He was the hunted now, and he knew it. There were no more ambushes with the explosive devices. Instead, the hunt had become much more personal, with single arrows leaping out from who knew where to impale his few remaining normals. Well, they had been few. They were all gone now, gone and eaten at the behest of this terrible jungle.
He knew they were eaten, too, for once he had gone to sleep sheltering behind the corpse of one of his late followers. When he had awakened, the normal was half gone and his corpse covered with uncountable thousands of the little insects that infested this place.
Only once since the explosive ambush Guanamarioch had caught plain sight of his hunter, the little, naked, brown threshkreen demon. The God King had raised his railgun, taken aim, pressed the firing stud . . .
And been rewarded by a small explosion that damaged his left hand, the stink of fresh ozone, and a small cloud of smoke. The jungle rot had claimed yet another victim.
The little demon was here now, too. The God King sensed it. He raised his head fearfully. An arrow struck a tree and quivered there for an instant, close to Guano's head. This was his chance. It took time for the demon to reload and aim his primitive weapon.
Guano saw an unusual light ahead and sprinted for it. An arrow struck him in his haunches, burying itself—but not too deeply—in the stringy muscle. Instead of slowing him, the pain helped propel the Kessentai onward.
Onward and onward he flew. He hardly noticed when the jungle gave way to clearing. When he did notice he stopped suddenly at the shock of not being surrounded to the sides and above with the jungle growth. The sun shone on his back. For a moment, overcome with emotion, Guanamarioch raised himself on his rear legs and began to dance and prance, those same rear legs propelling him upward again and again in boundless happiness. In his own tongue he shouted to the Heavens, words of praise and thanks, that he had finally escaped.
Then he saw the little threshkreen, bow in one hand and arrow held in the other, following him at a dead run. The God King stopped prancing then and, arrow sticking out of his rump or not, began a mad dash forward. On the open ground he was much faster than the little, brown threshkreen.
He didn't see the shiny vines until it was too late. Guano tried to brake himself, then—sensing that would fail—tried to leap over. No matter; he came down and found himself surrounded by the shiny vines, caught like a nestling in the pens. He thrashed a bit but the shiny vines were metal and had nasty barbs that dug into his flesh. His thrashing only caused him to become more tightly bound.
A group of threshkreen emerged. Some were light in the face, others quite dark. About half were the same color as the threshkreen who hunted him. These threshkreen seemed more curious than hostile.
"AS, can you translate into their language?" Guanamarioch asked.
"English or Spanish, yes, Kessentai. I have downloaded both tongues from the Net."
Guano tried to nod, but the shiny vines had his muzzle caught fast. "Tell these, then, that they can kill me, they can eat me, but I ask under the Law for assimilation into their clan. Tell them I would adopt the proper posture if I could, but I can't. Explain the law, if they give you time. Tell them they can do whatever they like as long as THEY DON'T SEND ME BACK THERE!"
Renown awaits the commander who first restores artillery to its prime importance on the battlefield.
Santa Fe, Veraguas Province, Republic of Panama
I don't think their hearts are in it anymore, thought Digna as five of her guns opened up on a large band of Posleen shambling forward, heads down as if walking into a fierce rainstorm.
There had been some tense moments in the last several hours. At first the enemy had come like a flood, seemingly unstoppable and tripping over their own dead to get at the BM-21s whose fire still protected the gringos that had sealed the bottle of the Posleen trap. Digna had sent out the word to her gun crews, "Mothers with children: you are all that stand between them and the enemy who would eat them. Mothers to the front."
And the women had heard and understood. Perhaps they had understood, too, why this cranky old battleaxe who looked eighteen or nineteen had had the children brought.
I am a woman. I know what my sex values above all. For anything else, these women might not have fought as they did. But for their kids they would sacrifice anything.
Silently, Digna vowed to adopt into her own clan, and see they were properly raised, any children who had lost their mothers this day.
Below her, constrained by the narrow valley road that led to the town behind, the Posleen band went down as canister cut great swatches through them. The alien enemy moaned en masse as limbs were severed and entrails ripped out.
Another group was forming a kilometer or so away. Digna, weary or not, shivered with anticipation at the thought of bringing this group down as well.
Did you think, you alien beasts, that I, that I, Digna of the Clan Miranda would let such as you keep possession of my land, of the graves of my ancestors and my children?
Battle Position Lundy's Lane, Darien Province,
Republic of Panama
The commander of the Fifth Infantry was a proud man that day, though he knew it was hardly entirely to his own efforts or those of his regiment that the lone Posleen standing under guard outside the command post tent had told the story he had.
It had not been easy to get the Posleen even to the tent. Moments after his surrender a fierce little Chocoes had shown up insisting that the alien's head belonged to him. Though the sergeant in charge of the squad had tried to explain that the alien was a prisoner of war the Chocoes had been very insistent. Only with the arrival of the commander himself had a deal been worked out whereby the regiment would pay the Indian for the life of the alien. The alien, too, had agreed.
All things considered, the price was worth it.
"That's right, sir," the commander told the Chief of SOUTHCOM over the radio. "We have one Posleen prisoner of war. And, sir, he insists that the rest of his horde is not coming. Dead, he says, every one . . . Yessir, I do believe him. Oh, there may be a few ferals still out there, but they're no threat. . . . Yes, sir, the regiment is preparing to move east again now. If there's any concentration of the Posleen we can handle them. They don't seem very capable of operating in the jungle."
San Pedro Line, Republic of Panama
The Posleen attacks had petered out before nightfall. By dawn, the sound of firing, human firing, had grown intense.
It was always a touchy problem when friendly forces met over enemy bodies. The best solution, the one adopted, had been for the 20th Infantry and the remnants of First of the O-Eighth to simply pull back into three battle positions and let the Panamanian divisions through the two gaps thus created. Yes, a few of the aliens had no doubt also escaped through those gaps. No matter; they would be hunted down.
Connors' XO—no, the CO since Connors had fallen—heard a strange music coming from a couple of trucks carrying a band that passed through the gap nearest her much depleted command.
"AID, what is that music?" she asked.
The AID took a moment before it answered. No doubt it was searching the Net. "That music is 'Deguello.' "
"It's a Moorish tune picked up by the Spanish during the Reconquista and brought over to this hemisphere. It means 'cut throat.' They sometimes call it 'The Massacre Song.' I think it's directed as much at the Panamanians as the Posleen."
CA-139, USS Salem
The Posleen tenar were gone now, gone without a trace. The Marlene Dietrich look-alike avatar on the bridge wept inconsolably as the ship thrashed about over the spot where Des Moines had sunk. "My sister . . . my sister . . ."
Sidney Goldblum wanted to reach out and comfort the avatar but, of course, could not. The ship's chaplain, Rabbi Meier, came onto the battle scarred bridge.
"Sally, is she really gone?" Goldblum asked.
Still weeping, the avatar answered, "I sense nothing below, Rabbi. Nothing. She has to be gone."
"We've been here long enough, Sally," Goldblum interjected. "We have to go search for survivors."
Meier held up an index finger at the captain. Wait. Then he bowed his yarmulked head. "Let us go to the stern then, Sally, and say kaddish over the soul of your sister."
The sniffling stopped, almost. Still through tears that appeared on her holographic face, Sally responded, "But she converted to Catholicism, Rabbi. Would kaddish even work."
"Kaddish is really for you, my child. And besides, do you think that the Almighty really cares about such mundane details?"
As she had every day since the news had reached her, Marielena came to this church and prayed for her fallen lover. Soon enough, she thought, patting her stomach, I won't be coming here alone either.
Money wasn't going to be a problem. Scott's Galactic Law Last Will and Testament had proven inviolable and incontestable, though his childless ex-wife had certainly tried to contest it.
Her mother, on the other hand, was proving to be something of a problem, nagging continuously at "the shame of it all, my daughter carrying a bastard." Fortunately, her father was taking things rather more philosophically. He'd shrugged, told her mother to shut up, and answered, "Better a bastard in the family than an unemployed son-in-law. What's more, woman, the child's father helped save this country, to include saving your nagging tongue. The child will never hear the word bastard or you will feel my belt."
She might someday marry, Marielena thought. But . . . no time soon. Her bed was lonely and cold without Scott in it. But she was in no hurry to fill it with some lesser man.
A poem had been going around the Net of late. Someone locally had changed it around, translating it into Spanish and making a few changes along the way. The poem was in the form of a prayer, she recited it now in a whisper:
"I do not grudge him, Lord.
I do not grudge my one strong man
Whom I have seen go out
to break his strength and die,
He and a few,
In bloody struggle for a holy thing.
His name shall be remembered
among his people and mine
And that name shall be called blessed . . ."
In the same pew with Marielena another young woman, even more of a girl than she was, wept. Why not? The church was full of women weeping for a lost son, a husband, a father, a brother. Some wept for lost daughters, as well.
The girl was young, Marielena saw, very, very young. And her sobbing body spoke of both loss and a fear of utter aloneness. Did she have no family left? Mari had, at least, some.
In pity, Marielena sidled across the pew, closing the distance between her and the girl. Tenderly, she put her arm around the unknown one's shoulder. "There," Mari whispered, "there, there. It will be all right."
Paloma de Diaz nodded her head but the tears never stopped flowing, the body never stopped shaking. "Thank you," she whispered back in a breaking voice.
"I'm sure he tried," Mari said, in answer. "But sometimes things, important things, come up and promises, however much meant and however important, just can't be kept. I try to tell myself that . . . when it gets really hard."
"I'm going to have a baby," Paloma whispered. "He never knew. I didn't know myself until it was too late to tell him." She broke out in fresh sobs.
"He knows," Marielena said, looking at the altar. "Even if you never told him, he knows now."