The fighting had passed on without Guanamarioch and his band. The frightening sounds were distant now; the crash of the threshkreen artillery, the unending merciless thumping of their heavy repeaters, the overhead rattle of their indirect firing weapons. He became aware of this only slowly.
His normals and cosslain gathered stupidly around him while the pain of his several injuries abated somewhat. The hand, in particular, still shrieked in protest. However rapidly the People had been modified to heal, it would take cycles for the blistered, charred and oozing flesh to grow a new layer of hide. In the interim the keening Kessentai continued to rock back and forth slowly, the injured hand tucked protectively in his right armpit.
The normals and cosslain clustered nearest to him began petting their god to offer as much sympathy as they were capable of showing. Some of them set up a keening cry to match Guanamarioch's. The sympathy cries of the normals and cosslain was loud enough that Guanamarioch didn't notice the low hum of an approaching tenar.
"What are you whining about, Kenstain?" asked the tenar-riding God King. Guanamarioch recognized him as the enforcer who had dealt summary execution on the mess deck aboard ship. Still unable to speak, even to object to the mortal insult of being called one of those who had fled from the path of fire and fury, the junior Kessentai held up his seared hand, palm open, in explanation and excusal.
But the senior was having none of it. "You miserable excuse for a creature of the People. There are Kessentai ahead of you—in every way ahead of you—missing eyes and limbs and still fighting. There are Kenstain standing bravely beside their leaders. And you sit there whining over a widdle bitty burn. Cowardly puke!"
Stinging under his superior's tongue lashing, Guanamarioch lowered his head and began to struggle to his feet. A nearby cosslain helped him up, albeit a bit awkwardly. Head still down, his band in tow, the junior Kessentai without so much as a tenar to his name began to shuffle gingerly toward where his clan was still locked in mortal combat with the threshkreen of this place.
"What did I have?" said the fine old woman.
"What did I have?" this proud old woman did say.
"I had four green fields, each one was a jewel,
"Til strangers came and tried to take them from me.
"I had fine strong sons. They fought to save my jewels.
"They fought and died, and that was my grief," said she.
—Tommy Makem, "Four Green Fields"
Bijagual, Chiriqui, Republic of Panama
The river ran east-west for three hundred meters before turning abruptly to the north. There was a road, potholes interspersed with boulders for the most part, paralleling the east-west portion of the stream before meeting the bridge that spanned the north-running section. The road turned south as soon as it crossed the bridge.
South of the river, there was a well-treed, low-lying ridge. Along this ridge Digna had dug in most of her force, including half her artillery.
Digna had stopped smiling as soon as her son, Roderigo, went off the air. From the firing, barely perceptible at this distance, he and his crew had to be about four miles away from the bridge that led into Bijagual.
Instead of smiling, Digna sat her horse stoically, nudging it along the fighting line behind the ridge using only her knees. From this position she could see her descendants and followers, as well as the near kill zone on this side of the river and the far kill zone on the other.
"Hold your fire," she intoned. Her voice was a falsely confident and icy calm. "Hold your fire until they're across the bridge and into the near kill zone. Keep low until they're well into the open area. I'll give the command. Then blast them with everything you have."
Four of Digna's militia's 85mm guns sat well-spaced, dug-in and camouflaged covering that kill zone and the further one, an area of about twenty or twenty-five hectares. Each gun, firing canister, could spew about four-hundred 15mm balls with each round. Moreover, they could do so at twenty-five rounds a minute . . . for one minute, anyway. Even with a third of the balls going too high, another third going too low, the remaining third—grazing low—should be enough, so the woman hoped, to scour the kill zone free of life after a few volleys.
Digna stopped at one gun crew just to look into the faces of her great-granddaughters. They looked scared, yes, but determined. No worries here. They'll do their duty by their clan.
The firing from four miles away stopped abruptly. Digna kneed her horse in the direction of her command post, taking care not to gallop lest the horse's speed infect her clan with fear.
These thresh just don't fight fairly, the mid-level Kessentai, Filaronion, mourned as he surveyed the damage to his oolt from the last ambush he had led them into. Normals lay crumpled in every manner of undignified death. Some bled from multiple wounds; others lay as if asleep. More than a few still kicked and struggled, bleating like thresh themselves to be put out of their pain.
No, it just isn't fair, he thought bitterly. They wait in hiding as if for death, enticing us in to reap the harvest. Then they set off those horrible explosive devices to rend and tear. Any Kessentai accompanying the forward elements are singled out as targets.
Filaronion contemplated one nearby tenar, holding a dead God King slumped over the controls. The tenar hovered over a single spot, slowly spinning in place and dripping dull yellow blood to the ground.
Worse, after they attack us they have neither the decency to come out and put the wounded out of their misery nor the courage to stand so that we may take revenge. Instead they just melt away on those quadrupeds, fading into the low spots. Those we can barely catch sight of as they gallop to the rear.
There was something decidedly unnerving about thresh, even threshkreen, who could move along the ground as fast as could one of the People. Filaronion knew about the threshkreen's armored vehicles. These, more road-bound than cross country capable, were seen as a minimal threat, overall. But for the thresh to move so quickly across broken land; that was truly odd and strangely disquieting.
This Kessentai was one of the brighter of his type, he knew. He had tried, earlier, to spread out, to avoid being the mass target which these vile threshkreen seemed to prefer. Yet this had made forward progress slower. His senior in the clan had tongue-lashed him viciously for his supposed cowardice, insisting that the forward oolt stay on the road and press ahead with all possible speed.
But Filaronion was one of the brighter of his clan. Even while he partly obeyed his elder, lashing the bulk of his oolt on, he sent two swinging pincers out to either side of the main column, driving their own Kessentai ferociously to sacrifice everything for speed, to trap and finally eliminate this infuriating group of threshkreen who had bloodied the host again and again.
There would be no more artillery support from Edilze, Roderigo knew. The guns were certainly still there, at least he had no reason to believe they were not, but the radio was little more than a smoldering chunk of metal, glass and plastic. The last ambush had cost them heavily.
Roderigo gently closed the surprised looking eyes of the radio carrier who had ridden with him since they had first ordered fire down on the demonlike horde of invaders.
Leaving the trash of the radio, sighing, the uncle heaved his teenaged nephew's corpse across the saddle of his horse.
Each loss of a son or grandson, or of a nephew, had been like a knife in Roderigo's gut. Five times along the road home they had turned at bay against the enemy. Five times they had bloodied him badly. Yet, each time the enemy had pressed forward and each time Roderigo's men had barely escaped with their lives.
Many, of course, had not escaped with their lives. A dozen saddles were empty now. Nearly twice that number carried wounded men either slumping upright or draped across. When Roderigo considered the number of horses they had lost as well . . . well, that was too painful.
I'm too old for this, he thought. And, unlike Mama and Hector, they did not rejuvenate me. Then again, if they had I would be, instead of here defending my home, in some other place defending someone else's. Perhaps it was not such a bad trade. If I have to die . . .
Roderigo looked over the line of wounded, horse-borne, relatives. The horses hoofed the ground nervously at the smell of coppery-iron blood. He could see no use keeping them here. He detailed off a couple of younger grandnephews to guide the wounded back home and guard them on their way.
The clan's forward cavalry had leapfrogged back all the way from in front of Las Lomas, half of them waiting or ambushing while the other half prepared the next ambush. Even now, the last group to be engaged passed through the next and, so Roderigo thought, the last decent ambush position before the bridge to home. These, too, he saw, led far too many riderless horses and wounded men.
Roderigo stepped out into the road and raised a hand to stop one of his sons.
"This is the last place, mi hijo," he said. "Go all the way home now and report to Mamita."
Exhausted, holding one hand tightly over an arm to stop the seepage of blood from a grazing wound, the son nodded weakly. Roderigo patted his boy's thigh.
"Tell your mother that I love her, son," he finished, "but that I might be a little late for supper."
Digna tensed as she heard the faint clatter of hoofbeats on the road to the south. Was this her son's extended family returning? Or were they all dead and butchered, the drumming sound coming from the massed feet of the invader?
As a horse rounded the bend Digna relaxed visibly. Thank God, she thought. Some, at least, still live.
She amended that thought to, Some, at least, live . . . for now, as she caught a closer look at the pale faces of her descendants. Her own horse reared as a change in wind brought the smell of mammalian blood to its nose. Digna reached out a calming hand to stroke and pet the horse back to relative calm.
"How far behind you?" she asked her grandson, without specifying whether she meant the enemy or the rest of the forward screen.
The grandson didn't know or understand what she intended by her question. Slumped in the saddle, weakly he answered, "My father is about two miles out. The enemy not much farther."
As if to punctuate this, a sudden crescendo of fire arose to the south.
With the rising dust clouds to east and west Roderigo knew he had made a mistake, quite possibly his last.
"Mis hijos," he shouted, climbing back atop his horse, "mount up. Mount UP! We are—"
There was a sudden sharp blow, passing through from one side to the other, blasting flesh, blood, heart and lungs and tearing Roderigo from his horse. Mouth still open with the unfinished command, the old man fell with an audible thump, dead even before he hit the ground.
Outraged, tactical sense forgotten, the remnants of the family still in the field opened fire on the point of the approaching Posleen column even though these were still too far away to make an ideal ambush target.
Posleen fell, of course, especially where the remaining machine gun stitched across their ranks. This time, however, precisely because the Posleen were too far away to be massacred before they had time to react, there was effective return fire, pinning the Mirandas in their ambush position.
Worse, at the sound of the first rounds the wide sweeping alien pincers turned inward, churning claws raising dust clouds on the humans' horizon.
The horses broke, even though the men did not. As the animals stampeded, the enveloping Posleen swept them with fire. Thresh were not to be wasted and the animals were as good a threshform as any. Of the several dozen animals that broke all but one were chopped down by the alien fire. This one, never too bright to begin with and now mindless with fear, raced for what its tiny brain thought of as home and safety.
Meanwhile, the rest of Roderigo Miranda's little command automatically pulled in their flanks and formed a tight circle. Perhaps . . . perhaps if they could hold on until nightfall they might manage to escape.
The Posleen, however, led and lashed on by their Kessentai, were having none of it. Heedless of losses they bore in, railguns and shotguns blazing, boma blades sweeping high overhead.
Though there was no one left in command of the trapped humans, they were a family and they did tend to think much alike. Determined to sell their lives as dearly as possible they fixed bayonets, except for a couple who drew their more familiar machetes, just before the crest of the alien wave hit them.
Let the actions of one speak for all. One of the last survivors, Emilio Miranda, twenty-seven year old grandson of Roderigo. Emilio had a drinking problem. His face and back still bore the marks of his great-grandmother's riding crop as mute testimony to that problem.
Never mind that. A drunk Emilio might have been. He was not, however, a noticeably cowardly drunk.
As the Posleen galloped close, Emilio arose from his covered position and emptied his last magazine point blank and on full automatic at the enemy, sweeping his Kalashnikov from left to right. Three Posleen went down immediately, while a fourth, apparently hit on a knee joint, stumbled forward before falling. Gripping his rifle firmly in both hands the man lunged forward, frantically driving his bayonet into the wounded Posleen's yellow eye. As the bayonet entered the eye the Posleen tossed its head in agony, ripping the rifle from the Emilio's hands.
Heart racing, Emilio drew his machete and ducked under another alien's swinging blade. He chopped at the alien's forelegs, severing one and embedding the machete in the other. Shrieking, that alien fell to one side. The embedded machete was also wrenched from Emilio's hand.
Ducking again under another awkward swing of a boma blade, Emilio leveraged himself onto another normal's back as if it had been the horse it somewhat resembled. From there, he reached an arm around the alien's throat, squeezing and twisting in an instinctive move that might well have killed a human—either by strangulation or by broken neck—but only succeeded in panicking the thicker necked Posleen.
The normal bucked and twisted, trying desperately to throw off the thresh whose encircling grip threatened to cut off its windpipe. As it did so its rear claws mauled another normal who had come to its rescue. This one, enraged at the undeserved wound slashed off the rear legs of the beleaguered Posleen with a single stroke.
That Posleen immediately fell on its dripping haunches and rolled, trapping Emilio underneath it.
Stunned, Emilio lay there momentarily with his lower torso trapped under several hundred pounds of quivering centauroid alien. This was perhaps fortunate as he never really saw or felt the descending blade that removed his head and ended his young life.
Digna's heart sank as she watched a lone horse, mouth frothy with exertion, gallop across the bridge that led to her home. When the firing to the south ended with a whimper she crossed herself and said a prayer for her lost children.
"It is time," she said to a boy serving as a runner. "Tell Señora Herrera that she can't wait any longer for stragglers. She is to begin moving our people to Gualaca," a small town to the north, "now."
"Si, Mamita," the boy answered, breathlessly, before racing off to find his own mount.
The foamy-mouthed horse passed by. Digna didn't even try to hold it. This road led unavoidably to where the noncombatant part of the family had gathered. They could stop the horse, if it could be stopped. Most likely the animal would halt of its own accord once it saw the herd of Miranda clan horses loaded down for the trip north. They were herd animals, after all.
Digna turned her attention back to the road that led to the bridge along which the enemy must soon appear. They had to cross the bridge until they either gave up—an unlikely possibility, she knew—or found one of the fords north or east that led across the river. These she had covered with flanker parties under the command of one of her sons and Tomas Herrera.
The bridge was wired for demolition. She was sure it was inexpertly done; she had little knowledge of demolitions herself and none of her family knew much beyond the little bit needed to blow an old stump. Still, she remembered from the little bit of demolitions training she had had in OCS that there was an overriding factor in demolitions that could make even the rankest amateur a proficient combat engineer. This was called "factor P"; P for plenty.
The underside of the bridge was packed with nearly three hundred fifty pounds of plastic explosive she had traded food for over the last several months. This was "plenty," indeed.
Wired or not, though, she did not want to blow the bridge until the last possible moment. It was an obvious way across the river. As long as an obvious way existed the aliens, who were reputed to be fairly stupid, they would be unlikely to start nosing about for an alternative crossing.
And besides, she wanted the bastards to cross for a while. She wanted to let the murderers of her children into the welcome zone she had prepared for them. She wanted to kill some of them herself, to assuage the grief of her heart.
Digna affectionately patted her husband's old rifle. She and, in spirit at least, he would pay back the aliens for the harm they had been done.
Whatever satisfaction Filaronion felt as the last of the thresh went down under the slashing blades of his oolt was short-lived. He was certain that there had been at least two such groups; nothing else would explain the way they had operated. That he had destroyed one meant also that another had gotten clean away.
Moreover, weighing the meat being harvested and the remnants of the bodies gave the God King more frustration than satisfaction. He had lost many times that number of normals and more than a few God Kings along the road before trapping and destroying this small group of threshkreen.
Disgust rising, Filaronion twisted his tenar away from the scene of massacre. Then the God King glided up the road, his oolt clattering and chittering behind him.
Elevated and forward as he was, the God King was first of his band to spot the bridge. He didn't like it, somehow. It seemed . . . too . . . easy.
Filaronion reined in his tenar and ordered a lesser Kessentai to investigate with his own scout oolt. Right after that he ordered two other oolt, the same two which had made up the enveloping pincers he had used earlier to destroy the threshkreen, to again split off to either side and find a crossing place through this flowing body of water.
For whatever reason, and perhaps it was because she was connected to so many of them by an unbreakable spiritual umbilical, Digna felt her family stiffen before she ever saw the Posleen tenar. Most likely one of her descendants had seen it as it rounded the road bend, then tightened up with fear and anticipation, and that it was that tightening which had passed unconsciously across the battle line even to those who had not seen the enemy.
It was only a fraction of a second, though, before she saw it, too; a quietly and smoothly gliding piece of plainly alien technology, bearing an unbelievably horrible monster.
Digna stroked her husband's rifle affectionately. It had been his pride and joy in life, a custom-made piece of old-world, English craftsmanship, perfectly balanced and heavily tooled, firing a powerful, beast-killing slug.
Easing herself down into a firing position next to the 85mm gun she planned to use to begin the carnage, Digna peered through the scope and took a careful aim at her personal target.
My God, she thought, it's even uglier close up than it was at a distance.
Carefully she settled the cross hairs on the reptilian alien head. At a greater distance she might not have risked a head shot. But the thing was closing to within two hundred meters. At that range, even though this was her husband's rifle and not her own, she felt the head shot was justified.
I hope your mother, if you have one, weeps as I will weep once I have time to count my losses, beast.
Taking in a deep breath, then releasing most of it, Digna slowly squeezed the trigger while keeping the cross hairs on her target's head. By surprise, as all good shots should be, the weapon kicked in her grasp, bruising her shoulder. She had the satisfaction, however, of the barest glimpse of an alien head literally exploding before the recoil knocked her scope off target. When she returned the sight to the target she was gratified to see the alien slumped down, dead, while the flying sled slowly rotated above the bridge.
With a cry of rage the aliens below on the road exploded into action. The old bridge shook under the thunder of their claws as they poured across. As the aliens reached Digna's side of the bridge they began to spread out.
The ones who had crossed didn't interest her very much. Rifle and machine gun fire would account for them easily enough once she gave the word to open fire. Instead, she was much more interested in the dense cluster of aliens massing in confusion on the far side of the bridge.
Digna twisted her head toward the waiting gun crew.
Her command was immediately rewarded with a resounding blast from the gun's muzzle. An imperceptible moment later a wide swath of the aliens clustered at the bridge went down as if cut by some gigantic scythe. Their bleating and screams might have been pitiful had they not been so satisfying. Less than a second after the first round of canister had slashed through the enemy ranks, the other three guns joined in. A great moan went up as scores, then hundreds, of the invaders fell. Before the last of the victims of the other three guns went down, the first gun spoke again.
Rifle and machine gun fire joined the big guns cacophony. These, however, concentrated on the several score Posleen who had made it across the bridge before the 85mm pieces had opened fire. Unable to see their tormenters before it was too late, these aliens were knocked down right and left. By the time the big guns had finished reaping their grim harvest, three to four rounds each, cranked out in rather less than ten seconds, the others ceased fire for lack of targets.
A few of Digna's family had been hit by alien return fire. Two were dead, she was sure, from the way their bodies hung limply as they were carried back. Others screamed or, more commonly, bit their tongues half through to keep from screaming. Hers was, in the main, that kind of a clan.
No time for tears. I can mourn later.
Digna ordered the wounded and the dead, both, carried to the rear. The wounded would be cared for, as best they could be. For the dead there were fire pits, the seasoned wood already stacked, soaked with gasoline, and waiting. She would see no more of her own turned into meals for their enemies.
And at least they would be buried on their home ground.