Valentine's Exile Chapter One

Loading...

Dallas, March, the fiftieth 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.

Save for the sounds of streetfighting, hard to locate thanks to reflections from the skyscrapers, this city at war seems strangely empty. Scavenging black crows and wary, tail-tucking dogs catch the eye here and there, but human activity is nil. Vague stormlike rumbles mutter in the distance, and 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.

Viewed from above, or on a headquarters map in one of the command bunkers, Big D is now a network of opposing circles.

The largest circle encompasses the great towers of the city center. Linked above the twentieth floor by spiderweb-like cables that allow the sure-tentacled Kurians interbuilding access without mixing with their human herds at street level, they show new holes and pits and hollows from the besiegers' guns and rockets. At street level mounds of debris and rubble stand in concentric rings, defended by batteries of guns manned by everyone from professional soldiers to minor functionaries in what until last year had been the affluent and sprawling North Texas Cooperative.

Surrounding that central axis are an assortment of smaller circles, ringing the central battlements like the chambers in a revolver's cylinder. The closest to the front lines are Texas regulars out of the Pinewoods and the Rio Grande belt; others to the north and east fly the tricolor of the Ozarks, and a few smaller ones filling gaps to the rear are clusters of militias made up of men and women freed from the heavy hand of the Cooperative.

Northwest of the city rests one of these smaller circles, surrounding an airstrip once called Love Field. The soldiers there are not placed to assault the city. The ad hoc unit occupying the airport grew out of the rising in Little Rock that opened Operation Archangel. They participate in the siege both as a sentimental gesture of gratitude to the Texans who plunged down the Arkansas River to rescue them and as being part of the gun-bristling ring that prevents an organized breakout. Their airfield joins the extreme left of the Ozark troops and the extreme right of the Texans.

Their regimental flag, a black-and-blue silhouette of an Arkansas razorback set under the joined Texas and Ozark flags, reads DON'T FEED ON ME. Judged from a distance, the forces in this particular encampment, called Valentine's Razors by the veterans, aren't in shape to serve as anything but a supporting unit. Only a few mortars and machine-gun pits fill their lines, more for defense of the camp than for battering those within the city. Instead rolls of concertina wire on the open ground near the airstrip enclose cattle awaiting slaughter for the daily ration, and the airport's garages hum with the sounds of generators and power tools. On the march southwest from the Ozarks the Razors proved invaluable in getting captured Kurian vehicles operational again, and in turning cattle, wheat, pigs, and corn into grist for various regimental kitchens. Their aptitudes reflect the rear-area nature of many of the soldiers in the Razors, united by chance during the uprising in Little Rock.

To a general of either side looking at a map and possessed of a modicum of intelligence, military and personal, the Razors are one of the least-threatening circles surrounding Big D.

But quality can rarely be judged from a distance.

The first clue is in the rifles that each on-duty soldier always has within reach: long, heavy-barreled fillers with oversized banana magazines and integral bipods, some with telescopic sights, others with fixtures for high-capacity drum magazines. Souvenirs of the Razors' brief integration into Solon's Army of the Trans-Mississippi, they are the best battle rifles the famous Atlanta Gunworks produces. Thanks to the Type Threes, any soldier is capable of turning into a supporting fire unit in a moment, given a simple wrench and a belt of the proper ammunition.

Then there are the "prowlers". The mechanics of the Razors see to it that the best bits and pieces of Quisling wreckage make their way into the regimental motor pool, where they're assembled into armored cars and mortar transports. High-axled, fat-tired, covered with rocket-propelled grenade-stopping webbing, each swamp buggy-cum-armored car bears a pair of angry eyes, and sharp tusks and teeth, somewhere just above and forward of the front tires. A few have front electric winches formed into snouts, and the beds of many of the vehicles sport recoilless rifles, miniguns, and auto-grenade launchers. Other longer, heavier, double-axled trucks are built to carry troops, loading and unloading from doors in the backs or sides of the transports, and an assortment of trailer-pumps feed the gas tanks from captured gasoline supplies when on the move, or hold a reserve against supply interruptions when encamped.

The Razors shouldn't have worked. Soldiers thrown together under the most dire of circumstances couldn't be expected to stand up to a determined assault, let alone hold a precarious position alone in the heart of enemy country. The success of their famous stand on the banks of the Arkansas River might be considered a measure as much of their enemy's incompetence as their own mettle. But some credit must be given to 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-gray uniform is thick with "Dallas Dust", an oatmeal-colored mixture of pulverized concrete, ash, and mundane winter dirt. Blacky hair tied in a pigtail hangs from his scalp, and a thin, white scar on the right side of his face only serves to show off an early spring tan, bronzing indicative of ample melanin in his genes. A shortened version of his Razor's battle rifle with folding stocky 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, with flares for a signal gun at his hip and a "camel" water bladder over his shoulder. A veteran of the Razors would note 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 stairwell to the old terminal's sublevel 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 used to be.

The entrance to the Razorbacks' headquarters resembled an oversized anthole, if anything. It fooled the eyes that sometimes drifted high above the besiegers' positions.

He rested his gun in a cleaning becket and stood on a carpet remnant in the entryway to let his eyes adjust to the dim light within. Deaf old Pooter, one of the regiment's guinea pigs, rolled up onto his hind legs and whistled a welcome from his chicken-wire cage perched on a shelf next to the door. Valentine tossed him the dandelion.

"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 was tired. He'd spent the last eight hours moving across the forward posts, keyed up for a battle that never came. Probably more than 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.

On the other side of the door from Pooter was a sandbagged cubbyhole filled with salvaged armchairs resting among thousands of loosely bound pages from perhaps a hundred different pre-22 magazines and novels. A team of Nail's Bears, Razorback HQ's emergency reserve, lounged within, smoking captured tobacco and reading books or magazine fragments.

Except for one. The Bear Valentine knew as Lost & Found stood just outside the cubbyhole in the deepest shadow of the entrance, an assault rifle resting in his arms like a cradled child, a bucket filled with white powder at his feet.

Valentine took in the HQ air, perhaps ten degrees warmer than the morning chill of the Texas spring outside. The Bear tobacco, a faint fecal smell, brewing coffee, old sweat, drying laundry, gun oil, and a hint of cabbage stewing in salty broth rolled around in his nostrils.

"Morning, sir," Lost & Found said, looking out the door beyond Valentine. He prodded the bucket at his foot.

Valentine dutifully stripped off his combat harness and tossed it in the decontamination barrel. The rest of his clothes followed until he stood naked on the carpet remnant.

He took a handful of the boric acid from the bucket and gave himself a rubdown, concentrating on his shoulder-length black hair, armpits, and crotch. Rednits liked the warmth and tender apertures around hair follicles, and the battalion wasn't losing any more men to nit-fever. Colonel Meadows had enough on his hands with twenty percent of the Razorbacks filling field hospital beds or recovery wards, eating leek-and-liver soup twice daily, getting their blood back up to strength.

Valentine went over to a bank of lockers featuring names written on duct tape plastered on new paint slathered over old rust, and extracted a uniform. Hank had put a fresh one in overnight, while Valentine was forward. Regular soldiers had to make do with the rumpled contents of the slop bins, but the Razorback officers each had a locker for their inside uniforms. When he was properly dressed in the mixed-gray-and-deep-green fatigues of the Razorbacks (Southern Command Mixed Infantry Division, for use of-some said the color scheme was reminiscent of a raccoon's backside) he put on leather-soled moccasins and followed the smell of coffee with his Wolfs nose.

He walked past the headset-wearing HQ radio/field-phone operator, whose gear was swathed in cheesecloth that smelled of kerosene, surrounded by six different NO SMOKING signs in English, Spanish, and French. The kerosene kept the electicks out.

The little bastards ate electrical insulation and grew into three-inch sticklike bugs whose metallic chitin inevitably shorted out electrical equipment.

The boy with the headset, seventeen but scrawny enough to pass for fourteen, studied the flickering needles of the radio set as though divining runes. Valentine raised an eyebrow to the kid, got a head shake in return, and looked at the clipboard with the most recent com-flimsies. There'd been some chatter out of Dallas the previous day that made GHQ-Dallas Corridor suspect a counterattack in the Razorbacks' area, but nothing had manifested last night.

Breakfast or a shower?

Valentine decided to give the boric acid a few more minutes to work and headed for the galley.

In the five weeks they'd occupied the airfield Narcisse and her staff had set up sinks, 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 the strongpoints covering the approaches to Dallas. Narcisse wore no uniform, held no rank, and wandered between the battalion's kitchens and infirmary as the mood struck her, dispensing equal helpings of cheer and food, escorted in her wheelchair by a steadfast rottweilerish 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 Marshall.

Valentine said good morning to the potato peelers, working under faded paint that once demarked a maintenance workshop, 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, then 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 original plumbing fixtures and electrical junction boxes. In the distance a generator clattered, steadily supplying juice but sounding as though it was unhappy with the routine. Just along 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.

His nose told him someone lay in his room even before his eyes picked out the L-shaped hummock in his wire-frame bed. A pale, boric acid-dusted leg ending in a calloused, 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 the experience 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, occasionally 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, calloused and scarred from endless miles on worn-through socks-her feet told a gruesome tale.

A pair of utility sinks held her gear, reeking of the camphor smell of its spell 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 by 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.

"Yeah."

"Room for two."

"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?"

"Anything."

Valentine took a reviving spout-shower that kept Hank busy bearing hot water down from the kitchen. Valentine had been seeing to the boy's education at odd hours, trying to remember the lessons Father Max had issued at thirteen, and had put him in the battalion's books to make it easier to feed and clothe the boy. They shared more than just a working relationship. Both had ugly red-and-white burn scars; Valentine's on his back, Hank's on his semifunctional right hand.

"What's the definition of an isosceles triangle?" Valentine asked as he worked a soapy rag up and down his legs.

"All, no, two sides of equal length," Hank said.

"When all three are the same?"

"Equilateral," Hank said.

Hank also got the questions on degrees of the corners of an equilateral right. Tomorrow Valentine would get him using triangles for navigational purposes ... it always helped to add practical applicability right away. In a week or so the boy would be able to determine latitude using the sun and a sextant, provided he could remember the definition of a plumb line.

"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 in the past thanks to mistakes.

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.

"I'm not forward or quiet," William Post replied. His salt-and-pepper hair showed white traces of boric acid. "Narcisse made her chili last night." Valentine's old subordinate, an ex-Quisling Coastal Marine who'd helped him take the Thunderbolt across the Caribbean and back, and was one of the best officers he'd ever known, went back to sorting corn-flimsies. Valentine's ears picked up a stifled burp.

"Anything happen here?" Besides the usual morning gas.

Meadows had the look of a man just up from a twenty-minute nap that was the only sleep he'd gotten that night. He closed 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 rifle shot, in the dark. Some weeks ago Valentine had seen a dead one that had been brought down by chance, 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.

"I had the A Company men turn in," Post reported. "The armored cars are still ready to roll, and C Company's alerted. Just in case."

"Thanks, Will," Valentine said. "Colonel, I still think they're preparing a surprise. I'd suggest we keep the line fully manned." Valentine regretted the words 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. It was piled with messages that came in overnight but weren't important enough to require the CO to be awakened. 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 hint of reprimand or 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'll debrief her over breakfast."

Post gave Valentine a playful wink as Meadows read his messages. Duvalier's appropriation of Valentine's bed whenever she was with the Razors inspired a few jokes about Valentine's "operations." Valentine suspected that the best lines originated from Post's salty throat.

"How are the men up the boulevard doing?" Meadows asked.

"The boulevard" was a wide east-west street that marked the forward edge of the Razors' positions. Snipers and machine gunners warred over five lanes of former Texas state route from blasted storefronts.

"Unhappy about being on the line, sir," Post reported. Post had keen antennae when it came to sensing the regiment's mood. More importantly, he cared, and even better, he acted on their behalf. Post was a relentless terror to rear-area supply officers when it came to the well-being of his men. "They only got three days at the airfield." Comparatively fresh companies had been moved up in anticipation of the attack from the relative quiet of the old field.

"Let's rotate them out if nothing happens by tomorrow morning."

"Will do, sir," Post replied.

"I'll see to Smoke now, Colonel, if you don't have anything else," Valentine said.

"Thank her for me, Major. Grab a meal 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 as a Coastal Marine in the enemy's uniform, and then living in the Thunderbolt after taking her from the Kurians.



01:30 Potable water line reestablished to forward positions

02:28 OP3 OP11 Artillery fire flashes and sounds from other side of city

03:55 OP3 Barrage ceased

04:10 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 opposite side of the city as well, glimpsed from between the tall buildings, making the structures stand out against the night like gravestones to a dead city.

The only suspicious message 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 and employed Hank as coffee bearer, and returned to his room. Duvalier twitched at his entry, then relaxed. Her eyes opened.

"Food," she said.

"And coffee," Valentine replied, after checking to make sure she was decent. Hank being a teenager, he'd waited in the spot with the best viewing angle into the room and bed.

"What's the latest from D?" Valentine asked, setting the tray briefly on the bed before pulling his makeshift desk up so she'd have an eating surface.

"No sign of an assault. I saw some extra gun crews and battle police at their stations, but no troops have been brought up."

Hank hung up Duvalier's gear to dry. Valentine saw the boy clip off a yawn.

"The Quislings?"

"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; 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."

"Morale?"

"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.

"They make the deserters stand in these big plastic garbage cans, the ones with little arrows running around in a circle, handcuffed in front. Then a Reaper comes up from behind one and tears open their shirt. They keep the poor bastard facing the other ranks the whole time so they can see the expression on his face-they're all gagged of course; they don't want any last words. The Reaper clamps its jaws somewhere between the shoulder blades and starts squeezing their arms into the rib cage. You hear the bones breaking, see the shoulders pop out as they dislocate.

"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 gawdawful 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 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 last was a nasty little mine the Kurians were fond of. When triggered, it launched itself twenty inches in 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 remnants of a last mouthful of masticated egg flying. "Na-ah."

"Now," Valentine said. "If you'll get out of my bed-"

"I need a real bath. Those basins are hardly big enough to sit in. How about your water boy-"

Hank perked up at the potential for that duty.

Valentine hated to ruin the boy's morning. "You can use the womens'. There's piping laid on 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.

Alarms?

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 defense 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, from tin can to wheel rim, 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, 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 explosions, then heard them a second later. Worse than mortars, worse than artillery, and going off so closely 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."

Valentine came off the last stairs and passed through the open security door. Meadows and two others of the regiment had box seats on chaos.

Whoever had installed the glass-if it was glass and not a high-tech polymer-had done the job well; still-intact windows offered the tower a 360-degree field of vision. In the distance the crenellated Dallas skyline-one bifurcated tower the men called "the Eye" stared straight at the field thanks to its strange, empty-centered top-broke the hazy morning horizon.

As he went to the glass, noting the quiet voice of the communications officer relaying the "Rancid" alert to Brigade, another explosion erupted in black-orange menace atop 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.

Not rickety, rebuilt crop dusters or lumbering old commercial aircraft; the assorted planes shared only smooth silhouettes and a mottled gray-and-tan camouflage pattern reminiscent of a dusty rattlesnake. There were sleek single seaters, like stunt planes Valentine had seen in books, whipping around the edges of the field, turned sideways so the pilots could get a good look at ground activity. Banana-shaped twin-engine jobs dove in at the vehicles parked between the two wings of the terminal concourses, one shooting rocket after rocket at the vehicles while the other two flanked it, drawing ground fire. A pair of bigger, uglier, wide-winged military attack planes with bulging turbofans on their rear fuselages came in, dropping a series of bombs that exploded into a huge snake of fire writhing between the Razors' positions and the southwestern strip.

"Who the hell are these guys?" Meadows said to no one.

The screaming machines, roaring to and fro over the field, weren't the only attackers on the wing. Flying Grogs in the hundreds, many the Harpy-type Valentine had first met over Weening during his spell in the labor regiments, swooped below the aircraft and even the control tower, dispensing what looked-and exploded-like sticks of dynamite at anything that moved. A few bigger wings--the true gargoyles of the kind Valentine had seen lain out-circled above, possibly waiting for a juicy enough target to be worth whatever they held in saddlebags hung around their thick necks.

The Razors fought back, mostly from their positions in the parking garages and the heavy weapons point around a winged statue depicting "Flight" near the entrance to the terminal buildings. Small groups of men or single soldiers fired from behind doorways, windows, or the sandbagged positions guarding the motor pool between the concourses.

Perhaps a gargoyle decided to hit the control tower. Valentine heard a heavy thud among the aerials on the roof, the scrabble of claws.

"Out!" Valentine shouted.

The trio looked up at the roof, apparently transfixed by the harmless scrabbling noises. Meadows' hand went to his sidearm, and the private fumbled with his battle rifle. In seconds they'd be dead, fragmenting brain tissue still wondering at the strange raccoonlike noise-

"Out!" Valentine said again, bodily pushing the private to the stairs with one hand, and pulling the communications officer from her chair with the other. She came out of her chair with her headset on; the headset cord stretched and unplugged as though it were as reluctant to leave its post as its operator. Meadows moved with dramatic suddenness as the realization of what might be happening on the roof arrived, and grabbed for the handle on the thick metal door to the stairway.

"I'll get it," Meadows said. Valentine, keeping touch with both the private and the communications officer, hurried down the stairs.

One flight. Two flights. Meadows' clattering footsteps on the stairs a half floor above . . .

The boom Valentine had been expecting for ten anxious seconds was neither head-shattering nor particularly loud, and while it shook peeling paint from the stairs and knocked out the lights, the three weren't so much as knocked off-stride.

Meadows joined them, panting. "The door must have held," he said.

Or physics worked in our favor, Valentine thought. An explosion tends to travel along the path of least resistance, usually upward.

"Maybe." Valentine said.

The impact of three more explosions came up through the floor, bombs striking Love Field somewhere.

"Orders?" Valentine asked.

"I'm going back up," Meadows said. "They might think they finished the job with one bomb. The radio antenna's had it for sure, but the field lines might still be functional."

"You two game?" Valentine asked the private-an intelligent soldier named Wilcox who was the military equivalent of a utility infielder; he could play a variety of positions well. Ruvayed, the lieutenant with the headphone jack still swinging at the end of its cord just below her belt, nodded.

Valentine clicked his gun off safety and brought it to his shoulder. "Me first, in case they crawled in."

Meadows brought up the rear going back up the stairs. Valentine reached the security door. Dust had been blown from beneath the door in an elegant spiked pattern, and he smelled smoke and the harsher odor of burning plastic. He turned the handle but the door wouldn't budge.

A kick opened it. The air inside had the harsh, faintly sulfurous tang of exploded dynamite.

As he swept the room over the open sights on his gun, Valentine saw naked sunlight streaming in from a hole in the roof big enough to put a sedan's engine block through. Older air-traffic consoles and the Razors' newer communications gear were blackened and cracked; the transformation was so thorough it seemed it should have taken more time than an instant.

The glass held, though it had cracks ranging from spiderwebbing to single fault lines. The quality of the stuff the old United States used to be able to make made Valentine shake his head in wonder yet again. Outside the planes still turned, swooped, and soared, engines louder now thanks to the hole in the roof.

But he kept his eyes and ears tuned to the new skylight, his cut-down Atlanta Gunworks battle rifle ready. Another tiny plane buzzed by, the noise of its engine rising fast and fading slowly over the other, fainter aircraft sounds. Who the hell are these guys?

Meadows pressed binoculars to his eye, scanning the ground in the direction of Dallas. "Not even mortar fire. It's not a breakout."

"Bad intelligence?" Ruvayed asked. "They thought we had planes?"

Another ribbon of fire blossomed against the parking garage facing the runway to the southwest. Valentine wondered about Ahn-Kha and Will Post. Both were probably at the hardpoints around the garages . . . why did they keep hitting that side of the airport? It faced the train tracks running out of the city, but the lines were torn up for miles.

Another of the tiny, fast scout planes buzzed low over the overgrown airstrip there. Save for his speed it looked as though he might be on a landing approach. The plane jumped skyward to avoid a stream of tracer.

"I wish we had some ack-ack guns here," Meadows said, binoculars trained up at some big multiengine transport circling the field. "All the high-angle stuff is close in to the city."

"Colonel," Valentine said. "Southwest. Look southwest, hitting hardest there."

"Field phones are shot," Ruvayed reported.

"Wilcox, hustle us up a portable radio," Meadows said. The private disappeared down the stairs.

The colonel searched the southern and western approaches to the airport. "Goddamn."

"I'd like to see what's happening in the garage," Valentine said.

"Go ahead. Pass the word that I'll be on the maintenance frequency, if I can get a radio up here. Send up a couple of messengers."

Valentine handed his gun and ammunition harness to Ruvayed. "Keep an eye cocked to that hole. And watch the balcony," he said. The control tower had an electronics service balcony just below the out-sloping windows. Nothing but birds' nests and old satellite dishes decorated it, but it would be just like the gargoyles to land carrying a couple of sniper rifles.

"Yes, sir," Ruvayed said.

"Tell everyone to keep their heads down, Major," Meadows said. "Maybe this whole attack is a Kurian screwup. The mechanics moved a couple of stripped passenger craft the other day-from a distance it could have looked like we had planes ready to go."

"Yes, sir." Valentine nodded. He turned for the stairs. Meadows didn't care one way or the other about salutes.

"Goes doubly for you," Meadows called after him.

The violent airshow going on outside must have been running short on fireworks; only one more small explosion sounded during the endless turns down the stairs. The elevator to the control tower was missing and presumed scavenged-nothing but shaft ran up the center of the structure.

Valentine double-timed through the tunnel system and up to the first floor of the terminal. He trotted past empty counters under faded signs and motionless luggage carousels-the only part of the main terminal in use was a small area in front of the bronze Ranger statue (ONE RIOT, ONE RANGER read the plaque) where the consumables for the Razors were delivered every few days.

"Major!" A voice broke through the sound of his footsteps. A corporal with his flak jacket on inside out called from the other end of the terminal, "They're hurtin' on the west approach."

"Thanks. Tell the Bears to find Captain Post and be ready to counterattack if they hit us from the ground. Send messengers and a new field phone up to the top deck. Right away."

The corporal nodded and ran for the stairwell.

Valentine crossed over to the huge parking garages by scuttling under the concrete walkway to the upper deck of the lot. A wheelless ambulance in the center of the parking garage served as an improvised command post for the airport's close-in defense.

The air was full of smoke and a fainter, oilier smell Valentine recognized as burning gasoline.

Wounded men and burned corpses lay all around the ambulance. Captain Martin, a Texas liaison for the Razors, helped the medics perform the gruesome task of triage as he spoke to a pair of sergeants.

Valentine listened with hard ears as he approached. Enhanced hearing, a gift from the Lifeweavers dating back to his time as a Wolf, made each word sound as though it were spoken in his ear. "Everyone to the dugouts but the observers," Martin said. "Yes, treat it like a bombardment. We'll worry about an assault when we see one."

Martin recognized Valentine with a nod. "Weird kinda visit from Dallas. How did they pull this off?"

"I doubt they're from Dallas," Valentine said. "We would have seen them taking off."

More distant explosions-a series of smaller cracks that made up a larger noise like halfhearted thunder.

"I'm putting the men in the shelters," Martin explained.

"Good," Valentine said, not wanting to waste time explaining that he'd already overheard the orders given. "I'd like to take a look at the field south and west of here. Is there still an operational post where I can do that?"

Valentine saw Ahn-Kha approaching from a forward garage stairwell, a man draped on each powerful shoulder. Ahn-Kha's arms, longer than but not quite as thick as his legs, held the men in place in a strange imitation of the classic bodybuilder's pose.

Blood matted his friend's golden shoulder and back fur, Valentine noted as his old companion set the men down near the ambulance.

"He's worth three Texans," Martin observed. Martin was still new enough to the Razors to watch Ahn-Kha as though half fascinated and half worried that the Grog would suddenly sink his ivory fangs into the nearest human. "Ten ordinary men, in other words."

"The observation post?" Valentine reminded the captain, as Ahn-Kha checked the dressings on the men he had just set down. Enormous, double-thumbed hands gently turned one of the wounded on his side.

"Second floor of the garage, back of an old van. It's still wired to the phone network."

Valentine remembered. "I know it. Ahn-Kha!"

The Golden One nodded to one of the Razor medics as she wiped her hands on a bloodstained disinfectant towel and squatted beside the latest additions to the swamp of bleeding men. "Yes, my David?"

"Get your puddler and meet me at OP 6."

Ahn-Kha's "Grog gun" had become famous, a 20mm behemoth of his own design that resembled a telescope copulating with a sawed-off kid's swing set. The other name came from a skirmish the Razors fought outside Fort Worth, where Ahn-Kha reduced an armored car commander to a slippery puddle of goo outside his hatch at six hundred yards.

"Yes, my David." Over seven feet of muscle straightened. "I had to leave Corporal Lopez at the stairwell exterior door. He's dead, or soon will be," Ahn-Kha informed the captain.

"What the hell, Major?" Martin asked. "What's so goddamn important about blowing us off the planet?"

"We'll know sooner than we'd like, I expect," Valentine said.

Another bomb shook dust onto the wounded.

"Christ," Martin said, but Valentine was reminded of something else.

"Make sure the men have their dust gear in the shelters," Valentine said. He ran down a mental list of what else the Razors might need to stop a column, and the two reserve regimental recoilless rifles could be useful. "Get Luke and John operational up here too, with plenty of shells. But the dust gear first." Matthew and Mark were vehicle-mounted, and probably smoldering with most of the other transport between the terminals.

"You'd think we'd be drowning in it. Makes me think-"

"They're probably on their way already."

Valentine offered a salute. Martin's mouth tightened as he returned it-the Texans weren't big on military rigamarole, but there were ordinary soldiers present and the Razors knew a salute from their operations chief meant that the half-Indian major didn't expect you to speak again until you were ready to report on his orders-and hurried to the central stairway.

Valentine went up a floor to the last garage level before the exposed top and hurried to the rusty old van, parked just far enough from the open edge of the parking lot so the sun would never hit it. Though wheelless and up on blocks, missing even its headlamps and mirrors, the Razors kept it clean so that the carefully washed smoked-glass windows at the back and sides wouldn't stand out from the dirt and Texas dust of the nonlethal variety.

Valentine called out his name and entered the van through the open side door. Two Razors looked out on the Dallas skyline and the roads and train tracks running along the western edge of the airfield. Their ready dust-hoods hung off the backs of their helmets like bridal veils. Dropped playing cards lay on the van's interior carpet, the only remaining evidence of what had probably once been plush fixtures for road-weary vactioners.

"I've never seen so many planes in my life, that's for sure," one said to the other, a bit of the Arkansas hills in his voice. Valentine knew his face but the name wouldn't come. "Howdy, Major."

"Hey, Major Valentine," the other said, after relocating a piece of hard candy on a tongue depressor that the soldiers called a "post-sicle." Captain Post had a candy maker somewhere in his family tree, and the men liked to suck on his confections to keep the Texas dirt from drying out their mouths. "We got hit after all, huh."

"I'm glad somebody noticed. Did it break up a good card game ?"

"Depends. Lewis was winning," the Arkansan said.

"Sorry to hear that, Lewis," Valentine said. He vaguely knew that the tradition of canceling all wins and losses in an unfinished game had sprung up during the siege at Big Rock Mountain the previous year, and was thus hallowed into one of the battalion's unwritten rules.

"What do these aircutters got against the Razors, is what I want to know," Lewis said.

Valentine scanned the approaches to the airfield, then the sky. A larger plane, its wingspan wider than its body length, caught the sun high up.

Whoever's up there knows.

* * * *

The second phase of the attack came within five minutes, as Valentine reported to Meadows through a field phone line patched into the portable radio now installed in the control tower.

"Holy Jesus!" Lewis barked.

The grass between the northwest-southeast parallel runways flanking the field bulged, then dimpled, then collapsed, sending a cloud of dirt to join the smoke still coating the field.

"Between the runways," Ahn-Kha shouted from his position at a supporting column. And unnecessarily, as Valentine locked eyes on the spot and brought up his binoculars.

A corkscrew prow the size of one of the old Thunderbolt's lifeboats emerged into daylight. Striped blacks and browns on a pebbly, organic surface spun hypnotically as it rotated. Brown flesh behind-the snout pulsed, ripples like circular waves traveling backward to the hidden portion of the thing. It rolled like a show diver performing a forward twist and nosed back into the earth. Overgrown prairie plants flew as the giant worm tilled and plunged back into the soil.

"What the devil?" the Arkansan said, watching the creature dig, still spinning clockwise as it reburied itself.

Tiny planes whipped over the inverted U of exposed flesh.

"Tunnels, Colonel, they've tunneled to the airfield," Valentine said into the field phone. He consulted the map of the airfield and its surroundings, pinned to the carpeted wall of the observation van. "We need fire support to grid N-7, repeat N-7."

The tunneling worm's other end finally appeared, another shell-like counterpoint to the prow. Valentine marked an orifice at the very tip this time, though whether it was for eating or excreting he couldn't say.

The two identical warcraft, turbofans bulging above their broad wings, banked in from the west, aiming directly at the parking garages.

Valentine dropped the field glasses and the phone handpiece. Something about the crosslike silhouettes of the aircraft suggested approaching doom.

"This won't be good," Lewis said.

"Out! Out! Out!" Valentine shouted.

Ahn-Kha was already at the van door, perhaps ready to bodily pull the men from the observation post, but the three jumped from the van and ran for the central stairway.

They didn't quite make it.

Valentine heard faint whooshing noises from behind, over the Doppler-effect sound of the quickly growing engine noise. The men flung themselves down, recognizing the rockets for what they were.

The planes had aimed for the floor beneath theirs, as it turned out. Though loud, the only damage the explosions did was to their eardrums. A stray rocket struck their floor of the garage over at the other wing of the structure.

The van caught some of the blast from below. Their carpeted cubbyhole tipped on its side, blown off its blocks.

"Let's see if the phone's still working," Valentine said.

"What if they come around for another pass?" the Arkansan asked, teeth chattering.

"They've got to be out of fireworks by now," Lewis said.

"You alright, old horse?" Valentine asked Ahn-Kha, who was inspecting his puddler.

One business envelope-sized pointed ear drooped. "Yes. The sight may be out of alignment. I dropped it in my haste."

Back at the edge of the garage, in the shadow of a supporting column, Valentine gulped and met Ahn-Kha's eyes before cautiously peeping over the edge of the parking lot wall and surveying the field. A beating sound had replaced the higher-pitched airplane engines.

Helicopters!

Gradually Valentine made out shapes through the obscuring smoke of still-burning jellied gasoline and the more recent rocket blasts. A great, sand-colored behemoth with twin rotors forward, and a smaller stabilizing fan aft thundered out of the west. Smaller helicopters flanked her, like drones looking to mate with some great queen bee.

One of the little stunt planes flew in, dropping a cannister near the holes. It sputtered to life on impact and threw a streamer of red smoke into the sky.

Where's the damn artillery?

"Field phone's still good, Major," Lewis said, extracting the canvas-covered pack from the van.

"Spot for the artillery, if it's available," Valentine said, trying to give intelligible orders while racking his brain for what he knew about helicopter function. "Target that cherry bomb by the holes. And send Base Defense Southwest to Colonel Meadows."

"Base defense southwest, yes, sir," Lewis repeated.

Another plane roared by, seemingly inches from the garage, with a suddenness that momentarily stopped Valentine's heart.

"I do not like these airplanes," Ahn-Kha said.

Valentine watched the smaller helicopters shoot off more rockets, but these just sent up more thick clouds of smoke, putting a dark gray wall between the observation point and the holes.

"If we can't see them ... set up the puddler. Lewis, any word on the artillery?"

"Sounds like they've been hit too, sir," Lewis said, taking his hand away from the ear not held to the phone.

The twin-rotored helicopter blew just enough smoke away with its massive blades so they could get a quick look at it as it landed by the hole.

"That's your target," Valentine said. "See the smaller rotor, spinning at the end of the tail? Aim for the center of that."

Smoke obscured the quick glance, but Valentine had seen something emerge from the hole dug by the worm, a turtlelike shape.

"Our mortars, anything, get it put down on that hole!" They can shoot a hundred shells a day into the Dallas works, but they can't drop a few on hove Field.

"Nothing to shoot at, my David," Ahn-Kha said, ears twitching this way and that, telegraphing his frustration. The Grog had his gun resting on his shoulder and its unique bipod. The gun muzzle was suspended by heavyweight fishing line from the bipod arching over it rather than resting atop the supports, allowing for tiny alterations and changes in direction, typical of creative Grog engineering, right down to the leather collar that kept the line from melting. The black-painted line acted as a fore sight when Ahn-Kha wasn't shooting through the telescopic sight.

Valentine felt impotent. "Tell Meadows it's a breakout," he said to Lewis. "I think the Kurians are trying to run for it with the helicopters."

"Why didn't they just land on a street in Dallas?" Lewis asked.

"We've got high-angle artillery there," Valentine said.

"Sir," the Arkansan shouted as the smoke clouds cleared. Some kind of bay doors had opened at the rear of the massive helicopter, which rested on thick-tired multiple wheels. The turtlelike thing, which looked to Valentine like a greenish propane storage tank crawling across the runway without benefit of wheels, tracks, or legs, had turned for the big chopper.

Ahn-Kha's gun coughed and Valentine's nose registered cordite. Ahn-Kha didn't bother to watch the shot. Instead he drew another highlighter-sized bullet from his bandolier and reloaded the gun.

But the smoke was back.

Valentine could just make out the helicopter through the thinning smoke. Explosions sounded from back toward the terminal, as another piece of the Razor military machine was blown up.

Ahn-Kha must have been able to see the rear rotor for a second- he fired again. Valentine marked the strange tanklike thing entering the rear of the helicopter ... it was like watching a film of a hen laying an egg run backward.

"Where's the fuckin' support?" the Arkansan asked, voicing Valentine's thoughts exactly.

Valentine heard engines on the ground. He looked to the south, where a few of the Razors' strange conglomeration of transport and patrol vehicles-including two prowlers-were barreling past the statue of Flight at the edge of the airport buildings.

"Holy shit, the cavalry!" the Arkansan shouted.

Valentine recognized the salt-and-pepper hair of the man at the minigun in the lead prowler. Captain William Post. It was hard not to join the private in screaming his head off.

The aircraft spotted the vehicles too. A twin-engine airplane swooped in, firing cannon at the column. Valentine saw one big-tired transport turn and plow into the garage.

Ahn-Kha fired again, and the helicopter wobbled as it left the ground, rear doors still closing. The helicopter lurched sideways- perhaps Ahn-Kha had damaged the rear rotor after all.

The pilot managed to get the helicopter, which was skittering sideways across the field like a balky horse, righted.

Light caught Valentine's eyes from above and he looked up to see muzzle flash from a big four-engine aircraft above. Some kind of gun fired on the approaching vehicles.

But the Razors had guns of their own-and someone trained them on the staggering helicopter. Machine guns and small cannon opened up, sending pieces of fuselage flying. Black smoke blossomed from the craft's engine crown, instantly dispersed by the powerful rotors.

Ahn-Kha shot again.

The Razor vehicles had to pay for their impertinent charge. The military turbofan planes swooped in-Valentine grimly noted a desert camouflage pattern atop the craft-and fired from some kind of cannon that created a muzzle flash as big as the blunt nose of the aircraft, planting blossoms of fiery destruction among the Razor attackers.

Post's armored car turned over as it died. Valentine couldn't imagine what the wreck had done to his friend.

Like sacrificing a knight to take the enemy queen, even as the prowlers exploded the double-rotored helicopter tipped sideways, sending its six blades spinning into the smoke-filled sky as it crashed. The helicopter's crew jumped out with credible speed, and Ahn-Kha swiveled his cannon.

"No. I want prisoners," Valentine said.

One of the smaller helicopters swooped in and landed, even as tracer fire began to appear from the positions at the base of the garage, where gun slits had been clawed through the concrete weeks ago.

Ahn-Kha shifted his aim and began to send 20mm-cannon shells into the tail rotor of the rescue helicopter.

The concrete to the left of Ahn-Kha exploded into powdery dust. "Down!" Was that my voice? Valentine wondered as he threw himself sidways onto Ahn-Kha. Cannon shells tore through the gap between the floors of the garage, ripping apart the van. The Arkansan fell with a softball-sized hunk of flesh torn away from his neck and shoulder, and Valentine dully thought that he'd have to learn the man's name in order to put it in the report, and then the cannonade was over.

Lewis stared stupidly around, still kneeling next to the van, in the exact same position he'd been in a second ago, still holding the field phone to his ear.

Valentine heard the first BOOM of shellfire landing on the field. The artillery had come at last.

* * * *

Valentine stood between the shell holes on the overgrown, cracked landing strip and surveyed the mess.

What was left of the attackers from the vehicles and the defenders of the garages had encircled the two holes and the downed helicopter. Valentine had seen Post borne away in a stretcher, but couldn't do anything but touch a bloodily peeled hand as the bearers rushed him to the medical unit.

The mysterious air raiders had rocketed their own helicopter before leaving, blowing what was left of the double-rotor airship into three substantial chunks-pilot cabin, part of the cargo area, and stabilizing tail.

The odd, green propane-tank capsule remained in the wreckage. Flames slid off it like oil from Teflon.

The Bears kept watch from the overturned earth of the Kurian wormhole. Valentine had poked his head in-the three-meter-diameter tunnel was ringed with strands of whitish goo about the thickness of his thumb, crisscrossed and spiderwebbed like the frosting dribbled atop a Bundt cake. Whether the digging worm creature (someone called it a "bore worm" but Valentine didn't know if the term came from Hitchen's Guide to Introduced Species or if the would-be zooologist had thought it up on the spot). The Bears also watched a pair of wounded prisoners, survivors of the transport helicopter who hadn't made it to the rescuing craft. A medic dressed a cut on one pilot's scalp just below the helmet line. The stranger submitted to the ministrations with something like dull contempt. The aircrew were lean, well-tanned men with oversized sunglasses and desert scarves. Both wore leather jackets with a panel stitched on the back, reading in English and Spanish:



NONNEGOTIABLE $10,000 GOLD REWARD

for the safe return of this pilot unharmed and

healthy to Pyp's Flying Circus YUMA

ARIZONA/AZTLAN. Negotiable traveling and

keep expenses also paid in trade goods.

CONTACT PROVOST FT CHICO OR NEW

UNIVERSAL CHURCH-TEMPE

DIRECTORATE FOR INFORMATION

AND DIRECTIONS



Each also had a patch reading PYP'S FLYING CIRCUS, featuring a winged rattlesnake, flying with mouth open as though to strike.

So the question of who the hell are these guys was answered. With another question.

But Valentine's mind was on that tank in the center of the wreckage.

Some of the men theorized it contained a nuclear bomb. Valentine suspected that the contents were a good deal more lethal to the human race long-term.

And everyone was looking at him.

Valentine paced at the edge of the wormhole.

"Nail, I want three Bears ready with demolition blocks. I don't know if it'll dent that thing, but it might rattle them."

Nail was a pigeon-chested Bear with long, sun-lightened blond hair, wearing captain's bars. Nail had been promoted after the fight on Big Rock Mountain, and was the leader of the toughest soldiers in the Razors . . . and probably Texas, in Valentine's opinion-and that meant the world, if you asked a Texan, but Valentine had learned not to argue with Texans in matters of regional pride.

"Ready? Send them forward now."

"No. I'm going to have a talk with them first."

"It's your aura, Val."

Ahn-Kha lifted his improvised cannon. "I'll go along, my David."

Valentine looked around, and pointed to a scrawny, fuzzy-cheeked Razor. "You come too, Appley."

"Yes, sir," young Appley said, uncomprehending but conditioned to respond to orders.

Valentine passed the boy his order book. "If we get some kind of dialogue going, I want you to look like you're taking notes."

"You want me to write down what they say?"

"If you want. Write your mom if you want; I just want you writing when anybody is talking. Can do?"

"Can do!" Appley said. Major Valentine only offered a "can do" to key jobs, and it was the first time the boy had heard the phrase applied to him.

"Great. Follow a little behind."

Ahn-Kha walked beside him. "Why such a youngster?" the Golden One asked, speaking from the side of his mouth-an eerie-looking effort, thanks to his snout and rubbery lips.

"Would you use that boy in an ambush?" Valentine asked.

"Of course not."

"I hope the Kurians think that too."

When he figured he was close enough, Valentine stopped and looked around at his feet. The Kurian vessel reminded him now of a pill rather than a propane tank. Or perhaps a malformed watermelon; the "top" half was a bit bigger than the bottom. Some kind of bright blue sludge clung to the bottom.

"Reminds me of heartroot come to maturity in a drought," Ahn-Kha said. Heartroot was a mushroomlike Grog staple.

Valentine picked up a piece of shattered glass and threw it at the tank. It bounced off. Valentine noted that the blue sludge shrunk away from the vibration. Perhaps a Kurian? They were bluish on the rare instances when they appeared undisguised. But why would it be hiding outside the tank?

"Anyone home?" he yelled.

The blue sludge quivered, shifted up the faintly lined side of the tank vessel. The lines reminded Valentine of the nautical charts and plots he'd seen on the old Thunderbolt.

"I've come to negotiate your relocation from Texas," Valentine yelled. He looked over his shoulder; the boy was scribbling. He was also cross-eyed when looking at something up close and Valentine stifled a snicker.

The blue goop bulged, then parted. Valentine startled, and no longer had to fight off laughter when he recognized a Reaper emerging from the protoplasm. The two-meter-tall death machines were living organisms linked to their master Kurian, used in the messy, and sometimes dangerous, process of aura extraction. The Reaper fed off the victim's blood using a syringelike tongue, while the Kurian animating it absorbed what old Father Max had called aural energies. Others called it soul-sucking.

Is that how they make 'em?

The Reaper climbed out of the blue sludge and lifted its hood, pulling it far forward over its face to block out the sun. Sunlight didn't kill them, unfortunately, but it interfered with their senses and the connection with the master Kurian.

Valentine silently wished for one of Ahn-Kha's Quickwood spear points or crossbow bolts. Two years ago Valentine had brought a special kind of olive tree-like growth called Quickwood back from the Caribbean. It was lethal to Reapers, but had been consumed in the insurrection in the Ozarks known as Operation Archangel the previous year.

"Look, they shat out a Reaper," Valentine said. The kid laughed, a little too loudly.

Ahn-Kha raised his long gun just a fraction.

Valentine revised his estimate of the interior of the tank. At one Reaper per Kurian, there could only be a dozen or so Reapers inside the tank. The flexible, octopus-crossed-with-bat Kurians could squeeze into nooks and crannies, of course, but the impressively built Reapers could only be packed so tight. And all breathed oxygen. At one Reaper per Kurian-there was a theory that without at least one Reaper to supply it with aura, a Kurian starved to death- that meant a dozen Kurians. Others claimed, with little to back it up but speculation, that the Kurians could "bottle" aura to last until a new Reaper could be acquired. Still others said a Kurian could absorb aura through its touch, a "death grip."

Experience told Valentine that if the third were true, the Little Rock Kurian who had died under his fists hadn't managed it in the last few painful seconds of its life.

"Far enough," Ahn-Kha said as the Reaper approached, raising his gun a little higher.

"I shall speak for those within, foodling" the Reaper said, staying out of grabbing distance. Valentine had to concentrate to hear its low, breathy voice, always averting his gaze from the yellow, slit-pupiled eyes. Reapers had a deceptive stillness to them, like a praying mantis. Their grip was deadly, but their gaze could be just as lethal; the few times Valentine had looked closely into one's eyes he'd been half hypnotized.

Valentine took a step forward. "Use the word 'foodling' again and 'those within' will have to crap out a new negotiator."

The Reaper, apparently as egoless as a Buddhist statue, ignored the threat, "your terms?"

"First: You left behind a lot of men in Dallas. Tell them to surrender without another shot fired. No conditions, but officers and military police will be allowed to keep their sidearms, the combatants can keep individual weapons, noncombatants will be under protection of their own people. We're not taking them into custody. They can march wherever they want on whatever supplies they can bring out of Dallas. Second: What's left of Dallas, including artillery and transport, shall be turned over to us, intact. If both those conditions are met, we'll load your tin can on a transport and take you to any border region you like, along with any remaining of your kind that didn't manage to tunnel out of the city."

Valentine knew he had overstepped his authority-in fact this was more like running a track-and-field triple jump over his authority-but he wanted to make the deal before the Kurians had time to call for some other form of help. For all he knew flying saucers might already be on their way-

"We no longer control Dallas," the Reaper said, even more quietly. "Certain handlers remain within, but the skulking soldiers of your breed inside are increasingly obstinate"

"Not my problem."

Valentine almost cracked a smile. In their millennia of scheming before taking over the planet in 2022, the Kurians hadn't accounted for human obstinacy, "we shall consider" the Reaper finished, though one of the Kurians within thought up the words.

"Don't consider too long. In fifteen minutes we're going to try high explosives. If that doesn't work we'll start piling tires around your capsule. Then we'll douse everything in gasoline and light it. You'd better have good air-filtration equipment in there; you burn oxygen, same as us, and a good tire bonfire can go for weeks."

The Reaper twitched in the direction of Valentine and Ahn-Kha shouldered his gun, but instead of the expected attack the Reaper lurched back toward the capsule and acted out a strange pantomime, or perhaps a game of charades where "jumping spider" was the answer. It lurched, it spun, it backbent-

Valentine heard his order book hit the ground behind him.

The Reaper fell over, then picked itself up. It returned to its previous position facing the three humans, holding itself stiffly and moving off balance, like a marionette with tangled strings. "We agree," it said, just before it toppled over again.

* * * *

"I'd have given two more fingers to have seen that," Meadows said that night, rattling the ice in his glass. An orderly refilled it from an amber-colored bottle and disappeared back into the throng of officers and civilians at the celebration. The old Sheraton next to the interstate had seen better days-to Valentine it smelled of sweat, sour cooking oil, and roaches-but perhaps never such a universally happy crowd.

Valentine didn't feel like celebrating. William Post, possibly his best friend in the world apart from Ahn-Kha, had been maimed as he led the assault on the helicopters. The surgeons were fighting to save his life along with those of the other wounded.

Luckily that was the only fighting going on. The army of the North Texas Cooperative had marched out of its positions, and then the city, as the sun set.

"You bit off too much, Major Valentine," Brigadier General Quintero growled. Quintero had refused alcohol as well. He reminded Valentine a little of the negotiating Reaper; one side of his body sagged a little thanks to an old shell fragment that had severed muscle in his shoulder. "I can just tolerate those Dallas scoundrels relocating, but I don't like the idea of Texas truckers carrying that fish tank to Arizona."

Valentine liked Quintero, and if the general was speaking to him in this manner he could imagine what had been said to him since the afternoon, when Dallas broke out in white flags and the frontline troops cautiously advanced into the city.

"Could I make a suggestion, General?"

"Eiderdown quilts for the Quislings?" Meadows put in, trying to soften the scowl on Quintero's face.

Valentine ignored the jibe. "Route the Kurian 'fish tank' to Arizona via Dallas, with the drivers in a secure cabin-cage attached to a breakaway trailer. I'll ride shotgun if you need a volunteer. We won't be shy about telling passersby what's in back. Maybe a riot starts and you declare hostilities resumed and renegotiate the surrender more advantageously. Maybe the Kurians get pulped, and those Dallas troops get convinced that the only way they'll ever be safe again is to throw in with us."

Quintero turned it over in his mind, sucking on his cheeks as he thought it through. "You are a mean son of a bitch, Major. Excuse the expression."

"I'm glad you're on our side," Meadows added.

Next