The Cave: Strategic Air Command's old headquarters at OjfuttAir Force Base has seen better, and worse, days. Better when it was a buzzing hive of planes and blue uniforms, jet exhaust in the air, and the camaraderie of men who know that they're the best in the world at what they do. Worse in the summer of '22, when the nukes came, thundering blossoms of thermonuclear heat that reshaped the landscape. They turned sand to glass and flattened anything that wasn't built to bunker specifications in a hurricane of wind, pushing first out from the blast and then rushing back toward the mushroom clouds of the MIRV warheads.
Now some of the great hangars have been rebuilt, SAC's old underground catacombs reoccupied. A new general has come, with men in strange uniforms; the swastika flag flies, its spiderish black-and-white design stark and forbidding against the blue of Omaha's skies.
Thirty-six hours after the bonfires died, Valentine, Ahn-Kha, and a strong young Grog named Khiz-Mem watched the shadows lengthen across the old base south of Bellevue.
Ahn-Kha selected Khiz-Mem after the flame-lit night in the ghetto.
Valentine remembered the rest of the revolt as little but a confused series of impressions. The Twisted Cross barracks aflame. Screams of Man and Grog. The endless drumming. Gunfire clattering in the distance, dying off, then starting up again. Fresh ash lifted skyward, turning the wind bitter.
Valentine had stayed out of the struggle at the request of his friend, who feared that in the confusion, some Golden
One would shoot him down as a one of their Twisted Cross overseers.
The killing did not stop until after dawn, when the last guards in the watchtowers outside the walls either fled or were brought down by snipers. The towers inside the walls unexpectedly revealed major structural faults as the revolt got going, and they came crashing down at a signal of one of the Golden One engineers. The Golden Ones shot as far and as well as their Gray One brethren, many of whom lay dead in the upper floors of the Great Hall and in the little barrack houses outside the two gates of the ghetto.
With a few hours' rest and some warm food inside him, Valentine decided to push on southward. He knew the Twisted Cross would not take the Golden One revolt lightly, and that they'd be back soon with everything the General had. Ahn-Kha shared Valentine's fear of the coming threat and refused to be parted from him.
"Ahn-Kha, your people need you more than I do."
"My David, here I am just one more set of hands. With you, I am half of the first alliance joining Golden Ones with the Freeholders, honored to stand at the side of a friend. In which role can I help my people more?"
Valentine wanted to go to the General's Cave and throw a little sand in the gears of the Twisted Cross war machine before it could return to Omaha and quash the Golden One rising. But now it would take more than blowing up a few hundred feet of bridge. In preparation, he and Ahn-Kha "liberated" flamethrowers and explosives from the Hall's armory.
Khiz-Mem made the pair a trio after Ahn-Kha drafted him to serve as packhorse and guide. Ahn-Kha assured Valentine that the young Grog knew every corner of the aboveground part of the old Strategic Air Command base. Khiz-Mem, in the full flush of his twenty-something strength, shouldered the weight of flamethrower, satchel charges, food, as well as his own pistol and rifle. Ahn-Kha carried the other flamethrower and a slightly lighter load. Valentine had an additional satchel full of grenades-white phosphorous incendiary grenades among the others.
Ahn-Kha examined one of the cylinders as they walked out of the ghetto. "With these, they burn the houses of those they would punish. I should like to give the Hooded Ones a sample of their own flame."
The Cave was a little more than a long day's walk south of the ghetto, but Valentine did not want to move straight down the rails connecting the base with the city center.
What was left of the Twisted Cross ghetto-police had taken that route; discarded equipment lay at the edge of the rail line like markers. They were probably holding some intermediary point, waiting for their own chance at vengeance.
So the trio took off west before turning south, retrieving Valentine's submachine gun and pack from the little cache. Picking its way south with Valentine scouting well ahead, sweeping the smugglers' trails of Omaha with his ears and nose, the party took its time. He wished he had another few days to look for Duvalier, they weren't very far from the rendezvous point.
The day had a hint of autumn to it; even the afternoon heat had a cool quality to it that the summer days had lacked.
They spotted a scout plane midday. If the little ship was not the ill-omened red-and-white one from the Dunes, it was its twin sister. It flew up from the south and circled the city above the Golden One ghetto. As they watched it from a halt, Valentine explained to Ahn-Kha the story of its use in the Dunes.
"So that means they will attack soon," Ahn-Kha said.
"Yes, they'll hit your people before the Golden Ones can get organized."
"Our people, my David, our people. From this day forward, you will always be accounted a member of our clan, and welcome in the Hall."
"I hope there'll be a Hall-and people to do the welcoming," Valentine said, studying the little plane.
At another break, in the roofless ruins of a warehouse, Ahn-Kha showed Valentine how to use the flamethrower. It consisted of three tanks on a backpack frame, a small one with compressed air and two larger tanks containing gasoline with a thickening agent. The mixture was fired by what amounted to a heavily built garden hose attached to a wide-mouthed insecticide sprayer. It fired the jellied gasoline a good thirty yards with a frightening roar of flame.
"I saw some burnt-out ruins in Wisconsin once where the Kurians had been doing some kind of training under the supervision of the Reapers. I wonder if they were teaching their men how to use these things? None of us could figure out how so much damage could be done without explosives."
"You must be careful with your trigger finger, my David," Ahn-Kha said. 'This pack is half-empty now. You must use very short bursts, and even then you have only a few. Why do we carry these all this way?"
"I want to do the same thing at the Cave that I did at the Hall. Just on a bigger scale. The Hooded Ones are terrible, but the ones working them are vulnerable. Maybe more vulnerable than the General knows."
After a final hard march, they came up on the damaged areas outside the base in the late afternoon. The scouts shared a heartroot meal in a patch of tall grass at the old interstate, looking down at the outer edge of the camp. The perimeter fence consisted of two lines of fence topped with concertina wire. The main part of the base was hidden behind a lip of low hills; concrete observation bunkers set among them like teeth. A rail track ran along this, the western edge of the base.
Khiz-Mem talked in his native tongue and pointed to the wire and the area beyond.
Ahn-Kha patted the youngster on the head and turned to Valentine. "Between the wires are mines. You cannot see them, but there are guard posts well concealed behind the wire. Not all are manned all the time. The General still does not have all the men he wants, but he has plans for this place. He trains new soldiers always. Omaha was thought to be a good post to give recruits experience."
"They got an experience, all right," Valentine said, trailing his binoculars over the open prairie surrounding the base. It would be a nightmare to get in-there were probably trip wires within the concertina, if not Reapers prowling like guard dogs. "I don't think marching up to the gate is going to work for me here."
"I told you-our people are resourceful. There is a small tunnel, which stretches very far. It opens out on the far side of the old concrete road behind us. A few have used it to escape. We cannot go through it in great numbers, for the air goes bad within. Khiz-Mem says it is very tiring. You have to crawl the whole way. It opens within the base in a livestock barn, at the pigpen sluice."
"Fantastic," Valentine said. He was not sure if Ahn-Kha's knowledge of English extended as far as sarcasm.
"No, my David, this is to your advantage. They use dogs on the base, some running free, at night to find intruders. Pig odor may confuse them."
After the meal and rest, they swung around to the west in a final arc to the exit hole for the escape tunnel.
"Strange how things turn out. We dug this to let our people get out, but we will use it to get in."
"Not we," Valentine said. "I. I don't think we should all go in, especially at night."
Ahn-Kha opened his mouth to argue when the noise of engines caused them all to drop to the ground. Valentine and Ahn-Kha climbed up to the cracked and uneven remains of the old expressway and looked out at the western border of the base.
A column of trucks bumped along a road running alongside the rail line bordering the Cave, turning out from the main gate that Valentine could now see farther to the south. A four-by-four scout car led the column, followed by a genuine armored car on fat tires. Then came truck after smoke-belching truck, twenty-two in all, mostly old two-and-a-half-ton army jobs, restored and painted and towing trailers. A few of these carried machine guns mounted in a ring on the roof above the passenger seat. Double-axle pickup trucks towing cannon followed the army trucks, interspersed with camouflage-painted U-Hauls. In the beds of the pickups, uniformed figures sat facing each other.
Valentine plucked a piece of grass and chewed it as the procession of motorized military might passed by.
"I see some of our people still wish to serve the General," Ahn-Kha observed, as more utility trucks rolled by, their slat-sided beds filled with armed Golden Ones and Gray Ones.
"My species hasn't cornered the market on betrayal," Valentine said. 'There's good and bad everywhere."
"I would have more good," Ahn-Kha said, lifting a mule's worth of gear.
"Someday, old horse," Valentine said, watching dust settle as the column bumped off to the north at a steady ten miles an hour.
The sun was setting, the Twisted Cross Reapers would be in Omaha soon, and he had a tunnel to crawl through.
They went back to the outlet, an old cement drainage pipe by the interstate, broken open by some force of war or nature.
"I believe you should let me come, be another set of eyes, if nothing else," Ahn-Kha insisted.
"Suppose we are crawling through your tunnel as a Reaper passes overhead. He might find it strange that life-sign is passing a few feet under his boots, don't you think?"
Valentine turned over the PPD and his remaining ammunition. "Here's my gun. If I'm not back by tomorrow morning, go to the meeting place at the river I told you about. There should be a human woman there-if not, look for a pile of four of anything: rocks, firewood, whatever. There may be a note in there, and you can act on it as you see fit. Or go back to yo-our people in Omaha."
He unwrapped his old nylon hammock, placed the flamethrower, his sword, and the satchel charge within its webbing, and then wrapped it all up in a blanket. He climbed into the tunnel, pulling the sack behind him.
"See you at sunup," he said, and backed into the hole.
The escape tunnel was a wonder of improvised engineering. Valentine had expected to have to wiggle through it like a mole in a garden tunnel, but forgot about the Grog shoulder span. Wood held it up in some places, corrugated aluminum in others, and beneath the road and rail line Valentine crawled through a real concrete tunnel. The building of this thing must be a fascinating story in itself; he promised himself to hear the whole tale from Khiz-Mem should he come out of this.
It grew pitch-dark as he left the opening behind. Valentine hated the abyss of absolute dark. The dark of the grave, of death. Even his newly sensitive eyes were useless; only the Reapers could hunt here. He imagined steel-like fingers reaching out of the darkness behind him and closing around his neck. He reached into a pocket for a leather tobacco pouch and brought out the diamond-shaped glow bulb that Ryu had given him as a parting gift. He had bound it in a little harness loop of leather, which he now hung around his neck. The comforting yellow glow was like a tiny little piece of the sun with him in the darkness, and he felt his fears shrink back to manageable size. He sniffed the damp air of the tunnel and smelled a faint piggy smell.
Dragging the burden behind him was an exhausting process; he had to stop every ten minutes to rest. He learned to do this under the too-infrequent air tubes the Grogs had poked through to the surface. Rats and field mice had taken up the tunnel as a convenient home; he smelled and heard them all around even if he couldn't see them.
With his back and shoulder muscles screaming, Valentine inched down the tunnel. It was kind of like rowing a boat, except for the absence of boat, fresh air, and water. He would scoot his buttocks a foot down the tube, which seemed to stretch endlessly through miles of midnight, then drag his improvised blanket-sled along behind with a pull at the nonexistent oar.
The piggy smell was his holy grail, his stink-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel. As it intensified to the point where he no longer needed his Wolf's nose, he pulled with renewed energy. When he felt his probing hand come away smeared with filth, he knew he was at the end.
He left the pack where it was. Fighting disgust, he smeared his face and hands with the soiled mud. He would have to remember to carry a can of Duvalier's greasepaint from now on.
Telling yourself you're going to survive this, eh? It's a one-way crawl, and you know it.
The tunnel bowed into an upward slope. Above, he saw a length of ten-inch pipe with a funnel at the end-running vertically through the tunnel. He put away his comforting light cube and let his eyes adjust. Hints of light could be seen around the edge of the funnel. He listened with hard ears, but heard only faint animal noises from above.
Valentine moved the funnel. The wide part covered a hole chipped in a concrete basin, just below dirty grating apparently set on the floor above. The smelly sluice pipe and funnel came out of the ground easily enough. He climbed up through the hole in the bottom of the space just below the grate.
He paused to listen again and then lifted the grate. He peered into the cement-floored pigpen of the barn. In one warm corner, a heap of porkers lay grunting in a pile. Across a low partition he could see another pigpen and its cluster of sleeping livestock.
He climbed out of the grating hole. One of the pigs woke up and gave him the once-over, but flopped back on its side when it saw he bore no slop pail. Valentine reconnoitered the lowest level of the unlit barn. It sounded and smelled as if cows were above on the main floor. The pigs shared the basement with a tractor and a horse-trailer on blocks, now filled with chickens.
He dropped back into the tunnel and began to transfer his equipment. He sensed a Reaper roaming somewhere as an unsettling tickle at the edges of his mind.
He lifted his arsenal out of the tunnel. The pigs took one look at the flamethrower and decided it looked like some kind new trough-filling device and began to gather around and oink in excitement. Valentine escaped to the garage area, listening for sounds of investigation.
He hid the satchel charge and flamethrower behind the tractor and climbed up a series of ladders to the hayloft. The smell of alfalfa and hay brought back a rush of memories of Molly and their first tryst. Keeping to the shadows, he surveyed the land as best he could.
The barn stood behind the apartments of the officers' residences. In the distance he could see a concrete tower at the restored airfield. As far as he knew, the Twisted Cross air force consisted of a single two-seat scout plane, but perhaps the General had plans to increase his fleet in the future. A bunker-flanked hummock of ground marked the entrance to what Khiz-Mem called the Cave, the nuclear-blast-hardened headquarters of the Twisted Cross.
The biggest aboveground structure on the post was the massive Train Hangar. Valentine could see the front of the building from the three-story-high loft of the barn. Built on the concrete foundations of a hardened airplane hangar, a network of rail lines ran parallel across the wide area in front of it before turning toward the main gate. It reminded Valentine of pictures he had seen of the German submarine pens in the Second World War. According to Khiz-Mem, they were in the process of adding enormous steel doors running down tracks in the concrete columns that held up the reinforced roof. Valentine could see sparks thrown by welders even now, in the dead of night, as work proceeded on the multiacre structure. They lit lines of boxcars inside, and Valentine could make out a few laboring figures within the machine shops and workbenches inside.
Somewhere deep within the Cave, a natural-gas power plant supplied electricity for the entire base, including for the electrified perimeter fence he knew to be in the works. He moved to the north end of the barn and watched the guards at the main gate. He wondered if the tracks were wired with explosives-if so, it might be feasible to assault the camp by running a train through the gate. More barracks stood behind the low ring of hills that sheltered the base from prying eyes, and two more looked like they were under construction. Valentine did not know if the hills were natural, man-made, or the remnants of crater rims caused by nuclear explosions in '22.
A Reaper lurked somewhere, near the entrance to the main gate. He sensed another near the Cave and possibly two near the hangar, though those last were at the edge of his range.
Valentine forced himself to rest in the hayloft for fifteen minutes. He was exhausted from the hike and the cramped crawl through the tunnel, and he needed to think now that he'd seen the hangar. He had a lot still to do this night.
The rational part of him wanted to get back to Southern Command with what he had learned. Certainly the Twisted Cross needed to be taken very seriously. Left untouched, the General would eventually have enough Reaper-human pairs to consume the Free Territory. Teams of Twisted Cross could destroy the border posts and principal bases as easily as they'd destroyed the Denverites at Fort Rowling. He knew Southern Command had some kind of emergency plan to fall back into the more rugged mountains, but how long could you feed hundreds of thousands of civilians in the hills?
The Twisted Cross had weaknesses hidden behind their black-and-white flag of terror. This General, whoever he was, seemed still to be in the process of recruiting and building his army, testing it against easy targets as he trained more men. If Southern Command could be convinced, he would guide as many Bear teams as they could afford to send up here, and this General's all-conquering army might be stillborn in the act of creation.
Valentine's mind kept returning to the Golden Ones, betrayed twice by Kur, and now in full revolt. Perhaps there were other Grogs elsewhere, equally mistreated and exploited, who would follow in their footsteps if just shown the way. Given time and training, the Cats could-
But the Golden Ones didn't have time. The attack was already being prepared, and Valentine knew that the Twisted Cross Reapers would hit the ghetto in the darkness. They'd go in to kill, not occupy, and leave daylight mopping up of any remaining strongpoints to the support troops. The threat to Southern Command might be years away-the Golden Ones woud die tonight.
If Valentine could use the demolition charge judiciously, the General might lose a few more of his precious Reapers.
Just the act of debating his course was an admission of surrender, in a way. If it was the fate of the Golden Ones against duty, duty would lose.
A few minutes after midnight, Valentine lurked outside the Train Hangar. He had found a blue jumpsuit hung up in the barn, and put it on along with a pair of muddy rubber galoshes. He piled the sword, flamethrower, and satchel charge in a wheelbarrow, threw the blanket over them, and headed for the gate to the officer's compound. He wheeled it slowly and tiredly toward the gate, and the sentry stepped out of the shadows and into the light, shotgun under his arm and collar turned up against the cool air.
"Sorry, that took way longer than I thought," he called to the sentry. "It turned out she had twin calves, and I just couldn't get the second out. I ended up having to pull it round by getting a piece of twine and drawing its head around," Valentine said, firing off the sum total of his calving knowledge in a single verbal broadside. But it got him ten feet farther toward the guard.
"Hold it, now-now!"
Valentine's arms were a blur, and his sword flashed. The guard fell over with a stunned look on his face, perhaps not believing that a human being could move that fast. Valentine put on the guard's jacket and hat and tossed the shotgun in the wheelbarrow.
He left his weaponry in a shallow depression in the middle of a field near the mountainous building, covered it with the blanket, and began scouting the Train Hangar. He found a four-wheeled pushcart, piled it with a few items of scrap metal, and began to push it around the pavement, looking busy. He counted twenty-eight boxcars in three rows in the Train Hangar, with guards and dogs protecting the cargo within. None of the workers approached the guards any nearer than they absolutely had to. Valentine looked in the open side door of one and discovered that the ordinary-looking boxcars contained more of the metal coffins, perhaps each with a Twisted Cross soldier floating inside and animating one of their Reapers.
Valentine let his hard ears roam, listened to the workers in the Train Hanger. The laborers were wondering what happened to the Golden One labor that usually was here to help them. Earlier that day, guards had come through and collected the Golden Ones. They had been placed in a special compound. Some thought they were being searched for weapons; others believed they had been taken as hostages to ensure the reliability of the General's puppet on the throne back in Omaha. There were rumors of a fight in the city. Then orders had come through to strip the base of anyone who could be trusted to use a rifle properly.
"The General's really lost it," one commented after Valentine had wandered away and he checked over his shoulder. Valentine's Wolf ears still picked up every disgruntled word. "First he tries to bite off more than he can chew out west and loses a big chunk of his best teams, and now it sounds like there's a trouble in Omaha. Instead of letting it cool down, he always demands scorched earth. He can't win a war because he refuses to ever lose a battle. He always talks about how patient he is, but-"
"Watch it, you. I don't want to be put on a list because I was talkin' treason."
"It's not treason to say there should be more carrot and less stick. I signed on to this for the carrot, a big stretch of land to call my own and a brass ring like my old man has. It's been four years of step and fetch, and still no ring, no land."
"I'd be happy if they just got the hair-backs working again. I'm breaking my back here."
A concrete control tower stood within in the center of the hangar. It sat on a base that Valentine saw housed a spiral staircase, going down as well as up. The tower widened out to a bowl above, and four Twisted Cross soldiers stood atop it. Machine gun muzzles projected out over the edge of the bowl. Valentine pushed his cart past bunkers standing outside the hangar at the corners. The strongpoints didn't worry him. Their firing slits were designed to cover the approaches to the yard, not the interior. He looked across the cavernous interior, trying to figure out where the satchel charge might do the most good and how to deploy it.
He brought his cart outside again, ostensibly heading for the junk pile. When he returned, the weapons were still hidden in plain sight in the wheelbarrow. He put them on his scrap cart and pulled it toward the center of the Train Hangar.
As he approached the whitewashed guard tower, a sentry challenged him.
"Just a sec, buddy-where do you think you're going with that shit? Nothing's allowed to be stored by the cars, even temporarily."
Valentine kept pulling the cart, and pointed across the yard to a line of workbenches against the far wall. He bumped over the last set of tracks, deeply recessed into the floor of the Train Hangar next to the tower, and an eight-foot-long metal rod rolled off his cart, helped by the tiniest nudge of his leg.
The guard stepped around in front of him. "You want to get over there, dumbass, you go around. Just because the lieutenant ain't here doesn't mean I can't take your number."
Valentine picked up the steel rod and moved to put it back on the cart. Suddenly he uncoiled his body, swinging it up and catching the guard under his armpit. Ribs and shoulder bones cracked. The guard's rifle flew away, batted by the steel rod as its owner tumbled to the ground.
A whistle blew from somewhere near the boxcars. Valentine pulled the cart to the door at the base of the tower and shouldered the flamethrower first, its nozzle clipped to the tanks. He put the satchel charge over the other arm and went up the spiral stairs with the shotgun in one hand and his sword in the other, the dangling nozzle of the flamethrower clanging on the metal.
A Twisted Cross guard was on the stairs above. Valentine could hear his rapid-fire breathing as if the man were panting in his ear. He put down the sword and heavy weapons.
He bent and jumped up five full steps, turning in the air as he went. He fired the shotgun in the man's face, sending flesh and bone flying.
Nearly at the top, he could see the ceiling above. Valentine pulled the pin on one of the concussion grenades, counted two quick heartbeats, and tossed it up into the balcony.
"Grenade," someone yelled, too late to do any good. Valentine was already running back down the stairs to his other weapons when the explosion hit.
Even with concrete and two loops of the metal staircase to protect him, Valentine still felt the blast of the grenade. Everything seemed to slow down, and he felt closed off from the world, as though swimming underwater. Off balance, he lifted his gear and climbed up the stairs, bracing himself like a drunk.
The men in the tower had either jumped or been blown out of the fifteen-foot-diameter circle. Two machine guns still rested in their mounts, and a pair of shoes lay incongruously on the floor.
A flutter in the air, like bird wings beating against a window--the Reaper almost had him when it jumped into the tower. But this was no Kurian-operated killing machine, owner and avatar seasoned by long years of psychic symbiosis. The man in the unknown tank pulling the wires of his puppet was an apprentice, not a Master, and the Reaper tumbled as it landed.
Valentine had time to take up his sword as it rose. Before it could point its gun, he slashed downward, catching it at the knee. He jumped out of the way of the rising gun barrel, and the bullets tore through the empty air where he had stood an instant before. Now the Reaper was seriously off balance, and another whirlwind stroke by the Cat caught it across the neck. The head wasn't severed, but the central spinal cord was; the Reaper dropped to the ground, helpless. Its black teeth bit impotently at its own extruded syringe-tongue.
Valentine ignored it, unhooking one of the strap-ends of the demolition charge. He flipped open the satchel charge and pulled both starter fuses from the top. The heavy bag began to hiss and smoke. Valentine spun like an Olympic hammer-thrower with the single strap held in his hands and sent the bricks of plastic explosive arcing off toward the lined-up boxcars.
They may have been easier to guard packed together like that, but they made an unmissable target for Valentine's explosives. He heard the thunk of the charge bouncing off a wooden boxcar's roof, and he dropped behind the yard-thick concrete wall of the guard tower. The part of his mind that always drifted around himself in a fight wondered for a moment why the General would use wood for his boxcars, and the answer came as he opened his bag of grenades. Metal would be too hot in the sun-it could cook the men in the tanks inside. But wood had disadvantages, as well.
He picked up one of the white-phosphorous grenades and covered his ears and nostrils against what was coming.
The thick walls of the hangar magnified the tower-shaking boom from the explosives. With debris still in the air, Valentine pulled the pin and released the safety handle on the grenade. He pitched the hissing grenade into the destruction in the center of the boxcars. Shots from the hangar's few guards whipped through the air around him, and he dropped back down before they could improve their aim. As he continued to throw as fast as he could pull pins, he saw the first grenades explode. The phosphorous bombs scattered burning white particles into the splintered wood all around it. Fires devoured paint and wood in half a dozen places.
He heard the sound of footsteps at the bottom of the spiral staircase and sent his last grenade bouncing down the metal stairs. It went off somewhere below, eliciting cries that brought a savage satisfaction.
He turned on the pilot light of the flamethrower and came up over the edge of the parapet with the nozzle pointed at the boxcars.
Valentine loosed a long stream of fiery rain on the sentries aiming their guns at him among the line of boxcars nearest the tower, painting the roofs with orange and yellow flame. The jellied gasoline roared as it consumed paint and wood, splattering and running down the sides and filling the Train Hangar with black smoke. Fire, the most ancient of terror weapons, was as effective on the Twisted Cross as on the Golden Ones. The boiling flames silenced the shots from the men around the cars.
The Twisted Cross guards ran for their lives, some dropping their weapons as they escaped flame and smoke.
Looking down from his concrete nest, Valentine exulted at the havoc wreaked below. No wonder Ali enjoyed lighting fires; the results were spectacular. The flamethrower ceased its napalm ejaculation, empty of everything but harmless compressed air. Valentine dropped it and moved to one of the machine guns. With precise movements, he opened the ammunition box mounted on the side of the gun and slapped home the belt in the receiver. Teem gritted and a snarl on his face, he pulled back the bolt and fired a burst at a group of guards running toward the boxcars. The gun chattered, steady as a rock in its mount, with less recoil than he would feel tapping a pool ball with the cue. Crouching, he concentrated on keeping anyone from fighting the fires now vigorously burning among the boxcars. He could feel the roaring heat almost painfully on his skin from thirty feet away. Nothing mattered but keeping those boxcars alight and the fire growing.
Two thin, nude figures staggered out from the cars on shaky legs, arms waving in front of them. He cut them down with the .50 and fired a burst into the cabin of a train engine being backed into the hangar to tow out some of the cars. Peppered by bullets strong enough to pierce the thin metal walls of their locomotive, the engineers jumped out of the engine and ran. Another nude Twisted Cross operator crawled from the wreckage, burned on his hands and feet. Valentine fired until the pale form ceased twitching.
Valentine heard orders shouted beneath the tower. He looked over the side and saw automatic rifles pointed up at him. He pulled back his head-not fast enough. A bullet grazed hot across his skin and he registered a hard tap, as if a doctor had taken his reflex hammer to the ridge of bone just below his eye, and then a second later the pain hit.
My God, I'm shot.
Not quite believing yet, he put a hand to his face, tracing the heat and feeling open skin with his fingertip. The bullet had torn a furrow up his face from his chin to the corner of his eye.
The burn that lasted a few seconds was just practice for what came next as his nerves revved up.
It was like a white-hot poker being held to his face. He felt himself scream, but there was just a ringing in his ears, lightning in his eyes as he viewed the world through a glittering curtain of diamonds. Somewhere outside the fog of pain and disorientation, he heard steps on the stairs. Concentrating like a drunk trying to get his house key into a lock, he picked up the shotgun, went to the stairs, and fired blindly down the spiral staircase. Blood poured out of his face. Dripped onto the storm-cloud-colored concrete and the metal stairs going down. Fell across his chest, warm rain. An apple dropped from the sky and into his concrete tree house. No, not an apple, a grenade.
There was nothing to do but jump. He launched himself out of the tower, spinning and pivoting -wow! just like a cat-to land hard on the surface below and run toward the darkness outside the hangar. Running had never been so easy; he hardly felt his feet touch the ground.
Though there was no one around, someone managed to kick him in his left leg as he ran. No matter, the foot on that side wasn't working that well anyway. He could hop into the darkness. But the darkness could not wait-it came rushing at him, greeting him in its comforting embrace like a long-lost love.
"It'll be all right, Molly," he said, lost in a strange new tunnel he had somehow floated into, an ever-lengthening passage of closing mists. "If you can't walk, I'll carry you."
He found the strength to turn his head, the darkness having decided to put him gently on the ground. He could see campfires in the distance. The fires burned brightly, melding into a single fire like the sun coming up. The fire was what counted. The fire was all that mattered. Too bad he was too tired to remember why.
David Valentine's body fought a hard war against waking up. Every time consciousness charged up the hill, his exhausted, pained, exsanguinated body held the line and at the last moment sent consciousness tumbling back into the darkness of oblivion. It tried to return when he was picked up and carried from where he fell, and tried again when he was placed on a table. A bright light in his face and surgical tape over his cheek brought other battles. Later, on a hospital bed, consciousness launched a series of sneak attacks. He had vague dreams of speaking to Captain Le Havre, then to his father.
Death never arrived to relieve his body from its war against the pain, so Valentine eventually awoke. He was disoriented; for some reason he wanted more than anything to know how long it had been since he'd been taken.
As he spun back to the awful real world, he reached up, but some kind of restraint frustrated his first instinct to touch his face. In fact, he couldn't even turn his body. The whole left side of his face throbbed in pain, and he felt a tired empty nausea. There was cold dampness between his legs, as well as a warm, sticky, solid presence in his undergarments. His left leg was missing its pantleg, though the rest of his clothes were still on. The pain was too much to deal with, so he sank back into a groggy sleep.
He did not sleep deeply enough. A woman eventually cut away the rest of his clothes and cleaned him up, a surprisingly agonizing process, though she handled him as gently as if he were a baby. When they changed the dressing on his face, under the care of a man not nearly so gentle, it hurt like the bullet cutting through his flesh a second time, and he passed out again, unfortunately for only a minute. He came round while they were applying more searing iodine and another dressing.
The hours ticked by, and he tried playing games with the pain, offering the pain thirty minutes of agony for just five minutes of relief, but pain would not agree to his terms.
He dropped into a fitful doze and came out of it a little further at a shake of his shoulder.
"Would you like some water?" a man in a lab coat asked.
"Yes, please," he croaked. There were more sensations now. The pain, always the pain, but he could also taste the air, and something about it told him he was underground.
The man brought the cup lower, and Valentine sucked cool water down through a surgical tubing straw.
"He can talk, that's good enough. Bring him."
Through the mists, he felt himself being lifted, carried down a hall to another room. They sat him up in a tube-steel chair with a hard wooden seat, the kind of chair that's been sitting in a neat row with five others just like it in some assistant principal's office since the school was built. They handcuffed his hands behind his back, which amused him. He was too weak to crawl, let alone fight. When they moved his leg to handcuff his ankle to one of the chair legs, the pain became so bad that warm urine flooded his pants. It felt like he was pissing nitric acid.
"Aw, Christ," one of the guards said, seeing the seat get wet and smelling the urine. "He pissed himself."
Valentine's head lolled, and he looked at the pale green tiles on the floor. He tried to remember if he had ever seen such small tiles, so evenly laid out, when he again slipped into unconsciousness.
Later he had to wait. It felt like days, but perhaps it was only hours. His consciousness strengthened, and the haze began to fade. He realized that he desperately wanted to live, even if it was only for a few more hours. He wondered if they were just going to shoot him or if they had a more elaborate end in store.
They gave him more water. He was able to drink it, though it hurt his face to do so. The room was uninteresting, not even a desk or another chair decorated it. The little green tiles went from the floor about one third of the way up the wall. From there on up, it was unrelieved and undecorated concrete, marked only by a swirl or two of the mason's smoother. He smelled chalk somewhere and tried to remember if there was a chalkboard in the room from when he was brought in. The lone door to the room was also behind it, and he heard people passing in the hall at intervals.
When he heard a set of heavy steps in the hall, something inside him told him This is it. He tried to steel his mind, even if his body felt like worn-out rubber. But his mind was a slave to his body; intellect prostrated itself before the pain and fatigue just when he needed his wits most.
The door opened, and he was able to turn his head enough despite the pain in his cheek to see two tall Grogs enter. They were Golden Ones, dressed in black leather robes cut like a double-breasted trench coat of the Old World and shiny as a beetle's back. One stood to his right, the other to his left. Their fawn-colored hair was shorn down to stubble.
A dried-up husk of a man walked around in front of him. His skin had the waxy look of a cancer patient in the last stages of the disease; his lips chapped. Vigorous dark hair grew out from a widow's peak on his forehead and was brushed straight back across his head. His eyes could have been pale blue or pale green, depending on the opinion of the person looking into them. He wore a simple rust-colored uniform, and a Sam Browne belt very similar to Valentine's own. Red tabs with golden reverse-swastikas marked his collar. He wore no tunic, sidearm, or decorations.
"One of the best things about living so long," he said, in a vaguely European accent that Valentine was not experienced enough to place, "is that you get to see all the mistakes historians make, talking about something they don't really know.
"For example, the only history widely read since 2022 is that wretched pamphlet called Fallen Gods by that would-be Margaret Bourke-White named Kostos. She says the first of the new doors to Kur were opened in Haiti in the eighteenth century. She only missed by about a thousand years. How do I know? I was there. My eyes have looked on Charlemagne, young man. Kur had a door open in the Dark Ages, but they were not dark times for me-oh, no. During the Inquisition, we managed to get another open in Spain."
The General walked around behind Valentine and wheeled a cart into view. On it was his sword, his fighting claws, his little glow bulb, and a few other personal effects.
"So you joined long ago?" Valentine asked. "What did they offer for betraying a whole world?"
"What no price, no wisdom can buy. Time."
"So you feed."
"Yes. Long, long ago, I was given a gift, a revelation of biblical proportions, you might say. For my service, the scientists taught me how to achieve immortality."
"An immortality others pay the price for," Valentine said tightly.
"Don't cows, hogs, chickens pay the price for your life?"
"Not the same thing."
"That's where you and so many others are wrong. Cows and so on are eaten because they are tasty, certainly, but more important, because they aren't developed enough to keep themselves from being eaten. Mankind took a great leap forward when it learned to keep livestock, putting it ahead of all other creatures on the earth with a few bizarre exceptions like those honeypot ants that keep aphids. We were once no better than the cows, but we developed and the cows didn't. The cows pay the price, and we are better for it."
"Why are we talking about this?" Valentine asked.
"When you get to be my age, when you've seen people come and go over not just generations or centuries, but millennia, you become a good judge of men. In my days as a monk, before my awakening, I didn't think much of the human herd. No spark, no imagination, and misunderstanding even the simple concepts we tried to teach.
"As I've aged, I've found it harder and harder to suffer fools. Most people aren't much better than cattle. They've just inherited more complex stimulus-response routines. When you see men making the same mistakes, over and over and over again, you lose empathy and acknowledge only utility. That's what I tried to tell Kant when I lived in Prussia."
Valentine could hear someone outside the door asking for a message to be delivered to the General, and his aide accepting it.
"I think," the General said, "you are above the herd, a valuable piece of human capital. You, too, have been given gifts by the Lifeweavers. You have a talent I need badly. I'd like to have you on my side, rather than dead and in some Grog's stomach. If you found a tarnished bar of gold in the road, would you shine it up, or would you grind it up and toss it to the winds? I'm in a position to offer you what amounts to eternal life. A chance to grow your talent instead of wasting it."
"How can you have an opinion of me if you don't know me?" Valentine asked.
"When someone gets the better of me, I'd want to learn how they did it. I've done a little research, asked a few questions. A skilled man asked you some questions while you recovered. You were at the Eagle's Wings Brand out on those forsaken grassy dunes. Before that you were a promising officer, until you were sacrificed by an ambitious superior trying to keep his record clean. Yes, I have sources right in Southern Command. There are people you work for who want to live forever."
"You know me, then. Who are you?"
"Someone like you. A reader. A leader. More of a realist, but you are young, and idealism is the asylum of the young."
"I'm sorry you escaped the asylum."
The General ignored him. "I was, before my personal Enlightenment, a monk of the Dark Ages, one of those depressing, chanting celibates who claimed to be keeping culture alive after the fall of Western Rome, but were in fact dreaming up new ways to take advantage of the gullible. I was something of a historian, and I found hovering on the edges of certain ancient tracts pieces of a larger story. I convinced my superiors to let me go on a pilgrimage to the
Holy Land and beyond. I ended up going far beyond anything my order expected of me. I found the ruins of the Kurian City of Brass in Central Asia and met a smooth-skinned Chinaman who claimed to be two thousand years old. Thus began my education into the Arts of Kur. Later they sought us out. But the Chinaman-old Zhao-he was my savior, in a way.
"When I got my first infusion of vital aura, I was old and sick. It-you have to experience it, I can't put it in words. Where there had been weakness there was new strength. I'd forgotten what the flush of youth was; it's the finest feeling in the world. The opportunities it opened ... I could live my life all over again. I lived dozens of lives all over again. The Golden Horde knew me. I saw the Turks come and fade, I rode with Cossacks as the Grand Armee retreated from Moscow. I invested and let time work for me over generations.
"My wealth bought power and influence, which I put to the bidding of Kur. I owned prime ministers and generals, diplomats and writers. Have you ever heard of major league baseball? Owners of teams used to buy, sell, and trade their players in an effort to get a team that would win the pennant. I was doing the same on a global scale, slowly and patiently. That is the great advantage of the Kurian scientists' immortality, Valentine. It gives you the luxury of patience."
Valentine looked at the dried-up old General. If anyone ever looked old and sick, except for his lush band of hair, it was the former monk.
"Where did you get the Twisted Cross?"
The General touched the reversed swastika on his collar tab. "This is an old symbol, a token of special status of those who are counted as a friend of Kur. You can find it on artifacts from prehistory almost the whole world over. I chose it to symbolize a reawakening of the old open alliance between Earth and Kur, men and their old gods. Men with the vision not just to accommodate the New Order, but to shape it for their own purposes, as well."
"So you're on a longer leash than most. It's still a leash." His croaking voice took some of the spite out of the words.
"Kur needs me, desperately, to do their fighting for them. They are too busy running their dominions, feuding and scheming amongst themselves. Now that they have won so much, they no longer want to risk their precious Reapers fighting with the pockets that are left. You've been troublesome in your obstinacy, unwilling to admit the war is over-like starving Japanese soldiers in an island bunker."
Valentine felt very tired, and began to wonder if he would remain conscious for the rest of the interview, or interrogation, or inquisition.
"General, I'm the one in handcuffs here. What's next for me?"
"You have a choice, a choice that you deserve, given your abilities and manifest intelligence, albeit talents wasted in the unrewarding service of the ungrateful. I am not just speaking of the pathetic Lifeweavers, either, I am referring to your so-called brethren who stay at home while you risk your life to protect their chicken-hearted existence.
"I will not insult you by asking you to join me. You need not say yes. All you have to do is ask for another week's life. And then another. And then another. I will show you visions, introduce you to possibilities that will fire your imagination, your belly, your loins. Someday you may be given touchstones and have knowledge at your disposal that Aristotle couldn't have dreamed of. The rewards are literally endless. What shall it be, son? The pistol-or another week's life?"
What'll it be, Cat? Die defending "the herd"? Or feed off it?
Valentine, hurt and tired, found an answer in his pain. Faces flashed through his memory. He saw Molly, the Carlsons, Sutton the generous pig farmer. Linda, who'd been Mrs. Poulos for a few hours, and the squalling baby from the Rigyard. Donna and her armoire-building son. The young Grogs gamboling with human children around the well of Steiner's little enclave. Ahn-Kha and the Golden Ones. Jocelyn Hendricks. Who would be sacrificed for whom?
His voice was strong this time. "Shoot me, Judas."
"A pointless end to the tale of the Valentines. You'll find your Golgotha lonely."
"How lonely is your bunker, General?"
The General struck the smirk from Valentine's face. Blood began to run out from under his bandage.
"You had defeated me in battle-well, defeated the men I trusted to fight my battles, which may mean the same thing. But that is a question for the philosophers. But what is a delay to me? Do you think you have really harmed me?" he asked, his eyes beginning to light up with angry fire. "Do you? Your pathetic little gesture was spittle in a hurricane. I can afford to think in terms of thousands of years. That is why this base is being built, not for one campaign in Nebraska, but for control of a continent. It takes years to select, grow, and train a fighting pair; I began this project before you were born and have seen it through setbacks worse than the fire you started.
"The science of Kur and my leadership has proved that this system works. Men can control Reapers, Reapers who fight like soldiers, without the weaknesses and desires of the Kurian from which they sprang. First principles, my son. I proved that I can do it with one, and if I can make one, I can make a thousand, and if I can make a thousand--"
The door opened again, and another shorn Golden One in the leather uniform of the bodyguard entered, almost dragging the protesting aide. The arrival said something to the other two in their own tongue. "I'm sorry, sir," the aide apologized. "There seems to be a disturbance outside in the Grog pen. We should go to the emergency shelter at once."
Valentine looked at the panting messenger, and his heart leapt.
The former monk let out a tired breath and nodded.
Valentine tried to stand, drawing the General's eye. "That may be true, sir, from a logical point of view. But I think someone is going to have to pick up where you left off. It appears you've fucked with the wrong species."
"Wha-awk," the General managed to get out, before
Ahn-Kha wrapped his viselike fingers around his throat. The angry titan picked up the General, swung him at the shocked aide.
Valentine's chair fell over in the struggle, but he still could see the unique sight of a man being beaten to death with another man used as the murder weapon. With six blows, Ahn-Kha reduced both the General and his aide to bloody pulp. The General proved to be a poor choice of club; he began to fall apart after the third swing.
The bodyguard Grogs shrank away from the twitching corpses, as though the General might rise again in demonic fury. But it was just reflex of muscle and broken bone making wet sounds against the floor. The bodyguards exchanged a few tremulous words with Ahn-Kha and then embraced him.
The Golden One breathed hard after his exertion. "You do not look yourself, my David. Let me help you."
The bearlike face hovered over his. As the world slipped, Valentine tried to stay conscious.
Back. Feel the pain. Smell the blood. Hear the-gunfire. There's gunfire?
"What did you say to the bodyguards?" Valentine asked weakly. A few shots sounded from the hall.
" 'If you do nothing, all is forgiven.' It is a little more poetic in my tongue. I hope this does not hurt you further." The Grog's arc of muscle at his arms and shoulders tensed, and the handcuffs snapped in two.
The door opened, and Alessa Duvalier stood silhouetted in the frame, encased in Twisted Cross assault armor. The gear made her look a little absurd, like a turtle in too big a shell. She held a rifle to her shoulder, covering the hallway, and her naked, blood-smeared sword stuck blade-up in her waistband. A sweat-soaked headband kept flame-colored hair out of wild and hungry eyes.
"No time for kiss and tell, boys. Heat's on."
Valentine wondered if he were in some wild dream brought on by loss of blood. "Ali?" he said, "What are you doing here?"
She reversed the magazine in her gun, quickly substituting the full one for the empty one taped to it. "I'm milking a male ostrich! What does it look like, Val? I'm taking point for your pointy-eared friend."
Ahn-Kha scooped Valentine up in his arms and followed the female Cat out the door and down the hall. At an intersection ahead, Valentine saw another Golden One with a machine gun at his hip, spraying the corridor with fire. They turned at the corner opposite to where the Grog was firing, and Valentine got a brief glimpse of a corridor littered with bodies. Valentine felt himself being carried up some stairs, thinking that perhaps it wasn't so bad to be partnered with a mentally disordered woman-sometimes. Then he passed out.
"The hardest part was figuring out where you were," Duvalier explained the next day.
Valentine lay in his hammock in some thick woods on the Missouri River well south of the Twisted Cross base. Ahn-Kha was sleeping soundly, Valentine's PPD cradled in his arms. Valentine sipped some willow-leaf tea to ease the pain. According to Duvalier, he had the blackest black eye she had ever seen.
"I caused a little trouble with the column that hit the Eagle's Wings, but I mostly wanted to learn where their base was. It was just a matter of getting into camp and keeping my ears open. The stunts you pull are the type of thing only Bears are stupid enough to try-I'd just as soon stay out of the way of bullets, thank you very much. Not that I don't admire your balls."
She kissed the bandage over the left side of his cheek.
"Maybe I can introduce you to the twins and their big brother when I can walk again," he suggested.
"Dream on, Valentine. So I go to the rendezvous and wait, and naturally you don't show. So I leave a note and come hunting around the south end of Omaha. I pretty much mapped out the base, got an idea of the numbers the Twisted Cross had, and found out that oversize perimeter wasn't too well guarded. The General was planning for the future, I suppose. But his present couldn't do the job.
"So one day I'm checking out the west side of the wall, and I see this ugly ape trying to move through the brush, real sneaky-like but making more noise than a bulldozer in a bottle factory. I'm about to do him in from ambush, when I see this ugly, drum-fed gun in his hands. It's just too much of a coincidence for there to be two of those in Nebraska, so I stick my blade to his throat and start asking questions."
Ahn-Kha opened an eye and snorted. But he didn't disagree.
"It turns out you've disappeared into the camp, they heard an explosion from a mile off, but then you were MIA the next day. He sent his buddy off for reinforcements and had just about decided to try to bust down the main gate to go looking for you when I showed up.
"That night I went into the Cave and acted like a Cat- instead of a one-man army, please make a note of that Valentine-just looking and listening and hearing what was being talked about. It turned out that you were in the basement medical center below this Train Hangar. I saw the General return from Omaha, with what was left of his force after his Reapers mysteriously started dropping in the middle of the assault on the Grogs. He said something about wanting to meet the man they captured, and I knew you were still alive. I also found out you were going to be interrogated the next day.
"I got back to your big friend here, and he has a hundred armed-to-the-ears Grogs, wanting Twisted Cross blood. And you. And then more blood."
Ahn-Kha carried on the story. "The Big Man came to our aid after all. He hid a few pistols and grenades in the food going to the Golden Ones the General had hostage on the base. It was not much. But it got them out of their pen.
"I told them to start tearing the place down. After that, it was just a matter of sneaking in with your uncle over there and waiting for our chance to get you and the General both."
"What happened at the base?"
"They still had a lot of firepower. There were losses. It was really two rescue missions, a little one for you and a big one for the Grogs still on the base. I don't think we'll have to worry about the Twisted Cross for a while. They don't have many of those Reapers left. Maybe they can put the operation back together, but it'll take some time. Their underground is intact. We couldn't even get near that Cave of theirs. We'll need to get Bear teams up here to blow that."
Ahn-Kha yawned, showing off his tusklike teeth. "Ha! Not if the Golden Ones had anything to do with it. Whatever we built, we know how to destroy. Even now we use the great construction machines to build a cairn for our dead. On top of the Twisted Cross bunker, of course."
"Old horse," Valentine said, "I think the balance of gratitude has shifted back in your favor. Now I am in your debt."
The Grog's eyes were closed in his dozing, so Ahn-Kha settled for the human gesture of shaking his head. "I told you there could be no talk of debts between brothers, my David. I always wanted to see the wider world."
"We could learn from you, too. That heartroot could be grown on every farm in the Ozarks. Wherever people are, there's moisture and, uh, fertilizer. The idea might take some getting used to, though."
"I have pieces of spore-pod in my pack. No Golden One travels without it. This I can do."
"What about it, Ali, shall we go home?"
"You need to rest a little. Why do you always have to rush things?"
Valentine smiled. "Because life is short. Thank God."
She furrowed her eyebrows at him and went back to re-bandaging his leg.
He felt sleep coming on him again, and he looked over at Ahn-Kha. He wondered what would have happened if the Cat and the Grog had not shown up. His conscience pained him more than his face. Did they rescue him from a quick death-or endless life? He remembered the knot in his stomach, fearing his life had run its course. His words had been brave enough, but they were just words, stiffened by pain. When he felt the cold barrel of the pistol at the back of his head, what would have been his choice? A question for the philosophers, as the General said.
Eight weeks later, in the rich colors of autumn in the Ozarks, Valentine limped right into an ambush. Of course, since he saw the men watching and waiting, it could hardly be called an ambush, but the young Wolves were clearly proud of their work, hallooing to each other once they had the trio dead-bang. He, Ahn-Kha, and Duvalier put up their hands.
"Where the hell do you think you're going, Grog-licker?" the leader of the close fire-team asked, squinting at them from under woolly eyebrows and a notched felt hat. Valentine would have handled the ambush differently were he in charge, letting the far fire-team make contact and keeping the close team hidden to provide a nasty surprise in case things got hostile.
"My code name is Smoke," Duvalier said, stepping forward. "This is my partner, Ghost. Verification November: five-oh-three. Take us to the nearest post-we're coming in with a priority report for Southern Command."
The sergeant in charge of the patrol pushed his coonskin cap back on his head. "That so? Well, Cats or no, we'll have to put you under guard. Unload your weapons and sling them, and we'll oblige right quick. What's that with you, a prisoner? Don't think I've ever seen a Grog like that before. Where'd you capture long-legs?"
"That's not a prisoner," Valentine corrected, leaning on his walking stick. "He's my brother."
"Hell's bells," one of the Wolves in the background said to his comrade out of the corner of his mouth, "what was his old man thinking? I've heard of a guy being desperate, but there are some things that just ain't right."
The Wolves, pointing their weapons away from the three, gathered around their charges, positioned to guard as well as to guide.
The Hunters turned and headed home.