Tale of the Thunderbolt Chapter Eleven

The Ranch, Central Texas, November: Texas, at 266,000 square miles, is larger than any country of old Europe, and could fit a few Eastern states within her expanse. The same could almost be said of the lands around the Ranch, which stretch from the hill country west of San Antonio in the south to Abilene in the north, taking up the Edwards Plateau in the west and ending at the old I-35 in the east. Why the Kurians wanted such a vast expanse for their experiments can only be guessed at; perhaps the research stations they established on the Colorado River and the San Angelo area needed isolation.

The thorough depopulation of the area supported this theory. It is one of the few parts of the Kurian Zone run without the aid of Quisling forces. Its borders are watched by Grogs, either hardened to or oblivious of what goes on in the hinterland of the region.

It is one of the most beautiful parts of the Lone Star State, a land of limestone bluffs over twisted rivers, of rolling hills dotted with wildflowers and fragrant of sage. Longhorns, wearing no brand at all, roam the valleys alongside buffalo, with antelope watching from the hilltops and white-tailed deer sheltering in the cedar and oak forests. Cypress grows in the river valleys, and zone-tail hawks drift above the southern tip of the American Great Plains. If the wildlife could talk, they could tell of new, strange inhabitants wandering the hills.

David Valentine scratched the bristle on his chin in thought, raking his memory. Only one animal on earth looked like that, and they were called ... "Zebras, by God."

"Yes, that's right, zebras," Amelia Baltz said.

She was a square-built woman, a thick, tough-skinned German as solid as a Gothic cathedral. She rode with Valentine and her staff at the front of the wagon train when she wasn't driving her buckboard or conferring with the Ranger-scouts on the best path for the column to take. Her "staff' consisted of a towheaded thirteen-year-old girl named Eve, a walking suntan who was all scrawny limbs under a face that twitched like a rabbit when she thought. There was also an assortment of animals ranging from riding and pack-horses to dogs, cats, and the only chickens Valentine had ever known to lay eggs while traveling.

"The zebras, David, come from an old-I guess you'd call it a zoo-near Kerrville. It was home to ostriches, too, and they're thriving in the hill country. The damn things'll kick your head clean off if you startle them, so don't wander into the brush to take a shit without looking for something with a feathery white ass. Funny thing is, you come up on 'em head-on, they turn and run. You sneak up behind ... swish-whack."

Baltz had a direct earthiness that came from better than forty years of life in the open. She wore bandannas over hair, mouth, and neck when the dust kicked up and settled on the broad brim of her hat, and an ancient pair of curving, head-wrapping sunglasses.

"Are we on the Ranch lands yet?"

"We're just skirting the edge. We've left the Grog-pickets behind. What they do if they cut our trail I don't know, they don't go into the Ranch proper, at least not anymore, even following an enemy. They ain't that dumb-no offense intended to your big-assed shadow there. The Ranch has its own security. One relief: the Hissers don't wander these hills, so we don't have to worry about lifesign."

"No offense understood," Ahn-Kha said. The Golden One walked alongside Valentine's horse, his long rifle protected from the dust by a soft leather sheath. "Perhaps the unusual animals are the reason people think this place is used by Kur for experiments."

"We don't think, we know. I worked their lands, when I was nearer your age, David, or even younger. I was an electrician; I handled the lines running between the stations. Being a specialist means you see some things they don't want you to tell about, so they made me live on the Ranch, with some of the other people they couldn't do without. About twelve years ago, they decided to clean house and bring in some new people. They showed up, and I didn't like the way they were rounding us up for a 'meeting.' I got Eve, jumped in a Hummer, and rode it till the oil ran out, then ran south on foot.

"I never saw much of what was going on inside the stations-I just worked the lines outside. When I had to work a box indoors, they blindfolded me until I got to the utility room. But even outside you saw things. Once I heard some kind of muttering in the underbrush and I looked down and these two pigs were nosing through some scrub. They weren't grunting, they were forming something like words, I just didn't understand.

"They've had a lot of trouble with breakouts. Keeping a pig in a pen and keeping a pig that thinks like you do is something else entire."

"I can imagine," Valentine said. He could imagine, too much. The hills felt as if they were waiting for him to turn his back. He would have almost preferred to hear that they were stiff with Reapers.

"Can you, boy? I wonder. There was a rumor that once something got out; they blasted a whole quarter of the place with nerve agents. Hold 'em up here a minute, me and the dogs are going to scout that tree line."

The wagon train always got under way before dawn. Each move was a two-segment effort. The mounted screen

of ranger scouts moved a day ahead of the column under Zacharias's lieutenant, charting the course for the wagons and choosing the best spots for stream-crossings, resting places, and the next night's campsight. The convoy of fifteen wagons and the rest of the escort made up the second segment. The convoy spent only about six hours a day in motion. The oxen pulled better with frequent rest stops and out-spans, and those always meant at least a couple of hours of delay while teams were unhitched and then reorganized.

Valentine left much of the management of the column to the Texans, and he and Post worked at getting their men to patrol effectively alongside the rangers. With their baggage in the wagons, the mix of former marines and sailors had to carry only their arms and ready ammunition, and perhaps a canteen or walking stick. There was some grumbling about marching while all the Texans got to ride, and there was some comment by the Texans about having to guard and support "foreign mouths"-though there was no complaint about the quality of Narcisse's chuckwagon cooking. Ahn-Kha and his surviving Grogs stuck close to Valentine as he moved about, like children keeping close to their parent among strangers.

"If we run into anything, our men will be glad the horsemen gave them warning, and the Texans will be grateful for all our rifles," Valentine said to Post, when they talked over the men's adaption to the trail and their new allies. They both agreed that even after days in the wagons, sweeping wide around San Antonio, the column was still moving like a balky horse.

Steak on the hoof followed the wagon train, driven so as to muddle the wagon tracks and footprints. Regular barbecues in the evening gradually brought the two camps together, until Texans were teaching Jamaicans to play horseshoes and guitars, and the mariners were enthralling their hosts with stories and music, and dances and songs from the other side of the Gulf.

By the time they entered the lands Baltz identified as being on the Ranch proper, the column was as cohesive and cooperative as Valentine could have hoped, due to habit more than leadership or training. At rest halts, Valentine's soldiers took over the picket duty, fanning out to gather some of the seasonal crops growing wild: plentiful apples, squash, and pumpkins. Their foraging made a difference to the barbecues, and with the nights growing longer as October waned, the evening meals became more leisurely. Nar-cisse contributed her own ideas about cooking to the drive. Some of the Texans began to anticipate the nights when she cooked Creole dishes-the variety was welcome with night after night of slaughtered beef and preserved food.

It was at one peaceful camp, as Valentine walked the picket line with Post to make sure the sentries were under cover with good fields of vision, that a pair of the Thunderbolt's sailors, one Jamaican and one former Coastal Patrolman, came running down from a grass-covered hill.

"Captain, there's some kinda big animals the other side of this hill. They're making a hell of a noise," the old New Orleans hand reported, moving from one foot to the other like a schoolkid asking for a trip to the toilet.

The Cat hardened his ears. It sounded like construction work, or logging. He thought he heard a tree being pushed over.

"Post," Valentine said, "find Baltz, please. Tell her to meet me on top of that hill. Let the camp know we've seen something, but I doubt there's immediate danger. They wouldn't be making so much noise if they meant to cause trouble. Take my horse back, would you?" Valentine dismounted and placed a drum in his submachine gun, and shouldered the weapon.

"Let's have a look," Valentine said to the men.

"Sir, that gun ain't gonna do much against what's on the other side of this hill."

"We can always outrun it."

"Two of us get away, then. The two fastest," the Jamaican predicted.

They filed back up the hill and began to crawl through the grass and brush when they reached the crest. Valentine looked back toward the camp and saw Baltz and Eve trotting toward their observation point.

"Losey, go back down a ways and show 'em where we are," Valentine said to the Jamaican, who nodded and crawled backwards out of sight.

Valentine heard the sound of another tree tipping and looked into the valley.

They were huge quadrapeds. More strange wildlife of Central Texas, he really couldn't -

"You've got to be kidding," Valentine said. "Those are elephants, but with two trunks. Or is it one trunk cut in two?"

"Can't see too well, sir. My eyes have been fadin' since I turned thirty. See how they're using tools?"

Valentine did see. The gray giants were using picks and shovels to dig in a clearing they had enlarged in a patch of woods. Other elephants used their foreheads to knock trees over, facing outward from the clearing.

"What did I tell you, boy?" Baltz said, creeping up on her haunches. The girl watched silently from behind. "Don't that beat all? Them 'fants, looks like three or four families down there, they're getting set for winter. They're making a windbreak, some of the trees they're leaving up will be pushed together to make sort of a roof. They don't like the cold. Don't use fire, though. They talk, and you can hear them a long way away, the dogs pick up stuff below our hearing frequency. I knew we'd run into some 'fants in the next day or two-the dogs signaled it."

"Why are they digging?" the sailor asked.

"Food storage. That's an old riverbed, and they're going to put stuff they gathered in the clay. They've figured out how to dry fruit. You'll see apples all over the place lying on stones."

"The Kurians thought they could feed off those? They look like they could stomp a Reaper."

"Nah, the Grogs hunt them with tranquilizers from horseback, or vehicles. The 'fants haven't really worked out for them. I don't think they did much research on elephants, the wild things had a family loyalty they didn't count on. Up-ping the intelligence a couple of degrees was one of their dumber moves. We'd best get away from here soon though, if there are 'fants around, there might be hunters. Though the tracks I've seen today don't show it."

"You want us to move at night?" Valentine asked

"Just for a couple more hours."

"Light'll be gone soon-let's get moving, then. Eve, don't you ever say anything?"

"No sir," Eve said, eyes wide on the elephants.

"You'd better go pack up the menagerie," Baltz said to Eve. The girl took one long look, then scampered off. "C'mon boy, sightseeing's over. We should get away from here."

"Is she a relative?" Valentine said.

"She's been with me since she was a babe in arms. The Kurians had a research station in a crossroads town called Eden. I never found out what they were breeding. There was a fire, and they called in everyone with two arms and two legs to help fight it. Well, for some reason there were human babies at this station, most of 'em died account of the smoke, they dragged them out in this cart-cage contraption. Looked to be five, or maybe six infants in this cage. I saw her fingers moving and got her out. She started coughing up a storm, and even with all the noise she was making, I snuck her to my truck. I didn't know who to trust, so I started living out of my truck with her in it. Whenever I had to deal with anyone else, I put her in a tool case, with air holes, of course. She seemed to pick up on the danger, even though she was barely crawling-she'd keep quiet for hours until I opened it up again."

The next day it was Baltz who summoned Valentine. She sat her horse beneath a steel tower, a pair of power lines hanging from the arms.

"This is funny, Captain," she said. Valentine startled; it was the first time she had ever called him anything other than his first name, or boy.

"You don't mean funny 'ha-ha' I take it."

"No. Funny-scary. This is a main source line. It runs back up to an oil-burning plant in Abeline. It's dead, and I mean long dead. I haven't been this deep into the Ranch in years, but I'd say this hasn't carried current in two or three years, judging from bird and insect activity. I climbed the tower and had a close look."

"Maybe they found a new power source," Valentine said, bu|t it sounded wrong even as a guess.

"You know the Kurians, son, they don't bother with something mat's working. Civic improvements are the last thing on their mind. You're talking about a shutdown to at least half the Ranch, probably more, if this line is dead."

"Maybe they gave up on these experiments. Found mem unproductive?"

"That might be. They have the patience of Job, though, which makes sense considering they don't die. What's wrong, guys?"

Her assorted mutts were whining worriedly and slinking around behind her horse. Valentine's horse began to toss its head. He dismounted and soothed the animal.

"It's coming from that brush over there," Baltz said, her horse under better control.

Valentine unlatched the flap on his .45's holster. He handed his reins to Baltz, and pulled his machete from its saddle.

"That's what I call a pig-sticker," Baltz said.

"A Grog would have shot by now. This isn't the right time of day for a Reaper, but I'm not taking any chances. Maybe he's got a motorcycle helmet on."

Valentine cursed himself for not carrying one of Post's spearheads. He took a few cautious steps toward the brush, every nerve alert.

He heard grass move, and whatever was crawling through the brush changed course at his approach. Valentine made ready to leap forward or back, gun in his hand and machete held ready to swing.

A sound like fifty castanets came from the brush. It sounded familiar, only too loud; he hadn't turned up his ears that much. What kind of rattler would make that much noise?

He found out when the snake struck from cover. The king of all rattlers, its head as large as a melon, lashed out with mouth gaping and fangs pointed down and forward. It aimed for Valentine's thigh.

A blur of reflexes saved him from a strike moving faster than the eye could follow. He spun, pulling his leg out of the way as he brought the blade around and down as fast as a propeller. The fine steel edge severed the neck of the rattler two feet below the neck, and the head flopped to the grass, biting at nothing. The decapitated body thrashed back and forth, rattle still buzzing angrily.

"Jesus, that's a hell of a snake," Baltz said as the serpentine body slowed and stopped.

Valentine breathed until his heart slowed and the burning above his kidneys faded.

"You moved faster than the damn snake, boy. I didn't know what happened till it was over. You touched by God or something?"

"Or something," Valentine agreed. "Don't tell me the Kurians made smart, venomous reptiles."

"I don't think it was smart. Creeping up on all of us like that."

"If it wasn't smart, then why did they bother? Breed a few thousand of them and drop them on farmland in the Ozarks from planes?"

"I wouldn't put it past 'em. But they're new here. Dead lines, big snakes, no Grog patrols away from the borders. It

adds up to something. I'd say the Ranch is under new management."

"Anyone see a sign that said 'Animal Farm'?"

The reference was lost on Baltz.

That night Valentine worked with the snakeskin. He found something in it appealing and with Ahn-Kha's help he turned the hide into a bandolier. He didn't intend to be without a spearpoint or two in the future. After the camp trooped past the hide to whistle, gape, and ask the same questions over and over, he and Ahn-Kha went to work. They stretched lengths of snakeskin from wagonwheel to wag-onwheel on one of the supply wagons, peeling off the remaining muscle and salting down the skin.

"The Gray Ones like snakemeat, my David. Even better than beef."

"They're welcome to it-there's enough to last them a week."

"This is good skin. Very light and strong. I think I will try layering it, so the scales go different directions. Make armor for the chest and shoulders. Better man sharkskin."

They ate and drank as they worked, with the other two Grogs squatting by the campfire, toasting snakemeat on sticks and watching their every move.

"Whatcha makin' boy?" the familiar voice of Baltz called in passing. She approached them with the rolling walk of someone constantly at sea or op horseback.

"A conversation piece, most likely," Valentine said. "There's some coffee left."

"No, really, looks like a big-assed belt. New clothes, Uncle?"

"It's for me," Valentine said. "Thought I'd keep a couple of spearpoints in a bandolier."

"Ah, yeah, your precious wood. Word around the campfire is that you've got some kind of weapon against the Hissers."

"Reapers, we call them."

"Hissers is more accurate."

"Depends on if you're describing what they do or what they sound like."

"So these spears kill 'em?" she asked, eyes narrowed.

"I've seen it more than once, more than twice. If the wood is fairly fresh, when it hits their bloodstream, it kills them. Fast."

Baltz laughed, a barking sound more suitable for one of her dogs. " 'Bout time we found something that did. Can I have one of your stickers?"

'Take a couple. It's the least we can do for your help. Help yourself to some seeds and a sapling while you're at it. When you get home, you can plant it. Maybe someday it'll be a liberty tree."

"A liberty tree?"

"Something old, so old it's forgotten. Has to do with the founding of the old United States. It's an idea I've been working on ever since I found out what I had to bring back. I picture these trees growing in all the freeholds."

"Pretty much everything worthwhile in life started out as somebody's dream, boy. This one's worth a chase."

An orange explosion of teeth and claws shot out from under Valentine's snakeskin-adorned wagon. Ahn-Kha dropped his blade in alarm, and Valentine jumped.

"That's Georgie, my cat. Wonder what spooked him?" Baltz said, squatting to look under the wagon.

"Shit!" she screamed, falling backwards in alarm.

Valentine knelt, hand on his machete and ready to jump, and looked under the wagon. A chimpanzee form hung under the wagon, glaring at him with red eyes and a rat face. But the oversized back legs were all wrong, and the tail...

"Nusk!" Ahn-Kha bellowed, and his Grogs grabbed cooking implements from the campfire.

"Hey, it's-," Valentine said as the creature dropped from its inverted hiding place, spun like a cat, and hit the ground running. The Grogs howled and ran around the other side of the wagon in pursuit. Valentine jumped up into the driver's seat of the wagon for a better look.

The oversize vermin shot like a brown bolt of lightning through the camp, startling and scattering men and animals. Someone managed to bring a shotgun up, but blasted only trampled-down grasses in the thing's wake. A flick of its cotton-tuft tail was the last Valentine saw of it, but his ears followed the scrambling claws through the darkness, northwest into the heart of the Ranch.

Valentine shook his head, wishing they were off the Ranch. He'd had enough of the Texas hills with creatures from an H. G. Wells novel popping out of the brush.

"Okay, so they made some cross of jackrabbit and rat the size of a raccoon," he said, turning to Baltz. "What else do we have to look forward to? Cockroaches built like armored personnel carriers?"

Baltz passed one of her assorted handkerchiefs across her face. "Boy, oh boy, I didn't know about those things. They must be new. Did you see those red eyes?"

Valentine sat down on the bench seat at the front of the wagon, rubbing the back of his neck under his black mane. "That might explain the rattlesnakes. To hunt loose rat-rabbits, whatever. Rodents. Snakes are the best rodent-killers on earth."

"My David, I think it is more than that," Ahn-Kha said.

"What's that?" Valentine asked.

"It was here to listen. Perhaps it understood us."

"Rats are smart, but English-speaking?"

"Smart at surviving, anyway," Zacharias said, coming out of the dark. "It got away. The pickets didn't even notice it."

Ahn-Kha pointed under the wagon. "It was here for some time. It got bored and started drawing, or gnawing."

Valentine looked at the scratchings. They looked like a cross between hieroglyphics and Indian cave paintings.

"Huh, an artist," a Texan crouching at the other side of the wagon remarked.

"My David, a hunted animal doesn't bother to doodle. I think the Kurians bred the creatures for their auras."

"I believe you've got it, old horse. Colonel Hibbert said something about that. Rodents breed like crazy, eat anything, and grow fast."

"True," Ahn-Kha rumbled. "The rat-things perhaps didn't like being eaten any better than you humans do. I think they fought back."

"Successfully," Valentine agreed.

Two days later, the Rangers riding screen for the convoy called up Zacharias and Valentine. They saw more of the "ratbit." The scouts had paused at the middle of a notch in the hills the wagon train would have to cross as they moved north. They were traveling through scattered trees, what in this part of Texas might be called a forest.

A smokehouse filled with cuts of meat Valentine guessed to be snake stood near a trampled out area that had the trodden-on look of a campsite. Tracks of wheeled vehicles, perhaps off-road bicycles, could be seen.

"The Grogs travel on four-wheelers and motorcycles sometimes," Baltz said. "Bicycles, too. Maybe this is a camp of theirs."

"Auntie Amy! Look over here," Eve called. They rode over and found a notch in the hillside filled with piles of apples, ears of corn, nuts, berries, and even alfalfa and hay for the animals.

"Hell, the Grogs didn't do this," Zacharias said.

"The ratbits?"

Eve gasped: "Look at the bark!"

Valentine saw a piece of bark tucked in the crotch of a sapling over the gathered supply.

TAK AND LEAV WOODS

"What is this, a bribe? They're afraid we're going to move in on them?" Zacharias said, after sounding out the words on the sign.

"Maybe they're trying to hurry us through. You think we're drawing something they're afraid of?"

"We don't know who wrote this," Valentine said. "It could be a bunch of well-read kangaroos." Valentine wouldn't have been surprised to meet Toad of Toad Hall after skirting the Ranch.

"Agreed," Zacharias said. "Nice gesture, to speed us on our way."

Valentine nodded, and turned his horse. "Something to tell your grandchildren about, Zacharias. The helpful ratbits of Central Texas."

Valentine heard the high, sputtering sounds of engines and reached for his binoculars. They were loaners from the Rangers. Carrasca hadn't been willing to part with any of the Thunderbolt's optics. He brought up the lenses and searched the distant hillside.

A sharp-nosed head, no, two heads, were bobbing over the sun-dried grasses. The vehicle broke out of the tall grass and into the open. It looked something like a baby carriage with a single-bore piston-engine on the back. At the motorcycle-style steering controls was a ratbit, a second rider clung on behind, facing the engine. It appeared to be working some kind of lever. A throttle?

"Ingenious little fellers," Ranson said, pulling his horse up next to Valentine. Valentine passed him the glasses. "I wonder if they drill for their own oil and refine it."

"Easier to steal it, probably."

"They're paralleling us."

Valentine felt something was wrong with the picture. "It's plain enough to see that we're leaving. Are they making sure of it?"

The wagon train ground on to the squeal of wooden axles and the tramp of feet and hooves; the ratbits disappeared behind the hill.

"I think a tight picket line tonight is a good idea," Valentine said to Zacharias and Baltz as they began uncoupling

the wagons and building the nightly laager around the oxen and cattle. "The ratbits have me worried."

"They seemed friendly enough," Baltz said, groaning and rubbing her back as she got off the horse. "Left us food, didn't they?"

"Nobody's dropped dead from poisoning," Zacharias agreed. "But it won't hurt to be in tight tonight. I figure on a brush with the Grogs when I set the pickets. I don't think we'll need eyes way out to buy us time to get set."

"Post," Valentine called.

"Sir?"

"New orders for tonight." Valentine stepped over and explained to Post what he wanted the sentries to do. Post made a circuit of the camp, passing on the instructions. He returned and idled next to Valentine, taking in the sky, until Valentine noticed his leg twitching.

"What is it, Will?"

"You okay?" He kept his voice down.

"Why shouldn't I be?"

"You look played out. I've never seen you this tired, even when we were crossing Santo Domingo."

'Tired of campfires and cold water, I think." Now that the journey was almost over, Valentine looked forward to turning over the quickwood and taking a leave. Saunders and the Thunderbolt, the Once-ler, Malia... He needed peace, a quiet room looking out over a lake, perhaps. He'd never work in the Kurian Zone again.

"You told me once to ask you about what you did to get your captaincy in the Coastal Marines," Post said, as though reading his mind. "You sounded unhappy about it. You said it would give me a real reason to hate you."

"Having second thoughts about not leaving with Car-rasca?"

"No, it's not that. Val, if it troubles you, talk about it. If anyone's in a position to understand, it's me. I wasted half a life under the bastards. After talking to you about my wife

that night back on the Thunderbolt, I felt better about myself than I had in years. Took the bottle right out of my hand."

Valentine felt uneasy. The Ranch was getting to him. Talking to Post was better than empty fretting. "Let's walk."

They walked, side by side, the summer-dried grass crunching under their feet as they circled the laager. At first, the words came slowly. He wasn't sure where to begin, exactly, and the events were vague as they came back to him, as disturbed mud obscures the features of a body being dredged from a lakebed.

He'd never even told Duvalier. So the story came hard at first.

"I came down from the north with fake papers saying I'd served on a cruiser on the Great Lakes. I talked right for the identity, and I'd been to some of the places in the background. They put me in this police boat on the Louisiana coast, looking for smugglers. There was a gunfight or two, but we had a pair of fifty-calibers on the patrol boat that settled most arguments when those opened up on the shoreline ..."

The Coastal Marines had a tip about a big cargo going out of the west side of Lake Pontchartrain, in a red-painted barge. He and a squad of men took the barge easily. The tug captain tried to bargain his way out, offered Valentine and the troops money, liquor, tobacco.

Valentine had none of it. His job was to impress his superiors with his diligence and efficiency, not pluck tempting feathers for his nest. Within the hearing of his sergeant and men, he turned down the bribe, made a show of moving the captain and his mates along with a pistol to the ringbolts.

Then he opened the cargo hatch.

Six families, in the dingy yellow overalls of Louisiana rural labor, were rousted from hiding spots among the more legitimate loads of cargo. There was resignation, not lamentation, as they were lined up, counted, and put in steel restraints.

He had no choice. A Reaper met the barge when it tied up at the Coastal Patrol dock.

"... and you're thinking 'So what?' It goes back to my first time leading men into the Kurian Zone. My first real responsibility. I took five families out of Louisiana after a raid. It was a hard march-we even had Reapers on us.

"When we got back to the Free Territory at the fort, each and every one thanked me. Hugs, kisses, tears. I even met one of them a couple years later. Her name was Theresa Bru-gen.... She was a nurse-trainee at a hospital where they looked at my leg wound. She cried when she saw me again.

"I've always been proud of that trip. Those twenty-six lives, twenty-six lives changed, saved-it was the first time I really thought I'd made a difference. When I turned the families from the red barge over to the Reaper-it was like that evaporated."

Post shrugged. "What could you do?"

The faces appeared in the darkness, this time accusing. "I could have got them out. It would have blown my cover. Someone else would have had to go get the quickwood. Maybe in a year, maybe in a month. There are other Cats. Other ships."

"Ships with me?"

Valentine said, "What do you mean?"

"I'm not a philosopher, so this is going to come out wrong. Hope you'll understand anyway."

"Shoot."

"Well, Val, sometimes you'll try your damnedest and everything will go to shit. Other times you'll be drunk off your ass, trying your damnedest to kill yourself, and you'll find an answer to your prayers through a haze of gin. If I'd been as squared away as Worthington, would you have trusted me with your friendship?"

"Possibly. Depends on how I read you at the time."

"For all we know, Worthington was unorthodox as an upside-down cross, and just kept it hidden. Why let it worry

you? Cause and effect is slippery stuff. Forget about the 'what-ifs.'"

"Easier said than done."

"Remember, I've got my own set of 'what-ifs.' Do what I do. Keep thinking about the 'what's-nexts.'"

Valentine heard engines in the distance when he hardened his ears as they passed out dinner. Some of the horses shifted restlessly as the wagon train settled in to camp. The sun was setting, and the moon wouldn't be up for hours. It was the time he'd attack, if he were the ratbits.

The ratbits were intelligent, no doubt about that. If they were hostile, why leave food? If they weren't hostile, why would they not communicate their good intentions in person or simply leave them alone?

He heard a familiar heavy tread behind him. "I will be glad when we are clear of this land," Ahn-Kha said. "I feel watchers."

"Did you hand out the shotguns?"

"Of course. My Gray Ones are armed, and Post is speaking to the other men who will be on picket duty now."

"What will you use, if it comes to that?"

"A shovel, my David. You remember the skiops the Golden Ones used. It is close enough. This will be a tough-and-rumble fight."

"Rough-and-tumble is the way you usually hear it. Shall we meet it at the pickets, or back at the wagons?"

"The pickets would be better, give your hearing a chance. The sun is touching the horizon now."

Valentine left Post in charge of the inner ring of sentries. Valentine had placed extra men at the wagons, reserves of weapons and ammunition ready just in case, and every bucket filled with sand or water. He wasn't about to have his cargo burned by ratbits, with a few hundred miles to go. He and Ahn-Kha, with the other two Grogs to either side, walked just behind the line of sentries.

"Excuse, sir. Where the sun swelled up. Hurts to look, but I think some of that grass might be moving," one of the Jamaican recruits said.

"Wind?" Ahn-Kha asked.

Valentine listened with hard ears. The brush and grassland were alive with the sound like bacon on a skillet.

"They're creeping up on us, right out of the sun," Valentine said. He had to admire the ratbits. The men brought up their guns.

"Don't shoot until you see them coming for you," he added, but worked the slide on his .45 and chambered a round just in case. "Maybe it's an embassy."

One of the Grogs hooted, and a Marine added, "Oh, my God."

A brown tide surged out of the heavier growth toward the strip of trees that marked the western pickets. The spaniel-size ratbits ran with little bounces, almost bounding as they approached, covering a yard of sun-dried Texas grass with every hop.

At least the ratbits weren't using guns. The pickets fired a few shots, making no more of a difference than they would if fired into one of the gulf's waves. The ratbits did not slow at the gunfire.

"Back to the wagons," Valentine yelled. "Just run!"

The men did not need the encouragement. There was something terrifying about the brown wave undulating across the Texas countryside like a carpet unrolling. A few threw away their weapons in mad flight. Valentine saw one marine catch his feet and fall. Before he could rise, the ratbits were up and over him.

"Gettayahiiii...," the stricken man cried.

A few ratbits, farther ahead than the rest, were already beside Valentine, looking up at him as if to gauge whether he was worth jumping. Valentine leapt into one of the circled wagons. Ahn-Kha halted in a gap and stood behind interlaced trek-tows, swinging his shovel in warning.

All along the wagons, gunfire broke out, high rifle cracks, booming shotguns, and the snapping sound of pistol

shots. Wounded ratbits squealed as bullets tore through their small bodies. Valentine emptied his pistol into ratbits climbing the wagon wheels, then drew his blade. He cut air again and again as the ratbits jumped onto the wagon and jumped off just as quick as he swung his blade. He saw a ratbit fly backwards, thrown by a blow from Ahn-Kha's shovel. The men caught on the ground did not last long-five or six ratbits would leap onto the unfortunate's limbs, slowing him so two or three others could jump on the back and bear their opponent down. He saw one man rise again, choking a rat-bit with both hands, but another tore into his ear, bringing a scream of pain before he fell again. The air filled with high-pitched squeaks and squeals as the battle raged.

The ratbits drove the men from the wagons. Valentine could see them grabbing things and running off out of the corner of his eye. A trio of ratbits were making off with a sapling, grabbing it by the burlap that held the dirt and roots and...

He felt claws on his legs, and another rodent leapt on his arm. He punched at it, but it grabbed his wrist in wiry little claws and buried its sharp front teeth in the flesh between thumb and forefinger. He felt another running up his back. He dropped his sword to reach for the beast, desperate to stop the crawly feel on his body. A ratbit caught up the sword and waved it threateningly. But it did not slash at him.

A ratbit in the back of his wagon held up one of Post's spearpoints, and another made off with a quickwood quarrel. Something in his mind clicked. They were after the quickwood. Quickwoods! Woods!

"Cease firing!" he bellowed. "Cease fire! No shooting! They're not trying to kill us-they just want quickwood."

Already the ratbits were leaving. Valentine saw more saplings disappear, but the ratbits didn't seem to be taking any food, weapons, or odier tools from die convoy. Nor were they stealing all the quickwood. They seemed mostly interested in the saplings, perhaps because that was the easiest thing to identify. While the ground was littered with

dead ratbits, most of the men had just been held down and relieved of their weapons, to stand, as Valentine did, rubbing painful bites and watching the quickwood being taken. Even the first marine to fall came out of the tree line, holding his hands up, now avoided by the ratbits as he was no longer a threat. From beyond the tree line Valentine heard the sound of the small motors of the ratbits. He hopped out of the wagon and found a first-aid kit. With a cotton dressing pressed to his wound, he walked to the west, following the last few ratbits checking the bodies of their comrades and helping any who weren't beyond hope.

One wounded figure appeared to be of some concern, judging by the number of ratbits clustered around it. Valentine approached the circle of rodents, and a few turned, baring their teeth at him and reaching for small knives.

He held out his hands, hoping to make himself understood, and stopped. He pointed at his bandage, then at the prone ratbit. The teeth went away, but the ratbits gave no other sign that they understood. He tossed them the bandage. They jumped away as it landed, then returned, sniffing it and squeaking.

Valentine ran back to the circled wagons. "A medic! I need a medic!"

The closest thing he could find among the confused men was a pharmacist's mate from the Thunderbolt named Speere. He was young and awkward, but had performed his duties well enough on the ship. Valentine had him grab a first-aid kit and follow.

"What, are you kidding, Cap? There are hurt men back at the wagons," Speere objected when they came up on the ratbits.

"This fight wouldn't have happened at all if we'd made an attempt to communicate with them. I want to make amends."

"I'm not a vet, sir," Speere said, but stood up when he saw Valentine's face. "But I'll do what I can," he said.

The two humans slowly approached the ratbits. Fifteen or

twenty were around their stricken comrade, squeaking and cluttering. The ratbits made room, and Speere knelt beside the wounded ratbit. A ratbit was pressing a piece of cloth into a wound on the other ratbit's back. Judging from the gray around the eyes, ears, and mouth, this was an older specimen.

"Looks like a bullet across the back," Speere said, looking at the wound. "Might be some nerve damage, even if it didn't clip the spine. Doesn't look like he can move his back legs."

"Can you give it... him anything for the pain?"

"I dunno, a drop of laudanum might help. I don't think it would kill him, but you never know."

"Do it."

Valentine and the ratbits watched as Speere used an eye-dropper to add medicine to a capful of water, then refilled the empty eyedropper with the mixture and shot it down the ratbit's throat. The ratbit seemed to understand oral medication, and after a minute's allowing it to take effect submitted to Speere, who was sprinkling antiseptic powder in the wound and then sewing up the tear in the skin. "Maybe it's worse than it looks," Speere said. "Didn't go too deep. Looks like this guy had some subcutaneous fat. It might have cushioned his spine."

"Let's get him back to the camp."

"You think they'll let us?" '

"We'll find out," Valentine said, and turned his head back to the wagons. "Hey! We need a stretcher here."

The wagon train did not move on the next day. Valentine thought it would be best to let his wounded rest. Narcisse took over care of the gray-haired patient. She unrolled a sheet of leather; glass jars filled with powders and herbs stood in neat sewn-in pockets. She began to work her Haitian medicine and steamed something in a ceramic mug.

The next morning the old ratbit was doing better. It could move its legs, a sign that met with approval from the four

other giant ratbits who accompanied it to the human camp. They all shared a thin soup cooked up by Narcisse.

A strange ratbit visitor came into camp with the dawn. Another oldster, this one with an eyepatch over its left eye, to match a torn-off ear on the other side. The wounds were from long ago, however. It bore a container over its shoulder. Valentine realized it was part of a rattler-tail. Its parcel clinked oddly as it moved.

It approached the other ratbit, and they chattered at each other. Ratbit-speech was a strange yeeking sound, and whatever was said was over with quickly. The eyepatch ratbit dumped its sack on the ground, and Valentine smiled when he recognized Scrabble pieces.

"Can you understand us?" Valentine said.

The ratbit hunted with its eye in the pile.

Y E S

"We are sorry about the deaths. You should have tried this earlier."

The ratbit removed the three chips from the dirt and arranged more.

WE DID SHOT BY HORSRYDERS

"We didn't understand what you meant when you said 'leave woods.'"

N O MUCH S P E A K ME N

The ratbit removed that and started again.

N I E D WOOD FOR K I L M O N S T E R S

"The thing is, you took quite a few saplings. We need them. Understand?"

Y E S

"We can leave you a few, and some wood, and some seeds, to grow more trees. Good enough?"

The ratbit did not rearrange the letters. It just pointed to yes again.

"Deal. Someday I'd like to hear about what happened. How did you drive the Kurians out of this part of the land?"

W R E K T H E A L L S O W E N O T D I E

"Do your people have a name?"

B A T C H F I V E T E E N

The ratbits put on a feast that night, in the center of a wide half-crescent of oaks and elms. Traces of a foundation stood in the yellowed grass, smoke-darkened conduit pipes and junction boxes stood among the wildflowers like scarecrows. Later Valentine learned that beneath the soil there was a thriving town of tunnels and dens.

The humans only nibbled from the Batch Fifteen banquet. A proper feast, to the hundreds of gathered ratbits, meant piling anything edible-to a ratbit-in a great heap in the center of the clearing and then burrowing within the pile in a race for the choicest tidbits: a bone with a bit of marrow, still-ripe fall fruits and melons, an ear of corn still only partially eaten. It was a bit like dining from a restaurant kitchen at the end of the night, fresh food, leftovers, and garbage all for the taking.

The dinner looked to be a disaster, at least from the human point of view, until the ratbits dragged a series of still-sealed cartons from a clogged stairwell hidden in the grass. In them were candy bars and chips and fruit-flavored drinks in shiny plastic packets, only a few years old and therefore still edible. Valentine ate something called a Chocdelite that was almost eye-crossing in its sweetness.

Zacharias joined him, and they sat on one of the wagons, next to Baltz's orange tomcat, who was scrunched into a back-arched ball under the seat as he watched the ratbits go to and fro. Zacharias offered Valentine a taste of some orange-and-pineapple flavored drink.

"I'm thinking vending machines," Zacharias said, examining the label. "Says it's from Florida."

"Nothing but the best for the scientists. Or the honored guests."

A faint sputtering from the sky made them both look up. An arrow shape, like an oversize kite with an engine attached, flew overhead and buzzed away a pair of circling buzzards. Another aerial visitor, a hawk, flapped hard to gain altitude and avoided the airborne prowler. A ratbit worked the controls from a tiny seat.

"I'll be-," Zacharias began. "Clever varmints."

"That they are."

"Did you have any schooling, Valentine?"

"Yes. About as good as I could get in the Minnesota backwoods. An old Jesuit still ran a one-room schoolhouse. I lived in his library."

"I remember when I was learning maths from ol' Miss Gage. We were studying multiplication, and she showed us how one pair of breeding rabbits could produce-well, I don't remember exactly, but it was over a thousand-other rabbits once you counted their offspring ... in just a year. Makes you wonder."

Valentine nodded, troubled by the evidence on the Ranch that the Kurians had gone to so much effort to find a replacement for the human race.

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