Winter Duty CHAPTER ONE

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The old Jackson Purchase, Kentucky, November of the fifty-fifth year of the Kurian Order: Summer and winter contest the season, with fall waiting on the sidelines as though waiting to determine a winner.

Gloriously warm, some might even say hot days give way to chill nights of thick dew and fogs. The trees cling to their leaves like bony old women chary of nakedness, and the undergrowth remains thick and green or brown.

A line cuts through the growth, trampled and torn into a furrow that circumnavigates only the biggest trees. A stranger to Kentucky of this era might conclude a bulldozer had gone on a rampage, but to natives the furrow is instantly recognizable as a legworm trail.

Capable of eating their way across country at a steady three miles an hour, or doubling that if the riders chain the jaws and scythes shut and prod them along with pokes to their sensitive undersides, the giant yellow caterpillarlike creatures provide a ride smoother than any wheeled conveyance. Especially considering the broken-up state of many of Kentucky's roads, cracked when the New Madrid fault went in 2022 and exploited by new growth.

The trail ends at a camp.

The two worms huddle next to each other in the cold, contracted as tightly as their segmenting allows. One would almost say "unhappily," were the odd, segmented creatures capable of anything as prosaic as happiness or its antonym. Their skin is never more reminiscent of old fiberglass attic insulation than this late in the year, when new winter growth turns the outer layer into tufts and tatters.

Each of the worms bears a pair of curious wooden yokes across its back, projecting from its sides like yardarms of a sailing ship. Each pair supports full hammocks, two to either side of the legworm. A few more walking wounded limp here and there in the camp, bringing food and cleaning those in the hammocks under the supervision of a blue-uniformed nurse. The nurses look exhausted, having spent the day walking up and down the back of the beast with the practiced air of a circus performer, plunging a hook into a fleshy yellow tuft to drop down and check on a patient, offer water, or adjust a towel hanging so as to keep the sun out of the wounded soldier's eyes.

The rest of the camp not on guard cooks, bakes, or sleeps dead-deep and dirty. There's always too much to do in a hospital train.

A thin strip of woodland and a slug-shaped marsh sit beyond the farthest picket, where a pair of figures lies on their bellies just below the crest of one of the low rolling hills of this quarter of Kentucky where it falls off toward the Mississippi River. Their prone bodies are pointed, like a pair of compass needles, at another camp, smaller in numbers but more spread out in size-a careless campsite, more interested in avoiding one another's smells and sounds than organization or security.

The watchers are male and female, though it is hard to tell by their hair or apparel. If observed from anywhere but atop them, they might be mistaken for a couple of dropped bundles of laundry. The female's long brown overcoat is so patched that the fabric takes the appearance of a camouflage pattern. A thin, freckled face and a fringe of knife-cut red hair can just be made out behind the bug eyes of a pair of mini binoculars. Her longer, leaner companion carries more weapons and gear. He's clad in an odd fusion of weaponry, pebbly leather, and slate gray uniform that looks more like the overalls a utility worker might wear, with thick padded knees and elbows. He's worn-looking from scarred face to pocked and scratched bootheels. In contrast, clean and silky black hair covers the back of his head in a luxurious fall down to his shoulders.

Her binoculars sweep from campfire to sentry, from thick-tired four-wheel vehicle to tent to trailer. She's counting, assessing, calculating risk and threat potential.

His unassisted eyes remained locked on a huddled group of figures in the center of camp. They're neither tied nor restrained; instead they sit behind a staked-out square of construction pegs and red twine, eating hockey puck-sized biscuits the color of gravel from a freshly opened box. Mothers have mashed and soaked them in water for their children; the others either break up the rations with fingers or bite into them, depending on the condition of their teeth. One of the stronger captives, a hulk with a pair of gloves over his ears serving as elephantine earmuffs, wrestles a heel of bread from a weaker, old man with a neat goatee. Their guards do nothing to intervene. It's gone all too soon, save for a few biscuits given up by the older specimens behind the string to the mothers and children.

It's hard to tell exactly what the watching man may be thinking; he keeps his face a careful mask. But a careful observer might note that he's blinking more than his companion as he watches the huddled captives try to feed their children.

David Valentine suspected his eyes were glittering red in the dark, like eyes reflecting a camera's flash in old pictures of wedding guests. The night vision he'd had ever since becoming a Cat came with some odd side effects. It was a gift of humanity's Lifeweaver allies in their war against the Kurians, but a double-edged one. While his pupils could open as wide as if under a pharmacological effect to let more light in to the sensitive, and multiplied, rod-shaped cells beneath, that also left him vulnerable to headaches when exposed to sudden glare and color vision that was a little off from what most people experienced.

Though the tears interfered with his vision, Lifeweaver-improved or not.

His light-thirsty eyes watched the strangers' nighted camp. The sky might have been a pane of glass between Earth and the stars, and the moon would be up in a couple of hours, when it would glow like a searchlight.

They'd been lucky, oh, so lucky. Both parties had approached and camped without cutting each other's trails, and only his train had bothered with a proper reconnaissance.

His wounded and their caregivers were settling down just on the other side of a low hill and a stretch of soggy woodland between.

A meeting engagement, then. Whoever found out the most about the other fastest would have the advantage. No sign of scouts discovering his wounded, or he suspected he'd see more action in the camp.

"Who do you think they are?" he asked the woman next to him. Alessa Duvalier had trained him in the business of operating in the Kurian Zone.

"Poachers. Nomansland trash."

All the layers of clothing made them look like bloated ticks. A ratty undershirt covered by variegated flannel with a windbreaker over that, and then an old military gear vest with ponchos in assorted configurations pinned back but ready to rearrange if the strangely warm fall rain started up again.

Headhunters returning from a successful raid, probably bound for Memphis or Nashville. The Kurians had few scruples about stealing population from one another's territories. Human rustling could make a person rich.

In this case what the raiders were doing was a little less dangerous. They'd probably rounded up people displaced by all the fighting in Kentucky in the summer and fall, or perhaps caught escapees from some Kurian principality or other making a run for the Free Territory across the Mississippi.

Twelve poachers. Plus two kids and the women. That he and Duvalier could see. Maybe more in the tents or out of camp hunting or on errands. They were old-school with their transportation: a gas ATV, a few motorbikes, tough-looking mules and llamas, a knot of sleek brush ponies, and two trucks towing big horse trailers for their captives, riding like livestock on the way to the slaughterhouse.

Damned if he'd see them driven into those carts again.

But twelve. A job for a company of soldiers.

Or a small, very careful team. He had one of the best Cats in the business lying next to him. She'd volunteered for the operation in Kentucky last summer. He still wondered why.

Duvalier lowered the binoculars. The wide, light-hungry pupils turned on him. Valentine picked up a faint glitter in the darkness, like polished copper reflecting flame. "You're thinking about those scruffs."

Slang for future aura-fodder. Anything to keep from thinking of them as someone who might be a brother or a daughter.

"And if I am?"

"Will you at least let me go in first and shave the odds?"

Of course his orders said nothing about rounding up strays. He had to consider that if it went bad, his wounded could end up driven to the Kurians south or north of here.

The rewards in return for the risk didn't amount to much. The people who had the guts and resources and luck to make it to the Freehold often needed years of education before they were more of a blessing than a burden. Without someone to schedule every moment of their lives, they wandered like lost sheep or were taken advantage of by hucksters and con artists.

Their kids, however, took to the Free Territory like famished horses loosed in good pasture. The ones with memories of the Kurian Zone often made the best fighters in the Cause. They accepted the discipline and regulation and privation without complaint. They soon learned that the Quisling thugs who'd robbed and bullied everyone under their authority ran like gun-shy rabbits when put up against trained soldiers. Even more, the Reapers, instead of being invulnerable avatars of the local dread god-king, could in fact be hunted down and dynamited out of their holes and killed.

Colonel Seng, who'd led Javelin across Kentucky in the most skillful march into enemy territory Valentine had ever experienced, had once been one of those children.

The Free Republics could use another Colonel Seng.

But twelve. Plus two kids and the women.

He couldn't do twelve. Not all at once, not without running too many risks of a mistake. Duvalier might be able to, but it would take her all night in her methodical manner. But perhaps he could stampede them.

Two paces away, Alessa Duvalier lay swathed in her big overcoat with her sagging, flapped hunter's cap pulled down low. You had to look twice to be sure there was a person there rather than an old, lightning-struck stump.

Her eyes sparkled red, alive at the thought of cutting a few throats. Duvalier had a personal grudge against all Quislings. She'd selected Valentine years ago to become a Cat, tutoring him in sabotage, sniping, assassination, intelligence gathering-all the variegated duties that covert operations in the Kurian Zone entailed. They still bore faint, matching scars on their palms that sealed the odd bond between them, a strange blend of mutual respect and an almost filial blend of conflicting emotions.

"They'll send out scouting parties in the morning, sure as sunrise," Duvalier said.

"Bound to cut the legworm trail," Valentine agreed.

"We could nail the scouts headed our way."

"Which might draw more trouble, if this is just an advance party of a bigger operation," Valentine said. "Besides, it won't help those poor souls in the trailers."

Duvalier's mouth opened and shut again. "Let's skip the usual argument. I know you'll just pull rank anyway."

Valentine answered by stripping off his uniform tunic as she muttered something about crusades and hallelujahs and saving souls.

"We'll need someone good with a rifle," Valentine said. "Just in case they don't bite."

"That old worm driver, Brian something-or-other-he has that scoped Accuracy Suppressed. He hit a deer on the run with it. His kid's always carrying it around."

They ended up bringing the son-his name was Dorian-forward. The father came along as spotter. Dorian's father claimed the boy was just as good a shot, with better eyes. He'd already seen action that summer and been blooded at what in better times would be called the tender age of fifteen at the river crossing where Valentine had taken out a company of Moondaggers with a handful of Bears. Dorian's swagger showed that he considered himself a hardened veteran.

Valentine could just remember what it was to be that young.

He outlined the plan and had Dorian repeat it back to him.

"Steady now, Dorian. Don't pull that trigger unless they throw down on me, or I signal. And the signal is . . . ?"

"You hit the dirt," Dorian said, even though they'd already been through it once.

"Remember to check your target. I'll be moving around a lot in there. Can do?"

"Can do, Major Valentine."

It felt good to run. Valentine enjoyed losing himself in his body. Idleness left his mind free to visit the nightmare graveyard of his experiences, or calculate the chances of living to see another Christmas or summer solstice, or think about the look on the old man with the goatee's face when his fellow prisoner ripped the heel of bread right out of his hand. So he escaped by chopping wood, loping along at the old easy Wolf cadence-even the rhythmic thrust of lovemaking.

Though the last left him feeling vaguely guilty for not being attentive enough to the woman.

Since they'd said good-bye to the Bulletproof legworm clan after the battle across the river from Evansville, he had nothing but memories of Tikka's vigorous sensuality and the musky smell of her skin. They could be revisited at his leisure. Now he had work to do.

He had the sense that their affair was over, her curiosity, or erotic interest, or-less flatteringly-the desire to cement good relations between Southern Command's forces and her clan being satisfied.

He crouched in a bush, watching the young sentry, who seemed to be watching nothing but stars and the rising moon.

Valentine checked his little .22 automatic, which he usually carried wrapped up in a chamois with his paperwork. Over the years he'd had cause to kill with everything from his bare hands to artillery fire, but he'd found a small-caliber pistol more useful than any other weapon. It was quiet, the rounds were accurate at close range, and you could carry it concealed. With the lead in the nose etched with a tiny cross so it would fragment and widen the wound, it did damage out of proportion to the weight of the round.

He wondered if the Kurians' death-machine avatars, the Reapers, felt the same electric nervousness when they stalked a victim.

Of course, in a meadow like this, in open country, Reapers did not stalk, at least not for the last few dozen meters. They acted more like the big, fast cats Valentine had seen loose in the hill country in central Texas, covering the distance in an explosive rush that either startled their prey into stillness or made escape futile.

Of course, in the city it was something else entirely. Urban Reapers were the trap-door spiders of many a ruined block, striking from a patch of overgrowth, a pile of garbage, or a crack in the ceiling. But he doubted these headhunters worked the cities. Too much law and order, even if the bad law and order of the KZ.

He turned his senses to the camp, trying to get a sense of the rhythms of the headhunters.

They were singing. Three of the men were passing a bottle, falling out and joining in the tune between swigs, taking turns improvising rhyming lyrics in old-style rap.

The sentry sat in a tree overlooking the bowl-shaped field and soggy patch, within hallooing distance of the camp.

The safety went back on the little .22, for now. Valentine guessed why they put the youth on watch. Young men had good eyesight, especially at twilight. He'd probably be relieved by a veteran for the late shift. The boy was alternately yawning and chewing on bits of long grass root, glancing back toward the camp for signs of his relief.

Valentine balanced the chances of the young man doing something stupid against the possibility of using the kid to get into camp armed with some bargaining power. If Valentine just approached the poachers, they'd have him facedown in the dirt until they secured his weapons, at the very least.

Valentine wormed his way up to the trunk from downwind, using a mixture of crawling and scuttling during the sentry's frequent glances back to look for his relief.

The relief sentry started his walk uphill to the lookout tree, holding a heavy, swaddled canteen by its strap.

Valentine loosened his sword and pocketed the automatic, grateful that he hadn't had to use it. He shifted to his submachine gun, double-checking the safety.

The boy, anticipating his relief, clambered down from the scrub oak. Valentine slipped up behind.

Valentine moved quickly, clapping a strong left hand over the kid's mouth and elevating the kid's wrist to his shoulder blade with the right.

"Don't crap yourself, kid. I'm not a Reaper. But I could have been. I want you to remember that when we get back to your campfire sing-along. I could have been. What's your name?"

"Trent. Sunday Trent," the boy sqeaked.

"Sunday? Like after Saturday?"

"Yes, sir."

"Knock off the 'sir,' boy. I'm not some local trooper you have to polish. They call me the Last Chance."

Valentine couldn't say why he picked the name. One of the Moondaggers had called himself that. An emissary sent to deliver threats and ultimatums, he hadn't intimidated the Southern Command's troops-the quickest way to get their backs up was to start making demands and informing them they were beat.

Valentine thought of tying the kid's hands-he had spare rawhide twine in a pocket, as it had lots of uses around camp-but settled for looping his legworm pick in the back of the boy's pants and prodding him along with the haft. Less aggressive that way and it kept Valentine out of elbowing distance in case the boy made a gesture born more of desperation than inexperience.

Being careful about others' actions as much as your own was how you stayed alive on Vampire Earth.

"Sunday, I need to talk to the boss of-What do you call yourselves, a gang?"

"Easy Crew, sir. Blitty Easy's Crew."

"Which one's Blitty Easy?"

"The one with the tall hat, sir."

Valentine thought of giving the kid a poke the next time he said sir.

"Call me Chance, Sunday."

"The one with the hat, Chance bo-Chance."

The use of names was relaxing the kid a little.

They met the relief sentry on the way, a man with no less than nine Old World jujus around his neck, a mixture of car manufacturer iconography and bandless watch faces. Valentine recognized a Rolex and Bulova dangling from gold chains. Valentine remembered some of the decorations as Gulf Coast Reaper wards.

"Keep your mouth shut, Sunday," Valentine said.

"That watch post has blind spots right and left," Valentine called. He kept Sunday Trent between himself and the sentry as they passed.

The relief looked distinctly unrelieved at the news.

"Hollup!" the relief called belatedly.

The camp was contracting like a turtle tucking in its limbs for the night. One of the poachers guided a captive to a tent, his hand firmly on the back of her neck. She didn't struggle-a pregnancy was a guarantee of life in the Kurian Zone, both as proof of fertility and for the sake of the new member of the human herd.

The gunmen stood up at Valentine's approach, swapping eating utensils for guns and clubs.

"Easy now, Easy Crew," Valentine muttered. "Just relax, Sunday. All I want to do is talk a bit."

Sunday led him into camp and people gathered, naturally curious about the stranger. Weapons were readied but not pointed.

Sunday pointed out the leader of the headhunters.

Valentine had to admire the big man's sartorial taste. From the dirt pattern on his extremities, Valentine surmised he drove the ATV. Valentine hadn't seen a beaver hat since New Orleans at least, if not Oklahoma, and this one had a lush shine to it that spoke of either recent purchase or tender care.

"Careful, tha, with that gun, stranger," Blitty Easy said. Everything on him looked bright and expensive, from the silver tips on his shoes to the diamonds fixed to the skin in the place of one shaved eyebrow.

"I'm here to talk, not shoot," Valentine said.

"Even shooting off your mouth can be dangerous around me, Injun Man," Blitty Easy said. "What's the matter, we grab somebody's heir? You the big tough man they sent to get him back. No, her back."

"I think bigger than that. I want the whole bunch. Leave the bonds. I want to present them wrapped up like a big bouquet."

Blitty Easy laughed. "You talk pretty big for a man with nothing but a dumb kid in his sights. You can shoot him if you like. Serves him right for letting himself get snuck up on tha in that tree."

"What direction you going, Sunday?" Valentine asked, poking the kid in the lumbar with the barrel of his gun.

"South. Mem-"

"Shuddup, Sunday," Blitty Easy said.

"South," Valentine said. "Good. You won't have to circle around to avoid us; you can just keep on track."

Blitty Easy stood up, thick legs holding up a stomach that jutted out like a portable stove. Not flab, exactly, but the heavy center of a powerful man.

Valentine walked Sunday around the circle of onlookers. Each took a step back as he approached and held his right fist cocked so his brass ring was at eye level. The circle of men and guns around him widened and spread and thinned as though he were rolling dough.

They eyed the submachine gun at his hip. Carrying a quality firearm like that openly marked one as either a tool of the Kurian Order or someone operating outside it. Easy's Crew maintained their well-armed independence by living on the fringes of the masquerade of a civilization beneath the towers.

Deadly as his weapon was, some would say the brass ring on his finger was the deadlier weapon. It was the mark of Kurian favor. A wearer was owed respect, for the fear and favor of the Kurians hung about the ring's owner like a king's mantle.

"Who do you think you are, threatening my crew?" Blitty Easy barked.

Valentine held his brass ring high. "Who am I? A man tested by the only law that lasts-that of the jungle. I speak three Grog dialects and have a foot pass for half the tribes west of the Tennessee and Ohio. I've watched Twisted Cross tubs open, ridden the cannonball St. Louis to LA, and flown with Pyp's Circus. I've sailed the Caribbean and the Great Lakes and Puget Sound, humped hills in Virginia and Baja, tickled lip from Albuquerque to Xanadu. I've won a brass ring and the power to put you all in unmarked graves. I'm your last chance, Blitty Easy."

Easy had a good poker face. "Why you bothering with us, then, Mr. Big Shot?"

"The Old Folks are interested in Kentucky right now. They don't want to see another state fall to the guerrillas. We're on our way to talk some sense into the more friendly locals. I thought my goons would have to forage for heartbeats, but you went out rounding up strays and did the job for us."

"We get paid for them?"

Valentine would have happily bought the lives, had he or his column had anything the brigands would accept.

"Payment is you just hand over your collection without going in the bag with them. My Old Man likes keeping brimful on aura when traveling, and they're not particular."

"He's bluffin' , " someone called from behind Valentine.

Valentine whirled. "Kiss my ring and check it out. I don't mind."

A brass ring on its rightful wearer accumulated enough bio-electric charge to tingle when you touched your lips to it. Valentine found the sensation similar to licking a battery. His brass ring, fairly won in Seattle, was legitimate enough, and he usually kept it with some odds and ends in a little velvet bag along with a few favorite hand-painted mahjong pieces. Though he'd lost his taste for the game long ago, they still made useful tokens for sending messages to people who knew him. The only tarnish about the ring was the mark it had left on his conscience.

Valentine could tell the crew was impressed, even if Blitty Easy still looked suspicious.

"Or you want to test me some other way?" Valentine said, drawing his blade.

"Regular Sammy Rye, with that blade," Blitty Easy said.

"Steel without the talent to back it up's just so much butter knife," a man who smelled like cheap gin said, two younger versions of himself flanking him.

Valentine inflated his lungs and let out an unearthly wail. An imitation of a Reaper scream had worked once before, a dozen years ago, several hundred miles north in the hills of western Illinois. It might work here.

Movement and a bullet crack.

Valentine's reflexes moved ahead of his regrets.

The camp exploded into noise and motion, like a tray of ice cubes dumped into a fryer.

He knocked Sunday flat.

No rhyme or reason to the rest. The fat was in the fire and he had to move or burn. A hand near him reached for a chest holster to his right and he swung his sword and struck down in a sweeping blow. A shotgun came up and he jumped as it went off, spraying buckshot into the men behind him, turning one's cheek into red mist and white bone. A poacher put a banana-clipped assault rifle to his shoulder, and then his hair lifted as though an invisible brush had passed through it, and he went down, a thoughtful look on his face as he toppled.

Valentine rolled free, dropping his sword and reaching for the little submachine gun he'd carried across Kentucky twice as he ran out of the firelight. With a shake, the wire-frame folding stock snapped into place and he put it to his shoulder.

A bullet whizzed past, beating him into the night.

The poachers had pitched their tents in a little cluster, and he moved through them. A shaggy back with a bandolier-he planted a triangle of bullets in it between the shoulder blades, moving all the while, zigzagging like a man practicing the fox-trot in triple time.

Tent canvas erupted and Valentine felt hot buckshot pass just ahead.

Move-shoot, stop, and reload. Move-shoot, shoot; move-shoot, stop, and reload.

Blitty Easy's Crew was shooting at anything that moved, and Valentine was only one of several figures running through the night.

Turned out the twelve and then some could be taken without too much of a risk.

These weren't soldiers; they were brigands, used to preying on the weak. They popped their heads up like startled turkeys to see where the reports of the sniper fire came from and received a bullet from Dorian's rifle. Pairs of men moved together instead of covering each other-Valentine cut two down as they ran together toward the machine gun pointed impotently at the sky.

Valentine saw a figure with long hair running, dragging a child. Please, Dorian, don't get carried away.

There was only one headhunter Valentine wanted to be sure of. He wasn't that hard to find; he made noise like an elephant as he ran through the Kentucky briars and brambles.

Thick legs pumping like pistons, Easy made wide-spaced tracks for timber.

A brown-coated figure rose from the brush as he swept past. She executed a neat thrust under his shoulder blades.

The fleeing figure didn't seem to notice the quick poke. Blitty Easy pounded out three more steps and then pitched forward with a crash.

Duvalier kicked the corpse and then waded through the brush to Valentine, sniffing the beaver hat suspiciously as she passed.

"That was a good piece of killing," Duvalier said, wearing that old fierce grin that made Valentine wonder about her sanity. She lifted a coattail on one of the bodies and wiped off her sword.

An engine gunned to life and another shot rang out. The engine puttered on, but he didn't hear a transmission grind into gear.

"This might be nice for winter." She tried the hat on. The size made the rest of her look all that much more waifish, a little girl playing dress-up. "Smells like garage gunpowder and hair oil, though."

They covered each other as they inspected the camp. The only one left alive was Sunday. He looked around at the bodies, shaking like a leaf.

"They said it was good money," Sunday said. "Easy work. Easy work, that's what they said. Easy crew. Easy work. Get rich, bringing in rabbits."

Duvalier put her hand on her sword hilt, but Valentine took her elbow.

"He's just shaken up. We can let him go."

Valentine turned on the boy. "You load up a couple of those llamas and go home to mother, boy. Kentucky's harder than it looks."

They circled around away from the bodies and checked the trailers and the prisoner pen.

"We're turning you loose," Valentine said to the captives. "We're heading west, all the way across the Mississippi. Any of you want to go that way is welcome to file along behind under Southern Command protection."

A few gasped. One young girl, no more than six, lifted one chained-together leg as though asking for assistance with a fouled shoelace.

"There's got to be a bolt cutter in one of those trucks," Valentine said to Duvalier. "See if you can find it, Smoke."

He turned away and flipped the maplight switch on one of the running trucks, a high clearance pickup with the cab top removed and replaced by an empty turret ring. One of Easy's Crew leaned back behind the wheel. If you looked at the side of his head that wasn't sprayed all over the hood of the open-topped truck, it appeared as though he was sleeping.

"You want us bringin' our supplies, Cap'n?" one of the captives asked.

Valentine looked at the captives' rations. Blitty Easy's Crew fed their captives on the cheap, as you'd expect. Hard ration bread. Sticks of dried legworm segment divider-interesting only as chewing exercise-and sour lard, with a half-full jar of a cheap orange mix that tasted like reconstituted paint chips to drink. Though it did sanitize water. They'd be better off cooking the poachers for food, but of course Valentine couldn't suggest that.

It took a while to get them organized, to distribute loads on pack animals. He'd send a patrol back for the vehicles.

As he walked back toward Dorian's sniper perch with Duvalier, he refilled his submachine gun's magazine from a heavy box of 9mm rounds he'd found in one of the locked glove compartments. It had yielded easily enough to a screwdriver.

"What was that?" he demanded of Duvalier once they were out of earshot.

"A darn good killing," Duvalier said, showing her teeth.

"I said I'd make the first move," Valentine said. Was he more angry at the killing, or orders being disobeyed?

"You screamed, Val," Duvalier said. "I thought you were calling for help. I gave the order to fire. What's your malfunction, David? They were just border trash."

"Major, if you please."

Duvalier rolled her eyes heavenward.

"Just doing my duty," Duvalier said. "You even remember what yours is? We're supposed to fight them in as many places as possible, the 'fire of a thousand angry torches' or however that speech by the former Old World president went."

The mood passed, as it always did. Valentine was more vexed at himself than Duvalier. At least she had the guts to admit she liked killing.

Valentine took his mood out on the food snatcher wearing the stolen gloves as earmuffs. He got to arrange the bodies and see that each one's face was faceup but covered by a shroud of some kind.

Valentine felt better as they gathered Easy Crew's collection of aura-fodder and vehicles and brought them into camp. A sergeant gave the usual recruiting speech as they broke camp the next morning. Anyone who wanted to join the fight would head back west to the new Southern Command fort on the banks of the Ohio guarding Evansville from the Kentucky side. They'd have an important job right off, getting the vehicles back with the guidance of a detail from the sick-train.

They ended up with two. A fifteen-year-old boy with a lazy eye and a widow of forty-one who'd learned to use a rifle as a teen in the Kurian Youth Vanguard.

"I quit when my mom got sick in her uterus and they stuck her in a van," the volunteer explained. "Mom was right smart, could have been useful a hundred ways if they'd let her get operated on and recover."

Of course Sergeant Patel, the senior NCO back at Javelin, could make soldiers out of odds and ends of human material. There was always more work than there were hands.

More aura for the trip home. A prowling Reaper would spot their psychic signatures from miles away, even in the lush hills of Kentucky. He and Duvalier would have to team up every night and sleep in their saddles.

Four enervating days later Valentine had his wounded across the Mississippi. The Kentucky worm drivers turned homeward, their sluggish mounts willing to move only in the warmest hours of the day no matter how much pain they inflicted with the long, sharp goads.

The Kentuckians would stay on their side of the river. Valentine felt guilty saying good-bye and wishing them luck, they'd pushed their worms on through the cold until death was assured for their mounts. Without a group of others of their kind to coil with, in a knitted cocoon to protect the fall's eggs, the frost would take them like delicate fruit.

"These two are goners, I think," Dorian said as they made their good-byes. He'd been quiet ever since shooting six of Blitty Easy's Crew on that wild, clear night.

"We'll compensate you and your father somehow," Valentine said, signing an order and tearing it off from his dwindling sheaf of blanks.

"Wish they could give me back that night. The one with the shooting."

Valentine felt for the young man. Dorian had stepped across a terrible threshold far too young.

"You followed orders and did what had to be done, Dorian," Valentine said. "Better than thirty people are going to live to a fine old age because you're a good shot. Remember that."

The youth nodded dumbly, and his father nudged him back toward the high saddles.

Duvalier embraced him with one of her characteristic hugs, half handshake and half lover's embrace. She nuzzled the bristle on his chin.

"I'll see that they get back all right. Any orders for me back in Henderson?"

"Be careful. I think if the Kurians move on us, it'll be from the Ordnance. You could check the rail lines up that way."

"Can do," she said.

"I won't be gone long. I'm just going to give my report, see about supply and replacement, and return."

She slipped away as though bored with the good-bye, and Valentine returned to supervising the river embarkation.

Javelin had left Southern Command with bands playing and people cheering and tinfoil on their heads.

Its wounded returned under cover of darkness, hauled across the Mississippi in some of Southern Command's Skeeter Fleet-twin-engined outboards ready to make wake at the first sign of trouble.

No crowds met them on the western shores, just a deputation from Forward Operating Base Rally's commander at the edge of the Missouri bootheel.

Colonel Pizzaro looked incredulous when Valentine announced that he'd been returned with fresh from a hard-fought victory in Western Kentucky. Valentine handed over a sealed report to Southern Command from Colonel Bloom, now in command of what was left of the expedition to the Appalachians.

"Don't be stingy with the steaks and beer," Valentine said. "They walked a hard trail. They deserve a few luxuries with their laurels."

Pizzaro cleared his throat. "Tell me, Valentine. Don't hold back. How bad was it over there? Papers are playing it down or calling it a catastrophe."

"Could have gone better," Valentine said. "But it wasn't a disaster. We've gained allies, just not where we expected. I'd call it a major victory for the Cause."

"He's a good man, but kind of an oddball," one of Pizzaro's staff said to a corporal in a voice he probably thought too quiet for Valentine to hear. "Always full of fancy ideas about working with Grogs and stuff."

Pizzaro snorted. "Victory? Not according to the Clarion headlines. Or are you aiming for a nice long rest somewhere quiet with lots of watercolor paint?"

"It was a win for the good guys, Colonel."

"You're selling that at headquarters?" Pizzaro asked. "I wish you luck."

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