Home > Fall with Honor (Vampire Earth #7)

Fall with Honor (Vampire Earth #7)
Author: E.E. Knight

Chapter One

Forward Operating Base Rally, Missouri, September, the fifty fourth year of the Kurian Order: the Show Me state has a flat bootheel stomping a corner of northeast Arkansas.

Those who pass through the region remember only a flatish stretch of Midwestern farm country running along the river, pierced by bayous and bisected by interstate. There's little to distinguish it on the surface. But be-neath the good topsoil the bootheel fascinates on a geologic scale. It is home of the New Madrid fault line that gave way in the chaos of 2022, causing the Mississippi to run backward as far north as St. Louis.

The destruction that resulted from the earth writhing like a heavy sea made the region ill-omened. Everyone who could move did, to the better-preserved areas of Missouri at first, and then south or farther west once the Grogs showed up.

Then came Southern Command.

The few Kurian Lords organizing the area fell rather easily, surprised by the strength and tenacity of the guerrillas. With the Kurians gone, the area became another fought-over piece of no-mans-land between the Mississippi and the Ozark Free Territory, not as well patrolled as the Tennessee-Little Rock corridor or as danger-filled as the bushwhack country in southern Missouri. A powerful smuggler named Shrivastava set up shop around an old fireworks warehouse, running whatever he could between the Kurian Zone, Grogs, and Free Territory. He's long since retired to the older family holdings on a remote piece of Carolina coastline, but a nephew still runs the business, now under the probing noses of Southern Command forces directed by the new United Free Republics.

Rally Base, set up just down the road as though peeping the post company, is only a couple of acres in size, including the filling ground outside the wire and blockhouses.

Of course the business isn't quite as profitable these days. There's no more smuggling of captive souls into the Kurian Zone or antitank rockets capable of taking out small watercraft up to the Grogs. But thanks to the soldiers at Rally Base, there's also less of a chance of a team of Reapers coming through and filling everyone who doesn't make it down the hidey-hole in time, or of Grogs looking to prove themselves in battle, filling security men and stealing livestock. Shrivastava & Family have shifted with the trade and opened a tiny brewery, soap mill, and bakery, growing rich on a few dozen lesser transactions a day rather than the bigger scores the old man saw.

Civilization, after a fashion, has returned.

The family business is well-off enough to hire hands to take care of the endless outside labor that keeps the bake stove burning and the meat locker filled.

One of their hands, a lean, bronze-skinned man with a thick head of black hair tied back from his sweating face, works shirtless in the dust of the firewood pile, reducing wholes to quarters with a shining ax. His lower back is a topographical map of old burns, his face is scarred from the right eye down, and there's something a bit off about his jaw. If he were talking you'd guess he'd just said something ironic.

But he's not wasting breath, talking to himself or his surroundings. He works with the easy, constant pace of an outdoor man who knows the optimum operating speed of his body, picking up the wholes, splitting them, and then retrieving the quarters with a precise economy of effort that would do a machine credit.

He moves with a hint of a limp as he retrieves another whole for the splitting stock- He casts quick glances all around as he works, and his momentary stiffening when one of the soft-stepping daughters of the house comes out to throw potato peelings in the pig meal suggests that he's a hard man to sneak up behind.

The slight, unconscious shift in his grip of the ax suggests that it might even be dangerous.

* * * *

David Valentine would always remember it all beginning the day he got his first gray hair.

Or, to be more accurate, the day he noticed his first gray hair. Three of them, in fact. For some reason all of them decided to erupt on his right temple. He'd used the mirror to shave that morning, as he had to go over to the fort to teach, and picked them out as he combed his hair back.

They reminded him of his father. His mother had never gone gray, but he had only a vague idea of her age when the Valentine clan died. His father had lots of them, which was natural for a man of fifty-six.

That's what Father Max had burned into the cross, anyway.

He'd chopped firewood for Father Max from the age of eleven until he joined up with the Cause at seventeen.

He split and stacked his last piece of firewood, wiped the ax clean with an oilcloth and hung it up in the toolshed.

YLPPUS YXALAG read the reversed letters running the roofline of the big trading post, bakery, diner, and repair shop. All the buildings of Galaxy Supply except the family home were painted in a durable barn red, though someone with a artist's eye had added white and green accents around the doors and barred windows, with smaller decorations depicting grape vines and cheery songbirds.

An unusually hot late September day was working up. The sun was hardly blocked at all by decades-old particles riding the upper atmosphere. Some said the sky was washing itself; others maintained the haze had swirled off to the southern hemisphere for a few years and would be back, the way it had returned in '43.

He's sweated enough to discard his shirt, both to preserve its condition-he had to teach at the base today-and keep himself cool. He used a bucket, a rag, and some of the milky Shrivastava soap to clean himself up in the outside sink before going in for his breakfast.

The two Shrivastava girls dodged nimbly around him in the back kitchen, giggling to each other with some private joke. There had to be more dodging these past few days in the baking kitchen than usual. Mr. Shrivastava had extracted an old pizza oven from an establishment up the interstate toward Cairo and was converting it to wood fire. Welding tools and tanks were interspersed with the usual bread racks.

The girls, rich black hair bound up in kerchiefs to keep the flour out, didn't give him a second look. They had teenage soldiers swaggering out their first forward duty to make eyes at daily, and Valentine was coming up on thirty-three, battered, and dragging a leg. Besides, he was hired help.

Not that it would have done him much good to be eighteen again. He'd been too shy to flirt back then. He would have just discreetly admired their caramel skin and wide, inviting eyes from the other side of the pastry case.

He had toast and eggs for breakfast, with a side of peppery okra leftover from last night's dinner. With real black tea. The family liked tea and through their trading connections had some strong blend that left a far more pleasant aftertaste than coffee.

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