Odds and Sods: As it ages, any large institution develops quiet filtering areas where less useful or odd-fitting pieces wash up, to be either sluiced out of the prospector's pan or picked out for some more useful activity. In a well-run organization, these pools are managed so that those in them perform activity that's at least marginally useful.
In a more sclerotic bureaucracy, those who find themselves in such filter pockets may moulder away quietly until retirement, in happy or unhappy obscurity depending on temperament, devoting most of their time and talent to making a more comfortable barnacle shell for themselves.
Sometimes, out of a mixture of talent and boredom, an individual will energize the sluice.
Fort Seng, just south of Evansville, Indiana, in the early days of what soon would be the Kentucky Free Alliance, was that sort of place. Fort Seng was remarkable in its organizational gravity. It served as a swamp not for one such organization, but for three.
By designation, it was under control of Southern Command, the military arm of a welded-together federation of states resisting the Kurian Order called the United Free Republics. The UFR encompasses a region from Southern Missouri to Texas north of Houston, somewhat protected by the vastness and emptiness of the plains to the west and the Mississippi River to the east. Southern Command's operations in Kentucky have received all the attention a butt-cheek boil would on a patient in the midst of coronary surgery.
A fresh face and set of strategic outlooks in the form of LieutenantGeneral Martinez has a large staff evaluating all of Southern Command's operations with an eye toward improving conditions, training, and chains of command. Martinez assumed overall command with a mandate from the newly elected president to prevent another in a series of expensive disasters that have dogged Southern Command since the mad dash through Texas at the birth of the UFR. Martinez has put Southern Command into a "defensive stance," devoting his energies to consolidating what has already been won and giving his forces muchneeded time to refit and rest.
Commander-in-Chief Martinez has a few career graveyards for those who don't toe the new line. Fort Seng is one of them. It's too far away to be within his new, more defensible map of "chords and arcs." Withdrawal is not in the political cards, as the previous year's trek across Kentucky in an attempt to establish a new freehold in the Appalachians was a partial success, ending with a victory outside Evansville that inspired much of Kentucky's populace to rebel against the Kurians. With bodies of both Southern Command's soldiers and their legworm-riding allies scattered across last-year's battlefields, the United Free Republics aren't yet ready to forget about the smouldering embers of Operation Javelin that had lit a flame of revolt across Kentucky.
For the city of Evansville, a modest industrial town lately pried from the Kentucky Northwest Ordnance, Fort Seng is another sort of destination. The city has survived a dreadful shakeout. Kurian loyalists have fled elsewhere, and the factories and workshops fed by Ohio River traffic are short raw materials and components for their new duties in equipping Kentucky's forces in the field. Half the population has been reduced to survivalist farming in little garden and parkland plots, fish hatcheries in polluted water diverted from the Ohio, or keeping chickens and pigs in abandoned housing and the rest are underemployed and growing poorer and more ragged by the day. Some have "called quits" and crossed the river seeking work around Fort Seng, where even that trickle of funds and supplies General Martinez allows his Kentucky garrison is enough to attract the desperate.
Oddly enough, Southern Command scrip, the military currency disparaged throughout the United Free Republics and only accepted by most merchants at a highly disadvantageous exchange rate for macro-and microeconomic reasons that would make too lengthy a digression for our purposes, but which boil down to "can't buy jack in the here and now" is the common currency.
One might even say this stretch of Kentucky is a last chance for a few in the Kurian Zone as well. There are those who find escaping to Kentucky's Jackson Purchase easier than the long trek to the United Free Republics or the dangerous run across the Great Lakes for the deep north woods outside the Kurian Windsor-Toronto-Montreal Belt. They're valuable citizens, if they make it. Escaping across the Northwest Ordnance or through the military concentrations of the Nashville and Atlanta Kurians ensures that only the most careful, healthy, and intelligent make it. Once installed, they work hard to overcome the usual shortcomings of a Kurian Zone upbringing: near illiteracy, habits of blending in so as not to attract attention, and instinctive avoidance of authority figures.
It's also a destination for Quislings who worry their record supporting the Kurians will be used against them. Some are last-second "bolters" who've failed in some colossal manner and fear a visit from the Reapers. Others can no longer live with themselves as cogs in the dreadful system. Service with Southern Command's odd-lot battalion at Fort Seng for six years promises a new identity with an honorable military record. Those with grievous sins they wish to escape, forget, or expunge show up at Fort Seng, give their assumed name, take the oath, and are escorted to the showers and supply depots.
A few who support the Kurian Order even wash up somewhere between Evansville and Fort Seng. Kentucky was long a region of wellarmed neutrality and there are those who would have it return to that condition. They would bring Kentucky back with tactics drawn from Shakespeare: "When lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner." A missionary who ran a little one-man doughnut shop led the way. He had quickly become a fixture, not just because his doughnuts were tasty, but because of his zeal and friendliness with all who crossed his path. A few others have followed in his foot-steps, unarmed and professing only peaceful intent, including a doctor and a dentist and a couple of teachers who provide services for little or no charge but pay for their necessities in silver and gold. Their offices are littered with Kurian tracts, their professional chatter full of careful probes and discreet offers. Not quite enough have arrived so that there's a "Kurian Quarter" in "Desperation Row" as the little strip outside Fort Seng is now called, but enough so that they too have a place in the remarkable collection gravitating to this corner of Vampire Earth.
Every time Valentine left Fort Seng, even for a few nights, the camp changed by the time he returned.
This time his return was from the south, mounted on a legworm, a sort of giant caterpillar introduced to the area by the Kurian allies in 2022. Atop the worm's back, riding at about the height of an old tractor-trailer driver and moving at a steady pace a little slower than a dog trotted-Valentine idly calculated it at nine miles per hour by dropping a weighted line and pacing the worm's back in a fashion not dissimilar from the way old sailing ships measured their speed-he could stretch out, sleep even, while the worm's driver prodded it along with pokes from a long hook.
The young worm and its driver were on loan from the Gunslinger Clan. The Kentucky legworm raisers were the closest allies of Southern Command's forces locally. He'd travelled with them, fought alongside them, saw victory and defeat beside them. They contributed a "troop" of legworm cavalry to support their allies at the base, with a few more available in a pinch. For now, they had five legworms providing slow, but all-terrain, transport and cargo haulage, and were training the fort's garrison to handle a dozen more. Southern Command's forces, which up to the Javelin operation had been only on the receiving end of legworm-mounted attacks, were learning fast-at least in Kentucky.
Back across the Mississippi, any species that had "appeared" since 2022 was considered suspect at the very least.
It was Colonel Lambert's doing of course. She liked her camp the way she liked her desk: neat, organized, everything in its place. Valentine had never actually seen her pencil drawer, but he suspected all her leads were sharp and facing the same direction.
Outside Fort Seng, there was a new sign up at the vast New Universal Church relief tent:NO FOOD TODAY
Valentine had heard that once the sign claimed Southern Command had intercepted and confiscated their shipment. A few of the Bears visited the tent, tore it down, and bounced the churchmen on an improvised trampoline made out of the tent, explaining that if Southern Command had intercepted a food shipment, they'd be eating it.
Since being bounced almost high enough to see the Ohio River over the hills and trees, the missionaries had cut down on the specificity of their claims.
Always-hungry Bears had great noses for food.
He dismounted long enough to clear the legworm driver and Duvalier-a blanket-covered carbuncle on the mossy back of the worm-into the fort.
A block-and-log guardhouse stood at the gate now, along with an unmanned machine gun position. They were positioned well to cover each other. Valentine saw a couple of doughnuts resting on a sill, an easy reach through the window of the guardhouse.
"Crumbs on your uniform, son," he told the guard.
"Sorry, Major." The private brushed the crumbs off.
"Let's watch the eating on sentry duty. We don't want our friends across the highway thinking we're slack." He forced a smile.
Valentine scowled at the corporal standing at the guardhouse door. He didn't like this kind of petty officiousness, especially when he was riding into camp dirty, unshaven, and dressed in a collection of odds and ends that barely qualified as guerilla-wear. But a quiet word and a glare or two now were better than going to the man's captain, who'd roll it downhill to a lieutenant or sergeant, and the poor kid would hear about it tonight or the next day, with all that added momentum.
Once through the woods and to the fort proper, Valentine thanked the worm driver and checked off on a list of supplies he'd carry back to their Gunslinger allies. He woke Duvalier and sent her to the showers, then walked up to the great house that served as Fort Seng's impressive headquarters.
He noted new gravel on the athletic field and some log bleachers. Baseball and basketball were the traditional sports of Southern Command, but for some reason the men of Fort Seng loved kicking around soccer balls outside and Ping-Pong indoors. It had probably started because that was the only athletic gear at hand. They'd added some rule modifications of their own that brought it closer to rugby or football. Exciting stuff to watch, but Valentine hadn't had the chance to do much but goaltend during practices yet.
There were some new vegetable beds in on the mansion grounds as well. Time was, when a sergeant wanted to drill his platoon, he'd take them to "the field" or "the hill." There they'd crawl, run, walk, squat, and roll until he or she could smell the sweat. Colonel Lambert changed that. She preferred exercising the troops under her care by having them build or haul or dig, and if the fort didn't need gravel or lumber or rubble cleared away that week, well, the city of Evansville did.
Valentine approved-for the most part. He voiced a concern that Evansville had to look on their allies at Fort Seng as soldiers first, and a handy source of disciplined labor a long second. Evansville had to organize itself, the day might come when Lambert's battalion would move out and be gone for a year.
No new faces at headquarters. Lambert was off at the big guns that watched over the river, so he reported to her acting adjutant, a former Quisling he'd trained up for the long march across Kentucky last year. She'd been promoted to captain and, next to his old top sergeant, Nilay Patel, was probably the best officer at Fort Seng. Captain Ediyak had proven her worth since day one as a Southern Command recruit, and Valentine was pleased to see her under Lambert's wing.
Through the doorway, Valentine saw an unfamiliar man wearing a major's cluster sitting in Lambert's office reading personnel files. He had the hard, glitzy look of a headquarters type, like polished chrome. He needed reading glasses but didn't put them on his nose. Instead he lounged there with one bow in his mouth, nibbling thoughtfully as he read through the lenses. Ediyak didn't mention him so Valentine didn't ask.
"Once you're cleaned up, there are a couple new faces you need to meet," Ediyak said. She always reminded Valentine of the models in the old magazines, big eyed, delicate, and thin. He knew the delicacy was only skin-deep. She was as strong as any woman at Fort Seng, just small boned from a youth on short rations. Her family had been nobodies in the Kurian Deep South, so as a little girl she probably hadn't seen a ham from one Thanksgiving to the next.
"Need, not want?" Valentine poured himself a glass of water from her office carafe-a nice piece of silver, the old mansion was full of flashy gewgaws its former Quisling owner had collected-and sat down. Ediyak knew him well enough to know that when he was off his feet protocols were relaxed and she could speak freely.
"Depends. We've had a couple more Bears come in. That makes five this month, I believe. These last two were busted out of their outfit for talking monkey about Martinez and his new 'defensive stance.' Or maybe they want to be where there's still fighting. One of them said something about your old unit, the Razorbacks."
Talking monkey was Southern Command slang for throwing feces, to put it politely. The Razorbacks were an ad hoc unit formed on the march into Texas, and had been disbanded a few years back after nearly being destroyed in the siege of Dallas.
"I never say no to Bears. Gamecock is good with discipline problems. We could use them. There's a Kurian tower being built about sixty miles southeast of here, more or less."
"The colonel will need to hear about that."
"There's also someone the Miskatonic sent. Between us, I think Southern Command didn't know what to do with her, so she got shipped out here. She claims you're the only one that can appreciate her ideas."
Valentine noticed the major in the next room had been looking at the same page for the last minute without moving his eyes.
If headquarters wanted to spy, let them. Their officer would return and report that yes, Fort Seng is woefully short of Southern Command's Interior Utility Gray paint and individual field toilet paper packs.
Ediyak crinkled her nose and mouth into an expression half pucker, half smile. "More like a zookeeper-well, you'll just have to meet her. She's set up above the stables, so she can be near her little menagerie. I'd introduce you, but I've got the desk."
"I'll try and find her on my own."
"Ask for Victoria Pellwell. Tall. Hard to miss."
"Sounds like a heroine in a Gothic romance," Valentine said. "Ailing father."
"Lots of windswept moors and a cozy hayloft."
He felt a gentle pang. He'd touched his first woman in a hayloft. Molly Carlson, who'd grown up in an agricultural Kurian Zone in Wisconsin.
"Don't forget the tin bathtub that the maid has to fill with a kettle." Valentine had baths on the mind. He disliked being dirty; personally, and professionally he didn't like wandering headquarters looking like roadkill, so he made his excuses to Ediyak and headed off to the big basement bathroom and sauna next to what had presumably once been an exercise room. There he used one of the luxurious, multihead showers to soap his collection of Tennessee and Kentucky dirt off and changed into clean fatigues. He handed his newly acquired boots to Bee for polishing.
Bee was a "gray" Grog, a member of a muscular, thick-skinned fighting race of near-human intelligence. Or maybe they were as smart as humans, with a different way of presenting and learning. Grogs possessed good instincts for machinery and weapons, tools and plants and animals, but they fell apart when put in front of a sketch board where two-dimensional icons represented the solid objects they understood. He'd known her previous companion, a stinky bounty hunter named Price, and had rescued her from a circus menagerie years later. She'd gained a few scars and lost vision in one eye serving him. Bee fretted when he was gone too long.
And the people around headquarters indulged her sweet tooth, affecting her digestion and making her fretting worse. She'd broken some furniture on blood-sugar rampages.
He tried to ignore Bee snuffling over his dirty clothes as he reduced his facial hair to sink litter and combed out.
Clean and feeling human again, he stopped by his desk, glanced at his in-box and the lone red flag on the Alert Map and decided everything could wait. He was curious about the new arrival at the stables.
"No mail in the diaper bag this time, Major?" asked a corporal with a tray of sandwiches and coffee on his way out.
"Afraid not. Came in from a different direction. Those sandwiches look good."
"They're for that spy Martinez sent. That major fella."
"I don't think we're supposed to know about that," Valentine said, turning down the path to the stables.
So, the new broom at Southern Command was finally doing some whisking in Kentucky, Valentine thought. Well, he's welcome to it. He won't be able to complain about their use of logistical supplies. Most of the arms they were issuing to recruits were captured, the uniforms and gear were made in Evansville workshops, and the good people of Kentucky were feeding them. About all the pack trains were bringing in were bullets and medical supplies.
He took a deep breath and pretended to forget about the bad blood with General Martinez. Enemies in the Kurian Zone prowling Western Kentucky were his business, not vindictive old snapping turtles two big rivers away back at headquarters.
He took a deeper breath when he saw the woman bending over a tack-cleaning table outside the stable feed-room door. Victoria Pellwell stood at least six three. She was one of the tallest women Valentine had ever seen.
She scooped grain, corn, and nuts out of assorted livestock feed sacks, filling a flour barrel. Her civilian attire was rather striking-sun-faded red denim from neck to ankle, short, lace-up riding boots, hair bound up in a yellow handkerchief.
"Victoria Pellwell of the Miskatonic, I presume," Valentine said.
She set down her scoop. "David Valentine. As I live and breathe."
Valentine was tall himself, but he found himself staring dead level, or perhaps a little up, into her eyes as they shook hands. Vigorously. Valentine felt as though his hand was attached to a pump head.
"I'm pleased," he said, hoping she'd relinquish his hand before shaking it out, "but not as pleased as you are, it seems. Can't account for it."
She was no beauty. She had an upturned nose and her steady, rarely blinking eyes were set at an almost uncanny distance from each other, but it was an appealing face you didn't mind looking at. Her teeth were well aligned and gloriously white; he hadn't seen such teeth on a woman since his brief affair with the Quisling obstetrician in Xanadu.
She freed his hand. Valentine fought the impulse to massage his knuckles. "Your papers are practically an archive all by themselves, Valentine. You've got a good eye for detail and you've met a rare level of exomorphs."
"The Miskatonic has been helpful to me on occasion too," Valentine said. He'd learned to grow suspicious of people eager to praise him within a few seconds of meeting. They usually wanted something.
"I'm hoping we'll be even more so," she said, knocking over her small barrel as she turned and put her hand up to her mouth. Valentine's arm flashed out, caught the barrel and righted it before she could whistle, or quack, or whatever the finger in her mouth was for.
Pellwell made a popping sound with her finger against tight-stretched cheek and stamped her foot.
A train of little brown creatures, nose to stumpy naked tail, trotted out of the stable. They had powerful rear legs and smaller, delicate forelimbs with widely spaced digits. The first stuck its snout in the air and sniffed the feed.
He'd seen them in the wild, if "wild" applied to a creature at least as bright as a human child. The muscular haunches allowed them a good running pace, bouncing along as though on springs. Their front paws were gifted with opposable fingers and thumb and tough stumpy claws to dig; in their faces were sharp teeth capable of chewing through all manner of obstacles. Big, sensitive ears shifted this way and that. Though their faces were unlike either rats or rabbits, the eyes were set forward in the face rather in the manner of a weasel or raccoon.
Valentine had last encountered them in the Texas hill country. They were an experiment by the Kurian Order in a vast establishment called "the Ranch." The Ranch was in ruins by the time Valentine crossed it, abandoned to the ratbits, oversized rattlers the Kurians had developed to wipe out the ratbits, and other unpleasant fauna cooked up by the Kurian genetic tinkerers.
The Kurians had been looking for something that bred faster, and were hopefully more manageable, than humans. The experiment had produced the ratbits, who turned out to be so successfully enhanced in intelligence and social inclination they launched a revolt, since they were no more enamored of being bred to be eaten than humans.
When Valentine had met them, there was some misunderstanding that led to violence. Their squeaks and chirps were unintelligible to humans, and they communicated by spelling out words with Scrabble tiles, working the tiles with the quick-handed facility of a blackjack dealer.
This group looked a little better groomed than those he'd seen in Texas. They smelled faintly of pine chips. One had patchy-colored fur, and another had nearly black stripes running down its pewter-colored back. The others were in shades of brown to gray, with a mixture of lighter rings around their eyes, noses, and running up their ears.
"Are these from Texas?" Valentine asked.
"I met them there four years ago," she said. "I was a junior member of the Miskatonic team that went into the hill country to see what might be salvaged from the experimental station."
"The Ranch," Valentine said.
"The Ranch is an urban legend," she said. "Well, that there's one, and the Kurians do all their experiments there like a big Manhattan Project. If it exists, it's probably back on Kur, where they can all keep an eye on each other and what's being developed. The station in the Texas Hill Country is where they were experimenting with ratbits to test them in real Earth-wild conditions."
Valentine took a knee, and offered a finger. Each ratbit came up and first sniffed, then touched it in turn. They yeeked to each other. "What are you doing with them here?"
"I'm on Southern Command's rolls as a civilian consultant. Former Miskatonic associate, exozoology, if you want the full resume."
"Exo-you mean Grogs," Valentine said.
The word Grog applied to pretty much any animal brought over from other worlds by the Kurians, though it was more precisely applied to the apelike bipeds of Bee's variety. Valentine didn't mind the inexactitude. You could tell from context whether the word was being used in its general or specific sense. He was part "Indian," to most folks, after all.
"Yes. The cognitives were my specialty. I'm more of a blackboard and bookshelf type than a bush researcher. Had my eye on a faculty chair. I was getting my field experience slot filled when I fell in love with your ratbits, Valentine."
Valentine didn't know much about the intellectual hierarchies of the Miskatonic, he knew interns were at the bottom and department chairs at the top, but where an associate came in between the two he couldn't say.
"They're hardly mine," Valentine said.
"You had the first description of them entered into the rolls. Translagorodent Valentine, they're labeled, in the latest edition of the Guide. Do you know scientific classification?"
"Never figured being in a book," Valentine said, hoping he wasn't blushing in pleasure. His face felt warm. So, his name would be remembered for a minor contribution to science. There were worse legacies. He could have been quietly hung as a war criminal, after all.
Valentine stood again. Pellwell picked up the patchy-colored one and stood, somewhat awkwardly, with it clinging to her shoulder like a big housecat. "You discovered and described them. It's an honor. I believe that they'd be a great help in the war."
The ratbits left on the ground whistled for attention and made chirping noises at the one on her shoulder. It wrinkled its nose at its companions.
"So these are-allies?"
"Of course," she said, pouring out a scoopful of her mix.
"That ratbit trail mix?"
"Some favorites. They'll eat about anything. Don't need much water either, they'll dig for roots. Though I've noticed that if they don't have drinking water, what little urine they do produce-pfew!"
Ratbits reminded Valentine of raccoons. They sat up to eat, using their paws to pick and discard. Pellwell clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth, and the ratbits all nodded an affirmative.
"You can speak to them?" Valentine asked.
"A few basic words. I think they're exaggerating some of their sounds so I can understand them. Pidgin ratbit for humans only, if you will."
"Why did you bring them here?" Valentine asked. "Shouldn't they be running through mazes in a lab?"
"They've done all that already, both in Texas and at the lab in Pine Bluff. I want to make practical use of their abilities under real field conditions. I've an idea they could be of great help. Like dogs, only better."
"Plenty of opportunities for that in South Texas, I'd think."
She scowled. "Southern Command wouldn't even let me through the door. Ratbits are ideal for reconnaissance, surveillance, sabotage, they're even damn good thieves who can be trained to get electronic spares or medicines or whatnot that aren't easily accessible. I kept quoting your report, and your suggestions that they might be useful."
"At headquarters? I'm not a favorite of theirs."
"So I gathered. Honestly, I was expecting you to be a gilt-edged bastard. 'Let Valentine deal with them, he's such a grog-lover' they told me. And a few other things. But never mind. I found out where Fort Seng was, and decided I should look you up. Headquarters gave me transport docs to get rid of me, I think. I got myself attached to some volunteers heading out your way. I brought five I'd trained as a proof of concept."
We're collecting quite a menagerie in Kentucky, Valentine thought.
"Please tell me I haven't wasted my time," she said.
A visionary. Well, he'd been faulted more than once for following an ideal rather than military duty. Besides, another thinker around might give Brother Mark someone to latch on to on quiet evenings when Valentine would much rather be reading or enjoying one of Gamecock's raucous poker games.
"You want a chance to prove your concept? Get hard operational data?" Valentine asked, already bubbling with ideas. An animal about the same size as a cat, with sentient intelligence ... It was her turn to blush. "Of course." Oh, God, what had they said about him at headquarters.
"When you say reconnaissance, what do you mean? What do you think their capabilities are?"
She gathered her thoughts. "Well, you can't just send them out and have them report what they see. They need specifics. They can count and identify some things. How many trucks are in the warehouse . That sort of thing."
"Map reading?" Valentine asked.
The teeth reduced their wattage. "Still working on that. You have to get them pretty near their objective. Surely you can see the potential."
So young. So eager. So bright.
He hoped he wouldn't have to bury her, the way he had Rand. His shy intelligence, those remarkable teeth. Of course, if she really were that smart she would have kept pursuing that comfy departmental chair, rather than trying to come up with a new way to beat the Kurians.
"You ever been in the KZ?"
"Kurian Zone? Not really. Only the trip to Texas. I did my first internship in Kansas and Missouri, though, with the Gray Ones."
Valentine felt a pang. His old friend Ahn-Kha had taught him that terminology. Apparently it had made it into the scientific vocabulary.
"We're going out on a task in a couple days," Valentine said. "Lives will be at risk. We could certainly use you, but I want to see your team in action and interacting with our men. So let's try a test. If they do well, we'll bring you along for a real test under operational conditions."
"Thank you, Major Valentine."
"Most people call me Val when salutes aren't being tossed back and forth. Especially friends."
"I'd like that," she said, extending her hand.
Valentine hoped he didn't hesitate too much before gripping hers and submitting to another socket-rattling pumping of his arm.
"Thank you for the opportunity," she said.
Valentine needed time to think and plan and assemble his key officers. Perhaps coming along would be the best thing to ever happen to Miss Pellwell. She'd either be shocked into returning to her Miskatonic digs with renewed hopes of that chair, or she'd blossom into yet another oddly fitting cog in the Fort Seng machine.
Valentine had time for only a brief word or two with Colonel Lambert about what he'd discovered before he was thrust back into the affairs of training the battalion and improving Fort Seng.
He learned a little more about Pellwell. They chatted over tea during an after-dinner cards, charades, and chess session at headquarters.
The tea was out of a small supply left to him by a grateful mother. Most of the talk came from Pellwell.
Victoria Pellwell's grandfather was Southern Command's "very first Bear." The first to survive the transformation the Lifeweavers attempted on the volunteers, that is. She told him he was actually the third to go through the ordeal, which made him a very brave man indeed. Still, it was not a perfect case study. Her grandfather permanently lost the ability to speak, save for being able to bark out a word or two now and then that had nothing to do with the matter at hand.
For all that, he served twenty years as a Bear, surviving horrific wounds. As a child, she remembered him mostly pointing and grunting. He'd collected a formidable collection of Grog artifacts: weapons, tools, even a skull or two, and had a sort of dreadful candy bowl made out of a Gray One's oversized palm that he kept filled with butter toffee. "That's where I caught the exomorph bug, looking at his collection," Pellwell explained.
"Whatever happened to him?" Lieutenant Gamecock asked. The commander of Fort Seng's three Bear teams had been interested enough to leave a poker game and start lurking about the edges of their conversation. He made it very clear that he wasn't eavesdropping, only listening with interest and perhaps too shy or too sensitive to barge in until a decent gap appeared.
Pellwell seemed to welcome the question. Gamecock was handsome enough, with rugged features and a real fighting bird's brush of thick hair atop his head. That, combined with his old-fashioned South Carolina charm and cadences, made most of the women of Fort Seng lick their lips and throw their shoulders back when he approached. Perhaps he was just sniffing out the newest female addition in search of a fresh conquest.
"He was killed when Consul Solon came in, with our town's militia. At a little place called Viola, east of Mountain Home."
"Wait, you're Broadsword's granddaughter," Gamecock said, rubbing the back of his neck.
"Yes, Broadsword, that's what they called him. He had this patch like a sword where your names are usually stitched." She looked down at a spoon she'd been toying with, absently twisted it into a corkscrew while talking. Valentine watched her cover it and attempt to pull it straight.
"Honored, ma'am," Gamecock said. Valentine decided it wasn't an act. Like most Bears, it took a lot to impress him.
Maybe that's where she gets the strength, Valentine thought. The modifications the Lifeweavers had done to certain members of the human race, making them a better match for the Reapers and other tools of the Kurian Order, seemed to get passed down, sometimes in diluted or scrambled fashion, to their descendants. Bear blood was tough on women. None had ever survived the transformation. The genes didn't cross over to offspring, or if they did, it often ended in tragedy. From what he knew, most weren't even born alive. Valentine had known only one female Bear, a friend of his and Colonel Lambert's named Wildcard. She'd died helping the resistance in Alabama.
With that, Valentine went gloomy. He gulped his tea and made his excuses, leaving Gamecock to finish the evening with Miss Pellwell.
He found Duvalier softly snoring on his bed and quietly stripped to his underwear and crawled in beside her. She mumbled something about a mule in her sleep and pressed up tightly to him, back-to-back, without waking.
The next day, Brother Mark supervised the trials of the ratbits, per Valentine's two challenges.
Brother Mark was an odd sort of man. He had a loose-skinned, basset-hound face and the dog's permanently mournful expression. Though part of Southern Command, he wore black civilian clergy attire. He seemed condemned by life not to fit in anywhere. He'd been a churchman, a very high-ranking one, before undergoing his own personal awakening and fleeing the Kurian Order, taking a brain full of secrets and queer abilities with him.
There were rumors all over Fort Seng about him. Valentine had heard it said that Brother Mark slept on scrap wire and broken glass, that he ate only food that up to an hour ago had been living, and that he could read minds of men and Reapers alike. Valentine knew the truth about some of it.
As to the sleeping on glass and scraps, Brother Mark had taken up residence in an old tack room of Fort Seng's stables-once the residence of the pleasure horses of the wealthy and connected of Evansville. His mattress had been tossed down on a floor littered with odds and ends and he always slept in his clothes. "A habit of quick escapes," he'd once said.
As to the fresh food, Valentine knew from many shared meals that the churchman hated the smell of rotting food-fish turning particularly disgusted him, though he liked it better than anything if pulled fresh from the water and fried within the hour. Which reminded Valentine, he'd promised Brother Mark a morning's stream fishing, now that the winter had broken. Valentine preferred lake fishing, the mixture of crafty selection of site and bait taking into accounts variations on water, weather, and season appealed to the gamester in him.
That left the mind reading. Valentine had his doubts, but Brother Mark was like the bayous he'd explored in Louisiana. You never knew whether the next turn might bring you to a shotgun shack and still, a gator-choked mud-isle among a colonnade of bald cypress, or a graceful, five-column estate. One thing was certain-he had a power to sense the activity of Kurians and their mental connections with their Reaper avatars. Valentine had a bastardized, low-wattage ability along those lines. He'd evidently been born with it, but where his "tingles" were little more than an uneasy feeling or a spectral chill, Brother Mark's senses were as fine-tuned as an air-control radar.
Now the barn was home to a couple of riding horses, milk cows, a few stalwart oxen used mostly for hauling timber, and storage for the fort's sheep and goats and growing chicken coops. Plus the ratbits, who were already filching eggs. Brother Mark slept there, Valentine suspected, because it allowed him to be near headquarters and to camouflage his own lifesign. Perhaps Brother Mark emitted some special signal, like a high-power transmitter, that he wished to jam during the night hours when the Kurians were at the peak of their powers without sunlight to confuse their signals.
He'd counted Valentine his friend ever since the planning for Operation Javelin, when Valentine had been, rather unwillingly, paired up with the churchman. The upper ranks had been trying to forge a team, and it didn't look good to have someone always alone, never sharing a table at dinner, hovering at the perimeter of casual conversations.
Brother Mark had been pathetically eager for friendship. Still was, though he hid it better these days. Though he wasn't Valentine's favorite person, he felt a sympathy for him. In his younger days, Valentine had been a bit of a loner and an outsider, hungry for anyone to talk to, and overdoing it when someone actually did. Now Valentine relished his moments alone, when he had a few consecutive minutes to think, rather than constantly putting out fires while juggling the issues of a practically cut-off military mission.
The men didn't exactly go to Brother Mark for counsel, but he liked to work alongside them. He drew out even the most taciturn and started them talking. No confessional, no back and forth questioning, his methods were closer to psychiatric free association, only instead of a couch, they were often leaning on shovels together.
In any case, he was impartial, so Valentine's two tasks for the ratbits, by daylight and by night, gave Brother Mark a chance to work his magic with Valentine.
The first task involved the ratbits stealing a big bottle of aspirin from Captain Patel's quarters overnight. Patel, thanks to years of running Wolves back and forth across the old Ozark Free Territory, had bad knees and took aspirin morning and night to help with the pain. Patel didn't know the ratbits were coming, but if anyone could sense something creeping up on him, it was the canny old Wolf. His knees might be going, but his ears and nose were still sharp as ever. Patel used aspirin by the handful, and there was every chance some would be used and therefore all the more likely to rattle.
Valentine and Brother Mark were eating in the big garage of the estate house that had been converted into the dining hall. It wasn't nearly big enough to seat the whole battalion, but by eating in shifts and taking the food out to tents over a thousand men could be served in three hours.
The men were sitting at an inside table with a few other officers when Pellwell appeared. She was chewing a piece of bubble gum, and loudly snapped it as she set down a half-empty bottle of aspirin.
"Well, that's proof," Gamecock said.
"That Patel was sleeping soundly in his own bed in the middle of a fort," Valentine said.
Pellwell snapped her gum again. "Want to know what book was on his bedside table? They spelled the title with Scrabble pieces for me."
Knowing Patel, it was one of his wife's raunchy paperbacks. She was supposed to join him at the fort this spring.
He returned the bottle to Patel, eating with his company officers and NCOs two tables over.
"Sorry, Captain. You were part of the ratbit exercise," Valentine said.
"I thought I heard a rattle," Patel said, opening the bottle and taking out three tablets. "Slept with the window cracked. Never could stand stale air. I thought the breeze did it."
"Look for little tracks on the sill," Valentine said.
For the second test, Valentine let the target know the ratbits were coming. The ratbits were to somehow wreak havoc with the function of one of the artillery pieces, without causing permanent damage, of course.
So he stood at the observation post on the hillside that sheltered the three guns-Morganna, Igraine, and Guinevere-from Evansville and the Ohio River. Brother Mark stood beside, watching and waiting. The cannon-cockers were standing guard over their communications equipment, magazines, and stores, ready to spring into action when Valentine gave the signal.
"Wonder how she'll do it, if she hasn't done it already," Valentine said.
"I never like a woman who chews gum loudly," Brother Mark said. "What do you think, Major Valentine?"
Valentine shrugged. "I've never had trouble getting along with the Miskatonic people."
"Except where Blake is concerned," Brother Mark said.
Valentine took a breath. He'd seen a Reaper born alive into the world, carried by Post's wife, who he'd brought out of an Ohio hatchery called Xanadu. Named him Blake, after the poet. At first he'd let the Miskatonic people examine him-they'd never watched a Reaper develop before-but when they started using noise and light to test tolerances he reclaimed him and took him to old Narcisse, who lived on the bluffs outside of Saint Louis. They'd first met on Hispaniola during his trip to find a special kind of wood that killed Reapers. The gentle old soul had a way with Blake. It had been over a year since he'd seen them last.
"Well, rarely then," he admitted. "Usually all we do is swap stories. I've never tried to work with one in the field before."
"You think these creatures will be useful? Then why do you scowl so when you look at them."
"I was scowling? Well, they make me think about Texas. If I'd only been more careful."
Valentine had been bringing a load of Quickwood back from Haiti, crossing Texas's empty plains. Once back in Southern Command territory he'd let his guard down, only to discover the Ozarks had been overrun by Consul Solon's Transmississippi forces. He'd lost almost all of his precious cargo.
"Is that all? I've never known you to dwell on the past. Talk about it, yes. Learn from it, yes. But not lose yourself in misery over it."
You didn't know me in the years following my court martial, Valentine thought.
"I was with Ahn-Kha when we met them. He was with me on that trip. I've been wondering about him. Ever since that last radio transmission, when they said they were surrounded by the ravies in Virginia."
"You think he's dead?"
"You put it starkly, sir." Valentine brightened. A weight had passed away. "You know, I don't. I feel like he's still alive. But I'm anxious about it, for some reason."
Brother Mark stared levelly into his eyes in the manner of a doctor, as if evaluating the dilation of his pupils. Valentine wondered what he was looking for. "Is this your emotions, hoping against hope, or more of a realization?"
Valentine searched his features for expression, but the usual sad hound eyes revealed nothing beyond sorrow. "Do you know something I don't?"
"In the Church, there were those who became sensitives of one sort or another. I've been told that it's suddenly as though you've known something your whole life. Sister Gretchen is arriving this afternoon; you've always known Gretchen will arrive this afternoon."
Valentine believed in telepathy. He'd had Lifeweavers and Kurians alike, along with their agents, put thoughts in his head. Was someone feeding him information now? An enemy trying to tempt him into rashness? Or was one of nature's better angels planting suggestions, trying to move to come to the rescue of his old friend?
"Give the alert and practice coordinates, Corporal," Valentine told the Wolf of Frat's command he'd brought along to practice the artillery spotting.
The tanned young man studied the map one more time and started to read.
Fire control acknowledged, repeating back the coordinates.
"Communications are still up," Valentine said.
The loaders ran the trenches to the ready magazines.
Valentine looked down and saw confusion at Igraine. A sergeant hurried to the magazine.
"Uh-oh," Father Max said.
The spotter Wolf pushed his headset tighter against his ear.
"Major, Igraine is reporting someone stuck gum in the padlock on the magazine door," the Wolf said.
"What was that you were saying about gum-chewing women?" Valentine asked.
After getting his arm pumped off again congratulating Pellwell, Valentine presented his plan to Colonel Lambert. The mental diversion with the ratbits had allowed the operation to crystallize.
He sat in her office, so neat that the orders and papers and pens all seemed to cower in their allotted places.
Lambert in person was as severe and clean as her desk. She didn't reveal her thoughts, but instead started firing questions. He answered them as best he could, then she moved on to options if the operation failed, and if it succeeded. "Valentine, I could use experienced construction staff, but we're having a hard enough time feeding the soldiers we have. How many more mouths are you planning to add?"
"Thirty or so," Valentine said.
"I'm glad spring's here. Fresh food's starting to flow again."
"I'm sure Evansville could use it," Valentine said. "They can't keep up with the refugees coming down the Ohio. Something awful must be happening in the Ordnance."
"I hear purges," Lambert said. "It might be nice to offer Evansville some tangible assistance. They're going a little wobbly on us."
"What do you mean?" Valentine asked.
"Do you want the good news, or the bad news?" Lambert asked, straightening a manila file on her desk that had somehow gone a couple of degrees out of alignment.
"Is there good news?" Valentine asked.
"So far, it's still psychological warfare," Lambert said. "But damn effective psychological warfare. The Ordnance is floating bodies down the Ohio."
"Rafting, sending them drifting. When there's a big pile they put them on pallets supported by plastic water bottles, Ping-Pong balls mostly. It looks like the usual Reaper victims. The sick, crippled, and old. Dead a few days, as best as we can tell."
"Cute. We get to dispose of their bodies."
"It's attracting the usual birds, rats, and flies. It's depressing for the fishermen and boatmen too. Nobody likes hauling up bodies. They've been burning them east of the city. Want to take a look?"
"Not really," Valentine said. He'd seen enough Reaper leftovers in the New Orleans bayou country, where the Kurian order left matters of corpse disposal to gars and crayfish.
"At least we've accumulated quite a supply of Ping-Pong balls. We can grind them up with some match heads and make smoke grenades. Have you met Major Grace yet? He's here from GHQ, 'estimating the situation.' "
Valentine leaned forward. "I think I saw him reading personnel files."
"He's on General Martinez's staff. I think he's here to decide whether to pull us out of Kentucky."
"They wouldn't," Valentine said. "We're the only success Southern Command has had since Archangel." Archangel was the operation that reclaimed the Ozark Free Territory from Consul Solon. The collapse was so quick and far reaching that Texas and parts of Oklahoma were added to the freehold, turning it into the United Free Republics.
Lambert leaned back in her chair. "You and I might think it's a success, but back across the Mississippi, it's being played in the newspapers as another failure. Though now that the wheel turned in the elections and Martinez is running the show, they'll be on the lookout for good news. Just a few successful small ops, written up and sent off by our friend Bolenitz and his magic pen, might win us a few more visits from the logistics commandos."
"Then I have the perfect op for you, sir. My extraction."
"I'll make you a deal, Valentine. You get Major Grace out of my hair for a few days by taking him along. Do your best to keep him alive and impressed with us, and I'll try and fit that Miskatonic egghead into the Fort's TOE."
"I can start working out the operational staff now, if you'll give the order."
She took a deep breath. "Very well, Valentine. If you want to put the future of matters in Kentucky on an operation to get a couple dozen hard hats away from the Georgia Control, I wish us all the luck in the world."
"More good news: I'm going to put Frat Carlson in charge of the extraction."
Lambert shifted in her chair. "You think he's ready?" Valentine thought she might as well have said you trust him?
"The whole camp is on eggshells about him," Valentine said. Frat Carlson had been responsible for the Ravies outbreak during the winter. While only the senior officers, and Brother Mark, knew he was a Kurian agent, the men knew that he'd done something disastrous for the Cause. They'd tried to keep the full story secret, not even reporting it to Southern Command. If the Kentuckians found out the whole story, they'd string Frat up and kick the entire Southern Command operation back across the Mississippi.
And there'd go a burgeoning alliance.
Perhaps they'd be right to do it.
"No such thing as secrets," Lambert said. "Well, if your op's a disaster, it'll be a well-rounded disaster. Maybe all the bad karma accumulated since last spring will get expunged in one bad night."
"Or we'll have a bit of luck and start to turn it around," Valentine said.
"Got a name for your op?"
"I was thinking 'Vendetta,' " Valentine said. He'd intentionally avoided anything that was evocative of destruction or a rescue. "Maybe it'll make a couple of Quislings nervous, if word gets out."
"Well, go make us some luck, Major," she said. She signed the order for Vendetta to go live and handed it to him.
Valentine decided to eat dinner in his room that night. The generously sized bedroom always made him feel a little guilty as a place to only sleep and get dressed, so he usually did some work at the old vanity table there as well.
Duvalier was cutting her toenails. She had gnarled, beaten-up feet thanks to the countless miles she'd walked in her exploits.
"How do you like this?" she said, holding up the clippers. "I think they're real gold."
"Good to be the big boss," Valentine said, removing his boots. He stuffed them with New Universal Church propaganda. Dry reading would absorb the sweat, and the odor would only be improved.
She heard a scratching above and looked up, her arm instinctively reaching to her side, grasping for a weapon.
A ratbit blinked down at her. It dropped a pack of gum onto Valentine's pillow and crawled back across the beamed ceiling to the door.
He heard a thump as it startled Bee on its scramble out.
"I think that's a thank-you," Valentine said, picking up the gum.
Duvalier dropped the mass of paper she was about to fling at the ratbit. "God, those things give me the creeps."
"What's that rolled up in your hand?" Valentine asked.
"I found all these great old magazines in the attic. You hardly ever see them like this, usually they're crinkled from being wet and dried."
"For toilet paper?"
"No. Too slick, unless you Minnesota types are fans of skid marks up to your spine. I like looking at the women in the pictures. So beautiful."
"Thinking of changing your hair?"
"I can read, you know," she said, wrinkling her nose at him. "The articles are fascinating. Look at this! Fifteen ways to update your jeans."
"I only knew one. When they wear out, turn them into shorts. Then when those wear out, you have some patching material and an oil rag. Oh, mechanical dryer lint in a bottle of gasoline makes for a better Molotov cocktail, so I suppose that's two updates."
Valentine was deeply fond of Duvalier. She was like a sister to him, but there was a tiny frisson whenever they touched one wouldn't get from a sister. They'd been together so long, seen each other naked so often, the fact that they'd never made love had been made moot. They were partners on a level just as deep. Policemen who'd spent years together might understand. "That's my firebug. I thought you were going soft on me for a minute there."
"Never. I'm a good ol' rebel."
Valentine checked his teeth, went to work with brush and floss. Some said he set the standard for field hygiene at Fort Seng, but he'd have a long way to go to meet her choppers.
Duvalier threw down her magazine. "Val, you give a shit about the Old World. They sure had a lot of stuff. It's like they spent all their time figuring out what to do with their clothes and hair."
"I suppose some did."
"Why don't the Kurians do that? In Kansas, we were always looking for a set of kitchen knives with matching handles or new shoe heels. Made you think that the Peedee knuckleheads didn't know what they were doing."
"Pee and Dee. Production and Distribution."
"You think the Kurians wanted shortages?" Valentine asked.
"No, I can't figure out why they don't string up the people running that end of it. You'd think if everyone was worrying about which of the fifteen ways to update their jeans, nobody would be questioning where Gramma went after her foot operation. Spending two hours a day working on your makeup doesn't leave much energy for guerilla activity."
Valentine shrugged. "The churchmen never were big on material things. You might say that if you're spending two hours a day scrounging for socks and underwear, you don't have much time to be a guerilla either. And not producing something is a heck of a lot easier to organize than producing it."
"Thank you, George Orwell."
Duvalier showed flashes, every now and then, of being much better read than her "simple and corny as a Kansas field" attitude that got her through sentry checkpoints let on. The thing is, he'd never seen her pick up a book, though Valentine had carried Orwell with him in a couple of their relocations. Maybe she snuck a book out to cushion her dynamite when she went out into the field.
"You in the mood to head back south to that construction site? Or do you have a pedicure scheduled?"
She kicked the magazine off the bed, checked to see that her sword stick was within reach. "I only need six on my back and two hot meals. It beats learning nine ways to make yourself part of his fantasies."