Tale of the Thunderbolt Chapter One

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New Orleans, January, the forty-eighth year of the Kurian Order: Formerly glorious in its decay, under the New Order the city transformed from an aging beauty into a waterlogged corpse. Much of the Big Easy rots under a meter of Mississippi River water-save for the old city's heart, now protected by two layers of dikes. The rococo facades of the French Quarter, once browning into a fine patina, fall to pieces in quiet, unmounted. The stately homes of the two great antebellum periods, pre-1861 and pre-2022, have vanished under a carpet of lush kudzu or riverside saw grass. As if the flooding and years of neglect were not enough punishment, New Orleans suffered a major hurricane in 2028: a titanic storm that rose from the Gulf like a city-smashing monster in a Japanese movie. No FEMA, no insurance companies showed up afterwards to clean and repair the storm-battered city. What was destroyed stayed destroyed; the inhabitants found it easier to shift to still-standing buildings than to rebuild.

But the mouth of the Mississippi is too important, even to the reduced traffic of the Kurian Order, to be given up entirely to nature. The metropolis, both the section behind the dike and the Venice-like portions of the flooded districts, still support a melange of denizens from all across the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. Counting those living among the lakes, bayous, and in the Mississippi estuary, New Orleans boasts a population of over two million-a total that few other cities known to the Old World can match. The rich harvests of seafood, fish and game of the swamps, and mile after mile of rice plantations feed the masses concentrated at the sodden bend in the river.

The Kurian Order encourages fecund populations. A Kurian lord must breed his polls to supply him with enough vital aura, for only in feeding on the energy created by the death throes of a sentient being can he revitalize his immortal lich. The Masters of New Orleans have no regrets about its silenced music, its smothered culture, its reduced cuisine, or its broken history. Healthy, mating herds of humans, kept from escape and from the clutches of rapacious competing Kur, are the only form of wealth that matters.

For the human race, living to see another year is now the paramount pursuit in a city once known for its sensual diversions.

Though the Easy Street was only a waterfront dive, it was his waterfront dive, so Martin Clive took pride in every squeaky stool and chipped mug of his saloon. From grid shielded-electric lights to sawdust-covered floor, he loved every brick of it.

His customers, on the other hand, he could take or leave.

Not that he didn't need them. Clive's herd of cash-bearing cows, properly milked, provided for him. Clive surveyed the noisy, smelly Thursday-night crowd as the winter rains poured down outside. Safe behind the badge sewn to the money vest he seldom took off--even to sleep-and in the ownership of the biggest bar on the dockyard district of the dike-hugging waterfront, he passed his time and occupied his mind in sizing up the men as they talked, smoked, and drank. The few women in his bar were there on business, not for pleasure.

Clive perfected a three-step practice of evaluating customers over the years, now so ingrained that he did it unconsciously. Separating the "payers" from the "bums" came first. Knowing who had the cash for a night's drink and who didn't had been second nature to Clive since before he acquired the establishment. Distinguishing "gents" from "trouble" was yet another specialty. As he aged, and passed the responsibility of serving out drinks and rousting the "bums" and "trouble" to younger, stronger men, he took up a third valuation: that of predicting the remaining life span of his customers.

Clive looked at a bent longshoreman, hook over his shoulder and a pewter mug of cheap beer at his lips. The man had drunk, smoked, and wheezed out a few hours in the Easy Street six nights a week for the past ten years. Clive had watched him age under grueling physical labor, rotgut alcohol, and bad diet. If the longshoreman could stay in the good books of his crew chief, meaning handing over kickbacks out of his wages, he could probably spin out as many as ten more years if he stayed out of the hold. Sitting two seats down from him, a merchant sailor drank plain coffee, sixty if he was a day, dye rubbed into his hair to darken it in an effort to look younger. Soon no captain would hire him on, no matter how sober and upstanding a character he might be. He was due for the last dance within a year or two. On the next stool, a boy kept an affectionate eye on the aged sailor, perhaps a relative, perhaps just a shipmate. The boy did not drink either, and with hard work and a clean nose could expect to live another fifty years as long as he kept indoors after nightfall.

Over at a warm corner table, a young officer drank with three of his men. The officer was a welcome combination of "payer" and "gent," to the point where Clive bothered to name him. The officer was "the Major" to Clive, and the Major always ordered a good bottle and never complained about the cheap whiskey substituted inside. That made him a fine payer. The Major and his men rarely caused trouble; therefore, they qualified for genthood. They wore the mottled green uniform of the Carbineers, one of the horsed troops of paramilitary Cossacks who kept civil order and patrolled the streets of New Orleans.

Maybe in other city establishments the Major threw his weight around, took food and drink without paying, and had his uniform silence objections. But not in the Easy Street. Clive had friends at the top of the city's food chain.

Clive learned in his youth that if you were in good with Kur, you could thumb your nose at the Port Authority, the Transport Office, even the police and militia. With Kurian patronage, he bid for ownership of the moribund Easy Street. A whiff of anything going on in the bar that Kur wouldn't like, and he picked up the phone. Clive wore his third ten-year badge on his chest, not due to expire for six more years, and he was certain of acquiring another. The badge put him off-limits to the Kurians' aura-hungry Hoods- well, mostly-and brought him peace of mind that muzzled any protest from his conscience.

The inner door of the entry vestibule opened, and Clive heard the wind and splatter of the rain pouring down outside in the moment before his doorman swung the outer portal shut. Clive liked the rain. It drove customers indoors and flushed the filth from the city's gutters.

A stranger stood silhouetted in the door.

The man didn't remove his raincoat. Clive took a closer look. A coat could conceal any number of unpleasant accoutrements. The Easy Street's owner relaxed when he caught a glimpse of uniform under the coat's heavy lapels. The flash of navy blue and brass buttons revealed the stranger as a Coastal Marine. From the fit of the coat and the good though mud-splattered boots Clive judged the man a payer. But something about his face made Clive reserve judgment on whether this man would be trouble or not.

The marine was tall and lean, but not remarkably so in either aspect. Clive put him in his mid-twenties: he had the narrow, crinkle-edged eyelids of a man with a lot of outdoor mileage, and the bronze skin of someone with a hefty dose of Indian blood. The stranger walked with a trace of stiffness in his left leg, not a false limb but perhaps an old injury. He was good-looking in a clean-shaven, sharp-jawed way, judging from the looks exchanged by a pair of whores keeping each other company at the end of the bar. Shining black hair hung in wet tangles, a ropy opal mane thrown back over his collar. A thin white scar traced his right cheek from the outer corner of his dark eye to his chin like the path of a milky tear.

With a moment to get a good look as the marine moved, Clive judged the man to be wearing a pistol at his hip, then the capped tang of some kind of knife appeared as the entrant turned. Clive knew how to spot weapons, long coat or no.

The new customer glanced around the room. His gaze flicked from the massive fireplace at the west end, big enough for a barbecue, to the game tables at the east.

The marine froze. Clive followed his gaze. Before he could determine whom he had recognized, the scarred stranger approached the bar nonchalantly. Clive guessed he had recognized the Major, for the table in the corner had gone quiet. Probably some old quarrel over a girl, or a smuggling deal gone bad. The Coastal Marines, with their mobility and lack of supervision, were notorious black-marketeers on the coast stretching from Galveston to the Florida Floods. Intrigued, Clive looked across the bar to the Major's table. The gents had their heads together. Clive's nose, after years of smelling the various aromas of a saloon-tobacco, liquor, sweat, urine, sawdust, and vomit (usually in that order)- was not as straight as it once had been, but he smelled trouble.

'Tea and rum, if you've got either," David Valentine said, dripping from head to foot on the sawdust-sprinkled floor. His coat trapped the wet of his shirt better than it kept the rain out.

"Got both, Coastie."

"The hotter, the better," he said, pulling his hand through his slick hair again to get it out of his eyes. The gesture gave him a chance to look at the corner table. A silent mental alarm had tripped a switch in his nervous system, warming weight around, took food and drink without paying, and had his uniform silence objections. But not in the Easy Street. Clive had friends at the top of the city's food chain.

Clive learned in his youth that if you were in good with Kur, you could thumb your nose at the Port Authority, the Transport Office, even the police and militia. With Kurian patronage, he bid for ownership of the moribund Easy Street. A whiff of anything going on in the bar that Kur wouldn't like, and he picked up the phone. Clive wore his third ten-year badge on his chest, not due to expire for six more years, and he was certain of acquiring another. The badge put him off-limits to the Kurians' aura-hungry Hoods- well, mostly-and brought him peace of mind that muzzled any protest from his conscience.

The inner door of the entry vestibule opened, and Clive heard the wind and splatter of the rain pouring down outside in the moment before his doorman swung the outer portal shut. Clive liked the rain. It drove customers indoors and flushed the filth from the city's gutters.

A stranger stood silhouetted in the door.

The man didn't remove his raincoat. Clive took a closer look. A coat could conceal any number of unpleasant accoutrements. The Easy Street's owner relaxed when he caught a glimpse of uniform under the coat's heavy lapels. The flash of navy blue and brass buttons revealed the stranger as a Coastal Marine. From the fit of the coat and the good though mud-splattered boots Clive judged the man a payer. But something about his face made Clive reserve judgment on whether this man would be trouble or not.

The marine was tall and lean, but not remarkably so in either aspect. Clive put him in his mid-twenties: he had the narrow, crinkle-edged eyelids of a man with a lot of outdoor mileage, and the bronze skin of someone with a hefty dose of Indian blood. The stranger walked with a trace of stiffness in his left leg, not a false limb but perhaps an old injury. He was good-looking in a clean-shaven, sharp-jawed way, judging from the looks exchanged by a pair of whores keeping each other company at the end of the bar. Shining black hair hung in wet tangles, a ropy opal mane thrown back over his collar. A thin white scar traced his right cheek from the outer corner of his dark eye to his chin like the path of a milky tear.

With a moment to get a good look as the marine moved, Clive judged the man to be wearing a pistol at his hip, then the capped tang of some kind of knife appeared as the entrant turned. Clive knew how to spot weapons, long coat or no.

The new customer glanced around the room. His gaze flicked from the massive fireplace at the west end, big enough for a barbecue, to the game tables at the east.

The marine froze. Clive followed his gaze. Before he could determine whom he had recognized, the scarred stranger approached the bar nonchalantly. Clive guessed he had recognized the Major, for the table in the corner had gone quiet. Probably some old quarrel over a girl, or a smuggling deal gone bad. The Coastal Marines, with their mobility and lack of supervision, were notorious black-marketeers on the coast stretching from Galveston to the Florida Floods. Intrigued, Clive looked across the bar to the Major's table. The gents had their heads together. Clive's nose, after years of smelling the various aromas of a saloon-tobacco, liquor, sweat, urine, sawdust, and vomit (usually in that order)- was not as straight as it once had been, but he smelled trouble.

"Tea and rum, if you've got either," David Valentine said, dripping from head to foot on the sawdust-sprinkled floor. His coat trapped the wet of his shirt better than it kept the rain out.

"Got both, Coastie."

"The hotter, the better," he said, pulling his hand through his slick hair again to get it out of his eyes. The gesture gave him a chance to look at the corner table. A silent mental alarm had tripped a switch in his nervous system, warming him better than any fire. Details stood out: florid printing on the bar bottle labels, the meshed ranks of gray hair on the barman's arms, a blemish on a prostitute's neck, footsteps muffled by the sawdust scattered on the floor, the rancid smell out of a spittoon.

The officer leaned across the corner table to speak to his men. Valentine trembled as his mind raced.

"You cold, Marine?" a whore asked, brushing a wet lock of hair behind his ear. Gold lame and blond hair covered what little skin she didn't have on display. "I got a way-"

She'd been attracted by the uniform. Ironic, because its thick, high-quality fabric and solid brass buttons repulsed him every time he put it on. Whenever he looked at himself in a mirror, he saw the Enemy looking back out of his own eyes.

"Some other time, perhaps." Valentine turned away from her.

His conscience hammered at him until his eyes shone wet with more than rain. Fool! Lazy, irresponsible fool! Over a year's worth of preparation, service to the Kurian Order under a false name, all turned to shit and flushed. Just because he'd been tired and felt like coming in out of the weather.

Valentine racked his brain for the name, picturing the hawkish face in the hammock that summer in the Yazoo Delta during his training in Free Territory. Lewand Alistar, a freshly invoked Wolf six years ago and posted missing, presumed dead. So the Reapers hadn't killed him after all. Perhaps he had been captured and turned; perhaps he had been planted in Southern Command as a spy who saw his chance to get away clean. Whatever put him in a Carbineer's uniform in New Orleans was immaterial. The fact remained that mutual recognition occurred.

Valentine remembered Alistar as a quick-witted, active comrade. A hot mug of spiked tea arrived, and Alistar chose that moment to rise and take up his coat. Valentine blew into the steaming crockery. Alistar's companions shifted their chairs around. They pretended to watch the barmaids and hookers, but all three heads were pointed at Valentine.

Valentine heard Alistar move behind him. He readied himself to turn and fight, should the footsteps approach. But the Quisling left the Easy Street in a hurry. Typical of Alistar-not heroic but smart. No wonder he wore a major's cluster in the Kurian Zone.

Valentine needed to get out of the bar, too, without being impeded by Alistar's comrades, who he guessed had been ordered to keep him from leaving. He reached into his pocket, wadded a ball of money in his hand. He raised his mug in a come-hither toast to the whore who had approached him.

"Interested in a little fun and a lot of money?" he asked, his rough voice low.

"Always," she said, smiling at him with a decent, if tobacco stained, set of teeth behind compound layers of lipstick. "My name's Agri. Like as in agreeable to anything."

Valentine thrust the money into her shirt, pretending to feel her up. "Glad to hear it. There's a hundred and then some, Agri. Which girl here rubs you the wrong way?"

"Huh?" she said.

"Quick, or a man. Who don't you like here?"

She dropped the attitude at the quiet urgency in his voice. "Umm, there's Star," the woman said, leaning out to look around Valentine's wide shoulder. "The head of hair with gold earrings. She's always breaking in and screwing my work up."

He followed her gaze. "Which one is she, in the pink?" he asked, spotting a prostitute with a mass of wavy hair framing her face like a lion's mane. "Okay, I'm going to go talk to her. I want you to start a fight, fast."

"And that's all I gotta do?"

"Make as big a scene as you can. Yes, that's all."

"Shit, Marine, I'd do that for free."

Valentine turned away from her and moved to the darker woman in a hot pink half-top. "I've heard you're quite a woman," Valentine said, raising an eyebrow suggestively. The whore cocked her head and smiled welcomingly.

"That's my up, you bitch!" his paid prostitute shrieked.

Noisy, even better, Valentine thought.

Star reacted with a speed that would have done credit to many of Valentine's former comrades in the Wolves. She planted herself, lowered her hips, and spread her arms.

The two women fell to the floor, fighting bobcats spitting and hissing at each other. A ring of hooting barflies formed around the combatants. Valentine backed through the crowd, snatched a hat off of an unattended table, and moved out the door before any of Alistar's soldiers had a chance to push through the crowd to guard the exit.

The conditions could hardly be worse for tracking a smart man in the crowded-and dangerous, thanks to prowling Reapers-city with a two-minute head start. Night, rain, and the rickshaw-cluttered streets all conspired to hide his quarry. Visibility nil-the big bosses never bothered much with public lighting. Most men would not have had a chance.

David Valentine was not most men. He was a Cat, one of the select specimens of humanity called Hunters trained by the Lifeweavers to fight against the abominations of their vampiric brethren, the Kur. The Kur controlled most of the planet, and the regions that remained outside their grasp, like Valentine's adopted home in the Ozarks and Ouachitas, owed much of their freedom to the sacrifices of the Hunters.

The Hunters, outnumbered and weak compared with the Reapers and the other creations of the Kur, relied on enhanced senses, physical ability, and tight mental discipline. The last was of paramount importance. The Reapers, the Praetorian Guard of Kur, tracked human prey by reading lifesign, psychic auras sent out by sentient beings.

Valentine needed to wash the fear from his mind. At the moment he was alone among enemies, surrounded by thousands who could gain a ten-year badge protecting themselves from the Reapers by pointing him out as an enemy of the New Order. And somewhere in the rainy darkness, a man whom he knew to be no fool was hurrying to ring the alarm bell.

Alistar would not just run to the nearest phone. He had no idea if Valentine was working alone, or with others who might have picked up a surreptitious signal and followed him out of the bar. Valentine remembered him as a man who liked to be in command. It was possible that he would get a posse of his own Carbineers together, to better take the credit for his coup in capturing or killing one of Southern Command's "terrorists."

The barracks of the Carbineers would mean a long walk, too much time wasted. But Valentine knew from months of working the port that a contingent of them guarded then-supply warehouse by the docks. Some of Alistar's men would be there.

It was only a guess, but as good a guess as he could make. Valentine ducked through an alleyway and broke into a sprint down a road parallel to the one Alistar probably took. Even if he had guessed wrong, the farther he got from the Easy Street, the better.

He loosened his coat to run. If anyone saw him, pounding down the center of the near-empty street, splashing through puddles, they might mistake him in the wet and darkness for a Reaper. His sprint did not end at the hundred-yard mark; he called on his reserves, and they answered, propelling him through the night with legs and lungs of flame. Astonishingly, at least to anyone who did not know what a Hunter was capable of, his speed increased.

The warehouse he sought was in an old, brick-paved part of town. Garbage lay in heaps on every corner, and better than half the buildings were fire-gutted shells. Empty, glass-less windows gaped out at the street like skulls' eyes when they were not boarded up.

One closed-up window wore a freshly spray-painted skull with a heart around it. According to the graffiti of New

Orleans's streets, someone just lost a loved one to the Reapers within.

Any of the empty buildings around might contain a prowling Reaper. This was one of the districts of the city where it wasn't considered healthy to be out after dark, even for a man in uniform. He relaxed his mind, let his vision blur, tried to feel for the cold, hard spot on his mind the Reapers sometimes made.

Sometimes. He prayed his psychic antennae were working tonight.

He pulled up at a noisome alley, partially blocked at one end by a stripped car turned on its side. Its gutters served as the local populace's latrine, judging from the smell. Hand tapping at his pistol butt, Valentine cut down the alley and back to the main thoroughfare. Alistar was a former Wolf, and there was every possibility of him scenting Valentine before seeing him without some kind of masking odor.

A thunk and a metallic clatter sounded from one of the broken windows, hitting him like a shot. He spun, crouching against the half-expected leap as he drew his revolver. His keen ears picked up the sound of the skittering, scrambling claws of a fleeing rat within.

Valentine edged sideways down the alley, gaze flicking from paneless window to window until his heart slowed again.

He paused in a deep well of darkness under a fire escape, reholstered his gun, and drew a stiletto from his boot, nerving himself for what he had to do. Killing in battle, with bullets cracking the air all around and explosions numbing his senses was one thing. Premeditated murder of a fleeing opponent required an entirely different side of his persona. It was a version of himself who had killed helpless men in their Control Tanks in Omaha; blown a bound policeman's head off with a shotgun in Wisconsin; and knifed lonely, frightened sentries on isolated bridges. Cold-blooded need provoked those killings, but his sense of exultation in the deeds bothered his conscience more than the acts themselves did.

Valentine heard footsteps over the steady patter of rain, coming from the direction he expected Alistar. Two people hove into view in the middle of the street, walking together under some kind of tarpaulin sheltering both from the weather. Not his quarry then, but-

One was definitely pulling the other along. The insistent guide was about the right size and sex. Clever. Trusting his hunch, Valentine collected himself for a leap. As he crouched, the analytical side of his brain appreciated the irony of Alistar using a woman as camouflage, paralleling his own subterfuge in the bar. The tarpaulin provided just the right touch of shape-concealing cover. He probably grabbed her out of a doorway, tucking himself under the improvised umbrella with her and ordering her to accompany him. Alistar had always been cool in a crisis.

As they passed, not seeing him in the rain and dark, Valentine leapt. His standing broad jump covered five meters, ending in a body blow that caught Alistar in the small of the back. The two tumbled down, the man ensnared in the wet canvas.

The girl screamed out her fright, and Valentine heard her stumble and right herself. He paid no attention, concentrating on getting his knife to the Quisling's throat. The man struggled in the folds of the tarry material like a netted fish.

He straddled Alistar, pinning his chest and arms with the full force of his body weight and muscle as he cut open the tarp. The stiletto dug into his former comrade's neck, eliciting a squeal. "Dave, no! Wait!"

Valentine paused, not moving the knife either farther in or back. He had not been called Dave since his days as a recruit.

"Not what you think," Alistar said as his face drained to white. "You think I wanted this? You remember how it was, we got separated.... The Reapers were after us. One got me, picked me up. They took me all the way back to Mississippi. After questioning, it was join 'em or die. Never really joined though, never really joined. That's why I ended up in this rear-area pisser, didn't want to fight against y'all. You have to believe me. I met a girl, got married. We've talked about running-every chance we get alone, we discuss it. Lois wants out."

"You could have contacted me in the bar, then. Quietly. What did you run for?"

"I-I got scared."

"Looked to me like you were running for help."

"I didn't tell the guys you were with Southern Command. I said we fought over a job. You threatened you'd kill me if you ever got the chance. I ducked out to go get my wife, I was going to have her go in there and talk to you. Make you see our way. Lois's honest-you can tell just by talking to her. I knew you could always read people, Dave. You'd be able to get us out."

Valentine listened with Lifeweaver-sensitized ears for anyone approaching to investigate. He let Alistar speak.

"We can be ready in an hour. Hide out wherever you tell us. I dunno why you're here, but maybe you need some advice about how to get away." Alistar paused. "Or not. Any way you want it. Just trust me-give me a chance to prove it."

Valentine put himself in Alistar's shoes. The summer of his eighteenth year, had their roles been reversed, could he honestly say he would not have followed Alistar's path, given a choice of death or grudging service? But how grudging? He wore a major's cluster, after all. Perhaps he wore other insignia.

He shifted the knife and used his right hand to pull open Alistar's raincoat. On his old comrade's breast was a row of little silver studs, projecting out of the green uniform over a shining five-year badge. Valentine knew that each stud represented five confirmed kills of enemies bearing arms, and the badge probably gained through turning over friends, neighbors, or comrades to the Reapers.

Alistar read his fate in Valentine's eyes and opened his mouth to scream for help. Valentine shot his hand up to Al-istar's throat, crushing cartilage and blood vessels in a granite grip. A sound like a candy wrapper crinkling and an airy wheeze was all that came out of the Quisling's collapsing throat.

"Would've let you go another time," Valentine said, fighting his friend's final paroxysm. "But what I'm here to do is just too damn important."

Valentine got up off the corpse. Emptying his mind, quieting his thoughts with the aura-hiding discipline of the Lifeweavers had a succoring side effect: it kept him from thinking about what he had just done. He carried the corpse off to the stinking alley and went to work with quick, precise motions. Using his knife, he tore a ragged hole just below Alistar's Adam's apple, then picked up the twitching body and held it inverted. The warmth of the draining corpse nauseated him. He watched the blood mix with the rain on the cracked and filthy pavement, and stood shivering from wet cold and nerves.

Between the injury and the confused girl's story of a flying assailant out of the shadows, assuming she was brave enough to go to the Authorities, there was a chance that whoever found Alistar's body would conclude a prowling Reaper had taken him, draining him of blood with its syringelike tongue.

Valentine had seen enough Hood-drained bodies to mimic the injury and disposal of the corpse. He stuffed Alistar in a debris-filled window well. The Reapers usually concealed their kills so as not to disturb their human herds. But an investigation blaming the death on a Reaper feeding was too slender a thread on which to hang the success of his mission.

It would have to start tonight.

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