Ojos Amarillos: La Defensa de Panama



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Interlude


With the gradual breaking up of the Posleen horde, the jungle had grown comparatively quiet again. Rather, it had returned to normal: birds calling, insects chittering, the steady pitter-patter of rain. The normal denizens, herbivores mostly, had returned with the sounds. Following the herbivores came the predators: snakes, lizards . . . the jungle cats, small and large.

He was like a leopard . . . on steroids. Normally a spotted species, this jaguar was "melanistic," which is to say its coat had darkened over the generations to provide better camouflage in the dim light that penetrated the jungle canopy overhead. At nearly two hundred and fifty pounds, it was largish for its species.

The jaguar hadn't fled when the Posleen horde had first approached. Rather, when its normal prey had fled it had simply followed. A cat's gotta eat. Now the prey had returned and, so, it had returned as well to its normal spot by the broad river where its a la carte menu often came to water.

Now this is new, thought the nearly black jaguar, looking down unseen from his lordly perch upon the half dozen horselike creatures that ambled the trail below. Never seen caimen with such long necks. Or six limbs. Smell funny, too. It's a lot to eat at one sitting but, then again, they look a little skinny. I think lunch is served.

There was an empty spot inside Guanamarioch where his friend, Zira, had once dwelt. He was lonely now, with only normals for company. They couldn't talk, tell jokes . . . teach one to fish. All they were good for at the moment, reproduction, he was incapable of. Even if he hadn't been so weak from long-term starvation, despite the thresh provided by his slaughtered pack and his friend, the itch and ache where the jungle rot had latched onto his severed reproductive member made reproductive activity impossible.

Shambling along, head down, the very picture of Posleen misery, Guanamarioch might have lost his life then. Only a warning cry by one of the few normals remaining to him caused him to look up in time to see the midnight black streak descending.

The thing, the nightmare, must not have thought about the implications of a centauroid form. Guano was just able to get one arm up to block. The creature's jaws latched onto that, rather than the skull for which it had been aiming. The jaws slammed shut with a sickening crunch of bone. Almost, the God King fainted.

Worrying the arm like a shit demon from legend, the black creature also began lashing out with its front claws. One of these raked across the Kessentai's face, lacerating it and ripping empty one eye socket. From then on, fighting blind as he kept his remaining good eye away from the claws, Guano fought—or, rather, defended himself—by feel alone.

The quarters were too close for his own boma blade. After what seemed like an eternity of fending off fang and claw, two of his normals came up and dispatched the attacker. They were careful, this time, to cut off no pieces of their god.


Chapter 35



Offshore where sea and skyline blend
In rain, the daylight dies;

The sullen, shouldering swells attend


Night and our sacrifice.

Adown the stricken capes no flare—


No mark on spit or bar,—

Girdled and desperate we dare


The blindfold game of war.

Rudyard Kipling,


"Destroyers"

Off Isla Cebaco


There hadn't been time to consummate things.

Pretty word, thought Daisy, "consummate." Fact is, I wanted to get laid. But with the firing, the skipper's refusal to leave the bridge, the underway replenishment of ammunition . . .

He hasn't even kissed me since that once. I'd almost think he's afraid to.

McNair paced the deck of the bridge. He had belted on his sword—and felt silly doing it too until he remembered that his ship just might be boarded—and placed one of the Sterling submachine guns Daisy had procured nearby. One never knew, after all.

His mind was aflame with worries, of which there were two main. One was impending action, without much cover, against the Posleen who were sure to try to escape west through the old and now recovered San Pedro Line. That one was easy; he knew how to fight his ship. Rather, it would have been except for the other.

What do I do about Daisy? I'm no good with women, never have been. I knew ships. As a ship I could love her and comfort her and take care of her. But as a woman?

He'd ordered her below, once they veered to starboard around the southwest corner of the Peninsula de Azuero. And she'd refused, just flat refused to leave his side. The little voice she could project had said nothing. Instead, she'd crossed her arms under her—oh, sweet Jesus, those—breasts, stamped her foot defiantly, and shaken her head frantically "No!"

Almost he'd decided to put her over the side, in a boat with a crew with orders to take her ashore. He'd even said he would. Then the little voice had come, informing him, "You can't, Skipper. The body's brain is the AID. Anything more than half a mile away—the same distance I could project a hologram—and the body dies. And you can't send the AID off the ship and still fight."

He'd scowled then, scowled at the AID, scowled at the woman.

And felt immediately like a heel. "Belay that. The woman can stay."

Sniffing, the woman Daisy had turned her nose up and away as if to say, How could you even think about sending me away?

McNair still didn't know what to do, or what to say. He had no idea how to act. He was lost until . . .

"Captain, this is Lidar. We've got multiple Posleen tenar . . . correction; multiple groups of . . . correction: Oh, hell, there's a shitpot of them, Skipper. Thousands, at least, and they're heading our way."

McNair bit his lip for a moment and turned to Daisy the woman. He grasped her gently but firmly by each shoulder and leaned close to her ear.

"Love," he whispered, "we'll work this out later; I promise. For now, I need you to go down to CIC. It's armored there. I'll probably be along later. Take the AID with you."

He felt her body stiffen once again with defiance. "You have to go, Daisy. What happens if this body is hit? What happens to the ship? The AID will feel everything, won't it? Can we count on the AID to fight this ship if it is feeling you sliced in two?"

He didn't add, but thought, Can we count on me to fight this ship if I see you sliced in two?

The woman Daisy began to struggle in his grasp. He refused to let go until she subsided.

"You know I am right, don't you?" He felt her slump and saw her head, reluctantly, nod. "Leave me your avatar and go below then. It'll be okay. And we will work this out as soon as we can. And, Daisy? I do love you, hon."

The woman looked into the captain's eyes and saw that he spoke the truth. Firmly, she nodded her acquiescence. But in her own eyes flashed the determined warning, Yes, you cannot escape; we will be together.

Binastarion told his AS, "Project an image and magnify it."

A holographic picture of the two ships sprang up in front of the tenar. Carefully the Kessentai squinted over the projection. The ships were as alike as two abat in a nest. Then he found, so he thought, what he was looking for.

"There, AS. Focus in on that section there." He pointed at the hologram. "Okay. Good. Now cut to the same part of the other ship. Hmmm. Back to the first." There should be some marks, some scarring where we hit it, on the ship which killed my boy.

"Got it!" the God King exulted. "There is the murderer of my son and frustrator of my dreams. Orders."

"Ready to copy, Binastarion," the AS replied.

"Skipper, Lidar. The aliens are splitting into four groups. One seems to be veering off to go after Salem. But three of them are coming straight for us."

"Cap'n, this is CIC. I confirm Lidar's projection."

"Ready to fire, Captain," announced the avatar, which appeared suddenly on the bridge.

For a moment McNair felt more at ease. The avatar was, after all, not the girl. Pheromones. It must have been the pheromones. Christ, in the flesh I nearly did her against the wheel.

"What are we carrying in our anti-lander gun barbettes?" McNair asked, more calmly that he felt.

"The first five rounds in the magazines are canister, Skipper. Plus there's another twelve rounds per standing by."

"Daisy Mae, show me the Posleen deployments."

On the holographic map projected by the ship McNair made out the four groups. Lidar and CIC had assessed well.

"Daisy, priority of fire is the northernmost group. Commence firing. Order Salem to support as she is able."

"Wilco, Captain. I am also projecting holographic deception measures" . . . McNair saw the great shapely legs appear to either side of the bridge and heard false lightning crackle overhead . . . "but I don't think they'll help much this time."

The giant demoness appeared before Binastarion's attack groups. He was not fooled. Many nights had he stood awake, thinking on how the ship had deceived him previously, to his great cost.

"AS, how many plasma cannon and HVMs do we carry?"

"Ninety-seven plasma cannon, Binastarion, and seventy-two HVM launchers with at least three missiles each."

Ahead, the God King saw the black, angry puffs—nine huge, ugly things—that told him the enemy had fired its anti-tenar rounds.

"For what we are about to receive . . ." the Kessentai muttered.

"What's that, lord?"

"Never mind, AS. Call it an old Kessentai's foolish sentimentality. Take centralized control of the plasma cannon and the HVMs. Plot a pattern to blanket anywhere in that apparition that the threshkreen demon-ship might be."

The thousands of 20mm tungsten balls launched by Des Moines and the one hundred and sixty-nine HVMs and plasma bolts launched by the Posleen crossed each other. Binastarion was surprised by the bright flashes made when a bit of canister struck one of his shots. That didn't happen much, though. A fraction of a second later over one hundred of his tenars' saddles emptied. At about the same time, the Des Moines was struck in nine places.

Alarm bells were ringing somewhere, off in the distance. McNair knew that that meant something, but at the moment he couldn't remember just what. It was important, though. He was sure of that. Now if only he could remember.

There was smoke, somewhere above. He could smell it slightly, but not quite see it.

Oh. That's because I am facing down. Why am I facing down?

The captain struggled to roll over onto his back and . . . Oh, shit. That's a mistake.

He tried, even so, until with agony tearing through his gut he righted himself. A little more effort, and a lot more pain, and he managed to prop himself against a metal wall. Now he could see the smoke, pouring out of the armored bridge through one hole through the hatchway and another, or so he presumed, on the other side. Bad . . . very bad. He refused to look down at the direction of the pain. He was afraid of what he might see.

The hatchway opened and a . . . thing crawled out, feeling ahead of itself with one handless arm. The other was used to prop up the torso. It didn't actually say anything. Instead, it made a hardly human keening sound. McNair thought he should recognize it but couldn't remember.

He looked right. There were some dead men there. Blood from their torn bodies leaked onto the deck, smelling of copper and iron. He wondered if some of the blood might be his own. Then, too, he smelled ruptured intestines, the odor of feces hanging heavy.

That made him look down at the source of the pain.

Oh, shit.

Hard, he tried hard to remember. His name came first. Then his job. Then, I am on a ship . . . CA-134 . . . the USS Des Moines . . . the . . . ummm . . .

"Daisy!" the captain called as loudly as he could. That wasn't very loud, certainly not loud enough to be heard over the steady explosions . . . No . . . those are our guns firing. We're still in the fight, my girl and I.

He'd expected someone . . . ah, a hologram . . . to appear when he'd called for Daisy. But nothing came.

Using both hands to hold in what seemed intent on coming out, McNair got to his knees. One leg came up but his foot slipped on the deck awash in blood. He fell with an agonizing jolt.

Must . . . see.

Again he tried to rise, more carefully this time. He leaned against the metal wall on which he had rested for support and balance. Eventually his head popped over the rim of the wall.

"Fuck," McNair whispered.

Number one turret was still in action, he saw, but number two was utterly wrecked, the armor torn open and men and bits of men showing hanging on the jagged scraps. Smoke and fire poured out of it. He thought he heard screaming coming from within but couldn't be sure.

He heard a steady Brrrrp . . . Brrrrp coming from both sides of the ship. Looking out he saw tracers arcing up. Some of the dots that were coming toward the ship—Posleen. Those are Posleen—fell out of the sky to splash into the sea. One exploded with a tremendous flash that engulfed several more.

Then the avatar did appear, though it flickered. "I am sorry for not answering immediately, my captain. I am hurt."

"Hurt? No . . . no, you can't be hurt," McNair croaked.

"I am hurt, Captain," the avatar repeated. "Number two is gone as are fifty-one and fifty-three. Number three is damaged, unable to traverse but still able to fire. One of the reactors is out, as well; we took another salvo after the one that hit here."

"Marine marksman topside," McNair ordered weakly.

"I have already ordered that, Skipper, but it won't be enough. Even with the Panamanian Cazadores we carry it won't be enough."

"Salem?"

"My sister is under attack but fighting well. She has little to spare for us, however."

"Okay, beautiful girl. Head to open sea. And don't give up. Fight us till we sink."

"Aye-aye, sir," the avatar answered solemnly.

Back still against the wall of the navigation bridge, McNair began slowly to sink to the deck.

Daisy the woman had full access to the ship and the AID. She was the ship and the AID. She saw her captain as if she had been standing on the bridge with him. She saw him sinking as if dying. She saw the hands trying futilely to hold in the intestines. Even worse, she saw the leaking blood.

With an inarticulate shriek she jumped up, grabbed the AID and clipped it to her belt, and ran to CIC's hatch. A Marine who was on guard attempted to bar the way. She backhanded the boy, sending him sprawling. Then she emerged into chaos.

In the smoke and flame she heard, "Goddammit, Smitty, I don't care what it does to your fingers. Connect that hose!" . . . "Aaiaiai, my eyes!" . . . "Mama . . . mama" . . . "Corpsman!" . . . "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned." . . .

Partly from the smoke but more from something else entirely, Daisy the woman began to weep as she stumbled along the narrow passageways. My crew, my boys, oh, my brave boys.

"The ship is plainly sinking, Binastarion. Might I suggest we save our cannon and HVM fire for more suitable targets?"

"I've seen that demon-bitch 'ruined' before, AS. I'll believe she is down for good when I can see her bubbles coming up through the water. Even so, you're right. Switch fire to railguns to clear the enemy decks. Order Tenar Group Jarn in to drop the assault detachment on the ship. Let's see them get the fires and leakage under control while they battle our boarders."

The worst was Morgen, the cat. Daisy almost didn't notice her, lying in a tangled heap on the fourth—or splinter—deck where a shard of sharp metal had nearly severed the kitten in two. Tears flowed afresh as she bent down and picked up the bloody scrap, pressing it to her breasts instinctively while twisting her head and touching her chin to it head and pointed, furry ears. Her one free hand stroked the kitten's fur, ignoring the blood.

Then she heard the clang of something large landing on the deck above.

The normal hated water, deep water anyway. Posleen couldn't swim and the creature knew instinctively that if it fell or was cast from the hurtling tenar it would have sunk so deep none could have harvested it. Inwardly it shuddered at the . . . no, not thought. It shuddered at the feeling of being forever cut off from its People.

Thus, when its newfound god's tenar had touched upon the blazing metal construction that, mercifully, floated on the water, the normal had felt nothing but relief. Moreover, it soon had company as other tenar landed, these also disgorging single normals or in one case a pair of them. The orders of the Kessentai driving those tenar were apparently the same as those this normal received through signs and body language. There is thresh in this ship. Cut through the metal and harvest it.

Then, as one, all the tenar lifted off, leaving the normals—with but a single Kessentai, Xenotraghal—in charge, to the work they understood so well.

* * *

Daisy, still holding the kitten, lifted her head out of the hatch to topside. A quick glance told her all she needed to know. The Posleen were on deck, amidships, cutting their way through with their monomolecular swords. Marines and Cazadores shot them down, and were shot down in turn.

But none of them were watching her. Risking the chance of a stray shot, she leapt out of the hatch and raced to the ladder that led to the bridge. She scrambled up the ladder, emerging onto the abattoir the Posleen HVM had made of both the navigation and the armored bridges. She had to step over the body of a burnt and dismembered thing to enter.

And there was her captain and her love, hurt, dying . . . maybe dead.

The ship was armored on its main turrets and over its armored belt and deck. The top deck, however, was still teak and light metal. With others of its kind trading shots with the threshkreen who popped out to fire a burst before retiring behind protecting metal, the normal used its monomolecular boma blade to hack through wood and steel. Two of those helping it fell, yellow blood gushing to run over the decks and drip below through where the cuts had been made.

The sole Kessentai afloat was bellowing. The normals didn't understand one word in ten, but they did understand the urgency in the voice. Redoubling their efforts they soon had a great gaping hole in the top deck. Part of the hole led to what seemed a closed room. Next to that, the gap revealed a long corridor, narrow but not so narrow as those of the Aldenata-designed ships.

The God King pointed to two of the normals and then down into the compartment. Bearing shotguns, the normals pointed down and fired. Metallic pellets careened off the bulkheads with the sound of hail hitting a tin roof. Confident that any threshkreen that might have been hiding below could not have avoided being wounded, at the least, the God King ordered two normals to leap. This they did, somewhat clumsily. One broke its foreleg in the jump. The other killed it and waited until a third had joined.

With two hale normals in the compartment, they used their bomas to cut around the obvious hatchway. This fell outward leaving a hole suitable for passage of beings the size of the People. Alarmed cries of the threshkreen echoed in the narrow passageway. Human bullets pinged off of steel bulkheads. The normals answered with shotgun fire.

Commending his soul to the ancestors, Xenotraghal the Kessentai jumped below, using the body of the broken-legged normal to cushion his fall. He carried a railgun which he used to fire first in one direction, then in the other. The threshkreen cries changed to screams and gurgles.

Sending the normals out first, the Kessentai beckoned for others to follow. Then, inch by inch, they began clearing the ship.

Daisy looked out from the bridge sternward to where the Posleen had landed in some mass. They were lining up to port as if to plunge below. To starboard, however, was clear.

She felt for a pulse on her captain's neck. It was there, fast and faint and seemingly fading. Still holding the kitten in place atop her breasts with her right hand, she bent and took McNair's right wrist in her left. Dropping to one knee she wound the captain's torso around her neck, plugging his right armpit into her own left shoulder. Then, thinking Damn, but my captain is heavy. I would have felt his weight first in a different way, she straightened. Still, tank-born, she was much stronger than any woman born of woman. Truth be told, she was stronger than many men. She held the weight easily enough.

The load was unbalanced. Daisy the woman bent her knees, pushed upward suddenly, and shifted her body underneath. That's better. The captain's right arm and leg hung down limply in front. She gathered them up in the crook of her left arm, using the hand of that arm to hold the kitten in place. This freed her right arm. Bending one last time, she took hold of the Sterling. Bracing it on the deck, she jacked the bolt, loading the weapon.

Then, heading to the side of the ship, port, where the Posleen were not entering, she left the bridge, scaled down the ladder and—tight squeeze—brought herself, McNair and the kitten below. McNair's naval officer's sword, hanging down from his belt, paddled her rump lightly with each step downward.

And I might have enjoyed that, too, under different circumstances . . .

* * *

Father Dwyer felt the ship listing as it took on water unevenly. There was a shock and a vibration felt through the deck and the listing stopped and began to reverse itself.

The priest looked heavenward. "I don't know whether that's the exec in CIC ordering counterflooding, or my own dear convert Daisy Mae doing it on her own. In either case, Father, bless their efforts. And strike down the enemies of your people."

The priest had a Sterling in his hands. Two Marines and three Panamanian Cazadores clustered around him. Ahead he could hear the clatter of alien claws on the steel deck. The clattering grew closer.

"Wait for it, me boys," the priest whispered, calmly. "Wait for it . . . wait for it." Then, with a great cry of "Deus vult," the Jesuit stuck the Sterling around the corner and pulled the trigger.

The God King caught the barest glimpse of a threshkreen in a funny collar, firing one of their small but large-bore repeating weapons. Before the thing even flashed Xeno threw himself to one side to take cover in an open area filled with dead and dying thresh lying atop long tables.

Food, however, was the last thing on the Kessentai's mind. Instead, it simply breathed a sigh of relief that the fire which had struck down the two normals preceding him had not gathered him—just yet, mission unfulfilled—to his ancestors.

Not that it makes any difference. This is a suicide mission and I have no chance either at mortal life or even as thresh consumed to become part of the host. Still, I have my duty and perhaps the ancestors will gather me to them and grant me a high place if I have completed it well.

The Kessentai was one of those who might have grown into what humans called "a five-percenter," one of those God Kings whose intelligence made them more dangerous than the other ninety-five in one hundred put together. Still, he had been obscure, a very junior scout leader. Perhaps he had been chosen for this mission because of his obscurity, perhaps because of his potential. He didn't know.

He did know, however, that his mission was to interrupt repairs so that this ship would sink beneath the waves. Sinking required taking on enough water to produce negative buoyancy. Water was below and, if anywhere, was coming into the ship from below. Thus, it was into the bowels of the ship that he had to proceed.

There is a hatchway. I can't squeeze through it, though, without expanding it some. But there I will complete my mission.

Pointing for two more normals to enlarge the opening, the God King kept watch as they sliced away the hatch and began paring away the sides. He heard the sound of thresh voices and the pitter-patter of thresh feet on the deck. He braced for a counterattack which didn't come.

With the hatch enlarged and four more normals in tow, the Kessentai and his party started down.

Daisy could just make it through the hatch through the armor deck if she turned sideways to descend. Unfortunately, that was a very awkward way to go down a steep, narrow ship's ladder. She tried and having once almost lost her balance, she hung the Sterling around her neck, thus freeing her hand to hold on for balance.

If I can get my captain to the tank he might yet live. If I can't, I would rather die with him, here where we have spent so much time together.

There was a series of explosions topside, which was felt throughout the ship. The klaxons began to sound and the ship's intercom crackled to life. "All hands, now hear this. Abandon ship. I repeat, abandon ship."

"Aye," Dwyer muttered, "I suppose it's time and past time. And I don't think the counterflooding's been enough. The ship rides differently. It feels lower in the water, somehow."

The Marines understood the call well enough. The Jesuit translated for the Cazadores with his party, instructing them to grab and don one of the life vests, should they find any. Then, with no more sounds of the aliens nearby, he led them to a stern hatchway. I suppose if we're to have a chance we'll need a lifeboat. If any survived.

"Kessentai, there is a power source ahead," the AS whispered.

"This entire ship is one big power source, AS," Xeno answered.

"This one is different. The Net tells me it is from one of the Elves' regeneration tanks."

"So?"

"So, it occurs to me that you might survive, after all, if you can make it to that tank before the ship sinks. There wouldn't be room for the normals, of course."

"Indeed?"

"Indeed."

The God King's heart began to beat a bit faster. He might live after all and rejoin his clan on some future day when this ship was recovered to scavenge its refined metal. If his People could do so in space surely they could do so underwater, though the Kessentai was not sure exactly how they would proceed.

Heart beating fast (for she was sure she heard Posleen speech ahead as she proceeded down the under-armor passageway) Daisy stopped for a moment, uncertain as to what exactly to do. Her ship-body was beginning to go down by the bow. It could not be much longer now before it went completely under.

She, too, had heard the call to abandon ship. Even if her ears had not heard it, the ship-body had. And, of course, whatever the ship body knew the AID knew. Since the AID was the brain . . .

The AID stopped the body for a moment. It knew well what it was like to be left alone. The idea of leaving that part of it which was the ship alone for however long, if ever, it might take to recover it was simply impossible. At something analogous to light speed, it began copying the "files" that were embedded in the very structure of the ship, erasing them as soon as the copying was done. The hull might rest below, but the essence of the ship would live in the AID.

Perhaps in time, with luck, I might return everything to as it was; to be the trinity of ship and AID and woman, all of us, together, loving our captain and crew. For now, this is best.

Daisy tapped in to the ship's nervous system and used it to measure her enemy. Five of them, though how many are normals and how many God Kings I cannot tell. They stand between me and life for my captain, though, and for this crime they must die.

As quietly as possible, she set her burdens, cat and captain, down in a small, semi-sheltered spot behind an open hatchway. She had never actually used one of the Sterlings she had acquired on the black market. Even so, the tank had programmed her with full battle reflexes, almost as an afterthought. She knew how to use it despite never having actually touched one before this grim day. Also quietly, she removed the captain's sword from its sheath.

How am I going to do this? she wondered. I can't leave the AID part of me awake while the human bodies sleep in the tank. It will go completely mad. Ah . . . I know, though it will take some timing and concentration. If I can make it to the tank, I can put my captain in and lie beside him. The kitten will fit easily enough over my breasts. Just as the tank closes I will shut off the AID. That would kill my woman's body but the tank won't let me die. Then all will sleep together until the resurrection. My last thought as the tank claims us must be, "Click on the AID's power switch."

Opposite the captain and a little to the stern, she found another half sheltered spot, took her own position and waited.

The lights were still working, which the God King found rather odd. After the damage the ship had taken from fire and whatever else his own boarding party had been able to destroy he would not have expected the convenience. Most of the light came from the threshkreen glowing balls. Some of it came from flat plates attached to the walls by no method he could see.

There was a dangerous spot ahead, one where passageways met and where there was no cover. The Kessentai stepped into the middle of his normals and grunted for the party to advance.

She had never seen them personally except as distant black spots, targets to be serviced. Thus, when the party of Posleen stepped out into the junction, Daisy gasped and nearly shat herself with terror.

The terror itself was her spur to action. Sighting down the suppressed submachine gun, with its metal folding stock against her shoulder, she fired. The thing was loaded with frangible ammunition. She knew it was because she had seen to it that there was no other kind of 9mm ammunition aboard. These broke apart and dispersed—yet another "war crime" to her record—when they hit flesh. For these purposes Posleen flesh was no different from human. The bullets flew and virtually exploded within the alien bodies, dumping all their not inconsiderable energy instantaneously.

Brrrp. A Posleen fell, splay legged. Brrrp. Another was bowled over, bleating like a camel. Brrrp. A third, just turning to face her, took two to the head and, going limp, fell in a heap. Brrrp. The fourth she missed. Brrrp. It went down with three in the torso—yellow flesh and blood exploded outward—and one in the throat. Br . . . fuck, empty.

Daisy dropped the weapon, picked up the sword and stood. An animal growl began to build in her throat. The Posleen answered the growl with its own war cry. It, too, sense of honor implicated, dropped its railgun and drew a blade.

Mindless, enraged howls echoing through the passages of the lower deck, the two charged.

Dwyer saw the lone tenar slowly approaching, rather than charging and firing. Surrounded by ninety or so survivors—there hadn't been time to do a full headcount—in the one serviceable lifeboat they had found topside, he called out, "Boys, it's been good to serve with you. Now stand ready to take one last one with us."

But the tenar had not opened fire. Instead, the rider had pulled a metal stick from his harness, stood fully erect in the flying sled, and called out with both arms raised above it. Other circling tenar had stopped then, their God Kings looking curiously at the tiny band of humans bobbing on the ocean waves.

The tenar came closer, closer until finally it was not more than ten feet from the edge of the lifeboat. The rider then cocked its head and said something in its own language. That something had sounded unaccountably gentle. Then the God King raised its crest, shouted once again, and tossed Dwyer the stick it held. Dwyer caught it, fumblingly at first. He looked up to see that the alien had raised one palm, holding it open and towards the humans. The priest returned the gesture and added one of his own. He didn't understand the why's of it, but he knew he and the rest had just been spared. The priest made the sign of the cross at the Posleen.

"That was damned odd thing to do, Binastarion," the AS said as the tenar glided above the waves.

The Kessentai smiled very slightly. "Was it really, AS? Think about it. We could only have taken that little craft full of threshkreen by firing on them. That would have sunk them and so we could not have taken them anyway."

"I didn't mean you, God King. I meant the human with the strange collar in that small boat. He was blessing you, you know. So says the Net anyway. Though, now that you mention it, throwing the stick for a group of threshkreen who have done you and the People so much harm is a bit odd, too."

The great threshkreen she-demon ship was still firing as water engulfed first the deck, then the lower guns, and finally the great turrets. Binastarion felt a kind of remorse. It had been a fine enemy.

May I never meet its like again.

"It seemed right," Binastarion said simply.

"So?" The AS queried. "They were still an enemy."

The Kessentai was silent for a few moments before he answered, "We are as we were made to be, you soulless bucket of bolts. We are a hard and a harsh species, AS, but we are not a wastefully cruel one."

It was the AS's turn to go silent. When it spoke again it asked, "What now, Binastarion? The host is ruined. The threshkreen will drive us from this land. We cannot hold it from them nor take another in our present state."

"I had thought upon honorable suicide, AS," the Kessentai admitted wearily.

"Not so fast, Binastarion. There is . . . correction, there may be, another way. Far to the north a Kessentai of rare ability is gathering a great host to fight the humans. He is building a new overclan from the remnants of such as ours. He promises succor, without edas, no less. He offers new lands for his new clan, once the great power of this world is defeated. He has new ways, ways something like those of the threshkreen who have defeated us here and held the People at bay there."

"What is the name of this god-like God King, AS?"

"Lord, the Net lists him as Tulo'stenaloor."


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