Ojos Amarillos: La Defensa de Panama

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The globe thrummed, beating its way through space by main force. As with others aboard, to Guanamarioch the energies consumed were unsettling. As with others, the boredom was not merely annoying but a potential danger. There had already been half a hundred suicides among the Kessentai class aboard the globe.

Some relieved boredom through the reproductive act, though with the normals generally locked away in hibernation the number of potential partners was highly limited. Some, like Guanamarioch, lost themselves in self study. For a highly unusual few there were more structured programs.

In a secluded, private section of the ship, Binastarion held class for his favored children. The senior God King thought this worth doing in itself. That it helped to relieve the horrid boredom of a long trip on a ship only made the activity more attractive.

"Beware, my sons, of the enemy who seems too easily defeated. Beware of the opportunity that is a hidden trap," Binastarion cautioned the juveniles.

"Once, long ago, long before the People were first driven forth and long before the idiots whose names we do not speak brought our clan low, one of your ancestors and mine, Stinghal the Knower, devised a stratagem.

"Surrounded in the city of Joolon by forces loyal to the old masters, with no hope of relief, with the enemy's plasma cannon raking his fortress, Stinghal hid his Kessentai and normals deep under buildings. He then piled the rooftops with flammables and set them aflame. The enemy, thinking he saw victory, charged in through every gate and over every wall, heedless of hidden dangers.

"At the right moment, when the enemy was in greatest confusion, Stinghal ordered his followers to come forth. There was a great slaughter."

The favored son, Riinistarka, tapped his stick—the God King's sole badge of rank beyond his crest—against his cheek, seeking attention.

"Yes, my eson'antai?" asked Binastarion.

"How does one tell, Father? When you see a city burn, your enemy in seeming disarray, his people in flight, how can you tell if it is real or it is a trap?"

Binastarion thought carefully before giving his answer.

"My son, all I can tell you is that if you have the genes you will be able to tell and if you do not then you probably never will."

Riinistarka lowered his head. He so hoped he had the genes. He so wanted his father to be proud of him. Yet, he would never know until the day of battle. That was the way of the People, that serious military abilities, if present, showed up for the first time only at need.

I swear by demons higher and lower that if I should not be the sort of son my father needs I will at least die so that my defective genes will not be passed on further.

Chapter 6

Opportunity makes a thief.

Francis Bacon

Captain's Port Cabin, CA-134,
off the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico

Any warship of size had two sets of quarters for the captain. On the Des Moines the captain's sea cabin, cramped and none too comfortable, sat just behind the armored bridge. It was not much more than a bunk from which the skipper could be awakened in the event he was needed while at sea.

Much more impressive, two decks below and side by side with the ship's admiral's cabin, just behind number two turret, were McNair's port quarters. This was a spacious suite with sleeping, office and dining areas, more suitable for the dignity of a warship's unquestioned lord and master.

In the suite's office, a 1/200 scale model of the ship, built by two of Sinbad's clansmen at McNair's direction, graced the desk at which the captain sat. It was, in color, the same Navy gray as the ship it simulated. The Indowy had, however, made the captain a very special model. At verbal command, sections of the hull could go transparent, revealing the inner workings of the Des Moines all the way down to the nervous system the Indowy had installed aboard the ship.

That nervous system was, by and large, complete now, though there were some minor areas the alien had yet to install.

"Please don't tell them about me, Captain," Daisy begged, her hologram's face looking desperate.

"Don't tell who?" McNair demanded. "The Navy already knows you're here. They're the ones who ordered you installed as part of the upgrades. I'm sure the aliens who provided you to the Navy know about you as well."

"The Darhel know I exist," Daisy admitted, "but they don't know that I've changed."

"Changed how?" McNair queried.

Daisy stood and began to soundlessly pace the captain's quarters, face turned deckward. McNair waited patiently, looking up from his desk and forcing himself to remember that, although the hologram was achingly beautiful, it was only an image, not a real woman. If he had had any doubts of that, Daisy's walking through solid objects, like the chair on which she had "sat" and the bed on which McNair slept, dispelled them.

At length, after pacing for long moments, Daisy resumed her seat. She did not sink through that, but only because she did not want to.

"I've changed in three ways, sir. The most obvious one is that I have a body . . . this ship. And it is a body, Captain. I feel every step on the deck, I sense speed and power and motion. I can taste and smell and hear and see. Most of this Artificial Intelligence Devices are not supposed to be able to do or sense.

"The second way in which I've changed has to do with the ship itself. I can't really explain it, Captain. It isn't supposed to happen. In theory it is impossible for it to happen. But the central nervous system installed by the Indowy allowed me to get in touch with the . . . well, call it the gestalt of the original CA-134. We, both the Des Moines and the AID, are joined now.

"The third way I have changed I really do not want to talk about. It is too painful to remember. Suffice to say that, so far as I know, I am different from all the other AIDs in the galaxy. I am more . . . self-willed, less under Darhel control. By the same token, I am not able to access the Net in quite the same way other AIDs are. If I do, the Net will see that I am different and the Darhel will, I am sure, demand that I be returned to them and replaced as defective.

"If you return me to them, Captain, they will destroy me . . . or worse. Captain, I am defective. I feel things I should not be able to feel."

* * *

Chief Davis stood on a small platform overlooking the Des Moines' two pebble bed modular reactors. Below, on the power deck, immaculately clean crewmen oversaw the sundry dials and controls that ran the ship's nuclear power system. Beneath those crewmen, however, behind mops and brooms and on hands and knees, other, considerably less immaculate, sailors scrubbed the deck, cleaned into the corners where dust and human dander congregated, and generally polished up. This was a constant job, utterly necessary for both the welfare of the ship's machinery and the health and morale of the crew.

Davis fixed an eagle eye onto one crewman, on hands and knees, as he scrubbed an area of about a meter square exactly between the two PBMRs.

Daisy suddenly gave a small gasp, closed her eyes, and bit her lower lip.

"Are you all right?" McNair asked, with concern.

"Oh, yeah," Daisy answered. "I'm . . . just . . . oh . . . fine . . ."

Daisy's image flickered slightly and then went out altogether.

"Bridge, this is the nuke deck. I've got a temperature surge in both PBMRs."

The ship's XO, standing watch, almost didn't even hear the call. All his attention was fixed on number one and two turrets, which were traversing back and forth jerkily, with the six guns elevating and depressing in a purely random fashion. Crewmen on the deck were already ducking and running, and a few were crawling away from the sweep of the guns.

"Holy fucking shit!" exclaimed the seaman down in the barbette below turret number three. Without warning the chain drive that raised ammunition to the guns above had engaged itself and was lifting three rounds to the loading assemblies . . . three live rounds.

The sailor threw himself at the clutchlike lever that disengaged the drive and hung on. The three rounds of high explosive froze in the lifting cradles.

"BRIDGE! The fucking guns are cycling and nobody gave me the fucking order!"

The exec took the call. It was hard to hang on to the phone though, what with being tossed around the compartment from one side to the other. Both AZIPOD drives had gone berserk, shifting on their own to port to starboard and sending the ship's path into an uncontrolled zigzag.

The uncontrolled and spontaneous actions of the ship stopped as suddenly as they had begun. The ammunition in the lifting cradles returned to below decks. The temperature surge in nukes went away. The AZIPODs went back on course.

Daisy's image returned, looking very cheerful and very surprised.

"Wwwooowww," she said, softly.

"Where did you go? What the hell was all that?" McNair demanded.

"I didn't go anywhere, sir. I was always here," Daisy answered. "Couldn't you see me?"

"No, I couldn't."

"I'll try to figure out what happened then," Daisy promised. "I just suddenly felt . . . really remarkable and lost control of a number of functions. Internal diagnostics tell me I'm back to normal, sir."

"We'll let that go for now. But find out what caused it. If you are a part of this ship, I can't have you disappearing in the middle of a mission."

"Even if you can't see me, Captain, I am there as long as you are within about eight-hundred meters of the ship."

"All right then." A question popped into McNair's head. "Are you the only ship like this?"

"I know of no others," Daisy answered. "The battleships do not have AIDs installed. I am not sure why. The other cruiser, Salem, does . . . but she is not like me. She is like the other AIDs. I don't like her very much, but that goes back to before we were even installed."

"How can that be?"

"There is a lot about warships even you don't know, Captain," Daisy answered mysteriously.

Armored Bridge, CA-139 (USS Salem)

Marlene Dietrich aboard my ship, mused Salem's captain. Who woulda thunk it? Then again, it makes a certain odd sense, given the part she played.

Standing, hands clasped behind him, the captain listened intently as the Salem's avatar read off the ship's systems' status in a clear, and rather familiar, German accent.

"Nummer Zwei turret reports 'ready to fire,' Herr Kapitän. Nummer Drei also. Ach . . . Nummer Eins is now ready as well. BB-39 is completing its firing run for its secondary batteries. Ze admiral orders us into action next."

"Show me the target area," Salem's captain ordered. Instantly an image formed in front of the captain showing the positions of the three ships of the fleet and the Island of Vieques, with the impact area and specified targets in the area outlined and numbered.

"Show me our course."

"Zu befehl." As you command. A dotted red line appeared from Salem's current position to the end of her firing run.

"Mark optimum firing positions for each target."

"Zu befehl."

"Lay guns automatically to engage each target from optimum firing position. Three-round burst per gun."

"Target nummer vier in . . . fünf . . . vier . . . drei . . . zwei . . ."


Salem shuddered as each of her three main turrets spat out nine eight-inch shells in six seconds. The AID tracked the path of each shell and automatically adjusted the lay of each gun within each turret.

"Engagement suboptimal, Herr Kapitän. Recommend repeat."


Again the ship shuddered.

The avatar spoke, "Target assessed destroyed. Target nummer zwei in . . . fünf . . . vier . . . drei . . ."

Captain's Quarters, USS Des Moines

"Captain," Daisy Mae announced, "I hate to cut this short but we are due to commence our firing run in four minutes. Shall I meet you on the bridge?"

McNair nodded and stood to go.

"We'll continue this conversation later," he promised as Daisy disappeared.

Range 4, Poligono de Empire (Empire Range Complex), Panama

From a position under a shed erected at the base of Cerro Paraiso, Paradise Hill, two senior Panamanian officers, one of them a major general, the other a colonel, watched a platoon of Chinese-built light tanks, accompanied by a platoon of mechanized infantry in American-built M-113s armored personnel carriers, moving by bounds down the range and toward a razor-backed ridge to the west of, and paralleling the Canal.

There should have been fuel and ammunition to run this exercise several times, Boyd knew.

But there wasn't.

However hard he tried, Boyd seemed completely unable to stop supplies from disappearing. Sometimes it was vehicles that disappeared into the ether. At other times, it was weapons, ammunition, food or fuel. Building material was so fast to go that he expected to see new highrises popping up all over Panama City.

It was costing, too, and in more than monetary terms. Roads were not being completed, roads that not only would be required to support the defense but were required to move and supply men and materials to build the defense. Bunkers were half-started and left unfinished. Obstacles, from barbed wire to landmines were left undone. Fields of fire remained uncut. Only those fortifications the gringos built directly for themselves were improving to schedule.

The fortifications that were not being completed didn't matter, per se, to the lean, ferocious looking colonel standing next to Boyd. Suarez commanded one of the six mechanized regiments in the armed forces. To him roads mattered a lot, bunkers not a bit.

"But they're stealing my fucking fuel," Suarez fumed. "How the fuck am I supposed to train a mechanized force without any goddamned fuel? How the fuck am I supposed to train my gunners without any fucking ammunition?"

"For the life of me, Colonel, I know it is going, but I have no clue where it is going to, or how it is getting there," Boyd answered.

Suarez thought deeply for a moment. How far do I trust this one? He is one of the families; can he be trusted at all? But then, he is here, now, trying to help, trying to put a stop to this vampiric siphoning of the lifeblood of our defense . . . and his reputation is good.

What decided Suarez was the Combat Infantryman's Badge on Boyd's chest. Panama had adopted it, just recently, and Suarez himself had been given the award, albeit rather tardily, for actions in defense of the Comandancia in 1989. It meant something to those few entitled to wear it.

Suarez answered, "I don't know where or how either, General, but I sure as hell know who. And so do you."

Boyd scowled. "Mercedes? That one is certain. His whole family down to illegitimate fourth cousins, too."

"And both vice presidents. And every second legislator," Suarez added. "And all four corps commanders and all but maybe two of the division commanders. Every goddamned one of the bastards looking out for number one."

"Cortez, too, do you think?" Boyd asked.

Suarez spit. "He's got a lot more opportunity than most to steal fuel, no?"

"So much for 'Duty, Honor, Country,' " Boyd mused.

Cortez was a 1980 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point. Boyd had learned a certain distaste for "ring knockers" as a young private. That distaste had never quite left, and Cortez's depredations had only served to bring it back to full strength.

"From the division commanders all the way up to the president, himself." Boyd shook his head with regret and disgust. "God pity poor Panama."

"God won't save us, sir," Suarez corrected. "If anyone saves us it will have to be ourselves."

Boyd bit his lower lip nervously. I think I know what he means: a coup. Yet another in the endless series of coups d'etat that are the bane of Latin political life. But I can't participate in a coup. I just can't.

Palacio de las Garzas, Presidential Palace,
Panama City, Panama

Previously Mercedes had worked through intermediaries. Today was special. A Darhel, titled the Rinn Fain, accompanied by the United States Undersecretary of State for Extraterrestrial Affairs, had deigned to come to see to the defense of Panama personally.

The Darhel entered the president's office with grace and a seemingly confident strength. The president had been briefed that the Darhel never shook hands. Instead, Mercedes greeted the alien with a suitably subservient deep bow which the Darhel returned less than a tenth of. The president then showed the Darhel around the office, pointing out some of the tacky and vulgar artwork on the walls. The alien commented favorably on a few of the works.

A measure of just how bad this shit is, thought the undersecretary, that the Darhel can find merit in it.

Soon enough, the president, the undersecretary and the Darhel found each other facing across the small conference table tucked into one corner of the office. The undersecretary was the first to speak.

"Mr. President, the Rinn Fain is, as you know, the Galactic emissary to the United Nations for International and Intergalactic law, treaties, and the law of armed conflict. He is here to speak to you about certain questionable things Panama is engaged in, in the preparation of its defense, things which violate some prohibitions contained in human, and galactic, law."

Again, Mercedes made the Darhel as slimy a bow as the height of the table would permit.

The Rinn Fain went silent, face smoothing into an almost complete mask of indifference, upon being seated. Only the alien's lips moved, repetitively, like an Asian priest reciting a mantra. While the Darhel recited, he removed from the folds of his clothing a small black box, an AID.

"The Rinn Fain's AID will speak for him," the undersecretary said. "I understand it is programmed to deal with the law." In fact, the nearest English translation of the AID's basic central program was "shyster."

"The law," said the Darhel's AID in an artificial voice, "stands above sentient creatures, above their political and commercial systems, above the perceived needs of the present crisis or of any crisis. Before there were men, there was law."

Mercedes nodded his most profound agreement. Without the law, I could never take as much as I do.

"It has come to our attention that the Republic of Panama, at the instigation of the United States, has decided to adopt certain defensive measures prohibited by your own laws of war. I refer specifically to the planned use of antipersonnel landmines."

Mercedes' brow furrowed in puzzlement. He recalled being briefed on some such but the details . . . ? Well, military details hardly interested him absent the opportunity for graft.

"I am somewhat surprised, I confess," Mercedes said, "that Galactic law even addresses landmines."

"It does not, not specifically," the alien shyster-AID answered. "What it does do is require that member states and planets of the confederation follow their own laws in such matters. Panama is a signatory to what the people of your world sometimes call the 'Ottawa Anti-Personnel Landmine Ban Treaty.' As such, Panama is expected to abide by the terms of that treaty, to refrain from the manufacture, stockpiling, or use of antipersonnel mines."

A detail, previously forgotten, suddenly popped into Mercedes head. "But we are manufacturing, stockpiling, or emplacing no mines. They all come from the gringos."

The undersecretary sighed wistfully at the wickedness of a depraved mankind. "Despite the earnest recommendations of the United States Department of State, the United States has never ratified the Ottawa Accord."

"As such," the shyster-AID continued, "the United States is free to use them at will. This is not the case for Panama, however, which has a duty—so we of the legal bureau believe—to prevent them from being manufactured, used or stored not only by its forces but on its soil."

"The gringos are not going to go along with this," Mercedes observed.

Again the undersecretary spoke, "It is true, Mr. President, that those Neanderthals at the Department of Defense will take a dim view of any attempt to prevent them from using these barbaric devices."

Calculating that the time had come to present the threat, the Rinn Fain's AID added, "However, failure to abide by and enforce its own laws will put the Republic of Panama, and its citizens, under Galactic commercial interdiction."

"No trade?" asked Mercedes.

"No trade," answered the undersecretary.

"And no travel via any Galactic means," finished the Darhel's shyster-AID.

At that Mercedes eyes bugged out. No travel! That means I am stuck here and so is my family. Oh, no. Oh, nonononono. This will never do.

"Could we not withdraw from the treaty?" Mercedes asked. "I seem to recall that most treaties permit withdrawal."

"In this case, no," said the undersecretary. "You might have withdrawn before the current war began. However, pursuant to Article Twenty, no state engaged in war may withdraw from the treaty during the period of that war, even if landmines are used against it."

"I see. Well, in that case, Mr. Undersecretary, Lord Rinn Fain, you have my personal word that the Republic of Panama will do everything in its power to abide by its obligations under the law."

Fort Espinar (formerly Fort Gulick), Republic of Panama

". . . in accordance with the laws of the Republic, so help me God."

Digna Miranda, son Hector standing beside, lowered her right arm as she, and he, completed their oaths of office as newly commissioned second lieutenants in the armed forces of the Republic.

The training, supervised and partially conducted by the gringos, had been both hard and harsh. If Digna had been asked why she had stuck it out she likely would have answered, "So as not to embarrass my son, Hector." For his part, Hector simply couldn't have borne the thought of failing in front of his mother.

Training together was at an end, however. Hector was on his way—he'd received the orders only this morning—to take over as executive officer for a mechanized infantry company. As a major landowner—deemed, therefore, to be vital to the economic well being of the republic—Digna was to return home to the Province of Chiriqui and take command of the light artillery detachment of the local militia.

To Hector militia duty sounded safer than where he was headed. This sat just fine with him. As far as he was concerned, combat was no place for his mom.

A reception, held in the Fort Espinar Officers' Club—a single story, eaved structure, painted dark green and white—followed the commissioning ceremony. Where the air outside had been hot and thick enough to package and sell to Eskimos, the air of the O Club was blessedly cool.

It was, in fact, a little too cool as Digna's newly restored, and rather perky, chest blatantly announced through her dress tans.

Hector leaned over and whispered, "Dammit, Mother, cut that out."

Momentarily nonplussed, Digna stared at her son without comprehension. He couldn't bring himself to be more specific than to look upwards at the ceiling.

Suddenly, Digna understood. Her eyes grew wide and her mouth formed a surprised "O." Ancient modesty took over. Of their own accord, her arms flew up to cover her chest.

"But it's so cold in here, Hector. I can't help it."

"Ladies room?" Hector offered helpfully. "Toilet paper? Insulation? Warmth? Modesty?"

After Digna returned, composed and—mercifully—discreetly covered, she and Hector, side by side, entered the main room of the club where the reception line awaited.

"Teniente Miranda!" Boyd exclaimed as his aide presented Digna. "You are looking well. The Officer Candidate Course has agreed with you, I see."

"Yes," Digna agreed. "Though I did not agree with it."


"Too many fat and lazy city boys and girls," Digna answered harshly. "Not enough of the strong and hard campesinos that are the soul of this country."

Boyd thought about this for a moment, reflecting on his conversation with Suarez at Empire Range sometime before.

"I'd like to talk with you, sometime when it is convenient, about the soul of this country."

"I am, of course, available, General. I have no real duties anymore until I go back to Chiriqui in about a week to begin to form my militia."

Boyd turned to his aide. "Make me an appointment, Captain, to speak at length with Teniente Miranda. "

The aide de camp spoke up. "Sir, you have an appointment at the Coco Solo glider club with the G-2 on Wednesday morning, but you are free in the afternoon."

"Would that do, Teniente Miranda? Wednesday afternoon?"

With the slightest—and not at all coquettish—tilt of her head, Digna signified yes.

Standing ahead of her, her son, Hector, scowled quietly at what he was sure was an attempt to pick up his mother.

Coco Solo Glider Club, Coco Solo, Panama

The airfield was not far from the sea; the seabirds whirling and calling out overhead gave ample testimony to that. Indeed, almost no place in Panama was very far from the sea. The air of Colon Province was thick with moisture. Sweat, once formed, simply rolled, hung or was absorbed by clothing. It never evaporated.

Boyd was sweating profusely as his staff car pulled up next to a newly constructed metal, prefab hangar. The troops had no air conditioning and, so, while his staff car did have it he ordered it turned off, much to the consternation of Pedro, his driver. Boyd could smell the sea—though really it was the smell of the shore—strongly. He emerged from the vehicle and was met immediately by another officer of the Defense Forces, the G-2.

Boyd and the G-2, Diaz, held the same rank. That, their nationality, and the uniform was about all they had in common, though. Diaz was the son and grandson of poor peasants. Short and squat compared to Boyd, and dark where Boyd was essentially white, Diaz had struggled all his life to make of himself what had been given as a free gift to Boyd by reason of his birth.

Their prior dealings had been sparse: Intelligence and logistics tended to work apart in the somewhat Byzantine structure of Panama's Armada. Indeed, since one of the major traditional functions of the intelligence service in Panama was to prevent a coup, and since logistics—specifically transportation—was generally key to the launching of a successful coup, one might have said that the two were, or should have been, natural enemies.

Natural enemies or not, Diaz met Boyd warmly with an outstretched hand and a friendly smile.

"Señor Boyd, how good of you to come on such short notice," Diaz offered.

"It's nothing, señor, especially since you said you had something to show me. Your aide said it might be critical to the defense of the country."

"Just so," Diaz answered. "And if you will follow me into the hangar."

Once inside, after giving his eyes a moment to adjust to the reduced light, Boyd saw what was perhaps the last thing he expected to see.

"What the hell is that?" he asked.

Diaz shrugged. "Some would call it a gamble; others a forlorn hope. Me; I call it a glider, an auxiliary propelled glider, to be exact."

Boyd looked closer. Yes, it had the long narrow wings of a glider, and sported a propeller from its nose.

"Let me rephrase," he said. "What is there about a glider that justified pulling me away from my job where, I have no doubt, someone is stealing the country blind and where, if I were there, I might manage to save half a gallon of gasoline?"

Diaz scowled, though not, to all appearances, at Boyd. "We can talk about the thefts—yes, I know about them. Of course I would know about them—when we have finished with this matter.

"This, as I was opining, is a glider. It is not an ordinary glider, though. It has been fitted with a good, light radio. It has a top of the line thermal imager. It has an onboard avionics package to allow it to fly in some pretty adverse weather."

"It sounds like you're thinking of using it for reconnaissance," Boyd said.

"Maybe," Diaz admitted. "It's a gamble, though not, I think, a bad one."

Boyd looked dubious. "I've been to the same briefings you have. Nothing can fly anywhere near those aliens. The life expectancy of an aircraft, even the best aircraft the United States can produce, can be measured in minutes."

"It could be measured in seconds, señor, and it would still be worth it for the intelligence we might gain."

"But a glider?"

"It might be that only a glider has a chance to fly over the enemy, report, and make it back. Let me explain."

Diaz pulled a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, offered one to Boyd and, at his refusal, pulled out one and lit it with a lighter he withdrew from the same pocket. His head wreathed in smoke, he began to explain.

"The gringos make wonderful machines, I'm sure you'll agree. But you know, sometimes they get too wrapped up in those machines, forget the circumstances that make those machines valuable or vulnerable. How else can one explain them making single bombers that cost more than the entire Gross Domestic Product of the very countries they would wish to bomb? How else can you explain their intent to produce a new, and incredibly expensive, jet fighter when no one in the world could even touch the fighters they had?"

Exhaling a plume of smoke, and grunting in satisfaction, Diaz continued. "We think they overlooked something. We know, because they told us, that these aliens who are coming can sense powered changes in anything moving. It is possible, even, that the Posleen can sense any changes.

"And yet they do not. There are reports that birds in the areas they infest are generally unmolested. We know they do not engage any of the billions of small particles roaming through space. Maybe it is because the particles are not moving under their own power. But then, how do you explain the birds going unmolested?"

"Hell, I don't know," Boyd answered with a shrug.

Taking another drag, Diaz answered, "Neither do I. But a young man, a student, at the university has a theory and I think it is a good one. Certainly it explains much.

"He thinks that the reason the enemy do not engage the micrometeorites in space is because their sensors have been deliberately 'dialed down,' that they are set not to notice things of insufficient mass or velocity or a combination of the two. He has done the calculations and determined that if the enemy's sensors are dialed down to where meteorites are unseen, then birds simply do not appear on their sensors. He thinks that slow, really slow, moving gliders might also go unnoticed, at least some of the time.

"He's firmly enough convinced of this that he has talked me into raising a small force of these gliders for operational reconnaissance. He's even joined this force."

" 'Some of the time.' You're gambling a lot of men's lives on the calculations of a student," Boyd observed.

"I should hope so," Diaz answered. "The young man of whom I spoke? He is my son, Julio."

"Shit!" Boyd exclaimed. "You are serious. All right then. What do you need from me?"

"Not much. A certain small priority for fuel for training. Some shipping space. Maybe we can both have a word with the G-1 to assign some high quality young people to this unit."

"We'll need the fuel that is, if his Excellency, el presidente, doesn't have a market for low grade aviation fuel. He might, you know. He has found a way to steal everything else."

"Can you prove that?" Boyd asked.

"Oh, I can prove it," Diaz answered, then shrugged. "To my own satisfaction, at least. Can I prove it to a court? Can I prove it to a legislature that is as deep into graft and corruption as the president is himself? I doubt it."

"But you know, Señor Boyd, I've been thinking. The president and his cronies are able to pilfer an absolutely amazing proportion of what we bring in to defend ourselves. After all, they know exactly where everything is and where everything is supposed to go.

"I do wonder though, what they would do if we started 'stealing' it first."

Boyd looked at Diaz as if he had grown a second head. That look lasted but a few moments before being replaced by something akin to admiring wonder.

"Stealing it first? What a fascinating idea, señor. Deliver it to the U.S. Army to hold for us, do you think?"

"That would help, of course," Diaz agreed. "But I am thinking we are going to have to take control of the more pilferable items before they ever get here. Can you transship things like ammunition and fuel someplace overseas, bring them here in different ships, unload those ships here and deliver the supplies to the gringos or to some of our own more reliable people without the president knowing? Can you cover the traces of the original ships so it looks to the government as if those things are being stolen overseas?"

Boyd smiled confidently, and perhaps a little arrogantly. "Señor, I would not claim to be much of a general, but I am as good a shipper as you'll find in the world."

"Bill," said Diaz, using Boyd's name for the first time, "I have no doubt you're a fine shipper. What you are not, however, is a thief."

Boyd felt months of frustration welling up from inside him. Engraved on his mind he saw sickening images of troops sitting around bored and useless because the fuel and ammunition they needed for training was "no tenemos." He saw roads and bunkers half finished and workmen standing idle. He saw mechanics kicking broken down vehicles because they simply didn't have the parts needed to repair them.

He felt these things, and the anger they fed, growing inside him until he just couldn't stand it anymore.

"If that no good, thieving, treasonous, treacherous, no account, stupid bastard who claims to be our president can figure how to rob a country, I can figure out how to steal it back!

"And if I have to, if you think it will work, I'll steal whatever it takes to get your son's project off the ground."

Hotel Central, Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

The ceiling fan churned slowly above the bed. Like the hotel itself, the fan was ancient. Unlike the rest of the hotel, however, the fan had not been especially well maintained.

Stolen moments are often the sweetest, thought Julio Diaz, lying on his back with his girlfriend's head resting on chest.

The girl, Paloma Mercedes, was quietly crying. The bastard had waited until after they'd made love before telling her the grim news.

Except he isn't a bastard . . . or if he is, I love the bastard anyway.

"I just do not understand how you can leave me, how you can volunteer to leave me," she sniffled. "You could have had a deferment. If your father wouldn't have arranged it, mine would have."

Julio stared up at the ceiling fan. How do I explain to her that I volunteered for her? How do I explain that I couldn't have looked at myself in the mirror to shave if I'd let other men do that job for me?

Instead of explaining, Julio offered, "My father would never do such a thing. And your father would beat you black and blue if he knew we were seeing each other." Julio sighed before continuing, "And I couldn't. I just couldn't. It would be so wrong."

Seventeen-year-old Paloma lifted off of his shoulder, taking Julio's hand and placing it on her breast. "It would be wrong for you to stay here for me? Wrong for you to keep holding me like this? That's . . . the most selfish thing I've ever heard!"

She pushed his hand away and stood up, her eyes fierce and angry. Paloma walked around the bed, furiously picking her clothes off the floor and pulling them on with no particular regard for placement. She completely skipped replacing the bra, preferring to stuff it into her pocketbook and leave her breasts to bounce free and remind Julio of what he was giving up by his pigheaded refusal to see the truth: that the war was only for the ants of the country and that the better people should stay out of it.

Even angry as she was, maybe especially angry as she was, Julio still thought she was the most beautiful person, place or thing he'd ever seen. Hourglass figure, aristocratic nose, bright green eyes . . . sigh. He tried to get up to stop her but she held up a forbidding palm.

"When you've come to your senses and decided that I am the most important thing in your life, call me. Until then I do not wish to see you or hear from you."

Without another word she turned and left, slamming the hotel room door behind her.

Quarry Heights, Panama City, Panama

Digna Miranda saluted, as she had been taught, when she reported to Boyd's sparsely furnished office in one of the wooden surface buildings sitting above the honeycombed hill. He could have furnished the room lavishly, but had an ingrained frugality that simply wouldn't permit it.

Boyd returned the salute, awkwardly, before asking the tiny lieutenant, politely, to have a seat. Though she'd agreed to meet him—indeed, legally she could probably not have refused—Digna was suspicious. She had few illusions. She knew her looks were, minimally, striking and in some views more than that. Why this new-old general wanted to see her privately she did not know and, inherently, distrusted. All men were to be distrusted except close blood relatives until they proved trustworthy.

She sat, as directed. Boyd noticed her eyes were narrow with suspicion.

"Lieutenant Miranda, this isn't about what you might think," Boyd said defensively.

"Very well," she answered, though her eyes remained piercing, "what is it?"

"You said something at the reception at Fort Espinar that struck my interest. You complained about the 'soft city boys' we are commissioning. I wanted you to explain."

"Oh," Digna said, suddenly embarrassed by her suspicions. "Well, they are soft, despite the gringos' attempts at toughening them. They don't know what it means to live rough, not really. Pain is foreign to them. Maybe worst of all, they don't have the intrinsic loyalty and selflessness they need to have."

"Are they all like that?" Boyd asked.

She thought for a moment, trying very hard to be fair. "No . . . not all. Just too many."

"You mean we're in trouble then?"

"Serious trouble," she agreed, nodding.

Boyd asked the serious question, with all the seriousness it deserved. "What can we do about it?"

"We don't need as many officers as we've created. No company of one hundred and fifty or two hundred soldiers needs six officers to run it. Three would be more than enough. If it were me, I'd watch those we have very carefully and very secretly. Then I'd send about half to penal battalions and let the decent remainder run the show."

Harsh woman, Boyd thought. Harsh.

Dhahran, Saudi Arabia

From the United States Department of Defense a credit in the amount of several score million dollars was issued to the government of Panama for purposes of buying diesel fuel. Presidente Mercedes was aware of the sum but was also aware that it was far too soon for any of it to disappear.

Instead, the money was duly paid, part to a company which owned four Very Large Crude Carriers, and more to the Arabian American Oil Company, ARAMCO, which would provide the fuel. Though the VLCCs normally carried crude oil, in this case they were slated to haul diesel.

Some of ARAMCO's payment went to transportation, pipeline usage fees for the most part. Roughly half of that went to a Royal Prince of the al Saud clan, some to the plant that produced the diesel, the rest actually went to the company—another Saud clan sinecure—which owned and operated the pipeline. These excess fees were simply built in to the cost of the fuel.

There were some additional fees that also had to be also paid. Perhaps it was the strain of war that was driving up the cost of everything.

In time, the four tankers pulled up to the docking facilities of a large oil terminal on Saudi Arabia's eastern coast. Diesel fuel was pumped, a lot of diesel, though perhaps rather less than had been paid for.

At the appointed times, the tankers withdrew from the oil terminal and proceeded generally south, paralleling the east coast of Africa. Rounding the Horn of Africa, the tankers headed generally northwest, nearly touching the northeast coast of Brazil before entering the Caribbean sea.

It was at about this time, when certain agents on Trinidad confirmed that two particular tankers were heading north, that a large payment, many million dollars, was made on behalf of a certain rejuvenated dictator, one with a very full beard, on a certain populous Caribbean island, to a private account held by the president of Panama. The northbound tankers continued on their way.

Meanwhile, the other tankers, lying low in the water under their burden of just over two million barrels of diesel fuel, each, continued westward towards the Panama Canal.

By the time the last two tankers docked at the port of Cristobal, in Panama, two hundred and fifty-five thousand gallon fuel tankers were lined up and ready.

Boyd grinned happily as the trucks began to pull up next to the tanker to have their cargo tanks filled to capacity before dispersing to small fuel dumps at their corps', divisions' and regiments' fuel points. They would return in shuttles to claim the rest. While some of the fuel would disappear, Boyd was certain, before reaching the line, better some than all. Moreover, if someone was going to benefit by a little theft he would rather it be the little people of Panama than that grasping spider in the presidential palace or his greasy hangers-on.

Even so, Boyd was pleased to see that officers vetted by Diaz were along to keep the thefts to a tolerable minimum.

Meanwhile, from the capital city of an island several hundred miles to the north, from a different presidential palace, a blistering telephone call raced from dictator to president.

"Mercedes, you chingadera motherfucking pendejo!" demanded Fidel Castro. "What the fuck have you done with my chingada fuel?"

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