Valentine's Rising (Page 6)
The Arkansas River, February of the forty-eighth year of the Kurian Order: Part of the defense strategy of the Free Territory was simple inaccessibility. Southern Command tore up railroads leading into the Ozarks, broke roadbeds down, wrecked bridges, let forests grow over airstrips, and flooded bayous long since drained by the Corps of Engineers. As part of this strategy Southern Command rendered the Arkansas River unnavigable by destroying locks, sinking snags and pulling down levees, blocking invasion by water east from the Mississippi and west from the old river port on the Verdegris east of Tulsa. Four hundred feet of elevation from the Mississippi to Fort Smith were made impassible to anything other than shallow-draft traffic, thanks to the sand-clogged river and vigilant Guards at Arkansas Post and Fort Gibson. While both strongpoints changed hands several times over the course of the Free Territory's star-crossed history, they were always eventually won back.
In their months of occupation the Kurians have opened the river to some traffic between Little Rock and the Mississippi; small barges are again making the ascent to supply the armies still fighting in the mountains. But Nature takes her part in the conflict as well: a wet winter, early spring and heavy rains have raised waters to levels not matched since the floods of the nineteen twenties. The last controls, hydroelectric dams at the Jed Taylor and Dardanelle Lock & Dams, were destroyed as Southern Command fled to the mountains, leaving the river open to flooding. Only the fact that the levees were destroyed years ago, siphoning some of the water away in secondary floods, has saved the new masters of the Ruins so far.
But the river is rising.
* * * *
The irony of the situation was not lost on David Valentine. He drove his men, enlisted and officers alike, in an exhausting war against the swelling Arkansas River. A wall of sandbags was the battle line. On the one side of the miles of sandbags, pumps and drainage ditches were the war materials of Consul Solon's military millstone, now grinding Southern Command into chicken feed. On the other side swelled a God-given natural disaster waiting to strike a blow for their Cause potentially more damaging than even batteries of heavy artillery with the town in their sights could hope to do.
Nonetheless he threw his men's bodies against the river. Even Ahn-Kha stood waist-deep in cold water, hardly stopping to eat, plunging his long arms again and again into the base of the levee, digging sluices for the pumps.
The endless labor inured his men to living hearth-to-hearth with the Quislings. When Tucker and his men handed out new AOT uniforms-a mottle of sea greens and browns, some with the look of reclaimed and redyed clothing about them- Post brought them in groups before Narcisse, who marked their foreheads in a vaudou version of the anointing of the ashes. She smeared them with a red paste and flicked them about the head and neck with a powdered white feather, chanting in her Haitian Creole. Even Styachowski submitted to it in good humor, after Narcisse explained to her and Valentine that it was just for show: The paste was winterberry with a touch of poison sumac to give it a tingle. Narcisse promised the men that the ritual would help them fool the enemy, guard their tongues and curse any who deliberately gave away their true allegiance so that any reward given by the Kurians would turn to ash and their hearts' blood to sand. Valentine watched M'Daw's face as he underwent the anointing; there would be a brass ring for him and land of his choosing if he were to go over to his old masters, and it would be so easy. So very easy. Just a word or two in the right ear at the wrong moment. The healthy respect for Narcisse's powers M'Daw had gained when she changed the old Quisling's bowels to the biological equivalent of a fire hose showed itself when he jumped at her touch as though she carried electrical current.
Valentine had considered assigning someone unobtrusive but reliable, like the Texan drover Jefferson, to keep an eye on M'Daw, but the old Quisling had been as willing as any on the march, and complained not at all. Valentine was inclined to trust him. Keeping track of worries in the current predicament was like following individual ants pouring from a kicked-open hill.
Mrs. Smalls was the only one excepted from the ceremony, though Narcisse ministered to the pregnant woman as midwife and cook. She and her husband were confined to their tent. The baby had dropped, and they were expecting it to be born any day.
Valentine had Mrs. Smalls on his mind as he paced back and forth at the drainage ditch, watching the next two truckloads of sand and bags make their way to the waiting shovel-wielding prisoners.
"Your shift was over a half hour ago, sir," Styachowski said. She passed him a hot cup of roasted chicory coffee, sweetened to a syrup with molasses. The mixture had been passed around as the closest thing to real coffee they could make in quantity.
Valentine gulped and looked through the steam at Styachowski. Even dripping wet she managed to look neat, though there were circles under her eyes, made worse by pallid skin and close-cropped hair. Styachowski had been tireless at the riverbank, still working when men twice her size dropped in exhaustion.
"I can go a couple more hours. Do two more dry in your bunk, Styachowski."
He swiveled his gaze to the prisoners. "Hey, you two there, don't pack 'em like sausages, or they'll burst under pressure."
"Sorry, sir," the prisoner with the shovel replied. He wore a faded Guard uniform with POW stenciled in orange across his back and down his pant leg.
"Sorry, Styachowski, you were saying?
"Then move along. I'll cover your duty."
"Neither of you ever quit," Styachowski said, looking down at Ahn-Kha. The Grog grasped a seventy-pound sandbag in each hand and stuffed them at the bottom of the levee. "He's like a machine; I don't worry about him. You, on the other hand-"
"Can take care of myself. As you said, I spend my time shouting, not moving earth."
"Then why do you have mud up to your neck?"
"I've seen you walk across a two-strand rope bridge without breaking stride. I doubt it."
"You'll spend eight hours in your bunk, Styachowski. That's an order."
She lifted her chin and opened her mouth-her cropped hair would have bristled were it not wet-but no sound came out for a second. "Yes, sir," she finally said. She waited to turn; Post and a corporal were trotting along the rim of the drainage ditch.
"Sir," Post said excitedly. "We've got a big bulge up next to where it's reinforced on that old park bench. "It looks like it'll give way any minute."
"Take Rodger's squad and shore it up," Valentine said, leaning around the wide shoulders of his lieutenant to take a look.
"It's in Captain Urfurt's section," Post added quietly, referring to the Quisling responsible for the length east of Valentine's. "He's dealing with a broken pump, hasn't noticed it and none of his prisoners are anxious to bring it to his attention. Know what I mean?"
"Shore it up, Will."
"I'm not used to giving orders twice," Valentine said, his voice not a shout, but not conversational either. He'd never raised his voice to Post before, outside the din of battle. He rounded on Styachowski like a bar brawler who's felled one opponent and is looking to loosen some teeth in another. "Speaking of which, why aren't you in your bunk, Styachowski?"
"Sir," they both chirped, backing away to obey.
Valentine raised his mug. Some artist had painted a yellow star on it, and added "We Build New Columbia: Crossroads of the Future" in neat brushstrokes before glazing it. The incessant rain had already chilled the coffee. It tasted like dry leaves and old gum.
A whooping shout of joy came from his section of levee. Valentine saw two bedraggled men-the one with a hat belonged to his group, the other had the orange POW stenciling. Both men had skin the color of milk chocolate, long, handsome faces and similar silhouettes as they embraced.
Valentine had feared a moment like this. "Ahn-Kha," he said as he trotted over to the pair.
"Lord bless, Dake, I knew you made it out of the pocket. What gives, slick?" the one in the POW fatigues said.
Valentine thought his soldier's name might be Abica. Dake Abica sounded right in his head.
He heard Ahn-Kha's squelching footsteps behind. "You there, Abica," he shouted, as a sergeant hurried to interpose. "Come over here."
Abica put a hand on the arm of his relative-
"Alone!" Valentine shouted. "Ahn-Kha, keep an eye on that man."
"Be cool, Clip," Abica said. He approached Valentine.
The sergeant, a former supply clerk named Roybesson, joined him, instinctively placing herself facing both Valentine and Abica.
"Sorry, sir," Abica said. "That's my brother Cli-Clipton. Third Cavalry regiment, light artillery. He's smart and-"
"I don't need his Q file, Abica," Valentine said. "Roybesson, if those two speak again, you'll wish you'd been bit with Ravies Six. Got me?"
She blanched but answered quickly enough. "Yes, sir."
"Sir, we could-" Abica began.
"Private, we're going to talk to your brother in my tent.
You, me and Ahn-Kha. If you don't do exactly as I say, Ahn-Kha'll kill your brother and you'll spend the rest of our time here in a tiger cage. Near the dike, so if it breaks we'll get a nice loud warning before you drown."
Abica's eyes flamed, and Valentine stared until Abica dropped his gaze to his feet.
"We go about this right, your brother will be in your tent with you tonight."
The private and his sergeant both unclenched their legs at that. Valentine forced a friendly smile. "We'll need some playacting out of you first, Abica."
The form read:
This document grants provisional immunity for any and all previous offenses against the Kurian Order. By signing it the pardon applicant renounces, completely and irrevocably, its former affiliations, begs forgiveness for its crimes, and asks for the privileges and benefits of fellowship in the human community.
I,__________________, seek a place within and protection of the Trans-Mississippi Extended District. I agree to obey the orders of my lawful superiors who will take my life forfeit if I violate this oath.
Sworn this (day)______of (month)______, (year)_____.
Recorded and sealed:______________
A lined-off empty space in the lower right-hand corner waited for a cheap foil seal.
Valentine sat at his field desk, a slightly warped office table resting unsteadily on the plywood floor of his tent, hating himself for what he was about to do. This bit of playacting was the only alternative, and if it went wrong-
Cross that bridge when you come to it . The form, placed with a dozen others like it on a clipboard complete with tied-on ballpoint pen, rested next to an oversized shot glass.
The POW, his eyes shaded from the single bulb by his thick brow, stood before him. Abica stood behind, his sergeant just outside the tent. Ahn-Kha rested on his knuckles, a little stooped over in the confines of the wood frame and canvas. The drizzle outside grew heavier and lighter in fits, reminding Valentine of the sound of gentle surf on the Texas coast.
"Scotch?" Valentine asked, pouring some amber fluid from an unmarked bottle. He'd been told it was his whiskey ration, the designation just sounded better. "Cold work out there."
"You signed this?" Clipton Abica asked his brother. The skin was tight against his face, and Valentine saw his brow twitch.
"Had to. It was that or the boxcars, and I wasn't getting shipped to Dallas on a last ride. This is good duty, bro. Food's better-"
Valentine tapped the clipboard. "Son, the war's over here. We're reorganizing. It's better to be reorganizing than reorganized. I'm at full complement, but your brother asked very nicely. He's a smart man, and I always have room for another smart man."
Clipton Abica shook his head, looking at his brother rather than Valentine.
"Six years in and you'll get an allotment if you want. I'm about to make your brother a corporal, and I'm sure you'd rise too. Find a nice gal, or you can have your pick out of the pens waiting to go. It's hard but it's life. Any POWs we don't assimilate-" Valentine waved his hand out at the dripping water.
Abica broke in on the rain. "Do it, bro. Don't forget about Ma and Sinse and our cousins. They're caught up in this somewhere. Us being dead won't help them."
"You know it," Abica said.
The parolee tipped it into his mouth, put down the glass next to the clipboard, then with a lunge spat it at his brother and Valentine. He sent the clipboard skittering across the table at Valentine, who blocked it with his palm.
"Fuck both of you! Throw me-"
Ahn-Kha grabbed the man in a bear hug and dragged him out of the tent screaming and kicking. Valentine heard a few faint obscenities as Roybesson put him in handcuffs.
Abica looked out at the sight of his brother thrust into the mud, Ahn-Kha's sheep-sized thigh pressing into the small of his brother's back.
Ahn-Kha and Roybesson dragged him off.
"Why didn't we just tell him-"
"The truth?" Valentine asked. He refilled the glass and pushed it toward Abica. "We could have. But your brother's doing more for us back behind barbed wire."
"They have spies among the prisoners. I'm sure of it. Your brother talking about what a rotten, traitorous, son of a bitch he's related to backs up all our stories."
Abica smelled the whiskey, looking more morose than his brother. Valentine thought he'd be sprayed a second time, but Abica drank it with a grimace. He shook his head. "I'm proud of Clip, sir. I'm proud of him. Dunno if I'd've done the same. I'm damn proud."
"How do you feel about yourself?"
"Like a shit."
"Welcome to the Cats, Abica."
* * * *
"You don't owe me an explanation, sir," Post said later, in Valentine's tent. Valentine sighed, exhausted and wrung out. The faint smell of his whiskey shower made him feel like a barfly at last call. "But why didn't you just let the levee breach?"
The river was under control; the water level had stabilized.
Reports from upriver said within a day it should fall. The rest of the struggle would be a holding action. Valentine wanted to be on his back in his bunk, but he couldn't be that discourteous to a subordinate, friend or no. He sat on the edge of his cot, rubbing the prickly growth on his skull. Ahn-Kha made a clattering noise outside as he fashioned an oil-drum cook-stove that could double as a water heater.
"We're being watched. No, it's not one of my feelings, it's logic. It may be Xray-Tango, or the bat-winged bastards in the tower. I don't know if they're suspicious, or just trying to figure out what kind of officer I am. But I had to go above and beyond. Xray-Tango said he liked initiative; he's getting it. Not that I'm going to cry another river if the levee falls; it's just not going to happen on my watch, or in my view."
Post looked out the tent flap. The drizzle had finally stopped. "Back on the old Thunderbolt I swore I'd never wear their uniform, or help them, again. But I'm killing myself to save racks of shells so they can be fired on my new side. It gets stuck in my craw, Val."
"Have the men said anything?"
"Not even jokes, at least in my hearing. They're scared of giving anything away. I would be too, surrounded by an army and minus a gun."
"They're working as hard as they would have if they'd been captured and put in a labor camp."
"They're better fed. I've been over to the prison camp."
Valentine shot a glance up at Post, who looked like someone had just stepped on his corns. "When were you there?"
"Day after we got here. I asked for a review of female prisoners."
Post was easier to read than a billboard at ten feet. "Your wife?"
"I always figured she headed here. It was the nearest Freehold to Mississippi."
"Will, you'll drive yourself crazy if you start searching every face for her. I've had a... person in my life. Was in my life. She's caught up in this somewhere, but if I start thinking about her, I won't be able to concentrate. I have responsibilities now."
Post looked at him sidelong. "Where was she last?"
"A village called Weening, just west of Crowley's ..." Valentine stopped.
"Only human to hope," Post said.
"Being human is a luxury, at least these days. Feelings. Attachments. They stop you from doing what's ... what's necessary. Someone called Amu told me I wouldn't be one anymore when I became a Wolf. I must have misunderstood what he was talking about."
"How long have we known each other, Val?"
"What, a year and a half? Since I came on board the Thunderbolt."
"You're the most human person I've known since my wife. Except when you do what's necessary." Post meant by this the wild night when the Reapers came up from the old Kurian submarine, and after sinking it Valentine had shot the submarines sailors struggling in the oily water. His emotions turned gray and cold whenever he remembered.
Valentine wondered if he could unburden himself. Confessing to not just the things he'd done, but worse, that he'd enjoyed, even reveled in-
The shout even overcame Ahn-Kha's metalwork.
Valentine cast a regretful look at his bunk.
"Come in. What is it, Lieutenant Purcel?"
The company officer saluted, gasping. "Overheard on the radio, sir... Blue Mountain dam's gone."
"Oh, Christ," Post said.
"Guerillas blow it?" Valentine asked.
"Mr. Post, get everyone up. I don't care if they've just spent twelve hours shoring sandbags. Everyone to the levee. If Mrs. Smalls's had her baby, I want her holding sandbags open. If it's a boy, I want him shoveling. Mr. Purcell, if the general doesn't know it, pass the word along. I respectfully suggest that he empty the prison compound, and get those buckets of lard at the wire-wait, strike the last."
"Pass the word to the general-" Purcell began.
"Don't bother, Mister Purcell. Just run."
Valentine looked around the little tent, touching the leather sack at his chest It might as well all be swept away, but what about the Quickwood?
"Ahn-Kha," he called, pulling on his tunic.
"Yes, my David?"
"Have the men bring the Quickwood to the levy. We'll use it to shore up. If it gives way, have everyone grab on."
Valentine and Ahn-Kha raced up and down the camp, gathering the men and deflating the tents by pulling out the Quickwood center poles. He and the men ran to the levy, carrying the four-by-four beams in earnest rather than for exercise.
Styachowski was already putting the men to work. At other parts of the levee men were gathering, and Valentine walked the length, giving orders regardless of whose section it was. Farther back General Xray-Tango was organizing troops and prisoners alike, directing the flow of manpower to the dike.
The levee was already a sandbag sieve. Even Hank stood in the water, helping maneuver shoring timber against the sandbag wall. Farther down the levee a camouflage-painted bulldozer growled as it battled with the river, pushing walls of dirt against the drainage channel.
Valentine's men worked for hours, taking only handfuls of cold water from the river for refreshment. It was a blur of sandbagging and shoring for Valentine, all the while watching the debris-filled river as he slogged through the water on the other side of the levee. Darkness came, and still the river ran mad. Men began to drop to their knees in the water in exhaustion.
"We're losing it," Post said, watching Styachowski, up to her waist in water, direct shoring efforts. "I think it's going to go."
Valentine felt a personal animosity toward the river. It was like a living thing, determined to overcome him no matter how hard he drove himself and his men. "We're not beat yet."
Shouts and a scream. He spun to see a crowd jumping back from the levee, where part of a sandbag wall had collapsed.
"Get the bulldozer over here," Post yelled.
Valentine rushed to the site, Ahn-Kha joining him from the other side of the breach. A waterfall was coming through a notch in the levee; something had given way at the bottom and it had subsided.
"She's trapped, sir," one of the Jamaicans shouted. "It caught her on the legs as she fell."
"Who?" Valentine shouted.
"Styachowski," another said, forgetting to use her false name. "Captain Styachowski."
"It started to bulge and she jumped in with a shoring timber," Smalls said. "She was trying to place it-"
Valentine plunged into the swirling waters at the base of the fall, and began to feel around for her. He submerged. Under the water he felt a frantic hand grasp his. He pulled, but her body didn't yield. He felt around, and touched her face. Keeping a grip on her hand, he surfaced. Through cascading water, he looked up at the worried faces.
"Christ, get some of these bags away. I can feel her down there."
"That'll open the breach," a Quisling sergeant said.
"It's already opening."
Ahn-Kha plunged in next to him as Valentine shifted his back to protect Styachowski from the sandbags sliding off the pile. He felt her hand spasm in his.
The Golden One tore into the pile, hurling sandbags right and left. Others jumped in beside.
The bulldozer approached, digging in and pushing a wall of dirt toward the rescuers.
"Hold that machine, dammit, I've got a man trapped!"
"Out of the way, sir, or when the breach caves you'll be trapped too," the Quisling sergeant shouted.
Valentine felt Styachowski's hand go limp in his. He screamed through the water falling all around him.
"What's going on?" Xray-Tango called, coming around the mound of dirt pushed by the bulldozer."
"She's trapped," Ahn-Kha said. "Officer Wagner," he added, remembering to use her false name.
"How long's she been under?" Blink-blink- bliiink.
"Five minutes, maybe," someone said.
"She's dead then," the Quisling sergeant said. "Bring that bulldozer forward."
"No! I've got her hand."
"Wait, Sergeant," Xray-Tango said. Valentine met his eyes, pleading with him. Xray-Tango shifted his gaze to the bulldozer, held up a hand. Then to Valentine: "Hurry, Le Sain."
Ahn-Kha plunged into the water and found the shoring timber Styachowski had been maneuvering. Valentine watched the Grog's back, matted fur shedding water, and saw muscles heave. The pile shifted. Knotted shoulders breached, and Ahn-Kha took a breath.
"Help me, you bastards," Ahn-Kha gasped. Valentine felt something give.
Valentine heaved at the lifeless hand, terribly limp in his. She began to move. He prayed she didn't have compound fractures in her trapped legs; she'd end up looking like Narcisse, even if she wasn't paralyzed.
Anxious arms helped him bring her up out of the water. Valentine laid her out on the mound of dirt pushed up by the bulldozer.
"Work the breach, back to work," Xray-Tango shouted. The men and a smattering of prisoners started relaying sandbags. The bulldozer backed off and approached again from a new direction, digging into the ground.
Valentine saw none of it. There was just Styachowski, pale and limp beneath him, blue-faced and mottle-cheeked. He cleaned the froth from her mouth.
"Push on her legs and get the water out of her lungs," someone suggested.
Ahn-Kha knelt next to Styachowski, panting, water streaming from his body.
Valentine lifted his ear from Styachowski's chest. "That doesn't work," Valentine said, bending back her head. "Get a blanket, a dry one." He turned her head up, explored her mouth with a finger, and put his lips to hers. He forced air into her lungs.
"Get a medic, too," Xray-Tango shouted at the soldier going for a blanket.
"Ahn-Kha, push on her chest, here," Valentine said, indicating a spot "Don't be gentle about it." He pressed his lips to her cold mouth again.
The Golden One worked her heart.
"Should we rub her hands and feet?" Xray-Tango asked.
"No," Valentine said between breams. He was too busy to explain that it would draw blood away to the skin. She needed it in her brain, not her limbs.
Minutes in the wet dark passed, or perhaps just seconds. Hours? The only thing that mattered to Valentine were breaths, air into Styachowski's flooded lungs. Whatever time it took to run and get blankets had passed; the soldier returned with an armload.
Her eyes fluttered and opened. She coughed and heaved. Valentine rolled her on her side, and a mass of water and vomit came up. He held Styachowski through a series of wracking coughs, pulling blankets around her.
"Styachowski?" Valentine said as the coughing ebbed. Behind him the bulldozer was pushing the mountain of sandbags back into place. Valentine heard a beam snap and winced- he hoped that wasn't one of the Quickwood supports smashed.
Styachowski turned her face to see who was holding her. "God, Val-" she began. Valentine pressed his lips to hers, shutting her up. Xray-Tango turned away, perhaps embarrassed, and began to shout orders to the men helping the bulldozer. Valentine released her from the kiss.
"Dreams," Styachowski said.
"Dreams," she said, and gathered herself. She burped, and glanced up at Valentine apologetically. "The wall fell on me, and I had dreams, or something. It was warm and pleasant, like I was being held by my momer as a baby. Then I woke up and you were there. Except my legs hurt."
A medic knelt at her feet. He ran his hands up her right leg, gently rolling it. He repeated with the left, and Styachowski cried out.
"There's a break. I don't think it's bad. Simple fracture; I don't feel any protrusions. We've got to get her on a stretcher."
"Hsssssssssssl" Styachowski sucked in air, closing her eyes. "It's throbbing. Am I bleeding?"
The medic splinted her. "It's the fibula, I think. Her knee's tore up, too. Abrasions."
"No, you're wet, you're not bleeding," Valentine said after looking at her legs. "Not badly. Bring the stretcher here."
The medic finished fixing the splint. Valentine took her shoulders and the medic her legs, and lifted her onto the stretcher.
"The infirmary at headquarters," the medic said to the men who took up the handles. "There's no hurry. Don't jog her."
"You can go too, Le Sain," Xray-Tango said, appearing at his shoulder. "Your captain there has things in hand."
"Then I'll stay."
* * * *
Like a close-fought battle, or a football match where the lead changes hands, the issue hung in doubt until the next morning, when once again the water stabilized. Then it fell, at a pace that could almost be measured with the naked eye.
"I wonder if something gave way farther down the river?" Post said, eating bread and cheese with dirty fingers as they sat together on a ready pile of sandbags.
"Some old Corps of Engineers dike," Valentine said. "Or Pine Bluff landing is underwater now." He was too tired to care about the whys; all that mattered were me whats. And the big what was that the water was going down.
The men were asleep in the mud all around, heads cushioned on sandbags or backpacks. The scattered groups of prisoners slept in huddles, like wallows full of pigs.
"You going to check on Styachowski, sir?"
"We should see about reorganizing the men. Work out some shifts. Wish we'd get some fresh bodies from the other side of the river."
Post stretched his arms and yawned. "They have problems of their own. The River Rats are flooded out."
"River Rats? I've heard that before, somewhere."
"The boatmen who work the barges and small craft. They've got a little town over there, from what they tell me. A couple of bars, music and girls included, a slop-house. Bona fide red-light district, sounds like. Some of the other soldiers go across for a good time, or to do a little black-market trading. They smuggle, too, of course."
"The soldiers or the River Rats?"
"Both, I suppose."
"I was wondering where Xray-Tango got his coffee," Valentine said. "Being in the Caribbean spoiled me. I've got a taste for the stuff, now."
"I'm ready to go back," Post said. "You're probably right. I'll never find her."
"Southern Command's not dead yet. There's Styachowski to think of, too."
"Go check on her, if you like. Ahn-Kha and I'll hold the dike."
* * * *
Styachowski was asleep, her leg already in a cast, and after speaking to a nurse about her Valentine made himself comfortable. She was the only one occupying a bed in the infirmary; the real field hospital was on the other side of the river, in the old library. The nurses were keeping busy bandaging bashed fingers and wrapping sprains. A ruptured man groaned as the doctor probed his crotch.
Valentine made the mistake of putting his feet on her bed. The next thing he knew he was being kicked in the leg.
"Colonel," Styachowski said. "You're snoring."
He massaged the bridge of his nose until his eyes felt like focusing again. "Is it light out? How's the pain?"
"Better. They gave me a shot and I went out like a light. Codeine or morphine, I think. It's morning now. We're still in the dispensary, so I guess the levee held."
"The water was receding last night."
"New Columbia lives."
His stomach growled. "Aren't they going to feed you something? Wait, I'll go myself."
After retrieving bread, honey, and some kind of cooked cereal from the headquarters kitchen, he returned to Styachowski.
"You broke a leg once, sir?"
"No. It wasn't for lack of trying."
"An old wound. Line of duty."
Styachowski nodded. "You'll have to tell the story someday."
"When you're better."
"That'll be the day. I'm always down with something. If it's not a cold I've got a fever.
There was a long pause in the conversation while they ate. Valentine had never shared a meal in silence with a woman before. She probably needed to sleep again. "Can I get you anything before I go, Wagner?"
She shook her head, and Valentine relaxed a little, seeing her respond to her assumed name even under the influence of the painkiller. "No, thank you, sir. There is one thing though."
Styachowski glanced around the infirmary. "What's the policy here? Do they shoot the crippled horses, or send them ... somewhere else?"
"Don't be silly. You're not getting out of my outfit that easy. I'm not going to let anything happen to anyone in my command. Especially to someone hurt doing her duty. The battalion's not going anywhere without you."
She sank back into her pillow. "Thanks, Colonel."
"I'll see if I can get you put back in your tent. You'd be more comfortable there, I think."
"Thank you, sir. But not just for that."
Valentine arched an eyebrow; she blushed and buried her face in her mush bowl.
* * * *
"You wanted to see me, General?" Valentine asked
Xray-Tango thrust a curious, umbrellalike apparatus into the ground. It was a five-foot pole with four arms projecting from the top. At the end of each arm hung a string with a washer tied to the end. The spear end, currently buried in the dirt of what had been an underpass, was tipped with metal.
Styachowski was back in the tent she shared with a female sergeant. The ground had dried up, and the river was down feet, not just inches. Mrs. Smalls was expected to deliver within hours. Men still worked the levee, but life was returning to what passed for normal in Consul Solon's Trans-Mississippi KZ.
Xray-Tango smiled. "I hope this isn't a bad time. I'll try not to keep you too long. Technically, I'm off duty. I keep what used to be called 'business hours.""
"Curtiz said that, but he told me that I could find you here right now. I'm used to coming immediately when sent for. I'll be in first thing tomorrow, if you'd rather, General."
"No need. Unless you had plans for the evening."
"Maybe a trip to the screen center."
The south side of the river had two common rooms with projector screens, one for officers and me other for enlisted ranks. The soldiers lounged on everything from club chairs to old sofas watching the impossibly vivid colors on the pulldown screen. Valentine had put in an appearance at the officers' screen center and learned about the designer of a new riot bus, a biography of a woman who had produced an astonishing sixteen children, then an inspirational speech by a colonel who had won a brass ring in the rugged mountains in what had been West Virginia. He left to walk past Xray-Tango's headquarters and poked his head in the enlisted room, where a video of dancing showgirls on a Memphis stage had the packed soldiers drooling. An advertisement for a reenlistment bonus all-expense-paid trip to Memphis played immediately following. He hadn't gone back since and didn't intend to.
"Give the popcorn a miss. I think the butter is reclaimed machine oil."
"If you don't mind me asking," Valentine said, "what are you doing?"
"I started out as a section chief on the railroad. I still like to survey. You do anything to clear your head, Le Sain?"
"I swing an ax. To cut wood. I like turning big ones into little ones."
"I would have guessed music. Something artistic. There's a look in your eyes that makes me think you're the creative type. For Christ's sake, at ease, Le Sain. This is a chat, not an ass-chewing."
"Music's a good guess, sir. My mother used to sing. I had a little ... recorder, that's what it was called. A recorder I'd play. Since you said this is just a chat, can I ask what that thing is, sir?"
"It's called a groma. It's an old Roman surveying tool. They used it to make straight lines. Works good for corners, too, but it's best for staking out roads." He leaned over, hands on thighs, to eyeball the lines strung with washers at the end, comparing them with the shaft. When he was satisfied that it was level, he sighted down the groma and waved a private holding a flag over a step to the right.
"No fancy optics," Xray-Tango went on. "The Romans built their roads straight, using that doohickey."
"They were great road builders, weren't they?"
"Yes. The old United States interstate system only built about half the miles that the old Roman network had. If you leave total lanes out of account, I imagine. They would have caught up, if they'd lasted as long as the Romans."
"Kur took care of that," Valentine said, keeping his voice carefully neutral.
Xray-Tango waited for another twitch to pass, then signaled to his private to place the little red-flagged stake. "You've had the usual indoctrination, I suppose."
"It varies from place to place."
"What's your wrist-cuff crib on it?"
Valentine had heard the Kurian catechism so often he was able to repeat it without thinking, half believing it. It had been drilled into him, twice weekly, at the community center meetings and Universal Church lectures in his time in the Zone. "Our planet was dying. War. Overpopulation. Pollution. Disease out of control. Mother Earth had a cancer called the human race. They came in and restored balance, brought order to the chaos. Kur did for us what we couldn't do for ourselves. Over half the population has proper food, shelter and health care now; everyone in care has access to the doctor. There are even dentists in a lot of places. New Orleans, for example. In Natchez we had to go to a plumber to get a tooth taken out."
"You know the words. You ever think about it?"
Valentine looked around to see if they were being overheard. "I think history gets written by the winners. The Old Regime had its problems, but they made some beautiful stuff. How many engines they built fifty or sixty years ago still run? Lots. If Kur makes anything that wonderful, they're keeping it to themselves. What's made now is clumsy by comparison, even when it works."
"The terrorists? The renegades?"
"They're right about them. Most of them are just misled. They don't know the Reapers are like white blood cells in an organism. If a piece of the body isn't working right, if it doesn't belong, if it's dead wood, it gets taken out to keep the rest of the system healthy."
"So you don't have problems with the system." He waved his assistant farther away to plant another stake.
Valentine's dancing heart missed a step. He'd found that among people who disliked the Kurians, they put a little extra stress on the phrase "the system" as a way of sounding out others who might share unorthodox opinions.
I've been running my mouth again. Is this a trap? Does he want to see how far I'll step into the noose ? The problem was, he liked Xray-Tango for some reason, and when he liked someone, the dam on his garrulousness broke. This time, a breach could cost every man in his command his life. He needed to stuff a sandbag in his mouth, block it up like the river, before his tongue hung them all.
"I've done well under it," Valentine said, after a pause he hoped didn't betray him as thinking about his answer too much.
"Nothing's perfect under the sun. Come to think of it, even the sun up there isn't quite round. It's a bubbling sphere. Sends out some long arms of superheated gas now and then, if you look at it close. But the governors and their Reapers are in the here and now, not millions of miles away. When you're close to them, just like with the sun, sometimes you see the flaws. But we're a stronger civilization, thanks to them. Even if the system's ugly at times, doesn't work as fairly as it should."
"Are you saying something's wrong with the system, General?"
"I suppose I am, in a roundabout way. Thing is, if something doesn't work right, you either throw it away or you fix it. The poor bastards who used to live in this part of the country, they tried to get rid of it. It got rid of them, instead. I'm sure you've noticed as you get higher in the ranks it becomes more seductive. You know who Nietzsche was?"
"Ummm..." Valentine knew, but he wanted to let Xray-Tango talk.
"He talked about supermen, beyond old concepts of good or evil. You get to feel that way after a while. Beyond law, because there really isn't one, except don't cross the Kurians. Beyond morality, since there's no one to censure you-and as long as you do your job right the Higher Ups won't."
Valentine felt his admiration for Xray-Tango ebb. He'd heard too many upper ranks in New Orleans talk this way. The supermen rise, and decide who shall rise behind them. The others have to die. "Freedom," Valentine said.
"Yes, it's damn near perfect freedom. I've got a brass ring, so I know what I'm talking about. But you know what? While most use their freedom to put on airs, or lose themselves in drink, or vice-hell, I know a colonel who screws little boys and girls-some of us use it to improve things. You can improve the system. Not all at once, and maybe not outside where you hold whatever authority you've climbed to, but you can make a difference. Tell you the truth, Le Sain, it's pretty satisfying, helping those who don't have a choice about anything."
Valentine stood silently, until it became clear Xray-Tango expected him to say something. "I'm not going to argue with anything you've said, sir. But why are you telling me this, General?"
Xray-Tango turned. He accidentally bumped his groma and, before it fell, caught it up again in a blur of motion. Valentine hadn't seen anyone move like that, anyone who wasn't tuned up by the Lifeweavers, that is. Now he knew how Xray-Tango won all those trophies. He wondered if he was looking into the mismatched eyes of a Cat, deep undercover.
"I'm telling you this, Le Sain, because I've taken a shine to you. You're a good officer. I've decided I want you in my command. You'll have an enviable place in New Columbia- in the new Trans-Mississippi, one day. I want to put men in place who think like I do. Maybe together, we can build something worthwhile. Consul Solon's got me vision, he just needs men who can help him carry it out."
"Thank you, sir. But I've promised my command a chance to distinguish themselves, at least doing something other than hunting down the moonshiners."
"Are they that eager, or is their commander?"
"Action means promotion," Valentine said.
"You may get your chance soon. We're going to activate your brigade, refit them as light infantry. Once we've gotten through the final push up those mountains, we'll be in a position to promote you. Maybe even get you the ring you're sparking on."
"Thank you, sir."
"It's not quite as easy as that. You still need to speak to someone before you formally join AOT Combat Corps. Trust me, you'll come through with flying colors. You're intelligent, and you've already proven yourself where it counts. He might test you some more, but don't worry; I passed it and I'm sure you can, too."
Xray-Tango shouted to his assistant, "Sun's dying, son. Let's call it a day. We'll finish laying out the quad tomorrow." He picked up his Roman surveyor and shouldered it. "Hungry, Colonel?"
"I could eat."
"Good. Maybe our little meeting would go better over dinner."
Had Consul Solon slipped in early? The rumor, spread up and down the slop-pail lines, was that Solon was due in New Columbia, to check on plans for construction of his new capital city and especially his Consular Residence on the north bank of the Arkansas. He'd heard grumbling from the engineering officers, who were still clearing rubble with a single bulldozer while Solon's engineers had a crane, backhoe, cement mixer, and "the good dozers" up on his hilltop west of town. Supposedly, plans for the final push against the remnants of Southern Command were to be outlined, giving the generals in the field time to work out the details once the general strategy was handed down. Boats were already ferrying men from the hospital to clear bed space.
The worst cases went to the seashell-like tower still under construction. Some said that afterward their bones ended up in the cement mortar.
As they walked back to Xray-Tango's headquarters, Valentine marshaled his arguments to petition for a role in the offensive; he wanted all the operational knowledge he could get. The fact that Xray-Tango had offered to arm and activate his men could mean that the battalion was to take part.
The general led him past his sentries. His headquarters still buzzed with activity, though there were fewer present to be busy. Instead of taking Valentine to his corner office the general led him down a set of stairs, along a whitewashed warren of corridors, and around a corner to another sentry. This one had a different uniform than the other rough-and-ready soldiers in the general's command. He wore a dark, crisp uniform that was a cross between old Marine Corps dress blues and an SS ceremonial uniform. A bullpup assault rifle came to present as the general rapped on the door and opened it.
So Consul Solon's got his own version of the Praetorian Guard , Valentine thought as he passed in. He readied his mind for the interview with the new administrator of the Trans-Mississippi.
Then he stopped. This was an interrogation room. Complete with mirror at one end, a desk and a waiting chair.
Sitting behind the table in the bare little semicell was a Reaper.