"The other half is that the usual procedure would be to turn over the precise normal that offended," the Kenstain answered. "But in this case, the normal was a special pet. The philosopher would not give it up. The offended Kessentai was adamant. Fighting broke out. It spread like a wildfire among the septs of the clan. The reason it spread, of course, is that we had managed to create our own conditions for a miniature orna'adar, right there on our island. And we had not had time to prepare our escape."
"Oh, demons," said Guanamarioch.
"Right," agreed Ziramoth. "The clan quickly broke into competing factions, all based on that one little spark. Instead of waiting for another clan to nuke our cities we saved them the bother and did it ourselves. Of course, as soon as the conflagration started those normals whose gift it is to build the starships began work instinctively, but it was all they could do to keep, barely, ahead of the destruction. And they never got very far ahead. Of all of our clan who had settled that island, fewer than one in twenty managed to escape. And the scars of the fissuring, brother slaying brother, were too deep to heal. The refugees stayed in the small groups into which they had split. Some were absorbed into other clans, but most went their own way, leaping into the void between the stars even without reconnaissance."
By now the sun had set. Guanamarioch looked down into the stream at the stars reflected therein. Which of them, he asked himself, how many of them have seen our passage since that long ago, terrible time?
"Who was it, Ziramoth? Who was that long ago philosopher who plunged our clan into chaos?"
Now it was the Kenstain who grew silent, staring into the flowing stream at the stars that twinkled there.
His voice, when he answered was full of infinite sadness. "His name was Ziramoth."
This is defeat; avoid it.
—Caption to a painting,
Staff College, Kingston, Ontario
Bijagual, Chiriqui, Republic of Panama
They'd held for a while, there at the bridge before the town of Bijagual. Half of Digna's artillery, firing directly into the cleared kill zone, had stacked the aliens up like cordwood, carpeting field and stream with their bodies and then adding layers of bodies to that carpet. It had become quite a plush pile before the Posleen had learned better and gone searching for the flanks.
Digna had assumed they would go searching for the flanks as she'd assumed they would eventually find them. She had hoped it would have taken a bit longer, long enough to finish burying her dead, at least. That grace the aliens had not given. Before the bodies could be decently interred the frantic calls had come from both flanks. She'd ordered the mortars to give priority of fires to one flank, the SD-44s to another. The guns and mortars had fired off every round that could not be carried out on the long anticipated and planned-for retreat. That artillery fire had helped, but not enough.
She spared barely a glance for the long line of noncombatants trudging the road to Gualaca. Instead, she stood there, at the edge of the long meter-deep trench she'd had dug against this eventuality. Her eyes swept along the length of the trench, fixing in her mind the last few images of some of her most beloved children and grandchildren.
Digna had buried children before, several of them. But they had been only babies, dying—as children in the Third World often do—before she had had a chance to get to know them and love them as individuals. This was in every way worse.
The column of refugees-to-be was mostly silent until Digna ordered the gasoline poured into the trench. At that, with the overpowering smell of the fuel blown across the road by the breeze, the deaths became real. As if the first leaping flames were a signal, a long inarticulate cry of pain and woe arose.
She had not had the heart to order someone else to apply the flame. Instead, a grandson had handed her a lit torch. Almost—almost—she had broken down and wept as she turned her eyes away and tossed the torch into the trench.
Her grandson, the same one as had supplied the torch, touched Digna's shoulder in sympathy. She shrugged it off, bitterly and impatiently.
Voice halfway to breaking, she snarled, "Never mind that. There'll be a time for tears later. Get these people moving."
Her clan and its retainers had retreated with the smell of fuel overlaying that of overdone pork.
Digna had looked upon that pyre exactly once, dry-eyed. It was still not the time for weeping.
Dry-eyed, too, she had prodded, cajoled, and beaten her family toward the northeast. There, all through the night, the lights of the town of Gualaca had served as a beacon. There Digna hoped to find safety, at least for a time. Perhaps there would even be medical care for her wounded kin.
It was not to be. Crossing over the bridge spanning the Rio Chiriqui southwest of the town, Digna had expected to find a defense prepared. What she'd found instead was a town bereft of leadership; the alcalde gone with his family, the militia officers gone with theirs. What was left was not much more than an armed mob without direction.
Direction Digna knew how to provide. She'd taken charge, ordered half a dozen men shot, and formed the rest into a semblance of a defense. With another twenty-four mortars and a dozen SD-44s, plus a fairly generous amount of ammunition, she'd held the bridge and the fords over the Rio Chiriqui for two days. This was long enough, if just barely, to send the noncombatants on foot thirty kilometers up the road northward in the direction of Chiriqui Grande on the Caribbean coast. The vehicles, and there had not been many of them, were commandeered to carry the wounded and the food. The point of that band was just cresting the mountains as the pursuing Posleen again found the fords to turn Digna's flanks. She began another fighting retreat.
The little towns on the way were scooped up, the very young and very old being sent northward, along with most of the women, while the younger men and some of the women were pressed into the fighting arm.
Digna had to order a few more men, and two girls, shot along the way. She'd sent them to their deaths dry-eyed still. I can weep later.
There had been a moment, there where the fighting had been thickest, that Digna had thought with despair that she would not be able to hold, that the aliens would break through to feast on her charges. Then suddenly, as if by a miracle, the aliens' flying sleds had all turned and disappeared southward. She had no idea why, but relished the thought that somewhere they were being badly enough hurt to cause such a change in priorities.
With the disappearance of the flying sleds, the Posleen normals had pulled back. With the terrible pressure from the aliens relieved, Digna was able to pull out her expanded forces mostly intact.
As he was probably her best field man, and perhaps because he was also one of her oldest friends, Tomas Herrera took the point.
Gualaca Bridge, Rio Chiriqui, Republic of Panama
"Demons of Fire, curse the Aldanat' who condemned us to this," whispered the low flying God King, Slintogan, as his tenar skipped over the mounded piles of his people's slain. Scattered among the heaped, yellow, centauroid corpses were more than a few crashed tenar, clear indicators that more than mere normals had fallen trying to force a way across this river.
Internal gasses from decomposition had swelled the bodies, Slintogan noted with disgust. In many cases, the internal pressure had been strong enough to burst abdomens and spill out organs. And then the sun had gone to work; the stench was appalling.
For a moment the God King thought a curse in the general direction of the now escaped threshkreen, not for killing so many of his people, but for allowing so much valuable thresh to be wasted. As it was, with the bodies grown so overripe in the sun, even the normals could not be forced to eat of them.
It was enough to make the hardest heart weep.
But then, this is not the way of the local thresh. I wonder how it would be to grow up and grow old on a planet so abundant, in comparison to its population, that its inhabitants can afford to sneer at nourishing food.
My people, too, might have had such a chance, if those stinking, ignorant players at godhood, the Aldenata, had not meddled. "It's for your own good . . . We know and you know not . . . War is the greatest of scourges . . . Trust and have faith in us."
The God King laughed softly and bitterly. More likely this planet will change its direction of rotation than that a group of do-gooders with the power to meddle will refrain from it. Damn them.
The losses from the attack on the threshkreen ship had been so horrific that Slintogan, normally a leader of about four hundred, had had to bond with four times that many normals left bereft of their Gods. His brother God Kings were equally overtasked.
And the thresh must have a considerable lead by now. "A stern chase is a long chase," as Finegarich the Reaver is reputed to have said.
The God King looked ahead and upward at the mist-shrouded mountains to the north. The road he could barely make out. Even so, he knew the road was there and had no doubt that the thresh who had butchered the People here by this body of flowing water would be fleeing up it.
A long chase and a tiring one. Worse still, a dangerous one as we will never know a moment in advance if the thresh have turned at bay and wait in ambush.
Near Hill 2213, Chiriqui Province, Republic of Panama
The sharp crest of the Cordillera Central loomed in the distance, bare rock surmounted by trees. Sometimes, Digna could catch sight of the walls of the crest, rising vertically over the more gentle slope below. It seemed to her that the rock walls never grew any closer.
The way up was hard, even though the winding, all-weather road was good. More that once Digna, or one of her followers, had to threaten to shoot anyone who refused to keep up. Many of them looked enviously at the horse she sometimes rode but more often led. There was no telling when she would need the horse for a burst to speed to some trouble spot. A rested horse would be capable of that burst where one wearied, even by so slight a load as carrying her ninety-pound frame, might not.
If some looked at Digna's horse with envy it was as nothing compared to the greedy stares that followed the vehicles carrying the wounded, the lame, the infirm and the pregnant. Enough sniveling, or so thought some of the slackers, just might be enough to get a faster and easier ride to safety.
A great-grandson handed Digna a radio, announcing, "It's Señor Herrera, Mamita."
"Si, Tomas. Que quieres?" she answered. What do you want?
"I have a truckload of young men that we stopped," Herrera said, from nearby Edilze's battery position. It was on Edilze's radio that he spoke.
"What are young men doing in a vehicle when we need them to fight? What are young men doing in a vehicle when we have babies being carried and pregnant women and the old and sick still walking?"
Unseen in the distance, Herrera looked over the dozen or so disreputable, bound prisoners standing under guard by the truck from which they had been removed at gun point. He sneered at them as he spoke.
"Dama, they stole the truck and forced out the previous occupants."
Equally unseen by Herrera, Digna's face turned red with rage. Cowardly bastards.
Digna's late husband had once had a solution for criminals who trespassed on his land to commit their crimes. It was a solution much frowned on in more civilized circles but, in the outlying parts of Panama, and especially in earlier days, it had been a solution the implementation of which was unlikely to ever come to light.
"Hang them," she said. "Hang them right beside the road."
Herrera smiled at the twelve—no, it was thirteen—thieves as he took a coil of rope from the horn of his saddle.
He had no clue how to tie a proper hangman's noose. No matter, a simple loop would do well enough. This he made and then tossed the coil over a convenient tree branch. A shudder ran through the truck thieves as the loop arced over the branch and came to rest a few feet off the ground.
Tomas gestured with his chin for one of the prisoners to be brought over.
Hands bound as they were, still the prisoner attempted to wrap his legs around a sapling as two of Herrera's men grabbed him by the arms. A few kicks to his calves and thighs loosened the entwining legs. He began to beg as he was dragged toward the rope, the begging changing to an inarticulate scream as the loop was placed around his neck and half tightened.
"Did the sick and old who were designated to ride that truck plead not to be put off by you and your friends?" Tomas asked conversationally as he adjusted the loop to the neck.
"Please," the thief begged. "Please don't do this. I had a right to live. I have a right to live. Please . . ."
"Haul away," Herrera commanded and the prisoner's previous guards sprang to the rope and began to pull. Once the kicking feet were a meter off the ground he told them to tie the rope off, cut it and bring him the remainder . . . and more rope.
The gagging and kicking of the first had not stopped before the second, too, was elevated. In all it took Herrera almost an hour before all thirteen thieves were strung up and dead—or nearly so, a few pairs of feet still twitched. The bodies swayed gently in the wind, the smell of shit from loosened sphincters wafting on the breeze.
There's a stinging advertisement for social responsibility, Herrera thought.
From her vantage point, hidden behind a large rock and some vegetation, Digna could make out the pursuing Posleen through her army issue field glasses. The aliens seemed to her to be hesitant, much more so than they had been during the assault on the bridges by Bijagual and Gualaca. Too, she noted, there seemed to be many fewer of their damned flying sleds. Lastly, from what she could tell, the aliens seemed . . . somehow . . . clumsy. Not that they were clumsy as individuals, no, but they seemed clumsy as groups, as if their leadership were being strained to the limits.
"Something has hurt them badly, after all," she whispered to herself. "Blessings on whoever or whatever it was."
Slower the aliens were. For all that, they were still moving quicker than her column of refugees. They had to be slowed down.
"But where?" she asked herself. Then she closed her eyes and tried to envision the whole area around the road and the pass behind her.
South of where the road wound across the mountains was a military crest, so called because it would allow long fields of grazing fire downward and long-range observation. The road itself S-turned through a pass carved out of the mountain rock through the topographical crest, the actual summit of the rise. To either side of that narrow pass rock walls rose vertically, occasional stunted trees clinging to their tiny crevasses and ledges.
The aliens aren't built to climb those walls, Digna thought, not even with all their strength. Their sleds could get over but they'd do so without the supporting fires of the rest of their horde. That would make them easy meat for my boys.
Digna looked again at the rock walls. She found no place for a horse, even one aided by arms, to surmount the crest. But I can send people up. A tough climb, yes, but not impossible for human beings.
She mounted her horse and began forcing it through the still teeming column of refugees. It was especially difficult in the narrow pass, which was only a bit wider than the two lane highway through it. On the far—northern—side Digna found essentially what she had expected to see, a mirror image of the southern face.
The only difference is that the aliens are trying to climb while our people are trying to descend.
Digna tried to think back to what her instructors had said about the three types of crests. The military crest isn't worth much, not with the trees in the way, she thought. The great thing about the reverse crest is that I can cover the pass and road from it, while the aliens can't shoot our escaping people from the rear as long as we hold it. And inside that pass we can butcher them with the mortars . . . as long as the ammunition holds out, anyway. We can, I hope we can, buy enough time for the refugees to make it to the coast, to Chiriqui Grande where they might be able to escape by sea.
With those factors in mind, Digna began to make her plans.
Chiriqui Grande, Bocas del Toro Province, Republic of Panama
The sign outside the abandoned school proclaimed, "Tactical Operations Center, 10th United States Infantry Regiment (Apaches)."
Standing in the schoolyard, Preiss contemplated the curious things soldiers, who—as a class—tended to have no fixed home, would do to give the impressions and sensations of normalcy to create one. The sign was one such example. There had been no particularly good reason to bring it, absolutely no reason to make it the number one priority—well, tied for number one along with setting up the radios—in establishing the TOC, yet there it stood, even while the long-range antennas were still being erected. Preiss could only account for it by the need for soldiers, as people, to have someplace called home, with the trappings of home.
Preiss looked at the sign again, shook his head and entered the former schoolhouse turned tactical operations center. Inside he removed his helmet—useless thing really, given the enemy's weaponry—and ran his fingers through sweat-soaked hair. His eyes wandered over the map, tracing not only the positions of his forward units but also the positions of the landing craft from the 1097th Boat that were bringing in the rest of the troops of the regiment, their supplies, and their vehicles. The landing craft came in full of troops and gear and left crammed to the gunwales with anything up to five hundred civilians each, fleeing the oncoming horde. Curiously, thought Preiss, not a single one had yet called out "Gringos go home."
The thing is, Preiss mourned, we don't have the first goddamned idea of what's ahead of us. My RPVs lasted maybe two minutes after cresting the Continental Divide. My lead scouts are still struggling up the jungle slopes. Well, he corrected, not "no idea." I know there are about ten or fifteen thousand more civilians heading this way, refugees from the debacle in Chiriqui Province.
"XO," Preiss said, "I'm taking my Hummer and heading north. Keep in touch. You're in charge until I get back."
Intersection, Continental Divide–highway to Chiriqui Grande
Her horse was behind her, hidden among some loose boulders remaining from when the pass and road had been excavated. Digna, herself, lay forward, between two rocks, looking south through her binoculars.
Instead of leading, Digna saw, the alien flying sleds were following the mass of the ground-bound ones that first surmounted the southern military crest. The sleds fired occasionally, but only at the rear of the groups of the ground bound, as if driving them forward. With her field glasses to her eyes she scanned the Posleen on the leading edge of the wave. She'd seen their faces—similar faces, anyway—many times on the long march back from her home. They had struck her, before, as fierce, threatening and confident, to the extent one could read confidence on such a strange visage.
Somehow, they didn't look confident anymore. Neither did they seem particularly fierce.
They're frightened, she decided. They look just like rats caught in a trap. Or maybe like wild animals caught in a drive. Hmmmm.
Keeping low, Digna crawled back to her horse. The dirt, rock and asphalt were a pain to her breasts and belly but not so bad as a railgun shot would have been. Reaching the horse, she led it a few score meters through the pass and then mounted it, riding hell for leather for the northern military crest along which she had strung about half of her armed and able defenders.
Digna had exactly four working radios now, including those she had scavenged in Gualaca. Two of these were with the marksmen she had stationed to either side, east and west, of the highway. These had settled in among the trees and rocks atop the crest, protected from a ground assault by the sheer rock walls rising above the gentler slope below. The third radio was back with Edilze and the artillery and mortars. Digna had the fourth, waiting with yet another descendant by a sheltered spot more or less by the road that she had picked for her command post.
At that ad hoc command post Digna dismounted hastily and passed her reins to an armed thirteen-year-old great-great-granddaughter, waiting for just that purpose. The girl led the horse away as quickly as she was able to behind the shelter of the northern military crest. There the girl would wait, rifle in hand, until either her clan chief came to take the horse or the aliens overran her.
From behind the shelter of a bush, Digna looked out to where the road broke free of the artificially widened pass. The ground bound aliens entered the pass tentatively and fearfully. Followed by their God King, the normals crept through, and then began to spread out once they reached the northern side.
Digna waited until one of the aliens' flying sleds was into the open, behind what looked to be a thousand or so of the others.
Calling her forward subordinates by name she ordered, "Jose, Pedro . . . kill the God Kings. Now."
Within scant seconds a few shots from the crest were joined by dozens, then hundreds, then thousands. Through her binoculars Digna saw the one sled that had come through the pass swept by a massive fusillade. Bullets sparked where they struck alien metal. In a few moments the God King riding the sled was riddled. The rifle fire continued, however, as men posted along the east-west running treeline continued to engage the few God Kings driving normals forward, south of the pass.
From her own position, centered on her line, Digna shouted, "One magazine. Open fire."
The Posleen didn't even return fire. Less still did they charge. Instead, with their point elements falling in shrieking agony and the strange thresh projectiles whistling around their ears, the bulk of the aliens turned and ran back through the pass from which they had come.
"Cease fire," Digna shouted, the cry taken up and passed on by her underlings.
Turning to the nearest of her platoon leaders Digna then gave the order, "Take your men out and finish off the wounded. Carefully."
Preiss had expected to have to fight a human wave of panicked civilians on his way up the winding road. Instead, he was surprised to see them walking calmly, in good order, and parting to leave a path for his Hummer as he approached. He smiled, more than a little pleased, to hear the murmuring, "Gracias a Dios. Los gringos son aqui." Thank God; the gringos are here.
It was only a few minutes more travel before Priess understood the reason, or at least a substantial part of the reason, for the unexpected order and discipline of the refugees. Rounding a bend in the highway he came upon three men, kicking a few feet above the ground. A small, tough-looking crew of Panamanians watched them die, keeping onlookers at a distance. No sign proclaimed the crime for which the men were being hanged, but the fact that some very young and very old were being loaded onto a small pickup nearby suggested to Preiss the reason.
One of the tough-looking Panamanians, the eldest of the crew, detached himself and walked over to Preiss's Hummer, a young boy in tow.
Through the boy he announced to Preiss, "Looters and thieves. They bring disorder and endanger better people than themselves. So . . . the rope."
Preiss just shrugged. Whatever worked, worked. None of his business.
"I'm Colonel James W. Preiss, United States Tenth Infantry out of Fort Davis. And you would be, sir?"
Still through the young translator, Tomas Herrera introduced himself, adding, "Senior Vaquero to the lady, Digna Miranda. The lady is back there," his head twitched back toward the pass, "holding off the centaurs."
"Do you have any word on what's going on back there?" asked Preiss.
Herrera shook his head in the negative. "There were only the four radios. The lady needed them all back there. She trusted me," he added, not without some pride, "to see these through to safety."
Preiss thought there was another sentence Herrera thought but failed to add. But I would rather be back there, with her, fighting.
Preiss snapped his fingers at a private riding in the back of his open-topped Hummer. The private, whose job it was to update the colonel's map, handed the map over.
"Señor Herrera, can you tell me what I will find up ahead?"
Slintogan pounded the control column of his tenar, fuming with an outrage he had nothing and no one to vent upon. The Kessentai he had sent forward with this first probe of the pass were dead. The normals were too stupid to give any account of what had happened. All he knew was what he had seen and heard for himself: hidden threshkreen had killed the God Kings bringing up the rear of the probe and a sudden fusillade had driven the normals on point into a panic-stricken flight.
Fuming still, he contemplated the natural obstacle to his front. Were it lower, he would simply clear away the threshkreen with concentrated fire from plasma cannon. But the angle here was all wrong for that.
"And the blasted tenar will only float so far up," he cursed. "They might make it, some of the newer ones, but alone, without ground support, they'd be abat bait. And it would take cycles and cycles to blast away all that rock. And I do not have cycles."
More of the same then, only much more of the same. One nail will drive the other. And it isn't like we have any shortage of normals to feed into the grinder.
Forcefully, Slintogan issued his orders to the several dozen Kessentai hovering, clustered, nearby. If he couldn't get a direct line of fire to clean off the summit with plasma fire, he could at least have the treetops blasted, and probably set them alight. Fifteen of his God Kings had that task. This time, instead of a mere five to drive the normals forward, he would use four times as many, plus a few. Even if he lost some that should leave enough to ensure that the drive didn't lose momentum.
Of course, momentum of the nestling into the preserved-nestling-in-an-intestine-casing grinder is, from the nestling's point of view, not a particularly good thing.
The aliens still looked frightened, in Digna's binoculars, but they looked perhaps a little more determined too.
This one is going to be tougher, she thought.
At that point, the sky was lit by dozens of plasma bolts, streaking across. Most hit the treetops, which began to burn.
"We have to pull back one hundred meters, Mamita," said one of her grandsons over the radio. "It's too hot, literally too hot, to stay here."
"One hundred meters," Digna agreed. "No more. And be prepared to reoccupy on the double."
"Edilze, this is Abuela. Are you ready to fire?"
The young granddaughter—well, she was young to Digna for all that Edilze was just into middle age—answered as well, "Si, Mamita."
"What's your time of flight again?" Digna asked.
"Thirty-seven seconds from you giving the command to impact," Edilze answered.
"Fine. I want your ammunition bearers standing by with rounds in their hands for when I call."
"They already are, Mamita."
Digna smiled, briefly, at the calm in her granddaughter's voice. Edilze was one of the good ones.
The thought was interrupted by an eruption of rifle fire from her line. The oncoming horde had reached maximum effective engagement range, about five hundred meters for targets as large as the centaurs, as closely packed together as they were. They were falling almost as fast as they were advancing. Return fire seemed to be going high, for the most part. Maybe they needed closer supervision from their God Kings to use their railguns accurately. Digna didn't know. In any case, she heard few human screams of pain or calls for "Medic!"
"Edilze, Abuela. Give me thirty rounds. Fire."
"Roger, Mamita. Firing now."
Digna thought she felt the firing of the heavy mortars far to the rear. Certainly, she wouldn't actually hear them for several seconds more. She shouted out some encouragement to her troops, and gathered two clackers for the gringo-provided claymore mines that fronted her troops' firing line. Mentally she counted down, "Thirty-five . . . thirty-four . . . thirty-three . . ."
The Posleen must be terribly close, she felt. Two of the militia flanking her ceased fire for a moment to fix their bayonets. Digna risked a look over the parapet fronting the enemy and saw that the lead aliens were, indeed, no more than seventy-five meters away, falling almost as fast as they closed. The key word, of course, was "almost."
Still counting, "Eleven . . . ten . . . nine . . ." she squeezed the clackers.
Instantly, thirty-four claymores detonated, sending nearly twenty-four thousand ball bearings screaming into the Posleen. For a brief moment, the alien advance stopped cold. In this respite, the firing from Digna's defenders picked up again, seeking out lone aliens through the smoke of the claymores' blasts.
"Five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . ."
Ahead, in the pass, heavy mortar shells began exploding right in among the tightly pressed normals. Their own shattered bones added to the flying debris that felled the aliens, right and left.
The mortar fire lasted only for a few seconds, yet in those seconds a gap was opened up between the Posleen nail and the other nails driving it.
In that pause, while stunned and confused normals milled about over the entrails of their peers, Digna stood up, rifle in hand.
Ostentatiously unsheathing a bayonet to show what she wanted her children, real and adopted, to do, she affixed it to the front of her rifle.
"Fix bayonets . . . Chaaarge!" she screamed, launching her less-than-five-foot frame forward.
With an inarticulate cry, her children leapt forward as well. They soon overtook their tiny commander, reaching the confused Posleen well before she did. As stunned as they were, and terrified by thresh that fought back, the Posleen barely resisted. A few tried to fight and were gunned or stabbed down. Others stood there, helpless, while bayonets sought out their vitals.
The bulk of them ran like nestlings from the sausage maker, pouring into the gap created by the one short blast of intense mortar fire. At the gap, the lead Posleen in the rout ran head on into the next wave following. Instead of being forced back into the fray, however, the routers simply barreled into their fellows, bellowing, snarling, scratching, biting and slashing to get away from the little demons that followed on their heels.
The panic spread from there as the lead elements of the next Posleen wave caught it from their routing fellows. They turned about, and in turning, turned still others. In moments the entire leaderless mess was racing headlong toward the Pacific Ocean, just visible to the south.
South of the pass Slintogan's crest sagged.
"Demons of shit and fire," he whispered, "but I hate these humans."
Using the communication device on his tenar, he ordered his God Kings to fall back as well. There would be no stopping this rout until the normals had exhausted themselves, and that would not happen for hours. No sense in wasting his few intelligent and well armed followers on what was, for now, a hopeless endeavor.
Tomorrow. We'll try again tomorrow.
To the north, Preiss made a call back to his TOC, at Chiriqui Grande. The troops were landing in mass now, trucks rolling from the landing craft one after another. The S-4, his logistics officer, was organizing the regimental trucks to begin moving the troops forward tonight. By morning, so he was told, the regimental artillery, a battery of 105 millimeter guns, would be in position to support all the way to Hill 2213 and a few kilometers past.
Someone, that old woman Herrera had mentioned, so Preiss supposed, was still holding the pass, it seemed. The steadily streaming refugees confirmed this. Preiss could only be impressed. He pictured in his mind some tough ancient crone, bent over and walking with the aid of a cane. She must be one tough old bird, to be hanging on this long, with scrapings and cast offs. I hope we can get there by tomorrow.
In the dark tropical night Digna passed off control of the mortars to her two groups of sentinels on either side of the pass. She'd have given her newly reborn virginity in a heartbeat for some of the light amplifying or thermal sights the gringos had in such abundance. But, though the Norteamericanos had been fairly generous to Panama, most of what had been gifted had gone to the regulars, not little bands of militia like hers. In her illicit trading she had almost, but not quite, managed to secure a brace of the larger night vision devices for her battery.
I should have met those black market bastards' price, she fumed silently.
A freight train racket rattled by overhead, followed by a hollow pop. The pop was followed in turn by a fluting sound as the casing of a mortar illumination round slid off of a shell and rotated down to the ground. A few seconds later it impacted with an audible thud. At about the same time the illumination shell's parachute deployed and the flare lit upon a scene of utter frightfulness, massed ranks of Posleen moving into an assault position. They filled the landscape as far as the eye, aided by aerial flare, could see.
A plaintive voice came from her radio. "Mamita, there's a sea of them out there, just forming up in rectangles and going to sleep on their feet. Can't I please use some HE on them?"
Digna thought about that. Does it make a bit of difference if we kill some now? Does it matter if we cost them some sleep or make them move a bit? Somehow, I think not. Better things to use the shells on. Better times to use them. Like tomorrow, at first light, just before they move into the attack.
Into her radio she answered, firmly, "No. We'll hit them in the morning. Just use the illumination rounds—and use them sparingly—to keep track of where they are for the mortars. At an hour before first light"—she had never quite gotten around to explaining the concept of Beginning of Morning Navigable Twilight to her girls and boys so "an hour before first light" would have to do—"we'll hit them where they're assembled. It ought to buy us some more time and kill a fairly large number of the swine."
"Si, Abuela," the young man on the other end answered. "I'm sending coordinates to Edilze as I identify them."
"Good man, Grandson. Your abuela is proud of you. Let me know if they begin to stir."
"Mamita, it's time," the boy announced, handing a cup of steaming coffee to Digna as she sat abruptly upright. She looked around, guiltily, before fixing her eyes on her great-grandson's dim face. Nothing untoward. Good. At least I didn't make any noise. Either that, or the boy's too polite to let me know he knows. Damn these hormones, anyway.
She took the coffee, sipped at it, then rubbed some of the caked crud from her eyes. She looked around at her surroundings. Still darker than three feet up a well digger's ass at midnight. Also good.
Digna consulted her watch, an incongruous dainty, gold thing; a gift from her husband on their fiftieth anniversary. She'd been dreaming of her wedding night when the boy had roused her. . . .
No time for that now.
"Radio," she ordered, and the boy passed over the handset.
"Edilze, this is Abuela, over."
"Here, Abuela," the radio came back, instantly. Yes, Edilze is one of the good ones.
"Ammunition status, over?" Digna asked.
"Sixty-two rounds illumination; six hundred thirty-seven rounds high explosive."
"Firing status, over?"
"I've preplanned thirty-three targets plus almost continuous illumination until the sun rises," the granddaughter answered. "Three of the targets are the center of the pass and two hundred meters north and south of it."
"Good, wait, over. Group one, group two, Abuela, over."
"Here, Mamita," "Aqui, Abuela," came the answers.
"Rouse your people, then stand by to adjust fires. Abuela, out."
Digna stood and looked left and right. There was movement there, to both sides, as her people roused themselves from slumber and resumed their defensive positions. She passed the word by runner to either side to stand to and be ready.
When she was certain her people were as ready as they would be she rekeyed the radio microphone and ordered, "Edilze, Abuela. Commence firing."
Preiss jerked awake as the still jungle air was rent by repeated explosions. He'd had no idea that there was a mortar position nearby when he'd ordered his driver to pull over the night before. Now there could be no doubt of it as the muzzle flash of multiple firing mortars lit the area like a strobe light.
"What the fuck? Rodriguez," he ordered his driver, "go over to that gun position and find out what's happening."
The driver "yessirred" and took off at a lope, rifle carried loosely in his left hand.
Preiss then called the truck column by radio and asked their position. Under his flashlight, he saw on the map that they were no more than three kilometers behind him.
"Wake their asses up and get them moving," he ordered. "Now. I'll meet them on the road."
He called for his S-2, or Intelligence Officer. "Where are the scouts?"
"Boss, they're about two kilometers short of the summit. I held them up after sundown, rather then send them into a firefight with mixed Posleen and friendlies."
Preiss chewed on the inside of his cheek for a moment.
"I'm not sure you did right, but I'm not sure you did wrong. In any case, get 'em moving again. What's their ETA at the pass?"
"Three hours . . . maybe four," the S-2 returned. "The jungle's a bitch up that way."
"Push them," Preiss insisted.
The driver, Rodriguez, returned. Breathlessly he said, "Sir, there's eight heavy mortars there in a large pasture. Woman in charge—handsome woman, sir, you oughta see—says they're doing a 'countapddepp.' Sir, what's a 'countapddepp'?"
Preiss mentally translated—"counter-preparation"—and answered, "A damned smart move, sometimes."
* * *
Slintogan's Artificial Sentience beeped, then announced, "Incoming fires."
"Lord, I have twenty-seven . . . no, thirty-six . . . no, forty-two . . . no . . . Lord, I have a demon-shit-pot full of shells coming in at high angle. Impact in . . . five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . . one. Impact."
Overhead one of the dirty threshkreen artificial stars burst into flame, illuminating the scene nearly as brightly as day, but with an evil yellow light that moved and, as it did, made the shadows creep across the landscape. Simultaneously, seven, then fourteen, then twenty-one explosions blossomed in and around one of his larger gatherings of normals.
The normals, awakened in such a horrid manner, began to bleat and scream, searching frantically about them for the source of the danger. Not finding one, a few began to fight amongst themselves. That oolt began to break up, the efforts of its one God King to keep his charges in good order turning futile fast.
That God King called his chief, Slintogan, pleading for assistance in controlling his herd. Even as the senior Kessentai was forming an answer, the threshkreen fires shifted suddenly onto a different group as a second "star shell" burst into light overhead. The God King in command of that oolt not only had more warning but was made of sterner stuff as well. He blasted down any of his normals who so much as looked ready to bolt. This kept the mass of the aliens in formation right until one 120mm shell landed directly on the God King's tenar. This not only blasted the Kessentai into yellow mist and bits no more than hand sized, it also caused the containment field of the tenar's power source to collapse. The oolt didn't break under that semi-nuclear blast; it was incinerated.
With only the briefest delay, the threshkreen fires shifted yet again to hammer a third band. This one, like the first, began to come apart and nothing its leader could do would stem the flood to the rear.
The senior Posleen communicator beeped twice. "Slintogan, we can't just sit here and take this. The normals are going feral."
Slintogan considered simply abandoning the field to the threshkreen, pulling back out of range of their cowardly weapons as yet another oolt began to disintegrate.
No, this is not the way of the People. We attack!
* * *
The air was split with a cacophony of competing sounds: the roars and snarls of the Posleen, creeping ever closer, the screams of the human defenders as the Posleen fire sought and found them out, the splitting of branches and trees as railgun and plasma fire struck, and the steady drumming of overheated machine guns sweeping the deadly ground north of the pass with fire.
The attack showed no signs of abating. The Posleen crawled over their own wounded and dead to get at the humans, dying as they did so. Still, more came to replace the fallen and to re-lay the already thick carpet of broken, bleeding bodies on either side of, and within, the pass.
A radio call came from Edilze, back with the mortars, her voice breaking with sadness. "Abuela, I'm nearly out of ammunition for the mortars."
That call was death, Digna knew. Her men and boys—and, yes, girls—had only held on so far with the support of the heavy mortars firing steadily from the rear. Without that, they would not last five minutes against a full charge.
Grabbing a packable radio from the back of his Hummer and weaving his left arm through one of the straps, Preiss turned away from the vehicle just as the first of his companies—truck mounted—reached him. He held up a fist for the trucks to hold up along the road. Then he looked to where the sound of mortar fire, heavy all morning, was beginning to abate. Muttering a curse he began to force his way through the thick jungle growth toward the clearing his driver had told him of. There he observed a short, dark woman pointing at a mortar, its overheated barrel steaming in the wet air. The woman's long, midnight black hair hung down limply behind her.
"Numero dos . . . fuego."
The woman seemed to be silently counting off the seconds until continuing, "Numero tres . . . fuego."
Yes, this was a bad sign, especially when fighting against the Posleen. Preiss swept his eyes over the scene, taking in the small piles of mortar ammunition remaining and matching them against the rather large piles of waste from used ammunition, opened boxes and cast-off, tarred cardboard cylinders.
Yep, they're fucked.
Preiss detached the microphone from a rectangular ring on the radio's backpack, pressing the push-to-talk button as it reached his mouth.
"This is Six. I need ten tons worth of 120mm mortar ammunition at . . ." He consulted his map, and gave off the six digit grid of the nearest point along the road to the clearing. "I'll meet the trucks there."
"Be a couple of hours, Six," the S-4 answered. "The road's become a crawling nightmare of a jam, with our trucks and the refugees all mixed in. The only way I can get you that ammunition is to take it from our own guns."
"Fuck!" Preiss exclaimed, though not into the radio. Then, again keying the mike, he said, "Do the best you can. And keep me posted."
"There is some good news, Six. The regimental battery is almost ready to fire on the crest and a bit beyond. They're breaking down the ammunition now."
"How do you know?" Preiss asked.
"I'm with them now, about fifteen klicks north of you," the S-4 answered.
"Roger. Let me know the minute the guns are ready to fire."
"Wilco, Six." I will comply.
Seeing there was nothing to be done for the Panamanian mortars beyond whatever encouragement seeing a gringo officer nearby might provide—damned little, Preiss was sure—he turned back towards his vehicle.
When he reached the Hummer a half dozen officers and a first sergeant were standing by. They saluted as their commander announced, "Mad Dog Alpha, sir, ready for duty."
Preiss thought for perhaps half a second and ordered, "Back to your vehicles. Blow your horns like speeding drunks. I'll lead. We're going to charge like lunatics until we reach the last possible dismount point. Then we're going straight into the attack to clear and hold that pass. Any questions?"
A couple of the men gulped. One paled a bit. The first sergeant just bent over slightly and spat tobacco juice on the ground.
"Right. No questions." Priess pumped his right fist in the air, twice. "Let's go then, motherfuckers!" he cheered.
* * *
Both of her flanking machine guns were down now, their crews overrun and butchered. Digna didn't know whether they had been manned by her own, or by the many auxiliaries she had press ganged in Gualaca. On the other hand, did that really matter? They were all hers by now.
She'd pulled her remaining troops into a shallow upside down "U." Less than half remained now after the latest Posleen assault. From this "U" more machine guns continued to rake the pass.
Not enough though. Never enough. They're still coming through.
We're going to die, Digna thought, sadly. And I have failed.
From behind her, Digna heard a cacophony of blaring car or truck horns. She wondered, briefly, whether Tomas Herrera had sent the trucks back to get her and her militia. If he had, he was going to get the sharp end of her tongue . . . if she lived . . . which she wouldn't, trucks or no.
A camouflage-clad body flopped into the hole next to her. Digna gaped at the strange apparition: a gringo, young-seeming, but with the collar eagle of a senior officer, a colonel, she thought.
The gringo smiled warmly. "Colonel James Preiss, señorita," the gringo confirmed. "Can you tell me where I can find the commander here? I understand she is an old woman."
Digna shook her head slowly, speechless. A sudden rise in the rate of fire to her flanks and front caused her to look up over her parapet until the gringo's strong hand grasped her shoulder and pulled her back to cover. It was as well that he did because moments later artillery began falling to her front at a rate that suggested a bottomless pit of shells. Shell shards whirred overhead like a swarm of maniac mosquitoes on a four day bender.
The gringo risked a quick glance over the parapet, ducked back down and spoke a few commands into the radio he carried on his back. The shells began walking away from the tip of Digna's "U" and toward the pass. At the same time the rate of rifle and machine gun fire, coming mostly from the flanks, began to pick up.
When Digna saw the gringo colonel lift his head again over the parapet and leave it there she joined him. Yes, there was danger of a stray or aimed Posleen round, but that was just part of the job.
From her vantage point she saw, as she doubted the Posleen could see, shadowy figures moving, professionally, from tree to tree and rock to rock. The men, gringos of course, kept up a steady drumbeat of fire, some shooting from cover as others moved. In the center, first hammered by gringo artillery then slashed from the flanks by gringo machine guns, the Posleen were reeling back toward the pass.
She didn't know what the words meant, but she plainly recognized the tone, when a single Norteamericano, from somewhere on the right, called out, "Mad Dog, muthafuckas. Mad Daawwwggg."
At least a hundred gringo voices joined in: "Woofwoofwoofwoofwoof . . . yipyipyipyipyip . . . ahhhrooooo!"
Digna's mouth opened, slackly, as she turned away to the north. Suddenly weak, she let her back slide down the dirt of the parapet, her untucked uniform shirt moving up and allowing dirt to gather on her back. She closed her eyes and whispered a prayer to the God she believed had saved her and her people.
Chuckling over the "Mad Dog"—spirited troops were such a joy to command!—Preiss asked again, "Can you direct me to your leader, miss?"
Not quite understanding, Digna answered, "Somewhere in Panama City or eaten by now, señor."
"No, no," Preiss corrected. "I mean your leader here."
"Oh," she said, wearily. "That is me."
"You?" Preiss tried, and failed, to keep the incredulity from his voice.
Digna nodded her red head a few times, then elaborated, "Lieutenant Digna Miranda, Panama Defense Forces, Chiriqui Militia. Me," she concluded.
Preiss, slightly embarrassed, looked once more over the parapet. The Posleen lay thick in bleeding, broken heaps. The limbs of some still moved and twitched, their owners mewling piteously. At least, they twitched and moaned until some soldier put a merciful round into them. Taking it all in, he whistled, knowing that by far the bulk of the destruction was due to this little red-haired Panamanian girl and not to his well equipped, superbly trained regular line infantry regiment.
"Well, it's over now, Lieutenant Miranda. We'll take over from here. Your people are safe."
Safe? Digna repeated, mentally. My people are safe? More than half of my people are dead, gringo, dead and—the most of them—eaten.
She felt the beginnings of a tear forming in one eye. In a moment it had become a flood as the old woman rocked back and forth, sobbing, "Mis hijos, mis hijos."
Now, finally, it was a time she could cry. In the gringo colonel's enveloping arms, she did.