Northern Missouri: The Iowa Kurians and Brass Rings, mindful of the importance of their fertile land and rail corridors, cannot put any more physical distance between themselves and Southern Command's forces in the Ozarks, so they do the next best thing. They put difficulties in the path of any move north and do all they can to add to the psychological distance.
The first layer of their defense is the free Grogs. While a few clans have been subverted by Kurian agents to launch raids and counterraids against Southern Command's forces-David Valentine experienced one in his last year as a Wolf-in order to keep bad blood between man and Gray One, most are doing what tribal communities always do. They tend their herds, gather their crops wild and planted, and guard their territory from all comers as fiercely as needs must.
The Iowans keep these Grogs well supplied with weapons matching their formidable size and voracious appetite for heads taken in battle, accepting surplus legworm and mutton (the Gray Ones are fond of sheep and lamb for their meat and wool) and the wood and leather gewgaws the females and youngsters produce at a great disadvantage. But if the Gray One traders cackle over the canniness of their trades, they are oblivious to the manner in which their lives are being sold cheaply in skirmishes with Southern Command.
The next layer of defense is the Missouri River. The wide-ranging River Patrol with their fast, shallow-draft boats traveling between the kudzu-chocked banks, backed up by artillery barges towed into position when and where necessary, make life miserable for any incursion in strength. With every bridge demolished and the riverbanks full of hostile Gray Ones, keeping a large supply of boats for crossings or rebuilding a bridge becomes a near impossible object.
Between the Missouri River and the Iowa heartland is the brushfilled expanse of Northern Missouri. This is the realm of the Gray Baron.
It's hard to say why men choose service as military advisors to the Grogs. Freedom from the strictures and Reapers of the Kurian towers, the Universal Church lectures, and the endless "volunteering" for timewasting make-work projects can be found in the brush as an Officer of Nonhuman Forces. The capricious Gray Ones are good friends in victory, but after a defeat are likely to place the blame on allies and assuage the sting of humiliation with the ONF scapegoat's brain-basted liver. The Gray Baron is unusually adept at keeping his allied Grogs in line, perhaps because his savagery matches their own.
His Grogs roam the lands between Omaha and the Mississippi, running their own railroad (the "Grog Express" runs the chord of his protective arc between Saint Joseph and Hannibal). They provide a backstop for any in-strength incursions from Southern Command and do what they can to stop the raiders and cattle thieves of the free Grogs south of the Missouri River.
Finally, there is the formidable military organization of the Iowa Guard. Able to draw on the sons and daughters from Kur's most privileged Quislings, the wearers of the coveted Brass Ring, these scions of aristocracy get to "prove their brass" in keeping Iowa fat and contented. When the Grogs in Omaha cut the key rail line running to the west, they started a long, hard-fought campaign to evict the rebel Golden Ones. After a costly frontal-assault disaster and an even bloodier attempt at an envelopment, they settled into a siege that eventually broke the Golden Ones with heavy artillery and fearsome flame-spewing vehicles.
The Golden Ones still refused to surrender, and fled into the wild tangles of Northern Missouri for shelter. There they were eventually run to earth by the Gray Baron and bargained for what autonomy they could in exchange for giving up the fight.
Picking up with the rest of their unhappy history in this fateful year begins with the Force Light team's venture into the Missouri brush from the Wolf outpost.
Brostoff's airy tent still smelled of leather and rank sweat, the old odor Valentine was all too familiar with from his days in the Wolves.
Long ago, Valentine had served with Brostoff as a lieutenant. He was still obnoxious but a decent enough man when sober, who looked after his Wolves as though they were his own sons. Carefully guarding their health and blood, he made sure each of his team was equipped and ready before sending them out into the brush.
Still, it struck Valentine as odd that he'd made major. Especially major in a forward area. Southern Command kept all but the most secretive drunks in quieter areas until they either sobered up or their health gave out.
"We supply ourselves by trading with the Groggies," Brostoff said. "There's a good supply of root beer mix, always ready to send north. As long as we don't shoot at each other, root beer flows north and lamb chops, 'shrooms, and spuds come south."
Valentine sipped his root beer-the old Southern Command syrup, a legacy of some boggy old general who believed that the men built stills to brew alcohol because there were no quality soft drinks available. Brostoff drank artificial lemonade, a popular Kurian Zone beverage that Valentine suspected was generously seasoned with bad vodka. At least he tossed it down as if in a hurry to have it hit his stomach in the same manner he'd used as a younger man in Zulu company. Though in those days his hand didn't shake when he set the glass back down again.
"My team needs to get to wherever those Golden Ones have been taken, sir. The sooner the better," Valentine said.
"Wish I had a couple of scout cars or a good truck, but all our wheels have been put into reserve," Brostoff said, topping off his glass. "You know, they used to have a plane at this post, back in the day, after we captured Dallas and those airfields in North Texas. I looked it up on the old base TOEs. There was talk of flying out to Colorado for talks with the Legendaires-the 4th Division. See if we could meet up mid-Kansas. I would have liked to have seen that. Now the 4th could be in Kansas City, Kansas, calling for help, and I'd have to sit on my hands and patrol the security zone. Defensive stance my right nut."
"How about a guide?"
Brostoff downed his tumbler and belched. He winked at Valentine. "I can do better than that, Val. I'll get you a couple of Cats to take you there. Cats don't pay no attention to the Defensive Stance any more than the Bears do."
Scheier and Jarvis were both impossibly young for Cats, to Valentine's eyes.
Scheier, small and dark and pinched, looked to be older by a year or two and talked as though she were vastly senior to Jarvis, though Valentine doubted there was more than a year's difference between them. Perhaps the extra attitude made up for the fact that Jarvis was a full head higher. Jarvis reminded him of the big, strong milk-fed farm girls of Wisconsin. She even bound her head in a red handkerchief like a teen setting off to do the morning milking.
Being Cats, they both wore civilian attire, or at least what a sensible civilian moving among the Grogs might wear. Heavy canvas, layers of flannel, and some discreet padding at the knees, elbows, and shoulders offered a little protection under vented leather jackets.
They took Valentine's team north in a series of careful quick-marches. Sometimes they moved by day, others by night. Valentine approved of the care they took in open country, careful to never skyline themselves and keeping well in the trees whenever possible.
The march was tough on Pellwell, however. She was still basically a civilian, and for all the power in her wiry body, she exhausted easily and finished her meals too quickly.
"The shorter the rations, the longer you chew," Chieftain suggested during a morning meal of a toasted, doughy paste and some young heartroot Ahn-Kha had dug up from an old Grog campsite.
He rarely saw their two guides together. One always remained behind "babysitting" as he heard them whisper, while the other scouted, scrounged, foraged, explored, or picked out the next four-hour dash for safety.
Valentine had killed his first Reaper when their guides were practicing their handwriting on a blackboard. Babysitting, indeed.
Valentine discreetly inquired of Duvalier whether she knew anything about the pair.
"They came up after me," Duvalier said. "I'm pretty sure they're both second-generation true breeds."
"Daughters of other Cats, trained by Cats. When the Lifeweavers hid themselves when the Free Territory was overrun, we had to make do. Maybe they don't quite have our skills, but youth and confidence is still on their side. When more Lifeweavers come, I hope the first thing we do is train more Cats. You should start looking around the command and see who you want to bring in to the family."
Duvalier had faith that the Lifeweavers were off starting another freehold and would return at the first opportunity. She believed in their return like some Christians expected the Second Coming to sweep away the Kurian Order.
"If you're a human who wants to get up Iowa way, you need to know the Scrubmen."
"Scrubmen?" Valentine asked.
"They're mostly kids of slaves from the Groglands. A Grog chief can't keep or sell a slave his clan hasn't captured, and most of 'em know better than to bury the newborn like what happens to deformed little baby Groggies. Poor things. If the child's really lucky he gets turned over to the missionaries in Saint Louis, otherwise once he's weaned he gets set loose. Groggies don't know that just because you're off the teat you can't take care of yourself the way a little Grog can, naturally rooting around and hunting."
"I've never run across them. I've been across northern Iowa several times."
"You probably stayed close to the river," Scheier said.
"What do you think of Brostoff?"
Scheier and Jarvis exchanged a look.
"Durndel said you knew him back a whiles," Scheier said. "You tell us if he's changed."
"More whiskey lines," Valentine said.
"We can't figure it," Scheier said. "Last year, they had a decent C.O. Captain Finner. He knew Missouri like the back of his hand; been from Iowa to the Ozarks more times than I've been issued shoes. His men were ragged and patched, sure, what Wolf Unit in the bush doesn't look that way?"
"Good man," Jarvis echoed. "Made a speciality out of blowing the crap out of the River Patrol, only he used Grog guns for it so they'd hit back at the wrong target. One time he made it look like the Red Scalps Clan did it-scalped a boat captain with red hair-and started a big feud between the River Patrol and Red Scalps."
"Then one of Martinez's inspector generals comes in, and suddenly no more Finner. Sent back to supervise a depot full of blankets and winter socks."
"I'm no fan of General Martinez," Valentine said. "The way he runs things, I'm not sure the Kurians would do much different if they were giving the orders instead of him." He was breaking military protocol fifty ways from Mountain Home, but one more charge on his long list of sins wouldn't make a difference now.
With the cautious ice broken, Scheier continued.
"I don't know about Martinez. Sure, he's made improvements. Lots more supply getting to us now. Mail's better. But then his staff goes and puts a guy like Brostoff in charge of the Missouri Wolves. Force conservation. Avoid areas of possible conflict. Observe and report, under no circumstances engage. Don't make sense."
"All they do is eat, clean their guns, and then wait to rotate back to the home areas," Jarvis said. "What kind of formula is that for winning anything?"
"Those poor Grogs in Omaha kept expecting us. It was building, too. Bear Teams. Jarvis and I had set up a chain of supply caches with some of the Golden-the Bears and a bunch of Wolf heavy weapons trainers teams backed up with regulars and special forces were going to go hit Iowa on the supply lines for their siege. Soon as Martinez came in, that whole op got canceled on us."
Ahn-Kha planted his feet wide and set his pylonlike arms so he leaned in over the Cats.
"Tell me the truth. My people were promised warriors in a fight, and they did not even attempt to come?"
Scheier and Jarvis, both a little wide-eyed with Ahn-Kha looming over them, shrank into each other.
"No," Scheier said. "Or rather, yes. What I'm saying: the whole thing got scrubbed as soon as Martinez got in with all that talk about a 'respite' at the last election."
"That's what happened all right," Jarvis said. "No wormshit."
"Martinez don't think too much of Grogs. Said whole lot of 'em wasn't worth 'one son of Texas'-I think that's how he said it. It was in a speech he gave at the war college. Got reprinted and distributed, like all his speeches."
"He loves giving speeches and sending bulletins," Jarvis said. "Keeps us in writing paper and asswipes every month."
"They all begin 'Soldiers!' With the exclamation point, like the soldiers are all excited."
"Now he's made an enemy of one," Valentine said.
"My David, you will do me the honor of hearing this oath." Ahn-Kha drew his utility knife, and taking great handfuls of his Golden Mane, began to trim it down to stubble, with a good deal of nicks and cuts in the process.
He threw his head back and made a high wailing call as he cut his hair.
"For your benefit, my David, I will translate. 'Hear me, souls of the fathers in Paradise. Before I join you, I will take my fallen brother's revenge from General Martinez.' "
"I've never wanted to do a Grog before, but I'd consider it with that one," Scheier whispered to Jarvis.
"Ouch," Jarvis said. "That's not a team change, that's a different league."
"You'll have to wait in line behind me, old horse," Valentine said, after a moment to let Ahn-Kha collect himself.
"You take my words lightly?" Ahn-Kha growled.
Valentine felt a stab. He'd never had so much as a harsh word from the gentle giant. Ahn-Kha laughed at misfortune and bore hunger and discomfort with the same equanimity as he accepted sirloins and featherbeds.
"I'm sorry, my friend. If we survive this, I'll say good-bye to Colonel Lambert and follow you right to Martinez's headquarters, if that's what you want to do. What we have to do now is find your people and see if there's anything that can be done to help them."
Ahn-Kha tweaked both of Valentine's ears and flicked his own forward. "I forget, sometimes, my David, that you are not my people. You are only human, as you humans most accurately say."
Valentine wondered if he was blushing. He'd seen mother Grogs take their offspring's ears in this manner to chide them. He tweaked Ahn-Kha's snout.
"Did we just see a moment, here?" Jarvis said.
"Kiss already!" Scheier laughed.
Valentine had been among his squared-away-and-zipped-tight KZ refugees too long. He'd forgotten how free and easy the Southern Command's men and women were, especially when out cutting bush and chewing jerky.
"My friend is right," Ahn-Kha said. "I must see to my people before indulging in matters of old wrongs, no matter how grievous. Let us not waste time in getting me to them."
"To do that, you're going to have to go into the Gray Baron's stronghold. That's where he's got them now. They're digging holes and setting up building frames."
"We keep tabs on him," Jarvis said. "The Gray Baron's forces are the toughest between here and the Rio Grande. They get plenty of practice against the Missouri Grogs, and us, now and then. He's really dangerous."
"Wish we could still say the same about Southern Command," Valentine said.
They left the rolling hills of Southern Missouri behind when they crossed the Missouri west of Columbia and cut into prairie country.
Valentine had been nervous about the crossing, but the old interstate bridge was still intact. Scheier floated an old boat chair across and explored the other side in the predawn gloom and pronounced it safe. She'd scared off a couple of Grogs by stomping around their camp, breaking twigs and making hissing noises through her teeth.
The river, at least here along the small length Valentine had seen, would be difficult to navigate. While the Mississippi still had a few channel markers in difficult areas and the odd lock and dam working, the Missouri had run totally wild. Unless they could find enough bass boats to float Ahn-Kha's people to Saint Louis, travel by river would be impossible.
The open prairie presented its own challenges. Water wasn't difficult thanks to the spring-rains had filled every brook and pond.
The land, dotted with the blues, whites, and yellows of the tiny spring blossoms, harbored its own host of dangers. To those who haven't experienced it, prairie country is flat with horizon-spanning views.
But in this stretch of Missouri, prairie grasses and brush grow head height or higher between the deep-rooted oaks, widely spaced in their competition for midsummer water. There are many paths and game trails, but there's every chance of meeting a hunting-or worse, raiding-party of Grogs.
Valentine knew enough about legworms now to prefer running into them. Their snap-crackle-popping sounds of feeding and movement carried far across flat country. Grogs on legworms could be avoided, provided care was taken.
So, in a sweaty single file, with Duvalier at the front of the column and Ahn-Kha at the rear-where he could keep an eye on the flagging Victoria Pellwell and her ratbits-they entered prairie country under brushstroke clouds.
Valentine would stop at times and observe the column as they trudged past, making up some excuse to check in with Ahn-Kha. Duvalier, steady as always and traveling light with her loose-limbed stride, a teenager's purposeless shamble that looked busy without drawing attention to itself. Bee followed in her usual spot alternately trailing or leading Valentine like a hunting dog. She wore her sawed-off shotguns in hip holsters, and had a modified Kalashnikov across her chest and a big-game rifle with an extra-long stock in her hand. She'd already brought down one deer yesterday with a single, well-placed shot through the ears and was eager for another. They wouldn't go short of meat if she had anything to say about it. Valentine gave her an encouraging lift of the chin. Bee liked being acknowledged.
Her nostrils flared and the mountain of she-Grog muscle moved on.
Then came Frat and his Wolves in their traditional leathers, camouflage ponchos thrown over their shoulders like capes. Frat seemed at ease in the prairie country, with eyes up and moving. The Wolves, burdened with carbines and communication gear and supplies, bore their loads with the familiar patience of oxen.
Chieftain followed them, wearing the Bear nonuniform of a mix of Reaper robe, legworm leather, Southern Command camo, and an old felt hat with a single nostalgic eagle feather stuck into it. Duvalier had cracked a joke that he'd molted over the winter, but the fact of the matter was he was still mourning Silvertip. He had his usual close-in weapons, twin forged-steel tomahawks. He'd add some support fire to the group with an old-fashioned 40mm grenade launcher that could either fire grenades or a sort of enormous shotgun cartridge of razor-edged flechettes that one of Fort Seng's gunsmiths customized. Rippers, he called them.
Pellwell followed with her ratbits. She carried one, the other two scampered, sniffing at the unique scent of Chieftain (he weatherproofed his uniform with a gummy concoction based on Reaper blood, or so he claimed).
Pellwell was his big worry on the march, though she'd carried her own weight so far. Field researcher or no, she wasn't used to the tired, stinky, hungry life of a soldier in the field. Dealing with the dirt and uncomfortable overnights took a mental toll on some, and Valentine looked for signs of mental stress in Pellwell. But apart from her usual clumsiness-she tended to stumble but not fall-she appeared to be bearing up. Valentine decided he'd have his next meal with her and chat for a while.
And last came Ahn-Kha, serene as a drifting cloud. He carried a support machine gun usually found mounted on a vehicle, a squat little death dealer fed by a belt-in-a-box. It was known as a "Heater" in Southern Command. A revolver big enough to bring down a grizzly hung under one vast arm, and he slung a sharpened shovel that came in handy for scratching out a toilet pit and a long hunting knife known as an Arkansas toothpick.
"What's with the shovel?" Valentine had asked him.
"A memory of my time in the coal mines," Ahn-Kha replied. "When we had no other weapon, we fought with our shovels."
Valentine remembered some of the grisly scenes described in Ahn-Kha's collection of diaries and shuddered.
The second day out from the Missouri crossing, Scheier returned out of breath at lunch.
"Jarvis and I saw signs of Scrubmen, a large party."
"Are they a threat?" Valentine asked.
"Can't say. We found a recent camp. Lots of them, forty or more."
"What would you do if it was only you and Jarvis?" Valentine asked.
"Get a feel for their trail. Moving fast or slow, and with what. If they're hunting, we'd find a place to hide and be ready to backtrack if they approached. They're tricky on the move when hunting, they'll backtrack, parallel themselves, send scouts back along their trail . . . Otherwise just observe."
Valentine considered the delay in backing off and moving north along another trail.
"Is there any good news?" he asked.
"There probably aren't Grogs around."
"Keeping an eye on the camp and the trail they left, to see if they reverse course."
"Let's try to swing round in their wake," Valentine decided.
"They're nothing to mess with, sir," Scheier said. "Don't let the spears and arrowheads fool you."
After it was all over, Jarvis tried to make Valentine feel better by telling him that the Scrubmen had probably spotted their party the day before and overnight, and left the cold camp in their path to gauge their reaction. The only way they might have frightened them off was to take off headlong along the trail like a pack of wolves. The Scrubmen might have assumed they were an advance party for a larger force that way and avoided contact.
As it was, Valentine's decision to dodge them solidified whatever ideas the Scrubman chief had been making.
They executed the ambush admirably, rising out of an open field at the shrill imitated cry of a Cooper's hawk as the file passed through a horseshoe-shaped bowl in the land.
A hedge of spears and drawn slingshots appeared all around. Valentine heard the creaking sound of bows being drawn from the brush. Valentine didn't count spear points, his brain guessed thirty and left it at that. They were well-made, simple weapons, their brutal effect proven since men were slaying each other with jawbones.
Valentine edged closer to Pellwell. "When the fighting starts," he said out of the side of his mouth, "drop. Get behind one of the Wolves and don't get up unless you see the rest of us running."
The Scrubmen dripped with mud and willow tresses. Valentine had seen some atavistic figures before, but the Scrubmen were like something out of early human history. They wore bits and bobs of Grog jewelry-probably tokens of friendship with certain tribes- shell casing necklaces, dog tails, and in one potbellied oldster's case, an old Kevlar army helmet.
It was their eyes that interested Valentine. Tough, hungry eyes, looking this way and that, these men were of, by, and for their pack. All it would take would be a nose twitch for spears and arrows to start flying.
"Yours guns, nows," the helmeted leader said.
"Gets good prices, yesses? Sweets-likkers-juices!"
Valentine called out: "Everybody, keep calm now."
Ahn-Kha dropped his machine gun directly in front of his long-toed feet, raised his arms in surrender. The Scrubmen had picked the wrong day to point a weapon at Ahn-Kha. The Golden One didn't let out a battle roar, he simply brought both mighty fists down on the spears in front of him. Wood shattered, knife tips dug into dirt. With his fists planted, he swung out with both long-toed feet and kicked the two Scrubmen facing him toward Iowa.
In later years it was said that they fell just short of Burlington.
Valentine drew his legworm pick and borrowed parang. He jumped back from the extended spears, heard a pellet buzz by. His enemies, off-balance and overextended in their lunge, turned it into a charge.
Valentine heard motion behind and dropped to the ground, rolling. Two ranks of spears clattered against each other. Valentine heard the snick of a blade sinking home as the Scrubmen met.
He lashed out at an ankle with his parang, pinned a foot to the turf with his pick, let it lie and rose, lifting and twisting a spear.
"Looksee!" "Watch hims!"
A four-armed blur. The Brushmen had never fought Cats before.
He saw a Scrubman go down, weighted by ratbits biting at the tender flesh behind his knee and on the inner thigh. The scratching, pulling furies came away with tendon and other terrible trophies clamped between paired front incisors.
Valentine had read somewhere or other that, given time, rats could gnaw through concrete and some thinner types of conduit. These were a good deal larger and had obviously learned exactly where a man was vulnerable.
The Scrubmen valued survival rather than honor. They took to the brush with alacrity, sending pellets whizzing overhead to cover their retreat.
What the Wolves did with the wounded, Valentine didn't know and didn't want to know. The cries were brief, and for that he was thankful.
Frat's head appeared at the top of the crest of the horseshoe.
"Major, looks like they left a few things behind," Frat called.
Valentine trotted up to Frat's position with Ahn-Kha parting prairie grasses like a living snowplow.
Frat led him to a four-foot-deep ripple in the earth, closed over by oak and grasses into a shady tunnel. A line of people, anchored by a Gray One at each end, were linked by neck collars and six-foot wooden poles.
Valentine had rarely seen such ghastly restraints. The leather was filthy and rotted, with flies buzzing around dried blood caked and recaked at the edges.
"Free those people."
They looked thin and bruised. Valentine guessed the Scrubmen had kept their captives moving with lashes from thin tree limbs and yanks on the collar chain.
"Can you get anything from the Grogs?" Valentine asked.
Ahn-Kha spoke to the pair.
"They say they're on their way north," Ahn-Kha translated. "Those two, they're deserters from the Two-Mouth's army."
"Who is Two-Mouth?"
"A great man. Killer of Red-Blanket, chieftain of the Deathring Tribe. Conqueror of the Golden Ones. Ruler of Rails-between-the-Rivers."
"The Gray Baron," Valentine said.
"In too many words," Ahn-Kha said. "But when the Gray Ones get around to talking, talk they will."
"Why did they desert?"
More burbling words and emphatic gestures.
"They were part of a rail crew. They thought they were supposed to fight, not lay ties and iron," Ahn-Kha said. "They're young warrior Grogs, they want a tally of enemies, not a record of track laid. Since they couldn't fight, they fled. But Two-Mouth has a standing reward for deserters and any and all humans."
Valentine questioned the humans himself. They were two groups that had met up while fleeing the Great Plains Gulag. They'd struck the Missouri River and followed it southeast, and were planning to turn due south and head for Southern Command's forces once they dried and smoked some of the Missouri's famously oversized catfish. But the Scrubmen had smelled the drying fish and taken them prisoner.
"So, the Gray Baron has a taste for human prisoners," Valentine said.
"We must endeavor to bring him some," Ahn-Kha said.
"Like the first time we went into Omaha," Valentine said.
"Only this time, you get the cuffs."
"You'll need a woman along," Duvalier said. "I'm still young enough that they won't put me to digging ditches."
"We'll establish two camps," Valentine said. "A far one and a close one. Frat, you'll be in command of the far camp. We'll probably need to stockpile Grog trade goods to ease the journey across Missouri. Like the Scrubmen said: sweets, liquor, weapons. Some fireworks and matches might not go amiss, either. Grogs love fireworks at their celebrations. A chief that can put on a good fire show has many friends."
Frat nodded. "Yes, sir."
He turned to Duvalier. "Ali, I want you to set up a close-camp. Hopefully Ahn-Kha will be free to do a little roaming. Make contact with him and set up a communication chain back to Frat."
"Keep Pellwell and the ratbits with you. I may need them," Valentine said.
She made the same face she made when he had a bad case of morning gas."You're kidding, right? Her? She'll get us both killed."
"You've had it in for me from the first, Red. What's that all about?"
"You big-idea college fucks get people like me killed, that's why. Running down rumors, looking for docs that don't exist, counting baby legworms when we should be setting charges."
Ahn-Kha, with his shorn hair and wounds from the fight with the Scrubmen, looked the part of a Grog trader. He wore a pair of saddlebags on each vast shoulder with his most valuable "merchandise." Valentine, weighted down with simple trade goods on a carrying pole and wearing filthy rags taken from dead Scrubmen, followed. As a token of belonging to Ahn-Kha, Valentine wore an old license plate painted white and hanging from his head vertically. Ahn-Kha had made himself a leather wristband with the letters and numbers burned into it.
"Good to be working with you again, old horse."
"I could say the same, my David."
"If this goes to shit, you beat out of here, okay?"
"I'll run with you on my back to the Missouri River if that happens."
At first, Valentine thought the distant smear might be a legworm. Then he saw heads bobbing among the brush, appearing and disappearing through the gaps like targets in a carnival shooting gallery.
"Our Baron's guys, do you think?" Valentine asked.
"Almost certainly," Ahn-Kha said. "A band of Gray Ones would not stay so tightly in line."
Valentine watched the bobbing heads for a few more minutes. There were men at the front and the rear of the column, it looked to be no more than two or three, with a hundred Grogs or more in between. Two of the men, presumably the officers, rode horses. Valentine couldn't tell the breed with certainty at this distance, but they looked like tough, squat mustangs.
The men wore a vertical-striped camouflage, ranging from a buttery tone at the lightest to a rabbitty brown. He'd seen the pattern a few times on his previous trips into Iowa, when he'd wandered as a rather vengeful exile shortly after Blake had been born and relocated to Missouri. It was equally effective in light woods as prairie. Instead of helmets, gray kepis with another band of the camouflage material running around the brim sat on their heads.
The Grogs wore smocks or vests made out of the camouflage as well, probably ponchos or tenting repurposed for oversized Gray Ones' heads and shoulders. Big, bolt action rifles proportioned like Kentucky squirrel guns with oversized stocks hung by short straps around their necks in the human stock-up, muzzle-down fashion, allowing the Gray Ones to use all fours on the march.
Valentine noted that their rifles had some kind of latch attachment and rest so they didn't bump and chafe on the march. Good officers, these.
"At least this Baron grants them their stride," Ahn-Kha said. "Remember in New Orleans, the way men were always trying to make them walk upright when marching? They can do it, but it is not a natural gait and is fatiguing."
"They cover more ground per minute this way. Those officers are really puffing to keep up. The Baron should put his men on bikes."
"Perhaps you can suggest that when you meet him," Ahn-Kha said.
"If we're lucky, he won't ever notice us," Valentine said. "Your call, old horse."
"I see no signs of wounds or fighting," Ahn-Kha said. "They seem well fed and well rested. Dirty, looks like. See the pollen crusted into the sweat stains. I would say they have been out a few days. Perhaps they are on their way back in any case."
That was the real danger in contacting opposing forces. Valentine had heard stories of surrendering men being shot outright, if the opposition didn't feel like taking the trouble to secure, feed, and transport prisoners.
Ahn-Kha checked his weapons, squatted and stretched, and cleaned each ear with his tiny end finger. "My teeth clean?" he asked Valentine, showing his prominent near-tusks of a well-matured Golden One.
"I remember the dentist visiting the old Razorbacks and saying he needed machine tools to do you," Valentine said. Ahn-Kha rinsed his mouth with wet sand morning and night, if he could find it, and used baking soda and a brush when it could be had. "Yeah, they look great."
"Nothing puts my Gray Cousins off like a bad set of teeth," Ahn-Kha said. "Let us empty tracks."
"Make tracks," Valentine corrected. Ahn-Kha was more nervous than he let on, he only flubbed his English when preoccupied.
Ahn-Kha hailed them.
Valentine wondered what they would think. A scarred, bitten Golden One with shorn hair leading an equally scarred human dressed in Scrubman rags.
"Peace, peace, I call peace," Ahn-Kha said, approaching the soldiers. He carried his rifle by the barrel so that the butt faced the troops, a friendly gesture to Grog eyes.
Valentine waited for the order to deploy or ready weapons, nerving himself for a wild flight, but it didn't come.
The officer turned up the corner of his mouth under his kepi brim and Valentine relaxed. A little. Perhaps the officer found this an interesting diversion in a dull patrol. Valentine noticed that both he and his sub-officer, and the two human NCOs, all had full beards or mustaches. Strange for Kurian Zone troops. They were usually fit and trim and cleanly cut as a recruiting poster.
Now that he could get a better look at the horses, he decided the duns were Kiger Mustangs, a tough breed, surefooted, agile, and durable. After 2022, a good many horses had gone feral and multiplied on the plains, and over the generations the cream of those rebroken to saddles were called "Kigers."
"I don't know you," the officer said, from under an impressive walrus mustache. "But come in peace."
"A rhapsody in your name, chief," Ahn-Kha said. "I have been years south of the Missouri River and in S'taint Lewee. I hear my relatives now live under the protection of the one called the Gray Baron."
"Your English is excellent, civilized one," the officer returned.
"Thank you, chief. You call the Gray Baron your chief?"
"I understand there has been fighting. I wish to be among my kind and see if any of my family still live. Will you allow me foot-pass upon your lands?"
"Fortune blesses you, civilized one," the officer said. "We're on our return trip. Feel free to follow."
"Another stanza to your rhapsody, my chief," Ahn-Kha said, pawing the earth in front of the officer's horse to clear his way.
"One request, however," he said. "No shooting. Makes the geros nervous."
"I'm sorry my chief, what is this word, 'geros.' Your warriors?"
"Yes, them. Oh, what's the word in your language? Gray Ones."
"Of course. Geros. I shall remember that, chief. If we do see game-"
"This is a patrol, not a hunting party. Leave it be. Discipline, civilized one."
Ahn-Kha flashed his teeth. "No shooting, chief."
"That slave armed?" the other officer asked.
"He has a small knife. He can be trusted."
"Don't cuff him about where the geros can see. In the Baron's command, no one is struck except by punishment after trial. Understand?"
"Follow on, then. The man in charge of the tail is Sergeant Stock. If you have trouble, go to him."
They let the column pass, then fell in about twenty feet behind Sergeant Stock.
Valentine took a second look at the NCO as they passed, keeping his head down and some hair in his face. He had seen the sergeant's face before. Something about the heavyset brow and cool eyes.
Stock . . . Stock.
Stockard. Graf-a lieutenant in the old Free Territory Guard. Molly's husband, the father of her child.
Valentine hardly noticed the miles passing as he stared at the man's back. He'd never met him, just seen a picture or two when he visited Molly a few years back while hunting down Gail Post. He'd been missing in action since Solon's takeover, presumed dead. Molly was collecting a tiny widow's stipend of money, and since there was a child, food and housing benefits.
The Gray Baron's stronghold impressed Valentine, even as a work in progress.
Stronghold was the only word for it. It was larger than a stockade, but not quite a city. The old maps would have put it west of Kirksville in northern Missouri, but this stretch of country was one of the wildest in the nation, and the old infrastructure could only be traces between burnt farmsteads and overgrown towns.
The stronghold was nestled against a protective line of heavily wooded hills with the broken rooftops of a ruined town to the north. Dust rose from some workplace in the ruins and faint mechanical sounds carried in the dry prairie air.
Valentine thought the architectural style might be called "fire-base in skulls, with church behind."
A vast killing ground of a thousand yards or more yawned in front of a network of log bunkers and weapon pits covering a low rise of earth surrounded the complex of towers, buildings, water tanks, and chimneys the Grog column approached. A high, nearly bare tree with an observation post like an eagle's nest looked out over the road approach to the south, a sawed-off church steeple with a blockhouse of railroad ties and sandbags watched the land to the north. Valentine could only presume there were other pickets in the hills behind.
"No barbed wire?" Valentine wondered.
Ahn-Kha, who'd been talking to the Grogs at meals and breaks, gestured with an ear, sweeping the front of the stronghold: "There are hidden pits all along in front of the battlements. They might seem to give cover, but many have false bottoms. Tunnels lead back to the entrenchments. Warriors sneak down under any enemy caught or sheltering in the pits and stab up. Or they're built to be flooded with gasoline and set ablaze. They have many explosives to drive off legworms, or so they claim."
They fell silent as they passed through the "gate"-a wrought-iron trellis rigged for electricity. The officer leading their column paused to say a few words with a lieutenant who stepped forward. Presumably, anyone coming in at night was searched under the hundreds of LED spotlights. Valentine made a show of hesitating to pass under-as an ignorant Scrubman might-and Ahn-Kha sent him sprawling with a shove.
"Grog hittin' a man," a sentry said.
"Ain't like us," his corporal said. "Watch it, Goldie. Hey, Stocky, keep your camp follower in line."
The gate watchers, who seemed more like idlers than sentries, got a laugh at that. Valentine wondered if the Gray Baron kept his men deceptively undisciplined, or if this was an unusually free-and-easy Kurian Zone camp. Even the most backwoods Arkansas militia unit showed more discipline on winter exercises.
"Sergeant Stock, see to it our kite-tail gets properly billeted," the officer told Stockard. "Usual post-patrol liberty when you've turned them over."
"Sir," Stock replied. He picked up a field phone near the gate and scribbled something on a clipboard.
They waited, listening to insects and the buzz of conversation from the men at the gate, who treated their arrival as a chance to show off beautifully rolled cigarettes in virginal white paper. Valentine sat, dispiritedly, with his back to Sergeant Stock, but he walked around in front and took another look. He could see, up a little hill, a big structure but didn't want to lift his head and gape.
A man in a plainer, unstained uniform and two Gray Ones appeared. The man had a small bamboo pointer, otherwise none of the trio were armed. The Gray Ones wore cargo-pocket shorts and thick canvas vests with the same vertical prairie camouflage. The human entered into negotiations with Ahn-Kha, offering a four hundred silver-dollar bonus if he joined a group of "Baron's Own" Golden One warriors. Ahn-Kha did his humble trader routine and said he hoped to sell Valentine here rather than to "those Kansas double-talkers and lead-coiners."
"You give a good price, all prisoner come here," Ahn-Kha said.
"Such facility with English! I can almost guarantee a quick promotion to officer."
"Will think it over, chief. I wish to sell this one, then find a bed and food."
The recruiter for the Baron's Own, who held the nebulous rank "officer candidate" laid down the law for Ahn-Kha about visiting his kind. Without membership in the Gray Baron's forces, or swearing to the First and Second Understandings-it was with that casual remark that Valentine learned what the Golden One articles of surrender were called-Ahn-Kha would be treated like any other potentially hostile tribesman, Gray or Golden, who might wander in out of the grass.
Ahn-Kha agreed not to leave the Golden One sub-camp save under guard, to obey any command by one of the Gray Baron's officers that did not endanger his or another's life, and to refer any disagreements with his own kind to one of the Gray Baron's officers before matters escalated into violence.
"May I endure three more hells in life or death if I break my word," Ahn-Kha said, in the proper Golden One manner.
They walked through the stronghold, the officer and Ahn-Kha in front, the officer candidate beside him, still mentioning the honors and rewards that would go with membership in the Baron's Own. Valentine led on a line in the middle and the two Gray Ones trudging behind, with Sergeant Stock bringing up the rear, as usual.
At last Valentine had a chance to look around.
The stronghold was a great wheel, pivoting around a green, planted, and landscaped central campus made out of an old, heavy-timbered megachurch.
Valentine had seen his share of rural megachurches, but whoever had built this one was a visionary. It reminded him a little of a snapping turtle sunk on a muddy hillock with its nose raised high to catch a gulp of air. Two outbuildings formed the creature's legs; a sort of ski jump of a steeple rose between overlooking what must have been a courtyard with a fountain; and the worship area itself formed the plated arc of the turtle's back.
Brick, structural steel, thick interlocking slate on the roof and canopy rigging to keep off the worst of the summer sun, heavy beaming and concrete-wrapped terraces of decorative prairie earth built up to the roof-this Baron had chosen his headquarters well. Nothing short of a heavy artillery barrage would put much of a dent in that monstrosity. Valentine wondered how many could be gathered under that titanic roof.
Of course the Gray Ones had added their own touches the original architects never intended. The decorative garden beneath the steeple sprouted monoliths of bones, skulls, and captured weapons. Victory columns, Valentine guessed. Female Grogs scrubbed their broods in ample pooling space of the fountain's spray. An aged attendant skimmed dirt out of the sluices and others waded to the fresh flow at the top to fill jugs and jars.
The Gray Ones had also added their own fetishes. They didn't go for brass idols, but rather markers like over-thick spears or harpoons with knot work and mixtures of leather and wood dangling from spars that reminded Valentine of pictures he'd seen of medieval samurai warriors with banners attached to their armored backs. There were bones, teeth, dried fingers, and even a preserved penis or two among the tokens of triumph.
Valentine had never seen the like in the Kurian Zone proper, where discretion about bodies both kept things hygienic and the populace settled. The men who handled bodies were typically selected and supervised by the Church, with a doctor or nurse on hand to add an air of medical authenticity. Only in the worst New Orleans slums were bodies left for discovery by rats, or those eager to plunder a corpse for its socks and hair. The Gray Baron was essentially saying death is our business, with a display like that on the doorstep of his headquarters.
There was an old pre-22 chain hotel that looked like it served as quarters for NCOs, judging from the men coming and going and lounging in the pleasant spring sunshine, eating or playing games or reading or cleaning guns. Small armies of servant Grogs worked in shacks nearby, polishing and resoling boots, laundering and patching uniforms, even shaving and cutting hair for the men. The Gray Baron's men had it good.
Valentine got a glimpse of the alleyways of the Gray One quarters. He'd never seen Gray One urbanization before, and he wished he was at liberty to take a better look. From a distance, their ghetto reminded him of a creative child's stack of blocks. Prefabricated housing trailers were grafted on, dug in, suspended over, and bridging older human single-family homes into what looked like a haphazard pile, but probably had something to do with chiefs and sub-chiefs and their clans. The ghetto clattered and buzzed and smoked. There was electricity in most housing, but for water it looked like the residents had to use troughs and pumps set out in the yards of the older human houses.
Back in the hills behind the headquarters megachurch, Valentine saw a few more elegant houses, presumably the Baron and his main lieutenants lived there, several barns of various types, and an expansive training area on the distant hills. He saw groups of Gray Ones, antlike in the distance, moving upslope and down, crossing various sorts of obstacles, breaking up and re-forming like waves striking rocks, and some hand-to-hand tussles.
Of the Golden Ones he saw nothing; though up by the dust and clatter in town he did see the giraffe necks of cranes and a vaguely pyramidal structure rising next to them.
Before he could get a better look at the distant, dust-shrouded construction, Valentine was brought before a little cinder-block building with a sod roof. GUARD AUXILIARY MONGO STATION ARRIVALS read the stencils on the door lintel. It had a hand-painted sign out front as well: ABANDON ALL HONOR, YE WHO ENTER HERE-AND RETIRE RICH. Even the doormat had a legend, Valentine noticed, but the letters were mostly obscured by mud.
In the "Arrivals" blockhouse, they negotiated Valentine's sale in the time it might take Valentine to turn in a bag of laundry and his best uniform at a Southern Command Laundromat.
Valentine submitted to the usual once-over. They looked into his eyes, ears, checked his teeth, combed through his hair looking for vermin, looked at his nails and tongue and toes.
They didn't like his limp and made him walk, run, and hop along the spring mud flanking the blockhouse.
After a good deal more argument they settled on a price, it seemed. Ahn-Kha walked over to Valentine.
"I claimed you fought me like an evil spirit and you'd no doubt won your scars in battle," he murmured, removing the lead. "They claim you're fit only for use as a draft block in a doorjamb, but I suspect they are pleased to have you."
Ahn-Kha insisted that their price for such a healthy specimen wasn't satisfactory, and the manager there finally accepted a deal where they would see how the captive worked, and if he lived up to Ahn-Kha's promises, they'd meet his price.
Ahn-Kha leaned on the counter so heavily Valentine could hear nails working free. "He's to be well treated, until my price is met."
They sprayed off the mud with a power hose they kept at the gate to the motor vehicle revetment. Valentine rather enjoyed all the mud being blasted off, though his skin felt like it had been sandpapered after. The towel they gave him to dry off was rough and stiff and had not met soap since the previous March, but it was as clean as well water could make it.
Sergeant Stock hung around, watching, which seemed a waste of time for a man due for liberty.
He threw the towel over his head and shoulders, assuming that his nakedness would draw attention rather than his face. If there were still wanted posters out for him, they were for a much more youthful face and long black hair.
A corporal with another odd variant of a short whip-it looked like a stingray tail Valentine had seen in the Gulf-led him to a white-painted prefab with a Quonset-hut-style roof. Valentine noticed a red cross painted on the roof-as if Southern Command or the Grogs had an air force that might bomb the Baron's headquarters-and took him inside. Valentine's nose smelled rubbing alcohol and Kurian Zone disinfectant of the sort that came in fifty-gallon drums sweetly reeking of artificial lemon.
He was glad the place sparkled and smelled. At least he wouldn't be probed with a blood-encrusted finger.
"Wait here," the corporal ordered, shoving him into a folding metal chair.
Stock, who was still watching, spoke up. "Easy there, Corp. This Scrubman's been a broke horse the whole march in." Turning to Valentine, he said, "Relax. Didn't you read the doormat? No fear. Goons over with here. No Reapers. Savvy?"
With that, he walked out of the building.
Was that a code, Valentine thought? Relax, I recognize you, your secret is safe? Or is he just kindly to human captives. The Molly Carlson he'd known wouldn't have married a brute, not after what she'd been through; if anything, she'd only be courted by the most gentle of men. Probably just his nature.
More waiting. Valentine grew ever hungrier, and his stomach growled. The corporal's knuckles whitened on the whip handle, but he otherwise didn't move.
At last, a cough preceded a medical man, with an orderly trailing behind carrying a tray full of instruments and some jars.
The doctor, a gray-hair who looked terribly frail for a forward military camp, examined Valentine. The medical man knew his business. He looked into his eyes, ears, and throat, listened to his heart and breathing through a stethoscope, tut-tutted over the old steam burns on his back, palpitated his scrotum and had Valentine cough, and ran some sort of irritatingly dry swab up his rectum.
He paused over the old gunshot wound in his leg. He cocked his head first to one angle, then another as he looked at it. He reminded Valentine of a pigeon he'd once watched in New Orleans, deciding if a dropped coin was edible.
"Bad, this. How old is it?"
Valentine dropped his mouth open wide and acted as though he'd been asked to construe Wittgenstein. "Errrrrrrup-not baby to manhood. Baby to hunting age."
"In years, please. Four seasons equals a year."
"Four. No, ten. Tenteen?"
The doctor sighed. "Never mind. It still gives you trouble?"
"No run long," Valentine said, which was close to the truth.
"Could have been worse, Scrubman. It might have hit your femoral artery. You would have been dead in seconds. Next time you have the opportunity you might want to sacrifice a chicken or whatever you do to appease fortune."
Valentine didn't mind being talked down to. It meant the disguise was working, at least so far.
The doctor took out a white instrument like a thick pen. He folded it open to reveal a little screen on a swing arm.
"Orderly, starting SSI scan."
The orderly picked up Valentine's clipboard and a pencil.
The instrument passed from temple to temple. Valentine felt a crackling presence across his skin, like a piece of wool that's built up a strong static charge.
"Subject fifty-one-eleven, Mentation weak A. That's interesting. Too bad he didn't get some education. Emotional weak C, no, I'll call that a strong D-he's seen a lot of stress, by the look of it, and he's got it buried deep. I've gotten strong Ds out of semi-sentient Grogs. He either tortures critters or he cries at the sight of a dead baby bird, I'll bet. Delta signal-whoa there, strong B." Valentine felt the instrument touch him midforehead. "No, weak A-no, strong A ... dropped back to B again. The hell? This SSI needs a factory recalibration, that can't be right with a Scrubman. And we're back at A, steady. I think this SSI's crapped out."
He tested it briefly on the orderly. Valentine watched its screen travel from green to pink, with little arrows and letters appearing as he moved it across the man's forehead. "Hmmm," he said.
The doctor turned and stared hard into Valentine's eyes. "You're not a Kurian agent, I'm guessing, unless our dear Baron's made some powerful enemies. An agent wouldn't dink around in the labor pens. He'd walk right into headquarters."
Valentine tried to look blank and uncomprehending, and offered a nervous smile. "Haircut now?" he asked.
"Wonder who whelped this pup and who his father was," the doc mused, folding up his instrument again.
The stingray-whip corporal took a firm grip on his upper arm and led him past a small motor pool filled with rebuilt trucks-the sleek twenty-first-century panels had been replaced with brutally ugly corrugated steel painted in that same vertical camo scheme-to a pole barn filled with shipping containers and tables.
They issued Valentine a set of plain white canvas pants and a shirt, along with some mass-produced sandals that he'd last seen in Xanadu. The shirt, probably once stiff and uncomfortable, had been washed down to an almost flannel smoothness. Valentine noticed there was a patch sewn on the right breast, shaped to look like a shovel-head with a number 3 on it.
"Don't worry, in the winter you'll get boots," his corporal said.
"No kill? No eat?"
The corporal cracked a smile for the first time. "Believe me, this isn't the end of the line for you. Getting roped by that Grog's the best thing that ever happened to you. Getting any of this?"
"Yes-yes," Valentine said. "Littles."
"Do as you're told and you're entitled to three hots and a cot. If you're doing heavy labor, you get snacks, even. I grew up in Illinois, farm labor, and we didn't get that unless our families snuck it out to us, so appreciate it. We only send screwups back north. We've had some guys come out of the pens and make sergeant. I don't suppose you can read and write-"
"Read, yes, read good."
The corporal chuckled. "Well, they'll test you, so let's wait-Hey, look alive, if you know what's good for you, here's the man himself. That there's the Baron, Scrubman, he owns your ass now. You do what he say, you can rise right up to a piece of Iowa heaven. Cross him and you'll be turned into pig feed."
Two four wheelers and a pickup truck rolled through camp at a gentle pace. Valentine assumed that the Baron was in the first car, the passenger seat of a polished, high-clearance jeep-style vehicle. He wore a long legworm-leather duster of a reddish-brown hue with its brass-tipped collar turned up and the brim of his old military-style scrambled eggs cap down low. He wore big reflective sunglasses, in fact, put a corncob pipe in his mouth, and in that cap and glasses and Valentine thought he might pass for General MacArthur.
The corporal saluted as the cars passed and Valentine aped him, poorly. The Baron gave no sign he'd seen them.
The rear truck had a camper on the back with old bulletproof vests fixed over the windows. Valentine supposed some Grog body-guards were within, looking out at the world through concealed firing slits.
The corporal looked pleased with the salute.
"Seeing as it's your first day, we'll let you get settled in quarters."
The corporal took him to an old basement that had been timbered over with sod. Two ventilation pipes stuck up, without any sort of cover to keep out the rain. The corporal pulled back a tarp and brought him downstairs.
It smelled like body odor, wet wool, and possibly ferrets within, but to the eye it was clear enough. There were window wells, partially blocked up to prevent someone from sneaking out, that admitted some light. Most of the furniture was bunks, but there was also a big five-gallon plastic water barrel with a permanently stopped spigot hole. Instead of that there was a siphon hose and a cup.
"This is Hole Three. Can you say that?"
"Hole threes," Valentine repeated.
"Remember that. Any bunk without a blanket you can take."
Valentine decided he had to choose between light and fresh air and warmth. He chose light and fresh air, and took an unoccupied bottom-bunk near the door.
"Here, you won't eat until breakfast," the corporal said, rummaging in one of his big cargo pockets and pulling out something wrapped in foil. "Unless you're in the hospital, you only eat on the job site. Don't know if you're too smart or too dumb for all this, but I appreciate you not fussing and spitting, Scrubman."
The outer wrapper had a label with a picture of snowcapped mountains. It tasted of real cocoa and sugar and had plenty of peanuts in it. If a corporal in the Gray Baron's command could afford to give away chocolate like this to a prisoner as a kindly afterthought, they must be doing very well indeed in the Kurian Order. Valentine had sipped ersatz cocoa with many a New Universal churchman, even in Louisiana with its access to ocean trade.
Valentine ate half and saved the rest.
Everyone called him Scar.
Hole Three was run by a fleshy man known as Fat Daddy. Valentine wasn't sure of the source of his authority, as he went directly to his bunk and didn't move, even to urinate. His urine was collected and dumped into the basement urine bucket-he later found out every drop was saved, it went to a fertilizer manufacturer-by an injury-hobbled old man called Pappy.
They were all wary of him at first, in his clean new clothes. Fat Daddy distributed the soap ration, and there was none left once his own ample body and that of his rather gorgeous, bewigged golden boy were taken care of. A mix of servant, jester, and lover, the effeminate youth slept like a dog on his plastic-covered mattress at the foot of Fat Daddy's pushed-together bunks. Everyone called him Beach Boy and he was the one who gave Valentine the "Scar" moniker.
"Just do like Fat Daddy says and everything'll work out swell," Pappy advised him.
Valentine suspected they'd sniff his chocolate out sooner or later. Better to give it up voluntarily than be put in his place in the pecking order by having it taken from him forcibly. Despite his lurking hunger, he offered it to Pappy.
"You looks hungries, grandfathers," Valentine said, offering.
"Naw, I couldn't," Pappy said. He shot a glance around, most of the workers were stripping and hanging up their clothes so they'd dry out by morning, or they were taking drinks from the plastic bucket by letting a siphoned jet of water spray into their mouths so as not to touch the plastic end. Pappy still eyed it, licking his lips.
"Give it here, Pappy," Fat Daddy said. Valentine wasn't sure they were even watching.
Pappy grabbed it and brought it over to Fat Daddy in his bunk. Beach Boy-though Valentine didn't know the name yet-took it, smelled it, and insouciantly popped a chunk in his mouth before handing it to Fat Daddy.
"Naughty boy," Fat Daddy said. He tasted it. "This is good stuff, new meat. Hey, Boy, new meat needs a name."
Beach Boy made a great show of licking his lips. "Scar."
Valentine liked the work. Maddeningly so.
He spent his days working with excrement, or drying it and then transporting it to the fields, rather.
It was filthy stuff for a man as fastidious about his own cleanliness as Valentine, filling a trailer with liquid "hot honey" and raking it out into a field to dry with other organic waste in the sun. The better job, in some ways, was taking the dried version of it, known as "brown sugar" out to the fields, though in spreading it some dust would get up and you'd have to spend the day with a rag tied around your face and the uncomfortable thought that you were blinking feces out of your eyes. There it was turned into quick-growing heartroot, or other more traditional Midwestern vegetables and grains-there were even paddies for rice. Most of the heartroot was broken up and added to scraps for pig feed or to granary leavings for the chickens the Gray Ones kept in little household coops or vast stacks in the pole barns.
The work was done by men because Grog warriors would not be stained by such duty, fit only for slaves. So the men of the forced-labor group, a collection of criminals, last-chancers, and sold-off Grog slaves of dubious origins such as himself, did work no warrior would take up, and the few Grog females in the Baron's stronghold were too valuable to sully with such labor.
Valentine followed orders, took his three hots and a cot, and waited in absurd, smelly happiness. They ate their meals outdoors, in the sun in good weather, under a tent or inside available transport in bad. He felt his body toughening under the dawn-to-dusk days, and there were no worries beyond his being recognized. There was a part of him that hated responsibility, the endless choices between bad outcomes that came with military life, the paperwork that no one ever read, useful only to the creators of file cabinets and document storage boxes.
His work wasn't limited to agriculture. Anything having to do with shit would cause an officer or a Grog chief to call in the forced-labor group. Valentine and Pappy were sometimes called into the Grog Quarter to deal with a stuffed-up toilet drain. He'd crouch to walk under lofted housing, or pass through alleys just wide enough to allow two Grogs to face each other and squeeze through. He smelled delicious steak and vegetable kabobs being cooked on tiny charcoal stoves and took cover when raucous games of throw-and-block or breakgrip burst out of multihome courtyards and into the streets, paths and alleys. He smelled tobacco and hot iron and apple-wood smokers. The Gray Ones loved pine and orange oils in their homes to cover the scent of a stopped drain.
"They also slosh around a lot of oil and burn it when the she-Grogs go fertile," Pappy said. "Grogs theyselves don't cause too much trouble about mating if there are no eligible females about, as long as they don't smell 'em. But if they get a whiff, it's Katie bar the door, 'cause you're about to get plugged in like a surge protector."
He also saw the Golden One quarters. Many still lived in tents, but more permanent housing formed of bricks reclaimed from the town and the output of a new Golden One-run sawmill was going up. Their quarters were laid out with more precision than the Gray One piles of housing, but each Golden One had less space. A whole family of six would be put into just a half basement.
Valentine felt for them. It was never fun to sleep in the same place you cooked.
Once, when their spreader flatbed broke down near headquarters, Valentine got a look at "the model."
It was on display in a peaceful garden, and as nobody seemed to mind him wandering within sight of the disabled truck, he went into a little Grecian temple, or maybe it was a small theater or music platform, and took a look at the wooden blocks carefully arranged on the three-dimensional plan.
The Baron had something grand in mind for his headquarters. There would be columns worthy of the Romans, a pair of arches that modernized the famous one he'd seen in pictures of Paris to include friezes of Grogs on one side, humans on the other-the Gray Gate and the Golden Gate, and, dwarfing all else, the Missouri Throne.
When his officer for the day called him back to the others, Valentine asked him about the pyramid.
"Going to take years to build, if it ever gets done at all. Even with all these Golden Ones going at it full-time. You wouldn't believe the hour cost in moving a city's worth of giant bricks into a single pile, Scar."
It would sit atop a staired Aztec-style pyramid, and the officer told him it would be visible, in some directions, from twenty miles away. The Baron could communicate with the Kurians from the top of it by reading the stars and planets. Or so the officer said.
Some days, Valentine saw Sergeant Stock out doing calisthenics on the athletic field near the forced-labor dugouts. A near mountain of dirt and gravel stood at the edge of the field, for emergency washout repair to the patched-together camp road network after a bad rain. Stock was one of a few who ran up and down the gravel hill, sometimes carrying a dummy gun, trying to keep his footing.
One morning, it was Ahn-Kha there, sitting atop the gravel mound, eating an orange from a bag of them.
Valentine got permission to try and cadge a couple of oranges from his old master, and trotted out to the hill.
Ahn-Kha made him go through the effort of climbing, sliding, and reclimbing the gravel pile.
"There is a difficulty, my David," Ahn-Kha said.
"I have spoken to a few old friends, and last night I met with the Speakers of the Castes. They will not take up arms against this Baron. Here." He passed Valentine an orange.
"He has them working like slaves!"
"Yes, he has them working, but he has kept up his part of the bargain. When they surrendered, there were to be no reprisals, no mistreatment, we were to live within his sight and build in return for our keep. It was all laid out in the First Understanding, and then when that was completed successfully, the Second Understanding became law. None would be sent off to the Kurian Zone, and any generations to come would choose whether to live in his domain or depart. His execution of the bargain is faultless."
"They can't wait to help his army, or the Iowa Guard. The Kurian Order, in effect."
"My people were defeated, my David. They accepted more generous terms than they would have received from other Gray One tribes or the Iowans."
"Well, did you at least get a count?"
"Some seven thousand and two hundred. There were losses in the fighting, and some managed to flee into the sand hills to the west rather than be taken. But those number in the hundreds, mostly those without family to think of."
"What would your Speakers like?"
"Like? I do not know that 'like' signifies. They will uphold their end of the bargain as long as this Baron does."
Anger surged up in Valentine. He'd travelled all these miles, killed, sent himself naked into the Gray Baron's camp, when he might as well have stayed in Kentucky, for all the good it would do. Stiff-necked-
No, that wasn't right. It was his fault for thinking he could steer history, the way he tried steering one of the Tennessee boats they'd stolen.
"What if the Baron doesn't keep his end?" Valentine asked.
"The peace and captivity would no longer be valid. They would be only too glad to go to the soft green hills of your Kentucky."
Valentine spent the rest of the day disgruntled and itchy.
With Ahn-Kha's help, he was fairly sure he could escape. Ahn-Kha still hadn't formally accepted a price for Valentine's sale, so he could demand his return at any time. Though the men on base were few in number, Valentine guessed fewer than a hundred were in camp at any one time, with a few dozen more strung out on the rail lines and back north in Iowa. The Golden Ones wouldn't rise and the Gray Ones couldn't. The Gray Baron was their chief's-chief, their warlord, and they liked it that way.
That night, Fat Daddy picked the wrong moment to humiliate Valentine.
Maybe because he'd seen Valentine eat an entire orange without saving half as an offering to the Lord of Dugout 3.
"Forget it, Pappy," Fat Daddy said from his usual prone position, rippled as a sea lion sunning itself. "Have Scar take the piss pot tonight."
"I don't mind, Big-," Pappy began.
"Give those knees a peaceful easy," Fat Daddy said. "Let the Groggie's pet handle it."
"I don't mind," Valentine said.
The worst part was he had to kneel down; Fat Daddy's joined bunks sagged so with the man's weight in it. Kneeling and leaning forward with the sawed-off water bottle made his bad leg hurt.
Beach Boy giggled as Fat Daddy filled the bottle. Disgusted, Valentine felt the plastic go warm in his hand.
"Give him a tap," Fat Daddy ordered.
Valentine pulled the bottle away.
"Don't you hear right, son? You're slower than a wooden Indian. I told you to tap it off. Now me sheet's all soiled."
"Ah-ah-ah," Beach Boy said, waggling his finger in Valentine's direction from behind the garden-slug form of his protector.
For a man who had taken the whole group's soap ration, his bedding was remarkably dirty. Valentine threw the contents of the warm jug into Fat Daddy's face.
For a full ten seconds Fat Daddy remained frozen, as though his brain couldn't quite absorb the splashed urine as well as the sheets and his shirtfront.
"You cunt!" Beach Boy spat.
"You'll regret that!" Fat Daddy bellowed, a rising tide of flesh coming for Valentine.
Valentine's only regret was that he didn't leave a few ounces for Beach Boy's concealer-coated face.
He backpedaled and bounced off the chest of one of the other laborers, who'd gathered to get a look at Scar's humiliation.
"Excuse me," Valentine said, but the man shoved him toward Fat Daddy.
Fat Daddy got a grip on his shirt and started slapping him, hard, back and forth. Valentine lashed out, felt his fist glance off a meaty pectoral rather than the chin he'd been aiming for.
"Oh, will you," Fat Daddy snarled. The slaps turned into closed-fist blows, hard, into the painful sweet T between nose and eyeline.
Valentine went momentarily blind. He felt more hands grabbing at him, a hot panting.
"Finish his ass-face off, Daddy," Beach Boy said, strong fingers suddenly pulling at his hair.
The smooth-chested bastard twisted his ear, hard, as though trying to tear it off. Something that must have been a brick struck him in the jaw, and through sheets of rainbow lighting Valentine saw Fat Daddy pulling back for another punch.
Then it came. The red rage. It flooded through Valentine's bloodstream from somewhere behind his liver. When it hit his chest and heart, he felt as though his hot muscles might burn through his skin. Valentine had Bear blood in him by way of his father. A lifetime of unconscious emotional training held it in check-but when some combination of pain, fear, anger, and sweat washed through him, the shadow monster slipped its leash.
He pulled the two men pinning his arms down to the ground-hard. Fingers closed on a forearm and he felt a snap, his fist tightened as though he were pinching off a flowing garden hose. With his right hand he grabbed something-anything-and got a finger. He twisted and it popped off like a banana squeezed out of its skin.
Beach Boy shrieked and hopped away, injured hand clasped between his knees.
Fat Daddy looked down in horror. Valentine saw his snarl reflected in the formerly eager eyes.
Valentine spun on his hip so his body faced opposite Fat Daddy's, got his instep across his throat, and kept a hold tight on the chunky arms.
A horrible crushing, choking sound from his windpipe: Kckchckhhh . . .
Whistles and calls of fight! Fight in the pens! sounded like the distant roaring of falls in a canyon far below.
Valentine rose, picked up Fat Daddy by the waistband and neck-hole, and threw him around like a tackling dummy. Thunk-up against the wall. Then Valentine tested the man's ability to cushion an attempt to bust through the cinder blocks. He smelled blood. The cinder blocks didn't give but something in the man did and Valentine upended him onto the floor and came down after him, leading with a hard-driving elbow as though trying to knock a new drain hole. Again, the floor resisted the blow, but a cartilaginous sound like a thick sheaf of paper tearing showed that his victim's body saved the floor from its punishment. Valentine picked him up again and saw men scattering, threw the broken body through one set of bunks and knocking down a second.
Valentine raged around an ever-widening circle of men in white scrubs. Some sane sliver of his consciousness realized he was foaming at the mouth.
Then the floor rose up and hit him, hard. He felt water pounding up his back and realized the cleaning hose had been turned on the room.
Of course there was an inquiry into Fat Daddy's death. Pappy broke the silence of the labor gang.
"Was two-on-one, chief. First blood was on Fat Daddy's fists."
Looking at the damage to Hole Three's boss, the inquiry evidently assumed some sort of group justice had taken place, and Valentine, being the new guy, was "volunteered" to show some damage and had his lights convincingly punched out. The query was closed as quickly as it was opened, at least insofar as the healing Valentine could tell.
The men in the pens seemed to assume that Valentine wanted the strongman-leader position vacated by Fat Daddy. They took to calling him Fast Scar and offered tobacco, toiletries, even tin cups of sack-made fruit-cocktail wine that might be mistaken for some sort of acidic drain cleaner.
Valentine wasn't interested in having toadies or allocating who would change whose bedsheets and when in exchange for downcast eyes whenever he passed. But he did see to it everyone had their soap again.
"Sort it out yourself," he said with a shrug to other matters.
The food was dreadful, the worst kind of Kurian Zone canned, waterlogged vegetables and freeze-dried shoe leather passing as meat. Only copious amounts of ketchup, the one condiment available (no need for salt; every dish tasted like it had been dragged through an oceanside brine pool).
Valentine had earned himself a reputation as a fighter. They sometimes gave him the day off, then at night he'd be taken to the old entry rotunda on the megachurch, an octagon that might have been a modernized Globe Theatre in that three levels of audience could look down on him from balconies leading to various spaces in the headquarters building. There, under strings of lights hanging down from the skylight, he'd go up to three rounds in a boxing match or a no-holds-barred fight. Valentine gave a good account of himself, despite not being able to box, though the gloves and soft toes of the kickboxing boots often left his face swollen and painful.
He found, in his fights, that it took a few blows before his blood started jumping. For all his years as a fighting man, he wasn't much with his fists, the more skilled boxers shed his blows like a slicker kept the rain off. Only once his nose was bleeding and body blows making each rib come alive in pain did it come. Then, no matter how skilled his opponent, it was just a matter of harrying him into a corner and beating down his guard with blow after blow after blow until the ref pulled him off. The men in his corner took to throwing an ice-cold towel over his head like a panicked horse.
"He's like some kind of fuckin' machine," a spring-steel hard sergeant gasped to his own corner when Valentine knocked him down the second round, under the eyes of the Gray Baron himself, watching from a balcony. The sergeant was Mongo Station's reigning boxing champion and fought any weight. "Gasoline on a fire. The more you put into him, the harder he hits back."
The reputation came with its rewards. They finally issued him some sheets and a pillow, for a start. Ahn-Kha reported that his price had suddenly been met, and he'd had a second offer from the big Gray One Deathring tribal leader, an aging veteran of a hundred battles named "Danger Close," that he'd like Valentine as an armed bodyguard. Danger Close hadn't named a price specifically, but it seemed an obligation to him was a good thing to have, whatever the color of your skin and fur.
"They're getting suspicious," Ahn-Kha said.
"I have a feeling I can get away from the labor gang easier than this Danger Close. Take the money and get back to the camp. Tell Duvalier that she may need to start poking around headquarters, if she hasn't already. Assassinating this Gray Baron might be our only out."
Ahn-Kha didn't make any obvious comments about the difficulty of killing a warlord in his own headquarters. "Even if that happens, as long as the order my people made their agreement with exists, they will be bound to it."
"No discontent at all."
"Well, some grumbling. Those born since the surrender are not bound to its terms, and may leave at maturity if they wish. The men are recruiting them to be in athletic contests and pretend marches and that sort of thing, handing out many toys and prizes. Their elders do not care to see the young ones seduced into being little more than prouder versions of the Deathring Tribe."
"I need to get going," Valentine said. "Try and set up a communication system with the ratbits. They should be able to get into the camp at night without much difficulty. If there are any dogs other than strays living off scraps, I haven't seen them."
"If you get into difficulty, try to set a smoky fire. Chieftain can arrange a diversion, and you should be able to escape."
"No heroics this time," Valentine said. "If I get stuck in here, I'll just follow orders and bide my time."
There was another benefit, as Valentine found out when they brought him out of the hole on a warm, three-quarter-moon night.
At first they walked in silence, but as the cavernous headquarters building receded, they started joking about Valentine spending the night on stud detail.
"Don't worry, buck. With a woman," the older of the two said.
They brought him to a small trailer house at the base of the hill behind headquarters. It was one of several in a little, politely fenced grove. Valentine heard a woman singing through an open window, and a pair of lusty young voices, wailing away into the night.
They stepped up to an aluminum door. Little Gray One fetishes were tacked three-deep all around it, offerings of teeth and fingers again. "Time to do your duty, Arms," one of them called through the screen door, rapping.
"'Bout time she earned a pink or blue star," his comrade said. He'd had some sort of dreadful wound to his cheek, running from the corner of his mouth almost up to the ear.
No one answered the call, or the rapping. Valentine smelled new paint and stale tobacco coming from inside the trailer home. He noticed that the electrical system for this cluster of trailers consisted of what looked like extension cords running on poles back to a concrete platform.
"Bet she's out dancing in the moonlight, again."
They took Valentine out around the trailer and up along a little creek. The cool evening air poured into him like a fizzy tonic after spreading shit all day, washing up with a cake of soap seemingly as invulnerable to water and lather as aluminum.
They traced the creek back to a natural spring, or perhaps a natural pool that collected water from the hills. It lay in a little, thickly wooded dimple on the hillside.
A woman splashed in the water there. It took Valentine a moment to realize she was dancing in the ankle-deep pool. She did a routine displaying a rope around her arm.
No, the darkness had fooled him. It was a snake.
She was a diminutive little thing, smaller even than Ediyak. One of his escorts whistled.
"Hey, showgirl. Biological duty time."
She turned her head just enough to take a glance.
"Biological each other, why don't you. I'm busy. It's Warmoon Feast in three days, if you didn't know. Gotta dance for Danger Close."
"This comes from the Baron himself, sweetie," the one with the scar-lengthened mouth said.
"Don't bend her too hard, buck," the other said quietly. "She's little, but she's like one of them snakes."
She stopped her dance, lowered her head, and took a deep breath. After a moment, she turned.
She was wearing an oversized undershirt and as far as Valentine could see through the wet clasp of damp cotton, nothing else. She waded up, making no effort to hide her body.
"I don't know you," she said to Valentine.
"You will soon," scar-mouth sniggered.
"Forced labor? Really? What, amI a last request? He gonna get shot at sunrise?" If she showed any resentment at being ordered to service someone at a moment's notice, she was hiding it well.
"Nothing like that. The Baron just liked the cut of his genes."
"Not bad looking, either," she said, tickling the copperhead wrapped about her arm. It was a "Her face wasn't beautiful, but she could be called pretty," and an energy crackled out of her through the clinging T-shirt. It was easy for Valentine to imagine her being the source of the bubbling spring, a kind of Lady of the Lake. Or, going back a couple millennia in the literary world, holding an apple in her bower.
"Our beloved Baron gave up on Captain Coltrane becoming a father, I guess," she said. "I don't have my glasses on, stranger, but you're a finely formed blur. Should I keep my glasses in their drawer, Porter?"
"He's chewed up, but tasty," the scarred man answered. He cupped Valentine on the butt cheek.
"Keep it off base, Private," the other said. "Just because the Baron looks the other way ..."
"My snake's cold," she said. "Let's get going."
She led them back down the path to the trailers, silent. She had a grace to her, her gait had a rhythm, even on the uneven trail. The singing had stopped and the crying had changed to the sound of a woman telling a story about an ugly duckling.
"First time in the harem?" she asked, over her shoulder.
"Yes," Valentine said.
She waved the escort off at the door. "When will you pick him up?"
"Morning," the one in charge said. "Well after dawn, so don't be afraid to-"
"Give him breakfast?" she said.
The trailer had more Grog art in it. A tiny corner kitchen at one end, with a bathroom opposite it, and a built-in folding table with a pair of small chairs covered eating and expulsion. At the other end, a long couch hid a bed. She had some bookshelves made of planks and bricks filled with battered books, mostly reference works and fiction. Several of the paperbacks were held together with rubber bands.
"Why do you do your routine in the water?" Valentine asked.
"Good workout for the legs. I had the guys bring up some sand, so the footing's not too bad, and most of the year enough water is moving to keep it clear from water weed. That and it takes care of the sweat, so I don't have to wash after."
"I practice when it's cool," she said. "They're happy to just hug my arms for a few minutes."
She had three aquariums filling a wall of the trailer, warmed by a space heater. Valentine peeked inside and recognized a diamondback rattlesnake and a cottonmouth, plus something near black he'd never seen before.
"What's your name?" Valentine asked.
"They call me 'Snake Arms.' "
He wasn't sure he'd heard the name correctly and asked her to repeat it.
"Snake Arms. They tell me it's how the Grog name is rendered in English. Tethmot or something like that, with a purse of the lips and a spitting sound before or after to signify that I'm a captive. Hope you don't mind Grog spittle, every time you get an order you'll get a sprinkle."
"I'm guessing they gave you that name."
"I'm a praise-dancer. I've got a way with rattlesnakes and such. Can we get this over with, I need to hunt mice for my creepies and if I go to the grain pits after they close they might think I'm stealing."
Valentine wondered how much to the hilt he'd end up playing this role.
"They call me Scar. You-fine reward," he said, keeping to his role as an ignorant Scrubman who was learning fast.
"Your first time in a Grog pit? The Baron's not interested in your pleasure. He wants strong, healthy babies for his next generation of soldiers. It's Orders. They want some offspring combining valuable traits."
Valentine had experience with this sort of thing. Southern Command ran a controversial program for a period before the return of a few Lifeweavers where they tried to breed a new generation of hunters by pairing up likely candidates. As one of the very few male Cats, he was called on. It wasn't unpleasant, but it made him feel like a prize bull.
"Like dogs," Valentine said.
"How do you think they ever made Shepherds. They picked two mutts with features they wanted and got a litter. The Baron's thinking long term."
"Hey, I'm off all duties but sewing while you're trying to impregnate me, so I'm happy with it. Under all the wear and rust, you ain't half bad looking, plus you have that intense Indian thing going, so I've got no problem with taking it twice nightly for a while if he wants me knocked up. Thing is, I have to check in at the doc's dripping spunk, or they'll take me off procreation and put me to berry picking or beekeeping or cleaning chicken coops and so on, and that's sticky work. We only get two hot baths a week. Otherwise it's a basin and rag, or the spring when no one's drawing water."
She disrobed as she spoke. She was a little on the fleshy side-Valentine couldn't help but think of milk-skinned Molly, that summer in Wisconsin-but nicely proportioned. She'd probably been chosen for her hips and breasts.
"I'm kind of looking forward to this," she said, approaching him. Her eyeline only came to his midchest, he could look down and see the direction of growth in her hair.
"You smell-sweet," Valentine said.
"I dusted a little lavender in my hair. It's in bloom now."
Her body, soft and ripe and smelling of the spring water and salty sweat, suddenly seemed to be touching his, from toe tips to eyeline, as though they were magnets with perfectly aligned poles and curvatures.
His hands started at her shoulder blades and explored south.
She had deceptively strong muscles under that jiggling flesh. He felt one buttock tense under its padding, it might have been an oak banister carefully curved by some woodworker. They fought a brief war, her leg against his hand, and she let him win, bringing her calf up and tight against his own, tucked in between buttock and thigh.
Valentine had experienced all kinds of sex in his travels. Tender and tentative, loving, exhausted, mechanical, professional, enthusiastic, angry . . .
For him, it was a form of oblivion. He could wipe away everything when between a woman's thighs the way some lost themselves in drink or drugs.
But this woman, a gift to him in his labor pit, was outside his experiences. She reminded him of one of those Old World robotic toys, where once plugged in or batteried up, lights roamed across it and noises sounded from hidden speakers and it began to buck and jump.
The first few strokes of penetration seemed to trip a hidden "on" switch within Snake Arms. She suddenly came alive and apparently grew another set of legs and arms, like some Indian idol. Were those hands or legs on his buttocks, and if they were hands, what on earth was clasping at his latissimus muscles.
Still, he stayed gentle. She seemed like a bird in a cage, tucked under the arc of his limbs.
"Faster and harder, Scar. I can take it ... All of it, now."
"I much bigger than you," Valentine said.
"Tougher than I look." She made a face, as though trying to remember a foreign expression. Valentine felt her inner muscles work him, pulling at him.
"Jesus," he said.
"It's the dancing. Works your core."
She'd gone impossibly wet, running like the spring where he'd seen her dance in the moonlight. He gave her his all.
"Fuck yeah," she squeaked.
He had to agree.
Now they were both moving, grinding together, a steady meeting of hips like some obscene musical instrument.
The lavender must have been mostly pollen. Valentine gave a soft sneeze.
He pulled her off him, for some reason needing to taste her. He hugged her salty mount with his mouth, savoring her.
Suddenly she bucked and scooted away from his tongue. When her eyes opened again, he reentered her, aroused by her climax, and in a few brief strokes it was his turn.
His mind cleared in the afterglow.
"Work, work, work," she said into his arm. "Dawn to midnight." Then she seemed to relax into sleep.
Now he could think. A rough count of the armed Grogs made him wonder if an uprising by the Golden Ones could even be successful, given the forces the Baron had. A force two or three times that of the Baron's would be required to smash this feudal Grog-human war machine.
The Baron would have plenty of warning and the advantage of rail-fed interior lines of communication on that arc he patrolled between the Mississippi and Oklahoma. No such army existed north of the Missouri, even if he could somehow unite the Gray Ones running wild north of the Missouri valley.
No, the destruction would have to come from within. The Kurians had managed the trick any number of times. Could he manage it here?
Not on his brown sugar.
After a day's work in the fields that no longer seemed quite so delightfully mindless, he was rinsed and brought to the little trailer park enclave again. This time, he thought he saw a shadow watching him from the woods sheltering the trailers from prying eyes.
It was laundry day. There were bedsheets drying on every line. She showed him a tub of iced beer. "Present from the med staff. Doctor says it's the right time in my cycle, so you've got me for the next two nights. Let's enjoy ourselves."
"Sure. But later, let's talk. Alone. Quiet," Valentine said, still not sure of her.
"If your tongue's not too tired. And don't go getting lovelorn. You're here because the Baron wants it so. Don't be surprised if when you're done with me, they move you on to another, or get you jacking off into a cup. They'll make use of those balls while you still have 'em. Soon as you knock a couple of us up, you're getting snipped high and sewn up tight. Washtub gossip says you're going to be guarding the officers' harem."