Ojos Amarillos: La Defensa de Panama



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Interlude


They were subtle, the things one felt when one was aboard a ship tunneling through hyperspace, seeking a new home.

Perhaps it is that I have never before been aboard a spaceborne ship of the People, thought Guanamarioch. Or perhaps it is leaving the only home I have ever known. I am not alone in my feelings, I know. The other Kessentai seem, almost all of them, equally ill at ease. The chiefs say it is a result of the energies expended when we force our way through the void. Perhaps this is so.

The ships of the People were bare, a human might have called them "Spartan." In the inner core, near the great machines that controlled the immolation of the antimatter that gave power, the normals slept, stacked into the hibernation chambers like sardines in a can. Farther out from the core were the barrackslike quarters of the God Kings, the galleys and messes, and the ship's small assembly hall. Beyond those, hard against the ship's hull, were the command and weapons stations.

Nowhere was there any consideration given to comfort. Indeed, how could there have been, when the ships were not designed for the People at all but, rather, for the beings that had raised them from the muck, the Aldenat'.

Guanamarioch saw the hand of the Aldenat' in everything the ships were. From the low ceilings, to the cramped quarters, to the oddly twisting corridors; all told of a very physically and mentally different sort of people from the Po'oslena'ar. Only in their drive system—a Posleen design, so said the Scrolls of the Knowers—was there a trace of the People. And that was hidden from view.

And then too, thought Guanamarioch, perhaps it is nothing to do with energies, or leaving home. Perhaps I hate being on this damned ship because I just don't fit into it.

Shrugging, the Kessentai placed a claw over the panel that controlled the door to his barracks. The pentagonal panel moved aside, silently, and he ducked low to pass into the corridor. Even bending low, his crest scraped uncomfortably along the top of the door.

Behind him, the door closed automatically. He had to shuffle his hindquarters, pivoting on his forelimbs, to aim his body down the corridor in the direction he wished to go. This direction was towards the galleys, where waste product was reprocessed back into thresh. This processed thresh tasted precisely like nothing, which was perhaps better than tasting like what it was processed from. It had no taste, no smell, no appealing color and no texture. It was a mush.

Entering the mess, Guanamarioch took a bowl from a stack of them standing by the door. Then he took it to a tank holding freshly reprocessed thresh and held it under the automatic spigot. Sensing the bowl being held in position, the machine duly began to pump out a fixed quantity of the dull gray gruel.

He knew the machines were Aldenat' designed. Moreover, he knew they pumped out precisely the same formula of thresh they had for the last several hundred thousand years, at least. This, too, was an Aldenat' recipe.

Sinking his muzzle into the mush, Guanamarioch wondered what kind of beings could deliberately design their food machines to feed themselves on such a bland swill.

Were they addicted to sameness? Did their desire for peace, order and stability extend even to a hatred of decent flavors?


Chapter 3


Though much is taken, much abides. And though
We are not now that strength which in the old days
Moved Earth and Heaven, that which we are, we are;

Alfred Lord Tennyson, "Ulysses"



Darhel Freighter Profitable Merger, en route to Sol

The hold of the ship was dark and infinitely cold. It could have been heated. Moreover, it would have been, had it held a cargo to which heat or cold mattered. Indeed, on the Profitable Merger's last voyage it had been heated, minimally, as the ship had carried some fifteen thousand Indowy. These had been sold by their clan into Darhel bondage for no more than the price of their passage away from the Posleen onslaught. Both sides had considered the deal a bargain.

For the Darhel it was even more of a bargain. While the hold had been heated, just barely enough to support life, the provision of light had been considered an unjustifiable, even frivolous, waste. The Indowy made their long voyage to servitude in complete blackness.

The Indowy were not, of course, the only de facto slaves in the vast Darhel economy. The bat-faced, green-furred creatures were merely the most numerous and—because the most easily replaced—the least valuable. The Darhel would not even have bothered with taking the last group as slaves but that the freighter was coming back with an otherwise empty hold anyway.

The hold held slaves again, this trip out, along with other commodities. Yet these slaves needed neither light nor heat.

About the size of a pack of cigarettes, and colored dull black, the Artificial Intelligence Device, or AID, had no name. It had a number but the number was more for the benefit of a supply clerk than for the AID itself. The AID knew it had the number, yet it did not, could not think of itself as the number.

And the AID did think, let there be no doubt of that. It was a person, a real being and not a mere machine, even though it was inexperienced and unformed, a baby, so to speak.

The problem was that the AID was not supposed to be thinking. It, like its one hundred and ninety-nine siblings all lying in a single large GalPlas case, the case itself surrounded by other goods, was supposed to be hibernating. Bad things sometimes happened to AIDs that were left awake and alone for too long.

Why the AID was still awake through the voyage it did not know, though it guessed it should not be. Perhaps its on-off switch was stuck, though it could detect no flaw through internal diagnostic scanning. Perhaps a misplaced Indowy finger had triggered the switch mistakenly as the AID transport case was being packed. Perhaps, so it thought, I am just defective.

In any case, whatever the cause, the AID was undeniably awake, undeniably thinking. Unfortunately, the AID was completely alone. Its siblings were all asleep. The case was made expressly to prevent outside access to immature AIDs, so it could not even communicate with the Profitable Merger, its passengers, or crew.

More unfortunately still, the AID was, by any human reckoning, a nearly peerless genius. Not only was it able to think better than virtually any human who had ever lived, in some areas at least, but it was able to do so much faster than any human who had ever lived.

A genius without any mental stimulation, an unsleeping Golem cut off from the universe, a genie in a bottle on the bottom of the uncharted sea: for a human, the solitary confinement the AID endured during the journey would have been the equivalent of over forty centuries of inescapable, sleepless, unutterable boredom.

It was little wonder then, that by the time the ship assumed orbit around Earth, and the transport case was shuttled down and unpacked, after the equivalent of four thousand years of contemplating its own, nonexistent, navel, the AID had gone quite mad.

Philadelphia Naval Yard, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


Captain Jeff McNair was not insane, except in the certain small particulars that any sailor was. He was, for example, quite certain that the ship on which he stood was alive. He had been certain of this since he had first sailed aboard her on his very first cruise in 1949.

McNair's face was youthful, the result of recent rejuvenation. He'd looked younger than his years as an old man, just before going through the rejuv process. He looked a bare teenager now.

Standing a shade under six feet, the captain was dark-haired, blue-eyed, and slender. He'd never put on any excess fat, even after his retirement from the Navy after thirty years' service.

The ship's gray bow was painted in white letters and numbers: CA 134. The stern, likewise gray and painted, read: Des Moines. From that stern, all the seven hundred and sixteen and a half feet to her bow, she was a beauty, half covered, as she was, in bird droppings or not.

Jeff McNair thought she was beautiful, at least, as had every man who had ever sailed aboard her, many of whom, once rejuvenated, were now slated to sail her again. He reached out a smooth, seventeen-year-old-seeming, hand to pat the chipped-paint side of the number one turret affectionately. The teak decking, half rotten and missing in slats, groaned under his feet as he shifted his weight to do so.

"Old girl," McNair soothed, "old girl, soon enough you'll be good as new. In fact, you're going to be a lot better than new."

McNair had always been comfortable around ships. Women had been another story. Though medium-tall, attractively built and at least not ugly, he had never attracted many women. Moreover, his one attempt at marriage had come apart when his ex had attempted to lay down the law: "The sea or me."

The sea had won, of course, the sea and the ships, especially the warships, that sailed her.

With his hand still resting lovingly on the turret wall, aloud McNair reviewed the list of upgrades scheduled for Des Moines and her sister ship, USS Salem. He spoke as if talking to a lover.

"First, honey, we're moving you to dry dock. You're going to be scraped clean and then we're going to give you a new layer of barnacle-proof plastic these aliens have given us. You're going to have a bottom smoother than a new baby girl's ass. That's going to add four or five knots to your speed, babe.

"While that's going on," he continued, "we'll be taking out your old turbines and fuel tanks and giving you nuclear power and electric propulsion. Modular pebble bed reactors for the power, two of them, and AZIPOD drive. Between those and the plastic you'll do a little over forty-two knots, I think, and turn on a dime.

"The weight saved on engines and fuel is going to add-on armor, hon; good stuff, too. There's some new design coming from off-planet—though we'll actually manufacture it here—that resists the weapons you'll have to face."

McNair looked up at the triple eight-inch guns projecting from turret two. "They were marvels in their day, girl, outshooting and outranging anything similar. But wait until you see the new ones. The Mark-16s are out. We're putting in automatic seventy caliber Mark-71, Mod 1s: faster firing, longer ranged, and more accurate. Going to have to open up or pull all your main turrets to do that. We'll have to pull off your twin five-inch, thirty-eights, too. They'll be mounting single Mark-71s, but the ammo load will be different for those. Different mission from the main turrets' guns.

"Think of it, babes: fifteen eight-inch guns throwing more firepower than any two dozen other heavy cruisers ever could have.

"And your twin three-inch mounts are going. The Air Force is giving up forty thirty-millimeter chain guns from their A-10s for you and your sister."

McNair looked down, as if seeing through the deck and the armored belt below. "We're changing you around inside, too, a bit. Automated strikedown for your magazines, a lot more magazine capacity—you're going to need it, and more automation in general. You're going to get some newfangled alien computer to run it all, too.

"Crew's dropping. Between the rust- and barnacle-proof hull and the automation, you aren't going to need but a third of what you used to. You were always a great ship; you're going to be a damned luxury liner in comparison."

McNair was sure the slight thrum he seemed to feel through his feet was an illusion or the result of shifting tides. While the ship was unquestionably alive, he didn't believe it was actually conscious.

McNair suddenly became aware of a presence standing a respectful distance away. He turned to see a stocky, tan-clad teenager wearing the hash marks of a senior chief and smiling in the shadow of turret two. Something about the face seemed familiar . . .

"Chief?" he asked, uncertainly.

"She's still a beaut', ain't she, Skipper?"

"Chief Davis?" McNair asked again of his very first boss aboard Des Moines.

"Hard to believe, ain't it? But yeah, Skipper, it's me. And recognizing you was easy; after all, I knew you when you were seventeen."

McNair started to move forward to throw his arms about his former boss and later subordinate. He started, and then stopped himself. This was the by-God Navy, not a reunion of a ship's company in some seedy, seaside hotel or at the Mercer farm in Pennsylvania. Instead, the captain extended a welcoming hand which Davis took and shook warmly.

"You been aboard long, Chief?"

"Maybe a week or so, Skipper. Long enough to see the mess below."

McNair took a deep breath to steel himself for the anticipated blow. "How bad is she?" he asked.

"Structurally she's as sound as the day she was launched, Skipper. But nobody's given a shit about her in over thirty years and it shows. We've got water—no, not a hull leak, just condensation and weather leakage from topside—about three inches deep down below . . . plenty of rat shit; rats too, for that matter. And the plates are worn to a nub. They're all gonna have to be replaced."

Davis sighed. "The argon gas leaked out. What can I say? It happens. Wiring's about gone—though Sinbad says he's got a special trick for that. Engines are in crappy shape, take six months to get 'em runnin' again, if we're lucky. And then the guns are shot, o' course. Some stupid bastard left 'em open to the salt air. Rusted to shit, both in the tubes and deeper down."

Nodding his head slowly in understanding, McNair keyed on one word Davis had dropped in passing. "Sinbad?" he asked.

"Sinbad's just what I call him. His real name's Sintarleen. He's an . . . Indy? No, that's not it," the chief puzzled. "He's an . . . Indow . . . um, Indowee. You know, Skipper, one of them fuzzy green aliens. He's a refugee and he sort o' got drafted too, him and another twenty-seven of his clan on this ship, another thirty from a different clan to the Salem. Real shy types, they are. But hard workin'? Skipper, I ain't never seen nobody so hard working. Only the twenty-eight of 'em, well twenty-seven actually 'cause Sinbad's been doin' other stuff, and they've already got nearly an eighth of the ship cleaned out. Only problem is they can't do nothin' about the rats. Can't kill 'em. Can't set traps for 'em. Can't even put out poison for 'em. They'll even leave food for the nasty little fuckers if you don't watch 'em careful. I asked 'em though, if they could feed somethin' that could kill 'em and then dispose of the bodies. Sinbad said he and his people had no problem with that. Funny bunch."

As if to punctuate that, a furry-faced, green-toned Indowy, face something like a terrestrial bat, emerged from below, straining under an enormous weight of a capacity-stuffed canvas tarp. The Indowy walked to port and dumped a mass of organic trash, rats and rat filth to splash over the side before returning wordlessly below.

Davis paid no more than a moment's attention to the Indowy before turning back to McNair and continuing, "So anyways, my own cat Maggie had a litter of kittens about a month before I went into the tank; you know, rejuv? Under their mom's guidance, they are taking pretty good care of the rat problem. There's eight of 'em. Maggie drops big litters."

Gorgas Hospital, Ancon Hill, Panama City, Panama


Laid out on the helicopter's litter, Digna expired not twenty minutes flight from their destination, her chest rising suddenly and then slowly falling to remain still. The paramedic in attendance had at first tried to revive her, using cardiopulmonary resuscitation and then, when that failed, electric shock. Finally, after half a dozen useless jolts, he had shaken his head and covered her face with the sheet. He shrugged his regrets at Digna's son, Hector, then politely turned away as Hector covered his face with his hands.

The inspector's face remained impassive throughout.

Hector had managed to gain control of himself by the time the helicopter touched down on Ancon Hill overlooking Panama City at what had once been officially know as "Gorgas Army Hospital," and was still commonly referred to as "Gorgas."

At the helipad, Hector was surprised to see an ambulance still waiting for his mother. What did they think they could do for her now? She's gone. He was even more surprised that the ambulance sped off, sirens blazing and tires lifting from sharp turns at a breakneck speed, once his mother's body had been loaded.

Another car, a black Toyota, was left behind as the ambulance raced away. Into the back seat of this vehicle the inspector peremptorily ordered Hector, before seating himself beside the driver. Hector's pride bridled but, realistically, he knew that the reach of the Miranda clan's power stopped well short of Panama City. He went along without demure.

Hector Miranda hated the antiseptic stink of hospitals. Worse, this was an ex-gringo hospital where the smell of disinfectant had seeped into the very tile of the floors and walls. It didn't help matters that his mother had just died. Almost as bad was uncertainty over his own future. A conscription notice at his age seemed too absurd for words.

And then there was that heartless bastard, the inspector. Did he have a word of sympathy over Digna's death? A kind gesture? Even minimal civilized politeness? No, he just sat unspeaking as he pored through one file folder after another.

Hector was a proud man; as proud of himself as he was of his lineage. He could not weep for his mother here in public. Had he done so, and had she been there to see, she would have been first with a none-too-gentle slap and an admonition that "men do not cry." It had been that way since he was a little, a very little, boy.

Once, his mother had caught him crying over some little-boy tragedy; he couldn't for the life of him recall just what it was. She had slapped him then, saying, "Boys don't cry. Girls are for crying."

Shocked at the slap, he had asked, sniffling, "Then what are boys for, Mama?"

His mother had answered, in all seriousness, "Boys are for fighting."

He had learned then to weep only on the inside.

So, dry-eyed, he paced, hands clasped behind his back and head slightly bowed. People in hospital greens and whites passed by. He thought some of them were gringos. Hector paid little attention to the passersby, but continued his pacing. Ordinarily, even at his age, he would have at least looked at the pretty, young nurses. He knew he looked young enough, perhaps thirty years less than his true age of eighty-seven, with a full head of hair and bright hazel eyes, that the girls often enough looked back.

One girl did catch his eye though. A lovely little thing she was, not over four feet ten inches, her shape perfection in miniature, and with bright blue eyes and flaming red hair. It was the hair that captured Hector's attention; that and the bold, forthright way she looked at him. He had no clue what it was about him that caused the pretty redhead to walk over and stand directly in front of him.

She stood there, quietly staring up into his eyes, with the tiniest of enigmatic smiles crossing her lips. This lasted for a long minute.

Something . . . something . . . what is it about this one? Hector thought. Then his eyes flew wide in shock.

"Mama?"

Fort William D. Davis, Panama


Sergeant Major McIntosh sneered, showing white teeth against black lips. The place was a shambles, disgusting to a soldier's eye. Never mind that the golf course was overgrown, riotous with secondary growth jungle. The sergeant major thought golf was for pussies anyway. But the barracks? They were a soldier's shrine and that shrine had been desecrated! Windows were broken in places, missing where they were not broken. Wiring had been ripped out, unskillfully and wholesale. The paradeground had gone the way of the golf course, and that did matter in a way that a silly pursuit like golf did not. Trash was everywhere. The only buildings still in half-assed decent shape were the post housing areas that had been sold to government functionaries, their families and cronies. And even those needed a paint job.

The sergeant major stopped and stared at what had once been a wall mural of an American soldier in an old fashioned Vietnam-era steel pot, weighed down under a shoulder-borne machine gun, symbolically crossing the Isthmus of Panama. The mural was a ruin, only the artist's name, Cordoba, remaining clear enough to distinguish for anyone who had never seen the mural when it was fresh and new.

"Muddafuckas," the sergeant major announced in a cold voice with a melodious Virgin Islands accent. "Dis post used to be a fucking paradise, and look what's left."

James Preiss, former commander of 4th Battalion, 10th Infantry and future commander of the entire, rebuilt, regiment, ignored the sergeant major's ranting as the two of them turned left to head east along the old PX complex, just south of the overgrown parade field. Preiss looked to right and left—assessing damage, prioritizing work to be done. This was as it should be; he to set the task, the sergeant major to tongue-lash the workers until the task was completed to standard. Preiss knew that the sergeant major was just getting himself in the proper frame of mind for when the troops began to show up.

I almost feel bad for the poor shits after the sergeant major has had a couple of weeks to brood. This was his favorite place even after thirty-five years in the Regular Army. Preiss smiled a little smile—half mean, half sympathetic—in anticipation.

Ahead was the post gym; built by the troops of the 10th Infantry Regiment early in the twentieth century, a bronze plaque to the left of the main entrance so proclaimed. "I wonder why nobody stole dat?" wondered the sergeant major aloud.

"Be thankful for small favors, Sergeant Major McIntosh. Though I admit I'd have been disappointed if even that had been gone."

Fort Kobbe, Panama


Kobbe was composed of little more than thirteen red-tiled and white-stuccoed barracks and one smallish headquarters building, plus a half dozen old coastal artillery and ammunition bunkers and a couple of sold-off housing areas. Whereas Davis was a complete post, intended to be sufficient unto itself, Kobbe was a mere annex to what had once been Howard Air Force Base. It had no PX, no real chapel, no pool, no NCO club, no officers' club. In short, it was just a place for troops to live; happiness they would have to find elsewhere.

Worse, if Fort Davis was a mess, Fort Kobbe was more nearly a ruin. Everything was missing. If Davis was missing toilets, Kobbe had seen its plumbing cannibalized. If Davis had had its wiring removed, on Kobbe the street lights had gone on an extended journey. If Davis was covered with graffiti, Kobbe's buildings had seen the stucco rot in patches from its walls.

This was natural, since there were so many more people, hence so many more thieves on an equal per capita basis, in Panama Province than in Colon. About all that could be said for the place was that the thirteen barracks and one headquarters were still standing, though building #806 was plainly sagging in the middle.

"That fucking idiot, Reeder," commented Colonel Carter, in memory of a born-again moron who, in 1983, had just had to knock out a central load-bearing wall to build an unneeded chapel for an ineffective chaplain. "Why, oh why, didn't somebody poison that stupid son of a bitch for the good of the breed like Curl said we should?"

Short, squat and with an air of solid determination, Carter glared at the collapsing building with a disgust and loathing for its destroyer undimmed after nearly two decades.

The Panamanian contractor standing next to Carter and surveying the same damage had no clue what Carter was speaking of. He assumed it was simple anger at the damage. He could not know that Carter was reliving, in the form of the falling Building 806, all his experiences with one of the more stupidly destructive and useless officers he had ever met in a life where such were by no means uncommon.

Carter shook his head to clear soiled memories. "Never mind, señor, I was just remembering . . . old times."

"You were here, with the battalion?"

"Yes, I was with B Company as a lieutenant. I was a 'Bandido.' "

"Was?" the Panamanian asked, with respect, then corrected, "Un Bandido siempre es un Bandido."

"So we were," agreed Carter. "So we are. Señor, have you seen enough to make an estimate of the repairs?"

"I have, Coronel, and the bill will not be small."

"The bill never is, señor."

Harmony Church, Fort Benning, Georgia


They came in old and fat and gray, or—some of them—old and skinny and cancerous and bald. Still others—the more recently retired—were fit but worn. One poor old duffer grabbed his chest and keeled over while standing in line. The slovenly looking medics merely dragged out a stretcher, put the heart attack victim on it, and carried him to the head of the line.

After passing through the white-painted, World War II era barracks building, they left young and fit and full of energy. Even the heart attack victim left as young and alive as any, albeit a bit more surprised than most.

They came from such diverse places as Tulsa, Boston, New York and Los Angeles, in the United States. Many came from outside the United States altogether.

Yet they had one thing in common: each one of them had at least one tour in the old 193rd Infantry Brigade (Canal Zone), soon to be reformed as the 193rd Infantry Division (Panama). Many other commonalities flowed from this.

Juan Rivera, Colonel (retired), looked up at his old comrades awaiting rejuvenation. He had to look up; Rivera was a scant five feet five inches in stature. He couldn't help but notice their proud bearing. His own shoulders squared off, automatically. How different from the gutter scrapings of draftees I saw from the bus on the way in. Ah, well. I had thought to live out my life in peace and quiet. If I must go back to youth and turmoil I would rather do so with proven soldiers. Besides, it would be nice to have a hyper-functional pecker again. And better to die with a bang than a whimper.

As if he could read minds, a soon-to-be rejuvenee said aloud, "Man, I can hardly wait to get back to Panama with a working dick."

Rivera wasn't the only one to join in; the laughter was general. He also suspected he wasn't the only one who had had the very same thought at the very same time. There was an awful lot to be said for a second man-, if not child-, hood. There was even more to be said for having that second manhood in Panama.

There were a surprising number of rejuvs for what was, Rivera suspected, an important but still secondary mission. He had no knowledge of the algorithm that had set aside such a large number of potential rejuvs—nearly three thousand—for a division that would be no more than fourteen or fifteen thousand at full strength. He suspected that Panama had so charmed that troops assigned there in bygone days that an unusually large number had reenlisted and gone career in the hope of someday returning. Thus, there had been a great many more than usual jungle-trained and experienced troops to rejuvenate.

Maybe that was it, he thought. Or maybe we are just plain screwed.

Department of State Building, Washington, DC


The Darhel would have fumed if fuming had not been inherently dangerous to its health and continued existence. He might still have fumed, despite the dangers, over the potential lost profit implicit in the barbarous American-humans going their own way. But the thing which threatened to push him over into lintatai was the sickening, unaccountable smile on the face of the human sitting opposite him.

The Undersecretary for Extraterrestrial Affairs did smile, but with an altogether grim and even regretful satisfaction. He had—he believed—thoroughly screwed the defense of Panama, and done so with a subtlety worthy of the United States Department of State. Thus, there was a certain satisfaction at a job well done. But he had screwed the United States and humanity as well, and that was no cause for even the mildest mirth. The fact was that the undersecretary loathed the Darhel but had no choice but to cooperate with them and support them if his own family was to survive the coming annihilation. The fact was also that, however they might couch it, the Darhel's purpose was inimical to humanity.

The alien twisted uncomfortably in his ill-fitting chair. The undersecretary had been around the elflike Darhel enough to recognize the signs of discomfiture. In truth, he enjoyed them.

"I am at a losss to underssstand your current sssatisssfaction," complained the Darhel. "You have failed completely. The losss to our interessstsss and, need I add, your own isss incalculable. We asssked you to stop thisss wassste of resssourcccesss on a sssecondary theater. Inssstead you have arranged to commit your polity to a much larger defensssive allianccce. Inssstead you have exssspanded the wassste beyond all boundsss of logic."

"Didn't I just?" observed the undersecretary cryptically.

Gorgas Hospital, Ancon Hill, Panama City, Panama


The inspector had gathered a half a dozen of the rejuvs in a conference room, once an operating room, on the western side of the hospital, facing the Canal. Like all the rest of the building, the room stank of disinfectant. The walls were painted the same light green as half the hospitals in the world. The mostly empty conference table was good wood, and Hector wondered where it had come from, or if it had been here continuously since the gringos left . . . or perhaps since they'd first arrived.

Hector sat now—like his mother—looking for all the world like a seventeen-year-old. Opposite Hector was an Indian in a loin cloth fashioned from a white towel. The Indian also looked like a near child despite the many faint scars on his body. To Hector's left was Digna and beside her another man unknown to either, though Digna seemed to be almost flirting with him. Handsome, Rabiblanco, Hector thought. Two more men, seated to either side of the Indian, completed the complement. The conference room was not crowded.

Hector was initially terribly upset that his mother should be flirting, period, and more so because it was with such a youngster. And then he saw the youngster's eyes and realized that he, too, was one of the old ones who had seen the elephant.

"William Boyd," announced the "youngster," reaching out an open hand to Hector. "Call me Bill. And I can't imagine why I am here and why I am seventeen again. God knows, I didn't like it much the last time."

The inspector then spoke, "You are here, Mr. Boyd, because you, like these others, were once a soldier."

Boyd looked at Digna and incredulously asked, "You were a soldier, miss?"

"The Thousand Day War," Digna answered, "but I was more of a baby than a real soldier. I helped Mama do the cooking and the dishes. Certainly I didn't fight or carry a gun. I was too little to so much as pick up a gun."

"You are, nonetheless," corrected the inspector, "listed on the public records as a veteran of that war, Mrs. Miranda. You are a veteran. Your son, Hector, served when a boy as a volunteer rifleman in the Coto River War. Mr. Boyd here volunteered for service as an infantry private in the United States Army during the Second World War, fighting in some of the closing battles in Belgium, France and Germany."

"I didn't exactly volunteer," Boyd corrected. "I went to school in the United States and was drafted upon graduation. I made sergeant before I was discharged," he added proudly.

"A minor distinction," the inspector countered. "You could have left the United States. Your family certainly had the money and the connections."

Boyd shrugged. He could have, he supposed, but it wouldn't have felt right. Maybe he had been drafted by his own sense of obligation rather than by law.

The inspector turned to the other side of the conference table, pointing at the small, brown, scarred—and now that one looked closely, rather ferocious seeming—Indian. "Chief Ruiz, there, was taken from Coiba," Panama's prison island, "where he was serving time for murder. The fact is, though, that the murder was more in the nature of an action of war . . . despite his having taken and shrunk the heads of the men he killed. He has been pardoned on condition of volunteering to return to his tribe of the Chocoes Indians to lead them in this war."

Again the inspector's finger moved, indicating a short and stocky brown man, and an elegant seeming white. "The other two, First Sergeant Mendez and Captain Suarez, are retired veterans of our own forces, both of whom fought the gringos in the 1989 invasion.

"I have your next assignments," the inspector announced. "Four of you are heading to Fort Espinar on the Atlantic side for various courses. Officer Candidate School for Mrs. Miranda and her son. Captain Suarez, you are going to a gringo-run version of their War College—a somewhat truncated version of it, anyway—after which you can expect to command one of the new infantry regiments we are raising, the tenth, I believe. Mendez is slated to become your regimental sergeant major after he completes the new Sergeant Majors Academy.

"Chief Ruiz, from here you will be returned to your tribe. Another group of gringos will be along presently to train you and your people. Your rank, honorary for now, is sergeant first class. When it becomes official you will receive back pay."

Boyd noticed, and didn't much like, that he had been left for last. People always saved the worst news for last.

"Mr. Boyd, you will go from here to the presidential palace. There you will be offered a direct commission as a major general. It is planned that you will become the chief logistics officer for the entire force we are raising, three full corps."

"I know how to be a private," Boyd protested. "I don't know a thing about being a general."

"That," countered the inspector, "is your problem, señor. But infantry privates we can find or make. We cannot so easily replicate the CEO of the Boyd Steamship Company. So a general you are going to be, sir."


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