The Mississippi: The mighty river south of Saint Louis to its meeting with the Ohio is practically unrecognizable to a riverman of the twentieth century.
Thanks to the great New Madrid quake in '22, the river doesn't even match old maps, having shifted both east and west in a few spots, closing down old loops, creating new islands, and leaving new fields and sloughs where once the river flowed. There is also very little in the way of dredging, so during the driest months it takes an experienced river-reader to navigate its twists and turns in an eighteenth-century style.
These banks are deep Grog country, owned by wild tribes who settled there shortly after the last great North American Grog-Human battle outside Indianapolis of the Old World in its death throes. The Illinois bank is owned by a tribe of Amazonian crossbreeds, another failed experiment by the Kurian Order.
The Grogs on the Missouri side are tough Gray Ones. For decades, they fought Southern Command tooth and nail, but both sides eventually exhausted themselves and discovered they could live in wary neutrality, with neither disturbing the other too much. Yes, bold young Grog warriors still prove their fighting and thieving skills by raiding down into the rough wilds of the New Madrid area, where no two bricks still stand atop each other after the massive 2022 earthquake. And yes again, Southern Command tracks, captures, and shoots the raiders, sometimes practically under the eyes of their home village, but the days of launching large counterraids to burn out Grog settlements and recover trophies of earlier raids have been over for years.
An informal demilitarized zone exists, where each side understands the other is fair game.
The river is another sort of zone, with a different set of rules. On the run between Cairo and Alton, Illinois, directly north of Saint Louis, it is understood that any craft on the water are inviolate. However, any vessel that becomes entangled with one or another bank is fair game. Crews are usually allowed to escape in a smaller boat, as long as they abandon their craft quickly enough to satisfy those onshore that cargo is not being taken off.
This has led to some Grogs acting in the manner of old wreckers on forbidding coasts, placing obstacles or faking the marker lights of another barge or boat in an effort to draw river traffic into the banks and disable it so plunder may be taken.
Now, in the critical spring of 2077, the snags and shallows are less of a hazard, as the river is at its fullest. Heavy spring rains and melting snow from farther north have turned it into a swollen, turgid beast, with many a birch- and poplar-filled spit turned into an island or chain of flooded trees. This is good smuggling time, for it's easy for small boats to take shelter behind the many temporary islands and short-lived lakes thrown off by the waterlogged river. But the Grogs on both shores are also ready for the increased traffic as well. On every bank there are eyes and ears watching the traffic, legitimate and illicit, sensitive as sharks detecting fish in distress.
The frustrating part was that the exodus could have been over by now, had Southern Command just cooperated. Lambert could have set up a landing at some friendly stretch of river, with a small mountain of foodstuffs and medicines. Blake and the rest would be resting in safety and comfort while they organized the final trip through Western Kentucky.
Instead, they'd have to pass the Missouri bootheel country and turn up the Ohio. All those "highways"-the Mississippi, the Ohio, the Tennessee-Lambert had mentioned could be used to attack the vulnerable transports. By now the Kurian Order would know what they were and where they were going.
Coalfield lowered his glasses. "Shit. They've strung a boom across the river."
"'They' who?" Valentine asked.
"Grogs maybe. Or the River Patrol. Looks like junked boats, most of them," Coalfield said, looking through his glasses.
"How do we get rid of it?"
He warned the following barges, out of sight on this twisted stretch of river, to backwater.
"Ideally, we just run up to it, board it, and blow a hole wide enough for our craft to get through."
"Bad stretch of river for them to do it. Lots of Grogs on either side taking potshots," Valentine said.
"Which is your bet?" Coalfield asked.
"Missouri side. Better cover, and the Grogs there are a little more amenable than the Doublebloods on the Illinois side."
Valentine had to admit, it was a perfectly executed ambush.
It had rained off and on through the afternoon, and thunder began to rumble. Good weather for the attempt. Still, they waited for the cover of night. Cottonmouth Four, the fastest of the boats, swept down the west bank to draw fire, then ran close to the boom.
Not so much as a single Grog potshot came from the bank.
"Very odd," Coalfield said. He'd put extra rivermen into boat One, along with the dynamite.
They moved forward cautiously, covered by the other four boats of Cottonmouth.
As the demo teams disembarked, Valentine examined the boom with a hooded light. It was simply a series of waterlogged boats filled with buoyant. The real danger came from the chains connecting them below the waterline. They would either hang up a boat or cause damage to the propeller and rudder.
A sudden flash and a thunderclap lit up the valley.
Valentine heard the engines first, coming from a loop on the river on the other side of the boom.
Every eye on Cottonmouth One looked across the sodden boom, downriver.
"Get back on board, here," Valentine told the demolition team.
"We can do it, sir!" the senior called back, wiring his charge.
"That'll just open it for them."
Fast-moving River Patrol attack boats were heading for the boom. In the center of them, like a foxhunter's horse among its dogs, a ship as big as a barge could be made out. It seemed to be moving impossibly fast, throwing up three different bow waves.
"Evasive pattern," Coalfield ordered into his radio to Cottonmouth . "Make smoke! What the hell is that?"
Valentine finally received his chance to tell the riverman something he didn't know.
"That's the Delta. Chinese-built littoral craft. Triple catamaran hull. Crew of twenty, or thirty if they're expecting ship-to-shore fighting. I knew her when I was with the Coastal Marines. She's River Patrol, but back when I knew her she alternated between Mobile Bay and the Mississippi Delta. Before my time it was called the Delta Queen, but some Biloxi Church busybody pointed out that queens and all that were part of the Old World everyone was supposed to forget, and by naming a boat after one, they were treating royalty and aristocracy as a aspiration, rather than a blight to be wiped off the earth. So it became the Delta."
"Get that smoke going, there," he called to the sailors aft, securing their explosives.
"Smoke won't help. She's got radar-controlled guns, rapid-fire cannon-two of them, one on each side just forward of the bridge."
Cottonmouth broke away from the boom.
The two sides exchanged tracer fire across the blockade. The Delta moved fast; either her captain was a reckless bastard or he was unusually sure of the Mississippi's depth. Of course, the catamaran hull helped.
"Shit!" the gunner roared as brass casings fell into the canvas recovery bags. "What's that thing made of, moon rocks?"
Valentine had never heard that moon rocks were bullet resistant, but the man was under stress.
A hot hand washed across Cottonmouth One and the gunner was gone, whisked away by bullets like a strong breeze plucking a loose piece of paper off a desk. Valentine heard distinct splashes as bits of the gunner struck river, his eyes blinded by the white streaks of tracer fire. Miraculously, he'd avoided being hit.
He jumped into the blood-splattered position, feet finding purchase on the rough platform. He checked the drums on the twin machine gun and opened fire.
The Atlanta Gunworks Type Three had more of a kick. The gun gently chattered in its mount. The hardest part was keeping aim with the boat rushing across river. As Cottonmouth One heeled he had to constantly adjust elevation.
The rain came down harder, shielding them from both visual and radar-or at least Valentine hoped for that to be the case. Cottonmouth limped upriver, leaving a single boat to watch matters at the boom.
They held a dispirited council of war at an abandoned riverside bar.
Some entrepreneur had tried to make a go of it as a rest stop for boatmen and River Patrol. It had been painted in the past ten years, and there was signage up, huge block letters advertising EATS BEERS MUSICS in block letters big enough to be read on the other side of the Mississippi.
The Delta's flotilla had paused near the boom, ready to protect it tonight or open it in the morning-if not sooner, with the weather clearing.
In the open waters of the Gulf, the Delta would have made short work of the Cottonmouth flotilla, where its speed and accurate fire would have reduced the boats to blackened wrecks in a quarter of an hour. But on the twisting Mississippi, she couldn't make use of her speed and even her supremely light draft only allowed her to use the relatively narrow barge channel. Cottonmouth boats could float on a heavy dew, as the rivermen phrased it.
Cottonmouth One had been so badly damaged by gunfire that Coalfield-himself with a painful splinter wound-had transferred flotilla command to Cottonmouth Four.
"We could just abandon the river, right?"
"They just saw us run and hide," Chieftain said. He'd seen it from Cottonmouth Five. "To me, that seems like the perfect time to attack."
"Except for those guns on the Delta," Coalfield said. "We'll be as waterlogged as those hulks on the boom in two minutes."
"A lot can happen in two minutes," Chieftain said.
"He has a point," Valentine said. "I wonder if something could be attempted."
"Not with our flotilla."
"I was thinking-more like a canoe. Have to find out what kind of swimmers those ratbits are, first."
Their watch boat reported that the River Patrol flotilla and its giant weren't chancing the boom in the dark and storm. But God knows what they would try tomorrow. If the Delta got in among the crowded barges ...
Valentine stood, gripping the rail, looking at the beached barge, listing under its load of rusted containers.
He'd have to swallow his pride and ask Makak for his assistance.
Valentine practiced with the ratbits on the back of Cottonmouth Four.
The hardest part was getting the line to float in such a way that the ratbits could use it. Though small and discreet, they weren't strong.
Valentine reconciled himself to spending the night cold and wet. The Mississippi in April would be unpleasant, especially on his still stiff wound, but it would be a vacation compared to the wild river trip raiding Adler's headquarters, when he'd been in and out fast-moving snowmelt for three days in an insulation suit.
They found him a green-painted aluminum canoe on Cottonmouth Three. It had a couple of bullet holes in it but was otherwise sound. Valentine would have preferred a plastic composite-less sound when scraping against branches or if he accidentally banged it with his paddle, but it was not to be.
"Don't suppose you can make me feel warm," Valentine asked Makak as it rode clinging tight to his belly.
I can make you not mind the cold so much. It is like a stiff drink, however. It will slow your reflexes and brain activity.
"Then forget it," Valentine said.
Pellwell rode in the front of the canoe, paddling. She'd insisted on coming along on this final mission.
They clung to the Missouri bank. A quarter mile from the boom, they portaged to the downriver side. Pellwell stumbled noisily but held up her end in more ways than one.
On the downriver side they paddled north toward the boom. There were sentries on the bank, watching the ropes fixing the boom to some sturdy tree stumps, trunks, and sunken anchors.
Pellwell slipped into the bottom of the canoe.
"I need to start playacting."
Just imagine yourself a Reaper. Move as it does. Scan as it does. I will do the rest, Makak advised.
Valentine had seen enough Reapers to fake the exaggerated, long-limbed movements. He turned the canoe toward the bank and stared hard at the River Patrol guards there, as if he were checking them and not the reverse.
Cigarettes were hurriedly extinguished. If the guards had looked any more alert, they would have pissed voltage.
Silently, Valentine turned out to the boom. He felt as naked as if he'd stepped out of the shower under all those eyes, but the ruse, whose effects were invisible to him, seemed to be working.
They found some floats and old, moldy life jackets helping hold up one of the wrecks. With them, they formed a makeshift float for the rope.
Then it was time for Valentine and the ratbits to go into the water. He cheked their gear one last time. Everything depended on a Miskatonic researcher and her chittering little creatures with brains that would fit into the palm of his hand.
They came at first light, sure as sunrise.
Valentine stood on the prow of Cottonmouth Four, daring the tracers to intersect on him. Cottonmouth Two pushed a little ahead of Four on a turn, wetting him with spray, before Captain Coalfield opened her full out.
According to Pellwell, the ratbits had done their job and fixed the lines to each of the rudders. From there, they swam back to the boom. He'd warmed their tiny little bodies, hugging them tight while they chittered and gave him little thumbs-up gestures.
The Delta trailed soggy hulks like a puppy with tin cans tied to its tail. Its prow swerved this way and that under the drag. Catamarans were not famous for their ability to tow.
He could tell the river sailors were nervous at their guns. Coalfield was busy directing the boats, especially deciding on the key moment for the fire tug to get under way, so it was up to him to do something colorful.
He clambered up onto the slick cabin roof at the front of the racing boat and took hold of the fore anchor line.
"Hiy hiy hiy-yup!" Valentine hallooed to the line of boats, closing fast on the Delta. Not that they could hear him.
Some feral part of him lost itself in the yelling. If he yelled, he didn't think about the second stream of tracers emerging from the Delta, or the third, or what would happen in the next few seconds once the radar control on the guns corrected for wind and temperature.
Here it comes ...
Two streams converged, fast, ready to tear him and Cottonmouth Two into scrap, blood, and food for the catfish and gars.
Flowers of bullet-torn water closed on Cottonmouth Two as though a phantom horse approached. All Valentine could do was howl defiance, hanging on as Captain Coalfield worked his throttles to dart out of the way.
The streams lifted from the water, passed overhead with the low susurration of torn air.
Valentine forced himself to believe his eyes. The Delta lurched; one of the boom boats it was towing was hung up.
With the beast pinioned, Valentine played his floating trump card.
The fire tug motored forward, shielded by barges piled high with rusting containers full of sand. The Golden Ones had labored through the night, while Valentine was occupied on the river, filling the containers with tree limbs, driftwood, brush, rocks, anything that might stop or deflect a bullet once it punched through the thin side of the shipping container.
The Delta managed to get one gun pointed at the approaching hulk. A stream of fire lit up the glimmering dawn.
From across the water, Valentine heard the buzz-saw sound of bullets striking the containers.
But still the tug pushed on, absorbing the punishment of the cannon fire. All around it, river combat raged as the smaller craft tore each other to pieces with machine-gun fire. Valentine saw blood splattered on windscreens, dead men lolling at their guns, debris, dust, and splinters kicked up by bullets tearing through boat superstructure. Without the support of the big catamaran, Cottonmouth was winning, as two of the River Patrol boats had gone to the aid of the Delta.
It closed, and the fire nozzles started. The first few seconds of flow came limp and desultory, little more than a drinking fountain. Then the water went bright white, and arced up into the air over the barrier of container ships.
Three mighty jets of water fell across the Delta, with such force it pushed even the triple-hull of the catamaran over into a list.
The Delta crabbed sideways, pushed into the shallow banks and riverside snags.
Valentine saw two crewmen, caught on deck, swept overboard by the torrent.
The barge with its single container full of Grogs pushed forward, smaller boats whizzing around protectively.
It sidled up to the Delta under the arc of water, an oddly festive maneuver.
The fire tug shifted the flow of water, rather than cutting it off and having a few hundred gallons dropped on the boarders, knocking them down and interfering with their footing.
The boarders threw lines up and grapples fell across the rails of the catamaran. The barges were of such a height that the necks were nearly equal, and the handpicked Golden Ones and Gray Ones were more than equal to the task of bridging the gap with leap and grasp.
They splashed through the water still pouring off the decks and seized the guns. With the guns under control, the Delta was defanged. They could round up the remaining crew in a few minutes of blows.
Valentine watched figures drop over the side, chancing the Doublebloods on the Illinois shore over the fury of the Golden Ones.
They learned from captured crew members that the Delta had been rushed upriver by the Georgia Control. Somehow they'd learned of the approaching reinforcements for Western Kentucky, and decided to stop them weeks short of the target, in overland terms.
Coalfield was all too happy to transfer command of Cottonmouth to the big catamaran.
"Let's give it a new name," Valentine said.
"There is only one," Pellwell said. "The Goliath. After all, David slew it."
"The ratbits slew it," Valentine said. "I just paddled for them."