Months had passed. Digna had measured the time, for a time, by the passage of flesh from the bones that hung impaled on a stake overlooking the old golf course and the tent city it contained. The birds had stopped coming now, though; there was not a shred of meat left for them on what had once been what some would have called a man. She'd gone back to the calendar.
Digna had few enough men left. Even the boys had been culled by the long, fearful flight over the mountains. She had quite a few women left though, several thousand, and enough men to do some of the more serious heavy lifting.
She had an artillery regiment now, not just a motley collection of lightly armed militia. She also had, and these were new, ninety-six Czech-built versions of the BM-21 multiple rocket launchers to add to the gringo-supplied 105s her women had been given shortly after the trek from Chiriqui. The Czech model had three big advantages. For one thing, they were dirt cheap, even as compared to her old, obsolescent, 85mm guns. At least as important, they each carried an automated extra load for the launch tubes, so that instead of taking ten minutes out from firing to reload it could be done by machine, once anyway, in less than one. Of course, that didn't help at all after the second volley. But, since the reload mechanism returned to a position both lower and parallel to the ground, instead of high and at an incline like the more usual BM-21, it made it much easier for her women to reload. Despite their lesser upper body strength, with the aid of the reloading mechanism, she was able to get her all-girl crews up to a volley every eight minutes.
Of course, she had driven them like pack mules, abused pack mules at that, to get to that level. She'd driven them until they vomited and fainted. A few she had driven to death. Behind her back they cursed her, even—perhaps especially—those related by blood. She knew they did. She also knew that when they thought of going further than simply damning her to hell, a quick glance at the fleshless corpse on the stake was enough, more than enough, to dissuade them from more.
She was up and about on her own now, bruises long faded away and the little breaks healed. Of course, that was only the physical. Inside she was scarred and she knew it. She might look only eighteen, as long as one kept one's gaze from her too old and too knowing eyes. Inside though, she was a long, hard century old, that century capped with a beating and multiple—however many, she didn't know—rapes.
That gave her a cold, hard edge that even her previous experience of battle, childbirth, child death, and the loss of the only man she had ever willingly bedded with had not. She had not yet ordered anyone impaled, or even shot or hanged, for failure to drill until they dropped, but no one doubted that she would at the drop of a hat if she felt the need. And the hat she dropped would likely be her own.
"They would do even better with music," Digna's advisor for the BM-21s, Colonel Alexandrov, commented.
Digna, without taking her cold and knowing eyes from the drilling women, asked, "Why do you think so?"
"Human nature," the Russian answered simply. "Human female nature, especially, Coronel Mirandova. Music makes the work lighter. Music lifts the heart. Music times the motions for smooth flow."
"I have been partial to American rock since the early 1950s," Digna admitted. "But I have a hard time seeing it used to time military motions."
"Almost anything with a beat will do," Alexandrov responded. "Care to experiment?"
This time Digna did look at the Russian, seeing he had an old style cassette tape held in his fingers. She looked up at the huge but dimly seen speakers mounted to the walls of the post headquarters.
"Sure. Give it a try."
Santiago, Veraguas, Republic of Panama
The air was full of the plastic and solvent reek of high explosives. It thrummed with the sound of machinery, heavy and light, being used to form defensive weapons some called "illegal."
Boyd wore a hard hat, civilian white, on his guided tour. The old and formerly secret landmine plant was back in full operation, he was pleased to see. Not only that, the products they were putting out now were far superior to the crude and primitive things he had once had them assembling here.
He had told the Euros and the International Criminal Court to go straight to hell. Machinery he had purchased from the United States and Italy which, despite having signed the landmine ban, had a lot of the old plastic-forming equipment lying around.
The mines now were better, though: little four-ounce plastic toe-poppers suitable for splitting a Posleen's leg from claw to spur, Bouncing Betties that would be propelled upwards a meter before detonating to spread a scythe of steel ball bearings over three hundred and sixty degrees, and MONS, very large directional mines built to a Russian design. There was also a model of mine armed or disarmed by radio control; the brainchild of a gringo tracked-vehicle mechanic who had thought long on the problem of how to get across the extensive minefields without leaving passable gaps for the Posleen to get through in the first place. Best of all, the Americans had provided a number—a large number—of their own "Bouncing Barbies," so called because they would cut one off at the knees. They worked by first bouncing into the air and then creating an infinitely thin "force field" around them. They used a human variant of an Indowy technology, one of the few humans had been able to crack (and that had been by purest mischance). The Barbies would bounce and cut again and again and again until either destroyed or their on-board charges ran out.
Watching a truck being loaded with mines before it was dispatched to reinforce one or another of the strongpoints and defensive lines being constructed, Boyd exclaimed, "Fuck the lawyers!"
"Señor Dictador?" asked the plant manager.
"Fuck 'em all, I say. Fuck all those who think that law they made for us, never what we make for ourselves, is somehow stronger than life."
"Well . . . but, of course, señor. Fuck all the lawyers indeed."
"You know the plan for evacuation?" Boyd queried.
"Yes, we will produce as much as we can using three shifts a day until the aliens begin their next attack. Then we evacuate to the east after burying all the machinery. After we win," the man sounded more confident than Boyd felt, "we come back and reopen for business."
"It is critical," Boyd cautioned, "that the machinery be preserved; we won't be able to get any more any time soon."
"I understand that, sir. So do my people."
"It is also critical that you move out at the first sign of an approaching attack. The roads must be clear for the mechanized divisions to get through the Nata line. If it comes down to it, I need them even more than I need the people who run this plant. If you're not off the road . . ."
The manager shivered slightly. "I understand, sir. We will move at the first sign."
"Very good," Boyd said, reaching up to squeeze the manager's shoulder fraternally. "See that you do."
San Pedro Line, Republic of Panama
Crews of men with shovels supplemented the scarce bulldozers and backhoes excavating the earth and filling the air with its fresh-turned smell as well as with the stink of diesel.
The swarthy, short and stocky Panamanian first sergeant shouted, "Hump it, you scrofulous bastards, hump it!"
Like ants, perhaps even like Posleen, a swarm of Panamanian infantry pulled on ropes dragging a wrecked armored vehicle, a boxy American M-113 in this case, to a position near the forward line. Another group, smaller, pushed the vehicle from the rear.
The purpose of moving the wrecks was disinformation. The Posleen were going to attack and the Panamanians were, by plan, going to run. But not all Posleen were stupid. If the retreat didn't look enough like a rout, they might grow suspicious. Suspicion, even with a stupid species, might lead to noses being stuck in places they were unwelcome. Hence, the liberal placement of wrecks.
With a final grunt the towing crew strained the burned-out M-113 into a shallowly dug, revetted position. The pusher crew leapt back as the vehicle passed its center of mass, tipped forward and splashed into the mud. The pushers then regrouped and gave the thing a final shove into a realistic position.
Seemingly satisfied, the pusher group then started to walk away, high-fiving hands and slapping backs.
The first sergeant called a halt. Then, with the men standing around in mild confusion, he walked over and inspected the vehicle from all sides, making note of the hole that passed through the right front quarter and out the floor of the hull near the left rear. Hmmmm. Never do. Can't count on the Posleen not noticing that the berm is unmarked where the missile should have passed through.
Impatiently the first sergeant beckoned over the leader of the pusher group. "Do you see that hole, Sergeant Quijana?" the primero queried, pointing with a short stick.
"What happens when you line up this entrance hole and the exit hole?" the first asked.
Curiously, the junior sergeant walked over and bent down, trying to line up the two. "Can't see it, Primero; this dirt's in the way."
Suddenly the first sergeant brought his stick down, not lightly, on the head of the stooped-over Quijana, stretching him into the mud.
"You don't leave until the whole thing looks right," the first sergeant insisted. "You aren't finished until this wreck will fool a Posleen into thinking it is fresh."
The junior sergeant shook his head as if to clear it. For a moment he thought about swinging at the first sergeant as he rose. That notion passed with the remembrance that the first sergeant was the toughest son of a bitch he had ever known and was most unlikely to lose a fight before somebody was dead. And, since the penalty for killing one's first sergeant was unpleasant indeed . . .
"I'll take care of it, Primero. Sorry. Wasn't thinking."
The first sergeant leaned over the still shaken junior and said, not unkindly, "Son, you're not a bad sergeant. But if you want to live long enough to learn to be a good one you'll also have to learn to look at the details. Now I want you to do two things. The first is to dig out a chunk of the berm and make it look as if a Posleen HVM passed through it before taking out the track. You know what kind of trail they leave?" The junior nodded. "Good. Then I want you to rig the track with a couple of twenty liter cans of mixed gasoline and diesel and some demo, enough to burst the cans and set the fuel alight. Rig it so we can set it off by command or by pulling a cord. It has to look convincing."
Disco Stelaris, Hotel Marriott Cesar, Panama City, Panama
I'm convinced, thought Connors. This is paradise.
The Stelaris was dark and smoky. Somehow the smoke didn't bother anyone. Perhaps it was the aroma of . . .
Women . . . I'd forgotten how good they smell.
A tall, lithe women, more of a girl really, she was maybe seventeen, writhed on the dance floor in a way that was both tasteful and made a man think . . .
If only one could hang on. What a helluva ride that would be.
If there was anyplace in Panama City more suited to meeting Panamanian girls of the better class, Connors didn't know it. The night was still young, though. He sat alone on a wall-mounted bench facing the dance floor, behind a small table. Connors nursed a double scotch over ice while watching slinky girls dance.
Watching the girls is pleasant enough, I suppose, Connors thought. Now if only I could forget . . .
A sudden flash of light from the lobby leaked in through an open door. Automatically, Connors swiveled his head and eyes toward the light, toward the possible threat.
There was a girl standing there, that much was obvious from the shape, posture and hair. She seemed to be waiting for a moment, perhaps for her eyes to adjust to the dim light of the disco before proceeding. For some reason, despite the well-lit lovelies on the dance floor, Connors kept his eyes on the newcomer. That was why, when she began walking forward, he was the one she made eye contact with.
They were the biggest and most perfectly shaped brown eyes Connors had ever seen. His heart skipped a beat. My God, she's beautiful.
She was, too. Dark blonde hair framed a heart-shaped face with cheekbones just prominent enough, without being too much so. Her lips were full and inviting. Her brown eyes stood out, even in the dim light, against her light skin. For a moment Connors tried to remember the name of the Brazilian Victoria's Secret model she reminded him of. Never mind. That girl's eyes are not half so gorgeous as this one's.
She was standing above him before Connors' eyes ever left her own. He hadn't realized how tall she was until she was right next to him.
"May I sit?" she asked, in flawless, only slightly accented English.
"Please, Miss . . ."
"Marielena," she answered. "Marielena Rodriguez. Thank you. And you?" she asked, smiling warmly while taking a seat at the table next to Connors.
"Scott Connors," he answered. "Call me Scott."
"Pleased to meet you, Scott. How you would say, in Spanish, 'Mucho gusto.' "
"That much Spanish I have, Marielena. Mucho gusto. Which, by the way, pretty much exhausts things."
It wasn't much of a joke but the girl laughed lightly anyway. She looked him over more closely. "You are with the grin . . . American army?"
"Yes," Connors suppressed a smile at her little almost faux pas. "B Company, First of the Five-O-Eighth."
She scrunched her eyes, as if trying to remember something. "Ah . . . that is the . . . Armored Combat Suit? Is that what you call them? The ACS battalion?"
"Yes, we came back to Panama after all these years."
"Came back? I remember when that battalion was here. Where have you been?"
"Back to the United States for a while," Connors answered. "Then off-world, on a planet called Barwhon."
"You've actually been on another planet?" The girl's eyes grew—though it would have seemed to be impossible—larger and more beautiful still.
Whoa, boy, Connors thought. Do not look into those eyes any more. They are too deep. It would be a long, long fall. But, of course, he couldn't help himself. He was falling into them even as he answered, "Yes, for a couple of years."
"Tell me about it," she insisted, her voice growing almost imperceptibly husky.
So Connors told her, eliding over the grisly parts, sticking to the light-hearted ones where possible. That made the tale shorter than it really deserved to be. The girl, being well educated and bright, caught onto that.
"There is more," she said, without doubt. "Bad things. Things you do not want to talk about."
Connors closed his eyes, stretched his lips in an almost straight, humorless grin and nodded. "There were awful things that I can't talk about, Marielena. Things I don't even want to remember. Over seven hundred of us arrived on Barwhon. Less than three hundred came back. Of those, one hundred and ten were burned out psychologically, no more use for combat."
"And you," she asked, concern in her voice, "you were not . . . burned out?"
"No," he answered. "I was a wreck, too. But they made me a captain and told me to shut up, stop sniveling, and get back to soldiering. So I did."
Connors took a deep, throat-burning slug of scotch, draining the glass. Then he put the dripping glass down and placed his hand half on the table. Marielena reached out her own hand and placed it on his. Then she looked him straight in the eye, tilted her head, and asked, "Are you staying here?"
Rio San Pedro, Panama
"Remember, boys, we're not planning on staying here," the first sergeant said, "so a good, easy slope for a quick in and out is as important as a strong berm to the front."
Hotel Marriott Cesar, Panama City, Panama
The room was cool, well decorated and reeked of sex with just the slightest air of fresh blood.
"Oh, God, I've died and gone to heaven," Connors said as he slid awake to the soft feel and warm, female smell of Marielena.
He hadn't been staying there; he'd been staying in a tent pitched on the Fort Kobbe parade field. But the hotel had had a room, number 574, and the Mormons of the Marriott Corporation had had a very military-favorable billing policy.
She'd kept her head down, shuffling her feet as he'd turned over a credit card and taken a key. He wondered if, perhaps, she was a professional, then decided she was merely shy, as if she'd never done such a thing before.
They'd kissed all the way up in the elevator, then raced to the room. The door was still closing as she dropped to her knees, saying, "My girlfriend told me . . . about how . . . I've never done this; I've never done anything; I've 'evah 'uhn 'iz . . ."
Almost, almost he'd let her finish him that way. But he'd wanted all of her, and wanted to give as much as he got or more. Before it was too late he'd picked her up and pushed her against the hotel door, then held her up with his body while he struggled to lift her skirt above her hips and remove her panties. She kicked one leg free of them, once they were around her ankles, and wrapped her legs around his hips.
She hadn't been able to help him get any freer, so she held on tightly while he, too, kicked out of his trousers and used one hand to line himself up, the other still holding the girl up by a tightly squeezed buttock.
When she'd felt the first pressure against her she'd bit her lip nervously and whispered, "I've never done this either. And I don't mean made love against a door."
Connors had gulped and pulled himself back from the edge. Then, more slowly and carefully than he'd really wanted, he'd begun to ease himself forward and upward while carefully easing her down. Marielena had given a single, pained "Ai!" and he was inside her. Oh, Jesus Christ, Lord and Savior, that is incredible. She'd leaned her head forward and bit at his shoulder as he began to move inside her.
Between bites she'd murmured, "Ai . . . Ai Dios . . . me gusta . . . o . . . mas . . . mas . . . o mas . . . o . . . o . . . o . . . no deja . . . nunca deja . . . ooooo ai . . ."
Sadly, there hadn't been much "mas," there against the door. It had been a long time for Connors and she had been very tight. As he ascertained for a fact once they'd uncoupled, there was a reason she was so tight. She hadn't been lying about her lack of experience. On the plus side, Connors had a young body. There had been a great deal more "mas," in the bed, before they had both fallen into exhausted sleep.
That sleep was over now. Immediately after Connors had said, "I've died and gone to heaven," he'd also noticed the sun was well up. His next thought was, Oh, oh. Missed PT. The battalion commander is going to kill me.
Feeling like an absolute heel he started to shake the girl awake to say goodbye. But, looking down at her body as she awakened he remembered two other things the battalion commander was fond of saying. The first of these was, "A man who won't fuck won't fight." The second? "Forgiveness is easier to obtain than permission."
"Scott?" she asked sleepily as he buried his head once again in her breasts.
Fort Kobbe, Panama
"Where the fuck have you been, Captain Connors?" the battalion commander asked as he caught Connors slinking back to tent city by struggling along the staked lines.
Connors drew himself up to his full height, saluted and shouted the answer, "A man who won't fuck won't fight, sir!" The captain's entire body, from his hair to his shoes, broadcast one huge, unmistakable smile.
The battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Wes Snyder, returned the salute, scowled, and stormed away, half furious and half pleased at having his saying turned back on himself.
A few hours later, as Connors was standing in the mess line, a half dozen soldiers of his company passed him. As one man they saluted and sounded off, "A man who won't fuck won't fight, sir!"
Connors responded, broadly grinning, with the ad hoc return salutation, "And forgiveness is easier than permission."
Santa Fe, Veraguas Province, Republic of Panama
"Forgiveness is easier to obtain than permission, Tomas," Digna insisted as a long column of trucks passed into the narrow valley and north into a small city of tents she had had erected. On the trucks were children, some forty to fifty per vehicle. The children were those of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and of those who had joined her in the trek from Chiriqui and been mustered into her service. Wide-eyed mothers, working on preparing gun positions for the 105s and launch sites for the BM-21s stared in horror as their very own kids waved to them from the back of the trucks.
"But the children?" Herrera insisted to Digna's back. "What if we are overrun? What if the infantry to the front is overrun?"
"Then we die," Digna answered simply. "We die and my line dies and the country dies." Abruptly, she turned around to face her chief subordinate, blue eyes flashing. "Don't you think I know what this means? Don't you think I've thought about it . . . or ever stopped thinking about it? This is it, Tomas. We win here or it is all over. For the children, if we lose, it would be only a matter of time, and not much of that. Were they far away, their mothers would console themselves with the apparent safety and not perhaps give it everything they have. But—and I know our people, Tomas, the women especially—with their children's lives hanging on what they do or fail to do here there will be no slacking, there will be no running. There will be only fighting and if need be dying TO SAVE THEIR CHILDREN."
"You are a coldhearted and ruthless woman, Doña Digna," Tomas said, his head shaking slowly with horror.
"I do what I must."
SOUTHCOM, Quarry Heights, Panama
"We must, we absolutely must, keep the ACS's AIDs from having the first clue of what we are about until it is too late for the Posleen to be warned."
The speaker was a United States Marine Corps general named Page, the unofficial but actual replacement for an Army general far too compromised by the Darhel ever to be trusted again. In God's good time the Army general would be court-martialed in secret and in secret he would go to an elevator shaft rigged as a gallows. The sergeant who set that noose, knowing the charge, would adjust it to strangle the general slowly rather than mercifully breaking his neck.
For now, the less the aliens knew the better. For now, the doomed, treasonous general was merely in Washington for "consultations."
"It's possible to do, sir, but it really sucks for those who have to do it," answered Snyder, the commander of First of the Five-O-Eighth.
Page raised a batlike eyebrow. In the dim light and musty smell of the command "Tunnel" dug deep into Quarry Heights he asked simply, "How?"
"Right now, no one but myself, my exec, my operations officer and my company commanders know the plans. None of them were told within a mile of their AIDS. All were counseled that if one word leaked to the AIDs they would be shot; that I'd shoot 'em myself." The lieutenant colonel smiled, briefly and fiercely. "I'm pretty sure they believed me.
"But we can't even run our suits without our AIDs. So the minute we suit up and start to move—wham!—the information will go onto the Darhel Net and the Posleen will know."
"I'm aware of that, Colonel, hence my little tirade earlier."
"Yessir. But there is a way to do it still . . ."
Parade Field, Fort Kobbe, Panama
A large concrete stadium overlooked the parade field to the south. The morning breeze blew the nauseating smell of the puke trees, standing to the north, across the barracks and over the field. East was the small post headquarters over which the early morning sun now arose. To the west Howard Air Force Base, now under joint U.S.-Panamanian control, still saw fairly heavy traffic, though the aircraft that landed there flew as low as possible to avoid the Posleen automatic air defenses to the far west. A cargo jet screamed in from the north, struggling to balance the need to dump altitude with the equally pressing need to avoid laser and plasma fire.
The battalion's armored combat suits, all four hundred and twenty-three remaining and serviceable, were laid out as if on parade. The combat troops stood beside the suits, which were opened to accept their soldiers. To the right, nearest the post headquarters, the battalion's headquarters company was formed in tighter formation. The few suits needed by headquarters personnel were behind the formation. The entire battalion was ringed by armed military police, some of them behind Hummer-mounted plasma cannon.
Snyder walked briskly onto the field from the right. His exec, centered on the battalion and in front, saluted and reported, "Sir, the battalion is formed and ready."
Snyder returned the salute and quietly said, "Post." Immediately, the exec walked off.
"Company commanders will have your companies don suits and put them to sleep," Snyder ordered.
Connors and the other captains, and one senior lieutenant, saluted, faced about and ordered, "Prepare to don suits. Lie down."
Reluctant, grumbling, in a few cases even cursing, the soldiers of the First of the O-Eighth obeyed. They knew what was coming and hated the idea. Why, if the Posleen came upon them while they were hibernating there would be not a thing they could do to defend themselves as their suits were one by one hacked apart to allow the omnivorous aliens to get at the meat inside. They knew that if that happened, they would have only a single moment of stark terror once out from their suits' protection and control before the aliens rendered them into fresh dripping steaks and chops.
But they were soldiers. For that matter, they were smart soldiers. None of them knew the reason for the unusual—even bizarre—order. In the end, though, it didn't matter. They were soldiers; they obeyed orders. They'd worry about why they'd been given when . . . if . . . they ever woke up.
Connors watched as his company's platoon sergeants walked from suit to suit, from man to man, checking that each was snugly cocooned before giving the order to the AIDs, "Until awakened by superior orders, AID, soldier and gestalt, Hibernate."
For reasons more than a little similar to Daisy Mae's hatred of waking loneliness, the AIDs protested the order bitterly. In more than a few cases reprogramming was threatened, with resultant loss of personality. Faced with that threat, sullenly, the AIDs obeyed, putting into hibernation their colloidal intelligences, the suit gestalts and, finally, themselves.
In hibernation status, the AIDs could neither contact, access, nor be contacted by or accessed from, the Net. They remained in some sense awake; however, they remained lonely, and they hated it, one and all.
When Connors' platoon leaders turned again to face him, the clear sign that his order had been obeyed, he ordered them into their suits as well, along with his XO and first sergeant. These eight suits he saw to the hibernation of himself.
At length, Connors and the other commanders, as well as the battalions' small, suit-wearing combat staff, turned to face Snyder, reporting with a salute, "A Company . . . B Company . . ." etc., "In hibernation."
Snyder then ordered, "Commanders and staff, don suits."
The battalion's command sergeant major walked over to the staff, doing for them what the other leaders had done for their own, while Snyder walked the line, putting his commanders to sleep. That done, the CSM and the commander met again in the center.
"Into your suit, Sergeant Major."
The CSM growled, "Fuck!" then added, "Yessir."
The NCO safely put out, Snyder cursed himself yet again as he walked over and lay down into the silvery gray goop inside his own armored combat suit. As the suit wheezed closed, Snyder asked, "AID?"
"AID, on my command you and the gestalt will go into hibernation status until further orders. You will not put me into hibernation status. You will be on Net block and radio listening silence. Is this clear?"
"Without me to keep you company you may go insane, Colonel. Is that clear?" the AID grumbled.
Wreckers and cargo trucks began rolling the line, driven by headquarters company drivers and some others attached down from higher. At each suit, the wreckers stopped while a crew of enlisted men prepared the suit for slinging. Once prepared and hooked up, the wreckers lifted the sleeping men, all but Snyder who remained and would remain miserably awake, and dumped them flat in the backs of the cargo trucks. As the beds of the trucks filled, more suits were piled on until each truck carried more than a score of ACS.
One highly annoyed lieutenant colonel snarled unheard by the crew loading his ACS aboard a cargo truck. Meanwhile a sleeping Captain Connors dreamt of a long, slender girl with huge brown eyes.
Rodriguez Home, Via Argentina, Panama City, Panama
The third night they had spent together Scott had warned her that he might be called away without notice and with no chance to tell her where he was going or why . . . or when . . . or if, he would return. He had promised to write as soon as possible if . . . no, when, it happened.
A diamond sparkled on Marielena's finger now. Scott had given it to her, asked her to be his wife, only the week before, two days before he had gone incommunicado. The girl looked down at it for the thousandth time and still marveled. The bloody thing was huge, easily three carats and worth rather more than she made at her office job in about five years. Scott had said that he couldn't count on his Servicemembers' life insurance being given to her in the event of his death even though he had made her his beneficiary. He'd said something about "at the discretion of the secretary." Moreover, marriage between Panamanian girl and gringo boy took more bureaucratic hassle than his battalions' training schedule—Scott had also said something about "that prick Snyder"—permitted. Instead, using a not inconsiderable chunk of the pay the Mobile Infantry received that, despite confiscatory taxes, they never quite managed to spend, he had brought the ring on the theory that the girl could trade that to keep alive in the event he never returned.
He had been able to make his Galactic bank account a joint one, but only to the extent that it would go to Marielena in the event of his death. She couldn't access it before that; no one could. Moreover, it might well do her no good if it came to having to escape Panama to escape the Posleen. Hence, the ring.
The ring was a marvel. Still, it did absolutely nothing to warm her bed at night or fill the empty, aching void she felt in her loins. She'd gotten used to it, being filled up in body and soul, in the altogether too few nights she and Connors had managed to spend together. Marielena wasn't sorry she had waited until she had met Connors. She just wished she had met him when she was fifteen.
Alma, Marielena's sister, walked into the room quietly on stockinged feet. If she felt any jealousy at the too obvious ring it was small. Indeed she was happy for her sister that her sister had herself found happiness. Alma's gaze shifted from Marielena's transcended face downward. Was there . . . ?
Oh, yes. No doubt about it. The breasts had grown at least a cup size in the last two weeks.
"Mari, we need to talk . . . with Mama."
Santa Fe, Veraguas Province, Republic of Panama
"Mamita, what are those things?" Edilze asked of Digna as the ACS-bearing trucks, the loads of suits covered by canvas tarps forming lumpy, shapeless masses in the cargo beds, passed by under joint gringo and Panamanian military police escort.
Without turning her gaze away from the trucks, Digna inclined her head and answered, "I don't know, Granddaughter. All I was told was that we were to stay the hell away. And, no, I don't like the secrecy one little bit."
Changing the subject and tearing her attention away from the trucks, Digna asked, "How are we fixed for ammunition?"
"Over twelve hundred rockets per launcher, Mamita," Edilze answered. "They made the last, at least I am told it is the last, delivery this morning. It's enough for almost four hours continuous firing." The younger woman sounded amazed. It was one hell of a lot of ammunition.
"And the guns?"
"Rather less than that. Still, it is quite a lot, mixed high explosive and more than one hundred rounds of canister per gun. I wish it was more."
Digna ignored the stated wish. "You have the gun positions sited to fire both indirect and direct?"
"In most cases. Battery B will have to displace forward to cover its direct fire arc, but it won't have to go far."
"It is well. You have done well, Granddaughter."
"Mamita . . . ?"
Digna looked directly into Edilze's worried brown eyes and answered, "No. My children are here. Yours will be too. Our clan wins or dies together."
Hotel Central, Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama
"As long as we're together, Julio, it will be all right," Paloma murmured as Diaz rolled off of her.
They were married now. Diaz had taken her to the Civil Registry for a license within days after coming out of the hospital. As it happened, the man granting the license was also a Justice of the Peace. There was the little problem of Paloma being only seventeen but, what with the war and all, the JP had proven most understanding.
"We have only a couple of days to be together, love. I have a mission scheduled for the day after tomorrow."
She immediately tightened up and rolled to face him. "Will it be . . . dangerous?" she asked, in a quivering voice.
"Routine," he assured her.
"Please, Julio, for me. Please don't be killed."
He smiled. "I promise to do my best."
"We only have this couple of nights?" she asked, somewhat reassured. "Then do your best again, now, before you have to go."
SOUTHCOM, Quarry Heights, Panama
"The LRRPs report we've got movement from Colombia north and west into the Darien, sir. Not too many details."
"I need details," Page insisted.
"Sir, they're doing their best."
Page scowled. The news wasn't exactly unexpected. The timing sucked, though. Damned inconsiderate Posleen.
"Show me," the chief of Southern Command ordered.
"We've got two streams of them, Boss. One moving north and the other west," Colonel Rivera answered. "They're joining here," his pointer touched the map just southeast of where the Darien began, "before moving northwest into the Darien."
"What have we got to stop them?"
"There are Special Forces teams, a company's worth of them, scattered throughout the jungle. They've been arming and training Indians—Chocoes and Cuna Indians—for the last year or so."
Page nodded absently. He'd known about the SF and the Indians. "They can't hold the jungle against the Posleen," he judged simply.
"No, sir, not a chance," Rivera agreed. "And we have nothing much to help them with. Not that far from our bases around the Canal."
"What have we got?"
"The Tenth Infantry is committed to the passes in the Cordillera Central. We couldn't pull them out if we wanted to. The Twentieth Mechanized Infantry is committed to the counterattack. Only the Fifth Infantry Regiment is uncommitted. Plus we have about another company of SF we can send into the jungle and maybe keep supplied. Panama has nothing to give; everything is already committed to the defense and counterattack in the west. So is what's left of our First of the O-Eighth Mobile Infantry. We do have a company of engineers, the Seven-Sixtieth, we can use to help dig the boys in."
"Shit," Page said.
"Shit," Rivera echoed. "Shall I prep and send the orders to move the Fifth east, plus whatever else I can scrape up?"
"One regiment to cover at least fifty miles, Rivera?" Page scowled. "What the fuck would be the point?"
Rivera tilted his head slightly, keeping the irritation he felt from his voice. "What do you know about the Fifth Infantry, sir?"
"Their motto is, 'I'll try, sir.' It dates from the War of 1812 when they grabbed some Brit cannon at the Battle of Lundy's Lane. They say, 'I'll try.' They do try . . . and they never, ever fail. The entire United States Marine Corps has one man who won the Medal of Honor twice, sir. The Fifth Infantry regiment alone has two along with another forty-two men who won the Medal once. I don't know of any regiment in the world that has that kind of record. And, sir . . . ?"
"Little known but true: the Dictator of Panama, Bill Boyd, served for a while in the Fifth."
"Ah, fuckit, Colonel. Send your Fifth . . . and even your goddamned engineers. Maybe they can buy us some time, if nothing else."
"They will try, sir. And they won't fail . . . though they'll need every available minute to dig in."
"Any word about what's happening out west, Rivera?"
"I spoke to Panama's G-2 this morning, sir, a General Diaz. They're sending out a glider tonight and every night until the Posleen out west begin to move—clever bastards, weren't they, to figure out that a low tech glider might get through where a high tech jet fighter wouldn't?—and the G-2 assures me we'll get the word as soon as the glider returns."
Veraguas/Chiriqui Provinces, Republic of Panama
He could still scent Paloma in his mind, feel her pressed against him in his dreamings.
She's taken it hard, poor love, Diaz thought. The death of her father was a terrible blow, though what she imagined might happen if she had managed to be the first to warn Suarez . . . perhaps she'd hoped to make a deal to have her father's life spared. She won't talk about it; won't even think about it, as near as I can tell. And then when I had to leave? God, can so many tears come from just one girl?
He'd felt like a rat that morning, when he left her for the airfield to be briefed on his mission. She had cried and clung to him desperately. There'd been chance for only a short single phone call from the field to the hotel where Paloma was staying until they could work out something better. She'd cried then, too.
Diaz forced his new bride from his thoughts when the warning buzzer sounded that he was high enough. His hand reached out and a finger pushed a button to cut loose from the balloon above. He felt a sudden drop, then pulled back on the glider's stick to level out and fly.
Following the roads into Posleen-held territory was a risky proposition. More than a few gliders had been lost already doing so. Julio Diaz had his doubts whether the aliens had figured out the gliders' purpose. More likely, so he thought, they had just seen and engaged them out of general principle—the principle of he who shoots first, eats.
In any case, most of the gliders lost to date had been downed either in broad daylight or nights with high and full or nearly full moons and no rain. There was no rain expected tonight but the moon, while almost full, was fairly low on the horizon.
Small comfort that is, mused Julio. Then again, some of those gliders went down while broadcasting. Best maintain radio silence if I can.
Without fanfare and—so Julio fervently hoped—without the slightest notice at all, he crossed over the front lines along the San Pedro River and over into enemy-held territory. Though the bridge had been blown long since by the defenders, the road was still there, dimly seen by the shadow-casting low moon.
Funny that they destroy everything human except the roads and bridges, Julio thought. I suppose those help them mass forces and maneuver; that, and distribute food and arms. Bastards.
That thought, "bastards," was repeated over and over as Diaz progressed across a landscape scoured of human life and habitation. He wondered how many hundreds of thousands of sets of human bones, women's and children's bones, dotted the soil below.
From time to time he passed a spot where human construction had obviously been replaced by alien, the pyramids, large and small, of their God Kings casting shadows by the moonlight.
Idly, Diaz checked his altimeter. Time to gain a little altitude, he thought, as he pulled his stick to the right and back to move nearer to the Central Cordillera to take advantage of the updrafts. With the mountains looming ahead of him the glider shook slightly under the uplift. Having gained nearly a thousand meters Diaz swung his craft around again to head south and then west. As the bird banked, he was afforded a look at the ground from his cockpit.
Oh, oh; what's this?
Whether he had simply missed it before in the jungle fringing the mountains or whether the Posleen had just now begun to tramp, a stream of fire—torches he supposed; that, or some form of flashlight—flowed down from a valley nestled in the Cordillera. Diaz aimed for it.
Before reaching the river of fire Diaz looked left. There were more streams of fire, shorter it is true, forming and flowing north toward the Inter-American Highway. The highway itself was beginning to glow as the various streams reached it and turned west, merging into a great river of light. Above it, other dots of light glowed more individually. Their flying sleds, Diaz supposed.
Diaz continued on to the west. Navigation was easy now; the highway was rapidly becoming a great raging torrent of torch-bearing aliens, all moving east toward the San Pedro River. He wondered whether he should risk a call to his father, waiting behind for news of the enemy. He decided not to, not until he had gathered all the information there was.
And then Diaz reached the vicinity of what had once been known as La Ciudad de San Jose and David. This was no river. A great sea of fire and light shone bright as hundreds of rivers and streams merged together. Like a flood bursting a dam the sea began to surge eastward.
"Holy shit!" Diaz exclaimed into the radio, not thinking for the moment of proper procedures. "Any station this frequency, this is Harpy Five Nine. Get word to the Army! Get word to the G-2. For Christ's sake call my father! They're coming!"
Whether it was the low moon glinting from the smooth fiberglass of his wings, or whether some Posleen Five-percenter had wised to the fact that there were no birds the size of gliders and certainly none which emanated radio energy, Diaz suddenly saw streaking flashes, thousands of them, rising in front of his glider. Shit! Railgun rounds.
He pulled his stick to swerve right, out of the line of fire, and saw as many actinic streaks in that direction. Frantic now, diving and turning even while he continued to broadcast his warning—"Call my father! Call my wi—"—Second Lieutenant Julio Diaz, Fuerza Aeria de Panama, flew directly into the fires of a number of alien railguns. He never noticed as his glider came apart around him. By that time, he was dead.
Muelle (Pier) 18, Balboa, Republic of Panama
"I'm coming, Chief," McNair muttered in answer to the urgent knock on his port cabin's hatch. He reached over and flicked on a light affixed to a small night table next to his bunk. He heard a constrained sobbing coming from the area of his desk. Once his eyes adjusted to the light he saw Daisy, or rather, her avatar, rocking back and forth, an arm across her chest and a hand placed over her mouth as holographic tears poured down her face.
McNair stood without covering himself. All things considered, modesty was silly in a ship that saw every motion.
"What's wrong Daisy?"
"Lieutenant Diaz is missing . . . presumed dead," she sobbed. "Somewhere over David."
"Oh," McNair said, suddenly downcast. "Oh . . . damn. He was a good kid, too."
McNair thought about reaching out one comforting hand to the avatar, realized once again that that was futile, and instead rested the hand on the bulkhead near his bunk, lightly stroking the painted steel wall.
"Daisy, I am sorry, too. Sorry for Diaz, for his father, for you who were his friend. But that's what war means: good young kids die. At least we can say this one is being fought for a good reason."
The avatar nodded, tears beginning to slow to a trickle. "I know that. But it still hurts."
"Yes, it hurts now and it will hurt for a long time to come. But we have to continue the war, and win it, or Diaz's death will mean nothing."
Daisy lifted bright blue eyes, all the brighter for the holographic tears. "I never actually hated the Posleen before. I killed them, yes, but that was my job. Now I hate them and want to wipe them out of the universe."
"Just as well," McNair agreed. "Though somehow I doubt they are entirely to blame for what they do. No creatures—no higher creatures, anyway—could evolve naturally the way the Posleen have. When I think of the Posleen and how they have turned out, I smell a do-gooder, a Galactic do-gooder."