Tale of the Thunderbolt Chapter Nine

Free Haiti, July: It is easy to believe in spirits in the mountains of Haiti, when the misted woods press close all around. Groaning sounds that cannot be birds yet should not be trees echo through the night air. Even a trained ear finds them impossible to place. According to voudouists, waterfalls and streams are favorite haunts of the spirits. When you come across a mountainside waterfall, cascading down a rocky cliff like a splashing staircase, you get the feeling of being the first to lay eyes on it since the forming of the world; it becomes easy to imagine it consecrated by apparitions dancing in the mists as the shafts of sunlight strike them. Then a dragonfly with a hand-size wingspan whirs by or a parade of ants crosses a root in a chitin stream, and the spell is broken. The forest is just a forest, and the water is just water again-until later, when the body is elsewhere and the beauty of the place weaves its magical spell, knitting memory and imagination.

The Roots rejoiced at the return of her warriors in sacred ceremony and profane revelry.

Valentine watched the sacred portion from a moss-hided rock, dew-dusted ferns brushing at his frame. Soldiers and civilians gathered at a waterfall in the forested hills, led in singing by their priests. Narcisse sat on a rock in the swirling waters at the base of the waterfall, like the statue of the little mermaid, calling the men to her one at a time to receive a cleansing dip in the river. Other voudouists escorted

the supplicants into the water, or sang hosannas in the background. Part baptism, part absolution, and part bath, the ritual moved Valentine. There was none of the solemnity of Father Max's traditional Catholic ceremonies: the participants and audience laughed and encouraged each other through catcalls.

The Grogs sat high on the hillside, chewing fruit and watching the human performance below as if from balcony seating. Further above, Ahn-Kha stood sentinel with crossbow and gun, a watchful set of eyes allowing the humans to relax below.

Valentine, by nature an observer rather than a participant at this sort of display, sat on his rock with Carrasca resting on a patch of grass beside him, dappled sun setting her hair agleam. By nature scientifically minded, a few years ago he might have thought the whole performance silly animism; but he had seen too much of the inexplicable since beginning his journeys to laugh anything off. He applauded when Monte-Cristi waded into the stream. Narcisse took extra time over him, either through concern over his frailty or giving the spirits ample opportunity to work their magic. The aged hero was the last of the spiritual bathers. Some of the Thunderbolt's sailors and marines shuffled forward, and finally Post went through the ceremony. He emerged from his dunking and beckoned Valentine to join him.

"C'mon, Val," his friend said. "It's cooler than the jungle."

Valentine and Carrasca exchanged shrugs, and he stripped to applause from all. A few pointed at the white pock left by the old bullet wound on his leg.

Narcisse laid her hands on him, reciting something that sounded like mixed French and Latin. He lowered himself at her command to hoots of approval.

"I knew you had a strong ti-bon-ange, my boy. Ogun himself told me so just now," Narcisse affirmed. Valentine felt refreshed, if not strengthened or healed. He waded back

to the shore. He reached for his clothes, but Carrasca snatched them up.

"I don't think you're through yet. Do you see anyone else getting dressed?"

There were more singsong chants, and the returning warriors lined up to walk naked back to the village. Valentine joined in the lines. The Grogs scrambled down from their rocky balconies to follow.

"How'd you get the leg wound?" Carrasca asked, falling into step next to him.

"Up in Nebraska. Acting like a damn fool."

"A damn fool who saved my people," Ahn-Kha added from behind.

"Your people saved themselves," Valentine demurred. "But it was years ago. I'll take sea duty any time. Fewer forty-mile days."

"You'd cover forty miles in a day? On horseback?" Carrasca asked.

"On foot. It was common in the Wolves. We weren't so special. Two hundred years ago, Zulu armies in Africa could run fifty in a day. And they weren't even trained by the Lifeweavers."

They came to the village near the spirit-spot, a trailside cluster of shacks painted and decorated in bright colors. Dancing red figures, green snakes, blue birds, and less recognizable patterns wound around doorframes, roofs and windows in the Haitian style. Tables and barrels heaped with food and drink stood in the doorways and alleys; musicians drummed a tattoo on hollow logs and ancient plastic pails, calling all together. The spectators ate and drank with enthusiasm. Handsome Haitian women poured rum and juice into wooden tumblers, which were emptied as quickly as they could be filled.

Just outside the village a rivulet emptied into a field of clay-colored mud. A shaman brought them to the edge of the water. He began to shout imprecations to Haiti's enemies. Valentine understood just enough to know he called on the

warriors to be armed and shielded in new spirit. Monte-Cristi yelled a response and belly-flopped into the mud; he rolled around until he was well coated. His men followed, eager as overheated elephants to go into a cool wallow.

"Go on, boy," Narcisse said. "Take on Ogun's armor."

Valentine bit off a response about Ogun's armor not doing pigs a hell of a lot of good. He stuck a foot in the mud; it did feel cool and inviting between the toes.

Post gave him a shove. Valentine fell into Napoleon's fifth element facefirst, rolled over, and let out a whoop.

"Thunderbolt!." he called.

The men shouted the name of their ship and dived in with the Haitians. Soon it was almost impossible to tell black skin from white-or Grog skin, for that matter, as all were covered in the grayish plaster.

Valentine, grinning behind a mask of mud, rose and advanced on Carrasca in a threatening crouch.

"Oh, no!" she said, backing away. "I'll never get it out of my-"

He vaulted out of the mud, landing beside her before she had time to turn. He clasped her around the chest and dragged her, shrieking and kicking, into the mud. He flopped into the morass, and she landed astride him.

"Bastard!" she laughed, flinging a wet handful of soil down at him. "At least you were undressed."

"I'll wash them myself."

Valentine watched her bind her partially despoiled hair up in a bandanna, and pull off her shirt with muddy fingers. Her shorts followed. She pinned him into the wallow with a knee, her eyes wide and hot. He felt her take his head in her hands and she kissed him, pressing against his body tightly enough to squeeze mud out from the join where their bodies met. When she came up for air, he saw her nipples hard beneath their gray coating.

Sailors, marines, and Haitians followed his example, grabbing women out of the hooting crowd and pulling them into the mud. A few ran or struggled, laughing all the time,

but the only screams were ones of delight as the men planted muddy kisses on flushed cheeks, necks, and breasts.

Valentine rolled Carrasca over and kissed her, and then she returned the move. When their lips finally parted, she was on top again. She looked around at the muddy figures, dancing, playing, and making love.

"You've started an orgy, Captain," she said. "I don't know what I think about an officer that lets his men get out of hand like this."

Valentine cupped her buttocks. "I'll let them be, my hands are rather full of something else at the moment."

"Is that some kind of crack?"

He explored further with his fingers. "No, but this is."

She giggled an un-captainish giggle. "Another bad joke like that and a certain marine of my acquaintance won't get his brains fucked out momentarily."

"We'll talk some more in the bushes." Valentine picked himself up and offered a hand.

"Your tongue's going to be busy elsewhere."

He slapped her mud-covered buttock and followed her into the forest, first running and then walking, until they splashed across the stream and found a clearing, a field next to an abandoned hut, perhaps a former garden. Long grasses and palmettos had supplanted the rich soil's food crops. Valentine was in no mood to search for the perfect glade, especially with Carrasca exploring his hardness from behind, using it like a divining rod to find a spot to make love.

They sank to their knees, tongues exploring one another's mouths.

He found mudless patches of her body to kiss, and explored the rest of her coated skin with his hands. "Val...," she began, and then trailed off into a Spanish-English murmur that grew more and more feral as he pressed her into his arms. She sank limp to the ground. He lay next to her, cradling her and running his hands up and down her body, lingering at her inner thighs. His mouth explored where his fingers left off, and she again took his head in her hands; she

pressed her mons up to his mouth. The salty-sweet feminine musk hardened him beyond self-control, and he rose up from her sex and positioned himself between her legs.

He felt her open for him and he moved inside her, everything inside her warm and wet and magic. Her face grew contorted as he moved in her, ever deeper and faster as their passion waxed. She raked at his back with her nails, sending chips of dried mud flying like a sculptor working with ten tiny chisels. He shut his eyes, lost in his own sensations yet still aware of her. He felt an irresistible, toboggan-ride rush of pleasure, and the draining spasms came.

They drowsed away a few moments in each other's arms, tingling as if joined by a low voltage circuit.

"Another kick in the teeth," he mused, feeling the matted-down grass beneath his back.

"Huh?"

"For Death. There's more than one way to strike a blow for life."

She furrowed her brows, and then evidently gave up trying to figure out what he was talking about. Her hand explored him.

"Blow for life ... and they say men don't come with instructions."

She moved downward, and took his limp penis in her mouth. Tongue and mouth, passionately applied, worked a resurrection.

"That's the spirit," she said, straddling him, coming up for more than air.

The Haitians showed their gratitude when it came time to fill the Thunderbolt with quickwood and provisions. Ahn-Kha and his Grogs supervised the cutting and milling of some of the trees into usable lengths. Smaller saplings were gently extracted by shovel, placed in clay cauldrons or wrapped in layers of dirt and burlap, and ported down to the beach one at a time. As a final gift during a visit to the beach, Papa Legba gave the entire ship's crew each a

leather tobacco pouch with a handful of seeds for new quickwood trees.

"Kur is a dry place," the renegade said when Valentine asked about the seeds. "These will remain dormant for years if kept out of your sun, until placed in moist soil. They grow slowly, so have patience. Let the wood mature, and take only branches if you must."

"We'll see that they end up in the right hands," Valentine promised. "Perhaps someday you'll come north and see the groves yourself."

"No, I'll stay in the warmth and the growing gardens. In a cold climate, I doubt I could survive a winter without... a different means of support."

"Maybe cows would do, or pigs."

"You still do not understand, do you, Valentine? It is the sapient mind that gives us the kind of vital aura infusion that truly satisfies. Each aura has a different flavor: a man enduring hideous tortures, a woman desperate to save her offspring, a terrified child taken in the night all have a distinct feel when absorbed. The 'rush' as you might call it varies- an aura can be consumed in the time it takes to scream, or over the course of many painful hours. There were times when my-"

"Point taken," Valentine said, instinctively balling his fists.

"I forget my manners. Would one discuss cuts of meat or beef stew recipes with a group of cattle? Forgive me, son of mine enemy."

Valentine relaxed, but wanted to end the interview. "Perhaps when I'm old and the winters feel too long, I'll come back to the islands." He met Carrasca's eyes across the glare of the sand, and she cupped the leather pouch suggestively. "I'd like to hear more about Kur, and the other planets in the Interworld Tree."

"A strong mind is a blessing when the body grows frail," the Once-ler of many names agreed. "May fortune walk with you, for you'll walk into many lands bereft of it." He

waved in his weary fashion and let his bearers carry him off. 'The debt is paid," Valentine heard him say.

At the time the phrase was just one more curiosity from the enigmatic Kurian. It would be years before Valentine learned its significance.

He took his leave of Monte-Cristi, sitting at the edge of the beach in a hammock chair fanning himself.

"Did the river and mud cure take, Jacques?"

"Not as much as Narcisse's cooking. She's a gifted woman, something for the body, something for the ange. You were wise to offer her a trip north, it is something she has long dreamed of. I also have a message from our friend with the dogs at the Cape. They've fixed the holes in that old submarine. I wouldn't be surprised if your enemy comes looking for you. Though Boul is chafing, he may throw in with us in the end. The Santo Domingans have trouble keeping the last road along the north coast open, with these new guns the Roots have been shooting up their convoys. He senses a change in the wind."

"Then I won't worry about Haiti any more, Jacques. If my old friend Boul is thinking of throwing in with you, you must be sure to win."

"Some of our mechanics are making crossbows like those your ape-men use-but smaller. Better against the Whisperers than spears." Valentine walked among Monte-Cristi's chieftans and soldiers, thanking them as best he could in Haitian Creole, before returning to Jacques. Their conversation moved on to military technicalities, smothering the good-bye in trivia.

Narcisse arrived with an assortment of potted dishes for the officer's mess, bags of provisions, and a chest full of Haitian spices. "Fried plaintains, fried pork, a bag of mushrooms-they're good on everything," she said, lifting lids and pointing with her mutilated arm. "Enough fruit to last a long while, fresh and dried. Now the spices-" She contin-

ued checking over the contents of her baggage like a marine preparing for a landing on a hostile shore.

"I'd have never left that cell if it weren't for you, Nar-cisse."

"And I'd still be getting stains out of Boul's underwear. We help each other, blanc."

He stepped on to one of the Thunderbolt's launches, Nar-cisse once again riding in her place on his back, and as it left the beach Valentine felt sadness, and some relief. Relief at the fact that he found on Haiti what he spent over a year getting to, and sadness in saying good-bye to so many of those who risked everything to help him. He turned his body toward the ship, its outline changed by the potted trees lashed everywhere on the decks. The old Thunderbolt looked like a floating forest.

The launch hove alongside, and Valentine climbed aboard and reported himself present to the mate on watch. He and some sailors helped Narcisse to the galley, where she sniffed suspiciously at the Jamaican pepperpot the cook's mate was creating in celebration of leaving Hispaniola.

Valentine went up on deck and watched the preparations for departure. The motor launch was swung up, and a last few sailors and marines came out to the ship with the Haitians. There were friendly exchanges of cotton ducks for pigskin utility vests, earrings for copper bracelets, and so on over the side of the ship. There would have to be a strict search for smuggled alcohol, and the wearisome task of getting rid of lice and bedbugs which undoubtedly hitched a ride from the shore. But Valentine could leave those details to Carrasca and her mates. He and Post had to make sure the marines and Grogs were ready to fight if necessary.

The last lap. He needed to get the ship to the Texican coast. His superiors would handle the rest; he would be back to being a cog in a larger machine, rather than the axis driving the various cogs. Would he miss the taste of inde-

pendent command he had been given? Being on his own was a banquet of endless servings of stress and headaches, but the freedom added spice to the dishes.

Thankfully, for this last voyage he would not have to turn into Captain Bligh on the Bounty and ask his crew to sacrifice for the cargo. The saplings were hardy enough to survive the short trip across the Caribbean, assuming the Thunderbolt's aged diesels held out, without taxing the ship's freshwater resources. After the challenges of the late months, Valentine was ready to spend a week supervising potted saplings.

Ahn-Kha again quartered his Grogs in the forward well deck, their old tentage replaced by a grove of quickwood plants, their crossbows and pikes stored below, shotguns and rifles cleaned and put away in the arms lockers. He wandered among the bunks of the marines. His complement was already displaying souvenirs acquired on the island, hung upon bunk and locker. Hispaniolan voudou charms wrought from wood and bead swung with the ship's gentle motion.

He returned to the deck for a last look at Haiti. The mountains, so green that the color deserved a richer word to describe it, stood out against the azure blue of the sky and the argent blue of the Caribbean waters below. It was an island of extremes: beauty and hideousness, laughter and despair, freedom and slavery. But from this island that had known an almost endless series of sorrows for the past six hundred years, a new world could spring.

Narcisse's dishes made a superb dinner, once the cook and his mate let her take over supervision of the meals. Valentine had the galley busy, and treated Post and the rest of the Thunderbolt's marines to a feast. Good food and plentiful tobacco-all as night fell after an easy day's duties- made the men lively.

"How's life in the Ozarks?" a stout corporal with a stand of red hair asked. "I've heard the winters pass hard."

"Irish, I know a lot of stories get passed around the Kurian Zone about that," Valentine said. "There's enough to eat. Sometimes it isn't what you'd like as a first choice, or even a second, but we don't starve. You'll find out there's a lot of ways to cook chickpeas, and you'll get sick of dried fruit, I can promise you that."

"Women?" Hurst called, and the men snickered.

"That's one thing we're not short of. Fact is, there's so many, you'll find a few in uniform. There are a lot of lonely widows, too, which makes a man think, but if any of you have a mind to be a second husband, you'll have your pick. We've got schools, roads, there's a gambling boat, showboats, and I'm even told of a floating whorehouse or two on the Lake of the Ozarks. Being an officer and a gentleman, I wouldn't know details, naturally."

The men snickered and passed around comments under their breath, like kids in school, and Valentine heard Car-rasca's name mentioned.

"Enough of that," Post growled.

A shout echoed from above. The collision Klaxon sounded. Something thumped against the ship's hull, a grinding jar that had everyone reaching for a table or a bunk brace to steady themselves.

"Vampir-," the squawk-box sounded, before falling silent. Valentine listened with hard ears, trying to shut out the bleating alarm, and heard the icy shrieks of Reapers.

"My God, they followed us!" Post said.

"Take arms, men-anything!" Valentine shouted. He didn't have so much as a knife on him.

"Quickwood, anyone have some?" Post asked.

The marines were already grabbing rifles and shotguns from the beckets in the wall of their quarters; a corporal coolly gave out bullets as the men took arms from the wall.

"Sir!" one marine shouted, running up to him with two of Post's screw-in pike-points. A scream, then a second, came from above-along with a smattering of gunfire.

"It'll have to do."

"Post, take Wilde and his team and get to the Oerlikon. Ignore anything else, I don't care if she's on fire, get that weapon manned. Irish, you and the rest of the men follow me! The forward stairs, we have to get to the bridge. Hand me that machete, Torres."

Post shoved a speedloader into a heavy .44 revolver with a trembling hand and gestured to his assigned men.

"Marines, you see a Reaper, shoot until it's down if you can. They'll have the advantage up close like this. Let me get in and get its head off, or stick it with the quickwood. If I catch it, get up to Post. Any more wood down here?"

"Here's a pike," another said.

"Take the tip off-it's too hard to use on the pole. Ignore any wounded, don't pay attention to anything, we go to the bridge. Now, with me!"

They moved at his order into the night's chaos. Valentine rushed out into the next compartment forward and gained the stairs leading up to the main deck. A marine caught his rifle going through the doorway and tripped, but the rest jumped over him and up the stairs in a steady stream.

The compartment above opened onto the deck from doors on either side of the ship, and Valentine led his men to the door opposite from the side of the grinding collision. If he could just get them out in the open as an organized team, rather than as frightened individuals, the ship might stand a chance. The deck door on the collision side swung open, and the men brought up their guns.

"Wait!" Valentine rasped, holding the flat of the blade of the machete against the man behind him. "It's Owens."

A sailor made it in and slammed the door shut behind. "They're everywhere-we have to get below," he said.

"You'll come with us," he said to the unstrung man. "Bellows and Gomez, Owens goes between you two. C'mon, the rest of you."

They burst onto the port side of the ship, running for the stairs to the bridge. Shots and piercing Reaper screams filled

the night. As Valentine hit the first step, a caped figure appeared at the top of the stairs.

"Shoot it!" Valentine shouted, throwing himself down on the stairs so the men would have a clear view.

The Reaper lunged. Shotgun blasts flashed blue-white. Even the awesome strength in the Reaper's pounce was no match for buckshot at close range, and the wounded tiling cried out as it was blown back. It recovered and vaulted over the rail to drop to the deck, but Torres swiveled the mouth of his shotgun and blew it into the darkness.

It splashed into the water, and Valentine ascended the stairs. He ducked without thinking, and heard the whoof of a Reaper's hand cut the air where his head had been. Valentine lashed back up, driving the quickwood pike-point in his hand up like a striking cobra. It caught the Reaper under the arm and drove through fabric built to stop bullets but not an old-fashioned point. Valentine felt sticky fluid hit his hand, and he got out from under the wound.

"Marines," he called down at the men and across the ship. His team was leaning over the rail to shoot at the Reaper that had blown into the sea; he had to keep them going to the bridge. He ran up the rest of the stairs. The wounded Reaper stood up, its jaws open in painful spasm as it clawed at the quickwood point buried in its armpit. It lost its balance and sagged against the upper deck rail.

Valentine paid it no more attention. Another Reaper, its back turned to him, tore away the metal door to the bridge, peeling it like a painter removing wallpaper.

"Aim for the face," Valentine said to the men who joined him on the upper deck. The Reaper whirled. Valentine heard screams and shooting from the stairs below. Torres, just behind him, fired at the Reaper at the door, throwing it against the bridge-cabin. Valentine circled as the others continued to shoot, pumping round after round into the thrashing creature.

He took a good grip on the machete and gathered himself.

The men stopped shooting, hurrying to reload. He dashed forward like a cricket-bowler, catching it in the throat with the heavy blade. The head did not come off, but he damaged the nerve trunks and vertebrae enough for it to go limp. It continued to snap at him with gleaming jaws, its yellow eyes dimming.

The wound closed over the blade.

Valentine left the machete wedged in its neck and went to the rail to look at the gangway below. The Kurian death machine at the back of his men had taken its toll in the seconds it took him to deal with the other. Twisted bodies and pieces of bodies lay on the deck. Three survivors fired pistols as it advanced. The Reaper used Owen's corpse as a shield. Valentine vaulted over the rail and landed behind it.

It ignored his presence, continuing forward toward the marines. Valentine lashed out with a foot, catching it in the small of the back, but he might as well have kicked the Thunderbolt. He took his other pike-point in both hands and drove it between the thing's shoulder blades.

The point struck near enough to the Reaper's heart to stiffen it instantly. The Reaper arched its back, its whole body bending like a bow, and hit the deck, still clutching Owen's bullet riddled body.

He was out of quickwood and had no time to look for the other pike-point among the bodies. "Everyone to the bridge," he said.

Irish hauled the Reaper out of the way of the damaged door. Valentine heard the welcome pounding of the Oerlikon from aft; Post must have gotten it into action. He went to the starboard rail and looked over the side. Kurian sailors were taking cover as the Oerlikon's fire moved up and down the deck of the submarine. Valentine saw a strange, thin smokestack at the rear of the ship. A snorkel on a submarine? Perhaps that was how it had crept up so close to the Thunderbolt without being seen. A quick rise to the surface, Reapers ready at the hatches, and all there would be to do was leap on board, an easy matter for the superhuman avatars.

There was still fighting forward. Valentine heard the Grogs screaming and a gunshot or two from the rear. "Torres, take two men and cover the men at the Oerlikon from here. They'll go for that if they get organized. Who had the other pike-point?"

"Hurst, sir. He's dead below," Torres said. "I'll check-"

"No, everyone stay together up here."

The bridge door opened, and Carrasca stood at the portal, a shotgun at her shoulder. "What is it?"

"Kurians, on the Sharkfin. They tried to board us. Too greedy. They could have just put a big limpet mine against the side and sunk us. But Saunders wants his ship back."

"What do we do about the Reapers still on board?" Carrasca said. "The Chief says there's some of them hammering at the engine room door. They'll get through."

"Tell the Chief to pour it on. Let's get to the wheel," Valentine said.

They went to the bridge, lit by a single red bulb over the map table. The instrument lights had long since gone out and never been replaced.

Valentine saw the sub making off, gathering speed as it ran. Post's Oerlikon bursts riddled the stern as it sought safety beneath the waves, explosions and smoke flying from the impact of the thirty-millimeter shells.

"We've got to get to the main gun. What a target! The Oerlikon is tearing it up," Carrasca said.

"He's just scratching its back-the real vitals are under water. We can still get them. The prow's reinforced, you know. Icebreaker."

"Jesu," Carrasca said. "If we get enough speed ..." She went to the engine room squawk. "Chief, everything she's got. Maximum revolutions!"

"Aye aye, sir," the Chief crackled back. "Do something about those bastards on the other side of the bulkhead- they're tearing the rivets out."

"You want the wheel?" Carrasca said to Valentine.

"You're the better helmsman."

Carrasca took the ship into a gentle turn, letting her gain momentum.

"Ramming speed, Hortator," Valentine said.

A Grog lept up to the bridge window, howling in fear. A pale arm plucked it back down. Valentine heard a thud on the roof and more shots from outside.

"What's that?" the Chief said. "I-"

Carrasca hit the collision alarm again as the Thunderbolt knifed through the water. She aimed for the conning tower but didn't hit it square; at the last moment the submarine must have known what was coming and turned away. The impact threw Carrasca against the wheel. Valentine hung onto the instrument panel. The Reaper on the roof of the bridge fell forward into the cannon mount.

The Thunderbolt ran up and over the submarine, to the sound of tortured metal breaking up. Valentine saw the stern of the sub burst from the water like a breaching whale.

"Madre de Dios, snapped in two!" Carrasca said.

The Reaper on the gun deck jumped from the side of the ship, plummeting into the water by the crippled sub, perhaps summoned to the aid of its Master Kurian in its final need. Valentine had one more thing to do. He took Carrasca's shotgun and went to the door.

"Stay here, and keep the doors locked. The Reapers'll be disoriented-they won't work together once their Masters are dead, but they're still dangerous. Wild animals in a trap: all confusion and pain."

Valentine glanced down to the Grog deck, but saw no sign of Ahn-Kha or his Grogs. Just bodies. Grogs, Jamaicans, and the Thunderbolt's sailors were strewn in broken pieces everywhere on the deck like mannequins run over by a tractor-trailer, under blood-splashed quickwood branches. He ignored the gruesome tableau and went to the starboard arms locker, where he retrieved out one of the aged machine guns. He placed a belt into the receiver and hefted the weight. It was a more suitable weapon for Ahn-Kha, or a tripod, but it would have to do.

Another Reaper, its form misshapen by a missing leg, jumped from the stern into the water. Valentine moved forward, down to the Grog deck, and then up to the bow. He leaned over and winced at the damage to the front of the ship. Hopefully just her forward compartment was flooding. The ship could absorb this kind of damage and still proceed under her own power, were she fresh from the dockyard. Was she still sound enough to float?

The submarine was gone. All that remained of her on the surface was a fuel-oil slick, spreading across the water like a bloodstain at a murder site. And debris. And bodies. Swimming men struggled to stay afloat amidst the floating wreckage.

Valentine spotted one odd shape, a long thin tentacle with a heavy membrane attached. A Kurian, forgetting to disguise himself in his distress. Valentine loosed a burst into the struggling form. He swung the smoking barrel to the next swimmer, an oil-coated man in white, and killed him with another burst. A heavy form floated on a life preserver, perhaps dead, perhaps faking it. Valentine could not make out the features for certain, but the hair looked as though it might belong to Captain Saunders. He fired a burst into the body, which twitched at the impact of the bullets before disappearing under the oil. Another swimmer burst through the oil, taking a deep gasp of air, having miraculously escaped the sinking sub. Valentine shot him before he could draw his second breath.

The gun grew hot, and he had to slow his rate of fire. The brass casings dropped onto the deck, and hundreds lay at his feet when a hand touched his shoulder.

"It's over, my David," came a familiar bass.

"Oh, dear God," Post added, looking at the casings scattered on the deck. Valentine met his lieutenant's gaze, looking for understanding. Instead he saw disgust. Post could see only pitiful figures in the wreckage being murdered for no reason. Several Kurians had to have been on board the submarine for that many Reapers to attack at once, and it would

be easy for one of them to pose as a sailor. As long as the Kurians lived, the Reapers that might still be on board the Thunderbolt could kill, plant a bomb, or otherwise sabotage the ship. He could no more risk a Kurian deciding to achieve a Pyrrhic victory by destroying the Thunderbolt that he could have let Alistar live back in New Orleans.

Valentine tossed the gun to the deck and left the bow. Ahn-Kha trailed him. Valentine was thankful for his comrade's silence. Ahn-Kha would listen and give his opinion sometime in the future, but now there was too much to do. He did not look over his shoulder to see Post, but he heard him unload the gun and pick it up.

"How many of your Grogs are left?" Valentine said.

"A hand-and-two." Ahn-Kha had forgotten himself in the crisis and used Golden One phraseology for six. "It was desperate, even with the crossbows and the quickwood. There were many of them. We hunted the last of them from the stern with the pikes. When we wounded one in the leg with a pike, it managed to tear its own limb off and escape. They've learned to fear wounds from these weapons."

"So the ship is clear? Will she be able to continue?" They descended to the Grog-deck.

"I do not know. That is for the captain and the Chief to say. I was thrown off my feet by the collision, but I was be-lowdecks and saw no water. She does not seem to sink."

"Mr. Post," Valentine said when Post joined them on the well deck. "We have to get the guns manned and ready while we're motionless. The submarine wasn't the only ship the Santo Domingans had. You'll be in charge of that. But leave me enough for a party to search the ship. Ahn-Kha with his crossbow, a couple of pike men, men with shotguns, four should do it. We'll look for any of our people who are wounded, of course, but we have to be ready for a fight. A Reaper or two may still be holed up somewhere on board. We'll check every corner big enough to hold a dog. Once we know the ship is safe, the Chief can go to work and see if she'll be able to move again.

"After that, we'll clean up the dead, and the ship. I don't want everyone walking over bloodstains for the rest of the trip. Any questions?"

Post shook his head. "No, sir. I think they already pulled up a sailor from the submarine portside, sir. Shall I shoot him, just in case?"

Valentine ignored the rebuke. "Let me talk to him."

The sailor was a Cuban by birth, but his mother had been taken to Santo Domingo when she and her family were captured in a raid. He sat by the entryway, trembling and wet from head to toe, with a blanket around his narrow shoulders. Valentine's Spanish wasn't up to the dialect, so Car-rasca translated his story.

"I served on the Sharkfin four cruises, as a mechanic. I had just been called forward to get gas masks, because the damage from your gun was filling the engine room with smoke, when the collision came. Some of the men tried to get out through the old torpedo room, but those doors long since quit working. I made it out through the forward deck hatch-" Carrasca quit translating when the submariner howled in pain as Valentine grabbed his wrist and twisted it, dropping the wretch to his knees. The prisoner was human. A Kurian's disguise would have flickered.

"Val, stop!" Carrasca said. "He's just telling us what happened to him."

"I'm making sure he is who he says he is. Tell him I apologize. See if he'd like to join up with us-we could use him."

The Santo Domingan sailor seemed willing. Through Carrasca, he relayed why.

TaleOfTheThunderbolt

"The White Captain of the north, he was a madman. He convinced the Kur that if they got this ship, they could take over all the islands south of here. He promoted men he trusted, and to gain his trust they had to treat us badly. We worked like mad and were still punished. I had planned to swim away the first chance I could get, let the Haitians cas-

trate me and use me as a slave in the fields. At least I would live."

"What about this last trip? Who was on board?" "Seigneurs from the Samanae Peninsula. They had their eye on the lands west of Cape Haitian, and with this boat they could have ruled the coast. I had no love for them, I am glad they are dead."

Valentine silently commended the dead Saunders for his final throw of the dice. With the right men under him, he would have been able to snatch the Thunderbolt away from the Hispaniolan Kurians in the manner Valentine took it away from the rulers of New Orleans. A man of strange contradictions. Long ago he had quit asking himself why so many talented men chose to devote themselves to serving the enemies of their blood.

After the ship had been searched and re-searched, Valentine returned to his cabin, feeling an itchy bum from the Reaper-blood. He'd wiped it off quickly enough, but needed a thorough cleansing with pumice.

Post was rinsing his mouth out with baking soda in their cabin. Ahn-Kha had moved forward with the ship's remaining Grogs.

"Do you want to talk about it?" Valentine asked, scrubbing hard and working up a lather.

Post did him the courtesy of not playing dumb.

"Sir, you've pulled this whole thing, the ship, the quick-wood, the Jamaicans and the Haitians together like a... like a magic trick, something out of nothing. I respect you for that. I'm not sure I can serve under you anymore. When we get to Texas, it's good-bye."

"It's what happened at the bow?"

Post nodded. "I can't stop thinking about the bodies in the water, sir. When you got those Santo Domingans away from their plantations, I thought that you pretty much walked on water. Woulda died for you then, if it meant accomplishing something you were trying to achieve. Never

thought I'd want to die for anything or anyone. Maybe to get away from them, but not for anything."

It took Valentine a moment to regain his equilibrium. "You shouldn't have to die for anyone. Least of all me. Risking your life, weighing it against what you are trying to do-it's something any man does."

"Any man worth the iron in his blood."

"But you feel differently now."

Post waited a moment, but Valentine made no gesture to hurry him. The words would come when his lieutenant was ready.

"If your idea of the right thing to do is machine-gunning sailors who've had their ship sunk from under them, I want no part of it. You can cite precedents all you want, wrong is wrong."

"I had to make sure all the Kurians were dead. For all we knew, there was a Reaper squatting in the magazine with a hand grenade, just in case the Thunderbolt got the upper hand in the fight. If a Kurian has his puppet pull the pin and hug a couple of shells in his arms with the grenade under its chin, it's going to do it. Sometimes it is just as dangerous to beat the Kurians as it is to run from them. They'd rather destroy than let another own something that was theirs. The Reapers were clawing through to the Chief in the stern. I had to disorganize them, quickly, and that's the only way I had to do it.

"Remember, Post, they were serving the enemy. That's war."

Post shook his head. "I was serving the enemy. As soon as you gave me a chance, I switched. I bet a lot of those sailors would have done the same as that fellow we pulled out of the water. When you were shooting them, it was like you were shooting me."

"I understand. But I don't know how I'm going to get along without you. But go with my friendship. Shake on it?"

His lieutenant pursed his lips, then took his hand. "Could be you have what it takes for the kind of war this is and I

don't. Sorry, Val, but I can't see death like that again. I'm afraid I'd shoot you, or myself, or maybe both."

"Drop it, Will. Serving our side's different from working for the Kurians. I'll give you your choice, and wish you well when the Thunderbolt sails away. One thing, though: even if I did the wrong thing, the quickwood has a better chance of getting back to Southern Command if you come with it. Having it could turn things around, make a difference in a lot of innocent lives being saved. What happened at the bow was wrong, I'll grant you. But weigh it on the right scale. How wrong is it when a Reaper takes a six-year-old girl, because the Kurian running the show wants a different-flavored aura?"

Post shook his head. "That's a maybe. I'd rather deal in certainties, and those bodies floating in the diesel fuel were real, not supposition." He turned away.

"Will, if you're going to hate me, hate me for a good reason. Ask me sometime how I became a captain in the Coastal Marines."

Post would not, or could not, see that Valentine would have preferred to rescue the Sharkfin's survivors. But the risk to the mission, to losing all their lives and even more time in the quest to get the quickwood into the hands of Southern Command required him to act as he did. Valentine had learned long ago not to second-guess himself where matters of life and death were concerned, or he would never be able to make a decision again. He had made right decisions and wrong decisions, and sometimes had to bury the bodies of those who died for no other reason than his bad judgment. Like Gabriella Cho, the night he left her alone and wounded in the confusion of a battle, or his old company's Master Sergeant Gator, lying in a hilltop grave in eastern Oklahoma.

Struggling with his own memories as much as he had with the Kurians, David Valentine went to bed.

Carrasca, Valentine, and the Chief decided the ship should be refitted before exploring a potentially hostile

coastline, and two months in drydock at Jayport would allow the Chief to consummate a long-desired overhaul. There was the added incentive of replacing the losses from the encounter with the Sharkfin, so in the end Valentine agreed with yet another delay in his return to El Norte.

They returned to the harbor to a mixture of cheers and curiosity over their topiary. There were the inevitable problems with safely storing their precious cargo and finding living space for the crew during the refit, hampered by the occasional tropical storms and hurricanes brushing the island.

Valentine, Post, Narcisse, and Ahn-Kha were left with the leisure to recruit Jamaicans to join his marines, reduced to a bare handful in the fight against the Reapers. Valentine was shocked to see a soccer field filled with Jamaicans who wished to follow the Crying Man to sea, off their sunny island and into peril. In the end, he selected fifty for the short run to the coast; the Thunderbolt would be cramped, but it gave him a core of willing men to accompany him on the long trip back to the Ozarks.

There was also time with Carrasca as the Chief worked on the bow. Long rides into the countryside, talks with me locals, trips to sporting events and lunches made of market-square purchases filled the mornings. In the afternoon when the rains came, they talked or laughed or made love as the mood struck, and waited for the cool of the evening to walk back to the ship. Sometimes they spent the night at the commodore's house, joining him for mah-jongg or cribbage depending on the availability of players. The weeks passed like a dream. Valentine had never known so many idle days in all his years serving Southern Command. There was time to know another person, not as a comrade, superior, or underling, but as a friend and lover.

He learned her moods, and in turn she learned his. They pretended that the respite would never end by not discussing it, talking instead of the perfect hillock for a beach house or whether Valentine would make a better fisherman or planter.

Valentine was more than half-willing to take these conversations at face value.

Reality intruded when the Chief refloated the ship, and they had to make ready for the last voyage. Then the idyll was over.

"You're a wanderer, too," she said as they lay together.

"What's that?" Sex always made him wool-brained.

"You wander. Is it so you don't have to put down roots?"

He rubbed his eyes. "I'm not blown around. It's more like a current."

"Even coconuts wash up, by and by. What keeps you at sea?"

"Same as you. Duty." He would have added something about his dreams of a better future, dreams made almost realistic-sounding thanks to the quickwood, but his lover sighed.

Valentine turned on his elbow. The whites of her eyes caught the night sky coming through the window. They looked wet.

"Are you saying I should wash up here?" He half hoped she'd say yes. He'd get the quickwood back to the Ozarks and return.

She didn't say anything for a moment, but her mouth twitched.

"What then?" he insisted.

"Nothing. Nothing important. Important as our duty."

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