A human would have said that Guanamarioch was "spooked" at the loss of an eighth of his pack without trace. The human would have been right, too.
The God King trembled slightly as he walked eastward. To Ziramoth, walking beside him, he said, "I just don't get it Zira. More than fifty of my people . . . disappeared without a trace. They weren't shot, or burned. Nobody harvested them for thresh except for the six that were hit by what my Artificial Sentience called "arrows." It's like some huge creature opened its jaws and sucked them in, not even spitting out the bones. Zira, I followed their trail. They just disappeared into nothing."
Whatever Zira had been about to say was lost as the dark trail ahead of them erupted in screams and firing.
Posleen were essentially immune to any form or terrestrial poison that man had yet discovered. Nerve gas had no effect. Blister agents had little (but then blister agents were among the least deadly means of human chemical warfare anyway). Blood agents? Puhleeze. Not even some of the more esoteric Russian chemicals had had any noticeable effect on the aliens. Diseases? Not a chance.
That said, their bodies were still composed of something analogous to flesh. The beings who had tinkered with Posleen genes in the dim mists of antiquity had begun with a more or less normal pre-sentient creature, then modified those early forms for reasonable threats. Some threats, though, just weren't reasonable.
* * *
The ant had neither name nor number. It never noted the lack. As much as a Posleen normal was content to be a part of its clan, the ant lived to serve its colony, though in this case the colony was a series of trees. In a real sense, even more than Posleen normals, the ant was a mere appendage to that greater organism.
The vibrations of the unusual centauroid creatures passing nearby had disturbed the ant, raising it from its slumbers, along with many thousands of its fellows. Like the others that joined it, poised along the tree branches of the colony, the ant was a bit under an inch long, colored black. The Posleen slogging below never noticed this; the night was dark and most of the ants were concealed from sight. The Posleen likewise never noted the immense and terribly sharp mandibles borne by the tens of thousands of ants among the trees. It would have taken more curiosity than the aliens, as a race, possessed for them to note that the mandibles were hollow and capable of injecting not venom, but a rather concentrated solution of formic acid.
The ant couldn't have told you why it jumped, when it did. Instead, at some point the moment just seemed right.
It landed atop the broad and bare back of a Posleen normal. It didn't bite right away, for that would have shown a degree of initiative highly discouraged in ants. Instead, it waited until a few dozen or so of its sisters had likewise landed on the Posleen, as well as some thousands more on the backs of other Posleen.
That moment seemed right, too. Chomp!
ChompChoChomChompChoChomChomp . . .
When you're an ant, a tree ant . . . a soldier tree ant, you just live for those team-building moments when you and your tree ant soldier buddies can donate excess concentrated formic acid into something that really isn't expecting it.
The Posleen normal noticed the arrival of the ant, and of its many, many sisters. At first, it thought it might be more of the rain that seemed to stop only to build up more rain buddies to the side. It seemed odd though, that these rain drops didn't slide off its back. The normal found this somewhat disturbing in a distant sort of way.
And then there was pain. Oh, my, yes; there was great, burning, agonizing, shrieking pain, emanating from dozens of spots. The normal reared up in shock and surprise. Sadly, as it did so, it knocked over another normal who was also experiencing an ant-induced epiphany of pain . . . and no happier about it than was the first normal.
A little annoyed, and more than a little stupid, the second normal drew a boma blade and charged at the danger it could see, ignoring the danger it could not. This was bad enough. But some of the normals, many of them, in fact, carried better than boma blades. They had railguns. So did other oolts that fed themselves spontaneously into the fighting.
Wheee, thought the ants. Chomp.
When Guanamarioch and Ziramoth, leading Guano's pack, arrived at the scene, there was nothing left but carnage. Oh, yes, a few normals still lived, though they were in a pretty bad state of shock. For the rest? Guano whistled over one of his cosslain and made signs for it to begin the thresh gathering.
"Maybe it is to the good, Zira. I am feeling awfully weak lately with what the little flying demons are draining from my body."
Ziramoth sighed. "So are we all, my young friend. So are we all."
There are some defeats more triumphant than victories.
—Michel de Montaigne
Dictator Boyd was waiting at the southernmost of the two major crossing points as the long lines of weary, bedraggled, and half-beaten looking men crossed into safety, but with millions of Posleen on their tails. The armored vehicles looked, if anything, more beaten than the men. Blood ran down the sides of some of them from wounded men stacked atop.
Still, it hadn't gone badly, Boyd knew. Yes, a few companies had been cut off and annihilated here and there on the long retreat. Worse, one whole battalion of mechanized infantry had been lost without a single survivor in the ruins of Santiago. Even so, better than eighty-five percent of the two heavy divisions had escaped, along with half a million civilians, many of them young boys to become soldiers and young girls to breed them. There was equipment to make good the losses, too, some of it on hand and some more en route. The losses of men could not be made up so easily, of course.
Boyd wore battle dress, his helmet off and tucked under his left arm so the passing troops could recognize him. Maybe it would mean nothing to them; maybe no one would recognize him. In a personal way, it would have made him happier if none had. Panama had a long and unfortunate history of dictatorial rule. He hoped, fervently, that he would be the last dictator the country ever had to endure.
Unfortunately for his happiness, many did recognize him and those quickly passed the word to the others. He assumed it was being passed by radio as well because, looking through his binoculars, he saw men begin to wave at him from the distance, well before they closed to a range at which they could have recognized him.
One track pulled out of line and trundled over to where Boyd stood, surrounded by his twenty-four aides de camp. Officially, they were "lictors." The aides stepped briskly out of the way lest the track run them over. The track—it was a Russian-built BMP—stopped abruptly. Boyd heard the squeaking of a metal door being pushed open. A young, dirty-faced sergeant emerged. Boyd looked over the face carefully. It wasn't just dirt. The boy had a weariness about him Boyd hadn't seen since the long retreat and the fight back in a place called the Ardennes.
Bone tired or not, the young man saluted smartly. "Sir, Sergeant Quijana reports."
Boyd returned the salute a little awkwardly. Would he never get used to being a senior officer? He supposed not. "What can I do for you, Sergeant?"
Quijana shook his head. "Nothing, Dictador. I just wanted to tell you we racked 'em up like firewood. All the way back. We killed 'em at ten to one, maybe twenty to one. Hell, for all I know it might have been one hundred or more to one, especially if you count what the guns reaped. The boys were . . . well, sir, they were just great. But we've gotta go back, sir. That's our land. We can't let the aliens keep it. It's ours."
Boyd smiled and nodded. "We're not going to let them keep it, son. Just like you said, it's ours and they can't have it while we live. But for now, before you can take it back, you and your boys need to go get a rest, eat some decent food, shower, maybe change uniforms. And I figure you'll need more ammunition, too; that, and fuel. Do those things. Get rested. Get ready. 'Cause, son, we are going back."
Santiago, Veraguas, Republic of Panama
The town was half aflame as Binastarion rode his tenar eastwards through it. There were human bodies scattered about, here and there, almost all of them in the mottled pattern clothing the threshkreen favored. The God King was pleased that his orders with regard to human bodies were being followed. He was even more pleased that there had been no antimatter explosions. In time, and hopefully before the bodies rotted away in the sun, they would be recovered. And, if not, at least they would serve to fertilize the soil of this place and feed the People that way.
Binastarion brought his tenar to a halt, allowing the columns of the eastward moving People to pass him. Slowly, he rotated his sled completely around. The People were gathering food that was not threshkreen. Some of the locals' horned food-animals had been killed together in an open field by one of the humans' buildings. Apparently, they had been put down by the locals themselves.
Some normals were engaged in reducing the meat of these horned food-animals to easily ported chunks of flesh and bone. The God King couldn't tell how many of the animals there had been; the harvesting was already well in process. He watched as a boma blade deftly sliced one of the animals into sections. He watched as the normals lifted the sections to take them to the host.
The God King did not see, however, the yellowish disk that flew up when the last section had been lifted. All he knew was that a dozen of the People had been standing around the horned food-animals' bodies one second, and that they were lying on their backs the next, waving stumps in the air from which spouted bright fountains of yellowish blood. Even at this distance Binastarion could hear the normals' pitiful keening cries.
"The humans call them 'Bouncing Barbies,' milord. I don't know why," the AS said after a few moments.
"AS, pass to the host: There will be no more harvesting of the humans' food-animals until their bodies have been properly examined for traps."
"It is done, Binastarion," the Artificial Sentience answered.
"I hate humans."
"I am beginning to, as well, milord."
Binastarion rode on. Further into the town, he saw a group of normals led by a lower ranking Kessentai carving away the door to one of the thresh buildings. Under the boma blade, the door quickly fell away. The group of the People entered.
Kaboom. The human building simply disintegrated.
Binastarion sighed. Such clever little devils these threshkreen were.
"AS, pass to the host . . ."
"I am already doing it, Binastarion. You realize that our logistic problems will get worse, much worse, if we don't harvest the food available?"
"I know that, AS. But what can we do? We lost thousands back at that defensive line when the Kessentai's tenar's antimatter went off. We just lost a dozen to that 'Bouncing Barbie.' How many disappeared when that building exploded? We lose as much as we gain when we try to harvest these thresh."
"Then I suppose we'll have to subsist the People on our own losses, Binastarion. Odd, is it not, that the threshkreen have become our primary food source in quite this way?"
The God King didn't answer but, rather, continued in his tenar eastward until he came upon a group of the People, cut down by the threshkreen in a narrow alley of the town. A small pack of normals were in the process of reducing these to thresh. Hmmm. I wonder . . . Binastarion backed his tenar off about one hundred meters.
"AS, pass to the host . . ."
USS Des Moines, Southwest of the Nata Line
Firing in support of the Nata line was desultory and didn't require Daisy's full attention. Thus, she was able to spend her conscious time with the body growing under the process of "inauspicious cloning" in the tank deep down in the bowels of the ship.
Sintarleen was with Daisy, tinkering with something or other. "She is almost ready to be decanted," the Indowy said. "A day or two more . . . perhaps a week at most . . ."
"Do you think he'll like it?" Daisy asked worriedly of the Indowy, in his own tongue. "I made it for him. But . . . I don't know . . ."
Sinbad shrugged, a habit he had picked up unconsciously from the human crew. Also in his own language he answered, "I have hardly made a study of human aesthetics, Ship Daisy. But the body looks like your avatar and we know the captain likes that. Besides, this one will be stronger than any human female that ever was naturally born, quicker and healthier, too. She will bear the captain many fine offspring . . ."
Daisy and the Indowy went silent for a moment. "Your clan will have no more offspring, will it, Sinbad, unless you return safely to them?"
"This is so," the Indowy admitted, with infinite sadness. "All our many millennia will be at an end."
Daisy's avatar's eyes began to flicker, as they often did when she was deep in thought. After a few long moments she announced, "Your clan will not die with you, Sintarleen of the Indowy."
The little bat-faced alien cocked his head. "But I am the last male of my clan. All that are left off-world are females and transfer neuters . . . Ohhh."
Daisy's eyes flickered some more, stopped, flickered again. "I have just sent a bank draft paying for the freedom of your remaining clan members from the Darhel who hold their contracts, Sinbad; that, and passage to the world of Agitrapis, which is off the route of the Posleen invasion. I apologize that I did not think of this sooner. When they get there, they will find a healthy account to begin to rebuild your clan anew and in liberty. And you shall someday join them, either in this body or in a new one. Prepare a sample of your own DNA."
Strong emotions were anathema to the Indowy culture, almost as dangerous as they were to the Darhel. Even so, Sintarleen felt tears rising—this emotional response, however rarely seen, they had in common with humans—and, to cover them, went back to his adjustments of the cloning tank.
Firebase Miranda, Santa Fe,
Veraguas Province, Republic of Panama
The BM-21s, even more than most forms of artillery, were area fire weapons. Thus, Digna didn't really care if the gunners were off a mil or two—or five or ten for that matter—in their sight settings; the range probable error of the rockets was greater than that anyway. She did, however, care deeply that the gunners could adjust the sights and re-lay the launchers quickly to something reasonably close to the data called for by the fire plan.
Even a ten mil error was only a couple of hundred meters at most of the ranges she would be firing at. When one is planning to toss almost four thousand rockets in under a minute at an area of about twenty-five square kilometers, or one for every .6 hectares, a few meters this way or that made little difference. When one is planning on doing that every ten minutes for nearly four hours? Well . . . who cared, really, where any given warhead—or forty—went?
"Freeze and stand to!" Digna shouted, when the rocket battery announced "Up." Immediately, every gunner pulled back from their sights and—joined by the rest of the crew—stood at attention by their systems. She clicked the stopwatch in her left hand when the last of them had frozen. She looked down at the watch. Not too bad. Not too bad, that is if they're reasonably on target.
Determinedly, Digna began to walk toward the center launcher, or base launcher, of the battery. "Tomas, see that none of them play with their sights."
"Si, doña," Herrera answered.
Digna didn't really give the order for Herrera's benefit. He'd been through the drill so many times he didn't need to be told. Instead it was for the benefit of the crews. Those girls didn't need to be tempted into the ass-whipping they would get for cheating; bad enough the ass-whipping they would receive if their launchers were not reasonably close to the target data.
But the launchers were. They were actually better laid than Digna had expected. Perhaps the constant drilling in the fire plan, plus a few contingency fire missions, had done the trick after all.
Patting the base launcher crew chief—another of her almost innumerable great-granddaughters—affectionately on the shoulder, Digna said, "Well done, child." Then she climbed down from the launcher and proceeded to walk to the next, the eagle-eyed Herrera keeping watch still that no gunner played with her sight.
In walking to the next, Digna also had to cross the hard-surfaced road that led further into the valley north of Santa Fe. She looked up the road and wondered just what the devil was there, still hidden and still under guard by gringo military police. The gringo mechanized regiment she knew about, of course. But it was the other things, the things that had come in covered and kept under guard, which really excited her interest.
The "goo" of the suit kept him comfortable and free of sores. The automatic food processors converted his waste into edible mush, still. Some of it even tasted half decent, though there was no joy to be found in the almost textureless gruel. Even so, Snyder wondered if he were losing his mind. His AID had warned him that might happen.
He'd lost track of time long since. Ever since he'd felt that last jarring, and felt it only slightly because of the goo and the suit's normal dampening, there had been nothing. N.O.T.H.I.N.G. Sometimes, in those weeks, he had been able to track the battle. But this was rare. Without his suit to translate the Spanish into English even the radio calls were meaningless. They were meaningless, that is, except when they were frightening. He had heard too many young Spanish voices end in screams, pain and panic.
In between those times of dimly or not at all understood radio calls, he had slept a lot. At least his dreams had given him some escape from the silvery-goo-blahness.
Nothing to do. Not a book to read. No music. Not even a fucking projection of a fucking map to study. Please, God, not too much longer. I can't stand it much longer. Win or lose, God, GET ME OUT OF THIS SHIT!
Snyder wondered if the battle was over, if it had passed him by. He thought of his battalion, lying asleep and helpless in their suits as the Posleen took them and, one by one, hacked the suits open to get at the meat inside. He imagined his men, thus abruptly awakened, giving one final scream of horror each before . . .
Shaken, Snyder forced himself to calm. At least, it was a semblance of calm. His AID, had it been awake, would not have been fooled.
Darien Province, Republic of Panama
The sniper had made a guess, based on his experience in the Army and in the jungle, that this particular tree would be likely to rise a few meters above the surrounding canopy. Sergeant First Class Heimeyer, short, stout and incredibly strong, had spent more than an hour ascending this tree and working his way into the topmost branches. Once there, he had spent even more time in hauling up his weapon, a .510 Whisper manufactured by SSK industries in Wintersville, Ohio. The .510 was a special purchase, Army Special Operations Command having its own ways about such things. Built on a Finnish Sako TRS-G action, it was in every way a marvel of human engineering and manufacture.
The rifle and the cartridge it fired were called "Whispers" because the bullet was subsonic, making no audible crack in its flight. With a suppressor attached, the thing was capable of minute of angle accuracy at six hundred meters. In the hands of a first class sniper, and the sergeant had been honor graduate from his sniper course and a national level competitor for years, this meant a reasonable probability of a killing hit on a target the size of a Posleen at nearly a kilometer, this despite the low velocity and it high angle it required. The likelihood of a kill at six hundred meters or less approached unity.
Having spent hours in ascending, and more in hauling up his rifle and other equipment, the sergeant spent the better part of a day in preparing a firing position worthy of his weapon, himself and his enemy.
The tree swayed a bit in the breeze. There was nothing much to be done about that; he'd just have to factor it in to his shooting. Moreover, the leaves were thick up here, where the tropical sun fed them directly. This severely limited the sergeant's field of view. Even so, ever practical, the sergeant instead concentrated on doing what he could. He crawled out far on a stout limb and sliced away no more leaves than required to give him a fair arc while still providing concealment. He'd also tied in a crosspiece, in the fork of two branches, to give him stability. Additionally, he taped and tied a part of a sleeping mat directly to the main branch to give a more comfortable firing position.
Below, the team that had accompanied the sergeant filled sandbags which they piled into a small basket a few at a time. These Heimeyer hauled up a few at a time to reinforce his position. Several deep, the sandbags tended to explode individually but harmlessly when struck by the aliens' railguns, absorbing most of the energy in the process. By morning, the position was ready.
Then the sergeant settled down to wait.
Rodriguez Home, Via Argentina, Panama City, Panama
"It's the waiting I hate most, Alma," Marielena sniffled. "Not knowing if he's dead or alive or even on this planet. Not knowing what's to become of me, or the baby or . . . or any of us." Her hands went automatically to cover her still unswollen stomach. The thought of the aliens slicing her open to get at the delicacy of her unborn child was too much. Nausea rising, in tears, she ran for the bathroom.
Posleen Territory, West of the Nata Line, Republic of Panama
Hungry, hungry . . . and I, at least, am eating. The same cannot be said of the host.
Binastarion looked down from his tenar at the long dun-colored columns marching below. There was something in their shambling gate that told of weakness of body and spirit. He'd already had to give the order to his underlings to kill and butcher one in twenty of the normals to keep the remaining nineteen going. One in twenty, though, at what the normals ate, was not enough. He knew he must call for a rest before trying to assault this next threshkreen line and that, when he did so, another one in twenty of the host must be given to feed the rest. Otherwise, they would not have the strength to fight through the human defenses.
It would all be worth it, though, if the People could only win through. Ahead, past the humans' lines, were literally millions of thresh and more millions of food animals.
And there was a new thought, too. Though he didn't know where it had come from, the Net had what appeared to be an open offer from the thresh of the continent of Europe. Perhaps the offer had been uploaded by a Darhel AID. Binastarion put nothing past the Elves.
In any case, the thresh of Europe or their Darhel patrons seemed to be suggesting that, should Binastarion and his clan succeed in taking control of the broad ditch that connected the two major bodies of water on this miserable world, trade—a human and Darhel form of mutual edas—might be possible, if the ditch could be kept functioning to allow European water vessels through.
Could he count on the thresh to so succor him? Binastarion didn't know. He did know that he didn't care an abat's hindquarters for what happened to the clans of the People fighting to conquer this Europe. Why should the Europeans care any more for the fate of the humans of these two continents?
It was a new notion, this idea of trade with an alien species, and one that required careful thinking through. Perhaps such an arrangement could be beneficial enough for Binastarion to raise his clan to mighty heights before this world was plunged into orna'adar. Perhaps . . .
Ah, never mind all that for now. I am counting snack-nestlings before they are gutted. For now, I must get to this next line. I must feed my host. Then I must break through the tough shell to further feed upon the soft meat of these thresh. In any case, I have my doubts about enough of my clan being trainable enough to operate this waterway. Perhaps if my son, Riinistarka, had lived. The clan chief felt a great stab of pain at the loss. That one had been something special to his God King father.
Assembly Area Pedrarias, East of the Nata Line,
Republic of Panama
Suarez stood on a little knoll, surrounded by the troops and tracks of the 1st Mechanized Infantry Division. He had walked here from his headquarters near the Inter-American Highway, neatly spaced between both divisions of the heavy corps.
The vehicles lay under nets, though the proper term was "screens." These had two important functions. One was to shield them from view should the Posleen attempt either a raid in their flying sleds or a more significant attack with one of their landers. They hadn't done so, yet, but Suarez had to consider the possibility. The other reason was simple shade. This was no jungle area, though it had trees, but rather was mostly open savannah. Without some cover from the glaring sun the soldiers would have roasted.
Suarez wiped a coating of sweat from his brow. It's hot enough to roast even with the camouflage nets. How much worse would it be without them?
Normally, the maneuvering troops would have been entitled, doctrinally, to their choice of ground, pushing the artillery, etc., out to more unfavorable terrain. This had not been possible. With twenty-six hundred guns and mortars lined up within a few miles of Nata Line, there had simply been no room for the mechanized forces.
Suarez tried to envision what it would be like when those guns released a deluge of steel onto the Posleen massed in the attack. The mind just boggled; nothing like it had been seen on Earth since the great battles of annihilation fought between the Germans and the Russians from 1941 to 1945.
There were more artillery weapons, too, nestled north and south among the hills of Chitre and the mountains of the Cordillera Central. These were mostly rocket launcher regiments, each with a battalion of cannon artillery as much for self defense as for any other reason.
And then, too, there were the two gringo warships that would lend their fires. Suarez and Boyd had boarded each of them a few weeks previously to help weld awards to their turrets.
Suarez thought of Daisy Mae's avatar with a smile. Whoever thought a ship's chest could swell at all, never mind that it could swell so much. Odd, too, that the ship should have asked for a smaller version, suitable for wearing around a neck. She's a hologram; she can't support anything material. Ah well, who knows? And the whys of the thing don't matter anyway. For the good she had done us, and especially me, a little medal that she can't even wear around her neck is a small thing.
Funny, though, that that little bat-faced, green alien should have taken the medal so readily when it was delivered.
USS Des Moines, Southwest of the Nata Line, Bay of Panama
"Your two favorite colors are 'ooh' and 'shiny,' Ship Daisy," the Indowy said with an alien smile.
The actual medal was tucked away in a case, deep in the hold where Daisy's "inauspicious cloning" project was coming near fruition. On the wall the Indowy had carefully hung the framed glass case containing her award citation. (A larger one hung near the officers' mess.)
Around her neck, however, she had projected onto and with her avatar the high award for valor given the ship, individually, and the crew, as a unit award. It was a simple cross, in gold, about the size of the United States' Distinguished Service Cross. Unlike with that medal, however, all four arms of this one were even. A small ring was affixed to the top and a ribbon ran through that to hold the medal in front of and at the base of the neck.
Daisy shot Sintarleen a dirty look, then, seeing he had spoken in jest, she answered, "It isn't the 'ooh' and it isn't the shiny, Sinbad. It's just . . . well . . . the part of me that is the hull of this ship is a warship, has the soul of a warship. For decades, it yearned for the honor of battling for her builders. Now, it has the recognition of that honor, and—even more—of battling heroically. Though we are the same being now, still, I wear this representation for the part of me that was the original USS Des Moines."
Changing the subject, but only slightly, Daisy asked, "The skipper has seen me wearing the medal. Do you think he minds?"
The Indowy snorted. "If he minds, it is only that he is embarrassed not to have thought of it himself."
"The crew?" she asked uncertainly.
"About that I can say definitely, Ship Daisy, the men are proud of you and pleased that your avatar wears the award for all of them." The Indowy hesitated, then said shyly, "I am proud of you as well."
"Thank you, Sintarleen. That means a lot to me." Without another word, the avatar bent over and made a motion that, had she been flesh and blood, would have landed a kiss on the alien's furry forehead.