pelting them with rocks, debris and parts of Posleen bodies lofted by the blasts. Some of the bits fell on the headless body of Private Gonzalez.
Oh, shit, thought Quijana, crouching abjectly with his arms protectively circling his head and neck. If something falls on poor Gonzo hard enough to jostle his body it might set of the mine. Shit. Shit. Shit.
One of the privates apparently had the same idea at about the same time. The private saw a severed Posleen head fall across Gonzalez's legs, shouted "Chingada!" and started to get up to leave the trench.
"Oh, no you don't, shithead!" Quijana exclaimed, reaching up to grasp the private's belt and pull him back down into the trench. The private struggled until the sergeant stuck the muzzle of his rifle under his chin and said, as calmly as possible for having to shout over the naval shells, "One little twitch. Just one."
The private immediately went wide-eyed and stock-still.
"Sergeant Quijana!" shouted one of the track crew, lying down at the entrance to the communication trench that led to the BMP. "Sergeant! The word is to pull out now! For God's sake, c'mon!" The BMP crewman's head immediately disappeared as he pulled back to return to his vehicle.
Still with the muzzle of his rifle under the terrified private's chin, Quijana used his other hand to point at his corporal. "You first! Supervise the loading as they arrive. Now, go!" The corporal took off briskly. Then the sergeant looked around the pale, frightened faces of the remaining five. He pointed at a private. "Go!" This he continued until only himself and the soldier with the rifle to his chin remained.
In as reasonable a voice as he could muster, Quijana said, "You are going next. I will follow. You will keep your head down. You will move quickly but calmly. You will not lose your footing. You will not trip. If you do either of those things, I will shoot you and leave you behind for the enemy. Is this clear?"
The private gulped and, unable to nod his agreement and understanding for the rifle pushed into the hollow of his jaw, managed to answer, "I . . . understand . . . Sergeant."
Satisfied, Quijana nodded and said, "Good, son. Now go!"
When Quijana arrived, his corporal was still outside the track, making sure the frightened private buckled himself in before seating himself. The BMP's turret slewed slowly, left to right, spitting death in the form of machine gun and cannon fire. Shards from the naval gunfire whined overhead or, velocity spent, fell to earth to raise small dust clouds.
"Everyone's aboard, Sergeant!" the corporal announced over the engine's roar as Quijana scrambled to his seat, slamming and locking the track's door behind him.
"Tell the track commander! Let's get the fuck out of here!"
The vehicle began to vibrate while the engine's roar increased as the driver began to back out of position, prior to pivoting and running like hell for the next battle position, ten miles back.
CA-134, USS Des Moines, off Isla Cebaco
"Skipper, the Heavy Corps reports they have broken contact and are falling back."
McNair looked at the guns, shimmering even in the daylight with the heat built up from hours of nearly continuous firing.
"How's Sally standing up?" the captain asked of Daisy Mae.
"She's about the same as us, Skipper," the avatar answered. "Most of the high capacity ammunition in the ready magazines is depleted. They're cross-leveling and reloading now, as we are. And, for both of us, our guns are hot."
"They sure are, Daisy," Davis commented, causing the avatar to blush.
"All right, then," McNair continued. "We've done our jobs for now. Set course to bring us around the Peninsula de Azuero, and assume firing positions in support of the Nata Line."
San Pedro Line, Republic of Panama
Binastarion shuddered at the carnage displayed to either side of the San Pedro River. His people lay in heaps, Kessentai and normals both. Tenar hovered in place or lay, altogether too often, crashed and smoking on the ground among the dead.
Unhurt normals were busied with rendering the dead and very badly wounded into thresh. This would keep the offensive going for some days, the God King knew. Yet there was always loss in consuming the bodies of the dead. Only a vast taking of the threshkreen would have made this a favorable exchange. Binastarion knew that the threshkreen had left comparatively few of their own, nothing like the scores of thousands of the People who lay lifeless on the ground and on each other, to make up for the caloric loss.
Reports from up ahead were not encouraging either. It seems that the thresh and their threshkreen defenders had abandoned the ground, taking everything edible with them except, of course, for what they had burned rather than let fall into the hands of the People. Moreover, the threshkreen were falling back in good order or, at least, in no worse order than one might have expected under the circumstances.
"I hate humans," Binastarion growled, though none but his Artificial Sentience could hear him as he rode his tenar above the abattoir below.
"Lord, one cannot help but observe that the humans hate you as well," that ancient device answered.
To either side of the highway—or what was left of it, the humans had torn up as much of that as possible to impede the People's progress—normals and Kessentai were formed in ranks, the Kessentai singing a hymn of praise to their chief for the victory.
Victory? This is "victory"?
Artificial Sentiences could not read thoughts. Yet, were they and their God Kings together long enough, and Binastarion and his AS had been together for many cycles, they would sometimes think along the same paths.
"Let them think what they will, lord. Let them think what fortifies them for the coming struggles. This is not a victory, but rather a defeat, despite driving the threshkreen from their positions and placing ourselves in position to overrun the best of their remaining lands. Still, it does put us in position to grow stronger, and higher in the ranks of the People."
"Yes, old friend, I understand that," Binastarion answered. "I merely wonder if our strength will prove sufficient; if our sustenance will prove sufficient."
"That, lord, only time will tell."
The small pack leader—or oolt'ondai—was hungry, as were most of his pack. He wanted a human to eat, something not just to fortify him but to make up for the losses and the hours of fear he had endured while leading his People to break this threshkreen defensive line.
Guiding his tenar low, the oolt'ondai's eyes searched out the human-built trench system looking vainly for even one threshkreen corpse to vent his hunger and his fear upon. There was nothing, nothing but the bodies of the People and the humans' wrecked fighting machines, burning and smoking all around. The machines seemed odd to the Kessentai, different from those he and his pack had faced. They looked boxier and less predatory, for one thing. Sadly, the God King was not what the humans called a "five-percenter." He did not key on the fact that the dead machines he saw were of an altogether different design and battle philosophy than the ones which had devastated his pack and the others. Even if he had been intellectually capable of understanding, it is most unlikely that the God King would have made anything of it.
Though intent on searching the trench floor, the Kessentai still almost missed it. The corpse was headless, and half covered in dirt and debris. It took several long moments for the oolt'ondai to realize that the headless thing was indeed the prize he had sought, a human corpse.
The tenar would never fit into the trench, so, reluctant to dismount, the Kessentai ordered over a normal and made the signs for the normal to bring him the body. Somewhat reluctantly and fearfully, the normal obeyed. These things they fought were frightful. Who knew what evil designs they had worked into their own systems of fortification? Even so, God Kings ordered and normals obeyed. It was in the nature of the universe. The normal found a zigzag in the trench system and jumped in.
Naturally, the normal sniffed the body. It did smell odd but then everything on this miserable planet smelled odd. It didn't look for trip wires but that didn't matter as there were no trip wires on the threshkreen's body. The normal bent over and dug its claws into the corpse, giving one great heave to lift the body to where its god could take charge of it.
When the body was lifted there was a small bang, nothing so profound as the explosions that had danced among the People all day. Too quick for the normal's eye to see, a cylinder, about six inches across and nine or so high, bounded upward.
The Kessentai saw the cylinder, for the briefest moment, before it exploded. At this range, literally dozens of pieces of steel, some round, some jagged, tore into the God King's body. He had barely time to register that agony before the det cord went off, detonating in turn several pounds of plastic explosive. It was not clear to the God King which it was that killed him, as he was turned into so much gas too quickly. Several dozen of the pellets struck the tenar and of these at least three hit the controls for the containment unit for the tenar's antimatter power pack. This immediately failed.
There was a blindingly bright flash to the east.
Though he was some miles away as the shock wave hit, it still took Binastarion several long moments as he fought for control of his tenar before he realized what it was that he was seeing. His Artificial Sentience announced, "Antimatter explosion, lord. I am attempting to analyze what caused it."
"The never-sufficiently-to-be-damned humans caused it!" the Kessentai snarled.
"Well . . . yes, lord," the AS admitted. "But how is the question. I have a suspicion the threshkreen have begun laying traps on the bodies they leave behind. The loss from this one, if it was a trap, far exceeds any nutrition we might harvest from all the human bodies found so far in the line."
Binastarion scowled. "Issue orders in my name: the humans' corpses are to be left unharvested until they can be properly searched and, if necessary, disarmed."
"This will play hell with logistics, lord," the AS answered. "But . . . it is done."
"I hate humans."
"Speaking of which, lord," the AS continued, "something has been disturbing me."
"And that would be?"
"I can't find the metal threshkreen. I lost them a while ago but didn't think much of it. Now we have fought the humans again. You would have expected the metal threshkreen to be involved, at least in covering their breaking contact with us. But, no, there's been not a peep."
"They could have been pulled off-world," Binastarion commented, reasonably. "Or even back to their homeland to the north of here."
"It's possible, lord."
* * *
"Good Lord A'mighty." Sergeant Quijana saw the rising mushroom cloud, a comparatively small one, from the battle position his company had assumed to continue their delay of the enemy. He wondered for a moment, then pulled out his map and compass.
From this position . . . azimuth of . . . two hundred and seventy-eight degrees . . . mmmm . . .