Disclaimers: In chapter one.
“Went to a party in the county jail. Prison band was there and they began to wail.”
Supper is done, the tables cleared and pushed to one side of the room. The benches have been dragged into a large circle in front of the hearth, where a fire is blazing behind a six-foot brass wire screen. Asimov and Her Majesty, the calico cat, have taken up wary positions opposite each other on the warm bricks by the poker stand and woodbin.
The community’s two dozen school-age children, almost as quiet, are bent over books and worksheets at a pair of tables near the window. One child with long black braids and coppery skin—boy or girl, Kirsten is not sure—jabs determinedly at the keys of a calculator with the eraser end of a pencil. Another, a pair of headphones bulging under her cotton-blonde hair, conjugates French verbs. Kirsten can just hear her soft murmur: je suis; tu es; vous etes; nous sommes.
In the wake of Armageddon, homework survives.
Only youngsters over sixteen are excused from the drudgery. They sit with their parents in the circle, where firelight and shadow flicker over quietly solemn faces: black, brown, red, white, golden and every shade in between, men and women gathered to debate and decide for their people. For they are a people, Kirsten realizes.
It is an unlikely tribe, held together not by blood or loyalty to any one patch of ground but by common purpose. Unobtrusively, her gaze slides around the circle, from features that would be at home in Iceland to others whose pattern arose below the Sahara. Isolated from the wreckage as they are, she finds some small comfort in the diversity that ensures genetic survival for this group. And if for them, perhaps for others.
She watches as each accepts or declines a chance to stand and speak as a finely carved beech rod passes from hand to hand around the circle. Kirsten is not a social scientist, but her fingers itch to take notes. Shiloh is, apparently, a functioning anarchy: they have no elections, no leader, no council except the entire adult community. There will be no vote. The hundred and eighty adult members will talk the question at hand to consensus, or the proposition will fail.
Now on its second circuit, the staff has made its way more than three quarters of the way around the council. Some have declined to speak; others have taken the floor simply to think out loud and in company; one or two have been frankly suspicious of Kirsten. To them she is The Outside, and her work and reputation ally her with The Government, non-existent though it now is.
A dozen places around the circle from her, a young man accepts the staff and rises to his feet. Long side curls frame a gentle face and dark eyes huge and soft as a deer’s. Micah, the cabinetmaker and Kabbalist. “I will go,” he says simply. “I will not fight or carry a weapon, but I will offer Kirsten whatever protection I can.” He sits down abruptly, almost as if he has found himself unexpectedly in strange territory.
But he has changed the tenor of the discussion. His own sense of purpose sparks determination in others, and the discussion becomes a matter of what the community will do, not what it should. The infirmarian proposes scavenging whatever medicines the party can find between the Farm and Minot. Toussaint volunteers to take the tanker truck in search of gasoline. Others will search abandoned feed stores and perhaps farms. The community needs grain for the livestock as well as seed for planting.
“It’s going to be a safari by the time they get through,” Dan murmurs.
“That’s fine,” Caitlin answers from Kirsten’s other side. Her pale brows furrow on either side of the triple moon—waxing, full and waning—tattooed between them. “We need to gather in what we can, while we can.”
She falls silent when the staff comes round to her husband. Counterpart to her triple moons, Aidan Cameron bears the image of a blazing sun on his brow. He looks, Kirsten thinks, like nothing so much as a Viking, with blond braids falling almost to his belt and bound in leather. When he speaks, though, his voice is pure Highlands. “I will gae likewise,” he says. “And if we find any of the mechanical de’ils, or any who make cause wi’ them—Chlanna nan con thighibha so’s gheib sibh feail—Sons of the hounds, come here and get flesh!” He brandishes the staff aloft as if it were a sword, and its polished surface takes the light like steel.
Laughter runs around the circle as Alan stands in his turn, the speaker’s staff reduced to the proportions of a matchstick in his huge paw. “But will the sons of bitches eat the damned indigestible things?” Then he turns serious as he faces the rest of the community. “As you all know by now, ‘Annie’ here is Dr. Kirsten Anne King, one of America’s foremost experts in artificial intelligence and cybertech. What used to be America, at any rate. Right now, she may be the only surviving person who has the knowledge to get into the droid factory at Minot Air Force Base. She is the only person we know of that has some chance of getting the droids under control.”
He pauses, and the fire paints his face in bronze, making great hollows of his eyes. Memory—a history lecture, a visit to a museum, a book, she is not sure--flares for half a second: a disk of beaten gold with human features, dug from the ancient earth of Mycenae. The mask of Agamemnon Wanax, the lord of men. Then it is gone, and Alan Stephanos is a plain man speaking plainly. “I will go, too,” he says. “We may never recover what we have known. We may not even want to have all of it back. But what we have now is intolerable.”
When Alan hands him the staff, Dan says only, “I will go,” and sits down again.
It is Kirsten’s turn. She hates speaking in public, has hated it ever since her second grade teacher’s attempt to cast her as Priscilla Mullins in the Thanksgiving play. She cannot simply pass the staff on, though, unless she is willing to be inexcusably rude. Rude to people who will risk their lives for her and for the goal she has pursued over half a continent.
So she says, “I never expected to have help when I left Washington. Thank you for being willing to take the risks you’ve committed yourselves to. And thank you for taking in Lizzie and Asimov.” She glances toward him where he snores by the fire, and feels her breath catch in her throat. Damn. I will not go mushy. Goddam. “I know they’ll be safe with you.” Then, for lack of anything else, “Thank you again.” She sits down and hands the rod to Caitlin.
The red-haired woman holds it up silently, and when no one claims it to speak again, she stands and turns slowly, holding the eyes of all in the circle. Then she demands, “Shall it be so?”
“Let it be so,” the community answers.
“Well, then. Those who will go with Kirsten, please stay. Whose turn is it?”
“Margot’s,” someone answers, and someone else, more loudly, “Okay, kids.”
They stand with their elders, and an older woman with short-cropped grey hair raises her open hands. In a voice that is low but carries easily, she chants:
“Great Lady: What no human ear can hear, you hear.
What no human eye can see, you see.
What no human heart can bear, you transform.
What no human hand can do, you do.
What no human power can change, you change.
Goddess of love; Goddess omnipotent;
You through whom all power flows;
Queen of Earth and Sky, Creatrix of the Universe:
watch over us until the light once again prevails against the darkness.
O Gracious Goddess, be with us through this night.”
The meeting breaks up quickly after that. A quick tally of volunteers adds up to a dozen who will accompany Kirsten in the morning. Of those twelve, half are foragers who will leave the group when they find supplies; Aidan and Caitlin, Alan and Dan and Micah will remain as her guard. All except Micah will be armed.
When only Dan remains, she whistles to Asimov and takes him outside. Kirsten will spend the night in one of the guest rooms in the common building. She does not allow herself to think that she will never do this again.
Despite herself, though, her throat tightens once again as he quarters the large open space between the porch and the pond, pursuing invisible scent trails and rolling in the ankle-deep snow. On the other side of the frozen water and down the narrow road, lights glimmer in the cabins belonging to the community’s permanent residents. One by one, as she watches, they begin to go out, until there is only a soft glow here and there where a late scholar remains awake over a book or an artisan works on a project that will not let go until morning. Overhead, the stars spill across the sky in their winter brilliance, Rigel and Sirius burning blue against the depths of space. Betelgeuse flares blood-red above them.
Dan’s face is lost in shadow. His breath, though, makes a shimmering nimbus about him. “We’ll keep him safe. If you make it back, he’ll be here waiting for you.”
Kirsten’s answer is less than a whisper. “Thank you,” she says, meaning more.
Thank you for taking care of Asi. Thank you for not pretending I may live through this.
He takes her hand in both of his, squeezing gently. “Sleep peacefully.”
As he moves down the path toward home, his hair remains bright, salt white in the starlight even after the rest of his form is swallowed in darkness. Asimov comes at her call, and together they turn back toward sleep. A foot of so short of the porch, where light from the window still falls on the snow, a line of tracks leads across the front of the building. Long-fingered, the imprint of the paws looks almost like human hands.
Raccoon, she thinks. Odd that the marks were not there when she came out into the night. Odder still that Asimov did not bark.
With a shrug, she steps inside and closes out the dark behind her.
“What’s the count?”
“Twenty nine,” Andrews murmurs, pulling the nightscope from his face. “Can’t find one damn metalhead, though. Fuckers don’t put out any heat.”
In the near pitch darkness, the jail rises up before them like an ancient monolith, cold and uncaring, blind and deaf to the suffering within. The structure is tall, but narrow, a finger thrust upward, pointing toward an uncaring heaven. Few lights blaze from within, indicating an independent power source of some type.
“How many do you think there are?” asks a slight red-headed woman who would look more at home sitting behind a desk in Junior-High than clad in an army uniform and toting a rather large automatic weapon.
“Damned if I know. Could be one, could be a hundred.”
“Doubtful.” Dakota gives each of her squad members a look before continuing. “These droids are nothing if not efficient. Two or three of them could easily handle the twenty nine women in there.”
“Two?!” the young woman responds, hefting her weapon. “What the hell are we waiting for, then? Let’s go!”
“Not so fast,” Koda warns, lifting a hand. “They obviously want these women alive for a reason, so they’re likely looking after them with special interest.”
“More droids. Say six to do the grunt work, and two or three to take care of whatever administrative details droids take care of. And because I’m fond of even numbers, round it up to ten to be on the safe side.”
The woman’s face falls. “Ten. Damn, that’s alotta metalheads in such a small space.”
“Be a lot fewer when we’re done with ‘em,” Andrews growls.
Koda feels the group respond as the energy level cranks up another notch. The men and women around her are almost vibrating with anticipation. The plan, conceived by Maggie while back at the base, is firm and set in everyone’s minds. They have their jobs, they know what to do. Koda gives them all a final, slow look before nodding.
“Stay behind us, Ma’am,” Andrews warns as the squad breaks up into two groups and heads, silent as the night, toward the heavy door at the front of the prison.
Drilling holes through his back with her eyes, Dakota says nothing as she follows along behind the group, staying in the shadows as the plastique is carefully placed and then detonated. With a muted wuff, the door falls inward and, weapons drawn, the soldiers enter the prison two by two.
Two silent human chains flow along the interior walls, like water pouring into a basin.
“Down!” Andrews yells a split-second before gunfire erupts over their heads. As a group, they duck down, grabbing cover where they can find it. Overturned tables, shattered wooden boxes, and other less identifiable objects litter the floor.
“Remember,” Koda cautions as they ready their weapons in preparation for returning fire, “aim at their arms and hands. They can’t fire what they can’t hold.”
The others nod, deferring to her greater experience in fighting these droids.
“And if you can’t get a good shot there, aim for their optical sensors. Should throw their own aim off.”
Using hand signals, Andrews draws the others into position, and with a quiet command into his mic, the squad rises as one and begins the assault. Gunfire explodes in bursts of deathly hail as the soldiers rise from their positions and begin an inexorable march forward.
Two go down. Then a third. But the group marches onward, fingers depressed on the triggers of their high-powered weapons, never giving an inch of ground they’ve gained.
The first wave of droids, four in all, goes down relatively quickly as the group advances upon, and captures, the first set of steel risers that will lead them up to the cells where the women are being kept.
Koda makes it to the third step when something slams into her chest and blows her off her feet. She is driven back, and down, landing on the hard cement floor with a force enough to rob what little breath she has left from her lungs. Her gun flies from her hand, clattering along the rough concrete until it hits a wall and discharges, filling her world with its booming roar.
As she lies, stunned, she watches with something close to clinical interest—shock, she supposes—as Andrews swoops down upon her like some sort of gangly, prehistoric bird, shouting things that she can’t quite get her mind to unravel.
So, this is what dying feels like.
Not too bad, actually.
Andrews’ homely, freckled face looms over her like the pitted moon. His lips continue move in incomprehensible patterns, spitting out syllables she can’t seem to care enough to understand.
Suddenly, her vision is obscured as his body closes down over her. The force of his collapse fires the nerves in her diaphragm, releasing it from its paralysis. She can feel herself taking in great, heaving gasps of air, and the agony of expanding bruised and cracked ribs lets her know that she’s not quite dead yet.
A moment later, her vision clears and it’s his concerned face she sees once again.
“Are you alright?”
Finally, some words that make sense. Taking quick mental stock of her body, she nods.
A smile wreathes his face as he gently helps her to a sitting position. She looks down at her chest. A rather large hole has been ripped through the white flack jacket just below her heart, and she stares down at it with a sense of awed wonder.
“Amazing what they’re doing with ceramics these days, huh?” Andrews asks cheerfully.
“Damn,” is all Koda can think to reply.
Climbing slowly back to her feet, she allows Andrews to steady her as her legs become reaccustomed to the fact that they’re not going to be feeding the buzzards anytime soon.
“M-Maybe you should wait outside, Ma’am,” a concerned Andrews murmurs.
Koda shoots him a look that vaporizes the spit in his mouth. “Chesli.”
“Um—do I wanna know what that means, Ma’am?”
The look comes again.
“Didn’t think so.”
Prudently, the young man turns away for a moment, then back. “They—they’ve cleared the second and third tiers. Hobbs and Jackson have gone to the control room to try and get the doors opened.”
A loud buzz echoes through the building, indicating the venture’s success. Koda starts forward at a run, taking the steps two at a time. Andrews shakes his head and follows.
The scene on the second tier is controlled chaos. Several droids have been temporarily disabled, shoved in a cell, and the door manually locked behind them. Shell-shocked women, shabbily dressed, bruised, and in some cases bloodied, mill about like frightened cattle bound for slaughter. More stream down from the tiers above. Sporadic gunfire erupts, causing the women to scream and the soldiers to look around wildly in the hopes of spotting the remaining, elusive droids before they themselves are spotted.
“Hanson, Siebert and Reeves, start getting these women secure. Johnson and Larke, go on ahead, act as lookouts. Shoot anything that moves.”
Dakota’s orders are crisp and clear. The selected soldiers nod, faces set and grave.
Andrews and Koda spot the shadowed movement from the next tier up at the same time and, pushing soldiers and civilians down and away, begin firing. Two droids advance through the gunfire, mechanical fingers constantly depressed on the uzis they’re carrying. Bullets whiz by like hungry, deadly gnats, ricocheting off the steel of the cell doors.
“Move!” Koda yells to the soldiers guarding the women. “Now!!”
The shout breaks their paralysis and they begin herding the women down the stairs, weapons at the ready.
One droid falls to Koda’s blast to his optical sensors, but the second, continues its advance. Its uzi is firing sporadically now. They can almost feel the heat from the nearly spent weapon from where they stand.
“Die, you motherfucker!!!” Running up several stairs, Andrews pulls the pin on the granade he’s carrying and shoves it down the the tight, metallic singlet the droid is wearing.
Dakota catches the soldier as he leaps backward, and both are driven to their knees by the resulting explosion.
“That was the last one lieutenant!” a feminine voice calls through the smoke and falling debris.
Andrews and Koda come to their feet to the sound of boots hitting the steel steps. Bodies materialize through the smoke as the rest of the prisoners gather on the landing. Koda’s eyes narrow.
“Who are they?”
Martinez looks at the three dirt-covered men who stand in the group with the rest and shrugs. “Found ‘em with the others. They’re human.”
A stone mask drops over Koda’s face as she notices the women shying away from the men in question. “I wouldn’t be too sure about that,” she mutters, half under her breath. Ignoring Andrew’s questioning look, she searches the small crowd. A pair of dark, calm eyes meet her own, and she gestures the woman forward.
Older than the rest by almost a decade, the woman displays an almost regal bearing as she steps up to the vet. “Thank you,” she says in a voice heavy with sincerity.
“You’re welcome,” Dakota replies in kind before looking over her shoulder at the men. “What’s their story?”
“They were here when we were captured.” The woman’s voice is now a flat monotone, devoid of any emotion. “Prisoners, I’d guess.”
“And?” Koda asks, eyebrow raised.
Hissing through his teeth, Andrews raises his weapon and gestures for the others to move away.
“Hold it,” Koda warns, one hand raised. She looks back to the woman. “All of you?”
“Were they coerced?”
“No. They were quite willing.”
“The bitch lies!” one of the men shouts, struggling against the sudden grips of iron around his biceps. He might as well be tied between a boulder and a mountain for all the good his efforts net him. “She’s lying! Fucking bitch!”
He falls silent when the muzzle of a gun is pressed to his temple. Koda looks over at him, then lets her gaze trail down the line until she spies a young girl of no more than thirteen.
The woman nods.
“Alright, that’s it,” Andrews growls, aiming his weapon. “Motherfucker dies now.”
“Hold it,” Koda warns again.
Slowly, uncertainly, Andrews lowers his weapon, his eyes full of questions.
“Put them in those cells back there,” Koda orders. “One to a cell.”
As the soldiers move to do her bidding, Andrews turns to her, face ruddy with rage. “Why? Why are you letting these scumbags live?!?”
“Live?” Koda shrugs. “Oh, I suppose they’ll live. For awhile, anyway. Till they starve to death from lack of food and water.” Her smile is ice. “There won’t be anyone around to take care of them. Or let them out.”
Her voice carries easily to the men, and they begin their fruitless struggles anew, screaming and pleading for mercy. The pleas are cut short as the heavy steel doors slam shut for the final time.
Then Koda turns back to Andrews. “I think a quick death is too easy for them.” She eyes the woman standing before her. “Don’t you?”
After a moment, a rather predatory smile curves the lips of the woman. She nods as the other women surge forward, calling out their own thanks.
“Alright then. Let’s get the hell outta here.”
The convoy prepares to move out just after dawn. The tanker truck—a provisional battering ram, at need—stands in lead position, engine idling and belching fog into the freezing air. A couple pickups follow, one of them carrying Dan and Aidan, a pair of long guns riding in the rack behind the seat, just visible in silhouette. Kirsten’s van takes center position. Caitlin and Alan are immediately behind, with more pickups, the last one a camper packed with a half-dozen extra volunteers and twice as many weapons.
The world is faded to monochrome in the thin light, sky washed blue-white, snow dirty grey where tires and feet have churned its surface. Breath and steam from insulated mugs of coffee hang in the air about the company gathered in front of the common building to see them off. Toussaint and Micah, who seem to have been appointed coordinators of the project by some process unknown to Kirsten, make last minute checks up and down the line, satisfying themselves that weapons, food and other supplies are adequate and in due order.
Kirsten has made her own preparations. Her medicines have been offloaded, as have the cartons of Alpo and empty jerry cans. Their places have been taken by a thermal chest filled with what she has come to think of, reverently, as Real Food, more water, more gasoline. A couple of Pelican cases, no longer hidden under the mounds of other supplies, hold items that should help her get into Minot. The lingering sense that she has forgotten something will not leave her.
Stop it. Stop it, goddam it.
It is not what she has forgotten. It is who she has left behind.
And with him, she has left behind all her life before the uprising. Has abandoned, too, any pleasant fiction that she may just possibly survive. Her journey has been a suicide mission from the beginning.
Her thought is interrupted by the back door slamming open and a small packet thudding onto the truck’s floor. “My books,” Micah says, breathlessly. “I’ll drive if you’d like to keep your hands free.”
For a gun, he means.
Kirsten slides over to the passenger’s side. Micah gives a shout toward the tanker in the lead and swings up into the driver’s seat. A shout comes floating back as he settles himself and buckles the seatbelt. Kirsten says, smiling faintly, “Tell me I didn’t hear that.”
“Okay.” A grin splits Micah’s beard. “You didn’t hear that.”
But it comes again, loud and unmistakable on the clear air, “WAGG-O-O-NNS HO-O-O!” and she stares at him, disbelieving.
“Oh, yeah,” Micah answers her unasked question. “Toussaint is the last living Gunsmoke fan.”
The highway is snow-covered over a layer of ice. The tank truck up ahead takes the brunt of it, breaking a path for the rest. The going is slow, though, and a sense of urgency nags at Kirsten. The world beyond her window is white as far as she can see, wide flat expanses of fallow field, the occasional hump of a hill or low shed covered by the ten-days fall. Drifts lie deep along fence lines, completely burying some of the posts, leaving half a foot of others to jut up out of the snow in long, straight lines.
“Dragon bones,” says Micah, following her gaze.
It has been so quiet for the last several miles that Kirsten starts at the sound of Micah’s voice. “Pardon? Dragons?”
“Or dinosaurs.” Micah takes a sip from his coffee as the pace slows yet again. “I grew up in Lubbock, in the Texas Panhandle. Flattest place on earth. When I was a kid I’d pretend that the oil pumps were velociraptors. In the winter, the snow would drift up around them, and I’d imagine myself digging them up as fossils.” He grins. “Bob Bakker was my hero.”
“Bakker.” Kirsten’s memory jogs. “T. Rex and the meteor—no, wrong. That was Alvarez. Bakker claimed T. Rex was warm blooded and had feathers. He wrote Raptor Red.”
“Oh, yeah. That scene where she and her sister go tobogganing down the hill in the snow was my favorite. Totally cool.”
A common childhood love affair with brontosaurs and iguanadons keeps them talking companionably till noon. They have traveled perhaps forty miles as the road curves, less than half that in straight line distance from the farm. Twice they have had to stop to clear fallen trees from their path; once to push the remains of a two-car wreck off the road. They have been underway at a crawl for a quarter-hour when Kirsten’s stomach growls.
“Me, too,” says Micah.
“I’ll get sandwiches.” As Kirsten climbs over the back of the seat, she glances out the back window of the van. Something is running toward the road from a stand of bare woods, bounding through the snow in great arcing leaps like a fox pouncing on a mouse.
It is much too big to be a fox.
Micah has seen it, too. “Look. There’s a wolf.”
“Yeah, I see. Cheese or peanut butter?”
“Peanut butter. Thanks.”
Kirsten is back in her seat and unwrapping her own lunch when she looks out the window again. “Damn! Godamn!”
“Mmffhhmm?” says Micah around a mouthful of Jiff and grape jelly.
“Goddam it to hell! Stop!”
Honking to alert Dan in front of them, Micah hits the brakes. The van has barely rolled to a stop, Caitlin just managing not to rear-end them, when Kirsten jumps out the door and begins slogging through the knee-high-snow. “Goddam!” she yells, “Goddamit! Goddammittomotherfuckinghell!”
A bark, high-pitched and unmistakably joyful, answers her, and in the next moment Asimov is on her, huge paws planted on her shoulders, yard-long tongue slobbering a greeting. Another bark, this time deafeningly in her face, and he streaks past her, jumping up to take his accustomed place in the van. Kirsten climbs in behind him, mopping at her face with her sleeve. “Dammit, dog! I left all your food back at Shiloh! How the hell did you get loose? What am I going to feed you?”
“It’s okay, you know. We’ll take him back with us.” Micah soothes. “Most feed stores have dog chow. We’ll be able to find something when we get up to Moorhead.”
Kirsten blinks hard, forcing back tears that will embarrass her. Asimov leans against her, whining, and quite without volition, her arm goes around him, holding tight. Micah looks tactfully away and holds up the last few bites of his sandwich. “Hey, boy. Like peanut butter?”
Koda’s glance runs around the semi-circle of survivors there in the jail’s guardroom. It is an oddly tidy place: no MacDonald’s wrappers, no Pepsi or Coke cans, no papers piled in multi-colored triplicate on the watch officer’s desk. If not for the ghosts of bloodstains that linger on floor and walls, it would be almost as clean as an examining room. But that had been part of the droids’ appeal: no more mess than a pet rock. She takes a quick tally of the women huddled in one corner—twenty-six.
But no, that’s wrong. There are twenty-five women and one little girl.
A red haze passes over Koda’s mind. There is a legend in the family from generations past, of a white lawman who violated her grandmother’s younger sister. The sister’s husband and his brother had waylaid the deputy one night on a lonely road and left him deep in an abandoned mine shaft with his testicles nailed to a beam. They had also left him a knife, and a choice.
But she has more practical matters before her. She raps out, “Siebert. Hobbs.”
“Find a store with women’s clothing. Bring back something warm for these ladies. White if you can find it.”
“There’s a sports shop two blocks north,” says the older woman who has spoken for the group. “There was, at any rate.” Then, “Who are you?”
“Sorry. These are the free forces of the United States, Colonel Margaret Allen commanding. I’m Dakota Rivers.”
“Oh, thank God,” the woman breathes on a long sigh. “We didn’t know, you see, if there were any survivors at all, much less . . ..” A wave of her hand encompasses the soldiers in the room.
‘What’s going to happen to us now?” The speaker is a younger woman, no more than twenty, whose long, pale hair lies perfectly combed across her shoulders. It is not vanity, Koda realizes, but some small snatch at dignity where dignity is impossible.
“We need to get you to someplace safe. You know the area better than we do—where can we leave you when we move out again?”
“There’s the Scout camp.” It is the thirteen-year-old. “No one will be there now. I used to go there every summer, and so did my—“ She pauses, swallowing hard, but her eyes are dry. “My two brothers. Brian was an Eagle Scout; he was a counselor.”
Koda silently curses to hell and worse the unknown persons responsible for the disaster. A child ought not to be forced into the emotional wasteland beyond tears. That is the province of adults. She takes a step toward the girl, meaning to hug her, but reads the minuscule flinch in the child’s shoulders, the rejection in her eyes. A touch will break her.
Again the blood-crimson mist filters through Koda’s mind. She wants to kill someone, badly. Her vision narrows, shrinks to a point. This, she thinks, must be what Wiyo feels when she holds at hover before she stoops on her prey. Or the wolf, when she sees the elk flounder in the snow. It is a yearning for hot blood slipping over the tongue that cannot be satisfied by the shattering of cold metal.
She shakes her head to clear it, and her vision returns to normal. “That sounds good. How do the rest of you feel about that?”
There are nods along the line, slow and wary. One woman objects, “No! I have to try to find my family.”
“Honey.” It is the older woman again. “Honey, if your family are someplace safe, you won’t be able to find them. If they aren’t safe—better you don’t.”
“She’s right, you know, ma’am,” Andrews puts in softly. “If your family are alive, the best thing you can do for them is make sure you survive.”
“All right,” says Koda, fishing under her camos for a list she has brought prepared and a pen. She addresses the youngster “Do you—” Then, more gently, “Can I call you something besides ‘you’?”
“Donna. Do you know how to get to the camp?”
“Great. Can you show Lieutenant Andrews on the map, please?”
As they spread the unwieldly sheet out on one of the desks, Koda scribbles mifepristone and oxytocin at the top of the priority-1 drugs. “Johnson and Martinez. Find a pharmacy and bring back everything they have on this list. If they have herbal meds, get these, too.” Blue and black cohosh, motherwort, long used by her people to ease delivery or to end an unwanted pregnancy. If this jail is the pattern, every milligram has suddenly become precious.
Johnson scans the list quickly, then meets Koda’s eyes. She salutes. “Right away, ma’am.”
“Hanson. Larke. Food and trucks, per plan. Check the jail garage. See if the sheriff’s vans will do and if you can get anything useful out of their gas pump. Reeves. Collect all the guns and ammo you can find here. Then help Hanson and Larke.”
“Yes, ma’am.” The soldiers scatter to her orders, and Koda marvels at their cohesion. They are a mixture of Air Force, Marines, regular Army, working as smoothly as if they had all been together since basic training. And all of them under the unlikely command of a veterinarian. “Hump it,” she adds. “We move out in an hour and a half.”
In the end, they set out fifteen minutes early, a box truck packed with supplies, and the rescued women riding double and triple behind the soldiers on their snowmobiles. A couple more of the machines have been liberated from the sports outfitters and are now piloted by some of the former captives themselves. A half dozen of the troops have no passengers, ranging loose before and beside the small procession, weapons ready. Koda watches them swing out onto the road, then glides into position at the front. A small warm spot has taken hold somewhere under her rib cage. It is one thing to stop the enemy. It is another to take back what they have stolen. Counting coup.
Koda glances upward, where a hawk keeps pace with them, her rust colored tail spread against the hard blue of the winter sky. Lelah wakan. It is a good sign indeed.
Three nights later, they are camped in a stand of woods beside the Lac aux Mortes. The foraging parties have left the convoy at East Grand Forks, just before crossing the Red River. Tomorrow the rest will turn back, and Kirsten will go on to Minot alone
They are still far enough away from the Base to risk a proper campfire. The pines give them shelter from aerial surveillance; infrared sensors will pick up body heat and the residual warmth of engines in any case. Aidan, bowl in hand, scrapes the bottom of the Dutch oven hopefully. “Ochone,” he says. “There’s not a molecule left.”
“Come sit down, Aidan.” Dan pats the fallen log beside him. “We have some convincing to do.”
Kirsten glances around the circle of faces, bright in the firelight, and knows with absolute certainty what is coming. “No,” she says. “Thank you. But no.”
“Kirsten,” says Alan. “It doesn’t make any sense for us to turn back now. At least let us go another twenty-thirty miles with you.”
“And before you say no again,” Caitlin interrupts, warding off her objection, “remember that none of us has any idea what kind of outward perimeter they’re maintaining. If there’s nothing, fine. If they have roadblocks or booby traps, though, you’ll stand a lot better chance if you’re not alone.”
“And a much greater chance of getting you all killed.”
Dan says softly, “It’s a risk we’ll be taking every day of our lives from now on, my dear. It’s no worse with you than anywhere else.”
“Ye’re a canny one,” adds Aidan, “but just one. Muscle helps sometimes, so long as it isna betwixt the ears.”
At Kirsten’s feet, Asimov raises his head and whines. “Hush,” she says, and to Aidan and the others, “No. If they have a defensive line set up, one person stands a better chance of slipping through than half a dozen, not to mention three trucks. I’ll leave the van behind at some point, in any case.”
“You’ll have no way out, then,” Micah objects.
She shrugs. “I scavenged that van. There will be vehicles on the base. I can take one of them.”
Asimov whines again, a deeper sound. “Look, I appreciate it. I really do. But right now I need to take Asi for a walk. We’ll be back in a few minutes.”
She calls the dog and escapes into the trees. They are not so thick overhead that they hide the sky, and a full moon shines down, its reflection a luminous mist upon the snow. For the last three days she has hardly taken a breath alone except to sleep. Much as they are concerned for her, much as she values their concern and, she admits to herself, their friendship, she feels crowded, pressed in upon by so many other people.
Too, she wants some time with Asi. This farewell will come no more easily than the first.
The shepherd lopes loose-limbed along beside her, his black and silver mingling with the shadows and the snow. He seems as eager as she is for a respite from the others, and she ruffles the fur of his neck as they walk.
Another ten yards and she picks it up faintly, just on the margins of her hearing, soft footfalls under the trees. On the edge of a small clearing, Asi freezes, coming to a sudden stop with ears forward. Almost imperceptibly, shadow moving upon shadow, the tip of his tail twitches from side to side. Kirsten’s hand goes to her gun.
She stands without breathing for a long moment, as the sounds become less faint, moving nearer. Not human, not droid. Wrong season for bear. Asimov whines again, almost eagerly. Just across the glade she thinks she sees a form moving, pale against the paler reflection of moon off snow. Asi gives a sharp yip, a greeting. There is no answer.
Kirsten takes a step backward, her eyes never leaving the
space between the trees where she has sensed movement. “Come on, boy. Time
to go back.”
As she steps back again, a wolf paces into the clearing, its coat leached white under the moon. Asimov looks back at Kirsten. Then, as if suddenly slipped off the leash, he crosses the space with a bound, and disappears into the pines. For half a second the wolf remains, staring at Kirsten with eyes that gleam red in the pale light. Then it, too, is gone.
I should go after him, she thinks.
But she does not move, and after a time she turns to make her way back to camp.
Better that he be free.
As she is free. And alone.
The moon swings low above the pine trees, framed in the old-fashioned divided window pane. Its brightness hangs in a mist above the snow, a shifting of light and shadow like old ghosts wandering. From somewhere in the woods there comes a deep-throated baying, a sound that seems to begin somewhere down in the vitals of the earth itself, pass up through the crevices of the mountains to find its way at last into a mortal throat . It is answered by a second voice, and a third. Others join in until the sound begins to invade Koda’s bones, sliding along her muscles in a chant older than her people, older than her species. She feels her tendons flex; her spine reconfigures. Smells bring her the history of the past day: sweat, blood, the scent of human mating. Over it all lingers the acrid stench of gunpowder, which is death to her and her kind. Her legs gather under her to flee, and bring her abruptly to her feet and awake before the dying embers in the fireplace, M-16 at the ready.
Dream. Just a dream.
Not quite a dream. The wolf pack, miles away across the hills, still sings as it courses the snow. Close to, she can still smell the black-powder smoke that clings to her clothing. Yet the night is peaceful. The freed captives of Mandan jail sleep quietly in the cabin’s sturdy double bunks, some snoring softly, others whimpering now and again in their sleep. Koda bends to poke at the embers glowing in the grate of the massive fireplace and sets another couple pieces of split oak above them. Built by WPA workers in the 1930’s, Camp Sitting Bull—formerly, judging by the not-quite-obliterated sign over the cabin door, Camp Custer—is low-tech and therefore comfortable this winter’s night.
Koda makes her way, soft-footed, between the tiers of bunks. All is well. Still quietly, she slips outside, not quite knowing why except that there is something that awaits her. The moon is full, bright enough to cast shadows, and she finds her way easily to a stone bench set under the tall pines. From it, she can see smoke curling from the chimneys of three more cabins, one housing more of the freed women, the other two temporary barracks for her troops.
Her troops. She turns that phrase over in her mind, examining it from all angles. She comes from a long line of warriors. Her grandfather’s grandfather followed Tschunka Witco, whom the whites called Crazy Horse, on the Powder River and at the Greasy Grass by the Little Big Horn. A hundred years and more removed, her mother is a cousin of Red Cloud. Battle is in her blood, and she has known it for as long as she can remember knowing anything. More than once as a girl, she cried for the vision that would call her to fight for her nation and her land, to return the sacred Black Hills to a free Lakota people. Yet it has never come, and she has been true—as a healer, as a woman--to those that have.
Her troops. A Lakota chieftain did not command troops. Warriors followed him because he was successful, not because rank or organization compelled them. Despite the cultural dissonance, despite her strictly legal status as a civilian, she knows that she has somehow become a commander and that these men and women following her north into danger are her troops. Andrews may be the nominal leader of the mission, but he defers to her, as do all the others. Some of their respect may reflect the obvious awe in which they hold her top-gun, kick-ass, take-no-prisoners cousin Manny ; some may have rubbed off onto her from the Colonel, who seems to be indistinguishable from God in her squadron’s eyes. But that does not explain the easy companionship or the instant equality she has found with Maggie herself.
It does not explain the familiarity.
Perhaps it is a memory of another time, when she was not Dakota Rivers. Perhaps it is the memory of Ina Maka, Mother Earth herself, seeping into her mind and her bones from this land that has been so long a battleground, so drenched in the blood of the Lakota and other Nations. If she listens with the ears of her spirit, she can almost hear the war cries, the clash of metal; almost she can smell the sweat and blood. Almost, as she looks up at the sky, she can see the stars shift about the pole through the frozen light years. Almost.
As she watches, a silver pinprick of light makes its way across the sky beneath the stars. A meteor, perhaps, flaring as it plunges to earth. Perhaps a satellite, part of another world now, pacing its orbit, or like the meteor, burning in the air.
“My mother used to say a falling star meant a death.”
Koda turns to look up at the speaker. It is Sonia Mandelbaum, the older woman from the jail, now bundled against the cold in Polartec and boots. “Are you having trouble sleeping?’ she asks. “I could get you something for that.”
The woman shakes her head. “No,” she says, “thank you. I’d rather face my ghosts than try to drug them out of existence.”
Koda slides to one side of the bench in invitation, and the woman settles herself, her breath forming a cloud about her. Even in the pale light, Koda can see that her eyes are swollen, the faint glint of frozen crystals on her eyelashes. She is silent for a long moment, her gaze following the path of the meteorite. Then, “Do you understand this?”
“You mean the uprising?”
Sonia nods. “That. And what’s happened to us.”
‘The uprising—no. All we do know is that it seems to have been world-wide and coordinated. The other—how much to you feel able to tell me?”
“There’s not much.”
After a time, she goes on, “ We had a bakery, my husband and I, with half a dozen employees and a couple droids to clean and do deliveries and run errands. Maid Marians, both of them brand new. Nick always liked to have state-of –the-art equipment.”
“Nick is your husband?”
“Was my husband.” The emphasis is very slight. Sonia pauses, then goes on. “I was finishing a wedding cake. Nick had some French bread just out of the oven and was bagging it. I heard some shouting in the street, and went to the front of the store to look out the window. We’ve had trouble with skinhead demonstrations in Mandan before, some of those ‘Christian Nation’ people from Idaho. Once we had swastikas painted all over the display window. But it wasn’t the brownshirts this time.”
“The droids.” It was not a question.
“The droids. One of ours grabbed Nick from behind and broke his neck.” She makes a snapping motion with her hands. “Just like that. Then they killed Bill and Lalo, who did most of the breads.” Again the snapping motion. “Just like that.”
“But not the women.”
“No, not the women. They herded us into the delivery truck and took us to the jail.”
She flinches as boots crunch through the crusted snow behind them. Koda turns, half rising with her hands on the grips of her gun as Reese passes on his guard round. He is clearly surprised to find them outside in the cold, but much too disciplined to remark on their presence. He salutes, “Ma’am.”
“Carry on.” Koda nods, resisting the urge to return the salute, and settles again on the bench. As footsteps recede down the path toward the next cabin, she says, “They took only the women of childbearing age?”
“Yes. They asked us about when we’d had our last periods when we got to the jail, before they locked us up.” She turns haunted eyes to Koda. “I said last month; it’s been almost a year.”
Very gently, Koda asks, “How did you know that was the right answer?”
“There was one girl who told them she’d had a hysterectomy; I think she was a teacher at the middle school. They took her outside, and we heard her scream. We never saw her again.”
”So I lied. The rapes began the next day.”
Koda’s mind flashes back to her first conversation with Maggie. Slaughter the steers,
keep the cows and heifers to make more steers, send the old cows to auction when they can no longer produce calves. But that doesn’t make sense. Droids do not eat.
If not food, then what? Slaves?
That possibility seems no more likely than the first. True, slaves bred to servitude from the womb, who had never known any other life, might be more docile than those taken as adults or even as children, but slaves require a slavemaster. Droids need slaves as little as they need food.
Someone controlling the droids, then?
Koda says, “Flora, did you ever see or hear the droids receive transmissions from anyone?”
“No. After that first day, they never spoke to us. They never spoke to each other at all.”
It is three in the morning and Koda’s head is beginning to ache. She needs coffee; she needs sleep. She will get neither. Tomorrow she and her troops must settle the women in the camp, and the day after they must move out again, toward Minot. “Black helicopters,” she says, suddenly.
“Pardon?” Sonia looks up at her, puzzled.
“Sorry. Twenty years ago, there were a lot of people, especially out in this part of the country, who thought the government was part of some vast international banking conspiracy It was going to take over and create a corporate state with its capital at Zurich. They thought they were being spied on from black helicopters.”
“Do you think that’s what it is?”
Koda stands and stretches; her legs and shoulders feel like lead. Another pinprick of light scuds across the sky as they turn back toward the cabins, and a shiver passes up her spine that has nothing to do with the temperature.
“No,” she says. “I think that whatever it is, is worse than that. Much, much worse.”
The whole world seems to hold its breath as the first gray streaks of dawn stand poised to paint themselves over the roof of the earth.
Seated crosslegged on a tallish bolder about a mile from the base, Kirsten faces east and watches as the earth prepares itself to give birth to another day.
Watching sunrises is, she believes, a pastime best left to dreamers and fools, and she considers herself neither. But the odd sense of peace that descends over her makes the break in her fastidious habits worth the effort.
She’s alone now. More alone than she’s ever been, and that thought brings with it a surprising twinge of sadness. Surprising because she’s quite sure that somewhere on some dusty library shelf, there’s a dictionary that sports her picture next to the word “loner”. Born into a family of loners, she’s always figured she came by it honestly. Add to that the fact that it’s hard to make friends when kids your age are sitting in kindergarten learning the pleasures of eating paste while you’re in a fifth grade classroom calculating the square root of pi, and you have the recipe for a person whose mind is her own best company.
When the plague of ’07 hit—the one they called the Red Death—the complete loss of her hearing hardly fazed her. If keeping the noises of the outside world at bay allowed her to delve more deeply into the rigid structure of her private thoughts and aspirations, well, that was pretty much fine by her.
She laughs now as she remembers that day, so many years ago now, when she woke up in the recovery room of Brooke Army Medical Center, able to hear again for the first time in two years. How joyful her parents had been, and how their faces had crumpled as she cried for the loss of her deafness.
“I’m sorry, Mom and Dad,” she says softly into the wakening world. “I know you only wanted what was best for me, and you did a damn good job giving it to me, too. Thank you for that. I appreciate it, and you, more than you’ll ever know.”
As if in answer, the rim of the sun peeks over the horizon, and, surprised, she wipes a dampness from her cheeks.
She laughs again, this time in self derision. “Alright, Kirsten, enough of this foolishness. You’ve got a job to do, and it’s about damn time you started doing it.”
Like a rude guest who’s bound and determined to pull up a chair and stay awhile, the strange, but welcomed, sense of peace travels with her to the back of the van. Opening the doors, she crawls inside the cool dimness, sharp eyes scanning the interior until they light upon the items she needs.
A powerful battery operated lantern lights the dim interior, and she settles once again into her cross-legged position, grabbing a set of carefully packed items and placing them within easy reach around her.
First she pulls out her laptop, the steroidal super-computer some of her staff jokingly named “Arnold”. The joke had to be explained to her before she got it. Movie watching had never been on her top ten list of things to do.
The computer obediently boots up courtesy of a special, long lasting battery and a solar panel tucked into one corner of the cover. Nimble fingers fly over the keyboard, opening a succession of windows more quickly than the human eye could ever hope to follow.
Seconds later, she sits back with a self-satisfied smirk accenting her features, green eyes seeming to glow as the light from the screen flickers across her face. Multiple incomprehensible lines of text are highlighted, but only one blinking and bolded word changes the smirk to a full-out smile on her face.
She wants to laugh, but holds it in as her quick mind replays the steps necessary to set her plan into motion.
Androids aren’t The Borg. Though each is connected to a massive data hub deep underground in the Silicone Valley, they are no more connected to each other than two refrigerators in two different houses are connected. It was the one concession she was able to receive as the Chairman of the Androids, Robotics and Bionics Administration. And it is a concession that will make her life, what remains of it, a good deal easier.
Though the droids are in no way Borg-like, they do have ways of recognizing one another, and of sending streams of information along pre-set pathways that human beings don’t possess. With that problem in mind, Kirsten drags over a second item; a box about half the size of her laptop.
Carefully opening the lid, she withdraws a second box, this one much smaller than the others. The tiny, plastic-encased hinges give a soft squeal when she pries the lid of this box open to reveal two large, brown contact lenses resting gently in a bed saline solution. Kirsten smiles when they are revealed, touching on the memory of her brief foray into the world of VR.
Her college classmates, all much older than her, seemed addicted to the fantasy of being able to instantly transport themselves into a world of their choosing just for the thinking. Pre-adolescent curiosity drew her into the web, and before she quite knew what was happening, a sizable amount of her scholarship money went towards the purchase of the items she now holds in her hands.
Placing the contacts aside for the moment, she lifts and opens a third, very small, box. Inside this box rests a small, flesh colored button no larger than half the size of the nail on her smallest finger. An earpiece that no audiologist has ever seen, it was used in the world of Virtual Reality to impart a sense of movement and sound to the wearer, taking VR to the bounds of reality none had ever seen before.
For Kirsten, however, the effect had been somewhat different. When combined with the workings of her cochlear implants, the result had been somewhat different than what the makers had doubtless intended. After her initial startlement, she discovered that what she was hearing was the actual wireless data being streamed into the microchip implanted into the ear piece. With a little tweaking, she was able to effect a sort of data translator, and from there on out, she recouped her scholarship losses by developing VR games for her classmates at a substantially reduced cost. She’d quickly become the darling of the Student Union at the ripe old age of fourteen.
Laughing softly, she pulls out the earpiece and slips it into her ear canal. Once it is seated comfortably, she hits a key on her computer. After a moment of disorientation, the signal comes through clearly and she nods, satisfied.
Pressing the key again, she cuts the noise off, then grabs a hand mirror and positions it just so. The contact lenses go in smoothly though her eyes, at first, rebel at the unexpected intrusion. Blinking one last time, she clears her vision and glances into the mirror. A stranger stares back at her. A stranger with the brown, dead dolls’ eyes that mark an android. She shudders at the image, then settles.
Need to get over those whim-whams, little K.
She can almost hear her dad’s voice, as if he were standing right over her shoulder urging her to jump from the highest board at the community pool.
The memory of that gruff, husky voice had helped her through more than a few of life’s little roadblocks. Maybe the magic would hold for one, final try.
Please. Let it hold. Just let me do this one last thing.
Nodding to herself, she lifts one final object from the nest of boxes before her, lifting it to shine in the light, twisting it between her fingers. What should have been a final, tragic insult instead will become, she hopes, her ultimate triumph.
“Here you go, doll,” he said, painted blondes dripping off his arms like water. His insolent smirk made his homely face all the uglier, but the diamond-studded whores didn’t seem to care. “The working microchip is inside. Give it a good, long look-see, and if you can figure it out, call me. We’ll do lunch.”
Laughing heartily, he tossed her a shining, metallic silver strip and walks away, people trailing him like apostles to the One True God.
Though almost loathe to touch the thing, she nevertheless grabbed it from the air and stuffed it into the bodice of her sequined evening gown.
“You’re a real prick, Westerhaus,” she murmurs, coming back to the present. “And I just hope I’ll live long enough to tell you that. And to thank you for this. Right before I shove it up your pockmarked little candy ass.”
Reaching up, she slips the silver collar around her neck and fastens it securely. It’s snug, but not too tight, as if it’s been crafted just for her.
Knowing that little asshole, it probably was.
With a final pat to the collar, she looks back down into the mirror. Her lips form a stunned O as she sees the final results of her handiwork.
Her soft exhalation briefly fogs the mirror, breaking the spell she’s cast over herself. A small breath of relief, and she looks over at the still blinking monitor.
With a few quick changes, she’s managed to transform herself from Kirsten King, Doctor of Robotics, to BD-1499081-Z-2A6-13, biodroid currently in service to Chalmatech Pharmaceuticals, the largest drug company in the world.
Biodroids had been the first androids developed by Westerhaus, touted as a superior alternative to animal research. Designed to mimic the human body in every way, including a beating “heart”, breathing “lungs”, measurable “blood pressure” and a body “chemistry” that could mimic any disease known to man, and efficiently and accurately predict the effects of medicines used to fight
said diseases, the biodroid was a smashing success.
And it is Kirsten’s ticket onto the base. Her only chance to try and undo the damage Westerhaus has created.
A tightly clenched fist pounded on her leg, and she nodded once, sharply. “Alright. Let’s do it.”
And alas, we come to the end of another in our wild rides here on The Growing. For those of you still hanging on by your fingertips (or teeth!) THANK YOU!!!! As always, please feel free to write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know how we’re doing!
Sue, Okasha and TN.
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