Banquets: Southern Command is famous for holding feasts at the drop of a hat. There are always a few volunteers ready to drop a hat themselves, if a better reason isn't on the calendar or out-box.
Word of a "feed" passes quickly, even before the barbecue smoke rises. In this case, the smoke was from one of the winter hogs raised on camp food waste and the inevitable spoiled food brought in on the irregular supply runs up the Ohio River by Southern Command's "Mosquito Fleet."
Fort Seng's were never as resourceful as Southern Command regulars at scrounging "grits, grease, and gluss"-the first two being traditional Transmississippi staples, the third liquor mashed, heated, and dripped out of any stray carbohydrates at hand. Gluss, another of the many names for army busthead, was a variant on Mosquito Fleet acronym General Liquor Unspecified, Standard Ration. Southern Command's boatmen were legendary in the aptitude for acquiring alcohol-strictly for purifying questionable river water, of course-and, to cut down on the cases of ethanol poisoning, their captains took to issuing a small daily ration unit.
The captured boats were returned briefly to the Ohio, but only to be taken up a short length of river to Evansville, where they were again hauled up out of the water and brought into riverside workshops. One boat, kept fully intact and armed in its drag across Western Kentucky, was tied up next to the old casino, to be used for training.
The battalion was in the best spirits Valentine had ever seen. Upon returning from the operation, the companies that had gone out to get the boats immediately set to laundering and cleaning and polishing their bodies, uniforms, and equipment as though they couldn't wait to be sent out again.
They'd proved themselves before, certainly, in the fight against the ravies outbreak of the winter. But that had been purely reactive. The raids on Site Green and Respite Point were their idea, successfully carried out by the battalion.
Colonel Lambert decided they needed a reward. The first of the spring vegetables were in, along with a bountiful amount of strawberries, so she decided to sacrifice a few head of cattle for a big steak fry.
They used the big open field to the south where the brigade's horses grazed. It was the largest stretch of flat, open ground in the confines of the fort. With the horses cleared away, it served as an athletic field for football, soccer, and baseball-and conditioning sprints, of course.
Glass volunteered to miss the festivities-he was no social animal, and stayed with Ford and Chevy, his heavy-weapons Grogs, and the company left on security. Especially at a celebration like this the Grogs sometimes caused trouble. They believed the greatest warrior ate first and most and had trouble with the human tendency to share out by the plateful.
Lambert skipped it as well, though she gave Ediyak the night off. Valentine filled a tray with steak and sauce, strawberries and clotted cream, and some tender spring vegetables (asparagus was early and plentiful in Kentucky, leaving the fort's latrines more pungent than usual) and brought it up to her. Even if the ascetic workaholic in her was currently reining in her appetite, he could eat both their shares. He could still smell the grill on the steaks and his mouth watered at the hot, fatty smell.
"I've been studying this map of the Eastern United States," Lambert said as he set down the tray on an empty chair. Lambert's desk was unusually cluttered with notes and colored grease pencils for writing on the plastic overlays that lay on the maps.
The bright light of her desk lamp reflecting off the map hurt Valentine's eyes and gave him the beginnings of one of his headaches.
Valentine glanced over it. Old maps were interesting but of limited use. Most of the roads were overgrown and broken up and the towns run back to kudzu and scrub oak.
"If we only had something comprehensive and up-to-date," Lambert said.
"I know, sir," Valentine said. "Someone really needs to make some new maps," Valentine said. "The Kurians have good local ones, but beyond their regions-"
"Here be dragons," Lambert said.
"Maybe we can team up with the Kentuckians and get something accurate of at least the zones surrounding us. If the Georgia Control is going to come after us, it would help to know what roads and rail lines they still have up and running. What bits are full of bad guys and where the hostile neutrals and Grog tribes are. But the rivers are still the same."
"Yes, sir," Valentine said.
She placed her palm over an area covering Western Kentucky, the southern arrow tip of Illinois, southeastern Missouri, and a corner of Tennessee.
"Whoever controls these waterways has the Ohio, the Tennessee, the Missouri, and most importantly, the Mississippi."
"I see, sir," Valentine said.
"It reminds me of something Shelby Foote said about Gettysburg," Lambert said. "Gettysburg was at a nexus of roads, so when the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac were chasing around up through Maryland and into Pennsylvania, Gettysburg turned into a place where both armies could concentrate quickly. He called it a spiderweb or something."
Valentine was a bit of a Civil War buff as well and vaguely remembered that quote, and nodded.
"Back in de Tocqueville's day, in the early days of rail, there was some contention over whether river or rail traffic would win out. Rail won, of course, but there's still a lot to be said for barges."
Valentine, who'd learned his service in the hard school of foot-soldiering with the Wolves, couldn't agree more. In his days with the Coastal Marines, while serving in the Kurian Order working his way into a slot in the Thunderbolt, had marveled at how easily tonnage could be moved by water.
"What Southern Command should do is put all its efforts into controlling the river between Arkansas and here," Lambert said.
"Against the River Patrol, sir?" Valentine asked.
"It would be a matter of choking off a few big bases of theirs. Vicksburg to the south, and the one on the Tennessee-Kentucky Border, and the Iowa fortress. We've got the Ohio choked off here. Now we've got the boats to contest the Ohio, and the mouth of the Tennessee. Maybe even all the way to the Mississippi."
"For now, sir," Valentine said. "They'll get sick of us at some point. I'm not sure I like our chances for holding them off without a lot more support from Southern Command. With Martinez in charge-"
Lambert held up her hand. "I envy you in a way, Valentine."
"Excuse me, sir?"
"Your career. It's dead, just not buried. Gives you a great deal of leeway. You're a free man. You can say what you like."
"Sorry, sir, if I've been too free with my opinions."
"Don't worry about it, Valentine. I'd rather have you letting off steam to me in here than in front of the men. I'm not in a position to stop you."
Like her uniform, Lambert rarely showed anything other than her usual efficient mind-set. Valentine wasn't sure how to handle a colonel suddenly turned prosaic. "Odd thing to say about someone in uniform, sir. You can order me to hopscotch to your door and back, bad leg and all."
"In return you can bleat, 'Up yours, L-a-a-a-mbert,' the way they used to in elementary school. Not a heck of a lot I can threaten you with in return, except maybe to kick you off base."
"With great freedom goes great responsibility. Or that's how it should work," Valentine said.
"Didn't some movie character say that?" Lambert asked.
"I think that might have been Spider-Man," Valentine said. "Frankly, sir, I'm not used to hearing you talk this way."
She nibbled at one of the asparagus spears, stood up and started to pace her office. "The Respite Point raid has me hoping again. Those boats might give us some real mobility. I'd like that freedom. I feel trapped in this headquarters, sometimes." She ran a finger across a heavy wooden mantel. "Even if it is a comfortable prison."
"You're the base commander, sir. The KZ types or people who aren't in the service might think you're the freest one here, since you're at the top of the rank table, but most know better. If I could give you one piece of advice-it's okay to dig your heels in when you're right and upchannel to HQ is wrong. You're here and they're not."
"Now you're being philosophical. That's a recipe for not getting anything done at all. Better go back out and get the music going."
"Make sure not too much liquor is being smuggled into the party."
"Of course, sir."
He headed for the back entrance. The musicians were assembling on the back patio in the lights.
Valentine looked out into the darkened fields at the big tents in the athletic field, lit up like New Year's was celebrating Christmas's birthday. The barbecues glowed warm and the smells-Valentine's nose could smell food farther off than he could smell blood-were warm and inviting.
His stomach growled.
Pellwell was taking the steps up from the gardens two at a time.
"Valentine," she called.
Her usual composure had deteriorated into twitchy agitation. The ratbit on her shoulder had its head buried in her hair.
"It's the guys," she said, referring to her intelligent menagerie. "They say something bad's coming. They can hear it."
Valentine switched to his "hard" ears, concentrating on the night air. All he heard were the sounds of musical instruments and dishes being washed up and stacked. Someone was making love rather frantically in the woods above the artillery lot above them.
"I don't hear anything."
"You wouldn't. They can hear outside our range."
Valentine didn't wait for her to elaborate. He dashed for the door to headquarters.
"This is Valentine," he shouted, loud and clear at the com center. "Full alert. No drill."
The dispirited corporal stood up so fast his plate of congealing beef and french fries hit the ground.
"Kill the lights," Valentine ran to Operations, the siren sounding.
"Kill the lights," he repeated, but the men in the operations room had anticipated him. The lights died in the headquarters, dim red battery-operated hand LEDs flickering on at the hallway outlets. Cheap Kurian Zone junk used in their cities during the routine power brownouts, but they worked admirably for a couple of hours.
Now he heard them too. Engines, in the sky. There was a deeper thumping sound, lower and farther to the south. Helicopters.
Valentine had seen this horror before.
The electricity might have died, but the fires were still burning bright out at the barbecue.
Explosions ripped up the barbecue pits as rockets struck. Valentine heard engines roar overhead, caught a quick glimpse of flashing red and green at the wing tips of the propeller craft.
Following the rocket attack, a pair of biplanes, probably converted crop dusters, came in low. They lifted their noses and slowed as they pancaked through the air. Two figures dropped from each plane, off the wings, where they'd been riding like stunting barnstormers.
They hit the ground and rolled, then came up on long legs.
Valentine sidestepped to his woodpile behind headquarters, grabbed the axe he used to split wholes into halves and halves into quarters. The familiar feel of the polished hickory calmed him. With death running loose on the lawn, a piece of sharpened avativism comforted.
He remembered the night on Big Rock Hill when Reapers fell from the sky. They'd been wild ones, deadly to whoever was nearest to where they landed, but vulnerable to skilled hunters once they'd fed on their victim.
But these Reapers moved with purpose. Before, they mindlessly fell on the nearest beating heart. These struck with hands and feet, breaking and ripping without stopping to feed.
The former Quisling troops, who'd had fear of the Reapers put into them along with their mother's milk, fell into absolute panic. Valentine ran forward.
"Get guns, knives, anything!" he called, keeping some fleeing men off the steps up to headquarters with the handle of the axe. "Swarm 'em! Douse them with gasoline! Anything!"
Valentine had flashbacks to the night the Twisted Cross came for the Eagle Brand in Nebraska. But these avatars didn't fight like professional soldiers were operating them. They put weapons to their shoulders, strange contraptions that reminded Valentine of small I-beams with a handle and shoulder pad welded to the bottom. Atop the back of the device was a V-shaped rack filled with tubes the size of a household conduit pipe.
One turned his in the direction of Valentine, still trying to reach the action and turn the panicked men back into soldiers.
Even the Reaper with the weapon, pound-for-pound one of the strongest creatures on earth, braced itself as it aimed at the vehicle shop.
"Rockets! Down, down!" Valentine shouted, flinging himself forward.
F-whoooosh f-whoooosh f-whooosh spat the rocket rifle.
The vehicle shop erupted into orange flame, the roof rising and spinning into the air like a Harryhausen flying saucer.
A Bear exploded out of the darkness, driving a shattered tent pole through one of the Reapers as it aimed. It was Chieftain, the most experienced of Gamecock's Bears. He hoisted the convulsing creature as though raising a tar-dripping flag. Another Reaper, suddenly and unaccountably headless, took a few wayward steps before crashing on its side. Alessa Duvalier rose and ran a few steps and dropped again, her oversized coat looking like a forgotten rag blown from a laundry line as it covered her, lying in the culvert next to one of the macadamized camp utility roads.
Ahn-Kha stormed up from the stables, one arm full of shotguns, the other wrapped in bandoliers. He handed out weapons and ammunition to any hands willing to take them.
The grass-pounding beat of a helicopter sounded, suddenly overwhelming the gunfire with its air-cutting anger.
Three helicopters, a fat one in the center flanked by two smaller maintaining a jostling, zigzagging formation like a queen bee in the air with two suitors, thundered up from the south.
Ahn-Kha picked up a smooth landscaping stone the size of a softball. Running forward, he made a swooping overhand throw.
A picture flashed in Valentine's mind-probably one of the old volumes in Father Max's library where he whiled away the long Minnesota winters after his parents died-of a cricket bowler. Ahn-Kha echoed the motion.
The stone, hurled with such force it described an almost straight-line trajectory, struck the windscreen of the big central helicopter. Valentine saw it strike sparks as it passed through and impacted the pilot and his instrumentation.
The helicopter went nose-down, and the big rotors threw up high-flying divots of earth as the craft nose-tipped in.
The other two craft, unsure of what had brought down the big one, pulled high, both banking right and just missing each other's blades.
Three monstrous forms-at first Valentine thought they were an exotic creature like a hippopotamus or a rhinoceros-jumped out, apparently unhurt by the crash.
They were hulking, a third again as big as a typically oversized Grog. Ahn-Kha, drawn up to his full height, would come up to the shoulder line of the beasts, leaning out over their pier-sized forelimbs like gorillas.
Valentine had never seen anything like them. Pale-skinned, like the Reapers.
He rushed forward with his axe, Ahn-Kha falling in behind.
One of the men Ahn-Kha had armed with a shotgun fired right into one of the giant Grog's faces. It turned away, threw out an arm and punched the man into red-topped mush.
Another was crushed beneath a stomping foot the size of a wheelbarrow.
Ford and Chevy, the core of Valentine's old heavy-weapons group, each carried a vehicular machine gun in a harness. They held their guns high so as not to hit any of their allied, and scattered bursts at the monsters. Valentine saw bullets strike, tearing out chunks of hide, but the beasts showed no more sign of feeling it than the armored car Valentine had shot some weeks before.
Valentine froze. The giant Grogs had yellow eyes with slit pupils.
One opened a cavernous mouth as though to bellow in his face. Instead, a stabbing, barbed tongue the size of a harpoon shot toward Valentine's chest.
He ducked under both tongue and chin, swung the axe with every iota of strength he could summon. The blade buried itself deep in the beast's neck. It let out a startled cry and reared, dragging the axe handle out of Valentine's hands.
Its tongue was limp and flopping. Valentine must have severed some nerve, or the trunk of the tongue itself.
Weaponless, Valentine froze. The creature stepped forward and put a wide foot on its own tongue. It crashed down, threatening to bury Valentine, but a powerful arm hauled him back.
Ahn-Kha blasted another of the beasts in the eye with his shotgun, wielding it with the quick ease of an experienced gunfighter with a pistol.
"We must run, my David. Explosives are needed!" Ahn-Kha said.
The creature Valentine had struck in the neck fell dead at last.
One of the Grog-reapers had picked up a tent pole and swung it this way and that, knocking soldiers about like a man killing rats with a club.
It was Bee who finally turned them back. She rushed forward with a white tank resembling a field soup pot in one hand and a burning rag on a stick in the other.
She hurled the tank, tearing the valve free with her toe. Valentine heard it hissing as it flew. She followed it with the brand, then threw herself on her face.
"Good thinking, Bee," Valentine said.
She said something in return. Valentine recognized the Grog word for "fire."
"She heard you say that they needed to be killed with fire," Ahn-Kha said. "A propane tank makes the most fire she's ever seen."
"Well, they sure blew the hell out of that barbecue, suh," Gamecock said, surveying the smoldering ruin of cookout, helicopter, and giant Reaper the next morning.
The salvage teams crawled over the corpses of the helicopters, uniformed ants on mechanical carcasses wielding wrenches, tin snips, and screwdrivers.
Pellwell, meanwhile, had forgotten her ratbits for a moment. Or if not forgotten, was at least ignoring them in her haste to examine the beastly mega-Reapers. She'd scared up a camera from somewhere and was taking pictures and writing notes with each frame.
"Hey, they did us a favor. Maybe we can fill the craters with wood and roast a couple pigs."
"Dangers of a night attack. There might be confusion."
Valentine shook his head, wondering. "I'll give this to Atlanta. They learned who hit them. They struck back, and meant it. Both had some bad luck tonight. They attacked a barbecue rather than our main buildings. We lost months' worth of work."
"Let's hear from observation points. North, south, east and west. All of them, and send out patrols. The air raid might have been a setup for the finish."
"If they want us out of Fort Seng," Valentine said. "I wonder if it might be best to accommodate them."