Valentine's Rising (Page 8)

New Columbia, March of the forty-eighth year of the Kurian Order: The Quislings and the Rats. Perhaps history has been overly unkind to Major Vidkun A. L. Quisling. He certainly loved his native Norway, but not so much that he let it get in the way of his ambition for political power through selling his good name and country to the Nazis. In that, at least, he is as dishonorable as his conscienceless namesakes. In the vocabulary of opprobrium against the Kurians, "Quisling" is considered perhaps the most obscene, for they thrive in the service of humanity's conquerors.

For those who spend time in the Kurian Zone, it is hard to be as bitter about the lower ranks. Armed service under the Kurians ensures life for the Quisling soldier and his family. It is hard to begrudge parents decent food to feed their children, a warm house and a few diversions. But some acquire a taste for the luxuries power brings and seek higher rank. They amass property, or gather art, or indulge their physical desires. Some become killers or sadists, exploring the freedom to taste that which is forbidden to others.

To the aid of the great ones with the power and money, there are always those willing to acquire their desires, legally or no. In New Columbia, those fulfilling, and profiting in, that service are the Rats. Not quite Quislings, but somewhere above the unfortunates living under the shadow of Kur, they live on the fringes of the law, their river boats giving them a freedom of movement and privacy that allows them to engage in lucrative smuggling. They have a strip on the north side of the Arkansas avoided by all save the river thugs, or those with the money to pay for a night in the dubious haunts of the riverfront. Most of them are clapped-together wooden establishments, already redolent of the unsavory activities taking place within. But there are a few substantial, finished buildings, complete with a touch of landscaping or a colorful coat of paint and expensive ironwork. Of all these, the most notorious -and expensive- is the Blue Dome.

* * * *

As daylight faded Valentine hitched a ride into town with a pickup full of workmen, ignoring a pair of lieutenants who were waiting for more suitable transport. As the truck shuddered into second gear, one pulled a leather flask from within his shirt, passed it to a buddy, and with a practiced squirt shot a stream of the concoction within into his mouth before handing it back to the owner. He held it out to Valentine.

The Cat was tempted. After several sleepless nights, he'd spent the day keying himself up to kill a hatful of high-ranking Quislings, and then perhaps himself, only to find the moment, or his nerve, failing to live up to his destructive plan.

"What is it?"

"Joy-juice," the bearded laborer who'd produced the sack said.-"Little wine, little homemade brandy, some fruit squeezings. Go on, Colonel, it's good stuff. Ain't blinded us yet."

Valentine shot some of the mixture into his throat, but didn't have the knack for stopping the stream yet. It splashed across his dress uniform shirt. He gulped it down. He'd had worse.

By the time the truck passed the markers at the bottom of the estate hill, they'd all had a round.

"How do you like working on the Residence?" Valentine asked.

"Good work," the man said, a few stray gray hairs on his head standing out against the black of his face and beard. "Ration book, and cash besides. No way I'm going back across the Missisisippi. There'll be good work for years. I can do electricity, plumbing, carpentry ..."

Valentine felt for Xray-Tango across the river, trying to build New Columbia using captured Free Territory men, while the skilled workers, imported at God-knows-what expense, went to Solon's Residence.

"You don't live on the site?"

"Naw. Town's more fun. We all got a real house, even a couple of Tex-Mex women in residence for the chores and such. It's a sweet setup, Colonel. There's a diner in town, bars. They're talking about getting a movie-house going."

"I'm due at a party tonight. What's good to eat at the Blue Dome?"

The laborer smiled at Valentine with tobacco-stained teeth. "Shit, Colonel, what do you take me for? Only time I seen the inside of that place was getting the toilets running. Most of us do odd jobs at night, and old Dom, he pays well. But if I tried to walk in as a customer ..."

"Exclusive?"

"Strictly for you officer-types and the rat-boat captains. What passes for society in these parts. But don't you worry; they'll treat you right, and the food'll stay down."

Valentine thought regretfully of the cigar box full of "Solon Scrip" back at his tent. He hadn't expected the day to end with dinner and drinks, so he'd left that morning with only a dollar or two tip money in his identification pouch.

The truck dropped him off next to a pyramid of rubble with a watch post atop it.

"Follow this street down to the river, Colonel," the workman said. "You'll see the Ragbag, a clothing-swap warehouse that'll still be open. Just to the right is the Blue Dome. No windows and only one entrance. It's got a neon sign with an arrow; you can't miss it."

"Thanks for the drink," Valentine said, after a second squirt from the leather flask. He offered two dollars in scrip. The laborer refused.

"It comes with the ride. Watch your money at the card table, and when you draw a flush, think of me."

The pickup bucked into gear and Valentine waved goodbye. He walked to the new riverfront of the north side of the Arkansas, at the edge of a little slope above the river proper, and thus safe from flooding. There were tent bars playing music, street vendors with food in carts, and everywhere men in deck shoes and woolen coats and sweaters, wearing knit caps or baseball-style ones with ship names sewn into the crown. A trio of muscular rivermen drinking behind a bar glanced at him, but shifted their eyes apologetically when they took in the uniform.

Valentine peered into the Ragbag's single window. The rest were still boarded up. Long tables and racks of recovered clothing were piled everywhere, and there was a cobbler in the corner tearing apart old shoes to recover the soles. He looked up the lively street and saw that a neon sign advertising the Blue Dome hummed from its position hanging out over the sidewalk. The joy-juice had assuaged his headache and left him sleepy.

The Blue Dome was a squatty block of masonry, better fitted together than most of the ant heaps on the south side of the shallow Arkansas bisecting New Columbia, and painted to boot. There were no windows on the first story, and only shuttered, tiny slit ones on the second. Atop the building he could see the awning of something he guessed to be a penthouse; someone had gone to the trouble to hang basketed plants. From the alley between the Ragbag and the Blue Dome he heard the hum of ventilation fans and picked up the charred smell of meat on the grill. Valentine realized he was hungry.

Oddly enough, the Blue Dome's entrance was in the alley rather than on the main street. The aged stairs were pre-2022; he descended them to a new wooden door, which opened even before he knocked.

"Pri-oh, excuse me, sir, come right in," the burly doorman said, moving aside. Valentine stepped inside and halted, awestruck.

He felt as though he'd opened a worm-eaten wooden box only to find a Faberge egg enclosed. Stuccoed walls opened up on an elegant room. Ensconced lighting behind delicate glass seashells drew his eyes upward to the glow of the Dome.

It stretched above a parquet wooden dance floor and stage to the right of the entrance. The concave surface was painted with some kind of luminescent blue material, which glowed in the reflected light of what Valentine guessed to be hundreds of small, low-wattage bulbs, giving the effect of a cloudless sky at twilight. Opposite him stood a massive wooden bar with polished silver fittings, a solid wall of liquor bottles behind it, and a bartender in a crisp white shirt and black tie standing ready. Between the bar and the stage, an elevated corner platform held a seated knot of musicians playing a quiet variety of jazz. The undomed part of the room stretched off to Valentine's left. Uniformed members of the TMCC sat around linen-topped tables. They stood on staggered burgundy-carpeted levels under the subdued blue light from what looked to be fifty miles of fiberoptic cable artfully wound into the ceiling and structural pillars. Around the edges of the room velvet-curtained alcoves were more brightly lit; Valentine could just make out green-topped gaming tables behind heavy burgundy curtains.

"Quite a basement," Valentine said to the doorman.

A man wearing the first true tuxedo Valentine had ever seen glided over to him. He had the coconut brown features of the subcontinent, and teeth as brilliantly white as his eyes. "Welcome, Colonel. I've been told of you and the service you did in the floods. Your first time here, yes?"

Valentine nodded.

"It was just a murky basement when I came here a year ago."

"You got in early."

"I'm an acquaintance of the good Consul's from back east. He's building a land of opportunity; when I heard his operations were a success, I was on the next train out of Baltimore. My name is Dom, and I'm pleased to meet you, Colonel. You are hungry, yes?"

"Yes," Valentine said. "You must have been building this place while they were still fighting."

"It is a principle of commerce as well as combat to get in first with the most. I'd like to think I've managed that. Your fellow officers wouldn't think of going anywhere else for an evening out, or a celebration."

"I can see why."

Dom bowed, then turned to a screened-off corner to Valentine's right. "Arsie, show Colonel Le Sain to General Hamm's table, would you? You're in luck, Colonel, you've got the best view of the floor from the whole restaurant. Enjoy your meal. If you wish to visit the gaming tables, they'll close for an hour at nine for the show, then they'll reopen."

A tall woman, all chestnut hair and silken skin in a cocktail dress that complemented the decor, appeared at Dom's side. Valentine saw a little tattoo of a faerie with heavy black eyeliner and lipstick winking out at him from her upper breast.

"Er, Dom, I haven't-"

"None of that, Colonel. Everything but your table stakes and bar charges tonight are courtesy of Consul Solon; your liquor is being picked up by General Hamm. Convenient, yes? That just leaves gambling money, and your name is good here; just show your identification to the cashier, last alcove on the left. It's as we're welcoming you to the Combat Corps tonight. I understand your battalion was formally recognized this morning. Congratulations, Colonel. "Glory on your name, beauty on your arm, and a ring on your finger," as they say. Speaking of beauty, Colonel Le Sain, I'd like you to meet Arsie, who'll be your escort this evening."

Valentine had sense enough, and joy-juice enough, to offer his arm. She was just an inch below Valentine's six-two. The soberer part of him wondered if Dom paired the officers according to rank or height. "Nice to meet you, Arsie."

"Congratulations, Colonel," she said, taking him across the dance floor to a long table set so it had a central view of the stage. A few other officers and men, some escorted by Blue Dome girls, sat and stood around the finger food on trays there.

"There's got to be a story behind your name, if you'll pardon the phrase."

"Ar Cee. Initials. RC."

"Which is short for?"

"I don't know. They said when I was a baby I was found in an old Royal Crown cola truck. You can say 'Arsie' if you like, Colonel."

"Call me Knox, please."

It was hard to tell just how false her smile was, but it did look a bit like the tattoo. "Thank you, Knox. Oh, you've got a stain on your shirt. Let me get some soda water," she said, hurrying off to the bar.

"Colonel Le Sain, welcome," General Hamm said, sitting at the end of the table with his boots up, stretching his storklike legs. A purring, well-proportioned blonde was draped around his shoulders like a stole. "Old Extasy said you'd be coming. Welcome to the fun side of the Hard-Assed Third." He introduced Valentine to a uniformed blur of colonels and majors; some he'd met that morning, and others were new faces. There was a civilian in the mix, a sleepy-eyed man in an open-necked white shirt and black trousers. Hamm introduced him as Captain Mantilla. "Mantilla is a good man to know, Colonel. He's good at showing up where he's needed with what's needed. French wine, Italian clothing, Cuban tobacco, Mexican cabinetry, Belgian chocolate ... he gets it all through connections down in New Orleans."

"I supply the liquor for the Blue Dome," Mantilla added, by way of proving his bona fides. He had fine whiskey lines about his hard eyes. "Unless you're well connected down in Nawlins, you'd have to go to Chicago or LA to get a decent single malt or cognac. We've got it right on the other side of that bar."

RC showed up with the soda water. She did what she could, using a table napkin Valentine wished he could use for bed linen, but the joy-juice resisted her efforts.

"Just stand close to me when we dance," Valentine suggested.

"Of course," she said.

"You're from around Natchez?" Hamm asked.

"I've done time in New Orleans, too." Valentine hoped any questions would fix on the latter; his year in the Quisling Coastal Marines would allow him to be conversant about its restaurants, bars and theaters.

"Don't much care for bayou types," Hamm said. "They don't stick in a fight. Not like Texans or Sooners. But I'm prepared to wait and see, seeing as you've got some Indian in you."

"Arsie's got a shot at getting some Indian in her tonight," a major guffawed.

RC waggled her eyebrows, and even Valentine had to laugh.

More food and drink arrived, and Valentine tore into pieces of steak served on thin iron spears, interspersed with vegetables on a bed of rice.

"The rice is native to your Trans-Mississippi," Dom said, visiting the table to see that the party was progressing and noticing Valentine's enthusiasm for the cuisine. "The vegetables come in from Missisisippi, since my usual sources in Texas are pricing themselves out of my reach at the moment. A tragedy, yes? The filet is from a friend's estate in Iowa. He feeds his cattle on a mash of corn and beer, swears by it."

"It is tender," Valentine said. He finished a mouthful and RC wiped grease from his mouth with a napkin.

"You'll need something to wash that down with, Colonel," a colonel named Reeves said. "You still haven't been initiated by the Division Cup."

"By Kur, you're right!" Hamm thundered. "The Division Cup! I brought it all the way here and forgot! Dom, brim it with hero's brandy, would you?"

"Of course, General, but the show-"

"Hold the show, damn you."

"Of course, yes, General."

The Blue Dome's owner returned with a silver two-handled loving cup. He presented it to the general, who took a sip, smacked his lips in approval, then passed it over to Valentine. Valentine looked at the cup, holding what looked to be a quart or so of liquor. The divisional insignia, a sneering, snorting donkey face with "Kickin' Ass!" emblazoned beneath, was etched into the side.

"It's not all brandy; there's sweetwater mixed in," Reeves assured him. "And a tab of Horny, to make sure you're up for the evening."

"You dosed it with Horny?" RC said. "I think I'm insulted, sir."

Not just his fellow divisional officers, but also others looked at him expectantly. There was nothing to do but attempt it, New Order aphrodisiacs or no. He lifted the cup to his lips and drank. And drank. And drank. He felt it running out the sides of his mouth and joining the stains on his uniform shirt and tunic. The men began to pound on the table, chanting, "Kick ... ass ... kick ... ass... kick ... ass."

It was empty. He crashed the cup back to the table hard enough to flip silverware over. The other officers applauded and cheered.

"Outstanding, Le Sain. Well done!"

The accolades whirled around his head as his stomach burbled its outrage. For a moment he was worried it would come back out faster than it went in, but through concentrated effort he kept it down.

RC kissed him on the earlobe. "Well done, Knox."

Valentine sat stupidly, staring at the band, which struck up a tattoo as a man in a red blazer appeared. His heart sounded louder than the big drum on the bandstand.

"Knox?" she said again, before Valentine realized she was talking to him. He tried to focus on her. "Knoooox!?"

"Yes?"

The man in the blazer must have told a joke; everyone was laughing. The band riffed.

"If you need to ... hit the head, or whatever... it's-"

"No, I'm fine," Valentine said, fighting to make coherent conversation. "Warm in here, isn't it?"

"If you need to cool off I've got good air on ..."

The band drowned her out with a flourish, and two pairs of female dancers each stepped out from either side of the stage. They wore what Valentine guessed were once called biking shorts and sports bras. They started a hip-hop dance number to pre-2022 techno that seemed designed to make Valentine's head throb. Valentine lapsed into silence and watched the girls through their routine, then some kind of magician came on stage and levitated a pair of them into a variety of pseudoerotic poses. RC gave the inside of his leg an exploratory squeeze.

"Ladies and gentlemen," Dom said, taking the microphone from the blazered master of ceremonies when the magician and the girls had gone off stage and the hooting faded. "We've come to the highlight of our show. Returning to our stage, after a too-long absence, is someone I'm sure you all remember well. She needs no introduction, so just let me say ... Miss Tanny Bright!"

The jazz band exploded into noise again.

A woman marched out onto the stage, smiling and confident, basking in the cheers, applause and wolf whistles from everyone but David Valentine.

He'd even forgotten the witch's brew bubbling in his stomach in the shock of recognition.

Alessa Duvalier wore a stripper's version of the TMCC uniform. A peaked hat was perched on her glorious red hair, tipped so far over it must have been held on with hair pins. Thick layers of stage makeup covered her freckles. She wore a choker with some kind of medal on it, and a sleeveless fatigue shirt cut away to reveal her midriff, held closed by two buttons struggling against her upthrust bosom. A uniform skirt, which ended about where her thighs began, was cut up each side to the web belt. Her stocking-clad legs and patent-leather shoes made the most of her toned limbs. She carried two sheets of flimsies in her hand.

"Oh, how I miss him," she said, pretending to read the pieces of paper in her hands. "All I can think of is the last time we were together."

She looked across the faces in the audience, found General Hamm's eyes, and winked at him theatrically. The men guffawed, and Valentine heard twenty variants of "lucky bastard" muttered. She pretended to finish the letter. "And he's coming home! To me!"

The trumpeter in the band let loose with something that sounded like a bugle call. Duvalier planted her fishnetted legs wide, held the papers to her bosom, and broke into a dome-raising song, set to a marching beat.

"My sweetheart's slung his rifle

And marched away from me,

For duty sounds beyond my door

A call to destiny.

Waited true these lonely days

Until his letter came.

I saw the words: 'My darling,

We 'll soon be one again!" "

It was a cheerful, upbeat song, and Duvalier marched across the dance floor, stepping high with her legs, swinging her arms in parody of a dress parade, touching and bouncing from man to man at the edge of the dance floor like a pool ball ricocheting across a billiard table. She ran her fingers up the arm of one, pressed her barely covered derriere against another, brushed a third's hair with her breasts.

Valentine felt the Blue Dome grow warmer, brandy and lust heating his blood.

The other dancers came out on the stage for the chorus, costumed in variants of Duvalier's getup. As they sang, she pretended to wipe the sweat from an officer's brow with the fake letter crumpled in her hand.

She lingered at Valentine's table, tousling the hair of each man as she continued the song. She sat on one's lap and sang into his face, then moved on to Valentine. She wrapped her arms around him and nipped him on the ear as she thrust her hands into his tunic, unbuttoned by RC in her efforts to clean his shirt. Valentine noticed, when her arms came back out, that she only had one sheet of paper in her hand. She kicked up a leg and planted a foot on the table, and all eyes went to her as Valentine buttoned his tunic over the note.

She finished the last chorus of the song at General Hamm's side, singing it to him. She hopped up on the table before him, feet planted wide to either side of his plate, joining the other dancers for the last chorus.

"Wait at the station

For the victory train.

We'll run from the siding,

Dance up lovers' lane,

Stroll along the river

Where first you became mine,

Lose all our worries

In my ring's golden shine!

The general helped her down and gave her a lip-smacking kiss. Valentine winced, feeling like a man who has just come across his sister in a brothel. Jealousy and disgust, infinitely fouler and more upsetting than the brandy and sweetwater, swirled and bubbled within him.

She looked around the table. "Good evening, Captain Mantilla ... who's the new face?"

"Colonel Knox Le Sain."

"You don't like oldies, Colonel?"

"A bump and grind on top of my dinner puts me off my feed, funbunny," Valentine said.

"Colonel," Hamm growled. "I won't have you talking about Tanny like that."

"I'll give him funbunny," Duvalier said, reaching for a fork.

RC leaned forward. "The colonel just finished off the brandy in the Third Division Cup-and a tab of Horny. Cut him some slack, Ty."

Valentine's former mentor sat back down on Hamm's lap. She didn't flinch as Hamm rested his hand across her shoulder, fingertips touching her breast. Valentine looked away and back at the stage, nauseated.

"You're in for a messy night," Duvalier said, looking at RC.

"You never know," Valentine's escort answered.

"I am feeling a little-" Valentine began.

"I'll get you some air," RC said, as Valentine rose from his chair.

"No, I'm all right... or maybe not." Valentine hurried for the exit. The furniture and decor were an unearthly primary swirl around him. He staggered past the doorman and up the stairs....

When the paroxysm passed he found he was resting against a Dumpster, sweating like a pig and feeling like a small rubber duck floating in a very big lake. He looked around, and reached into his tunic to retrieve the handwritten note. By the blue light of the neon sign, he read Ali's block-capital scrawl.

Must See You AM Good

Will be here one day more then to AFB

Love the (lack of) Hair

Meeyao

T

Apart from her creative spelling of "meow" it was pure Ali; short, to the point and equivocal in case it ended up in someone else's hands. Much of his education in operating in the Kurian Zone had been from her; though she was just under his age, she had twice his experience as a Hunter. While he wondered if she really was good, he was certain the "AM" referred to a.m. AFB probably meant the old air force base to the north as her destination. Hamm had his headquarters there for the refit; Valentine had been told his battalion was to move north and join him in another week or so. Xray-Tango had promised him more time on the range to practice with the new rifles.

For Valentine, it could not come soon enough. He wanted out of the Kurian Zone; Southern Command needed the Quickwood.

"Feeling better, Knox?" a female voice asked from somewhere across the Missouri line. He dropped the note into the Dumpster, startling a rat sniffing at the vomitus within.

He turned, half expecting to see Ali, but it was RC, holding a hurricane glass full of bubbling water.

"I brought you some more soda. It's good for more than just stains."

"You always this nice?"

"Inside there? Yes."

Valentine accepted the glass and took a mouthful. He spat it into the alley, then drank the rest.

"Better," he said, handing it back to her.

"Is the air helping?"

"Yes. Sorry I'm not conversational. I need sleep."

He couldn't take his eyes from the shadowy vertical line between her breasts. Her chest was lovely, dark, and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go ...

She put a hand on his forearm and drew it from the Dumpster. "My room's just around the corner. We could go up the back stairs."

"Nice of you, but I just need to sleep." If anything, she was more desirable in the muted light of the alley, every turning curve of skin a promise.

"Fine with me, Colonel. If I'm with you, I don't have to make nice in there."

Valentine looked at her, wondering if this was yet another Kurian Zone test or trap. What the hell.

"Lead on," he said, holding out his hand.

She took him down the alley and around the corner to the back of the Blue Dome. They went up a wooden stairway, the timbers of which were bolted onto the building like an afterthought. She walked him down a long common balcony.

"Yes, oh man, oh baby, oh my, yes, do it!" A female voice drifted through one of the windows.

"I prefer 'yes, do it, oh my, oh baby, yes," myself," RC said, turning a knob on a windowless door.

"She gets good marks for volume," Valentine said.

"You wouldn't say that if you lived next to her."

It wasn't so much a room as it was a long closet. There was a double bed, with a single mounted above in such a way that it formed a half-canopy, a table, two closets ...

"And a John, for the Johns," she said, opening a narrow door. "There's even a shower. If we want a bath, there's a tub down the hall."

"You share the room?"

RC removed her shoes, frowning. "A dancer. Her name's Melanie. If the deadbolt's closed, she knows not to come in. There's a mattress in their dressing room, so she can sleep there tonight."

Valentine collapsed on the double bed, focusing on the ticking pattern on the mattress.

"Bedspins?" RC said, sitting down beside him.

"No. Just really, really, tired."

"Why's your gun off safety?" she asked, examining the gun he'd dropped beside him.

"Old habit, when I sleep in a strange place."

"Tricky with a .45. Don't worry, you're safe. The scuzzies might hit the boats, or the warehouses across the river. Never here."

"I see. You know your guns."

"Basic training starts at eleven for a girl in Dallas. The boys start at eight."

"Louisiana starts at fifteen."

"You don't talk like swamp trash."

"I grew up in New Orleans." Valentine thought he'd better get off the subject in a hurry. "Why'd you leave Big D?"

"You really want to talk, after a tab of Horny?"

"You're beautiful, RC, but I'm about to leave New Columbia. Still a little curious about you. You're authentically nice."

"Authentically nice. I'll take it."

"What's Dallas like?"

"I was on my back at twelve. You invest the capital you're given. I was pretty slender; the guys with a taste for ... younger stuff... dug me until I was over eighteen. My face and hair didn't hurt. But once I passed twenty and had a kid, well, I wasn't worth much to my boss. Dom and Garrett, the doorman, were hunting up girls on the cheap. Dom bought me out for next to nothing, and taught me to talk better and do my eyes right while he was building the joint."

"Where's your-"

"Son, they told me. New Universal Church youth center. Never even got a good look at him."

"Fresh start, huh?"

"Yes. Wasn't a real change, just on the outside. I'm still doing soldiers, still wondering if the penicillin they're giving me is the good stuff or not. I just wear a nicer dress is all. Appearances can be deceiving."

"Yes," Valentine said, drifting off to sleep.

"You ever wanted to change who you are?"

"Constantly."

RC might have been saying something else, just above a whisper, but he sank into an exhausted slumber.

* * * *

Molly was moving beneath him in the darkness of the little basement room. He felt her bucking beneath him, clawing at his back, but the pain only made him thrust harder. Her eyes screwed up tight in orgasm, then opened as she screamed in passion.

Her slit pupils widened in their yellow irises as her tongue shot toward his breastbone ...

* * * *

Valentine woke, the sheets wet against his back, a rancid taste in his mouth as though someone had wiped his mouth with a discarded diaper.

"What's going on?" he whispered. There were thumps and a shout or two from below.

RC turned against him. "Eyuuhh? I don't hear anything."

Valentine felt a Reaper, somewhere below. Its presence pulsed with cold energy. He heard the crash of a table overturning.

"It's two in the morning," RC yawned. "They're just closing up downstairs. Sometimes they have to drag people out."

The Reaper moved into the street as RC spoke. He heard an engine start.

"They took someone out," Valentine agreed. He could picture the scene downstairs. The Reaper arriving, possibly with a human goon or two, and shaking someone awake. The horrible realization that they probably had less than an hour to live as they looked under the hood at the pale, emotionless face. Handcuffs, a waiting vehicle. "The Meet Wagons," they used to call them in New Orleans. Then the final struggle against its embrace: the last dance.

"God, your heart is pounding," RC said, pressing her palm to his chest. "That always happens when you wake up?" She was a shadowy presence beside him, nude, her long hair tied up for sleep. He felt her skin against his leg, softer than the sheets, save for the tickling tangle of hair between her legs.

"I startle easy," Valentine said. The Reaper was gone. He collapsed back on the bed.

Her hand moved lower. "Do you always get a gun when you're startled?"

Valentine's hand had moved to his gunbelt hung on the corner of the bed when he woke, but her attention was fixed on flesh, not steel.

"A gun?"

RC turned up the corner of her mouth as her hand explored him, tugged at his pubes, tested his shaft, cupped his testicles. "That's what I've always called them. Men take a lot of pride in them. Wave them around. They can be dangerous if mishandled." Something of a Texas twang came into her voice. "They shoot. Hell, you've got a real rifle, Knox." She began to stroke him, gently, before turning on the bed. Her nipple left a long, electric trail across his stomach. Her mouth met her hand, and he swelled in excitement. "Big game," she giggled, a string of saliva linking them.

He lay there, enjoying himself, until it occurred to him that Malia Carrasca's baby-his baby, their baby, was due soon. His orgasm, while apparently thrilling to RC, was just an empty series of physical sensations.

* * * *

Valentine was on his third glass of water and was reaching for the pitcher again when he heard a knock.

RC rose and slipped a robe on her slight shoulders. "Melanie probably wants the room back. Don't worry, you don't have to leave until you feel like."

"I should be off anyway," Valentine said.

"Mel, gimme a break, woul-" she said to the door as she opened it. Duvalier stood there, her hair tucked in some kind of bag and a mask of creamy mud on her face. "Oh, Ty, hi... I've got company."

"I know, RC. Can I talk to him, in private? I need him to do something so I can surprise the Number One on his birthday."

"Umm, yeah ... I guess."

"Just five minutes, sweetie."

RC looked at Valentine, hurriedly pulling up his trousers. "Knox, you remember Ty?"

"The singer from last night? Check her for forks," he said. "I'm sorry. I was a little drunk last night, Miss, uhhh, Bright. I didn't even know the general's birthday was coming."

"Thanks, sweetie," Ali said. She put a finger to her lips. "Shhhhh, okay? Secret mission."

"My lips are sealed," RC said, grabbing a basket of towels and soap and moving into the hall.

"Not hardly," Duvalier said, closing the door and shooting the lock.

"Tanny Bright?" Valentine said, after sweeping the balcony and the hall with hard ears. It was early morning, still; all he heard were RC's footfalls.

"I told him my real name is Ronny McDonalds, which he thought was even funnier. You missed my second number. Was she worth it?"

"I didn't know you could sing."

"Since this shit started I've sung in three different clubs. I'll let you in on a trade secret: The less she wears, the worse her voice can be. You look a bit green this morning."

Valentine poured himself more water, and offered his fellow Cat a glass, but she shook her head. "The 'hero's brandy' wasn't agreeing with me. I didn't even try to keep it down. My stomach generally knows best. Are we going to talk about anything important?"

She lowered her voice until it made no more noise than the breeze through the shutters. "God yes. I'm still active, under Mantilla. Are you in his contact group too?"

"I understand you're active under Hamm." He used sign language for this, the motions coming slowly thanks to brain-fog.

She switched over to hands as well. "Don't go there, Valentine. I thought you wanted to talk shop."

"You're right. Sorry, whatever you're doing is for the Cause. No, I'm not active. I was delayed getting back from Texas. I didn't return until just before Christmas. It's been nothing but disaster ever since."

Her hands again: "I just found out about you being here when I hit town. Southern Command got the report you sent with Finner. The overrun was already in full swing when I came up from New Orleans. I got the women and kids from your crew out. It's a story I don't have time for. They're safe down at Steiner Station."

"Steiner? Hal Steiner? Lots of rice paddies and a little fortified town?"

"That's the last place I was before this assignment. Steiner's place ... it's grown. He's trying to feed and hide thousands of refugees in those swamps, plus a chunk of what's left of Southern Command. Got it all phonied up to took like a little Kurian Province. It won't last forever."

"I know," Valentine audibilized this time, though he kept his voice down. "I've got the newest battalion in Hamm's division."

Her hands fluttered like fighting birds; she'd always been better than he at signing. "You say it like it's your fault. It's not. Being mistress to not one, but two, count 'em, two generals and an oily restaurateur wasn't in my plans when I got tasked with infiltration. Mantilla's one of us, too. Not a Cat, but he reports directly to the Lifeweavers. I haven't had the chance to tell him about you."

"You said you have orders from Southern Command?" he signed.

"From the Lifeweavers. They're in hiding, naturally. No sign of Ryu, but your old man Amu's been passing stuff back and forth to me through some Wolves and Mantilla."

"Anything for me?"

She rested her hands for a moment. "Yes, I've got orders. They want you to raise a ruckus behind the lines once the offensive gets under way. Theirs or ours, whichever comes first. Cut the north-south line through Little Rock so they can't shift their forces south quickly. Tie down as many of them as you can for as long as you can."

"If they can hold out a few more months, it'll be a different story. Consul Solon's about to send more of his army back to where they borrowed it. Texas, mostly."

"I've thought they seemed in a big hurry. This is just a guess, but I think something's in the works, Val. Southern Command's going to strike back somewhere unexpected, at least I hope so. If you can gum things up here-"

"I'll see what I can do. What's my line of retreat? Back west to the Ouachitas?"

"I've got nothing for you about that. They said just cause as much trouble as you can, for as long as you can."

With no orders where and when to run? Sorry, Valentine, right place, right time. You're a pawn in a good spot to tie down the King and Queen until they maneuver to take you.

"Who's my superior?" Valentine asked.

"I've no idea. I don't think Southern Command knows much more than that you're in here with some men. They're leaving it up to you."

"Well, there's more. I brought back something, something that kills Reapers. I put that in the report that went out with Finner."

"If you've got something that kills Reapers, start using it. Mantilla might be able to get some to the rest of Southern Command."

"It's just wood. It's some kind of catalyst, acts on the thickening agent in their blood. They seize up and die."

Duvalier pursed her lips in thought. "Wood isn't much help against artillery and armored cars. Speaking of Reapers, that's the second thing I've got to tell you. They arrested a captain on Hamm's staff. I've been stealing papers and I planted some on him to string this out a little more. I think Hamm's getting set to get rid of me. He used to bring his briefcase and what have you when we were together. No more. Kur knows there's a spy in his division. He's taking precautions."

"Good. I'm the new guy; they'll look at me."

"I doubt it. It's gone on since Hamm's predecessor, and they know it. I took him out, by the way. It was business and pleasure. He tried to pass me around like a party favor."

"That house fire. I heard the sad story. Sounded like your handiwork, Smoke."

She smiled and said in a whisper, "That's better than 'funbunny." You know I wouldn't do the pillow recon if it wasn't for all this shit. The next incendiary device is going down Hamm's pants, then I'm blowing town."

"I'll try to light a fire of my own."

"Be careful."

"Sounds like the orders are to be destructive. That doesn't always go along with being careful."

"Well-"

"Ali, there's something you could do for me. Sort of a last request."

"Still Hornied up?" she said, incredulity written in block capitals on her forehead. "I thought that tall drink of water took care of you. Dream on."

He went back to sign language: "Get me whatever you can on Xray-Tango. He used to serve on the plains. He might even be semi-friendly."

"That'll be tricky," she signed back. "I don't even know who's got the intelligence archives."

"Anything you can get me would help," he said.

"I'll see if I can get a message out. Maybe some Wolf can find you with the answer. How important is this?"

"It's important to me. He's got some strange qualities. Makes me think a parent of his might have been a Hunter. Sometimes things get passed down."

"I'll do what I can."

Valentine stood up. "That's always more than enough."

"Thanks, Ghost."

"Keep it safe, Smoke."

She gave him a quick hug and a peck on the cheek. "I've missed working with you, Val," she breathed in his ear. "You're one of the good ones."

Without further explanation, she left.

Valentine picked up his clothes, and looked around RC's shared room. There was a tiny stuffed bear sitting on a shelf in the closet above where the silk cocktail dress hung. He wondered about the little girl it had once belonged to.

* * * *

He realized he was whistling as he descended the stairs, strangely buoyant. There was sunshine above New Columbia, though the clouds were building as they crept in from the west, but something more than the sun cheered him. RC had brought him an egg-and-toast breakfast after her bath, returning to the half-servant, half-girlfriend manners of the previous night. The taste of fresh eggs and butter wasn't it either. Perhaps it was just the knowledge that Ali was alive and well, and around to help. Despite the hangover he felt as though a door had been thrown open inside him; the world was giving him another day and another chance.

It crossed his mind that it could be the prospect of action. He'd been nervous and breathless since Duvalier's update; plans began to form in his head immediately, and with that momentum his mind shifted to a higher gear. He felt damnably close to precognitive, like a gambler pushing all his winnings onto the green double zero on the roulette table knowing the ball would fall to mat slot on the next spin.

Raise a ruckus... raise a ruckus ... Duvalier's words ran through his head like the trumpet's flourish in her rollicking song from last night. He realized where the tune he was whistling had come from.

He made his way through the alley, past the rat-infested Dumpster, and out into the spring sunshine. General Hamm, Reeves and a few of his other officers were enjoying a cafe breakfast outdoors.

"Coffee's hot, Le Sain, join us," Hamm called.

Valentine grabbed an empty chair. "Thank you. Just one cup, though. I've got to get across the river, General. The battalion is probably wondering what happened to me."

"They'll survive a few more hours. We had some funny business in the night, Le Sain. You've got some mud on your collar, by the way." Hamm stared at the stain for a moment, then continued. "One of my officers was taken away, and I don't like it. Williams. You remember him?"

"I met him last night," Valentine said, remembering the vigorous young officer, exchanging jibes with the rest of the table, frightened only by the bar tab he was running up. "But he wasn't on the trip out to the Consul's Residence."

"No. No, he wasn't. Apparently he went rooting through my papers while I was away."

"He had access to them?"

"He was my chief of staff's assistant," Hamm said, eyes leveled like firing squad muzzles at Reeves. Reeves looked a little pale in the morning sunshine.

Valentine tucked his collar under his tunic, hiding Ali's pasty smear.

"Who came-"

"The usual," Hamm cut him off. "By the time they woke me, he was gone, or I'd have asked some questions. I can't figure out why someone with access to my office would steal everyday correspondence. Something from the safe, yes, that'd be valuable to those crackers. But why steal letters about the state of the transport system in northern Arkansas ... err, the Upper Trans-Mississippi? We're supposed to stop with the old state designations, by the way, Le Sain. Solon's orders."

"Because he wasn't a spy, someone wanted him to look like one?" Valentine said, feeling that it was a rhetorical question due out of Hamm's mouth within about five seconds.

Hamm leaned closer to him. "It's looking like there's a spy in my headquarters, Knox. We got royally raped last October, and I think it's because someone knew the hour and date we were pulling out of the line and sidling."

"Ask Solon for different orders for the offensive, or to move up the date, and keep them to yourself until the last minute, is my suggestion, sir. That or get a bigger safe."

"I'm wondering if I need a new chief of staff. I get the feeling you can organize and think for yourself. I need to replace Williams. You want the job? Staff work's a lot nicer than line duty."

"Sir, your offer is tempting, but I have to stay with my men-at least until all this is over. I want to see them blooded."

"Thought you were looking for promotion, responsibility. That'd come with a staff position. They make general more often than not."

"I am, sir, but responsibility is like water. It flows better from the top down."

Hamm murmured Valentine's words, trying them out on his tongue. "Hey, I like that. Mind if I use it in my next speech to the division?"

"I'd be honored, sir. But I need to get back across the river-oh, speaking of the river, where can I find Captain Mantilla? I'd like to put in an order."

"His tug's tied up at the wharf right now. It's battleship gray, with big blue letters on it. OGL. You need something, son?"

"Bourbon and tobacco. Not for me, for my officers."

"I like your style, Le Sain. I'm glad you're in my division."

* * * *

The barge was even uglier than the old Thunderbolt. It looked like a couple of aluminum mobile homes piled on a raft, and needed a lot of rust-stripping before another coat of gray. Sure enough, gigantic letters stood out on the side just below the carbon-coated stack, OGL.

The anchor watch was asleep. A fleshy man, bald as Valentine and bronze-skinned by birth and sun, slept in the sun at the end of the gangway. An iodine-colored bottle rested between his legs.

"Excuse me, boatman?" Valentine said, venturing up the gangplank. He still felt as though there was an inch of air between his feet and the ground-and he couldn't stop looking at the bridge over the Arkansas River, and Solon's Residence hill beyond.

If anything, the snoring grew louder.

"Sir?"

Valentine came closer. The man was a dedicated napper, so much so that he sacrificed shaving and bathing in its pursuit.

Valentine flicked his fingernail against the bottle, eliciting a ting. "Closing time. Last call," Valentine tried, a little more loudly.

"Hrumph ... umpfh ... umpfh ... double me up again, good buddy," the anchor watch said, coming awake in eye-blinking confusion.

"Did I guess the password?"

"Sorry there, sir. I was resting my eyes, didn't see you come up."

"They're still pretty red, friend. Eight more hours oughta do it. Can I find Captain Mantilla on board?"

"Engine room, I expect. He's usually there when we're not hauling." The anchor watch stood up and gave his belt a lift. "Follow the blue streak."

Sure enough, Valentine picked up a steady stream of grumbles and curses in English, Spanish, French and what he guessed to be Russian or Polish.

"C'mon, panoche. Loosen up, you bitch. Kurva, what's the matter with you this morning, you old putain."

"Cap, this ol' boy's come aboard askin' for you," the boatman called down the hatch. "Wearin' a TMCC pisscutter and a turkey on his collar."

"Merde. Just a moment, Chief." Valentine heard tools being put down, and then someone coming up the ladder.

Mantilla's face appeared in the sun, smeared with grease like Comanche war paint. He furrowed his brows. "Morning, Colonel. Saw you last night but damned if I can remember your name."

"Le Sain, monfrere. I want to talk about getting a little extra cargo up here, the next time you come up the Arkansas."

"Thanks, Jim Bob, I'll take it from here." As the sailor moved back to his shady rest, Mantilla pulled out a cigarette and sat on the edge of the hatch. "What can I get you, Colonel?"

"I'm an old friend of Miss Bright's. You've done a few favors for her, and I need something similar. She sent me."

Mantilla took a sidelong look at him and blew out a lungful of carcinogens. "You stick your head in the noose first, Le Sain."

"When you talk to her faraway friends, you probably re-ferr to her as Smoke. If you speak to the same people, call me Ghost."

"Pleased to meet you. How can I help?"

"I need something brought to Southern Command."

"Fair enough. I have to tell you plain, sir, that's getting trickier by the month. I can't guarantee anything. What is it, people, papers, photos?"

"Some wood. Just a few dozen four-by-four beams."

"You're shitting me."

"It's not really the wood, it's what's in the wood."

"Gold? Platinum?"

"If you don't know, you can't tell anyone. I just want to know if you can get them into the Boston Mountains."

"Boston Mountains? You're misinformed. That's just a screen. The Ozark high command's hiding out in the bayous in the southwest. Big Hal Steiner's got them hidden."

"Really?"

"Easier to feed them from the swamps and rivers. He's got rice up the wazoo, too. The part of your army that's holding out up north, it's mostways teams of your Bears and Wolves wearing Guard uniforms. The invaders got so busy blocking up the mountains they didn't catch the evacuation south. They think the whole southeastern corner of Arkansas is a Kurian backwater. All those Grogs Steiner has around the place has them confused."

"I've been there. You could hide an army there."

"They won't be hiding there much longer."

Valentine, already excited, hooked a thumb in his belt near his .45's holster. "When?"

"Soon. Within weeks."

"You a Cat, or what?"

Mantilla bristled. "Look, Colonel, let me have my secrets, too. We're on the same team, isn't that enough?"

"When you're on a team it's nice to know if you're talking to a quarterback or the towel guy."

"I'm more like the towel guy, Colonel. I'm due downriver yesterday. Can you get me your beams in double time?"

"How's tonight?"

"Tonight's excellent," Mantilla said, nodding approvingly and relaxing again.

"How you want to work it?"

"There's lots of shallows on the south bank, just downstream of the pilings from the first bridge. I'll ground her. I'll splash ashore and your men will rock me off using the wood as levers. That okay with you? Don't want to break open the Quickwood and have a bunch of gold fall out."

Valentine came to his feet. "Quickwood? How the hell do you know it's called Quickwood?"

"From you."

"How's that?"

"Call it intuition. Specific intuition."

"I thought only the Lifeweavers did tricks like that."

The enigmatic captain scratched an itch between his eyes. "Lifeweavers and us towel boys."

"Can you get me some bourbon and cigars? I told Hamm I was here to see you about that."

"Popular items. I keep them in stock. I'll drop them off tomorrow."

Valentine held out his hand. "Until tonight, then, Captain."

"Until tonight."

* * * *

Valentine looked at the traffic waiting for the ferry and decided to hazard the footbridge for the railroad workers. The span was complete, track had been laid to both ends of the bridge and the wood-and-iron construct, Xray-Tango's first priority, would be ready to carry regular trains in another day or two once the sidings were coordinated. There had been a pontoon bridge, but it had been lost to the flood and never replaced. A few of the floats that weren't swept away were still pulled up on the riverbank.

He ascended the bank-one day there would be stairs, according to some wooden stakes pounded into the riverbank dirt. The trusswork was admirable; many of the top beams were recovered and straightened from the structural steel of Little Rock's former skyscrapers. Piled up ties waited for the crews to come and fix the rails to them. When finished, there would be a single track and a footpath wide enough for three men to walk abreast across the river, or a truck in an emergency. But the footpath would be finished last. For now, the workers had to either walk from tie to tie or walk across on the fixtures at the base of the trusses. Valentine chose the latter.

Valentine liked bridges. The engineering appealed to the mathematic, rational part of him, and their suspended airiness gratified his artistic side. He paused in the center and looked around New Columbia, from the northward bend in the river to the northwest, where Solon had his Residence on the steep-sided hill rising three hundred feet above the river, mirroring the wider Pulaski Heights opposite, then across the ant heap where his soldiers had their camp, to the swampy flats of the former airport to the southeast.

Raise a ruckus.

He examined the south-side river wharf, where a barge offloaded trucks, a few artillery pieces and little tracked carries that reminded him of beetles. The cargo had probably come from one of the factories on the Ohio-he'd heard the Kurians had opened the river to barges all the way to the Mississippi. It made sense; cargo could be moved more easily on the water than by any other method. The guns were probably 105s, a cheap, simple gun his fellow TMCCers called "use 'em and lose 'ems." The Kurians, in their efforts to keep weaponry-and therefore humanity-at a pre-First World War level to prevent "the human predilection for self-slaughter" as the New Universal Church put it, frowned on most weapons greater than small arms or armored cars. Artillery was brought to a campaign, used and then destroyed when the fighting was over.

Logistics.

He'd heard a lecture in Pine Bluff from a Guard general, who'd modified Napoleon's dictum that "any lieutenant can plan a campaign, but it takes an unusual sort of soldier to carry one out." This general's version was that any lieutenant could fight their troops, but it took professionals to train and supply them so they'd be ready for a fight. Valentine was inclined to agree; in his days with the Wolves it seemed his days were filled with acquisition and distribution of food, water, bullets, bandages, boots, hats, antiseptic, salt... If they were lucky, there was only a shortage of one or two items on this long list of requirements for men in the field.

New Columbia was a tribute to the complexities of logistics. Solon was shifting his base from Hot Springs to his new capital, and Xray-Tango's brush hair was going gray in the general's efforts to keep up with the needs of the troops concentrated to the north and scattered to already-conquered stations west and south. Southern Command's factories were so much scorched earth. What had been the Free Territory was in chaos, and the scattered settlements were being concentrated into collective farms; they'd not be contributing to the TMCC bread-bags until fall, if then. Every other day flat-bottomed barges were pulling up to the wharf and offloading, and soon the southern rail line back into Texas would be running more up from Hot Springs.

Wait at the station

For the victory train

We'll run from the siding...

Whistling again, in syncopation with his footfalls, Valentine crossed the bridge.

* * * *

The delivery of much of his Quickwood had gone off without a hitch; Mantilla's tug showed up where and when arranged. He told Mantilla to ask Southern Command to strike as soon as possible, explaining what he had in mind. Time was critical, and they had to move while Consul Solon was still arranging his formations for the closeout moves in his bid to pacify the Ozarks.

"I can put the word in the Lifeweaver's ear, but whether Southern Command'll listen ..." Mantilla said, shrugging. The night made his eyesockets black wells, unfathomable.

"One more thing, please."

"How can I refuse anything to the Cat who would dare challenge such a lion in his own den? What is it, monfrere?

"I won't ask, but if you have contacts further downriver, especially near Pine Bluff, tell them to be ready to hit hard when I move. Civilian and militia uprising."

"Such an order can only be given by Southern Command's General Staff."

"Then Southern Command's General Staff can take it up with me."

"If you live. It is a forlorn hope, my friend."

"You know my orders; you passed them on to Smoke. 'Raise a ruckus.' The more widespread it is, the better."

"You are exceeding your orders, I think."

Valentine looked at the lights strung on the bridge like holiday decorations. "I think so too. It's still the right thing to do."

* * * *

"We've got our orders to pack up and join the rest of the division," Valentine said to his assembled officers the next night.

The meeting was held in his NCO bar and recreation room, formerly a basement gym in one of Little Rock's office buildings. The crowd of sergeants, lieutenants, Bears and company officers kept Narcisse busy at the coffee urn. Everyone was eating dinner off of trays around a Ping-Pong table. The green surface was thick with three colors of chalk.

Nail and Ahn-Kha were lounging in wooden chairs outside the club, charged with preventing any interruptions for three hours. Post, the other officer with detailed knowledge of Valentine's plan, at least since last night when he'd gone over it with his select circle, was keeping an eye on things along with Hanson, the gunnery sergeant Valentine had also brought into the plan in its formative stages. Hanson had given the operation its name: Double Boxcars. The crap pit slang described Hanson's estimation of the scheme's chances of coming off as planned, rolling two sixes with two dice. Twice in a row.

"But even if it's a cluster fuck, we'll cause a hell of a lot of damage."

Styachowski had spent hours with Valentine writing on the Ping-Pong table that afternoon. She'd taken to wearing baggy cargo shorts because of her cast, and she'd loosened her shirt to give her more freedom of movement as she reached across the table to draw, fighting an occasional sniffle. Valentine couldn't help but admire her splendid body, though it seemed that her gymnast's legs and swimmer's shoulders had sucked all the vitality from the rest of her: she was still as pale and bloodless as ever, even on the hearty, well-balanced meals issued by Xray-Tango's commissary.

Her constant questions as she wrote out orders helped sort his own ideas. The men would have to get rid of their TMCC uniform tops; the rules of war, such as they were, allowed ruses in enemy uniform as long as the uniforms were changed before taking hostile action. The men would dispose of their tunics. Narcisse was already dyeing their undershirts black. To further distinguish friend from foe in the dark Ahn-Kha had suggested bandoliers of red demolition tape. There were rolls of it lying around, used to mark off areas known to contain mines, unexploded munitions or construction blasting.

Each quadrant of the table had a sketch of a critical zone in the plan: the wharf and supply warehouses, the train line running through New Columbia, the prison camp, and the Kurian Tower.

The last was the result of a cryptic comment from Mantilla as they'd loaded the beams onto the foredeck of his aged barge, after his faked grounding had been ended. "Good luck, Colonel. Be sure you hit the tower. Go down. Not up. The rat's in the cellar. Here's a little gift from the Redhead. You'll need it soon, I think." He'd given Valentine a bag with two bottles of bourbon. It had a false bottom. When Valentine found the hidden zipper he came up with his pair of Cat "fighting claws," and a little box with five flash-bangs inside. They were about the size of yo-yos, and each had a lacquered picture from a matchbook on it. Valentine recognized the matchbooks; they were bars and restaurants he and Duvalier had dined in while posing as husband and wife in New Orleans. A note from Duvalier rolled up in the box read:

G-The Good captain kept these for me, for you.

Luck-S

A second, rolling, blackboard stood against the wall, where Valentine had drawn the fail line running north from New Columbia, adding times for the trip up to Third Division's position.

If there were an unexpected visit from Xray-Tango, Styachowski's Ping-Pong table would be covered with plastic and a tablecloth, then heaped with food. Hopefully the visiting general wouldn't notice the detailed drawing of the Consular Residence along the way, and Valentine could look like he was giving a simple briefing about their shift north to join the TMCC's lines south of the Boston Mountains.

There were the usual questions. Dumb ones from officers who'd already had their role explained to them, and just wanted to hear it repeated again. Smart ones about what to do if there were a disaster at another component of the plan. Styachowski answered all questions, never once needing an assist from Valentine. She'd absorbed the details of Boxcars like a sponge taking in water, but had chafed at not having a more active roll in the operation.

"If the train's SNAFU, go to the barge," Styachowski said in answer to a question about failure in one part of the operation. "If the barge is underwater, go to the train. If they're both impossible, we'll get what we can across on the ferry."

Then there were the inevitable what-ifs. Valentine finally called a halt to it.

"Things are going to go wrong. Improvise. This plan boils down to getting to Objective Omega with everything you can haul. Supplies. Medicine. Prisoners. The tubes. But getting the men there comes first. I'd rather have you alive on the hill than dead trying to haul another mortar up there."

"But there's bound to be fighting," a sergeant said.

"At the docks and warehouses it'll be supply sergeants and clipboard-holders. Everything else, save the Kurian Tower, are sentries and police. Other than the guards at the prison camp, they're not used to carrying weapons every day. You'll outnumber and outgun them. The nearest real troops are watching the river and the roads from Pulaski Heights. If they move, their orders will probably be to go secure the Kurian Tower. They can't hurt us with anything but their mortars, and I don't think they'll fire into the town. If they do, they'll just help us do our job."

"As we said at the beginning," Post added, "we're like bank robbers. Scare everyone shitless, grab the money and haul ass before the cops arrive. And that's all." The men chortled at that. "How you scare 'em, how much you take and how soon the cops show up are variables we can't know until we're in the middle of the robbery. So you're going to have to do some thinking."

"What about the security guards?" Lieutenant Zhao asked, extending the metaphor.

Valentine tapped the corner of the map showing the

Kurian Tower. "You don't have to worry about that. It's my job. Even if we don't get him, we should be able to stop him from coming after you with the Hoods."

Styachowski's face went blank. She would assume command of the operation if something happened to Valentine's group. "Okay, our train up to the front is in two days. Those of you on the train detail, watch them send out the train north tomorrow morning. See where the guards are. They'll be expecting spectators; it's the first train to cross the bridge. Be sure to cheer your lungs out as it goes over."

* * * *

The meeting dispersed, but one soldier waited outside with the patience of a plow horse. Jefferson, the Texas teamster, smoked a cigarette wrapped up in the distinctive gray-green paper of a discarded New Universal Church Guidance propaganda sheet.

"You had something for me, sir?"

"Two things, Jefferson. First, these." Valentine handed him a half dozen of the boxes of cigars he'd acquired from Mantilla in a waterproof canvas pocket. Jefferson smelled the tobacco as though it were a bouquet of roses.

"Thank you, sir." The teamster couldn't keep his eyes from narrowing in suspicion, though.

"You're right, Jefferson, it's a last favor. You've gone above and beyond the past couple of months. You were just supposed to get the wagons safely to a Southern Command outpost, and ever since the ambush outside of Bern Woods you've been running with us. Time for you to go home. If you'd like to try, that is."

As Jefferson smiled, Valentine could see the spaces where the Quislings had knocked out teeth. "I sure would. But I want to be here for this fight."

"Sorry. I'm giving you my horse, a TMCC map and a courier warrant clearing you to Hot Springs. One favor, though. I've got some papers I'd like you to drop off with Colonel Meadows at Bullfrog's Station. Can you find it again?"

"Easy enough, if I've got the right ID." Valentine liked the cheery confidence in his voice.

"You can leave whenever you like, but the sooner, the better."

Jefferson took a long drag on the homemade cigarette, muscles at the corners of his mouth working.

"Out with it, Jefferson."

"You got some good men here, sir. I hate to leave them if a fight's in the cards. Feels too much like running."

"It's not Texas' fight."

"There's a lot who think that way. I'm not one of them."

Valentine offered his hand. "Jefferson, get to Meadows and you'll have done more for what's coming than a whole company of riflemen. And when you get back to Texas ... there's no way I can make this official, but any pressure that could be brought to bear on Oklahoma or Dallas ... it'll help us if they start screaming to have their troops returned."

"I'm a Ranger teamster, not a general."

"Jefferson, I'll write up a promotion for you to lieutenant in Southern Command. That'll make you an official emissary, if you think that'll help."

"It might at that." Jefferson tried a salute on for size. "Thank you, sir."

Valentine touched his eyebrow in return. "Take good care of that horse. He'll get you there."

* * * *

With the paperwork done, Jefferson rode out after the midday meal. Afternoon gave way to a warm evening; spring was truly on the way. Valentine and Ahn-Kha sat on mats on the floor of his tent, playing mahjong with the pieces Carrasca had painted for him.

"It's a good plan, my David. Stop chewing on it and swallow."

"I feel like I'm making a mistake. I'm basing this on Solon's reaction. Suppose he just cordons us off and lets us sit?"

"Maybe we'll catch him in his hole."

"He's off to Pine Bluff, trying to hurry up the rail gangs and get his precious airfield built. Don't know why, since there aren't any airplanes to bring in. Then it's down to Hot Springs to see how the relocation of TMCC headquarters is coming."

"He doesn't want to put too many eggs in any one state, I notice," Ahn-Kha said, removing a green dragon pair.

"I shoulda seen that coming," Valentine said.

"Colonel! Colonel!" someone shouted from outside.

Valentine stood in a smooth motion, as if he'd been pulled up by wires. He went to the tent flap.

"Yes, Yvaro?"

"There's been ... Sergeant M'Daw, he's stabbed, on the edge of camp. I mink he's dying."

The night turned cold and unfriendly. What in God's name? With Boxcars so close he'd been having M'Daw watched. Valentine still wondered if he wouldn't return to his old allegiance when the time was right.

"Ahn-Kha, tell Lieutenant Nail about this, and have him bring a stretcher. Let's treat him here. Okay, Yvaro, what happened?"

"He'd turned in for the night. I thought so, anyway. Then I hear a shout from the latrine. It was him, and I ran over and saw him. Someone stuck him in the back with one of those wooden spears the Smalls made."

"Your breath smells like coffee," Valentine said. "You got a cup to help you through the watch, I suppose."

"How-yes, sir, sorry sir."

"Just take me to M'Daw. We'll worry about it later."

Valentine ran to the NCO latrine and showers. The men still lived in tents, but Valentine saw to it they had huts for shower and privy. The corporal panted, trying to keep up with Valentine.

M'Daw was unconscious. He lay behind the showers. He'd pulled out the spear and lost a lot of blood. Soldiers were gathered around, and one had a bloody dressing held tight against M'Daw's lower back. Across the mounds of rubble, the lights of the other installations of New Columbia were alive. Valentine did a quick search from the top of a ruined wall, but whoever had stabbed him could easily get away without being seen among the smashed buildings.

Hank Smalls ran up one of the hills toward the camp, crying. Blood ran from his nose and drops covered the front of his shirt.

"Hank!" Valentine called.

"Captain!" Hank sobbed, sinking to his knees.

"Raintree," Valentine called over his shoulder to one of the medics. "Help me here. It's the boy."

Valentine went to his knees and hugged Hank. The boy was a sniveling mess.

"Sir, my folks are running. Decided to run and tell the others about y'all. I din't know about it. Mister M'Daw tried to stop him and Pa stuck him."

Good God. We're dead.

"Where's he gone?"

"They want to turn you in. Did I do right?"

Valentine couldn't tell a boy that turning in his parents was the right thing to do, no matter the circumstances. Even as his mind regained its equilibrium, he grew angry with himself for not just telling the Smalls the whole truth. They knew he was lying. They'd just misinterpreted his lies.

"If you thought it was right, it was right. This is important, Hank; do you know where they were headed?"

Hank rubbed his eyes and climbed a mound of concrete to get a better view. He held a reinforcing rod and pointed.

Please don't let it be the Kurian Tower , Valentine prayed.

"That building."

Valentine followed Hank's finger. He was pointing at Xray-Tango's headquarters.

"Raintree, get Hank and M'Daw to the first aid tent. Do what you can for both of them."

Valentine had learned to run and think in his years with the Wolves. He ran to his tent, grabbed his gunbelt, and stuck his fighting claws in the cargo pockets in his pants. He took up the flash-bangs and his bolo knife, putting the first in his pocket and the second on his belt. What else, what else? He grabbed a few pieces of wax-paper-wrapped gum from the little box of luxuries beside his bed.

As he pulled his tunic back on, Ahn-Kha, Post, Styachowski, Nail and assorted faces gathered outside his tent, all in various states of undress.

"What's going on, sir?" Post, a flare gun in his hand, asked as he emerged.

"We've set a new record for things going wrong in an operation. It's started to fail thirty-six hours before the jump-off hour. Our masquerade is over."

"Miracle it lasted as long as it did," Nail said.

"No miracle," Narcisse said, appearing from the darkness. "Magic of the right hand."

Valentine took the gun and a satchel of flares from Post. "We're going to start Boxcars in thirty minutes; you all are going to be occupied. First thing is to get everyone up and ready. Don't go yet. I've got to run down a renegade. I'm taking Ahn-Kha. If you see a red flare from Xray-Tango's headquarters, we're aborting; head west into the mountains and do your best. A green flare from the Kurian Tower means commence Boxcars. Just hit whatever you can as soon as you can. Nail, your team has farthest to go, get your team to Alpha and I'll catch up. I've got to go confuse the issue. Post, get the pikes and stabbing spears, and the spare guns; I hope we'll need them. Make sure Ahn-Kha's platoon gets to the ferry. Styachowski, set up operational HQ at Alpha. You're in charge. Remember, red, run; green, go."

"Make it a go, sir, I've been running for near a year now," Hanson said.

"You're the best hope of the Ozark Free Territory. Act like it." Valentine gave them all a salute. "Ahn-Kha, let's go. Good luck, everyone."

The Golden One slung Valentine's old PPD-Ahn-Kha had made a few hundred Mauser reloads for it by hand- and trotted into the darkness.

"By now Smalls has had time to tell his story," Valentine said as they ran together, Ahn-Kha moving at his Grog canter using both hands and feet. "Xray-Tango's been woken up. Will they come for me or call an alert?"

"They'll ask Smalls more questions."

"Hope I can get there before Xray-Tango makes any decisions."

Ahn-Kha slipped the red flare into the gun as they approached the old bank. "My David, let's just fire this. We can get away clean into the hills. Much better off than when we walked up to the Ruins. We'll still cause them trouble in the mountains."

"Old horse," Valentine said, sticking a piece of chewing gum in his mouth. "I want them mad as hornets. I want Solon so peeved that he won't rest until I'm hanging from a gallows. I don't want to just be a distraction; I want to be an obsession. Put a green flare in. I'll be out in a couple of minutes."

Valentine left Ahn-Kha well hidden with a view of the headquarters building. With the gum softened he pulled it out of his mouth, shaped it and stuck a piece in each ear. He trotted out to the street, and came up to the guards in front of the building.

"Did some civvies just run in here? Man and a woman?" he asked the corporal.

"Yes, Colonel Le Sain; they-"

"Thank God. They don't come out the door, and if you see them climb out the windows, you shoot."

"Uhhh-"

"Surround the headquarters with your men. Right now, Corporal. I don't want them getting away with this."

Valentine ran up the stairs and into the light of the headquarters. One of Xray-Tango's staff had a field phone to his ear. He tapped the lieutenant on the shoulder.

"Yes, a security detail. Something's-" the man began, and then turned, recognizing him. "Just a moment," he said to the phone.

"There's been a murder in my camp. A sergeant is dead. I need to find General Xray-Tango."

"Downstairs, Colonel. Ummm... a man and a woman came in ... it's rather confused, sir. You're to be taken for questioning."

"I've got some angry answers. Where are the Smalls?"

"Downstairs, with ... Wait, sir, you can't go down there with your weapons."

Valentine took off his pistol belt and hung it on the chair in front of the lieutenant. "Easily done. Send the security detail downstairs, too, there's someone I want arrested."

He didn't wait for any more protests. He descended the stairs and listened for voices in the quiet of the basement offices. Even through gum-clogged ears he could hear questions and crying coming from a room down the hall, in a different direction from the one where he had his conversation with Mu-Kur-Ri's avatar. A military policeman stood outside the door.

"That was quick work," he said, looking behind Valentine expectantly.

Valentine advanced on him. "Sorry, Corporal, I beat the detail here. Where's that renegade, Smalls? I want you to put him under arrest for murder."

"He's being questioned now. Wait, sir, you can't-"

"You're under arrest," Valentine said. "Insubordination, for a start." The corporal shrank back as if Valentine had waved a hot poker at him.

The Smalls were already under what might be called intensive questioning. They sat in chairs, side by side, in a darkened room with a bright light shining on them from a desk set in the center of the room. Their questioners stood with backs to Valentine. He could see blood on Mrs. Smalls' hands and frock, the fear in Mr. Smalls' eyes at events spinning out of control.

An MP, three officers, Xray-Tango and the Smalls. Seven.

"Now it's not just Le Sain, it's the whole battalion? Seven hundred men?"

"Horseshit!" Valentine roared, unscrewing the bottom of his flash-bang. The trigger button popped out. Armed. "You left something behind, Smalls. Take a look, everyone."

"Le Sain, what-" Xray-Tango began, but Valentine shouldered his way through the questioners, pushing the general up against a wall, and slammed the flash-bang down on the table-triggering the button on the bottom. Three seconds.

The top was hand-painted with a vintage nude. Marilyn Monroe knelt against a red satin background, her arms behind her head, back arched, milky breasts lifted, a go-for-broke smile on her face.

He swung toward Xray-Tango, turning his back on Marilyn. He shut his eyes and shoved his hands in his pockets. "General, I'd like-" he said, and clapped his hands over Xray-Tango's ears.

Crack!

It wasn't a concussive explosion-more like someone loosing both barrels of a twelve-gauge-though even outdoors it left unprotected ears ringing. In the confines of the underground room the noise hit like a hammer blow. Even worse was the flash. Through his screwed-shut eyes Valentine still saw orange. Valentine popped Xray-Tango between the eyes with a strong jab. As the general's head thunked against the wall like a tossed coconut he followed through with a body blow to the solar plexus. Xray-Tango let loose with an asthmatic gasp and folded. Valentine slipped on his fighting claws.

He waded into the stunned Quislings. They were staggering around in ululating confusion, a six-player game of blind-man's bluff held under the influence of bad LSD. The confusion turned to screaming when Valentine opened the first throat with his claws. The questioning officer had caught himself in a corner. Valentine dug his claws into each side of the man's neck and pulled. The blood of opened arteries went everywhere. He raked another across the kidneys. The man went spinning in shrieking pain into Smalls, knocking both to the floor. Mrs. Smalls could still see; she turned her face from her husband to see Valentine advancing on her.

"You-not-no," she cried, more or less able to see what was coming.

He caught her with an elbow in the temple, and she sagged. He stabbed her husband in the Adam's apple, driving the extra-long straight middle claw into his voice-box. Maybe the Reaper would be in a forgiving mood, and delay killing him until he could tell the story in a few weeks.

But he doubted it.

It was awful, and it took too long.

Valentine looked around the abattoir. The knocked-over desk lamp illuminated walls splattered with blood, a floor painted in black and red depending on the fall of the light. The man with the slashed kidneys still twitched, in too much pain to rise again.

"General," Valentine said, lifting Xray-Tango to his feet. "General!"

"Spots. Alls I seeze spots," he said, drunkenly.

Valentine shook him in frustration.

"Scottie! Scottie!" he barked.

"Huh? Le Sain, what the hell-" The general's face fell into limp horror as he picked out a few details of the room with his damaged retinas.

"Everything the Smalls said is true. I'm a soldier with Southern Command. It's a rising, all over the TM," Valentine said, exaggerating the last a little. "I want you to join us. Fight the Reapers, instead of feeding them."

"God, the blood-"

"What'll it be, General? Fight or feed?"

"Ouch, you're hurting me, dammit."

Valentine felt a Reaper coming. Coming in anger, coming in fury, coming in haste.

"No time, General."

"Good God, they're all dead."

Coming fast.

"With me, General. You back me up, or I'll kill you. Give me that!"

Valentine gripped the pistol being taken from the general's holster. It turned into a wrestling match-which he had no time for. He raked his claws across the generals forearm, opening skin. The pistol came free. Valentine kicked it away, slipping off his claws.

He retrieved the gun, a standard KZ officer's revolver, rugged and reliable. He pulled back the hammer; the click sounded muted to his recovering ears.

"Out the door. I want you in front of me if anyone's shooting."

He heard banging somewhere below. In the direction of the Reaper. Locked in an underground chamber? "In case of emergency, wake the vampire"?

Xray-Tango poked his head into the hallway. Neither bullet nor Reaper claw removed it.

"It's clear. Don't get nervous, that thing triggers easy."

"Hurry, there's a Reaper coming."

"Jesus."

"The stairs. The gun stays pointed up as long as you keep quiet."

Valentine took a good two-handed grip on the gun. He heard a door give way and shoved the general with his shoulder. "It's coming. Upstairs! Upstairs!"

He pushed the general to the stairs and through the crash door at the bottom. As he slammed it behind them, he saw a shadow fly across the hallway and into the interrogation room. Mr. Smalls squealed-for the last time. Valentine shut the pathetically tiny bolt on the door.

"A bodyguard went nuts! Fuckin' tore everyone apart," Valentine shouted upstairs, pushing the general up in front of him. "That Hood's berserk."

An MP and another Quisling soldier stood at the top of the stairs, both pointing guns down at them.

"General?" Valentine asked, putting Xray-Tango between him and the rifles, just in case.

"Put up those guns, damn it. Run, run for it, boys. Or we're all dead!" Xray-Tango shouted, which was probably true enough.

Thank God!

Valentine got the general to the top of the stairs as the MP ran. Valentine heard another door downstairs torn off its hinges. He heard the scream of some other unfortunate pulled from a hiding spot. Probably the MP. That was enough for the TMCC grunt at the stairs. He put up his rifle and ran for the door, with a convincing "Get out of here!"

His example was one to be followed. The other officers and men made for the exits. One threw a chair out the window, and was about to follow it when a bullet whizzed by. One of the sentries outside, hearing shouts and confusion within, had shot in panic.

"What the-?" the private said.

"Try the door," Valentine suggested, grabbing his pistol belt and heading for the second story. "C'mon, General, let's call for help," he said, waving the pistol to point upstairs. Valentine smashed a red case on the wall and extracted the fire ax from within.

Either he was moving fast or the general was slow; it seemed an eternity until they came through the door to the radio room on the second floor. The rest of the floor was a cavern of future construction. Two operators stood next to the radios, both armed and pointing their weapons at Valentine and Xray-Tango. A trio of message tubes stood up from the floor like unfinished plumbing fixtures.

"Fuck! FUCK! Hold it right there, mister," the radioman with sergeant's stripes said, eyes bulging at the sight of the blood on Valentine.

"Holy shit," the other added, shaking like he had a jackhammer in his hand instead of a revolver.

"Watch those weapons there, soldiers," Xray-Tango said.

"I'm the only one who made it out," Valentine said. "If I were you two, I'd get gone. It's a bodyguard. It's going nuts."

"Jesus, that happened to my cousin in Armarillo," the shaking one said. "Like it got ravies. It killed thirty people before they stopped it."

"If you've got a way out of here that doesn't involve the stairs, I'd use it," Valentine said. "We'll call for help."

"It's my responsibility," Xray-Tango said, his eye twitching madly and the words barely getting out. "Run along, boys."

The men heard a crash below and decided they knew a sensible order when they heard it. They scrambled out the window and dropped to the ground below.

Valentine offered Xray-Tango the ax handle. "You want the honors?"

"Sorry, Le Sain, or whoever you are. I was true to you, best as I could be. You weren't straight with me."

"Could I have been?"

"That's a 'what-if." I don't like to waste time with 'what-ifs." I'm no renegade. I can't let you smash the radio. The only other unit strong enough to send for help is at the quartermaster office at MacArthur Park, down by the warehouses, and if you smash that one too, no one will get here in time. Assuming you cut the field-phone lines north on the bridge, and south on the poles, that is."

Valentine shared a smile with his former superior.

There was a scream from downstairs.

"Sorry, General," Valentine said. He swung the ax handle, connecting solidly with Xray-Tango's temple. He reversed the grip and, with three precise blows, left the radio in pieces.

Valentine hid behind rolls of weatherproofing, ax across his lap, lowering his lifesign. He pulled inward, concentrating on a point six inches in front of his nose, taking it down, down, down...

He became a prowling cat, a hiding mouse, a buzzing fly. A pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas. The Reaper came up and took in the ruins of the radio room. It hissed and picked up the general like a distracted parent lifting a child's dropped doll.

"General! General! Wake! Wake and tell what has passed."

Xray-Tango gave a moan as the creature shook him.

Valentine couldn't let the Reaper go to the window, see the men streaming out of his camp. He couldn't risk a single footstep behind him. It would mean a leap. He gathered himself, and readied the ax.

Even with its attention on Xray-Tango, it felt him coming. It was full night, when a Reaper's senses and reflexes become unholy. Valentine still buried the blade of the ax in its side, missing the great nerve trunks running up its spine. It dropped Xray-Tango.

"Melted butter," Xray-Tango murmured. At least that's what it sounded like to Valentine.

"You!" the Reaper spat.

Valentine fired Xray-Tango's gun into it, but he might as well have been throwing spitballs. It sprang.

He ducked, so fast that the air whistled as he cut through it. The Reaper sailed head-first into the framework of a wall, crashing through two-by-fours into the next room. Valentine ran, throwing himself out the window like a swimmer off the block. He jackknifed in midair, landing lightly, but his bad leg betrayed him and he sprawled into the dirt.

It flew out the window after him, ax-pinioned cape flapping like some hideous bat as it descended in a long parabola to the ground. It landed between him and the Ruins.

They faced each other. Valentine drew his .45.

"C'mon, you bastard," Valentine said, sighting on its yellow eyes.

It turned, looking over its shoulder. Valentine saw a hint of movement among the ruins and flung himself sideways.

A blast from the PPD illuminated Ahn-Kha's gargoyle features; the gun's rattle was music to his ears. The bullets caught the Reaper as it spun, knocking it to the ground. It tried to rise, but Ahn-Kha flattened it with another burst as the Grog took a step forward. Valentine rose, hand on the hilt of General Hamm's knife. Ahn-Kha stood, ten feet away from the crawling monstrosity, drum-magazined gun to his shoulder. He loosed another long burst, emptying the weapon. He lowered it, smoke pouring from the barrel filling the air with the peppery smell of cordite.

But the Reaper still lived. Valentine came up with the knife, pressed its head to the ground with his foot, and swung for all he was worth. The blade went in deep, severing its spine. The Reaper's limbs gave one jumping-frog spasm and went limp. Valentine pulled the blade out before the black tar clogging the wound could glue it in place like the ax head in its side.

Valentine kicked over the body as Ahn-Kha put a new drum on the gun. The Reaper's eyes were still alive with malice.

"Mu-Kur-Ri," Valentine said into the still-functioning eyes, for the Reaper's head still lived and could still pass on what it sensed to the Master Kurian at the other end. "The Dau 'weem sent me to kill you. My name is David Valentine. I come for you now."

The Reaper tried to say something but Valentine swung again. The blade bit deep; the head separated. He picked it up by the wispy hair and sent it flying off into the darkness. He pitied the rat that might taste the flesh.

"Neither of us remembered to bring a spear," Valentine said. "We're a pair of idiots."

Valentine's eyes picked up a Quisling soldier or two, watching them from hiding spots. "The headquarters is clear," Valentine shouted at one. "The general's hurt. Call the medics. There might still be someone alive in the basement." He clapped his hands. "Hustle, hustle!"

The soldier scampered off.

"Let's go," he said to Ahn-Kha.

They trotted into the Ruins and circled around to the road paralleling the communications lines. Valentine surveyed the line of wires until he found the utility pole he wanted.

"Those are the field-phone lines south. Gimme that sling. I'll cut these; you'll need to do the ones at the railroad bridge. Flare gun, please."

"I can guess which one you want in it," Ahn-Kha said, slipping the flare inside and handing it to him. "I agree. It will be glorious, even if it fails."

Valentine attached the PPD strap to his waist after wrapping it around the pole. Using his claws, he shimmied up the pole easily enough. There was a crossbar for him to sit on at the top. There, four communications lines and one power line shared space on the pole. Careful to avoid the last, he took out General Hamm's light infantry machete and shoved the first phone line into the notch. He used the utility crossbeam as a leaver. Twang-it parted with a push. Valentine looked again at the knife, smiling wryly.

"Nice work, Hamm."

The other lines were easily severed. Ahn-Kha watched the road, ears twitching.

Valentine looked around at-New Columbia from his pole-top perch. Here and mere he picked out his companies, the red tape hung across their bodies muted in the dark but identifiable, moving silently toward their objectives. They'd been told to say their orders were to reinforce the guards at the vital spots: warehouses, dock, bridge, rail yard, prison camp. With all the confusion in me night, Valentine felt they would have a good chance of being believed. Searchlights were lit at the Kurian Tower, probing the darkness around the Tower as guards deployed to hardpoints and Mu-Kur-Ri braced for his coming. At the prison camp, a hand-cranked siren wailed as the guards turned out. He saw truck headlights descending the winding road from Pulaski Heights. The Kurian had already sent for help.

Valentine cocked the flare gun. He looked down at Ahn-Kha. The Grog knew enough human gestures to give him a thumbs-up. He fired the pistol; the flare shot into the air with a sound like a cat spitting. The parachute opened and the signal drifted, a bright green star slowly descending, pushed by a wind from the southwest.

It sparked and sputtered across the sky on March 21, 2071, at 23:28-Captain Moira Styachowski made a note of the flare's time in her order journal. Valentine's Rising had begun.