The arrow came sailing out of nowhere, fast, free and true. A normal squawked, then sank slowly to the ground. Then a dastardly little thresh jumped out from behind a tree waving some arrows in one grasping member and what Guanamarioch presumed to be their launcher in the other.
The small brown alien shouted something that sounded a lot like "oogaboogabooga" to Guano's untrained ear before darting off.
In an instant, Guano's pack was in full bay, with Ziramoth limpingly taking up the rear, waving their boma blades, firing shotguns and occasionally railguns (for the jungle muck and various unaccountable growths had rendered most of the railguns inoperable). The cry was "Meat! Meat! Meat!" as the pack galloped forward. Even normals could articulate that much, although they tended to mispronounce it.
The little thresh—no, better said, threshkreen—was fast; you had to give him that. Several times the pack almost lost him. And then another arrow would fly, as often as not bringing a normal down, and the nasty little demon would show himself. Oogaboogabooga.
"Meat! Meat! Meat!"
Guano had trouble keeping the lead. Between the wounded reproductive member, beating itself against his legs and sending pain shooting to his brain, and the still fresh and sore wounds of that damnable pack of hunter-killer trees, it was just too hard. In time, the lead normals took over and Guano fell back towards the middle of the pack.
And then the little brown threshkreen was there, just standing beside a tree. It had something grasped in each hand. Smiling, it ducked down and . . .
And Guano was standing there, almost alone. Some of the normals stood, as well, but they stood stock still, in shock. The rest were down, some plainly dead and others still thrashing. Of the brown alien there was no sign.
Zira, with some of the slower moving normals (for many had jungle-inflicted wounds of various types), came up.
"What the . . . ?" The Kenstain stopped for horror at what he saw had been done to the pack. "Guano, are you hurt?"
Distantly, the God King answered, "They were there and then . . . gone. Just gone."
"On the plus side," Ziramoth observed reasonably, "tonight, at least, we eat."
"I suppose so," Guano answered slowly. "But . . ."
A small feathered shaft appeared in Ziramoth's chest. Slowly, he looked down at it, then up at Guanamarioch. "Oh, my young friend. Eat well tonight. I am sorry . . ."
Ziramoth sank to his knees, then rested his chest on the ground. For a moment he seemed to be looking around. His eyes lost focus. The great crested head sank, the muzzle touching the ground. Zira's body shuddered twice. Then he died.
I see storms on the horizon
I see the tempest at the gates
I see storms on the horizon,
and a citadel alone
Clinging brave, defying fate
San Pedro Line, Republic of Panama
Alpha company and the rest of the battalion's "ash and trash" had started passing through almost immediately after Connors had reported the way was clear. The MI had no trouble fording, but the bottom of the river was so churned to muck by the artillery barrage that preceded the attack that Connors had to detail two squads from his reserve platoon for the sole purpose of physically man- or suit-handling even the tracked vehicles across. For the wheels, there was essentially no possibility of getting a single one over until a bridge could be built. Since there were no engineers to build that bridge . . .
It's always the little things that get you, Connors thought. I can't bitch that no one thought about the effect of the artillery on the river bottom. I didn't think of it, after all.
Besides, it's not as bad as all that. Everybody, MI included, has weighted themselves down with enough ammo for couple of days' fighting. That oughta do . . . for now, anyway.
* * *
Sometimes mechanized infantry could actually move faster than MI. This was not one of those times. Between the difficulty of the river crossing, the fact that the ground was pockmarked like the surface of the moon, and the mud that filled the bottom of every unavoidable shell crater, the move for the mech was slow and unsteady.
B Company, playing tail-end Charlie, still was forced to stop its own progress every ten minutes or so to unstick a track from the muck. The mechanized troopers were grateful, or at least as grateful as men can be when you help them get a little closer to their impending demise, but gratitude didn't get the MI to its blocking position any sooner.
Connors listened, idly, to the chatter on the company Net as he helped a squad from the weapons platoon lift an M-113 armored personnel carrier out of the hole in which it had been stuck, churning the mud to froth with its spinning tracks.
We've got to move faster than this, he thought, but we can't leave the mech behind either.
Still, despite the frustrations of the delay, Connors found himself strangely happy; happier, certainly, than he had been since being pulled out of the line on Barwhon and given a chance to read the mail that told him the woman he'd thought loved him thought no more about him than she would of a pile of dog crap she'd inadvertently stepped in.
And that's when it hit, somewhere between physically lifting the track and losing his balance to fall faceshield first into the muck. My God, I actually feel good. Wahoo! I feel great! God bless you, Marielena and your long legs and your just admirable ass! Connors rolled over on his back and began to laugh.
"Ahem . . . hem." That was the first sergeant, speaking over the private channel he shared with Connors and the exec. "Ahem . . . sir. While the whole fucking company is no doubt very happy to hear about your girlfriend's rear end, I think maybe you don't want them to be hearing all about Marielena's 'long legs and admirable ass' . . . sir."
"Fuck! Did I say that out loud, Top?" Connors asked after cutting out the general command circuit.
"Very out loud, sir. Very."
"Ah, fuckit, Top. I don't care."
* * *
The AID muffled the "speakers" inside Connors' helmet. It had to. If it had let loose, at full volume, with the sheer wall of sound created when one of the two cruisers on station to the south let loose with a soul-jarring barrage it would have deafened the captain; that, or simply knocked him out.
For that matter, the sound of metal shards from the eight-inch shells was noticeable enough to worry about, even though deadened by the silvery goop that filled almost all the space between man and armor.
Kind of like rain on a tin roof. I wonder how the mech is taking it.
The volume control was an odd thing, too. While it tuned out most of the blast, it let smaller sounds come through perfectly well. Thus, when a twelve or fifteen pound shard struck Connors' armored chest, he heard it bounce off and heard the plop of it falling into a nearby small mud hole. He even heard it sizzle as it turned the mud to dirt and steam.
Connors consulted the map. His objective lay only a few kilometers ahead.
"Heads up, Bravo Company. We'll clear this thing as if it's occupied."
This is battle position? Connors had never seen anything like it, not on Barwhon, not in Chile, not in the earlier fighting in Panama.
The battle position was oval in shape and overlooked one of the major fords to the river to the east. Though well entrenched initially, the walls of many of the trench bays had caved in under the artillery fire tossed around some days prior before the Panamanian Mechanized Corps had pulled back to Nata, under the scouring given the whole area by Digna's group of multiple rocket launchers this morning, and by the pasting from the naval gunfire still being supplied by the twin cruisers . . . and, it must be said, by the Posleen hypervelocity missiles and plasma cannon blasting it when they'd begun their offensive.
It's like the moon . . . but more desolate.
The boys of B Company went over the area with a fine-tooth comb.
"First Platoon here, Captain. Nothing but bits and pieces of Posleen . . ." "Third Platoon, Boss. All dead . . ." "Second. One wounded Posleen. Firing one shot . . ."
Connors nodded to himself with satisfaction. "All right, boys, get the Bouncing Barbies out."
Along with their ammunition, each man of B Company had trudged in with two dozen of the nasty little flat cylinders that projected force fields to all sides when triggered by the presence of a life form. It had been a hard decision for Snyder to order the things carried, possibly a harder one for Connors to enforce. The suits' armor would not stop the force fields. Just as the Barbies chopped legs and torsos off the Posleen, so too would they have sliced the MI troopers in two had one of them been inadvertently activated.
Each platoon took a quarter of the perimeter. There was no real trick to using the Barbies; the men simply armed them and tossed them more or less straight to the front. Powered by the suits, the mines were scattered from one hundred to six hundred meters out.
The things normally activated after striking the ground. From that point on, any Posleen (or human, be he so foolish) that entered their effective radius would find himself shorter by a couple of feet . . . or a head. Thereafter, the Barbies would scoot to one side or the other. Since they were colored yellow, like Posleen blood, they tended to mix in very well with the terrain once it had been fought over for a bit. A field of scooting Barbies—bouncing, chopping, moving, bouncing, chopping, moving, with a Posleen horde trying to get through them—was a thing of beauty to behold . . . for certain values of "beauty."
"Okay, boys," Connors said, when the last of the force field mines had been dispersed, "improve your positions and wait. The Posleen probably won't keep us waiting long."
"I hate the waiting even more than I hate the damned humans," Grintarsas said to his comrade and best friend, Horolongas.
The two were Althanara, or masters of lightly armed scouting oolt'os. As such, they were junior, not graced to ride the tenar of more senior Kessentai, and very, very expendable.
A measure of just how expendable they were was found on the shell-pocked ground around them. For they were not the first scout groups to occupy this land. The remnants of those who preceded them, who had been standing there when the threshkreen ballistic fists had come pummeling, were there still. They, too, had waited . . . and been held waiting too long.
"The time will come, my friend," answered Horolongas. His tone in answering didn't hint as to whether he meant the time for the advance would come . . . or the final time, death, would come first. Under the circumstances, perhaps it didn't matter.
The Althanara waited, with their scout oolt'os, behind a ridge to the west of the river. Some clever cosslain had been sent forward earlier and had reported, to the extent one could report with pidgin Posleen and hand gestures, that there were mixed groups of the fearsome metal threshkreen and the almost as fearsome ground-tenar riding threshkreen ahead, digging in.
"I heard the humans suffocated our People in their hundreds of thousands to the east of here," Grintarsas said, shuddering. "Unheard of. It is a filthy way."
"The Path of Fury is paved with bones and shit," Horolongas answered philosophically. "Does it really matter to the dead whether they were shot, or burned, or suffocated?"
"Perhaps not," Grintarsas half agreed. "But there is honor and there is dishonor, still. And suffocation is a dishonorable way to die, so a dishonorable way to fight."
"As you say, friend. Even so, while we fight for honor and glory and survival, the humans fight only to win and all else be damned. I must say, they've fought pretty effectively here."
One of the few tenar remaining to the Posleen to the west, those coming out of Chiriqui to try to help free their brethren trapped to the east, sidled up with a low hum. It rode low as well. One could never be sure where a human with a rifle might be hiding. The People were learning; the only question was "would they survive the lessons?"
"You two," the Alrantath, or battalion commander, shouted from his slightly elevated perch on the tenar. "It's time to move in. Ancestors with you," the senior intoned in blessing.
While the men prepared positions, Connors took a few minutes off from his duties to review his last will and testament. As the AID had pointed out, "You don't make a will to take care of your loved ones. You don't take out life insurance for that purpose either. You do both precisely so you won't die, Captain, for the Universe is full of whimsy and prefers to strike down those least prepared."
He was reading the clause about custody of dependents should both he and Marielena die before the child reached maturity when he heard over the suit's communicator, "Heeere theyyy commme . . ."
"Hold your fire," Connors ordered. "Let's let the Barbies have their fun and then hit 'em when they're broken up and confused."
The normals needed no encouragement, normally. As a general rule they didn't understand the words anyway. They simply followed their gods' orders and lived or died as fate decreed. Normals knew little of fear as long as their gods were there.
Grintarsas and Horolongas, on the other hand, were sentient. That meant that fear was their constant companion when on the Path of Fury. Thus, the encouraging shouts they both raised were for their own benefit and the benefit of each other.
Leading their packs, the two swarmed over the hill, each expecting to be cut down at any moment. Yet there was no fire. To all appearances, the metal threshkreen and the ground-tenar riding threshkreen were not even there.
Hurrah! We might live to see another day after all.
At the base of the ridge was a small stream, too small even to appear on any but small scale maps. It was only about chest high to a Posleen at its deepest. Bellowing and laughing, the Kessentai splashed into the murky water and arose on the other side. Without a moment's hesitation, their People followed them in and likewise emerged, waving their boma blades and longer-ranged weapons.
"Should we stop and dress the line?" Grintarsas called to his buddy.
"No," the other answered. "It would only leave us open to fire."
Still they pressed on. Horolongas saw a number of flattish cylinders dotting the ground. Yellow like the blood and flesh of the People, these stood out starkly against the artillery-churned earth and the few spots of green vegetation remaining. They seemed harmless enough.
The cylinders grew thicker as the two Posleen scout oolt'os neared the place where the threshkreen had been reported as seen.
Normally, the Barbies went active as soon as they struck dirt after being armed. This was not, however, the only way they could be used. It was possible to have them remain passive, and only begin to kill on command.
Connors stuck a finger sensor over the lip of the trench in which he sheltered. (Actually, it was more of a scraping than a trench, as a large shell had expanded it, smashing out the walls and leaving a conical hole in which water had gathered. But it had been a trench and still retained a little of the outline of one.) The sensor gathered data which the AID converted into useable images to paint on Connors' eye.
"Oh, you poor stupid bastards," Connors whispered as he watched the twin Posleen columns advance heedless through the Barbie-sown field.
"AID," he ordered, "activate the Barbies."
Grintarsas heard it first, a bellow of pain from a mass of his followers. It confused him. There'd been no shots fired. He chanced a look to his left and saw a half dozen of his People, some flailing stumps in the air and others sliced through the neck or torso. Wherever hit, yellow blood sprayed. And he couldn't see what had done it.
What terrible new silent weapon do these dishonorable threshkreen have now? he wondered, redoubling his efforts to race to the target before more of his followers fell to this silent menace.
"Not five-percenters," Connors commented.
"No, Captain," agreed the AID.
Connors' finger watched as one Barbie after another sprang up, chopped off some legs or other bodily parts, then scooted to one side to wait for more. Even without any effort on the part of his company, the Posleen charge was falling apart in bloody stumps as the Barbies took them down by groups.
The finger locked on one particular Posleen, a Kessentai, obviously enough, by the erect crest, who seemed on the verge of understanding. The God King turned to tell his normals to fall back. Unfortunately, for him, the turning radius was just enough to bring him within range of a Barbie which immediately sprang into the air.
"Ooh . . . bad call," snickered the captain.
It was fucking hilarious, that charge; every man watching who lived through the battle, later agreed. With their God King down the members of that oolt either froze in place or began to run wild. And it made no difference. Those who stood still weren't safe because those who ran tended to set off Barbies that killed any who were near. Those who ran had almost no chance of escaping either, given the thickness with which the ground was strewn.
The finger panned across the scene. Of eight or nine hundred Posleen who'd begun the charge, perhaps two dozen were standing, trembling in the open.
"Should we off 'em, sir?" the first sergeant asked.
Connors had intended to but, on second thought, decided it was better to keep his men hidden.
"No, Top," he answered. "Let's keep a low profile for now. Pass it to the mech to scour 'em off."
Oh, pain, Grintarsas almost wept. Demons of fire and ice, the pain.
At that, the Kessentai was lucky. The horrid little threshkreen device had only taken off one leg, just above the knee joint. Grintarsas had turned, almost on his own axis, and begun to shout out for his people to fall back when he saw from the corner of one eye a flat, yellow cylinder—dripping yellow blood—that scuttled over and fell, coming to rest about six meters to his right front. He'd tried to stop then, to brake himself before he could come within range of the thing. In this he had failed.
Silently the cylinder had arisen to about half a leg length above the ground. There was a flash, but it was over so quickly that for a moment Grintarsas wondered if it was illusion. In any case, it was no illusion that his next step had been on three legs rather than four. Nor was it an illusion that he'd fallen over, forward and to one side, his muzzle digging a furrow in the mud.
At first it hadn't hurt. The actual severing had been so quick that the brain had barely registered it. But lying there, among the bodies and parts of bodies that littered the ground, had given the brain time to catch up. It hurt now.
The blood had stopped flowing fairly quickly; the genengineered Posleen were capable of staunching almost any wound, however severe, on their own while they lived. Still, the Kessentai had lost enough to become weak. That, added to the pain, made his mind fuzzy. He staggered in and out of consciousness regularly. He was out when the threshkreen heavy repeating weapons began to sweep the field, exterminating the last of his People and Horolongas', still standing frozen in terror.
The God King's only comfort, lying there amid the mud and blood, was the hypervelocity missile launcher he clutched to himself as a human baby might clutch to its mother.
The next seven attacks, none of them in overwhelming force and coming from both east and west alternatingly, Connors left to the Barbies and the mech. By the end of the last one, with the Barbie's charges beginning to deplete, he decided that it was almost time for his men to show themselves, or as much of themselves as necessary to lace the Posleen with DU fire.
The eighth attack, probably more by fluke than plan, hit both sides of the long oval of the battle position simultaneously. That attack was also in strength. Worse, from that point on, attack by more than two hundred thousand Posleen was almost continuous.
"What the hell happened to the naval gunfire?" Connors asked the AID.
"They've got problems of their own, Captain. The reason we aren't seeing any tenar here is that they've all gone to sea to go after the ships. The cruisers have pulled back south, but they aren't going to be able to outrun tenar."
"Fuck! How truly good."
"Could be worse, Captain Connors. If the tenar weren't there they'd be here. I project that we probably couldn't deal with another four or five thousand tenar, with heavy weapons, when we're already under attack by this many normals."
"Yeah," Connors agreed, lifting his grav gun over the lip of the trench to sweep it across the front of an approaching oolt'os. The leading Posleen simply exploded wherever a DU teardrop touched them, adding their own gore to the offal covering the battlefield. He ducked back down below ground level again before return fire could find him. "Yeah . . . thank God for small favors, I guess. How about the Panamanian artillery? They're in range of us, at least, if not of Company A to the south."
"They're busy defending themselves," the AID answered. "The rocket launchers' ammunition is depleted. Every one of their guns had been moved to a position to do direct fire to cover the entrance of the valley we hid in all those weeks. Besides, they're out of high explosive, anyway."
Connors popped up again to see one badly bruised oolt'os had made it across the river and over the few remaining Barbies to get in among his men fighting to the east. It was boma blade against Indowy-built armor and monomolecular cutter against yellow flesh.
"Short bursts," he ordered the AID and then, carefully sighting his grav gun, he began picking off the Posleen one by one.
Even through the armor, Connors felt someone or something plop to the ground beside him. He was about to turn and fire, instinctively, when he saw that it was the first sergeant.
"Looking . . . not so good, Skipper," said the first sergeant, a veteran of the United States Marine Corps rather than the Army's Airborne and Rangers like most of Fleet Strike's Mobile Infantry.
"Losses? Ammo?" Connors asked, not because he couldn't pull up the information immediately through his suit and ACS but because tracking personnel and supply were the first sergeant's job and he might get miffed if someone tried to do it for him. Besides, Top was likely to add in comments on more than mere living and dead bodies that the AIDs were essentially indifferent to.
"We're down twenty-three men, Skipper, half of that from Second Platoon. Ammo is good, except for Weapons which is having to break into the last of the 60mm and reload. The other thing, sir, is . . . well . . . the boys are getting tired."
"Fear equals fatigue," Connors quoted.
"Something like that," Top agreed. "Thing is, the horsies should have broken by now. But they won't break."
"Nah . . . they can't, Top. We're blocking their only way out. And it isn't like they can surrender or anything."
"Yeah. Well . . . I'm off to buck up Second Platoon. Oh . . . did I mention that Lieutenant Nazari bought it?"
"Shit! And I barely knew the kid."
It seemed like the horror would never end. Connors hadn't known he could become sick of killing Posleen. But he could; he had.
"They just keep comin', boss, and they keep comin' stupid," said the first sergeant of B Company, with a tone of grudging wonder in his voice.
"Stupid may be good enough in this case, Top. Besides, I don't think they're being stupid so much as desperate," Connors answered, sliding down a trench, then lifting his head and arm over the berm just long enough to donate a couple of thousand depleted uranium teardrops to the Posleen. The crack of the teardrops was suppressed in Connors' ear by the suit's AID, as was the actinic streak each round made as it tore through the air at an appreciable fraction of c.
An infantry fighting vehicle from the 20th Mech went up in a fiery blast from an HVM strike one hundred meters or so to Connors' right. One moment it was sitting there, like a stolid Goliath, chunchunchunking 25mm high explosive rounds at the Posleen. The next its inadequate front glacis had been penetrated with a bright flash, hurling the heavy turret into the air, blasting the rear combat ramp right off its hinges and, in the process, incinerating the crew. They never felt a thing.
"Fuck!" Connors said.
"Sir, you okay?" Top's voice was full of a concern that could only be called "professional."
"Yeah . . . yeah. But the mech guys are getting hit hard."
"Hey, boss, in case you didn't notice, so are we."
Connors called up the display. Shit. We are getting hit heavy. Of the one hundred and twenty-nine MI troops Connors had led into the blocking position, forty-seven were already outlined in black, killed or so badly wounded that they were out of the fight.
A long night and another day passed. The 60mm ran dry sometime overnight. This saw that section of the Weapons Platoon shoved into the line. Even the DU was down so low that the MI troopers were forced to start using single shots rather than the more usual bursts. This was less of a problem as the Posleen were also so badly beaten up that attacks were beginning to come in small groups of forty or fifty rather than just in solid waves.
The river to the east, the San Pedro, was so full of Posleen corpses that the normally smoothly flowing water had turned into something very like rapids. The water had spread out from its banks and, where it had once flowed, was turned to yellowish froth by the bleeding alien bodies. New attacking groups of the aliens found they could walk across on the bodies while scarcely getting their feet wet.
That is to say, they could walk if they could walk. Most of the Posleen coming from the east, trying to escape the closing cauldron, couldn't walk. Whether from hunger or fatigue they could barely stagger. Even at that, the attacks came infrequently enough that Connors found time to troop the line, walking among the men and lending a few words of encouragement here, a friendly pat on the shoulder there.
He even found time to write to Marielena, a short note—not yet quite complete—about the time he wanted to spend with her as soon as he came out of the line, their future marriage—if she still wanted him—and plans for the child. He was stuck on finishing with some words, and he was not especially good with words, that might express how he felt about the woman, how much she meant to him, and how happy he was she had come into his life.
He was sitting down in the muck (for inside a suit muck was as good as anywhere else) struggling to finish the e-mail when he heard a welcome sound, something he hadn't heard since the cruisers had disappeared to the south under massed tenar attack.
The AID allowed in the freight train rattle of the approaching shells, then cut the volume to something bearable when they struck the far side of the river ford B Company had guarded. Connors looked up from the muck just in time to see a half dozen rock, mud and water geysers rising suddenly into the air.
The command circuit was immediately full of chatter, of cheers. Connors scrambled up the side of the crater (or had it once been a trench?) and saw, under magnification, the lead elements of the Panamanian mechanized corps.
"We made it," he whispered to none but his AID. Standing upright, he waved to the oncoming relief force and fired three DU rounds, at super slow rate, to mark that he and his command were still there.
"So it would . . ."
Grintarsas was in shock now, almost completely. Whether it was the shock or olfactory fatigue, the rotten-meat and garbage stench of the People's bodies bloating in the sun around him was gone. He still cradled the HVM launcher in his arms as he had for the past two cycles.
Consciousness was not his to control; he drifted in and out of reality randomly for the most part. The shock of threshkreen ballistic weapons exploding on the other side of what he had once thought of as his objective was enough, if barely, to bring him to consciousness.
He saw the threshkreen, metal-armored and soft skinned both, standing up and cheering. It was infuriating. How could they cheer such pointless destruction? They didn't even bother to harvest the food, adding further to the insults they heaped upon his People.
One threshkreen stood above the others, very near to the summit of the old objective. Grintarsas took his HVM launcher and lifted up the sight. Painfully, he moved it to line up upon that one prominent threshkreen. At some level the Kessentai knew that the backblast from the HVM would kill him. He didn't care so long as he could take one of the hated humans with him. Moving slowly, Grintarsas finely adjusted the weapon, making sure the aiming dot was precisely on that threshkreen.
Then, giving a last smile despite the pain, he fired.
Connors never saw or felt a thing. The blast of the HVM launch, the white streak it left upon the air, and the disintegration of the torso armor of his suit happened so close together that they may as well have been simultaneous. The sudden overpressure inside the suit was enough to blow the arms and helmet off. The front and back plates likewise came apart, even as the missile turned the soft-fleshed body inside to dust. The AID died to the same blow, the e-mail Connors had been working on still unfinished.