SOUTHCOM Headquarters, the "Tunnel,"
Quarry Heights, Panama
"We could try to nuke 'em," Rivera observed while gazing at the map that showed a massive concentration of Posleen clustered at the base of the Darien on the Colombian side.
"I've asked already," General Page answered. "Even though I can't think of a single good way to get a half dozen major bombs into the area, I still asked." In a falsetto voice, obviously meant to mimic the President's, he continued, "No, General. I won't let you damage the Rain Forest. We have treaties, obligations, internal laws. I could be impeached for letting you use nuclear weapons on that part of the world."
Rivera shrugged. Oh, well. It was worth a shot. Glad the Marine at least had the balls to ask.
"What else do we know about that migration?" Page asked.
"Not much, sir. We've gotten two LRRPs"—Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols—"into the area—and lost another three trying—but all they can tell us is about the edges. Well . . . I suppose that the fact we lost three of the LRRPs trying to penetrate the edges of the infestation tells us the bastards are pretty dense on the ground."
It was Page's turn to shrug. Information in war cost; always had, always would.
"How's the Army's Fifth Infantry doing?"
Rivera's finger traced an arc running northeast to southwest on the map. "They're dug-in in a half perimeter around the end of the Inter-American Highway, where the Darien Gap begins. SF teams are out on the flanks. There have been a couple of half-hearted attempts to storm the perimeter, but the Posleen appear to be stretched out in a long thin column that begins at that massive cluster on the map." The finger tapped the map twice. "They can't really bring any mass to bear. The road's not bad, at least until you get to the Gap, where it disappears, so we've been able to keep a steady supply of mines and shells coming to them. The Fifth's holding. I said they would."
"Eventually, you know," Page retorted, "the Posleen will find the flanks."
"Yessir. That's why the SF teams are out on the flanks, to give the regiment warning of when it's time to pull back. The Seven-Sixtieth Engineer company is building them fall-back positions all the way to where the highway breaks out into the open east of the City."
"Oh, I was drunk the day my mom got out of prison . . ."
Every unit needs a song. For the 760th, that was it. They were an unusual group, very tight, very cohesive and, in large part related by blood. They came from Marion, Virginia, in the United States. They'd brought their music with them. The crew of a bulldozer sang it even over the incessant roar of their piece of equipment.
Carter shook his head. He wasn't a country boy himself, but he'd grown up in the Army surrounded by them. That this unit had chosen that song? Well, it was no surprise.
"How close to complete, are you, Sam?" Carter asked of the 760th commander, a West Pointer long out of the Regular Army and transferred to the Reserves.
Sam spit out some tobacco juice—he'd picked up some appalling habits since assuming command of the company—and answered, " 'Bout seventy percent here, sir. But we've already got a good start of prepping the next position back."
"Good work, Captain Cheatham. Pass on to your men my congratulations."
"Will do, Colonel."
Carter turned away to remount his Hummer to go east, back to the mass of his regiment. Even over the diesel's sound he heard, "She got run over by a dang ol' train . . ."
Shaking his head, Carter headed back down the highway cut through the jungle, back to the first battle position where he intended to bleed the yellow aliens white.
Darien Province, Republic of Panama
It should have teemed with life, that little village. After long weeks' absence Ruiz expected to be met at the outskirts by swarming children. His wives, old now but—since he was a soldier—soon to be rejuvenated to youth and health, ought to have been raising joyous cries at his return.
But . . . there was nothing: no children, no wives, no . . . people. All was silent as death. The Indian chief stepped out of his canoe to emptiness.
Ruiz enter the village stealthily. There wasn't much physical damage. Then again, there hadn't been much physical to the village to destroy. Some of the Chocoes' rude huts were knocked over, but a strong wind might have done that. The fire circles were still in place but the hearths internal to each hut were mostly broken. Ruiz placed a hand over one of them near the edge of the village. It was cold: At least three days since fire burned here, he thought.
Drawing an arrow from his quiver and feeding it to his prized bow, Ruiz began stalking stealthily from hut to tree to tree to hut along the outskirts of the tiny grass and wood town. At each hut that was still standing he paused to look inside. Still, nothing.
From the exterior he worked his way inward, still circling, still looking for life or some other sign to tell what had befallen his home town. Near the center he found his first clue, a perfectly sliced rifle of the type the gringos had attempted, and failed, to teach him to shoot. The pieces of the rifle lay beside a scattering of expended brass cases. Of the soldier, or Chocoes scout (for a few had been able to learn to shoot), who had fired the rifle and left those cases there was no obvious physical sign.
Ruiz bent low to sniff the ground. Blood . . . even with the rains having washed most of it away over the last few days something or, more likely, someone was butchered here.
The scent of blood was faint, almost too much so for the chief to follow. But, however faint it was, it was enough, if only just, to lead Ruiz by his jungle-sensitive nose to the center of the village.
The Chocoes with the rifle, surrounded as he was by four hundred snarling demons and a like number of screaming women and children, still had the highly tuned senses of a jungle hunter. He turned a fierce and determined face toward the beasts who charged him. Whispering a prayer to the Holy Virgin, Maria (and intoning the name of a lesser god known only to the Chocoes and a few gringo anthropologists), he began stroking the trigger to spit bullets at his enemies.
The Chocoes rifleman was gratified to see first one, then another, then a third of the beasts fall, bullet-struck.
Sadly, however, to kill three, however worthy an achievement, still left more than enough to hack him into spare ribs once they reached him. He had time only to raise the rifle to a high port before the first blade, this one carried by one of the beasts with a raised crest, split the rifle, and the rifleman, in two.
As Ruiz followed the blood trail into the center of his former home the scent became stronger. Soon enough, he did not need the scent of blood to lead him. Instead, his eyes alighted on a pile of bones standing several feet high not far from his own hut.
The bones had lain there, undisturbed except perhaps by ants, since the tribes' fires had gone out. This much Ruiz's trained eye knew for a certainty. He walked to the pile, and began to examine the remaining traces of his family.
Mixed in among the human bones were others, oddly shaped though still the same dull, grayish white as the human bones. These Ruiz set aside.
The human bones he began to place reverently in their own pile. There was no chance of identifying individual remains, except in a few cases. He could, for example, tell which was the skull of his favorite wife, Belinda, by the twisted incisor of one skull. The top of the skull had been removed. Nothing remained inside. What the raiders had not scavenged, the ants had.
Fondly, Ruiz held Belinda's skull in his left hand and brushed off the few remaining ants. He forced a smile and said something that was not Spanish, but which still sounded very much like an endearment. He touched the misshapen tooth with the thumb of his right. Silently, he whispered a prayer, for Belinda and all the others.
"Whoever did this, my best wife, I promise you they will pay."
Ruiz could not afford to spend time in ceremonies of purification. While he suspected the alien horde (and having examined the bones he had found, he had come to believe that these demons were at least from another world) would be easy enough to track, he wanted one particular group, the same as that which had erased his home. In the Darien, the trail might be lost at any moment. Moreover, he had few enough clues to go by. Still, and despite his time in the Panamanian jail, he found his jungle sense had returned. He would find them.
The aliens had left little enough of food in the village. Even the rice had, for the most part, been taken away. There were things hidden, of course, including several cases of the nasty pouch rations the gringos ate that they had left when a team of them spent several days in the village teaching Ruiz and the young men to blow things up. Of the meals he took several cases.
He also scavenged a fair number of the arrows his clan had used to try to defend themselves. Some he found stuck into trees or the ground. Still more remained in their quivers where the ferocity of the attack had left no time to use them. One, in particular, he found embedded in a tree as far from the village as a man might hope to see to shoot. He sniffed at the arrow's feathers. There was something there, in the feathers, the faintest of odors. It was slightly different from the scents he had picked up from the bones he had lovingly buried. The scent had the slightest trace of the way the air smelled after lightning had struck the earth or one of the jungle's massive trees. Too, he was sure he smelled the alien leader, the odor being something like that on his tribe's bones, but more acrid, stronger. He closed his eyes and sniffed a final few times at the arrow's feathers, committing the scent to jungle-sharp memory.
Along with the meals, the gringos had cached several hundred pounds of explosive, detonators, and five cases of the things they called "claymore mines," at six mines to the case. He loaded the food, all six cases of the mines, and another one hundred pounds of C-4, plus other accoutrements into his canoe. Then Ruiz went to sleep. The next morning he cast off and proceeded upstream, to where he hoped to intercept the aliens who had butchered his family.
After a night's rest and a day's journey Ruiz noticed that the normal cacophony of the jungle was ended. Everything was eerily silent, the animals—so he supposed—having all run out of the way of the demons. Even most of the insect noises were gone.
Silently as a snake slithering along a tree branch, Ruiz guided his canoe to the river bank. There, still quiet, he tied it off to a tree, and adjusted some foliage to provide cover. Then, he closed his eyes and moved his head from left to right and back again, measuring the lack of sound.
There, he thought, having found the direction of greatest quiet. There is where I will find the demons.
Ruiz refreshed his body paint the better to blend into the jungle then, taking his beloved bow and a quiver of arrows, he set out on foot to find his foe.
The jungle could be dangerous, as Ruiz knew better than most. For him and his people though, it could never be as dangerous as the civilized life of the city dwellers. The jungle could, at most, kill. The city ate souls.
One of the jungle's potentially more deadly attributes, not so common as all that but still to be watched out for, was quicksand. It was rarely very deep and a calm man could get out of it unless rain and flash flooding caught him while he was stuck in it. Since this was the Darien and since massive sudden rain was normal . . .
Not far from the river bank, Ruiz found a patch which he skirted carefully. It would not do to be trapped in the stuff and have the demons find him thus helpless. Skirting the quicksand, the Chocoes walked completely around it to a point opposite where he had begun to skirt it.
Hmmm. If I need to run quickly, I might have to go directly across. With the demons on my tail that would be the definition of "suck," as the gringos say.
He looked up at the trees until he spotted a vine. Shimmying up until he caught it, he dragged the vine down and secured it where he could use it to swing across the patch of sand.
What little jungle sound had remained completely disappeared as Ruiz closed on the Posleen, their own sounds—snarling and yelping, grunting and, apparently, cursing—replacing whatever there was of the natural Darien.
He had seen pictures before, of course, but the pictures had not prepared him for the reality. For a moment he shook with fear.
The fear led him to think of what his tribe, his wives and his children had faced in the moments before their deaths, a snarling horde of demons descending on them to butcher babies in front of their mothers. Hate quickly took over once again from fear. The fear had concealed that the demons had no weapons he could see that were better than what appeared to be large-bore shotguns. Ruiz wasn't afraid of shotguns.
The previously still jungle felt a sudden light wind. Trees overhead groaned as they were forced to sway in the breeze. Ruiz lifted his nose and opened his mouth slightly to taste the air.
Ah . . . perhaps that is my special enemy. Something special, then, for this first bite of revenge, Ruiz thought. Something to put lasting fear into the demons.
Getting down on his belly Ruiz began to crawl forward to some bushes which had grown up in the space left by a tree fallen to age or catastrophe a couple of years prior. Reaching them, he parted the leaves slightly to view his enemy. From the quiver across his back he deftly and silently drew a single arrow and fitted it to his bow. Then he arose to one knee, drew the bow and let fly.
The arrow sailed straight and true and, most importantly, silently until its needle sharp point embedded itself a foot deep into a Posleen normal's torso. Yellow blood began to gush out around the wound while the normal danced in keening agony searching for the source of its pain.
Since all the other demons appeared to have turned their attention at the one wounded and dying, Ruiz thought he could risk another shot and perhaps even a third. Again an arrow flew; again it flew straight and true.
That target gave a single inarticulate scream as it vaulted stem over stern in a complete somersault before falling in a dead heap on the jungle floor.
Ruiz shook his head, unseen. These critters really are as stupid as the gringos said.
Another arrow flew and then another. One actually missed its intended target but did manage to strike a different demon in its right rear quarter. Again the demon began to snarl and spin like the first of Ruiz's targets, except in this last case the alien began worrying at the arrow with its fangs. Alien heads began to twist rhythmically following the gyrations of their wounded brethren. Two more arrows flew, both striking deep and deadly.
Okay, this is fun but not enough. And besides, I'll run out of arrows before I run out of demons.
Taking a deep breath, Ruiz strung his bow across his back and put his thumbs to his temples. Then he raised his head over the bushes and uttered something that sounded much like, "Oogaboogabooga," while wriggling his fingers.
There was a moment's confusion on the part of the demons, their attention torn between their wounded and dying peers and the bit of thresh that had appeared. The indecision didn't last long. The Posleen hit or killed would still be there to harvest later on. Meanwhile, if they didn't hurry, this new thresh might get away. With a mass cry they drew their blades and, fifty or so of them baying, gave chase.
Yes, those were shotguns that Ruiz had seen. Unfortunately, they had a little more range than human shotguns. He had several pieces in his back, buttocks and legs to prove that. The pellets were painful, but not debilitating. They had the added advantage of leaving a light blood trail for his pursuers to follow, though it took a peculiar frame of mind to consider that an advantage.
Ruiz still had a good sixty yards on his pursuers; otherwise, the shotguns would have made short work of him. However, despite his short Chocoes legs pumping in a blur, the demons were gaining. They'd long since have run him down but for his superior ability to dodge around trees and through the jungle tangles.
Aha! There's my patch of lovely quicksand, he thought, redoubling his efforts to stay ahead. The vine was still where he had left it secured. He grabbed it, shook it loose and risked a quick look behind. Ah, shit! The Posleen were closer than he had thought.
Ruiz took a running start and pulled himself up by the vine. "Aiaiaiaiaiai!" He sailed across the quicksand a few feet above it and slightly faster than he could have run. At the far side, the side nearest the river and his canoe, he let go his grip, flew unaided through the air for a moment and then tumbled and rolled to a stop on the mucky ground. Pushing with whatever part of his body was in contact with the ground—knees, elbows . . . lips, earlobes, eyelashes—he scrambled onward to the safety of the river and . . . stopped.
The sound of his pursuers had changed in moments from keen baying to mere keening. A tone of fear and despair had taken over their snarls and grunts. Cautiously he turned around and unslung his bow, nocking another arrow before slinking low back in the direction from which he had come.
The aliens were chest deep in the quicksand, muzzles and eyes raised skyward. The sand around each of them was roughened, as if they had struggled for a bit before realizing that this only made them sink faster. Of shotguns, or other ranged weapons, he saw not a sign beyond some linear marks in the sand's surface where they had perhaps been dropped.
Smiling broadly, Ruiz stepped up very near to the edge of the quicksand pit and sat down, cross-legged and in full view of any of the demons who might care to look in his direction. Reaching into a little bag he wore on his belt he pulled out some cheap tobacco, rolling papers, and a plastic tube containing matches. Then he sat with his back against a tree, happily rolled himself a cigarette and lit it, all the while watching the aliens sink lower and lower. Carefully, Ruiz counted the number of demons caught in his trap by making notches on a stick. He wanted to avenge his people, if possible many times over.
The lower lip of the last Posleen to go under the wet sand quivered like a naughty school boy's caught in some mischief before it too sank—still quivering—from sight.
SOUTHCOM Headquarters, the "Tunnel,"
Quarry Heights, Panama
"What's this Darien really like, anyway?" Page asked of Rivera.
"Sir, you ever do Jungle School at Fort Sherman?"
"Sure," the Marine answered. "On my way to Vietnam in . . . umm . . . Sixty-six, it was."
"Then you know the Mojingas, right?"
Page twisted his jaw a bit and remembered back before answering, "The Mojingas? Made Vietnam's jungle seem positively civilized."
"Right. Well, the Mojingas is small. Multiply the size about fifty-thousandfold. Then make it ten times wetter, twenty times more mosquito infested. Add in thirty times more snakes, forty times more fucking ants which are fifty times hungrier. It's fucking hell, sir."
"Oooh. Poor Fifth Infantry."
Rivera smiled nastily. "No, sir. Don't pity the Fifth. They're like the Chocoes; they can live in that shit. But if you want to spread some pity, give some to the Posleen."