March in Country

Chapter FOUR

The Rescuer and his Vendetta: If Major David Stuart Valentine has a reputation in Southern Command shared by both his subordinates and superiors, it is probably as a retrieval specialist.

On his first true command in the Kurian Zone, while trekking across Wisconsin, he and a wounded comrade were aided by the family of Molly Carlson. She ran afoul of a high-ranking Quisling and Valentine pursued her all the way to the living cesspool of the Zoo in Chicago to bring her back.

His first major mission for Southern Command involved bringing a legendary plant similar to an olive tree out from Hispaniola in the Caribbean. The tree, known as Quickwood, was lethal to the Reapers and caused a deadly catalytic reaction in their systems. Though his mission to return a large quantity failed because of Consul Solon's conquest of the Ozark Free Territory, he had a chance to have a say in the ownership of Arkansas at Big Rock Hill, where he and a handful stood against everything Solon could throw at them.

He found a friend's wife who'd vanished into the Kurian Order, at a medical facility where certain women who were immune to a physiological reaction were used for their wombs to create Reaper after Reaper. He brought a pair of captured Lifeweavers back from the Pacific Northwest. One of the reasons he was so eager to come along on Operation Javelin, the failed bid to establish a freehold linking the free territories in the Northeast with the Transmississippi, was that he had learned there was a large guerilla army operating in the Appalachians led by his old friend Ahn-Kha.

Now, in this grim spring, comes one more extraction of a couple of dozen tool-pushers. As it turned out, the rescue turned out to be a key event determining the future of Kentucky and its resistance against the powerful Georgia Control.

Tension throbbed from the back of his neck, up his skull, and over his ears to his temples. It was always the day before leaving that was the worst.

Valentine walked in the door of the little Evansville house, enjoying a minor dereliction of duty. He'd met Major Grace that morning and answered a series of questions. Hard to believe a man who wore a major's cluster with Southern Command's General Headquarters didn't understand that sometimes you went into the enemy's territory just to rumble, so to speak.

Valentine explained that a weaker force could be effective only if it could choose the time and place for a fight. Waiting until the enemy brings the fight to you might ensure that your men were well rested and fed, but livestock pens were full of animals both well rested and fed.

It was in a handy neighborhood, on a nice little rise close to the west side market and the riverfront, but the home itself badly needed paint, screens, and gutters. Plastic and bricks were keeping out the bugs in one window. Most of the nearby homes had similar improvised repairs. Wild dogs and a few desperate hookers wandered the fringe of the neighborhood, concentrating at a little pawnshop/bar/tinker's at the corner. It was a part of the city in constant flux, people who'd escaped other Kurian Zones tended to set up squats there. A few who found one way or another to rise a little in the city's social strata mostly moved out, but some stayed to aid, or prey on, the newcomers.

He was an hour late, he'd told Caral six thirty.

The house smelled like herbs. It always did. Apart from some poultry, Caral picked up a little money by making herb mixtures, labeling them in old Kurian pill bottles and selling them at Evansville's market days. Her house was always smelling of basil or oregano or garlic. With spring in full bloom there was a little extra in the air. Wildflowers that would go in iced tea in the summer were hanging upside down in masses from the ceiling over the big tiled living room that had been converted into her workroom.

"Home, babe," he called, dropping on her big wooden table a cloth sack of new potatoes and asparagus he'd picked up.

"You're late, hubbs," Caral said, emerging from her basement and removing her thick roasting apron. She'd appealed to Valentine from the first, shapely, using a few strategic dibs and dabs of makeup, but with a tomboy's taste in clothes.

Like now, for example. Beneath the apron, nothing but cutoff shorts and slippers made of old carpet. Her breasts had always intrigued him-she had the widest aureolas he'd ever seen. They were the size of a dessert plate.

She smelled like woodsmoke and accepted a kiss on the cheek.

"Thanks for taking a bath, David," she said in his ear. "My sweet, clean-living old man."

"Hot shower. Privileges of the headquarters building at Fort Seng."

She poked around in a nearly empty cupboard. Twentieth-century kitchens had overmuch room for late twenty-first century lifestyles, especially in a frontline city like Evansville.

"We missed your birthday."

"Subject to requirements of the service," Valentine quoted.

"Well, I made something just the same. Hope it hasn't gone stale. You said you'd be back Tuesday."

She practically went en pointe to reach in the cupboard. She probably knew exactly how attractive the strain made her legs and buttocks. "Here we are."

She walked over to him, holding a cupcake on her palm, offering it from a position midway between her eyeline and breasts.

"A cupcake?" Valentine said. "That's above and beyond, Caral."

"Tough part was the cake flour and confectioners' sugar," she said, lighting a little homemade candle with a wooden match. Valentine watched the twin pendulums of her heavy breasts sway as she did so. "It doesn't exist in Evansville. I had to go begging from the household cooks on Millionaire's Row. Sorry, the vanilla's that Kurian Zone crap. Might as well shop for a moon rock as a vanilla bean these days."

"Would you even know what a real vanilla bean looked like?"

"I've seen them in books," she said. "Your candle's drooping."

"Something else isn't," Valentine said, running a finger down her cheek. He blew out the flickering flame.

"Let's eat," she said.

He woke early, long before dawn, but luxuriated in the sound of her breathing and the tangy, animal smell she'd left on him.

If he'd lived a hundred years ago, and been reasonably lucky, he might have had this every day. Coffee with someone in the morning, making sure he used the right color toothbrush, a little pink-and-white razor by the tub. A messy head of hair on the pillow next to him and a clean, warm presence flowing across the sheets.

Of course, if he'd been born a hundred fifty years before that, he might have died as a child on the Trail of Tears. Life was a crap-shoot, but only in his bleaker moments did he think he'd rolled snake eyes. More like an eight the hard way, he supposed. Good or bad depending on the line and side bets.

Lovemaking was also more intense, when neither of you knew if it would be the last time. She'd sweated over him, working him with mouth, hands, breasts, and of course her voracious and triumphant sex. The male might enjoy the role of penetrator, but the female always overpowered and reduced it in the end, the way the soft and lapping surf eventually wears down the rock. Mark Twain had written something about the candleholder outlasting many candles, hadn't he?

He looked over at the cupcake wrapper. They'd shared it to the last crumb, only the candle was left.

After the lovemaking, they'd cooled together on the back porch, naked in the spring breeze, his head pillowed between those sunflower aureolas. They'd talked about household items that might be obtained in Evansville's workshops and markets. Evansville had a thriving brewery and a distillery or two now, and running alcohol into the Kurian Zone was making a few rich and a lot more able to afford to look for little luxuries.

"Nobody wants the Kurians back."

"No," Caral said. "A few want you soldiers out, though. There's some talk about Evansville being a 'Free City.' Or maybe an 'Open City'-depends who you're talking to."

Valentine turned toward her. He'd heard talk like that now and again in the Transmississippi-turning the Free Republics into neutral states that wouldn't accept the Kurian Order or oppose it. "That again. I wonder if there are some agents in town spreading that stuff."

Actually, he didn't wonder, he was close to certain. The organs of the Kurian Order, from the New Universal Church on down, regularly sent people in to the free territories to plant rumors and sow discord. They hadn't been very successful in the Free Republics because the region created enough argument, feud, rumor and discord much in the manner that a sheepdog grew hair, and the body politic had developed immunities. But Evansville was new to freedom.

"I would have saved you one of their flyers if I'd known you were interested. The Southern Command guys aren't going to bust up their meetings, I hope."

How quickly they forget. Just this last winter the troops in Fort Seng had saved them from being touched by the ravies outbreak. Perhaps they'd been a little too effective, and the Evansville citizenry assumed that because they hadn't suffered from the outbreak, they wouldn't have.

But politics soon bored Caral. She started talking about how Evansville rivermen were passing Kurian cargoes up and down the Ohio, using their boats and tugs as a sort of portage across the Southern Command-controlled stretch of the Ohio. Often the barges didn't even uncouple their own tugs, the Evansville boat would simply nudge the rest of the mass up- or downriver.

"No human cargo, of course," she said. She was very sensitive to Valentine's feelings on the matter of Kurian aural fodder, and it had been a long time since she'd said of some female rival: bitch isn't fit for a Reaper. "Not that some of those suckling pigs wouldn't, between your boys with the inspection boats and our police, they can't get captives through. Still, they're making good money doing it, probably skimming a little off the manifests besides. Those rivermen are good customers."

He'd luxuriated in the domestic conversations and Caral showed every sign of enjoying them, but he didn't want to hear about her customers. "How's your tinker doing with the hot water heater for this place?"

"It's coming along," she said, and they launched into forty minutes' worth of plans for improvements to her house. Valentine gave advice only when asked, and soon they drifted off . . .

It was nice to get a little taste, play around in another generation's world, another man's life. Did those men, ordering their gourmet coffee on the way to work from an electrically operated car window, appreciate what they'd lucked into?

The man who'd raised him, Father Max, encouraged his interest in the Old World but had been determined to keep him from being lost in it. Rome fell, but then a future Caesar couldn't imagine came to surpass it. One day, we'll know how to reach for the stars again, David.

He sat up, suddenly a little guilty. Father Max would have a few choice words to say about his relationship with Caral. They'd met innocently enough on the ferry across the river. She'd been leafing through an old fashion magazine, he a dog-eared, glued-together copy of National Geographic, and they'd struck up a conversation about old magazines.

Valentine rose, located his things, and left her softly snoring. As he put on his shoes, he decided the cupcake deserved something extra. He added another fifty dollars of Southern Command scrip to the usual hundred in the envelope, and placed it carefully by the big vintage mirror. He noticed the mirror had an extra latch, so it could be extended to an angle where those who'd paid to be in her bed could look at themselves.

Valentine grabbed his first mosquito of the year. He knew better than to slap the little bloodsuckers, lest the sound carry.

They were outside the rising Kurian tower, near enough to see, through their binoculars, the power lines stringing from work light to work light.

Gamecock's Bears had departed for a crossroads blockhouse and communication center Valentine had marked on his exploration of the Kentucky/Tennessee border. It looked like exactly the sort of place, squat and thick and slit-windowed, for a secret cellar where a Reaper or two could wait out the sun. The Bears would take it on, and hopefully draw a large company of soldiers out of the camp.

The plan was that Gamecock's Bears would attack it, in a half effort, Kentucky guerilla fashion, and then retreat as soon as they started shooting back. That would hopefully draw out some of the troops from the construction camp, and maybe even a couple of Reapers. The Bears were the one military organization in all of Southern Command that relished a fight with the Reapers. When Gamecock found some advantageous ground, he'd turn on his pursuers, and the hunters would become the hunted.

He left Frat and crawled back into the thicker trees where Vendetta's operational headquarters had been set up. A limber Wolf had posted their antenna in a tree and the radio was manned.

It was a cold camp with colder food and no coffee. It would have to wait. They could celebrate success with a good fry-up and coffee boil.

Valentine would man operational HQ with the Wolves, in charge of the overall execution of Vendetta. So far, the most onerous part of being in command was the need to chat with Major Grace, who was making copious notes in a small pocket folder stuffed with papers and maps.

A third force had moved south with Vendetta. Six worms of the Gunslinger Clan rigged for cargo would be available to haul away wounded or valuables, depending on the outcome.

He looked up at the crest of the hill, where Frat sat against a tree stump, looking down at the rising Kurian tower through field glasses.

Frat Carlson still had the robust good looks that made Valentine think of Old World advertisements for colognes and watches. Except men in those ads never wore rather shaggy, shapeless deer-skins over a pilled cotton shirt.

He'd changed since being revealed as a Kurian agent. The whole camp more-or-less knew he'd been connected with the Kurians somehow and exposed, the details were still a matter of conjecture. Since many of the men at Fort Seng had their own Kurian Order skeletons, buried and unburied, Valentine had expected them to be more charitable toward the man they called "Tails."

He earned the nickname from his riding coat, a modified duster that resembled an old cutaway that he wore riding. Frat was good with horses; he'd grown up on a Wisconsin dairy farm that also raised working and riding horseflesh. The coat was a mix of heavy canvas, moleskin, and leather, and must have set him back a few months' pay or some scrounged valuables or technology. He'd worn it a lot more lately, Valentine had seen it only once before Frat had been exposed, now it was a regular feature of his wardrobe while in camp.

Frat had changed on the inside. Valentine wasn't sure what to make of him anymore. No longer needing to play the part of an enthusiastic, diligent young lieutenant, he'd gone cautious and thoughtful.

He still had everything that had attracted Valentine to him in the first place: energy, intelligence, a guarded tongue, which complemented a steadiness of nerve. Whoever the Kurian doctors and educators were that selected him at a very young age as raw material for their training, they'd known their business.

That was the frightening thing about the Kurian Order at its highest level of the human food chain. The men and women acting as intermediaries between the Reapers and their human cattle were frighteningly well trained, disciplined, and capable. Valentine had read histories of Nazis who were tireless in their efforts to rid Europe of Jews, or Maoists who could zealously destroy entire generations in the Great Leap Forward. To see such drive and talent used in such a gut-wrenching manner . . .

Frat had been selected, trained, and released into Wisconsin to penetrate the fabled, and no doubt part imaginary, Underground existing in the Kurian Zone. Valentine didn't know much about them, save that there were small groups who met in highly secretive lodges. How they received their orders was a mystery, but every now and then a party of families would make it out of the Kurian Zone, or a plane carrying some high-ranking Kurian would crash, or a city would go dark long enough for some police prisons to burn.

Valentine had plucked Frat out of that Wisconsin farmland and, joke of jokes, suggested that he join the Wolves. He'd written Southern Command a glowing letter, praising the boy's abilities. They'd taken him in and trained him, and lo, the Kurians had an agent among the Hunters. God knows what sort of damage he'd wreaked while in the Wolves. Maybe he'd located and marked some Lifeweavers, or relayed information about scouting teams to Solon's army before its unusually well-organized and lucky blitz into the Ozarks.

Valentine decided Frat was simply a survivor. Perhaps part of the doctor's selection was evidence of emotional detachment. Valentine could sympathize. He sometimes wondered if there wasn't something wrong with him, deep down, to be able to have seen and done all that. And still sleep like an untroubled child, pillowed by some whore's fleshy breasts. What kind of a man was he? Was he a destroyer of horrors or a horror himself? The Lifeweavers had warned him, long ago, before he became a Wolf, that there was a price for awakening these latent atavistic instincts.

Perhaps that's why, after all this, he still liked Frat Carlson, wanted him to take this chance and run with it. If Carlson could redeem himself, so could Valentine.

Valentine sometimes sweated out uncomfortable thoughts of what he might have become, had he been born in a well-run Kurian Zone rather than a Minnesota backwater. Would he have been selected as a toddler, taught and groomed and not so much brain-washed as brain-cultivated ...

Carlson was also friendless. When he sat down to eat, others moved. People extinguished their cigarettes and picked up their shovels when he passed close and returned wordlessly to work, only to take up their conversations again after he had passed.

Valentine couldn't bring himself to either forgive or forget Frat's actions in central Kentucky, where he'd released a new form of the ravies virus that turned its victims into frothing psychotics with a madman's strength, able to tear doors off their hinges and break automobile glass without flinching.

Perhaps being freed of the Kurians had given him a new sense of honor, or a different perspective on life. Brother Mark was the judge of what was going on in a man's soul.

Valentine had bodies to look after.

Back with the Wolves, Major Grace sat primly on a natural stump. It even had a remnant of the trunk sticking up, forming an organic backrest.

Grace reminded Valentine of something his old friend Will Post had said, when they'd first served together on the Thunderbolt. The Kurian Gulf forces had had a new Inspector General come through, and he'd visited the Thunderbolt.

He'd removed the old captain and replaced him, and chewed out everyone from Valentine to the sailor peeling shrimp in the galley. He suggested a new color for the Thunderbolt's upper decks, and as he left, finding fault with the perfect regulation and satisfactory manner in which the gunboat was tied to the wharf, Post muttered something about a seagull visit.

Seagull visits, Post had said. They fly in, eat all your food, squawk every time someone makes a move, crap all over everyone and everything, and then depart.

Expressing opinions like that had left Will Post an aging lieutenant in the Costal Marines. But the signs of both humor and what Champers had called an "unmindful" attitude had endeared him to Valentine.

Valentine tried to relax. It would be easier to be at the point of the spear, in a way. Gamecock knew exactly where he was and how things were going. Valentine's first excursion into the Kurian Zone as a junior Wolf lieutenant was on an operation very similar to the one he planned with Gamecock and Frat. Bears to create a diversion, Wolves to get some families out. After it was all over, when he trudged into camp after meeting some loosed ravies and a Reaper in combat, he'd wondered why the colonel back at rally base had looked as exhausted as he.

Now he knew. Waiting was bad. Waiting and not knowing was worse.

With the rest of the Wolves as a reserve, backing up Patel's A company and Glass's heavy weapons teams from the Seng battalion, Valentine would attack the construction site in an effort to break out Champers's crew.

Valentine, Duvalier, Bee, and Brother Mark, plus some communications staff, would be the Operational HQ. Valentine felt guilty dragging Brother Mark into the country like this, but he had a sensitivity to Kurians that surpassed the indistinct tingle Valentine felt when Reapers were on the prowl nearby.

He'd done all he could, in his few days, to get the team ready. Using poles, clothesline, tentage, and some barbed wire, Valentine built a rough model of the construction site and two attendant camps based on his observations. He had the men run practice attacks, day and night.

The journey south went easily enough. They took pickups and trailers, fully half Fort Seng's motor pool, south along roads they were pretty sure to be safe. The last ten miles had to be covered on foot and legworm. Their vehicles retreated halfway to Fort Seng, where they waited for the pickup broadcast.

He passed the time by talking to Major Grace.

"If you don't mind me asking, sir, why all the note taking?"

"I'm The General's eyes and ears in Kentucky. He wants my opinion of you all. I want to make sure my eyes and ears have it right."

Grace's use of The General, with an intonation that suggested capitalization of the adjective, reminded Valentine of the man he always thought of as "The General," the leader of the Twisted Cross.

"Is this an opinion you can share with the subjects?"

Duvalier, having heard the beginning of the conversation, pulled her arms into the confines of her coat and settled down to sleep, pillowed by Valentine's pack.

"The General said he wants all the backwoods barons and perfumed princes run out of Southern Command."

"Backwoods barons and perfumed princes?"

"By that he means," Grace said tiredly, as though he'd explained this innumerable times to thickheaded subordinates, "that there won't be any more comfortable niches in Southern Command. For too long there have been officers who built themselves little domains, skimming what can be skimmed, tasting what can be tasted, and nobody dares challenge them because they're irreplaceable. Nobody's irreplaceable, and The General's determined to prove it, or he expects to be replaced."

"Is that a direct quote, sir?"

Grace looked at him afresh through his glasses, held as though they were a magnifying glass. "As a matter of fact, it is."

"Have you found any barons or princes at Fort Seng?"

"You do live in style. I haven't seen so much silver barware in one place."

"We inherited it, it's not a collection. The last six months have been too busy to do much antiquing."

"But plenty of recruiting. Tell me, Major Valentine, how do you choose which volunteers to take? Your command could be easily infiltrated this way."

"Could be," Valentine said. "Hope the infiltrators don't mind grading road and slapping some paint up, because that's what most of the men spend their time doing."

"You really expect to build a brigade out of a bunch of Quislings?"

"Not right away, we don't. It takes time to adapt to Free Territory. Have you met Ediyak?"

"She's one of the brighter lights in your command. Good breeding. Springfield College ROTC?"

"You wouldn't have thought that two or three years ago. Fresh out of the Kurian Zone, scared to ever make a decision or sign her name to anything. She's been promoted twice in the last year."

Grace closed his book, tucked it into his camouflage fatigue coat.

"Poking sticks into a hornet's nest will keep one busy," Grace said.

"Or you might call it killing Kurians, but I'm equable. Six of one, half a dozen of the other . . ."

Grace's mouth tightened. "Did it occur to you that this may be a trap?"

"If it is, it's working perfectly," Valentine said. "There's no sign of a trap."

"Experience has shown the Kurians tempt us into rashness, throwing away our best and brightest on these wild ventures. They are like cats, luring the mice out of their holes where they can be swatted."

"Be sure to call Gamecock's Bears a bunch of mice, next time you see them," Valentine said. "But give me some warning, so I can watch."

"Now, Major," Brother Mark put in. "Rashness or boldness, by your definition, depends on the outcome."

"For two men who've left bodies from here to the Appalachians, you're both rather cocky," Grace said. "I'd expect a little more humility from people who'd killed off half a brigade."

"I notice you're still around, Grace," Valentine said. "Never made it on any of the lists for best and brightest?"

Grace purpled about the face. "That's a court-martial-"

"We run things a little different out here, Major. Anyone can talk about anything off their feet and out from beneath cover."

"I've never once seen you in a hat, on or off base," Grace said. "Seems very unmilitary."

"I've never seen you off base. Stealthy for a big guy."

"Sir," the communication tech reported. "Observation D reports two scout cars moving south on highway D. Georgia markings."

"D," Valentine said. That was the overgrown highway going back north, to their transport and the Gunslingers.

Duvalier was up and alert, Brother Mark puffing up behind.

"Well, they discovered us," Valentine said. "Just not when we wanted them to."

The radio chirped again.

"Handshake," said the communications corporal, giving a clear connection password. He listened.

"Sir, we've got word from transport hitch," the tech said. "They were spotted by some armored cars."

"That settles it," Valentine said. "This could work to our advantage. We've got to get our hands on those cars."

"Val, I can do it," Duvalier said.

"I'm coming with."

"With that bum leg of yours? And you're the shittiest driver under eighty I've ever seen."

"I'll land on the good one. I want to capture the car, not drive it."

"I'll take the first," Duvalier said. "That way, when you fall off, I won't have to hang on while they swerve to run you over."

"Do you let your civilians talk to you that way?"

Valentine turned over command of Vendetta to Frat. If things went south with the cars, the camp might very well turn out anyway to hunt the road. He gave a nod to Pellwell and reached to clap her on the shoulder. "Don't worry, your critters will get their chance, but not with these."

They hurried to the old highway. It was so overgrown it was practically a tunnel, but vehicles with toothy brush cutters had cleared the worst of it recently, exposing a broken-up roadbed like coral. The worst holes had been filled with sand and gravel.

They climbed trees with big branches hanging over the road, and waited.

They heard the armored cars long before they saw them.

The noise resolved itself into humps of metal kicking up the dust of crushed Kentucky limestone used for evening out the broken old highway.

Valentine brought up his binoculars.

They were a pair of armored cars-armored farm equipment, more like. They weren't designed like urban armored cars, built to rush to a trouble spot and survive the cinder blocks and kerosene of rioters. These were serious off-road brush-crushers, with wedgelike fronts and six fat tires. Towed trailers, a little higher than the armored cars, made them look like ants at a distance. Blue-black paint, chipped here and there, alternately caught and absorbed the sun.

The drivers were enjoying the spring weather. Their heads could be seen atop the vehicles.

"Drop on the gunner first," Valentine said. "Otherwise he'll sweep me off with the machine gun."

The first armored car looked rather festive, like a bull exhibited in a livestock parade. Young branches and flowering stems had been caught in mud guards, headlamp grilles, and the brush-cutting teeth at the front of the sloped armored nose, giving each a leafy, woody beard. The car behind had been turned a chalky pale yellow by road dust.

Duvalier dropped first. Valentine's request about dealing with the gunner quickly was solved by her hanging upside down by her linked ankles. Her blackened sword didn't flash in the sun, but descended clean and rose again from the slash bright red. A wet divot, possibly a hairy patch of neck.

The gunner's head dropped forward as though he'd fallen asleep. Blood had splattered on the bulletproof plastic that shielded the gunner.

Duvalier released her ankles, and managed to drop onto the first car. Valentine held his breath while she arrested herself with a single outflung hand, the other still around the sword hilt.

The first armored car passed under him. The gunner was watchful and alert, but looking down his machine-gun barrel at the road ahead. Valentine, concealed in the foliage ahead, timed a mental practice jump.

The second car approached. The driver had a big, creamy white cowboy hat with the high crown favored by some Texans. A pair of sunglasses and a scarf kept the dust off his face. Valentine would have to act quickly. All he had to do to remove himself from danger was duck down.

Valentine checked the wrist loop on his legworm pick, tightening it.

Five, four, three ...

He dropped.

Landed on the good leg in a three-point stance, solid hickory in his right hand.

The gunner turned his head and got a brief look at his own death before the claw end of the legworm pick did its work.

The terrible exhilaration took over.

Valentine shoved the body aside with one hard pull. He scooted forward and tried to ignore the twitches of the dying man.

The driver turned, perhaps to point to Duvalier, hanging off the side of the front armored car's spotlight by one thin hand, the other unwilling to relinquish its grip on her sword hilt.

Valentine smashed him hard with the hammer end of the legworm pick. A reflex, perhaps, but the driver stood on the brakes. Valentine would have gone off without the claw end of the pick, which latched on to the driver's hatch.

He pushed the mess aside and sat in the driver's seat.

David Valentine wasn't comfortable behind any wheel. Machines bothered him, and the bigger and faster they were the more likely it seemed they'd get out from under his control and strike something. He pressed a pedal and the armored car slowed, another one sped it up.

The armored car slalomed as Valentine oversteered, heart pounding and the scent of blood in his nostrils.

His eye caught a reflected glint from the vehicle ahead. The driver there knew his job, and had set up some kind of safety mirror to keep an eye on the following vehicle.

He cranked his vehicle to the side of the road, into the thick brush. Duvalier was torn free as though by a dozen grasping hands.

Valentine found the brake and slowed the vehicle, but he still felt a thump as he struck Duvalier.

Heart pounding high and hard, Valentine halted the armored car and raised himself out of the seat.

Duvalier, her face a road map of scratches and wounds, grinned from behind a torn lip.

"You brake for redheads?" she asked.

"Thank God," Valentine managed.

"For inventing traction," Duvalier said.

Valentine pushed the vehicle into gear. "Get in the gunner-"

"No, I'll drive. You shoot."

"Catch up to him!" Valentine shouted, glancing through the armored glass. No wonder the driver was driving from the higher seat, the thin slits didn't give much visibility, and what there was had leaves and branches latticed across it.

Valentine went under to reach the gunner's seat in the armored car, noting that you could fit perhaps four men in the compartment between the driver and gunner positions. There were firing slots for them. Bags of gear were netted on the floor and against the ceiling.

Valentine saw a box of grenades and took a couple. He sat in the bloodstained seat and evaluated the weapon.

You pivoted it with a pair of pedals, and once pointed in the right direction, the gimbal allowed the gunner about a twenty-degree field of fire.

He saw the first vehicle with its dead gunner. Its driver was better than Duvalier; he was hurtling down the road, swerving around the bigger tree trunks, sending a constant hail of clipped-off branches back at the followers. He must be aware something awful was up.

Duvalier had to thump along in his wake as best as she could.

Valentine tried a burst, then a second. The bullets made a hole or two, but he could see no other effect.

Their quarry swerved and Duvalier struck a red oak trunk with a glancing blow, tearing off a sheet-sized piece of bark and knocking Valentine out of the seat. The Georgia driver had waited to the last second to swerve around it and only Duvalier's keyed-up reflexes prevented them from crashing into it.

No good throwing grenades in this mess. Valentine climbed out of the cupola, flexed his fingers and tested the skin on his hands for machine oil.

He crouched next to Duvalier.

"Get right up behind him!" he shouted in her ear.

She hit the gas, edged closer in the green tunnel.

Valentine crawled across the top of the armored car, the little cylinder of the grenade held carefully in his lips and teeth, like an oversized cigar butt. Overgrowth ticked off his legworm leathers.

Weirdly, he thought of the saunas he sometimes took in the winter up in Minnesota. The locals up there liked to hit each other with birch branches, claimed it brought the blood up to the skin and was good for the circulation. A bunch of naked men flogging away at each other in a stone-heated room made an impression on him as a preteen, and he'd tried a branch on his arm. It felt like this thresher of a green tunnel.

He tapped Duvalier, pointed at the forward armored car. She nodded, pulled up close enough for him to see the hinges on the forged steel grids over the rear lights.

Valentine waited for a gap in the growth above-he didn't want to be knocked by a tree limb under Duvalier's wheels-and leaped.

He landed hard, and badly, with the wind knocked out of him and the grenade rolling away. He somehow ignored the instinct to hold on with both hands and tried to retrieve it, and missed. It rolled up against the gunner's ring, wobbled there as though deciding which way to go, and he picked it up this time.

Ring out, lever off-he got around the gunner Duvalier had nearly decapitated and underhanded the grenade toward the end of the driver's compartment.

"Grenade!" he heard someone shout within. So there was a third man in this car.

The driver looked over his shoulder.

Valentine showed him the grenade ring.

The driver got one arm out, then the explosion launched him like a champagne cork.

Valentine found himself atop a careening armored car. It bounced off a tree root.

Duvalier was braking, hard.

The world tipped on its side and Valentine felt momentarily weightless, before he landed, painfully and like tricky old Br'er Rabbit, in a thorny tangle.

When he regained his bearings he felt the warm sensation that meant the pain would come in a minute or two. He cautiously moved each limb and looked down at his body. He felt like Scarecrow after the monkeys had finished tearing the straw out of him.

Duvalier appeared, smiled through a mask of drying blood, and held out a hand.

"I think we're each down one of our lives," she said. She helped him to his feet.

They sure build these things tough, Valentine thought. Typical Control quality.

They found the driver of the first armored car, bleeding and unconscious. She drew her skinning knife.

"No. We can take him with us as a prisoner. He's good, and he's lucky. I've never seen someone blown out of a vehicle like that still living.

They spent ten minutes working on the driver's injuries-abrasions and contusions, luckily for him-and secured him with a plastic restraint. Then they took a look at the vehicles.

He learned why they were hustling back to the camp so quickly to tell their news. The vehicle on its side was rigged for long-range radio. The antenna, designed to lie flat atop the armored car, had been torn away somewhere or other.

"The base still doesn't know about us," Valentine said.

"Unless there's a Reaper prowling around," Duvalier said. "I checked out the interior of ours. Either the previous users had really big feet or the car carried a Reaper recently. Long, pointed boots with the climbing toe."

The Wolves, pounding down the road in a double line, caught up to them.

"Lieutenant Carlson says a couple of platoons left camp in trucks and a command car, sir," the sergeant in charge reported.

The dead driver from Valentine's car looked clownish now, in that big white hat and gold-rimmed aviator glasses. Like Carlson, he was black. Valentine had an idea.

With tow cables, a stout tree, and some judicious driving by one of the Wolves, they managed to right the tipped armored car. They drove back to headquarters at a much more cautious pace, with Valentine and Duvalier tucked inside the front one, tending to each other's scrapes and cuts.

"Lieutenant," Valentine said, upon their return. "Do me a favor. See if that hat fits." He handed Carlson the hat and sunglasses.

"The glasses are prescription, but I can manage," Carlson said.

Valentine took a cautious look at the camp. "They're expecting these armored cars, right? Let's have 'em drive right up to the gate."

They had hidden the damage somewhat by hanging packs and ponchos over the bullet holes. It looked sloppy, but if the plan went right the Georgia Control sergeants would have graver concerns than chewing Frat out about the gear exposed to roadside growth.

Valentine filled both armored cars with Wolves, and distributed the grenades.

Carlson drove up to the gate, and in an inspired move, sounded the Klaxon and flashed his lights. He took off his hat and waved it.

The Wolves, before opening fire, whipped off their Georgia Control helmets and jackets. Valentine himself had done plenty of damage wearing the enemies' uniform, but Carlson had told his platoon differently.

The armored cars tore through the camp's temporary structures, pouring fire into machine gun positions and the camp's watchtower. Grenades exploded all around like fireworks, adding a sharper krack! echo to the popping noise of the machine guns.

Valentine surveyed the action with his binoculars, hurting all over. He served as Bee's spotter as she employed her heavy, big-game rifle. One of Fort Seng's armorers, remembering how she probably saved his life by taking down a plane as it started a strafing run, did her loads by hand, testing each production run himself with her rifle on the camp's range. She eliminated a machine gun crew with three quick shots before they could ready their weapon.

She didn't even have two good eyes. Remarkable shooting.

With the wheeling armored cars causing chaos within, Valentine watched the Wolves hit the wire like a tornado. They tore through the posts and wire like a scythe through dry straw.

The shooting died off to a trickle, like the clamor of a noisy party winding down as the guests left.

"Carlson signals he's starting the mop-up," the coms tech said. "Fourteen prisoners so far."

Champers's engineers, an assortment of men and women, mostly over forty-five, Valentine suspected, seemed a strong, capable lot. They and their rescuers eyed each other, misfit to misfit.

Duvalier had gone in to the engineer's camp before the Wolves hit to poke around, and found a frightened, confused Reaper snarling in the explosives dugout. She quickly locked it within, and the engineers parked a bulldozer across the door. Campers kept everyone well away from the dugout.

"His master's probably running for Tennessee as hard as he can," Valentine said.

"Be nice if we could take it alive," Pellwell said. "The Miskatonic has wanted a living Reaper forever. Especially one bred to be controlled by a Kurian."

"You're welcome to try, shanks," Duvalier said.

Sooner or later it would get hungry and dig its way out. Champers volunteered to try setting off the explosives, but Valentine declined.

"The Control will move back into Site Green sooner or later," Valentine said. "Having a wild, hungry Reaper lurking in the area will add some excitement to their return."

Valentine gave the usual speech to the military prisoners, promising them freedom. Anyone trusted with a gun in the Kurian Zone had probably left a hostage or two behind.

"You know what's in those cells, Major," Frat said. "Human litter. Petty criminals, terminally ill. They'll slow us up."

Valentine thought back on his own days as a Wolf lieutenant, when he'd been upbraided for what his old captain called "rounding up strays." More trouble than they're worth, Valentine.

"Denial of resources, Lieutenant," Valentine said. "The Kurian wants them. That's enough of a reason for us to try to take them away."

"Perhaps," Major Grace began, "perhaps we could do our part by just setting them loose."

"For the Reapers to hunt down?"

"If it keeps them off us," Grace said.

"You ever heard the expression 'Whoever saves one life, saves a world entire'?" Valentine asked.

"I'm not sure. Is that some maxim of that Quisling churchman?"

"Older than that. How about 'Go fuck yourself'?"

"That's insubordination!"

"I was only asking if you'd heard it," Valentine said.

Valentine noticed lights on in the old prison. Had the Kurian Lord already begun gathering an aura supply?

He might even have slipped in, but finding him, let alone killing him, in such a large complex would be difficult without surrounding the prison with flamethrowers and having the men burn their way to the center.

For all he knew, there wasn't anyone in there except a couple of Control soldiers cleaning out the animal and plant infestations that had no doubt built up over the years.

"Leave it alone, Val," Duvalier said. "Look at that place. I doubt anyone's in there who isn't fixing a toilet. It would take us two hours, probably, to get there, check the whole place out, and get back. Plus, probably more killing. Now me, I'd go there just to knife a sentry and set fire to it, but I know you'd want to bring out some one-legged senior citizen who lost the last round of musical chairs at the post office."

"Maybe I'll go over and peek in a few windows," Valentine said quietly. "Or not," he said, looking at his radioman, who was working a scrambler radio taken from the armored car that should be able to pick up Georgia Control communications.

"Major Valentine, may I-" Pellwell said.

"Cool your engine, college girl," Duvalier said.

Pellwell drew herself up and ignored the interruption. "You could let me send in the ratbits. They could cover that building in half an hour. If it's in as bad a shape as it looks, they'd have no problem getting in or getting around."

Valentine looked at her charges. They'd found a greasy wrapper caught in a bush, probably blown from the construction landfill, and were sniffing stains.

One looked up at Pellwell and chittered.

"Yes, food soon."

"Do they understand what a uniform is?"

"They know how to tell an armed man from an unarmed one."

"You send them into that building, and if they find any prisoners and count them accurately, I'll buy them a steak dinner. Or whatever their favorite treat is."

She squatted, looking like a grasshopper thanks to her long limbs, and lifted up the biggest ratbit, the one Valentine was calling Patches. She pointed. "That building. Count men. Count soldiers. Very quiet. No steal. No wreck."

Valentine heard it yeek back. She handed out a piece of bacon to each from one of her big leg pouches. The ratbits stuffed them into cheek pouches as Patches chittered at the others.

They bounced off on their oversized hind legs, making Valentine think of a kangaroo he'd seen on a TV documentary in his time with the Coastal Marines.

Pellwell looked anxiously at the sloping ground between the hill and the old prison.

"Worried they'll screw up?" Duvalier asked.

"Not so much that," she said, blinking fast. "They know what to do. Before, it was all play in old warehouses and apartments and school offices. One of them gets caught down there, it isn't just a loud no and a spell in isolation. They'll get stomped on and scraped out into the garbage."

Valentine had his own anxieties. He'd heard nothing from Gamecock's Bears.

The only blemish on the operation was that they couldn't destroy the foundation of the Kurian tower. No one wanted to venture in to get the explosives and face the fangs of that locked-up, anxious Reaper.

Valentine nearly had the prisoners organized for the ride back. Thanks to the armored cars, some utility trucks, and a personnel transport bus, everyone would be able to ride.

As dawn came up, Valentine thought he heard gunfire in the distance, but he couldn't be sure. His ears sometimes played tricks on him when he pressed them.

A Bear messenger rumbled in on a captured motorcycle. He reported that Gamecock's radio had "crapped out" before they even hit the crossroads blockhouse, and the Bears had successfully executed their ambush. Gamecock would pursue the Georgia Control Company south for an hour or so to "keep up the skeer" and then turn back north and head for the rendezvous.

The Gunslingers came in on their legworms and picked through the camp. Valentine was giving them advice on keeping well clear of the explosives dump when Pellwell returned. She gave him a salute.

"You don't have to do that, you're a civilian."

"Oh, sorry ... I was excited. Major Valentine, my guys are back from the prison. They searched the whole thing. They counted three soldiers there, four other men total, one other."

"One other what?"

"They're not sure. Big like her, they say."

"Like Bee?" Valentine asked. "You sure they didn't mean scared of them or something like that, but 'big'?"

"I think they might mean even bigger."

"You think they mean a legworm? What's bigger than Bee?" Frat asked.

"We're going down there to find out," Valentine said.

As the Wolves came in the front the guards ran out the back. Valentine decided to let them go. They were ordinary security types, by the look of them, not soldiers. None ran off with anything larger than a pistol. They wouldn't even give the Gunslingers any trouble if they decided to turn and fight.

The prison had only one wing cleared for human habitation, the rest still had much of its moldering infestation, with thick slimes growing in all the drainage fixtures, revived by the recently repaired water system.

A few of the cells were occupied with backwoods Kentucky folk, probably rounded up by patrols while hunting for their families. Valentine felt a wash of achievement. There was nothing like the look on a man's face when he stepped out of a cage.

The "other" was not in a cell. In fact, he startled Bee into an excited yelp as he emerged from a dank stairwell.

Seven feet tall without even drawing himself up to his full height. Golden faun-colored fur, darker on the back and lighter toward the belly and beneath his manhole-cover pectorals. Well-scarred, crudely stitched, missing a piece of ear, with fur patchy over his wounds and fresh blood, sticky and spiky, about his muzzle.

He carried a short aluminum pole threaded to take a variety of tools. In this case, the handle was capped by a small shovel blade, bright at the edges where it had been recently sharpened and so bloody and covered in dripping shards of viscera it looked as though it had been used to stir a vat of grue.

"Well, my David," Ahn-Kha said. "This saves much explaining in both directions. Could you offer me a detachment? A few skulkers fled into the woods, and there may be one or two more in the basements. I might need some assistance in rounding them up."

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