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Authors: E.E. Knight

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BOOK: Valentine's Rising
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“Its mostly a Coastal Marine uniform, dyed black. The bandolier is from a snake.”
“Must have been some snake. Be more impressed if you had some friendly insignia, Valentine.”
“Technically I'm a captain now, Sergeant, though you'll have to go on faith for that. I couldn't prove it any better to you than I could prove why I'm out here with a Grog. His name's Ahn-Kha, and he also outranks you. I've been out of the Free Territory for better than two years. Sort of a Logistics Commando operation.”
“The boy?”
“Just a refugee. None of us are out here for fun. I'm trying to find any kind of Southern Command organization. If you can turn us over to one, I'd be obliged.”
Finner took his hand out of the sheath. “No longer a Wolf, eh? Ain't no such thing, Valentine. Once you've looked into the eyes of Father Wolf, you're one until the day you die.” He pushed the cap back on his head, revealing a greasy forehead. “Hell, whatever you are, it's good to see you again, Captain, sir,” Finner said, holding up his hand palm outward in the Wolf salute. “I'm running with what's left of Southern Command here in the Ouachitas. If you want to meet the boys, just say so. They're only a couple hilltops away.”
“I'll say so,” Valentine said. “Ahn-Kha, take Hank and find the others. Tell them to camp quietly for another day, and wait for me. This should be the end of our trail.”
“How did it happen, Jess?” Valentine said, as they walked in the loom of Magazine Mountain. The radio antennae Valentine remembered atop the rock-faced cliffs were gone.
Finner must have answered the question before to other fragments of Southern Command, searching for higher command like children looking for a missing parent. The words came out in a practiced, steady beat.
“Not sure. I was recruiting up in the Northwoods. Wisconsin this time, same's I do every year since you met me. It was August. Hottest one I can remember in a while, even up there. We had a little temporary camp south of La Crosse, where we picked up some food courtesy of the underground, and the boatmen said there'd been barges full of men brought across the Mississippi. Our lieutenant thought we'd better not try for the Free Territory until we knew which path was safe. He sent out scouts. Only one came back, and he said the riverbank south of St. Louis was crawling with Grogs. Captain Dorn finally showed up, and he left it up to us. We could scatter up north, or try to get through to the Ozarks. Most tried, a few recruits even. Well, they were right, the hills were crawling. We got picked up by some of those flying shit-eaters, and the harpies put the big ones on us. Legworms barreling through the brush like tanks with Grogs picking us off right and left as we ran. It was a massacre. No other word for it. I made it out, running south. Came across a week-old battlefield on the Crowley Ridge; our men were hanging in trees everywhere, getting picked at by crows. 'Round there I think I got some bad water, picked up a bug. Woke up in a hayloft; some farmers had found me wandering. Said I had a fever, babbled. I was about twenty pounds thinner. This family said the Kurians were running the show now, but they'd heard there was still fighting in the Ouachitas down by Hot Springs. Let's take a break.”
Finner sat down and Valentine joined him, rubbing his tired left leg. Finner passed him a little stainless-steel flask. Valentine smelled the contents and shook his head, handing it back.
“I'd lost my blade and my gun while I was sick. When I felt well enough to move on they gave me a bagful of food and made me promise to say I got it in another village if I got caught. I ran into three deserters trying to make their way to the mountains in Kentucky, they said it was all over for the Ozarks. We'd been hit from everywhere—including up. They flew over at the beginning, dropping wild Reapers. Called 'em ‘sappers.' I guess there were hundreds of 'em loose at one point.”
“I've seen them. They're still running these hills.”
Finner wiped his brow. “Southern Command had to send out teams of Wolves and Bears to deal with the sappers. Not enough reserves when the real attack came, though they tell me it wouldn't have made a difference.”
“So when did you reach the Ouachitas?”
“Last summer. Gotta warn you, we're an ad hoc unit. Every man's there because he wants to be there; no parades or drill or courts-martial. Not enough supply to do anything but keep us alive. The fighting we do is purely to keep from getting captured. I wouldn't throw that ‘captain' title around; the General wouldn't like it, unless he puts you on his staff.”
“General who?” Valentine disliked it when someone was known only by the title “General.” It reminded him of the leader of the Twisted Cross.
“Martinez. Twelfth Guards, formerly.”
“Don't know him.”
Valentine felt the darkness coming on. The air took on a wet chill.
“He wasn't a general before. He was colonel of the Twelfth.”
“They had the tiger-striped kepis. Orange and black, usually stationed in the Arkansas Gap.”
“Yup. Got the hell knocked out of them by troops coming in from Texas. That's who's running the Fort Scott area and the Ouachitas. Texans and Oklahomans. They must've stripped the Dallas Corridor bare; they say the invasion was over a hundred thousand men.”
“How are they feeding them? Aren't guerillas hitting the supply lines? When I was in Zulu that was supposed to be our catastrophe assignment.”
“Can't say. I spend my time scavenging, not on ops or recon. I've seen low-draft barges coming up the Arkansas. Cattle and rice.”
“I came through northeast Texas. I thought the patrols looked slim.”
“Yeah, the Ks in Texas think big. They're supposed to get a chunk of the Ouachitas. But there's some new bigshot organizing things out of the ruins in Little Rock. That's who's really running things hereabouts now. A man, if you can believe it. Ol' Satan and his gang of Kurians.”
“Satan?”
“Solon. Consul Solon, his papers say.”
 
Valentine's nose told him they were approaching the camp before they came across the lookouts. Latrine discipline wasn't a priority for this particular remnant of Southern Command.
“So this is what defeat smells like,” Valentine said.
“It's not that bad. You get used to it. Hush, now, we're coming up on the pickets.”
They were still in uniform, more or less. Mottled camouflage pants and gray winter-uniform tunics, many with hunting vests thrown over them; scarves and gloves made out of scrap cloth. Similarities ended at the extremities; there were a variety of hats, gloves and boots. Some of the men had resorted to cobbled-together shoes or sheepskin moccasins. A boy with a hunting bow whistled from atop a rock, and four men drew beads on them.
“It's Finner with a new 'un,” one of the men said.
“Found a stray in the hills,” Finner said. “Wolf, I know him personally, I'll vouch to the captain.” Valentine wondered why he didn't mention Ahn-Kha or Hank.
“Then report to him,” the one who recognized him said.
They passed the pickets, who dispersed again as soon as they moved up the hillside for the camp. Valentine's nose added other camp smells to the list headed by men shitting in the woods: smoke, tobacco, open-pit cooking and pigs. He heard a guitar playing somewhere; it drifted softly through the trees like a woman's laugh. To Valentine it seemed forever since last fall's wagon train, when he'd enjoyed the music of the Texans under the stars.
“Why didn't you mention the others?” Valentine asked.
“Didn't want your Grog friend hunted down. Standing orders, no alien prisoners.”
“He's not a prisoner, he's an ally. He's worth those four pickets, and another six like them.”
“All the more reason to keep him alive. Quislings we bury, but dead Grogs get stewed down to pig feed.”
They topped a flat little rise, thickly wooded like most of the Ouachita Mountains, overshadowed by another hill whose summit was scarred with limestone on the face toward the camp hill. Valentine saw watch posts under camouflage netting among the trees of the taller hill. Tents were everywhere, interspersed with hammocks and stacked stones to hold supplies and equipment clear of the wet ground, along with little shacks and huts put together from everything from camper tops to bass boats. Evil-smelling trash filled the bottom of every ravine. There was no sign-age, no evidence of any kind of unit groupings. It reminded Valentine of some of the shantytowns he'd seen in the Caribbean, minus the cheerful coloring and kids playing. The men sat in little groups of four to ten, trying to get in a last game of cards by firelight. Valentine passed a still every sixty paces, or so it seemed, all bubbling away and emitting sharp resinous smells, tended by men filling squared-off glass bottles.
“Welcome home, Captain Valentine,” Finner said.
This wasn't home. Not nearly. It looked more like an oversize, drunken snipe hunt. “Thanks.”
“If you want some companionship, just look for one of the gal's tents with a paper lantern out front. They get food, washwater and protection as long as they're willing to share the bed once in a while. Sort of a fringe benefit of this outfit.”
“Does this ‘outfit' ever fight a battle?”
“We do a lot of raiding. General has us grab the new currency they're using here; we use it to buy some of the stuff we need from smugglers.”
“Sounds more like banditry. Do you get overflown?”
“If the gargoyles come overhead, they only see a few fires. We don't try'n knock 'em out of the sky. We figure they just think there're refugees up here. We're far enough from Fort Scott so's they don't care, and the folks on the east side of the mountains have enough to do just controlling the flatlands.”
“Many refugees?”
“No, unless they're Southern Command we send 'em elsewhere.”
“Where's that?”
“Anywhere but here. That's part of what we were doing when I came across you and the boy and the Grog, keeping an eye out for runaways to warn 'em off. We got these higher hills around to cut the lifesign, but you never know when a Reaper'll be trailing along behind some broke-dicks to see where they're headed.”
Voices rose to an excited roar from an opening in the trees, and Valentine's hand went to his pistol.
“Get him, Greggins!” someone shouted.
Finner shrugged. “Sounds like a fight. Interested?”
Valentine scowled and followed Finner downhill to a ring of men. Someone came running with a burning firework. In its blue-white glare he saw forty or fifty men in a circle, expanding and contracting around the action in the center like a sphincter. Valentine heard thudding fists, punctuated by roars from the crowd when an especially good blow was struck. He saw a few women among the men, some on top of the men's shoulders angling for a better view.
Instincts took over, even in the unknown camp. He elbowed his way through the press. “Make a hole!” he growled, then realized that Coastal Marine slang didn't mean much in the Ozarks. The crowd surged back around him and Valentine found himself with the back of one of the combatants sagging against him.
“No fair, that guy's holding him up,” someone shouted.
A bloody-browed Guard corporal looked at Valentine over his scuffed knuckles. “Pull off, mister, otherwise he can't go down.”
Valentine turned the soldier sagging against him, saw the bruised ruin of a face, then let go his grip. The man sagged to his knees, mumbling something in Spanish.
“Knees ain't down. Finish him, Greggins!”
The corporal stepped forward, corded muscles bulging from his rolled-up sleeves.
Valentine held up a hand. “It's over, Corporal. I'd say you won.”
“What're you, his manager? Fight's not over until he's flat. He questioned my authority.”
Valentine looked at the beaten man's uniform. “I see sergeant's stripes on him,
Corporal.
If I were you I'd be worried about a court-martial for striking your superior. Even if he were a private, a fistfight isn't the way we keep discipline.”
Something in Valentine's voice made the man lower his fists.
“Now help him to his feet and get him to a medic. Better have him look at you as well. That eye doesn't look good.”
The corporal took a step forward, then lashed out with a roundhouse. Valentine was ready for it, and slipped under the blow. He brought a driving knee up into the corporal's off-balance stance, and hammered him in the kidney with an elbow as the corporal doubled over. The corporal dropped, his mouth open in a silent scream.
Valentine looked at the circled men, not quite sure what they had seen in the blur of motion. “This how you do things now? Is there a sergeant in this circus?”
A man with a handlebar mustache stepped forward. “I'm a captain, Eighteenth Guards, East Texas Heavy Weapons. Who are you?”
“He's logistics, just come outta Texas, Randolph,” Finner said.
“Don't see a uniform.”
“I find my duties in the Kurian Zone easier to perform if I don't wear a Southern Command uniform, Captain.” Valentine said, and a few of the men chuckled.
“I don't care for spies,” Randolph said.
Valentine got the feeling Randolph wanted to see if he could be provoked into another exchange of blows. He reduced lifesign—the old mental technique that also did wonders for his temper.
“I know him, sir,” Finner said. “Good man. Wolf officer.”
“Disperse, damn you,” Randolph said, rounding on the men. “Fight's over. Get some sleep.” He turned back to Valentine. “Is that so? We'd better get you to the General,
Captain
, so he can decide what to do with you. We shoot spies trying to penetrate the camp, you know.”
BOOK: Valentine's Rising
2.9Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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