Epilogue: The exact provenance of the word Kentucky is a matter of dispute. The popular translation used by Civil War historians that the word means "dark and bloody ground" is almost certainly false.
For purposes of this history of Vampire Earth, it may be most appropriate to use the alleged Iroquoi-Wyandot phrase "land of tomorrow." What began to take shape at what Lambert called the heart of North America's great rivers as summer came on hot and dry and lush, was the first sprout of the new world that would have to take shape, should the Kurians be overthrown.
Man and Grog, ratbit and Reaper, horse and legworm, radio and newspaper, clattering petro-fueled engine and brown-water-churning propeller, community and its defenders came together that spring in something the world hadn't seen before, at least at the scale envisioned by Brother Mark. Like the ingredients in a stew, each took on some flavor from the other after the heat of action.
Kentucky would see more violence. Atlanta wouldn't give up their plans for the conquest and incorporation easily. Kentucky lived up to its misnomer as a dark and bloody ground in the following years, but like a vigorous new hybrid, its thrived in the churned-up soil.
After false starts in the swamps of Arkansas, the plains of Central Asia, the shores of Lake Victoria in Africa, and the islands and coasts of Japan and Alaska, the seeds of the future at last fell on fertile ground in Kentucky. Fate and the necessities of duty would soon separate some of the actors who gave what would become the Great Rivers Freehold its vigorous birth from their newborn republic.
But most would return, in time.
For now, we shall return briefly to the last few steps of a series of weary marches and passages by our no-longer-so-young major.
David Stuart Valentine felt each of his thirty years as he walked back up from the river landing to Fort Seng. His leg and back hurt. An old pain, one he hadn't had since a Reaper nearly took his head off during the escape from Xanadu, throbbed at his jawline.
Even echoes of the stomping he'd taken in a jail cell in Haiti courtesy of Boul brought a dull ache to his ribs.
Fort Seng buzzed as he crossed the old highway on its west border, at the edge of the thick woods on that side. The Kurian Missionary's doughnut stand had been turned upside down, looking like an odd mushroom with its tacked-together wood-pallet foundation.
He smelled cordite and shell everywhere. Clearly, there'd been some kind of action.
The fragrant smell of dough in hot fat set his saliva running.
"Kur bless you, Major," the missionary said.
Fort Seng looked like a whirlwind had hit it. It was the air raid all over again, redoubled. Headquarters was more or less intact, but looked scorched with several windows blown out and a hole in the roof.
The road to the fort was lined with cheering Bears and a healthy smattering of Wolves, drawn up in neater company lines. Valentine had never seen so many Hunters gathered in one place before.
The barbecue pits were ringed by furry lumps of hair, muscle, and weapons clothed in the ragged mix of Reaper cloth, Kevlar, leather, chain, and pig iron that passed for Bear duty uniforms-rumor had it that the entire Bear regiment had only three A uniforms, cleaned, swapped and returned as needed like a rental tux.
A rough count numbered them in the hundreds.
"Stevens, acting captain, Company A, First Bear regiment," a bearded little man said, stepping forward with a rather abashed and bootless Major Grace behind. "Only why it's called the first when there's only one nobody ever told me, Major. Elements of Companies C and D. Bravo's still down around Houston. Them Texans said they'd leave the UFR if the Bears got pulled out of the fighting line."
"Formerly top sergeant," Connoly said.
"So you're here without orders?"
"Oh, I got you beat on that, Major. We're here specifically against orders. Written, verbal, signal flags, smoke signals. I think they tried everything."
"Except shooting at us," another Bear called.
"Then you're volunteers," Valentine said.
"Men who want to fight. Seems like you're the one piece of Southern Command still in this war to win it. Though when we got here we were a bit surprised to find the place turned over to them Atlanta jaspers. Major Grace here was in the middle of surrendering it to a crew of them. We lit our fires and ran 'em off."
"Hear tell it, you're gunning to take on Atlanta," a Bear corporal with a strange facial hair pattern-he'd shaved off one eyebrow and half of his pencil mustache on the opposite side-put in. "We thought we'd get the ball rolling for you."
"We'll be glad to have you at Fort Seng."
"Infestations of Quislings is pract'lly our speciality," a Bear chimed in. He tightened a hook-studded leather glove.
Lambert greeted him in front of the bullet-riddled headquarters, Ediyak at her knees keeping order among the messengers reporting in and asking for instructions. The elegant old mansion had fire damage around two windows and smoke still trickled up from one glassless window frame. Lambert had an interesting dirt pattern about her eyes and smelled of sweat and gunfire. No one could accuse her of being unbloodied in battle ever again.
"Hail the man who opened up the Missouri-Ohio junction," Lambert said. "My map's looking better and better."
"I'm glad we have something to come back to, sir."
He saw Gamecock and a couple of Bears stacking captured weapons and equipment in the parking lot. There were several Pooters and some new light armor vehicles parked there, not much the worse for battle damage. Blood caked on the window of one.
"Atlanta rolled the dice. They almost won, too. Most of the Evansville milita collapsed-there was another air attack, and I don't think anyone expected them to be able to fight helicopter gun-ships. But half the Lifeweaver-trained hunters of Southern Command showed up at an opportune moment, and nobody objected to attacking without knowing much about the opposition. Luckily it was just recon stuff backed up with garrison troops."
He could tell she was holding something back.
"Who did we lose?" Valentine asked, suddenly anxious. "Where's Captain Patel?"
"Patel's fine, according to his last transmission. He's handling the pursuit with some Wolves and legworm riders."
"From the very top, Valentine," Lambert said. "I just received new orders. I guess Major Grace gave us the thumbs down right before he surrendered the joint."
She handed him the communication tech's transcription. Block pencil lettering had a date, time, and code confirmation. Below that were the bare words:WITHDRAW TO RALLY BASE. AT ONCE.
(S) MARTINEZ, GHQ
Valentine didn't know whether to retch, faint, or shoot himself. Gamecock, up to show him a vintage combat shotgun, steadied him with an arm. "After all this? The river's open now. Between the Goliath and the boats, we can hold the river, now."
"Not 'defensive stance' enough," Duvalier said, appearing from nowhere, in her usual style.
"What about the Golden Ones?" Valentine asked. "We'll just abandon them here?"
"Must have been garbled. Doesn't make any sense," Lambert said. She turned to her communications staff. "The equipment must be to blame. Find the fault in our long-range gear. Take it all apart if you have to, and go over it piece by piece. I don't care if it takes a year to finish the job."
"That transmission was confirmed received," Valentine said. "Somebody might call that mutiny. They can shoot you for that."
"You seem to be healthy enough with a death sentence," Lambert said. "Operation Javelin's going to succeed. Maybe it'll just take a couple tries. But if they want me to stop, they'll have to drag me out by the heels."
"Us by the heels, suh," Gamecock said.
"Dots Lambert ignoring orders," Valentine marveled.
"Can't withdraw anyway," Ediyak put in. "We're in action."
"And will be the rest of the summer, I expect," Lambert said.
They watched Fort Seng fill.
The Golden Ones filed in, walking in the football-shaped formations of the fighting Grog march. A ratbit rode on broad, faun-colored shoulders here and there. The Gray Baron led his Grogs in, Snake Arms dancing with her reptiles at their head to Bear whistles, the warriors perhaps not as orderly as they'd been at the Gray Stronghold, but time would improve them from war band into soldiers.
What fascinating pieces to a yet-unknown future mosaic, Valentine thought. Smelly, disorderly, ragged-like Kentucky, with a full year of warfare washing over it. But toughened and slowly coming together, and unlike the silent, oppressed masses to the south, every one of them could be trusted with a gun and a knife.
He almost felt pity for the Kurian Order. He certainly felt it for the poor bastards who'd be sent up against them.