Fall with Honor Chapter One

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Forward Operating Base Rally, Missouri, September, the fifty fourth year of the Kurian Order: the Show Me state has a flat bootheel stomping a corner of northeast Arkansas.

Those who pass through the region remember only a flatish stretch of Midwestern farm country running along the river, pierced by bayous and bisected by interstate. There's little to distinguish it on the surface. But be-neath the good topsoil the bootheel fascinates on a geologic scale. It is home of the New Madrid fault line that gave way in the chaos of 2022, causing the Mississippi to run backward as far north as St. Louis.

The destruction that resulted from the earth writhing like a heavy sea made the region ill-omened. Everyone who could move did, to the better-preserved areas of Missouri at first, and then south or farther west once the Grogs showed up.

Then came Southern Command.

The few Kurian Lords organizing the area fell rather easily, surprised by the strength and tenacity of the guerrillas. With the Kurians gone, the area became another fought-over piece of no-mans-land between the Mississippi and the Ozark Free Territory, not as well patrolled as the Tennessee-Little Rock corridor or as danger-filled as the bushwhack country in southern Missouri. A powerful smuggler named Shrivastava set up shop around an old fireworks warehouse, running whatever he could between the Kurian Zone, Grogs, and Free Territory. He's long since retired to the older family holdings on a remote piece of Carolina coastline, but a nephew still runs the business, now under the probing noses of Southern Command forces directed by the new United Free Republics.

Rally Base, set up just down the road as though peeping the post company, is only a couple of acres in size, including the filling ground outside the wire and blockhouses.

Of course the business isn't quite as profitable these days. There's no more smuggling of captive souls into the Kurian Zone or antitank rockets capable of taking out small watercraft up to the Grogs. But thanks to the soldiers at Rally Base, there's also less of a chance of a team of Reapers coming through and filling everyone who doesn't make it down the hidey-hole in time, or of Grogs looking to prove themselves in battle, filling security men and stealing livestock. Shrivastava & Family have shifted with the trade and opened a tiny brewery, soap mill, and bakery, growing rich on a few dozen lesser transactions a day rather than the bigger scores the old man saw.

Civilization, after a fashion, has returned.

The family business is well-off enough to hire hands to take care of the endless outside labor that keeps the bake stove burning and the meat locker filled.

One of their hands, a lean, bronze-skinned man with a thick head of black hair tied back from his sweating face, works shirtless in the dust of the firewood pile, reducing wholes to quarters with a shining ax. His lower back is a topographical map of old burns, his face is scarred from the right eye down, and there's something a bit off about his jaw. If he were talking you'd guess he'd just said something ironic.

But he's not wasting breath, talking to himself or his surroundings. He works with the easy, constant pace of an outdoor man who knows the optimum operating speed of his body, picking up the wholes, splitting them, and then retrieving the quarters with a precise economy of effort that would do a machine credit.

He moves with a hint of a limp as he retrieves another whole for the splitting stock- He casts quick glances all around as he works, and his momentary stiffening when one of the soft-stepping daughters of the house comes out to throw potato peelings in the pig meal suggests that he's a hard man to sneak up behind.

The slight, unconscious shift in his grip of the ax suggests that it might even be dangerous.

* * * *

David Valentine would always remember it all beginning the day he got his first gray hair.

Or, to be more accurate, the day he noticed his first gray hair. Three of them, in fact. For some reason all of them decided to erupt on his right temple. He'd used the mirror to shave that morning, as he had to go over to the fort to teach, and picked them out as he combed his hair back.

They reminded him of his father. His mother had never gone gray, but he had only a vague idea of her age when the Valentine clan died. His father had lots of them, which was natural for a man of fifty-six.

That's what Father Max had burned into the cross, anyway.

He'd chopped firewood for Father Max from the age of eleven until he joined up with the Cause at seventeen.

He split and stacked his last piece of firewood, wiped the ax clean with an oilcloth and hung it up in the toolshed.

YLPPUS YXALAG read the reversed letters running the roofline of the big trading post, bakery, diner, and repair shop. All the buildings of Galaxy Supply except the family home were painted in a durable barn red, though someone with a artist's eye had added white and green accents around the doors and barred windows, with smaller decorations depicting grape vines and cheery songbirds.

An unusually hot late September day was working up. The sun was hardly blocked at all by decades-old particles riding the upper atmosphere. Some said the sky was washing itself; others maintained the haze had swirled off to the southern hemisphere for a few years and would be back, the way it had returned in '43.

He's sweated enough to discard his shirt, both to preserve its condition-he had to teach at the base today-and keep himself cool. He used a bucket, a rag, and some of the milky Shrivastava soap to clean himself up in the outside sink before going in for his breakfast.

The two Shrivastava girls dodged nimbly around him in the back kitchen, giggling to each other with some private joke. There had to be more dodging these past few days in the baking kitchen than usual. Mr. Shrivastava had extracted an old pizza oven from an establishment up the interstate toward Cairo and was converting it to wood fire. Welding tools and tanks were interspersed with the usual bread racks.

The girls, rich black hair bound up in kerchiefs to keep the flour out, didn't give him a second look. They had teenage soldiers swaggering out their first forward duty to make eyes at daily, and Valentine was coming up on thirty-three, battered, and dragging a leg. Besides, he was hired help.

Not that it would have done him much good to be eighteen again. He'd been too shy to flirt back then. He would have just discreetly admired their caramel skin and wide, inviting eyes from the other side of the pastry case.

He had toast and eggs for breakfast, with a side of peppery okra leftover from last night's dinner. With real black tea. The family liked tea and through their trading connections had some strong blend that left a far more pleasant aftertaste than coffee.

The fresh food was why he worked for the Shrivastava clan rather than living in the civilian squats blistered off the base.

"Finished the firewood so fast?" Mrs. Shrivastava said, her quieter sister in tow, as always.

Mrs. Shrivastava loved him to death, though in her case love manifested in cramming food down his throat. As soon as he cleared one plate she'd appear with another, and if he didn't dig into that with enough gusto he sometimes worried that she'd ram it in with one of the long wooden spoons she used to fill his dish. Then hold his nose until he swallowed.

"Out of timber. I'll take the mule team out tomorrow and get some more trees."

Pines and poplars had reclaimed the bootheel farmland, but the cleared ground around neighboring Rally Base meant a drag to fill the winter dry racks.

"Why not-oh, I forget. Today is one of your days at the fort."

"I should get cleaned up."

"Use the washroom with the running water. Nice to have the smell of a young man's shaving soap here," she said, frowning at her daughters.

"It is my fault Patrick would rather be a soldier than a storekeeper?" the elder of the sisters asked.

He slipped down the hall toward the full bath. "Patrick" was something of a tender spot in the family conversation. Letters from him had ceased altogether six months before. When he hired on with Shrivastava, giving an abbreviated version of his service history, the girl had quietly asked him how often men declared "missing in action" returned.

Fresh back from Kentucky, Valentine couldn't offer much hope. Especially since he'd just spent months in Kentucky seeking another missing soul.

* * * *

Valentine relished the heated water in the family bathroom. The rest of the help had to make do with stove-warmed water in the bunk-house. As he buttoned his shirt he searched the sink for stray hairs and soap residue. Mrs. Shrivastava might like the smell of this young man's shaving, but it would be rude to repay her graciousness with a dirty basin.

He grabbed his teaching satchel and walked over to the base, taking his time in the unseasonable heat.

"Argent, Max," the sentry at the gate identified him, stepping out from the shade of corrugated iron. Though he knew Valentine's face and alias, he still checked the ID provided by Styachowski's specialists. "Base is on alert. We've got a sidearm and carbine for you, if you don't have your own." The guard's eyes were unreadable behind his wraparound sunglasses.

"Thank you," Valentine said.

Valentine's weapons were arranged in netting hanging from the un-nailed floorboards of his bunkhouse. He visited the base as a civilian expert, and at the moment his boots and pocket knife were the only military-issue items he had.

"No drill," a sergeant who handed him a pistol belt with magazine harness said. He was heavy as a side of beef, and Valentine couldn't remember him pulling a shift in the guard hut before. "How's a model four?"

"I qualified. This serious?"

"Heavy river traffic reported. It may have landed."

Valentine had heard a largish patrol go out in the predawn but had thought nothing of it.

Pizzaro was an experienced enough forward area base commander to make sure nothing left or entered his base by regular schedules.

"Message too," the sergeant added as the sentry made a notation of the gun's serial numbers.

"The CO wants you to come by his office after your class."

"Can do," Valentine said, adjusting the pistol belt.

Valentine headed into the base, where windows were being filled with sandbags and extra men idled in the shade at the mortar positions, ready to get the tubes into action as soon as orders came down. The quick step of the men carrying the sandbags and the lack of joking put Valentine on edge.

He had militia today, mostly young men fresh from a year or two with Labor Regiment.

Unless the boys or girls were lucky enough in their LR term to get apprenticed into a technical field, they were dumped into the militia pool and made miserable enough that joining the regulars seemed like an elevation to paradise. Some stuck out militia service for a four-, six-, or eight-year term in return for land and tools, a "stake" in some new community in land won from the Kurians.

Only six years, and the militias rotated a lot of soldiers through good vocational training.

Texas had huge swaths of fallow land to fill with stakes. If the former militiamen were lucky, they never heard the words "or such time and duty as the needs of Southern Command require."

He had two classes, a basic literacy-and-science group fresh out of the bush and his

"advanced" class, who was learning about Southern Command and how it hoped to disassemble the grim Kurian Order surrounding the embattled freeholds.

Today would be his advanced group. They met in a dining hall, a wood-framed building with a roof and canvas sides, pulled up now to admit the breeze.

Valentine had drawn a misshapen pyramid of figures on his black-board. It rather reminded him of the ranks of invading aliens he'd seen in a video game at the Outlook back in the Cascades.

He leaned against the front table.

"So that's it," he said. "There's a reason pyramids last so long: They're stable. Wide at the bottom and thin at the top."

The men and a sprinkling of women, mostly first-year recruits growing their hair back in save for a couple who went the other direction and shaved down to bald, took notes on loose paper. Because of the alert, each had his rifle on the table within reach, combat harness hanging off the back of the chair. The platoon sergeant could form them up in a few seconds.

"Bottom is the population in the Kurian Zone. Middle-level functionaries direct and take care of them. At the cream level you've got those trusted with weapons and the people watching the functionaries. Above them are the Reapers, the eyes and ears and appetites of the master Kurian at the top. What's the weak point?"

"The alien at the top."

"Physically, you're correct. If you've got your hands on him, it's about as easy to kill a Kurian as a chicken. A good stomping is all it takes. It's the getting at them that's dangerous."

Valentine turned, lifted his shirt, and showed some of the burns running his back.

"But they usually live in towers that are very hard to get into, complete with bolt holes and escape tubes that you can't fit down if you're bigger than a bobcat. They're about as easy to catch as running water."

"You got three," a second-yearer named Hoke said. "Or was it four?" Hoke had been an early doubting Thomas at his classes, wondering how a rather beat-up civilian worked up the nerve to lecture soldiers, until a lieutenant with an interest in the Hunters took the sophomore warrior aside during a break.

"But what is he: Wolf, Cat, or Bear?" Hoke had asked. Valentine's Wolf-sharp ears could pick up the conversation, but he intentionally softened his senses to avoid the rest of the conversation after the lieutenant said something about He's dangerous, and that's enough. . . .

"Three," Valentine said. "But the third's sort of unofficial." Then there was the one he wasn't sure of, in the sunken sub off Hispaniola.

"Getting back to my point, it's the Reapers we try to hit. Yeah, they're the most dangerous thing on two legs you're ever going to meet, but they're the connection between the Kurian and the Quislings. The Kurian feeds, gives orders, and judges, all through his pale-skinned avatar. If you can get one just after a feed or in a hole far from the Kurian avoiding daylight, you've got a chance, if you can put enough lead on target and get in with explosives. Or a well-swung ax."

"They run from sunlight, right?" a Missouri kid said.

"Sunlight doesn't hurt them one bit. It messes with the communication with its Master, though, like static. They sense us, because intelligent living beings give off something we call lifesign. They can home in on it at night. That's the whole point of those breathing exercises we've been doing at the beginning and end of each class: getting you guys trained so they might mistake you for a paddock of horses or a pack of wild pigs."

This elicited some quiet hog calls and chuckling.

Valentine felt jealous of their youthful confidence. The first Reaper's easy. It's the second that makes you shit your pants, went an old saw from the Wolves.

There was a time when Southern Command left killing Reapers to the Hunters. But the Lifeweavers, brothers to the otherworldly Kur but their mortal enemies who trained the Hunters, had been scattered during Solon's brief occupation of the Ozarks. Valentine was an advocate of giving more of the rank and file of Southern Command at least the basics of first avoiding and then dealing with the Reapers, and Pizzaro agreed, giving him an occupation until Highbeam could get going.

If Highbeam would ever win approval. It was one thing to raid into the Kurian Zone. Quite another to establish a new Freehold, especially one so close to the great nerve trunks of the Kurian Order.

Valentine brought himself back to the here and now of his class.

"There's another reason for going after the Reapers. A lot of times the Quislings aren't even sorry to see one offed. Sure, your die-hard churchmen will still damn you to the cleanup crew, but everyone else is walking around a little easier. On the other side of the river they don't have guns, don't have grenades, and a lot of times they aren't even allowed to have locks on their doors. If you're lucky, you'll see a couple Reapers before you muster out, at a distance, usually running away. Quislings see the Reapers all the time, poking around at night with the full authority of the KZ behind them. They've got to talk to them."

* * * *

Valentine walked past a sandbagged observation point camouflaged to look like another water tank. A pair of solders had set up twin-lensed range finder, just poking above the rim of the tank like the antennae of a lead ant checking the exit from the nest. Wires dangled from the phony tank, running to the underground PVC tube leading to the mortar pits.

The command building was two units of prefabricated housing, easily ported by trailer and then joined, its outline concealed under a mesh of netting and some young trees. A dugout stood just opposite, its door open and beckoning thanks to the alert.

He signed in with Colonel Pizzaro's admin and chitchatted over coffee until Pizzaro waved him in from the door. He had lined, leathery skin but very bright eyes that reminded Valentine of the comical little goggle-eyed walnuts the church youth groups sold as fund-raisers. A squawk box crackled in the corner. A flak jacket, combat harness, and carbine like Valentine's rested on a foldout extender on his desk.

"Let's take a walk," Pizzaro said, buckling his harness and picking up the carbine.

He led Valentine out to the two layers of perimeter wire. Most officers had a bit of military business that either irritated or obsessed them. Pizzaro's was base security. He didn't like the idea of anything leaving or coming into his station without his knowing about it. He liked to walk the wire as he talked rather than stay cooped up in his office. According to his staff, he'd been in an interrogation camp during Solon's occupation of the Ozarks, which was enough being boxed up for a lifetime.

"You want the good news or the bad?" Pizzaro asked. The shade of his slouch hat and the hard daylight dimmed his eyes somewhat.

"The good first. Otherwise it's like drinking bourbon out of a shaving mug."

Pizzaaro licked his lips. "All I ever see you drink is milk or coffee. When we go off alert, stop by."

"Is that the good news? Alert called off?"

"You're messing up your ordering," Pizzaro said, checking some frayed wiring on a quartz lamp. Valentine looked at the manufacturing stamp. It had originated in Mexico City. "Let's stick to the good news. I got a courier packet. Highbeam is on-I have this from Lambert herself. I've got to punch your ticket and give you escort to the staging briefing. Even my staff doesn't know this yet, and I want to keep it that way, but this post will be Point Zero. You'll set off from here. If it wasn't for the alert, we'd already be laying plumbing for a new camp."

"Was that the good news or the bad?" Valentine asked.

"Thought you'd be pleased to hear that all that scouting you've been doing in Kentucky is about to pay off."

"I never found what I was looking for."

"Anne . . ."

"Ahn-Kha," Valentine supplied.

"Sorry, not much with Grog talk. Sounds like dogs snarling at each other to me."

"So what's the bad news?"

"I'm sealing the base. First recon reports are in: It's a strong Grog column out of Cairo area.

It's those gangly, hunched-over ones with the pig-ugly faces. They're avoiding contact and mostly hunting and scavenging. There aren't many settlements up that way but I'm getting reports of thievery-stealing livestock and chickens and whatnot. Anything they can sneak off when no one's looking. Some folks have disappeared, but we're not sure if they've run or the Grogs got 'em."

"Doublebloods, they call themselves," Valentine said. "Odd of them to come across the river like that. They keep to themselves."

"You spent some time in Illinois. Anything else you can tell me?"

"The Illinois Guard has a lot of stations around Mount Vernon, keeping watch on the Doublebloods. I had someone in the Illinois Guard I wanted to meet."

Sergeant Heath Hopkins. He died badly.

"So they're neutrals."

Pizzaro had enough troubles with the big gray Grogs inhabiting the riverbanks on his side of the Mississippi, the lonely Kurian tower watching river traffic from Cairo, and the Kurians on the other side of the twisting river in Kentucky and Tennessee. Valentine wasn't that surprised he didn't know much about the Doublebloods. There were pissworthy fires closer to the colonel's feet.

Valentine dredged up his very limited experience. "More like they hate everybody.

Kurians tried to make a half Grog half human and it didn't work out. They're ill-tempered, even for Grogs, so the Kurians planted them on the borders of Southern Command, hoping they'd be trouble for us. Problem is, they all remember which direction the trucks that brought them came from, and it wasn't southwest."

"Can you savvy their lingo?"

"No more than a few phrases they use to communicate with the other Grogs. But I'd rather not walk on into the camp. This could be a man raid."

"A what?"

"They're amazons. Something amiss with their reproductive system. Not many male embryos live to be birthed. The ratio is four or six to one or thereabouts, if the Illinois Guard has the numbers right. There're problems up and down the Doubleblood genetic line, and the only way they're surer of a live birth is with a human donor and a Doubleblood female.

Inbreeding worsens the defect. They're smart enough to grab new males now and then."

"Good God."

"It's not so bad. I hear they stick two layers of bagging over your head. Insurance,"

Valentine said.

The colonel tapped down some wire pegging with his foot and made a note in a pocket-sized sheet of paper. Valentine wondered if it was about the Doublebloods or the wire.

"What kind of weaponry?"

"Just small arms for fighting. They hunt with bows or crossbows and slingshots. They'll carry explosives to blow open locked doors. Tell your patrols to keep their distance."

"I'd just as soon discourage raids. What kind of casualties do we have to inflict to turn them around?"

"It's not that simple. Like I said, they're ornery. If they spill blood down here, a feud will start, and a good feud can go on for years."

"They're invading us. What do they expect to happen?"

"Logic and tribal custom. Ne'er the twain shall meet."

Valentine sensed Pizzaro was wavering, so he spoke again: "Right now you're just other.

Start skirmishing and you'll be enemy. Your other option is to kill every last one of them. Then they'll think the gods punished them for arrogance. But you know how hard it is to run down Grogs who've gone bush."

Pizzaro thought it over, flicking his thumb over a rusty barb in the wire. "I'd better get to the communication center, then. Anyway, this is your chance to get out, if you like. Nobody'll say anything if you show up for the Highbeam-or whatever the crap they're gonna call it-conference a week or so early. Otherwise it'll be Rally Base cooking for you for a few days until whatever business the Doublebloods want to start finishes."

Valentine couldn't see riding away from some of the kids he'd helped train in a crisis. Or could he? "Can you shelter the Shrivastava clan?"

"Shrivastava? Of course. But it'll take more than a bag over his head to get him hot to abandon his store and stock."

* * * *

Trader Shrivasta may have been a civilian, but there was something of Valentine's old captain, LeHavre, in him. He had a gentle manner masking a pirate avarice but it didn't make him any less outraged at the idea of hiding behind locked gates while the Doublebloods stole from his pens and coops.

Valentine spoke to him in front of the arms room, the one part of the store back in the family quarters. Racks of rifles and pistols lined the walls, and reloading tools filled a long workbench. There was only one other exit from the room, and it led down to a tunnel to a separate basement, the family "Reaper proof in an old underground gas tank.

"The fort? This building is tougher than it looks, young man. Both basement and attic have firing slits to cover my property."

His nine-year-old son sat behind, loading bullets from boxes into fresh new magazines. The whole family knew the story of Grandfather Durtee, who held two Reapers off with a shotgun while the rest of the clan fled to the vaultlike underground shelter. The grandfather had been the only loss that night.

"If you draw blood, they'll be back to avenge it."

"Then I will draw more blood, young man. Yes! Let them return! I welcome all at my store, provided they pay for what they take. These creatures will pay for my stock, one way or another."

Valentine wondered if it was too late to catch that transport to the conference.

Ray, the trading post's butcher, appeared, an old army flak jacked draped over a beefy arm.

He accepted an old Ml6 from his employer. "You take the wall covering the back door, young man," Shrivastava said, and Ray nodded. The boy passed him a bag of magazines.

Shrivastava turned back to Valentine. "You taking a gun, young man, or will you stay in the Reaper-proof with the mothers and children?"

Maybe the Doublebloods would let him guide them to a bottom that contained a sizable herd of wild pigs. They could get all the side meat they wanted and carry off the young. "I'm going to go talk to the Doublebloods."

"No! Youn-David, do not waste yourself in that manner. My great uncle went to set up a post with the Whitefangs up beyond the ridge. They ate him. I do not call you a coward. The children will be comforted-"

Whatever else Shrivastava said was lost in the rush of an idea. Was there enough daylight left to get over the ridge?

Maybe. With a fast enough pair of wheels.

* * * *

Within an hour he'd convinced Pizzaro to loan him a driver and transport. Plus a big bag of supplies.

Scaring off coyotes with wolves? Pizzaro had said, liking the idea.

He arranged for a motorcycle, his best two-wheel man, fuel, survival gear, even priceless com gear. "We'll worry about the authorizations and paperwork later."

Valentine wanted to kiss him, remembering his days in the Wolves. If Southern Command had a Pizzaro at every forward post, the Wolves would spend more time raising hell on Kurian Zone back-roads and less cadging for supplies.

"You're not bad back there, sir," Callaslough, his driver, said from the front of the big Harley. Harley-Davidson still produced up in Milwaukee, and this specimen had found its way into Southern Command's motor pool. Fat tired, with a high clearance and rugged brush breaks and plenty of horsepower and hookups for attachments. It was meant to hold a sidecar, maybe even one of the dark-canopied blisters for a Reaper, or to pull a one-body medical sled.

The motorcycle jumped and blatted along the old road, now not much more than a potholed deer trail, quickly enough under Callaslough's urging.

Valentine had tied two small staffs of pig iron to the rear backrest/ gear bar. A white flag fluttered at one, a netted bag of Texas oranges on the other. Though each man had a carbine, they'd slung them facing down and backward, further proof of peaceful intent.

Not that it wouldn't stop an ambitious young Whitefang from trying to knock them both off the bike with a single .50 caliber bullet, a thought much on Valentine's mind as they bumped up Badblood Ridge.

Valentine's active imagination felt the notched foresight of a rifle resting on his eye, wondered if some poor, horny, unmated Grog would ignore the signals for parley. The noise the bike made must be drawing Whitefang scouts like the musical ice cream wagons of the KZ

lured children to the New Universal Church ice cream that had proselyetizing cartoons and homilies on the wrappers.

Callaslough spotted them first as they came off Badblood, bouncing down a gravelly wash under the gaunt, nest-and-vine-draped skeletons of power pylons. A wind chime of bleached skulls alternating with femurs and tibias hung from one long arm, threaded on old wire.

A bent, loose-skinned old Whitefang stood atop a fallen hickory, his long rifle gripped in the exact center but held stiff-armed toward them. Some females watched from the other side of the log. One, younger or more daring, climbed even higher than her male guardian to get a better look. She bore a bulging harvesting bag.

Callaslough slowed the big motorcycle.

"Pull up," Valentine said. Their seating arrangement made it easy to communicate quietly, at the cost of having to smell each other's sunbaked sweat. "Point the bike so it's parallel to his rifle, not pointed into Whitefang land."

Callaslough executed a neat stop, swinging the bike's rear tire so it sent a spray of pebbles toward Whitefang territory.

"Leathery old hangball," Callaslough commented. The old Grog's testicular sack was well below his loincloth line in the heat.

"That's good for us. Foragers mean one of the tribe's bigger camps are around."

Valentine stepped off the bike. He held up with his right hand some signaling mirrors given as trade goods, tough squares of chrome on lanyards. In his left he held a selection of Texas coast oranges in a net bag. He had several boxes of matches in reserve; he'd yet to meet a Grog that didn't love to strike a match, just from the pure dazzle and power of instant fire-creation.

"Foot pass! Parley!" Valentine called, in the lingua franca of St. Louis.

The females issued chirping noises, seeing what he had to offer. The male scratched an itch under his loincloth in thought, but his eyes didn't leave the oranges.

"I think we're good," Valentine said.

The nimble female plucked at his ears, urging.

The Grog planted his gunstock, hooted, and gave an unmistakable "get over here!" sweep of his arm. He licked his lips as he did so.

"Shit. I'd almost rather be shot at," Callaslough said.

* * * *

They arrived about an hour before sunset.

The humans walked the bike in with the help of one of the females. They wore soup cans around their necks, indicating that they'd come in peace and offered up tokens and gifts to be allowed on White-fang lands-the "foot pass" of Grog commerce and diplomacy.

The Whitefang encampment stood in an old field with an irrigation trench on three sides and thick woods on the fourth. Water flowed in the trench. Clay pots stood upstream for drinking water, and laundry lines hung downstream. Old books hung on the bushes shielding the toilet area where the ditch drained off.

The Whitefang villagers lived in tents made of pulled-up carpeting and quilts of plastics, weatherproofed with beeswax or musky smelling oil.

Human captives hewed wood, made charcoal, and carried water. They looked at the newcomers with pleading eyes.

Valentine avoided their gaze. Nothing you can do about it at the moment.

At first the tribe wanted nothing to do with Valentine and Callaslough. They young males, unblooded and untattooed, their long hair a testament to lack of wives, glared or hopped up and down in excitement, letting out little war cries. The younger females taunted by slapping their own backsides or spitting in the embassy's direction.

"Lots of unmated Groggies," Callaslough said as they walked the bike into the village.

Pizzaro had sent along a man who knew something of the Grogs, but Valentine would have preferred a little less experience. Callaslough was just finding things to be nervous about, and the Grogs read body language better than words.

The chief lived in an old farmhouse, apparently. On the lower level, the walls had been mostly pulled away to admit air, but the upper rooms remained intact. Valentine wondered how many wives were crammed into the aluminum-siding seraglio.

Stripped old farm equipment stood in the center of the village, a playland-junkyard for the little Grogs. They swung and climbed and chased each other and an assorment of village dogs in and out of old harvesting tubing, control cabs, and engine housings. At the edge of the playland, a scrubbed and polished claw-foot bathtub served as a central drinking trough.

Their escort Grog pointed to a place for them to sit and went up the stone stairs to the skeleton of the house's first floor.

The chief remained huddled with his subchiefs and elders. Valentine extracted a two-pound bag from his trade goods, went to the big drinking cistern, and ripped open the packet.

An elderly female tried to stop him, hooting and slapping at his hands. Valentine ignored her and emptied the packet, full of granules that looked like sand, into the trough.

That got the attention of the elders and the chief.

Valentine mixed the water with a clay carrying pot, upending and dumping the water as it began to froth.

"What the hell's that?" Callaslough asked.

"Root beer mix."

Valentine took his canteen cup and drank. Then he refilled it and offered it to the grandmother. She sniffed suspiciously and turned her head away.

"Damn," Valentine said. He filled another cup and drank again. It wasn't very good-the mixture really needed to sit and chill to be truly tasty-but it was sweet.

The younger Grogs weren't so shy. They slurped and squealed, and their elders ran forward to pull them away. A squirmy youngster managed to break away from his mother and go back to the tub, drinking with both hands.

The chief came out on his steps to watch, eyes shaded under a heavy brow. He had huge, woolly thighs that looked like a pair of sheep standing close together in a field. One of the youngsters brought him a cup of the mixture, babbling.

The chief, sniffed. He laughed and upended the mixture down his throat. He wiped his lips and laughed again.

"Good-humored guy," Callaslough ventured.

"I'm sure he'd laugh just as hard if his warriors were playing soccer with our heads."

"I am Whitefang," he barked at Valentine in the Grog trade tongue. He stamped on the old steps, hard, and Valentine heard a commotion from the upstairs.

"O Whitefang, this foot-passed stranger begs the powers of your ears and eyes and tongue."

Whitefang waved them over with a two-handed gesture that made it look like he was taking an appreciative whiff of his own flatulence.

"He didn't just cut one, did he?" Callaslough said.

"Try and look agreeable, no matter what," Valentine said as he stepped forward.

The chief bobbed and one of his subchiefs put a pillow-topped milking stool under his hindquarters, but he didn't sit until Valentine and Callaslough were both off their feet.

It took a while for the negotiations to commence. The subchiefs and elders and warriors had to arrange themselves in a semicircle around the visitors, bearing their best captured weapons, flak jackets, and helmets. The most battle scarred of all of them, both with inten-tional artistry and in random wound, held a massive surgical-tubing slingshot and two bandoliers of captured hand grenades.

Whitefang's dozen or so wives stood behind him, the two most heavily pregnant in front of the others, turning now and then to display swollen bellies as proof of the chiefs potency.

Others gripped their children by the ears to show them how their father conducted himself with strangers.

A splendid-looking teen female, almost attractive in her careless lounge, wore the white headband of an unmarried daughter as she rested against Whitfang's scarred shoulder. By the woolliness of her thighs, Valentine guessed her to be Whitefang's eldest daughter. She wore a long, modest skirt made out of old Disney bedsheets, but she managed to hike it up a little in the direction of the unblooded warriors.

Valentine heard splashes and slurps behind as the Grogs drank the root beer. A young warrior made for the tub, but his fellows held him back, grumbling and grunting.

"What do the strangers beg of Whitefang?" Whitefang asked. Valentine couldn't tell what had changed in the assembly that caused him to commence negotiations.

"Battle alliance," Valentine said.

The audience gasped or hooted.

"Battle alliance. With humans?" the veteran with the artistic battle scarring asked.

Whitefang laughed. His daughter rolled her eyes.

"Battle alliance is for against humans," a white-eyebrowed old male said.

"They insult," a younger warrior shouted from the crowd to the side. At least that's what Valentine thought he said. The youth's trade tongue was clumsy, either from emotion or lack of practice.

"Want battle!" another youth said.

Others shouted in their own tongue. Valentine thought he recognized the word for blood.

"Kill us and you will have battle with humans," Valentine said.

Whitefang laughed, finding the prospect of war as funny as the taste of root beer.

"Fuck you up," Whitefang said. In pretty fair English.

If the Whitefangs killed them, at least it would be over quick. Warrior enemies would be dispatched quickly and cleanly. The Grogs reserved torture for criminals.

"Means bad old times," Valentine said. "Come soldiers. Come artillery. Come armored car."

"Let armored car come," Whitefang laughed. He barked at his harem, and they disappeared into the basement of the chief's house. They reemerged bearing steering wheels and machine-gun turret rings, executing neat pirouettes in front of Valentine and Callaslough.

Callaslough was breathing fast, like a bull working up a charge. "Bas-"

"Easy," Valentine said.

"Humans beg help," Valentine said, loudly enough for all to hear.

That got them talking: humans begging. Whitefang slapped his callused, hairless kneecaps to silence them.

"Doublebloods attack humans," Valentine said. "Steal much. Capture many. Doublebloods worst enemy humans now."

Even more talk now, with some excited yips from the young warriors. Valentine suspected that the Doublebloods had done their share of raiding on Whitefang lands, being just across the river from southern Illinois. He suspected an old feud existed.

"Worst than Night-stalkers?" Whitefang asked, his eyes lit by the setting sun.

"Night-stalkers on other side of Great South river. Doublebloods on human side."

"Humans stop Night-stalkers," Valentine said. "Otherwise Night-stalkers raid Whitefangs."

This time Whitefang didn't laugh. The uneasy truce-not without the occasional raid and ambush-that had existed in southern Missouri between Grogs and mankind dated to the brief Kurian occupation of the Ozarks. Reapers had been loosed into Grog lands to drive them away from Solon's planned Trans-Mississippi empire. The Grogs were only too happy to see Southern Command return.

Callaslough, who'd evidently been able to follow at least some the conversation, reached into his shirt and pulled up a pair of black Reaper teeth interlaced with his dog tags. They were only short ones from the back, but the Grogs recognized them. Callaslough held them high and rattled them.

Valentine remembered teaching Blake to clean teeth just like those, only smaller, with a brush and baking soda.

"Humans beg battle alliance," Valentine repeated. "What Double-bloods stole, Whitefangs keep. Who Doublebloods capture, White-fangs release."

"Trophies?" Whitefang asked.

"All Whitefang keep."

The young warriors stirred at that. Their prospective mates among the females started chattering to each other. A warrior returning home with the blood of an enemy on his blade, or even better, some skulls or scalps, could marry, having proved himself worthy of establishing a household and producing children.

Whitefang's daughter stared out into the crowd. Valentine followed her gaze to a tall, proud-looking warrior standing naked with only his weapons, splendidly lush hair hanging from his head and shoulders and upper back. He hadn't wanted to contaminate his clothing with human blood, should it come to that, evidently. He stared back at the girl.

She whispered in White fang's ear.

Whitefang elbowed her hard and she toppled backward. He grumbled something to the female who ran to her aid.

The chief tongued the remainders of root beer out of his cup. "Trade root beer?" he asked.

"If battle alliance is successful."

"Trade licorice?" Whitefang asked.

"Yes."

Whitefang licked his lips and the eyes under the heavy brow brightened. "Trade-

Soka-coli?"

"All Coca-Cola same."

An entrepreneur was supposedly bottling RC down in the sugar farms near the Louisiana border. Valentine had seen some cases behind lock and key in Shrivastava's mercantile Galaxy.

Whitefang wouldn't notice the difference. He hoped.

Whitefang held out his hand, and a senior wife placed a sawed-off, double-barreled shotgun in it. He extended the butt end toward Valentine.

Valentine wasn't sure what to do. He'd never observed a battle alliance; he just knew the term. But it never hurt to imitate the head honcho in any organization, human or Grog. He unslung his own carbine and held it toward Whitefang, butt end extended.

The oldster with the hand grenades cackled.

Valentine approached Whitefang, and the chief gripped the end of his gun. Valentine wrapped his fingers around the pistol grip of the shotgun.

The Warriors cheered.

"Fuck Doublebloods up," Whitefang said in English, winking at Valentine. Then he laughed long and loud into the night.

* * * *

The Mississippi, wild and untended since 2022, had carved little islands along its banks for most of its length. Within twenty-four hours of his promise Soka-coli to Whitefang, Valentine was swatting mosquitoes and trying to keep from being splashed by the paddlers.

Grogs paddle as though they were at war with the river.

Grogs had an instinctive knack for warfare. Once they made up their minds, they did everything at the hurry-up. After a conference that lasted long into the night-most of it taken up by definitions of geographic points-Valentine sent Callaslough back to Rally Base with a written report. Whitefang called for his warriors, and Grogs loped off in every direction.

They left a substantial reserve at the camp, perhaps still fearing a human trick, and a core of veterans set off with the youngest warriors on the Doubleblood hunt.

The Grogs were proud of their weapons. They displayed their prowess to Valentine, sending steel-tipped arrows through entire trunks of trees from bows made out of truck leaf springs (Valentine couldn't even string the bow, let alone draw it, and felt very much like a sham Odysseus) or driving spears through practice dummies made of old kegs and barrels. The tall young Grog Whitefang's daughter had made eyes at had a big Grog gun and ten bullets probably donated by his entire family. The .50 caliber rounds were scarce on this patch of riverbank, and Valentine suspected they represented an investment of his whole family in the warrior's future.

He used one to shatter an old bowling pin at a distance of a kilometer, making Valentine stand within ten paces of the target to show that no tricks were involved. For a split second between the shot (Valentine saw the Grog take the recoil) and the pin's destruction, he wondered if he'd be dead before he heard the sound of the report.

With the young males gathered, their chief led them to war, leaving the old fellow with the slingshot and the hand grenades behind.

Valentine felt like a war correspondent watching them hike off in loosely grouped bunches, formed into a diamond shape if you plotted them on a map at any particular point. A poor sort of war correspondent at that, because he could get only a vague sense of their intentions. At first he feared they were just going to plunge into Southern Command's territory and make straight for the Doubleblood trail, but they proved craftier than that and took big war canoes down a stream to the Mississippi.

The Grogs watched him sit down in the canoe and unroll a condom over the business end of his carbine. A warrior with six feet of lethal, single-shot steel-and-wood showed Valentine how he protected his piece: Valentine recognized a leathery testicular sack, undoubtedly human, closed by a tight drawstring.

The Grog had left the hairs intact, probably to help it bleed water.

Then, with a call from Whitefang, they paddled as though chased by living fire. One hundred and eightysome Grogs moving fast with the current, canoes swerving and crossing like a school of excited fish.

They reached the islands opposite Cairo by dark, and Valentine saw smaller scout canoes hook to either side of Whitefang's. Valentine's canoe waited with several others under the metal remnants of an old interstate bridge.

They spotted the pulled-up canoes and flatboats and hulled pleasure boats and houseboats floating at anchor, shielded from Southern Command by a long strip of muddy island, tree roots fighting the Mississippi for possession of the soil.

With their objective in sight, Whitefang let his Grogs rest and feed, waiting for the moon to go down. Valentine found himself dozing, resting against a big warm Grog who smelled like brackish water.

Owl hoots from Whitefang's canoe woke him. Grogs slipped into the summer-warmed water.

Most of the canoes huddled against the banks, while scouts swam, or crawled, or slithered forward, depending on the depth of water.

Valentine's Cat-sharp eyes picked out a shadowy shape, glistening wet in the darkness, climb onto a sailboat and merge with something that looked like a bundle of canvas leaning against a mast. Others of the Whitefang tribe emerged from the riverbank and stalked into the trees.

Evidently the Doublebloods hadn't counted on an attack from upriver.

A flaming arrow, looking like a bum-winged firefly as it turned tight circles along its parabolic arc into the Mississippi, announced that the scouts had done their job.

Valentine splashed ashore with the veteran Grogs carrying belt-fed machine guns and laced-together Kevlar over their broad frames. Valentine felt sorry for anyone going against this contingent. It was hard enough to get a bullet through Grog-hide around the shoulders and chest. Add Kevlar to the mix and you had something resembling a living tank.

The younger Grogs were showing each other gory trophies taken from the Doubleblood sentries.

The remaining unblooded Whitefangs prepared to win their own bloody prizes. The Grogs caked themselves with mud, dead leaves, and bracken. It would conceal them from the eyes of their enemies and be an earthy burial shroud should they die.

By dawn Doubleblood message runners showed up at the Southern Command bank.

Valentine got a good look at one. She looked a little like a bloodhound, with short dark hair, lots of loose skin about the face, and a gangly, underfed look compared to the gray Grogs. But the Doublebloods could run like deer and climb like spiders-even with an arrow through her leg that one Grog shot through the brush on the riverbank like a snake.

Valentine didn't care to watch the questioning of the captured messengers, but it amounted to bringing the bigger boats around the south end of the island and setting up boarding ramps big enough for young cattle and pigs.

The Whitefangs happily followed the plan. They were setting up the inviting-looking boarding ramps (and brush blinds for snipers and archers flanking the landing) when a brown-water river patrol motored upriver and turned in to get a good look at the operation, covering the Grog boats with what looked like 20mm cannon while a squat mortar boat watched over matters from mid-river.

Valentine slipped into the water off the side of one of the Doubleblood boats, just in case the Quislings stopped to search. He felt the deep Mississippi mud, cool and gritty, around his toes. But the patrol recognized the Whitefang warrior tattooing and gave the chief some boxes of ammunition and a case of incendiary grenades in the interest of bringing a little extra misery to Southern Command and staying friendly with Whitefang's people.

The tall young warrior who'd caught Whitfang's daughter's eye was able to fill his bandolier with .50 rounds, and stick extras behind his ears, braided in his long unmated warrior's mane, and up one cavernous nostril.

The patrol sped away, not wanting to draw more attention to a Grog raid than necessary.

Valentine could still hear their motors from upriver-they were making for the Ohio, seemed like-when the first of the Doublebloods arrived.

Valentine stayed in the water with his carbine, waiting in the shadows beneath the gangplank, battle harness with his ammunition wrapped around his neck and shoulders to keep it out of the water. The bullets were supposed to be water-resistant, but Valentine had an old soldier's mistrust for allowing muck and gear to mix.

A panting line of warriors loped up, waving to a couple Double-blood bodies on the flatboat nailed to wooden staves, gruesome puppets already thick with flies. Grogs hidden behind the gunwales worked the arms with bits of cattail.

Valentine slipped the condom off his gun barrel. He'd used more of the things keeping water out of his barrel than he'd had in sexual assignations. Not that one of Southern Command's rough-and-ready prophylactics could compete with the artfully wrapped, gossamer-skinned little numbers smuggled in from Asia at great expense that he'd tried in Fran Paoli's well-appointed bedroom back in Ohio.

The advance party fell to a hail of arrows. Two in the rear who figured out what was happening and shouldered carbines to shoot back were brought down with well-placed shots.

Valentine knew Grog sniper checkdowns all too well: obvious officers, then anyone giving signals of any kind, then machine gunners. Sometimes they wouldn't even use their precious bullets on ordinary soldiers.

One of the Doublebloods spun as he fell, and Valentine thought of young Nishino on Big Rock Hill.

The time and miles that yawned between made him feel as old as one of the riverbank willows.

Things went badly as the Grogs cleared away the bodies. The main body of Doublebloods were close behind their guard, driving herds of cattle, geese, and swine. Blindfolded human captives, linked by dowels and collars at the neck, staggered under yokes with more bags of loot attached or pushed wheelbarrows.

The west bank of the Mississippi went mad as the bullets began to fly, with animals fleeing every which way and the humans getting tangled, falling, dragging their fallen comrades, until they too tripped and fell hard.

More and more Doublebloods arrived, seemingly from all points west, and the arrival of their rear guard gave the Doublebloods the advantage. Now it was the Whitefangs who were pinned. The Doublebloods even managed to set up some knee mortars, raining shells on the riverbank.

Grogs hated artillery. Many of the younger warriors crept back to the water.

A crossbow bolt whispered past Valentine's ear and struck the transom of the flatboat with a loud kunk.

As the skirmish progressed a group of Doublebloods forced their way toward the boats, using cattle as bleeding, lowing shields, splitting the Whitefangs.

Valentine laid down a steady stream of single shots at the shapes moving in the cow dust, but the Grogs on the boats had a better plan. They cut the anchors and sent the boats nearest the bank off downstream.

Something splashed into the water near Valentine. Grenade, mortar shell, or flung rock?, his brain wondered for a split second, waiting for an explosion.

It didn't come.

Seeing their salvation float away took the heart out of the Doublebloods. They broke and scattered for the riverbank, abandoning their prizes.

The Doubleblood rear guard stayed together, fighting as they turned north instead of south after the boats. Whitefang sent his most experienced warriors after them. Valentine emerged from the river, shimmied up a thick trunk and got a chance to observe a Grog assault from the rear, with warriors avoiding superior firepower by exploding from cover to cover in short hops.

Whitefang shook his head in disgust at the slaughter of livestock. He kicked a shrapnel-scratched youngster to his feet and set him to work hanging and dressing some swine who'd been caught in the cross fire.

Someone had tossed an incendiary grenade in his excitement and started a small brush fire.

Valentine gesticulated and pointed and a few Whitefangs stamped and kicked dirt on the smoldering wood.

It gave him a chance to go to the captives. Using his utility knife, he started cutting ropes and unhooking yokes.

"Much obliged, son," a man with four days of beard croaked.

"He's a renegade. He's with these other stoops," another said. "We're just out of the frying pan and into the fire."

Valentine showed the beat-up militia tag on the shoulder of his half-wet tunic. "No, sir.

This is a joint operation, of sorts. Southern Command will be along in a bit to offer assistance."

"A bit" turned out to be about fifteen minutes. Valentine marked the approaching troops flitting from tree to tree up the trail of the departing, exchanging shots with the last of the Doubleblood rear guard, a pair of sappers so occupied in shooting at the humans and keeping from getting shot themselves that they probably didn't even feel the arrows striking between their shoulder blades.

Valentine stood among the freed captives, waving one of the men's grubby yellow cotton shirt.

Luckily someone recognized him from Rally Base and waved him forward as the Grogs collected and organized their loot.

"So you're the Grog lover," a corporal said.

Valentine heard the expression with a pang. He'd had it shouted to him now and then as he rode next to Ahn-Kha on the long drive into Texas after Archangel had freed the Ozarks. It had angered him then, Ahn-Kha being worth any three of Southern Command's men. Now it just made him miss Ahn-Kha.

He'd spent months in eastern Kentucky chasing rumors. No time to think about that, or the possibilities Highbeam presented . . .

"You call me sir, Corporal," Valentine snapped. "The Whitefangs just saved Southern Command another small war."

Someone snorted.

Valentine added, "This was just a raiding party. If the Double-bloods had come across the river with a couple of their warrior regiments, Rally Base would have been scratched."

"Sorry, sir," the corporal said, smart enough not to show that he doubted Valentine.

Of course, that younger Valentine who'd watched Nishino fall might have doubted this road-worn, tired Valentine too. He had willow leaves in his hair and his boots were drifting down the Mississippi on the flatboat.

A captain came up and Valentine gladly turned to captives over to him. Southern Command and the Whitefangs watched each other over a few dozen yards.

The smell of a roasting hog brought the two groups a little closer together. Valentine filled a birch-bark platter with a cooked haunch and presented it to the Ozark boys with the compliments of White-fang. A few soldiers cautiously traded.

"Excuse me, son. Can I buy that off you?" Valentine said as he saw a private extract a bottle of RC from his sack, smacking his lips at the scent of hot pork fat and crispy skin.

"Dunno, sir. You don't look like you got-"

"Just give it to him, dummy," a sergeant said.

A Grog veteran probably would have grabbed the younger warrior by the long hair on his shoulders and given him a shake, but Valentine recognized correction when he heard it.

"Carry it all this damn way . . . ," the private said, handing it over.

Valentine trotted across the open space and presented the bottle to Whitefang, who smacked his lips as he held up the carmel-colored water to the sky, evaluating its color.

"Not Sofa-coli?" Whitefang said, tapping the logo with a claw.

"Try," Valentine urged. He wondered if the Whitefangs would be up for a march on Atlanta. Most of the Cokes he'd had in his life bore an Atlanta Gunworks imprint.

The Grog flipped off the cap and took a generous swig. He rolled the liquid around in his mouth and gave a rather girlish giggle. Then he swallowed.

The chief belched. Now it was his warriors' turn to laugh.

"More, yes?" Whitefang asked.

"Soon," Valentine temporized, wondering if one of the Shrivastava clan would be brave enough to open a small post in Whitefang territory.

The tall young warrior who'd made eyes with Whitefang's daughter slapped Valentine on the back and gabbled. Valentine was pretty sure he was describing a victory over the Doubleblood rear guard but caught only a word here or there. The young Grog grabbed Valentine by the hair on the back of the neck and shook him, and Valentine felt his eyeballs rattle in their sockets.

The youth opened up a wet canvas case and extracted a Double-blood head, yammering something that could only have been "Take one, I got plenty" as he tried to hand it to Valentine.

Valentine demurred as politely as he could.

The warrior pushed the blood-caked mess on him again, making a gesture with his forearm from his waist, clenched fist at the end, that Valentine found easy to interpret.

"No, you're right, still not married," Valentine said in English as the Grog pointed at his long hair. "But I don't think a skull will help."

A little cautious trading took place between the soldiers and their usual adversaries.

Southern Command offered jars of honey or wrapped pieces of taffy or can openers or clasp knives in exchange for Grog machete sheathes and wrist protectors or earrings.

Valentine facilitated where he could, using a half-gnawed pork rib as a pointer. He found himself smiling more than he had at any time since that Fourth of July gathering.

It wouldn't last, of course. Some Grog would kill a pack trader, looking for loot and a trophy to show his prospective bride's family, or a hotheaded sergeant would teach cattle-rustling Grogs a lesson in the language of the noose. Then matters would flare up and not be calmed down until the next holiday or bad-weather season.

The past was done and the future would come soon enough. If better than thirty years on Vampire Earth had taught David Stuart Valentine anything, it was to enjoy the good moments for what they were.

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