Valentine's Rising (Page 11)
The Saint Francis River, August of the forty-eighth year of the Kurian Order: The land was healing with the people. In the weeks following the relief of the Razors at New Columbia, even Fort Scott changed hands yet again, to the combined forces of the Ozark Free Territory and the Texas Republic. Solon and his Kurian Council collapsed like a house of cards, fleeing in all directions. There were losses, irreplaceable losses, everywhere across the fought-over land. In the chaos in the Missouri Valley Grogs pushed south and the Kur in Kansas took a piece of the Ozarks around the lakes, and sent their Reapers into the Mark Twain Forest.
But the leaders of the newly wedded Texas and Ozark Free Territories would have something to say about that, in time. They controlled an area larger than any of the former states of the union.
David Valentine crossed the Free Territory with his pouch of Quickwood seeds. He planted one on a windswept hillside where a sergeant named Gator was buried He placed another one outside a stoutly built barn near the Louisiana border -a crippled ex-Wolf named Gonzalez helped him relocate it, where a little patch of earth marked the location of the first man to die under Valentines command. A few frontier farmers turned up for the ceremony. In time, the locals called it Selby's tree, and a Selby Meadows grew up around that barn. He placed a ring of Quickwood trees at the ambush site outside Post 46, just northeast of the Red River, another on a devastated riverbank that looked like a piece of the moon, where the Crocodile had moored and the rest shaded a cemetery on Big Rock Hill.
The rest save one. He took it to the empty little village of Weening on the Saint Francis. The inhabitants were scattered the Carlsons had vanished and Tank Bourne was laid out, months dead, in his cellar. Valentine buried him in the shade of a willow tree by the river, and up near the riverside gate he placed his last seed in the rich Arkansas soil, soil that had once soaked up Gabreilla Cho's blood, and -though he did not know it- Molly Carlsons tears.
* * * *
There was already a pamphlet printed about the fight at Big Rock Hill. It was rolled up in Valentine's bag next to his order book. He'd read a few pages-the author had relied on the collected radio reports from the hill for a day-by-day record of events, as interpreted for him by a decorated veteran of the Central Operational area named Captain Randolph-and given up after it described Lieutenant Colonel Kessey's brilliant rising in the prison yards of New Columbia, when a Quisling division was put to flight by men keen on avenging their outraged women. He'd heard they were renaming the battlefield Kessey Heights, which was fine with him. Her body lay on it
Folded into the pamphlet, for protection rather than as a bookmark, was a radiogram from Jamaica.
TO: DAVID VALENTINE, SOUTHERN COMMAND
FROM: COMMODORE HOUSE, JAMAICA
CHILD AMALEE BORN 7LBS6 JUNE 19 BOTH HEALTHY MOTHER SENDS LOVE CONGRATULATIONS
The Quickwood tree would have a nice life outside Weening. He found a boy from the Peterson family-they'd been the first to see the empty homes of Weening for the opportunity they presented and move the extended family there. The boy was eleven and watched him through wary but intelligent eyes. He seemed old enough for the responsibility of watching over the tree. Valentine didn't want some clown clearing brush to cut down the Quickwood sapling.
Valentine tried to explain the importance of Quickwood to Mr. Peterson, but to the literal-minded man it came down to a tree that could grow a magic wooden stake (hat killed vampires. Valentine left it at that. There were things to do, so many things to do. Solon's dream of owning the Mississippi and its tributaries vanished with the consul, but far-sighted men from Texas to the Ozarks might be able to bring the evil man's idea to fruition-under new management, of course. Already there was talk of taking back New Orleans. Then the great gateway to the Caribbean would be open, a navy could be floated, and Southern Command would be able to put troops anywhere a keel could go.
And he could see his daughter.
Someday the Quickwood could be used properly. He'd returned to the Free Territory thinking the Haitian discovery would be a wedge he could drive into the heart of the Kurian Order, piercing it and breaking it up the way he did logs. But a wedge was only as good as the force driving it All along, it had been cooperation between people, himself and Ahn-Kha, Styachowski and Post, Narcisse and Hank, Samoza and Jefferson, each doing their part in a whole that was even now being bom.
How had the governor phrased it, after the formal military union of Texas and the Free Territory? "A new stake of freedom wedged between the Mississippi and the Gulag"? Something like that. Valentine liked to think of it as seed. A fast-growing seed, he hoped, and as deadly to the Kurian Order as the Quickwood he'd scattered over hundreds of square miles.
"Here you go, Gabby," Valentine said, covering the seed with moist earth fresh from the river. He knelt at the nongrave. "Keep it safe for me. Something happened this summer. A miracle. We took the worst they could throw at us-ended up the stronger for it The Texans have the Dallas Triangle ringed in now, and we're sending captured artillery to finish the job. It's only a matter of time. I've got a daughter, if you can believe it And here I've planted my last seed. It's a good day for me. It's a new beginning for us."
The future beckoned. The past, his regrets, his mistakes, all lay buried with the seed. No more looking back.
David Valentine glanced up at the hot noonday sun and wiped the sweat from his forehead, now beneath chin-length black hair, and wondered at the strange fate that saw him in the right place at the right time. Dreadful and deadly work still needed to be done, but it was work bom of Hope.
Read on for a sneak peek at Valentine's Exile, coming in hardcover from Roc in June 2006.
Dallas, March, the forty-ninth year of the Kurian Order: Four square miles of concrete and structural steel smoke and pop and sputter as the city dies from the stranglehold of a siege.
Street fighting isn't so much seen as it is heard from a dozen different locations. Save for the sounds, a city at war seems strangely empty, save for scavenging black crows and wary, tail-tucking dogs. Vague rumbles like a distant storm mutter in the distance, or sudden eruptions of machine-gun fire from a few blocks away might be jackhammers breaking holes in a sidewalk in a more peaceful time. When men move, they move in a rush, pouring from doorways and crossing streets in a quick wave before the whine of shellfire can catch them in the open.
Valentine's Razors' regimental flag, a black-and-blue silhouette of an Arkansas razorback set under the joined Texas/Ozark flags, reads "Don't Feed On Me," though even a sharp-eyed youngster standing at the base of the Love Field control tower wouldn't be able to read the letters even in the bright morning sun.
The Razors shouldn't have worked. Soldiers thrown together under the most dire of circumstances, with unfamiliar corporals, sergeants, and officers putting together rifle platoons who had never trained together, couldn't be expected to stand up to a determined assault, let alone hold a precarious position alone in the heart of enemy country. That their famous stand on the banks of the Arkansas River succeeded might be considered a measure of their enemy's malice as much as of their own mettle -as well as of the improvisational skills of the officers who organized the Little Rock Rising.
One of those men crosses the outskirts of the airstrip as the sun rises. His mottled dark green-and-grey uniform is thick with "Dallas Dust," an oatmeal-colored mixture of pulverized concrete, ash, and mundane winter dirt. Black hair tied in a pigtail hugs his scalp, and a thin white scar on the right side of his face only serves to show off an early bronze tan indicative of ample melanin in his genes. A shortened version of his Razors battle rifle, with folding stock and cut-down barrel, bumps from its tight sling against leather battle webbing. The assault harness is festooned with everything from a wide-bladed utility parang to a gas mask hood, flares for a wide-mouthed gun at his hip, and a "camel" water bladder over his shoulder. Looking at him, a veteran of the Razors would point out the distinctly nonregulation moccasins on his feet and infer that the Razors' operations officer, Major Valentine, was back from another of his scouts.
* * * *
David Valentine breathed in a last snootful of clean air and descended into the muskrat-den reek. He stepped down carefully, holding an uprooted young dandelion in his gun-free hand. The stairway to the old control tower basement was mostly gone. The entryway had been enlarged, replaced by churned-over earth paved with plywood strips dropping eight feet to the hole in the cinderblock side of the foundation where the basement door had been.
The entrance to the Razorbacks' headquarters resembled an oversized anthole, if anything. It fooled the eyes that sometimes drifted high above the besiegers' positions.
"They didn't hit us after all," he told Pooter.
Pooter chuckled as a length of milky dandelion stem disappeared into his fast-working jaws.
If the Kurians dusted again, Pooter would expire in a noisy hacking fit, giving the men inside time to ring the alarm, lower the plastic curtains, and put on their gas masks and gloves.
Valentine felt tired. He'd spent the past eight hours moving across the forward posts, keyed up for a battle that never came. He was probably more tired man he would have been had there been action: The weird I'm-alive-and-I-can-do-anything exhilaration of surviving combat would have floated him back to the Razors' HQ.
In the five weeks they'd occupied the airfield, Narcisse and her staff had set up sinks and stoves, and even had a pizza oven going. Companies rotating to or from the forward positions always had a pizza party before creeping out to their strongpoints, covering the approaches to Dallas. Narcisse wore no uniform, held no rank, and wandered between the battalions' kitchens and infirmary as the mood struck her, dispensing equal helpings of cheer and food, pulled in her wheelchair by a steadfast mutt who'd wandered into camp on the Razorbacks' trip south from the Ouachitas. The men and women whose job it was to aid and comfort the frontline soldiers obeyed the old legless Haitian as though she were a visiting field marshal.
Valentine said good morning to the potato peelers, who were working under faded paint that once demarked a maintenance garage. He rinsed his hands and poured himself a mug of water from the hot pot. He plopped in one of Narcisse's herbal tea bags from a woven basket on a high shelf. He covered his brew-up with a plastic lid masquerading as a saucer and took the stairs down to the subbasement and the hooches.
He smelled the steeping tea on the way down the stairs. It tasted faintly of oranges-God only knew how Narcisse came up with orange peel-and seemed to go to whatever part of the body most needed a fix. If you were constipated, it loosened you; if you were squirting, it plugged you. It took away headache and woke you up in the morning and calmed the jitters that came during a long spell of shellfire.
Valentine had a room to himself down among the old plumbing fixtures and electrical junction boxes. In the distance a generator clattered, steadily supplying juice but sounding as though it were unhappy with the routine. A little nearer down the hall Colonel Meadows occupied an old security office, but Valentine didn't see light creeping out from under the door, so he turned and moved aside the bedsheet curtaining off his quarters.
Even before his eyes picked out the L-shaped hammock in his wire-frame bed, his nose told him that someone lay in his room. A pale leg ending in a callused hammertoed foot emerged from the wooly army blanket, and a knife-cut shock of short red hair could just be distinguished at the other end.
Alessa Duvalier was back from the heart of Dallas.
Valentine examined the foot. Some people showed experiences of a hard life through their eyes, others in their rough hands; a few, like Narcisse, were bodily crippled. While the rest of Duvalier was rather severely pretty, even exquisite when mood or necessity struck, Duvalier's feet manifested everything bad the Cat had been through. Dark, with filth between the toes, hard-heeled, toes twisted, and dirt-crusted nails chipped, scabbed at the ankle, callused, and scarred from endless miles on worn-through socks-her feet alone told a gruesome tale.
A pair of utility sinks held her gear, reeking of camphor from its smell in the decontamination barrel, her sword-concealing walking stick lying atop more mundane boots and socks.
"Val, that you?" she said sleepily from under the blanket, voice muffled, a fistful of wool over her mouth and nose to keep out the basement chill. She shifted, and he caught a flash of upper thigh. She'd fallen into his bed wearing only a slop shirt. They'd never been lovers, but were as comfortable around each other as a married couple.
"Room for two."
Not really; it was a small bed. "Shower first. Then I want to hear-"
"One more hour. I got in at oh-four."
"I was out at the forward posts. Pickets didn't report you-"
She snorted. Valentine heard Hank's quick step on the stairs he'd just come down.
He looked at his self-winding watch, a gift from Meadows when the colonel assumed command of the Razorbacks. The engraved inscription on the back proclaimed forty-eight-year-old eternal love between a set of initials both ending in C. "One more hour, then. Breakfast?"
Valentine took a reviving spout-shower that kept Hank busy bearing hot water down from the kitchen.
"Haven't seen Ahn-Kha this morning, have you?"
"No, sir," Hank said, reverting to military expression with the ease of long practice.
Valentine hadn't smelled the Grog's presence at headquarters, but Ahn-Kha kept to himself in a partially blocked stairwell when he was at the headquarters. Ahn-Kha was evaluating and drilling some of the newer Razorbacks, mostly Texan volunteers who'd been funneled to them through Southern Command's haphazard field personnel depot north of the city. Southern Command tended to get recruits the all-Texan units didn't want, and Ahn-Kha knew how to turn lemons into lemonade. The first thing Valentine wanted recruits to learn was to respect Grogs, whether they were friends or enemies.
Way too many lives had been lost thanks to mistakes in the past.
Valentine asked Hank to go fill a tray, saw that the light was on in Meadows' office, and poked his head in to see if his superior had anything new on the rumored attack.
"Forward posts all quiet, sir," Valentine reported. "Anything happen here?"
Meadows was closing his shirt, his missing-fingered hand working the buttons up the seam like a busy insect. "Not even the usual harassing fire. They're finally running out of shells. Big Wings overhead in the night."
Big Wings were the larger, gargoylelike flyers the Kurians kept in the taller towers of Dallas. Both smarter and rarer than the Harpies Valentine had encountered, they tended to stay above, out of rifleshot, in the dark. Some weeks ago Valentine had seen a dead one that had been brought down by chance. It had been wearing a pair of binoculars and carrying an aerial photograph. Grease-penciled icons squiggled all over the photo marking the besieging army's current positions.
"Could come at dusk, sir," Valentine said, and regretted it before his tongue stilled. Meadows was smart enough that he didn't need to be told the obvious.
"Our sources could be wrong. Again," Meadows said, glancing at the flimsy basket next to his door. Messages that came in overnight but were not important enough to require the CO to be awakened rested there. The belief that an attack was due had been based on Valentine's intelligence-everything from deserter interrogations to vague murmurs from Dallas Operations that the heart of the city was abuzz with activity. There was no hit of reprimand, nor peevishness, in his tone. Meadows knew war was guesswork, and frequently the guesses were wrong.
"Sir, Smoke came in while I was out," Valentine said. "I just saw her; she would have told me if she'd seen anything critical. I'll debrief her over breakfast."
"How are the men up the boulevard doing?"
"The boulevard" was a wide east-west street that marked the forward edge of the Razors' positions. Snipers and machine gunners warred from blasted storefronts over five lanes of a former Texas state route.
"Unhappy about being on the line, sir. They only got three days at the airfield." Comparatively fresh companies had been moved up from the relative quiet of the old field in anticipation of the attack.
"Let's rotate them out if nothing happens by tomorrow morning."
"Will do, sir. I'll see to Smoke now."
"Thank her for me, Major. Eat hearty yourself-and then hit your bunk." Meadows tended to keep his orders brief and simple. Sometimes they were also pleasant. Meadows picked up the flimsies from his basket, glanced at them, and passed them to Valentine.
Valentine read them on the way back to the galley-or kitchen, he mentally corrected. Shipboard slang still worked itself into his thoughts, a leftover from his yearlong spell posing in the enemy's uniform as a Coastal Marine, and then living in the Thunderbolt after taking her from the Kurians.
:30 POTABLE WATER LINE REESTABLISHED TO FORWARD POSITIONS 02:28 OP3 OP11 ARTILLERY FIRE FLASHES AND SOUNDS FROM OTHER SIDE OF CITY
:55 OP3 BARRAGE CEASED
:10 OP12 REPORTS TRAIN HEARD NORTH TOWARD CITY
The OP notation was for field phone-equipped forward observation posts. Valentine had heard the barrage and seen the flashes on the north side of the city as well. Glimpsed from between the tall buildings, they made the structures stand out against the night like gravestones to a dead city.
The only suspicious one was of the train. The lines into Dallas had been cut, torn up, mined, plowed under, or otherwise blocked very early in the siege. Readying or moving a train made little sense-unless the Kurians were merely shuffling troops within the city.
Valentine loaded up a tray, employed Hank as coffee bearer, and returned to his room. Duvalier twitched at his entry, then relaxed. Her eyes opened.
"Food," she said. Perhaps she'd half slept through their conversation earlier.
"And coffee," Valentine said. After checking to make sure she was decent, he brought Hank in. The teenager being a teenager, he'd waited in the spot with the best viewing angle of the room and bed.
"What's the latest from Big D?" Valentine asked, setting the tray briefly on the bed before pulling his makeshift desk up so that she'd have an eating surface.
"No sign of an assault. I saw some extra gun crews and battle police, but no troops have been brought up."
Hank hung up Duvalier's gear to dry. Valentine saw the boy clip off a yawn.
"Most units been on half rations for over a month now. Internal security and battle police excepted, of course. And some of the higher officers, looks like they're as fat as ever. I heard some men talking: No one dares report sick. Rumor has it the Kurians are running short on aura, and the sick list is the first place they look."
"Horrible," she reported between bites. "They're losing and they know it. Deserters aren't being disposed of quietly anymore. Every night just before they shut down power, they assemble representatives from all the Quisling brigades and have public executions. I put on a nurse's shawl and hat and watched one. NCOs kept offering me a bottle or cigarettes, but I couldn't take my eyes off the stage."
The incidental noises from Hank working behind him ceased.
"Then they just tip up the garbage can and wheel the body away. Blood and piss leaking out the bottom, usually. Then a political officer steps up and reads the dead man's confession, and his CO verifies his mark or signature. Then they wheel out the next one. Sometimes six or seven a night. They want the men to go to bed with something to think about.
"I've seen some godawful stuff, but that poor bastard ... I had a dream about him."
"They never run out of Reapers, do they?" Hank put in.
"Seems not," Duvalier said.
Valentine decided to change the subject. "Okay, they're not massing for an attack. Maybe they're trying a breakout?"
"No, all the rolling motor stock is dispersed," she said, slurping coffee. "Unless it's hidden. I saw a few entrances to underground garages that were guarded with armored cars and lots of wire and kneecappers."
The latter was a nasty little mine the Kurians were fond of. When triggered, it launched itself twenty inches into the air like a startled frog and exploded, sending flechettes out horizontally that literally cut a man off at the knees.
"I don't suppose you saw any draft articles of surrender crumpled up in the wastebaskets, did you?"
She made a noise that sent a remnants of a last mouthful of masticated egg flying. "Naah."
"Now," Valentine said. "If you'll get out of my bed-"
"I need a real bath. Those basins are big enough to sit in. How about your waterboy-"
Hank perked up at the potential for that duty.
Valentine hated to ruin the boy's morning. "You can use the women's. There's piping and a tub."
Such gallantry as still existed between the sexes in the Razors mostly involved the men working madly to provide the women with a few homey comforts wherever the regiment moved. The badly outnumbered women had to do little in return-the occasional smile, a few soft words, or an earthy joke reminded their fellow soldiers of mothers, sweethearts, sisters, or wives.
"Killjoy," Duvalier said, winking at Hank.
* * * *
The alarms brought Valentine out of his dreams and to his feet. For one awful moment he hung on a mental precipice between reality and his vaguely pleasant dream-something to do with a boat and bougainvillea-while his brain caught up to his body and oriented itself.
Alarms. Basement in Texas. Dallas siege. The Razors.
Two alarms, his brain noted as full consciousness returned. Whistle after whistle, blown from a dozen mouths like referees trying to stop a football brawl, indicated an attack-all men to grab whatever would shoot and get to their shooting stations, plus the wail of an air alert siren.
But no gongs. If the Kurians had dusted again, every man who could find a piece of hollow metal to bang, tin cans to wheel rims, should be setting up as loud a clamor as possible. No one wanted to be a weak link in another Fort Worth massacre that caused comrades to "choke out."
Valentine forced himself to pull on socks and tie his boots. He grabbed the bag containing his gas mask, scarves, and gloves anyway and buckled his pistol belt. Hank had cleaned and hung up his cut-down battle rifle. Valentine checked it over as he hurried through men running every which way, or looking to their disheveled Operations officer for direction, and headed for the stairs to the control tower, the field's tactical command post. He took seemingly endless switchbacks of stairs two at a time to the "top deck"-the Razors' shorthand for the tallest point of Love Field.
He felt, then a second later heard, explosions. Worse than mortars, worse than artillery, and going off so close together he wondered if the Kurians had been keeping rocket artillery in reserve for a crisis. The old stairs rattled and dropped dirt as though shaking in fear.
"Would you look at those bastards!" he heard someone shout from the control tower.
"Send to headquarters: 'Rancid,"" Valentine heard Meadows shout. "Rancid. Rancid. Rancid."
Another explosion erupted in black-orange menace: the parking garage-the biggest structure on the field.
Valentine followed a private's eyes up and looked out on a sky filled with whirling planes.