Tale of the Thunderbolt Chapter Two


The City Center of New Orleans: No matter what his or her status in the Kurian order, a human has to consider the risks before going abroad after dark, even at the busy city nexus of road and rail lines. At night, the vital aura of any sentient being shines bright and clear to the senses of a Reaper, drawing it and the Appetite that sees through the avatar's eyes. The Reaper, tall, thin, and cloaked, grabs its victim in a bruising grip and buries its long tongue in the food's neck. Sharp teeth keep its hold while the tongue searches out the wildly beating heart.

The "last dance," as the locals call it, leaves the victim emptied of blood. The rich fluid is absorbed into the Reaper's rudimentary digestive system, and life aura is transferred to the Kurian Lord animating the Reaper. The Kurian is a puppet-master working the million synaptic strings of the Reaper's nervous system. Rumor has it that the pain and fear of a victim enhances the Kurian's appreciation of aura. Reapers have been known to stalk and play with their food, even dragging it away to the Master's refuge for a cleaner "connection". for the draining transfer. What torments might be added, flavoring the aura like seasoning on a meal, do not make for pleasant speculation.

Valentine's night began with a call on the Station Rooms. Too comfortable to be called a prison, and too regimented to be called a hotel, the Station Rooms housed wives and families of the men at sea. In Imperial Roman tradition, the families of the men serving the Coastal Patrol remained under watchful house arrest until the sailors' return. The freedom from the Reapers provided by naval service required some kind of guarantee that the men would fulfill their duties, and with their usual efficiency, Kur settled on hostage-taking. While it was well-fed, curtained hostage-taking, the implicit threat remained no matter how bourgeois the surroundings.

With the grisly scene in the alley playing over and over in his head, Valentine wanted nothing more than a few hours' sleep, perhaps with a stiff drink to help him calm down. He could obliterate it all in the arms of a woman easily enough, but whores weren't to his taste even if he'd had the time. He had been up since well before dawn, making his way by boat and foot to the rendezvous at the outskirts of the city. Once again, the dozen Wolves had not shown, making them nine days overdue. He'd lingered as long as he dared among waterlogged ruins under the old water tower, its rust-scoured letters leaving only the vaguely menacing block capitals orwoe still legible on its sides. Once back in the city, he'd bought an okra-and-rice dish from an open-air diner, not trusting meat that had flies buzzing around it in winter. It began to rain, and on his wet and weary journey back to the ship he'd decided to stop for a drink at a strategically placed waterfront bar his marines spoke well of: the Easy Street.

Now, chances were that the hunt was on and he was the game afoot. He would have to put into effect the plan he had been considering since the Wolves had turned forty-eight hours overdue. Phony repairs to the ship could only be stretched out so long, no matter how imaginative the chief engineer was in his delaying tactics. The captain had shown symptoms of apoplexy at being told the Thunderbolt would be laid up another few days, waiting for parts. Further postponements might mean a change of personnel in the form of a new chief engineer, which would be more fatal to the mission than the nonarrival of the Wolves.

Valentine's thoughts kept returning to details of his encounter with Alistar. The gleam of the wedding ring on the dead man's hand-how much of the story about his wife was real? Valentine wished he could meet the woman, and in an overwrought fantasy imagined the two of them having a conversation in private, where he could confess his regrets about her husband's death and the bitter choices, tonight and six years ago, that had necessitated it.

The rain slackened as Valentine approached the Station Rooms. The name came from the proximity of the building to the train station, an odd location for mostly naval dependents. As he neared the entrance, he walked loosely, mimicking the purposeful stagger of a man full of drink.

A sentry stood just inside the barred doors, rather than at his usual post on the first step. The rain had driven him into a minor dereliction of duty, but the Station Rooms contained nothing of value, and what security there was concentrated on keeping the Coastal Patrol families indoors at night.

Valentine rapped on the glass between the added-on bars, a relaxed smile on his face. "Hey Ed, open up, eh?"

The sentry, whose nameplate read hinks, p, shrugged and spread his hands helplessly. "It isn't Ed, Mr. Rowan, sir, it's Perry."

Valentine raised his eyebrows. "Ed sick? He always has the duty Friday nights."

"He does, but this is Thursday, sir."

"Look, Perry, let me in, will you? I want to see my wife."

"Mr. Rowan, sir, you know the rules. Overnight visits have to be okayed beforehand."

"Coursh I know that," Valentine said, "but I don't want to shtay overnight. Jusht an hour or two. You know. Ship's ready for shea, parts came in, and we leave in the morning. Have a heart-it's a three-month out."

"Mr. Rowan sir, you're listed as active duty. You should be at your ship tonight, not ashore."

"Have a heart," Valentine repeated. "Jush don't log me. You don't catch the shit for letting someone in, and I don't catch the shit for vishiting."

"Be a little difficult for me to explain when you leave."

Valentine summoned a belch. "You've got the midnight to four, right? I'll be out by three. Not logged in, not logged out."

"Sorry, sir, what if you get delayed?"

"Look, call Mrs. Rowan. She'll promise you I'll be out by three. You know her-if she made the promise to you, she'd see to it I got out in time. It's a three-month out, for chrissakes."

"What about the desk?"

"I'll bullshit my way past. I've got an understanding with Turnip. Thesh captain's bars are good for more than just a spot at the front of a ration line, eh?"

"Sir, maybe that's the way they do things up in the Great Lakes, but not here."

Valentine held his breath, forcing his face to color and his tone to harden. "Do they stand their watches indoors here?"

Hinks blanched. "Aww, Mr. Rowan sir, have a-"

"Heart?" Valentine finished.

The guard looked inside the Station Rooms. "Okay, Mr. Rowan, three a.m. You're not here by three-oh-five, I'm phoning up. Okay? Mr. Turner isn't at the desk anyway. Reading in the John again. You wanna report someone, you should start with him."

"Forget about it, Ed, errr-Perry. You're a good egg. I'll bring you back a bottle of rum or something, how'sh that?"

"Just be out by the time my shift ends, or I'm perishable."

"Hey," Valentine slurred, "I promished, right? Just a quick visit, and we ain't spending it talking."

The guard opened the door. "Mrs. Rowan's some lady, sir. I hope I get some rank and get a chance to take my pick."

"That's the shpirit, Perry," Valentine said, coming in out of the rain and wiping his hair back. "One way to move up is to do favors for higher ranks. Maybe I can get you into the Coastal Marines. Quick advancement. Dishipline isn't too hard, if you do your job."

The sentry shook his head. "Like my outfit just fine, sir.

Going ashore and attacking a blockhouse full of outlaws ain't my idea of a career."

David Valentine waited for the sentry to unlock the inner door, and moved across the stained carpet to the stairs. The night manager's desk was empty, as Hinks predicted. Most of the lights were off, and the remaining elevator that still worked was always shut down at night when the hotel closed up to conserve electricity. Valentine smelled soap and heard splashing water coming from the basement: someone was doing laundry in one of the slop tubs there.

He climbed to the top floor, remembering the intolerable heat of their arrival that summer, the last in a series of moves as he performed his duties as a Quisling Officer. His real home lay in the hill country of Arkansas, Missouri, and Eastern Oklahoma, on free soil, though since being recruited as a Cat, he'd hardly spent six consecutive months there. For the past year, he'd been dragging Duvalier all around the Gulf Coast, worming through the Kurian Order, obtaining a commission and a promotion under a dead man's name and background provided for him by Southern Command-it made him feel like a maggot in a corpse.

Though the Station Rooms predated climate control and therefore had fair-size windows, the bars prevented residents from escaping to the fire escape to nap out the heat. The bars and windows were the only part of the Station Rooms inspected and kept in prime condition. Elsewhere the paint was peeling, the walls were dimpled, and the plumbing fixtures were maintained in a condition that shifted back and forth between inoperative and barely functioning.

Valentine reached the chipped wooden door to "Mrs. Rowan's" apartment. He knocked softly, using a three-and-two rap to identify himself, three soft and two loud. The sole lightbulb in the hallway faded for a moment and then brightened; New Orleans's patchwork power system was having its usual nighttime irregularities.

The door opened, revealing an attractively angular face under short red hair sticking out in all directions.

"You're out late," Alessa Duvalier said, still half-asleep. She wore an oversize yellow T-shirt of tentlike proportions, which was coming apart at the shoulder seams. "What is it?"

He ducked inside and flicked off the light. To his Cat-eyes, the room remained lit and as detailed as ever. There was just the usual color-shift that came with low-light vision.

"I was recognized." He used old American Sign Language to convey this information as he said for the benefit of the microphones: "Baby, we're out tomorrow. Last chance for ninety nights." They'd found a bug when they'd first moved to the Station Rooms months ago, and asked for a different room-complaining, with justification, about bedbugs. Management moved them to the stifling top floor, and a Coastal Marine widow, Mrs. Kineen, took an empty room next to them the same day.

Duvalier woke up fast. "Somebody made you? How?" she signed.

He flopped down on the bed as soon as he got his coat off. He let out an occasional moan as he told her, spelling out some of the words with his fingers. They'd had training in sign language before setting out from the Ozark Free Territory, and though they practiced, Valentine's usually quick-acting brain faltered after the long day and the encounter with Alistar.

The woman who'd taught him to be a Cat sat in her chair, folded herself up so her chin rested on her left knee, and rocked the bed with her right leg so the headboard banged the wall they shared with Mrs. Kineen.

The room smelled of cloves and walnuts. Duvalier had picked up intestinal parasites in her travels, perhaps as long ago as their trek into the Great Plains Gulag when she first recruited him three years ago, and was dosing herself again in an effort to flush them.

"This week has been nothing but bad news," she signed, interrupting the tale when he began to describe his disposal of the corpse. "Laundry-room intelligence says there's been a lot of new faces in town. Troops moving in. Some say a push into the Tex-Mex borders; others say it's Southern Command's turn again. I know the train station's been busy. Lots of cars taking on supplies coming in from the Gulf Coast and moving west. This didn't turn into such a dull assignment after all. I've been able to watch the station and pick up a little." She peeked out the window. "Hope you can get going soon. Southern Command needs to know details."

"I don't think the Wolves are going to show," he decided. "I'm going to have to go with it and improvise. Figure out a way to oust Captain Saunders and get control of the Thunderbolt-"

She let out a yelp, faintly orgiastic, and winked at her partner.

"You'll improvise yourself right onto the Grog gibbet," she signed. Valentine never tired of admiring her quick, dexterous fingers. They were the first thing he'd noticed on her when she bandaged his former captain on Little Timber Hill. "Who will help you?"

"The crew."

"Quislings?" She added the question mark with her sharp eyebrows.

"They wouldn't be in the Coastal Patrol if they didn't like being away from the influence of Kur."

"All the more reason for Kurians to pick the men for loyalty. Remember what you had to do to get your commission down here, and then the promotion to captain."

"Don't remind me," Valentine signed. Elaborate fake papers showing his service record in the Great Lakes took him only so far. For the past year, Valentine had put his manifest talents to the service of Kur, assembling a good record in a rear area before being offered a promotion in exchange for "more active duty." He had seen men shot, hanged, or given over to the Reapers without batting an eye. And more.

He'd learned the reason for the elaborate groundwork only a few months ago, once he had received his commission on the Thunderbolt. Ahn-Kha appeared afterwards, bearing his detailed orders. In twenty-four hours, he memorized the instructions, based plans on the objective, and destroyed the letters, maps, and drawings. Since then, he concentrated on making friends in the crew and learning all he could about the Caribbean, and particularly Haiti.

"So are you ever going to tell me?" Duvalier asked. "Once you're at sea, it couldn't hurt for me to know." She stopped the headboard-thumping with her leg, waited a moment, then started again with renewed vigor.

"You know better. If you were really in on it, I'd have your opinion every step of the way. But I can't risk the Kuri-ans finding out if it goes amiss."

Amiss. The word was a kind of shorthand between them. A euphemism for "capture, torture, and death."

She climbed on to the bed next to him, lay close so she could breathe in his ear. "We're good together, Valentine. Hope they haven't tasked you with a one-way trip. Some things shouldn't even be tried. Like turning that crew. We should blow and get out of here. The mission is down the drain, and Mountain Home needs to know about this buildup."

"Taking the ship's not the half of it," he whispered back, feeling his skin tingle at her scent. "Or I should say that's not your half of it."

She rubbed her hand through his damp hair. "David, I know I had the easy part this time. Maybe old Ryu thought I needed a rest. I got to look around, safe behind my ID, then disappear after you ship out. But now my stomach's hurting, and you have that never-say-die look like in the Dunes. You didn't come up here for a good-bye."

Valentine smiled in the darkness. "No. I have to ask you a favor. It would make my job easier if you could get some of the other wives and families out."

She quit toying with his cowlick.

The room waited in silent darkness. His sensitive ears could not even pick up the sound of her breathing. "How many families?" she finally whispered.

"As many as you can. Make contact with the pipeline, and have them help guide you all out."

She sat up, pulled her knees up to her chest, and thought before she started signing again. "Val, that involves getting about a hundred people out of New Orleans. On my own. I've no gear, no weapons but a skinning knife. Lots of kids, so I need transport for everyone and food to last us out of the KZ. It can't be done."

Valentine signed back: "Of course it can't be done. Since it can't be done, I don't think the Kur will be expecting it."

"No one expects me to step off a thirty-story building either. But if I do it and give everyone a big, effing surprise, that doesn't mean much when I hit."

"The only way I have a chance with the men is if they think there's hope for their families."

"Valentine, full abort. Set all this back up somewhere else. Mexico. There's got to be plenty of transport-"

"And blow a year's worth of work. It's the ideal ship. Who'd 'ave ever thought I'd get assigned to a gunboat? I figured we'd have to settle for a troop trawler full of men. If we get her, there's hardly a ship in the Carib that can say boo to us, plus she's seaworthy in case of bad weather. She's not some coast hugger."

"Good arguments in favor of a bad idea."

"Didn't you say you had made friends among the women? That a lot of them were discontented?"

"Who wouldn't be?" she signed back. "We get out of this building only twice a week when you're away, and even then it's to a fenced-in market. I'm sick of this place, too. If it weren't for the danger to some of the people I've met here, I'd torch it as soon as you're out of the harbor and vanish. They'd think I maybe ... Whoa there ..."

Valentine could almost feel her brain revving up. "You know, if you got everyone out and rigged some kind of explosion ..." he suggested.

"Don't have the tools to collapse the building," she signed, "but this is an old structure. Set a fire somewhere hard to put out but not immediately dangerous, the authorities evacuate everyone, and I have someone from the pipeline who knows just where to be, and when. Maybe they would have a few people around to make sure we don't wander off, but they wouldn't expect an organized breakout. I can handle them."

"Be careful who you tell," Valentine advised. "I'd just let a couple of trustworthy people know. Wait until the absolute last minute to spread the word."

"Who taught who this game, Val? I was keeping myself alive in the KZ while you were still running with the Wolves, if you recall."

"Keep yourself alive. The Cause needs you. So can I count on you? Think about it while I sleep."

"I'll do it-if I can get the pipeline to open. You can tell your men that. Guarantees aren't my style. I like to bug out if things get hairy. I think you're headed for a noose, or maybe a long drag through the ocean back to the nearest port. Getting a mutiny started won't be easy. I've never heard of that being done before."

"All the more reason for it to work, they won't be expecting-"

She cut him off with a forceful thrust of her hand. "Oh God, don't start on that again!" she said, this time aloud. Then they smiled at each other. What would Mrs. Kineen make of that?

Valentine dreamt of the Ozarks. A fall breeze rustling a million leaves all around, cool streams running in the morning, the sounds of fish splashing as they jumped-

He felt Duvalier shaking him by the shoulder. The hour's rest was not nearly enough, but it would have to do. "Last chance, Valentine," she signed after handing him his coat. "Full abort, plenty of reason to justify it. I don't like the feel of this, not at all."

His doubts had also rested, and returned refreshed. No! Ignore them! "I'm not happy about it either. But if you knew more, you could see that I don't have a choice. This could turn the tide."

"You and your coulds." She hugged him, nuzzling her chin against his chest. Duvalier was seldom affectionate toward him, their bond exhibited more through ribbing than rubbing. Though he was attracted to her, she had a wall around her he couldn't break. Sometimes she lowered the drawbridge. Tonight was one of those moments.

"I grew up in Kansas," she whispered in his ear. "I don't know tides, except that they're caused by the moon. Oh, and a king tried to do something about them once but couldn't. In the end, the tide always wins. It's too strong."

He turned the risks over in his mind, then unholstered and tossed his heavy .44 service pistol on the bed along with the spare ammunition he carried. He'd hide the loss somehow. "No," Valentine signed, after buttoning his coat. "It's not too strong. The tide wins because it doesn't give up."

The look of relief on Perry's face made Valentine forget the gruesome events of the night. For a moment.

"See, Perry, I told you so," Valentine said, pointing to the clock. Its plain face indicated 2:40.

"You're a man of your word, sir. Thank you."

"No, Perry, thank you," Valentine said, smiling and waiting for the outer door to open. "I'll see you in three months."

"I hope so, Mr. Rowan. Word has it my unit's going to rotate out. They're saying West Texas, which is fine by me. I've had it with the humidity around here. I got mold allergies something terrible."

"Mobilizing for something big?" Valentine asked nonchalantly, looking out at the rain.

"Like I'd know. 'You'll find out when you get there,' is what we get told." The guard drained a cup of cold coffee.

"Enjoy the sun. I've got to get back to the ship before the captain gets up."

"Me savvy."

Valentine plodded into the rainy night, his hands thrust deep into his coat pockets. He had a good hour's walk ahead of him. The Thunderbolt sat moored well to the east in New Orleans's expansive but underused dikeside riverfront. High seas trade was not something the Kurians encouraged. They seemed so uncomfortable with oceans that Valentine wondered if Kur itself was not arid. Most of their sea traffic was made up of barges and tugs, hugging the coast as they moved from port to port in the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

Fear brought him out of his thoughts. A cold tingle ran down his spine.... There was a Reaper somewhere behind him in the fog.

Valentine stepped faster, shutting down everything in his mind except the animal reflexes required to keep moving, a fish swimming quietly and straight to avoid the prowling shark.

And he'd given his gun away to Duvalier. All he could fight with was the short service knife at his belt. Not enough steel to bite through a Reaper's neck-his sword was back at Ryu's hall with his other possessions.

The street was empty, almost unlighted. Doors and windows all around were buttoned up for the night.

He felt the cold spot growing as it came up behind. Its booted feet clipped along in the drizzle somewhere behind. He tore off his raincoat. Perhaps it would hesitate to attack a uniform.

A massive figure appeared out of the mist ahead of him.

Ahn-Kha! Thank you, God.

Solid as the Thunderbolt's icebreaking prow, ugly as commandment-breaking sin, and the closest thing he had in the world to a brother, the Grog waddled down the street.

He heard the footsteps following halt as the Reaper read the newcomer's lifesign.

Ahn-Kha carried a great boat hook across his shoulder and wore a brown Grog Labor Brigade sash across his chest.

Like a bull gorilla, he used his arms as well as his legs in his slow, deliberate stride. Rain matted his fawn-colored fur and dripped from flexible, batlike ears. Ahn-Kha bore a face like some stony nightmare leering off a cathedral at travelers below, but his steady eyes, black-flecked with irises the color of a healthy acorn, could only be called "gentle."

Valentine clasped hands with Ahn-Kha. "Careful," he breathed, gesturing behind with his chin.

He heard the Reaper approach, and Ahn-Kha straightened to his full eight-feet-plus, planting the boat hook solidly before him like a pikeman.

Valentine met the yellow-eyed gaze, touched the side of his hand to his eyebrow, and lowered his head, the usual salute to a representative of the Kurian Order.

The Reaper responded by throwing its hood back over its scraggly-haired scalp and striding off into the night.

Valentine didn't relax until the cold spot on his consciousness faded. The Reaper probably could have killed the both of them, but perhaps the Kurian animating it was more risk-averse than most, and didn't wish to damage his living tool for the extraction of vital aura.

Ahn-Kha put the boat hook over his shoulder again.

In the three years since Valentine had met Ahn-Kha, he had learned to rely on him for thought as well as thews. Years ago, Ahn-Kha's people, the Golden Ones, had been brought with the other species, labeled alike by much of mankind with the epithet Grog, across worlds to help the Kurians with the conquest of humanity. But even the Golden Ones had been betrayed by Kur when they were no longer useful. Thanks to the pair's chance meeting, the Golden Ones were again thriving along the west bank of the Missouri River around Omaha.

"My David," Ahn-Kha rumbled, his bass voice sounding as if it echoed from a deep cave. "I began to worry when you did not arrive by the time we darkened the ship. I feared something might have happened to you, and I made for the

Station Rooms. Is all well?" The Grog did a neat turn on one of his hamhock fists and walked beside Valentine.

"Yes and no, old horse. Someone recognized me tonight, in a bar. He's dead, but unless his men were born stupid and got worse, they'll be looking for me. We're going to have to set off with the dawn, before the Kurians can organize a manhunt."

"What about the men? Have they arrived?"

"No. We may have to go with the crew we have."

"And the captain and the executive officer? Perhaps you plan to have them both meet with accident?"

"I'm going to try to turn the crew."

Ahn-Kha snorted. "Maybe a few brave hearts will try. Not enough, my David, not enough."

"I'm going to promise them a new life with their families, if we can make it back to the Ozarks. Duvalier is going to get their wives and kids out."

"If she can manage that, the fates themselves fight on her side. But without the promised Wolves, I do not see how we win the ship."

"When we're at sea, I'll try Lieutenant Post first."

"The man's a drunk, my David, or he would be in command of the marines instead of you."

"Yes."

"How will you explain their absence to the captain? You told him the Coastal Marines were supplying a team of scouts, showed him fake orders."

"We'll use your Grogs. I'll tell him your laborers can perform the job. Besides, the men like having a few Grogs around to do the dirty work. Will they do what you say?"

"They're Gray Ones-brutes. They obey me; it is easier than thinking. On paper, they are a combat-ready team, but I've never seen them shoot. When they are done working the ship, they were supposed to be moved inland. But a request from the Coastal Marines would outweigh such a trifle. The Kurians have many to take their place."

"Better get them ready as soon as we reach the Thunderbolt. I'll have a word with the Chief, and we'll be under way by dawn. The radio is going to break down, as well. We can't be too careful."

The Thunderbolt, tied up to the dock, did not live up to her name. She looked like the swaybacked old icebreaker that she was, new coat of paint and polished fittings or no. Her 230-foot length had a high prow, a deep well deck, and her castle amidships. Just below the bridge in the bow was the five-inch gun, her main armament. On the other side of the castle, a twenty-millimeter Oerlikon looked like an avant-garde sculpture under its protective cover. Valentine's marines were responsible for it and the four 7.62-millimeter machine guns in action. They lay ready to be placed in the mounts on either side of the ship, more or less at the corners of the upper deck of the square main cabin.

As she was now configured, she carried four commissioned officers and seven warrant officers, supervising divisions of forty-five Coastal Patrol crewmen and thirty-four Coastal Marines. Usually she patrolled with a higher proportion of CP, fewer marines, and more space for all concerned, but she had been modified to carry troops this trip. The captain had made no secret of their mission. A nest of "pirates and terrorists" on the island of Jamaica had been bold enough to trouble the continental coast. The Thunderbolt and crew was to "capture, scuttle, or burn" the pirates' ships and destroy their base. The gunboat had little to fear in return: she could stand off and sink the pirates in their harbor or on the sea, for the sail-driven brigands had no gun to match the five-inch cannon, and nothing short of naval gunfire, mines, or torpedoes could penetrate the icebreaker's hull.

Whatever her hoped-for glories, the Thunderbolt looked dismal enough in the predawn gloom as she waited in her berth. A light burned at the entry port at the end of the gangway, and a glow from the bridge revealed the outline of the officer of the watch.

Valentine and Ahn-Kha walked up the gangplank.

A duty officer came to attention. "Mr. Rowan, sir," the CP said with just enough briskness to prove that he had not been sleeping. The man did not acknowledge Ahn-Kha.

Valentine looked forward and aft. Ahn-Kha's labor team lay in a snoring heap at the stern. Frowning, he turned on Ahn-Kha.

"If your gang is going to sleep like that on deck, you might as well get them some bedding," he said. "You have permission to get it out of ship's stores."

"Sir, thank you, sir," Ahn-Kha said, giving a quick bow.

The duty snorted. "Hope they wash it afterwards. We got enough bugs already."

For'ard, Valentine saw the red glow of a cigarette. The Chief sat on a stool, his legs up on the rail and an ankle comfortably cradled in a machine-gun mount, watching the rain fall. In a complement of more than eighty, Valentine's confidants consisted of the Grog next to him and the Chief by the rail. He moved forward. Obviously the Chief was waiting for him to return.

"Good evening, Captain Rowan," the Chief murmured as Valentine approached. The Cat paused and rested his elbows on the rail, looking out at the drizzle. Chief Engineer Land-berg, like Valentine, had a strong dash of Native American blood in him, giving his title an ethnic twist which he bore with good humor. Though not a tall man, he had a wide wrestler's torso supported by pillarlike legs. Unlike his body, his face was soft and rounded, a textbook example of the kind of face described as "apple-cheeked." The Chief had been an informer for Southern Command since his youth, but until this run limited his service to simple intelligence-gathering.

The rain had washed the air clean of the usual fetid river odors. All Valentine could smell was the vaguely metallic tang of the ship, new paint, and the Chief's burning tobacco.

"What's the matter, Chief, can't sleep?" Valentine looked back over his shoulder. The sentry probably couldn't hear them over the weather, but no sense taking chances.

"No, the sound of rain on this biscuit tin keeps me awake sometimes, so I just come up and watch it fall."

"How's that fuel pump coming? I'd really like to get under way. The men are getting anxious."

Landburg looked up, swallowed. Valentine gave him a nod.

"They are, huh?"

The engineer pinched his lower lip between thumb and forefinger when overhauling a problem. He would pull out his lower lip then release it so it hit his upper Up and teeth with a tiny plip. "Well, I reckon good news shouldn't wait"-plip. "I got sick of waiting on the part, so I found something I could modify with just a little machining. I'll try it out right now, if you want"-plip-"and we can let the captain know if it works. These delays have been driving the old man nuts."

"Good work, Chief."

Valentine exhaled tiredly and left the Chief to finish his tobacco and thoughts. He was committed now. By this time tomorrow, he would be at sea, with only Ahn-Kha and the Chief set against the captain and crew, backed up by the Kurian system that controlled them. Were it not for the rocksteady support of Ahn-Kha, as imperturbable as a mountain, and the Chief's wily aid, his quest would have foundered long ago.

He climbed one of the metal staircases running up the castle side to the bridge and asked the watch officer to call him at dawn, and retired to his shared cabin. Originally only he and the captain were given their own cabins, but after he saw the crowded conditions on board, he invited Lieutenant Post to share his cabin. Post got quietly drunk each night, duty or no, and Valentine felt for him after hearing some of the gibes hurled with casual viciousness by the other wardroom members.

He looked down at Post, a sleeping ruin of what must once have been a physical archetype of a man. His six-three frame didn't fit on the bed, from his salt-and-pepper hair to rarely washed feet, breathing in the restless, shallow sleep of alcoholic oblivion. As usual, he hadn't bothered to undress before turning in, and would attend to his duties tomorrow in a wrinkled uniform, permanent stains marking the armpits and back. Post ignored even the captain's comments about his appearance, but in some fit of contrariness shaved each morning after Valentine had once privately mentioned over coffee that he would have a terrible time keeping his marines clean shaved if his lieutenant sprouted three days' worth of stubble.

Valentine sat on his untouched cot and began to remove his shoes. Above him, a railed shelf held his meager collection of books. Father Max's gilt-edged Bible-the old Northern Minnesota priest had raised him after his family's murder, and died of pneumonia while he was training Foxtrot Company. The Padre had willed the aged tome to him. It had arrived while he and Duvalier were seeking the Twisted Cross on the Great Plains. Next to the Bible were his battered old Livy histories, brought down when he first joined up with the Cause eight years ago. He owned copies of Clausewitz's On War and a Chinese Army translation of Sun Tzu, volumes he'd had to study at the military college in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, as he'd been studying for his commission. His American Civil War histories were next: Sam Wafkins's Company Aytch and Frisch's Lincoln: Leadership to Liberty. Then came his little collection of fiction. Water-ship Down, its yellowed pages stitched together and ironically rebound in rabbit skin-given to him as a welcome-home gift by the craftsman, a Wolf named Gonzalez who'd survived their ill-fated courier mission to Lake Michigan in 2065. Next to it, and in much better shape, was a recent hardcover of the complete set of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Then there was his latest acquisition, a copy of Gone with the Wind bought at a New Orleans bookstore. He'd seen his fellow infiltrator Duvalier reading it last year while he was undergoing Coastal Marine training in Biloxi, Mississippi. Shocked to find her so deep into such a brick of a book, he'd made some comment about the four-color cover. "Ever read it?" she asked. When he admitted that he hadn't, she told him not to offer an opinion out of ignorance. Sensing a challenge when he heard one, he sat down with it his first free day, intending to mock it and her-but within twenty minutes was so captivated that he went out and treated himself to a bottle of cognac to enjoy with the epic.

The rest of the shelf held mostly unread Kurian propaganda and service bulletins.

There was a quiet knock at the door.

"Naturally," Valentine said to himself and two hundred pounds of alcoholic stupor a leg's length away. He rose and opened the door.

A twelve-year-old boy in a uniform two sizes too big for him stood in the corridor. The crew called him and his twin brother Peaone and Peatwo, being identical twins sent to sea in the care of their uncle, one of the petty officers. The captain, sick of not being able to tell them apart, flipped a coin and had all the hair shaved from Peaone's young head. Under a messy shock of sun-white hair, Peatwo looked up at Valentine with piercing blue eyes.

"Sir, the captain's passing the word for you, Mr. Rowan. He wants to see you in his cabin."

'Tell the captain I'm coming."

"Aye aye, sir," Peatwo said, turning and moving six feet up the passageway toward the captain's door. The captain was not the sort of man to just knock on the wall or come himself.

Valentine retied his boots, wishing he had had just five minutes out of them. He walked the short distance to the captain's cabin. He smoothed out his uniform unconsciously and knocked.

"Come," a sharp voice answered.

Captain Saunders fancied himself a species of tough old seahawk, but to Valentine, he seemed more like a rather aged rooster. The heavy wattles hanging under his chin were hardly hawklike, and the full head of gray hair that was the captain's pride and joy was brushed up into a bantam's pompadour. Perhaps something hawkish flickered in the stare of his hard hazel eyes, between which a beak of a nose matching that of the mightiest of eagles, if not a toucan, arched out in its Roman majesty.

"You passed the word for me, sir?" Valentine asked. The captain was in one of his work-all-night fits, and Valentine tried his best to look alert.

"Ahh, Captain Rowan. Are the marines ready to go to sea?"

"Of course, sir."

"Good. You'll be glad to know we'll be leaving in the morning-the fuel pump is repaired. I had to light a fire under the Chief, but if properly motivated, the man can work wonders."

Valentine blanked his expression. He looked around at the small day cabin. The captain sat behind a massive desk that must have been brought in sections, then reassembled. It dwarfed the other chairs in the room. A few pictures, all of Captain Saunders in various stages of his career or of ships he had officered, decorated the walls. "Glad to hear it, sir. The waiting has been hard."

"It's finally over. Keen to get to sea, I hope? Ready for the smell of burning sail?"

"At your order, sir. One thing though, sir. I still haven't had any luck finding a reliable team of rangers. Something must be going on inland. I've tried through channels and I've tried out of channels, but all I can find are kids or old men," he said, more than half-telling the truth for once. "The Grog labor team is a combat squad on paper. I'd like to just keep them, sir."

"What about quartering them? We're crowded enough- the men won't share with Grogs."

"We can rig some kind of shelter in the well deck, sir. Tents would do."

Captain Saunders thought for a moment. "Very well, they can eat the leftovers. Stretch the stores. I understand Grogs aren't too particular. Put that foreman of theirs in charge of squaring them away. I'd like to depart at dawn, and you'll be welcome on the bridge at six a.m. We'll take her out right after breakfast."

Close to two hours of sleep! Valentine sagged in relief. "Thank you, sir."

"One thing, though, Captain Rowan. I'd like you and the exec to do a final weapons inventory. You'll do your marines and the small arms locker, and he'll cover the heavy weapons. Wouldn't want to reach Jamaica and find your men's rifles had been left dockside by accident. 'For the want of a nail,' am I right?"

"Yes, sir." Valentine said, the prospect of sleep evaporating like a desert mirage. "Speaking of small arms, I had to give over my revolver for barter for some parts the Chief needed. I'll need a new pistol from the ship's arms."

"Rowan, you have to learn to throw your weight a little more. Greasing palms with your sidearms ... Still, if it helped get us to sea, I'm grateful. Anyway, get that inventory done. That was item one, business. Item two is pleasure: I'd like your company at dinner tonight. A tradition of mine, to celebrate the beginning of what we all hope will be a successful cruise. Mr. Post is invited, too, of course. Number One uniforms, please. That will encourage your lieutenant to clean himself up."

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir," Valentine said.

"That's all for now. See to your men, Rowan."

"Aye aye, sir." Valentine shut the cabin door softly behind him and began his day's work.

He hardly noticed the ship pulling away from the dock and moving downriver, so busy was he with final preparations. The executive officer, Lieutenant Worthington, started on the heavy weapons inventory then begged off as the engines were turned over to attend to duties on the bridge.

Valentine, who had little to do with the actual handling of the ship, was glad to be rid of him and offered to finish Wor-thington's part of the barely begun job. The exec, though two years older than he, had not seen much action and assumed Valentine to be a man of vast experience, to be a captain of marines in his mid-twenties. He had the annoying habit of wanting particulars of the various real-and faked-incidents in Valentine's "Captain Rowan" dossier. Valentine did not wish to discuss the faked events out of fear of slipping up on some detail, and the memories of the real incidents seen from the sidelines in the service of Kur troubled him too much to want to talk about them for the entertainment of a callow fellow officer.

Inventory and inspection done, he just had time to change into his best uniform before dinner.

Naturally, the dinner began with a toast over the cloth-covered folding table that had been set up for the meal. Worthington raised his glass of wine, an import brought all the way from Western Mexico. The captain and exec sat opposite each other, stiff in their crisp black uniforms, the captain's solid-gold buttons engraved with illuminati eye-and-anchor. Valentine and Post in their brass-buttoned navy blue filled the other places on the square table.

"The Thunderbolt, Queen of the Gulf," Worthington intoned as they raised their glasses. Saunders sipped with a connoisseur's thoughtful appreciation; Post drained his glass in a single motion; Worthington barely tasted his. Valentine took a welcome mouthful, grateful just to be off his feet.

The wine hit him hard, and he fought to keep from falling asleep in his soup. A winter salad followed. The captain and the exec did most of the talking, discussing the pilot's navigation of the treacherous, shifting sandbars at the mouth of the Mississippi and the balance of the stores on the ship. Valentine was content to eat his main course, a fresh filet of Texas beef smothered in onions and mushrooms, in exhausted silence. Post, who had been encouraged by Valentine to mend his best uniform and press it to celebrate the freedom of being at sea and away from the humid air of New Orleans, finished the bottle and started on another of less illustrious vintage.

"Captain Rowan?" Captain Saunders's voice broke in through the mists of Valentine's fatigue.

"Sir?" Valentine asked, looking to his left at the captain.

"Lieutenant Worthington asked you a question. About the Grogs?"

"My apologies, Lieutenant," Valentine said, bringing himself back to the dinner with an effort. "I'm not myself tonight. What was the question?"

"Seasickness, Captain Rowan?" Worthington asked, a smile that was half sneer creeping across his face. "We're still on the river."

"Probably."

"I just wanted your opinion on Uncle's Grogs," the exec continued. "We were really hoping for some rangers for the inshore scouting work." The men on the ship called Ahn-Kha "Uncle," and Ahn-Kha was too well mannered among their enemies to correct them. In the Ozark Free Territory, he would have flattened someone who could not be bothered to learn to pronounce his name correctly.

"Uncle says that they are combat trained. I'll vouch for his word."

"It's your responsibility, of course," Captain Saunders said.

By now Valentine knew that the phrase was Saunders-speak meaning that if the Grogs failed in some way, the blame would be passed to Valentine.

"I'm sure we can keep them busy on the ship," the exec said. "I've never had any experience with Grogs in combat. I've heard they leave something to be desired."

"Properly armed and with a decent leader, I'll put them up against anyone," Valentine said. "I've seen them in action, once they sink their teeth into a fight, the only way to stop them is to kill them." He did not add to the speech that his experience mostly came from fighting against the Gray Ones, rather than with them.

"But as scouts, Rowan, as scouts?" the exec asked.

"Like dogs who can shoot guns. Fine marksmen. Good eyes and ears. Not a whole lot smarter than a dog, though. Decision making isn't their forte; they'll come back and hoot at you to let you know they've found something. Uncle can make more sense out of their tongue than I can."

"Very well, Captain Rowan," Saunders said. "That settles my mind, knowing you are confident in the matter. I'm sure they'll be an asset."

The rest of the evening passed in the captain telling stories to his captive audience. Valentine leaned back in his chair, keeping his eyes open while his brain turned itself off. He shifted his gaze to Post, who had restricted his conversation to a few polite phrases during dinner. His lieutenant remained silent, failing to murmur appreciatively at Saunders's yarns. Post finished the second bottle of wine before turning to the brandy.

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