Ojos Amarillos: La Defensa de Panama

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The sun was setting to the west. In part for the warmth, and in part to keep off the annoying insect life of this world, Ziramoth had built a small fire. He and Guanamarioch lay low to either side of the fire, sometimes talking, sometimes just thinking. Ziramoth interspersed conversation with slices of the fish he had caught.

Posleen didn't cook. Oh, they'd eat thresh that had been caught in a fire and charred, but the idea of actually applying heat or a chemical process to make their food more palatable was something that had not been implanted in them by the Aldenata and which they had never thought upon themselves. Sooner a lion would make and eat crepes than a Posleen would cook food.

Nonetheless, Ziramoth—even one-handed—was a pretty deft hand with a knife and something like sushi was within his repertoire. He and Guanamarioch made a decent meal there, by the mossy riverbank, off raw fish, sugarcane, and a few mangos.

Guanamarioch was certain that Ziramoth was quite a lot brighter than he was. The scars, along with the missing eye and arm, suggested the Kenstain might be braver as well, not that Guanamarioch considered himself to be especially brave.

Most God Kings would have thought the question beneath them even to ask. Most, indeed, were incapable of so much as acknowledging the existence of those who had turned from the path, except perhaps to spit.

Guanamarioch had to ask, "What caused you to turn from the path, Zira?"

The Kenstain, in the process of filleting a fish, stopped in mid-slice and lay stock still for a moment, contemplating how to form his answer.

"It was long ago . . . six . . . no, seven orna'adars past," Ziramoth answered, slowly, before asking, "You know we were once a greater clan than we are now?"

Guanamarioch nodded and answered, "Yes, I read of it on the way here, in the scrolls."

"The scrolls do not tell all the story, young lordling. I have read them, too, and they do not say how we ended up in such straits."

"Is this . . . forbidden knowledge, Zira?"

The Kenstain laughed aloud, a great tongue-lolling, fang-bared Posleen laugh. "To forbid it, they would have to admit to it somewhere. And no one has ever admitted to it."

"Tell me, Zira."

The Kenstain acquired a far away look for a moment, as if trying hard to recall something very distant. Then he looked closely at the God King, as if trying to decide if the youth would be harmed by the knowledge he had to impart. He must have decided that knowledge cannot harm, or that, if it could, it could not do more harm than ignorance.

Ziramoth began, "We were great once, among the greatest clans of the People. Our tenar filled the sky. The beating of the feet of our normals upon the ground was like the thunder. The host filled the eye like the rolling sea.

"And then we made a mistake . . ."

Chapter 18

There are no bad regiments;
there are only bad officers.

Field Marshall,

Viscount William Slim

Remedios, Chiriqui, Republic of Panama

Suarez wasn't confused; he was infuriated. The orders emanating from Cortez's headquarters were confusing, to be sure. "Go here . . . no, wait . . . no, go there . . . no, come back . . . no, go forward . . . detach a battalion to secure X . . . no, no, concentrate to attack Y." But Suarez, rather than being confused, understood completely.

The fucking moron is simply too scared shitless to have a coherent thought.

Right now Suarez's mechanized regiment was about half scattered around the northern part of the Province of Herrera and the western portion of Veraguas. He had radio communication with most of them, most of the time, but the communication was unreliable at best. Entire battalions would be unreachable for anywhere from minutes to hours. Even in a place that screwed with radio communication naturally, Suarez thought that more than a little suspicious.

As the lead regiment of the division, Suarez had, or was supposed to have, operational control of the company of Yankee ACS attached to the 1st Division. Unfortunately, Cortez interfered, or attempted to interfere, with the gringos even more than he did with his own force. Fortunately, the gringos, like Suarez himself, had learned very quickly to ignore most of what the division commander had to say.

Even more fortunately, the commander of the ACS, the gringo captain named Connors, had an understanding with Suarez. It was the understanding of two soldiers, differing greatly in rank, who recognized a common bond of dedication to the profession and a common bond in being placed under the command of idiots often enough for it to be more usual than not.

"This is not the way to use an armored combat suit formation," Connors complained to Suarez. "Little penny packets, scattered about, with no oomph and no punch. We should be like armor, concentrated for the decisive blow. Except that we're better than armor because we can go anywhere and fight anywhere. We should not be used like assault guns, supporting slower moving and less powerful forces. It's a violation of Principle of War—mass."

"You're pulling in your detachments?" Suarez queried.

"Yes, sir," Connors agreed, nodding unseen inside his suit. "As I can."

"Well, Captain, while I agree with your assessment of the role of ACS, we've got another problem that might make it a little wiser to do some splitting up. How are your internal communications?"

"Good, sir. We're not having the commo problems your forces are."

Connors reached up with both hands and removed his suit's helmet, placing it under one suited arm. Silvery goop retreated from his head and hair, forming an icicle on his chin. The goop reached out a tendril seeking the helmet. When it had found it, it flowed from the chin straight down. As before, Suarez found the image and, worse, the image of what it must be like when in the helmet and surrounded by goop, to be most unsettling.

Suarez shook his head to clear the thought. Blech.

"I think our commo problems are not natural, Captain, even though they seem to be random. Instead, I think someone is . . . feeling us out, getting a picture of how we work. Maybe it would be better to say that they've already done that and have now graduated to the early stage of deliberately fucking with us."

Connors' mouth formed a moue. He was a veteran of the early fights. He knew that someone or something often targeted human communications. He was also pretty sure that those doing the targeting were not stupid crocodilian centauroids.

"They'll blanket you at the worst possible time," Connors announced. "I've seen it before."

"I agree," said Suarez. "Which is why I am going to ask you to do something very tactically unsound."

"You want me to leave a man or two with each of your battalions for backup communications, don't you, sir?"

Suarez smiled. "Pretty sharp for a gringo, aren't you?"

"There's something else too, Colonel," Connors began. "I have a really bad feeling. We aren't killing enough Posleen to make a difference. They're fighting, and running, and fighting, and running. Almost like humans would. It's unsettling, sir, you know?"

Taking a deep breath and exhaling, Suarez agreed. "Scares me too, son. And I don't know what to do about it. The division commander's no help. . . ."

"Well, sir, I have an idea. If I break up one squad for backup communications I still have two squads from one platoon I'll have shorted. I'd like to send them out as flankers, north and south, in buddy teams. That'll still leave me two line platoons and a weapons platoon under my control for when things go totally to shit."

"Do it," Suarez ordered. "Do you need any backup from my regiment?"

Connors hesitated, thinking about that. After a few moments he answered, "No, sir. If I were you I'd start pulling in my troops and at least getting ready to form a perimeter. If my guess is right then the best thing you can do for my flankers is give them a solid place to run to. 'Cause, sir, sure as God didn't make little green apples, we've got our dicks in the garbage disposal and someone, or some thing, has his finger on the power switch."

Darhel Consulate, Panama City, Panama

The Rinn Fain's clawed finger rested lightly on the blinking green button. He contemplated that claw. What a sad state. We were a warrior people; a people of fierce pride. A people made by evolution to be naturally what the divine intended us to be. And then the never-sufficiently-to-be-damned Aldenata had to meddle, reducing us to meddlers ourselves. The Rinn Fain nearly wept with the sadness of the fate inflicted by the Aldenata on his people. Damn them, and damn those earlier Darhel who acquiesced.

"All is in readiness, my lord," the slave Indowy prodded. "It will be perfection, now. If you hesitate, the humans may be prepared to counter."

Smiling through needle sharp teeth at the slave, the Rinn Fain answered, "I am not hesitating, insect. I am savoring the moment. So much perfect destruction to be unleashed, and no violence inherent in it to trigger lintatai. Moments like this are rare, wretch, and must be appreciated to the fullest."

Even so, the Rinn Fain pressed the button, which went from blinking green to solid red.

North of Remedios, Chiriqui, Republic of Panama

In theory an ACS could simply beat its way through the rain forest, hardly slowing even for the largest trees. In practice, not only did the felled trees tend to build up to the point where they became nearly impenetrable even for one of the suits, the noise had a nasty tendency to attract the attention of ill-mannered strangers.

Thus, Corporal Finnegan and Private Chin wove their way through the trees as quietly as the suits would permit. This took time in the short run, and delayed any information their two-man recon team might uncover. On the other hand, dead troopers relayed no information at all, beyond the sheer fact of their deaths, recorded in blinking black on their squad leader's heads-up display.

"This is bullshit, Corporal, purest bullshit," observed Chin, never the least outspoken of the squad's privates, possibly because, out of his suit, he was the shortest of the lot.

"You're bitching just for the sake of bitching. Shut up, Private," answered Finnegan succinctly.

Chin was not, however, considered the loudest mouth of the squad without reason. He continued his bitching, more quietly but nonstop, right up until popping his head over a ridge overlooking a small, river-fed valley below.

"Stupid fucking bullshit, is what it is. Why I ever joined this outfit—"

"Chin? What's wrong, Chin?" asked Finnegan.

For a worrisome moment, the private said nothing. When he did it was simply to say, in stunned surprise, "Corporal, you need to see this."

Railing softly about pain in the ass rankers, Finnegan bounded over, weaving around the trees, until he stood beside the private, his head sticking just over the rise.

"Oh, shit," the corporal said quietly.

In the valley below, thousands upon thousands of them, so thick that Finnegan couldn't even see the ground, the Posleen host was rising to its feet, the tenar-riding God Kings pointing and gesturing to the pair of ACS troopers.

Even as the first railgun rounds began to chew the ground and trees around them, Finnegan ordered, "RUNNN!"

Remedios, Chiriqui, Republic of Panama

Connors went instantly white, no mean feat given the amount of sunbathing he had done in the months before the Posleen landed. He didn't have to inform Suarez what Finnegan and Chin had found. The suit's communicator squawked loudly enough for the colonel to hear for himself.

"Posleen . . . zillions of 'em . . . in the valley at Objective Robin . . . we're running . . . they're pursuing . . . shit! Chin's down."

Another voice: "It ain't just Finnegan, Boss. We got us about forty thousand of the bastards at Objective Tiger."

Another voice: "Can't run, Cap'n Connors. We're pinned. I can't tell you how many. More'n . . . aiiiii!"

Another voice . . . another voice . . . another voice.

Connors looked up at Suarez, standing in the hatch of his track. You're the chief, Colonel. What the fuck are we gonna do?

In response Suarez held up his radio's microphone; nothing but static and occasional broken up syllables.

"I can rebroadcast," Connors offered.

"Can you fit inside the track so I can show you on the map?" Suarez asked.

"Not necessary, sir," answered Connors as his AID enhanced suit again projected a map between them. "All my people can see the same image."

"They can all see it? Nice. Okay, Captain, we've got no normal commo so everything is going to go from me, through your suit, to your people and then to mine. This is what I want."

Suarez's finger began to trace out a circle into which his half scattered battalions would fall and hold . . . or in which they would die. If asked, Suarez would have bet on "die."

"Oh, God, I don't want to die!" was Cortez's first voiced thought as he saw the wave of centaurs cresting the high ground to the north. It was fortunate that his radio, like everyone else's, couldn't send or receive. The only thing holding the 1st Division's cohesion together at all was the fact that none of his subordinates could hear their commander.

A nearby light tank company, Cortez's personal escort, turned into the coming storm, flailing away with machine guns and canister. For an all too brief moment it looked like they might hold. And then railgun fire began to chew through the thin Chinese-built armor. By ones and twos the tanks began to brew up as their crews were cut to ribbons and railgun fleshettes set alight their on-board ammunition and fuel.

"Turn around! Turn around!" Cortez shrieked at his driver.

The driver obeyed, pivot steering the Type-63 one hundred and eighty degrees to the south, then gunning the engine to race away, trailing a cloud of thick, nasty diesel smoke behind.

Cortez's eyes remained fixed to the north where the Posleen wave lapped over a mixed column of trucks and artillery. The gunners, he saw, were struggling to free their guns and fire even as the wave swept over them and cut them down.

A medical unit, two thirds female as Cortez could well see, was the next to go under. The men of the unit attempted to make a stand to cover the retreat of the women. Without machine guns, or even more than a few rifles, the men went under quickly. The Posleen then pursued the women, chopping the poor screaming wretches down from behind and then stopping to butcher their bodies and feast before continuing the pursuit.

Cortez felt nothing at that, despite having used his position more than once to bed some of the women of that unit. They had been, after all, just office and peasant girls, not women of class and breeding; not anyone who mattered.

A man would have turned and died then, to protect the women. Cortez simply urged his driver to move faster.

* * *

Julio Diaz cursed that his glider could not move any faster. On only his second actual combat mission Diaz already had begun to feel like a war-weary veteran. One thing was different about this mission from the previous day's; his radio worked perfectly.

And everyone else's was in electronic bedlam; those, anyway, that Diaz could not see stretched out, butchered and lifeless, below. They were hard to see, too, because Panama's normally emerald grass was tinted red across half a kilometer to either side of the Inter-American highway.

This was awful beyond words, even awful beyond thought; fifteen or twenty thousand of his countrymen, and women, massacred, rendered and eaten. Clusters of Posleen, some of them numbering in the thousands, walked among the dead, hewing a head here, splitting a femur there. Crossing himself, Julio thanked the Almighty, above, that the aliens continued to ignore him.

God did not or would not save him from everything. Despite having an empty stomach from once again, embarrassingly, having to vomit during his launch, Diaz needed to puke again. Only the fact that he was above the smell of slaughter saved him from that.

Still cruising while slowly sinking, without units to spot for, Diaz didn't even think to call for support from the cruiser that had blessedly answered him the day before. Sure, he could have killed Posleen, and that might have satisfied his urge for revenge. But revenge was a thin soup, faced with the enormity of the slaughter.

Despite the barren feeling of hopelessness, Diaz continued to fly westward. When he returned to base, if he returned, his father would need to know the extent of the disaster.

To his right the sun was sinking. Even as it sank, Cortez's hopes began to rise. His tank was amphibious. With any luck he would soon reach the sea and could set out on that, safely towards home.

With all the fearful paranoia of a hunted fox, Cortez had guided his tank and crew from the scenes of slaughter. Several times, when the pounding of alien claws on the earth had warned him of an approaching horde, he had ordered his tank into low ground, dense Kunai grass or copses of thick standing trees. His luck had held. While groups of refugees and even the occasional fragment of a cohesive unit had fallen all around him, the aliens had never noticed or, if noticing, cared enough to actually seek him out. He supposed they must have had enough to eat.

While opening his own bag of gringo-supplied combat rations, Cortez began to contemplate the future. He was facing a court-martial, he knew. Last time he had deserted a command, in 1989, he had been fortunate that his government had followed its army into extinction quickly. This time he could not hope for such a boon. His government and army would survive this debacle long enough for him to see the inside of a courtroom and the pockmarked wall before the firing squad. His uncle, the president, would clearly toss him to the wolves.

Worse, his driver, loader and gunner would be the star witnesses at his court-martial. They had the defense of superior orders, at least. He had only his own will to live, no matter what.

Can I count on Uncle Guillermo to quash any charges? Only two possibilities: either the country and the government falls, in which case there'll be nothing to quash, or they somehow manage to establish a defensive line, in which case there will.

Okay, let's assume there is still a country. It was Uncle's order that sent my division to the west. They'll be howling for his blood . . . so he'll give them mine. And these three crewman will testify against me. They have to go. But I need them for now to get me out of here, so they cannot go just yet.

Once we're at sea, then, I can dispose of them . . . but how to do it? Shoot them? Tough to do and the driver, in particular might escape. Sink the tank? Also hard to do and, what's more, I don't want to get sucked down with it.

Aha! I know. When we get close to land I'll get out, as if to wave for help, then drop a couple of grenades into the turret. Grenades leave little trace even if they should somehow recover the tank.

My story? Let's see. I had gotten out of the tank just as we approached land to get a better view. After all, the land has become unsafe and I had to watch out for the crew's welfare. Suddenly—"I don't know how"—the tank caught fire and blew up. I was thrown overboard. My life vest must have kept me afloat. When I awakened the tank was gone. I drifted for a while, then when I got close enough to land I swam for it.

Okay . . . that's plausible and there'll be no one left to contradict my story. Uncle can press the charges and then have them dropped for lack of evidence.

* * *

The setting sun cast its fiery light directly into Diaz's eyes. He couldn't see a thing ahead of him. He knew there was no sense in pressing on, yet felt he had to. The Estado Major, the general staff, had to learn the full extent of the disaster.

Diaz continued on, pulling to the right occasionally to catch and spiral higher in one of the mountain-directed updrafts. Sometimes, during those altitude gaining spirals, he could see yet more of the refuse of the massacre. He forced himself to look, despite the nausea it induced.

Finally, with the last rays of the setting sun painting the waves of the Pacific, and with the last known forward position of the 6th Division behind him, he turned one hundred and eighty degree and began to glide back to the east, to the base at Rio Hato.

It was chance then, chance that the sun had set at that precise moment, chance that he was looking in that precise direction, chance that someone on the ground fired human weapons in precisely Diaz's field of view.

Unmistakable. Someone down there is still fighting. I've got to help.

In order to help though, Diaz needed to see more, understand more. He began a slow, lazy three-sixty. As he did he caught more flashes of rifles, machine guns, and cannon. The flashes seemed to form a broad circle.

"Christ!" the boy exclaimed. "They're still hanging on down there. I've got to help."

Suarez, aided by the communications array of the ACS, had only just managed to form a half circle facing north when the first wave of Posleen hit. The Posleen may have been more surprised at the resistance than the humans had been at the grand scale ambush, since their advance guards stopped and then recoiled at the sudden and unexpected wave of fire that met them.

The Posleen, however stupid they were in the main, were also a species quick to form and quick to react. The human defenders had a few brief minutes of respite before a more serious attack was thrown in. This was not repulsed so easily; Suarez actually had to throw in Connors and his ACS company before the attack was contained.

After that the attack in the north petered out into minor probes and sniping while the bulk of the aliens split east and west to find the vulnerable flank they were sure had to be there. For Suarez and his boys it became a race against time to form a full perimeter before the enemy turned one or both flanks. Cooks and clerks found themselves in the firing line, along with medics hastily armed with the rifles of the fallen. Still, by nightfall a perimeter, more or less cohesive, had been formed.

I couldn't have even done that without the gringos and their armored suits, Suarez thought.

For his part, Connors, resting for the moment with his back against Suarez's track, thought, Thank God this colonel knew what the fuck he was doing. Another man and we'd have been dead and peeled like lobsters already.

Simultaneously, both men had much the same thought, which went something like, Not that it much matters. We're hopelessly cut off out here, no chance of relief or support. We'll live until the ammo runs low or the fuel runs out or the power dies in the suits and then we'll die anyway. Tonight, maybe at the latest mid-day tomorrow, and it'll all be over but the munching.

Even as he finished that shared thought, Connors suddenly sat upright. Clearly and distinctly, through his suits communicator, he heard a Spanish voice, "Any station, any station, this is Lima Two Seven."

"Lima Two Seven this is Romeo Five Five. Who the fuck are you? What the fuck are you?"

Diaz nearly whooped with joy. "Romeo, I am a glider. If you look carefully you might be able to see me overhead. How can I help?"

The answering voice sounded resigned, "You got a couple of nukes, Lima? Because short of that, I doubt there is much you can do to help us."

Julio thought for a moment, then answered, "No nukes, Romeo, but I might be able to get something nearly as good. Wait, over . . . Daisy? Daisy? This is Julio. I need your help, Dama."

USS Des Moines

Dammit, it had hurt to have had to run away; it had shamed. Daisy had seen Sally back to the cover of the mixed Planetary Defense Base cum anti-lander batteries on the Isla del Rey before turning back to the west. Unfortunately, by the time she had gotten within lunging range at the enemy, there was no one to talk to. Thus, impotent and infuriated, she had steamed south of the isthmus—to and fro, east and west—looking and hoping for a target.

Thus it was that, unconcealed glee in her voice, Daisy announced to McNair, "I've got us a ripe one, Skipper."

McNair, still smarting over the loss of Texas, didn't hesitate. "Bring us around." His finger pushed a button. "All hands, this is the captain. Battle stations."

"Julio, we're coming," the ship said.

Remedios, Chiriqui, Republic of Panama

"It's neither as good nor as easy as it sounds, sir," Diaz cautioned over the radio. "I wish I could connect you directly with the ship, but I can't. If I could, you could direct the fires. As is . . . well, sir, the ship can toss a huge amount of firepower, and it's unbelievably accurate, but only along the gun-target line. Anywhere from one third to one half of the shells will be over or under and some of them will be way over or under. If you have troops over or under the target . . ."

Chingada, Suarez thought. Fat lot of good it does me to blast the aliens if the same fire blasts holes in my own perimeter. The Posleen will recover quicker.

Suarez thought furiously while looking at his map. The ship was going to fire from the Gulf of Montijo, from a position just north of Isla Cebaco. What Diaz had told him meant that he could get effective fire to his east and west, but could not use the ship's guns to help him break contact north and south.

"All right, Lieutenant Diaz, I understand. Tell the ship I want priority along the enemy-held ground west of the Rio San Pablo. Then, on my command, I want to switch to east of the Rio San Pedro."

Suarez stopped to think for a moment. Something was nagging at him. Something important . . . something . . .

"Mierda!" he exclaimed aloud. "Diaz, does the ship carry a shell that can clear the bridges along the Rio San Pedro without endangering the bridge?"

It was a long moment before Diaz answered. When he did, it was to say, "Miss Daisy says she has improved conventional munitions that can kill the Posleen without endangering the bridge, sir."

Miss Daisy? Never mind. "Good, good," Suarez said with more good cheer than he felt. "Diaz, you can see, which is more than I can say. Keep me posted and commence firing as soon as possible."

Under Binastarion's eye his sons and their oolt'os formed and massed for what he expected to be the final breakthrough into the rear of the threshkreen's perimeter. The river to his front, while promising to be a costly obstacle to cross, was not so deep his normals could not cross it unaided, though he was sure a few would find deep spots in which they would drown. No matter; their bodies will make a ford for the ones that follow. For the rest, a few minutes helpless under fire and then we're among them.

An odd shape, cruising high to the west, caught the God King's eye.

"What is that damned thing flying up there?" Binastarion demanded of his Artificial Sentience.

That machine was connected to the God King's tenar and, thus, to the entire Net. Yet, infuriatingly, it answered, "There is nothing flying overhead, lord."

"Bucket of misdesigned circuitry, I can see it. There is something up there."

"Nonetheless, lord," the Sentience answered with the normal indifference of a machine, "there is nothing up there which registers. Therefore, there is nothing up there."

The God King was about to curse his electronic assistant again, when the AS announced. "Incoming projectiles, lord. They will land on the oolt massed below. I suggest you take cover."

Before Binastarion could answer, whether to thank or to curse, three shells landed, one short but two right on one of his oolt'os. That oolt simply . . . dissolved with panicked normals running shrieking in all directions. Binastarion's tenar shuddered with the shock wave. His internal organs rippled in a way he had never before experienced.

"Demon shit," the chief snarled, sotto voce, as he wrestled his tenar back to face his massed people.

Even as he grunted those words another three explosions erupted, with one shell landing among the ruins of the previously targeted oolt and two others smearing the one just to the north of that one.

In salvos of three rounds, never more than four or five heartbeats apart, the fire walked among his people like some half-divine, half-mad demon. Tenar were tumbled, their riders crushed and shredded. Splintered teeth and bones of normals joined hot metal shell fragments to pierce and rend.

True, sometimes a shell landed between oolt, doing no harm with its blast. Even in those cases, however, the odd piece of shrapnel might sail hundreds of meters to fall with deadly effect upon some unfortunate normal. The smell of Posleen blood thus released was enough to unsettle the half-sentients and make their bolting that much more likely whenever a salvo did land near.

Binastarion's communicator buzzed frantically with calls from his sons and subordinates. Each asking for instructions. Do we attack? Do we retreat? If we stay here we'll be massacred.

"Where is that damned fire coming from?" he demanded of his AS. "I have read of the threshkreen's artillery, but this is just too much of it. Where is it coming from?"

The Artificial Sentience did not answer immediately. Searching the Net, Binastarion supposed.

"The ship is back, lord," the AS said when it finally answered. "It can throw as much of this artillery as would a ten of tens of the heaviest sort used by the thresh who fight on the ground."

Even while digesting that unwelcome news, the fire continued to walk among the host of Binastarion, striking down lowborn and high with random, vicious fury.

It was with an equal fury that Binastarion ordered his subordinates to assemble on his tenar once they had their people under cover.

As he had been each time he had seen the salvos from the Des Moines, Diaz was awed by the fury of the guns. He said a silent prayer to God that, so far, none of the shells had fallen among the defenders.

When he judged the enemy was sufficiently damaged and disorganized by the fire he keyed his radio and spoke to Suarez.

"Sir, I think it is about as good as it is going to get in the west. Shall I pull out to the east and direct the ship's fires to assist the breakout?"

Suarez spoke back, "Yes, son, do that. And God bless you and that ship."

There was no more difficult operation in all of the military art than a withdrawal while in contact with the enemy. To do so over a broad front, with troops already badly disorganized by combat would have been impossible but for three facts: that the fires of the gringo ship had even more badly disorganized the Posleen, that most of Suarez's regimental artillery—three batteries of Russian-built self propelled guns—was intact, and that Suarez had control of most of a company of ACS.

"Can your boys do it; cover our withdrawal while we force our way east?" Suarez asked Connors.

"I think we ought to free up your units in the west first, sir," Connors advised.

East of Remedios, Chiriqui, Republic of Panama

"Can you get me some contact with that glider overhead?" Connors asked.

"No, sir," the AID answered. "I am continuing to try."

Trying to time things carefully, Connors and his men had stormed into the Posleen positions, such as they were, butchering the stunned-senseless aliens where they stood, before pulling out again and moving as fast as the suits' legs would carry them eastward. A regular mechanized unit could not have done so.

B Company, Connors in the lead, reached the rear area of the west-facing Panamanian units even as Suarez, using the suits the MI had attached to his sub-units, pulled the east-facing elements of the 1st Mech Division out of the line and got them on the road.

"How about with the ship, what was it? The Des Moines?"

"Yes, sir, the USS Des Moines, CA-134. And no, sir, the ship's AID is refusing all communication with any Artificial Intelligence Devices. I am not sure why. It won't explain, simply shunts me into a continuous loop when I try. It's not supposed to be able to do that," Connors' AID added snippily.

"Crap!" Connors exclaimed. "We'll just have to trust the kid up above to know what he's doing."

"Lieutenant Diaz seems trustworthy, sir."

"Yeah . . . well . . ."

Connors' reserved statement was interrupted by a deluge of heavy shell fire striking ground to the east. The Panamanians in the rear of the line ducked, sensibly, as the air was torn with the roar of the blasts and the whine of the fragments, whizzing overhead.

"Okay, okay . . . the kid knows what he's doing," Connors admitted. "We can't direct the fire . . . so we're going to have to take advantage of where it falls on it own."

"Suboptimal, Captain," the AID agreed. "But best under the circumstances, yes."

Another long salvo came in. Connors tried to count the number of shells and gave up.

"AID, can you track the shells and provide analysis?"

"Yes, sir," the AID answered. "If you will look at the map"—Connors' left eye saw a map of the highway area, with great black rectangles superimposed on it—"the black represents areas where the strike of shells indicate minimum Posleen remaining alive and able to resist."

Connors only had two platoons, really, remaining to him, plus the weapons platoon. The last line unit had been scattered to scout to the flanks or broken up to provide commo for Suarez. The shocked survivors of the flankers—and the casualties among those had been horrendous—were in no shape for the battle and wouldn't be for perhaps days. There were too many holes in the chain of command, too much death, among that platoon.

The destruction visited upon the Posleen, Connors saw, was for the most part oriented along the highway. He assumed the other black rectangles on his map were Posleen assembly areas the pilot overhead had called fire upon. Since the highway was what the 1st Panamanian Mech needed . . .

"B Company, formation is V with weapons at the base and the line platoons to either side of the highway. I'm with weapons. B Company . . . form."

He gave the men a few minutes to settle in to the formation before ordering, "B Company . . . advance."

It was eerie, walking that highway. Smoke lay heavy along the ground. Posleen bodies, and more than a few human ones, littered the path. Many were torn to shreds, chopped up, disemboweled. Others showed not a mark.

Connors passed a tree that had miraculously survived the bombardment. In the tree was a God King, dead. The alien's harness had been ripped off, but it was otherwise untouched save for the tree limb that entered its torso from behind and stuck out, yellow with blood, from its chest. The alien's head hung towards the ground, gracelessly, by its twisted neck.

Shell craters, huge indentations in the earth, pockmarked the landscape. Something nagged at the MI captain. Something . . .

"Pay attention to the shell craters," Connors warned over the general company net. "Don't assume that just because nothing that was in them when they were created has survived that something might not have crawled in afterwards."

A Posleen staggered up out of one, dragging its rear legs behind it. It was just a normal, Connors thought, but no sense taking chances. He raised one arm as if to fire. Automatically a targeting dot appeared over the Posleen, painted on Connors' eye. He fired a short burst and the alien went down, splashing up muddy water that had collected in the crater even in the short time since it had been formed.

From time to time, one of Connors' platoon leaders reported in that "X and such number of Posleen had been sighted, engaged and destroyed at Y and such location" or "Posleen oolt fleeing north" or "south." He took no casualties and, in a very odd and bizarre way, that disturbed him, too.

"Are you guys sure you are seeing absolutely no God Kings? No tenar?"

"Just wrecked ones, Boss . . . only some wrecks, Captain . . . there ain't enough of 'em, even wrecked, to account for the number of other bodies, sir. I don't trust it."

Even so, Connors pushed his company on past the broad area of destruction and into the parts still untouched by the heavy guns. And there were still no God Kings or tenar.

"AID, pass to Suarez that the way seems open."

"Wilco, Captain."

The tracks and trucks were draped with the bodies of the wounded . . . and the dead. Suarez was pleased to see the discipline, that his men were leaving nothing behind for the enemy to eat, even as he was appalled at the cost. Because it wasn't a vehicle here and there covered with bodies. It was every tank, track and truck that passed.

Jesu Cristo, but it's going to be a job rebuilding this division. If we're even allowed to.

Suarez had the devil's own time of it, already, trying to extricate the bloodied scraps from the cauldron. Without the communications advantages—let alone the mobile, armored firepower—given by the MI he didn't think he could have done it at all.

Logically, Suarez knew, he should be having his sergeant major go over those trucks, pulling off some of the walking—even nonwalking—wounded to serve as a "detachment left in contact," or DLIC. These would have been die-in-place troops, left behind to cover the withdrawal of the rump of the division.

I just don't have the heart, I guess. Takes a certain kind of ruthlessness to do that—to even ask that—of men who've already given everything they have.

Cortez remembered his uncle often speaking of the need to be ruthless in politics and in life. Well, now's the time to find out if I am as ruthless as my uncle always wanted me to be.

The Isla del Rey loomed ahead. Cortez's Type-63 light amphibious tank churned its way laboriously toward the island. The big Planetary Defense gun atop the island was silent. And a good thing, too, Cortez thought. The blast might be enough to raise waves big enough to swamp this tank.

But then again, would that really matter?

The crew had not spoken an unnecessary word to Cortez since he had bugged out. Perhaps they thought they were merely showing disapproval. In fact, the effect was to make them even less human and less valuable in Cortez's mind. Thus, faced with the silent treatment, it was easier for him to take the hand grenade he had secreted earlier, remove the safety clip, pull the pin and drop it into the bottom of the turret even as he dove off to swim for the safety of the island.

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