Guanamarioch and Zira, both, scratched unconsciously, almost uncontrollably, at the jungle fungus that had taken hold of their crests, their spaces between their claws, and—worst, by far, of all—their crotches.
"I hate this place," Guano said without emotion as he dug with a roughened stick at a particularly obnoxious patch of the crud that had taken hold of his left front claw. He hobbled unsteadily on three legs while doing this.
Zira, ever calm, just nodded.
"Whatever possessed us to come to this horrible world, Zira? It is nothing like home. It is nothing like any place I have ever even read of." The God King's voice lowered. "Well, it's nothing like anything I've read of except the demon pits where—"
"Hold up, Guano. You've got some of those things on you again."
"What? Where? Get'emoff, get'emoff, get'emoff!"
"I will. Calm down."
Pulling out a short blade, Zira bent over to examine more carefully the half dozen black, ugly and frankly (though a Posleen would not normally use the word) icky creatures that had attached themselves to Guano's torso, perhaps at the last river crossing.
"What are these called?" Zira asked Guano's AS as he prodded at one of the little monsters with the point of his knife.
"Leeches, Kenstain Ziramoth. They are not dangerous in themselves, but once they have finished feeding and drop off they leave oozing wounds that refuse to heal. These then get infected. In a place like this . . ."
"Infected? Well . . . that is not so much of a problem for us; the Aldenata did a few things right. But the loss of bodily fluids and nutrients; this we can't take much more of, not with the little flying horrors draining us daily." The Kenstain looked at Guanamarioch's torso where ribs were beginning to show. "No, they'll have to go."
While Zira worked at removing the leeches, the pair heard overheard the muffled whine of several, perhaps as many as half a dozen, tenar.
"Upper caste bastards," Guano muttered. Zira, still working at the leeches, ignored it.
Above the jungle-muffled whine, Zira and Guano heard sudden shouts of alarm. The alarm quickly transferred to them as they heard the sound of something crashing through the jungle canopy. The crashing grew ever closer for a few moments, then stopped. A few seconds later the body of a Kessentai thudded to the muddy jungle floor perhaps thirty meters away. The God King was obviously very dead, though without closer examination there was no way of telling what had killed him.
Much louder than the tenar and the crashing body, the upper caste God Kings above apparently opened fire at something. Originating almost directly above, the sound of railgun and plasma cannon fire impacting the jungle trees soon came from all around. It was so loud that it completely covered the falling of yet another God King body, which hit the ground closer to Zira and Guano. A minute or so later, but farther off, yet another body struck dirt, a small deluge of leaves and broken branches coming down on top of and all around it. The firing from above redoubled and continued for long minutes.
The jungle went silent then. "They must have gotten whatever it was," Zira observed.
Which Guano would surely have agreed with, except that even several minutes after the firing had stopped, another God King body, apparently flung from its tenar, crashed down almost on top of them. There was no firing after this, only the rapidly retreating whine of tenar heading generally east. On examination, this body proved to have a hole of about one half of an inch on the forward quarter of its torso on the left side . . . and a massive hole, oozing yellow blood and dangling intestines, on the right.
Guano probed around the edges of the exit wound with his claws. He raised his crest, the crest beginning to tear as well as bleed from the constant scratching and said, "I hate this fucking place."
There are no atheists on battling tenar.
—From the Scroll of
Stinghal, the Knower
Nata Line, Republic of Panama
Properly for a clan chief, Binastarion kept well back, using his AS to project in front of his tenar a magnified image of the fighting ahead.
It's pretty damned awful. Much worse than the first line of defense we hit back by the northwestern corner of this peninsula.
The magnified image showed an oolt, led by a tenar-riding God King, leap from cover and advance forward, firing wildly to their front. At least two of the threshkreen's crew-served repeating weapons engaged, not from the front like proper warriors, but from the sides. The corners of the assaulting oolt crumbled. As more of the People advanced into the fire, they were stretched out, lifeless, along two lines that began with the crumpled, bleeding bodies at the corner and formed an apex almost dead center of the oolt. Some leapt over the neat lines of the messy dead and continued. It seemed that the crew-served repeaters didn't bother traversing to pick of this few leakers but, instead, kept their lines of fire fixed.
Even so, the leakers didn't get far. A steady crackling of the threshkreen's individual weapons and spurts of dust arising from around the charging normals' feet told of many of the human "soldiers" manning the trenches in support of their crew-served, heavy repeaters. In moments, no longer than it took for the last normal of the oolt to launch itself into the lines of fire, the Kessentai in command found itself alone. The God King spun its tenar around, looking for support from the People and finding none. In apparent despair, the leader then launched itself forward at the hated humans, its plasma cannon searching out the threshkreen where they cowered in their trenches.
The Kessentai also didn't get far. Though the repeating weapons did not engage it, apparently the humans had designated special marksmen just for the God Kings. The tenar made it about halfway across the thick belt of the nasty "wounding-wire" the humans had laid to aid their defense before a single bullet found it out. In his magnified view, Binastarion saw one side of the back of the Kessentai explode in yellow blood and a mist of flesh. The God King was flung completely off his tenar to fall onto the wire. There it twisted and writhed in obvious agony, binding itself the more tightly to the wire the more it tried to free itself. Some of the intestines, too, dragging down, managed to catch and tear themselves on the wire's barbs, further adding to the Kessentai's personal Calvary.
Binastarion tore his eyes from the scene. We are a harsh and a hard people, yes. But we are not a cruel people. We do as we must to survive, eat as we must. But never could we have imagined such a horrible method of war as this barbed wire. What kind of beings are these threshkreen? The universe will be a better place when they are gone from it.
The People had tried most of their innate bag of tricks in this battle. They had feigned retreat to try to draw the threshkreen away from their fixed defenses. The threshkreen, perhaps because their own wire and landmines prevented it, had ignored the feints and used the respite to restore their defenses. The host had tried massing on one flank and then another. The threshkreen apparently had ignored that, too. The defenses were just too strong for a rapid breakthrough and the forever-damned humans could shift artillery fires more rapidly than the People could mass or maneuver.
Once, at a grisly cost in Kessentai, Binastarion had ordered a ten of tens of them forward en masse on a narrow frontage to try to blast a way through the threshkreen lines. They had succeeded in cutting through the wire, detonating most of the mines, and destroying many of the humans' crew-served repeater positions. Unfortunately, without a mass of normals in support, Kessentai were very vulnerable to the human's individual weapons. By the time the gap was created all but two of the Kessentai were down. When the now nearly leaderless oolt had poured through the gap and taken the forward trenches, the humans counterattacked the confused rabble and driven them out again with even more frightful losses. To add injury to insult, the threshkreen had then closed the gaps with some of their artillery delivered antipersonnel mines.
It wasn't entirely hopeless, of course. Here and there the People had succeeded in taking and holding the forward trenches and even, in one case, the second line beyond that. Moreover, with all the dead lying about that the humans had not had time to booby-trap, the point of the People, at least, was well fed for the first time in days. Some of that valuable thresh had even been passed back to feed a portion of the rest of the host.
Unfortunately, the threshkreen had concentrated their reserves and artillery fires on those few inroads made. The People were pinned in them, unable to advance and taking steady losses from the fires.
There was one other reason for hope. Binastarion had noticed, as the day wore on, that the humans were becoming tired and, moreover, that their reserves seemed to be growing thinner and weaker. The push that had reached and managed to hold the second line trench had done so, in the main, because the humans had made comparatively little effort to dig them out again.
One big push or a large number of little pushes? Kick the front door of this edifice in all at once or continue gnawing away at the foundations? It will not be until tomorrow's rise of the local sun before I can mass enough of the People to seriously charge the threshkreen's entire defensive line. Until then I can only gnaw. But the more I expend strength gnawing, the less I have to charge with on the morrow. Then again, the more I gnaw today, the weaker their defense when the sun next rises. And it isn't as if I have any great shortage of fodder for their crew-served repeaters.
Binastarion sighed, unheard by any save his Artificial Sentience. I would like to meet their leader, I think, to discuss this human way of war before he is consigned to the threshheap. It is something new. If I could learn it before the rest of the People assimilate it, perhaps I could use it to raise my clan.
"It is a fearful price we are paying, lord," the AS said. "Yet it will all prove worth it if we can wrest this land from the humans, hold it, and build our clan back to prominence."
Cocking his head to one side, Binastarion asked, "Are you able to read my mind, machine? What program permits this?"
The AS gave an electronic chuckle. "Binastarion, after all these decades together do you not think that I would come to think as you do? Better to check my programming if I could not read your mind."
"I would love to be able to read the enemy leader's mind," Boyd said to Suarez in the musty, damp command bunker they shared to the east of the Nata line.
Suarez shrugged. "I can read his mind well enough."
"Can you? How?"
"Logistics," Suarez answered simply. Then, seeing his dictator was confused, the Magister Equitum elaborated, "There is an old saying that 'Amateurs study tactics while professionals study logistics.' It is true, but only up to a point; real professionals study everything, literally everything. But what the saying really means, to most of those who use it, is that logistics rules in war. That is also true, but also only up to a point. Those who tend to believe it unreservedly also tend to miss something: when you base everything on logistics you become extremely predictable because logistics, unlike most aspects of war, is a fairly predictable science."
"So predict him, then, my Master of the Horse," Boyd commanded.
"He is worried. We've left his forces almost nothing to eat to the west of here. He knows that he has to break into and through our lines tomorrow, the next day at the latest, or he will simply starve. There is food here, of course, his own dead and those of us whose bodies have fallen into his hands. I have given orders that the bodies of both our and his dead not be booby trapped, by the way. I want there to be food here, to attract him forward."
"So what happens, then, when he is forward?"
"He masses to attack," Suarez answered. "He masses generally but especially in the low ground where our direct fire cannot reach him. He has seen much of our artillery and thinks he has its measure. He does not know we have guns and mortars lined up nearly hubcap to hubcap and base plate to base plate all across the breadth of the front. He does not know we have nearly two hundred multiple rocket launchers on his flanks in good position to pound his massing front."
"How do you know all this?"
"I know this because I know that, logistically, he must advance or starve . . . that, and that if he had the slightest suspicion he would be running like hell to get out of the kill zone we have prepared, starvation or not."
Santa Fe, Veraguas Province, Republic of Panama
As the sun was setting, the north-south running spur to the west of Santa Fe cast shadows over the guns, rocket launchers, bunkers and antennas of the artillery's battle position.
Digna's labors were not over, though the day was fast waning. Instead, she, with her descendants and subordinates, went over, for perhaps the fifteenth time, the fire plan and the contingencies. Again, her children brought up the subject of their tiny, underaged and helpless offspring.
Digna was curt. "My children are here. Yours will be, too . . . until the battle is over, win or lose. My advice is: don't lose."
From the national headquarters, collocated with Suarez command post as Master of the Horse and commander of the mechanized corps, came a transmission which was repeated every ten minutes for an hour. "Drake this is Morgan." All forces, this is the national command authority. "I authenticate Bravo-X-ray-Tango." Hey, pay attention. It's really me. "Code: San Lorenzo . . . Code: Portobello." We're going to have a big day tomorrow . . . or the next day. "Code: Marconi." Further instructions will follow through the night.
Digna didn't need the repeats. At the first call she had told the watch officer to acknowledge. Then she announced, "In the morning at 02:15 we man the guns and BM-21s. If, as I expect, the call comes to fire, we execute the fire plan. Now enough of this; go back to your battalions and batteries."
Still fearing the worst, Snyder, cocooned in his armored combat suit, shivered uncontrollably. The suit and the goo kept him warm enough, of course. That wasn't the problem. The problem was that if he had to wait five more minutes he thought he would go stark raving mad.
His radio, which had been worrisomely quiet of late, sparked into life. On his own forces' frequencies he heard the English language equivalent of "Drake this is Morgan."
It started with a single sniffle. Within moments it had risen to a full flood. Tears poured from the colonel's face, tears of relief of which he was not even remotely ashamed.
Glory to God in the highest. Thank You, thank You, thank You. I'm not worried about meeting You tomorrow or the next day, God, because I have already served my time in hell.
Nata Line, Republic of Panama
"Demons of fire and ice, watch over my People this morning. Ancestors, watch your descendants as they drive forward. Guide them, encourage them, lend them the strength of your power as they fight for survival." The God King stood on his tenar, arms crossed, in the Posture of Supplication and Serenity, as his horde tramped or hovered below.
"Getting sentimental in our old age, are we, Binastarion?"
"Something you would never understand, you bucket of bolts," the Kessentai told his AS without rancor.
"I understand better than you think, lord. Do you imagine that we Artificial Sentiences do not get attached to the People we serve? Do you think that your values, over time, do not become our own? You should know better, Kessentai. You should understand better, Philosopher."
Briefly, the God King was ashamed. If anyone had served the People better than this AS he didn't know who it might have been.
Instead he continued his prayer. "Ancestors, Great Ones, accept at your hearths those of the People who fall gloriously tomorrow. Welcome them with the feasting that requires no threshing. Praise them in accordance with the duty they have followed. And, Ancestors, should one of those who falls be this bucket of bolts and circuits sitting here beside me, welcome it, too, for it has also served your People."
The AS was silent for a long moment. Finally, it said, "Thank you, Binastarion."
Assembly Area Pedrarias, East of the Nata Line,
Republic of Panama
Like ninety percent of his men, Sergeant Quijana was a Roman Catholic. And like ninety percent, give or take, of Catholics, his Catholicism was purely nominal. For the last several years he had gone to church, at most, infrequently. He could not remember the last time he had confessed.
This was not, under the circumstances, a problem. Faced with massive numbers of people seeking forgiveness (and with amazingly high numbers and qualities of sins to be confessed), the chaplains had simply formed the men into mass ranks and granted a general absolution. They'd explained, of course, that the general absolution would only be of effect if the men were truly repentant.
Given the frequency with which he had committed and recommitted his sins, mostly involving women, Quijana had to wonder whether the more normal and personal form of confession was one whit more effective in relieving the burden of sin than this novel en masse kind. Perhaps it was not.
All he knew was that as he took communion the memories of his childhood, and his mother's fierce and unquestioning devotion, came flooding in afresh. With them came a freedom, a clarity. With them came the belief, for something faith-based could not be called "knowledge," that, should he die on the morrow, or over the next few days, he would die clean.
That belief was worth something, to Quijana not least.
There was one duty left to him that Boyd could not forego. He would not, if he could have. The bunker was cleared, the National Escudo and a pair of flags were hung behind him. The television cameras were set up and focused on him. Radio microphones cluttered the field desk at which he sat. The studio chief, seconded from the nation's largest television chain, announced, "Ready in five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . . you're live, Dictador."
Boyd looked up from his desk, directly at the center camera, and began to speak.
"People of Panama, in a few hours, with the morning light, we will commence a battle for our people's very existence. We have prepared for this battle long. Our defenses are solid. Our soldiers are trained, ready, and willing and able. Our allies have given us much help, even more than we could have—in justice—asked for. Their men, too, stand beside ours in this climactic test. Together, we will triumph.
"And yet, there is something else, one other thing that we cannot do for you but that you must do for us. I have asked Archbishop Cedeño, and the other main prelates and ministers of our various denominations and faiths to open their churches, their synagogues and their mosques. Now I ask you, People of Panama, to go, to go and to pray as you have never prayed in your lives for the success of our forces and the existence of our country. Ask the grace of God, the Father; ask for the Holy Mother to intervene on our behalf. Above all, ask the blessing of Jesu Cristo on us, his long suffering people. I, together with Master of the Horse Suarez, the Chief of Army Chaplains, and all of our soldiers not actively engaged in fighting will do no less.
"Thank you. God bless you and our soldiers . . . and Viva la Republica."
Iglesia del Carmen, Panama City, Panama
They came from all parts of the city and they came from all walks of life. Most were Catholic yet there were many Protestants and more than a few Jews and Moslems. They came, many of them, bearing lit candles, held upright. Some had brought extra candles, which they shared. The grand circle in front of the pure white church became a moving sea of points of light.
They were quiet at first, these people, overcome with the solemnity of the occasion and the sheer spectacle of the mass. This, though, seemed not quite right to Archbishop Cedeño, standing by the arched entrances of the great, cathedral-like church. To a junior priest standing by his side the archbishop said, "Make a joyful sound unto the Lord."
The junior priest looked back, quizzically. "Make a joyful sound . . . ?"
Not answering directly, the archbishop instead said, "Have you ever thought about Islam's great contribution to the world, my son? It wasn't algebra, important as that may be. Algebra was there to be discovered by someone and would have been eventually. It owes nothing to Islam, per se. Nor was it Arabic as a language, nor poetry. They both existed before Islam.
"No, Father, what the world and humanity owe to Islam is the concept of jihad, of Holy War waged for a holy purpose. Our faith absorbed it, too. And perhaps all the suffering inflicted by Christian upon Moslem, Moslem upon Christian, and everyone on the Jews will have proven worth it if this jihad is successful. My son, is there a holier purpose than preserving the people of the one true God?"
The archbishop answered his own question. "No, there is no more holy purpose, and there can never be a holier war than this one. So . . . go sing, my son. Out there in the crowd. Something they'll all know or that is simple enough they can all pick it up easily. Spanish, if that will work. Or maybe Latin." The archbishop thought for a moment, then continued, "Yes. Make it Latin. Go forth, my son, and sing 'Non Nobis' for the faithful."
Uncertainly, for while he could sing, he didn't know whether he could do so loudly enough amongst the crowd to make a difference, the junior priest nodded and went forth, forcing his way through the gathering crowd until he could perch himself atop the low wall of the round fountain pool halfway across the broad Via España.
Still uncertain, and frankly embarrassed—the priest did not consider himself to have all that good a voice—he began softly. The people assembling hardly noticed.
Louder, by far, despite his age, the archbishop cupped his hands and shouted across the crowded scene, "Sing like you mean it, my son."
The priest picked up the volume. Surprisingly, a young woman joined him on the masonry wall and joined in:
"Non nobis Domine non nobis,"
Then a few more, men and women, boys and girls, mounted the wall and began to sing:
" Sed Nomini tuo da gloriam Sed Nomini tuo da gloriam."
The few became a few dozen, a few score, a few hundred . . . fifty thousand. The song moved down Via España and up Avenida Central faster than the people coming toward the great iglesia could walk.
" Non nobis Domine non nobis Sed Nomini tuo da gloriam Sed Nomini tuo da gloriam Non nobis Domine . . ."
The song echoed through the City. Fifty thousand became half a million. Soldiers in the trenches listening to their small radios listened and joined. It became eight hundred thousand. The music reached the refugee-swollen town of Colon the same way: one million. To the north, in the cities of Boston and New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, it was heard: one point five million. In Cuba the people heard and remembered: three million. In Bogotá, still holding out . . . in England, where men still slept in their beds . . . among Bundeswehr and the new-old Waffen SS watching along the Rhine . . . with the Red Guard, fighting along the Dnepr . . .