The Logistics Commandos: What the Ozark Free Republics can't make, they take. Southern Command has turned scavenging, black market trade, and outright theft into a science. Oftentimes, their toughest veterans retire into the freewheeling Logistics Commandos rather than retire to their allotted acreage and meager pension. Former Wolves and Cats often make the best LCs-they know the Nomansland terrain and the surrounding Kurian Zones and usually have a network of contacts.
In the field, the Logistics Commandos are wild cards, the last reserve of every commander. They'll follow behind a successful attack, grabbing everything from prisoners and intelligence and truck batteries to dropped weapons, always sorting, always prioritizing. On a retreat, they decide what can be saved and what must be sacrificed. Because nearly all of them are long-service veterans with combat experience, they can fill almost any role in a fight from artillery to signals.
Of course they can be difficult. They have an old soldier's nose for food and comfort, and the other forces of Southern Command often complain-with justification-that the Logistics Commandos grab all the best beds and let only their scraps of their ample tables and secondrate luxuries reach the rawer hands and newer heels at the front.
"These are the boats?" Lambert said.
"Everything that floats," Valentine said. He and Ediyak were taking the colonel on a tour of Evansville's waterfront with the commander of Evansville's River Guard, an ex-river patroller named Jackson.
Jackson was a very what you see is what you get fellow. He had no office, only a fast, heavy boat with twin machine guns set up on a mount that probably was supposed to be used for sportfishing. He took them on a waterborne tour of the three miles or so of Ohio River that unequivocally belonged to Evansville. The locals had many less-lethal boats, mostly used for ferrying people across the river or east-west travel between a southward loop known as the "west hill" and the heart of the old city to the east. Like many old river towns, its biggest vessel was a derelict casino barge, hollowed of all but the ceiling glitz, now used for sheltering livestock-mostly chickens and pigs-traded to the river traffic.
They had a few barges, coal and corn vessels for the most part, still held together as a city storage reserve. One was even rigged to hold freshwater. A single decrepit tugboat was still in service for pushing them around, if necessary, but by the look of the engine and the part-time crew, it wasn't up to the job of even getting a single barge to the Mississippi, let alone up it. There was also a smaller tug designed for firefighting. It could, Valentine supposed, be pressed into duty as a barge pusher, but it would need some modifications for tying itself on to a barge train.
There were plenty of men in Evansville with riverboat experience, according to Jackson. Most had fled the Kurian Zone once Evansville became known as a haven, so getting them back on the river and in hostile territory might call for an old-fashioned press-gang. Valentine didn't like the idea, but it might be their only option.
Jackson gunned his engines and weaved around a sunken wreck of a tug, sending his passengers lurching into each other. The wreck was rather picturesque, if you liked rotting wood and rusty metal. Waterfowl nests covered the wheelhouse roof. In the slack water next to it, the Evansville River Guard's other battle-ready boat sat, holding on to the wrecked tug with a boat hook, ready to dash out downriver.
A tiny brown-water navy was being put together by the city, mostly to help defend the booms and check approaching barges for enemies. Evansville's leaders decided their best chance for survival was to allow river traffic up and down the Ohio, provided it wasn't military supplies or fodder for the Reapers. Corn and coal and dry goods could pass after being checked.
The Kurians were putting extra troops on the "peace marked" barges to discourage deserters.
Valentine wasn't a fan of "hostile neutrality" or whatever the Evansville town fathers were calling their attitude about river traffic these days, but Southern Command had no business telling civilians how to run their affairs unless bullets were flying.
"Men aren't the problem," Jackson said, when they asked him what his capability was to get to the Mississippi junction. For now, grander plans weren't being discussed, even with someone in the Evansville armed service. "Machinery is. You get me the boats, I could fill them with hands."
"Can you build them?" Lambert asked.
"Marine motors are the real problem, okay. They have to be tough and reliable. What we have is cannibalized, fifty-year-old gear for the most part. We have plenty of people in Evansville who can steer a boat, read the river, fix an engine. The weapons and combat stuff, on the other hand-"
"Well, we have a lot of men who can do that," Valentine said.
"River fighting is a little different than on land," Jackson said. "It starts and finishes very quick. You need men who can put a lot of shit on target-begging your pardon ladies-fast and I mean fast, or you lose boats and the next thing you know you're swimming in an oil slick."
Lambert sat with them on an airy, upper-floor balcony of the mansion, resting in the quiet after their day on the river. Her bedroom connected with it. It had a nice view to the north.
Duvalier and Frat had joined them for the very informal meeting, as they were talking about the Kurian River Patrol on the Tennessee, who had the nearest brown-water combat craft.
Lambert started off: "Okay, to sum up, crews will be difficult but doable. It's motors and hulls that are the problem. We can't build boats, at least not in time, and we can't buy them and Southern Command, when I asked, said that all forces were allocated."
"Then we'll have to steal them," Valentine said.
Duvalier and Frat's Wolves knew the ground along the Tennessee best. Ediyak had already assembled their observations into a concise report.
"There's a cute little rest stop on the river right off the Cadiz inlet," Duvalier said.
"I think it used to be a training base, before they moved it upriver to Tennessee," Ediyak said. "According to this week-old Wolf report, there's a couple of dry-dock ships, a machine tool workshop, a little dispensary still in operation. Respite Point, they call it now. There's a couple of bars and a brothel in the old base. Very popular with the River Patrol. Not big enough for a Kurian and plenty of fun for the crew while their boats are out of the water being refitted."
"Hulls, engines, weaponry, that sort of thing?" Valentine asked.
"You bet," Frat said.
"Platoon strength, not even," Frat said. "Plus whatever of the River Patrol is in camp. The locals are very friendly to the River Patrol and would give warning of a large force."
"But a small team could make it."
"Maybe, sir. Doubt if they could hold it for long, though. Respite Point is well guarded," Frat said. "Upriver, near the Tennessee border, there's a big River Patrol base. Even if we were able to surprise them and hit it, I doubt we'd get many boats, as they'd scream off into the water as soon as the attack got rolling. Then, even nearer downriver, there's a big gun fort supporting Cadiz on the other side. Lots of mean ordnance sighted on the river, and three booms you have to weave around. The cables to pull them out of the way lead right into the fort."
"Still," Valentine said. "Might be worth a closer look. I wonder if the joyhouse lets in Kentucky men, or if they're river rat only."
Valentine noticed a ring of expectant faces. "What, you don't know?" Lambert asked.
"Why are you all looking at me? Am I supposed to be an expert on brothels?"
"You keep finding your way into them," Duvalier said. "I thought you might have patronized it. Just once I'd like to hear that you met this contact or that one at a dentist's, or a smokehouse. No, you're always emerging from a brothel, beat and bloody."
"Still, it's a possible excuse to bring a small team in. Even Bears carrying wrenches from toolboxes could probably take that place."
"There's a flaw in your plan, Val," Lambert said. "I've looked at that same location. Sure, that depot is lightly guarded. But even if we seize some boats, we'd never get them downriver. The River Patrol has a fort at Gilbertsville-a fort they've reinforced, lately, by the way, to try and cut off the Western Kentucky trails. There's a boom blocking the Tennessee at the old interstate pylons. A double boom everywhere but the gate as a matter of fact. Plus wire to stop hotshots in speedboats from doing any fancy jumps.
"It would take the whole Army of Kentucky to take that fort," Lambert continued. "And we'd probably have to haul our guns to support, and I'm not sure we have enough shells left to wreck the boom or rubble the fort."
"Do we have a sketch of the place?" Valentine asked.
"Pretty good one," Frat said.
"Put some coffee on," Valentine said. "Let's have a look."
Getting into the River Patrol base had been simple enough. It wasn't really a base. There were two lookout points and fencing built more for livestock than keeping people out. A dog patrol wandered the fence.
After spotting the dog, Valentine pulled Gamecock and his six Bears back another hundred yards.
He exhibited ID and a broken, chain-free bicycle, claimed to be a hungry communications "local support" staff working the lines running south from Cadiz, looking for a hot meal and somewhere out of the woods to sleep. And hopefully a new chain for his bike.
"Don't get your hopes up," the corporal patting him down said.
They found no weapons. They let him keep the tool belt after flashing their lights in all his pouches and feeling around. They even opened the battery shaft on his flashlight and inspected the cells within.
"You're under River Patrol jurisdiction on base," he warned Valentine. "Cause any trouble, try to steal, and we'll weigh you down with scrap and sink you in the Tennessee mud."
"Understood," Valentine said. His stomach gave a fortuitous growl.
The serious part of the security was at the dock itself, where a pair of barges were tied up next to a long dock branching out like plant roots into the river from some broken concrete steps down to the Tennessee. Above the concrete steps was a nest of fencing and barbed wire, with alert-looking RPs on anchor watch at their riverine weapons. A few more stood at the gap of the wire, smoking and talking to a sentry. A squat emplacement on the highest point of the bank with a two-barrelled antiaircraft cannon had a commanding view of all. Odd that there wasn't someone at the gun; it was in a great position to cover the river.
Have to do something about that gun.
Valentine smelled gasoline and followed it to a sort of wharf a little way downstream with a pump under a lonely light. From one of the barges he heard a machine tool whirring away and metal-on-metal tamping, with the occasional rustle of chains being shifted.
The spring flow of the Tennessee filled the riverbed bank to bank, covering the usual washup of garbage and driftwood.
Lovely night. Valentine felt oddly relaxed, now that he was finally here. He had a bit of a headache from hunger, but it sharpened his already tuned-up senses.
Presumably, if they were attacked, the River Patrol could fire up their engines and escape. But the craft could throw a tremendous amount of what Jackson had called "shit on target" in the form of machine gun bullets and cannon-anyone wanting to take the docks would pay a heavy price.
Valentine wandered through the corpse of the older, larger base. Everything of value had obviously been moved into the barges. A few heavy old engine blocks remained, well chewed by rust, and the black-rimmed doorways smelled of rats and cats.
Rats and cats. Something to think about.
Typical Kurian disorganization. A partially shut-down base, but still functioning as a service point for river sailors coming off of their weeklong patrols. Too small for a Kurian to take up residence, too big for a couple of locals to slit any throats. Up the estuary in Cadiz, a ruin of a town with some Kentuckians scraping a living one way or another, smuggling, trading, repairing, laundering-in a way it wasn't that different from the townlet growing up outside Fort Seng's gates. Men off duty liked short travel times to their services, rest, and recreation.
He evaluated the anchor watches as he walked his bike in. At least two men in each armed river patrol craft. A few more unarmed craft, probably for ferrying men and supplies. A permanent garrison at the supply barges of technical and support staff. Maybe sixty uniformed River Patrol soldiers, plus a few older men making themselves useful while hiding from both river duty and the Reapers.
About the right size to support a decent bar, eatery, and brothel, as long as the nomadic nature of the River Patrol meant they didn't get too sick of the taste of the old grease in the fryers.
THE INLET the sign read. Sort of. It was illuminated by three orangeish LED spotlights, one of which had been stolen-unfortunately the center, so Valentine played with the idea that it was "To let" or perhaps named "The Toilet."
The bar was half built up on pylons, set into the side of the hill sloping down to the river, about the size of a ranch home. A roomy second floor above. Chain-link fence guarded storage beneath. A cross between a porch and a patio was empty, even in the easy air of the night.
Valentine parked his bicycle. Despite its nonfunctional condition, he chained it to an old water meter.
He walked up the short flight of steps, tried the door. It was locked.
He rapped on the door.
After a moment, a scratchy woman's voice shouted, "Yeah?"
"You open?" Valentine called.
"This is a private club. You know the password?"
"I'm hungry, thirsty, and lonely."
The door opened. A squat woman, who might be a New Universal Church informative poster on the danger of too much fried food, smiled. She had impossibly blue-black hair piled high atop her head, not really making up for her four-feet-eleven. "That ain't the password, but I've got a soft spot for anyone that broke-dick."
"Thanks. I'm Rice."
"My name's Dirty Nel. This is my establishment. My job's to make sure you have a really good time, at least until I have most of your money. You okay with that?"
Valentine glanced inside. Bright red shag carpet, gleaming pine paneling, and brassy nautical gewgaws pounded themselves into his eyeballs.
"Great," he said, entering.
The interior was a long, low-ceilinged, shaggy red bar, dimly lit, and hung with fishnets and twinkle lights. A bar with a kitchen behind communicated through the usual order window of stained stainless. The nets seemed to press down from the ceiling, anyone over six three would have to watch himself. He felt like he was inside a giant whale that had swallowed the Pequod with a strip club chaser.
Meaty, tired-looking blondes arranged their lips into imitation smiles. One blew him a kiss.
Judging from the smells coming from behind the kitchen door, he'd better keep to liquids.
"Bottle of beer?" he told the girl behind the bar. She was dressed like the working girls, only her choice of animal print varied. Perhaps she filled in if they became busy.
"Sure thing, brown eyes," she said, showing a nice set of what were probably false teeth.
"Want to bump that up?" Nel asked. "Kentucky bourbon. Only two dollars extra, Nashville, or three bucks Ordnance."
"I've got Control bucks," Valentine said.
"Then it's one lonely dollar, my friend," Nel said. "Control's scrip is really worth something."
Valentine tapped the bar and the bartender poured him something from a Maker's Mark bottle. It tasted like nitric acid.
He wondered what The Inlet had been, formerly. Perhaps an officers' housing complex with the diner and lounge conveniently attached. The River Patrol was famous for its accommodations for boat captains and their lieutenants-probably to keep the lower ranks serving in hopes of promotion to an officer's splendor, and to prevent the officers themselves from simply steering their craft to a much less luxurious lifestyle up an enemy river.
The only customers were two river patrolmen playing cards, separated by a hedge of amber Nashville's Best empties and a petty officer reading his Bulletin. Valentine wondered if he was sending away for any merchandise.
"My name's Randy. Want to go upstairs?" one of the blondes asked. She had a painted-on dimple, a practice Valentine never understood.
"My thought precisely," Valentine said.
"What do you have in mind?"
"I was just thinking you had a very nicely shaped mouth."
"Thirty, if it's Control," Randy said.
Valentine showed the cash.
"Pay Nel," she said, flashing a hand signal to the madam.
Valentine handed over the captured bills and took her callused hand-did Nel put all her girls to scrubbing the floors every morning?-and led her up the world's shortest staircase.
"Watch it, man, that's the loosest slip on the Tennessee you're going into there!" one of the card players guffawed.
"Check for crabs, meat!" his partner said.
"Don't worry about crabs," Randy said. "Or anything else. I'm clean. I get to the doc in Cadiz really regular. He fucks me too, so I know he's not lying."
The room smelled like someone had spilled a gallon of perfume and tried to clean it up with pine cleanser. It depressed Valentine that she entertained in her own living quarters, but since everything else in this hair trap was cheap and functional, the girls' business rooms would be too.
It had a window big enough to climb through-unusual for a brothel. He tested the locks holding it on.
"Mind turning off the light?"
She flicked a switch at her bedside. A soft red night-light went on, tucked somewhere behind her slat headboard.
"So, you want to listen to some music, have a little massage first, or-hey, careful with those screens, bugs'll get in."
Valentine carefully set the screen next to the window.
"You ever do it on a rooftop?" Valentine asked.
"What, are you kidding?"
He squeezed out her window, felt for the edge of the roof, tested his grip. He got a leg up, and briefly hung head down, looking in on her room.
"You aren't paying me enough for this!" she said.
"Just having a smoke. I'll be right back in."
Valentine shucked the handle so the reflector went wide, flicked off three flashes, then three again, then a final three toward the woods where Gamecock waited.
A brief red flicker answered.
The Bears wouldn't attack yet, but the signal would get them close enough to the fencing for the dog to smell. Valentine would send up a flare, or they'd go in when the shooting started.
"Yeah, they're out there," Valentine said, coming back through the window.
"Maybe you should leave," Randy said. "Wait. What do you mean, they're out there?"
"I work in a competitive field," Valentine said. "High skill, lots of pay, not many openings. You need to be trustworthy. I'm gay, and that's a big black mark. There's a man who wants my job, and he's paying a couple of stiffs to follow me and get evidence."
"What are you paying me for, then?"
"Oh, a little camouflage. My boyfriend's in the River Patrol. I'm trying to kill two birds with one stone here-I want you to act like you had a good time with me, while I nip out and see him."
"Don't I know it. Odd trade on the river. Which boat's he on, Red Forty-Five?"
"Best not to spread gossip," Valentine said. He checked the drop to the ground. "I'm going to leave a little safety line. You relax. I'll be back in less than an hour. If you look a little exhausted when you go back downstairs, there's an extra hundred in it for you."
"What I do ain't usually that exhausting. I save that for my boyfriend."
"Speaking of boyfriends . . ." Valentine said.
"Hey, have fun. I'll make sure no one comes through that door until you get back. It's a slow night, Nel won't mind."
"You're sweet," Valentine said, dropping out the window.
Valentine slipped off his shoes and tied the laces together.
He looked up at the sky. It was a night of danger. This was always both the best and the worst moment, right before you started. The best, because everything came alive. You could swear you could feel your toenails growing. The air was suddenly full of life, not only the smell of diesel oil and river rot.
Working quickly in the shadows, Valentine marveled at how easily this forgotten corner of the Kurian Zone could be defanged. Working quickly, he wedged every door he could find, and cut the wires to the radio antenna. He would have had a harder time with a fueling station in Little Rock. The employees guarding gas pumps were armed to the teeth and alert as Dobermans.
Evidently the "neutrality" of the Kentucky locals here, neither supporting nor resisting the Kurian Order, was still intact. The few personnel on base must have figured that the legworm ranchers wouldn't have need for riverboats anyway. And they were largely right. A legworm could go anywhere, a boat had to stick to easily choked-off river routes.
Valentine turned his collar up and pulled his cap down low. He dug around in his tool kit, came up with two cylinders. He dumped the screws inside out, made sure the heavy-duty spring inside was clean. Then he cut open the lining at the bottom of his tool kit, and took out two razor-tipped darts.
The dart launchers belonged to one of Gamecock's Bears. Valentine had experimented with them. They could bury the dart halfway into an oak tree from twenty feet. The problem was aiming them. You needed to be very close, or very lucky against a man-sized target, especially if he was moving.
Valentine had yet another weapon, a plain old pipe wrench. Five pounds of cast iron, properly swung, was as deadly as his old parang.
He slipped into a gun emplacement covering the river and docks, carefully unrolled the waterproofed canvas covering the 20mm cannons there.
He almost tsk-tsk'ed. There was visible rust on the action. It would be more of a threat to the firer than anyone in its sights. He might as well take one of the guns out of its mount and use it as a club.
He evaluated the anchor watches on the river patrol craft: two men in each of the long cabin cruisers, with guns at the stern and on the flying bridge, one on watch while the other rested. Each boat had one gun ready for action, a machine gun with an armored shield at the back of the boat where it had the widest field of fire. The River Patrol had followed procedure and parked their boats like two horses in a field facing opposite directions, so each one's tail could swat the other's flies.
Nothing to do but start it.
Mouth dry, he walked down to the docks, a spring-loaded dart in each coat sleeve. As he approached the boat, he tapped his utility-worker's hat.
"Dumbledore watermelon hopscotch juice on?" Valentine called, stomping hard on the weather-beaten old boards of the river dock.
"Pfwat's that?" one of the men at the guns said, coming awake.
Valentine shined his flashlight right in the other's face.
"Hey!" he shouted.
Valentine knelt and fired his first dart. He heard a clatter. The second twanged off toward the gunner, and he heard a wet impact.
The man let out an awful sucking sound.
He dropped the now-empty tubes and grabbed for the wrench in his pocket. Naturally, it decided to catch as he ran.
Valentine took one long stride and launched off his good leg, giving up on the wrench for now. He went over the gun and managed a head tackle, spilling them both into the boat to the sound of cartilage snapping.
"What the hell," the other anchor watch said, from the dim light of the armored wheelhouse.
Valentine managed to free the wrench, rose, and struck as the other drew his pistol.
And struck again. This one was even wetter.
Now he had a bloody wrench and a Browning-model 9mm automatic.
The anchor watch at the stern gun was being held up by the machine gun's steel harness. "Fuuuck! I'm-yak! I'm hit, Grantski," he wretched. "Somebod-yak! Put an arrow in myak!"
Valentine heard shooting up the riverbank. Gamecock's Bears must be at the wire.
Red, white, and blue lights flashed on the attention bar of the patrol craft. A siren sounded.
Valentine saw the other anchor watch peering from the armored cabin. He didn't want to chance running out for the stern mount, it seemed, not with his fellow sailor screaming out his bloody death throes.
"Better hit the river, you," Valentine called to the other boat. "That's Southern Command come calling."
The man he'd knocked out of the gun groaned and moved. Valentine tested the Browning model on him. It worked.
The anchor watch at the other boat's gun slumped out of his harness. Valentine saw two dark patches on his white shirt. He hadn't missed after all.
"Don't you shoot, I'm leaving," the man in the wheelhouse said. He scuttled up a ladder to the flying bridge, butt and head tucked, and used the first two rungs to throw himself into the river.
Lights appeared around the bend in the downstream Tennessee. Another River Patrol craft was coming in, hot and ready for action.
Valentine went to the wheelhouse of the vacated boat, the one with the lights flashing. It was a smaller boat approaching, no flying bridge but what looked like a big damn multibarreled gun in front of the wheelhouse. Two oval ammo drums hung off it like testicles.
Probably a crew of three.
Valentine waited. It approached the dock, slowing, those gun barrels aimed up the riverbank, where Valentine saw scattered gun flashes. The Bears were sensibly using single shots. Nothing drew fire like long bursts of automatic.
Valentine was busy looking at the boat's spotlight. Seemed simple to operate, a smaller version of the cannon he'd known on the old Thunderbolt in the Gulf.
"For fuck's sake, they're in the gun emplacement on the hill," he shouted to the other boat. "Lay down some fire on it or they'll blow you out of the water."
That didn't work. The gunner wouldn't be goaded into firing.
He lit up the other boat, zeroed the spotlight in on the gunner. A face gleamed whitely before it threw up an arm to ward off the blinding light. Valentine tightened the spotlight beam as best as he could and then ran to the gun mount. He was chambering the first round of the belt when another spotlight struck, blinding him and shooting white pain through his head.
Here it comes.
Blindly, Valentine fell backward out of the boat and into the Tennessee. Bullets ripped up the cabin of the craft, killing the spotlight, then clanging off and through the armored shield on the rear mount.
His head broke water behind the bulk of the tied-up boat.
Fire poured down from the gun emplacement. Valentine saw two of Gamecock's Bears, faces full of war paint and toothy helmets on, lighting the night with tracer from their miniguns. He could see the brass casings dancing off into the night.
The boat swerved, headed for shore, the man at the wheel dead.
Valentine raised the Browning knockoff, pointed it at a bleeding crewman who was attempting to return to his feet.
"Okay, riverman, this is either the luckiest day of your life or the unluckiest. Take your pick."
The scuffed-up river patroller decided to be lucky.
"That's why I'm on the water. Can't stand them hissing no-dicks," he said, cheerfully taking the oath that would swear him into the battalion after hearing the terms.
"Likewise," a suspicious Bear agreed.
"Can't get away from 'em," the sailor said. "Even when I'm upriver, still show up in bad dreams. Yellow-eyed bastards." Valentine's two Bears herded the survivors, hands clasped atop their heads, into the beer cooler.
"Have a drink on us," Gamecock suggested.
"It's safe-locked," Dirty Nel said. "You can unscrew the latch from inside-even if we put a padlock on it."
Valentine reached into his tool belt and extracted some plastic triangles and began to shove them into the gap around the lock. He was the proud owner of a migraine, thanks to that damn spotlight running up his optic nerve like a gas flame.
Dirty Nel looked at the wedge. "Where'd you get these? Looks like a kid's toy."
"Evansville security services. They're just wedges with a little quick glue on them. They'd use them when conducting a raid, or temporarily keeping those detained in an improvised secure location. Jam a couple of these into a door or window frame, and no one's getting through without busting it down and making a lot of noise. Soft enough to jam in from either direction and stick."
"How do you get rid of them?"
"Easy enough to dissolve, paint thinner and other acetates work. Nail polish remover."
"Oh, I always keep some of that around," Dirty Nel said, rolling her eyes.
"We don't have to worry about opening them for now."
"Why do they call you Dirty Nel?"
"You know, everyone asks me that within five minutes of meeting me," she said, as slow smile on her face. "The men, anyways. Well, some women. Problem is, the real answer isn't very interesting. So I keep silent. Whatever they come up with in they's own heads, it's better than the truth."
Seeing properly handled legworms in action still took Valentine's breath away. With modified cargo saddles mounting a sort of oar-lock, old suspension cables were run and crossed in such a manner that the network of blocks and tackles could first hoist and then secure the emptied-out boat hulls. Then the paired legworms, with the hull between them like some kind of land-going catamaran, headed up the hill for the overland trip back to Evansville. The legworms moved as though they didn't even know they were carrying a load-which, considering the tiny mass of nerve ganglia that passed for a brain in their midsection, was very probably true.
The men had worked like furies. Everything that could possibly be done to lighten the hulls was tried. Weapons and armor were stripped; precious gasoline out of fuel tanks and into mobile trailer tanks pulled by the patient legworms; cordage, supplies, even portable stoves and the boat generators were unbolted and fixed to the tops of the worms. Engines were even taken out and put on boat trailers.
In fact, the weapons and engines were more valuable than the hulls. Evansville had plenty of river-worthy hulls, what they lacked were arms and engines.
Valentine gauged their progress to the sound of winter-dry grass crunching under hundreds of clawlike feet, a sound that reminded him of a covered cauldron of popcorn popping. "How long to get them back to the Ohio?" he asked the Gunslinger legworm drover.
Another legworm passed, this one hauling a smaller boat on an old-fashioned trailer with oversized wheels. Despite the wheels, the drovers called the contraptions "sleds." Other sleds carried engines, armor plating, light cannon on the river-craft mounts, and booty from the warehouses too heavy to risk mounting on the back of one of the worms. Put too heavy a load in one particular spot, and the shaggy skin tended to simply slide off in a big, wet, mattress-sized piece.
"A damn long day, I expect. You boys do your end, we'll do ours."
They had one scrape with a column of light armor out of Cadiz that resulted in a night action.
Frat's Wolves gave them plenty of warning as to size and route.
Gamecock's Bears, eager to use their new weapons, hustled off to set up machine guns and light cannon. Valentine, restricted to an observation point coordinating the attacks of the Bears and Wolves, saw only the night action from a distance.
The captured ordnance of the River Patrol used an interesting mix of tracer-blues, greens, and reds. Perhaps the distinctive rainbow tracers helped the River Patrol distinguish friendly from enemy craft. Valentine filed the knowledge away, might come in handy at some future point.
Meanwhile, he had boats to drag to the Ohio.
"Well done, Valentine," Colonel Lambert said, looking over the boats.
"But what's with all the aphrodisiacs? Is there something in the works I should know about?"
"Yeah, Val, big weekend planned?"
"I'm not sure-," Valentine said.
"We have twelve cases of Kurian Zone sexual stimulant under a couple of names."
"That was me, suh," Gamecock said. "I made sure they brought it along. Not for us, now, but I thought it might be useful for trade. The Grogs love it. Gets them high as kites and horny as hell."
It was the sort of fuzzy case high-priced jewelry used to come in, a purple so deep it could pass for black in all but the best light.
Valentine opened the presentation case. A shiny old piece of plastic lay inside, a cheap mockery of a police badge.
"I found it last summer in the ruins of a dollar store," Duvalier said. "I've been carrying the stupid thing around ever since, waiting for the right opportunity."
"Hilarious," Valentine said.
"You should go over to Orfordville and break it in," Frat said. "The Wolves say there are a couple of nice houses there. The Ordnance patrols west of Louisville sometimes de-uniform and sneak over."
"They're true Kentucky as bourbon. We get regular reports about any loose tongues."
The party chuckled.
Ahn-Kha's uneven ears were up and forward. "I do not understand."
Duvalier, boosting herself up with his axe-handle shoulder like a gymnast mounting a pommel horse, whispered something in his ear.
"Humans," he muttered, shaking his head.