The Cutthroat's Room, Fort Seng: It would appear that once Valentine's bedroom suite in the old mansion house belonged to someone named Cuthbert. THE CUTHBERT ROOM is carved in elegant letters on the door lintel.
Southern Command's soldiers, being who they are, defaced the beautiful woodwork in such a way that it now reads THE CUTTHROAT ROOM.
Many of Fort Seng's soldiers are better at fighting than spelling, it seems.
His quarters are sparse but not quite Spartan. Military billets were the only home he'd known since leaving the Northwoods at seventeen. He's done what he can to make this unusually lavish room his own.
Apart from the gun rack with his ready weapons, that mean-looking type three Atlanta Gunworks battle rifle and an unusually elegant 1911 Model .45, plus his blade and pick, legworm leathers, issue helmet, and combat harness.
A neat little .22 isn't visible, just as it is when he wears it. But it's in easy reach between the mattress and box spring.
Sketchwork covers the walls, picturesque ruins of old public buildings and burned brick structures around Evansville and Owensboro with new growth in the windows and feral cats lounging. They're not his art, they're the work of his Bear chief, the Carolinian named Gamecock.
There are also photos. A surprising number decorate the room on a byway of a big bulletin board salvaged from some office. To those who do not know him well, the little collection of pictures hung in protective plastic baggies-the experienced might recognize the plastic polymer as Ordnance ID sleeves-might seem bewildering. It's hard to gauge who those depicted are and how old Valentine was when he met them because he's featured in so few of the shots.
You can hardly see a young, sunburned, shorn young Valentine standing, holding a shovel comically at "present arms" with a group dressed in Labor Battalion overalls outside of a fortified enclave gate reading Weening. A young Asian girl standing beside him makes a classic two-finger addition to his hairline. There's a shot of a group of soldiers in Wolf leathers showing a mixed group of men and Grogs how to use a Southern Command machine gun, and a picture of a smiling family cutting the ribbon on a prefabricated pole-barn gate, two pretty blond daughters each holding half the shears. A gangly black youth holds two cows ready for entry into their new home.
There's a shot of Ahn-Kha digging up a massive heartroot-a Golden One staple-for a group of interested farmers and uniformed people. There's also a picture of a ship with a big gun on the bow and armoring around the bridge and weapon points tied up at a coastal wharf. A photo of a lithe little girl, black hair flying as she chases some seagulls on a sunny beach, shows signs of having been trimmed with a scissors. A newspaper clipping of someone named "Hank Smalls" smiling and holding a game ball after pitching a no-hitter in game one of the Transmississippi All-School pennant occupies a prominent place.
There's a picture of a salt-and-pepper-haired man in a wheelchair flying down a hill as a woman on his lap hangs on for dear life. Another one shows Valentine at the very back of a serious-looking crowd of bearded men who might be Mennonites standing in front of a massive rock etched with letters.
A photo stamped SOUTHERN COMMAND VERIFIED RELEASE depicts a group of soldiers climbing off a riverbank boat, all wearing shiny, tinfoil skullcaps. A brand-new shot of a commanding-looking woman standing in front of some off-road vehicles with an assortment of hirelings soldiers is a new addition, as the shot is a professionally printed eight-by-ten and Valentine is clearly having trouble finding a protective frame. Her agedbut-still-handsome features and almost prim appearance contrast nicely with the armed men behind. Only Bears wear their atavistic garb of bones and teeth dangling off or pinning together captured Reaper robes with such lethal aplomb.
There's one newspaper clipping of himself, a shot that made it into Southern Command's war museum, in fact, of David Valentine sitting mud-splattered in a command car next to the big golden Grog who now slumbers on the floor of his room.
David Valentine had forgotten how much the smell and sound of Ahn-Kha comforted him. The Golden One's vast presence was like having your old family dog sleeping nearby. Only better. The old family dog can't knock a Reaper off its feet with one swing of its fist.
As Ahn-Kha slept, bleeding heat like a cooling potbellied stove, Valentine read by a tiny shake-and-glow clip light. The light began to dim, and Valentine picked up the light, shook it vigorously until it visibly brightened, and then returned it to its magnetic cradle.
Every time he did this routine, he marveled at the wonders the world used to produce. To only know the pre-22 world from New Universal Church propaganda, you'd think the old United States produced nothing but pollution, illness, and hunger. But still they made lights like this, still going strong almost a lifetime later.
Not quite as good as those Lifeweaver crystals, of course, which would shine brightly all night if left in the sun for an hour or so. He'd once had one, lost it in Nebraska when he was captured by the Twisted Cross.
With difficulty and care, he turned a page of the spineless mass of print he was reading.
Valentine had never seen a document composed entirely of wastepaper repurposed as manuscript pages. Two great wads of it, rolled up and filling a plastic-lined leather map tube that Ahn-Kha had evidently stitched together and sealed against the elements. Ahn-Kha had written mostly in English but here and there in his own language-the printing looked like a cross between Viking runes and mathematical formulas. Every now and then there were little pyramids of writing with horizontal lines between.
"What are those?" he'd asked the Grog while he was still awake.
"Names. In my language. In case it fell into the wrong hands."
"Didn't they ever find it?"
Ahn-Kha had been around humans enough to imitate a shrug. "It was my pillow. It looked like a big roll of wastepaper wrapped up in a towel. Remember, my David, they didn't know I could write."
"I had no idea you were such a diarist."
Valentine fell asleep reading about a mine revolt in Kentucky, marveling at his friend's eye for detail.
He brought it up over breakfast, where Ahn-Kha was taking up two seats and three-quarters of the table. At the rate his friend was eating well-salted hard-boiled eggs, they'd have to add a few more chicken coops.
"If I didn't know better, old horse, I'd think you were thinking about publishing your memoir. Some of your descriptions get a little rich for a military report."
Ahn-Kha bit his hard-boiled egg, shell and all, and salted the remaining half before popping it like a pill.
"My David, like many of my kind, I have a poor memory for that which I don't see, smell, do, and touch every day, or has been taught to me in song or rhyme. Set the letter 'V' of your dictionary to music, and I should improve my skills in your language for the rest of my days-but to look something up once and then remember it, that is very hard for me. I remember the manner in which we were-what was your word-de-"
"Debriefed, yes. I remember the manner in which we were debriefed. The volume of information and detail we were expected to provide on that which we'd seen once, and briefly-I started taking notes early on."
"I remember you writing on some old kid's tablets during the drive on Dallas. But to keep a diary when the Kurian Order's sending you underground in chains-that takes dedication."
"The practice kept despair at bay at first. Later, once the practice had worn down and rutted deep into habit, it became a way of clearing my head for sleep at night. Whatever my problem, if it had been put down on paper, it could be reread and rethought with the dawn. Never underestimate the power of a good night's sleep."
"Depends on what you're dreaming about," Valentine said. Valentine rarely slept really well, being troubled by dreams. Alcohol drove away the dreams, but he didn't care for the other side effects. Sex brought an emotional purge and exhausted oblivion, but it seemed doubtful that he'd see Caral again anytime soon. Or Tikka, who was leading the Army of Kentucky. With the Ordnance still looking for a way to reclaim Kentucky from the north and Atlanta probing at their southern flanks and the AOK healing the wounds inflicted by the ravies outbreak, she had better things to do than recreational lovemaking.
Valentine cleared his desk and spent the day touring Fort Seng with Ahn-Kha, introducing him to the NCOs and as many of the troops as possible. Golden Ones were gifted engineers, and Ahn-Kha quietly offered suggestions for a second river landing and a new road linking the artillery positions with the motor pool.
The motor pool had grown since Valentine last inspected all the vehicles. They'd captured some light armor from the Northwest Ordnance when they moved in on the winter offensive in the wake of the ravies outbreak and were working on refits using bits and bobs scavenged from Evansville.
A messenger found them atop one of the scout cars, testing the rotating ring for a machine gun. Both had oil on skin and fur.
"Colonel Lambert requests the Major's company at a working dinner, sir," the recruit relayed.
Valentine didn't recognize the boy. New recruits, most from the Kentucky backwoods desperate for new clothes, a bed, and chances of pay started out as messengers so they could learn the location of the companies and the officers and NCOs of the base. The best Lambert kept, the others went across the river to join Evansville's home guard regiment now training under Fort Seng's supervision.
Valentine acknowledged the request and fought off a groan. Lambert and her working dinners.
The outer office was empty by the time he'd showered and changed his shirt. Valentine heard voices from the base com center across the hall.
He knocked and was invited in. The air was so thick with smoke it formed its own weather system. He saluted and sat at the usual polite invitation, slouching a little to get his head below the worst of the fog bank.
Valentine admired Lambert, for all her taste for cold sandwiches and milk surrounded by baskets of flimsies.
If the weight of keeping over a thousand fighting men of ad hoc backgrounds and muchly inclined to killing each other a few short months ago fed, sheltered, healthy, all the while improving their integration and skills, she didn't show it. Her eyes looked bright and alert, not a hair out of place, and her blotchy gray-green uniform could have been photographed and used as an example in an officer's reference manual.
She was a skilled officer when it came to keeping the brigade's rolling stock on the rails. She was also a by-the-book officer in her thinking. To Lambert's indisputably agile mind, better and more experienced heads than hers had laid down the tracks the military machine ran on-her job was to keep everything in repair and on schedule. Her one big attempt to lay down some new tracks had ended in near-disaster last year, a year of almost uninterrupted failure for the forces of freedom. Since assuming command of the tired, whittled-down remains of Operation Javelin in Fort Seng last year, she'd been even more of a stickler than she'd been in her days running the War College's administration, when everyone had called her "Dots" because of her thoroughness at dotting i's and crossing t's.
She gestured to an elegant carafe and went back to rapidly filling out a Southern Command report in neat block letters.
A year or two younger than he, Valentine had first met her as a newly promoted lieutenant attending the old war college in Pine Bluff.
Lambert lifted her short churchwarden pipe, relit, and took another puff.
"Tobacco is my vice," Lambert said.
Valentine's shock was authentic. "You admit to a vice, sir?"
She smiled. "Purely privately, Valentine. If you go public, I'll say I only smoke to cover the B.O. from the Bears."
"Good stuff," Valentine said, sniffing the air. It wasn't the usual mix of tar and bark, sometimes blended with a little hemp, one smelled when the real tobacco ran out.
"Gamecock has some connection in Lexington who knows another Carolina boy who knows someone else in Chattanooga and so on all the way back to the Cooper and Santee. They keep me supplied. It comes in with the Army of Kentucky mail."
Valentine sipped his water and took a bite of a sandwich. The bread needed salt and the shredded legworm meat tasted like it had just come from the smokehouse.
"Read your report on finding your big friend and your notes on those Texas-sized rodents our friend Pellwell trains. Anything you want to add off-paper?"
"No. But I'd like to keep Pellwell and her ratbits, if she'll stay."
"She'd stay at the mouth of hell if she can have her hairy band with her doing mischief, I suspect," Lambert said. "The Kurians will come up with a countermeasure, they always do. They'll probably come up with something that eats them or a bug that kills them. I'm sure we're only waiting on a batch of Reapers immune to Quickwood. They ought to show up right about the time we go into full production on the Quickwood bullets."
"We'll still kill a batch in the meantime, sir," Valentine said.
Lambert took another long, slow puff at her pipe. "That's what makes you unique, Val."
"Excuse me, sir?"
"Back when Stoyachowski and I were running our special operations department, we had her collection of 'Wild Cards.' Yeah, we took the name from her 'Bear' handle. We both knew you were one for the books."
Lambert wasn't free with compliments beyond the usual polite phrases. Of course, "one for the books" might not be a compliment.
"Could you explain, sir?"
"The hunters should be our best and toughest. They are, but they never last. Take the Cats-most quit after one trip in country. The rest-two, three, four outs and they were finished. Some go out again and never come back, others quit. The Bears are even worse. Like someone had planted rotten seeds in them, they sprouted differently, but it was always ugly. Some had the sense to request a transfer, others started in on drink and drugs and took themselves out of the TOE that way."
"I saw it in the Wolves, sir," Valentine said, wondering where this was headed. "My first hitch, with LeHavre, the senior lieutenant drank his way to a quiet desk job. Some go into the logistics commandos when they can't take the strain anymore."
"The Wolves wear out, the Cats disappear, and the Bears die violently. So what's your secret, Valentine? Do the seeds of self-destruction get in but never germinate?"
Valentine didn't know if he could tell her the truth-that he liked it. That truth was still something he was coming to grips with. The shadow inside, nibbling away at his soul every time he killed. In his darker moments, he wondered if he didn't thrive on blood in the manner of the Kurians and their Reaper avatars.
He thought it best to shift the subject.
"Actually, I wanted to talk to you about that, sir. Duvalier may be due for a rest. A year or two back in the Ozarks with good food-"
"My permission isn't the problem. She's not about to leave you any more than Bee. Nice dodge on that question, by the way."
He sat in silence, hoping she wouldn't take it for dumb insolence. Lambert neither liked him nor disliked him when they were both on duty. When she looked at him she might have been examining a rack full of tires for wear.
"No one knows what to make of you, Valentine. You're capable of looking someone right in the eyes and sticking the knife in, but you've half killed yourself fighting for people you didn't know ten minutes earlier."
"It's in the Southern Command oath, sir. Render aid and comfort to our people."
"You're open-ended in your definition of 'our people.' Kurian Zone folks, Grogs ..."
"I reckon it only makes sense if you go through life looking for friends or looking for enemies, sir," Valentine said. "I picked friends."
"In any case, I'm glad to have you. The Valentine fame adds a touch of dangerous glamour to this endeavor. We had two more recruits join while you were out, brothers who shared a cousin who served with you in the old Razorbacks. I hope you'll keep taking those trips into KZ country."
"Duty, honor, country," Valentine said. "I think they're in that order for a reason, sir."
"And coming back," Lambert said. "I like it when you head out. I love it when you come back." She went to work with a bent paper clip on the burnt-out plug in her pipe.
Odd phrase coming from someone as squared away and get-to-the-point as Colonel Lambert. Well, they did go back a long way. Come to think of it, she was his oldest friend in the service, he'd known her longer than even Captain Patel, who'd been his sergeant in the Wolves, trying to keep the young, fresh-from-the-mint lieutenant he'd been from killing his platoon.
He'd learned to exult in surviving. Every time he passed through the jaws of the bureaucratized temple of Moloch that was the Kurian Order, he felt reborn and relished birdsong, a quiet hour with a book under the shade of a tree, or the feel of clean skin after a good shave, lather, and rinse. The person who knifed sentries and sniped from cover was the entity Southern Command and the Lifeweavers had created to do the dirty work of cleaning the Earth of the Kurian stain. The man who checked up his nostrils while he shaved liked to read and observe and fish quiet lakes and poke around for telling remainders of the early twenty-first century. That man was strangely untroubled by all the bodies left in the wake of the Other.
She was wrong about one thing, though. He did feel worn down. He wasn't that old, barely past thirty.
"I'll see about forcing a leave on Duvalier. As to the other member of the old Thunderbolt Triumvirate, I have to warn you about Uncle-or Ahn-Kha. I hate to part you two again so soon after the happy reunion, but he's needed in Missouri."
"I'd heard they were hard-pressed in Omaha, sir."
"Yet another front in the war where it could be going a lot better. I understand they've been forced out of Omaha. Southern Command will probably try to form what's left into a guerilla band."
"Guerilla band? That's like saying 'form Dallas into a guerilla band.' It's a town, there are the old, the sick, the young. Pregnant females."
"I didn't think they hatched from a turtle hole, Major."
"Of course, sir."
"Let's get on with the work," she said, taking up one of the smoke-dried sandwiches. "I wanted your opinion on some NCOs for the 'A' Company Patel thinks we should form . . ."
Valentine spent much of the night finishing Ahn-Kha's notes. He dropped exhausted into an untroubled sleep.
Ahn-Kha had his hard-boiled eggs soaking in salt water the next morning. He reached into them while drinking his pomegranate-colored juiceless "juice."
"I'm almost done with your diary," Valentine said. "There's not much at the end, once the ravies overran everything."
"We broke out. It was fairly simple. Each man wired himself with a bomb timed to go off in twenty-four hours. Fairly easy to deactivate, if in full possession of your faculties."
"But if not?"
Ahn-Kha spread his fingers wide.
"That's harsh," Valentine said.
"None of them much wanted to stagger around the woods until they starved to death or ran down a child."
"Not much of an end for ... what did you call it . . . 'the gallant rebellion'?"
"One cannot see the future," Ahn-Kha said. "I'd heard of bridges burning, maintenance garages burnt down. Not our doing. I think the Virginias people wound up the courage to do what we'd been doing, thinking that it would get blamed on the mine revolt. It may continue."
Ediyak and Duvalier set down their trays and Ahn-Kha tucked in his elbows. He was relieved to see Duvalier. She'd gone south again with the Wolves to see what the Kurians were doing with that tower.
"I dropped by Cutthroat Room last night," Duvalier said. "It reeked of his hairness's Grog farts, so I didn't knock."
"Any news?" Valentine asked.
Valentine dragged himself back to the present. "They've still got the ground occupied. I didn't see any work. I grabbed some mail I found on a car seat, nothing but the usual Atlanta snow shower of forms. DFSs and PCQs and RMVTs, whatever all those are."
"Ediyak, you were in the Georgia Control, right?"
"Sounds like personnel forms, sir. Everyone has a thick file. Health, work, and personal assessments."
"Assessments," Duvalier said. "Make an ass out of men, or something like that."
"Tell me more," Valentine said. He pushed his meat ration onto Duvalier's tray-she looked like she needed it. He wanted to force her to eat out of sheer boredom, so he'd keep Ediyak talking about paperwork if he had to.
"First, there's your HSA-Health Status Assessment. That happens every three years for twenty-to-forties, every two years for forty-to-fifties, and every year after. I'm not so hot on that-stress. My blood pressure's up. Normally, what would save me is my PQW-Performance Quality Workload. But I've been out here in the north of beyond for the last six months, so my CRI-Community Responsibility Index-is shot to shit. They don't make allowances for being a hundred and fifty miles from the nearest VETAMIN-that's a Volunteer Effort Task Association Municipal Infrastructure Node, for those of you who don't know Atlanta acronyms."
Ahn-Kha crunched on eggshells. "It gives me a headache. The poor people who keep track of all that nonsense."
"What do you think of all that, Ali?"
She swallowed the mouthful she'd been idly chewing, winced as it hit her stomach. "They left a couple letters out by oversight. Typical Atlanta spreadshit. Back in Kansas once a year the doc just stuck a piece of wood on your tongue, a finger up your ass, and some salad tongs piloting the oyster bed. If you passed for female, that is."
"Oyster bed?" Ediyak said, puckering her tiny nose.
"Slang Val and I picked up when we were on the Gulf Coast, passing for married. Not that mine's been much explored lately. Hey, Fuzzy, want to go pearl diving later?"
"Only for these," Ahn-Kha said, pulling another egg from the salt water.
"One thing, though, Val," Duvalier said, turning serious. "The Control's stepped up their patrols. Some planes were buzzing around too. I heard engines overhead day and night. They don't want any more raids."
"Do the engines circle over the tower?"
Duvalier switched from the alleged sausages to more reliable-and digestible-toast. "No, they went off and came back."
"Could be they're getting ready for a raid of their own. I think we'd better see if Gamecock can send half his Bears to back up the Wolves," Valentine said. He had better report this to Lambert right after breakfast.
When the women finished their food and left, Valentine told Ahn-Kha about his people.
Lambert held an officer's call over dinner that night. She passed the word that she wanted to talk about the threat from the Georgia Control.
They use the old formal dining room of the mansion. The woodwork here was left untouched by Southern Command whittlers, probably because all the ornate decor reminded them of a funeral parlor.
Ahn-Kha came along and brought an appetite, but couldn't fit his legs under the table, so he sat on a window bench and looked out over the east lawn of the mansion. A headquarters rooster led his hens in an exploration of the terraced landscape.
The lamb and spring potatoes with rosemary were good. For dessert, they had hand-cranked ice cream. Valentine avoided the wine and had a stainless tumbler full of milk.
"I find," Lambert said, when the dessert and small talk over coffee began to drag, "that it's easier to solve a problem if you can define it. Anyone want to take a shot at defining the problem?"
By tradition, heads turned toward the junior officer, who was usually allowed to speak first. Valentine suspected that the tradition predated Southern Command. It prevented the lower ranks from keeping silent during a meeting and just agreeing with the superiors.
Glass, now the Sergeant Major for the entire battalion, attended the officer's call for reasons of courtesy and efficiency.
"Atlanta's moving in on Kentucky," Ediyak said, speaking as the junior.
"Anyone heard otherwise?" Lambert asked.
The staff sat silent.
"Okay, the buildup isn't a feint so they can take over Nashville and Memphis. But why do they think they can move on us?" Lambert asked.
"The Army of Kentucky's still putting itself back together after that ravies outbreak," Captain Patel said. "The legworm ranchers are tough enough when they have to be, but they've got communities and families to think about. They can only play guerilla part of the year."
Valentine remained silent. He had an oddly defined role at the fort-on Southern Command's paperwork he was a corporal of the militia, but in practice he was the executive officer for operations. Everyone called him "Major" and kept up the appearances, despite the fact that his career had been permanently broken by a court-martial verdict years ago. He had some ideas of where Lambert and Ediyak were taking this meeting-they'd quietly consulted his opinion-but while he had an idea of the strategy, the tactics to be employed were still a mystery to him.
Still, he had a role to play. They hadn't exactly fed him his line, but it was time to put in his discussional ante.
"What keeps the Kurians from doing the same thing in Arkansas or Texas?" Valentine asked.
"Southern Command," Patel said.
"More than that," Valentine said. "The populace living there. Every village has some sort of militia. They're armed and the guards have special dedicated support units to show up with the mortars and machine guns. It keeps the Kurians from doing anything beyond small terror raids. In the Kurian Zone, the poor bastards are subject peoples, as likely to help enemies as inform on them. In the Republic, the locals will break out the machine guns and dynamite if they think there's a Reaper in the neighborhood."
Which can be bad enough. Valentine's first blood in the Free Territories had been in such an incident, in the little town of Weening.
"Why hasn't the Ordnance moved against Evansville? Because there are ten thousand adults there being organized to fight if they have to. The Ordnance lost the Moondaggers to us, some good assault troops to that ravies outbreak, and their garrisons don't dare concentrate too much or they might lose land to a rival Kurian. They can't arm their people in the same ratio that we can, or they'll risk a revolt. The Grogs are sick of dying for them, except for the ones that can be trained like dogs and a few elite units under close supervision."
"What we need is an instant population," Lambert said.
Valentine thought of an old Warner Bros. cartoon he'd seen at the theater in Pine Bluff. A little alien had run around sprinkling seeds with water, growing big bird creatures. He once thought that the Kurians probably had a similar system for growing Reapers, but he'd learned in his search for Gail Post that they used human females who possessed some kind of special genetic marker.
"Ex-soldiers from Southern Command would be my choice," Patel said, after swallowing his usual after-dinner tablets of aspirin. He had bad knees, and popped the white caplets morning, noon, and night. "Some guard vet, has his twenty years and five hundred acres-or better yet an ex-Wolf. I could put the word out."
"There aren't enough ex-Wolves in all of the Free Republics, even if they all moved," Lambert said.
"What would it take to occupy the lands between here and the Tennessee?" Ediyak asked. "Maybe Southern Command can offer some kind of bonus for settlers. I know the people in the refugee camp they put me in would jump at the chance to get their own land."
"We need something like ten thousand," Lambert said. "At best, there are a thousand Kentuckians from the Gunslinger Clan there now, and that's counting all the kids and grandparents."
"You have something to add, Sergeant Major?" Lambert asked.
"No, sir," Glass said.
"I expect he nasalized what we were all thinking," Valentine said. "Getting ten thousand people to leave the relative safety of the Free Republics and move into Kentucky."
"The papers haven't had much good to say about our performance here," Lambert said. "Kentucky-chaotic, dirty, disease-ridden, nothing but legworm meat to eat. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse riding back and forth across the state with some obnoxious cousins following behind."
"Maybe we should give it back," Patel said, eliciting a few chuckles.
"May I offer a suggestion?" Ahn-Kha said. They'd spent long hours the previous night, looking at each other in the blue darkness talking about his suggestion.
"Of course," Lambert said. "Err-Valentine, does he have a rank with Southern Command?"
"When I last appeared on the lists, I was a Colonel of Auxiliaries, sir," Ahn-Kha said. "So even a Southern Command corporal outranks me in combat zones. But I fear my commission is defunct since the unpleasantness following Major Valentine's legal trouble."
"You still have your old gift for understatement," Valentine said. "Just call him Uncle."
"Your suggestion, Uncle?" Lambert said.
"Two generations ago in my people's history, we were promised green lands and good stone by the Kurians, once you difficult humans were under control. The Kurians gave us a ruined city poisoned by sun weapons and dry prairie. I've seen the limestone all around here and the richness of the land speaks for itself. If you would have my people here, they would gladly come."
"The Golden Ones," Lambert said. "I don't remember how many you had in Omaha."
"It was some thousands when I left," Ahn-Kha said. "Fifteen or so."
"Moving them would be tough," Patel said. "That's six hundred miles or thereabouts, most of it covered in Grogs. We don't have any friends in Missouri or Southern Illinois."
"Excuse me, sir," Glass said. "I was involved in the offensive that was supposed to relieve them Groggies. Never got off the ground what with the setbacks in Kansas. They said there were upwards of twenty thousand in the city alone, something like another two thousand outside it."
"I've been told the Iowans finally took Omaha back," Valentine said.
"I'll look into it," Lambert said. "They're an awful long way from here, and there's no direct route across friendly country."
"What about the Kentuckians?" Patel asked. "How would they feel about nonhuman neighbors setting up? Nothing against you personally, of course, you're a rare Grog. Most of 'em are unneighborly. Having a colony just around the bend of the river could cause bad blood, between the head-hunting and cattle raids."
Ahn-Kha's ears flattened. "Golden Ones don't rise by being thieves or trophyteers, Mr. Patel. I would not judge you by the behavior of a silverback gorilla."
"Brother Mark and Major Valentine have the best connections with the Army of Kentucky," Lambert said, smothering the incipient argument. "What's your assessment?"
All eyes turned to Valentine. "Hard to say," he finally said. "I think they'd welcome any allies. They're a flexible bunch. I think they'd adapt. Out of all of North America, as far as I know, they're the only ones who made use of legworms. Built a whole culture around them over the years. The Golden Ones are smart, tough, and reasonable-sorry to distill your people into a few words, old horse, but there it is-I think the Kantuck would want 'em."
"I doubt the Missouri Grogs or the Iowans would appreciate us marching a host of Uncle's relations through their lands," Glass said.
"If you could hurry me back to my people, I could sound them out on the matter," Ahn-Kha said. "I would be eager to be among my own kind again. It's been many years, and if they are in distress, I should be with them."
"Let's at least explore the idea. Major Valentine, you and Ahn-Kha and Ediyak come up with a plan, based on moving twenty thousand civilians. Make it twenty-five-Grogs eat a lot."
"That's a college stadium," Patel said. "Lots of food and water. We're talking divisional support."
"We're wasting our time talking about it, sir," Glass said to Lambert, though whether he objected to exploring the idea or further chatter was hard to say. Glass was notoriously asocial for such a popular NCO. "Not a whole population. No way we can take that many cross country without killing half of them."
"I agree. There's simply no way to move that many civilians," Patel said. "Not through hostile country."
"Be easy to do on the river, if we controlled those waters," Valentine said. "The river takes care of water and sanitation. You could fit a lot of Golden Ones in a barge, for a few days anyway."
"You might as well have suggested an airlift, sir," Patel said. "We don't own any part of the Mississippi, at least not on a permanent basis. The skeeter fleet is strictly hit-and-run. That's why our supplies and mail, what little we get of it, has to come overland."
"We need a brown-water navy," Lambert said.
"Then the question for us is-lease or buy?" Valentine said.