Big Wings were the larger, gargoylelike flyers the Kurians kept in the taller towers of Dallas. Both smarter and rarer than the Harpies Valentine had encountered, they tended to stay above, out of rifleshot, in the dark. Some weeks ago Valentine had seen a dead one that had been brought down by chance. It had been wearing a pair of binoculars and carrying an aerial photograph. Grease-penciled icons squiggled all over the photo marking the besieging army's current positions.
“Could come at dusk, sir,” Valentine said, and regretted it before his tongue stilled. Meadows was smart enough that he didn't need to be told the obvious.
“Our sources could be wrong. Again,” Meadows said, glancing at the flimsy basket next to his door. Messages that came in overnight but were not important enough to require the CO to be awakened rested there. The belief that an attack was due had been based on Valentine's intelligenceâeverything from deserter interrogations to vague murmurs from Dallas Operations that the heart of the city was abuzz with activity. There was no hit of reprimand, nor peevishness, in his tone. Meadows knew war was guesswork, and frequently the guesses were wrong.
“Sir, Smoke came in while I was out,” Valentine said. “I just saw her; she would have told me if she'd seen anything critical. I'll debrief her over breakfast.”
“How are the men up the boulevard doing?”
“The boulevard” was a wide east-west street that marked the forward edge of the Razors' positions. Snipers and machine gunners warred from blasted storefronts over five lanes of a former Texas state route.
“Unhappy about being on the line, sir. They only got three days at the airfield.” Comparatively fresh companies had been moved up from the relative quiet of the old field in anticipation of the attack.
“Let's rotate them out if nothing happens by tomorrow morning.”
“Will do, sir. I'll see to Smoke now.”
“Thank her for me, Major. Eat hearty yourselfâand then hit your bunk.” Meadows tended to keep his orders brief and simple. Sometimes they were also pleasant. Meadows picked up the flimsies from his basket, glanced at them, and passed them to Valentine.
Valentine read them on the way back to the galleyâor kitchen, he mentally corrected. Shipboard slang still worked itself into his thoughts, a leftover from his yearlong spell posing in the enemy's uniform as a Coastal Marine, and then living in the
after taking her from the Kurians.
01:30 POTABLE WATER LINE REESTABLISHED TO FORWARD POSITIONS
02:28 OP3 OP11 ARTILLERY FIRE FLASHES AND SOUNDS FROM OTHER SIDE OF CITY
03:55 OP3 BARRAGE CEASED
04:10 OP12 REPORTS TRAIN HEARD NORTH TOWARD CITY
The OP notation was for field phone-equipped forward observation posts. Valentine had heard the barrage and seen the flashes on the north side of the city as well. Glimpsed from between the tall buildings, they made the structures stand out against the night like gravestones to a dead city.
The only suspicious one was of the train. The lines into Dallas had been cut, torn up, mined, plowed under, or otherwise blocked very early in the siege. Readying or moving a train made little senseâunless the Kurians were merely shuffling troops within the city.
Valentine loaded up a tray, employed Hank as coffee bearer, and returned to his room. Duvalier twitched at his entry, then relaxed. Her eyes opened.
“Food,” she said. Perhaps she'd half slept through their conversation earlier.
“And coffee,” Valentine said. After checking to make sure she was decent, he brought Hank in. The teenager being a teenager, he'd waited in the spot with the best viewing angle of the room and bed.
“What's the latest from Big D?” Valentine asked, setting the tray briefly on the bed before pulling his makeshift desk up so that she'd have an eating surface.
“No sign of an assault. I saw some extra gun crews and battle police, but no troops have been brought up.”
Hank hung up Duvalier's gear to dry. Valentine saw the boy clip off a yawn.
“Most units been on half rations for over a month now. Internal security and battle police excepted, of course. And some of the higher officers, looks like they're as fat as ever. I heard some men talking: No one dares report sick. Rumor has it the Kurians are running short on aura, and the sick list is the first place they look.”
“Horrible,” she reported between bites. “They're losing and they know it. Deserters aren't being disposed of quietly anymore. Every night just before they shut down power, they assemble representatives from all the Quisling brigades and have public executions. I put on a nurse's shawl and hat and watched one. NCOs kept offering me a bottle or cigarettes, but I couldn't take my eyes off the stage.”
The incidental noises from Hank working behind him ceased.
“They make the deserters stand in these big plastic garbage cans, the ones with little arrows running around in a circle, handcuffed in front. Then a Reaper comes up from behind and tears open their shirts. They keep the poor bastards facing the ranks the whole time so they can see the expression on their faces. They're gagged, of course: The Reapers don't want any last words. The Reaper clamps its jaws somewhere between the shoulder blades and starts squeezing their arms into the ribcage. You hear the bones breaking, see the shoulders pop out as they dislocate.
“Then they just tip up the garbage can and wheel the body away. Blood and piss leaking out the bottom, usually. Then a political officer steps up and reads the dead man's confession, and his CO verifies his mark or signature. Then they wheel out the next one. Sometimes six or seven a night. They want the men to go to bed with something to think about.
“I've seen some godawful stuff, but that poor bastard . . . I had a dream about him.”
“They never run out of Reapers, do they?” Hank put in.
“Seems not,” Duvalier said.
Valentine decided to change the subject. “Okay, they're not massing for an attack. Maybe they're trying a breakout?”
“No, all the rolling motor stock is dispersed,” she said, slurping coffee. “Unless it's hidden. I saw a few entrances to underground garages that were guarded with armored cars and lots of wire and kneecappers.”
The latter was a nasty little mine the Kurians were fond of. When triggered, it launched itself twenty inches into the air like a startled frog and exploded, sending flÃ©chettes out horizontally that literally cut a man off at the knees.
“I don't suppose you saw any draft articles of surrender crumpled up in the wastebaskets, did you?”
She made a noise that sent a remnants of a last mouthful of masticated egg flying. “Na-ah.”
“Now,” Valentine said. “If you'll get out of my bedâ”
“I need a real bath. Those basins are big enough to sit in. How about your waterboyâ”
Hank perked up at the potential for
Valentine hated to ruin the boy's morning. “You can use the women's. There's piping and a tub.”
Such gallantry as still existed between the sexes in the Razors mostly involved the men working madly to provide the women with a few homey comforts wherever the regiment moved. The badly outnumbered women had to do little in returnâthe occasional smile, a few soft words, or an earthy joke reminded their fellow soldiers of mothers, sweethearts, sisters, or wives.
“Killjoy,” Duvalier said, winking at Hank.
The alarms brought Valentine out of his dreams and to his feet. For one awful moment he hung on a mental precipice between reality and his vaguely pleasant dreamâsomething to do with a boat and bougainvilleaâwhile his brain caught up to his body and oriented itself.
Alarms. Basement in Texas. Dallas siege. The Razors.
Two alarms, his brain noted as full consciousness returned. Whistle after whistle, blown from a dozen mouths like referees trying to stop a football brawl, indicated an attackâall men to grab whatever would shoot and get to their shooting stations, plus the wail of an air alert siren.
But no gongs. If the Kurians had dusted again, every man who could find a piece of hollow metal to bang, tin cans to wheel rims, should be setting up as loud a clamor as possible. No one wanted to be a weak link in another Fort Worth massacre that caused comrades to “choke out.”
Valentine forced himself to pull on socks and tie his boots. He grabbed the bag containing his gas mask, scarves, and gloves anyway and buckled his pistol belt. Hank had cleaned and hung up his cut-down battle rifle. Valentine checked it over as he hurried through men running every which way, or looking to their disheveled Operations officer for direction, and headed for the stairs to the control tower, the field's tactical command post. He took seemingly endless switchbacks of stairs two at a time to the “top deck”âthe Razors' shorthand for the tallest point of Love Field.
He felt, then a second later heard, explosions. Worse than mortars, worse than artillery, and going off so close together he wondered if the Kurians had been keeping rocket artillery in reserve for a crisis. The old stairs rattled and dropped dirt as though shaking in fear.
“Would you look at those bastards!” he heard someone shout from the control tower.
“Send to headquarters: âRancid,' ” Valentine heard Meadows shout. “Rancid. Rancid. Rancid.”
Another explosion erupted in black-orange menace: the parking garageâthe biggest structure on the field.
Valentine followed a private's eyes up and looked out on a sky filled with whirling planes.