Valentine's Rising (Page 9)

New Columbia, March of the forty-eighth year of the Kurian Order: Risings. Widespread revolts in the Kurian Zone are rare, successful ones are exponentially rarer. While a number of the Freeholds of 2071 can trace their origins to uprisings against the New Order in the first decade of Kurian rule, since that turbulent period examples of large-scale rebellion hardly exist. The few exceptions succeeded only in cases of geographical isolation i.e. the Juneau Insurrection along the islands and coastline of southeastern Alaska and the more recent Jamaican revolt, or small populations on the fringes of the Freeholds who manage to hold out long enough for help to arrive: Quebec City, the Laramie Mountains, Las Cruces. Stacked against those few successes are the legendary slaughters at Charleston and the Carolina Coast, the Dallas Corridor, Cleveland, and Point Defiance between Mobile and Biloxi. Ten times that number as bloody, but not as famous because of the lack of surviving chronicles, could easily be named. Then there are hundreds, if not thousands, of small actions, where individual groups of desperate sufferers on a city block or two, at a collective farm, or within a factory managed to wrestle the weapons out of their keepers' hands and go down fighting. Sadly, we know virtually none of these stories beyond a faded scribble of names on a wall or a brief radio transmission like a cry for help in a ghetto night.

Whether it's two men with pistols or twenty thousand with a city, the Kurians are masters of suppressing risings. Even if one Kurian principality falls, the six surrounding immediately invade, with the twin goals of preventing the revolutionary virus from spreading and claiming new feeding grounds for members of their own hierarchy. Quisling soldiers know there are brass rings and ten-year exemptions to be won in putting down revolts; their vengeance is all the more brutal when they see their comrades strung up or lying in piles against execution walls. The Reapers return in an orgy of feeding. The aftermath is shown through slide shows at New Universal Church lectures and becomes the subject of homilies about the futility and madness of violence.

But while the flame of revolt burns, it burns brightly, fed by the liberated energy of the human spirit. Now it takes the form of a green flare falling slowly toward the center of Little Rock.

* * * *

By the time Valentine got to the bottom of the pole the flare had returned to earth. Its green glow pulsed from behind a pile of debris-flattened automobiles stacked like rusty pancakes.

"This is it, old horse. I'll see you on the other side."

"My platoon has a good sergeant. Let me come with you."

"I'll be able to do this a lot better if I know you're waiting at the station. Otherwise I'll spend the next two hours worrying about what's happening on that hill. Get out of here."

"Until we meet again, my David ... in this world or the next." They clasped each other's forearms in the Grog handshake.

"Arou ng'nan," Valentine said. Every language has a form of "good luck," though the Grog form was a little more prosaic, hoping that spirit-fathers would intercede on one's side.

They trotted off in opposite directions. Valentine stayed clear of the road, tracing the route out to the edge of the Kurian Tower that he had walked while forming his plans. The foundation of the tower and the construction grounds around it were floodlit, and searchlights from strongpoints atop the first story probed the night.

Nail and five of his six Bears were crouching in the cover of a filled-in cellar. Valentine looked at the faces above the guns pointed at him. The Bears' Quisling uniforms lay in a pile that smelled of kerosene. The Bears didn't need black T-shirts or red sashes. They were in their battle gear, the savage-looking Bear melange of Reaper cloth, leather, combat vests, fur and Kevlar. Rain cradled a combat shotgun in chain-mail-backed leather gloves. Another Bear Valentine knew vaguely as Hack wore a massive girdle with Reaper teeth fitted into the leather. He held a machine pistol in one hand and one of Ahn-Kha's Quickwood spears in the other, its end decorated with eagle feathers like a Comanche war lance. Red, whose freckled face narrowed and ended in a jaw so sharp it looked like it could split logs, had Reaper scalps-at least Valentine hoped they were Reaper scalps- at his shoulder blades and elbows. More strings of black hair hung from the belt-fed machine gun so tied to his combat harness that it looked like part of him. Lost & Found had a shining cross over his heart and Brass, almost as wide as he was high, had painted his face so it resembled a skull. A red-eyed plastic snake head had been slipped over the mouth of his grenade launcher, and he'd wrapped the butt and grips with snakeskin and painted "The Fire Dragon" on the side of the support weapon.

"Where's Groschen?"

"He's got the Grog gun, forward. We like to have a good sniper ready when we go in."

"Signal him to pull back. I'm aborting this."

Nail exchanged looks with another Bear. "But the green flare-"

"We're" still throwing the dice for Boxcars. We aren't going to hit the tower. I got an opportunity to throw a scare into Mu-Kur-Ri. He's protecting his precious aura with everything he's got. Going in there with some kind of surprise is one thing. Breaking down that door into the teeth of six or seven Reapers, and troops besides-I won't do it. In five more minutes there'll be troops from Pulaski Heights here. We'd have as much trouble getting out as going in."

"You're the boss," Nail said. He looked up and out of the basement and made a buzzing sound. "Damn, we're almost in spitting distance of that bas-Groschen's pulling back, he'll be here in two minutes."

"Very good, Lieutenant."

"Sir, you look like hell."

"I feel like it, Nail."

The men got to their feet, slinging their weapons. One gathered up the kerosene-soaked clothes.

"Why are you bringing those?" Valentine asked.

"A little ceremony," Nail said. "We'll save it for another day."

Groschen, now clean-shaven, returned to the basement, the long Grog gun over his shoulders. "The tower's off. Hope you aren't bleeding yet," Nail explained.

"No, suh."

"You may still get to do it tonight. They sounded the alarm over at the prison yard."

Valentine checked their line of retreat and led them out of the basement. When they were clear of the tower's sight-lines, Valentine gathered the Bears.

"Keep back about thirty feet. I like to be able to listen."

They cut through the Ruins, zigzagging around the graveyard of a civilization. They struck another field-phone line, strung on four-foot posts, and cut it. As they neared the road to the prison camp Valentine heard a mass of men moving away from the prison yard. Had they stormed it bloodlessly?

Lieutenant Zhao led his men up the road, away from the camp, in files at each side of the road. The men looked spooked. Valentine thought it best to call out from cover.

"Lieutenant Zhao. It's Valentine."

Zhao waved his right hand like he was wiping a table. The men crouched from the front of the lines and rolling backward, like rows of dominoes tumbling.

"Valentine who?" Zhao said. His hair was unkempt, his face was pitted from acne and he wore filthy glasses, but the only thing lacking in him as an officer was experience. Valentine had learned he was smart, hardworking and organized, which had led him to give him a company. But he'd evidently lost his head.

"Captain Valentine. Careful with the guns, men," Valentine said, stepping out from the rubble.

"Sir, did the Kurian go down?"

"I called it off. What happened at the camp?"

"The guard-tower had a machine gun for covering the yard," Zhao explained. "They slung it around and started shooting. Maybe they have night vision gear. We didn't go any farther. There's no cover for a hundred yards around the wire. I didn't want to risk those kind of casualties."

"Lieutenant, there's five hundred men in there, maybe more. Five hundred of our men, POWs. I want them back."

"I... I... I was using my judgment," Zhao said.

"I won't question it. Let's go have another look."

"We're going back?" a private said.

"If you were behind that wire, what would you want us to do?" Valentine said, looking at the objector. "Let's turn around, men. Who's in charge of your rear guard, Zhao?"

"Sergeant, umm ... Franks is in charge of the tail of the column."

"I didn't say tail of the column. I said 'rearguard.""

Zhao looked at his feet, miserable.

"Let's turn it around, Lieutenant. I'll scout ahead with the Bears."

"Thank you, sir."

Valentine and the Bears doubled the column.

"Christ, I hate all these little generators," Nail said. The lights of the prison yard glowed beyond the tumble of shattered buildings.

"Do you?"

"Of course."

"Be glad for them. I mink Groschen is going to get his chance with that gun."

* * * *

Time enough? Time enough ? Valentine wondered. Valentine had seen Kurian concentration camps by the dozens. This had to be one of the shabbiest he'd ever seen.

The camp was wired into sections of thirds, one-third for women, the center third for guards and the most crowded part for the male prisoners. A single tower stood over the central common yard-judging from the road ruts, trucks came to pick up and drop off prisoners. The fence, just a series of stout poles to hold concertina wire was not even double layered, or electrified, or topped with razor wire. At each corner of the camp, outside the wire, was a sandbagged guard post. Prisoner and guard alike lived under prefabricated roofs; the walls were nothing more than pieces of tent and tarp, though the guards' tents in the center had openings that served as windows. Valentine's nose picked up the smell of corn flour baking in the only complete structure in the place-a Quonset hut set in the guards' section.

The guards' section was a frenzy of activity. The guards were piling up boxes and sandbags at either end of their Quonset; nervous men peered out from under their helmets, rifles ready. Zhao had thrown enough of a scare into them that they had abandoned the outer guard posts, but four men still remained in the tower. The machine gun that so frightened Zhao was positioned to cover the road.

"What do you think?" Valentine asked Nail, after having Zhao take his men and spread them out to the front of the camp. He watched another Bear, the quasi-giant Rain who'd bearded Martinez, heat the blade of his knife with an old liquid lighter, careful to keep well out of sight of the camp. Not that the men would have much night vision outside the brightly lit camp.

"Piss-poor layout, even for a temporary camp. Why do they still have all the lights on? It's like they want us to pick 'em off."

"Look at that," Rain said. "The poor bastards in there aren't waiting for us."

A trio of men were working at the concertina wire behind their tent in the tower's blind spot. Someone among the prisoners had been waiting for this moment; two men were working at widening the hole with pieces of wood as the first crawled through, cutting.

Valentine spoke: "Saves us the trouble. Nail, go back and tell Lieutenant Zhao to spread for skirmishing. Meet up with us there, at those concrete pilings that look like tree trunks. See them?"

"Sure, sir."

"Zhao should just demonstrate. It's not a real attack. I want them to shoot at the tower, once we start. If they kill them all the better. I just don't want that gun aimed at us. Oh, be sure to call out before you come up on them. They're nervous."

"Yes, sir," Nail said, disappearing into the darkness.

"Groschen, Rain, let's work our way around to the north side of the camp. Try and find something we can throw down on that wire."

By the time Nail caught up with them in a skeleton of reinforced concrete, the Bears had found an old metal fire door and pried it off its rusted hinges. It was a heavy, awkward burden, but Rain managed to get it up on his back.

"They're almost through the wire. What the hell are you doing?"

Nail looked up from the pile of TMCC uniforms he was lighting. "We're going Red, sir. It's a ritual. Haven't you ever seen Bears go into action before?"

"Not up close. The tower might see some of the light from that fire."

"Let 'em. Nothing makes the Quislings shit like Bearfire."

Valentine tried to keep his attention on the camp, but the little circle of Hunters going through their ritual distracted him. It was something out of another time and place, when men in animal skins nerved themselves for action through tribal custom.

They stared into the fire for a few minutes, sitting cross-legged and silently contemplating the blue-bottomed flames. First Nail began to sway; in a moment the others joined in, until they were moving in synch like seven metronomes, first right, then left, then right, all the while staring into the fire. When they were all moving in unison, exchanging grunts that meant nothing to Valentine, Nail rose onto his haunches and the others followed suit. Rain took out the knife he had sterilized, raised his Reaper-robe sleeve, and revealed a long line of little brown scars, hash marks running up to his triceps. He reached up with the blade and added another cut, parallel to all the others. He passed the blade to the next man, then sprinkled gunpowder out of a shell casing into the wound.

The knife traveled the circle, the men holding it out across to each other over the flames, until Valentine's own arm began to hurt in sympathy. The blade traveled from Rain, the one with the most scars, to Nail, and then to the others, each solemnly dusting the wound with the powder from their own shell casings. Valentine found himself wondering about hepatitis rates among the Bears.

When it was done Nail rose, a little drunkenly, and came up to Valentine.

"We're ready. They through the wire?" he said. Nail was enunciating a little thickly.

"Yes, men are starting to slip out. Someone's keeping them together at the edge of camp, though. Let's go meet them."

The Bears took up their assortment of weapons and the steel door. They ran, hunched over, up to the garnering point of the escapees.

"Someone's-" a tattered lookout said, before a Bear came from the shadows to clamp a hand over his mouth.

"Easy, men," Valentine said, holding out a hand as a couple of the prisoners took up rocks. "There's a Bear team here. Nice work on the wire. If you don't mind, we'd like to use it to get in. Who's in command, here?"

"I am. You've got a familiar voice, Bea-is that you, Valentine?" said Captain Beck, former commander of Foxtrot Company, and the officer who had Valentine drummed out of the Wolves.

* * * *

"How's the arm, Captain?" was all Valentine could think to say. Beck had his right arm tucked into his shirt, Napoleon-style.

"Nerve damage. You back from Minnesota? What the hell's going on?"

"Long story, Captain. Gather the men here-"

"The women-"

"Please don't interrupt me, Captain. The team's going in for the women."

"Thank God for that. You wouldn't have a spare rifle or two, Lieutenant?"

Valentine didn't bother to correct him. "Nail?"

"We're light enough as is," Nail said. "Let us at those guards, we'll get you some guns, sir."

Beck nodded. "I like the sound of that. I'll take you into the men."

Valentine led the Bears through the wire, past an astonished line of men waiting their turn. "Keep it moving, men. There's going to be shooting, the more of you outside the wire the better."

"Gimme one o' them auto pistols an' I'll give-" one began.

"You'll get your chance soon enough, Corporal," Valentine said, looking at what was left of his uniform. "Move along, men."

They passed into a tent. The stench of the dark tent was palpable, a warm, cloying shroud enveloping them. The men didn't even have cots to lie on, there was just bedding on mats on the ground and some hammocks. "This and the barrack next to it are the only ones they can't see too well from the guards' hut." Beck said. "We were going to open some more holes in the wire from the outside so the others could get out."

The men gaped at the Bears.

"Do you have a signal system between the tents?"

"Yeah, we whistle," Beck said.

"Whistle them to keep their heads down, Captain, if you please."

"Johnson, do the 'watch out' tune. Alert for all barracks," Beck said. A rag-and-bone private let loose with three hacking coughs that could be heard a mile away and began a querulous whistling.

"Nail?" Valentine asked, looking through the tent flap. "What do you think?"

The guards were still piling sandbags around each end of the Quonset hut. Valentine could see a machine gun at the pile opposite the main gate, covering the back of the camp. Too late, guys, we're already in. The other Bears, at a signal from Nail, were opening window-sized gaps in the tenting.

"It's up to you, Lieutenant," Valentine said to Nail.

"They're worried about the prisoners storming the wire," Nail said. "We'll go in through the middle. Two grenades to each end of the hut. Hack, try and get yours behind the sandbags this time."

"Five seconds," Nail said, nodding to Valentine. The Bears pulled the pins on their grenades. He squatted, and motioned for Beck to get down. The men left in the tent fell to the floor. Two Bears threw, the others held the tent flaps open. Everyone covered their ears.

The cry of, "Grenade!" never came; the prison guards must have been some combination of inattentive and poorly trained. Just four explosions, less than a second apart.

"Blitz! Blitz! Blitz!" Nail shouted, tearing open the tent.

The Bears charged the wire. Rain went first. He threw himself at the wire like a breaching dolphin and crashed down on the concertina. He pivoted, holding the wire apart with gloved hand and boot as the other Bears stampeded over him. Valentine brought up the rear, pistol ready, but only smoke and pained cries came from behind the piled footlockers and sandbags. A severed arm had been flung into the wire-its fingers still moved. Groschen threw himself down in the space between the Quonset hut and the wire, his unwieldy Grog gun on a bipod and pointed at the tower. Hack covered the other end of the building. "Motherfucker!" Lost & Found shouted. He made a tight fist and drove his leather-gloved hand through the aluminum in the side of the hut. Brass stuck the Dragon's snake-head muzzle through as soon as Lost & Found pulled his bleeding hand out and the grenade launcher hissed as he swiveled the muzzle : fssssssh fssssssh fssssssh.

Groschen saw a shot and took it, but Valentine ignored the .50 caliber report and its effect.

The grenades roared within the hut, blowing ventilators off the arced roof. Rain got to his feet and grabbed the aluminum in his chain-mail gloves. He planted a foot against the wall. Muscles on his back strained and he peeled open the aluminum side of the hut.

Valentine heard scattered gunfire; Zhao's company was shooting at the tower. He upbraided himself for not giving strict orders to only shoot the tower. The soldiers might start firing at his Bears in the confusion.

Rain extracted himself from the wire and pulled his knife and hooked ax. He plunged into the smoke boiling out of his improvised door. The other Bears followed drawing blades, hatchets and, in Brass' case, a folding shovel.

Nail followed his men in, machine pistol held tight against his shoulder.

Groschen shot again. "That'll teach you to peek," he muttered as he chambered another round.

Valentine heard screams from within the Quonset hut. A Quisling, blood running from his eyes and ears, stumbled blindly out the back door. He hit the sandbags and went over head-down-feet-up like a teeter-totter changing balance. Hack put a single shot into his armpit.

"We surrender. Surrender," a voice from the tower yelled faintly across the yard.

A pained scream bounced off the corrugated walls of the hut. He noticed Captain Beck at his side. "Helluva Bear team you have, Valentine."

Valentine had no time for him. "Throw your guns outta there," he shouted at the tower, his voice dry and hoarse in the smoke and cold night air.

The machine gun and some rifles flew out of the tower. One discharged as it hit the ground.

"Stop shooting, we surrender," the invisible Quisling shouted.

"Idiots," Groschen said. He picked up his Grog gun, holding it with the aid of a sling. "Let's go get them."

Valentine looked to Beck. "Wait here, Captain," he said. He shuffled crabwise to the sandbags covering the front of the hut. He followed his gun muzzle over the side. Two bodies and a third guard, whimpering out his confusion, lay there. The man must have been in shock, otherwise he'd be screaming, judging from the absence of his foot.

The man's pain still triggered instincts not wholly lost.

"Groschen, help this man."

"Sure thing, sir." Groshen drew a palm-sized automatic from his vest and shot the man through the ear. It was carried out with the same smooth, careless motion that he might use to toss away a gum wrapper.

"That's not what I meant," Valentine sputtered.

"Sorry, sir, but it's just a Kurpee."

Who are you to judge ? Valentine had killed helpless men in anger, in desperation, in fear. He'd machine-gunned helpless sailors and murdered men in their sleep-and been giddy and sickened by the act. Maybe Groschen was better than Valentine after all; he didn't look like he'd enjoyed it.

"Coming out, Gross," Brass said from the doorway.

"Come ahead."

Brass came out, splattered with blood. "Even dozen. Rain's taking the heads now."

"You two, get the prisoners out of the tower. I'm going to see about getting the women out."

Groschen and Brass walked toward the tower, Groschen keeping his gun pointed up, holding it from the hip like a Haitian erotic fetish Valentine had seen in the Caribbean. He took one more look at the executed Quisling-he'd seen the man's face before, standing watch over prisoner labor. Whatever thoughts, ideas, dreams, or regrets had lived within that bloody head were forever lost.

Bullets flew. Shots from outside the camp made Brass and Groschen throw themselves to the ground. Valentine vaulted over the sandbag wall and landed on one of the splayed bodies.

"What the hell?" Nail said from the doorway.

"It's Zhao's company," Valentine said. "They're shooting at us."

"Fuck!" Lost & Found swore. For a man with "Born Again to Kill" written on his helmet, he had a distinctly unchristian way of expressing himself. Brass and Groschen both hollered "Cease fire" as best as they could with their faces planted in the common yard's dirt.

"Doesn't that hurt?" Valentine asked, looking at Lost & Found's swollen hand.

"It will tomorrow. Don't worry, sir. She'll heal up."

Valentine caught motion out of the corner of his eye; a figure ran out to the gate of the camp.

"What's that idiot doing?" Nail said.

Valentine peeped over the edge of the sandbags. Beck stood in the open, waving a white rag with his remaining active arm. "Hold your fire!"

"My former captain," Valentine said. "Never short of guts."

There was another shot from the darkness. Beck didn't even flinch. He kept shouting and signaling.

"Boy's wiring is definitely not grounded," Nail observed.

* * * *

Fifteen minutes later some order had been restored to the camp, now darkened by the destruction of the generator. Zhao's men were in a screen around it, their guns pointed in a less dangerous direction while Valentine organized his prisoners. Some blocks away a building burned; Valentine guessed it to by Xray-Tango's headquarters.

A quick headcount gave him five hundred twenty-seven men and sixty women. All were in this particular camp because they had been captured in Southern Command uniforms. Beck explained the half-assembled nature of their accommodations in a few terse sentences.

"The expected us to just be here a couple days. Then they found work for us, the flood started-a few days turned into weeks. Men were scheduled to ship to Texas, women to Memphis, by rail or water, whichever opened up first."

"Solon owes his neighbors for the loan of troops," Valentine said.

"Yes. We're the only currency the Kurians accept. During our captivity, their investment accrued interest."

This last was with a jerk of the chin toward the women. About one in four were visibly pregnant. Fertility drugs in the feed, perhaps.

"Don't let the expectants fool you," a woman who introduced herself as Lieutenant Colonel Kessey said, when Valentine waked over to the crowd of women wrapping up their belongings in bundles. "Most have combat experience." Kessey had an eyepatch and some burn tissue across her scalp, but put up a hard-nosed front as she organized her rescued women. "The guards used us like their common harem. They used to laugh and say we should thank them- pregnancy keeps you off work detail, saves you from the Last Dance."

"Can't say that I blame them," Valentine said.

She lowered her voice. "All the women get the lecture in basic. Rape Survival Strategy, given by women who've been there and made it back. I used to joke about it. "In case of capture, break his balls." Not so easy when there are six of them."

"How many can walk as far as the river?" Valentine asked.

"All of them, sir," Kessey said. "We have litters, just in-"

A scream from the Quonset hut cut her off. It was followed by another.

"Excuse me, would you?" Valentine said, hurrying off to investigate. Shouts blended in with the screams.

It was what he dreaded. The two guards captured in the tower had been strung up by their heels inside the hut. One had blood pouring down his body. Amid the bustle of Beck's prisoners grabbing weapons and anything else remotely useful, some of the vengeful prisoners had taken matters into their own hands. Two women, thin and hollow-eyed, stood in a circle of hooting men. Both had knives; one held the wounded guard's severed genitals before the other's eyes. Some of the male prisoners were tying together the legs of another man with a bloody wound in his leg, ready to string him to the ceiling fixture when the castrated man died.

"Stop that!" Valentine shouted. "Lieutenant Nail!"

Nail sat on an overturned desk, smoking a captured cigarette as he watched the show. "You want to interfere with those hellcats, you go right ahead," Nail said.

"Nail, you're relieved. Sergeant Rain!"

"You'll just have to relieve me too, sir," Rain said.

Valentine went over to the woman with the bloody knife. She'd already opened the trousers of the next man, who was babbling for mercy. Valentine took one look at his red, contorted face and held out his hand to the woman. "You there, hand it over."

She tried to give him her bloody trophy, with a smile. Valentine felt sickened, the way some go faint at the sight of another person's blood but can calmly hold a bandage over a pulsing wound of their own. Not many months ago he'd been the one mutilating corpses. He lifted his hand to push the slimy object down, out of sight of the others-

She flinched at the gesture, flinched with the fear in her eyes of someone who had been hit before, many times. Valentine felt a hard hand on his arm.

"Mister Bear," the other woman said. She had wide-set round eyes set beneath short white hair and a hard line of a jaw. "Yolanda has to wear a diaper all the time now. These men gang-raped her. They said her ass was too tight. So they took a knife and cut it so it'd open wider. That man bleeding to death, he had the blade, and this other piece of shit helped hold her down."

"Wasn't me, sir," the inverted man said. "We surrendered proper n'all."

Valentine looked into the haunted eyes of the woman who had stayed his arm, and then to Yolanda's face. He studied the profile; her darkly beautiful features reminded him of his mother's in another time and place.

"It's justice, sir," Nail said.

"No. It's not justice. It's vengeance." He looked down at the flushed face of the guard. "You decided to live like a savage, soldier. For that you get to die like one. Nail, I'm going to go out and talk to Lieutenant Zhao. I'll be back in fifteen minutes. I want this camp ready to move then."

As Valentine walked out, he heard Yolanda's friend address the strung-up man. "Fifteen minutes. Boy, you're getting off easy."

* * * *

They left the camp with one of Zhao's platoons in front of, and one behind, the liberated prisoners. The third platoon walked to either side of the files. Some of Zhao's men had already managed to lose their red-tape sashes. Beyond the column, in the darkness that matched Valentine's mood, Nail and his Bears reconnoitered.

Valentine walked beside Zhao. The lieutenant had made a hash of things, and Valentine's anger could easily give way to what Zulu Company's Sergeant Patel used to call a "two-boot stomp" dressing-down. It might let Valentine blow off steam, but whether it would do the rattled Zhao any good depended on the resilience of the man. Dawn was still hours away, but already the Quislings were reorganizing. Here and there in the dark, isolated snipers were taking potshots at the column. So far all the shots were misses, but they were unsettling-especially to the unarmed prisoners.

"Sir, the company hasn't had enough time together," Zhao explained. "It's not like all these men have combat experience. Some were militia called up during the invasion. I've only got a handful in each platoon trained as infantry."

"Lieutenant, I know you feel like you've been asked for miracles. That you even got everyone to the camp, in the dark, along a route you weren't that familiar with is a credit to you. You got all this going at a moment's notice. Don't worry about the rest."

"That Captain Beck-"

"Beck's not in charge."

"What's going to happen at Omega, sir?"

"A lot of work."

"More fighting?"

"I expect. They'll be coming for us, though. We're going to play defense for a while."

"That's good, sir. I've had some experience with that."

"What was it like when you hit the camp? The first time, that is."

"I was scared. I saw their rifle barrels everywhere. I was scared more troops were going to come rolling down the road behind me while I was looking at the camp. When we started toward the wire and the machine gun opened up-I just lost it, sir."

Somewhere behind him Valentine saw the Abica brothers embracing. The younger playfully cuffed his older brother across the back of the head. The green flare was the right decision. ...

"You acted according to your judgment. You were there and I wasn't. A machine gun can kill a lot of men in a few seconds. But remember what was in your head next time you see the enemy coming at you. I know it sounds like they're howling for your blood and nothing can stop them. Remember how you felt; sometimes the noise is just fear let loose. Now that you know their fear you can work it."

"How do you stop from being scared in the first place, sir?"

"Zhao, I asked my old captain in the Wolves that exact question. I'll tell you what he told me: Don't. It'll keep you sharp."

* * * *

"Send a runner ahead to that post," Valentine said to Zhao, pointing into the darkness around the warehouses. "Make sure they're our men."

While Zhao organized that, Beck and Kessey rested their prisoners. Some of them had surreptitiously gorged themselves on food from the Quonset hut and were being quietly sick along the roadside.

"Once we're across the river, we'll be back in our own lines?" Beck asked.

"Captain, you're addressing a fellow captain, you know," Zhao put in, after his messenger moved off.

"Never mind that, Lieutenant. Captain Beck and I go back far enough that the niceties don't matter. In answer to your question, Captain, the only lines in the neighborhood are the ones we're about to draw. This is a deep penetration raid, you might say. My orders are to tie down as many troops as possible."

"Where do we fit in?" Colonel Kessey asked. "Don't worry about my rank, Mr. Valentine, as far as I'm concerned I'm under your orders. This is your op. I'll do as you say."

"Couldn't stand to see friends behind barbed wire, Colonel."

Beck shook his head. "Seems to me I once criticized you for rounding up strays, Va- Captain. Looks a little different to me now. Thanks for getting me out of the frying pan."

"We in the fire are glad to have you. What sort of mix do you have?"

"There's a few Wolves, incognito. They put on militia uniforms in case of capture. The rest are mostly guards. I have infantry, heavy weapons, signals, some engineers and mechanics. Backwash from the big bugout that didn't make it to the mountains."

"And you, sir?" Valentine asked Kessey.

"The usual mix. I've got a first-class gunsmith, you might find work for her. A couple of doctors and a nurse."

A runner interrupted their talk.

"We were hoping to link up with the prison party, sir," the private reported. "Captain Styachowski didn't know you'd be with them. She sent out a scouting party to observe the Kurian Tower, but they came back and said nothing had happened there. I'm to take you to her; she's down by the docks. She's made space for the prisoners on a barge."

"Good. Captain Beck, Lieutenant Colonel Kessey, if you could get them up again, please."

Valentine heard an explosion in the darkness. "What's that?"

"I think it's mortars from the Heights. They're dropping shells around the docks. It's blind fire, sir, they're not hitting anything but rubble."

"When the sun gets up that'll change. Zhao, get them moving. Best pace the prisoners can manage."

* * * *

Styachowski was in the wheelhouse of the barge, using the radio there. The barge was to be used to get the men across in case of catastrophe at the railroad bridge. She held the microphone in one hand, a cane in the other, her face lit by instrument telltales. She visibly sagged in relief when Valentine appeared in the doorway.

"The train's almost empty now," Valentine heard Post crackle from the radio. "Still no action here. You want me to send it back? Over."

"Yes, send it back. Over and out.

"Thought something had happened to you, sir," Styachowski said.

"Some confusion at the prison yard." Valentine was relieved to see her alive and well.

A soldier ran up the side stairs and entered the cabin.

"Should the people from the work camp be put on board?"

Styachowski looked at Valentine. "You're in charge of the warehouses and docks," he said.

"Yes." The private backed out of the cabin and made a noisy exit down the stairs.

"What's the situation, Styachowski?"

Another mortar shell landed amongst the Ruins.

"The supply train to go north was just waiting there. I figured we could use what was on it as well as the opposition. Here's the juicy part. There were four 155mm guns loaded on flatcars and ready to go, along with a bunch of other goodies. Post had his men ride the rooftops, it was quite a sight."

"Have you heard from Ahn-Kha?"

"They took the bridge, no problem; just a couple of corporal's guards at either end. After securing it he went overland to Omega. Called us on Solon's own transmitter. There was a little shooting. Someone was wounded up there, but he took the Residence intact."

"So where are the Quislings?"

"Sitting tight, waiting to be told what to do. I don't think it's sunk in to anyone what's happening yet, except maybe your Kurian in his tower. The prisoners we took here said they sent everyone with a gun there to guard him."

"How many prisoners?"

"A few dozen. Night watchmen type MPs making sure nobody pilfers, at least without giving them a cut. They're sitting under guard in the canteen here. We hauled Xray-Tango back, he was conscious for a few minutes and cursing you up and down. Seeing his headquarters on fire could have had something to do with that. I've collapsed into a little pocket here. I wasn't sure if I should burn the headquarters; I didn't want to give the mortar guys another reference mark."

Valentine wondered if he could have handled it half as well. "Nice work, Styachowski. I'm-we're lucky to have you with us. Really lucky."

She flushed to the corners of her eyes and wavered a bit in her at-ease pose. "It's been a nail-biter every second."

"What's this about sending the train back? That wasn't part of the plan."

"It was loaded. We couldn't fit everyone without dragging boxcars around. There's still plenty of stuff in the warehouse we can use."

"Do you have the manpower to load it before dawn?"

"We can try."

"Use the men we took out of the camp. Medical supplies, food, ammunition-especially for those guns. In that priority. Forget the rest. After the train pulls out send every pickup you have after it. They can bump their way over the bridge easily enough. We'll need transport to get it all from the station up the hill to the Residence. At first light set everything else on fire."

"Can do, sir. Excuse me, I'd better start giving orders."

* * * *

"I'll give you my standard speech," Valentine said to the thirty-odd men under guard in a corner of one of the warehouses. The warehouses were shells of better-built structures that had survived the blast. Their drafty, burned-out interiors smelled of rat feces and cat urine, but they were space out of the rain. New walls of corrugated aluminum were wired onto the reinforced concrete. Styachowski's soldiers and the liberated POWs were filling hand carts and shuttling goods out the door in a frenzy.

"Anyone who joins us gets a new life in the Free Territory. You'll come with us as civilians. You'll work harder than you did under the Hoods, but you'll be able to do it with a clear conscience. This isn't an 'or else'; we're going to leave you somewhere safe. You might want to think about what'll happen when they start investigating all this. Angry Hoods aren't particular about allocating blame where it belongs. Heads are going to roll for this one. You might think about the chances of it being yours.

"This is Corporal Lopez," Valentine said, bringing forward the noncom after he gave his words a moment to sink in. "Any of you who want to take us up on the offer of a fresh start, just speak to him. Again, we're not threatening you with anything if you don't stand up. We leave that to the Kurians. Maybe you've got family back in the KZ, I don't know. Choice is yours, but make up your minds fast-we're in a hurry."

Valentine walked over to the sliding doors to the main aisle of the warehouse. One of the advantages of higher rank was the ability to stand around where and when you chose, just observing. He looked at the carts going out to the pickups and vans, rattling out their machine-gun-fire exhaust through straight pipes. Sacks of rice, cases of ham, tins of butter, dehydrated fruit, cotton balls and motor-oil... His real intent was to get a read on the faces, especially Xray-Tango, who had sat through his lecture in contemptuous silence. If anyone had his neck in a noose, it was he.

Xray-Tango remained seated, holding a washcloth to the side of his head.

Only three volunteers stood up to join Lopez. Valentine wondered if they knew something he didn't.

* * * *

Two men, both POWs of Beck's, were wounded by long-range fire while the second train was being loaded. Valentine sent Nail and his Bears out to find the snipers, but they returned to report they'd shot and run.

There was only one company left, spaced out wide to cover the roads, rail platform, warehouses and dock. They knew they had to pull back and get across the river when Valentine's flare went up, or dawn, whichever came first. Valentine was watching the road leading to the Kurian Tower, where the remaining flames of Xray-Tango's headquarters gave him a good view of me road. The road wasn't concerning Valentine; what was approaching on it had him worried.

"Armored cars," Valentine said. "Snowplows, I think. Two of them. Pickups behind, double axles with light armor tacked on."

"Snowplows" was Southern Command shorthand for long, heavy armored cars with pointed prows for pushing through roadblocks. Armored cupolas with machine guns, or sometimes a 20mm gun nicknamed a "Bushwhacker" stood high and gave the gunner a towerlike view. They were built on the skeletons of garbage-truck-sized vehicles.

"They're in for a shock," Nail said.

"As long as our heavy-weapons guys know what they're doing."

"Two minutes," Valentine said. "I'll be right back."

Valentine gave his men, squatting next to their stovepipelike recoilless rifles, a thumbs-up and ran back to the train platform.

"Styachowski! Roll, roll, have everything roll!"

She nodded and signaled to the man working the engine, a Quisling officer's machine gun bumping at her hip. A soldier helped her into the back boxcar. "The rest of you, fall back to the barge. The barge! Follow the women!"

Styachowski had used the female POWs after all. They stood along the road holding emergency candles. The lights weren't bright enough to be seen by the distant snipers, let alone the mortars on Pulaski Heights, especially with the warehouses beginning to burn. The men began to pull out, some carrying a last load between them, guided to safety by the candle-holding women.

Valentine pulled the flare gun from his shoulder bag and broke it open. He fired it. Before its parachute opened, he was already running back to the Bears. He glanced up and the white glare traced an angry scrawl on his retinas.

"Here they come!" Nail called, the growl of motors growing louder. Valentine could see the turreted tops of the armored cars above the rubble, coming toward them like the dorsal fin of an attacking shark. The Bears had arranged rubble to cover their heads and shoulders.

Valentine joined one of the teams with the light artillery. A box of forearm-sized shells was laid out, ready for loading, and a soldier knelt next to the tube, looking down a crosshairs bracket as he adjusted the barrel with levers.

"Let them have it as soon as you can," he told the gunner.

"Yes, Colonel," the man said. "Err ... Cap-"

"Don't worry about it. Just put a shell into them."

The first armored car rounded the corner, the pointed prow on it filling the street.

"Clear!" the gunner yelled, but the other two in the crew were already well away from the back of the weapon.

It fired with a whoosh, more like a rocket than a shell. The backblast kicked up a shroud of dust, blinding Valentine for a moment. He heard an explosion somewhere down the road. The loaders opened the crossbars at the back and slid in a brassy new shell.

Valentine heard the Bears shooting. The front snowplow had been stopped, and smoke poured from the front. It was firing back; tracers arced from the turret, their brightness leaving strange echoes on his retinas. He saw vague shapes of troops exiting the armored car behind it before the recoilless rifle fired again.

"That's it. Wreck the tube," Valentine said.

"One more shell, sir," the gunner said, as the others loaded.

"Shoot and fall back." He raised his voice. "Nail, get out of it!"

More tracer streaks lit up the street. The gunner fired again, blindly. Valentine waited to see Nail and his Bears run for the burning warehouses, and pulled the gunner out by his collar. The loaders put another shell in the tube, and placed the spares beneath its massive tripod.

Tracer fire began to seek the recoilless weapon like a probing finger. "Better get going, sir," me gunner said, throwing a bag over his shoulder. He pulled out a shining new grenade.

Valentine looked up the street and made his dash. He gestured to the gunners, trying to encourage them to hurry. The gunner nodded to the other two and tossed the grenade in with the shells under the tube. The three of them ran.

From the platform Valentine looked at the rail bridge. He saw the tailgate of a pickup, bumping as the tires negotiated the ties. Men walked single file on the pedestrian walkway, crossing over to the north side. Others were setting charges.

"Nail," Valentine said, as the Bears came up behind him with the recoilless gunners. "It'll have to be the boat. They're getting set to blow the bridge."

Nail nodded, and they turned for the riverbank. A few members of the rearguard were hurrying for the dock. Mortar shells were dropping around the train station.

Nail clapped Valentine on the back. "We really-"

An explosion boiled all around them. Valentine felt a warm hand give him a gentle nudge. He realized he was on the ground. Nail lay facing him, his leg on top of Valentine's, like two lovers in bed.

"You okay?"

"Sure," Nail gasped. He started to pick himself up. Neither of his legs moved.

Valentine tried to help him up. "Rain, anyone ... help!" His voice sounded like a far-off whisper.

"Legs ..." Nail said, looking up at Valentine. He'd never seen fear in the Bear's eyes before.

Valentine picked him up in a fireman's carry and trotted down toward the pier. The barge waited, huge and comforting.

"Cast off, cast off," the sergeant handling the loading called. Zhao was running between little groups, clapping them on the shoulder and pointing toward the barge. Valentine saw his old marines from the Thunderbolt leave the piled sandbags around the dock-sandbags were easily found around the riverbank-and run up the gangplank to the barge. There was a hint of light in the sky; by it Valentine saw the main deck of the barge piled high with sandbags. The cargo carrier in front was filled with people, mostly prisoners from the camp, and Zhao's company.

"Bandages!" the sergeant called, looking at Nail and Valentine. "Take him to the foredeck, sir. The wounded are there."

Valentine boarded, and went forward. Just below the pilot house a man in splints and one of the women lay under blankets next to Beck's two wounded. Field medics helped Valentine lay Nail out.

"Sorry about this, Nail." The inadequate words made him want to bite his tongue.

"Don't feel a thing, sir. Hardly hurts."

"Shrapnel," the medic said. "His back's kind of tore up. I've stopped the bleeding-most of it."

Valentine heard the muttering boat engines gun, and the barge moved away from the dock, heading upriver.

"Can I get you anything, Nail?"

"I want to see."

"You want to see?"

"The bridge go."

Valentine looked at the medic, who shrugged. "Let me get this dressing finished. Then we'll see," he said. Valentine couldn't remember giving orders about having an aid station set up on the boat. One of Styachowski or Post's additions. He heard bullets plinking off the old scow. The side of the boat was an irresistible target for any Quisling with a rifle and a view.

They passed under the old pilings of the railroad span. Valentine heard the distinctive clatter of a Kalashnikov fired from the River Rats' town.

When the medic finished with Nail's dressing Valentine pulled a soldier and they carried his stretcher to the back of the tug. The screws were churning the muddy waters of the Arkansas. Behind them they could see the bridge framed against a pink sky. The warehouses were going up, a ground-level fireworks explosion.

"We fucked with them good," Nail said, his eyes bright and excited. "That sight's worth getting all tore up over." The sky was growing brighter by the second.

"C'mon, guys, don't wait and try and take a few with the bridge," Valentine said. "Just-"

Explosions ripped across the bridge, and wood and rails spun into the sky.

"What the hell?" Nail said.

The bridge still stood.

"Shit. Didn't they use enough C-big?" Nail said.

"It's not that," Valentine waited, hoping for the structural integrity to fail. The bridge still stood. "They used plenty. They just used it all at the bottom of the bridge, where it meets the pilings. Spread it out too much, too. They tore up the track good, that's all. On a truss bridge the load is all borne by the joints at the top. If they'd just blown out the tops of the span we passed under, it'd be in the river."

A mortar shell landed in the water astern of them.

"This boat trip's gonna get cut short," Nail predicted.

The barge edged toward Big Rock Mountain. Valentine felt it shudder. The soldiers went to the rail, concerned.

"We're aground!" someone shouted.

"Shit!" Nail said.

"Okay, just wade, swim, whatever," Valentine shouted. He ran forward, leaving Nail for the moment.

"Out of here. Over the side ... just go!" he yelled. "Manfred, help the women. We need stretcher-bearers. Who wants to carry?"

Part evacuation, part shipwreck, they got the soldiers and some of the supplies overboard. Valentine stayed with the wounded until the stretchers were ashore. The water helped deaden the effect of the mortars; they did little more than create brief fountains of water as they exploded.

"There's still a lot of cargo on the barge," Zhao said, dripping from the armpits down.

"Forget it. We need to get up the hill."

It was easier said than done. The hillside rose two hundred feet at a 3:1 grade, where it wasn't a cliff. There was an old switchback road going up the side. Valentine sent up the stretcher-bearers in groups so they could replace each other. He stood among the trees at the base of the hill, watching the mortars drop shells into the barge. The Quislings seemed to be taking strange pleasure in wasting shells on the wreck, rather than dropping them on the hillside where they might do some damage.

He heard a heavy tread, and looked up to see a mountain of muscle.

"Good morning, Ahn-Kha," he said.

"I'm glad to see you, my David. It's been a long night."

"For both of us."

"Post and Styachowski arrive?"

"Styachowski is at the Residence now. Post is still unloading the second run."

"What's the TMCC doing about it?"

"At first light I heard some shooting, far to the north. My guess is two patrols ran into each other."

"So you don't think they've figured out where we are?"

"They'll know soon, my David."

"What do you think they'll do?"

"I leave outthinking them to you. I just try to outfight them."

"If you had to outfight me right now?" Valentine asked, looking across the river. He could just see the tip of the crane building the Kurian Tower, though he supposed the construction schedule had been set back.

"I'd try you soon, before you could organize. Today, tonight."

"Wouldn't hurt to pretend you're giving the orders across the river. Let's get up the hill."

* * * *

It was full light by the time he approached Solon's Residence across the bulldozed hilltop. A bulldozer was at work, digging pits into the ground in front of the house beyond the turnaround. Post stood in front of the entrance, giving orders. A truck pulled up and a team of men hurried to take the crates out and manhandle them inside. With the bed emptied, the pickup turned around and drove back down the road to the station.

Post looked up as Valentine approached.

"The hill is secure, sir. Ella, Daltry and Pollock have their companies north, east and southeast. We've got observers watching the river. Styachowski is holding the station until we get the rest up here, unless they come in force. This is a choice piece of ground. I can see why Solon picked it. Great view."

"Where are the wounded?"

Post pointed to one of the building shells. "Lower level of that one, sir. The doctors are getting set up in there. There was already a little dispensary for the construction workers, and they're expanding it. They could use some trained nurses. Dr. Brough's already bitching."

"I know of one. Get Narcisse in there as soon as you can."

"She's with the wounded at the station," Post said, shrugging his shoulders the way some men do at a heavy rain that can't be helped. "Nothing serious, but you know her. If someone's in pain-"

"I'm glad you had the sense not to stop her. Let's get the prisoners organized, Colonel Kessey-she's got an eyepatch, easy to spot-said she had some doctors."

"I saw her come over the hill," Post said. "She's talking to the men placing the guns now."

"Every company has Quickwood spears, right?"

"Having them is one thing. Getting them to use them is another."

"We've got today, at least. They won't hit us with Reapers until dark. Carry on, Will. Lieutenant Nail's been badly wounded by shrapnel. Hit in the back."

"Damn. You know, I don't think anyone's been killed yet? On our side, anyway. Who ever heard of that?"

"Maybe our luck's finally turned," Valentine said.

* * * *

To the extent that there were still MDs, Major Brough deserved her title. She was a field surgeon with ten years experience in the Guards, and had seen everything metal could do to the human body.

"I'm not hopeful, sir," Dr. Brough said, when Valentine asked her about Nail. "Tore open his back. One kidney's gone, the other's probably damaged enough so it might as well be gone, too. His back's broken, and there's massive nerve damage. I'm surprised he was even coherent when they brought him in."

"He's a Bear. They're tough."

"I'm a surgeon. Lifeweaver mysticism isn't my field."

Valentine absorbed the news. Dialysis machines had gone the way of the dodo, as far as he knew. Nail was dead, it was just a question of how long.

"So he's still conscious?"

"I gave him a shot. I expected him to drop right off, but the morphine just relaxed him. He's in some kind of wide awake shock, low blood pressure, fast heart rate, eyes a little dilated. Lots of perspiration."

"Mind if I have a word?"

"Go ahead. Sir, I have a request."

"Shoot, Doc. Anything for Nail."

"No, it's not that. I understand there's some kind of housing up here. If they've got a cookhouse, could you look for a refrigerator or a freezer? Without somewhere to store blood and plasma, wounded turn to corpses a lot easier. Your men have been stockpiling food and bullets. If it's going to be a fight, I'm going to need to do the same with blood. Some kind of donation schedule would help."

"Any coolers we find go to you."

"Thank you."

"If you need anything else, ask myself, Post or Styachowski. You'll get priority. But I hope you're very bored down here."

"Save the cheerful hero stuff for the troops. Years of amputations have made me a cynic."

Valentine walked over to Nail, who was resting on a folding cot. Nail's gear had been placed beneath the cot. Valentine picked up a tube he couldn't identify. It looked a little like a metallic zither. A wastebucket with a blood-soaked dressing lay next to it, and the coppery odor brought back memories of the headquarters cellar. He didn't want to think about that for a while.

"They have you comfortable, Nail?"

"Yesss, sssir," Nail slurred. "Damn sorry I'm out of commission for a while."

Valentine lifted the canteen lying beside the bed.

"Water?"

"Yes, thank you, sir." He sipped. "I could use a meal. Been running around since the meeting."

"I'll see about it." Valentine wobbled the tube in his hand, like a baton.

"You like that, sir? You can have it. Brass came up with the idea."

"What's it do?"

"Gimme." Nail took it from him, aimed at the ceiling, and pushed a button. A dart flew out and buried itself there. Dr. Brough gave him a dirty look. Nail stifled a snicker like a schoolboy caught shooting spitballs.

"There's a real serious spring inside. The winder's on the top, and you turn it clockwise to ready it. There's a safety at the front you need to flick off... To fire it you just push the button. I've got some Quickwood darts for it in my bag. I won't be needing it for a while. I hate being fucked-up and useless!" He pounded an unoffending blanket.

Nail wasn't speaking like someone with a shot of morphine inside him. Valentine had heard that Bears were hard to settle down after a fight.

"Lieutenant, I need your help. We might have some Reapers in our laps tonight. Do you think it would be better to space your Bears out with the companies to steady them, or should I keep them back here, and commit them when I know where the attack's coming from?"

Nail thought it over. "They're used to working as a team, sir. Keep them back. Chances are the Reapers will just try to claw through your guys to get to the rear where they can do more serious damage. My team'll clobber 'em."

"Thanks, Nail."

"Just give me a few days, sir. A week, then I'll be back. Rain can run the team until then. If... if... I don't, give him my bars. He's earned 'em."

"Nail, now that you've got some downtime, you want to write some letters? You have family, a girl?"

"I'm a Bear sir. My only family's rooting through that supply dump out front looking for chow. If they find something to eat, have 'em remember me in here, laid out and hungry."

Bear appetites were notoriously hard to sate. Valentine had seen them chew bark from the trees on the march through the Ouachitas after leaving Martinez. "I'll see that you aren't forgotten. It's a promise."

Valentine, exchanging a look with through, wondered how it's a promise would look on Nail's tombstone.