The great clans of the Posleen could afford to make up entire globes, indeed entire fleets of globes, on their own. For lesser clans, it was always necessary to contract with others to make up full globes. These lesser clans were usually the point of a Posleen migration.
When the time of orna'adar approached, the more powerful clans would squeeze out the lesser, driving them to space early. Sometimes these lessers would find planets settled by thresh. Sometimes they would be forced to migrate to a planet held by even weaker clans of the People, driven forth even earlier.
Very often, when fighting to seize living space from a weaker clan of Posleen, the newly arriving, slightly greater, clan would be so weakened that it could not recover before one of the great clans descended upon it. Sometimes, by leaving and conquering early, a lucky clan might prosper enough to hold its own when the great ones arrived.
Clans rose and fell all the time.
Guanamarioch's clan, though it had once been great, was small now. It shared a globe with several others. Thus, in the same globe as held the ship on which Guanamarioch rode, but on nearly the opposite side, traveled the clan of Binastarion.
Among his people, for that matter among the People as a whole, Binastarion was a fine figure of a Kessentai. Strong legs were topped by a solid barrel of muscled torso. The scales of his surface shone well, even by the dim light of the ships. His claws and teeth were sharp, his face cunning, and his eyes glowed yellow with intelligence. Even his crest, when erected, was of an unusual magnificence.
It was, in many ways, a great pity he had been born to a lesser clan. It might have done the People as a whole much good had Binastarion's birth been more favorable. As one measure of his ability, when the time of orna'adar had begun, and the great ones had preyed upon the lesser, Binastarion had fought two clans to a standstill, then created the circumstances that set them to battling each other. This had allowed Binastarion to escape with nearly three quarters of his clan before their threshgrounds were overrun. Already, the Rememberers spoke of adding another scroll to the clan's own set of holy books.
Binastarion's follower and son, Riinistarka, looked upon his father with respect bordering upon adulation. The juvenile Kessentai was Binastarion's chosen successor-in-training, albeit only unofficially. Indeed, to have made his son his successor, officially, at this stage of his development was to invite assassination from jealous siblings.
Of Binastarion's roughly three thousand sons, nephews, cousins—however many times removed—half were, in his opinion, idiots not much improved over the semimoronic normals. They had a full measure of the same stupidity that had driven the clan from the pinnacle of power to the bottom-feeding position they now held.
Binastarion hoped to undo that damage from long ago. Riinistarka was his chosen means, along with a very few others. Already, though the child was young, the father was breeding him and the best of the others, regularly, in the hope of producing more Kessentai of similar quality. Results, so far, were uncertain.
None of those selected for the clan's little program in selective breeding seemed to object, Binastarion noted dryly.
But breeding was only the half of it. For Binastarion's prize breeding stock, the hope and future of the clan, education was called for beyond that provided by the Rememberers or ingrained in the younglings' genes.
Now, pray you, consider what toils we endure,
Night-walking wet sea-lanes, a guard and a lure;
Since half of our trade is that same pretty sort
As mettlesome wenches do practise in port.
—Rudyard Kipling, "Cruisers"
The sea breeze caused the white pleated material to rustle and twirl as Daisy Mae stretched her legs. Ahead of her Tex, stocky and stout, lumbered along in his dumb way. Tex wasn't much to look at, Daisy Mae thought, but she felt much safer with him in the lead. Behind Tex and beside Daisy Mae was that witch Sally.
Sally, so prim and proper, thought Daisy, with annoyance. Thinks she's something special because she got that damned part in that Brit movie. Well, I am just as good looking as she is. Besides, I'm the older sister. That part should have gone to me. Twat.
Daisy let her annoyance lapse. Ahead Tex began making a broad, lumbering turn around a corner. She increased her pace to keep up even as Sally slowed.
With a slight, sexy twist of her ass, Daisy turned her two magnificent frontal projections and followed big brother Tex to the south.
Darien Province, Republic of Panama
This far south in the Darien jungle, at this time of the year, the rain came down in unending sheets. Its steady beating made a dull roar on the thick leaves of the triple canopy jungle. Beneath that canopy stood an ad hoc training base—little more than some tents and a few prefabricated huts—just down the trail from the middle of nowhere.
In that base, a mixed team of U.S. Special Forces and Panama Defense Force troopers did their best to train local Indians, a mixture of Cuna and Chocoes clan chiefs, to defend their people against the horror to come.
The Cuna were mostly hopeless; they were simply too nice, too nonviolent and rather too standoffish. Still, the soldiers tried. On the other hand, the Chocoes had some promise . . . if only they could have been taught to shoot.
Antonio Ruiz, clan chief and brevet sergeant first class, Armada de Panama Chocoes Auxiliary, couldn't shoot. The men who had tried to teach him were at the end of their tether. They'd tried rifles, machine guns, pistols, grenade launchers. Nothing had worked; the chief-cum-sergeant just couldn't shoot and neither could most of his people.
Truthfully, the guns terrified him. In Ruiz's world, the loudest noise was natural thunder, or the rare crash of a tree limb cracking before dropping to the earth. Ruiz had never heard a louder sound in his life. Neither had all but a few of his people. The noise of a firearm discharging simply shocked him and most of them silly, every time, and no amount of practice seemed to help.
Silencers had been tried, but the sheer muck and corruption of the jungle made them impossible for irregular troops like the Chocoes.
Finally, in desperation, the gringo captain had made a call to his higher headquarters. Ruiz didn't know the details of that call. What he did know was that two weeks later a shipment of bows and arrows had arrived on one of the gringos' flying machines.
Culturally and racially similar, though not actually closely related, to the Yanamano of Brazil's Amazon basin, Ruiz's people were almost as ferocious as the "fierce people." They had openly hunted heads not merely from time immemorial but as recently as the 1950s. Truth be told, the ban on trading of shrunken heads had only reduced the scale of the headhunting enterprise. Ruiz and his people still took heads, occasionally, in the old fashion.
They usually took those heads from men they had killed with the bow.
Yet those native bows were trifling things when compared to the wondrous staves the gringos had brought, all gleaming wood and smooth pulleys. Truth be said, the Chocoes' bows were little, if at all, improved over the first version carried by Og, the caveman.
Ruiz fell in love with his new bow at first sight. This was something he could understand. This was something he could use . . . when the caimen-horse devils came, as the gringos insisted they would.
Ruiz shivered despite the warm rain, gripped his bow the tighter and vowed, once again, that it would happen to his people only over his dead body.
"Well, they're better than bows and arrows," muttered Bill Boyd as he watched a roll-on–roll-off freighter disgorging old and rebuilt American M-113 armored personnel carriers. Other vehicles, from various nations including the United States, sat guarded but unmanned in open lots near the docks.
Boyd turned a tanned and handsome face skyward, as if asking God to explain the cast-offs being sent to defend the most important strategic asset on the face of the planet from the greatest threat humanity had ever known. Ah, well, he thought, it isn't all old crap.
In Boyd's field of view, overhead, heading westward, a heavy lift helicopter crossed Lemon Bay on its way to the newly building Planetary Defense Base, or PDB, at the old gringo coast artillery position at Battery Pratt on Fort Sherman. Beneath the helicopter some indefinable, but obviously heavy, cargo hung by a sling. Landing craft, both medium and heavy, likewise plied the waters of the bay, bringing from the modern port of Cristobal to old Fort Sherman the wherewithal to build that base. Other bases, four of them, were also under construction across the isthmus. Three of these, the one at Battery Pratt and the others at Battery Murray at Fort Kobbe and Fort Grant off of Fort Amador on the Pacific side, took advantage of previously existing, and very strong, bunkers that had once made up the impressive system of coastal fortifications for the Canal Zone. Two others, and these were brand new in every way, were still being constructed atop the continental divide near Summit Heights and out at sea in the center of the Isla del Rey.
Maybe Brazil, Argentina, and Chile—all of them at United States' Department of State prodding—had suddenly become aware, once again, of the Rio Pact military aid gravy train. Maybe they were siphoning off conventional equipment that could have been used to defend Panama. But the PDBs, which would be gringo manned, were also invaluable for the defense of North America and useful for the defense of South. These were not being slighted.
Boyd turned his eyes from the fast moving, twin-rotored helicopter overhead and looked downward at himself. He wore the uniform and insignia of a major general. It felt strange, odd . . . maybe even a little perverse. Oh, he had been a soldier, yes. But he'd been a private soldier; a simple, honest soldier. And, too, he had run one of the world's foremost shipping companies based in the world's foremost shipping funnel. One would think the two would go together, that the veteran soldier and the veteran shipper would make a single person who felt like a major general.
It hadn't worked that way, though. Yes, Boyd could plan and supervise and direct the planning of others. He could run a staff. He could give orders that crackled like thunder.
But the general's uniform still made him feel faintly soiled.
Boyd had always taken great pride in having been a man who had fought bravely for a cause in which he had believed, the defeat of Nazism. And that pride was greater because he had done so without regard for his personal safety, his position or prestige, or his family's wealth. He had been offered a slot at Officer Candidate School in 1944 and he had simply refused, preferring the low prestige and honest commitment of the private soldier to the higher prestige, power and perks of being an officer. Besides, three months of OCS just might have been long enough to keep him out of the fighting, if the war ended, as it had looked that it might, in 1944. And the whole point of the exercise was to be a part of the fighting.
Even now he remembered those bitter days of battle in the winter of '44, physically miserable and mentally terrifying though they had been, as the best days of his life. And he had missed them, every day of them, every day since.
Similarly, although scion of one of the foremost families of the Republic of Panama, and although some members of the family had entered into, and—naturally, given the clan's wealth—been successful at, politics; he had always despised politics and politicians. It wasn't just that "power corrupts," though Boyd believed it did. Rather, it was that power had the stink of corruption, of form over substance, of lies sanctified.
And so, outside of the economic realm (where he really had had no choice, given his responsibilities to his clan), Boyd had avoided power, the stench of power, and the falsehoods of power like the plague.
I feel ridiculous, he thought, and not for the first time. Every day he looked in the mirror before departing home for the crisis of the day. Every day he saw a seventeen-year-old face staring back at him, a seventeen-year-old face hovering over the uniform of a major general.
"Ridiculous." And I feel like a fraud. And it isn't my fault!
In the presidential palace, the afternoon of his rejuvenation, Boyd had tried to beg off, to volunteer as a private soldier again. That, however, had not been an option.
"You can take this job, and the rank that goes with it," Presidente Mercedes had thundered, "or you can go to prison."
And so Bill Boyd had found himself a very old seventeen again, but wearing the uniform and accoutrements of an office which he simply did not want.
Mentally, he sighed. Ah, well, it could have been worse. They're scraping the bottom of the barrel so hard they just might have tried to make me take command of an infantry division. And wouldn't that have been a disaster?
Boyd paused then, in reflection. He had met all the other generals appointed since the president's emergency decree. Most of them he knew from private life; knew and cordially despised as one of the greatest band of knaves that ever went unhanged.
Especially that swine, Cortez . . .
Poligono de Empire (Empire Range Complex),
Republic of Panama
Manuel Cortez, Major General, Armada de Panama, West Point, Class of '80, and commander of the rapidly raising 1st Mechanized Division, looked with more curiosity than satisfaction at the gringos training the cadre of his new corps in the intricacies of armored vehicle operations.
It was as well that he had the gringos, thought Cortez, because he—West Point education or not—had not the first clue about employment of the armored vehicles and artillery that were to be the core of his new division.
He did know that he wasn't getting first class equipment, for the most part. His uncle, the president, seemed unaccountably pleased about that; Cortez couldn't begin to guess why. When Cortez had asked the president, that worthy had merely patted him on the shoulder, incongruous as that was with the president now looking more like a—much—younger brother, and told him not to worry about it.
The gringos seemed worried about it, though, as did the Russians, Chinese, Israelis, and even Finns who had also come to teach the new Panamanian soldiers the nuances of their new equipment.
Cortez laughed, without mirth. "New?" Some of it was, of course. Most of it, however, was rebuilt. This was true of all of the American-supplied armored personnel carriers, and most of the Chinese-purchased light tanks. Some of the Russian artillery had seen service in the Second World War and spent the intervening decades in naturally cold storage in Siberia.
Yes, most of the equipment was rebuilt. Some—notably the Finno-Israeli heavy mortars—was new. Much, though, was not only old and used, but shoddily made and ill–cared-for since manufacture.
Mentally Cortez added up his building assets: three light mechanized regiments with a mere forty-two real tanks between them, an artillery regiment with nearly one hundred tubes but most of those obsolescent, an armored cavalry regiment with another fourteen real tanks, about one-hundred Chinese light amphibious tanks, something over three-hundred armored personnel carriers . . . some few other odds and ends.
Against that tally Cortez weighed the debit side: anywhere from several hundred thousand to several million centauroid aliens whose standard small arms could shred most of his armor as if it were tissue paper.
Cortez tallied the one against the other and came up with the only logical decision for a man in his shoes and of his temperament: flight.
Battery Pratt, Fort Sherman, Panama
Though by now the flight to Fort Sherman and the landing at Battery Pratt had become routine, nonetheless the inbound helicopters were always met by a ground party to guide and direct the landing. Though there were plans to pave the landing zones, or LZs, at some point in time, for now they were simple dirt and grass patches hacked out of the jungle.
The pilot searched for the LZ in the solid green carpet below. Even here, one thousand feet above the jungle, the smell of rotting vegetation mixed with flowers hung heavy. Spotting the LZ, the pilot aimed his bird and carefully eased up on his stick . . . coming lower . . . lower . . . lower until both the ground guide's arm signal and his own feeling for the suddenly reduced load told him his cargo was safely aground. The crew chief confirmed this over the helicopter's intercom. The pilot's finger automatically moved to cut the load, then hesitated, waiting for the ground guide's signal. This came—a slicing motion of the right hand under the left armpit—and the pilot cut the load free.
The copilot asked, "Why do you always wait for the signal, Harry, when you know damn well the load's on the ground?"
The pilot answered, correctly, "Because someday it's going to be too dark for the crew chief to see. Someday the atmospherics are going to fool me about whether the load is down or not. More importantly, someday that kid, or somebody just like him, is going to have to direct us, or somebody just like us, down when the crew chief can't see and the pilot can't tell. And that kid . . . those kids, and those pilots have to know that they can depend on each other."
The copilot shrugged as the chopper lifted off again to dump its internal load, in this case two score Panamanian laborers from the city of Colon, at a different pad. These the crew chief hustled off the bird and down the ramp as quickly as decorum and international chumship allowed.
"That's the last of them, Harry," the copilot said. "What's next?"
Harry, the pilot, pointed to a tadpole-shaped hill circled in black on a map strapped to his right leg. "We're picking up four Russian mortars. Heavy jobs, 240 millimeter, so we'll be making it in two lifts. Then we're dropping them off here, at this hill in the middle of Mojingas swamp. Then we call it a day."
"Sounds good to me."
Palacio de las Garzas, Presidential Palace,
Panama City, Panama
"That sounds good to me, Mr. Ambassador, but can the United States deliver? Half—more than half—of the modern arms you promised us are going elsewhere." Panama's president wagged a scolding finger.
Embarrassed, the ambassador from the United States swept a hand through immaculately coiffed, silver-gray hair. "Presidente Mercedes, I can't begin to tell you how much that upsets me. But . . . we had no choice. When the other Rio Pact countries invoked the aid of the United States, we had to deliver substantial quantities of up-to-date weapons to them."
General Taylor, as big and black and fierce as ever, scowled from his chair next to the ambassador. He knew that the impetus for the diversion of those arms had begun with State. He just couldn't identify his source. At the ambassador's raised eyebrow the general subsided.
"Other things are going well, Mr. President," the general offered. "The five planetary defense bases should be completed prior to the expected date of the first wave. Fortifications are being built across the isthmus."
"And," interjected the ambassador, "Panama's unemployment rate has dropped to next to nothing as men are drafted or put to work digging those fortifications and building the roads that lead to them and support them."
"This is so," admitted Mercedes reluctantly.
"Moreover," the ambassador continued, "the increase in world trade, though it cannot be expected to last indefinitely, is pouring ships through the Canal and money into Panama's coffers at a fantastic rate."
And much if not most of that is going into my personal off-world bank account, Mercedes thought, while remaining silent. And a tidy sum it is, too. Already I've been able to book passage off-planet for all of my immediate and much of my extended family. That, and I still have enough to live pretty well once we leave. Though I would prefer to live better than merely "pretty well."
"The United States is concerned, however," the ambassador continued, "about where that money is going."
"Enough!" Mercedes thundered. "It is bad enough to have you thousands of gringos here, again. But this is still a sovereign country," by which the president meant a personal fiefdom, "and our internal affairs are precisely none of your business."
Mercedes, eager to cut off this line of inquiry, continued by playing the imperialism card, a charge to which the United States felt singularly vulnerable, and with singularly little reason almost anywhere except Panama.
"Indeed, bad enough to have you back after just a few short years of freedom. How many decades or centuries of imperialist theft before you leave us in peace and poverty this time, I wonder."
The ambassador, addicted to the niceties, was taken aback by Mercedes' apparent fury and more so by the charge of imperialism.
Taylor, on the other hand, was not only unshaken but had been around the ass end of enough Third World hellholes to know that "sovereign country" did, in fact, mean little more than "personal fiefdom." Taylor knew, too, that a goodly chunk of the world's population had been better off under American and European colonialism than they had ever managed to be under their own governance.
Idly, Taylor wondered, How hard would it be to arrange for the timely demise of this politician? Not very. But, then again, every man has a point of satiety in his appetites. If we eliminate Mercedes, his replacement will have to start stealing at the double time to build his bankroll. Still, something to think about . . .
Instead of this, however, Taylor merely said, "Mister President, Panama is getting everything in quantity that we promised. If we are not able, at this time, to produce exactly the quality that we both had wished for, still you are getting generally serviceable equipment that is, in some ways, more suitable for Panama than other, more modern, designs would have been. There is hardly a bridge in the country able to stand up to an M-1 tank, while the Chinese light tanks can not only use the bridges but, being amphibious, they do not always even need to."
Mercedes shrugged while thinking, The difference, you bloody thieving dolt chumbo, is that if the M-1 tanks you had promised had arrived here I could have sold them to Argentina and Brazil for serious money, bought Chinese and Russian tanks for dirt, and pocketed the difference. And I could have gotten a good price on the ammunition.
"And we are sending Panama a couple of weapons that no one else is getting."
Vieques, Puerto Rico
It was, for some unknown reason, McNair's habit to sing during gunnery practice. The veterans among the bridge crew knew it from long-standing custom. The few newbies thought it very strange.
He had a decent voice, too, though that did not make it any less odd to the new sailors as he belted out:
So early, early in the spring
I shipped on board to serve my king . . ."
The sense of strangeness felt by the new men among the crew was as nothing to what they felt when a strong female voice joined in:
I left my dearest dear behind.
She oftimes swore, her heart was mine . . ."
Immediately McNair stopped his own singing and turned towards the strange sound of a female voice on his bridge. What his ears heard, though, was nothing compared to what his eyes saw.
The woman looked real . . . corporeal, save that few women if any had ever had such an incredible face or body, or breasts that defied gravity so completely. The woman stood there on the bridge, wearing nothing but short-shorts, raggedly cut off, and a polka dot halter—tied in front—that was completely successful in failing to hide two of the most magnificent frontal projections McNair had ever seen. Mesmerized by the sight, it took McNair a few moments to react as a naval officer ought to have.
"Who the hell are you?" he demanded. "And how the hell did you get on my ship?
The singing stopped immediately. The image turned a sculpted face towards the captain and answered, "I'm Daisy Mae, Captain. I am your ship."
Reluctantly, McNair tore his eyes from the general vicinity of the halter, more expressly from the amazing cleavage it created, and ordered, "Well, get in uniform then, dammit."
The halter and shorts were instantly replaced by navy tans. If anything, the tans made things worse, since the hologram was driven by enough processing capability to adjust for the fact that no size available from Navy stores could possibly contain the magnificent breasts the AID had "borrowed" (well . . . maybe "enhanced" would be a better word) from an actress who had once played her namesake.
At that McNair looked away and whispered, "Try BDUs."
When he looked again he saw that the loose-fitting uniform had almost succeeded.
"You're the AID? The alien device?" he asked.
"I am that, too, Captain."
"I think we need to talk . . . in private," McNair said.