Site Green, the Pennyroyal of Kentucky, February of Fifty-sixth Year of the Kurian Order: the violent winter, the worst in living memory for even the outdoorsy locals, has ebbed at last. Nothing that might be called spring warms the sky; rather, it is a quiet between-season pause, like the lassitude between the break in a life-threatening fever and actual recovery.
"Damn near as bad as '76 7," would, in time, become the new standard for calamity of war or weather, depending on how the individual in question labeled it. Youngsters would later recall the onset of the winter blizzards followed hard by the terrible ravies virus outbreak that blossomed in screams and death. Flight, cold, hunger, feareverything turned upside down in the deep snow.
While the disease strain was the deadliest yet unleashed on mankind, it did not have nearly the calamitous effect of the original appearance, in that dreadful summer of 2022 when the Kurians first appeared. Then, ravies struck like something dreamed up in an apocalyptic horror movie with terrible effect. The saviors-turned-soulstealers appeared in the wake of a perfect storm of natural disaster and disease, offering aid and comfort that soon transitioned to enslavement and death once they had the half-starved, bewildered population properly under their control.
But Kentucky of 2076 wasn't the civilized world of 2022. From the Bluegrass to the Jackson Purchase, a network of clans who ranched Kurian-introduced legwormsand yes, some horses as welltoughened by years of squabbles with each other and bitter fighting against those who tried to incorporate them into the Kurian Order grazed their herds and preserved their independence. Their wary, well-armed neutrality made this limestone-hilled country the Switzerland of the eastern half of the United States. Yes, they sold the Kurians legworm meat and allowed a few towers along the main rail arteries, but if a Kurian ventured outside the urban centers with their Reapers, they lost enough avatars to make "free-ranging" futile in the careful cost/benefit analysis of the Kurian Order.
When Kentucky dropped its guarded neutrality briefly enough to allow rebel forces to cross its territory with the aid of a few clans hungry for real freedom, Kur unleashed its furyfirst with the murderous Moondagger fanatics and, when that failed, with a virus designed to wipe the slate clean.
There were losses, whole settlements and clans wiped out, but it was not the cleansing the Kurians had hoped for, especially in the rugged fastness of south-central Kentucky.
However, much of the Western Coal Fields and the axe-handle of Kentucky's Pennyroyal region were emptied as what was left of the locals fled to the protection of Kentucky's military in the heartland or the tiny bastion of Southern Command south of Evansville.
With frost and flurries still washing across the state on cold mornings, the Kurian Order seeks to take advantage of the emptiness. Nature abhors a vacuum, the unnature of the vampiric Kurian Order exploits one.
The Georgia Control, a manufacturing center for eastern North America, has the audacity and the organization to swallow such a huge bite of territory. Why the Western Tennessee Kurians, a looser organization called the Nashville Concordance, agreed to support the endeavor that would add so much to the Control's dominance in the region is a matter of some dispute. The various Kurian states are notorious for their plotting and backstabbing. Georgia either offered up a king's ransom in auras or the Concordance Kurians believed that where their northern brethren had bled and failed, southerners would do no better and a weakened Georgia Control would be much to their advantage.
There are other less likely guesses, of course, but those disputes are for the philosophers. Let us return to the beginning of the latest bid for Kentucky's rich hills and bottoms.
Signs that spring might be ready to appear are all around Central City, what used to be a little crossroads town near the old Green River Correctional Complex. Geese and ducks alight in the lakes and swamps northwest of town, drawn north by the warmth to their traditional nesting areas. Yellow coltsfoot blossomsa local remedy for a lingering winter cough and sore throatare beginning to open along the old roadsides, as if eager for the sun, though the roads are little better than broken-up streams of pavement filled with scrub growth and mudslide, a jeep trail at best.
The abandoned prison complex now houses birds, bats, and a multitude of hornet's nests at the top and everything from wild pigs to black bears on the bottom floors, with rats running between. For the Kurians, putting the stout concrete buildings in order and installing new glass and flooring can wait. The raccoons and owls will reign for a few weeks more everywhere but one office the engineers cleared in order to complete a survey of what needed to be done to restore the structure.
The future Kurian tower will need holding cells and forced-labor housing.
Noisy activity can be seen and heard around the clock at a construction site outside the defunct prison, on a patch of earth where the ground begins to rise between the prison and Central City. Two small signs identify it as SITE GREEN, one just off old state Route 277 and one off 602, both of which have been cleared of brush and tree growth by hungry-mouthed chippers for easier passage of equipment.
Two wire-fenced camps, one for the uniformed soldiers of elite Nashville Concordance Guard on temporary lease to the Georgia Control and police of the Clarksville Border Troop and another for the worksite proper, snuggle side by side like a pair of pellet-chewing rabbits, both covered by towers, zeroed-in mortars and machine guns and ever-vigilant guarded gates. The military camp is thick with green tents. The construction fencing guards what is currently a deep hole and a few mounds of construction materials and piles of steel reinforcing rods, with a cement-mixing facility blistered out of the side like a growth.
The race to fill the vacuum is begun. It would appear the Kurians were first off their marks.
As the sun set at Site Green on, appropriately enough, Valentine's Day, the other team joined the race. It seems an uneven contest. On the one side in this bit of empty are five companies of hired professional soldiers in the light butter color of Nashville khaki, their support staff and heavy weapons crews, police and reconnaissance auxiliaries, construction machinery, experts, technicians, strong-backed laborers, and a few cooks and cleaners and supervisors.
On the other is a single man lying as though nested in a patch of hairy vetch, watching the camps turn off and in for the night. He's dressed in a curious assortment of legworm leathers, insulating felt vest and gaiters, canvas trousers, and a nondescript green service jacket with rain hood missing its drawstring. One of the canny, nettle-scratched, and well-nigh uncatchable wild boars who root the nearby Green River marshes might recognize a kindred spirit if he came snout-to-nose with the man. Both know they're a potential meal if they're not careful, both have a dozen tricks to throw off trackers and hunters, or better yet, to avoid being observed in the first place. And both can be unbelievably fast and fierce when cornered.
Scarred on face and missing an earlobe, weathered, and with a few strands of gray in his still-thick black hair, he has an uneven set to his jaw that can look humorous or thoughtful. At the moment you might say thoughtful, thanks to the slow-moving piece of fresh grass shoot working at the right side of his mouth the way a cow absently chews her cud. He's not looking at the military camp. What's behind that wire and passing in and out of the tents has long since been observed, estimated, and recorded in a battered pocket notebook.
Instead he gazes at the mobile-homelike cluster of temporary housing for the most important members of the construction staff, especially the extra-wide one with the words SITE GREEN CONSTRUCTION SUPERVISOR V. CHAMPERS stenciled next to the doorbell.
They're not wasting any time, Valentine thought. Maybe he'd wasted too much, first in Tennessee trying to trace the traffic from the Georgia Control to its terminus, then observing the construction site for two days, slowly devouring his precious suppliesmostly canned WHAM! legworm meat, uninteresting unless you liked faintly barbecued-flavor chewing exerciseshe'd brought.
After a long session of sassafrass tea-fueled negotiations with shifty backwoods family of smuggled-goods dealershe turned over the Pooter and its contents. He'd finally settled on a well-fitting pair of snake-proof military boots, two bottles of bonded bourbon, and a sum of Nashville cash he suspected was counterfeit, He kept only an Atlanta Youth Vanguard star-cluster leader key fob and a mobile file cabinet stuffed with papers and marked ASST. STAFF FACILITATOR MACON.
He'd spent a lot of time reading, while watching the construction site and getting a feel for its rhythms.
He waited, reading and watching, lying like a snake in the tall grass on an old saddle-sheepskin so dirty the mottled brown passed for camouflage. Dirty or not, it still protected his belly from the cold earth. Beside him, in a protective deerskin sheath, his Atlanta-built Type Three, 7.62 mm, four feet of match-barrel battle rifle, waited like a sleeping friend.
He hoped it would stay sheathed for the night.
When his hard-running Wolves had first reported the construction and military trafficone of the long-range patrols had cut across a road leading back to Clarksville recently used and partially cleared and sensibly followed it north to the sourcehe'd taken the matter up with Colonel Lambert. Their bloodied-but-still-training companies...